After being so far into Nichole’s world over the weekend, my boss asked me about ten minutes into work, “Are you okay?” At least I was able to confuse her with my reply…
“I am only a little in your world.”
Fortunately I never really crossed back, so was able to rush home and toss out what’s below. Starts off playful, but once over the pass, goes dark quickly. Not sure what, beyond notes, I’ll manage the rest of the week, but I’ll do my best.
It wasn’t until about ten miles north of empty Yakima, when their force turned sharply left and up into the foothills, that Nichole allowed herself to be openly seen by the rank and file of the Nation. Everyone of course knew who the cloaked figure between Brunelli and Reilly was, but from the top down, they had their role to play.
“Rimrock?” she’d asked Reilly. The sun was only a third into the sky.
“At least. But I doubt it.”
She looked him another question.
“Water. There are,” he looked about, like always, really, “close to twenty thousand horses here. For at least twenty-five miles after the lake, there’s no water. And the streams across the watershed are thin and shallow.”
It turned out Rhun had a compromise plan. Most of their force came to a halt the five miles from Silver Beach to Rimrock, west to east. The three from the City were just close enough to his command to hear his next order.
“Chieftain Brock: take your men and ride like hell over the pass. If you can make it to Packwood, do so!”
“Yes, Great Lord!”
“And: the standing order!”
“Yes! Sir!” Brock waved from his saddle as he galloped off with his men.
“’Standing Order?’” Nichole asked. How had this escaped her?
“No clue,” Brunelli whispered.
Under that ominous cloud, Nichole and her friends hobbled their horses. Reilly went to draw water for them while she got their food and Brunelli brushed them down. The dust from the first part of their journey had been terrible and they were coated with it. Which gave Nichole an idea.
“At nightfall, I’m rinsing off in the lake,” she announced.
“I’ll come with you!” he cried with his gap-toothed smile.
“John,” she said softly, “do you want me to knock the rest of your teeth out?”
She watched his smile slip and she realized she had just got something completely wrong.
“Do you still think so little of me, Nichole?” he asked.
She wrapped her arms about his lower chest as best she could, shaking her head.
“No, John,” she said just above a whisper. “I was stupid and hateful. Please forgive me?”
She felt his bulk lean down to her, his arms about in a bear-hug.
“Friends don’t worry about shit like that!” he said.
They broke apart just as Jenkins came back laden with water, wondering what was going on.
Hours later, except for the occasional neigh, the road was surprisingly quiet for having the equivalent of two cavalry divisions parked on it. Nichole stood, took two steps, and jerked John to his feet with her left hand.
“Hold the fort,” she mechanically whispered to Jenkins. “The sergeant and I are going skinny dipping!”
Nothing surprised him anymore.
At the water’s edge, she started stripping.
“Nichole… your boyfriend…”
“We are soldiers; you for real, me, in an odd way I hope to tell you about, someday,” she said, stepping out of her panties in the pale moonlight. She walked into the water to her knees.
“Here!” With a sweep of her left hand she made a cut in the lake’s surface for an instant. “An invisible argent line that will separate your body from mine! No sin, no shame! Got that, trooper?”
By the time he had shucked his clothes she was already two dozen yards out into the water. As best as he could manage, Brunelli dogpaddled out, looking back only once to gauge himself against that imaginary line.
“If you cannot tread water, John,” she smiled in the darkness, “I shall have to break my own rule and haul you back to the bank!”
Not wanting her friend to drown, Nichole used breast stroke to wash her surface and hair as she returned to shore, hearing her sergeant paddle along behind. She waited for him on the little beach: legs slightly apart, a towel in each hand on her hips. Nichole realized she enjoyed being stared at.
“Nichole…” he began.
She tossed a towel at him.
“Yes, my friend?”
“Forget it.” He turned around, drying. He suddenly froze. Her body – so cold! – was pressed against his. “H… hey! That silver line…!”
“Exists only in the water. Not here on land.” Not only was her skin freezing, but so too her words. “I will never be able to repay what you did: find me and save me. Please know that you will never be forgotten and will always be my dearest friend!”
He felt him swallow, hard.
“That’s enough, trooper! Let’s get back to our tents! Before the sawbones starts spreading rumors about us!”
“Of course, sergeant!” she said, letting go of him and getting her kit back on. “If he does, I hope they are very lascivious rumors!”
“Las…?” Brunelli wondered, pulling his trousers up.
“Oh, John!” Nichole laughed. “When you do finally settle down, make sure she’s a school teacher!”
Jenkins regarded them both as they came back: barring her physical contact with the sergeant, they acted like friends, not lovers. Made sense: he knew from her about her boyfriend at the university, that young man who had carried her into his aide station at Fort Reilly all those months ago. As a Regular, he’d also heard rumor about her exploits at the L&C bridge.
The most sophisticated piece of technology on Earth, and it went swimming naked in the ass-end of the Cascade Range, as part of the leading edge of a bunch of Huns attacking a society of cannibals. He shook his head as he crawled into his tent. I don’t believe a word of it.
Nichole and John separated. Once inside, she pulled her last local battery out and plugged in. There are great days ahead, she thought. I am afraid.
Again, two hours before dawn, there was a stirring and rustling as their force woke itself up and prepared to move. John made a muttered comment in faint praise that did not go unnoticed by Jenkins or Nichole. The sun was still not quite up when they began their move, scouts ahead and various detachments assigned to light the way with the solar lamps from the City.
As the two lane highway curved from northwest to southwest at the pass came a pleasant surprise: two troopers from second detachment; those who Nichole had served with in her battle. They gave a perfunctory briefing to the Great Lord before falling in with their fellows. And Nichole.
“We were not expecting that dragoon brigade to come thundering through late in the day, yesterday!” Schmidt related in a low voice, taken aback at just how many combat troopers the Nation had mustered.
“Any idea where they pulled up?” Brunelli asked in the same tone. Nichole saw Schmidt shrug.
“Generally downhill at trot, canter, gallop? That could have seen them into the little burg of Packwood, but likely with several blown horses.”
“You’ve no comm downhill?” the sergeant asked, unhappy.
“Me and Casey, here, our orders were to stay at the pass and link up with all of you.” Schmidt went on. “Three-man teams with post riders don’t start for another twenty miles, at Randle.”
“So the Major won’t know about that vanguard brigade until it comes over the last hill! Effing wonderful!”
Nichole was brimming with questions, but kept her peace while the professionals had it out.
“These guys,” Brunelli indicated the horsemen about them with a toss of his head, “are better than I thought they’d be. We’ll likely be on the far side Randle ourselves, tonight. Not bad… really…”
Jenkins was nodding at something.
“Yeah, I see it,” he said. “If they do that, and have another early start, that has this force into the Centralia Valley two hours after dawn.”
He shook a little.
“That’s shockingly good staff work for…” he looked about. “You know.”
No one wanted to say ‘barbarians’ and die for it.
Nichole took a moment to look about the evergreen trees that pressed in on the road. The sky was light but their dawn occluded by the mountain range behind their right. Such beauty, to be a host of war.
Just ahead she could see and hear a rider from their advanced detachment come clattering up. At such range and with so many ambient sounds, she could not pick up much. Just enough. The rider saluted Rhun and fell in and back with their mass as they cantered forward.
“That ‘standing order’?” she began. Schmidt and Casey had not heard of it but Brunelli and Jenkins looked at her closely.
“They are killing everyone they encounter,” she said in an empty tone. “And burning whatever they have time to.”
No one spoke for a few miles.
“Makes sense,” Brunelli finally allowed.
“’Sense?’” Jenkins raised his voice. “What kind of – ”
“They are staking the future of their people on this one throw of the dice,” the sergeant cut back sharply. “Speed is the vital factor; do they have time to find out who’s with the cannibals? Who’s not? Who has a shortwave radio? Who doesn’t? Easier by far to just…”
He waved ahead.
“Make a desolation.”
Nichole waited until no one else spoke for a minute.
“…and call it peace.” She added.
The four Regulars glanced at her but said nothing. None happy in being complicit to borderline ethnic cleansing.