Grunt, Chapter 51: Coal into Diamond

LAUREN

The nightmares didn’t waste any time.

Julia was out patrolling the perimeter. Michael collapsed into his blankets, snoring within seconds. I remained still and quiet, lying next to him in my own roll, but sleep was not in the cards for me. Not that I needed much; four hours per night was plenty, though exploring the inner planes while retaining full consciousness of the physical realm left me looking to the rest of the world like I was a typical eight-hour sleeper. Tonight, my attention was all on the young hero. His body might be sawing logs big time, but it twitched occasionally, now and then tensing from head to toe.

I waited. If I was right, he would need me when–

“Agh!” Gasping, he jerked awake in the darkness of our little tent, sitting up abruptly and stripping off his buckskin shirt. Gently, I reached out to lay a hand on his forearm. He was dripping, sopping wet. Night sweats had drenched him like he’d slept in a swamp. His breathing was deep, but heaving and ragged.

“Nightmare?” I asked softly.

“Big time.” His voice was barely audible, probably for privacy’s sake–the Smith brothers had their tent pitched no more than twenty feet from ours–but hoarse. Whatever he’d just experienced, it hadn’t been good. I waited. When you remember as many bits of past lives as I do, patience becomes as much a part of you as the blood pumping through your arteries.

It didn’t take him long to spit it out. I had a hunch he couldn’t have done so quite as quickly with anyone else, even Julia, but Michael and I had something special. I wanted him, needed him more strongly than anyone else I’d ever been with, never mind that it had been more than five thousand years since between hookups. He’d worn a different body back in the day, of course, and gone by a different name. Yet the bond between us was literally unbreakable and he knew it. Maybe not consciously, not yet, but as Soul he knew it. And he let me hear the worst.

“I was being raped.”

Still, I waited. Silence is golden, though I squeezed his arm just a little. “Memory. Had to be. One I’d jammed down into the subconscious. What did Zeb call that…repression. Guess I’d repressed it.”

“While you were a slave?” It could hardly have been anything else.

“Think so. Had to be. I was mashed flat on…a floor, I think. Face first. He was bigger than me, a lot bigger…so maybe it happened when I was a new slave? Nine years old, that would have been. I didn’t know what was happening, just that it hurt. A lot. And that he was so heavy, so big, I couldn’t move at all. Couldn’t get away. Couldn’t hit him. Couldn’t do anything.”

He paused, pulling himself together. “Any idea who?” I asked.

“No…I don’t think so. Except his breath stank. Smelled like rotten meat. That was nearly the most horrible part of it all; I don’t ever remember smelling stuff in dreams. Or nightmares. Whatever.”

He was shaking, trembling. I sat up, shifted over, wrapped my arms around him, sweat or no sweat. His body settled almost immediately. We’d been able to do that for each other in the past; I remembered that much. It was obvious to me what was going on with the nightmare, but I also remembered that the best way to help my beloved was to let him work through it for himself. He was a loner that way; together, we could plan the way forward, but always he had to figure out personal things for himself. Then again, don’t we all?

Fortunately, it didn’t take him long this time. “First surprise out of Pandora’s box, huh?”

It wasn’t really a question. “Huh,” I said, agreeing. “Zeb would probably say remembering is the first step toward healing.”

“Let’s hope Zeb knows what he’s talking about.” Freeing himself from my embrace, Michael shifted to dig through his pack, rooting out his spare shirt and donning it before settling back down. Impressively, he was asleep again within minutes, no snoring this time, lying on his side facing me, his two hands cupping one of mine. I kept silent vigil until it was time to get up, relieved that the human contact seemed to anchor him. When it was time to join Sara Smith as she worked up the morning fire and started cooking breakfast, I carefully extricated my hand and quietly rose to join her.

When Michael rolled out thirty minutes later, he looked fresh, fit and raring to go. At first, I couldn’t be sure he even remembered the nightmare, but then he lifted an index finger to a spot between his eyebrows in sort of a one-digit salute. He remembered, all right. He was saying, “One repressed memory down.” There would be more, no doubt about that, but our man looked better by a long shot than he had just yesterday. His PTSD was no joke, but if I knew him, he’d use it, use that intense pressure, that crucible, to turn himself from coal to diamond.

Or at least, so I hoped.

We should reach the Roost around noon. I couldn’t wait to see all of us, livestock included, behind the protective stockade wall. But for now…breakfast.

========================================================

MICHAEL

The morning passed uneventfully, or at least as much so as is ever possible on a trail drive through heavy timber with a herd of cattle and a string of pack horses. By uneventfully, I mean we hadn’t lost any stock and there’d been no incapacitating wrecks, which was all anyone could ask for in this situation. When we made our last stop before reaching the Roost, however, Mace Smith brought up the same concern that had been bugging me from the time I’d rolled out of my blankets before dawn.

“We’re not more than two miles from your place,” he said suddenly, shifting a mug of hot tea from hand to hand to keep from burning himself. The cattle were taking their break as well, as were the horses, all grazing as they could, with a spring snowmelt pool in the center of the park–the Smiths’ term for an open, grassy area surrounded by tall evergreens–and our two self appointed cooks, mother Sara Smith and our beloved Lauren Evans, were warming up slabs of moose meat for a quick, if slightly early, lunch. “That’s if we take the long way, stay on these high game trails all the way to Smith Valley, then button hook back out on the trail that runs right past the Roost.” We’d all discussed this before, of course, but Mace had a habit of repeating the obvious, just in case somebody might otherwise miss what he was talking about.

Julia, seated beside me on a deadfall log, saw to the heart of his comment immediately. “Something on your mind?”

“Yes.” He nodded, tried a sip from his mug, grimaced at the heat, and went on. “We’ll be passing the Roost well up the slope, roughly a quarter mile from the throat. Most likely, as thick as the trees are, nobody down on the lower trail, or manning your stockade for that matter, will hear a thing. But these cows and their calves, some of them keep talking to each other. Can’t help that; it’s the way of the bovine when the offspring are still too young to be roaming on their own. But a cow or calf call, either one, can’t possibly be mistaken for anything else, and sometimes a moo will carry a whole lot farther than you’d think, even through thick forest. Not always, but sometimes.”

I got it. “You’re thinking we need to send a scout or two forward, make sure those advance Raiders really have cleared out, maybe let our people know we’re coming in? I don’t imagine the Lieutenant would be too happy if he heard cattle and we hadn’t given him a heads up.”

Smith looked relieved. “That’s it exactly.”

In the end, we left everyone else with the livestock while Julia, Mace, and I slipped forward in full stealth mode. Neither Roan nor Appy was likely to whinny at the wrong time; they seemed to have an almost human sense of when to be quiet. The mountain bred Smith brother assured us the dun he was riding was no noisy fool, either, so on we went. Neither my mate nor I much liked the idea of leaving Lauren without one of us on hand to protect her just in case, but three Smith fighters and their mother would be keenly on guard. Besides, there was no way I was staying behind, nobody else could match Julia for silent stalking or if necessary killing with bow and arrow, and Mace knew the game trails on these slopes far better than we did, especially since we didn’t know them at all. You’d think we’d have scouted out this far, but things had been kind of…busy.

In the end, it was the squirrels that gave us warning. The bushy tailed tree dwellers had marked our passage as well, but we happened to be stopped near where Mace said the forest would open up near the Roost when a couple of exceptionally loud rodents sounded off with extreme enthusiasm.

We looked at each other, dismounted, tied our mounts to various branches, and slipped on down the slope, heavily armed and ready for anything. Julia was absolutely silent, Mace nearly so, while despite my best effort I made a bit more noise. Only a bit, though. I might not be mountain raised, but growing up a slave at Fort Steel had taught me how to be just flat-out sneaky, and that skill set seemed to transfer to the timber pretty well. Not that we really needed to move all that carefully; our adversaries wouldn’t have noticed our approach if we’d crunched on downslope like some balk-bred benostoth from the Strathian Influence science fiction series of Before fame. There were two of them, one man holding their horses while the other climbed an eighty-foot Douglas fir. The climber was muttering under his breath about the assignment, squirrels in nearby trees were still screaming at the intruders, and the horse holder was probably getting a crick in his neck from watching his partner scuffle-clamber up the thick-barked fir in boots that were never made for climbing any farther than into a saddle.

We huddled up behind a bush that hid us from view and held a hurried, whispered conference. “They’ve got to be going for a position high enough to look down into the Roost,” Mace pointed out. Captain Obvious. Again.

Julia held her peace, letting me take the lead. “We need the answers to three questions.”

Mace just looked at me, waiting. I ticked points off on my fingers. “One, and most important, did the rest of the advance group head back out and leave these to gather what intel they could, or are they still around somewhere? Two, can we capture one of them, maybe the climber, for interrogation? And three, if we do that, can we execute him in cold blood when we’re done with him? Because we surely can’t have him carrying tales back to the main Raider group.”

There was silence for several seconds, broken only by the noisy squirrels. Climber Man must have reached his treetop destination. Either that, or he’d run out of spare breath and simply had to quit cussing. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Mace who answered first; Julia simply pulled a wicked broadhead arrow from her quiver and nocked it. Smith nodded, and that was that.

We had just appointed ourselves judges, jury, and executioners of those who dared to look at the Roost. The Lords of Karma were going to be thrilled.

“Might be best if we could take both of them prisoner,” Mace added as an afterthought. “That way, we could separate them and compare their stories. Harder for them to lie and make it stick, you know?”

“Huh. You a genius or what?”

“Nah. Just read about it in some of the old cop-related books Dad has. Everybody knew that technique Before.”

We eased away from the bush, each of us using a sizeable tree trunk for cover. Julia took the climber as her assignment; we were just far enough upslope that she had a nearly level shot, the scout having settled in on a branch that jutted out to the right, exposing most of the man’s body. Easy shot, too, or should be; we’d had to get within thirty yards of the Raiders to even see them. Why they ignored the squirrels, we had no idea, except that maybe it was a result of them being flatlanders at heart. Certainly, no woods-wise human would fail to take the bushy-tails into account or fail to look behind them just because their intended target was out there in front somewhere.

Mace would be taking out the horse holder on the ground. Even as close as we were, I wasn’t confident of making the shot with the AK-47. That was a lot of drop downslope; I had no idea how low to aim. Mace had a longer barreled rifle and had been hunting in mountain-goat-steep country for most of his life; his confidence was sky high. The only real problem? The horses. They weren’t tied off to anything. When Horse Man dropped the reins, the critters were likely to spook and take off. Catching them in these woods, especially on foot, seemed about as probable as Strator Tucker declaring a Michael Jade Appreciation Day.

Julia’s arrow -whicked- through the air a full second before the crack of Mace’s rifle shot assaulted my ears. I was moving instantly, darting downhill, noting that neither man screamed like a girl when he was hit. Tree Man fell off his perch, the arrow shaft waving gaily as it jutted from his right buttock. He managed to slow himself on the way down, grabbing at passing branches, almost but not quite getting a strong enough hold to arrest his fall completely.

It was like watching someone fall down an incredibly long flight of stairs in slow…well, medium…motion.

He hit the ground with a smack and knocked himself out. Or maybe he was dead, but I’d worry about that later. Horse Man had fallen, but he was back up on one knee, the other unable to support him. Images burned into my brain as I sprinted. The two horses snorted and backed up a couple of steps, more in the face of my headlong charge than from seeing their handler felled, but there they stopped. Well trained; somebody in this outfit knew equines. The wounded Raider was clawing for the pistol at his waist, their rifles too far away, snug in their scabbards hung under the right side stirrups, but he had another disadvantage. Whether it would be enough to keep me alive…that was an open question at the moment. His holster had a flap over the top, not tied down, but he had to fumble with his left hand to get the flap out of the way before using his right to draw the weapon. I was fast, but was I fast enough? Was capturing this guy worth the risk I was taking?

The answer to both questions was yes. Barely. He had the pistol out, the barrel coming up, but in his haste he triggered too soon; the round missed, off to the left of my left knee. Before he could squeeze the trigger again, my Sedlacek special spear struck, the razor sharp steel tip slicing through bone as well as soft tissue like it wasn’t even there.

Minus a hand as well as shot through the knee, the bugger did scream then. I noticed he was young, not much older than me, but the observation was made in passing; most of my attention was occupied with getting tourniquets on both arm and leg before he could bleed out completely.

In the end, we had two severely wounded but still very much alive prisoners.

Tree Man’s name turned out to be Gilly, or at least that’s what he went by. He screamed a lot when Mace cauterized the stump ending at the wrist, and screamed a fair bit more when the same was done to the through-and-through wound that had ruined his knee. But he was alive, and in no immediate danger of dying, though his countenance was concrete gray from blood loss and shock.

Tree Man was older, maybe in his mid-thirties, with a full beard and full knowledge that his hours were numbered. He could have survived the arrow in his backside despite the muscle tearing produced by the broadhead, but the seventy foot fall had done far more damage. Broken ribs from banging into all those limbs on the way down, quite possibly internal injuries to go with that. A broken arm, though not a compound fracture. Skull damage; how much was impossible to tell.

We questioned him first, knowing we had to give him something in the way of motivation if he was going to tell us anything useful. At least we didn’t need to lie. Once the Raiders were in our power, we’d simply looked at each other and known: None of us could execute helpless prisoners. If we had proof they’d personally harmed one of ours, then yes. In a heartbeat. But here, today? This way?

No way.

Julia came up with the approach. As soon as we had the pair patched up and separated, she approached the climber, squatting Indian style, speaking softly. “Reckon you know you’re dying.”

He didn’t say anything, but despite the pain, he was listening. My mate nodded as if he’d spoken. “Best we can do after we question you is tie you to a horse and hope your partner can get you back to your main outfit before you take your last breath.”

“Unh.” Speaking was obviously an effort, but this man was tough. He gritted on. “To Hades with that. Didn’t lose nothing with that bunch. You got questions, I’ll answer…if…if you’ll let me finish dying in peace, then bury me in the mountains. A high point where I can look out over the country.”

Julia didn’t hesitate. “If that’s what you want, then yes, we can do that.”

Tree Man visibly relaxed; I’d swear the pain level in his eyes receded by at least half. He began talking without further prompting; the man knew what we wanted and didn’t waste any time spilling the beans. It was like Catholic confession, like he wanted us to know it all.

According to his tale, rendered in gasping breaths through sometimes gritted, rotten teeth, his name was Ambrose Blevins, known to the gang as Brose. He’d been a Raider since his twentieth birthday and had done things he wished he hadn’t. There were forty-nine Raiders in the group, or rather, forty-seven with him and Gilly out of commission. Leader was known as King Arthur, of all things, or just King for short. Called his followers the Knights of the Found Rabble, though no one had any idea what a rabble was. King had been using the Roost as his robber’s roost every summer for the past thirteen years, and he was an obsessively possessive sort; he would definitely attempt to oust those he saw as claim jumpers, most likely sooner rather than later. Only the two of them, Brose and Gilly, had been left behind to get what intel they could after the ugly stockade surprise had been spotted. Brose had only had a short time to begin scanning the lay of the land from his tree perch before he was shot in the rear, but he had been able to see enough to know the Roost as it stood today would be a tough nut to crack. The gang was well outfitted with weapons, though none that had the sheer power of the .358 Winchester or the rapid fire capability of the AK-47.

That was about it. Julia was holding the man’s hand when he gurgled a last breath and expired. He’d lived for roughly one hour after hitting the ground.

Gilly was sullen and, no matter what angle we tried, uncooperative in the extreme. We were able to trick enough out of him to be fairly certain Ambrose had told the truth, but that was about it. I signed to the others that we were through here and helped the wounded man to his feet…foot. Only one was capable of supporting any weight, what with the shattered knee and all.

“Here’s the deal,” I said, my voice full of quiet menace. “We’re going to load you into your saddle and lash you down like the piece of meat you are. Then we’ll tie Brose’s horse off to your horse’s tail. You’re going to head out of here, relieved of weapons, of course. When you get back to King Arthur, you tell him–these exact words, mind you–you tell him that before he takes our group on, he should remember the Battle of Camlann.”

“Camlann? What–?”

“The Battle of Camlann. Those words exactly.”

“Oh, I’ll tell him, all right.” The young Raider’s lip curled up in a sneer. “And then he’ll come a-romping and a-stomping all over your pathetic little bunch. You’ll see.”

“Yes,” I nodded. “We will, won’t we?”

When he was gone, Julia said, “You realize he never asked about his partner at all?”

“Knew he was dead, I reckon. Didn’t seem like he cared, though.”

“Oh, he cared.” My mate shook her head. “That knee may doom him for the Raider life, but I can’t help thinking he’s going to be trouble.”

“He may be,” I agreed, “but not for a while yet. He’s scared, no matter what his fa├žade. He’ll want to get back to King Arthur ASAP, maybe hoping the assault on the Roost will be scheduled immediately. Which it may be. But immediately, at least in this case, is a relative term. There’s no way any attack could happen in less than three, four days at minimum.”

“Which gives us plenty of time to get the cattle, pack string, Lauren, and mother Sara safely inside the stockade.” Mace grimaced suddenly. “Oh, man.”

“What?”

“We should have kept Brose’s horse. Now we’re going to have to lash his cooling corpse over one of our saddles. Anybody feel like riding double up behind a dead man?”

I sighed. “Well, it was my call, so my horse gets to carry him. Can’t leave him out here for the scavengers; it wouldn’t be right. But I believe I’ll walk and lead Roan; rubbing up against the body just doesn’t suit my style at all.”

We were ready to head back to the herd before we realized the squirrels had quit scolding.