Grit Smith arrived with the sad news of Jeremiah Compton’s suicide on November 22nd, riding in advance of the season’s second major storm. “Every one of the Fort Steel men volunteered to stay with Laura and Davies,” he said. “They’re not experienced scouts. They haven’t faced bullets fired in anger. But they’re loyal to the healer, down to the bone, and they can help her keep the refugees alive until spring. So I dared leave them, to bring you the update.”
The shock hit me hard but only Julia knew me well enough to see it. Within seconds, my mental gears were meshing, wheels turning. Fort Steel’s days as a force to be reckoned with were numbered. I’d thought I was done with Steel politics once I’d freed the slaves. I was wrong.
But that was for later. “Let me brief you on the situation here,” I told the young Rooster Squad soldier. It was good to have him back. “It’s complicated.”
We repaired to my command tent where Sergeant Julia Gunderson Jade was poring over scouting reports. When she saw Grit, she jumped up from her camp stool and gave him a distinctly nonmilitary hug. Over her shoulder, Mace’s younger brother gave me a helpless look, mouthing silently, Don’t shoot me. I chuckled, grabbed a seat, pointed at one for him, and got down to it.
“As you know, Corporal–”
“You’ve earned it. Mace has been bumped up to sergeant. Can’t have your big brother getting more than one stripe ahead of you, can we? Now, here’s the deal. As you know, we’re sitting in Hooded Cobra’s rear. Grunt’s volunteers are dug in on the other side of the OrgaMins, but more than anything now, we can’t afford to let the enemy retreat. Or, even worse, to overthrow Venom Chang and go bandit. We’ve stayed well back. I don’t think they know what’s happened yet. That is, that they’re surrounded in a sense. They could squirt sideways, across the Roil into monster country, or the opposite, along the long southern OrgaMin wall toward the distant mountains, but basically, they’re trapped. Especially with that storm coming in on your heels. It feels like it’s going to be a big one. Chang’s people are short on rations, there’s no game left nearby, and best of all, we’re picking off an occasional desperate hunting party. Chang knows the OrgaMins are trouble. Even if he hasn’t heard the stories about them, he can see the danger inherent in that quarter mile of narrow corridor. A blind man could see that.”
Grit shifted on his stool, shucking his winter coat and accepting a steaming mug of herbal tea from Julia. “Thanks, Sarge. Major, scuttlebutt has it you finally took one of them alive?”
I shook my head, but in resignation, not negation. “Scuttlebutt, the fastest method of communication ever devised, leaping through space at the speed of light. Yes, we bagged one of their scouts. That is, Stirk’s patrol did. Shot his horse from under him and the horse fell on the Hoodie’s leg. He wasn’t hurt much. Just couldn’t get loose. His carbine had gone flying and he wasn’t packing a short gun. Apparently they don’t have many of those, just a few, all issued to officers. And this man isn’t an officer. He’s just another poor bugger who signed up back East for two meals a day and a warm uniform. Got more than he bargained for. Says that’s true of most of them. Not that he loves us. But he’s been willing to talk.”
“Enhanced interrogation?” Grit wasn’t criticizing, just asking. We’d all become hardened since Chang had crossed our border.
“Actually, no. Didn’t have to go that route. Just had to let Slim Howard bring him his meals and winter clothing and such. The man’s mostly Chinese. Looks down on his allies, nothing but condescension and scorn. But he’s scared spitless of wizards. One of the guards sort of, um, let it slip that Slim was the one who blew up a hundred Hoodies with a single spell. And that our beanpole sergeant is a genuine Cuya County reject because he’s just plain too mean for them, even. I think he believes Slim will have a thousand demons eat all his relatives, genitals first, if he doesn’t cooperate. I tell you, he’s been very cooperative.”
The prisoner’s name was Johnny Quong, or at least that’s the way it sounded. At this point, all the man wanted to do was get back home alive, the story of more soldiers on either side than I cared to count.
“So,” Smith mused, sipping his tea, “Venom Chang doesn’t know it, but he’s playing white man and we’re a pair of Apache shorts.”
“Apache shorts?” I’d never heard that term.
“Yup. They sneak up and wipe you out.”
My decision was made. Even so, it couldn’t hurt to consult my mental checklist one more time. Sora stepped to the tent flap, took a quick look outside to make sure the bodyguard ring was in its proper position, and fastened the flap shut. The wind was picking up but I still had to wait for the right moment. MAP had eyes on us from somewhere. For now.
“They confirmed the horse dead, but not the scout?”
“Correct.” The Skilled Man was not one to waste words. “Tracks only. Many.”
“He is their prisoner, then. If he has not been executed.” Too bad. Private Quong had been a good soldier, steady and reliable, not prone to exaggeration. “Movement beyond the cliffs?”
“That,” the swordsman nodded, “I have seen for myself. Through the long glass only, but definite. They are waiting on us.”
Yes. They would be waiting for us there, wouldn’t they? And possibly atop the cliffs if they knew a way up. We did not, none of our spies had reported any such, no trader rumor about such a thing. Yet the massive block of rock loomed with deliberate menace. I was sure of it. Though I would never mention this aloud, I suspected some of the men sensed the same thing I did, that the towering, mostly squared-off stone was somehow…alive.
So were we. I intended to keep it that way. MAP could no longer be allowed to set the terms of the battlefield.
While we waited, Sora and I shared tea. We had plenty of that, a decent supply of salt, and not much else. That had to change soon. And it would. The minutes passed slowly. The wind picked up, beginning to howl, driving snow under one edge of the tent. Sora undid the tent flap, threw it back, and we stepped out into the storm. An hour ago, there had been blue sky overhead, sun shining down on bare ground where the first snowfall had mostly melted. Now the temperature had plummeted and visibility was close to zero.
“Perfect,” I said. “Let’s get moving.”
This time the weather gods raged for two solid days, finally tapering off a couple of hours before sunset on Saturday afternoon. The snow stopped, the wind dropped, the sun came out, we regained visibility clear to the horizon, and…and….
And the Hooded Cobra army had disappeared from the face of the Earth.
Gone. Vanished. Pouf!
We sent up smoke signals. On the other side of the OrgaMins, Grunt did the same. No sighting whatsoever. There was no way Chang could have slipped back south, gone right through us. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that. Neither could my brothers, my husband, Stirk, or any of the others. Impossible. There was a remote possibility he might have slipped the noose by heading west toward the mountains, but that didn’t seem likely, either. It would have meant moving into the teeth of the storm, traveling blind, straight into trouble. Nor could he have made it past the OrgaMins, at least not on this side of the Roil.
That left only the river. He had to have crossed the river, heading into monster country. Where there be monsters, but also a plethora of game animals. I could see the gears spinning between Michael’s ears. For the first time in this war, he had to guess what his enemy was doing. I was glad I was not in command. It had to be an unsettling feeling, knowing that if you guessed wrong, even this once, the price might well be the loss of your entire country.
Fortunately, Major Jade had never been one to suffer from the inability to make a decision. “It would be suicide for him to head west. In the teeth of the storm? In wide open country with nothing to stop the wind? Through land that’s already been hunted out by his enemies? No. The western route is more than a hundred miles away and hard to find. I never thought he’d do it, but he’s crossed the river. Pass the word. Everyone has to be in emotional balance before we transit the OrgaMins.”
No kidding. Let your fears or hatreds rage out of control when you were in range of the thousand-foot tall rock wall and it would slap you down in a heartbeat.
Once we were all clear of the overgrown pebbles, Michael called conference. Every commander attended, plus sergeants Mace Smith and Julia Jade (that’s me), and Slim Howard. As the fastest note-taker presence, Slim drew responsibility for the official record.
“Gentlemen,” Michael began, never mind my gender, “we had it our own way for a long time. That run is over. Chang is not going down without a fight. I’m certain he crossed the Roil. How many men he lost doing that, if any, we don’t know. If we scouted the riverbank for miles, we might find a few drowned bodies hung up in brush or boulders along the way. But let’s work on the theory that they got across intact. It would be nice if the mutant residents over there took them out for us, but that’s only wishful thinking at that point. I’ve been over there, albeit briefly. It’s scary territory. Twisted trees so thick they’re more jungle than forest. Freakish animals. Snakes with multiple heads or heads at both ends. Wild hogs with curve-clawed hooves and spiral tusks, uglier than the old African warthog pictures. Perversions of men, not really human any more, that hunt other men for meat or sport. Six-legged giant cats resembling overgrown jaguars with bad attitudes. But there are also big game animals that look completely normal. Deer, elk, moose, a southern version of caribou. Wild cattle with sweeping horns, even a variety of jungle-adapted bison.
“All that was observed during just a few daylight hours, a one-day excursion, so it’s probably a tiny fraction of the real picture. The place scared the spit out of me and I got out of there with no intention of ever going back. There’s something about the fauna. Nobody knows why, but every single Fringe species fears running water. Which is the only reason we’ve not been overrun with irradiated horror freak shows over here. I can’t see Chang heading back south through that stuff. As far as we know, he never knew we had a force behind him, so maybe he’d think the way might be clear to retreat, but our prisoner confirms what we already knew. The word retreat is simply not in Chang’s vocabulary. So he didn’t go west, he didn’t go south, he won’t go east because that way lies the Yellowstone Caldera Wastelands where nothing can live. Conclusion? He’ll work his way on north, right past the OrgaMins but well out of their reach, until he’s either dead or in position to strike. For the first time, he’s avoided one of our traps. But that’s not the worst part.”
We all knew what that worst part was. We just hadn’t considered the possibility. Weather fronts hitting the steep slopes of the Yellowstone Caldera’s western rim were more than willing to dump their loads right then and there. On the much drier eastern front, around Tough Town and Swako the Dwarf’s Idiot Village, they measured rain in showers and snow in inches. On this western side, summer turned the slopes into rain forest and winter buried them in as much as twenty feet of snow. Life thrived, simple migrating down from volcanic slope to valley jungle fringe during winter months, never mind that earlier volcanic explosions combined with nuclear bombing runs by space-capable warcraft had twisted much of that life into knots. Chang’s army would not starve in that green hell. If by some military miracle the man could bring his people through, hacking and chopping vegetation out of the way at every step, eating rather than being eaten, he could shift his force as far north as Square Lake in perfect invisibility.
The possibility had not escaped Michael’s notice. “As nearly as we’ve ever been able to calculate, Square Lake is situated 130 miles directly east of the Gathering. It wouldn’t make sense for Chang to go that far out of route. But he could, theoretically at least, take the Rocky River fork, then pop back across the Rocky anywhere between here and McGee’s people, still staying east of the Roil proper, ignoring the Fort Steel road altogether. Just banging it out cross-country.”
“Impossible.” Captain James Gilson of Fort Steel, whom I’d known since he was a militia private and I was a slave kid, was shaking his head. “Even discounting the monster corridor, that’s some mighty rough country you’re talking about. I simply can’t imagine it.”
Big Jake Sedlacek wasn’t letting that one pass. “Hnh. The Romans couldn’t imagine Hannibal crossing the alps with war elephants, either, but he did it. We put the Indian sign on the Hoodies for a good long run, but now it’s our turn to be on the lookout for Apaches. Seems to me the smart move for MAP would be to head right on to the Gathering. Settle into winter camp right there in the oxbow of the Roil and wait for the bad guys to show up. The War Leader’s only shot is to take that stockade at some point. We can’t risk that happening.”
My mate sighed deeply. “You’ve got a point, Grunt. It’s not only the smart move. It’s the only move. We’re sure not going to cross over the Roil looking for him. At least we can resupply with your people, Wash. They’ll appreciate the income and we’ll be far better equipped than Chang will, whenever he comes back out of monster country.”
“If he comes back out,” the Walking Dead commander amended. “In the meantime, I could use some home cooking.”
“Amen to that.” Michael let his gaze rove over his officers. “Can I get an amen?”
He got an amen. And then some.