Shinvar asked it too: “Out of curiosity, why did you hesitate? Back there?”
I flashed back to my delay, stuck in the saddle while Shinvar applied her strength and shoulder to the mine cart. Her question was softly put, ointment for the wound of her rebuke. My own interrogations were sharper. Why?
“I don’t know,” I said. There was no need to lower our voices for the sake of enemy ears. They were behind us by some distance; I could hear their grunts and shambles. They knew which way we fled. And they were most definitely following. But my own admission troubled me more.
Had I been so lost in thought, merely slow to react? Reverie in a perilous situation would likely be your last. Or perhaps doom you to a permanent reverie, all your life’s errors flashing before you, multiple lightning contemplations stretched over a single suspended eternity.
“Well, don’t worry about it now. What’s done is done – and we did it.” Impossible to see, hers was an audible smile. “Only, there’ll be more to do. Before very long. Just keep that in mind and keep your wits about you.”
“I will,” I assured her. Solemnly, like taking my knight’s vows all over again. “Thank you,” I added, from a different corner of my heart.
Warmth returned. Shame burned my cheeks a little while longer as we rode on in quiet.
Tramping boots and sporadic snorts and growls stalked us in the faraway dark. They sounded no louder. This was no chase, no pursuit. But a patient hunt.
“They will be with us all the way through to the outside,” I predicted.
“Exactly. And I won’t lead them to the Elves. We won’t win allies by bringing enemies to their door. Hence, we’ll have to act beforehand.”
My eyes probed the confines of the passage, discerning shadows from walls. “Two could make a stand in this tunnel.” My keenness to make amends declared itself a shade too obviously. “How many do you suppose there are?”
Echoes played their tricks, multiplying the enemy. Distant as they may be, there might have been a hundred, with half as many again of their grotesque cavalry.
“A dozen on foot. Three mounted on Snarltails,” said Shinvar.
Well, Snarltails were big and broad and I had never yet seen a thin Orkan. “At most they might come at us two or three abreast. One at a time on horseback. Or – Snarltailback.”
“True. But a rider on a Snarltail is three enemies.”
Horse. Rider. Wolftail. Shinvar was right.
“Our train thinned them out some,” she said. “But make no mistake. They’re still a serious opposition. And these narrow passages will limit our ability to move. And I don’t know about you, but if I have to fight I like to move.”
I had seen her move. Free. Fighting from horseback. You wouldn’t ask such a dancer to perform in a cave.
“Agreed,” I said.
“We’ve encouraged them to be wary, but they’re gaining on us. Steadily. They’re driven. Because the other thing we managed was to anger them. Orkans know how to carry a grudge. Like a mother carries a child.”
“Once out in the open,” I suggested, “we might fight them then. Pick our ground. Or, if not fight, then outrun them. Leave the infantry behind at least.”
“It’s true, we’d stand a better chance among the trees. The Mantle Forests lie a short way from where we emerge.” Trees would afford concealment. A chance for Shinvar to bow many of our hunters from high branches. It was easy to picture victory under those circumstances. Or maybe my imagination only delighted in lingering in that scene a while, bathed in sunlight filtered through a leafy canopy. Respite from our dark ride.
“As for outrunning – well, no disrespect to Surefire here – ” Shinvar patted the neck of her mount “ – but I’d advise all gambling men to put money on a Snarltail over the fastest horse. So, yes, we’d leave the infantry well behind. But assuming we could deal with the beasts and riders, that would still leave a party tracking us. And concealing our tracks would slow us up.”
For all that the narrow passage would restrict our fighting actions, it seemed to me Shinvar had limited our options with the power of reason and argument. “What, then?” I asked.
My ears listened for the noise of the small rabble following us. Were they gaining? I could not tell. But I trusted Shinvar’s instincts on the matter.
She drew her sword. “Let’s not wait for the trees with life left in them. Let’s fell a few dead ones.” Again, her smile was audible – colour to her tone. “You take the right. I’ll take the left.”
She spurred Surefire into a trot and chopped at the first support beam she passed. A loud crack shattered the shadows. Like splinters of enemy bone. It spurred me to action. Surefire’s hooves clattered ahead and I followed, sword out and hacking at every beam on my right.
This was no natural bore hole. This was a man-made tunnel drilled through the mountain. And if the Orkans had taught me one thing, it was that the things man built were easily brought down.
We rode faster. Faster. Racing the impending collapse.
[To Be Continued…]