We didn’t wind up taking (or stealing) all of the horses. After we’d hastily snugged the cinches on our own three, Faye decided we’d do the same for another four, all of them mounts belonging to her own personal guards.
Those guards had followed Faye’s orders, leaving their Holder’s woman unprotected but for a fledgling child warrior–that would be me–and a former slave who might or might not be trustworthy. If they hadn’t died by the jaws of the creech , they probably figured they might as well commit suicide anyway. If any of the four had survived, they weren’t likely to complain to Wing that the woman they were supposed to protect had borrowed their horses in their absence for the sake of the greater good.
The horse that had slipped its headstall and run headlong to who knew where…well, that happened to be a Yeager horse. Not big Wonen Yeager, the leader. Young Yeager, I thought.
Which left two animals tied to aspen trees, a Yeager sorrel and a Yeager dun. Hopefully, at least one survivor would turn up before a hungry cougar or grizzly bear did.
The three of us were pounding down the trail at a steady lope, anxious to catch up with Wing, before it hit me. What about the Rimlander who’d been left lying unconscious in the trail after the creech dropped him?
Probably dead, too, I decided. Those grasping arms weren’t gentle; most likely the man’s chest had been crushed even before we attacked. A small mercy, perhaps, slightly less unpleasant than still being conscious while having one’s head bitten off.
Wing’s big black could cover ground at a trot; it was more than a mile before we caught up to him. When he heard our thundering remuda closing in behind him, though, Holder turned in the saddle, took one look, and split a grin from ear to ear.
“Good work, girl,” he told Faye, who was leading two remounts while Xorn and I each led one.
The man who tells you about a horse that can run from sunup to high noon at a steady lope, even generally downhill on a mountain trail, is a damn liar. Not even our mountain bred critters could do that, though Wing’s gelding might have died trying. We held to a steady trot except for the occasional rough spots where a little stream had to be crossed or the odd deadfall had to be jumped, and that was grueling enough. Especially for Xorn, I noted with a certain amount of satisfaction.
We’d fought together, the city man and I. Somehow, I no longer cared if he sneaked an admiring look at Faye’s butt every now and then…but it felt good to know I was better than the big man in the saddle.
Nothing like a miles-long trot with an occasional bone-jarring jump over a horizontal tree to demonstrate horsemanship, or the lack thereof.
Naturally, Faye was a lot better than me. After all, she’d been living in these mountains a lot longer than I had.
But Wing, now, he was just…part of the horse. Or the horse was part of him.
When we changed mounts, watering them and ourselves at a pool powered by a tiny, three foot high waterfall that seemed to be spouting out of sheer rock, nobody bothered to change saddles. We did take a minute or two to adjust the stirrups to fit, and then we were on our way again.
Wing, I noticed, kept his head moving, eyeballing the trees to left and right, occasionally twisting in the saddle to check our backtrail even though he probably couldn’t see much more than us and our little horse herd and the dust we were all raising. I figured if he’d lived a hundred thousand years already, his might be a good example to follow, so I did.
Faye, too, riding ahead of me. Xorn…who knew. Every time I turned to look back, he looked alert enough, but whether or not he was really watching our backtrail, I couldn’t tell.
Probably not, I thought. City slicker, right?
The guy swung a mean sword, though; I had to admit. The slightly skinned ribs under my torn shirt attested to that.
With the noise we were making, the animals of the forest all heard us pass, but that hardly mattered. The sun was nearing its zenith when three things happened almost at once. The sounds of the huge battle in Fear Pass Gap began reaching our ears, Wing led us away from the Many Ponds trail on an almost invisible track through the trees, and he pulled up in a little glade, gesturing to the rest of us.
“Pick your best mount now,” he said. “From the direction of the sounds we’re hearing, our people have already been pushed back awfully close to the summit. We’ll turn the other horses loose, stack the tack here. This mare,” he indicated the remount he’d been riding, “knows this place. She’ll keep the rest of them nearby, or at least close enough we can send out somebody to round them up later, if anybody’s alive to do it.”
Wing had remounted his black gelding and headed out within less than a minute. Xorn and Faye, I was chagrined to see, were right behind him; I hated being tail end Charlie simply because the others had moved faster than I had. Score one for the city man.
The sounds of battle were still distant, indistinct, almost soothing in conjunction with the buzz of a bumblebee in search of flowers, a squirrel chattering angrily at us as we passed, and even the jolting gait of my pinto as I posted merrily along. It only occurred to me that none of us had slept the previous night when I jerked awake, almost–but thankfully not quite–falling from the saddle. Had I somehow kept posting while unconscious, or–?
The horses were walking now, not trotting, their ears pricked forward, Faye’s bay whuffing nervously. She was a steady beast, that one, but she did like to express her opinion from time to time.
At length, we topped a high ridge, an impressive growth of Douglas fir trees protecting us from being skylined, and stared down at the battlefield.
The tableau was terrifying. Directly below us, maybe a quarter mile down a steep grade, Fear Pass Gap was packed tight with a seething mass of what could only be Blakto warriors. Wing had told us that however many creech had gotten past us on the trail, however many of them were left to assault Wing Peak, it didn’t matter. We had to head for the Gap.
Now I saw why.
On an angle, still downhill but somewhat ahead of us, the Rimlanders seemed pitifully few, puny, overmatched. In fact, mostly they were invisible, firing from behind cover at the determined, oncoming horde. They must have been pretty accurate with both arrows and ballistae and who knew what else, for the enemy were falling in numbers…yet the Blakto were slowly but inexorably grinding forward. The noise was considerable, mostly Blakto warriors whooping it up or screaming when hit, but it was the view that froze me in place.
With seeming unconcern, Wing fished a spyglass from a saddlebag and took a long, slow look, sweeping left and right. There was a definite battle front spanning the narrow Gap–less than twenty yards wide at this point–where long range weapons were not in play. We couldn’t see the flanking movements in the trees and rocks to either side, or at least not very well–though Wing no doubt did some better with his glass–but it was spear and sword work, and mostly sword at that, where the two forces most seriously tested themselves against each other.
It was not looking pretty. The Rimlanders were exacting a heavy toll, but the Blakto were advancing, inch by inch, foot by foot, yard by yard. And of course, body by body.
The hundred thousand year old man put his spyglass away, fastened the saddlebag shut, and told us, “Keep close behind me. I can’t stop for anybody now. Not even you, Faye.”
Most women would have been highly offended by that remark. The slave girl just nodded, gathered her reins, and had her bay sniffing the black gelding’s tail from the first jump.
It was no leisurely jaunt now. Wing bent low over his gelding’s neck, urging the horse forward in a flat-out gallop. Which would have been suicidal on any animal not mountain bred; low branches whipped forward and whipped back to take the next rider in the face, the footing was not overly treacherous but not a paved road, either, and once we all had to jump a waddling, extremely startled porcupine, its quills fluffed out and ready for business.
Focused on not being left behind, I tuned the sounds out, ignoring the screams and war cries and even the thunder of our own passage as we navigated at breakneck speed along the game trail Wing had chosen.
Downhill, generally eastbound. We were headed to a spot behind the front lines, I thought, but barely so.
And I was right. We suddenly broke into the open, brilliant sunlight crashing down almost painfully after the relative gloom of the forest. To our left, it wasn’t a sunny day at all; a thick haze of dust rose from the feet of the combatants. Some of the stories spoke at length of the bloody work of war; few mentioned the dirt involved.
I saw then what Wing must have noted from the top of the ridge. Fear Holder was there, tall and lean, no hooded cape hiding his features but his bald head unmistakeable. He was mounted on a steel gray stallion nearly as tall as Wing’s black gelding. Couriers attended him despite the fact that Fear’s position was well within bowshot of the fight itself, leaning in to listen as he cupped his hands and shouted instructions–the din of battle made it hard to be heard–and then darting away again, presumably carrying orders to this or that Lieutentant or Captain as the struggle progressed.
Progressed dismally, that is. Even as we approached, he backed his gray another thirty feet up toward the summit, acknowledging another length of ground taken by the enemy.
The three of us held back as Wing’s big horse bulled its way through the couriers toward his Brother. This time it was Fear who bent to listen as Wing shouted through cupped hands, but it did not take long. I distinctly saw the bald man nod before Wing turned and made his way back out through the couriers and personal guards surrounding Fear to address us.
“You remember Butterfly Rock?”
“You know how to get there from here?”
“Go there now. Wait there for me. And if I do not make it–”
“Master!” She interjected, “I have loved you from the start!”
“And I you. Go.”
We went, Faye leading since neither Xorn nor I had a clue where Butterfly Rock might be. I wondered about that briefly, knowing she’d previously declared her intent to stay tight by Wing’s side, but the woman didn’t hesitate in following her Master’s orders now. The grade was too steep here for a lope, but she led us up Fear Pass Gap at a hard trot, straight toward the summit.
Which, I realized with a sudden thrill of panic, was not that far away. The gunsight notch identifying the highest point in Fear Pass Gap was right there in front of us, no more than, what–half a mile distant, maybe?
Xorn and I, riding side by side now, almost missed the exit. Faye turned her bay and was out of sight among the trees so quickly that it seemed more a conjurer’s trick than anything else. But once we’d followed as best we could, we found her riding slowly among a dozen or more huge, scattered boulders, studying the ground as if looking for something.
The big man and I shared a look but wisely kept our mouths shut. If she wanted help–
–she found it. A smallish rock no more than a couple of feet across, marked with some sort of design that might as well have been alienspeak to me. She obviously knew what it meant, though, heading on up through the trees with obvious confidence. It seemed like we rode for a long time, mostly up and, I thought, closer to the summit, but the sun was barely straight overhead when she stopped.
Butterfly Rock had well earned its name. Positioned on the Gap-side edge of a fairly level spot an acre or two in size, the wings of the stone creature towered above us, a good forty feet I thought, spread twice as wide as that. I couldn’t decide if it was an ancient carving or a freak of nature at first, considering the realism of the thing…but settled on freak of nature because the granite wings were a good ten feet thick, maybe twice that in the center.
There were other huge rock formations in the area, too, along with half a dozen stunted pine trees and a number of avenues of escape.
“Tie your horses off,” Faye told us as she wrapped her bay’s reins around a pine branch, “and follow me.”
There was a way up the inside surface of Butterfly Rock, a path that left the climber hanging rather upside down here and there, desperately clinging to holds and hoping the fall wouldn’t kill him, but we made it. We had to. Couldn’t let a girl show us up.
Seated on either side of the butterfly’s head, we found the high stone perch quite comfortable–especially after what we’d been through in the last day or two.
We could see the battle from here, watching our people fight and die and bleed in the doing of it, even some distance away from us, downhill as they were. The view was remarkable. There were a few tall treetops in the way, but for the most part, we had a bird’s eye observation post. We were three unhappy birds, though; the Blakto continued to press forward. Our people gave ground grudgingly, but they gave it, fallen corpse by fallen corpse. Or worse yet, fallen wounded, incapacitated and then ignored as they lay bleeding on the rocks.
Worse, from where we were seated, we could see both sides of the summit…and up the eastside grade marched the entire Navri City Army. At the rate they were moving, completely unimpeded, they would soon top the summit and pour down on Fear and Wing from behind, just as if we’d not brought warning at all.
This can’t be right, I thought, confused. Wing can’t be ignoring the situation, can he? Did he get hit in the head during the creech fight?
“Brak!” I heard my name called and almost fell off the top of Butterfly Rock. Twisting around to peer back down by the hitching post trees, I saw Wing Holder himself, gesturing imperiously. “I need you down here, Brak! Now!”
Oh, crap. Now I had to climb back down this blasted thing without breaking my fool neck.
But I was the apprentice, after all. Of course I did it. Yeah, it’s true; I did lose my grip and crash the last ten feet or so, twisting in midair like a panicked cat to land on my feet. Which stung like crazy from the landing, bent knees or no, but I wasn’t about to admit that.
“Okay, Brak,” he said, peering down at me. “You’re a skilled fire builder as I recall.”
It wasn’t a question, but I felt compelled to answer anyway. “Not bad. My sisters never did get the hang of it, and with my parents gone, yeah, it was up to me.”
“Necessity is a mother,” he nodded. “Okay, here’s the deal. Gather yourself some dry kindling, get a fire going–say, over there, build it on that big flat rock so maybe we don’t set the woods ablaze, okay?”
“Then once you get that going, as smokeless as possible mind you, dry wood only, you find some smoky stuff, the greenest branches you can come up with. A lot of them, stack them nearby, got it?”
“Now, I’m going to be–”
“Wing,” I interrupted, “the entire NCA is dang near there. They’re going to top the summit in no more than another thirty minutes or so.”
“Yeah, kid; I know. Now, I’m going to be up on top of the rock. When I say, and only when I say, you pile on the green stuff, okay? Make that fire smoke like there was no tomorrow.”
“Got it.” I really did get it. Whatever Wing was up to, it had better work or there wouldn’t be any tomorrow.
Thank the Good Stars and all their Shines, my flint and steel caught the dried moss tinder on fire the first try. My mentor was trusting me with this; the last thing I wanted to do was look stupid in front of him. Or behind him, for that matter; he was up there on top of the rock now, his back to me, glassing the Gap.
Whatever he had in mind, it didn’t take any wizard to realize he was having me build a signal fire. Just as clearly, he believed that timing was everything. I didn’t know what he was timing, but I did know damn well I’d better not mess up my part of the operation.
Fortunately, there were plenty of dry, dead branches lying around on the ground; the (relatively) smokeless fire was up and running strong within minutes. I glanced nervously up at Wing–and Faye and Xorn, but I wasn’t paying any attention to either of those two at the moment–and set to stacking “green stuff”.
Which was not as simple as you might think. There were plenty of tall green grasses, so I cut a few handfuls of them with my belt knife–the sword being a ridiculous implement for the task–while casting around for better ideas. I didn’t like the look of most of the trees within the jumble of boulders; they just weren’t, uh, sappy enough. And then I noticed, just a dozen yards upslope from the farthest stone outcropping, the telltale leaves of a cottonwood tree.
Where there’s a cottonwood, there’s water.
Casting a quick glance up at Wing and hoping he wouldn’t yell for smoke before I was ready, I loped up to the spring I knew would be there. Most importantly, there was not just one cottonwood tree but a whole stand of them, including dozens of young cottonwood saplings.
These were, for lack of an axe, sword work. It turned out I could cut clean through a one inch sapling trunk with a single two handled blow of the sword–dulling the blade rather quickly, no doubt, but who cared at this point. The first time, I only cut three and dragged them back to the flat rock in a rush, knowing that now my fire could at least produce some smoke on demand. After that, feeling slightly safer, I settled in on five saplings per trip.
In the end, eighteen were stacked high but some feet away from the fire, far enough to keep them drying out and becoming, you know, smokeless or something.
I had barely finished and was standing spread-legged, gasping for wind, sweating rivers, when I heard Wing yell, “Now, Brak! Fire up the smoke! Now!”
My base pine-wood fire was up and running strongly. I didn’t think I could kill it carelessly, so I started adding green cottonwood saplings in a hurry, not rushing enough to improperly place any of the little green trees but not dawdling about it, either.
The results were impressive. The dense smoke cloud rose straight into the still midday air, billowing endlessly, eventually reaching a height of a thousand feet or more.
Wing didn’t call down to heap any praise on my head, but he didn’t bitch at me, either, so I figured I’d done all right. In fact, craning my neck to stare up at my handiwork, I was pretty sure I’d done all right and then some.
“Hey, kid!” Xorn’s voice. “Wing says you can come on up now. You might want to see this.”
Well, yeah, I did, sorta. Not looking forward to that fall-down climb but…thankfully, it was less scary going back up than it had been coming down.
Xorn reached down to take my hand and haul me up the last few feet. I found myself seated between him and the stone buttefly head, with Wing and Faye on the other side. Making sure I’d gotten myself securely seated, I lifted my eyes far enough to see down into Fear Pass Gap, and–
–Holy crap. It took a few seconds to be sure there was no mistaking what I was seeing, or rather, not seeing. The Rimlanders had vanished, utterly disappeared. Later, I’d learn that Wing and Fear had coordinated the move; when the smoke signal had gone up, all of our fighters–we’d lost nearly five hundred of them already, so somewhere around two thousand men–had suddenly “panicked”, breaking away from their enemies, running back up the Gap grade a few dozen yards and then turning into the trees on either side of the Gap, moving like the Soul Cruncher itself was on their heels.
Momentarily startled at this, the front ranks of the Blakto horde had quickly recovered and rushed forward, intent on reaching the summit of Fear Pass Gap, a goal they had coveted for generations, a position that would allow them to pour unmolested into the soft underbelly of the Bowl itself.
The foremost Blakto had just cranked up to top speed…when seven thousand NCA soldiers came marching over the summit.
Neither side hesitated.
Isis’s Blakto had not expected to be facing thousands of fresh troops–they hadn’t known thousands of fresh troops existed–but they were no more than a hundred yards from the summit. They could not stop now, not this close to the brass ring.
Lord General Maroeubatis–“Old Batty” behind his back–wasn’t about to stop, either. Part of this was a case of seeing what he expected to see; leading the NCA from the front as a point of glory had seemed safe enough when he’d thought he’d be hitting Rimlanders from behind, and his power blinded eyes simply refused to recognize the truth of the matter, that the Rimlanders were nowhere to be seen and he was facing a screaming horde of blooded Blakto warriors.
He gave the order to charge, letting his troops flow around him as he’d planned from the first. An aide tried to get his ear, but the noise of battle was deafening.
Besides, a lucky Blakto arrow took him in the throat during the first volley. He fell from his sensibly frightened horse–which had become used to troop movements but not to true battlefield conditions–and was trampled by his own green troops as they rushed down the last dozens of yards to their own deaths.
At this range, I couldn’t identify Old Batty as he fell, but Wing’s spyglass told the tale.
After a time, Faye leaned forward so far I thought she’d fall off the rock and tossed me a small bag of jerky. “Might as well have some refreshments to watch the show,” she opined. “Popcorn would be better, but we have to import that from Grain Hollow.”
I fished out a piece of jerky and passed the bag to Xorn as we settled in comfortably to watch our enemies finish destroying each other.