Thursday, May 9, 2013

Chapter 32

Chapter 32
                Owen sat on a stool, watching Gwen sleep. His head was on his hands, his brow furrowed with thought. He glanced back at the sound of footsteps entering the sick tent where several people were laying. Kallan was entering.
                “Your meeting with the council went well?”
                Owen nodded. “Mmhmm.” He looked at the sleeping girl. She looked much more peaceful. The woman who had been taking care of her said she had even woken up earlier, but she was in and out of unconsciousness. Owen worried. He shook his head. Stop worrying, Owen… she’ll be fine… why am I so worried? He looked up at Kallan.
                “How goes it?”
                “Fairly well, and you?”
                Kallan nodded. “The army has done nothing since they appeared yesterday, but they seem to be readying themselves for battle. It won’t be long, I don’t think.”
                Owen nodded. “I wish they’d all catch plague. That would make this a bit more simple.”
                Kallan smiled grimly. “Heh. But unfortunately that seems quite unlikely.”
                “Can’t hurt to hope.”
                There was silence for a moment as Gwen stirred, then woke with a start. Her eyes shot open, squinting.
                “Where am I?” She said after a moment, her voice hoarse. Owen moved a bit closer. “You are with the rebels… it’s Owen… you are alright.”
                She looked up at him. “Owen! What… where… what happened?”
                “We got away.”
                She smiled. “Thank you.” Owen glanced back. “I should go…”
                She nodded. “Goodbye!” She smiled happily, albeit a bit weakly. “See you again soon?”
                Owen nodded, grinning despite himself. “Soon.”
                He turned and made his way out of the tent. Kallan didn’t follow him, but he paid it no mind, and made his way to the front line, where the soldiers were formed up. He saw a lone rider making his way down the hill. Owen dropped in behind where Corwin and several other council members stood on the embankment.
                The horseman grew close, until he came into bowshot, and drew yet closer. Owen realized he held a white flag on a spear. It was an ominous symbol. Finally the rider came into speaking distance, and he called out loudly.
                “I come from Lord Cardowac, representing the All-powerful Emperor!  We order you to surrender, else you be slaughtered! Our army is strong, well trained, and much larger than yours. You would do well to surrender now and spare yourselves death, along with all the women and children that are with you.”

                  A stir went through the line of soldiers. General Corwin stepped forward, a tall man in a green tunic that Owen did not recognize standing behind him. To Owen’s surprise, it was this man, and not Corwin, that spoke. His voice was loud and strikingly clear.

                “And what is your alternative? That we bow to the abuses of our ‘all-powerful emperor’? Or that we become slaves for those that have his favor? For I say no. I say no, I shall not bow to this emperor and his lords who seek to keep the lowly low, and hold the common man in a place of poverty and slavery. If I must give up my freedom, I will fall upon my sword gladly! But I would rather seek the honor of fighting with my last breath to destroy this foul scar on the earth.”

                He turned, as a profound silence fell over the soldiers. The enemy messenger sat silent for a moment, then turned his horse.

                “Very well. Should you change your mind, we will be waiting." He wheeled round and galloped back up the hill.  Corwin turned round, seeming perturbed.
                He turned with a flourish of his cloak and climbed back onto his horse, galloping back toward the center of the camp. The council members followed as the soldiers began to filter back to their tents. Owen looked up at the warm sun, beating down and turning the snow into mud.
                For the next few weeks, battle seemed on the horizon. Owen waited, and waited, but it never came. Owen spent time with Gwen and Kallan, savoring the last times of moderate peace before all hell broke loose. He learned that the girl was actually older than him, which surprised him greatly, but somehow did not deter the feeling growing in his chest.
               Finally, the horseman came over the hill again. This time the negotiations were short. The imperial messenger once again asked for surrender, and it was denied. He rode away, a scornful look over his shoulder.
              "Prepare to die in the way you see fit."
              Owen thought about going back to the healers tents to see Gwen, but he decided to instead go back to his unit. Kallan had told him he wished to bring him in to his own unit once he gained a position of command, but for now he was still with Commmander Redwill. He looked once again back up to the high position on the ridge where the camp of the enemy had been set.  He knew from what he had seen that it had to spread far over the other side.

                He pushed aside the tent flap and made his way past the beds of the other men, until he came to his own bed. A few soldiers rested in the dim tent, trying to get rest for the coming battle. There was an air of tense silence over the entire camp, but in the warm dim darkness of the tent, it seemed to close in. He laid out his armor, readying it for the battle, then grabbed what he had come for, and left the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tent.

                Outside of the tent, men sat, quietly playing a dice game with vertebrae of a rabbit. The passed around a flask of strong whiskey, trying to distract themselves from the quiet tenseness. Owen carried the sword under his arm and trotted through the camp to where Kallan was camped. He knocked on a tent post, and the strangely accented voice of a miner allowed him entrance.

                He ducked inside. “Is Kallan here?” A few of the miners were inside, also restlessly fidgeting. One of them, who he recognized as their leader, looked up at him. “Think ‘e went to the healers tents again with that boy, Collin. Think a girl has caught his eye.” He chuckled and winked, and all of the miners laughed heartily. Owen thought it was a bit forced, and they found it a bit too funny. He nodded and headed back out to the healers tents.

                He found Kallan and Collin where he expected, chatting with Gwen. Her eyes lit up as he walked in, sitting on the foot of her bed, the only free seat.

                “I knew Collin in Ocih!” Owen raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Really?”

                She nodded happily. “He was a good friend, before he was taken.”

                Collin nodded, grinning. Owen smiled. “How’re you feeling?"

               "Much better! I just want to be let out of this silly bed..."

                “You look much better.” Gwen had been steadily recovering over the past few weeks. She now looked healthy, and happy, and Owen couldn't help smiling when he was around her. Her bubbling joy was contagious.

                 He looked at Kallan. “I brought something for you.” Kallan raised an eyebrow. Owen pulled the cloth off of the sheathed sword. “I know you lost yours in Ildiv… I won’t use it, but It’s better than your old sword.” He held it out. Kallan drew it slowly out, looking over the flawless blade. He stood, a gleam in his eye, and held it out at arm’s length.

                He spun, and slashed, then spun the blade and jumped a few feet to his right, then let it whistle through the air, sticking in the ground. He grinned. “Much better.” He looked at Owen. “Many thanks. It’s balance is much closer to what I’m used to.” He slid the sheath onto his belt and sheathed the sword, sitting back down.

                The friends resumed their conversation, Owen sitting at Gwen’s feet, mostly just listening, but speaking up occasionally.  He felt an odd pang of jealousy from Kallan and Collins automatic friendship with Gwen, but he just pushed it off on Kallan’s automatic friendliness. It was odd… the feeling in his heart had begun to grow to a hope, and he was not sure what would come of it. It was too unclear. And today, on the eve of battle, he was not going to allow any feelings grow. He finally excused himself, and set off to walk alone, leaving his friends to talk without him.

                He walked at a leisurely pace through the camp, in the general direction of the training area and the armory. Men restlessly paced through the camp, seeming to have the same idea as Owen. The still and quiet unnerved him. He finally reached the armory, where the head armorer of the rebels, a short, busy, man, outfitted soldiers to best fight in the battle to come. He seemed to be excited, invigorated by the challenge of outfitting each man. Owen waited his turn behind several others, watching as the little man tested each man with axes, spears, and flails.

                After a wait of a bit less than an hour, it was his turn, and the armorer began to ask him questions.

                “Do you use a shield? What training do you have? What is your primary role?”

                He had Owen spar him several times, testing his use of each weapon. The flail felt wrong in his hand, and he felt as if he was going to knock his own head off. One of the axes was much too heavy, and he knew he would barely be able to lift it, much less make any use of it in battle. There was nothing wrong with the sword, but he felt that he was not a strong enough sword fighter to make good use of it. He began to grow frustrated, until he saw an odd implement, one he had not yet tested. It had a handle about as long as his leg, fairly thin, but strong enough. One side of the head was square and flat, like a hammer. The other side tapered into a sharp spike. Owen pointed to it.

                “What is that?”

                The armorer picked it up.

                “This is a mattock, used for mining and digging in the mines of Ildiv. You can brain a man with this, or spike him with the rear end… a fine weapon, though quite unusual.”

                Owen took it from him and spun it with one hand. It felt natural, so he flipped it between his hands, before standing in a fighting position. He swung it down, smashing it on a nearby table, breaking a board, and then lifted it with two hands and drove the spike into the ground. He spun it around his head, and then grabbed a round shield, wielding the mattock with one hand. He moved around a bit, practicing a bit, before the armorer came at him with a sword. He gave the blade a rap with the flat side of the mattock and then used it like a hook to flip the sword out of his hand. He grinned, his heart pumping.

                “I’ll take it.”

                The armorer smiled widely, looking pleased with himself. “You’ll need a shield, and a spear, of course…”  He turned and began to look through the racks of weapons, finally bringing out a spear several feet longer than Owen was tall. Owen slipped the mattock into his belt, and then took the spear, spinning it between his fingers, and testing its weight. He took up the same shield he had practiced with, nodding to the armorer.

                “Thank you.”

                The strange little man grinned broadly, waving him on as another soldier took his place. Owen made his way back across the camp, toward his own tent. After leaving his spear and shield with his mail and helm, he trotted back toward the healers tents, his leg throbbing. He ignored the pain, finally reaching the tent where Gwen was camped. She was alone now, dozing lightly. He sat down, not wanting to wake her.

                He sat patiently for a few moments, until an old man appeared through the tent flap, his wild hair frizzing about and his beard hanging down to his chest.  Owen recognized him as Orror, the first healer he had met when he first arrived in the mountain. The man recognized him as well, it seemed, for he grinned broadly.

                “How goes it, Owen?”

                Owen smiled. “As well as I can get in such a situation…”

                The old man sat down on another stool, pulling himself up. “Aye, I see…” He suddenly grew solemn. “Our first battles have been easy, but it will be more difficult from here… They have time to indoctrinate their people against us, defeating the public support we have had so far… and the more cities we take, the more our forces will be spread thin.”

                Owen nodded, listening, as the old man suddenly grew jovial again. “But we have good and right on our side! So it’ll all come out alright… just at a cost.”

                Owen looked back at Gwen, and saw she was now awake. The old man stood. “Owen, I am sure I will see more of you. Do me a favor, and don’t die tomorrow, eh?”

                Owen nodded. “I’ll do my best.” The old man bobbed off to his business, as Owen turned to Gwen. “How goes it?”

                She smiled. “Good… I got some sleep.” She looked out the door. “I feel much better, but I do wish that they would let me out. I’ve been growing restless…” She looked at him. “What about you?”

                He smiled. “Feeling well… been preparing for battle… the whole camp is.” He looked back in the direction of the ridge. “The enemy just sits there, and we know they are ready to crush us in a single blow.” He leaned back on the stool. “I don’t have much reason to fight now. Just my own preservation and for revenge for my family…” He shook his head. “I shouldn’t burden you with my own troubles.”

                She looked at him. “Oh, I don’t mind…”

                He just sighed. She watched him for a moment, before the sound of yells and thuds sounded outside. Owen quickly jumped to his feet, pulling the mattock from his belt, and running out the entrance of the tent. He looked up to the crest of the hill, and realized that trebuchets had been erected on the very top, and they were firing down into the camp. Owen swore as scraps of rock and wood landed among them.
                There were pebbles that caused very little trouble, but there were also chunks the size of Owens head or larger that caused considerable damage. Owen watched as tents were flattened, and several men killed or injured as the massive rocks landed in the camp. Chaos and fear. That is what they seek to use against us… he thought, looking with dismay upon the siege machines. After a few moments, they ceased. Owen went back into the tent, where Gwen sat with frightened eyes.
                “They’re raining rocks down upon us.” He looked grim. She pulled the blanket up around her shoulders.
                “Did they stop?”
                “Aye, for now at least.”
                He sat down again, and they sat silently. She looked at him. “How is Willow?”
                “Safe with my horse….” He paused. “Back at our camp.”
                She nodded, looking relieved. “What is your horse’s name?”
                “His name! He has to have a name…”
                Owen paused for a moment. “Well… he doesn’t have one, if I recall…”
                She looked at him askance for a few seconds. “What?! You have to name him! Now!” She looked down, thinking quickly. “You must think of something! You can’t have him without a name…”
                So they went on for several hours, just talking, wasting time, and trying to name his horse. Owen told her more stories from the mountains, and of his childhood, and she in turn told him of the very different life she lived on the open plains. He enjoyed having someone to talk to besides Kallan, and it distracted him from the coming storm. It was evening when he finally decided to go. He stood, and turned to leave.
                “Owen…” He turned.
                She took his hand, and held it tight for a moment. “Don’t die?”
                He nodded solemnly. “I will do my best.”
                She smiled, and then lay back on her cot. He turned swiftly as a tear came to the corner of his eye and bolted from the tent. He ran through the camp, looking up towards the ridge, where the flames of campfires stood out against the darkness.  He ducked into his tent and pulled himself under the covering of his cloak.
                He began to count the days and weeks on his fingers, realizing it had been months since the destruction of the village. It had been weeks  in the mountains, then coming down the pass, red rocks, the rebels… he lay back, realizing how much he had changed just since joining the rebellion. He continued to count down to the exact day, and then had a realization. He let out a quiet, grim chuckle as he realized that his sixteenth birthday was tomorrow. He would come of age in blood and war. For so long he had dreamed of the day he would come of age, but it did not seem that it would be as he had ever expected.
                He rolled over, realizing the grim irony of it all. He had to become a warrior, or he would not survive.  But he did not want to turn into a man of steel and blood… he wanted to keep an identity through it all. He wondered if it was possible to not lose a part of yourself in this war. He sighed, rolled over, and fell asleep into dreams of gore-crows and flashing steel.
                Owen woke to the sound of screams and crashing. A bit of faint light came through the tent flap, and the men were on their feet, quickly arming themselves. He slipped his mail shirt over his head, tying the leather straps on the front, and then quickly pulled on his brown infantry tunic. 
                He strapped on his thick belt, making sure his dagger and mattock were firmly attached, then slid his knife into his boot sheath and pulled his bow and quiver onto his back. He left his cloak, knowing in battle it would only be a hindrance, and threw his shield over his shoulder. The other men were moving out the door as he grabbed his spear and moved outside.
                It was early, but it was not hard to see what was happening. The enemy trebuchets had begun to fire again, raining havoc into the rebel camp. Owen followed Commander Redwill through the camp as they headed for the trench. Every able bodied man in the camp was armed and ready, moving toward the front line. Owen glanced back toward the healers tents, hoping no damage had been taken by the massive stones.
                They stood in position directly behind the mound of dirt, looking over it and up the ridge. All was silent and unmoving save for the men busy around the five catapults. Owen instinctively winced as a stone whistled over their heads, headed for somewhere not far behind them. And then the imperial army came into view.
                In strict rank and file, shoulder to shoulder, they began to seep down the ridge, covering it red and silver, as if the ridge was bleeding. Owen gripped his spear, and his body grew tense as the enemy continued to advance. He began to sweat with fear, though it was still cold. He reached up and wiped it with the back of his gauntleted hand, as Redwill turned to face his men.
                “Men, some of us will die today. I will not seek to hide that from you. And yes, fear will be in your hearts. But let that fear drive you forward, using it as fuel against your enemies. For courage, men, is acting against odds that no one can fight, acting with fear in your hearts, not letting it stop you.” He looked each man in the eyes, as he slid his round helm over his head.
                “So fight for your families, and fight for your homes that will be when this brutal war is over.”  He turned, drawing his massive pole axe, with its mighty spike, from his back, and braced it, turning to face the enemy. The men all stepped forward and braced their spears as the enemy continued to move like a creeping flow. Then they stopped.
                The two sides faced off for several minutes. They were now directly ahead, spreading back up the ridge. Owen somehow felt that something was not right, and that the enemy was waiting for something. The feeling of unease spread over all the rebels, a murmur of apprehension from man to man.  Then all hell broke loose.
                Owen looked to his left, into the foothills, and saw the chaotic mass of barbarians swarming from the trees toward their flank. The wide looping trench covered most of the ground, but it was also the least defended part of the camp.  They reached the defenses almost before the rebels had a chance to comprehend what was happening. But Owen knew.
                He looked to his right, and locked eyes with Kallan, further down the line. They both realized what was happening. The rest of the wild tribes had been brought into play. Owen stepped to his Commanders side.
                “Commander Redwill, these are the Men of the Mountains. The empire has made an alliance with them. They destroyed our village. They know no mercy, and are extremely dangerous.” Redwill turned, as Corwin galloped up on his charger.
                “Commander, it seems we have another force to deal with.” He looked grim. Redwill turned. 
                “The Men of the Mountains, Owen says.”
                Corwin looked down on him. “You have seen them before?”
                “They are the ones who destroyed our village.”
                Corwin nodded. “The left flank needs reinforcements, if we are to prevent the barbarians from swarming into the camp. Move, commander. I hold in good faith that you will hold them back.”
                Redwill nodded, yelling for his men to form up. They began to trot quickly down the trench, behind the rest of the rebel forces. Owen looked to his right, and heard the twanging of bow strings as the two sides began to exchange fire, and the enemy began to march forward. He did not have much time to watch the fight, though, for soon they had reached the flank, and saw the devastation that the barbarians had already wreaked on the camp.
                 Men lay dead in the trench from both sides, and the defenders were locked in desperate combat on top of the mound, holding back the massive wave of enemy berserkers. Owen recognized them. He wondered if any were here who had destroyed his village. Owen took a deep breath, and then plunged into the battle with a war cry, the yells of his comrades all around him.
                Owen stabbed forward, spitting a bare chested man with a bone helmet. He blocked the blow from a club with his shield, jarring his arm, then stabbed again, sticking in the gut of the large man who had attacked him. The man fell, almost pulling the spear from Owen’s hand as he blocked several more blows. He wrenched the spear from the corpse, and stabbed again, this time missing a vital area and slicing open a barbarian’s leg. It howled in anger, then grabbed the spear, and whipped it out of Owen’s hand. He spun it expertly and stabbed at Owen. Owen caught the blow on his shield, trying to get his mattock out from his belt. The man pulled it from the shield and brought it back for another blow, but Owen kicked him in the chest, knocking him off balance. The man fell back onto a spike in the trench.
                Owen pulled his mattock from his belt, cursing. Another man came up to take the last ones place, climbing over the bodies of dead men. Owen swung downwards, letting gravity and the forward motion do most of the work as the hammer head collided with his chest, smashing it inward. Owen took the slight break to glance back toward the rest of the camp, and saw that the imperial army had almost reached the trench. The Merten archers were doing their job well, cutting large gaps in the soldiers.
                Owen had little time to contemplate the rest of the battle, for a massive berserker jumped over the spikes, right in front of Owen. He swung his claws at Owen, who blocked with his shield, feeling the wood crack with the force of the blow. He swung the mattock with all his strength. The massive barbarian, seeming more animal than human, blocked with his hand, but Owen heard the hand break as the mattock smashed it.
                He glanced back, realizing that the barbarians were pushing them back. He braced his foot on the mound and slammed his shield into the man’s head, then swung the spike side of the mattock up into the man. He fell backwards, knocking down several more, but they continued to swarm over the mound, until Owen and his fellows fought among the tents.
                The battle seemed to drag on like a nightmare as the sun rose higher. Men fell all around him, and the ground was full of bodies. He was surprised he was still alive, but he didn’t have much time to think. He would knock one barbarian down with his mattock, and then another would take its place, as they were slowly pushed back into the camp. Commander Redwill still stood, killing the enemy with mighty swings of his massive pole axe, sometimes more than one at once. Owen made his way slowly closer to Redwill, partly out of a desire to stand beside the mighty warrior, and aid him, but also at the small idea that maybe, maybe, he would be able to survive longer with Redwill nearby.
                Owen looked back again once more, and noticed that the actual imperial troops had made little progress. Corwin had flanked them with the small rebel cavalry, causing confusion, and the archers of Merten as well had caused much damage to the advancing ranks of soldiers. Owen looked around, realizing he was surrounded, the barbarians swarming into the camp.
                A sudden explosion of energy and adrenaline came to his limbs as he realized that they were causing havoc among the tents. Given long enough, they would reach the healers tents. Owen smashed in the rough helm of the nearest barbarian, and then began to sprint, running through the battle. He heard Redwill call something after him, and he glanced back, but he heeded it not, continuing to run. The left flank had been eradicated, destroyed, and torn apart by the furious barbarian assault.
                Owen wasted no time, though he was exhausted. He ran through the camp, avoiding the barbarians as they pillaged the tents. They were spread out, knocking things down, destroying tents, and stealing anything they could lay their hands on.
                A pounding filled his ears, and he tripped, sprawling on the ground. He rolled onto his back in time to see a warrior above him, ready to bash his head in with a vicious looking club.  The pounding grew louder as he accepted his death. He closed his eyes as he felt the weight of the man on his chest, holding him down. The pounding grew almost unbearable, and he gave himself over to death.

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