He thought it was the third morning, but he couldn’t be sure. The old man and the boy had hiked him into the ground, dragged him over more ridges than he could count. His body was toast, his mind not far behind. There was nothing left but the need to keep his feet moving, stumbling as often as not. Xorn had known exhaustion on the slave chain–they all had–but nothing like this.
The former Navri City Militia Captain walked smack into him in the dark. It was like running into a deep rooted tree stump; the man didn’t move an inch. “Two hours till decent light,” came the whisper. “We’ll wait here till then.”
Xorn shucked his gear and slumped to the ground as swiftly as the others, but he was confused. He took a moment or two to catch his breath–that last ridge had been a doozy, loose rock scree at the bottom and next thing to a sheer cliff from there on up–then whispered back, “I thought you said the night was our friend. Why are we stopping if there are still two hours till daylight?”
In the dark, Narting placed an unseen hand on his shoulder as if to caution him to silence, but Ernal replied. “We’re in a relatively safe little bowl here, but just over the next little rise is the Yeager farm. They’re good people, the Yeagers, but you don’t go barging in on them before it’s light enough they can see who you are. Trust me, Xorn, we all need a touch of sleep and the time lost here is well worth it. Get some rest.”
He didn’t need to be told twice. Should offer to stand watch, he thought, but he was dreaming the instant his head came to rest on the paper filled saddlebag he used as a pillow.
A forgotten dream or two later, Ernal tapped Xorn’s boot with the tip of his sword. Birds had begun their twittering among the trees, but most importantly, a cock crowed somewhere ahead. The new day was on its way.
The old man was already moving out, clearing the rim of the grassy bowl and dropping down a long, gentle grade to a most remarkable scene. A great farm, this one, its headquarters built on the far side of a long meadow. The huge three story house must have been made of logs originally, but the logs had not been chinked. Instead, the entire structure was coated with some sort of plaster or stucco that gave it the monolithic appearance of a sizeable square castle, complete with observation towers at all four corners. The roof was not flat like a typical castle, of course. In order to deal with the heavy winter snows common to the mountains, it was steeply pitched, covered with dark slate shakes that would laugh at fire arrows.
It would take a sizeable ballista to poke a hole in this beast.
As they drew closer, he could see the front door was clearly made of simple wooden planks but fortified with thick horizontal steel straps. Windows were tall and plentiful but narrow. Glorified arrow slits, really, the first story’s row of them beginning far enough from the ground that an archer firing from inside the castle would have much of his body protected by the thick walls.
There were outbuildings, too, stables and barns and shelter for everything from chickens to pigs to cattle and horses, should the need arise.
But most of all, there was readiness. A young man forking hay into a manger for a corral full of horses casually set his pitchfork as the escaped slave trio approached, replacing it with a longbow that looked like it could, in the right hands, fire as many as thirty arrows in a single minute if assisted by a hander, or twenty if one had to pull each arrow in turn from the hip-slung quiver. Suddenly and acutely aware, Xorn sensed rather than saw at least two sentries perched in tall Ponderosa pine trees and at least two more watching from behind arrow slits.
They’re ready for war, he thought suddenly. They’ve had word already; they couldn’t be this paranoid 24/7, 365…could they?
It was his first introduction to the true Rimlanders, the agricultural people tilling fields and raising livestock in the far flung mountain fastness that encircled the entire bowl. Yes, he would learn, they could be this paranoid.
“Ernal!” A huge man, an axe handle wide across the shoulders as they say, and tall–a six footer would find himself staring at the man’s chin if he looked straight ahead–stepped out through the main building’s doorway, one hand shading his eyes against the morning sun. A redhead, he had been, though now streaked with gray. “Is that you?”
“It’s me, Hirim Yeager!” The old man grinned, stepping forward into a bear hug that should have crushed his ribs right through his lungs. “Agh! Yeag, you’re slipping. Time was you could’ve made me grunt a little with that hug of yours.”
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Slipping, am I, uncle? You’ve just toughened up a little, got yourself back in shape I see. Branded, too,” he shook his head, “according to that mark on your forehead. But I see you did what you set out to do, brought back my grandson safe and sound. That’s what counts, ennit?”
“Indeed,” Ernal nodded. “That is what counts.”
Xorn slipped a sidelong glance at young Narting. Grandson? The boy looked a little sheepish, as if to say, Hey, meant to get around to telling you about that.
So young asthmatic-only-in-the-low-country Narting was a Rimlander, too. No wonder the little bugger had been able to hike his heels off. It shouldn’t have made the city man feel all that much better, but somehow it did. It had been bugging him no end, thinking some brat from the slums had proven himself the tougher man in the mountains….
With this musing and others, plus introductions to more than two dozen members of the Yeager clan whose names he’d most certainly never remember–except for the holder of this land, Hirim Yeager himself, and his trim brown haired wife, Tarina, of course–Xorn found himself seated at a great split-log trestle table, loading his plate and passing all sorts of hearty victuals around. Eggs fried over easy, which he hated but would eat without blinking. Rashers of bacon, a product of the hog hanging tree and blood tub he’d noted some fifty yards from the fortress–it was a home, true enough, but he couldn’t think of as anything but a fortress. Flapjacks by the stack with choices of honey or three different fruit syrups for toppings, including choke cherry syrup, which he’d heard bout but never tasted. Fresh milk from their own cows, cooled he knew not how, thick cream floating on top.
They’d made it this far on the meat in their packs, but the stuff had gotten pretty hard to stomach toward the end. Everybody at the table stuffed it in like there was no tomorrow–which, for the man, woman, or child working the land, was little short of the truth.
Nobody got sick from eating so heavily, though Xorn came close.
Three of the women, two of them mere girls, busied themselves at clearing the table once the last hand carved chair was pushed back, the last belt loosened. The courier couldn’t wait any longer, protocol or no protocol. If he didn’t come out with it now, he’d fall asleep where he sat or maybe just plain explode from the oversized meal. Neither alternative would get him closer to completing his mission.
“Mr. Yeager,” he began, and all conversation cut off, nearly thirty pairs of eyes riveting on his.
“No mister here,” Hirim retorted, his eyes cold as a January dawn. “Call me Hirim or don’t call me at all.”
Xorn gulped, feeling a fool but unable to help himself. “Uh…Hirim. You, uh, maybe wonder what a city slicker like me is doing, running with your kinfolk, am I right?”
The giant shrugged, reaching to a sideboard to collect a Meerschaum pipe, which he began loading from a canister. Not tobacco; tobacco was far too rare and expensive for mountain men to waste their income on it. Kinnikinnick, maybe. Something local to these high valleys, anyway. “Anybody running with cousin Ernal, that’s Ernal’s business. Unless he or you choose to make it mine.”
“Uh…okay. Well…I’ve been told you’re the man to talk to, that we’ll need your help if I’m to complete my mission. Which is…have you heard of Risa Macklin?”
“I reckon.” Hirim finished tamping his pipe and lit it with a candle, several of them still burning on the great table. It took a bit more than sunrise to light up the fortress’s interior, what with all those windows being so narrow. “Navri City Councilwoman? That Risa Macklin?”
“That’s the one. Well…it all started when she saved my life by buying me as a slave…” He kept it as brief as he could, skimming through his condemnation by Chair Carson and his toadies for failing to whip the Holders into line with nothing but City Militia, his death sentence commuted by Risa’s maneuver, and her instruction to him. He was to carry the word to Wing Holding, warning of the impending attack on Granite Peak Stronghold by the NCA, the newly formed and trained Navri City Army–which was responsible only to Chair Carson himself. The details of his long weeks in slavery and his assigned name change to Xorn, the name of a slave beast and no more, were kept to himself.
“In the convoy that was, as it turned out, designed to smuggle drugs into Wing Holding while openly delivering a load of gourmet meats, there were copies of sheets showing interest by Wing himself in certain types of slaves. Curiously, the descriptions of the slaves desired fit both young Narting and me.” He reached down, picked up the saddlebags that sat beside his chair, fished out the purchase orders, and handed them around the table to Yeager.
Hirim looked the papers over carefully before commenting. “Wing never authorized those purchase orders.”
“Oh…uh…how do you know?”
“Simple. On a personal level, he doesn’t believe in slavery. Sure as hell wouldn’t buy one, let alone two. Just not his style.”
“I see.” Those still seated around the table–less than a dozen now, as the rest had excused themselves in order to take up their day’s work–nodded in agreement, studying the former Militia Commander and former slave as they did so. What they saw was a man in his forties, tall enough if not nearly as tall as Hirim Yeager, muscles well knit, in filthy buckskins but with a face that bordered on craggy, nose a bit too prominent for the average taste, deep-set dark eyes, and a worried look on his face. “That would mean Risa, or somebody in the chain, forged those purchase orders specifically to get me to Wing, maybe?”
“Maybe.” Hirim shrugged. “All I know for sure is they’re phony. Could be a code in there, something that says to people at Wing Holding that they should kill the slaver who brought you in, or whatever.”
“But…” Xorn looked confused. “Doesn’t he have a slave? A woman, as I recall? Somebody told me she was driving one of his wagons in Navri City….”
“Yep. Faye. She’s his slave, all right. But there’s more to that story than meets the eye, my friend. And trust me, it’s way beyond my pay grade. When you get to the stronghold, here’s the deal. The word we have is, Wing has definitely put out the call. Every able bodied fighter not needed at home has been called to active duty at Fear Pass Gap. That means, when you get to talk to somebody at Granite Peak, you watch your step. Watch it around the Steward, and watch it around Wing’s supposed slave girl, Faye. I ain’t sure myself who has the most clout between those two. Reckon nobody does, except them and old Wing himself. But I know Wing personally, and I’m pretty sure he’d cut your head clean off if you so much as accidentally insulted either on of ’em.”
“Okay. Uh…not to sound impatient or anything, but shouldn’t we kind of, you know, be on our way?”
“Not just yet.” The big man, having finished his pipe, knocked out the dottle and then rose from the table, a signal for the rest of them to get up as well. “Ernal and Narting will be staying with us; we’ve missed ’em long enough, and we’ve got things for them to do here as well. You need some sleep; Tarina will show you where. In the meantime, I’ve got a few signals to send, some smoke, some mirror. Not to give anything away,” he added hastily, “but to clue in a few people along your necessary route that you’re to be let through their territories, not killed on sight.”
Xorn smiled wryly out of one side of his mouth. “That sounds like a plan.”
“It is. You’ll be leaving here with a three man escort on good horses, following trails no outsider knows. You can also have your pick of weapons from our armory. Hopefully you won’t have to fight on the way in to the stronghold, but it never hurts to be prepared.”
“Amen to that.” Fresh weapons of his choice, eh? That alone sounded almost better than the breakfast he’d just had. But a bit more sleep? Yeah. He could do with that, too.
It was nearing deepnight when Granite Peak Stronghold’s outer sentries first challenged them. “State your ID and business,” came the brusque command.
“Yeager farm escort, bringing in a courier to Stronghold Admin,” Wonen replied. Wonen Yeager was a burly man in his prime, dark haired but, if Xorn had gotten it right, one of redheaded Hirim’s many sons. Not by Tarina; the elder Yeager had, it seemed, more than one wife.
“Pass to Second Circle,” the sentry said, and on they went.
Three challenges later, they were admitted to the keep itself, ushered into a roundish room cut into the great rock cliff face. Somewhere about seven or eight floors up, Xorn thought, though he’d lost count. It was awfully easy to get mixed up in this huge granite warren, especially in the middle of the night, and especially for a man who’d never seen the place before. How does Carson think his NCA can take Granite Peak? He mused on that; a dozen men should be able to hold off the entire army.
Okay, maybe not a dozen, but….
Xorn started, staring in amazement. This was Faye, all right, a girl in her mid-twenties who looked–Hell, I’d kill to take her slave myself, if I thought I could! She was sided by a young boy, either in his teens or big for his age. Both the young woman and the boy had eyes that put him instantly on his guard, though; there was nothing youthful in either pair of orbs. These were old Souls, both of them.
And then came Steward, thin and stoop shouldered. Interesting. In Wing Holder’s absence, these three were the essence of Stronghold Admin? Easy to underestimate any one of them, he realized, and death to the fool who does.
“Greetings, Ma’am.” He got it out smoothly, a split second before Wonen Yeager could respond. His escort shot him a look for that, an irritation at having been bested in competition.
None of the three locals, Xorn realized, were at all discomfited by having to roll out during the middle of the night for an intelligence conference. At least, if they were, you couldn’t tell. Faye gestured them all to seats around an octagonal stone table. They settled in, no one seeming concerned at all about the weaponry worn by their visitors. Xorn had chosen a sword and scabbard that suited him, a light but tough three foot blade with a crossguard hilt slung at his left hip. A double edged dagger rode in a sheath at his right hip while a pair of throwing knives had their hilts peeping up over his shoulders.
Additionally, each new boot held another throwing blade, though those were tucked under his fringed buckskin leggings and didn’t show. And that was just him; all three members of the Yeager contingent were decked out in pretty warlike fashion themselves, Wonen packing a forest shortbow–excellent for close work such as an assassination in a room like this one–and the other two both carrying spears. Arrayed against all this, Faye and the boy and Steward showed only belt knives.
So while do I feel we’re outgunned here? Xorn wondered…until he realized a couple of things about the room in which they were meeting. The locals, if threatened, could instantly drop under the table edges on their side, protected by the stone “wall” structure that held up the table top. That would only gain them a second or two of life if attacked, but a second or two would likely be enough.
There were little murder hole slits in the walls, behind which archers and crossbowmen might well be watching even now. Plus, the entryway at the back of the room was not a simple doorway; there was a fluted granite wall walkway from around which Faye and the others had come–and behind which swordsmen and spearmen might be poised in waiting.
It seemed a relief, knowing the garrison left behind when Wing went off to war was not entirely gullible.
“You’re the courier?” Faye looked at Xorn directly, but it wasn’t a question. She knew the Yeagers; the stranger had to be the courier. “Do I know you?”
How to answer? Honesty. Anything else could get him killed. Worse, it could erode his credibility; the message was everything. “You might have seen me,” he admitted simply. “I was in uniform then, giving the order that got a fair number of the Navri City Militia killed, last time the Brothers came to trade.”
“Ah…” She leaned forward in her chair, steepling her fingers under her perfect chin, studying him. “Captain Wallis Norkin, I presume?”
“Once upon a time. Then a condemned criminal. Then a slave–now an escaped slave. Councilwoman Risa Macklin sends a message.”
She nodded as if she’d expected nothing else. “Let’s have it, then.”
He laid it out, precisely and carefully, making sure to point out the obvious. If even the less used trails were being blocked by NCA squads, Carson’s main army had to be on the march–and probably moving fast.
If he’d expected Faye to show dismay–there’s a rhyme, right there–he’d have been disappointed. When he finished, she looked thoughtful for a long time, several minutes at least, no one else daring to break the silence. The boy at her side looked alert, maybe a bit wary, trusting no one but the woman he perhaps idolized–his body language suggested that much–but the sleepy looking Steward didn’t appear to have a thought in his head.
Xorn would have bet otherwise on that last one.
When she did speak, it was to Steward. “Any ideas, Stew?”
“A couple, Ma’am.”
“First, I’d say Captain Norkin’s intel is golden. None of our expected traders have checked back in with us in the past week; they’re most likely being ambushed on the trails by this NCA. Secondly, this would fit what we know of Chair Carson’s ambitious nature. Thirdly, if an army of that size, five to seven thousand, were to attack the Holding with Wing absent, its chances of success would be dismally good. We could give them Hell in the cave complex itself, but in the end, there simply aren’t enough of us here to put up much resistance.”
“I get all that,” Faye replied a touch impatiently. “What I’m asking is, do you have an idea of how to derail this NCA? If it’s not already too late.”
“Well,” the thin man grinned, “I might maybe have just one.”
Early light was just sufficient to see by when Lord General Maroeubatis–“Old Batty” behind his back–called a halt. He’d been sent out by Chair Carson himself to take personal command of the Navri City Army in time for the investiture of Granite Peak Stronghold. He was looking forward to it, too. These redneck Rimlanders have had their own way for way too long. It’s time they learned their lesson. To that end, eager to become known as the first Lord General and the first to take Granite Peak, ever, he’d pushed the troops hard all through the night. Once the night was behind them far enough that he could see, he’d moved up to lead them, a column of fours stretching for miles down the canyon behind him.
It was important to lead from the front, he knew, but not when it was too dark. There was such a thing as blind stupidity. But he could see now, and–what was that?
That was what had caused him to raise his gloved hand, signaling a halt. Past the curve behind him, of course, the soldiers had no idea why they were stopping. They just stopped because they were commanded to stop, and for them that was a good thing. The grade was not steep in this part of the canyon, but it was steady, grinding. It wore a man down.
The apparition stumbling down the trail toward the leaders was skeleton-scary. In truth, it looked more like a skeleton than like a normal, healthy human. Clad in rags, including boots so worn that the soles were separating from the uppers, the figure’s hideous toes jutting forward at crazy angles, more in contact with the stones of the road than with any sort of leather. There were scabs and scars and deep-scarlet, pulsing wounds. Sores, too, old ones that oozed green pus. Snaggle teeth and right few of them, no hat and very little hair. The man–Old Batty was almost certain it was a man, or had been one at one time–pumped his elbows furiously as he walked, trying to use a crooked stick some five feet in length to balance himself, yet nearly falling with every step for all of that.
The Lord General looked on, bemused.
His lead scout leaned sideways in his saddle, pitching his voice for his commander’s ears alone. “We don’t want that one any closer, Lord General.”
Maroeubatis snapped out of his shock, turned, and nodded to his Speaker. The Colonel sucked in a great breath and bellowed through his ever present megaphone. “That’s far enough!”
The apparition heard him, sort of, but came to a halt only slowly, as if what remained of his emaciated body was falling downhill rather than walking and he had little to say in the control of it.
By the time he got completely stopped, blinking and squinting at the military column in front of him, he was no more than forty yards distant. Seven crossbows were trained on his heart, if in fact he was human and had a heart. He said nothing, just stood there, blinking and squinting and staring.
“What is your illness?” The speaker bellowed. Then, when the thing showed no sign of answering, he added, “What is wrong with you?”
At that, the man–for indeed it was a man, or had been, as Lord Batty and his retinue could clearly see now–finally found his voice, albeit one that rasped and was extremely difficult to understand.
“Rim F-f-fever!” The scarecrow rasped. “R-rim Fever!”
The soldiers looked at each other, stunned. Rim Fever. There were stories of the legendary disease, stories that generally fit the symptoms they were seeing before them: Weight loss, open weeping sores, dehydration, and eventually–within two weeks at most–death by convulsion.
Rim Fever was that boogeyman mean mothers used to frighten their offspring into eating their veggies and washing their hands and other distasteful chores…but the disease had not made its way down into the Bowl proper, down into civilization, in recorded history. Extremely contagious, the legends said, but an illness that favored higher elevations and cooler weather, perhaps even the presence of deep forest to spur its propagation.
“This wretch is done for,” the Lord General spoke brusquely to his Speaker, forcibly restraining himself from turning his horse and running for the rear. “There’s nothing we can do for him. Ask him how many have it.”
“P-p-pretty much ever-ever-everbody in the Holding,” came the reply. “I was the-the-the only one there who did-didn’t h-h-have it when I left. Th-thought I could outr-r-run the thing, but c-c-c-couldn’t. W-water. C-c-could you spare a bit o’ w-water, p-please?”
There was a silence for several seconds, until the Lord General spoke, turning his horse as he did so. “Crossbow him,” he said, “and leave the corpse. Orders or no orders, I’m not taking my men into a plague house. Pass the word; we’re changing course.”
“What is it, Scout?”
“Crossbow work might be a waste of good quarrels. That feller done staggered sideways and fell behind a boulder. Mostly. You kin see his boots sticking out.”
“Oh.” It wasn’t worth a glance back; if the scout said it, it was so. “Save the quarrels, then.”
The last of the Navri City Army had barely disappeared around the down-trail bend when Steward sat up, grinning. “How’s that for acting?”
Faye, the boy Brak, Xorn, and Faye’s forty man guard platoon–all they’d dared scrape together for this little jaunt–drifted out of the woods, admiring the Steward’s Rim Fever makeup but keeping their distance just the same. The man’s work was just a little too good; it was impossible to look at him without half believing you were going to catch something awful and die hard if you so much as got downwind of him.
The legends surrounding Rim Fever were severely exaggerated, of course, but Stew had counted on the city types not knowing that…and they hadn’t.
“Let me hit the stream,” he told them, giggling inwardly as everyone backed away to give him room. “I’ll get this gunk off and climb into my regular clothes. Should be about the right timing then to follow them on out of the canyon. Let them get a bit ahead. We’ll want to make sure they hightail it all the way back to Navri City.”
It had been a close thing. Old Batty had been stopped a mere three hours away from Granite Peak Stronghold. Three hours for mountain people. Four or five, maybe, for Bowl-soft city type wannabe soldiers.
The sense of relief was palpable when Steward returned from the creek a new man. Or rather, the same man they were used to seeing, still thin and stooped but definitely human and, most of all, healthy.
And then the mountain crew drifted down-canyon, silently slipping through the trees on either side of the trail. Silently except for Xorn, who still stepped on the occasional dry twig. He was getting better, though. Besides, an army of thousands on the march made more than enough noise to cover his occasional goof. Not to mention that he was now following Faye, and a prettier behind to follow there never had been.
I’ve been too long without a woman, he decided. Or maybe she really was that attractive; in his situation, it was hard to tell.
Young Brak read his mind, though, and gave him a look a couple of times. Keep to your hands to yourself or die, that look said.
It was nearly sunset when they paused just inside the tree line, watching the NCA make steady progress downhill through the foothills. Faye motioned the rest of them to take five while she shimmied up a sizeable Douglas fir, settling in on a branch some eighty feet from the ground and getting the spyglass out of her pack. She was up there for nearly an hour, seldom moving as nearly as anyone on the ground could tell.
It was deep dusk when she rejoined them, speaking in a normal tone. “Big trouble, guys. They reached the crossroads while there was still enough light for me to see–and they did not head on toward Navri City.”
Stone silence then, until Xorn summed it up. “They hooked left, toward Fear Pass Gap. Old Batty figures if he can’t have the Stronghold, he’ll just wipe out two of the Brothers, Wing Holder and Fear Holder both. He figures to take ’em in the rear while they’re battling the Blakto.”
“Got it in one,” Faye agreed, her voice desolate. “The NCA will likely camp soon, at the wide spot a few miles up from the crossroads. They might have been willing to try our canyon on a night march, but not Fear Pass Gap. But even so, they’ll be moving at first light. And once they do, they’ll only have about nine miles left to cover. Even at regular pace, no double timing up that grade, they’ll hit our guys by midmorning, just when every Rimlander in the battle will be totally focused on the thousands upon thousands of Blakto coming at them. There’ll be no warning, just total betrayal.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” This from Wonen Yeager, his voice quiet but confident.
“Honey,” he said, presuming a familiarity with Faye few would have dared, “we Yeagers know the forest between here and Fear like nobody else, except maybe old Wing himself. Trails and shortcuts that can be traveled on horseback, if you got a Yeager leading you who knows the way–that would be me–and mountain ponies bred to the work.”
“Huh.” The desolation was gone from Faye’s voice. “Of the bunch of us, we’ve only got six horses. You three Yeagers, Xorn on the black you loaned him, my roan, and Brak’s pinto.”
“Uh-huh,” Wonen agreed. “And your point is?”
“My point is,” Faye jumped up from where she’d been squatting, suddenly energized, “let’s get going. The foot soldiers can head back up-trail in the morning; the Pony Express has ridges to cross.”
One of the chosen, no doubt a rider with saddle sores on his butt, groaned softly. Xorn thought it might have been him, but he wasn’t sure. He’d thought getting his message to Faye and Stew would have ended his obligation in the matter. He should have known better.
No good deed goes unpunished.