(Author’s commentary): Okay, this is almost the last chapter I am going to post… I mean, nobody is really reading it anyway…
The Seven Kingdoms
Chapter Thirty Seven
Hildy began snapping orders. It was pure chance that she already had her staff gathered around her. It was also pure chance that some of them were more than a little drunk. She ordered part of the large table cleared, and sent for a map of the kingdom to be brought from her rooms, which she had been using as her office, on the floor above the great hall. She sent runners out to rouse and gather the troops in the city and nearby towns, and to warn all the towns and cities in the kingdom. The room cleared of everyone but her staff in a remarkably short time.
Even as the people were leaving, commander Reef was telling her what little he knew. “It was early this morning that one of our ships spotted them. They were already landing troops.” He pointed to the map, to show her where, on the narrow tip of the kingdom closest to the kingdom of Skull, the enemy forces were coming ashore. “The captain couldn’t tell how many ships there were, but there were a lot of them. Even as he came about to come warn us, his lookout kept seeing more ships coming over the horizon. Some of them started to give chase. They couldn’t tell how many followed them, but there were dozens at the very least. That could mean that they are planning more landings closer to Middletown, or in the bay itself.” Commander Reef hadn’t bothered to sit, and kept glancing towards the big doors that led to the road back down to the city. “I alerted the fleet, and every soldier I saw on the way up here, but we aren’t as ready as we could be. I need to get back down there, and onto my ship.”
Once again, Hildy felt that she had failed as their leader. The bay that protected Middletown and her anchorage had a very wide mouth, and did not extend inland very far. She hadn’t ordered forts to be built on the headlands because they were so far apart that any enemy ship could pass into the bay without coming in range of any flame slingers stationed there. And now the Skulls had struck unexpectedly, and during a celebration, when the defenders were less than ready in every sense of the word. She could at least have had the men building forts around Middletown, she realized.
“At least the troops are back from liberating the kingdom, and we have all our forces from Smilingman here too,” Hildy said, trying to sound calm. “I doubt they will be expecting that, although, who knows how extensive their spy network is?”
“Commander, you better come look at this,” shouted one of the castle guards, rushing in from the courtyard. They all hurried to follow him outside and through the gate to where the road began to drop towards the city below. Out near the wide mouth of the bay ships burned in the night.
“Those must be enemy ships,” Hildy declared. “Our ships all have at least a few of the flame troops on board, and as far as we know, the Skulls have none.”
Commander Reef asked if she had any orders before he returned to the Wavebounder to join the battle.
“Protect the barges as best you can, and don’t take any unnecessary risks,” was all Hildy could think to say. He turned and ran off down the hill. Hildy spoke to all those gathered around her. “We don’t know enough about the enemy’s intentions to do much yet. Better to wait than to head off in the wrong direction. The first landings might be small, a feint designed to draw us away from Middletown. They might be landing more troops nearby as we speak. Gather all the troops in the city near the large dock. Those of you in charge of supplies, get your people ready to be evacuated with as much of their tools and finished equipment as can be safely moved. But don’t move until you get orders.”
They began to scatter, all except Aluff. “I want to fight,” he said.
“You are the king of your people and the last of your bloodline,” Hildy told him gently.
“You didn’t stop Sanara from going,” he pointed out.
Hildy couldn’t tell him that Sanara was a better fighter than him, or that she needed Sanara and her flame troops in a battle more than she needed him. “She fights from behind the main line, in a reasonable safe position.” He didn’t argue, just turned, and ran down the hill. Hildy turned to go back to her rooms to put her armor on, and saw the triplets standing there.
“We thought you might need us,” they all said in unison.
She smiled at them, told them to wait, and ran to get ready for battle. Before long, they were down by the main dock. Troops were lined up all around, the lines stretching down the main street and crowding the narrow alleys. This wasn’t going to work, she realized at once. Large units of men couldn’t fight in a city. She began visualizing the terrain outside the city. At least she had had the foresight to travel around the bay and scout out the lay of the land.
“Scout!” she said aloud, to no one in particular. How could she have forgotten? She and Lawry had interviewed dozens of the new local soldiers and freed conscripts, and organized the best of them into a scouting unit. As if on cue, or because he assumed she was calling for her scouts, a man, wearing one of the new camouflaged uniforms, stepped in front of her and came to attention. It was the man they had put in charge of the scout detail. Well, that worked out rather well, she thought wryly to herself.
“How many of your men are with you?” Hildy asked. She couldn’t even remember his name. Her thinking felt slow and fuzzy.
“Twenty eight, commander,” the man replied. “The other two should be here soon.”
“Send ten men to the far end of the kingdom, the end closest to Skull. The enemy is landing troops there. Your men should spread out in pairs, and not approach the enemy. Just get close enough to get an idea of where they are, what they are doing, and how fast they are moving. I doubt they will be able to get an accurate count. Then, one from each pair can come back with a report, while the other stays to keep an eye on the enemy movements. And send eight men to headlands on either side of Middletown Bay. Give them the same instructions, but tell them to get as close to the sea on both sides as is possible. If the enemy are landing more troops anywhere nearby, we need to know. Make sure they know to watch the sea as well, for any enemy vessels out there.” Hildy felt that she had covered the details well, but added, “and tell them to be careful. They are our eyes.”
“Yes, commander,” the man said, and went off to relay her orders.
Once more, Hildy tried to picture the world around her as if she were looking at a map. She walked out onto the long dock, her mind racing. Out near the mouth of the bay she could see three or four ships burning on the water. She was still assuming they were enemy ships, but she had no way to be sure. She couldn’t even tell if they were the same ships she had seen burning a short time ago. Each of her ships had a small contingent of slingers and flame troops. She should have put more of them on each ship.
How did it come to this, she cried out into the vastness and silence of her own mind? A teenage girl, a little drunk, wearing armor and leading men into battle. Out there, right now, men are dying on the dark sea, and more will die soon, no matter what I do. She shivered, alone in the darkness. But thinking of the men gave her strength. Yes, some of them would die, but if they won, the lives of everyone else would be so much better. Without knowing that she did it, she set her mouth in a thin, tight line, and anyone who knew her father would have seen the man in the young girl at that moment.
She had no idea what the enemy was up to, but she had a little over fourteen thousand men, all armed with the iron blades to turn their staves into spears, and all but two thousand equipped with armor. She had eight hundred fire troops and one hundred and thirteen ships. She would do what she had to do, and do it while trying to keep as many of those men alive as she possibly could. She would make the enemy regret this day.
She turned and walked purposefully back to her army. She called two of her most trusted troop commanders over to her. “You are now battle commanders. You are going to lead more than the one thousand men you are used to, because I am giving each of you half of the army, at least for a little while. Take your halves to either side of the city, and find the most defensible ground to hold. But stay close to the city. We must protect it at all cost.” They left to do her bidding.
“Nius Tar!” she said. “I see you there, skulking in the shadows, watching over me like an overprotective mother. You and the rest of my personal bodyguard are now the last reserves. Keep the men near, so we can reinforce either part of the army, if anything goes horribly wrong.”
Nius Tar smiled, but didn’t say anything. His one thousand men were already near at hand, ready to lay down their lives to keep the commander of the army safe. They would go anywhere she sent them, as long as she went too.
And that, Hildy decided, was the best she could do for now. The enemy troops landing at the far end of the kingdom wouldn’t be anywhere near the city for days. She had to wait to see what else the enemy had planned.