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Illumina and the Prince left the following day. There seemed little point in delay; if anything, matters could only become worse. Cosimo and three other men went with them. The three men were Duilio, Felice and Ivo. Ivo was an old friend of the Margrave's, Duilio and Felice were both young, Duilio being a nephew to Ivo, Felice a friend of Cosimo's. Nina came as chaperone for Illumina.
Reluctantly she came to Illumina the night before they left and asked if she might come, pointing out that it would give rise to awkward questions if a woman traveled alone with five men. Equally reluctantly, Illumina agreed to take her, though she had a feeling it might be a rough ride and a lot to ask of her at her age.
After some soul searching, Illumina decided to take Daisy as well. As a result, the team would have a new leader; it was likely that Daisy would never lead a dog team again. Illumina had the feeling she might never again drive a team through the snow and mourned the loss of winter as much as the loss of her home as they left, riding away from the Margrave's hall.
The journey through Loro was uneventful though dismal. There was a pervasive anxiety among the people they met. Few people discussed it but it was clear rumors of the death march had taken root everywhere they went and there was a sense of unease about the state of the low country as well. Many people looked at the Prince with some hope, remembering him as he was and surprised by the contrast with the quiet, open young man that now came among them.
They journeyed as quickly as they could, wanting to keep ahead of any news of their coming. The Margrave had been concerned, knowing that other people had correspondents just as he did. Though he trusted the people of Loro, there were strangers in their midst, some of whom traded pigeons that could be used to carry a message to the lowlands. The Margrave was always careful where his pigeon's came from. There was no way to tell, just by looking at a bird, where it might go to once it was released.
They journeyed down the pass leading to the lowlands keeping a wary eye about them, staying with people they knew where they could, otherwise camping but keeping a careful watch. The watch was one of the reasons they brought four men with them; it meant there were six of them to keep watch. They excused Nina on the grounds that she took care of the camp. They watched in pairs so no one had to be up for more than four hours a night.
The night they were first attacked, Illumina and Cosimo had the watch. She was sitting in the dark with Daisy, well away from the fire. The attackers came quickly and silently out of the dark. Daisy growled, Illumina silenced her and nudged the other two near her awake. The bundles lying around the fire were just empty piles of straw covered in blankets. The people slept away from the fire, near the horses and in the dark. They always waited until darkness fell and then slipped away from the fire, moving the horses and setting a watch that could stir the sleepers and see the fire but not themselves be seen.
The others came instantly awake, all of them stringing bows and watching as the attackers slashed at the bundles, taking a surprisingly long time to realize that the blankets covered nothing but straw. There were ten or twelve of them. It was hard to tell in the dim light of the fire but there seemed to be two people for each bundle. They stopped slashing at the bundles and for a moment stared stupidly about them, then Illumina shouted, "Now!" and loosed off an arrow, five more followed hers, almost instantly followed by another six.
Many of the men went down, whether they were wounded or trying to take cover, it was hard to tell. One of them foolishly threw one of the bundles on the fire, no doubt hoping to smother it, instead the bundle almost instantly caught fire and a great gout of flame came out of it, lighting up the whole clearing where they had camped. Four more died or went down as they tried to get out of the light.
After the second flight of arrows, guessing where the attackers would have left their horses, Cosimo and Illumina ran through the dark, taking Daisy with them. They found the horses and watched them, killing two more men that came creeping out of the dark, looking to make an escape.
In the morning, they carefully scouted the woods and found nothing other than the men around the fire and the two men who died trying to get to the horses. There were eleven men altogether, three of them still alive, one was going to die, the other two wounded badly enough that they were unlikely to get anywhere without a horse. They debated what to do with the remaining two men. They could leave them to die, they could take them with or they could give them each a horse and just let them go. None of the alternatives seemed viable.
Ivo looked grimly at Illumina and said, "Go, go and see to the horses. I will see to the men." He took Felice and Duilio with him and went back to the clearing where they had camped. Illumina thought to call him back but found herself at a loss. What was she supposed to do? Something had to be done. If she could not do it herself she would be a fool to stand in the way of someone who could. She turned her back on the clearing and walked through the woods to where the other men had left their horses, leading Cavalla and followed by Daisy; the Prince, Cosimo and Nina uneasily followed her as well. They heard one distant cry from the clearing and Illumina had to stop herself from covering her ears. She could not help drawing a breath that was a mixture between a sob and a gasp of agony. They stood by the crowd of horses waiting for some time.
The three men came grimly back. She just stood watching them. Ivo came up to her, "They said there were twelve of them, that one got away. We questioned them and I am sure they were lying, just hoping to make it possible for us to leave them behind on the grounds that they couldn't deliver any news that wasn't being delivered already. They also said there are people behind us watching the road to Loro, at least twenty of them and several other parties of a similar size watching the road and south of the road. They knew where we were going."
Illumina drew a deep breath, trying not to think of the men left back in the clearing. "So if we go back or stay on the road they will find us again. If we go south, we will be seen. I think we have no choice. We must travel north of the road and try to come back from the east. Perhaps we can get to the river, travel down river and come from the south. What do you think?" She looked round the circle and saw that they left it up to her; none of them willing to take responsibility for the decision.
It took some time to redistribute the load among all the horses they now had with them. Eventually they left, traveling cautiously, two riding well ahead, one well behind. Illumina told Daisy to watch and she understood. She was trained to guard as well as pull a sled, the training taught her to bring news quietly, not to bark and make a noise. She ranged out ahead of them. They traveled parallel to the road for a while as they got down into the low hills that surrounded the river plain. It was slow going.
Daisy warned them on two occasions when she heard people on the road. She ran back to Illumina growling and looking anxiously towards the road where she heard the people coming. Forewarned, they dismounted, getting into the trees, standing silently, listening to the distant sound of the horses on the road. Once they caught a glimpse of the group on the road. They were silent, watchful men, mounted and dressed in the same fashion as the men who attacked them. It was clear, traveling on the road or south of it was out of the question.
Illumina was anxious to get as far away from the road as possible, fearing that they would have left people hidden on the road to watch it. As soon as they could, they headed directly north or as nearly north as the hills would allow. The evening found them a long way from the road, easily a long days walk as they had ridden fast and hard whenever they could. Towards evening, they came to the low hills surrounding the river plain and there were many small streams and rivers intersecting the landscape. Illumina picked a likely candidate, a stream with a smooth sandy bottom that ran almost directly east and they led all the horses into it, riding down the riverbed, even being careful to keep Daisy in the water. A little downstream, one of the men left his horse with the others and led nine of the horses out of the stream and south towards the road. He led them a little way and then drove them off shouting and waving his hands at them. He returned to the main group waiting for him in the stream. The seven of them carried on traveling in the streambed while the light lasted. That night they were even more cautious about the camping. A fire was out of the question and they scattered around the landscape making sure that each of them knew where all the others were. Nothing happened in the night.
The following morning they woke early and rode again towards the east. The country was a series of low-lying hills; the foothills of the mountains that led up to the high country of the Loro Winter Land. Illumina knew they would soon reach the flat plain surrounding the river and it worried her. The hills were thickly wooded and cover easy to come by. Out on the plain, there would be no cover and they could be seen for miles. Once seen there would be no hope of hiding except in the dark.
She said, almost to herself. "We must keep moving today; travel in the hills while there are still trees and valleys to hide us. Tonight we should travel over the plain and after that, we will have to hide during the day." There was no argument and they turned north and east crossing the line of the hills as they marched down from the mountains.
They looked carefully as they came to each hillcrest, seeking a place where they could pass to the other side without being seen. It seemed almost inevitable, a little while after they passed the crest of a hill late in the day, there was the sound of a horn from the other side. Whether someone was following their trail or there was some watcher in the landscape, they could not tell but Illumina was sure they had been seen. They rode on at a steady pace and Illumina sent Cosimo back to look.
He came back a while later to say there was a party of men, obviously on their trail on the other side of the valley. Even riding hard, there was no possibility of them catching up before dark and they did not seem to be moving fast. Illumina puzzled over it, wondering why they would not be doing everything they could to catch up. She looked at Cosimo and Ivo and asked, "What do you think, are they driving us into a trap? How many paths are there down to the river plain?"
Ivo nodded his head. "You're probably right. There are only two viable paths down from here. I bet they have people watching both of them." He explained that the lie of the country changed as you went north and east. Where the pass came down from Loro, the valleys all ran east and there were many ways out onto the plains. Here the valleys ran north rather than east. There were few places where you could take a horse down to the plain.
Illumina looked at him and asked, "Can we travel north?"
He shook his head, "No, we can travel north east, following the line of the valleys, like this one. That will lead us into the forest. I don't see any way for us to get from the forest to where we want to be, south of the Loro road."
Illumina bit her knuckles in frustration. "How many men can he have after us anyway?"
Ivo replied, "I didn't say, I didn't want to discourage you. I am sure the men come from the North Lord. He has at least five hundred men under arms. I would guess a couple of hundred of them are chasing us. There are probably fifty behind us on the trail, fifty at each of the passes out into the plain and another fifty scattered round the hills making sure we don't break for the south."
Illumina looked at him, her face going hard. "Very well, we go north. If they chase us with anything less than fifty men, we will harass them as we go." They made their way north, riding in a streambed again as they followed the direction of the land leading them into the darkness of the north.
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