“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 11 “A Long March”

Under different circumstances, it would have been a lovely day.  The sun processed serenely in its perfunctory way through a bright and cloudless sky.  The breeze was cool and gently caressed the flowering vegetation both great and small which coated the rocky countryside.  Unfortunately, the countryside in question happened to comprise the dominion of Drixi, a land not at all known for its unqualified hospitality.

 

The Drixi army had been on the march since early morning after departing the vault at Mount Vorn, and it was now close to noon.  They had been following a well paved road, which at this point intersected with a narrow, fast moving river, and here a halt had been called.  The Drixi were fastidious creatures, and they busied themselves taking turns lathing their pale limbs religiously with water. Those not so occupied were refilling their skins and distributing bread and ale among their company.

 

The prisoners too were allowed to refresh themselves.  For the moment their bonds were removed, and they were given food and drink and likewise permitted the use of the river….all under a close watch, of course.  Through the entire morning neither the Wogs, Joan or Hae-jin could have risked so much as a murmur among themselves (save for the Wogs, who grumbled a bit to one another), and that was not about to change.

 

Hae-jin had nonetheless managed to occupy his time with some measure of productivity.  He observed the land, committing as much of its features and geography to mind as he could.  He observed his captors, taking careful note of their distribution of troops, their order of march, the disposition of their supplies, and all manner of things which only a professional soldier would notice.  Not that any of it would necessarily prove useful, but it helped forestall boredom and the looming dread of hopelessness.  

 

In particular, Hae-jin took advantage of his own imposed silence to listen carefully to that which passed among the Drixi.  To be sure, the Drixi were not about to take counsel in the hearing of their prisoners, but lips are ever prone to looseness and Hae-jin was nonetheless able to learn quite a bit from the inevitable chatter which flowed irrepressibly about him.

 

The Drixi were nervous.  That much he was able to glean.  The fact that a group of humans had managed to circumvent whatever enchantments were in place to keep them out appeared to be a cause for considerable disquiet.  Why the Drixi should be so afraid of humans in the first place Hae-jin couldn’t guess, but it seemed to Hae-jin that it was very significant to the Drixi that their defenses had been so compromised.  The potential implications of such a breach appeared to be a grave cause for concern, far more so than the actual nature of the incursion itself. The common soldiers seemed worried, and Hae-jin overheard several remarks questioning the ability of the Drixi leaders to properly protect their own people.  It seemed that there was some kind of worrisome political situation at present, something going on outside the Drixi lands which the Drixi themselves were desperate to stay out of. There was a definite fear that something…or someone…would soon be going to war, that the Drixi would be caught up in it, and would inevitably fall under the oppressive influence of a foreign entity.  A very specific foreign entity at that, but one of which Hae-jin could gather but little else from what he managed to overhear.

 

However, it seemed that the mysterious, grey robed interlopers had something to do with it.  Hae-jin overheard many a hushed and rueful remark about them, largely to the effect that the common soldiers considered them aliens and meddlers who were causing trouble and possessed an undue influence over the Drixi leadership, and that the soldiers merely wished the lot of them gone from their midst as soon as possible.  

 

Only once during the course of the morning did Hae-jin have an opportunity to observe these beings again for himself.  It was only for a moment, just as the army was coming to a halt at noontide. Hae-jin and his companions were being led from a position in the center of the column to the edge of the river when they passed closely by the creatures.  

 

They were sitting in a circle on the ground, their postures relaxed yet weirdly distorted in a way which suggested their anatomy was not entirely human, despite the fact that they walked on two legs as men did.  Hardly a surprise, given the hideous reptilian countenances which Hae-jin himself had managed to glimpse previously. In their midst they had set down a clay bowl of some sort filled with water, and Hae-jin observed one of them placing within it a small sliver of what looked like obsidian.  Nothing more could Hae-jin see, for by then he and his fellows had been shoved onward by the guards.

 

However, after they were out of sight among the crowd of soldiers, Hae-jin still managed to learn one more thing about the creatures.  Just one word.

 

Zard.

 

Apparently that’s what the things were called.  At least that’s what the Drixi called them, for as they moved away Hae-jin overheard the guards refer to them specifically by that name, bitterly speculating that the Zard must be taking council with their masters, from which nothing good could be expected. 

 

The noontide respite proved uncomfortably short, even if one had not spent the entire morning marching in fetters after having been awake all night.  The Drixi seemed to be in a hurry. As the commands were given to assuming marching order, Hae-jin observed the Drixi officers gathered together, their helmets tilted back on their heads such that they were unimpeded by the protective masks affixed to them.  In their midst, perched on the saddle of one of their horses, was a small, brightly colored hawk, with which the Drixi officers were speaking. Apparently rabbits weren’t the only talking animals in the lands of the Drixi, and in a short while the hawk took off and flew away past the head of the column.  Throughout the rest of the day, Hae-jin observed the arrival and departure of several more brilliantly colored hawks (so brightly colored indeed that Hae-jin suspected their feathers had been dyed as a sort of livery). The hawks severed as scouts, or perhaps as couriers as well. It seemed that wherever the Drixi army was headed, their arrival would be expected in advance.

 

The afternoon was morbid.  The day was warming up to become oppressively humid.  All the long, weary afternoon Hae-jin marched shackled to his companions, becoming ever the more sweaty and thirsty as the day wore on.  As the sun sank low on the horizon the Drixi began preparations for encampment. Their hawks had been scouting ahead all day, and had identified a suitable location along the Drixi’s route.  Upon reaching the site, the commanders gave the order to make camp, and upon the sound of a trumpet blast from a great ox horn the soldiers broke formation and began to work with practiced efficiency, each man attending to his appointed task with no need of instruction.  Copper shod stakes were collected from carts pulled by oxen, and these were arranged about the encampment to form a wicked palisade. Once this was complete some of them began erecting circular tents in rows like blocks of houses, while others began erecting raised platforms along the perimeter to create temporary watchtowers using modular components carried on the ox carts.  In a matter of a few short hours the Drixi had assembled a camp which was in essence a small fortified village in its own right.  

 

The spacious tent of the commanders was placed in the center of the encampment.  To one side of this was a smaller tent, where the prisoners were deposited. A large stake shod with an iron ring had been driven into the ground in its center, and to this the prisoners were shackled with sturdy chains.  

 

Hae-jin sat cross legged and weary on the hard ground, a iron cuff about one ankle.  The chain had enough length to allow him to sit, stand, or lie down, but that was all.  He was tired. At least he was accustomed to long marches. Joan appeared utterly exhausted, already lying on the ground and nearly asleep.  The Wogs were bickering openly now, chiding and insulting the Drixi with every other remark. It was a credit to their discipline that the Drixi hadn’t already cut out their tongues.  

 

Hae-jin had watched as the Drixi built their camp.  He was impressed. Had he not become so recently unemployed, he would have introduced some of their practices to his own command.  Likewise though, there were some things about the Drixi which disturbed his professional instincts. The Drixi we’re well drilled and organized to be sure, but there was still something lacking.  The men knew their jobs perfectly, but they went about them in a casual sort of way, talking and loitering here and there just a bit more than was to Hae-jin’s own liking. There was a certain sloppiness in the way they erected the palisade, and the design of the watchtowers suggested a greater emphasis on ease of construction than strength.  All in all, it seemed as though the Drixi troops were fundamentally capable and well trained, yet at the same time suffering from a certain measure of complacency.  

 

Hae-jin wasn’t the only one to notice this, or so it seemed.  On more than one occasion Hae-jin observed the senior officers chiding the troops here and there.  At one point Hae-jin witnessed an officer rebuking his men quite severely, threatening that if war were to come it would likely find them unprepared.  The sense of urgency among the officers seemed at odds with the relative apathy of the troops. It was almost as if the officers knew something which the common soldiers did not.  Hae-jin recalled the rumors he heard among the men during the day. Perhaps the threat of war was even greater than was suspected within the rank and file.

 

At length soldiers came by the prisoners’ tent, bringing water and hard cakes of barley.  It was hardly an indulgent repast, but Hae-jin and Joan ate gladly. The Wogs complained loudly.

 

The evening was tedious.  The Wogs bickered and griped, Joan continued her assumed silence, and Hae-jin was left to his own dark thoughts.  At long last the Wogs ran out of things to bicker about and gradually fell asleep, scratching and sniffing in a great heap like a pile of old farm dogs, while opposite the them Joan likewise slept curled up as comfortably as could be managed.

 

Hae-jin lay awake longer, gazing idly at the slivers of light which peeped through the gaps of the tent and listening as the songs of the Drixi drifted on the wind from other parts of the camp.  A full day had come and gone. Through it all, he, Joan and the Wogs had remained the captives of the Drixi. It would have been much more convenient if the Bird had turned up through one of his holes and extracted his allies from their predicament, but such was not the case.  In all probability, the Bird was with Lindsey, probably close to completing their quest. Perhaps when it was all over the Bird would come back to find his missing compatriots, but a lot could happen before then. All in all, it was a sticky situation, to be sure. In following the Bird, it seemed that Hae-jin had merely gotten himself from one hopeless situation to another.  At least back in Hancheon he was in his own country, with knowledge of the land and the people and perhaps one or two friends left who just might be trusted. Here he was a complete alien, marked by a foreign countenance, with no familiarity with the territory at all nor any connections whatsoever within it.  

 

Still, there were certain advantages.  At least here he was alone. Surrounded by enemies, he had only himself to look after, and needn’t fear for the safety of anyone save himself.  But no, as he thought further about it he realized that wasn’t true. Looking across the tent he could faintly see where Joan slept, her form only just visible in the scant light.  No, he was definitely not alone, there were indeed others whose welfare he should be responsible for. Lindsey was likely thousands of leagues away by now, but Joan remained in the same predicament as his own.  As the moon shifted position in the sky a bit more of its light made it inside the tent, highlighting the graceful shape of the woman who lay in furtive repose nearby. She was beautiful, in a weird, foreign sort of way.  There was no denying that. But Hae-jin had only recently lost his own wife, and the pain of that loss was still fresh and bleeding. He did not dare to let anyone else into his heart, not now. The pain was far too great.  But he had to protect Joan. He may have been unable to preserve the life of his wife, but he would make sure that he would safeguard this woman, even if it meant his own life. He had little else left to him anyway. 

 

A harsh fart from elsewhere in the tent reminded him that Joan wasn’t the only one sharing his predicament.  He was still well stocked with Wogs. With a mournful sigh, Hae-jin turned onto his side and did his best to make himself a bit more comfortable as he lay on the callous earth.

 

Sleep was elusive.  Hae-jin instead found his mind drifting to and fro, his thoughts becoming slowly hazier bit by bit, but never quite approaching anything like true sleep.  At long last he found himself in a distorted sort of reality, reliving the events of the day in semi-conscious dreaming.

 

Then, through the dream, someone shouted.

 

Hae-jin opened his eyes.  Had the shout come from the dream, or had it awakened him from somewhere outside?

 

Hae-jin listened.  All was quiet. The entire camp seemed to be asleep by now.

 

What was that?  Another shout?

 

Yes, it certainly was.  There, just now there was another.  In point of fact, there seemed to be a bit of a commotion building up somewhere in the camp.  A horn sounded, followed swiftly by others. In a few moments the entire camp was alive with shouts and cries.

 

Hae-jin sat up.  Beside him he could see Joan bolt upright as well.  They exchanged glances, but said nothing. Meanwhile, one of the Wogs began to snore.

 

Hae-jin crawled towards the opening of the tent, going as far as the chain on his ankle would permit.  With his shackled leg stretched as far as it could, he could just reach the flap of the tent and turn it aside to peer out into the darkness.

 

The moonlight illuminated a scene of pandemonium.  Everywhere Drixi were running about, some half dressed, others wearing bits of clothing and armor.  Some were lighting torches, while others were forming up in groups.  

 

Suddenly, a group of Drixi scattered like startled doves as a huge shadow barrelled through their ranks.  The shape lunged about at the Drixi, sending them running and stumbling in all directions. With a mighty sweep of its paw it tore a tent straight to the ground, and against the moonlight Hae-jin could see the silhouette of a great bear, and over the din he heard its mighty roar.  

 

A group of Drixi had managed to collect themselves and were now making for the bear with spears lowered.  With another roar the bear swept aside half of the spears and bowled over their wielders, and the beast went rampaging off into another part of the camp with the Drixi in hot pursuit.  

 

Hae-jin felt a touch at his side.  Turning to look he saw that Joan had crawled up beside him.  Their eyes met and Joan uttered one word:

 

“Ursilda?”

 

Hae-jin nodded.  He had thought the same.

 

Hae-jin crawled back to the center of the tent and heaved his weight against the post to which the five prisoners were shackled.  But it was driven deeply into the ground, and he could not budge it.

 

Outside, the tumult seemed to be shifting further away.  Hae-jin and Joan continued to waste their strength against the post as bit by bit the clamor died down.  Now and again a horn sounded as patrols could be heard moving through the camp. Whatever opportunity for escape the bear’s intrusion might have offered, it seemed to be rapidly slipping away now.  

 

At last, Hae-jin and Joan ceased their efforts against the post and leaned wearily against one another.  Outside things seemed to have come under control, and for a moment there was silence. If it was indeed Ursilda that was out there and if she were indeed trying effect their escape, she had failed.

 

Still, Hae-jin felt a warm sort of glow.  If nothing else, it seemed that he and his companions had not quite been forgotten after all.  Perhaps there was some hope yet.

 

Morning found the encampment slightly the worse for wear.  The Drixi were in the process of disassembling the whole thing in preparation for the day’s march, and as the prisoners were led out of their tent Hae-jin took some satisfaction in observing that a fair bit of the disassembly had already been done for the Drixi.  Here and there a tent had been torn down, carts were overturned, cauldrons were spilt, sacks were ripped open and their contents strewn across ground, and one of the watchtowers had been completely knocked over. On two sides of the camp the palisade had been broken through, perhaps marking where the bear had both come in and at last gone out.  There was no carcass to be seen anywhere, and it seemed that the bear had made a clean escape.  

 

The Drixi also looked slightly the worse for wear.  Not a few of them showed visible bruises, and all of them seemed a bit rattled and out of sorts.  It appeared that the only people in the camp who had any sort of a restful night were the Wogs, who had slept through the whole business.  Upon observing the desolation about them and learning its source, the Wogs became rather merry, and mocked the Drixi mercilessly until they started getting kicked.  

 

Soon enough the army was again on the march.  The Drixi seemed quite a bit more wary though, and progress was slower than on the first day.  When they again pitched camp they did so with much more consideration, and this time they dug a trench around portions of the palisade.  There was no singing or merriment, and the night went by drearily. The prisoners were shackled again as before, and their bonds were doubled.  The Drixi were caught off guard once; they were not to be so embarrassed again.

 

At one point during the night there was a cry raised among the guard.  Hae-jin could not get over to the tent opening as before, but from the sound of it it seemed that something had been sighted along the perimeter of the camp.  Soldiers were dispatched to drive off the intruder, and soon enough the commotion died down. Twice again this happened before dawn at last rose, and in the morning the general mood was grim and choleric as the Drixi broke camp.

 

The pattern was repeated for the next two days.  By day the Drixi were shadowed by some mysterious beast which would harass their encampment camp by night.  Never again did the bear manage to break past the perimeter into the camp itself, but with each passing night the Drixi grew ever more exasperated each time they were obliged to see the creature off.  

 

On the fourth day of the march the Drixi called an unusually early halt.  At first, Hae-jin thought it was the midday rest, but the column remained in formation and stood still.  They were stopped on a low hill, and from Hae-jin’s elevated position he could see clearly the head of the column below, where the Drixi officers sat on their horses.  They appeared to be watching the sky, and as Hae-jin attempted to follow their gaze he observed a large bird high in the distance. A messenger, perhaps? If so it was certainly not one of the hawks the Drixi had been dispatching regularly through the entire trip, for as Hae-jin watched the bird was slowly approaching, and as it came closer it became clear to Hae-jin that it was not a bird at all.  It was staggeringly large, and to his astonishment Hae-jin also observed that it was carrying a rider. The flying creature was approaching quickly now, and in a few moments it landed a short distance away from the head of the column.

 

It was a tremendous creature, nearly the height of a giraffe with clawed leathery wings a full thirty feet in span, with a long bill and thick neck like that of some monstrous heron.  It’s skin was a yellow ochre color banded with pale green and pebbly in texture like a lizard’s. When it landed it stood tall both on its hind legs and the claws of its folded wings, walking on all fours like a proud bat.  Hae-jin himself had never seen it’s like and had no name for the creature, but it was in fact a type of pterosaur, albeit a breed removed from those known to science through thousands of years of domestication. Upon the shoulder of its wings there sat a rider on a suitably shaped saddle.  It was a Drixi of splendid appearance, girded in brightly enameled armor and brilliant silk robes of warm saffron trimmed and embroidered with scarlet. The Drixi officers approached him on horseback, looking pale and drab by comparison. The dazzling pterosaur rider saluted deferentially to them nonetheless, suggesting to Hae-jin that he was perhaps a common trooper in an otherwise elite regiment.  

 

The Drixi officers conversed with the pterosaur rider for some time.  At long last the rider saluted the officers once more, and with a tremendous thudding noise from the beat of its vast wings the flying reptile lifted itself skyward and soared into the distance.  The officers issued their commands, and the column began to move forward again.  

 

As the column proceeded down the gentle slope, Hae-jin caught sight of the Zard again, swathed in robes as usual with hoods pulled low over their hideous visages as they gripped their reigns with scaly claws.  Their inhuman anatomy gave them a weird sort of posture when sitting on a horse, such that they always appeared hunched and stooped over in a way which which was decidedly sinister. Hae-jin shivered. It was the first time he’d actually seen them in three days, and a part of Hae-jin had hoped they had perhaps departed.  Apparently this was not the case; they were accompanying the Drixi all they way to their destination.

 

Noon came and went, but the Drixi made no stop.  It seemed as though they were in a hurry, and Hae-jin found himself hopeful that their long dreary march was at last approaching an end.

 

The territory had become progressively more hilly and wooded over the last couple days, and by late afternoon the column had come upon a great valley.  As the road took a bend and began to slope downwards into the valley, Hae-jin had a brief moment to behold the vista before him.

 

Here the valley was divided into two forks by a line of craggy hills, and at its basin there was a wide, hearty river of deep blue which took a sharp bend in the crook of the terrain.  All around the rolling hills were covered with lush, green vegetation, and looking straight down the nearer fork of the valley Hae-jin could just discern the snow speckled ridges of low lying mountains in the remote distance.

 

At the fork of the valley the line of hills which divided it were jagged with rocky outcroppings.  At the top of this was a great prominence, a narrow line of bare rock breaking above the treetops like a thin blade.  And upon this, there was a fortress.

 

The castle was tall, narrow and long, snaking, sloping and zigzagging like some great stone highway in the sky as its foundations conformed to the slender wedge of rock below.  It was covered with a great sloping roof of dark shingles which topped a layer of plain wooden hoardings which were relieved by only a single brooding turret with a short, slate colored spire.  Nearby, Hae-jin spotted two pterosaur riders patrolling the sky around the edifice. As the column of Drixi soldiers descended into the valley the view of the castle was gradually obscured by the trees, save for the highest windows which peered downward at all that went on beneath them like dark, ever wakeful eyes.

 

The road rambled sinuously into the valley, now moving parallel with the river and the line of hills on which the great fortress was built.  Over the course of an hour the army marched thus, until at length they came upon a fork in the road, one branch of which took a sharp turn towards a wide stone bridge which at last crossed the river.  This the Drixi took, and up ahead Hae-jin saw a number of buildings on the lower ridges of the hill, which sloped gradually downwards from the heights on which rested the castle. It was was a small town.  It was clear to Hae-jin now that the Drixi were headed for the castle above them, and as the army marched through the town’s streets they passed by ambling rows of low log houses roofed with gablets, most of them covered with white plaster on one or more of the facades and painted with swirling designs in bright colors depicting various flowers, animals, and many, many eyes.  The villagers did not appear to be wealthy, but they were well dressed and clean. Wherever the procession of soldiers passed the people stared and whispered to one another in deep disquiet, and many of them abandoned whatever they were doing and went speedily to a large clapboard temple with a great pyramidal roof which reached nearly to the ground where it stood amidst a sloping and irregularly shaped plaza which served as the village square.

 

By now the army was well through the village, and was approaching the castle from the opposite side of which Hae-jin had first seen it upon entering the valley.  From this vantage, Hae-jin could see that the castle was in fact much larger than it had at first appeared, for the elongated portion which ran along the narrow peak comprised only the great keep.  The rest of the castle sprawled down the hillside in descending levels of walled terraces dotted with multiple turrets and several large, thick towers.  

 

They were approaching the main gate now, marching uphill along flat cobbles towards a ponderous, blocky structure projecting from one side of the lowest level walls, which was pierced with arrow slits within its thick walls and covered by wooden hoardings, beneath the shadows of which Hae-jin could just discern the presence of grim Drixi guards cradling recurved bows.  Two great banners we draped over the side of the parapet, one of teal and grey and the other of saffron and scarlet.

 

As the army approached a deep, throaty horn sounded, and the great iron shod doors were swung wide.

 

And Hae-jin, Joan and the Wogs passed into the fortress of the Drixi.

 

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