In the Field
Our whole camp is sleeping now, but I am afraid of my dreams; I had horrible dreams last night, lost in Green's jungles again, and in the hideous city.
Besides, I am not tired or sleepy. Why should I be? The troopers walked, or at least most of them did, until they were ready to drop-I rode on horseback. From yesterday morning, then.
Inclito woke me, pounding on my door. Before I opened it, while I was still sitting up in bed yawning, I heard him exclaim, "She's gone! She's gone!" I knew at once what had happened; and I had known, or at least suspected, what Mora planned before she left my bedroom the night before, had surely known when I heard her gallop away. I had lifted not a finger to stop her – but then, how could I?
I advised Inclito to calm down and went outside with him. It was still almost dark, with a light snow falling. In the stable his hired men were milling around and getting in each other's way as all three tried to ready his horse. Rimando was stamping and swearing, and Eco saddling a tall chestnut gelding that looked as if it could run like the wind. "I'll get her," he promised as he swung into the saddle. "I'll find her, wherever she is, and I'll bring her back." I tried to tell him that if he could not he should go on to Olmo, deliver his letter, and search for Mora again on the way home; but he was galloping out of the farmyard and onto the road before I had said half of it.
Inclito's own mount was soon saddled, a good horse (it seemed to me), though not half so good as Eco's. He took me by the shoulders. "You'll have to do it, Incanto. Go into town and see that they leave. They can march as well without me as with me, and I'll join you in the hills as soon as I find Mora and bring her back."
Then he, too, was gone, and Rimando was demanding that Inclito's coachman give him the best of the remaining horses, which the coachman adamantly refused to do. I could see that the coachman would appeal to me eventually; and I leaned upon my staff, still half asleep, waiting for it.
It came sooner rather than later, even though the coachman had tried to get support from Perito and Sborso first. "I can't, can I, sir? They're not my horses, now are they, sir? I can't let somebody just ride away, just 'cause-"
"I'm going to find your master's daughter and bring her back," Rimando told him for the tenth time at least. "By Pas, if I had my sword I'd kill all of you!"
I shook my head and addressed the coachman. "Your master has left me in charge, Affito. You heard it. Do you dispute it?"
"No, sir." He was visibly relieved that someone else was willing to take responsibility. "I'll do whatever you say, Master Incanto. That I will."
"Good." I turned to the other two, asked their names, and received similar assurances from both.
"Now then, how many horses have you here, good, bad, or indifferent?"
"And a donkey. I know there is a donkey, because I've heard it bray several times since I've been here."
"Yes, sir. And the mules."
I nodded and spoke to Rimando. "Do you consider yourself a trooper, a member of the horde of Blanko? In Inclito's absence I am in command of that horde. I am to assemble it this morning and advance to meet the Duko in the hills that separate your town from Soldo. Inclito doesn't want the Duko's troopers burning farmhouses and despoiling the countryside, for reasons much too obvious to require explanation. You are an intelligent, spirited, young man of good family, and can be of great help to me. If you will obey me as a loyal trooper should, I will appoint you my second in command on the spot."
For a few seconds, he was able to meet my gaze. "I want to find the girl who took my horse."
"I know you do. If you insist upon setting off after her-on foot, because I cannot permit you to take any of our animals-I will not stop you. I will, however, report your insubordination when the four of us reach Blanko, and I will report it again to Inclito when he rejoins us."
He could no longer look me in the eye, but he hesitated still.
I said, "I won't threaten you with punishment. I doubt that you'll be punished at all, or that you should be; but when you're my age, and your fellow citizens speak of those who came forward bravely when deadly danger threatened Blanko, your name will not be among them. There will be questions, perhaps, and whispers. Wouldn't you prefer that your name be honored?"
"All right. Yes, sir. I would, sir." I heard his indrawn breath as he came to attention and saluted.
I returned his salute, touching my right eyebrow with the handle of my staff. "Some people here call me a strego," I told him. "I'm no magic-worker, but there are times when I have certain knowledge that is denied to others. This is one of those times."
"If I had let you go after Mora, you wouldn't have succeeded in returning her to safety, or even in finding her. I'm not saying that to insult your abilities-I know that you're an able young man, and as a matter of fact I know it better than you do yourself. I say it because it is true."
"Yes, sir," Rimando repeated.
"Nor will her father succeed. Nor will Eco. I can only hope they do not lose their lives in the attempt."
Sborso asked, "Are we going to town, sir?"
"Yes, but not until we've eaten, and our animals, too. Do they have corn, or whatever you're feeding?"
The coachman said they did.
"Good. Come into the house, all of you. I know you don't normally eat at Inclito's table, but this is not a normal day. I need to talk to the women, and it will be best to do it with everyone present."
Once in the house, I called Decina and Onorifica out of their kitchen and sent Torda for my host's mother. When food had been passed around and everyone was seated at the table, I rose.
"Mora has gone to Novella Citta," I told her grandmother. "She took Rimando's horse and rode off during the night. Your son has ridden after her, and so has the other messenger. At present I don't know whether any or all of them will come to harm. I'm going to pray for them, and I advise you to do the same.
"And you, too, Torda. Decina and Onorifica should pray as well."
The cook could only stare. I got frightened nods from the other three women.
"As any of these men will confirm, Inclito put me in charge of this house, as well as the horde of Blanko, in his absence. I can't stay here, however, much as I might like to. To be more precise, we five men cannot."
To the coachman I added, "Rimando is my chief subordinate. I want you to give him the best horse."
He nodded, his mouth full.
"Inclito told me that he intended to put all three of you into his cavalry. Has he given you slug guns and other equipment?"
Perito and Sborso said that he had.
"Then you will come with Rimando and me," I told them, "and serve there until your master rejoins us."
My host's mother began, "Incanto, the farm…" Her voice quavered.
"You will have to take care of everything to the best of your ability," I told her. "You will require someone to help you, and for that I suggest Torda, though you are not bound to accept my suggestion."
Both nodded, my host's mother gratefully and Torda fearfully.
"I doubt that you will be able to get the winter wheat planted, but if you can, do it. If you can get only some of it planted, do that. Can any of you plow?"
All four women shook their heads.
"Neither can I," I told them, "but there may be old men or boys on some of the other farms hereabout who can. You might hire one to complete the plowing. Sowing the seed should be simple enough."
The coachmen asked, "You're going to let them keep the mules, sir?"
"They can use the seeder then, sir."
Sborso spoke to Torda. "It don't take but one mule. Bruna's the best, and won't kick if you don't treat her mean. Just pour in your seed and pull back on that handle soon as you're in the furrow. It's easy."
I have had a reunion with some old acquaintances, and Oreb has returned. This last may be more important than it seemed at the time; the leaders in Blanko were disturbed at his absence. I believe I might have had an easier time with them had he been with me. But I will recount that later, if I write about it at all.
Here I should say that this is still the night on which I wrote about talking to Torda and the other women yesterday morning. (Although yesterday morning seems a very long time ago.) I was away only a few hours.
One of the patrols I sent out when we camped here returned. I sat its leader down before this little fire when he said he had located the enemy, and told him to tell me everything, that he should consider no detail too small.
"There's not much to tell, sir. You've seen the road here."
"It just gets worse on north." He jerked his head. "It's not fit for wagons, sir. Only pack animals."
"How far are the enemy?"
He sat in silence, watching me finger my beard.
"I realize you had no means of measuring the distance," I said. "But how long were you gone? Four or five hours? You must know about how fast you walked."
"It isn't that, sir. We went about two leagues, I'd say, and going back the same. But these two hills… " A gesture. "You can't see them now, sir. It'll be a little better when Green comes up."
I nodded. "Tell me about them, so I'll know what to look for."
"There's a sort of saddle higher up, sir, but you can't get through it, or I don't think you can. It's all full of big rocks and thornbushes."
"I saw it."
"So the road goes on around." More gestures. "Over that way, and then around there."
"Around the flank of the eastern hill, so to speak."
"That's right, sir. Then it comes back this way, sir, bending around west again."
"I believe I understand."
"It wasn't as dark as this when we first saw the enemy, sir, and I kept on looking up at that saddle, here and there both. I think it's worse on their side, and it looked pretty bad on ours."
I nodded again. "But you couldn't escape the thought that if only we could go through there we might be able to take them by surprise."
He smiled, teeth gleaming in his dark and dirty face, and I liked him. "That's it exactly, sir. We can't do it, but you asked how far, that way it'd only be a scant league, maybe less. Suppose we sent twenty men up on those hilltops, sir. It's practically all rocks up there, just a few thornbushes. They could be shooting from up there while the rest came around by the road."
I called Rimando over, and explained what we had been talking about.
"It might help, sir." Rimando looked thoughtful. "I'd want to look it over first, though."
"So would I. So do I, as Lieutenant…?"
"Sergeant, sir. Sergeant Valico."
"So do I, Lieutenant Valico. How many enemy did you see?"
"Not their whole horde, sir."
"Of course not. This will be their advance guard or a flank guard, and I wish I knew which. How many? A hundred? A thousand?"
"I counted twenty-two fires, sir. It seemed like there was seven or eight around each fire."
Rimando said, "Plus their sentries. They'll have put out sentries unless they're the biggest fools on Blue."
Valico nodded. "One shot at us, sir. I tried to get in closer and one shot, that was why we came back."
Rimando grinned. "Quickly."
"No, sir. I tried to make a little ambush for them, sir, thinking a few might chase us. Only nobody came."
Just reaching the cleft between the hills required a fairly stiff climb; and well before we did, I had decided that even if the rocks and thornbushes Valico had reported could somehow be cleared away, it would be impossible for horses and pack mules unless a road could be built.
"You should have brought your donkey, sir," Rimando told me.
"You're right, I should have. I was just beginning to wish that they hadn't let me have that horse in Blanko. Or that I hadn't taken it."
He gave me his hand to help me up a particularly difficult bit, and I accepted it gratefully.
"I could have ridden one of Inclito's mules, too, and that would probably have been the best solution of all. What was her name? Br una? I suppose it must mean that she's brown. In any case she sounded just right for me."
From some small distance above us, Valico called, "This is about as far as you can go."
"I should have put a sentry up here," I told Rimando. "No, two. Two at least, well separated to keep them from talking. Do it when we get back down."
"Because Lieutenant Valico says somebody might be able to climb over the top?"
"Exactly." My legs felt weak, but with the help of my staff I was able to surmount the last rock, and even to stand upon it without falling. Green showed through the thornbushes from there, dim and blurred at first but brighter and more threatening with every moment that passed. Seeing it like that, between the peaks of hills that had once been a single hill and were divided now by this boulder-strewn and thorn-choked dry watercourse, it reminded me oddly of the front sight of a needier. I tried (as I am trying now) to keep that image in my mind and forget its jungles, its terrifying cliffs, and the swamps swarming with poisonous reptiles-the endless leagues of reeds, the eon-old trees, and the putrefying water in which the inhumi breed.
Rimando had gone ahead. He called back softly,
"All right if I see how far I can go in there, sir?"
I managed to nod, I suppose. Perhaps I answered him.
Something, some slight turning of my head, had thrust the thornbushes aside. They clustered thickly to left and right, but down the center of the cleft, where the water ran in the rainy season, Green's gleaming disc shone like a bead of jade. I saw Rimando advance a few steps toward it, gingerly pushing thorny branches out of his way that he could readily have stepped around, and watched him halt and turn back in disgust.
I went to him, having once or twice to step a little to my left or right, and he goggled at me. "Go back now," I told him. "Don't forget to post those sentries, and don't forget that we are two leagues at most from the enemy. Rouse some men to defend the rest. If I'm not back by shadeup, you're in command until the people of Blanko decide otherwise."
I turned and climbed the gentle slope, then halted and waved to him and Valico, knowing they could not miss seeing me with Green behind me. Just then I heard Oreb crying "Silk? Silk?" above my head as he had when Silk deserted us at the entrance to the tunnels. I waved to him; but he was unable to reach me through the thorns until I held my staff up, grasping it near the tip so that the handle was high above my head. He settled upon it, and I drew him down to me and asked whether he had found Seawrack.
"No find. No sing."
"A beautiful, one-armed woman with golden hair?"
"No find," he croaked unhappily. "Big wet." And then, "Bird wet. No swim."
She has gone back into the sea, apparently, and I will hear her no more. I suppose I should be happy, but my heart aches as I write these words.
The enemy had camped some way up the northern slope. I halted where the thornbushes grew sparsely, and was able to study the few who remained awake at my leisure. Soon I saw what seemed a familiar face, then another. For a minute or more I tried fruitlessly to recall the names that went with those faces. One saw me, and I blessed them, making the sign of addition.
He came as near as the thornbushes permitted, his slug gun at the ready. "Rajan? Is that you, sir?"
"Yes," I said. "Have you left Hari Mau's employment?"
He nodded cautiously.
"He paid you? Did you get all your money? If not, I'll go back with you as soon as I can, and we'll get it."
"I got everything," he said.
By that time, another man was coming toward us; he seemed less suspicious, although he had his slug gun as well. It seemed clear that as long as I appeared afraid of them, they could not be expected to trust me; so I advanced until I was clear of the thornbushes.
The second man asked, "Do you remember me, Rajan? My name's Chaku."
It was a Gaonese name and he wore a cloth wrapped around his head as all the men do there; so I said I certainly did, and asked what he, a Gaonese, was doing here.
"A lot of us are Gaonese, Rajan. There wasn't much work for us after the fighting stopped, so we decided to go along with these fellows and try to earn a cardbit or two."
The first man said, "My name's Gorak. You talked to us before we went to fight." Others were gathering around as he spoke.
"I recall your face very well," I told him, "and I believe I might have come up with your name if I'd had a little more time."
A third trooper said, "You stopped and talked to me once when you were inspecting the trenches, Rajan. It was raining like the gods were emptying a year's worth of slops on us, remember?"
I told him I would never forget it, and asked whether he, or any of them, knew Eco.
A trooper who had not spoken before said, "He's not here, Rajan."
"But you know him?"
He nodded. "He was in my bunker down south, sir. A good man."
"He's on my side now," I said, "fighting for Blanko. Quite a few of you are." Just then, by great good luck, I recognized a lanky trooper with a scar across his chin, another Gaonese. I called softly, "Thody, how are you? It's good to see you again," and his smile warmed me.
Gorak said, "We don't have much, but we can offer you some tea." Chaku added, "And cinnamon bread. I'll get it."
I lifted my staff and my free hand for silence. "Wait, brothers. You may shoot me in a moment or two. You are with the Duko's horde?"
"Then you ought to, and there's no sense in wasting your good food on someone about to die. Do you have one of your own officers? Or is one of the Duko's in charge here?"
"A man from Soldo." Gorak pointed toward a tent some distance down the slope.
"This is going to be very bad," I told them. "Very difficult."
"We won't shoot you," the man who had known Eco assured me.
"Listen to me," I told him, "before you make any such rash promises. Are you the advance guard, by the way?"
He and others nodded.
I sighed. "I am in command of the horde of Blanko, you see, and we-"
Chaku interrupted. "We captured their general two days ago."
I nodded as though I had known it, and another trooper said, "Their general and his daughter."
"That's why I'm in command now. I was advising him, and with him unable to perform his duties the entire responsibility has become mine."
"Good Silk!" Oreb assured them.
"I had planned to crush you tomorrow morning. I didn't know who you were then, of course. Now… Sacred Scylla, what am I to do?"
Oreb answered, "No fight!"
A moment or two later, Thody came and stood at my right hand, saying, "Anyone who would strike the rajan must strike me first!," and a chorus of voices declared that they intended no harm to either of us.
"Nor do I wish in the least to harm you," I told them. "In fact, I will go further. I will not fight you, no matter what happens."
For some time they whispered among themselves, seeming to sway like a field of grain stirred by the night wind. Chaku left them and came to stand on my left, his slug gun ready and his eyes upon his comrades.
"No fight," Oreb urged. "Come Silk."
"He's right," I said loudly. "Listen to me, brothers. I want to hire all of you. If you'll return whatever the Duko's paid you and come over to our side, we'll pay you the same rate you got in Gaon."
Someone said loudly, "The Duko's giving us a silver card every month."
"How much have you received so far?" I asked him.
"Nothing!" several voices answered.
"But you're getting good rations?" "No!"
"What the Duko intends is quite clear," I told them. "He hopes to take Blanko before he's got to pay you. Then he'll invoke some technicality and give you a tenth or less of what's due you. A tenth, perhaps, if you're lucky."
"I can't offer you that much or half that much, because Blanko will actually pay the entire sum promised."
Deferentially, Gorak asked, "All right if I talk to them, Rajan?"
He raised his voice. "Men! All of you know me. I've been doing this longer than most. It's my fifth war."
Those who had begun talking among themselves fell silent.
"These troopers," he pointed to Chaku and Thody, "they're going to side with him 'cause he was their rajan. That doesn't mean a thing to me, and it shouldn't to you. He hired me a while back, I got my pay, and that's over and done with. If he was just the head man in some foreign town, I'd just as soon fight against him as for him. But there was spells he cast in that war. Real spells that worked. I never saw any of that, and I misdoubt anybody here did. But I talked to prisoners, and they had a lot to say. You want to fight him now? Well, I don't!"
He turned toward me as the contending voices of his fellow troopers rose behind him. "A lot's asleep, Rajan. More than's here, and there's the officer from Soldo. Can you wait till morning?"
Reminded unpleasantly of Green, I said that I could and would.
"We'll talk it over then, all of us. If you see us coming with our slug guns hanging crosswise down our backs and muzzle down, don't shoot, 'cause we'll be going over to you. And if we're going to stay with Soldo and fight you instead, we'll say so first."
Thus it ended. Half a dozen of them would have come with me if I had permitted it, but I ordered them stay behind to influence their comrades. And now I must sleep for a few hours at least.