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

Very soon Shef began to wonder if they would ever reach their goal. The idea had always been clear enough. The thorn-bushes were a total obstacle to movement on foot or on horseback, as long as one kept upright. But the thorns started their sideways growth a foot or two off the ground. Beneath them there was always a clear space, enough for an active man or boy to creep through, completely hidden from any sentry, as long as one could keep any sense of direction.

The trouble was the creeping. Straw and his mates, light and young, could wriggle forward at an immense pace, keeping their bodies off the ground and pushing forward on hands and toes. Shef managed the same movement for no more than a hundred yards. Then his overtasked arm-muscles gave out and he began instead to crawl, belly on the ground, pulling himself forward like a clumsy swimmer. Behind him grunts and gasps indicated that Richier was doing the same. In seconds the boy ahead of him had vanished, eeling along at three times Shef’s speed. He ignored the disappearance and crawled on. Whistles from behind and then from in front, sounding like the calls of some night-bird. A shape wriggling back towards him, muttering some kind of appeal for more speed. It vanished again. Straw appeared, gabbling likewise. Shef ignored them all and continued to crawl through the roots, weaving from side to side to get round the thickest clumps, thorns catching in his hair, sticking in his fingers, dragging at his clothes. A hiss and a scurry on the bare ground brought him up short, jerking his hand away. One of the vipers of the plain, but hearing him coming long before his hand reached it. Shef’s mouth began to clog with dust, his knees to bleed through the chafed wool trousers.

Straw had caught him by the shoulder, was pulling him to one side—out into a break in the cover, a path, only inches wide, but leading round the side of a hill. Shef climbed slowly onto his feet, feeling the relief in protesting thigh-muscles, wiped the hair out of his eye and looked at Straw with doubt and enquiry. On their feet? In the open? Better to crawl on than be seen.

“Too slow,” hissed Straw in trade-Arabic. “Friends gone ahead. If hear whistle, off path! Hide again!”

Slowly but relievedly Shef began to pad in the direction indicated, rustles in the brush indicating the scouts ahead. He spared a moment to glance at the stars, shining clear in the cloudless sky. Not too long to midnight.

He had gone maybe half a mile along the goat track as it wound through the small hills when the whistles came again from the hillside. Straw was at his side, gripping an arm and trying to force him back into the brush. Shef looked at the apparently solid wall of thorns, ducked and crawled under. Ten feet in and hardly a glimmer of light finding its way through, though more gasping and grunting told him that the exhausted perfectus was being hauled into safety too. Straw was still pulling at him to get further in, but Shef resisted. He was a veteran of many marches, many spells of sentry duty. Unlike Straw he could estimate a risk. In this kind of country, with no alarms and no immediate danger at hand, he did not think the Emperor’s patrols would be at full alert. They would not see an eye peering from thick cover in the middle of a featureless hillside. Carefully he edged to his feet, held on to the base of a branch, carefully let it sink a few inches to give him a spyhole.

There they were indeed, not twenty feet away, edging along the narrow awkward path, too busy avoiding thorns to look around them. Shef caught a low grumble of conversation, an angry bark of command from the man in the lead. The grumbling did not stop. Low-grade troops, Shef thought. Local levies like his own county fyrds. Reluctant to take trouble, thoughts simply on getting home. Easy to avoid, as long as one did not actually fall over them in the dark. It was the silent men who did not move who were the danger.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry