July 13, 708 CR
Though the hour was late, the sun hung low in the southwestern sky dangled above the white-capped peaks of mountains. Nearing but not yet touching. Thick masses of bright clouds obscured the eastern and northern skies, but to the west and south the evening sun reigned. A warm breeze pressed from the south, stirring the pines, fir, and cedar, leaving a sweet scent in the air. The creak of branches was lost amid the crunching of horse hooves and the clatter of wagon wheels on the hard-packed road, even to ears as sensitive as a jackal's.
George had spent portions of the long ride from Metamor to Hareford half-dozing in his saddle, but as they neared their destination he was alert and observing all with keen eye, raised ears, and long breaths. The small company of soldiers were also alert, though in the warm glow of a Summer's day, and with other patrols and soldiers moving along the roads and in the surrounding fields, they relaxed too. Hands and paws normally ready to grip swords and spears were scratching at fur or straightening armor. Eyes accustomed to glance from side to side were focused on the small castle ahead.
The craftsmen with their wagons were paying no attention at all except to their tools. George wished he'd thought to send a message to have the soldiers of Hareford ambush them just to teach the recruits never to let their guard down. But he could not fault them for feeling safe. They would have opportunity aplenty in Hareford for learning how to be a soldier.
Their company left the villages of Aglador and Caoraigh behind them as they ascended the gentle slope of a wide hill. The castle of Hareford with its thick walls and squat towers had an uninterrupted view of the land in every direction, stopped only by the mountains to the north and west, and the thick forest to the east. The road branched around to both west and east, with the western branch leading through the village of Tuskmore and its apple orchards, fields for grazing sheep, and then the barren crater filling with grass and new pines before the old northwestern passage in the mountains. The eastern branch led to the eastern gate of Hareford, and a road vanishing into the trees on its way toward Eagle Tower, the northernmost defense of Metamor.
George and his company remained on the main road through the southern gate. The town gates were open with a dozen soldiers standing guard on the bridge over the moat. With Summer in full bloom so too the moat bloomed with algae beds stretching like thrown carpets. Where the water was clear he could see gnats and flies dancing over the surface until they were snatched from beneath by puckered fish.
The lead soldier at the gate, a black-furred goat, waved to the jackal as his horse set hoof to the wooden bridge. “Well met, Patrol master. Sir Nestorius told us to expect you. We will see to your horses, but the wagons will need to remain outside.”
“I know your streets are narrow, but is there no space in the square?”
The goat shook his head, making the beads he'd braided into his goatee clack. “I'm afraid not. Merchants from Starven beat you to it.”
George, in the middle of dismounting, lifted ears and even tail higher. “Starven?” He dropped to the bridge, toe claws spread to grip the wood. “What have they to trade?”
“Furs and salted fish and meats mostly.” The goat stuck out his tongue in obvious distaste. “But there's quite a few more of them than we're used to seeing here.”
“A good sign,” another soldier offered, this one a man still growing. “It means the lands north of Metamor are safe for travelers.”
“Safer,” George corrected. “They've never been safe.”
The goat bleated, even as eight of his soldiers moved to help with both horses and the wagons. The craftsmen remained on the road sorting their tools content to wait outside. George turned to the soldiers with him and said, “Dismount and stay here by the gate with the craftsmen until you're sent for. I must first speak with the master of Hareford.”
There were few wide streets in Hareford, and these only those nearest the two working city gates and those connecting the castle courtyard to the castle itself. Between the gates and the courtyard the homes, small already, had been built so tightly together only three or four paces of hard-packed dirt and stone remained between them for men to navigate. Horses refused to venture into the tight confines of half the alleys so tended to be kept in stables near the city gates. Wagons transporting goods from the rest of the valley often did not even fit through the gates and had to be transferred to small hand-drawn carts on entrance to the city.
Hareford was cold, remote and packed tighter than a pack of sleeping dogs. Little wonder then so many soldiers assigned there could not endure more than a season or two.
George liked the city with its sturdy walls, maze of narrow passages, battle-worn and hearty people. No other place in all of Metamor was as remote. It perched on the edge of the Midlands, dangled above the mouth of the Giantdowns as a sentinel against a raging sea. Would his duty allow it, he too would enjoy a few seasons at Hareford. Probably more.
To reach the castle doors he was forced to squeeze past the fur merchants from those wild lands. Some had carts laden with pelts of moose, wolf, bear, and oddities even his nose did not recognize, while the others were all hawking salted fish and meats as the gatekeeper promised. George's stomach rumbled as the tight streets and crowd gathered to buy pressed him close enough to touch each delectable morsel.
George knew the hospitality of Hareford's master awaited him and so pressed on.
Waiting for him at the castle doors were a pair of familiar faces. A blonde-haired woman in chainmail, her frame stout despite the Curse, stood with hands folded and thumbs tapping as she scanned the streets for his arrival. Beside her stood an eagle dressed only in a loincloth and quiver; wing claws grasped a large bow. His eyes found the jackal first.
“Ho, George! What brings you to Hareford!”
George barked a laugh and waved with one paw as he walked toward them. “Marcus! Marcia! It is good to see you both again. I'm here with some supplies and the craftsmen Sir Dupré requested.”
Marcus the eagle tilted his head skeptically. “Aye, because you are the natural errand boy of Metamor. Why are you really here?”
George flashed a fang-filled grin and gestured at the door. “Why don't we all meet with the master of Hareford and discuss such things. Is Sir Nestorius in?”
“Aye, and Sir Dupré is out west on patrol,” Marcia replied, casting her brother an irate look. “Come along. He's already prepared a room for you.”
George followed the Caruslo siblings into the castle which had halls nearly as narrow as the streets. “So, merchants from Starven, eh? Been a few years hasn't it?”
“We always see one or two during the Summer, except last year. Things must be really quiet to the north to see as many as we have.”
“My patrols have been seeing less Lutin and bandit activity in the north. Haven't yours?”
Marcus squawked, tail feathers spreading a moment before settling down. “The same. It is heartening and disturbing.”
“We all long for peace, George. We're soldiers but you need years of peace to rebuild defenses. But we need the smaller fights to test us for the larger ones. We've not been having as many smaller battles and I fear it weakens our men. Sir Dupré is working the soldiers hard and I've tried to do for my patrolmen some of what he has done to keep the soldiers ready, but without Lutins or bandits to show us real combat, there's only so much we can do.”
“And,” Marcia added, “if we have years of peace, it makes it harder to rebuild our defenses. The money and men go elsewhere because we forget the danger our borders and the enemies beyond them pose.”
George nodded at each point and then stretched his back. “True, true. You never know the good soldiers from the bad until they're in a real battle. But Metamor herself has been attacked from the north twice in ten years; we are not likely to forget it any time soon. It's part of why I'm here and why the craftsmen are here. Building a new wall over the Giant's Dike! What a marvelous and ambitious idea! I take it then Sir Dupré is doing everything he can for Hareford?”
Marcus nodded. “He's as stubborn and headstrong as the ram the Curse made him, but put him in front of soldiers or in the field and you couldn't ask for a better commander. We've had no issue working together these last six months, and I look forward to the next six months.”
“He chafes under commands he does not like,” Marcia added, “but he does follow them. He is very direct and will let you know why he thinks what he thinks, which I appreciate in him. He does prefer to keep the company of the soldiers who came with him, but I know it is only because he was exiled here. There's a few of the soldiers and scouts he's taken a liking to; do you want to know who?”
George shook his head. “Hopefully not. I like William and trust him. But if any here wishes to tell me what they think of him I will listen.”
Marcus squawked again but said nothing more as they climbed a narrow set of stairs. Beyond was a small passage and the black-furred lion mage's study where he liked to receive visitors and conduct Hareford's business. Marcia knocked on the door and a deep booming voice called from the other side, “Come in!”
Marcia stepped through, and George followed after. Marcus closed the door behind them. The room beyond was warmly lit by sunlight through southern facing windows and lanterns filled with witchlights. A hearth at the far end crackled with fire. The northern wall of the room was dominated by a massive bookshelf at which stood the master of Hareford. Nestorius was dressed in a scarlet tunic and breeches with no other adornment, but against the black of his fur the fabric appeared to shift forward and back as if illusion. The effect made George blink a few times before he realized it was all a trick of the eyes.
Nestorius swept one arm wide half-turning toward him as his other arm snapped closed the book he'd been reading. “Patrol Master George, welcome to Hareford! And good evening to you. I trust you had an easy journey from Metamor?”
George inclined his head to his host and rapped his fist on his chest. “Sir Nestorius. The journey was easy if tiring. My hips and back are reminding me my years of spending days in the saddle are behind me.”
The lion nodded sagely. “True, true, time does touch us all. Come, sit. I have had a repast prepared for you. Marcia, Marcus, please stay for whatever George has to report will be of interest to you as well.”
The main table in his study had already been arranged with a covered platter. This Nestorius lifted to reveal thin cuts of salted meat, potato, and fresh baked bread. The scent made George pant despite himself and he did not hesitate in taking the offered seat next to the lion's own. Nestorius opened a cabinet next to the bookcase and retrieved four goblets and a bottle of wine.
After pouring the wine, Nestorius also sat and said a Sathmoran blessing over the food. George waited for him to finish and then plucked a small chunk of meat with his fingers. Both salt and meat were fresh and it had been cooked just enough to make it chewy with juicy center. Good for both humans and carnivores.
“How is Amelia?” George asked after licking the sauce from his claws.
Nestorius's face stretched in a satisfied smile. “Ah, you passed my wife on your way here. She's in Aglador seeing to our first harvest of strawberries. I fear some time ago I mentioned missing them and she made it her mission to grow them here. Last Summer she managed to find a merchant selling them. The soil and sun are better in Aglador, and so after preparing the beds she planted them. The local farmers provided tools, manure and water and have watched over them since. She should return in a few days with her first bushel.”
George wagged his tail. “Now I wish to stay in Hareford a few extra days! I'm sure Copernicus can manage the scouts if I am delayed.”
Marcus and Marcia both laughed, while Nestorius almost purred his delight. “If you do, I shall certainly save one or two strawberries for you.”
“One or two?”
Nestorius's purring grew louder. “Three then.”
George chortled and shook his head as he reached for another bite of meat.
“So, how are things in Metamor these days? I hear the Summer Festival was a success.”
“Quite. I missed most of it managing patrol routes and making sure the merchants got out safely. Brigands are always a challenge in the south and this year no less than before. They're even worse beyond the valley thanks to all of the unrest in the Midlands. But there were only a few fools who got themselves cursed this year and only a few others who got themselves killed in the games, so I consider it a successful festival.”
Marcia lifted a hunk of potato between her fingers, eyes on the jackal. “I hear the crowds were larger this year than last.”
George nodded as he turned over another piece of meat between his claws. “Aye. Some were the Bradanes refugees settling in, others were curious merchants eager to see Duke Thomas's new wife. Apparently she wanted to participate in the joust but Thomas and Thalberg talked her out of it.”
Marcus almost choked with laughter, while Marcia and Nestorius both smiled. “From what little I know of her it does not surprise me.”
“And how are things in Hareford?”
“Well enough. The Spring rains and snow melt were ideal for a good crop season even if the warm Summer airs arrived a week late. Patrols have been quiet. A few skirmishes here and there up north, but the Lutin tribes usually push even further north this time of year. This year is no different. Truly the most excitement is being generated by our military commander in his quest to improve our defenses. I understand you have brought the craftsmen he sought?”
George nodded and licked his chops. The meat was delicious and before he even paused to answer the lion he snatched another morsel. “I have. And a detachment of soldiers whose job is to protect them. I suspect they'll be living and sleeping in the forests and hills where their work is. At least if we understood Sir Dupré's request aright.”
Nestorius sipped his wine and nodded. “He's been busy with marking up a road to Eagle Tower since March. They've removed perhaps half of the trees he wants cut down for his road. I made sure he kept well clear of the Haunted Woods with his surveying. By harvest time he should have the road complete, especially if you've sent him the men he wants. If they need to quarry for rock, there are a few good places we can show them where it's safe.”
“I leave those details to you, of course.” George washed the meat down with a drought of wine. The flavor was rich and he felt the tang of the sea in its bite. “Excellent vintage, Nestorius! You do know how to treat guests!”
The lion was chewing his own morsel so only nodded at the compliment. George continued, “Sadly, the craftsmen cannot be spared for as long as Sir Dupré wants them. They can stay until harvest to assist with construction of the road and make repairs to the fortifications. Rebuilding the Giant's Dike will take years to accomplish. Decades perhaps.”
“Have you come to see so for yourself?” Marcus asked. The eagle must have eaten already because after a few bites for politeness sake he declined any more of the meat.
George shrugged as he reached for a hunk of potato. “I would like Sir Dupré to show me the site and his plans. I know he must have convinced each of you of their wisdom for you to send his request for me on to Metamor.”
“I wasn't certain at first,” Nestorius admitted. “But he laid it out clearly and even drew his own schematics for its defenses. If Metamor has the will for it then it will help deter future incursions from the north without jeopardizing trade.” He swept his hand across the platter and George knew the meat had been purchased from the Starven merchants. “If not, then nothing will come of it. There seemed no harm in asking.”
“None at all. In fact, Duke Thomas is quite interested in the idea. Hence why I'm here. Our noble Horse Lord wants me to make an appraisal of Sir Dupré's idea first-hand. I'm sure Misha who has crossed the Dike many times will also want to see them.”
“Where is the Master of the Long Scouts?” Marcia asked. “You are right, I would have expected to see him come with you.”
“He and Madog are away for a few weeks doing whatever it is they do with automaton magic. I'm sure he'll tell me all about it when he gets back and I'll understand none of it.”
Nestorius nodded, voice sage and for a moment distant. “Our Black Axe is learning he has more skills than he imagined. Madog has opened a door in his soul; it cannot be shut again.”
George stuffed a piece of meat between his teeth to keep from making a sarcastic comment. When he finished chewing he said, “So I need to speak with Sir Dupré and have him guide me around the Dike. I understand he's on patrol west of Truskmore. When is he expected to return?”
Marcus tilted his head to one side. Golden avian eyes fixed on the jackal. “He left this morning so he will be gone for at least a few days more.”
“Then I suppose I shall ride out to Truskmore to join him. Will there be time tonight before the sun sets?”
The eagle and the woman exchanged quick glances before nodding. “If you hurry. But you'll need help finding him.” He turned toward the black lion and stood taller upon his perch. “Sir, with your leave, I'd like to help guide him to our commander.”
Nestorius wiped his jowls with the back of one paw and nodded. “Of course. Marcus, Marcia, go and prepare. George, remain here with me a few minutes more.”
The Caruslo siblings excused themselves from the table. Once the door was shut again, George took another piece of meat between his claws. “What do you wish to tell me you did not want to say in front of your must trusted friends?”
“They already know, but since you are intent on joining Dupré in the field, I thought there was something you should hear first before you left. Had you decided to stay the night here you would have learned anyway, so please do not believe I am trying to be crafty or some such. No legerdemain, merely no more time to say it.”
Nestorius folded his paws on the table and his shoulders sagged from some invisible weight. “As you may know, when the Bishop visited, he brought a letter for Sir William coming from his eldest son.”
“I believe his name is Jory. The one Verdane is holding in Kelewair as an alternate heir if he cannot rescue his hostage son. What a mess.”
“Aye, Jory. William does not like speaking of his family and so far has not accepted my offer to contact them magically. I do not care what the bat thinks of it; he is an exile and I know how painful it is. But yesterday, among other dispatches throughout the valley, a second letter arrived. He did not tell me what was in it, but he decided to go on patrol moments after he read it. I do not think him capable of treachery, George. I do not believe he is doing anything untoward. I only tell you this because I do not believe he will welcome your surprise visit.”
George ate another piece of meat and shrugged. “Ah, but we're old friends, rivals, something of the sort. Perhaps I'm just what he needs. And even if not I'm going anyway. Thank you for telling me, Nest. At least about this I won't be surprised.” He tapped the platter and lifted his goblet, “And thank you for this. Quite excellent!”
Nestorius smiled, posture once more relaxed. “You are welcome, George. Have you had enough? Is there anything I can provide for you before you set off again?”
George downed the last of the wine, stood, and put a paw to his still sore back. “A new spine if you can spare one.”
The road west of Truskmore led through dense forests and a grassland crater upward into the foothills of the Dragon mountains. At the end of the long road stood the Gateway, a narrow passage through the cliffs toward a large meadow and the site of a long abandoned signal tower. Among the many plans Sir William Dupré had for Hareford was the restoration of this tower, and the regular patrol of the alpine road. Perhaps in time a village could even grow in those remote regions, but for now only graced by the hooves and paws of wild beasts and the occasional scout of Hareford or the Glen.
Tomorrow they would enter the Gateway and survey the land for a week. They could have reached the pass in a single day from Hareford with ease, but he wanted to do a thorough patrol of the lands west of Truskmore first. While there was far less danger here than to the north or east of Hareford, these were still lands it was his duty to protect and he could ill do so without knowing them.
Most of the year they were quiet too, but with Summer in full bloom William had been surprised to discover a stream of traders between Lake Barnhardt, Glen Avery, and Hareford's villages using the western road. It was thickest during the middle of the day, and so they stayed near the junction where the road forked between the Glen and the Gateway. As evening pressed they moved north through the forests until they thinned to more grass with stands of pine where the soil bore into clefts in the rock. By the time the sun pressed against the teeth of the Dragon mountains at the south end of the Valley they pitched their tents for the night.
The warm air flowing up from the south cooled as it climbed the mountain side. Not far above them clouds began to collect and he knew by morning they'd be covered in a blanket of dew if not enclosed in a thick fog. But for now they could see out across the forests toward both Hareford and the Glen. In the far distance he was certain he could even see Metamor Keep, but the eyes of a Ram were not meant for so far away.
He'd brought a dozen soldiers with him only two of which were of the five who'd joined him in exile. In the last month he'd begun integrating them into the various armed divisions stationed at Hareford. Keeping them separate at first was natural as they all found their bearings, but too long and it would create dissension among the soldiers as well as raise suspicions in Metamor. He made no attempt to interfere with Captain Sobol's first Equitaire company, but with the other units he had no such compunctions. The boar Becket was now Captain of his own patrol, while the three boys were assigned to other units in the castle and villages. Only the dog Alexander was not yet assigned to another company, and he too would be not long after William returned to Hareford.
William availed himself of any unit he wished for on his patrols. This time he chose one already accustomed to surveying as they'd been with him thrice now to mark out the location of his road to Eagle Tower. Surveyors needed to be good at capturing on canvas details of the land and what it could be, and this was a skill he needed.
His son Jory had asked to know what his father looked like as a Ram.
“I'm sorry, Sir, but could you stop chewing for a moment?”
William snorted and flicked his ears back against his curling horns. The surveyor, a monitor lizard with splotchy black and yellow scales named Sebastian, sat on a rock near one of the campfires, dipped his quill in the inkwell, stared intently at the ram's black-furred face, and then added a few more lines. William hoped the man wouldn't draw in the blades of grass sticking out between his lips. With nothing to do but sit on the grassy slope he'd taken to slicing the blades for a snack. It surprised him how good they tasted.
In the center of the camp Blanche the ewe was hovering over a small cookpot into which she'd tossed a few vegetables, grain, milk, and water. A few of the soldiers stayed at her side to help keep the fire hot and to snag a taste. The others ranged about, keeping an eye on the forest nearby, the rocky cliffs to their north, and the southern sky. Alexander, the black and orange furred dog, and Martin the boy, were keeping watch on an outcropping of stone not far from where William reclined.
William rubbed his thick fingers together and then eased the letter he held in his free hand open to peer at the words. His son's handwriting was improving with cleaner lines and tighter curls. But the words he knew were Jory's; though he'd never smelled his son since becoming a sheep, he could almost see his face from the scent of the ink alone. Not wishing to receive another plaintive reprimand from the lizard, he kept his face as still as possible fighting the tongue eager to pull the strands of grass inside his mouth to chew, letting only his eyes rove across the words.
I know you received my first letter, the Bishop said so, and he promises me he will entrust this letter to a good courier so you should receive it this Summer. I hope you do. I miss you, Father, but I am trying not to show it here.
Grandfather insisted I learn how to ride and take care of a horse and I'm enjoying doing so as much as I had learning to take care of the dogs. Riding lets me leave the castle grounds. My favorite place to go is to the pastures and watch the sheep and rams. I like seeing them because it reminds me of who we are, Father. And it makes me wonder about what you can do and what you look like.
Can you hit with your horns like a normal ram? What do your horns look like? Is your face white or black or something else? Do you have wool too? Father, I want some little token from you. I miss you so much.
I am ten years old now. Grandfather had a feast to celebrate it and he actually smiled. Mother was there, and I was able to see Sasha, Lydia, and Timas again. They all miss you too. Mother, Bishop Tyrion, and Grandfather all were talking about Uncle Jaime when they thought I couldn't hear them. I keep hoping maybe if Jaime is freed I can come to Metamor with you. But I know they won't let me.
I am praying for you every day, Father. Yahshua loves us and is with us, especially when we hurt. I am trying to trust Him to help me do the right thing. I will always be a Ram like you, Father. I'll never forget it!
He let his eyes linger upon his son's name for several seconds before his thick fingers pressed the letter closed. It was so little, the tiniest morsel of the life of his family so far away. A life he had been driven from, or tricked into forfeiting, he was never sure which. His eldest, ten years old now. Then Sasha was nine, Lydia eight, and Timas four. There had been another boy who would have been six had illness not snatched him away in infancy. Had he not been a fool in his feud there might have even been another after Timas.
The greatest blessing any man could ask for was a bountiful family. They lived, but would they ever see their father again? Would they see him as an animal first?
And so the lizard drew. His son wanted a token and he would have a portrait. Small enough to hide from the rapacious wolf Verdane, but large enough to show the man within the facade of the ram. He had promised not to have contact with his family, and to such a foul vow he had kept. But this simple request born on the tears of his son he could never deny.
“All right,” Sebastian noted with satisfaction, long forked tongue sliding in and out of his mouth, “I am almost done, Sir Dupré. You can move your lips again. Try to keep your ears still now.”
William gladly drew the blades of grass between his teeth and resumed chewing. He set the letter upon a rock to protect it, picked up his knife, and sliced free another fistful of grass.
The grass was still in his hand when Alexander perked his ears and stood, staring intently to the treeline to the south. A moment later Martin also stood, shielding his eyes with one hand as he glanced into the sky. William could not help but flick his ears outward to better hear, eliciting a hiss of frustration from the lizard trying to draw them. The sound of crunching twigs and needles beneath horse hooves sounded from within the trees.
“You'll have to draw them later, Sebastian. We have a visitor.” He stood and without thinking put the blades of grass between his teeth before wiping his hands clean. He followed Martin's gaze and saw a familiar eagle flying low in the sky toward them. “Ah, it looks like Marcus from above. Secure your quill, ink, and parchment. There will be no more drawing this day.”
The monitor lizard flicked out his tongue again as he gathered his things. William stayed at his side, one hand upon the pommel of his sword, while Alexander and Martin climbed down from the granite outcropping to join him. The other soldiers in the camp were also gathering and readying weapons, but each relaxed when they recognized the eagle.
Marcus swooped in a wide circle before landing twenty paces down the slope from William. He straightened his bow slung across his back before striding toward the ram. “Sir Dupré, forgive me this surprise, but you have a visitor from Metamor who wanted to see you right away. Is there space about your fires for two friends?”
“For you, Marcus, of course,” William replied. He liked the eagle and master of Hareford's scouts. He was a warrior and fiercely proud of his home and its people. It had not taken more than a month before William knew Marcus was a man he could trust. Marcus was loyal to Hareford and to the scouts under his command. Neither would he betray. “Who is our guest?”
Before Marcus could answer a horse and a canine rider emerged from the line of trees and cantered up the sward. The dog had a narrow snout, triangular ears ending in sharp points, and dusty tan fur. William bleated in surprise, annoyance, and relief. He finished chewing his grass and then wiped his snout free of any strands.
He waved his arm and then set them on his hips. “George! You rascal bandit, to what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”
The jackal dismounted and brushed pine needles from his tunic and breeches. Dark brown eyes cast first to the eagle and he inclined his head. “Thank you for being my guide, Marcus, but did you have to lead me through so many trees?”
“You did say you wanted the quickest route,” Marcus noted. “There are no roads here and I cannot see through trees. You missed one by your ear. No, your other ear.”
George brushed the last of the needles out and then handed the reins of his horse to one of the soldiers from the camp. The rest of the men returned to their evening tasks, and Alexander and Martin returned to their quiet posts on the granite outcropping. Blanche began preparing an extra pair of potatoes for the gruel. Sebastian had finished stowing his supplies, but held the canvas in his long-fingered hands while staring at William with unblinking eyes. William waited for the jackal to answer his question.
“And it is good to see you again, William. I see you've been sheared.”
He lifted one arm and plucked at the very short wool already growing back. “A few weeks back. I'm told it will make fine thread; I've asked to have it fashioned into a tunic. I grew it, I may as well keep wearing it.”
George chuffed and brushed a finger across the front of his snout. “Sensible. I never know what to do with the fur I shed. At least you get to have it all off at once.”
“And once a year.” William narrowed his eyes as the jackal repeated wiping the front of his snout. He lifted a hand to his own snout and could not resist a bleat when he found a strand of grass stuck to his chin. “Oh baa...”
George offered a yipping laugh while Marcus tilted his head to one side in a way only a bird can. “Oh, don't worry about it; I've eaten a few things I'll never mention to anyone too. At least you have an easy tongue to satisfy.”
“I suppose I should be grateful. What brings you here to Hareford, George?” He did not dare cast a glance back at his son's letter still resting upon the rock near where he'd sat for his portrait.
“Your request for craftsmen and your idea for a wall over the Giant's Dike.” George sniffed toward the cookpot, wrinkled his nose, and turned back to the Ram. “I've brought a score of craftsmen to work on the road north; they can stay until Harvest.”
William nodded and drew one hoof through the grass. His chest swelled at the news. “They should remain here for there is much work to do and few trained in how to do it. Do I have Duke Thomas to thank for sending them at all?”
“Aye.” George stretched with fists pressing into his lower back and head tilted upward until his bones popped. “Ah, much better. It's drawing late and I have been in the saddle most of the day. What in the world are your men making over there?”
“A stewed gruel,” William replied, an amused grin sneaking into his snout and lifting the ridge above one eye. “You could always hunt on all fours in the woods if it is not to your taste.”
“I could!” George offered another yipping laugh, an equally devilish grin writ across his canine snout. “And as tempting as the taste of a fresh killed coney and all the blood and flesh on tongue and fang is,” the very thought of it made William's throat clench in disgust, “I'd rather talk about your plans for Hareford and I cannot do so if I'm running around the forest a vicious little jackal. Besides, Nestorius fed me before I rode out here so I think I can manage eating or not with whatever you have on offer. Eaten enough like it before, another scoop or two, eh, I can manage.”
William stomped a hoof and crossed his arms, casting a quick glance at the monitor lizard still waiting for him to inspect the drawing. “Even after ten years in a respectable position you are still a disreputable mercenary at heart, aren't you?”
George turned his head so only one yellow eye studied the ram. “Metamor changes many things about us, but vices and virtues are not one of them.”
“In sooth.” William turned his head away from the jackal, glancing upward at the southern sky. “The sun is falling behind the mountains. We have another hour until twilight. You'll want to pitch your tent before then. We can talk of the roads and walls and defenses in mine after dusk. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have my responsibilities to attend.”
The jackal shrugged and followed after the soldiers to find his horse and supplies. Marcus took a few steps closer, talons digging into the grass. “It is too late for me to fly back to Hareford, but you know I only need a place to perch for the night.”
William smiled and patted the eagle on the shoulder with his two-fingered hand. “Of course, my friend. My tent is yours. Now, perhaps you can help me with something now.” He glanced back at the retreating jackal, but George was already near the encampment talking with the ostler. “Sebastian, how is it coming along?”
The monitor lizard stepped forward and lifted the canvas; it was two hands wide and tall and touched lightly with black ink. “I do not yet have your ears or all of your horns, but another hour and it should be finished. What do you think, Sir William?”
William stared at the nearly complete profile of a ram whose face was long and broad. The lips were pressed tight together, and the one eye was intent and deeper than any mere sheep could muster. The tips of the horns curled in front of the cheek, and the first impressions of where they rose from the top of his head were there, but the remainder was missing. The expression was dignified, noble, and full of pride. A suitable depiction for his son indeed.
Yet, as William studied it, he wondered how much bitterness was in those tight pressed nostrils. How deeply did his furrows brood? Did his eye stare out into the world or deep within? And was it Sebastian's remarkable facsimile or his own mood reflected in the portrait?
Marcus nodded as he looked at the image and patted the ram on the shoulder with one set of wing claws. “Well done, Sebastian. You have captured Sir William's bearing.”
“Indeed. We can finish the rest before we return to Hareford. Thank you, Sebastian.” William turned back to his rock, reclaimed his letter, and kept it pressed between his fingers. “Marcus, care to join me on a quick inspection of camp? I don't suppose you'd like to join us for gruel.”
The eagle squawked a laugh. “Unlike George, I would prefer to hunt in the woods!”
William tipped his head back and laughed.
The tent Marcus had provided for him was similar to the type he provided to Metamor's patrols. Enough room to sleep while protected from the wind and rain and to stow his gear, as well as to dress himself and leap out for battle, but no more. The inner circle of camp was full so George set his tent near Sir William's. The ram's tent was easy to find; it was the largest in the camp and the only one tall enough for a Keeper to stand.
By the time he had his arranged, the sun had disappeared behind the mountains leaving them with a twilight blue sky and shadowed colors everywhere. The black-faced ewe had spooned out most of the gruel already, but George knew if he wished for some he could have asked. Instead he found a place near the fires to recline and listen to the banter of the soldiers. Some whispered about him but he pretended not to hear it. At least, from what he did hear, his reputation with the Hareford patrols was a good one.
He identified a few more garrulous than the rest and joined them in the telling of ribald jokes and old conquests. After a few exchanges, half a dozen men surrounded him and begged for more tales of adventures in foreign lands. George obliged for a time, but as the gloom deepened and stars began to twinkle in the sky, he turned the talk to Hareford, the rigors of their patrols, and their new commander.
“The ram is fierce,” an older hare offered. “We've always kept close watch of the woods, but he wants far more from us. It's good to be out and about more. It's good to have a man who has led sieges and not just defended against them in charge.”
“Aye, aye!” a crow agreed. “I used to just deliver messages, but he's convinced me I'm worth more than my wings.”
“Lot of pain in his heart though,” the hare added.
“Not bringing Blanche along cause she can cook,” muttered a human man in his twenties.
“You ever hear anything of the sort from his tent?” The hare snapped, swatting the man behind the head. “Don't be saying such things!”
“He weren't born here,” the man pointed out. “Metamor'll send him somewhere else just like all the other commanders they've put here.” Realizing who he was speaking to, the man looked at George and added in a grumble, “Meaning no offense.”
“None taken,” George waved a hand and stretched his foot paws toward the fire. “I've said for years we needed permanent commanders and troops here to support the garrison. Is Blanche the cook?”
“Aye, um,” the man nodded, glancing up at the hare who glared back down at him, both ears tipping toward him. “Aye, she is. Nice. Good cook. Even manages to make gruel taste okay; normally makes other things though. Takes care of Sir William's needs.”
“She even sheared him few weeks back,” the crow noted. “Showed him how and all.”
“And been good to have her along,” a bobcat said, tail swaying back and forth behind him. “Do wish she'd cook more meat though. She makes a fantastic stew with coneys.” He offered a fang-filled grin toward the hare.
The rabbit ignored him, focusing instead on the jackal. “Will he really be permanent? And the other troops? Are they staying this time?”
George spread his hands and wiggled his toes toward the flame, enjoying the warmth and the way the light played through his claws. “Duke Thomas has not changed his mind about either. So long as the Duke is happy they will stay. And so long as I'm happy, I can keep his grace happy.”
His ears lifted as the sound of footsteps approached from behind them. “Partol master?” He turned his head and saw Marcus coming, eyes fixed on him. “Sir William will see you now in his tent.”
He patted his thighs and began to push himself up. “Ah, well, I best not keep him waiting. Thank you for sharing the fire, my friends. Enjoy your evening!”
William set the empty bowl of gruel at the end of the small table in the middle of his tent. The table was no more than two hands high, which made it comfortable to recline on his knees with his hooves sprawled behind him. Small carpets were arrayed around the table for himself and his guests. The grass carpeted the rest, except the patch nearest him which he'd begun to eat. Lamps hung from the three tent poles providing warmth and light. A recessed alcove at the rear was draped by a green tapestry with the issuant ram head heraldry of his house; behind it lay his cot and gear. A smaller alcove was reserved for Blanche.
Spread across the table was a map of Hareford and the surrounding countryside. The details were clearest for the first hour out from the fort, and the roads were mostly accurate, but parts of the surrounding mountains and forests were guesses. He'd had Sebastian and the other surveyors fixing those guesses for the last four months. The old road northwest from Hareford toward Eagle Tower and the Dike was mostly complete, but the passage to the Gateway was almost blank and would need to be started anew.
William traced his thick fingers across the page as his ears flicked against his horns at the sound of paws and hooves outside his tent. He could hear soldiers laughing in the distance. So close to home they all felt safe. There were enough on patrol around the camp he would allow them the balm of mirth this night. Soldiers needed to laugh or they'd never swing a sword or lift a shield when they must.
He sliced free another clump of grass and chewed, making sure no blades were stuck to his snout. He'd taken pride in being made in the likeness of a ram by the Curses of Metamor; it was the ancient sigil of his house and now apart from his name his only connection. It was a sign he had not been wholly shamed by his exile.
Some thought sheep were stupid, weak, and all alike. But a shepherd knew their flock, and knew the personalities for each. Simple lives, certainly, but in them was much bravery and wisdom. The rams especially were called to lay down their lives for the flock. They did not need as much as other animals and William had always prided himself so. As both soldier and noble he did what was necessary for his men and for his family.
Some would say he went too far, and as he chewed he pondered anew the stupidity of his feud with Masyor. All to protect his son he gave no quarter and refused to back down when wiser heads would have seen the events as misunderstandings and accidents.
And when he pondered such things, he wondered if becoming a ram was more than a sign of comfort; it was also a judgment.
Virtue and vice. Was he a ram because of both?
He swallowed the grass and sheathed his knife before he took any more. He ran thick fingers along the black wool growing at the nape of his neck, letting the first strands curl around his heavy nails. What would his son think when he saw the picture? Would he see the man behind the facade of the beast, or the beast his father had been revealed at last.
A bleat came out of him, and a fire kindled burned hot and red in his heart. “My son loves me! He loves me!” And if he came to Metamor he'd want to be a ram too.
He steadied himself at the sound of paws approaching his tent door.
“Sir William?” Marcus called from beyond. “Patrol Master George is here to speak with you.”
“Send him in!” William brushed at his snout one last time but there was no more grass to clean.
The jackal bent over as he stepped inside but straightened when he discovered enough room to stand. His eyes swept the interior once then settled on his host. William stood up and gestured to the other side of the table. “Welcome to my tent, George. Come and sit. Have you had something to eat?”
The jackal accepted the invitation and soon both reclined across the table. “I decided against both the gruel and hunting in the woods. I have some of my own supplies I prefer. But if you have anything to my taste, I will gladly have some.”
“I keep some jerky in my tent for when Marcus, or another commander of a carnivorous curse comes calling. Deer hunted last winter. Care for some?”
The jackal smiled, tongue lolling out past his teeth in a very canine pant. “I would indeed. Thank you.”
William opened a trunk and produced two pewter goblets, a wineskin, and a stick as long as his hand of salted jerky. George uncorked the wineskin and poured a finger's width into each goblet. His eyes briefly peered at the trunk as he redid the cork, but William stood between them. After handing the wineskin back to William, the ram returned it to the trunk and closed it.
“Now, you wished to come and discuss my plans to improve defenses here in Hareford and for the valley.” William gestured to the map between them as he reclined. “Here is my best map. You can see where the roads are now, and where the road the men you brought will be built.”
George took the jerky and gnawed at the end as his eyes scanned the map. He blinked for a moment and then turned the map around to see it better. He tapped his claws in several places, ears lifting and folding back. William watched his tail patting down the grass as it wagged.
“The map isn't finished. The details here around Hareford are excellent. While I don't know the path to Eagle tower itself as well as you, I know my way around the Dike, and it looks very close to the other maps I've seen and what I remember.” George lapped once from his goblet then wiped the flecks on his whiskers with the back of one arm. “Are you making this map? If so, I'll want a copy when it's done.”
William nodded. “It's why I have those with at least some skill in my patrol acting as surveyors. We're adding a little bit more to the maps with every patrol. No, we don't spend all of our time surveying, and I don't have anyone from a Guild here, not yet, but I did request some.” He did not need to ask the question.
“The road crews always have some trained.” George took another bite and narrowed his eyes as he studied the map. “So, tell me more about this road; I heard you wanted to divert it further east.”
“Aye.” William leaned over the table, and taking his knife, ran the tip along a small line east of the road. “There's a combe here the scouts are using for natural cover. The ravine is only two to three dozen hands deep and it's surrounded by thick trees on all sides which makes it easy to move quietly. However, it gives any other force the high ground and so the road has to follow the western or eastern banks for safety. I preferred putting the road on the eastern bank to use the combe as a natural buffer, but Nestorius says it is too close to the Haunted Woods. With the road on the western side, now travelers will have no defenses from the north should a Lutin raiding party or worse come calling, and if forced off the road, be stuck in the ravine.” William shoved his knife in the dirt with a bleat. “You can imagine how well it will end.”
George nodded. “I see. I'd have preferred the eastern bank as well. Natural defenses are often the best. But there's no arguing about the Haunted Woods. At least not until the spirits there can be pacified.” He took a bite of jerky and scratched under his chin. “So what's your plan to protect the road?”
“We'll clear the trees on the western bank for fifty paces so travelers will not be caught unawares. I'd also like a system of smaller watchtowers established between Eagle Tower and Hareford to keep watch over the road and the rest of the woods. We can easily erect them from wood for now, but eventually they should be stone too.” William rested one hand on his knife, plucked it from the ground, and wiped the dirt off with his hoof. “Have you been to Eagle Tower? It's well designed. I am surprised there aren't others like it here in the north.”
The jackal swallowed and shrugged. “I've been there once or twice. There are a couple more like it in the south, but the passage between Hareford and the Haunted Wood is the critical one, and at the time, only one tower was needed. It was also all we could afford after Three Gates. Perhaps now we can do better. At the very least we should have this road finished by Harvest. How many watchtowers did you want to build?”
“Three at least. Our surveys showed three was the bare minimum to ensure good line of sight from Eagle Tower to Hareford.”
“I thought you already could see Eagle Tower from Hareford, or at least the signal light.”
William flicked his ears against his horns. “You can, but not in bad weather. Even so, the signal light is no light at all but a magical artifice to alert Hareford directly. The watchtowers will allow us to have a true signal light as an extra precaution for Hareford, and to more quickly warn travelers or patrols on the road of coming danger.”
George chewed for a moment as his eyes studied the map. After several seconds they lifted, yellow embers fixing the ram in the wan light of the tent. “I think your plan for the road is reasonable and about the best one can do for now. What sort of provisioning do you intend for the watchtowers?”
“A week's worth of food at most, with three day rotations of four men teams to keep things fresh. Once we can replace them with stone towers we can stock them better with both food, weapons, and men. They are not intended to be indefinitely defensible, so we don't need to worry about being starved in a siege, but they could act as rally points for patrols running ahead of the enemy.”
“In sooth,” George agreed. “At the very least the road will be cleared and built this summer. I make no promises about the wooden watchtowers, but the craftsmen are at your disposal until Harvest. Accomplish as much as you can.” George sat up and shifted his legs to the other side. He then swirled his wine in the goblet and finished the last drops. After wiping his muzzle on his arm he said, “Now, let's talk about this wall.”
William took his knife and pointed the tip along the map in a line between mountains. The mountains around Eagle Tower were detailed while those on the eastern side of the valley were rough and copied from other maps they'd already had at Hareford. “This is the site of the ancient Giant's Dike. I want to build another one. It will make invasion from the north far more difficult and give us a strong defensive position. Hareford was supposed to be your first line of defense against invasion, and they were completely cut off from the Winter Assault. From what I understand they even made their base camp south of here, near where the chasm cuts across the road between Tarrelton and Hareford.”
George tapped with a single claw the area with the Dike and then the narrow ravine. “At least rebuilding the bridge was simple enough. Securing the foundations before the thaw turned the ravine into a river again was more challenging. Rebuilding the Dike... you do realize Metamor has wanted to do so since the duchy was reestablished almost five hundred years ago?”
William snorted. “Wanting to do something and having the will to do something are entirely different.”
“Aye, aye,” George drummed his claws on the map a few times more before leaning back and finishing off the jerky. His tongue cleaned his jowls much like the dogs William had owned in Mallow Horn after snatching a scrap fallen from the feast table. “But neither you nor Metamor has the money to finance such a venture. The men? With all the refugees from Bradanes settling across the valley, we've more than enough, but few are trained for such work. And, as your letter noted, we've more than enough rock to quarry for it. But the money we do not have.”
William shook his head. “And this is why you lost to me in battle, George.” The jackal's ears lifted. William crossed his arms and sat taller. “You think we must accomplish it all in one great effort. I have no illusions. The wall as I imagine it will not be built in even twenty years. This is the effort of generations. And it is financed, supplied, labored, and planned over generations. I defeated you not with a single stroke, but with several steps, each move cutting your supplies or diverting your men into traps until you had no choice but to flee. You may have captured me in a bold, surprising move, but it was already too late for you. I escaped and your men were routed.”
William leaned forward, ears straight out, and spread his hands across the map so the vellum snapped against the table. “This wall will not stop an army next year. It will not stop an army in ten years. But in thirty? It will balk them and give us time to mount our defense and counter-attack. And in a hundred years, if Eli blesses us with such time, it will take the combined efforts of every tribe, cult, nation, monster, abomination, man, woman, and child in the Giantdowns to breach it; and the pile of corpses at the base of my wall will number in the hundreds of thousands before she is breached. But against any other army, it will hold firm and Metamor will be safer than it has been in a thousand years.
“I am not asking for everything. This year the only thing we truly can do is begin drawing up plans. The first set of plans must cover what the initial wall will look like: the foundation, the gatehouses, the towers, and the barracks. Additional plans must be developed, and this is where you come in, to patrol and protect the craftsmen and engineers while the wall is under construction. More plans must be devised to provision all of these men and to ensure the supply lines from Hareford and Metamor are steady. More plans and surveys of the valley will need to be undertaken just to find the right rock to quarry and then to do so, and where to store and transport the rocks. And plans must be devised to pay the wages of the men, for there will be thousands involved. Without even deriving such plans, how can we ever know if we can do this or not?”
William bleated as he leaned back, one hand grabbing a fistful of grass. He chewed and watched the jackal who reclined without offering any certain clues apart from his lifted ears and still tail how he felt. George took a deep breath, glanced down at the map, the empty cup, and then back at the ram. His voice was measured and a slow nod came to his head. “You do realize it now sounds even more difficult than before? Even so, you've convinced me there's no harm in making plans. I suppose we cannot truly know the cost until then. Though, if you are building on top of the old Empire wall it will save time at least.”
The jackal barked a laugh and scratched behind one ear. “And just so you know, you don't need to keep reminding me of our little skirmish in the Midlands. You defeated me in combat and I learned a good lesson; protect your supply lines! I like you, William. I knew the best thing in the world Metamor could do with a man like you was put you at our most critical border and let you do whatever it was you wanted. I came here not to be convinced the wall was a good idea, but to understand how you thought it might even be possible. To be honest, I still think it will be too expensive for Metamor to pursue, but... I will tell his grace he'd be a fool not to draw up the plans you suggest. Who knows, maybe it will be possible.”
George stretched out his legs again, arching his back. When he looked at the ram again, his smile broadened, ears lifted in an almost ravenous grin. “Now, one more thing about those plans. Nestorius tells me you already have some drawn up showing some of the defenses and such. Do you have it with you? If so, I'd very much like to see it.”
“Nay, those I have left at Hareford. I was neither planning on venturing to the Dike on this patrol nor was I expecting you or anyone from Metamor to come.”
“Pity,” George frowned for a moment and then gestured at the map where the road led up into the western mountains. “I take it you are headed here then? I believe folks from here and the Glen call it the Gateway?”
“Aye, there's a narrow pass in the mountains here at the northwestern end of the valley which leads into an alpine meadow. There used to be another pass into the Giantdowns from there, opened out near the Sea of Souls, but it was sealed after an earthquake.”
“Many years before even I came to Metamor,” George noted.
“Even so, it is not completely impassable and so I want to build new watchtowers there and along the northern road. This part of the valley is mostly empty and in time I see no reason villages won't grow here too. We'll arrive there tomorrow and I intend to spend a week surveying the land to determine where the best places for watchtowers are and if there are any additional defenses we need.”
“And if I asked you to turn around and take us to the Dike so you can show me your plans for the wall there?”
William wrapped one hand around his ankle and focused all of the tension flaring within him into his fingers where the jackal couldn't see it. “I have already prepared for our excursion into the Gateway. You are more than welcome to accompany us there, but neither my men nor I will appreciate you commandeering us all to patrol an area we already know well.”
“I am not here for the love of you or your men. I am here because Duke Thomas thought your idea was worth looking into. But if you really don't want me to give him a good report.”
William bleated and slammed his fist on the table. The empty dinner bowl bounced and tipped onto the rug. “You threaten me? In sooth! Are you truly a fool mercenary? You'd risk the safety of this valley for your pride?”
George shrugged his shoulders. “I won't know if I am or not unless I see this for myself. How could I?”
“Bah, pretense! You know the Dike as well as any at Metamor.”
“And you have ordered men to turn around and march somewhere new when you have learned it could give you an advantage. Why does the idea of returning to Hareford after a day upset you?”
William snorted a gust of hot air into the jackal's face before turning aside to pick up the empty bowl and return it to the table. He counted to ten in his mind. “You mistake me. If marching back to Hareford and then to the Dike is the wisest action, or if I am ordered, then I will do so. You have not ordered me directly, and you cannot, because I am not subject to your authority. You are patrol master for Metamor, but my command is from Duke Thomas, not the patrols. Instead you seek to coerce me by threat of a poor report for my plan. Do you think I will do so because of arrogance on my part?”
George ran his claws through his tail and shook his head. “No, I think you'll do it because you actually do want to protect Metamor.” His jaws split in a vicious grin. “I am paying you a compliment, William. Others at Metamor may wonder how loyal you are to your new home. I've never doubted you.”
“Small comfort.” William heaved a sigh and leaned back, drumming two fingers on his hooves. He narrowed his eyes. “Is there anything I can do to prove my loyalty?”
“Years of loyal service.” George let his jowls drop. “No other way really.”
“Aye, I know.”
“I came here as an untrusted exile too,” George continued. “But with time I gained their trust.” The jackal paused for a moment. “And they gained mine.”
William grunted but said nothing.
George looked the ram up and down for a moment before letting the smile return. “William, I know life as an exile is miserable. I know you miss your old life. Especially your family. Let Nestorius help you contact them. You'll be a lot less sour and have a much better temper if you do.”
He did not turn to look at the trunk behind him with the half-complete portrait and letter from his eldest. “Perhaps. Perhaps I should. I promised I would not. Duke Thomas expects me not to do so.”
“A stupid promise. Coerced I imagine. You've already renounced claim on your old titles so what does it matter now? Do the rest of Hareford and Metamor a favor and contact them already.”
“The last they saw of me I was a man. Now...”
“Now you have an remarkable set of horns to impress your children with. Your oldest is what, nine?”
“Your children will love what you've become, once they know it's you. Your wife, well, I'm not one to give advice there, I'm a little more familiar with brothel girls.”
“Of course you are.”
George yipped a laugh and put his hands to his chest and wagged his tail. “A soldier needs his comforts. Now.” He put one hand on the map and tapped it with his claws. “I confess, I would love to accompany you into the mountains to survey the Gateway; it's been a long time since I've been there. But I can only be away from Metamor for a week at most, and it took a day to get here. I do not have the time to journey with you to the Gateway if I have any hope of seeing with my own eyes what you hope to do at the Dike. I am here at Duke Thomas's request. I cannot give a good report without seeing it. So if you want me to make the best report I can, we should make with all haste to Hareford.
“Besides,” George leaned forward, his smile easy, ears upright but relaxed. “I brought the craftsmen you wanted to start work on your road. They're going to need your direction to get the job done. You're going to have to head back anyway.”
“And,” William interjected. “I can always send others to survey the Gateway. I prefer to see it myself, but, I now see your meaning. You should have spoken plainly to begin with. We could have saved ourselves a little time and temper.”
“Your temper. I know you are honest, William, but you anger too easily. If I'd known back in the Southern Midlands, you'd never have beaten me.”
He bleated and leaned back. “Perhaps. Perhaps. Is there anything else you wish to discuss tonight?”
George drummed his fingers once on the map and then yawned. “Just one thing. I stopped by your supply wagons after pitching my tent. Why are you making your men eat gruel when you have plenty better to feed them with? Why are you eating it?”
William picked up the bowl and turned it over in his hands. The scent was still strong and he had to resist the urge to stick his in snout and lick the last dregs. “Soldiers must abide on whatever is available, and sometimes even worse things than gruel. So I always try to serve the worst food the first night. The rations will be different and better tomorrow. Blanche knows what I prefer for the men. Besides, for some of us, gruel tastes very good indeed!”
The jackal could only shake his head as he started to stand. “I have eaten such things many times before, but... I am glad I am not in your command, Sir William. We mercenaries like to eat well. I bid you good night.”
“Good night.” William stood, stepped to the tent flap, and gestured out with one arm. “We will break camp after sunrise. Sleep well.”
The jackal slipped out and the ram sniffed then snorted. He waited a few seconds before calling, “Marcus, come in.”
The brown-feathered eagle slipped inside, pausing only a moment to untangle the tip of his bow from the corner of the tent flap. “Sir William. I trust your meeting with the Patrol Master went well?”
William stepped toward the table and gestured for his friend to join him. “He wants us to turn around and head for the Dike.” Of course the head of the Hareford scouts heard every word shared between Ram and Jackal. He was too much a soldier to admit it; one more thing William admired and trusted about him.
Bird eyes rarely showed surprised but Marcus gave it his best effort. “In sooth? He wishes to review your plans for the wall atop the ruins?”
“Aye. And I am forced to admit he has a good point. I would prefer to continue on to the Gateway as planned, but tomorrow I must return and bring some of the men with me. I would like as many of the surveyors to continue on to the Gateway as planned. Can you handle the command until I send another of our patrol commanders from Hareford to take your place? They will not even be a full day behind you.”
Marcus bobbed his head at the question. The head of Hareford's scouts was not in William's direct line of authority much as he was not under George's. The scouts were intended to gather news and game; they defended themselves if they must, otherwise they were to avoid direct combat. William could conscript the scouts into his patrols if the need were great, but for any other reason, he would always ask for their aid.
Besides, Marcus and his sister were close associates of Nestorius and well liked in Hareford. He wanted to keep them for friends.
“Of course I can. Things are quiet enough. You can let Nestorius and Marcia know when you see them on your way tomorrow. Who will you be taking with you?”
“Only a few; the road's are safe enough and we'll make better time if we are few. I'll organize new men in Hareford for protection near the Dike before we set out. I'll bring Alexander with me of course, and perhaps two or three others.”
The eagle cocked his head to one side as only a bird could. “And Sebastian?”
William glanced down at the trunk which held the incomplete portrait the monitor had begun. “Aye, him too.”
“May Eli give you speed. I hope George convinces Duke Thomas of your plans. But, for now, it will be good to fly in the mountains again. I shall retire and get some sleep. You should too. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day for both of us.”
“Indeed. Good night, Marcus. I will see you in the morning before I leave.”
The eagle slipped back out of the tent leaving the ram alone. The camp outside was beginning to quiet as night settled over the valley. William lowered to one knee beside the trunk and tilted the lid back. Resting at the top was the picture and his son's letter. His eyes flicked to the profile and then away. Beast and man together. Such was the exiled and disgraced Baron of Mallow Horn.
William removed the map from the table, folded it, and placed it atop both letter and portrait. He then closed the lid and turned the latch. Blanche would be there soon and he was not about to share either with her. The less the ewe knew about his true heart the better.
He hefted the trunk and carried it to the curtained alcove in his tent where he slept. And there he lay on his chest, snout resting upon crossed arms, until the ewe arrived to help him prepare for slumber and the day ahead. All he could do was ponder how to have Sebastian finish the portrait without George noticing, how he would get the portrait to his son, and whether he should finally accept Nestorius's offer. For once he could not think of his wall no matter how much he tried.
July 14, 708 CR
To George's chagrin, Sir William led him and a small group of soldiers back through the thick forests west of Truskmore more quickly than he had managed the evening before without snagging brushes or ducking branches. They left shortly after sunrise and were outside the walls of Hareford by mid-morning. George was left to his own devices until the noon hour as William met with Nestorious and made quick arrangements for a larger contingent of soldiers to accompany them to the Dike.
George used his time to sample the wares of the Starven merchants. The bear pelts were thick and soft to the touch and he knew any Keeper would easily keep warm within them. He found several arms and legs separated for use in lining winter garments, while there were a few full body pelts sure to decorate the bedspread of a noble or rich merchant. George pondered buying some of the smaller pelts for the winter patrols, but he didn't have nearly enough money. In the end he bought two arms; he'd let Misha try them with the Long Scouts to see if it was worth buying more.
It was easier deciding to buy some of the salted meats and fish the merchants had brought, at least those few they were already cooking to help draw buyers. The tang of the salt was distinctive to the Giantdowns, cultivated as it was from the fatty sinews of wild beasts common to the forbidding and cold forests and the bitter tundra fields of their land. The meat came from every type of wild beast found there and George enjoyed cutlets from elk, bear, and even the tangy, almost cinnamon flavored, roast of Galumph. Each was an easy sell and when William found him again ready to ride, the jackal's stomach was full and his tongue heady with every flavor.
They rode at a steady but comfortable pace toward the Dike. The last time George had been this far north the trails were forged beneath boughs of elm, alder, and pine. Now a broad swath had been opened in the forest canopy for the sapphire blue sky. The earth was hard and dry, crunching beneath hoof and boot, while grasses and wildflowers thrived between the stumps remaining. The nearest trees were marked with sashes or with letters carved in their trunks. William, who sat comfortably in the saddle, gestured to various landmarks as they rode, outcroppings of granite or clefts in a hillside where a stream cut through, and explained his plans for each. Rocks would provide natural fortifications for his road; a stream would be diverted into a culvert or siphoned for irrigation.
George listened and often nodded, shifting his tail from one horse flank to the other on their journey. They left the cleared land after an hour and the verdant shade of the forest cooled him. The midsummer's warmth was muted by mountain airs. William fell into silence, only occasionally gesturing wordlessly at some feature of the land. His attempts to use patrol sign were hampered by only having two fingers on each hand, but the jackal usually understood.
The entered the darkly forested combe after the second hour and George felt the hackles on the back of his neck lift. The air blowing down from the southeastern ridge carried a sultry and bitter tang, like loam and dead trees covered in toadstools. He rubbed his snout several times while they rode in silence beneath the thousand-shade arbor of trees choking out the sky. Green of every kind above and below; even the remnants of a Spring stream running down the middle of the combe was coated with algae.
The combe shallowed the further north they traveled until at last they emerged onto a ridge climbing up into the mountains. The trees, now mostly pine and fir with stands of birch, thinned as they ascended the rocky slope. Boulders of granite thrust up through the ground and in every hillside, forcing them to curve round or pass single-file. George knew William was not leading him the easiest way to the Dike, but up the more challenging pass toward Eagle Tower. When they reached a break in the trees and could see down into the woods where the Dike once stood, hazy with the last remnants of morning fog, he asked the ram about it.
“Aye, I'm taking you to Eagle Tower first. There's no better place to appreciate my plans than there. You'll be able to see almost the whole northern mouth of the valley from the tower. We'll visit the site of the Dike this evening or tomorrow.”
“Even with this fog?” George swatted at a mosquito buzzing his ear.
“We'll be able to see enough. It'll be worse in the forest.” William flicked his ears to avoid another insect. “As will the mosquitoes. And black flies.”
George swatted another as it landed on his snout. He winced and wrinkled his nose and jowls. “Now I remember why I don't like coming up here. Sea of Souls breeds these damn things and who knows what else.”
“They don't usually bother us at the Eagle, or so the Hareford scouts say.”
George grunted but said nothing more as they ascended the defile past the last stand of pine. The granite blocks of the Eagle tower were hazy and gray in the noon day sun, with the occasional glint of color where the haze had burned off. Behind it an uninterrupted blue sky hung over the Giantdowns, while the last peaks of the Dragon mountains loomed to its right.
When they reached the top of the defile William and his soldiers dismounted, walking their horses toward the oaken doors in the southern face of the tower. George remained atop his mount for a minute more gazing out across the thick forest covering what had once been the Dike. He tried to imagine a massive wall of stone stretching from the cliff at the tower's feet to the far east lost in the clinging fog. The trees for hundreds of paces in every direction would have been cleared with bare earth and wooden fortifications in their place, each pressed close to the stone like suckling pigs to a sow. Deep ditches would carve the land beyond the wall, traversed only by heavily guarded bridges. Towers and banners would snap in the wind, each wind a cool breeze drifting down from snow-locked mountains on either side. Merchant caravans would funnel through the gatehouses on either side of the valley mouth, and the cries of people, cattle, and the clank of wagon wheel and iron would fill every ear.
His own heard only the groan of trees in wind, the whistling of breeze across distant snow, the chirping and squawking of birds seeking nests, and the occasional buzzing of a pioneering insect braving the heights. George whistled, tongue pressed between his fangs, and shook his head. Not in his life time would they see it. He climbed down from his horse and followed the others inside the tower.
The lower floor was covered in wooden planks and hay and broken off into stalls for their horses on three sides. Stairs rose to the next floor in the northeastern corner. William stood with a hoof on the first step and waved toward the jackal. “My men will take care of your horse. Follow me.”
Each landing was punctuated by a jutting wall forcing them to enter the main chamber. They found a few soldiers sleeping on the first landing and another pair playing a game of dice. The players saluted William before returning to their game. The next landing smelled of food but the doors to the larders were all closed. The third and final landing before the eyrie had a broad table in addition to four sleeping chambers for William and the watch commanders; the sound of snoring came from behind one door. At this the ram stopped. He took a scroll case from his saddlebag and drew several papers from within. These he spread across the table and bid George come see.
“Here are some of the drawings I've already made. This one I had a copy sent to Metamor with my request. Here you can see the wall stretching from Eagle tower to the Barrier Range. It's half a mile north of the Haunted Woods so we'll be able to reinforce from the south if need be.” William drew a finger across the map and the jackal nodded. “There are signal towers along the entire length, each one should be visible to their neighbor in the worst fog. Twelve to fifteen altogether; it depends on how accurate our maps are of the eastern edge of the valley mouth.”
“We'll have to clear out the raiders there first,” George noted. “There's a small village of thieves and brigands there, just outside the range of the Curses.”
“I know. I am curious why you haven't sent enough soldiers to roust them out.”
“Draconia is a nuisance but with the Haunted woods between us and them, the only approach is from here, and any force we sent would be too exposed on their northern flank to make it worth the risk. Besides, without a wall, it's not strategically important enough. Your idea makes it important. So I suppose we'll have to do something about it sooner rather than later.”
William tapped the eagle-head mark for the tower. “We can begin work on the western flank before we deal with the brigands. Shoring up the defenses here will give us the rallying point we need to mount such an offensive. Unless the Haunted Woods are cleansed, there's no reason to rush to claim the northeast.”
“I agree.” George glanced at the other plans and saw detailed drawings of the signal towers with their balustrades and cupolas to protect from the elements and flying things, and another drawing of a massive gate and fortress in the wall. He tapped the latter. “Is this what you want to build first?”
“There will have to be a gatehouse to allow merchants and travelers through. We want to protect the valley not blockade the Giantdowns. I intend for the gatehouse and the fortress to be built at the base of this mountain. Having the fortress here allows us to cultivate the lands along the road to Hareford and protect the stone masons and engineers as they work to extend the wall. Eagle tower is enough to start the work, but a fortress provides supplies and a rally point in case of trouble.”
“Stepping Rock was once such a fortress for Metamor,” George noted, tilting his head to stare at the drawing. “But she's north of the valley mouth and not much more than a glorified ruin now.”
William blinked and flicked his ears against his horns. “I have not ventured so far north yet. Perhaps someday. Either way, I have not counted it in my plans.”
George tapped his snout with a claw. “This fortress is impressive, if I am judging sizes correctly. It alone will take many years to build.”
William pushed another drawing across the table and the jackal saw a much less imposing fortress, one with only a pair of towers and a single curtain wall and barracks. “In sooth. We will start with this. With enough men and stone we could build this in a year; two at most. It will not be very strong against attack, but strong enough to begin the larger fortifications, especially the western edge of the wall. I'd like to begin work on this once the road to Hareford is complete.”
George barked in surprise. “In Winter?”
“Nay, nay, the ground will be too hard for it. But we can begin the quarries and assembling the supplies. And we can begin tearing down what is left of the Dike and clearing trees. But mostly Winter is the time to prepare the men. The cold will harden them; when the thaw comes and the ground is ready, we'll be able to lay the first foundations. If I've the men and the material, we can have the fortress wall and at least one tower if not both built before harvest.”
The sound of boots climbing the stairs made the jackal's ears turn. He shuffled some of the pages together, glancing across each, a sense of confidence building with each new schematic he saw. He laid one hand atop them when the green-mottled monitor lizard and a black-furred dog emerged around the corner. The lizard's long, forked tongue slipped out of his mouth and back in again before he said, “Sir Dupré, the gear and horses have been tended. What are you orders?”
“We're not here to relieve anyone; but check with Captain Becket about the duty rotation. We'll be doing some sweeps of the Dike on hoof and paw while we're here for the next few days.”
“I think Captain Becket is sleeping,” the dog replied, nodding his head to the door through which they could still hear snoring.
William's snout spread into a caprine grin. “Then relax until he wakes! Hah! Nay, Alexander see if you can make something to break our fast before we ride this evening. Sebastian, join the other scouts in the eyrie for now. I'll want both of you with me when we head for the Dike.”
The two soldiers went their separate ways. George cast a glance at the snoring door and shook his head. “Do all your commanders snore so loudly?”
“Becket is a boar; he cannot help it any more than you can keep your tail from wagging.” George grimaced and put a paw on his tail to still it. “Now, you don't need to hide my plans from my trusted soldiers. If there are any spies here they work for the bat.”
George pushed the pages across the table toward the ram. “We have had our share of traitors, William. I do not take chances. Did you draw these yourselves? If so your two fingers are better than my four.”
William traced his thick fingers across the intricate lines of his wall design. “The initial sketches were all mine, but to bring out these details I've had help from the surveyors. They have the tools and experience for this sort of work. Sebastian is one of the best; most of these are his.”
George glanced at the stairs up to the eyrie and then whispered, “How does he handle the cold? We don't like assigning reptile Keepers to the northern patrols because it's usually too cool for them even in Summer.”
“He has a talisman Nestorius crafted for him to help. He grew up in Truskmore; this is his home.”
“And yours now? I can smell your wool here in this room.” George nodded to one of the middle doors. “If I'm not mistaken, you have slept many days and nights in yonder room.”
“Aye, I have. I would be a poor commander if I did not learn all there is to know about the defenses at my disposal. And you only learn them by spending time serving them.”
George tilted his head to one side. “Your scent is stronger here than at Hareford.”
The ram's snout tightened. Narrowed eyes regarded the jackal for a few seconds before he spoke again, quiet and firm. “I have no doubt you know Nestorius and I had a falling out a few months back. We have begun rebuilding our friendship and now I am spending more time at Hareford again when I am not about seeing to my plans. Surely you have heard all of this already.”
“Hearing and seeing are different. You do not like these questions, do you?”
William did not raise his voice nor soften his tone. “Metamor has every right to gauge my loyalty. Duke Thomas would be a fool not to have his doubts. But you, George, should know better. What are you here for, to study these plans or to study me?”
The jackal tilted his head further, tail wagging once. “To study the plans for the most part. But I am also going to provide my thoughts on how you are performing as commander of Hareford's military. As you say, Duke Thomas would be a fool not to do so.”
“Then let us waste no more time.” William slipped another parchment across the table and tapped one thick finger atop it. “Here, this fortress plans shows what the interior could look like, including how we'll store water and food.”
George huffed and smiled as he cast his eyes down.
Emerald light cascaded through the treetops upon William, George, and the sextet of soldiers accompanying them. The ground was soft beneath his hooves, mostly loam and pine needles with only the occasional bramble or twig to avoid. The tracks of animals, men, and those in between littered the grounds near the Dike ruins, disappearing only where the ancient stone thrust through the clinging roots and garlands of ivy and moss. Dig but a few hands anywhere and they would find the tombs of those ancient stones interred by the passing of ages.
William chewed on cud as he led the jackal onto a broad avenue of stone and tree roots stretching beneath the summer boughs for thirty paces. Like the grass he'd begun eating, he'd at first been uncertain how he truly felt about having to chew his food, swallow, and then chew it again when it came back up. The taste was not as unpleasant as he once feared, and after seven months he'd found certain spices and grains which kept a savory flavor every time it touched his tongue.
It also meant he had an excuse to keep silent when he did not wish to speak.
George followed, eyes, ears, and nose turned in all directions as they reached the ruins of the Dike. The jackal had said almost nothing since they left Eagle tower, for which William offered him grudging respect. George knew how to behave on Metamor's frontier.
And George had been eager to learn more of his plans, but the jackal could not help but continue to ask questions or make observations about William. Each left the ram wondering just what anyone in Metamor thought of him. He did not expect to be trusted right away, but he resented the dance this old mercenary kept trying to play. Surely the bat knew everything there was to know about William's habits and surely he'd shared some details already. George's questions and observations were too pointed to be otherwise.
But to be out at the Dike, to feel the ancient stone beneath his hooves, and to smell the moldering granite was balm for these wounds. Here he trod when Suielman soldiers had once served a thousand years past, defending for centuries the greatest empire man had ever built. Here he walked in the footprints of legends.
And their hoof, paw, and boots stamped the beginning of new legends into the ancient stone.
They made their way through the woods beneath the watchful eye of the Eagle, afternoon sun having finally burned off the fog rolling down from the north, and after an hour reached the Dike and the site of one of the last standing sentinels in the west. The stacked stones were covered in ivy, with bushes and pine trees growing out of every crack. Needles carpeted the stone and swaths of loam. Wildflowers rippled through the underbrush where the sun shone through, little blue and purple blossoms bobbing up and down in a northerly breeze like gentle ocean surf. Swarms of black flies danced around them, dispersed by waving arms and swatting tails, only to reform and redouble their efforts.
William and George walked only a few paces apart, while the other six soldiers surrounded them ten to fifteen paces away. But once William stepped toward the sentinel, beckoning George to stand at his side, they each closed to five paces, eyes and ears fixed upon the surrounding wood. They moved their hands from their weapons only to brush away the mosquitoes.
William set one hand upon a bare spot of the ancient stone and swallowed his cud. “How often have you come this far north?”
“More often in my first years at Metamor,” George admitted. He stared up at the stacked blocks of stone. The highest was more than twice their height. The few trees growing from the top stretched dozens more hands into the canopy. “I was here a few more times after Winter Assault; it took a lot of time clearing out the last straggling bands of Lutins who'd attacked. Once we were confidant the Hareford garrison and other northern defenses were restored I haven't had a reason to return until now.”
The jackal's snout spread in a canine grin, fangs visible beneath his nose. “I must say I am glad you gave me a reason. It's good to stretch my legs here in the hinterlands again.” A fly landed on his nose and he brushed it off. “I don't miss these pests.” A few of the soldiers chuckled under their breaths.
“Sebastian,” William bleated in a low voice. “Show the Patrol Master our plans for this site.”
The monitor approached, long, forked tongue slipping in and out of his mouth as he rifled through his satchel. After a moment's search he withdrew a parchment stretched on a thin wooden board and offered it to the jackal. Sebastian's dark eyes fixed upon the many lines already etched upon the page. William stood at George's side so they could study the plans together.
The page showed four drawings, one in each quarter. William pointed to the upper left corner. “You can see this is what this area looks like now. Here's the old sentinel stones we're standing next to. Here's the trees circling around. Off to this side in the distance is Eagle Tower. This direction is north into the Giantdowns.”
“I see it, very well done. Sebastian, you are quite the artist.”
Sebastian bobbed his head and wrapped his long fingers around one another. “Thank you, Sir. The ideas come from Sir William, I just draw them.”
“So what do we have here?”
William gestured at the other three pictures. “These are the first stages in what we want to do. Here we'll be clearing out the trees. You see the sentinel here by itself. Then we'll use the wood we've harvested to erect barricades and a small watchtower. Once done, we'll have some defenses while we tear down the sentinel and clear the tumbled stones.”
William nodded and pointed to lines near where the trees remained. “There's too much stone foundation to have ditches where we stand, but we'll have small ones out at the northern edge to start.”
George nodded, taking a few seconds to study the diagrams before glancing up at the massive stacked stone sentinel at their side and the forest surrounding them. The morning's gentle breeze was now a steady wind rattling the branches and knocking loose pine needles. The jackal grimaced as he brushed a needle from the fur between his ears.
“Wind's from the north and the air is moist. We might have a storm coming tonight or tomorrow.”
Sebastian nodded, rubbing his hand along the back of his long, arched neck. “We usually do, but it shouldn't be until dawn. Wind's not strong enough yet. We'll know its coming when the flies go.”
“Do you still want to stay out here?” William asked.
George shrugged “I've been rained on before. And my fur could use a good soaking. So, aye, let's stay here tonight and tomorrow. If the storm is bad enough, I'd rather wait it out in Eagle Tower anyway.”
George tapped the drawings with one claw and then gestured at the forest and sentinel. “How long do you expect this to take? And how many men do you need?”
William took a step away from the sentinel and pointed at the nearest trees. “With all the stone beneath the ground the trees are thinner here than the rest of the forest. Clearing them out to thirty paces in every direction will take two or three weeks with a dozen men. Half if we can spare two dozen and if we do it during Autumn when the weather is at its best. It'll take another few weeks to put together all the defenses, assuming the wood is of good quality. The watchtower will require the engineers to help, but my soldiers are competent enough to do the rest.”
George's expression and voice grew solemn. “Before you begin, there is one thing to know. A lot of Legionnaires died defending the old wall. Some of them are still here.”
The ram nodded. “Any we find will be treated with care and respect. Graves of honor will be given them next to our dead.”
George licked his nose and offered a faint smile. “And remember, the engineers have to return to Metamor by Harvest; there is a lot of other work the Valley needs.”
“So you have said. I hope to convince you otherwise and I hope you convince Duke Thomas otherwise. The sooner we can begin the better.”
“I thought you said you hoped only for thorough plans to be drawn up for your wall?”
“For the wall, aye, but these are tasks we must do regardless. It makes little sense to wait until next year to begin. The plans I mentioned are for the quarries, manpower, supply lines, soldiers to protect them all, and funds to pay for it. Those we must spend months in planning. This is paltry and can be done before the first ink is spilled.”
George shook his head, barked a laugh and leaned against the sentinel, wagging tail making a long strand of ivy bounce against the rock. “Just how many of these plans do you think you can accomplish before the winter buries you behind Hareford's walls?”
William took a few more steps away from the sentinel, the monitor lizard at his side and still carrying the schematics. He kept his head turned so one eye could see the schematics and the other George. “The road to Eagle tower and the watchtowers are my first priority. With those same men we could easily clear the woods here and begin the fortifications. Unless Winter comes early. I am told it can snow in October.”
“And September, but only once during my time, and it was gone by the afternoon.”
“Then barring an early Winter, we can accomplish everything I have said. If anything is to be left undone this year, then let it be tearing down those rocks.”
George glanced at the rocks, and then up at the sky between the trees. The afternoon blue had become a leaden gray with clouds from the north. “So long as you can keep the engineers until Winter. Who will man the defenses in the cold winter months? Without a proper fort, even those fortifications will avail you nothing. They'll be overrun in a Lutin's breath. Even drunk Lutins could take them. You'd be wasting your time building them even in the Autumn.”
William ground his teeth together, but made a show of turning to study the plans. Sebastian flicked out his tongue with a grimace suggesting he agreed with the jackal. And, the ram had to admit, there was a very real chance he was right.
“Quite possibly. We'd need a constant rotation of soldiers here, far more than we should need to defend this place. But with the road in place we are not so vulnerable. It will be far easier to move troops in and out. The defenses are only to protect this area while we begin work on the fortress I showed you a few hours ago.”
George crossed his arms as he leaned against the sentinel. “So why not build it after the Spring thaw when there is a chance we might be able to spare the men and resources to begin building the fortress? Otherwise you're sending squad after squad to defend a blight of land with nothing worth defending in the worst of winter stinging their cheeks with ice and enemy arrows.”
William rubbed his lips with one hand. “Perhaps you are right; it does seem a waste. But,” he turned toward the jackal and now crossed his arms, “we can still build the fortifications. The plans call for them to be built with the wood we cull from these trees, but they don't need to remain here. We can build them in pieces and keep them in Hareford. Then when Spring comes we can cart them here and erect them in a day or two. We could begin work on the fortress in May instead of June or July. But only if I have engineers; to make fortifications we can assemble and disassemble... it is not an easy thing.”
The jackal snorted, and for a moment it seemed he'd tip his head back and laugh even louder, but then remembered where he was. “Same old William Dupré. Even when I do find a flaw in your plan you turn it around into another reason to do what you want. Again, I won't promise you the men, but I will explain your reasons to Duke Thomas.”
William kept back the bleat of pleasure. “Thank you. Now, let us turn to the plans for the first fortress. I want to build it near this very spot.” As he spoke Sebastian returned the first set of plans to his knapsack and began rummaging about for the next set of drawings. George ran his hand down the side of the stone sentinel and nodded, before lifting his ears and eyes. William followed the jackal's gaze and saw a long-legged white bird with black-tipped wings descending into the canopy of trees.
The stork beat his wings several times before settling on the sentinel. It was Walpole, one of Hareford's messenger birds; he'd even delivered a few messages for the ram. The bird bowed his head toward William and cawed with his long beak. “Sir William. I have a message for Patrol Master George.”
“Down here,” George called, waving up to the bird who had managed to land above him, before slapping at another fly. The bird spread his wings backward and peered down the edge of the stone, eyes and beak widening in delight. He jumped down, landed beside the jackal, and swelled in size as he assumed a more human-like shape.
The stork brushed his feathers down and then leaned in closer to the jackal's ear. William knew the poor fellow was trying to whisper but some voices were simply not suited to it. He uttered only two words, “String carrion.”
The impact of those two oddly paired words was immediate. George's ears and tail fell, his shoulders tensed, his eyes cast about furtively, and his jaw slackened, nose swelling to sniff at the air. He didn't even try to dislodge a pair of flies upon his brow. Had he been human, William would have thought his face turned white.
George composed himself after a few seconds, though the swagger of the mercenary was gone. There was determination in his voice, a determination covering over all else. “I apologize for dragging you out here, William. I must return to Metamor at once. With all haste. No questions. Return to Hareford, and if you are smart, stay there.”
William did not hesitate. “Everyone, fall back to Eagle Tower. We're riding for Hareford as soon as we return. Walpole, fly on ahead and tell them to have our horses ready for a hard ride.” The stork nodded, shrank back down to normal bird size and launched himself into the air.
George said nothing the entire way back. From the north the sky began to rumble.