There were obstacles beyond the Kurians. Getting north across the Arkansas River would be difficult. He had his shattered marines, a family with a pregnant woman, a Texas teamster and a Quisling he couldn't be sure ofâand the precious wagonload of Quickwood. They were too many to move quietly and too few to be able to fight their way through even a picket line. He didn't know whether luck had gotten them this far into the Ouachitas or just Kurian nonchalance. The mountains were empty, almost strangely so; they had cut a few trails of large numbers of men, but only on old roads. If the Free Territory had fallen, he would expect the mountains to be thick with refugees: old Guard outfits, bands of Wolves, or just men determined to get their families out of the reach of the Kurians. Instead there was little but strings of empty homesteads in the hollows, fields and gardens already run to weed and scrub.
He looked down and discovered that he had finished his spear point. It was conical, and rough as a Neolithic arrowhead. They had no pointed steel caps for a tip of the kind Ahn-Kha had made on Haiti. Getting it through a Reaper's robes would be difficult.
The Jamaicans were singing in the other room. One of them had found a white plastic bucket of the sort Valentine was intimately familiar with from his days gathering fruit in the Labor Regiment, and employed it as an instrument with the aid of wooden-spoon drumsticks. With the backbeat established, the rest of the voices formed, seemingly without effort on their part, a four-part harmony. The rest, military, civilian and Grog, sat around listening to the calypso carols.
Narcisse, in the kitchen with Valentine, scooped some rice pudding onto his plate. She used a high kitchen stool and a chair to substitute for legs, moving form one perch to the other as she cooked.
“I used to have one of these with a turning seat in Boul's kitchen. Got to get me another someday. You'll like this, child. Just rice, sugar and raisins,” she explained, when he raised an eyebrow and sniffed at it. “Okay, a touch of rum, too. It's Christmas.”
“I liberated the prisoners held in the officers' liquor cabinet back in town.”
“You're a sly one. How did you make it inside that rigged-up jail? More magic?”
Narcisse spooned some more pudding into his cup. “Sissy's old, but she still has her game. Good thing I kept some coffee in my bag; those men back there didn't know a coffee bean from their earlobe. I ground it and brewed it, and before I knew it they had me in their kitchen. Just in case you didn't come back, I had them thinking that the Jamaicans were special farmers who knew how to grow coffee and cocoa and poppies for opiates. Was hoping to save their lives. Those soldiers believed me. Ignorance isn't strength.”
“You know your George Orwell,” Valentine said.
She shrugged. “Never met him. It was one of Boul's sayings.” Boul was the man she cooked for before Valentine had brought her out of Haiti.
“Boul struck me as more the Machiavelli type.”
“Daveed, you're troubled. You worried about the baby?”
Valentine was dumfounded. The letter Mali had left him with, with orders not to read it until he reached the Ozarks, had never left the pouch around his chest, where it rested among his precious seeds.
“Did Mali tell you?”
“Oh no, Daveed. I smell the child in her when we left Jamaica. She young and strong, Daveed; your girl'll be fine.”
“It's a girl?” Valentine was ready to believe that someone who could smell a pregnancy could also determine the sex of an embryo.
“Daveed, you got to quit being a prisoner of the past. Forget about the future, too. Come back to the here and now; we need you.”
Valentine glanced into the other room. Maybe it was the soft Caribbean tone of her voice, a bit like Father Max's. It reminded him he needed to confess. He lowered his voice. “Narcisse, there are people dying because I let them down. You know how that feels?”
Narcisse put down her spoon and joined Valentine at the table. Someone had spent some time varnishing the oak until the grain stood clear and darkâthe Free Territory had been filled with craftsmen. The pattern reminded him of grinning demon faces.
“I've never been a soldier, child. Spent a lot of time runnin' from them, but never been one. The men, wherever they're from, even those ape-men . . . they believe in this fight too. They're not as different from you as you think. They don't follow you blind, they follow you because they know that if it comes to a fight, they want to look out for you as much as you want to look out for them.”
“Think so? Narcisse, I ran outside of Bern Woods. I got up and ran.”
“No. I saw Ahn-Kha dragging you away with my own eyes.”
“I still left.”
“Dying with them wouldn't have done your people any good. You saved yourself for the next fight. You saved the wood, at least some of it.”
“That was an accident. A lucky accident. An officer belongs with his men. If he doesn't share their fate, he hasn't done his duty to them. It's the oldest compact between a leader and the led. Goes back to whatever we had for society before civilization.”
Narcisse thought this over. “Was it wrong of them to surrender?”
“Of course not. It was hopeless from the start.”
“But you fought, they fought.”
“Couldn't help it. It was instinct.”
“When you left, Daveed, that was instinct too, no?”
“Not the kind you should give in to.”
“The past can't be changed, child. You keep worrying at it, you'll be doing the same thing as you did at the fight. Running away. Don't pick at a scab, or a new one grows in its place. Let the hurt heal. In time, it'll drop off by itself. Better for you, better for the hurt. If there's one thing I know about, child, it's getting over a hurt.”
The Vaudouist didn't refer to her injuries often. She answered questions about them to anyone who asked, but Valentine had never heard her use them as a trump card in an argument before. Valentine let her unusual statement hang in the air for a moment.
“Narcisse, it sounds fine, but . . . a bit of me that isn't quite my brain and isn't quite my heart won't be convinced yet.”
“That's your conscience talking. He's worth listening to. But he can be wrong . . . sometimes.”
Valentine half dozed in front of the field pack with the headset on. Ahn-Kha snored next to him, curled up like a giant dog. Like most Quisling military equipment, the radio sitting on the table before him was ruggedly functional and almost aggressively ugly. Late at night the Quisling operators became more social, keeping each other company in the after-midnight hours of the quiet watches. Someone had just finished instructions on how to clear a gummed condensation tube on a still. His counterpart was complaining about the quality of the replacements they'd been getting: “Shit may float, but you can't build a riverboat outta it.” Valentine twisted the dial back to a scratchier conversation about a pregnant washerwoman.
“So she goes to your CO. So what? She should be happy. She's safe for a couple years now. Over,” the advice-giver said.
“She wants housing with the NCO wives. She's already got a three-year-old. She wants me to marry her so they can move in. Over,” the advice-seeker explained.
“That's an old story. She's in it for the ration book, bro. Look, if a piece of ass pisses you off, threaten to have her tossed off-Station. That'll shut her up. Better yet, just do it. Sounds to me like she'sâ”
Valentine turned the dial again.
“. . . fight in Pine Bluff. Put me down for twenty coin on Jebro. He'll take Meredith like a sapper popping an old woman. Over.”
“Sure thing. You want any of the prefight action? Couple of convicts. It's a blood-match; the loser goes to the Slits. Over.”
Valentine had heard the term “Slits” used by rivermen on the Mississippi. It referred to the Reapers' slit-pupiled eyes, or perhaps the narrow wounds their stabbing tongues left above the breastbone.
“No, haven't seen 'em. I'd be wasting my money. Over.”
Valentine heard a horse snort and jump outside the cracked window, the way an equine startled out of sleep readies all four feet for flight. The sound brought him awake in a flash. A pair of alarmed whinnies cut the night air.
Ahn-Kha came awake, nostrils flared and batlike ears up and alert.
“Arms! Quietly now, arms!” Valentine said to the sleeping men, huddled against the walls in the warm room where they had enjoyed dinner. He snatched up his pistol and worked the slide.
Ahn-Kha followed. How so much mass moved with such speed and stealthâ
“What is it, my David?” Ahn-Kha breathed, his rubbery lips barely forming the words.
“Something is spooking the horses. Watch the front of the house. Post,” Valentine said to his lieutenant, who had appeared in his trousers and boots, pulling on a jacket. “Get the Smalls and M'Daw into the cellar, please. Stay down there with them.”
Valentine waved to the wagon sentry, Jefferson, but the man's eyes searched elsewhere. Jefferson had his rifle up and ready. Two of the horses reared, and he stood to see over them.
Three Reapers hurtled out of the snow, black-edged mouths open, bounding on spring-steel legs. Three! He and all his people would be dead inside two minutes.
“Reapers!” Valentine bellowed, bringing up his pistol in a two-handed grip. As he centered the front sight on one he noticed it was naked, but so dirt-covered that it looked clothed. A torn cloth collar was all that remained of whatever it had been wearing. He fired three times; the .45 barked deafeningly in the enclosed space.
At the sound of the shots his men moved even faster. Two marines scrambled to the window and stuck their rifles out of the loophole-sized slats in the shutters.
A Reaper leapt toward Jefferson, whose gun snapped impotently, and Valentine reached for his machete as he braced himself for the sight of the Texan's bloody disassembly. Perhaps he could get it in the back as it killed Jefferson. But it didn't land on the sentry. The naked avatar came down on top of a horse; on the balls of its feet, like a circus rider. It reached for the animal's neck, got a good gripâValentine almost heard the snap as the horse suddenly toppled. The Reaper's snake-hinged jaw opened wide as it straddled the fallen animal to feed.
The other two, robeless like the first and running naked in the snowstorm, also ignored Jefferson, chasing the horses instead. The Jamaicans' rifles fired in unison when one came around the cart and into the open, but the only effect Valentine saw was a bullet striking into a mount's rump. The horse dropped sideways with a Reaper on top of it. Some instinct made the wounded animal roll its heavy body across the spider-thin form and came to its feet, kicking. As the Reaper reached for the tail a pair of hooves caught it across the back, sending it flying against the cart. It lurched off into the darkness, clutching its chest and making a wheezing sound.
The third disappeared into the snowstorm, chasing a terrified bay.
“Stay with the others,” he said to Ahn-Kha, who stood ready with a Quickwood spear point. He threw open the doorâand held up his hands when Jefferson whirled and pointed the rifle at him, muzzle seemingly aimed right between his eyes. The gun snapped again.
Valentine almost flew to the feeding Reaper. It heard him and raised its head from the horse, the syringelike tongue still connected to the twitching animal. It lashed out. Valentine slipped away from the raking claw. The momentum of the Reaper's strike turned its shoulder, and Valentine buried his knife in its neck, forcing it facedown in the snow as the tongue retracted, flinging hot liquid like a bloody sprinkler. He ground the bowie into the Reaper, hearing its feet scrabble for purchase on the snowy ground. It tried to shrug him off. Valentine brought up a knee, pressed on the blade . . .
The Reaper twitched as nerve tissue parted. In five seconds it was limp.
A blurâJefferson's rifle butt came down on the back of the Reaper's head so that Valentine felt the wind pass his nose. Jefferson raised the gun up again.
“It's done,” Valentine said.
Valentine pulled his knife from the Reaper's corpse, and Jefferson clubbed it again. “Jefferson, calm down. You might try loading your weapon. It's deadlier from the other end.”
“Sorry, Captain. Sorryâ”
Valentine ignored him and listened with hard ears all around the woods. Years ago, when he'd learned the Way of the Wolf, a Lifeweaver had enhanced his senses. When he concentrated on his sensesâhardening them, in the slang of the Wolvesâhe could pick up sounds others would miss. He heard branches breaking in the snow somewhere, in the direction of the Reaper who had been kicked and then run. Valentine tried to make sense of the behavior. They had attacked randomly and hit the biggest targets they could see. Evidently they were masterless; their Kurian had probably been killed or had fled out of control range and they were acting on pure instinct. The severed-necked Reaper gave a twitch of an arm, and Jefferson jumped a good two feet in the air.