“First light, Wing.”
“Thanks, Private.” Throwing the fur robes back–he’d slept fully clothed, of course–the 100,000 year old man rolled from his sleeping bench, pausing only long enough to pick up his war harness before hurrying out through the stone corridors to the observation post. This high up, he could see his breath even during early summer; it was a frosty morning.
Down on the plains where the Blakto were moving, cold was not the problem. The hopeful invaders faced other difficulties, though, logistics challenges known to every army throughout recorded history. He and his war captains had shared the crenellated redoubt throughout most of the night, peering through the various telescopes produced over the years, studying, thinking, analyzing, and of course comparing notes. From their vantage point nearly a mile above the land beyond the Rim, they’d counted enough fires to estimate the force moving on Death Pass Gap at close to 20,000 strong. It looked like their ancient enemies were going to throw their haymaker that way this time, no more splitting their forces.
Either that or it was one helluva feint.
The worry that it might be a feint had kept him from authorizing mirror messages so far. Once Wing Holding warriors were committed to combat, there would be no turning back. Frankly, there wouldn’t be time. He had to get it right.
“The new scope?” Wing stopped, slumping into a wooden slat-back chair that had, like the others, been carried all the way from ground level for the comfort of the observers. A vertical mile or more, thousands of steps carved with hand tools over a period of decades. He was glad he’d not had to carry those heavy chairs all the way up that route, though he had designed the entire complex seven hundred years earlier. He’d done some of the step carving, too. A great developer of patience, that project had been.
“Yup.” Round Tom answered without looking up from his work. The man had earned his name honestly; he was in fact almost perfectly round, any way you looked at him. Round head, round eyes, round O of a mouth that left him looking permanently surprised or–if you had a dirty mind–suggestively obscene. Round belly, round everywhere was Round Tom.
He was also the Holding’s premier glass scientist, a wizard with a patent on the art. No one but the glassmaker himself knew all of the formula/recipe/magic-wand-and-incantation details needed to do what he did. His apprentices knew some of the man’s secrets, but Round Tom had trusted no mere apprentice with the making and installation of his latest miracle. The big Peeping Tom telescope would, he’d assured anyone who’d listen, revolutionize the technology of looking glasses. Just how, he refused to say. No spoiler alerts from this one, Wing thought, wryly amused. A regular P.T. Barnum. Not that anyone would know what he was talking about if he used those terms; the Law of Silence was essential to keep his own people from looking at him like he was crazy.
“Early cherries.” Captain Hogue handed him a small carved wooden bowl, heaped with the dark red fruit. “North Lake Holder’s experiment is paying off. He says this is the first year his hybrids have produced cherries this early.”
“Hunh.” Wing grunted in appreciation, spitting pits out over the battlement. They would fall a full mile, bouncing off the granite wall of the massive peak before coming to land at its base. Who knew; maybe some of them would decide to defy the odds and grow among the scrub pines. Not likely, of course. “These are as good as any I’ve tasted in years.” They ate in companionable silence, three war captains and their Holding leader, waiting for Round Tom to announce the Peeping Tom telescope’s readiness or for enough light to use the older scopes, whichever came first.
They didn’t have long to wait. The last cherry pit had barely begun its downward plunge when Tom said quietly, “Have a look, Wing.”
He did, rising from his chair to stand behind the big, barrel shaped scope. “Here,” Tom pointed out, “you adjust the focus with this geared wheel, here. Left hand wheel controls elevation, right hand wheel traverses.”
“Got it–damn, Tom, you figured out how to make it gather light! You’re a freaking genius!” He took a deep breath, calming himself. “It’s–not quite a starlight scope, but close. Damn close. And you even upped the magnification, all at the same time. How in the name of the Rim Gods did you manage that?”
“It’s like you said, Wing. I’m a freaking genius.”
“Right you are–hmm…uh-oh. Captain Pretts!”
“Yo.” The Captain of Wing Holding’s Second Battalion, the Screaming Shargins, stepped over to attend his boss. “You rang?”
“Yeah. I’d let you see what I’m seeing, but sorry, can’t let go of this Peeping Tom just yet. You know how we estimated 20,000 enemy fighters last evening, based on the early dust as they traveled and then the number of fires when they camped for the night?”
It was not a question. “I remember.”
“Well…we were right to worry about this being a feint. They’re putting out their breakfast fires right now, but guess what? Most of those fires are just that. Fires. Fakes to fool the likes of us. And the dust? I think I see what that was all about. Every horse, including every remount, looks like it’s being outfitted with a drag to pull behind. One animal will kick up enough dust for ten that way, or close enough. Okay…I’m going to give you a turn at this, Zane. Take mental notes, then pass it on to Hogue and Otheen. Ten minutes each, max. When you’re all done, we’ll hold War Council.”
Zane Pretts simply nodded, taking his place at the eyepiece as Wing added, “One more thing. This Peeping Tom is so good, we can identify the Blakto banners by band. I saw some familiar enemy colors out there, but not the blue eagle of the River Eyes tribe. Keep a sharp eye out for that, if it’s there at all.”
Pretts didn’t respond to that, but he’d heard. They all had, and they all knew what it meant. The River Eyes were the most numerous of all the Blakto Nation groups and also the fiercest in battle. Where Isis Two Feathers led her woman-dominated forces, there would be the real brunt of the attack. If she was not marching on Death Pass Gap, then….
By the time the three captains were done making their observations, breakfast proper was served. Still out on the observation post, of course; sergeants were rotating at the scope now, knowing to call out immediately if they saw anything that looked more disturbing than usual, and none of the senior commanders could afford to be out of the loop at this point.
Besides, it was a tradition, eating hot oatmeal on cool mornings with war about to get into full swing. Oatmeal released testosterone, and the Powers knew they were going to need all of that they could get in the days to come.
They talked as they ate. It didn’t take long; these men were all veterans, knowing what to look for, force details that would have remained misunderstood until too late had it not been for Peeping Tom.
No one had seen the blue eagle banner. For that matter, none had seen a single warrior dressed for war as the River Eyes people dressed. They were all sure of this; it was hard to mistake a soldier with boobs and a ponytail.
“Captains,” Wing said finally, “drop by the Comm Center on your way down, make sure the mirror messages are sent, and then join your commands. Death Holder is going to be facing maybe 4,000 of the enemy, just enough to keep him occupied but not enough to require our assistance. Two Feathers is out there somewhere, hugging the ravines, slipping the main attack force as close to Fear Pass Gap as possible before being spotted. I have to believe she’s traveling at night, lying low by day. Our fight will be entirely at Fear this year.” He winced inwardly at the unintended rhyme, but if any of his officers noticed, they gave no sign. As one, they rose from the breakfast table, threw rough salutes in Wing’s general direction, and headed out.
As for Wing Holder himself, he was careful not to let his doubts show. If Isis set this diversion up to make us think it’s a diversion, she could be sneaking up on Death Pass Gap just as easily as the other. That possibility was worth a shudder or two. It didn’t seem likely, not really, but a healthy dose of paranoia had kept him alive this long….
“Tom? You’re still here?”
“Where else would I be?” The round man grinned. He’d gone through three bowls of oatmeal at the enlisted men’s table, presumably boosting both his roundness and his testosterone. With three wives and eleven children to date, he apparently possessed plenty of the latter, but….
“Your Peeping Tom may have literally saved us all, you know.”
“Yeah. I know. But,” he grinned, waddling over to join Wing at his table, “I’m just glad it’s you and all the other war men who handle the sharp end of the spear. I’m pretty sure I’d suck at that.”
Wing chuckled in agreement. He remembered the roly poly little boy who made his teachers look stupid but who couldn’t parry a thrust with a padded quarterstaff to save his life. He’d been required to try; no Rimlander child got out of that. “To each his own, Tom–”
“Sir!” The sergeant managing the Peeping Tom interrupted without taking his eye from the scope. “You might want to see this.”
“What have you got, Sergeant?”
“The far northwest quadrant. I think…the main force might be coming through the badlands.”
“The badlands?” That had never been tried before. “To put it mildly, that’s rough country. But if they managed it, they could exit within an easy, what? Three hour march from Fear?”
“I’d say about that, sir.”
“They’d be on us before we knew it.”
“Like a buzzard on a carcass, sir.”
“Okay, whaddya got?”
“I’ve got the scope set. You just need to focus–”
“Right.” Wing turned the wheel just a smidgen. His ancient vision had learned to reset itself; his eyes were actually a bit better than the twenty-something sergeant’s. “I don’t see–oh! Hah!” The power of the Peeping Tom, now able to use the light of a blazing morning sun, picked it out in crisp detail. Tiny at this distance yet clearly identifiable, the blue eagle banner of the River Eyes Blakto seemed to skim along the ground as if possessed of a life of its own. Still dozens of miles out, Isis had no reason to suspect the pennant held aloft on its ten foot pole could be seen all the way from Wing Peak. Thanks to the sandstone, riven nature of the badlands, its hardened gullies would not give away the passage of even a large army. There were sharp stones to bruise the hooves of horses, plenty of heat during daylight hours to take a toll on cavalry and infantry alike, rattlesnakes now and then, but no dust.
Most likely, the Blakto didn’t even realize the banner was poking up above the edge of their current sneaky passageway.
“Sergeant,” he said slowly, stating the obvious, “I’d guess they’re not traveling by night after all. The badlands are just too deadly after dark. Horse or man, they could all stumble into an earth crack before they knew it. So, figuring daylight hours at a steady march, infantry speed ’cause they know they’ve got to rely on foot troops once they hit the tree line, they should hit our outer defenses in another…what? Day and a half?”
“About that, sir. Give or take an hour or two.”
“That means–take over, Sergeant. I gotta go.” Wing hit the stairs at a dead run, flying down the stone steps three at a time. Many a man would have taken a fatal fall doing that, but he couldn’t afford to miss, and he didn’t.
He was panting like a woolly mammoth in the desert, though, by the time he burst into the Comm Center three hundred feet below the observation post. Two of the war captains were still there, dictating their mirror messages to their troops, but Captain Hogue was already gone. “Urgent update!” He gasped, sucking air. “The blue eagle is coming through the badlands. ETA tomorrow evening at latest. Every warrior we’ve got will have to move out at double time. Get the cavalry ESF, the Early Strike Force, moving out right now.”
“Done!” Zane Pretts snapped in reply. “Otheen, I’ll send your message in your name; you hustle on down, catch up to Hogue, fill him in. I’ll be right behind you.”
“On it!” Jeth Otheen bolted from the room, the sound of his boots echoing as he thundered on down–two steps at a time, not three. Captain Otheen was a top athlete and experienced soldier, but he wasn’t insane.
Wing took a few minutes to steady his breathing and let the lactic acid settle back down, then began the climb back up to the observation post. I’m getting too old for this sh*t. Really need to do something about this climbing up and down every time a message needs to be communicated. I really wanted to shoot Bell when he invented the freaking telephone, but maybe he was onto something after all. He probably remembered enough to point a couple of his tech people in the right direction if he really wanted to do that…but no. Not yet. Like either a mind or a government out of control, technology went wild once started, multiplied exponentially until it became not the solution but the problem. He had to keep Wing Holding a touch ahead if he could, encouraging genius types like Round Tom–but not encouraging them too much too fast. His people were envied enough as it was.
The rest of the morning was uneventful, at least if watching war aim for your doorstep can ever be called that. With the war captains and their guard squads gone–no key leader traveled without at least a dozen armed men around him these days–Wing Peak was practically empty. Ten defenders could hold the great pile of granite against ten thousand; there was no need to waste numbers to garrison the rock. With less pressure on his kitchen, John Cook himself brought hot lunch to the observation post, a hearty elk stew with early potatoes and carrots.
“Anything new since the River Eyes banner was spotted?” The Holding’s favorite camp cook asked the question with easy familiarity. He and Wing had fought side by side–and when necessary, back to back–during the last Blakto assault two decades earlier. Fought and, if truth be known, nearly died saving each other’s lives. Wing had come within a sharp steel whisker of dying young at 99,980 years of age; he’d never have survived that last battle without John, would never have become the 100,000 year old man.
Happy 100,000th Anniversary to me, he thought wryly. John Cook had not been a 39 year old senior mess sergeant then; he’d been known as John Standard, color bearer for the Screaming Shargins. Facing a charge by screaming River Eyes warrior women, he’d blocked an axe strike with the flag pole. The pole had been chopped in half, just like that, but the blade had not reached the 19 year old Standard. Letting the colors drop–it was that or die in place–he’d gone to work with the severed end of the pole as his weapon. Six feet of hardwood, just the right length for use as a quarterstaff, and no mountain boy grew up without learning to use a staff.
After it was over, the surgeons had to amputate a few inches below his left knee. He didn’t even remember getting sliced, but the gash along the side of his calf had clearly been made by a couthnoy, the short sword certain Blakto used as an off-hand weapon…and which they smeared with a foul concoction that infected and spread with horrifying speed.
John Cook wore a steel rocker in place of a left foot these days. Some said he’d learned to balance on his right foot and kick that steel as high as a man’s head.
“Nothing much,” Wing shrugged, digging into the stew. Man, Cook could cook. “The Blakto diversion will be too close to see within another hour or two.”
“In behind the Rolling Hills?”
Wing swallowed, reminding himself to pause between bites. “Yup. They’re still pulling those drags, raising extra dust. May the buggers all get silicosis and die young of emphysema.”
“Uh…lung crip, as it’s called these days.”
“Ah. That reminds me, Wing. You got time to shoot the breeze a bit? My cooking duties are pretty much done for the day; the apprentices can handle the rest of it.”
“Sure. As you know, there’s not much we can do right now but keep an eye on the scope in case some ugly surprise pops up.” He glanced over at the sergeant manning the Peeping Tom. The other two noncoms were peering through older glasses, but mostly only to have something to do, waiting their turns at Round Tom’s masterpiece. “Got something on your mind?”
“Nothing Earth shattering. Just got to wondering the other day…okay to get personal?”
Wing gave him a level stare. “You and I are blood brothers, John, baptized in combat. Say what’s on your mind.”
Cook nodded. “Right. Well, I guess it’s just curiosity–but it’s occurred to me that I wouldn’t want to live as long as you have for all the pretty girls in Brighart. Then again, there’s no guarantee any of us are going to live through this summer, what with the Blakto throwing more warriors at us than they’ve ever done before, and I might not get the chance to ask again. So…what’s been the hardest thing for you, living long like you have?”
“Hunh.” Holder stared at his empty bowl. He didn’t remember emptying it. Must have inhaled that stew. “Weirdly enough, nobody’s ever asked me that before. Let me think….”
“Is it, you know…seeing everybody die, decade in, decade out? ‘Cause it would seem like….”
“No, John. Strangely enough, it’s not that. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s not. Maybe because I believe in reincarnation and karma and such. The first few hundred deaths, or maybe the first few thousand, yeah, those took some getting used to. But there are a few things that mitigate the impact. For one, I get to see Soul coming back in a new body, time after time, and sooner or later getting it right. That helps, knowing death is an illusion. The memories do fade over time, too; hardly any event–even seeing a friend or a loved one die hard–hurts very much for more than a thousand years or so. I remember that for a while, the first few centuries after I’d realized I’d taken on the long mission, it seemed like the worst thing might be having to remember every horrible mistake I’d ever made, you know? But those memories dull a bit, too. Eventually. As long as I don’t focus on them…ah.
“Yeah. I just realized, very few Souls would want to carry all that mental and emotional baggage for century after century. You can really see that withdrawal in folks with Zimer’s Disease, right?”
“Hm. Loss of memory and all that?”
“And having to carry those memories you don’t like, that’s the worst part?”
“Well…no. Not for me. Not now, anyway. But I suspect it would be for a lot of people. Which is why you don’t see every Tom, Dick, and Harry signing up for the long mission.”
“Hm. You know, you really haven’t answered my ques–”
“Wing! Sir! Got something here!” Sergeant Roberson’s voice fairly crackled with excitement, his eye glued to the Peeping Tom. “Take a look!” He relinquished his position at the scope.
Wing Holder looked–and for a while, forgot to breathe. Roberson had spotted something, all right. The blue eagle banner had turned up again, still well out in the badlands, but heading up an impressive column of warriors.
“I believe that’s what my brother and I named the King’s Passage,” Roberson said as Wing fiddled with the focus adjustment. “My brothers and I used to sneak off for a week at a time. Not in haying or calving season; we weren’t that stupid. But we’d stick the old man with feeding the saddle horses during the fall, once the hay was in, and head out to explore the wild lands. Thought it was pretty adventuresome back then, too young to know adventure is just another word for trouble. Anyway, there’s an area in the badlands that is really tough to get through unless you take the King’s Passage, which is kind of a low ridge formation, maybe 500 yards long. Puts you almost level with the surrounding prairie. Which is why we can watch the entire invading force travel through there, maybe get a head count.”
“Good,” the leader muttered, studying the distant column. Four abreast, cavalry then infantry, moving steadily forward. “They must just be hoping and praying we’re not looking right there right now; they have to know any Wing Peak spyglass could make them out at this range. Plus–” He broke of suddenly, sucking air. “Creech!” He breathed the word.
“Creech? What’s that?” John Cook had pulled up a chair a few feet from the Peeping Tom. “Sounds a right curse the way you said it.”
“Creech 101,” Wing replied absentmindedly, his eye glued to the glass. “Supposedly extinct several millennia back. Alien critters, used as saddle mounts and war bugs by alien invaders.”
“That…doesn’t sound good.”
“It’s not. They’re big, mean, nasty, and hard to kill. Built a lot like giant praying mantids, right down to the powerful grasping forearms–thick as your leg, Cook–and their green color, though some of the females shade off toward blue a bit. Average height at the head, not counting antennae, eight to ten feet. Exoskeleton that’ll stop any arrow ever shot from a hand-drawn bow. Double hearts. They can jump three times their length, 30 feet or so. If those forearms get hold of you, you’re dead; I’ve seen a creech grab a grown cow, pick it up and bite off its head, just like that.”
Silence fell on the observation post, punctuated only by the distant challenge of a red tailed hawk and the scratch of Wing’s pencil across paper as he made notes about the enemy formation without taking his eye from the telescope.
“Sergeant Roberson,” he spoke after a bit, still glued to the Peeping Tom.
“Get your tail down to the exit port. Tell Jans to saddle the horses–mine included–and stand by for departure. Double check everything; he should have time enough. I’m not going to leave here until the last of that column transits King’s Passage, need the best head count we can get, but when I do come clumping down those stairs, we’ll be moving out right smart-like.”
“Yes sir. On it.” The young flame haired noncom hit the steps at a steady jog.
Time passed. An hour, then two. The sun was halfway to the horizon when Wing finally turned over the enemy troop count to a sergeant whose name he could not remember, then stretched, knuckling his back. John Cook was still there, which was a good thing; saved the trouble of sending for him.
“John, you’re off mess hall duty.”
“I need you to take over the defense of Wing Peak, just in case. Your lieutenant’s commission is hereby reactivated.”
“Okay…but we’ve never needed more than a sergeant in charge of this pile of rock. Why–?”
His back squared away for the moment, the leader began rubbing his eyes, trying to get them back to the everyday world. “The creech, John. No human rock climber could make it up this killer granite, not on the outside, but a creech can. We need a cool head calling the shots in case they break through our outer defenses, somebody who’s seen the elephant and won’t panic just because a giant bug with a Blakto warrior on its back is crawling up to say howdy. Isis knows the importance of this observation post; if she can take the Peak, she blinds us completely.”
John Cook nodded. “Okay. Got that. So, worst case scenario, say they’re coming at us. We’ve triggered the corridor blocks, nobody’s coming up that way, but a bunch of bugs are on their way up the outside. What’s the best way to kill ’em?”
“Looking down at them, it shouldn’t be too difficult. They’ve got big eyes; put an arrow through an eye and you’ll incapacitate the creech. Don’t wait till they get too close, though; they can move surprisingly fast, even straight up with riders on their backs. If they do get close enough to go hand to hand with you, have the men sorted into squads of four, with brush hooks on the ends of pike poles. One man attacks each leg, the third tries for the neck. They’re pretty protective about their eyes, up close; the neck is usually a better target. And most importantly, the fourth man on the squad keeps the rider busy…but does not kill the rider until the creech is out of action. These bugs form some kind of telepathic bond with their riders. If that bond is severed by death, the creech goes nuts–and trust me, you want the beast dead or disabled before that happens.”
Somebody gulped. Cook thought maybe it was him.
Wing wasted no more time. He had to plunge down a mile’s worth of stone stairs, two at a time, hopefully without getting shin splints. His bodyguard squad would be ready; they should be able to make it to Fear Pass Gap before sunset, avoiding night travel through the forest. Not that he’d be sleeping much once he got there. For most of the dark hours, he’d be instructing the captains and their core cadre by firelight on the ins and outs of bug battle.
He’d have to make sure he got some sleep, though. The Blakto would be within striking range by tomorrow evening, most likely making their first big push at the following day’s first light. Isis wouldn’t risk her creech initially; she had 20,000 human troops to throw at the Rimlanders’ defenses but fewer than 100 bug riders. She’d likely shove unimportant infantry out there first, perhaps with a few thousand throwaway cavalry on third rate horses taking the lead. What we used to call cannon fodder, he thought.
But after that, once their defenses had been tested so that she knew what she was facing, she’d release the bugs. Even a handful of them could make the difference; he’d seen it happen. A long time ago, but he’d seen it. He’d have to get into the fight himself, too. No other Rimlander had ever fought these things before; they’d need someone to show them how it was done, at least once.
The Blakto wouldn’t be holding back, either. They never did. Some Rimlanders wondered about that, wondered why the entire Blakto nation seemed to consider the effort to topple the Cautan Confederacy almost like a holy war.
Not holy, he thought. Personal. Your great great grandmother was one helluva woman, Isis, but Belea Two Feathers surely proved the old adage about a woman scorned. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be telling our people this all started when I turned her down a hundred years ago.