March in Country

Chapter TWELVE

The East Bank, May: Across the river from Saint Louis lies a collection of settlements known as the Tangle.

It's watched over by a lone Kurian tower, a growth on what had been a bank building in East Saint Louis. The Kurian there is an odd one-weak, reclusive, and of little import to the scoundrels and smugglers across the river from the Grog metropolis. He has but a Reaper or two, rarely glimpsed, no police force, only a few toughs with wellmaintained armored cars to shuttle his mouthpieces and churchmen about. Southern Command's intelligence service, insofar as they think about him at all, believe "Eastie" is some fallen Kurian exiled to a disputed area chiefly to keep his eye upon the Grogs across the river and maintain some manner of relations with them.

Which is just as well. East Saint Louis marks the farthest north Southern Command's "Skeeter Fleet" will operate, facilitating the activities of Logistics Commandos buying, begging, borrowing, or stealing items from the industrial centers around the Great Lakes. They have been known to tie up in Eastie's domain and deal with the shifty traders found on the Illinois side of the Mississippi riverbank.

When the barges full of well-armed Golden Ones, plus the newfound Headring Clan of Gray Grogs, tied up their barges under the shelter of the east half of the old McKinley bridge and occupied an old, gap-roofed warehouse near the river, there was not a great deal Eastie could do about it.

As it turned out, he did, however, report to the rest of the Kurian Order the mysterious flotilla of barges and their odd occupants.

Night still flowed down the Mississippi. The wind died at midnight and the air filled with mosquitoes and other night fliers, clustering around Number One's running lights.

Bats, drawn by the mosquitoes, ventured far out into the river. Valentine, watching the hazy moon through the moist night air, imagined he could hear their cries as they echolocated.

Eating distance, even in the frustratingly zigzagging manner of this great intestinal river, gave him a sense of satisfaction. Watching the riverbanks slip by without the effort of crashing through brush and bramble, with food and water a couple of steps away and a blanket and pillow that would allow him to both sleep and cover mileage brought back memories of the old Thunderbolt and its endless coastline patrols. Back then he'd marveled at the ease of water travel as well.

Even the deceptively empty banks of the river comforted. The river, running near wild here, had pushed all but transient fishers, trappers, and the river traffic back. Of course, the occasional shed showed so many bullet holes from River Patrol machine guns it looked as though the spots were part of a paint job.

Thumps, calls, clanks, and hammering noises from the barges travelled across the gentle river water.

"What are them Groggies up to?" an idling River Rat wondered.

"Making themselves bunks, I expect," his mate on watch said, watching the barges with the boat's sole pair of binoculars. Their strap had its own flotation strip, and someone had added some extra rubber cushioning to the housing. Optics were hard to replace.

The convoy travelled in two parts. Cottonmouth were the boats exploring where the barges were heading. Exodus were the barges themselves, with the support of the armored firefighting tug. Then Rattler covered the convoy from upriver, a mere two boats and the slowest ones adapted for riverine fighting.

Valentine was tempted to ask for the glasses, but he was nothing more than a glorified passenger in Number One. Besides, if he was feeling too relaxed and lazy to dig around in his dunnage for his own glasses, it couldn't be that important.

He decided to make conversation. His mind kept drifting to Snake Arms, and those hard muscles under that deceptively soft flesh.

"Back in the Wolves," Valentine said, "when I was trying to convince Captain Patel that I knew my ass from a knothole, I learned a saying, 'If a Wolf doesn't have it, he makes it. If he can't make it, he captures it. If he can't capture it, he'd does without.' "

They all watched the tug begin another careful turn, its paired barges in front reminding Valentine of a cargo wagon with an eight-horse team, following in the wake of the pilot boat.

If only we'd grabbed another tug or two. We'd be able to make better speed. Shorter cargo barges would mean easier turns.

Still, the amount of space they'd covered in a single night's run was nothing short of astonishing-a steady five miles an hour thanks to the smaller boats feeling their way forward. They'd be north of Saint Louis sometime before noon.

"That's the worry, Valentine," Captain Coalfield said. Like most men who spent their lives on water, he was darkly tanned and seamed. Rather wispy hair gave away his years-his body certainly didn't. Coalfield was all muscle. "There's a River Patrol station at the mouth of the Illinois River. We got by it northbound by tying together, dousing all our lights and using trolling motors on all but one boat in a dark run. Unless they're all drunk as Milwaukee brewers, these barges aren't getting past without the River Patrol having something to say about it."

According to intelligence, there were no heavy cannon at Alton. Mortars, machine guns, and light cannon protected the base itself from potential Grog raids, but trained artillerymen and their pieces were needed at other borders of the Kurian Zones. The River Patrol relied on their fast, hard-hitting boats to command the Mississippi.

"You don't need much to take out Grog canoes and flatboats," Coalfield's executive officer said when briefing Valentine on Alton.

Captain Coalfield shifted his grip again.

He would have made a bad poker player, Valentine decided. There were all kinds of "tells" that he was uncertain.

"We've never made the run past the mouth of the Illinois River with such a big flotilla before," Coalfield said.

"That may be to our advantage," Valentine said. "Three big barges, loaded, an escort of combat vessels-it's coming from the wrong direction for anything Southern Command would do."

"Could be they were alerted by riverbank spies."

"I've been up that riverbank as a lieutenant. There are a few gangs of headhunters, but they have to watch themselves. The Grogs raid across the river into the bluffs all the time. There's nothing worth guarding on that bank until you get to the big farms in the flats."

Weather came to the rescue of their doubts. As they approached Alton, thunder began to crackle. A line of fast-moving storms boiled up from the south, and soon rain turned the boat into a one vast drum.

"Better go down in the cabin. Lightning on the river can be dangerous," Coalfield said.

Morse lamps were flashing back and forth between the barges and the escorts.

Hair running with water, Valentine complied, as Coalfield made a note on a plastic-covered clipboard next to the ship's wheel. "We're all reducing speed," Carlson told the man at the wheel. "Tighten up on the pilot boat."

Valentine, stripping off his shirt in the cramped, food-stuffed cabin, had a strange flash of Frat Carlson and Stockard sheltering in an old farm shed. If they were being tracked, the bad weather would put the pursuers off, and hopefully buy them time to rest for the remainder of the overland trip.

Valentine always thought of Saint Louis as "the Green City."

He'd seen two great ruins in his life: Chicago's downtown and Saint Louis. The buildings of Chicago's downtown, while sporting tufts of green here and there, never became too overgrown, mostly because the unfortunates dumped there cultivated every bit of useful soil. Potatoes and onions grew in the old boxes that had held trees; tomatoes grew from old sinks propped up in glassless windows.

Saint Louis could not have been more different. The Grogs did not utilize the higher floors of the city's great structures, except for thrill-seeking youths looking for risky reaches to prove themselves. They liked to see vines and bushes clinging to the sides of concrete and glassless windows bearded by kudzu and creepers. The growth sheltered insects, birds ate the insects, and hawks ate the birds. The Grogs, in turn, captured and trained the hawks to hunt waterfowl.

Valentine went ashore with Mantilla, the riverman who'd delivered letters to Narcisse when he could not visit Saint Louis himself.

They paid their usual brief homage to a fat old Grog chieftain Valentine thought of as Blueball-he painted himself in blue dye, put gold flecks about his face, and had a human slave who whitened his fangs and brushed out his hair and polished his nails to flaunt his wealth and power-and obtained a foot-pass for both of them. The price was some Kevlar liberated from the Gray Baron's stores.

Humans had to carry a token in Saint Louis, either signifying their ownership by a particular clan or tribe, or to show they passed through the city with the permission of a chief. Valentine had learned in his years of visiting Blake that certain Grogs who sold foot-passes cheap had influence only on the waterfront, or the market, and if you ventured into the city with some nobody's foot-pass you could get cuffed about and kicked back down the hill toward the riverside. Blueball was one of the more influential chieftains, being a slave trader, and his passes were recognized even in the hills to the south and the suburb country to the west.

This trip, Blueball's foot-pass was a piece of Christmas decor, some old sleigh bells on a bit of dingy leather with the red velvet flaking off. But they still chimed a merry accompaniment as he and Mantilla crossed through the market.

It was a little like Dickens, come to think of it. As painted by Maurice Sendak. Grog children gamboling underfoot while groups of females sorted and bargained and stored, trading weights of salt and tobacco and bullets for foodstuffs and goods.

Valentine looked forward to a happy day. He'd bring Blake and Narcisse with him when he left, this time.

Of course, a young Reaper at the fort would be strange for the men. He hoped that with so many other new arrivals, Blake would pass without comment, perhaps as a pale and sickly child.

"Haven't had a letter from them in a while. Haven't you been north?" he asked Mantilla as they passed through the Grog trade stalls of the riverside market. Valentine made a show of carrying his Type Three-a foot-pass was a useful necessity, but Grogs had their criminal classes, too.

"Narcisse had other concerns," Mantilla said. "She had to move back into town. The Jesuits are giving her and Blake shelter at the cathedral. She asked me to explain it to you. No other choice."

Valentine didn't like Blake being so close to people-even if most of them were unarmed slaves-and Grogs.

An old downtown cathedral, Father Cutcher's domain, stood near Cass Street off a park on the North Side. Valentine knew the Jesuit somewhat from his travels into Saint Louis over the years.

Ostensibly, he ran a mission ministering to the Grogs' slaves, offering solace to body and soul alike. He had a few sisters offering nursing and midwifery, and traders and the very few travellers in this part of the country could bed down in the mission and avoid the snake pits of the waterfront ghetto.

Valentine sniffed the incense as he entered the Narthex-it was the official Vatican stuff, not the wild spice mix his old Catholic guardian made do with on holidays.

A pair of bent old women gave their boots a glance.

"Wipe that river mud off, ye drips," one said with a hostile squint. "That's what the mat's for."

Other elderly filled the nave. The pews had been removed and replaced with rockers, lounges, and card tables. Former slaves, aged enough to be given their freedom before death takes them, but too old for a journey, washed up at Cutcher's door.

A nun directed them to Father Cutcher. They had to climb some rickety stairs to reach him in the bell tower. The Jesuit wasn't trying to pray closer to God, he was fiddling with a shortwave radio with one of his elderly.

"Leave off, Father," the electronic tinkerer said. "I think it's atmospherics, not the antenna. If it were the antenna, we wouldn't be getting anything south or west, neither."

"Major David Valentine. Captain Sebastian Mantilla."

"Sebastian?" Valentine asked Mantilla, as they trailed the old man down.

"Don't know how the old coglione ever found out. None but my old mom used that name."

Narcisse and Blake had taken up residence in an old third-floor room that was practically an attic, though it did have a view of the park. Wobble, Blake's dog, limped over to Valentine, wagging his tail and licking.

Narcisse, her head wrapped in its usual colorful turban, made a special blend of coffee for her visitors. Valentine sipped carefully, more to savor the drink than because he was suspicious of ersatz. He could taste nuts, citrus, and chocolate along with the coffee beans.

"Eats like a goddamn meal," Mantilla said.

Blake, as usual, was wide-eyed and wary for a few minutes. Narcisse put an encouraging hand on his shoulder, and suddenly he was all hugs.

"You have a magic touch, Sissy," Valentine said. "I remember that time in the Caribbean, after Captain Boul's men stomped me. Your hands on either side of my head."

Though in years still a toddler, the top of Blake's head now came up to Valentine's rib cage, and he was astonishingly strong.

"Ouch. Blake, careful, gentle like with Wobble."

"As petting," Blake said in his whispery voice.

Narcisse sat tiredly, her eyes closed. She'd aged since he'd last visited, distressingly so.

"You all right?" Valentine asked. "Can I get you something to eat, or look for medicine?"

"You know me, Daveed. Did you not ever wonder how I could control a toddler who could break my arm at sixteen months?"

"You had such a gentle way about you," Valentine said. "I figured he loved you."

"Yes. Most of the time, the gentle way works. But sometime, heem too emotional, Daveed. Not listen for my voice, not mind my words. Then, other ways."

She looked closely at Mantilla. He nodded. "Good a time as any, Sissy."

Narcisse patted the shriveled skin stretched across her breast. "I am weary, Daveed. This old body is ready to give up. It was ready to give up some years ago, but I keep it going."

"If you're feeling sick-," Valentine said.

"No, not sick. Tired. Not much left in these bones, I think."

She unwrapped one of the colorful turbans her head never seemed to be without.

A Kurian rested upon her bald, scarred head, an obscene cap that glistened and pulsed in the candlelight.

Or perhaps it was a Lifeweaver. They were the same species, with the same powers and potentials. Only by their actions could they be distinguished.

It resembled an animatronic, prickly cucumber more than a Kurian. Valentine, to his everlasting horror, had seen dead pregnant women and the children who had died in utero. This-entity-had the same misproportioned, squashed look-a melted model of the adult version. Its webbed arms were still tight-wrapped next to her body, only tiny hook-digits at the end clung to her skull.

The head, with its two cloudy topaz eyes so large it was a wonder they didn't roll right out of the soft flesh surrounding them, turned toward Valentine.

So we meet at last.

"Face to cephalopod," Valentine said. "Who are you?"

A survivor, the David. A survivor. I am a scion of one of the last Lifeweaver holdouts on Kur.

I will not take from sentient creatures. Indeed, I only consume other living beings with regret.

I do not have many years left, I think. Perhaps I would be dead already, were it not for Narcisse and her concoctions, and the scraps of lifesign from the chickens and rabbits and squirrels the Blake takes.

Valentine tried to comprehend speaking to a being who was alive when Julius Caesar walked the earth. No wonder the Kurians could look upon mankind as livestock. The endless cycles of war and killing, cruelty and hate. Distant observers, they. All they'd know is battles and pogroms, having never sat and listened to the audience laugh at A Midsummer Night's Dream or hummed the "Toreador Song" from Bizet's Carmen while digging in the garden the way his mother once had.

"You look like you need some air," Mantilla said.

They went out into the night. Valentine smelled Grog cooking on the breeze out of the city.

"There is one more caste, you know, Valentine. Beyond the Wolves, Cats, and Bears."

"Kurian agents?"

Mantilla smiled. "Not quite, though there are some similarities. No, we're talking about one that's been under a variety of names, but considering your time and place and background, we'll call it a 'Raven.' "

"You're one of these?"

"I am."

Valentine wondered if he could survive another passage to some new level of Lifeweaver mysticism. Did he truly trust Mantilla? Perhaps Frat Carlson wasn't the only Kurian agent who'd been close to him.

"What do you do?" he said, temporizing.

Mantilla looked skyward. "How shall I describe it to you? We bring messages from the Lifeweavers, and can talk amongst ourselves, after a fashion. Like Ravens of old, we flock to where the battle is thickest. Not to feast on corpses, but to report and intervene as needed. We are tricksters, able to take on a different appearance, at least for a brief time and with some help from the more gullibly minded."

"Like the Lifeweavers and Kurians-and their agents." Valentine didn't mean to cause offense, but Mantilla scowled at the comparison.

"In a sense. It comes down to us in the legend of shape-shifters, or the Rakshasa in India, where they may have been the last enclave of Kurians from the first invasion."

Valentine went back over his encounters with Mantilla. He'd hinted and hemmed and hawed about certain abilities in the past. Valentine gave him time to continue his explanation.

"Every Freehold has a Raven or two watching over it. I was, for a time, one of three in Southern Command. Then I became one of two. It was then that you met me for the first time, on the Arkansas River fixing my barge. Now I'm alone, save for a man who comes up from Texas from time to time. If a new freehold is established in Kentucky, it will need a Raven, for there's little chance a Lifeweaver can be found to guide it, at least anytime soon."

"So you act as substitutes for the Lifeweavers?" Valentine asked.

"It's rather more complicated than that I'm afraid. Have you ever heard the term 'symbiosis'?"

"Yes, it's two organisms of different species who survive better by cooperation. Like a bird who picks ticks off the body of a rhino. The bird gets to eat the ticks, plus I suppose the protection of something the size of a rhino and the rhino has parasites picked off."

Mantilla slapped an exposed brick wall and dust flew. "Verdammnt , I think you're in the wrong profession, my friend. You should be a teacher. Most shape-shifter legends involve duality of one kind or another. The poor sukhim is cursed with this other side living within. It is like that with us, though whether it is a curse or not ... How about the reproductive cycle of the Kurian/Lifeweaver beings? Do you know anything about that?"

"I heard they budded off-like self-cloning."

"Not quite. They shift genders, briefly, when they need to reproduce. If conditions are right, two 'males'-though they're not really sexed that way, they're way beyond pricks and pussies-who have found themselves in affinity decide to reproduce. One shifts into 'female' mode long enough for a combination of genes. Sometimes it will be two joining with a third serving as brood-parent as well. In extreme cases they can self-fertilize, but that is more risky. In any case, a small carbuncle is fertilized and it grows into a new Lifeweaver. Or Kurian."

"You'd think we'd have a lot more around, then," Valentine said.

"The Kurians practice very strict population control. Centuries of being trapped on Kur forced it on them. Only the most clever and vicious survived to reproduce. As for the Lifeweavers, they've so successfully extended their already long life spans that they put it off more and more often than not never get around to reproducing. It takes a lot out of them and they'd rather spend their energy on art and science."

"Or get a piece of us."

Mantilla took a deep breath. "Sometimes, a bud doesn't develop properly and dies. Other times, if it is taken off early, it does not develop normally, but remains in an arrested state. It can attach itself to a host and live off the host. In return, it helps the host survive, though it acts more as an agent of the host's will than on its own."

He talked more of the Ravens-how they sometimes just knew a truth, or had an unusually vivid dream depicting the future and the course they should take. "The trick, of course, is to shape the actions of others. You're already accomplished at that. Perhaps your mother's influence passed down to you."

"No thanks," Valentine said, after turning it over. "I feel like I've given enough of myself to the cause. There's only a tablespoon or two left."

"I'm afraid, then, David, you condemn Blake to the life of a wild Reaper. Narcisse will be gone soon, no matter how hard her symbiot tries to keep her alive, and Blake is like a young child in a supremely powerful body. Sooner or later he'll succumb to the temptation to run down a Grog or two. Unless you choose to keep him in chains, of course, and throw him a dead chicken every other day."

Mantilla, in some ways, was as clever as Brother Mark, finding the chinks in his emotional armor and sleeping sensibilities. Did Brother Mark have something riding in him?

"Perhaps I could try it?"

"Of course. The one on Narcisse detaches at will."

They ate a meal of vegetables. Slave food, the Grogs called it. Valentine had been ravenous since being wounded by the Baron, and wanted something in his stomach before trying any new experiments.

When he had his nerve worked up, he allowed Mantilla to take the dwarf Lifeweaver from Narcisse and place it on him. Valentine tried not to think that it would be the work of only a second for it to drain the vital aura from his body, leaving him twitching on the floor until his heart quit.

A light-headedness seized him. It reminded him of coming out of a sound sleep and jumping to his feet. A controlled swoon.

"How do I know where you end and I begin?"

Such vitality. I feel a millennium younger, David Stuart Valentine.

"What do I call you?"

I do not know. I as this flesh am part of a larger identity. Narcisse called me "Makak"-I rode her like a monkey.

Would you like to see the world through Blake's eyes?

"Let him be."

I would no more control him as my others would a Reaper than I would have used one of these nerve hooks to bleed the aura from Narcisse . I correct him, calm him when he is anxious.

"When he eats a chicken?"

The aura in a chicken is more trouble than it is worth. It is like the smell of real food to you, David Stuart Valentine. Does it sustain you, or make you wish to eat your fill?

"Suppose I were linked to you, and knifed someone. Close enough to smell them."

I cannot say; it depends on many variables. I may benefit. I may shrink in fear of the violence. You may benefit. I expect you have already. Why do you think you thrill so, when you survive a combat? That is a splash of vital aura washing across you as it is released.

Valentine flushed. He felt greasy where it was touching him. "Get off me. Now."

He handed the double-handful of over-intelligent calamari back to Mantilla.

"Sorry, Mantilla. You'll have to find another symbiot."

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