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MorningInsideMarshendGabriel

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(Continued from Morning Inside Marshend)

Once they set out, Gabriel headed back to the inn, and to Anniketta; placing a hand on her arm, he said, "Is there somewhere we can talk? Privately?"

"My wagon," said Anniketta immediately. "Davin will keep watch to see we are not disturbed - and he'll not spy on us himself either."

She nodded to a tall, thin Giant who was cleaning tankards with sand. He nodded his agreement, even as Aniketta led Gabriel behind the tavern to a small court where the Giants' wagons had been gathered. She climbed aboard her own - not swiftly, but with more ease than she had displayed a day or so previously.

"What is it?" she asked, as soon as she had dropped the curtain that shielded them from the world.

"Did you hear or see what happen... of course you did. The news has probably reached the Wall by now. Events move beyond me, Anniketta. I know what has to be done, but it means more delay." He paused. "The friend I mentioned will have to put in an appearance. And those who followed him... half the town, really... they'll be rising up to help. Our little lord is in for quite a surprise."

Anniketta smiled. "Perhaps his time has come, Gabriel." Her hand reached for his, and she held it tightly for a moment. "If you choose ... it need not be forever. I will be here ... with the Giants. If you choose ... "

She broke off, and her hand slipped away.

"Now," she said, more briskly. "Is there any practical help that the Giants can give?"

Gabriel merely shook his head a little at the second choice. "Many of the younger men will be... busy," he said. "Away. It will be noticed, unless the Giants are willing to take up the slack, pretend that they actually live here..."

Anniketta smiled. "The difficulty will be in ensuring they don't become too close to the women left behind," she said, amused. "But I think Davin and I between us can contain that." She hesitated. "And me, Gabriel? Is there anything that I can do?"

He covered her hand again. "I want you to be safe," he said. "I'm not going to insult you by saying something like 'you need to stay away from the fighting.' But you're still injured, and I don't want to see you hurt because of it. I do need you to be ready in the unlikely event that the Mummers circle around and come back into the village."

She nodded steadily. "I can be ready," she said. "And there will be others here too - those who cannot fight, and who will not flee. What should I have them do, Gabriel?"

Gabriel shook his head slowly. "The Song and Sheep used to be a refuge, but no longer. If nothing else, there's the south road- or boats to take up the lake to the farms along the shore. If things truly get that bad, I wouldn't want anyone to stay and be caught." His eyes met hers. "Anyone."

Her gaze was steady on him. "I will prey all the gods it will not come to that," she said softly. "But if it does, you can depend on me to do what must be done."

She was paler now, and he saw her give a slight shiver.

He moved around to take her in his arms. "It'll be all right," he said. "There will be watchers all the way back to the village. There should be warning, if need be." He hesitated. "I wish you could come with me."

"I wish I could too," she said sincerely. "But my ankle is still not stong - Gabriel, if I can, I would fear to be a burden on you, not a helpmeet." She tilted her head back. "You will come back, won't you?" she said. "No matter what happens, you'll come back?"

Gabriel decided Aniketta needed to be kissed, so he did. "I'll come back," he said. "And you promise to be here and safe when I do."

"I promise," she said, and then she was stepping back. "Go now," she said. "Before I say or do something even more foolish."

Gabriel nodded, smiled, winked, then headed out of the tavern to spread the word: a 'friend' needed to meet with his old group of smugglers, and to meet at a place that happened to be along the same way the Laughing Knives had gone...

Within an hour, a motley crew had gathered ...

And when the men had gathered, some already holding the fierce masks that marked them as part of the smuggler's gang, the final man rode to them. Wearing a rough burlap mask over his features, his voice rough and discordant, he said, "Boys, it's time to take back what is ours. One of us is amongst the little lord's men, and he'll suggest that they push the brigands north... into the fens. We need to be there, waiting to draw them into the bogs and the quicksand... we do it right, no one will hear of them again."

He turned his horse around, then said, "I saw the men they gave to the eels. You saw 'em, too. Some of them were our'n. Good men. They didn't deserve that. I say we pay 'em back!"

There was a roar of agreement. Several had shaggy ponies - the type that did best in the marshes. Still more would take to the shallow waterways in punts and canoes.

"Shall us'n bring fire, Scarecrow?" asked one of the masked figures of their leader. "We can use the foul airs that rise to set our flames and make the land too hot to hold 'em, so they mun face the eels!"

"Aye," the man replied. "Bring fire- but not open flame. Give you away, it will, and you might set things off early. Take boxes with glowing coals, like we do when we meet with the incoming boats. Use that to start the torches. Envy... you and Swallow there, no torches for you. Go to the farm up the way, get the jars of the liquor we made off the still and that one jar of wildfire down in the root cellar. You'll meet me at the second smuggler's landing- we'll hold that stuff in reserve, in case those [email protected] need a little extra nudging into the deeper bogs. The rest of you... easy does it, eh? Aren't no different than a pickup on a quiet night. The Hardy will make all the distraction we need. We do it right, and nobody gets hurt."

He paused, then chuckled.

"None of us, anyway."

There were answering chuckles from all around - and then figures slid away into the marsh mist. Keary knew them well enough to realise that they were ensuring his orders were being obeyed.

When he reached the second landing, he found quite a number of his men already there, Their was had not been unimpeded, it appeared, for Fat Glossop had the gruseome trophy of two heads hanging at his belt, their ears cropped and their tibgues cut out.

"We've held back twenty at the Northgate," a sharp-faced urchin told Keary, a swagger in his staps that sat oddly with his lack of years. "Shall we press 'em hard?"

"Aye," Keary said. He bent down to draw in the mud, unaware that somewhere close, Humble had done something similar not long before. "Aim them for the bogs and quicksand... here. We'll be behind with the fire to force them if they turn back. The Little Lord ought to be pushing forward here, so don't get caught betwixt the two."

The boy nodded, and shot off, self-important with a mission from Keary himself. The rest were flexing their muscles, checking their weapons - and generally preparing themselves for the fight ahead.

A call went up - hanging clear and cold in the air over the marshes. A curlew - long, high and lonely.

A signal that all was in place - the others were beginning to move.

Keary went with them- but on the way, he busied himself by inspecting the two trophy heads that had been collected. "Did they have insignia?" he asked.

"This," said one of his men. He showed a strange insignia - one that Keary had never seen before.

It seemed to be a stylized image of a smake twisting around a lion.

There was, of course, no visible expression behind the burlap mask. "Ever seen one of these before? Looks like maybe the Lannister lion," he said.

All but one of Keary's men shook their heads.

The other one nodded slowly. "I see'd 'un," he said,=. "Last winter - when we wus out doing that raid towards Leaning Tower. Came on a man taken by wolves. Weren't much left ... he wore one like this on 'is cloak. Tore it off an' took the cloak."

The man shook his head. "We could guess forever," he said. "Don' matter now. We'll ask one once we get them in the Fens."

The men nodded, eager to be on their way again.

The ground became soft, then spongy, then submerged; soon enough they were fording a bog full of pale green algae and bright red cranberries. the scarecrow watched as water squelched up around the horses' footprints. It was quiet, broken only by the soft sound of splashing and the buzz of insects; it was not yet time for the majority of the birds to come out and feed.

There was an old track here, one of the paths that legend said an excise man used to take; it was also said the man died chasing a smuggler near here, when the fog came up and they both fell down into an abandoned chalk-pit. Oddly moved, he took up the chant:

"The fire-flash shines from Reculver cliff, And the answering light burns blue in the skiff, And there they stand, That smuggling band, Some in the water and some on the sand, Ready those contraband goods to land: The night is dark, they are silent and still, -- At the head of the party is Smuggler Bill!

" 'Now lower away! come, lower away! We must be far ere the dawn of the day. If Exciseman Gill should get scent of the prey, And should come, and should catch us here, what would he say? Come, lower away, lads -- once on the hill, We'll laugh, ho! ho! at Exciseman Gill!' "

He broke off. "The pit. The old chalk pit. That would be a perfect place."

"To round them up, Scarecrow?" A hoarse chuckle. "We'll drive them on to their own destruction - is that your thinking?"

Burlap masks were turned towards him, but he didn't need to see the faces to know that the men were grinning in appreciation.

The masked man nodded- then looked in the general direction of the pit as if he could see it from this distance. "Aye, drive 'em there," he said. "But it's higher ground, and the rains near always change the approaches, every year. The ground at the edge is sandy... chalky... treacherous. I need a scout." His head swiveled. "Greed. Take little Owl with you, find out the lay of the land. Those of 'em that survive the eels and the mud in the bogs'll be coming from the southeast. They'll be happy to be going uphill, I'll wager. See if there's still a ridge on that side that will keep them from seein' the chalk pit. Come back this way, track us, you'll find us. Don't get seen or I'll throw you in the pit meself. Don't angle west, either, that's where the wildfire will be."

Greed nodded, and set off at once, the eager boy at his heels. It was clear from the gesture he made to still his companion's excitement that Greed had no intention of being seen.

The rest of the crew eyed their leader expectantly. Here and there among the younger men there were grins at the prospect of action.

And he gave them exactly that- or, at least, he gave them movement. Talking to them about the details of the 'herding' plan as they moved, he kept them going towards a good place to waylay the sellswords driven north by the Hardy... waylay and drive them over towards the chalk pit.

As they began to move cautiously through the marsh grasses, it seemed there were no sellswords within range. Slowly they moved into a loose formation - a semi-cuircle, ready to move forward in their herding.

It took a long time for them to be in place. But then, one by one, the call of the marsh curlew came down to the line to the masked man. They were all in place - and starting to move forward ...

A peewit cry. Further up the line, contact had been made.

The masked man didn't waste time; with hand signals and hushed commands, he thinned his line out on one side, sending reinforcements up the line towards where others had been sighted. He followed himself, staying with the people moving up. As he went, he strung his bow.

And soon he saw potential targets. Like a nest of vipers, they were coming upon a camp of sellswords. An outlying sentry was close to where Gabriel was advancing ...

Moving around behind might have been a possibility, but the masked man decided the chance of discovery and alarm would be too high. Instead, he signalled a compatriot on either side of him to help rush and overbear the man after his shot.

If he hit his mark, so much the better. It would be a long time before there was enough blood in the water. If he missed... the man's yell would be the signal for a general rush, and to drive the camp in the direction of the pit.

The man fell, an arrow in his throat. Then his men raced forward, propelling him to the gropund, with no more sound than the wind through the marsh grasses. A faint gurgle of protest, and the man's throat was cut.

The man seemed to relax; then, with hand signals, he urged the rest move into position, then move ahead. He signalled to burn the tents, if they existed, and the deaths would be on this side of the camp; this should serve to drive the others in the direction they wanted to go.

There were startled shouts and sudden resistance - as was, perhaps, only to be expected. These were sellswords and - although they were taken by surprise, they were prepared to make a fight of it.

This was to be expected; but the man knew that the camp was open in one direction, and even the most jaded of enemies would see an easy choice before them. For his part, he mounted his horse again, in order to get a better view of what was going on, and used his bow from a distance whenever it became necessary.

He could see panicked men fleeing from his own forces, the grasses swaying as they fled. A deeper in the ghost fens he could see a mist beginning to rise, the start of the treacherous weather that helped to make the fens so notorious.

The man pulled on the reins; his horse gave a little jump, and he gave signals to push on the flanks in order to 'herd' the enemy forwards and upwards...

It was working - but the mist was growing thicker, complicating things ...

Suddenly he heard a scream, almost at his horse's feet - the horse shied uneasily as a livid face seemed to swim through the mist towards the rider, eyes wide with a more than mortal terror ...

The man jerked his horse back; the bow fell to the earth as, almost by magic, a short, straight sword appeared in his hand. The burlap covered scarecrow's face leered down at the man...

...and he laughed. A guttural, cackling laugh. A laugh from Hell itself.

And the sellsword died screaming at his feet. Another figure was blundering out of the mist - one of his own, this time, and wounded.

The man slid off his horse, then, cursing; this was, literally, the fog of war, and things were getting out of hand. Yet, there may be something on ahead... clutching the sword in one hand and a strange, pebbly clay jar in the other, he headed forward into the mist...

There were men fighting and dying all around him ... his own ... but more of the enemy ...

Many, many more ...

He struggled on through mist and quagmire ... drier ground ...

A scream - terror ... pain ... another. More. A heavy thud.

A shout now, behind him. A warning ...

He ducked and rolled, then, keeping a firm grip on the jar, and came up looking the opposite direction, sword pointing at the new threat.

"No!" the voice shouted, with horror - and the man realised that the threat was not an attacker, but the fact that he was on the very edge of the steep gravel pit ... and now with his back to it - his right heel suspected over open space ...

The man growled and did his best to throw himself forward to the ground; the irony of this nearly took his breath away. He whistled as he rolled forward, calling Mist to him...

Mist came bounding towards him, even as he felt his feet beginning to slide backwards on the sopping grass ...

He let go of his sword, and dug his fingers into the ground. "Here, girl," he said. "Come here. That's it." When she come close enough, he held up his arm for her to take in her mouth. It used to be a very rough game, but at least she would recognize it- and he could use her to steady himself.

She grabbed his arm willingly enough, and shook it vigorously.

His feet slipped back several inches, but she maintained her hold.

The man cursed, and jerked his arm back, trying to entice her to pull backwards.

He spared a second to wonder how many other people had ever found themselves half-off a precipice with a direwolf mauling one arm, a jar of wildfire in the other, and hoping they weren't about to be dragged across a naked blade stuck somewhere in the ground.

Inch by inche he was hauling himself forward, with the direwolf's help ...

And then the one who had spotted his danger and called a warning came racing to help - and the direwolf dropped the arm to growl at what she perceived as the new threat instead.

"No, Mist. Plant. -Plant-." He grabbed the coarse fur around her neck, levering himself closer to her; then rolled over on his back and sat up. He looked suspiciously up at the advancing man as he approached, wondering which side he was on.

"That's far enough," he said to him. "I can't control her that well..."

The figure paused ... and he recognised it as Wantnot, a longterm follower of the Scarecrow.

"Usually she does just as you bid," said Wantnot uneasily.

"Usually she don't have the scent of blood and fire up her nose," the man said. "You called the warning. I'll remember. Spread the word- drop the spirits down on the middle, then move to the sides. Soon as I see the men moved and away, I throw the wildfire. That'll drive them into the men, or over the edge."

Wantnot nodded and moved away. It would take a while for the word to spread ... he had a few minutes before action would be needed.

It was then that he became aware of the coldness of the wind blowing from the marsh.

He turned, slowly, aware that there was only one other time where that kind of cold was seeping through his flesh and bones. He glanced to Mist to see what her reaction was, since her senses were much more acute.

Mist was crouching down, her ears back flat to her head ... and she was growling as though at some unseen enemy.

The man cursed horribly, then gathered up his sword and skipped over to collect the reins of his horse. When he mounted, he laughed, a ragged thing that sounded on the edge of hysteria and madness. What scared him is that he knew it was genuine.

With the horse, he moved much faster, catching back up with Wantnot. "Belay that last!" he cried. "Leave the sellswords. Tell them to leave 'em! We've bigger problems. That way," he pointed, "the Others are coming. Tell the men on this side to form up, pour the rest of the oil and spirits where they poured the first. Between us and the cold that comes! Then form up and fall back, they can flee along the sides of the pit if all is lost. Understand? I go to spread the word on the other side. These monsters are using our own trick against us. Fire might drive them away. Don't question. Do it!" He wheeled his horse to canter to the other side of the line and do the same.

There were shouts - startled acknowledgement - from his men. As he spurred away he heard the sudden roar of flame - his men were following his commands. But the cold wind seemed to be intensifying and he rode towards the rest.

"Dump all of it there, and pull back!" he yelled, once he saw what was going on. "Rally to me!"

The masked man growled, and began herding his men around the side of the pit towards one of the exit paths. "Where are the other four?" he demanded, then added, "Keep together.. keep those torches lit. Around to the others, then we all get out of here."

One man pointed backwards. "They were with the men we're were herding - prisoners - some had surrendered to us. Back there." He pointed back to where the cold was most intense.

The man growled. He looked past the pointing finger, then behind him to safety... "Pull everyone back," he said. "I owe them at least a last look. Meet them up, get back. Stay away from the pit."

His men backed away, watching him fearfully.

The horse snorted uneasily, as if rerluctant for the task. But, obedient to its rider's will, it set one foot before another ... then anoother ...

And suddenly it was snorting and plunging, clearly terrified at the thought of advancing further.

After a moment spent to control his horse, cursing fluidly, the man jerked on the reins and pulled the animal back.

"So be it," he said, loud enough for the others to hear, and turned the steed's skittish prancing into a rear. Taking a torch, he threw it end-over-end into the pool of spirits that the men had laid down into the swamp. The other, strange looking bottle, he held for a moment... and then hurled it with all his strength down into the chalk-pit.

"Move!" he yelled to his men. "Back to Marshend!"

For a long second they were silent, held as though transfixed.

Then, as the land before them exploded into flames, they turned and fled.

The man followed behind them, a rear guard, with Mist running at his side. Skirting the edge of the great chalk-pit, he kept an eye out to shout a warning if the Others actually managed to crawl up and out...

But none did - neither friend, nor foe nor ... Other.

The men cleared the pit and then, on the first available stretch of clear ground, paused for any stragglers to catch up. Some sank panting to the ground.

"We'll move as a group back to Marshend," the man said when he had caught up with the rest. On your feet, now... good lads... time enough to rest when we get back."

He kept them as a group most of the way back; but once they passed the farmhouse that they had used as a staging area, he let them relax. The man pulled them all together once Marshend appeared in the distance.

"You all felt it," he said. "Something's out there. You were a success, lads; any sellsword with his ear to the ground will wet his britches before he thinks about hiding in the marshes. But still, there's that thing with the cold. The word needs to spread; make sure word doesn't come back to you, or one Lord or another can use it as an excuse to hold you. Let rumor spread, as always. We'll meet on this later, as we can. Listen for it."

He moved his horse away a bit, Mist in tow, before turning around in his saddle. "Be careful, lads. Look to your own. Stay out of the marsh. We'll let the soldiers handle this, now."

They saluted him in the fashion of their kind as, one by one, they slipped away, taking their own devious routes to Marshend.

As he did himself... with a heavy sigh... leaving his horse to be stabled, and taking Mist with him as he returned to the inn... as Keary.

As he approached the inn that the Giants had taken charge of, he saw a wagon drawn up outside, and Anniketta and Davin in lively conversation with the Dornish merchant who it must belong to - and who seemed to be accompanied by a crannog woman.

(Continued in MorningInsideMarshendGabrielHex)

Page last modified on January 12, 2008, at 10:29 PM