Taking the Third Option

By Eric Oppen

©2018, Eric Oppen

This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Eric Oppen in 2018, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

Change Year 25 (2023 AD)

Outside Casper, Wyoming

Rain poured down from a leaden sky, suiting Nick Cleveland’s mood perfectly. “This is a fine situation,” grumbled Joanie Schwarz, as they rode alongside the creek bank. “Cavalry at a siege. We’re about as useless as tits on a boar-hog!”

“Don’t complain too much,” Nick answered. “After that awful mauling we got, they wanted to send us somewhere quiet to regroup. This beats the hell out of charging bald-headed into a CUTter trap!”

Joanie nodded. The Iowan Third Regiment of Cavalry had, indeed, taken a mauling. They had charged all-out at what seemed like a tempting formation of CUTter soldiers, only to find out, too late, that there were Boisean infantry in wait on both sides of their charge. They had survived only by using the carcasses of their dead horses as a barricade and fighting frantically until the Iowan infantry had cut their way in to rescue them. Even so, they had taken horrific losses, and had been sent to Casper partly to recuperate.

The Charge of the Light Brigade…to think I used to love that poem!” Both old friends laughed ruefully at Joanie’s quip. “Living it gives a different perspective.”

Nick and Joanie sat their horses side-by-side, looking at the river and the fortifications on the other side. Atop the fortifications, just out of bowshot, enemy sentries watched them incuriously. In their broad-brimmed hats and green wool ponchos, they looked like ordinary Iowan soldiers, out on patrol to keep the city from being re-supplied. The emblems indicating their officer ranks were hidden, reducing the chance of a sudden attempt to capture them. That suited them both; neither fancied the idea of being captured. After what they had seen of how the CUT treated prisoners, they both much preferred death in battle.

They were in earshot of the enemy, but it didn’t worry either of them. They were speaking in Krigsprak, a stripped-down, Anglicized German that had been developed for use in the Iowan army. Someone in Des Moines had remembered that Iowa had a lot of German-speaking people, and that after the Change, few others on the continent could speak the language. Krigsprak had eliminated the more complex parts of German grammar, such as gender for inanimate objects, and had borrowed vocabulary where needed to make a fairly good, albeit limited, medium of communication that outsiders couldn’t understand. A command of Krigsprak was required of all Iowan officers, and most NCOs and long-service privates could speak it as well. Nick privately thought that his old teachers would have had fits to hear him speaking so inelegantly, but he didn’t care.

“Isn’t it about time for lunch?” Nick’s stomach felt dreadfully empty, and as he asked his question, he heard it give a growl. Joanie heard it too, and playfully flapped the edge of her poncho at him.

“Men. You do all your thinking between your breastbone and your knees.”

“Said the pot to the kettle!” Nick grinned at his old friend.

“I can take a hint. Back to camp!” The two friends turned their horses and urged them into a trot, heading back to the main Iowan camp.

When they reined in, Nick dismounted and looked at his horse’s hooves. “I didn’t care for the way this critter was going just now. Feels like something’s wrong, but I don’t see anything. I’ll take it over to Jenny.”

“Fine. Meet you at the officers’ mess.” With that, Joanie dismounted and led her horse off to the horse lines, and Nick led his own mount off to find their regimental horse-doctor.

Jenny Trout was busy supervising the treatment of a horse that had gone colicky, so Nick waited politely until she was satisfied with what she saw. She hadn’t seen him, so he let her know he was there. “Hey, I’ve heard there’s some sort of wild-eyed anarchist skulking around, singing seditious songs and trying to stir up discontent!”

Jenny stiffened, then turned and saw who had spoken. “Oh, you!” She grinned, and Nick grinned back. “What brings you to me? Got tired of hobnobbing with the muckety-mucks? Want to see how the common folk live?” She ran her fingers through her thick shock of grey-shot black hair. Nick had often wondered if she had Native ancestry, but had never asked. It was none of his business, and not unknown; the Sheriff of Hardee County, under whom he had served for years, was part-Native.

“You forget, by your standards I’m a ‘muckety-muck’ myself!” Nick had known Jenny Trout since before the Change; she’d been a traveling folksinger that had played one of his parents’ favorite spots in Iowa City many times. She’d been caught in Iowa by the Change, and had gone on the road as soon as things settled down enough to make that possible. In addition to her musical talents, which, in Nick’s own estimation, were top-of-the-line, she had turned out to be a skilful jackleg horse-doctor. Soon, she had acquired a horse-drawn wagon of her own, with which she went from Farm to Farm and from town to town, treating sick horses and other animals by day and singing in taverns in the evenings.

The State Police regarded Jenny with suspicion; many of her own original songs were, at best, subversive of established authority. However, the Farmers found her very useful. She had earned a reputation for being able to save beasts that a less skilful healer would have knocked on the head, and that earned her a good deal of protection. She was also very popular with the Vakis, who enjoyed the subversive lyrics of her songs. Listening to her express their discontents vented off pressure.

Even though he’d been a Deputy Sheriff since shortly after the Change, Nick liked Jenny and enjoyed her singing. While, publicly, he was a loyal Haselroad supporter, he privately thought that elections would be a very fine idea, and that breaking up at least some of the more overgrown Farms would also not be amiss. He’d had a few pointed discussions with the local State Police commander in his area, making it clear that both he, and his Sheriff, would be most displeased if anything happened to Jenny Trout. The State Police were powerful, but depended on local cooperation to do their jobs.

Nick pointed at his horse. “He’s favoring his left front leg, more than I like. I don’t know just what’s wrong, but I figured that finding you and getting you in on it would be a good idea.”

Jenny’s black eyes widened. “That’s exactly right. I’d rather catch these things as early as I can.” As she squatted, gently probing the horse’s foreleg, she asked: “You spent time with those Mackenzies, didn’t you?”

“Sure did!” Along with other Iowans, Nick and his wife and apprentice had preceded the Iowa army out west, as part of the diplomatic party that had firmed up the alliance between the Provisional Republic of Iowa and the new High Kingdom of Montival. Nick’s job had actually been to stir around and find out as much as he could about the various components of the High Kingdom. Being, unexpectedly, an old pre-Change friend of the ruler of the Portland Protective Association, Lady Sandra Arminger, had helped enormously. “What do you want to know about them?”

“How do they feel about new members?” Jenny was lifting the horse’s foot, checking the hoof. Whatever she saw didn’t please her; she pulled a tool out of the bandolier of tools she wore and began probing at it.

“New members?” Nick suddenly saw what Jenny was driving at. “Tired of Iowa, are you?” He wasn’t at all surprised that Jenny was interested in becoming a Mackenzie. She was pagan, and in Iowa, pagans were thin on the ground. And she was devoted to her music. While she loved her job as a horse-doctor, he knew that she would rather sing than do almost anything.

“They do sound like I’d find them compatible. And before the Change, I was used to roaming the country. Iowa’s nice, but I’ve seen every bit of it, and I want pastures new. That’s part of why I came along on this little jaunt.” Jenny probed at the horse’s hoof, until a stone came out from under the shoe and bounced on the stable floor. Straightening, she let go of the hoof and leaned back with a groan. Nick could hear a crackle from her back. “And I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“Same goes for all of us, Jenny. Come on. I doubt the food at the Officers’ Mess is any better than usual, but at least we can take a load off our feet and talk with people.”

True to Nick’s prediction, the food at the Officers’ Mess was not terribly inviting. A dried-beef-and-vegetable stew was the main dish on offer, washed down with some sort of herbal tea. As he collected his bowl and cup and moved toward where he could see Joanie and Melinda, his wife, sitting, Nick reflected that he’d be willing to do almost anything for a regular supply of real coffee and tea. Maybe after all this is over, we can open up some regular trade routes, he thought. For the millionth time, he mentally cursed the Change and whatever had caused it.

Joanie and Melinda were deep in discussion, and Jenny moved on in to join them. Nick sat apart a little way, concentrating on his eating. Conversations swirled, in English and Krigsprak; many professional Iowa military liked practicing the language, to keep up full fluency against the time it might be a matter of life-and-death.

Suddenly, Vyacheslav Stavarov burst in. “Where is Major Cleveland? Or Captain Cleveland?” The PPA squire had accompanied Nick and Melinda back to their own people, along with representatives of the other peoples of Montival, to evaluate the Iowans and report back home about them. In Stavarov’s case, it was partly for his own protection; his family were furious about a tournament that Nick had ridden in while at Tillamook that had turned fatal for a knight of their family, and were in the mood to lash out at anybody they might think to be at fault. Since young Vyacheslav had been squiring at Tillamook at the time, he had looked likely to take the brunt of his relatives’ ire, and Lady Sandra had assigned him to go along with Nick and Melinda to the Iowan army.

“I’m here, and so is Melinda. What’s the matter, youngster?” Nick knew the squire well enough to be instantly on the alert. Whatever his family’s faults, cowardice had never been among them and Vyacheslav was as brave as any of his relatives. Now, though, he looked like he’d been staring into hell.

“Sir! Ma’am! You’ve got to come! Please! It’s horrible!” Nick gently detached the squire’s hand from his sleeve, noting in passing that he had, at least, broken the youngster of addressing officers as “M’lord” or “M’lady.” Adjusting to a world without hereditary nobility, or at least, not as elaborate a nobility as the PPA had, had proven an eye-opening experience for the squire.

“What is it?” Melinda’s eyes were narrowed; she had not quite forgiven Vyacheslav for his inadvertent role in a “prank” that could have seriously injured Selene Lieber, Nick’s apprentice. Selene herself was quite sure that he had not intended to harm her at all, but had been the tool of his cousin, Sir Grigori, who had been killed later on by Nick.

Just then, several more Iowa troopers came running in. When they found Joanie Schwarz, they snapped to attention, saluting. She returned the salutes, and Nick noticed that all of them looked like they were just as spooked as Vyacheslav. He began to worry. Vyacheslav himself was a fairly cool hand, and had acquitted himself well in the fighting they had seen since returning to the Iowan army. What could have made him act like this?

The apparent leader of the Iowan troopers, a sergeant, stammered: “Ma’am… the scouting patrol that was sent out last night…” He paused, and gulped. “We just found them!”

Nick and Melinda exchanged glances. The patrol had not reported in when they should have, and some search parties had been sent out to see what might have happened to them. While the area was thinly populated, and the known enemy was confined within Casper; there were always dangers about.

Joanie’s attention was entirely on the trooper. “Where? And why are you acting like this?”

The sergeant tried to respond, his face working. Joanie studied him for a second, then visibly came to a decision. “Major Cleveland! Captain Cleveland! Follow me!” She ran for the horse lines, and Nick and Melinda followed after her. A few minutes’ frantic work later, they were all galloping out of the camp, following the sergeant who had alerted them to trouble.

❀ ❁ ❀

In his years as a Deputy Sheriff, Nick had seen some horrific things. People who’d fallen afoul of sounders of feral pigs, or packs of wild dogs, or other people. He’d helped recover bodies from burned houses. He’d been in battles ever since just after the Change, when he’d been too young to vote by the standards of the pre-Change world. But he had never seen anything like what he was now looking at. His stomach heaved, trying to expel what he had eaten, and he mastered himself with an effort.

The remains of the patrol were only recognizable as human with effort. They had been systematically, expertly tortured to death, and for many of the soldiers who’d come, it was more than they could handle. Nick heard retching, and weeping, and couldn’t find it in himself to blame whoever it was. Beside him, Melinda was shivering, as though she were cold, and he drew her closer to him, putting his arm around her shoulder to offer what comfort he could.

Joanie was standing by, her face paler than Nick had ever seen it. In a low voice, she said: “Send for the medics. There’s nothing we can do for them, but we need to bring them back to camp.” When she turned away, Nick caught a glimpse of her expression, and shivered. When she had that look on her face, she was furious. Any CUTter that fell into her hands was in for a mighty rough time, if Nick was any judge.

❀ ❁ ❀

The mood in the camp was somber, at best. They were brigaded with the remains of a Deseret regiment, and the Mormons sent representatives to the funeral service. As commanding officer, Joanie presided, speaking of the dead and the service they had rendered their homeland, before applying the torch to the pyres on which the remains rested. After the flames died down, the ashes would be collected to be shipped back to Iowa. The Iowan custom was to repatriate their dead whenever possible.

Afterward, the officers’ mess was nearly silent. Nick was sitting with Melinda, his apprentice, Selene, and the captain of the Iowan archers, Culum Kennedy. Joanie was nowhere to be seen; Nick had heard that she was taking her meal in her tent, as she sometimes did.

Jenny Trout brought her plate over to sit with Nick and his friends. “We’re in a mess here, people,” she said, spooning up some stew. “The thing is, we can’t get in at those scum, but they can raid out and snap up our patrols when they want to.”

“Joanie’s doubling the size of the patrols we send out, and after this, I’m sure they’ll all be on the alert,” Melinda muttered. She looked very pale, and her food was untouched. Nick didn’t feel much like eating, himself, but he made a mental note to keep an eye on his wife. When she was upset, she went off her feed, and he didn’t want her harming herself that way. He’d have preferred that she stay back in Iowa along with his apprentice, Selene, but that had never been an available option.

❀ ❁ ❀

Nick and Melinda had both held reserve commissions in the Provisional Republic of Iowa army, and they’d both had their commissions activated at the same time. Much to Nick’s surprise, the saturnine Sheriff Graves of Hardee County apparently had reported enough good things about him and Melinda to Des Moines that they’d been selected to join the diplomatic delegation being sent to Montival, just after the death of Anthony Haselroad and the declaration of war against the Church Universal and Triumphant.

When they had told their family about this, Selene had nodded quietly, and shortly thereafter, they found her out packing her saddlebags. “Selene, dear,” Melinda asked, “where are you going?”

“With you.” As usual, Selene was utterly matter-of-fact.

“But there’s war out west. They’re sending a huge army out there. It might be dangerous!” In a lot of ways, Nick still thought of Selene as the bony, skinny little girl with the mop of platinum-blonde hair he’d taken under his wing years ago. “You might get hurt! Or killed!”

Selene fixed him with one of her penetrating stares. “The death rate at war is the same as elsewhere. One person, one death. No more, no less.” She then stepped forward, taking Nick’s and Melinda’s hands in her own. “You’ve taken care of me for all these years. Now I can take care of you!” Melinda burst into tears, and Nick resigned himself. He’d been married since just after the Change, and in all that time, he had learned to know when he was out-voted.

❀ ❁ ❀

“What’s your take, Selene?” asked Jenny. She had seen more than enough of Nick’s apprentice to know that Selene Lieber was uncommonly perceptive. Nick had never believed in Second Sight, or any other such hogwash, but Jenny did. And some of the things that Selene had done since they had come out West had shaken Nick’s unbelief.

“I think that they did this partly to keep us off our balance, so that they can operate more freely, and partly just to be doing it.” Selene looked very solemn. “I do not think that the people in charge in Casper are very nice people.”

Nick privately thought that no Second Sight had been needed for the second statement Selene had made. He had seen, and heard, more than enough about how the CUT operated to have no illusions about captivity being preferable to death. If it came down to it, he was quite willing to force the enemy to kill him rather than allow himself to be taken alive.

Most Iowan soldiers felt that way. One reason that the Third Cavalry had been so badly mauled was that it had charged head-on into what turned out to be a trap, and instead of surrendering, had formed a hedgehog with their lances once dismounted, and settled in for a fight to the death. The Iowan infantry had cut their way in and rescued them, but it had been a near thing. The cavalry had inflicted fearful slaughter on the Boisean infantry and CUT light troops that had tried to take them down, but had paid an awful price in dead and wounded.

Nick wondered how the impasse they were in could be broken. Something was niggling at his mind, and he knew enough to not force it. The idea would come in its own good time.

❀ ❁ ❀

That night, Nick sat up suddenly in bed. “Of course! That’s it!” he said softly, not wanting to awaken his sleeping wife. He got out of bed cautiously, heading for his writing desk and lighting a candle with one of their Iowan-made sulfur matches for light.

“What has got into you?” Melinda grumbled. Nick looked over at their bed guiltily.

“Sorry, love of my life. I just had an idea about how we can break this siege and take Casper.”

“Oh?” Sleepy, but curious, Melinda got up, sitting on the edge of their double cot. “Well, let’s hear it.” She quirked a grin. “Even a blind pig finds an acorn every so often, you know.”

“Are you saying I’m stupid?” Nick raised an eyebrow. “I did pick you out of all the women in the world, after all. Was I stupid then?”

“All men are stupid, even with their trousers up.” Melinda put her hand on his arm affectionately. “And as for ‘picking,’ I zeroed in on you and targeted you before you even knew I had any interest in such things. Joanie was a lot of help. We set it up between us.”

“Pish, tush and piffle,” Nick answered airily. “I swooped down and separated you from the herd, and then exercised my male mind-control powers, to make you the helpless victim of my raging male lust.” Melinda giggled, as he went on: “However, that’s not what woke me up.” He dipped a pen in an inkwell and began scribbling. “My idea runs as follows…” As he explained what he had in mind, Melinda’s eyes grew wider and wider.

❀ ❁ ❀

Just after reveille the next morning, Nick and Melinda went to Joanie’s tent. They announced themselves, and Joanie said: “Well, come on in, you two.” Once the formalities had been concluded, Joanie asked: “What brings you to me this fine grey morning?”

Nick began explaining his idea, and Joanie’s eyes went wide, then narrowed as she thought about it. “By God, Nick, I think you might be on to something here!” She called to her aide: “Get Captain Kennedy here. I need to talk to him.”

❀ ❁ ❀

After the idea had been explained to him, the archer captain was enthusiastic. “Yes, this looks like it should work! We’ve got people from inside Casper here in camp, who escaped when the CUT took the town over. I want to get them in and see what they think of this. They know the town better than we do. Once they give it the thumbs-up, we can start selecting the people who’ll be in on this.”

“We need to call this plan something, you know,” Melinda pointed out. “We can’t just call it ‘it’ forever.”

“Call it ‘Operation Justinian,’” Nick suggested. “Justinian II did something similar when he was re-taking Constantinople, at the beginning of his second reign.” Nick did not choose to mention that after reassuming the throne, Justinian II had gone crazy, and had been overthrown and killed after a few years. Even though that was true, Nick had always admired the Byzantine emperor for his sheer bravery and effrontery.

“Good idea,” Melinda said. “If anybody hears us mentioning it, they’ll rack their brains trying to think of something related to Justinian I, not the guy we’re thinking of!”

❀ ❁ ❀

The secret of “Operation Justinian” was tightly-kept. Even many of the people who were being evaluated and selected did not know what was going on, until the selection was final and the plan was undergoing its final tweaks. It seemed to those not in on the plan that the Iowans were merely holding a very competitive archery contest. Again and again, they shot at their targets, with Captain Kennedy watching, alert for any flaw in form or failure in marksmanship that would result in disqualification.

Once everything was in place, all that was needed was a cloudy-but-dry night. The first time that happened, the people chosen for “Operation Justinian” gathered in the appointed place, with the equipment they would need.

As Nick Cleveland pulled on his boots, Melinda groused: “Why won’t you let me come along, Nick?”

Nick looked at his wife. “Because you aren’t as good at archery as this operation needs, love of my life. I’m only along because I got the original idea. You’ll have your part to play.”

“I wish you were wearing your armor,” Melinda mumbled. She came up and put her arms around Nick. “I know, it wouldn’t be practical, but I don’t like it!” She rested her head on her husband’s shoulder. “You come back to me safe, you hear?”

“That’s the plan, love of my life. I’ve got to go now.” Not without a pang, Nick straightened up, picked up his cased compound bow and quiver of arrows, and walked out to meet the others.

Quietly, Joanie led them over toward the city walls, to where they overlooked the stream that flowed past the city. A candle burned, shielded from the sight of sentries in Casper, marking the spot they needed. One by one, the Iowans slipped quietly down the stream bank, finding their way by feel, until they came to their goal. When they reached the spot where the city’s main storm drains emptied into the stream, they crawled on in, one at a time.

Once he was in the drain, Nick wondered if he’d really been as smart as he had thought. It was inky-black inside, so dark that he saw no difference whether he had his eyes open or closed. Crawling along on his hands and knees was less fun than he had anticipated, even though he’d foresightedly equipped himself with knee pads and wrapped his hands in rags. His precious compound bow was in its case, strapped to his chest, along with a quiverful of arrows. That did not make crawling any easier.

Through the dark the Iowans crawled, not even daring to whisper or murmur to one another lest it be overheard from overhead. Finally, the procession halted at a manhole. One of the lightest and skinniest of the Iowans, who’d been selected especially for this duty, was waiting for them, with a shielded candle in her hand. Once the main body of Iowans had arrived, she carefully climbed up, pushing on the manhole cover and gently pushing it to one side, making as little noise as possible. The night outside, dark as it was, was still brighter than the inside of the storm drains.

When it came Nick’s turn, he climbed out eagerly, relishing the night breeze on his face. As their informants had said he would be, he was standing in a little-used alley in Casper itself. The other Iowans emerged from the drains, gathering around and staying as inconspicuous as possible. Their informant gestured and they silently followed him, to a point where they could see one of the big main gates of the city.

❀ ❁ ❀

Up on the gate, Timmy Johnson was having a dull night of it. He had been raised in the Church Universal and Triumphant, and believed in its tenets. That didn’t mean that he enjoyed night guard duty. Like the majority of his comrades, he was ranch-raised, and would have been much happier out in the open instead of being cooped up in town.

He peered out into the darkness. Outside, the Iowans besieging Casper were doing what they had done the last several nights. Their infantry was drawn up out of bow range, and their military bands were playing. Timmy had to admit that the tune they were playing was catchy, and he wondered what it was.

In front of the Iowan formation, just out of bow range, the women they called the “war-dancers” performed a wild, acrobatic dance by torchlight. Part of Timmy—the good obedient son of the Church—disapproved strenuously of their performance, so like the “cheerleaders” he had heard of accompanying some formations from Corvallis. Another part wished he could get to know them better. They spun and danced, twirling flags and lit torches, as bagpipes, horns, woodwinds and drums provided a wild, exotic music and the Iowans roared one of their battle songs.

Hawkeye warriors, are you dreaming?

Don’t you see their armor gleaming?

Don’t you see the CUTters streaming

To the battlefield?

All of us are strong and steady,

All of us are poised and ready,

It can not be ever said we

Willingly would yield!

Now’s the hour of battle!

None of us will rattle!

We will shoo the CUTter crew

Before us like a herd of frightened cattle!

Hawkeye soldiers will win glory

Though the fight be hard and gory

We will live in song and story

As our homeland’s shield!

❀ ❁ ❀

Quietly, the infiltrators slipped up behind the gate. The guards’ attention was all outward. None of them suspected a thing could harm them from inside the city. With gestures, Captain Kennedy signalled all the Iowans to ready their bows and take aim. Nick’s bow was already strung, being a compound, so he took out an arrow and nocked it, picking his target and holding it so that he could let fly the second the signal was given.

❀ ❁ ❀

Timmy felt an impact in the center of his back, as though someone had come up behind him and hit him. Bewildered, he stared down, to see a blood-stained arrowhead protruding out from his chest. He struggled to make sense of the sight, but then two other impacts hit him, one in the neck making another arrowhead come out of the front of his neck, and the other in his back. He felt himself falling, limp and boneless, into an endless darkness where evil things awaited him.

❀ ❁ ❀

The archers Captain Kennedy had picked out were by far the best in the Iowan contingent, and they were close enough that their unsuspecting targets were all but impossible to miss. Nearly every shaft flew straight and true, and the gate guards all were dead before they knew what had hit them. Nick thought that some of them had enough arrows sticking out of their backs to make them rather resemble porcupines.

“Come on! Hurry! Take the gate!” came the low-voiced, urgent order. Some of the Iowans ran up on to the parapet over the gate, unfurling an Iowan flag and putting it over the edge of the battlement. Others worked frantically to get the gates open, so their comrades on the outside could get in before any CUTters twigged to what was going on.

The first Iowans through were the Third Cavalry; they’d been drawn up out of sight, but close enough to be able to ride in quickly. They trotted through, and Nick looked around until he saw Melinda, riding on one side of the formation and leading a riderless, saddled horse. As planned, he and the others who were on the ground ran for the riderless horses, vaulting into the saddles and grabbing the reins thrown to them.

Once the cavalry were all in, Joanie signalled the bugler, who blew the “Charge!” With a yell, the Iowans charged down the main street of the town, heading for the town center, where their refugee friends had told them the CUT headquarters were. Behind them, the infantry came marching in, with the bagpipes skirling the tune the Iowans used when they meant serious business, and were in no mood for mercy.

Hey, Johnnie Cope, are ye waukin’ yet?

And are your drums a-beatin’ yet?

If you were waukin’ I would wait

Tae gang tae the coals in the morning!

When Charlie looked the letter upon

He drew his sword, the scabbard from

And said “Follow me, my merry merry men

An’ we’ll meet Johnnie Cope in the morning!

Crouching low over his horse’s neck, Nick wished he was wearing his armor. He hadn’t been able to for the crawl through the storm drains, and now he felt naked. At least his helmet and sword had been strapped to his saddle, so he wasn’t totally defenseless. He’d cased his bow before he grabbed the horse’s reins, and it now rode behind him, as it always did when he went into battle.

The Iowans had achieved complete surprise. Resistance, such as there was, was sporadic and scattered. Occasionally a knot of CUTter soldiers would try to make a stand, or a few arrows would come singing out of the darkness, to spang off armor or, occasionally, to find their mark in human or equine flesh. With their swords and lances, the cavalry made swift work of anybody that tried to get in their way, heading inexorably toward the middle of town.

A large area in the middle of the town had been cleared of buildings after the Change, and in it, the main CUTter force was drawn up. They were fierce-looking, but to Nick’s eye, they didn’t look like they were ready to receive a charge. They milled around uncertainly, with their officers bawling contradictory orders. Before they could get themselves into some semblance of order, the Iowans were on them, charging with lances and swords. In seconds, a wild, swirling fight developed.

Nick didn’t have a lance, but he drew his sword. The Japanese blade gleamed in the light of the few torches around, as he swung left, then right, slashing and hacking at any CUTters that got near him. As usual when he was in a fight, he wasn’t afraid; he was just too busy to be afraid, what with guiding his horse, making sure that any CUTters that came too close were cut down, and keeping in formation with his comrades.

Yells went up:

Calontir! Calontir! Floreat Calontir!”

Sethaz ad malem crucem!”

Die! Chaos claims thee!”

Hawkeyes forever!”

Those were the Iowans’ battle cries, some of them from the old SCA before the Change, others adopted for this war. The CUTters tried to answer with their yell of “Cut! Cut! Cut!” but their hearts weren’t in it. They hadn’t been expecting anything like this savage incursion, and instead of staying in a steady formation, where they could do damage, many of them were peeling off and trying to get away.

Behind the cavalry, the Iowan infantry were moving in, making sure that no stray CUTters were still in action. They peeled off strong detachments to hold the main intersections, but there was still a large body of them as they marched on into the main square. At the sight of reinforcements for their enemies, the remaining CUTters either ran for the gates, hoping to somehow get out of the town, or threw their weapons down and raised their hands.

❀ ❁ ❀

As dawn broke, the Iowans found themselves the new masters of Casper. And that was just the beginning of their worries.

“I don’t think these people have had anything to eat since the siege started!” muttered Nick, as a line of local people went past him, heading to a laager of wagons, where the Iowans were dishing out food. Iowan soldiers kept the line orderly, and Selene Lieber was examining each of them as they went by, searching for any of them who had the taint of the CUT entities on them. She had been able to spot the entities’ hosts before, and Nick trusted her instincts on this.

The Iowans had come well-prepared for a long siege, but their provisions were running low, since they hadn’t anticipated having to feed the non-CUTter population of Casper. Luckily, most of them were so starved that all they could handle was a small amount of pemmican or sausage, a chunk of cheese and a chunk of hardtack. Even so, supplies were running out rapidly. The Mormons had promised help, and were bringing in more food, but that would take some time.

Earlier, when dawn had come and the local people had realized that the Iowans had taken their town, they had come out of their hiding places. Most of them had been glad to see the Iowans, but not all.

Nick had been nearby when a woman with a bundle in her arms had come running up to Joanie Schwarz. “You! Are you the Iowan general?” she asked.

“No, I’m the colonel, but I’m the ranking officer here. What can we do for you?”

The woman unwrapped the bundle, and Joanie involuntarily stepped back in horror. Nick knew just why she was upset. The bundle turned out to be a dead child. Nick didn’t get a good look, but he estimated the child’s age at around one year.

“She died two days ago! Those CUTters weren’t giving us enough food, and even though I fed her almost all of what I got, she died two days ago! And now you’re here!” Her voice rose to an anguished scream. “Where were you then? Where were you when we needed you?”

Joanie’s eyes welled with tears, and she turned and all but ran away. The woman stumbled after her, then collapsed, sobbing broken-heartedly. Several Iowan women came up, helping her to her feet and speaking soothingly to her, leading her away. Nick felt sick. He knew that that woman’s question would resonate in his mind for a long time. And her baby would join the long list of others—the others he’d been forced to kill not long after the Change, the others he hadn’t been able to save. At night, they were faithful friends, never far from his dreams.

“Do you want me to go after Joanie?” asked Selene. She had been a witness to the exchange, and Nick could see tears in her silvery eyes, for all that her face was its usual calm, impassive mask.

“Maybe we both should go, Selene. It’s kind of you to offer to go, though.” Nick had watched Selene grow from an abused, neglected child, the daughter of a madwoman, into an intelligent, effective assistant to him in his duties as Deputy Sheriff, and now, as a soldier in their country’s army. He was always proud of her, but this gave him new reasons to be.

When they found Joanie, she was sobbing rackingly, all but undone by guilt. Nick felt awful; he was not comfortable with crying women. Selene, on the other hand, knew just what to do. She stepped forward and put her arm around Joanie’s heaving shoulders. “Aunt Joanie. Don’t cry. It wasn’t your fault, or mine, or any Iowan’s. The fault was with the CUTters. They were the ones who kept all the food for themselves.”

Joanie looked up, her face blotched and streaked with tears. “You’re right. Even so… Even so, I’ll still see that woman in my dreams.”

“You and me both, Joanie,” Nick said. He held out his hand. “Come. You’ve work to do, and so do we. Grief and guilt is for after the war.”

Joanie let out a shuddering sigh, then put her hand in Nick’s, and got to her feet slowly. “Yes. Command doesn’t go away, does it?” She gave Nick and Selene a haggard grin. “Even when you want it to.”

❀ ❁ ❀

A little while later, Joanie was overseeing distribution of rations to the residents of Casper who hadn’t had any yet, when another interruption came. This time, it was young Vyacheslav.

“Ma’am!” He ran in, panting, and visibly remembered to draw himself up and salute, instead of bowing as he would have done had he still been at home. “We found some Iowan prisoners still alive!”

“Where are they?” Joanie had been tired, but all of a sudden she looked full of energy. There had been quite a few Iowans not accounted for, and she had been worried about them. As the senior-ranking Iowan officer, they were all her responsibility.

“They were locked up in one of the old schools, in the basement! Some of the local people told us about them, and we went and broke them out!”

“Show me!” Joanie followed after Vyacheslav, and Nick and Melinda scrambled after Joanie. In seconds, they were mounted, riding hell-for-leather through the streets, with locals and Iowans scattering out of their way.

When Nick saw what sort of shape the prisoners were in, he felt sicker to his stomach than he had when he saw what the CUT had done to the Iowan patrol they’d caught. These men and women had not had the luck to be killed. They had been kept alive, and systematically tortured. Nick had never seen people who’d been through such things before and survived the experience, and his stomach twisted into knots.

Joanie had gone dead white. In a frighteningly calm voice, she told Nick: “Fetch me the highest-ranking CUTter we have. Now!” Nick saluted, turned his horse and spurred for where the CUT prisoners were being held. As he rode, he felt himself getting angrier and angrier. There was no excuse for this sort of behavior! He just hoped that Joanie didn’t plan to do something really illegal.

When he came back, he had a squad of Iowan soldiers marching along behind him, surrounding a tall man wearing the remains of a Church Universal and Triumphant cleric’s robes. He had his hands tied behind him and a leather sack over his head, and was being prodded along by a spear-point in his back.

The Iowan prisoners were being looked after by medics, both Iowan and Mormon. Joanie was watching, her face set and her eyes hard as obsidian. The CUT commander was frog-marched up to her, and forced onto his knees. “Take off that hoodwink,” Joanie grated, and the men obeyed.

Once the hoodwink was off, and the gag that had kept him quiet was ungently pulled out, the CUT commander began to curse: “Tool of the Nephilim! Unnatural woman! The Ascended Masters will avenge me, accursed slut…” Joanie smiled evilly, bent down to pick up a horseball, and jammed it into his open mouth. While he spat convulsively, she grabbed him by the back of his neck and slammed him face-first into the pavement before forcing him back up on his knees.

“Do you see that flag, shit-for-brains?” Joanie said. She pointed to the Iowan flag, which flew over the main gate to Casper. “Can you read? Do you know what it says on it?”

When the CUTter quit spitting and sputtering, he croaked: “Of course I can read! Whoever taught you to, you filthy whore?” He peered at the flag. “I can’t see the words on it. They’re too small and the flag’s too far away.”

“Well,” Joanie snarled, “those words are the motto of Iowa: ‘Our liberties we prize and our rights we shall maintain!’ And we mean them!” She slapped the man hard across the face with her metal-studded leather glove, drawing blood. “You’ve sown the wind, and now you’re going to reap the whirlwind!” She grabbed the CUTter by the throat, hauling him back up on his feet. “I see CUT emblems anywhere from now on, I kill whoever’s showing them, and burn whichever building has them! Got me?” She turned to Nick. “Get me a horse!”

When Nick came back with a saddled horse, Joanie cut the prisoner loose. “So run, you CUTter filth! Run!” Half-dazed, unable to process everything that had happened, the CUTter stumbled toward the horse, hauling himself clumsily into the saddle. “You tell the rest of the filth that Iowa’s coming!” Joanie shouted, louder and louder. “You tell them that I’m coming… and that hell’s coming with me, you hear? Hell’s coming with me!” She whacked the horse on the hindquarters, and it neighed, turning toward the gate and heading for the outside, faster and faster.

The Mormons’ commander had come, and had been staring, amazed, at Joanie’s performance. “Ma’am… are you sure you are in control of yourself?” Nick couldn’t blame him. He had never seen Joanie so furious before and he had known her since they were in diapers together.

Joanie turned, and for a second, although she was no taller than the Mormon, she seemed to loom over him like an angel with a fiery sword. While Nick knew the Mormon was no coward, he didn’t blame him for taking a step backwards. Then whatever berserk spirit had entered her left, and she was just Joanie Schwarz again. “Yeah, I’m all right. This whole situation got to me, though.”

Tactfully, the Mormon turned and left. Presuming on their long friendship and former intimacy, Nick asked, in a low voice: “Was there someone you cared about there?”

“Yeah. Before you came, I had several friends who disappeared for no apparent reason after we made contact with the CUT. I had hoped that they treated prisoners decently, the way we usually do. But now I just hope they’re dead. Come on. We’ve got to go back to work.” Side by side, the friends turned and headed back to the Iowan headquarters, to get back to the thousand-and-one details involved in running a military expedition.

❀ ❁ ❀

Some days later, a report came in to Todenangst. “It’s from Casper, my lady,” said the page who brought it to Lady Sandra.

“Well, let me see it,” Lady Sandra said, putting down her pen. As she opened it, she wondered whether it was from Nick. Before the Change, they had been friends, and she hoped he was all right.

When she read it, she laughed softly. “What is the news, my lady?” asked Jehane Jones.

“This message—it’s Nick Cleveland for sure, for all that he didn’t sign it. I know that man’s style!” She cleared her throat, and in a passable imitation of Nick’s Iowan accent, read aloud:

Colonel Joan Schwarz greets His Majesty of Montival, and begs leave to present to him as a gift the city of Casper, along with sundry prisoners who may be of interest to the royal intelligence services. Signed, Col. Joan Schwarz, Third Iowa Cavalry, currently on detached duty in the city of Casper.

“Why do you say it’s Deputy Cleveland’s work?”

“Before the Change, he was a real history maven, and this is a paraphrase of a famous letter from the Union General Sherman to President Abraham Lincoln, on the occasion of Sherman’s capture of the city of Savannah, in Georgia.”

“Oh. I see.” Jehane’s dark, intelligent face wore a puzzled frown. “But isn’t that post-medieval?”

“Real history mavens like Nick know lots and lots of history, dear. And I must say it’s a refreshing change from ‘nothing post-1600.’”

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀