Hanging out his wrinkled feet to dry under the high August sun, and making his couch in the elbow of a fallen beech, Esben grit his old stubbie pipe in the corner of his mouth, and shut his eyes for his rest. The sour smoke he puffed out instantly dissuaded away the little buzzing things that had clouded around him all the morning.
The platoon had made slow northwardly enough progress through the bright morning, splashing through the buggy marsh, from beech island to island. Each grove shaded a little their sweating matted heads, and the slightly higher ground granted them permission to tip out their boots. But the platoon could only progress as swiftly as its slowest members, and Esben himself had recruited these thirteen.
The situation started a very small grin across his face.
"Sergeant." came the murmur below his warming feet.
"...Dog." said Esben, part-opening just the one eye.
"Stay at your rest, Sergeant. She would expect your indifference toward her messenger."
"I am hardly...indifferent toward you, dog. My hands might show you how...playful, were yer scruffy neck between them."
"Your present demeanour will do, Sergeant. My Lady has a favour to ask of you —"
"Does she, now, Dog? Well, she might ask it of me herself. And we should seal the deal, she and me, with the quickest hug —"
"Sergeant. I have told my Lady you are loyal —"
"To my end, dog —"
"The King's man —"
"To my very end —"
"And so, her most natural ally to my likewise loyal Lady, Sergeant."
He opened his other eye to that. Esben drew long on his pipe, filling himself on his tangy smoke. A veteran's trick he had learned when he was green from his first sergeant, the brute himself now long dead.
Clears the head, Esben. And yer sergeant looks t'be ponder'ful as a sage while yer smoke's workin' its magic.Khoreia prowled where the boys Esben detailed next to lead the way rested, drying and warming their boots in the high sun between the trees. She batted her eyes at them; and, in spite of their dread, their bright eyes trailed her and the magic she managed, even in borrowed soldier's shirt and leggings darkly damp to the knees.
Esben doubted she even saw the black dog visiting him. This puzzling dog. Waggling his pink tongue this hot lunchtime, and panting, like a steaming kettle, this spy seemed just like any dog. But for his green, green eyes, full of secrets, glinting up at him.
Esben muttered his answer from the corner of his mouth — "And, Dog?"
One glance around his shoulder apparently satisfying Calla as to Khoreia's whereabouts, he advanced, creeping, settling each of his paws in the reeds as though stepping on thin ice.
And the dog murmured, "The King's son, and Borysko, who you know to be loyal, also the King's man, should this moment be together. Escaping your Captain's witch. Not far. Not safe, Sergeant. My Lady requests you...delay her hunt for them, however you might —"
The smile like a bird set free flitted over Esben's face, as he contemplated killing Khoreia. But only most briefly.
"However, do not kill her, Sergeant. My Lady was most explicit in this. Khoreia has parts yet to play in this shape of the world before she goes to her end. The poisoner shall fix Borysko. The witch shall release your captain. And traitor, stand before the King himself."
Blue smoke curled from Esben's nostrils and lips — "So I delay only."
"My Lady believes you and your soldiers, all loyal to the King, will be needed by Prince Drakon. And Borysko."
Esben puffed, "And the King...safe?"
Calla tilted his dog head aside in plain and gratifying surprise. Then he showed his loyal character.
"Safe...as ever the King can be, Sergeant."
Esben puffed. He drew again on his pipe. He felt comforted, in the assumption his King was safe from all this. He imagined his King, grim Alastor on a silver coin, in Maggie's Town, and safe in the company of his Scarlet Guard.
Khoreia then noticed her dog Calla visiting. She stared, like the huntress she was, tall, menacing, in the glare between the trees. Then she was coming.
In swift warning, Esben barked, "You might've been better born a cat, Dog, for a clever cat y'be t'trick me. Now be off."
Flashing Esben an unmistakable wink, the dog turned and left in no great haste. Calla made a show of suddenly seeing Khoreia striding nearer and nearer under the hot sun. He loped eagerly toward her.
Likewise careful, Sergeant Esben slipped from his comfortable log. He swung his damp boots and started toward the thirteen, who rested, together, like brothers, under the same great shaded beech.
He glanced. She crouched before the dog. Her hands played, slowly scratching behind his ears. They were exchanging words. That smile curled her pretty mouth, but did not show in her narrowed eyes.
Five of these when the platoon started into the marsh this morning — now six of this baker's dozen were confused about Esben's rank. He decided it was not important enough to correct.
The witch was done talking with her dog. His tail curled high, he trotted past her. Smiling still that false smile, Khoreia stood, staring directly at the sergeant with his baker's dozen under the great shaded beech.
"Made good time this mornin', lads." Esben gave them, lying.
"Thanks, Captain" and "Yes, Captain" — their adequatedly spirited replies.
"Startin' out again, soon. A word. Y'all should see to yer feet, especially. Because of this wet, lads."
"Leeches, lads. LEECHES. Nasty — when they get a toe'hold, I tell ya."