They enjoyed the morning sunshine as the cart carried them through an uninhabited land of runty trees and barren hillocks. The sky was a uniform blue with the exception of a single black bird, very high up, that had appeared an hour before. The nag was trotting as fast as they could push her, and few side roads appeared, there being few places nearby for such roads to lead to. They had passed several carts, but those had been much nearer the city. The ground here was as dry as the air, but Taker had the presence of mind to provide plenty of wine – apparently it was something of an occupational necessity – to deal with the latter.
Taker suggested it might be a good idea to bury the stone in an old cemetery, but Grumadir pointed out that at least three people, namely them, would know where it was, and none of them wanted to find out how much torture he could endure before revealing the secret. He added that Delanor would associate his disappearance with that of the stone, but if the guards felt no need to mention that they opened the gate that led to this particular road, they would be safe within the fortified capitol before he discovered them. Fossick repeated his reservations about the king and his ministers. Such a weapon was not safe even in their hands as they were, after all, warlocks.
“And we know what they are like,” he said grimly. Grumadir could no longer find it in himself to disagree with Fossick’s assessment of the profession. But he was glad Fossick did not include him in the group this time.
They were forty miles out of the city when the dust cloud appeared behind them. Grumadir looked back, and though at this distance he could not identify faces, he didn’t need to. A score of dragoons and a single chariot followed them, riding hard. Delanor would ride that chariot; his horsemen would lead the charge. If he could see their dust, they would see his soon. But perhaps with only one cart they had not seen it yet. Taker urged to nag to full speed, but within an hour, the distance had been cut considerably. Grumadir hopefully noted a rising plume of dust from the road before them. It was further away than the warlock and probably not riding as hard. A spirited discussion ensued over whether to risk safety ahead or to try to hide from the riders behind. Finally, Grumadir yielded.
“Take the next side road,” he yelled to Taker, who was beating the poor nag mercilessly. Grumadir pointed to a little-used offshoot that wrapped behind a distant hillock and was lost. The road might still reach the capitol, though they might be forced to contend with Delanor’s horsemen in front of them, rather than behind.
As they neared the first hillock, Fossick looked up. “Friend of yours?” he asked Grumadir. The bird was still above them, conspicuously marking their position. Taker pulled the cart to a stop behind several stunted pines, hiding it from the crossroad. Grumadir jumped off the cart to see which way the horsemen would go. Fossick lay on his back on the cart, his crossbow tracking the solitary watcher. With a whistling noise, the bolt shot upward. The bird pitched to one side and plummeted to the hillock, but the horsemen had already reached the crossroad and were coming south, coming after them.
Taker struck his miserable horse, directing it into a field of stones and brown trees, the cart bumping and shaking Grumadir’s teeth loose. After a half mile, a cart wheel smashed into one of the omnipresent boulders, throwing the riders and their casket to the ground. It broke open, spilling its occupant. Neither horse nor cart could go further. Taker plucked the runestone under one arm as if it were a small child. The three ascended the tallest of the hillocks that stood like silent watchmen along both sides of the road.
About halfway up, Grumadir discovered the body of Pod, lying in the dust with his black eyes open, though Fossick’s bolt was nowhere to be found. He cursed the bird silently, though he overcame the temptation to stomp on it. There was just no time. They climbed on hands and knees final the 200 paces to the top. Steady hooves of the pursuit broke into slowing thumps on the dust below. They were followed quickly by the warlock’s screams. Most of the cavalry carried crossbows, Grumadir noted, and all sported swords hanging on leather belts. A third of the way up the hillock, the hunters split into two parties: one to scale its steep face, the other to cut off escape from the back side. Three of them shot Taker’s horse, which fell silently to the dust, its hind leg kicking against the cart. Fossick held his crossbow in check. He had more to lose by beginning the battle early.
Each of the archers selected a boulder to hide behind, silently disappearing and leaving Delanor alone atop his chariot. It had climbed as far as the horse could pull it, close enough for the warlock’s voice to be heard, yet outside the range of Fossick’s crossbow.
“Grumadir, my son, surrender now and leave in peace.” Delanor’s deep voice rose on the hillside, speaking to him as a father would instruct a wayward son. “If not, I shall have the stone anyway.” Grumadir said nothing. A compulsion pulled at his mind: Turn the runestone back; divest yourself of this burden. He remembered the smoke of Bramlet and the feeling passed.
The back end of this hillock was topped by a sheer cliff; its broken peak was strewn with boulders just the right size to smash heads or cart wheels. Taker collected many of them into little pyramids, whistling a dirge as he did so – Grumadir wondered if he knew any less fitting songs. Fossick set about their defenses in a more traditional manner, pointing out areas of cover below an overhang where they could make their last stand. He piled bolts at each location. He seemed to know his business and went about it silently and efficiently.
Grumadir contemplated his uselessness in battle. The warlock’s offer of safety would probably not be extended to his companions, even if it was given to him earnestly, which he doubted. He said nothing in return to their questioning glances. Sitting in front of his runestone, which Taker had propped against the cliff’s face in his haste, he read the saga once again. The similarity to his own predicament forced an ironic smile to his lips. He was glad that Taker had remembered to bring the wine as well. It just might hold up for a short siege.
The warlock repeated his offer. This time the warmth was gone from his voice. Helmets moved furtively from stone to closer stone below. Grumadir answered aloud: the warlock would have the stone only over his dead body. His companions nodded their agreement.
The dull sounds of other hooves suddenly arose from the road, and the three looked down hopefully from their perch, wondering who the second cavalry was and if there was any way a message could be relayed to them…