Editor's note: New readers may begin this part of the story here. The backstory begins here, then Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
The dark night surrounded him as the young captain crept forward on impossibly silent feet. He had known he was being followed for three days. But he had to be sure. The messenger tracking him could be from his homeland …. or the disguise could be just that good.
With stealth not expected for one his size the young captain approached the messenger with feline grace. With the accuracy of a wildcat he sprang and quickly overcame the unsuspecting follower.
“Flash!” Cried the messenger - tho garbled as the hold, so nearly deadly, was on his throat.
“What?” A surprised Zander jumped back releasing the shaking one.
“Flash! Flash!” The stranger choked out. “The code! The code – I say 'flash' you say..”
“Bang.” Answered the young captain. So it was a real messenger from his liege. “Quickly then. What news from The Good Land!”
“She begs your return at once!” Sputtered the still recovering messenger. “You must return at great speed.”
“But I have not yet completed my mission” Said Zander, filling with shame. That varmint had avoided the cruel death he had planned for her. So far.
“Something must have happened. Out with it – what is it? What news do you bear?” The young captain was loosing his patience.
“Please, Sir, I don't know, Sir! They just sent me with orders and that was all. You must return.” The messenger paused.... “But. There have been rumors... whispered talkings about....a war on two fronts.”
Zanders blood ran cold. It couldn't be. “What?” He demanded. His mind already racing and forming defensive strategies.
“You must leave, Sir. Now.” Pleaded the messenger.
“Very well then. Here, climb on my back and I shall carry you home, Messenger.”
“Thank you, Sir, but no. I would only impede you. She was quite clear. Go. With great speed!”
Without further discussion the young captain turned and bounded into the night. He ran silently on fleet feet, scaring up roosting birds and startling the night creatures. In the distance an owl shrieked.
He had been running for several days and finally approached the boundaries of The Good Land. His liege had obviously implemented a scorched earth policy. Gone was the lush undergrowth of the Deep Woods. The land had been cleared and leveled in all directions. The scope of the work was astonishing. The work crews must have been enormous and they must have worked day and night. Clearing the land was a necessary sacrifice so that the defenders could see the enemy approaching. No one would arrive unseen.
He was greeted by the watch and the young captain slowed his pace. He scanned one of the work crews anxiously looking for someone. The crews had taken a meal break and were sharing bawdy songs and ribald jokes. He heard one voice above all in the middle of one such tale.
“...So he takes a ducat into a tavern and says to the barkeep....”
Zander grinned and knew exactly where this joke was going. Being more dignified then the teller, and slightly embarrassed, he felt obligated to stop it and shouted, “Sister!”
Princess Kai's head spun around in his direction and she rushed to her brother, greeting him warmly.
He knew he would find her here in the work parties. Princes Kai was much beloved by her fighting men as well as her work crews. Kai led from the front – always the first into battle, always sharing in the most menial of chores, and never asking any of her charges to do anything she would not. Shunning the posh life of a pampered palace princess she insisted on bunking with her troops and eating their same meals – which, of course, always ensured they had the best rations. Her men loved her and they were the most brave, the most disciplined, and the most hearty fighters.
And it was natural that she was given charge over the earthworks project. Kai was legendary for her ability to move extraordinary amounts of dirt in pursuit of prey. Some of her crews took to calling her “Digger” and they loved her even more when she had this name engraved on her cuirass and shield.
“Tell me the news, Sister, I've only just arrived.” Said Zander.
“So it seems.” She replied, wryly sniffing his travel worn coat and motioning to a page to bring him water and rations. He waved it away eager for news.
She beckoned him to follow her. “I'll not only tell you... I'll show you. Come with me.” Kai trotted off, yelling orders for her men to finish up their meal and get back to work. She told them she would be back soon to help with the lower hill. Zander followed at her heel.
If Zander was The Black Death then his sister, Princess Kai was The Shining Light of the realm. She laughed easily, was quick to action, and lived and played hard. A skilled huntress she often came home with prey. She was always smiling and would, without warning, break out in a hip swinging, bonbon shaking dance. Everyone adored her easy going manner and unpretentious ways.
Altho she was the elder it was widely acknowledged that Zander would assume the throne. This was fine with her - Kai sought neither fame nor glory, preferring always to fight and serve. Zander's course was set before his birth by a prophesy.
She was neither jealous of her beloved brother nor desired his fate. Free from a future destined by others she was able to do what she wanted. Which was to serve The Good Land. She traded a life of ease for hard work, discipline, strength, and honor. Long ago she foreswore all of the trappings of her princess office, save for her authority and her gleaming tiara. She wore both well.
She also did not seek a mate, preferring the company of her fighting men and, of course, Zander. Kai laughed at the silliness of the ladies in waiting who pleaded for the attention and flatterings of the hopeless oafs who came to court the most famed princess in the land. Those who dared to humiliate Kai by forcing their romantic inclinations on her were sent away with wounds that would not soon heal and scars that told of their outrage. Besotted fools. She thought them idiots.
During these encounters Kai's men at arms always stood at the ready. But she never needed their help teaching those lovestruck welplings a hard lesson learned. This endeared her to the troops even more. Her dedication to the warrior way was just another reason why her fighting men were the most loyal in the land. They knew she would never leave them for some foolish princeling who cared not for battle nor honor.
Kai led Zander thru the work camp and toward the high hill. As they rounded the bend they were beset by such a foul and brooding odor that they both shook their heads. That terrible smell filled the mouth and permeated one's coat. It was awful... and it told of the presence of the enemy.
Immediately Zander's instinct took over and his mane and ridge began to rise. His hackles high he pushed past Kai and charged in the direction of that horrible stench. Wild with bloodlust his howl was long and deep. He thundered down the hill to this most atrocious enemy, this most hated foe.
A growl erupted in his dark throat the likes of which had not been heard in The Good Land for an age. High on the hill the work crews dropped their tools and scattered. An alarm was raised somewhere in the camp.
Zander, FoeHammer, bunched his great legs under him and prepared to launch the full weight of his measure upon the enemy and deliver such a pounding that they would be crushed with a single blow... when...
...Suddenly he was tackled from behind and found himself belly up on the ground with his sister, Kai, cuffing him most egregiously. “Stop it! Stand down, soldier!” She scolded harshly.
He snarled and shook her off, “What are you doing! The enemy is upon us!”
The enemy, in fact, had run off at the sight of The Black Death thundering down the hillside.
She cuffed him again. “Enough! Look!” She said pointing.
He turned his head to see the work crew led by the ganders starting to poke their frightened heads up over the barricades. OD, their terrible task master, began screaming orders and corralling the young ganders back to work. For the first time Zander took in the whole scene.
They were on the boundary of Fox Central where the vexing vixens held their terrible claim on those neighboring lands. Zander saw that the barricades were being set so that the pigz were enclosed between Fox Central and the vulnerable HenLands. He should have known better.
Kai, reading his thoughts, responded, “You know how she is....”
And then together they both said aloud, “....She is playing them off each other!”
Kai smiled an impish grin while Zander threw his head back and laughed. “Well that is going to keep them at each other's throats for a long time”
He marveled at his liege’s ability to develop such strategies and he nodded to himself well pleased. His mane and ridge relaxed and smoothed against his massive shoulders as he considered the strategy. The pig menace would forestall any direct attack from Fox Central and the cleared land would allow the defenders see the enemy if they dared an uphill assault.
This was, however, a war on two fronts. The challenge was to keep the enemies focused on each other and out of The Good Land. It was a balancing act that required the utmost care and skill. He saw now why his presence was needed. He knew from the placement of the barricades that he would be stationed on the far side of the hill and would await any advancement from the varmints. But he would also have to position himself to keep watch in case the pig menace tried to invade the HenLands. Princess Kai, as always, would roam the Deep Woods as she was more skilled in guerrilla war tactics.
He was still taking this all in when a thought suddenly occurred to him, urgently he asked, “But Sister, the war on the pigz! When will it begin? What about the battle?” He had long dreamed of a victory over the horrible hogs.
But the heat of the summer had come upon them early. The land labored under an unrelenting sun and oppressive humidity. They would not war in these hellish days. They needed cold days and frozen earth.
“You know what they say, Brother,” Kai responded bright eyes shining, “Winter is coming.”
Both Zander and Kai laughed loud, threw back their heads, and howled, their voices joining and giving each other strength.
Below them the frightened pigz ran off thru the underbrush and screamed their frustration at being unable to escape the coming terror.