The Believers – Chapter 13

Ilyana had plenty of time to plan her entry into Carved Rock. She jogged over the crest of the hill at the edge of the west road, and stopped 10 or so meters from the last of the trees.  She would be spotted at this distance.  She bent over forward, pretending to catch her breath, then stretching her arms upward.  Then she dropped them back to her sides and began jogging again.  She had plenty of strength left, but she had to appear worn out from running all the way from Silverlake.

The truth was that she had done precisely that.  But she felt she could run the distance again without a break.  Except maybe for food.  She could not remember such a strong craving for meat in her life.  She’d have plenty soon enough.  When she was half-way to the village, she saw a rider approaching the opposite gate.  The rider reached the village about 5 minutes before she did.  As she reached the gate, she could see that the rider had been Cheszalt, and he was now crossing the village, approaching the west gate to see who was coming in on foot.

She faked a bit of a stagger as she crossed the threshold of the gate, then doubled over for a moment before stretching her arms upward again.  She’d been taught to let her lungs expand at a time like this, to help her body absorb more air from her breath.  Then she doubled over again as two of her brothers, standing guard, approached her.

She must have been a sorry sight.  She hadn’t bathed since the assault force had left this village.  Her clothes still had blood on them from the fight, and were torn in many places.  No one would notice the scratches on the lower pants-leg where the Turned had grabbed her, not among all the other stains and tears.  But above all, she thought she must have a terrible smell about her.  The sweat of running was no stranger to her, but it had been days, and the air had been heavy.  Even under the canopy of trees for most of the trip, it had been terribly hot.  She should have passed out at least twice from heat exhaustion… but she hadn’t even gotten light-headed.

“Water,” she croaked, as they came near.  One immediately thrust a water skin toward her.  She took a quick drink, then poured the rest of it over her head, soaking her hair and her tunic instantly.  The two brothers nearest her smiled, and handed her another water skin, which she quickly drained.

Cheszalt was near her by that point.  She straightened, then bowed respectfully.  He took another step toward her, and took her hand.  “Sister, you return from Silverlake.”

She nodded.  “I barely escaped alive, master.”  She made a small show of catching her breath, then controlling it, as she’d been taught.  “It was chaos.  Our attack was met by a force from Carter’s Hill.  They were mounted, and carried spears.  There were just too many of them.”  She paused again, looking intently at him for a sign- if he doubted her, it didn’t show in his eyes.

“Go on, sister,” he eventually said.  He turned to one of the others nearby.  “Bring our sister a chair,” he said, gently, and almost immediately a stool appeared beside her.  She nodded gratefully at the brother who had presented it, and sank heavily onto it.

Brother, she thought for a moment.  Are these people still my brothers and sisters?

“So even mounted, how did they outmatch our force?” Cheszalt asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“It was more or less matched at first, master.  The older fighters were able to counter their spear charge, but most of the younger ones were run down and killed early on.  After that, they kept their distance and used arrows.  They wore us down.”  This, too, had been the subject of much of her thought during her return journey.  Skilled archers were one of the few things the Order was weak against.

Cheszalt lowered his head.  “You were able to escape?”

She nodded, keeping her eyes down.  “Tasia’s last instructions to me.  After the initial charge, she instructed me to return here to report.  She knew you would need word of what happened.”

“No one else has returned.”

Ilyana let her shoulders slump a little more.  Then she lifted her head.  This is the important part, she thought with a sigh.

“There’s more, master.  In the village we staged from, I heard rumors from the eastern side of Carter’s Hill.  They say that a new city is being built, larger than Carter’s Hill is now, and all out of cement blocks.  They say this outer wall will be impossible to break.  I don’t know if we’ll be able to strike back at them if we allow it to be completed.”

She saw something behind his eyes click.  The trap was set, and Cheszalt was about to take the bait.

*****

Amusing enough, Marlena thought, that she would find him in Red Hill, close to the place where so much of the current madness had begun.  Many of the grapes on the western side of the village were being harvested now, and the village itself was nearly empty.  She stepped into the small inn, scanned the room, and then moved toward the back corner.  Her old friend, and fellow Immune, Katrick, saw her approach, and smiled up at her when she arrived across from him.

“Good to see you again,” he said, quietly.  She took a chair across from him.  “You’re not drinking today?”

She shook her head.  “Nope.  Just came here looking for you.”

His eyebrows rose.  “Well, I’m not terribly busy right now,” he said, a bit sarcastically.

She nodded.  “I heard that Carter’s Hill clamped down on people leaving.  Did they catch any of the guides?”

“No, but it was working out so well,” he said, frustration entering his voice.  He took another drink of his ale.  “Seeing the looks on those people’s faces… I tell you what, I’ve never felt so good.  There’s so many people that have a better chance at life now.  And every one of them was grateful to us- every one of them will speak up for the Immune for the rest of their days.  Nothing we could have done to change people’s minds has ever come close to it.  But I guess Carter’s Hill had to catch on sooner or later.  I just wish it had been later,” he shrugged.

“Too successful.  Well, if you and the other guides aren’t doing anything else these days, I’d like to ask your help again.”

“Sure.  What’cha need?”

“Basically the same thing you were doing before- helping people- but, as Xeren used to say, more direct action.”

Katrick’s eyes narrowed.  He knew what Xeren usually meant when she used those words, but he also knew that Marlena opposed that sort of thing completely.  “I thought Xeren had changed her ways.  Isn’t she working with you now?”

“She is.  And she’s behind a lot of this.  What I need from you, and anyone else who will help, is going to sound preposterous at first, so please give me time to finish explaining.”

“Allright,” he said, finishing his drink.

“Help to defend the fences at Carter’s Hill.”

Katrick choked so hard that he spat the whole mouthful of ale at the wall.

*****

The armorer’s workshop in Silverlake was considerably bigger than the one he’d grown up working in, but with as many people as were working in this one, it didn’t seem so.  Jameson turned the piece of steel over on the anvil to get a look at the outside curves, then returned it to a good spot to hammer on it.  He had taken to using heavier hammers, even though he couldn’t feel the difference while working.  And though he was the youngest- and the smallest- man in the shop, the others had quickly come to respect his growing skill.  Even more, they respected the fact that he didn’t tire.  He had been given all the heavy pieces to work on, since he could use the heavier hammers for hours without even stopping to take a breath.  He didn’t mind doing the rough shaping work, and leaving the finishing work to the others.  He’d grown comfortable with his gift.

There were seven other men at work around him.  One of them, just older than Jameson, had been at work cutting out the rough shapes from sheet steel and smoothing the edges with a file.  Another was working on the chest- and back-plates.  The forge fire was cluttered with pieces competing for the heat.

No one else here knew why all this armor was being made.  Many guesses had been spoken, but none had come close.  If Jameson had told them, they probably would have set down their tools and walked out of the shop.  He smiled at the thought.  The large city to the southeast had been a distant, but very real, threat to the people here for many years.  It had become much more urgent last summer, when they had begun annexing nearby villages.

Hopefully the near future would work out as well as he hoped.  He could already see the difference in the eyes of the villagers.  They were cautious around him, but accepting.  When he’d arrived, it hadn’t been like that at all.  They’d insisted that he and Marlena stay out with the carriages.  At least the other smiths had begun to treat him as an equal, having seen him at work.  They certainly appreciated him taking the heavy hammering off their shoulders.

*****

Only one of the village council knew who he was, but that was for the better.  He met with them in the midst of the field, in one of the paths between a patch of beans on one side and corn on the other.  They stood in a rough semi-circle, the seven of them facing him.  The village’s head blacksmith had heard Joshua’s idea the evening before, and had guessed that the others would agree to it.  He nodded his encouragement, and Joshua began to speak.

“Carter’s Hill is about to undergo a dramatic change, and I want you all to think about the contract you have with its leadership.”  He wasted no time getting to the point.  “In particular, I want you to think about why it is you entered into this agreement, and what you expect to receive from it.”

One of the councilors snickered.  “We agreed to their contract because we knew they’d send soldiers to attack us if we didn’t.  As far as what we expect to receive, well, we have the new wall, but aside from that, all we have to show for it is our lives.”  The others agreed, smiling cynically at the speaker’s response.

Joshua nodded.  “The main reason they wanted to send soldiers here wasn’t to defend you, of course.  I’m sure you all know that.  They wanted their own soldiers to be inside this wall before it was complete.”  He gestured back toward the wall behind him.  “Now, they won’t have to worry about breaking the wall down if they need to take control of your village.  They really don’t have a reason for feeling the need to do this, though.”

“Now, I want you to think about the sort of deal you and the other villages surrounding Carter’s Hill would have if you had made the rules.  I don’t want you to answer immediately, but I want you to think about it and discuss it.  Soon there will come a time when the city will have need of your help.  The people who live there will need your help and support.”

He paused for a moment.  “You are the first village I’ve spoken to about what is coming.  I’m headed to Riverbend and Bluefield next.  We’ll be needing help from all of you.  I’m not entirely sure how things are going to work out, but we will probably need your help for a long time to come.  And in return… well, I believe we can come to an agreement that will be quite profitable to you, as well.  Especially to you,” he said, directing his attention at the master smith.  He hadn’t shared this part yet.  He hadn’t believed it when Xeren had told him, and wasn’t certain that she had believed it either.

The villagers had an even harder time believing it.  But, as Xeren had told him, it was just too good a chance to pass up.  They agreed to the idea, and to support the plan, but many details had to be worked out.  Joshua had expected that.  As he left town that afternoon, riding toward Riverbend, he wondered if they’d have believed him if they’d known who he was.

*****

The caravan was about half of the way to Tarense when Jacob McCandles and David Jennings returned.  On horseback, it was a fairly short journey, but the carriages moved much slower.  They’d stopped at two villages on the way, but hadn’t done much trading.  Marlena rode alongside Lincoln’s place on his carriage, discussing what had happened and what as coming, and the other two riders formed up on the other side of the team of horses leading the caravan.

For a moment, no one spoke, but from the grins on the men’s faces, things had gone well.

“Don’t make us wait for it,” Lincoln prodded them.

“Garth Gretson said he’d come down with the team.  Catherine Foreman might be coming down as well.” Jacob tried hard to speak slowly, but was very excited.

Lincoln whistled quietly.  Gretson and Foreman were the two people in Tarense who made things happen.  Garth Gretson was the grand-son of the man and woman who had discovered the iron mine that Tarense had been built on, and he was still the most skilled and knowledgeable miner in the city.  Catherine Foreman was essentially a blacksmith, but had taken her craft a step further.  She had created a waterwheel-powered blacksmith shop with larger, heavier tools that could make much more complicated pieces and tools.  Most of the flame weapons that kept the Turned out of the villages scattered around the continent had been built by her and her workers.  Marlena knew her fairly well, having scoured many of the ancient cities for books on working metals and making tools for her and her workers.

It had been expected for these two to become involved, but Lincoln at least had presumed they’d send down assistants to see the re-discovered mine outside of Red Hill.  Appearing personally was something no one had seen coming.

“They’ll need a few days to get things settled, but they plan to meet in Red Hill in about a week.  Will that be enough time…” David’s voice deliberately trailed off.  He knew just enough about what was happening to know that he didn’t know very much.

Marlena nodded.  “It should.  I should turn around and head back there.”  She handed her horse’s reigns over to Lincoln, who tied them to a cord attached to his own carriage.  She dismounted, then jogged past the rest of the carriages and headed back down the road they’d come from.

Lincoln shook his head, smiling, as he returned his attention to the road ahead of him.  Jacob and David watched her for a moment longer, then looked over to Lincoln, confused.

“Is she the one putting all this together?” David asked.

Lincoln shook his head.  “If I told you whose idea this was, you’d fall off your horse.”

*****

Xeren had overlooked Carter’s Hill from this position before. She’d actually found several good observation points in the forests around the city.  It made sense to study your enemy, she thought to herself.  And so again, she looked down on the north-eastern part of the over-large city.  Her perspective on the people on the opposite side of town – to the west and south-west – was different.  Joshua had made her see a lot of things differently, she realized.

And now she was plotting an attack on his family.  She shook her head, nearly overwhelmed by how strange her life had gotten.  Symon would get a good laugh out of this, she knew.  In a way, she looked forward to seeing his reaction.

And there it was, just as he’d said.  An overlarge stable building, and not four meters away were the two buildings that the ruling family used for official business.  She could see the stable doors were open, and thought she could see people moving in and out.  Perhaps carrying things.  They were indeed packing their belongings.  Her lips pressed together, the anger rising in the pit of her stomach again.

There was a time when she had set the Turned upon people who didn’t deserve it.  She had thought at the time that she was choosing the lesser of two evils.  She had been able to blame it on the ruling family whose servants she was now watching.

She could easily pick out three spots from here.  It would be simple to get close to the fence once the Turned came out.  It had taken a lot of reading and planning to figure out how to make it work, and she still worried about having to get close enough to the fence the following afternoon.  There were four stands of corn close enough to the wall.  She and her companions could creep up easily enough.  Workers would be leaving these fields alone the following day, and hopefully no one would notice the cords trailing across the dirt in the space between the fence and the rough fences in front of the crops.

*****

The daily training was wearing Laris out. She and the other twelve fighters from Hammerhand were almost finished, and in another two weeks they could go back home.  She had seen the finished wall before she’d left for her training, and it seemed odd to her that the leadership of Carter’s Hill deemed it necessary for her and her friends to train so hard when they had such a superior wall.  Well, the gate can be broken down, they had said.  There was always a danger that the Turned would get inside, and the defenders had to be ready to keep them out by force.

She dropped her axe on her cot, then dropped herself in the wooden chair across the room from it.  Her quarters were small, but at least they were private.  She’d seen the barracks that the new soldiers would be quartered in when they joined up.  At least she had her own room, small as it was.

There was a knock on her door.  Grumbling a little as she stood, the muscles in her legs protesting, she walked to the door and opened it.  The face that greeted her held a wide smile and gentle brown eyes that she’d recognize anywhere.

“Lance!” she embraced her brother firmly, then stepped back to give him space to speak.

“Hello, sister.  The village council sent me with a message for you.”  He looked up and down the short corridor, then motioned with his head that they should go inside and close the door.  She sat on the bed, and he slowly sat in the chair across from her.

“Soon, something is going to happen here.  I don’t know what, but the soldiers who have been training you, and the people from the other villages, are probably going to call you and the others into the wealthy part of town.”  He paused for a moment.  “You need to ignore that order.”

She looked at him, a little cock-eyed.  “Maybe it’s because I’m worn out from training, but I don’t think I understand.”

“Just remember that when they call you into the wealthy section, you need to stay here, and protect the people in this section.  They’re going to need it.”

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