Nestled in the midst of a sweeping valley, the Gavin homestead presented an image of peace and tranquility. Three quaint, wooden structures made up the farm, just outside of the town of Romlan, which sat out of sight past the curve of the valley to the south. The Gavin family had held their land for several generations, maintaining a comfortable, if not particularly wealthy, position. Caradoc Gavin took pride in his reliability: whenever there was trouble in Romlan, a young boy typically was dispatched to the Gavin farm to bring back Caradoc, the man who could do it all. Name almost any difficulty, and Caradoc could fix it, or at least diagnose the problem. With machines, Caradoc was nothing short of a magician, and could solve any mechanical issue, whether it be vehicular or electrical in nature. If Caradoc himself could not fix it, one of his many sons and daughters no doubt possessed either the peculiar understanding of animals, technological intuition, or innovative spirit necessary to at least start on the road to recovery. Thanks to his family’s long history of a helpful, giving spirit, Caradoc was a friend to all.
But the friend of all was a dangerous enemy to one.
A small dust cloud appeared in the distance on the road to the south that ran straight through the midst of the flat plain within the valley. A low, barely audible rumbling signaled the approaching storm: the garrison from Romlan was on the move. The forces of the Solician Union passed by the Gavin homestead frequently, typically in small groups on horseback, rifles slung over their shoulders, with friendly waves to those who happened to be outside, riding on the road to Fort Solidity, farther north in the great mountain range that overlooked the valley and Romlan within. On this day however, as sunlight began to wane, the Gavin homestead was not simply a landmark, but rather the destination.
The two youngest children of the Gavin clan rushed to the fence along the road to wave at the passing horsemen, their approach heralded by the dull thumping in the ground. The vague moving shapes of green clad men atop their mounts became outlined against the dust they kicked up in their wake. The older of the two young toddlers turned from the fence and rushed awkwardly towards the house, clamoring with arms and legs over the steps leading to the porch.
“Da! Da! Horses Da, horses!” the young boy squealed with delight. The younger girl remained at the fence, squinting intently with her brown eyes at the approaching column. Caradoc, responding to his child’s cries, came out onto the porch wearing his large black boots. Caradoc leaned down and scooped up his son in his muscular arms, and the boy seized tightly to his father’s brown jacket, pointing delightedly at the distant riders. Caradoc stomped off the porch with a forceful, purposed gait, his brown eyes and weathered face straining to see into the distance in a fashion strikingly similar to that of his young daughter. “Look at dose horses Da!” his son gestured emphatically, his expression one of pure delight.
“No, no. Those are soldiers,” Caradoc’s daughter said gravely, and looked to him for confirmation, “right, Da?”
“Right you are, Addie,” Caradoc said, “Solician horseman. Some of the finest riders and most beautiful horses you have ever seen. Better than any machine built to traverse these lands, those animals.”
“I want one someday, Da.” The youngster in Caradoc’s arms announced. Caradoc glanced at his blonde-haired boy.
“A horse, Cor? We’ll get you a horse of your very own someday!”
“No, Da. Not just a horse, one of dose horses.” Cor pointed sharply at the nearing column, “A Sol-eshee-an horse.” He grinned and laughed triumphantly at conquering the challenging name. Caradoc only smiled lightly, and looked downward to his daughter, whose hand had closed tightly around his hard, calloused fingers.
“Dey’re loud, Da. And dere are a lot of them.” Addie looked nervously to her father for reassurance, and Caradoc patted her head of soft, light brown hair instinctively.
“Don’t worry, Addie, they’re just on their way to the mountains. To protect us.” Caradoc’s eyes never left the approaching lines.
“Protect us from what?” Cor asked, suddenly pushing himself outward slightly to look his father in the eye.
“Bad men.” Caradoc said, still staring straight ahead. The rumbling grew louder and louder, and the thumping could now be distinctly felt as the whole ground seemed to shake. Caradoc’s teenaged children now came out from the house to witness the approach. Cor suddenly wiggled free from his father’s grasp, Caradoc placing him on the ground, and rushed over to Caradoc’s oldest child, a tall, dark haired girl with deep brown eyes like that of a doe.
“Jes! Jestine! Look Jes!” Cor ran at full speed to his sister, gesturing wildly and threatening to topple himself over. Jestine swept him up and whispered into his ear.
“What is it, Cor, what is it?” She cast a glance at her father, who did not return the look.
“Dose horses! Dey’re beautiful! Just like yours!” Cor laughed at how the thundering hooves now threatened to drown out his speech. Caradoc’s eldest son now approached, using a towel to wipe the sweat off of his sunburnt face.
“That’s an awful lot of soldiers, Dad.” He said, folding his arms across his chest. “Wonder what Syscer is up to with half the garrison? Oh, and by the way, me and Eurion finished debugging the sensors.”
Caradoc turned and smiled slightly at his son from beneath his thin beard, “You mean Eurion debugged it, right, Idris?” Idris grinned sheepishly, shrugging his shoulders. Caradoc turned back to the thundering garrison, raising his voice to be heard. “And I don’t think this is Syscer, looks to be Halse leading them.”
The column of horseman was now in full and clear view of the farm, only about a hundred yards away and advancing quickly. Dressed in light green uniforms tinged with brown, the soldiers rode in a double-file column, rifles slung over their backs. Berets of the same shade as the uniforms were worn, except for the man at the front of the column, who wore a beret of a dark green with a golden insignia. Their mounts, Solician stock, were powerful and imposing, but yet also possessed a quality of majesty and dignity. Most of the horses wore a light, golden brown color, the light playing off their muscular bodies to create an almost shimmering quality about them. The most beautiful horse, however, was reserved for the man with the green beret, their leader, who rode an animal that possessed a golden, royal quality that one only dreams about in fantastic stories and fairy tales. The horses of the Union soldiers may have shimmered, but the mount of the Second Commandeur of the Romlan Garrison, Alwin Halse, verily shone.
“Dat horse is so p-pretty.” Cor said quietly to Jestine, pointing at Halse’s horse. The gathered family watched as the column drew even with the Gavin homestead. Caradoc extended a hand to wave at the passing men as they galloped by, Addie, still nervously clutching her father’s hand, doing likewise. Halse, who had been gazing intently, taking in the entirety of the Gavin’s land before him, turned and barked an order in the Solician tongue to his column in motion, now completely in view, a group of roughly twenty horsemen. Most of the column suddenly stopped, while Halse, gesturing sharply, continued forward with five other riders, turning sharply through the open gate on their left, and, jerking back hard on the reins, came to a sudden halt in front of Caradoc and his now visibly shaken daughter. Caradoc lowered his arm now from its position of greeting to a place of comfort for Addie, who flinched as Halse’s horse reared up on its hind legs before stomping back to the ground with a thud and a neigh. Addie, to her credit, though trembling, held her ground in front of the majestic creature and its rider. Caradoc looked up and smiled at the Commandeur.
“Evening, Commandeur.” He motioned to the column, “I always thought dramatics was Syscer’s arena.”
From atop his horse, Halse shook his head and chuckled. “You of all men should know, Caradoc, that one benefits most when he learns from those who have come before.” Halse cut an imposing figure, as he always did. His Solician military uniform alone demanded respect, the golden circle surrounding unified hands displayed prominently on his beret, the symbol of the Union which Solicia had built. Halse was a tall man, always clean-shaven, his skin a dark tone that spoke to his Solician birth, his green eyes piercing, a small scar evident under his right cheek, and a perpetual calm about him. Halse exuded, offered, and more often than not, received confidence. He carried himself as the veritable standard of reliability. It was for this key similarity that Caradoc had always respected Halse. It was also for this reason that Caradoc found himself concerned with the young Commandeur because despite his outward good cheer, there was a flash of emotion within his eyes. Halse was angry.
“True indeed, true indeed!” Caradoc smiled broadly as he always did, now nudging Addie back to the company of her siblings. After making eye contact briefly with her father for confirmation, the young girl quickly obeyed. “Anyway, what can I do for you today, sir? And what brings you along this way?” Halse dismounted from his horse and, holding the reins in one hand, began to stroke the animal’s gold head as it panted from the exertion. Halse waved to one of the men with him, and the soldier sprang from the saddle, leading his mount over to Halse to take both steeds. The Commandeur surrendered the reins, but continued to affectionately fondle his horse’s head.
“In a word, Caradoc,” Halse glanced at the farmer, “you.” The Commandeur sighed, and patted his horse. He then turned to the soldier holding the reins of the horses, “Tribune, find water for Vita. Men!” He now shouted to his column, “you may dismount and await further orders!” Caradoc, for his part, stared blankly at the officer, twenty years his junior, unsure of how to respond. He smiled again, now nervously, having noticed the subtle slight to his hospitality in Halse’s order to the Tribune.
“Commandeur, Jes surely will be able to care for your horses…” Caradoc gestured for his eldest, a bit more sharply than usual, and Jestine reacted, a shade more quickly than usual, leaving Cor with his siblings and hurrying to the side of her father. Halse nodded politely to Jes, before turning to his subordinate.
“I leave that for Tribune Roemer to decide. Caradoc,” Halse turned back to the now silent father, the smile all but vanished from his face, “I do not suppose you would object to us taking a walk around your land, would you?”
“No, sir. Not at all.” Caradoc’s tone had gone from one of loud welcome to quiet submission. Caradoc and Halse began walking towards the larger of the two outbuildings, Caradoc giving a thin smile of assurance to Jestine before following Halse along the path to the outbuilding. The soldiers had now all dismounted, and were milling along the fence of the Gavin homestead, awkwardly glancing at the Gavin children and averting their gazes quickly whenever they noticed a return stare. Tribune Roemer stood looking most uncomfortable of all, holding the reins of both his and the Second Commandeur’s horses, with Jestine standing in front of him, watching her father and Halse conversing. The Tribune coughed and kicked the dust with his boots. Jestine suddenly shook as if being woken from a dream, and remembering the Tribune’s presence, stammered and blushed slightly.
“S-sorry. W-water, right?” Jestine did not look directly at the soldier, but instead stared slightly off to the left. The Tribune stood a hair taller than her, with that distinct tan Solician complexion, dark blue eyes, and short, dark brown hair barely evident from under his beret. Despite his apparent rank, Jestine realized he looked fairly young, as he nodded and attempted a smile, a pathetic effort that took the form of a sideways grimace. As she turned in the opposite direction of that in which Caradoc and Halse had went, Cor raced over, holding out his hands in hopes of being held by her. Jestine obliged, gathering him up in her arms as the Tribune followed with the horses.
“Why are duh sholdiers here, Jes?” Cor whispered in her ear, shielding his face in her dark hair that now flowed and moved slightly in the delicate breeze.
“I don’t know, Cor,” she whispered back, “I don’t know.” And as she spoke she hugged him tightly, not so much for his comfort, but for hers, as if to try to stop her now exploding heart from beating.