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The Wind at Raven's Rest Part 3 COMPLETE

 I thought I was in fairly good physical condition, turns out I’m not. It feels like we have been walking for days. My feet are slowly turning to magma in my shoes and all my joints are stiff from sleeping on the ground for far too long. I used to enjoy sleeping outdoors when I knew I had a cosy cabin to go back to, now that I am faced with the possibility that we could be out in the open for months, the idea is definitely not appealing to me anymore.

It feels like we have been out here months, although in truth I know it’s only been a week and a half. We have been lucky with the weather, the spring storms have massed and the really bad summer ones have yet to emerge from over the mountains. Stan keeps promising me that we will find shelter before they arrive, but every time the wind picks up, he nervously checks his map (well it’s more of a ragged doodle, but using any of the digital GPS equipment would mean we could give away our location).

We came close to getting caught on the second day, I hadn’t realised that my glider had a tracking beacon built into it. When we realised Stan almost threw it over a cliff in a fit of anger. We could hear the trackers on our tail, stumbling through the undergrowth with no subtlety. I suppose you don’t need to be quiet, when your prey is stupid enough to basically tell you where they are.

I managed to persuade Stan that we needed the glider, and instead we began a mad rush to find the tiny GPS chip. It was actually integrated into one of the straps and instead of trying to save it, I just cut it off and we dropped it into a nearby stream. It floated off down the mountain and we went in the other direction, hopefully losing the Establishment in the process.

One thing I have come to appreciate since joining Stan is that technology need not rule your life. I have been trained to believe that technology is helpful, it makes our lives better, my job was to protect, maintain and upgrade that technology. But what is the price of that dependency? I am beginning to think that maybe it is our freedom. I understand why my Grandfather valued his books, and refused to allow us to become reliant on technology like the rest of our small-town. If we would ever find ourselves without technology we would not be helpless.

That night I went a little way away from our camp to wash and think, and quickly found myself breaking apart all my electronic navigational tools. I salvaged what I could and buried the rest.

Another thing I am starting to miss is hot water. I never used to think about showers, but I miss them more then comfy beds. Up in the mountains the water is particularly icy and I am well and truly fed up of shivering when I want to be clean.

I like the stars out here though. They are more beautiful then you can imagine, I can actually see the bands of what must be our galaxy as the drift across the sky. You could see a lot of stars from the town, but I never looked up. Out here there are millions of little lights blinking in the sky each night, and they are the last thing you see before you sleep. I can’t believe I never found time to just look at them before. They’ve always been there, it seems silly that humans spend so much time looking at each other when those little jewels create such beauty. They don’t hunt each other, kill each other or try to hurt each other in anyway. They cannot love, but they shine so brightly that that doesn’t seem to matter.
*

Dear Riley,

I don’t know if you will ever get a chance to read this, as we cannot send letters by the conventional means, for fear of giving ourselves away. If you are still alive, I hope you are well. I have spent the last six months in the mountains and have seen sights I couldn’t have dreamed of before. At first I felt like the Raven, a rebel hiding amongst the Steeps in the hopes that the Establishment will one day let me live a normal life. A recent run-in with some investigators has made me realise that may be unlikely.

The scariest thing that has happened so far was when we stumbled into a pteroraptors nesting site.
I have never seen a pteroraptors so close before, unless it was on the other side of a shield. I never thought that the shields would distort the image so badly. When you look at them, in a non-stressing environment, the first thing that strikes you is that they are quite beautiful. Their skin is paler when they are at rest, and the dark veins run like lace across their wing membrane. Their beaks are still as sharp but less threatening when you aren’t being chased by a creature doing more then a passing impression of a demon. Instead most of the nesting pteroraptors were cooing softly to un-hatched eggs.

Stan had avoided telling me for fear of worrying him, in that moment I could have killed him. It was along the only safe path we could take, and it was out of season so it should have been abandoned. It wasn’t and we had to kill four of them before we managed to escape. It’s one thing defending yourself when they hunt you across you’re forest, but going into a place where they are supposed to be safe and raise their young just didn’t feel right.

That night we sat by the campfire and nursed our injuries Stan tried to lighten the mood with a joke. I just glared at him until he shut-up and then I turned away and pretended to be asleep. I kept up the silent treatment for three days until he finally snapped at me.

I will admit that I had no love for Stan’s cause before Grandfather’s death, I always though it was weak and ungrateful. I was proud that despite the lot we had been dealt that I had made something worthwhile, I now realise that the value I placed on that life was one marked out for me. That no-one really will be free as long as the Establishment stands.

They are not kind rulers. When we needed help they were nowhere to be found, in the remote regions towns and civilisations slowly begin to crumble and the weight of their own corruption. I thought Kookemoore was the best example going of this, I was wrong.

A few days ago we travelled through a place called Muldon. It at the end of the Steeps along the west-coast of the country. It is twice the size of Rest, but most of the buildings are derelict, and have been long left to suffer the elements. Stan told me it is a place well-known in the region for all the wrong reasons. We headed there to meet with some old friend’s of his, had we not had a reason to go there, I would happily have avoided the experience.

There is a smell in the streets of rotting seaweed and stale bodies. Stan described it as the smell of the underbelly of the Establishment, I think he was being a little overdramatic, although it was not pleasant. As I have said most of the houses are boarded up, the only things that dwell there now are rats and vagrants. The local law enforcement are incompetent, and not encouraged to help any of the poor souls that find themselves stuck here. It is truly a place ruled by vice and squalor.

Having said that I have met good people there, whom we now travel with. They are a small group of around six families who earn their living where they can. They lead a nomadic lifestyle and as such fly under the radar of the Establishment. None of them have birth-certificates, and when they die their bodies are burnt on pyres and their ashes scattered. They never set foot in a hospital, school or any other Establishment building. As far as the government records department are concerned they do not exist. They are the perfect travelling companions if we ever hope to make it to the Southern boarder.

There are whispers of an army forming in the South, that is why we travel there. As we go we leave messages for others to follow, and hopefully they will follow, although we could reach the boarder and be greeted only by crickets. Alternatively it could be a trap that has been set for us, but we have decided that it’s worth the risk, and the closer we get to the rendezvous place, the more cautious we will have to be.

We met our new friends camping on the beach along from the fishing docks of Muldon. Although the town is slowly decaying as it is given over to criminals and decay, it still has a surprisingly lively market. A small sign of hope at the heart of a dying beast. There are so many types of fish, all the kinds that you and me have only ever seen process and packaged. They are all laid out on display on the stalls, and most of them still have their heads. The smell is unpleasant at first, but after a while you get used to it. Stan bought us some dinner, all of it was stuff that would taste good cooked on an open fire, and I have a new love affair with prawns. They are a strange grey colour before they are cooked, with dark veins running along their shells, but they turn a bright coral pink when they are cooked. Stan kept laughing at my amazement, and I just threatened to trade him in for a giant prawn. He says there are really big ones in the southern waters, and has promised we can try some if we ever make it that far.

I hope we do, I wonder how big they get?

Wherever you are Riley, I hope the stars are as bright as they are here, and the company as good.
*

We have been travelling along the coast for 2 weeks now. When I first saw the sea I was amazed, it disappeared over the edge of the world, falling past where the monster dwelt in the old days.

Me and Stan have a routine now, we are sharing a caravan with a young man called Joseph who is quiet and spends his days doing odd jobs around the campsite or in the closest village. I offered to help, but for safety’s sake I am not aloud out of the campsite during the day. Joseph’s caravan is small and you quickly learn to overcome any outdated notions of privacy. As we travel through more populated areas Stan and I find ourselves hiding in one of the storage caravans or dressed up in disguise. We both have dyed our hair darker, and it is currently braided in the customary nomadic style. The first time I caught my reflection I almost introduced myself our new travelling companion. Every time I bathe, the water turns a dark green.

For the past couple of weeks we have moved further in land and have been travelling through wide open stretches of fields. Out here there are very few cities, most of the population is scattered across the vast country side in small farming communities. It is easy for us to pass unnoticed, especially since there are very few army barracks here. I guess the Establishment doesn’t fear farmers and milkmaids.

There aren’t many trees out here. I have spent my whole lives looking at endless trees and mountains, and now all I can see is grass and wheat and the occasional lonely oak.

At night the family gather around the fire and sing songs and tell traditional stories. The first night that it happened I was too shy to really join in. In moments like that I realise how truly far apart our lives have been until then. Joseph asked me to tell him about my family. Beside me Stan was stiff, but I said there really wasn’t much to say. I never knew my mother, I don’t remember my father, my Grandfather is dead and the only family I have left could be miles away. He said he was very sorry to hear that, I just laughed it off and said not to worry. Family is important here, and I think I miss what my family should have been as opposed to what they really are. Having said that, I think about Riley every night and hope wherever he is that he is safe.

Stan then told them all about the town he lived in as a child and the summers spent in the outpost at Rest. They told a story about how the world came to be. Apparently there was once a great monster who travelled through the sky, which is like a chaotic soup. From the soup he swallowed the stars, the earth and the first beings which would become us, and that is how we are travelling through the universe, inside of a benevolent cosmic monster. I’ve never heard a story that explains our existence, only the scientific theory. The Establishment doesn’t approve of religion. Stan says that religion scares them, I think it seems silly to be scared of stories. Maybe one day we’ll know the truth.

This evening I’ve been asked to tell a story, but I don’t know many that would interest adults and children alike. Maybe I’ll tell the story about how Raven’s Rest got it’s name. I should check with Joseph first, but it’s always been one of my favourites.

*

The past few days we have been getting closer and closer to one of the few cities we will need to stop at on our long journey south. Joseph keeps assuring us that we wont be there long, we only need to stop and trade for the few things we can’t pick up on the way, and to get one of the carts wheel struts mended. Stan says we’ll be fine as long as we stay out of sight and don’t do anything stupid. No one pays too much attention to travellers in a city as Large as Helm, but I notice the closer we get the quieter he becomes, and the longer we have to spend inside the carts each day.

In two days we will be inside the outer limits of the city, and we may begin to encounter soldiers and investigators more regularly. There is site not far from the city centre where Joseph says we will be permitted to set up camp. It is one of the few places inside the city limits that travellers are tolerated, so we wont be the only group there. It is a chance to socialise and that is where we will have to part ways and find a caravan travelling much further south then our friends will be able to take us. It will be sad to part ways but I will be glad that we wont be putting them in danger for much longer.

*

Today we have arrived in Helm, I have never seen so many people in one place before. The whole city is more of an exercise in the disparity of man then a place you would want to live. All the houses on the outskirts of the city are built out of lightweight materials and wonky brickwork. Joseph told me that apparently most of them moved in ages ago, part of the cost of the industrialisation that the Establishment required to feed their empire. They were only supposed to be temporary homes, but no one now has any money to built better accommodation for the bottom rungs on a long ladder of smog and machinery.

As you get closer to the city centre, the street begin to widen and the noise dies down, although there is still an underlying smell of decay. We made our way to the campsite, a long winding route that avoided the richer areas and the people who may be offended by the notion of a people who choose to spend their whole lives on the move.

The site is beside the entrance to the trade markets of Helm, which are inside massive glass roofed buildings with incredible wrought iron doors painted black to protect them from the natural effects of weather and time. One of the family elders told me later that the market buildings are some of the oldest in the city, and originally marked the outer limits of the city. It was were people from the countryside used to come and sell goods but now it’s mostly craftsmen and women from the city, the produce has been pushed out back.

The campsite was a large paved area enclosed in high flint walls and guard towers, a reminder that while the travelling life style was tolerated, it wasn’t truly accepted by many people. Inside the walls there were perhaps close to three hundred families all pressed in close performing their chores. There was noise and colour and the smell of dinner fast approaching. It took a while to find a placed for us to set up, apparently there is some sort of pecking order which decides where you should camp, but it looked a lot like chaos from where I was sitting.

For dinner we sat with not only the family group we had been travelling with but others close to us too. The whole event was co-ordinated by a fierce looking woman called Myrtle who soon had us all running around fetching water and monitoring fires. The stew tasted so good that I didn’t mind the sore shoulders I received from lugging water too and fro all afternoon.

After dinner people sat around fires chatting quietly, I was used to music and laughter, but the mood was rather more subdued. I asked Joseph why there were no songs, and he told me that inside the city they had to keep the noise down so as not to disturb the permanent residents. If they made too much noise then they would be driven out of the city and the site would be closed.

It’s hard to sleep in the city, strange noises and shouting in the distance tricks you into thinking that a fight is about to break out close to you. The calls of dogs and cats echo of the hard pavements and close buildings, turning them into shrieks of ghouls and other nightmare monsters.

*

We have left Joseph and his family behind in Helm. It was shame to leave them behind and there were a few tears shed in the departure (although Stan will still deny it if you ask him). Now we are moving further south with a group of merchants, the leader is a young woman called Camilla who seems to be constantly armed.

To pass the time, me and Stan have been telling each other stories. Although since we have now run out we are making them up as we go along. Entering into the spirit of things Stan began by telling me a story about a seal, although he spent a lot longer explaining what a seal was then he did actually telling the story. Apparently they breath air, but live in the sea, quite amazing. He has promised he will take me to see some one day. In return I have promised to teach him to fly.

He has tried to get me to give him the codes for the com tunnels and communication encryptions, but I said I would have to think about it first. I took an oath of loyalty towards the Establishment, and even though that Establishment has betrayed me, I don’t think I can betray them. So far nothing I have done has broken that oath, and it may seem silly to Stan, but the day I took it was the proudest day of my life.

Camilla will be escorting us to the capital, where we will have to continue on alone to the boarder. In a few days we shall be stopping at a small town which is apparently famous for it’s glass-works. Camilla tells us there is also an excellent artisans market there (the reason she is visiting there) and we will have a few days to relax. Due to the market there the locals are very used to people coming and going, and two more strangers will hardly be worth a second glance. It feels as though we have been on the move forever, and it will be good to stop and rest for a while.

*

Stan told me as we arrived in town that we needed to be extra cautious. The closer we got to the border the more Rebel activity there was, and the Establishment would be alot less forgiving down here. On the way into town there were hundreds of unmarked graves, the last resting places of the victims of the Establishments iron rod. Any rebels caught here would be killed and then buried, they were not even allowed a name in death, the ultimate punishment that the Establishment could think to give the traitors of this great country of ours.

We were walking through the market today when soldiers, seemingly appeared from noweher, were chasing a scraggly figure. As their prey broke free from the crowd one of them shouted stop. Moments later there was a flash and the loud roar of a discharged weapon. All noise in the market seemed to cease in that moment as the man cried out and fell to the floor. Hushed whispers began as the crowd inched closer, careful not to stand in the way of the furious soldiers, now bearing down upon their victim.

At first I couldn't see much, people had formed a ring in the square and had become an almost impenetrable barrier but I could hear the moans as the criminal was beaten by the unyielding guardians. Stan tried to pull me away, and I heard him swear as I broke free and made my way to the front of the crowd, careful to keep my face hidden. I couldn't follow him because as another blow was landed on the prostrate body I knew that it was Riley.

"Scum!" said another guard, his heavy black boot making a dull thud as it connected with his chest, silencing his cries as my cousin tried to breath. He curled himself around his stomach, but the soldiers merely refocused their attack on his kidneys, he would be pissing blood for weeks.

I had had enough, and as one of the guard reached down to pull him to his feet, I made to stand beside him, but Stan was there again, holding me back, hand clasped over my mouth so that I wouldn't say anything to give us away. I struggled against him, but my movements were once again absorbed my the crowd who shifted to follow the soldiers and their prize to the main square and the fountain.

"This man has been found guilty of treason, murder and atempt to evade justice, and so has been sentenced by the Establishment to be put to death." There was a gasp from a woman beside me, but other then that, the crowd was desperately silent. Behind Stan's hands, my mouth worked to draw in air that suddenly seemed too thin. It was Riley, I had to do something.

Riley was forced to his knees, his eyes dead, his lips thin and pale. I wish I could say he looked like a brave man, ready to face his end, but in truth he looked like a terrified boy, who had been caught stealing from the teacher's desk. Stan's other arm came up around my torso and pulled me into his body. I think he was offering comfort, but it felt more like he was restraining me.

I wanted to get away, I didn't want to see my cousin shot in the centre of a small town hundreds of miles from our home. I couldn't though, Stan held me close, and deep down I felt as though I owed Riley this. I had gotten him into this mess and this was our punishment. He would die, and I wouldn't take my eyes from his face as the gun was raised to his temple and the trigger pulled.

Another shot rang out, echoing loud in the packed square, absorbed by every body watching, felt in my very soul. Somewhere a dog started barking and a woman or too wailed. I don't know if they knew Riley but I didn't feel as though they had the right to mourn his loss. I was his best-friend and I could shout, I couldn't scream, I just forced myself not blink as his body hit the floor and blood poured from the gaping wound that had ripped half of his face off where the bullet had exited.

His eyes were closed, and I was thankful for that, I didn't need to see the life fade from them. It was enough seeing how the body, more like a lump of meat now, didn't even jolt as the guards continued to empty round after round into his body. Once they had deemed the corpse dead enough they simply turned and left, leaving the body to be stripped by passing oportunists and eventually dragged away and buried at night, so that none would know where this man had found his final bed in the cold earth.

I tried to pull from Stan once again but the fight had left me, and he didn't find it difficult to pull us into an alley and then into his arms. We stood for a long time, him making barely audible noises, that I suppose were supposed to be comforting, and me simply silent.

"We have to leave." He said, I just nodded

"In a minuet, just give me a minuet."

That night as we left we saw a cart carrying the body of my cousin, and Stan let us take a detour to watch the burial from behind a warehouse. We waited for the undertakers and their thugs to leave before I left the necklace that Riley had given me for my 13th Birthday, buried in the freshly turned earth.

We are now on our way to the capital alone. We left Camilla and her friends behind, deeming it too dangerous now to put others at risk, besides, we would less likely be caught if we are a smaller number.

There is an empty space where my heart should be and the edges of it burn. I can't seem to make the sickness in my stomach fade. Stan says that it will with time, but I don't think I will ever be able to rid myself of the image of Riley on his knees, pale and sweaty in the bright southern sun.

The image woke me from my sleep, and now I am too scarred of it to try and sleep again.

*

Today we entered the woodlands surrounding the capital city. Stan tells me that they were first planted before the Establishment came to power and were cultivated to support a large deer population the King and his court would hunt in the summer. Now they are ignored, and work as a natural barrier. We have had to be incredibly careful While traversing it as the army use it for training purposes, although it is unlikely that we would encounter any troupes this time of the year.

The woods are different from the ones at home, the trees here are broad leafed, and loose their leaves in winter. This means that the ground is littered with crunchy orange leaves in the autumn and the trees are completely bare in winter. For now the leaves have only just begun to change, and so the floor is covered with only a few gold specks.

There seems to be a greater variety of wildlife here too, probably because there are no pteroraptors here to feed on them. I saw a fox today, just out in the open, bold as brass. It zipped away when it saw us, but it didn’t seem too bothered by our presence.

Stan tells me that when the Raven first rallied his rebel army to try and fight the Establishment, this is where they hid for years undetected. Deer still roam the woods in impressive numbers, although it is now illegal for anyone but the army to kill them. That didn’t stop us tracking one down and having it for dinner. They are quite beautiful, they seem to be made of light and shadows, dappled to match their surroundings. We took down a young male, after three failed attempts. The meat was rich and we have left it drying on the fire so that it will last longer in our packs.

Stan recons it will take us a few good days of travel if we wish to avoid the capital, originally we had planned to stop there and see if we could make contact with any one from across the boarder, but the Establishment is aiming to completely eradicate the rebel threat. We learned that Riley wasn’t the only rebel caught and killed. The numbers of possible friends are rapidly dwindling as the prisons slowly fill and the gallows are prepared. If we are caught we would make fine examples to the general population.

*

We spent another day hiking through the woods. As we walk we are picking up any edible berries and nuts that we find. I should thank the Establishment for the extensive knowledge of the plant life. When in training you are equipped with survival books that list useful techniques and extensive notes on how to find food and where. It has made our meals far more interesting, until this point we had been relying on dry rations and food given to us by our travelling companions. We have yet to find mushrooms, but Stan recons they will be plenty as we enter the deeper, darker parts of the woods.

We no longer tell each other stories as we travel, too concerned with the long list of aches that have returned from the mountains in full force. I had enjoyed travelling with the caravans, where good food and comfy beds were readily available. The hard ground and constant moving has left me aching in places I didn’t know existed. Everything is stiff and painful, it is a miracle I am able to gather the strength to move in the mornings. I know from past experience that soon we will become accustomed to the lifestyle, but as it is I have the tunnel vision of a being in pain.

At night my dreams are no longer haunted by thoughts of Riley. Instead they are the empty landscapes of the exhausted. For that I am grateful.

*

We have finally left the endless woods of the capital, although now our party is much larger then it was before.

It was early evening when we encountered the first in our party. We were sitting by the fire having dinner, being particularly talkative about nothing in particular. A twig snapped off to the right somewhere. Nothing to be alarmed about, but movement of the ferns and undergrowth seemed to indicate that it was something larger then the usual wildlife, and not even a stupid deer would venture this close to a fire.

Stan signalled for silence and I reached for my crossbow as he gathered his pistol. We began to circle the fire silently, careful where we let our feet fall so as not to give away our location as we moved to where the rustling was still going on. A mistake, heralded by the cold press of a gun against my lower back and the hiss of “drop your weapons”.

Stan, for all his intelligence whirled to cover me, but all that did was enable the other person hiding in the bushes to ambush him. There was brief tussle, but Stan was no match for the element of surprise. In few moments we were disarmed and being patted down for concealed weapons, I didn’t have the heart to tell them they were wasting their time, besides, I doubt that would have stopped them.

Then began the longest and most tedious interrogation I have ever been through. They sat us down away from the fire, and began asking us question. Who were we? What were we doing here? Who sent us? At first we were extremely reluctant to answer them, but it soon became apparent that they weren’t with the Establishment, and even if they were, it didn’t matter if we said anything, the only person I could incriminate was sitting beside me, and his patience seemed to be wearing thin.

When we realised we were all on the same side they helped us up, clapped us on the back and asked if we would like to join them. The man’s name was Paul and the woman was Irene. They were part of a small band of 10 freedom fighters who were hoping to break free some of their friends before they were processed and sent to a maximum security prison. They only had a small window of opportunity, and once they had succeeded they planned to cross the border like ourselves and either find the rebel army or create their own.

They explained their plan to free their friends and that is how we found ourselves sneaking through the city streets, heading straight into the wolves jaws at the Investigation Headquarters.

The easiest part was actually gaining entrance, the rebels had someone on the inside who let us in and lead us to the cells, bypassing the usually security measures, and distracting the on-duty guard as we slipped the keys from the wall and headed to discreetly open the doors when we were given the signal to say that the security system had been taken offline without any glitches detected.

What I saw in the cells almost made me loose my dinner. I have vague memories of visiting my father in prison. The rooms were uniform, to match the prisoners, and everything had a vague smell of bleach and cigarettes. This was very different.

The prisoners kept here weren’t considered dangerous, and indeed were often low level rebels and petty criminals, many too young to know any better. The recent crack-down had lead to serve overcrowding. Cells designed for one or two people were now holding up to ten adults and more children. The rooms were freezing and smelt of disease and death. In more then one room there was a dead body covered with a thin blanket to hide from the wide-eyed prisoners. We let all the captives free, but only a few would be fit enough to bring with us into the woods. Many would hide in the back alleys or be recaptured in a matter of hours.

Once all the cells had been emptied we were able to overwhelm and round up the few remaining Investigators who were unlucky enough to be on the night shift and locked them in the cells. This would prevent them from raising the alarm and give them a taste of their own medicine. Once they had been dealt with we once again snuck out into the night, separating into small groups to maximise our chances. It was deceptively easy, and I was expecting the ball to drop any minuet and discover that it had all been a trap. It wasn’t until we made it back into the woods that I found myself breathing comfortably again.

Once we were back at camp, Irene (who had proven herself to be a calm and capable leader) explained that it would take days of wandering between various points in the woods before the group became whole again. She explained that leading a rebel life included not only a lot of failure, but a lot of waiting around to discover whether or not your friends and family had made it. I didn’t feel the need to tell her I was aware of that brutal fact personally, but I was.

The next few days we found ourselves seemingly randomly wandering the woods, occasionally meeting with other groups. The only signals that I could discern were the occasional bird calls, but Stan explained that as we walked some of the group would leave signs telling those who knew how to read them where we were going. Whenever we did meet a new group we didn’t join them as I had previously thought. Instead Irene gave new orders and once again we separated. Each small band would make their own way to the border, each taking a different route. The hope was that the Establishment couldn’t stop all of us.

On the second day Paul left our group to join another, his group would be heading south-west, where as we would be travelling south-east. Eventually, Irene said, we would reach a river, and follow it across the border.

It was shock when we finally did leave the woods. I hadn’t realised it but my eyes had quickly adjusted to the lower levels of light caused by the dense plant-life. Despite that it was pleasant to once again be out in the open. Although it was more dangerous as we would be easily spotted, it would also be easier to spot anyone following us.

Beyond the woods were lush grasslands, however they soon gave way to dryer plains broken up only by rocky outcrops. The river we were following prevented the plains from becoming a desert, but even at this time of the year the sun was surprisingly unrelenting and I was soon missing the frequent storms of my home region.

Irene has promised that tomorrow we will reach the last settlement before the border (Pioneer‘s Point), there we will be able to purchase horses which will make our jobs much easier. I explained that I didn’t know how to ride, and she just laughed and said I would have plenty of time on my hands to learn. Once we reach Pioneer’s Point I will have travelled from one point of the country to the other, a feat few have accomplished, and one I never dreamed of.

*

We are now travelling by horseback, although it will still be at least two weeks of riding alongside the river until we reach the border. After Pioneer’s Point the river cut through the landscape and formed the bottom of a enormous canyon. For fear of flash floods we are riding along the top, although we must periodically climb down to get water.

I have now gotten used to riding, although I am unsure whether or not my horse has gotten used to me riding it. The first morning after a full days riding and I was once again aching in new and interesting ways, although Stan was having a worse time and I have noticed him wincing every time he has to get on or off his faithful steed.

Two days after leaving the settlement, we realised that we were being followed. As soon as the sun had gone down, Irene sent two scouts to track back and see if they could see who was following us. Our worse fears were realised when we heard that it was a group of around twenty soldiers, we were vastly out-numbered, and the horses were starting to flag after two days constant riding.

We sat around the fire that evening, careful to make sure that the smoke wouldn’t act as a beacon and give away our position, arguing over whether or not we should push on or turn back. I knew where I stood on the issue.

“It would be stupid to fight them, we are outnumbered almost two to one and they probably have better weapons. We would be picked off before we were even in range.”

Sadly I was outnumbered. The general consensus was that we wouldn’t be able to outrun them either. It would be best to lay in wait, while we still had energy and plenty of supplies and pick them off. Nobody said what we were all thinking, that no matter how well we hid, the chances of us succeeding were slim at best. Our only advantage was that Irene had been raised in Pioneer’s Point and knew the canyon better then anyone. So we plotted and planned.

We chose a suitable out cropping that overlooked the river bed below and set up a decoy camp with a burning fire. We also left our horses there, and our spare clothes and blankets stuffed with dirt to make it look like we were sleeping. Then we hid ourselves amongst the over hanging rock and laid in wait. We had been sure to make sure that our tracks were clear leading down to the camp, but carefully disguised them leading to our posts.

We waited there for hours, every noise had my finger tightening on the trigger of my crossbow. Beside me I has a rifle, for when I ran out of bolts, but I knew that I would stand little chance of hitting the broadside of a barn from this distance with an unfamiliar weapon.

After the first hour I had forgotten what it felt like to feel anything but anxiety. After the second I was willing to save the Establishment some money and put myself out of my misery. It was the whinnying of horses that alerted us to the arrival of our prey.

When you spend the best part of a year on the run, there is a heady sense of power when the roles are reversed and you become the hunter. We waited until they had dismounted and begun to sneak up on us, if it hadn’t been for our vantage point then they probably would have succeeded. The moment they were within range some one off to the left of me fired, I took that to be the signal to start shooting and a fire fight began.

I’m not sure how long it lasted for, my heart was hammering in my head, and I soon lost the feeling in my fingers from the vibrations, and my shoulder hurt. I was right about the rifle, I almost dropped it when I let the first shot off. I’m not sure how many people I killed, if any. Stan said one guy looked like a pin cushion, he said it with a big grin on his face as if I should be proud of that. I wasn’t I felt a bit sick.

We lost two people, and Stan has a nasty hole in his shoulder and the soldiers who managed to get away will simply regroup elsewhere, contact the local barracks and come after us again with more guns and less patience.

We are now pushing the horses as hard as we can, we have to reach the border within the next 9 days or our journey will end prematurely. We are on the move constantly, stopping only when we can no longer go on. The horses are exhausted, we are exhausted, but with out the constant stops to set up camp we are hoping our journey will be dramatically reduced.

*

We are five days away from the border, and we have yet to spot any more troops, but that doesn’t mean we have slowed. Irene has taken us by a shorter route, we will be easier to spot from a distance, but that doesn’t seem to matter now.

Stan’s arm has become infected, and when I changed the bandages this morning I could smell the disease coming from it. I had to swallow down bile as I tried to wash out the worst of the muck. Without clean water and rest I am worried that it will only get worse. He is still telling jokes, but he is becoming feverish and having trouble staying on the horse on his own. I have doubled up in the saddle with him, sitting behind him so that he can lean back and sleep occasionally. My front is soaked with his sweat and he has been shivering since this morning.

*

We are only a day away.

This morning we spotted smoke on the horizon, we are unsure whether or not it is friends or foes, but Irene and a man call Mark have gone to find out.

Stan is no better, and now he barely spends any time awake. I haven’t left his side and fear the worst.

*
Leaping lizards Caped-Crusader!

Welcome to the Strange

"An inch or so above the bed
the yellow blindspot hovers
where the last incumbent’s greasy head
has worn away the flowers.

Every night I have to rest
my head in his dead halo;
I feel his heart tick in my wrist;
then, below the pillow,

his suffocated voice resumes
its dreary innuendo.
there are other ways to leave the room
than the door and the window."

Monthly mayhem

February 2011
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