Chapter One: The Encounter.
The clouds hung low over the hills with ragged wisps trailing down where the rain poured onto the cold sodden earth. It‘s a typical drencher for this part of the year, Martin thought ruefully, as he stood with his back to the giant cedar tree sheltering him from the worst of the weather. He hoped it would let up soon, because he still had more than two miles to cover before he reached the city. The guards would be closing the big wooden gates as the dark finally overwhelmed the leaden light weakly filtering through the forest gloom.
Glancing up and down the rocky track it seemed deserted and forlorn as it wove its tenuous way through the ancient trees towering overhead. But even as he glanced back up the hill he had just descended he saw something move – just barely visible something had passed below the first rank of tree trunks near the tip of the slope were the road took a turn and disappeared.
Martin was well accustomed to be out in the forest, but he was also well aware of how dangerous it could be to wander through these ancient forests with its packs of wolves, the ill tempered grizzlies, and above all the outlaws that preyed upon the few travelers that dared to traverse the wilderness between the far flung settlements. This meant that he always kept alert to the presence of anything large moving in his vicinity – and this instinct had kept him alive more than once and not just from animals.
Quickly he slipped around the huge leathery trunk of the cedar trees and dropping down close to the earth where the ferns and the dark forest shadows obscured his face; he peered upwards searching for the movement. But it was gone whatever it was.
He waited quietly for a long while, scanning the forest all around for any movement. But with his knees already thoroughly wet from kneeling in the moss, he finally convinced himself that it was just his overanxious nerves seeing things in the gloaming light. Slowly he rose from his crouch. But even as he reached full height, a voice quietly spoke from behind. “Well, from the looks of it, you might want to relieve me of my chanterelles, but otherwise I trust you’re quite harmless, friend.” Martin spun around, still clutching his basket of mushrooms and herbs, and found himself facing a young boy and an enormous Siberian husky that stood no more than a yard behind his hiding place.
A smile played across the boy’s freckled face, but the dog observed Martin intently – not nearly as friendly, nor as relaxed as his master. But even that quick supposition was not easy to conclude, since the dog’s enormous haunches came nearly to the boy’s shoulders. As large as this hound was the boy was correspondingly short and slight – it begged the question of who, indeed, was the master?
At first Martin was dumfounded. He was a consummate woodsman spending much of his time wandering the deep forests around Harborton in search of herbs, roots, mushrooms and even the occasional cache of lost artifacts from before the cataclysm. He was used to crisscrossing the trackless forests using the muddy elk trails to thread his way through the impenetrable conifer jungle to find the precious camas lilies, to collect the prized waxy flowers that grew in the darkest corners of the woods and to strip the reddish purple bark from solitary the trees to cure the wasting sickness that afflicted so many of Harborton’s folk. In all these years, Martin had never been surprised by a human while wandering through, what he had come to think of as, “his domain.”
“How did you…” Martin started to stammer out, but swallowed the rest of his surprised protest – seeing it for what it was: foolishness compounding his own incompetence. Instead, he drew himself up, and looked the boy over.
The boy looked to be about 15 years in age, with no visible fuzz collecting on his upper lip yet. He had the weather-beaten look of a Traveler, but yet his countenance lacked the hopeless despair of those itinerate wanderers. His green eyes sparkled in amusement and intelligent curiosity, unbowed by the hopelessness of their times. The clothes he wore were a curious mixture of wool tunic and leather pants that ended just above a well worn pair of sturdy boots. On his back he carried a haversack, over which he had slung a thick green loden cape and poking out from the side was a leather quiver of arrows. In his right hand he carried a sinewy bow.
“You gave me fright…child”, Martin exclaimed realizing he wasn’t sure how to address the youth. Not wishing to give offense, he quickly went on, “But you’re certainly no babe in the woods from the way you snuck up on me!” The boy’s eyes twinkled and his hand rose to rest on the dogs back. The dog sat down on his haunches, but the clear blue eyes in that huge wolf-like head stayed focused on Martin.
“What brings you down this miserable road so late in the season and so late in the day? Are you traveling with your family, up behind”, Martin said gesturing up the road as if to intimate that the rest of the boys family must be just around the bend. The boy’s eyes clouded and the grip on this bow tightened.
An awkward silence filled the quickly darkening scene as Martin shuffled his feet thinking about how to recover from the apparent gaffe. “I’m Martin Weatherbone.” He paused and added “I’m an herbalist from Harborton,” as he stuck out his hand.
The Husky’s snout turned to the hand and Martin was forced to hold it out flat as the dog sniffed his fingers. Only after he had pulled back did the boy reach out to grasp his hand.
“I’m Eric and this is Big Dog!”
Soon they were all crowded around the base of the big cedar, Martin crouched on the side facing the road and Eric and “Big Dog” encircling the forest side of the tree. Eric plied Martin with questions about Harborton. Was there more than one gate? How many people resided in the city? Who was in charge of the city? What factions vied for power and who led these disparate groups? How powerful were the priests? Did they have Medics? And what about the unionists, were they influential in the city? Was ingress and egress from the city freely granted or was it closely guarded?
Martin answered these questions and many more as they watched the grey drizzle melt away the afternoon light.
The city, Martin explained, was managed by Harborton’s First Lord, the victor of the refugee wars that had kept the city from being overrun by the hordes of ragged refugees that had poured northwards from the more populous areas many days ride south of Harborton.
It was nearly before Martin’s time, but he recalled the mournful blasts of invaders’ war horns as the dazed and exhausted ranks of the refugees simply marched trancelike and unarmed onto the bulwarks of the city’s defenders. Like a carpet of ants the invaders just moved forward offering no resistance, but also never slowing their inexorable march as this motley crusade sought to swamp the city’s defenses. The struggle had been terrible, and the carnage even more grizzly, as those behind simply marched over their own dead and wounded creating vast mounds of trampled human flesh as they pressed ever closer to the barricades.
In some cases the human waves had just overwhelmed the defenders, in others the Harborton militia had fled from the horror of the immense slaughter they were perpetrating, as women, children and even the aged sank under the relentless feet of those that followed behind them. In many places the defenses held and the human waves crashed upon the shores just short of penetrating the defenses. And where the refugees had managed to reach inside the defenses they were quickly slaughtered by the defenders since they were unarmed and utterly confused when the mob behind them back ebbed back leaving them stranded amongst the blood soaked defenders.
It was Drew Seles, the commander of the horse units that finally turned the battle as his cavalry charged along the circumference mopping up the bewildered invaders. Finally, he charged through the disorganized mob scattering the bewildered wraiths as they stumbled forwards and pierced al the way to the hillock where the Taiko drummers and the horn blowers poured forth their hypnotic beat that carried the refugees forward to their deaths. Nothing would stop the horde until this mesmerizing beat was stilled. No sooner had the horsemen swept through their lines than the surviving musicians flung themselves into the mud too tired and hopeless to consider a future worth surviving for. And for most that was a futile consideration.
Even as a small boy, Martin could recall the stench in the air from the huge funeral pyres that burned for days out beyond the city’s defensive barricades. The black greasy smoke smudged the winter sky and blocked the thin cold light that bathed the gruesome scene in the cold hard reality of winter. Even as the dead and wounded were incinerated the survivors straggled back into the woods to die of grief and starvation. Most were too brutalized by their circumstances that they hardly seemed human, crawling on all fours and eating everything from inedible mushrooms, to the poisonous newts that lived in the cold wet undergrowth of these northern jungles. As the last remnants of the horde melted away into the woods they soon succumbed in the cold wet solitude. Or they become fodder for the wolves scavenging through the forest in the night and falling upon the pathetic survivors whose feeble shrieks of death agonies could be heard to punctuate the night. But within a few days even those forlorn cries of mortal anguish had been silenced, and soon the snows covered the grizzly carnage in a new blanket of snow.
Martin explained how Drew Seles had risen from that horrific victory to organize the townsfolk into work parties that restored the city’s defenses, which cleared the forest all around the bulwarks, and began the work of training a standing militia to guard against further attempts to overwhelm the city’s defenses. Never again, he promised would Harborton’s civilized peoples be put to the brutal test from which it had barely escaped. Dew Seles promised to teach them how to defend Harborton with the ferocity of the barbarian – because if they were not willing to match the brutality of the desperate they could not hope to survive in this grim new world.
It had been almost 15 years since that gore soaked victory, and ever since Harborton had grown more confident. All the buildings at the outskirts of the city had been razed except for a series of strong industrial structures that ringed the city’s eastern edges. All the other buildings had been torn down and the salvaged materials had been used to build fortified ramparts of stone, rubble and iron that stretched between concrete structures that towered over the barren landscape. This is where the great gates were located: one to the east, one to the south, and another to the north. Outside the perimeter semi-feral dogs were loosed at night to patrol the scrubby no-man’s land that stretched out to the margins of the great forest. Behind the ramparts to the west lay a vast patchwork of fields, vineyards and canneries that helped sustain the population. Scattered between the huge plots of agricultural production stood the occasional farm compound with its many outbuildings, barracks for field laborers and equipment sheds – and even these were surrounded in barbed wire with watch towers to protect the harvests from the illicit gleaners.
To the west of the fields lay the river that divided Harborton’s agricultural domains from its “Downtown”. Several bridges still spanned the river, but only one could accommodate the wagons and crowds that surged forth each morning into the eastern fields. The other two bridges had been weakened over time and parts of them had dropped into the river – usually taking some unfortunate carter with them as they collapsed. But even these rickety structures were still much used by pedestrians- especially by those that could not afford the 5¢ fare to cross the muddy Querqueline.
Squeezed up under the western hills lay the Old City, with it broad avenues carved through canyons of concrete that rose hundreds of feet into the air. Nearly a hundred towering monoliths of iron and steel stood open to the elements rising to impossible heights. Most of these “cloudscrapers” were completely deserted above the 5th or 6th floors since elevators had long since ceased to operate making the upper reaches of these building nearly impossible to access. Stores still opened on the ground level where people coursed through the crowded streets. Above them were the offices of the lawyers the dentists, and the specialty tradesmen goods and services that knit together the fabric of the commercial marketplace that was Harborton.
Above them on the 3rd floors came the wealthier citizens’ residences looking out over the streets from above the tumult and the not insignificant stench of human and animal waste. The well-to-do had large suites that overlooked the city plazas and Harborton’s main thoroughfares. The lobbies of these wealthy patrons sported tough security teams dug in behind huge expanses of bullet-proof glass and anti-vehicle barriers to prevent bombers from collapsing the entire structure. The security details also discouraged the DOS invaders from launching human wave intrusions into the building. The fanciest of these buildings also housed the most sought after food vendors so that necessities might be procured within the confines of the building’s own security envelope.
But the great majority of the citizens lived on the floors above. Harborton’s trades people and minor merchants occupied the 4th floors, while Harborton’s laborers were relegated to climbing 5 and 6 stories to get to their miserable little curtained living quarters on the empty floors above the safety and comfort of the lower floors.
Fire had become an enormous problem in these structures as electricity had long since given way to more primitive means of cooking and lighting. There hardly seemed a night that was not cut in half by the urgent clanging of the fire engine bell as the volunteers raced through the night to stretch their hoses up some dirty stairwell losing precious pressure with each floor it climbed. Only the best fire truck teams could drive their hand operated pumps with enough momentum to deliver even a weak stream of water to the 3rd and 4th floors.
Beyond the 4th floor firefighting relied on buckets hoisted by rope in a long continuous procession which more often than not proved too little too late. It was justifiably smarter to try to protect the lower floors and to sacrifice the upper floors. There were many instances where fire crews had been discouraged from dousing the flames on the upper stories while they concentrated on rescuing the valuable belongings of the lower floors’ tenants. With a shrug, Martin, explained that it only stood to reason that “those with more to lose would express their gratitude more generously”.
At that instant the sound of a rock being dislodged on the road reached them through the soft susurration of the rain. Martin glanced up to see a rider approaching down the track and at the same time he heard an urgent whisper, “You haven’t seen us!” Turning to look at the boy and his dog he was astonished to find he was utterly alone and there was no trace of his companions.
He was still trying to understand how the two of them had evaporated so quickly when the rider came into view and waved at Martin huddled under the tree.