Following the directions given by Dragan, the huntsman, Duke Jiri lead his troop of knights down the track and up the mountainside to the shepherd's hut, arriving as the evening light began to truly fade. With a torch hastily light, a quick inspection showed the place to be a very cozy and well-built stone hut with one simple room and a stone-paved floor. It was a rather elaborate affair for a simple shepherd and it was apparently in regular use. With only the barest of gruff orders from Stépan, the young knights were soon putting their hands to good if inexpert use, unaccustomed to menial work as they were. Horse were unsaddled and brushed down, the hut was swept out, a fire set in the hearth, and a saddle blanket covered the hut’s small window in order to shut out the chill air and prevent the light of the fire from showing their presence. Soon the group were resting in the very crowed room and nibbling on their modest rations.
Jiri stepped outside to take the first watch and to collect his thoughts after their long day. Although he was tired, he nevertheless felt invigorated by the day’s success. He looked down the slope beyond the hut and saw the dark valley below disappearing into fog, barely illuminated by a half moon. No lights shone there. Where are Dragan and the soldiers now? It is dark now to be trying to follow the track, they must have made camp somewhere down there, if all went well…
Walking to the other side of the hut, Jiri saw that it backed into a gully with a grassy meadow and a pond. The tired horses nibbled the good grass beside the pond. Moonlight shimmered on the pond’s surface, the quiet broken only by the murmuring of the knights in the hut, complaining of their saddle-sore bottoms and the bracing night air, and by ducks alighting and carousing in the pond.
Jiri's reflection was interrupted by the sound of footsteps. "Ah, it is you Stépan. My compliments, your group of young knights seem disciplined and well trained. They rode very hard and kept the pace all day". "Thank you my lord, but I fear that they are still as green as can be. There is much work to do before they can stand against the enemy".
“I have no fear that they will soon be a credit to their families and to you as well. But be careful Stépan, now is not the time to speak so openly of enemies. We have none, at least offically. We walk along a knife’s edge these days, but it has always been like that, more or less, since the Bordurians arrived. It won’t help to turn these lads into hotheads."
Somewhat abashed, Stépan replied "I understand my lord. Um… but if I may, what do you plan to do once we get back to Douma? Do you really plan to march on these rebels?
“Hmm, that has been the question for the Almazouts since the days of my grandfather and the answer is still the same, we wait and see, Stépan. We don’t yet know who these rebels are or what they want. I am in no hurry to make war on our own countrymen, but there is more here than meets the eye. This uprising didn’t break out simply because of the arrests in the monastery, it was already in the works. The Viceroy or that beast in Djordjevaro will insist that the revolt must be put down immediately so it is a direct challenge to me one way or the other. I cannot let it fester. If it comes to that, it is better that we crush the rebels than see a Bordurian army come”.
Stépan murmured assent, but was clearly uneasy. “Do you think that the Bordurians are strong enough to send such an army now, with all that is going on”? he asked.
“They still have more men under arms in Hum than I do, and they could bring reinforcements”. Looking sidelong at Stépan, Jiri continued “We haven’t the numbers to take them on, and certainly not them and the rebels as well. At least, by putting down the revolt, we would permit the Bordurians to turn their attentions elsewhere. While they spend their strength we can gain time and a little bit of freedom. You are troubled, Stépan. I know this isn’t much but this is how we have survived since the invasion”.
Stépan hesitated as he tried to choose his words carefully. “Yes, I understand, my lord. It is like we are gutter dogs, used to being beaten. We have learned to grab scraps when we can and how to dodge blows before they fall…”
Hah! But we are noble mongrels nonetheless kinsman! Jiri laughed, a little bitterly, clapping Stépan on the back.
Stépan continued “Forgive me my lord, but we are sulking about in our our lands and now we are laying ambushes for our overlords’ agents just so we can return to our homes. Uprising or not, aren’t we already at war? It has imposed itself on us.”
The two fell into silence and watched the ducks squabble in the pond for the rest of the watch. After finishing his turn, Jiri returned to the hut to find a space let open for him in front of the hearth. Lying down, Jiri continued to ruminate. We have escaped detection so far, it is still possible to arrive early in Douma and take control of the situation before the Governor does. Everything hinges on that and then, once the uprising is taken care of, we can gauge the strength of the Bordurians... Finally beginning to drifting off, Jiri thought about Stépan’s pointed words and about quickly his entourage had begun to speak openly of the Bordurians as enemies. Their secretive flight that day had hardened the attitudes of everyone, down to Dragan, the loyal huntsman. Stépan was right, for all intents and purposes, they were already at war, but how to win was another story.