Authors: Christopher Rowley
It was the custom in the vale of Valmes for the farmers to harrow their fields in the spring, after the plow and before they planted. They used teams of two or four horses to pull the great steel-toothed harrows, combing the ground and smoothing it out ready for the seed.
When seen from a distance, or even while passing along the lane, harrowing seems a perfectly tranquil part of farming life—a scene for a pastoral painting, a poem to the glories of the annual round. But for the small inhabitants of the fields, the harrow is the most dreaded event of all, for there is no escape from its fifteen-foot-wide comb of steel points, dragging through the topsoil. For mice and voles this is bad enough, but these little fellows are swift-footed and might yet escape. For toads, slow-hopping, crawling toads, it is certain death.
Thus in Valmes, as in much of old Cunfshon, there was another custom. The old witches, including all the retired crones, would scour the fields to gather the toads. For the farmers of Cunfshon, with their fine-tuned husbandry, were acutely conscious of the beneficial effect of toads, which consume insects in considerable numbers every growing season.
This was but one of many ways that the old witches, who had gone into the mystic or simply retired from active service, paid for their upkeep. Of course, they also fashioned spells to encourage crops and animals, and they used their arts to drive away flies from house and stable. The benefits of this last activity were enormous, and many of the diseases that plagued the world were virtually unknown in Cunfshon.
In Valmes, the witches were aligned to various farms from time immemorial. Thus old Lessis, now in retirement, was at work that day in the field of Gelourd, still farmed by folk of that name after seven centuries.
She put a shoulder bag occupied by two dozen disgruntled toads over the wall and into a barrow. In the next field over, Bertain's, she could see the old witch Katrice working with an assistant, hauling a cart full of toads toward the road. It was a fine day, warm enough to require only a simple shift and sandals, but not so hot as to work up a sweat. Ah, the toads, the fine rapacious toads, Lessis blessed them silently. She felt their confusion, they were afraid, poor things, but they were toads that would survive the morrow, when the harrow would tear through these fields. The day after that they would be returned to their fields, a simple task that farmworkers would perform, since all that was required was to open the bags and dump out the toads, carefully.
At lunch she rested sitting on the stone wall above the field. Behind her the ridge rose up in a long dun-colored mass. Spread before her was the town of Valmes, spires and roofs visible amid the trees. The graceful stone tower of the temple was due north, and the long spine of the temple roof was visible just behind. It was a well-sited town, with centuries of concern taken with every detail of place and road. Some black cattle were being moved up a lane about half a mile distant. Farther away sheep dotted the hillsides of Big Bank and Chalk Hill. In the sky were a handful of soft white clouds.
Farmer Gelourd sent out fresh-baked bread, cheese, and fruit to all the workers in his fields. With the toad collectors he was always free with the best in his cellar. A good Valmes Reserva was uncorked and poured into Lessis's plain tin cup. She washed down the good bread and the soft white cheese, and then ate an apple. The wine was rather too good for her old tin cup, but Lessis decided that was part of Farmer Gelourd's homage to his toads—the "worthy little folk" of every well-kept field, who would annihilate crickets, beetles, and caterpillars.
Lessis enjoyed the moment and gazed over toward the town with peaceful detachment. She had found retirement even easier to enjoy than she had imagined. Just worrying about the roof of her house, and the flowers and fruit trees was enough to fill some days. Add in such duties as the gathering of toads or the blessing of crops, and she found she had limited time to devote to the study of the mystic.
Suddenly she noticed a small node of change strike the pastoral scene. Someone, walking very fast, emerged from the trees on the west farm road. The figure was instantly at odds with the peace around it, a dot that emitted a field of tension.
It disappeared from view when the road went around a bend, then came back into sight, pulling hard up the long slope. At the crossing it turned onto the lane running up to Gelourd's fields.
Clearly whatever message impelled this person was important.
Now the figure was close enough for Lessis to see that it was exactly what she had feared, a tall girl in novice blues.
Lessis studied the girl as she came closer and saw a long face, a determined set to the shoulders, dark hair tied back in a novice bob. The clothes seemed too big for her, but maybe she would grow into them.
The girl approached her. Lessis's concern grew. Everyone knew that she had retired. She had served for five hundred years and more, that was enough. There were other witches with skill. Irene and Melaan could take up the slack. Lessis had sent enough men to their deaths.
"Excuse me, Lady," the girl curtsied clumsily. She was a little gawky.
"Yes, what is it?" Lessis did not welcome this intrusion.
"Message came for you. Prioress said it was important. Sorry to trouble you."
A long, long moment of silence. Lessis heard the wind soughing in the tall grass on the slopes above. The gentle clouds continued to float in the high blue sky.
"Yes, that's quite all right, child. What is the message?"
"Here, Lady," the girl handed her a pouch containing a tiny scroll, the specialty of the Imperial message corps. It must have been brought on the wings of a seagull.
Lessis opened the scroll and read it in a moment. Ribela, the Queen of Mice, begged her for help. There was something she must do. People she must visit. The toads squirmed in the bag on the roadside, and Lessis squirmed at the thought of engaging once more with the world's troubles. She had set that aside. After five centuries she had earned a decade's rest before a peaceful death.
But no, it was not to be. Circumstances were not in her favor. Now Ribela herself, the very Queen of Mice, had begged her to intercede, and Lessis could not refuse.
Situated down in the Blue Stone country, Cross Treys camp was an old legion post, so old the palisade was rotting away in places. The corner towers were too dangerous to occupy and could fall down in the next stiff gale. Someday soon a decision would have to be made whether to keep Cross Treys going or abandon it.
But the main block was still functional, and the Dragon House, though small, was known to be famously warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The plunge pool was outdoors, of course, as in most outposts, but it was paved and the water never got muddy.
That summer Cross Treys was host to the 109th Marneri Dragons, along with sixty men of the Eighth Regiment, Second Legion and a party of twelve youngsters who were completing their pre-legion training in the youth Pioneers.
Cross Treys was regarded as a restful posting, a place for convalescence. Nothing much happened in Blue Stone that required legion interference. A minor incident with a troll owner now and then, or an old vendetta in the western hills might flare up. Bandits occasionally attacked wagons on the road in Ersoi on the coast, but mostly it was just a quiet routine of work in the woodlots and helping parties of Imperial Engineers to build and repair roads and bridges. Dragons actually looked forward to these projects. They didn't last long, not with ten dragons helping, and wyverns didn't mind a certain amount of heavy work. It even felt good to dig and haul stone for a few days. But mainly they liked it because the Imperial Engineers always had a huge budget for beer. On that score the dragons were well pleased. Blue Stone brewers specialized in summer wheat beers that were very popular with the dragons.
Another pleasant aspect of building a new bridge was that the local people would vie to feed the dragons. Pies, roasts, huge platters of ham, mounds of hot bread and cheese, the cooks everywhere tried to outdo each other in feeding the dragons. This could be an expensive process, though not nearly as expensive as hiring gangs of laborers.
Throughout the Argonath lands, the roads were now paved and usable year-round. Clean water flowed to every city and town. Sewage was dealt with sensibly in all major towns. Bridges, walls, canals, ponds, docks, wherever possible the Imperial Engineers were at work, assisted often by dragon labor, which made heavy work go very swiftly indeed. Ten wyvern dragons, equipped with gigantic shovels and steel beams to use as picks and prods, could cut two hundred yards of canal, ten feet wide and eight feet deep in a few days, depending on the nature of the ground.
When there wasn't any work, the dragons just lazed around the camp. They exercised regularly, of course, and worked with their weapons. There was a drill session at least once a week. Dragon Leader Cuzo insisted on this. But there was always the plunge pool when they got hot. And in the evenings there was legion dinner, plain but plentiful, and with it some legion brew. It was a restful life at Cross Treys.
And it would have been for the 109th, but for the growing rivalry between dragonboys Swane and Rakama.
Big, long-nosed Swane had been the bully boy in the unit for years. The brown-haired fellow was well over six feet and solidly built all the way down. He could whip any of them, except Relkin, who he had never fought. The two had always fenced around, but had never come to serious blows. Swane respected Relkin and was jealous of him at first, but over the years his respect had grown and the jealousy had faded.
Now the hierarchy was challenged by the presence of Rakama, a pug-nosed chunk of muscle from the Blue Hills town of Mud Lake. Rakama was a scrapper and more, he had trained in fighting school. He had a powerful upper body and a terrific straight right hand. His hand speed and coordination were dangerous.
Swane was the taller and twenty pounds heavier, but from the beginning Rakama thought he could take him on.
Swane was never one to ignore a challenge like that, and so the two had had several run-ins. Swane had prevailed so far, but none of these fights had lasted more than a minute or two before being broken up by others. Even though he'd been pushed around in these short exchanges, Rakama had hit Swane plenty and hurt him. They both knew that, which had changed the equation slightly. Now Rakama was even more eager to fight Swane, convinced that if a fight ran on past the first furious two minutes, he would hammer the bigger youth. Swane fought well, however. But Rakama had a natural hand speed that made his stinging right hand too much for anyone but a trained boxer. Indeed, he had been chosen to represent the Eighth Regiment in the summer games at Dalhousie in the light-heavyweight division.
If Rakama could get through Swane's first rush, then he felt sure he'd start getting in punches that would take the steam out of Swane very quickly. Swane had a sneaking suspicion that this might be true and knew that he had to level the Rakbrat with his first charge, keep him down, and whop the hell out of him on the ground.