Within the huge circle, covering nearly five acres of generally grassy but treeless ground just on the eastern downhill slope of Fear Pass Gap, close to a hundred campfires burned, casting flickering light over the aftermath of the single bloodiest battle ever fought for control of the pass. Around the great perimeter, a triple ring of heavily armed guards stood watch, one hundred men to each staggered layer, three hundred in total.
Outside the circle, camped hither, thither and yon among trees and boulders, catch as catch can, another eleven hundred men, Rimlander warriors every one, wearily prepared their evening meals, save only those posted on sentry duty and those too exhausted to do anything but lie down before they fell down, sleep claiming them without mercy, often without allowing its victims time enough to throw down their ground covers or pull blankets over their shivering bodies, either one.
It was nippy at night, this high up, despite being well into the lazy crazy hazy days of summer.
As a rough count, eight hundred and fifty-three Blakto fighters did likewise within the circle, save only that they did so without weapons, having been relieved of their arms at the time of surrender. Of course, there were differences between the in-circle Blakto and the out-circle Rimlanders, the most obvious being the matters of attitude and weaponry. It was not fun, losing the game of Conquest by Force of Arms and losing one’s most prized possessions at the time of surrender. The majority of them, whether males or members of the famed female She Bears of the River Eyes tribe, wore defeated, self-hating outlooks on life at the moment, and who could blame them? To be within mere feet–feet, mind you!–of the summit when they were finally stopped cold…that was a hard knowledge with which each and every one of them must live.
Aiyee, we’d done it, Isis thought ruefully. We were this close to wiping out the unexpected Bowl army. There weren’t that many of them left. It was more than clear that precious few of them possessed the fighting grace of her own people, the instinct for combat that had been honed to a fine edge in every young Blakto from the day of his or her birth.
How could she have so stupidly forgotten all about the “cowardly” Rimlanders who’d disappeared into the trees mere seconds before the city army topped the rise? Those mountain men had come pouring back down out of the forest just as the Blakto had begun to exult in their victory, a perfect flanking maneuver on both left and right.
The River Eyes and their remaining allies hadn’t had a chance.
Her wounds were numerous, two of them potentially life threatening. From the ache in her skull and the effort it took to stay awake, she undoubtedly had a concussion–or maybe she was beating up on herself. Her leadership had brought thousands of her people to their deaths, and for what? Nothing. It had all been for nothing. The thigh wound that had come closest to killing her, the femoral artery nicked so that she’d nearly bled to death before even realizing she’d been hurt…that wound throbbed now, a deep, steady, sullen beat, pulsing out her mantra. I have led us to this. I have led us to this. I have led us to this.
She did not feel the cold, though. Mere temperature had no chance of penetrating the thick armor of pure despair.
Her aides had brought her food, amazingly enough a slab of good red meat. Where prisoners of war would get such fare, she had no idea. Perhaps it was no more than the Rimlander way of taunting her with their wealth. Rich, these mountains were. Rich beyond compare…but beyond her reach now, as well. She’d forced the steak down despite a complete lack of appetite; her body would need that fuel to begin replenishing her blood supply, and she had no right to take the coward’s way out.
No right, but the temptation was there. Oh yes, it was there and then some.
She was still sitting, fortunate to have a rock at her back that allowed her to stretch out the wounded leg. What the mountain people intended to do with their prisoners, she did not know. Warriors were seldom taken slave, though she’d heard stories about the deadly mines of Sand Castle City. Perhaps there was such a place, perhaps not; they could well be just stories. Execution, then? Possibly. Torture of some, most likely, for information, military intelligence and such; she herself could count on being the first to feel the fire in that case. Unless the enemy did not realize they held the War Chieftess of all the Northern Blakto in their prison camp, but that was unlikely. She had been in the forefront of the fighting at the end. Her war shirt, the number of eagle feathers in her hair, the majesty and power of her great gray stallion, Steel…all of these and more made her identity more than clear.
I have failed you, Mother, she thought darkly. I have failed all of the People.
It was with no great interest that she noted, somewhere near half-deepnight, a party of horsemen making their way through the camp, clearly aiming for her position by the rock that supported her back. Enemy Rimlanders, then, the victors. No Blakto prisoner retained a horse, for good and obvious reasons.
Her military mind could not help but size them up as they approached, though, despite her emotional detachment. Twenty guards following the three leaders and their retinue. The leaders were three, all wearing the fringed buckskins dyed in forest colors that marked them as Rimlanders at war. The flickering light from the campfires was an inconstant thing; it was impossible to size them up properly until they stopped and dismounted a mere twenty feet from her position. Her aides made to rise to their feet, ready to defend her with their lives, but she quelled that idea with a gesture. Who were these men?
They regarded her for a long moment. To the left–ah. She had come face to face with this bald headed warrior on the battlefield. Fear Holder, she was certain. A skilled fighter, though it was not he who’d wounded her; they’d not gotten that close to each other. Which would make the center man Wing Holder, her number one nemesis. It had to be him. His age…indeterminate; she could not put a number to it; rumors that he might be a long lived one seemed somehow more credible here, on this night. Yes, it had to be Wing; he leaned a bit on his trademark quarterstaff, favoring his left leg. And that would make the stocky blond man on the right Death Holder.
If Death was here as well this night, the diversionary force at Death Pass Gap had already failed as well. The thought should not have made her feel better, but it did. Misery loves company. It was good to know she hadn’t been the only Blakto commander to get her ass kicked this day.
Several others fanned out around the leaders, a step back but positioned to see and be seen. One of them brought a low growl rumbling up in her throat. A woman. She’d not thought women fought in the ranks of the Rimlanders, but this one clearly did…and despite her mountain attire, the bitch was clearly Blakto, or at least half. That one of her own could be found siding with the enemy…she had not been ready for that. Besides which, the traitor was absolutely beautiful and also young.
Life just wasn’t fair.
“Isis Two Feathers, War Chief of the River Eyes Blakto, I presume?” The voice was Wing’s. A pleasant, smooth baritone with just a touch of gravel beneath the surface. A surprise, that voice; it made the man seem somehow more commanding, more…desirable.
“That’s my name. And yes, my title. Don’t wear them out.” Her own voice came out ragged, rough. She cursed herself for it.
“May we sit?” He inquired politely, eliciting a sharp glance from the prisoner. To an outsider, such a request would have seemed ludicrous; did his people not hold the Blakto unarmed and helpless, subject to their will? But to a River Eyes, the request–and request it was–meant something. Among Isis’s people, home turf was sacred, whether said turf lay beneath a hide teepee during the tribe’s migratory months, beneath one of the more permanent structures in the wintering cities, or simply beneath the campfire of a warrior out on the hunt. He knew the customs. Equally important, he followed the forms.
There was something here she did not understand.
“Sit and be welcome,” she replied, relieved to note that her voice was smoothing out a bit with use.
The aides to either side of her shifted in obvious surprise and not a little unease. What did she think she was doing, welcoming the enemy, their conquerors no less? Had the blow to her head unhinged her mind?
Well, perhaps it had. Perhaps it had.
The three Brothers nodded their thanks and took a few steps forward before settling down to the earth. Wing, she noted, sat facing her full on, the ten feet between them that was approved for formal council. He also crossed his legs and looked for all the world like a Blakto himself despite his pale face. Crossing the legs was not done unless trust was at least implied; one could not spring readily into action from such a position. Death Holder did not follow suit, simply squatting on his haunches like some blasted heathen. Fear Holder, on the other hand, knelt rather like an unmarried maiden.
Huh. Different strokes.
“You know,” Wing Holder mused, “you look just like her. You favor her a great deal.”
Startled, Isis schooled her face to stillness except for one arched eyebrow. She knew who he meant. Berea Two Feathers, her ancestor, the famed beauty this man had rejected back in the day. She had not really believed until this moment, not found it possible to fully accept the idea that the Wing Holder of this era might actually be the same man her ancestor had loved and lost.
Why did you leave me?! The thought burst through her mind without warning. For a moment, she feared she might have spoken aloud, but no; the noise was all inside her own head. Outside there was only the crackling of the various campfires, the uneasy breathing of her aides, an owl hooting in the distance, and some fool farting nearby.
“So I’ve been told,” she replied evenly, waiting for the mountain man’s next move. He surely had not come here simply to discuss old times. His eyes…I could fall into those eyes any time. He could see through me, see Soul Itself. It was ever thus with us.
Wing nodded and got down to business. “There are things you do not know, but there are things we do not know, either. I would start by asking the real reason, or reasons, the Blakto continue to find it necessary to waste thousands of their own people’s lives, generation after generation, in an attempt to take the Bowl. We do understand it is a valuable prize, but we do not understand the price your people have been willing to pay. I ask that you tell us. Tell us the real reason, and in return we will tell you many things you cannot possibly yet know.”
She regarded him, unblinking. “Why should the Blakto share information with you?”
“Because we have a suspicion our two peoples might be better off working together instead of separately.”
“Uh.” She stared, truly shocked. Work together? What the–? Well…there were a lot of prisoners here in this camp. If these men did not hear it from her, they would hear it from others. “There are two things,” she said slowly, “the winters and the Easterners.”
Wing sat motionless, his stillness encouraging her to go on. She gathered her thoughts and laid it out. “First, the winters. As you know, we are a plains people. Some of us live year around in the wintering cities, growing crops and harvesting as they can, trading with wagons that come from the East, laying in stores of trade goods and produce to get us through each winter. During the warmer months, however, the majority of us take to the wide prairies, hunting everything from beaver to buffalo. One tribe specializes in fish from the rivers and lakes. We smoke what we do not eat immediately, or jerk it, and send heavily escorted wagon trains of meat back to the city warehouses. Then, when the weather turns in the fall, we repair to the cities with our brethren, and do what we can to survive until spring comes again.”
She paused, looking inwardly, seeing the cycle of seasons. “Except for a few. Some of us prefer to tough it out in coulees and creek beds during the cold months, living in nothing more than teepees or deadfall hovels. It is a good life, up to a point.
“But the winters are harsh. Most of your Bowl dwellers–present company excepted, as I realize–have no idea just how rough it can get. I have seen a man stalking antelope who was caught in a blizzard. He was with two friends, both of whom froze to death. He lived, but lost both feet, and walked the rest of his days on fake feet purchased at a high price from the Eastern traders. Even in the cities, there is no guarantee of survival. Firewood is hard to come by, there being no great forests out there on the flatlands. Temperatures fall, sometimes, to the point that the tales of a man’s urine freezing before it can hit the ground–those tales are no joke. I have seen it, and blessed my gender’s ability to hold our water for unmentionable amounts of time.
“Worst of all is the pestilence. Cooped up in the wintering cities, entire populations are sitting ducks for disease. One fine spring day some years back, I rode into a city of ten thousand with the thirty She Bears and their families who had wintered with me on the open prairies. There was no one left alive. We never knew what plague or pestilence had killed them, but the stench carried death on the very wind. We left in a hurry, pausing only long enough to paint the death marks on the outermost buildings along the road before hastening back to the pure air of the wilderness.”
Stuck hard by the memory, Isis stopped, fighting for control. She would not let these Rimlanders see her cry. Strangely enough, the eyes of the Brothers and their followers seemed to glisten as well. Could they be affected by her story? No. It was not possible.
“That’s one good reason,” Wing said quietly, his voice so utterly gentle it almost broke her. “You said there were two. Let me guess. Would the other reason have something to do with these Easterners, the traders and those who come behind them?”
If she didn’t know better, she’d have thought Holder was talking just to give her a moment to collect herself. “Exactly. What do you know about them?”
“A bit,” he admitted, “but you first.”
“Well…it’s like this. Two hundred years ago, the traders from the East were few and far between. Beyond that, the trade goods they carried were worth trading for, but only marginally so. Glass trinkets, good steel knives of a quality a bit beyond the abilities of our own craftsmen, bowstrings of some material that didn’t stretch out in the rain like our own did. That sort of thing.
“But for some time now, a hundred years or more, they’ve been getting scary. They tell stories of their own cities, describing their numbers. The twenty thousand warriors we brought against Fear Pass Gap this time? A drop in the bucket to them, they say, and the wiser of our Chiefs have come to believe they’re not just blowing smoke. That forbidden city I mentioned? The one full of nothing but dead people? Easterners have taken that place over now, razing some of the structures and rebuilding in their own style. It’s become a great, walled place, a fortress far more impregnable than even these mountains of yours. None of us will enter, even were we allowed, for fear of the disease that wiped our people out. But we spy on it from a distance, and what we see is frightening.”
She shook her head. “I do not think we have much time. A few years, perhaps a few decades at most. In a word, the Blakto are doomed.”
“Hunh.” Wing rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Because there are so many Easterners. Because their technology is ahead of yours. And because they keep on coming, pushing the Blakto westward, like a huge colony of ants ever seeking more territory for yet more colonies.”
“Hunh yourself. You know all this?”
“I had guessed. It’s been some years since I toured the Eastern cities in disguise, taking their measure. They were fighting among themselves, then, though. I take it your spies think that is a thing of the past.”
“Yes. For the past several years, every trader’s wagon has flown the same flag, an image of a striking rattlesnake on a field of blue. We believe there must now be one overlord, one authority above all the Eastern cities. A dangerous situation. But, Wing Holder, you said if I spoke truly, you would share. I have spoken truly.”
“Indeed you have,” he agreed, “and now it’s my turn.”
Isis listened without reaction to Wing’s description of the way things stood in his world, both in the mountainous Rim and the seething, overpopulated cities of the inner Bowl. She absorbed it all but found herself unsurprised by any of it…until the man explained his proposition, the why, the how, the details of it.
Then her jaw dropped. She stared, dumbstruck, for quite some time. Her mouth was dry from the night air by the time she managed to pull her thoughts together enough to answer his question.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “Yes.”
Councilwoman Risa Macklin sat quietly, her midnight blue eyes missing nothing. Chair Carson was on a tear, interrogating Corporal Vringas. Young Vring was, unfortunately for him, the senior noncom left alive after the debacle at Fear Pass Gap. Seventy-eight survivors, all that had returned–so far, anyway. There had been no word, of course, until the stragglers had hiked into town with the previous day’s setting sun.
Well. Perhaps “stragglers” wasn’t the right word. They hadn’t straggled. The Corporal had brought them marching in, footsore, every one of them with minor wounds and eighteen carried on litters by their mates. That wasn’t exactly a straggle.
But it was a disaster for Carson’s plans to become the OBD, the Overall Bowl Dictator. Seventy-eight left out of an army of seven thousand. Every senior officer killed. The command had not been merely decimated by the Blakto; it had been effectively wiped out. Even the soldiers previously posted along the various trails to prevent word of the army’s advance on Granite Peak Stronghold had been gathered up by the NCA along the way; the guard details were as dead as anybody else. Young men from the slums, most of them, inadequately trained by a handful of experienced soldiers and thrown into the meat grinder without further ado.
Carson had plenty of his personal guards on hand. Thirty of them. He’d kept that much back. But from the tension in the room, reading the body language of her fellow Council members, Macklin would be surprised if the Chair managed to avoid civil war within the city.
Had his army done what he’d told it to do, he could have dealt from strength. Now he simply looked a fair idiot. And like any idiot with power, he’d do whatever it took to keep that power.
Like hang the blame on this ignorant, innocent corporal, precisely as he’d pinned the blame on Captain Wallis Norkin for the City Militia’s defeat at the hands of the Rimlander Brothers .
One thing you could say for the man; he was consistent.
“Corporal,” Carson snarled, “do you expect this Council to believe the tale you have just told?”
The boy–he couldn’t be more than seventeen–looked confused. “Why…yes sir. Yes sir, I do. It’s the truth, every bit of it.”
“You expect us to believe the Lord General bought some cockamamie story about a Rim Fever epidemic at the Granite Peak Stronghold?”
“I wasn’t up front where I could hear what he said, sir, but that was the word passed down the line.”
“And that, so believing, he not only retreated but then, instead of returning to the City, decided to just mosey on over to Fear Pass Gap?”
“Well, sir, that’s where he had us march, so again, yes sir.”
“And what did he expect to accomplish at the Gap?”
Vringas shrugged. He had no way of knowing Old Batty had thought to crush two of the three Brothers, catching them with their backs turned as they fought the Blakto. “I only know, Mr. Chair, that we were marched to the Gap, and that just over the summit, we run into a bazillion screaming Blakto out for blood.”
Carson was getting red in the face. His little pig eyes narrowed to mere slits. “A bazillion?”
“Well, uh.” The soldier gulped, realizing that bazillion might have been a poor choice of words for a military man. He was also beginning to realize that his widowed mother and two younger sisters might never see him again. Everyone knew that irritating the Chair was a good way to shorten your life. “More precisely, sir, I’ve talked with the rest of the men, those of us that survived. We estimate we faced at least several thousand warriors, sir, though it was hard to be sure. The pass is narrow there. They were packed mighty deep, though, and quite frankly, we were no match for ’em.”
“That much,” Carson sneered, the fingers of his left hand drumming a tattoo on his desk, “is more than obvious.”
Risa Macklin could see the thought flash across the boy’s face. It was you who decided we were trained enough to go into combat, you–! Wisely, he kept his mouth shut. So, she pondered, what could she do? That Carson had already decided this youngster must be executed was beyond doubt. Could she save him by taking him slave as she’d done for Wallis a few months back? No; that trick would only work once. Besides, she’d needed the former Captain Norkin to carry warning to Granite Peak–which, she chuckled inwardly, he must have done.
Someone had warned them, for sure.
No, she would have to let this boy die. Oh, she could call on the Family. Her people might even be able to grab the kid and keep him alive for a while–but such a move on her part would instantly precipitate mass violence within Navri City. In saving one life, she would trigger the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands.
I am sorry, she said silently, not particularly surprised when the corporal flicked a glance her way as if he’d heard her.
“Corporal Abasalom Vringas,” the Chair suddenly intoned, the politician in Carson shifting modes, “it is with great regret that I inform you that your dereliction of duty in leaving the battlefield without direct orders from your superior…” He paused as if overcome by grief, faking it all the way. Crocodile tears would have been good, if he could have produced any. No one leaped into the breach to point out that every superior officer was either dead or mortally wounded by that time; there had been no superior officer left to give–or not give–direct orders. With stage worthy timing, Carson appeared to gather himself and continued. “…it is my solemn duty to point out that you have acted in direct violation of the Cautan Confederacy Constitution, the penalty for which is death by–”
The great doors crashed open, the Council Hall filling swiftly with a phalanx of grim-eyed warriors, loaded for bear. All three Brothers were there, flanked by columns of crossbowmen with quarrels cocked and locked. Death Holder and Fear Holder had naked blades in their fists; Wing Holder’s trademark Strathian Stick had both short sword tips exposed and ready.
“What is the meaning of this!” Carson’s cliché was matched with a forward rush by three of his less intelligent guards, all of whom fell immediately, iron quarrels piercing their hearts and wounding men who’d stood a row behind them.
“Stand at ease!” Wing snapped…and the rest of the guards, more than a hundred of them reporting to the five Council members, froze in place.
It might not have been the crossbowmen or even Wing Holder’s voice of command that stopped them in their tracks, though. It might have been the others, flowing in behind the first men to enter the room.
Ranging up along one side of the Brothers, stepping forward smartly so that none could miss his presence, was none other than Captain Wallis Norkin of the City Militia, in full uniform once again and followed by dozens of active duty Militiamen. On the other side, an utterly different group of warriors held the room’s attention. Women, these were, bloodied, battered, fierce barbaric females painted for war, wearing buckskins like the Rimlanders except for an exotic cotton shirt here and there, carrying spears and bows and great long knives. Their leader, a blazing beauty in her prime, had eyes that could pin a man to a wall like a bug to a board in a butterfly collection.
Risa Macklin allowed herself a small smile. This ought to be good, she thought. This ought to be really good.