The forest was thick here, the slopes steep. Heavy brush clogged many of the draws between ridges, where snowmelt made seasonal streams each spring and numerous deadfalls made travel by horseback impossible in more places than not. Thankfully, there were game trails. Where deer and elk traveled regularly, we could go also. No laden pack horse could slip through tight spots like a wary ungulate with the smell of predator in its nostrils, but compared to the deep cover thickets, the main trails were broad highways. It had been at least a mile since we’d seen an opening–natural park, meadow, or burn–that allowed one to see farther than a few dozen yards ahead. It was far cooler among the pines, firs, and spruces that blocked sunlight from reaching any one particular spot of earth for more than a few minutes a day. Here, the snowdrifts showed little sign of melting. It took a sharp eye to make out the path ahead, too; there hadn’t been many animals up this high for months. They would be returning as the snow retreated, but why should they flounder in belly deep drifts when there were broad meadows filled with easily accessible grasses a couple of miles down the slopes?
Stupid, the grass eaters are not.
I rounded one sharp corner and stopped Roan instantly. There were no more than a handful of forest giants ahead; we were coming to an opening of some sort. Behind us, Laurel closed the gap and then sat patiently, Julia doing likewise behind Laurel. Except maybe for the patient part. Jules would be on high alert, not knowing the reason for my hesitation. I could feel her caressing the stock of her rifle, her head swiveling, scanning our back trail as well as the trees on both sides of the game trail.
Nothing seemed amiss. A crow cawed somewhere in the distance. Nothing to do with us. Time to get on with it.
By the time the women followed me into the open, I was sitting utterly still in the saddle, staring. The Hold, as Laurel termed it…her description had not done it justice. Not that words ever could. We were looking at the western side of a massive upthrust, sheer cliffs of…limestone? “Towering” would have been an understatement. We were positioned closest to the north edge, which seemed lower than to the south, but even here the mesa, if it could be called that, rested at least a hundred yards above the surrounding terrain. At that far southern end, it looked more like four hundred yards. Certainly no attackers were likely to succeed against defenders, at least not if it was like this all the way around. There might be a rock climber alive who could scale that wall, but there couldn’t be many. Was there even a way up? Along the entire top, at least as far the eye could see from this vantage point, a dark row of trees grew in tight profusion; when the quake had thrust this mass up above its surroundings, it had simply and literally given part of the forest a lift as well.
Not so at the base. Scree was piled there, but less than one might expect; the rip in the earth had not even yet filled in completely. Steam rose, billowing plumes in frosty air, in several places along the crack. Here and there, snow did not exist; the ground was still hot, or at least warm. Gray tree-corpses, long dead, carpeted a swath a good forty yards wide at its narrowest point along the wall, double that at its widest.
My neck had a crick in it from staring up at the Roost. Not the Hold. This place was a Roost. If I’d any doubts, the eagles soaring above the mesa would have dispelled them.
Laurel was looking around interestedly. Jules tore her gaze away from the monster rock and looked at me. She looked as gobsmacked as I felt. Our shadows, and those of the trees behind us, promised another two hours of decent light. No more than that.
“There’s a way up, right?”
Laurel nodded. “To our left. If we skirt the edge of the forest, close to the trees and not too close to the hot ground…you will see. It’s almost like a giant hinge, anchoring the rock that swung upward.”
I grunted. “Let’s get to it, then. We’re burning daylight.” I truly did not want to have to camp down here with that rock looming over us like that. Made me feel like an ant with a man’s boot coming down on my head. Stupid thing to feel, maybe, but there it was.
We found the path to Rocky Top thirty minutes later. The north side of the Roost was narrow, no more than fifty feet across, yet somehow that relatively small point of contact had not ripped when the uplift happened. I got the sense of a giant wedge being shoved up from below, yes, but on a curved path. All around the Roost, the slopes were fairly steep; the mesa looked close to level. We could, and did, simply ride right out on it.
There was no time to really explore the place before dark, but we did find a thick stand of cottonwoods hosting a spring that looked like it had never frozen over. Cool water, but not icy. A warm spring, then. We boiled the water for drinking, but hacked out a little spill pool for the horses, who pronounced it delicious.
The weather was calm that night, and not too cold, either. We did not engage in any romantic notions; there was too much cover here, places an enemy might approach unseen. Besides, we were too wired to snuggle or even to sleep much when we, meaning Julia and I, were not on sentry duty. On my shift, I heard noises several times, noises I was not sure of, but which might have belonged to a bear just out of winter hibernation. It was still a bit early for that, but even among bears there are early birds. None came close to the fire, though, nor did I feel any direct threat.
The pack horses were left behind in the morning, hobbled but happy. We’d eaten and saddled up before the sun was fairly risen. As it turned out, one day was not enough to fully explore the Roost…and we were not alone. Rather, we probably were alone at the moment, but someone had camped here before. Many someones.
“Look at this.” Julia was by far our best tracker; it was no surprise that she was the one to notice. She was kicking snow aside, revealing a fire ring of small rocks, a few charred remains of sticks, even a rough pile of unburned firewood ready to hand.
“How old?” Maybe she couldn’t tell too much about that, but any information was better than none.
She shrugged, doing interesting things to her buckskin shirt where it showed through her unbuttoned winter coat. “Long time, but maybe not so long. Before winter set in would be my guess. Which tells us–”
“Most likely.” She nodded. “And they’ll be back. Never heard of a raider yet who’d do a lick of work he considered ridiculous, yet there’s that pile of firewood just waiting for the torch.”
I nodded, trying to ignore the queasiness in my get. “I can see it. Start raiding as soon as the snow is off, both for the warmer weather and because it’ll be harder to track them. Hard to hide the evidence of a gang plowing through a drift. Hit merchant trains or other targets of opportunity in the low country, then disappear into the woods, head back here to lie low until the next time. Pack up the leftover loot in the fall, move south somewhere for the winter, and take the winter off, just kicking back. Or something like that.” The women didn’t say anything, just watched me work it through. “We’re going to have to be ready to fight them at that entrance choke point. Fifty feet across is all. We can do it.” I hoped we could. It was cutting it close. If my people arrived even a week before the raiders showed up, we’d make it. But if they held the Roost against us because we were one day too late getting out Fort Steel…I didn’t want to think about the consequences, but I sort of had to, now didn’t I?
By our third evening on the mesa, we’d covered the area as thoroughly as possible within the time frame allotted. Most importantly, we had a map. Crude, hardly to scale, yet still a map. The base ran for nearly two miles on the western side, closer to three on the southern side, and a bit more than that on the eastern side–though “eastern” wasn’t exactly accurate. That cliff wall on the “east” side angled more to the northwest than it did to true north. None of us were surveyors, but combining our guesses, we decided the mesa measured approximately 1 1/2 square miles, or right around 1,000 acres. Thankfully, it was not all forest, but only a rough fringe. The large center portion of the Roost consisted of rolling meadow populated with native grasses, Indian paintbrush, patches of berry bushes, low vegetation of a hundred different sorts. Trees great and small provided a border screen all the way around the outer perimeter, but nowhere was this border of evergreens thicker than a few hundred feet. There were no obvious gaps, either; even at its thinnest, the screen of trees remained more than enough for good hiding of the interior and better windbreak. The rest of the Roost was comprised of meadow, every possible form of upland vegetation known to the high country. A few stray pines, cottonwood stands at three of the spring sites, grasses Julia said would grow strong horses, and a plethora of wildflowers. Not that the flowers were blooming at this time of year, but our expert aka my mate was able to identify many of them by pawing through the snow cover and studying the dried, frozen stems and leaves. She admitted she was guessing a little but felt fairly certain warmer weather would reveal bluebells, shooting stars, bitterroot, and many more I couldn’t even come close to remembering. She hoped not larkspur, which was poisonous to livestock.
Best of all and worst of all, the place was profusely dotted with live springs, over half of them warm springs. We’d located eleven such already, and there were probably more.
That the live water was good news counted as the understatement of the year, but it was also a problem. Blessing and problem, all in one. Because so much water drew animals and men alike like flies to a rotting carcass. Deer and elk abounded, along with tracks announcing the presence of, yes, bears, along with two different cougars, several bobcats, and at least one early bird bear. Coyotes came there, too, but their tracks were old. No coyote would care to confront an adult wolf, or at least they would not attempt to stand their ground in the face of a rampaging wolf. We would have to be careful, bringing so called civilized Fort Steel refugees, freed slaves, into this mountain man’s paradise. Worse, hard men knew of this place. They would not give it up easily; there would be killing.
And I had no idea how many of the slaves in Fort Steel could be turned into trained fighters willing to kill and capable of getting the job done. Four, maybe five if we were lucky. The worst case scenario? Zero.
But the Roost would do. Its rock walls–granite, we’d determined, not limestone, so they should last for quite some time–were either completely vertical or the next thing to it, except for the south face which leaned out over the lower land like the prow of an oceangoing ship. Not that I’d ever seen a ship, or the ocean for that matter, but the jutting rock reminded me of the pictures Teacher had shown us at Fort Steel. The bottleneck entrance at the north end, renamed the throat because of its length, could be easily defended…with a dozen warriors. Or hopefully with two, as that was all we had for now. Along the sides of the throat, where the land had held together by its toenails, refusing to upthrust much at all, the adjoining terrain sloped down steeply. Thirty feet into the throat, the rock wall was thirty feet high, and it kept getting higher from there. If we couldn’t hold this place against the Fort’s militia, we were dead already anyway. Eventually, the trees bordering the throat entrance would have to be cleared away, fortifications would need to be built–even low earthen ramparts providing defenders cover from which to shoot attackers–but for now, time was of the essence.
My people had to be back here before the first raiders of the summer arrived. Back here, and prepared to repel invaders. Fort Steel was not likely to be able to field more than a dozen militia to pursue us, presuming we made good our escape, but raider gangs could be of any size at all.
I did not plan on letting our people know there might be fifty men coming with evil design. At least not for a while. But Jules and I knew, and Laurel seemed to think our estimates made sense.
Still, in the end it was all up to me. Julia could track, she could shoot, she could swing a sword, and she certainly could hunt, but her mind did not automatically go to strategy and tactics. Mine did. Maybe I’d been a military man in other lives.
Every night in this place, we’d kept the fire going strong and our senses on high alert. Human enemies were unlikely this early in the year, but the animals living here might not even know what a human was. Not all raiders are stupid; those using this redoubt for a summer hideout could well hunt only away from the premises. Which was good, if fact, but large predators who have never learned to fear the long bite of man are sometimes prone to consider two-leggeds as simply one more source of meat. Julia and I alternated watches as always, but all of us slept in our clothes, boots included, and two of both slept light when we slept at all. The sentry on duty stayed close to the tent, too, just far enough out to avoid being made a target by the firelight.
Thankfully, we did get one good night’s rest, along with long, hot showers and a healthy dose of recreation, when we returned to the Library. One night only. We could not stay. At the city’s lower elevation–and Fort Steel itself, on the other side of the ridge, sat even lower–the snow was nearly gone. Where streets were not paved, they were mostly mud. The window of opportunity for freeing the slaves this year, at least as I saw it, was closing fast.
Time to get a move on.