Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Several Adventures of Hugh, Part 36

The Several Adventures of Hugh, Part 36

Hugh woke up to the sound of someone coughing. A young man stood at his doorway, obviously averting his eyes. He cleared his throat again, clearly trying to get Hugh’s attention.

Hugh moved Khilia’s arm off of him and got out of bed. He rubbed his eye and approached the young man. “Yes?”

“The hunting party is assembled,” said the young man.

Hugh stood silent for a moment, confused. “Oh, of course. I’d completely forgotten.”

Hugh got dressed, said good bye to Khilia, and checked on the grieving father. He was not in his room. He was out back, still tending the pyre. The bodies had almost completely burned now. Hugh informed him that he was free to use the home however he wished.

Once everything was in order, Hugh followed the young man to the outskirts of a wooded area where a dozen horses were grazing as men sat around a fire for warmth in the morning chill. Frost still clung to the grass as Hugh approached.

The twins were there, as was Herbert and several men Hugh vaguely recognized from the party the night before. As Hugh sat down next to the twins, boy came running from the woods with a cloth spread out in his arms. On the cloth, there appeared to be dung.
Herbert took the cloth and inspected the droppings, at times moving them around with his fingers, breaking up the clumps to inspect their insides, even sniffing at them. He nodded and gave the cloth back to the boy. Herbert looked to Hugh, “You’re just in time. We’ve picked our prey. Follow him to Drakanos and we’ll see you in the field later in the day.”

The boy led Hugh to a smaller encampment that had several wagons with dogs inside. The dogs in one wagon barked incessantly. A man in a leather vest trimmed with fur approached them and introduced himself as Drakanos.

“And these are the dogs. You have any experience with canines?”

“No,” said Hugh.

“Don’t worry. We’ll put you in charge of one of the bullies. I know the perfect one. She’s easy on the leash, shouldn’t cause you any trouble. She’ll follow you close. I’ll explain more as we chase.”

Drakanos took the cloth with the droppings and brought it to the wagon with dogs barking louder than the others. Their ears were long and droopy, and the skin on their face hung down low on either side of their face.

He held the droppings up for the dogs to sniff at. He pulled a latch and the back of the wagon dropped down to form a ramp, which the dogs ran down. The man set the cloth on the ground, and the dogs crowded around the droppings, sniffing so loud at times that they sounded almost like pigs.

“Go get him!” Drakanos shouted, and most of the dogs ran off into the woods, with a few stragglers staying to sniff more before bolting in the direction of the others. The dogs periodically barked as they ran, forming a slowly fading chorus.

“Okay, now we follow them on foot with the sight hounds and the bullies on leashes.” Drakanos opened two other wagons and the dogs inside sauntered out. A large dog with an enormous face and powerful build was leashed and given to Hugh. The dog had a thick leather coat buckled to her.

“Her name’s Hopper,” said Drakanos. “When we corner the elk, all you have to do is drop the leash and she’ll know what to do. She’s one of the best. She should keep pace with you until she sees the prey, then she will pull hard on the leash. Don’t let go of her until the elk is cornered. ”

Six men then ran into the woods with Hugh, most of them with two or three dogs on leads. They followed the sound of the barking hounds, occasionally catching up to one of the pointers which would stop to allow them to catch up, then sprint in the direction of the scent. This went on for hours, until the sight-hound handlers broke away from the bullies and went in separate directions.

Hugh looked to Drakanos. “They’re going to circle around for a mile or two try to surround the elk. We just keep following the scent hounds.”

Hours passed quickly, as they moved through sparse trees, thick brush, tall grass, and across creeks. Then, Hugh heard a horn blow.

“They see it,” said Drakanos. “They blow the horn when they see the elk and release the sight hounds. They’re quick and will follow the elk closely, keeping it in view, all while barking to alert us of the elk’s position. We just keep following the scent hounds, though. You hear the difference in the barks?”

The familiar deep bark of the hounds they had been following was now accompanied by feint, distant, periodic yelping in a much higher register. Hugh nodded as they continued jogging over the terrain.

They continued their pursuit, following the sound of the hounds, but a new noise seemed to approach them from behind. It was like a dull roar which grew louder and louder, until finally the horses were passing Hugh. The twins shouted and waved as they rode past, spears in hand.

Hugh picked up the pace and ran as fast as he could. His dog struggled to keep up. Before Drakanos fell out of earshot, he shouted, “Remember, when you actually see the elk, just let the leash go.”

Hugh was almost able to keep pace with the horses ahead of him for a bit, though he fell far behind before too long. Soon, he couldn’t even hear the sounds of horses, only the dogs. Hugh saw a pointer, which spotted him and ran ahead again. Hugh heard two sharp horn blasts, and continued running in the direction of the barking.

Now thirsty and very tired, Hugh spotted some horsemen, though only two of them. The twins were not with them, nor was Herbert. “You can stop to rest if you want,” said one of them.

Hugh leaned his back against a tree and took deep, long breaths. “How much longer?” asked Hugh.

“Hard to say,” said the horseman. “The sight hounds are on it, but no one is out in front of the elk. We have to wait for hound or horse to cut it off and surround it, or divert it back this way. If the elk takes a turn back in our direction, it won’t be much longer.”

Hugh rubbed his legs, which were sore and getting stiff from standing around. “So... I just keep following the barking?”

“Yep, that’s all you need to do. When we corner or surround it, you’ll probably be the first dog handler with a bully to arrive. Just keep an even pace, don’t worry about rushing it.”

Hugh nodded and continued on at a jog. The sound of barking never seemed to get closer, but at least it didn’t seem any farther away. The whiney yelp of the sight hounds was much clearer than before, though. At the next stream, Hugh stopped for a quick drink, as did the dog. As Hugh was bent over cupping water from his hand to his mouth, the dog growled, then Hugh heard a very loud yelp.

It happened so fast, Hugh couldn’t even process what happened. The elk ran just a few meters away past Hugh, quick as a flash of lightning, with a sight hound just a moment later racing after it. Hopper pulled hard on the leash, but Hugh held it firmly. He ran in pursuit as fast as his aching legs could manage, Hopper bounding along through the woods ahead of him. Hugh could see the sight hound at times through a clearing in the trees, but he could not see the elk.

A horse ran up from behind Hugh. It was Herbert, and he waved as he passed Hugh, shaking his spear in the air. Before long, another horseman passed, then another, and a fourth, this one ridden by the giant. “We’re close!” she shouted.

The horsemen all fanned out and managed to corner the elk in a rocky alcove near a small brook. The dogs all kept a distance from it, barking and riling it up. One of the horsemen dismounted and rang a bell, and the dogs came running back to him. Hugh arrived and let Hopper’s leash go.

Hopper approached the elk in a full run, directly at the lowered antlers of the elk. She jumped high into the air over them, onto the elk’s back, biting into its neck. The elk bucked its head up and reared onto its hind quarters, but failed to pierce the dog at all, succeeding only in knocking her off its back. Hopper was completely unfazed and put her paws up on the elk’s side and tried to bite its neck from underneath, but she couldn’t seem to get a grip on the struggling beast.

A horseman dismounted and approached with his spear. He jabbed the elk in the shoulder, and it charged towards him, but Hopper bit one of its hind legs hard right at the knee. The elk let out a frightened, braying sound. The elk kicked its back legs as hard as it could, but Hopper held firm, and within seconds there was the sound of crunching as the leg broke in her jaws.

Hopper never let go, even as more horsemen speared the elk, even as the death blow was delivered by Herbert via a knife cut to the neck, and even as the corpse was butchered. The leg was simply cut off near the shank and Hopper walked away with it to chew in peace.

The elk was hung from a tree by its remaining back leg and the blood was drained from it’s neck into a pot. All the dogs except Hopper sat staring at it, until Drakanos came over and began dipping bread into the blood. He gave a soaking piece to every dog. After the blood was mostly drained, the carcass was heaped onto the back of Herbert’s horse and they all made their way home.

Though the hunt ended by mid afternoon, they were back within sight of the city within just a couple hours, before the sun had even begun to set behind the horizon. They built several fires and butchered the elk, roasting bits of it on spits and throwing most of the internal organs to the dogs. Children showed up and asked for the stomach, which one of the hunters emptied, cleaned, and blew full of air before tying it off. The children batted it around in the air, playing a game where they tried to keep it from hitting the ground.

After the dogs ate their fill, Drakanos led them off to be loaded back into the wagons, then mules were brought in to haul them away.

What had struck Hugh about the whole thing was how many hours they had chased the elk, and yet it felt like hardly any time had passed. His body was exhausted, but was it not for the encroaching darkness of night, he never would have believed they had been out for so long. As the meat finished cooking, they ate and continued to discuss the hunt.

Hugh went home with the twins a little after nightfall and found the father with his son, watching the last embers of the pyre. Hugh explained the whole situation to the twins, and together they all brought the last of the unburned remains to the river to be laid to rest in its waters.

Theora saw them from the other bank, and Hugh lowered the bridge so that she could cross. When she was told of what happened, she asked the man and his son if they had eaten anything, and when she heard they hadn’t, she went back to her home and brought them a pot of lentil stew. The boy ate, but the father didn’t touch any of it.

The next day, they went about acquiring everything necessary for the man to continue his work. Hugh fashioned woodworking tools in his forge while the man and the twins downed a tree and dragged it back. With the tools and wood, they fashioned a loom and shuttle. By night, he was ready to weave.

Over the next few days, they purchased flax, wool and hemp. The father (whose name was Webley), prepared the fibers and produced large rolls of fabric. When Walker heard about all of this, he sent Henry to appraise the quality of the fabric, which prompted Walker to offer to arrange for it to be sold abroad through his personal merchant ships.

Before long, Walker also arranged for Webley to produce canvas for his ships’ sails. Webley moved into a new storefront home within a month, which Walker purchased for him, and a few months later, in mid winter, he found a new wife.

All winter, Hugh worked at his forge from morning until night, producing weapons and armor that was given over to the Politian army. By the coming of spring, nearly every officer in the army was sporting something crafted by Hugh. Herbert in particular was not only outfitted with a full set of steel armor, his horse was as well.

At the beginning of spring, there was a festival where the streets were lined with rose petals, thrown by young girls from wagons early in the morning. By then, the dwarf had found a woman and the giant found a man, and both planned to marry sometime before the Otros arrived.

Initial reports from nearby towns and cities indicated the Otros were to arrive around the Spring Equinox, but Herbert prepared for them to arrive three weeks before that. The wall was finished well ahead of time, the armies were mustered, and they sat around waiting for weeks. The Spring Equinox came and passed, and still the Otros did not arrive.

In the meantime, military forces from across the Kolish empire arrived daily, some by land and some by sea. Large, powerful soldiers from the cold Northern region showed up in long, thin boats with dragon heads on their bow. Simply called Northerners, they carried shields and were equipped with a variety of weapons, including axes, swords, maces and hammers. They were much more heavily armored than the average Politian soldier, and their long hair hung far down their backs, in hues ranging from blonde to red to light brown.

From a distant desert colony came a large contingent of horsemen, mostly heavily armored cavalry, but also some equipped as light horse archers and scouts. They were called the Nudari, and they had no hair at all, preferring to shave their heads completely clean. What struck Hugh most about them was their many facial piercings, as each had many golden hoops and studs in their nose, along their eyebrows, and in their ears.

There were several other contingents to arrive at this time, but the largest group came from Kole itself. They sent a large army of over 80,000 men, all equipped with large, rectangular tower shields and long, steel-pointed spears. Each was also equipped with a steel sword and dagger, and their armor consisted of the most thorough set Hugh had seen, with the front of every single point on their body plated with steel, from shins to thighs to torso to head. Even the non-shield arm of each soldier had a sort of segmented plate cover, which allowed for both movement and protection.

Hugh was fascinated by the wide variety of arms and armor coming into the city, and his later creations reflected this diverse influence. He even took time to have long discussions with the quartermasters of each army, who were eager to exchange information with him regarding the various styles and techniques employed by their troops.

Finally, just as the vast armies were growing restless, the Otros arrived and made camp outside the walls of Polity.

To be continued…

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