Southern Missouri, April: Even the rebuilt islands of humanity surrounded by the bloody sea of the Kurian Order no longer resemble the quiet past. The settlements and towns are in the tradition of medieval villages, with stout buildings huddled together like a threatened elephant herd, presenting horns and hide to the world as the mothers and young shelter within. People take care to be indoors by nightfall, and trust only the faces known to them. A few radios and even fewer printing presses distribute the news. A telephone call is a rarity. Trusted elders and community assist the smallholders with everything from education to sanitation.
On the north "wall" of the little town of Montgomery, folded into the foothills of the picturesque Ozarks of south-em Missouri, Jackson Elementary School stands stolidly as one of the hamlet's oldest buildings. Architecturally uninspiring but thickly bricked, it protects the north side of one of the newer towns of the Ozark Free Territory. A series of classrooms, with windows bricked up except for a few rifle loopholes with sandbags ready on nearby shelves, look out on a playground cleared of swings and trees. The roof of the school is covered with a slanted shield of fireproofed railroad ties, which, along with a thirty-foot watchtower are the only additions to the school in the last half-century of its existence.
Inside the building, in the old half-underground library on the lowest level of the school, three long scarred wooden tables have been rearranged into a U. At the center of the table, a sober-faced woman in a heavy uniform coat sits with three small piles of paper in front of her, sorting through the handwritten and typed pages with the aid of a younger officer. To her left, another gray-haired officer waits in self-important isolation, his fingers laced primly in front of him, tired-looking eyes gazing across the empty space in the hollow of the U at another figure.
The object of his gaze is David Valentine, wearing the closest thing to a uniform the Wolf officer posesses: creased blue trousers, boots, and a pressed white shirt. He has bound his shining black hair close to his scalp out of respect for the occasion. Valentine has none of Foxtrot's complement in Montgomery, but were any of them to look at him, they would know fie was angry. His chin is down, jaw set, and he wears the fixed expression of a wounded bull about to try a final charge at the matador. A brother Guard officer leans toward him, speaking calmly and softly into his ear.
Col. Elizabeth Chalmers, who rumor said had written the book on Southern Command's military jurisprudence, cleared her throat. After the days' proceedings, Valentine learned that the sound was her version of a judge bringing the court to order with his gavel.
"This investigation is drawing to a close. Captain Wilton," she said, addressing the older man who sat facing Valentine, "you've had the unhappy duty of attempting to substantiate the charges brought by Captain Beck against Lieutenant Valentine. Namely that on the date in question Lieutenant Valentine willfully and without cause disobeyed orders and withdrew from Little Timber Hill, turning Foxtrot Company's hard-won victory into a defeat."
Two weeks ago, when Valentine first heard that Beck, from his hospital bed, had ordered charges brought against him, he had been shocked. During the course of investigation to determine if a court-martial should be convened, Valentine came to the slow realization that Beck was using the investigation of his subordinate as a smoke screen to obscure the debacle at Little Timber Hill. Foxtrot Company, so laboriously built up and trained over the last year, was again well below half-strength and rendered useless to Southern Command for the rest of the year at least. Judicial proceedings against a disobedient subordinate would befuddle the issue.
Who knows, Valentine thought, a touch of gallows humor appearing, Beck might even get another promotion out of it.
Captain McKendrick of the Advocate General's office, the tiny legal team that handled most of the military and civilian justice in the Free Territory, had been assigned to Valentine as his official "friend and spokesman." His counsel consisted of, "Keep your mouth shut," and "Colonel Chalmers prefers to be addressed as sir, not ma'am."
He did not inspire much confidence in Valentine. Especially after he heard that if brought to court-martial and convicted, he could be shot by firing squad.
The colonel's voice broke him out of his dark musings. "Captain Wilton, your summation, please."
The prosecuting officer stood up, a slightly bent figure with the slow voice of grandfatherly wisdom. "Yes, sir. I think we should concentrate on two essential facts. The first being that on March sixteenth, the day in question, Foxtrot Company was victorious on Little Timber Hill. In no small part due to the courage of Lieutenant Valentine here, the Grogs were thrown back each time they tried to take the hill. Their attacks grew less and less frequent as the day progressed, until finally they were reduced to sniping and the occasional mortar shell. Lieutenant Valentine's own report, read out at this hearing, states that plainly. They were beat, and they knew it."
"Colonel, please," Valentine's adviser interrupted. "There's no evidence to support that last statement."
"Don't let rhetoric carry you away, gentlemen," Colonel Chalmers said. "Let's stick to facts, please. The statement about the Grogs being beaten will be removed from the record."
"My apologies, Colonel. But that would have been my judgment, having served in the field most of my career. Within minutes of Captain Beck being wounded, Lieutenant Valentine assembled what subordinates he could and began planning a withdrawal. Despite the fact that Captain Beck, before relinquishing command temporarily owing to wounds, ordered that hill be held."
"Colonel, sir . . . ," McKendrick said, holding up his hand.
"You'll have your chance to speak, Captain McKendrick," Chalmers shot back. "Please continue, Captain."
"Lieutenant Valentine's reasoning for disobeying his Captain's orders is given in his report. This Cat out of Oklahoma somewhere believed that some kind of 'paramilitary Reaper unit,'" Wilton read, referring to a copy of Valentine's report, "would be there by midnight, having already destroyed Lieutenant Caltagirone's short platoon of Foxtrot Company. Unfortunately, this Cat disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as she came."
Captain Wilton let that hang in the air for a moment.
"We know she is no figment of the imagination, but wild stories about Reapers behaving contrary to everything we know about them might seem more frightening on the battlefield with Grogs prowling the woods than here. Lieutenant Valentine acted on this intelligence, for whatever reason"-Valentine gritted his teeth and dug his fingers into his thighs to keep from speaking-"and left a strong defensive position with a long column on night march through territory of unknown enemy strength and disposition. I think we should count ourselves fortunate that any of them returned at all.
"Of course, I must leave it to the colonel to decide whether the withdrawal from Little Timber Hill constitutes a court-martial offense."
Colonel Chalmers turned to Valentine's side of the table. "Captain, are you ready to give your final statement, or shall we break so you can reread the record before your response?"
McKendrick stood. "Colonel, I believe there is no basis for a court-martial; in fact this hearing should never have been called. Charging Lieutenant Valentine with disobeying orders makes no sense, for as soon as he assumed command when Captain Beck was wounded, no one of superior rank was present. The only orders he could disobey were his own.
"Lieutenant Valentine holds a commission in the Wolves, an honor that says we trust him to make decisions about the lives of those under him. As a commander, he made a decision to abandon the position under the same authority that Captain Beck had to order its defense. Wolves in the field usually operate outside the formal command structure; he had no one to refer to, so he used his own judgment. He made the right decision, in my opinion, but even that is a moot point for the purposes of this investigation. Even a handful of Wolves are worth more to us than the entire Grog force assaulting the hill is to the Kurians. A Grog force that was being reinforced as the day progressed as evidenced by the artillery fire that started that afternoon.
"As to the issue that Captain Beck's final orders should have been obeyed, I agree that it is traditional to follow the orders of a wounded commander being carried from the field. But we are talking about a court-martial here, and a sentence that could include this officer facing a firing squad. So we must be very careful about how we apply the law, as opposed to applying tradition.
"As soon as Lieutenant Valentine assumed command, any action he took that did not violate the Stated Rules and Regulations or Emergency Articles was by definition legal. We have had Guard colonels withdraw their forces despite orders to the contrary from immediate command authority, and at each instance, we have deferred to the judgment of the officer in the field. This proceeding should go no further. The fact that it has gone this far speaks more eloquently of the nature of the officer who brought these charges than I-"
"Colonel Chalmers! This-," Wilton protested, but Chalmers cut him off.
"Captain, Lieutenant Valentine is being discussed here, not Captain Beck. I believe this is the second time I've had to warn you about this. I want those remarks removed from the record," she said to the young officer typing on the recorder. "Another statement like that, and I'll put my own censure of you on record, Captain McKendrick. Please continue."
Valentine would infinitely rather have been back at the breastworks on Little Timber Hill than be subject to this cross-court sniping. He shifted in his seat, a bitter taste at the back of his tongue.
"Thank you, Colonel," his defender continued. "I just want to ask the colonel to keep the good of the service in mind. If we hamstring our officers by court-martialing them for decisions made under fire, we are going to get a very timid group of Wolves. Lieutenant Valentine was at Little Timber Hill; we were not. What's more, he was in command. For us to punish him for exercising that command would be the height of folly."
McKendrick sat in his wooden chair and pulled it forward with an authoritative scrape.
Colonel Chalmers looked at the piles of paper before her. "Lieutenant Valentine, do you have anything to say before I make my decision?"
McKendrick elbowed him and gave the tiniest shake of his head.
Valentine stood up to address the colonel. "No, thank you, sir."
"Then would you please step into the waiting room while I discuss this with the captains."
"Sir," Valentine said, and left the room.
A very welcome face met him in the tiny room. Baker, the Wolf who had aided him in the attack on the Rigyard, was stretched out full on the sofa, reading a yellowed book.
"Hi-yo, Lieutenant. What's the story?"
The sight of a familiar face was like a cool breeze in hell. "Baker!" Valentine said, trying not to drop his mask of assumed stoicism too far. "What are you doing here? Foxtrot is supposed to be at mustering camp getting replacements."
"I'm outta Foxtrot Company, sir. I applied for a post in the Logistics Commandos."
"You, a scrounger?"
"Yeah. 'The backbone of the army is the noncommissioned man' and all that, but we need beef and shoes that aren't made out of old radial tires."
"Good luck, wherever you end up. The Wolves'll miss you."
Baker shrugged, his big shoulders making the gesture evocative of a turtle withdrawing to its shell. "I liked serving under you, but by God if it weren't for you and that Cat, we'd all be dead. And what happens to you over it? A court-martial."
"Not a court-martial. An 'inquiry.' There's a difference." The words came easy. Valentine had told himself the exact same thing hundreds of times a day for the past week:
An inquiry can't shoot me.
Baker began rummaging in his rucksack. "Now, where is that-? Here Mr. Valentine, I brought you some liquid morale." He said, extracting a sizable corked jug. "This ain't no busthead, either. It's genuine Kentucky whiskey. Berber or some such. Every man in the platoon chipped in and bought it off a cart trader. Bill Miranda from second squad grew up in Kentucky. He tasted it and vouched for the authenticity. Tasted a couple times, as a matter of fact, but we'd bought a big jug, and no one thought you'd miss a sip or two. Taste?"
"I'd love to. But I've got to go back into the courtroom, or whatever they call it. Not the best time to show up drunk."
They chatted over the small doings of the platoon and the company, from the smooth-faced kids who were supposed to be turned into Wolves to the lack of adequate blankets to replace those lost.
"This last batch," Baker was complaining, "turned to mush when they got wet. How the hell do you make a blanket outta sawdust, that's what I want to know. They'd unravel, if only there was material in'em to unravel in the first place. Does all the wool go to the Guards' fancy dress uniforms?"
The young officer who transcribed the inquiry poked his head into the room. "They're ready for you, Lieutenant."
"Good luck, sir," Baker said, suddenly serious.
As he walked back to the table-filled room, the stenographer walking next to him at a wedding-march pace, Valentine fought the urge to ask what the verdict was. He would find out soon enough, and the last thing he needed was this kid looking down his nose at a weak sister of a Wolf.
He stood in the center of the U of tables, the faces of the three officers conducting the inquiry impassive.
"Lieutenant Valentine," Colonel Chalmers began, "by all accounts, you are a fine young officer. I have tried, behind the scenes so to speak, to see if we can just drop this with some kind of simple reprimand. The basic facts of this case are in your own report, which you have sworn to and stood by, that Captain Beck ordered you to defend Little Timber as the new commander of Foxtrot Company. In that you heard and acknowledged that order, I have decided it would take a court-martial to decide whemer you disobeyed said order."
Valentine's heart fell at her words. Innocent or guilty, the very fact of being court-martialed would ruin his career. No commander would want a junior under him whose ability to obey orders was the subject of a military trial.
"However, I do have certain powers. I am going to give you a choice. Face the court-martial, and take your chances. If it means anything to you, your friend at this inquiry, Captain McKendrick, has offered to defend you before the court. And, interestingly enough, Captain Wilton also very passionately offered his services in your defense. You can come away from this assured that the officer investigating on behalf of the complaint against you is sympathetic to your situation.
"I am also giving you the option to resign your commission ramer than face court-martial. You can serve as a Wolf, or go into one of the omer branches of service discreedy, or return home to Minnesota if you wish. I advise you to consider this option. In my experience courts-martial are tricky affairs-no one on either side ever comes out smelling like a rose, so to speak. What say you, Lieutenant?"
Valentine felt the room reel around him for a moment, and then he straightened. "May I mink about it for a day, sir?"
"Of course. I am holding a hearing in the matter of a theft of civilian property tomorrow, and I believe there are two more cases before I move on in the circuit, so you can answer me at your leisure. Good luck to you, Lieutenant Valentine."
She rose, as did Wilton and McKendrick. She left the room by a back door, walking a little oddly with her artificial left leg, and carried away the formality of the proceeding with her.
"Damn shame, Valentine," Wilton said as soon as the door closed behind her. "The colonel of the Second Regiment should have shut Beck up, but good. Does he have friends in Mountain Home?"
"I don't know, sir."
McKendrick approached him, and Valentine offered his hand. "Seriously, do you have enemies in high places, Valentine? I can't see why this is being pushed through. She should have rolled that complaint up and tossed it in the fireplace. Bullshit like that usually walks with the colonel."
"Captain, you want a drink? There's enough bourbon for you, as well, Captain Wilton," Valentine offered.
"No thanks, son," the old man said. "Gives me a sour belly."
"Good," said McKendrick. "More for us, men."
The informal party, which Valentine dubbed "the Wake in Honor of David Valentine's Lieutenancy, May It Rest in Peace" broke up about 2 a.m. Baker had left around midnight in the company of a very companionable "widow lady" who joined them in the shanty bar just outside Montgomery's walls. But not before he turned over his pocket watch and most of his cash to Valentine. McKendrick proved to be a loud, roaring drunk who recited obscene jokes at each round but exhausted himself at the stroke of one. "The stronger the wind, the quicker it blows itself out," Valentine quoted to the other drinkers, not sure if he was quoting himself or someone else. Valentine shared the rest of his jug witfi the barflies and ne'er-do-wells of Montgomery, assuring himself of their undying friendship while the liquor lasted.
Nobody seemed to own this oversize shack; the pack trader who had been selling drinks went to bed at midnight. Valentine decided that returning to his room at the old school was too much effort. The dirty linoleum floor seemed much more cool and soothing than any bed. Clean sheets were not worth the walk, anyway. He was a Wolf, by damn, at least for now, and used to sleeping rough.
"This how you always take bad news, Lieutenant?" a sarcastic and vaguely familiar female voice sounded from the whirling world above.
"I'm the king of bad news, lady. Ask my parents. Ask Gabby Cho. I'm King Midas and the Angel of Death all rolled into one. Whatever I touch ... dies."
"Ahh, the jovial kind of drunk. My favorite. C'mon, Ghost, let's get you up." She lifted him to his feet. Her compact body had a good deal of wiry strength, Valentine noticed through the drunken haze. She also smelled good, a faint, soapy aroma.
"Errhuh?" Valentine said, not sure that he wanted to be pulled to his feet by the Cat he knew as Smoke-even if his nostrils were attracted to her. "They used to call me that in the Wolves. Which I'm not anymore, and neither are you."
"You're coming with me, Lieutenant Valentine. Can't have you doing yourself any harm, not on my watch, anyway."
Valentine cleared some of the bourbon fog with an effort and a few lungfuls of the cold spring air of the Ozark Plateau. It really was Smoke, the Cat from Little Timber. "Okay, okay, I'm fine. Hey, how did you get here? I could have used a deposition from you today, you know. My asshole captain intends to salvage his next promotion by putting me in front of a firing squad."
She escorted him to a caved-in house on a hill overlooking Montgomery. Tree branches through a window held up the one remaining wall.
"It's got a good basement," she said, leading him to a still-standing door within the ruins. She shoved open the door and helped him down the steps. The embers of a dying fire glowed within an old backyard grill in the center of the room, the wisps of smoke drawn up through the remnants of furnace vents.
"All the comforts of home. There's even a washtub. Until I got here three days ago, I hadn't had a hot soak for a month. I had to kill some rats to claim the room. I'm worried that they're reorganizing for a counterattack, though." She reawakened the fire and stared into its orange-yellow dance for a long moment.
Valentine sagged onto a pile of musty discarded clothes piled in a corner. "Three days ago?"
"Yes, I've been listening in to the trial."
"Funny, I didn't notice you in the room. Were you disguised as the colonel?"
"Valentine, you're talking to a Cat. The militia cretin in the watchtower wouldn't see a hundred gargoyles flying in a V-formation on a sunny day, never mind me sneaking into the building before dawn. I found a spot in the basement where the echoes were favorable and listened. We Cats have about as good hearing as you Wolves, you know. You didn't say much in your defense."
"I didn't want to spoil anyone's fun. They were having a fine time dissecting me."
"The words you use. You're a regular dictionary, Valentine. I can read pretty good, and I've been doing a lot of it lately. I've been checking some of your reports they have copied at the Miskatonic. I'm starting to think we were fated to meet."
She avoided his eyes, laying out blankets and matting.
"I'll explain when I'm rested and you're sober. Too tired now."
"Give me a taste."
"No. Shape you're in, you wouldn't remember anyway." She crawled into her bedroll. "Brrr-I've been waiting for you to come out of that dive for hours. What are you going to tell them tomorrow? I notice you didn't ask anyone's advice."
Valentine rubbed his 2 a.m. shadow thoughtfully, making the bristles rasp. "They got me pegged as a retreater. I was thinking of fighting it out. Beck would have to take the stand, and there are a few questions I'd like to ask him."
She kicked her shoes out from under the blankets. "Do yourself a favor, Valentine. Just resign. Go quietly. There's more important things at stake than your ego."
"Just a second, lady. Where do you get off talking to me like that? I've got four years in the Wolves. I don't see what my choice has to do with anything you're interested in."
"Valentine, go to sleep. We'll talk tomorrow. Now be quiet before I start asking myself those exact questions."
"Speaking of questions, you've never even told me your name."
"Duvalier. Alessa Duvalier."
"Appreciate the assist, Duvalier. Never thanked you properly." He reached out and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
"Don't press your luck."
"I meant for back in Oklahoma. You saved-"
"Cats need their sleep. Good night, Valentine."
With a diamond setting.
Frustrated, Valentine wrapped himself in a blanket and let the booze win. He turned his back to the fire, feeling as though he were in the bottom of a canoe in white water. The pair vented their mutual hostility in deep, regular breaths. As Valentine drifted away to calmer waters, he noticed that they were also breathing in unison.
Valentine hadn't smelled real coffee more than twice in the last year. So the aroma of Duvalier brewing it in an aluminum percolator over the rebuilt fire startled him into wakefulness.
She saw his head rise. "I figured you could use some coffee. I'm glad you're not the puking kind of drunk."
Valentine's tongue felt and tasted like the defensive end of a skunk. "The morning is still young. That can't be coffee."
"You'd be surprised at what I get out of the KZ. Here, have a cup." She poured a generous amount into a scratched plastic bowl. Valentine wondered if he was supposed to lap it up, but eventually got some down without burning his lips.
The sharp, stimulating taste made the morning appear rosier.
"Ever read detective novels?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Where I usually circulate, I'm lucky to have old dishwasher warranties to read."
"They're stories about really smart people who solve murders. They always spot a tiny little clue everyone else missed, and explain themselves to the rest of us poor idiots at the end. Once you start reading them, they're kind of addictive."
"My point is I feel like one of the idiots, waiting for the puzzle to be put together under my nose."
She smeared something in a skillet and reached for her jacket. "Your file said you were well read. Wish I could help. My puzzle is missing a few pieces, too. Maybe together we can fill in the blanks."
He met her gaze, but she didn't elaborate.
Depressed, half-sick, headachy, Valentine wished he could just spend half the day in bed, as he had during the long Minnesota winters when there wasn't much else to do but read away the short days and long nights.
She cracked a pair of eggs in a pan, and they immediately began sputtering in the hot grease. Her elfin features were the picture of concentration as she poked at the eggs with a handleless spatula. "Don't get used to this. I don't know if it's because I feel sorry for you, or because I know what it's like to have a hangover. The bread might have a little mold on it, but the eggs were freshly swiped this morning from one of the good citizens of Montgomery. The only trade good I have right now is the coffee, and I don't want to part with it. Besides, I'm keeping my presence here quiet. I've got only one plate, so I'm just going to eat out of the pan if you don't mind."
She passed him the cooked over-easy egg and a hunk of green-dusted bread. Valentine mopped up the egg with the bread and ate the sticky combination. "This is great, thanks."
"You like it that way, too, huh?" she said with a smile, eating her own egg-yolk-smeared bread. "Okay, how do you want the story, from now working backwards, or from the beginning?"
"I don't think I can think backwards, so you'd better do it from the beginning."
"Easy enough. I came across some interesting stuff reading your reports. Four years ago you had a run-in right after you were invoked as a Wolf. You stumbled onto some Reapers hunting a Cat in the Yazoo Delta."
"Yes. That's the first time I saw that Twisted Cross insignia."
"At first we just brushed it off as another faction of the Kur. Sometimes they use little symbols to note their houses, or clans, or whatever you want to call the groups of Kuri-ans." She consulted a thin notebook in a leather case, like a waiter's order pad he'd once seen in Chicago. "The summer you ended up hiding in Wisconsin, one of the Freeholds we communicate with went silent. It was a small one, really just a valley or two in the Smoky Mountains. Scouts from the New England Freehold found buried Quislings. And some mass graves. But back to the Quislings, they had Twisted Cross insignia on their uniforms. A swastika is another name for it, I'm told. So the Cats kept their eyes open, and now and then these Quislings were seen in other parts of the country. So the insignia did not mean just one geographical group of Kurians.
"The people at Miskatonic have an idea that the Kurians have taken some of their Quislings and created Reaper-human half-breeds, kind of a specialized striking force." She looked at him expectantly.
"Is it under someone called the General?"
She looked puzzled. "Where did you hear that?"
"From an old railroad man we brought out of Oklahoma. A little addled. Not much of what he said made sense, so I abbreviated it in my report. He stumbled across some Quislings under this Twisted Cross banner in a yard. They took him before this General, who men decided to kill him as a precaution."
Duvalier digested this information along with her moldy bread and egg. "This General is someone we've heard of now and then. I mink he's a very highly placed Quisling. So they have a special train?"
"Yes, he said it was a sizable one."
"That doesn't fit with the rest. As far as Miskatonic knows, they go in small groups, wimout heavy weapons or a big escort. Do they just want to look like another supply train?"
"Guessing is interesting, but facts are better." Valentine returned to a subject much on his mind lately. "What happened at Little Timber Hill after you went back?"
"I was getting to that, because I think it's important. I built up the campfires and shot down at the Grogs from various points in the line. They didn't come at night. Some Harpies flew overhead, but they didn't risk dropping down for a close look, so they never saw that the breastworks in the trees weren't manned.
"Well before dawn, could have been three a.m., eight Reapers came up the hill. I just hid and watched. They were loaded for bear, assault rifles and everything. Mean-looking Kalashnikovs with banana clips.
"But here's the kicker. They make the top of the hill, and they get... confused. I've never seen a Reaper that looked like it didn't know what to do. So they group together and talk. Who ever heard of Hoods talking to each other? Usually when you see a group of them, they're all puppeted by the same Kurian, so they don't have to talk. Same hissy voices. If these were some kind of Reaper-human cross, they sure left the human parts in their other pants. They looked and sounded like Reapers to me. Just didn't act that way."
Valentine put down his plate. "How did you get away?"
"They picked up your trail, sent out the Grogs. I just slipped away back to the south in the dark. I wanted to have another talk with the Miskatonic people about this, so I caught a barge from Fort Smith to Pine Bluff. That's where I heard about all this. I was told to come up here and talk to you."
"Told? Told by whom?"
"Don't worry about that right now. An old friend of mine, who knows some old friends of yours. I was hoping you'd do some work with me in the KZ for a while."
Valentine narrowed his eyes, wondering what she was getting at. "I thought you Cats worked alone."
"We do. Unless we're training another Cat."
It has been my privilege to serve in the Wolves for four years. I wish to spare myself, my company, and my regiment the pain and disruption of a court-martial that would be the inevitable result of my fighting the charges brought against me. Please accept my resignation from duty in the Second Regiment of Wolves, Southern Command, immediately.
I have the honor to remain, etc.,
David Stuart Valentine
Duvalier looked up from the handwritten, slightly smeared note. "Brief and to the point, Valentine. I expected more flowery 'the clock has struck the hour of fate' type stuff out of you. I like you better already."
"After I turn this in, where are we headed-north or west?"
She shook her head as she shouldered her pack. "Back into the Free Territory, actually. You have to meet with someone. We also need to outfit you with a little better blade than that sawed-off machete before our little welcoming ceremony with the Lifeweavers."
Valentine remembered his. The cave, Amu the Lifeweaver and his retinue of hairy, sleeping wolves. Amu had called it an "operation," though he'd never opened Valentine with anything but a tasteless drink and his mind.
"Another invocation? Like when I became a Wolf? I felt like I was wearing a different body the first few days. Nothing worked right. I couldn't pick up a mug without knocking it across the table."
"Same here. Maybe it'll be different for you. I've only been a Cat. But don't let it worry you."
Valentine buttoned up his buckskin tunic, thoughtfully running his finger up the familiar fringe. The Wolves of Southern Command decorated their jackets with leather strips of varying length on the arms or chest or some combination of both, a token to friends and enemies alike of their clan. Supposedly they helped shed rainwater, but Valentine had been soaked to the marrow enough times to smile at that bit of frontier myth.
They took the short hike into town in silence and parted at the main gate. His first duty was to hunt up Baker and return the ex-Wolf's money and pocket watch. Then Valentine made for the old school to see Colonel Chalmers. Duvalier went into the Montgomery market with Valentine's remaining money to acquire some provisions for the trip.
Valentine found Colonel Chalmers in the court's temporary offices, going over the organization of her schedule with her ubiquitous shadow, the young clerk. Valentine smelled sawdust in the air and heard distant sounds of construction. More rooms in the school were being renovated.
"Ahh, Lieutenant," she said. "I take it you slept on your decision. I haven't seen your counselor yet this morning; they tell me he's a little indisposed. Kenneth, would you excuse us, please?"
The clerk exited, shutting the door behind him.
Valentine tried to stand as straight as possible. The letter in his hand trembled a little, and he fought to still it. "I've thought over your offer, sir, and I gratefully accept. Would you forward this with the report of the inquiry to Headquarters, Second Regiment?" He handed her his spidery-scripted letter.
She glanced down at it, and back up into his eyes. "I'll handle it for you, Valentine. The colonel will be relieved. Everyone ends up looking bad in a court-martial. Although I'll bet my next quarter's pay that he's sorry to lose you as an officer."
"Thank you, sir. In any case, I'm lucky not to be in the ground next to Sergeant Stafford."
Valentine got the feeling he was being judged for the second time in twenty-four hours.
"He died for something, David. Most people just end up dead."
"I'll let you get back to your work, sir."
She held up a hand. "Valentine, I did what I could for you. Off the record, I sympathize with your situation. I can't say very much about the inner workings of Southern Command, but we make more mistakes than we admit. This may not turn out to be a mistake after all.
"You know, I met your father once. At a ball. I was a lieutenant in the Guards, perhaps your age. The dance was in this fine old convention center right across from the hospital. Electric chandeliers, if you can believe it. Good food on gold-rimmed plates, an orchestra. But I didn't feel like dancing. I had just lost my leg from the knee down at Arkansas River; a sniper got me when I was spotting for artillery. Your father had been in the hospital, too. A piece of shrapnel had taken a chunk out of his arm. I just sat in a corner by myself, feeling like it was all over. I didn't do my physical therapy. I didn't want to get used to walking with a prosthetic. Just wanted to sit. I suppose I would have been in tears if I were the crying type.
"Your father came over and made me dance with him. I would have said no to a man around my age, but your dad was maybe fifteen years older-it made him seem like an uncle or something. We had to have been the worst-looking couple on the floor: I was sort of hopping on my good leg, and his arm was in a sling. We lurched our way through a waltz, and I could tell everyone pitied us-or rather me, I suppose. So he goes to the band and makes them play a polka. Now a polka you can sort of hop to, and before I knew it, we were flying around the floor. I had a tight hold on his shoulders and he just sort of bounced around, taking me with him. The band started playing faster, and he kept spinning us in a wider and wider circle. People got out of our way rather than get run over. When the song stopped, we were in this big circle of people, and they applauded.
"I got a look at myself in a mirror. I had this huge smile on my face. I was laughing and crying and gasping for air all at the same time, and very, very happy. Your father looked down at me and said, 'Sometimes all it takes is a change of tune.'"
She stared at the wall, plastered with poorly printed handbills, but Valentine could tell the wall wasn't there, just a big room filled with a band, food, and dancers in some broken-down corner of Southern Command. Colonel Chalmers returned to the present after a moment's silence.
"I read you were orphaned. How old were you?"
"I didn't really know him, apart from that dance and talking to him a bit afterwards. He was kind of remote, in the nicest possible way, and I think the wound hit him hard. He left the Free Territory shortly afterwards, moved up to Minnesota and married your mother, right?"
Valentine could deal with his own memories of his family. Other people's left him feeling wistful, wishing he could talk to his parents again.
"I never even knew he was a soldier until I was older. The man who raised me afterwards didn't exactly keep it secret, but I think he wanted me to make up my own mind about things."
"You're probably wondering where I was going with that story. I ended up in the Advocate General and never found anything else I could do half as well. I just wanted to tell you that perhaps you just need a change of tune, so to speak.
"Good luck to you, Valentine."
"Thank you, sir." He saluted and left, closing the door behind him.
"They don't waste any time," she said quietly after he shut the door. But not quietly enough. Valentine still had his Wolf's ears, if not his commission; she might as well have shouted it.
They don't waste any time. He passed the loitering clerk with a nod, already analyzing her words. Did somebody want him out of the Wolves for a reason? Duvalier seemed to be a veteran Cat for one so young, but could she have the pull to get him dismissed from the Wolves just to help her run down the Twisted Cross? He doubted it.
He walked out of the school. The hardworking residents of the town were in the fields surrounding the village. A flock of sheep passed through the main gate under the stewardship of a boy and two dogs. Valentine looked at their heavy coats-they were due for their spring shearing.
Duvalier rounded a corner, pack already over her shoulder and Valentine's hammock roll in her left hand. She waved a knotty walking stick with a leather wrist strap in her right hand.
"That was fast, Valentine."
"It takes a long time to build a career. You can wreck it in a couple minutes."
She handed him his pack. "Crackers and cheese to get us where we're going. I lost my taste for dried beef a long time ago, so I got us each a three-pound wurst. Some new cabbage, turnips, and a few beets. I make a pretty good pot of borscht. No rice and not much flour to be had, at least not for strangers."
"Where are we going?"
They passed out of the gate, waving to a half-awake deputy at the gate. "First stop is not far at all, just over the border in Arkansas. Why couldn't you have been one of those officers with half a dozen horses, Valentine?"
"Try covering thirty or forty miles, mostly at a run, with full equipment sometime. I'll never mind just having to walk somewhere again."
Duvalier looked up into the wooded hills of the Ozarks.
"I can never get over it when I'm in the Free Territory. No checkpoints, no ID cards, no workbooks. You were in the KZ once, right?"
"Yes, in Wisconsin and Chicago."
"Never been to either; my ground is between here and the Rockies. I was in the desert in the Southwest once, too. Lost all illusions about how tough I was when I ran with the Desert Rangers there for a winter. Sometimes out there you get..." She let out an exasperated breath.
"You feel impotent against it all. You'll die, your friends will die....," Valentine said.
"Yeah. But then you get back here, where the kids don't have that quiet, haunted look. Then you pick up and do it again, because ... you know."
As the day progressed, they moved deeper into the old growth of the Mark Twain Forest. At the crossroads, there were new maps, burned into planks and painted and anchored, sometimes covered with glass, showing which road led where. People clung to the old names, as if as long as the names existed, the past existed, and a future that might be like the past.
Valentine's nose picked up life everywhere in the rich, rain-soaked spring soil. The trees and undergrowth flourished in green tangles all around the walkers. An empty tanker truck returning to one of the Free Territory's minuscule "backyard" refineries in eastern Oklahoma gave them a ride up old Route 37, the driver and his shotgun letting them ride atop the tanker, giving them a bumpy entrance into Arkansas. By evening, they were south of Beaver Lake in Spring Valley, when the truck turned southwest for refilling.
A pig farmer by the name of Sutton hailed them off the road and offered them lodging that night. He was an older man, in need of a couple of strong young backs for a few hours, and glad for the company. The men who helped him run his place stayed with their families in the evenings, and visitors to the rather pungent farm were limited to days with a stiff easterly breeze. Valentine was happy to cut firewood in exchange for the hot meal and lodging.
Reducing tree trunks to cordwood and kindling was Valentine's way of sitting cross-legged and chanting. He often lost himself in the steady, muscle-draining effort. He had chopped wood as a kid in Minnesota, bartering his labor to the neighbors for a few eggs, a sack of corn flour, or a ham. Even as an officer, he cut wood on mornings when he could get away from his other duties, causing his sergeants to shake their heads and find other forms of uninteresting labor for the men who fell into their bad books. The satisfying, rhythmic chop of ax blade or wedge into wood cleared his mental buffers, a psychological reset that left his torso rubbery with fatigue.
He finished up with the wood by moonlight and returned to the house in time to say good night to the obliging Sutton. "You and the missus got the whole upstairs to yourselves. I don't like trips up and down them stairs any more than I have to; I got a nice bed now in the office. I showed her where the linens and such are-sorry if they're a little mothbally."
Valentine padded up the creaking staircase in the faintly piggy-smelling house. A steaming bucket of water, soap, a basin, and a towel waited for him.
"Whoever last used this had a lot more hair than me," Du-valier commented, looking at one of the long hairs caught in the brush she held. She had a towel on and was playing with the three-plated mirror in me small bedroom vanity.
"He's a widower. He told me when we stacked wood. Her name was Ellen. They had two kids, Paul and Wynonna, and she died giving birth to Wynonna. The kids are both dead in the Cause's service."
Duvalier set the extracted hair carefully on the marble tabletop.
Valentine stepped into the old bathroom across the hall. The fixtures were operational, though they gave only cold water, and the electrical lighting in the house was a pleasant surprise. Sutton must be fairly well-to-do, or the area between Fayetteville and Beaver Dam better maintained than most parts of the Free Territory.
He washed up with the pail of hot water and returned to the bedroom. "So you're 'the missus,' huh?"
She peeped out at him from under a thick quilt. "My conversation with him wasn't quite as serious as yours. He assumed, and I didn't correct him. I'm not looking for sex, but you are a warm body. It's a cold night."
"Your hot water bottle is turning in. Ready for light's out?"
"Mmmmph," she agreed, turning facedown in a feather pillow.
Her rich, female smell both lulled and excited him as he lifted the covers to climb into bed next to her. His nostrils explored her even if his hands remained tucked under his pillow. He toyed with the scents in the room, locating them with his eyes shut: the wet hair of the woman next to him, the out-of-mothballs sheets, the dusty quilt, the warm, soapy water remaining in the bucket and sink, wood smoke, and the faint, omnipresent smell of pigs. He counted scents like some people count sheep, and was asleep when his companion Cat pressed her back against his.
The next morning, after sharing two steaming cups of coffee from Duvalier's shrinking supply of beans, they packed up again. Sutton drank the coffee with lip-smacking pleasure and presented them with a slab of cured bacon wrapped in brown paper.
After exchanges of gratitude and good-byes, the pair turned east. The ground grew more rugged, and the roads began to break down into trails. Worn-down mountains loomed ahead. They walked in companionable silence, pausing at little streams for water and brief respites.
"I've never been to this part of the Territory," Valentine said. "Where are we headed?"
"Cobb Smithy. One of the best weapons men and all-around blacksmiths in the Free Territory."
"I think I've heard of him. I recall some of Major Gowen's Bears talking about him."
"Actually, it's a bunch of them. There's old Cobb, his son, his daughter, a couple of journeymen, and apprentices. It's quite an operation. They probably made that chopper of yours."
"My parang? How can you tell?"
"What, you never looked at the blade closely?"
"To oil it, sharpen it... Wait, the CFS on the blade, in little letters right by the hilt?"
"Cobb Family Smithy, Valentine."
He drew his old, notched parang with its hardwood handle. He held the blade so the light fell on it, and looked again at the faint letters scrolled in tiny, precise calligraphy up against the hilt. "Funny, I never thought to ask what it meant."
They reached the smithy and outbuildings early in the afternoon. Faint hammering sounds from two different workshops sounded in the little hummock of land between Arkansas ridges. A stream ran down from the high hills to a half-pond, half-swamp on the other side of the road.
A pair of sizable but indefinable dogs trotted up to greet them, warily hopeful. Valentine took a step forward to greet the canines, and the pair began barking to raise the dead. A boy on the short side of ten ran down the drive to meet them.
"Who are you, and what's your business?" he squeaked. Then to the dogs, with more authority, "Still, you two! We know company's come."
"Smoke, Cat of Southern Command. Her Aspirant, Ghost. He needs a weapon or two."
"You're welcome here, then," the boy said, swelling with self-importance. "Follow me."
The house was a single-story conglomeration, a long rambling rancho growing like a rattlesnake's tail: an extra part every year. Whatever their skill at steelwork, the Cobb family knew little about architecture esthetics.
A middle-aged woman came out onto the nearly endless porch and squinted down at the visitors. She broke into a grin and clapped floured hands together. "Why it's Smoke, our little Kansas State Flower. How's that straightsword working out for you?"
"Needs a professional edge put back on. The hilt could use some rewrapping, too-the cording is a little frayed."
Valentine looked at the Cat, puzzled. "Did you bring it? It must be awfully small."
Duvalier exchanged glances with the woman and shrugged. "He's new, Bethany." She twisted her walking stick at the knob on the head and exposed a black handle. In a flash, she had the sword out from concealment within the stick. Valentine guessed the blade to be about twenty-two inches, single edged, with an angular point. The metal was dark, burnished so as not to reflect light.
Bethany examined the hilt with an expert eye. "I'll get a man on this. Can't have our precious Smoke losing her grip in a fight. What does your Aspirant need?"
"Apart from about two years' training in the next two months-which is my problem, not yours-he's going to need a set of claws. I'd like to see about getting him a decent blade, too. He's a Wolf, but by the look of it, he's been digging holes with that cotton chopper of his. He needs something to bite a Reaper."
"You want the old man to work with him, or my brother?"
"The Ghost here has had a hard enough week. Nathan will do."
"I'll be happy to oblige," Bethany said, moving to the screen door and holding it open. "C'mon in, and I'll make some tea."
"I've got better than that. Coffee," Duvalier said, handing over the rest of the bag.
Bethany Cobb smelled the beans. "I declare! You are just too good, rosebud."
They went into the kitchen, a vast cavern with two stoves and a large brick oven. After ringing a bell on the end of a carved wooden handle, Bethany reached high on a shelf for a coffeepot and grinder, and began to work on the beans while the water heated. "My brother will be with you shortly."
Nathan Cobb was a lumbering man with bulging arms and a substantial potbelly. He clapped Duvalier on the back, a blow she absorbed with some grace, and came close to crushing Valentine's hand in a vigorous shake. "Always, always happy to see a new Cat out there. Raise some Hell for me, would you, ummm, Ghost?" he said before getting down to business.
"I take it you need a set of claws?" he asked Duvalier.
"Yes, please, and time is a little bit of an issue."
"He seems to have average-size hands. You want talons like yours, or blades?"
"Talons, and make the fingers stiff-concealment won't be an issue on this job. I want him to be able to climb with them as well as fight."
"That'll save some time. Let's measure you up, son." Cobb extracted a stained tape measure from his work apron, and wrapped it around Valentine's palm. He then measured each finger from the litde well in the center of his hand to its extremity, making notes in neat block numbers in a little pocket pad. "How about a weapon or two, Smoke? Are you going to train him?"
"I'll have to."
"Then you'll want a sword for him, I suppose. We may have something already made up."
An old man appeared at the kitchen at a door from one of the adjoining rooms in the endless house. "Is that coffee I smell?"
Bethany began pouring. "Sure is, Dad. We have visitors, and they brought it. Smoke Duvalier and her apprentice, Ghost."
The elderly man paused in his appreciation of the Java. "Ghost? What's your real name, son? Don't worry, my memory's going so fast, I wouldn't be able to tell anyone if I wanted to."
Valentine looked at Duvalier.
"He's named Valentine," she said.
"Then your father was-"
Valentine rose. "His name was Lee Valentine, Mr. Cobb."
The senior Cobb's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You sure don't look like him, except a litde round me eyes. You sure you're modier wasn't just making a brag?"
Valentine ignored the insult. "My mother was Sioux, sir. North side of the Great Lakes."
"You're a fair size, but not as tall as your father. Nat, he needs a weapon?"
"Something for a Cat, not a Bear," the son answered.
"C'mon, boy, follow me," he said, blowing on the scalding mug of coffee and shuffling off down the hall. He opened a door to a stairwell and slowly started down into the basement.
Valentine looked around at the others, who simply smiled. He followed the senior Cobb.
The basement had a collection of everything from swords to antique farm implements. Daggers hung next to sickles on one wall, and opposite, pitchforks shared a rack with long pikes. A cavalry saber occupied a place of honor over a fireplace. Valentine stepped up to it and looked at the rather ordinary hilt and scabbard.
"That belonged to Nathan Bedford Forrest, son, but I don't expect you know who that is."
"Confederate cavalry commander in the Civil War. He wasn't a West Pointer, but he sure outwitted a bunch of them."
"Glad to be wrong once in a while. Bound to happen every year or two. See anything you like?"
Valentine picked up a heavy blade with a basket hilt sharing a rack with a similarly sized claymore. He swung it experimentally.
"Valentine, what are you thinking?" Duvalier chided him from the bottom stair. He hadn't heard her on the stairs. "You don't want to be lugging that halfway across the country. Mr. Cobb, let's look at something he can draw fast and swing quick."
"Hummph," Cobb grunted, not exactly disagreeing, but not wanting look like he was taking her advice, either. "I have a beautiful blade and scabbard. Last carried by a Guard with a different taste in sword. They usually like sabers and epees. Let's see what you think of mis."
He opened a footlocker and began sorting through long, slightly curved shapes wrapped in blankets and twine.
"Which sumbitch is it? Here we go," he said, extracting a shape. He handed it to Valentine.
Intrigued, the would-be Cat unwrapped it. As soon as he saw the hilt, he recognized it as a samurai sword of some kind. His brain searched for the term.
"Called a katana, Valentine. That's a helluva piece of fighting steel. Looks old, but it's actually from this century. We'll have to fit you with a new hilt, but that won't take too long. Only twenty-four inches of blade."
Valentine drew it experimentally. The blade carried a few cryptic ideograms etched in the metal.
"Can you cap the scabbard like mine?" Duvalier asked.
"Easy enough, missy. You should use it two-handed, boy, lets you put your whole back into it. But you can use it one-handed, from horseback, say, or if you want to parry with those damn fighting claws.
"I like it," Valentine said. "What's the cost?" he asked, wondering where he would come up with the money.
"That's Southern Command's problem, not yours, Valentine. You and little missy here will just have to sign a chit for what you take."
Duvalier wrinkled her freckled nose. Valentine could tell that the missy was getting under her skin.
The claws, he learned the next day, were a pair of metal hands held to his palms by thick leather straps. They arced out like a second skeletal system from there, ending in sharp talons that capped his fingers.
"You can climb a tree with'em, and they do gruesome in a fight if you use'em right," Duvalier explained. She put on her slightly smaller pair and looked around for a tree. "It takes a little practice," she said, stepping to the bole of a mature oak. She jumped up the side of it, reaching around either side until her palms were opposite, and began climbing. She was among the branches in no time.
Valentine imitated her and learned to his chagrin that if he failed to grip the trunk with his legs, a single set of the claws weren't enough to hold him up. He arrested the slide before falling off, then managed to hump his way up the trunk neither as quickly nor as gracefully as Duvalier. But he succeeded.
He also learned about putting a new hilt on his sword. A craftsman named Eggert showed him how to encase the naked tang in a wooden handle shaped more or less to fit Valentine's hands. Then he wrapped it in wet pigskin, applying a series of small bumps to the blade side in fastening the leather. "They used to use skin from stingrays and sharks, but those aren't too common hereabouts," Eggert explained. Finally a fine cording was wound round and round the hilt. Duvalier insisted on tying the last knot herself.
"For luck," she said, planting a tiny kiss on the newly reconstructed hilt. They worked on the scabbard together, fitting an old rifle sling to the mahogany wooden tube. Valentine decided he felt most comfortable carrying it over his shoulder.
"We can add a spring to the bottom-it'll help you draw faster," she observed, after watching him pull the sword a few times.
They moved on as soon as Valentine's sword was finished. They shouldered their packs one more time, newly laden with food supplied by the generous and Southern Command-compensated Cobbs.
"Now for home," Duvalier said, turning on the road east once more.