“Stand and be recognized, Randall Alvin Torquil. Your deft hands, swift feet and keen senses shall serve your companions well once you pass into the wilds beyond our lands."
The people’s response was subdued. Scouts, while valued, had a reputation for not remembering that their fast-and-loose ways in the field were not tolerated when within the walls of society. This is also why most of them spend most of their time away from the White Tower, away from the center of their society, and instead preferred to range along the pacified bawn or explore into the wilds.
“Stand and be recognized, Gregory Andrew Cavil. Your might and fury shall serve well here, smiting the foes of our people.”
James, Thomas and Torquil knew Cavil by reputation- and that reputation was one that did not flatter them. Cavil, indeed, is one of the strongest warriors seen in years. His temper matches it, which is why he holds no position of leadership, something that irks him greatly.
Eight others David named. The Hamilton boys, twin brothers, are renown for their mastery of fighting as a pair in skirmishes and brawls. Edward Redhand got that name for an incident two years ago, when his team got ambushed by some monster while on patrol, that ended when Edward drove his sword through the monster’s skull with such force that his hand followed. Jeremy Olson came out of the Scouts, as Torquil did, but wasn’t that good at scouting; instead, he turned out to be an expert skirmisher. Asby was a rarity amongst the people’s warriors, for he spent time amongst the girls in the Hospital learning medicine—something normally forbidden—to become a medic; his mother still feels bitter about it. Scott, Patrick and William—while able warriors—were better known for their senses of humor, and their willingness to use it.
All told, a dozen in this cadre, under James’s command stood and got recognized. At the end, the people showed their appreciation with a standing ovation. Mothers held forth their young sons, yet children, and said to them that James and his comrades were what they must become. Fathers talked with one another, making tentative agreements regarding marriages, and much merry-making was had.
As for the girls—now young women—they gave what appreciation was permissible between unmarried adults; those women who favored this or that man amongst the company went forth and kissed that man on the cheek. Often they whispered words, encouraging or enticing as they willed, and the elders knew it- yet, wisely, they did nothing. Soon enough, so all present thought, the matter of which man would take which woman as a wife and finish the assimilation into adult society—thus preserving their fragile island of order—would be solved to the satisfaction of the government as well as the families.
But for James, despite receiving as many such favors as the others now under his command, he found the affair by now tiresome. With a look towards David, he sensed that his master’s friend and companion shared that impatience, and once David again reclaimed the attention of the feasters he moved to end his boredom.
“Our purpose here is fulfilled, so our event is over. Our heroes need their rest, and some yet have work to do before retiring for the night. Be well, but be gone.”
* * * * *
James retired to the White Tower. Tomorrow, he knew, he would gather with his subordinates and march towards Silver Top Mountain. Going from the White Tower, the center and citadel of his people, all the way to that far distant summit would be neither swift nor easy- and the first enemy to conquer will be boredom. Marching outward from the center means a march through swaths of friendly, pacified territory; at most, they may encounter a dispute or a feral animal, due to regular patrols maintaining the peace. Rolling hills, covered in farmsteads producing grains needed for a growing—albeit slowly—population and their animals, as well as logging camps and road crews taking other resources and transporting them wherever needed, do not make for good storytelling.
As James led the men through these pacified lands, he became acquainted with his subordinates. They did not fail to meet the expectations set by their first impressions. Thomas was indeed a walking archive of lore, Torquil a reliable outrider and scout, Cavil a brute and a braggart, and so on. In particular, the threesome of Scott, Patrick and William kept the cadre’s spirits lively with their wit and jests.
Their route to the frontier, into the wilds, wound through a series of towers and forts built throughout the bawn claimed by the People of the White Tower. The cadre called on each in turn, taking the time needed to rest and resupply before moving on. The men at those towers and forts, all older than the cadre, looked on these youths barely out of training with a mixture of concern and pity; word of the mission travelled swiftly throughout the community, and many of the garrisons that resided in the lands patrolled by those garrisons—following the policy of occupation by a farmer-militia—wondered what the Archmage and the Eight Masters are up to in sending untried, inexperienced youths on such a long-ranging and dangerous mission.
On the eve of their seventh day out from the White Tower, the cadre arrived at a fort—little more than a tower enclosed inside a wall—halfway between the White Tower and the edge of the White Tower’s dominion. The garrison received the cadre warmly, having heard of their coming and prepared accordingly.
That night, at dinner, Thomas—sitting next to James—leaned close to James and whispered into his ear.
“Sir, do you see the man serving as the commander’s aide?”
James glanced over at the indicated man and nodded.
“There is something peculiar about him, something off, that I can’t put my figure on just yet.”
James, in turned, whispered to Thomas. “A threat?”
“I cannot say, sir.” Thomas tapped on his book satchel, “If I could remove myself from the table, I may be able to determine that.”
James nodded, understanding Thomas’s intention.
Speaking up, James said “Thomas, would you go retrieve your journal please? I would like to compare our notes against our host’s logs over recent days.”
James then looked over to the commander. “Would you would excuse my vizier for a moment, Commander Donaldson?”
Donaldson, without thinking, obliged and Thomas left the table. Once away and outside, he did retrieve the journal- and then went for the privy. Inside, he drew forth the other book he wanted—his spellbook—and spent the space of a usual privy visit instead going over one of the most basic of divinations: the spell to divine the presence of magic itself. With the spell at hand, Thomas again approached the feasting hall. Lingering in the shadows near the door, he paused just long enough for Commander Donaldson to propose a toast to the cadre’s success. As the men raised their cups, they raised their voices- granting Thomas the cover he needed to successfully intone the spell’s incantation without being heard; being in the shadows covered the rest of the magic’s required elements.
Thomas fixed his gaze upon Donaldson’s aide, and he saw about the aide the presence of some form of active magics of a sort not quite what he knew- like the difference between two shades of the same color. Thomas narrowed his gaze, concentrating intently upon the aide, and soon he saw that this man was not only a potent magic-user but also not truly human. Yet the magics about the aide were minimal in nature; there was nothing obscuring his true form, but instead merely some spells to deflect casual inspection- it was as if this aide took no precautions against a wizard trained by the Eight Masters, and that worried Thomas.
Not wanting to delay himself further, Thomas returned to the table and sat.
“My journal, as requested, sir.” Thomas said to James, “I reviewed it to be certain that what you desired was present; I marked the pages accordingly.”
“Thank you, Thomas. Please, be seated.” James said, taking the journal.
As Thomas regained his seat, James made a show of flipping through the journal to find the indicated pages. Thomas again leaned in close and whispered, gesturing to the pages as he did so.
“The aide is not human, sir.” Thomas said, “Yet he appears so, as what spells he has working about him are minimal precautions against detection.”
James glanced at Thomas’s face and saw the worry on it.
“Thomas, let us see where this aide stands in the garrison.” James said, “If he avoids the Eight Masters’ students, then we have him.”