Kallan rolled the name around on his tongue, testing it. “Commander Kallan Keeganson.” He said quietly, and then grinned. He liked the sound of that. His first officers, Blod the miner and Connor of Drenna, rode by his side. He was glad to have a horse at last, and looked back with a feeling of pride at his small unit of handpicked men.
He would have liked to have Owen by his side, but he knew why he had gone. He did not like it, but he knew that Owen had to follow his own path. He sighed, and then turned forward to the road ahead, the shod hooves clipping the stones on the roadway. The day was warm, the sun rising. It’s about time… he thought. The days had been cold since the blizzard that had struck before the battle.
Kallan thought about that battle often. The feeling of bone and flesh giving way before his blade… he would never forget that. The layer of blood that had dried on his skin, making him unrecognizable… the faces of dying men… he shook himself trying to shake off the images. No matter how much death repulsed him, there was a strange sense of power and alertness that came with battle.
He was very quiet, causing Connor to ask if anything was wrong. He broke out of his thoughts and grinned.
“No, just thinking.”
“Really?!” Connor said sarcastically, “I find that very hard to believe…”
Kallan grinned, not irritated at all by the friendly banter. “No, really, I do it quite a lot.” The two friends laughed.
Kallan stretched, sitting back in the saddle as they rode the winding road through the hills. It was Kallan who had suggested they send out outriders to protect the main force from imperial raiding parties. He was glad, for at midday a scout came running out of the hills, saying he had sighted a large group of imperial cavalry coming toward the eastern flank of the rebel army.
The rebels were quick to respond, setting up a shield line. When the cavalry charged out of the hills, their surprise attack failed and were routed by a stout defense. But after that, the rebels were much more alert. Kallan continually scanned the bluffs on either side.
He knew soon they would reach the first imperial obstruction; a gate that obstructed one of the most narrow places on the great road. He knew the imperials would try to make them go around, making the large force easy to attack. But they had a weapon. Kallan and his men had trained for exactly such a circumstance, and the plans were drawn up. He glanced back at the cart that held a number of barrels, and grinned.
It was evening when the gate came into sight, in a straight, narrow part of the road. On the bluffs on either side were two towers. Kallan scanned the fortification, realizing that the two towers would be hard to take, and they would make taking the gate much more difficult. He trotted up to the head of the line, where General Corwin had caused a halt.
“Commander. What do you have to report?”
“My men are ready.”
“We need to take those towers. On my suggestion, I would send two groups of soldiers off to either side to loop around and take the towers from the far side. Otherwise they will have us penned in here like sheep for slaughter. I’ve seen it before. In the mountains we used to drive a herd of animals into a ravine, and then we would block the entrances and fire down on them. I think this could be the same sort of trap if we go about it the wrong way.”
Corwin looked thoughtful. “I appreciate your concern, Keeganson, but I do not think that will be necessary. The entire force will press on. It does not look much steeper on this side, and I am sure we will have no trouble taking it with our larger force.”
Kallan nodded, looking troubled. General Wesley spoke up. “I believe the boy is right, General. This could easily become a trap.”
Corwin turned. “I am your Commander, Wesley. Take care to remember that. I have made my decision.” He turned his horse. “Bring up your unit, Kallan.”
Kallan dropped back. Connor and Blod were waiting. “Bring up the cart. We’re leading the attack.” He turned to Blod. “I am putting you in control once we reach the gate. You have the experience we need.” The grizzled man nodded. Kallan turned to Connor. “The other men will guard the miners.” Connor nodded.
Kallan rode forward.
Kallan didn’t swear often, but this was one of those rare circumstances. He desperately tried to light a torch with a flint and steel, but it was not cooperating. He glanced upward, to where the shields of his men protected him and the miners. The miners in front of him were placing the charges of powder into cracks in the stone wall. Arrows flew down from above.
Finally the pitch soaked torch caught, and he held it up as the miners continued their steady work. A soldier fell next to him.
“We have to get out of here!” he yelled to the miners. Blod nodded.
“Just another minute…”
Kallan looked up to the ridge on his right. The force had made almost no progress. The rebel army was split, one half attacking one tower and one the other, but the hills were steeper than they had first seemed, and they were falling to a hail of arrows. Kallan swore again.
“WE HAVE TO BLOW THE GATE!”
He looked back once more, and his hope sunk. The rear of the army was now engaged. They were trapped. He began cursing again. Now was definitely the time.
Blod dropped the barrel, realizing there was no more time, and started drawing out a fuse. The miners placed the three partially emptied barrels around the base of the thirty foot gate, and Kallan called the retreat. Blod backed out, letting out the fuse.
“CUT IT!” Kallan was getting slightly desperate now. The miner cut it, and Kallan lit the fuse. It was only a few feet from the wall, and so he immediately began to run. The soldiers beat a hasty retreat. Two of his men fell. Kallan felt an arrow pierce his back, but he kept running, going on despite the pain.
The explosion racked the air. Kallan felt the back of his head singed, and rubble fell all around him. He heard a second crash as the gate collapsed. Dust filled the valley. There was a quick moment of silence, and then the battle resumed. The rebel army now was surrounded. Enemy archers appeared on the slopes, raining arrows down upon the trapped soldiers. Kallan grabbed a deserted shield and held it over his head, ducking to avoid arrows.
He turned frantically, looking for somewhere to rally, but all he saw was chaos. To the north, a cloud of dust obscured what had once been the gate. To the south, the imperial cavalry pushed the rearguard back. To the east and west, archers fired down on them from above. Kallan looked around for his unit. They were still around him, trying to avoid arrows.
Kallan felt a pang of fear, and then a feeling of pain in his back from the arrow. He resisted the urge to pull it out, knowing it would only make him bleed out more quickly. He could still feel the blood running down his back, and he felt light headed. He stumbled to one knee. He felt his heart pounding, and tried to rise, but the blood rushed to his head and he collapsed.
Kallan woke up with an ache in his back. His head hurt and he felt awful. He was laying on his stomach, on the hard ground. He tried to roll over, but firm hands held him from moving. He heard a voice.
Kallan started to struggle, but then he felt relief as something was spread on the wound on his back. Numbness extended over the wound, and he relaxed a bit. The pressure was taken off, and he sat up slowly.
He was surrounded by several people. The survivors from his unit all stood in a circle around him. Blod had been holding him down, and a thin healer was packing a bag. Kallan’s chainmail and shirt were on the ground next to him. He shivered suddenly, grabbing the shirt and sliding it on. He looked around.
“Well? What happened?”
Blod cleared his throat.
“After you collapsed, the battle went badly.” He paused for emphasis, then continued. “We were sure that the day was lost. Then Elliot of Merten began to rally the troops. He rescued Corwin from the midst of the battle, and then his men started firing on the enemy cavalry. Once Corwin had rallied his men, he charged the archers on the hill. He sustained many casualties, but they finally took the hillsides, and then the towers.” The older man shook his head. “This whole attack was a mistake. Don’t know what Corwin was thinking.” Kallan shook his head, more angry than sad. He pulled himself to his feet.
“Who did we lose?”
“Three men and two of my miners. Everyone is injured in some way, some more seriously than others. You,” he motioned to the wound on his back. “You were not the worst. A few have been carried off the field. We’re camping on the high bluffs. We did not want to move you, though.”
Kallan shook his head. “I’ll move myself now.” He slid the chainmail shirt over his head and buckled on his weapons. He stretched, grimacing. He turned to Connor, who had just run up.
“Where’s Corwin?” He growled angrily. He was not in the best of mood anyway thanks to his injury, but his typically lighthearted mood was altered by the fact that so many men had died completely unnecessarily because of his commanders foolish pride.
Connor pointed to the west. “I believe they set up the command tent on the western bluff.” Kallan nodded shortly and stomped off up the hill. It was a long walk, but he used the pain to fuel his anger. When he reached the top, he saw the command tent, and walked toward it. Men had begun to set up camp. Kallan was to angry to notice, but the bluffs offered a very good overlook of the entire area.
He pushed past the guards outside and stomped into the pavilion, his face nearly red with anger now. Kallan Keeganson was hard to anger, but when he was it was a sight to behold. Corwin sat, his arm in a sling, at the head of the table, and his officers stood or sat nearby. Elliot of Merten seemed to be arguing quietly with Corwin. General Wesley sat, stonefaced, staring at the wall. Overall, the mood of the tent was that of anger, defeat, and confusion.
When Kallan stabbed his dagger into the table everything went completely silent. They all stared at this lad, a hero of the rebellion, a boy who stood for everything they believed in… utterly angry. Corwin was the first to speak.
“Kallan… it is good to see you back…” Kallan cut him off. His forefinger pointed in accusation at the general who he had so long striven to please.
“You are a fool!”
The atmosphere in the tent now was of surprise and a tense expectation. Even Corwin seemed to be shocked.
“You are a fool!” Kallan repeated, his finger still pointing in accusation. “YOU brought us into a trap against the intelligence of all your officers. YOU let your foolish pride take over and propel us into defeat. YOU are a foolish old man who knows not of the people. Do you think if we have victory you will become ruler? Do you think we want another foolish, arrogant old man as our ruler?” Kallan was bright red now. Corwin’s eyebrows narrowed and he began to stand, his mouth open to reply, but Kallan cut him off again.
“No! We want someone strong, young, and understanding. We want a leader who will listen to advice, and who does not use his power for his own glory. You have made what should have been a simple victory into a destructive defeat.”
Corwin cut in. “We had victory, Keeganson.”
Kallan looked at him scornfully. “If a victory is counted by who lost more men, I would say we suffered a defeat. Yes, we destroyed the enemy, who we vastly outnumbered… but because of our foolish leader, we lost more men than I can count!” He paused for breath, a vein pumping in his forehead. Corwin shook with anger.
“If you were a soldier I would have you hanged. But you are not. You are the hero of Ildiv, and to kill you would hurt more than it would help… but I warn you. I may not be able to kill you… but I will break your spirit.”
Kallan stood firm. “I turn the warning upon you, Corwin.” He spoke the name with distaste, leaving off the title. “For a General without an army is nothing, and if you continue this arrogance, your men will leave you. This is no idle threat.” Kallan looked past Corwin to Elliot of Merten. The young archer gave an almost unnoticeable nod. “Corwin, I fight for your cause, not you. Take care to remember that.”
He turned on a heel and stomped out. Silence fell over the tent.