by Dan Hiestand
The Cavalier’s Creed
The Cavalier’s Creed
“Bravery without focus is more dangerous than wildfire.”
To manage, we must measure.
From the day the camp had been established, to this very evening, only the sparsest notes had been written about it; cryptic clues that betrayed the vaguest contours of its fate. For a man like Senator Bren, with such convictions about the power of words, it had been infuriating.
He was certain there was more.
Hidden by the general, most likely!
What galled him most was the silence on Captain Dabriel. There was nothing either Thean or Creed would share on that subject, and each gave the same answer when pressed: You are free to formally request his records, senator.
A matter that would take weeks even in peacetime – and surely months now.
That halted Bren’s tongue, if not his quill, and brought Creed and Thean much-desired respite. As the two Outriders approached, his mind turned to business. More ancient realms than theirs had collapsed under the weight of unspoken words, and it was his duty to speak them.
Still, those endless vistas of silence held promise, too.
Bren’s voice was strong as he spoke in hushed tones to his scribe, Sebastian Waterman III. The boy had just now begun to write, following his master’s dictation.
The dim flicker of sparsely set lanterns provides the praetorium’s only light, casting elongated shadows that look like writhing specters across those gathered within.
Sebastian was a rather scrawny young fellow who always found himself more suited to gripping fountain pens than sword hilts; but both, he had learned under a statesman’s tutelage, could be formidable weapons in the right hands.
As Bren finished, Sebastian settled quietly out of the way, gaze rising now and again as his pen scratched. It had never left his master’s mind that soon, they must report ... and that’s precisely what Sebastian expected Bren to say to him as he looked up one last time.
Instead, the senator managed a strained smile, and whispered—
“Keep your other hand firmly on that book. If we lose it, we’ll have to start all over again.”
Sebastian smiled back, though he couldn’t tell whether Bren was making a joke or not.
Just to be sure, he looped his fist through the big metal ring along the notebook’s spine.
In the center of the tent, unfurled across a large wooden table, lay a map held at the corners by four small lead lions locked in a roar. General Creed hunched over it, rubbing his bristly chin in thought. To Sebastian, the flags and small chips of polished stone made it seem more a game board than a model of war; like the great game of regicide, the violence remained abstract.
What little the general had divulged of the Outrider Order seemed more than a bit far-fetched – even to Senator Bren.
The young man’s quill indulged him: ... and that was saying a lot.
Presently, a commotion of grunting horses comes from outside ...
This is followed by the rustle of footsteps and tent flaps falling open.
The trio they awaited had come.
The Voice’s narration began, and the weapon in Sebastian’s hand passed seamlessly from context to action:
Constable Thean eyes his two young captains as they enter the tent on a beeline.
Their gray cloaks swirl behind them ...
“Outrider Avery, sir. Captain of the Fourth Dragoons,” Relic said. Jace was standing beside him, hat in hand.
“Outrider Dabriel, general. Captain of the Third.”
The imposing general returns their salutes, nodding as he comes to full height behind the table. His presence binds the shadows around them into one great knot; the silhouette of a war hero unbowed by age.
“Your reputations proceed you both,” he—
—says. “Stand at ease.”
Isabelle lounged on a sheet tied to two tent posts, her body swaying in the makeshift hammock. Overhead, the comets went on with their grim work, keeping her from sleep. Now and then, alarm bells would peal in the suffering city – their sounds faint over the miles.
But never faint enough to ignore or forget—and never silent for very long.
A sketchbook lay slanted against her hip, its pages ruffling with the breeze. She’d made some effort to draw what she saw in the sky, but those maddening vistas of light defied her—leaving her feeling dizzy and sick.
Still, her mind would not settle.
She could not leave it be ... looking for some clue, some pattern, was the last power they had left. Now you sound like Relic, she thought, scolding herself – then feeling half-guilty for doing it. So, she laid there and wondered – bathed in the latest salvo of violet, green, and gold.
She wondered whether the enemy knew the brilliant effect their tactics had; wondered if they understood the victories they tallied night after night. She wondered exactly when the monks had finally left the camp ... and why they’d taken all the mirrors with them.
The distant bells tickled the edge of her hearing again.
Isabelle narrowed her eyes on Creed’s tent, cigarette rising like a scarlet firefly to her mouth. She looked at the tents the same way she looked at the poison between her fingers – with longing and disgust.
Bad habits, she could still hear her father say. Like old friends come to kill you in the dark.
It hadn’t been long ago when great bronze gongs used to count out the deaths in Fairlawn in low voices. Creed had banned the death-knells from the city, but at the cost of bringing the monks to their very camp with the great sheaves of fiery metal balanced on their shoulders.
The men had stories; hers, as well as Jace’s and Relic’s. From her own troops, Isabelle had heard that Creed meant to yell at those monks until he was hoarse. On the morning he summoned them, every last one had taken a vow of silence.
Even Old Blue Light soon realized there was no yelling at an “enemy” who did not speak.
Like the tobacco and coffee, the mirrors vanished in their wake when the last monks went away.
Went away where? Isabelle thought. Maybe none of it means a thing.
Isabelle shook her head as she sat up, eyes sparkling in the flare of red ash as she tilted her head and crossed her legs. “How bad do you want me right now?” she mocked, voice absurdly deep.
“Pretty damn,” a voice replied, and Isabelle turned to the shadows.
“Hey you,” she said.
Cedwyn Knight plucked the cigarette from Isabelle’s mouth as he sat down beside her, his weight tilting the hammock at a dramatic angle for a second before he planted his feet.
“Whatcha doin’, girl?” he asked, leaning back. “Not what it looks like, I hope.”
Isabelle narrowed her eyes on him. “What if it is?”
Cedwyn was already smiling.
“Then you’re pining. Never took you for the type.”
“Mm. How come when the girl does it, it’s ‘pining’, and when the guy does, it’s ‘being pensive?’”
“Good question,” Cedwyn said, taking a drag of her cigarette.
“Messed up,” she said, closing her eyes. The hammock swayed a little as she straightened.
“Double standards are like that,” Cedwyn agreed, glancing to the tents. “Thought you quit.”
“Me too, old friend. Me, too."
For a long time, neither one spoke.
Then, bracing herself, Isabelle looked over to Cedwyn.
“We need to talk,” she said.
Armor clinks beneath his cloak as the general shifts his weight.
“What I am about to tell you is of the utmost secretive nature, and it is not, under any circumstance, to leave this tent. Are we clear?”
The response was instant, simultaneous: “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Creed motioned to the map. A golden-sapphire ring glittered on the finger that jabbed the Tenzan Plains. “As you are well aware, we are here. Sandwiched between Westwood Forest and Fairlawn City.” His digit slid east, then stopped. “I need to know what we will find here.” His other arm indicated the expanse on the far side of Westwood: the Ezru Plains.
“It’s a plain,” Jace blurted, his own finger touching the map.
Relic turned his gaze to Thean, but the constable gave no reaction – and Creed actually smiled.
“Indeed,” Creed said. “I must say, you Outriders are worth every penny.” At this, Jace looked up to meet the general’s eyes. “I’m not interested in geography, captain. I need to know what’s launching these comets over our heads and into the city.”
Jace nodded, taking notice of Thean from the corner of his eye.
Now, the constable seems to be studying him—
“We have reason to believe that's where the comets come from, but all other intelligence on the subject is utterly unreliable.”
“We know their range?” Relic asked, surprised.
“We have reason to believe,” Creed emphasized.
Jace opened his mouth to say something, then closed it without a word. And some relief twitches ever-so-gently across Thean’s shoulders and neck. But the general would have none of it. “Speak plainly, captain.”
“Yes, sir. Well ...” Jace cleared his throat. “While I do not presume to understand the intricacies of this campaign as you do, general ... have you considered a marching order?” Jace’s eyes drifted to Westwood Forest on the map, finding the thin sliver of trees running down from its bulk up north. “The forest separating our plain from theirs is less than twenty miles across.”
“Sixteen,” Senator Bren chimed in, and Relic glanced over. “Sixteen exactly.”
The general stood and, uncrossing his arms, buried his giant hands in his cloak.
“To engage a phantom enemy on such grounds invites disaster, Captain Dabriel. These attacks are meant to stoke rage, frustration, and impatience ... to urge us toward that very reckless course of action. No. I fear these attacks are an elaborate form of bait.”
The general paused as all around him waited.
Bren mouthed the next words as the general spoke them, but only Sebastian saw.
“... and I will not march blindly on an enemy I know nothing about.”
“Yes, but ... bait though they may well be, general ...” Jace plunged forward, good judgment helpless against the gust of his whim. “If we act decisively, we could still turn that against them.”
Creed was beginning to appreciate the hype surrounding Jace; even the high praise that flowed so readily from the constable when he had enough wine. And there had been many such nights of late, when the shadows lengthened and lingered long past the edges of twilight.
“How so?” Creed prompted.
“That’s classified information.” Cedwyn leaned forward and crushed the cigarette at his feet.
“Don’t make me punch you in the face,” Isabelle said with a sigh. “You already know the answer.”
Isabelle nodded, staring out into the distance. The young bowman – Malcolm Hawkins – was taking shots at some makeshift targets set up by his drunken friends. Instead of gorging on extra rations, it looked like he’d taken as many as he could hold literally and given most away.
Every shot was just as precise as it had ever been—
But that wasn’t what caught Isabelle’s attention. A flash of white-gold hair drew her eye to the general’s page, watching from the shadows of one of the bronze braziers. The girl was wringing her hands quietly, but her gaze never shifted. Isabelle knew that look all too well.
“I envy you, honey,” she said. “All she has to do is pine and take a chance ...”
She smiled, but it was not a happy smile. Cedwyn saw it more these days, a pain that only faded when a certain upstart jackass was around. The pair lingered together in another long silence, both lost in private thoughts they couldn’t admit to each other.
Even after all this time, Cedwyn thought, catching Isabelle’s face in profile.
“The Red Moon’s going to be out tonight.” Isabelle’s lips pursed tight. “It’s ... bad luck.”
“That’s not always true,” said Cedwyn. “Sometimes it helps you see things you couldn’t before.” He pulled in a tight breath. “When’d you start up again?” When she turned his way, her eyes narrowing, he raised his hands. “At least tell me so I can get you some that aren’t stale.”
She kept her gaze on him, unyielding.
“Or cut with sand,” he added sheepishly.
“It’s only been about a week,” she said, sounding more confident than she felt. “Anyway, I’m not the only one around here with some bad habits.” She rolled her eyes, giving herself time to think. “How come I haven’t seen you playing your ocarina lately?”
“I traded it to someone,” he said gruffly.
“For some green tea,” he added, turning aside to watch the archer and close the subject— But he could still feel the heat of Isabelle’s smile on his face; he knew she didn’t believe him.
Another silence set in, and the noise of camp life filtered in to fill it: Rolling wagons, laughter, music, the sharpening of weapons, and a host of other sounds, each a piece of wood crackling on that fire of routine. But even the fires did little to keep cold at bay, now.
We’ll wait here, right here, until we lose everything, Isabelle thought.
“They don’t even know they’re waiting!” she said.
“What?” Cedwyn sat bolt upright, but Isabelle’s thoughts had already moved on. “This could be the last time we ever see them. Either of them,” she said.
“I need to talk to Jace,” she said.
“Talk, eh?” Cedwyn slowly tilted forward, hunching his back forward and resting his elbows on his knees. He massaged the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “Look, I just don’t know if ...” And he glanced over at her. “I just don’t know.”
Isabelle’s expression never changed, but she ran her thumb under the collar of her cloak, adjusting the necklace she always wore hidden beneath it. Now and then, the thud of an arrow hitting a target sounded off in the distance, but she was as still as a sculpture.
Even Cedwyn didn’t exist for her in that moment. She might as well have been alone.
But she was not.
Finally, she spoke: “Can you help me?”
“Yes,” Cedwyn said simply, his tone resigned. “I ... I always had a plan for something like this.”
“A plan? No, nevermind.” Isabelle held up her hand and flailed it around, as if shooing a fly. “That's okay ... I don't really care.” Now she paused again, eyes narrowing as she grew more and more certain. “I need it, though.”
“I. Need. It. Though.”
The hammock went still and her gaze happened back to Malcolm—the young archer looking at long last to where the page had been watching. But the girl was gone. Just a moment too late.
Cedwyn rose to his feet
“Just promise me you're not gonna—” “No.”
A thousand pathways to the future spread out before Cedwyn, but none worth traveling started with the words—No, you won’t, or no ...? He slid his hands into the pockets of his cloak and sighed again, choosing a different way.
“You're sure about this?”
She nodded, then turned her head up slightly to look back into his eyes.
Cedwyn started away, patting Snow’s muzzle as he passed.
“It won’t make things any easier,” he said.
“I know,” she said, leaning back again. He half-heard her whisper: It’ll probably make it worse.
Jace was only too happy to go on ...
“How many legions do we have backing us? We may be the vanguard, but we’re not alone.” His eyes were back on the Ezru Plains. “Even if we go after the source of the attacks and get caught out of position, the enemy forces wouldn't dare march on the city.”
There was a long, contemplative pause.
“You’re right, captain,” Creed said at last.
Bren felt the tell-tale tightness in his stomach.
“You do not understand the intricacies of this campaign.”
Jace’s expression went blank. Under other circumstances, Creed may have laughed. Instead, he turned to Relic, who was studying the scout paths sketched on the maps. Lewis, Wiseman, Gilson, Smith: The four who had braved the darkness of Westwood. “General, if I may ... the last two scouts veered north instead of going due west. Why?” “Because none have returned.”
“Not even the two who went north?”
The general shook his head.
“That is why we have called upon you.”
“Hobson and Chase,” Jace muttered. He looked sharply to Relic when he realized he said it aloud, then straightened to address Creed. “Have you considered sending Forerunners Hobson or Chase, sir?” Jace asked. “I’m pretty sure they were raised in Brevinda ...” he glanced briefly to Thean before looking back. “Not thirty miles from here.”
The general nodded. “You missed two of the names, son. It was their loss that began the talk of sending men north.” The golden-sapphire caught a glint of lantern-light as Creed’s finger touched the map and tapped. “Along the Chimera Foothills.”
The names were easy to miss; Hobson’s route overlapped the thin line representing the road. Lincoln Chase’s differed only slightly, weaving over the same. Their official calls burned like bright lines in Jace’s mind: Shamrock and K-9.
In Relic’s mind, the vision of the riderless horse sprang forward unbidden.
“What are our orders, general?” Jace asked.
“They are the same as the scouts before you,” the general said. “Get through those trees and bring me information. I cannot formulate a strategy until I have eyes through those woods.” He looked to Jace. “Then, perhaps, we could follow those thoughts of marching to their conclusion.”
The Outrider’s face was stone. He waited to be released, like a predator held back too long.
Wind lashes the canvas at Dabriel’s back as the general continues.
“As before, it would be best if you avoid the Fairlawn Thoroughfare. The enemy has had ample time to secure the highway, and could be lying in ambush. In all other matters, we shall defer to your judgment.” His gaze flicked to Relic. “As the Order’s historian, I know you can appreciate that, skilled though they are, the Outriders have not had a mission like this one in some time. It should be recorded – and treated – with due seriousness.”
The pair looked to Thean who nodded in confirmation.
“That is all, but I would ask that you keep this in mind ...” Creed said, rising to his full, imposing height. “I will accept any challenge, but I appreciate convenience.” He rested his gaze on Jace a little longer, looking into his eyes when he added: “Each of you is worth more to the Republic alive than dead. Be alert to that fact before you take any untimely risks.”
Relic and Jace snapped to attention and rendered a pair of lively salutes. “Dismissed!”
Bren sat quietly, and in his own amazement, he nearly forgot to finish—
And quick as that, the riders are gone. The general follows for a final word outside—
“They are brave,” the senator said to Thean, looking down over the shoulder of his scribe as he spoke. Bren laid a hand on the boy’s forearm to stop him, then fumbled a pair of bifocals onto his face with one hand as he grabbed the notebook with the other. “Very brave.”
“Bravery without focus is more dangerous than wildfire,” Thean mused, running a finger across the stain of Westwood on the map. “But even burning the woods would be an improvement now, wouldn’t it? I suspect we should’ve finished that job when we were young.”
Bren glanced up, a strange innocence playing across his aged face.
Perhaps, he’d think later, he really has thought of burning Westwood Forest to ashes.
Instead, the old senator said: “They do seem strong and true. But are they really so different from ordinary scouts?” He swiped his glasses off and looked around as if the shadows might explain. Certainly they would be more forthcoming than his hosts. “Honestly, I just don’t understand.”
The words were followed by the clack of his spectacles being tossed on the desk.
Only Sebastian saw what came next. As he watched, he prepared what he might write—
“No. You don’t,” Thean agreed, finally finishing with the map and facing Bren square.
The constable turns his gaze on the interloper, an electric moment passing between them. “But after tonight, senator, I promise you this: You will.”
With that, Thean turns and steps into the night—leaving the two alone with their words.