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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

July, Year 9 A.E April Year 10 A.E.

"Well, thank you. You really know how to complicate my work-both of you," Ian Arnstein muttered as Hollard and Hollard finished their reports. "Has your family got a tropism for picking up royalty, or what?"

The Islander officers looked slightly guilty. And I feel like I'm back in San Diego, raking some hapless student over the coals, he thought. Well, not really.

Doreen wrinkled her nose and looked at the odorous leather bag lying out by the entrance of the big tent. It no longer held the head of the Assyrian king; that was on a spear in front of King Shuriash's tent. The Islander mission had settled in, with something large enough to be called a pavilion for the leaders and their office staff; it had started life as a feature of high school sports days, and the locals found the bright-yellow nylon impressive as all get-out.

"That's not really fair, Ian," she said. "Ken didn't ask to find this Lost Princess, or Tukulti-Ninurta's head either. They just sort of turned up."

"Yeah." Kenneth Hollard ran his hand over his sandy hair, sun-streaked now after his pursuit up the Euphrates valley. "Look, I don't think she's just going to fade away, either, one way or another. Raupasha's that sort of girl, if you know what I mean."

Arnstein sighed his exasperation. "She's another complicating factor, is what she is-particularly now that the news has gotten out that there's a surviving member of the Mitannian royal family around. And believe me, we did not want another complicating factor at this point. It's put some fire in the belly of the Hurrians and what's left of their old aristocracy. More fire is not what that area needs. Everyone and his uncle has declared independence."

"Bad?"

"Bad. And the Aramaeans are burning, looting, running off stock, and generally having a grand old time. If something isn't done about it, the whole area will be trashed and the nomads will take it over by default, and oh, sit down, for God's sake. And the Babylonians are stretched thin as it is."

"The Assyrian field armies aren't a problem anymore, and we've got all the cities," Kathryn Hollard pointed out.

Doreen gave her a baleful look. "The flies have conquered the flypaper, " she quoted.

Ian amplified: "King Shuriash is enjoying himself, but he's also worried about getting overextended, and rightly so. He can't keep his levies under arms past fall; they're needed in the fields, and we can't do much about that for a couple of years. If his standing army and his nobles' retainers are tied up holding down Assyria, that leaves nothing for anything else. And the whole point of this exercise was to build up Babylon as a base for supporting the Hittites against Walker, you may remember. I said sit down, Colonel Hollard."

Hollard did; he still looked rumpled and stained from his long desert trek. "Yeah, well, talking of complicating factors, at least I'm not sleeping with Raupasha," he pointed out. "Christ, Kat. First it's whatshername-"

"Sin-ina-mati."

"Sin-ina-mati, and then this."

Kathryn's tanned face flushed. "Look, Colonel Hollard, sir, it isn't an Article Seven, so what the hell business is it of anyone but me and Kash?"

Doreen's eyebrows went up further. "Kash, Kat? Kash?"

"Hell, Doreen, it'd be sort of weird if I was still calling him Lord Prince of the House of Succession, wouldn't it?"

"Getting involved with a local, and the fucking crown prince, for Chrissake-" Hollard began.

Kathryn's voice rose. "I suppose beautiful-local-princess syndrome is supposed to be limited to men, Colonel, sir?"

Hollard opened his mouth, visibly reconsidered what he had been about to say, and went on, "Look, Kat, I'm not looking for a fight, okay?" After a moment she nodded. "It's just well, hell, his expectations are going to be different. This isn't the Island, you know. And yeah, there is a difference, in a what's the word"

"Patriarchal," Doreen supplied.

" patriarchal setup like this."

"I've noticed," Kathryn Hollard said dryly. "I've already turned down an offer to be the leading light of his harem."

Doreen stifled a chuckle. "How did he take it?"

"Offered to make me queen," she said. "Lady of the Land, if you want a literal translation."

Hollard shaped a silent whistle. Ian put an elbow on his desk and dropped his face into his hand. "Oh, and won't that put the cat among the pigeons-don't you realize that involves the succession to the throne, here?"

Kathryn snorted. "I turned that down, too, of course," she said briskly. Her face softened for a moment. "Though I must admit, I hated to do it, he was trying really hard I did come back with a counteroffer."

"What?" Ian asked.

"Well, I said that if he'd make me queen, co-ruler, and general of his armies, and guarantee the succession to any children we had, and have them educated Islander-style, and a bunch of other stuff, I'd seriously consider it. That floored him."

Ian cleared his throat. "So you're breaking it off?"

Kathryn looked up, her blue eyes narrowing. "No, I am not, Councilor." She gestured helplessly. "I really like the guy, you see. It's not just that he's gorgeous and has enough animal magnetism to power a steamboat. He's also smart, and has a sense of humor, and and it's mutual. We've agreed to see how things turn out."

Jesus, Ian whimpered to himself. Heavily: "Major Hollard, you're a free citizen of Nantucket."

She winced at that; she was also an officer of the Republic's armed forces, and a highly placed one at that. Rights came balanced with obligations.

Ian looked out the turned-back flaps of the tent, past the sentries and the ordered buff-colored tent town of the Marine camp. The Emancipator was circling over the city of Asshur, looking fairly large even at this distance. As he watched, a string of black dots tumbled away beneath it and the dirigible bounced upward as the weight left it. The bombs fell on their long, arching trajectories, and columns of black gouted upward. He could smell the smoke of burning from here; the gunboats on the Tigris were keeping the defenders limited to what water they could draw from wells and cisterns inside the battered walls, leaving little for fighting the blazes.

"King Shuriash has a whole bunch of delegations from the principal cities and tribes and whatnot of Assyria here under safe conduct," he said, changing the subject slightly. "We're running a bluff. If we can convince them that they have to give up, they will and that'll get us out of a very deep hole. If anyone can pull it off here, Shuriash can."

"If," Doreen said. "The Assyrians are pigs, but they're stubborn, too."

"Speak of the devil," Hollard said, as trumpets sounded from the direction of the camp gate.

"Oh, he's not a bad sort of cunning old devil," Doreen said. "I'm going to go interview our Flower of the Desert, okay?"

"Bless you, Doreen," Ian said. "Get me as complete a report as you can, soonest."

The huge-voiced herald began bellowing Shagarakti-Shuriash's titles as the chariots approached. The king sprang to the ground, waved a fly whisk in answer to the sentries' present-arms, and came grinning into the main chamber in a blaze of embroidery, civet-cat musk, and glittering gold applique. Prince Kashtiliash followed him, looking as subdued as his eagle features were capable of, and a trail of generals, priests, and officials followed. A brace of Assyrians came after them, richly dressed in long gowns and tasseled wraparound upper garments, but with rope halters around their necks in symbol of submission.

The Islander officers rose and saluted smartly; Ian came to his feet and bowed.

"Marduk and Ninurta and the great gods my masters have blessed our arms," Shuriash said, grinning like a wolf. "The great men of Asshur-the turtanu, the rab shaqe, the nagir ekalli, even the sukallu dannu-have come to see that the gods have given victory to the men of Kar-Duniash."

Commander in chief, chief cupbearer, palace herald, and great chancellor, Ian thought, impressed behind an impassive face.

"I have brought them here that you, our ally, may take their surrender as well-"

"Your pardon, O King," Ian said. "Your city of Asshur is getting damaged unnecessarily, then." He ducked through to the communications room. "Call off the bombing!"

"Strange," Raupasha said.

She put the cup of date wine before Doreen before she went to stand in the doorway of her tent and look down on the smoldering city of Asshur. The Mitannian's eyes were red, as if she had wept privately, but she kept an iron calm before the stranger.

"What is strange?" Doreen replied slowly; they were speaking Akkadian-not the native language of either-and having a little mutual trouble with each other's accents.

"That all my life I have dreamed of seeing Asshur laid waste and now that I see it, it brings me less joy than I had awaited."

Growing up, Doreen thought.

From what she'd been able to gather, Raupasha had been raised in a little out-of-the-way hamlet, on tales of vanished glory from her foster parents. Well educated, by local standards; she could read and write in the cuneiform system, and spoke four languages-her native Hurrian, Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic-and a bit of what seemed to be a very archaic form of Sanskrit. Ian's scholarly ears had pricked up at that. He was working on a history of the Indo-European languages in his spare time. He would be working even harder on it if there were some way of publishing in the vanished world uptime. Not many people on the Island were interested.

"Of course, I never dreamed that wizard-folk from beyond the world would bring Asshur to its knees," Raupasha said. "I am forever grateful to you People of the Eagle, and to the hero-warrior Kenneth-Hollard- until I saw his face, I expected to die for killing the Assyrian pig. I was willing, yes; I had made my peace with it. But it is hard to die and know that your family's blood dies with you."

"I hope you've been treated well," Doreen said cautiously. Golly, you've got to be careful with locals. Especially an unfamiliar breed. Got to remember they're as different from each other as they are from us.

Raupasha crossed to a canvas folding chair, walking with a dancer's stride as the hem of the long embroidered robe someone had dug up for her flared around her ankles. She sat, cat-graceful, and curled her feet up beneath her.

"Very well, thank you," she replied. "Lord Kenn'et treated me as his own kinswoman-not what I expected, traveling alone among foreign soldiers. They brought as much as possible from my home, so I have some little store of goods here."

She gestured toward a bowl on a table, an elegant burnished shape of black ceramic, and her full red lips moved in a wry grimace.

Good thing Ken's a gentleman, Doreen thought. That's quite a mantrap. Reminds me of Madonna, after she got the personal trainer.

Raupasha went on: "So I have a dowry, of sorts. I may marry some tradesman of Kar-Duniash, I suppose, since I am still virgin although I have no living kin."

Poor kid, Doreen thought. Doing the stiff-upper-lip bit, but she's hurting. The local value system meant she had to want to avenge her blood first and foremost, but the foster parents were the ones who'd raised her, and they'd been killed in front of her eyes. At some level she had to blame herself for that, fair or not.

"Well, you're under the Republic's protection," Doreen said. Ian might not have wanted Ken to offer it, but it's irrevocable. "We could find you something different."

"Perhaps carrying one of your rifles, are they called?" A chuckle. "My people are warriors, but that is something I hadn't considered."

Her eyes went unfocused for a moment and she chanted softly. It was definitely poetry, not rhyming but alliterative. Doreen's ears pricked up; her mother had been Lithuanian, and she'd found that extremely conservative Baltic tongue helpful in learning the languages of the Iraiina and the other charioteer tribes in Alba in this millennium. This language had a haunting familiarity from both.

" 'Our family of warriors'?" she said.

Raupasha's head came up. "In Akkadian it would be" She paused for a second, her lips moving silently. "As nearly as I can put it-"

Our race of heroes though they be Maruts

Is ever victorious in reaping of men

Swift their passage in brightness the brightest

Equal in beauty, unequaled in might.

She shrugged. "That is in the old tongue, though, the ariamannu. Even in the great days of Mitanni few spoke it. My foster father" Her voice choked off for an instant, and she drew a deep breath. "My foster father brought a few things written in it from Washshukanni, our capital."

Ian will be in historian's seventh heaven, until we get him back to practical matters, Doreen thought. Perhaps someday he'd have the opportunity to trace the migrations that brought Raupasha's ancestors from the steppes of Kazakhstan to be kings among the Hurrians at the headwaters of the Khabur. Speaking of which

"We're actually rather concerned about the Rivers district," Doreen said.

"Now it is free of the yoke of Asshur," Raupasha said, nodding toward the flap of the tent with grim pleasure.

"Well, yes, but Chaos is king there right now. And we need the area secured. Has anyone told you about William Walker?"

"The rebel against your ruler? Yes, a little. He seems a dangerous man."

"That's far too mild. He makes the Assyrians look like like little lambs. He's not all that far away, either."

The Mitannian nodded. "On the other side of the Hittite realm, yes," she said. "Lord Kenn'et told me. And his way will be made easier, now that the Hittites are at war among themselves."

She rang a small bell, and a maidservant-probably hired locally from among the Assyrian refugees-brought in a tray with bread, cheese, and dried fruits, and the local grape wine plus a carafe of water. Raupasha poured and mixed herself, before she noticed Doreen's wide eyes.

"You did not know?" she said. "Ah, well, in the northwest we had more traffic from Hatti-land. Yes, the lord Kurunta of Tarhuntassa has thrown off allegiance to Great King Tudhaliya in Hattusas."

Oh, Jesus, Doreen thought. She frantically skimmed through the reference material in her mind.

Tudhaliya's supposed to reign for another thirty years-that was well attested. Kurunta, Kurunta wait, that was one of Tudhaliya's supporters-there was that treaty between them. Wait a minute. Tarhuntassa is southwest of Hattusas, about where Konya would be in Turkey in the twentieth, that's nearer to the coast and the Greeks, and by now Walker must have made some substantial waves in that area, upsetting trade patterns if nothing else, maybe mixing in the politics, so-

"Oh, shit" she muttered.

They'd known that eventually events here would stop following the history books. Not only deliberate interventions, but butterfly-wing chaotic stuff; a glass jug would get traded hand to hand from Denmark to Poland and someone wouldn't be born because Dad was swilling mead out of his new possession instead of doing the reproductive thing at the precise scheduled moment. It looked like that had happened here even if Walker hadn't deliberately set out to split the Hittite realm. So now they'd lost another edge-the books were vague and full of gaps this far back, and sometimes just plain wrong, but they'd been a great help nonetheless.

With a wrenching effort she pulled her mind back to the matters at hand. I'll tell Ian when he's through with King Shuriash for today, and we'll go over it. Meanwhile, the northwest is more important than ever.

"Thank you," she went on. "That's very important news. And we'd like your opinions on what to do about your homeland."

"Mitanni?" Raupasha said. "Will the king of Kar-Duniash, your ally, not add it to his domains along with the rest of Asshur's realm?"

"Well, yes, but it's a matter of how. Garrisoning Assyria will be hard enough, even with our help. The Naharim, the Rivers, it's further away but right on the road to the Hittites. We need to get it pacified, and ideally we'd like it to contribute troops and supplies for the war against Walker"

Raupasha brightened. "You ask me, a girl?" she said.

"Raupasha, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm a girl," Doreen said. "We People of the Eagle don't think that a woman is necessarily less than a man. And you are of the old Mitannian royal family."

"A fallen house, and myself a fugitive in hiding all my life."

"But you must have had contacts-men who visited your foster father."

A long silence. Then: "I owe you a great debt. What I know, I will tell. Some did visit; not every mariannu family was slain or deported by the Assyrians-and of those who were led away captive to Asshur, some will wish to return."

"Good," Doreen said. "We have a saying: 'Knowledge is power.' "

"Ludlul bel nemeqi."

The voice of the priest rose in a chant, as the ashipu prepared his powders and bits of bone. Clemens found himself translating automatically:

Let me praise the Lord of Wisdom

For a demon has put on my body for a garment;

Like a net, sleep has swooped down upon me.

My eyes are open but do not see;

My ears are open but do not hear;

Numbness has overcome my entire body

The Islander doctor grimaced at the thick smell of the Babylonian equivalent of hospital tents, the stink of the liquid feces that soaked the ground under most of the men lying in rows in the scanty shade. Flies buzzed, clustering thickly on the filth, and on eyes and mouths. And carrying the bacteria, whatever it is, to the food and water of everyone else. Stretcher bearers carried bodies away, ragged men willing to incur the pollution of touching a corpse for the sake of a bowl of barley gruel. The priest continued his chant:

My limbs are splayed and lie awry.

I spent the nights on my litter like an ox,

I wallowed in my excrement like a sheep

The exorcist shied away from my symptoms.

And the haruspex confused my omens.

Then he broke off, seeing the American watching him; then his eyes went wide at the sight of Prince Kashtiliash, and he made a prostration. His duck of the head to Clemens after he rose was no more than barely polite.

"Honored guest," he said coldly when he had arisen. His eyes traveled to Azzu-ena beside him; she was still in Babylonian dress. "Although this is scarcely the place to bring a harlot."

"This is my assistant," Clemens said, his voice equally chill. It was a natural enough assumption for a local to make of a woman unescorted in a war camp. Natural enough once. "Azzu-ena daughter of Mutu-Hadki, asu of the king's household. We have come to see the men I set aside yesterday. The prince comes with me."

"I see." The priest's eyes were dark pools of bitterness. "It is not well that men should be denied care. But come; the king's word cannot be denied."

A dozen men had been laid off in one corner of the enclosure; Clemens had had a couple of Marines stationed there, along with the local orderlies he'd trained, to see that his instructions weren't disregarded as soon as he was out of sight. There were ten sick men there now.

"The other two?"

"Dead," the priest replied. "As might be expected, with the demons of their fevers allowed to rage unchecked."

An orderly lifted one of the men with an arm under his shoulders, keeping a glass at his lips until he had swallowed all of its contents; then he made a check mark beside a name on a list and went on to the next.

Clemens nodded. "And the twelve treated according to your custom?" he asked.

The priest shrugged. "The demons are strong. Seven have died, and the others weaken."

"Yes," Clemens said. "Of the twelve treated according to our rites ten live. Of those treated by yours, five live. In another day, these ten will be alive. How many of yours?"

The priest made as if to spit on the ground. "That means nothing! The demons-"

"The fever demons seem to fear our rituals more than your gods," Clemens said.

"Blasphemer!" the priest began.

Kashtiliash cut in: "Silence!"

The priest bowed his head. "I am more taken with deeds than words," the heir said bluntly. "A man who shits himself to death is as much lost to my host as a man with a spear through his belly. If you will not listen, another will. Go, and think on this."

To Clemens: "You spoke the truth, and you have shown it by your deeds. The decree shall be prepared."

Clemens and Azzu-ena bowed as Kashtiliash and his guardsmen left. When they had gone, she spoke.

"What causes this disease?" she said. The corpsmen lifted another man off his fouled pallet and replaced it with a fresh stretch of woven straw, cleaning him gently. "More of the bacteria!"

"Yes," he said. "But the actual cause of death is lack of water; too much runs out with the diarrhea and takes with it salts from the body."

"As if a man were to sweat in the sun of summer and not drink," Azzu-ena said thoughtfully. "Yes, that will bring on the fever and delirium, as well. Such a man will die."

"Very good!" Clemens said.

"So," she said, "the cure is to drink much water?"

"It isn't a cure," Clemens replied. "But it keeps him alive until his body can kill the agent of the disease naturally and then heal itself. It must be pure water-boiled or distilled-with salt and honey or sugar"-Akkadian had no word for that-"in certain exact proportions. These replace what the body has lost. We don't have enough antibiotics to treat so many men, but this will work. Especially if the treatment begins before the disease takes strong hold."

Azzu-ena nodded, her big-nosed face somber, hands folded in the sleeves of her robe. "From bad water?" she said softly. "That explains much; why you Nantukhtar so hate the touch of excrement It was so my father died."

"Ah I'm sorry."

She shook her head. "That does not matter. What matters is how we may treat these others." A toss of her head indicated the field of groaning victims. "The priest of Innana will not aid you, even if the prince commands-not willingly, and not quickly, and he will injure you by stealth if he may. I see it in his eyes."

"Right," Clemens said, frustration in his tone. He ran a hand through his short brown hair. "I don't know what the hell I'm going to do. There aren't enough medics or corpsmen with the regiment, or with the whole expedition. And I can't train them that fast"

"You can train them for this one thing," Azzu-ena said, nodding her head toward the fire, where a huge pot of water boiled. "You cannot train them to care for the sick as well as you-we-would, but that is not essential here, no?"

"No," Clemens said. "What we need to do is stop this epidemic before it melts the army of Kar-Duniash like snow in Babylon."

"Then make up the medicine-water before, and have them boil it. Boiling water is not difficult. For the rest, nursing is what is required, no? Washing the men, keeping away flies" She frowned. "For that, I think you should recruit among the women who follow the camp. They do much of the washing and repairing of clothing already."

Bright lady, Clemens thought. Very bright.

There were those, back on the Island, who said that it would have been better for the locals if Nantucket had stayed isolated, that every action would change the people whose lives they touched, and in ways beyond prediction or control.

"Yes, it will," Clemens murmured. "And I don't mind that at all."

Ranger Peter Girenas watched the sky, folding his arms behind his head and smiling at the clouds. The expedition was in what the maps said was central Missouri, but this place had never been mapped. He rested his head on a natural pillow of dropseed, the clump-grass that grows in the middle of the long swales of the tallgrass country. The grasses rustled and closed over his head, and he might have been alone save for Sue Chau sitting at his feet-looking, he thought, as pretty as the wildflowers as she sat in only her deerskin breechclout, combing her long black hair and chewing on a straw.

The dropseed beneath him was springy and firm, the intervals between the hassocks heavily matted with dried grass to make a perfect hammock. The soil beneath that was prairie loam that was like nothing he'd ever seen before-no clods or sticks or stones at all. He slitted his eyes and enjoyed the feel of the wind caressing his sweaty skin. A day like this, you could remember the crossing of the Ohio- the horse screaming as the raft overset, and the white water trying to topple it-without fear. Or the time they'd nearly lost Eddie to a cottonmouth bite, his body swelling, his mind raving, the two-week hiatus when they stopped to nurse him.

Long ago, now; it seemed long ago and far away. Now he could smell elk strips smoking over a slow green fire and the liver roasting for dinner. He saw dragonflies darting off below to the slough, a squadron of monarch butterflies flitting above the tall grass; he could hear a bobolink's bubbling song as it hung in the air twenty feet up, until that red-winged hawk silenced it by floating past far overhead. But the hawk was too high to be hunting, and too late to be migrating.

"Soaringjustforthe hell of it," Pete said. "He doesn't fool me. He looks busy, but he's loafing today, just like us."

High above the hawk were steady ranks of clouds, coasting on the westerly winds, dragging a shadow across the earth every now and then. He stood, only his head and shoulders above the grass, and watched the shadow cross the huge, rolling landscape, the grass rippling beneath it like waves on the sea.

Even more than the sea, he thought. It took some wind to move the sea, but the tall grasses bowed and moved to the slightest breath of it, out to the edge of sight. They were on a slight rise, well into the lowlands that stretched out to the line of cottonwoods and poplar along the levees of the Missouri River. From here he could see half a dozen other hawks, and a herd of buffalo along the edge of the woods, birds misting up from the water far away like black smoke

I love the forest, he thought. He did-the endless silences of it, the multitudinous life from rotting log to forest crown. But this, it feels like there's no end to the world.

The others were not far away, lying around a tree-a fire-gnarled oak-that had rooted itself where the ground rose a little more steeply. That had provided the firewood they needed to smoke the elk meat and cook dinner-elk-hump steaks, liver, kidneys, marrow and wild greens. Henry Morris had had to bully some of the others to eat enough organ meat, saying it was the only way to get all their vitamins when there was little green food.

The fire was built on pieces of overturned knife-cut sod; the rest of their gear rested under groundsheets or was stacked against the tree. Hobbled, the horses drifted and grazed-this was certainly horse heaven, although now and then one of their three stallions would throw up its head and snort, at one of its own kind or at a scent of predator drifting down the wind. Mostly they hung around with their own group of packhorse mares, most of which were pregnant by now-Alban ponies were tough enough to take that sort of treatment. Perks lay growling softly in pleasure as he gnawed at a gristly lump of elk shoulder, while the expedition's other dogs kept a decent, deferential distance.

"Not going to be this nice come winter," Sue said behind him.

He chuckled. "Well, we're making reasonable time," he said. "It isn't a race. If we have to find a place to winter over, we will."

Dekkomosu came in out of the grasses, hand in hand with Jaditwara the Fiernan. He was grinned broadly at Pete and began to say something-he' d gotten more cheerful as they got further from home- when his face went quiet.

"What's that?" he said, pointing.

Damn good eyes, Girenas thought, unslinging his binoculars from the stub branch where the case hung on. It was just townie myth that Indians had better vision; they did tend to notice more of what they saw than a townie, but then, living in town you had to pull in your senses or go nuts.

"Damn," he said softly. Everyone was up now, looking along with him. "Well, I guess we know where those bodies were coming from."

The last two weeks, they'd seen five-hard to be absolutely sure, since the parts were so scattered. In the binoculars he saw the end of a chase that had probably started a good long time ago. A group of women and children, thirty or so, broke out of a line of trees and ran upward into the grass. Behind them were men, ten or so if you counted teenagers. They wore leggings and tunics; he could see quill decorations, and bones and feathers woven into long braids. They carried spears, or darts set into atlatls, and they walked backward in a wide arc between their women and children and whatever was pursuing them.

Then a dart arced out toward them, and faint and far came a yelping like wolves. The men who boiled out of the riverside thickets in pursuit were thirty or more, all in their prime. Their naked torsos were painted with bars and circles of yellow and red, their hair drawn up in topknots through hide rings, their faces covered with more slashes of color.

The Islanders looked at each other. "We'd better decide pretty quick," Girenas said.

"Hell, doesn't look like a fair fight," Eddie said.

Well, I know what Eddie's thinking. He wants to get laid and none of the girls will oblige right now, and he figures some of those tribes-women will be grateful. Plus he likes to fight.

Morris hesitated. "We don't know the rights or wrongs of it," he said.

Henry doesn't like to make a decision without thinking it over for a week. And he's no coward, but he hates to kill-more than the rest of us, that is.

"I know the wrongs of doing what they did to that kid we found," Sue said. "He couldn't have been more than eight or nine, and he probably lived for days after they left him like that."

Good point, Sue, Pete Girenas thought and nodded. "If it happens, it happens," he said. "If it happens where I can do something about it, it's my business. I say we go run those guys off. Any objections?"

Dekkomosu shrugged. "Shouldn't be too hard," he said.

"Mount up, then."

Their riding horses were well enough trained to come to the call by now. Girenas paused long enough to tie his hair back and pull on buckskin trousers, as well as snatch up his rifle, powder horn, and a bandolier.

"Jaditwara, you look after the camp," he said, and then vaulted into the saddle. "The rest of you, spread out and look lively."

The five of them went down the slope at a canter; he noticed out of the corner of his eye that Morris had snatched up bow and quiver instead of his rifle. God damn, he thought. Granted, Morris was actually pretty good with the thing, but it still wasn't a Westley-Richards. No time for arguments now.

The deadly game below had come near to its end; the hunters stalked through the high grass in bands, the better to swarm over a single enemy. The screaming alerted the Nantucketers to one such; two of the painted men with topknots were holding down a third of the braids-and-feathers people, sawing at bits of him with flint knives.

"Dekkomosu," Girenas said. "You and me."

The two victors heard that and the thud of hooves; they wheeled around. One snatched for the stone-headed hatchet in his belt and nearly had it out before the bullet punched into his chest. He went back on his heels and fell beside his victim, their blood mingling on the thick sod. The other turned and ran; Dekkomosu thumped heels against his horse, riding close before he dropped reins on its neck, sighted carefully, and fired.

Crack. The tall grass swayed back and mercifully hid what fell to the ground.

"Let's go!" Girenas heeled his mount; the Islanders galloped upslope, where the last few of the braids-and-feathers men had been desperately fighting off their attackers.

Everyone froze at the crack of the rifles, and faces went slack with fear at the sight of creatures like giant deer, with humans growing out of their backs. Girenas pushed his horse forward, separating the combatants, then wheeled to face the topknot-and-paint men. They gave back before the line of five horses, snarling. One suddenly pointed and spoke in some fast-rising, slow-falling language while the two Islanders loaded and primed and pulled back the hammers of their rifles.

"Think he figured out we're not part of the horses," Girenas said. He raised his rifle and squeezed his knees. His well-trained horse froze. "Now, if I crease his topknot, that'll scare 'em. And if I blow his brains out, that'll scare 'em too."

Before he could squeeze the trigger, Henry Morris stood in the stirrups, drew his horn-backed bow to the ear and shot. The arrow landed at the talkative warrior's feet, with a shunk sound as it buried half its length in the soft prairie soil.

Another frozen silence; Girenas chanced a look over his shoulder, and saw the five remaining men and boys staring at him, or just panting and letting sweat and the blood of their wounds run down their bodies.

He turned back; the talkative one had pulled the arrow out of the ground, tested the steel head on his thumb. He spoke again. An arrow was a lot more like an atlatl dart than a bullet was. Goddammit, Henry, that was a bad idea.

"They're going to rush us," Girenas said flatly, aloud.

The talkative warrior turned half away, as if to give the expedition's leader the lie, then whirled. The hatchet left his hand, whirred through the air, struck Morris's horse on the nose. The beast whinnied in shrill pain, put its head down, and bucked. The tall redhead went flying with a startled yell, and the topknot men attacked.

"Goddammit, Henry!" Girenas shouted. It seemed an appropriate war cry for this particular fight.

He shot, and the warrior folded around his gut with an ooooffp. Girenas ignored him, since he wouldn't be getting up again. Another one was running forward to spear Morris on the ground, and there was no time to reload. Pete's horse bounded forward-it was half quarter horse and had great acceleration-and he threw himself out of the saddle, landing between the spearman's shoulder blades. The impact knocked the breath out of both of them, but the Islander was expecting ft. He came up first, slammed the edge of his hand into the back of the Indian's neck, grabbed chin and hair and twisted hard. There was a green-stick crack, and the man went limp.

Girenas rose, whipped out his bowie, and looked around. The fight was over; the topknot warriors were running-the twenty or so left alive-with the three mounted Islanders after them. Puffs of smoke rose from their rifles, and now and then a man would go down. Girenas nodded, his breathing slowing, the diamond focus of combat opening out. They couldn't afford to have the topknot people dogging their tracks in blood-feud mode. Good hunters could outrun horses, over days or weeks.

He sheathed the knife, found his rifle and loaded, and whistled up his horse, all the time looking at the braids-and-feathers warriors. There were five left on their feet: two men in their prime, an older one with a wrinkled face and white threads in his black hair-call him forty or so-and a teenager. The women and children were still up on the rise, but beginning to talk. The men laid down their weapons and held up their hands toward the Islander; Girenas nodded, made as many as he could remember of the peace gestures-quite different- of the tribes they'd met, and moved to his injured comrade.

Morris was semiconscious, stirring and moaning a little. Girenas knelt by his side and opened one eye, then the other. Mild concussion, he thought. The leg wasn't ripped or bleeding, but Morris stirred and screamed as the ranger's strong hands manipulated it. Oh, great, our doctor's injured.

Awareness returned to the green eyes. "You with us, Henry?" Girenas asked.

"S-s-sure. Ah, Christ."

"That arrow was a bad idea, Henry."

"Yeah Jesus, my leg!"

"Broken."

The older man slowly, cautiously felt it himself. "I'll say," he said. "Two places. Should heal if it's splinted. Look, Pete, I'm sorry; I screwed up. You've got a better sense of these things than I do. Won't happen again."

"Okay, man, no problem," Girenas said, his anger guttering away. "What about the leg?"

"It'll heal." Morris hesitated. "I'm afraid it's going to take a while, multiple fracture like this."

"How long?"

"Ah two months. Possibly three. Of course, I could die," he went on, avoiding Girenas's eyes.

The ranger came to his feet, snorting disgust. The others rode back,

Sue quiet, Dekkomosu impassive, Eddie Vergeraxsson whooping and waving a couple of bloody scalps.

Girenas winced. Not many Indians in this era took scalps, but the Sun People tribes did. The locals were looking impressed and horrified, in various degrees.

"How's Henry?" Sue Chau asked anxiously. "I'll go rig a travois so we can get him back to the camp and the aid kit but how is he?"

Girenas sighed. The travois ride would hurt like hell, which was just what Henry deserved.

"How is he?" he asked, looking around. True, it was a pretty spot. "Let's put it this way. We've found the place we're going to winter, I think."


CHAPTER SIXTEEN | Against the Tide of Years | CHAPTER EIGHTEEN







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