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Winter was come to the land east of the Rieka Flod, the great river that drained the vast area south from the Dwarven Mountains to where it entered the sea at Zobra City. Farther to the east, the ground that slowly rose to the plateau of the High Desert was too deep with snow to permit travel; the ground between the river and the slopes was blanketed with snow kept shallow by the constant, scouring, wind. The goats that were herded there in the summer were long gone south or west, along with the other grazing animals that could survive on the coarse leaves and twigs and sour fruits of the trees that bowed before the wind. The predators that hunted the goats and grazers and, sometimes goatherds, were likewise taking sunnier climes. Even flocks of late-migrating birds avoided that land once the snows began.
Few people other than the seasonal goatherds lived there, and those were as coarse as their land—and as unyielding. Year-round residents hoarded food for the winter and hid well what sparse wealth they had. They hid themselves as well, for unwary travelers who failed to bring enough food to last their entire journey across the harsh land were sometimes driven mad by hunger and turned to eating their fellows to sustain themselves. Travelers often found eating a stranger somehow less reprehensible than eating their own. Winter life in “the Eastern Waste,” as it was called by the Skraglanders to the west, was almost impossible. The nomads who dwelled in the sere deserts farther to the east considered the land an inhospitable jungle.
A band of refugees fleeing northeastward before the advancing Jokapcul armies was discovering the harsh realities of the Eastern Waste as they huddled around small fires in the lee of the rude windbreaks they’d erected to shield themselves from blowing snow during the night. They’d planned to work their way to where the High Desert came up against the southeastern edge of the Dwarven Mountains, then thread a perilous route between the mountains and the desert as far as Elfwood Between the Rivers, and thence tiptoe between the top of the High Desert and the bottom of Elfwood Between the Rivers all the way to the Easterlies. Once in the Easterlies they should face an easy trek to Handor’s Bay and shipping across the Inner Ocean to the continent of Arpalonia, and its free kingdoms and principalities. Now they faced the need to abandon that plan; the fires were for warmth as the refugees had eaten the last of their food that morning and the game they’d hoped to catch during the trek north had evidently already migrated to more clement climes. Even the wolf hadn’t caught so much as a shrew since they’d entered the Eastern Waste. Had it not been for the snow they melted in pots in the fire, even water would have been in as short supply.
“We have to go west in the morning,” said the taller of the two men who led the refugees. He was called Spinner, for the way he used the quarterstaff he carried.
The shorter of the two leaders glumly nodded. He’d thought in the beginning they should try the southerly route, but had yielded to everyone else’s argument. Having agreed, he was committed, and he hated having to go back under any circumstances. Even though turning west wasn’t back the way they’d come, it was still the opposite direction from where they wanted to go. They called him Haft, for he seemed to become one with the mighty battle-axe that was his primary weapon.
“Not your fault,” rumbled the giant. Alone in the band he looked comfortable in the cold, with his cloak made from the hide of a huge, white bear. He had argued in favor of crossing the Eastern Waste during winter. On the Northern Steppes he called home, game could be found even in the deepest depths of winter, when the sun appeared over the southern horizon for only long enough each day to assure the True People it still existed. He’d been certain game would be relatively plentiful in the Eastern Waste, where the sun was up for so many hours each winter day, and the stunted trees grew in relative profusion. In all his years on the Northern Steppes and the time spent wandering the land south of them, he’d never seen a place so barren of animate life. The giant had adopted the name Silent, for the vow he’d taken to not speak about his land and people while wandering the south lands.
The woman with the golden hair and eyes of gold, peeked out through the gray silk cloak in which she was nearly invisible in the early night. She thought that if they went west they might reach Oskul, the capital of Skragland. In Oskul they might find Mudjwohl. But she said nothing. She was Alyline, also called “the Golden Girl” for the color of her skin, eyes, and hair. Her favored dress was also golden.
“How far do you think it is?” Spinner asked.
The lean man with the longbow said, “We won’t get there tomorrow, maybe the morning after.” His name was Fletcher, but he made bows as well as arrows, and was a veteran of the Bostian army.
At another fire a baby cried for breast. A small child at another fire whined for food nobody had.
Haft flinched. “Who’d have thought?” he said softly.
A Skraglander refugee muttered. After first arguing the opposite, he’d finally agreed with the steppe nomad that they could safely traverse the Eastern Waste in winter. He should have known better. He was Takacs, a Skragland army Borderer, the sole man of his company to survive battles against the Jokapcul.
“We could eat the horses,” someone said.
Haft brightened at the suggestion; he didn’t like horses. The giant, who was said to have been born on horseback, glowered at the one who’d spoken out.
“Only as a last resort,” said Spinner. “We can travel farther and faster on them than on foot.”
“As long as we can feed them,” someone else murmured. Fodder for the horses was nearly gone as well, and under the blanket of snow grazing was almost as nonexistent as game.
They were up before dawn and ready to move by the time the reluctant sun rose. They followed their shortening shadows westward.
A day and a half’s march into the wind brought the band of refugees to the valley of the Aramlas, a tributary of the Rieka Flod. The Aramlas Valley’s trees did not bow to the morn- ing sun, but rather stood straight and proud. Snow dusted the branches of the trees, but the ground beneath them was mostly bare and dry. As soon as they began their descent into the valley, the refugees saw deer, and hunters ran ahead. By the time the refugees had reached the valley floor, the hunters were ready for them, roasting haunches of venison over fires much bigger than those they’d had in the waste.
Somewhat to the south, or perhaps east of south, unseasonable bees were constructing a hive and packing its cells with nectar.
Hunger was sated. Women set about erecting shelters less rude than those they’d used on the Eastern Waste. Men jerked venison over slow fires. Children squealed in play. They were out of the wind and blowing snow. Spinner and Haft put out sentries, then sat to rest and plan.
“We’ve come far,” Spinner said as he looked over the rough camp and the people who depended on them.
“But we’re less than halfway there,” Haft said with a grimace. They were Marines from Frangeria, an archipelago nation off the south coast of the eastern continent, Arpalonia. All seagoing nations had sea soldiers, but only a Frangerian sea soldier went by the name “Marine.” Spinner and Haft had been in the freeport of New Bally, on the southwestern coast of Nunimar, the western continent, when it was invaded and captured by the Jokapcul during a daring night amphibious operation. As far as they knew, they were the only foreigners to escape from the captured city.
“That’s not what I mean. Look at those people. We started off alone, now we’ve got all of them.”
“Yes?” Haft looked at the people. There were the Golden Girl; Fletcher and his wife Zweepee, and Doli, slaves they’d freed in a remote part of Skragland; Xundoe, a Zobran army mage whom they’d rescued; Silent, the giant nomad of the Northern Steppes, who they’d first met at a border post between Bostia and Skragland. Along the way they’d collected enough trained soldiers to make a reinforced platoon. There were Royal Lancers, Prince’s Swords, and Border Warders from defeated Zobra; Guards and Borderers from the still-fighting Skragland army, along with two squads of Bloody Axes. Since Zobra had been completely conquered, those soldiers were refugees. The Skraglanders were technically deserters because part of their country remained free and remnants of its army still fought. There were a handful of sea soldiers of various nations who’d somehow managed to escape from Zobra City when the Jokapcul overran it. Some of the soldiers had family with them. A few townsmen and farmers, along with their families, accompanied them for what small protection the soldiers offered.
The Bloody Axes were a special case; when they’d seen the Rampant Eagle on the half-moon blade of Haft’s axe, they immediately swore allegiance to him, and they addressed him as “Sir Haft.” The axe had been his grandfather’s. He didn’t know what war his grandfather had carried it in, but the eagle raised eyebrows among veteran soldiers nearly everywhere he went. Some day he was going to have to find out what it meant.
“All these people expect us to lead them to safety,” Spinner said. “Why us? We’re just a couple of pea ons.” Spinner had never understood the term “pea on” that the Frangerian Marines used to describe their junior men. Maybe they used it because peas were small, but the “on” didn’t make any sense. No matter, the term was one of the least of the many changes Lord Gunny had instituted when he rebuilt the Frangerian sea soldiers into what he called “Marines.”
Haft shrugged, he wasn’t impressed by the people who depended on him and Spinner. “So we’re pea ons, so what? We’re Marines and they aren’t. If they want to travel with us, it’s only right that we’re in charge.” Self-confidence to the point of arrogance was another of the changes Lord Gunny had wrought in his Marines.
Spinner shook his head. Like Haft, he had a great deal of self-confidence; sometimes he thought Haft had too much. “We aren’t doing a very good job of leading them.”
“How many of them would be dead by now if they weren’t with us?” Haft didn’t think many, or maybe any, of these refugees would survive very long on their own.
It was Spinner’s turn to shrug, Haft was probably right. Of course, some of the soldiers might have turned to banditry. “We can’t cross the Eastern Waste, we learned that the hard way. Not unless we carry enough food to make it all the way. We’d need several wagons to carry enough food, and we don’t have any. So where do we go now?”
Haft’s face briefly turned sour, he hadn’t wanted to turn away from the Eastern Waste. “The Princedons. I said that’s where we should have gone when we found Zobra City blocked.”
“But we figured if Zobra City was taken, the Jokapcul were probably already in the Princedons.”
Haft cocked an eyebrow at him; it was Spinner who’d thought that. But he let it slide; the two of them were in this together. “If we thought that then, it’s more likely now.”
“We haven’t heard any rumors that the Jokapcul are in the Princedons.”
Haft snorted. “We’ve been moving north too fast for rumors to catch up.” That was true enough, the only people they’d encountered during their northward journey were small units of Jokapcul, or refugees who had left the south earlier. The Jokapcul they’d met were dead; some of the refugees had joined the Marines. He looked to the north. That way lay the Dwarven Mountains. He didn’t have any real knowledge of what was there, nobody seemed to. Travelers’ tales said whoever went into the mountains never came out. If they went north, they’d have to travel the entire length of the boundary between the mountains and the Eastern Waste. There was no food in the Waste, would there be any at the foot of the mountains? In the winter? Could they collect enough between here and there to make it through to the boundary between the High Desert and Elfwood Between the Rivers? He was willing to risk it—except for one thing: the winter. The farther north they went, the colder it got. He was from Ewsarcan, which was even farther north, though it seldom got as cold as he’d just experienced in the Eastern Waste. One reason he’d left home was to get away from the cold; he certainly didn’t want to go someplace colder. He turned his gaze to the south. Were the Jokapcul moving deeper into Skragland?
Spinner was thinking along similar lines. “If the Jokapcul are still moving into Skragland,” he said, “they probably haven’t taken the Princedons yet.”
“So let’s head for the Princedons and find out.”
“But if they’re moving north and we’re going south, we’ll run into them.” Spinner looked at the people again. Their work was mostly done and the adults were resting while the children played. “Then again, there are few enough of us we can probably evade the Jokapcul if they are moving north.”
Haft looked at the soldiers and camp followers. There were about two score fighters, including the two of them, and almost that many women and children. Of the fighters, they, Silent, Fletcher, and Xundoe were the only ones who had won every time they fought the Jokapcul. Some of the others had fought and won since joining with them, but they’d lost severely before. He wouldn’t want to fight the Jokapcul with the soldiers who knew more about losing to them than winning against them. Maybe with the Kondive and Easterly sea soldiers, they might be good enough—they’d managed to get out of Zobra City when it was captured, which was something few other men-at-arms had accomplished anywhere.
“We can go north and risk starvation and freezing, or we can go south and risk running into the Jokapcul.”
“Those are our choices.” Spinner sighed as he looked at the woman who left off whatever she’d been doing and came striding toward them.
Haft heard the sigh, saw the woman, and shook his head. Alyline, the Golden Girl. She was trouble, but Spinner was so blinded by her beauty he couldn’t see that. Not that Haft would have been unwilling to give her a tumble himself, but . . . No, that woman was trouble; a man should keep his distance if he didn’t want to risk losing important body parts.
Spinner rose to his feet to greet Alyline; he was unaware of the silly grin he wore. Haft remained seated. He looked relaxed, but was ready to move instantly in any direction if she pulled the gold hilt dagger she wore against her hip. She wore the gray silk cloak over her shoulders, but the day was warm enough that it hung open, revealing the patchwork garments she wore under it. They were patterned on her traditional golden garb, that of a Djerwolh dancer from the mountains of Arpalonia—a short vest that didn’t quite close between her breasts and pantaloons that hugged her hips but ballooned out over her legs.
“We will rest here for another day, then head south,” Alyline said without bothering to greet the two Marines.
“That’s right, we’re going south,” Spinner agreed. “We move out at dawn.”
“I said we rest for a day,” she snapped back.
“But we can’t, every day we wait the Jokapcul get closer.”
“The children are tired. They have to rest. One of the women has an injured foot. We stay here for a day.”
“They can ride, we have enough horses.”
Alyline shook her head. Her golden hair swung out like a sun-washed cloud above her shoulders—though Haft might have sourly described it as an avalanche of yellow snow.
“You’re not listening to me,” she said sharply. “We stay here for a day. Tired and injured people need to rest.”
Haft surreptitiously increased his distance from her.
“No buts!” Her voice suddenly softened and she stepped close to him, raised one hand to finger the merman clasp that secured his cloak at the throat. “You like me don’t you, Spinner?” She gazed up into his eyes.
There was nothing subtle about the way Haft scooted farther away.
“You know I do,” Spinner whispered huskily.
“Then we are going to rest a day.”
“But . . .”
Her fingers wrapped around the merman clasp and yanked down hard. “I said we’re going to rest and that’s that!” she snarled. Her fingers flipped free of the clasp and she jabbed them into the base of his throat hard enough for the nails to leave marks. “One day!” She spun about and strode away.
“But—But—” Spinner turned to Haft, confusion and pain on his face. “What did I say wrong? Why is she mad at me?”
Haft turned away from him without a word; he looked like he wanted to spit in disgust.
The next day they rested.
Midwinter’s day passed, but the deadliest part of winter didn’t descend on them as harshly as it would have had they continued north. Instead, the days grew milder as they lengthened. Days and weeks passed during the southward trek, but they saw no troops of the invader. They saw signs of Jokapcul passage, though—burnt-out farms and wrecked, depopulated villages. Except to forage for food and usable goods that might have been left behind by the conquerors, they never stopped to investigate the farms and villages; no one needed to see mutilated corpses to know the ferocity of the foe, least of all Spinner, Haft, and the others of the original group, who’d encountered numerous sites of Jokapcul victory. The farther south they went, the more game they found, and ripe fruits and other edible vegetation also became available. They took the few bees that buzzed about them as a sign of a rapidly approaching spring.
The Eastern Waste gradually drifted eastward and they followed its drift. The closer they were to it, they thought, the less likely they were to encounter Jokapcul. They weren’t afraid of bandits; bandits would shy away from twoscore fighting men. They did find refugees, though.