Faye returned from her errand run to find me still rooted to the spot, studying the Traitor’s Spike. Twenty-one feet tall, a solid steel upright some eight inches thick at the base, tapering to a wickedly sharp tip at the top. Twelve inches below the tip, a four foot crossbar welded to the upright provided handy perches for the ravens who came to peck out the eyes whenever a fresh head was mounted on the Spike.
There was nothing but polished steel up there at the moment, of course. Chair Carson’s beheading–carried out by the reinstated Captain Wallis Norkin of the Navri City Militia after The Man Who Would Be Dictator was found guilty of thirteen counts of treason–had been witnessed by more than three thousand citizens as well as a goodly portion of the CAF, the newly formed Combined Armed Force. The skull had been pecked clean within days. Thirty days after the execution, as prescribed by law, the remains had been taken down, polished, shellacked, and put on display in the Museum of Bowl History.
For as long as the Confederacy lasted, and perhaps longer, the legacy of Horatius Bronsim X. Carson, once Chair of the Navri City Council, would be primarily a cautionary tale. No subversion of the Constitution goes unpunished.
The Traitor’s Spike had fascinated me from the first, especially the legend engraved on the brass plaque for all to see.
The Confederacy must stand.
I hoist the heads
Of those who would betray
The noble ideals
of the Cautan Confederacy Constitution.
I am the tree.
Should ye be tempted,
Gaze upon my fruit and beware
The consequences of your actions.
“You must have that memorized by now, Brak.” Wing’s slave girl–and many other things–dimpled at me. She seemed amused by my apparent obsession with the Spike.
“I’ve had it memorized from the first day I saw it,” I admitted, “when Carson’s head was mounted and the ravens beat the turkey vultures to it, pecking at the eyes before the Head Hoister was all the way back down the ladder.”
“Ah. What draws you to stare at it so, then?”
I let out a sigh. “I’m not sure. There’s a meaning here, not to mention a vibration. Power. Intensity. Intent. Either that,” I paused, grinning mischievously, “or it’s just one of those guy things.”
She laughed, the musical chime that lifted my spirits every time I heard it. “A guy thing. Why not. Well, let’s boogie. Chair Macklin is meeting us at the Council Café shortly.”
Good enough. I untied my pinto from the hitching rail, mounted up, and we were on our way, four guards leading, the rest of the thirty-two following. By negotiated agreement, our escort was a mixed group composed of ten Rimlanders, ten fierce She Bear warriors of the Blakto Nation, and twelve members of the Navri City Militia, hand picked by Xorn–uh, Captain Norkin–himself. It was important, the TranState Compact had agreed, to (a) present a united front, especially within city limits, and to (b) get the various groups accustomed to working with each other.
The latter was, in my considered opinion, a lost cause. Most of the Militia men were seriously intimidated by the female Blakto warriors. It showed in their body language, not to mention the nervous glances they tossed toward the women whenever they thought no one was looking.
On the other hand, the Rimlanders were impressively comfortable with the She Bears, and vice versa. After all, they had fought each other, learned mutual respect in mortal combat. As a result, the mountain men and “barbarian” women found themselves bonded more tightly than most husbands and wives, exchanging looks of silent laughter as they observed the discomfort of the city folks. For that matter, more than a few mixed-nation couples had paired off and become husbands and wives.
I got the joke and, being of the mountain persuasion myself these days, had a bit of a struggle to keep my thoughts from showing on my face.
The Blakto fighters didn’t bother me. They had a wicked sense of humor that dared a man to be other than lighthearted in its presence; surely, that must be why I was so attracted to them. That, and the fact that every one of them was a superb athlete, hard bodied and capable. There was also Green Snake, youngest of our escort, built long and willowy, with eyes that danced in merry challenge every time she caught me looking her way.
She liked me. I was sure of it. I just wasn’t sure how to go about courting her without getting myself unmanned or something equally undesirable. I was not yet sufficiently conversant with River Eyes culture to risk making a move.
Listen to me. Making a move. I sound like an old pro, eh? Not. Just heard one of the guys say that. It sounded cool. Maybe Green Snake would make the first move. A guy can dream.
WIth the exception of Councilwoman Risa Macklin, the Council members had hated it when Wing Holder and his combined force had laid down the law to Navri City. They’d kept their mouths shut, mindful of the dozens of crossbows aimed generally in their direction, but their eyes had been smoldering. If looks could kill and all that.
Risa, though…Risa had seen it right away. With Chair Carson taken into custody and gagged to keep him silent while his betters discussed his fate, Macklin had risen to comment on the changes they had to accept or die. Wing had put it that baldly; do it our way or, by virtue of the treasonous acts of your Council’s Chair, you will all be executed on the spot and the explanation given to the people later.
“Speaking for the Rimlanders,” she had begun, “Wing Holder has a point. Under Section 798B, Subsection C of the Cautan Confederacy Constitution, at least the two Holders who were treacherously attacked from the rear by Chair Carson’s entirely illegitimate army…those two Holdings have every right to hold all of us responsible. Carson was head of the Council. As such, he could be presumed by any court of law in the land to have been acting on behalf of the entire Council. The Brothers could require our heads–all of our heads–and any court from here to Sand Castle City would be required to rule in favor of the Rimlanders.”
This opening statement had been met with sullen, stony silence. She was right, but they didn’t have to like it. A couple of the least cerebral Council members didn’t even know what she was talking about; they had never gotten around to thinking for themselves. Carson’s word had been good enough for them, rubber stamps as they were.
In the end, it helped that the Brothers had no interest in interfering in Navri City politics…except for requiring the execution of Carson. On that point, they were adamant.
Fortunately, with Risa Macklin swept into office as the new Chair, that was not a problem.
I still thought about it a lot, though, despite the time that had passed. Two full months; we were moving into the fall season already.
“We’re here,” Faye murmured, snapping her fingers under my nose to bring me out of my trance. She had to do that sometimes. I really needed to understand the politics involved in our world; there were occasions when the thinking process took me really deep.
Old Bob, Chair Macklin’s carriage driver, nodded to us as we handed off our horses to a couple of guards. Four bodyguards, two Rimlanders and two She Bears, accompanied us into the café. They would be seated at a nearby table with Risa’s people; those left in the parking lot would have to make do with trail rations from their saddlebags.
Macklin waved us over. Not standing on ceremony, we pulled up chairs and joined her. That was it for this business luncheon, just the three of us. A gilt edged mirror imported from the East adorned one wall, situated just right for me to notice what a strange trio we made. The Chair of the City Council was a sight to behold, decked out in her trademark skirt over mountain style buckskins. The skins were dyed a remarkable sky blue color, though, accentuating her midnight blue eyes. Tall for a woman, slender, and while old enough to be my mother and then some, still undeniably attractive. A widow clearly used to command; I would not have wanted to cross her. Then there was Faye, dressed in plain mountain buckskins but no skirt, a couple of inches shorter than Macklin and at least a dozen years younger, vibrant crackling youth set against the maturity of the city politician sitting across the table.
And finally me, the kid. The gangling, gawky boy–a man in my own eyes, but who was I kidding?–stuck in the middle of a growth spurt that had my wrists hanging out of my sleeves and acne roughing up my face.
Oh, I was a winner, I was. Looked every inch of it. Yessiree Bob.
With our orders for lunch taken, we got down to business. Unsurprisingly, Macklin went first. “Good news to report from the Council. They’ve agreed–unanimously, to my considerable amazement–to fund the training for a full thousand troops to add to the CAF. It seems that several of the Councilmen had serious concerns of their own about the growing potential threat posed by the Easterners. It boggles the mind,” she shrugged, sipping lightly from a mug of dark, imported coffee, “but apparently not all of my fellow politicians are complete idiots after all.”
Faye and I let out identical sighs, in stereo. This was a huge relief. Wing had laid down a number of conditions, one of which was the expansion of the newly formed Combined Armed Force. In addition to Blakto and Rimlander warriors, it would now contain a levee of soldiers from Navri City and, in time, similar levees from the other seven major cities would follow.
True, a lot of the mountain Holdings were still holding out, but that shouldn’t matter. Much, anyway. And we did have seven of them on board.
The Blakto? Well…the River Eyes were all in. Isis Two Feathers remained their undisputed leader; where she went, they followed. Of the remaining tribes–more than a hundred of them, I was startled to learn–only three had chosen to deal with us wily, tricky, evil minded Rimlanders. Still, they were all sizeable groups; between them, they accounted for more than twenty percent of all the Blakto in the world. We could work with that. We had to work with that.
“So,” Macklin asked, “how’s it going on the Rim?”
Faye grinned at me. “I’ll let Brak answer that. He’s been traveling with Wing and Isis, acting as scribe.”
“Uh. Well. First, the Blakto themselves. As you know, Wing’s proposal was that the Holdings of the three Brothers be opened up at the outer edges to settlement by the Blakto. He and Isis eventually settled on surveying a slice one mile thick on the prairie side, following the contours of the land, measured from the beginning of the forest’s edge. Very few Rimlanders had ever settled there anyway, primarily for fear of attack by the Blakto over the past centuries. Those few who do have small holdings in that area–a slice some sixty miles long–have been given the choice of moving to other properties deeper in the Rim or remaining where they are, surrounded by their former enemies.”
“Hm.” Risa studied her salad, popped a cherry tomato into her mouth, and spoke around it. “How many are choosing to stay in place?”
“Surprisingly, it’s about fifty-fifty so far. As for the survey line, there are crews out there marking off the boundaries, usually four to a team, two Blakto, two Rimlanders. They’re blazing the trail as they go, too, so no member of either group can plead ignorance if they cross the line without invitation.”
“Yeah. Kinda sorta. It’s getting pretty organized. Any mountain man who wants a Blakto on his property can invite him–or her–at any time, and vice versa. Plus, there are books of Blanket Invitations, lists of people from either group who are welcome to cross the line any time. Although it’s generally agreed that, centuries of mutual suspicion and fighting being what they are, it’s not good practice for most folks to travel into the other culture’s territory without an armed escort. But the language immersion exchanges are getting underway, some of them produced by mixing up the wall building crews.” The Great Wall, arcing out in a huge quarter circle to provide a winter windbreak immediately and a barrier to invasion by Easterners eventually, was going to take years–maybe even decades–to complete. The project excited a lot of Rimlanders, though; anything that meant losing fewer loved ones at the gaps counted as a blessing. Hundreds of men and women alike were more than willing to donate time as they could, working side by side with their new allies.
“Admittedly, there have been two killings, but when the murderers were sentenced to labor on the wall, in chains, for the rest of their natural lives, attitudes among the rest of the people–Blakto and Rimlander alike–improved dramatically.”
Risa Macklin nodded, looking thoughtful. It was only recently that Faye had shared her story, the real reason Wing had needed to enslave her to save her life when she was eleven years old. Her father, Three Bears, had dared to abandon his own people–the River Eyes Blakto, no less–in order to join with the love of his life, a young widow whose farm east of Granite Peak Stronghold had desperately needed a man’s strength to handle the livestock and work the land. It was a love match, but their mutual devotion had cost them their lives. Neighbors, especially in the tiny village where they shopped for those few items they could not produce themselves, resented the union from the beginning.
One star-crossed day when young Faye was eleven years old, the mob had stoned Luanda Wanson and Three Bears to death, then reached to drag their still warm corpses away from the child they had sheltered with their dying bodies.
Wing Holder, happening by too late to save her parents, had killed three and wounded two of the villagers with his Strathian Stick before they’d backed off, a couple of the survivors running for their huts to retrieve their bows. Leader of the entire Holding or not, he was looking to get thoroughly ventilated on the spot–until his voice stopped them all in their tracks.
Not that he could have chilled the mob fever with voice alone before he’d gone to work with his blades. Timing is everything.
Using his best courtroom style, he’d informed them of Constitutional law, claiming the girl as his slave in payment for the murders done by the rednecks–to one of their own, but in his Holding–not to mention her man.
And then he’d gotten out of there in a hurry, taking Faye with him, never to return without an armed squad in attendance. Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers. That was his motto, at least for that sort of situation, and he stuck to it.
There was nothing left of that village now. During the battle for Fear Pass Gap, when Isis’s 90 mercenary creech riders had pointed their mounts up the trail toward Wing Peak, they hadn’t anticipated running into the kind of trouble presented by Wing and his guerilla fighters plus the formidable ape cats. Frankly, they hadn’t even figured on Xorn/Norkin, Faye, and me. Fewer than thirty had survived to reach their objective, the towering spire of granite that housed the Wing Peak observatory. Slowed by the fighting, they’d also arrived late, losing their biggest advantage; the sun had come up, and they had to tackle the redoubt in broad daylight. The garrison picked some of them off, but the majority of the creech went nuts when their six-limbed enemies shot riders from their backs.
The assault on the observatory had to be aborted, but a handful of crazed alien mantids-on-steroids had fled through the timber. Official reports concluded that their stumbling into the village had happened quite by accident. Wing had simply mentioned something about what goes around comes around. In any event, the village was wiped out. Not a man, woman, or child survived.
Neither did any of the aggressive creech, but the Psubu’m’sptybalt who took them out did not catch up to the eighteen foot monsters until it was too late for the villagers who had stoned Faye’s parents to death fifteen years earlier. I thought it was fifteen, anyway, if the slave woman who led us had her own birthday right. She was twenty-six now, precisely twice my age.
It was getting late in the day by the time we’d wrapped up our meeting with the Navri City Council Chair, but there was still time to rejoin our Emissary Force. The EF, camped just outside the city, was ready to march when we arrived; we could still cover another five miles en route to Grain Hollow. Five hundred men and women plus another hundred or so camp followers; I was learning that no army, however small, can truly avoid those.
Only Faye and I were not, strictly speaking, part of the EF. By design, though each soldier wore a green and gold identifying patch on the left shoulder on a camouflage patterned shirt, most of the troops were decked out in togs of their own choosing and reflecting their own culture. Even the uniform shirts weren’t precisely uniform; Blakto tended toward imported cotton while mountain Rimlanders stuck to dyed buckskin and quite a few recruits from the Bowl itself–both the cities and the villages–preferred wool regardless of the season.
The mission itself, however, was a uniform bitch. You could count on one thing, and that was Murphy’s Law. Wing swore ol’ Murphy went back more than one hundred thousand years, and I could believe it.
If anything could go wrong, it would.
Essentially, we–Faye and I, primarily–were tasked with introducing all eight cities to our former enemies and new allies, the River Eyes Blakto and the other three “friendly” tribes, the Hawk People, the Snake Eaters, and the Bear Claw group. Naturally, they were already becoming known simply as the Hawks, the Snakes, and the Claws. Beyond that, our orders required us to recruit as many good people as possible for the CAF; if we could attract enough volunteers, filling each city’s levee would become a fait accompli.
“Use your judgment,” Wing had advised us before we set out. “We don’t need to fill up the ranks with trash. But don’t be too picky, either; we’d like to see a standing army of ten thousand, trained and ready, within the next two years.”
It would have been a lot more effective if Wing Holder himself could have led the Emissary Force, but he and Isis Two Feathers were more than busy enough as it was, supervising the integration of two ancient enemies on the same land, or at least just across the line from each other. Trade practices had to be established, the Great Wall had to be supervised. Wing knew some wall building techniques involving adding ox blood to a powerful mixture he called konkreet. Said the stuff had been used by the ancient Romans, whoever they were. Isis had to be present and visible to keep her own people in line.
We understood all this, Faye and I, but that didn’t make it any easier.
Councilwoman Risa Macklin sympathized with our plight but didn’t dare leave Navri City untended, so that wasn’t an option either. The same went for Captain Norkin; he had a lot of work to do with the City Militia.
It brought me up short, sometimes, realizing just how much responsibility I was carrying for my age. No one mistook me for any sort of leader at first sight; my acne and gangly limbs took care of that. But sometimes, especially in the smaller villages between major cities, Faye had me do a good bit of the speaking when it came time to address the populace. I’d been a villager myself; she felt I could relate to those people better than she could, especially since many of the rural folks looked down on women who got too uppity.
The She Bears among the Blakto were pretty effective at shaking those attitudes up as needed, though. The average farmer who came face to face with a hundred warrior women, any one of whom could skin him alive with her eyes alone, was quick enough to swallow his bias even if he choked on it.
One challenge had been figuring out how on Earth we were going to cover all eight cities in the time allotted. Well…seven cities; Navri City was already firmly in Risa Macklin’s hand, and Risa was no fool. Wing wanted everyone in the Bowl to see us at least once by the time the rainy season hit in roughly another eight months. If we could make our pitch in one city a month, we’d get the job done with time to spare.
But that was a big if, what with winter coming on.
It would require covering more than four thousand miles by the time we were done looping around on the available roads, in some cases backtracking hundreds of miles through rugged terrain before setting course for the next city. The truly passable roads were few, and while we of the mountains scoffed at the soft Bowl dwellers, the lowlands were not truly pieces of cake. We would be facing everything from rolling farmlands to lifeless badlands to stretches of true desert before we were done.
For now, though, the goals were simple, the roads laid out in a giant, ragged “M” shape that would take us first to Grain Hollow (310 miles), followed by Track Crossing (237 miles), Brighart (yes, Brighart of the notorious Assassin’s Clan, 398 miles), and finally Caldera. That run was the easy part. It would get ugly from there.
The EF made camp right at sunset. Sure enough, we no sooner had the sentries out, the stock tended, and the fires lit than who should show up but my nemesis.
“Man, dude,” he said by way of greeting, “that zit on your nose is a humdinger. Must interfere with your vision, don’t it?”
I was slicing meat for the pan when he arrived. Faye and I had bodyguards, but the guards weren’t there to wait on us like we were invalids or eastern royalty or some such; we took care of our own domestic needs. A couple of soldiers did handle our personal supply wagon; we were pampered to that extent.
“How are you this evening, Sergeant?” I replied evenly, but inside I was seething. Ever since Corporal Abasalom Vringas had survived his interrogation by the late and unlamented Chair Carson, he’d been insufferable. Or at least, he’d amped up his natural nasty personality as soon as he’d volunteered as a charter member of the Combined Armed Force and received his promotion to Sergeant.
“Ah,” the Sergeant grinned, “as good as I could be, I reckon, considering I didn’t get to play civilian lap dog to the likes of the mighty Chair Macklin today. Did she sit ye on her lap, sonny boy?”
Sonny boy? Yeah, that was the deal right there, wasn’t it? Vringas was only four years older than I was. Short sucker, too; couldn’t stand more than five-five or so. Stocky, though; he’d be a handful in a scuffle. Scuttlebutt had it he liked to beat up new recruits whenever the senior officers weren’t looking his way. I believed every bit of that; he had mean eyes. Not always, but there were times the ugly in Vringas leaped right out at me.
Like now. I’d have liked to whupped him some, but held back for two reasons. Number one, despite already being taller than him, I didn’t figure he’d be easy. Number two, it would look bad, one of the two civilians on this mission mixing it up with a noncom. Lose-lose situation, right there.
It was hard, though. I really wanted to palm strike his nose right up into his brain, if he had a brain. Not for the first time, I wished Chair Carson could have been arrested and executed after he’d done the same for the smart-mouth bastard standing in front of me.
After tossing out a few more low level barbs–most of the ten year old boys I knew could have done better–he wandered off, sneering first at me and then at his cousin Hoober Vringas. “Here’s your favorite suck-up, Pimple Face,” he announced. “I’ll leave you two to your various pursuits.”
“Various pursuits?” I grinned at Hoob. A bit taller than his cousin, he was a tad on the chubby side–though that was melting off him with time on the trail–and a year older. He was also a buck private. Fortunately, he was not in the Sergeant’s platoon. “The good sergeant been taking vocabulary lessons?”
This Vringas was my friend. He was also free to visit with me in camp, except on those nights when he drew cooking duty. Since Platoon B of the Fourth Company happened to include several men who actually enjoyed cooking, that didn’t happen too often. Miracles do happen.
“I can’t believe we’re from the same gene pool,” he said, shaking his shaggy head. I’d heard of armies that made their soldiers cut their hair short, but ours wasn’t one of them.
Faye stepped around the end of the wagon at that moment. She’d been cleaning her horse’s hooves, a ritual she insisted on doing whenever we stopped for any length of time. She didn’t insist that I follow suit, so I didn’t, though a nagging little voice in my head kept warning me that I was going to pay the price for my sloth some day. “You free to join us for supper, Hoob?”
“If it’s okay with you, Ma’am.”
She chuckled. “Certainly.” She didn’t explain the source of her amusement, but she didn’t have to. After several attempts to get the private to call her Faye, she’d given up, choosing to twinkle at him instead, every time he called her Ma’am. Which, I was pretty sure, was a guaranteed way to get him to keep on doing it. Hoober Vringas was my friend, or at least I thought he was, but he had a worse crush on Wing Holder’s slave girl than my own early infatuation.
Nobody talked while we ate. Eating was serious business. It also gave me time to think. Murphy’s Law had reared its vicious head on this mission a bunch of times already. I had a mental list.
1. Putting the EF together had been a real bugger. Mixing 127 Blakto–both men and women–in with 302 Rimlanders from various holdings and 71 volunteers from the inner Bowl, integrating that into a functioning mini-army, had been a political nightmare. Death Holder had taken time out of his own duties to help with that, and it was mostly workable now, but the Force had far too many trouble makers like Sergeant Vringas in its makeup. There had been quite a few beatings, no killings yet, but it hadn’t been pretty.
2. Discussion over the route to take on our recruiting tour had been just plain confusing. In the end, we’d decided to first hit the greatest number of cities we could, leaving Sand Castle City, Lollakey, and Starbow for later. It had cost us several days of indecision, just figuring that much out.
3. We’d almost lost our entire Blakto contingent right off the bat. Death Holder had felt–correctly, I suspected–that mixing the various cultures together was the way to go, but he hadn’t been able to make it stick. The final configuration left the various people in segregated companies. Well, except for the lowland recruits who really were stuck in any Company the senior officers decided. Two full weeks lost, infighting over that.
4. Based on having made our presentation at seven villages plus Navri City so far, it was impossible to predict which approach would be the key to unlocking a municipality’s acceptance of both the Blakto and the idea of a standing army. Oh, nobody was going to mess with us openly, but that was only because no city had a military unit capable of withstanding us, should we decide to raze a town or something equally ridiculous. But we were after minds and hearts, and that was not a simple thing.
The names of the villages blurred in memory, but we remembered what worked. In one place, Faye sold them beautifully, all by herself. In another, they booed her off the impromptu stage (we carried the pieces to a portable stage in one of the wagons), but the fools actually listened to me. In yet another, they were openly hostile toward both of us…but backed water instantly when Pretty Eyes (don’t let the name fool you) of the Blakto She Bears strutted onstage in full war regalia and explained the facts of life in no uncertain terms.
And in one place, after we’d spoken to a group of villagers one evening and then slept in camp overnight, our departure was delayed the next morning by a visit from a village elder who claimed a citizen’s daughter had been raped by a soldier, and what were we going to do about it?
That had been a tough one. In the end, we’d punted, handing over a small pouch full of silver in apology and promising to keep the case open until the culprit could be found.
Which didn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. Our army of five hundred chose to close its ranks for the first time. Nobody was talking. I wanted to believe it had been Abasalom Vringas who’d committed the crime but realized we had no evidence. Yeah, our Military Code of Justice required death by hanging as the penalty for rape of a civilian by a soldier. That much was true. If the offender could be identified.
There were rumors that Sergeant Vringas was gay, but I didn’t put much stock in them. Besides, who says a gay Sergeant can’t also be a heterosexual rapist? It could happen. Oh please, let the rapist be found, and let it be Abasalom.
We weren’t sure anybody believed us about the danger from the Easterners. Denial is often the path of least resistance. As we traveled, word spread so that in a tiny village of less than 100 residents, we might find ourselves addressing an audience of a thousand in an open field, but unfortunately, the bigger the audience, the greater the resistance to our message. Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers.
Fortunately, the size of the audience did not matter when it came to recruiting soldiers. Some joined at nearly every stop, although for differing reasons. For some, it was the pay; steady income can work wonders. Some were fascinated by the “barbaric” Blakto with feathers in their hair and some of the She Bears being highly attractive–and certainly in superb physical condition. Others joined to see the world beyond their father’s farm or their city’s ghetto.
Bottom line, the reasons didn’t matter. What mattered was that they joined. War with the East was coming sooner or later whether anybody believed it or not, and war with the numerous Blakto tribes who’d fled from the very idea of joining with the Rimlanders…that was all too possible, too. In the meantime, every soldier–despite the segregation of fighting columns–was exposed to the Blakto in a mostly non-confrontational environment. That had to be a good thing.
Listening to the coyotes fire up their night songs nearby and a wolf pack howling in the distance, I pondered all this. My friend Hoober respected my silence; he was good that way.
If I could only arrange for his scumbag cousin to have a fatal accident, I could deal with the rest of it.
Hey, I’m only half serious about that scumbag thing. I think.
“Earth to Brak.”
“Huh? Was I that gone?” Faye was regarding me from her camp chair on the other side of our fire, mirth in her eyes. Hoob was watching, too, but his expression was somber. I had a sudden sinking feeling in my gut. “What’s on your mind, buddy?”
The private pulled in a belly full of air. Let it out slowly. Rubbed the stubble on his chin. And laid it out for us.
“Ma’am, Brak…I know he’s my cousin….”
“Yeah. I…uh…I gotta tell somebody, and there’s nobody I dare blab to but you two. Um…Abasalom…we all called him Bass when we were kids. Bass always had a little something wrong in his character. He…well, I guess I better just spit it out. You know how he was counted a hero, getting 78 survivors back from the Gap after the Blakto wiped out the rest of the Navri City Army. Well, turns out he wasn’t any hero. In fact, he should have been tried and executed for…cowardice in the face of enemy fire, I guess. That’d be the most likely. I been listening, not talking to where anyone would realize I was digging, but it didn’t seem right to me that he’d done a, you know, heroic thing. And it turned out he didn’t.
“There’s a couple of men in my platoon who were with him that day. They told me what really happened. Corporal Vringas was in charge of a single squad, just ten men, in a platoon commanded by a Sergeant Frazeer. The Lieutenant in charge of the Company–or maybe it was a Captain, but whoever, he’d already been killed. But Frazeer had most of his men still on their feet, thirty-five of ’em or so, when it happened.
“The Blakto were carving them up, just like we’ve all heard from the beginning. That much is true. But all of a sudden the Rimlanders came pouring out of the trees, counterattacking the Blakto from both sides. Sergeant Frazeer saw this. He yelled for the platoon to move forward, against the enemy, but Bass was right behind the sergeant. He didn’t want no more to do with them She Bears. Their platoon could have made a difference, really could have. The Blakto were highly distracted by this renewed threat from the mountain men. It was the right time to strike back. But all of a sudden Frazeer was hit, down he went, and my asshole cousin was the senior noncom left in command. He reversed the sergeant’s last order, ordered his men to fall back, and he himself fell back faster than any of ’em.”
“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “Backing off at a moment like that…it must have cost the Rimlanders. Every blade would have been crucial, right?”
“Yeah.” Hoob looked like he was going to be sick. “No question about it. I don’t know who died or was wounded because of what he did–or rather, what he did not do, which was keep fighting–but there’s no doubt somebody paid a high price for his yellow belly.”
It was Faye’s turn to ask a question. “So, the corporal kept on retreating, his platoon followed him back down the grade and out of the fray, other stragglers–maybe deserters, sort of–joined up along the way, and the rest of the story about their long trek back to Navri City is basically true?”
Hoob let out another sigh. “Basically, yeah. Except there’s one more thing. The weapon that took out Sergeant Frazeer wasn’t wielded by any Blakto. It was Bass’s own belt knife–not his sword, but his belt knife. The sergeant’s own corporal literally stabbed him in the back.”
Nobody said anything else for long moments. The three of us just sat there, staring into the flames. Eventually, though, Faye broke the silence. “Brak? What do you think?”
“What do I think?” I raised my head, glancing first at her composed features and then into my friend’s anguished eyes. “I think, Hoober Vringas, that it had to tear you up, knowing your own blood had done something like that. I also think Abasalom Vringas cannot be allowed to get away with it. But exposing him as a traitor, bringing him to justice…we’ll have to think about how that’s to be done. Your part in bringing the truth to our attention…Hoob, you’ve got to be protected. If the men in your unit ever suspect your part in this, your life is forfeit. They’d cut your throat in a heartbeat for ratting out your own blood. Or at least some of them would, and it only takes one.
“Then there’s the fact that those who know what he did need to pay up, too. Plus the complication that neither Faye nor I have the slightest bit of jurisdiction in the matter. Wing Holder could maybe pull it off, mostly just because he’s Wing. But the military chain of command has to be followed, and their rules regarding evidence and proof of the crime. Right now, we know he did what he did, but can it be proved? For that matter, can we even manage to get things stirred up enough to launch a real investigation? I guess…no, I’m certain we need to think this through. And as much as I hate to say it, we have to consider army morale. Right now, Sergeant Abasalom Vringas is a freaking folk hero to the men–the Bowl men, anyway–who’ve heard his sanitized version of events that day. We need to figure out a way to get an investigation going that won’t undermine the entire military structure.”
I shut up. I’d run out of things to say.
Faye poured herself a second mug of alfalfa tea and settled in to sip, considering me carefully. “You know, Brak,” she said, “I couldn’t have summed it up better myself. Wing couldn’t have chosen a better apprentice.”
I suddenly realized my cheeks were flushed from the heat of the fire. It must have been that. Or maybe, just maybe, I was excited about someday seeing Bass Vringas’s head stuck atop the Traitor’s Spike.