XX. Mountain

Nestled along the dusty brown worn peaks of tired rock hung with twisted roots and sprigs of tough mountainous vegetation with wavering leaves of green on the breezy heights, hugging close to the ground in tattered weather stained earthen-hued smocks were scouts of the rebellion, among them were Jun, Sun, and the Panther Tribe chieftess, Fey. They peer down from their high precipice into the city of Guishan.

The city was situated in the high cleft of a rising mountain, with rough and impassible cliffs and rocky walls to either side. At its wide mouth, rolling down towards the level ground set in far below to their right, nearly adjacent to their line of sight was the massive outer wall. The high wall was of thick stone, covered in a white plaster, curving outwards like a crescent with parapets and towers along its length.

The central gate was large enough for great caravans to pass side by side from each other. The central arched gate had a high covered gatehouse, topped with a pinnacle from which svaari look outs were posted, with a tall banner of Seyvie flapping high in the breeze from the pinnacle's central flagpole. The imposing wall had Svaari Asun regular archers and soldiers stationed along its length, with outer steps that led to the wall's internal garrison, where there was sleeping quarters and assumed to be a kitchen, supply room, and armory as well since the units stationed on the wall seemed to live at their posts only rotating out on six hour shifts.

Behind the wall were storehouses, stables, and staging areas with winches, and raised loading platforms for the caravans. Situated further in were houses, forges, workshops, lodges, and a central market where Svaari Asun civilians, military, and trusted servants of men lived. Here also were deep wells and water basins. A hazy pall of dusky smoke hangs in the air above from the forges.

There was a second wall after this where the rest of the settlement and the majority of its population of men lived. From dark tunnels and wooden lined shafts the mines in the mountain were accessed, as enslaved men and beasts of labor pulled heavy loads to be cleaned and inspected, either sent to be crafted or loaded up for caravans. There were also many outer mines lay in work camps in the surrounding area as well, though the operation here was still the largest.

Finally on a well guarded road up from the hill at the city's center was a last walled compound at the height of the sloping city. This appeared to be the central house of government where the overseers and officers also lived. Here was also another barracks, storehouses, and tall silos of granaries where the city's supplies of food was stored as winters were early and harsh in the highlands of Guishan.

At the city center back down the central road, open from their high view was an empty hill at the edge of the svaari's gardens. At the bottom of the hill lay a dark gray boulder with white carved devotional characters, it seemed perhaps an old holy relic. The top of the green mound had a leveled height, from whence the boulder had once perhaps sat. Oddly there seemed to be a ring of dirt and bare patches along the grass of the mound, as if dug from toil.

Here they witness a terrible yet common occurrence.

The men and women of Guishan in worn and coarse garbs ordinary of the poverty stricken subjugated class of men stood almost dutifully with sad and vacant eyes draw to the hill. A funerary calm seems to beset them. Atop the close edge of tall trees of the nearby garden, svaari archers climbed to perch and like vultures. A group of bronze armored svaari troops with mohawk plumed helmets formed a ring around the mound, facing out towards the gathering crowd who knowingly kept a respectable distance.

A large muscular slave is brought out from the mines, his hands shackled. His hair is twisted in thick moisture clumped strands twisting with sweat with the front of his crown balding and near barren, though he appears to be a mature man, he is far from his elder years. He is powerful, one of the largest men even Sun had ever seen, stronger than well bred war slaves. Though he hangs his head, he seems to have an internal dignity unstained by the forced outward shame he'd had to endure.

He his shoved past the ring of soldiers, an overseer from the mines unlocks his shackles as he stands frozen still, staring at the ground at his feet. His tattered short robe is stripped with unceremonious, almost spiteful haste and his scarred towering form is laid bare. His powerful muscles wracked with clusters of long streaking interlaced scars layered one overtop of another, some old and stretched, others fresh high-raised purple ridges of scar tissue, lashed across his flesh, a map of pain and perseverance.

A distant challenge they cannot hear over the ambience of the city is issued to him. He raises his head with slow intent upon the boulder. The man approaches with measured stride, placing his thick leathery hands upon its smoothed bulges. As he exerts himself, rolling it towards the mound's slope a svaari approaches to uncoil a whip. The man is struck as he continues his impossible task. He heaves himself forth, pressing his face to the stone, trying to set the boulder atop the mound. His legs are lashed and he nearly falls to a knee, his joints quaking but refuses to buckle as he slowly rises.

The crowd stares on, with blank faces, men, women, children and elders all gathered with dead eyes and stilled breath. He eventually fails, ordered to step aside and return, the stone rolls back down, not having made only a third of the way to its desired destination.

He is re-clothed in his tattered brown garment, and shackled once more. A Svaari Asun with white-gold hair and high peaked ear tufts wearing a fine green silken robe makes a proclamation to those gathered assuming a dominant and overly proud posture, before the crowd is dispersed and the man taken back into the dark passages of the mines.

Sun looks on with phantoms of pain, rubbing his wrists as he sees the man in shackles led into the mines. A small rustling of a smock next to him taps on his shoulder, its Jun, she motions him back from the edge of the cliff. They gather, crawling down a decline of dirt in the narrow path to gather in a small patch of ground hidden by sharp outcroppings of rock and spindly mountain shrubs.

It was already summer, and even in the cool air high up along the mountain they could feel the sun's heat begin to prickle their skin with beads of sweat. Stealth was a slow and patient art that required discipline and preparation; as such it took several months for them to reach this point without the svaari uncovering their plans. They had worried that Ming Yi and Mei might have been captured or killed by Seyvie since they'd disappeared. Though, the enemy still seemed unaware of their intent even if they had been comprimised. Jun seemed to quietly think they were dead, and Sun had since become her strategist. The scouts had the settlement under surveillance for some time now, as the plans to assault the fortified city were formulated. The main force of rebels regrouped after the winter and slowly made their way unseen into a forward camp near Guishan to prepare for their audacious campaign.

Sun kneels in a small circle with the head scout, Jun and Fey as they huddle to discuss their plans. Jun gives a nod to the scout for him to give them a report on the situation in Guishan.

"The populace is ready to rise up any day now, even though they've no real chance, they're at their breaking point. We should act quickly if we want to aid them but it still seems unlikely we can even breach the gates even with their help. The area near first wall is settled with svaari and loyalists, not to mention heavily defended."

"I can't see how they'd have even a hope of surviving an uprising here…" Jun remarks with a sad note.

"They didn't. They were prepared to die fighting. These people of the mountains are tough. Rumors of Lao Ye's return have reached even out here, and these people whole-heartedly believe. The governor here thinks his torture of the big miner, Wei Shan, is breaking their spirits. He was a sort of community leader that spoke out for better conditions, now he's only a slave, one that's stripped and beaten every few days, just like this. Instead of breaking them, it only pushed them to the brink.

Though, I doubt we can co-ordinate with their people without a high risk of the svaari catching wind. We're lucky enough to get windfall of this information alone, even so, there's the fort in the pass a few hours away on main road… and that wall…" The scout spoke, his spirits shaken as he glances back over his shoulder.

"We'll take it one step at a time, … Any ideas?" Jun speaks with a firm resolve.

"The outer fort needs to be controlled before we could advance any amount of men towards the wall." Sun states factually as he rubs his stubbly jaw with one hand, as he idly drew a few lines in the dirt to represent Guishan and the fort.

"I already worked out a plan with Fang of how we could overwhelm the fort fairly quickly. But if they slip a messenger out, the city garrison will be alerted… We could send the nomads after any but I think it'd still be too risky, if even one makes it…" Jun replies her words drifting off, as she turns her face from a sudden gust, and the huddle hunkers down a bit.

Fey moves to speak after the wind has passed as Jun and the scout raise their faces, while Sun still plots secretly with the dirt, redrawing lines swept away by the wind:

"My scouts found a tough goat path that cuts around the fort, too rugged for men perhaps but not fellvari. I can take my best panthers to hunt any messenger they send. They'd be easy prey from the high ground there. We'd kill them all before they even let out a whimper." Fey assured,

"That's good, but… we'll only have a small window of time before being found out, and still we've no way to get past the first wall, unless anyone wants to hitch a ride with a caravan?" Jun replies dubiously raising her scarred brow after a second of consideration, leaning back on her haunches with a frustrated snort.

"Jun, ...that's not such a bad idea," Sun speaks, with a slow raise of his head and sudden spark in his eyes…

A long train of wooden transport carriages rumbled with a furious din, jerkily bouncing and swaying as they flew down the road intent on Guishan's main gate, leaving a rising wall of dust behind them. They were chased on by barks and howls of mad nomads whose arrows fury was evident as many had already struck the caravan and were imbedded in its wooden hulls as well as some unfortunate svaari guards who sat dead in their armor. The nomads seemed to fall back with hesitation as they caught the full sight of Guishan's towering outer wall, burning bright in the rising sun proudly reaching towards its noon day glory.

The dark storming flurries of nomad arrows landed short as the caravan pulled onto a straight approach rushing for the safety of the walls. The few archers still atop the carriages outer seats and raised guard roosts set atop the longer transports fired weakly in return at their wild nomad assailants, missing their targets as the caravan rumbled down the stretch, blinded by dust. The nomads began to draw back, their squadrons turning to break off and form great churning circles in the hilly stretch of pastoral lands that sat just outside of Guishan's walls. The dark nomads hooted and jeered calling out the city garrison itself in a mad gesture of defiance.

Finally the caravan reached the gate but it still sat stubbornly sealed, as the escaping carriages almost crashing into each other, coming halt before the thick blackened iron braces, rivets and beams heavy dark wood that stood tall and ominously silent before the beleaguered caravan.

"Caravan! Report!" A challenge in svaari was issued high from the walls as an archer peered over out of a narrow gatehouse window.

"Open the gates! We've got dead and wounded! They over ran the fort. We escaped with the slaves and iron they were trying to capture. Quick, before the rest of them arrive!" A dark skinned Svaari driver in a heavy helm shouted up, holding a cupped hand to his mouth as it's shadow drew over his face.

"Hold tight. I've sent a runner for the garrison commander. We've standing orders to only use the side gates in case of a raid; the archers will try to cover you. Circle around!" The guard captain in the gate house replied, as his eyes squinted at the roiling dust swirling around the nomads as it formed a hazy brown veil.

"We've got the fort commander here, the colonel. He's wounded badly. He ordered us to ride for the main gate. Open up or he'll die, damn it!" The forward driver said, with a bloody svaari officer next to him, his rented breast plate removed with a hasty white bandage on his shoulder seeping red; and broken shaft of a nomad arrow emerging from the side his lower leg.

The guard captains eyes dipped down as he gave a laden sigh and shook his head.

"Tzot Asun…" He mumbled with a gasp, leaning to look back out to the nomads before shouting a reply, "Very well, I won't have this on my head… Archers, keep ready these nomads might be foolish enough to try anything. … Raise the gate!" The captain shouted as he retreated his head back inside the high gatehouse's window.

The massive chains and gears began to rumble and turn, coiling until the gate began to rise; its iron teeth rising out of the graveled road. The bunched cluster of carriages forcefully pushed inside despite the guard captain's shouts for them to order themselves.

"We need a surgeon… you there! Get to the wall officers barracks, lieutenant Onal is the medical officer on duty. Hurry!" The captain shouted to a younger svaari as he made his way jogging down the zig zag of the wall's inner ramp to get to the ground, making his way towards the incoming caravan, "Straight file, caravan, order yourselves up! We'll need to be ready to send out cavalry if we have to. Who's left in charge here?" The officer shouted, becoming furious as it seemed the panicked survivors weren't heeding his words.

"You, … Wait a minute-" The captain began to say as he saw the 'svaari' driver turn, his helmet slumping as it was barely propped by a wadded head-wrap of cloth underneath as though dark skinned for a svaari the driver was actually a light skinned fellvari. His face was masked in shadow of the heavy helmets nose and cheek guards as it lacked the jutting structure of his svaari 'cousins', the tufts on his ears being glued on with sap. The captain glanced over and realized the fort commander was dead not wounded. The driver removed his heavy bronze helmet and with a heavy heave of his long powerful arm, flung it hurtling through the air, slamming into the captain's face.

The panther tribesmen, disguised as svaari, tossed their helmets and drew their war-bows, firing their powerful arrows into the officers and runners that were scrambling to order the wall's garrison. The carriage's rear doors flung open. From out of its dim confines the bronze masked Lao Ye and the squads of his Iron Vanguard poured out.

The Fellvari pointed out the garrison entrances along the walls where the runners had been headed to the emerging Iron Vanguard. The first squads were under orders to dash inside and kill the guardsmen before they could don their armor and muster themselves for battle. The carriages were maneuvered into blocking positions on the road forming a barricade with room enough on the sides for nomads to filter out through. Columns of shield bearing rebel spearmen backed by archers emerged from the nomad's wall of dust heading as the first squadron of nomads broke off for the main gate.

"It's a trap, shut the gate!" A guard turned and shouted before a jian sliced his neck to the bone from behind.

"Enemy inside the walls!" Another call of alarm goes up as the archers on the wall begin to lean out and fire upon the fellvari imposters taking cover behind the caravan and the advancing aggressive rebels of the Iron Vanguard.

Lao Ye moved passed the body of the dead guard captain who fell from a fellvari arrow. Lao Ye's squad advanced, men with kite shields to the front and sides as they blocked arrows intent on the rebels and Lao Ye himself as they moved up the ramp, stabbing and bashing the few confused garrison soldiers that got in their way.

A tall carriage was parked on a long angle under the gate's path, with its horses cut loose. The gate began lowering back down its weight pressed down, buckling the carriage, snapping its wood and axels but its steady descent was halted by the splintering wooden hulk.

They made it to the top wall as one of Lao Ye's men fell from a svaari war-bow in front of him on the wide path towards the gatehouse, whose heavy door had now been sealed shut.

Lao Ye hurtles over the fallen man, bearing down on the disarrayed cluster of svaari archers and guardsmen. He lunged forth with a skillful leap, the tip of his jian blade, pierced the deep into the archer, inches under his heart as it slid under the kidney shaped top bronze breast plate on the svaari's upper chest, puncturing through the hardened leather. Lao Ye pushed forth with the dying archer staggering back becoming his shield as his companions held their fire and drew their blades instead, visibly shaken at facing the Lao Ye himself with a sealed door to their backs.

The gate began to raise again. It seemed the guards intended to slam it down this time to see if they could sever the blockage, or perhaps to catch any of the nomads riders who'd come through.

Lao Ye, with deceptive dancing strikes, his double edge blade twist, stabbing, and cutting, goading foes with broad feints before a deadly cut with the flick of his wrist, his buckler parrying blows and driving his dagger into the neck of his foe as he advanced. By the time other members of the vanguard caught up to press his savage assault he'd killed several more svaari in his path single handedly. One of the vanguard carried a heavy sledgehammer and pushed forth to bash the sealed door. They broke the locking mechanism, and heard the scamper of svaari inside press up against the door as it began to fail.

With their boot's hobnails scraping against the floor the rebels hurled in synchronized shoves as they pressed their might against the defenders. They forced it to pry slowly open. Lao Ye rocked with the steady rhythm of heaves against the door, he leaned to the side, letting a vanguard behind him slice at the svaari hands and arms as the door cracked partially open. Rebel yells of battle burst forth from the caving door, received by frantic orders in svaari and grunts of pain. They flooded into the gatehouse, cutting down the last guards, halting them from dropping all of the gate's release levers, just as the nomad's first squadron finished passing under. The nomads ride into Guishan in small skirmisher bands chasing the fray of battle choking the streets and alleys.

The battle for Guishan carried on with many of the svaari falling initially to surprise. Whole platoons of garrisoned soldiers were cut down in their robes not far from their beds by rebel vanguard squads who'd infiltrated inside the wall's internal garrison. The vanguard fought their way through the garrison, down the hallways, mess halls, offices and general quarters, eventually taking the armories.

Reinforcements weathered arrows to aid the iron vanguard at the main gate, as the bold rebels struggled to sieze the entire long line of towers and gates of the outer defensive wall.

The svaari deeper in had only sent the first companies of reinforcements when the men of Guishan turned against their oppressors, miners were broken free, and others armed themselves with hidden weapons from their homes, fighting guardsmen in the streets. Wei Shan straggled an overseer with his chains, before freeing himself and others. Guishan was in full flung revolt.

The Lao Ye made his way up the pinnacle tower's steep tightly coiled stairwell; a shrill howl of wind grew as the shouts of hot blooded battle dimmed beneath him. Having to nearly climb with his hands he finally peers around the center column to see the clear soft blue sky, a nearly blinding radiance until his eyes adjusted to the shift in light. An evil vibration caught his ear, the tightening of a stiff war-bow and instinctively held out his buckler. The buckler recoiled hard, painfully bucking his wrist as it deflected the arrow glancing off the curved iron edge of his small shield, snapping against the wall and rattling down passed him, as his feet dug in to keep from falling down the stair well. He surged forth and slashed a long reaching strike with his jian, nearly severed the lookout's ankle as he climbed nearly the last of the steep steps. The lookout stumbled, falling back and toppling over the side, disappearing as if he were never there, save for the speckles of blood.

Rising his face towards the fresh air the high peak of the pinnacle he was immediately buffeted by a cold wind, stinging his eyes momentarily shut as he whipped his head with his buckler held high, searching to see if there were another svaari. Lao Ye came up the final step, an abrupt shock swelled as he was struck painfully on his shoulder. Recoiling back, he side stepped and turned, swinging his jian guiding his arcing blade across the throat of the second svaari lookout as he came into view. The lookout shifted back, slinking down as his hands clenched about his throat to hopelessly halt the flow of blood. He crumpled, dying on the floor along the waist-high wall of the pinnacle's roost. Lao Ye looked upon the dying svaari with an odd moment of pity before he kneels to drive his dagger into its socket, killing it with a swift twist, then rising to finish what he'd ascended the pinnacle to do.

He untied the loose rope fastened on the flag pole's anchor and lowered Seyvie's flag. At first, high up in the glare of the sun, it almost seemed too far away to ever reach, undulating haughtily in the wind. With each tug it came closer, until its weather worn edges and parts fading in color became visible. At last, he grasped tightly upon its edge, yanking it down as it futily tried to curl away from him. With his jian, Tzot's fury, he pulled it taut and sliced it from the rope, its last vestige sliding down, still clinging in a small strip woven in and out with the flag pole's rope.

He untied the thick sash he wore about his waist, unfurling it on the wind to reveal the flag of the rebellion. Before they left the ghost town they'd decided to make a flag. Jun had been impressed with the design he'd suggested, unbeknownst to all but he it'd been one from a dream he had that now seemed so long ago.

He tied and knotted the corners tight along the rope and hoisted it up to the sky, to reign over Guishan and stare down the flags of Seyvie ahead from this high precipice. It was a blue field of a clear sky, with a circular white-hot sun wreathed in jagged bolts of lighting, it had a single prominent word in character script sewn underneath the sun; it read, freedom. Below freedom, was a line of the bottom edge stained with fresh blood.

The Svaari Asun had made men fear the night, now it was they who'd fear the light as the banner of the rebel's sun was gazing down upon them from the pinnacle. With the sight of the banner and cries of 'Lao Ye', the rebels will grew stronger as the Svaari Asun's discipline began to waver.

The garrison of the first wall was in full retreat by the afternoon, falling back to the beleaguered second wall. The rebels linked up with the grateful commoners of Guishan who'd initiated their revolt as soon as they heard the Lao Ye was at the gate. Together they coordinated their attack, taking the city street by street as the svaari began to order a heavy defense, beating back the rebels for a time.

The next morning rose to see the combat had yet to cease. In the bloody battle the Svaari Asun defenders were now forced back to their final bastion, at the walled position of area around the government house. From their high ground the fierce surviving defenders had rained down their arrows forcing the rebels back temporarily as they gathered their strength from the tireless fight.

All the rebels had their hands full, Fang had rode out to command the rebel unit that was stationed at the fort, Lu was organizing the rear and in charge of the men holding the gates, as Lang Tou scavenged for material to make a decent battering ram they could wheel up the hill.

The Lao Ye came upon a tired scene at the mound near the gardens, with hasty barriers and carts turned over for their forward wall against the svaari archers who seemed to now be conserving their arrows and only shooting upon those who probed too close. Lao Ye came upon Fey and Jun resting here; they sat together taking a breath and planning how to chip away at the last defenders.

A stale and raspy atmosphere, now only cut with moans of pain and whispered words, had befell them. Despite what they'd accomplished thus far, they were feeling their spirits wear thin. The wounded and those gathering their strength sat nearby, as Wei Shan came back carrying a wounded miner overtop of the hasty wall. He handed his comrade off to the healers who'd set up a triage in the gardens. Wiping sweat and blood from his bushy brow, he looked up fixedly at the empty crest of the mound with his gaze longingly dragging back to the boulder. Lao Ye stood as he saw the forming thought in Wei Shan's mind.

Wei Shan strode over to the boulder, surveying the area before slapping his palms against each other, and interweaving his fingers to stretch his arms with a loud rippling crack of his knuckles. He gripped the boulder and began rolling it forth. Lao Ye felt pulled towards him, and set in aside him. The people look on with awe and whisper Lao Ye's name as they see him force the boulder up the hill alongside Wei Shan. Soon Fey and Jun, as well as other city folk and rebels helped roll the boulder up the hill in a sudden wave of emotion, together they shakily forced it up inch by inch back atop the mound to retake its rightful place.

Once it was set a rousing cheer went up. The engravings in the rock were of the ancestors of this settlement, Lao Ye noticed, a rock of Asun to anchor and protect the spirits of those who lived here. It had been finally returned. Lao Ye looked on the rock distractedly and almost jumped as Fey hugged him. She squeezed tight even with their stiff cold armor, merely wanting to feel respite as she saw some of the people nearby began to embrace each other, kissing and hugging loved ones. She looked up into Lao Ye's mask, forgetting it was there for a moment, and treating him as Sun. She suddenly remembered herself and let go,

"Ahem, Lao Ye." She said respectfully, giving a half bow which he returned, smiling under the mask even with all the blood and pain they'd endured that day.

The battle finally ended the next day. The rebels had won a decisive victory, and now began the long process of re-establishing order to the war torn city. The flags of Seyvie were pulled down and new flags of the rebellion were raised up in the first province of free and brave men any had ever heard of since the forgotten times. Even with all the hardships ahead, the people rejoiced feeling as if it were the first time they'd ever truly experience joy, with courage welling in their hearts and with ever more confidence as around the campfires they continued growing the legend of Lao Ye.