Grunt, Chapter 45: Pursuit


It was near noon before the last fires had been reduced to mere hot spots monitored by a score of men with shovels. A bunch of water buckets sat near each sullen, smoldering threat, but few believed they would be needed. Unless the wind came up, but there was no feel of that in the air. As smoke-and-soot begrimed as any other Fort Steel citizen, I straightened my back, which felt like it was bowed in a permanent curve from handing so many loaded buckets along the line. I would have to join the full-bucket line like I was some green kid with more brawn than brain and wanting to brag about it. Still, it did make me look good, the Fort’s top civil authority pitching in right alongside the peons. A man of the people. A man who’d discovered the hidden tunnel the hard way by falling through the scorched floorboards. It’s a wonder I didn’t break a leg. As it was, my groin hurt and my pride had been stung; Weasel had reached me first, yanking my halfway-buried body out of the hole with surprising strength. My right inner thigh had been burned; there was a long, vertical hole in my pants to prove it.

Thankfully, Laura Compton’s ointment had reduced the pain to manageable levels and the mopping up could be left to others. Stabbing jolts striped my leg and needled my privates at unexpected intervals, but mostly it could be ignored. Sometimes. It was time to let Laura Compton work her magic again, then get out of these clothes and into a bath. Wait a minute. Burns. No, no bath. A wipe-down of what could be cleaned, then. An hour; I could spare no more.

Sergeant Blake walked by, a blocky man, square faced and solid. Just the man I wanted to see.


“Yes sir?” He stopped and pivoted smoothly to face me. Calm and steady, Blake was. We needed that, now more than ever before. Now that Finster had left the arena, opting to take a permanent dirt nap.

“Council meeting at the one bell. Please round everybody up.” At Steel, we prided ourselves on placing the military under the command of the Strator’s office. Got the idea from an ancient Before document, the Constitution of the United States of America. Which meant that technically I was Commander in Chief of our armed forces. Or force. Two dozen men on active duty, twice that many held in reserve, subject to call-up as the need arose. I’d seldom disagreed with Finster, finding it simpler to just let the man go his own way. But now it was different. Blake wasn’t Finster, and my authority needed to be established immediately.

“Will comply.” The sergeant tossed out a sloppy half-salute even as he turned, heading back the way he’d just come.

The hour passed all too swiftly. Everybody was there by ten after, which was as good as I’d hoped for. Unfortunately, half of them hadn’t even bothered to change, just waltzed on in wearing their fire fighting clothes, sooty grime tracking the floor and smudging furniture as they took their seats around the table. Fatigue showed in every face, as well it should, but several women–I hadn’t bothered to notice who–had brought two plates piled high with sandwiches, one roast beef, the other ham. There were pitchers of water as well as three kinds of hot tea. The beef and ham disappeared with equal speed, but most of us went for the chamomile tea because of its taste. A few sipped the rosehips variety, which I could not stand. No one touched the third flavor, a blend supposedly good for energy and mental focus. The stuff tasted like bleah!

Banging my gavel on the table, I brought the meeting officially to order. “There’s too much to cover to waste time, so let’s get right to the point. Military first. Sergeant.”

Blake nodded soberly. “First. Well…first thing I noticed was the wound that killed the Captain. Dead center. Entry hole a bit bigger than a .30 caliber, smaller than a .50 by a lot. So, a shoot gun unknown to us here at Fort Steel. Exit wound was a doozy, blew a hole big as your fist clean through the man’s spine.”

Sheesh, enough detail already!
It was hard to curb my impatience, but I did it. The sergeant was slow and steady, boring really, but the main thing was, he couldn’t be hurried. And we did need to know what he knew or had surmised. Anybody who bet against Blake’s analysis was a stone blind fool. It occurred to me that had he been in charge of the squad instead of the one-time-too-many impetuous Finster, we wouldn’t be fixing to bury the man tomorrow. What was left of him. Fuming quietly, I almost missed the sergeant’s next words.

“It wasn’t easy getting an accurate picture out of the troopers. Every one of those kids panicked, and their recollections can hardly be trusted. Nor did I have time to grill each one separately for more than a few minutes before assigning them to one of the bucket brigades. But near as I can figure, the shot was made from somewhere between two and three hundred yards. Our issued carbines can’t hit with that kind of accuracy at that range. Which means, taken all together, the runaway slaves had at least one skilled outside shooter with a superior weapon.”

“Tell us something we don’t know.” Guess my patience wasn’t much after all.

“Something you may not know…there’s no way we can get after them today.”

Rage nearly blacked out my vision, but xxploding wouldn’t help. “And why not?” Calmly. I pretty sure I’d said that calmly.

“Several reasons. One, every man jack of the militia is worn out. They need rest before tackling a job like this. Second, it’ll take time, at least a few hours, to pull a pack string together, enough time it’ll be coming on dark at best. Third, there’s no way I’m taking troopers out the way their arranged now. Not if you want what I think you want.”

“What,” I asked coldly, “do you think I want?”

“For me to take a dozen of the best and stay out there hunting until we find these sons of snakes. Meaning the outsiders helping as well as the slaves themselves. Bring back everybody worth bringing back and hang the rest, or shoot ’em, whichever opportunity comes first. And I’ll need to sort through the men, pick the best, and arrange the others in squads the Corporal can handle in my absence.”

“I’d thought of twenty-four to go, call up the reserves to man the Fort walls.” True, every retired militia man might be resentful at being shanghaied for the greater good, but they were all experienced by default.

Blake explained, calmly, always calmly, that my plan wouldn’t work. He wanted the Corporal to stay behind, along with two experienced troopers. Call up just a dozen reserves, just to cover the vacuum created by the departure of the senior noncom and a dozen experienced shooters. I would have overridden most of his recommendations, especially the one about not leaving immediately, but it had started to snow outside. That would help cool the hot spots from eleven destroyed buildings, but even I knew it would be too late to follow tracks shortly.

Come to think of it, though, where could the fugitives go? It wasn’t like there were a lot of options going west; there wasn’t even a real choice of trails this side of Trickle Creek. And Blake could certainly find some indication of which fork they took if they turned off there. Combine that certainty with a fifteen horse pack string and more than fifty really young children, they’d not be covering distance very quickly at all. The morning would have to be good enough for Blake’s departure.

Time to move on. The damage report, for instance. Eleven buildings burned to the ground before the fire was contained. A tunnel discovered that ran from inside the Fort to the middle of the horse pasture, plenty of tracks to indicate two someones had camped in Raider’s Draw while trekking back and forth. They’d come right on in, free as a breeze and nobody knew it. Funds would have to be found for rebuilding the sheds. The tunnel could be filled in, packed with boulders nobody could move, at least not easily. But how had the invaders–tracks made it clear there’d been at least two who made it inside–how had they known of the tunnel in the first place? How long had it been there? What other dark deeds had influenced the Fort negatively because of that tunnel’s existence?

Questions, questions, and more questions. Henry Perfle, the livestock man, spoke next, detailing the need for better security for his cows. He had ideas and he stuck to them like a fly stuck to a honeyed glue stick. This time I did fall asleep, or nearly so, my entire being jerking awake as my body realized my eyelids were drooping again.

It had been a long night, but this without doubt looked like it was going to be a long and busy day.



Thankfully, we’d gotten the firewood gathered and the tarps up before darkness took hold fully. No true tents, but with the breeze running steadily from the west, it should keep most of the snow from covering the sleepers. Hopefully.

“It’s not much,” I muttered, “but it’ll have to do.” My eyelids felt like they’d been lined with sandpaper and my thinking was barely coherent. Michael slept the sleep of the dead–belay that; no talk of death. Or as little as possible, anyway. “How he kept going this long, I have no idea.”

I didn’t realize that last thought had been spoken aloud until Lynn responded. “It’s not surprising if you’ve known him as long as I have.”

“Oh? Tell me.” I should be seeking my own blankets; it wasn’t like I was exactly functional at the moment, either. There’d been no sign of pursuit so far; that had to mean Fort Steel troops had gotten a late start, or perhaps no start at all this day. We’d covered an impressive twenty-one miles in a single day, an unheard of feat in rough country with an eighteen-horse pack string and dozens of kids to coddle along. Eighteen horses, not the fifteen we’d stolen; our original three had been picked up along the way, just west of Graveyard Mesa, tucked into a batch of trees, still tied firmly to the mini-picket line we’d set up between two scrub pines. There’d been no guarantee; even a lone cougar on the prowl, an early bear, or discovery by a wolf pack would have been more than enough to spell disaster. But fortune had been with us, which meant we still had meat, potatoes, and beans, not to mention a few crucial spare weapons and plenty of ammunition. No one would go hungry except for Michael, who’d collapsed before the first fire brought cheer to the night. We’d need to hunt fresh meat soon, but hopefully not before getting settled in at the Roost.

“Dawg–excuse me, Michael–has always been one to surprise you.” Huh? I’d already forgotten the question. “He was always the last boy asleep in the barracks, refusing to seek his own bed until he’d done what he could for the others. Even Bugs; that ungrateful wretch…I suppose I shouldn’t be speaking ill of the dead, but thank you was never in that lad’s vocabulary. He got sick a couple of times, before he began toadying up to his labor supervisor at the Foundry. From lack of decent food and too many long hours, like all of them, but twice he was near death, unable to rise from his cot even to use the chamber pot. Both times, Michael cleaned up the mess every night without complaint, asking nothing in return. Or so the others told me. He took that kind of care of every one of them, not infrequently subsisting on two or three hours of sleep a night. Except for the not so beloved Bugs, every boy in that dorm worships the ground upon which Michael walks.”

Hearing that made me think I ought to feel something, but I was just too tired. “Are you sure the boys will keep the watch all through the night? I doubt I can keep my eyes open much longer.”

“And no wonder.” The rawboned women leaned over to pat my knee. She didn’t have far to lean; we were seated next to each other, enjoying the warmth and color of the campfire. There were five such, arranged in a rough circle around the camp. The older lads had gladly taken up watch duty, a pair at a time, a few dozen yards outside the perimeter of the fire circle. Shift change every hour, using Lynn Burch’s little portable clock to time themselves. All ten boys were involved, though fourteen year old Heron did mumble a bit about being teamed with nine year old Aron. Not because of the younger boy’s age, but because Aron would be almost impossible to keep awake for even an hour at a time. Still, the relay system should work if fear of the wilderness around them didn’t unman the kids entirely. It wasn’t like any of them had lived outside of a settlement before. Fortunately, the young sentries were not out there for defensive purposes, just to give the alarm if pursuing humans were detected. Still, they might encounter roaming animals. If they did, retreat to within the fire circle was in order.

“No wonder what?” I couldn’t remember the question.

“No wonder you’re exhausted. Michael had the worst of it, but your day hasn’t exactly been a short one. Those you rescued slept until after midnight before they even knew you were in the area, and I slept for much of the day after Laura informed me of your plans. Relax for one night, Julia. You say yourself that the snow will cover our tracks, that even if the pursuit did get on its way well before dark, the troops most likely missed seeing where we turned off the trail to Trickle Creek. Because of the snow, you said. It makes sense that they wouldn’t travel at night after Michael ambushed Captain Harmon Finster himself. Even if they’re hot on our heels, they’ll be wary of another trap. Get some sleep, girl.”

She had a point. I didn’t like it. Not by the nonexistent hair on my chinny-chin-chin, I didn’t. But there was nothing for it. We still had another twenty-four miles to go before reaching the Roost, harder and steeper miles in denser timber and deeper snow. “This snow will melt in a day or two, Lynn. Down at Graveyard Mesa, it will. Even if they miss our turnoff the first time, they’ll likely find it on the return trip. Evidence of twenty horses tracking single file won’t disappear that easily.”

“Time to worry about that later, hon. Get some sleep.”

I didn’t even remember crawling into my blankets.



As quickly as the women and children had loaded up to escape Fort Steel, I’d foolishly expected we could be on the trail by first light. Silly me. My headache was mostly gone, but this gaggle of geese promised to give me a new one in short order. We had the pack horses ready to go. The boys were ready. But the women and children? Julia wanted a big family eventually; I could simply not comprehend why. I didn’t know much about ulcers but was fairly certain I’d be developing one pretty soon if they didn’t get a move on.

Julia left a small knot of three women and a miniature snowstorm of rug rats orbiting around them. She walked up to me with a smile. “It’ll take another half an hour at least,” she murmured in a voice too low for anyone else to hear. “Might be a good time for a little backtrail scouting?”

“Bless you, woman.” I gave her a quick, stubble-bearded smack on the lips and turned to gather Roan’s reins. Stepping into the saddle, I caught Bolo eyeing watching wistfully. What the hey, why not? “C’mon,” I gestured. He came running; I gave him a hand up behind me. Roan snorted softly, not thrilled at having to carry double. The horse could handle it; he was as sturdy as the fabled and probably fictional Rock of Gibraltar.

Roughly half a mile back, the game trail topped a ridge. Thirty yards shy of the peak, I turned Roan away from the trail, leaving him tied to a sapling while Bolo and I went forward on foot. Bo was a quick study. Always had been. Might have been handsome, too, but for a missing upper tooth at the right corner of his mouth and the inevitable cast of malnutrition every slave boy wore. Former slave boy, that is. He’d have to be a man from this day forward; our group was not going to survive otherwise. You’d think the sheathed belt knife I’d handed him was the Lost Dutchman mine, the way his hand caressed the hilt. No belt; for now he’d have to wear the sheath tucked down inside his pants. We didn’t cross the ridge but lay in the snow on our bellies. Bo would need a fresh blanket after this; we didn’t have buckskins to fit anybody but me and Julia.

This vantage point provided a fairly lengthy view of our backtrail. My sidekick remained quiet as I pulled the little telescope to its maximum length and settled in to see what I could see. I was pleased to note Bo wasn’t watching me at all; he was studying the heavily treed landscape with as much focus as I was. The game trail still showed hints of our passage; the snow had stopped shortly after we’d made camp.

Long minutes later, I handed the scope to Bolo, whispering, “See that rock outcrop three ridges over, the one that looks like Strator Tucker’s nose?”

It took him a while, but finally he whispered back, “Got it.”

“Okay, now downslope from there until you hit the gap in the trees.”

“Got it.”

“That’s our trail, roughly a mile from here. What can you make out?” The telescope was a good one; it was time to find out if his eyes could match it.

They did. “Unblemished snow…except for…couldn’t guess what, but there are tracks crossing the trail, going uphill. Not human or horse, I don’t think, but….”

“Very good.” I took the scope back. “At this range, I couldn’t tell you what sort of animal crossed the trail, either. I’m still a relative newcomer to the mountains, but Julia tells me she’s seen all sorts of critters do that. It wasn’t a small beastie. A deer at least, or several of them. Elk, bear, cats from lynx to lion. And personally I have seen a tiger do that.”

“A tiger?” His eyes went round, not an easy task for one with a slightly Asian slant to his features. “There are tigers?”

“Hopefully not here, but there were at least two, probably three, a month’s ride west of here.”

“Man,” he shivered visibly, “a tiger we do not need.”


We eased back from the ridge no less carefully than we’d approached it. By the time we’d returned to the campsite, Julia had everyone lined out. With plenty of help from Lynn Burch, I had no doubt. We didn’t make twenty-one miles that day, but we did manage fifteen. How, I still wasn’t sure; fifty-one wee ones handled by a mere ten women…well, eleven counting Lynn and you had to count Lynn…what a mob. The first day’s terror had passed, unfortunately resulting in a loosening of tongues. Babies cried to be fed or changed, two year olds demonstrated even in their panniers why it’s called the Terrible Twos, slightly older children all too frequently decided to chatter box the hours away, and I was willing to forswear fatherhood forever. The only saving graces were my boys, as I thought of them. Or rather, my men. Even the eight year olds were going to need to man up very quickly if the Roost was going to survive. I needed every man I could get, learning skills with weapons, building defenses. Child labor to the max.

Lynn Burch, during one of her teaching sessions a few years back, had mentioned the Before practice of working a mere forty hour week, children under the age of sixteen excluded. Hire a fourteen year old to swing a timber axe and go to jail, or something like that. What a ridiculous concept. Despite my respect bordering on reverence for the teacher, I still had trouble believing that one. If the world had gotten that soft and decadent, no wonder it had gone down hard. Virus, shmirus.

Spirit appeared to be on our side; I still detected no sign of pursuit despite checking out the backtrail for a good two miles the following morning. Eleven miles left to go, though the steepest part. It was not melting much up this high, not yet, and that was a good thing; better travel through snow than through mud. Julia pushed forward at point, tugging the string along by sheer force of will. We were graced with a happy mix of pack animals, at least one willing worker for every wannabe slacker; the pace was not slow. The sun came out enough to judge the time; still two more hours until dark. The three of us, Julia, Lynn, and I, held an impromptu conference.

“Babe,” I began, “we planned to build near our first campsite, near the spring. But I’ve been thinking. Until we have decent defenses arranged, including a handful of competent shooters and enough weapons to go around, squatting right out in the open like so many ducks on a pond seems ludicrous at best. Let’s get everybody set for the night in the trees, midway between cliff edge and meadow, close enough to Spring #10 to haul water without too much effort. There is plenty of downed wood there, branches for firewood and deadfall trunks for cover if worst comes to worst. Make sense to you?”

Of course it did, but…”You’re not going to be here, are you? You want to scout our backtrail before dark.”

“Got it in one, beloved. I’ll go with you to the spring, but then I’ll need to get moving. Might not be back till well after dark, so don’t worry about me being late, okay?”

She sighed in resignation. “I’d much rather be with you for that scouting, husband, but yeah, we’re going to have to split our forces for a few hours. Go for it.”



In the end, we stripped the panniers from Daisy, mounted Bolo on the mare, and sent him along with my mate. Any Gunderson pack horse was a better saddle horse than most mounts out there these days, so the boy wasn’t losing anything there. In truth, Daisy had a much smoother gait than Roan ever did, muchly compensating for the teenager having to ride a packsaddle with no stirrups. I’d rigged a gunbelt for him, too; he now wore a .38 caliber revolver, crossdraw like his idol of course, in addition to the belt knife Michael had given him. Michael had replaced the blade with one of our spares, similar steel but with a wooden handle. Whether or not the boy could fire the pistol without blowing off his own foot remained an open question.

The women, as well as the remaining nine boys, were already showing signs of learning to work as a team in camp. Except for the two eight year olds, Jock and Aron. Neither of them could keep his attention focused on any one thing for any length of time. The plethora of deadfall trees did make shelter simple enough, though turning inexperienced teenagers loose with axes and saws to limb some of the downed timber made minor injuries a certainty; we had to dose several cut humans before the task was finished. Still, none of the injuries was serious, thank the Light, and few if any of those who’d cut themselves were likely to repeat the mistake. Tarps spread over two adjoining deadfalls and tightly pegged to the ground provided much better protection from the elements than we’d had on the trail. Several of the women had turned out to be fair hands at cooking and making fires; that was a major blessing.

By the time I truly began to worry, it was nearly three hours past full dark. Where was Michael? I seemed to be wondering that a lot lately. It’s always hardest on those who wait. If the man one is waiting for returns safely, it is. If he was captured and being tortured, or wounded unto death, maybe not. Bolo would be a loss, but I’d sacrifice a hundred Bolos to keep my man safe and whole. A selfish thought, perhaps, but there it was.

“Riders coming,” Lynn said softly. She’d accompanied Snuffy and Jock out to their sentry position just inside the timber line. “There’s moonlight enough we could see them when they exited the throat. Two horses, at a walk.”

Relief flooded through me, so strong it weakened my knees. “Best get the stew back on the tripod, then,” I said quietly. No man wanted to come home to a cold supper.

It still seemed like forever before we heard the call, “Hello the camp!” Standard practice unless there were known enemies close enough to pose a problem. Only a fool knowingly rode up on an armed camp, even one as lightly armed as this one, without hailing the inhabitants.

“Come on in!” That would be Snuffy; Jock’s voice was still a soprano.

Michael rode in calmly enough, but a woman knows her man. Something was up. He didn’t come to the fire immediately, instead off-saddling Roan and brushing him down before turning the horse into the rope corral I’d rigged around a better than usual patch of winter-dry grass. Naturally, Bolo copied him with Daisy. No oats; we’d decided our dwindling stock was more needed by the many human mouths for which we were no responsible. The men came to the fire, accepting bowls of stew and spoons, sitting on a downed log to eat. “Gather the women and boys,” he said quietly between bites. “All but whoever’s on baby watch duty. They need to hear this.”

This did not sound good. I stayed with Michael; Lynn rose and began making the rounds, speaking a few words to each person. My mate looked at me with grateful eyes; each of us was less without the other close at hand.

By the time he’d finished his stew and Bolo was working on a second helping, everyone was in attendance except for two of the younger women who remained with the children. Nobody in their right mind would leave fifty-one rug rats alone for even a second.

The unquestioned leader of the Roost looked soberly about, meeting each eye before he spoke. “There will be trouble tomorrow,” he began, “at least at the throat. The pursuit troop from Fort Steel is camped roughly seven miles from here, in the swale where we saw the cougar tracks, as you may remember. At least Bo and I believe it to be the Fort Steel bunch. Obviously, they did find our trail eventually. However,” he interjected hastily, noting the alarmed looks and several terrified whimpers that emanated from the women, “do not despair. Do you hear me?” His eyes made the circuit again, making contact with every Soul, emanating utter confidence. The whimpers subsided; my mate truly did have the power of leadership inherent within him. “Do you hear me?” He repeated the rhetorical question, more softly this time. “They will never reach you here. If necessary, every one of them will die, and I truly regret that, but y’all are my prime responsibility, mine and Julia’s, and we will stop them.

Just like that, though I had trouble believing my eyes, he’d calmed every one of them. They believed. It wasn’t long before heads were nodding at his instructions: He and I, along with Bolo and thirteen year old Carp, would be going to defend the throat. Neither boy would be shooting at anything, but they would be taught to load for Michael and me. Bolo loading for Michael, of course, and Carp loading for me. We sat for a time, cleaning the two spare long guns we’d taken from our original pack horses, instructing Bo and Carp on the reloading of weapons and which cartridges were which–no two of the weapons being of the same caliber. I rode Appy as usual, but the others selected less tired animals than their own, Roan and Daisy needing rest as they did. I did manage to persuade Michael to use Popper and Smidge, both Gunderson geldings. Which left Carp–so named because the masters at Fort Steel thought his eyes bugged out like a fish and he tended to breathe through his mouth after his nose had been broken a few times–he rode a Fort Steel pack horse that was as yet unnamed but promised to be steady enough not to spook at gunfire. I hoped.

“We need to split up, sweetheart,” Michael finally announced, “and we might as well do it right here. I don’t want Sergeant Blake getting wise because we left a trail out in the open for him to see. All of our tracks lead straight up through the meadow to these trees; let’s keep it that way. You take the left side. Ease on down inside the tree line, at least far enough that nobody can spot your tracks without going into the trees, even with a telescope. Bo and I’ll do the same to the right. You remember that heavy batch of deadfalls just inside the treeline on that left side, about halfway up the throat? I’d like to have you set up there if you would.”

That required some thought. “It puts me closest to anyone rounding into the throat from the downside trail.”

“Exactly. But horses can’t go there and I do not want you to fire first, okay? Bo and I will be tucked into that pile of mossy rocks on the north side, no more than twenty feet up the throat. I’ll have the first best look at the attacking party unless they circle high in the timber and hook back in on the right, which I doubt they’ll do. That’s a mighty steep climb there.”

“So…you’ll open the ball?”

“I’ll open it, yes. With luck, maybe I’ll even be able to close it. If I time it right and they come right up the trail, right up the wide open center, I should be able to take out five of them before they can find cover.”

Hunh. It could work. It could. His .358 Winchester had a four round box magazine, but a fifth cartridge could be worked into place manually the first time around. The lever action could certainly be cycled fast enough to wreak a whole lot of havoc in a short period of time. “So, boss man, what’s my role?” Michael let out a breath I hadn’t realized he’d been holding; had he really been worried I might object to his battle plan?

“I’m the hammer, hon, but you’re the anvil.” He gave me a feral grin, one I was pretty sure would chill the blood of any member of the Fort Steel squad. “Any that get past me, you take out. We’ll have them in a crossfire. I’ll try to time it right, obviously, but Bo and I counted a baker’s dozen, twelve men plus Blake himself–there’s no mistaking that guy, even at a distance. He’s always had a rep for smarts, caution, and courage, all three. The tracks would sucker in a greenhorn, but BLake? He might, just might, decide to leave the trail early, move his double squad into the trees on your side rather than come along up the middle all fat dumb, and happy. If he does, my position can see that move and still pick a few off before they ever hit cover, but some men might very well get awfully close to you in the timber. They’ll know I’m shooting at them, and hopefully that will keep their attention; they have no reason to assume we have more than one shooter on board. On the other reason, Blake has no reason to assume we don’t, either. So if they do come at you through the trees, stick and move, fall back as necessary and I’ll get to you as soon as I can. He won’t be able to use horses there; there are too many deadfalls.”

Hm. Michael might get shot trying to cross the open throat to me, too. Not that I had a better plan. “And if they do stay in the open, at least as seen from my side? You know, focused on you and all?”

“Then shoot ’em in the back, honey. Shoot ’em in the back.”

I could do that. Silently, even, at least the first one. It wouldn’t be any fun, riding the Roost’s rim through the trees and then settling in to wait for the enemy without my man at my side. But what had to be done, had to be done. “Well,” I said, surprised that my voice remained steady, “let’s get to it, then. Carp, I’ll need both quivers of arrows. The bow might come in handy.”

An owl hooted as we rode out, very slowly so as to avoid deadfalls and other pitfalls in the night-dark timber. The waning moon was still up but shed little light here. The owl hooted again. Harbinger of death. Theirs or ours? I wondered, but it made no difference. The four of us had sixty-nine defenseless Souls to protect; we dared not fail.