Cassian patted the earth.
His friends and comrades were back within the mother now. They were home. Yet the strain of grief clawed at him. He wanted to stand, to get up and turn away, to join Mim and Broc impatiently waiting for him at the edge of the fort. But he found himself unable to.
A heavy webbed hand squeezed his shoulder. “Your heart is heard, friend.”
Cassian nodded, swallowing the tears that choked his throat. He stood up but couldn’t take his eyes from the graves. Koax waited patiently by his side.
“I should have been here.” He finally voiced his guilt. “I.. I abandoned my patrol, left them one Ranger short; I should have been here.” Anger swelled within him. What had he been thinking? Why had he abandoned his post? Mim was right, he was a fool of an Elf.
Koax squeezed his arm. “The blow was swift. You too would be dead, friend. You have others who need you now.”
Cassian nodded and finally wrenched his eyes away from the graves. Then the pair of them made their way back towards the others. Mim was pacing and her fierce glare told him she had little sympathy for his loss. But Broc’s eyes were kind. He looked to Cassian and nodded, he seemed to ask ‘is all well as it can be?’ Cassian replied with a solemn nod, and the four made their way downhill.
Night was falling but there would be no rest. If they were to catch up with Leasha they would have to be swift. Cassian had looked questioningly at Mim, she was perhaps three times his summers in years and, as a Dwarf, she needed three paces for every one of his. Yet as if to disprove any notion that she could slow them down, she took off at a steady run, and it was he who had to work hard to keep up with her.
Twilight swiftly sank into full night and the four relied heavily on the magelight provided by Mim’s staff. There was nothing in the front but the warm blue glow to run toward and nothing beside him but the heavy footfalls of his brothers-in-arms. The focus allowed him to calm his mind after the day of grief.
The companions came to a steady incline but not one of them slowed as they ascended. As he ran, his steady pounding feet matched the beating of his heart and the pounding of chest. For a few moments at least he could almost feel at peace as if he were flying through the dark night, himself a dragon soaring through the black sky.
But his mind kept going back to Leasha. A princess, but not a queen and not yet ready to be queen. He saw in her so much good, so much strength, so much heart and yet she could still be so selfish, childish, rebellious… she would throw off authority and then throw around her power. He loved her as dearly as if he were a brother in blood, and yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, he could see her failings in proud relief.
“Halt.” Mim snapped off her magelight and plunged them into darkness. They almost ploughed into one another at the Wizard’s sudden command. She hissed through the darkness. “Over yonder.”
There was a strange orange dancing glow on the northern horizon. “What think you?” he asked.
“Fireflies?” Koax suggested.
“Fires,” Broc said, “But so many? Out there? A funeral?”
“That is no funeral, boy,” Mim answered, “I’d say it’s an army.”
“What?” Cassian asked, but Mim was moving away and her hurried footsteps disappeared into the dark, he hurried after her, “Where are you going? The others need us.”
“They are dead or alive,” Mim replied abruptly, “if dead, they don’t need us and if they’re alive, then they are managing without.”
Cassian opened his mouth to answer but there was no reply he could think of to dissuade her logic.
“But Breanna?” Broc said catching up with them.
Cassian lay a hand on his friend’s arm. “Your sister is with Leasha. The Princess is a fine healer.” But even as he said it, Cassian worried for their fate.
But Broc nodded and, along with Koax, the three of them followed Mim.
The Dwarf led them several miles further off course. It was a long time before they hunkered down on a hill, overlooking the plains below.
A caravan of torches, fires, Druid horses, and large wooden machines spread out on the valley floor. Alongside hundreds and hundreds of Dragon Soldiers. Their Dragon head helmets and their bronze armor shone in the firelight.
But as a hollow roar cut across the sky, Cassian saw it’s source; a dragon. Almost glowing white as the moon in the dark. But this Dragon was not in flight, not even in loose. The creature was strapped down, its wings curled back, its head low. A prisoner.
“What monstrosity?” Cassian whispered.
“The machines will not get far in the Fenwater Marshes,” Koax said.
“It’s Meadowvale they want,” Cassian hissed in reply.
“We are far from Meadowvale, young elf, and see?” Mim pointed into the distance, “those things come more by the dozen from the north-east, why bring them here to move them back west to Meadowvale?”
Cassian shook his head. “Then where are they heading?”
“But…” Cassian stammered, “They would conquer their own kind? Lay siege on other Druids? Why?”
“For soldiers,” Koax said coldly.
“Right you are young toad,” Mim nodded, “this is barely the start of it, this army is here not to conquer but to grow.”
“Then we have to stop them,” Cassian said standing as he did so, Broc pulled him back down.
“You want us to take them all on?” he demanded, “I’m no Elf Ranger, but a Hunter does not strike when the prey is stronger.”
“If the Druids mean to grow their army that can only mean they intend to conquer Meadowvale.”
“Alright then Elf, off you go. Let’s see what you can do.” Mim pointed her staff to indicate a deer track leading down the hill toward the army.
“Well… then what do you suggest?” he asked reluctantly.
“We must warn Midwinter Down.”
“So we took this excursion north for nothing? We have lost time in getting to Leasha and Breanna to come here and now your plan is to go back onto the path to Midwinter?” Cassian balled his hands into fists and it was all he could do to prevent himself drawing his weapon.
Mim’s face a mask of rage, she hoisted herself from the ground, spinning her staff as she did so and drawing her magic. Cassian fell backwards, uselessly covering his face as the Wizard launched herself in his direction and released a bolt of lightning directly behind him.
He spun around in time to see a Druid Scout thrown from his horse.
But there was a second in pursuit with a sword already drawn.
Cassian fumbled for his bow and scrambled to ready an arrow in time. But it was Broc who toppled the rider; grabbing a leg and hauling them from the horse. Koax was ready with their knife and the scout had the serrated blade plunged into their gut before Cassian even nocked an arrow.
“Good work,” Mim said, patting Koax on the shoulder, “Now let’s get ourselves to Midwinter before their brethren find them.”