At first Aeron thought that the victory at the Anesmwyth Marshland would earn him and his platoon a little down time, but he was wrong. On only his second day at Dul Hraig, Commander Anderson received a telegraph from the Golau Mage Force HQ that her platoon was assigned to guard the Stewart noble family. Anderson had shown the telegraph to her soldiers: "FIRST PLATOON OF THIRD REGIMENT TO GUARD STEWART ESTATE STOP WEREWOLF PACK MOVEMENTS INDICATE IMPENDING ATTACK TO ESTATE STOP CONALL MAY BE INVOLVED STOP"
So, Anderson arranged for a People's Army zeppelin to take first platoon's soldiers and the druid-to-be Bryan to the Stewart family estate far to the east. After three days of flying, the rolling hills and forests of the western lands yielded to the rocky cliffs, mountains, and gorges of Talwydd's eastern region. And as Aeron expected, Siana seemed nervous about returning home.
"I haven't seen my mother or father since I left for the Golau mage academy," she told Aeron when he asked if she was okay. She looked out one of the zeppelin's round windows at the passing badlands. "They were furious that I was leaving for a life of fighting and obscurity."
"Well," Aeron said cautiously, "they must have gotten news about Third Regiment's campaigns by now and I bet they're at least a little proud of what you've accomplished." He smiled. "Right?"
"Perhaps," Siana admitted. "My father did always push others to excel. 'A life half-lived is no life at all', he used to say. Thing is, I took that to mean 'join the Mage Force'!"
Aeron shared Siana's laugh. He could relate: personally, he thought that he was only good for fighting. He had gotten only mediocre scores at school and couldn't figure out any other real skills or talents, so with his aunt Catrina's encouragement, he had joined the Golau mage academy. "Third Regiment wouldn't be the same without you."
"Thank you, Aeron."
Although it was late evening by the time the Army zeppelin arrived in Stewart territory, the estate's beauty was impossible to miss. Situated on the edge of an enormous cliff, the mansion seemed big enough to house a small town's entire population. The building was made not from brick and mortar, but carved from local sand-colored stone with domed roofs and thick pillars. Elaborate wood and plaster construction had been added to many of the walls to give the place a more comfortable feel and tall, pointed windows gave the place a spacious look. In addition, telegraph wires were strung out on wooden poles to and from the estate, leading to other human settlements nearby. People's Army reserve garrisons, probably.
What was more, unlike the dry areas around it the estate had grassy gardens and even a few ponds around it complete with flowerbeds and neatly trimmed evergreens and bushes. According to Anderson's explanation, this estate was located right on top of a large natural spring that nourished a sort of oasis here in the badlands. The Stewart family had chosen this place for their estate due to its remote location and the spring. Many claimed that this place was impossible to conquer, but Conall's werewolf pack was going to put that legend to the test. Aeron personally lavished the idea of getting payback.
With a thud, the zeppelin touched down on a landing pad a few hundred yards from the mansion and as soon as Aeron walked down the zeppelin's boarding ramp with the other mages, four Army soldiers approached to greet them.
"Commander Gwendolyn Anderson?" one of the soldiers asked the commander tightly.
"That's me," Anderson told him, showing him a few papers from her uniform pocket. "Are we on time?"
"Within the hour," the soldier told her. "We received a telegram from the nearest outpost. The werewolf pack is nearby and may strike as early as tomorrow night. We need mage support to defend the mansion."
"Of course," Anderson nodded calmly. "I will have my men patrolling the premises with your troops at all times. Each one will carry flares to alert those resting in the mansion."
Those last few words caught Aeron's attention and he looked to the huge estate. The off-duty mages would kick back in that huge place? This was almost a vacation!
"Good," the soldier agreed, motioning to a few idling Army troop transport trucks. "Then let's get moving."
Brian spoke up for the first time as the trucks carried the mages and soldiers toward the estate. "This place is so strange," he commented to Aeron as he scoped out the dry, rocky land. "It's nothing like Neath an Fuacha. No trees, no grass, no farms. This place feels... alien."
"Though it works both ways," Aeron mentioned. "The Stewart family uses remoteness for security. No one bothers them out here except for zeppelins bringing in supplies." He had read about this place in school but to actually be here was something else entirely.
"Words of wisdom," Brian admitted. "Though I must say that I'm already a little homesick. This is as far as from Neath an Fuacha as I can get!"
"Trust me," Aeron said grimly, "you'd only say that if you've never been to the Sneachta Mountains."
Aeron knew that he'd meet several members of Siana's family, but he didn't expect a whole community within the mansion's stone walls.
"On behalf of the Stewart family, I bid you welcome, mages. I am Gregor Stewart, and this is my wife Rodina," greeted a potbellied man in his mid-fifties in the mansion's enormous atrium. He wore a tan-colored gentleman's suit with a gold pocket watch and black shoes. His hair was a smoky gray color and he was slowly going bald.
Beside Gregor stood a petite, silver-haired woman a few years his junior clad in a deep blue gown and pearl earrings. Behind her and Gregor stood a whole array of people: kids, teenagers, adults, even a few toddlers and infants. Was everyone even remotely related to Gregor in here?
"By my honor, good sir, I will give my utmost to safeguard your family," Commander Anderson intoned seriously, dipping her head in deference. "My platoon is prepared for duty."
Aeron stared. Commander Anderson, being humble to someone outside the Mage Force chain of command? So this is what it's like to be with a noble family.
"Very good," Gregor said with satisfaction, motioning to the Army soldiers gathered in the vast room. "The local garrison has kept my family safe for years, but I fear that this werewolf/Dearg-du alliance will be the end of us without mage support. I hear that the noble families are being targeted... very troubling. This Conall is a sharp one, taking down the Ascendancy's key families. But his rampage will stop here. It must."
"My platoon will make certain of that," Anderson assured him. "Corporal Stewart, Corporal Pryce, pick six Privates and start a perimeter patrol with the soldiers. The rest of you, stand by for other orders."
Siana and Aeron saluted. "Yes, sir."
The two halves of Aeron's platoon rapidly shifted back and forth for guard duty on the grounds and in the mansion during the night and the next day, giving Aeron a chance to see the estate's interior. Curvy staircases led to the upper three floors and down to two subterranean levels, and he found rooms varying from food pantries to giant baths to entertainment halls. Everywhere, expensive paintings, candelabras, pianos, and rare decorative vases transported Aeron back to Talwydd's earlier days before the industrial revolution and the rise of the Ascendancy. This place was a time capsule, reminiscent of when Talwydd had a monarchy. No way would anyone put up with a king or queen nowadays, Aeron thought with amusement. He even found a painting of Talwydd's last king, a red-haired and sharp-eyed man named Ceallachan the Brave.
On top of that, Aeron met many members of the mansion's staff. An entire wing was dedicated to the housing for the maids, private tutors, chefs, and other staff and the laboring men and women were friendly to Aeron, even deferential like Anderson had been to Gregor. Then again, the staff members were all mundane people; no way would mages subjugate their own kind. Only mundane, non-mage people were fit for dirty, hard work like this. Or so conventional wisdom held.
As 8:00 PM neared on the second night, Aeron was off-duty for a half hour and he found his way into an entertainment hall where a piano player filled the air with a slow but beautiful melody. Gregor and two of his young nephews listened intently, but they welcomed Aeron when the wind mage tentatively poked his head in.
"Join us, soldier," Gregor greeted Aeron, spreading his arms wide. "Have you heard this piece before? It is exquisite."
Aeron shook his head as he took a seat. "No, but it sounds great."
"It's awesome!" one of Gregor's nephews put in eagerly. Apparently noble family members had refined taste even at a young age.
Aeron grinned. "Yeah." He sat silently for a moment until he spoke up again. "Mr. Stewart, sir, I must admit that your mansion is amazing. I've seen some great places in my tour of duty but this..."
Gregor laughed. "I can understand if you're at a loss for words."
"I didn't even think that places like this still existed. I mean, you've got a lot of rare treasures and even the architecture is old. Classical."
Shifting comfortably in his seat, Gregor said fondly, "it sounds like your education wasn't lacking. What's your name?"
"Corporal Aeron Pryce, sir."
"Please, no need for 'sir'," Gregor chuckled. "Well, Mr. Pryce, you're right. This mansion dates back to the Republic's early days when stone-working was considered the height of culture. A wooden house will burn down and a brick building needs mortar, but stone... it is the natural world's walls. What better construction material can there be?"
Gregor smoothed a wrinkle on his suit. "Yes. But enough about walls. Us Stewarts take great pride in preserving the cultural identity of Talwydd. I trust you've seen the pottery and paintings in great detail?"
"Yeah, on my patrols."
"Among the last of their respective kinds, they are. You may never see art like that anywhere else," Gregor said proudly. "This estate is almost a museum of heritage."
This guy will take any chance to boast, Aeron grouched to himself. "That's great. I bet you take pride in your family too, right? Like Siana. She's been an amazing comrade and friend to me."
Gregor's eyes grew distant. "Yes, my eldest daughter."
"You must be happy to see her again," Aeron said encouragingly. He recalled Siana's explanation that her parents were upset by her decision to join the Mage Force, but her accomplishments would surely outweigh any ill feelings.
"She is a mage soldier like any other, Mr. Pryce. One of my temporary guards against Conall's werewolf pack."
"Did you miss her?"
"It does not matter what I think about that, Mr. Pryce," Gregor rumbled, his eyes and tone suddenly hard. The two nephews shrank back at their uncle's tone. "My daughter made her decision against my best intentions and has made a new life for herself. I will not cause her any regret or doubt about her choice by offering a warm, cozy welcome to her as father to daughter. She and I are now merely protector and protected."
Aeron swallowed. "I'm sorry. I spoke out of turn."
Gregor gave Aeron a calculating look. "You care deeply for her."
Trying not to blush, Aeron answered, "I do. She's... well... a great girl."
"Treat her with respect and care, and you may be prove to be good enough for her," Gregor said firmly. "Can you do that, Aeron Pryce?"
As the song reached its conclusion, Aeron thought for a moment before answering. "I can."
Just as Gregor opened his mouth to say something else, Kenna threw the door open. "Aeron!" she panted, her face flushed from running up here. "We've got incoming! Conall's pack has reached the perimeter, and he brought a few Dearg-du with him!"
Aeron's blood turned to ice as he numbly got to his feet. From outside the stone mansion, he could hear the chilling sound of werewolf howls. "Then let's go do our duty."