My emotions were roiling as we began the all night trek through the mountains, guided by nothing more than a Rimlander named Yeager and the desperate fear that no matter what we did, we’d be too late. Couriers from the front had long since warned us of the possibility that enemy riders on giant alien war mounts called creech could be assaulting Wing Peak itself if the battle at Fear Pass Gap went badly. That alone was bad enough, these creech being, according to the reports, both ferocious and capable of scaling the observatory’s granite walls, just like their tiny look-alikes, the praying mantids, could do.
That was bad enough. Worse was the intel that the Blakto attacking force appeared to number as high as twenty thousand, several thousand of them shock cavalry troops and the rest ground pounders, well armed infantry.
Against them Wing and Fear have, what, twenty-five hundred mountain warriors? Ten to one odds, or close enough as makes no nevermind. Yes, our side had the advantage of strong defensive positions, planned fallback positions, and the high ground until or unless the Blakto penetrated to the summit. If the plains warriors managed that, it was all downhill from from there, every man for himself and the Soul Cruncher take the hindmost.
Then had come the NCA, Chair Carson’s personal Navri City Army, intent on taking Granite Peak Stronghold. They would have, too, had it not been for Steward’s brilliant ruse.
But the traitorous Bowl-heads, in falling for Stew’s tale of Rim Fever at the Stronghold, had not truly retreated. They’d only backed up, reset, and struck out for a new and even more devastating target, intending to crush our people from the rear. Facing the deadly Blakto, the Rimlanders would never see the greater danger coming, never sense a thing until the first rank of spears pierced their bodies.
It would not be a good way to die. A good day to die, perhaps; that depended on your life philosophy, on how you saw the struggle of man versus man. But it would not be a good way to die.
For that and that alone, I believed, we trekked. Not to save the Bowl from the Blakto. Between the two onrushing forces, the plains warriors pressing in and the army of traitors marching out, no sane person could think there was any chance of victory.
We rode, I was convinced, simply to give Wing and Fear and the warriors of our two Holdings the chance to know, to face the end aware, to fight back to back rather than with backs exposed.
For a time, before the saddle wore me down to nothing but misery–I was no lifelong cowboy, hardly inured to the rigors of long hard rides on horseback–I fretted over the fate of my sisters as well. They would be safe for a time at Granite Peak Stronghold, but only for a time. Sooner or later, conquerors would come to claim the place. Joos, I thought, might die first. She had a mouth on her, that one, now that she’d rejoined the world of talking humans.
Before long, though, there was nothing left but the ride itself. One Yeager–I hadn’t yet figured out their first names, but the oldest one, a big bugger in his mid-forties or I missed my guess–rode point. The short, thin one followed next, then two of Faye’s personal guard, followed by Faye, me, Xorn the escaped slave, then two more guards, and finally the youngest Yeager, acting as rear guard.
At least that slave dude had me blocking his view of Faye’s backside as we rode. Not that we could see each other’s backsides, but still. I didn’t like the way he looked at her. Didn’t trust him one iota despite the fact that it was his information that had allowed Steward to trick the Bowl buggers. He was too good looking, for one thing. Who survives slavery even of relatively short duration and still comes out looking that good? The bastard wasn’t even branded. What slave escapes that?
He was up to something. I was sure of it. And I was going to keep an eye on him.
Well. Figuratively speaking. All of us but the Yeagers would have been stone lost in a trice, had each horse’s nose not been pretty much jammed into the tail of the horse ahead of it. So yeah, it’s not like I could literally see this alleged Captain Wallis Norkin everybody else seemed to take at face value. But I could sense his horse right back there, and if anything felt out of place, I’d…what would I do? Stick a knife in the fellow; so simple even a twelve year old could do it? Or was I thirteen now? My born day remained a subject of some uncertainty.
Might as well say I was thirteen. Okay. Stick a knife in his eye, or his ribs, or his diaphragm, Any of that, a thirteen year old could most certainly accomplish. He’d underestimate me until too late; the grownups–except for Wing and Faye–always did.
Just you try something, asshole, I thought. Just you try.
That kept me going, more or less, until close to deepnight. At least, I thought it was about that time. Our rest break was taken under tree cover so tall and dense that only a stray star here and there could be seen peeping down through the evergreens. Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, blue spruces–or was the plural for “spruce” simply “spruce?” It might be like “moose”; you didn’t go around talking about “mooses” if there were multiple critters, did you? Faye had been teaching me these mountain conifers along with all the other critical subjects, but I was having trouble differentiating between one tall woody thing with needles and another tall woody thing with needles. Where I’d grown up, there weren’t many trees taller than the occasional scrub oak.
When I stepped down from my pinto, my muscles were certainly sore, but I really had to pee. So did everyone else, apparently, including the horses. To my shame, I forgot all about Faye until I’d taken care of my own business, by which time the smell of horse piss was pretty much covering everything else. One faint aroma of woman-wetting-bushes wasn’t about to make it through all that.
There was no conversation. I might be the youngest of the group, and by a huge margin at that, but even I understood the need for silence. Stinky urine might carry a goodly distance downwind, though there didn’t seem to be much air movement that I could tell, but a human voice? In this wilderness, a few spoken words could be a death sentence.
The woods have ears.
I barely stifled a groan when I climbed back into the saddle. The old stories had it wrong. There were long riders in those, men and sometimes women who traveled night and day, sometimes for months on end, with nary a mention of the misery involved. Storytellers, I decided, must leave a lot out of their tales.
Once away from the stench of our mass urine dump, however, the smell of the forest struck me for the first time as new and fresh and worth considering. I might not know which pine smell was really pine and not tamarack, but it definitely smelled fresher than sweaty horse.
Wait. What’s that smell? Different somehow, not offensive exactly, but a bit sharp. I thought hard, trying to identify it. It took a frustrating while…aha! Got it! I’d smelled that smell before, out on the open road where Wing Holder had talked to the great ape cats, the Forty Chosen seeking vengeance for their fallen elder. Hiding in the wagon, cowering down behind Faye, peeping out when I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything of the sort, I’d caught a whiff but hadn’t focused on it, hadn’t even realized, consciously, that the odor was there at all. But my subconscious had picked up on it, all right.
There was a Psubu’m’sptybalt in these woods. No. More than that. I began to get images flickering in my head, impressions of raw power, six-limbed tree travelers–though I’d seem them covering open ground just as easily–moving through the old growth forest without making a sound.
Telepathy. Faye had taught us, those of her students who would listen. She’d told us the Psubu’m’sptybalt were telepaths and that the a very rare human could sometimes establish a communication link with one of them in that way.
Was I, then, one such rare human? Most assuredly, I could sense them. Would the other Rimlanders in our courier squad be able to deal with the knowledge of the nearness of these overwhelmingly deadly fighters?
Yes, deadly. Peaceful almost-vegetarians or not, the ape cats were going to war. I could sense that about them, accepted it–clearly, they did not consider us to be the enemy–and felt a brief flicker of approval that must have come from one of them. A male, I thought, suddenly knowing things about the Psubu’m’sptybalt who paced us, things I suspected Wing Holder knew full well. He must, to be able to calmly parley with them as he had done that day on the road.
–Eleven of them, all family, all that would come on this war party. The others had called them fools.
–They came to fight not the Blakto, but the despicable creech, the creatures that had been their sworn enemies since the Journeys Between the Stars. Such abominations as the creech should never have been allowed to draw breath. Death to all creech.
–The young Wing-warrior could see through the eyes of Bnowbhiuy and vice versa; it was that one, the juvenile on the spotted horse, who linked with them. Bnowbhiuy had not known such a link with a two legged. Heard of such he had, but experienced it not. This was a thing of wonder, to be Blessed in the Ancient Way.
–Of course the horses ridden by the two leggeds could smell them, but fear the Psubu’m’sptybalt the equines did not. There was no threat, and they knew it.
–None of the other two leggeds were aware of the Psubu’m’sptybalt at all, riding completely unaware of the armed force well above and to the left of them, paralleling their progress through the trees.
I broke off contact long enough to digest all of this. There was much. The young Wing-warrior had to be me. I was not known by name to my contact, the young adult male Psubu’m’sptybalt named Bnowbhiuy, but Wing was. The ape cats all knew Wing.
He gets around, Wing Holder does.
For a time, I forgot my saddle sores; my attention was simply no longer on them. Eleven great Psubu’m’sptybalt warriors could make all the difference against the creech. Not so much against the Blakto in their thousands, but Wing had reported fewer than a hundred creech marched. It was not likely the ape cats cared whether the observatory at Wing Peak fell or not–though since it was one of Wing Holder’s projects, maybe they did. He had no idea how to analyze that situation. But an ape cat with its own claws and teeth being its first and foremost set of weapons, never mind the swords they wore to war…if a Psubu’m’sptybalt fighter couldn’t take out a dozen creech single handed, I’d eat my saddle.
Not that I’d seen the giant bugs yet. Just saying.
I tuned back in to Bnowbhiuy’s mental broadcast…and I could swear he welcomed me back. I had not realized I’d been alone, even in the middle of the column of war-riding humans as I was, until I felt the connection with my brother Bnowbhiuy of the Psubu’m’sptybalt. He was young, too, as such things are counted among his kind, no more than a few centuries of life between his ears. Most importantly, the link between us was just that; there was no sense of togetherness with the other ape cats. I was glad of this, glad we had a private channel inaccessible to others, regardless of species.
This was not something I’d care to advertise, of course. If you’re onto something good, keep it to yourself.
Words of wisdom from Brak.
The column suddenly halted. No warning, just a complete stop.
No one spoke, not even in a whisper, though one horse, somewhere ahead of me, blew softly. Beyond that, in the distance somewhere ahead, still faint but distinct, the sounds of battle wafted gently to our ears. For the screams of the mortally wounded to waft gently, the struggle must be–how far? No clue on that one. But far.
We moved ahead again, but only for a few hundred yards, where Big Yeager (I’d taken to thinking of the Yeagers as Big Yeager, Little Yeager, and Young Yeager) found an opening in the trees large enough to let us form a circle, facing inward. Nobody dismounted. Big Yeager, our point man, spoke in a normal conversational tone, apparently figuring that men and beasts fighting men and beasts would be making enough noise to cover us and then some.
“We come to the battle early,” he said, “and not where expected. To be audible here, the fight we’re hearing has to be taking place somewhere along the trail that runs between Wing Peak and the Many Ponds area of Fear Pass Gap. Not only that, but it’s a night fight, something neither Blakto nor Rimlander would choose without a good reason…and I fear we know what that good reason might be. Faye, you said Wing Holder had sent word of creech showing up with the Blakto, right?”
“Right.” The woman’s voice was musical. I’d never really paid attention to that before, but then again, I’d not had the opportunity to listen to her in the middle of a pitch black night. Usually, my eyes were busier than my ears when she spoke. “And he warned that the creech and their riders might well be a danger to Wing Peak itself. Are you thinking….”
“I’m thinking we’re hearing a battle on the trail, not in the Gap, and the only thing that makes sense is the creech. Wing and Fear must be losing the war, at least to the point that they’ve been pushed back all the way to Many Ponds. It’s not likely a Blakto officer could even find the trail to the Peak without starting from that point, down by the Ponds. You’ve noticed, of course, that we’ve been traveling generally downhill for a while now despite the ridge crossings–”
We have? With all the ups and downs over umpteen ridges, I hadn’t realized!
“–so there’s still a good deal of hard uphill fighting for the Blakto before they reach the summit in the Pass, but…people, how do you feel about jumping into the middle of a war in the middle of the blinking night when the people on our side might skewer you before they figure out who you are and the enemy on the other side brings monster beasts to the conflict, giant bug-things that can see in the dark and bite off the head of a human or even a horse with a single snap?”
“When you put it that way,” Faye replied with an affected, drawn-out drawl, “how could we refuse?”
I admired her style but began to wonder about her sanity. I also noticed that I had to pee again. Really, really bad.
There’d been no contact with my ape cat brother for a while now. Had he and the others gone on ahead to engage the creech on their own?
“Then, Faye,” Big Yeager sighed in what might have been resignation, “we are yours to command. It was up to me to act as a guide, but you’re the field commander.”
“All right.” She dropped the drawl. “We need to form triads. You three Yeagers are obviously one. Brak, you and Wallis are with me. The rest of you, make your own choices. I reckon some of you will feel compelled to try to guard me, but please don’t. We could end up tripping over each other before the sun comes up and killing each other instead of a creech or its rider. The moon will be up momentarily, what there is of it, so we’ll have a little light to fight by–but damn little, in among the trees. If anyone with a spear gets a shot at a bug’s eye, go for it–but don’t count on being able to score. Under these conditions, better to bury your spears in a creech’s abdomen if you can; it won’t be an instant kill but should mess ’em up enough for the rest of us to do some real damage with swords. Try to hold the crossbows for eye shots; finding a creech’s heart, Wing says, is not easy, not worth the effort.
“Mr. Yeager, sir, please do lead us on to the action, and then its every triad for itself.”
Damn. What did I just hear? Twenty-five year old slave woman, my ass. And why did she want Xorn the escaped slave aka Captain Norkin with us? Most of all, why did she call him by his first name. Wallis, honey, you’re with me!
Come to think of it, why did she want me in her triad? Nothing personal, I was sure. An obligation to keep Wing Holder’s supposed apprentice close at hand, maybe; it could be that.
Well, I thought, at least we’ll see if the city slave boy can fight.
Those were my thoughts, my only real concerns. Mental exercises they were, good for keeping my mind off the sweat slicking my palms and off the awareness that I’d never gotten to pee before we headed out again. We topped a ridge and then another, the sounds of combat waxing and waning, sometimes disappearing for long moments, then flaring again with renewed intensity. This was guerilla warfare in the bowels of the night, not pitched battle in broad daylight.
Which was good in a way. It kept us from seeing the faces of our fellow riders. If there was a fraction of my fear showing in my face…but nobody could see. Even if I peed my pants, no one would see. Or care, for that matter, their own saddle seats perhaps at risk of being dampened as well.
Then, as always happens, the waiting was over. We were plunging down a steep grade, the thin line of the Peak-to-Pass trail visible in the moonlight, great shadowy figures out of my childhood’s worst nightmares looming over tiny shapes on the ground that darted here and there among them. The tiny shapes were dying fast, too fast, falling to the ground, either lying unmoving after that or vocalizing in agony. The din was nerve wracking, not the thunder of massed combat between thousands but overwhelming nonetheless, the screams of numerous downed men and the occasional downed creech clashing in unholy anti-harmony.
I might have finally wet my pants, but my attention wasn’t on it. Our horses would not go near the creech any more than they would knowingly approach a grizzly bear. Faye leaped from her mount, tying its reins off to a sapling and darting toward the melee without a glance to see if Xorn and I–Wallis my ass–were with her or not.
To my shame, the former slave was faster than I was; he reached her side three strides ahead of me. Not that I had time to dwell on it. We had come to the trail, where one of the giant insectoids grabbed a man in front of our eyes and lifted him in powerful grasping arms toward the bug-thing’s waiting jaws. Dimly seen in the minimal light, this horror, but unspeakable nonetheless.
We’d left our shortbows on our saddles. Civilians may not know this, but an archer needs light to hit his target; the bows would be useless for hours yet.
Not so Faye’s sword. She darted toward the monster’s spindly middle leg, her blade gleaming in the moonlight. The creech’s rider saw her coming and fired an arrow down at her incoming form; apparently, creech riders considered themselves capable of hitting targets in the dark, at least with the moon out and at such close range.
Faye did not; her blade carved a slice right through the creature’s knee joint, then cocked for another two handed swing and did the same for the rear leg.
To say the creech was caught off guard would be an understatement. It toppled sideways, its huge abdomen crashing down on the woman who’d disabled it–
–no. Xorn was there, grabbing Wing Holder’s woman and slinging her clear like a sack of feed, just like that. The man was strong.
But strong or not, he wasn’t fast enough to save himself. Part of the creech’s huge body caught him on the way down, trapping the man’s legs, pinning him helpless to the dirt. He’d managed to draw his sword, but the impact knocked it skittering away from his hand, well out of reach among the bushes lining the trail.
The Rimlander who’d been on his way to the monster’s mouth was released by those huge grasping arms. He, too, fell sideways, landing limp and unconscious. The creech’s grasp had not been gentle.
Panicked, not yet having struck a blow, it had all happened so fast, I stared in shock–realizing almost too late that the animal’s rider had jumped free at the last instant. A stocky man in half-armor, he still had his bow and was reaching for another arrow, his gaze fierce on me, fierce and unforgiving.
This is not a good day to die! I thought, and the throwing knife left my hand of its own volition, luck or the fates or the hand of the Oversoul guiding its flight.
Or something like that. Must have been; the bastard went down.
Not until my sword hacked off his head–it’s not as easy as it looks and took me three tries to finish the job–did I realize he was already dead. One edge of the knife had severed his carotid artery, the other edge taking out a good slice of his spine. The sword had actually hit the embedded knife as I was hacking away.
There was blood everywhere, but at least it was in black and white.
I spun. Faye had been busy, running up on top of the creech’s eighteen foot body length and doing a bit of hacking on her own hook. Its head was gone, as was the upside grasping leg, but Xorn was still trapped. Together, we set to work, carving enough of the beast away to lessen the pressure on the man’s legs until he was finally able to drag himself clear.
For a change, I was glad he was all right. Nothing personal, of course. It’s just that I’d learned three fighters really do make a triad. We had done well in our initial baptism under fire.
“Huh”, the big man grunted. He’d retrieved his sword from the bushes and stood at the edge of the trail, studying the situation. We’d happened onto the battle at a place where the path widened, but that was not to our advantage.
Two creech approached from the south, and two from the north. Worse, the trees didn’t grow that closely together in this area; we could hear sounds that could only mean other creech were flanking us through the woods on both the east and west sides. Where the others of our courier squad had gotten to, or if they were even alive, we had no way of knowing. The Psubu’m’sptybalt were nowhere to be sensed. The almost-lunch Rimlander was still down for the count; he couldn’t tell us how many of Wing’s fighters might still be out there somewhere, strung out along the trail, harassing the creech.
We were on our own. We were surrounded. Within seconds, the creech and their riders would close in. Guess who’s coming to dinner. Guess who is dinner.
Xorn, Captain Wallis Norkin, spoke. I happened to be closest, so he addressed me directly, though his words carried clearly in the momentarily still night air. “Kid,” he said, “this is not a good day to die.”
I couldn’t help it. I busted out laughing. Xorn’s answering grin gleamed in the moonlight.
Faye, on the other hand, didn’t seem to get the joke at all.