The Heartless Dead: Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight
Thrice Hills

Bree left Trevvis dozing on the roof in the early morning sun. She grabbed her gear and slipped out of town, hoping to skip any other farewells. She hated saying goodbye.

She headed east once she was out of town. Though the Three Jaws were located to the north, it would be easiest to find their camp if she stuck to the river, and there was no better place to do that than in Thrice Hills. Besides, if she was being perfectly honest with herself, Thrice Hills meant even more to her than Kelmarane. She couldn’t head off into the wilds again without at least stopping by to check on their defenses.

The journey was uneventful. She spotted a few wild hyenas in the distance and some scorpions at the side of the road, but they were a normal part of life in Katapesh. Nothing to worry over. A few months ago she had convinced Santon to send members of the militia along the roads between Kelmarane and Thrice Hills to ensure their continued safety. He had obviously kept up the patrols. Bree was grateful, of course, but the inactivity made her restless. After a week confined to the safety of Kelmarane she wanted to be doing something useful. Defending the roads would have been a welcome diversion. She sighed. She felt so domesticated.

The day had passed by in a monotonous blur by the time Thrice Hills finally appeared on the horizon. It was a small village that spanned the tops of three green hills nestled between two rivers. Smoke drifted up lazily from the village cook-fires, caught the sun, and turned into a brilliant, golden haze. Bree could smell turmeric, cardamon and ginger on the wind. Her stomach rumbled in response. She hurried the rest of the way, imagining all manner of foods she hoped to find over the cook-fires.
When she reached the base of the first hill, she smiled. A large trench had been dug around the entire perimeter of Thrice Hills. It was six feet deep, six feet across, and ended at the angled slope of the hill. The earth in the trench was soft and loose. Weighed down by rocks on top of the loose soil was a massive fishing net. Here and there, amidst the fishing nets, a few young cacti had been planted. Bree followed the edge of the trench until she came across a series of planks lashed together and stretched out from one bank to the other as a makeshift, movable bridge.

Bree crossed the bridge and trudged up the hill, on the lookout for anything else out of the ordinary. She reached the cook-fires and hilltop without any other surprises. She frowned. She had been pressuring the people of Thrice Hills for almost a year to build defenses that could protect them against the gnolls and, though the trench was proof that she had made some headway, she found the villagers surprisingly resistant to her advice. She sighed as she eyed the homes and cook-fires spread before her. The villagers were proud, and stubborn. Granted, they would have to be to live within the shadows of the Brazen Peaks, but, surely their safety and that of their children was something worth sacrificing their egos for?

Bree caught sight of a weathered, old man who sat on a chair before the central cook-fire. His bronze, craggy skin – sure signs of a life under the desert sun – looked golden in the evening sunlight. Shadows danced around his brows, but the eyes below them were bright and vivid.

Bree weaved through the village, nodding at the people she passed. Finally, she reach the old man.

“Elder Parmeen,” she greeted with a smile. “I see you finally took some of my advice.”

The old man grinned. “Your pleas have not fallen on deaf ears, Bree.”

“Just stubborn ones.”

Elder Parmeen chuckled. “The people of Thrice Hills consider that a compliment.”

“I didn’t mean it as one.” She sighed. “I had hoped for the sake of safety you would accept more than one of my suggestions.”

The old man rose from his seat wearily. “Let us discuss this in private. It is hardly dinner conversation.”
Bree nodded and followed the Elder to his home. It was the largest building in the village and served as both a house, a shelter, a town hall, and a jail. Outside was a small, picket fence, built in the style of her homeland.

Elder Parkeen gestured to it with smugly. “One wall, as requested.”

Bree smirked. “This isn’t a wall, it’s a fence.”

Elder Parkeen laughed.

“I told you to build a perimeter wall, and fences around each property.”

“This is the largest wall Thrice Hills will ever build.”

Bree sighed. “You know how I feel about that, Parkeen. A wall will keep you safe from the gnolls.”

“And you know how we feel about that. We live in Thrice Hills. A village, not a fortress. We will not turn the home of our ancestors into a besieged encampment.”

“It could save lives.”

“At the expense of what? Our pride? Our hope? I will not allow my people to suffer the shame and fear such a construction would bring.”

Bree sighed deeply. “Are there other fences going up, at least?”

“No. If the gnolls attack it is to the Hall on each hilltop that the people flee to, and so it is the Hall that we will fortify. The fence was built as you suggested,” he gestured at the sharpened wooden pickets. “With punji sticks, point up, for planks.”

“And the brush I suggested you grow around it?”

“We will use cacti. The planting starts tomorrow.”

Bree nodded. “Place them five feet before the fence.”

“Five?”

“If any hyenas or mounted gnolls try to leap the cacti, they’ll land upon the fence and the force will – “

“Yes, I see. Five feet, then.”

“And make them tall cacti.”

“Of course. Would you like to see what else we built?”

Bree smiled. “I saw your trench. It’s wonderful.”

Elder Parkeen’s eyes twinkled with pride. “Oh, it’s not a trench.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “What is it, then?”

“It’s a canal. If gnolls are spotted, we can lift a gate and flood the trenches. The soil will turn to a deep, sucking mud. After we remove the bridges the mud coupled with the fishing nets at the bottom should drown plenty of gnolls. “

“And those who swim?”

“Find a surprising amount of cacti beneath their paws, and a difficult edge to climb out of.”

Bree smiled. “I’m impressed.”

“Ah, but that’s not all,” the elder chuckled. “We’ve dug some fox holes around the hill.”

“For offense, or defense?”

“Either. Any ambushes or punji sticks will have to be set upon sighting the gnolls.”

Bree frowned. “Time may not be on your side. You should lay your traps ahead of time.”

“The children like to play in them.”

“You’re letting kids play in fox holes?”

“It is the children who voted we dig the holes in the first place. Besides, anything we build must either be mobile, or serve another, less… deadly purpose. The people of Thrice Hills will not have their village turned into a war camp.”

“Did you set the blacksmith to making caltrops?”

“There is no need to build what nature provides. The nutlets of the tackweed plant will serve well enough. We need only gather them when they begin to drop in a few more days time.”

“And the abastis?”

“We are not planting sharpened punji sticks around the perimeter of each hill.”

“Then prepare for a temporary one. Collect the branches from trees and when the gnolls are spotted you can set them up on the slopes as a temporary obstacle. It will cause the gnolls to expose their chests and heads to your archers for a longer time.”

Elder Parkeen’s expression turned thoughtful. “As always, I will bring your suggestion before the villagers.”

“I still say you should build a wall. You’ve got the perfect location and with the trenches already dug you could – “

“The people have already passed judgement on that issue. Your persistent disregard to our opinions will make the villagers more resistant to your other suggestions. If you do not wish to colour their prejudices against you – “

“Prejudices?” Bree cut in. Did they mistrust her for being a foreigner? After all she had done for them?

Elder Parkeen kept talking as if he had not been interrupted. “Then I suggest you let the matter drop.”

“Do the people of Thrice Hills dislike me for my complexion? Am I just another condescending Northerner?”

Elder Parkeen smiled gently and shook his head. “You are always so quick to take offense. The colour of your skin makes no difference to us,” he chuckled. “The people of Thrice Hills rarely listen to those who are not from Thrice Hills. Outsiders do not understand what it takes to live in the shadow of the Brazen Peaks. You should be proud they have entertained your proposals to the extent that they have.”

Bree sighed. “Fine. But if you will make no wall, consider building a series of chevaux de frise.”

“Of what?”

Bree frowned and tried to find the an appropriate translation. “It’s a sort of movable wall used against cavalry, back home. You can build it from a log, or sawhorse. In its basic form it is a central beam with sharpened protrusions jutting from it in an x-formation. You can use spears, swords, wooden stakes. Whatever you like, really, as long as it’s sharp.”

“And these ‘shev-doo-freeze’ are movable?”

“Yes. When they’re needed you just drag them out and place them wherever you want. Any gnolls trying to climb or circumvent them risk being injured – and facing your archers, of course – and any wargs or hyenas have to jump over them, which often ends poorly.”

“You will need to think of another name for them. My people won’t accept something so obviously foreign.”

Bree frowned. “You can call them hyena gutters, for all I care.”

The old man raised an eyebrow. “I sincerely hope that when the day comes where you are blessed with children, you allow your husband to name them.”

Bree scowled. “No worries of that, old man. I’m not the mothering type.”

“Children are the light that brings hope to the world. The love that drives our hearts. Surely you, who fights for life so vehemently, will want to bear your own?”

Bree’s frown deepened. She couldn’t even keep her boyfriend out of trouble! She shuddered to think what would become of her children. Still, that was none of the elder’s business! Bree pressed on, disregarding his question. “Why haven’t you built a watch tower?

“We have.”

Bree looked around, but spotted no towers or watch posts of any sort. She scowled at the old man before her. “No need to lie, Parkeen.”

“I would never stoop so low.” He gestured at the Hall behind them. Bree eyed the structure, but other than an old man who sat in a wooden chair atop its roof, she found nothing out of the ordinary.

“We have a watch tower, and keen eyes to man it.”

The man atop the roof waved down at Bree. She scowled in response. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”

Elder Parkeen chuckled. “How unfortunate for you. Now, cease your complaining and enjoy your stay.”

“I would hardly call it a stay, Parkeen. I leave at dawn to hunt the Three Jaws.”

“All the more reason to take what pleasure you can tonight.”

Bree scoffed.

“Some of your fellows from Kelmarane are here.”

“Militia members?”

The old man nodded. “Brotis, Yesper and Dullen. They came at your Sheriff’s request to help keep us safe.”

“And have they?”

“We have faced no worse than a trio of gnolls in the past month. They haven’t had a chance to protect us. But, I have given them a new purpose.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I’ve put them to work training any who wish to learn the art of swordplay. Though our archers are skilled we have few villagers gifted with a blade.”

Bree frowned. “I though your people were too proud to take advice from outsiders. No more than a few kids turned up last time I offered to host lessons.”

The old man laughed. “They were. However, after seeing you in action last month against that failed slaving raid, we have seen an… increase in interest. You have inspired many from the younger generations to learn.”

Bree’s frown softened. “I have some free time now. Perhaps I can – “

“Rest, Bree,” the Elder insisted. “The Three Jaws are formidable and this is the last chance you will have to receive a full night’s sleep. Do not throw away the luxury.”

Bree sighed. Apparently doing something useful would have to wait another day. “I have no need of a fancy bed, Parkeen. But I suppose, since this whole damned village smells delicious, I’ll try my best to eat you out of house and home.”

Elder Parkeen laughed. “Anything for our demanding benefactor.”

Bree’s eyes lit up. “That reminds me! Did you get the last shipment of weapons and armour I sent by caravan?”

“Yes, Bree. Now go have fun.”

Bree ignored the old man’s response. “Were there enough blades? I could send – “

“You are far too young to nag at me like and old woman, child.”

“But, there’s work to be done and – “

The old man sighed. “Go and eat something, or I will tell all of the eligible bachelors that you have an open space in your bed tonight.”

Bree scowled. She had turned down enough young men from Thrice Hills without any sort of encouragement. Surely he wouldn’t suggest she was open to advances? “You wouldn’t.”

Elder Parkeen smiled.

Bree frowned. “You are devious, old man.”

As she stalked downhill to the cook-fires she couldn’t help but smile. She had missed Thrice Hills. The people she passed nodded at her out of friendliness, not awe. People spoke to her, but didn’t simper or grovel. If a man flirted with her it was out of interest, not hope for power or prestige. Her opinions were met with discussion, not immediate acceptance. Sure, the people of Thrice Hills didn’t take all her suggestions, but here she was a person, not a hero.

Here she was free.

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