June 7, 708 CR
Summer was on the way but mornings in Eagle Tower were still cold. An occasional breeze brought warm southern air, but mostly the wind descended the mountain slopes on which the northernmost watchtower of Metamor perched bringing the bite of Winter even on the hottest days. Sir William Dupré could not see his breath but he was grateful for the thick wool he now grew.
The Eyrie cupola at the top of Eagle Tower was warmed by the cast iron furnace in the center. Alexander, the soldier who’d brought him from Mallow Horn and become a dog, added another log and then retreated to huddle beneath a blanket on the other side. Samantha, the raven haired soldier of Hareford who had first shown them the tower, was the third scout enduring a morning watch; she leaned across the eastern belvedere with her cloak about her shoulders, hands clasping a cup of once hot tea.
It had been over three months since William lost his temper and assaulted Nestorius. Most of the first two months he’d spent on patrol, drilling troops, surveying the Dike and the rugged trails from Hareford, or sequestered within Eagle Tower so their paths did not cross. In the last month he’d made an effort to befriend the lion mage and earn his trust anew. Their shared past in being exiles helped as the anger and pain the ram suffered were ones Nestorius knew well.
It would still take many more months to recover the goodwill he’d squandered.
And so William took every excuse to stay out of Hareford. After a week of running drills in the countryside and clearing trees along the main road south he needed rest. He’d arrived yesterday with his men and some servants, enjoyed a welcome meal and a few hours of sleep, and then began a shift in the Eyrie. Already he regretted it; his eyes watched the Giantdowns in the north, but his heart turned south to Mallow Horn.
The letter his eldest son – the son Verdane had stolen – was treasured in his quarters. He’d read and reread the letter more times than he could count. Jory loved him and knew he was a Dupré first and a Verdane second. His younger children – daughters Sasha and Lydia, and son Timas – remained in Mallow Horn with a mother but no father; a mother who sought an annulment to deny them even an exiled father. It had been more than a year since he’d held Jory in his arms; the terrible campaign the thrice damned Marquis enslaved him to had kept him from the others for months before his sentence of exile. Nine months now perhaps?
He ground his flat teeth and flexed his nostrils, angry at himself for woolgathering. He tapped the edge of his curled horn against the belvedere’s wooden supports. He was a Keeper in body but not yet in spirit. The ram was the sigil of his house but he never imagined becoming one himself. After six months with wool, horns, hooves, and two-fingered hands he had trouble remembering what his human flesh felt like. He’d been hairy of chest, arms, and legs, but how did they feel beneath four slender fingers? The thick heaviness of wool was all he knew. He hated the Marquis and Verdane for stealing those memories too.
But the Marquis was dead and Verdane’s eldest was a prisoner in Salinon. Vengeance belonged to Eli, or so the priests always reminded him; perhaps it had already been carried out.
The soft clop of hooves on the steps turned both ears and thoughts. William and Alexander glanced at the trap door as Blanche climbed through with a bundle in her arms. The lady ewe had been assigned by Nestorius to care for his quarters, clothes, and meals, and this she did quietly and dependably. Born in Hareford, she had never traveled farther than the nearby villages until Sir Dupré began bringing her on his patrols to better see to his needs and the needs of the men under his command.
“Good morning, sirs,” she said as she set the bundle on the ledge. William caught the scent of fresh bread, butter, and preserves, as well as a tamer but more interesting scent. It surrounded her and made the dull off-white of her wool fuller and appealing. Some days it was stronger than others and on those days his nostrils would flare, his chest swell, and he could not stop the scraping of his hooves against the ground.
Though many nobles kept mistresses, and lechery was hardly uncommon among any class of men, William had avoided dalliances after marrying Anya Verdane. He had already won the most prized hand in all of the Midlands; what need had he to further prove his manhood? And it kept the priests happier; always wise for this life and the next. But the real reason was his children; he loved them too dearly to sully their line with bastards.
Alexander began panting and wagging when he smelled the food. Samantha smiled at the ewe before returning her gaze to the still, fog-filled horizon. William shifted against the belvedere and stepped toward his servant. “Good morning, Blanche. What have you for us?”
The ewe carefully unwrapped the bundle as her left eye found the ram. The pupil was slit side-to-side like his making it difficult to know where they focused. But he knew; doubtless she was enticed both by his scent and by his sturdy and handsome build. They were both black-faced sheep and this was Metamor.
There was little chance of muddying the lines of succession for his children here in Hareford. Perhaps she might consent to being mistress as well as servant.
Of course, she was probably a spy for Andwyn. He would not trust her until he knew for sure.
His nostrils swelled and he scraped a hoof. Not that he needed to trust her for...
Blanche's unassuming voice felt even quieter in the tower cupola. “I baked bread for you, sirs, and brought some of the raspberry preserves from last Summer's harvest. And a block of fresh butter from Truskmore. Oh, would you like more hot tea, Lieutenant?”
Samantha smiled and handed her cup to the ewe. “Thank you, Blanche. I'll have my bread with butter and jam.”
Alexander noticed his drool and wiped his jowls with one arm. “The same for me.”
William deliberately gazed toward the Dike and waved an arm. “I will also have some, thank you, Blanche. And bring hot tea when you return. Then see to the rest of the men. Let Captain Becket know we'll stay here today and return to Hareford tomorrow; he'll see to the duty rotation.”
Blanche nodded and offered a shy smile. “Of course, sirs. I will see to it.” She divided the loaf of bread into three chunks, lathered each with butter and preserves, then handed one to Samantha, to Alexander, and to William. He waited a few seconds while she offered it before turning to her, staring with both eyes. The tips of his hoof-like fingers brushed against hers as he took the bread. Her ears tipped back in a caprine blush.
He took one bite of the bread and nodded. “Very good, thank you, Blanche.” And it was. The jam had more tart than he preferred but the butter was richer than any in his homeland. Together it made a pleasing taste. He scuffed a hoof and forced his eyes toward the remnants of the Dike. “Do bring some hot tea. The mountain air is especially cold this morning.”
“I will, sirs.”
Her scent lingered after the ewe disappeared. William chewed each bite for nearly a minute, eyes intent on the horizon. Branches of trees stirred, birds flitted about with a morning song in their throats, and he'd even seen a pair of goats capering about the mountainside, but nothing more than they wandered the borderlands between a kingdom of beasts and the wild, untamed Giantdowns. It took all his composure to watch them while his heart thrummed and nostrils grasped at Blanche's fading scent.
He scuffed his cloven hoof on the stone beneath him one last time. He could not escape what the Curses had done to him, but he would not be mastered by them. A moment of pride let the Marquis trick him and destroy his life. A moment of anger broke his friendship with Nestorius. What could a moment of lust cost him?
He'd chewed four bites before Blanche returned with a pot of tea. She refilled Samantha's cup and poured some for both Alexander and William. Though he held the cup still while she poured, he did not touch her.
“Thank you, Blanche,” he said when she had finished. “Tell Captain Becket I want him to send two men of the Hareford troop here to the Eyrie. I want to take him and my men out along the Dike before the day grows old.”
He breath a silent prayer of thanks when the ewe left.
Samantha turned in surprise. “Do you wish an escort?”
“Thank you, but nae, we'll be fine. You'll probably be able to watch us from here.” And Andwyn was sure to have a spy or two among the birds in the trees anyway.
It was warmer in the forest than in the tower and so William and his men only wore the leather mail common to patrols. Two freckle-faced boys, Martin and Robert, led them amid the trees and the tumbled, moldering stones they'd shoved aside where the Giant's Dike once stood. The boar Becket walked at William's side, small eyes wary and alert, while his snout turned at every new scent. Behind them followed Alexander and the red-haired boy Anthony who still rubbed sleep from his eyes.
They were the soldiers who came to Metamor with him from Mallow Horn. Once assigned the task of enforcing his exile, they chose to join him instead. There was no others in all of Metamor he could trust without reserve.
At least not yet.
For a stretch of thirty paces the ground was more stone than dirt. Centuries of neglect allowed tree roots to shatter the Dike's foundation into a jagged landscape of moss-covered points. Some of the ancient stonework remained above the soil; lonely sentinels creeping with vines and filled with cracks in which flowers and birds made their home – pitiful reminders of the glory once attained by the Suielman. They had tamed Galendor, but now they were a story to haunt the dreams of Dukes and their monuments ruins for beasts.
He turned toward the nearest of these sentinels; his men hastened to follow him.
The sentinel was a stack of four squat stones each as long and wide as a man was tall. They'd been positioned like bricks and now each cavity was filled with ivy and brush. William traced palm across the old stone but felt only moss, lichen, and vines with broad spade-shaped petals. He ground his cud between his teeth and flicked his ears against his horns. He wrapped both hands around the nearest vine and yanked.
It had dug deep roots in the old stone but with a little persuasion it came free. The ram followed every curve and fork, tugging and scraping until he'd removed all of it. A pile of discarded vegetation littered the ground between his confused men. With the vine gone they could see patches of the granite. One finger traced gently across it.
William swallowed the cud and snorted. “These walls were proud. Men made them to show his might. He made them to protect his people. But then lesser men rule to satisfy themselves and damn everyone else; folly rules and empires fall. Walls tumble down. Who can we protect, Becket?”
“Sir?” Becket asked, stepping to his side. The boar rested a hand against the stone, small eyes even smaller as they squinted, trying to see whatever it was his commander saw in the moldy sentinel.
William turned and gestured at the forest with arms outstretched. “This was the Giant's Dike. A wall stretching from one end of the valley mouth to the other. It kept the Lutin hordes, the giants, and all terrors of the north out of the Empire. Until fools neglected them and they were overrun. You see what remains. Nothing.”
Becket and the others glanced about. The boar nodded and scuffed a hoof. “It must have been massive. Metamor would never have been Cursed if this wall stood.”
“Or attacked again last Winter,” William agreed. He kicked the pile of vines. “How long before they... before we are attacked again?”
Becket shrugged. “It could be many years. Nasoj's hold on the Lutin tribes was broken. Metamor is probably the safest it has been in generations.”
“Nasoj's hold was broken. But who else might leash them? No, as long as our northern borders look like this,” he gestured at the broken sentinel and shook his head. “We will not be safe.”
“But who will rebuild the wall? It has taken them a decade to rebuild Hareford.”
William snorted. “It will take a generation or more to build a wall like the Suielman's. But stone we have aplenty. And I wager there are many from Bradanes who have no place to call home and no work to busy their healed hands. The men and resource are here, it is only the will we lack.”
“And the money,” Anthony interjected.
“And authority,” Martin added.
William waved them both to silence. “Aye, aye. And I'm sure Nestorius will bring up the Haunted wood again.” He glared to the southeast. Somewhere beyond the trees was a huge swath of the valley's north haunted by spirits and abandoned by men. Nestorius and Sir Edmund explored the area from time to time, but all others were forbidden to enter. They thought it a buffer; one day an enemy of Metamor would not be daunted by it and reach their heart. And one day those woods would no longer be haunted and there would be nothing but fading memory and superstition to deter raiders.
“So what can we do?” Becket asked.
William took a deep breath and snorted. “Continue our patrol. When we return I will suggest it. And I will work to make it happen. There will be a wall on this spot again one day. There will be.” He felt another lump of cud rising in his throat and so waved his men along. They walked beneath the forest trees where his wall would be.
It would be a fight, but it would keep Metamor safe from their northern enemies. And all the hard labor would take his mind off a certain ewe and the southern world and family left behind. Grim in thought and intent, Sir William Dupré chewed his cud and kept a wary eye on the woods.