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 CHAPTER THIRTEEN:

MISTS 

            The decoy legion thundered across the hard lava rock toward the western rim of the captive city. It was snowing heavily and it was a dark moonless night.

            “This is idiocy!” Rolak bellowed to Shuyah riding at his side. “No one attacks at night and in a blizzard!”

            Even his flank commanders saw the true idiocy—in Rolak’s remark. This was precisely the time to attack, when the Logalla would be surprised. The key was to thoroughly convince them that an assault was coming from the west. At the same time, on the other side of Verdanta, the night and the blizzard enveloped and hid the one hundred Tranca warriors on foot, and under the Kodiak’s command.

            Near the back of the pack, Tooka was running at the measured pace Tyree had set at the start of the raid. Tooka volunteered to followed Tyree, but his duty was to his lord, Rolak. “Go with the Kodiak. Report to me his actions,” Rolak had said. Never mind that any information Tooka gathered would be useless. By the time Tooka could report to Rolak, the raid would be over, and so might Tooka’s life. It was a suicide mission into a Logalla stronghold, one hundred Tranca on foot against six thousand of the Logalla’s best mounted troops. Worse, Tooka was following a Kodiak who, somewhere ahead in the night was leading Tooka to his death.

            “Well, well! Tooka!” Tyree smiled, materializing as only a Kodiak could out of the falling snow and running easily at tired Tooka’s elbow. “I thought I saw you skulking in the rear ranks of the volunteers. I am pleased to have such a brave and capable warrior at my back. It appears I underestimated you, Tooka. You may be of greater service to our Lord Rolak than I thought. Why, I’m going to keep you within my view at all times, Tooka. And I’m going to report to Lord Rolak just how well you do on this raid.”

            Tyree smiled, running, it seemed to Tooka, effortlessly. Then as they both ran on at the measured pace, the Kodiak melted back into the snowy darkness, leaving Tooka with his heart pumping in his throat.

            Tyree had dropped off the pace for two reasons: One, to give Tooka a scare, and the other to rest his lungs and legs for his sprint ahead. Tyree easily overtook his Tranca commander who was running at the front, having taken over the lead from Tyree as planned. The Tranca commander’s name was Dak. As a concession to her brother, and to the honor of the Tranca military, Shuyah had agreed that a Tranca commander would lead the raid. He would decide if the orders given by the Kodiak would be followed, or not. Shuyah agreed only if she was allowed to choose which of the clan’s two hundred battle commanders would command Tyree’s war party. She selected Dak.

            She hadn’t seen many battles, but in one she found herself outnumbered with Dak at her flank. They fought their way out and had become friends as well as comrades. Dak knew the real reason he was selected. He was a convenience. His lord, Rolak, expected him to question the Kodiak’s every move and purpose; his lord’s sister, the princess, wanted Dak to follow Tyree’s orders as he would follow her’s. Dak would do both, thus Shuyah’s choice was perfect. As he ran, Dak was thinking of this, when Tyree materialized out of the night and heavy snowfall, running at his side.

            “All right,” Tyree said, “keep going straight and run at the established pace.”

            Dak nodded.

            Then, like a wolf that’s been chasing a deer, suddenly moving faster, going in for the kill, Tyree spurted on ahead and vanished. As he ran Tyree thought of how Shuyah tried to hide her shock and worry when he told her he and the war party were going into Verdanta without armor. He had to explain to her that it was the only way for men on foot to do the job. Armor would make running that far in the time they had impossible. The clatter of the armor would give them away. He told her that they would take only their swords and bows. That night, Shuyah made love to Tyree like it might be their last. Still, Tyree easily outdistanced his Tranca war party, and ran into the mists of Verdanta.

            The bearded and black bearskin cloaked Logalla sentry just inside the mists never had any thought about what killed him. One moment he was squinting into the heavy snowfall. Was there some movement? The next moment, he was dead, and silently so.

            As Tyree continued on, the warmth of the hot springs turned the snowfall into rain. He wasn’t sure he could blend with the rain. But he could blend with the thick heavy steam further inside the ring of hot springs that had given birth to Verdanta. Grandfather had shown him how in the volcano fields. They were at the secret mines where the Kodiak got their brave iron. Fourteen-year-old Tyree and his grandfather tried blending in the smoke and steam issuing from the open wounds in the earth where lava flowed but once a year. Four Kodiak miners were working a brave iron deposit. Grandfather and Tyree blended with the smoke and steam. They moved right up to the men, and even though they, too, were Kodiak, they had no idea Tyree and Grandfather were there.

            “No need to embarrass fellow Kodiak with our own inborn talents,” Grandfather whispered on the wind.

            Then Grandfather took Tyree’s arm and led him away. Tyree could not smell as efficiently in the steam at Verdanta, nor could his ears hear as well over the constant bubbling of hot springs and hissing fissures. Even his eyes were affected by the chemical content of the steam. Worst of all, the steam took away the wind, his greatest ally.

            He came upon the second tier of the Logalla defense, three warriors at a small encampment. They sat around eating battle rations. They had no hut, but four sleeping mats were evident at the edges of their circle. Obviously each took their turn at the forward post where Tyree had just killed the lookout. Tyree was pleased to see that all of them had large goatskin casks of water close at hand. Not only did the Tranca war party wear no armor, they also brought no water, eating snow along the way, and counting on commandeering water in Verdanta. The three Logalla had all removed their black bear cloaks and armor in the heat. They stood and crouched around a small fire over which they cooked meat skewered at the ends of their swords. Tyree threw his snow star and in the next instant drew two arrows from his quiver and fired. The three Logalla looked up at the sound of the snow star. It killed one crouching warrior, the arrows the other two.

            Tyree moved on. There would be a larger contingent ahead. It would be the force assigned to hold the line in this sector until the main army could be brought forward. This was just what was happening on the far side of the mists where the decoy legion had begun its assault. On Tyree’s  side of the mists, it was as quiet as death. The rest of the Tranca war party was just arriving at the outer edges of the mists led by Dak. They entered the mists at the lookout post Tyree had just passed.

            “Which way did the Kodiak go?” one warrior asked.

            “He won’t be hard to follow,” Dak said, gesturing to the dead Logalla lying in surprised repose, his throat cut.

            The Tranca war party advanced as they’d been told to do. They passed the three dead Logalla in their encampment, and moved closer to the center of Verdanta. Suddenly, Tyree stepped from the steam in front on them. Tyree gave the agreed upon hand signals for quiet that there were many Logalla ahead, then he signaled for the Tranca war party to crouch in the steam and wait. All the Tranca war party were sweating profusely in the stifling heat. Tyree took Dak forward. They found an outcropping of wet rock and spied on the Logalla garrison through a veil of steam. A cluster of huts housed about five hundred warriors, each already in armor and with saddled horses close at hand.

            “There are too many for us,” Tyree whispered, “and we can’t go around. Lava pits on both sides. We can only hope the decoy works.”

            Tyree’s war party had gone far enough now into Verdanta so that the snowfall had turned completely into rain. A steady drizzle pelted the sweltering Tranca crouching in the steam, cooling them to some degree. I will take snow over rain any time, Tyree thought as he watched equally miserable Logalla sharpen spears and swords, feed their horses and eat, unaware of the coming attack.

            A distant ram’s horn sounded in a coded staccato and the languishing legion suddenly became active. They began to hurriedly saddle their horses and fill their quivers. Before long, the whole garrison was mounted and rode away to the west. Tyree turned to his Tranca commander and smiled. Dak smiled back. The decoy had worked.

            They’d entered Verdanta just where Tyree had planned and made straight for their first objective: the horse pens near the center of the snowbound oasis. Tyree knew the horse pens would be where they always had been, near the thaw grass fields. The pens that held the Logalla battle steeds were empty. These were new pens that had been built after the occupation. It was the other pens the raiders wanted, the pens where the Verdantans kept their work horses and pack animals, horses bred for pulling wagons and for plowing the lush fields of Verdanta, fields that were now drinking a heavy rain of melted snow.

            There were twelve Logalla warriors guarding the pens. These were instantly overwhelmed and killed, with only one Tranca dead. The harnesses for the work horses were all expediently left on fence posts and in the sheds all around the area. These, the raiders put in place on ten of the largest work animals. They led them away half a view to the west near the center of Verdanta where the rain catchers stood. The catchers were working at full capacity in what had become a downpour. The Tranca war party approached cautiously and unseen. There were four separate rain catchers with the colossal goat skin reservoir rising up between them. The rain catchers were gangly structures made of wooden poles. They resembled tall mushrooms with inverted caps that caught the rain. They had to be built up very high so that gravity would drain the rain they caught down into the huge reservoir. Tyree thought of the first time he saw the colossal structures, when Shuyah and he were walking during his first visit. He remembered how she didn’t boast about her clan’s ingenuity, but simply explained the intricacies of the rain catchers, knowing Tyree was gaining new respect daily for the Tranca. The reservoir in the middle of the four catchers looked like a conical mountain turned on its summit. It had spigots all around the base so that citizens could bring their buckets and get fresh water any time. The reservoir was scaffolded with wooden poles and walkways all the way around in a strong tight pattern. Its great maw was turned upward to catch additional rain. Wooden troughs held up by leather straps hung under the drains of the catchers. The troughs funneled the water down into the monstrous central container. The catchers would be easy to topple, the reservoir, much more difficult.

            Shuyah and Rolak’s decoy legion was about twenty pony lengths from the wall of mist when Rolak raised his arm and the entire force veered to the south. They rode at full gallop, leaving an armed and ready army of Logalla standing bewildered just inside the steam. A thousand Logalla bowmen let their taut bowstrings go lax. Nearly five thousand crack mounted troops blinked in disbelief. Tyree’s ploy had left only two hundred Logalla in the center of Verdanta. There were one hundred guards around the water catchers. With these, Tyree and his one hundred Tranca raiders would have to deal. A bigger worry was the main army. If they saw through the decoy or were warned, and rode at full gallop, they would reach and destroy the Tranca before they had completed their mission.

            The rain catcher guards put up a strong fight, and many on both sides were killed. The Logalla were taken, but some escaped on horseback. These rode west in the driving rain to alert the main army. It was fortunate the Logalla were unable to sound the ram’s horn alarm. Still, the escaped warriors would reach the army in short order. Tyree’s war party would have to do its work before the army returned. Tyree sent twenty men to post themselves in the distant stand of poplars and alert Tyree when the Logalla army appeared. He sent Tooka with them. Tooka stepped toward Tyree, sword in hand, and to challenge the Kodiak in mind, but Dak stepped between them. Tooka went with the scouting contingent with no objection.

            Tyree then set to work toppling the rain catchers. First he had five horses hitched to each of the two most easterly towers. The work horses pulled and pulled. One water catcher toppled almost immediately, but it fell forward when the support poles were wrenched free. It landed on the men and horses. Two horses and four Tranca were killed. The second water tower still stood, but seeing the disaster at the first tower, Tyree told them to hold.

            “The tower is going to fall forward,” Tyree shouted. “I should have foreseen this! Each horse must have a rider. When the tower begins to go, ride away from it—fast!”

            “But the traces!” a Tranca mounting a work horse shouted back. “They’ll still be attached to the supports!”

            “I will cut them! Now pull!” Tyree screamed.

            The Tranca mounted the workhorses, which were unaccustomed to riders, and coaxed them to pull. The horses strained. One pole snapped. The structure remained. Finally, the three surviving horses from the first tower hooked up with their brothers and sisters. These three were spooked by the first collapse and were difficult to tie to the support poles. Finally, the men succeeded and together, they pulled. Timber cracked and poles pulled free. The second tower began to topple. As he ran, Tyree drew his sword and cut the traces that were still attached to debris. The horses galloped away, taking with them the Tranca riders. Tyree raced in their wake on foot. Horses are faster even than a Kodiak. Even the large work horses got clear in thirty strides. For the Kodiak, it was eighty strides. The rain made the rich black earth of Verdanta slippery and wet. To slip or fall would mean death. Tyree ran as hard as he could. His fortieth step hit a muddy patch. His legs flew out from under him and Tyree somersaulted backwards up into the air!

CLICK HERE FOR CHAPTER 14: "SENSES"

  

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