Behind the Lines;
Into the Heartland.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved by the author, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
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The image of Cove Mountain Trail tn4 by Brian Stansberry is used with his permission under Creative Commons Attribution. The manipulation and adding of text is done by Ernest Bywater. All rights to the cover image are reserved by the copyright owners.
14 April 2022 version
Published by Ernest Bywater
Note: Due to the main character and the narrator being Australians UK English is used in this story, except for dialogue by a US character where US English is used in the dialogue and some nouns.
The title styles in use are a story, a chapter, a sub-chapter,and a section.
Many of the projects for helping my people on Chaos are starting to come together in a more meaningful way. Soon after I bought the kennels and establishing the horse breeding company I spoke with Maggie and Frank about me needing people who want to live in a no-tech country I know of where the most advanced weapon is a crossbow and the only way to communicate at a distance is by a hand delivered letter. Although I don't think they believe me about it being that no-tech they do refer a number of people to me to help with the dogs and horses I want to send there to establish breeding and training groups there.
Frank also ships me ten of the older horses he sees as being near the end of their good breeding life when I pay for ten horses to send over to my no-tech compound. Their names convinces me Frank is a romantic because the stallions are Jericho, Scimitar, and Damascus while the mares are Krithia, Sharon, Sheria, Nazareth, Arara, Deraa, and Musa. I had to do some research to confirm my guess of all the horses being named after places where the Australian Light Horse fought during the First World War, the only sort of oddity is Musa is named after Wadi Musa.
Maggie sends me ten older dogs I ask for, along with four handlers who want to live in a no-tech world. Six of the dogs are three breeding pairs near the end of their breeding life while the other four are two pairs of dogs trained to work with soldiers in the field. The two pairs of military trained dogs are two pairs of siblings trained by the two men handling them to be search and guard units of a man and two dogs each. The other two handlers are experienced trainers wanting a new life.
Both Frank and Maggie are surprised I'm sending older animals as breeding pairs. However, one thing I learned on my last trip is the way the system is set up on Crossroads the animals are given a full health check to limit disease transfers. It results in the animals being as healthy as when they were in their prime, so they'll have a well extended life after being shipped through Crossroads. This means animals near the end of their life here have a longer life on Chaos. Thus I'm able to take proven quality breeders to Chaos. I had Frank ship me ten horses because ten is the most people I want to take across at any one time and I want them all on horses of the same quality. I may not take as many horses in future, but I'll decide on taking more horses or not when I prepare for each trip.
Sharon introduces me to a man well trained in the older blacksmith skills and a woman who's a skilled maker of both pottery and ceramics. Both of them want out of modern life and their skills will be very useful to the Grassy Meadows community. I never do learn how Sharon found these two people as one is from Maine while the other is from Arizona. They both show an interest in the other from the moment they meet.
Having set a limit of ten people for the trip and now having six of the slots filled by new specialists I need to select the rest of the team. I decide to have Tora travel with me this trip. Bridget is also ready to go and so are another two of my guards who've expressed an interest. The two guards are of equal measure due to having matching experience and skills, so we choose between them by tossing a coin and Victor is the one who is chosen to go with us on this trip.
The weekend after my trip to establish the accord with the Kukulka I've all of the people going on the next trip gather at the residence to talk about what they can expect without giving away we're going to another planet. I start by saying, “I've established a developing community in another place where the most advanced technology is a crossbow and long distance communication is by hand delivered mail. There is none of the modern technology there at all, nor can it sustain any of it. This also applies to medical technology. You've all expressed an interest in going there. Some of you wish to permanently move there and have skills I see as being useful to the community. I'll give you five minutes to decide to go there or to leave this meeting.” With that I leave them to think.
Several minutes later I return to the small podium set up for today's meeting and say, “I'm glad to see you're all still here. Those of you going there to stay need to write any letters or documents to enable you to permanently leave the country and to close out all of your affairs here. Soon a woman will arrive to measure you to make you strong clothing suitable to wear there because most modern clothes aren't suitable. For the next week you'll be learning any of the following skills you don't yet know: riding, use of a crossbow, use of a sword, starting a fire with a flint, first aid, and basic herbal medicine. Please try to become as good as you can, but don't worry if you aren't perfect as the training will continue after we arrive at the colony. Now spend some time getting to know each other.” After the short speech we spend two hours chatting and snacking. The lady who makes my bamboo armour and Chaos clothes arrives to measure everyone for their clothing, measures them, then she leaves.
Other than the individual clothing there's a lot of hardware we need to take on this trip. Every horse needs a saddle and tack made without metal. They're made from leather and wood with small hardwood pins to hold them together plus ceramic components where metal is usually used for rings and such. The buckles are old style loop-back buckles of ceramic without any tines. The horses are trained to work without a bit so we don't need them. Huge leather saddlebags for the dogs to ride in are made with large flaps on the inside we can roll up so the dogs have a physical contact with the horses for the travel through the portals while the other five sets of saddlebags are just big bags for gear.
Part of the load is two rolls of high quality half inch hemp rope a half a mile long filling both of a horse's oversized saddlebags we use. A lot of ceramic kitchen gear is included, as well as a large number of very strong ceramic rings of varying sizes. Lots of useful plant seeds are most of the rest of the load, along with four telescopes of the same size as the ones I already have on Chaos, and four monoculars with a very limited viewing area which are almost as powerful as the telescopes while being as small as my hand. The scopes all have wood and leather cases with the lenses already in them because the lenses are within the allowed size.
One day soon after my return from dealing with the dragons I've a few surprising emails. One is from Mac telling me about a website I should join and the other is from one of the website administrators to offer me an Invitation Only Membership to Mistress Eva de Glorvia's Mansion of Mayhem, so I go to the website. Due to the name I'm not at all surprised by what I see there. The email from Mac saying I should join the site is the only reason I don't ignore it. I accept the invitation and then I have to go through a short personalised security questionnaire which clearly includes a few restricted information questions like:
What do you call a leading Chaotic Dragon?
a. Hey you.
c. Morning Breeze.
What is the name of a man in Washington you don't know?
There are other questions which shows me whoever put this together had to have access to sources no one but Mac or John should have. I work on the assumption the questionnaire was created by Mac because only he has the full cross-access information. When I finish answering all of the questions I receive an offer to chat from a Kyle Alexander.
During our chat I learn he owns the site and he manages the Invitation Only area of it because it's for a select few Heroes chosen by Mac. I also learn the Invitation Only part of the website includes current data on the situation on Chaos while it also allows for communications with a select group on Crossroads as well as the other invited Heroes on Earth.
At one point Kyle says, “I love the map your Caretaker is creating. You'll find all of the Heroes here have their Caretakers helping her with the map and it has a lot of details of the areas they operate in, so now it has a lot more information and details on other areas than it did before.”
We spend a lot of time talking about our campaigns on Earth and on Chaos dealing with our enemies on both planets. One thing we arrange is for Frank and Kyle to contact each other about trained cavalry horses and breeding stock so we can both expand our herds on both planets.
After talking with Kyle I log out, go to the main site, and sign up for a Premium Membership in Sharon's name. I note the details down, along with the URL. She's surprised when I hand her the information and she logs in. However, when I have her follow the links to the page where they have their rates for volunteer models she smiles before downloading copies of the forms to fill in. I'm sure I'll soon see some of our eligible young ladies appear on their site.
I also spend some time on the site chatting with Sid Jones. He tells me about his rescue missions and I tell him about mine. He tells me of the report he got about me from one of his Special Agents on the trip through Summer Ford and how he likes what I'm doing in that area.
Note: In the following weeks Sharon arranges a number of images of Utako, Tora, Sugi, Setsuko, Mai, Koemi, Hideko, Haruko, El, Dawn, Dee, and herself in swimwear to be sold to the site managers for a large fee for each of them. Some of them sell a few topless photos as well. Although my ladies aren't as good looking as most of those on the site there aren't many Asian women on the site. Thus Japanese models are in demand by the site's management, and they're very welcome.
All of the gear is checked for unapproved materials as it's ready. The horses have full tack and saddlebags, including bamboo armoured horse blankets which we roll up and tie to their saddles with the armour for the dogs. All of the travellers have basic clothing with bamboo armour and backpacks of gear. I check the dogs are in physical contact with the horses through the large hole on the inside of their saddlebags they're in. Everyone is waiting in the main vault area because there's not enough room in the portal vault, again. We form up in a continuous chain of contact with each of us having an arm over the neck of the horse we're leading, and those behind have a good hold on the tail of the horse in front with their hand resting on that horse's rump, like we did on the last visit. Sharon will lock the vault behind us. I smile at her then approach the portal while those waiting behind me wonder about my sanity.
On arriving in the portal room of my quarters at Crossroads I find Merry holding open the door to the stable. With a large grin I lead my horse, Jericho, through the door. A few minutes later all of the horses are comfortable. Their tack and packs are on tables set on the other side of the stable. The dogs are happy walking about on the floor sniffing at everything, especially the dog beds and litter trays set out. Merry leads us through into the main lounge of my Hero's suite, which I see now has a dog-door in it to allow the dogs free access around the suite.
After introducing everyone to Merry I leave them watching a video on what life on Chaos is like while Merry and I renew our relationship.
Ninety minutes later Merry and I arrive back in the main room a little before the video ends. When it does we deal with a lot of questions and some surprised comments about being on another planet. It takes time, but we cover everything until everyone is happy with the new situation. They're very surprised, a little shocked, but happy.
While Merry examines the available rescues to see which I should do we all spend some time in the training rooms. I also spend a lot of time examining the enlarged map project. A lot of areas that used to be blank or only lightly covered now have a lot of detail.
What I do find of great interest in examining the map is the number of longer term Heroes who have areas of control contiguous with other Heroes. However, after some research I learn it's more a case of the areas of control around the area a Hero establishes being expanded at the request of the locals instead of any actual expansion program of the Heroes concerned. There are a few areas which are due to the conquest of the Slavers by the Heroes involved in the Slaver War, but they're the only real exceptions to the rule. It does make sense, when you look at it.
The Hero sets up a small base to operate from. He provides them with security from most of the bad guys, better training to fight the bad guys, and improved ways of making a living. Thus the base expands due to the improved economy and their ability to defend themselves. Others in the surrounding area see this and want to be part of it, so they ally with the people in the area of the Hero's base. When the Hero goes further afield he has to establish more bases or sub-bases and the process repeats until the areas of influence merge to make one large area under his control.
The saddest part of all this is only a small percentage of Heroes are at work doing this as far too many Heroes don't bother to establish a base or help the people on the planet. The only good part of the involvement of those Heroes is it does reduce the number of the worst troublemakers while it improves the gene pool on Cassandra along with its population. That gets me to wondering how long this project has been operating and how much longer it will continue. Naturally, that causes me to wonder about what will happen when the project is a proven success.
A little later I go to the computer room and ask to speak with Mac. I no sooner ask the question than the box on the wall shows he's present and he asks, “What's up, Al?” I like the way he's becoming informal with his speech.
I respond, “Mac, I've just been looking at the map and I've got some questions and concerns for you. Can you organise some population stats for me, please?” After being assured he will I add, “First, evaluate the land to come up with a figure of useable land where people live and the number of people living in it. Places like the fens where only animals live and the ocean are to be left out, and where you have people moving in those areas calculate them as being in their home locations where you can. Then I want you to recalculate all that by splitting it into two groups: the first is the areas under the control of Heroes with strong bases like the Jones, Alexander, and Samuels areas with the second area being the rest of the inhabited land. Include the islands in this too, please. What I'd like to see are comparative population figures per square mile, the number of Damsels per one thousand people living in each area, and the percentage of the Damsels in each area that are in need of rescue.”
Mac replies, “I've got some computers working on that. However, I can tell you we distribute the Damsels across the planet on an equal rate of the population density in an area so they're evenly distributed. Why do you want his information?”
“While looking at the map I started wondering how long it will take for the project to meet its aims of repopulating Cassandra, and that got me to wondering if Heroes like Sid, Kyle, myself, and others like us are actually adversely affecting the project and the Cassandran population.”
“Al, before we go further with this I want to bring some others in on the discussion. Please wait a moment.” A few minutes later Mac says, “I now have Mistress Eva with several of the senior administrators and staff listening in on this conversation, Al. I won't take the time to introduce them all, but I do want everyone to speak up if they have a question. Al, I've already relayed the start of this conversation, so just go ahead.”
After having a sip of the drink I brought in I say, “Before I go too far I'd like to see the statistics I asked for, Mac.” They appear on the screen in front of me, along with a note everyone else is seeing them too. I look them over and ask, “Mac, can you get some statistics on the time lengths for a Damsel to be on planet before her status changes to warrant a rescue, but split into the same two groups. You need only cover the last few decades for them to be useful. But it would be good to have the older figures if you can get them without too much of a delay.”
“I've got that started, Al. While we wait can you talk about what it is you're concerned about, please? You've already proven to have some very deep insights none of us have seen before, so I worry about what you may now be seeing that we've missed.”
“OK. Everybody please bear with me and write down your questions so I can say this without any interruptions. I'm a new Hero who's also establishing a strong base to operate from on Chaos. Joe, the Hero who recruited me, has a couple of small bases he operates from. Each of his bases are a single farm in an area where he has no authority or control of the area, but he does influence those on the farms and a few neighbours. I also have contact with a couple of Heroes who have similar operations. I recently came into contact with Kyle Alexander and I learned a lot more about Heroes with larger areas of control. Due to that I started looking at the more recent history of Chaos. What I've learned is most Heroes either didn't have a secure base of operation or they had small bases like Joe has. A few like Gerald Jones and Jonas Alexander had larger bases, but they were still single farms or citadels with a zone of influence and not a zone of outright control. All of the Heroes with bases improved the standard of living and the methods of operation for the people living at their bases, and some of the changes slowly spread out. However, the Slaver War resulted in major changes to the way those Heroes operated in order for them to respond to the actions of the Slavers and the forces behind them. A few Heroes raised armies to fight the Slavers and beat them. In doing so they ended up in control of the lands they took from the Slavers, thus they greatly increased their power base. I realise this wasn't what they wanted, but they had to take control or let the Slavers take back control. This has resulted in large areas now under the direct control and influence of a few Heroes who want to improve life there.”
I stop for another drink then add, “Since then those spheres of control have expanded a little to eliminate large groups of bandits on their edges. A classic example of this is when Kyle Alexander asked Sid Jones' local administrators to extend their area of control up to the mountains on the northern edge of their border, and they did. Thus the whole of the Shiloh eastern border is contiguous with the Jones Kingdom. When I looked into this further I find most of the Chaos Midlands is now under direct Hero control with a large sphere of influence beyond that. When you add in all of the Hero controlled lands contiguous with the Jones Kingdom you have the lands of the other Slaver War Heroes, the Samuels Citadel lands, Shiloh, and my lands. There are other areas of direct Hero control not part of that one large group, but this group takes up most of the centre of the main continent. Mac, can you show us a map of these lands?”
I wait a moment for the image of a basic Chaos map to appear to show the lands in question, each is marked with the Hero's name. The extra statistics I asked for also appear on the screen with the other statistics.
After a deep breath I dive in with, “Now we come to the hard part of the statistics Mac has just made available to us. They show us that the population density of the Hero controlled lands, especially the large area around the Jones' Kingdom is, on average, nearly triple that of the other areas. Also, while the number of Damsels is evenly distributed on the basis of population density the number of Damsels needing rescue in the Hero controlled lands is about a seventh of that of Damsels in the other areas while the time between landing and the need to be rescued is a lot longer in the Hero controlled lands, and it's growing longer. I was concerned this was the case.”
I'm interrupted by a woman saying, “There's no logical reason for it.”
I smile as I says, “I did ask not to be interrupted, but I'll answer that. When you think about it the situation is a direct result of the lands being in the control of Heroes like Gerald Jones, Jonas Alexander, Sid Jones and Kyle Alexander. They quickly deal with the bad people within their area of control and influence. This encourages those wanting to rob and steal to move to other areas outside of their control. So when their control zone expands the robbers move on again or die. This is a normal part of the pattern I'm seeing. Thus I wonder how that pattern is affecting the project overall. Also, the Heroes with a good solid base have more resources to deal with the bad guys and make the rescues, thus they tend to survive longer to conduct a lot more rescues. Mac it might be a good idea to see some statistics on when Heroes die on rescue missions broken up into the number of successful missions completed prior to their death.” They must already have those because they instantly appear with the stats.
I take a moment to examine them before saying, “It looks like most of the Heroes die in their first ten missions and the ones who get past that tend to continue rescuing for decades. The natural results of that will be the small pool of long-term Heroes like Gerald and Jonas have to be the few to supply most of the human genes to the Cassandran gene base. I'm not sure it's good to have such a large influence from such a small group. It may be worthwhile to see how wide spread their genes are in the full population by now. You should also start having geneticists looking for any problems due to the level of inbreeding among their descendants.” I wait for a few shocked gasps I hear before I continue with, “The bigger worries are: How close to completion of repopulating Cassandra is this project? What will happen to this project when the target is met? Will it close down or will it be allowed to continue? While the biggest worry of all is: Will the large areas of control by Heroes adversely affect the Damsel rate of rescues due to them taking longer to need rescuing? Now for all of your concerns and questions.”
A voice says, “Mistress Eva, here, Al. Why do you see the rescue rate dropping significantly?”
“It's a natural response to the increasing area of control and influence by the Heroes improving the lives of those they interact with on Chaos. What you're beginning to see right now is the results of those Heroes, including me, civilising the planet. By making the lives of those we like a lot better and easier they're able to accumulate more, and that spreads. So when someone comes along to steal what they have they're now more able to fight them and are more prepared to fight hard to keep what they have. So you have a growing cycle of the locals eliminating the worst bandits and thieves, and thus improving the lifestyle of the area. You can already see it happening in the Hero controlled lands. The other thing is we wouldn't be Heroes if we didn't want to help them, so it'll continue.”
Mac says, “You've raised some interesting points, Al. I think you just gave most of the people listening in a lot of headaches due to the amount of research work they now have to do in order to evaluate the points you raise. The statistics you had me gather support what you say, but to what level do they support it and what are the longer term effects? At least we can now start to look into these matters and to plan for what they will do in the future instead of waiting until they jump out at us. I think we now need to reconsider where we place new Damsels on Chaos and we may have to look at moving some about as well. If you've nothing else to add on these issues, Al, I think we'll take you out of these talks and let all of the experts discuss their parts of the concerns you raise.
In a moment only Mac is talking to me to brief me on the outcomes of my previous visits. He starts with, “Al, we finally found some files with the information on the other portals. They're legacy portals from when the system was first established. They use an older technology and part of it is lost, so they can't build any more portals of that type. The worry about them is the controlling software can be changed to allow anything to be carried through them. Originally they had no restrictions because they were used to put the current portals in place on all of the planets then the software was amended to block most of the things restricted in the main system now. The old system is further limited in they only work in pairs so the loss of one portal destroys the ability to use that pair and all of the rings linked to them. Under that system there's a limit of ten portal pairs with only twenty-five rings per pair they can use in the system. So far we haven't found out how many actual pairs and ring sets were made in the first place. I'm sure those records exist somewhere but not where we can find them, yet. What does worry me is when we started tracking the older portals we found only three in use on Earth and on Chaos. Kyle did destroy one to disable that system. Within weeks another pair was shown to be operating between Earth and Chaos, we suspect it replaces the pair Kyle disabled.” I sigh about that knowledge. “Since we know the older portals can't be moved through the new portals we suspect they've been in place since they were first established and they were found by those who now use them, but they're being careful in how many they use at one time. Also, some must be on Cassandra as well.”
While Mac talks I think on this then I wait for an opportunity to say, “If I understand this right they have a maximum of ten portal pairs with a limit of twenty-five rings per pair for two hundred and fifty rings. Kyle has disabled one set, so they now have only nine sets. There has to be at least one pair to link Earth to Crossroads, one pair to link Cassandra to Crossroads, and one pair to link Crossroads to Chaos because they have to exist to establish the current system. You need to start monitoring all of the planets to try and find the portals. The least you'll do is get some idea of the traffic on them. With them having only ten to start with I'd expect them to set up two pair sets for each route to have some redundancy.”
“Al, I think the original builders set up three pairs on the routes of Crossroads to Cassandra and Crossroads to Earth with four pairs on the Crossroads to Chaos route. They can move both new and old portals through the pairs, and I suspect they did just that to establish the current network. The only good news is if anyone activates a new style portal it immediately registers on our control system then it sends all of the people who enter it to the new portal meeting room which is secured. The new style portals won't let you move the old portals through them so they can't use the Hero network to shift them. While the old system will let them use the portals to move portals the rebels have to leave one set of links in place to move between the planets because the moment they close one end off they can no longer use that pair or go to that planet. It matters not which planet they use as their central hub they have to dedicate one pair to each planet for the administrative use. That limits their other uses to seven pairs, now six pairs. Once we can locate and destroy a portal on any planet we reduce their network capabilities.”
“That's good, Mac. How are things with the Kukulka?”
“Although we still haven't got a reply from their government the ones on Chaos were happy to have their ancient legends proven and to see the ship they arrived on the planet in. The ship's log wasn't found but we did find the ship's name and placed a request to their government for the names of those on it during it's last known flight. We await an answer.”
“That's good news.” We chat some more before we end the talk.
The morning after my talk with Mac I've a long talk with Merry about the possible missions. She has several but she isn't sure which one I should go on because none of the available missions have a high risk assessment at all. The other active Heroes have picked all of the high risk rescues currently in the system.
Merry says, “Al, there are no high risk rescues deserving of priority over the others. The one with the highest risk is on an island and there's no easy way for you to get to Grassy Meadows from there after the rescue and it looks like it can be safely left until your next visit. The next three missions are the same risk level and none of them are urgent. The only mission within the Brotherhood's area is for five Damsels who are being held in a prison deep within their control zone. It seems they're no longer trying to trap Heroes but are simply finding the Damsels and putting them into a prison to secure them in the one place for a later use.”
“Let's go look at it on the map,” is my response.
In the room we now have for the map Merry brings up the area to show what is clearly a prison backed up against a very high sheer cliff while she says, “The cliff behind the prison is over a mile high with no way to get to the top of it to climb down into the prison.” Looking at the image of the cliff I'm not so sure of the last statement, but I wait for the rest of the briefing. “There's two hundred troops in the prison and the next two towns to the prison have large forces around them but no bank. They did have banks but the Brotherhood forced people out of town to lower the population below the size for a bank. They now live in villages a bit further out. Due to the topography you would have to go through one of the towns to reach the prison after having arrived in a town further away with a larger force present there.” She expands the map to show the section of the coast while pointing to the important places. The nearest bank is actually in the city known as Seaside Citadel which is where the main headquarters of the Brotherhood is, and it's north of the prison with another bank in the nearby town of Citadel Port a few miles from the Citadel and on the actual coast. The next bank to the south is about double that distance south of the prison in the town of Southport.
I really don't like the idea of leaving any Damsels in the hands of the Brotherhood for a second longer than necessary, but this requires more study if I take it on. I know the troops in the area will increase once I log on for the mission because the Brotherhood will be told by their spy. When I glance at the AI indicator I see it's Mac and Jeeves, so I ask, “Mac, can you limit the map to show all of the contiguous coastal area the Brotherhood controls with the troop locations and number, please?”
The map changes to show the strip of the coast from the fens down to where the mountains cut off the end of the coastal plain plus the area inland from that to just short of Marley. It shows large numbers of troops at Seaside Citadel, Southport, Citadel Port, the fen pass, the mountain pass east of Marley, with smaller forces at the prison plus the locations just to the north and south of the prison then only a handful of troops in any other locations. I ask, “Please show where the banks are in the area.” The map has some blue dots appear to show the banks still in use in the cities and towns previously mentioned, as well as a few places south of Southport and well to the north of Seaside Citadel.
Mac says, “Other than the troops securing the prison area and near the Citadel the bulk of the remaining troops in the area are defending the pass in the mountains just east of Marley and guarding the forced labour working on the road through the fen. The rest are small garrisons.”
I smile while saying, “Would it be fair to say the hardcore troops are all around the prison or the citadel with only a few hardcore officers and senior non-commissioned officers controlling conscripts elsewhere?”
“I think that's a good assumption, except I'd also expect a couple of hardcore groups as the key troops with the fen guards as well. Why?”
I wave Mac to silence while I look at the map more before saying, “I want three copies of good cloth maps of this whole area please. Plus a cloth plan of the prison.” Then I move to expand and examine the area around the prison, especially the cliff behind it. It is a very formidable cliff, but not impossible for a good climber with long ropes. It's a good thing I decided to take huge rolls of rope to cut up as needed instead of pre-made lengths of rope. They'll be very hard to carry around, but very useful on that cliff if we go that way. I'll have to see what it's like there.
The prison design looks wrong to me. The cliff is the west wall, a three-story stone wall has its only entrance on the north wall a quarter of the way in from the east wall with four-story high towers on each side of the gate and the east wall corners. Inside the wall is a courtyard around another rectangular structure like a square 'eight' around two courtyards. The east wall has no towers and a single entrance in its middle while the middle wall has a tower on each end as well as one in the middle of it. The walls and towers are much wider than the outer wall. It's very odd.
A little later I turn to Merry to say, “Leave registering the mission until right before we leave, but we'll take the prison group operation and enter through the bank in Deep Valley,” while I touch the spot marking the town deep into the hills two thirds of the way between the Seaside Citadel and the fens. It's the northern most bank, but, more importantly, the one with the smallest garrison force near it.
Merry says, “That means you'll have to travel almost the length of the Brotherhood's area to get to the prison!”
“I know. Which is why they won't expect us to use that bank. Also, if we leave in the same hour as we register for it they may not get told until after we arrive there.”
Mac says, “Then you best start packing, Al, because you want to get going before someone else chooses the mission.” I nod my agreement, turn, and leave to get people packing up to go.
On the Way
Normally there's a couple of days between the mission selection and the departure on the mission, but we've studied this one well so we're off as soon as we can pack up to go. Within the hour we're ready to leave.
Merry enters the mission acceptance into the system, initiates the portal for us, and we're on our way while most of my group are still bemused by the speed of the departure. We enter the portal in the same way as we did on the way here from Earth.
Once again I enter an oversized bank vault with room for all of us. I lead Jericho to the side to make room for the others as they arrive, and I wait for them to join me. The portal vanishes when the last horse exits the portal. My box appears when I stick my finger into the hole, then it only takes a few minutes for me to arm everyone with a knife from the many I stored on my last visit. Bridget and Victor are given bows while Tora and I each have a sword and sets of bo-shuriken, plus I have my mini-crossbow. A last minute check, then I shut the box before I turn to exit the vault by leading our four person combat team ahead of Norm, our blacksmith, who's leading the horses and the rest of the workers.
We exit the vault ready for combat. There are five armed Brotherhood soldiers in the main bank room with the sergeant in charge drawing his sword while the four young soldiers are frozen in fear. A mini-crossbow bolt in his forehead stops the sergeant's actions. I look at the others as I say, “Surrender.” They all vigorously nod yes. I ask, “How many more soldiers in the town?”
One of them glances at the others before saying, “There's twenty of us farm boys, three sergeants, a captain, and a corporal. With Sergeant Kelly here dead there's only the four regulars left at the base office.”
“Right! What's your name, and you can lead me to the office while your friends help mine to tidy up here then follow us.”
“I'm called Monk. The office is just up the road.”
I turn to Tora while saying, “Strip this rubbish and have these young men drag the carcass to the rubbish heap or midden for disposal then follow me to the office.” She smiles and nods yes before I turn back while waving for Monk to lead the way. While we exit the building I reload my mini-crossbow.
We must look odd with all of my people dressed in clothes to hide in the local brush while being shown around by the soldiers in grey uniforms. Walking to the office I notice no one in the town is armed apart from a few young soldiers and my people, thus my sword makes me stand out and the few people in the street stare at us while we walk about five buildings up the road. The two young guards outside the office first stare at my sword, then they both smile and one turns to open the door for us while he says, “Visitor, Captain.”
Monk enters the office and moves to the side as a man asks, “Who is it?” at the same moment I walk through the door to see a captain sitting at a desk with a map in front of him, a sergeant on each side of the desk, and a corporal sitting at another desk to my left. All of them are looking at the door when Monk moves aside.
When they see me they all go for their swords. I smile, raise my left hand to shoot the officer with the mini-crossbow while throwing a bo-shuriken at the sergeant on my right. My hand turns to the left to halt just long enough to shoot the other sergeant before turning further to shoot the corporal. It's over so fast all four are falling at the same time.
Monk grins while he says, “Damn! You Tigers are even better fighters than the rumours say you are.”
While crossing the room to retrieve my weapons I ask him, “Why do you think I'm a Tiger?”
Monk says, “Everyone wears clothes of single colours for each item they have on while only the Tigers wear clothes with splotches of colour like yours. We're told it helps you to hide in the forest. As soon as we saw your clothes we knew you were with the Tigers. That's why we didn't do anything. We hoped you'd let us surrender instead of just kill us.”
I grin while I strip the dead and say, “Can you collect the rest of the soldiers together to surrender so I don't have to kill them?” Monk nods yes and leaves to get them.
About fifteen minutes later I'm sitting at the desk going through the papers there after having accepted the surrender of all of the conscripts as well as giving a local farmer permission to feed the dead to his pigs. One odd item I find is a hidden list of codes and passwords, so I ask Monk about it as he's now my assistant. He says, “Most of the time the messenger from Seaside Citadel is the same man, but some messages are delivered by a man we don't know. When that happens the Captain issues the challenge and waits for the response on the list. He crosses off each one as he uses it. That's why the top five have lines through them. You'll know the usual messenger when you see him because he has a long scar on his left cheek and his hair is cut very short. We usually have a messenger arrive every ten days or so. The last was five days ago.”
I lean back while I think on this. It seems they now have a way to do an easy check on each outpost to see if all is well there. We'll have to see to it the place looks right for the next visit. I look up, turn to Tora, and says, “Have all of our people find and wear Brotherhood uniforms. I'll put on the Captain's insignia. Have the horses and dogs moved to where they won't be seen by anyone coming up the valley.” She nods yes and leaves. I turn back to Monk, “I want the place to look like normal in case we get a messenger arriving here before we're ready to leave. Get the troops set up the way they should be.” He nods yes and he leaves as well.
A couple of hours later a group of the town's leaders ask to see me. The office isn't that large so I go outside to talk to them. They look shocked to see me in the uniform of the Brotherhood, so I say, “Until I'm ready to act against them I don't want any visitors to know things have changed here, so my people are making it look like the Brotherhood are still in charge. Now, how can I help you?”
Their designated spokesman says, “Will you be permanently staying here? Will you keep the Brotherhood away from us?”
“I'd like to, but I can't. I have other duties, nor do I have the troops to protect you from a strong attack. I can take you with me when I leave.”
One of the young guards named Willis says, “There's about twenty of the dedicated Brotherhood soldiers at the Road Project along with over a hundred conscripts they command plus thousands of forced labourers. If you go there to free them you'll have an army to fight with.”
After turning to look at Willis I stop to think for a moment. Then I ask, “I know the troops will surrender, but will they fight for me?”
Willis replies, “Give the troops a reasonable chance to win and they'll fight. Give the labourers weapons and the same chance and they'll fight. We've all had it with the Brotherhood and their pushing people around.”
Pointing at the spokesperson and Willis I say, “You two come with me,” before I turn to go back to the desk. There I pull out my map and look at it. Locating Peter's Pass I ask them, “Do either of you know this pass well? Can we build a citadel wall across it?”
The spokesman smiles, turns, and calls out, “Mason, get in here.” A man walks in and he adds, “Mason, you know building and you know Peter's Pass. Can you build a citadel wall there?”
The man smiles as he says, “Yes, Phil. I did my apprenticeship in the pass while we prepared it to build a citadel wall. However, they never got it finished, just the first wall and the gatehouse. Give me a few wagon loads of stone blocks and I'll have a strong wall up in a few days. Why?”
We all smile as I ask, “Do you have anyone who can lead your army after I leave for my other duties?”
Mason says, “I doubt it. Most who knew how to fight had fought and died when the Brotherhood came here. They may have someone at the Road Project.”
I study the map. Unless troops have moved there's only one other small garrison and the Road Project troops north of Peter's Pass.
“Right. We have to look normal for the next messenger then we can go north to find an army to keep you free.” All three smile. “You best get active alerting everyone and doing what preparations you can where the messenger won't see them.”
Phil, the town spokesman, says, “If you can leave some of the troops here to look like normal we can be ready to join you on the way back so we can build the wall. That gives us a few extra days to be ready.” I simply nod my agreement with that aspect of the plan.
An hour later I'm briefing my people on the general plan as specifics of how to deal with those at the Road Project will have to wait until we get there to see how it's set out.
At the same time Al is making plans for Peter's Pass a small group of men are having a meeting at the Seaside Citadel. Their leader says, “We just got word Hero Al has taken the mission to free the Damsels in Cliff Prison. Our spy has no idea on where he intends to arrive so we need to alert all of our force commanders of his imminent arrival.”
One of the other generals says, “If he goes true to form he should be coming through Junction, along the road, and we'll be alerted to a major battle with our people at West Pass in a few weeks time.”
A third general says, “Maybe, maybe not. We now know he has good climbing skills so he may be planning to scale the walls at West Pass to quietly get by them so we won't know. So far he's not done what we'd expect, so he may even be planning on coming through one of the banks we control.”
The lead general smiles as he says, “I hope so. We already have forces in those banks with orders to kill anyone exiting the vaults. We'll have the forces at the banks double the guards and we'll soon be rid of him.”
Another man says, “We better alert the ports as well. He may choose to go to an island and sail in. I'll get messengers out to all of our forces in the next hour. They should get to even the most distant force before he leaves Crossroads. They usually list the mission a few days before they leave Crossroads, so we've got plenty of time.” They all nod agreement before they go on to discuss other matters.
An hour later over a dozen messengers are sent on their way. They should all report back within five days, and most within three days.
Corporal Dawkins of the Brotherhood messenger service is given the northern route for the first time. He has only five calls to make: Cliff Port, Green Valley, Peter's Pass, Deep Valley, and the Road Project. He's allowed five days for the trip, so if he rides hard his two good horses will have him back within three days then he can have two days to himself.
Although Dawkins leaves Seaside Citadel late in the afternoon he delivers his messages to Cliff Port and Green Valley before settling down for the night along the roadside. He's up early the next day to make quick visits to Peter's Pass and Deep Valley on his way to the Road Project at the fens. He arrives late, delivers the message, stays the night, and heads back the next morning as soon as it's light. Without having to divert into the valleys he has a much shorter ride back to base to arrive just before the sergeant closes the office for the day.
While handing over the signed receipts Dawkins says, “Everything looked OK at each garrison. I was challenged, gave the response, handed the message over, they read it, signed the copy, and gave it back. Here they are.”
The sergeant takes the signed copies, glances at the signatures, smiles, puts them in his tray for filing, and ticks off the garrisons on his list while he says, “Enjoy the two days off you earned. That was fast riding.”
Dawkins nods yes, smiles, and leaves to go have a meal before he can start a semi-official two day time off leave period.
The next day the clerk simply files the signed copies.
A couple of days after the meeting with the town leaders I'm sitting at the desk reading documents when there's a knock on the door and the guard opens it while calling out, “Messenger, Captain.” I quickly glance at the challenge and response list while the door opens and a corporal without a facial scar enters the room.
I bark at him, “Sherwood Forest.”
He smiles as he replies, “Oregon Pine. Urgent message, Sir,” while he holds out an envelope.
I accept the envelope, open it to find two copies of orders. I read them, sign one with a good forgery of the Captain's signature I'd spent most of yesterday learning to write, and hand the copy back to him. He slips the form into his message pouch, turns, and leaves. A moment later he's galloping away while I read the orders. I've just been notified to keep an eye out for the Hero Al and to kill him if seen. I smile because it's clear I'm ahead of their game, for now.
The door opens and Monk walks in while saying, “He's gone. Jack is down near the crossroads to let us know when he goes back south.”
While nodding to him I say, “Good. Start alerting everyone to be ready to leave sometime tomorrow. We should have several days to get set up for the next messenger at Peter's Pass.” He smiles as he leaves.
Mid-morning of the next day Jack says the messenger is riding fast to the south on his way back to Seaside Citadel. I smile at him then blow my whistle hard. Suddenly the almost empty town is very busy with people walking out from between or behind buildings ready to ride north.
In minutes I'm leading a group down the road on our way to the Road Project to take out the Brotherhood troops and to recruit an army to help build and defend a fortress at Peter's Pass. I've Tora, Bridget, Victor, ten of the conscripts, and Tip with his two dogs going with me.
Mid-afternoon we come upon a column of a few hundred prisoners on the road. Monk says, “I recognise the troops. Take out the officer and the sergeant then the rest will join us.” I grin as I nod yes.
A few minutes later I ride up to the Captain leading the group and say to him, “Captain, you may surrender your command to me or die. It's your choice which.” He blinks for a moment, then he reaches for his sword. On seeing his officer's reaction the sergeant reaches for his sword. Both of them have their swords half drawn when I raise my left hand to shoot them both with my mini-crossbow.
I keep the group on the move while I ride down the column to tell everyone what's happening before I pick up the pace because I want to be at the Road Project camp later tonight instead of tomorrow morning.
The Road Project
The labourers at the Road Project are still eating their evening meal when we arrive just after dusk. In the hustle of getting the new people fed and settled no one notices the conscripts with me happily wandering around killing the hardcore Brotherhood soldiers who abused them in the past. Due to the dim light it's hard to see who is who when not right up to them, so the officers don't notice until a sergeant fails to respond to a call for him. The resulting flurry of action by the officers does them no good, and a little later their bodies are being tossed to the fen animals for disposal while I talk to the engineer in charge of the project.
All of the labourers in the camp are surprised when I tell them the camp has been liberated and they have to choose what to do. I end my talk by saying, “A group of locals are building a citadel wall in Peter's Pass to have a solid defence against the Brotherhood, should they attempt to take control again. They need people to help with the construction and they need people to help form a permanent military force to defend the pass. The people in the area this side of the pass need more people to help them work the farms, and the engineer here wants people to help him build a port at this end of the fen. The choice is yours. As far as we're concerned you can go to anywhere you want to.”
Someone calls out, “What about the Brotherhood south of the pass?”
“Once the pass is secure I've a mission to finish south of there, but I don't have the skilled troops to eliminate all of the Brotherhood in the area or the equipment to capture a sealed citadel. So if you go south of the pass on your own you do so at your own risk. We can't help you.”
The next morning the workers split up with over half deciding to stay with the engineer after he explains how he intends to build the port without any loss of life now he can do it how he wants to. A few hundred decide to travel to the pass with us while the rest are going to see about working on the farms between here and the pass. The last group will travel south with us then leave when they find jobs.
When we get to Peter's Pass we find Mason and the others have been very busy. The troops we left at Deep Valley have secured the help of the troops at the pass after they eliminated the officer and NCOs. The troops man the gatehouse and provide security to the workers cutting stone blocks and preparing the rest of the area for the construction.
When we arrive with a few hundred extra workers Mason is very busy adding a new wall in front of the existing wall. He tells me, “We'll use the old wall for our fighting platform and have a higher wall to take the bulk of any attack.”
With all of the extra workers he has the wall high enough to be happy to mount the gates he started on when he first arrived. Two sets of gates with one set on each end of a chute beside the gatehouse. Ten days after the messenger's visit Mason and Phil declare the wall strong enough to withstand an attack, but they continue to add improvements to it. At lunchtime the messenger from Seaside Citadel dies at the gatehouse when he refuses to surrender to Monk.
The messenger's visit means I have to get moving. So I leave there with most of my Earth crew, Monk, and eleven of the conscripts.
None of the freed people know enough to manage the troops in a combat situation so Victor, who's an experienced combat team leader, volunteers to stay behind to be their commander. I strongly suspect the two local girls suggesting they'd make him good wives have a large part in his decision to stay. The twin sisters are a bit hard for him to resist. I give Victor two of the telescopes and one of the maps of the area to use.
An hour after the Brotherhood messenger's arrival I'm leading my small force of twenty people south while Victor explains to the carpenters how to make a trebuchet. I make a point of remembering to get the plans to build some of my own as I hadn't thought of siege engines.
In the afternoon we pass the road to Green Valley then pass the gate into Cliff Port without comment. We can safely do this because we look like the force who took the prisoners north on their way back south.
It's night when we make our way between Seaside Citadel and the nearby port. We can safely pass through since they're two distinct towns with a few miles between their walls and they can't see us on the road in the dark. However, we do have to be careful not to make any noise the guards on either wall can hear because they'll send out troops to investigate if they hear us going by. Like shadows we move down the road at a slow walk until we're a few miles south of both towns.
We continue south while acting as a small force of Brotherhood troops on a mission. However, the ten dogs we have running with us don't fit the profile of any of the Brotherhood forces we've seen, so we avoid any of the Brotherhood forces we see on the move. We even go around a town on the direct path to the prison to prepare a backdoor at a nearby port town which is now mostly deserted due to the forced evacuation of it.
Before entering the port we stop nearby to study it. After establishing a camp in a dell well to the side of the road Tora, Bridget, Monk, and I take care walking up to the crest of the hill to look at the port. I'm not happy to be over a mile from the small port, but this is the last place high enough to let us look at the port from above it because the surrounding area is very flat.
The four of us take turns using the three telescopes we have while we study the situation. After a few minutes Bridget says, “Al, those look like internment camps around the port. Do you know why?”
I nod while replying, “To lower the port population below that for a bank they forced most of the people out of the port. I guess they've been locking up anyone who tried to return home.”
Monk says, “That may account for the second camp, but I know the camp to our right of the port is for the families of the crews who work the ships based in the port. It's how they ensure the ships keep coming back to the port. By keeping the families hostage they only need a few people on the ship to control it.”
Tora says, “What about the crews of the fifteen ships we can see tied to the piers and at anchor?”
Monk replies, “Most of those are likely the ships they captured or the crews are double crewed on the ships at sea. One of the Brotherhood's allies is busy taking over the sea and the off-shore islands so they have the ships with a lot of extra crew to man captured ships.”
I smile while saying, “I did want to take control of the port as a way out. Now I can see we can take it but we won't be able to hold it. So I think we'll just free it.” They all turn to look at me, so I add, “From what I've learned in the last few weeks I think a lot of the troops are ready to switch sides as long as they don't have to hang around in bad combat positions. So we go in, take out the officers and NCOs, release the people, wait for most, or all, of the ships to come in, then we let them pack up and sail away. The Brotherhood's leaders will go crazy wondering what happened to them all.” They all laugh while they nod their agreement.
Taking the Camps and Port
After nightfall Tora and I lead raids on both of the internment camps. Tora leads Monk and five of the local troops while I lead Bridget and the other five local troops as we ride up to the camp entrances in uniform.
Both of the raids go so much the same it's not funny. We have one of the locals talk for us when we reach the gate and are taken to the officer in command when we ask to speak with him. When we get there my men use their swords to kill the officer, the sergeant, and the corporal while I cover them with my mini-crossbow. The other troops are quick to surrender while smiling the entire time. At the other camp the only difference is Tora stays to the back of the group until the men kill the officer and the sergeant and she uses her bo-shuriken to kill the corporal.
After taking the camp closest to the port I send a man back for the rest of our group and they soon join us. Next is to search the camp for people who can show us ways to sneak into the port. The whole port town is surrounded by a wall with the gates shut at night, so we either wait for the morning or we sneak in. In both camps we soon find locals who can shows us ways to sneak into the port.
Taking the port itself is easier than the camps because all of the troops are conscripts ready to surrender while the three officers and five NCOs are so sure of the security of the walls my northern recruits simple walk up to them and execute them. The hardest part of the task is the long walk through the escape tunnel one of the merchants has to his house.
For three days we keep up the status quo while we wait for the ships to return to port. However, we aren't idle. Troops stand on guard at all three locations while groups of skilled locals check the ships in harbour are safe and ready to sail. As soon as a ship is announced as ready to go other locals move all of their personal property onto that ship. When everyone has all of their own gear on board ships they set about loading the ships up with everything they can take from the port town.
Eight days after our arrival the ships at sea start to return in ones and twos over the next three days. We visit each ship to execute the hardcore Brotherhood people on the ship. The sailors are happy to be freed, and so are the many people kept in the holds as captured slaves.
A day to redistribute people and to finish stripping the town then we watch the fleet of twenty-eight ships sail away to a safe haven they know of but don't tell us about before we depart the port for the prison itself.
Two days after watching the fleet sail away Tora, Bridget, Monk, and I are lying on top of a hill above our latest camp while using the telescopes to examine the prison. After a while Tora and I give the cliff a very close look. Tora turns to me to say, “I can see the ledge you mentioned and I can see how you think you can free climb up to it, but I won't agree to it. The route is too risky and there's no way we could come back down if we hit a bad spot. We don't have the right gear to try that climb. The bulge we'd need to go over is just too dangerous, Al.”
Sighing, I nod my head in agreement while having another look at the point under discussion. It didn't look that bad on the Crossroads 3D map, but here on site I can see it's a no go. “Damn!” Turning to Tora I ask, “Do you see a spot we can go over the wall?”
“I see several spots. I don't trust most of them because they're too obvious. I suspect they're traps. I think the best spot is to go to the top of the main gate tower then to work our way back.” Monk turns to look at Tora as if she's crazy while Bridget just smiles because she's seen us both at work on climbing walls back home.
After a moment's thought I say, “I think the best option is to go up the gate tower to just just below the top then to work our way around it and down. We want to get inside and release the prisoners before taking any action to let them know we're here. Notice how frequently they're checking all of the guard positions! I'll bet they do that more often at night. So we can't take out any guards until we have the prisoners free.” Tora nods her agreement while Monk is very wide-eyed. I turn to him and add, “We're very good climbers. That wall is easy. The hard part will be the climb down the other side without a rope.” He just shakes his head in wonder.
We withdraw to spend the rest of the day discussing what to do after we get into the prison. The more we talk about it the more we're sure the alarms will go off as soon as we start taking out the wall guards, so they need to be the last ones we deal with. While we talk Tora and I go over our light packs with what we'll be taking with us for the next few days. When we're finished talking Tora and I lie down to get some sleep.
The Way In
Just after dusk Tora and I slowly crouch walk down to near the road to just before the last of the local shrubs. The last one hundred feet to the prison is clear of trees and shrubs with only the local grass left. Even the grass is cut low. Once near the road we crawl up to the roadside to make our way along it. We don't track the time during our slow creep, but when we reach the tower we can hear the change of shift happening above us. Knowing the noise and disruption of the change will mask any small sounds we make while the guards are focussed on the change we quickly get ready for our climb and start up the wall of the tower.
We're able to climb fast for the first few minutes due to having less of a concern about disturbing the quiet of the night as it isn't quiet right now. By the time the sounds of the guard change are over we're both above the main wall level and almost to where we want to start going around the gate side of the tower. I stop to look down at the guards on the wall, and smile when I see a couple are bending over the wall to have a close look at the ground just in front of the wall before they look further out at the approaches to the prison. We wait a few minutes for them to conduct their first inspections then settle down for their guard shift.
About ten minutes later we start to work our way around the tower at the same height as we currently are. We move to be on the wall between the two towers because that reduces the chances of one of the wall guards seeing us while walking the wall. While there is a section of guard walk above the gate we noticed no one uses it and the doors to it stay shut. Once we get around the corner I look down at the wall and see they have traps of spiked boards along the wall to hurt anyone climbing over the wall above the gate. Seeing them makes me change my mind about where we climb down the wall. Originally we planned to take the risk of climbing down the back wall of the tower, but now I want to go down near the back corner while on this face. We keep moving toward the inner side of the tower while we also start to angle down the wall. We're very slow and careful in our movements, and we stay still if we see or hear any movement near us. One moves while the other watches then we swap jobs. About an hour after starting our climb we're standing on the ground inside the prison at the corner of the left-hand gate tower.