Valentine's Rising Online - Vampire Earth 4 - E. E. Knight Page 0,1

turn again . The first zig left had been nine hours ago, to avoid a long string of soldiers walking at ten-foot intervals like beaters driving game. Then there’d been another left turn to avoid a watchtower looking over a length of old highway. Now he’d spotted teams of men and dogs combing the banks of an ice-choked stream.

They were boxed in, no doubt about it. Every step the survivors of his Texas column took now brought them closer to the area around Bern Woods, where they’d been ambushed two exhaustingly long days ago. Since then no one in his party of survivors had slept or eaten hot food, and there wasn’t much play left in their strings.

His head ached. Fatigue or dehydration. He took a drink from his canteen.

“What passes, my David?” Ahn-Kha said, sliding up to him using his legs and one long arm. The Golden One doesn’t look at David Valentine; he keeps his eyes on the forest-cutting road below.

“We’re cut off. A picket line. Maybe dropped off from trucks.”

The Jamaicans, ex-Thunderbolt marines named Striper and Ewenge, dropped to their knees, unconscious atop each other within seconds of the column’s halt.

The man leading the horse spat a white bubble onto the forest floor. William Post, Valentine’s lieutenant since their service together on the old Kurian gunboat Thunderbolt, dropped his bloody switch and joined David and Ahn-Kha.

The drooping horse blew a mouthful of foam out from either side of its bit.

“How’s Tayland?” Valentine asked.

Post glanced back at the wounded man on the dragging A-frame. “Unconscious.

Strong pulse still. The horse’ll be dead before him.”

“We’ve got maybe twenty minutes, and then a picket line will be on top of us.”

“I heard dogs behind,” Ahn-Kha said. The Grog was the only one who didn’t look dejected. He rubbed a bullet tip on his bandolier with the large thumb particular to the Golden Ones’ hands.

“That’s it, then,” Post said. “We can’t get back to Texas.”

“Listen up,” Valentine said loudly, and his complement of six—as recently as two days ago he’d been leading hundreds—was brought to life by prods from Post, except for Tayland. “We’re boxed in. We’ve got three guns with ammunition still between us”—Valentine still carried his old PPD out of affectation; it was as impotent as one of the quartz-etched rocks jutting from the soil—”and I’ve not seen a hint of friendly forces.”

Jefferson, the Texas drover at the horse’s head, asked, “How many are coming after us?”

“More than enough.”

He let that sink in for a moment, then went on. “I’m going to have to ask you to trust me. The Quislings love nothing bet-ter than taking prisoners.”

“You want to surrender?” Post asked.

“Worse,” Valentine said. “I want all of you to surrender. We fight it out here and we’ll just be dead. Giving up, you have a chance.”

“They’ll feed us before they’ll kill us,” Striper said. “I’ll hold my hands high, if it means hot tuck and sleep.” His mate looked down, blinking at tears.

“I’ll follow. I expect they’ll take you back to Bern Woods; we’ve been heading that way for the last two hours, and we know mat town is occupied. Perhaps something will turn up.”

“I could play that I’m your prisoner,” Ahn-Kha said. “They might keep an eye on me, but leave me free.”

“No, I’ll need you at the town.”

“You want to see if there’s any Quickwood left?” Ahn-Kha asked.

“I want the rest of our men. The wood will have to wait.”

“How about a vote, Captain?” Post asked.

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“Sure. Ewenge?”

All Valentine saw was the top of his hat as the man spoke. “Yes, sir. I give up.”

“Striper?”

The Jamaican nodded. He took out a small eating knife and tossed it to the ground.

“Slave labor camp’s not my style,” Jefferson said.

“You’re free to try to make it on your own.”

“Okay then,” Jefferson said. He knelt and relaced his boots.

“Tayland’s still out,” Post said.

Valentine handed Jefferson his canteen. “That leaves you, Will.”

“Wonder if they’ll send me back to New Orleans to hang as a renegade?”

“If that happens, I’ll surrender and hang with you,” Valen-tine said.

Post shrugged. “Sure. Don’t do that though, sir. Just find my wife and tell her what happened on the Thunderbolt.”

The only other refugee from the column couldn’t speak. The horse just shifted a foreleg out and gulped air.

“That’s it then,” Valentine said. He walked around to the rear of the horse, and opened Tayland’s eye. The pupil reacted to the light of the overcast, but the former Texas wagon-man showed no sign of regaining