They stood silent near the height of the hillside, among the trees overlooking the confluence of the two frozen rivers. A dozen of them, simply watching and waiting — ten pale, short and wiry beneath their winter clothing, and two dark, tall and wide with desert silks beneath their furs. Lionkiller was conscious of the way his breath puffed from his lips in the cold air, and of the small, quiet stirrings of the forest around them as the disturbance of their arrival settled. That the woods could settle again was why he had left all of the willing colonial men behind. Only the pale hunters could wait so quietly, for so long. Even Chickpea was growing restless now, the fingers of one blunt hand tapping around the worn hilt of his sword.
“*Cack!*” Chickpea finally growled, his voice carrying as loud as a mastiff’s bark in this strange, cold country. “Nothing’s there. Nothing ever was. And nothing will be. There’s no invasion that’s going to come, not ever. Now, we’ve had ourselves a nice stroll and seen the sights. Brother, let’s go home again before my balls freeze.”
Only one among the slight hunters could have understood the Suftic soldier’s words, but Chickpea’s tone of contempt needed no translation. Bomo wasn’t the only one of the Bukno-Baha who turned a look of simmering anger toward Chickpea. Lionkiller ignored those looks, just as he ignored his shield-brother’s request.
“Bomo,” he said to their guide and translator — six months off the last boat, and Lionkiller was still not eager to trust his competency with the local pidgin. “Two men here, to begin building the watch post. The rest with me — let’s get down to the floodplain and see what we find.”
Bomo made his assignments with crisp gestures — Lionkiller noted the two men selected, one of the strongest of the youths paired with the silver-streaked hunter with the axe-cut scar bisecting his face. Lionkiller nodded to himself in approval of Bomo’s sense, and gestured to the rest to move out.
“Quradu’s cock!” Chickpea complained in their own tongue, although he fell into step beside his old friend readily enough. “Brother, you know we’re chasing ghosts. The blizzard was blowing its way in. The hunters just heard a tree falling, or wolves, or mating mountain lions. Remember how the sailors promised us those she-cats scream like well-paid dockside fancy-fancy girls —”
“They heard a horn,” Bomo interrupted, his voice steady and speaking the foreign language with a confidence that left Lionkiller bitterly envious of the younger man’s gift with tongues. “They heard a horn of the Hungry Men. Tuzo and Siso survived the Bloody Years when the Blue Beasts hunted us like deer. They know well what it was they heard.”
“Crotch-rot!” Chickpea had never been a man to resist an argument, and his life had been too soft since their retirement from the cohorts. “Crotch-rot, I say! Old Ironfast said it true before he handed us the standard and sailed for home. The locals still send their smoke-prayers to plead to their gods that their painted cannibals don’t come and find them again — which means for nearly twenty years that’s all they’ve thought about! Every strange noise in the woods might be the dreaded invasion, the big bad blue men coming back for dessert. Cack, I say I didn’t puke my guts out for two months at sea in order to just —”
“The Bukno-Baha men heard what they heard,” Lionkiller interrupted, with enough of the first-spear’s edge to warn a ranker like Chickpea that he was out of line. “The territorial governor has always respected the experience of the hunters. That is why security officers have always been dispatched to these shores — to protect and defend the Ramat colony. Our predecessors at this post may have gotten lazy and lax, but I will not, and nor will you. I will not dismiss a threat until we’ve given the matter due diligence and investigated fully.”
“*Cack*.” Chickpea’s grumbling subsided, and for a time, the only sound in the world was the crunch of their boots through the snow as the scouting party made its way downhill. Lionkiller kept an eye on the terrain as they moved through it, satisfied with how close the mix of fir and bare-branched young trees grew together. Then they reached the edge of the forest. Before them, beyond a steep drop in the snowy river bank, stretched the joined waters of the Smelt River, blanketed beneath a deep, level expanse of unmarked snow.
Lionkiller stopped in his tracks within the fringe of trees, an arm’s length from the edge of the drop, his dark eyes narrowing as he scanned the vista before them. The rest of the party stopped as well, Bomo and his band of hunters reluctant to leave the safety of the cover of the trees, and Chickpea out of two decades of soldier’s habit around officers. The silence settled around them again as they waited.
Bomo had picked his spot well, Lionkiller thought. They stood on the southern bank of the joined rivers. The North Fork wound away to the dark forest to the north, while the Smelt continued on to the east. Both lay flat and wide beneath the white snow, as inviting as a nicely cobbled road.
“A camouflaged archer’s nest here,” Lionkiller said, pointing to a spot just behind them up the slope. “And another there, on the other side of the river. Two or four archers per post. String escape lines the archers can slide down when they need to flee. The woods on both sides of the river here are too thick for horsemen to navigate, not at any speed. Supply the watchposts with pots of pitch and flint and steel.”
“Flaming arrows,” Chickpea nodded, chuckling to himself. “Horses will hate that. What if we build a blockade of pitch-treated logs across this narrow point of the river? Enough pitch and one arrow is all it’d take to torch it.”
Lionkiller shook his head. “Not worth the effort — another storm like the last one we had would bury it. The same goes for any caltrops or horse traps we’d set. Winter in this land just isn’t our friend.” He pointed again toward the white, smooth stretches of river. “As long as these rivers remain frozen, they can deliver the Hungry Men to us as easily as merchants travel the Spice Way out of Voadene. Remember Azati?”
Chickpea grunted and spat. “Damned calvary. Well, I suppose at the least we won’t need to worry about these ghostly Blue Beasts rumbling up on our flanks with chariots. Or do we?” he added, with a questioning look for Bomo.
The slender Bukno-Baha man may have largely mastered the Suftic language, but some words were still strangers to him. He looked between Lionkiller and Chickpea in confusion, until Lionkiller answered the other soldier’s question with a sharp shake of his head.
“If we had even a hundred-spear of the Cohort, we could stop a thousand of the screaming cannibals right here,” Lionkiller said, still seeing the tactical possibilities of that in his minds-eye, and keenly feeling the lack. “But we’ve got to work with what we do have instead.”
“Which is nothing,” Chickpea smirked.
“Which is a limited number of irregulars,” Lionkiller corrected his old friend, with a thoughtful glance at Bomo. “Skilled irregulars. You know what damage a few archers on high ground can sow.”
“Snipers, you mean.” There was a grudging mix of hatred and respect in Chickpea’s tone.
“Skilled and motivated irregulars who know this territory like their own cockstands,” Lionkiller said, with a rich satisfaction tinging his own voice. “Our watchmen need only buy time and slow the enemy down while the colony evacuates by boat to Whale Island.”
“Snipers and guerrillas,” Chickpea grumbled. “The Warrior weeps at how far we’ve fallen, you and me. The Heroes of the Battle of Revez, yet we’re reduced to this. Freezing our balls off at the wet ass-end of the empire, chasing ghosts with snipers and guerrillas for company. Quradu the Warrior weeps for us, brother. Weeps.”
Lionkiller snorted in grim amusement at his friend’s assessment. “Then don’t forget that you are the one who insisted we marry into a kukota shipping out to here,” he countered, before turning to Bomo. “We will find a sheltered place to make camp for the night. When we leave in the morning, four men will remain here to build and supply the sniper nests. But you’re taking us east. We’re going to find your Hungry Men, if they are here to be found.”
The frozen Smelt River proved not to be as easy a road as the treasure-laden Spice Way, as the winter weather grew stormy again in the coming days. Fresh snow dusted them, and the wind was as bitter as Hawu Basu’s unforgiving breath — but the river itself stretched relatively straight in its course, due east along the flanks of Ramat Mountain and beyond, toward where the hunters promised the dark forests gave way to rolling grasslands.
But neither Lionkiller nor Chickpea were strangers to a harsh march, despite Chickpea’s enthusiastic complaining. And neither were they soft Ebean men. If the woods-wise hunters were surprised at the punishing pace the two Suftic tribesmen set in this strange country, Bomo did not pass the sentiments on. Instead, he simply counseled them on the fickle ways of this land’s bitter weather, and taught them lessons they needed to know for winter survival here. They slept in snow caves at night, and subsisted on the travel rations they carried, supplemented by the fish they caught through holes carved in the river ice each night.
And always, they were haunted by wolves.
Rare was the morning when they failed to find wolf-signs ranging around their campsite. And once, they caught a glimpse of a great, grey wolf ghosting away into the trees. The size of the wolves in this land was as chilling as the winter wind — they were twice the size of the desert wolves of the tribal lands of Lionkiller’s childhood. Yet never once did the monsters harass their nightly camps, or disturb their fishing holes. The hunters revered the creatures as forest spirits; no less superstitious in his own right, Chickpea cursed them as the servants of Hawa Basu. They had left the sandstorms of their homeland behind, but the howling servants of Hawu Basu appeared to have their kin of the blizzard. Lionkiller simply kept his hand on his sword hilt and a cautious eye on the forest whenever he felt the fickle sense that they were being watched.
Of the Hungry Men, there was no sign. The blizzard could have well erased any tracks or dung; what Lionkiller was looking for more were breaks in the forest where horsemen might go, and for day after day, he saw none. Likewise, he saw no terrain which would be more friendly for a horseman once the winter snows melted and the frozen roads of winter had thawed. To his satisfaction, all Lionkiller found was thick, dark forest, flanking the river for mile after unwelcoming mile. During spring, summer and autumn, any war party riding in pursuit of an easy kill would find hard going. Calvary forces negotiating this country during the unfrozen months would be finding hoof rot and broken legs long before they found any trace of the Ramat settlement to the west. It was only during the brutal cold of the winters that riding raids in this land might prove profitable for a horseman.
And winter here was nearing an end. After a handful of days of snow spitting down on them from the steel-grey skies, the weather grew clear again, and then hints of warming arrived. One afternoon even brought a sifting of snow which then turned to rain. It froze again come nightfall, and made for icy hiking the next day, but the wiry hunters agreed it was sign of winter’s coming end. And more promising — and equally worrisome — it meant the frozen road beneath them would soon thaw.
“Maybe very soon,” Bomo said that night, as he labored with Chickpea and Lionkiller to dig out the snow-burrow they would sleep in. “It will mean a more difficult trek home. But when the snows melt, then comes a flood of fish. First the little smelt, and then the big salmon. We will not go hungry then.”
The weather was clear and calm again, on the morning when they finally reached the end of the forest. The knife-like thrust of Ramat’s summit was visible above the dark woods behind them, while before them rolled waves of snow-covered plains, with the Smelt River’s frozen length stretching away to the east as though the Empire’s own engineers had laid its course.
“Make camp here,” Lionkiller said, with a wave at the hunters. “Bomo, with Chickpea and me. We’ll scout out farther. If we’re not back by dawn, consider us dead.”
“Or him, maybe,” Chickpea said cheerfully enough in the local pidgin. “Me, never.”
The trio followed the river on to the east, and as the morning lengthened into afternoon and the forest behind them grew into only a dark smudge on the horizon, the frozen river beneath them showed increasing signs of the coming thaw. Once there came a low moan from beneath Chickpea’s substantial weight, followed by a sharp crack. After that, they stayed off of the center of the frozen road. The footing was more treacherous to either side, but Lionkiller did not want to risk falling through rotten ice.
Late in the afternoon, they found wolf-signs again. Tracks led down from the stand of trees on a distant swell of land, and followed the frozen river with seemingly the same deliberation as their own. And then the wolf-sign led them to what they were looking for.
On the southern side of the river, the carcass of a horse. A jagged hole showed where it had gone through the thawing ice. The night’s snow had already covered the tracks, but there had been quite a lot of disturbance, and it did not take much imagination to see where the carcass had been dragged out of the water.
“Ravens and wolves have been at it already,” Chickpea said, kneeling beside the remains. “But it was butchered before they had their turn at it.”
“They came from the north,” Bomo said, pointing at the half-buried, frozen trail. “There were many riders here. They crossed the river from the north. Yesterday, I think. And look,” he added, pointing away to the south east, “They turn away, back toward the Stolen Lands.”
“These Blue Beasts are more than ghosts then, after all,” Chickpea granted, without rancour. “How many years has it been, Bomo, since your people fled from your Stolen Lands in the first place?”
“Seventeen and a half, as the women of the colony count it,” Bomo said in his accented Suftic. And while his voice remained steady, the expression on the younger man’s face was grim.
“Took them awhile to find you. Maybe they get easily lost,” Chickpea suggested.
“No,” Lionkiller said, with none of his shield-brother’s easy humor. “The frozen rivers are simply their only way in. But this winter is nearly gone. We have nearly a year to prepare, should they choose to return.” He gave the Bukno-Baha man an encouraging slap on the shoulder, then pointed with his spear back the way they had come. “We’ve the confirmation we need. We’ve work to do. Let’s get home, and get it started.”
The trio turned back toward the distant forest. “Ah well,” Chickpea said, as they followed their own tracks back to the west. “Brother, you know what this means, don’t you?”
“What?” Lionkiller responded, his thoughts crowded with half-formed strategies and questions of where defensive fortifications might best be built.
Chickpea grinned. “We may have more fun here than married life alone promised us,” he announced, before striking up a cheerful soldier’s whistle to match the pace of their strides. It was a marching tune favored by the ranks of the Cohort, for men headed off to war. Lionkiller did not join in — it had been unfitting of officers of the Cohort then, and thus remained unfitting now. Bomo gave them both a strange, questioning look… then after a moment, he began to hum along. The Bukno-Baha man had no way of knowing the tune’s meaning, but from the grim look in the slender hunter’s eyes, Lionkiller could wager their clever translator had guessed.
They had war to prepare for, before the next winter froze the rivers of the forest again.