Chapter 02

Carter sat up suddenly, ears straining. What was that noise? He glanced up into the branches above him. Two crows were shouting back and forth in top of the tree he had been leaning to. Carter heard himself laugh. The fire from last night was just a pile of black soot. The sun had not woken up yet. Carter pulled some bread and dried meat out of his backpack. Then he went down to the river and filled up his canteens. He had a quick wash, drank some water, then started upriver on the far side. It was likely that the bear had crossed the river somewhere. He just had to find the spot.

The air was chilly, but it didn’t take long before Carter found he was getting warm. He took his coat off and continued following the river. Some places were bare of trees, whilst other places were so full of trees that Carter almost had to go round them. The trees were tall and green, the river was green also, and quite cold. He decided he would stop in a couple of hours and make himself some coffee.

Captain John Rawlings made a big sigh. Didn’t sergeant Cooper know anything? He pointed to the map in front of him, letting his finger slide slowly up the west coast as he spoke.

– The King’s Road is the only road that is possible to follow north, he said.

– It passes us here at Fort Jared, coming all the way from Zillah, our ancient capital where our great leader, may his name be blessed, lives in his palace Reyna. The road follows the west coast all the way to North Havilah. The most important crossing is the Baron Bridge that separates North from South Havilah. It extends over the infamous river Ayila, and is controlled by baron Finnigan. It is the natural border between the north and south. South Havilah is hardly populated, but the north is full of nomads and other uncivilized people. The King’s Road only goes up to Cape West which is uninhabited at the moment. There we will park our  trucks and travel by horse and foot up into the mountains of North Havilah were we will encounter the nomads and capture their oil. Isn’t that clear enough?

Cooper was still scratching his head.

– I get it, alright, but I don’t understand what we’re supposed to do with the nomads. Are we supposed to kill them?

Rawlings sighed again.

– If they put up any resistance, he answered grimly.

-I don’t particularly like it, but we’ve got our orders. Are you ready, sergeant?

Now it was sergeant Cooper who sighed.

– As ready as I’ll ever be, captain!

They strode out to the waiting convoy. There were 192 footsoldiers, but most of them were transported by lorry. Eight lorries were needed to transport the soldiers, then there were another four lorries with equipment and food. Ten riders rode in front of the first lorry, and the officers were split into two jeeps. The two jeeps both had a cannon fastened to the back of them, the most powerful firepower that they have ever had. There were four corporals for each of the four troops that was going, and corporal Hayes had mounted his horse to ride up front with the other riders. Rawlings gave the signal, and Hayes shouted “Forward march!”, and so they did. Well, the horses rode and the trucks  rolled, but on they went, leaving the thick walls of Fort Jared, the most northern fort that was manned in these up to now peaceful times. That, however, was soon about to change….

The old man sat up on his rather thick blanket. The fire had died down, and he felt the cold spreading in his mud hut. He looked down at his daughter with concern in his eyes.

– Will you not eat anything, my sweet? he said softly, concern written all over his face.

– I cannot…. the woman replied with a heavy sigh.

The old man stood up.

– I’ll start the fire again, he mumbled.

– It gets quite cold up here at night time. Do you want some tea, my sweet?

The woman closed her eyes for a while before answering.

– Some green tea would be lovely, father! she answered, moving her stiff legs after she had been sitting on them for hours.

Soon the flames was licking the air higher and higher up towards the whole at the top of the hut, smoke pushing it’s way out into the cold mountain air. The old man took a out a pot and filled it with water, then hung it over the fire. It didn’t take long before the water started boiling. He put some green herbs into a strainer and poured hot water through it and into a mug made of darkwood. A familiar and sweet smell spread around the mudhut.

– Here you go, my sweet! the old man smiled, handing the mug to the young woman.

The woman grabbed it and nodded shortly to her father. The old man sat down on his blanket again.

– What is wrong, my sweet? Do you see something?

The woman hugged her mug, enjoying the warmth it gave her.

– Yes, father! she said monotonously.

– I can see death! It’s on the move….

The bushy green hair on Lan’s head could be spotted from far away. He sat high in his saddle, frowning like he was the most unhappy person in the entire North Havilah. Why could he never keep his mouth shut? Now he was the one sent to get those blasted barrels to store the black gold in. Mehu had told him that he only had to get down to Cape West with 10-12 people. Then they could pick up some wagons filled up with barrels they could use to store the black gold in. A southerner called Hogan was at the Cape,  and he had more equipment for working with the black gold. First of all, they needed those barrels.

Lan lifted his right arm to signal a stop. All 12 nomads got off their horses and tied them to different trees in the area.

– It’s time to break for food, Lan grunted.

They made up fire, boiled some water for tea, and had some dried meat and bread. After they had eaten, they stretched out in the grass for a little while. Then Lan’s deep voice cut through the silence like a big, sharp knife.

– Okay, ladies! Time to mount up and move on!

The so called “ladies” were all men, and experienced hunters with good stamina and fighting abilities. They grunted to Lan’s call with disgusted looks in their faces. But Lan was a man of great bravery, honoured several times by his tribe for some of the great deeds he had done, so they said nothing. A man of esteem earned great respect, and he could behave any way he wanted to. Lan took advantage of this, mostly for his own amusement. But his face was always stern looking, and he rarely smiled to anybody.

Everybody mounted their horse, and they continued on their way towards Cape West. It was a two days ride from Methus Hill, but it used to be five. The new road that the southerners now called Forrest Road had made travelling North much easier and quicker. It also made it possible to transport oil producing equipment more easily to the Hill.

Lan got in front, a small smile spreading across his face. The others could not see his smile, only his back.

– Let’s increase our speed, ladies! he snorted.

– We wanna make it to White Oak before nightfall!

The following riders sighed heavily as they started to ride as fast as they could. White Oak was a very old oak tree, about 500 years old. A small village had been built around the old tree, and it was a friendly village that showed great hospitality towards travelers. Lan’s traveling party knew that if they reached White Oak before dark, they would get a warm meal and maybe a few songs before they turned in. The thought of hot food made them push their horses just a little more…

Carter smiled to himself. After four hours tracking east upstream the Ayila river he finally found the bear’s tracks again heading north in the direction of the eastern Eagle Mountain. The tracks were taking Carter further and further away from the sea in the west, but having set his mind on bear meat and a good bear hide for the winter, Carter did not want to stop. The footprints from the bear were definitely fresher here. Maybe the bear had wandered up and down the river looking for the best place to get out of the river. Carter was happy that he found the tracks again. He would not have liked to go a whole day’s walk down west again if he had been wrong in assuming that the bear had gone east. He made a stop in a clearing by the riverside. After making some coffee and having some fruit and bread, he refilled his canteens, threw his rifle over his right shoulder, and started the slow climb up the nearest hill as he steadfastly followed that bear’s footprints.

The sun was now starting to set, and Carter realized with great disappointment that he would not be able to shoot the bear this day either. Eagle Mountain was getting closer, and Carter remembered that he had a friend living near the top on that mountain. Maybe he would pay a visit to his nomad friend who liver under Tiger’s Tooth, a mighty cliff high up in the mountain. He stopped to have a drink of water as he scouted the area. The shadows were getting longer. When darkness fell, he would have no choice but to settle for the night, no matter how close he had gotten to the bear.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, he took another mouthful of water before continuing his tracking. This bear had better be worth all this, he thought to himself as he pushed some green bushes aside…

Irene stood up and stretched her young body. It had been a long day.

– Thank you for a lovely meal, Clara! she sighed.

– I don’t know how you do it…

Clara smiled.

– When you get as old as me, my lady, I’m sure that you can cook many excellent dishes, she said.

Irene shot her eyebrows up.

– You’re not that old, Clara, she protested.

– Well, Clara started.

– I’m almost 50…

Irene laughed.

– That’s not to bad, she exhorted.

– You’re only twice as old as me…

They both had a good laugh before Irene continued.

– Seriously, Clara. You are like family to me. I don’t know what I would have done without you…

Clara wiped the dishes she had just washed in the sink.

– Then you would have had to do all the work yourself, my lady, she laughed.

Irene smiled back.

– Clara? she started.

– I feel so alone when John is away. I’m so glad you’re staying here with me!

Clara’s smile disappeared.

– I live to serve… she said with a short, but polite, bow.

Irene suddenly got serious too.

– Clara? I wish you would stop calling me “My lady”, but call me “Irene” instead.

– That would not be proper for someone in my position, my lady! Clara protested.

Irene suddenly looked sad.

– You are my best friend, Clara! she almost snorted.

Clara gave Irene a smile.

– My lady needs to get out more, she exclaimed.

– Meet more of the military wives at the fort. You might find you have a lot in common. I am just a poor woman trying to make ends meet. You want someone with a better standing to be your best friend…

Irene Rawlings put her hands on her hips.

– I order you to call me Irene, she barked angrily.

– Or I’ll fire you on the spot.

Clara’s eyes got really big, and for a few seconds she stopped breathing.

– Ok… Irene! she said slowly.

– You can order me around, but real friendship can not be forced or paid for…

Irene’s eyes got an empty stare. Then they started filling up with water. Then she finally burst into tears.

– I’m so sorry, Clara! she shouted as tears were pouring down her cheeks.

– I have no right to think that you would be friends with me…

Irene’s outburst made Clara feel bad.

– I’m sorry too… Irene… I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings… I appreciate you, and I enjoy working for you, but you are an officers wife, and I am just a lowly working woman. You want to make friends among your own kind, not with your… servant…

Irene wiped her face with a handkerchief.

– Please let me chose myself who I want as friends, she said with a small voice.

Clara wiped her hands on her apron.

– I could have been your mother… agewise, I mean… Surely it would be good for you to have some friends of your  own age…

Irene shook her head, her light blond curls dancing in the air.

-I don’t want to… she whispered.

Clara shook her head as well, wondering why. Untying her apron, she hung it on a peg and sat down beside Irene.

– Work is all done… Irene… Do you want to play games?

Irene sat down in her rocking chair in front of the hearth that was burning brightly as darkness had started setting in.

– Maybe we could read to each other, she suggested.

– There is a book I just got with short stories about sailors and stories of the sea – all short stories. We could take turens and read for each other…

Clara sat down on a wooden chair next to Irene. The book was laying on the coffee table on the side, and she grabbed it and opened it in the flickering light from the burning flames.

– “The captain and the blue light”, she started reading.

– “Once upon a time there lived a sea captain who had lived a long life at sea…”

The lights from the small wooden huts were shining out in the dark who had just settled down over White Oak. The harmonious silence of the place was broken as Lan galloped into the village ahead of the other 12 riders. They rode into the center village where Lan jumped off his horse.

– Stay mounted! he ordered the 12.

An old grey haired man came up to them and bowed to Lan.

– Greetings! he said.

– Greetings! Lan answered politely.

– We seek shelter by your fire and have rare spices to offer you as gifts. Are you Lakar?

The old man shook his head.

– Lakar is on a journey past fortnight, the old man replied.

– I am Potlar, Lakar’s brother. I am honoured to offer you all a place by my fire and food for your bellies.

Lan bowed deeply.

– The honour is mine, Potlar of White Oak. My name is Lan, and me and my brothers are traveling to Cape West in the morning. May your years be many and your sorrows few, Potlar.

Potlar gestured for them all to dismount and follow him. The horses were tied up, and they brought rare spices with them to offer as gifts to the household. Inside the rather large hut table were set as the travelers and Potlar sat around the fire at the back of the hut. Potlar stuffed a pipe of weed, lit it, and passed it around the fire.

– What news of the north? asked Potlar.

Lan sucked smoke deep into his lungs and felt the dizziness from the weeds reach his head.

– We have found black gold on Methus Hill, he said slowly.

– It will bring us all we need or want.

Potlar turned towards Lan with a surprised look on his face.

– I know nothing of this black gold. Can you explain to me?

Lan took time to explain to the old man what black gold was and how he thought it might make the land of the nomads a better place. After a good while,  woman came out from the hut and said that their meal was ready. They all went inside where everybody was given a blanket to sit on. A great roast of mutton had been provided for the visitors. To drink they were given ale that the villagers brewed themselves. Truly the hospitality of the White Oak villagers was exceptional, just like the rumor. Full of food and drink, amongst other things, they finally rolled themselves into their blankets round the fires about midnight.

The moon was big tonight. Out in the wilderness wolves were heard howling. One by one, everybody in the north and south were falling asleep, whether they were sleeping outside or inside. Up by Tiger’s Tooth a young woman could not sleep. There were so many images to sort out, so many things to think about. Death was looming everywhere, and the young woman felt cold, so desperately cold. Normally, the cold winds came from the north, at times bringing snow and freezing weather along with it. But now it was still summer, and the cold wind that was blowing came from the south. It was death that was approaching, getting nearer every day. Blood would be spilled and many people would suffer and die. The woman wrapped herself tighter in her blanket, peering into the dancing flames of the flickering fire with an empty stare. How long would it be before the killing wold start? She did not know when, but she knew it was coming…

To be continued…

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