– a small, slender animal, similar to a stoat
– a deceitful or treacherous person
If only someone asked what Cassius Aelius hated most in his life, he would have replied: winter, his uncle’s assignments, and bad news that would come in the morning.
Yet, here Cassius was, at the very edge of the world in barbarian lands, right next to the Northern sea. In winter. Sent here by his uncle’s decree for an assignment. Cassius groggily woke up to listen to the news that his deputy commanders – two barbaric-looking Gauls – had brought him.
They already entered the room, without knocking first, of course. Bryden and Halen. The ‘hill’ and ‘harsh waters’ in their language. Still half-awake, Cassius thought to himself how perfect the names matched the two soldiers. Bryden, the dark-haired Haeduan, always frowned, looked like the hill or more of a solid rock that abruptly appeared by some joke of the gods in the middle of Cassius’s bedroom. Knocking would have been nice, indeed. The other was the complete opposite of the first. Draped in a hooded Pathfinder outfit, seemingly always in motion, the second commander reminded Cassius of how a cold mountain stream constantly searches its way through the mountains. Halen didn’t seem strong at all, yet Cassius had no delusions that this blue-eyed Gaul would be a more dangerous opponent than his full-armored friend in any conflict.
“It happened again,” Halen began his reporting. “Another two villages were slaughtered a few miles to the west of here. No survivals as usual. No witnesses. Burned to the ground. A few more attacks like that, and people here will start a revolt.”
“I already heard talks on our way here,” said Bryden, the deep voice of the haeduan sounding muffled. “Those lands only recently joined the Empire on the promise of safety and prosperity, but all they’ve gotten are their villages being burned night after night without our garrison doing anything about it.”
Cassius replied, half attempting to wake himself up properly. “We can’t do much about defense if we do not get reports at all, let alone in time,” He continued, rubbing his face in a more serious attempt to get rid of his drowsiness. “And we can’t do anything at all if we don’t know who the attackers are. There are too many villages here; we can’t put a garrison into each one. This would lead to a revolt much faster than anything else and won’t let us react quickly if something happens on the other side of the region. You both know that.”
“Yes, we know. But it’s getting harder to explain that to the people whose friends and relatives got killed. Also…” Halen now looked uncertain as if in doubt. “This time, whoever the attackers were, they might have left something behind. Take a look at this.”
Halen searched his bag, pulling out a half-burnt scroll, and gave it to Cassius.
Well… At least there was some profit from being born and spending most of his previous life in his uncle’s estate. Cassius was used to the constant servant espionage and that all his moves and actions were being reported immediately. His face didn’t change the second he opened the scroll.
“The weasel?” he shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “What a strange sign… Why are you sure it belongs to attackers?”.
“We aren’t,” said Halen, who was watching Cassius’s face, looking disappointed. “But me and Bryden feel this scroll is the key, and if we find who left it in the village, we might just discover what powers are behind all the recent attacks.”
“Well, I wish you all the success in finding out who that is,” Cassius said, finally arriving at his desk. “Now… We have some work to be done here. Send out the heralds and remind the villagers that they should report anything unusual. Dismissed”.
When both Gauls left, Cassius once again examined the drawing. Yes, there couldn’t be any mistake. He recognized the sign immediately. He was perfectly aware who this half-burnt scroll belonged to.
[TO BE CONTINUED]