Prologue: The Letter

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The Great Highway, Kingdom of Dehn

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The Great Highway, Kingdom of Dehn

A tunnel of black, leafless trees closed around the rider. This is no night to die, he thought. But some malice was drawing near, he felt it. Like cold eyes leering through crooked gorse. He glanced over his shoulder. The road was empty. The only break in the silence was the cadence of his horse's hooves on the rime-dusted highway, and the only sight the crescent moon darting through naked branches like a phantom bird. He fixed his gaze ahead where the Great Highway tapered to an inky void.

His horse was exhausted, close to collapse. He'd coaxed the poor beast between trot and canter ever since the letter had landed in his care. His fingers slipped into his lapel pocket and closed around the folded parchment. His mind turned to it more and more.

As a rider in the Order of the Post, ferrying messages all across the realm was his life. But this mission had been unprecedented: he'd been tasked to carry a single letter.

Post riders, "featherfoots" as they were called, never made such a long journey for a solitary parcel. It was simple economics. This detail of the commission alone had raised his guard. Even more unnerving, however, was the seal melted over the folded corner: the double eagles of the Supreme Chancellor.

It was reprehensible for a letter's seal to break, especially if the seal in question was of the royal palace. Even worse, though, it had been under his care when the parchment worked free. 

The letter arrived at his station in the hand of a featherfoot he'd never before seen. A sum of three gold pikes was offered for the effort, more than double the usual rate. He'd been thrilled by his lucky chance. But now, this deep into the hated North, he'd give the coins back and more to return and refuse.

He'd pulled out the letter subconsciously. Again. He knew the addressee by heart:

Commander-in-Charge, The Shield

The Shield. He shivered. He didn't envy the featherfoot on the next leg of the journey who'd have to traverse through there.

Reading the letter was forbidden, of course. But yes, he eventually failed the test. It inscribed by a hasty hand:

Lock down the dragon. 83-32-7279. Nobody in or out. Await further instructions.

-SG

That was it, nothing more. He knew it all now by heart. But so much was contained in those few sentences. 

Lock down the dragon. For the thousandth time he guessed what it all meant. Probably it was code to shield the true meaning from prying eyes. Like his. But the initials, S.G., combined with the seal of the Chancellor, made it hard not to assume that the hurried-but-still-tidy handwriting could belong to none other than the Supreme Chancellor herself.

And there was the Shield. Every man, woman and child in all four kingdoms knew the tales about it. The rider's bowels stirred with excitement and dread. Maybe it's not code at all. Maybe the old legends are true.

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