Xenolith, Page 64A. Sparrow
Chapter 55: Nalki Ambush
Tezhay’s face went oddly bank. His eyes lost focus. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” said Frank, shivers raking him from the cool, dank air gathered in the depression. The forest, if anything, had become quieter. He sidled away from Eghazi, whose bug-eyed stare unnerved him.
Tezhay went to the spot where the last vestiges of the convergence had flickered. He kicked at the duff, crouched and paddled at the ground like a dog, pulling at roots, inspecting every stone he unearthed.
A swipe of his cupped hand broke through a crust of frosted soil. A fist-sized stone, glazed with rime, lay loose within a socket like a dead tooth.
He extracted the stone, cradling it like Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull. He placed it on a shelf of limestone and hefted a small boulder.
“What are you doing?” said Frank.
“No!” Eghazi shouted, writhing in the leaf litter. “No let him smash!”
Tezhay slammed the boulder down. Stone met stone. The xenolith burst into pieces. A spray of fragments struck Frank’s shins.”
“What did you just do?” said Frank, though he knew exactly what punctuation Tezhay had placed on his decision in the desert to follow Tezhay to Gi.
Tezhay detached the line securing Eghazi to the root and hauled him to his feet.
“We must go! Fighters coming!”
Eghazi looked anxious and needed no prodding to move. Tezhay ran him through the sparse understory of a broad leaf forest, guiding him around the massive, smooth-barked boles with yanks of his leash. Frank struggled to keep up with the swifter pair, as they detoured past sinkholes and scrambled over protruding spines of stone, coming alongside them only when Tezhay paused to assess the way ahead.
Thwacks, like axes striking wood, sounded in the distance, followed by shouts and the clatter of hooves on stone.
“Shouldn’t we be going away from the fighting, not towards it?” said Frank.
Tezhay wrinkled his brow. “How can we? Do you not hear? The battle is all around. Surround. We move in its spaces.”
Frank discerned no such pattern to the rustle and clatter, but Tezhay’s senses soon proved acute. A scatter of shapes and shadows flashed between the trees behind them.
“Down!” said Tezhay, pulling Eghazi into a swampy crevice behind a greasy, grey slab of stone jutting from the ground. Two barefoot figures in mottled green pajamas flew over them, leaping between outcrops. Black veils hid their faces. Long bows swung by their sides. They carried broad swords strapped to their backs beside quivers bulging with blue-fletched arrows. A score swept through the landscape like patches of fog.
“Nalkies,” said Tezhay. “Giep’o resistance.”
“Who are they fighting?” said Frank.
“Who else?” said Tezhay.
A horse screamed. Another. And then a man. Hooves pounded in retreat.
Tezhay queried Eghazi in Sesep’o. Eghazi answered pleadingly.”
Tezhay mocked him with a buzzing noise. “I ask if he knows his friends would come to greet us. He say no, but I don’t believe. The horse you hear are ride by Cuasar. Maybe thirty. Full squadron. If not for Nalki, they would have us.”
“Are Nalkies … uh … friendly?”
Tezhay smiled and looked up behind Frank. “You tell me. Looks like you will find out yourself.”
Frank turned around to see three Nalkies training long bows on them.
“Oh shit, not again,” said Frank. Less than an hour before he had stood a five minute walk from an Arizona highway. He could have flagged down a trucker by now and be checking into a hotel, getting ready for a hot shower. Instead, he had plunged into the middle of a guerrilla war in the off chance that he might run into a lost wife who, for all he knew, lay dead in the jungles of Belize.
Tezhay looked at him, concerned. “What’s wrong? Your heart?”
“No, I’m just tired of being a fucking prisoner.”
Tezhay smirked. “We’re not prisoners,” he said.
Over blotchy green tunics and breeches the Nalkies wore armor of quilted leather or woven straw entwined with vertical wooden dowels. Two, male in physique, wore veils, while the other, a young woman, bared her face. A puff of short, wavy hair sat high atop her head. But if not for her crude, homespun clothing, she could have stepped off the streets of Ubabaor.
One of the veiled Nalkies spoke to Tezhay in a flowing language of serial diphthongs and clean consonants. Tezhay, apparently fluent in their tongue, conversed with them in some depth. They lowered their bows. The woman came over and fondled Eghazi’s ornate waistcoat and patted his cascading, multi-pleated trousers. The others laughed.
Tezhay lifted Frank’s shirt to reveal the daggers they had taken from Eghazi. The Nalkies just smirked, and looked away. Tezhay slipped a dagger out from Frank’s waist band. “Your heart is okay?”
“Yeah. It’s fine,” said Frank. “Do you expect me to keel over every time we have a little excitement?”
“Why not? It happen before,” said Tezhay, retrieving the other daggers.
“Come on. You can at least let me have one.”
“No,” said Tezhay.
The Nalkies walked with them to a place where the bedrock remained within the flesh of the earth and the trees grew even larger, with bark so deeply ridged the grooves could conceal a fist. They padded over a spongy surface of decomposed evergreen needles interspersed with patches of grey clay exposed by rooting animals. The trees gave way to a narrow road, and beyond: a river. Two Nalkies patrolled warily down either side of the road away from them, while others covered their advance with bows.
Two dead horses lay in the road along with at least five Cuasars. Each of the Cuasars bristled with an excess of arrows, some so deep they had likely been delivered at point blank range. It seemed that the Nalkies did not take prisoners. One of the pair patrolling the road shouted something back and others suddenly poured out of hiding, swarming over the dead Cuasars in the road and rifling through the saddlebags of the two horses.
“These Cuasar, I think, were sent to greet and escort the Eldest Brother’s boy, Dembon,” said Tezhay. “Lucky for him, he no come. Lucky for us, they here. If Nalki no come, Cuasar would make greeting for us instead. Not so nice, yes?”
“Nope,” said Frank.
The road ran along a narrow and muddy river. Through a screen of young trees, Frank could see a smaller contingent of Nalkies fording from the other side, with several wounded or dead being carried by their mates. Many wore veils, just like group that milled around them.
“What’s with all the veils?” said Frank. “Disguise?”
“It is sign of marry,” said Tezhay. “Like this ring you wear.”
“But … the men wear them, too?”
“So anyone without a veil is single? Male or female?”
“Yes, but also, if a woman is head woman of family… she also wears no veil. Here, they sometime have many husband and wife and you can see who is theirs by the cloth. The color. And the … picture … eh … pattern.”
One of the Nalkies called out to Tezhay. He walked over with Eghazi in tow. Frank followed. Eghazi’s eyes darted nervously between the Nalkies surrounding him. A pall had come over his face and he hadn’t uttered a word in many minutes.
They came to a group of Nalkies who hovered over a dead man, trapped under his mount and impaled by a spear. He wore a jacket of a dense fabric streaked with blue, as did the other dead Cuasars, but he looked very different from the other casualties with their fair skin and brown hair. This one had straight black hair and an olive complexion.
“Most curious, this one,” said Tezhay. He crouched over him and went through his pockets. He pulled out some bits of bronze that looked like unfinished points for crossbow bolts. From a large pocket inside his jacket he pulled out a smashed tabulator and a cloth armband that had two black strips sewn onto it. Tezhay sucked air through his teeth. “Cadre,” he said.
“What did you call him?” said Frank.
“Cadre. Is word in your language. You don’t know it?”
“Maybe it’s your … pronunciation,” said Frank.
“It means like … military teacher, who also fights,” said Tezhay.
“Oh. Of course.”
“This man is cadre from Second Gi expedition,” said Tezhay. Eghazi looked on stone-faced and glum, remaining silent. “They train and organize soldier we send here from province. Why he dress like Cuasar and ride with them, I don’t understand, but I think our friend here Mr. Eghazi might know.”
Eghazi flashed a contemptuous glance at Tezhay.
Several injured Nalkies were being helped out of the forest. Four already lay dead in the tall grass beside the road. The two Nalkies continued to probe in the direction the Cuasars had retreated. They moved warily, weapons ready, as if expecting a counterattack.
Frank went over to see if he could help with the injured. One woman had the point of a crossbow bolt protruding from the front of her neck. Black fletching poked neatly out the rear as if she had grown feathers. She had her hand on her throat, bright arterial blood gushing between her fingers. He didn’t see much hope for her without an emergency room and operating theater at his disposal. But the wound didn’t faze her attendants. He tried to warn them, but they removed the shaft, attempting to seal the wound with something that looked like dried wood pulp. The spurting blood blew right through it. She lost conscious almost immediately and fell into shock. He took a deep breath and moved on.
Frank skipped over a man lying exsanguinated and trembling as another struggled to replace his entrails. He saw the shock setting in, and knew there was not much he could do. He went instead to the side of another young man sitting unattended, calm but bleeding freely from his shoulder. His veil had torn loose and a sword slash had cleaved completely through his quilted vest, exposing lozenges of dark wood embedded within. The armor’s protection had been incomplete, but it had at least helped limit the depth of his wound.
A woman approached with a bone needle threaded with fine sinew. He took the needle from her, misunderstanding her intentions. She protested, but her complaints eased when she saw how deftly Frank began suturing up the wound. She reached into a pouch and sprinkled a brown powder over the wound as he stitched. Onlookers made noises appreciative of his handiwork.
Tezhay caught his eye and waved him over to where he stood by the dead horse. Frank ambled over. “This woman is Idala,” said Tezhay, indicating a wiry, cicatriced middle-aged woman who beamed broadly back at Frank, not shy at all about exposing the gaps in her grin. “She is leading these Nalkies. She invite us for tea and palaver.” Idala wore no veil.
Tezhay turned abruptly. “Ah, but this one who comes now from the river is very interest.” He nodded towards a much younger woman who strode over to them jauntily, as agile and graceful as a jaguar. She had penetrating, intelligent eyes and wore a faint smile that seemed to settle across her mouth as part of its natural equilibrium. She also wore no veil.
“Her name is Teo,” said Tezhay. “Idala say she is cadre too, but different. She is of first cadre. The one they say is lost.”