Normally, when soldiers returned to their base of operations, whether it was a remote outpost on the edge of civilisation or, as in this case, the very heart of the Kingdom, they would spend the rest of the day, and the next day as well if they returned late in the evening, drinking, celebrating and indulging in general horseplay as they wound down from the rigours and exertions of their time in hostile territory. There was none of that for the men of the Brigadier’s patrol, though. They sat around in silence and barely contained anger as they absorbed what they'd heard from the people of the city and their brothers in arms. Some had tankards of ale in their hands just from force of habit as they sat upright in the chairs of the common room, still wearing their travel stained uniforms, but barely a sip had been taken and the beer was well on the way to going flat. A fly that had landed in one of them drowned unnoticed, and the soldier currently serving behind the bar went to sit in one of the comfortable chairs beside the window, sure that his services wouldn’t be needed any more that day.
“Bastard!” said Private Smith, twisting his cap in his hands. “What a bastard thing to do! Who did It? What kind of bastard would do a thing like that?”
“Whoever it was better not come near here!” added Cowley. “Not if they know what’s good for them.”
“For all we know, he’s already here,” said Spooner. “Someone detailed to the palace guard...”
“Don't say that!” growled Cowley. “No soldier of the city would do It! I'd stake my pension on It!”
“It had to have been someone allowed into the presence of the Princess,” said Smith. “That's the palace guard, her maids and handmaidens, foreign dignitaries on state visits...”
“She goes about the city plenty of times,” pointed out Cowley. “In that carriage of hers. Could be anyone in the crowd.”
They all looked at Quill, who shook his head. “Curses aren't that specific,” he said. “If someone in the crowd cast a curse, everyone for yards in all directions would have been affected. Not just the Princess herself. For her to be the only one affected, the culprit would have had to be alone with her, even if just for a moment or two. It would have to have been someone in the palace.”
Smith's eyes widened in alarm. “The King has to be warned...”
“He knows, you idiot,” said Spooner. “They've had weeks to work all this out. Everyone in the palace, anyone who's been in the palace at any time in the last six months, will have been checked and checked again, a dozen times. Had to have been.”
“Someone trusted,” growled Sergeant Blane. “Someone the King trusted with the safety of his daughter. I saw the King angry once, back in sixty one. When he found that the Sellites had murdered his peace envoys.” He shook his head. “When he finds out who it was...”
“The King will have to stand in line!” said Smith, and half a dozen people nodded their agreement, sitting more upright in their seats. Eyes burned with anger and hands clenched into fists.
“Enough of that!” warned Blane, giving them sharp looks. “The King will have his justice. We may have a hand in bringing the traitor to justice, if we're lucky, but justice will be carried out by the King himself. None other. Be sure you remember that.” They nodded again, accepting his correction, but Blane suspected that bad things might happen to the traitor if any of his men should lay hands on him. Accidents happened, after all. People died trying to escape, broke their necks falling down stairs... Who knew what kind of regrettable accident might befall the traitor before he could be turned over to the king?
“Why did the King want to see the Brigadier?” wondered Cowley. “Does he think the Brigadier can help identify the traitor?”
“He's coming!” cried Smith, turning to face what he'd seen out of the corner of his eye through the window. “The Brigadier! And Malone! They're coming here!”
“Now we'll learn something!” said Spooner, and the members of his patrol dashed out of the room to meet him outside the door.
The Brigadier quickly repeated everything the King had told him, that they had a new mission. “We leave a dawn tomorrow,” he said. “I'm sorry you haven't had time to see your families, get some rest, but...”
“You don’t have to apologise, Sir!” interrupted Cowley. “We're with you! One hundred percent...”
“Cowley!” snapped Blane. “Keep your mouth shut while the Brigadier’s speaking!”
“That's alright, Sergeant,” said the Brigadier, though. “We're all upset by what's happened. I'm prepared to allow some leeway under the circumstances. I suggest you spend the rest of the day getting what rest you can. We leave at sunrise.” He then turned and marched away, and the men gathered around Malone to see what extra information they could get from him.
The next morning the men were awake well before dawn and were already dressed and ready when the bugle call blew across the barracks. “About bloody time!” said Cowley as they trotted out to the stables. “Never knew a night as long as this one!”
“There’s no need to hurry,” said Malone. “The Brigadier says it might take weeks to get to where we're going, and it'll be years before the Princesses condition...” His voice trailed off, leaving him looking uncomfortable and unhappy.
“It’s not just that,” said Sergeant Blane. “I'm as anxious to save the Princess as you are, but it's the politics that’s more urgent. Carrow won't wait months. Sooner or later word of what's happened will reach Prince George and all hope of an alliance will be gone.”
“It was probably the Carrowmen who cursed her in the first place!” said Harper, struggling to do up the top button of his tunic. “They're looking for an excuse to declare war.”
“Right!” agreed Spencer. “Prince George couldn’t refuse the offer of marriage without giving away his intentions. They’ve been itching for an excuse to invade us for years!”
“We don’t know that,” said Blane. “That kind of idle speculation doesn't do anyone any good and may distract attention from the real culprit. The King will get to the bottom of it, you mark my words. I'd be surprised if the spy agency is doing anything else at the moment.”
The rest of the garrison had turned out to see them off, and the stables were surrounded by a sea of grey uniforms. “Good luck!” cried a man. “Wish I were going with you!”
“There'll probably be other missions,” called back Smith. “I doubt the King'll be putting all his hopes in one mission.”
The suggestion cheered the onlookers, and wishes for luck and success followed them in through the stable gates, to where the Brigadier and the horses were waiting for them. He looked magnificent in his clean, pressed uniform with its peaked cap bearing a plume of horse hair. His beard and moustache were neatly trimmed, and his greying temples gave him a look of authority that he would have had even in civilian clothes. There was, as ever, no expression on his face. He looked his men over as they presented themselves before him, and there was nothing in his eyes to tell them whether he was pleased by what he saw or profoundly disappointed. Perhaps only Sergeant Blane, who'd served with him the longest, and Private Malone, who'd been in his company more than anyone else in the last couple of years, could read anything in his expression, but even they could only guess most of the time.
“We are on a mission to the edge of the known world,” he told them, and he was heard not only by the men of his own patrol but by the dozens of others who were gathering around to see them off. “The stakes have never been higher. To save Princess Ardria, beloved of the whole kingdom, from a terrible fate and to save the peace that the King and his ministers have laboured for so long to achieve...”
“We cannot give her to Prince George!” someone shouted out. “Rather war than that!”
“Silence!” shouted Sergeant Blane. “The Princess herself has agreed to this. Also, we are loyal to the King. He has decreed that this marriage will take place, and as loyal subjects we are duty bound to support It!”
Angry muttering rose from the men, but nothing more was spoken out loud. “The marriage is an affair of state and our consent is not required,” continued the Brigadier. “Our concern is simply to restore the Princess to health. That is the purpose of the mission we are about to undertake. It will be perilous. We may not all survive, but if we find the cure and return it to the palace before her condition has progressed too far, we will have done a service to the Kingdom that will be remembered for generations to come. We are going to Mekrol, in the foothills of the Uttermost Range, a place of which we have more legends than certain knowledge. So saddle up and let's go.”
Thirteen of the best horses had been picked out for them. They gave them a quick looking over, just for their own peace of mind, Quill muttering under his breath as he did so. When he was satisfied the wizard nodded to the others and they led them out into the courtyard. “Good luck!” someone shouted as they climbed into the saddles. “May Those Above go with you!”
“And may Those Above look after the Princess during our absence,” replied the Brigadier. He looked around to make sure they were all ready, then pointed forward, through the gates and along the road that led out of the barracks and out of the city. “Let's go!” he said.
The people of the city were again lining the streets as they rode their horses along the South Road, and they called out good wishes and farewells as the rangers passed by. Malone found himself growing uncomfortably self conscious at all the attention, and stared thankfully as the gatekeepers opened the gates of the city ahead of them. Outside, a column of merchants and travellers waiting to enter the city drew aside to let them pass, and he frowned doubtfully when he saw that some of them were Carrowmen, wearing the distinctive striped robes and turbans that were the traditional garb of that country. The people of Helberion were keeping a distance from them, and the rangers could feel an almost palpable hostility between them as news of what had happened to the Princess spread. “I think the guards are going to be busy over the next few weeks,” Malone whispered to Cowley, riding beside him. “There's going to be trouble.”
“Until the Carrowmen learn to stay away from the city,” agreed the other man, stroking his beard and eyeing the foreigners suspiciously.
Outside, fields of wheat blazed like gold in the light of the sun and waved in the light breeze like an ocean of water. The fragrance of dry grass that rose from all around blew in to replace the stinks of the city, and Malone breathed in deeply, savouring it with relief. Crows stared at them from their perches on railings and tree branches, cawing indignantly at this intrusion into their territory and leaping into the sky to circle overhead like black buzzards. They saw more travellers on the road, and these people stared at them curiously as they passed them by. The Brigadier was known across the whole kingdom and in many lands around, but news of the crisis that had afflicted the city had evidently not yet reached all the way to the more distant towns and villages.
They made good time through the friendly Helberion countryside, stopping at inns and boarding houses for the night, exchanging greetings with the other travellers they passed on the road. They rode in silence for the most part. They had gotten to know each other so well over the past few years that words were not necessary. One of the men would see a group of good looking women working a field and would give a grunt to attract the attentions of his fellows, followed by a nod of his head towards the objects of interests, bringing smiles and chuckles of appreciation, or one of them would scowl at a fly buzzing around his head, waving at it with his hand, causing the others to exchange amused glances. The Brigadier himself rode at the head of their little column, eyes fixed straight ahead, thinking thoughts that he kept to himself, and Malone rode beside him on his much smaller horse, silently cursing legs that still had not quite adapted themselves to a bipedal gait and that were sore from being spread wide on the saddle for hours at a time.
It took them a couple of weeks to reach the end of the civilised, well populated lands that surrounded the great city of Marboll, after which they found themselves passing through the much emptier, less friendly lands that covered the greater part of the world they lived in. There were still towns and villages to be found here, but they were a full days travel apart and suspicious of strangers, heavily defended against the wild tribes and bands of outlaws that preyed upon the weak and unprepared. Soon they found themselves passing beneath the dense canopy of the Great Southern Forest and felt the air growing heavy about them, humid and filled with clouds of biting insects. Every man kept himself wary and at full alert as they passed along the narrow road, knowing that unfriendly eyes could be upon them at any time, searching for signs that they would be easy prey. They kept swords, pistols and crossbows in plain sight, therefore, a warning and a deterrence in case the uniforms and armour of the Helberion Ranger Corps were not enough.
They spent their first night after entering the forest in an abandoned woodcutter’s cottage. They left the horses in the conveniently empty woodyard whose surrounding fence had been hastily repaired some time in the recent past, indicating that other travellers came this way on occasion, probably passing to and from the nearby market town of Thellow. The Brigadier detailed two of his men to keep watch in case they had visitors, then returned to where Malone was cooking a stew.
“Found some wild carrots growing out front,” the batman explained as the Brigadier bent over the cook pot. “Probably used to be a vegetable garden. Adds some much needed bulk to the mutton.”
“As do the globs, I see,” the Brigadier muttered to himself without enthusiasm.
“Nothing wrong with globs, Sir. My parents used to practically live on them. My dad said they’re ubi... ubi... What was the word? Ubiquitous. That means they’re good for you.”
“Your father had a rather larger vocabulary than you, didn’t he?” chuckled Crane, grinning at the others to share the joke. Malone shot him a savage look. “Back home, we had a big metal tank full of globs that we dropped all the food waste in. Potato peelings, carrot leaves, all the animal bits we didn't eat. The globs ate it all and multiplied like rabbits. They split in half when they get too big, you know. Then, anytime one of us fancied a snack we just scooped out a few with a big ladle, washed them, boiled them up and ate them like berries, just popped them into our mouths one at a time. We never went hungry in our family. I was thinking of carrying a few here, with us. A small sack or something...”
“Please don't,” said Crane, looking around at the others and winking.
Malone ignored him and spooned one of the small, gelatinous creatures out of the stew with the ladle. It’s original transparency was turning a milky white. Another few minutes should do it, he mused, dropping it back in.
“It had wings!” one of the men exclaimed with horror. “Little fly wings! I ain’t eating that! And that one’s got legs!”
“Makes it crunchy, Harper,” the batman replied curtly, taking a sip from his canteen.
‘Globs that are starting to turn taste funny. I ate one that had turned half into a snail. Tasted of goat turds!”
“I’m not going to ask how you know what goat turds taste like.”
“You got to throw away the ones that’ve started to turn! They’re no good for anything. Probably just die anyway.”
“It’s the ones that haven’t started to turn you should throw away,” put in another of the men, chewing the end of his pencil. “They might get adopted by something.” He bent back over his diary.
“Only one glob in thousands get adopted, you know that.”
“Yeah, but that one might be a human one day.” He began singing a childhood rhyme. “The glob gets adopted by the spi-der. The spider gets adopted by the field mouse. The mouse gets adopted by the puss cat. The cat gets adopted by the hound dog...”
“Dogs can’t adopt cats,” pointed out Harper. “They’re on the same rung,”
“It’s just a stupid rhyme...”
The Brigadier got to his feet and went outside, leaving the men to their banter. It was almost dark, and an almost full moon was rising above the treetops to the east. He passed a word with the two men guarding the horses, then went to stand by the ruined gates leading out into the countryside. He pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders against the chill and stood there for a while, listening to the starlight chorus of the night creatures. After a while Sergeant Blane came out to join him. He stood there in silence for a few moments, until the Brigadier turned to look at him. “Something on your mind, Blane?”
“Just thinking of the road ahead. The silk road takes us pretty close to Radiant territory. You remember Elleron? Back in our army days?”
“The Wiltsman. Not many foreigners join the Helberion army. Small guy. Tiny little eyes, always darting all over the place. Always had trouble making out what he was saying, that strange accent of his.”
“That’s the guy. Wasn't sure you'd remember him.”
“I remember them all. All the ones who died under my command. What about him?”
“He came from Forthold. Close to the Overmoors. That's Radiant territory, as you probably know. He was always talking about it, telling us all the stories they told about that place. People stayed well away from it. Those who got too close said they saw things. Lights in the sky. Not Radiants, other kinds of lights. And they said they heard voices. Human voices, but strange. Ellison always looked scared when he talked about it. The place genuinely spooked him. He said he joined the army just to get away from it.”
“Never took you for a superstitious man, Sergeant.”
“I'm not, but I've heard similar things from other people, we all have.” The Brigadier nodded. “I was thinking we could turn west, go through the Maybells. Just to be on the safe side.”
“That would put weeks on our journey. Princess Ardria may not have those weeks.”
“Better to get there late than not at all.”
“The Radiant lands aren’t any more dangerous than any other lands. I've been through a Radiant zone myself, during the Bailey incident. I actually came within sight of a Radiant city, and I know of others who've done the same thing. Merchants do it too, to get away from raiders and outlaws. People avoid the area for superstitious reasons.”
“There has to be something behind the stories. Something real...”
“Possibly, but we can't let our course be determined by such things. As it happens, I wasn’t thinking of taking the silk road.” Blane nodded in relief. “I was thinking of turning south.”
Blane stared at him. “Through Radiant territory?”
“Other people have done it. I've done it, as I just said.”
“And other people have disappeared without trace. Probably adopted by the Radiants, or killed for trespassing.” The Brigadier made no comment, and Blane sighed. “If you lead us there, we will follow. You know that. But are you sure this is a good idea?”
“It’ll save us six weeks. That could make all the difference.”
“As you say, Sir. I’ll tell the men.” The Brigadier nodded, and Blane left him to his thoughts.