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Alex’s first stop was the sentry tower midway along the fortified double wall on the north side of the castle. He climbed the long winding stairs to the lookout and he was nearly out of breath by the time he reached the top. He knew the sentry heard his approaching footsteps on the stone and he’d be keeping a wary eye on the stairwell.
The moment the top of Alex’s head was visible the sentry barked his challenge, “Halt! Who goes there?”
Alex stopped. Another step without permission might get his head blown off. “Lieutenant Commander MacIver,” he replied in the clipped authoritarian tone he used for his official military duties.
“Do you travel in company or alone?”
“Advance to be recognized!” the sentry commanded, his voice echoing inside the stone turret.
Alex warily moved up to the next step and then paused, cautiously swiveling his head to locate the sentry. He was acutely aware his civilian dress would excite suspicion and a man with a loaded gun aimed at your head was no one to be trifled with.
He finally located the sentry off to one side, eyes peering over the musket aimed at his head. The sentry studied him for several seconds and then propped his gun back on his shoulder.
“Proceed,” he ordered, satisfied Alex was who he said he was.
Alex recognized the sentry’s face but was unable to recall his name until he saw the missing ear lobe he’d been told had been neatly sliced off in a knife fight over a girl. He was one of Jacek’s innumerable relatives working as servants and soldiers around the castle.
“Good morning, Lukasz,” Alex spoke cordially.
He received only a curt nod of acknowledgement in return. As it should be, Alex reminded himself. A sentry reigned supreme in his watchtower and only his immediate superior held greater authority. In his civilian clothes Alex merited no special recognition for a rank existing only within the context of the military service signified by a uniform. Any consideration beyond simple courtesy was strictly at the sentry's discretion.
“This is an unofficial visit,” Alex felt compelled to explain, “I’m awaiting a call from Pan Bukowski to travel on his behalf. I came on impulse to determine if the visibility from our towers is sufficient that no one could hide within our perimeters without us knowing.”
While that was a truthful statement as far as it went, he still felt a twinge of guilt about the reason underlying his wish to know. His motive was impure, he thought, undeserving of the trusting respect of the soldier before whom he stood.
Lukasz motioned his head toward the wide port running along the north side of the turret. “Permission granted,” he said and resumed his watch.
Alex turned his back and walked over to the opening, anxious to remove himself from the sentry's eyes. He braced his hands along the ledge and leaned forward to survey the broad area spread out below.
The distant perimeter wall wound like a long gray snake encircling the castle, village, fields and pastures. Centuries of invasions by Cossacks, Tatars and Turks had made it necessary for people near the borderlands to hide behind protective barriers and fortifications. Tatar raiding parties, known as tchambuls, roved northward in search of slaves even during peacetime, seeking not only to find profit but also to preserve a wide uninhabited buffer zone between the Muslim Khanate and its hostile Christian neighbors. Death or kidnapping could burst out of the tall grasses of the steppe as suddenly and destructively as a river breaching its dyke.
The wall itself stood half again as tall as a mounted man and constructed of grouted fieldstone bristling with needle tipped iron spikes cemented into the cap. It could be easily scaled with a ladder but even if an attacker dodged the metal teeth biting at his face and hands, the moment he dropped inside he was snared in a thick tangle of brambles.
The brambles grew in long arching canes covered in barbed thorns that sloped downward so that once a man was among them he was caught like a mouse in a cat’s claws. As soon as the unlucky captive moved, the thorns penetrated his clothing and tore his skin. The harder he struggled, the deeper they bit, effectively halting movement unless he hacked his way out or was willing to have his flesh shredded. The wall and brambles would not stop an attack, but they would delay it long enough for the cavalry to mobilize and take the fight to the enemy in the open fields between the inner and outer walls where men on foot were helpless against a mounted charge.