King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 16, 17, 18

The idea was good. Shef realized, as he looked at the flame-baskets, at the flimsy construction of the kites, quite how much was being expected of three twelve-year-olds, bobbing at the end of ropes high in the air above unyielding mountain-side. No need to remind them of the reward. Boys did not think far enough ahead to value money. They would do this for the praise and admiration of the men. Maybe, a little, out of respect for him. He nodded at them all, patted Helmi gently on the shoulder, and turned away.

“Time to move,” he said to his own party. As they filed away the English catapulteers and Viking guards looked after him with silent concern. Cwicca, at least, had seen this happen before, the One King going by himself to some uncertain fate. He had hoped not to see it happen again. From the place where she sat alone, arms wrapped round knees, Svandis too watched the retreating file. She could not go out, throw her arms round him, weep like a woman: her dignity forbade it. But she had seen many men go, few come back.

Hours later, as the sun finally crawled down to touch the flat horizon, the boy Straw led the seven horsemen into the rare shade of a clump of low and twisted trees. He whistled softly, and at the call figures appeared from the shadows to clutch bridles. Shef slowly levered himself off the horse’s back and climbed stiffly to the ground, thigh muscles twinging and cramping.

It had been a hellish ride. At the very start Shef had been shocked to find not the tiny mountain ponies they had been using to come down from the heretics’ stronghold, but bigger animals, and not with the usual blanket slung over them but strange high-pommeled leather saddles, with iron stirrups dangling either side. “Bruno’s baccalarii,” Richier explained briefly. “Cowboys from the country to the East. They are all over the place. Some of them rode too far and too few. From a distance, with these horses and this gear, we will seem just like some more of them. No-one asks where they go. They ride wherever they please.”

Shef had clambered into the high saddle, appreciating immediately the help and support it gave even an inexperienced rider. Then he had realized that like the others he was meant to carry in his right hand the long ten-foot ox-goad that every cowboy brandished, control the beast with left hand on reins alone. As he kicked his heels and tried to force his unaccustomed seaman’s legs to clamp the horse’s barrel, they moved out into the sun and the dust.

No-one had challenged them, indeed. As they rode across the broken foothills and into the plain beyond, they had seen again and again other mounted men in the distance, but often, on every path or road, groups of infantry watching the crossings. Straw and his fellows waved their lances at the horsemen, but took care not to ride to meet or cross them, veering away when they could. To the groups of foot-soldiers they called out in what was evidently some imitation of the language of the Camargue, the cowboys’ country, but kept riding, not waiting to engage in gossip. Shef was surprised that no-one acted, moved across to block their path, but it looked as if everyone expected the irregular riders to go where they liked, without orders or plan. Surely someone would notice the inept riding of Shef and Richier, at least, see that there were men there too old or too big for a cowboy patrol. But even the shouts that came towards them seemed good-natured or simply derisive. The Emperor had made a mistake, Shef concluded. He had put too many men out on watch, and too few of them knew each other. They were used to seeing strangers riding towards, or round, Puigpunyent. If the Emperor had ordered a complete ban on movement, patrolled by a few selected outfits, strangers would have been challenged instantly.

The break in the copse of twisted trees did not last long enough. Time to take the skins of heavily-watered wine and drain down first one quart and then another, drinking till the demand in the throat was gone, and then drinking steadily on, a gulp at a time, till the sweat began to break out again and the body felt it could hold no more. Then Straw was counting them in the deep shade and arranging them in the order he wanted: himself in the lead, another stripling in the rear, Richier next to last and Shef just before him. The other three heretic youths followed Straw, one directly behind him and the other two a little to left and right. A last mutter between the youths and a soft exchange of signal whistles. Then Straw led them into the depth of the tangled and ground-cloaking scrub. The maquis of Occitania.

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