Kallan marched northwards, the young soldier, Collin, beside him. Now they were on the imperial highway, and they had no need for secrecy. The rebels controlled the road to the north, and the city to the south was theirs. Kallan glanced back at the battalion of archers several rows behind.
They were tough, muscular men, all clad in slightly different garb than the rest of the rebels. They wore an odd sort of armor, chiseled of wooden scales, on their torsos, held by leather straps. Their shoulders were covered in a heavy leather mantles, and they wore wooden greaves, and leather bracers. Longbows were strapped to their backs, and hatchets were at their waists.
Kallan had talked to a few of them, and had managed to gather a great deal more information than he had from their commander, Elliot. He was young, but he seemed to hold some sort of command over the men, even those older than he. Kallan had asked some of the men of Merten about him, and all they’d been able to tell him was that he was a hunter, and that he had trained with the local militia. Little more was known about him, save that he had appeared and led the uprising when the imperial rule grew too harsh. Kallan looked forward, to where the road left the forest and entered a sort of lightly forested area of foothills.
The rebel army marched on for the next day. By nightfall, they were around halfway back to the main camp. They were making slower progress, for although they were on the road, they also had acquired wagonloads of supplies and lumber in Merten. The large group of men surrounded the supplies, and set up camp.
Kallan set his bedroll next to the young man, Collin, who had deserted the empire. Kallan had come to trust him, and they had talked much on the long trek. They were quite similar in some ways, and Kallan was glad for a friend now that he was separated from Owen. They talked for a while, and ended up telling each other riddles until it grew late. Kallan rolled over, and fell asleep.
Owen did not venture outside the cave after his final foray out for firewood. The girl slept for a long time, and Owen drifted off a few times himself. He continued to put wood on the fire, though, for he knew that staying warm was the most important thing in this weather. Outside it was dark as pitch. The light of the fire would occasionally glint off the eyes of the horses.
Owen slipped out of the cave once, to get more firewood, but the wind buffeted him back, and he decided to wait it out. He knew if it continued, he would have to venture back out of the tunnel, but for now they had enough firewood to last till morning. He hoped it would bring the end of the storm.
Inside the small area outside, the snow began to drift. Although the wind did not enter the cave, the snow fell, and it began to fill. The horses pushed themselves as far under the overhang as they could, but their coats began to be frosty. Owen grew a bit worried about his own horse, but the girl’s horse, Willow, had a thick winter coat.
Owen finally rolled over, and fell asleep.
When he awoke, it seemed slightly lighter outside, but it was still dark. The blowing snow and thick clouds would have obscured the sun anyway, so he really could not tell. He sat up, a bit cold, and realized his fire was almost out. He sat up, and prodded it with his boot, then threw a few more pieces of wood on. The hot coals quickly caught the dry wood, and it flared up. He smiled as warmth and light blossomed across the cave.
He looked at the girl. He was surprised to see her eyes open, watching him. He sat up.
“A bit light-headed, but yes.”
She watched him carefully, looking him over for a moment.
“Name’s Owen.” He said a bit shortly, looking out into the blizzard.
“I’m Gwen.” He looked over at her. Gwen. Now he had a name for the face.
He looked out into the blizzard again. It didn’t show any sign of slowing down. He was tired, and he didn’t really feel like talking.
“I’m from out east.” She smiled. “A place called Ocih Basin. Small place, not many people know of it.” Owen nodded, remembering seeing the name on his map. He reached down to his satchel and brought it out, rolling it out on his leg.
“Where are you from?”
“North-west. Up in the mountains.” He wasn’t sure if he could trust her yet, and didn’t feel like revealing anything about the village. Even though, he thought bitterly, there isn’t much else anyone could do to it.
“Ah, I see. I came west looking for my father. See… he was taken by the empire… slaver raid, months ago…”
Owen looked up. She wasn’t smiling anymore.
“They took your father?”
“Mmmhmm.” She was quiet for a minute. “They came looking for slaves… they took a lot of the stronger men. They just rode off west… I heard them speak of the quarries of Drenna… but we didn’t even have a map. Mum didn’t like it… but I had to go after them.”
Owen watched her now, thoroughly interested.
“I rode west… and further west… I just kept going… I finally reached a city…” She sighed. “It was awful. So many people, crowded around…” She leaned back on the saddle blanket. She smiled. “I finally got away. It was… wonderful! But I still hadn’t found my father, or where he could be. Then some slavers saw me… I guess they decided I looked easy to catch…” She made a face in memory. “They chased me. I got away, of course. I’m a better rider, but I ended up down here, hiding. That’s when a man came out of nowhere chasing me, I came off Willow… and here I am.”
Owen nodded, looking a little sheepish.
“Chasing you… I thought you were an imperial soldier.”
She smiled. “Oh… don’t worry.”
“It is kind of my fault you got hurt…”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine now!”
Owen smiled. “Alright.”
He leaned back in his makeshift chair, thoughtful. His thoughts began to drift. He wondered where Nai was. He sighed. Nai. He didn’t know what to make of it… his feelings had begun to fade, but there was still something there. He wasn’t quite sure what. He just wished it hadn’t taken him so long to figure out the obvious.
He leaned back. “My village was destroyed by the empire.” Gwen looked at him, looking a bit surprised. Surprising himself, he began to talk, letting it all spill out. The attack, their chase, and the rebellion. He told her about Marcus and Kallan, and their family. He didn’t mention Nai, though. It was still hard to talk about.
He sat up and threw another piece of wood on the fire. “And now the rebels are attacking the empire… and I’m just trying to help topple it, in whatever way I can.”
She nodded. He looked up at the ceiling. “I really don’t know. I like my life… there has been a lot of pain, but there are still good things… but I could die any time. He didn’t know himself why he had suddenly decided to tell this girl that he barely knew what was on his mind. She just nodded and smiled a bit.
Silence fell for a few moments, before Owen looked over at her tack.
“Quite a bit of work put in to that.”
“Yes! My father and I made it…”
“You like horses?”
She lit up, smiling. “Mmhmm!” She seemed to be really excited that he had brought up the subject. “That’s what we did back home… besides farm, of course. We raise horses.” She began to tell him of all her horses… of the foaling in the spring, of the crazy old stallion, of all the pretty little mares. He found himself getting as interested as she was, and it took a weight off his heart.
They talked for a long time. They didn’t have much else to do, as the wind still wailed, and snow continued to pile up outside. Owen told her of hunting in the mountains, and of the village. Gwen told him of her horses, and of the wide plains. Swimming in the lake, long droughts… they shared stories for hours. Owen didn’t know how late it was, as outside the light didn’t change.
After a few hours, Gwen seemed to quiet. She put a hand to her forehead, and closed her eyes.
“I don’t know…”
Owen sat up and looked over.
“My ears are sort of starting to ring… and my head hurts…”
She closed her eyes and lay back. Owen watched her, concerned. “I should get you back to a healer as soon as I can…” He looked out in the storm. “It’s pretty bad out there though…” He thought for a moment. “Just stay still, and don’t exert yourself.”
She nodded a bit, laying there, her eyes shut.
Owen leaned back, watching her. She was a nice girl, in her own way. She had an exuberance and excitement about her that was contagious, and Owen couldn’t help but smile whenever she began to talk excitedly, but he felt guilty, as it was his fault she had been hurt. He put another piece of wood on the fire, looking at the dwindling pile.
“I’m going to have to go for more wood.”
“Out in that?”
“Aye.” Owen stood, and walked a little ways out of the cave, flipping his hood over his head. The snow had begun to drift inside, and Owen had to step through a drift at least a foot high to get to the tunnel. Once in the tunnel, it was completely clear, except for one place where a hole came down from above. Owen moved quickly through the tunnel, and then stopped at the end, looking out into the storm.
The vicious wind ripped through the canyon, biting into Owens skin through his cloak. He shivered, and pulled his hood over his face, trying to keep his cloak tightly wrapped around him. The snow swirled and blew, obscuring the rest of the canyon from sight. It seemed to be day, for although it was dark and dreary, there was still a dim light. Owen pulled the hatchet out of its sheath, and stepped out into the blizzard.
He had been in mountain blizzards, but the mountains had always prevented it from being as windy, and the trees had offered more of a wind break. Even in heavy snowfall, you could still go out, as long as you were careful. Here, it was completely different. Owen swore as he stepped into the full force of the wind, and almost fell down. He wondered at the sheer force of the wind, and realized that it must be even stronger up above, where the edges of the canyon offered no protection.
He turned, and reached to his right, placing his hand on the side of the canyon. He knew there were several trees somewhere along the edge, so he made his way along it. The wind was powerful, and almost knocked him over several times. He was glad for his warm cloak, but it did not keep out the entire raw chill of the wind.
He stumbled, and fell onto one knee, sinking into a drift against the edge of the canyon. He breathed heavily for a few moments, and then brought himself back to his feet, reaching forward to the dark shape of a withered tree. He hacked at it for what seemed like forever, until he finally broke through. He grabbed the trunk, and turned to pull it back toward the tunnel entrance.
As he turned into the wind, it whipped his hood off, exposing his face to the wind. The icy wind and crystals of ice burned his skin as he groped with the hand still holding the hatchet to pull it back over his head. He finally got it back over his head, and reached his hand out to his left. He bent his head and began to move back towards the tunnel.
He fought through the wind, in his fear realizing that if he had not put his hand on the edge of the canyon, he might never have gotten back to the tunnel. He could barely see his hand in front of his face, much less the tunnel entrance ten paces up the canyon. It seemed to be an age until his hand felt the edge where the tunnel turned. Owen turned into the tunnel and collapsed just inside. He passed into darkness with a feeling of extreme cold.
Owen awoke, freezing. His legs felt numb, and it was dark. He groped around in front of himself, finally feeling the handle of his hatchet in the darkness of the tunnel. He rolled over and sat up. He winced as his legs burned. He reached forward, and began to shake the snow off his legs. It had begun to drift over his legs, and the area right above the edge of his boot was frozen. His leggings were frozen, forming a hardened shell.
He reached out into the blizzard, and began to pull the small tree into the tunnel. It caught several times, but he hacked the branches off until it fit through the tunnel, and he was able to pull it through to the other side. He stumbled into the cave, and sat down hard on the ground.
The fire was dying, but he managed to get it going again with a few more pieces of wood. It lit, bathing him with warmth. He shook the last bit of snow off his legs, glad it was dry, and he wasn’t wet. He quickly began to rub his legs, trying to get warm. He fell back on his makeshift bed, and closed his eyes, breathing hard. He pulled his cloak tightly around himself, shivering.
“Are you alright?”
Owen glanced over at the girl. Her eyes were closed, but apparently she was awake, as it was her voice that had spoken.
“I’m fine…” he shivered. “Just absolutely freezing.”
“You’ve been gone for hours.”
He looked up. “What?”
“Yes… I was afraid you had gotten lost in the storm.”
Owen looked at her. “I’m not used to wind like this… in the mountains, it snows like this, but the wind is nowhere near this strong.”
She moved her head in a slight nod, shifting a bit where she lay.
“How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know… it’s just… scary… I can’t… see… or hear very well…”
He glanced outside, but the storm had lost none of its severity. He thought for a few minutes, unsure of himself once again. He knew they could not travel in this weather, and he was also worried about making Gwen worse by travelling while she was sick. He looked at her, and noticed a tear trickling down her cheek. He moved over towards her.
“It’s going to be alright. I’m going to get you out of here.” He put his hand on her head, trying to comfort her. “You will get better.”
She nodded, then lay back and curled up in the horse blanket.
Owen awoke to sunlight and the sound of footsteps in crunching snow. He sprung to his feet, looking out into the outer cave. The snow glistened on the ground, as light streamed through from above. He realized he had been sleeping for a long time, but it was the methodical crunch of snow that caught his attention.
He slipped out of the cave. The horses were in the slightly larger cave nearby, nestled as far away from the entrance as possible to avoid the snow. A large drift sloped up to the top of the crevice. He looked up, and saw red and silver. He swore, and slipped back under the overhang into the cave where Gwen was still asleep. He shook her gently, placing his hand over her mouth and whispering.
“We have to move.” He said in a whisper, as she woke up with a start. “Shh.”
She struggled for a moment before she realized what he was doing, and was quiet. He took his hand away, and stood. She opened her eyes, blinking.
“What is going on?”
“Imperial Soldiers on the march.”
Her eyes grew wide.
“We have to warn the rebels.”
“We have to ride, now.”
She sat up a bit.
“Are you alright?”
“I’ll be alright.”
He looked her over. “Are you sure?”
He nodded, and grabbed the tack. “I’m going to saddle the horses.”
He looked at the two saddle blankets that she was wrapped in. “I’ll need those…” She nodded, and moved off of them, sitting back on the edge of the cave. He quickly unclasped his cape and threw it at her. She protested.
“No, you need it as much as I do!”
Owen sighed. “I’m fine, I promise.” He stepped out into the bitter cold, careful to stay under the overhang. The soldiers were still marching.
He slipped into the cave with the horses and quietly saddled them, tightening the cinches quickly and then leading them back to the other cave. He slung the saddle bags back onto the saddles, and then made sure everything was packed. Gwen lifted herself unsteadily to her feet. Willow neighed softly. Owen turned, ready, to Gwen.
“We’re going to have to ride hard and fast… are you sure you can do it?”
She nodded, and he led the horses out of the cave. He looked up. Soldiers still marched by. She held out his cloak. “I won’t let you baby me. I’m not spoiled.” He took it, not wanting to argue.
He motioned for Gwen to go first, and then followed her into the tunnel with the horses. He looked over her head to the canyon ahead. It seemed that the soldiers were marching there, too. They’d have to move fast. Fortunately, it didn’t look as if they had any cavalry. At least he couldn’t see any from their hiding spot.
He pulled the horses up; glad for the slight bend in the tunnel that hid its opening from a large portion of the canyon. He whispered his quick plan to Gwen, and then they both began to run out of the tunnel. Gwen swung into the saddle, and Owen followed after being assured she was steady. Then they kicked their horses into a gallop, and dashed past the marching soldiers.
Owen finally got his bearings of the number of the enemy. A few marched above, but it seemed the main force marched in the canyon. They went around the next bend, and he could see rows of crimson as far north in the canyon as he could see. Owen made his way toward a path that led up out of the canyon, knowing they had the best chance getting onto open hills, rather than close spaces filled with hostile spears.
The soldiers took notice, but the moment of surprise gave Owen and Gwen enough time to make it partially up the side of the canyon. A few charged after them, and a few yells of warning were called to the men on top. Owen heard the rhythmic twanging of bowstrings, and he ducked as a few whistled over his head.
Gwen made it up to the top first, being in front, and Owen brought up the rear, but as the line of scouts up top heard the shouts and saw them, he cut in front, loosening his hatchet in its sheath. He hadn’t been ready for this. He slammed past a soldier with a drawn axe, though it nicked his thigh. There were only a few soldiers in their way, and they were all unprepared enough that Owen could clear the way for Willow and her injured rider.
They finally cleared the soldiers, and began to run south-west. The line of soldiers stretched on for a great distance, and he knew they had to go west to get away from them, though their destination was due south. He glanced back at Gwen, then slowed his horse just enough to be beside her instead of in front.
Her eyes were half closed, and she looked terrible, but she made a slight nod.
Owen glanced backwards and once again heard the sound of bowstrings. He slid back a bit, blocking Gwen, as arrows whistled around him. The nick in his thigh burned. An arrow whistled past his head, almost striking Gwen. He glanced back; glad to see they were gaining distance against the soldiers. Finally he directed them through a small gap between two hills, and they were out of sight of the army.
They slowed for a moment, and Owen looked over at Gwen. She was breathing hard, and her skin was paler than it should have been. Willow slowed, and Owen dropped in next to her. Her head nodded, and she looked sick. Owen glanced back from where they had come, and grabbed the reins from her weak hands.
“Just hold on, I’ll lead.”
He kicked his horse into a trot, clicking with his tongue to get Willow to speed up. Soon they were at a brisk trot. Owen continued to monitor behind them in case the empire sent horsemen after them. He soon began to direct them more south and less west. They were headed straight back to the camp. He looked worriedly at Gwen. He hoped she would survive this, though he had only known her but briefly.
They moved quickly, Owen making sure to continue at the fast paced trot. He worried that he was jolting her too much, and slowed occasionally to give her a rest, but he knew he had but little time before the frontrunners would reach the rebellion. He finally came up over the main ridge north of the rebellion, and kicked his horse into a final gallop.
He glanced back one last time, and realized that although he had made good time, the enemy army was marching right on his heels. He saw a small group of horsemen break off and begin to gallop after him, spears ready. He pulled on Willow’s reins, getting her to move faster. Gwen was slumped in the saddle, not appearing very steady.
“Just one last push.”
He kicked his horse again, and they ran down the massive ridge, down towards the fortifications. Snow blanketed the land, drifting over the barricades and around the tents. The horses plunged into a drift, and floundered for a moment before breaking through and continuing to charge down the hill.
Owen noticed rebel soldiers beginning to form up, watching the chase. Owen’s horses were beginning to tire after the long trot, and the enemy horses were comparatively fresh. They began to gain on Owen. He pulled Willows head, and kicked his horse harder again, as they galloped full speed down the gigantic hill.
Owen didn’t look back again as he bent low over his horses head, urging it forward. As the fortifications grew nearer, he heard the calls of the enemy horsemen. He turned his head one more time as arrows began to fly from behind the trenches. A soldier fell, and they began to turn, realizing it was a futile chase. They made a quick pace back up the ridge, as Owen galloped in over a bridge above the trench. His horse stumbled, breathing hard.
Owen slid off his horse, breathing almost as hard as his horse, and turned to go to Gwen. She fell from her horse, but was caught by strong arms. Kallan looked up at Owen.
“Who is this?”
Owen stumbled, surprised.
Kallan supported Gwen’s unconscious frame, looking her over. “Disappointed?”
Owen summoned a smile. “I take it the attack on Merten went well?”
Kallan nodded. “Indeed.” He looked down at Gwen again.
Owen moved closer, and lifted her head. “We need to get her to a healer.”
Kallan nodded, just as Noren arrived, pushing through the soldiers surrounding them.
“Owen! What is going on?”
Owen’s face turned grim. “The imperial army is on its way.”
Noren’s eyes grew wide, and then he nodded slowly. “You will be wanted by the council… the other scouts arrived back with very little to report right as the storm hit.”
Owen looked back at Gwen, still held by Kallan. “Something unexpected happened.” Noren looked at the unconscious girl. “Is she alright?”
“No.” Owen took her carefully from Kallan. “She needs a healer right now.” Noren nodded, then turned, pushing through the circle of rebel soldiers. Owen followed him through the camp, until they reached a group of tents where the healers were busy. Noren left them with the healers.
“You will be summoned soon Owen, I am going to the council.”
Owen lowered Gwen onto a cot as several women bustled around her, gathering water and supplies. One of them, who seemed to be in charge, began to ask Owen questions about what had happened. He answered slowly, watching Gwen as she breathed unsteadily. Kallan stood behind him, quiet.
Finally the woman seemed content with his answers, and shooed him off. “Go, get on! You can visit later!” Owen left reluctantly.
They walked together, slowly, toward the barricade. Kallan quickly told of the bloodless takeover of Merten, and then Owen told him of the past few days. Kallan nodded slowly, listening to him tell of the snowstorm, the talks, and the chase. They finally reached the barricade. The soldiers were forming up, readying behind the trench. On the crest of the ridge, a long line of crimson appeared, banners waving in the warm early spring wind.
Owen looked across the valley at the huge line of soldiers, a feeling of hopelessness welling up inside him. Battle would be joined. Men would be killed, and blood would stain the snow. Some of that blood might be his.