Everything Dead After a Time

R. Earle Harris


Copyright Notice

Everything Dead After a Time is copyrighted 2011 by R. Earle Harris (rearleharris@tuxfamily.org)

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.


 

Part Two - The Way of Mimir

 


Post Traumatic Stress Symphony

 

We took Snorri's death pretty hard. It seemed like a good thing when Lit and Kreggi, Snot and Snorri all came back to us in Thor's flying cart. They brought lots of news, mostly about Mimir and how that old Aesir was behind it all.

We'd had a quiet time of it almost the whole time they'd been out in the Flowers. The rune trolls tried to sucker punch us the day after Snorri and his group took the long dark Way. But we were ready for them. Actually, we set them up. It had been Hod's idea. Hod told us the trolls had done the same thing to him. The gaurds at Bifrost had fought off the first attack. Two-thirds of the Aesir guard were dead. But they thought they had a victory.

So Hod sent some of his men back across Bifrost to report to Balder. He rested half the others and kept watch himself with the rest. And the trolls sucker punched him. They came back in even bigger numbers with even more powerful magicks. They killed everyone but Hod, destroyed the worlds-old bridge, took Hod's eyes, and left him to bear them message of his own defeat.

But Hod was like Snorri. You can fool him once but you shouldn't come back to gloat about it. These Midgard humans have a thing for guns and other things that go boom. Guns don't work so well on trolls. But the brothers got their hands on something they call Semtex. I call it Troll Breaker.

We went with Hod's warning of a return bout from the trolls, just like at Bifrost. The brothers all went home to the projects. That night, they skipped their beauty sleep and booby-trapped the basketball court. Next morning, Hod and I left the wards, sealed them behind us and went to watch a basketball game. And the trolls showed up before halftime.

Too bad for them. They came back soldier-heavy with a score of Svartalven and one fire-fingers. Brothers with rifles up in the high windows of the projects killed the Svartalven outright. The brothers on the ground did a great imitation of a panicked retreat and led the trolls right over a patch of Troll Breaker. Then our guys dived into dumpsters and down manholes or were pulled into windows. A half-second later our ears were ringing and rocky bits of troll rained down for a full minute over two square blocks. Payback, as they say here, is a bitch. We lost maybe four guys and we even paid for all the broken windows. The brothers had more respect for old blind Hod after that.

I always felt like Hod and I should be considered a team. It never worked out that way. I was just his eyes. A wise guy. A freaky talking head. Oh, man. I wish I could tell you that I got over having my head cut off and then coming back to life twice. But that never worked out either.

Until Snorri left, I leaned heavy on his friendship. He and I joked around. He kept me in the game, hanging me first off Hreim and then off Hod. He talked to me like I was all there. And he expected me to be all there, if you know what I mean. So I guess I rose to the occasion, thanks to Snorri.

It was still hard at night back then, hanging from a peg in my harness, wishing someone would just drive an axe through my skull and send me to Hel. I figured, if nothing else, I'd find the rest of me down there waiting.

Then it was me and Hod. I ended up being his little freaky dwarf lieutenant who didn't have any arms or legs. I'm not saying the brothers were disrespectful to me. Snorri's friendship and respect had gotten the message to them that I had earned my place among the Aesir here. So when they spoke to me it was still like I was above them on the totempole. But outside that, they treated me the way you would the grave of someone you'd been taught to respect. You know, just gestures. At least they were respectful gestures.

I was Hod's mouthpiece too. He'd kind of bounce ideas off of me. He'd consider my opinion. But Hod made the decisions. And then for some reason, he made me pass them on to the brothers. Maybe he thought he was doing me a favor. I could have done without it.

Then Snorri came back from Hel and Asgard and wherever. And things were happy again for me. Snorri had that effect on everybody really, even if he never noticed it. He made everyone feel good. Watching him be a leader was like watching what you would be like, if you could just stand up and lead and be brave about it. Most of us aren't leaders. Even if we get stuck with the job. Snorri was just a doofus like the rest of us. But when it came down to it, Snorri would suit up, move up to the first rank, tells us what he wanted, and then stay out in front until the job was done. Or until he was dead.

That's how he went, you know. Right out in front.

I don't seem real smart. Nobody ever called me smart. They called me a fighter. Now they call me other stuff. But I do think about things. And it came to me that maybe we weren't just random target number six to these trolls and Svartalven. I had the feeling there was something personal about it. Maybe some prick like Mimir wanted to rule the nine worlds. But he or one of his people wanted us in particular, or maybe just Snorri, to go away. It was personal.

I told Hod even before Snorri came back. He asked me for reasons. I never have reasons. When I think about stuff, it's like ideas come to me. I give them a long hard look to see if I should trust them or not. Like figuring out if someone's worth trusting or not. By the time you trust someone, you can't ever say why exactly. You just do. So Hod asks why do I think someone has it in for us. I say because in my heart I just do. Hod doesn't go for that.

I wish he'd listened to me.

It was like someone had just been waiting for Snorri's return. And it didn't help that Snorri came back in Thor's cart which, I mean, when you use it, is about as flashy as the carts of the Sun and the Moon. It's like a great big HERE I AM flying back to Midgard. So they knew where he was. And not two days after Snorri gets back from Asgard: ambush.

If you're like me, you'd feel like Snorri should die in some dramatic big battle. You know, with a big story for the feasting hall to go along with it. He got cheated out of that. Whoever set up the ambush picked their time and their place. They killed a half-dozen of the brothers. They got two trolls into the open door of Kreggi's downstairs and almost wrecked the wards. And they got Snorri.

Snorri always said, it didn't matter how good a fighter you are. Sooner or later an axe in the neck or an arrow down the eyehole would do you in. For him, it was the spear thrust of a troll. About all you can say is that Snorri was holding them off to buy us time. They caught us with our pants down. Snorri and the brothers that died were the first ones out the door. And in those first minutes, a spearhead glanced off the bottom of Snorri's helmet and passed into his neck just above his chainmail shirt. It could happen to anybody. Even Odin.


Pavane for a Dead Prince

 

We gave Snorri a real Aesir funeral.

It bothered us a lot, at first, that here we had Snorri's body and we couldn't do a real funeral with it for him. But where are you going to have an Aesir funeral pyre in a Midgard city?

It was Hel who solved our problem. Turns out, she really did have a thing for Snorri. I think he was the only Aesir in a Ragnarok-plus that ever treated her like a normal woman. He never did talk about that night in Hel's bedroom. But I'm guessing that he was honest about the whole thing, including her messier parts. She'd probably never find another man to do that from now until the ending of the worlds. That's why she showed up at Kreggi's only two days after Snorri died.

Hel had such a thing for Snorri that she did something I don't think she's ever done before. She's supposed to stay down there in Hel, you know. But we all bend the rules and she's taken her little trips before. What she did for Snorri, and for us too, was make herself presentable. Not only did she show up at the wards fully clothed, as opposed to her usual fully un-clothed, she didn't even smell. The brothers just thought she was a babe. We Aesir knew what she was and couldn't believe it. None of us had any idea how she pulled it off.

I remember Kreggi telling me Snot had promised Snorri she wouldn't be jealous of him sleeping with Hel that night. Kreggi told it like a joke. But Snot really meant it. First thing I thought when Hel showed up and Snot was right there was: Uh-oh, trouble. But first thing they did was give each other a big hug and fight back the tears. You could see them both doing that.

That very night, the two of them took a walk. Arm in arm. With a few of the brothers trailing in the background as escorts. Runt was in charge of the escort. He told me the two ladies walked down to the river where the Way to Jotunheim begins and sat on the concrete floodwall. Runt said that after a while the brothers could hear them crying softly down there. Which had some of the brothers crying too, Runt said.

Everyone missed Snorri.

Hel has some pull in the nine worlds. Basically, you can't blow her off without her getting the last word. Sooner or later, you have to go live at her house, if you know what I mean. She managed to get all of us, the brothers included, out to the rim of Midgard where the World Ocean runs around the nine worlds. That isn't somewhere you can get to if you're from Midgard. It's not just one of the oceans. It's THE OCEAN.

She even provided a ship for Snorri's pyre. None of us Heimdaller could remember the last time we'd seen an Aesir ship. Much less a funeral ship. We put Snorri in it with all his things from Midgard and all that he had in his chest back home. And then we set him alight and towed him out into the current.

It was all more than Snot could take. She wanted to go with him. Snot tried to get onto the ship more than once, even after it was on fire. We tried to tell her we needed her. But she needed Snorri. It was Hel that kept Snot alive for us. I don't know what Hel said to her. But Snot got quiet after that. She stood arm in arm with Hel, off away from the rest of us. We all watched in silence as the ship burned and entered the current. It was sinking as it passed from sight. But the bow and the mast were still up there to the end.

After that, Hel got us all back to our city in Midgard. She spoke a little with Kreggi and Lit before she went back down to the lower depths. And then she was gone. We spent that day preparing a feast in Snorri's honor, just like we would have done back home. We laid in wooden tables and stools, food and drink. But when the time came for it, we were a little sad that Snot couldn't bear the idea of feasting with us.

She went home to her box and her dog and said she'd be back in the morning. Kreggi and Hod told her that would be alright. But then Kreggi led a group of the brothers and followed her on the sly. He later said he was afraid she'd try to follow Snorri and not come back to us.

The feast was good. I sat next to Lit and had plenty to eat and drink. I don't need any of that, of course. But it tastes good. And somehow mead still gets me drunk. Maybe it's psychological or something. Lit was kind of quiet. He's an outsider too, like me. Neither of us are completely on the inside around here. Both of us are less Aesir than some people would like. So Lit was good enough to feed me and pour mead down my throat and even dump the bucket under my neck somewhere when it got full. It made me sorry I'd ever given him a hard time.

Mostly I had a good time because Dreng was there. I could tell he was more than a little freaked by having a bodiless head for a brother. And he tried hard not to notice the bucket on the floor beneath my harness. But, hey, all that food and drink has to go somewhere when it comes out my neckhole. Beyond all that, he's my brother and a big goof. He makes me laugh like he always did, mainly by being kind of stupid. And from the first moment he saw me like this, he treated me like his brother and not some freak.

Overall, Snorri's dying and then his funeral was like the death of a king. It felt like that to us anyway. Him leaving us changed everything. Even if none of what we were up against had changed at all. We'd done everything one way to follow Snorri. Now we would do it all another way for Hod.

I think it would all have turned out better if Snorri hadn't left us like that.


Big Plan Blues

 

Hod wasn't a bad leader after Snorri died. There wasn't any reason to criticize him really. The ambush happened, the funeral was done, and Hod held a council. I give him credit for bringing the brothers in, even more than Snorri had. We were down to me, Lit and four other Aesir. Plus about thirty of the brothers, maybe thirty-two. I think some of them had had enough and even left town. One way or the other, we were way down from our nine nines.

So Hod put Delroy in charge of half the brothers and Runt in charge of the other half. Those were good calls. Both had done well by us in battle so far. They both kept their heads and didn't worry about their own skins when someone threatened to cut them out of them. Monster Mash was still with us and he was a bit ticked at not being a leader. I was the one who convinced him that some of us were made to lead and some of us were made to fight. He could see the point of that.

The morning after the feast, Kreggi and his team piled in just ahead of Snot. They barely had time to stop panting from the rush to beat her back here before she came in. But Snot was still in mourning for Snorri. I doubt she would have noticed if they'd've walked her in. Hod took her aside for a second. Then he posted guards outside and sent the other brothers off on errands.

Hod formed us up in a circle of stools, beer keg in the middle, mugs in our hands and told us it was council time. That time, it was just Lit, the Aesir, Delroy and Runt. We all sat down. Well, except for me. Hod hung me off the back of a chair next to him.

"It makes me glad," Hod said, "that all of you treat me as the leader."

He stood up and opened his arms to us.

"I embrace you all," he went on. "But I fear that you are only following me because of Balder. Balder put me on the Bridge of Bifrost, to stand guard over Asgard, and to take Heimdall's place as the leader of all you guardians. He even gave me Thiazi's eyes to see again with.

"You can see how that turned out. I failed in my duty. The bridge was destroyed. All of my men, my comrades, were killed. Even my eyes were taken from me."

He lowered his arms.

"This is the Aesir you are putting your trust in. Without Breid here, I would be all but useless, except for talk. Before we go on, before we go any further, I must call on you to choose a leader in the manner of our people. And I include you in this, Lit. And you also, Delroy and Runt. Here among us, you have become our people too."

You have to hand it to Hod for saying that. We Aesir are quick to think ourselves better than anyone. Maybe in lots of ways we are. I used to think so anyway. But here was Hod, treating a Svartalv and two Midgard humans like they were one of us.

Not all of us can read or write. Snorri could do both. I can't do either one. (It's the brothers who write this all down from what I say.) But we can all scratch out the two nines of runes. So Hod assigned a rune to each person in the room, handed out little pieces of paper and pencils, and told us to make our choices. So there were eight votes:


Hod 4
Snot 3
Breid 1

I was shocked that anyone had chosen me. But then I figured it had to be Dreng. I love him. But he's as dumb as a post.

"I am glad that you have chosen me," said Hod. "Fill your mugs and I will tell you what I propose we do."

Everyone got a bit more comfortable then, sipped a bit of mead, and waited for Hod to go on. Lit even held my mug for me again.

"It is my thought," said Hod, "that Mimir and his warriors will crush us if we remain here in Midgard. Not long ago we felt strong with our new allies here. Two-thirds of them are gone. And we have lost two of our own. The worst is: we have little to show for it."

For some reason, no one spoke up. I can understand Runt and Delroy not speaking. Snot was mourning Snorri. But Kreggi could have said something. And I never knew my brother not to say the first dumb thing to come into his head. So I said something:

"I think we've learned a lot, Hod. We know what Mimir has done. We know why the Svartalven fight us. We know Mimir must be giving runes to the troll mages. We know a lot."

"Yes, Breid," said Hod. "But we have made no progress in defeating or even in finding our real enemy. We are outnumbered. All Heimdaller in Midgard are besieged. We will lose if this goes on."

Okay, that made sense. It still didn't explain why all the juice had run out of our group since Snorri died.

"Here is my plan," said Hod. "We cannot run around the nine worlds and hide. Even to travel upon the Ways is dangerous. We have taken most of our losses travelling them. I propose we advance upon our enemy, search Mimir out, kill him and destroy his power."

"Sounds like a big plan for such a small group," said Kreggi.

"Yes," said Hod. "And so we must do this in safety and in stealth."

I would have felt better if the others had been making more comments as Hod went along. But they all just sat there.

"We will take the Wards and enter upon the Way of Flowers," said Hod. "We have learned from the Norns that all of the flowery Ways are one. Somewhere upon that Way, we will find our enemy."

"We don't really know that," I said. "The nine worlds are pretty big."

"He would be safer on his own ground," said Kreggi. "Probably holed up in New Babylon with all those soldiers.

"That is my thought as well," said Hod. "I have talked with Kreggi and between us, we have the magick to use the Wards Invisible."

"So what's that mean?" asked Runt.

"It means that we can set up the wards in the field, go inside them, and make that magicked space unfindable to those outside," said Hod.

"Cool," said Dreng.

"Are there any objections?" asked Hod.

Nobody said anything. At most, they just nodded. I guess I didn't say anything either. But I didn't nod. I might not have had any objections. But I definitely had a bad feeling. I hate it when it turns out I'm right like that.


Moving Day Shuffle

 

I think Hod's defeat at Bifrost turned him into a cautious Aesir. Maybe he was always that way. I only met him once before all this, when I was first called up to serve in Midgard. He didn't impress me much then, one way or the other.

When Snorri wanted something done, he would suit up, head out and kick down someone's door, along with anyone standing close enough to be hit by the flying door. Hod was more of a plodder. His idea was to have a dry run, much up cautiously, fort up in front of the door, and then try to bust in. If you ask me, this gives the other team too much time to figure out you're coming and booby-trap the door.

But Hod was in charge.

The morning after the council, Hod called everyone, all the troops, to get ready to leave by nightfall. The brothers came as soon as they got the word and we spent the day getting ready. Their women and kids came with them to help out. And maybe because it felt like they wouldn't be coming back, it was a little sad.

Thanks to Snorri, we had armor for everybody now. Some of the brothers and Lit had Svartalven armor. The rest of us had Aesir chainmail and weapons. The brothers had knocked over a gun store the night before, a big one. Runt had decided that maximum smack was what the guns needed. So everyone had some kind of shotgun, sawed off to around arm's length, and loaded with single-ball shells. Hard smack.

Lit talked us into leaving the bows behind. And he was right. The razor arrows weren't up to the job. And it was better to replace the weight of bows and arrows with more shotgun shells.

The brothers had also stolen a boatload of combat backpacks, medium-sized, that were just right for ammo and rations and water. It killed me to tell everyone to leave the beer and mead behind. But none of us had seen running water on the Way of Flowers. We figured there had to be water somewhere on the Way. But we didn't need to run out of it before we found any and we were prepared to raid villages for it if we had too.

I wasn't crazy about the Wards part of the plan. The carved wooden wards are nine feet tall and as thick as Monster Mash's thigh. Thick and heavy. Two men to carry each was eight. Throw in the men who had to guard the things if the situation went south and you were left with diddly-squat for combat troops. I suggested a horse-drawn wagon with four M60 machineguns. We could have stolen them from the local armory if we'd wanted to. But no one took me seriously. I wish they had.

So in the end, we had a headcount of thirty-five warriors, plus me. Everyone had a bashing weapon and a shotgun. A pack loaded up full to popping with ammo, food, and water. Four small telephone poles' worth of wards. We wouldn't be going anywhere very fast. But then fast was not part of Hod's plan.

By dusk, the women and children, that had come with the brothers to help them get ready, had said goodbye. We all settled into Kreggi's big downstairs room to wait for dark. Everyone was okay, I guess. But still no juice. It really made me miss Snorri.

As soon as Night had fully put the lights out, Hod had everyone stand up for a last talk. He always made me do the talking for these things. I guess, because he couldn't see people's reactions. If you asked me, Hod cared too much about what other people think.

"Everyone ready?" said Hod. "I'm going to have Breid take you through the next part of our plan one more time. Let him cover the main bits of it. Then is the time for everyone to ask questions. If you have questions, ask them. It is never too late for us to hear a better idea and fix things before they lead to problems."

"Can everybody hear me?" I asked.

Frankly, I'm amazed I can even talk like this, just being a head and all. I mean, how does that work? But everybody made hear-you noises.

"Here's the plan," I said. "We'll be leaving as soon as I shut up. We enter the Way of Flowers just outside those doors. Kreggi and Snot will be up front to take us in. They lead the two groups. Kreggi with Delroy. Snot with Runt.

"You two groups of brothers will move in columns close together. We're doing this to protect the Wards. They'll be in the middle of each column. If we hit trouble, Ward-Bearers to the middle. Everyone else to the battle.

"Each group will send out two scouts. One out to the side. Delroy sends one to the front; Runt sends one to the rear. Scouts keep a low profile and stay in sight of the columns. We'll be moving to the right of the trail and out of sight of it. So the trail-side scout is important. He keeps the trail in sight. We keep him in sight.

"Even though we're going into enemy territory, Hod wants this first march to be a practice run. We'll move only about a half day's march. Then we set up the Wards. All of the Aesir now know the magicks for the Wards Invisible.

"Everyone keep this in mind: once the Wards are invisible, there is no getting inside them. If you are outside, you're stuck until we open them back up. If everything is cool, this is no big deal. But if we hit big trouble, we will run the Wards up as fast as possible and jump inside.

"Don't fucking get left outside the Wards."

I said that last bit in plain Midgard human to make sure the brothers got it. I didn't want complaints later after someone died.

"Okay," I said. "Any questions?"

"How fast can the wards go up?" asked Delroy.

"We don't know," said Hod. "That is why our first march will be short. We will put the Wards up as quickly as we can, two or three times and practice using them as a sudden defense."

"How are we going to sneak up on anything in the Flowers?" asked Runt. "Is it ever dark in there at all?"

"No," said Hod. "All we can do is move in cautiously and stay out of sight. We will travel out of sight of the trail. When we reach the hills above the first village, we'll stay below the crest and swing around to the right. The hills on that side run out just beyond New Babylon before they dump into the plain. The only open ground we'll have to cross is from the near hills to the city."

"And then we do what, exactly?" I asked.

That part seemed to be a Ginnungagap-sized hole in Hod's plan. Ginnungagap is big empty space where the first of the nine worlds was made.

"I don't know," said Hod. "We'll have to do the best we can once we get there."

I should have said: Does anyone else besides me think this part of the plan is amazingly weak?

But I didn't. The brothers just went along with it. Snot was still half-distracted by grief. I wasn't expecting Dreng to suddenly have a rush of brains to the head. But Kreggi and Lit could have said something. Only, Kreggi was over there tinkering with the Wards. And Lit was looking at me. Looking back, maybe Lit wanted me to object some more so he could throw his weight behind me. That's something else we'll just never know.


My Best Friend's Girl

 

We entered the Way of Flowers when no one had any more questions. Nothing new inside there. Hills. Flowers. The path. Two suns revolving in a lopsided circle in the sky. We walked and nothing happened.

I'm kind of like Snorri. Anything is better than nothing. And if nothing had happened around Snorri, he would have done something about it. I wish I could have done something about the nothing we ran into on that march. It might have woken everybody up.

It's easy to talk about things in hindsight. But impossible to fix them by then. So here's what I can tell you. The brothers looked to us. They took their lead from us in the field. We just walked. So they just walked. Snot was out of it. She needed something to snap her back in. But nothing did. Kreggi was all caught up in the wards business. His mind was on that. Dreng was his usual self. And although I know Lit better now, I couldn't make head or tail of him then. Whatever it was we needed, Lit didn't fix it either.

After half a day or so, Hod had me call a halt. We stopped in a bowl of hills, one hill over from the trail. We pulled the scouts in a bit, doubled them, and had a small meal. Hod didn't think of it but I told everyone to only eat about half of what they wanted to. Stay a little bit hungry now so we aren't completely hungry later if we get stuck out here. Kreggi and Hod gave me the nod on that.

When the main group finished eating, we rotated the guards in so they could eat. Then Hod had us practice setting up the Wards. We had four Wards. So eight of the men had entrenching tools, the kind that fold up. Kreggi taught them to form a square, big as his downstairs, by lining up off one corner. A quick square, then drop the Wards and dig. A two foot hole would hold the posts erect. Wards in the ground, everyone piled inside. Then at least one of us Aesir had to evoke the Wards Invisible. Even I could do that.

Once we were out of sight within the wards, the entire space in there was in Asgard. Not in a way anyone understood. But there in the Wards, we were no longer on the Way of Flowers. And anyone who crossed the outer skin of the Wards fell into emptiness. As in Emptiness. So we would be safe inside. Hod made us practice four times. You can't say he wasn't thorough. And by the end of the day, we were exhausted. Because each time he made us run to the next flat space, form up a defense, and throw up the Wards.

All this activity seemed to wake the group up a bit. By the fourth time, we had it down tight and that makes you feel good. Hod spoke to us in the end and reminded us that we would definitely have to do this in battle at least once. I waited until the instant Hod finished his speech and gave the brothers a "Hooah?" which they gave right back to me. A good sign. I was beginning to think things would be alright. At least the little things, if not the big plan. I still had my doubts about the big plan.

We ate another meal and Hod decided that enough time had passed since last night to call it night again. It was never night in the Flowers. Always the two suns. But that was okay because the practice runs showed us that the inside of the Wards Invisible was almost lightless. Kind of like the end of Night, with only a weak ribbon of blue on the horizon. Good for sleeping.

During the meal, which I didn't bother with, I was on the ground next to Snot. We hadn't had two words with each other since Snorri's funeral.

"Hey, Snot," I said.

She looked up at me for a long slow second.

"Hey, Breid," she answered. "You okay these days?"

"I'm okay," I told her. "You?"

Snot sighed, picked at her food.

"No, Breid," she said. "I'm really not."

"I miss him too," I told her.

"Yeah," she said. "More than I can tell you."

She closed her eyes and some tears ran out of them. I waited for her to open her eyes again.

"Hey," I said. "Can I talk to you about something?"

"Sure, Breid," she said. "Just not about Snorri, okay?"

"It's not about that," I promised. "And I need us to talk alone."

"Alone?"

"Yeah. Pick me up and we'll walk around the camp, just out of earshot."

She had to come out of her grief and back into the world just to pick up my harness, if you know what I mean. But she carried me out between the Wards and the guards where no one could hear us.

"I'm worried about us," I told her.

"About you and me?" she said. Snot was definitely out of it.

"About all of us," I said. "And this whole plan."

She seemed to focus a bit more then.

"What about the plan?" she asked.

"Kind of everything," I said. "Too cautious. No real goal. Too many people focused on the Wards."

"The Wards?" she said, still kind of fuzzy. "You don't think they'll protect us?"

"Snot, they'll protect us. But only if we can get them up," I said. "If we run into trouble, almost half of us have to jack with the Wards while the rest of us deal with the bad guys."

"I know," she said. "I kind of thought of that."

"Can you talk to Hod?" I asked. "He doesn't really listen to me once he makes up his mind."

"I know," said Snot. "I've seen."

"You'll try to talk to him?" I said.

"Sure, Breid," she said. "I'll try."

I'm not blaming Snot. Or anyone else. But I don't think any of us tried hard enough to fix Hod's plan


Slouching to Babylon

 

We reached the edge of hills that led down to New Babylon the next day. Kreggi took two scouts and went up over the crest where they could look down on the village where Hreim had died. They came back to tell us that a small wooden fort was there now. They could see a few nines of soldiers and half as many again horses. Hod wondered why we hadn't seen any soldiers on the Way.

There aren't really any directions on the Way of Flowers. The suns circle overhead. So any direction is what you call it. If you stand on those hills that look down on Babylon, you could say you were facing north. The hills stretched away to the western horizon but didn't go any closer to the city. From where we were, they curved around to the northeast and seemed to stop out there beyond the city. Beyond that, it looked like a plain which ran off into the distance.

That's the way Hod wanted to go, around to the hilly side and up to the city. Stay one ridge over from the valley that widened out from here to the city. Stay out of sight. Get as close to Babylon as possible. And then punt. That was the plan. Maybe a better plan wasn't possible. Nobody thought of one that night, anyway, as we slept just behind the edge of the hills within the Wards Invisible.

So the third day we put Hod's plan into action. We kept the two columns close together. We kept scouts out just like before. The city-side scout stayed almost below the near ridge. It took half a day, maybe longer, to reach the point where we swung around and traveled down towards the city. Hod called a lunch break then. We'd been a little edgier and on top of things since Kreggi reported seeing the soldiers. As we ate, people checked their weapons and adjusted their loads. They made sure they could get to their ammo and single-edge axes. Made sure the shotguns had one in the chamber and the safeties on.

Then we moved on. At the rate we were going, it would be one more night on the way and then level with Babylon the morning after that. I tried to think of what we would do when we were across from that huge city. But I couldn't. It was larger than any city I had ever seen. All around it was a great wall. And on one side, hanging gardens stretched up, full of green, into the sky. I felt like we were a terrier planning to attack a tank.

We were quieter as we set up the Wards for that last night in the dimly lit Wards. Nobody talked much at the evening meal. It was like we had surrendered to Hod's leadership even if he wasn't leading us anywhere. Maybe everyone else felt the same way I did inside. But nobody showed it. I'm not laying blame. I didn't show it either.

Next morning we took down the Wards and formed up for the march. Everything seemed quiet. We walked an hour or two with no sign of danger. In the end, the scouts gave us almost no warning at all. You have to hand it to the troops of Babylon. They were smart. The first sign of trouble was our city-side scout coming down the hill at us on the run.

"Horses," he reported. "Not far away, man, and just starting to run."

I figured afterwards we had been noticed back above the burned village. The bad guys let us come to them. Then when we forted up, they moved in close enough to be out of sight from our scouts, just down the far slope of the hills. And then they waited for us to come out and play.

"Wards up!"' shouted Hod and the men who raised and guarded the wards went to work. You don't think of what having all those men unable to fight really means until it comes time to fight.

"Take command, Breid," said Hod. "I can't see anything."

Hod surprised me with this. I expected Kreggi or maybe Snot to take the lead. Snot was definitely up to it. But Kreggi was busy with the Wards. I didn't think about any of this then. I just called out:

"Shotguns! Upslope!"

We could hear horses pounding their approach up the far side of that gentle ridge. I had only about twenty guys with guns. At least we weren't dealing with Svartalven and rune trolls who would scotch the gunpowder as soon as they closed with us. We could use guns till we ran out of blood or ammunition.

"Kneel down!" I called.

I wanted small targets only for any enemy bowmen.

"Fire on my command!"

The Babylon horses crested the ridge, not twenty yards upslope from us.

"Fire! And reload!"

Twenty big bore shotguns unleashed twenty heavy balls. Blood and flesh and horsemeat flashed in the air. No way could you hear the slide actions chonk in the next shells.

"Hold the line! Fire!"

Those Babylonians and their horses did their best. But they had never been up against that kind of noise and destruction. Battles of blade and bow get plenty noisy. But not until you close with the enemy. Until then, you just hear commanders shouting and the chorused thrum of bowstrings. Shotguns were way noisier than that. And way messier. It's one thing to get used to seeing the guy next to you have an arrow suddenly sprout from his face. It's another to see the face vanish in a cloud of red mist.

Their line was breaking.

"Advance slow!" I shouted. "Fire at will!"

Our guys did good. They moved uphill at a walk, reloading, blasting, reloading, blasting. They bad guys turned tail over the crest. And everything would have been fine if the enemy had been just a little bit stupider.

But they weren't. If they had relied on the first troop of cavalry, which definitely outnumbered us, we'd have been good. But someone with brains sent out a second armored troop on horseback. And just as troop one turned tail and disappeared below the ridge, troop two rolled up our line.


Novel truncated at 1000 lines