That day in Polity, two great plumes of smoke rose from the city. One hung over the docks, where the fire had spread to some nearby homes and shops. The other came from the town square, where a great celebration was held and hundreds of animals were sacrificed.
Hugh was hailed as a hero, given numerous honors, and had people coming up to him all day to thank him or share stories of the battle. Many cheered him on as he consumed every last bit of one of the prized heifers. All the while, Hugh ached in every muscle of his body. He spent much of the day and evening waiting for it all to end so he could get some rest.
After what seemed like hours of constant eating, drinking, dancing, singing and people slapping him on his sore back, Hugh finally retired to his bed on Walker’s estate. Just as he was nodding off, Walker came into the room.
“Hugh, I know you’re tired, but I want to tell you something, just in case you sleep for an unusually long time again.”
“What’s that?” asked Hugh.
“I’m giving you an estate within the city,” he said. “It’s not much, it’s basically a small plot of land that includes your forge, but it will make you a land owner, which entitles you to many benefits.”
“Okay, thanks,” said Hugh.
“What I’m trying to say,” said Walker, “Is that I want you to stay.”
“I’ll have to talk to the twins,” he said.
Walker nodded and left.
When Hugh woke up, he ate breakfast and went to his forge. He was determined to get the Vulcan steel to yield under his hammer.
With the help of the twins on both bellows, Hugh heated the slab, then the dwarf carried it quickly using clamps to the anvil. Hugh hammered it with all his might, and after quite a few swings, he thought for sure it had budged, but upon further inspected, Hugh realized that he had hammered it into the anvil, leaving a deep, clear impression after they pried the slab off.
Hugh rubbed his forehead. “Well, our only option then is to find an active volcano.”
“Is lava hot enough?” asked the giant.
“I have to assume so,” said Hugh. “Lava is a lot hotter than a furnace.”
The three of them headed into town for something to eat and to find out where they might locate a volcano. While eating, the giant had a sad look on her face.
“What’s wrong?” Hugh asked her.
“I can’t stop thinking about the bird that took the old man,” she said.
“I try not to think about it,” said the dwarf.
“He’s dead,” said Hugh. “It was just his body.”
“I keep having these dreams,” said the giant, “Where I see the old man calling out to me to free him.”
The dwarf stopped eating and looked at his sister. “I’ve had those dreams, too.”
“He calls out to me, begging me to save him,” she said.
The dwarf stared back at her. “Yeah, like he’s sinking, or falling… or something.”
The two of them looked at each other for a bit, unsure of what to say. Hugh finished his meal and asked if the twins are going to finish theirs. They said no and gave the rest of their salted fish to Him.
“Well, if it makes you feel better,” Hugh said, “We can try to find him. I don’t know where to look, though.”
“I was thinking maybe we should head in the direction where the bird was flying,” said the giant.
“You mean sail across the sea?” asked Hugh.
“I guess,” said the giant.
As Hugh finished the last of the fish, he shrugged. “Okay, we can do that.”
“Let’s not be too hasty,” the dwarf said. “Maybe there’s something else we can do?”
“Like what?” asked the giant.
The dwarf shrugged. “I don’t know… ignore it?”
The giant shook her head and they sat in silence for a bit. Hugh stood up and asked the first person he saw where the nearest active volcano was. They seemed confused by the question, but answered that there were some volcanic islands to the southwest, an active volcano in the north near a town called Molk, and that there was a volcano on the outskirts of Austeria. Hugh thanked him and they went off to find the chancellor.
After waiting some time to see him, they stood before Walker asking how they might get to one of these volcanoes.
“You’re sure you need lava?” asked Walker.
“No,” said Hugh, “But I think it would work.”
“It’s not exactly easy to locate liquid magma,” said Walker. “I’m no expert, but I am pretty sure lava doesn’t just sit around on the surface.”
Hugh nodded. “We might have to dig for it,” he said.
“You can’t just dig for lava,” Walker said. “But… actually, there’s an island where they conduct gladiatorial matches over lava sometimes. They have a system of channeling it from the volcano into an arena. That might be your best bet.”
“How do we get there?” asked Hugh.
“It would just take a few weeks by boat,” said Walker. “I don’t think you should bother, though.”
Hugh pinched his face a bit. “But the –”
“Don’t worry about the Vulcan steel,” Walker interrupted. “Yes, it would be nice if you could work with it, but it’s not worth losing you for weeks, if not months. We need to finish the wall, and I think I may have another use for you shortly. After we’ve dealt with the Otros in the spring, we can worry about this little pet project.”
“Is there a nearby volcano that we can at least check out?” asked Hugh.
Walker scratched his chin. “I guess the nearest would be in Austeria, which is actually rather fortuitous. I was saving it for later when I knew for certain, but I would really like to send you there on a diplomatic mission to enlist their help against the Otros. They’re the only city in the region that fought the Otros to a draw. If we can get them on our side, we would be invincible, and at the very least you might be able to learn how to beat them.”
“We know how to beat them,” said the giant.
“Oh? How?” asked Walker.
“You need to train the soldiers to maintain a shield wall, and to equip them with long spears,” she replied. “The weapons our troops are equipped with are hopelessly ineffective against their tactics.”
Walker nodded. “This is obviously a discussion we should be having with Herbert, but I agree with you entirely. If I could snap my fingers and make it so, I would, but the reality is that we only have a few months to train and equip tens of thousands of men. The use of weapons and tactics which are entirely foreign to us would take much longer. Our best bet is to adapt as well as we can. We lost relatively few troops this time compared to earlier encounters, and I mostly credit the use of shields there.”
“We need larger shields, and weapons that can engage the enemy from a greater distance,” said the dwarf. “At least start training them in the use of spears. Axes and swords are not going to be enough to win this.”
“It’s not going to happen,” said Walker, shaking his head. “Besides, the next time we face them will be totally different. There won’t be any ground battle. Instead, most of our troops will be perched on our wall, firing upon them as they attempt to breech our defenses. Any hand to hand combat will be under vastly different circumstances, and our current weaponry will be very effective in the sort of close-quarters encounters we can expect from a siege.”
“How do you expect to turn them back by sitting behind the wall?” asked the giant.
“With all due respect,” said Walker, “What do you know of war? How many wars have you won? Before coming here, how many wars have you even fought in?”
The three of them stood there silently.
“I very much respect your opinion, but you speak on matters you know little about.”
Hugh stopped looking at the floor and stared at Walker for a few seconds. “I was born into war. I grew up around war. I became an adult through war. This is hardly the first conflict I’ve been involved in. I still have a lot to learn, but there’s one thing I know about war: you cannot win from inside of a wall. You can hide for months, even years, but as long as they have the will, they can keep coming back, time after time. You won’t win until you defeat them so soundly that you break their will to fight.”
Walker stood up to walk over to them. “Hugh, I know you’re right. That’s why I need the help of other cities in the region. I’m even sending diplomats to the king’s court to secure royal cavalry for next spring’s encounter. We will amass an army that will defeat them so severely that they never bother us again, but it will take time. We cannot just march at them and hope to win. It will take months of wearing them down, of depleting their resources, of inflicting heavy losses and hardships upon their army. Then, when they are at their weakest, we can strike with the might of all our allies backing us and crush them.”
Walker led them out of his office and handed Hugh a large purse full of coins. “There is a volcano to the west of here. It looks like little more than a mountain now, but it blew its top centuries ago, spilling burning ash upon a nearby town. If you follow the river upstream for a few hours, you will see it to the south, a mountain with no peak. You can reach it in just a day. If you want, I can arrange to have a mule prepared for you to carry everything you’d need to work there.”
“I would appreciate that,” said Hugh, “Assuming you still want those weapons made.”
“I do, I really do,” said Walker. “I wish you luck, because anything you make could go a long way in convincing our allies to fight for us. Just promise me you’ll hurry back.”
Hugh spent the rest of the day packing his tools and preparing for the trip. The next morning, a mule was waiting at Walker’s estate. They loaded it up and Hugh left with the twins for the volcano. It was a simple, uneventful journey, and they saw the volcano rather early in the day. They turned towards it, away from the river, and reached the summit by nightfall.
They made camp, ate some salted pork, then slept under the stars.
In the morning, the three of them made slow progress up the slope. Eventually it became so arduous that the giant and dwarf decided to stay with the mule while Hugh made the final length of the climb with just the bare minimum of tools and the slab, all tied in a knapsack to his back. When he reached the summit, he was disappointed to see no lava, not even smoke. The volcano was completely inactive, the crater in the center green with vegetation. Hugh sighed, feeling like the trip had been for nothing.
Hugh set down his pack and lay in the grass for a bit, relaxing, watching clouds pass. His muscles ached from the climb and he decided to rest a bit before going back down. Just as he felt he might be dozing off into a nap, he heard a strange sound, like the whistle of a sharp wind through trees, though there were no trees nearby.
Hugh sat up quickly, looking around. He saw no one and thought he was hearing things.
“Do not be afraid.”
He was sure he heard that, as clear as anything. He stood up and looked around in all directions.
“Come on, guys, quit messing with me,” said Hugh. He walked to the slope and spotted the twins so far down the side of the volcano that they were barely visible. Hugh checked behind some large rocks, finding no one.
“Who are you?” Hugh called out.
“We are the ones who watch.” This voice was different, more gruff.
“Are you also the ones who speak and are unseen?” asked Hugh.
“Would you like to see us?”
The voice was also different, clearly female.
“I generally like to see who it is I am talking to,” Hugh said.
“Very well,” said the female voice.
There was a series of light flashes and Hugh rubbed his eyes. He saw spots for a bit, as if he had just been staring into the sun. Two men and a woman walked up to him. They wore simple white outfits of a style Hugh had never seen. They stood before him as he regained his senses.
To be continued…