(Author’s commentary): Uh… I got nothing. If you aren’t reading this, then my commentary doesn’t matter, and if you are, then you already know what is going on… HA! But I do like the feisty old man in this chapter.
The Seven Kingdoms
Hildy turned from her self-doubt to the very real problems of fighting the biggest battle in the history of her world. She winked at the old man, and put a hand on each of the little girls’ heads. “Take them to safety in Middletown, and I will see what I can do about saving your kingdom.”
The old man gave her a grin that was more of a grimace. “Well, I appreciate that, young lady. They already burned my farm, and took away my daughter, who was out in the fields when they came, but let’s see how you do with the rest.”
Hildy couldn’t be angry. The old man was scared, missing his daughter, and worrying about what might happen to her, all while being in sole charge of two young children. “I will do what I can to get your daughter back to you,” she told him with great sincerity.
“I know you will,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I never meant to imply otherwise. I’m an irascible old so and so. Everybody says so.”
Hildy put a hand on his shoulder and winked at him again. She patted the girls on the head one more time, and hurried to join her army.
“I would come and fight with you, if I didn’t have the little ones to look after,” the old man shouted at her back.
“I know you would,” she yelled over her shoulder. She looked ahead to where the road passed through the cut in the ridge. A plan was beginning to form in her mind. She began to run, and as she ran, she shouted to the soldiers around her. “Follow me!” She raced along the road. She nearly laughed aloud as she continued to shout for her army to follow her, repeatedly. She never did come up with a catchy rallying cry, she considered ruefully. Follow me isn’t exactly inspirational.
Her soldiers ran, around and behind her. She passed the fire troops, pushing their twenty carts filled with jars of oil. They began pushing the carts faster, more of them grabbing hold to lend a hand. Sanara, leading them, waved at Hildy as she trotted past her, urging her slingers on to greater speed. Hildy noticed that Nius Tar and her bodyguard of one thousand soldiers had seamlessly formed a protective bubble around her as she ran. She soon overtook the front of her army, and still she ran, pulling them along with her like a great, billowing cloak.
The forest began on either side of her, young trees scattered about as the woods spread out over the plain. She stopped when she got the base of the ridge, where the ground started to rise, and the road started climbing towards the pass. The trees were thick here on both sides of the road. It was perfect for what she had in mind. She went further up the rise and stopped once more, her personal guard gathered around her. She spoke loudly, addressing all of them that could hear her. “Stop the men here. Find every troop commander and have them move their men into the trees, forming lines facing the road. But tell them to get far enough into the trees that they can’t be seen from the road. I want half the army on one side, and half on the other. And tell them I will let some of the Skull army go past us before I order the attack. When they hear shouting, they should send their troops forward, but nobody makes a sound before that.”
Her guard troops blocked the road and began passing on her orders. Hildy looked back down the hill at the road stretching away into the distance. It was a race now. Could her army hide before the first Skull troops crested the rise and spotted them? She turned back around and studied the road where it disappeared over the crest. She was happy to see one of her scouts running down the hill towards her.
“How much time do we have before they come over the top?” she asked, less politely than she might have.
The scout studied the army, seeing how fast they were moving. “It’s going to be close,” he decided.
“Get back up to the top, and signal me when they are near you,” she ordered. “And stay out of sight of them.” Then she sent runners down the hill to hurry her army along. The last of the stragglers had just slipped into the woods when Hildy glanced, for at least the hundredth time, back up at the top of the hill. The scout, standing beside a tree at the side of the road, and staying just below the crest and out of the enemies’ line of sight, was waving frantically. Hildy waved back at him, then turned the wave into a swatting motion, to remind him to get further back into the woods. Then she turned and darted into the thick forest herself, a predatory grin on her face. The time for worrying about what she could have done better was over. Now was the time to show the Skulls what her army could do.
Hildy was probably closer to the road than anyone else in her army, at least if they were all following her instructions. Nius Tar and some of her personal guard were a little way behind her, watching over her. She crouched down behind a large tree, then turned her head and winked at Nius before turning back towards the road. Soon she heard the first Skull soldiers. They were talking loudly. A moment later, the first of them came into view. More followed, and more after that. Hildy began to do a rough count as they passed her.
Two things struck her about these troops. The first thing was how shabby they looked. They were poorly equipped. Some had no armor at all, or just bits and pieces, and the armor looked poorly made. The men were filthy and many were pathetically thin. They didn’t march in formation, just shambled along like sullen children on their way to do unwanted chores. They were talking, but it wasn’t the joking and playful insults and stories of past adventures and romance that she heard from her soldiers on the march. These men were grumbling and complaining, from all she could hear. There were no officers that she could see, either.
The other thing she noticed was how many old men and young boys that were mixed in with the rest. Why were these troops leading the army? Was this representative of the whole army, or did their king send them out ahead not caring if they ran into her army and were slaughtered? Either way, she could almost feel sorry for this rabble. But they carried spears, and fate had put them on the wrong side of this war.
She was glad that she had thought to have Zar load barrels of the various shades of green dyes onto the she ships of the fleet before they left Middletown. Each day, during the meal stops, one of the thousand-man units had spread their armor on the beach, and the men took turns, splashing and dribbling the dyes onto their equipment. They had made a game of it, and many a soldier had ended up more colorful than he had intended. It took a few days for the dyes to come off human skin. The idea of her troops, many of them dressed in black armor, running out of the woods from both sides to attack similarly dressed enemy soldiers, and the confusion that might have resulted, was chilling.
She waited until about two thousand of the enemy soldiers had passed her position. She didn’t want to let any of them get past her soldiers hiding in the woods lower down the slope. The time felt right. She stood, turning sideways, looked back at Nius Tar, and lifted her spear point towards the road. “Attack!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. The men who could hear her repeated her yell, and stood, grasping their spears, and rushing forward. Hildy wasn’t at all surprised when her guard troops advanced only until they surrounded her, but the rest of the army charged the road with wild abandon. Her soldiers continued to scream that single word as they moved forward, and it spread down the ridge as more men heard it and took it up. Then she heard it coming from the woods on the other side of the road, moving towards her and getting louder and louder. The sound of so many men yelling that one word was terrifying. Maybe it wasn’t a clever battle cry, Hildy decided, but it got the job done.
Hildy stepped closer to the road, just to see how things were going. The men of her personal guard clustered nearer around her as she got closer to potential danger. She took a few more steps, and the knot of men around her grew tighter. She loved them for wanting to keep her safe, but this was going to get old quickly. And they were blocking her view. By the time she pushed her way through to the road, the attack was over.
As far as she could see, looking down the road, were Skull soldiers, holding their empty hands up by their shoulders. Their spears lay scattered at their feet. A few of the prisoners had minor wounds, but only the few who had been so startled by the attack that they didn’t drop their weapons fast enough when ordered to do so. She looked up the road towards the cut and saw Skull soldiers streaming up the hill as fast as they could run. Most of them had dropped their spears as well.
“We can’t stop here!” she shouted to the troops around her. “Form up in your units and make for the top of the ridge.” She realized that she had to do something with the prisoners, even as her men began to trot past her.
She beckoned Nius Tar over to her. “Send half your men down the hill. Have them strip the prisoners of everything but their tunics. And I mean their sandals, too. Then tell them to start walking to Middletown, and when they get there, to turn themselves in at the camps. Tell them they will be easy to spot, in their black tunics, and if they stop and cause any trouble, or try to hide, we will find them and make them sorry. They can eat any food that was left by the refugees, but if they steal any from anywhere else, I will have them all killed. Slowly. And hide their armor and weapons in the woods. Make small piles and then throw some leaves over them.
Nius Tar grinned, and went to relay the orders. Hildy turned to the nearest prisoners. “Did you all hear what I just said?”
Those that had, nodded. One, an older man, spoke. “You don’t need to worry about us, great lady. We never wanted to be here in the first place.” He threw his helmet on the road and began to unstrap his leather chest piece. The others around him did the same. Soon, the prisoners were making their way down the slope, staying off the road as much as they could, to allow the resistance army troops to pass them in the other direction.