(Author’s commentary… or should I call these ‘Arthur’s commentaries???): I love the old man at the end of this chapter. He is even funnier at the beginning of the next chapter… which might be the last one I post on the blog. If I post the whole thing, nobody will ever buy it. I still need an editor or two, for anybody who can spell and punctuate, and wants a free, signed copy of the book sent to them, and a very nice dedication page written about them… hint… hint…
The Seven Kingdoms
Chapter Thirty Nine
The rain was gone the next morning. The army marched in brilliant sunshine. The day passed, and the following day, in the strange, new routine. On the morning that followed those days, as the army prepared to march once more, the first of the scouts sent to keep watch on the enemy came into camp. He reported to Hildy. “The enemy army is enormous, but we can’t get an accurate count. We can never see all of them at once.”
“I know how many of them there are,” Hildy told him. “What are they doing?”
“They sent a much smaller force down the coast road on the other side of the kingdom, but the main army is marching this way. You are headed right for them. They aren’t moving very fast, but they are burning the towns and farms behind them, and sending everyone they can catch back to their base. The good news is that most of the people fled into the wilds before the enemy could get their hands on them.”
“Their base? Where is that,” Hildy asked.
“One of the other scouts managed to get close a look at the two small cities right on the tip of the kingdom. The Skulls didn’t burn them, and they left a small contingent to guard them. The scout saw some of our people being rowed out to the Skull ships, men women and children.” The man gritted his teeth as he delivered this news.
“Hostages,” Hildy said, feeling her anger rise, “and more conscripts for their army. How long until we bump into the enemy?”
The scout pondered this for a moment. “I can’t really say, commander. I don’t know how fast you can move, and the Skulls move at different speeds, depending on what they find. But they do seem to be spending a lot of time scouring the countryside for any kind of food. And I can tell you this. When the roving units do find anything, they don’t send it back to the army most of the time. They eat it right there.”
Hildy thanked the man and told him to get some food before reporting to his unit commander. She went and found the leader of the scouts herself, and told him to send more of his men out. Three were to cross to the other coast and watch the smaller enemy force there, and the rest were to help the men watching the main army. It wouldn’t do to let the smaller force get behind her forces.
Soon after, the army began its morning march, they started seeing the first refugees streaming down the coast road towards them. The people were frightened. They had only been liberated by the resistance army a short time before, and now, once again, Skull troops had marched into their towns and onto their farms, and this time, it was worse than before. The people fled, carrying little or nothing with them, even as Skull troops began to ransack their homes behind them. Hildy felt terrible about it, but she kept her army on the road, forcing the refuges off to the sides. The faster the army moved, the less territory the enemy would take, and the less refugees there would be.
Some of the fleeing people had been warned by the runners Hildy had sent out. These people carried a few changes of clothes, a little food, and perhaps a blanket or two. But for the rest, Hildy felt she had to do something. She used her flag to signal the fleet. The fleet commander himself came ashore in one of the Wavebounder’s longboats, to see what was happening.
“Unload some of the army’s food for these people, right here,” Hildy told him. “And send a few of the fastest ships back to Middletown. Bring more food and blankets and clothes, and drop them off half a day’s march apart.”
He just nodded and ran back to the longboat.
Hildy stood on a large rock and shouted, to be heard by as many of the refugees as possible. She told them to keep moving towards Middletown, and that supplies would be waiting for them on their journey. Then she left to take her position in the center of the marching column.
Just as the army stopped for the midday meal, a pair of the runners she had sent out to warn the kingdom of the new invasion, found her, and gave their report. “We got to as many people as we could,” one told her. “We went until we saw the first Skull soldiers, the front of their army, then we started back, warning people as we went. We didn’t stop on the way, but we yelled at anybody we saw to get out of there. We figured that was the best way to do it, to warn the most people.”
The two men looked haggard. “When did you last sleep or eat?” she asked.
We brought a little bread, dried fish, and some water with us, and ate while we walked, then we started running again,” the other man replied. “I think we slept for a little while, the night before last, but I’m not sure exactly what day this is.”
Hildy looked down at their feet. One man’s sandals were held on his feet with bits of rag, ripped from the hem of his own tunic. The other man was barefooted. She could see blood drops in in his footprints, leading up to where he stood. She felt her eyes fill with tears, and, impulsively, she grabbed each man in turn and hugged him close. She asked their names, and told them that she would never forget them. Then she told them to eat and get some sleep before returning to Middletown.
“But we want to fight with the army,” the first man said, while the second man nodded and looked at her pleadingly.
Tears began to stream down her cheeks, and she just nodded, unable to speak. She put a hand on each man’s shoulder, and turned away.
The army marched through the afternoon. Marching near Hildy were the two runners, each wearing new sandals, donated by a pair of sailors from the fleet who had been manning the longboats bringing supplies ashore. The two runners had no armor and no weapons. They weren’t trained soldiers. They had told her that they would pick up what they needed from slain or captured Skull soldiers. She liked having them nearby. They gave her strength somehow.
Refugees continued to stream by in the other direction, in groups and alone, the old and the young, helping one another along. The soldiers cheered them, and told them there was food waiting for them on the way. In turn, the fleeing people cheered the army, thanking them, and telling them to stay safe.
The next day was very much the same, and the day after that. The next day was not at all the same. It started off much like the others, but as they began marching after the midday meal, they noticed that the stream of refugees became a trickle, and then dried up altogether. They marched for a long while without seeing anyone at all, and then an old man appeared, holding two little girls by the hands, and pulling them along behind him. Hildy stopped to speak with the old man, who had a long, white, pointed beard that stretched past his belt.
“Hello, grandfather,” Hildy began, smiling at the two young girls.
“Ha!” the spry old fellow bellowed. “These young ones can call me that, because I am their grandfather. I know who you are, in your fancy green armor. And you had better watch out. Those Skull soldiers are not far behind us.”
Hildy immediately called for the leader of the scouts, and sent three of them ahead. The road had turned a little inland where she stood, and she could see that is passed into a patch of forest and then rose, climbing the forested slopes of a ridge than ran across their line of march and down almost to the sea. She told the scouts to climb the ridge to where the road ran through a low cut, and see what was on the other side.
“Why didn’t you ride in the boats?” the old man asked.
Hildy turned back to him. “Excuse me?”
“The boats,” he repeated, pointing out so sea, where the fleet sailed slowly along with the marching army. “Why didn’t you and your soldiers just ride down here in them? Would’ve been faster, you ask me.”
Hildy was annoyed, but didn’t let it show. “I didn’t know exactly where the enemy was, or if they were landing troops at other points around the kingdom. And it isn’t easy to land troops from the sea onto a beach, even if the enemy isn’t slinging rocks at you while you land.”
“I’m sure you know best, missy,” the old man said. “Seems to me you are doing just fine, running the army and all.”
“Thanks,” Hildy replied, sounding a little more sarcastic than she meant to. The truth was that she had been agonizing over whether it had been wise to march the army all this way rather than using the fleet to move them. She was more annoyed with herself than with the old man. She watched her army trudging past her, all so sure she knew what she was doing. More sure than she was.
Her inner dialogue was cut short by the return of one of the scouts. “The front of the enemy army is on the other side of that ridge,” the scout reported, still panting from his run. “Lots of them are spreading out on the flat plain beyond the ridge, heading for the farms there. But a lot of them are staying on the road. They are making for that pass right there, and there are a lot more coming behind them.”