out-plan any general I ever served.'
'Why did you quit her service?' asked the giant.
'I didn't. I was with her when she fought for the Duke of Corduin. At the end of the season she resigned and joined the army of Romark. He was said to have offered her six thousand in gold. I don't doubt it is an exaggeration -but not by much, I'd wager.'
'Six thousand!' whispered Forin, awed by the sum.
Tarantio moved to Kiriel's body. The boy looked peaceful, his face relaxed. He could have been sleeping, save for the statue stillness of his features. 'He was a good lad,' said Tarantio, 'but too young and too slow.'
'It was his first campaign,' said Forin. 'He ran away from the farm to enlist. Thought it would be safer to be surrounded by soldiers.' The big man looked up at Tarantio. 'He was just a farm boy. Not a killer, like you - or me.'
'And now he's a dead farm boy,' said Tarantio. Forin nodded, then rose and faced the swordsman.
'What drives you, man?' he asked suddenly. 'Last night I saw the light of madness in your eyes. You wanted to kill me. Why?'
'It is what we do,' whispered Tarantio. He walked to the mouth of the cave and scanned the tree-line.
There was no sign of the pursuers. Swinging back, he met Forin's gaze. 'Good luck to you,' he said.
Dipping into his pouch, he produced a small golden coin which he tossed to the surprised warrior.
'What is this for?' asked Forin.
'I was wrong about you, big man. You're a man to match the mountains.'
Forin looked embarrassed. 'How do you know?'
Tarantio smiled. 'Instinct. Try to stay alive.' With that he headed off towards the west.
If he could avoid his pursuers for another full day, they would give up and return to the main force.
Two days was generally all that could be allowed for hunting down stragglers. The main purpose of such hunting-parties was not merely for the sport, but to prevent small groups of mercenaries re-forming behind the advancing line. Once the following group realized their quarry had separated, they would likely turn back, Tarantio reasoned.
As he walked on through stands of birch and alder and oak, Tarantio's mood lightened. He had always liked trees. They were restful on the eye, from the slender silver birch to the great oaks, gnarled giants impervious to the passing of man's years. As a child - in the days before Dace - he had often climbed high trees and sat, perched like an eagle, way above the ground. Tarantio shivered. It was growing cold here in the high country, and Fall flowers were in bloom upon the hillsides. It would be good to rest in Corduin.
The war had not touched it yet, save for shortages of food and supplies. Tarantio had ventured some of his wages there with the merchant, Lunder. With luck his investments would pay for a winter of leisure.
The ground below his feet was muddy from recent heavy rain, and his left boot leaked badly, soaking through the thick woollen sock which squelched as he walked. For an hour he moved on, leaving a trail a
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