Chapter IIX: Infiltration
The three Unbroken roam around the countryside for a bit, until they happen upon a patrol. With perfect discipline, they break up and surround the group, communicating via mimicry of animal sounds. Two consecutive bird chirps signal that a party member is in place. A single means that action is to be taken. An owl’s hoot means that the member has already started taking action.
They stalk the patrols for a little while, following it from the sidelines and hiding behind the snowy bushline. The formation, numbering around twenty men in total, is in double file, a mix of what seems like three distinct groups of militia. On the front, there are the pickax wielders: grumpy prospectors and miners, taken into service straight from the mines despite having something better to do. Following these, a group of harpoon wielders, dressed in light, tar-insulated leather coats: fishermen, happy to be earning some money but worn due to their not being accustomed to long treks. In the back, the most menacing of the groups; wielders of crude long knives, bowmen, and trappers: hunters, judging from the long meters of rope and their out-of-place merriness that sets them apart from the rest of the groups.
A man, dressed in substantially heavier garments than the rest, shouts vague orders from the rear; “Keep the pace!”, “Be on the lookout!”, “Anybody seen anything”. His accent is too light for him to be a northerner. His face is entirely covered by cloths, and not even a single glimpse of his body is apparent under the thick clothes. Even by looking at the man’s tall and muscular build, the most isolated local would be able to discern that the man is neither from Fonte nor from Naramar. It will require, however, some more experience to pinpoint where the man is actually from.
Members of his tribe can seldom be spotted in the southern lands; they reach the port-cities of Southerly, Fourdan and Emporia over the summer, when the monsoons that pummel the unnamed wild continent to the south subside, and the horrific beasts that plague the coasts recede to the mountain jungles, providing a necessary station for travelers coming from beyond. These merchants carry chests full of exotic treasures: gems, rubies and gold. The locals call them Fire-touched, due to the scorched texture of their skin; the few of them that are adept at using the local language, are to be recognized by the long and intricate tattoos that cover the full surface of skin from the bottom of the neck and all the way to the mouth. Even these so-called Inkthroats, were, to the scholars’ disappointment, particularly laconic, willing to utter only a few words in a rather funny-sounding accent, and their speaking only revolved around gold, goods and weights.
Yerevan had accompanied his father on a trip to Southerly a decade back, and he did catch a glimpse of one such group. Most of them, maybe ten in number, were on their strange longship, that was particularly narrow towards the bow, with enough space for a man at the narrowest point right at the front. Beyond this narrowest point, and right before the wooden bow that was adorned with leaves of gold engraved with alien serpentine shapes, was what seemed like a table of triangular shape; upon that, Yerevan spotted a small mountain of sand that effortlessly resisted the windy whims of the harbour breeze. A Firetouched, too tall and muscular to simply overlook, approached ole’ Rus. Yerevan’s father was a mediocre hunter and a terrible skinner, that would visit the furrier to trade fox and rabbit skins for breadcrumbs. It was just outside the furrier’s shop, a place reeking of blood and leather, that a black-skinned giant with the neck tattoos jumped before him; God, was ole Rus shocked! “Two golds for one fur” the Firetouched exhaled. Of course, ole’ Rus glared and immediately obliged. He picked out the best of a terrible collection of skins to offer the Inkthroat. When he finally found it and offered it to the buyer, the Firetouched lifted his finger and shook it from side to side, then pointed to another skin, one that was probably the most crudely sliced, and filthy with dirt from further up north. “This one sir? This one’s half-destroyed.” The Firetouched dropped the coins on the ground and picked it up without saying a word.
The Firetouched’s presence in Chiontezzo is a question in itself. The man is smaller in size than even the merchant that Yerevan had seen all those years back. He seems however to be armed way more heavily, with a medium size saw-tooth sword and a pistol hanging from his belt. Mercenary. If Yerevan’s guess is correct, then it only follows that the tide of war had shifted towards a victory for Naramar. Why else would Fonte resort to involving outsiders in the war? Beyond a shadow of a doubt, crippling Northlight would be another nail in the coffin for Fonte, the captain’s conviction is bolstered.
Over the course of an hour, the miners’ groaning grew in intensity. As the Fire-touched captain did not take the hint from the indiscreet grumbling, the ones at the front stop on their trail, causing the formation to disintegrate in a formless mass.
“What’s going on?” the Fire-touched shout.
“We need some rest!” a prospector replies.
The Fire-touched turns his head around, checking the surroundings for a second.
The recess was greeted by a shared sigh of relief.
Yerevan stares at Milly, who is hiding behind the bushes on the opposite side of the path. He moves his arm with a circular motion. Milly nods and crawls back. A couple of minutes later a bird chirps twice. An owl hooes. Smoke starts rising beyond a hill. The Fire-touched spots it the moment Yerevan did.
“Smoke! Assume formation!” he shouts.
With excruciatingly lax discipline, the twenty men fall in line. The patrol starts climbing up the hill, then, once at the top, they spot the figure of a man sitting by a campfire on the lower end on the other side.
“You there! What are you doing out here?” the Firetouched yells to the camper, but receives no reply.
“He can’t hear you, from up here.” a hunter suggests.
“Hm. Keep four bowmen here. The rest come down.”
The soldiers trek downhill. Once they are at a narrow plateau on the face of the hill, the Fire-touched lifts his arm up, ordering the formation to stop.
“You there! What are you doing here?” he repeats. Once again, he receives no reply.
“Stay alert.” he says to the group, and sets off to approach the camper by himself.
With long, clumsy strides, the Fire-touched reaches the lowest level where the man is located. He stands a few meters away, and repeats his question. No reply. At this point he is irritated. He walks with heavy steps on the snow, and grips the man by the shoulder. Strange. The man crumbles, turning into a pile of sticks protruding from the holes of a torn cloak.
He turns to look towards the soldiers. They are idling, sitting against the snow to catch some rest. Something shines from the highest level where the archers are are on the lookout. A blade is plunged inside the last standing lookout. The attacker, a man dressed in white furs and leather armor, removes his sword from one archer and plunges it in the next and the next, before they had the time to react to any of it. The fourth archer pulls his knife out and makes to defend, but the assailant’s blade penetrates his defenses and comes out the other side of his gut with a spray of blood. The murderous shadow stares down on the soldiers for a moment, and then jumps out of sight beyond the other face of the hill. A spark of fire moves in a line across the snow a few meters above the soldiers.
“Fuck them.” the Fire-touched whispers to himself, and tumbles to the side.
It starts with a subsonic thud that makes the ground shake. Quakes are not common in this part of the island. Then fire lights up. The snow right between the hill’s peak and the resting soldiers implodes, then collapses. In an instant, the white torrent starts pouring on top of them. In twenty seconds, the entire face of the hill has collapsed and the avalanche stops on the foot of the hill. T Dromon emerges from his hiding spot, and rushed to meet Milly and Yerevan on the top of the hill. The three stare downwards, and spot nothing protruding from the white carpet of snow. he patrol is no more.
“Think the other patrols heard it?” Yerevan asks. Milly shrugs his shoulders and looks to Dromon for an answer.
“If they’ve been silent, they may have heard something.”
“Good, now, put on their clothes and let’s get on our way.”
Before long, the three are standing in front of Northlight’s gate. The single guard that is on watch asks them who they are. They say they bring a prisoner with them, to be carried straight to the dungeon for interrogation. Where is the rest of the group? Why, following the hot trail behind the prisoners of course. Without asking for further explanations, the guard starts pulling on the ropes, opening the gate for only a slither to let them in Northlight.
Once inside, the prisoner is carried by the two down the central path and towards the wooden keep, where the dungeon is always located. Just before disappearing from the guard’s vision, the two throw the prisoner down and start beating him. They drag him past a home corner, where he stands up, and wipes the snow off. Yerevan would feel the slow-burning satisfaction of smugness, if only his groin was not aching due to an impactful meeting with the iron over-toe of Milly’s boot. Sappers are supposed to be delicate and accurate in their motions, Milly was sort of mad and erratic to that regard. The city was empty indeed, crowded only with cats, children playing and the occasional housewife coming out of the home and loading up with firewood.
The three move across the narrow streets, gauging the city’s flammability. Straw roofs, wooden walls do make great tinder, however they are all covered in thin layers of snow that can slow the fire down.
“What do you think?” Yerevan asks to Dromon’s direction. The pathfinder rubs his chin.
“These warehouses to the east must be filled with wood,” Milly intervened, “even if we manage to take these down, the city would have to burn through fences and roofs to hold its own against the blizzard.”
“Burn the stock down, and let them burn the city themselves over the next weeks? Good, good.” Yerevan nodded, “that should be an easy task, I would expect them to have only a few guards stationed at the warehouses. Dromon, what do you think?”
“Cap, I think that these streets are combustible enough. Narrow enough for the fire to spread, and wide enough to provide enough air to feed it. I think that a few well-placed embers on the periphery and the center could be made to join in a single inferno.”
“The wind blows towards the north towards the sea, so you should start the fire to the south, let the breeze carry it towards the main bulk.”
“Milly, you head to the warehouses. You start the fire there. When I see black smoke rising, I’m gonna start a fire in the docks, and you see black smoke Dromon, you set fire to the keep. Simple, really.”
“What’s you gonna do Cap?” Milly asks.
“I’ll go for Roma, take her out of the keep, then set the whole thing aflame.”