The Blakto assault formations were in place and holding steady, ready to advance by the time decent shooting light made the distance to the tree line clear and safe. Safe, that is, in the sense that shock cavalry and infantry troops would not stumble over rocks or perhaps sharpened stakes set in the foothills grass to trap the unwary.
There was no sign of the Rimlanders. None whatsoever; even the log trading post positioned some few dozen yards to one side of the opening to Fear Pass Gap was clearly abandoned, the great gate to the compound blocked wide open. As if assuring the invading host that no suicidal hillbillies were hidden inside the building, hoping to take a few shots at the Blakto before they were burned out, the doors to both the main structure and the stables stood open as well, as did the windows, with shutters pinned back out of the way. The place might as well have been shouting, “No point in burning me down now; I might be of use to you later!” Despite repeated admonitions from senior instructors during training, the apparently peaceful nature of the morning, including the seeming submissive surrender of the trading post before hostilities had even commenced, lulled some of the younger warriors. This was known. It happened every time; the sneaky mountain people stayed hidden up ahead, behind those tall conifers lining the rutted trail that led into the Gap. Isis sat her gray stallion, cursing under her breath; the illusion would make hundreds of not thousands of her people slow to react to the danger once the action started. Some would die for that, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, she could do about it. You could not turn a rookie into an experienced combat veteran without combat experience.
The only sounds were those of the horses, stamping restlessly here and there, and an occasional muffled cough from a soldier. She could feel the tension, the tension that was wire tight in every old hand, the tension that was simply not quite enough in far too many of the others.
She lifted her hand high above her head, the crimson riding glove plus wide blue and gold bands on her sleeve clearly visible even in low light, and gave the signal, a simple forward chop. The First Trio of buglers sounded the call, others repeating the sharp four note sequence. Advance walk. She led the vast horde as it moved out toward the mountain fighters who yet huddled unseen. A mere thousand if she was favored by the Creator and no more than 2,500 to hold the pass against her army even if her ruse at Death Pass Gap had not succeeded. Her spies reported that the two Holders, Fear and Wing combined, could muster no more than that against her twenty thousand. The redemption of the Blakto Nation, turned away half a dozen times in the past century by these redneck barbarians, was finally begun.
By the Creator, how she loved the adrenaline rush. The greatest war machine ever seen on the vast prairies, and she, Isis Two Feathers of the River Eyes Blakto, in charge of it all. I was born for this moment, she thought, blissfully unaware that a pudgy man had uttered those same words aloud on an island nation nearly 100,000 years ago, a man who held his people together with the force of his voice and that alone.
Fifty yards later, she raised her hand again, another signal. Advance trot. The horses in the lead picked up the pace, four thousand strong, one hundred horses wide. They widened the gap between themselves and the infantry that followed. The tip of the spear, they were called, though in truth they were simply the first meat for the meat grinder. If all went as planned, the riders would abandon their mounts once the fighting got fierce enough, making them mounted infantry more than true cavalry, the horses there to get them to the fighting but not to do the fighting.
Why such a wide front? Her war chiefs had asked during the weeks of pre-planning, and she had replied simply. No more than half a dozen horses could fit into the Gap side by side, in some places no more than two, but the others would take up positions inside the tree line, dismissing their mounts and taking cover, climbing as they could, holding the first part of the slopes to either side of the road, such as it was. There would be Rimlanders who needed routing, sooner rather than later.
Halting her own mount halfway to the tree line, just beyond the range of a long bowshot, she steadied Steel and let her warriors flow around her. Some tribal leaders believed in leading the charge personally. The Sand Hills Blakto, all seven bands of them, did that. They were out there, scorning the woman general who commanded them all, in their hearts naming her coward.
She did not care about that. If one of the seven survived this day, she would be impressed.
Again she signaled, the bugles calling out. Advance gallop. And it was at this point she suddenly knew something was very, very wrong. The leading rank of cavalry was well within the range of a Rimlander longbow now; there should have been a volley of feathered missiles arcing into the early morning sky, raining death down on the advancing Blakto. Ballistae should have been hurling great stones with incredible force, perhaps even exploding on contact; her spies had spoken of rumors Wing Holding scientists were working on a way to make them do that.
But…nothing. From the trees, only silence, and nothing to be seen.
A great dread moved within Isis Two Feathers, drowning her initial excitement in sudden, bone chilling terror. Born with the ability to make decisions, she raised her hand a final time, moving her fist in the chopping, U-shaped motion that commanded the bugles to call Retreat. The horns blew. Advance charge.
Stunned, the leader of the entire Blakto attack force assigned to Fear Pass Gap tried to comprehend. Understanding came, the realization that the women on the horns had not seen her Retreat signal at all but had seen what their minds expected to see, the command for the final race to the Gap into the face of expected enemy fire. If she tried signaling again, would they see accurately? No; she dared not. For a long moment, a seeming eternity that was in reality but a couple of seconds, she dithered…and then it didn’t matter. The sound of thundering hooves was overwhelmed by the screams of men and horses as the entire front rank, and then the second, third, and fourth ranks, galloped out over the edge of the earth, crashing down through the cunning camouflage into the great trench, a thirty foot fall until the first rank impaled itself upon the sharpened posts set at the bottom, only to be crushed by the ranks that followed.
Not until the fifth rank did any of the horses manage to stop in time to avoid going over the edge, and only half of them at that.
Isis Two Feathers had seen battle before. Twenty years earlier, she had fought beside her mother until that final day when the need for medical attention had saved her life and filled her with shame forever. She had seen the aftermath, walked the battleground, totted up the butcher’s bill. But she had seen nothing like this. Or rather, heard it; the sounds emanating up from what reminded her of a bloody buffalo jump, except that buffalo bellow in agony.
Screaming buffalo, then.
Yet her military mind functioned. There was that. Four hundred fifty dead or as good as, she thought. I see it now. How the enemy dug such great traps without our spies and scouts ever figuring it out, I cannot fathom, but the pattern is clear. Fear Holder–for it would have been his responsibility–had overseen a huge amount of secret excavation. It must have done entirely under the cover of darkness. It must have taken years to complete. She had not realized it at first, but there was a way through, a path no more than twenty feet wide, a path that zigged and zagged. Part of it stood starkly exposed now, living grass camouflage long gone into the trenches on either side.
Her aides weren’t even looking at her for guidance; their eyes were still glued to the horror ahead of them. She had to raise her voice to its utmost to be heard over the shrieks and moans drifting back over the horde, laments from the dead but mostly from the dying–or, she thought grimly, those who simply wished they were dead.
“Send the messenger girls out. Bring the trumpeters to me.”
“All of them?” The voice asking the question was young, but Isis didn’t bother to look to see who had spoken.
“All of them.”
Still not one shot had been fired from the trees. Stopped us cold without lifting a finger. The Rimlanders had lifted a lot of shovels and picks earlier, obviously, but not a finger today. We’ve been bloodied, but that’s why the shock troops we send out first are the expendable, the dregs, the addicts and layabouts and losers of every sort. They’re just helping us cull the herd.
She wished she could believe that.
The buglers were assembled in record time, all twenty-one of them. Only the closest three had actually seen her hand signals, of course; the others simply picked up the tune the Trio played. But she needed them all to hear this.
“First Trio,” she said to the horn blowers, her voice carrying the whipcrack of command authority, “you are now Last Trio. Second Trio, you are now First Trio. Explanation, in case you don’t understand. I signaled Retreat and the former First Trio blew Advance charge. Warriors and horses died because of it.” The screaming from the trench was lessening now, she realized thankfully. Those who’d survived the fall were moving about with their weapons, clambering over the massive pile of suffering, putting badly injured horses and riders out of their misery. There must be a lake of blood down there by now. “If anything like this happens again, there will be executions.”
That said, she ignored the stunned musicians and urged Steel forward, toward the jagged path that led between the death trenches. Bright Grackle, standard bearer for the Chieftess, spurred her stocky red gelding mercilessly, unable to quite catch up to the big gray stallion but closing to within a couple of lengths so that, seeing the two blue eyes on the banner of gold whipping in the wind, none could mistake the identity of the lone pair of riders charging the Gap. Startled shock cavalry, seeing her fly by them in the early morning light, swiftly gathered their wits and followed, two by two, fearful their leader might fall before they could reach her, before they could throw a screen of shields ahead of her and even, if possible, over her head. Surely, the arrows would come now, and the ballistae.
And come they did. The attackers, Isis herself included, saw the flight of broadheads rise above the trees, graceful death come to call. Fear Holder had possessed all the time in the world to train his archers to zero in on that single, cramped area. They did not miss, nor did the seven ballistae that snapped great boulders forward without warning, granite cannonballs as it were. All of them, arrows and boulders alike, converged on that one area; nothing on the path between trenches survived.
But there was nothing alive on the path when the missiles arrived.
Isis’s dash forward had caught the enemy flat footed. Steel’s speed and even the speed of Bright Grackle’s stockier yet powerfully muscled red gelding had carried both of them through the gauntlet in time, and the following cavalry had not yet closed the gap. Nearly two hundred arrows stuck point first in the dirt, but of that first volley, not one stuck in flesh. The huge rock missiles likewise fell uselessly for the most part, though one of them bounced and rolled strongly enough after landing to break a horse’s leg on the far side of the trenches.
Had the enemy mountain people been able to take advantage of that separation, wiping out Isis Two Feathers and her standard bearer while they were separated from the rest of the army, it would have been all over. Chief Strong Arm of the Cloud band of Sand Hills Blakto knew this, however, and led his throwaway cavalry through between volleys. Isis had been sensible enough to swing wide as soon as the trenches were behind her, finding a small fold in the land where she and Bright Grackle had laid their superbly trained horses flat. The hillbillies were not so smart after all; they had put all that effort into those huge death trenches yet failed to recognize how little it took for a warrior of the Blakto Nation to disappear from the eyes of enemy archers. Within a matter of seconds, certainly less than a minute, enough warriors had made it through on the zigzag path to provide a turtle wall of shields between their Chieftess and danger. Horses were abandoned now; the testudo could not be employed by men on horseback.
A lightning sortie from the forest might well have dislodged them still, but the Holders could not afford to risk such a thing. Isis could throw away a few lives in the pursuit of victory; the hillbillies could not. Thus, the Blakto troops continued to pour across the zigzag path, establishing, as it were, their beachhead. The mountain ballistae took a terrible toll, but the arrows were no longer effective, mostly stopped by the turtle shield wall formations, claiming only the occasional victim through accident as much as anything else.
Now, Isis Two Feathers thought grimly, it is truly begun. Her people had been bloodied, but they had not broken. Despite the early casualties, this was a good thing.
She had no more impulse to be a hero, though, and for a time left her various war chiefs to do what they did best. By the time the sun had risen above the great ridges, the Blakto had reached the trees. Couriers reported back constantly, bringing news. Five of the seven ballistae had been destroyed; the Rimlanders had not been able to wheel the heavy machines away as swiftly as the Nation had advanced, and the Blakto had no use for such things. Fighting was pretty much catch as catch can in the woods; there were few open meadows large enough for significant troop formations, and it paid to work from behind tree cover, anyway. The Rimlanders were making her people pay, on average killing six or seven for every one of their own who departed for the Great Elsewhere, but the men of the peaks were dying.
It was a slow, grinding process. The commander of all the Blakto forces at Fear Pass Gap looked to the sky and revised her calculations. They were burning daylight. The stubborn resistance by the hillbillies was taking too long. The Gap was the shortest route through the mountain Rim, just eleven miles, the thinnest crust on the entire rich loaf of bread known as the Bowl. Any normal Blakto above the age of twelve should be able to cover that distance in a couple of hours, were it uncontested, but the Rimlanders had more than their own skill at arms going for them. They had the steep slopes flanking the narrow Gap on either side, slopes from which jutted as many fierce, jagged granite crags as trees in some places. The Holders held the high ground, and they gave up every inch of it grudgingly if at all. Once they were routed, once the Blakto held the pass, her people’s greater numbers would assure the fall of the entire Bowl…but the butcher’s bill would be high.
A squadron of famed She Bear infantry jogged past her position, chanting their marching song as they ran. “A wo-man scorned! A wo-man scorned!”
It lifted her spirits, that song sounded by those fierce females. No one with the brains the Creator gave a slime slug believed the River Eyes Blakto went to war against the Rimlanders because of her ancestor’s pique at being rejected by the ancient Wing Holder back in the day, yet a She Bear would sing this song in hand to hand combat at times, too, not just on the march. Isis’s ancestor, the revered Cloud Spinner Two Feathers, had already made plans for the first major assault upon Death Pass Gap–not Fear Pass, that time–before her daughter returned from the dead as the harsh winter snows melted. She had found young Berea’s fury amusing…but saw a way to use it, making a joke that was not a joke of the whole thing. The She Bears had been founded, an elite fighting force composed of women of all ages who had to agree men were basically pigs; it was part of their enlistment oath.
On the whole, no one took that oath seriously these days. Except, perhaps, the women who swore it. About that, not even Isis Two Feathers was completely certain. About the value of the land beyond the Rim, she was certain indeed. The Bowl, could they but take it over, offered protection from the fierce storms that often ravaged the prairie. Winter winds strong enough to blow a horse off its feet were not unknown, winds that broke against the high peaks of the Rim. The Blakto prided themselves on their ability to endure, but the Bowl was rich and soft and full of temptation, a prize they could not ignore. There, too, men mined among the peaks and refined the gold, silver, and copper so prized by the far eastern cities, cities where the metals could be exchanged for things of real worth like sharp steel, versatile fabrics, and the dark bean known as coffee.
The reports continued to roll in from the front. Around midafternoon, good news; the campaign looked like it was going to be worth the price of the whistle. True, their advance was being contested, and bitterly so. Medical teams brought out wounded in unending streams, the injured women and men borne on litters if they could not walk, which most of them could not. Mercy teams slit the throats of those with no chance. Those well and fully dead were ignored; there was nothing to be done about them until the Gap was secured. Yet the Many Ponds area of Fear Pass Gap was in sight.
An aide spoke at her elbow. “Chieftess?”
“Yes?” She turned to the young man–the only male on her personal staff. “Speak, Wall.” Though still in his teens, Wall had well earned his name. Tall and broad, a wall of muscle and bone that hid a surprisingly fine mind. He wore a bandage around his left arm; apparently, he’d managed to sneak forward far enough to get in on some of the fighting.
“The Creech. Do you–”
“Not yet.” She shook her head. “Our forces need first to advance beyond the place in the Gap known as Many Ponds. There is a trail there that–” She was explaining too much. Why was she explaining herself to an aide? It dawned on her that she had not eaten anything since breakfast, nor even taken so much as a sip of water. Stupid that; she would have to rectify her error. “Tell the Creechmaster, we have to secure another quarter of a mile before we can launch the Creech. And tell him, no one knows what the Gods of War will decree, so just curb his impatience and stand by.”
“In those words, Chieftess?”
She smiled, though it did not reach her eyes. “You decide, Wall. You have a way with words. Just make sure he understands what he is to do, and what he is not to do.”
Wall nodded and was gone, catching up a stray horse that had been wandering unconcerned, grazing. It was time to send someone out to find Steel if they could; he had slipped away when no one was looking, seeking his own adventure. Isis was used to that, but she needed him now. The Blakto held the first half mile of the gap. She needed to move forward, not quite to the front lines where arrows decided the issue in the wider spots and suicide squads of Rimlanders contested the narrower spots with spear and sword, but close enough to see.
She did not trust anyone else to decide when to release the Creech. Too soon, and they would be blasted out of existence by the enemy’s small mountain ballistae; too late, and they would find themselves still on the trail to Wing Peak when full darkness fell. That trail, her spies told her, would be tough enough for the green giants and their riders to travel during daylight.
One of her aides found the stallion easily; he had towered above the others, mounting a riderless mare that had come in heat. He was a bit disgruntled when the girl snagged his reins and drew him back from his pleasure, but he’d been about ready to dismount anyway; his show of irritation was mostly just that, show.
The aide checked the saddle’s cinch before leading the tall gray back to his owner; it would not do to overlook a detail like that.
Steel walked steadily up the grade, eager to travel. She loved that about the great stallion, his eagerness to be on the move. You have a zest for life I wish I could emulate. Behind the mounted Chieftess, the survivors of the great trench traps marched, horseless infantry now but no longer the dregs of Blakto society. They had crashed downward with their fellows in the gray predawn light, bathed in the blood of screaming men and screaming horses alike–screaming buffalo, in Isis’s mind–and the experience had changed them. They had lost their arrogance along with their innocence.
When their chance came to close with the enemy–and Isis had no doubt such a chance would come soon enough–she would not envy their opposition.
That was a good thing.