In a pinch, the Peak Road could handle four riders abreast over most of its tortuous, twisting length, but the garrison detachment, 62 men in all, settled for a column of two’s and let it go at that. They’d ridden through most of the previous day and most of this deceptively peaceful night, watchful of the many switchbacks and steep slopes as they negotiated ridge after ridge, each seventh hour a rest stop for men and horses alike. Saddle silence was enforced, the veterans among them assuming they were in Indian Country despite no one knowing where their leader had come up with that term.
They did know that “Indian” meant enemy, somebody who would and could kill you dead, should he happen to see you before you saw him. A few of the forty-seven draftees in the column tended to think that was pretty silly, worrying about enemies in the mountains. Human enemies, anyway. The big cats and grizzly bears could get testy at times, but Blakto infiltrators? Unthinkable.
Roughly in the middle of the column, Private Rusty Stiebar blew his nose, first his left nostril, then his right. He gave it no thought whatsoever, simply enjoying the awareness of snot flying off to either side, the sensation of his sinuses clearing.
He gave it no thought, that is, until moments later a dark form loomed suddenly on his right and the sliver of moonlight filtering through the trees glinted from the blade of a belt knife pressed to his throat, moving as the horses moved.
“Make that much noise again,” a voice whispered in his ear, “and I’ll slit your throat and leave you for the wolves.”
Just that silently, the blade and its owner were gone again, the rider somehow speeding up toward the head of the column without allowing his horse to make any more sound than the others. How does he do that? Stiebar gulped–quietly–and eased off one glove to check his neck for bleeding. Yes. There. A tiny scratch, he thought, just starting to burn. No more than a shaving nick, but a nick he’d remember for as long as he lived.
At the head of the column, Jon Talent fell in beside Wing Holder once again, the pair of them continuing to ride point as they’d done from the beginning. Behind them were the Grayson twins, Thorn and Bear, appropriately named. Both six feet even in height, one axe handle broad, one needle thin, both veterans of the last Blakto War, both skilled campaigners. From there on back, it was a deliberate mix of untested draftees and old warriors, with grizzled Haner Pops and sleepy eyed Blythe bringing up the rear.
War was on the way, which meant Wing Peak had to be garrisoned. A dozen good men could hold that towering rock indefinitely, but Wing believed in redundancy. Forty men assigned to combat duty plus twenty in support roles, cooking, cleaning, patching up wounds if that became necessary. Usually it didn’t; even the aggressive Blakto recognized that assaulting the Wing would be a waste of time and lives.
But you never knew. Complacency is, after all, the death knell of liberty.
PR3, the third such designated rest stop area–if one started counting from Wing Peak en route to Granite Peak Stronghold–was one of the most secure. As Commmander of the Wing Peak Garrison detachment, Jon Talent had the authority. He gave the orders: Four sentries posted, and then fires would be permitted. There was good graze for the tired horses, water from a bubbling spring, they had the high ground with decent shooting cover, and there were open fields of fire dropping away in all directions.
“We’ll hold here till daylight,” Talent told the Graysons.
The two Captains nodded and turned to spread the word. They still had miles to cover, but they’d be at the Peak before sunset came around again.
Once everyone had eaten, Commander Talent had the entire detachment gather around the largest of the fires. “It’s still dark out,” he said, pointing out the obvious, “but Wing has something to share with all of you. The veterans know this story, but most of you don’t, so listen up.”
Wing Holder rose from where he’d been squatting. He paced slowly as he spoke, turning a bit this way and that, making sure every soldier got to see him face-on from time to time. Mountain theater in the round.
“A few hours ago,” he began in the manner of a storyteller saying, Once upon a time, “a soldier blew his nose in the forest. Twice. Loudly. I’d like to tell you why that wasn’t a good idea. Every one of you is mountain born and bred, so you know that the smallest of unexpected sounds in these woods can be a life and death matter. You’ve been out hunting, not knowing quite where the deer were hiding, when a buck snorted and gave himself away. Or a stray wanderer from a far holding stepped on a twig and snapped it, and you knew there was an idiot out there, and you needed to be wary. Or the shriek of a dying rabbit sounded, and you were able to slip up on the predator in time to acquire a new fox fur or some such.
“With all of that,” he paused, looking around, making eye contact, “you wouldn’t think any of us would be foolish enough to blow his nose on the trail. A cough, sometimes, is hard to suppress. We all understand that. Blowing a nose, however, is entirely discretionary. Better we should breathe through our mouths or drip snot on our buckskins all night long than make a mistake like that.
“However…sometimes, we get cocky. We think we’re the most dangerous thing in the forest, and silence be damned. Well, I’m here to tell the tenderfeet among you, that’s not the case. During the past year alone, the three Brothers–me, Fear, and Death–have had reports of seventeen different scouts caught in our territory. They’ve been slipping people in among us, usually one or two at a time. Our lookouts at Wing Peak can see for many miles across the prairie. That’s true. But they can’t see everything. There are draws and hollows and stands of trees, hundreds if not thousands of wrinkles in the terrain that can hide a small party, get an infiltrator or two or three close enough to slip into the treeline. Especially if they hole up by day and travel by night.”
The veterans, Wing noted, looked unsurprised. Such was the way of warfare; you didn’t expect the enemy to come at you blind if he had any way of scoping out your position first. Duh.
On the other hand, a number of the younger troops were clearly startled. They’d never thought of this. These mountains had always been sacred, inviolate, untouchable…or so they’d grown up believing.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Wing continued. “It’s doubtful an enemy could bring warriors into the mountains in force without Wing Peak lookouts seeing them coming–but on the other hand, the key word here is doubtful, not impossible. A few here, a few there…they could have a prearranged meeting place, pull their scattered scouts together, maybe come up with a guerrilla squad or two that could do some real damage if we didn’t know they were there before they made their move. Or they could bring in a sizeable bunch, especially in the center north segments, where the Holders don’t have the advantages we do when it comes to watching their borders.
“Now. I done said all that to say all this. The last Blakto War, 20 years ago. How many of you newer troops know we came within a cat’s whisker of losing that one?”
A silence fell at those words, a silence that would have done the detachment proud on the trail. The teachers hadn’t taught it that way.
Wing chuckled. No humor in it, though. “I don’t know what it is with our academics. They make sure to tell every student how we won that last battle, but not one of them gets around to pointing out how close it came to going the other way. Not one. Guess they don’t like to lecture about sneezing and snot and stuff like that? Got me.”
He had their attention now. The last Blakto war was won because of snot? This ought to be good! Even Private Rusty Stiebar was caught up in the tale, fingering the scratch on his neck rather absentmindedly.
“See, it’s like this. Our northwest quadrant of the Rim has, basically, just three openings through the mountains. Fear Pass Gap, Death Pass Gap, and of course Ragged Valley, which cuts clear through from end to end with a wider passage than either of the others. But Ragged Valley is no fun at all. Two tectonic plates come together there, leftovers from the Tectonic Plate War. You could run cavalry and infantry through there a hundred abreast, but they’d all be dead before they made it halfway. Geysers. Sinkholes. Quicksand. Mudslides. Even a little volcanic burst every once in a while, just enough to put the fear of Mama Nature into the most intrepid barbarian’s heart. The Blakto tried it once, lost two thirds of their force before they gave up, and aren’t likely to go that route any time again soon.
“Which leaves Fear and Death. We never know ahead of time which of those the Blakto will tackle. The last time, they split, fifty-fifty, half of their warriors advancing on Death Pass Gap, the other half charging Fear Pass Gap. As you know, our Wing Holding borders Fear on the northeast and Death to the south. The three Brothers have held the gaps for centuries. Our responsibility is to reinforce whichever neighbor needs help the most…and with that in mind, the Wing Peak lookouts seeing we were being hit on both fronts, I made the decision to split our forces in three parts.”
Wing’s throat failed him. Scratchy damn frog. He cleared it, threw down half a mug of tea so hot it nearly tore his tongue out, and tried again.
“The fighting was hot and heavy, but the time came when Death Holder was able to send us a mirror flash message. Death was kicking butt. He would not need the 350 troops we had waiting at Granite Peak Stronghold, wondering which way to jump. That meant we could bring our reserves in to help at Fear Pass Gap, thank goodness, because at Fear we were losing–and if the Blakto once cracked through into the center of the Bowl, it was all over but the shouting.
“So, a mirror flash message to Granite Peak and we’d be in business, right? That is, except for the day it would take them to get there, obviously. IF Fear could hold out for another 24 hours…though that was no sure thing.
“But…”, he paused for effect, gauging his audience, “there was a problem. I had our reserves positioned at the crossroads, where a few hours of hard marching could put them on either Gap Road–but the enemy had been setting fires. The forest was not dry enough to be a major hazard, but enough smoke was in the air, especially down low, to block our mirror messages from the Commander waiting in the lowlands.
“Bottom line, we had to carry the message personally…and the enemy was waiting for that. We believe they must have had scouts who’d gotten through, let them know that operations were being coordinated from Wing Peak. Four of us set out on foot; horses would have gotten us caught. There were Blakto squads inside the tree line all around Wing Peak. They couldn’t take the Peak, but they could cut it off, and they did.
“We four set off right after sunset, but we were seen heading for the trees. The hunt was on. The enemy had no way to know precisely where we were, so they did split up their available forces, but we knew they were after us.
“Fortunately, they didn’t know precisely where we were, either…and we had the advantage of being on our home turf. We traveled through the night but paused inside the tree line, just where it breaks out into the open Bowl country. We still had a dozen miles to cover, and some of our pursuers did have horses. Little prairie ponies, but tough. They weren’t afraid to push their mounts through thick timber in the middle of grizzly country, not them!
“The four of us were huddled up, two young Sergeants and an eleven year old Courier kid and me. If I made the wrong move, we were all dead, and the Cautan Confederacy would be laid waste. If I made no move, the odds weren’t any better. So, what to do?
“And then, right then in the middle of my indecision, my self doubt, we heard it. We all heard it. Somebody blew his nose, just exactly like happened on the trail tonight. We went to the ground and started stalking on our bellies, because now we knew where they were.
“There were nine of them and only four of us, but they never heard us coming. One of the ponies snorted, but it was too late; first light gave us just enough to see them outlined against the sky between the trees, and our short bows were singing. We dropped the first four before they knew they were under attack, though one of them screamed a lot. The young Courier had gutshot him, and the Blakto had the mother of all bellyaches.
“The two Sergeants were whirlwinds of death in the darkness, taking out two more apiece, leaving me just one remaining opponent. The boy among us did not need to do any more than he had done, but he was a quick thinker and gathered up four of the ponies. He’d always had a way with horses; they weren’t as spooked of him as they were the rest of us.”
Wing stopped there, letting the silence stretch. Sure enough, one soldier raised his hand–not Stiebar, but the man squatting next to him. “Sir?”
“Go ahead, Private.”
“It…it happened…just like that?”
The ancient leader smiled, knowing the youngster didn’t mean to imply there was lying involved. “That’s not every detail, Private, but yes, it’s the short version. We got on those ponies–mine tried to buck me off at first–and hightailed it outa the timber, scooting for the safety of our own troops. When we got there, thank goodness they had spare cavalry horses, so we turned those Blakto ponies loose. Force marched to Fear Pass Gap, and yes, turned the tide of battle in time. The end.”
“All because of a wad of snot.”
Wing studied the speaker more intently. Maybe he was doubting the veracity of the tale. Hmm…. “Thorn,” he said quietly, “would you stand and shuck your shirt a second?”
Captain Thorn Grayson did so. His left shoulder didn’t look right, a ropy scar running across it. Looked like at one time he’d just about had that arm cut plumb off.
“Would you tell the Privates where that scar came from, please?”
Thorn flexed, making the scar ripple. At least one soldier could be heard gagging. “Bear and I were the two Sergeants that night. My final opponent had a rather sharp blade, and he knew how to use it.”
“Thank you. Bear?”
“Sure thing, Wing.” The burly man had a scar, too, but it wasn’t across his shoulder. It was across his belly, from one side clear to the other. He looked around the gathering of young recruits and rumbled an explanation. “This wasn’t from my final opponent that night, but from the one before that. He basically gutted me. I pretty much had to hold my intestines in with one hand while I finished him and his partner off with the other. It was better once Wing and the Courier kid got me on the biggest of the ponies. Poor critter didn’t like my weight much, but the kid led the animal and I could use both hands to keep myself together.”
“You didn’t…go unconscious or anything?” The question was breathed from a wide eyed, blond haired draftee.
The big man shrugged. “Didn’t see any point.”
That was it for the rest period. The detachment went to work, snugging cinches, stowing gear in saddle bags, mounting up, moving out. It was getting light by the time PR3 was behind them. The new recruits had no idea that they’d been given Wing Peak duty as a way to break them into combat service as easily as possible. These were all kids with promise; it wouldn’t do to turn them into worm food any more quickly than necessary.
“They never asked,” Jon Talent murmured.
“No. They did not.” No use in procrastinating; time to pay off the bet. Wing reached in his shirt pocket, plucked out a silver, and passed it over to his Detachment Commander without further comment. None of the younger generation would know, at least for now, that Talent had been the eleven year old Courier who’d gutshot a Blakto that night and then had the presence of mind to secure four ponies while the other men were still fighting.
“Can you picture one of these kids doing that at the age of eleven?” Wing asked quietly.
“Nope.” Jon Talent shook his head. “I swear, they’re looking younger every year.”