WAR, DAY TWO, DAWN
“Three men,” Venom Chang stated flatly. “Just three men did this.” He had inspected each of the twenty-four bodies. Twenty-four hardened infantry, cut down in the dark while the army slept. Goose bumps rippled his skin, a warning from his ancestors. There was no question. Three distinct killing signatures. “One of them using a sword.”
“But not a katana,” Sora added quietly. “Something longer and, I think, double edged.” His superior nodded. No one knew blades like the Skilled Man. “These…an axe. Not woodcutter’s type. A battle axe, perhaps an axe with a quarter moon cutting edge, no less than eight inches on the curve. Thinner than a wood axe, too, designed to cleave flesh and bone rather than timber. Wielded by a short man. See the angle of the wounds across the neck? Except where he missed the neck and cleaved the skull. Great power in this short man but much less skill than the swordsman. All power, no finesse.”
Chang nodded again. “And these?”
“I cannot pin it down, War Leader. A piercing weapon, certainly. Not a slashing attack like the others. Double edged like the others, but there the similarity ends. A special knife, could be. Or special sword, designed to thrust more than slash. Or a slender spear of some sort. One of those. I cannot be more definite than that.”
Chang squatted, ignoring the flies already gathering in clouds, eager to lay eggs in this bounty of carrion. “Also a short man? The stroke is somewhat upward, like the axe wounds.”
“Possibly.” Sora lowered himself so that he was not standing over the War Leader. “My instinct says no. That angle is designed to destroy the brain most effectively, which cannot be said for the axe angle. The axe man is a butcher, the spear or knife man a skilled surgeon. Very precise.”
“Another Skilled Man?” The big Chinese did not often show surprise, but his eyebrows rose at hearing this.
“Possibly.” Neither warrior verbalized what they both knew. It would be interesting to see how this Northwest Territory rustic stacked up against the Japanese master of arms.
Three close-in night stalkers plus one long range sniper. So far. What else did these people have to offer? Score: Enemy 25, Hooded Cobra zero. This must change. Chang rose, fully in command of himself, and began giving orders. The Emperor’s Glorious Army would make adjustments in its procedures going forward but they would go forward. “Detail one hundred men to bury our dead,” he told his assembled Captains. “Make sure all three contingents are represented. Fifty men will dig. The other fifty will stand watch, ready for another attack. The rest of the army will march. Double time to catch up with us when our men are buried.”
His greatest concern as the day wore on was the abject failure of his scouts. They should have brought back solid intelligence on the enemy to prevent last night’s fiasco. Or, he admitted to himself, the War Leader should have done a better job of anticipating what could not be anticipated. He had erred, made a rookie mistake, underestimated his adversary. It would not be repeated. Must not. A similar mistake had resulted in the death of his friend Ching back in the day. He had not thought history would repeat itself in this way.
I awoke earlier than usual, drenched in sweat. The saddle I used as a pillow had put a crick in my neck, contributing to the dreams. My own decisions and actions had created those dreams; I refused to think of them as nightmares. Oceans of blood, falling bodies, silent screams. There would be more of those, and worse. It was all part of the price that must be paid for freedom, a price I had begun paying at the age of nine when I watched my parents being slaughtered. One thought leaped foremost into my mind as I rummaged in my pack for a dry shirt: How were Julia, Swako, and especially the half-pacifist Milo handling the previous night’s work?
The answers were not long in coming. “Morning, sweetheart.” Julia’s strong contralto voice snapped my attention to her face, lovely as ever. Morning for us, of course, meant late afternoon. She’d been up for a while already, starting the fire that would be used to cook our “breakfast” while it was still daylight. Her eyes were clear, no hint of night demons lurking in those blue depths. Whatever inner struggle she might have had while she slept had already been banished. The love between us, the knowledge that we killed en masse in defense of not only our homeland and its people but also our own flesh and blood son…I thought the Before jihadis, the radical Muslim suicide bombers, must have known this certainty in the rightness of their cause.
No doubt, no hesitation. Just get into position, trigger the vest, and leave the shreds of your old body behind as you sail off to claim your seventy-two virgins. Although how any man could manage seventy-two was beyond me and who wants a virgin anyway?
The cosmos must laugh its stars off, arranging synchronicity. “Morning, love,” I replied, rubbing a hand over the stubble on my chin. No use wasting the effort to shave, I thought, and at that moment happened to overhear a snatch of conversation between our night seer, Milo, and Swako the Dwarf, axe man extraordinaire. Swako’s low rumble, something about a cherry getting popped and no letdown after. None at all.
A job of work for him, then, as it was for Jules and me. It occurred to me that the dwarf might simply be leveling the playing field, literally shortening other men to match his own height. Except he was short at the bottom end while the enemy was getting abbreviated from the top down, one head at a time.
Extensive combat does twist one’s thinking a bit, seems like.
The squad was just finishing up, scrubbing our mess kits to make sure we didn’t poison ourselves, when Pet Bliss piped up. “Riders coming.”
Sure enough. They were expected, though not quite this soon. Either they’d done extremely well or they’d had to abort the day’s mission for some reason. We watched their approach with interest. Three squads, twelve each. Everybody accounted for.
“Third rider behind Moss,” Julia said, her horsewoman’s eye picking out the important details. “That’s not a Badge horse. Looks like Hooded Cobra.”
I shaded my eyes. She was right. The Jewish squad rode black steeds with clean-limbed lines and arched necks. The strange horse was a buckskin, strongly muscled but shorter and stockier than the animals the Badge had brought with them in their flight from WJS, the Western Jewish State.
Most of the rovers passed our camp without slowing. They’d settle in for the night a couple of miles farther north and some west. All three unit commanders, however, veered from the trail, bringing four men with them. One, we saw with apprehension, was a Banty soldier with his wrists tied to the saddle horn, the bridle reins held by the man ahead of him. This prisoner, one of our own, straddled the Hooded Cobra buckskin. “A story there,” Grit Smith muttered, stating the obvious.
Captain Gilson, outranking the others, threw me a salute with more exhaustion than snap in it. “Foray reporting, Major.”
I returned the salute, keeping it crisp and clean. “Step down, gentlemen. I look forward to hearing the details. We haven’t put the fire out yet. Tea is hot and stew is still warm.”
All of them except for the prisoner accepted gratefully. Private Chad Berger. The name came back to me. His wrists were released from the saddle horn but not from each other. Cinches were loosened, then the men sank gratefully to earth, tired to the bone. Nor did the horses have a lot left in them. They’d covered a lot of ground today.
Captain Worrell Gilson deferred to Lieutenant Moss Feldman. “I’ll let Moss brief you, Major, if you don’t mind. He got a better picture of the overall exercise than I did.” Deferral also left Gilson free to eat while Feldman had to postpone his meal, I noted wryly.
The sixty-something Jew began his report, delivering it concisely and clearly. A holdover, I suspected, from his early years with NYPD during the final horrific days of the Fall. If there’s one thing a cop learns, he’d told me, it’s how to make a presentation.
“We were in position, well to the rear of Chang’s army, by the time the sun came up. Your orders were to harass them as we could, depending on opportunity while taking care not to get ourselves killed. An instruction,” his mouth twitched upward, “with which we heartily concurred. As near as we could tell from our vantage point, there was a whole lot of hullabaloo when the dead sentries were first discovered, but their soldiers settled down right quick. Chang runs a tight ship.
“He didn’t let a couple dozen dead men slow him down much. Two hours after dawn, the army was fed, geared up, and on the march again. But they left a detail behind to bury the dead. Not a small detail. A hundred men or close to it. Thing was, they were all infantry except for a handful of mounted officers. Gil and Wash and I huddled up, decided we could do something since they only had those few horses to contend with. With thirty-six cavalry of our own, seemed like we ought to be able to fluster that bunch a good bit.
“First thing, we figured to take care of those officers. That’s a weak point in their organization. If an officer has rank enough, even if he’s not cavalry, he’s allowed a horse to ride. So he’s a big, fat, juicy target.
“There weren’t any really good spots where we could snipe at ’em, so we decided to try the old bait and switch. They had to know it was three night fighters who did all that damage to their sentries last night, so we sent three riders out, looking as ignorant and stupid as possible. Wouldn’t have tried it with Chang around. He’d never fall for something that obvious. But we figured maybe these burial detail officers might not be the sharpest tools in the shed or they wouldn’t have been assigned to scut work like that in the first place. They’d picked a spot well away from the road to do their digging and burying. There was scattered brush and a low rise that served to screen them from the road. Now our guys just had to sell it.
“And they did. Our decoys went riding blindly up that road as if they had no idea a hundred enemy soldiers were right there, not far ahead and a little to the right. The burial detail spotted our bait guys right away. The Hoods got all excited, made more noise than they should have. This forced the MAP boys to look up, pretending they’d been surprised, and turn tail, still out of rifle range–they thought–and trying to make it look like their horses were running flat out when they really weren’t, ’cause our horses are faster than theirs.
I interrupted. “Your guys thought they were out of rifle range? But they weren’t?”
“Not quite.” Moss shook his head. “At least one Hoodie officer was armed with something way better than those blunderbuss pieces of junk your squad retrieved from the sentries you killed. They were reckless. We had that going for us. Every officer with a horse gave chase, yelling like fiends, shooting from the saddle. Hard to hit anything like that at range, but one bullet got lucky. Shot Private Berger’s horse in the ass. Down they went, the horse screaming in pain. Berger rolled free, but that’s when he lost it. That country isn’t exactly level and flat. He could have taken cover, returned fire long enough for the rest of us to reach him. But no. That’s not what he did. He started shooting on the run toward the enemy, charging them on foot, yelling like a madman. Whatever they expected, that wasn’t it. Gil, Wash, and I were bringing up the squads, but we didn’t have a hope in hell of reaching the action in time. The only good thing was the fact that their burial detail soldiers hesitated, laying back, unsure what they were supposed to do. Completely confused. Their leaders had all disappeared from view. They had no idea what was happening.”
Feldman paused, sipping tea to ease his throat. He wasn’t a young man, yet he’d been up and at ’em since before daylight, spending most of those hours in the saddle.
“Privates Holm and Grabowski turned around when they realized Berger’s horse had gone down. They could hear what he was yelling at the Hoodies. I kill you all! I kill you all! His shots seemed wild but three of them found their marks. Three enemy officers down, not necessarily dead but out of action. The other two turned tail to run. His squad mates were a few dozen yards past Berger when they pulled their horses to sliding halts, flung themselves from the saddles, knelt, and shot the fleeing Hoodies off the backs of their horses.”
That should have been the end of it but obviously wasn’t. Private Berger hadn’t moved a muscle during his commanding officer’s presentation. His eyes were dark, polished agates, shiny but lifeless. There was Death there, with a capital D. “Go on, Lieutenant.” I kept my eyes on the trooper. “Drop the other shoe.”
“The only logical move at that point was for our guys to get outa Dodge. We’d reduced their officer corps nicely with Berger’s horse being the only casualty. But the private wasn’t having it. He kept on yelling and ran for toward the hundred armed soldiers a couple of land-dips and maybe half a mile away. His fellow soldiers literally had to tackle and disarm the man. Grabowski managed to catch one of the dead officer’s horses for the prisoner to ride, and here we are. The question, Major, is what do we do with Private Chad Berger now? I leave it to the Court.”
The Court in this case being me, with counsel from Julia and Mace. The three of us withdrew, huddling up and keeping our voices low as we discussed the ramifications of the situation. Nobody liked what I had in mind. I didn’t either.
“Private Berger,” I began, “come to attention.”
He ignored the command. Just stared at me with those dead agate eyes.
Good enough. I had to know for sure.
“The Court has listened to the action report. Private, you cannot be allowed to live.” No reaction. The prisoner continued to stare at me without expression, stone-eyed. “By your actions in the field, you needlessly endangered the lives of your fellow soldiers as well as your own. You show no remorse. You carry with you the Eyes of Death which I recognize because I’ve seen them before. In fact, I have long since assigned a name to people with eyes like yours. The Demon Syndrome. Whether your mind simply snapped or the events of this morning merely stripped the façade from your truest, deepest nature, who can know?
“But what I do know is this. While you live, you are extremely dangerous, possibly to yourself, certainly to those around you. Hence, this Court sentences you to death.” Still no response, but I had one arrow left in my quiver. “However, this Court is not without mercy. You may choose the nature of your death. On the one hand, we can execute you by firing squad here and now. The execution will go on your record and you will go down in history as a failed soldier. If you choose the alternative….” I paused for effect, building suspense in everyone else if not in the condemned man. “…you can die in combat, killing as many of the enemy as you possibly can before you finally fall.”
The agate eyes flickered to life. “I could kill more of them?”
“Yes. How many more would be up to you. You would be armed with two of the captured Hoodie rifles and as much ammunition as you can carry. Nor would you have long to wait. You would become part of tonight’s action.”
He drew in a deep breath. His posture straightened, the Tin Man of Oz getting his rusty joints oiled. “I really loved that horse,” he said.
I didn’t mention that I’d heard the rumors. “I need to hear a yes or no answer, private.”
“Yes sir. I will gladly go at ’em tonight.”
The squad commanders didn’t like it but they didn’t have any better options. No one believed Berger could ever again be fit for civilian society. No soldier would trust him. “He dies a hero,” I told them firmly.
“Even if we don’t like it, no argument from us,” Moss said. “I’m just glad I could pass the buck to you. The men will keep their mouths shut. No one outside of our squads will ever know. We’ll even erect a memorial back home in Wild River Valley, list him as MAP’s first casualty in the Hooded Cobra War.”
“Beats building a memorial to the horse,” I agreed.
Minutes later, the Jews were on their way north to rejoin the three-squad force. Private Berger, his wrists freed but his ankles tied just in case–he was a homicidally insane prisoner condemned to death after all–sat on his saddle, inhaling his second bowl of stew. Nothing like a fighting death in the offing to reawaken a sleeping appetite.
Rooster Squad relaxed a bit, cleaning rifles and sharpening knives while we discussed how to best incorporate our suicide shooter into the plan for the night’s action. Gwinnie Bliss murmured so low I almost didn’t catch it. “Our mom’s eyes looked like that after she killed our father. Until she blew her own head off.”
Out of the mouths of babes. I nodded, accepting her statement as fact. “I first saw eyes like that in a slave girl at Fort Steel. Like all of us, she’d seen her loved ones slaughtered by those who left alive only the younger kids and nubile women. Since that dark day, she’d been beaten and raped repeatedly but what sent her over the edge was her first child. It was born wrong, missing one ear and a couple of toes. The rapist father, a prominent Steel citizen, killed the baby in front of her. She snapped. Killed the man with a kitchen knife. They made us watch her hang. She never got the chance to kill any more, but she had those eyes. They didn’t use a hood on the gallows. Before the executioner sprang the trap, Strator Tucker himself asked if she had any last words. She did, a message eerily similar to Private Berger here today. Give me one chance in a million, she said, and I kill you all.”
“Spooky,” Milo observed. But it wasn’t. What I hadn’t said, what I would never say except maybe to Juiia someday, was how close I’d come to that same precipice. Yes, even as a child I’d begun killing, of necessity using cat’s paws to poison those who’d offended me most grievously, but somehow I’d never quite tipped over into I kill you all. I’d felt the rage pushing me toward losing control, yet somehow I’d never quite gone over the edge. Perhaps it was the general influence of the teacher who dared to instruct the leavings of Fort Steel society or the gentle ministrations of healer Laura Compton. Whatever, I thanked the Creator every day for my narrow escape. Yes, I killed when I had to, without compunction, but it was a job of work. No less, no more. Simply something that had to be done.
Every time I looked at Private Berger, I could only think, There but for the grace of God go I.