A Young Man from the South
When we had gained the jungle at last, and the mercenaries had seen our human dead scattered all along the sewer and crushed in the streaming jaws of huge and deadly river-beasts, I called them together. "Once I tried to destroy the City of the Inhumi," I told them. "I had fewer than a hundred men, braggarts and cowards for the most part, untrained, badly disciplined, and worse armed. I dreamed then of leading troopers like you against it, and I am going to do it now."
To my surprise, they cheered.
"I'm not going to try to tell you how to fight. You and your officers know far more about that than I. But Lieutenant Valico and I will fight beside you, and help you however we can.
"Fava, if you'd like to leave us and warn the City, this is the time."
"I'm no inhuma! Look at me!"
"As you wish," I told her, and turned back to Kupus's troopers. "The inhumi have human slaves, as you have seen. Don't kill them unless they resist you."
"When the last inhumu is dead," I promised them, "we'll go home."
Fava, Valico, and I went with Kupus and the other mercenary officers when they reconnoitered the city. "We'll have to fight from building to building," Kupus told me. "It will be an ugly business. Are you in a hurry?"
I shook my head.
"Then I suggest we wait till morning. We're going to need all the daylight we can get for this, and it will be an all-day job."
"Or more," Zepter added gloomily.
I protested that I had no food to give them, and was told that the men carried emergency rations, which Fava, Valico and I might share.
Not even in the pit have I spent a more nightmarish night. You may say if you like that I did not spend that one at all, that I was in fact hugging Fava's icy corpse under the arching canes of the snow-laden thornbushes; but I recall every moment of it, and find that I still cannot write about it without a shudder. After the rest had laid themselves down to sleep, I went around our impromptu camp warning everyone about the insects. (They are not like the insects of the Long Sun Whorl or the somewhat different insects here that are so often blind; but I know not what else to call them.) I had hardly begun when I was stung by one of the scarlet-and-yellow creatures that we called firesnakes – a flying worm, like a little viper with a scorpion's tail.
Thereafter I spoke to one small group after another, and it seemed to me that there was always another waiting, and sleepers, too, whom I had not yet warned and could not warn without waking. And I went from sleeper to sleeper, examining their faces as I had so many years ago in the tunnel, always looking for His Cognizance and always hoping-although I knew how absurd it was-that I would find Silk, that Silk had left Hyacinth and would be going with us after all, that Silk had rejoined us when I was inattentive, talking to Scleroderma and Shrike, and lagging behind the slowest walkers to talk to His Cognizance, whom I sought without finding on that nightmare night under the cloud-capped trees that outreach all our towers, so that at last I called out softly "Silk? Silk?" as I walked among the sleepers until Oreb grasped my hand with fingers that were in fact feathers, repeating, "Here Silk. Good Silk," and I took my own advice and found the numbing fruit, cut one in two with the gold-chased black blade of the sword that I had imagined for myself and pressed a half against the sting on my arm, weeping.
But none of that is to the point, except for being a part of the story I have set myself to tell, my own long story of the tangled paths by which I failed to find the hero Marrow and the others sent me to find.
What is to the point is the way in which the mercenaries attacked and cleared the buildings of the City of the Inhumi the next day, working in pairs or in paired groups, so that one group occupied the inhumi with their fire while the other advanced to a place from which it could fire more effectively. We have been teaching that to our troopers, Sfido and I, for the past two days-along with much else, and drill, and some marksmanship, although we are too short of cartridges to spare many for that.
I should say, too, that scarcely a day has passed on which we have not received a request for food and ammunition, blankets and clothing from Inclito, a request delivered by some weary officer or sergeant who has brought back mules insufficient to carry the eighteen or twenty or thirty loads of whatever it is that he has been sent to get, but who knows just as we do that it does not matter since we have not half as much as his letter asks us to give him. troopers for pack animals and food," Sfido told me when we met "You can spend some of that money you raised to pay Kupus's today.
I told him I already had-nearly all of the true cards I had worried so much about earlier-and asked why he said it.
"Because the dead need not be paid. This fellow" (by which he meant Rimando, who had carried Inclito's most recent letter) "won't admit I'm right, but I am. So are you, Incanto. There may have been two hundred mercenaries with Kupus once and a hundred or more hired separately, but there aren't nearly that many left alive by now. When Olmo falls-"
"Olmo has fallen," Rimando told us.
"Then it won't be long."
I held out Inclito's letter. "That's what the general says, too. Do you want to read it?"
I dropped the letter on Volanta's table. "This is Captain Rimando. He was my chief subordinate when this wretched war began, and the general has sent him back to us to help us prepare the town to stand a siege."
Rimando nodded affirmation.
"He and I have been discussing tactics, and I've called you in, as our best tactician, to get your advice. You were in the hills for several days after you escaped from prison in Soldo?"
Sfido nodded, and seeing Rimando's curious glance said, "Nothing daring, Captain. I was a rich man once, and I bribed my jailer."
"Show him the map, sir," Rimando suggested.
I did, turning Inclito's letter over to reveal the crude diagram that Rimando and I had sketched on the back. "While you're looking at that, Colonel, I want to ask you about Eco again. Are you quite sure you didn't see him while they had you locked up?"
"I wasn't there very long, and I didn't see many of the other prisoners, as I told you that first night.
He may have been there." Sfido stroked his little mustache thoughtfully. "I have no way of knowing."
"Tall and strong," Rimando said. "Quite dark. He smiled a lot, or at least he did when we rode out to the general's farm. Clean shaven, about my age."
I explained that Rimando had been the other messenger who was to ride with Eco, but that Inclito's daughter Mora had taken his horse, and asked Sfido about her as well.
He shook his head. "There weren't any girls or women in there at all, as far as I know. Or anyway the jailer said there weren't.…"
Seeing the change in his expression, I said, "You've thought of something. What is it?"
"He said there had been one just before I came but she and her lover had escaped. He wanted more silver for my own escape because of it."
Rimando turned to me. "I don't understand."
Sfido said, "The Duko had been furious. Another escape would cause a lot of trouble, or at least he seemed to think it would."
"Had they bribed their jailer too?" I asked.
He shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think so."
Rimando asked, "Did he describe the man?"
"No, he didn't tell me anything much about either one of them, except that the woman had gotten out of her cell somehow and let her lover out. She was a big, strong woman, he said, as big and strong as a man." Sfido turned the diagram so that I could read it more easily.
"Now about this map." He pointed to the series of thin rectangles that Rimando had drawn at my direction. "These are our troops?"
"The old men and the women," I told him. "The boys in reserve, back here."
"And this double line is the road south? Your town is somewhere down here?"
"You want my opinion of this?"
"No," I told him. "Not yet. We want you to tell us how Duko Rigoglio and General Morello will attack it."
"Pah!" Sfido looked disgusted. "This's child's play. The left flank, here, is against the river. But there's no support for the right at all. This space is what? Fields? Farms?"
"Morello will engage the front with his infantry." He glanced at Rimando. "Do you know the term, Captain? It means troopers on foot."
Rimando colored, reminding me again of how very young he was. "Certainly."
"Incanto did not, until I told him. They will shoot at us and we will shoot at them. They will advance and retreat, if we let them. Meanwhile the cavalry will make a wide circle here," he traced it with his forefinger, "and attack from behind and the flank, then chase us back to this town of yours. If we take the best horses, we three may escape them." Sfido shrugged again. "Some of the boys may, too. The boys run very well."
He slapped our map down on the table. "You asked me how the Horde of Soldo would attack those positions, Incanto, and I've told you. Now you have to ask me what I think of them, before I explode."
I nodded and smiled. "You know how highly I value your opinion, Colonel."
"They're childish. I don't criticize you, Incanto, because you're not a trooper. But," Sfido leveled his finger at Rimando, "if you're a captain, it's no wonder-"
"I told him!" Rimando burst out. "I said it was insane. It's exactly what the general said we were not to do."
I explained what I planned then, and thanked Rimando for the pack mules and mule drivers he had brought us, which we needed so badly to carry our cloth and rope, and the fireworks, and explained that we would have to scour the nearby farms tomorrow for oxen to pull the guns, and women and children to drive the oxen.
I have no more time to write.