The early afternoon sun was bright on their backs.
Cassian’s bones were numb, but on they rode. Over pasture and up the dew dusted crest of a hill on their stolen Druid mounts until they finally saw the settlement of Midwinter Down below them in the valley.
Cassian paused for a moment taking in the landscape; strange to him so early in the year. Broc, behind him on the horse, sighed. “She will be well, friend.” Cassian was firm, staring fixedly at the walled town on the meandering banks of the river. “She is strong, remember that.”
“She is,” Broc replied.
Mim and Koax on their own mount caught up with the pair and, without a moment’s pause, carried on, tearing down the other side. “Come on, boys,” Mim called back.
Cassian and Broc were quick to follow. Their spirits higher now that their destination was in view. It was barely more than an hour after noon that the strange group rode steadily towards the gates of the town.
Cassian was hesitant to enter the fort unannounced, but Mim ignored his plea and walked right past the Guards and through the busy market square. Druids stopped and stared at the peculiar companions riding two to a mount. They whispered to one another and pointed.
Cassian drew to a halt and dismounted, trying to appear less obvious by walking his steed past the stalls and staring Druids. They followed Mim all the way to a large roundhouse with a fine thatch, a low, hide-covered door, and two guards, one either side of the entrance.
“Fetch the Governor,” Mim demanded.
The Guards looked at one another. “The Governor is not to be disturbed by outsiders-”
“The Governor shall be disturbed,” Mim leapt from her steed, “and the Governor shall be disturbed very much! Now, go fetch.” She pointed with her staff to the doorway and appeared about to clout them both around the head.
“Fetch him!” Mim bellowed, “Fetch him, by order of the Wizard’s Council!” The market square grew quiet as people turned to watch the commotion, and Mim spoke directly to the crowd of bustling strangers. “You shall all be bloody disturbed today! There’s a ruddy army on the way.” She pointed at a surprised woman with a small butcher’s stall. “It’s no good starin’, yous lot need to arm yeselves!”
Traders and customers muttered to one another and Mim took a step forward ready to continue her tirade.
Cassian blocked her path, he couldn’t understand why she persisted with this route. “Mayhap,” he suggested, “We should approach this calmly?”
Her black eyes stared up at him full of thunder. “I have not,” she growled the words, “run across half the bloody country, Elf, just to come ‘ere and be calm.”
“By the Dragon’s fire!” A scruffy, half-dressed Druid man with an unkempt beard emerged from the low entrance of the roundhouse. If the man hadn’t been the Governor of the Druids of Midwinter Down, then Cassian would have said he’d been drinking. “What’s the blasted noise?” He squinted around, blinking in the light and stopped as he caught sight of Koax. “A Fenner?” he said, stumbling into the light. “Are you lost?”
Koax bowed. “I come from the court of the Monarch of the Fenwater Marshes.”
“Well, I’ll be…”
“Are you what passes for Governor these days?”
The man turned and stared at Mim. He seemed to take in her height, her dark red robes, and her a twisted oaken staff that shimmered with magic. He sniffed lightly and nodded. “I am the Governor of Midwinter Down.”
Mim let out a long sigh and the governor narrowed his eyes. “Well, by thunder,” she shook her head, “Yous better clean yourself up and sort this bunch of layabouts. You’ve got a ruddy great invasion on the way and they’s not gonna wait for your hangover to clear up.”
“Wh-What?” His eyes widened, and he looked around as if the army was about to launch out at him from behind a fence, “How dare you threaten the Druids of-“
“It’s not a threat you ruddy, great, oaf! It’s a warning,” she pointed back towards the gates with the end of her glimmering weapon and Cassian noticed a few of the Druid locals carefully step out of the line of fire. “You got half of Dragon March heading this way, and they’s not on their own neither.”
“What?” He blinked and shook his head looking from Mim to her companions and seemed to see Broc and Cassian for the first time. He shook his head, vigorously as if he thought he might scatter the image from his eyes.
“I have seen it,” Cassian stepped in, hoping a calmer demeanour would convince him, “we three have all seen it. A Northern Druid army marches this way, Sire.” He added a reverential bow of his head, hoping this might add weight to his testimony. “You must ready your defences.”
The Governor’s eyes widened further first in shock and then rage. He stumbled slightly as he stepped forward. “I will not be told what I must and must not do by a Dwarf, an Elf, a toad, and-” he looked at Broc, “and whatever you are.”
Broc let out a low growl of irritation and Koax snarled.
“Did you hear that?” Mim suddenly turned and once again addressed the fascinated and growing crowd. “Your Governor does not wish to defend you. So when you’re all burning and lying in your graves with various swords and pikes and arrows piercing your guts or starin’ at the dismembered corpses of your children,” she pointed at the enraged Governor, “it is him that you must thank for it.”
“How dare you!” The Governor rushed forward to stand between Mim and her audience, “You have no authority to peddle your nonsense here.”
But it seemed her ‘nonsense’ was at least believed by some. The market was growing louder in talk and Druid traders began quickly packing up their wares.
“Theys better off getting out,” Mim said sharply, “Their lives aren’t safe in hands such as yours.” She shook her head and turned to Broc. “There’s precious little time to find them.”
He nodded with solemnity but the Governor was upon them before they could move away. “You will leave,” his face had turned a deeper shade of red and Cassian was sure it wasn’t only drink that flooded his system, “or I will have you thrown from the gates.”
Mim raised her staff and as she did, the Guards stepped forward. Cassian reached for his bow and Koax drew their blade.
“I,” Mim hissed through her teeth as she walked towards the Governor, “will not be thrown from anywhere.” She brought her staff up close to his chin and his wide, bloodshot eyes stared down his long straight nose at her.
“Attack!” The call came up from their left as a Guard sprinted towards them out of breath. “An army, Sire spotted on the horizon.”
The Governor stared open-mouthed at the guard and then looked to Mim as though it was she that had brought this fate upon him. But to his credit, he pulled his eyes away and turned to his men.
“Close the gates!” he screeched, “Man the walls! Ring the bells!”