Monday, September 20, 2010

"The Iron Windmills" - Last One Standing Tall #11

A Fantasy-Western serial

Episode 11 - The Iron Windmills

Night had already fallen by the time Reed approached the mesa. The mesa towered over the landscape a black shadow framed by the stars in the desert sky. No clouds meant no tornadoes, and he was very glad for that. He needed all the advantages he could gather. There was no moon this night either. Good for cover, but difficult to spot a trap lying on the ground. Xylem are creatures of the day, so his sight was not so good as it would have been in the light, but it would do.

He left his horse, Abe, at the base of the mesa by a shallow pool nourishing a grassy patch that he knew would be picked clean by the time he returned. He ducked as Abe tried to snack on his head leaves again, tucking the stray leaves under his hat.

"You should thank me," he said, but Abe simply ignored him and munched on the grass, ripping up large dirt clods. Reed rolled his eyes, an expression he had picked up from the old man.
According to Troy, there were several man-made pathways and tunnels to the top of Windy Mesa, but Reed was no man, and so would make his own way there. He removed his boots, strapped them together and slung them over his shoulders. He leapt straight up, extending his vined limbs, sinking his finger-like roots into the rocky soil and pulling himself up. A few places were solid rock, and these he had to wrap his arms and roots around whatever small outcroppings he could reach. It did not take him long to reach the summit, shocked at how absurdly flat the mesa was on the top.
Nothing grew in the bad soil up here, which made him uneasy. A tall picket fence was an arm's width away from him, wide gaps between sharpened timber. This hastily built structure protected seven windmills. They were not like any he had seen before. The blades of these windmills were iron, a circular rim surrounding sharp petals branching from a pointed center, each one curved and twisting slightly to overlap the others. Even more strangely, though the wind was blowing fast here, not a single one of the windmills turned.

In the center of these strange windmills rose a stone tower. Reed's eyes widened. He had never seen a human structure that size and could not comprehend the silvery sturctures rising out of the center of it. They resembled the tangled antlers of the sturdy-legged antelope that lived on the mountainsides surrounding his village. Arcs of lightning danced across a few of them, leaping like those antelope. Darker pipes sprouted from the foundation thicker than the roots of a grandfather oak. A column of steam hissed out the top. Whatever that structure was, he had a feeling it was powerful. The smell that came to him on the wind was one of burning oil, a human smell, also a dangerous one. One of fire and explosion.

He ducked out of sight, hanging by his roots as he heard footsteps approaching. They suddenly stopped. Reed could hear a man's breath. A wad of spit flew past him off the edge. Reed braced himself against the cliff, his face pressed against the chilled rocky dirt. The footsteps left after another moment. Reed allowed himself to exhale. He waited another minute or two before daring to look up. No one was there or anywhere nearby, so he pulled himself up, leaning against the rails of the fence.

He slipped his boots back on, his roots reveling in the feel of the fresh dirt there. It was the last of the good dirt Anna had given him. He had another day or two at the most before he would need more. He had drank enough water at least, could feel it coursing through his veins now, rejuvenating him.
Reed moved with the winds that blew over the mesa, his feet only lightly hitting the ground, his body a mirage, there for one moment and gone the next, causing a few of the guards to rub their eyes and stifle yawns. Surrounding the windmill were a series of catapaults, which were tied down almost from every angle. Why was this necessary? Were they afraid they would roll off the edge? Reed ducked behind a large one, tied down with so much rope it was hard to tell what it was in the dark. Another guard walked by a few seconds later, his rifle casually swung over his shoulder as he whistled softly. He stopped to light a cigarette.
The man had barely lit it when his world flipped and his head rapped against the ground, a brief blackness forming before he stared into the eyes of something definitely not human, a blade ready to slit his throat. He didn't dare even swallow, watching the cigarette smoke rise just beside him as it burned next to his cheek.
"The women and children of Wheatfield," Reed said, "Tell me where they are and no harm will come to you."
"W-what are you?" The man whispered. The blade pressed closer and he winced. "They're all over the place," his hand started to gesture but Reed snapped it down, a crackle sounding. He had thought the man was drawing for a weapon.
"Speak clearly," Reed growled at him.
"Windmills!" The man whimpered. Reed released just a little.
"There is another. A woman named Anna."
"I don't know any names!"
Reed shook him, "Liar!" His head rapped the ground again.
"I don't, I swear!"
"And Reinheart?"
"You looking to die? He's out of your league you-" Reed drew his gun, slowly cocking the hammer with his shifting fingers. He pressed it against the man's temple. The man's expression changed, tearing up, "In the Storm Tower! Please don't kill me! I have kids and stuff! I swear!" Reed knocked him out, replacing his gun at his side.
No one saw as he propped up the man against the catapault. He loosened a length of rope tying down the catapault and tied the guard there, gagging him, hoping he would stay out of commission long enough for him to complete his mission and get out.
Reed headed for the closest windmill, and peered into one of the barred windows.

Children scurried about, heavy chains clanking about their feet. They were carrying buckets of some kind of crystalline material that glowed blue, illuminating their dirty faces. He spotted them crawling out of a hole in the floor like ants. He immediately recognized one of the boys as Troy's nephew, Curtis. As if he had said his name, the boy looked up at the window. They locked eyes with one another. Reed was worried the boy would cry out, but he did not.
A man cracked a whip against the boy's back and he fell to his knees. Reed clenched his fists, but knew he had to focus on how to get all of them out of here. Curtis pulled himself up and continued to carry his load, not looking back at the window as he hurried as fast as he could up some rickety stairs made out of iron. The guard's threats were muffled by the walls. Reed could not see where the children were carrying the crystals to and stepped back, running along the side of the windmill, searching for another window. It was higher up, but he leapt and caught the windowsill, pulling himself up.
The children emptied their buckets into a stone vat as a large spherical stone rose. They scurried back using their buckets as shields as the stone crashed down, some miniscule shards flying out as the crystal material was ground into a fine powder, the glowing residue which seemed to stick all over the room in tiny grains, even in the hair and clothes of the children.
Reed squinted his eyes. At first he thought the heavy stones were moving on their own, but he followed a trail of metal gears down, and could see movement below the piping platform the children were scurrying on. He focused. Yes! The women were down there. They were pushing the long cogs of  a giant gear, chained to their massive burden. A flash of pink caught his eye. Lacey - Troy's niece. She was helping another woman to stand up so she wasn't trampled by the others as they kept walking in an endless circle.
He snapped to attention as the children raced back to the stones as they rose apart once more, scooping their buckets into the now sand-like material. They approached two other small children who held out open flour sacks. As soon as they were filled, the children tied the bags expertly and tossed them down a dark chute. More children were right behind them with buckets of fresh crystal, continuing the cycle.
Reed's eyes watered. How could these humans allow their young and females to be abused in such a manner? Clearly they were exhausted, he could see it in their expressions, but more so in their loping strides, their heads always down. He would free these people and return them to their human village. Would Anna be among them? And what of Anna's father, Sam? There were no male prisoners here. And more than these, the blue material intrigued him. He had seen many minerals, including those fashioned into polished gems, but he had never seen anything like that. Whatever it was, Reinheart sure needed a lot of it, if all the other windmills were operating the same as this one was.
Reed leapt down from the window.
He ducked when he heard the gun hammer click, diving into a protective roll just as a bullet struck where his head had been. He leapt out of it and strode into a run, disappearing as a flurry of men clambered after him. More joined them, shouting orders. He managed to skid behind another catapault before the shooting began and he drew his gun. He focused himself, waiting for an opening. Then he leapt out. 
Many of the men drew back at this fierce display of boldness as he fired, his bullets flying true to their targets, standing tall even in the darkness.

Continue to Part 12?

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