The journey to William's new home was surprisingly quiet. He, Captain Sobol, Becket and his men rode at the head of the 1st Equitaire company along the main road north from Metamor. They left early in the morning, cold and cool with a clear sky. Snow lined the hard packed road and trees thronged close by. The forests, William saw, would normally be dark, but now with the snow, they seemed bright and blue like the sky.
They made good time, pausing around noon for a quick meal and then resuming their journey. Along the way they passed a smaller castle thrust into a lake that Captain Sobol informed him was the lands of Lord Barnhardt. Two hours later the road turned to the northeast around a forest with trees stretching higher than the towers of his home. This he was told, was Glen Avery, a land of people who lived in trees and burrows like the beasts they had become, but also a people who produced some of the best scouts in all of Metamor. And to the east somewhere lay the Haunted Woods, a place that Sir Edmund had briefed him on, albeit reluctantly – there was much that he'd held back, but William would learn the rest later in his own way.
Another two hours of travel along the road brought them to the land between the forest and the northern edge of the valley. The sun was shining in the late afternoon, though it neared the edge of the mountains and would soon depart. Farm lands covered in snow lined either side of the road. Small villages clustered along the road filled with all manner of people going about their normal lives. Beyond and standing on the tallest hill was the town of Hareford.
The reception committee waiting for William and his people outside the town was small but cheerful. Standing in front of the gate was a half dozen figures. What caught William's attention first was the person in the center of the group. This person was tall, at least six foot and was a lion of some sort. There was no mistaking that mane. He was wearing a long robe colored a deep, blood red and covered with bright gold swirls and lines. What confused William was that the feline was jet black in color. Fur, tail and mane was all the color of black ink.
William and his men all dismounted as they approached. Squires amongst the Equitaine collected the reins. The ram approached the lion, cloven hooves digging into the frozen earth.
"Sir Dupré," the feline said and bowed deeply. "It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Sir Nestorius lord of Hareford."
William bowed in return. "Thank you for the warm greeting. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Nestorius pointed to the woman standing next to him. "This is my wife Amelia."
William gave a deep bow. "It's a pleasure to meet you my lady," he said. The noble gestured to the boar standing next to him. "I'd like you to meet Captain Becket."
The boar gave a bow. "It's an pleasure to meet you."
William Dupre' pointed to a powerfully built, black and tan dog morph and three younger soldiers obviously effected by the age regression part of the curse. "These are Alexander, Robert, Martin and Anthony. My aides." He gestured to the woman at his other side. “And this is Captain Sobol of the 1st Equitaire. Her company has been stationed here as well.”
"All your people are welcome here." Nestorius replied. He placed a hand on the shoulder of a blonde haired woman wearing chainmail armor. "This is Marcia Caruslo my Castellan." he then pointed to an eagle morph who was wearing nothing but a loincloth and a quiver. He was carrying a bow and had a small spear strapped to his back between his wings. "And this is Marcus Caruslo the leader of Dukes scouts who patrol around and from here."
William nodded to each, putting their names and faces, so unique and different from what he was once used to, into his mind. "I'd like to get my troops into their barracks and the guards and patrols set for the evening," William commented. “Which will not be long in coming. The ride from Metamor has taken all day.”
The black furred lion nodded. "Always the professional. Just like Edmund," he said obviously pleased. "Right this way. The barracks and your own quarters are ready and waiting. After that I'll give you a tour of Hareford, it's troops and defenses."
After passing through the gatehouse the group found itself in a large open area that gave way to the tight, twisting streets of the town of Hareford. There was a large group of people gathered in this area. They all looked at William and his soldiers as they walked past. Staring at them but with obvious curiosity and chatting among themselves.
"We are expected," William said trying to remain calm.
"Scouts brought word of your approach several hours ago," Marcia
explained. "And word of your being assigned here arrived hours before that
even though we kept word of it quiet."
"No effort was made to keep it a secret at Metamor," Dupré commented. "All of my soldiers knew of it two days ago. I do wonder are secrets safe in this town?"
"Never fear," Marcia countered. "Gossip travels fast in town but important secrets remain secret." she smiled and laughed. "I can tell you who is secretly dating who, but patrol patterns and the movement of scouts are not discussed."
Nestorius nodded in agreement. "I have not forgotten the lessons I learned from my days in the Twilis Olboskol. We take secrecy very seriously."
William smiled and he and Becket exchanged quick glances. Just how serious they took secrets and how much they passed back and forth was a very large concern of his. No need to let them know just how much he would take an interest in such things yet. “That sounds very appropriate. Let us continue with the tour then.”
William walked along the barracks examining the room carefully, his hooves clattering on the wooden boards. The barracks was a large open room with beds along the walls and a few tables lining the center. Fireplaces on either end had large fires in them giving the room a warmth that was welcome after being in the cold so long. "It is a little spare."
Nestorius shrugged. "It has only seen short term use till now. The troops who came here only stayed for a mere thirty days at a time before being rotated out."
"We'll see about livening up the quarters," Marcia commented. "And making them more friendly."
Nestorius nodded. "Yes. Replastering the walls and adding some carpeting. And perhaps another fireplace or two."
Marcia smiled as she watched the ram inspect the barracks. "Better still we could build an addition to this building by adding another floor."
"Good. This place is clean, warm and dry." William responded. "Far better than many barracks I have seen."
"A fine idea," Nestorius commented cheerfully. "If there is not enough room we could always build larger barracks in the town itself. That will make enough room for everyone. Unfortunately all that must wait till spring. Till then we will do what we can to make it more comfortable. What of families? Some of your troops are married I assume."
"Yes, the families are going to follow in a few days," William answered.
"Good!" the feline said. "That gives us time to arraign proper places for them. There is not enough room for all the families in the castle itself but there are plenty of houses in town."
William found himself liking this Nestorius. He seemed to genuinely care about the people under his care. When told he was a wizard, William had expected a man deep into esoteric study with little time for the mundane affairs of the common folk. He was hopeful that this obsidian lion was proving him wrong. Best to make him completely at ease then.
“Becket,” William said, turning to the boar following dutifully at his side.
“Yes, Sir Dupré?”
“See that our men all have billets. I'll rejoin you after Sir Nestorius has completed his tour.”
“Of course,” the boar nodded, and then left to confer with Captain Sobol and the folk of Hareford.
William smiled to the lion and gestured with the sweep of one arm. “Shall we continue then?”
"Here are your own quarters." Nestorius opened the door and the two stepped inside. He found himself in a good sized room with a desk in one corner, a table in the center and chairs scattered about. On one wall was a large bookcase and a door. Opening the door Dupré found a small bedroom containing a large curtained bed and a small wardrobe.
Dupré looked around the room that was now his home. A disconsolate pang struck his heart as he dwelt on that thought. His new home. He thought back to the stone vaults and tapestries of Mallow Horn briefly, and of the children still living there who would never see their father again. He grunted and with a quick shake of his head, dispelled such unpleasant thoughts. "I am surprised. I did not expect such luxurious quarters for a simple military commander."
"As a nobleman you deserve some comfort and as the military commander here," Nestorius commented. "This outer room will be your office for planning and for all those annoying administrative duties that go with leadership. As such it has all you might need," he pointed to the book case. “I gave you a good selection of books on the subject and such maps of the valley and Giantdowns as I have."
The ram nodded his head. "I am grateful for these spacious accommodations but I am eager to see all of my command." Nestorius certainly was not a military man if he had such disdain for details. A successful command, a successful army, all of them ran on a mastery of details. He now strongly suspected he would find several weaknesses in their defenses in the weeks to come.
"Of course," the feline said. "I have arraigned for the town guard and our infantry company to assemble in the courtyard. Well half of them. The rest are on duty."
"What of those troops? How many are there?" William asked.
"There are fifty regular infantry assigned here and the town guard has fifty seven members," Marcia said.
There was a soft knock on the door.
"Enter," Nestorius said loudly.
The door opened and a young, female morph keeper entered. This person was a sheep morph and had the grayish white wool and black face of a domesticated species of sheep. She was wearing a dress of dark blue with white flowers printed on it. The ewe woman curtsied to Nestorius. "You asked for me sir?"
"Blanche," Nestorius said cheerfully. "Thank you for coming." The feline pointed to William. "This is sir William Dupré the new military commander."
The black lion turned to William but pointed to the ewe. "This is Blanche Cartwright. She will be your servant."
Blanche curtsied to the ram. "Sir William. It's an honor."
The ram bowed to her and they both stood up. William noticed that she was thinner then he was but of the same height. He also noticed that she was silver earrings and her dress was clean and had been recently pressed. The ewe had gotten dressed up for this meeting. "Thank you, Blanche. My needs will be simple. I will be busy leading the troops here and I will depend on your help to keep my small home."
"I'll do my best," Blanche answered.
"Thank you," William said earnestly. "That will be all for now."
Nestorius waited till Blanche had left before speaking again. "As to Hareford itself," the lion said and walked over to the table. He unraveled a large scroll and revealed a map of the town. "This is Hareford. It's built on an old Suielman fortress. The walls are made of stone and brick and are twelve feet wide and twenty feet tall. There are fourteen towers in the wall and two gates. There were four but two have been filled in. Now only the east and south gates are used. The entire fortress is surrounded by a deep ditch twenty feet wide and fifteen feet deep."
William slowly drew his hand across the map examining each detail closely. "How large an area is inside the walls."
"The area inside the walls covers 9 acres. Most of it is now filled with buildings. All the streets are paved and with excellent drainage and sewers," he said proudly. "Those Seuilman drains that did not survive we rebuilt. I've seen to that myself."
"You said that two gates have been filled in? Are there only the two gates?" William asked. "I see four marked on the map."
"At one time there were four gates and those four towers are still present," the mage explained. "But the north and west gates have been filled in very solidly and there is no way over the ditch at those places."
Nestorius pointed to a group of small hills and mounds off to the north. "These features are not natural. At least two of them are grave barrows and are protected by magic."
"Are they a problem? I do not wish to deal with the undead," the ram said. He'd had to deal with far too much unpleasant magic already in his life.
The lion mage shook his head making his mane shake. "No, the only magic on them is preservation and protection. They are safe so long as no one tries to dig them up. I am telling you this in strict secrecy. No one knows they are tombs but me and you."
"I understand. I do not bother the dead so long as they do not bother me," Dupré answered.
"There must be something special about the place as both the lutins and Keepers bury their dead there," Nestorius explained.
“The lutins bury there? So close to the town?" William asked.
"The town was twice overrun by lutins and for several years inhabited only by them," the mage commented. "And during that time they took to burying their dead on that hill. When we retook the town we continued the habit. The new burials do not seem to disturb the older ones thankfully but I am keeping a careful watch."
"What of the other mounds? What are they?" Dupré asked as he traced the lines of one mound that seemed to resemble a coiled snake.
The mage shrugged. "I am not sure. I believe at least one had a ceremonial purpose as it seems to be shaped like a snake. I think it might be Tened in construction and could be several hundred thousand years old."
"Who are the Tened?"
"They were a primitive reptilian race who have been extinct for a long time. Very little is really known about them, they were, perhaps, distant relatives of dragons. It is known that there was at least one Tened settlement here in the valley, close to the mountains and caves. There is no need to worry about what the Tened left. There is no magic there. At least none that is detectable. Someday when there is more time I want to more fully explore that place. But that will have to wait for safer times in the future.
"As for the towns defenders. Every tower has a single soldier standing guard while sentries patrol the wall walk in-between," Nestorius explained.
William winced. "That is painfully thin."
"Agreed but I have supplemented them with my own magic," the feline mage explained. "Also George's scouts patrol the area outside extensively. But I am glad you've brought more infantry."
"We can double the sentries on the walls and gates," Dupré commented. "And push out our own foot patrols as well in addition to the cavalry."
The lion nodded as his tail whipped back and forth. "Good. We will also have the usual monthly rotation of troops serving their feudal obligation here. The size varies between fifty and one hundred and fifty each."
The feline shrugged. "Mixed. Some good, some bad but most somewhere in between. I would not depend too much on their dedication and zeal. Most just wish to finish and go home."
The ram nodded. "I've seen that behavior before in feudal levies. They will be good for guard duty till I make them understand what their duties entail," he said forcefully in the tones of a real soldier.
Nestorius smiled revealing a muzzled filled with long, sharp teeth. "Good. They have long ago stopped listening to my threats and demands."
"What of the surrounding area?" William questioned. "What is that like?"
"There are three villages I have the privilege to command in the name of the Duke; Aglador, Caoraigh and Truskmore. The main crops grown here are corn, wheat and other grains also there are several orchards growing apples. I introduced sheep five years ago at Misha Brightleaf's suggestion and they seem to be doing well."
"I'd like to see the walls themselves," William commented without taking his eyes off the map.
"Of course. That is the best way to see the town."
William Dupré and Nestorius stood at the end of the street. A short walk out of the castle and through the town itself had brought them to the wall that surrounded the town. At this section, the exact center of the east wall was a large, squat tower. In the center of the ground floor was a large passage that cut all the way through the tower and wall. The gatehouse had two sets of doors. One on either end of the passage. Both were made of thick wooden beams and sheathed in iron. William and his troops had entered Hareford through a similar gatehouse on the south wall.
The soldier examined both doors and the passage in between. "Very solid construction."
"It is," Nestorius added as he walked through the passage to the outside. "The door was rebuilt when we retook the town. And since then I have had the gatehouse itself rebuilt and strengthened significantly." He pointed out the outer door and the drawbridge and the ditch that it crossed. "The ditch is twelve feet deep and twenty feet wide and of course surrounds the entire town. Beyond that we keep the ground free of trees, brush or any other cover for a distance of three hundred yards."
The feline mage stepped closer to William and when he spoke again it was in a whisper. "There has been lot of magic cast on and against this place. The Seuilman cast some very powerful spells and I have renewed and improved them. It keeps anyone from being able to see into this fortress without my specific permission and I've given that to no one. What this means is no one can spy on us or teleport in. The wards cover a limited area and they stop at the inside edge of the ditch. Also all underground passages are warded and guarded. No one is going to sneak in through the sewers. During the battle of Three Gates wraiths slipped into the Keep and slaughtered many people. That will NOT happen here," the mage explained with a snarl.
William bristled at the lion's nearness and nodded vigorously enough that one of his spiraling horns clipped the lion on the nose. that caused the lion to step backward a short way. “Very good, Sir Nestorius. I am impressed with your diligence in adding to this town's defenses. I will make sure that we have enough men guarding each of these entrances. You'll forgive me, but I do not trust magic to protect me. I trust good steel and stouthearted men who know how to use it.”
Nestorius rubbed his nose with one paw. “You may trust my magic, Sir William.”
“Of course.” His eyes roved the bailey as he let the lion regain his composure. Just inside the curtain wall was an open area free of any buildings or structures of any sort. It was paved with the large, heavy, well worn stones that William knew to be Seuilman construction. It was some twenty feet wide and looked to be well cared for. "This road follows the wall all the way round?"
The lion's mane shook as he nodded in agreement. "Oh yes and it's kept clear all the time. Also it is patrolled constantly too. Two groups on foot walk its entire length constantly. In addition to the guards on the wall itself."
William and Nestorius turned and started walking along the road with the ram examining the wall itself as they moved.
"This is the curtain wall," the lion explained as they walked. To his right the wall loomed over them. "It's twenty feet tall and twelve feet wide at the base. It's made of a mix of stone and brick held together with very solid mortar. It has been rebuilt several times over the centuries but all of it has been very carefully examined and is equally strong."
William surveyed it with a studious eye. There was no question in his mind that Nestorius, his overseer and keeper for the Duke, was very proud of his town. He was both a surprise and a comforting affirmation. But there was still much he did not know, and he may as well start learning. How much could he trust this lion? So as they continued making their way along the wall, William leaned close to the lion. "Forgive me for asking something so personal but what species are you? I have never seen a lion colored as you are."
Nestorius laughed. "I would be surprised if you had. My species is the noble lion but my coloring is the result of a duel I fought some years ago. It was during the time we were retaking Hareford. I fought a duel with a necromancer and this coloring was the result."
The tower the lion and the ram were now standing in front of was a duplicate of the eastern gatehouse. At least it had been at one time. The stonework was the same as was the height, width and other dimensions, even the placement of the arrow slits was the same. But there was one difference; the passage through the tower was gone. Where in the east tower there had been a passage closed by doors was a solid wall on the north tower. William could easily see the pattern in the stonework where there had been such a passage at one time. But it had been carefully filled in. The only thing remaining of the once massive doors was a single, small, door barely large enough for a solitary person to pass.
William pushed open this small door and stepped into the dark interior. "What's in here?" he asked as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Soon he could make out a large room filled with a variety of benches, tables, barrels and boxes.
"Storage," Nestorius answered.
The ram slowly walked through the room skirting around the various barrels and boxes that littered the floor. "Nice, solid and easily secured. We will make this an armory and store a good supply of weapons and armor. So all our weapons and armor will not be in the castle."
William walked to the far wall which had once been the gateway to the outside. He carefully examined the stonework.
"That wall is solid," the mage said. "There is ten feet of solid stone between us and the outside. Also I have reinforced the wall magically."
He looked down at the floor and he saw where the stones had been worn smooth by the passage of countless wagons, animals and people in the past when there had been no wall just an open gate. Having strong empire walls to use as a base was a great stroke of luck. "Are there any other Seuilman fortifications? I've heard rumors of a wall closing off the entire valley."
"There was such a wall," the mage answered. "But little of it remains now. Although there are two towers that still stand to about ten feet in height and the great ditches are still there."
William nodded. "I would like to see that sometime soon but first let me see the rest of our town."
The view from the top of the keep was beautiful. Stretched out below him was the entire town and beyond that the fields and hills of the surrounding countryside. All were colored bright red by the slowly setting sun as it cast it's rays about. "An amazing view," Nestorius commented.
"It is," the ram answered as he looked at the setting sun.
Nestorius leaned against the battlement. "What do you think of our fine town?"
"This is a fine place. I am impressed with what you have done here. "You have strong, thick empire walls and good soldiers to man them," Dupre' commented.
"Do not let the seeming strength of the walls fool you, Sir William. Twice in the fortresses history it has been taken in spite of the tall, thick walls and the brave men behind them."
“Given what I know of the history of this land, I am surprised it has only been taken twice.” Dupré continued before Nestorius could object. “Not to slight the bravery of the men defending these strong walls. But only to recognize the history of warfare that this portion of the world has beheld. Barbarian forces from the north, 'Civilizing' armies of the south. All of them have sought to claim this pass. Having only been taken twice is a compliment to Hareford.”
Nestorius's frown turned to a laugh. “Well spoken, Sir William. It is good to have a man here who knows something of history.”
And that was all the opening he needed. "Since we are speaking of history, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" William asked.
"Of course not. I'll answer so long as it is not too personal," Nestorius replied.
"You came to Metamor recently?" was the ram's question.
The lion mage nodded. "I came just before the battle of the Three Gates."
"Did you come voluntarily?" William asked calmly without looking at the lion. His eyes kept to the south, surveying fields of snow cast red by the evening sun as it disappeared beyond the brackish peaks.
"No," Nestorius answered sharply. "I was exiled here. Like you were."
"Do you miss your old home?" William said, turning to stare at the lion with a surprisingly sharp gaze. "Do you miss your family?"
The lion shrugged. "Metamor is my home now and I have a family of my own. Something I did not have in Sathmore."
William turned back to looking out over the ground below and sighed. "I did have a family. And I miss them."
This news seemed to engender true sympathy in the lion's beastly countenance. "If you wish I could use my magic to look in on them. Be sure they are safe."
But Dupré shook his head sharply. "No. I promised not to have any contact with them and I will honor that promise."
Nestorius wrapped an arm around William's shoulders. "An honorable thing to do and I can understand that. I also know that here you have the chance to start over and make a new life. when I came here I could have wallowed in anger and pity at being so far from Sathmore and the power I craved. But I realized that this was a chance to start anew. I found a fine woman who would take me as her husband and a fine cause to fight for: protecting the people of this valley."
“Then as one exile to another, standing here on the edge of human civilization – whether our forbears would consider us human or not – I thank you for welcoming me here and offering me the hospitality of your home. It was not your choice, nor mine, but for now, we are stuck with each other.”
The lion nodded, his eyes shrouded as if probing for a deeper meaning behind the ram's words. “That is very true. But this is now my home, Sir William. In time it will also be yours.”
“Perhaps that is so.”
“And in time,” Nestorius ventured, “it will heal the wounds in your heart.”
The sun vanished beyond the mountains and the valley was bathed in the soft violet of twilight. William felt cold and drew his cloak over his chest. “That is something that will take a bit more than time.” The lion said nothing. “It has been a very long day. Let us find something to eat and you can tell me more of Hareford's history. Tomorrow is also going to be a very long day.”
Nestorius nodded and smiled, gesturing with a large paw toward the stairs. “Aye, that it will. That it will.” Together, the two of them returned to the warmth of Hareford castle and the promise of a meal. William took one last look around before descending into his new home.