The cool air of Vallence was a shock as I stumbled through the standing stones and into the courtyard of Fregyr Keep.
I have been on the other side of an Entry once or twice, so what I saw waiting for me was no real surprise. High walls, surrounding a wide courtyard. Rough cobblestones underfoot, red with rust from the iron spikes driven in the spaces between the stones. Openings for cannon in the walls. High platforms on the battlements for archers and musketeers to look down upon whatever poor fool wandered in through the standing stones at the center of the courtyard.
All of them occupied by armed men looking inward. Scores of archers readied their bows. Dozens of musketeers drew a bead. Even though I expected as much, that much attention can make a man a bit nervous. I straightened a fraction and gathered myself.
Protocol must be followed.
In front of me, the largest cannon I had ever seen was pointed directly at me. Three stern faced soldiers in iron half-helms and rusty chainmail stood behind the cannon. Two of them held an iron rod glowing cherry red, obviously just taken from the glowing brazier before them. The glowing ends of the rods hovered over the firing hole of the cannon, waiting. The third was dressed similarly, but had a officer’s badge over his shoulder. He also carried a flintlock pistol in his left hand.
Pointed at my heart, of course.
I saluted the men on the cannon, and in my best parade ground voice, stated, “First Mate Kellan Orelley of the Thirteenth Legion, reporting under orders.”
The pistol-wielding cannoneer carefully returned my salute without letting his aim waver. His voice was steady and deep, with a slight hint of tension. “By whose authority do you report?”
“Under the authority of Empress Katarina the Last,” I responded. “May Heaven bless her reign.”
All three of the cannoneers responded, “And may Hell tremble at her Name.” With that, the officer broke his salute, and I did likewise. He took a deep breath, then bellowed, “The visitor is recognized!”
There was a noticeable relaxation among the men on the walls pointing their weapons at me. That suited me just fine. Unlike the rest of the men, the cannoneers kept their attention entirely on me. As their officer lowered his pistol and stepped towards me, they each took the opportunity to exchange their firing rods for a new one taken from the brazier.
Coming up before me, the officer murmured “At ease,” and I allowed myself to relax. “You look rode hard and put away wet, First.”
“The last few days have not been entirely uneventful, sir,” I responded, deadpan.
His mouth quirked into a half-smile, quickly, then he was back to business. “Orders?”
I reached into my jacket to pull out the paperwork he needed. Handing it over, I said, “Sir? Permission to signal through the stones?”
He took the papers from me, examined the seals, then nodded. “Permission granted. Corporal Jens! Visitor will be signaling through the stones, by…” He paused and nodded at me.
“Red painted wooden ball,” I said.
“Red painted wooden ball”, one of the cannoneers repeated. Jens, I assumed. “Aye, sir.”
While the officer waited, I fished the ball out of my pocket and rolled it back through the standing stones. It clattered and bounded over the cobbles before taking a final bounce through the stones and out of this world. I turned back to the officer, and saluted once again. “Signal sent, sir.”
“Very well,” he said. He hesitated for a moment, then said, “First, how many men should we expect? The dispatch we received only specified your unit.”
“Oh. Yes. Six, sir.”
He frowned. “Six hundred? Hmm. We can handle that, if we double up on…”
I cleared my throat. “Sir, beg your pardon. Not six hundred. Six, total.”
He blinked once, twice. Looked at me again. “Six? You mean, six in the advance party?”
I kept my face carefully neutral as I shook my head. “No, sir. Six total. We are… a small unit. We’re all that’s coming.”