Half Blood Part XXIII--The Preparations
Over the next week, people streamed into the village as quickly as they were sent out again. Old men came through, ready to finish their lives by battling for their country. Middle-aged soldiers, war-hardened, were immediately given marching orders to River Fortress. Those who couldn't fight were put to work shoring up the defenses of the fortress. Young recruits signed up by the dozens. By day, they trained hard. By night, they crowded into the village houses and overflowed into the fields for food and sleep.
Even women came to offer what help they could. They cooked, helped take care of animals, and stitched blankets, saddles, and clothes. Onna took several of them, including Kearah, under her wing to teach them about healing herbs and medicines.
"Goodness knows we'll need healers in the days to come," Onna told Varian one day when he poked his head into her tent. "How come the recruits?"
"Fine. Umm, you havenae seen Archflame around?"
Onna shook her head. No one had, not since the day Kearah and Varian had watched the sunset from the sky. Scouts had been sent out to find both Archflame and Jokk, but no to avail.
"Someone had to have heard somethin' at least," Varian muttered.
"What do you mean?"
"Sometime durin' last night, Flameclaw disappeared. I've talked to everyone, and they all saw they neither saw nor heard him leave. Dragons dinnae just up and disappear."
"He probably left at the changing of the watch. I doubt that anyone could have sen if he had a rider or not, in the dark. And his going would have been covered by others."
Varian grunted and shook his head. "I should've thought of that. Well done, Onna. Are ye sure ye donnae want to take over my post?"
"And leave ye here to be in charge of the medicine tent?" Onna rolled her eyes. "Ye'd dose men complainin' of a stomachache with the herbs for the headache."
"I know those herbs at least. Green yantelli for the headaches, orange for stomachaches."
"Well, at least I taught you something. Now go on. I have to show these young ladies the difference between a few crucial herbs."
Varian nodded and strode away from the tent. The village was louder than he'd ever imagined it now. Clusters of women sat in front of the houses, sewing and chattering. Boys and girls ran to and fro, carrying supplies and messages. Soldiers lead horses to the harried blacksmith shops.
As he slid between two horses, he automatically touched his hip to keep his sword from catching. It wasn't there. Ever since Darkfang had thrown it over the cliff, Varian had used a quoroni, determined to master the weapon of his country. But he had yet to pick one out from the weapons tent. It felt strange walking around without a weapon save his dagger.
He passed Solvar at the weapons tent and nodded to him. Solvar nodded back, his forehead wrinkled. Varian stopped. He'd seen that face too many times to ignore it.
"What now?" he asked.
"Dulcan thought we'd have enough weapons to go around." Solvar scratched his ear. "I'm nae so sure now. Soon we'll be sharpenin' the practice swords, though they're of poor quality."
"Well, we'll make do. Maybe some local farmers have old scythes we could hammer into spears."
"That's an idea. I'll send a few boys out now."
"How many recruits have come?"
"About two hundred. We're actually gatherin' more men than Jokk thought—not a lot, but it's a start."
Varian smiled. "Some good news for once. That's nice to hear."
He looked over the practice field. Young soldiers covered the trampled grass. Some were drilling in archery and other were sparring under the supervision of older men. He sighed. I think we might be able to do this.
"Varian!" Mel slid to a halt beside him. "The lairds are coming." He pointed to the far end of the training field.
Varian shaded his eyes and looked up. Sure enough, dragons cirled above the village. He recognized two of the dragons and made his way along the hill to meet them. All the dragons landed quickly, and their riders tumbled off.
Varian greeted them, easily remembering the names. Then he stood, waiting for them to say something.
Mykale spoke first. "Where's Jokk? Why didnae he greet us?"
"Jokk has disappeared. I mentioned that in my message," Varian said. "And Archflame has gone also."
Revan frowned. "I knew both of 'em were poor choices for lairds."
"Revan!" Mykale muttered sharply.
"Jokk's always too emotional, gettin' worked up about commonplace thin's and not payin' no mind to anyone's advice. And Archflame, now, he's a mighty fighter, but flighty. Flighty as all get out. Most dragons are, save my own Redtooth." Revan squinted at Varian. "Who's in charge around here now?"
"Archflame thought it best that Dulcan, Solvar, and I share the responsibilities. Right now, ye'll find Solvar at the weapons tent, and Dulcan is at River Fortress with a crew of masons and soldiers."
Revan sniffed. "Well, I'd best go mind my dragon. Then I'll find the men from my province. See how they're gettin' on."
Shotar and Mykale followed him, each saying similar things. Varian was left on the hillop with Benvahr. The laird looked over th practice field and smiled.
"Ye seem to be doin' well in Jokk's absence, lad."
"Donnae mind Revan. We're all a mite worked up about Jokk's disappearance. But I've seen it before. He'll show up when he's ready."
"If he shows up at all," Varian sighed.
Benvahr put his hand on Varian's shoulder. "Ye had a good insight on hope there, laddie. Gladdened my heart to hear a youngster with so much wisdom."
Varian thanked him as his mind whirled. Wisdom? That's just the simple truth. How could there be so much wisdom in that?
Benvahr walked away to attend to his dragon. Varian wandered down to the weapons tent and stepped inside. He idly sorted through the quoronis stacked on a table, wondering what everyone meant about his wisdom and how he was supposed to find his destiny.
Danilos lounged in his chair, staring at the maps strewn over the table. For once, all the counselors were gone, leaving him to think without their niggling questions. They were reluctant to obey him, yes, but at least they still thought Jevran was in hiding instead of tucked away in the castle dungeon.
He reached out and tapped at the topmost map, humming. River Fortress. Who knew that the Highlanders would have been brave enough to make a stand there? The place had been run-down and abandoned for years, but his scouts had just brought the news that the Highlanders were swarming it. They'd done some work on the walls already.
Danilos snorted. As if that would help them. It was a good thing he'd already gained the Council's permission to go to war. If they marched within a day, his army would easily reach the fortress before the Highlanders were ready for him.
A thud sounded on the door.
"Yes, come in," Danilos called.
A small, thin man slid in. "Good day, sire. Thought I'd drop in to report."
"Ah, Brack. How goes the training, my man?"
Brack licked his lips and grinned. "More or less well, sire. There are a few who are having trouble. But you can't build a love of flying into a man in a week."
"Are they good enough that you think we could start a war?"
"I'd say so. We'll loose men, but—" Brack shrugged. "War casualties. It will happen anyway. And no matter how many men we loose, I doubt that the Highlanders could overcome us."
"Very good. We'll march at dawn tomorrow, then."
Danilos waited until his new captain left. Then he stood, stretched, and ambled through the door. The halls were quiet around the Council room, as was usual. Once he got further away, there were occasional servants and a faint murmur from the kitchen. He stepped through doorways, doubling back and winding around the castle so that, if anyone was tailing him, it would look like he was on an aimless stroll. Then he ducked through a doorway into a crumbling staircase.
Near the bottom, he staggered and leaned against the wall. He rubbed a hand over his eyes. The Kamaril Rites weren't performed without some sacrifice. So far it had manifested itself in infrequent dizzy spells. From his reading, he knew that unless he practiced and grew used to his new power, he would be overcome by sickness and die.
The dizziness passed and he continued on. Finding those books had been a good stroke of luck.
Danilos stepped into the dungeon and wove his way through the muck-filled halls. H paused outside a door, lit a torch by snapping his fingers, and passed inside. "Well, Jevran, how are you recovering?"
Jevran's head snapped toward him. A gag was wadded in his mouth, but that didn't disguise the unmistakeable sound of snarling. He wrenched at the chains pinning him to the wall. Danilos reached through the bars of the cell and jerked the gag out. Jevran coughed and spat at his hand.
"Get away from me, wizard," he growled.
"Be careful. Remember what I did last time you spat upon me," Danilos said.
Jevran thumped his head back against the wall and groaned.
"How do you feel?"
"Why do you care?"
Danilos fisted his hand tightly. Jevran's shoulders hunched, and he leaned forward, gasping. The muscles in his neck twitched.
"Didn't we have this discussion before, Jevran?" he asked. "Didn't I tell you to answer me when I asked questions?"
Jevran writhed and tried to pull in air. His lungs only made a dry sucking sound. Danilos snorted and flicked his hand open. Jevran crumpled against the wall, hyperventilating.
"We'll try again. How do you feel?"
Jevran glared at him. "As well as I can after you worked me over."
Danilos let the non-answer pass. "I thought I'd tell you something. I've heard news of your little brother."
"You what? How? What did you do to Varian, you sick—"
"Hold your tongue. I haven't done anything to him yet. He's busy helping the Highlanders with their preparations for war, as pitiful as they are. He's even become a dragonrider."
"You're lying." Jevran leaned his head back, panting. "Varian never liked heights."
"He's a dragonrider. And I'll tell you something else. After I destroy the Highlanders and the dragons, your brother will be brought back here."
"Why, so you can kill us both together?"
"No. So I can punish him—and you can watch."