The Savior – Snippet 30
Approaching Progar District
476 Post Tercium
Once they were above the Second Cataract, the road climbed steadily. Rocks jutted more often from the soil of the Valley, and the Rim grew closer and closer. Soon the Valley was barely a league across from West Rim to East Rim. Finally, they were walking on broken stone rather than dirt. The scree was smooth enough for passage of the wagons, but crunched with every step.
What bothered Abel, and was clearly bothering von Hoff, was that the cliffs on either side were now at the edges of the Road. They were marching through a constricted passage, perfect for an enemy sniper or bowman. It troubled von Hoff enough to send Abel to General Saxe and request that he be permitted to send skirmishers up the rocks to take care of any threat from above.
Abel picked his way forward to find Saxe. He heard a rumble at first. Then from ahead came a thundering roar. Rocks? Had the enemy launched an avalanche? Then Abel rounded a bend and saw what created the noise.
A secondary river was pouring into the River. Abel had seen it on a map, but had assumed it would be another stream to cross, similar to the Canal.
This was something else again. This river was called the Fork on the maps. Ahead of Abel, it descended through high canyon walls that stretched to the east. It was huge and torrential. Abel had seen streams, but had never seen a large tributary to the River. That was because this was the only one. It originated in the high plateaus of the Progar Escarpment, draining the northeastern Schnee for hundreds of leagues. There was no way a boat could cross the Fork, much less the hundreds of boats that would be needed to ferry an army.
Abel rode closer. He could feel the pounding power of the water in his body. He looked above. There, shrouded in mist, was a way over. It was a bridge made of cut rocks, a bridge as singular in the Land as the Fork. A trail switch backed up to its southern entrance, and then the bridge itself arched over the torrential Fork.
The Stone Bridge. It marked the exact border of Cascade and Progar, one of the great wonders of the Land. He’d learned of it as a child. The Stone Bridge of Progar, the Tabernacle of Zentrum, the lighthouse at Fyrpahatet, Lake Treville — these were all on the list.
Abel rode up and joined the stream of soldiers crossing over. On the other side of the bridge, where the Road widened out, he found the general and his staff.
Saxe was a man made to sit on a mount and look commanding. Even Abel, who had learned not to judge the skill of the military man by his appearance, couldn’t help thinking so. He had a graying beard so closely trimmed that he must shape it with a steel blade rather than obsidian. He was bronze-skinned, with deep-set eyes and a raptor’s nose. He was also one of those men whose torso was a good deal larger than his legs. This caused Saxe to appear enormous when he sat in the saddle. Abel had been in his geography class at the Academy, and knew Saxe was shorter than he was when standing. Now, sitting on a large male dont, Saxe gazed down at Abel while Abel delivered von Hoff’s request.
The general had moved over to one side with his staff in order to review the troops as they marched. The officers were passing around a wineskin and squeezing a short stream into their mouths. Saxe himself did not partake, but worked a cud of nesh with his jaw while watching the troops.
After Abel was done talking, the general spat out a stream of nesh juice onto the dusty road, somehow avoiding getting any on his beard. He turned to Abel and laughed genially, then denied the request. He sent Abel back to tell von Hoff that the cliffs were so steep he doubted any man could climb them, and they had to take their chances.
Von Hoff calmly nodded when Abel delivered Saxe’s reply. “It’s my job to worry, and his to sort his priorities,” he murmured. “Still, let’s have all sharpshooters to the middle of the column. That’ll give them a better field of fire if they have to take the enemy off those cliffs.”
Abel sent out couriers with the order. On they marched, and soon the Road became so steep and narrow that the donts couldn’t handle it with men on their backs. Abel had the command staff dismount and lead their rides upward. He was, as he’d started the journey, back to the steady drumbeat of a double-time march.
No attack came from above, and the path widened a bit. Abel discovered that there was a louder and more powerful roar than the Fork entering the River. From ahead came the pounding thunder of the Third Cataract. Here there was a far steeper and more constricted passage than even that of the Second Cataract where it flowed around Montag Island. Soon they were marching alongside the River as it raged down the Valley. The Road became more level, and the brigade staff was able to mount up again. But the sound of the roaring River kept the donts skittish, and Abel had to give Nettle a reassuring stream of gentle words now and then to keep her calm.
Others were not having as much luck, and one of the brigade cartographers fell off the side of a veering dont and landed on his arm. Abel, not far away, heard the sickening crack of bone, and the man stood up wailing in pain. Von Hoff was too far ahead to have noticed, and Abel decided not to trouble him with the situation. He had the man set to the side with a medic to tend him.
They rode on.
After what seemed an endless series of rapids, they reached the top of the cataract. The River widened, and a descending wagon path crossed over the Road and down to a ferry landing at the water’s edge. No carting boat was in sight. Abel looked across the River and saw a boat pulled up on the other side and turned over, as if it had been stowed — except for the fact that its underside had been stove to white wooden splinters.
To Abel’s right, the cliffs of the Rim turned directly east, while ahead of him stood the first true mountain he’d seen with his own eyes.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Raj was chuckling. You’ll see higher still. Much higher.
He’d climbed plenty of hills and rocky towers in the Redlands, and gazed up canyon walls, but he’d never seen anything like this, not in person. Center had created images of mountainous terrain for him that was impossible to tell from the real thing — he’d believed. But there was something about the hugeness of this actual mass of earth and rocks that made a physical impression on Abel’s senses.
At the crossroads, the wagon path headed to the northeast and disappeared into some low-lying trees. According to the maps, it ran northeast between the mountain before them and the Rim cliffs to its south. The main Road still headed north, hugging the River as ever, and worked its way around the western side of the mountain and out of sight.
“What’s its name, that mountain?” Abel asked Wolfe, another of the mapmakers.
“Sentinel,” Wolfe answered. “And there’s more behind it that we can’t see. There’s three peaks, one after the other, with a low ridge connecting them. Sentinel, Tamarak, and Meyer. River flows to the west of all of them, and the Road follows it.”
“What about that path?” Abel said, nodding toward the wagon track leading away from the ferry.
“It’s called the Ferry Road on the maps, even though you can see it’s two ruts cut in the ground, and not much else. It circles around the three peaks on their eastern flank, hugs the Escarpment. The two roads meet back up in the Plains of Orash. At least that’s what the maps say.”
“Do we have any men of Progar in the Brigade who can confirm your maps?”
“I don’t know, sir. Not that I’m aware of.”
The Guardian column crossed the wagon track and continued up the Road. It seemed that they were headed straight for Sentinel for a long time, but then the Road veered to the left, which placed the mountain on Abel’s right. They’d gotten far enough away from the River to lose sight of it, but now the Road crossed a rise and angled down into bottomlands, and the River reappeared in front of them.
As they neared it, the ground underfoot became softer and muddier. Abel first noticed it when Nettle couldn’t pull a foot out of some sucking mud quickly enough. She stumbled and barely recovered. Another moment, and he might very well have had a thirty-stone beast wallowing on his body, crushing muscles and bones.
Marsh, said Raj. Poor ground for a fight. Or perfect, depending on your position. You know what use we made of marshy land before.
How could he forget? The Battle of the Canal. The priests had opened the headgates and allowed water to flow through the Canal levee and into the rice paddies of Treville. The Blaskoye horde, those excellent riders who seemed to live on their donts, had charged into it — and become mired.
The Treville Black and Tan Regulars, though outnumbered, had breechloading rifles that gave them a three to one rate of fire advantage over their enemies. The wallowing, disorganized Blaskoye had been cut to pieces, a horde of ten thousand reduced to piles of slain donts and men. Those bones still lined the top of the Canal levee on the road to Hestinga.
But the soggy ground was also the first spot wide enough to accommodate a mass of men. Saxe, near the vanguard of the column, called a halt to allow the others to assemble. There were already several thousand men who’d crossed the rise and descended to the marshland. These spread out, mostly toward the River, and many of the men took the chance to curl up next to their packs and grab some rest.
They’ve been marching for fifteen days and covered over two hundred leagues, Abel thought. These men deserve a thrice-damned breather.
What men deserve and what men get are two different things, growled Raj. Look up and to the east!
Abel’s gaze trailed up the slope of Sentinel Mountain. Its flanks were bare of anything but grassy vegetation and shrub…that is, except on the top, where there was a darker band of what must have been trees or dense brush. About halfway up, a rocky crag jutted out, granite gray against the green slope. From the top of that crag, a white puff of smoke rose, as if the crag were a chimney venting a fire down below.
We’re in musket range of those cliffs, Abel thought.
Then something he’d never seen before. Something dark flying through the sky. Not alive. Jagged. Like —
A rock. A very large rock.
It crashed among the Guardian columns, ploughing lengthwise down the Road, crushing men and tossing others to the side like blown chaff.
From the side of the rock projectile, from a hole in its surface, smoke rose.
White smoke that Abel was all too familiar with.
“Dive!” he screamed. It was useless. He could barely hear himself in the confusion.
The rock exploded.
Fragments flew in all directions, killing more men, taking off limbs, a head.
Abel looked up. Another black spot in the sky, descending in an arc.
This time the Guardian troops threw themselves on the ground. The projectile landed and exploded. Several more men were killed by the impact, but none by the explosion.
From nearby came the commanding voice of Colonel von Hoff.
“Forward! Get beyond the range of those arbalests!”
The troops rose and milled about in confusion. Abel snapped the reins of his dont and set her into motion toward the troops.
“Up!” he yelled. “Up and forward, you pukes!”
He burst among the ranks that had been hit, Nettle neatly dodging both the living and the dead.
“Forward,” he yelled. “Double-time! Forward!”
Almost miraculously, the men responded.
“Look above!” shouted one man.
Abel looked up. Another huge stone had been launched from the revetments above.
“Move it,” Abel shouted.
The ranks surged forward.
The rock landed, but the range was off and it fell too far on the other side of the Road and half buried itself in the mud.
“Major, hold there!”
Abel spun to see von Hoff, who had caught up with him.
“Let’s you and I get to the front and locate Saxe or one of his couriers. We’ll all get out of range of these thrice-damned stones if we can keep the boys moving.”
Now that the troops had started, the march seemed to continue under its own power. When another stone came and found its mark to the east side of the Road, men dove for the ground, then hopped back up and continued marching once the danger had passed.
Abel and von Hoff worked their way through the marching soldiers, Abel riding in front to clear a way, calling “Colonel coming through! Make way!”
From ahead, a cry of alarm. An officer came charging down the side of the Road toward them, his dont’s forelegs raised in the air and the dont running on two legs, as the animals did at full speed. When he got to von Hoff, the rider pulled up, the dont crashed down on all fours, and the officer breathlessly delivered his message.
“Men down ahead. Rifle volley from up the Road and rifle volley from above.”
“We’ll pull back,” said von Hoff. “Thrice-damn the rocks. Let’s get these men off the Road and out of rifle range.”
Then the air was filled with the crackle of muskets, which Abel could hear even over the shouts of the men.
The messenger cried out and grasped his back. His eyes rolled up in their sockets, and he slowly fell from his dont onto the ground. He landed on his back. In his stomach a hole the size of a green fig had been blasted.
Exit wound, thought Abel. Got him from behind. He’d seen enough of such wounds to know.
The remainder of the couriers and brigade staff caught up with Abel and the colonel. Von Hoff glanced down at the dead man, then looked up, a resolute expression on his face, and shouted to his gathered staff. “Take them to the west side of the Road out of range of muskets and those falling stones. Find cover wherever we can. This rifle fire may only be a minor nuisance. We need to see what we’re dealing with.” The others stared at the colonel as if nothing he’d said was comprehensible.