Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Chapter 24

Chapter 24
                Captain Morgen was a quiet man, with a kind of calm authority that bred respect.  His men quieted when he entered the room on this day, several days after the enlistment. They all sat around the table in the hall, waiting. They had been summoned from their final training by a messenger. Morgen took a seat near the head, but he was silent, and sat, waiting.
                A few moments passed, until General Corwin appeared above, coming down the stairwell. He sat down at the head of the table. He was silent for a moment, as if enjoying the anticipation. Then he began to speak.
                “Our forces will begin attacking tomorrow. We will begin by weakening the forces of the empire by strategic strikes at key points.” He paused, clearing his throat. “I am telling this to each unit, separately. Each unit will be receiving missions over the next few days. I have chosen you for this next mission.”  He rolled out a large map he had been holding on the table. The soldiers gathered around, like children around a friend who had found something fascinating.
                He pointed at a point south-east of Moransford, between two cities. This map was slightly more detailed than the one that Owen carried in his pouch. Corwin’s thin finger followed the thin line that was traced between the two cities.
                “The Travelers Folly connects most of the major cities in the empire. It is a rugged road, but it is in better condition than most other roads, so it is used by most merchants, along with the soldiers of the empire. This stretch, right here, connects the large metalworks of Hollen with the mines of Ildiv.” He paused, placing the tip of his finger on the northern city, Hollen. “Hollen is perfectly placed for the metal works and refineries, right on the Ocih River. Plenty of power.” He moved down the road again, to Ildiv. “Ildiv is a mining town, but it also has the third largest garrison after the capitol and Lengbridge.”
                A voice interrupted. “What does this have to do with our mission?”
                Owen gritted his teeth. That fool, Dalt…  Corwin glanced up, looking slightly annoyed, but did not answer. He continued.
                “Our sources have let us know of a convoy of ore for refining will be making its way up Travelers Folly. This is an important shipment, as it is entirely made up of iron for refining into steel for the imperial army.” He paused for dramatic effect. “I want you to destroy it.”
                He turned to Captain Morgen. “It will require speed and stealth. You have the element of surprise on your side, as the rebellion is almost unknown. It is a several day journey on the road, and nothing will be known until they search for the convoy. There will be guards, but they will not be prepared. You will be well armed, and have stealth and surprise on your side.” He stood. “This is the beginning of the end for the rebellion. Good luck.” He placed his hand on his heart in the salute of the rebels, and bowed his head. They returned the salute. He placed his hand on Morgen’s shoulder, and nodded.
                “Good luck, captain.”
                Kallan grinned broadly.
                Owen slipped the heavy chainmail shirt over his head. They had trained with these on occasionally to get used to the weight. He rolled his shoulders to adjust the shirt, and then pulled on his tunic over it. He belted on his hatchet, and two daggers, then slung his quiver across his back, with his bow strapped on already. Then he slung his round iron rimmed shield over his back, and slid the single bladed axe into the two loops on his belt.
                He turned, and moved out the door, passing the last of the men who were still readying themselves. They had all lined up outside, waiting for the last of the unit to come out. A few more emerged from their second barracks, outfitted.
                They all wore a chainmail shirt over their basic shirt, with their brown uniform tunic over top. They wore leather bracers and gloves, and were all armed. Most had bows of some sort, even those who did not specialize in archery. Several bore large broadswords, while some carried smaller weapons. A few carried maces and several carried spears. 
                At last the final few men came out, and they moved up the hill, to the castle. They were to ride horse-back, so they headed to the stable, and began to saddle horses. Owen cinched it on, not too tight, but firmly enough to hold it on while they waited.
                Morgen was inside still, discussing last minute strategy with the council. Owen knew they had a few minutes. He stood outside the stable, thinking for a moment, then began to pace. He thought. He realized this moment was important. He trusted his superiors to some extent, but there was always the chance. Always a chance he would never come back.
                He glanced up in a bit of surprise, and saw Nai. She was walking across toward the kitchen. He trotted after her, catching her right before she went in. She looked him up and down with a single glance.
                “Is it time?”
                Owen nodded. “Short mission, so we should only be a few days.”
                She nodded. He shifted on his feet as a bit of a knot formed in his stomach.
                “I… umm… I mean… Nai…” She looked up at him seriously.
                “Nai… I was wondering, if… we could… I really like you…”
                She looked only a bit surprised, but soon caught herself. “I…” She paused.
                “I don’t know… right now… it doesn’t seem like a good time. I don’t know…”
                A lump formed in his throat. “I understand…” He shook his head. “I completely understand.” He glanced back as the gate opened.  “I must be off.” He hugged her quickly, and turned swiftly and began to run back to the stable.
                Morgen came out of the keep, accompanied by General Corwin and several other council members. Corwin shook each soldiers hand in turn, and then stood back.
                “Today we reveal ourselves to the empire at last. Make us proud, lads.” He smiled. “You are our hope for freedom.”
                There were no cheers this time. Just a sense of quiet respect, a sense of readiness. They were all quiet for a moment.  Then Morden pulled on his helm, and mounted. The rest followed his lead. Owen strapped his helm to his belt, not feeling like wearing it. They trotted out the gate.
                The plan involved an attack in early morning, just when the convoy was packing up camp to begin the move again. It took a day of hard riding, but they finally reached a good place to watch the road. They did not know exactly where the convoy would be, but they had a good vantage point from a tall hill about a half mile from the road. They could see the stone line heading north, across the plains, weaving through the gently rolling hills.
                Owen sat down against a tree, watching the road. Their horses were tied behind the crest of the hill, out of sight. All the men were wrapped in dark cloaks to conceal their chainmail from shining in the moonlight. They sat for a few moments, looking off across the plains. A glimmer of light caught Owen’s sharp eyes.
                “Captain!” He said in a loud whisper, pointing toward the glimmer of firelight far below.
                Morgen knelt and followed his finger to the pinprick in the dark night. He nodded.
                “Good eyes.” He stood. “We’ve found them!”
                The men gathered round, as Morgen pointed out the speck of light.  There was a hurried discussion, as Morgen rolled out his small map and pointed to the approximate point at which the fire seemed to be located.
                “We’ll use the hilly terrain as cover, and move in. We can keep tabs on their exact location. We have several hours until daybreak to set our position.” He stood, and made for his horse. They all mounted, and began a trot behind the crest of the long ridge. 
                It was not a long ride. They surmounted the hill, and looked down. They could faintly see the glimmer of fire at the end of a long spur that extended from the ridge. Morgen dismounted, and motioned for Owen and one other man to follow him. They made their way on foot down the spur, treading quietly between the sparse cover of bushes. The crawled up to the crest of the spur, moving up behind a few stunted pines.
                The hill declined steeply into a dell right next to the road, where the soldiers and ox drivers were camped. The wagons were in a semi-circle ringing one side of the camp, while several fires burned in the middle. The shapes of men could be seen dimly in the fire light. Only a few men seemed to be awake, the light glinting off the armor of several sentries. An ox lowed from where they were pegged near the wagons. Morgen made a motion with his hand, and they turned and made their way quickly back toward the rest of the unit.   
                The men circled as Morgen outlined a detailed plan, and they readied for morning.
                Owen tightened his knees on the leather of his saddle, sliding his axe from its sheath slowly. He flipped his shield over his shoulder onto his arm, gripping the reins and the handle together. He braced himself, steadying his breathing. He looked to his right. Kallan held his sword steadily in his hand, slipping his helmet over his head and clasping it with one hand. He looked over at Owen, and nodded solemnly. Owen returned the nod.
                Morgen hefted his spear, glancing up to the hill above them, where the signal would come from. There was a pause, a moment of utter silence. Then there was a flash of light from the hill, a reflection of metal. Morgen kicked his horse, and it began to trot. The hooves began to beat out a rhythm as they picked up speed, galloping around the spur of the hill. Owen raised his axe, and the battle cries echoed around him. A soldiers face, white with fear, was his last sight before he was embroiled in battle.
                He swung down, smashing in a pointed helm. His eyes caught sight of a spear on his left. He caught it with his shield, wrenching it out of his attackers hand, and wheeled his horse, swinging his axe in a wide arc. He felt the blade collide with metal, and heard a cry of pain. He turned.
                The rebels had made a powerful effort, smashing into the unprepared guards and drivers. A few last guards had their back against the wagon furthest from him, bracing themselves, spears out, holding their ground as the rebels wheeled around them. His horse shifted on his feet uneasily.
                Owen turned, just in time to see a man jumping from the wagon nearby. He felt the armored arm wrap around his head, and his left foot slipped out of the stirrup and he fell to the ground. His axe flew just out of his reach as the guard held him around the throat. The guard was unarmed, but he had an iron grip, and Owen felt the painfully familiar feeling of the air running out in his lungs he struggled desperately as his eyesight grew dim, then slammed his shield into the soldiers head. The guard’s grip grew slack, and Owen rolled out of the way, gasping.
                He reached for his axe, but the guard jumped to his back, gripping the edge of Owen’s shield. They grappled. Owen slammed it into the guard head, then threw him into the side of the wagon, and whipped out his dagger. The guard slipped, and fell, and Owen leapt upon him. He held the dagger to the man’s throat.  He realized he wasn’t much of a man at all. He was just a boy, not much older than Owen himself.  Owen breathed hard, a bit of blood trickling down from his head. He felt light headed. He braced himself, shoving the shield up into the guards chin.  The soldier grunted as his jaw cracked. He let out a moan.
                Owen raised his dagger again. He had killed before. He knew the feel of weapon on flesh. But somehow, this sickened him. He could be friends with this lad. He stepped back, and then slipped onto his knees, breathing heavily. The guard fell back, holding his jaw with a moan. They locked eyes. Owen dropped his dagger, reeling. He pulled himself up to his feet.
                He stumbled a bit, feeling a pain in his leg. He winced, but managed to keep his balance. He turned.  The soldiers were dead. The rebels had managed to defeat them without loss of life.  They moved around the field, hauling the bodies into a pile. The oxen lowed. A few had tried to break free of their lines in the chaos, but most of them were still in the area.  
                Dalt approached, his hands spattered with gore, limping. He walked to Owen. He smiled grimly at the look on Owen’s face.
                “Too much for ya?”
                Owen scowled, and turned, leaning on a wagon. He turned his head. Dalt knelt over the body of the Owen reached out and grabbed his shoulder, but the knife descended. The groans from the downed soldier ceased. Owen pulled Dalt back angrily.
                “He was no danger!”
                Dalt sneered. “He was a liability.” He wiped his knife clean on his tunic, and shoved it back into the sheath. He shoved Owen back, grabbing the body by the leg and dragging it toward the pile of bodies. The dead face, stained with blood, seemed to stare up accusingly at Owen. He felt bile rise in his throat. He swallowed it, and turned to walk to the other soldiers.
                He looked down as he felt the extreme pain in his leg.  He knelt, looking at his left leg. A narrow cut had gone through his trousers just above the edge of his boot, cutting into the muscle. He pulled open the gash in the trousers, and winced at the sight of blood trickling down the wound. He reached into his side pouch for a cloth. Each soldier was outfitted with a very simple medical pack. He cleaned it as best he could, then wrapped it in cloth. He stood a bit unsteadily,  making his way over to the pile of bodies.
                The other rebels had busied themselves with looting the corpses. A few took weapons, but most just took trinkets. One of the men knelt, and cut the royal crest off of one on the tunics, tucking it in his belt.  Owen leaned against the wagon, the smell of blood overwhelming his senses. Morgen stood at the edge of the clearing. Owen limped over to where he stood.             
                “What now?”
                Morgen looked grim, even displeased at his soldiers actions, but he made no move to stop them. “We’ll burn everything. We can maybe salvage something’s to load on the oxen, but the wagons won’t make it overland.  Morgen turned, and climbed onto the nearest wagon. He seemed to have escaped without any injury. He whipped off the cover of the wagon. It was filled with large crates.
                 Morgen pried open the crate. Owen scrambled clumsily up, avoiding putting much weight on his left leg. The crate was full of rough ore. Morgen picked up a few pieces, then dropped them back in, and shoved the crate lid back on. He jumped down, and walked to the next wagon.
                Three of the wagons were full of only ore, but one held some supplies, obviously meant for the trip up. The last wagon held a surprise. Morgen opened a crate to find not ore, but bottles of something. He opened it, and poured a drop on the tip of his finger.  He swore as it began to bubble violently, and quickly rubbed it on his tunic. It had burned away the outer skin on his finger.  He poured a drop on the wheel of the wagon. It began to bubble, then burned a hole into the wheel.
                He looked at it for a moment, then screwed the cap back on and set it carefully back in the the crate. He opened the next. Inside were bottles of a different type. He poured a bit on the tire. This time it did nothing, but he did not see fit to pour any on his own skin, so he smelled it. He recoiled, coughing, and put the cork back in.
                The other rebels came over from their looting, and they proceeded to open every crate. There were several different types of bottles, each holding a different liquid.  Morgen took crates of each, and stacked them in a pile, saving the bottles to load up and take back.
                They rounded up all the horses and oxen.  A few men began to make makeshift packs for the oxen out of bags of supplies. They loaded the oxen with the strange bottles, and then tied them together in a long pack line.
                The men who were not working with the animals began to pile the crates from the wagons around the bodies, piling them above the bodies. Owen glanced back from the ox with which he was working to see them pile everything high on top of the bodies. Owen was unsure why they were doing this. Then they began to pull the wagons together and shove them on their sides as close to the pile as possible.
                Morgen started a fire, and lit several torches, passing them to a few other men. Morgen poured several bottles of one of the liquids, the only one that he recognized. It was obviously quite flammable, as when a torch touched it, it lit almost immediately, spreading over the pile, and burning the wagons.
                Morgen took a lead from one of the lines of oxen, and then mounted, beginning to ride. Everyone else followed his lead. Owen mounted, taking the rear with several people that did not have any pack animals to lead. Kallan rode nearby, but he was silent. Owen glanced back one last time to see the bonfire burning, sending a plume of smoke to the skies.
                It was a much longer trek back to the rebellion, as the oxen were not nearly as fast as the horses. They made a very slow trot, often slowing to a walk to let the heavy oxen take a rest.  The smoke behind them continued to rise, and they knew it would be like a beacon to those looking for the caravan, so they sought to continue a fairly quick pace.
                Owen was silent and thoughtful for most of the long ride of the first day, and when they finally stopped in a hidden meadow in the foothills, late in the night, he fell asleep instantly exhausted from the long ride, fight, and little sleep of the past few days. He dreamed.
                He joined the two men from the previous dream. This time they were outside, in bright daylight. Card threw a knife idly at a wooden post nearby, while the other lad stood nearby, clad in a livery of blue. He stood patiently for a few minutes, then finally cleared his throat.
                Card pulled his dagger from the post, and put it into its sheath, and walked over. He looked a bit displeased.  He looked his friend up and down.
                “So you joined up?”
                The other boy nodded. “I start as a messenger tomorrow.”
                Card shook his head. “You…” He sighed, looking sullen. “I wish you luck.” The two hugged, but Owen saw the quick look of anger on his face.
                The other boy spoke. “We’ll see each other, don’t worry.” He grinned. “I am excited. I’ve always wanted to serve the kingdom.”
                Owen felt a strange feeling. He recognized both men, he was sure. The one seemed to be distant, as if something he had seen in a previous dream. But Card… there was something about him that repulsed Owen. He wanted to cry out, warning the friend of the evil in his eyes. But there was nothing he could do as Card pulled himself together, summoning a smile.
                “I’ll miss you, Martin.” He punched Martin on the arm, in a move similar to one that Owen and Kallan had often exchanged. Owen felt a moment of confusion.  Martin… Martin…
                Martin turned, and made his way away, slinging his small bag over his shoulder. Card watched him go, then whipped out his dagger, and slung it with a sudden ferocity at the wooden post. It stuck, quivering. The dream changed in a swirl of dust.
                Owen stood in a dry, plowed field. A man stood at the edge, looking across it. He smiled. Above him, the sky was full of clouds. A scruffy beard covered his face, and his hair was a bit shaggy, a dark brown, bleached by the sun at the tips. He leaned on a tall staff, watching the sky. A bit of thunder lit the sky as the clouds covered the sun. The man grinned wider, looking almost giddy.
                A small house stood a ways behind him, surrounded by several large trees. It was tidy, but worn. A long lake stretched out to the right of the field and the house. It was surrounded by trees. Owen walked across the field. A sprinkle of rain came down from the sky. The man looked up, spreading his arms wide, a look of joy on his face, as the rain began to increase in momentum.
                Owen watched as two small children and a woman with dark hair ran out from the house. The bearded man grinned, and let out a whoop of pleasure. He began to laugh. It began to pour, wetting the dry ground. The man continued to laugh as the woman and children reached him. The woman wrapped her arms around him as he laughed, soaked. He swung her around, and then embraced her joyfully. The two little girls danced around them, than hugged their parent’s legs.
                The man smiled broadly, his hair and clothes now thoroughly soaked to the skin. He kissed his wife on the lips, and then laughed again.
                “This calls for a celebration!” He laughed, and turned, heading for the house, his arm around his wife as the little girls followed. As they left, Owen heard the man start a string of song with words that he could not hear.
                The rain poured down. Owen felt himself seem to melt into the ground. Suddenly this happy fantasy changed to a nightmare. He lay on the hard ground. He was surrounded by bodies. He stood, stumbling.  Each body was pale, dead. He stumbled over an arm, and looked down.  The eyes shot open. An expression of pale sorrow was on the dead face, convicting Owen. He fell back in terror. The corpse sat up. He cried out in fear, scrambling away as they began to rise. He began to run, but tripped, falling on his back as the creatures made their way toward him. And in the center, the face of the young soldier, piercing his soul.

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