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Xenolith, Page 48

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 40: Ara’s Choice

  Ara stared, dumbfounded, as Canu charged the Cuerti with nothing but a rotten stick. He struggled against the Cuerti’s blade with an unwieldy length of twisted metal, using both ends to bat away thrusts, but his sluggish parries barely met the quicker saber in time. It seemed inevitable that one of his defenses would arrive too late.

  Ara danced at the edge of the skirmish, just beyond the saber’s reach. “Please! We can talk,” she pleaded in Venep’o.

  “Too late for talk,” spat the Cuerti. He lunged at Canu, who dodged aside, but stumbled to one knee. The Cuerti whirled and swung his blade in a wide arc that would have decapitated Canu had he not regained his feet and backpedaled. Canu stood one slash away from death. Soon it would be her alone against the Cuerti.

  The injured militia man attempted to rise to Canu’s aid, but crumpled with a groan. His short sword clattered against the pebbles. Ara dashed over, snatched up the blade and waited for an opening.

  Canu slammed one end of the rod against his opponent’s midriff, but the Cuerti caught it with the base of his blade and forced it aside. The rod slipped from Canu’s grasp. As the Cuerti moved in for the kill, Ara flashed in from behind and plunged the sword up under the Cuerti’s ribs, feeling the blade vibrate as it grooved his bones. The Cuerti gasped and fell, the tip of his saber catching in the earth and springing away with the tinkle of fine steel. The blade had cleaved his heart. In seconds, he became more meat than man.

  Canu knelt in the gravel, eyes wide, panting. “Thank you,” he said. “I think … I might have lost.”

  “You think?” Ara went over and knelt by the militia man. His face looked ashen, his lips chalky from loss of blood. She examined the swamp of gore that soaked his abdomen. The crossbow bolt had passed straight through his vital organs. What blood hadn’t spilled had leaked inside, rendering his middle turgid and tender. His eyes remained clear, but they looked puzzled to see her.

  Canu staggered over. “Pana, my friend, what have they done to you?”

  “Are the Crasacs … all dead?” said Pana, softly.

  “Crasacs?” said Canu. “Do you mean Cuerti?” Canu glanced at Ara, but she could only shrug.

  “Crasacs,” said Pana. “More wait across the portal. Get the stone. Destroy it now.”

  Canu looked about the clearing. “I … I don’t know where it is.”

  “The Initiate,” said Pana. “He prayed to it … all night. Get it. I want to see it gone. Before I go.”

  Ara touched his hand. “I can’t allow that,” she whispered. “The stone must be preserved.”

  Canu pulled away from her and went over to where the Initiate lay curled on his side. His eyelids flickered but his eyes no longer seemed to gaze on the world of the living. The stone rested on a small square of gilded cloth beside him.

  Ara rose and hustled after him, extending Pana’s sword. “Leave it be, Canu. Baren wants that stone intact.”

  He ignored her, and stooped for the stone. Before his hand could reach it, she pressed the point of the sword against the small of his back. “Touch it and I will punish you,” she said.

  “Ara, we can’t let the enemy take our portals,” said Canu. “They are all we have.”

  “Move away,” said Ara. “If the stone needs to be destroyed, Baren will decide.”

  “Ara. You know this is wrong.” Canu tried to probe her eyes but she avoided his gaze. “Think for yourself. Do you want Venep’o crossing into Ur at will? Do you want them to use our stones against us?”

  “If it brings us peace, then—”

  “Peace?” Canu chortled. “Do you really believe this?”

  “Those who lead us believe so. Who am I to say? I am nobody.”

  “At this moment,” said Canu, “You are more powerful than anyone in the Inner Quorum. You determine what happens to … this stone … and maybe to us all.”

  Without intending it, the point of Ara’s sword bit into Canu’s skin, causing a small red flower to bloom on his shirt. A swarm of doubts assailed her. Her instincts aligned with Canu’s desire to destroy the stone. The idea of Venep’o freely entering Ur had disturbed her from the start, and seeing them here had not made her feel any better about it. But Baren’s desires were clear. His directives came straight from the Inner Quorum.

  She studied the blocky, inelegant sword in her hands, so typical of those forged by amateur blacksmiths in farmyards throughout Sesei. Militia members were responsible for procuring or devising their own armaments. Ara’s own sword, long surrendered to the Cuasars who captured her on the plains of Ortezei, had been cast and shaped by her father and uncle. When the Venep’o began amassing on the beaches of Diomet, they had spent a week turning picks and plowshares into blades for anyone in the family old enough or fit enough to fight, whether by joining a militia or defending their homestead.

  But now such a blade stood between her and a loyal militia man, a man who only wished to keep his enemy from acquiring a xenolith, to fulfill a pledge made by every militia and cadre member that traveled through Ur. Her cadre, meanwhile, had helped their enemy acquire a stone as part of a treaty that would permanently concede her home province to Venen. When a leader orders surrender before his soldiers are willing, what then?

  Ara flung the blade aside and stepped away. She felt Canu’s eyes upon her, but could not bear to meet them.

  “You do the right thing, Ara,” he told her, but his reassurance only triggered tears.

  She watched as Canu removed the stone from its gilded carpet and retrieved the rusted bar. He carried the stone close to his dying comrade, placed it on the ground and struck it. It split easily. He attacked in turn each fragment as if exterminating a swarm of spiders.

  “You are doomed.” The weak and rattly voice startled Ara. “That’s for certain, now.” The Initiate’s eyes had opened a sliver. Blood still pulsed through the fingers he pressed against his throat. “Our generals … some … advocated … a retreat,” he said. “Now, that will never happen. You … wasted … your only chance.”

  “I don’t dispute you,” said Ara, glumly. “But my superiors didn’t wish this to happen,” said Ara. “We never expected to these militia here.”

  “Who are they … these … devils?”

  “Patriots, I suspect,” said Ara.

  The Initiate coughed, which only caused more blood to gush through his fingers.

  “This was the last … the last real chance your country had. Ubabaor will fall now. Sesei … will soon be no more.”

  Canu walked over, dragging the rod through the gravel. “What is this Cra lover telling you?” He prodded at the Initiate with the heavy bar. Ara knocked it aside.

  “He’s dying,” said Ara, glaring. “You can at least respect his last breath.”

  “And how much respect would this Cra lover show for me, if I breathed my last?”

  “If you act like the enemy … then how are you any better?” said Ara.

  Ara, dispirited, still could not meet Canu’s gaze. “How is your comrade?” she said.

  “He won’t be with us long, either,” said Canu. “He will be gone before any fever can take him.”

  “Canu,” called Pana, weakly, struggling to breathe. Ara followed Canu over to the militia man’s side. “Find Cudi. He died … in the river. And Alic fell … by a fence … on the other side. Find them. Put them with me … I don’t want to be alone in this place.”

  “How did they fall? Crasacs?” Canu bit his lip. “Some day, Pana, I promise, I will carry you all back to Sesei myself.”

  Pana’s breaths came quick and shallow. “Canu … my brother … I’m sorry I was so hard on you … during our time together. I shouldn’t have ….”

  “It was nothing, Pana. Just joking, teasing, like brothers.”

  “Ikarin … Give her this …” He reached for the amulet around his neck. “I see … I see ….”

  “What do you see?” said Canu, trying and failing to blink away the moistu
re from his eyes. Ara felt a terrible weight descend, as if the sky were pressing down like a thumb on an ant.

  Pana’s body slumped and became one with the soil already saturated with his blood. A strangled yelp escaped Canu’s throat. He looked at Ara with the eyes of a lost boy. Ara opened her arms to him. Canu grasped her and hugged her and buried his face in her hair.