Northeast of our kingdom, visible for miles around, is the beautiful Mt. Aerie. I can still remember the first time I climbed it, approaching the top using the gradually sloping southern side. What a thrill it was to look out and feel like I was the tallest person in the world!
I can also remember my last trip up Mt. Aerie. Scaling the craggy and steep western face of the butte was exhilarating. But the memories of that trip have always been too painful to talk about. And that was the route Daniel and Jonathan attempted today.
If I had taken a moment to realize what they were going to try to do, I would never have allowed them to go.
For at least several generations, our kingdom has been known for having outstanding falcon trainers. Our fine hunting birds have been the envy of all our neighbors. Daniel began to learn his trade from his grandfather, from the same man who had convinced my father that it would be alright if I went on the trip up Mt. Aerie to capture a young falcon to train for hunting.
Falcons, like other birds of prey, have their young in late winter. My last trip up Aerie was on a cold day in March. There were just three of us -- Daniel's grandfather, me, and my best friend, Will. Our plan was to bring home one young falcon, one just about old enough to fly.
By mid-day, we had found the nesting area on the western slope. We used a rope to drop Will next to a falcon's nest with two young birds in it. When Will was no more than inches from the nest, both parent birds suddenly appeared, screaching loudly and with their sharp talons outstretched. I don't know if it was the scare from the birds, or the wind, or loose rocks, but Will suddenly lost his footing and fell off the narrow ledge.
How Daniel's grandfather was able to go on with his yearly trips for new falcons -- including taking his own grandchildren -- I'll never know. Will had loved everything about the falcons and would've felt terrible if the trips had ended that day. So I was always glad that falcon training continued to be a special part of our little kingdom. But I'll always be nervous for those who make that dangerous trip to the nesting sites.
Jonathan's first hike up Mt. Aerie was just this past spring. That trip with Daniel and a couple friends was all he talked about for weeks. When he got the unexpected view of the cliffs after climbing that tree, it didn't take him long to think of a good excuse for Daniel to hike back up there with him!
While climbing the tree for Archibald, Jonathan had seen the steep cliffs where Will had fallen years ago. Jonathan pictured himself on those cliffs, not to capture falcons but to capture the view and valuable information. He had realized that Blanco's entire army would be visible from that side of Mt. Aerie. From those cliffs, he would be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy. And Jonathan thought he had a better way to keep me informed of what was happening on the field of battle.
Instead of climbing Mt. Aerie to bring back a young falcon, Jonathan and Daniel took a trained adult falcon with them. Their plan was to position themselves where they could view the entire vast area between our kingdom and Blanco's. From this position, Johnathan hoped to draw maps and send them to me using the falcon.
But as is often the case, things weren't as simple or as easy as they seemed!
I've promised myself, if this worn out body will let me, to visit the site on Mt. Aerie where Jonathan and Daniel so bravely took positions today. I want to see that spectacular view and breathe that pure air and try to imagine what those two fine fellows saw and did for us today.
Another Surprise Attack
I heard the blood-curdling scream from the tower just about the time Jonathan and Daniel would've been reaching the cliffs of Mt. Aerie. For an instant or two, I felt frozen, suddenly afraid that someone had witnessed a fall from the side of the mountain. Then I recognized the voice of the screamer. Julian! What ridiculous thing was he fretting about now?
A glance toward our eastern fields from Lord Harold's tower quickly revealed the cause for Julian's alarm. Julian's scream had sounded more convincing than his usual squeals, and for good reason. We were being attacked in an area where our defenses were not yet in place.
The sudden appearance of Queen Ivory and her elite contingent of guards on our flank was reason for concern. To me, it was one more sign that the White Army was relying on our troops to panic. Their strategy of launching a headlong attack might work against amateurs. Too bad for Blanco, but Julian was our jester -- not our king!
Like our beloved Queen Ebonie, Ivory never travels without her own personal mini-army. Both of these queens (for that matter, all the queens is this region) have control of their own contingent of soldiers -- who can act as footsoldiers, archers, or operate a battering ram. These squads are especially fearsome because they can play all of these roles at the same time! About the only weapon the special queen units don't carry with them is a separate cavalry.
Ivory's surprise attack was bold but foolhardy. We would need to adjust our plans a bit, but if we responded in a deliberate way Ivory and Blanco would have to sacrifice much valuable time as the price for their careless haste.
A Mysterious Message
How anyone could've slept through Julian's ranting and raving is beyond me. That screaming -- followed by jittery, screechy chattering -- seemed like enough to wake the dead! But neither Julian's yelping nor any of the other commotion of the morning had stirred Lord Harold.
I had been content to let Harold sleep in, as is his habit. There usually would've been no point in activating his crew before our smaller troops had cleared some room for them to go to work. Harold and his crew were specialists with two of our most potent weapons, including the battering ram. Once they had room to maneuver, they often quickly took control of large sections of the battlefield. First, they needed open space.
But this was not a typical attack. The sudden appearance of Queen Ivory and her elite guards on our flank meant that all of our soldiers had to be placed on full alert immediately. We were under attack in an area where our defenses were not yet in place. I sent word for Lord Harold to report immediately for a defensive assignment.
As the messenger returned from the East Tower to report that Harold was in position, he took a moment to gaze from the East Tower across the growing battlefield. Ivory and her troops had not moved. Beyond them on the right, on the cliffs of Mt. Aerie, a flash of color caught his eye. Daniel or Jonathan were trying to send some sort of signal with flags! The messenger noted that the flags were being waved in the same series of patterns, over and over. There were four parts to the message! He smartly jotted down what he was seeing, and brought his sketch to me with his news from Harold.
At first, the four signals made absolutely no sense! Why two colors? What did it mean if a flag was held straight up, or straight down, or at some other angle?
It wasn't until Jonathan's next map was delivered that I was able to decipher this strange code..
From his new vantage point, Jonathan had an unobstructed view of the entire battle area. His map now showed both entire armies. And he had figured out a faster way to send information to me. Rather than sending entire maps, he would signal just critical changes as they happened.
The meaning of the four signals spotted by the messanger was now clear! The first two reported Lord Harold's movement to defend against Ivory's attack. The other two signals described how Blanco's troops were proceeding. Blanco was pushing toward the crossroads, using a foot soldier. From the map, I guessed this response was too little, and too late.
Jonathan had supplied me with the key to his new code. He was using the gold flag to let me know how far north or south a new action was happening. The blue flag was being used to signal how far east or west this action was. He was pinpointing every new movement on the battlefield -- where it started, and where it ended. Our movements would now be based on a complete and up to date picture of the battlefield!
Blanco had allowed a dangerous hole to develop inside his territory. When the time was right, I'd send Sir Wilbur into that weakened area. Blanco would have a terrible time trying to drive Wilbur back out. First, though, some important preparatory steps. I sent a message to Manfred, my personal guard. Then I instructed a messenger to use flags to send a reply to our men on Mt. Aerie. If the message got through, Daniel and Jonathan would know what I had just instructed Manfred to do -- and they would know even before Manfred left his post!
Two simple signals. To those few who understood the code, they told of exciting things to come!