The physician shook his head. “It is not wise, War Leader.”
“I did not ask if it was wise.”
Sighing, my friend began the process. First, a soft, salve-covered pad over each hole. Thankfully, the sniper’s bullet had been full metal jacket. Had to have been. The exit wound in the back of my thigh was not much larger than the entry wound in front. Through and through. “I did not bleed to death and you prevented infection,” I said. “That will have to be enough.” My crimson armor had been repaired, the sharp-slice edges hammered back flat, forge-welded before being filed down smooth. It had been a long shot; I had been more than half a mile from the crest when I was hit.
“You still need surgery,” he protested, more for form than anything else. “And rest. Three weeks is not enough for a bone fracture to heal. Not when we had to set it. Plus, I suspect there may be bone chips loose inside your flesh. The pain may get worse, not better.” He worked as he talked, skilled hands wrapping the leg from an inch above the knee to an inch below the hip. This would be followed by a thick plaster layer of his own invention, a quasi-cast of sorts, allowing a small degree of flexibility.
His cast material was pretty stinky stuff. Thankfully, the smell faded as it dried, no worse than living downwind from a latrine.
“How much pain would there be in losing this war?” I queried gently. The doctor shook his head. He did not understand. Could not understand. Devoted to healing as he was, the ways of men who killed other men were alien to him. The living army, those still able to bear arms, now numbered 636 warriors. Down from more then 1100. More than 260 casualties at Ripple Ridge alone. More succinctly, we were at a mere 58% of our pre-MAP strength. “The enemy has killed nearly half of us. The only way is forward. I will not allow our dead to have fallen in vain.”
The healer kept shaking his head. It seemed to help rather than hinder his concentration. Eccentric, but to each his own. When he was done with the plaster, he issued one final admonishment before exiting the tent. “It will need at least half an hour to harden properly. Try not to ruin it.”
Few people were allowed to speak to me like that, mildly scolding. Brandon Li was an exception.
With Sora’s assistance, I donned my armor. The interior padding had been removed from the left thigh sections to accommodate the cast. Then we, finally, sat down. Sora and I broke fast together, neither of us with a smidgen of appetite but both aware our bodies required fuel to function properly. In my case especially, red meat, having lost so much blood on the battlefield. Red blood cell replacement required.
The meal over, I stood and began practicing, bending, flexing, stepping. The pain was intense, interspersed with stabs like knives. I nearly blacked out once, before nerves settled down to mere agony. But the leg held my weight. “Let’s go,” I told the Skilled Man. “You will need to help me onto my horse.”
A thunderous roar from more than 600 throats greeted us as troops spotted me riding toward the front on Flame. Yellow, black, white, they all cheered. I did not think it was staged. Strong Leaders of every era had experienced this. I was not friends with many of these men, though I loved them all. This was more than friendship. We had come through the fire together. Hundreds of their compatriots had fallen. Their near-mythical leader had led them to victory at Ripple Ridge while ignoring a seriously wounded leg. They could follow such a leader, not just grumble forward in fear because being executed for cowardice was such an ugly option. Yet for three weeks they had camped here while rumors flew. War Leader Chang was dying. War Leader Chang had lost his leg and could no longer fight. War Leader Chang has lost his courage and will order a retreat. Or, alternatively, that chink s.o.b. is already dead and left us in the lurch, stuck in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by enemies.
Squashing those rumors like a riding crop splattering a fly was satisfaction incarnate. Only squashing MAP in like fashion could exceed this.
I held myself erect as ever, proud, openly arrogant, fierce and ready. On the outside. On the inside…that was another matter. The pain was such that I saw myself as a hollow man, what the ancient Before Texans used to call all hat, no cattle. Fear of failure remained compressed in a tight, fiery ball in the pit of my stomach, ready to explode in nuclear fashion at any moment. Fear of failing my lifetime friend, Emperor Chang. Fear of failing these men who had come so far, done so much, suffered and persevered so endlessly. Fear of failing to take the Gathering on Roil River, at least, before true winter howled down upon us in frigid wrath. We should have been in control of the Gathering by now, assaulting the stockade walls of Fort Steel itself. Once we held the valley, the mountains would find us no easy meat.
Onward, then. A storm was gathering, west by northwest. What the Before people used to call arctic air, readying itself. The enemy camped three long marches ahead of us, its leaders still difficult to identify as targets, its numbers small but fierce. It was good, I thought, that they were so. Conquest that was too easy would have weakened us as insidiously as the snake offering Eve an apple in Christianity’s origination myth.
The agony receded as I rode, though, and by the time I turned Flame to address the troops, I’d found my balance. The color bearer moved his horse up beside me, on the right, my strong hand. The Skilled Man covered my left, protecting my heart side. The cheers went on for a time. I let them, studying our flag, admiring the rippling red background, the yellow tassels adorning the pole and, in the center of the cloth, the yellow Mandarin symbol for strength: 强度 Two of my officers had the nerve to urge me to paint my armor a dull color. Less of a target, they said. Fools. In Chinese culture, red is the color of fire and also good luck. We exemplified both. We needed both. Were I to downgrade my appearance now, it would be seen not as discretion but as cowardice.
Besides, red is my color. It sets off my dark, flashing eyes. So my mistresses told me, and would women lie? Of course they would. Virgin or harlot, woman is cunning from birth.
Like this MAP leader, I thought suddenly. Cunning indeed.
“Men of the Empire!” My voice boomed out, strong, irresistible. I had always been able to orate. “We march today!” I paused for effect, allowing the cheering to burst forth once again. These soldiers had been worried sick for three full weeks as Brandon Li fought to return me to combat readiness. They had buried their dead without me. They had nursed thoughts of vengeance, considering the natives who had wrought such destruction in their ranks. Every man of them was combat hardened now, eager to finish what they had started. “The storm building behind us is us! Our scouts report the enemy is camped three hard marches ahead of us in a place like a large bowl! They are nothing but small carp in that bowl, ready to be speared for supper! This is Wednesday morning. We will dine on fish by no later than Saturday night!”
With that I turned my horse and started off, leaving the army to follow. No, I had not suddenly become even more foolish, riding out in front. Our scouts, ranging ahead, formed a distant, invisible screen. There would be time enough to fall back to the center–the center must hold. Time enough to fall back to direct the army when we approached rifle distance. For now the men needed to see me leading, man and horse afire in the early sun, flashy on the right side, shadowed on the left.
According to the maps at my disposal, we had many miles of rolling prairie yet to cover, much of it filled with short grasses and a variety of sagebrush. At the far end of that, MAP’s army if it hadn’t moved. Farther on, a quarter mile or more of impossibly tall cliffs on the west side of the road, forcing travelers toward the banks of Roil River, beyond which there be monsters. We could expect pitched combat at those cliffs, where a smaller force might hold off a larger army for a considerable time. But a few days beyond those cliffs…the Gathering. Stockade on a high bench, the reports stated, but most of the population living along the river with no walls to protect them. It shouldn’t be too hard to take a simple log stockade where no live water ran.
My thoughts returned to the sniper who had shot me in the leg. I wanted his head, presuming he was not already dead. More than that, I wanted his rifle. Whatever it was, its range rivaled our lost lasers. I suspected that same sniper, or one much like him, had targeted the laser rifle batteries rather than the gunners. One of the three light-shooters with which we’d begun the battle at Ripple Ridge had failed from the outset, shorting out, frying a circuit–whatever that meant. The other two had been shot to death. I wanted the rifle capable of doing that. For my personal use.
Occasionally I turned in the saddle, eyeballing the distant storm clouds. The weather would likely catch up to us before we reached our enemies but not, I thought, today. The clouds seemed to be moving at an angle that would miss us for now. Still, we would be fighting in snow and cold before we were done. I hoped our quilted winter gear was sufficient.
Having never experienced such a thing, it never occurred to me what Mother Nature could do on the northern plains.
When we dug in for the night, it couldn’t have been later than four o’clock in the afternoon. Even so, light was failing fast and snow was falling fast. At first fluffy, almost friendly, the fat flakes were full of moisture, settling softly to the ground. When we saw snowfall east of towering New Range mountains in the Northeast Territory, this was the sort of snow we expected. The troops, as I did, looked upon those first few hours as a gift from home.
By the time darkness fell in earnest, that illusion was shattered in a million cheek-stinging pieces. The wind escalated from gentle breeze to roaring gale, the likes of which we’d known from the Ocean of Sturms but never driving snowflakes that stung like bees as the temperature dropped. And dropped. And dropped. Cooking fires were blown out unless shielded on three sides. Forget the perimeter fires. Posting sentries well out from the camp’s main body would be sentencing them to death; I had them pulled in tight, huddled up in pairs, one ground cloth beneath each pair, another on top, allowing them to be covered with snow in no time, drifted invisible. Behind us, the camp followers were–I didn’t know. Freezing to death, maybe. I could no longer afford to worry about them.
Not that I ever had, to be honest about it.
Some, I suspected, slept well that night. Once men settled for the night, drifting snow piled against and over their cloth-topped bodies, providing insulation against the howling wind. They felt invisible and protected as if in their mothers’ wombs, safe from attack. Surely no enemy would dare the elements on this night.
I was almost right.
STIRK, CHIEF OF SCOUTS
“Gather ’round, o’ ye Merry Men.”
The scouts didn’t even bother to snicker at my Robin Hood impression. They’d heard it all by now. Almost all. They weren’t going to like this next part. When I’d seen the storm building, I’d begun thinking how to take advantage of Nature’s gift. It was snowing now; the serious stuff would follow shortly. “I have a plan.”
A voice muttered somewhere in the middle of the group. “Oh, this ought to be good.” I didn’t mind. If soldiers aren’t grumbling, something is wrong.
“We know what this country looks like after a blizzard. They don’t.” Nods of agreement. “None of their scouts stayed out when the snow started. We’ve confirmed that. So between now and daylight, we’ve got free movement, no worries.”
“Except freezing our–” Same voice, choked off with a grunt. Somebody had elbowed him in the ribs.
“When they move out after the storm quits, they’re going to follow the easier routes, at least at first. Up a blind gulley drifted six feet deep with snow? No. Every sage bush will have its own little drift, look like a place for one of us to be waiting. They’re going to be edgy at first, hyper-alert, but that will fade after the first mile or so. Agreed?”
Murmured chorus. No dissent.
“Many of them, if not all, will also be snow blind. Unless they know our trick of pinholes in leather eye masks, which I kind of doubt. This army has been campaigning south of snow country for a long time now. At any rate, we have an advantage I’d not like to squander. So I want all four sergeants to pick five men each and hit the trails. You know the most likely routes. Pick your ambush spots and–”
“In the dark? In a blizzard?”
“Relax, Grumble.” The heckler’s name was Gumble but we all called him Grumble. He never could figure out why. You’re with me.” He had no idea that our night-in-the-blizzard travel would be the most arduous. I already knew where we were setting up. But, men, you’re not going to like this next part. Which is, shoot their horses first.”
I was right. Nobody liked it. But Grumble came through as I’d hoped. “Captain, I don’t like–”
“Hold it right there. How many of you scouts have loved ones at home? Wives, sweethearts, mothers, brothers? Show of hands.” All but six hands raised, some quicker than others. The slow ones saw where this was heading. “Okay, twenty-four out of thirty of us.” I was pretty sure the missing six cared about somebody, too, but weren’t going to expose their feelings. “Got one question for you. Would you rather slaughter a horse or have a Hoodie slice your mother’s throat and rape your wife? Or rape your kids? Because that’s the choice. This is war, boys, not a Before virtual reality game. Some of you have already killed men you once knew. No horse ridden by enemy is worth so much.”
Not even Private Grumble had an answer for that. “You know the drill, men. Two setups at each location, one back with the horses, the other forward for first strike. White linen over-garments. Sagebrush shelters. They’ve got fewer than sixty horses left for line cavalry, maybe twenty for scouts. Taking out eighty horses will blind their entire army completely. They’ll have to scout on foot and they’ll never be able to turn a flank on us. That would be a good thing.”
No more grumbles. Not even from Grumble. He was a fine soldier when it came down to it. We got going, every one of us moving into the teeth of the storm. Our instinct for and knowledge of this land was about to be tested.
The morning dawned clear and cold, the storm over. At first, I thought all was well with the army. Roll call determined that this was not so. Fourteen men were missing. No bodies were ever found. In each case, the missing soldier had needed to go to the latrines sometime during the night while the blizzard howled. We could only surmise they’d become disoriented, lost in the fierce gale, wandering off to lonely deaths, frozen under one small hump of snow or another.
We could not wait until spring to find them. “The scouts are out?”
“In force,” Sora said. “They left at first light, as the wind dropped.”
Fourteen more. Six hundred and twenty-two fighting men remaining. “Sound the march,” I ordered, squinting against the brightness. “Cavalry leading, to break trail. We have ground to cover.”
Red is fire, is expansion. Red is my color. My squinting eyes searched foward, tearing from bright glare on white snow. White is metal, is contracting. My wounded leg did not like the frigid weather. It caused me to grimace, out in front where no one could see. From our first clash with these few rural people, these MAP soldiers, we, too, had been contracting like metal in the cold.
White is not my color.