September 1st, CY 21/2019 AD
Ingolf Vogeler could hear screaming. After a moment he realized that his own voice was one of the chorus. He staggered backward, and turned his back. His face was slack; before him burned the sword, and the Voice, the Voice...
Travel from sunrise to the sunset, and seek the Son of the Bear Who Rules. The Sword of the Lady waits for him.
He quieted himself, his throat raw. Singh was trembling and gray; his sister's face was wet with tears, the first time Ingolf had ever seen her weep, even when they'd taken a barbed arrow out of her back with nothing for the pain but a slug of whiskey and a leather strap to clench between her teeth. Kuttner lay on the ground, his wide unseeing eyes staring up into the sky, making little mewing sounds where froth and blood mingled on his lips and bubbles blew to his short panting breaths.
And a fourth, a teenager in the dress of the Sea-Land people. He was visibly the chief's son, but light-skinned and his features sharper than his father's, his eyes hazel-green.
Ingolf tried to speak, but it was as if his mouth had forgotten the trick of it. He started to stumble forward, then stopped and grabbed at each of his companions in turn, shoving them towards the forest. Kuttner was the hardest; at first he tried to wiggle on his belly, then crawl forward on all fours like a beast, and in the end Ingolf had to stagger along with one of the smaller man's arms held across his shoulder.
The burden grew less as they walked into the shadow of the gnarled forest, keeping their backs to...
Ingolf felt himself shudder again. I couldn't describe it to save my life. When I try to think about it I hear the Voice again. And the presence of a hundred unlived lives jostled in his head. Who is Ingolf, then?
That pressure faded with every step; the world itself grew more solid around them, and the memories that weren't died away into a jumble of alien images. They were on a narrow trail through oakwood and smooth-barked beeches, panting and shuddering and looking at each other.
"Mother," Kaur mumbled. "Father. Kalil. Goolab—"
"Chub'rao!" Singh mumbled; it was the language he'd heard the two using between themselves occasionally, mingled with English. "Be silent! That was lies, lies, they are dead, they are dead these six years! Daghabazi! Treachery!"
The young man in the Sea-Land costume was looking around with growing excitement, but it was tinged with fear. He spoke unexpectedly in halting English:
"Time... time is summer?"
"I go... Place of Dreams... get man-dream... snow on ground. Winter."
Ingolf grunted, scarcely taking it in. They went further, and Kuttner could walk on his own, in a shambling sort of way. Ingolf thought of asking what he'd seen, then looked into his eyes and decided not to. His own brain was starting to work again, and he wondered why the tribe weren't still standing there watching. Had there been something that they could see 'way back there? He found the place they'd stood... and the tracks were old and faded.
It's rained since then, he thought.
He looked at the faint dimpled impressions of bare feet and moccasins among the leaves and litter, and the marks of his own folk's bootheels, and his mind began to whirl again. A beetle walked down into the mark, crumbling a little more sand into it. The outline was soft, not crisp and sharp and recent. Then he looked up at the leaves; they weren't as full and lush as they'd been; in fact, they were starting to look tattered. Sweat prickled him under his armor.
"Let's get going," he said roughly.
They strode down the forest trail. He inhaled deeply to savor the musty scent of leaf-mould, the weight of his shete and quiver on his back, anything real. A squirrel ran up the rough bark of a pine and chattered at him. A deer had gone across the trail not too long ago, mark of the cloven hooves still sharp and distinct.
Finally they came across one of the people from the village, a girl about the age of the young man who'd unexpectedly turned up. She was clothed in a deerskin wrap around her waist, with long reddish hair falling past her shoulders, and carried a reed basket full of wild blueberries. She stopped as she saw them, gave a small shriek, dropped the basket and fled with a twinkle of heels, screaming rhythmically as she sprinted. By the time they'd reached the little inlet and the garden fields around the houses, everyone was lined up. They looked frightened...
Ah, Ingolf thought, flogging his brain into action. They're afraid we're back from the dead.
"We're not ghosts!" he called—despite a momentary uncertainty; what if they were?
The young man with them suddenly cried out and dashed forward. Sun Hair pushed past her husband and caught him fiercely to her.
The tense silence broke in joyful shouts.
"You should stay," Sun Hair said a day later.
"Can't do that, ma'am," Ingolf said, shaking her hand.
They were at the water's edge, and the tide was in; it was barely dawn, and the water further out looked like purple streaked with cream as the sun broke over the eastern horizon. Kuttner had recovered enough to be looking visibly impatient. Even the gulls' sharp skreek-skreek-skreek overhead seemed to be urging him on—though he knew that was probably his own fear. Singh and Kaur were already on board and hauling up the anchor, which was a hint too.
Her husband was there to see them off, along with most of his folk, and his son Frank. The older man spoke to his wife, but his eyes were on Ingolf. She translated the sonorous words:
"My man says you have brought back his son who he thought was dead for half a year. You have good luck with your spirit that turns aside evil magic, and you are a strong man who can hunt and fight and make strong sons and daughters. If you stay, we'll give you our daughter for a first wife, and build you a house and a boat for fishing and whale-catching, and help you clear planting land. The... the... family—"
She waved around at all the people present; the word she was looking for was probably tribe or clan.
"ówill be glad to welcome you. Your friends too."
Touched, Ingolf held out his hand to the older man; they shook, a firm hard grip.
"Tell him I'm honored," he said, which he found was true. "But I have my own people, who are depending on me. I am promised to them."
The chief of the Sea-Land tribe nodded; then he held up one hand with the palm out in a gesture of farewell. Ingolf returned it, then waded out into the chill water and vaulted over the side of the sailboat.
And it's nearly two weeks since I landed here, though I only lived two days of that. And young Frank was there six months, and he thought it was only an eyeblink too. I'm getting as far away from here as I can!
He shuddered as the Voice murmured at the back of his mind. It had been loud in his dreams last night. Would he ever be free of it?
"Let's see how getting really far away works," he muttered to himself. The others didn't notice, lost in their own thoughts. "It wants me to go west, anyway. That sounds fine right now."
Even half a continent empty of everything but ruins and vicious savages didn't sound too bad compared to staying close to that place.
"It's a whiles after the date I told Jose to clear out," he said as they neared Innsmouth. More than two weeks, in fact, he thought with a slight shudder.
"Then why are we heading back there?" Kuttner asked.
He squinted across the bright water; the wind had been strong and favorable, and it was mid-afternoon. Nothing moved but birds, and leaf and branch waving in the stiff onshore breeze. Further out all you could see was green; now they were close enough to see the buildings staring at them with empty eye-sockets, and smell the faintest tinge of rot and ancient smoke under the greenness of the returning forest.
I will not be back east, even if I lose everything I made on this trip, Ingolf knew suddenly. I'll hoe spuds for a living and sleep in a barn for the rest of my life, before I come east again. This country is poisoned.
"Why?" Kuttner said again, more sharply.
"Because I told Jose to go, but I'm not sure he did; he could have stayed a bit, and rely on talking me around if I show up. If he did go, he'll have left a message. It's not going to be easy, getting out of here alive on foot. Not easy to catch a mounted caravan on foot, either, but we'll be a lot less likely to go into the stewpot if we can."
With fifty men and a train of wagons, you could just bull your way through. Four alone would have to spend a lot of time dodging and hiding. Even on horseback, they'd have trouble catching up. On foot... that would be hard. Everyone was perking up; Singh and Kaur nodded soberly.
Of course, Ingolf thought, If we can get out of here alive, it'll be a lot easier with those two along.
They stopped outside the harbor bar to suit up. The tension was almost welcome as they sprang ashore, weapons ready, but the silence remained. Hot sun baked smells out of earth and sea—some familiar, some oddly alien, sharp metallic pungencies and oily half-sweetness. They waited tensely, but nothing moved.
"Wait a minute," he said, and jumped back into the boat.
There was a satisfaction in chopping through the bottom, even though the springy material resisted his tomahawk and then he nearly lost it when it did punch through a weakened patch at last and the splintered fibers gripped it. Water came bubbling through as he wrenched it free; then he slid the handle back into the loop at his back and drew his shete to slash the rigging and the furled sail to ribbons. When that was finished he bent the mast against the joint by hauling on a rope fastened to its top. That took a moment of straining effort, but he was rewarded with a grating rip of metal, and the aluminum pole tipped over.
"Why are you wasting time?" Kuttner said, when he jumped back to the dock; the sailboat was already listing.
"Because someone might have been watching and getting ideas," Ingolf said, as he sheathed the yard of steel in the scabbard across his back and took up his bow again. "I don't want any of the wild-men going sailing for their meat; that would be poor thanks for the folks who helped us. They're less likely to try it if they don't have an intact boat. Now let's get going."
There was a message, left in a hide bag fastened to a tree with a dagger. That was a message in itself—none of the wild-men had come back, for they would certainly have taken both. He reached inside and unfolded the papers.
One was a letter on thick cream-colored modern paper; some of the fibers in its coarse surface scritched on his calluses. The other was a piece of crumbling pre-Change glossy, with a tourist map of Innsmouth on it. The note was short and to the point:
Capitan, stuff at the X. Killed more wild-men second attack 17th August; lost Smith, Alterman and Montoya. We left 20th; see you in Des Moines if not before. Go with God.
X turned out to be a warehouse, a blank windowless building of rusty pressed metal. On the ground in front of it was a circle of fresh scorchmarks, where a dozen of the magnesium flares had been set off. He looked more closely, and saw the tripwires of a deadfall setup; there was a wild-man, too, dead with a crossbow bolt through the chest. From the looks of the swollen, blackened body and the oily-sweet stink and the maggots, the man had been there for at least three or four days, in weather like this. Kuttner had his shete out and was glaring around.
"Relax... relax a bit," Ingolf said.
The Iowan indicated the body. Ingolf nodded. "And nobody came back to eat it," he pointed out. "Jose set this up. Let's see what he left us."
They approached the doors warily, which proved to be wise: Singh pointed out another tripwire, grinning as he stood aside and triggered it with a long stick. A tunng sounded from within the warehouse, and a bolt flashed through the air, landing with a cruch sound in the body of a rusted FedEx delivery van across the road.
"That Jose, he is a clever man!" the big Sikh said, looking more natural than Ingolf had seen him since they landed on Nantucket.
"And inside is what'll save our lives."
He'd been pretty sure of what was inside, from the barnyard smell; their horses, plus a remount each and a couple for bearing pack-saddles. There was just enough water left in the buckets and containers set up to last them another day, and the food was about gone. The animals were frantic-glad to see them; Boy came and nuzzled him carefully, making extra-sure it was really him, and incidentally checking him over for anything edible. He gave the horse some dried apples he carried, pushing off the others and trying to decide whether he was angry or grateful.
Some of both, he decided. Sure, they would have died of thirst soon or the wild-men would have eaten 'em, and I really like Boy. On 'tother hand, in the end people matter more than critters. He didn't weaken the Villains much by leaving these, and he probably saved our lives. And Jose isn't sentimental about animals.
That was true even by the standards of a farm-boy, or a horse-soldier who'd seen the trail of equine carcasses a hard-pressed pursuit left. Their tack was there too, plus some extra supplies—jerky and dried berries, spare arrows, pre-sized horseshoes so their mounts could be cold-shod, tools, and basic camping gear. And a substantial share of the melted-down gold and selected jewelry, neatly lashed into bundles of convenient size—convenient for a pack-horse, and convenient to grab and run if you had to leave the beast behind.
Ingolf swore admiringly and shook his head; Jose did think ahead. But then, the Tejano had been a wandering paid soldier for a long time, nearly as long as the profession had existed post-Change. He'd told a lot of stories, including some where the hired soldiers robbed the ones who hired them. And others where the employers were suddenly struck with the thought—after the fighting was over—that dead men didn't draw pay.
Jose's loyal to his friends, he thought. That's for damned sure.
"Let's get going," he said, lifting his saddle and blanket off a crate stenciled to proclaim that it was full of TV remote controls, whatever those were, from South Korea, wherever the hell that was. "I want to be a long way from here by dark."
October 30th, CY21/2019 AD
The prairie's just so goddamned huge, Ingolf thought.
That was the biggest thing about it; the sheer size, and around here it was nearly flat, with a roll you had to concentrate to see over an hour or so of jogging along at walk-trot-canter-trot-walk. In a generation the grasses had conquered anew the empire that the settlers' steel plows had ripped away, and the wildfires had burned out most of the remnants of house and barn and fence.
Tall grass rippled in endless green-bronze surging waves under the mild dry breeze, to a horizon infinitely distant in every direction. The sound of it was an endless sssssSSSSSSsssss, growing and then fading again as each wave went by, over and over, like ocean foam on a sandy beach. Even the noonday sun seemed to hang unchanging for a while overhead.
The scent it baked out of the grass was like lying in a haymow, but wilder and with a spicy tang to it. And there was the first hint of winter to come; it was just cool enough to be comfortable in a mail shirt with a padded gambeson beneath, but the crisp air held a hint that told you a blizzard could hit any time from now on and leave you hip-deep in snow.
The land wasn't much like the forested hills and tilled river-valleys of Ingolf's home, but the weather gave him a pang of nostalgia for the long cool days of Indian Summer along the Kickapoo. Homelike too were the geese and ducks who made ragged V's in the afternoon sky above, their honking a lonely chorus to accompany the beat of hooves and creak of saddle leather.
He'd spent a lot of time in country like this, in Iowa and Nebraska and southern Minnesota. The only trees were clumps marking old windbreaks around farmsteads, and many of those were dead and burnt. A few maple and burr-oak saplings that had taken root in breaks in the asphalt—it protected them from the fires and competition from the grasses. This wasn't his kind of country, but it was a kind he'd ridden often enough, and that was a kind of homecoming.
"Don't get overconfident," he said, sensing the growing cheer of his companions. "We're not home until we cross the Mississippi—or catch up to Jose and the guys."
Singh grunted. "If we ever do, after the way we've had to go back and forth," he said.
Which was fair enough. The last delay had been when they tried to take a shortcut and got stranded in thousands of square miles of renascent wetland the maps didn't show, before finding the trail again—you couldn't just barrel down the old Interstates, not these days. This road was a guess at Jose's probable choices. Too many bridges and overpasses were out. He couldn't even rely on his second-in-command taking exactly the same route back as they'd used coming out, since the local wild-men would be on the lookout for that.
He could have gone further south, to cross the Illinois where it runs north and south instead of east and west, Ingolf fretted.
This had been a secondary road in the old days, two-lane blacktop, and it lay on natural high ground, running northward to cross the Illinois River and connected with old US 80, which would give a good run west to cross the Mississippi at Muscatine. The grass alongside the cracked remnants of pavement was mostly big bluestem, seven or eight feet tall in this season, where it hadn't been flattened by the weather; you had to stand in the stirrups to see over it. The heads branched out into three lobed "turkey feet" over long reddish-blue stems thick as a man's little finger.
Now and then they passed the tilted, rust-tattered remains of a silo or barn; a drumlike booming came from one were the breeze buckled a stretch of sheet metal like a saw flexing between two hands, echoing with lonely persistence over the empty land.
It's just as dangerous here as the east coast, even if it isn't as spooky, he reminded himself. More so, perhaps.
The hordes from the Chicago metroplex had met those from Peoria and even East St. Louis here, and the dieoff had been bad; many had been so ignorant of country life that they'd perished fighting for scraps in the shadow of grain elevators and silos still mostly full.
The children of the survivors were perhaps a bit less like two-legged rats than the ones further east; for one thing they'd been joined over the years by desperate outlaws and broken men drifting in from Iowa and North Missouri over the Mississippi. A few had taken to trading across the river in hides and furs, and most of them didn't eat human flesh any more. That didn't mean they wouldn't rob and kill—and they had horses and bows and shetes to do it with, many of them.
A stir in the long grass brought his bow up, but it was only a mob of feral cattle. There was no point in shooting, since they had the better part of a yearling elk across one of the pack-horses. The herd crossed the old roadway eastward in a bawling, surging mass as they became aware of the humans, their heads up in fear. Several hundred went by; animals had crossed the river too, and bred back swiftly in these rich empty lands.
They'd seen plenty of deer and elk and beaver as well, and sign of catamounts and wolves, bears and tigers, even a few buffalo. These cow-beasts were lean and rangy and long of horn, but their smell was nostalgic. His father had been a great cattle breeder, and had made Readstown famous throughout the Kickapoo Valley for his Angus and Holstein studs bred up from stock... acquired... right after the Change.
Kaur came trotting back across the fields from the northwest, riding bent over so that she was invisible until she was in earshot except as a ripple in the grass. She shouted their cry—The Villains!—to alert them and reined in, throwing him a casual salute as she came within speaking distance. The brother and sister were ragged and filthy; everyone in the little group was, after two months of flight and occasional fight winning their way west. She and Singh still managed to look as if they were about to be inspected, somehow.
"I saw their campsite, Captain," she said.
"Good! Whereabouts are they headed?"
"The bridge is still up at Spring Valley," she said, pointing back with her bow-hand. "Just go one road over, it's US 89 on the map, straight north on that. But once you're up out of the river flats and the old townsite on the north bank the land is black for a couple of miles—that was as far as I went—prairie fire. Still smoking. Jose left the proceeding as normal sign at the bridge."
"Thought there'd been a fire," Ingolf said—they'd seen the smoke passing from east to west ahead of them earlier that day. "Well, we'll get through the burn fast as we can."
Not having any grain for feed cut how hard and long you could push horses, even switching off with your other mount several times a day; particularly if you wanted them to have any reserve for an emergency, when losing a horse meant losing your life. They stopped to let them graze for an hour or so. He ate some of the elk they'd cooked that morning with notable lack of enthusiasm.
"What I'd give for fresh bread and French fries and catsup," he said.
"Or some vegetables," Singh agreed. "Or an apple."
He looked around at the ground where they squatted, then dug at it with his bowie for a moment, pulling up a clump of bluestem. He had to lean back to do it, with all the strength of his body behind it before the main stem cracked audibly. Some of the roots were as thick as a pencil, and the ground that clung to it was a fine dark-gray whose clods would be coal-black when they were wet.
"This is good land," the Sikh said. "It seems a pity it isn't farmed."
Ingolf nodded; the thought had occurred to him and Jose. "Yeah," he said. "But you'd need at least a thousand people to make a settlement here in the wild lands—and a fort, windmills, all sorts of stuff besides stock and tools and enough to keep you for a year or two until you had a big enough crop in. Not safe otherwise."
Kaur snorted and picked a piece of gristle out from between her teeth. "I will not farm again," she said quietly.
Ingolf tossed a gnawed rib aside and wiped the back of one big hand across his mouth before taking a swig from his canteen. "Let's get to it."
There was the usual short delay as a horse decided it wanted to stop for the night right here, but they were all hobbled and easy to catch. The short route to the bridge lay off the slightly raised roadbed; as they turned into the grass visibility shrank to less than the length of a lance, but that worked both ways—they were no longer visible themselves. Pushing through the tall coarse growth slowed the horses, and you had to watch out for pits and traps; old basements and foundations, pieces of farm machinery that had lain out for better than twenty years, and tangles of elderly barbed wire. Posts burned but the wire endured until rust broke it, unless someone harvested it to make chain mail or a new fence.
The iron-shod hooves crushed a path, and trampled nodding yellow-petaled black-eyed Susans like giant daisies, clusters of purple-blue Ironweed with flocks of silver-spotted skippers hovering about them, and blue gentian. Quail burst out from under their hooves occasionally; Kaur nailed one to the ground with an arrow before it could flog itself into the air, bent in the saddle and scooped it up, then dropped back to the packhorse that held their meat.
"Bit of a change," Ingolf nodded.
They came up onto another road. He grunted in satisfaction at the sight of saplings crushed down where they'd taken root in broken spaces in the pavement; that and a neat circular space trampled flat in the long grass meant that Jose and the others had come through here with the wagons. He looked at the campfires and over at Kaur.
"Last night," she nodded with satisfaction.
"By God, if we're lucky we may actually catch them by first dark!"
The river ran through a depression in the flat land with scalloped sides, an irregular ribbon of woods through the grasslands, bare-branched gray except where faded yellow and dark-red tatters told of autumn's blaze and burn. The road-bridge was a metal truss on concrete piers; a fresh gash in the railing on the western side showed where someone, almost certainly the Villains, had pushed an ancient truck over the side. It stood like a new island downstream, the water rippling around it, shedding the rust of a generation to join the Mississippi.
Ingolf sniffed. The scent of burning was strong now, and there was still a little gritty ash drifting in, making him blink watering eyes. They all wet down their bandanas from their canteens and tied them across their mouths before they left the ruins of the little city of Spring Valley.
Out on the flatlands north of town the grassland was burned down to stubble, leaving an empty plain of blackness. Smoke drifted over it from patches still smoldering; nothing stood above ground level save the charred stumps of trees and an occasional snag of wall. The desolate appearance was deceptive; in a single season this would be lush prairie again, growing all the stronger for the layer of ash. The tall grasses kept much of their bulk down below-ground, and however hot the flame didn't kill out the roots. The seeds of some of the other plants needed fire to germinate. Every season's fire gnawed away a little more of the works of men, though.
He coughed into the damp cloth. "I hope our folks got out in time," he said, worry in his voice.
They all nodded, familiar with the dangers of a prairie-fire. In old dry grass like this the wall of flame could be twenty or thirty feet high, traveling faster than a galloping horse and ready to scorch out the lungs of anything it caught. He stood in the stirrups where the road turned west and peered under a sheltering hand, squinting against the midafternoon sun.
"Doesn't look like the fire's still going," he said. "Not enough smoke."
Singh nodded. "The wind's shifted," he pointed out. It was in their faces now, carrying gusts of smoke and ash. "It's usually westerly around here anyway. That would push the fire back onto the burned ground."
Ingolf jerked his head in anxious agreement. "Think the wild-men could have set it?" Kaur said, jogging along a little ahead.
"Could be. Could be they did it to drive game—it's time for their big fall hunts."
Or they could have done it to cover an attack, Ingolf thought. Or even if they didn't, they'd take the chance to kill and rob anyone caught in it.
By unspoken common consent they legged their horses up into a canter on the shoulder of the road. Out in the burned-over fields small explosions of crows and buzzards took off from the blackened corpses of animals caught in the fire. After a half-mile Ingolf swore and got out his binoculars for an instant.
"That's the wagons, all right. Hup!"
They rocked up into a hand gallop. The five big vehicles were strung out on the road in marching order. One was burning, the stores-wagon, with little bitter gouts of flame when the flames hit something like linseed-oil or the varnish on a spare bow. The four with the loot weren't; someone had taken the trouble to lash down the spare tilts over the everyday ones and lace everything tight, which gave sparks few places to light on vehicles mostly made of pre-Change metal. For the rest, from the signs they'd just taken all the horses and bolted when it became clear the fire was going to hit, which was sensible.
He and Kaur and Singh threw their lassoes over bits of the burning wagon, snubbed the lariats to the horns of their saddles and backed the animals, pulling it lurching and smoking a safe distance from the others. The horses snorted and protested, but they were too well-disciplined to really baulk. Then they turned west again, riding hard.
"Shit," Ingolf swore; it was far too serious for uff da.
The first body was an ostler named Sauer they'd hired east of Kalona; he'd quarreled with his Farmer and been turned out of his cottage and job, but he'd always pulled his weight on the trip. Sauer had burned, and died of it. The rest of the bodies were hidden by a heaving carpet of buzzards and crows and ravens, but they were just off the scorched zone, where streaky fingers of black stretched into the bronze-brown of untouched prairie. The bluestem was trampled flat for several hundred square yards. Carrion-birds took wing in a black cloud as the riders came up, revealing the arrow-stubs.
"Hit them as they came out of the smoke," Singh said grimly, pointing to where a ragged line lay, along with several dead horses.
Ingolf nodded, his throat too tight to speak. A straggling trail of bodies showed where the pursuit had gone.
"These took one with them each," he said with angry pride, reading the signs on the ground.
A circle of bodies marked where Jose and about a dozen had made a last stand. The suddenness of it winded him, like someone starting a fight with an unexpected punch in the gut; half an hour ago he'd been looking forward to seeing the man again, and now there he lay on his back with the stubs of two arrows through his mail-shirt and most of his face gone from the birds. There was blood on the broken shete that lay near his hand; he'd gotten that much at least.
Six years I knew you, he thought. Battle and hunt and camp and bar-room. We saved each other's lives more times than I can count. You taught me better than half of what I know. Go with God, brother.
He dismounted and knelt for a second with head bowed over clasped hands, asking that there be mercy for the soul of Jose Menendez, one-time sergeant in the Lomas Altas Emergency Guard, of late troop-leader in Vogeler's Villains. Then he covered the ravaged face with a broken shield.
And for you, Greg, Tommy, Dave, Will, he thought, fury building. You all deserved better than this.
Singh was gray-faced and shaking. "The wild-men will suffer for this, their tents will burn and their women will weep," he said thickly. "We will avenge them, we will—"
"Wait!" Kaur said. "Would the wild-men leave their armor? Harness on the horses?"
Ingolf took a deep breath and then another, scrubbing a hand across his face, the rough leather of his glove scratching and pulling at the hairs of his cropped beard.
"Think, you cheese-head hayseed, goddammit," he whispered savagely to himself.
His eyes darted about. "Yeah, and the arrowheads, and everything else... cloth, tools, shoes... they'd have stripped the bodies bare and dug out all the broken arrows. And scalped them. And butchered the dead horses for their meat and hides. All that this bunch took was the live horses and the shetes and knives and bows."
"You are right, sister," Singh said.
He pulled a broken lance-shaft out of a horse's torso with a grunt, then stabbed it into the ground to clean it off. The three of them stood around it and looked, with Kuttner still mounted and keeping an eye out.
Ingolf grunted again. The lancehead was about eight inches long, fastened to the mountain-ash shaft with a skillfully forged tubular socket heat-shrunk onto the wood. It wasn't quite the style of any he was familiar with, but it was far too well-made for a wild-man troop, even this far west. And...
He took it from the Sikh and held it so the westering sun caught the surface and showed irregularities, especially where dried blood stuck. A rayed sun was etched into the steel.
"Kaur!" he said. "Your shete!"
She drew and held it out beside the broken lance; the design on the sun-figure was identical.
"Something stinks here," Ingolf said grimly.
A sound from Kuttner interrupted him, and then Kaur's cry of alarm an instant later. Ingolf vaulted into the saddle and got out his binoculars. The sun was winking on more lanceheads, and beneath them the distant dots of riders. He rough-counted...
"At least thirty," he said. His head twisted around. The ground here was flat as a tabletop and devoid of cover, no place to make a stand. "We'll head south for the river—there's rough country there."
"Wait!" Kuttner said. "Give me two more horses and I'll lead a drag."
The three Villains looked at him, surprised. Leading a drag was a standard trick of plains-country warfare, to raise a plume of dust and deceive watchers. Volunteering for it here was also suicide...
"Better me than all of us. You can escape and tell the Bossman in Des Moines what happened to his expedition."
Nodding in grudging respect for the man's loyalty, Ingolf started to help. It took only a few seconds to rig some gear on the end of a rope; Kuttner took the leading reins of the two packhorses and spurred his mouth straight east. He didn't even bother to take his remount. Ingolf felt a slight pang—one of those horses was carrying the bundled proceeds that Jose had left for them back in Innsmouth—but living through this and finding out who was responsible for the massacre was more important.
The three of them paused only to sling spare quivers to their saddlebows and then turned south at a gallop, each leading a single remount. Grass whipped at his thighs and the horse's face; Boy ran with his head lifted, and the sound was a constant shhhsshsh beneath the drumbeat of hooves. Distantly behind them a bugle blew; the enemy, whoever they were, had spotted them. Now everything depended on how fresh the killers' horses were and how their luck went.
They went flat-out for two miles, just outside the line of burned ground, then reined in to a canter; the horses were beginning to blow, fruits of two thousand miles of hard work. Luckily they'd all been reshod recently, so they'd be less likely to go lame unexpectedly. They all looked over their shoulders as well. Kuttner's dust-plume was clear, where his drag scratched the ashy soil of the burn. And behind him...
"A bunch of them split off after Kuttner," Kaur said. "At least a dozen are still after us, though, Captain."
"A dozen's better odds than thirty," Ingolf grunted thoughtfully.
It puzzled him; the stunt Kuttner had pulled was the sort of thing you did for comrades-in-arms or close friends, and the man had never even tried to be that, despite their going all the way to the Atlantic and back together. He'd always been a disagreeable bossy son-of-a-bitch; they'd come to grudgingly respect him, but no more.
They turned onto the burnt ground—trying for the river would be impossible otherwise, but it made their dust-plume a lot worse. As they switched horses Singh and Ingolf exchanged glances; they both rode a lot heavier in the saddle than Kaur, by at least thirty or forty pounds. Her horses were less tired to start with and would last longer in a stern chase. Useless to try and get her to bug out, though.
Ingolf's next glance was over at the sun. Three hours to dark, he thought. Just low enough to get in our eyes, not enough to do us any good.
A few instants after that the extra plume of gray ash told him their pursuers had crossed onto the burned ground too. Canter-trot-canter-walk... the dust grew closer; the enemy were pushing their horses hard, or they had lots of fresh remounts, or both. Probably both.
"Uff da," Ingolf swore.
That they couldn't hope to win an arrow duel was so obvious none of them had to say anything about it. There weren't any good options when you were outnumbered by five to one, but riding over an open plain and shooting was about the worst possible choice. If you had any choices.
"Which we don't," Ingolf muttered to himself.
"They think they can pin us against the river before we can cross," Kaur said clinically.
It turned out they were right; the riders were in close sight before the fingers of lower land stretching down to the Illinois river came in reach, no more than three or four hundred yards behind. Ingolf peered over his shoulder again; there were fifteen of them and all had helmets on, and of the same variety—low rounded domes with a central spike and cheek-flaps. He made a hissing sound between his teeth. Even most full-time paid soldiers didn't usually wear uniform equipment. That was the sort of thing you saw only on a bossman's guards.
And not the bossman of Des Moines. His folk's gear is different, shaped more like the old Army helmet.
He couldn't see for sure what they were wearing for armor, but he could be certain it wasn't the bright-polished chain mail favored by the household troops of Iowa's ruler.
They carried lances, little upright threads tipped with an eyeblink of metal. The bottom four feet or so of each was probably resting in a scabbard—a tube of boiled leather slung at the right rear of the saddle, which kept it out of the way when you were doing something else. Right now the something else was drawing their bows...
"Incoming!" Kaur shouted and ducked, hunching in the saddle so that the shield slung across her back covered the largest possible share of her body.
A dozen arrows fell in a hissing sleet, mostly five or ten yards short but uncomfortably well-aimed and bunched. A single exception slammed into the back of a remount with a hard wet thmack sound, and the animal collapsed behind them, its hind legs limp, screaming like an off-key bugle as it struggled and jerked and the shaft in its spine waggled.
As one, they all signaled their horses up to a gallop and turned in the saddle to shoot back, rising in the stirrups and clamping their thighs hard against the leather in the moment they loosed. The surviving pair of remounts galloped ahead as their reins were dropped, herd instinct keeping them from doing the sensible thing and scattering. Ingolf exhaled as he drew, the thick muscles of his right arm bunching against the sinew and Osage-orange wood and horn of the recurve. Thousands of hours of practice starting when he was seven guided the angle to which he raised the bow before letting the string roll off the fingers.
Snap of bowstring against the scarred steel surface of his bracer, and the recoil slammed him back against the high cantle of his saddle. Snap—snap, and the brother and sister fired as well.
The arrows slapped out, seeming to slow as they arched towards the distant dot-sized figures of the pursuers. More came back, and those seemed to go faster as they approached. Two went by with unpleasant vvvvvptttt sounds before burying themselves in the ash-black ground, shunk-shunk.
This wasn't the first time he'd done something like this. It was just as unpleasant as he remembered, and would have been worse if he hadn't been so caught up in surviving moment to moment. That sound of arrows going by was the sort you remembered years later, leaving you depressed and sweating just when you were about to kiss a girl or bite into an apple.
Assuming I ever get to do either again, he thought, hearing Boy's valiant laboring beneath him as he shot and shot again.
Then the lip of the ravine leading down to the river was close. Another flight of arrows came in just as they urged their mounts over the edge. The animals went down it fast, sometimes squatting on their haunches, then hit the old path at the base running until they were around a corner two hundred yards eastward, with tall oak and maple all around and thick brush between the trees, the steep bank close to the water's edge.
Kaur's gasp of pain was bitten off. Ingolf didn't look over until they'd stopped. When he did his stomach lurched. Not that the wound was mortal in itself; the chain-mail and the padded canvas underneath had absorbed most of the force of the arrow, leaving only a few inches of it sticking into her hip. Red was leaking out through the mail already, and running down her leg, though not the arterial pumping that spelled a swift end. With nursing and care she could recover. But with the arrowhead lodged in bone, it would be impossible for her to ride fast, or to run and fight.
Right now, that meant death. He saw her accept it, biting her lip until the blood flowed; then her brother did as well.
"We will see pitaji again," she said. "I knew when we saw their faces again in the place of magic that we were fated. Karman."
Singh nodded, then turned his face to Ingolf: "This is as good a place as any. We'll hold them as long as we can. Ride hard, my friend."
They leaned over to clasp hands for an instant: "It has been an honor, Captain. Avenge our blood."
Ingolf nodded, not wasting time on saying what they both knew. Singh swung down and handed him the reins of his horse.
His teeth were bared as he turned and got Boy back to a gallop, and clods of earth flew up from the hammering hooves. No point in holding back now; he had to try and break contact before the enemy caught up with him, and he ignored the low branches and brush that flogged at his face or rang off his helmet as he ducked and wove. The Illinois River was to his right, flowing from east to west here as he rode upstream, a long bowshot across—call it three hundred yards. It flowed quietly, with only a little gurgling chuckle at the edge. His own harsh breathing sounded louder in his ears.
A yell came from behind him, faint and far now. Then another, a man screaming in astonished pain, and then a clash of steel on steel. That followed him for perhaps a hundred of Boy's long strides; then it stopped, and he knew the two Sikhs were dead. He glanced behind as he went down a long straight stretch, and caught the first glitter of steel.
"Shit!" he snarled, and reached over his shoulder for an arrow. "They must have sent men around Singh."
The pursuers dropped back as he shot again, dropped out of sight though that wouldn't last for more than seconds. The path twisted around and split. He made an instant decision and turned right, throwing aside the leading reins of Singh's horse and slapping it on the rump with his bow as it went by. Then he took the right-hand branch, down to the edge of the water.
It was nearly under the piers of the Spring Valley bridge; Boy gave a single are-you-sure-Boss snort and jumped into the water, striking out strongly for the opposite shore. Ingolf let himself slip out of the saddle, holding his bow above the surface with one hand and clinging to the saddle-horn with the other. Water sloshed into his clothing with a cold shock, and he could feel the dragging weight as the padding under his mail shirt soaked it up. You could swim in war-gear... but not for long.
He was three-quarters of the way across and in the shadow of the bridge when the first of the enemy went pelting past the spot he'd left, galloping flat-out. That meant the men in the lead were either very brave or completely reckless; there were any number of nasty tricks you could play on a narrow trail.
One... two... three...
The total had gone up to nine before one of them reined in, bringing his horse up on its hind legs. That took skill; so did avoiding a tangled collision by the two behind him, who split around the rearing horse. The too-alert one pointed to the ground, then across the river. Yelling, the three horsemen spurred down to the water's edge, and into it.
That had been a long-shot, and it hadn't panned out. But three-to-one was a lot better odds than twelve-to-one. As Boy came out of the water he thought quickly while hooves went clattering on rock and making wet sucking sounds in the muck. The horse shook himself, spattering more water around; Ingolf got into the saddle and headed east again, on the south side of the river this time, urging the most out of his mount. The trees grew thicker as they blurred past; this path had been graveled once, but it had seen only the hooves of deer and elk, mustangs and feral cattle for the past generation.
One hour to sunset now, he thought. Only an hour.
Rock grew higher south of the river, layers of banded sandstone that caught the dying sun blood-red. They made sound echo, and sometimes treacherously die off or seem more distant than it was. The more so as he bore south and high walls closed around him on both sides, dark where the rock blocked the sun. Hooves clattered on stones and thudded on sand, where the ancient floods had carved this passage.
The right spot, where a bulge of rock narrowed the passage through the canyon. His bow went into the saddle scabbard, and he brought his shield around from his back and slid his left forearm into the loops.
He reined in and slid from Boy's saddle while the animal was still moving; it carried on around a curve in the canyon wall, slowing down and looking back. The man plastered himself flat against the rock; in the same motion he drew his shete, holding it high with the point back, suddenly conscious of his own panting breath, and how paper-dry his mouth was, while the rest of him streamed water. The pursuers' gallop hammered at his ears, bouncing off the stony walls around him, making it hard to judge just where they were.
He could hear their barking, yelping cry, too: "Cut! Cut! Cut!"
"I'll give you a cut, you son of a bitch," he snarled to himself.
A lancepoint flashed as it came around the corner, giving him a fractional second's warning and showing where the man's arm must be—poised to thrust it into his back as he fled.
"Richland!" he bellowed.
As he shouted Ingolf pivoted with tiger precision and swung, whipping the long cutting blade forward with every ounce of strength his shoulders and back could muster. Combined with the speed of the galloping horse the sharp metal cut through a mail-shod gauntlet, through flesh and bone and flesh and then through the tough shaft of the lance itself. The mounted warrior rode on for a dozen paces, screaming in shock and staring at the stump where his hand had been, the blood spurting out with fire-hose speed, then toppled and lay flopping and twitching.
The one following him slugged his mount back on its haunches with desperate brutality, dropping his lance and going for his shete. Ingolf ignored it, dropping his own weapon and darting in to grab one booted foot and heave with all his strength. The rider flew out of his saddle and into the rock wall of the canyon as if springs had pulled him. The helmeted head went bonnnngggg on the rock and the neck snapped beneath it. That horse went past too, riderless, buffeting Ingolf back with a force that brought a grunt as he was slammed into the canyon wall.
The third rider had an arrow on his bowstring. He drew and shot, in the same instant that Ingolf's hand whipped up across the small of his back and forward in a throw. Tomahawk and arrow crossed each other in flight. The arrow banged painfully off Ingolf's mail-clad shoulder, and the head of the tomahawk sank with a meaty smack and crunch into the rider's jaw. He toppled backward over his horse's crupper trying to scream and succeeding only in gobbling. Gauntlets beat at the ground in futile agony as Ingolf pounced. The back of the wounded man's neck was protected by an aventail of steel splints fixed to rings on the helmet-brim, but they bent and snapped as he drove his boot heel down again and again.
Silence fell, except for the sound of the wind hooting through the rock, and the horses stamping and moving restlessly. Ingolf limped back to his shete—where had that small cut on his left thigh just below the mail shirt come from?—and sheathed it. That gave him a chance to examine his opponents for the first time. They were young men, younger than he was, of middling height but with the broad shoulders of bowmen and dressed alike in coarse blue woolen pants and tunics and high horseman's boots. They'd all been armed with dagger, shete, bow and lance, and all wore the same equipment, not just the helmets; back-and-breasts of overlapping leather plates, chaps of the same protecting their legs, mail sleeves. In fact...
That's like the gear Kuttner was wearing!
Things went click behind Ingolf's eyes. He'd been furious before. Now the rage went coldly murderous. For certainty's sake he examined one of the shetes; it was a twin to the one he'd taken from the wild-man chief near Innsmouth, though not quite as good.
"Time to get out," he muttered to himself.
Boy had stopped a hundred yards down the canyon, and the other horses were milling around, unable to get past him. He didn't bother to investigate the gear; time enough for that later. Instead he simply looped the stirrups of each up over the saddlehorn and improvised a leading rein. Taking them in hand he looked up at the sky; it was turning dark-blue in the east, nearly nightfall.
There was just enough sunlight to gild the arrowheads, when he came out of the eastern mouth of the canyon and found a semicircle of the enemy waiting for him, their stiff horn-and-sinew recurve bows drawn to the ear.
Kuttner sat his horse behind them, grinning...
Flying M Baronial Hunting Preserve, near Yamhill
Portland Protective Association, Oregon
January 30th, CY22/2021 AD
The fire had died down to coals while he told Ingolf's story. When Matti spoke her voice was as quiet as the blue-and-yellow flickering over the embers.
"That would be hard, to lose your best friends all on the same day, and then be betrayed like that."
"Yes," Rudi said somberly. Then he smiled. "But you know what Mom said to him?"
"She told him what his friends' names meant—the Sikhs. He hadn't known... She said—"
His gaze went beyond the wall, recalling that night in Dun Juniper:
"Lion," the Mackenzie chieftain said softly. And Lioness."
Ingolf looked up, startled out of memory. "Ma'am?"
"That's what Singh means: Lion. And Kaur means lioness. Your friends died faithful to their ancestors, Ingolf."
"We'll have to get by the... Cutters? The Cutters, yes... when we go east," Mathilda said thoughtfully.
She picked up the poker and stirred the embers; they crackled and let a few dull-red sparks drift upwards. The hall was silent now; they were alone, though there were servants within calling distance.
Rudi sat up. "Wait a minute!" he said sharply. "What's this we?"
Mathilda looked at him, her brown eyes hurt. He'd seen it done better... and they'd spent a lot of time together since they were children.
"Yes, we are," Rudi said.
They'd been children when they went through that rite, back during the War of the Eye, when she was held prisoner by his people and before he'd been taken captive by hers; they'd done it to make sure that they weren't caught up in the quarrels of their parents. That didn't make it any less real, or less binding.
"But that doesn't mean you can run off with me, soul-sister," he said. "You're heir to the Protectorate, for sweet Brigid's sake!"
"And you're heir to the Mackenzie," Mathilda shot back.
Her back had gone stiff, and she wasn't trying the puppy-eyes on him any more. Rudi ran a hand through his red-gold mane.
"I am not! It's not hereditary!"
She made a rubbing gesture between thumb and forefinger. "That's the world's smallest violin playing for you 'cause you'll be tossed out to starve or go beg in the gutters of Corvallis, Rudi. The assembly made you tanist, didn't they?"
He flushed, which was unfortunately obvious with his complexion; not quite as milk-white as his mother's but pale enough to show the blood mounting to his cheeks, particularly in winter. There wasn't much doubt who the Clan would hail as chief... but he didn't want to think about his mother taking the voyage to the Summerlands, not yet. That might be a long time, anyway; she was only in her fifties, strong and healthy.
"Look, Matti, I'd love to have you along. There's nobody in the world I'd rather have my back. But you can't go. Your mother would never let you do something that crazy."
She pounced. "If it's that crazy, why is your mother letting you do it?"
"I'm of age," he said, and instantly regretted it as her lips narrowed.
Oooops. Matti doesn't come of age until she's twenty-six. That had been part of the agreement at the end of the War.
"And besides, you heard about the dream Ingolf had. I'm supposed to be doing this. Mom doesn't like it, of a surety she doesn't, but she knows I have to."
"Pagan superstition," Mathilda spat.
"Hey!" Rudi replied, dismayed. I did get her angry, and no mistake!
Then she took a deep breath and relaxed. The problem was that she relaxed the way a lynx did, waiting on a branch for something edible to pass by. And he recognized that expression; it was too much like her mother's. She was thinking.
"Well, who is going with you?" she said reasonably.
"Ingolf, of course," Rudi said. Anamchara did have to share their secrets. "And one more—I think Edain, Sam Aylward's son. He showed very well in that dust-up with the Haida last year."
Mathilda nodded; they both knew the young man well. "And?" the young woman went on ruthlessly.
"And two Rangers."
Mathilda's eyes narrowed dangerously again. "Any particular Dúnedain?" she said.
"Well... my sisters." At her look: "Well, half-sisters."
She nodded quietly, got up and left. Rudi stayed and sat staring into the fire. Then his eyes turned, towards the staircase where his best friend had gone. They'd known each other half their lives...
"That was much too easy," he muttered to himself.
Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>