High Pass Bridge

by Anthony Snodgrass & Bill Snodgrass

 

Based on the world of Siliar created by Bill Snodgrass and Cameron Walker

 

“Sergeant Idryan,” one of the men in the Second Squad declared, “you know you said if we ever had a problem, you’d listen to us?”

“Yes, Tim,” Idryan replied. “I meant it.”

Idryan, Tim and the eight other men of the Second Squad rested on High Pass Trail five miles below their goal. It had been a hard march for the last day and a half, climbing the winding mountain trail from Fox Hollow on the way to investigate a traveler’s claim that a horrible attack had occurred at High Pass Bridge.

“Well, seeing as how Corporal Jessup is off taking a moment of privacy,” Tim replied, “now’s about the only time I can say this…”

“What is it?” Idryan asked.

“Well, Sergeant, the other guys in the squad and me think Corporal Jessup is a coward. We don’t like it,” Tim began. “A few weeks ago back in Fox Hollow, there was a report of baines in the area and the captain told us to go for a short patrol. Jessup looked at the captain, all nervous and such, and said that he had a pain in his stomach. He asked if the other squad could go instead. Now, I know the face of a man having stomach pains, and his face was not like that. He was shaking like a leaf in a strong wind too. This gives me plenty reason to think that he is just a plain ol’ coward.”

“Well,” Idryan started, “this is a serious accusation.”

“I know it is, but I am sure of it,” came the reply.

Idryan pondered the situation for a few minutes, struggling to find the right course of action. His thoughts carried him back to an easier time, before becoming the youngest platoon sergeant in Cliff Haven’s history. Back to a time when he would not have been responsible for such a situation. Yet, despite the burden of being leader of the First Platoon of Cliff Haven’s Third Company, Idryan was glad for the challenge.

Idryan was a large man, which partly explained his rise through the ranks. At the height Idryan stood, the average man’s eyes barely met his chin, and his weight was half again that of a normal man. He was built like an ox, but had agility that some said could match that of the best court acrobat. Yet, for all his strengths, he was humble and a faithful follower of his religious beliefs.

“Sir?” Tim asked, sensing the sergeant’s distant thoughts. “What do you say? Can you do something?”

“I don’t know,” Idryan replied. “There seems a far stretch from declining to take a patrol to calling a man a coward.”

“That was not the only thing,” Tim replied.

“Yeah,” replied Shumglen, another of the soldiers. “Back a month, we were cutting cross-country from Iron Creek to Silver Lode an’ I thought he was going to perish from fear. You know, you have to cut through the woods and all… You know that old farm up on the hill with the fallen down barn?”

“I know it,” Idryan replied.

“Well, coming to that, he got the idea baines or goblins might be holed up in the old house, and led us a quarter mile out of the way to go around it. I’d say he was just flat scared.”

Idryan shrugged, not sure what to think.

“Although I don’t dispute your information, I will have to get Jessup’s story before I can take action,” Idryan stated.

“Well, looks like his ‘private moment’ is over anyway,” Tim declared.

“Alright, tell him that I wish to speak to him. I’d better get to the bottom of this before we go on.”

* * * * *

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Jessup said nervously as he adjusted his belt, and re-buckled his sword.

“Yes, Corporal Jessup,” Idryan said, “before we go forward with this mission, I need to have a word with you.”

“Sure, Sergeant.”

Idryan led Jessup down the path an arrow’s flight from the others in the squad, and confronted him with the charges, mentioning the accounts shared by Tim and Shumglen, but mentioning no names.

“Why, that’s just not so,” Jessup replied. “I mean, I did those things… But it wasn’t fear. It was the not-yet-ripe berries I found on the way that upset my stomach. And you, yourself, are always telling us squad leaders not to take unnecessary risks. I thought the farm up there was an unnecessary risk. That’s all.”

Idryan considered his excuses silently. Jessup fidgeted nervously, swaying his weight from one foot to the other, and looked around, unable to make eye contact with Idryan, as his sergeant processed the information.

Finally, Idryan declared, “Well, I hope you’re telling me the truth. You are the squad leader. The men look to you as an example, and they need to know that they can depend on you.”

“I am telling you the truth.”

“I hear your words now,” Idryan stated with a knowing look, “but I will see your deeds in the future.”

Jessup nodded his head, but said nothing in reply.

Idryan continued, “I used to have a mentor that told me ‘the truth will make itself known.’ Do you know what that means?”

Jessup shook his head negatively.

“Well, it means that, even if someone is falsely accused, or tells a lie, the truth will eventually come out. I have experienced this many times. Once when I was on city patrol in Crossroads there was a string of robberies. When we found the suspected thief he claimed that he was innocent. We put him in a jail cell while we collected evidence. While he was in the cell, we caught another man in the act. We realized we had wrongly accused an innocent man.”

Jessup understood what this meant, and re-stated his innocence.

“On the other hand, I have dealt with people who say one thing, when another is true. Eventually, the truth comes out. My mentor used to say, ‘Hear the words, but believe the actions.’ Your actions will eventually prove if you are telling the truth or not.”

Again, Jessup insisted he was no coward. Idryan accepted his remarks without further comment, and then the two men made their way back to the company and resumed the march.

As they walked up the rugged road to the east, Idryan looked back over his shoulder toward the afternoon sun. Great white clouds floated over the mountains, mounded in the sky like vast bolls of cotton, breaking the blue behind them into intermittent patches. Rays of sunlight, as they looked back over their shoulders to the west, slanted like downward great columns of light descending from the sky to the ridge across the valley. Idryan traced the rays with his eyes down into the valley of Cliff Haven, and, thus measuring their climb, estimated that they would reach High Pass Bridge within the next hour.

* * * * *

As the eleven men—the Second Squad and Sergeant Idryan—drew near High Pass Bridge, they began to see more and more of the carnage that the traveler had described. All along the road was refuse—bones, scattered items, and mangled victims—evidence of the obvious presence of some vicious enemy. Jessup became paler than anyone could ever recall, drawing his sword to give himself some sense of security.

Leading his men onto the bridge, Idryan drew his own sword and said, “Okay, everyone, be alert.”

Just then, a noise was heard, even over the din of the cascading stream below the bridge. It was a sound of rock rolling against rock, as if someone—or some thing—was ascending to the road from the stream below.

Curious as to the source of the sound, one of the soldiers, Jeb, leaned his head over the wooden rail of the bridge. At that, a great claw swept upwards, plunging into the flesh of his neck below his helmet, dragging him instantly over the side. None of the squad paid attention to the sound of his body striking the rocky streambed below. They were too busy clambering to bring their weapons to bear.

No one in the squad had ever seen one, but they all knew immediately that the creature leaping onto the bridge before them was a tain. Towering nine feet tall with sinuous agility, the strength of many men, spines tracing from its wrists to elbows ending in a vicious dagger-like projection, and hands bearing four black claws, nothing else in Siliar matched the lizard-like form of the beast that assailed them.

Moving with unbelievable speed, it plowed into the squad using elbows and claws equally to flail at its enemy. But for Idryan’s skill and swift reaction, the squad would have quickly been slain. Moving to the forefront of the melee, Idryan engaged the tain defensively, fending away its blows with his shield, and blade alike.

“Circle it!” he ordered. “Attack it all together!”

Facing the raging quickness and raw power of a tain, it was all the squad could do to keep one man slashing at the beast’s back. Yet, attacking its back was the only hope they had to defeat it.

As one man after another was struck by the tain’s razor claws or pierced by the elbow spike, Idryan began to doubt their chances. Nothing that walked on two legs under the Siliar sun could move so fast as a tain. Few things matched them in strength. The men of the Second Squad were in peril, and they all knew it.

“Stand fast, men!” Idryan shouted, knowing that their only chance was their advantage in numbers. “Stand fast!”

As it whirled on them, endlessly slashing at them with its fierce claws, the men of the Second Squad heeded Idryan’s words and finally began to get into a pattern allowing one or two men in the back to slice at it, while the rest of the men in the front defended themselves from its ferocious attacks. Despite being outnumbered, the dim reasoning of the tain drove it, like a hunger-maddened animal, to lash out at the men before it.

“Steady, now! It weakens!” Idryan yelled.

Their resolve redoubled by their sergeant’s remarks, the men of the squad held the ring about the tain and, little by little, began to nip at its thick hide with their blades. The last blow that met the flesh of the beast was made by Idryan. When the tain spun away for a moment to engage the men behind it, Idryan stabbed his sword a final time into the chest of the tain, and then beheaded it as it fell past him to the ground.

As black fluid oozed from the many gashes in the tain lying dead on the boards of the bridge, staining them darkly, Idryan surveyed the wounds of the squad. Most of the wounds appeared superficial, but Marshal appeared to have a broken arm, and Trey had suffered from a severe gash to his torso. The fate of Jeb, who had suffered the slash to his neck, and fallen twenty feet to the rocks below the bridge, was obvious.

Idryan told all the men that many of them would likely receive a sickness called “tain’s revenge,” and, unless they did not get their wounds cleaned and then rest, they would die. He told them that they would have no time to lose getting back to Fox Hollow.

Idryan took the head of the beast and—cutting a long straight tree branch from one of the nearby hardwoods—placed the head of the beast onto it, bracing the other end in the ground with large rocks to show all travelers that the bridge was safe from the threat.

Finally thinking the work at High Pass Bridge complete, Idryan surveyed the situation one last time, then turned his attention to his men.

One dead, me and eight others bashed up, Idryan thought. Tains are as tough as they say.

Just then, it occurred to Idryan, and the rest of the squad, that something did not add up.

Eight hurt… One dead… me makes ten. There should be eleven.

Idryan shook his head sadly and looked at his men, glad that no harm had come to them from their squad leader’s betrayal. Idryan’s mentor was right.

The truth will make itself known.

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