Rangee stood at the edge of the nearest trench and stared within. Sorvatte, who had been appointed deputy warlord by virtue of his familiarity with the terrain, stood beside him. The interior was still in shadow this early in the morning and Rangee had to lift his hand to his eyes to shield them from the glare of the sun. He counted ten Rauders inside. Like Rangee and Sorvatte, none of them bothered to wear helmets. The dried hide of the Reps offered protection from blade or arrow, but not from the strange new weapons used by the enemy.
At least six of the Rauders crouched in the confines of the trench were wounded in one manner or another as evidenced by trickles of blood that oozed from dried patches on arms, legs, and heads. Rangee was certain that many torsos were bleeding as well but the mud of the trenches caked so heavily to furs and hides that it hid such wounds.
One of the men noticed Rangee and Sorvatte; he climbed slowly to his feet and saluted. “My overseers,” he said. “I am Konerx, squad leader. We await your orders.”
Sorvatte spoke before Rangee could answer. “You are from the Thunder Horse tribe, are you not?”
“I have learned that Tsuoka died in the last raid. I mourn the passing of a great warrior, as I join you in welcoming Rabiz to ranks of chief.”
The Rauder stared at Sorvatte several seconds before answering. “There are many great warriors to be mourned, Deputy. I have seen my son and my brother destroyed by the Muchuckla. And many friends. It seems that few of the dead have the chance to speak to their horses, and even the wounded are turned away from the healers.” The man hesitated before going on. “There are some of us who wonder why we are here. What is the goal for which we fight and die?”
“I hear pain in your words, Konerx,” said Rangee. “Pain borne of grief and frustration. But this pain is but a tiny sample of the pain all of us would feel if Kratia enslaves the world. She is a servant of the Dark Lord, and would turn us all into puppets of the Crystal, just as Murgorath did to the Elves. Turn your pain into anger, Konerx. Anger and hard resolve. There will be time to grieve later when Kratia lies dead at our feet.”
Konerx turned to Rangee and slowly smiled. “My pain reminds me that I am still alive, Warlord. Clearly, pain must be a good thing. What I would really appreciate is a chance to share some of this good, delicious pain with the Muchuckla.”
Some of the men in the trenches laughed. One muttered that he wanted to rip off Kratia’s head and shit down her throat. There were more laughs, and the men started moving about. Sorvatte suggested that the time might be right to conduct another raid, and Konerx agreed. Rangee and Sorvatte walked away as the squad leader began detailing the assignments.
“Are the rest of the tribes like this, Sorvatte?” asked Rangee as they approached the next trench.
“The frustration? Sure. Too much frustration, Rangee. Everyone is feeling it. Hell, I feel it myself. I miss the thunder of charging horses. I miss the thrill of seeing the enemies faces scream in terror or yield under great pain. We fight best in sudden swoops, not this tedious pecking.”
“Unfortunately, our enemies have forced us to adopt this style. At least for now. And while we don’t like it, we have to become effective at it.”
“I know the old ways don’t work here, Rangee. Those three frontal assaults we tried on the first day failed miserably. Scores of us left dead, and no losses inflicted on the enemy. But the new pattern of fighting isn’t that much better.”
“What are the daily and cumulative figures?”
“Thirteen men failed to return from last night’s raids and are presumed dead. Another three were killed but were revived. Twenty or so were wounded, some seriously.”
“And how much damage did we cause?”
“Estimates are that we killed about two hundred of Kratia’s troops. Our men are trying for fatalities of course, but that isn’t always possible. It’s impossible to guess how many of her wounded Kratia is restoring. But she’s probably hampered by energy shortages just as we are.” Sorvatte smiled. “Especially since our plan to sabotage the power station worked. We took out the Hornblower plant last night.”
Rangee grabbed Sorvette. “You did? That’s great!” Rangee hugged Sorvette. “What tribe took it out?”
“Tree Mist tribe led the effort. Staggar did most of the inside work; he had spent some time studying hydro plant design. Thought the Rauders ought to have their own power generation plant one day. But there was a lot of support from all the other tribes. Most ran diversionary attacks, while the Death Blood moved in with Staggar to take out the guards.”
“Best news I’ve had in days.”
“I thought it would cheer you.”
“I need cheering,” Rangee agreed. “I don’t like this style of fighting any more than the rest of the tribes. We need these visible victories to lift morale.” Rangee grew serious again. “What are our cumulative losses?”
“Over the last five days we have suffered seven hundred forty dead. About twelve hundred have been wounded.”
“Konerx said that the wounded were being turned away by the healers. Is there any truth to that?”
“Rangee, there is a limited amount of energy and medicines available. We have had to prioritize treatments. You made it clear that we were to save back at least ten thousand megs, and we have done so. If we healed every wound, we’d have to tap into that reserve. As it is, we focus on the life threatening wounds and ignore the rest. Even with that the available energy stores are getting critically low. And I had to send out runners to bring back more of the herbs and berries that have run out.”
They were almost to the next trench. “You are doing well, Sorvette.”
Sorvette grunted. “Rangee, when will you tell me what you need all that energy for?”
“Soon.” Rangee shielded his eyes again. In the distance, miles beyond the battlefield, he could see Krashbrinae. The dark tower appeared even darker with the sun behind it. Dark and proud, standing atop steep granite cliffs. A tiny ribbon of the road was barely visible, quickly falling from sight as it descended to the town of Hornblower below. “Perhaps tonight. Have all the chiefs meet with me at sundown in the command tent.”
Rangee looked down. The five men in this trench appeared in better condition than the previous squad. They acknowledged his presence, but were not inclined to speak. Each was alert, however; and were closely checking arrows, bows, swords and other equipment. Rangee noticed that each of the men in this trench wore a belt on which were strung brightly polished skulls; these were Death Blood Rauders, and they made very sure that their victims were dead. Rangee wished there were more of them.
Rangee looked up as a shadow passed by. The sky was clear, but a large and strange shape was slowly rising into the air above the enemy’s side of the battlefield, and it blocked out the light of the morning sun. The object looked like an animal bladder; it had the look of organ skin stretched taut by air or water. But Rangee had never seen a bladder so large, nor one that could float in the sky. The bladder was easily forty feet long, and at least ten wide. Ropes dangled from its underside.
Sorvatte had noticed the bladder, too. He asked if it were some sort of observation platform, or perhaps a platform from which to obtain better sights for their deadly metal death sticks. Rangee frowned and said that as far as he could tell, there were no men on the object. Perhaps it had gotten away form them too soon.
The wind was from the south, and the bladder began to drift with the breeze towards the Rauder side of the field. Rangee felt a growing apprehension. The thing would cross the half mile battle zone in a few minutes, and he really wanted to know its purpose before it came over his head.
Rangee looked back into the trench. “Grab your bows, Death Bloods. I want that object stopped before it reaches here.”
The men moved smoothly, seizing bows and quivers, and climbing up just enough for a decent aim. Arrows began to fly, and the twang of the bowstrings became a musical harmony.
The bladder advanced steadily on the breeze, with little or no effect from the arrows that reached it. Sorvatte repeated the order to other trenches, and soon hundreds of arrows were darkening the sky. The bladder began to deflate slightly, and yellow smoke seeped from the holes, to swirl slowly downward to the ground.
Still it advanced, its sides now bristling with countless arrows. The bladder reached the Rauder side of the trenches and began to rip along its sides, spilling out more of the yellow smoke. The smoke reached the ground and flowed into the trenches. Men began to scream.
Rangee shouted for everyone to avoid the smoke; and to abandon trenches that were exposed to it. Rauders began to climb out of the most forward trenches, where the smoke had entered. Rangee grimaced; the men were covered with huge bloody boils and open cankerous sores. The sores grew in size even as he watched. Several clutched at their throats, as bloody froth spewed from mouths and noses. Men began to collapse and die.
Most of his men had seen what he had seen; they began to climb out of the trenches before the smoke reached them.
The ground suddenly puffed dirt and dust in a hundred places, and Rauders began to shout and fall as Kratia’s troops fired on the now exposed Rauder forces. Rangee cursed, seeing that Messick had moved up a large part of his forces to within range of his death sticks, while remaining out of range of all but the strongest Rauder bows.
Amid the screams and shouts, Rangee noted another bladder beginning to rise. He leaped into the trench and grabbed a bow; notched an arrow and let it fly towards the floating death bag. The Death Blood had not left the trench, and they joined him in shooting. But the bag still advanced.
Rangee suddenly stopped, staring at the dangling ropes on the second bladder. “Stop shooting!” he shouted, and his command was relayed quickly through the ranks. “Now we charge,” Rangee muttered. He leaped out of the trench, and began running towards the approaching bladder. The Death Blood paused, surprised, then leaped to follow. Other squads joined in the charge.
Rangee felt a biting pain in his leg as a bullet from one of the death sticks found its mark; he ignored the pain and continued to run. Others fell on his left and right. A third of the way across the field he was under the second bladder, and leaped up to grab a rope. He climbed quickly to bladder, and found he could make his way nearly to the top of the thing.
Rangee shouted and motioned for the men to retreat, and watched as they withdrew. He pulled his sword from the scabbard and slashed a deep long gash across the side of the bladder. It shuddered violently; Rangee realized the bladder was a living creature, but it didn’t matter. Rangee scurried to avoid eddies of the deadly yellow gas as it poured out of the hole. The beast shuddered again and the bladder began rapidly deflating. The ground was coming up fast. It wouldn’t reach the main Rauder encampments. Rangee slashed again to be sure. The beast shuddered again, dropping suddenly.
A swirl of yellow smoke washed across his face; it burned like hot coals and he felt the flesh on his face dissolve and drip. He bellowed a mighty war cry and fell from the creature.