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The Drained Sea
The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous and their accompanying foot soldiers made good time across the wide flats of the former sea bottom, pausing at the usual rest stops to water the horses, then pressing quickly on. Occasionally they saw the large, reptile-like beasts of the present age roaming in the distance, but none came their way; even the most voracious of dragons would pause at a show of force such as they presented. By late afternoon they arrived at the region where the razor-straight, impassable cliffs separating them from their goal diminished to level ground near the Western Sea, fading into the seaside dunes.
They made their camp on the shore, well above the tideline, but not too close to the primeval forest that rose at their backs. The trees here were twisted and stunted by the ocean winds, an eerie-looking scene made more unsettling by the fact that monsters really did haunt those woods. From this point, it was about a half-dozen miles to the village if one went through the dreaded forest as the crow flies; the well-beaten path that bypassed it added a half-dozen more. They still had some daylight left, and it was decided that T'cumu and Nate would go on reconnaissance. Nate was chosen for his sharp eyes and experience as a cavalry scout, T'cumu for his tremendous wilderness skills and insights into the ways of the enemy tribesmen they would face.
They decided to take their chances with the forest, as the path along the cliffside would undoubtedly be watched. Their horses would have to be left behind; they couldn't be risked in the tangle of the native woodlands. Nate hadn't liked bringing Poppy to battle while carrying a foal in the first place, but there had been no time to ready another horse for him from the mesa cayuse population, something he would have to see to after the current situation was settled. Going on foot was always a risk, if they were targeted by one of the big dragons they would just have to make a run for it on their own two legs. They went well-armed, of course, carrying their hand weapons, a handful each of sharp spears, some torches, and their bows and arrows. Nate still had a few shots left for his prized pistol, but if he fired it the sound would give them away beyond all doubt. Still, he carried it anyway, for he knew there would inevitably come a moment when its deadly power must once again be called upon.
Before they set off Nate's wife, the ever-remarkable Raven Priestess, gave him a kiss for luck and a caress on the cheek, which he returned with a soft smile. Gonzalo and Ni-T'o clapped T'cumu companionably on the back and urged him to use utmost caution. There was no time for more than that, and the two men entered the forest without looking back.
T'cumu went first, choosing a path between the enormous trunks of the primordial woodlands that lay between them and the southern edge of the village. The forest afforded them some advantages. It was unlikely the invaders would stray very far past its outer edges, and the vegetation would provide ample concealment. Did these outweigh the dangers? They hoped so. The going was fairly easy; the undergrowth was not very thick due to the eternal shade of the overhead canopy. Eerie whoops and calls echoing through the verdant gloom made them pause from time to time, but they continued on, resolute. Some of the surrounding plants were unusual-looking, but a fern was still a fern, and the majestic conifers still smelled pleasantly of pine pitch. It was not really so unlike home; it was still Earth, just a younger and deadlier version.
About halfway to their destination a thundering presence could be heard approaching through the nearby trees, and they hunkered down in the brush, waiting to see if whatever it was had caught their scent before they decided to flee or not. Heavy footsteps shook the ground as the thing crashed through the sparse undergrowth not more than a few yards away. They caught a glimpse of its massive form looming through the branches—one of the really big dragons, like some fell beast of nightmare stalking the forest's ever-shadowed floor. It was coming toward them, and they braced themselves to begin their desperate run. A distant cry caught its attention and it mercifully changed course away from the two anxious men, crashing through the undergrowth in search of prey, without realizing a possible meal had been just within a claw's reach.
"That was too close," Nate whispered just above a breath.
"Much too close," T'cumu agreed wholeheartedly. They took a moment to quiet their jumping nerves before continuing on their way.
A short time later their hearts nearly stopped as a creature suddenly leaped out of the bushes and fled past them at high speed. It was brown-furred and ran on four legs, a flash of white tail being the last thing they saw as it vanished into the forest.
Both men started to chuckle softly. The thing that had startled them was nothing but a common white-tailed deer doe, an animal native to their own times that had surprised them as much as they had it.
"Now we are the monsters stalking the forest!" Nate said.
"It is good to see a familiar face in this place. If anything could outrun a dragon, a deer could!" T'cumu said, smiling at the thought.
At long last they drew near the village's surrounding fields, as the evening light filtered through the trees in nearly horizontal beams, casting the world in an orange glow. They were careful to stay well hidden among the brush and brambles at the forest's edge, shade-loving plants like huckleberry and witch hazel from the village's time that had quickly found their way to a perfect, sparsely occupied niche, and were thriving there. Crawling on their stomachs now, T'cumu and Nate braved the thorns to reach a good vantage point, well hidden beneath the leafy wall.
Stone Wall Village was, indeed, under siege. Over six hundred armed tribesmen were gathered below the village that lay perched high in a wide, flat spot within a massive rock outcropping, protected on nearly all sides by the natural stone walls that lent it its name. Where the stone walls stopped, massive timber palisades had been erected to finish the job, fortifications that had rather fortunately been in place long before the village had made its journey back through time. Fortifications that had been designed to do exactly what they did this day—repel an invading enemy.
Around two hundred of the enemy warriors were stationed on the rocky slopes leading up to the village's towering timber gate, just outside of arrow range. Occasionally a short volley would be exchanged, but the distance had been well-established and it was a stalemate. Groups of tipis had been set up in two areas, one near the sea path, the other near the path which led to the City of the Pyramids, with wide fields of various useful crops separating them. The rest of the invading force was taking it easy. Everyone seemed quite relaxed, as if they were on a holiday camp-out, such was their confidence in their eventual victory. Many of the invading warriors were covered head to toe in war paint, but the details were too fine to be made out from this distance.
Nate and T'cumu gave each other a brief, worried look. They would be greatly outnumbered, and it would truly be up to their tactical advantages and the element of surprise to win the day. Nate was surprised to see that although some of the fields had been trampled, the majority lay untouched and were still in production. The people working the fields were mostly women who had been caught outside during the initial attack. They continued their labors under the watchful eyes of guardsmen. A prison camp had been erected in the fields at the bottom of the hill, a wooden stockade. T'cumu swore under his breath, and Nate did the same. The invaders tactic was simple; starve out the already overcrowded village while enjoying the bounty of their fields for themselves. A well-fed army could afford to wait, lounging around sunning themselves until the villagers behind the walls got hungry enough to come out.
At the far end of the fields to the east, but not too close to the surrounding forest's edge, there were a group of open-walled tents designed to let the air flow through while keeping the sun and rain off. In one of them they could see a group of men dressed differently from the common warriors. Undoubtedly these were the invasion's leaders. The shade of the canopy and distance made it difficult to make out much detail, and Nate's eyes began to tear up as he forgot to blink while squinting as hard as he could to see more.
Not for the first time, Nate cursed the absence of his spyglass, vowing once again to get it back from the Cherokees and their US Army escort. The tables had changed there, the soldiers who once were guarding the Cherokee during their forced banishment from their traditional lands had quickly resigned from that onerous and now meaningless duty and were perhaps even considered friends and allies by now. When last he saw them, the Cherokee were surviving quite nicely and had settled comfortably enough in their new home, considering there was no longer a USA for them to go back to or be sent away from. In any case, his former comrades in arms were no friends of his, they were all foreign mercenaries really, just as he had been, with little loyalty to the American flag or each other. When that chief had sent his young thugs after him they had simply stayed out of the way. It would be a great pleasure to come back for a visit leading his own considerable new forces, far more powerful than any they could muster, and take back what was rightfully his. Nate smiled at the thought, then shook his head to clear it. That was all business for another day.
T'cumu quietly tapped Nate's arm, and motioned for him to have a look at something that had caught his eye: Horses! Much to their surprise, a short distance away on the field's right side was a small brush paddock, lying a little too close to the forest's edge for Nate and T'cumu's comfort. Apparently, the invaders underestimated the danger that lay within, something they both noted to remember. The paddock held twelve horses. Nate thought that one or two of them might have come through with the conquistadors, but the rest were easily recognizable as breeds used by the Cherokees. He wondered how these men had ended up with those? It was possible they had been traded for, but more likely stolen. Were some of the invaders Cherokee? Despite their rather savage attitudes toward an unauthorized liaison with a chief's daughter, the Cherokee were mostly peace-loving farmers and craftsmen, not really warriors, and definitely not bandits. Still, every barrel held a wormy apple or two.
Nate started to smile, and turned to whisper to T'cumu. "At some point tomorrow I trust that someone will steal those horses."
"Indeed, someone will, most gladly!" T'cumu flashed Nate his most sparkling grin, and they shared a quiet chuckle.
T'cumu frowned, and asked Nate, "Why would they keep the horses so far away from the leader's camp?"
Nate considered it. "First I think these fellows are overconfident. They figure they have plenty of time to mount up in the unlikely event trouble should happen along. We will make them regret that! Secondly, I figure they just don't like the smell of manure!"
T'cumu laughed. "I like the smell of manure!"
"So do I, T'cumu, so do I."