Strange was glad to feel the gates close on the bitter cold of the valley, and let the warmth of the fort seep into his bones. As he moved through the narrow passageways, heels clicked and men stood to attention, and he casually returned their salutes with only a hint of weariness.
Arriving at his office, he saw Broome, his personal secretary, fidgeting with some papers, and next to him a man he did not recognize, with hollow eyes and hollower cheeks, who he saw was wearing the insignia of the imperial guard.
He walked to his chair, and sat down, winced slightly. His chair creaked pleasingly.
He gestured to Trevithick, who with Flowerday had followed him in, to close the door. Then he turned to the messenger, who resembled a cadaver in the low light of the room, and waved him to a chair.
The messenger took the chair greedily, and gulped at a glass of water Broome brought him. Then, as Strange did not speak, he began his tale, in fits and spurts.
“Colonel Strange – I have ridden for five days to get here – I am grateful to you for your hospitality.”
“Lord Fyra – that is, the emperor – that is, the whole of the privy council – send their greetings to you. The work you are doing here in High Meadow – “
Strange gestured for him to skip the pleasantries. The messenger nodded.
“Then – I will get straight to the point. Just over a week ago, reports reached the capital of an attack on some of the villages on the shores of the Wine Sea…”
Strange held up a hand.
“An attack? From where?”
The messenger swallowed.
“That is just it, sir – when members of the imperial guard from Dramborough arrived they found there was a great body of people fled, and many villages burned or eviscerated. There were marks of Calmirian wolves, and of wild men from the far northern lands…”
Strange sighed, beat the devil’s tattoo on the table. He looked down at his knuckles. They were chapped and dry.
“This is all very regrettable, but I don’t see – “
“Sir, no wolf from Calmir has been seen this side of the Soar in two centuries. They haven’t dared come so far south…”
“No – no, of course. We will double our guard. Thank you.”
The messenger was still looking at him, his mouth open, like a fish.
“Was there something else…?”
“Sir – the men from Dramborough said they saw – flying away from the shore – as they arrived – they say they saw…”
Broome nudged the water towards him. He took the hint, gulped it down.
“Fire drakes. Sir.”