The Coming of the Witch – Part Five

Bad Tidings One

“How many?!”

Strange sounded almost indignant.

So Lukas took another gulp of brandy, said it again:

“Nearly three thousand. Sir.”

Strange swung round to look at him. His mouth was open.

“And all these men…” he said, sitting down opposite Lukas, “have been lost in the last month?”

Lukas rolled his shoulders a little. They were tense. He really needed a bath.

“Yes, sir. It is an unusually high number for such a short period of time…”

“I’ll say it is!” said Strange. He looked across at Trevithick, who simply raised his eyebrows. Strange thought this gesture unhelpful.

“Sir – ” began Lukas, but Strange held up a hand to silence him.

“Lieutenant, to lose so many men in so short a time, when the empire is not currently at war, looks more than careless. It is downright unforgiveable. I don’t know who is in charge in the Citadel nowadays – “

“General Cowling, sir, assisted by General Mead…”

“…but they seem to have taken leave of their senses. What happened to these men? They can’t all have been set upon by bandits, surely?”

Lukas chewed his lip.

“No, sir. Some of them have been accounted for, and some we think have deserted. But most…” He trailed off.

“Most… what?”

Lukas looked him full in the eye.

“Most crossed the Soar, under special orders from Lord Fyra. I do not know what those orders were, but I understand it was meant to be a mission of some considerable danger.”

“Well it sounds like it!” spluttered Strange. “Trevithick, fetch me some water.”

Trevithick nodded, departed.

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, I know that you are highly regarded by General Mead.” He looked at Lukas’s papers. “You distinguished yourself at the Battle of Wolfbridge, and during the Spike Lands campaign. You are obviously a brave and experienced soldier. But why has Mead posted you here? Does he want you to be my successor?”

Lukas caught Trevithick’s eye as he returned with the water, felt awkward.

“No, sir. He wanted me here because of what I have seen.”

The room went silent, and the fire made mocking shadows on the walls.

When Strange spoke again, it was in a quieter tone.

“What you have seen…?”

Lukas nodded.

“I met some of the men who returned from that mission, sir. You understand, Lord Fyra sent them into Glenaster – ” and at the mention of that name, he saw a reaction from the other two, for they all knew what it meant – “and when they returned, they were no longer men…”

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