"Kneel before your captain, and apologize, Sergeant. Be soldierlike. Be proper—"
"This...your experienced advice? She has his ear, his heart, Dog — She has his living soul! You keep me from my duty — YOU LOT, OUTTA THEM BERRIES!"
Because their sergeant had stopped, to speak with this black talking dog — the talking dog that none, not the baker's dozen, not even his three, saw enough peculiar about to stare at — instead the lot of them had begun browsing the bearberry brambles. Esben broke through the brush toward the breakfasters. The talking dog trotted at his heel.
"Then rail, Sergeant — if you cannot be proper — rail and tear your beard. Say you are mad with your captain's sending you away like he'll never need you again—"
"He's said so in sending me away — so sealing her execution—"
"But the man...he does need you — as does the witch, Sergeant — for how else can they keep your few soldiers who have, for but the moment, stayed? The men are more yours than his. They look to you. Trust you like first brother, with their lives. Yours...to do with as needs be done. And she knows it. She thought herself well rid of you, only to realize, shaking in her tent, that in driving you away she and her...devoted man — but the two of them soon enough — have near no chance, ever, in hunting down Prince Drakon. And these...your fine army...they should do very nicely in confounding her...a most excellent tactic, Sergeant—"
"Ahh...so you're a seer, now — Staring inside my plans, are you?"
"I am no spy."
The dog plain-said it menacing enough that Esben checked his step, turned, regarded those green watching eyes flashing up at him in the sunlight.
"I am this shape, Sergeant. Dog'kind...see...more. A sense, the best word. As my dog's nose is a most useful tool. But no spy. An agent of the King. A creature of court. I hear, Sergeant. A dog that doesn't bark, a dog that doesn't trip your ankle because he's not so annoyingly eager to go every place his chosen pack of people go — that dog a most useful...shadow at court—"
"That dog not missed when he slips away in the trees," Esben ventured.
A note of something passed over the dog's strange eyes: Esben imagined it very like a dog'kind wink.
"Lucky day, then, you here as my...spy, Dog."
"Sergeant, your return keeps safe the King's son—"
"Aye...tramp my boys round n'round — this sergeant can do that—"
"Bend to the man, Sergeant. Root your knee in the ground for you mean to stay. However foolish your captain. You know his madness all Khoreia's clever doing. He will call you His once more. She will put it in his ear—"
"But only today the witch does not die — and why, Dog? All of the why, now — if I'm t'stay on side. She poisoned my captain: she will be compelled to restore him. She wants the Prince: she will not have him. What else is she, besides dangerous?"
"Another plotter. And she must answer to the King. Also, besides your captain, she poisoned Borysko, most cruelly."
"Ah, the why you had her prisoner—"
"The other why you cannot kill her yet, Sergeant. She has said there is a cure. If for Borysko, then likewise for your captain."
Esben stared into those green eyes, believing at last he might have glimpsed there some part of the man who was loyal to the King.
"You will stay close, Dog. I trust nothing that comes of magic."
"I will, Sergeant. You can trust me."
Esben turned from those eyes watching him.
It was simple work, bellowing at the breakfasters, bullying them into enough of a line that he then started marching, in ugly fashion, through the forest toward the camp. Calla, the black dog, Esben glimpsed slip into the trees just as sentries appeared where he had posted them before he had left.
"Sarge!" the pair said as one.
"Shoulda challenged me, lads — Show me to the Captain."
Half asleep, the captain seemed. Closer to drunk, to any who could not know. Behind him, like typical new arrivals very likely still huddled together — too shy presently for mingling — Esben noted the baker's dozen quiet in an extreme he would not have believed them capable of. Khoreia, disturbingly beautiful, by the man, his captain, with one slender golden arm around him, standing him up.
Esben knelt beneath the whispering beeches. Bowed his head. Before he could say the silly apology, his captain blurted, "That'll do, Sergeant. All is forgiven."
Then, lifting his face, Sergeant Esben saw the black dog. Those green, green eyes steadily regarding him. And Khoreia, kneeling by him, and her hand scratching behind one of his ears.