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“Blaskoye over thet hill fartleken,” said Kruso. “Peers out of Cascade comenz they.”

The Blaskoye are coming over the hill. It looks like they’re coming from Cascade.

Abel did not have to ask for a translation from Center. He’d grown up around Scouts and heard enough of the patois to understand it well, and to speak it so that he could make himself understood. It was far easier than Redlandish, which he was working on now. Most Scouts spoke at least some of that language, and he was learning what he could from them.

Scoutish is a true patois of Landish and Redlandish, Center explained. But it is on its way to becoming a creole. Many similar patois have sprouted and died in the three thousand years since the Collapse. You must remember that Redlandish is far from a unified tongue, and that Landish itself did not start off as a single language, but as a mixture of tongues that were as different from one another as Spanish and French were from Catalan.


I think he’s referring to old Earth, lad. That kind of speech was long gone when I was a boy.

True to his word, Joab had permitted the twelve-year-old Abel to go on Rim patrol with the Scouts. It had been a year now that he’d been allowed to accompany them. Abel had spent every moment he could with them. Abel had been worried that the Scouts would hold his age and his relative lack of rank against him, but he’d quickly learned that the Scouts didn’t give a damn about any of that. If you could pull your load and make yourself useful in some way, you were in.

He’d also found out more disquieting things. Things he didn’t know quite what to make of. Like the fact that most of the Scouts were very religious, but religious in a manner that Abel was fairly certain wouldn’t be approved of by any Thursday school teacher he’d ever had. They had a semi-secret cult that worshipped Zentrum’s mother, Irisobrian. She was a figure of veneration to many of the Scouts, and a Scoutish swearword to them all.

According to the cult mystery story, Irisobrian had died in childbirth, but then, miraculously, had nursed the young Zentrum on her breast for fifty days and fifty nights while lying beside the River and herself decaying to bones.

It was Irisobrian’s mystical breast milk that was said to have made Zentrum invisible, so there was a lot of oath making among the Scouts on the bones and mother’s milk of Irisobrian.

Furthermore, there was an Irisobrian dispensation on several Scout items that would otherwise have been declared Stasis proscriptions or even nishterlaub. For instance, instead of employing flint and steel as directed by the Law, the Scouts sometimes needed to light a quick fire with the aid of a lucifer. These were made from powder taken from a broken percussion cap and mixed with glue from a desert cactus that grew near the Rim. The lucifers stank of sulfur, but were highly effective for getting fires going. Scouts often carried punk sticks on longer trips, but punk was notorious for burning down and leaving you with not a trace of fire to start with at the end of the day. At such times, the last thing you wanted to do was to spend a quarter-watch striking sparks and puffing into tinder to get fire going. And sometimes to do so was perilous.

Kruso had given Abel his own box of matches for emergencies, and Abel carried it in the inside pocket of his tunic, as did most Scouts. Sometimes when he heard the lucifers rattle there, he felt a faint qualm at the almost-nishterlaub feel of possessing them. But mostly, he didn’t think much about carrying them one way or the other.

“Well and secret guard tham. To the civvies showez them is a bad thing,” Kruso had intoned. “Comenz of it a quiver of troubles.”

Kruso was wrinkled and weather-beaten. He was almost as short as Abel, and built like a gnome. He seemed old, but Center had told Abel that Kruso was only thirty-five.

Every evening Kruso placed a wad of Delta tobacco into a clay pipe, pulled a smoking wand from the fire, and puffed away by the evening fire. He never used the pipe during the day, however.

“Hide sign and go to the Lady tomorrow, leave sign and she’ll take you today,” Kruso had once pronounced with his usual dry chuckle.

Abel figured Kruso had given him the matches not so much as an aid, but to draw Abel into the cult. Kruso was quite devout when it came to Irisobrianism. Abel had attended a couple of rites, but, on Center’s advice, had declined to become a full initiate.

You would not like the communion meat they share, Center had said. It must be at least three days old to have achieved sacred status.

After he was permitted to accompany the Scouts, Abel concentrated on finding ways to become useful. At first, this had taken the form of being a simple water carrier. Men who moved fast and light through the Redlands needed to drink a great deal more than Abel had ever imagined. Even though the Scouts were famous for being able to go a very long time without taking a drink, he’d found that this ability was not something they cultivated or celebrated among themselves. On the contrary, it was a constant Scout obsession to have plenty of water along—because one setback, one extension of a mission, would soon mean you didn’t have enough, and had no way of getting more. It was quite possible to die, and to die horribly, in the Redlands if you went too far out without the liquid to take you back.

Over the months, he’d demonstrated his usefulness and abilities to the Scouts in other ways. He’d graduated from water boy to dont keeper, and finally worked himself up to what was, for all intents and purposes, a squad regular. He’d proved his worth several times in that regard. Abel knew himself to be generally dexterous and naturally stealthy, and it didn’t hurt to have Center, who could use his quantum-computing ability to predict what lay on the other side of a rock, hill, or clump of desert plants.

Abel understood in a general way how Center pulled off this feat. He also knew if he requested specifics of any one prediction, he was likely to get a lengthy lecture that left him feeling sorry he’d ever asked.

And as he had grown more a part of the group of Scouts and more adept, the deeper into the Redlands his “Rim patrols” had taken him. He wasn’t technically disobeying his father at the moment. The Rim, and the Valley below it, was still in sight, several leagues to the west. Well, they would be if you climbed a very tall hill and strained your eyes to make them out. Furthermore, this was not technically a mission—where one expected and planned for battle—but a patrol, where danger had to come to you.

It looked like danger had done just that.

“How many do you make out, Kruso?” called out a nasal, brassy voice. It was a voice made to cut through a harsh desert wind, and it belonged to Sharplett, the captain of the Scout squad.

“Ten,” Kruso replied. “Ten of many.”

From the vantage of the overhang where he and Kruso shared lookout, Abel could clearly see that they were more than ten. Then he remembered that Kruso could not count any higher.

“I make out twenty…twenty-three on foot,” called Abel. “At least…fifteen armed with muskets.”

Correct, based on tactile input and spectral analysis of your visual stimuli for metallic content, Center announced.

Isn’t that the same thing as what I just did on my own?

As in mathematics, it is often useful to check one’s work.

“Three wagons, three drivers, Captain,” said Kruso, perhaps in an effort to redeem his counting skills. “Too, a passel of Blaskoye does. Wear they thom ugly robes what hiden thar milkers, curse tham to darkness.”

“How many women?”

“Five…no, six,” Kruso replied, looking down at his fingers, where he’d been enumerating his sightings, to be sure his tallies matched. The only problem with that method was that his left hand was missing a pinkie.

The Blaskoye clan were generally excellent at evasion both of Scouts and of one another and did not repeatedly follow the same travel routes through the Redlands. In addition, they almost never returned on a route by which they’d left. Redland pathways often frayed into dozens of possible paths, especially when there were no features in the landscape such as rocky outcrops or higher mountains to avoid. Nevertheless, this time a caravan had come back precisely down the path upon which, two weeks before, it had traveled north. A single lookout had spotted them at a great distance, and soon the flags wigwagged across Scout-held territory from signal hill to signal hill—all the way back to the High Cliffs, the Scout base on the upper Escarpment. Abel had been there and had been part of the general scramble for muskets, bows, and donts as Fleischer, the signalman among the Scouts, translated the incoming message from the next hill over. Sharplett had instantly ordered the troop to ride.

I really can’t be blamed for going along with them. If I’d stayed, I would have been alone at the High Cliffs, and that could have been dangerous, too.

Except, of course, the squad cook and those two Scouts getting over their heat blisters stayed. They should be able to mount a drawn-out defense if they’re attacked, said Raj. And that base is at a hell of an excellent locus point, too. Three men could stand off a hundred for who knows how long, if the three were brave, fed and watered.

And given the stores, the interior spring, and the possibility of slaughtering stable donts, eating them or drinking their blood if need be, that would not be a problem, Center added.

Whatever, Abel thought. I’m here now. I can apologize to my father later.

Kruso strode up and slapped Abel on the shoulder. He said in a low voice: “View you tom waginen. Dre, t’is peer. You so tally?”

Abel took a close look through the formed by two boulders next to one another. “I see two high wheeled carts…no, you’re right, three,” he replied. Abel knew that Kruso understood Landish well enough, and Abel still wasn’t as comfortable speaking the Scout patois as he was understanding it when spoken to.

“Wagonen be goodsheavy, thay are hitched wid wubblebund donts ableatinz,” Kruso said.

The carts must indeed be loaded down with goods, for the donts teamed to pull it were straining and groaning. Their cries could be heard even at this distance.

“They’re coming from upper Treville, down the Pricklebush Route. Think they’re getting back from a raid?”

“Never,” said Kruso. “Our wigwag be quiet as fuckabone.”

There had been no semaphore traffic from the north, no indication that a raid on the Land had taken place in upper Treville or the Cascade District. So it was possible these Redlanders had utterly wiped out a Land village, leaving not even a survivor to report, or that they’d acquired the goods by trade or raid on another Redlander clan.

There’s another possibility lad, Raj growled in his low voice.


It’s a payoff from Cascade.

From people in the Land? But the Blaskoye are bloodthirsty killers. Why would someone do such a thing?

I’d say they’re quite as bloodthirsty as their reputation makes them out to be, Raj said. But where they decide to drink that blood is another matter, isn’t it? Maybe the goods are an effort to persuade the Blaskoye to take their muskets and bows elsewhere. Somewhere like Treville District, where the protection geld doesn’t flow like honey.

As if to confirm Raj’s suspicion, Kruso nodded and muttered, “Dortgeld,” the Scoutish word for ill-gotten gains.

Because they were the two best pairs of eyes in the squad, Kruso and Abel had been put on lookout. The entire squad was on a rise in the desert. It was a rocky area, bare of Redlands vegetation. They’d left their dont mounts in the brush below. Near the highest point on the rise was an uptilted stone of darker basalt that Kruso and Abel had scrambled up to get the best view. It was from here they called down their report.

The trade route cut through the center of the rise north and south. The forbidding brush of the desert surrounded the rise in a thorny, dense thicket, whereas the bare hilltop with the path running along it provided a quarter league of prickle-free travel.

When they’d first arrived at the place, Captain Sharplett had remarked in Landish that it was “not the best place I’ve ever seen for an ambush, but it’ll do.” Sharplett, unlike Kruso, came from a better-off family from the lower Delta and, although he understood Scoutish well enough, spoke Landish with only a trace of downriver accent. But however educated and skillful he might be, he was still a Delta man. He was considered a lesser breed by the military Regulars, who were almost entirely upriver men—and, Abel had to admit, it was hard not to think of the squad commander as a bit of a marshland barbarian.

Abel and Kruso climbed down from the lookout. Sharplett had already sent the main body of six Scouts down the western side of the rise and into the brush. There the hardy, desert-bred donts were grazing on the thorny vegetation.

“Kruso, I want you and Himmel on the east in them bushes. Looks like there’s a couple of piss trails cut into the thicket over there that go a ways back. Use them for your retreat.”

The Redlanders, though they lived in a land with no trees and only limited concealment, were fanatics about not being seen when defecating or urinating. They had been the ones who had cut those offshoot trails. Abel reflected that this was one more fact about the enemy that you picked up from being around Scouts that you would never find out in the Regulars.

“You two’ll hit first, one shot, draw their fire and pull ’em east. When they hit the bushes, fire a second round—Himmel with your gun, and Kruso, use your bow. That’ll be our signal. We’ll ride out, hit ’em hard from the west.”

Kruso nodded and Himmel answered with a smart “Yes, sir.”

“And one more thing,” Sharplett added. “After that second round, you get lost in that brush, hear me? They’ll be madder than a carnadon mam with a raided nest, and they’ll be after you. Himmel, you reload and cover. And Kruso…”


“Make use of that bow of yours after we turn ’em around.”

Kruso smiled a crooked smile. “Yes, sir. That I will.”

Kruso’s composite bow was a thing of beauty to Abel. He carried it over his back, left to right, with the bowstring securing it in front. The outside was carved from the thick, pliable river pufferwood that grew only in the Delta, and Kruso had told Abel he’d picked out the tree himself on an expedition. The wood was laminated by special glue made from the tuskhorn of a gigantic ocean-going creature called a grendel that Abel had never seen, but only heard about.

Kruso reached down to the quiver suspended from his belt and ran a finger along the fletching of one of his brace of arrows. Some were white fletched, some black. The feathers of the white arrows were notched once for tactile identification. The tips were clad with copper for longer range but ultimately smaller damage—unless you got lucky and placed one in an eye or a joint. Black feathered arrows were notched twice and tipped with sharpened and barbed iron for maximum destruction of flesh.

Then Sharplett was beside Abel giving instructions.

“We’ll mount up, and I want you up at the edge of the west thicket, Dashian, to give the sign to charge. When yon sharpshooters fire round one, they’ll fall back a bit, then turn and fire again. Then they’ll hightail into the brush. On the second volley, you’ll wigwag, and we’ll swarm the donts.”

“But sir, I—I want to fight, sir.”

Sharplett gave him a wry smile. “I expect you’ll get your chance, don’t worry. As you said, there looks to be thirty of them and only nine of us.” Sharplett spat on the sand, wiped his mouth. He chewed the desert herb nesh incessantly. Lots of Scouts did. This was another trait the Scouts shared with Redlanders. Abel had tried nesh, but had never liked the bitter taste.

Pay attention, lad. This is a fine disposition, and Sharplett’s a good man. But one band of Blaskoye is neither here nor there. We need to know what’s in the wagons. You need to find out and tell him, lad.

But he won’t let me go, I’m just a kid to him.

You might be surprised. After these past few months, I have a feeling these men don’t look at you quite like that anymore.

Still, I—

Make yourself heard, lad. Do it now, and be forceful.

Sharplett had already turned to walk away. It was now or never.

“Captain, I have an idea.”

The Scout captain paused, turned back to Abel. “Yes, Dashian? What is it?”

“I was thinking Kruso and Himmel should go after the wagons, sir.”

“How do you mean?”

“After they’ve drawn them to the east, they could circle around and hit the carts. They’ll be mostly unguarded, with the Redlanders out front fighting you. That way, we could see what’s in those wagons, sir, even if you and the others have to beat it back to cover.”

Sharplett swirled a lump of nesh in his cheek and considered. “I would like to know what’s so important it’s got near thirty buck warriors assigned to bring it down from Cascade.” He spat again. “And maybe they’d have time to ruin some of that cargo, too.” He slapped Abel on the shoulder. “Good plan, Dashian. Now, you run over and tell Kruso and Himmel about it while I see to the others. And take care not to break the horizon or all this’ll be for naught.”

“Yes, sir. I won’t, sir.”

Abel breathed deeply as the Scout captain stalked away. He hadn’t realized how tense he’d been until this moment.

He thought it was a good idea.

Raj chuckled coarsely. Of course he did, lad. It was mine. Now go make sure the Scouts get those orders.

Abel ran to do just that, and, after Kruso nodded his understanding, he crossed the rise one last time, careful to keep a line of boulders between himself and anyone coming up the rise from the north. He was about to take his position at the edge of the brush when Sharplett tapped him on the shoulder.

“Get me another look,” the captain said, and ordered him up the basalt lookout post a final time. “But take care. They’ll be able to see you even through their own dust at this distance.”

“Yes, sir.”

Abel scrambled back up the rock and raised just his head and eyes above its peak.

The caravan was still on its way. It was at the bottom of the rise, a hundred strides to the north. Not long now. He could make the caravaners out quite distinctly, and he confirmed his previous count of warriors in the vanguard.

So close. They seemed nearly naked, small. Certainly not the giant warriors of the stories, clothed in dont feathers and the skins of their enemies. The Scouts knew not to underestimate them, however, as did Abel.

The wagons were in the rear. They rolled upon very large, very thin wooden wheels. Each wagon was pulled by a team of four herbidaks arranged in the typical Redlander manner, three abreast behind with one in the lead dak position.

The daks were similar animals to the riding donts, but without a dont’s spinal plumage. Daks also had much more rounded heads—heads with a single plated horn that terminated in a breathing hole at the very top. Both donts and daks were closely related, and each was capable of producing eye-stinging droplets of acidic drool and phlegm from their breathing holes when they huffed and puffed, however.

Abel, nevertheless, thought of daks as an inferior species to the riding donts, not nearly so noble. But they were useful animals, nonetheless, and they could and would interbreed with riding donts to produce remarkably strong mules on occasion.

Abel scrambled down and took a narrow, barely perceptible trail into the brush to deliver the caravan’s position. He found the Scouts gathered in a clearing not far inside the thicket.

“Hundred strides, no more.”

Sharplett took in this news, then turned to the other Scouts and gave the hand signal for them to mount up.

The donts had been waiting patiently. But these were experienced beasts, and the fact that their neck plumage was erect indicated that they were aware something was afoot. The Scout squad mounted adroitly and trotted up to the edge of the clearing they occupied.

Dont tongues flickered out to taste the wind. One dont pawed the ground with a fore claw. Abel knew that, at speed, these donts would rise up on their rear legs and run like a human. And when they did, those forefeet became rending appendages that could tear a man in half.

The men unlimbered muskets from saddle holsters and unlatched the black-powder cartridge boxes hanging upon their belts. There were only so many rifles to go around, and it wasn’t only Kruso but several of the Scouts who preferred a bow to a musket or pistol in a close fight. Three of the Scouts had decided to go in with bows rather than muskets. What the bows lacked in firepower, they made up for in rate of fire. Reloading a musket rifle was a three-stage process, and stage one required tipping the muzzle up to receive powder—not an easy task to perform while riding a charging dont. Reloading a bow could be done in a single, one-handed motion.

Abel returned up the trail to the thicket’s edge. Kruso and Himmel were in position across the way.

He waited nervously for the first shot.

Remember, those carts are what matters here.

Why? Why are they so important?

Because I am not sure what is inside them, even after extended extrapolation, Center said. I have made a good guess, but I require specific confirmation for our future plans.

So they’re payoff goods or whatever, and somebody in Cascade’s a traitor? What of it?

For one thing, the goods themselves may point to who is to blame, Raj replied.

On a larger scale, Center put in, knowing which of the Redland clans is most likely to initiate the new round of Blood Winds will be essential if we are to mitigate its effect and use the results as leverage against Zentrum’s strategy of prolonged technological stasis.

I’m a Scout. I want to fight, not be a signalman and a slink!

Really? Let us assume you have your way. Observe:

What do they need a signalman for? They’ll know when to strike from the muzzle blasts.

And it seems Abel is correct, for when he neglects to give the signal, but instead charges at point, his rifle at ready, his bayonet affixed, the squad soon comes thundering after. The donts race past him, and he’s left sprinting in their dust, but he doesn’t care.

But his appearance on the rise has been spotted. It is a matter of a few seconds. But those seconds are enough.

A shout goes up from the Redlander leader. Ambush! He calls his men to turn back from pursuing the sharpshooters, and soon they are in rough formation facing west. Not perfect. But good enough.

Scouts and donts charge.

Instead of being taken by surprise, the Blaskoye meet them with a ragged volley. The Scouts are close. It is difficult to miss, although most of the shots do. Four do not, and the Scouts are literally cut to half their numbers. And before the still-mounted Scouts can meet the line—the space of a breath, a gasp, but long enough, long enough—the reload is done and another volley of lead scythes into the Scouts.

This one leaves no survivors.

Except for the two sharpshooters, who are attempting to escape into a desert that their pursuers know too well.

And Abel, who rushes forward, nearly trips over a fallen, screaming dont, drops his rifle in trying to regain his balance, pulls up short to find—

Thirty Redlander faces staring at him.

The leader begins to laugh. He rides toward Abel.

Abel fumbles, lifts his rifle up.

The hammer is down, the charge spent.

The gun had fired when he dropped it.

He begins to reload. He tries to stay calm. He pulls out a cartridge, bites the papyrus end off. Pours powder into the muzzle. Like the Scouts have taught him. Carefully. Agonizingly carefully. Now take out the ramrod, tamp it down, tamp it—

He jerks the musket up to cock it, take aim.

He’s left the old percussion cap in.

Flick it out. Get another.

Abel is fumbling in his cartridge box for a cap when the Redlander leader arrives and, with the butt of a musket, strikes Abel to the ground.

* * *

Abel awakens with a pounding headache. It is night. Two moons have risen, while Churchill, the largest of the Land’s three moons, is on the horizon.

He moves to put a hand to rub his aching forehead.

He cannot move.

It is then he notices that he cannot even see his hand.

The moons are bright enough, he reasons. He ought to be able.

Beside him, he does see a human head, its blank eyes staring at him.

With a start, he realizes it is Himmel.

Just a head.

Then Himmel’s eyes open. He takes one look at Abel, and the disembodied head begins to laugh. It is a dry laugh that soon turns to coughing, then choking, then gasping for air.

“Himmel,” Abel says, “what happened? What are you?”

Again Himmel rolls his eyes toward Abel. “And what are you, boy, what are you?”

He spits in Abel’s eyes. Why? How?

Abel attempts to wipe the saliva away, and realization dawns.

Sand around him. Sand above his chin, to his lower lip.

He’s buried, with only his head above ground.

He struggles.

His arms will not move.

“They’ve bound and weighted us,” Himmel coughs out. “No use.”

And then on the other side of Abel, a plaintive wail. Abel just has the ability to turn his head to see. Facing in the opposite direction, looking toward a back that Abel can never turn toward again, it’s Kruso.

“Alaha Zentrum, nish thet me over!” cries Kruso.

Oh great God, not over me!

What was Kruso seeing? What was going to happen?

“Nish thet me over.” Kruso’s voice had become a whimper now.

There was no way to turn his head. There was only waiting.

On the horizon in front of Abel, Churchill rose fully above the horizon.

And then something came down from above and blocked the view. Blocked the moon. Blocked the stars.

From the smell of it, Abel knew immediately. One of the transport urns. An earthenware pot that had lately contained liquor, now emptied. Someone had, perhaps, been celebrating a victory and drained the wine.

True night descended forever.

* * *

Ninety-four percent probability, given known Redlander torture methodology, with a nine percent chance that arrows will be set through hands and feet in lieu of binding with weighted rocks, Center intoned. More unfortunate—

More unfortunate! How?

More unfortunate is the cascade of consequences. Your father will blame himself. There is a significant chance he will take his own life. In any case, Treville governance degrades inexorably. The Scouts will only desultorily be rebuilt, and a moment for Redlander containment will be lost. Zentrum will accommodate and incorporate the invasion, as he has before, and the chance to break Stasis will be lost for several more generations. In fact, there is a probability function trending toward one hundred percent that, should he decide against self-slaughter, your father will be killed in a manner similar to you as the victorious Redlander forces make an example of regional military leaders.

Okay, okay, I’ll obey orders, damn it, Abel thought. I guess that’s what you’re trying to tell me.

Wrong lesson, lad. How about you merely avoid doing anything incredibly stupid that’s liable to get you killed in horrible ways, Raj replied.


He could hear the Blaskoye donts that were hitched to the wagons groan as they strained to pull the heavy-laden vehicles forward into the sandy defile.

What you need to do is get to those carts, said Raj.

So—you want me to obey orders or do what you say?


A cloud of dust from the north, and the Redlander caravan came into sight and into range. Himmel fired the first shot from his long rifle. Abel saw no effect, and counted three heartbeats before the Blaskoye vanguard began to scramble. It seemed the ball had hit something, if not someone. Then Kruso fired. A man fell into the dust as if his legs had been cut out from under him.

Himmel must have quickly set aside his rifle and rearmed with his riding gun, a carbine, its shorter barrel intended for shooting from dontback and for close work. Crack!

With that, the Redlanders charged to the east. Evidently, whoever it was Kruso had dropped was important, and they shouted with rage.

Abel glanced over his shoulder. Sharplett had led the Scouts up from the bushes on the narrow piss trails, and they stood only a few strides deep in the underbrush behind Abel. They still did not have the view of the action that Abel did—which was the point, of course, for that also meant they could not be seen by the Redlanders.

Abel raised a hand.

The five Scouts behind him shifted in their saddles, and a dont pawed the ground.

Kruso and Himmel came into view through gaps in the Redlander grouping. They both charged toward the Redlanders. Himmel carried his bayonet-tipped rifle. He had probably not reloaded, but the Blaskoye had no way of knowing this. Kruso was armed with his bow and let fly arrow after arrow. Abel had never imagined the gnomish man could be so graceful. He simultaneously sprinted forward, fired, reached for an arrow, notched it, and fired again.

Several of the Redlanders returned fire with muskets as they ran, but no bullet hit either Himmel or Kruso.

Then, when the Blaskoye were within only a few paces, Himmel stopped short, took aim, and calmly dropped the Redlander’s point man.

I guess he did reload, Abel thought. It had been with amazing speed.

At the same moment, Kruso put an arrow into a man’s chest.

Abel dropped his hand.

Across the rise, the two Scout sharpshooters turned on their heels and ran as fast as they could back in the direction from which they’d come.

As if on cue, the enraged Redlanders followed.

The remainder of the Scout squad flowed over the hill crest, thundering past Abel, and charged into the rear of the Redlander soldiers full tilt with bayonets fixed.

It was not a fair fight, which was a good thing, for the Scouts were outnumbered threefold.

At a shout from Sharplett, the dontback Scouts raised their weapons and, at the same time, urged their donts into a full bipedal sprint. Each Scout aimed over his dont’s shoulder. The Scout carbines crackled to life, spewing minié slugs or buck and ball shot—in either case, death and destruction.

But there were ten more Blaskoye, plus the drovers and passengers of the wagon retinue. It was going to be a long, hard fight.

As if to underline this fact, one of the Scout’s necks exploded with blood. He clutched at it as he fell from his mount and into the dust. At least one of the Redlanders had found the presence of mind to turn and shoot.

The wounded man looked to be Dornberger, a Scout who was not that much older than Abel.

Don’t think of rushing out there to drag him off, lad. You’ll just get yourself killed.

Besides, he is already dead, Center intoned.

Time to get into the brush and mount up.

Abel went back into the thicket to find his dont, a creature he’d named Corie. His personal riding dont, Mot, was safely in a stable back at home. Mot was far too old and too much of a Valley-bred creature to be used for Scout work. Corie was patiently waiting, chewing on a needleplant.

Check your carbine, lad, and have caps and cartridge limbered, said Raj. The blunderbuss dragon from your father, as well. Put it in your belt.

Joab had insisted he carry a flintlock sidearm in addition to his military-issue rifle when he went on patrol and had given Abel his own old dragon, which had been in the family for generations. The dragon had seemed an encumbrance at times. It was singular among the Scouts, and it caused him to stand out as different among them—something he strove not to do—but now Abel was glad of having it. He checked that the dragon was at half-cock and the flashpan frizzle had not come loose and spilled his power. It had not. Then he stowed the pistol in his belt and took up his rifle, a shorter, carbine model of more modern vintage, and ran a finger down and felt the edge of the percussive cap where it covered the fire nipple leading to the barrel. Should I cock my rifle now? he asked.

What, and tear the head off poor Corie with a misfire? answer Raj with a chuckle. Wait till you reach the wagons, then give it the flick.

Abel spurred his dont and raced up and out of the brush. Then he turned the beast to the south to circle around the melee in front of him and get to the wagons if he could. He pushed his dont to her ultimate speed, and with only Abel’s light weight to support, she was soon up on her back feet and racing.

The wagons loomed ahead. Abel fumbled for a moment, then managed to cock his rifle.

He felt his finger snaking toward the trigger and consciously pulled it away. He’d been lectured time and again on the need to keep one’s finger out of the trigger guard until it was time to fire, but in the heat of the moment, he found it extraordinarily hard to do so.

There were three carts with half a dozen occupants or attendants nearby. Two wore the billowy, multicolored patchwork pants and shirts of Redlander men. The others had the flowing white robes worn by the Blaskoye women. He’d heard tell that Blaskoye women were not only allowed to serve as muleskinners and drovers, but were actually the clan’s traders and merchants as well. Abel found this hard to believe, but Kruso and Sharplett had assured him it was so. In the Land, a female merchant would have been inconceivable.

Just another way the Redlanders behave as complete heathens, Abel thought.

Don’t be so sure, and don’t underestimate the does, lad. Might be your last thought.

I think I can take a woman, at least.

You must concentrate on the animals first, boy, said Raj sternly. At least one on each cart must be put out of commission to bring the wagons to a halt.

The motley-clad driver of the first of the carts was armed, and he pointed a gun at Abel and fired. A flintlock. Even running at full tilt, Abel saw the flashpan ignite and the smoke rising. A whistling sound nearby.

Was that a bullet?

Aye, lad. Be glad about the ones you hear. It’s the ones you don’t hear that are the problem.

He grew closer, closer—the driver with the rifle was attempting to reload by pouring powder out of a horn down the muzzle. Abel smiled and aimed the carbine at him.

The move must have registered, for the driver suddenly gave up what he was doing and leapt behind the cart in blind panic.

Abel adjusted his aim for one of the daks in the middle of the team.

He pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

Damn it, bad cap or—

Look down, lad.

Abel did as instructed. His Scout tunic had wafted up and gotten between the hammer and the cap. He quickly cocked again, pulled the fabric free, took aim.

Bang! The rifle’s report was startlingly loud, even though he was rushing forward full tilt on the dak. And this time, the ball had its affect. The dak he’d been aiming at let out a roar. It rose into the air, pawing at the sky in agony and spurting its milky blood over the other herbidaks, terrifying them.

He grew so fascinated watching the effect that he nearly forgot to turn his mount to avoid a head-on collision. As it was, he reined just in time and headed for the wagon that was next in line.

He drew his pistol and didn’t waste time trying for a middle animal, but shot the lead dak of the pack team straight in the head at point-blank range. Dak blood and brains spattered across his chest, and a bone fragment popped him smartly in the cheek. Abel rode on.

To the next wagon and—

He was riding into the muzzle of a musket pointed directly at him.

A swirl of flowing white robes, a headscarf. It was a woman, a young woman with crystal blue eyes. A fierce, beautiful face. Her mouth curled to a snarl.

But the musket had his attention now. There was no way he could turn his dont in time. The Redlander woman would shoot him in the chest. He reared back to throw his pistol at her, sure the move wouldn’t work, but unable to think of anything else to do—

An arrow took the woman through the neck.

Startled, she dropped the gun, reached for the shaft protruding from either side, and let out a piercing scream. It did not sound like pain. It sounded like anger to Abel.

He charged past and swung his mount around as quickly as he could. More arrows were flying into the remaining occupants of the cart. Kruso emerged from the western thicket and was firing his bow in a steady rhythm. His rate of fire was like nothing Abel had ever seen before.

Abel pulled his mount to a stop and leapt to the desert floor. Corie stopped expertly without shying.

“Good girl,” he muttered, then reached for his rifle in its saddle scabbard. The rifle was nowhere to be found. He’d dropped it after firing and hadn’t realized it.

In his belt was the blunderbuss dragon, however. Would it take a minié ball? He supposed he’d find out. He reached into the cartridge box at his waist and dug out a cartridge, which consisted of a ball and powder charge wrapped in a thin layer of knife-peeled papyrus. He bit off the end to expose the powder.

Okay, okay, thumb up the frizzle, shake gunpowder into the pan. Not too much, not too much. Close it up. Half cock the hammer.

He flipped the pistol over. It had a bell-shaped muzzle. This was not to spread the charge upon firing. Instead, it had been given this shape in order to funnel the powder down the barrel more effectively. He poured the powder in and followed it with paper and ball. The lead seemed to be a close enough caliber, and maybe the paper would serve as a makeshift patch to form enough of a seal.

Or maybe not, and he’d have an exploding pipe bomb in his hand.

No time to worry about it.

Abel yanked out the small ramrod from the pistol’s underside and stuffed it down the barrel once to set and once again to pack.

The wagon was blocked by the others ahead, and the packtrain had stopped moving, but the lead animal was attempting to find a way to get around the jam. Several arrows quilled its hide, but they didn’t seem to faze it. Daks were smart, and their toughness must never be underestimated.

He cocked the hammer on the pistol all the way back and strode quickly past the other animals. When he got to the lead, he took careful aim and pulled the trigger. A flash in the pan, and a crack as the pistol went off.

The dak screamed and fell. The pistol had worked.

He walked back toward the wagon.

There on the ground before him lay the Redlander girl. The arrow was still through her throat. Blood covered her robes, and she was gasping for breath. She had located her dropped musket and held it up, its muzzle pointed toward the sky.

Their eyes met.

Such blue eyes she had.

He reached for the musket, and, instead of yanking it away or pointing it at Abel, the woman handed it to him.

She tried to say something, but only a moist gurgle escaped her throat. It didn’t matter. Abel looked into her pleading eyes and understood what she wanted.

He pointed the musket at her head, turned his face way, and fired.

The world blurred. Abel blinked. He had not thought he would cry.

“Thas weakness wastes time,” Kruso said as he stepped up beside Abel and took the musket from his hands. “Wagons to burn have weh.”

“Yes,” said Abel, rubbing a forearm across this face to clear his tears. “You’re right.”

They climbed into the bed of the last wagon, and Kruso used his bayonet knife to cut a line that held down a tarp. By this time, Himmel had arrived, and the three of them pulled back the tarp together.

Barrels. Hooped barrels with Landish markings. There was no mistaking what they were. Abel and the other Scouts had seen enough of them before from the Land’s principle powder plant in Cascade.

Gunpowder. Kegs and kegs of it.

Excellent, said Center. The variable necessary for further calculation.

“Neh good,” said Kruso, shaking his head. “At all, neh good.”

“Let’s check the others,” Abel said.

He and Kruso ran to the other wagon and found that it too was laden with similar cargo. The lead cart had no barrels, however. In its bed were earthen urns that, when struck open with a rifle butt, were revealed to be full of barley grain. There was also a row of jugs the size of butter churns. Himmel was about to break one open when Abel motioned for him to hold up.

“Lamp oil and wine,” he said. “Let’s soak the tarps in the oil.”

A gunshot nearby. Then another.

“I thought you took all the wagon riders out with arrows,” Abel said.

“Might somebody tham missed.”

They skirted around the middle wagon and found Himmel near a Redlander male. The Blaskoye was gut-shot and attempting to crawl away. He trailed a steadily increasing length of gut behind him that was winding out from his body. Himmel stood on the trailing end of the man’s intestine, holding it in place. As he watched the other crawl, a horrible smile played over Himmel’s face.

“Bastard took a shot at me,” he muttered.

Kruso did not waste time speaking to Himmel, but jogged up to the Redlander. He quickly took the man’s head in his gnomelike hands, then, with a jerk, twisted and broke the Redlander’s neck. The man collapsed, kicked twice, and was dead.

Kruso strode back to Himmel, looked him straight in the eyes for a moment. The smile left Himmel’s face. “Nonsense is such,” Kruso said with a shake of his head, and turned away.

“Can we burn the wagons now?” Abel said.

They quickly went and did just that, dividing the wagons among them, with Abel taking the middle.

Himmel reloaded and fired a gun point-blank into the rear tarp, expecting the muzzle flash to catch fire to the lamp vapors that filled the air.


They tried again with Abel’s dragon. No fire.

Abel reached into his tunic pocket and retrieved his wooden box of matches. He thumbed it open and pulled out a lucifer.

Himmel backed away. He, like Abel, was not an initiate of Irisobrian. Unlike Abel, he was a Stasis literalist. “Nishterlaub,” Himmel said. “Neh good.”

Kruso shook his head. “Not nishterlaub. This lucifers myself made of cap and splinter. Nishterlaub it neh is.”

“Still,” said Himmel, “against edict. I don’t like it.”

We haven’t got time for argument. Do what you must, lad.

Abel struck the match upon the glued grain on the box lid. It sprang to life instantly, its acrid sulfurous fumes filling the air all about them. Kruso made very trustworthy matches.

“It ta thet corner set,” Kruso said, and Abel followed instructions. Within seconds, the tarp was ablaze.

They did the same for the other two wagons, with Himmel muttering of doom the whole time. When they were done, Kruso bent down, grabbed something, then stood up and handed what was in his hand to Abel.

He’d found Abel’s dropped rifle.

“Best quickly we go,” Kruso said.

Abel ran back for his dont, careful not to trip in the mess that was the Redlander girl’s splayed body, her blasted face now turned to rapidly drying slop upon the thirsty desert sand.

Abel mounted up, and the three rode away as quickly as they could. After they’d gone what Kruso estimated was a safe distance, the Scout signaled them to turn around for a final look.

The wagons were ablaze. They watched the flames crackle for a moment.

And then, in an enormous explosion, the rear wagon blew itself to splinters. The remaining daks collapsed in a twisted mass of dakflesh.

Some were killed outright. Some blew notes of agony through their horns. All were yoked together and could not flee into the Redlands to die.

They would die right here.

I wish I’d set them loose. I should have, maybe.

But the thought hadn’t occurred to him when he’d been back at the wagons. There hadn’t been time. Besides, he told himself, domesticated daks wouldn’t last long in the Redland wilds. Probably.

For a moment, he remembered the woman’s pleading face just before the ball struck her.

She’d have done the same to you, lad.

Then the other two wagons exploded one after the other in great black plumes of smoke, and, looking upon the scene in excitement and amazement, Abel felt every bit of regret fade away.

He’d done that. Him. Abel Dashian.

No regrets.

All he was left with was the firm resolution that next time he would hold on to his rifle no matter what.

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