(Author’s commentary): Preparations for a battle, and a declaration of love… oh my!
The Seven Kingdoms
Chapter Thirty Eight
The night dragged on. The Wavebounder returned to the dock and fleet commander Reef disembarked. His report was short and concise. “We burned four ships in the bay, and five more further out to sea. The rest scattered, and I ordered the fleet not to give chase. As far as I can tell, the enemy is not landing any troops anywhere near the city.”
Hildy kept her troops on alert, letting half the men sleep at a time. She had blankets brought to cover the triplets, who had fallen asleep, sitting with their backs to the warehouse that had housed the first Skull prisoners the night they retook the city. Hildy paced and wracked her brain for ideas. Morning came with no new developments. Hildy was torn. To keep the army close to the city was the safest thing to do, but that would allow the enemy troops that had already landed to take over more of the kingdom and capture more towns and cities.
The scouts began to return from the headlands. There was no enemy landing that they could see, and no enemy ships out at sea. It struck Hildy that she had to do something. Anything. She gave orders to gather the army once more, this time, just outside the city, where the coast road began, that would take them towards the enemy they did know about. By midmorning, the army was on the move.
While she had waited for the army to get into position, she had made preparations. She had extra stocks of fireballs transferred to all the ships of the fleet, and large quantities of food, water, and blankets as well. She ordered fleet commander Reef to put to sea with the entire fleet, including the slower barges, and for the fleet to stay close to shore, keeping pace with the army as it marched. She knew she was taking a risk, but she left only a token force of two thousand men, mostly older men and young boys, to guard the more than eight thousand Skull prisoners. These guards had no armor, and most had no spear blades to put on their staves. She made up for it by arming them with knives and a few fire slings. If it was a risk, it was a calculated one, for so far, none of the Skull prisoners had shown any inclination to continue fighting for their former masters. In fact, many had been clamoring to be allowed to join the resistance army.
The army marched down the coast road until midday, when they stopped for a quick lunch. Hildy was glad she had thought to have food loaded onto the trade ships, which could be brought ashore quickly by using the longboats. Hildy had come up with an ingenious plan. She would signal the fleet by waving a white rag tied to the end of a long stick. The fleet would then pull closer to shore, a little way ahead of the army, and begin bringing food to the beach. When the army caught up, the food was waiting for them. It wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t fancy, but it would keep the army moving, and save the troops from having to carry their own provisions.
They used the same procedure that evening, as darkness drew near. The troops ate, and then slept, with only the blankets carried in the ships, to cover them. The next day was much the same, except that, when the army arrived at the beach where the food awaited them, an unexpected visitor was waiting for Hildy beside the stacks of boxes and casks of water. It was Tarry Oar, her spy master. He gave her his friendly grin, and suggested they take a stroll along the beach.
He led off with an apology. “I have failed you, commander, and for that, I am truly sorry. I am here, above all other reasons, for the purpose of warning you that the enemy plans to land troops on Middle. It would seem that this warning is a little tardy.”
Hildy couldn’t help but smile. He was such a strange and delightful little man.
“In my defense, I have only just returned from risking life and limb, sneaking around on the kingdom of Skull, and I couldn’t have gotten here any sooner without increasing that risk considerably. While my warning about the enemy landing might be late, I do have other information that might prove useful.” He paused, seeing that Hildy wanted to say something.
“You’ve been to the Skull kingdom?” Hildy was surprised. “I thought you went back to Smilingman.”
“I did, but only for as long as it took me to prepare for the mission in question. I have a few reliable contacts on Skull, but one I trust above all the others, and I thought it was time I try to contact her, a dangerous task for which we had no set procedure.”
“She?” Hildy prompted.
“Ah, yes, well, you see,” he began, “I was once engaged to be married to a lady of Skull, in my youth. Unfortunately, while I was off voyaging, in order to earn gold with which to support my bride, she, uh, caught the eye of king Nardis Skull.”
“What happened?” Hildy had to ask.
“He did what he does, young lady.” A faraway look came to his eyes as he peered towards the sun, setting over the sea. “He, um, enjoyed her company for a short while, and then had her locked away in one of his many palaces, never to be so much as seen by any man again, not even himself.”
“I am so sorry. I had no idea.” Hildy was horrified.
“Yes, well, I have kept busy with other things,” he said in return. “But I finally managed to contact her. That is why I had to go to Skull. She always had an ear for gossip. Another old friend has a daughter who works as a cook in the palace where she is kept with other women who have taken the king’s fancy. She managed to slip a few notes in and out. I have learned that king Nardis and his pet wizard are here, in Middle, with the Skull army. He means to crush you and your forces once and for all.”
Hildy nodded for him to continue, and he did.
“He has fifty thousand troops with him. They still don’t know about the flame sling weapons, as near as I can tell, although they might learn something of them if any of their ships that escaped from the sea battle off Middletown report to him. I don’t know exactly how many ships he brought here, but it is virtually all that remains of his fleet, just as the soldiers he brought are almost all the troops he had on Skull.”
“Then they outnumber us more than three to one,” Hildy pointed out.
“And you must defeat them quickly, before he decides to bring reinforcements from the other conquered kingdoms,” he reminded her. “For now, he doesn’t think that he needs any more troops to beat you, even though he isn’t sure exactly how many troops you have. And he does have one new trick to try out. He brought two thousand of his fanatical black robes with him. He is going to place them behind the three front ranks of his soldiers when they attack. The black robes have orders to kill any soldier who hesitates or tries to retreat, and they all know about those orders.”
“The man is a monster,” Hildy said, feeling a shiver run through her body that had nothing to with the chilly breeze blowing in off the sea.
“His people hate him almost as much as they fear him,” the spy master observed. “They are starving. They aren’t even growing enough crops or catching enough fish to feed the army well, and the rest of the people are even worse off. He left ten of his sons back on Skull, each with one thousand men, He doesn’t trust his sons, and he is right not to. He didn’t leave them enough men to challenge him when he returns, just enough to keep his people from revolting. Also, he thought that, with his sons evenly matched, they would be too wary of each other to join together and plot against him. He is probably right. They are a petty, jealous, and not overly-bright bunch of bullies.”
Hildy nodded, her mind already working on how to use this new information.
“I am going back to my ship, if there is nothing you need of me,” her spy master said quietly. “I haven’t slept in four days. We will sail with the fleet, so I will be close by. I know nothing of what is happening with the enemy army now, other than the fact that they are headed this way. Just wave your little flag in a circle if you wish to chat.” He waved vaguely at her as he moved off down the beach towards a small rowboat that was pulled up above the high tide line.
It began to rain, and the sea breeze grew stronger and colder.
Later, Hildy huddled under a soggy blanket by a fire, her back to a cold, wet rock. The rain had turned into a steady drizzle. She was almost asleep when a figure limped into the light of the struggling fire. Tull Caster dropped awkwardly to one knee, favoring his still-healing leg.
“It’s funny, but when the storytellers talk of great adventures, they never say anything about the heroes being cold and wet and sleepy and hungry. They skip to the good parts of the story and ignore the sore feet and runny noses.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “I just wanted to say that I love you. I have from the first time you threatened to punch me in the nose when I tried to tickle you, when we were very little.” He got back to his feet, gave her a grin, and limped off into the darkness.
Hildy smiled and shook her head. She was cold, but she had never felt so warm on the inside.