If you have read the book (Hi Mom and Dad!) then know that this originally took place somewhere in the middle. If you haven't read the book, you don't have to worry about plot spoilers. There is nothing in this chapter that will ruin any of the story for you. Enjoy!
Preoccupied with the reports before him, Theodoric did not hear the sound of knuckles rapping upon wood. They sounded again, more insistently, and broke through the general's concentration.
"Enter," he said without bothering to turn. Likely it was just some errand boy.
He heard the door open and shut behind him, but no young voice begged his attention nor was there the sound of more reports being placed upon the table by the door. Theodoric turned, puzzled. Behind him was the Wizard Ethion. Theodoric stood immediately. They had known each other for long enough that such formalities should not have been necessary, but both men were aware that their friendship had soured of late.
"Please, Theo, none of that," Ethion said. He waved a hand and a chair upon the far wall slid close enough for him to sit.
"To what do I owe the honor?" the general asked, sitting again himself. He turned his chair to better face his visitor, knowing that this was not to be a short conversation. It was time to have it out, though Theodoric did not really see the point. Ethion was a wizard, Theodoric merely a general. What point could Theo make that Ethion would not simply overrule with some claim of arcane authority?
"Do I need a reason to visit you? We've both been superfluous since we returned, I thought we could burn a little of our boredom together."
The general swept a hand to indicate the sheets of parchment and hide on his desk. "I have found tasks to keep me occupied. Few of the generals like to bother with reports that aren't of the war itself."
Glory-hounding fools, Theodoric thought.
Ethion only raised an eyebrow, that famous gesture of wizards to let you know that you weren't telling them enough. Nevermind that you usually weren't telling them enough because you wanted them to go away and stop meddling with your business. Business which you could complete better without them around.
"Wanderer reports," Theodoric elaborated.
There had been a time, three hundred years earlier, when knowledge of what lay beyond Bastion's sheltering mountains was well-known. Contact with the tribes and villages that inhabited those mountains, and the grasslands and forests beyond, had been regular. Then came the Angels, and the Demons, and the War. Under the Angels' guidance, the strongest peoples had been united by great leaders in the period known as The Forging, when Bastion had been built and the War had started in earnest amongst the humans.
From that time on, contact with anyone who was not solidly friend or foe dwindled. As new peoples were rediscovered they were assimilated. Most, so awed by the beauty and power of the Angels who came with the men of Bastion, abandoned their villages and migrated to the city itself. The surrounding lands slowly emptied, and knowledge of whatever had lain beyond passed out of memory...
...until the callous destruction of the War demanded that new peoples again be searched out to lend their aid – and their men. Bastion always needed more soldiers than it had available. Some men, beyond the age of normal service, had been sent to explore the wilds and send back word of what they found.
By and large, that word was ignored. Aside from the men that were convinced to come to the city as soldiers, nothing outside the settled lands interested the people of Bastion.
"Is there anything worth our attention?" Ethion inquired.
Theodoric winced at the casual disinterest that had so poisoned the attempts of the Wanderers to inform their commanders of what existed far from the city. He had a surprise for the wizard this time, though. He lifted one of the thin sheets of hide from his desk and held it out.
Ethion took it and leaned closer to the window. The light outside was failing, but only one lamp was lit within the chamber and that was upon Theo's desk. Finally he looked back up with a blank expression. "We have known of these people for some time, Theo, have we not? They are intriguing, I'll grant you that."
New annoyance piled on top of old. Theodoric sighed to relieve the tension, reaching behind himself to grab the wine goblet that sat atop his desk. Ethion's eyes twitched as he did so – it was no secret that Theodoric seemed to have developed a healthy appreciation of wine since his return. Ethion had smelled it heavily on the man's breath when he sat down.
"Not just the people, Ethion. It's those beasts they use, the ones that carry them about. Animals like cattle, but taller, much swifter. There's a good drawing of them here somewhere..." Theodoric trailed off as he searched the stack on his desk. Finding it, he gave that too to the wizard, who perused it as the general continued.
"There's been a few men up with one of those tribes for almost a year now, learning their language, sending more and more to us as soldiers. They have learned a great deal. This is their latest report, Ethion." Theodoric handed over yet a third sheet, which Ethion also took and quickly read. Once more he looked up without understanding. It was just too much for Theodoric, who burst out of his chair and nearly yelled at the man, wizard or no.
"They use the things in battle, Ethion! Or what serves them for battle, skirmishes for food and such. They sit atop those great beasts as they go to war, throwing spears, using bows. Don't you see?"
Ethion was nodding now, but displayed none of the excitement Theodoric was showing. Though Ethion merely thought Theo was being overly dramatic on account of the wine, Theodoric knew better – or rather, he could see better. It maddened him that this man, this wizard who was supposedly superior to him, could not see the import of those reports as Theodoric could.
"You're saying we could do the same."
"I'm saying we should. I'm saying we must, and not just in battle – imagine if our messengers could be carried by these beasts, fourfold faster than their own feet can move them. We could make communication nigh as fast as the Globes to every outpost and fort, no matter how small."
It was a long term vision, Theodoric knew. He also knew it would require a great deal of time and resources, which Bastion may not be able to spare in the mean time. He had already presented this to the High Council, days earlier. They had thanked him for bringing it to their attention, and promptly done nothing. Theodoric expected them to continue doing nothing, and had from the beginning. If he wanted anything done in this matter, he would have to drive it himself. He was a General, after all. When he gave orders, men obeyed.
Contemplating his own plans, Theodoric fell silent, reaching for another drought from his goblet. Ethion sighed as he did so, and found the courage to ask the question he had come to ask.
"What is wrong, Theo? You've never been this surly – and you haven't drank this much since you were fifteen." Ethion should know, having occasionally sneaked drinks with his friend whilst still an acolyte, braving the punishment should he be found out. The ban against wizards imbibing alcohol was not a laughing matter.
Theodoric let the wizard finish, though a scowl grew on his face. He took another drink before he answered, and when his eyes met Ethion's they held anger – and accusation.
"You know well what it is, Ethion."
Ethion's face had hardened, and he spoke evenly, attempting to keep his own temper. "I made the decision I thought was correct. For all I knew - "
"You knew nothing!"
Theodoric's icy calm broke with that outburst. He leaned forward in his chair and stabbed a finger at Ethion as he spoke, his words slurring slightly from the drink.
"You came into my camp and ordered me to abandon an attack that you did not understand! I spent nearly a year there, gathering information, learning the rhythms of the enemy. I knew when they changed guards at outposts, when they sent out patrols. I knew how to take Cairn."
"I did what I thought was right," Ethion repeated evenly, controlling his ire at being shouted at.
His grievances aired, Theodoric seemed to settle down a great deal, settling back into his chair and breaking eye contact with Ethion. His scowl relaxed – into a sneer. "You were wrong."
"Yes. I was wrong. Is that what you need to hear? I'm sorry, Theo. I'm sorry I overruled you. I'm sorry we could not see your plan through. But I will not be made a villain based on nothing but hindsight!"
Shaking his head, Theodoric surprised Ethion by beginning to laugh – though it was a rueful, mirthless noise.
"Do you think this is about me, Ethion?" Theo asked. "About my pride? Yes, the plan was a good one, and I'm very proud of that. But the problem, old friend, is that you dismissed me without thinking. The problem is, you should have left the decision to me. I fought the Council to place the wizards in that army under my command, and only when they relented did I go forward. Do you know why?"
Ethion shook his head, troubled by the turn of the conversation.
"Because I have too often been dismissed by some robed fool who is interfering where he should not."
Ethion finally spoke up in indignation. "We always respect your expertise!" he exclaimed, speaking of all wizards and generals. His words only elicited more laughter.
"That's what you think! You pretend to listen, Ethion. You only pretend, and only here in the city. The young ones are the worst. I've had men half my age ignore my advice, blundering about and getting men killed who should have lived to go back to their wives. Ask any officer – it runs rampant, especially on the border. The wizards claim to keep our experience in mind, but from most of you the claim is empty. Even you, Ethion. You ignored me without a second thought, and you knew what I had gone through to get the Council to place me in overall command."
Ethion had not felt so distant from his friend since their youth. When Ethion had been found a wizard, both boys had known things would change. They had managed to stay fairly close, but now Ethion felt he had to defend his peers against these accusations. He found that he had nothing to say in argument, though. He knew Theodoric was telling the truth. He further knew that he had been guilty of the offense more than once.
In the end, Ethion glanced away from Theo and nodded curtly.
"Perhaps it is something we should bring to the attention of the Council, then."
"Hah! Yes, we'll ask the oldest and most prideful of you whether or not you misuse your authority.""Come now, Theo. I agree that you have a valid complaint. They can be made to see it as well. You might be surprised by this, but we are all fighting the same war – it behooves us to solve any problem that has us fighting each other."