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One of the oxen had broken a leg. The braying was tremendous, terrible, till one of the guards put it down and it turned to keening grunts and groans, then silence. By the time I climbed down and went to the cart, the roadside dust beneath the beast was churned into a rust-colored sludge. They’d led the ox hobbling away a little at least, so the others didn’t panic.
Yamurik came grumbling up, preceded by his profanities. “Dog-milking-shit-frying ox. Drover! Who drove this one?” The man identified himself. “You ass-burrower. You’ve cost me an ox, idiot. Dog-milking moron. You’ll drive the rest of the way, once we get your mess sorted, and then you’re out! No more. I don’t employ idiots except this one.” He jerked a thumb at me.
I snickered and gave Yamurik a rude gesture, and he swore again and spat and gave me a grin. He didn’t employ me anyway. I and my squad had a chuckle as he swatted the now jobless, fleeing oxcart driver.
Yamurik had grown fatter and fouler in the years since I’d known him. He stomped about in his clothes edged in gold, waving a little collapsible fan like a marshal’s sword. He jabbed and swept, shouted a few well-placed profanities. Six porters leapt into action, unloading the cart that was now an ox short. Yamurik stormed and pointed, gestured and slapped his palm. A man ran about after him, trying to keep him shaded with a parasol, and a clerk bounded at his heels like a puppy, scribbling furiously with charcoal on paper. Meanwhile, drivers brought up their carts to distribute the load. Mercenary guards fanned out to watch. Yamurik cursed me and mine as useless while we strode off the road and sat, hot in our whites, taking a well-earned respite from the heat and dust. “Lonnie bastards!” Yamurik’s curses followed us, but before long he’d returned to the task of rearranging his wares to finish the journey.
Estevo rode up with the rearguard. He and two others clicked to their camels and the beasts let them down to where the rest of us sat in the meager shade beneath a hastily-erected silk on three stout poles. He looked at me and spread his arms in question, and I pointed to the dead ox in answer. The mercenary who’d killed it was hard at work, butchering.
My friend stared for a moment and, as usual, a cigarette appeared in his hand. He pulled down his scarf, blew dust out from inside, and settled the smoke in his lips as he watched the bloody work. He flopped down beside me and pushed in to get a little shade.
“We’re not making the checkpoint tonight, are we?”
“No,” I answered.
“Yamurik’s going to try.”
The workers bustled and shouted. Yamurik roared. His scribe scribbled. So much stock to track and move and shift and rearrange. Far behind us, the sun was dropping swiftly. “Any sign up front?”
At my question, Estevo snorted. “Plenty. They’re baiting us.”
“Well.” Without looking at him or anyone else, I lowered my voice. “We’ve got an extra night. They’ll be setting up camp as soon as they realize we’re not going to have light to reach the checkpoint.”
“Yamurik will be farting steam.”
“He already is.” I chuckled again as, back at the road, the merchant swatted a passing laborer with his fan. “Got that one right on the crown.”
“Knight of the fan.”
We chuckled to each other and shared the cigarette. When it was gone, Estevo worked at trying to salvage the leavings and I called over Ecena.
She stood beside me, enough to keep her head in the shade. “Sergeant?”
Remaining seated, I made a vague gesture. “Get a few of the fresher camels together. Say twelve. I want you and Ahdan, me and Estevo and enough to fill out the squad. Whoever’s got keen eyes and is good with a bow.”
“That’s almost the whole company.”
“So it is.”
Her feet shifted in the dust and scrub. “Looks like we might end up camping here tonight, sir.”
“So it does.”
“And you’re planning a little ride.”
“Just a short one.”
She spoke slowly. “We will be leaving Yamurik with too little defense, should there be others out there we haven’t seen.”
I looked up at her. She didn’t look back. “Are you questioning me, corporal?”
After a silence, she said, “Sir,” and collected Ahdan. They conversed in hushed tones and went off together to begin the task.
Meanwhile, I took Estevo’s shoulder in order to lever myself up. He grunted in protest, nearly crumpling under the sudden weight, and I thumped his shoulder. “Get ready. We’re riding as soon as the light begins to fail.” He made a sound of exaggerated irritation as I made for the halted caravan.
“Old man!” I called.
Yamurik stood beneath his parasol and beside his scribe, observing the repacking. The fading light cast his clothes in fire and glimmered on the gold threads. He waved dismissively without turning as I approached and came about to stand in front of him.
“Old man. I’m talking to you.”
He glared up at me and turned only briefly to spit into the road. “Well, little tyrant? I’m right here.”
“If I were a tyrant, I’d tell you to kneel in the dirt and kiss my foot.” I endeavored to look imperious instead of laughing.
“If you could even dream of forcing myself to such abasement, I’d tie a rope around my neck and hang myself.” Yamurik’s mask of hatred cracked and a little amusement shone out. “What is it, boy?”
“You’re camping here tonight.”
“Dog-milking ox-milking cart ass. Yes. It’s looking as if I shall.” He scrubbed his forehead with the hand still holding the fan. “I’ll take it out of that idiot’s pay when I throw his last string of drams on the ground for him to pick up. Then I’ll charge him for every dog-milking mile if he wants to ride back with us.”
“Circle up your wagons. I’ll set my folk to guard, but some of us are riding out. We’ll try to slip away while camp’s going up.”
“Slip away? So close to the checkpoint? You’re supposed to guard us, not leave us exposed. And what about those ones who’ve been following us?”
“It’s them I’ll be finding.” I turned and strode away. “I’d like a talk with our shadows.”
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