It was a cool fall afternoon, but the air was still in the courtyard of Fregyr Keep. Soldiers moved purposefully across the hard cobblestones of the court, their boots occasionally making a dull thud as they trod on the iron spikes driven between the stones. Their actions were tense and purposeful as each man sought out his station. Mixed cohorts of archers and musketeers filed onto the battlements surrounding the yard. Men checked each other’s armor and equipment, making sure that chain hauberks were settled properly. Junior centurions kept a watchful eye on the proceedings, barking out the occasional order or stepping in to correct those problems that inevitably reared their heads when you tried to get ten score military men to perform a complex evolution. Senior cannoneers argued with each other, gesturing expansively as they directed their loaders to make minute adjustments to the artillery pieces they serviced.
All attention was focused inward, on the standing stones at the center of the courtyard. Stones that normally stood silent, but now seemed to shimmer slightly, as if they were trying to hide behind a heat mirage.
Stones that had woken up. Or been awakened.
At one end of the courtyard, senior centurion Aras Adem stood silently by one of the larger cannons, counting time silently as the bustle of activity wound down and men settled into their final positions. His ades, legionnaires Jens and Varys, stood by, busy stoking the charcoal brazier that held their firing rods. One by one, senior centurions strode purposefully over to Centurion Adem to report their men ready.
As the last centurion reported his men in position, Adem dismissed him, he grunted.
“Three minutes. Not bad. Not good, either.” He turned to check his men, saw that they already had their firing rods ready at hand. “Remind me to order a drill again next week. We should be able to manage this in two.”
“Aye, sir,” said Jens. “Still have a minute, though. Takes at least four for something to make it through from the Far Lands.”
Adem frowned. “That we know of. One of the Mazi might make it faster. We don’t know.” He turned and stared at the standing stones for a moment before muttering under his breath, “And I hope we never find out.” Adem had studied Legion history as he moved through the ranks.He knew that the damage that a true Mazikeen could do to the Real was immense. Even on Abshya itself, heart of the Empire. Of course, there, the great Gate to the Far Lands was not hidden away inside a keep like almost every other standing stones. Instead, it was in the middle of an immense plain. Ringed by bunkers bristling with coherent energy weapons, railguns, and soul cannon, the Empress had stated flatly that any adrukh who so much as stepped foot on her world would be exterminated in the Real.
So far, at least, that assertion had not been tested.
From the battlements behind him, a horn sounded, followed by a cry. “Movement in the gate!”
Adem stepped forward, drew and checked his flintlock pistol in his left hand. “COHORT, ATTENTION!” he bellowed. With a clatter, every man in the courtyard came to attention. After a moment of silence, Adem’s voice voice rang off the close walls of the courtyard. “COHORT, ATTEND THE GATE!! Observers, report!”
Above him, a young scout with a spyglass peered over the battlements at the standing stones. As he adjusted his glass, he called out his reports.
“One figure, sir. Man, or at least it looks like a man. I can… wait… yes. Wearing legion colors. Not moving too quickly. Looks tired.”
At the mention of colors, Adem could feel a infinitesimal reduction in the tension of the men arrayed around him. Almost as if the cohort had - as one man - released a held breath. A lone figure was good. Every man there knew that Legion protocol called for a single representative to exit the gate and coordinate exit of additional forces.
Still, it could be a trick. The adrukh of the Far Lands were nothing if not crafty. Even if the approaching visitor was who he appeared to be, some of the smaller spirits might try to take advange of a moment’s inattention and slip through. That happened regularly around the commerce gates, of course. Couldn’t be helped. Adem was determined that particular manner of incursion, however minor, was not going to happen on his watch.
He drew a deep breath, and raised his right hand in a fist as his voice rang out. “COHORT, READY!”
With a clatter, every man in the courtyard moved to prepare their weapons. Archers readied their bows, broadhead iron arrows laid and ready to fire. Musketeers went to one knee, braced their gun and sighted them upon the standing stones. Cannoneers took their red-hot firing rods and held them carefully above the firing ports of their artillery, ready to unload tons of iron balls and stone shot at whatever exited the gate, if needed.
Adem stepped forward to stand between the cannon and the standing stones, his hand upraised and fist clenched, and watched the gate. After a moment, he could make out the indistinct figure of a man, as if through heavy fog at a great distance. Moment by moment, the figure appeared to move closer. It became more distinct, until Adem could see what the scout had reported: a lone man in Legion leathers, head down, trudging towards them wearily.
With a final step, the man stumbled across the threshold of the standing stones, a looked up, blinking. His hair was brown with dust, and his face tan and lined. He carried no weapon, but an iron medallion with a raised sigil dangled from a fine chain around his neck.
Adem raised his pistol, and aimed at the medallion.
The visitor glanced around and took in the sight of two hundred men aiming various weapons at him, seemingly nonplussed. Taking a deep breath, he straightened himself, and somehow managed to march the last few steps toward Adem crisply, where he came to attention and snapped a vigorous salute. When he spoke, his voice was low and even, but with an edge of weariness.
“First Mate Kellan Orelley of the Thirteenth Legion, reporting under orders, sir.”
Adem opened his upraised hand. Behind him, Jens called out, “Cohort, remain ready.” After a moment, Adem slowly lowered his hand, and returned the salute.
“By whose authority do you report?” Adem asked.
“Under the authority of Empress Katarina the Last,” he responded. “May Heaven bless her reign.”
Adem nodded almost imperceptibly. “And may Hell tremble at her Name.”
With that, Adem broke his salute, and the visitor did likewise. Adem called out, “Cohort, the visitor is recognized! Cohort, at ready ease!”
There was a susurration as the legionaires around the courtyard relaxed from the ready. Unlike the rest of the men, Jens and Varys kept their attention entirely on Adem and the visitor. They had standaing orders from Adem in these situations: If this was some sort of adrukh trick, they were to do their duty, fire the cannon, and drink to his memory.
Adem stepped forward and murmured, “At ease.” As Kellan relaxed, he said, “First Mate? You’re a bit far from the sea, sailor.”
Kellan allowed the corner of his mouth to turn upward, just a hint. “The unit started in the navy, sir. Been years since then, but they’ve kept the ranks. Tradition.”
Adem chuckled. “Tradition, indeed. You look like rode hard and put away wet, First.” He raised an eyebrow, inviting a reponse.
Kellan’s small smile disappeared. “The last few days have not been entirely uneventful, sir,” he responded, his voice carefully neutral.
Adem looked at him for a moment, then shook his head. “They rarely are, First. They rarely are. You have orders?”
Kellan nodded, and reached into his jacket to pull out a bundle of papers bound with wire and sealed with wax. Handing them to Adem, he said, “Sir? The others will be close behind me. They were supposed to wait five minutes before following, but... “ He inclined his head towards the standing stones. “You know that time doesn’t always work out smoothly when you’re moving between the Real and the Far Lands.”
“We’ll clear out the courtyard in a moment,” Adem said. He hesitated for a moment, then sighed, “I hate that I have to ask this, but… First, how many men should we expect? We received a dispatch though the HQ in Canedella telling us you would be arriving, but they didn’t bother to tell us how many men we would be dealing with. Just that a contingent of the Thirteenth Legion would be coming through from the Far Lands, and that we should render assistance, per your orders.”
Kellan nodded. “Additional details are in the orders, sir. Our Captain requests a meeting with your CO at his convenience, as there are specifics he wishes to discuss with him in person. As for men, there are six of us, all told.”
Adem harumphed. “Six hundred? Hmm. Well, we can house you for a while at least, if we double up on…”
Kellan cleared his throat quietly. “Sir, beg your pardon. Not six hundred. Six.”
Adem blinked once, twice, and spoke slowly. “You mean… six in the advance party?”
Kellan shook his head. “No, sir. Six total. We are… a small unit. We’re all that’s coming.”
Adem shook his head bemusedly, then turned around. His voice rang out in the courtyard. “COHORT, STAND DOWN! Centurions, muster the men in the outer keep for review and training!”
Even before he finished, the legionnaires had started to shuffle along the battlements. The cool air was filled with the low murmur of military men critiquing one another, or their commanders, or the weather, or whatever struck their fancy.