The early morning sky was darkened by a thick blanket of rainclouds. Dea peered up at them as she stepped out of her tent. They were a welcomed sight. Perhaps they would stick around and provide some shade for the day's ride.
With her packs in hand, she slipped her staff into its sheath on her
back. It was with perfect timing. A horn sounded from the center of
the camp. Alton was calling for his troops to gather for the company's
The lanes that were often moderately active quickly filled with a sea of
Validius blue uniforms. Dea fell in step with the flowing mass of her
comrades. Most appeared well readied for the announcement. There was
only a handful of those still working to button up their coats.
The common area was filling in a hurry as Dea made her way to her
place. She exchanged acknowledging glances with Zacairus after he
settled in two rows ahead of her. He gestured at her carried packs,
earning a nod. He gave a hearty smile and a wink in return.
Alton stood before the assembly in his deep blue captain's uniform. The
black and gold cords looped over his shoulders demanded notice. His
light brown eyes passed over the gathered troops before him. The
company went silent.
Dea stood in attention as the captain performed his routine assessment.
She admired his eternal calm. The man never gave a hint as to what he
was about to say. No matter the pressure of the situation, he remained
completely untroubled. He was the embodiment of tranquility.
"We will be moving out within the hour," he began. His soft spoken tone
forced a stillness over the company. Even the wind seemed to dissipate
in accommodation of his low volume. "We are to assist the western
forces. There has been a breach in Baldorah's defenses. Bellfield and
Herondale have fallen. Moatterra is next.
"Pack only essentials. We will not make camp. We should reach
Moatterra by midday. We will return as soon as the area is recovered.
"Officers, report to me for your division's assignments."
With that, the company was dismissed. No one delayed. The common area came to life with Validius spurring into action.
Dea started for the stables. All she needed was to ready her bay mare,
Marus. Depending on the horse's mood, it would not take long. The
biscuits in her pack would assure the mare's cooperation.
"How much of this did you already know?" Zacairus asked as he came beside Dea.
She shook her head. "Only that we were getting an assignment. Zeke would not tell me anything more."
He gave a doubtful chuckle. "I thought you were going to start sharing your information."
She picked up their pace and fought back a grin. "Zeke stopped by last
night. He said Alton will address the company in the morning about a
"I would not mind a little notice, Dea." Zacairus shook his finger at her. "Mysterious assignment, huh?"
"To be honest, he only said assignment. I added the mysterious. I thought you would like that."
"So it was a good thing for me to be packed in advance," he grumbled.
Dea let out a laugh. She squeezed through a narrow alley between a row
of white tents with Zacairus following her lead. "When are you not
"I have caught on," he returned. They stepped out into a less crowded
lane and pressed on. "Since you asked, I have learned to get a pack
ready every time Zeke pays you a visit. His coming is a precursor to
The two slowed as they came to the side entrance of the stables. Tall
wooden gates and barricades spread out in a maze before them. Validius
of all ranks moved about with tack and gear in tow.
The small enclosure housed only a fraction of the company's mounts.
Most were kept in the adjoined field. Since Dea and Zacairus had
assignments that day, their horses were kept in the stables over the
The smell of wood, dust and straw tempered that of manure. The dirt
floor of the stables muted the steps of the Baldorians within the
building. Stamping hooves and clanking of hardware filled the air.
"They are over here," Zacairus spoke up. He ushered Dea to the far side
of the stables. She was grateful he was tall enough to spy their
horses' heads over the wooden walls.
They made their last turn and eased their pace. Zeke stood waiting in
front of Marus' stall. He had both Dea's and Zacairus' tack out and
ready for them.
"You are such a good man," Zacairus called out in praise. "You knew we were coming."
Zeke bowed his head in greeting to Zacairus. "I was right to assume you two travel as a team."
"Yes, sir," Zacairus said as he returned the greeting. "I will always recruit one of your studies to watch my back."
Zeke's green eyes lightened with a smile. He patted Zacairus' shoulder, then turned to Dea. "Did you rest well?"
"Are you ready for your journey?"
"Should you have chosen a good-natured horse, I would have had it
saddled and ready for you. I did not care to fight with this nag
Dea smiled and nodded in understanding. She reached into her pack and
retrieved a biscuit. Holding it up for her mentor to see, she offered
it in her flattened hand to the waiting mare. Marus' lips quickly
claimed the treat.
"Ah." Zeke followed her example and found a biscuit. "Bribery is often successful."
Zacairus opened the stall that held his dark brown stallion. "This guy
is not difficult. He would let you saddle him." The sleek horse held
still as he slipped the bit into place.
"I did not even attempt to try," Zeke said. "I am wary of another man's
horse. It might be bonded or ornery." He nodded to Marus as she
nipped at him. "Or both."
Dea stepped into the mare's stall. Marus flattened her ears and tossed
her head with a snort. The mare calmed when Dea took the bridle in her
hands. She would not put up too much of a fight, but Dea knew it was
not one of Marus' better days. The bay's brown eyes flashed with