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Peregrin, Page 2

A. Sparrow

  With a whine and rattle the red car rounded the bend leading the main body of militia. Ara stepped out into the road and halted it. Canu sat alone inside, ever stubborn in his insistence on bringing the car along, though it was clearly never intended for such a rough track, traversed mainly by goats and herdsmen to reach the upland pastures.

  Canu made a show of avoiding Ara’s eyes. Why was he acting so odd?

  Pari and Vul often ridiculed Canu’s mental balance. Yes, he could be rash and moody, but all in all, Ara had found this reputation undeserved. Now she was beginning to see what they meant. Ever since Captain Feril had joined them, Canu had been acting like an overgrown boy.

  Could he possibly be jealous of her spending so much time with Feril? If Feril was going to fight with them he deserved to be consulted. Did Canu have any inkling what she was going through in leading this operation? Ara was in no mood to humor his juvenile whims.

  She strode up to his open window. “Find a place to ditch that thing,” she said. He glared back, but she didn’t blink. She kept her chin set, and her tone firm.

  “What for? It’s rolling fine now,” said Canu. He made the engine groan. The wheels gripped and surged. “See? No backsliding. The footing’s not as loose here as on that other hill.”

  “I don’t care how it rolls,” said Ara.

  “We’ve brought it this far … might as well—”

  “Canu! Listen. This thing can’t come with us. The last thing we need is for the Mercomar sentries to see it or hear it. We can’t give them time to call up their garrison or we’re sunk. Understand? Once we get onto the back slope of this rise, we will be visible to them.”

  “Just … leave it?” said Canu, giving Ara a look like a small boy forced to surrender a toy.

  “You can’t bring it much farther anyway,” said Ara. “The road gets much rougher up ahead.”

  “But we’re coming back this way, right?” said Canu.

  “I don’t know,” said Ara. “That depends … on how things go.”

  A pall slammed over Canu’s face as his gaze flew past Ara’s shoulder. Ara turned to see Feril walking back from the ridge top where his scouts had gone ahead to sniff out potential ambushes.

  Glaring, Canu popped the lever that caused the car to reverse and careen backwards down the track, scattering the clot of Feril’s soldiers gathered to watch.

  “Why is he angry?” said Feril.

  “Just a small disagreement on … tactics. Don’t worry, it’s all resolved.”

  “I don’t think he likes me,” said Feril.

  “Nonsense,” said Ara.

  Feril leaned against one of those trees with smooth, pale bark that seemed to grow on every sunny slope in Gi. “The way ahead seems open,” he said. “But the scouts see smoke rising from the main ridge.”

  “Smoke? A brush fire?”

  “Campfires,” said Feril.

  “Too bad we won’t make it in time to share their dinner,” said Ara. “I think we should hold up here. At least until nightfall.”

  “We’ll join them for breakfast, perhaps,” said Feril.

  “If all goes well,” said Ara, quaking at the thought. “At the base of the next hollow we should find a ravine that shoots straight up to the Mercomar.”

  “You know this land well,” said Feril.

  “I’ve been here many times … too many times,” said Ara. “I’ve had my eye on this Mercomar ever since I came to Gi.”

  “Me, as well,” said Feril. “I saw it flash my first morning in the marshes. Shocked me. Burned like an insult. All those ‘all is clear’ messages, every morning and every night. I’d love to put a stop to them.”

  Boulders and cedars cast long shadows up the slope. Dusk had already settled into the valleys below as a bloody sun sank beneath the treetops.

  Ara watched Canu back under a drapery of low-hanging branches. Several of Feril’s soldiers gathered to gawk at this marvel from Ur, rolling up hills with not a single beast to haul it.

  “Don’t just dawdle, help him disguise it,” said Feril. “I don’t care if any herders see it, but do enough to keep it hidden from afar.”

  As Vul and Pari walked together up the track, Canu ignored them. He slammed the door and stomped away. He found a tree by the roadside and swung beneath it to sulk.

  “Such a child,” whispered Ara.

  “What’s wrong with him?” said Vul.

  Ara shared a knowing glance with Pari.

  “Ah, Comrade Sirs,” said Feril. “We should share our plan with you.” He turned to Ara. “Can we?”

  “Go ahead,” said Ara.

  “But … Comrade Canu?”

  “I’ll fill him in later,” said Ara. “Go on.”

  “Our force will be split into three parts,” said Feril. “Each of you will command detachments.”

  “Are you two up for this?” said Ara.

  Pari nodded.

  “Of course,” said Vul, fingering the red-painted axe he had liberated from the old man’s shed in Ur.

  “I will lead the main force,” said Feril. “Under Comrade Ara’s purview, of course. Comrade Vul will conduct a blocking maneuver to keep the Mercomar guard from being reinforced. And Comrade Pari will support the main assault with a reserve detachment.

  “I expect there should be a dozen Crasac guards at most posted on the summit,” said Ara.

  “Only a dozen?” said Vul. “Then one detachment should be able to rout them.”

  “Yes, but it won’t be you. Feril and I will attack the Mercomar with a small group of his best. I want you to take a larger force and cut off any support coming up the ridge from the garrison. You should understand, Vul, that your group is key to the success of this plan. Last I scouted, the Venep’o kept a large garrison on the other side of Maora Ridge. They can be up on the ridge within an hour once called. You should be able to cut them off, or at least delay them. It’s excellent defensive terrain. Much more rugged than this western slope.”

  Canu rose to supervise the camouflage of his toy. Ara caught him giving a furtive glance back to his comrades.

  “Pari, you will watch our backs with a small reserve. I don’t expect any Crasacs to use this track as they’re supplied via the main road from Maora, but we have to make sure that our retreat is clear.”

  “What about Canu?” said Vul. “Who gets stuck with him?”

  “If Canu wanted to participate, he would be here plotting with us,” said Ara.

  “I’ll take him,” said Pari. “I can keep him out of trouble.”

  “Trouble?” said Feril.

  “Canu has a way of mucking things up,” said Vul. “He’s better off in the reserve.”

  Feril whistled for his militia to rise from the meadows on either side of the track. They numbered well over a hundred, divided into four platoons. Ara figured that Vul should have two platoons for his blocking action, with one platoon each for the attack and reserve groups. It should be plenty of force to overpower the guard, send a signal and retreat before the garrison could react.

  Canu intercepted Vul and Pari as they sauntered back down the track. Feril was gathering his troops together to address them. Ara strolled up the ridge to chat with the scouts. She hadn’t gone more than a few steps before she heard gravel crunching behind her.

  Canu. His face inflamed, even in the dimness. “What’s the idea? Sticking me in Pari’s reserve.”

  “Why, I thought you would be pleased,” said Ara. “You can keep a closer eye on your red baby.”

  Canu spat an old Suulep’o curse at her, spoken in a dialect her grandmother used to speak. It was something about a turtle.

  “So sensitive!” said Ara. “I was only joking!” said Ara. “Just because you’re in reserve doesn’t mean you won’t be fighting. I expect you to jump into the fray when we need you. You’re just as important as the other groups.”

  “I am a good fighter,” said Canu. “The best among us. You, of all people, should be aware of that.�

  “Boldest, maybe,” said Ara. “Luckiest, for sure. But the plan is set. There’s nothing more to discuss.”

  “How long have you known this … Feril person?”

  “What does that have to do with any of this?” said Ara, exasperated.

  “You spend all day by his side. Barely a peek in my direction.”

  “That’s ridiculous, Canu. We were talking strategy. This is war, man. Not school days.”

  “I have a stake in this fight,” said Canu. “I deserve to be included.”

  “But you are,” said Ara. “You have an important role.”

  They came up to the crest of the track, where stone-studded heather replaced meadow and wind-stunted conifers stood arrayed like crippled sentries. Two of Feril’s scouts turned to face her, their eyes wide. Were they so green that the mere sight of the enemy fazed them?

  The Mercomar’s heliograph caught the last light of the sinking sun and flashed its last message of the day:

  “All is clear. All is clear.”

  Ara pulled Canu behind a tree, mindful of the silhouette he cast against the setting sun. Canu misread her act, took her hand and squeezed it, and drew her in for an embrace.

  “Canu! No,” she said.

  Canu froze and stared up at the Mercomar. It had gone dull, but a score of small fires now flickered around the base of the tower. More flared into life as they watched, dozens more than Ara expected. She stared in disbelief.

  “So many fires,” said Ara. “This is not how it was, last time I scouted. What’s going on up there?”

  “Dinner,” said Canu.

  Feril came striding up out of the twilight. Ara slipped her hand from Canu’s grasp.

  “Oh my,” said Feril, upon seeing all the fires on the mountain.

  “We have to abort the raid,” said Ara. “There’s no way we can go up against so many.”

  “But we must—” said Feril.

  “We can’t,” said Ara. “It’s suicide. They defend from heights. They probably have fortifications now.”

  “We must … at least try,” said Feril, his face rigid. “I mean, mustn’t we? You said Commander Baren himself ordered this attack. Did he not?”

  Ara looked to Canu for support, touching his arm.

  Canu pulled away. “What do you want from me?”

  Chapter 4: Tovex

  Months earlier …

  Bimji squeezed up a chute, emerging above a wall of pale stone, its uppermost cant easing like the bevel atop an axe blade. It was an easy scramble across to a deeply undercut ledge that brooded over the gorge like a brow, but he chose his steps carefully. Below him stretched nothing but vertical walls and air. One un-arrested slip meant death.

  Toe-holds grew scarcer, the facet smoother, the farther Bimji clambered. His plain leather slippers had no edges to bite with, but the suede clung well to the rough stone.

  Upon reaching the overhang he jammed his body into the narrow shelf beneath and paused to catch his breath. He mused at how nice a rain shelter the deep undercut would make if not perched above such a deadly precipice.

  The bulge of the gorge wall blinded him to the road immediately below. He had no way of seeing how far the caravan advanced, but so close to Raacevo, he knew they would not dally. They would push to reach the city by nightfall.

  Downriver, though, Bimji had a clear view of the viaduct. The nature of the traffic crossing it horrified him. Clearly, this caravan carried more than colonists and commerce. Siege machines and war wagons crossed the spans between ranks of Crasacs.

  Tarikel’s cousins hid beneath, in the jumbled bed of the Siklaa River. The plan called for them to darken the boulders with river water when midpoint of the convoy had reached the viaduct. The boulders thus far remained dry and pale. The river lurked somewhere beneath, hinting of its presence only in occasional trickles and pools.

  A thousand slaves had built the spans: mostly prisoners of war, convicts marched in from Venen or procured in Gi. Hundreds had given their lives completing it over the years it had taken to finish

  Bimji couldn’t help but admire the work they aimed to destroy. Expert masons from the Venenendera’s private guild had supervised the construction, carving precise blocks from the gorge walls, fitting them without mortar. They had turned their quarries into stairways that zigzagged up the gorge wall like lightning bolts, cutting through the maze of spires that loomed over the gorge.

  Out of boredom or inspiration the masons embellished the landings with shrines to the three brother gods: Fanhalahun, Pasemani and Cra. They directed springs to cascade beside the flights to create waterfalls, carved benches atop landings where the views were particularly spectacular.

  To destroy it all seemed such a waste, but what else could they do? The easier passage had accelerated the pace of Gi’s occupation, attracting many more colonists than had braved the longer and more treacherous mountain routes.

  Bimji unpacked a red coil of fuse, blasting caps, tovex, tinder and tapers from the bundle slung from his shoulder. In a groove of stone, he made a little pile of resinous fluff taken from the seed pods of a torch flower and weighed it down with a lozenge of flint and a bar of steel from his pocket.

  He crossed to the center of the overhang and packed tovex into the crevices he had already chiseled into a crevice, inserted blasting caps and a long loop of red fuse, carefully inspecting it for gaps in the powder and dampness.

  Bimji checked the boulders beneath the spans. They remained pale. Traffic on the spans had halted. The Crasacs had dispersed. There were wide gaps between wagons. Had their plot been sussed out?

  Bimji listened carefully to the wind. He could faintly perceive shouts and voices but detected no unusual commotion.

  Bimji’s charge was to be the first blow, then Paoala’s. The idea was to block the roads fore and aft, to concentrate the caravan on the spans. Then Tarikel’s cousins would take them down, wagons and Cuasars and all while they fled through the boulder caves.

  That’s how the plan was supposed to work, anyway. None of them, not even Tarikel, had blown up anything larger than a tree before. He had placed only a small charge. The idea was to loosen just enough stone to let the rock do most of the work.

  Bimji did not even expect to witness the results of his efforts. Once he lit the fuse he would have less than a minute to make his way over to the chute and up to the top of the plateau. The old road to Venen ran there, below the pass where the glittering heliographs of the Mercomar station relayed messages from the Venenendera to his governor, the Alar, in Raacevo.

  Tarikel had never discussed what to do if his cousins were captured or otherwise unable to set their charges and send a signal. Bimji supposed he would do nothing in such case—just leave the charge and go, back to Raacevo, and then back home to Lizbet. He could reach the homestead by sunrise if he traveled all night.

  Bimji propped his heels against the groove holding the tinder and stared down at the stalled caravan. A wave of vertigo fluttered through his skull as he contemplated the scale of the abyss that opened up just a short slide down the ledge. Guilt nagged at him because the possibility of aborting this mission intrigued him a little too much.


  The tovex came into Bimji’s hands via a mysterious Sesep’o who showed up on the high meadows one day. Bimji was helping to drive several flocks of goats and sheep down from pastures that had gone dry and dormant from lack of rain, and into one of the still-verdant dales. He had stopped by the goat house—a communal stone cabin in the high meadows that sheltered shepherds—to retrieve his bedroll and a gourd half-filled with beet wine that he planned to finish on the homeward run.

  On leaving the hut, he spotted two figures standing by a barrow several stone throws away. It was rude to ignore visitors to the commons, especially those visiting ancestors, so he altered his route back to the lower meadows to greet his neighbors and show his respects. It was not uncommon for villagers to visit these barrows, bearing keystones fit
ting a notch on the boulder marking their loved ones’ graves.

  But as Bimji approached, he saw that this was no family communing with ancestors. Tarikel, a notorious Nalki sympathizer from Sinta stood with a man clad in the strange clothing of the sort he had seen peregrins wear. But he was not a peregrin himself. The Venep’o might think he was from Gi, but Bimji knew immediately from the way the stranger spoke that he was from Sesei.

  Tarikel leaned on a digging spade. The Sesep’o man brandished his like a weapon as Bimji approached. The sod surfacing the barrow was criss-crossed with seams of red earth. It seems the two men had just interred something or someone. Extra soil was scattered among the dry grass at the foot of the barrow.

  With only Tarikel and a stranger in attendance this was obviously no ordinary funeral. What were they doing next to a barrow? Disposing of a murder victim? Looting? Bimji now wished he had pretended not to have seen them and had continued directly home from the goat house, but it was too late for that now.

  He would need to pay courtesy and convey to the men that whatever they were doing was of no significance to him; certainly not worth mentioning to anyone else. In this time of occupation and rebellion, ignorance was survival.

  Bimji pulled down his veil and passed greetings. Bimji had met Sesep’o before. Most seemed friendly, inquisitive types. They were often oddly fascinated in what Bimji considered the most numbingly prosaic aspects of daily life in Gi—what people ate, what people wore. Some spent entire days picking every type of wildflower there was to pick, catching beetles or cataloguing each variety of fish in a stream. They colored his impression of Sesei as a land of eccentrics infatuated with the obvious.

  But this Sesep’o man’s demeanor unnerved Bimji. He stood and stared, hand on cloak over the spot where the Sesep’o liked to strap their daggers. He acted as though Bimji had caught them in the midst of committing a crime.