Khoreia's strange magic held the captain prisoner. However, the witch was no great strategist, and control her plain tactic: control of the captain — which she might have expected handed her easy control as well of the sergeant's platoon. She put no effort toward winning over her puppet's soldiers, but let suspicion gut their hearts. By nightfall, Esben knew, his boys all would run for home. Leaving but her and her lovesick, no longer useful captain — and no closer to finding again Prince Drakon — her undisguised purpose.
In dismissing him — sent away like some disgraced discipline case — his Captain relieved Esben of the last chain holding him from doing the thing needing doing.
At last, the sergeant's duty simple and clear. Hold together his platoon. Kill the witch. Save his officer. And because the man clearly was totally mad — dangerously sure he needed no saving from an obvious enemy — his sergeant only properly should be expected to absolutely disobey his every unright order.
Two of his lads scampered after him, farther than they should have. Esben noted, approvingly, one a corporal, and sounding shrill, like he was taking his job seriously.
"You cannot leave us, Sergeant—"
"You get back there before any more run. You make sure no more do. Them's my orders. Get my meaning?"
"Get in there — and you put the fear back in them. We don't run. We're the King's own, outta Maggie's Town. Get me?"
"...What y'got planned, Sarge—?"
"So long as y'don't know, Corporal, you can't lie to the officer and get yerself in my kinda trouble — Right? — Now back with ya."
And that said, Esben turned, strode on under the bright trees, not waiting for his corporal's "Right, Sarge", though he heard it, and felt his chest swell as with his first full drink of the air in days.
By the windfallen bones of a beech part overgrown in the darkest bearberries he might ever have seen, needing to move more freely he stripped off his pack, hid it. His hiding hole under a breakfast bush a riot of noisily twittering greencaps. Before his staring eyes the berries laid out, as if even for his breakfast, already warming in the sun, heady as wine. The birds, fearless enough of the sergeant, let him reach in among them and pluck. He more drank than ate the bursting gift of summer.
A twig snapped. The greencaps lifted, swirled only briefly around Esben, settled again at breakfast. He believed it but a deer nearby browsing. The moment, though, the interruption, like a call again to duty, to return at once to his work of the morning.
At once he did so: following his nose, as a dog should on the hunt. And a sergeant prowling. Since last night, the bitter stink of another campfire in the forest. Somewhere, and still the burn of it on the morning air, smelling close enough, and to his sergeant's nose likely.
Coming suddenly to the place, all hard daylight where woodcutters had taken all the trees, sure enough he found his three wayward troopers. And a sullen seeming baker's dozen of the town's men who he took at first seeing for...tavern minstrels, or some similar entertaining town creatures: who perhaps had taken a wrong turn, and very long walk, at the close of a likely boozy eve. They did not at all seem at home in the forest, not in their ruined soft shoes and grubby clothes. And to the last man, capped on top in that floppy beret currently all the rage. This baker's dozen, and his three troopers, huddled about a blackened scar on the ground where the fire had burned, and gone out.
Of course, his three registered their sergeant's finding them, and striding like war under the sun directly for them. Two hung their heads, as they should. The third lifted his big eyes — even the smallest flicker of a smile there — like an expectant pup whose only wrong was he wandered away to sniff the trees.
"Not one word more. Not from any'a you three. You're in no end of trouble. No mind that officer — but letting me down. Home you want — then get yerselves home. Go walk tall in the street — fess up for any who cares why you have no welcome and no more home with the regiment—"
"Are y'come t'lead us home, Captain?" — one of the more daring adventurers.
"Uh'no...On y'feet, y'three — and be smart about it—"
The baker's dozen crowded round, close, like they wanted to join in this stiffly standing to attention. The daring one still addressing him as an officer.
"—See, Lastor left us—"
"—Alastor," piped the one by him: which signaled the others they might feel free as well to babble at the busy sergeant. Which, immediately, they began. However, the baker's dozen did not babble at him in turn, not even in any orderly procession of babbling that Sergeant Esben might feel able to juggle, but instead all babbling at him in chorus, as with one noisy voice—
"...Yeah, terrible upset, bawlin' somethin' shockin', 'coz under the moon the forest folk took his boy...Out from under his arm...And all our wine...Not so little as giving us his g'bye, he lef'tus t'go find his boy, him and Borys and Dono...Poor Dragon...Naw, Drako...But now how's we s'posed t'hunt down ferocious old Marron, 'ay?...Marron busted out, see, tore up ev'rythin' and ev'ryone in his way...He tore both arms off that ringman...Hah! — Y'wasn't there...I wasn't there, I heard it said...That ringman put the beer in your hand at Pig n' Bee, y'stupid!...Don't be calling me stupid now, I heard it said...Captain, them red soldiers o'yours no use at'all and not a one t'be spotted during his busting out, I'll say that out loud, 'coz y'should fix them—"
"HOLD Y'BABBLING — HOLD!"
They held their babbling.
The sergeant's heart flopped about uncomfortably. He likened the greater gist of the babbling to trying to make sense of a grossly misdrawn and fanciful map, and turned wrong way around — all the strange and the more disturbing facts of it apparently in view — however not properly in place so that he should believe it.
His trooper, the pup, met his sergeant's roving eye. The lad so eager, that he only lacked a wagging tail.
"You look t'have words to tell your sergeant, lad — and I know y'can string y'words together so's it all makes sense. I'll ask. You answer. While he's telling me, you lot SHUDDUP!"
Quiet followed. Only a bird somewhere twittering. Esben drank a little of the air. He began—
"Scarlets are in the town. Nod y'head, lad."
"There's a curfew, Sarge."
"All's right, lad. It's how things are done in the capital. So they do the same here. Borysko, now, he was here."
"They said so, Sarge, and the Prince — and the Prince has been taken...by..."
"Forest folk, Sarge."
"Right," said Esben, and put his eye on the townsman by him, "You got money. Let's see it."
The man blinked at him like he expected to be robbed.
"Don't y'have money, Captain?"
"Not when I'm about soldiering. Don't like the clinking, not when I'm soldiering. So, cummon, put it up so I can see it."
He produced the small leather purse, clinking. Two pairs of hands wrestled with it a moment, then Esben held up one shining coin for all to behold under the fine morning.
"Is this Alastor?"
A moment passed. And another. Several more. Then the replies, "No", to the very last man of that bunch.
Only very briefly, Sergeant Esben considered strangling them, to the very last man. And then the strange idea came to him that these men, this baker's dozen, should join the ranks. He saw it might bring them horror. He saw also the handy purpose he might use them for. For diversion. For confusing a witch. For but the moment he would need to knife her dead through the back.
"Follow me. I'll find your ferocious Marron for you. You'll get yer adventure yet." he said to the morning.
They did follow. Esben heard rustling again, at moments, alongside his little army's progress through the forest. Shuddering, remembering that ambush, he was not as sure it be that deer again. He dallied. The chattering lot, all his, passed him. As the last greenish floppy beret about vanished among the bright trees, a twig popped nearby. A dog. Then Esben recognized the dark dog.
"You. So yer not enemy of the King."
Strange green eyes regarded him.
"No. Khoreia is. Sergeant, you cannot kill her. Not yet."