Captain Backoh and his Akkelahn mercenaries changed course, double-timing it directly toward the point where Gordon and the wagon should be by the time they got there, rather than trying to chase behind them across the Desert. They had no choice – it was the only way they had any hope of making it in time. Any other route and they'd be too late. They'd probably be too late as it was, and Backoh hoped that Gordon and his friends weren't hurrying.
"Captain Backoh!" someone shouted. The cougar looked to see who it was, and was surprised to find himself facing three coyotes who had broken out of formation to jog behind him. Were they spies? Was this an assassination? But the coyotes just kept double-timing along, waiting for the Captain's acknowledgment before they came forward.
The one in the middle did the talking, "Captain Backoh – we thought we should tell you what you're up against. We... the three of us... used to be Black-Faces, as you call them. We thought you might want to know what they're like."
"Yes. We were. Five years ago – all three of us. This is my brother, and she's my sister. We ran away..." the coyote said uneasily. He didn't want to have to go through the story of why they'd run away, so he just continued with his history, "Then we wandered around for a few years, joined a couple of caravans – that's where we heard about Akkelah, and how they were taking soldiers, so we joined up. Best thing we ever did. Captain – our allegiance is with you and Akkelah. We don't belong to the Tribe anymore. We hate them more than the Hares do! Well... as much, anyway."
"Okay, good," the Captain said with forced nonchalance – that was exactly what he was wondering. And since everyone else in the company was hearing the same thing he was, he didn't want to ask any personal questions. As their leader, the whole company was going to watch Backoh's reaction, and he knew it. "So what can you tell me about them, then?" he asked, as if listening was just barely worth his time.
"First: they're crazy. They probably think that every bad thing that's happened to them since that sheep got away has been his fault. They'll be absolutely sure that everything will be better once the he's killed – that's what they'll be after. They'll go after anyone protecting him, too – but their main target will be the ram."
"I hope you're not suggesting that we should let them have the ram..."
"No sir! I didn't mean it like that. I'm just trying to show you how they think."
"Very well. What kind of strategy can I expect, if we should meet them?"
"None at all, sir. They aren't soldiers, like we are. When hunting, yeah, they organize themselves like any pack. But for a battle, they're just a mob. They'll just charge in and attack all at once. And they won't have any weapons – not even sticks. If they get desperate, they might pick up a rock – but that's a last resort. They're going to be using their teeth. And sir – if one gets his teeth into you... he absolutely will not let go. Their strategy – if you want to call it that – is to rip your flesh off a mouth-full at a time. Sir."
"Charming. And why have you waited until now to tell me these things? Why did it take you so long to make up your mind?" Backoh wouldn't be the only one wondering about that – best to get it out in the open, whichever way it went.
"We... we were afraid that the others might not... uh..."
"Halt!" Backoh shouted. The company stopped and stood at attention. 'We were afraid' was exactly the right answer, at this time. Of course they were.
"At ease! Listen up!" he didn't need to yell, he just wanted it clear that this speech was to be in his official capacity as Commander, "Now look around you, boys and girls. You see cats and rats and badgers and horses and squirrels – and the buffalo is hard to miss..." There was chuckling in the ranks, "... and coyotes. You see all kinds – but we are all one kind! We are COMRADES! Now, we may be fighting a mob of coyotes soon. These three coyotes here were once in our enemy's ranks. Now they are in our ranks! You can imagine what that must be like for them. They'd have preferred not to let anyone know. Yet – they did, in order that we might know just what kind of enemy we may be facing. They did it for you – all of you. They did it for their comrades. Now they are wondering if – in the heat of battle – some of you might turn your backs on them. Will you?"
There was a chorus of "No!" repeated over and over.
"Good. That's good..." Backoh motioned for them to quiet down, "Because if I hear about it, there'll be hell to pay. I shit you not! And I mean that on a personal level! Because you are NOT a company of felines and equines and rodents and canines – you are a company of comrades. Soldiers! And soldiers watch each other's backs! RIGHT!?"
In response, the Dinner Company did something even the Captain didn't expect. They simultaneously - and spontaneously – came to attention, and shouted in unison, "SIR!"
"Then double-time.... HARCH!" Backoh ordered. He had to get the command out fast – before he choked up. He'd never felt so proud in his life.
"Well... I think I can see what you were getting at... awfully subtle though, ain't it?" Gordon asked Tristan as he closed the fairy-tale book.
"We had to make it subtle, bunny-man. The Lady tried to beat it into their heads – and look what happened. We need to appeal to their hearts, so that as they think about the story later, and see that it could be read in a different light than the way their parents will doubtless see it. Believe me, it was hard to write. All that and it needs to appeal to all the different species – each in their own way. So yeah... it's 'awfully subtle'. It has to be."
Taylor spoke up, "Ahem. I did the pictures, y'know..."
"The pictures were great, Taylor," Teesah said, "Although... the coloring is a little... strange..."
"That's because we all have different eyes," Taylor said, "Gordon and I are pretty much full-spectrum. Tris gets no colors at all, and you – a cat – are big on red and green, but not blue. I tried to sort of make the pictures look a little different – at least the facial expressions – for the prey as opposed to the predators. I had special blue-blocking glasses made so I could get a feel for it. And Tris would give me his black-and-white 'canine' impressions."
"You guys put a lot of effort into this..." Gordon said, impressed by the depth of their planning. It was such a short, thin, little book, and it seemed so... simplistic. Who would think so much had gone into it?
"We did," Tristan said. "A lot more than Tay put into greasing that axle last night, like he was supposed to..." The front-axle of the wagon had been squeaking since just after lunch. It was annoying.
"Hey! I did SO grease the axle! Gah – took forever to get the stuff off my hands, too! Next time, you do it, then. You'll probably like it. Made from pig-fat, y'know. Ick."
"Oh, don't get self-righteous on me, Tay – remember last time we were here in these foothills? 'Hey, Tris – you gonna finish your meat? I'm still hungry...' Every meal, too!"
"Yeah, well... I was a growing boy, and we were on Army rations. Besides – I've seen you eat carrots..."
"Ugh. Don't remind me..."
Gordon look around at the countryside as the couple traded insults. Something didn't feel... quite right, somehow. They were heading north, looking for the trail-markers that would take them through the mountains to the glacier. The Black Faces were to the north – but they should be far north by this time. Thinking of them still made him nervous though. Did they leave rear-guard scouts, like they had front-scouts? He didn't know. He belatedly realized that he should have asked Ben the Desert Hare more about the Coyotes – apparently the Hares had been studying them for a long, long time.
But it was too late now. Anyway... why was he suddenly so nervous? Wait a minute -
"Hey – guys... shut up for a sec. Tris – stop the wagon. I thought I heard something."
Tristan and Taylor immediately fell silent – they'd had experience with this sort of thing before. It became eerily quiet but for the peaceful sounds of birds and insects. Taylor, Tristan, and Teesah listened – and kept an eye on Gordon's ears, which were twitching around every which way.
They stopped twitching when he pointed them south – behind them. Everyone looked.
"Taylor," the rabbit said, whispering, "See anything odd behind us? Tris?"
"Nothing obvious. I don't see any – hold on. Uh... now that you mention it, the air seems kind of... yellowish... or brownish..."
"I see it too," Teesah added, "Like it's... dirty or something. Dust storm maybe?"
"Dust storms don't make a sound. Or at least, not like this."
"What's it sound like?" Tristan asked.
"I dunno. Like thunder – but higher-pitched. And less... rumbling, or something. Uh... let's move on, Tristan. I'm gonna turn around and keep an eye – and ear – on it. Taylor – you too."
"Me three", Teesah said.
Well it was about time to set this right, to restore Order. Ever since that lamb had gotten away – what was it, something over a decade ago now? - the Tribe had been recovering from one disaster after another. The prey were thinning, a river had dried up, there'd been diseases and accidents of all kinds. The priests said it was all because of that one sheep kid. The one they hadn't been able to Erase. The one they'd lost heading into the Desert..
Now he was back – and thanks to that bobcat man, the Tribe would finally be able to set the world right again. That was a handy bit of information the cat had come to sell. The Tribe hadn't been interested in buying information until he'd mentioned that it was a sheep who carried a sword. Then they became very interested. The bobcat had wanted to be paid in something called "money". He didn't get any. Instead, he was beaten for two days until the Alpha was satisfied that he had nothing more to tell, then he was carried to the edge of the Desert and left there. His horse was eaten. Mostly by the Alpha and his friends.
The ram's wagon been spotted days ago, but this was too important to just have the entire Tribe simply start to chase them. That hadn't worked last time. This time they were being more clever. Since the sheep and his companions were already in the foot-hills and headed north, they'd skirted around them on the Desert side until they could get behind the enemy, and then followed them at a distance – keeping very careful not to be seen – until they were ready.
Well, now they were ready. The prey had no place to go – although they wouldn't know that for awhile yet. The entire Tribe was running now. Order would be restored in a matter of hours.
The foot-hills of the Eastern range were comprised of rolling, grass-covered hills. Trees only grew along the streams that trickled along the bottoms of the more significant valleys. Depending on the height of the particular hill they were on, Tristan and his companions might be able to see as far behind them as the next ridge of equal height. But they could only do that while on top – once they headed downhill again, they couldn't see any farther than where they'd just come from. The foot-hills were perpendicular to the mountain-range itself, so they were constantly going up onto hills or down into valleys. That made it hard to see what was behind. Or ahead.
It was late Spring now, summer would be coming soon, so all the grass and trees were almost violently verdant, and everything was green as the flora enjoyed it's last hurrah before the heat and dryness of summer. It was pretty. It was serene.
Except for that odd noise that only the rabbit could hear, and the odd yellow-brown haze that only the cat and ram could see.
At the top of a particularly high ridge, they finally saw the Coyotes behind them. Not individual Coyotes – they were over a mile away – what they saw was a gray swarm cresting a ridge and spilling down it raggedly as each Coyote ran fast or slow according to their whim, unorganized, and un-led. Specks and groups of specks would break off from the main body of the Tribe, but then slow down again, eventually being re-absorbed. It was like watching grey slime roll down the hill, in slow-motion. There were a lot of them – which wasn't a surprise – the travelers already knew that. What was surprising was that they were behind them. Behind? How could that have happened?
Tristan drove the single horse pulling the wagon as fast as he dared. The obvious thing to do was head for the Desert – but if they just turned west, the Coyotes would gain on them. On the other hand, if they didn't turn west – well, how long could they keep running? They knew that the Coyotes weren't going to stop. Ever. The best the wolf could do would be to keep a heading of north-by-northwest. Maybe – maybe – he'd hit the Desert before the Black-Faces caught up.
If the wagon held together, that is. There was no road, and at the speed they were going, it was bouncing and squeaking along worrisomely.
And they all felt the tension, but no one spoke much as they each tried to calculate the best plan. It basically came down to who could run the longest. There was no way around the logic of that. Gordon sighed audibly when he came to that conclusion.
"Look..." Taylor said despondently. He had an idea, but it was going to be hard to say. It was going to be even harder for Tristan to hear it, "Guys – they're only after me. I think-"
"Shut the fuck up, Tay," Tristan growled.
"I'm serious – don't even think about it!" the wolf shouted as he tried to keep control of the wagon, "If you go – I go. That's the way it's gonna be. So shut up."
"Me too," Gordon said in a strangely quiet tone.
"Me three," Teesah added.
"Tristan!" Taylor exclaimed, "What's more important – me, or the book? We have to-"
"But, the Town is-"
This time Gordon interrupted, "Taylor – listen to the wolf. He has his moments, and this is one of 'em. We'll either all make it, or none of us will. Tris, you got any more weapons in the back somewhere?"
"A few dozen more arrows, under the tarp behind the seat. That's all."
"Better'n nothing. So we have two bows, maybe forty arrows, a sword, and me with my staff. Gods, Spirits, and Nature – I knew I should have brought one of those cross-bows with me! What an idiot."
"I've been saying that for years, bunny-man," Tristan joked, trying to relieve some of the tension, "We finally agree on something, eh?"
"Don't get too uppity, wolf-boy – I bet I can still kick your ass."
"Maybe, old man. But I got a ram on my side."
At least they were out-running the Coyotes. But eventually, of course, the wagon hit one prairie-dog hole too many and – combined with the torque already on that axle from the friction of the inadequately-greased wheel – the axle twisted apart and broke, throwing them all off the wagon and into the knee-high grass. Luckily, no one was injured, so they unharnessed the horse and slapped her away, and then proceeded on foot, leaving all the books behind. All but one that is; the one that Taylor stuffed down his shirt.
They weren't going to out-run them anymore. Even Tristan, who had the best chance, wouldn't be able to get away from the pursuing Tribe. He used to run for sport – and even that had been a while ago – but the Black-Faces ran for a living.
They ran on nonetheless. What else was there to do? Maybe something would happen. There was always a chance...
Until they topped the critical hill that proved to them all – and without question – that their chances had run out.
They were in a trap. From the top of this hill, they could see it. They were already inside. In the distance they could see a river, wide and fast. It was only running fast because of the season... usually it would have been a slow, meandering, shallow affair, probably full of sand-bars and gravel, something they could just have waded across. Not this time of year though. It would be death to attempt to swim across. No doubt about that.
And because the river usually did meander, it formed ox-bows in its course. They could see from the top of the hill that they were standing within an ox-bow now – they'd unwittingly passed through the neck of it earlier. They'd seen the trees on both sides, but hadn't realized that the river lay beyond those trees.
Gordon expressed what they were all feeling with a simple "Shit."
They turned around as one to check on the progress of their enemy. Half a mile to go.
There wasn't much use trying to form a battle-plan at this point, not against those numbers.
"Well, Gordon – you once told me that you wanted to die facing a vicious horde: out-numbered, hopeless. Guess you get your wish," Taylor said.
"Yeah, well... I think I probably said 'someday', Taylor. Not... not like... 'today'!"
The two couples held hands and waited in silence. It wouldn't be long now, although it would probably seem like longer than it was.
"What the hell are you people looking at?"
Startled, the four travelers whirled around to see Backoh and his Akkelahn soldiers – in full battle regalia – fifty yards away, climbing up to meet them.
"Backoh!" Gordon yelled.
"Cinpah!" Teesah screamed.
Over come with – joy? Relief? Hope? - they began running down the hill to meet with their friends. Logistically, they still didn't stand much of a chance – but it was a hell of a lot better than it was before, anyway. At least they'd take a bunch of the damn Coyotes out. Tristan and Taylor just stood there, slack-jawed and not knowing what to think.
Greetings were exchanged, backs were slapped. Helmets were knocked upon. Still the wolf and the ram stared. Since leaving Civilization, they'd never seen so many different species organized together into one body, for one purpose. There were even prey amongst these soldiers! And – gods – that buffalo-woman was huge! She was also carrying an equally huge and fearsome battle-axe. Under the circumstances, it was oddly comforting.
Before long, the Akkelahns were joining Tristan and Taylor at the top of the hill.
"Oh..." Backoh said, watching the horde spill over another of the hills between them, "That's what you were looking at."
With that, Backoh became all business - "Form a line on me! Double-spaced! Archers – take positions five paces behind the front! Cross-bows - you'll begin shooting as soon as you have a target in range – one that you're sure you can hit! The rest of you wait for my command – and remember to mark your targets, don't just loose your arrows into the mob! Taylor – you get to the back, behind the archers! Gordon – you stay with him, it'll be our job will be to take care of anyone who gets through the line. MOVE people!"
Everyone hurried into position – piling up their packs, un-slinging their weapons, readying themselves. There was no sound but that of swords being unsheathed and the rustling of leather and metal. The soldiers readied themselves without a word.
Taylor, however, wasn't a soldier. "The back? Why do I have to go to the back? I'm good with a sword, why can't I-"
"Because if you're on the line they'll just concentrate on you and you alone. That's not why we're here. And don't worry about it – you'll get your chance to fight – probably more than you ever wanted," Backoh explained, "Now please – no more questions. I have a lot to do, and we don't have much time." He turned toward his troops and resumed barking out orders, getting the line positioned and spaced exactly like he wanted it.
It was a long, thin line, somewhat more compact in the center than at the edges. Laura's seven-foot frame marked the center – that way everyone would be able to see where it was, once the chaos of the fighting began. It was too long and too thin, in fact – but there was nothing to be done about that. They would do what they'd come to do. What they'd all prayed they wouldn't have to. So it goes, for soldiers everywhere. Once they'd readied themselves, they all looked from side to side, casting knowing glances at one another. What it was that they all "knew" can't be explained – even by soldiers. They weren't going to survive this, and they all knew it. It's hard to fight when you know you've already lost.
Here they come – less than two hundred yards away now. They could just make out the white of the Coyote's teeth.
The first cross-bow bolt flew.
The soldiers waited, some of them glancing back over their shoulders at Taylor. He was why they were here. Well, really, they'd come to rescue Teesah and Gordon - "rescue" without going into battle. Fellow soldiers and all. But Taylor was the reason that Teesah and Gordon were there in the first place. And the people they were to fight weren't even interested in the Akkelahns... they were after that ram. So, ipso-facto Q.E.D. - they were there to fight for Taylor. It just didn't seem... right. Maybe the idea of giving up the ram wasn't so bad, after all. Not bad enough to die for...
Each one thought - some for longer than others - about turning and running. But they didn't, because none of their comrades were. They were all in this together regardless of how pointless it was. Maybe someday someone would write songs and stories about them. Those songs and stories would no doubt go on and on about the heroism and selflessness of the Dinner Company – probably wouldn't use that joke name though, have to think of something better – and completely ignore how each individual soldier felt. Songs and poems tend to do that. No one's heart would swell to a song about what the troops were really feeling, after all.
One hundred and fifty yards. The cross-bows were taking out those who were ahead of the horde and now the Archers joined in. They'd exhaust their supply of arrows long before the horde ever reached the line... and then what? The Black-Faces were squeezed together as tightly as they could and still run, while the Akkelahn line had spaces two-soldiers wide, towards the flanks of the line. The Coyotes would just run right through. There was no possible way the line could hold.
Pointless! Insane! EVERYONE knew it!
As did their commander, Backoh. But there was nothing else to do. At least they weren't going to die running away. That was something. At this point, that was the only thing. He sighed while no one was watching him, and looked at Laura up in the front-center. He'd have liked to spend... more time with her. A lot more time. Any more time.
The soldiers tried to hike their spirits up, consciously hyper-ventilating, trying to quell their fear and frustration and disappointment – replace that with rage for their enemy. No one was thinking about anything now. This battle was going to be painful and short. There was no hope of a victory, so what the hell, do what you can. They were ready.
They were ready for anything.
Or, so they thought. Because when two-hundred Desert Hares suddenly stood up out of the grass, barely fifty yards away, the Akkelahn soldiers could only gasp and stare slack-jawed. They must have walked right past them! They'd been staring at the Coyote's right over the backs of the Hares! The Archers had been shooting right over their heads!
Ben, their leader, didn't waste any time with greetings, "Fling at will! When you run out, go join the Akkelahn line! Fill in the gaps! And keep your atlatels to use as clubs – they're the only weapons most of you have!
A roar rose from the Akkelahn line as fifty hearts jumped into fifty throats. Guttural and unintelligible, most of the soldiers made a sound something like "YAAARGH!"
What they meant was: "Comrades!" It WASN'T so hopeless after all! There were now two hundred more people to fight for! There were two hundred more comrades to die for! There were now two hundred more reasons to... be soldiers!
The rush of the Coyotes faltered – but only for a moment. Hundreds of them were falling, but it didn't matter much. They had thousands. And they were almost there. Once they got up to the line, the enemy's distance-weapons weren't going to matter. Once they got to the line, it would be time to fight on Coyote terms – with teeth. The way God (who was also a coyote, of course) meant it to be!
The Coyotes were closer than a hundred yards now, the Hares almost exactly half-way between the Akkelahns and the the Black-Faces. Ben ordered the Hares who were still flinging – most of them had run out of bolts already - to go back and join the line. He was the last one in, and made his way between Chirie, the squirrel, and Laura, the buffalo, as he passed them to stand with Backoh, Gordon, and Taylor. Laura's friendly back-slap almost knocked him over.
"Where the hell did you people come from?" Backoh asked.
"Hares are good at running. Our Watchers informed us that the Coyotes had turned around in their migration – it wasn't hard to figure out why. We just felt like this was our fight, is all. Couldn't let you guys take all the glory for yourselves."
"Damned thoughtful of you," Backoh quipped, grinning ear to ear toothily, "I'd offer you lunch, but we're kind of busy." There wasn't much time for pleasantries. The leading-edge of Coyotes were barely fifty yards away.
"Uh... yeah," Ben said, staring at the display of cougar-teeth. He'd never actually seen them all like that before, it was a little... disconcerting. "Maybe later, then. Look – two commanders is a bad idea. My people have already been told to take orders from you. You have more experience than I do. We're at your disposal."
"COMRADES!" Backoh yelled at the top of his lungs, "Stay facing forward! Any that get through will be our job back here! Good luck! Gods be with you!"
Under conditions like this, even atheists don't mind hearing that.
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