Peregrin, Page 1A. Sparrow
Copyright 2010 by A. Sparrow, All Rights Reserved
To Sam and Frodo
Chapter 1: Siklaa Gorge
peregrin (n) – a foreign sojourner in a state.
A month before the rains …
Snug in a cleft of sun-warmed stone, Bimji scoured the road for signs of the overdue caravan. Sheer below his feet, a chute channeled runoff and loose rock to the bottom of the gorge where the Siklaa River, withered by drought, gurgled unseen in a bed clogged with boulders.
An elegant viaduct carried the road, curving and reversing, along the river course, hoisting it high over columns and arches. The valley folk called it ‘the caterpillar.’ The wonder of the frontier, slaves had labored ten years to build it. People came from afar to gaze upon its glory, surpassing any castle or temple in Gi. Bimji had even brought his own family to see it. He almost regretted the havoc that he and his fellow conspirators planned to unleash.
Innocents would perish under Tarikel’s dark magic. The caravan, if it ever came, would include not only soldiers but settlers and their children, slaves and prisoners of war. Bimji tried not to think too hard about it.
Vultures accumulated overhead, gliding in concentric circles around towers of convection rising from the plateau. Bimji licked at a seep oozing down a crease, finding barely enough water to moisten his lips and tongue. Gritty and metallic, it failed to quench his thirst. He envied Tarikel’s cousins hiding in the boulder caves beneath the viaduct, able to drink their fill at their whim.
Something shifted on the fringes of his perception, slipping around a bluff before he could get a clear look. Needles pricked his skin.
He honed his gaze on an open patch of road at the end of the viaduct. A man appeared, leading a donkey loaded with curled sheets of cork. They traveled alone.
After days of trading watches deep in the gorge, Bimji had begun to doubt whether a caravan would ever pass this way again. Perhaps the Venep'o had tired of the petty sabotage that had plagued them in the gorge and had gone back to using the longer but safer route over the mountain passes.
Not that he would complain if it turned out to be true. It would mean that Tarikel would call off the attack. He could return home with Lizbet none the wiser, having shown his loyalty to the rebel cause without risking his skin.
As man and donkey moved on towards Raacevo, tension drained from Bimji like wine from a split skin. He slumped against the stone, watching the shadows fill the gorge like a rising flood. Time's machinery seized. The hours eroded Bimji’s vigilance. He found himself watching marmots setting scraps of weed to dry in the sun, lizards scurrying onto ledges to bask. The cleft concealing him radiated the warmth it had stolen from the sun, beckoning like a vertical bed. He wedged himself deeper, conforming his flesh to the smooth stone.
His eyelids sagged. He chomped on his hand to keep them open. He only had to hang on a bit longer. The sun was falling. Soon, Paoala would come relieve his watch.
Hoof beats. Horses.
Senses fogged by fatigue, Bimji was not sure he believed his ears. He focused on the point where the road passed between an isolated stone pillar and the sheer wall of the gorge, the farthest stretch of roadway observable from the ledges.
Six horsemen appeared riding sleek mounts. Lightly armored, bearing crossbows and sabers. Crasac scouts. Bimji poised to run, but waited to ensure this was not merely some patrol returning to their garrison in Raacevo.
Donkeys laden with dry goods trotted onto the viaduct followed by a contingent of Crasac foot soldiers, their uniforms crisp and vibrant, fresh from the training grounds. Then came mule teams, hauling wagons by the dozen, bearing furnishings, foodstuffs, war machines.
Bimji’s pulse pounded so hard, he could hear it. He scrambled up the chute.
“They’re here!” he called, climbing onto the rock shelf where Tarikel and Paoala lounged on slabs strewn like furniture, their encampment out of sight of both gorge and plateau.
“You’re sure … this time?” said Tarikel.
“Can’t you hear them?” said Bimji.
Tarikel’s gaze turned inward. The creak of a hundred wagons and the shouts of their drivers expunged all doubt. He hustled to his feet, scowling at Paoala who stood frozen in place on a slab like a statue atop a pedestal. “Quit gaping and go!”
Paoala dashed over to a scalloped wall and yanked away a blanket covering the niche bearing Tarikel’s dark materials. Her hands darted, collecting unlit tapers, spark stones, handfuls of tinder, and bundles of tovex.
She tossed one of the bundles at Bimji. Taken by surprise, he fumbled it off his fingertips. Paoala gasped, but he trapped it with his foot before it could tumble over the edge.
“Easy now, you two,” said Tarikel, as he packed their bedrolls. “Your haste is wasted if you take a tumble.”
Paoala scurried to the chute, Bimji at her heels. They climbed to the cap of hard stone that topped the plateau and parted ways, heading in opposite directions to bracket the span of the viaduct.
“Good luck, Paoala,” said Bimji, cobwebs burned from his skull by the fire of panic.
Paoala nodded back, eyes peeled as wide as eyes could open.
Chapter 2: Reunion
The end of the first rain …
Chaos ruled the clouds. Beneath rumpled and silvered sheets, darker shreds flew like ravens to a feast. In the high peaks, a thunderhead burgeoned and grumbled, probing black fingers down ravines. Sunlight sifted through fleeting breaks to glaze the waterlogged landscape.
Frank braced his hand on Tezhay’s shoulder. He gasped for air, heart balking like an engine with a clogged filter. Zigzag patterns swam before Frank’s eyes. The mud at his feet beckoned him to join it. As he fought to stay vertical, he stared transfixed at the female figure limping towards him past gauntlets of shacks and barns, villagers taking refuge from the plunder, terraced fields buttressed with stone walls that swarmed with sweet peas.
They stood at the base of a narrow vale that hung over the main valley, whose river coursed unseen beyond the treetops, its presence only suggested by a crease in the distance. A splintered crag, like a shattered castle tower, loomed to their left. The opposite wall was less imposing, but steep enough to challenge the goats that speckled its face. Gullies fed cascades into the roaring brook that sluiced through a notch, racing like a comet to hurtle over the cliffs. Beyond the gullies, tiers of meadow stepped ever higher into mist and mountain.
Frank’s heart announced its return from stasis with an emphatic compression that rebounded off his ribcage and wobbled his innards. The fog nibbling at the edges of his vision burned away, letting him bask in the full glory of this vision of Liz coming down the muddy walk.
Frank kept his eyes transfixed on her as she descended through a hamlet’s worth of hovels and barns clad in shakes and thatch, towards terraces planted in grain and potato and vine that somehow caught enough sun to thrive. This woman—his woman—flowed downhill like the rain-fed rills. She was an apparition turned corporeal, the one who for twenty years had visited him only in dreams.
She was a transformed Liz—weathered, evolved—with a muscular bulk to her bare arms far beyond the wiry, tennis-enhanced tone he had known. And she no longer sported the waspish midriff of a nullipara. She walked stiffly, dragging one leg as if it were made of wood.
She wore her hair much the same—long and loose, with honeyed swirls and curlicues, its color retained. She carried her chin at that same, distinctive jut, taking in the world like a benign goddess for which all of creation was created. And as she closed on them, he detected her default smile, the one that cushioned anger, hid sorrow and betrayed her amusement with all that was ludicrous about the world. There was no mistaking, this could only be Liz.
/> A pair of lanky yellow dogs caught sight of their master and bounded across the fields to join her. Frank felt paralyzed by the moths riddling his innards. He stared down at the runnels gurgling through ditches on both sides of the muddy path, racing to their destiny at the cliffs below.
“Go to her.” Tezhay nudged him hard. “Is this not your woman?”
“I gotta take this slow,” said Frank, his eyes leaking. His legs trembled, rooted to the earth.
Two young women separated from the ragged line of men and woman defending the cliff top and came up the lane. One, obviously another exile, had mousey brown hair tied back in a bandana. Startled, blue eyes bulged above a veil covering her nose and mouth.
The other, younger woman—a girl—wore no veil. She carried a longbow, and studied him with eyes just like the Liz he remembered, the eyes he could never conjure in dreams. Her hair, clotted into thick skeins by the rain, flowed down her back in thick, dense waves, just like Liz’s.
“Oh my God, you’re another exile,” said the Liz-like girl with the longbow, her English clear but oddly accented. “Where are you from?”
“My friend,” said Tezhay. “He know this lady.” He indicated Liz, hobbling down to them.
“Ellie, who are these people?” said Liz. “I thought I told Miles to turn everyone away. We have too many refugees as it is. How are we supposed to feed them all?”
“They’re not refugees, mom,” said the girl. “They say they know you.”
“Know me? How? I’ve never … I’ve … I ….” She stopped a few steps away in the muddy track. Puzzlement creased her face.
“We never meet,” said Tezhay. “But I know one of your men—Bimji.”
“Knew,” said Liz. “Doesn’t surprise me.” Her gaze kept flitting over to Frank like a nervous fly. “Everybody and their cousin knew Bimji.”
Frank smoothed his beard, which had grown in thick since he left Belize. He tried to say something, but found his tongue all knotted up. His circuits were overloading. He couldn’t conjure or coordinate any speech or action.
Liz’s eyes locked onto Frank’s. “Ho. Lee. Shit!” she said, chest heaving.
“Hi Liz,” Frank croaked, his voice cracking from the strain..
A shudder rippled through Liz’s face and her muscles went all soft. Frank’s heart beat like a sparrow’s. He watched her eyes gloss over. Was that moisture beading in their corners? He stepped forward, arms outstretched to take her into his arms.
But Liz retreated. Her moment of weakness came undone with the speed of a spring-loaded steel grating, ossifying her features back into an impenetrable bulwark. She wheeled around and lurched away, swinging her bad leg wide.
“But Liz, it’s me! Frank.”
“Mom, what’s wrong?” said Ellie, hustling after her. “Do you know this man?”
Liz clapped her boots down hard against the mud and fled up the path, dogs twining in her wake. Frank tried to follow but the dogs turned on him, snapping and snarling with tails tucked, fangs displayed. One circled back to feint and nip at his flanks while the other held Frank at bay. Frank backed up slowly until he bumped against a stone wall. Tezhay flicked a rock at one’s rump hard enough to draw a yelp. The dogs abandoned their defense and caught up with Liz as she slipped into the nearest outbuilding and slammed the door.
“What happen?” said Tezhay, eyebrows quizzical. “Why she do this?”
“Don’t know,” said Frank, softly. He stared up at the shed. He has never felt so heavy, as if he might sink and be swallowed by the earth, and welcome it.
“How come you no stop her?” said Tezhay. You should have hold her. Why you do nothing?”
“I don’t know!” said Frank.
“You people,” said Tezhay, shaking his head.
Thunder shook the mountainside. The sky split open and drenched them.
Chapter 3: The Approach
Through a glittering veil of sun-dappled raindrops, the red car rattled up the road. The vanguard of Captain Feril’s militia walked ahead, but the main body followed behind the car.
Canu sat alone behind the wheel, Pari and Vul having long bailed out, weary of bouncing against the roof like seeds in a pod. When drizzle misted the front glass enough to obscure his view, Canu opened the window and reached out with his hand to wipe it. He found Ara staring at him as if he had grown eyes on stalks.
“Is that how you’ve been clearing the windshield?” she said.
“Why?” said Canu. “You have a better way?”
“I do,” she said. She stomped over and reached into the open door.
“Here.” She flicked a lever beside the steering wheel and two arms swept up and scraped the glass clear. She pressed something else and a strange smelling bluish liquid, faintly suggestive of spirits, squirted the glass.
“How was I supposed to know this?” said Canu, climbing back in.
“Sorry,” said Ara. “I should have told you.”
She walked off and rejoined Captain Feril on the flank of the lead column. Canu had argued that the red car, being armored should lead the way, but he had been overruled by Feril, who failed to appreciate the military utility of this potent machine. Of course, it would have helped Canu’s argument if the contraption wasn’t painted bright red.
At the last stream crossing, Feril had come over and with meek deference, tried to encourage Canu to abandon the car. “Please Comrade, Sir,” Feril had said, addressing Canu as if he were a cadre officer like Ara, and not a simple militia drone like the rest of Feril’s fighters. “Don’t you think our stealth would benefit by us all advancing on foot?” Canu had simply sunk lower in his seat and glowered until Feril slinked away.
Stealth? Coasting downhill, and even on the flats the red car was deathly silent, and even when climbing it barely put out more noise than the shuffling steps of Feril’s hundred-odd fighters. Canu wasn’t about to abandon this treasure. What else did they have that gave them such an advantage over any Cuasar horsemen they chanced to meet? How could Feril not see how much the car’s presence boosted the morale of the militia marching alongside him, patting its metal skin for good luck?
Ara had taken Feril’s side when he had suggested abandoning the car. Canu saw her glare every time his wheels spun in the mud or squeaked against a boulder.
Yes, the road was getting rough, but the car was strong and Canu knew how to make it go. Now that most of the lowest-hanging parts had torn off, the vehicle no longer caught on every protruding stone and log. The hollow wheels still retained their pressure. If one became punctured there was a replacement stored in back.
Canu had sensed something shift in Ara’s interactions with him ever since she assumed command of Feril’s outfit. In Ur, they had bonded. They had become a team, at least, if not a couple. But now he felt as if a layer of ice had formed between them. Anything Canu said or did grated Ara.
Canu couldn’t comprehend what he might have done to change her feelings. Was she simply maintaining a professional distance? Or had her feelings towards him truly changed since they left Ur?
Of course, neither of them had ever expressed outright to the other the precise nature of their feelings. Their relationship was implicit, conveyed only in glances and touches, in cloaked words. The link was subtle enough to be overlooked by a bystander, and fragile enough to be shattered by a whim. Canu hoped he wasn’t deluding himself, that there really was something happening between them, and that he could reverse whatever force had disturbed their equilibrium.
Canu worried that Ara might have become smitten with Feril. She had spent every minute of their march walking beside the militia captain, ostensibly discussing tactics and intelligence, but Canu suspected there might be something more going on between them.
Who was this Feril but a privileged miller’s boy, given a fancy title, and command over a hundred-odd spawn of farmers? It was not as if he was some brilliant and fearless tactician. Canu and his ilk knew gads more about fighting than these greenies.
/> Where were Pari and Vul? Lost somewhere in the ranks. Completely ignored.
And then Ara stepped out into the middle of the road with one hand on her hip and her other palm held out, signaling for Canu to halt. At least she had noticed him.
Successive ridges, rumpled like wrinkles in the skin of the land, shoved against the unyielding spine of the Maora Mountains. Ara had instructed Feril’s scouts to halt below the next crest. It was the last rise screening them from the Mercomar station, whose gleaming heliograph relayed messages from the farthest reaches of the colonies.
Ara rubbed her palms and found them clammy. She had shown no lack of bravado in proposing the assault on the Mercomar, or in commandeering Feril’s troops under false pretenses. But now that they stood on the brink of battle, she felt the bite of reality.
Her temperament had always been much better suited for solitary service. That was why she always volunteered for long-range scout duties in the militia, and how she thrived before the war as an apprentice Traveler, alone in St. Johnsbury, learning the ways of the Urep’o. Risks to her person she embraced. But when she imposed it on the hundred-odd men and women under Feril’s command, she quailed.
To what fate had she committed these unsuspecting greenhorns and why? Did she really intend to break the truce and initiate the long suspended counteroffensive? Or was she merely demonstrating her loyalty to her new friends and disavowing her link to Baren and the machinations of the Inner Quorum?
On the surface, the short-term risks seemed modest. Ara had visited this Mercomar on many occasions, scouting alone and with militia in training. Baren and his predecessor had placed it off-limits for raids and few Nalkies ever troubled it. Like sheep on an island free of predators, the Mercomar’s operators and defenders had grown complacent. With each successive patrol, Ara found evidence of its slackening defenses: inattentive guards, a garrison relocated off the summit into a col with a spring.
Taking the Mercomar did not worry her as much as the ramifications of commandeering the heliograph and transmitting those eight flashes of eight. Every infiltrator in Gi knew that code as the call to battle. But the counteroffensive had been deferred so long, what if the First Cadre and their Nalki allies no longer monitored the Mercomars? Would the militias mobilize without the coordination and support that they expected from the other forces and be slaughtered piecemeal by the occupying armies? Would taking the Mercomar ultimately do more harm than good?