Cape Cod, near Innsmouth, Massachusetts
August 14th, CY 21/2019 AD
Ingolf cursed as sweat ran down into his eyes from the lining of his helmet—it was made from old kitchen sponges—and soaked the padding under his mail shirt. It was fiercely hot, with only a slight high haze, and wet as a soaked blanket with it, and the air buzzed with mosquitoes even a little past noon. If you went into the shade they ate you alive. At least he wore what they called a kettle helmet, with a wide sloping brim like a droopy canvas hat. He'd always preferred that to a close helm; the extra visibility and better hearing more than made up for any lesser protection, and it kept the sun off your face and neck. Plus in weather like this it let you breathe.
All he could smell right now was his own sweat and Boy's, and forest-green from the scrubby sandy woods of oak and pine around, but his nose still tingled with trouble coming. Birds sang and insects buzzed; a swath of monarch butterflies swirled up from a patch of milkweed growing in cracks in the pavement. They passed another dead car, a heap of rust and shattered glass, amid a scorch-mark that showed where it had burned.
There were bones in the ditches, under rampant weed and brush. Every time he rode Boy off into the endless woods they crumbled beneath the shod hooves; leached by twenty years of rains and frost, by acid soil and scavengers, but still so many to start with they were everywhere, the skulls popping like eggshells.
The woods were also full of wet stagnant pits where basements had been; the houses had all been wooden frame, and they'd all burnt at one time or another. There must have been tens of thousands of them once all through this wasteland, and the thought made his skin crawl a little even now. All those little houses, in this place where no crops grew and you couldn't even find any decent water without digging and pumping, nothing but short twisty pines...
He found he hated this part of the lost lands even more than the dead cities. At least they were honestly alien; this never-a-city reverting to forest was neither one thing nor another. A sudden intense longing filled him, to see a herd of black-and-white cows grazing in green meadow, or smell bread baking, or to ride by a farmhouse in the snow and hear the rising-falling hum of a spinning wheel and a girl singing by it as she worked and smoke drifted low from the chimney. Anything that meant real life.
I thought I'd grown up free of the Change, not hag-ridden by it the way the old folks are, the way Dad was, so he'd drink too much and cry whenever he couldn't keep himself from thinking about it. I can't even remember it, not even the flash and the pain, nor the years right after when things were worst. I was too young. But here there's nothing but death and ghosts, and it's as if you can hear them all screaming and sobbing, hear it drifting on the wind. It'll be a thousand years before they stop.
He flung up his clenched right fist in its steerhide glove and barked: "Halt!"
The whole train stopped in a slow clatter of hooves and squeal of brake-levers, five big rubber-tired steel-frame wagons drawn by six horses each, and the two-score of guards and ostlers and salvage experts who made up Vogeler's Villains—not that every single one couldn't fight at need, including the four women. They all looked around; there was a wide meadow right ahead, and more of the scrub-forest to their right and left, with sand showing through the sparse grass beneath. The meadow had the broken asphalt of the roadway looping around it in an oval and two roads leading south, so it had probably been a roundabout once. Nothing much grew there but some low green brush, and a couple of dead trees poking up through them.
Kaur stood in the stirrups and sniffed. "I think that's salt water," she said. "The maps say the ocean should be close, here, unless everything's silted up. Innsmouth's that way."
She pointed right south, the steel bangle on her wrist twisting. Her brother Singh nodded. Dark-skinned and hawk-faced in a way different from Injuns, they were both from a little village founded in the farming country west of Marshall by refugees from Minneapolis right after the Change, and both were three or four years younger than Ingolf's twenty-five. They wore mail shirts like his; she had a plain bowl helmet and he covered his blue-black hair under a dark turban with a steel cap underneath, and the ends of his beard tucked up into the cloth on either side. They were Sikhs—he still wasn't sure exactly what that entailed even after six years together, since they didn't talk about it much. Apparently they were the only ones of their kind left in the world, as far as they knew.
The Lakota had burned out their people's settlement, and they'd found everyone dead when they came back from a hunting trip. He'd taken them into his troop during the Sioux war, and they'd been together ever since. During the war they'd fought with a cold ferocity that made even the wild raiders from the high plains afraid. What they'd done to prisoners to make them talk made him wince a little to recall... and he wasn't a squeamish man.
"Do a flit forward," he told them. "Mounted—quick and dirty. Don't take any chances, and get back before dark."
He did know they were both first-class scouts, the best in the Villains apart from him and Jose, and they could move quietly while wearing a mail shirt, which most folk couldn't. The band was short-handed since Boston. Boston had been very bad...
They nodded. Singh grinned in the thickness of his black beard; he was a big burly man, nearly as big as Ingolf, and the muscles bunched in his brown forearms as he picked the reins off his saddlebow. Sometimes when he'd had a drink or two he'd straighten horseshoes with his hands for a joke.
"We shall be like lions, Captain Ingolf," he said, and his sister nodded, a rare smile on her face.
"Like a lioness," she added.
They always say that, and they never say why it's funny, Ingolf thought, as they heeled their horses into a walk; Kaur dropped a little behind, covering her brother with an arrow on the string of her saddle-bow.
I know what lions are. He had seen pictures in old books, and once a trader had brought a skin through, just before he left home. They've got 'em down in Texas.
One of his best men came from there, having wandered up the way people did every now and then and joined the Bossman's army when Ingolf did; he'd told stories about them, how they'd bred up in the bush country until they were a major nuisance along the Rio Grande, the way tigers were further north.
Sort of tiger-sized but colored like a cougar, and the males have a big black ruff around the neck, and they hunt together in packs like wolves. OK, a lion's big and fierce and sneaky, and so's Singh... well, his sister is medium-sized and fierce and sneaky. But why's it funny?
"All right, we'll camp here," he called loudly. Then he squinted at the sun; they still had eight hours to dark, this time of year. "Jump to it!"
Everyone knew what to do; some cleared the brush, others drove the wagons into a circle and linked them with chains and knock-down barriers of timber, shoved and fastened coils of razor wire under the vehicles, saw to the rest of the defenses, built fires, scavenged firewood, got the cooking-gear ready. They had plenty of food, besides hoarded dried fruits and such to keep them from scurvy; this area swarmed with deer and duck, rabbit and bear, and some of the rivers were thick with fish, where the old-time poisons weren't still leaking from rusting storage tanks or lingering in the mud.
The natives were too thin on the ground nowadays to keep the game down, and they weren't really very good hunters, most of them...
Not of animals, at least, he thought grimly as he swung down and handed over Boy's reins.
The stock were watered from buckets, and the wood teams also collected any green fodder around and piled it up for them to stretch the remnants of the parched corn. The Villains were cheerful enough, more so than he'd expected; there was even some laughing and horseplay, and after the main work was done someone got out a guitar.
I'm going to see every one of you gets a home out of this, if I can; so help me God and His mother.
He smiled to himself; homes for the ones who didn't just want to blow every penny on booze, whores and fancy duds, at least.
And me, I'm going to be rich, if I can, with a fort and land to the horizon. None of my kids are going to have to earn a living like this when I have 'em. And God knows I've earned it... And as for you, my dear brother Edward, you can shit sideways, fold yourself in half and go blind back there in the old homestead. Maybe I'll come visit my nieces and nephews, with gifts fit for a Bossman's heirs.
Kuttner came over, and Ingolf hid a grimace. Although the little man had turned out to be a lot tougher and less of a complainer than he'd expected back in Des Moines, and a hell of a lot better in a fight. That hadn't made him any more agreeable, just less disgusting. He was about thirty, a bit below average height—five-six or so—thin and wiry, with close-cropped brown hair and an unremarkable face that looked distorted, somehow, without being in any way abnormal if you considered it feature by feature.
"We should push on to Innsmouth, see if we can find a useable boat," Kuttner said; his voice always sounded as if he was in a hurry... which he generally was.
"Mr. Kuttner, you know I'm the best in this business, don't you?" he said, swatting at a mosquito.
It went squit and left a smear of blood on his cheek. He had bites under his armor, too.
"Yes, Mr. Vogeler, but—"
"Kuttner," he said, getting a little less polite, "did you ever wonder why the best man in this business is only twenty-six years old?"
Kuttner stopped—which was a wonder, because he liked to talk better than listen—and looked at him out of his ordinary brown eyes. "No, Mr. Vogeler, I can't say that I have. Why?"
"Well, two reasons. First, it's a pretty new business, the way my Villains do it, because there hasn't been enough call for it 'till now. Second, those that take it up don't usually live very long, if they come anywhere near this far east. I am alive and I aim to get back to Iowa still alive, and collect what was promised. Are you sure we have to do this? The Bossman didn't mention Nantucket when we talked—we've got the stuff he wanted from Boston and that was the last on our list."
And I lost four good men doing it, he thought but didn't say.
That was a cost of doing business and everyone in the Villains knew they took the most dangerous jobs. That didn't make watching an old friend die by inches of a punctured gut much better, or make it easier to make yourself give them an end to pain as the last gift.
"I have written instructions and the Bossman's authority," Kuttner said, running a hand over his close-cropped hair.
"Yeah—" Ingolf began.
The sound of drumming hoof-beats interrupted them. They could see a fair way down the roads to the south, littered with the rusting vine-grown heaps that had been cars and trucks. Kaur and Singh were coming along at a gallop, riding on the sandy median strip. The hard drumbeat of the hooves echoed through the woods, setting birds to avalanche-loud flight; it wasn't a sound anyone around here had heard for a long time.
Just when they'd broken free of the narrowest section something flashed in the sunlight, and Singh's horse stumbled, then went down by the stern with a short thick throwing-spear in its back near the spine just behind the saddle. It began to shriek, enormous sounds that sounded like a woman except for the volume.
"Shit," Ingolf said, and looked around. "We're getting short of horses."
Jose had the section on guard, and he was already on it, leading his five riders towards the pair at a round trot. Kaur stopped, shooting over her brother's head into the woods; something screamed there. Singh crouched with his shield up and another javelin went bang off the surface, and a third hit the horse again. When Jose's men joined in the shooting he came erect and gave the wounded beast the mercy-stroke, then started salvaging his gear; that meant that there weren't any more of the natives close enough to see.
"Everyone keep an eye out all 'round," he snapped.
A few started guiltily; everyone had picked up their weapons at the alarm, pikes and broadaxes, crossbows or bows, but a few had been staring at the action rather than their assigned sectors. Kuttner had his shete out and was looking around without more than a tightening of the lips.
Singh dropped to the ground from where one of the rescue squad had taken him up behind. "Ranjeet was a good horse," he complained to the air.
Then to Ingolf: "Captain, the woods are thick with them already. More coming from the direction of Innsmouth. I saw no bows... but we did not stay to be sure."
"About what I expected," Ingolf said, and looked at the circling woods; all beyond throwing range. "Good work. Cut a horse out of the remount herd."
Kuttner had the grace to look a little abashed. The Captain of the Villains went on to him: "There were bound to be a bunch of them in Innsmouth; they like to lair up in ruins when they can, and it's a good place for them—water, fishing, hunting here in the brush. This is the best spot to take them on. Without we give 'em a good hiding right away, we'll have little ambushes every second hour."
"They'll attack?" Kuttner said, peering at the woods.
Nothing was visible, though they both knew that red hating eyes were studying them. These were the ones who'd lived, or more likely their children, by now.
"They usually do. But they'll come at night. Couple of hours past midnight. That's how they remember doing it, or how their daddies told 'em to do it."
Kaur woke him by cautiously nudging his booted feet with her shete and stepping back as he uncoiled with steel in his hand. It was very dark, moonless, with the stars hard and white above; the walls of low forest around them were inky-black, and only a faint red glow came from the campfires. The night had a dense green smell to it; the air was a little cooler, coming from the south. Lightning bugs blinked on and off, giving the illusion of little lamps as they drifted through the scrub.
"They come now," Kaur whispered, squatting and leaning on the sheathed weapon. "Many, Captain. They took the dead horse a little while ago, and now they come for us."
She shrugged; the brother and sister were good scouts, not magicians or witches. "Twice our numbers at least. Not more than ten times."
"Get everyone up—but quiet."
Her smile showed white in the darkness, and she ghosted away. He shrugged into his padded jacket, wriggling to get the mail shirt down and into place, and slid the carrying strap of his round shield over his head. He heard the howl of a coyote now and then, and the occasional whit-whit-whit of an owl; the preparations of his own folk were a little rustling and chinking only. He'd come a long way from that hulking clumsy nineteen-year-old who'd ridden off to make a name in the short glorious war against the Injuns.
God, I was useless. We all were. Everyone here now knows their jobs, though. Even the new ones hired for this trip.
The night was loud; wind in the trees, bullfrogs, cicadas, creak and rustle and groan, now and then the call of some foraging beast, once a distant squall of triumph as a catamount made a kill. Ingolf reached his commander's battle-station, in front of one of the loop-holed board barricades between two wagons. Jose the Tejano was there too, cradling a crossbow. He was a good few years older than Ingolf, old enough to have some strands of white in his black moustache, and he'd fought in most mix-ups between the Llano Estacado and the Red River of the North over the past ten years.
They looked out into the darkness, not straining their eyes, just waiting; he counted down internally, timing his breath to it and using that to calm himself. More mosquitoes bit, but he couldn't slap at them; the chance of the natives noticing it and learning their prey was on to their attack... was small but not zero. One thing he'd learned long ago was that mistakes could kill you, even little ones.
Of course, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time could kill you, even if you were an expert and careful as Hell. A sudden high-pitched shriek of surprised pain came from out in the darkness.
"Now!" he shouted.
A deep tunnng sounded from the center of the encampment, where a man pulled the lanyard on a small heavy machine of springs and levers. It threw the dart-shaped projectile upward nearly a thousand feet; there was a sizzling pop sound, and the magnesium flare burned with explosive brightness—as close to an explosion as you could get in the Changed world, that was. He didn't look up; the spot of fire would kill his night-vision, and hopefully a lot of the attackers who weren't expecting it would look, by reflex. From overhead it lit the clearing with a pitiless blue-white radiance, the huge shadows jerking and twisting; the flare swung and twisted beneath the parachute as it drifted down.
The crink-crink-crink of the winch's gearing sounded as the crew wound the thrower again, ready to launch another flare before the first hit the ground. The Bossman of Des Moines really had laid out for the very best on this trip, including choice items from his own armory. For some reason Kuttner seemed to find the sound disagreeable.
Out in the clearing the light showed a carpet of dark ragged furtive crawling movement, studded with gleams from eyes and teeth and ancient knives. His mouth went dry; there were a lot more of them than he'd thought there would be, at least a hundred and maybe twice that, eeling towards the circle of wagons on their bellies. A half-dozen bands must have gotten together for this, a rare degree of cooperation among the wild-men, who invariably hated each other with the malignant loathing born of a generation of stalking and eating the unwary, often starting the process of eating before death.
But then, an intrusion by outsiders was rare too. Apart from the meat of men and horses, their well-made gear and weapons would be a prize beyond price. None of them could let their rivals gain such strength.
A massed squealing arose, an endless: AtAitAitAitAitAitAitAit –
Some part of him realized that it was a word, or had been once: Eat.
The natives rose and rushed forward in a wave, like rats exploding out of a neglected grain-bin when you opened the lid and shone a lantern inside. Seconds later about half of them started hopping and screaming, where they'd run into the mesh matting his people had spread around right after they camped. Lying flat and artfully camouflaged with soot and sand and pine-duff, the nets were studded with upright razor-edged three-inch spikes.
Some of the enemy fell onto the points, and slashed themselves open as they tried to roll away. Others just kept coming, hitting the bare patches by luck or in a frenzy great enough to ignore the pain.
A couple of the squad-leaders shouted fire! Ingolf didn't bother, since everyone knew what to do and he personally had always disliked someone bawling at him in situations like that. He just drew to the ear and shot into the mass of them and reached for another arrow; there were boxes of them on the inside of the prefab barricade. The snap of bowstrings and the tung! of crossbows sounded, and shouts and curses of the salvagers, and the unearthly throbbing squeal of the wild-men. Even as he drew and loosed, he realized...
"They aren't stopping for shit! Ready for it, you Villains!" he roared.
A whistling, and he ducked as a shower of little throwing-spears came down out of the night, driving into the sandy ground with a dry crunch, or into wood with hard cracks; the ones that hit the triple-ply canvas of the wagon tilts made a drumhead sound and hung there like porcupine quills. One went into the barricade next to his eyes, and he could see that the head was a ground-down table-knife. He used the moment to slide the shield from his back and run his left arm through the loops, and then the luckiest or fastest of the natives were at the barricade. This was the south-facing edge of the wagon-fort, and they were thickest here.
"Richland!" he shouted as he surged up.
He wore his shete over his back when he was on foot, the hilt jutting up by his left shoulder. He swept it out and cut with the same motion. A snarling face with a shock of greasy blond hair and a human finger-bone thrust through the septum of its nose fell back in a splash of red. An ancient shovel crashed down on his shield, bang, and a kitchen-knife probed at his armor. He jerked the shield downward and broke both the savage's arms; then he thrust across the thrashing body with his shete, the blade skidding on wood of the shovel handle and taking off the fingers of the wielder...
A long snarling scrimmage around the edge of the wagons, steel glittering in the light of the second flare, gasping breaths, banging and rattling and shrieks. The horses in their paddock snorted and reared against the ropes; the half-dozen spearmen of the reserve came pelting up in a line where some of the savages had gotten onto the top of a wagon's cover, and thrust them back with their long weapons. A few more minutes, and the attackers realized what the odds were of storming what amounted to a fortress held by men with real weapons and good armor, trained in fighting as a team.
Then they ran; Ingolf stuck his shete point-down in the sand and snatched up his bow again to shoot at their running backs, and so did everyone else except the wounded.
Kill enough and the rest would hide safely far away.
Silence fell as they waited to be sure the enemy would keep running, deep silence except for the pop of another parachute flare going off, panting breath, and the moaning of wounded savages. Then the night-sounds slowly began to return, which meant that there weren't any humans running through the woods.
Men went around outside the wagon-circle with spears and crossbows and lanterns, making sure of any enemy still moving; their two medics switched weapons for kit and went around inside, bandaging and cleaning—nobody seemed to be dead, or to have a crippling injury, but a couple had nasty bites that would fester if not swabbed out carefully. That included himself; he hadn't noticed it at the time, and swore mildly at the sharp hard sting when the doctor irrigated the little wound on his neck with disinfectant.
A few wild-men had been caught in the razor wire under the wagons and had to be finished there. Ingolf sprang up to the bed of a wagon and looked out carefully.
"They won't try again tonight, or anytime soon," he said.
"You think, Capitan?" Jose said. "They were pretty fierce, this bunch."
"We probably killed off half the swinging dicks in three or four bands—and all the stronger ones. They'll be fighting each other for weeks, settling who eats who."
"Si. Good thing we were ready for them, though."
The commander of the Villains nodded; if they'd gotten right up to the wagons where they could use their numbers, everybody in the Villains would have died. Quickly, if they were lucky.
"Hey, maybe you better look at this, though," Jose went on.
Ingolf turned and waved to the thrower crew so they would stand down; they didn't have so many flares that they could keep lobbing them indefinitely. Then he vaulted over the barricade and followed his second-in-command a short way into the dark.
A wild-man lay there; there was a bolt through his thigh, his feet had been slashed to ribbons by crossing the spikes, and he was trying to crawl away around them. As they approach he turned, glaring. He had a finger-bone through his nose too, and one through each earlobe; on his body was an ancient threadbare pair of jeans, loose on his skinny shanks and patched with rabbit-skin. A cloak of the same had been about his shoulders, and from the smell roughly piss-tanned. There was a big gold necklace around his neck, lying on the bare chest and glittering with diamonds. It was all pretty fancy, by local standards.
What really caught Vogeler's eye was what Jose had noticed, the weapon near the man's hand.
"Probably their jefe, their bossman," Jose said. "That's funny, that he has a shete, isn't it, Capitan?"
"Damned odd," Ingolf agreed, his eyes narrowing. "It's not a machete—that's new work."
The modern weapon was longer and thicker at the back of the blade than the pre-Change tool which had inspired it.
"Want to try and get the story out of him?"
The wild-man snarled at them and barked, an ough-ough-ough sound, snapping with little lunges of his brown-yellow teeth, his hands scrabbling for something to throw.
"No, I don't think this one's a great talker."
"Si, he doesn't look like it, does he?"
Jose shrugged and brought the crossbow to his shoulder and aimed carefully. Tunngg, a flash through the dark, and right beneath it a meaty whack. The scrawny body jerked and went slack; Jose bent, set the spanning hook on the string, and cranked the crossbow taut again.
"You've got the watch until dawn," Ingolf said to his second-in-command, kicking the mysterious shete further away from the body before picking it up.
He didn't want to go near the dead man; the lice and fleas jumped ship when a man died, and these probably carried disease. Safer to leave the burial detail for a day or so. Which reminded him...
"If they try to drag the bodies away, let them."
"Don't want them stinking the place up." Any worse than it is now, he thought.
Smell was inevitable when you cut men's bodies open. At least the sandy soil would sop up the liquids; it would be safer to bury any remaining tomorrow.
"This is the most defensible campsite we're going to find around here, I think, so you'll be stuck in this location for a while."
He took the captured shete back under the lamps—not much point in trying to sleep more tonight—and as he cleansed his hands and arms with sand and then water, he studied the weapon.
It was a fairly typical example of what horsemen used everywhere he knew of, from the Big Muddy to the Rockies and south to the Rio Grande; a yard-long piece of slightly curved steel, three fingers broad at the widest spot near the tip, sharpened all along one edge and four inches down the other from the point for a backhander. The hilt had a simple cross-guard and a full-length tang, with fillets of wood on the grip and a wrapping of braided rawhide that was coming loose in one or two spots; the pommel was a plain brass oval.
This one was better-made than most, forged by a real smith and not simply ground and filed out of old-time stock. He tapped it against a wagon's frame, and the almost bell-like sound was right, and so was the elastic way it sprang back when he bent it against a treestump by sticking the point in and leaning on it.
Still sharp, he thought, feeling cautiously with his thumb. Shame the way it's been let rust. Looks like it hasn't been cleaned or oiled in a month... maybe a bit less, with the air here.
He rotated his wrist, whipping the steel through a blurring figure-eight; the air hissed behind it. It was lighter than he preferred, but it felt alive in his hand.
Over at the fire he got out his cleaning kit and went to work. When he'd finished and held it out at arm's length towards the flames his brows went up. There was a rash of rust-pits, no way around that the way it had been neglected, but the surface of the metal rippled in the firelight under the thin coating of linseed oil he'd applied, full of wavy lines—not just forged, but layer-forged from a mixture of spring and mild steel, and then hardened on the edge.
There was a very slight roughness in the steel along the working part, the point and about a foot back from there; that was blood etching, the way the salt and acid of blood attacked the softer layers even if you cleaned it immediately.
This beauty would set you back fifty, sixty dollars in Des Moines. More in Richland or Marshall, since the Iowan capital attracted the best craftsmen. That was the price of a good ordinary horse, or two months wages for a laborer, but it was a working tool that had been used hard, not a dress weapon—no fancies like inlay.
Wait, I lie, he thought.
Symbols had been graven in the surface in the same spot on both sides, not far from the hilt; a stylized rayed sun, and within it three letters—C and U and T.
"Well, that's what it's for," he said. Then he called out: "Hey, Kaur, Singh!"
The scouts came over; Singh was still rubbing a cloth on the serrated head of the mace he used for close-and-personal work. It smelled if you left the results in the grooves. There were spatters on his turban, as well.
"Ranjeet is well avenged, Captain," he said, his dark eyes sparkling.
Ingolf felt a little uneasy about these two on occasion. Revenge was all very well, but there were times when he thought the pair of them were a bit monomaniacal on the subject.
"Take a look at this," Ingolf said. "One of the wild-men had it."
They both looked surprised; they hadn't seen anything more complex than tying a knife into a stick since they got east of the Illinois valley.
"It's modern work," Singh said, turning it over in his big hands. "Well done, too."
He been a blacksmith's apprentice before his village was wiped out, and still dabbled usefully in it. Now he flicked a fingernail against the edge of the weapon to test the sound, and tilted it so that the firelight would pick out surface features.
"See the wavy line along the cutting edge, just a finger's-width in? I have heard of that. It is done by coating all the blade except the edge with clay, then packing it in red-hot charcoal, letting it cool, and then re-tempering. It makes the cutting edge very hard, glass hard, without turning the whole blade brittle, but it requires great skill. The heat-treatment has been well done, too!"
He was waxing enthusiastic. His sister leaned forward, a frown on her dark comely face.
"What is that doing here, Captain?" she said, toying with the long single braid of her hair. "These wild-men, they can't even take apart a pair of old garden shears to make knives. Make shetes?"
She made a complex dismissive sound that involved gargling and spitting.
"Yeah, that's the question," Ingolf said. "So they must have stolen it off the body of someone in from the Midwest like us. I don't think I know of more than three or four other expeditions that've gotten east of the Ohio."
"There could be more that we don't know of, more so if they were small and done quietly," Singh said. "If they died here, who would hear anything?"
Ingolf grunted skeptically. "News travels slowly, but it does get around," he said. "And it would take a big outfit, well-found, to get this far."
He took the shete back, reversed the blade and held it out to Kaur. "This is a little light for my arm, but it should be about right for you."
Her eyes lit as she took the blade and ran through a series of cuts and thrusts, feet moving like a dancer's as she whirled and lunged. "Yes! Thank you, Captain. This is a very fine weapon, better than mine or my spare."
"And see if anyone else knows what those marks on the blade are," he said.
Kuttner was standing by his bedroll. Ingolf got out his pipe and fixings and lit it with an ember held in a green twig as he sat and leaned back against his saddle. He didn't smoke much. If nothing else, tobacco was too hard to find outside the Republic of Richland, or too bad if you did—good leaf and fine cheeses and apple-brandy were his home country's main exports. But sometimes it was an aid to thought.
And hopefully it might discourage the mosquitoes, or at least Kuttner, who he'd noticed hated the smell. He dragged the smoke across his tongue and blew a ring into the darkness, watching it catch faint light from the lanterns and coals of the fire and enjoying the mellow scent.
"Why did you give the shete to the woman?" Kuttner asked at last.
Noticed he doesn't like Kaur. Doesn't like Singh either, but he really doesn't like Kaur. Doesn't seem to like women in general much, at least none of the ones with us, but I don't think he's queer, either.
"It's the right weight and length for her. You've seen her fight." Ingolf said reasonably, then described the etchings. "You ever seen anything like those marks?"
Firelight was good for playing poker; the shadows cast on a man's face made it harder to lie. He could see the slight hesitation in Kuttner's response, and the way his eyes flicked aside for a moment.
"Not really. I think I've heard that someone uses those symbols in the far West, but no details—there isn't much trade that way."
Ingolf nodded; it was true enough. Iowa had plenty of cattle and wheat from its own fields, and the metals trade mostly went up and down the Mississippi and its right-bank tributaries. But there was something...
He's not telling all he knows, that's for sure.
A dozen of them rode into Innsmouth the next morning, as soon as the sun was high enough—too many shadows were convenient for ambushers. They came out of the forest, and into what had been the town proper; their hoofbeats echoed off the walls that flanked the broken pavement. This part didn't have many tall buildings; most of them had burned out at one time or another, their soot-charred windows like eyes in a skull. Bare black frames occupied half a street where the vacant spots weren't covered in second growth of saplings and sumac and brambles. Then they were back among brick structures that still stood.
It looked like the final collapse here hadn't come at once the way it had in Boston; there had been an effort to get the streets clear by pushing the vehicles off, and peeling, faded paint on a big warehouse-looking building read Emergency Food Distribution Center.
That one had been inhabited more recently; you could tell by the stink, stronger than the silt-salt of the nearby sea, and the flies. And the crude wooden rack outside with the rows of skulls was a give-away.
Dead give-away, he thought mordantly. But it feels dead now, uninhabited.
"Check it out," he said.
They waited, bows ready, eyes traveling to the roofs on either side; the horses shifted nervously under them. Singh and Kaur swung to earth with their shetes in their hands; when they came back out they both looked disgusted, but relaxed and with the steel sheathed.
"Nothing, Captain," the man called. "They were here, but they cleared out last night. I think you were right—they fought among themselves a little when they got back from rushing us."
"Nothing living, and nothing I wish to remember having seen," Singh said, and spat.
Considering some of the things he'd seen Singh do himself in the war, he decided he really didn't want to look inside—no point in putting things like that in your head unless you had to. Instead they cantered down to the water's edge. There they found what they wanted; an old-time warehouse for boats, where they were stacked up several layers high in metal racks. He'd seen that before in the ruined cities on the Lakes, and the guidebooks listed several here.
The ground floor was smashed remnants where small animals scurried amid the tendrils of shade-loving vines, hiding as the humans dismounted and looked the place over; storm-surges had come up the town's narrow central harbor several times in the past decades. Beams of sunlight lanced down from holes in the rippled plastic of the roofing, catching on a chain, turning the bulks of cabin cruisers and catamarans into shadowy vastness. Birds flew in and out, tending to their nests.
Ingolf sighed and did some climbing—not easy in armor, but he certainly wasn't going to take it off. His limbs felt heavy after little sleep and a bad fight last night, but he was used to working while he was exhausted; it was a requirement in both the trades he'd followed since he left home. A lot of the boats were made of the old-time material called fiberglass. He was familiar with it; some bowmakers used it instead of horn on the belly of a saddle-bow, though it was getting rare back in civilized country. It had the advantage of not rotting if kept out of the sun, and at last he found a good sailboat with a folding aluminum mast.
"This one'll do," he called down.
More birds flew up at the echoes. Everyone in the Villains was used to working with pre-Change machinery, and more than one of this group had dealt with boats before, on the Lakes. It was still long hours of nightmare work to get the rusted slideway working, with only the spells of watch-duty to break the hot monotony. He had barked knuckles and a sweat-bath worse than the usual summer-in-armor by the time the boat was in the wheeled cradle on the ground. Scavenging had found them enough Dacron and cord to rig the simple lug-sail.
As the others were stowing the supplies, Jose drew him aside and spoke softly, with a glance at the Bossman's agent.
"Capitan, this cabroncito wants to go to that Nantucket place really bad, let him go. So he's close to the Bossman, close enough his farts don't make no sound any more, but that don't make him no friend of ours."
Ingolf smiled at the other man's worry: "And which friend of ours would I pick to send with him, to do something I'm afraid of, Jose?"
The Tejano blew out his lips in a gesture of frustration. "OK, I know what you mean. I still don't like it."
"I don't like it. Doesn't mean it doesn't have to be done."
Then Jose grinned, a quick white flash. "So now I complain how you take Kaur and Singh both. I'd feel better here with them to spot for us if the wild-men sniff around. They're the best sneakers we got."
"That's why I'm taking them! And you know they don't work apart. It's the smallest number that'll do the job—me, the Sikhs, Kuttner."
Unspoken went: And the least loss if we don't come back. Losing three more wouldn't fatally weaken the Villains for the trek back to the living lands. He clapped his second-in-command on the shoulder and nodded back towards the wagon camp:
"Just keep it together for ten days. If we're not back by then, then break camp and head west on the eleventh day. That's an order. We've already got all the stuff the Sheriffs and the Bossman wanted, apart from this, and enough gold to start a mint. We'll catch you up, but you move. You hear me, trooper?"
"Si. Doesn't mean I have to like it either."
The harbor mouth hadn't silted up quite enough to catch the sailboat's keel, possibly because it was protected by the half-sunken hulk of a great ship whose bow reared out of the water like a dull-red hill. There was a little lurch of contact as the four of them labored at the sweeps they'd found, and then they were over the bar and out into Long Island Sound.
Ingolf found himself relaxing as the green-brown shoreline faded. That wasn't very logical—drowning killed you just as dead as a sharpened shovel in the brain, and if they were shipwrecked anywhere around here it was right back into the stewpot. The fresh breeze and clean salt air and bright sunlight must have something to do with it, and the fact that he was finally out of his armor; it was bound up with a couple of cork life vests, like all their gear. They had enough smoked venison and biscuit to last them for a few days, fishing line and hooks, map and compass, and their weapons.
Birds went by overhead, gulls and some sort of pigeon moving in a big flock. Not far away a whale broached; he couldn't tell what kind, except that it blew its spout forward in twin jets.
The wind was from the northwest, just off the starboard quarter. He looked at the map again, at his compass, and then up at the sun. Spray came in over the rail and flew backward, stinging his eyes with the salt, and he squinted into the brightness over the blue water and its white-topped waves.
"Should be there just before sunset, unless it moved," Ingolf said, lolling back with the tiller under his arm.
Neither Kaur nor Singh spoke, which was fairly typical. They were ready at the lines, with the care of people who liked to do things right but weren't entirely sure they could; their experience in boats was more limited than his, and he was no expert, just competent enough to set a straight course in not-too-bad weather. Kuttner didn't speak either, which wasn't like him. He usually had some order or observation or complaint. Now he was tensely silent.
Ingolf shrugged. I like him better this way, except that he looks like he's about to snap like a lift-beam under too much weight. I suppose it was too much to hope he'd get sea-sick and call the whole thing off.
Instead he concentrated on his sailing. As they passed out of sight of land, the Sikhs' silence grew a little tense too. After an hour or so Ingolf spoke:
"Hell, you two, we don't even have to tack for a while. I've been out on Michigan in rougher weather than this."
And nearly died, he didn't add.
For all his cheerfulness—you had to show willing and look confident if you were the leader, which necessity made it easier—he also let out a whuff! of relief when a low line of beach showed on the southern horizon. The sun was only a handspan over the horizon to their right, and it was starting to cast a glitter-path on the water, tinging it with red. As they came closer Ingolf began to frown.
"Singh!" he said. "Take the tiller!"
When the other man had, he moved cautiously to the bows and stood with one hand on the stayline that ran from there to the mast, peering ahead. Then he unshipped his binoculars, careful to settle the loop around his neck—they were big military-grade field-glasses, an heirloom from his father, irreplaceable if dropped over the side—and took another look.
A long shore, sandy beach backed by fifty-foot bluffs, interrupted here and there with lower parts. And...
"What's wrong?" Kuttner said.
"The books said Nantucket was covered with scrub and thicket, with a few trees here and there, and lots of those houses like back on the Cape," he said.
"It isn't. That's forest there, dense forest. Oak, I think. Maybe hickory, and some pine, but lots of oak."
"That could have grown up since."
The three Villains looked at him; surely nobody could be that ignorant?
"Not in twenty-two years it couldn't," Ingolf said. "And it's sandy there, and there's the salt wind. That's old forest. Not very tall, yeah, but it's old. Take a look."
He handed over the binoculars reluctantly and kept a hand ready to grab; as far as he knew, Kuttner had never been afloat on anything but the Mississippi before this trip.
The smaller man's lips went tight. "We must land," he said, but it was if he had to force himself to say it.
"Yeah," Ingolf said, equally unhappily. "It's getting too close to dark to head back."
"I do not know," Kaur said. Ingolf looked at her in surprise, and she went on: "It is as if something tells me go away."
She shivered. "Perhaps this place is cursed."
Her brother nodded. Ingolf was surprised; usually the two of them had the steadiest nerves of anyone in the company—sometimes he suspected they really didn't care much if they lived or died.
"We don't have much choice. Let's go for it."
An opening in the straight line of the coast showed. It wasn't where the maps said it should be, but it did break the surf-bound ramparts.
"And see that?" he said, pointing to a faint trickle of smoke rising there. "That means men. We'd better be cautious."
The three Villains kept the boat's head into the wind as they all put on their fighting gear; the choppy up-and-down motion made it awkward, but they managed. Ingolf and the others wolfed down rabbit cooked that morning and some biscuit, grimacing at the sawdust taste of the thrice-baked bread. It hadn't been very warm out on the water and it was cooling now, enough that the padding and armor didn't make you sweat much. Kuttner wore his usual odd cuirass of overlapping plates of leather boiled in wax, with metal buckles and trim, its color a russet brown contrast to the oiled gray of the others' mail shirts; his helmet was round-topped, with a spike in the center of its dome and hinged cheek-guards.
Ignolf settled his shete over his shoulder, made sure that his bow was protected in its waterproof oiled canvas case by his feet—moisture could play hell with the laminations of a horn-and-sinew recurve—and then turned the boat into the sheltered waters.
Those were shallow; the keel gave a nasty tick that made the rigging groan and everyone lurch as they crossed in from the sea.
"What was that, Captain?" Singh said, pointing west.
"I didn't see anything," Ingolf answered, concentrating on avoiding the green patches as he wended his way towards the shore.
"I saw a flash of light to the west, further up this coast. Like sun on glass, I thought."
Kaur nodded. Ingolf sighed: "There weren't supposed to be any tall glass buildings here, either. We'll see."
Ingolf had been right; the land around the low spot was mostly forest where it wasn't reed-rustling salt marsh. The trees weren't very tall, forty or fifty feet at most, but the trunks thick and gnarled, with a dense understory of bushes. He recognized white and black oaks, chestnut, beech, maple, pine and hickory; the broadleaf trees predominated, lush in their summer foliage. The smell reached him, strong even compared to the sea-salt and the marshes, earthy and wild, familiar from the wooded hills of home and yet a little strange.
Compared to it, the habitations looked small. Six boats were drawn up, wooden twenty-footers; he got the binoculars out and looked. They were open undecked craft made of planks that looked hand-sawn, with oarlocks and unstepped masts and furled gaff-sails. Behind them was a little hamlet of six long rectangular houses, built low with a mud-and-stick chimney coming out of the shingle roofs and earth heaped up against the sides. The chimneys were idle, and the smoke came from a central open hearth in a cleared space.
He switched the view; there were fish-drying racks with the catch on them, and more fires—very low smoldering ones, giving off a low dense haze.
That must be to smoke 'em, he thought.
Ten or twelve acres around the hamlet were planted, amid haggled-off stumps that showed how the land had been cleared. Lush growth hid the soil; there were cornstalks wound with beans, pumpkin-vines, tomatoes, the tops of potatoes, turnips and more. A buzzing midden a thousand yards away looked to be mostly oyster-shell; when the wind backed and shifted they got a powerful whiff from it. Otherwise the community seemed pretty tidy; there was even a paddock fenced with split rails, though no stock in it he could see.
"I don't think this bunch are wild-men," he said. "Not the usual kind at least. How many do you think, Singh?"
"Forty. Sixty if they pack close in those houses," Singh said. "Perhaps twenty fighting men at most, counting boys."
His sister gave him a look, and he cleared his throat and went on: "And perhaps some strong women. That would be as many as could row those boats, as well. You are right, Captain. That is not a wild-man den. Those are people."
Ingolf nodded. "Doesn't mean they're friendly people, necessarily."
He focused on the edge of the woods. "Looks to me like they cleared out when they saw us coming in, but they're watching from there."
Decision firmed. "We'll go in, but cautious. Get one of the anchors and some line."
Two hundred yards from shore they dropped it; it splashed in and sank away to the bottom twenty feet below, and he could see the puff of sand as it struck through the clear water. Then they jerked the heavy rope to see that the flukes had set, and paid out line as they sculled the sailboat closer to shore. He halted them when the bow just touched bottom; that way they could snatch themselves out fast if they had to, pulling up the line. They dropped another anchor and secured it with a slipknot; he took a deep breath.
The water was cold on his skin as he jumped in and waded ashore, filling his boots. The long shadows of twilight went ahead of them. The others followed, holding their bows above their heads to keep the wet off; then the Sikhs went on ahead, while Kuttner and he covered them as they looked in each of the long huts in turn.
When they came back Singh handed him a leather pouch. The deerskin was well-tanned, butter-supple, and worked with a design of porcupine quills and shell beads, with bits of plastic and old glass added.
"That's good tanning," he said, sniffing at it; the rich mellow scent of leather was strong, along with smoke and some herb it had held once. "Brain and bark, I think."
Singh nodded. "There are three or four families in each of the houses, Captain, from the bedrolls. The tools are mostly from before the Change, but look at this."
It was a hoe, with a skillfully shaped handle; the head was a large shell, probably adequate in this light sandy soil.
"Right." Another deep breath. "Let's talk to them."
He walked beyond the buildings. They all held up open hands, yelling about their peaceableness and waving come on. Eventually people did, moving out of the thick brush along the forest edge with a skill that made him blink. A dozen men in hide breechclouts led, aged from early teens to their forties; their hair was shaved on either side of the head and gathered up into a standing roach, with a pigtail behind, and they held light javelins settled in the groove of a yard-long throwing stick ending in a hook. They had steel knives, too, and hatchets.
Behind them came an older man in similar dress, and a woman in a buckskin tunic that reached to her knees; as they got closer he saw that her braided hair was gray-streaked yellow, and she was the man's age or nearly, looking a bit older because she'd lost most of her teeth. He was Injun, though of no tribe Ingolf knew, with ruddy light-brown skin and flattish features, stocky and looking very strong for his size, with thick scarred forearms.
Hmmm, he thought, looking at the younger men again. A couple looked like white men, a couple like Injuns, and the rest mixed. Nothing odd there; I've seen enough blue-eyed Sioux out west, and red-headed Anishinabe up north. People had shifted around a lot, right after the Change, and settled where they could.
The woman looked at him steadily. When she spoke, it was as if the English language came haltingly to her, the sound a little rusty; and there was a trace of an accent he didn't recognize, one that turned are to aaah.
"You are... not..."
The man beside her was probably her husband; he spoke himself, in a complex-sounding language full of quick-rising, slow-falling sounds, then made a crook-fingered grabbing gesture with his right hand.
"The Eaters of Men," she said, probably translating; it sounded that way, not quite English phrasing.
The other locals lowered their weapons, a few smiling at the strangers.
"No, we're not, ma'am. We're from the Midwest—Wisconsin, me. We're... explorers."
Suddenly tears were running down her face. "Oh, it's been so long!"
"... came out here from Innsmouth three weeks after the Day," said the woman who'd been Juanita Johnson once, and now thought of herself as Sun Hair. "The Emergency Committee had cut the ration to just one little bowl a day at the Distribution Center and there was fighting every day with the refugees..."
The Day? She must mean the Change, Ingolf thought, nodding.
"My father and mother, my uncle John and Aunt Sally and Mr. Granger and Lindy, the Smiths, and us kids... I was fifteen. Things were already very bad, and the rumors..."
She licked her lips again, then took Ingolf's bowl and reached out to spoon more fish stew into it with a wooden ladle; the cauldron was made from the bottom half of an aluminum trash barrel. It was good stew, full of chunks of white cod-meat and scallops and vegetables. The firelight shone on the faces—the warriors closest, and the two-score of women and children behind. He caught glimpses, of a naked toddler huddled up against her mother, of another younger one at the breast. They murmured among themselves; mostly the odd-sounding language, but in it were English words he caught or half-caught.
It was cooler now that the sun was down, not chilly but close enough to it that the fire's warmth was grateful on his skin. A couple of the older people had cloaks or blankets around their shoulders, made of glossy pelts.
"Later we realized they must be true. A few times in the years after that, boats came here... hunting... and we had to run or fight. Dad and Uncle John loaded everything we could find, the tools and seed and the three goats from Uncle John's place we'd hidden from the Committee, and we headed out. I don't know where Dad was really hoping for—he talked about going north to Maine. But there was a storm, and we were cast ashore here, we managed to get most of our stuff out but the boat was wrecked."
She frowned. "I haven't thought about it for a long time... I knew about Nantucket. I'd been there. This isn't Nantucket. It looks a little like it, but the trees... and the people. They're the, we're the –"
Another word in that language; she smiled and thumped her forehead with the heel of her hand.
"The People. Or the Sea-Land People. They're Indians, and they'd never heard of white men. Or metal, or growing corn, or... or anything. They said nobody had—they used to visit the mainland before the Day, only they say it was all forest too, and relatives of theirs lived there, not cities and things. Then there was a dome of fire, colored fire, and when it went away they were here. When my family got here they were sick, someone had already come here and left, I think it was chickenpox. Most of The People died of it. There'd been about a hundred, but only two dozen lived."
All the watchers shuddered at the word chickenpox; some of them made signs that were probably for protection against evil magic.
"But they're good people... and they had food, they knew how to fish and hunt. We stayed, and we helped with the sick, and learned to talk to them, and showed them things, and they showed us... My Dad died six years later, drowned while he was out fishing. Mom got sick with something a year after that, I don't know what, it was awful; she had this pain in her stomach... Uncle John built boats for a hobby, so he knew how—"
Ingolf finished the food and set the plastic bowl aside as Sun Hair rambled through her tale of years, of children born and folk dying, of learning and forgetting.
I don't think she's really wandered in her wits, he thought. Just a little strange, like a lot who had a hard time in those years. Hers wasn't as hard as some. But Christ, this is weird!
He knew the history of America before the Change, at least in outline; he was a Sheriff's son, after all, an educated man who could both read and write fluently and cipher well. He'd read through an entire book on it, the Time-Life one, and another bound together from several carefully preserved National Geographics with wonderful pictures. This island was near where the first English had settled, four hundred years ago. And the Injuns they met had been farmers, albeit without iron or cattle or horses. How long since Nantucket had been covered in oak trees, peopled by folk who'd never seen corn?
His mind quailed at the gap of years. Of course, it must be possible. It's here, isn't it? And if God made the Change, why not this?
Kaur and Singh were looking bewildered. Kuttner looked like he was three sheets to the wind, and had been smoking something strong along with it. His eyes glittered, a look like lust. He leaned forward and cut in:
"And Nantucket town? There?" he said, pointing east.
Sun Hair began to cry; her husband put an arm around her. "That's where my boy Frank went!" she sobbed. "And he never came back! He never came back to me!"
"I don't like doing this to them," Ingolf said, looking back at the Sea-Land People.
This was as close as they came to the great fish-hook harbor where the maps said Nantucket town should stand. So far all they'd seen was forest and game-trails, weaving to avoid patches of marsh and a few open old-field meadows. They were lamenting, weeping and throwing their hands rhythmically into the air at this act of suicide by their guests.
Morning sunlight speared through gaps in the forest canopy, thinner here right near the sea, and seemed to surround the locals with a nimbus of light as they wept and swayed.
Good people, he thought.
They'd had plentiful reason to fear and suspect outsiders from the mainland, but they'd taken the travelers in without hesitation once they saw they weren't wild-men. One girl in particular had been very friendly later that night... though he suspected part of it was that they had a real limited selection of mates here if they wanted to avoid inbreeding. Singh was looking sort of sleek, too.
They moved forward; the trail was overgrown, and Singh and Kaur unlimbered their shetes and cut at ferns and blueberry brushes. Then they were in open country; on a neatly trimmed stretch of green, though that might be the angora goats the Sea-Land people kept, descendants of the original nanny and her two kids.
Light flashed, through his eyes, through his upraised hands, through his mind as he shouted in protest. The moment of pain was endless, and over instantly. And—
Sheriff Ingolf Vogeler sat in his chair of judgment, looking down at the bound thief. It was a formal room, with a shelf of books, and black-bordered pictures of his father and brother Edward on the wall behind...
"Christ!" he wheezed.
For an instant, two complete lives warred for possession of his mind, and he realized he didn't even like the pompous self-righteous bastard he might have been.
Troop-lieutenant Ingolf Vogeler looked down at the Sioux arrow that sprouted in his chest; he toppled slowly forward in the flame-shot night, dropping his shete as the choking salt invaded his lungs, dead on the day of his nineteenth birthday...
Ingolf Vogeler looked at the slowly rotating hologram model of the molecule and knew he wasn't going to get the parasmallpox to do what he wanted...
"Save, store and restart from 1C," he growled, reaching for the can of Mango cola.
Somewhere his body took another step forward. Images of the land ahead of him strobed through his eyes—or perhaps not through his eyes. A quiet cobbled street lined with brick buildings. Ruins. The same cobbled street, with people in weird clothes or nothing, and vehicles that floated on turning silvery balls that seemed liquid somehow.
Planes of crystal light turning through spaces that hurt his mind like razors slicing at his flesh, too big, too big. Something stretched, gave way, like a guitar-string stretched around the universe, shivering with a note that vibrated from fire to darkness and back to fire.
And Ingolf Vogeler was stumbling forward. He walked, there were stones beneath his feet, but someone else was walking just a second to the side of him, like standing between two mirrors and watching yourself recede into infinite distance. The building ahead of him was square, with five windows across the upper story, four and a door flanked by white pillars below, comely in an antique fashion like some of the older buildings back home, what an old man had told him once was called the Federal Style. A flag hung from a pole over the white-painted door, the old US flag of stars and stripes.
The door opened. His hands and feet moved at normal speed, but somehow it took an endless effort of will to keep them in motion, a harder struggle than freeing a bogged horse once, when he stood in the muck and strained until the muscles of his stomach started to tear loose. Blurred after-images floated behind every movement.
A hallway, with strange magnificent pictures—one of a blond woman in a skirt made of strings. And a voice, a voice that spoke within him, a roar of white noise that he struggled to understand. He felt like a tiny spout, with a torrent vaster than a waterfall trying to force its way through. He could not, and he must.
You are not the one. You must find him. Travel from sunrise to the sunset, and seek the Son of the Bear Who Rules. Tell the Sword of the Lady what awaits him.
A door swung open, slowly. The light behind it was terrible, and more than anything in all the world he wanted to turn away, turn aside, but he knew it would shine wherever he turned his head. Blood dribbled from his bitten lips, and the sting was sweetness.
The sword hung there. He craved it, and dropped to his knees, beating his fists on the floor, wailing the anguish of denial.
Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>