Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 2

Continued from Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 1 (with one line repeated to bring you back into the flow of the story. 😉 )

Because of Master Iba’s persistent drilling, Kor left the shelter of his station and peered into the dark toward the unexpected tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp.

Steady. Repeated. Louder. A sizable force, if he could trust his ears. As yet, no one appeared out of the dark, but the marching floated up from the River Road.

Kor climbed to the battlement and leaned over the wall, straining his tired eyes to catch a glimpse of whatever force approached, marching in such a disciplined, rhythmic pattern. Tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp. Not herdsmen driving their cattle to market. Not wandering tradesmen looking to snatch the best corner of the square, the shady spot nearest the road. Only two choices remained, for no one else would travel through the night to arrive at the city before dawn. The force bearing down on Cepae had to be the entourage of a visiting dignitary … or an invading army.

But where were the signal fires from the nearby towns? Why hadn’t Cepae been notified … or warned?

Kor glanced toward Marshal Tong’s alcove. Was his sluggish supervisor aware of the approaching force? He wasn’t on the rampart. Was he even awake?

No need to look for Watchman Pran. The way he staggered into his station, in all likelihood, he sat passed out in the chair behind his desk.

Pressing his ear against the wall, Kor listened, but the stones remained silent. Or was the tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp so loud he couldn’t distinguish what they were saying?
He brushed bits of dirt from his earlobe. What should he do?

In the training exercises the other watchmen always confirmed his decisions. Or ridiculed them. Now he was alone. The judgment was his.

After each of Kor’s early failures, Marshal Iba beat into him the watchmen’s fundamental principle—trust no one you cannot identify with certitude. So he should signal the city to prepare its defense.

And still Kor hesitated. Because the stones remained silent? Or because he feared the wrath of the city leaders and the jeers of the garrisoned soldiers if he was wrong?

Again he peered into the dark but saw no one. Yet the sounds of marching increased. He couldn’t postpone the decision any longer.

Whoever was advancing toward Cepae must be considered a threat.

Kor sprang from the parapet onto the walkway leading to his alcove. Once inside, he seized the pull string dangling from his signal bell and yanked again and again until the clapper banged out the warning.

Lights flared from the windows in a row of huts next to the wall. The guard at the River Road gate answered the alarm with his own distinct clattery-clang. Kor left his alcove and climbed back to the rampart. Two watchmen from the opposite side of the city rang out their answering signals. The guards at the other three gates responded too. Marshal Tong added his warning, and finally Pran’s bell pealed into the graying dawn.

Someone in the citadel ignited the signal fire atop the tower. Light flitted over the city square, throwing shadows onto the stucco-walled buildings. Kor shielded his eyes with his hands as he’d been taught and stared down the River Road. The enemy army should be visible any moment.

Not that he could still hear them marching toward Cepae. Like an explosion, the city’s own soldiers burst from their garrison, swathed in armor and clutching their weapons. Their curses and commands obliterated any noise outside the walls.

Governor Hadan reached the public square and demanded to know where the threat came from and who had signaled for defensive measures. Master Iba made inquires, then informed His Excellency the first bell came from the River Road Wall. In moments the governor reached the walkway below Kor’s position.

“River Road Watchman Three, what can you tell me about this threat?” Governor Hadan tugged his chain mail toward his chin.

Kor saluted, then turned back toward the road. “I heard marching, Excellency. A sizable force by the sound of it.”

“How sizable?”

“I cannot say, Excellency.”

The governor raised his voice—louder than necessary to be heard over the tumult in the square. “Explain yourself.”

Kor shifted his weight until he could see the governor without turning around. “I haven’t seen the enemy, Excellency.”

“But they showed a light or you saw movement.”

“I only heard their marching, Excellency. My training compelled me to alert the city since I cannot trust those I cannot see.”

“Of course, Watchman. You did the right thing, I’m sure. But now we must learn just what kind of force we’re up against. Perhaps one of the others saw something more.” Governor Hadan flicked a hand. His page stepped from the shadows and scampered toward Marshal Tong’s alcove.

Kor’s racing heart stumbled. If only he had something concrete to tell the governor. The resulting reputation he would gain as a vigilant watchman would secure him the gratitude of the whole city, but now Marshal Tong, too slow or too inattentive to strike the signal himself, had the chance to win acclaim.

So be it. Kor might lose the recognition he was due, but the governor would learn the details needed to organized the best defense. Should they build the siege mound around the citadel? Should they begin storing water from the public pool? How many platoons should they ready for the counterattack? Should they send a runner through the Pasture Gate to bring the villagers within the safety of Cepae’s walls?

All these questions and more hinged on knowing details about the converging force. And Kor couldn’t supply a single answer. Not the number of the army. Not even their nationality and certainly not the strength of their armaments or how they were deployed.

Marshal Tong huffed up the walkway from his alcove. “How may I serve, Excellency?”

Governor Hadan’s shoulders relaxed. “You signaled the approach of the enemy?”

Placing a meaty hand on Kor’s shoulder, Marshal Tong puffed out his chest like a strutting kakati. “Young Kor here was the first.”

Kor nodded his thanks to his superior.

Governor Hadan’s back stiffened. “But you did signal.”

Keeping his eyes focused on the governor, Kor’s supervisor dropped his hand to his side. “I-I did, of course.”

“What did you see?”

Marshal Tong’s gaze drifted toward the city square. “The same as Watchman Kor, I’m sure.”

“Nothing?” The governor’s voice spiked. “You, too, saw nothing?”

“I … that is to say … I had the same reason to believe a threat was eminent.” Marshal Tong shifted his weight from left to right.

“You believed a threat was eminent. I can’t send troops against an assumed enemy. How are we to deploy? Where are we to station the citadel guard?”

“I’m only a watchman, Excellency.”

“A watchman who saw nothing!”

Kor thumbed away moisture collecting on his upper lip. “We may not have seen the enemy, Excellency, but without a doubt we heard them.”

Before the governor could respond, Watchman Pran topped the ladder, both hands gripping the railing. “You sent for me, Excellency?”

“What did you see, Pran?”

“I …” The unsteady watchman shifted his unfocused gaze in Marshal Tong’s direction.

“You signaled the threat, did you not?”

“Of course, Excellency.” Pran pronounced each word with exaggerated precision as he hauled himself atop the rampart.

“Then give us details, man. How many are there? How are they deployed?”

Pran leaned over the wall as if to stare down the River Road. Through the commotion from below, he mumbled, “I … the darkness of the night, Excellency. It prevented me from seeing the entire army.”

With a bound, the governor closed on Pran. “But you saw a portion of their force?”

Straightening, Pran wiped a hand over his mouth. “I saw the captain astride a white charger.”

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 10:22 am  Comments (1)  
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