Second Battle of Jent
Bran rubbed his neck, hiding his irritation behind a tired expression, and he caught himself before he yelled at the men in the ravine below him, lest the same irritation sharpen his words. The weather was no fault of these men, and although the dray horses of Triumon were as used to ice, snow and steep climbs as any in the realm, cajoling them into the Jent Pass under these conditions had shortened the tempers of both man and horse. Now, in addition to a winter storm and a treacherous climb, they had the added delay of this accident slowing them down.
A cart had slid off the narrow road and overturned, hobbling the two horses attached to it before sending its contents tumbling down into the ravine. The horses had fought nobly to save themselves and the cart from going over the edge, and despite their panic, they would have hung on until a new team had been roped to the cart. Bran had quickly ordered the cart cut loose over the sickening screams of the lamed horses, sacrificing the cart so the animals could be put out of their misery without delay; however, losing the cart and horses had not mattered as much as losing the tents it had been carrying. Bran yelled again to the men, trying to encourage them to hurry rather than berate them.
“Find as many as you can,” he bellowed against the gusting wind and swirling snow at the barely visible torches below. “Don’t get careless; no man’s life should be traded for those tents.”
Had the cart been carrying anything else, he would never have risked lives or slowed the caravan by retrieving them; however, shelter was already in short supply, and when the Northmon and Fayersae hosts joined them, that situation would only worsen. With the cold of winter having already descended on them with this early winter storm, he knew that the tents had become as important as firewood if they were going to survive.
Another bundle of ropes was dumped behind him as the creek of a passing cart and the slipping of hooves on the ice brought another round of angry shouts from the men struggling to pass on this narrow section of the road.
“Keep moving,” he yelled angrily as men jumped to calm the horses and assist in pushing the cart.
Their footing was no surer than the horses, but with their added weight, the cart lurched by him and made it safely to the more level ground beyond this twist of road. He checked his own shortened temper; he knew they should have waited until the carts had passed before crowding this section of the road with more men to retrieve the tents. Again, like the weather, his hasty decision was not the fault of these men.
He started uncoiling the rope so it could be fed to the men in the ravine as Oltcynn came over the crest leading a dray horse that had been unhitched further down the road. Another cart lurched up behind him, and just as the horses started to slide and panic, Oltcynn jumped in front of the nearest horse, quickly grabbing the bridle. He strong-armed the horse, pulling violently on the bit as the crack of a whip and the shouts from the driver kept the horses moving. Bran corralled the horse Oltcynn had abandoned before it could back down the road into the next oncoming cart. Oltcynn returned when the current wagon had cleared this treacherous portion of the road.
“Six more,” Oltcynn said. “The rest have been stopped and are reasonably safe. Tempers are flaring as the carts bunch below us,” he added.
“Your quick thinking got them stopped before more were committed to this climb,” Bran said. “At least one of us made a prudent quick decision. Let them argue. They may be cold but they’re safe. After we get these tents pulled out of the ravine, you can have them come up one at a time with extra bodies to assist. Here,” he said handing a pair of rope ends to Oltcynn. “Tie them to the harness. Let’s get these tents hauled up before another cart slides off the road and knocks all of us into the ravine.”
He took the other ends of the ropes, and with a shout, he flung them down into the ravine. Another cart rolled past them with enough extra men to assist the horses, and as more men returned from the upper portion of the road to help with the remaining carts that had already started the steep climb and could not be stopped, Bran knew the danger of another one sliding off the road was past. All they needed to do was quickly retrieve the tents so the rest of the caravan could finish the climb before conditions worsened and stranded them on this mountainside.
With the help of the horse, he and Oltcynn started pulling the tents out of the ravine in twos and threes. As the time between shouts from below lengthened, he knew the men searching the ravine had likely found all of the tents that they could in the dark. They had recovered about half, and he yelled down to the men to give up the search. One-by-one, the weary men were pulled out of the ravine.
“Good work,” Bran said after the last of them had been pulled up to the road, feeling as tired and cold as these men looked.
None of them had slept for nearly two days as they had fought to stay ahead of the storm and get a base camp prepared before Altan’s hosts arrived. It was turning out to have been imprudent to have taken a third of the supply caravan into the pass under these conditions rather than staying on the open plateau with the Quartermaster and the rest of the army. Once the storm had released its full fury, however, it had been impossible to turn back as the snow had piled in the valleys below them. Bran knew all they had done was separate much needed supplies from the main host since it would now be many days before the rest could make the climb into the pass.
“I had the lead cart that is waiting below emptied,” Oltcynn said, interrupting Bran’s tired reflections. “I’ll signal for it to be brought up. You three with me,” he said to a group of men. “Let’s get that cart up here so we can all get out of this pass. I’ve had men from the back of the lines move up to assist each cart,” he said to Bran. ”It will slow us a bit, but we should still finish the climb by dawn.”
Bran nodded as Oltcynn moved off; the boy’s judgment was sound. He was thankful that over the weeks, the young man had accepted his role overseeing the supply caravans and had shed his overbearing attitude. He was young and seemed undaunted by the conditions, and Bran had to remind himself that these mountains were the same imposing peaks where the boy had grown up in the halls of Triumon. Wind, ice and snow were nothing new for him and these men, and Bran knew that it was he who was out of place here. He wondered, with a bit of chagrin, if Oltcynn would have ordered them into the mountains under these conditions, or if his Triumon instincts to respect the elements would have provided wiser council had he asked for the boy’s advice before rashly committing them all to this folly.
“Let’s stack the tents there,” Bran pointed, knowing there was nothing to be done now but press on.
He grabbed the heavy wet canvas of a tent and began dragging it toward the road.
The exhausted men followed suit, and although all of them had become accustomed to Bran working as hard as any common laborer, all of them were grateful for the Lord of Northmon’s assistance; he was just as tired, wet, and cold as they were, but his invigorating determination pushed them all past normal endurance. Besides, these men knew if they did not get out of the pass soon, they would die here.
The wet tents were moved away from the ravine, but the men had little time to rest before the empty wagon came over the crest in the road. Bran was the first to move and lift a heavy tent up to Oltcynn and the waiting men on the cart. Wearily, they loaded the cart as the snow fell harder and the wind grew stronger.
It would be many hours before they reached a safe spot to finally make camp, and as Bran looked up at the dark night sky, seeing nothing but snow, he only hoped that by dawn, conditions would not have grown so dire that getting the fires lit would prove impossible.
For information on Heart of Hauden, Book One of the Harmony of the Othar Saga, please visit www.heartofhauden.com.