Thomas urged the sweating black steed into a full gallop through the sandy valley and up the gentle slope. He shoved his bloody sword into his scabbard, gripped the reins with both hands, and leaned over the horse's neck. Twenty fighters rode in a long line to his right and left, slightly behind. They were unquestionably the greatest warriors in all the earth, and they pounded for the crest directly ahead, one question drumming through each one's mind.
The Horde's attack had come from the canyon lands, through the Natalga Gap. This was not so unusual. The Desert Dwellers' armies had attacked from the east a dozen times over the last fifteen years. What was unusual, however, was the size of the party his men had just cut to ribbons less than a mile to the south. No more than a hundred.
Too few. Far too few.
The Horde never attacked in small numbers. Where Thomas and his army depended on superior speed and skill, the Horde had always depended on sheer numbers. They'd developed a kind of natural balance. One of his men could take out five of the Horde on any bad day, an advantage mitigated only by the fact that the Horde's army approached five hundred thousand strong. His own army numbered fewer than thirty thousand including the apprentices. None of this was lost on the enemy. And yet they'd sent only this small band of hooded warriors up the Gap to their deaths.
They rode without a word. Hoofs thundered like war drums, an oddly comforting sound. Their horses were all stallions. Each fighter was dressed in the same hardened-leather breastplate with forearm and thigh guards. These left their joints free for the movement required in hand-to-hand combat. They strapped their knives to calves and whips to hips, and carried their swords on their horses. These three weapons, a good horse, and a leather bottle full of water were all any of the Forest Guard required to survive a week and to kill a hundred. And the regular fighting force wasn't far behind.
Thomas flew over the hill's crest, leaned back, and pulled the stallion to a stamping halt. The others fell in along the ridge. Still not a word.
What they saw could not easily be put into words.
The sky was turning red, blood red, as it always did over the desert in the afternoons. To their right stretched the canyon lands, ten square miles of cliffs and boulders that acted as a natural barrier between the red deserts and the first of seven forests. Thomas's forest. Beyond the canyon's cliffs, red-tinged sand flowed into an endless sea of desert. This landscape was as familiar to Thomas as his own forest.
What he saw now was not.
At first glance, even to a trained eye, the subtle movement on the desert floor might have been mistaken for shimmering heat waves. It was hardly more than a beige discoloration rippling across the vast section of flat sand that fed into the canyons. But this was nothing so innocuous as desert heat.
This was the Horde army.
They wore beige hooded tunics to cover their gray scabbed flesh and rode light tan horses bred to disappear against the sand. Thomas had once ridden past fifty without distinguishing them from the sandstone.
"How many, Mikil?"
His second in command searched the horizon to the south. He followed her eyes. A dozen smaller contingents were heading up the Gap, armies of a few hundred each, not so much larger than the one they'd torn apart thirty minutes ago.
"Hundred thousand," she said. A strip of leather held her dark hair back from a tanned forehead. A small white scar on her right cheek marred an otherwise smooth, milky complexion. The cut had been inflicted not by the Horde, but by her own brother, who'd fought her to assert his strength just a year ago. She'd left him unscathed, underfoot, soundly defeated.
He'd died in a skirmish six months after.
Mikil's green eyes skirted the desert. "This will be a challenge."
Thomas grunted at the understatement. They'd all been hardened by dozens of battles, but never had they faced an army so large.
"The main body is moving south, along the southern cliffs."
She was right. This was a new tactic for the Horde.
"They're trying to engage us in the Natalga Gap while the main force flanks us," Thomas said.
"And they look to succeed," his lieutenant William said.
No one disagreed. No one spoke. No one moved.
Thomas scanned the horizon again and reviewed their bearings. To the west the desert ended in the same forested valley he'd protected from the Horde threat for the past fifteen years, ever since the boy had led them to the small paradise in the middle of the desert.
To the north and the south lay six other similar forests, inhabited by roughly a hundred thousand Forest People.
Thomas and Rachelle had not met their first forest dweller until nearly a full year after finding the lake. His name was Ciphus of Southern, for he came from the great Southern Forest. That was the year they gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Marie. Marie of Thomas. Those who'd originally come from the colored forest took designation according to which forests they lived in, thus Ciphus of Southern. The children who were born after the Great Deception took the names of their fathers. Marie of Thomas.
Three years later, Rachelle and Thomas had a son, Samuel, a strong lad, nearly twelve now. He was wielding a sword already, and Thomas had to speak loudly to keep him from joining the battles.
Each forest had its own lake, and Elyon's faithful bathed each day to keep the painful skin disease from overtaking their bodies. This ritual cleansing was what separated them from the Scabs.
Each night, after bathing, the Forest People danced and sang in celebration of the Great Romance, as they called it. And each year the people of all seven forests, roughly a hundred thousand now, made the pilgrimage to the largest forest, called the Middle Forest-Thomas's forest. The annual Gathering was to be held seven days from today. How many Forest People were now making the exposed trek across the desert, Thomas hated to imagine.
Scabs could become Forest People, of course-a simple bathing in the lake would cleanse their skin and wash away their disgusting stench. A small number of Scabs had become Forest People over the years, but it was the unspoken practice of the Forest Guard to discourage Horde defections.
There simply weren't enough lakes to accommodate all of them.
In fact, Ciphus of Southern, the Council elder, had calculated that the lakes could function adequately for only three hundred thousand. There simply wasn't enough water for the Horde, who already numbered well over a million. The lakes were clearly a gift from Elyon to the Forest People alone.
Discouraging the Horde from bathing was not difficult. The intense pain of moisture on their diseased flesh was enough to fill the Scabs with a deep revulsion for the lakes, and Qurong, their leader, had sworn to destroy the waters when he conquered the much-coveted resources of the forest lands.
The Desert Dwellers had first attacked thirteen years ago, descending on a small forest two hundred miles to the southwest. Although the clumsy attackers had been beaten back with rocks and clubs, over a hundred of Elyon's followers, mostly women and children, had been slaughtered.
Despite his preference for peace, Thomas had determined then that the only way to secure peace for the Forest People was to establish an army. With the help of Johan, Rachelle's brother, Thomas went in hunt of metal, drawing upon his recollection of the histories. He needed copper and tin, which when mixed would form bronze, a metal strong enough for swords. They'd built a furnace and then heated rocks of all varieties until they found the kind that leaked the telltale ore. As it turned out, the canyon lands were full of ore. He still wasn't sure if the material from which he'd fashioned the first sword was actually bronze, but it was soft enough to sharpen and hard enough to cut off a man's head with a single blow.
The Horde came again, this time with a larger force. Armed with swords and knives, Thomas and a hundred fighters, his first Forest Guard, cut the attacking Desert Dwellers to shreds.
Word of a mighty warrior named Thomas of Hunter spread throughout the desert and forests alike. For three years after, the Horde braved only the occasional skirmish, always to their own terrible demise.
But the need to conquer the fertile forest land proved too strong for the swelling Horde. They brought their first major campaign up the Natalga Gap armed with new weapons, bronze weapons: long swords and sharp sickles and large balls swinging from chains. Though defeated then, their strength had continued to grow since.
It was during the Winter Campaign three years ago that Johan went missing. The Forest People had mourned his loss at the Gathering that year. Some had begged Elyon to remember his promise to deliver them from the heart of evil, from the Horde's curse, in one stunning blow. That day would surely come, Thomas believed, because the boy had spoken it before disappearing into the lake.
It would be best for Thomas and his Guard if today was that day.
"They'll be at our catapults along the southern cliffs in three marks on the dial," Mikil said, referring to the sundials Thomas had introduced to keep time. Then she added, "Three hours."
Thomas faced the desert. The diseased Horde army was pouring into the canyons like whipped honey. By nightfall the sands would be black with blood. And this time it would be as much their blood as the Horde's.
An image of Rachelle and young Marie and his son, Samuel, filled his mind. A knot swelled in his throat. The rest had children too, many children, in part to even odds with the Horde. How many children in the forests now? Nearly half the population. Fifty thousand.
They had to find a way to beat back this army, if only for the children.
Thomas glanced down the line of his lieutenants, masters in combat, each one. He secretly believed any of them could capably lead this war, but he never doubted their loyalty to him, the Guard, and the forests. Even William, who was more than willing to point out Thomas's faults and challenge his judgment, would give his life. In matters of ultimate loyalty, Thomas had set the standard. He would rather lose a leg than a single one of them, and they all knew it.
They also knew that, of them all, Thomas was the least likely to lose a leg or any other body part in any fight. This even though he was forty and many of them in their twenties. What they knew, they'd learned mostly from him.
Although he'd not once dreamed of the histories for the past fifteen years, he did remember some things-his last recollection of Bangkok, for example. He remembered falling asleep in a hotel room after failing to convince key government officials that the Raison Strain was on their doorstep.
He could also recall bits and pieces of the histories, and he drew on his lingering if fading knowledge of its wars and technology, an ability that gave him considerable advantage over the others. For in large part, memory of the histories had been all but wiped out when the black-winged Shataiki had overtaken the colored forest. Thomas suspected that now only the Roush, who had disappeared after the Great Deception, truly remembered any of the histories.
Thomas transferred the reins to his left hand and stretched his fingers. "William, you have the fastest horse. Take the canyon back to the forest and bring the reinforcements at the perimeter forward."
It would leave the forest exposed, but they had little choice.
"Forgive me for pointing out the obvious," William objected, "but taking them here will end badly."
"The high ground at the Gap favors us," Thomas said. "We hit them there."
"Then you'll engage them before the reinforcements arrive."
"We can hold them. We have no choice."
"We always have a choice," William said. This was how it was with him, always challenging. Thomas had anticipated his argument and, in this case, agreed.
"Tell Ciphus to prepare the tribe for evacuation to one of the northern villages. He will object because he isn't used to the prospect of losing a battle. And with the Gathering only a week away, he will scream sacrilege, so I want you to tell him with Rachelle present. She'll make sure that he listens."
William faced him. "Me, to the village? Send another runner. I can't miss this battle!"
"You'll be back in time for plenty of battle. I depend on you, William. Both missions are critical. You have the fastest horse and you're best suited to travel alone."
Although William needed no praise, it shut him up in front of the others.
Thomas faced Suzan, his most trusted scout, a young woman of twenty who could hold her own against ten untrained men. Her skin was dark, as was the skin of nearly half of the Forest People. Their varying shades of skin tone also distinguished them from the Horde, who were all white from the disease.
"Take two of our best scouts and run the southern cliffs. We will join you with the main force in two hours. I want positions and pace when I arrive. I want to know who leads that army if you have to go down and rip his hood off yourself. In particular I want to know if it's the druid Martyn. I want to know when they last fed and when they expect to feed again. Everything, Suzan. I depend on you."
"Yes sir." She whipped her horse around. "Hiyaaa!" The stallion bolted down the hill with William in fast pursuit.
Thomas stared out at the Horde. "Well, my friends, we've always known this was coming. You signed on to fight. It looks like Elyon has brought us our fight."
Someone humphed. All here would die for the forests. Not all would die for Elyon.
"How many men in this theater?" Thomas asked Mikil.
"With the escorts out to bring the other tribes in for the Gathering, only ten thousand, but five thousand of those are at the forest perimeter," Mikil said. "We have fewer than five thousand to join a battle at the southern cliffs."
"And how many to intercept these smaller bands of Horde that intend to distract us?"
Mikil shrugged. "Three thousand. A thousand at each pass."
"We'll send a thousand, three hundred for each pass. The rest go with us to the cliffs."
For a moment all sat quietly. What strategy could possibly overturn such impossible odds? What words of wisdom could even Elyon himself offer in a moment of such gravity?
"We have six hours before the sun sets," Thomas said, pulling his horse around. "Let's ride."
"I'm not sure we will see the sun set," one of them said.
No voice argued.