Unconquerable

Chapter 4 : Canad

It was still dark outside when Mab woke up. Having packed his gear with his battalion the night before he put on his cloak while his room mates slept and started towards the Gwylwin. The morning sun was hardly peeking over the horizon when he arrived and knocked on the door of the night guard's chamber. Slightly annoyed she let him into to dormitories where Cari-anne and the other women slept. He took a not he had written the night before out of his pocket and read over it one more time.

Dearest Cari

I know that no amount of reassurance can truly put your mind to rest but no matter what I promise I will come back to you. There are seven short days between our next meeting so think of me fondly and happily during them. You are of course the one and only thing in my thoughts and I'm missing you every moment. Try to forget your fears as much as you can because our hearts and souls are connected. You'll know if anything happens to me but rest assured it won't. Once again Cari-anne, I love you, more than anything.

-Mab

"I hope this helps my dear," he whispered as he placed it on the table where the pitcher and bowl sat. He looked out the window as the sun began to rise and knew he needed to return to his barracks quickly. Before he left though, he bent over Cari-anne's bed and touched her face gently with his hand. "I love you…always," he said softly and kissed her forehead. Cari-anne murmured in her sleep and rolled from her side to her back. Mab smiled fondly at her as he left the room and continued down the hall and back to the center of Milana. He looked to the east and watched as the stout building of the Gwylwin turned black in the rising sun. The clouds took on a fiery orange hue and the few open patches that led to the blue sky were a dark purple.

Mab had a confident air of happiness as he walked though a seed of doubt grew over time. While he was excited to be able to travel, it had been a long time since any of them had had any sort of assignment, he wasn't anxious to leave Cari-anne. Not only because of her doubt but because he really would miss her. They saw each other as much as possible and even though they were used to being separated that hadn't had to deal with it in a long while.

By the time he had returned to the barracks almost everyone was ready for the journey to Canad. After going over the briefing for the mission again Mab was ready to lead his men to the farming village in the South of Quesna. In the stables of the militia Mab mounted his horse with his twenty other men.

"Don't forget this."

Mab looked down from his horse to see his friend Will who handed up to him his sword. "Thanks," he said as he received the blade, a gift from his father when he had turned 18.

"Stay safe," Will replied, "I want to be assured that we will ride together again."

Mab clasped a hand with Will, "Don't worry, we will." The friends parted ways as Mab led his battalion out through the gates of the city and south to Canad. Much of the journey was across fields and through forests and by nightfall the fires of the camps set out to meet them could be seen. After hours of silence and long riding the men were eager to settle into a camp. Just outside the main village, near a border of trees was where they dismounted and began to unpack their tents. Since he led the group Mab oversaw their working until a tall farmer came to his side.

"You're the leader of these here soldiers?" he asked. Mab nodded in reply, "Well I'm Josia Mathus, my family runs most affairs 'round here and I'd just like to thank ya for comin' on down." Josia was a typical looking farmer, dressed in the trousers and heavy cotton shirts most wore during the rainy season. He spoke with a drawl that was native to the area; a picturesque Canadin.

Speaking with him made Mab smile, remembering fondly the times when he had visited Cari-anne's family for they had adopted an accent similar to Josia's. Thinking of her made him slightly somber because he knew that while he had been concentrating on the mission before him she had been living each present moment in worry. "Mab," he said putting out a hand to shake with Josia, "Well we're glad to be of any service possible, His Highness sends his concerns," Mab said, something he had been told to communicate.

"I'm sure he does," Josia said with some doubt in his voice. His weathered skin turned his face to frown and his grey hair flew in his face as the wet wind picked up. "I assume you've done been informed about our little…situation then?" he asked.

"Slightly," Mab said walking away from the men to a place nearer the forest, "But I was hoping you'd give me a more in depth summary of what your concerns are. All I've been told was that something had been spooking horses. My commanding officer told me to be ready for anything from small children to refugees from some island that had come here." A chill went through Mab's body and he noticed the same happened to Josia who closed his eyes and winced.

"It's been two months at least and I've never gotten used to that," said the aging farmer quietly as he opened his eyes. "Well, as likely as those two possibilities are I doubt they're the cause for our troubles. And it ain't jus horses," he added. "No there ain't a baby slept soundly since, Hell I don't know since when, but t'ain't jus horses. Every animal in town been on edge and so have we. Crops hardly growin' anymore, nobody sleeps through the night, harvestin' season's a'comin' up soon. We can't have this goin' on much longer. These men need their strength and if we can't do our job the affects is goin' all the way back to the King in his warm sleepin' chamber."

Mab nodded as his brow furrowed, "I know, your sheep and crops supply even further than the Quesnian borders. I hadn't realized it was that serious. Do you have any idea at all of what could be doing all this. Has anyone seen anything? Maybe it was some kind of animal. I know there are mountain lions and snow cats up near the Rose Plains. I doubt they would come down here especially in a climate so different from their own, but anything is possible."

Josia pulled some tobacco out of his pocket and began to chew on the substance as he thought, "Well I doubt there'd be any of those wild cats down here, we'd know about it. There ain't no animal I can think of that's done the things we seen."

As Mab listened to Josia his mind went back to his commanding officer who had told him not to take everything the farmers said as true. His words stemmed from the common belief among people in the city about the foolishness of those that lived a simpler lifestyle. Mab had been saved from that thought pattern by Cari-anne who had come from one of the very villages most of the city dwellers looked down on and he had seen be her example that a simple lifestyle did not dictate a simple mind. It was his goal to look at all people with an open and level mind no matter how hard it was sometimes. "Well what things have you seen? I hadn't heard of any events, only a general disquiet." He absentmindedly fiddled with the belt of his uniform on which the image of a moon inside the sun, backed by two arrows was embroidered.

Josia spat his tobacco out, "Why don't you come and eat with my family and me tonight. I'll tell you more then. It's a long story, maybe ya'll be able to make sense o'it."

"Alright then," Mab replied, "I'll join you just as soon as we are all settled here." Josia nodded and walked with Mab back to the campsite. He waited while the young man spoke to his men and gave them orders for the evening. Since the night was upon them their only order was to finish setting up camp and be asleep by the normal curfew they had when they were in Quesna. No one was allowed to leave the camp while the Officer in Charge, which as Mab, was gone. "You're in charge for now Lornen," he said to one man next to him, "Roger, Markus, and Beau are guards for the first shift tonight, I'll be back in time to see them change. I'm only going for dinner and I'll brief you on anything I find out." After saluting his men Mab left with Josia.

"They listen to you well," said the old man, "It takes trust to be a good leader."

"It does," Mab replied, "I do my best to earn it and give it." They walked through the town and Mab surveyed his surroundings. All the streets were dirt and the recent rains had left the ground muddy. Cart wheels left their trail and the footsteps from the day's comings and goings were still visible. All the houses were small and made from straw and other natural supplied. Not a stone building was in sight and only the long house where all the village meetings were held was made of wood. It was a refreshingly simple place, but that simplicity also made the mystery harder to figure out. Why would someone want to plague a small village? No diplomatic events occurred there, no one more important in social status than farmers or shepherds inhabited it. Mab couldn't think of any province that would want to hurt the crops or livestock either.

Josia led Mab up to the door of a large house near the center of the village. "This is where I live," he said, "You're welcome here anytime, so long as you fix our problems."

"I'm doing my best sir," Mab replied.

Josia opened the door to his house and a warm glow welcomed the two men. "Lilah," he called as they stepped inside the large living room where two over stuffed couches held to identical men. "Geb and Glenn," Josia said, "These are my two sons. Boys this here's the young soldier down from Milana, come to help us out. Your mother in the kitchen?" One of the boys nodded and pointed down the hall to the left of the door. Josia smiled, "Alright, I'll git her, you stay here with my boys."

Mab sat down on one of the couches across from the twins. They each had heavy beards and black, wiry hair to match. "So you're from Milana?" said one as he leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees. "We go there sometimes," he pointed to his brother, "To deliver the spun wool and grain. It's too crowded for us but a nice place to see every so often."

Mab nodded in agreement, "Yes I agree it is too crowded. I prefer places like these, less trouble in life. You can take time to think and hear and listen. I'm envious of you." He ran a hand through his brown hair and enjoyed the warmth offered by the candles and hearth in the Mathus' house.

"He should be shouldn't he Geb?" said the other brother who was Glenn with a smile. "But not right now," the smile faded from his face and he rubbed his ruddy skin with his hands, "No one should be jealous of us now."

Before Mab could reply Josia had returned with a short, white haired woman. "Lilah this is Mab, he's here from Milana. Them troops have come to help us git rid o' whatever be causing this havoc."

Lilah whipped her hands on the green apron she wore and hurried over to Mab. She bent down and pulled him into a strong hug, "Oh thank ye," she said, "Thank ye so much far comin' t'us. You don't know how much it means t'me." If possible Lilah's accent was thicker than her husbands but her sincere thanks touched Mab deeply.

"You're welcome," he said, "I'd do anything for another Quesnian."

Lilah stood back up and sniffled as Mab saw that there were tears in her eyes. Whatever had been plaguing them must have been truly devastating. "Well come on, there's good on the table and it's a gittin cold while we're out here flappin' our lips." She smiled and led them all into the kitchen where a large table was being set by two women, the wives of Geb and Glenn. The seven of them sat down to eat and Josia took it upon himself to say a grace.

Bowls of vegetables were passed around followed by lamp chops and warm, home-made bread. Mab a healthy share much to the delight of Mrs. Mathus. "I see you've taken a fancy to 'er cookin' eh?" asked Josia with a smile.

Mab nodded as he ate hungrily. "Do they feed ya'll anythin'?" Lilah asked with a laugh.

"Nothing this delicious," Mab replied.

Lilah blushed and handed him another roll. "Well I believe your mother has a new favorite supper guest," Josia said to his sons. After they finished the bulk of their dinner Josia started to talk in a more serious voice. "Now to business," he said, "You boys are gonna have to act as detectives for us, as we ain't got no idea about what been givin' us hardships."

"We'll do anything that you need us to sir," Mab replied, "Did you mention any direct incidents that might help? Give us any sort of clue to what might be here unwelcome?" He wiped his hands and mouth with a large napkin and set it down on top of his clear plate.

Josia ran his fingers through his beard as he thought. "Ladies help me clear the table an' we'll git out o' the men's way," said Lilah as she got up and the two wives followed suit in cleaning the table and putting away the food.

"It's a nice night, let's have a talk down back," Josia suggested. "Smoke?" he offered Mab.

"No thank you," replied the young man and followed him down the hall to a back door.

Geb and Glenn followed their father and the three farmers pulled out pipes to smoke. Grey wisps floated through the air as Josia spoke again after a few moments. His eyes were on the bright, round moon in the cloudy sky. "If only I could see the world like that there moon up yonder, I'd be able to see what's a'runnin' around down 'ere." He took another moment to pause and puff the smoke from his pipe; he looked down to the ground as he took it out of his mouth and turned to Mab. "'Bout five weeks ago we done hear the first piece o' odd news. Willie Cornthatch 'at live on the outside o'town has a good many sheep 'e herds in and out everyday. A good two dozen ewes I'd say. Well a big commotion goin' on down at Willie's and I come over to see what's a'matter. 'There be a dead sheep in the pen!" someone shouted. And I said 'Well then thar be a dead sheep. T'ain't no matter for anyone but Willie. Git away from 'ere and let the poor feller take care o' his business.' Well I heared someone say that t'wasn't just a dead sheep an' I push my way through to where Willie be standin' all white as though a ghost done jumped in front o' him and started a'dancin'. I ask the poor man what be wrong and all he do is point down t'the ground and once I sees what he's a'pointin' at I know where that look done come from."

Josia paused and took another, long breath from his pipe and look out. "Well what was it? Was the sheep mangled?" Mab asked.

"No, t'wasn't mangled," Josia replied, "But it looked nothin' like a sheep normally do. Poor thing was a'layin' there in the mud all stiff as a board like someone done frozen 'im. Only he had no wool of cream or grey like t'others do. Sheep had done turned bloody red at the first looks. T'was the queerest sight I'd ever seen."

"Red?" Mab asked slightly confused, "The sheep was red?"

"Sure as I'm standin' here today. It was red," Josia replied with emphasis on the last words.

Mab scratched his head and looked up to the sky. "That doesn't make sense," he muttered to himself, "Any other odd happenings?"

"Well, you know we just finished harvestin' the grain from this year now. Well the whole village spent a month on just that. Reapin', organzin', shippin' it off ta other cities. My Lilah done made about a thousand loaves o' bread in a week, I'd say," Josia said with exaggeration. "Well I ain't sure ya seen it but thar's a right big storage house in the center o' town and we puts a surplus of all our grains in there. Never hurts ta be prepared I'm sure you know. And just for the sake o't we have a man come 'round and take an inventory o' the grains in our surplus, just for records. Well he comes to check 'em one day and what do you think is there?" Josia asked. Mab looked to Geb and Glenn who were intent on their smoking. Neither of them made any sort of gesture while their father spoke but to breathe in and out the pungent weed.

"A dead sheep?" Mab asked, half serious and half for his own humor. He kept a serious face but smiled inside.

Josia shook his head, "No, though we had plenny o' those anyway. Now remember this was our surplus so ain't a big loss, but there was a good amount o'grain gone from that stock. Man comes in an' opens the first barrel of grain and sees nothin' but dust. Ain't no normal dust either, all red, like dried of blood or sumat like that. Well 'e thinks it's just a joke, we got some roudy young'uns around 'ere, so 'e opens another barrel and it's filled the same damn stuff. All fifty five barrels of grain are full o'this red dust. Not a soul that knows where it came from." He puffed on his pipe watching the smoke twist back and forth through itself. "Don't know where it came from," he said softly to himself as his eyes lost focus on anything Mab could see.

"So a dead sheep and the loss of all the surplus grain. None of that makes sense," Mab said. He rubbed the back of his neck and searched his mind for some sort of answer but it was clouded by the smoke. "Well if it's just one sheep and only the surplus then it doesn't seem like it has anything to do with trying to put bad feelings between Quesna and the other provinces. And it doesn't look like they want a civil war between Canad and any other city. The attacks are only here and not too serious, of course they are for whoever they happened too but not enough to endanger the whole village," he finished seeing the sharp look on Josia's face. While he had been level with Josia and even jovial he could tell that distrust was between them merely from their different lifestyles of city and village.

Josia nodded, "I guess there ain't enough to put us all in a worry but that's not all that's happened. Aside from other sheep and livestock turnin' up dead, red corn an' such falling right off the plant, and a loss o'the surplus, there's been uneasiness all over the place, somethin' we can't ignore. The fear is so thick 'round here you could cut out a piece an' eat it for supper. I'm sure this must sound silly to a city boy like yerself but believe me, you'll know what I mean by the end o' the week." The farmer shook his pipe and signaled to his sons, "Let's go boys," he said, "We'll let this young man git back to his camp and we'll try and find us some rest. Up early in the mornin'" He winked to Mab as he led them back inside. "I'll be round to see you agin after I done my milkin'," he said to Mab, "If ya need anythin' don' be afeared to ask."

"I won't, and thank you for the hospitality, I haven't eaten so well in ages," he said as they walked inside and Lilah offered him a bit of food to take back to the camp. "I couldn't eat another bite, I'll give this to the late night watch." He received another anxious hug from the sturdy farmer's wife and then left through the front door, back to the campsite.

"We could smell you a mile away," Lornen said when Mab returned. "Ah I see you've brought us a sacrifice," he laughed.

Mab smiled, "Here you dogs, fight amongst yourselves." He tossed them the bag that held the extra food and walked into his tent. He sat down on his blanket, the red one issued to all officers, and pulled out the parchment he had brought along and began to write down what he had learned from Josia. He summarized the incidents that had been related to him and wrote down every possibility he could think of for the cause. After an hour and a half of thinking his head was aching and he decided that it would be better to continue in the morning. "I'll have a talk with Lornen, we'll see what thoughts the other men have," he said to himself before laying back and falling asleep.

A cold wind whirled around the camp. A moist air brought on by the village's location next to the Bygwiad Ocean infiltrated the lungs of the sleeping soldiers. Shadows made by the branches of the trees danced across the tents, filling those on the edge of consciousness with a feeling of being watched. At around midnight the watch changed, three yawning men taking the place of three other yawning men. With the moon high overhead and only partially visible through the clouds a rustle, like an ominous whisper, began. The guards were barely aware of it for it wasn't unusual that the wind, while traveling through the trees, would stir up leaves and rustle branches. If the guards had been paying proper attention they would have heard the underlying sound in the breeze, but their ears picked up nothing out of the ordinary. The chill picked up and the guards pulled their coats closer around them.

"Why did we come on this pointless mission?" one asked his friend.

"Your guess is as good as mine Michael," he replied, "Gets us more hours and puts us on our way to Lieutenant like Mab though." He stuck a stick in the small fire they had and watched as the cinders sparked and crackled. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw something move but when he looked up there was nothing.

"What was that?" Michael asked, "Josep did you see something?" There was urgency in his voice but a hint of worry as well.

Josep frowned and shook his head, "Nah, probably some birds or the wind, nothing to worry about." The two watchmen went back to their quiet observation as the other guard was unable to resist sleep a few feet from the others.

"Quint!" Michael whispered sharply to the sleeping guard, "Wake up you dolt, you get us in trouble. Keep your watch. We don't want anything coming up on us unawares."

Quint snorted as he woke up to Michael's calls. He glared through his long blond hair, "There ain't nothin' out 'ere," he whispered back, "Jus' a bunch o' simpletons."

"You know Quint, with an accent like that some may say the same about you," Michael retorted, "You're too judgmental for your own good." Michael held his hand up to block his wavy brown hair from his face as the wind picked up again and circled around him like a small dust-devil, blowing leaves about. He opened his mouth to criticize Quint again but a quick hush from Josep stopped him. "What is it?" he asked his friend.

The dark-skinned soldier that separated the two other guards shook his head, "I don't know," he replied, "I thought I saw something. I have a feeling we're not alone."