A message glinted in the distant sky.
Ean tried to decode the flashes, but his older sister, Trin, beat him there.
“Natahn spotted it sunning itself up in the mountains. He thinks it saw him and fled,” she said without bringing her dark brown eyes away from the binoculars in her tanned hands.
Kaim Tavarin, another distant cousin and Ean’s right-hand-man, nodded in agreement and lowered his pale hand from shading his green eyes, shifting his brown-and-white feathered wings as he looked at Ean and waited.
“Alright. We know which direction, at least,” Ean said. “Tell Natahn and the others to find it again if they can. Send two of them to scout its lair and look for tracks or clues, but tell them to keep their distance and not do anything threatening. It didn’t kill anyone so it might not want any serious trouble. We may be able to chase it off.”
“That all?” Trin asked.
“Yes,” Ean replied.
“I’ll try to shorten it,” Trin said with a smile as she adjusted a complex scope mounted on top of her binoculars and began flashing a return message at the distant Tixeri.
“Kaim,” Ean said, “Go and launch the balloons. Send one up to the lair along with a team of ground trackers and some spare mounts for the Tixeries.”
“And the other?”
“Put it over the town. It’ll take some pressure off Natahn and give him a good place to send signals to.”
“What are you going to do? Stand here looking noble for the locals?”
“Something like that.”
Kaim shook his head, stretched out his wings and took off for the train station. Trin continued signaling for a few more seconds and then dropped the binoculars to hang around her neck.
“Natahn’s team is headed toward the cave as fast as they can go,” she said. “He says he’ll scout the cave himself and have a report ready by the time the horses arrive. I told him we’d have a balloon up for signalling before then.”
“Good,” Ean said. “You should head to the signal tower and send a message to the barracks at Southmont telling them to send out scouts and launch balloons. Father would probably appreciate a full report, as well.”
Trin nodded and started jogging toward the tall signalling tower attached to the train station.
“And tell General Jobin the same thing you told Natahn!” Ean shouted after her. “No attacking! I don’t want any of our people getting roasted!”
Trin waved back at him but didn’t stop.
Ean watched her go until she vanished into the hut at the base of the signal tower, a stable tripod fifteen-heights high mounting a covered platform at the top stocked with a long-range heliograph and a signalman to run it. A moment later the signalman leaned over to listen to a tube that emerged next to his head, then began aligning the mirrors for transmission to the west.
Ean turned back to gazing at the moutainside and prayed again that his people would be alright.
One of village elders, a towering Shaldan named Isayh with cropped silver hair on his head and graying brown fur covering his face and body, walked up next to Ean and looked with him.
“First time you’ve dealt with a Garagran, your highness?” he said in deep, rough Hahkaht with an outlander accent.
“Personally, yes. The last time one came over the mountains was forty-nine years ago. I was only twelve at the time, but I remember my father’s stories of the battle.”
Isayh nodded. “I heard about that one. Burned a small city down, didn’t it?”
Ean nodded, remembering the field hospital filled with burn victims that his mother had taken him to see. He had carried water for the nurses for hours, listening to the screams and moans of hundreds.
“My own experience is a little more recent, however,” Isayh said. “I was a sergeant in the army of one of the Garagran kings about three decades ago. Served for twenty-two years.”
Ean looked up at the tall old man, searching for the scars his fur probably hid. Isayh nodded at him, tipping the great black bull’s horns that grew forward from just above his temples.
“Why’d you come here?”
“Shaldan are farmers, your highness. Better at war than most, but only when we forget who owns us. When I remembered Kai’s blessing I looked for a good place to put it to practice, and I ended up here. Found a farm, a wife, children, the Akahllis. Never looked back.”
“Salshira is glad to have you, Isayh.”
“Just don’t forget that, your highness. Half your kingdom came from other places, and there’s more yet who might make a start here if you let them.”
Ean examined Isayh’s expression, trying to find what else he might be saying.
“Are we keeping people out? I don’t believe…”
“Young Pennet’s alive, your highness. It’s not every Garagran that will take a whack on the nose and let it stand. Something to keep in mind.”
Ean saw. He nodded.
“I’ll do that, Isayh. Thank you.”
Isayh nodded in reply and walked away, flicking his tufted tail from side to side as he went.
Ean considered the distant hills with a different eye. Trin came trotting back and looked where he was looking, then at him, narrowing her eyes and flicking one ear in confusion.
“Father sends his blessings,” she said. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking I need my horse. We’re heading out there.