I do not know what I have done to drive my son into such pointless danger. Is it the way of young men to trample good sense like a drunk in a flower bed? ~ Journal of Zehn Chenomet, 2042 Kwellstan calendar
When Cruce first saw the vicious work of the savages, the abuses of Leyton Bevone became trivial. The three corpses on the prairie slapped Cruce with horror. The eyes of the murdered shepherds had been gouged out and their hands chopped off. Cruce had heard speculation among the veterans that the mutilations were prompted by the savages’ primitive beliefs about the afterlife. They supposedly intended to cripple the spirits of their enemies and make them unable to take revenge on the living. It was ridiculous of course. The tabre taught the Nufalese that the spirit could not be corrupted and remained intact no matter how violent the death. Cruce’s father could look forward to an afterlife unfettered by his disabilities, and it was his only mercy. But the savages had no proper instruction about the everlasting soul and the divine. Their wicked small minds could only fathom superstition and cruelty.
“Off your horse, Cruce. Get those bodies covered,” Gehr ordered.
Cruce shoved his mind past its shock and started to clumsily function. Gehr and the ranger Padrek were farther down the gentle slope where the shepherds had been left. They had dismounted at the top of the hill and treaded carefully past the dead men as they examined the ground to get an estimate of how many savages had committed the atrocity.
Even Cruce’s untutored eyes now noticed the jagged trails trampled into the dead grasses. Snow dusted the frozen ground and caught in tiny drifts against clumps of grass. Many footprints were evident where the thin snow had been stomped aside by the circling eruption of violence that had consumed the shepherds.
Cruce guessed that at least twenty savages had done this attack, and a chill of fear tightened his chest. Out near the foothills north of the Burlip, the prairie sprawled to the west and north. The militiamen were exposed and few in number. Cruce was on his first patrol with Gehr and nine other militiamen. Five were fresh recruits, including him and Rayden, but the others were veterans.
Cruce dismounted and glanced at his comrades to judge their distress. The weathered face of the nearest veteran, Hance, was calm but his eyes roved the horizon warily. Cruce approached the dead shepherds. He swallowed his distaste and tried to appear strong. The cold had frozen them and there was no stench of death except for a faint meaty smell. The blood-caked eye sockets were black and unsettling. The absence of eyes seemed to make the dead shepherds less like men. Their faces were locked into painful grimaces and Cruce focused on their bodies.
He knew that he had been told to tend the corpses because he was new. It was a way to harden him to the grim adventure ahead. He would be expected to do violence soon. He must hurt people or end up like these poor unfortunates before him. The talk was that the savages were going to be more aggressive this winter. Their attacks had been increasing for a few years now.
Cruce stooped next to the nearest dead man and tugged his cloak out from under him and started wrapping him. It was a relief to cover the mutilated face. As distasteful as the chore was, Cruce toughened himself with his sense of duty. These men, although of humble birth, were his fellow Nufalese and they deserved respect in death. His duty to defend Nufal quickened from an abstract ideal to a solid mission. His people were under attack, and his proud civilization would not be left undefended against the artless bludgeons of the savages.
Cruce finished wrapping the faces of the three shepherds with their coarse homespun cloaks. He did not see the hands of any of the men. He asked his comrades if they saw the hands anywhere, and one of the veterans grunted that the savages ate them.
“Is that true?” Rayden asked, startled to hear something even more appalling about the savages than what he had already been told.
“I don’t know,” the veteran laughed.
Rayden looked relieved that the other man was only having some sport with him, but Cruce silently disapproved of the joke. After touching the dead, he had temporarily lost his humor.
“Rayden, Asher!” Gehr barked. “Get down and help Cruce load those bodies.”
Gehr and Padrek were stalking back up the slope. Gehr stopped next to Cruce and glanced at the wrapped bodies and appeared satisfied with the job Cruce had done. Gehr’s gray eyes then met Cruce’s eyes with a friendly flash of sympathy.
Cruce said, “Commander, could you tell how many there were?”
Gehr spoke so that all could hear and said about twenty five.
“Is that a lot?” Cruce whispered.
Gehr pulled up his thick brown hood stitched with red spears and rams. “Yes,” he answered.
Rayden and Asher were approaching the bodies hesitantly. Before Gehr had to order them to quit being squeamish, Cruce spoke up. “This one first,” he said. He bent down and grabbed the stiff lifeless shoulders. Encouraged that Cruce was actually touching the body, Asher and Rayden took up the legs.
They secured the three bodies onto horses. The animals resisted the dead cargo, but after some stern effort the bodies were strapped onto Asher and Rayden’s horses. Cruce decided that his wrapping of the bodies earned him the right to keep his horse. He invited Rayden to ride double with him, and Asher joined Hance on his horse.
Gehr and Padrek had been conferring quietly while the bodies were loaded. They mounted their horses, and Gehr announced that they would take the bodies to the nearby settlement of Upella. The shepherds were likely from there, and their kin could handle the burial. Gehr and Padrek set a hard pace across the prairie. The people of Upella and the outlying farmsteads needed urgently to be warned of the band of marauding savages.
Cruce was starting to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the open land. The Valley of Nufal was lovely with its lush and ancient forest guarded by the austere peaks of the Tabren Mountains, but the sweeping space of the grasslands unlocked Cruce’s mind. Out here on the Nufalese prairie, possibilities invited him toward the future, and his privileged existence in stately Kwellstan now struck him as cloistered and limited.
Cruce was also picking up how to navigate the rolling land. He could judge his direction by the sun and remember points on maps that he had studied in Kahtep. And at night, he had been taught to look for the stars Tweena and Poler that steadfastly indicated the east and north respectively. He expected that by the end of his first tour of winter duty, he would be able to strike out across the prairie with the same confidence as Gehr or Padrek. They knew exactly where they were and how to get to Upella.
The settlement of Upella was only five timber buildings with sod roofs. The stone architecture and grace of the Nufalese cities were completely absent on this foothold of civilization. Smoke issued from the rock chimneys of three of the buildings, smudging the sky with dirty streaks that Cruce vaguely resented for besmirching the purity of the landscape. But the fires were needed for warmth and Cruce shrugged off his dark opinion. The biting wind nipped his cheeks and admonished him for mentally criticizing the only shelter available.
“Do you think we will get a hot meal?” Rayden asked from behind.
“If there’s time,” Cruce said hopefully.
People emerged from the squat buildings. Their keen eyes immediately noted the bodies strapped on the horses, and cries of alarm were soon carried by the wind.
A rugged man with a thick brown beard came forward to greet the militia patrol. He had not put on a cloak before rushing outside, but a huge fur hat encased his head with its dried badger face perched over his forehead. Gehr had no need to explain that the shepherds had been killed by savages. A woman exclaimed with grief when she saw the bodies. Although the dead were wrapped, she knew with certainty that one of them was her man. Two more women rushed to hold and console her in her explosion of grief and several men came to remove the dead shepherds from the horses.
The bearded man, presumably the settlement’s leader, invited the militiamen inside. “All of you, please be getting out of the cold,” he said courteously and gestured to his door with a courtly sweep of his hand that belied his frontier garb.
Rayden slipped off the horse so Cruce could dismount. Cruce glanced back at the dead men that were being carried into one of the buildings. He felt that he should help, but he had already done what was needed. The dead were with their kin now.
A boy hurried among the militiamen and gathered the reins of the horses. In an eager piping voice, he announced that he would water and give fodder to the mounts of the militia. Cruce yielded his horse to the boy’s care and noted the borderline awe in the boy’s eyes.
Cruce and his ten comrades packed into a cabin. Inside it was dark and a little smoky, but the immediate warmth embraced him and the rich scent of buffalo stew teased his hunger into a sharp pain.
The bearded man ordered a woman to put on a kettle and give the militiamen a proper mug of tea although she was already doing so.
Gehr evidently knew who the bearded man was and called him Ehlen. Cruce listened as Gehr and Ehlen discussed the situation. Ehlen’s beard dipped toward his broad chest when he frowned deeply and reported that the settlers believed that a camp of savages was across the Smet River. Judging from the amount of livestock taken over the past month, he believed a large group was in the region.
Padrek leaned close to Gehr’s left ear and suggested quietly that they should send to Kahtep for a tabre landscanner. The idea tempted Gehr, but requests were not to be made of the tabre frivolously. Gehr had a duty to assess the facts in his assigned patrol region as best as humanly possible before bothering the Nebakarz.
“Do you really think a full-fledged tribal pod is this far south?” Gehr asked Ehlen.
“Aye, Commander. The winter be working its way toward being harder than most. The signs be telling us a pod’s out there,” Ehlen concluded.
A pod was serious business, and Cruce’s courage crackled with anticipation. The savages were nomadic hunter-gatherers that were supposedly adopting herding now that they were stealing livestock regularly from the Nufalese. Mostly they traveled as small family groups, but a pod was many families banded together. Livestock raided from the settlers might sustain them, but a pod also had the numbers to attack a settlement. The grains and metal tools were ample temptations.
The kettle had heated and Ehlen’s wife was pouring tea. There were not mugs for everyone so Cruce and some others had to share mugs.
Cruce pulled off his gloves and gratefully pressed his red-tipped fingers against the hot ceramic. The tea was blazing hot and burned his tongue, but he drank it anyway. The hot blast filling his core pushed the cold out of his body, and he passed the mug to Rayden.
Cruce moved carefully through the crowded room so he could take a turn by the fire. A bed of coals was catching onto three new logs. The pine oil snapped in the heat and smelled good. He spread his hands toward the flames and let them cook. He hated the painful cold in his fingers more than in his feet. Seeing a spot open on the kettle rack, he draped his gloves on it so they could toast and be soothingly warm when he put them back on. Judging from the conversation Gehr and Ehlen were having, he would be riding into the wind soon.
“Those are nice,” commented Ehlen’s wife beneath the conversation of the men. She gestured to the gloves with her eyes because her hands were full of plates.
The gloves were carefully knit from black lambs’ wool and reinforced with leather patches stitched on the palms and along both sides of the fingers.
“Thank you for noticing, Good Wife,” Cruce said politely.
She smiled but said no more as she dished up the stew. Ehlen invited the militiamen to eat a hot meal, and Gehr did not turn him down.
Half the men had to eat standing, but it did not matter. Even wolfing his food, Cruce noticed that it tasted delicious. He wanted to slow down and enjoy the stew but he could not. Since his first day of training as a militia recruit, it seemed that he was always hungry.
As soon as Gehr finished his plate, he pushed back from the table and stood up. He clearly had made his decisions.
“Ehlen, send people to warn the farmsteads in the area. Encourage them to come into Upella. You will get safety in numbers,” Gehr said.
Ehlen nodded gravely but warned that the farmsteaders might not all come to the settlement. “It’s not easy leaving what you built up from Ektren yourself,” Ehlen said knowingly.
“Do your best,” Gehr said without criticizing, and then spoke to Padrek. “Go to Kahtep without delay. Tell Master Carver to send more men to Upella…and request a Nebakarz landscanner to investigate. It’s warranted because we may have a pod on our hands.”
Padrek left immediately. As an experienced ranger, he would be able to ride through the night and reach Kahtep late the next day.
Gehr swept his eyes among his remaining men. “The murder of the shepherds will not be allowed to pass. We are going after the raiders,” he announced.
Armed with information about the last known location of the raiding gang, Gehr set out toward the Smet River, north of Upella. He declined those men among the settlers who wanted to volunteer and told them to guard the village.
The militiamen crossed the creek near Upella. It was mostly frozen except for a strip of water running down its center. The horses’ hooves crunched through ice but the creek was shallow and only wetted their shaggy fetlocks.
Gehr led them along the creek bottom, using the leafless willows and cottonwoods to conceal them. The brush tamed the biting wind, and the breath of the men and horses steamed around their faces. The only sounds were the creak of cold saddle leather, the burble of flowing water, and the twiggy clatter of tree branches.
Cruce accepted that he would have to fight soon. Fear goaded his excitement into an anxious need for battle. The gouged faces of the shepherds stared into his mind and warned him of what the stakes were.
The riders came up against a massive thicket of blackberry brambles choked with wild grape vines. The thick brown dormant vines twisted like the sinews of the world laid bare, and the pitiless rows of berry bush thorns barred the way. They detoured out of the creek bottom on a narrow trail that was likely a deer path. Just before they emerged from the cover of the brush and trees, Gehr noted the scuff of a foot in the thin snow. Everyone scanned the horizon and peered into the brush behind them.
Nearby, just above the flood plain, stood two long low buildings of a farmstead. Smoke rose from the chimney. Gehr did not spare anyone to warn the farmsteaders, expecting that the men of Upella would take care of it. With only a couple hours of daylight left, Gehr had to reach the Smet River and try to find the trail of the savages. Beyond the farmstead another line of trees marked the Smet River that came roaring out of the Tabren Mountains.
The militia ducked back into the cover of the creek bottom. Cruce glanced over his shoulder at the farmstead before it disappeared into the folds of the land.
When they reached the Smet River, they turned east and moved upriver to a place called Elks’ Ford. The men surveyed the open water while staying behind the branches at the river’s edge. An expanse of dry rocks spread toward the half-frozen river. The militia watched and listened. The disturbing squawk of crows warned them that something was amiss, but eventually Gehr decided they had to move into the open. It was the only way to cross the river.
The men rode out onto the rocks, and their horses stepped gingerly across the uneven river bed. Once in the open, they spotted the reason for the quarreling crows. The savages had left a grisly sign upon the fording place. A freshly butchered ram’s head was hanging from its curled horns on a tree branch that jutted over the river. Very little of the carcass or hide was present but the entrails were stretched across tree branches like a gruesome spider web.
The ice at the river’s edges was recently broken, and a frozen lump of sheep dung on the rocks attested to the stolen flock that had been driven across earlier.
Gehr spoke softly so his voice did not carry over the sound of the moving water. “The savages have dared to mark this ford. They need to be punished for their boldness,” he said.
Cruce set his hand on his sword and sought reassurance from the hard bronze beneath the leather wrapping. His sword was new. The blade sharp but untested.
Despite the dropping temperature, the militiamen tossed their cloaks back from their shoulders to free up their arms, and they eased their hoods back from their heads. It seemed to take an intolerable amount of time to cross the Smet River. The horses were skittish and lunged reluctantly into the current.
During the crossing, Cruce cringed with the expectation of an attack. His leather vest studded with bronze discs offered more protection than trusting to luck as most of the militiamen of lesser means had to do. Before leaving Kahtep, Cruce had bought an armored vest for Rayden, and Cruce was glad that he had not let Rayden’s proud protests keep him from taking the gift.
The band of fighters reached the opposite bank. The last rays of sunlight blazed gold and pink along the peaks of the Rysamand, and Cruce looked forward to the cover of the coming night.
The trail the sheep had broken through the brush was clear enough to see, but Gehr dismounted and studied the ground closely. Cruce presumed to get off his horse and look over his commander’s shoulder. The savages traveled by foot because in their ignorance they ate horses instead of riding them like the Nufalese, and Cruce wanted to learn more about tracking them.
“What do you look for?” Cruce whispered.
Gehr pointed along the ground where there was a small gap in the bushes. “Here,” he said. “With the snow it’s nearly impossible for even the wiliest savage to hide his passing.”
Cruce saw the half moon mark in the snow that exposed the frozen soil.
Gehr continued, “You look for the shape of the heel or big toe. Tracking is hardest in late summer when the ground is hard and dry, but winter is usually easy because of the snow. You see these tracks that veer off from the sheep trail? Some of the raiders broke off. They are trying to hide it, but I expected this move, so I knew what to look for. Probably a third to half the savages are taking the sheep to the pod and the rest are staying to cause more trouble. We’ll strike them.” Gehr looked up and scanned the tangle of brush, trees, and vines that clustered along the river. His nostrils flared “They are close,” he added.
In silence they tracked the savages as the gray chill of dusk closed in. Gehr dismounted and the veteran militiamen did the same. Cruce and the other new recruits watched as their fellows removed their gloves and scraped up handfuls of dirt. They spat in their palms and mixed up some mud and started painting each other’s faces. They placed stripes on their foreheads, down their noses, and across their cheeks. No one had mentioned war paint to Cruce during his training. Apparently this initiation was done in the field when the circumstances were real.
The veterans gestured for the recruits to join them, and they scrambled off their horses. Cruce looked into the eyes of Hance as the man streaked cold mud onto his face. At that moment, Cruce could not recall sharing such kinship with another man. Hance’s serious blue eyes looked out from a face transformed by a few crude streaks of mud. The vaguely cat-like stripes made him a hunter of the night, and Hance’s potent spirit imparted to Cruce the predatory will of a warrior.
Gehr gathered the men around them once their faces were done. Speaking very quietly he said that he expected to find the camp of the raiding savages at the edge of the river’s basin where it passed higher ground and formed a natural shelter from the wind. They could expect to encounter an equal number of savages, maybe more, but their superior weapons and horses would give them the advantage. Gehr also figured they had the advantage of surprise because this was the first patrol to the Upella region this season.
“Kill any that you encounter,” Gehr ordered and concluded with the standard admonishment to never leave one of their own behind.
Before breaking the circle, Gehr glanced at Cruce to check on his resolve. Cruce looked back at his commander and friend with grim certainty. The militiamen mounted their horses and moved carefully through the river bottom as night fell.
Gehr’s instincts were right. They had not gone far before Cruce caught a whiff of wood smoke. They found the savages camping at the base of a crumbling bluff. Two hot orange spots were visible through the brush and acted as beacons to the Nufalese.
Cruce put the image of the mutilated shepherds into his mind and drew his sword. With his heart unlatched from the niceties of civilization, he summoned the hard violence that lurks always in men.
The howl of a sentry alerted the savages when the militiamen charged through the brush. The fires flickered as savages ran back and forth in front of them, picking up weapons and preparing to give battle.
As they were trained, the militiamen spread out around the camp so as to come at the savages from many directions and stop them when they attempted to scatter. Breaking free of the trees and brush, Cruce felt the freedom of open sky. The stars of a clear cold winter night looked down upon the human struggle.
Cruce bent low against the neck of his horse. He focused on a man half revealed by the firelight. Cruce thought nothing of the man’s humanity. The savage was merely a target to be struck.
Cruce knocked into the savage with his horse. He glimpsed the savage’s face. A square forehead with a mountainous horizon tattooed across it. Wide fierce eyes. A thick red beard and stringy copper hair decorated with bone and stone beads. Cruce thrust his sword at the neck. From the darkness, a thick arm shaggy with buffalo hide swung a stone club. Although an awkward glancing blow, it thudded hard against Cruce’s ribs. A flash flood of mortal panic surged through Cruce’s body and he hacked rapidly at the savage until he met the meaty resistance of flesh.
There was a cry of pain and the red-haired savage fell back into the dark. Cruce looked about quickly for the next man. Every orange splash of firelight highlighted details that his mind interpreted instantly. The terrible danger of the fight where life taunted death enchanted his senses with a glorious acuity. He blocked clubs and spears and struck with his sword and delivered grievous injuries that he followed up with fatal blows. His horse obeyed his unthinking directions as he charged the fur-clad men that howled and yelled.
Cruce yelled back, exulting in his mounting victory. He was good at this. His anger over anything had an outlet. The shepherds were avenged. Upella was defended. For Nufal, he pushed back the ugly savagery that skulked at the borders of his fair civilization.
And Cruce was strong. No one would look upon the Chenomet family and see wasting infirmity again.
A scream yanked Cruce from his chest-heaving moment of violent pleasure. He recognized the voice behind the scream. It was Rayden. Cruce turned in the saddle and suddenly his desperate concern made the erratic shapes shifting in the night hard to distinguish.
“Rayden!” he shouted and rushed in what he guessed to be the right direction.
Cruce swiped at a savage, but the man ran off. Suddenly quiet replaced the shouting rage that had engulfed the camp. Whether the assault had lasted a minute or an hour, Cruce could not begin to know. His blood sprinted through his flesh with frightening force, and the cold could not reach his hot body.
“I’m bleeding!” Rayden cried. The panic in his voice warned of death.
Cruce jumped off his horse and blundered toward the voice. He bumped into the brown lathered shoulder of Rayden’s mount and grabbed the horse’s bridle. Rayden slid from the saddle and thudded into a heap at Cruce’s feet. His hyper-alert senses caught the fresh smell of blood.
Just as Cruce was about to bend down to help his friend, Gehr’s voice slapped him with orders. “On your horse!” His voice was urgent and stone hard. Then, to all his fighters, he called them to unite and form a circle.
Woodenly Cruce obeyed and stumbled back to his horse. His training demanded that he reassemble with the others to guard their wounded, but letting go of Rayden felt to Cruce like bitter betrayal. Truly now the fierce meaning of comradeship impressed itself onto his soul. His instinct told him to hold onto his friend, but Gehr was right. Cruce served Rayden best by doing his duty.
Gehr stayed on the ground with his fallen man and the militiamen gathered around them. The thick press of horses and the jingle of gear and weapons kept back the dark hostile wilds. Many savages had been killed but others had scattered and they might counterattack.
Rayden shouted again, and his shock and hysteria might have overtaken him if Gehr had not clamped a hand over the wounded man’s mouth and ordered him to silence. Rayden gasped and struggled to master his pain. Gehr lifted him back to his feet, and in the darkness, tried to judge how severely his man was hurt.
“Back on your horse, man,” Gehr hissed. He grabbed the reins of Rayden’s horse and pulled the animal close. It took all of Gehr’s strength to boost Rayden back into the saddle. The young man slumped precariously and clung feebly to the thick mane of the horse. “Use a hand to push hard where it hurts to slow the bleeding,” Gehr advised.
Then, the commander sprang quickly onto his horse and ordered that they withdraw. The militiamen rode away from the spray of bodies around the dwindling fires. Cruce moved alongside Rayden to monitor his friend. They moved as fast as they could in the darkness. Branches scratched at their arms and faces as if the ghosts of the newly dead savages chased them and sought to mutilate them.
Before they reached the banks of the Smet River, Cruce heard a thud and a moan when Rayden plopped to the ground. Cruce stifled his alarm and called softly for the others to wait. With help from two men, Cruce pulled Rayden into the saddle with him so that he could hold his friend up. Rayden’s head lolled back onto Cruce’s shoulder. Riding double with a slack body in his arms was difficult, but Cruce struggled on, knowing that he would not let Rayden fall again.
Worried that his friend might be bleeding to death, Cruce hurried into the river with his comrades. The splashing of hooves through the cold rushing waters seemed exceptionally loud, and Cruce realized that his heart was still banging against his chest. He had never felt more completely alive, and he hoped that the explosion of vitality within him would envelope Rayden and protect him from death.
Gehr led his men to the farmstead they had passed earlier. Despite the late hour, the windows were lit, and the humble cabin seemed in that moment a beacon of civilization as great as any tabre temple.
“We have reached help, Rayden. You will be fine,” Cruce told his friend.
The cabin door burst open and a burly form hefting an axe darkened the doorway. He shouted a challenge, but Gehr’s appropriate reply and request for help immediately relaxed the farmsteader. The silhouette of his axe lowered in the warm glow of his threshold.
“Wife,” he barked. “A wounded man they’ve got. He be needing your attentions.”