Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chapter 29

Chapter 29
                Owen swung the axe steadily as he felled a pine. In a few swings of the sharp axe, it toppled, crashing o the ground. He quickly cut it into two pieces, and loaded it on a sledge nearby. He glanced around at the number of men doing the same. He looked down through the forest, out onto the plain where the rebels were setting up their base. He glanced up into the hills of Moran. Several tall watchtowers stood, fires burning. Owen knew that the signal was passing north, warning the armies of the Empire.
                He turned and chose another tall tree, thin enough to fit both hands around. In a few strokes, it fell, and he once again loaded it onto one of the horse drawn sledges. It moved off, full of logs, headed down to the main camp to be used in the fortification. Below Owen could see the men hard at work, building a long, curved trench to protect the encampment. Palisade walls were put up around the central headquarters, while sharpened stakes were hammered into the trench. Owen wiped a few drops of sweat off his face, and hefted his axe to continue.
                They worked for the rest of the day, cutting and hauling logs, then sharpening them for the palisade. The whole army worked, except for a number of men who scouted for the enemy in the Moran hills.  Owen finally collapsed on his blanket in a wall tent with the rest of his unit late that evening, after slurping down a thin stew. He couldn’t wait for the women to arrive from the mountain. He needed real food. He fell asleep hungry.
                Kallan marched late into the night, the pack on his back chafing his shoulders. They had marched through rocky forest for the whole day, and his feet were beginning to blister from the hours of hiking.  He set down his pack, and rolled out his blanket on the slope, his feet downhill.
                He slowly lowered his sore muscles onto the blanket, looking around at the fading grey of the surrounding trees. The ground was damp from melting snow, and the wind rustled through the pines, and he lay there in the darkness for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the other men setting up around him. He brought out some of his rationed hardtack and dried venison and took a few bites, trying to fill his hungry stomach.
                He lay in the dim light as the moon began to rise, trying to get comfortable on the uneven ground. He sat up and moved his blanket, smoothing a few rocks and twigs out of his way, then piled dry needles to make a sort of mattress, before curling up and falling asleep.
                He awoke early, stiff once again from sleeping on the hard ground. He had worn a gap in the middle of his pine needle mattress, and had ended up sleeping on the hard ground most of the night. He twisted his neck in both directions, resulting in two loud cracks, then arched his back to get another crack. He felt a bit less tight now, so he rolled up his blanket and began to quickly pack. He looked around.
                In the dim early morning light men were readying their supplies. A few of the commanders were going from man to man, waking them. Kallan quickly stood up and stretched again, slipping his cloak around his shoulders to keep warm in the cool early air. He lifted his pack on his back, wincing a bit as it chafed his shoulders. He adjusted it a bit, clasping the leather front strap to keep it from slipping off his shoulders, and then waited.
                It did not take long for the soldiers to be ready, and soon they were on the march again.  They marched for most of the day, through rocky hillside forests, fairly open, and clear. Kallan could see that it had burned fairly recently, taking away the undergrowth. It was open, and free, and he could see the hills slope outwards to the plains.
                By the middle of the day, the land began to level out, and soon they were hiking through pine forest, more thick, with meadows every so often. The rebels marched in scattered formation, as the forest was too thick to go in a formation. Kallan was on the front line, moving quickly, but carefully, watching for anything ahead.
                A few times he stopped, watching as a deer or rabbit jumped up and ran through the forest. It was mostly undisturbed, and animals were everywhere. Once Kallan thought he saw the flash of a red fox in the undergrowth, and stopped, looking after it, trying to see it again. It had disappeared. An owl occasionally hooted above, but the birds were silent. 
                Kallan steadied himself as he made his way over fallen logs and through the thick forest, but he noticed that it was beginning to thin. And it didn’t look natural. Logs had been cleared, and the stumps of trees made by axes were more common. He realized they were coming closer to the populated wood mills of Merten.
                It was late in the day when Kallan paused, and raised his hand silently. The men began to stop wondering what was going on. He looked around, and saw that the other men were stopping as well, listening. They could hear the sound of axes as well. Faintly, in the distance, through the trees, axes on wood. They were almost to Merten.
                They made their way slowly now, careful to not make noise. Surprisingly the whole army was fairly stealthy, and there was only the occasional jingle of chainmail, or the crunch of wood. It wasn’t long before something moving caught Kallan’s eye. He once again raised his arm, stopping, and quickly moved over to Commander Laxley.
                “I think I saw our first lumberman.” He pointed through the trees, just as a loud thwack rang, and a bit of light glistened off an axe blade. “See?”
                Laxley nodded, and turned, summoning his unit forward.
                “We take as many of these men as we can alive, but don’t let them alert the others. If they fight back, kill them as silently as possible. These men are strong, and if we can recruit them, it will be a bonus to our cause.” He glanced back as Commander Quil and General Wesley joined the group.  The General spoke out.
                “Keeganson, it is my duty to test you.” He looked around. “Take ten men, and move forward. Move stealthily, and take as many prisoners as possible. Stay silent. If you make noise, well, it could spoil the siege.” He pulled several men forward, and then turned to Commander Quil. “Take your men to the road, and set up a boundary. Don’t let anyone in and out. The rest of us will continue to move through the forest, spreading out and taking the mills. Keep the messengers moving between us.”
                Kallan turned, and made his way forward, moving slowly through the trees. He lowered himself to hands and knees, hiding behind stumps and undergrowth. He heard the steady sound of a rasping saw, and more men became visible in the trees. He paused, and looked back. Ten man were under his command. He thought for a moment, then turned to his men. “Wait here.” He dashed forward when the nearest woodsman’s back was turned, and hid behind a tree. The man was only a few feet away now.
                He jumped forward, and wrapped his arm around the man’s head, covering his mouth. He dropped his axe in surprise, and Kallan smashed his dagger handle into his head, knocking him senseless. He dragged him back through the undergrowth, and tied him with a short length of rope. He whispered quietly.
                “There are about a dozen men scattered through the forest ahead of us, along with a few horse-drawn sledges. Carefully move up, staying hidden, and take them out one by one. We are better armed if it comes to fighting, but stealth would be better.” 
                He turned, and began to crawl forward, and saw his men doing the same, each choosing a target.”
                A burly looking man moved forward, looking around. “Hey? Where’d ya go?” He looked around, seeing the missing man’s axe leaning on a tree, and looked around. Kallan lay still a few feet away, hidden by a fallen log.  The man turned and yelled back to the other men.
                “Hey, Jolans gone!” He looked around, and then looked down at the almost completed cut in the tree. “He’s probably taking a leak, let’s wait a few minutes.” He shrugged and began to finish the cut. Then his legs were knocked out from under him, and the rear of the axe hit him in the head. Kallan dragged him carefully through the undergrowth, and then heard a few voices. “Eh, you! Where’d you get to?”
                Kallan winced. They were beginning to miss the men. A short cry hit his ears, and he lifted his head. The men were all looking over in a different direction. Kallan swore, and quickly tied the man, before looking around. Another soldier pulled a man up, and Kallan tied him, watching through the undergrowth. They sat there for a moment, and then Kallan jumped to his feet and drew his sword.
                He dashed through the undergrowth, cutting brush out of his way. He heard metal on metal, and headed for the sound, seeing movement through the trees. Fighting. He dove into the fray.
                He knocked aside a large man, knocking him over the head with the heavy hilt of his sword. He winced at the unbalanced piece of metal in his hand. I need a new sword.  He parried a blow from a woodcutting axe and then grabbed the handle, twisting it out of the man’s hand and slamming the hammer like bludgeon into the man’s forehead. He dropped like a stone, and Kallan turned. Three of his men stood nearby, holding drawn weapons. He looked over the lumberjacks. One was dead, but the others looked to be only senseless.
                He glanced back, and saw the glimmer of a bit of mail. He waved his hand. He glanced forward, and then turned around as the men he had been sent gathered around. He looked down.
                “Tie them up, and bring them all together.”
                A couple of men went off to find the other captured woodsmen. 
                Kallan looked them all over, then walked off in the direction they had come from. He stood in the shadow of the trees for a few moments, looking out into a clearing. Stumps spread in several directions, and a well used road led off through them. And ahead of him, Kallan could see the wood workings of Merten.
                This was only one of the crews of woodsmen. All along the borders of the giant clearing, there were crews hard at work. Kallan knelt beside at large stump, staying hidden.  He looked across at the sledges pulling logs through the stump fields. All along, he could see men clearing stumps where the trees had been cut down. He looked further, and saw mills. Many mills, stretching across the curving river. And even further, he could see Merten itself, surrounded by a high stockade wall.
                He crept back, a plan forming in his mind. His men still stood, guarding the captured men.
                “The whole city is surrounded by these men. There is also the river blocking our way, although if we take the bridges quickly, they will not be able to use them as a defense point.” He looked at one of his men. “What’s your name?”
                “Lorgan, sir.”
                Kallan felt a bit odd being called sir by a man double his age, but he just smiled.
                “Lorgan, go back and tell the commanders what I just told you. And tell them that we’ll need to take the bridges and the mills before the city.” Lorgan turned and quickly made his way through the brush. Kallan turned. “Stay here.” He made his way out, and looked out of the woods. The closest crews were some way off, so he crept forward and cut the harnesses of the horses. He quickly unhooked them and led them into the trees, leaving the sledges behind.
                He gave them over to his men, then saw a glimmer of chainmail. He stopped, watching as the rebel army materialized out of the trees.  Commander Laxley met him.
                “We’re surrounding the city. We’re going to capture as many woodsmen as possible, before rushing the bridges and mills. We should be able to keep the river, even if they launch a counterattack.”
                He led forward. The men continued to move slowly. To his right and left, Kallan heard the short cries of the woodsmen being taken captive and killed. The army massed at the edges of the trees. Kallan looked across the edge of the trees.  A long whistle echoed to his left, and then it was repeated, until the whistle sounded across the entire fringe. Then it turned to a battle cry.
                They charged. Men looked up from their work and ran. Surprise and fear showed that no messengers had yet reached Merten.  Kallan ran, outdistancing a number of the men, until he reached the bridge.  There was no resistance.  His feet thumped on the wooden bridge as he crossed, men all around him. 
                He turned, rushing toward the nearest mill. He could hear the loud noise of the saws as he knocked open the door. Several men hauled lumber, sawing the logs into boards, and most were oblivious as the door crashed in and several rebels charged into the room. Kallan paused for a moment, surprised by the gears and belts that filled the room, but then resumed his push forward.
                One of the workers turned in time to see him, but he was knocked backwards into a pile of lumber. Kallan grabbed another man as he pushed a board through the saw, and slammed him into a supporting pillar. He jumped over the platform as the workers realized the threat. Kallan glanced back to see a man jumping off a ladder from the loft and knocked on of the soldiers forward, onto the platform with the saw. 
                The sharp spinning blade nicked the man’s arm, and he cried out in pain as blood splattered. He rolled away, as Kallan turned and hacked at one of the spinning belts.  He did not expect the sudden jerk as the belt broke and sent his sword spinning off into the gears. He heard a crack as the gears were stopped, but he could see the sword bending. He jumped to the side, avoiding a man with a large cudgel who had appeared from a door behind him.
                He dodged, jumping up and grabbing the momentarily still gear above his head, and kicking the man in the face. He fell backwards, as Kallan felt the slight movement of the gear. He dropped as it began to turn in tiny intervals. He glanced at where his sword was lodged in the gears. It was bending, and it looked like something was going to break soon. He looked around. Several men were unconscious, while the four rebels who had entered the mill were busy tying them up.
                 Kallan glanced at his sword once more, and then out of the corner of his eye saw something hurtling towards him. He turned, but saw the man he had knocked down charging. As Kallan tripped and fell, he heard the loud noise of metal breaking and the gears began to spin again. The massive cudgel clipped the gear, sending it flying, and the man was hit by a shard of metal.
                Kallan rolled to his feet, and vaulted over the table, following the other men out the door. He looked across the fields.  Where the farms spread across the fields, people fled for the city, and the rebels formed a perimeter. Captured men were brought together as the rebels surrounded the city, watching as the gates closed behind the fleeing villagers.
                Kallan looked about for a weapon, his eyes finally settling on the only semi dangerous object nearby. He picked up the axe, meant for splitting wood. It would suffice for the moment until he could find a new weapon.  He rested it on his shoulder and looked up at the city. General Wesley had somehow acquired a horse, and he rode through the men.
                “Keep a distance from the city, but surround it.” He glanced toward the tall palisade wall, and turned back to the men. “The men of Merten are some of the best archers in the empire. So stay out of range if you value your life. We will wait until a plan is formulated before we attack.” He continued on his way, relaying his instructions to all the men. They began to set up, some sitting down on the fields, and some standing guard over the men they had captured. Kallan sat down, his back against the nearest mill, looking across the fields.
                Inside Merten, a group of men sat on top of the central wooden keep, looking out across the fields, where an army was assembling. One thin man with a longbow on his back turned to the other strong looking woodsmen.
                “No red in sight. Unless this is some ploy, that is not the imperial army. How they could have known anyway, I don’t know. The whole city is on our side.” He craned his sharp eyes as he looked at the surrounding army. He began to chuckle. One of the other men looked at him questioningly.
                “We may just be in luck.” He continued to laugh. “It is possible, indeed likely, that we are not the only people with this same hatred, this same dislike, of our masters.” He leaned on the wall. “We’ll raise a white flag, and I will go down to meet with them.” He turned to go down the stairs.
                “What if they attack?”
                “If they are the empire, it will be a warning to all of you to ready for battle. If they are not the empire, I am sure they will have higher standards.” He turned and moved briskly down the stairs.
                He mounted in the courtyard, holding a flag with a white undershirt tied onto it. He rode down the hill, into the city. His fellow citizens watched him, praying that their rash leader would not meet his death. He reached the gate, and called a command for it to open. He rode out, his hair flowing in the breeze.
                Kallan sat quietly, drawing absentmindedly in the dirt, watching the city. The day was growing surprisingly warm for February, and he took in the rays of sun happily, letting them soothe his weary body. Suddenly he started at a bit of movement at the gate of Merten.
                He stood, looking as the gates opened, and a lone figure came out. A piece of white cloth flew from a staff, as he cantered toward them. Kallan hefted the splitting axe to his shoulder and trotted toward where General Wesley had set up a command post on the road. He reached it, as the commanders and the General watched the rider come closer. 
                He stopped a ways off, and sat, as if waiting. General Wesley stepped forward.
                “Wherefore do you come, and what is your wish?”
                A voice called back. “I come before your army unarmed, and I wish to speak to your leader. Unarmed.” He held his arms out, showing he held nothing but the white flag. “I will wait here.” He dismounted, and with a thrust, stuck the flag into the ground next to the road. General Wesley turned to his commanders.
                “Quil, and Keeganson, come with me.” He looked at Laxley. “Tell the men we are discussing terms of surrender with the city.” Laxley nodded to the short, stolid leader, and turned as the General stripped his sword belts, and set down his shield. Kallan set down his axe, and followed Wesley forward.  They walked steadily toward the messenger. As they came closer, Kallan examined him.
                He leaned coolly on his flag, holding the reins to his horse in a way that showed he feared no man. He wore a leather vest, and the heavy green tunic of a woodsman. His long brown hair was swept back, flowing freely, and stubble graced his chin and upper lip. He was young, rugged, and calm.
                Wesley stopped a few feet away. “What is the meaning of this?”
                The man stepped forward, holding out a hand familiarly, as if he had no fear. “Elliot of Merten, General. For that is what you seem to be. Do I lie?”
                General Wesley paused uncomfortably, and then took the outstretched hand. The two men stopped for a moment, the older and younger seeming to test their strength for a moment, and then stepped back. 
                “Nay, you do not lie. I am General Wesley.” He glanced back. “And this is our army.”
                “And what is your aim?”
                “To take this city for the rebellion.”
                The man stepped back.
                “The rebellion, you say? I was unaware that there were others on our side. We seemed alone…” He paused looking over the rebel army. “It seems that we were wrong.”
                General Wesley looked him in the eye. “You say that you are on our side. What would that be?”
                “The side of the enemies of the empire.”
                General Wesley looked at the young man. “The city is yours, then?”
                The man nodded. “Aye. The homebred archers of the city, like me, led the woodsmen against the imperial troops. As they had drawn much of their local strength from our local men, they were not able to put up a solid fight, and we took the city with comparative ease.”
                “How long has this been?”
                “It was three days ago now… we have intercepted all the imperial messengers, but soon they will grow suspicious.” He scratched the back of his head. “We have held council on what to do next, but the constant vote seemed to be to move into the mountains. Now I think the plan may change.”
                “This will be glad tidings for our highest commanders.” He looked up at Merten. “Many lives have been lost already, and if we can recruit new soldiers, it will greatly strengthen our ranks.”
                The younger man swept his hand through his hair once more. “Our council will meet with you.” He turned, pulling the white flag out of the ground. He turned once more, looking at the Generals two companions. “And these two?”
                The general introduced them. “This is commander Quil, one of our top commanders. And this is Kallan Keeganson, who distinguished himself valiantly in the battle of Ildiv.” Kallan stood up a bit straighter at this. The young archer smiled, mounting his horse. He looked over Kallan curiously, as if he wondered what this lad had done to distinguish himself.
                “It is good to meet you all. Any enemy of our great enemy is a friend indeed. I will return.”
                He turned and loped back toward Merten. Kallan turned to General Wesley.  
                “This is good, right?”
                Wesley nodded. “Indeed.” He even smiled a bit. “It is indeed a pleasant surprise. I expected another battle, but it looks like instead we will gain another ally.” He turned and walked back toward the army. Kallan followed him, grinning despite himself.
                Owen stood for a moment, wiping the sweat from his face, and looked across the fortification. A palisade wall had been erected further back, around the central command area. Tents were erected everywhere, and a long trench was being dug all around the camp. Owen held a sledgehammer, and was busy hammering stakes into the trench, to prevent enemy horsemen charging the camp.
                He glanced up at the Moran hills, a distance up ahead. They stretched right up into the foothills to his left, and then off into the distance out toward the plains. A large, flat plain led up to them, covered in brush and sharp spines. Owen climbed up to the top of the mound, crawling around the sharpened stakes, and grabbed another stake. He began to hammer it into the freshly dug dirt.
                He looked over his shoulder back at the hills again. He felt like he shouldn’t turn his back. Something appeared on the top of the hills. He turned suddenly, dropping his hammer and climbing out of the trench and looking up at the figure. A man on horse, he could tell. A scout. He heard his commanders gruff voice.
                “Owen, you can rest for a moment, but finish a few more stakes.” Owen, turned his head. The man had turned out to be less ferocious than he had looked. He was actually quite a kind man, although some of the men in the unit murmured that he was a berserker in battle. Owen looked back.
                “Commander, look.” Owen pointed up at the figure on the hill. Redwill squinted.
                “Sure enough.” He looked at Owen. “You rested enough to take a message to the General?”
                Owen jumped down into the trench and scrambled up the mound to where his commander stood, holding a handful of stakes.
                “Yes sir.” Owen was eager to get something different after the hours of hammering. His hands were beginning to blister.
                “Tell him that we’ve seen an enemy scout. They’re beginning to monitor us. If they’re prepared, there’s a good change we could be attacked soon.” He turned from watching the figure as it wheeled its horse and disappeared over the ridge. “Tell him that I would advise sending out our own scouts to discover if they are moving forces through the hills.”
                Owen nodded, and walked briskly off toward the command tent. He moved through the camp, where men were busy setting up. He moved past all the tents, and then into the command palisade. Several tents were spread throughout, but the central one was obvious.  The blue standard, edged with white, flew above the largest tent.
                Two guards stood outside the entry flap, and Owen stopped as they turned towards him.
                “Name and intention.”
                “Owen Martinson, I must speak to the General. I have a message from commander Redwill.”
                One of the guards nodded, and ducked into the tent. He emerged a minute later.
                “Come with me.” He pushed open the tent flap, and Owen walked in. 
                A long table was set up inside, along with a cot and some other sparse furnishings. The ground had been cleared and flattened, leaving a flat, hard packed surface.  Owen walked in, looking at all the men at the table. A few commanders were there, once again studying maps. General Corwin looked up as he came in.
                “Owen, it is good to see you.” He smiled. “What do you have for us?”
                “I have a message from Commander Redwill. I sighted an enemy scout on the ridge ahead.” He paused. “Commander Redwill says this could mean they are taking stock to prepare an attack. He said he would council you to send out our own scouts and see what we can of their movements.”
                Corwin nodded. “Thank you, Owen.” He looked around. “We will send out scouts.” He looked up at Owen, and he knew that he was being dismissed. He bowed his head and quickly turned and made his way out of the tent. He quickly moved across the camp, back to the trenches.
                He glanced up on the ridge again, but it was bare. No shape broke the sharp outline of the ridge. It was beginning to get late. The sun was dipping closer to the mountains. Owen looked to where his unit was still at work, finishing the stakes. Owen lifted one, and moved into the trench, hammering it in as best he could with his fatigued muscles.
                The sun went behind the mountains as the trench was finally completed. Owen looked across the camp in the dim light as campfires began to spring up in the darkness. Owen followed Commander Redwill as he led the men back to their campsite. Owen ate a quick dinner of dry bread, then slipped under his blanket and fell asleep.

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