(Author’s commentary): Oh yeah, there is going to be a big battle… we are getting close to the big finish.
The Seven Kingdoms
Chapter Forty One
Hildy spotted one of the two men she had promoted to battle commander on the night the enemy fleet had been defeated off Middletown, once again leading his thousand-man unit. His name was Tor Plower. Hildy called him over to her. She wracked her brain, and remembered the other man’s name as well. “When you get to the top of the ridge, find Anso Root. Each of you take half the army and move down the ridge on either side of the road. If there is no enemy resistance, you can stay on the road. It will be harder to move the troops through the trees in formation. I want the army lined up, at the edge of the forest, facing the plain beyond, half on each side of the road. Keep them in the trees and out of sight. I will be up there soon, and we will decide whether to keep moving then.
Both he and Anso Root were men who had been with the army on Smilingman since it was first being expanded by the late queen. He didn’t ask any questions, but hurried to catch up to his men and carry out her orders.
Hildy stayed with Nius Tar until her army had passed, the prisoners were well on their way, and the road had been cleared of all the discarded equipment. But she did pick up two spears and two sets of armor that looked to be well-made and maintained, and set them aside. She beckoned to the two runners, who had never strayed far from her side. “Here is your armor, and your weapons. You are now part of my personal guard. Stay close to me. We don’t have any more of the green dye, and I don’t want you to be mistaken for enemy soldiers.”
The two men grinned like children being given sweets, and began to put the armor on. Hildy showed them how to use the straps and buckles so as not to leave a gap between the chest and back pieces. Then, she and her slightly-larger guard went up the hill.
When she got to the top, and could see the great plain below, Hildy saw precisely what she expected to see. On the road below her, the tail end of her army was leaving the road, where the forest began to thin out at the base of the ridge, filing off in either direction into the trees. Beyond them, Skull soldiers were still running like a black stream, but the stream stalled at a black dam of Skull units, spreading out on to the plain on both sides of the road, organizing into lines, ranks that stretched to the beach on her right, and far out into the grassland and farm fields on her left. Behind the growing dam, the road was dark with more soldiers coming up from the rear. The size of the enemy army, viewed from the ridgetop, struck her like a blow.
She realized it was getting colder, and she saw that the sun was low on the horizon out over the sea, where she could see the first ships of her fleet passing the tip of the ridge where it ran down almost to the beach. She doubted the enemy would attack before morning, when their numbers would be even greater. An attack in the dark would be a messy and confusing business. She knew her soldiers were in no shape to fight a major battle, as tempting as the idea of hitting the enemy before they were at full strength or well-organized was.
She sent her two runners down the ridge to the beach with her white rag, instructing them to tie it to one of their spears, and how to wave it to get the fleet to begin landing supplies. “Make sure they land the supplies by the tip of the ridge, where it ends, right before the beach,” she told them. “And tell the sailors to relay an order to the fleet commander. Tell him I want the triplets to be brought ashore. You will accompany the princesses back here, and wait with them if I am not here when you return.” She called a young troop captain over to her. “Take your troop, and accompany these two men. You will be escorting three young girls, and you will guard them as if they were your own daughters.”
Then, as dusk fell, followed by her protective escort, Hildy toured the ranks of her army. She made her way along the lines, chatting and joking with her soldiers as they made their camp fires, and telling them that food and blankets would be brought to them as soon as it was possible. She instructed the officers to have the men sleep in shifts, with half staying awake and ready all through the night. She ordered all the scouts to crawl out into the tall grass of the plain at wide intervals, to give warning if the enemy tried to surprise them. She told them to stay within shouting distance of their own lines, and to stay alert. When she reached the end of the ridge nearest the sea, she made sure that end of the line was reinforced, and that troops were placed on the beach itself, to make sure there was no chance that a night raid by the enemy could capture the provisions. She also had several troops of soldiers put in charge of making sure that the food, water, and blankets would be distributed all the way down the lines, so none of her troops would be cold and hungry throughout the long night.
By the time she had traversed the entire line, it was very dark, and the moon had not yet risen. Only the fires lit by her soldiers let her find her way through the thick forest. When she returned to the road, the two runners and the troop captain and his men were there, waiting with the triplets. The poor troop captain was nearly knocked over by the three blanket-clad figures that rushed past him, squealing excitedly, to swarm around Hildy.
Hildy tried to hug three squirming girls with only the two arms she had been born with. Inside, she was in turmoil. She was happy to see them, but fully aware that she had brought thirteen-year-old girls into an area where a big battle was going to be fought, a battle she wasn’t sure she could win, and there was the cruel irony. These sweet, innocent young girls might well have the ability to turn the tide in that battle. Yet again, Hildy was shocked at what she had become. The lives of all these people gathered around her in the dark woods depended on what she decided to do or not to do. She felt the weight of that responsibility, and was amazed that it didn’t crush her to the ground.
Nius Tar interrupted the moment, although he didn’t need to interrupt the triplets. For a change, not one of them was saying a word. “Commander, we have a fire lit for you. The princesses can sleep beside it. The grass is very soft and comfortable.”
Hildy smiled at him gratefully, and followed him into the forest, pulling the triplets along with her. She settled them down around the fire, and they fell asleep, still not having said a word. Hildy didn’t know if they were being sensitive to how much she had on her mind, or if they were exhausted from their adventures or just scared. She looked around her. Armed and armored men of her personal guard surrounded them, their faces serious and almost frightening in the light of the flickering fire. She sensed them all out there, forming a wall with their bodies and their hearts, a living fortress. There would be no warm fires, no blankets and soothing sleep for these men. She saw Nius Tar. He stood beyond the fire and the three sleeping girls. He held his spear angled out from his body, the butt of the spear on the ground. He was watching the sleeping princesses. She saw the loyalty and strength in his face. He would give up his life for these girls, or for her, without hesitation. He sensed her watching him, and glanced at her, grinning. She silently mouthed the words ‘thank you’. He nodded, and went back to watching.
Hildy lay down beside Miri, put an arm around her, and fell asleep.
She was up before dawn, too worried to sleep well. She walked back out onto the road, and looked out across the dark plain. The fires of the enemy camps seemed to outnumber the stars in the sky. She heard her guardsmen moving to stay close to her. The moon was almost full, the reflection lighting a long highway out to sea, vanishing in the distance. She was hungry, but she wasn’t sure she could eat anything. When she turned to go back to the fire, she saw that the sky beyond the ridge was beginning to glow with the coming dawn.
“Spread the word down the line,” she said to the men around her. “Tell the men to get in formation. I want them to stay right at the edge of the tree line where the forest is still thick. Let’s keep the enemy guessing about how many of us there are. And have my battle commanders sent to me. We have a war to win.”
Her battle commanders arrived not long after. They talked, standing in the road, looking out over the enemy as the sun tinted the sky behind them. She explained that she wanted the army to stay out of sight, and that she intended to wait and see what the enemy did, but that she was certain they would attack soon.
“If they don’t, we will send a few troops forward to provoke them with some sling stones, but I’m not sending our army out onto the plain against a force three times our size. We will make them come to us. Make them march up hill, and make them pay for every bit of ground they take. And they will come. They will come because they are hungry, and there is no food behind them anymore. And they will come because their king wants to conquer the world, and we are all that stands in his way.”
The two men nodded.
“Each of you will command half the army, on either side of the road. I leave it up to you to decide how far to extend our lines on the left, where we can’t anchor it to the sea. Once the enemy is formed up and coming at us, you can shift your troops on that side, and extend the line. Don’t spread them too thin, but we can’t let them get around and behind us either. I can send some reinforcements if they try to move in that direction, but I don’t think they will. I think their king wants to crush us, and will mass his men and come straight on.” Hildy glanced over her shoulder. The sun was up, but still hidden behind then ridge. “I will be in the center, on the road. I will stay back from the front lines for at least a while, because being higher up, I will have a better view of the enemy movements. Report back to me when the enemy begins to move.”
The two men nodded once more, and went off to decide which would hold the left. Hildy stood still for a moment and looked out over the sleeping enemy, listening to the sounds of her army as they prepared for battle. Then she turned and went back into the still-dark woods.