Within minutes of leaving Krolik’s eastern gate, the leagues began to flow past like miles. Kelena’s hoofbeats thundered against the ground as Miss Aura drove her, and the axles squealed ominously beneath us. Before, the loose rocks and furrows had been an inconvenience. This time, though, the walls and floor shook as every little bump or gulley made the whole wagon bounce.
Despite the near-constant noise streaming in from outside, silence reigned within the wagon. I knelt beside my master, my paws folded on my knees with my head in his lap. At times his fingers caressed my neck, tracing the edges of my collar and gently rustling the links of my chains. At others, he splayed his paw across my back, sweeping his paw slowly over my shoulders and down my spine. I kept myself still as he petted me, sinking into his touch as much as the constant jostling would permit, quietly savoring the contact.
A sudden jolt to the right dropped me out of my reverie as the wagon rolled sharply onto two wheels. Both he and Mister Valentin slid into the far wall, tipping the vehicle further and sending me sprawling. Miss Aura cried out and cracked the reins, and Kelena let out an exhausted whinny in response. Then we jerked forward, spilling my master out of his seat, pinning me under his knees. The wheels dropped home with a crunch and an awful screech of tortured wood and metal, and visions of the cart collapsing into splinters flooded my head. The iron-shod axles held, though, and soon we were rushing headlong towards Baris once more.
Mister Valentin helped lift my master off of me and back into his seat, then turned and yanked open the window up to the driver’s seat. “The next spill like that will probably shatter a wheel or worse, Aura!” he yelled over the wagon’s constant protests. “Speed is of the essence, but for naught if we don’t arrive at all!”
“Aye, and next you’ll be up here telling me how to do that!” the sage shouted back. “You’ll take the reins and suddenly this half-crazed horse will just up and obey, the roads will all run straight, and every rock will find a rut and fill it!”
The sergeant let out an exasperated sigh and slammed shut the window, then dropped heavily into his seat, adding another jolt to the wheels. “At this rate, we may not even make it to Baris,” he groused. He drew in a heavy breath, then leaned back and stared at the ceiling as he exhaled. “What a waste.”
“Even if we do, we still have Datsia to face,” Erik added around his scowl. He drummed the claws of one paw against the seat beside him, the other clutching my shoulder. “We still haven’t talked about what we’re going to do if we get that far.”
Mister Valentin shrugged. “That depends on….” His voice trailed into silence for a moment before he shrugged. “How many troops she has left in Baris, whether we can get to the scullery without being seen, how much support we can muster inside the keep….” He sighed. “Listen, Erik, there’s just too much that’s unknown at that point.”
My master chuckled softly and shook his head. “You’re lying, Valentin.” He lowered his head and smiled as he casually kneaded my shoulder. “You always say ‘listen’ when you’re trying to get someone to believe you, but when you’re condescending about it, you’re the one you’re trying to convince.”
“Dust, Erik, that’s—” The curse was out of Mister Valentin’s muzzle almost immediately, followed by awkward silence, then an uncomfortable chuckle. “That’s painfully astute, actually. I hadn’t even noticed I was doing it.” He looked out the window at the rushing countryside. “Keep that up, and I might actually believe you can do the job.”
My master shrugged. “I still don’t want it, but that raises a question.” He hooked his thumb over his shoulder, back towards Barony Jazinsk. “During the negotiations in Tomas’ chambers, you spelled out Datsia’s battle plans. Do you know that’s what she’s doing?”
The sergeant-at-arms crossed his arms and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Why this sudden doubt?”
My master smirked, his head still bowed. “I couldn’t say anything, but I could still hear you talking. I can’t recall the details, but you said ‘listen’ a lot, and, well….” He shrugged. “I guess I’m wondering why she trusted you with her plans. Datsia doesn’t trust anyone, especially if she thought you’d stab her in the back.”
Mister Valentin’s ears went back against his head, which drooped as he sighed again. “I was helping her get you off the throne in the first place. She didn’t think I’d betray her.”
“Datsia assumes everyone will betray her,” my master growled. “She doesn’t even trust Dion, I don’t think. She just knows what he likes and plays to it.” Mention of the loathsome envoy made my master dig his claws into my shoulder further. I whimpered, and he hissed through his teeth, rubbing the abused patch tenderly with his pads. “Sorry, pet.”
I shrugged and nuzzled at my master’s leg, but Mister Valentin was already talking. “I don’t think there’s an honest bone in Dion’s body, but he’s good at what he does.” He sighed and pinched the top of his muzzle. “Too good.”
My master smirked. “You’re changing the subject. What do you think Datsia’s actually doing?”
Mister Valentin leaned back against the wall and sighed. “I think she’s doing what I said she was, sending Dion south through the Estuzias to secure those mines, then flank Krolik and try for a back entrance while Tomas’ forces are braced for a frontal assault. Why?”
“Is that what she said, or what you think?” My master hissed the words.
“What does it matter?” The Deterikh sergeant threw his arms in the air reflexively, rapping his knuckles against the roof of the wagon with a wince.
My master was quiet for several seconds. “Because Datsia doesn’t trust anybody, and if we’re defending against what she told you she was planning, we’re probably riding into a trap.”
Mister Valentin didn’t answer immediately. His gaze turned to the window for a brief eternity while he watched the grasses and trees flow past us. “All I know for certain is that Datsia told Dion to take his time with the advance on Krolik,” he finally replied, his voice barely audible over the protests of the wheels. “That and she gruffed about your father giving up the mountains for too little. The rest….” He shrugged again. “I don’t know. She could’ve been deceiving me, but I don’t know. That’s the problem with her; there’s never any way to know for sure.”
He looked back to my master, then put one paw on my shoulder. “Listen, Erik,” he said with deliberate certainty. “All I can tell you for sure is that I don’t have any better plans than what we’re doing right now. I’m hoping that flying our colors will get us past the gates, but the odds are good that we’re going to have to fight our way into Baris. We may get lucky between there and the back gate, but once inside the keep, all plans are cancelled. Much depends on how quickly we can find—”
“Brace!” The shout from Miss Aura, outside, cut across the sergeant’s lecture, and then suddenly the wagon pitched sharply to the left, sending be back against the door, which rattled as I fell against it. This time, my master’s knees wound up in the small of my back, pinning me against the frame. The sage’s horse let out another whinny, and then we tumbled back to the center again as the cart righted itself, the wheels slamming down onto the ground.
Mister Valentin was up on his knees on the bench in a heartbeat, jerking open the window. “Aura! Another one of those and you’ll shatter a wheel!” he bellowed up at the driver.
“You’ll be saying that every time we go around a bend!” the sage shouted back. “Or perhaps you’d rather try to take the reins?”
The sergeant pinched the bridge of his nose. “Just tell me how much longer.”
Miss Aura snapped her reins in response. “Before dusk, assuming the wheels and my patience all hold! We’ll need one more stop for grooming and feed, though; Kelena’s starting to flag.”
“I couldn’t tell,” the sergeant grumbled as he slammed the window closed and dropped back to his seat. “I’m sorry, Erik. Where was I?”
My master shrugged again as he struggled off of me and back into his seat. “Sorry again, pet.”
“It’s alright, master,” I replied softly, with a hint of a smile. “I’m used to it.”
My master winced at that, but to his credit, he turned back to Mister Valentin as though the matter were finished. “You were saying something about much depending on something.”
“Right.” Mister Valentin sighed heavily and shook his head. “Much is going to depend on how quickly we can find support inside, and how much resistance we face. The more we have to fight before we reach Datsia and the less support we have, the worse our odds.”
My master nodded. “So, what do you think our odds are?”
Mister Valentin didn’t answer; he just turned back to the window, watching the world rush by us as we raced towards Baris.