I woke screaming from the nightmare. Looked around wildly in the darkness. No frantic sounds in response; the screams must have all stayed inside my head. As the horrors themselves were doing; I couldn’t shake them.
The fire wouldn’t start. Time and time again, my steel struck flint, the spark leaped to the tinder, and…nothing. “Brak!” Wing yelled, “get the fire going now! It must be now!” Try again, try again, holding panic at bay, barely. The Blakto were not being held at bay, though; I could hear them crashing up through the trees, closing in on our little clearing. My failure was going to kill us all. Wait! The tinder smoked! Bending low to blow gently on the moss, I–blew it out. She Bears and Song Dogs alike on the way, Wing waving his arms in distress atop the great boulder, Faye now yelling, “Brak! Brak!” Into the clearing they came, arrows drawn to their war-painted cheeks, loosing. The feathered shafts darted toward my helpless body, hitting one after another, splat! Splat! Splat! Tomato tipped arrows. They were firing tomato arrows–
“Brak!” Young Sam Dennis’s voice, from the opening in the canvas at the front of the wagon. I could see his head silhouetted against the starlight. It was still the hour before dawn, but he and others would be up, getting the campfires going, cooking hot tea–there was no more precious imported coffee–and starting breakfast. “Brak,” he whispered urgently, “I can’t get the fire going.”
“Give me a moment,” I replied, my voice octaves lower than normal. It must have sounded like some wild beast growling in its den.
The head disappeared. My blankets were soaked. I found a dry corner of cloth and wiped myself down, ridding my skin of the night sweat that had drenched the bedding. My roll would have to be left open to dry throughout the day if I didn’t want to crawl into a cold swamp come nightfall.
Dressed in fresh buckskins, this being the day we would recruit in Grain Hollow and a good first impression being important, I crawled out of the wagon into the chill morning air. Building a fire in the dark was an art, true enough, but I could tell by feel that Sam had the tinder right, with tiny sticks for kindling laid to one side and larger sticks on the other. There was a little breeze, though. Not much, but enough to affect a novice fire starter’s effort. Not that I’d known he was a novice when I’d hired him, but the tiny hollow he’d scooped out was allowing just a trickle of air in from the north side. I took off my leather hat and laid it across the offending opening, pulled out my flint and steel. Would this be a continuation of the nightmare? The Creator knew I was no novice at this! But unlike so many, I did understand that confidence was every bit as important as technique; the power of my own mind, were I to doubt myself sufficiently, would be more than enough to snuff the spark all by itself.
Lots of folks disbelieve that sort of thing, but not me. I’d seen Wing Holder blow a fist sized hole clean through a man, using nothing but his mind as a weapon, had I not?
So I took a moment, ignoring Sam squatting nearby, straining to see what I was doing (or not doing) in the darkness. I took a moment and settled myself, pushed back the fear that had haunted me in my sleep, got squared away, and then put flint and steel together.
It took right off, settling in the moss, smoldering until my gentle breath brought it fully to life. A few tiny pitch-filled slivers to boost it up the next notch, and I dared turn it over to Sam. “There you go,” I told him.
He nodded, there being already enough light from the flames to see that much, and I got to my feet to finish my morning routine. Around the camp, other fires were flaring into life, the larger of them having retained live coals throughout the night in their banked embers. Our little three person blaze didn’t usually manage to do that. Returning to the wagon, donning my weapons belt and then pausing out back where it was still dark to relieve myself, I could hear Faye doing the same thing, no more than a dozen feet to my left. Whether or not she stood like a man to do so, I had no idea; I’d heard tell some women could manage that. How, I wasn’t sure.
Both of us stepped out in front of our respective wagons just in time to witness the fire dragon’s appearance. Sam’s inexperience with fire had struck again; he’d piled on way too much wood too fast, much of it quick burning kindling at that. The results were spectacular, a great leaping creature of flame that flickered, flared, then soared high in joyous abandon at being freed to express itself.
It was gone in a moment, but the image was branded in my vision. I looked over at Faye; even though the firelight had died back down a bit and wasn’t all that close to where we were standing frozen in amazement, it was obvious she’d witnessed the dragon’s appearance as I had.
Sam, right close to the fire as he was, didn’t notice a thing. He was too chagrined, realizing his mistake. He would learn.
It would take a bit for breakfast to be ready. “Faye,” I spoke quietly, “could I ask you to grain my pinto for me this morning? I’ve got an idea which horse I’d like to filch from the army for Sam to ride, and I need to get there before the troops start saddling up for the day.”
“No problem, Brak. Go for it.”
I left her wondering which mount I had in mind, but there was no point wasting time flapping my jaws about it. There was no guarantee, at least not until I spoke to Sergeant Morgan, the noncom in charge of the remount remuda for Company C. There were two reasons for my choice, the horse and the sergeant.
No one interfered with my progress as I made my way through the camp, though there were a few curious looks here and there. I was relieved to find my man working with a stout gelding, leading it around in a circle.
“Sound enough, Ray?”
Ray Morgan was a big man, a bit over six feet, with broad shoulders and a heavy way of walking that belied his grace on a horse. He customarily rode animals other soldiers wouldn’t touch. It wasn’t his size that overawed them, either; Morgan and horses understood each other. Wing Holder had once joked in my hearing that any Morgan ought to understand horses, a Morgan being a kind of horse anyway. Like a lot of Wing’s sayings, nobody else understood that one. There might be such a thing as a Morgan horse, but nobody I knew had ever seen one. Maybe they were one of those breeds that disappeared over the centuries of Holder’s long, long life.
“Brak,” he replied by way of greeting. “Jester here had a stone bruise that left him a tad lame for a while. Think he’s healed up enough to carry a rider now, though. What’s on your mind?”
“Hired myself some help yesterday. Need to put a horse under him. Thought maybe, the good Lord and Ray Morgan willing, I might steal that little bay mare with the three white socks.”
“Hunh,” he grunted. “You did, eh? You shoulda been an out and out horse thief, kid. I ain’t seen anybody any better than you for picking out prime riding stock, especially considering you never seen the business end of a nag till a few months ago. You go into horse trading with that eye, you could skin a so called professional and be back in the mountains before he realized he was missing his hide.”
“So you wouldn’t mind releasing her to me?”
“Likely not. Unless your new employee is three hundred pounds or some such. Little Roxy don’t go no more than maybe nine hundred; she’s no destrier.”
“Ah. Sorry. Fancy word for a war horse, one of them that can carry a steel-armored warrior. I hate it when that happens, letting my vocabulary out like that for all the world to see.”
I chuckled. Sergeant Raymond Morgan talked rough most of the time, but he was one of the most intelligent men I’d ever met and a voracious reader, too. I’d asked him once why he wasn’t an officer and he’d admitted he was too smart to go that route. “No, Ray, I’d say Sam would have to be packing a full weapons belt to hit a hundred pounds. He’s under five feet, and slim at that.”
“Oho! And quick like a fox, eh? Is he the one who put you on your keister yesterday?”
“Hell, kid, the whole camp’s heard by now. Yeah, I heard. Sure, he and Roxy would be a good fit. I take it he’s no horseman?”
“Not admitting it if he is.”
“Well…Roxy won’t buck him off or anything. She might give him a funny look or two for being a pure dee idiot, but no more than that. Tanner!”
“Yeah, Sarge?” I couldn’t see where the voice came from, but it didn’t matter.
“Catch up little Roxy and slip some tack on her, bring her over here.”
“Got it, Segeant. On my way.”
While we waited, Morgan turned Jester over to a corporal and repaired to the campfire where he’d be getting his breakfast. “This Sam,” he said, “he’ll take some of the load off of you?”
My eyebrows rose. “I guess. That’s not really–what do you mean, some of the load?”
“Brak, you been carrying more burden on them up-and-growing shoulders of yours than any three grown men should have to handle.”
“Oh? I…hadn’t noticed.”
He thought about that. “Well then, maybe you hadn’t. Could be you been too busy to see the forest for all the trees getting in your way.”
“What do you mean?” I was puzzled now, and not a little apprehensive.
“Oh, nothing much.” The big Sergeant tried to keep a straight face, but a bit of a smile was cracking through all the same. “Let’s see…every morning, you been up before Faye, starting your own fire and cooking breakfast for the two of you. Never mind that we could easy have assigned a private to do that for you; you didn’t ask, and one thing the army learns early on is you never volunteer. Anyway, you been doing that, and the dishes after, and putting the fire out, taking care of your horse–”
“I did ask Faye to grain my pinto for me this morning, so I could come talk to you,” I said rather defensively.
“Uh huh. Exception to the rule, kind of makes my point. You do have your wagon driver come take care of hitching up the team and all that, but you think we haven’t noticed the scribe work you been doing? You’ve got records of every volunteer Wall builder and every military signup since you got back from touring with Wing and Isis, right?”
“Yeah. I–there doesn’t seem to be anybody else I feel I could trust to make sure the tally is right.”
“Again, kid,” he added dryly, “you’re making my point for me. There are guys and gals in this here CAF that know how to scribe, for Pete’s sake. Yeah, we’re here to fight, but we’re also here to be of service to you and Faye. You’re Wing’s apprentice, she’s his woman, and we’d be idiots not to try to make your life a little easier if you’ll let us. Not that you can come to some low level grunt like me for most of it–the remuda, yeah, but not most of it. You’d need to talk to the senior officers or, if you’re not up to that, Hell, tell Pretty Eyes what you need. That Blakto She Bear has plenty of clout, no fear, and she’d rip up any Captain or even the Colonel in charge of this little detail if he or she dared impede your progress in any way, no matter how infinitesimal.”
“Infinitesimal?” I grinned.
“Oh crap. I let out one of those big words again?”
“Dang. Well, anyway, you’re doing camp chores and scribing enough for three men and speechifying alongside Faye and so on and so forth, ad nauseum. Get a grip, Brak. You’re going to destroy yourself if you don’t learn to delegate. Pick you a good person or two, then when you’re sure they’re doing the jobs you want them to do, for Pete’s sake, add a couple more. Fire the ones that don’t cut the mustard. You don’t have to be cruel about it, but you do have to be ruthless. Eh?”
“Whoa.” I stared at him, pretty sure my eyes were glazing over. “That is by far the longest speech I’ve ever heard you make, Sergeant. Am I to take it you consider this to be of, shall we say, prime importance?”
“Only if you don’t want a heart attack before you’re twenty-one, kid. Only that.”
Thankfully, the corporal arrived with Roxy at that point, the little mare all bridled and saddled and ready to go. I thought about mounting up and riding her back to our wagon, but the stirrups looked like they were already set about right for short-limbed Sam Dennis. Besides, my assistant might weigh less than a hundred pounds, but I weighed considerably more. Faye was guessing I’d top one-forty already, at the ripe old age of thirteen.
Besides, the walk back through the camp, leading the horse, gave me a little time to think. So Ray Morgan thought I’d been working myself to death, taking on way too much. I’d had a nightmare about not being able to light the signal fire at Fear Pass Gap, only to find out Sam Dennis really couldn’t light our morning campfire. Were the two connected? They had to be. For the moment, I’d had to light the fire just like always, but Sam would learn. He had better learn. I was already comfortable around the man; having to fire him was unthinkable. But the tomato arrows? Clearly from the triple splat I’d received onstage just yesterday. I’d be ready this time; no Grain Hollow protestor was going to find an easy mark.
Something else occurred to me. Could it be possible that I’d been so terrified of missing when I’d had to start the fire at the Gap that I’d blocked it somehow, only letting it out now? Perhaps standing like a stump while getting pelted with tomatoes had brought out that fear, forced it up for me to look at.
Huh. Well, unto each night the evil thereof. I could see Sam Dennis’s eyes going wide now, staring with wonder at the bay mare with the three white socks. Sure, he’d heard me say he’d be getting a horse to ride, but hearing and seeing the reality were two different things altogether.
“I’ve not ridden before,” he admitted as I handed him the reins, “but this sure is a pretty horse. And not so Godawful tall as most of them, either; he’s just my size.”
“Roxy is a mare. She’s a she, not a he. Think of her as your new girlfriend, without benefits.”
“Without ben–oh!” He got it, his cheeks flushing furiously in the combination of firelight and early daylight. “I wouldn’t ever–”
“Never said you would,” I said, keeping a straight face. Faye, I noticed, was covering her mouth with one hand. “Some men do, though, so you might have to defend this pretty little lady’s honor from time to time.”
The emotions that chased themselves through Sam’s features were priceless. So were my emotions, and I think Faye’s as well, once we tasted the new man’s cooking. He might not be able to start a fire, and once it was going he might go wild with the kindling and release the fire dragon, but the Creator be praised, the fellow could cook.