Terin sat on the plain wooden chair, back rigid and face immobile as he thought over all that the Duke had just told him, and put the rest of the pieces in place from what he already knew.
The situation was now clear.
The Duke had downplayed how well using Terin fit with all the various aspects of what was needed. He had an important mission that required special knowledge meant to be kept to as few people as possible, skills that only surviving the hard way proved you had, a plausible excuse to send a single person or small group where normally at least a scout team would be sent, and best of all, someone that was completely trusted, but outside the normal chain of leadership.
Stories of Madrigal’s lost 9th Company, with Terin as it’s captain, had circulated rapidly once Terin had led his men and the refugees they had gathered together to safety across the southern Mordant lines. Terin had found that, no matter where he had gone from that time to now, word had always seemed to precede him, especially among the noble-born officers of the various borderlander forces. Terin knew well that the most basic of the rumors circulating, at least amongst the officer corps, included details of Terin’s fixation with the Bleeding Bear. The Duke had no need to look far for an excuse to summon him to the hunting lodge; within hours of a scout team reporting the Bleeding Bear’s banner in the high mountains, one of the young snots would have been sure to catch the ear of the Duke, ‘suggesting’ that here was a fine opportunity for Mosley Vale to win back some of the lost honor of his family. Undoubtedly, the officers offended by Terin’s methods would prefer it if he set out to earn back his honor by marching off into the mountains alone, naked and carrying a dagger in his teeth.
With most of the Duke’s local forces sure that Terin was being recalled to go off to fight the Bleeding Bear in some heroic attempt to redeem his name or die trying, the chances of any of Duke Hopes’ spies ferreting out the true nature of his task would be slim. The gossip mill would spend far too much time telling old stories and hoping for word of his death to spend much time speculating about other possible reasons for his departure.
Even better, for those that knew the Duke well enough to count on there never being just one string to his bow, questioning the servants or other methods of snooping would surely uncover the ‘secret’ mission; tracking Redwulf back to the point of his escape. With a secret mission that strange, and the possible involvement of Duke Hope or his Black Band, it would take a suspicious person indeed to suspect there was an even more important secret lying underneath the rest.
As far as Terin knew, the number of living people amongst the borderlanders that would recognize the significance of an Elven ally living and aiding the orc clans against humans was few. Of those Terin knew of, only Marshall Owen Bradford, Terin’s personal commander and the Chapter Commander of the Order of Radiance in Carringtown, and Duke Arneghal, the leader of one of the more progressive and open-minded Duchies of the borderlands, knew all the details that Terin had uncovered in his researches. There might be a few scholars amongst the Coastal Kingdoms that knew enough to be concerned, but they were too far removed to ever hear mention of an Elf spotted amongst mountain orcs. Nobody could tell what a wizard or their assistants might know of, with all the searching they did for new sources of knowledge, but scattered as they were serving this lord or that, pushed to develop battle magic to try and keep pace with Duke Hope’ Black Band, it was unlikely there was much analysis being given to context if wizards were studying ancient history for inspiration.
This was the kind of mission where you couldn’t just assign a task and trust that it would be completed as normal. It was critical that the situation be scouted thoroughly, to the dregs of the cup, whatever the cost to the scout might be. With a profile like that, you had to take the scout into your confidence, completely. The fewer people that had to be brought in on this particular secret, the better. Using Terin kept the circle of those who knew small, and cut the risk of rumors spreading.
The two most important reasons why the Duke was sending Terin, though, had nothing to do with secrets or excuses. Terin was, as far as he knew, the only person not an actual member of the Duchy that Arneghast would trust with something this important, and the act of using Terin would almost ensure that whatever mission he was assigned, it wouldn’t be taken too seriously. Just as the Duke had said, the borderlands were changing. As clans spread out and claimed land for themselves, as steadings grew and generations were born that looked to what they held rather than ahead to what they could earn, the tight bonds of brotherhood forged between long years of service were loosening, to be replaced by blood ties and provincial attitudes.
The final, and most important reason for the Duke to choose Terin was simply that there was no other man in all of the borderlands that had a better chance of surviving alone in the mountains and returning.
The whole point of bringing Terin here was to send him out to uncover the facts surrounding an Elf living amongst the orcs, and have him survive to bring that knowledge back for Duke Arneghast to use. Nothing could be allowed to risk failure, and that meant that for Terin to perform his duty, both to the man he had been assigned to serve and to the greater duty he held for the peoples of Felwaithe, he could not pursue his own private vendetta. Not now. Not yet.
No matter how desperately his heart craved vengeance.
The sound of Duke Arneghast clearing his throat broke into Terin’s thoughts.
“Baron, I feel that time is slipping away from us. We’re far enough from the valley here that any news I get is delayed by a month or more. The last three scout teams I sent to penetrate the deepest reaches of the valley are a week overdue. If that thing, Redwulf, had not come stumbling onto one of our forward watch posts, I’d have sent a company out to scout ahead instead of waiting for you to get your ass here, followed by a probe in strength.”
The Duke turned his gaze back to the sandtable, studying the flags and markers as though there was some news they could whisper in his ear.
Terin took the opportunity to watch the Duke’s eyes, and mark where they seemed to fall, while he thought about the missions he was being tasked to complete.
Terin grabbed the arms of his chair for support, expecting to need it to steady himself. Instead, Terin stood with no hint of his earlier weakness. With the knowledge that the Bleeding Bear were finally near at hand, all weakness and pain seemed to have left him. For the first time since sighting the rising of the land that brought the mountains closer, he felt clear headed and without pain. His mind raced ahead clear and sharp, already visualizing the next steps for the coming campaign.
Terin sketched a cursory bow to the Duke, saying, “Your Grace, with your leave I’m going to get started with my preparations. I expect I’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.”
Arneghast turned around, surprise etched on his features.
“You agree to leave at first light, then? You accept my judgment as to the… urgency? The priority?”
Terin met the Duke’s concerned eyes, and while a smile would not come to his lips, there was one in his voice as he said, “Yes, your Grace. I agree… and I understand. Fully. There will be time once the mission is done to pay a visit to old acquaintances.”
Something in Terin’s eyes made the Duke break his gaze away first, and he shifted a little nervously on the carpet, his heavy boots scuffing the worn threads.
“Baron, I want to say one thing to you, before you go about your duty.”
“I know that what you said before was spoken of in the heat of your anger, and I’ll say no more about that. But what you said concerning the noble born amongst my men, that I would speak on.”
Terin faced the Duke impassively, his impatience plain on his face. The thing was said and done, the facts were what they were, and there were things that needed doing to further the completion of his duty. Anything the Duke had to say would be a waste of daylight. But Terin could see from the flush in the Duke’s cheeks that he probably felt he had to say something, to square what he could not change with what his honor told him should be done.
“Baron Trendel, you have every right to be bitter over how my officers act around you, even when given their orders directly from me. But as you go, I want you to think on something for me.”
“When something of this importance came due, you were the man I called to my side, and the one man I trust to see this mission through without distraction. That may be cold comfort, but you have my thanks for living up to being the man I’ve known you to be.”
“One last thing. The valley you’re going to visit. In our records, the steadholders gave it a name. They called it the Valley of Bitter Winds, don’t know why. Don’t let the name be a bad omen for you. I expect to see you return strong and steady as ever from this task. Now, go on with you, and Tyr’s Justice watch over you.”
Terin nodded his head sharply in response, and made his way from the signals room.
Closing the door behind him, leaving the Duke to his thoughts and flags, Terin glanced around the mud room, and saw that there were yet three runners still sitting there waiting for orders or messages to carry.
Terin walked up in front of where the three sat, and, pointing to the first one, said “Go to the route master, and have him prepare two combat trained horses with mountain experience, one strong horse with a very even temperament, two mules, packs and supplies for a month’s hard travel for three. Tell him to have them waiting and ready to go by first light. Do you understand?”
The runner, a young lad with wild brown hair so long and unruly it covered his eyes leapt from his seat, and with a fist salute over his heart, said “At once, milord Baron! Do you need any special provisions?”
Terin shook his head no, saying “Tell him to use his best judgement. Whatever I don’t have, I’ll make, forage or do without. Now off with you.”
The lad saluted once more, and without another word dashed from the room.
Terin turned his attention to the next runner, a smaller, thinner young lad with the sandy blond hair and dark hazel eyes you occasionally saw in the lands south of Mordant, near the border of Madrigal. Directing his words to the boy, he said “I want you to track down where ever my squire has got off to, and tell him his orders from me are to gather his belongings together and make ready for the beginnings of a hard trip at first light. Tell him also to get some rest as soon as his gear is prepared, and eat a heavy meal. He’s not to track me down, I’ll find him when it’s time to leave in the morning. Do you understand?”
The young lad leapt to his feet much as the first runner had, and with a salute and a cocky grin dashed out of the room in his own turn.
This left Terin looking upon the third and last runner, a tall and slightly overweight lad with black hair and the makings of a beard started on his chin. Motioning him to get up, Terin said, “You, my lucky young lad, get to escort me to the Scout Master. Now.”
Terin followed the boy out of the Duke’s lodge and across the square to a long, single story structure dug into the earth. Passing through the doorway, Terin saw that half the structure, the half he entered, was one large room, packed at even this late hour with men in various states of preparation for the trail. It was clear some were waiting to receive their movement orders for the next assignment, while others had just come in and were finishing up their scout journals from the previous mission, awaiting their turn at of debriefing. Such was the comfortable, organized bustle of a scout center near the front lines. Terin felt right at home.
Terin glanced around, noting which lads he recognized from their time at his academy, and which were learning as they worked here on the sharp end. As he glanced around the large room, he was surprised to see the Scout Code he had written to hammer the basics into the heads of his recruits, painted in words of white a foot high on the back wall, one word to a line.
“MMORRR. Mission. Movement. Observe. Record. Return. Report.”
Terin smiled. If it’s simple and stupid but it works, it’s not stupid. By the time new scouts made it throught Terin’s training, they knew that of all of them, ‘record’ is the one task in the Scout Code they’d better never forget. Scouts were trained to record anything and everything about their mission. Route traveled, terrain found, sketches of points of interest, flags, banners, unfamiliar animals or plants, weather conditions along the way and a detailed timeline, all recorded into a scout’s mission journal. And from the looks of things, whoever Duke Arneghast had tasked with running the scouts took the journals Terin implemented seriously.
Terin dismissed his guide, and moved through the crowd of chatting men, making his way to the main focus of the room; a large wooden table with three men sitting behind it. At either end of the table, a large stack of what Terin saw were blank journals sat, ready to be issued out. Each of the three men seated at the table were busy signing out scouts, handing over tied scrolls of movement orders from pouches at their feet along with the journals, or signing in scouts on a mission log before standing and leading them back through the single door that led deeper into the building.
Terin realized that the men being assigned missions were the scout team leaders, accepting the scroll of orders and stack of journals for their entire teams. The men waiting to be debriefed, on the other hand, were all of the team members from each of the missions. They were taking the time to get each scouts’ view of a mission, instead of just taking the word of the team leader on what stood out the most. Truly excellent.
One of the men seated at the table, a young corporal Terin didn’t recognize, noticed the Baron standing there and stood up to greet him. With a warm, welcoming smile on his face, the man said “Welcome to the rat hole, my lord. I’m Garthan, lead sorter. How may we help you?”
Terin smiled in return, and replied, “I’m heading out on a mission of my own, corporal, one your scout master might not know of. The Duke just informed me. I need to see the scout journals of the area I’m planning on visiting, and I’ll be needing a quiet place to study them.”
Corporal Garthan bowed his head briefly, and said “If you’ll follow me, my lord, I’ll take you to one of our briefing rooms, where you can work undisturbed.”
Terin followed the Corporal back through the doorway, where he found the rest of the building was divided down the middle by a lone corridor, with several small rooms branching off from each side. The Corporal led him swiftly down the hall, and directed him inside one of the rooms, which Terin found to be fitted with a simple table, a pair of plain chairs upon either side, and no less than three oil lanterns hanging from iron hooks upon the walls, providing plenty of light.
Terin told the Corporal that he needed to see all the scout journals, no matter their age, that came from routes near the mountains to the east of the Valley of Bitter Winds. Corporal Gartham hustled off, and Terin sat down with his back to the wall, facing the doorway, to think through the steps of the journey before him.
Terin always approached everything, whether it was a mission or getting dinner, in the same way. He started by deciding what his next goal was, broke the goal down into the shortest steps necessary to reach it, and then visualized each step in advance. He thought it through from start to finish, what he’d need to do at each point, what tasks might be necessary, what tools might be useful. Then, having developed a solid plan to go forward with, he set out to do his research if time permitted, learning all he could to prepare himself. After that, he trusted in himself and improvised, because experience had taught him that nothing ever went according to plan, but if you didn’t have a plan, you didn’t have a good foundation to start from when it all went to hell. You might never follow a plan your entire life, but if you didn’t have one, you were doomed to misery and pain.
After just a few minutes, the corporal came back in the room with an armload of weatherstained and dogeared journals, indicating either a damn good filing system, or that they’d been seeing a lot of use lately. Terin thanked Gartham, and selecting one of the books at random, started to read.