Good Reef!

By ZEMarchant All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Humor

Chapter 7

The evening slowly crept in and enveloped the camp while Private Gogs Pretnar was walking among the fires with a furrowed brow. He wasn’t sure if he’d just seen what he thought he’d seen at the stream. Should he inform Lieutenant Bor or General Vars or just forget about it? He reached his blanket and sat down staring into the fire. Someone offered him some cheese and chutney and even though he wasn’t hungry, Gogs took it. It was a lovely chutney after all. More people sat down around him. The day had been long, but it was still a bit too early to sleep. Some were washing at the stream, others were polishing or sharpening their weapons and the rest just walked around joking or chatting. The atmosphere wasn’t the same as usual, however, because worry was spread among the soldiers. At least more than the usual worry about death, battle, the meaning of war, your lieutenant finding out that you had a relationship with another soldier in the garrison, Unicorns and all the rest. The reason for all this fresh worry was the lack of earthquakes. Since the large one the previous night, there had been no more tremors, and most people agreed it was a sign that something much worse was coming. They all felt this strong urge to get to the sea before the end of the world, and nobody wanted to be surprised by it in the middle of the night or on the road. Or worse, while squatting over the latrines. Because who wants to be surprised by the end of the world? You have to be prepared. Whatever that means…

Gogs noticed the flickering of the fires, even if nobody else did. He felt the growing magic in the air and heard the sounds in the forest. The woman he’d glimpsed at the stream couldn’t have been his imagination. It had been ages since he last, well… but it wasn’t that. Gogs looked around uncomfortably.

The General felt the tension among her men, but there wasn’t much she could do about it apart from her usual evening rounds. Sava walked among the soldiers exchanging jokes and checking how everyone was. It was important, she felt, to know all her men and women, and not just their names. This way she would know exactly what to expect of them. And when. Sava had absolutely no magical abilities and a very basic understanding of it, but even she could feel the magic in the air getting denser with every passing hour. She looked around and thought that maybe it was also responsible for the soldiers’ growing unease. She patted a few more backs and headed towards Private Gordon Pretnar. He understood magic more than anyone else here, even if he was too ashamed to admit it to people. She knew though that as a child he showed some promise. Not enough to become a magician however, so instead Gogs was taught by a local healer in the art of basic magic and healing with herbs and such. He managed to poison her during one of the exams and she refused to continue teaching him. Apparently she valued her health too much. Selfish broad.

‘Private Pretnar,’ Sava said in a tone of voice that meant business and definitely did not imply a friendly chat.

‘Yes, sir,’ he said standing up immediately.

‘I’ve been told you haven’t done such a great job dealing with the latrines this evening. You know there should be a layer of sand all over them. What do you have to say for yourself?’

‘I… I apologise, sir. I was sure I did it correctly.’

‘You did not. Grab a shovel and do it again. And this time, I’m going to watch you do it, Private.’

Some nudges ensued around the fire, and stifled laughter was heard for a second, but it died quickly under the gaze of General Vars, who then walked away with a miserable looking Gogs in tow.

They got a shovel from the quartermaster and walked out amongst the trees towards the latrines. Once they were well hidden from view the General stopped walking and motioned for Gogs to do the same.

‘I apologise for this, Private but I had to get you here without anyone getting suspicious.’

‘Sir?’ he asked getting quite hot all over, despite the evening breeze.

‘I thought we should keep this quiet.’

‘Sir?’ he repeated hoarsely.

‘Well, I know that you’re not comfortable with people knowing about your talents...’

‘Sir?’

‘…and I thought it would be better for now not to worry the other men… but have you noticed anything weird happening around?’

‘Sir?’

‘I have to say it’s commendable that you know how to address your superiors but try to use other words.’

‘Yes… sir.’

‘Good enough,’ she sighed and pointed around ‘But listen.’

Gogs fought the urge to say ‘Sir?’ again and followed the instructions as ordered. At first it seemed that there was nothing wrong. Some faint murmurs and general camp noise reached his brain through the still rushing blood in his ears. And then he heard other things, other murmurs and faint tinkling of magic, this time coming from the forest around them.

‘You can hear it, sir?’ he asked surprised.

‘Of course I can hear it. I’m sure everyone does. They just ignore it.’

‘Oh, no, sir. It’s actually very rare to hear magic. If there’s enough of it in the air people can feel it, but very few can hear it.’

‘Well, I pay attention. Most people don’t. They ignore things. I can’t afford to ignore anything, because it’s my job to know more than others. Now, Private, tell me what’s happening.’

He shuffled his feet a bit uneasily.

‘From what I can tell… you know that I never actually finished me trainin’? I wouldn’t trust meself too much.’

‘I trust you plenty. Accept it, Private, you have more authority on these matters than anyone else in the camp – so talk.’

Gogs hung his head sadly and scratched his ear.

‘It seems that the tremors may have woken somethin’ up. It’s bein’ drawn to come out of all those places, where it’s been hidin’ until now.’

‘Hiding?’

He shuffled again and looked at her with a pained expression. She understood his discomfort.

‘I know it feels wrong to have to explain things to your General. Don’t worry. Go ahead. Assume I’m an idiot in these matters and be concise.’

‘Well, you know how there’s been legends about Ancient Creatures and such? Some we know exist, like the Unicorns. But others seem to be only legends. Well, when I was in trainin’ I learned that all those creatures really existed once but that, well, we killed them all. Or most of them anyway. They hid away underground, in dark forests, any place where we couldn’t get to them no more. But magic attracts them, and there’s been some powerful magic in the air lately. Since the tremors, that is. And it’s been growin’, and all night last night and all of today it seemed to be gettin’ really strong. Stronger than I’ve ever felt anyhow. My guess is that apart from the magic that’s lurin’ them out, they add their own magics to it, and that’s why there’s so much of it in the air. And we’ve been walkin’ in the direction of the dark forest which is now just across the road. I can’t even guess how many magical creatures had been livin’ there before the other ones started wakin’ up.’

Sava nodded and furrowed her lovely brow.

‘Is there any danger from them?’

‘Oh, sure. Not all, but some can be right deadly. And what with them bein’ woken up and dragged from wherever they were hidin’ I wouldn’t think they’d be in too good a mood, sir.’

‘Can we protect ourselves?’

‘There are some things we can do, but they’d be more general, seein’ as we don’t know what we’d be tryin’ to ward off,’ he shrugged.

‘Do those. Assuming you can?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘You notice anything; you tell me. We need your skills, no matter how limited they might be,’ she said ignoring his protests. ‘Your secret might have to be revealed. And from now on you’ll be travelling close to me. Understood?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Anything else I should know?’

‘Well, sir, there was somethin’… I thought I imagined it but… There might be somethin’ in the stream. She didn’t bother me, so it may have been Beregynia, and we all have some metal amulets with us…’

‘We do?’

‘Yes, sir. As part of our uniform, every piece of metal is inscribed with protective symbols. They don’t work on everything but should protect against some creatures. I think they were needed centuries ago and people just kept using them without understandin’,’ he looked up at her and Sava smiled.

‘Tradition,’ he said ‘But if she’s a Vodyanicha, then she can be dangerous.’

‘Get to it. You might have to ask someone for help. Make them keep your secret if you need to, but I don’t think it’ll last. Sorry.’

He shrugged and shuffled again.

‘I think we should be getting back to the camp,’ she said, turned away and started following lights she believed were coming from the fires.

‘Sir,’ said Gogs.

‘Yes?’

‘I don’t think that’s the way.’

‘Don’t be silly, Private. Of course it is. I can see the fires.’

‘I believe you’re bein’ fooled, sir.’

She turned around and her eyes narrowed.

‘Those are not the fires, sir. That’s Ogniki. They’ll be leadin’ you to swamps or marshes, sir.’

‘How are you not fooled then?’

He shrugged again.

‘I already mentioned that you’re to travel close to me from now on, didn’t I?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good. Now, lead the way.’

The day had been interesting enough, and the general wasn’t happy about the possibility of the night being even more interesting. They’d seen an obviously cooked knight on the road this morning. Although how that happened was anyone’s guess. In the late afternoon they saw a number of bodies, some of them decapitated, of what seemed to be a group of bandits. Good riddance but the stench was quite bad. Summer after all…

There were bits already missing from the dead bandits and a pack of animals scurried away at the sight of the scouts getting close. Some of the animals stayed as long as they could and tried dragging bits of food off with them. It’s not often you find such a feast.

General Vars ordered (with a gracious nod from the king) that the bodies (or at least what was left or could be found in the nearby bushes) be buried. It didn’t take long and the noble act could only be counted in their favour when (or if) the world finally ended.

They had even been visited by another Unicorn and now Sava was getting sick of surprises. The General loved boring journeys especially on a campaign – the more boring the better. She couldn’t wait to get to the sea and face whatever was there. The end of the world was welcome, as long as she was facing it and not having to get past it.

Back at the camp, she noticed Private Pretnar walking around with a few other (mostly female) soldiers, pretending to be pleasantly chatting, even though most people were sound asleep. When in fact, if one looked closely (and Sava always did), one would notice that they were placing various small accoutrements around the camp, stopping from time to time, scattering more bits of hastily created charms of paper, plants and metal, and obviously murmuring something under their noses. They then disappeared in the direction of the stream but returned very quickly and headed towards the General with their faces rather pale in the dim moonlight. She didn’t need them to say anything. Sava already knew what happened.

‘Dead?’ she asked when the group of three women and two men got close enough for her speak to them quietly.

‘Yes, sir,’ answered Gogs.

‘Who?’

‘Private Rayan, sir. We haven’t pulled him out yet.’

‘Don’t do it just yet. Go back there and do whatever it is you were planning on doing to protect us from whatever killed him. I’ll join you in a moment.’

She was about to leave but saw the pained expression on Gogs’s face.

‘Anything else?’

‘I… I am sorry, sir. I am responsible for this.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Private. It was the right choice to try and protect the camp first.’

‘But I saw her… I should’ve…’

‘What? Spread panic and face ridicule? No. You couldn’t have done anything. You may have very well been wrong. And who knows how many you protected just by talking to me tonight and to your companions?’ she nodded her head towards the four soldiers ‘Now you can protect the rest of us by going back there and doing what you can. And for the moment, not a word to anyone, or I’ll have your hides. Understood?’

‘Yes, sir,’ they said in unison and quickly went back towards the stream.

The General sighed and gathered her two lieutenants and five sergeants. Without a word she led them to the stream, and the men knew better than to ask questions. They reached the small group of soldiers hanging ribbons on low hanging branches over the water and throwing what seemed like hard boiled eggs into the stream. Gogs ran up to the new arrivals.

‘It might be a good idea for you to bow,’ he whispered hurriedly.

‘Excuse me, Private?’ asked one of the sergeants in disbelief.

‘Towards the lake, sir,’ urged Gogs. Sava sighed and bowed urging her men to do the same. They bowed and stared at her. In response she pointed to Private Rayan’s half-naked body floating near the bank. There was a shirt, a jacket and a pair of boots on the sand. Somehow the moon reflecting in the dark water made it all worse.

It took a while for Gogs to fully explain to the officers what had transpired, but they had no reason not to believe him. Especially, since most of them had been feeling rather uneasy and couldn’t put their fingers on why that was. Now they knew.

‘Private Rayan was in your division, wasn’t he, Stak?’ lieutenant Bor asked a short, sweaty sergeant, who was still staring at the body.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And nobody noticed he was gone?’

‘It hasn’t been long. I do remember him coming this way not an hour ago. Some soldiers take even longer at the latrines. Poor man, though. Not even to die in battle but lured in there by some watery wench.’

Gogs gave them a frantic look, and the sergeant nodded with a scowl. Everyone was deep in thought.

‘Was His Majesty informed?’ asked Bor.

‘Not yet,’ answered Sava biting on her cheek ‘You know him. There’s no point presenting him with a problem and not giving him some sort of a plan or a solution. Right,’ she said clearly making a decision ‘I did consider hiding this. We could’ve come up with something believable, but if more creatures are going to show up, and we’re sure that they are, then it’s better to make the men feel like they’re prepared. It’s far better than suspicions, gossip and slowly spreading fear. First thing tomorrow morning, you gather your divisions and tell them what we know. Gently, though. We don’t want them losing their wits. Some of these soldiers come from very small villages and have no problem facing a man in armour, but mention something about the Ancients and they will run. Make sure that whoever knows anything about magical creatures or wishes to take responsibility for protecting their division goes to talk with Private Pretnar. He will instruct the volunteers in some very basic precautions and responsibilities they will have for the rest of our journey, so we will have to delay moving out by an hour. Thankfully, we should reach the sea tomorrow afternoon, and I have a feeling that’s our destination. Does that sound reasonable?’

They all nodded and murmured something incomprehensible. Not many generals asked sergeants for opinions.

‘What about the stream?’ asked an overly muscled sergeant called by everyone (though not to his face obviously) New Moon, because his arms were permanently slightly raised and made him look like a new moon pointing downwards.

‘Private?’ Bor called Gogs and his companions over.

‘Yes, sir?’

‘How safe is this area now?’

The five soldiers looked at each other with doubt.

‘We did what we could. But more can be done.’

‘What do you propose?’

‘The creature I saw… it appeared to be female, sir, so I think that there should be a female soldier or two chaperonin’ the men if they need a shave or a wash. The creature won’t be able to lure the women, unless that’s the female soldier’s preference,’ he added blushing slightly. ‘This way if it tries anythin’ again, the man could be dragged away to safety.’

‘Wouldn’t he fight back at his chaperone?’ asked New Moon.

‘Oh, yes, sir. I should think so. But a good punch or a kick should make him snap out of it.’

‘Just what we need,’ sighed Bor.

‘Fine. Men might be uncomfortable with this, but considering that their other option might be an unpleasant watery death, I think they’ll be fine with the rules,’ said Sava. ‘In the morning they’re only to come here in groups. I know we have less women then men, so it might take a while. Some will probably take the opportunity not to wash all together. And nobody is to go to the latrines alone. I don’t care how uncomfortable that makes them. Until then I must ask you,’ she said to the five soldiers and the officers ‘to take turns in watching this area. If any soldier feels the need to have a midnight swim, turn them round. And try keeping an eye out on the forest and on how the soldiers standing guard are doing. Understood?’

‘Yes, sir,’ they said.

‘Good. You organise all that, Bor. Now,’ she sighed ‘I think it might be time to talk to His Majesty. Who wants the honour of waking him?’

Everyone was suddenly looking at their feet.

‘Just as I thought,’ she said and turned towards the camp. She stopped and added ‘Private Pretnar. You’re coming with me.’

‘Yes, sir,’ he said joining her side, and they quickly disappeared into the dark. It was now getting very late. The group on the bank stood there for a moment not looking forward to the rest of the night.

‘Right,’ said Bor turning to them ‘We’re not having anyone else die here tonight. Agreed?’

A soldier called Derit disappeared in the night. He was standing guard when lieutenant Bor walked past and asked if everything was in order.

‘Yes, sir,’ he replied ‘Everything’s just fine.’

‘Good,’ replied Bor and went to check on another guard. Only a few minutes later New Moon noticed the abandoned post but they weren’t going to go looking for Derit in the middle of the night. It was seriously considered, though nobody would even know where to start, so with heavy hearts they awoke his replacement and posted double guards. Every officer stood guard with a private, pretending to just be looking for some company, all the while scanning the trees for whatever took Derit.

A bit later Gogs heard a quiet struggle inside the camp and ran to investigate. Private Petal was fighting in her sleep, while something was sitting right on top of the girl trying to strangle her. The creature, noticing the advancing help, immediately disappeared leaving the victim to roll over and sigh with relief. Petal never even woke up. Gogs quietly searched the area and was about to leave when he noticed a single piece of hay attached to Petal’s sleeve. It wouldn’t be so strange normally, but he considered it for a moment and very delicately grabbed it before moving towards the fire.

‘I could let you burn, you know,’ he murmured, feeling rather stupid doing it ‘But I’m goin’ to let you go. None of us have done you any harm, I’m sure, and I hope that you will refrain from trying to harm us. I let you go in peace.’ Trying not to get noticed, Gogs carried the piece of hay to the border of the camp and dropped it on the ground. He stared at it for a moment feeling rather ridiculous and was about to leave when it turned into a pine marten and quickly ran towards the trees. He said a few incantations hoping they were the right ones, since the previous charms obviously hadn’t worked very well, and was ordered soon afterwards to try and catch some sleep, which he duly did.

The dark night was slowly turning grey, and the shapes of the trees were becoming clearer with every minute. Sava, her officers, Gogs and his four helpers slept in turns, but none got more than four or five hours each. General Vars wasn’t happy with this because tired soldiers’ brains don’t work as well as rested ones. But there was nothing they could do about it, and hopefully they could catch some more rest when they reached the sea.

His Majesty didn’t have any problems with falling back asleep after being awoken by Vars and Private Pretnar. He slept the relaxed sleep of someone protected by a hundred people, not counting the officers (well, ninety nine or ninety eight depending on whether Derit survived or not), and who is comfortable in the belief that others will take care of everything. His advisors however couldn’t close their eyes for any longer than a few minutes each, at which point they’d snap them open again and look around in panic. Every crackle of wood in the fires, every crunch of twigs in the forest, every sigh of a sleeping soldier was multiplied and twisted inside their heads into something monstrous, only waiting for an opportunity to drag them into the forest, drown them, drink their blood, rip their throats out or use them for carnal pleasure (well, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, depending on the creature, of course). Most unusually for them, the next morning they were the first to rise and watched in worry as the officers woke their garrisons, got them in closely gathered groups and talked to them quietly pointing to a fresh grave in the far corner of the clearing. Sometimes louder voices would rise above the quiet murmur but were immediately cut short. It seemed that whatever fear of the supernatural the soldiers carried in their hearts, the fear of General Vars’ disapproval was much greater. For the moment anyway.

Soon enough someone noticed Derit’s feet sticking out from between the trees. It turned out that he hadn’t gone that far from the camp in the end. He had a deep wound in his chest but no trace of blood on his clothes or on the ground. Gogs was called over and had a quiet look.

‘I’m not really interested in what did this,’ said Sava ‘I just want to know if we can stop this from happening again.’

‘I…,’ he started ‘Against one of them, yes.’

The general sighed.

‘I’m sure I don’t want to know but I probably need to. Talk.’

‘The wound and the lack of blood… that seems to be a Vupar…’

‘Like a vampire?’ asked weakly the soldier who found Derit’s body. He was small and naturally pale. At the moment he looked practically translucent. ‘It’s similar. A vampire would usually just drink some blood while you’re sleepin’. It won’t even wake you or drink you dry, so for the next few days you’ll be weak but that’s all. You recover. Vupar’s got itself a sharp, pointy tongue it’ll use to stab you in the chest and then just drink up.’

‘But we can easily protect against them, can’t we?’ asked the general.

‘Oh, sure. Garlic should do just fine. But the problem is; Derit knew better than to leave his post. Even to investigate something he’d get someone to go with him. Something charmed him into leavin’ without alertin’ anyone and Vupars can’t do that.’

‘Are you suggesting they’re cooperating now?’ asked Sava incredulously.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Oh, for gods’ sakes,’ she sighed again ‘Right. You,’ she pointed to the pasty white soldier, whose nickname was Dough ‘go get some people and dig a grave for Derit. We’re not going to leave him here for wild animals to feast on. He was our companion, and we owe him some respect.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ he said and ran off.

‘And you,’ she said to Gogs ‘I hope you have some teaching skills because we need those.’

Gogs looked at his shoes sadly. He proved many years ago that his learning skills weren’t very good. What was the chance of his teaching skills being any better?

The cook began preparing a massive cauldron of porridge while eighteen people joined Gogs for a basic course in magic protection. Four of those were friends from his own division. Now each sergeant would have three or four people responsible for magical safety, at least in theory. The General joined them as well, even though her presence was a bit stressful for Gogs, who still felt uneasy explaining things to his superior. Everyone else was trying to eat breakfast without jumping at the slightest sound coming from the forest. They walked to the latrines in groups, and their discomfort about that was practically nonexistent; in fact, the more the merrier. Very few men chose to wash that morning however, despite assurances that going there with women was only a precaution and the charms from last night should work. It was an occasion not to wash and they took it gladly. Under the supervision of a small number of women, they got a few buckets of water and used them to shave inside the camp. Taking horses to drink from the stream was done in groups, but there was no apparent danger in sight.

The group gathered around Gogs listened intently. Nothing better than fear to give you hunger for knowledge. He was going through some simple charms woven from juniper and hawthorn, which he’d gathered the previous evening with the help of his companions when something caught the General’s attention. There was a man standing among the trees and staring at the clearing. He was tall, slim, with a long, black moustache and wore a large, brown coat and a big, fur hat. The two guards on her side of the camp noticed him as well and were shifting uneasily looking back to their officers. A single man was no threat – but who knew if he was really a man. The General stood up to a howling of wolves coming from behind the man, who smirked with delight. A few of the animals peered through the bushes with interest. The camp fell completely silent, and the stranger, happy with the impression he’d made, began walking towards the king and his aides while his wolves stayed behind.

‘Boruta?’ asked the General, suddenly remembering legends from her childhood. Even a short session with Pretnar seemed to jog her memory. He quickly nodded, his eyes wide and following the man just like everyone else’s. The General hurriedly walked towards His Majesty, trying hard not to run, because that would be undignified. He and his aides were also staring at the stranger; the king with amused interest, his advisors with terror. The guards standing next to them seemed lost and reached for their swords.

‘Stand down,’ barked the general getting closer and with a nod, let them know to quietly remove themselves from their posts. ‘You, too,’ she said to a group milling about near the border of the camp. Then she turned, ‘I must insist that Your Majesty follows my suit in everything to do with this man.’

‘As you wish, General,’ laughed the king. He wasn’t sure why everyone seemed so tense. He was having a wonderful time — all this magic, Ancient Creatures and the like. Shame of course about the dead men... ‘The same goes for you,’ he turned to his advisors, who wished they could, like the guards, remove themselves from view.

The tall man reached the boundaries of the camp set by Gogs and his companions just a few hours before. He was about to walk past a few staring soldiers but stopped dead, and with a confused expression looked at the ground. More howling came from the forest, as Sava walked towards the man, who seemed unable to come any closer.

‘Welcome, stranger,’ she said ‘What brings you here?’

He examined her and narrowed his eyes.

‘Would you share your meal with me?’ he asked and kept staring at her.

The general smiled widely and stood aside.

‘Of course. Be our guest, stranger. We have more than enough and would be happy to share.’

The man glared at the ground and, looking uncomfortable, appeared to growl under his breath.

‘My apologies,’ said Sava coming closer. ‘Are those in your way?’ She stared him right in the eye, and with a great, big smile on her face she kicked some twigs and other things aside without even looking. She backed away again. ‘Please, sit down with us.’

The man seemed surprised and grumbled something to himself, before slowly making a step forward. He stopped for a second, walked past Sava without a word and sat himself down opposite the king who watched the whole exchange with interest. The two advisors on both sides of His Majesty kept their eyes on their food. The General quickly got a bowl of porridge from the worried cook and offered it to the stranger, sitting down to his right.

‘Were you out hunting?’ she asked conversationally.

‘Possibly,’ he answered starting to spoon the porridge past the hanging moustache and glancing once at her and once at the king, completely ignoring his aides, who were quite happy about that.

‘Any luck?’ asked the king politely.

‘I’m not sure yet.’

‘Ah, set traps did you?’

‘As did you.’

‘We did?’ inquired the king looking at Sava.

‘No, sir. Just a few repelling charms here and there.’

‘Repelling what exactly, General?’

‘The Ancient Creatures who would wish to harm us, sir. We arranged it last night.’

‘Ah, yes.’

‘Can you blame them for wanting to harm you?’ asked the stranger without stopping his eating.

‘Seeing as I have never harmed them myself, I can actually.’

‘You never had a chance to harm any because your kind near wiped them all off the face of the world.’

‘I should not be responsible for the evils of others.’

‘But you would blame the whole of Ancient kind for the deaths of your soldiers.’

‘I only blame myself for the deaths of my soldiers.’

They were now staring at each other so intently that the stranger forgot to eat. His Majesty continued enjoying his porridge, however. The cook must’ve added some butter to it that morning. It was really quite good.

‘Are you telling me, General,’ sneered the man ‘that you would not kill those who have tried to kill you?’

‘I’m not saying that at all. If someone tries to kill me, I will try to kill them right back. I will not let them take my life because of the transgressions of others against them. But I do not hunt anything for pleasure or because of its species. I am a soldier. I kill at war. I don’t kill without a reason.’

‘What kind of reason is war?’

‘War’s not my personal invention.’

‘Yet you fuel it. And you condone it,’ he said turning to the king, who had just finished his porridge and wiped his mouth on an embroidered hanky. He sat quietly for a moment considering the stranger. The aides were outraged but too terrified to say anything.

‘I’m trying to stop it, actually,’ he said ‘My father started it. Some people say that the son is responsible for the evils of the father. If that’s true, then I am responsible for this war. But I’ve been trying to stop it. Quite desperately.’

‘Not desperately enough if it still persists.’

‘I’m not sure that it does. You see, there’s this Wall…’

‘I know all about the Wall. I am here because of the Wall.’

‘Ah? Just like us then?’

‘No, not like you. I was dragged here against my will and better judgement. You come here because you’re curious and frightened.’

‘You’re not curious?’ asked Sava.

‘No. I know everything there is to know and I’m not afraid of what follows the appearance of the Wall. My only fear is what follows in the wake of your kind. With so many of the Ancients dragged here from their hiding places and woken from their slumber, you can be sure that more will die. And so precious few are left.’ He scraped the remains of his porridge, and Sava gestured for the cook to bring another bowl, which she handed to the stranger herself.

‘So what are your plans then?’ she asked.

‘Hunting,’ he said grinning ‘I haven’t been very successful thus far, but who knows, eh? This porridge is delicious, by the way. Is that butter?’ he looked at the wide-eyed cook, who slowly nodded his bald head.

‘I haven’t had butter in ages. Literally,’ he said and promptly burst out laughing. Everyone watched him shovel the porridge into his mouth until his cheeks puffed out like a hamster’s. He then swallowed it all in one gulp. His eyes popped and his neck swelled after which he sighed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

‘Well, I’ll be off. Thank you for offering me your food.’

You’re welcome,’ said the King automatically. ‘Any time.’

‘I feel I should wish you luck with your hunting, but I’m not sure I want to,’ added Sava getting up with the man, who laughed heartily in reply. ‘So I hope that many invite you to share their meal.’

‘For their own good maybe,’ he grinned ‘But for my own enjoyment, I hope not.’ The man began walking away and was joined by Sava. He looked at her unhappily, glanced down and crossed the border to the camp in the exact same spot, where he’d entered it.

‘Do you have any advice for us, stranger?’ she asked.

He turned around and, deep in thought, played with his moustache for a moment.

‘No,’ he finally decided ‘I don’t wish to help a whole garrison of soldiers. And you, general Sava Vars, you don’t need any advice. If what you told me about yourself is true, then you should have no problems facing that which you must face. If you have lied, however, then soon I won’t have anything left to hunt,’ he laughed as though this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard, turned around and very soon disappeared into the forest to a joyous, howling reaction from his wolves.

Slowly the camp returned to normal. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and His Majesty gave a happy clap of excitement. They must be the first people in centuries to encounter Boruta. How wonderful was that? His aides didn’t comment. They were feeling a little sick.

Gogs continued with his lesson, and Sava joined the group again, while the rest of the soldiers packed equipment, put out the fires with shaving water and made sure the horses were ready to go. After that, they just had to wait for Gogs and his students to organise themselves and their very basic knowledge for the good of the garrison. Sava was optimistic. Gogs was a patient and clear teacher, they hadn’t killed any Ancients (and they were going to try not to) and Boruta paid them a friendly (well…) visit. Sava was smart and didn’t let his final words mess with her head. He knew her name, hence he knew her thoughts, and so he must’ve known that she was telling the truth. Boruta was just trying to play a trick on her and make Sava doubt her choices. As long as she was true to herself and to what she believed, the General was going to make the right decisions. She hoped…

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