It’s a fine day for flying, My Lady, Durandal commented as I ascended.
He was absolutely right. The mid-morning air was warm and the blue sky held only thinly scattered white tufts of cotton. If not for the soldiers constructing stockade walls, the setting would be a perfect pastoral spring day.
It is, I agreed, but I have a bit of work to do, before I can enjoy it, Old Man.
We would reconnoiter in stealth, but first we would give a morale-building performance. It didn’t need to be much, though. I had Torset tell the troops that their liege lord, Her Grace the Duchess Pendor, had sent two fairy knights to support them. It was incredibly lavish aid to send a single battalion, especially one that already included a special combat magic section, but it would bolster the spirits of soldiers disturbed by this spooky, mysterious place.
Incredibly lavish… and therefore possibly too incredible to believe, so we had to also provide proof. There was a really fast way to do so.
“Weapons out,” I called over to Dilorè as I drew Durandal. “This is a show, not just a fly-by.”
She smiled and unslung the giant’s-bone spear from over her shoulder, gripping it two-handed. She was still equipping her sword, but it seemed she had taken a real liking to her newest weapon. It was natural, since giant’s bones have magic enhancements to give them sufficient strength. This turned the spear into a viable material for magic focuses, making it not only a strong weapon but an enormous magic wand.
The town was small for a viscount’s capital, barely a half-mile across, but even at that size, a battalion couldn’t whip up fortifications to ring the entire place in a day. Even so, the soldiers had already completed almost the entire north face, the direction from which attacks out of the Highlands would most likely come.
Work was proceeding to prepare the ground for the east and west faces, but most soldiers were now reinforcing the existing works. Teams were digging a trench outside the wall and bagging up the dirt to move it inside to form a berm buttressing the inner face of the wall. Others were adding banquette platforms on top of the berm, where soldiers could stand on the inside of the wall to see and shoot over the top. This would convert the palisade to a rampart.
Thus, teams of soldiers were at work at many points all along the north face, executing a well-organized dance of construction.
Your king’s soldiers are well-trained, Durandal commented.
They are, but these are not my king’s soldiers, I answered. They’re my mother’s territorial militia. Pendorians refuse to forget they were once their own kingdom, so Mother’s militiamen are dedicated and proud.
Dilorè and I flew first to the east end of the wall. We skimmed the ground outside the ditch, a pair of mighty Fairy warriors fully visible to the soldiers laboring outside the wall, our wings spread wide, our weapons in hand, showing that we were ready to come to their aid.
We wheeled at the west end and ran along the inside of the palisade, only paces above the soldiers’ heads, then turned south to circle the perimeter of town, making another big splash with a low flyby of the train station. The cavalry troop that we arrived with had long since finished unloading, but there were troops guarding the station.
“Is this enough now?” my cousin asked.
After a moment to consider, I nodded. With the morale-building exercise complete, it was time to head out to our respective search areas.
“Let’s split up here. You fly up the east side and I’ll fly back up the west. We’ll cross the north side once more, then go our own ways.”
Dilorè was going to reconnoiter the surroundings to the east, west and south first, while I headed directly out to inspect the areas already reported to be affected.
I at last began finding damage when I ran across the first trampled farm. The farmhouse and other structures had been destroyed, and great gouges torn out of the fields. Nothing really showed me clearly what had done it, but a wide spread of fire damage, in long streaks largely running the same direction, did suggest that whoever had dealt with the one or more monsters had largely specialized in [Fireball] spells.
Pressing onward, I flew a ‘plowboy’ search pattern back and forth, finding further destroyed farms. Frankly, starting from a couple miles north of the town and running northward until the farmland ended, few farms went undamaged.
I bypassed the first undamaged farmstead I found, because one of Major Torset’s patrols was in the middle of inspecting it. But I landed at the next, sensing no occupants. When I investigated the barns, it was a very different story from town. All the pens had clearly been left open. Either the animals had been set free to fend for themselves, or they had been taken away.
The farmstead house itself was a sprawling Dorian villa that would have housed four or five families and a number of unmarried laborers. A commoner landlord had held court in the large but simply-furnished dining hall, managing his little domain with dreams that his descendants would expand it to someday reach baronet status or higher.
Such places, or the hamlets they often grew into, cultivated most of Pendor’s farmland. It was a much more productive system than the method used in the territories between Pendor and Atianus, where lords like Parna maintained estates of tens of thousand of acres, subdivided into thousands of lots tended by impoverished sharecroppers.
I dropped into the inner courtyard and explored the house, finding what I expected after seeing the barns: open drawers, many of them emptied, with discarded items lying scattered during the rush to leave. Cookware items were clearly missing, too. A half-pace-diameter wok should have been perched on that huge pit stove in the center of the kitchen, and smaller woks on the side stations. Dorian cooks treasure their pans more than anything other than their cooking knives.
Yes, there was a distinct lack of cutlery in the kitchen too.
These people had evacuated. It had been in a rush, but not in a panic. Had they moved into town, only to mysteriously vanish along with the townspeople, or had they traveled on to Narses? I dearly hoped it was the latter.
I moved on, investigating three more undamaged farms, and found the same story. I never found a single human occupant.
Once I was satisfied that the story would not change if I investigated any more farms, I turned northward and attacked the frontier.
I arrived at a garrison as empty as those farms, except without evidence that the soldiers and adventurers had evacuated. Valuable weapons and supplies had been left unguarded. And I discovered horses still in their stalls. I opened the stalls and the gate so they could go find food and water.
The watchtowers that monitored the edge of civilization told the same story. No sign of life, but no sign of attack either. The observation decks were empty, but fully fitted with observation equipment and spy glasses.
Spy glasses are expensive, portable and of great use. No soldier who wasn’t purposefully angling for demotion would leave them behind.
The towers were spaced about two miles apart, which was actually rather close together. That was a testament to the danger that the wilderness beyond presented. After the third watchtower, I decided I was wasting my time. The facts were clear. I took a seat on its roof and touched the magic stone pendant.
“Lucy, can you call Dilorè for me?”
“Call!” she answered from the stone without manifesting her illusory image.
A few moments later, my cousin answered.
“To the south, everything is peaceful,” she reported. “Also east and west, once you go out far enough, but within five miles of town, the farms are all empty. It’s spooky.”
“Same to the north,” I said, “Except most of the farms are badly damaged. But those that aren’t, are just deserted, like the town. Same with the garrison and watch towers.”
“Garrison and watch towers?” she asked. “It’s not just civilians who vanished, but the military stationed here?”
“It wouldn’t be a lot of troops,” I said. “Probably only a small cavalry unit, plus adventurers working from there. But they left behind weapons and supplies.”
After a long pause, Dilorè asked, “Time to explore the wilderness, then?”
I had been surveying the sea of trees and hills ahead of me. The landscape was lumpy in the near field but broke into craggy hills after a few miles. Those would continue to lift higher, into a wide, impassable upland that hugged the southern slope of the mountains that stretched across southern Orestania, separating Doria from the territories to its north.
Those mountains forced Parna to attack Mother’s duchy through his allies East Pendor and Lower Pendor. Coming south over them only to then attempt to cross the Highlands was out of the question. Whatever danger dwelled in this place shouldn’t have anything to do with him.
But that upland was also far, far away from the Tabad and other places where demons were known to lurk. There had been no demonic activity within hundreds of miles of this place.
Just what was waiting for us, there?
“I think we’re just about out of other choices,” I decided. “I’m at a watchtower just west of due north of town. Come join me.”
“I’ll be there shortly.”
“Lucy, can you try to speak to Chiara?”
“Try!” the spirit declared.
A few moments later, Chiara’s voice came across. “Goodness, Lucy! You scared me!”
I suppressed a smirk. Lucy must have just spoken up out of the blue. We hadn’t practiced, after all.
“Chiara? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, My Lady. Have you found something?”
“Much of the same, except that most farms were clearly destroyed by monster attacks, like Viscount Oseri reported. How about you?”
“Most of the houses in the area are already quarters for the soldiers, so we can’t inspect them. We’ve been speaking with soldiers building the fortifications instead. You made quite an impression on them, you know.”
I chuckled. We had overflown many of them at only a handful of paces above their heads.
“I assume they are all reporting the same sort of things.”
“Right. But also circulating ghost stories.”
“Ghost stories?” I echoed, my ears perking up. Anything unusual could be important.
But Chiara’s thoughts had already gone that direction, and she dismissed it. “Mostly tales of mysterious sounds and shadows seen last night, as told by the soldiers who arrived yesterday. I suspect the work of spooked imaginations and perhaps mischievous pixies. We’re awfully close to the wilderness, after all.”
“Right,” I nodded, as my briefly raised hopes fell. Soldiers from the city or less frontier-like farmland wouldn’t have experience dealing with the denizens of wild places wandering into this fringe of civilization. And the sudden disappearance of the locals may have piqued a lot of pixie interest, as well as the curiosities of other hinterland beings.
Dilorè appeared in the distance, approaching my perch. I told Chiara, “All the farms are empty, so we’re heading into the wilderness for a quick tour. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so we’ll be back late.”