‘I have certain advantages, Lathan,’ I reminded him. ‘General Halbren’s my champion’s second in command, and he’s a solid, practical man who can surely march troops a scant seventy leagues. I’ll be talking with him before the day’s out, and with Ontrose not too much later.’ I squinted at the map again. ‘Halbren can handle the march,’ I decided. ‘I think I’ll have Ontrose go straight on to Seline to start reinforcing the city walls. Your army will arrive three days after mine, and I want to be sure that we’re still holding the city when you get there.’
‘And then will I fall upon Garteon’s unprotected rear and grind him into dog-meat ‘gainst the unyielding walls of thy city,’ Lathan promised in a bleak voice.
‘I’m sure the dogs will appreciate that,’ I said lightly. ‘You, however, are going directly from here to bed. His Grace here can order your army to start the march. You can catch up with them in a day or so.’
‘I command the army, your Grace,’ he objected. ‘It is my duty to lead them.’
‘They know which way north is, Baron. They don’t need you out in front to point the way. Get some sleep. You’re right on the verge of falling apart.’
‘No buts, Lathan! Go to your room! Now!’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he surrendered.
I had a strange, nagging feeling that something was seriously wrong with Baron Lathan. I knew that he was exhausted, but his behavior seemed somehow to be more dead than just tired. I didn’t have time to investigate that, however. I went out onto the balcony of the room where we’d just held our meeting and changed my form to that of the now-familiar falcon.
General Halbren was a blocky man who’d come up through the ranks rather than having had his rank bestowed upon him as an addendum to a noble title. He was a thorough-going professional, and I had a great deal of respect for him. He carefully considered the information Baron Lathan had dredged out of Asturia and politely suggested some slight modifications to my planned response to the impending invasion of the Asturians. ‘There’s always the possibility that Duke Garteon may send an advance force to take Seline before the bulk of his army arrives, your Grace,’ he pointed out. ‘Ten leagues a day is probably the most we can expect from our foot-soldiers, but our cavalry units can cover more ground. If it’s all right with you, I’ll detach the cavalry and send them on ahead – just to be on the safe side.’ He smiled briefly. ‘Count Ontrose is very good, but defending Seline all by himself might stretch him just a bit.’
‘We wouldn’t want that, would we, Halbren?’ I agreed. ‘I’ll be going on to my house now, and I’ll tell him to expect reinforcements in –’ I hesitated. ‘How many days?’
‘Four, your Grace. Five at the most. It’ll be a little hard on the horses, but they won’t be involved in the defense of Seline, so they’ll be able to rest after they get there.’
‘As it seemeth best to thee, esteemed General,’ I said with an extravagant curtsey.
‘Must you, my Lady?’ he sighed.
I laughed and then went a ways outside the orderly encampment and put my feathers back on.
All in all, I was somewhat pleased at the way this was turning out. Baron Lathan’s courage and enterprise had given us just enough warning of Garteon’s planned invasion that we’d be ready for him when he arrived. I had enough time to evacuate all the civilians in the area, so my casualties would be minimal, and once Duke Garteon’s army had been decimated, he’d have no choice but to capitulate. The Battle of Seline would most probably insure another generation of peace in Arendia.
It was evening when I settled in the garden of my manor house at Lake Erat. Then I resumed my own form and went looking for Ontrose. I found him in my library studying a map. It was childish, I know, but I hadn’t seen him for several weeks, so I slipped silently up behind him, reached around, and put my hands over his eyes. ‘Guess who,’ I murmured softly in his ear.
‘Lady Polgara?’ he replied, sounding startled.
‘You peeked,’ I accused. ‘That’s not fair.’ Then I kissed him – several times, actually.
And then he kissed me. It was only one kiss, but it lasted for quite some time. My senses were reeling and I was breathing hard at its conclusion. I began to have some improper thoughts about then, but I decided that it might be a good idea to advise him of the current situation – little things such as marching armies across the land, defending cities, and wiping out the Asturians – before we got down to the more serious matters.
My champion was startled by the news. ‘Art thou certain of this, Polgara?’ he asked. This was the first time he’d ever addressed me by my name, and that fitted in rather neatly with the plans I had for later in the evening.
“The information comes from Baron Lathan, dear heart,’ I assured him. ‘He slipped away and went to Asturia without telling Duke Andrion and me what he was up to. He personally heard Garteon and his underlings discussing their scheme, and he watched the embarkation of the Asturian army with his own eyes.’
‘I would trust Lathan with my life, Polgara,’ he said, ‘and his word is not open to question. I must to horse.’
‘I must ride to the south to rouse our forces to rush to the defense of Seline.’
‘Put your saddle away, dear,’ I told him. ‘I stopped by our army encampment on my way north. General Halbren will begin the march to Seline at dawn. He suggests that you go straight from here to Seline to prepare the city walls for the Asturian assault. He’s sending the cavalry units on ahead to give you enough manpower to resist any advance attacks by crack units of Garteon’s army.’
‘Halbren is most practical,’ Ontrose agreed. ‘We are most fortunate to have him.’
‘There’s a bit more, Ontrose,’ I told him. ‘Baron Lathan’s going to march the Wacite army north. He should arrive at Seline a day or so after the initial Asturian assault.’
‘Dear, dear Lathan!’ Ontrose almost chortled.’ Tween us both, we shall surely obliterate Garteon’s army, and gentle peace shall re-emerge in poor Arendia.’
I loved Ontrose almost to the point of distraction, but the conjunction of ‘obliteration’ and ‘gentle peace’ seemed to clash just a bit. Ontrose was a poet, so he should have been a bit more careful with language than that.