Chapter 12

First Company arrived near the border shared by Tortall and Tusaine two weeks after leaving Corus, taking a route south of the hill country but just skirting the Southern Desert. They made a rendezvous with two Rider Groups in the area to exchange reports and intelligence at Fief Tirragen, where they were also able to have hot baths and sleep in proper beds. From there they spent the next two months hunting down unfriendly immortals; destroying twelve spidrens, a herd of killer unicorns, and a lone tauros, and surveying the populations of other immortals such as griffins, stormwings, winged horses, and centaurs.

As the weather grew warmer and the roads dried up, First Company kept busy tracking bandits and escorting those arrested to the nearest town magistrate for sentencing. They then moved east and further into the Drell River Valley, where they rejoined some Rider Groups to conspicuously patrol the border.

"I thought we sorted the Tusainis out thirty years ago," Rory grumbled as he joined Dom and Geoffrey at their camp fire one evening.

Dom heard Geoffrey laugh.

"We did, but it helped that we had hostages. The Tusainis would still love to have this valley but they know King Jonathan isn't as hesitant to use force as his father was," the sergeant told the younger man.

Dom moved closer to join their conversation.

"Geoff's right, you know," he nodded. "There are plenty of old lords over the border still nursing wounded pride over that defeat. They know we've just had a costly war with Scanra and they've got a fat army that's getting jumpy."

"We're here to look intimidating and remind make any hawks over the border think twice," a new voice said.

Dom turned to face Evin Larse, who had just come up behind them. The tall rider ducked and sat down at the fire, handing a parcel of documents to Dom.

"News from Corus," Evin said, grinning. "Twins—a girl and a boy. They nearly lost Buri and the little boy, but they pulled through and all are now doing well, thank the Goddess."

"Glad to hear it! And I knew there was more than one in there," Dom grinned back, breaking open the seal on the parcel.

"So Larse, are you and your lot glorified message runners now?" Geoffrey enquired.

"Cheeky insubordinate," muttered Evin, still grinning cheerfully. "No, we're here to collect intelligence and surveil the border. We've been spoiled, you know. With Daine still in the Kyprish Isles we have to do this work the old-fashioned way."

Dom nodded.

"So the spymasters are expecting movement from Tusaine?"

"Yes and no. It's in those reports," Evin replied. To Rory, who looked confused, he explained, "Their army has swelled in recent years and there's not enough work to keep it fully occupied within their borders."

"And that's bad news for the ruling classes," Dom agreed. "Bored, discontented armies rebel against their leaders. It's much better to find them a war on someone else's turf than to allow them to foment rebellion on their own."

"Then how come they let it get so big?" Rory asked.

"Father says it's because they practice polygamy," Geoffrey explained. "All the lords and powerful old men marry all the pretty young noble girls, and their younger brothers marry all the rich merchant girls with fat dowries. That leaves a whole lot of angry young men with no prospect of ever marrying and not much to lose, so what do you do with them? Channel them into the army and keep them busy."

"That's pretty much the long and the short of it," Evin agreed. "Though it's not certain they will attack Tortall. They could decide to attack Tyra or Maren instead."

"It won't be Tyra. Who wants to conquer a stinking merchant-infested swamp?" Rory opined with scorn.

"But it's a stinking wealthy merchant-infested swamp," Dom countered. "If they annexed Tyra they could control trade on the Inland Sea and do away with the tariffs they currently pay on just about anything worth having."

"Hmph."

"Don't worry, you won't seem like such a back country lad if you stick with us for a few years," Geoffrey said cheerfully.

Rory scowled at his sergeant and returned to his tent.

"Moody little brat," Evin commented when he was out of earshot.

"He's just sheltered and too proud to admit it. He'll get over himself eventually," Geoffrey shrugged.

Dom quickly skimmed through the documents in the pouch Evin had given him. He set aside personal things, like letters addressed to individual soldiers, including some for him. He would distribute those at supper and read his own later.

From Raoul they received orders to build a new fort on an open stretch of the Drell River valley and hand over to a company of regulars when they arrived. Raoul had sent Squire Alan to the Kyprish Isles to hasten the return of the delegation, which included Lady Alanna and the mages Daine and Numair, who would head east with a contingent of knights upon arrival back in Tortall. The arrival of Daine would allow a greater flow of information to their spymasters, as she could use the eyes and ears of animals to spy.

Once the army had stationed itself up and down the valley, First Company would head south toward Pearlmouth, flushing out any bandits they discovered in the hill country on the way. From Pearlmouth they would go west and then north along the coast to Port Legann, continuing to survey coastal villages and populations of immortals. From Port Legann, depending on what happened with Tusaine, they would return to Corus by June for a spell of rest.

Later that evening in his own tent Dom was able to read his letters. There was a scrawled note from Raoul about the birth of his children, a first-born daughter called Rachany and a son called Samrin, the names of Buri's long deceased mother and brother. The next letter he read was from Neal and consisted of fully four sides of paper covered in eloquent rants about hypochondriac courtiers presenting to the Palace infirmary with purely imagined or merely trifling complaints. The news that Yuki was pregnant and they were expecting their first child in October had been added as a hurried postscript. Irenie's letter to him was long and conversational, detailing events she attended with the Queen's Ladies, their training, and droll observations on court manners and personalities, as well as updates on the family.

Kel's letter was also long and chatty, giving an account of Raoul's reaction when he found out Buri had given him twins, the pranks Third Company had played on the Riders since his departure, and that by the time he received this letter she would be taking Irnai to the City of the Gods. It seemed the child had come to the attention of a priestess of the Mother Goddess who was an associate of Lalasa's, and the woman had pulled some strings within the temple community to secure Irnai a placement as a novice priestess mage. She signed off with her hope that they may be in Corus at the same time in June.

Dom certainly entertained the same hope, though he tried not to think about it too much to lessen the disappointment if it didn't come to pass.

They spent the month of April building a fort in the Drell River Valley, and Dom was glad to hand over command to a company of regulars when they arrived from the North. From there they moved south, cleaning up some bandits hiding in a marshy area near the river on their way. When they arrived at Pearlmouth Dom allowed the men a few days to roam the city while he delivered reports to the Governor and sent further reports back to Corus. He was shut up in his room at the Governor's residence writing a letter when someone rapped on the door, which opened to admit a tall man he hadn't seen in a long time.

"Do I know you?" Dom asked, allowing a cheeky grin.

"You hurt my heart, little brother," Garret of Masbolle sighed with a dramatic flourish.

Dom's grin widened and he got up to embrace his second oldest brother, who returned the embrace and congratulated him profusely on his promotion.

"What are you doing here? Irenie told me you were in Tyra," Dom asked.

He studied Garret as the older man laughed. He was dressed fashionably in loose breeches and a full-sleeved shirt under a fitted tunic, and his hair looked as if he'd been raking it out of his eyes with his fingers. He noticed deeper lines around his brother's eye and a few strands of grey at his temples, but Garret looked just as vain about his appearance as he remembered.

"I was," he shrugged. "But then the work dried up and I thought it was time to visit home again. And then I heard you were in Pearlmouth."

Dom raised an eyebrow. He wasn't quite sure why his brother was visiting, but there was usually an ulterior motive with Garret. Garret was five years older and while their relationship was cordial they had never been particularly close, having not spent very many of their childhood years together and finding not much in common as adults.

"Mama, Alise, and Irenie are in Corus," Dom offered.

Garret pulled a face.

"I know. I might stay at court for a while. Do you know if there are any eligible rich heiresses there? Preferably pretty ones?" he joked.

"I think Irenie could point you in the right direction better than I could," Dom retorted drily.

"What? I thought you'd have women hanging off your arms given your new position," Garret remarked, eyebrows raised.

"I try to discourage that sort of thing. It would slow me down in the field, you see," Dom grinned. When Garret made no further comment he continued bluntly, "So is this just a social visit, or do you want something?"

Eventually Dom managed to uncover the real reason for his brother's visit when Garret finally owned that he had nothing to show for his time in Tyra except for his foppish, expensive clothes and tales of the people he'd rubbed shoulders with at high-society parties. He was hoping Dom would take pity and lend him enough coin to buy passage to Port Caynn and Corus.

Dom was certain there was more to the story but he decided he'd rather not know. He scowled and briefly considered refusing, but he thought better of it and gave his brother enough for the fares from his own purse. He was resigned to the fact he'd be unlikely to see that money again; Garret was infamous in their family for his apparent inability to hold onto money for long. Each time an incidence of him foolishly squandering his allowance came to light their father would look to the sky and most fervently thank Mithros that Garret wasn't the oldest.

As it transpired, Garret made him promise not to tell their father about this loan. He agreed only because he didn't think their father, who had come to suffer ill health in the last few years, needed to be burdened with news that would surely cause him to become agitated for no benefit. Instead he scrawled a note to Lady Lavinia and sent it to Corus by express. He rather hoped it would arrive at the same time as Garret so he could receive one of their mother's imperious lectures. And if Garret didn't arrive in Corus, well, Dom hoped to be as far away as possible when his mother next caught up with her second son.

A couple of days later First Company was on the move again. The Governor was aware of Copper Isle slavers hiding out in a rocky cove a few days ride southwest of the city. With the help of a Rider group and a couple of mages from Pearlmouth they managed to ambush the slavers and destroy their boats that had been dragged up onto the sandy beach. They made the journey back to Pearlmouth to deliver the slavers to the magistrate for sentencing and the rescued slaves to be freed by mages who could remove the slavers' spelled shackles.

Tracking west again, they passed the slavers' cove and carried on along the road to Port Legann. In several areas they found stretches of road that needed repair and they set up camp to build retaining walls and reroute streams that had changed course from their normal fords. Where locals had cleared earth from winter slips only enough to allow small traders' wagons to pass, Dom set the men to work finishing the job. It made for slow progress, but the people in the villages they passed through were hospitable and glad for the hundred extra pairs of helping hands, or their swords and bows.

The villagers on this side of the Southern Wall mountain range were mostly fisher-folk who subsisted on their catch and whatever they could grow in the shallow, rocky soils surrounding them. Dom and two of his sergeants were brokering an agreement over fishing rights between one such village and a colony of merfolk south of Port Legann when a Crown courier found them. Tusaine had attacked Tyra, and also nibbled at the edges of Maren while the Marenites were occupied with a rebellion led by nobles angry at being stripped of their lands and titles.

Dom groaned inwardly. It was now early June and the courier's message required them to head to Port Legann as soon as possible and report to Lord Imrah, who would brief them on their next orders. It seemed unlikely they would be returning to Corus now, and he resigned himself to the fact that it may be a few more months before he saw Kel again.


A/N:

Hi! Thanks to those who read and reviewed the last chapter. I've managed to finish this one off that I had half-written, but I'm afraid it might be a little half-baked. I just can't seem to hold much in my head at the moment, ha. Love stress... See you again in November...