Wannas Kittamaquand placed nine arrows into his quiver. How many to carry was a toss of the bones. He needed to be able to run as fast as he possibly could, but he also needed protection from the Romans and Sandhaveners who would be trying to kill him. He considered for a moment, then took one arrow, an armor piercing bodkin, out.
Okay, eight it was. Four bodkins. Four barbed.
That was about the right balance. Had to be.
He knew himself, and if he had more it would be hard to keep from using them instead of doing what he must: running away.
It would be really satisfying to have a straight shot at one of the soldiers who had been starving the people of his city for the past month. Really satisfying and deadly where he was about to go.
It would be a mistake unworthy of the task he had before him.
He almost ordered the others who would be with him on the breakout to pare down the number of arrows they were carrying. But no. He had chosen them, almost in the same way he’d picked his arrows. He had chosen the best from the warriors he knew. Some were friends. Some competitors in the city games he’d faced time and again.
Wannas didn’t like several of them one bit, especially those from the pan-Skraeling Anmik clan, who dripped with hatred for anyone who wanted to get along with the Kaltemen, much less the southern colonials.
He didn’t like them. But he trusted them to make the right decision about arrows. And how to die in the most effective way, if need be.
Should he take his knife? It was added weight.
Now he was getting fuzzy-headed.
If he lived, he still had over fifty leagues to travel. He must carry at least a knife.
Wannas picked up his knife and put it into the sheath just as his father came into the guardhouse armory.
His father stood silently while Wannas sheathed the knife and picked up his bow and arrow.
“No armor?” his father finally said.
“You know we can’t wear it.”
“Not even a mail shirt?”
His father, Chogan Kittamaquand had had his children late in life. Wannas when he was forty. Wannas’s sister and brother at fifty and fifty-one. At almost sixty now, Chogan looked old. He looked like an ancient elder. To Wannas, who was seventeen, he appeared more like a wrinkled grandfather than a father. But looks could be deceiving. Chogan was still nimble.
And he still ran the Kittamaquand clan with an velvet touch and an iron hand.
“Not everyone in the family understands why I am letting you do this," his father said. “They say there's glory enough for the clan if you remain a warrior on the wall.”
“Let me guess," Wannas replied. "They want to send some boys from Atakaadjeiwan or Noahtactai to do the dirty work?”
“I won't lie to you," said his father. "If you die, it will weaken the clan’s position. We would probably lose the tobacco market.”
Wannas chuckled. "It's your own fault, Dad. After you had me, you and Mom should've gotten busy churning out some brothers and sisters for me. Who has babies at fifty years old, Dad?”
His father’s face wrinkled into a wry smile. “It wasn't for lack of trying,” he replied. “I don't know why the manitous played that little trick on us, giving us you so late to begin with, then putting ten years between you and your sister and brother." He shook his head. “Numees is seven and Kitchi is little more than a toddler. I know they'll grow up brave and smart like you, my son. But not everyone will be willing to wait.”
“I don't even know if I want to work at the market, much less be a factor in the pits. Much less run the pits. I don't even smoke, Dad!”
“We may have to correct that one day. You should at least take a few ritual puffs from the sacred pipe when it gets passed around.”
“But I can't stand tobacco," Wannas replied. "You know that. I never could, even when I was a kid.”
“You are a strange and sensitive boy," Chogan said. “I've never understood you. Fortunately that hasn't prevented me from loving you with all my heart and soul.”
“I love you too, Dad."
“Then you will run like the wind when you get outside these walls," his father murmured. Then the old man smiled crookedly.
“And the canoes will be there?”
“That is what we’re counting on.”
“You and the Elder Council.” His father was a member of the upper house of the city-state’s bicameral legislature. He’d been elected three times in the last eighteen years, following six years in the lower house. Not all of his winning was because he plied the tradespeople with free beer prior to every election. Wannas believed half the people who voted for Chogan Kittamaquand actually liked his father. It was that kind and wise grandfather look. Then you got to know him better, and see the steel underneath, Wannas thought. And the deviousness. “Think the smugglers can be trusted?”
“They’ve managed to get what small amount of extra food we have in past the Sandhaveners and Romans,” Chogan replied. “Those Shenandoah flatboat beavers are the most trustworthy men I know.”
“If you can even call them men.”
“Don’t take that attitude with you,” his father said. “I’ve taught you better than that.”
“I know, I know,” Wannas answered. “The Tier of Shenandoah are just as ‘real’ as us humans.”
“They are. For better or worse,” his father said. “And don’t you forget either. The beaver men are old acquaintances and business partners of this clan. They helped make us what we are today. I trust them. They say the canoes will be there, they’ll be there.”
“Then I trust them, too,” Wannas replied.
His father nodded. “Good,” he said. “One more thing you have to do. Promise me that you will speak with Wawetseka before you go. I told Aranck Pamisapan that you would.”
Wannas felt himself tense up at the mention of . . . his wife. Arranged at the age of seven by his parents.
They’d been married when he was twelve and Wawetseka Pamisapan was eleven.
“I’m going there now,” Wannas said.
“You might even . . . well, it wouldn't do any harm to get started on the babymaking. I know eighteen is the traditional age to do it, but nobody could blame you for getting a six-month’s start on it now. Particularly considering the danger you're about to face. It’s time she officially took our clan name."
Wannas swallowed and tried to smile. He figured it probably came out as a kind of grimace, but there wasn't anything he could do about that. He liked Wawe. She was perfect. She was also very beautiful. The flower of her clan.
And a powerful clan it was. The Pamisapans. Second only to the Kittamaquand clan in Powhatan influence and city-state politics. The marriage between Wannas and Wawetseka was looked upon by nearly everyone in Potomak as brilliant.
There was only one problem.
Wawetseka bored him nearly to tears every time he was around her.
There wasn’t a bit of mystery to her. She never did or said anything unexpected. Even her kindness and sweetness of temper seemed . . . boring.
He knew he was probably the one being incredibly stupid.
Most guys in Potomak would have killed to be married to Wawetseka. If there had been royalty or titles allowed in the city-state, Wawetseka would be a princess.
Wannas wanted to be in love with his wife. In Potomak, particularly in the more influential clans, arranged marriages were the way things were done. And they usually did work out.
He had seen many couples who had started out in arranged matches who were now inseparable, even in love. Divorce was allowed by the city constitution, but very few ever got one. In fact, it was usually the love matches that ended up breaking apart. That was really what the divorce laws were for. They were to allow those who made a reckless choice when they were young to back out of a foolish decision and bring in a matchmaker, or their parents, or both, to find the right person for them.
In any case, once he and Wawetseka had their first child, they would be expected to move in together. She would formally adopt his clan name.
And that would be that. His future would be decided.
His boring future.
“You think you're hiding it from me, Son, but I can see right through you. You are not thrilled with the match your mother and I made for you. But you have to trust that we may know more than you think we do.”
“You know I respect you, Dad.”
“You are the fastest runner I've ever seen. Even faster than me when I was your age. And you've seen my foot race belts.”
“How could I miss them?” Wannas replied wryly. “The entire family parlor is lined with those wampum belts you won back in the day.”
“Just don’t run away from your promises," his father said. "The manitous have a way of biting the heels of those who think they can outrun destiny.”
Sometimes Chogun merely played at being the wise old Skraeling elder. Sometimes, Wannas had to admit, his father simply was one.
“You're going to do what?" said Wawetseka. “You’re going to get yourself killed is what you’ll do, Wannas!"
“We don't have any choice," Wannas replied. “The Sandhaveners and Romans are going to starve us out within weeks if we don't get help. Noahtactai District has already run out of meat.”
“The city may not have any choice, but you do,” Wawetseka said. “You said it yourself. They’re the ones who need it most. Why can’t it be some of the tough boys from the Noahtactai quarter? Or why not send slaves? They could be promised their freedom if they get through.”
Wannas shook his head. “Even if that was the right thing to do, which it's not, once they got through they would already be free. No need to obey anybody's orders after that.”
Wawetseka crossed her arms and pouted. “Then we should pick out honorable slaves. Slaves who would do what they’re told no matter what.”
Wannas reached over to her and took one of her hands in his.
If only there were some way I could look inside her and see if she really means it when she says things like that, he thought.
“You and I will never own slaves," he said. “My family has been against slaveholding for centuries, you know.”
“I'm still hoping that I can convince you to let me bring Ian and Gladys along when we move in together,” Wawetseka said with a quick smile. “They are practically family.”
“You know my answer to that," Wannas replied. "They can live with us, but only if you free them.”
“That would be a huge scandal. Ian and Gladys are Anglish, you know. Imagine sharing a house with freed Anglish, and them not even married.”
“Then they will have to live somewhere else. Nearby, maybe. Also, we would have to pay them wages, you know, if they kept being your servants.”
“What else would they do, silly? They’re house slaves. If you asked them to work outside at some trade they would be positively mortified.” Wawetseka withdrew her hand. “Wannas, I declare, sometimes you are as thick as a plug of that perique tobacco your people sell.”
“I guess so,” Wannas replied.
Wawetseka’s expression softened. “I know that you and I don't really understand each other very well, but I do care for you very much. I've known you for so long and you've always been very kind to me. Don't think that counts for nothing! It means the world to me.”
“I . . . appreciate that, Wawe. I care about you, too.”
“You think I’m a monster for owning slaves."
“I've seen how you treat them, and especially the children," Wannas said. “Kind. Considerate in your way. I don't think there's a mean bone in your body, Wawe. I respect that about you a lot, I do.”
Wawetseka took out a handkerchief. After a moment she dabbed it to her eyes. “Listen to us," she said. “Care. Respect. Just one word missing, isn't there, husband?”
“I guess so.”
“You know so. And so do I. What's missing . . .”
“You don't have to say it," Wannas replied. "We probably shouldn't say it out loud. It will just make things worse.”
Wawetseka daubed her nose with the handkerchief, and sniffed back her tears. “What are we going to do, Wannas?”
“We’ll have to give it a try when I get back. I guess. I would never shame you.”
“But you are! Right now, by doing this . . . this run. That’s the thing. I can't bear to think that you're putting yourself in this kind of danger just because you hate being married to me. That’s why you’re doing it really, isn’t it? And if you die, I'll spend the rest of my life hating myself because I drove you to it. Because I wasn’t a good wife.”
“You can't think that. It's not the truth.” Wannas pointed to his legs. “Wawe, I'm fast. For some reason, maybe for this, the Great Spirit made me really, really fast. I can outrun those tough guys from the Atakaadjeiwan district. I can outrun everybody.”
“So you're the natural choice to run for help?”
“I’m the best choice.”
“Even if you say so yourself.”
“The captain of the guard asked me to volunteer. Kadawash himself. That man doesn’t play favorites. He can’t afford to.”
“Prince of the City. That’s what they call you.”
“The others. The ones who are jealous of you.”
“They can go to the Underworld, for all I care.”
“No, no. They admire you. Even when they make fun of you. You’re perfect,” Wawetseka said. “None of my friends understand why I . . .” Wawetseka said with anguish, but also a trace of irritation that things weren’t going her way.
Wawetseka shook her head. “Why I talk about getting divorced,” she muttered.
Wannas blinked. He shook his head to clear it.
Am I hearing this right?
“Wawe,” he said. “Is there someone else?”
The tears came freely now.
“It’s so awful,” she sobbed.
For the first time in a long time, Wannas laughed. Genuinely. Holding nothing back.
Wannas reached over, drew Wawetseka to him in a hug
“And the worst thing is,” she said, “he’s a miller.”
“Oh, there are even more terrible things than that,” Wannas replied, still chuckling.
“You don’t understand. His family just owns the one mill. They always have. Never less. Never more. For two hundred years.”
“If he was poor and clanless, that would be one thing. But he’s . . .
Wannas gently let go of Wawetseka. He took her handkerchief and dried the remainder of her tears.
“Wawe, when I get back, we’re getting a divorce.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”
She nodded. “Okay. I guess.” She sighed. “Yes. We have to.”
“Can you wait?” Wannas asked. “I do have to go. At dawn. Keep it to yourself, but the arrangements are made. The city can’t hold much longer without help.”
“I can wait,” Wawetseka said. “I’ll wait for you.”
Wannas smiled. He took her hands into his, got down on one knee. “Wawetseka Pamisapan, I promise you that I’ll return.”
“To divorce me.”
“Yes, to divorce you.”
“And I promise to divorce you, Wannas Kittamaquand.” Wawetseka put a hand on Wannas’s head. His hair was cut in the traditional warrior’s crop. She ran her fingers through his Mohawk spike.
“I really do like you, Wannas.”
“I like you, too, Wawe.”
She withdrew her hand, kissed the fingers that had been touching him.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
Wannas stood. He smiled.
For the first time, Wannas knew he might make it to Shenandoah.
His father was wrong.
The manitous weren’t angry with him for going against tradition.
Not at all.
They were having a good laugh.
Now if I can just keep them distracted while I make the run.
Why’d it have to be Romans?
It was a half watch before dawn. They’d gotten the signal that the canoes were ready. So Wannas and twenty-one others—some his friends, all his competitors in the races—descended the wall. All were champions in the most competitive city in the world.
It was said that if somebody scratched his butt and four or five Powhatans happened by at the same time, they would find a way to make it into a cut-throat contest, and then walk away once they’d determined the champion butt-scratcher.
The runners climbed silently down the western wall. They were tightening moccasins, getting ready for the run when—
Romans. Camped nearby.
And, just like Romans, up already. Pickets and scouts sent out.
Dressed. Getting their breakfast.
Curse that Roman efficiency.
The Sandhaveners were bad enough. There were great warriors, especially the Hundred, the royal guards of King Siggi von Krehennest. And now that they had begun taking the Talaia adder cake, they were even more brutal and effective.
The herb that, together with the blood of others combined with dark ritual, bound the Holy Roman Empire together in a chain of dominance and submission had been imported to the north lands with a vengeance. Generations of peaceful trade between the Skraeling city states and the Kalte lords of Krehennest had been shattered by the new mind-control.
King Siggi von Krehennest was determined to swallow the River Cities such as Potomak, Nottaway, and Choptank whole, and force his newly acquired Talaia faith, along with the blood-dipped herb, down the throats of the Powhatans and every other Algonquin clan. What was worse, Siggi now had the might of Rome to back him up.
It used to be that a Sandhavener king would much rather run the old “raid and trade” routine than ever ally with the Roman colonies. Those days were gone.
Now Sandhaven and Rome were bound in blood, and it was every Skraeling city-state for itself.
To prove it, King Siggi had allowed an entire Roman legion to row up the Chesapeake in their awkward boats and to debark at Krehennest. Sandhaven and that legion had journeyed overland to the Potomak, then upriver to the fall line.
To the Great Falls.
To the city-state of Potomak.
Which now lay under siege.
To mask Wannas’s run, Captain Kadawash had ordered a loud demonstration from the troops on the eastern wall of the city. This was to draw as many troops as possible away from the west side, where Wannas and his party were making their breakout attempt. Nobody was under the illusion that there would be no troops in the west. Just fewer. More spread out.
Maybe the runners would get lucky and avoid them entirely.
So much for that illusion.
Nope. There were Romans here. Stationed in the bottomlands among the rocky outcrops and riverbank that formed the fall line of the Potomak River was what looked to be an entire company of Romans, complete with a crusty and brutal looking centurion in a plumed helmet.
Wannas practically ran into the centurion moments after his feet touched ground.
Wannas had been coiling the knotted the rope he and the others had used to descend the outside of the city wall. He’d planned to hide it inside a stand of sweetgum saplings. Suddenly, a javelin sped within a hands-breath of Wannas’s head and sunk into the chest of the man standing next to him.
The stricken man—he was Shawaude from the Obotassaway clan—let out a cry that was more surprise than pain, but that was loud enough to alert anyone else nearby. He then collapsed holding to the javelin and bleeding out quickly among the stones in the dry moat at the base of the city wall. Wannas and several others quickly nocked arrows and fired, but the centurion had charged away from them and into brushy cover. Wannas heard him loudly calling for his men.
“Armate! Armate, canēs! Nunc! Nunc!!”
At least that's what Wannas supposed the man was shouting about. He did not speak or understand Latin.
Didn’t matter. The signal was clear.
It was time to make the run.
Now or never.
Wannas and his now twenty companions again scrambled through the river rocks that made up the shoreline in this area. This was the great rapids of the Potomac and was the reason that the city state had been built here in the distant past.
The Great Falls was the spot where the river traders had to take their goods out of the water and cart them around the rapids before putting them back into the water for the short trip the rest of the way down the river to the Chesapeake Bay.
The company of Romans must've been camped near the city wall, near the landing where the canoes were supposed to be hidden for the trip across the river. And the Romans had horses.
Although the ground was rocky, there were plenty of paths for horses made by the generations of mules plodding up and down the riverbank pulling wagonloads of goods.
Within moments five cavalry pickets on horseback drew near, followed by what looked like two dozen or more Imperial foot soldiers already in armor.
Maybe that was the one chance they had, after all.
Even the Romans couldn’t run that fast in armor.
Of course, you didn’t need to if you were on a horse.
Wannas started the run.
And the Romans were right behind them.
Wannas glanced over his shoulder to see one of the Roman cavalrymen drawing his long, nasty looking spatha. Roman foot soldiers used short, squat—but deadly—Iberian swords. The cavalry saber was preferred by Romans on horseback. These blades were extra-long. They were excellent for sweeping near to the ground and chopping into heads, necks, and shoulders.
Wannas looked up into the cloudy sky. What seemed at first to be the black forms of sticks, or maybe even fire ashes, moving together and in a reverse direction from a ground fire, headed toward him.
No. The sticks headed for the Roman horsemen.
Even as they charged, Wannas understood the sticks for what they were.
Arrows. From longbows.
The best archers in the city had been gathered to cover their escape. Despite the drizzle and impending storm later in the day, bowstrings had been kept dry and careful measure had been made of bow shots.
The archers on the wall were good. Winners of as many wampum belts in shooting as Wannas’s group had in running.
Their arrows purposely fell short of Wannas and his men.
But not short of the Romans.
The Imperials wore scale mail, and most of the arrows glanced away. But these arrows were not tipped with barbed arrowheads. Their shafts ended in armor-punching bodkin tips.
Some did get through. At least ten Romans fell, some writhing, a couple stone-cold dead. Several others cried out in pain as they took wounds in arms and shoulders.
Every Roman hesitated a moment, glanced back at the walls to see if more were coming.
“Run!” Wannas shouted. “Run for the river!”
They were ahead of the Imperials who had confronted them.
Wannas and the other twenty pulled ahead.
These were the fastest men of the city. Winners of races. Handy shots with the bow, also. most men of the city were decent archers, no matter what their standing among the clans. It was a point of honor to a Powhatan man to be able to go outside the city walls at least once a year to hunt. They might not be professional archers, but most could also hit a moving target at twenty or so paces.
Obotassaway clan was in the rear. That was the plan. This was because they were the best archers among the runners. They kept up a harassing fire to the rear as the others charged onward.
This slowed the Romans down. But it also slowed the Obotassaway.
When the pursuing Romans caught an Obotassaway man, the result wasn't pretty. Romans were professional butchers. Their favorite meat to cut up effectively was man.
One by one, the men of the Obotassaway clan were caught and cut down. Their screams of fear and cries of agony pursued Wannas and the others. The sound echoed eerily among the rocky outcrops of the Great Falls shore line.
But the Obotassaway sacrifices served a purpose. Every man the Romans stopped to kill slowed them further.
We’re doing it. We’re going to reach the river, Wannas thought.
We’re going to win the race.
Then he saw the finish line, the river’s edge, and he realized it didn’t matter.
The Roman centurion, the one hundred soldier commander, hadn’t needed to be fleet. He’d been smart instead.
And figured out where we were heading, Wannas thought. Curse it. Curse it to the Underworld and back again!
There were Romans in all the canoes. Just sitting there waiting.
Some were even smiling.
The other half was now done with the Obotassaway rear guard and was closing in from behind them.
The runners were caught. About to be smashed.
Or, worse, captured.
Maybe even forced to devour the Talaia herb along with the blood of the Roman commanders . . . and turned . . . into Talaia dominates. Bloodservants.
Both physically and mentally.
I’ll go down fighting, Wannas thought. I’m sorry, Wawetseka. So sorry. Looks like I’m going to leave you as a widow after all. No divorce. You’ll have to wait years to marry your miller. If they even let you marry him at all.
The manitous would have their fun with his human vanity. His father had been right all along.
Wannas took the strung bow from his shoulder. Its beau d’arc heartwood shone redly. His fingers deftly found an arrow in the quiver. He felt the fletching. A single notch in one feather. Not a bodkin, but a barbed point on this one.
All around messenger of death.
He nocked the arrow. Drew as he breathed in. Picked out a Roman running toward him. Released.
The arrow had shanked off somewhere to Wannas’s right.
Should’ve picked the bodkin, Wannas thought.
He had another arrow nocked before he’d taken his next breath, and this one was a bodkin. He’d made sure.
The Imperial he’d sighted on before was now three paces away.
Three paces away from making it a very bad day for Wannas Kittamaquand.
Three paces and just a moment too late.
Wannas let fly.
As it happened, the arrow didn’t need to pierce armor. It caught the man under the chin and tore up and through, exiting out the back of his head. Somehow this didn’t stop the Roman’s motor function, but by the time he’d run up to Wannas, the Roman’s eyes were blank.
The intelligence was gone.
Wannas reached out and gave the man a vicious glancing blow with his fist and arm. The other collapsed. The arrow had done its work to the brain.
Before Wannas could think or even breathe again, another Roman crashed into him. The two of them tumbled into a heap. The Imperial warrior remained calm even as he fell and managed a half twist which left him on top of Wannas when they slammed into the ground. The weight of his soldier’s iron armor on Wannas’s chest, protected only by a deerskin shirt, was crushing. The Roman raised his sword for a fatal downward strike.
But Wannas had managed to get his own hand on the hilt of his knife. He drew it out, then stabbed upward, even while the other prepared to stab the Iberian blade through Wannas’s heart.
For an eyeblink, Wannas regretted the decision to go without armor. But it had been necessary. It was just a pity the Romans had caught up with the runners now.
Or had outwitted them.
However you wanted to look death in the face.
Wannas’s plunged his knife through a space between two layers of scale mail.
He felt the tip strike a rib, partially slice into it, then plunge deeper inside.
Wannas pushed. Twisted.
The knife blade was really stuck to the bone of the other man. In fact, it was stuck in too well. He wasn’t going to be able to get it out.
So he wouldn’t have his knife for the journey after all.
Another reason to curse the Romans.
After a long-drawn-out sigh punctuated by a bubble of blood, the Roman on Wannas dropped his gladius. He collapsed down upon Wannas, even as the Powhatan man pushed him to the side.
Men lay dead all around him. It had been a desperate battle. Only six of his runners were standing. The others were either dead or mortally wounded. But they had taken out the chasing Romans.
Now all they had left was dozens more. They’d pushed them out a few paces, since each canoe was tied by a rope painter to a rock on the shoreline.
For the moment, the Romans were unreachable in the canoes. But not for long.
At a signal from the centurion, the Romans began pulling themselves back to shore.
Those canoes are our only way across the river, Wannas thought. Our only chance to make it to Shenandoah. Now we have no choice. We’ll have to hug the northern shore of the river, and all they have to do is pursue and pick us off one by one.
They might make it for some distance upriver. But, in the end, the Romans, would get them all.
And it would be over. For Wannas. For the Kittamaquand clan.
For Powhatans. For the great city of Potomak, light of democracy in a world of tyranny.
An ancient and worthy nation-state conceived in liberty.
Slaughtered by the riverside.
The Romans in the canoes sensed victory. A soldier at the bow of each canoe grabbed a painter, and began to pull the canoes in.
Wannas wearily reached for an arrow.
And discovered his quiver was empty.
He’d shot them all without realizing it.
His knife was stuck in the breast bone of the Imperial he had killed.
Very well. He’d just have to fight tooth and nail.
The Romans were smiling as they drew nearer.
Those who didn’t pull had swords ready.
Some had bows nocked.
No one drew aim.
They’re not even bothering to shoot us, Wannas thought. They want to take us with swords. It’s a game for them now.
Closer. Almost in sword reach now.
Wannas sighed in frustration.
Then, from behind the rocks of the riverbank, scuttled . . .
Not human, at least.
Each was as big as a short human male, true. They wore human-looking clothes. Tunics. Straw hats.
They had human-shaped arms and legs, albeit covered with a pelt of brown hair.
But each also had a huge, flat, naked black tail that protruded through a hole cut in the rear of their tunics.
Each had the face of an animal. Beady yellow eyes. Whiskers. The blank, wild expression that only others of their kind could read.
They were beavers. Giant beavers.
They were also men.
A kind of animal person, or Tier, as the north men called them.
Those tails were flapping about.
Slashing from side to side. Pounding the ground in rhythm.
The beaver men were dangerous.
And riled up.
They attacked. They attacked the painters attaching the canoes to the rocks of shore. With a swipe here and there with those massive teeth, the beaver men cut the ropes.
The canoes immediately began to drift downstream toward the rapids. The centurion realized what was happening.
“Utere remōs!” he shouted. “Remite, stultī!
Wannas couldn’t understand him, but he sounded both exasperated and desperate.
Several of the Romans found paddles in the canoe bottoms and began to row toward shore.
Those who made it were met by beaver men. The Romans stabbed at the beaver men, but they were unsteady in the canoes, and the beaver men had a way of halfway turning to give a hard swat with the tail that knocked swords to the side. And might very well break an arm, so hard was the blow.
The centurion and another soldier from his canoe did get close enough to leap back to shore. He came at what seemed like the leader of the beaver men with a sneer and a growl.
The centurion thrust his sword forward. And the beaver man, already low to the ground, ducked. The sword passed over him.
The beaver man wasted no time.
His mouth opened to reveal four orange incisors, top and bottom. They met in a straight line across the middle. Each tooth was wide as a hand, and over an elb long. The teeth parted.
And the beaver man bit into the Roman’s thigh. Deep.
He shifted once, gnawing even deeper.
The centurion screamed.
The beaver man twisted his head, and bit deep. Harder still. He gnawed.
The Roman slammed the Iberian sword’s pommel down on the beaver man’s back.
“Solve mē! Animal, solve mē!!” the centurion shouted.
The beaver man grunted, but did not let go.
Without releasing his teeth, the beaver man twisted again.
Found better purchase. Bit deeper.
Then with a ragged, meaty tearing gurgle . . .
The Roman’s right leg separated.
The leg came off.
Leaving a ragged, bleeding stump, mid-thigh.
That beaver man just bit a man’s leg off, Wannas thought. Right in two. At the thickest part.
He would never look at beavers the same way again.
The centurion didn’t die from the bleeding. He stumbled away and managed to balance on his left leg for a moment, or tried to, while he applied a makeshift tourniquet. His left leg was standing knee deep in the water near the shore, however. This near the Great Falls, the Potomak current was quick everywhere.
The water pushed against his leg. The centurion swayed, fighting a losing battle for balance.
And toppled back into the water.
The Roman fumbled, grabbed the side of the canoe. But, unsecure, now the boat itself was drifting.
Away from shore.
As were the others.
Romans in full armor did not make good canoe men. They realized the danger they were in, but it was too late. Paddling seemed to do no good. The river was too strong. The canoes had drifted into the main current and were headed toward the Great Falls.
The last Wannas saw of the Roman centurion he was clinging to the gunwale of the birchbark canoe. His bloody half thigh thumped up and down in the water, as if he were trying to a swimming kick he would never be able to do again.
Where had that leg gone?
Wannas quickly scanned downriver.
There is was, among the rest of the canoes, drifting ahead. It almost seemed as if the severed leg were showing the way.
Downriver, boys! To the Chesapeake! To the sea! Follow me!
It floated toward rapids that had killed untold numbers of men foolish enough to try to run them. The other canoes followed close behind it. Then the flailing one-legged centurion took up the rear.
Soon they were all lost to sight.
Wannas shook his head.
Not a dream. Real.
To the east, the top edge of the sun rose. It lit the rain clouds above with a golden glow.
Wannas turned back to the beaver men.
The leader, the one who had bitten off the Roman’s leg, made a gargling sound.
Was the beaver man choking?
No, Wannas decided. The beaver man was washing his mouth out with river water, trying to get the taste of Roman leg out of his mouth.
He spat out a final mouthful of water, then turned to Wannas.
“Tried to tell ye folks,” he said in a gruff, wet voice. “Take it from an old river smuggler. Canoes are too cursed conspicuous.”
“But you’re the ones who provided them,” Wannas said.
The beaver man spat. “Like them Romans say. Caveat emptor. The customer is always right.”
Wannas chuckled. “Even I know that isn’t what caveat emptor means,” he said.
The beaver man glanced down river. “And neither does any of them Romans know what it means anymore neither,” he said with a low growl.
The beaver men took them onto their flat boats. It was a laborious process, but slowly, steadily, with ten beaver men to a boat, they poled the flat boats upstream, hardly faster than a man could walk.
“I am Wannas Kittamaquand of Potomak,” Wannas told the man. “I think you know my father.”
The beaver man nodded. He didn’t seem very impressed.
“Aye, aye. Old Chogun’s boy. Well, whoever ye be, ye aren’t Romans, and ye don’t want us for our hides,” the beaver man said.
“Do Romans really take your skins from you?”
“Oh, aye. Aye, they do.”
“Curse them, then.”
“I do it every day.”
“My men are headed upriver, and then up the Shenandoah to Raukenrose.”
“And what do ye intend to do there?" asked the beaver man.
“It’s a secret mission. But if you must know, I’m going to insist that Duke Otto von Dunstig come to the city's aid and help us break the siege."
“Insist, are ye?" the beaver man said, “Now that’ll go over well at court, I’m sure. But if you do insist, you'll be insisting to the wrong von Dunstig, lad. It's Lord Wulf, the new heir, who is the chosen of the land-dragon these days. He's the one ye need to convince.”
“I don't know anything about these Kalte barbarian myths. Dragons under the ground, and gods and such. But it is in the Mark of Shenandoah’s interest to come to our aid. And we desperately need the Mark’s help.”
“It’s not gods, but divine beings we’re beholden to in Shenandoah. Different thing. I ain't never seen Sturmer or Regen or any of the other divine ones personally.” The beaver man scratched behind one ear with a paw nail. “But I can tell you there is a dragon. It does exist, as sure as there are beaver and bear men, fauns and buffalo people. Ye’ll see ’em all if you journey with us.”
“It’s your lucky day! We’re heading upriver, boy. We’ll take ye along if ye’ll do year part and keep a sharp lookout. Stay ready with them bows and arrows. This here’s dangerous country.”
“We can do that,” Wannas said. “And we would be greatly obliged for the ride.”
“Like I said. Going that way anyhow,” replied the beaver man gruffly. “We river smugglers need something to smuggle, now don’t we? Nothing like a barrel of good Shenandoah orinoco or perique to bring a nifty profit per stone’s weight—if ye can get it past the Romans and the ’Haveners and down to the Chesapeake blockade runners, that is.”
“Well, in any case, we’re grateful,” Wannas replied.
The beaver man nodded. Then he opened his mouth hugely to show the bright orange incisors again. Oddly, only the fronts of the teeth were covered with the orange protective coating. The sides and, Wannas supposed, the back parts of the teeth were white. A streamlet of Roman blood still stained the front of the beaver man’s left incisor, red on orange.
Wannas gasped at the sight, and took a step back. Too far. He almost toppled from the raft.
A strange sound erupted from the deep in the beaver man’s throat. It sounded like a cross between a donkey’s bray and frog’s croak. His man’s mouth stretched even wider. His nasty, hand-sized incisors grew more exposed. And frightening.
Wannas stared for another stunned moment before he realized that the beaver man was not threatening him.
The beaver man was grinning. And laughing.
Finally the gaping maw closed.
“Hold yerself steady, young Skraeling,” the beaver man said. “Else ye’ll find yerself following them cursed Romans down them falls. And then, by Sturmer, ye wouldn’t be insisting on nothing to Lord Wulf, would ye?”
Wannas nodded. He carefully stepped across the raft and grabbed hold of a pole alongside a beaver man. With a heave and a ho, they slowly worked their way against the current of the mighty Potomak.
The beaver man beside him smiled. At least, so Wannas thought.
“Only forty leagues to go, boy,” he said. “Keep it up, and ye’ll get some meat on those arms yet, I’ll wager.”
The beaver man began to hum a working song. It was a strange melody, and in the Kalte tongue, but somehow the tune made it just a bit easier to push again. And again.
Wannas gritted his teeth.
He pushed again.
Copyright © 2017 Tony Daniel
Tony Daniel is the creator of the teen fantasy series Wulf’s Saga, which includes The Dragon Hammer and its sequel, The Amber Arrow. This story is set in that universe, just prior to the events of The Amber Arrow. He’s also written several science fiction novels for adults, including a couple of Star Trek Original Series novelizations, and coauthored three monster movie scripts for the SyFy and Chiller channels. Tony lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina with his wife, two kids, two dogs, two cats, two frogs, a turtle, and a dragon under the kitchen crawlspace. Or something very, very large and grumbly. He hasn’t actually been down to check yet.