Last night, right before I passed out, I heard and saw Nichole’s indignation: I don’t have a smell! Everything else flowed from that. Tomorrow, hopefully (and by ‘hopefully’ I mean ‘with caffeine tabs’) we’ve the rest of their 3-way conversation.
The priest-shaman guy worries me. Religious wars are ugly.
Nichole counted ten torches approaching. They halted at the edge of the light.
“Chieftain Adam,” she heard Bakke call pleasantly. “What brings you so far from home?”
To Bakke’s three standing, three horses advanced further into the light. A large man of northwest European descent with no beard rode a bay. To his right a more Mediterranean looking one, with a long black beard, on a horse the color of Toast. Those two wore the usual mix of skins and homespun. Just behind his left was someone so swathed in a dark cloak she could not see his form at all, but the hands on the reins of his snowy horse were thin and bony.
“Captain Bakke – ” the one in the middle, Adam, began, only to be cut off.
Adam didn’t look at all offended by the rudeness, she saw. He continued with a nod.
“Major. I was just taking a ride with a few of my men. We’ve many miles to travel soon and want to make sure we know the lay of the land.”
Truth and lie, she heard.
“I imagine you are here with one of our last gifts? From your master to mine?”
“The mass movement of your people is forbidden by our agreement until the treaty is signed,” Bakke called, speaking both to the man in front of him and whoever was in the darkness beyond. “The modern weapons we bring will help you accomplish your task when you get to where you belong.”
“Weapons,” Adam smiled, “avail nothing without the will to use them. And we belong anywhere under the Sky.”
At that she saw a nod from the cloaked figure as he raised his right hand to point up for just a moment. A priest of some sort?
“And,” Adam leaned forward a bit, “we’re just out for a ride.”
Nichole guestimated two hundred tents. Further guessing at four men per tent. She rounded up to assume the worst: 1,000 horsemen. She considered the two of three before her: rifles strapped to their saddles and pistols on their hips. Of their one hundred and twenty only a few had night-vision devices. This could end… poorly.
“Then perhaps you are hungry from your journey,” Bakke acted as if he’d done similar math. He turned slightly to wave his arm back. “Please join us for an evening meal!”
“MRE’s?” Adam laughed. “Probably expired? I’ve meat being roasted before my tent right now!”
“Then… as this is a meeting of friends,” Bakke stretched. “A drink?”
There was a pause before he slid off of his horse. The man who might be a priest made a sound like a hiss.
“A drink sounds fine!” The man to his right followed his dismount. A figure came out of the dark to take their reins.
“So long as it’s just us men,” Adam said, extending his hand. “And not with the Witch.”
Bakke, even just what she could see of his back, did great work in feigning surprise.
“’Witch?’” he countered. “Adam, the Breakup is not that old! We don’t believe in superstitious – ”
Now it was his turn to be interrupted.
“Out here, under the Sky,” the cloaked one gestured again, “things are different. We see things in the day, and especially in the night, that were not there before, Armando.”
He completed his initial motion and took Bakke’s hand.
“The Breakup was never just about politics and electric power. The world has changed.” His smile fled for a moment but returned. “And as such, I’ll forgive your little falsehood! She’s here in your camp! We of the Steppe and Sky can smell her!”
She did not move even though the machine gun loader to her left gave a couple of tiny shakes in silent laughter. Impossible, she knew. I’ve no scent at all!
Bakke turned around to where she could now see his face, his hand lightly on Adam’s right elbow.
“We were still setting up when we noticed you and your men,” he began, guiding him into their laager. Adam’s man followed without a word. The shrouded figure stayed on his horse and moved not at all.
“And as such,” he continued, “my command tent isn’t fully set up, but I’ve still a bottle stashed in my personal kit!”
“That will be fine, Armando.” He seemed at ease, but his gaze went to the shadows about him.
“She’s watching you right now,” Bakke said softly.
Nichole grinned behind her masked face as Bakke used their new, odd beliefs against them. She moved silently to follow them.
“That’s not funny!” Adam rumbled.
“The truth isn’t,” Bakke said easily with another wave to where his men had quickly set out two field chairs directly across a crate. One more chair was just behind each, for their seconds. A three-quarter full bottle of a local whiskey from the City was on the crate with three small glasses. Two candles provided a little light.
Both men paused and sat at the same time. As host, Bakke pulled the cork out and poured first for his guest, his man, then himself. He did not pour anything for his own leftenant.
“Confusion to our enemies,” Bakke said, raising his glass.
“Foreign and domestic!” Adam enjoined. They each drank half.
Bakke tried very hard to not smile as the other’s eyes still flicked here and there. The horseman leaned far forward, but she could still hear him.
“This is trouble! From all the way at the top!” he whispered poorly.
Bakke imitated his lean.
“For a girl?”
“Perhaps she is just a girl! But if our Nation thinks otherwise… there is already murmuring against our venture! If the rank, file, and women think your City sides with the Evil One…!”
He took another quarter of his glass.
“They won’t come! The entire mission will be a failure!”
Bakke leaned back. After turning his glass in his hand several times, he also drank a bit more. He raised his head and voice.
“Smythe? One more chair!”
Returning his eyes to his guest, he answered the question on his face.
“It is entire against my nature and better judgment, but for once, I think candor is called for!”
A chair was set to Bakke’s right. He stood, indicating his guest should as well.
“Clarke! To me!”
There was no sound at all, but in a few moments Adam saw a smaller figure step into the light of the candles. His BDU, vest, helmet, goggles, and kerchief were no different than the hundred about them. The figure looked to Bakke, who nodded.
The helmet was swept off with her right hand with a swish of her head to free her ponytail; she unzipped her vest with her left.
Rumors has done a very poor job describing me, she read in Adam’s eyes and slight movements. She stepped out of her vest and tossed her gloves down just next to the crate. She lifted her right hand as she bowed just a little, looking up into the horseman’s startled eyes with a tiny twinkle.
“I’m Nichole Clarke! A student at Portland State! I’m so happy to meet you!”
In her periphery, she could see Bakke doing yeoman’s work to not smile.