Nathan, my old friend, insisted that he come with me when I left my daughter Gloria and her new husband. I think he knew that with my people gone, my holding destroyed, and my daughter married, there was nothing here left for me. A warrior and a warlord can't just fade away and still remain true to themselves, and there is no honor in taking your own life through the sharpness of a blade or the dullness of drink. Better to die fighting, or even freezing on a mountain pass or starving in an empty desert than for an old warlord to fade away in the holding of another man.
So we left, the two of us, to seek adventure, to seek out an honorable death.
The road we traveled followed a large river. Before we left, Teacher drew us a map of the course we should take that would send us through a place called the Gorge. We spent two weeks making our way through the place while our horses tried to pick out the road that Teacher said should be there, all the while wind blasted against us and howled in the trees.
After days of struggle, the land opened up below us into a gently sloping valley that spread in great rolling hills to the east. Small stands of trees dotted the valleys where there was the promise of water.
"This is good land," Nathan said. "I wonder if people lived here before the dying."
I coughed and sneezed, then answered, "Hard to say. Doesn't much look like it though."
He nodded. "Lots of open land and no scars left from a broken down city."
I coughed again, and felt the tightness, like a fist, deep in my chest.
He peered at me then and said, "How are you feeling today?"
"Better a little," I lied. I had slipped and fallen down a shallow ravine two days before and landed in a pool of ice cold water that caused a chill to set on me. My breath rattled in my chest, and my head pounded in my temples and behind my eyes.
Nathan nodded, and then led us down to a small stand of fir trees.
"We'll stop here to rest, and gather some strength." Nathan said.
While he unloaded the horses I started a small fire and then huddled myself next to it. Nathan disappeared into the trees, and returned carrying a large armful of wood for the fire.
"Sir, I'll be back in a few hours. We need food, and you need rest."
I could barely nod my head back at him. He stood there for a moment, added some more wood to the fire, and then walked back into the trees.
The hours passed, and the pounding in my head began to affect my vision. I could still see the fire, but everything else was a silvery, shimmering mystery. I raised myself up long enough to carefully add wood to the fire now and then, and then flopped back down where I shivered so hard my teeth rattled.
I expected Nathan back before the sun set, but he didn't come. I wasn't completely sure if the sun had really set or not because my eyes were growing so dim, so I stayed where I was, patiently adding bits of wood to the fire, and then there was no wood left, and I fell asleep, cold and shivering on the ground.
My dreams were brief, and filled with violence. I saw the faces of my dead children crowding around me calling my name and crying out in fear. Then they were all gone and there was nothing but a wide open plain, as flat as anything I had ever seen with a dark, muddy sky overhead. I walked onward, in my dream, searching for something, but I couldn't remember what it was, and all around me was the nothingness of the empty plain.
I woke slowly, my bones stiff and aching. The fire beside me was dead, and Nathan wasn't anywhere nearby, but my vision was clear, and the throbbing in my head was nearly gone. I still felt pressure in my chest, but nothing like it had been. I felt really pretty good considering that I thought I might die the night before.
I pushed myself up off the ground, hobbled over to the horses, and dug in a pouch for some jerky. It was heading toward late morning, and the sun was warm on my back when it peeked itself out from among the clouds, and I started to worry about Nathan.
I remembered him walking into the trees to look for food, but I had no memory of him since then.
I walked over to the trees and quickly found his footprints. The trees grew close together with only light undergrowth at their feet. I stood there considering them for a moment, wondering if I should head in and search for him or if I should stay put and wait for him to return. I pursed my lips in thought, and just as I was about to turn back to the horses I heard the single report of a gunshot far off through the trees. I froze then and waited, listening for another shot, but none came.
Nathan and I both carried guns with us that we took from our fight with Davidson holding. We each carried a pistol and a rifle with a reasonable amount of bullets for each, and while they may have been handy for hunting food, we had determined that they were too precious and rare a thing to be used up by lazy hunting. We would hunt for food with our bows and save our bullets for killing people when it was needful.
Nathan may have used his gun because he thought I was sick and dying, but I doubted it. He was an excellent hunter with his bow, and the land around us had an abundance of game.
No, the sound of the gun told a different story. Nathan was either dead now, or he had just killed someone.
I jogged back to the horses, gathered up our gear, and guided the horses into the trees following Nathan's tracks as closely as I was able. The stand of trees was large, but it only took me an hour or so to make my way through it, and once I was out in the open again, I would have lost Nathan's tracks in the grass, but there was not need any longer to follow them.
I stood on a hill overlooking a small holding that roiled with activity. It had log walls thrown up around a cluster of houses, two of which were on fire, belching out thick black smoke. Around the holding, wherever I looked, I could see movement. Cattle were being driven away from the holding in one direction, horses were heading another, and I could see the little dots of men running back and forth, but I was unable to judge their intent.
Teacher always said, "Fools rush in." and I believe her. Something was happening around the holding below me, and I had no doubt that Nathan was involved somehow, but if I rode down there at top speed with my guns blazing, I very well might end up shooting the people on the wrong side. I decided not to announce myself, but I would keep myself hidden and find out a little more about what was happening down there.
I left the horses hidden in the trees, and crawled my way through the grass toward the holding. As I made my way there, a third building began to burn, and I heard another gunshot. Whatever was happening, someone was sure to be unhappy about it.
About half way down, I ran into a small gulley than headed down toward the holding. Once down into it, I was able to get up to a low crouch and jog forward. I kept myself alert, stopping every few feet to listen and watch for people, but I didn't meet anyone until I was almost all the way down the hill. The gulley bottom was soft, muddy in places, and had a few shallow pools in the more level places. It was at one of these pools that I found a wounded girl, naked and covered in blood, lying half way in the water.
I crouched over her, ready to help, but saw there was no need. Her neck had a rope tied around it, and under the knot of the rope, her throat had been cut with a knife. She was all used up in the most horrible fashion; raped, beaten, tortured, then killed. The person or people who did this to her deserved to have their life removed, and I raged against them remembering the blank, unseeing eyes of my own dead family. She looked to be about Gloria's age but without the benefit of Gloria's lanky, muscular body. This girl was soft and had once been very pretty. Now she was dead.
I crawled up to the edge of the gulley, ready for war. I was facing the back of the holding. Its walls showed a blank, gateless face, without openings of any kind. I slowly worked my way around it to the front just in time to see a large party of soldiers marching away down a dusty road. I appeared to be too late.
On either side of the gate there was a long line of wooden crosses with people hanging from them. I waited for the army to march away, and then I crept up to the nearest body hanging on the cross. The man was old, maybe sixty, and he had a stab wound in his shoulder that coated most of his body with blood. He was attached to the cross with spikes through his wrists and feet, and he looked to have died in complete agony.
I saluted him, and was about to follow the soldiers to kill as many of them as I could, when I heard a soft call for help. I ran down the line and quickly found that not all of the people were dead.
"Help me, please," gasped the first man I came to. He was skinny, but strong, with corded muscles that writhed as he tried to push himself up to catch his breath.
I was at a loss. I had a sword, but that wouldn't chop down the post he was attached to, and even if I did chop it down, the fall would probably kill him. I had to find a ladder or something similar to climb up to the man.
"I'll be right back!" I promised him and ran for the gates. Upon entering the holding, a scene of utter devastation met my gaze. There were bodies and parts of bodies scattered around the central courtyard. In the middle someone had built a bonfire where they had roasted and possibly eaten what appeared to be another girl. I felt bile rising in my throat, and the fire of anger and disgust burning in me. I growled in anger, and then, to myself, I said, "Save the living first."
I spotted what I needed almost right away. A ladder was thrown down at the entrance, and a coil of rope was slightly behind it. I gathered them up and ran back outside.
I found the poor man I had promised to return to dead, but I was able to recover five that appeared as if they might survive. They were all of a similar build; strong, but not overly bulky. They had a light, lanky strength that allowed them to survive on the cross where the others had died.
None of them were fit to travel or fight because of the wounds in their wrists and feet. I doctored them as I could but they would need time before they were able to even stand again.
I asked them what had happened.
"We don't know who they are. They just appeared yesterday morning and started attacking us. We were able to close the gates before the main body of them was in, but enough were already inside that they drew all of our attention, and the others used ropes to climb the walls. Our warlord was killed, and we surrendered, or at least we tried to. When we threw down our weapons, their soldiers still went on killing us for a while. Then they herded us to one side of the courtyard, put a guard on us, and then went through the rest of the holding gathering up our wives and daughters. The bastards made us watch while they raped, killed, and even ate them for dinner."
The man sobbed then, and covered his face with his mangled hands.
Another picked up the story saying, "Just as they were at the height of their awful party, a man came out of nowhere and started blasting away at them with some kind of weapon like I've never seen before. It made a huge bang and shot out fire, and just knocked the soldiers over. He must have killed a dozen or so before they stuck him with an arrow then piled on top of him. I've never seen anything like it. One man took down a dozen in just a few seconds."
I leaned forward then, intent on the man, "Did they kill him? Was the man dead?"
"No, they tied him up and threw him on a cart. They sure were happy about that weapon the man had though. It took them a bit to learn how to use it, and then they shot my friend Carl with it, just to see if it worked. Carl's dead."
I held up my rifle. "Did the weapon look like this?"
His eyes got wide, and a smile began to form on his face. "Well, yes sir, it did!"
I smiled back. "Well, men," I said, "If you think you can survive without me, I think I'll go ahead and follow behind that little army that did this to you and took my friend, and see what I can do about handing out some revenge."
They cheered the most pathetic cheer I had ever heard in my life. I handed out two of my knives to those that were the most able, retrieved the horses from the top of the hill, and followed my enemy down the dusty track I watched them march away on only a few hours before.
I caught up with them quick enough, but stayed back to watch them before I let them know I was here. They marched straight forward without a rear guard, and without any stealth. If I had one of the mortars from Davidson holding and if I didn't have a friend in their midst, I could have wiped out the whole troop of them in just a few shots. There were about a hundred men, fifty in front, then a couple wagons, and fifty behind.
The effective range of my rifle wasn't very far, and I am no master at it. I am much more skilled with a sword or a bow, where only my daughter Gloria can best me. I would need to place myself close to the enemy, at the same time as keeping a nice clear path for retreat or for escaping to a hiding place. I led the horses off the road, out and then around a stand of trees, racing ahead at as fast as the horses could go to loop around and reach the other side before they did.
I made it with only a few minutes to spare. I climbed a tree, and while hiding in the branches, I watched them pass below me. Most of the soldiers were armed with clubs or with bows. There were only a few that had swords or who wore amour. The leadership appeared to be with the wagons grouped in the middle. One man that was being carried on some kind of a fancy chair was holding Nathan's rifle, and then in a cart and the end I saw Nathan himself. His chest was all wrapped up in bandages, and I could tell that while he was awake, he was in enough pain that he didn't want to be.
I hooted out in the call of one of the small night owls that once lived near our home. He jerked, and turned his head toward me, but gave no other sign that he heard my signal.
Once they were all passed, I climbed on Nathan's horse and galloped out and around the next group of trees. I was fifteen or twenty minutes ahead of them, so I had time to dig myself a little bunker on a slope above them and line the front edge of it with stones. I piled about half of our spare bullets around me and waited for them to arrive.
I was hidden in the front line of trees that grew around my hill, but where they marched there was no cover. They would have to run uphill to kill me, and I was going to make that as difficult as possible for them.
I rested for a few minutes, and then saw them come trudging into view only a hundred yards away. I waited for the fancy chair to come into view, and then I started blasting away at them. I killed their leader easily, and wounded one other leader before I changed my focus to the troops who were all scrambling around looking for cover.
Fifteen were down in the first few seconds. I slowed then and started picking them off carefully. I had a lot to kill, and every bullet needed to count.
I could hear them shouting to each other, and knew that they would try rushing me shortly. I smiled, and hoped they wouldn't be disappointed by my little stash of three hand grenades. Until then I kept picking them off. Thirty were dead or wounded by the time they came forward toward me, running and screaming up the hill. I tossed down two of the grenades together and watched as their little explosions knocked down at least twenty men at once. They hesitated then, and started to turn in panic when they saw my third grenade come sailing toward them. It killed another twelve or so, and left a bunch more screaming in pain.
I went back to shooting them with my rifle again, and heard what I thought was an echo from my gun until I realized that Nathan must have reached his gun and was picking off the bad guys from their rear. We had them trapped in a deadly field of fire, and there was nothing they could do to protect themselves. We stopped shooting when there were only ten left, and they stood in a group with their hand held up, offering no more resistance.
I stood up and walked down towards them, and waved at them to head down the hill back towards their wagons. Once there, I hallooed to Nathan.
"Good to see you, sir."
"And you, Nathan."
"What do we do with them now, sir?"
I shrugged. "I'm not sure. I think maybe we should take them back to the holding they destroyed and let the survivors decide what to do with them."
There was a general murmuring then from a little group of survivors.
"Speak up," I told them.
"We no speak English to well. We understand you. You take us back, but they is dead, all of them. You let us go home, you come too, we give you big welcome because of guns. We want more, and we help you if you give."
Nathan snorted, and while I held back my laugh, I couldn't help smearing on the sarcasm. "You want us to come home with you, like we were your friends and as if we didn't just kill your whole army and show you where we got the guns so you can get more so you can help us? Do we look like we need your help?"
I drew my pistol and shot the man in the head. He slumped down like an empty sack and gushed out his life.
"Does anyone else speak English?" I asked.
One man shook his head. I pointed my gun at him and said, "Step forward."
Trembling, he did as I asked.
"You get the chance to live. If you don't answer my questions, I'll kill you like I killed him." I looked at the others then. "We'll go through all of you till we find someone who's interested in talking."
The man gulped and said, "I'll tell you whatever you want."
"Why did you destroy the holding back there?" I asked.
The man shrugged. "Well, um. They had some steel weapons we wanted. We've done it before, you know. We need steel for weapons, and there aren't a whole lot to come by out here. Must be different where you come from. Maybe we'll go there next."
Science Fiction /