An Old Friend
The day was cold.
Lukas Broad worked his jaw. It ached slightly, and clicked when he ate. His beard needed a trim, too. He grimaced. He was past thirty now, not as fast or as strong as he was, and his hair was already half-grey. The journey through the mountains had left him saddle-sore and tired.
His courser shook its head and whinnied.
“Nearly there,” he said quietly to the horse.
Below them stretched the vale of High Meadow, carpeted in wild grass and smelling of mint and wild garlic. The winter had been long and bitter, and Lukas was glad to feel the rumour of spring on the air.
He nudged the horse forward, and they made their slow descent into the valley, the trees thinning around them, and the wind pushing its way past impatiently. After about half an hour, they found the road that led to the old fort, where Colonel Marcus Strange commanded a battalion of nearly a thousand men, guarding the pass, and trying to keep warm in the high places of the world.
Lukas knew Strange only by reputation – that he was honest, personally brave, a man of his word, but sometimes overly cautious, with a much younger wife.
These bare facts sketched an image in his mind of a man whose best years were behind him, seeing out his last frontline posting before his superiors gave him a safer job in warmer climes, along with a decent promotion.
The fort came into view, nestling on the side of a hill, strangely fragile-looking, though Lukas did not doubt it was well guarded. As the track began to climb again, he saw another figure, mounted on a rouncey, and wrapped so deeply in a greatcoat that they almost seemed to disappear into it, coming towards him.
As they drew level with one another, Lukas called out a greeting. The other gave a start, then made his obedience, and Lukas saw he wore the uniform of an imperial messenger.
“You’re just…?” he said, indicating the road along which he had come.
The messenger nodded, looked miserable.
“I’ve just delivered a message to Colonel Strange. No doubt he may tell you of it, if you ask him. This is a godforsaken place…”
Lukas looked around him.
“I think I may already know the contents of this message,” he said. “I have been sent by General Mead to assist the Colonel.”
The messenger’s face was full of pity.
“They’ve posted you here, then?” he asked. Lukas nodded. The other man shivered.
“Rather you than me,” he said. “God be with you, brother.”
And the two of them took their leave of one another, Lukas watching the other man until he was almost out of sight. He did not look back.
It is just as well, thought Lukas – looking back up at the fort, and rubbing his chin – he does not know how bad things really are.