It was cold in the mountains. Not freezing exactly, but definitely cooler by a bunch of degrees than the lowlands. Xorn shivered, huddled under a sizable bush with spreading branches that gave him the illusion of protection, though illusion he knew it to be. How far had he come from the Ice Road intersection? He had no idea, not really, only knowing that once the key from Vittorio Partoin’s pocket had leaped into his hand, things had happened fast. The instant the padlock hasp had sprung open, allowing the steel pack chain to fall from around his waist, he’d pressed the key into the nearest waiting set of fingers–belonging to the boy, Narting, he thought, though he couldn’t be sure of even that. All of his attention had been riveted on his next move, grabbing the man’s belt knife from its sheath and then slicing the lacing to free the saddle bags from Partoin’s saddle on the tall gray. Then he’d run off into the rocks, afoot. It had to be afoot. The horse was a temptation, but stealing a horse was a capital crime, either by hanging or by beheading. An escaped slave wno had committed no other offense might survive with nothing worse than a severe whipping.
The whipping might kill him, should it come to that, but the death penalty for horse theft was certain.
He’d cut back to his left as soon as he was out of sight, angling uphill, first passing the sounds of the still ongoing battle at the roadblock, then hearing them fade into the distance behind him. The trees, tall evergreens for the most part, had swallowed him up. All too soon, the slope steepened, and his lungs joined with his legs in complaining about the pace. Nonetheless, he’d pushed on, heedless of the noise he made in passing. Let the beasts of the forest wonder; he needed distance from those who would come hunting. His long years with the Navri City Militia made him keenly aware of perimeters; there might be no search at all, depending on who survived the battle below, and how many, but then again there might be. The natural paranoia of the outlaw stoked his fear. Sweat poured from his armpits and from every other available pore on his body, chilling him instantly whenever he stopped for a few seconds to let his ragged breathing slow a bit. Perimeters. Hunters of fugitives always went on supposition, assuming their quarry could have run so far and no farther in a given amount of time. Get well outside of that supposed perimeter and his chances would be improved immeasurably.
It had to be, he thought, the third hour past full dark. He’d given up, collapsed here under this bush nearly an hour ago at best estimate, shaking with cold yet falling into the sleep of sheer exhaustion for a time. The moon was up now; it was that, he thought, that had awakened him, the silver light washing across his eyes. That, or the rock under his left hip, or the sounds of the woods that were utterly foreign to him.
I am a man of the cities, he thought. Striking into the mountains was insanity.
He knew better, though. The mountains, terrifying as these wilderness surroundings might be, were his only chance. Most of the other slaves, maybe all of them, would run…where would they run? He struggled to organize his thoughts, to remember where other slaves had run, those he and his fellow City Militia members had recaptured over the years. Some few might try for family, but most would seek to survive in the open, rolling lowlands, the farm and ranch country, living either as scavengers or joining one of the bandit groups that existed in surprising numbers throughout the fringe areas of the Bowl. That alone would have mandated his strike toward the high country.
But there’s more, isn’t there? Risa Macklin had given him the charge, Risa who had grabbed him and kissed him when they were little more than toddlers, Councilwoman Macklin who had saved his life by taking him slave instead of allowing him to be executed for his supposed dereliction of duty. Most of all, there was the awareness that she’d known what she was talking about. If Chair Carson’s NCA had gone so far as to post a guard on a lightly traveled route like the Ice Road, his greater army must already be on the move, marching to invade and occupy Granite Peak Stronghold while its master was absent. Worse, if the NCA was so emboldened, the Blakto War must already be under way. Wing Holder must have called for his warriors to meet the Blakto, either at Death Pass Gap or at Fear Pass Gap, or both. Carson must have intel on that, spies who reported on the situation at the Stronghold.
“There’s no time,” he whispered aloud, then clapped a hand over his mouth. He had not meant to do that.
Well. With the moon up, he could see enough to explore the contents of the saddle bags he’d stolen. Time to take inventory.
The first discovery gladdened his heart. Vittorio Partoin had kept a complete change of clothes in his right hand saddlebag. Except for boots, of course, but his own slave boots were serviceable enough, no different than the work boots worn by thousands of free workers. On the other hand, Partoin had been a big man in his own right. The buckskins fit a bit snugly around the chest for a man whose whip scars were not all entirely healed, but the discomfort was minor, the leather did not itch like the slave wool had itched, and the relief from the cutting night breeze was pretty darn close to Paradise. The pants fit like they’d been made for him except for being a bit long in the leg. Not enough to drag on the ground, though; they would do. They would more than do.
He’d heard nothing; the apparition that dropped out of the great spruce tree across the clearing managed to land in utter silence. The runaway slave found himself crab-scooting backward under the bush, his hand gripping the belt knife as if it might be some use. Which it would not; the great ape cat sat on its haunches, yellow eyes seeming to glow in the moonlight. Its two arms, anchored with great slabs of muscle behind the massive forelegs, held…something, a dark shape that it deposited carefully on the ground.
“Psubu’m’sptybalt!” Xorn breathed the word. He’d studied them in elementary school; every child had. They were believed to be the stuff of myth, though, mere legends born of the fertile minds of ancient storytellers. Mothers sometimes terrorized their children into proper behavior with tales of the giant predators–the specimen facing him across a mere 30 yards of meadow must weigh at least 600 pounds–but no adult ever admitted to believing they were real.
Real and, he suddenly realized, sentient. The Psubu’m’sptybalt had heard him. He’d apparently gotten the pronunciation right, or at least close enough for the ape cat to recognize. It lifted one powerful arm in an unmistakable salute, then without further ado leaped back up into the tree and was swallowed by the night.
For long moments, Xorn did not move. The dark object on the ground must be for him…or was it bait? Was he supposed to inch over there like a rat approaching a chunk of cheese placed on the trigger of a rat trap, only to have the huge ape cat drop back out of the tree on top of him?
No, of course that made no sense. The Psubu’m’sptybalt could have easily bounced over to his hidey-bush and slaughtered him in place, had it wished to do so. Still, it took a long time to force himself forward, feeling utterly exposed all the way, until he reached the thing on the ground–at which point the irresistible aroma of freshly roasted meat assaulted his nostrils and he grabbed the package without further ado, running bent over all the way back to his bush.
Fresh venison, he thought, or maybe elk if the elk was a young one, great slabs of roast that tasted better than the finest prime rib he’d ever known. It had even been salted. He tore into the feast like a starving wolf, juices dripping down his stubbled chin, a multitude of emotions tumbling through his head. The slaves had not been fed since noon and he had no idea how to live off the land. Having an imaginary creature, a Psubu’m’sptybalt no less, drop out of a tree to feed him would have been beyond his wildest imagination.
“There is a God!” He muttered fervently between bites, “There is a God!”
It was amazing how much less dangerous the dark forest felt on a full stomach. The ape cat had left him plenty of meat; there was enough for another half dozen meals at least. Time to see what else the saddlebag fairy had brought.
A spool of tough cord, a pair of leather gloves, and–If these are what I think they are– papers, possibly the cargo manifest for the entire pack train, slaves included. There wasn’t enough light to read by; he would have to wait until daylight for that. But if…Partoin was known for playing his cards close to his vest. Most likely, there would be no backup copies, no documentation anywhere that a slave named Xorn even existed….
“Hello the bush!”
The call came low, from out of nowhere. For the first time, Xorn nearly pissed his pants. Still…he knew that voice, or thought he did. If he was wrong, he was dead, but…”Welcome,” he spoke, low but carrying. Not one but two dark figures stepped out from behind the same spruce tree that had housed the great ape cat.
“That same tree,” he muttered to himself, watching old Ernal and the young asthmatic, Narting, approach across the little meadow, back-splashed by moonlight. Each of them carried a pack on his back, maybe half of slave load size. Ernal carried a sword in his hand, the blade glinting silver, while the boy…”Nart, you’re not wheezing. What the–”
“It’s been getting better the farther into the mountains we travel,” the boy replied. “Best guess is, I don’t have asthma at all. Must just be allergic to one or more of the Bowl plants that don’t grow up this high.”
“Enough small talk,” Ernal cut in. “Do I smell meat?”
“Venison roast. Or maybe young elk. I wouldn’t know the difference.” He picked up the bundle, unwrapped it, and handed thick slices to his fellow runaways.
“Elk,” the old man mumbled around a mouthful. “Definitely elk. Yearling, most likely.”
“You know your wild meat, do you, Ernal?”
“Should. Spent most of my life up this way. Which, before you ask, is why we were able to track you after dark. I’m a smell tracker, able to pick out anything from a mouse to a moose if I’m downwind.”
“Huh. You…followed my stink?”
“Hey, bro, ain’t much stinkier than a slave who ain’t had a bath for months, running for his life with the Devil close behind. Especially if he’s running uphill. But I gotta ask, where’d you come up with the roast?”
Oh, man. Should he tell them? Might as well claim his fairy godmother dropped by with her magic wand as–“A Psubu’m’sptybalt dropped it off.”
Ernal sucked in his breath. Young Narting stopped chewing long enough to ask, “A sooboo-what?”
“Ape cat, kid. An ape cat gifted our entrepreneurial friend here.”
The youngster frowned. “Ape cat? Those aren’t real…are they? In school, they don’t even allow anything to be taught about them any more. Too disconnecting from the real world, the administrators say. And even if they were real, why would one help you?”
“Never mind that.” It was amazing how much less terrified he was with friends close at hand, Xorn thought, but he had to know. “You decided to hang around long enough after getting off the chain to what, outfit yourselves completely?”
Ernal shrugged. “It wasn’t that difficult. Every other slave ran as soon as he was off the chain, scattering like wheat chaff in a stiff wind at threshing time. We had time enough. The fighting at the roadblock was still going on hot and heavy. Partoin was still out cold–not dead, I don’t think, but definitely down for the count. I grabbed his sword–and here, got his belt and sheath for that knife you’re carrying, too. Dumped our slave packs out, half-filled ’em back up with stuff we might need, including woolens fit for free men, lacking the red slave stripes. Turned out we were packing lamb cutlets as part of our loads, so we grabbed a batch of those. And guess what? That yahoo was running drugs.”
“Drugs? No kidding?”
“No kidding. Batch of ’em spilled out when we dumped our original loads. Don’t know what-all varieties, but definitely illegal. Had the authorities caught us with ’em, we’d all have been executed, ignorance being no excuse.”
“You had smarts enough to hit for the mountains, Xorn, but…why? We’ve talked enough; I know you’re city bred. What made you do the smart thing?”
Well, crap. How much to tell them? All or nothing? All. It had to be all; he was too worn to think up a convincing story from scratch. “I’m a secret agent,” he finally said.
“Go on,” Ernal urged quietly, unperturbed.
“Yeah. Well. That roadblock unit. NCA, Navri City Army. That army reports to Chair Carson of the Navri City Council directly. Carson’s got big ideas, figures to conquer the entire Bowl under his personal rule someday, or at least make progress in that direction. Doesn’t give a damn for the Constitution.”
“Huh. Not original, that sort of thinking. Still dangerous, though.”
“More dangerous than you know. The NCA has every courier route into Wing Holding blocked off. Not saying who I’m working for–gotta protect my source and all that–but I have intel that the Army has orders to take over Granite Peak Stronghold while Wing’s off fighting the Blakto. He, Fear, and Death knock the barbarians back like always. Then, when he comes back with his forces victorious but weakened, they won’t have a prayer in Hell of rooting out the invaders.”
“Even worse than the enemy without,” Nart intoned, “the enemy within.”
“You paid attention to your lessons, kid, even if the Psubu’m’sptybalt have been scrubbed from the curriculum. Anyway, it’s up to me to get the message to Granite Peak in time for them to do something.”
“Just you?” Ernal asked quietly.
Xorn shrugged. “Just me as far as I know. There might be others, but I can’t count on it.”
The old smell tracker sounded thoughtful as he spoke. “The NCA couldn’t block all the roads for long without somebody cracking wise. The main army must already be on the move. We don’t have much time.”
“Hell yes, we’re in, Xorn. Carrying warning to the Stronghold might get us in good with somebody powerful enough to protect us when the slave hunters try to get us back. We could use a few allies for a change, doncha think?”
“Well,” the former Captain sighed. “Well. That’s good. ‘Cause to tell you the truth, I need your help. My city living has me good and lost in this godforsaken wilderness. I don’t have the foggiest idea how to get to Granite Peak Stronghold from here.”
“I can get us there, son, but we’d best be moving. We’ve got many ridges to cross, and night is our friend.”
“After you, oh mighty woodsman guide,” Xorn said, struggling to his feet. He buckled the belt around his waist and tucked the belt knife in its sheath, then bent to pick up what was left of the meat bundle in one hand and the saddlebags in the other. “But before we get into hiking silence, could you tell me one thing?”
“The Psubu’m’sptybalt. I never heard of one helping out a human, not even in the wildest tales told over one too many beers in the taverns. You ever heard of such a thing?”
“Might have,” the old man admitted. “My great grandfather, before he died, told me a story of one such. There was a big female ape cat, he said, went by the name of Ownbltyt’byt. The Psubu’m’sptybalt are pacifists, mostly anyway, and as such they tend to avoid us two-legged warmongers. But this Ownbltyt’byt, she developed an affinity with a man. Telepathic link or some such. At any rate, the two of ’em could communicate, human and ape cat, and they did. Even saved each other’s lives from time to time, but the rest of her people gave her an ultimatum: Sever all ties with the human or be outcast from her Clan utterly and forever.”
“Yep. Ostracism. She chose her friendship with the human over her own people when they give her that ultimatum, or at least so the tale was told to me. Took to the mountains, which few of her kind ever do. My great grandpa, he wasn’t too sure she was the only one, though. Thought she might have attracted a mate to go with her, or at least managed to get herself pregnant and raised her cubs alone to sort of start her own Clan. I’m thinking the one who brought you the meat might have been old Ownbltyt’byt herself, or if not her, then one of her descendants.”
“But…why would she help me? Me in particular?”
Ernal adjusted the straps on his pack, getting them just right as he finished his telling. “Telepathy, maybe. They’re said to be telepathic, the Psubu’m’sptybalt. She might have read your mind when you hit her territory, seen you meant no harm to Wing Holding. That could have been enough.”
“Ah. Did I forget to tell that part? I am getting forgetful some, these days. See, that human Ownbltyt’byt befriended back in the day? That just happened to be old Wing Holder himself. Well, come on, super secret agent man, close your mouth before the sun comes up and you start catching flies. We got us some ridges to cross.”