“Whg–” I cleared my throat and tried again. “Why are they taking so much time about it?” Any one of the enemy creech, let alone its human rider, could have run right over the top of us. Those huge, spine-hooked grasping arms alone were enough to do for any human warrior in a head to head confrontation; despite our success in taking down one of them, I couldn’t find it in my heart to believe for one second they were afraid…yet they advanced but slowly, one cautious step at a time. The circle was closing, yes, but at this rate we’d have time to cook and eat breakfast before we became lunch.
Maybe that was it. Maybe they wanted us fattened up a bit first.
Faye spoke in a conversational tone, her voice far clearer than mine had been. “According to the stories, they’re probably afraid of each other. The creech have a hierarchy, a pecking order. Normally, the top bug in the pack would come in first, get the first crack at chomping off one of our heads despite the possibility of the remaining humans whacking it a bit with swords or spears or whatever. But these creech have riders, and the riders want them to close the circle evenly, come at us from all sides at once. The bugs may not pay much attention to their fallen, but their riders are well aware we’re not to be taken lightly.”
Xorn snorted. “Over-cautious much, are they?”
“Not really. Look at it from their point of view. When they show up, all they can tell is that, yeah, there are some Rimlander bodies scattered here and there, but there’s also a thoroughly dead and decapitated war mount lying in the trail along with its former rider, both of them lacking heads. Even by moonlight, they can see that much. I believe I’d take no chances, either, were I in their position.”
Something occurred to me. “Must be a squad leader organizing this circle, eh?”
“No doubt,” she agreed, “but which man that is, there’s no way to tell that I can see.”
Huh. She had a point.
We shifted as slowly and carefully as the creech did, a sort of stylized little shuffle dance, the three of us back to back to back, mini-circling in slow motion to our left. We’d not discussed it; it had just…happened. But it was clear that if the enemy’s excruciatingly slow tightening of the noose had meaning, well, so did our almost lazy movement. It kept us loose rather than frozen in one position, waiting to die, and it also forced us to shift our view instead of locking into a tunnel vision that might miss something coming at us. It also contained a rhythm, our movement did, something like the ultra slow exercise Wing Holder called Tai Chi, an exercise that he claimed could explode into violent action, or build up chi for a lightning strike, at any time.
I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to detail when it came to the giant mantid lookalikes, being focused on staying alive in the midst of low light combat, but I had time to study them now. It would be the last thing I studied, no doubt, but there it was. The wedge shaped jaws, even rearing as high above the earth as they did, looked impressive enough…but it was their eyes that held my attention. Huge, multifaceted orbs, not truly like the tiny praying mantis at all, really. Each eye must measure a good foot across if not more, an easy archer’s target in daylight.
Wait. What–? I shouldn’t be able to see their eyes that clearly!
“Faye. Xorn. Do you realize it’s getting light out? It’s coming daylight!”
“Uh-huh,” the former slave replied dryly. “The better to see Death coming at you, kid.”
“No, no, listen. I’ve got an idea.” The creech up-trail and down-trail had all closed to within perhaps forty feet of us. There wasn’t much time. “Listen up.” I didn’t even think about the way I said that; the circumstances sort of flattened the age differences between us. If a thirteen year old warrior chose to instruct his elders, well, all that really mattered was survival. “It’s not much of a chance, but….”
When I finished explaining, Xorn expressed his opinion of my brilliance by letting out a roar that startled even our enemies, his sword flashing high over his head as he brought it down to cleave me shoulder to hip. There was no parrying anything like that, nor was I fast enough to get inside his guard; the only thing I could do was twist aside, feeling the blade take a part of my sleeve as it passed.
After my return yell of outrage, it turned into a swordfight, but not a long one. All three of us were screaming and yelling at each other, Xorn a bull on the prod, me rather squeaking in fear, Faye screaming at us to stop, dancing around the two of us, her own slender weapon unable to decide who it wanted to slice first. I made out the word “idiot” once but had no idea if she was referring to me or to Xorn, nor did I have time to worry about it. The former Captain of Militia had a foot of reach, ninety pounds of rock hard muscle, and decades of experience on me; the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
I felt his sword run me through, felt the early summer grass beside the trail smack me in the face. I lay there, belly down but twisted at an awkward angle, one more corpse for the butcher’s bill, yet conscious enough to hear the continuing battle. Without me in the way, Faye was taking on the big man, both of them yelling war cries as their fight shifted and swirled away from my fallen form, out into the trail, downhill a bit and over to the other side. The woman was not much bigger than me, but she was giving the traitor a time of it nonetheless. He had size and power, but she had speed and stamina to match the best of them.
Not daring to raise my head even an inch to see if the creech and their riders were well and truly distracted, I flattened my body the rest of the way and slid farther off the side of the trail, into the brush and out of sight. There was a stinging sensation along my left side; Xorn had cut it close when he’d rammed his sword in between my arm and my ribs, took a bit of hide.
Not that I was complaining. He was good; there was no way I could have made it look that realistic without risking serious injury to the recipient of the thrust.
Behind me, the hubbub continued, but it wouldn’t for long. In fact, I’d squiggled no more than thirty or forty feet through deep cover when the yelling and screaming quit, tapering down to heated conversation. Faye and Xorn were continuing with the act, two survivors unhappy with each other, throttling back on the adrenaline, talking it out now with words instead of steel. They would be watching over each other’s shoulders, making sure the creech didn’t sneak in for the finish while they were acting at being mad at each other. Mighty good actors, those two.
Of course, they would have to be. Xorn could never have survived his time as a slave without being able to dissemble convincingly and Faye still was a slave, a real one to Wing who nonetheless acted as administrator and war chief of Granite Peak Stronghold in his absence. Both of them had to know how to put on an act, and then some.
There were three creech-and-rider pairs in the woods on this side, set in as perfect an arc as the lodgepole pines would permit. I was willing to bet there were exactly three more on the other side, in a mirror image arc, each part of the precise, slowly tightening circle.
I slipped between two of them, a shadow, nothing more. A Rimlander born and bred might have sensed me in the half-dark. Perhaps a plains bred Blakto warrior might have done so as well. But not these bugboys and their bugs. They were too arrogant, not to mention too focused on the quarry still trapped on the trail.
We had left our horses tethered in a tiny aspen grove. One of them was gone, its bridle still tied to a tree but the headstall lying on the ground. Terrified when they’d smelled the creech passing near, the animal must have torn loose and run, panicked completely. But the others were still there, a bit wall-eyed but undisturbed and almighty happy to see me.
Not daring to speak to the poor things aloud, I reassured them as best I could with good thoughts and a quick, gentle pat here and there. It took perhaps one full minute to do what had to be done, gathering and stringing three of our shortbows, tying no less than half a dozen quivers of arrows along a piece of rope that was then knotted together end to end and slung over head and left arm, forty arrows to a quiver.
With an arrow nocked, I trotted back toward the trail, not bothering to silence my steps. Come at me now, you big eyed bastards. If I could take one or two of the riders from behind, so much the better, but the creech themselves would have to be facing me for a decent eye shot.
And I’d rather that happened in the trees, where the monster bugs were at a bit of a disadvantage. Size matters, but in the forest it’s not always the biggest size that has the edge.
The enemy circle had closed to within a few yards of my friends–no more than a single eighteen foot bug length–when I stopped to draw the first arrow back to my ear. It was a slight angle shot, but the rider’s peripheral vision wasn’t good enough to pick me up, nobody had paid attention to the sound of my footfalls, and the creech itself frankly didn’t care. It would pay for that scorn; I’d fed my sisters and myself for years with bow and arrow, and the short, recurve forest bow had a lot more power than outsiders suspected. The broadhead hit the man hard, slicing cleanly through his half armor, driving at an angle from his left kidney, up and through his diaphragm, the steel tip bumping up against the armor under his right nipple before it stopped moving.
Or so I estimated. The main thing was that as the arrow stopped moving, the enemy rider stopped moving as well, except to topple sideways from his mount.
The creech was smart enough to realize something had changed and dumb enough to swivel its head back around to see what that something might be. My second arrow took it squarely through the left eye.
Now, here’s the thing about shooting a creech in the eye. An eye shot doesn’t usually reach the brain, but it does mess up the critter’s equilibrium and attitude something fierce. The giant bug went nuts, making –skrreeking!- sounds, twisting, stumbling, utterly out of control. Its body swung this way and that, its huge grasping arms flailing–
–and the first contact the wounded monster made…happened to be with the creech to its right. Rather, with that creech’s rider. The hapless man found himself ripped from the saddle, pinioned fast, lifted free, his head bitten off.
Any farmer knows how much blood a chicken with its head cut off can spread around a farmyard. A man, I realized, has a whole lot more blood to offer than a chicken does.
The second creech apparently didn’t appreciate losing its rider to another of its own species, or maybe the blood smell had something to do with it. The first bug was still in the process of swallowing the human head when it found its own neck seized.
As it turns out, a decapitated creech does not bleed…but it does fall down dead.
It would have been nice if that dustup had precipitated a creech free-for-all, but you can’t have everything. Faye and Xorn, no fools they, did manage to make it through the hole in the perimeter. I tossed them each a bow…and realized I’d screwed up, tying the quivers of arrows along the piece of rope as I had. Xorn fixed that problem, though, his belt knife slicing the rope in three places. Each of us now had two quivers apiece but no time to tie them in place. With one creech dead and one no longer interested in the battle after having lost its rider, the remaining ten came pouring into the trees after us…
…until we eyeshot three more of them. Or rather, Faye and I did. It was clear I was the top hand with a bow. Faye had trouble pulling an arrow clear to her cheek, and Xorn couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn if he was standing inside the blasted thing. But I nailed two more, she lucked out with her third shot and got one, and one of Xorn’s misses happened to catch a rider in the throat.
All in all, it was enough to stir things up a good bit.
At which point, as they say, the cavalry arrived. It arrived in the form of Wing Holder, leaping from a midnight black horse to use his double bladed staff. It arrived in a squad of ape cats, the Psubu’m’sptybalt, my brother Bnowbhiuy among them. It took me a second or two to realize that Wing was leading the Psubu’m’sptybalt, or at least had been until they arrived on the scene from the upgrade side, at which point it was every warrior for himself.
I might have been wrong when I’d thought that a single ape cat could wipe out a dozen creech single handed, but one thing quickly became clear; getting caught in tall timber was not a good thing for the bugs. The big six-limbed cats leaped into the trees, climbed above, and dropped snarling onto the riders, batting aside the panicked men’s upraised blades with their own short swords wielded in their heavily muscled ape arms, ripping throats with either claws or teeth, flinging the dying mercenaries from their mounts, then going to work on the neck joints of the bugs themselves.
Only two of the creech, those closest to us when our reinforcements arrived, made it far enough to try to run over us. We had to dive aside, the choice being to duck behind pine trees or get trampled. We took our revenge by shooting the riders in the back. The now riderless creech kept going, but they wouldn’t get far; three of the Psubu’m’sptybalt loped past us, hot on their trail.
The rearmost bug reversed course, its rider wisely understanding that his only chance was to get back out on the trail and run like Hell. The bug’s size made it capable of thirty foot leaps, maybe not enough to stay ahead of a ticked off cat, but better than being slaughtered under the trees.
Faye and Xorn and I were fortunate to have a ringside seat, an angle through the trees that allowed us to witness the fight. Wing Holder stood calmly at the edge of the trail, his bladed staff spinning lazily. He carried no bow with which to shoot the eye of the bug or the rider pm its back, nor, we sensed, did he need one.
The rider didn’t hesitate. With an unknown number of Psubu’m’sptybalt set to drop out of the trees on top of him at any moment, he’d run out of options. He urged his mount forward. Had he retained his bow, he might have shot his way free, but the bow was gone; he still had his short sword and belt knife, but nothing more.
Enraged, the creech lunged, its grasping arms as thick as Wing’s entire body and more…until the Holder’s staff flashed, and the spiny tips were gone, both left and right.
The bug hadn’t even registered its loss when Wing darted forward, under the towering thorax, one blade of the six foot staff suddenly recessed back into the wood so that the weapon could be used as a spear. He must have known just where to strike, I realized. From our angle, we couldn’t see exactly how the strike had gone, but the creech’s forward momentum carried it well onto the eighteen inch blade and halfway down the staff itself before it halted, hurt and confused–
–and dead. Wing had known where to find the heart.
He rolled out between the legs on the left side as the bug slumped down the rest of the way, lifeless. It would be a mess of a task to retrieve the weapon; that was certain.
The rider had jumped clear on the same side. He and Wing faced each other, the mercenary’s hand going to the hilt of his short sword…and then letting it go. The man was no fool. He looked around slowly, taking in not only Wing’s calm stance but the three bows with arrows leveled at him as well as half a dozen Psubu’m’sptybalt sitting quietly at the edge of the timber, licking their wounds, watching the show.
“I would say,” the stocky fellow said quietly, “that I am your prisoner. If you take prisoners.”
“When we can afford to,” Wing replied, “and when a prisoner might have information of value.”
The man nodded, unbuckling his sword belt as he spoke. “Reckon I could tell you a few things that might be of value. Maybe enough to save my neck. Which don’t look to be worth all that much at the moment, eh?”
His accent was atrocious, but we all understood him. “Let’s make a deal, then.”
“Wing,” Faye interjected, stepping out into the trail so that her master realized, for the first time, that she was there, “we need to talk.”
Holder did a double take but recovered swiftly. He glanced at the ape cats, all of whom were now heading on up the trail, wasting no time. There were more creech to kill, if they could catch them. “You bet, honey,” he nodded. “Let’s parley.”
Xorn talked first, telling in crisp, unemotional tones of his trial and planned execution, said termination being thwarted by Councilwoman Risa Macklin buying the condemned former Captain as slave in order to use him as a courier to Wing, warning of Chair Carson’s treachery and the Navri City Army of seven thousand men intended to seize Granite Peak Stronghold in Wing’s absence. Then Faye took over, praising Steward’s ruse that backed the NCA troops off from the Stronghold itself, after which they had turned to head for Fear Pass Gap.
“A vise it is, then,” Wing nodded in understanding, his eyes cold. He was favoring his left leg a bit, too, though no wound showed. “Hammer and anvil. Well…”, he glanced at the sky, blue now with the sun coming up, “the best I can do is make it back to the battleground by noon. You can head–”
“I’m not going back without you, Wing.”
He gave her a slow, careful look. “You’re not my slave any more? You don’t take orders now?”
“Not–“, she gulped, clearly terrified, “–not without you, Wing. If you die, I’m already dead.”
“Huh. You three got horses?”
“We do, but…where are the rest of your men?”
“Dead,” he said shortly. “No more talk. I’m heading out now. Oh–you got a name?” He turned to address the surrendered mercenary, who’d unbuckled his weapons harness and dropped it on the ground without being asked.
“They call me Cooper,” the man said, “most places.”
“Cooper, do you have any honor? Or is money your only god?/”
“I used to have honor. Haven’t paid much attention to it lately.”
“Think you can wake it up, abide by it for a spell?”
“It’s that or die? ‘Cause you’re in a hurry?”
“You could say that.”
“Then yes sir, I reckon I can roust my honor up out of its resting. Brush it off and make it shine, like.”
“Good. Here’s the deal. You stay here long enough to cut that dead mount of yours up enough to retrieve my staff. Then you set out to find me, however long it takes, wherever I might be. You return the staff to me. And once you do that, I’ll see about finding you a permanent place with us or, if you prefer after you’ve shared your information with me, you can head on back to the open prairie.”
“That’s…more than fair.”
Which it was, but Wing had already quit listening and was once again addressing Faye. “If you three can get your mounts and catch up to me, fine, but I’m not slowing for anything.” With that, he stepped up onto his black, the tall gelding having meandered up to join his rider as calm as anything, ignoring the corpses and blood stench all around. “There’s no time.” He turned the horse, urging it into a trot, and headed down the trail.
We ran for our mounts. “We’ll catch up,” Faye gasped as she ran, “and more than that. We’ll bring remounts.”
“What about the others?” I had to ask, the Yeagers and the rest of them would be needing–oh. “They’re dead, too, right?”
“Most likely,” she agreed, “but even if they’re not, better they’re put afoot than we lose at the Gap. If we do that, all of us are done for.”