Needle Ash – Chapter 17, “A River Running Swiftly,” part 2

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The Tallaros picked up substantial speed as it went south through the city, eventually becoming a narrow choppy waterway. By the time they found themselves drifting through the open country around Calasora, the river had pushed them miles and miles ahead of any pursuit. The difficulty became not outstripping the chasers, but keeping the boats upright and men onboard as they passed over rough white patches. The first of these rapids had waked Michael, but even the few short hours seemed to have refreshed him.

The sun rose in the east, lighting the tops of the trees. Golden Willows swayed in the wind along the riverbank, with knots of cypress and tall oaks further inland. With the rising of the sun they were in a green-glowing wood of pleasant smells. They passed by a miller at work out by his wheel, and he and his wife waved at them pleasantly as they drifted by. The soldiers laughed and waved back, and as the river pushed onward, they joked and talked lightly with each other.

Michael urged his own boat ahead of the group, knowing that he might soon see the place where he intended them to land. He spent several more hours looking, however, before he found the great gnarled stump that forewarned him of the landing. He had his own boat pulled to the West bank, and soon the river flattened out into a slower, wider patch. His boat landed on a muddy shoal, which was soon crowded with vessels.

Amid the trees some distance to the west loomed a great ruin, made of white stone and cracked marble, its statues and decorations gone. Once it had been a temple, Michael reckoned, but it provided to them a quick place to re-assemble and prepare to march the rest of the way overland with a bit of shelter from the river traffic. It was called Atalasco, taking its name from the mythology of the dark elves, who Michael was told had built it years before when he explored it as a boy.

As each boat was unloaded, it was cast adrift in the river, to wash ashore where it chose. Michael somewhat regretted this, for he knew many of the vessels would be lost or destroyed and therefore cause great suffering to their poor owners, but he also knew that Johan might be seeking for them with their own river vessels, few as those might be, and he did not want their landing place to be too obvious. Michael made up his mind to pay the fisherman if he ever could.

The men hauled themselves overland to the ruin, where they all quickly realized they had brought no vittles. Warm fires and the drying of their soaked boots was all they could do, but there was little complaining.

“It honestly didn’t occur to me,” Gadero said as he and Michael warmed their feet by a fire, their backs to an ancient ivy-covered stone wall. “I’m used to others dealing with supplies.”

“I should have thought of it too,” Michael said. “It’s my duty as an officer.”

“You were half-dead, sir. Give yourself permission to forget vital details when you’re facing the next life.”

“This will be hard to remedy,” Michael said. “I have no funds, either.”

Gadero shrugged. “The men have their own funds, such as they are. We’ll buy what we can on the road.”

“Speaking of which, I don’t feel comfortable resting until we’re in the hinterlands.”

“So another day of marching?”

“Aye. I know of a village on the way. We’ll probably buy everything they own and still feel hungry, but it’ll have to do.” Michael sighed.

“Don’t feel bad, sir,” Gadero said. “We’re here because we want to be.”

“It’s not that. I was hoping Sharo…Angelico would meet us here. We must have been faster than I thought.”

“The river flows swiftly. We’ll meet him again. And your lass. I take it by her face you pissed her off something bad.”

Michael nodded. “And with no Guissali to pontificate on the nature of women in response.” Michael wiped his eyes, feeling tears spring up there. “I shall miss him.”

“As shall I,” Gadero said. “But you killed the bitch who got him. Not much else you could do.”

“There’s more I can do. I have to consider if it’s something I can do.”

“You thinking of an insurrection? A rebellion?” Gadero said, smiling. “I’m bloody in. So is the whole third legion, if we can find them all.”

“I still have to consider it,” Michael said. He thought for a moment. “Thokar! Can you conjure up bread?”

“That’s far too complex an object and too diverse a category,” Thokar said. He was lying on his back beside a fire, his eyes shut.

 

The assemblage of fighting men spent the rest of the day marching west through the woods, finding eventually a wide path Michael and several other men knew. Their hunger got worse as the day went on, but late in the afternoon they came upon a small village which, though rather poor, supplied them generously. As was custom, they refused payment from the soldiers but then took it at Gadero’s insistence.

Their supper therefore consisted of gruel and potatoes seasoned with sage and other wild herbs, along with some dried meat. It was nourishing and satisfying after a night of fighting and a day of marching. It was while they were eating that they came to alert attention, a lookout hearing the sound of hooves from the east.

The grumbling men dropped their supper grudgingly and prepared for a fight, only relaxing when it became clear a lone man was approaching. The rider turned out to be Angelico, who looked wind-swept and sleepy. Bags were under his eyes and his horse seemed in no better state.

“Were we that easy to find?” Michael said as Angelico rode into the center of the village

Angelico dismounted and said, “It was easy enough given I knew where you left the river. A competent scout might see the signs of many men walking, either here or on the little road, but he wouldn’t be traipsing through the woods by Atalasco, so I deem you safe.”

“Where is Sharaona? Did she not come?”

“She went straight west to Suppero, saying she knew of a hospitable family to stay with until we arrived. I tried to keep her from going, being a woman alone on the road, but she’s very stubborn. She took your horse, as I felt I couldn’t manage it and my own while chasing you down.”

“She can take care of herself,” Michael said. “I just… Did you tell her I was sorry?”

“Yes, sir, but she didn’t seem too interested in it.”

Michael sighed. “She’s waiting for us, at least. I’ll have to smooth things over when I get there, I suppose.”

“What did you say to her to make her so mad?”

“That I would marry Julia,” Michael said.

“Oy. Women aren’t your strong suit,” Angelico said, smiling. “She still cares, though. She came and warned me, and wanted to warn you, but it was too late. You were already inside the citadel.”

“How did she know?”

“Apparently Julia tried to have her killed after we all left. It didn’t go so well for the house retainers, she tells me. She set the band off to the southwest and rode straight for Calasora. I avoided the meeting of the high court Julia and I called. I reckon she’d have had a dagger slipped into me while I was unguarded and unarmored, given circumstances.” Angelico patted his thin doublet. “Sharano also, she tells me at least, told the peasants to loot the manor as it is now unguarded.”

Michael laughed. “People underestimate her always.”

“They underestimate you. I guarantee nobody expected you to run a jailbreak like you did. That was damn fine work.”

“Thank Gadero. He coordinated it.”

“You’re too modest. So what is next? Are we to flee somewhere?”

Michael bit his lip. “No. I’m done running. Well, not quite,” he chuckled. “But I know what I must do now.”

“And what is that?”

“Build an army,” Michael said. “And I’ll need you to do it.”

Angelico chuckled. “Of course. But first I will need to talk to my parents, eh? Considering you’re proposing a rebellion headquartered at our estate.”

“I want to get started post-haste,” Michael said. “Pity that you didn’t bring my horse, or I’d send a man to start talking to my old knights and the rest of the regular army.”

“We don’t need to rush into a battle,” Angelico said.

“No, but I’d rather be early than late.”

“Agreed. I can ride ahead. Is there anything you need?”

“Money,” Michael said. “Which is what I think we shall be lacking for this entire endeavor.”

“Here you go,” Angelico said, and took his belt purse off. It was heavy with gold.”

“I told you,” Gadero said, overhearing from a nearby cook fire, “that the men will pay their own way.”

“I intend to find a way to pay wages,” Michael said.

 

When they all finished eating, they set off again, marching a few hours further into the woods before making camp. Luckily, the sky was clear and the woods broke any wind, allowing them to build fires as needed and sleep beneath the swaying boughs of oaks and maples. Bedrolls were in short supply, but leaves and pine needles made decent beds for the tired men, their jacks and gambesons further padding their aching bodies.

Angelico rested his horse and his own eyes for a few hours before setting back off to the west, into the hinterlands where his family estate was.

Michael found Thokar sitting alone by his own fire, which was lit with a magical blue hue. He stared into it, his eyes unfocused.

“How are you doing?” Michael said, sitting beside him.

“My mind is slowly recovering,” Thokar said.

“From what?”

“The use of magic is exhausting,” Thokar said. “It’s easy to get confused and forget things, or just be unable to think, because of what the magic requires of you.”

“I don’t remember Sharona ever getting so tired,” Michael said.

Thokar frowned for a moment. “She’s not a mage… at least one of the normal variety. She conjures little from the prim… I had thought perhaps her connection was weak, but it might be something else. For most of us, to bring into reality that which flows in the prim requires a great deal of concentration and practice. You have to fully understand what you bring forth.”

“She said fire was easy.”

“It is heat and light, easy to understand,” Thokar said. “Harder to understand are things like sight and sound, earth and stone. I have spent my life trying to understand the true nature of things. It has made me powerful, but fragile in some ways.”

“Have you been to the Fay? The Eternal Dream?”

“Only in my dreams,” Thokar said. “Though I know a few who have been there, and a few who have never returned. It’s perilous to go where thought, ideation, and reality are the same.”

“Sharona told me she had been there. I was just curious. I figured it was a bit of a myth.”

“It is myth.”

Michael nodded. “Can I count on the Band of the Badger for a proper battle job?”

“If you pay us,” Thokar said.

“I may not be able to unless we win.”

“Then you had best win. You already owe us for the assassination.”

Michael laughed. “True. I’ll leave you to rest now.”

 

The next day was another hard march, but by noon they had reached the foothills. They passed by a few farm houses and Michael bought what he could of food, but being individual families, the excess they had was sparse. They kept walking into the night, stopping to rest in a large meadow beside a cluster of farmhouses. The peasants there were awoken by the commotion of so many men, and were initially alarmed, but got into better spirits once silver was offered up for whatever food they could spare.

One of the farmers offered to slaughter an old, dry cow for them. Michael, feeling the pit of his stomach lurching at the offer of fresh meat, bought the cow for far more than it was worth and set a few men to butcher it. That night they all ate meat. It was tough and stringy, even after a slow roast, but nobody seemed to mind at all. Healthy portions of muscle and organ meat were doled out to every man (or orc), and Michael witnessed an immediate boost in moral.

He slept well that night, relieved of the nagging hunger.

The next day was a long one, with little in the way of people to see or barter with, but the troop reached Suppero at nightfall, a full day earlier than Michael had expected. The people lit lamps and came out to greet them all, as if expecting them. Michael was pleased to see that the Band of the Badger was already there, camped out in a fortified area past the graveyard.

The band and Michael’s soldiers had a feast that night. Fresh meat was served aplenty, kegs of beer were opened and drained, fruit was devoured, and many loaves of bread were broken. A group of musicians from the village – men and women who enjoyed music for the love of it as a hobby – played some dancing songs, and Michael enjoyed watching the spectacle.

Angelico found him sitting on a low wall eating a loaf of bread.

“My parents took some convincing, but they came around,” he said as he sat down, drinking a mug of ale.

“Good. This is a good place for assembly and training,” Michael said. “And battle, too, if it comes to that.”

“Will it?”

“I believe so.”

“Do you think we’ll be able to match your brother’s forces?”

“No,” Michael said. “But if we have half the number we can achieve victory.”

“Confident.”

“I’m aware of my talents. I’m done playing to Johan’s strengths. It’s time he played to mine.”

“How will we build the army? Even if you get your entire legion, that’s only one third of the first army, and Johan will have them and our reserves.”

“We’ll appeal to their honor, of course,” Michael said. “Many men will heed the call when they come to know how the king was killed. We’ll also offer generous rewards to those who have honor. Estates of the loyalists will go to our knights. We’ll take the land that is owed Johan’s soldiers and portion it out to whomever follows us.”

“He’ll offer estates in Ferralla. You’re going to have a hard time out-doing that.”

Michael snapped his fingers. “But will he make use of the Ferrallese army? I think not, because he doesn’t trust them. They likely won’t join me, because I killed the queen-”

“Is that all? They get offended at the silliest things.”

Michael chuckled. “It’s something to consider. We’ll need to start sending messengers tomorrow.”

“Too bad we can’t go back and not do what we did.”

“Indeed,” Michael said. “But this way at the very least he will not have the Ferrallese army available to him.” Michael forced a smile and patted Angelico on the back.

“Sharona is staying with the church caretaker,” Angelico said. “She refused the hospitality of my parents. You are welcome, by the way.”

“Of course,” Michael said. “But I will remain here with the band. It is bad form for a commander to sit in luxury while those whom he commands do not.”

Angelico took a sip of beer. “Perhaps I ought to toughen up, then.”

 

Michael trudged across the meadow. He was full of food and drink, and with the feast felt an overwhelming sense of tired. He walked up to the large house belonging to Buto, the caretaker. A dim light was in one of the windows. He knocked. After a few moments, the door opened, revealing Buto.

“Good evening,” Michael said. “It is good to see you well again, Buto.”

“And you,” Buto said flatly. “I trust you enjoyed the feast.”

“Yes, thank you. Is Sharona staying here?”

“She is,” Bato said. “Is that all?”

“I suppose,” Michael said.

“Then have a good night, and see you on the morrow,” Bato said flatly, and gently closed the door on Michael.

Michael grumbled and stood on the doorstep for a minute. Reluctantly, he began walking toward the camp of the Mercenaries, wondering if he could find a place to sleep.

“Michael!”

He turned and saw Sharona running toward him through the moonlit grass. He smiled at her despite the serious look on her face.

“I’m sorry again,” Michael began.

“Stop with the sorries,” Sharona said. She paused in front of Michael, a pace away. “I’m not trying to test you, or act aloof. Bato has just been a bit protective is all. He means well.”

“He’ll be well suited to daughters,” Michael said. “I wanted to thank you for warning Angelico. He’s a good man and his loss would have grieved me deeply. I’ve already lost one friend to my stupidity… Guissali…” Michael shook his head.

“I wanted to warn you,” Sharona said. “I… I didn’t know Guissali was dead. I’m sorry… but it was you I didn’t want to lose.”

“And yet you stand far away from me.”

“I’m still quite angry at you, Michael.”

“Understandable.”

“I won’t lay any burden on you in regards to me, or make an ultimatum. I’ll follow you to fulfil the vision I saw.”

“I love you, Sharona.” Michael looked around awkwardly. “My greatest regret is not being deceived by Julia, but in not following my heart in regards to you. I won’t make that mistake again.”

Sharona smiled and stepped closer to Michael. With a sudden movement, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close. Michael hugged her back, and could feel her crying softly. They stood their for a long time like that, silent, until Sharona pushed herself away.

“What does that mean to you?”

“It means I won’t have anyone but you.”

“What about a political marriage?”

“I’ll have to marry off Angelico instead,” Michael said. “I don’t suppose you have any relatives.

Sharona chuckled. She hugged Michael again. “Go get some sleep. You’ve earned it.”

“Not with you?”

“I’m still angry at you.”

“Alright then.”

 

Michael was sitting beside Sharona, Baradict, and Thokar at a table in the dining hall of the church, a large plain room that had the dust to prove it received little use according to its purpose. Gadero was looking over a stack of hand-written papers.

“Where is Angelico?” he said, looking up at the door. “Not like him to go missing.”

“Go ahead,” Michael said.

“Well,” Gadero said, scratching his grey beard. “We’ve had about a thousand men show up so far, but at least half were never part of our legion. We’ve got about fifty knights, much more than I assumed would come, about a hundred archers, less than I’d hoped, about thirty mixed cavalry, mostly freemen… I guess we’ll make them dragoons… are fair number of squires, say fifty. Of the remainder, we have about five-hundred heavy infantry and about three-hundred of lighter equipment. All hands brought their equipment, so we’re in no need of munitions, which is good because we’re dead broke. And we have four mages. That was a surprise.”

“That’s twice as many as the Band has,” Baradict said. “We can bring about five-hundred to the field, if we keep the green lads on the back lines. We can bring another fifty heavy horse.”

“That’s a hundred heavy cavalry. Johan will bring thrice that.”

“He doesn’t know how to use them, though,” Michael said. “I expect he’ll bring three to five thousand men total.”

“Not good odds,” Gadero said.

“Great odds if you consider the quality of men, not just the numbers,” Michael said. “Our men are battle-hardened and loyal. Theirs will be mostly reserves from the second army. Green and inexperienced. Less disciplined. And we have better command.”

“Surely you don’t mean Angelico,” Gadero said. “I know he’s your friend, but he’s a soft one.”

“He’s an excellent liaison, and don’t underestimate his ability to lead from the front. I mean you, the best infantry officer in the country-”

“I’m not an officer, sir,” Gadero said.

“You are now,” Michael said. “I’m naming you General of the Army. Congratulations.”

“Wait a minute, I like being an enlisted man.”

“And you’ll love being an officer.”

“I’m not a member of the gentry-”

“You will be when this is done. Now, we also have Thokar and the Badgers, even more experienced than our own men, and with a bigger variety of units to bear. And of course we have me.”

“The best cavalry officer in the country,” Gadero said.

“I don’t deny it,” Michael said.

A knock on the side of the wall brought their eyes up. Angelico was standing there, smiling.

“I’ve brought one more officer to add to your ranks.”

Michael nearly jumped out of his seat as High Mage Towler entered the room.

“You all look surprised to see me,” Towler said. He took a seat beside Gadero. “Which means none of you know me very well.”

“I thought you were locked up,” Gadero said.

“I was, but it is quite easy to escape when your jailers are as incompetent as the ones in the Forgoroto. Now I’m fairly certain that at least some of you in this room – other than you two,” he said, glancing at Thokar and Baradict, “thought at some point I was working against our late king. That idea upsets me beyond what you realize, but I wish to see Johan deposed for his crimes against his father and me. I gave Edward an oath many years ago that I would see his house carried forward to the next generation, and the crown is upon the wrong head.”

“I… will not turn down the help of the high mage,” Michael said. “I am sorry I ever suspected you. I was blinded by my bias.”

“I withhold forgiveness until the time that I choose to give it,” Towler said. “Now, how many of my corps have come over?”

Gadero glanced at Michael. “Four.”

Towler raised a disapproving eyebrow. “I will work to improve that. I can probably get another four, and that will leave Johan’s army crippled with a mere two.”

“You also have me,” Sharona said.

“I will want you with me,” Michael said. “Towler can manage the organization of the mages.”

“Morolo will rue the day he betrayed me, and your father,” Towler said.

Michael gave Towler a searching look. “Methinks there is something I do not yet know.”

“Undoubtedly,” Towler said.

Michael took a breath and said to the room. “I want units to be mixed if possible, between those who were in my legion and those who have volunteered from others. I don’t want any company that can convince itself to walk out on the battle.”

“That’ll mean reorganizing and retraining some already competent units,” Gadero said.

“I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t handle,” Michael said. “I’ll see to the cavalry and dragoons.”

This post was part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening,  of which this book is a sequel.

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