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Xenolith, Page 71

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 59: Slipping into Raacevo

  A sheet of rippled silver slid north and obscured the sun. Renegade puffs, dark as soot, fled westward. The wind keened through woodlots atop the low hills. The tops of the tallest trees lashed about like whips.

  Tezhay pushed Harm to set a torrid pace, and Harm’s short but sturdy legs obliged. Frank struggled to keep within a stone’s throw. Tezhay saw how his legs trembled whenever they paused, and they never paused for long. The time might come, Tezhay realized, when the doctor might need to be jettisoned for the sake of survival.

  Clocks ticking overtime in his head drove him to consider such expediencies. His overlords in the Philosopher’s Guild needed to know of Eghazi’s doings. With the powerful emeriti ensconced safely in Piliar, only a junior liaison remained in the besieged city of Ubabaor. But he could only report to that link in the chain, and pray that the chain and the powers that rattled it remained uncorrupted.

  He was also a week overdue with his family in Belize. He knew how Marizelle, his spouse, when stressed, would awaken to sweep the courtyard under the moonlight, or if it rained, sit up in their daughter’s room, studying her placid face in the candlelight. He knew she would already be expecting the worst, as she had during the peak of the siege when an army and a gallery of mangonels stood between him and his flaming city, just as Tezhay then felt certain he had lost her. That was why, once reunited amongst hordes of other refugees in the foothills above Ubabaor, he had defied Protocol and transferred his family to the safety of Ur. Marizelle now begged him to sever for good his umbilical to their home world and commit to a life in Ur.

  Tezhay didn’t want to upset the doctor’s heart so he told him it was the weather that made them rush. They would want to be under a roof once the skies unleashed. That wasn’t entirely untrue, but the real reason they hurried was because they were being stalked.

  From the high points of the undulating path, Tezhay looked back to track the Polu, who was now accompanied by two other men, one carrying a pike, the other, a large long bow of the type they used to hunt deer. At the crest of every rise, they closed a little more ground.

  “This Polu who is following, you know him?” Tezhay said Harm.

  “Not really,” said Harm. “This one is new. Nalkies got the old one.”

  So that explained why the Polu had acted so cautious. Now that he had help, he could afford to be bolder.

  “You see another track, you take it,” said Tezhay. “No matter where it goes. We need to lose them.”

  Harm made his move as soon as they passed over the next hill. He squeezed through a thicket of thorn bushes into an eroded gully that angled down towards the main road. It took them through a no-man’s-land of fallow fields, too dissected with ruts to plow.

  The gully opened up into a flat criss-crossed with cart tracks and littered with piles of detritus. They passed broken carts, splintered plow frames, minus their shares, crushed barrels, smashed urns. Mounds of rancid grain and rotted thatch. Feral dogs growled. Rodents and birds darted and fluttered. Alongside the vermin, a smattering of people probed the wastes: a man with a withered leg, a small gang of filthy children.

  A puzzling sound, like a thousand tiny bells, came from the main road. Tezhay turned to check on Doctor Frank, The point of a pike bobbed above the wall of the gully they had just left, raising the hair behind his neck.

  “Fast! To the road,” he said to Harm.

  He grabbed the doctor, who had just caught up, and pulled him along.

  “What the …? Will you let me take a breather?”

  “They come,” Tezhay said, in English. “We must run.”

  The jingling grew louder as they pounded between rubbish heaps and smoldering stacks of ergot-stricken hay, leaping maggot-ridden pools of offal. Tezhay headed for a gap between a pair of flimsy shacks.

  The armored rump of a battle horse came into view. Tezhay froze. Harm, following closely, stumbled into his back. The horse stomped in place, its rider just out of sight, before snorting and moving on, scales clinking. Tezhay peered cautiously around the edge of a shack. The horse was the last in a squadron of heavy cavalry. He counted about twenty in all, armored head to toe in overlapping leaves of steel matching that of their lance-bearing riders. They headed towards the marshes.

  The road here was wide enough for two carts to pass side-by-side. Only stumps and limbless boles remained of the massive oaks that once lined this grand avenue.

  Frank braced himself against a wall and gasped for breath. Harm, awestruck, slipped behind a tree trunk to watch the cavalry depart.

  Across the road, sprawled a larger settlement. Tezhay scuttled over and plunged into its warren of sod houses. Their warped walls and sagging roofs seemed recently and hastily built, occupied by people too poor to keep livestock or fowl. Threadbare quilts hung out over open eaves to air. The tightly snaking passages offered plenty of opportunity for cover and evasion.

  Though they had not yet reached Raacevo proper, this settlement bore no resemblance to the quaint, provincial town he remembered. He saw nothing built to last, no open spaces or markets, no visible signs of craft or commerce.

  “Who lives here, Harm? Where do these people come from?” said Tezhay.

  “Verden,” said the boy. “Colonists took their farms.”

  The settlement ended at the banks of a small river, too deep and swift to ford. They threaded their way through people’s washings back to the main road, where a simple wooden bridge carried a single lane across.

  Tezhay hesitated behind a sod wall and peeked down the road towards the dumping ground. An empty cart pulled by a scrawny horse approached, its owner walking beside. He saw no sign of the Polu or his deputies.

  He strode out into the road and crossed the bridge, spying the surging, silt-laden current between the creaking timbers. The rains must have arrived days ago in the outer valleys.

  Now they could see the edges of the city proper. Unlike Ubabaor, Raacevo had no public defense wall, only the walls of its more well-to-do private residents. But a barricade blocked the road halfway up the rise before them, with a string of earthen mounds extending along either side. A jam of carts and people with livestock queued up behind it. A commotion broke out as a group of Crasacs rushed out and beat someone on the ground with batons.

  “I don’t like this,” said Tezhay. “How can we pass with this red beard here?”

  Harm stepped off the bridge. “I know another way,” he said. He trotted along the bank following a rim of packed clay, passing through a woodlot picked clean of every last bit of dead wood. The survivors looked frightened, their remaining limbs lifted high, out of reach of marauders.

  By a turbulent cove where the red silt of the tributary blended with the algal flow of the main river, Harm veered up a narrow footpath. The trail quickly petered out atop a bluff, but he kept trudging straight through a patch of prickly creepers that cordoned off an orchard. Apples, just coming into blush, studded the branches of small trees packed tightly in neat rows. Already, Doctor Frank was gnawing on one and stuffing his pockets with more.

  The orchard sloped up to a sturdy-looking fence that separated it from a densely built area of stone and brick dwellings. Through gaps in the trees, Tezhay caught glimpses of the main road. Traffic moved freely. Clearly, they had bypassed the roadblock.

  A slew of panicked and screeching children came scrambling through the trees upslope. The largest aided the smallest over the fence, their faces fixed towards the road.

  “Cover!” said Tezhay, diving behind an uprooted but leafed out tree, finding Harm already there, sequestered beneath the trunk. Doctor Frank had not noticed the commotion. He stretched to pick a ripe apple from a tree across the lane.

  Tezhay tossed a stone that deflected off his rump. Doctor Frank swiveled around, indignant. “Doctor! Get down,” Tezhay hissed.

  A group of Crasacs ran along the top of the orchard, one of them swinging a staff that narrowly missed beaning the last
girl over the fence. Doctor Frank stood exposed in the lane, paralyzed with indecision. One of the soldiers spotted him and trained a crossbow. The others came running down, staffs held high.

  Tezhay stayed low, but unsheathed the last of Eghazi’s daggers. Harm had bedded himself deeply among the branches and suckers and tall grass.

  “Oh, shit,” Doctor Frank said, backing away from the Crasacs. “I really, really don’t want to go through this again.”

  Tezhay feared Doctor Frank would turn and run. He could picture a bolt slamming into his back and taking him down.

  “Show your palm,” said Tezhay, projecting a whisper. “Stay still, and no look at us.”

  Doctor Frank sighed and raised both hands high.

  The Crasac who reached him first, whacked the back of his knees with his staff. He collapsed backward, apples rolling from his pockets. The other soldier hounded him with questions he couldn’t possibly comprehend as the first ripped his pockets into flaps, stripping him of every piece of fruit he had hoarded.

  They forced him to stand and shoved him along up slope to the lane atop the hill, pushing him against the fence. The Crasac bearing the crossbow approached him and tore off his veil. They giggled hysterically at his red beard as they hoisted him up onto the thorns that topped the fence. His clothing snagged, but they kept pushing until he dropped to the other side.

  Still laughing, the Crasacs strolled back to the road.