Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Chapter 30

Chapter 30
Owen awoke early the next morning to Commander Redwill shaking his shoulder.
                “Owen, you are wanted at the command tent.”
                Owen sat up and slid out from under his blanket. He wrapped his cloak tightly around himself, and then followed his commander.
                The sun had not risen, so it was still cold. They walked through silent rows of tents, no one awake but a few sentries.  Owen yawned, and Redwill looked back at him with a bit of a smile.
                “You’re going to need to wake up, lad.”
                Owen looked at him. “Just a bit tired, I’ll be fine.”
                Redwill continued walking. “You’ll need to be fully alert on this mission.”
                Owen continued to follow him through the camp until they reached the central pavilion. The guards moved aside for Redwill, and they ducked into the tent.
                It was lit by a number of candles. The commanders and General Corwin sat all around, along with several other soldiers. Corwin looked up with a smile.
                “Ah, Owen. Very good.” He looked around at the five soldiers. “A few of you have been chosen by your commanders to do a mission for us.” He pointed at the map. Owen bent over to see it.
                “We are here.” Owen squinted in the dim light, but could see the lines of ink showing the Moron hills. Several markings showed the known enemy watchtowers, and in the top right corner, just beyond the hills, was a small village. The great road was marked down the middle, and fresh markings showed the rebel encampment. 
                Corwin moved his gloved hand up into the hills.  “There are several watch towers over looking the road here, here, and here.” He pointed them out. “There are several well used passes in the hills.” He traced each on out with his finger. “If imperial forces are on the move, they will most likely move through these ravines and passes in the hills.” He looked up at them.
                “Each of you will be scouting a different area of the hills.” He brought out several small pieces of cloth. “Each one of these has a map of the hills on it, with the main passes marked out.” He handed one to each, then moved back to the main map, and began to tell where each man would go. Owen listened carefully as Corwin outlined where he would be going, and what passes he would look at.
                “You will find horses just outside. Take a small amount of supplies, and light weapons. Dress lightly and quietly. Move out before sunrise.”
                The men stirred, then turned and made their way out of the tent. Several men stood there, holding horses. Owen was handed reins, and he mounted, making his way back across the camp to his own tent. He shivered a bit. The moon was still high in the sky.  He slipped into his tent and brought out his old leather jerkin and his brown rebel tunic and slipped them over his head.  He strapped on his daggers and slung his bow and quiver over his shoulder. He slipped on leather gloves and bracers, than wrapped his cloak around his shoulders and slipped back out of the tent, climbing into the saddle and trotting toward the camp entrance, where there was an opening in the trench.
                Owen’s horse nickered quietly as they moved through the rows of tents. Finally, Owen reached the trench. Several guards sat around it, talking quietly around a small fire. He trotted past them with a small salute, out onto the plain.
                He pushed his heels lightly into his horses sides and it began to move a bit more quickly. The thin layer of leather shifted under him, moving with the horse. He pushed his heels down in the stirrups and straightened his back, lifting his head as the sky began to slowly lighten, the deep blue of night beginning to turn to a sea blue, and the stars began to vanish. Owen looked north, and set his eye on the Arrow Star, following it north as it slowly faded into the blue of the sky.
                Owen trotted up the steep slope of the ridge, zigzagging so as to avoid tiring his horse too quickly.  He glanced back at the camp. He could see the flickering campfires begin to make the camp come to life. He looked out on it one more time before reaching the summit. Before him stretched the hills of Moran. The ridge sloped downward before him into a large basin, then thinned into a valley that disappeared into the hills. He rode down into the basin. The wind blew lightly, and he wrapped his cloak more tightly around his shoulders, and then lightly kicked his horse into a fast trot.
Frost lightly covered the dry grass, causing the world to shimmer as the sky began to grow lighter. The frost crunched under his horses hooves, breaking the silence of the early morn. Owen scanned his surroundings, but the valley was still and quiet. He caught a glimpse of a small cottontail rabbit, but that was the only sign of life in the basin.
He made his way toward the pass, but instead of entering it, he rode up the hill next to it. He made sure not to outline himself against the sky but got a good position so he could see the surrounding hills and into the pass. The sun began to let a bit of golden light over the distant horizon, breaking into the blue. He could see more clearly across the hills now, including two of the tall watchtowers off to the east.  
They were distant, and small, but he could see them, and he knew that the road was just on the other side of them. He looked to his left, west, up toward the mountains. The hills grew steadily steeper and taller, until they became rocky and covered with trees and merged into the mountains. He looked across the pass, and then pulled his horse to a stop.
His eye caught movement. He watched the place from which it had come for several minutes. Another movement caught his eye, and he realized that there was a person standing on the other side of the pass, on the edge of a ridge in the side. The figure turned and ran over the edge of the ridge. Owen knew no time was to be wasted.
He kicked his horse into a gallop, moving down into the gully as quickly as he could. His horse leaped the small stream, and he turned, making his way up the hill to the place where he had seen the man. His horse stumbled a bit as it made its way up the slope, but continued to climb the ridge sticking into the pass. He reached the top and galloped down toward the figure.
A small campsite was set. The small figure had put out the fire and thrown a few supplies over the back of a horse, and was readying to mount. Owen charged down toward the figure. It had to be the same spy that they had seen before. The short figure finally managed to mount, and expertly brought his horse into a gallop.
Owen gave chase, anxious to not let the scout reach the enemy. The horseman headed directly into the bottom of the pass, following the stream.  Owen followed, his horse breathing hard and tensing with the thrill of the chase. The cloaked man turned his head, glancing back at Owen, but he could not see his face.
The valley began to turn into a ravine, the clay and sand walls rising up. It soon towered over their heads, and it twisted and turned. Owen could see caves off into the sides of the canyon, but he continued down the main branch, trying to keep up with the quickly moving rider.  Owen glanced to his left and right and could not see any easy way out of the canyon. He moved forward, following the trickling stream. The tail of the scout’s horse skirted around the next corner, and Owen kicked his horse, trying to catch up. 
Owen suddenly pulled up as he came round the corner. He could see the horse on the ground, and the rider was on the ground. A large patch of slick mud was between them, and Owen could see the skid marks where the horse had hit the slippery surface. The rider was still, not moving where he lay crumpled on the other side. The horse struggled for a moment, then rolled over on its side and clumsily stood. Owen jumped off his horse and moved across the mud patch.
The horse did not seem to have injured itself, but the crumpled pile of clothes on the ground did not seem in as good of shape. Owen looked above the unconscious figure, and realized that he had been slammed against the rocks directly ahead. He dropped his horse’s reins and walked slowly and carefully toward the person on the ground. Imperial scout or not, this person should be kept alive.
The horse was sniffing its rider, and somehow Owen got the idea it was concerned. It started as he drew close, and moved a few feet away.
The figure was wrapped in a heavy brown cloak, dirty and ragged. Its face was covered by the hood. A bow was strapped to his back. The person was clad in a dirty homespun tunic, and heavy cloth leggings. Worn leather riding boots were up to its knees.
Owen reached down and pulled the figure into a sitting position against the rocks. A torn piece of cloth was tied over the bottom half of the figures face. He reached up and pulled it off, flipping the hood off. Long, dark brown hair fell from the hood, and Owen fell back, surprised by the face of a girl.
Owen sat there, shocked, for a few seconds, just looking at the girl. She looked fairly ordinary, not someone he would have picked out in a crowd for her looks, but she was not ugly. Her skin was not pale, but a shade darker than his. There were light colored streaks in her dark brown hair near the tips. She was dressed very plainly, and her clothes were travel worn.
Once his initial surprise had worn off, Owen moved forward, and gingerly lifted her, realizing he needed to get her to somewhere safe. He looked around, and saw one of the nearby caves. The entrance seemed just large enough to fit the two horses. Owen carried her toward it, and moved inside.  It was not the stone caves of the mountains, smooth and sculpted. This was sand and clay, and it was beautiful in its own way. He glanced back out, and saw her horse watching him, its ears pinned forward alertly.
Owen could see where the water had rushed, making the tunnel. For that was more of what it was. It was narrow, just wide enough to fit a horse. Light filtered in from above in several places where the tunnel expanded all the way up to outside.
Owen continued, careful not to knock the girl against the sides of the tunnel. He followed it, until it came out into an open area. The sky came in from above, and the clay overhung the edges. There were several more caves. His arms were beginning to grow tired, so he quickly went from one to another, looking to find the one that seemed the most promising. The one on the right seemed to be the best choice. He ducked inside and lay her down on the sandy ground.
“I’ll be right back.” He said, before reminding himself that she was unconscious and couldn’t hear him. He turned around and made his way quickly back through the tunnel. He was glad he remembered the way, because there were many tunnels and paths. He came out of the tunnel to find both horses waiting. His horse had wandered a little ways off, but the girl’s horse was close by. It was a fairly small bay, with a large white blaze down the middle of her face. Her mane was long and shaggy, and she was fairly hairy.
“Come on, girl. She needs you to help her. Yep, that’s it, c’mon. I’m not going to hurt ya…” he spoke like this as the horse took a few more steps closer.  He moved a bit closer, and it stopped, looking at him. Then it stepped forward quickly, moving toward him.
He reached out, happy that the horse was not going to be hard to catch. It pushed on him, seeming to be looking for food. He grabbed the reins as it nuzzled him. He laughed, and it pushed him back. He reached into his drawstring pouch and brought out a small wafer of dry bread, holding it out. The horse ate it quickly, and then began to look for more. He chuckled and led it toward the cave.
He quickly led it through the tunnel, and then let it loose in the open area to graze on the sparse grass. He went back and grabbed his own horse, and soon they were both cropping the grass in the open area.  He made his way in to check on the girl. She was stirring, but she was still pretty well knocked out. Owen could see the lump on her head where she had hit the rocks.
                He felt her forehead. It was warm, but not too hot. He was reassured that she did not have a fever, and then went to see what he could find in her bags. He slid the saddle off her horses and carried into the cave. He set it up to keep dirt out of the padding, setting the blankets down. He pulled the girl onto a blanket for a bit more comfort.  He looked outside.
                It was still morning, but the sun was now above them. The morning was going by quickly. The horses grazed outside.  He turned back to her saddle, and looked it over.
                The worn leather was finely carved. He brought his hand over the curling designs, feeling the grain of the leather. A large letter G was carved into the leather, and the symbol was repeated on the leather saddle bag. The leather cinch was carved with a name.
                “Willow.” He read quietly. He wondered if it was the name of horse or rider.  He looked at her again. She didn’t look like an imperial scout. He didn’t think she was. He unhooked the clasp on his cloak and threw it over her, before beginning to rummage through the saddle bag.
                Inside was a long cloth bag. He opened it and poured it all out on the ground in front of him. There were several packages, a long dagger, and several water-skins.  He sniffed the packages. They seemed to be food, so he opened them and looked. One held some hard tack, made of dark wheat.  Another held dried meat, and a third held some unknown dried fruit.
                He quickly repacked them, and opened the water-skins. Two were filled with a light ale, and one with water.   He took a quick sip of ale to quench his thirst, and then turned to the unconscious girl.  He moved closer, thinking to give her a drink. He slowly brought the skin to her lips, but they were closed tightly  He reached out and gently pulled them apart, letting a bit of the ale trickle between her lips.
                She stirred, and he pulled away awkwardly, spilling a few drops of ale. He quickly re-corked the skin, and then shoved it with the rest of the supplies. He stepped outside, and looked around. He felt uncomfortable leaving the girl alone, but it was his duty to continue his mission.
                He thought for a moment, then made a quick resolution and readied himself to ride. It was no longer cold, so he left his cloak with the girl, and led his horse out of the tunnel. He pulled out his dagger and marked a large X on the side of the cliff, next to the entrance, then sheathed it and mounted. He rode back down the canyon, and upon finding a path, made his way out and back into the hills. He glanced back one more time to remind himself of the exact place, and then rode to the top of the nearest hill.
                The sun was now high in the sky. It was quickly growing warm again, and he was glad he wasn’t wearing his cloak. He kicked his horse into a trot, and began to ride along the ridge, keeping the distant watchtowers in sight. The hills were silent except for the occasional animal. He saw a pair of tawny colored wolves, of what kind he did not know, small, and worn, but they moved away as soon as they saw him.
                Sometime in the early afternoon, he paused and ate a bit of jerky and half a piece of hardtack. It was a meager meal, but he knew that until he shot some game, he would have to only eat what he had brought with him. He slid off his horse, and dropped the reins, climbing up the nearby slope.
                He had been moving steadily north for several hours, and he knew he had to be close to the middle of the hills. He sat down on the hard dirt, the dry sharp grass poking his back. As he looked across the hills, his mind began to wander, and he thought of his next plan of action.
                Before his encounter with the girl, he had thought to ride north, and scout the hills, then make a wide circle and move back south to the rebel camp. It would have taken him a few days, and he would have had to camp at least once.  Now, he was not sure. The girl had taken a knock on the head, but he was sure she would be fine once she woke. She was well hidden in the cave, and he saw no need to return, especially now that he had a mission.
                He looked down the hill in front of him, and noticed several large rabbits nibbling underneath the bushes. He thought for a moment, before slipping his bow off his back and stringing it. He pulled two arrows from his quiver, holding one in his right hand with the bow, and nocking an arrow with the other.  He moved slowly down the steep hill, keeping himself hidden behind the brush as much as possible.
                He sunk to one knee as he drew closer to the rabbits. They saw him, but did not run away yet. He brought the string to his cheek, and let fly. The arrow caught one of the rabbits in the neck, and it flipped over, writhing in the dirt and squealing a high pitched sound, then stopped suddenly. The other rabbits disappeared. Owen made his way down the hill toward the motionless animal, and picked it up by its hind legs.
                It was quite large, much greater than any he had ever seen in the mountains, and it had long ears, tipped with black fur. He slung it over his shoulder, and made his way back over the hill. His horse was where he had left it, grazing, biting at the yellowed grass in an attempt to find something worth eating. He tied the rabbit to the saddlebag, and mounted again to continue north.
                He moved through the hills for a while as the sun made its way across the sky. It became unnaturally warm for the time of year, and he looked to the northwest. A massive front of clouds was forming over the mountains. Owen cursed his luck as he realized what it meant. Of course. The warm weather was only being pushed in front of the storm. He continued to make his way north, generally following the course of the ravine.  He stayed at the top of the line of hills, giving him a good vantage point in both directions.  
                The sky above was cloudless, but the wide bank of grey clouds to the north continued to grow. Fairly late in the afternoon, Owen reached one of the central hills of Moran. It was taller than the rest, sloping down toward the south, and descending steeply on the north. Owen trotted up the slope quickly, glancing back down towards where the ravine sloped to the northeast.
                He reached the highest point of the hill, and looked across the hills. From here he could see all the towers, and the line of the road, weaving through the hills.  Owen looked out across the hills between the road and the large hill, but the only sign of life was a small herd of antelope moving south. They disappeared behind a ridge, and he turned north.
                He leaned forward on his saddle, and pulled his right foot out of the stirrup, resting it on top of the saddle.  He began to scan the hills ahead, looking for any sign of the red tunics of the empire, or any flash of sunlight on metal. The clouds were beginning to move south, towards him, and he could see the dark line of shadow where the clouds began to cover the sun.
                The hills only continued a little while north, before sloping down into brush covered plains, spreading eastward. To the west, they came right up to the foothills, soon becoming rocky and covered in pines.  Just north of the hills, he could see a bit of smoke rising from the houses of Moransford. He shifted his eyes east again, looking to the north of the hills. 
                He could see nothing. He glanced up once more at the growing bank of clouds, which was moving quickly closer. The grass blew like waves on an ocean, and the wave grew closer and closure, until a chill wind struck him full in the face, and he shivered. The storm was coming in, like a monster extending feelers of cloud forward. A few thoughts raced through his mind, then his plan changed, and he wheeled his horse back towards the ravine.
                The wind began to blow harder, and he decided to take cover.  He quickly moved into the ravine as dust began to blow, and continued at a fast pace as the storm overtook him.  He slowed his horse to a trot, moving close to the edge of the ravine. The wind whistled around him, and he shivered, kicking his horse into a canter.
                By the time he reached the large X he had carved in the side of the canyon, snow had begun to fall around him. He slid off the horse and pulled it quickly into the tunnel. When he came out the other side, the snow was pouring through the opening in the roof. It was wet, leaving a spot of water wherever it fell on him. He quickly slid the saddle and blanket off his horse, and moved into the cave.
                It took a moment for his eyes to adjust as he entered the dim room. He set down the saddle, and untied the rabbit. It was battered, but it would still be fit to eat. He moved back out of the cave, and looked up at the sky. Snow was tumbling down now, and the wind was making it into a blizzard.
                He walked to the tunnel and went through, making his way back into the snow. He covered his face with his hand, wishing he had brought his cloak. The wind whipped through the canyon, whistling and blowing the snow against him. He pulled out his hatchet, and went as quickly as he could to one of the small stunted trees in the canyon. He began to hack off the branches, breaking them to a smaller size. He filled his arms, and dumped them inside the tunnel, going back a few times for more loads. He carried as much as he could back to the cave, stacking it in the entrance. The horses were now huddled under the overhang, attempting to keep out of the snow.
                By now it was almost completely dark. Owen grabbed several handfuls of dry grass from outside the tunnel, and put it in a loose ball in an open spot in the center of the cave. He got several of the smaller branches and made a small structure of wood, then brought a few larger pieces in. He got his flint and steel out of the pouch on his belt, shivering, and began to scrape away. It only took a few strikes before a spark caught in the grass and began to smolder.
                He took the grass up in his hands and blew on it, until the spark caught flame, and began to burn.  He shoved it into the sticks, which promptly caught fire, and began to burn. He added a bit more grass, and it flamed up. He added some of the branches, until the fire was burning. He was glad for the cave, as the wind did not cause him any trouble. He waited for it to heat up, warming his hands on the flickering flame. He glanced over at the girl.
                He was surprised she was not yet awake, and his prompted him to be concerned. He stood and walked over, pulling her over closer to the fire. He shivered, and brought his saddle blanket over. He draped it over her, and took back his cloak, clasping it on.
                He brought out his hunting knife, and began to skin the rabbit. He went about it quietly, and threw the innards out into the darkness.  He stuck the animal on his dagger, and then held it out over the now hot fire. He grabbed another branch, and put it on the fire.  The rabbit began to slowly cook. The girl stirred.
                He looked up at her, and her eyes eased open. She blinked, and shaded her eyes from the fire. She tried to sit up, but didn’t seem to have the strength.  Owen set his improvised spit down, and moved over to her. She looked up at him, blinking.
                “Who…?” She said weakly, her lips cracking. Owen grabbed one of the water skins.
                “I’m a friend. Don’t worry.” He brought the skin to her lips. “Drink some, you’ll feel better.”
                She reached up and took the skin from him. “Thank you.” She drank a few sips of ale, and then set it down beside her, weakly putting the cork back in. Owen made sure it was tight, and then turned to his bag. “Are you hungry?”
                She turned her head, squinting. “A little…” Owen gave her a piece of hardtack. “I’ll have a rabbit done in a moment.”
                She ate it. “Thanks.” She closed her eyes.  “Willow. Is Willow alright?”
                Owen glanced outside into the snowy ravine. “Your horse?”
                “Yes. She’s just outside.”
                She let out a sigh of relief, then wet her lips. “Water… do you have water?”
                “Aye.” Owen gave her the other water skin from her pack. She took a long draught.
                “Where am I?”
                “In the Moran hills, very near where you fell unconscious.”
                She brought a hand to her head and let out a small groan. “Oh…”
                Owen turned the rabbit on the coals. “What’s wrong?”
                “My head… it hurts… I can’t see… the light hurts…”
                Owen turned to her, wondering. She might be hurt worse than I thought….
                “Just keep your eyes closed then.” Owen pulled the now cooked rabbit out of the fire. “Are you cold?”
                He nodded. “Good. Do you want some rabbit?”
                “I’m fine.” 
                Owen looked at her, unsure. “Are you sure?”
                Owen shrugged and ripped a leg off, slowly beginning to gnaw on it.  It was tough meat, sticking in his teeth and taking a long time to chew. He looked out into the storm. The horses had come to the cave entrance, and he could see their dark shapes in the firelight. He slowly chewed, thinking. He glanced over at the girl.  She took another drink of ale.
                Owen grabbed his own water skin and took a draught to wash down the tough meat, then continued to the other leg. Soon there was very little meat left, and the pile of bones had grown.
                “Are you sure you don’t want the rest of this?”
                She shook her head.
                He shrugged. “I can’t have you dying of hunger before we get back to the rebellion?”
                She started. “The rebellion?”
                “You are one of them?”
                “Mmhmm.” He said, chewing on some of the marrow from the bones. 
                She sighed. “I thought you were one from the empire.”
                “No.” He looked at her. “I am from the rebellion.” He picked up the pile of bones and put them in the fire, and added another log, sending sparks upward. He leaned back on his saddle, and wrapped his cloak tightly around him.
                “It’s snowing outside.”
                She wrapped her cloak and the saddle blanket more tightly around herself, and shivered.
                 “Are you cold?”
                “A bit.”
                Owen went over and carefully pulled the saddle blanket she was laying on closer to the fire.  He couldn’t really explain why he was so protective of her, other than that he wanted to get her back to the rebellion, and he felt that the injury was his fault. He turned and began to busy his restless hands making a comfortable seat. He rubbed the ground into a small indentation, and then set one of the saddles up on end to make the back of the seat. He set it against the wall of the cave, and shoved the fire with his foot, getting it to sit better. Sparks flew out into the darkness. He laid another piece of wood on the fire, and then leaned back on the saddle.
                He looked at the girl. She was on her back, her eyes closed. He wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself, and looked out into the darkness where the snow swirled in through the opening above them. He was glad for the shelter. 


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