Baron Trendel and Squire Mikkelson traveled at a steady pace, neither pushing their horses too hard, nor taking unnecessary breaks, as they traveled along the well maintained roads to the southeast that would inevitably bring them to the mountains.
Terin expected the trip to take them about a week and a half, given the condition of the roads and the ever increasing frequency of Border Guard garrisons along the way.
Each day, whenever they encountered a garrison, Terin took the opportunity to exchange their horses for fresher ones, and planned the pace of each leg of the trip by how distant the next garrison would be.
As the two traveled, the distant range of mountains, with the faint white haze and blurring of the blue sky at their peaks, grew ever larger and more dominant.
With the sound of each hoof beat upon the ground, the weight on Terin’s heart seemed to grow heavier.
He knew it wasn’t just his imagination, or his memories that were weighing him down. As they grew ever nearer to the massive chain of mountains that stretched nearly unbroken and impassable from North to South across the center of the entire continent, the signs of peaceful villages and safe farms grew fewer, and the number of heavily armed mounted cavalry patrols grew ever more frequent.
Here, in the true borderlands, where the flatlands met the mountains, the final contests for control of this land were fought.
And it was along the transitions, where the strength of heavy human cavalry on the flats was blunted by the speed and agility of the light Orc Wolf Riders in the highlands, that the hardest lessons were learned.
Duke Arneghal was considered a true Border Lord and Duke, a man that spit his challenge and determination to ensure the lasting safety of his Duchy directly into the eyes of the Orc raiders.
The Duke worked steadily to push the borders of Doneghal ever further into the mountains, and what he called in passing his ‘hunting lodge’ was no less than his forward command post, where he coordinated his plans for expansion in the field. The prey he hunted were any Orcs foolish enough to consolidate their power in any one location within striking distance of his Border Guards.
It was Duke Arneghals’ vowed intent to ensure that the massacre that had overwhelmed Terin’s home Duchy of Madrigal, and the continuing fighting that raged on the borders of Mordant, never gained a successful foothold here in the north. Duke Arneghal worked his patrols endlessly to map out valleys and high mountain passes, to find signs of Orc trails and previous encampments, and to use landslides and fires to shift rock and stone or burn possible sources of supply to prevent the Orcs from having an easy time of moving or gathering in numbers. The Duke figured on forcing the Orcs to choose between fighting in an area devoid of grain or game, without safe haven or easy passage, or of traveling south or even over the spine of the mountain to the east face itself in order to have a better chance at survival.
Terin knew the ways of those mountains better than nearly any other man alive, at least any human. It was the way he had earned that knowledge, and what he had done with it, that had drawn Duke Arneghal to request him specifically from the Order, and it was what Duke Arneghal had seen in him that had led the old Duke to decide that such learning as he had should be shared with as many of his Border Guards as possible.
Terin had delighted in training and preparing others to be ready to face the mountains, but in his heart he knew that whatever fate had in store for him, when he met his eventual ending it would not be on flat ground.
Seeing the teeth of the massive mountains grow ever nearer, he felt his heart grow heavy, and the pain in his head grow greater, and he knew the nightmares that always hovered at the edge of memory were stirring and growing stronger.
But it also felt, frighteningly, like coming home again.
Terin and Mikkelson had left the flatlands and prairie grass behind, and traveled a full league into the steadily climbing foothills before they finally entered the narrow pass that led to the sheltered valley of the Dukes’ hunting lodge.
The surrounding area had been cleared of any brush or trees that could impede line of sight or heavy horse, and signs of steel tools on stone and dirt were everywhere.
A firebreak had been burnt recently near the mouth of the pass, and amid the lingering scent of wood smoke and the brightness of green shoots poking up through the char, Terin could see the signs of the counter cuts that had defined the burn. He considered what he could see of the area, and of how much was obscured by the steep hills and twisting passes, and decided that the Duke was massing at least twice as many men along this stretch of rock as had been there just a year before. Too many tools, and too many stirred ashes from heavy horse travel to mean anything else.
Terin turned to look at his squire as they rode into the entrance of the pass, underneath the looming stone watchtowers of the Border Guard defenders, and remarked, “Keep your wits about you, your eyes open, and mind what you learned at the Academy. You’re entering the heart of our forward planning, and I’ll be expecting you to think on how what we’ve discussed before in classes has been applied here in the field.”
The two rode down the pass, following it’s gentle curves. Terin noted mildly that it was wide enough for a cavalry detachment to ride four abreast, it twisted gently enough to make knee guidance of horses easy during a charge, and prevented any attackers from having a clear line of sight for bows or the slings the Orcs favored. A charging lancer could be upon their targets almost before they knew it, and if the mental terror of facing an unstoppable cavalry charge was mostly lost, the endless echoes of thundering hooves would feed upon themselves and grow ever louder, making it nearly impossible for the war horns of the Orcs to be of any use in communicating orders or battle signals.
And at all times, the sheer, steep slopes of the pass, clearly showing the signs of tools used in smoothing and shaping the edges, provided plenty of opportunity for the defenders to drop nasty presents upon any intruders.
As always, Terin mused, the greatest challenge in defending in the mountains was never in finding a defensible spot, but in providing enough supplies to withstand a prolonged attack. Any attack inevitably cut off access to fresh supplies, and without proper preparation for a sudden siege, any advanced position like this one could be cut off for weeks or even months depending on the weather, before reinforcements could gather in sufficient numbers to relieve the position.
Glancing at Mikkelson, Terin saw that he was keeping a watchful eye on the approaches before and behind, and on the heights, watching the transitions of light and dark for movement. “Good.”
The two encountered no other travelers in the pass, and Terin knew it was because their entrance had been signaled to the watchtowers at the other end, who would have stopped any others from entering to leave until the pass was clear, in case the ready platoon was required to deploy.
Coming out of the pass into the valley itself, Terin could clearly see all sides where the grass climbed up from the bowl to curve into the mountain walls. Rather than a keep style structure, the hunting lodge consisted of several long, low buildings used for the barracking of men and the stabling of horses, protecting supplies, and the cookhouses and smithy required for seeing to a sizable detachment of Border Guards.
The only structure that varied was one that had smaller base foundation, but rose twice as high as the others, indicating the use of a second story. There were plenty of gaps between each of the buildings that horses could use to maneuver, and while the roofs of each were pitched sharply to allow heavy snow to fall off, at either end were raised platforms accessible only from a hatch on the roof from which archers could mount a defense.
The bowl of the valley was filled with the bustle of men in a state of high energy, and the feel of the mood reassured Terin immediately.
Whatever was happening that caused the Duke to summon him, if it had involved a fresh invasion or a military disaster, word would have immediately spread and affected the mood of the men. Instead, he could feel the confidence and high morale of the men around him as if it were a physical thing, and knew that for these men, plans were proceeding as intended and missions were meeting with success. If anything, while his own apprehension over what might be going on was lessened concerning his own future, the confidence of them men around him only served to depress him further, as he remembered a far off time, in his own homeland, and other capable men who had showed the same confidence in being the masters of their destiny.
Terin tried to think through the headache, and shake off his mood. It was being so close to the mountains that did it, he knew. It brought it all back, fresh as a newly opened wound.
He turned them towards the stables, and dismounted, directing Mikkelson to see to their gear in one of the barracks. As he strode towards the Duke’s lodge, acknowledging the salutes of the Border Guards he passed, he knew that he had been too abrupt with Mikkelson in giving directions. But he couldn’t change it now, and he couldn’t help it. He was finding it increasingly hard to concentrate on remaining outwardly calm and serene, and he just didn’t find it in himself to spare much thought towards social courtesies. He knew he’d regret it later, but for now, he was determined to find out what the trip was all about.
Stepping up to the covered doorway, Terin pulled his heavy riding gloves off and tucked them into his belt. Grabbing hold of the handle on the stout wood door, he pulled it hard and stepped inside.
The very first thing he noticed as he stood inside the doorway, looking around, was that there was a suspicious lack of activity. In Terin’s experience, Duke Arneghal worked all of the hours of the day, and most especially during the hours of natural sunlight. To step into the main chamber of the lodge and have it be quiet and peaceful was most out of the ordinary.
The second thing he noticed was the smell of wet dog hair.
It’s not a thing that would normally stand out, but Terin knew that the Duke had no use for casual pets, and only tolerated animals that worked hard. Terin could think of no situation where any animal, especially a dog of a working breed, would be permitted inside his lodge.
And the weather had been dry for the past week of travel, and even here in the early stages of the mountainous terrain there shouldn’t have been heavy rains to cause the place to smell of wet dog such as this.
Terin looked around carefully, seeing that the main room was empty of anyone except the Duke’s current crop of runners sitting in chairs against the wall, out of the way of foot traffic. There were three of them, all lads of a likely age to be of the same crop as the one that had brought him the Duke’s invitation a week and a half before. In fact, looking carefully, he saw that one of the three sitting in the darkened room was the very same lad.
Motioning the lad to come over, Terin asked him, “If you happen to know where his grace the Duke may be, and if he’s not indisposed, I’d appreciate it if you’d get word to him that Baron Trendel is here as he requested.”
The boy made no reply, but turned and swiftly darted back towards the heavily reinforced steps to the rear of the room, leading up.
Terin glanced around some more, noting the position of the corridor leading back towards the kitchens and the servants area, the openings to other rooms blocked by heavy curtains that most likely led to a dining room, or, knowing the Duke, a smoking den with a sand table or some other such tool for mocking up terrain to plan movements and campaigns.
Terin had just come to the conclusion that he ought to sit down in one of the wooden folding chairs to wait, when the runner came clambering back down the stairs all in a rush.
“Milord, his grace will see you now in the sword room.”
Terin brushed past the boy, giving him a brisk nod in passing, and ascended the stairs.
At the top, he saw that the stairs led onto a landing, with a narrow corridor heading straight towards the back of the building. At the corridor’s end was a reinforced hatch for stepping out onto one of the battlements, and to either side of the corridor were several doors.
From the length of the corridor, and the number of doors that he could see, the rooms must each be of uniform size, and quite small, and have limited space to stand in before the sloping of the roof cut off all height.
Out of one of the doorways, all the way down the corridor, a very familiar voice called out, “About time you got here, Baron! I’m down here!”
Terin moved swiftly down the corridor, his headache eased a bit at being in smoothly crafted surroundings. The very presence of worked stone and wood, so unfamiliar to the styles of workmanship of the Duchy of Madrigal, was different enough to remove some of his anxiety.
He saw that each of the doors he passed had a crudely painted symbol on the wood at head height; a rabbit, an unadorned shield, a cooked chicken leg, a roaring lion, and finally on his right a gold crown. The door to the left, opposite that of the crown, was open, and had painted on it a simple unsheathed sword. Terin smiled to himself as he thought about the implications of a rabbit painted on the door to a guest room, and then stepped inside.
Standing just inside the entrance to the guest room, he saw that it was a very small room, with a roof that started out at normal height at the door, and then slanted downwards sharply the further from the door you went. There was barely enough room for a man to take three strides before his head would touch the ceiling.
A heavy curtain was drawn across the width of the room, masking the far wall where, presumably, the bed of the guest room would be located.
On this side of the room were two men, both standing patiently and looking expectantly at Terin. The only piece of furniture on this side of the curtain was a single strong looking wood chair, it’s seat and back covered in soft cloth and looking padded by a lot of feathers for comfort.
One of the men, of course, was Duke Arneghal, and Terin went to one knee as he said, “Your grace, I am pleased to see you hale and hearty, here on the edge of things. I hope that I have arrived in a time of your liking. I traveled with as much haste as I felt safe so as not to arouse suspicions, as you instructed.”
The Duke simply answered, “Stand up, man, we’re not at court here.”
Terin stood up and studied the look of the other man in the room, who was in all ways a stranger to him.
The man was quite tall and thin in a way that spoke more of a careful diet than regular exercise in the out of doors. He had an intelligent gleam to his eyes, and his sculpted dark hair and closely trimmed beard spoke of careful attention spent on appearances.
His clothes and hands, however, were most curious.
The clothes he wore were entirely of cloth, spun of a very tight knit weave that would catch and rip very easily on the frontier, in subdued patterns of burgundy and black. Such clothes spoke of a man who expected to have others do any heavy labor for him, and who went about unprepared to do any strenuous work himself as a matter of course.
His hands, however, were the most telling. Where any military man would have hands burnt hard by wind and sun, heavily scarred by cuts and rough work, oversized knuckles from frequent breaks and exposure to cold weather, and dirt permanently worked into the edges of the nails, this man had hands of smooth, clean skin, unmarred by callous or scar, whose only discoloration was a deep purple stain at the tip of each finger, the stain being quick deep and extending most of the length of the first two fingers of his right hand, a clear sign of a man who spent considerable time either writing his own works, or copying those of others.
The biggest sign, of course, was that the man carried no visible weapons whatsoever, here, deep in raiding territory.
Terin took it all in with a glance, the man’s poise and deportment, the clothes, the hands, his care in appurtenance in a place where a fop from the Coastal Cities would be made rough sport of, and most importantly his knowledge of the tolerances of the Duke.
Terin looked the stranger squarely in the eyes, with an apparent calmness he didn’t feel, and bowed slightly. “May I assume that I have the honor of meeting a Wizard in service to Duke Arneghal, my lord?”
The stranger’s eyes widened slightly, but he showed no other sign of surprise. He merely smiled gently, with said with only a trace of sarcasm to his voice, “You are quite correct, Baron Trendel. I am Molvaris, Antonin Molvaris, Duke Arneghal’s new Court Wizard. I hope that you will do me the pleasure of calling me Anton.”
Anton smiled a bit more genuinely, and added, “His grace warned me you were not to be underestimated, and I am glad to see what he meant. Your eye for details and ability to piece together disparate facts to form an intuitive decision bodes well for what we hope to ask you to do. Very well indeed.”
Terin immediately found himself disliking the Wizard Malvoris. Something in his attitude, the way he phrased things, grated a bit on Terin, as though he were a puppy being patted on the head for fetching his master’s slippers adequately.
Terin caught the direction of hiw own thoughts, measured them, and realized why the simile to a puppy sprang so easily to mind.
“My Lord Malvoris, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’d really like to know. Why does this room, above all others in this building, smell so strongly of wet dog?
Duke Arneghal and Lord Malvoris both exchanged a quick glance, and the Duke at least looked annoyed at having the discussion move so far off the apparent script. He also looked quite annoyed at the Wizard, his cold blue eyes glinting a bit dangerously. Terin was glad to see that the Duke, at least, was quite well aware of the games his Wizard was playing.
Duke Arneghal rocked a bit on the heels of his fine leather riding boots, and placed his hands behind his back.
Terin, knowing the Duke’s habits, instinctively stepped back further out of the room, as the Duke began pacing in the very limited space.
It was a habit Terin knew quite well; the Duke was a man that preferred to pace when he spun a story, as he concentrated to remember all the details just so.
“Baron, the damn smell in this place is the main the reason I wanted you to come out here. I’ve had a problem stumble in my lap, just at the time when all indications I’ve seen make me think the damn Orcs are gathering in great numbers in preparation for a new major offensive.”
“I’ve got patrols all over every valley and pass we can get to where we can provide layers of support in depth. But the highlands are still out of our reach, and the Scouts we send in have brought back a lot of sign. The Orcs are on the move; of that I can assure you.”
“But I can’t afford to ignore this. It has nothing to do with the Orcs, but it could have everything to do with the security of our Southern border. And if there is any man I know that has the knowledge and experience to investigate this for me, and leave me free to get my focus back on this campaign, it’s you.”
Terin looked from the Duke to his Wizard and back again quickly. “Your grace, I know you well enough to recognize that you only dance around the point like this when you suspect someone is trying to play you for a fool. I can hardly wait to hear what it is you have to tell me.”
The Duke turned the chair around, it’s back towards Terin, and straddled it. Looking up, he said, “Well, the situation is this. Mordant immediately to our South has been fighting the Orcs for years, and as you know they claim it started even before Madrigal roused the Orcs to the far south.”
“Now, Madrigal has fallen completely as you damn well know, all of the bordering Duchies have pushed in, reclaimed Madrigal’s lowlands for themselves, and are stalled at the base of the mountains. The Orcs have taken and hold all of the southern highlands and mountains, including the only damn intact pass across the mountains. We are completely cut off from the East by land, and the winter storms in the northern straight and the southern sea are too vicious for even the strongest coastal cutter we can craft to survive.”
“I’ve been putting a great deal of pressure on the Orcs to push them out of our area, specifically because I believe that if we can secure the high peaks before winter, and reinforce the garrisons here, then come spring we will be able to send strong, well trained expeditions into the high mountains to find the hidden passes we know the Orcs must have, and hold them.”
“The Orcs have been cooperating, by moving generally southward. But now, instead of going to reinforce the southern Orcs in Madrigal, I think they are gathering for a new northern invasion. They are definitely scouting the lower passes, despite our patrols, and we have found several supply caches they have set up in various valleys.”
“This brings me to you, Terin.”
“With every new sign, I have drawn greater numbers of my reserves from the inlands, and along the other borders. I have been reinforcing my mountain garrisons, preparing fortified positions, and the new strength has been put to work cutting new cross paths between valleys to help provide ways of getting reinforcements in place where the need arises.”
“To do this, I’ve had to strip our southern border with Mordant nearly bare of men. With his attention turned towards his own southern border, that seemed like a safe move, in the short term, to prepare for the threat in my face.”
“But now I have this… this mess that has come out of Mordant, and I need to know if this is a sign of a new danger to my flanks, some kind of preparation Duke Hope is making to take advantage, or if it has nothing to do with us at all.”
Terin looked calmly in the Duke’s eyes. He already knew what skills he possessed that would make him the Duke’s first choice, but he wanted to hear the Duke say it himself.
“Your grace, what mess has come out of Mordant that concerns you? And what does it have to do with the smell of wet dog?”
In response, the Duke motioned to Lord Molvaris, and the Wizard stepped back to the side, against the wall, and grasped the edge of the curtain with his hand. With a swift motion, he yanked the curtain aside to reveal the space behind.
Terin gasped, and stepped even further back in surprise at what he saw. For just a moment, against his will, his hand darted to the hilt of his new sword.
But it was only for a moment, and then the shock was gone, slowly replaced by a sense of wonder and, curiously, a childlike delight.
Lying there on the low bed against the wall, struggling slightly to sit up, was a large dog, a golden retriever of unusually large size, it’s fur a beautiful, lustrous golden brown, his eyes deep, dark and full of sadness. His mouth was opened slightly, and he was panting gently in the stuffy, slightly over warm room.
Signs that the beast had suffered for some time were clear to see, for a man with eyes that looked. The golden hound had very thin flanks, and although it looked healthy enough, a slight tremor in it’s movement indicated to Terin’s eye that it was weak, as if from a very long, hard journey.
But it was not the signs of suffering, or the fragility of it’s movements, or it’s remarkable size that had caused Terin to recoil for a moment in shock.
The golden retriever sat up further in the bed, bending at the waist it had, and used it’s left paw to pull the thin covers up further over its’ outstretched legs.
It lifted one paw as if in greeting, displaying fully functional, if furry, fingers, and waved briskly. The tips of it’s fingers had pads instead of skin, though they were cracked and inflamed, and the fingernails looked like dull horn, but broken and brittle. His panting jaw dropped a bit further, and the figure barked in perfectly understandable speech, “Hallo!”
Duke Arneghal turned in his chair to face Terin, and said, “Baron Trendel, I would like you to meet Redwulf. Redwulf, lately of the Court of his grace, Hope, Duke of Mordant.”
“His position in that Court, alas, was that of one of Duke Hope’s most loyal and trusted hunting hounds. As you can imagine, he was not always like this, and he has no memory of how exactly this was done to him. He does know, however, where it was he escaped from to journey to where my Scouts found him…”
“And he is willing to guide a small party back there, if it will help put a stop to the same thing happening to any other members of his litter.”