Afterwards their daily lives became hectic. The young serfs wasted no time and forced the convoy onward. They marched through dusk and only stopped when the cows refused to take another step through the dark. The following rest was short and uncomfortable as they didn’t even bother to create a full camp. Instead, they huddled against each other to find warmth despite the lack of campfires. And they were long gone when the morning sun started to warm the chilly air.
Such forced march elicited ill feelings and complaints but the renewed threat of death drowned every small bud of resistance. Even the elder serfs kept quiet and pushed themselves behind their limit. They stumbled through the forest and used the cows and horses as support but no one asked for a break.
Ketill’s daily life underwent another change when they stopped scouting for a place to camp. Instead, they concentrated on reaching their destination in time. Therefore, all scouts now ran in front of the convoy to find the fastest way through the undulating plains. Lakes and slopes were insuperable obstacles for the convoy so the marked trail wound between them as the scouts ran detour after detour. They didn’t return to the convoy and only stopped their march for another poor meal of bread and water.
In the second night Klefi was the first to pay for their merciless progress. He was the foremost scout and fell over a concealed root face first, cutting his face with a sharp branch just centimeters below his eyes. But he shook the impact off, wrapped a cloth around his face and continued in front. The following day more and more scouts collapsed and stayed behind. They would rest and later reunite with the convoy.
Thanks to this their small group dwindled away. Only Ketill, Klefi and Lafir remained when they heard the sound of flowing water. The three youngsters made their way out the forest and stood on the edge of a small plain. Behind the shore they saw the border river and frowned.
“That’s bad,” Lafir sighed. “So we die either way. Not worth all the stress.”
The two boys stayed silent. They wanted to refute the cynical remark but the view in front of their eyes silenced them.
“Either way, we are at our destination,” Ketill found his words. “Lafir, please run back and inform Vandill. He should come and see this for himself before we decide.”
“Me? You really don’t want me around, do you? I’ll complain to Ida later.”
“It’s not like that. You are the fastest runner and we need Vandill here as soon as possible,” Ketill soothed the mumbling girl.
“All right. I’m on my way,” she accepted with a smile, but her eyes told another story. She continued to support Ketill but ever since their confrontation he couldn’t help but regard her as nuisance. Her snarky remarks complicated the situation hence he sent her back. With her around there’s no way to draw up a new plan, Ketill justified before he collapsed on a nearby stone.
Klefi sat beside him and both of them looked at the biggest obstacle yet. They had known the border river was a big stream establishing a border between the dragon kingdom and their enemies. But what laid in front of their eyes didn’t do this description justice.
A stream? This, Ketill wanted to scream. The border river was so width he barely detected the other shore. As long as our fields, maybe even more. There’s no way we can cross that river.
They had planned to search for a ford and cross the river but this seemed impossible now. The wardens said one could only cross the river by ship, but I laughed it off back then. The enemy will most likely arrive here this evening and we can’t flee. He reproached himself until he couldn’t bear it any longer. Hence he stood up and walked towards the shore.
Fast flowing water greeted him. The river was clear and Ketill could see the ground. Small sticks and leaves swam past and their speed shocked Ketill again. He hardly managed to spot a green leaf before it disappeared in the distance. Dragged steps appeared behind him and Ketill sighed before he addressed the other youth.
“There’s no way to cross the river and flee on the other side. We need a new plan before the convoy arrives.”
“Swim across,” Klefi asked knowing the answer.
“There’s no way. Even if we leave the animals and baggage behind most serfs will drown before we reach the middle. The current is too strong for us. And the elders will die without question.”
“And if we build our own ship? We can use a handful trees and tie the elders to them. Afterwards we drag it to the other side.”
“But we can’t start until the convoy is here with our axes. Afterwards we have to cut the trees, transport them over, tie them together and cross before the enemy is here. Vandill expects them to arrive this evening so we only have a handful hours for everything. Even less if we are unlucky.”
“We also want to travel to the mountains,” Ketill pointed to his left. “But the river flows the other way. Even if we survive and cross the river we'll have to make our way back through unknown land. It's a hostile kingdom so they'll hunt us down the moment they spot us.”
The boys continued to discuss their ideas, but each had its own shares of danger and problems. They decided on a handful of the most feasible ones and waited for Vandill’s arrival. Thus they returned to the stone and ate their meal watching the giant river.
The sun stood high in the sky when the convoy reached the shore. Vandill let the other serfs rest before he made his way over with Ida and Lafir trailing behind. One short glimpse was enough to understand the situation so he greeted the boys with the question at hand.
“So, how do we get across?”
“We don’t,” Ketill replied. “We spent the last hours thinking of new plans and the risk is too high. So as long as you guys don’t have something good we should dismiss the original plan and start anew.”
“Why should we do that? Wasn’t that your task, oh leader,” Lafir mocked but the others’ stares silenced her. Hence Ketill ignored her remark and focused on Vandill.
“Our best bet is to build a ship out of tress but we’ll die if we didn’t lose the enemy. It’ll take hours to cut the trees and by then we should have left this area. So we decided to use the time, stay on this side and travel to the mountains.”
“But they’ll see our track and follow us,” Vandill frowned. “Even if they would leave us alone once we reach the mountains, they’ll catch up with the convoy way earlier.”
“That’s why we won’t walk on land but wade through the water. We’ll use the same trick again. The current will blur our tracks and the enemy will only see our tracks ending at the coast, walking onto our ship. They might search the shore further down but they won’t expect us trudging against the current.”
“We’ll use the cows and horses in the front,” Ketill explained. “They’ll bear the brunt and we can proceed behind them. After one or two hours we can exit the river and hide in another forest. We can continue as soon as the enemy returns to the village.”
The others kept quiet. They understood that crossing the river would kill many of them, but this new plan bet everything on the enemy’s behavior. The serfs had to travel through the cold water bearing the risk of illness and their success wasn’t even guaranteed. It was a gamble with all their lives at stake. Eventually Vandill sighed and spoke up.
“This should be our best bet. I’ll return to the convoy and organize the groups. We must distribute the cows’ baggage and undress. Those heavy coats will soak and slow us down. Let’s give them another hour of rest before we continue.”
Leaving these words behind Vandill turned around and walked back to the convoy. Klefi followed to help him and Lafir left after she noticed Ida’s glare. Alone for the first time in days the two siblings sat side by side and watched the Border River. They didn’t speak a word but the other’s warmth filled them with the hope and strength needed for the coming test.