“It’s growing dark, milord.”
Lord Taigan could plainly see that, but he checked his retort. He had scolded the young lieutenant plenty enough today; more would not be necessary.
“Tell the men we’ll make camp in an hour.”
He considered the logistics and the placement and concluded that here was as good a place as any. His host would make camp upon this approaching hill, exposing themselves to the bitter wind and prying eyes, but no matter. A display of force for these serfs in their hamlets would be good for them; they’d be seeing more of it shortly. And a commanding view of the highland countryside couldn’t hurt if any sabotuers were lurking in those peaceful little snow-blanketed villages.
He wondered what happened to those seven…
“Milord, it’s been an hour.”
“Yes, Lieutenant. If you are so eager to make camp, would you venture to make the orders yourself?”
That shut him up.
He was absorbed in thought about the disappearance of his seven fellow commanders, and couldn’t bear for that to be interrupted. Not all of them were lords; some of them were woodsmen and scoundrels, a few were even magicians! It would be exceedingly difficult to find them. A brash lordling might saunter up to the nearest marching army and request parley, figuring he’d find his way home with a friendly army’s escort or a hostile army’s ransom. A woodsman would avoid the roads and find his way to his goal without care for armies or townships. A magician… you can never be sure what a magician would do, such fickle creatures they were. And if all of them banded together? It would be impossible to know.
They had vanished immediately after he had given the orders to have them killed. Did they know they were going to be betrayed? Where did they go? North, further into the Highlands? South, back to the Kingdom of Bannea? What did they aim to do? How would they accomplish it? Whatever the answers may be, he knew for sure that he now had two missions. His original mission was, given to him and his seven comrades by Queen Ysandra herself, to lead the armies of Bannea into the rugged highlands to pacify the highlanders and tame their lands. Such brutes whose leaders bore names like Owen the Bear, Ugly Greck, and Mulchen Twigfigngers. Humans. Orcs. Elves. Half-breeds. Owlbears. Direwolves. Treants. He had to pry them from their ancient castles, chase them out of their Elder Forests, and crush them upon the hilly fields of battle. And now he also had to find out what had happened to his seven comrades and what exactly they were going to do in the Highlands. And there was also the worrying matter of those foreigners that kept appearing on the shoreline…
“Shut up, Lieutenant. You are dismissed.”
He already saw what the young officer was going to point out: a storm on the horizon. And he saw it so much more clearly.
“Aaaahahahah! Now tell the one about the time you peed on an owlbear’s eggs!”
Laughter filled the warm longhouse. Owen waved one of the clan’s boys over. “Haha. No more stories tonight, Horald. We have—oh, what do those sissy Banneans call it?—ah, ‘matters of state’ to attend to. You, boy! Another ale for every man and woman at the table, and one for yourself. You’ve been good tonight.”
Before starting on business, Owen the Bear sized up his audience. Furs, hides, and tartans all around. No studs or leather—seems nobody expected a fight this time—and plenty of red cheeks on those broad jaws. Good.
“All right. Messengers! Speak now. If you have anything about the Banneans, start.”
A man and a woman at the table, probably the least drunk of them, stood up. The woman dressed warmly with thick hides and dirty boots, and her hair had been tousled by the wind.
“The Banneans made camp at Heatherdown last night. Suppose they’ll be at Redfield tonight. Slow march, they’ll probably be at Man Face Rock in five nights.”
Owen sighed. “Yes. Yes, I’ll send a man to Ugly Greck tomorrow. I hope the old codger still has the guts to join us in the battle. You, what’s your story?”
The man, barechested and broad, spoke.
“The Banneans only have one commander.”
Owen was unimpressed. “So?”
“Two nights ago, they had eight. I saw the other seven running like Hell for the Wispwood. Soldiers gave up the chase when they got to the forest’s edge.”
Owen leaned forward. “Now that’s something. Are any of them rangers?”
“Could only see silhouettes, but I’d bet my balls one of them is.”
“Heheh. Don’t make bets you can’t afford to lose, clansman. Now then, you’ll be heading up the team to find them…”
“No,” spoke an old, ragged voice.
The longhouse fell silent. The gnarled old woman at the corner of the table eyed Owen menacingly. Owen stammered. “I… then…”
“I know what you were going to say next. ‘To find them and kill them.’ No. You will bring them here.”
Owen nodded and turned back to the barechested man. “Aye then. Those are your orders.”
“What if they resist?”
“You heard the woman, clansman. Now go to it. Any other messages?”
One stood up, removing his hood. The room gasped. Owen nearly fell over in his chair.
“Mulchen? You haven’t… you haven’t even sent a messenger in forty years, and now you show up in person?”
Mulchen Twigfingers spoke in bitter, low tones. And somehow, the entire room heard him perfectly clearly.
“Elves prefer to do important business in person.”
“I get that, Mulchen. But what happened at Bear Tree…”
“Behind us. Not important.”
“Not important?! That’s… Mulchen, that battle…”
“Then what could possibly be so important?”
“The foreigners. They’re coming, and they’re neither Man, nor Elf, nor Orc. They’re dragons.”