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Xenolith, Page 78

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 66: The Beet Fields

  Shoes strapped, satchel packed, Tezhay stood in Sibara’s doorway watching the clouds spit on Raacevo. The rain reminded Tezhay of the limp showers that often linger like afterthoughts in the wakes of thunderstorms. But unlike those straggling mists, this rain refused to quit, sustaining a state of perpetual dissipation. Drizzle accumulated till the city dripped and ran and the end result was no different from a downpour.

  Merchants emerged to repair the damage wreaked by the Polus’ crackdown the night before. They pegged stands back together, patched awnings with coarse twine and strips of cloth. One family, their table too splintered to salvage, arrayed their corms and tubers between puddles on the ground.

  Tezhay had spent a difficult night. Unaccustomed to hammocks, he awoke often, each time to see Doctor Frank still sitting by the fire, picking through Kovalev’s shingles. With the first dim premonitions of dawn, when Tezhay slipped out of his hammock for good, he found the doctor curled up, unconscious on the hard floor, and thought him dead. A finger pressed against his neck revealed a fast and jittery pulse.

  Later, when Sibara’s rattlings and Harm’s chatter had awakened the doctor, he had looked about frantically, as if worried Tezhay had left without him. As if he could deny the doctor his wish, possibly his last.

  “I’m over here,” Tezhay had called out from across the hearth, pulling on shoes that remained damp. Doctor Frank’s face unclenched with relief as he pulled himself up onto a stool and slumped over the hearth, gingerly slipping sandals over feet gory with torn blisters and abrasions.

  Harm recoiled at the sight of the doctor’s feet. He searched the shelves by Sibara’s wash basin, ignoring Sibara’s grumbles. He came up with a crock of greasy, yellow ointment and daubed Doctor Frank’s sores. He then tore strips from his lambskin pouch and tucked them under the doctor’s sandal straps to ease the rubbing.

  Tezhay, imposing patience on himself, ensconced himself in the doorway to watch rain, adjusting the shawl of oil cloth Sibara had given him. Warmth from a packet of puffed grain, toasted over Kovalev’s shingles, penetrated the walls of his satchel.

  The doctor rose to join him, but stood too fast and his eyes went hazy. He would have toppled if Harm hadn’t grabbed his elbow. Tezhay wondered how he expected to walk to Sinta in such condition. Halfway to Xama on the Maora road Sinta lay half a day away at the pace of a healthy man, not accounting for delays. Hiring a cart to carry him would have made sense, except that carts these days attracted the unhealthy attentions of Crasacs and Polus.

  Even if the doctor managed to haul his carcass to Sinta, Tezhay wondered what he would do if they found the village burned to cinders and its population slaughtered? Or what if this Lizbet was either the wrong one or dead or gone and no one was willing or able to host a sickly exile? What then? Should he abandon the doctor along the road? Allow the elements or Cuasars to claim him?

  Smuggling Doctor Frank back through the portals was out of the question. The xenolith Tezhay sought was regulated by the cadre and heavily trafficked by militia. Neither group would tolerate a reverse passage by an exile.

  As the doctor wobbled back over to the door, he looked like someone who had just crawled off his death bed; eye sockets like caves, complexion gone dead fish grey. Perhaps the true conundrum was what to do when the doctor collapsed and died on the road. Without a shovel, a shallow grave, like Eghazi’s, would probably be the best he could do for the man. Maybe a cross of twig and twine, in line with his customs.

  Sibara came up behind them. “You’re a fool, for going east. Told Kovalev the same.

  Everyone knows the Alar’s all agitated about goings on out there, jumping on anything that smells like a Nalki.”

  Tezhay’s eyes flicked up to meet Sibara’s. “I thought Kovalev was snatched from his own house?”

  “He was,” said Sibara. “But he was going east the next day, so they would’ve gotten him anyway.”

  “I don’t have much choice,” said Tezhay. “It’s where I need to be. And this one …” He looked at the slouching doctor. “He won’t have it any other way.”

  Sibara stared down at his feet. “You’ll raise your chances if you keep off the roads,” he muttered. “They’re crawling with the Alar’s horsemen.”

  “Do the Cuasars patrol far?” said Tezhay. “I’d rather not be slogging through fields and forest the entire way.”

  “All the way to Maora and back,” said Sibara. “Hunting Nalkies. And when they can’t find none, they pull their sabers on any poor twit they find.”

  “I see.”

  Sibara glanced out into the alley. “Misty. Should help keep you out of sight, till you can reach the forest.”

  “We are grateful for your help,” said Tezhay, attempting to bump shoulders with Sibara, who turned away, retreating towards his hearth. Harm came over and gave Tezhay a hearty, leaping bump.

  “Are you making your way back alone?” said Tezhay.

  “Oh no-o-o-o!” said the boy. “My sister’s meeting me at the bridge and she’s bringing the cousins.”

  Tezhay fished inside his satchel for Eghazi’s parchment prayer book. “I know you’re not Sinkor, but this might come in handy if the Polus nab you.” The boy accepted it with a grin and tucked it away.

  Harm approached Doctor Frank, who, looking pained, forced a smile. The doctor mis-aimed his bump, glancing his shoulder off of Harm’s. He stumbled out into the alley. Harm held out his hand, and the doctor, after momentary befuddlement, shook it.

  With a nod, they headed off up the alley. Tezhay walked slowly at first, paying close attention to Doctor’s Frank’s fitness. Once they got going, the doctor fared much better than Tezhay thought him capable. He breathed hard, and his steps landed heavily, but he kept up. Tezhay stepped up the pace to see how much the doctor could handle.

  Debris still clogged the alley near the plaza. Here, in sight of the garrison, no one dared remove it. A scrawny cat made skeletal by sodden fur licked at a dark splotch staining a building’s corner stone. Beside it, a puddle of rain-thinned blood bled into a clearer puddle joined by a trickle. Doors slammed shut as they approached; eyes watched them pass from behind broken shutters.

  They passed south, skirting the plaza, which was now nearly empty of the Cuasars and horses that had been encamped and stabled there the day before. Crasac sentries watched them warily but posed no challenge to them or few other souls braving the streets. The temple and fortifications of the Alar loomed large over the plaza, atop a long, treeless slope, its base stubbled with the remains of dwellings whose bricks had been cannibalized to construct a wall. Its proximity afflicted Tezhay with a dread that made him walk still faster, further testing the limits of the doctor’s stamina.

  The neighborhoods quickly grew sparse. Large, connected structures transitioned to small and separate huts with gardens and paddocks. Outer Raacevo felt more like a discrete collection of villages than the extension of a city.

  Life was calmer on the fringes. Despite the proximity of the Alar’s wall, these neighborhoods showed no signs of the previous night’s crackdown. Oblivious to the rain, residents went about their morning chores, stoking fires, fetching water, leading animals out to common grazing grounds on the hillside. The earthy aromas of roasting roots filtered through the fences.

  Where the land gave way, so did the villages, flowing like gravy over cake. But the dwellings ended abruptly against the first of a descending series of terraces, with strips of dark-leafed bean and pepper interspersed with iridescent blue and chartreuse of young rye and tef. Only the deepest hollows went uncultivated.

  The fields stepped down to a confluence of small rivers, both tributaries of the Sikla. Downstream, a road divided, one heading north towards the broad valley that harbored the colony farms of Verden, the other east over an arching stone bridge into narrower, forested valleys harboring the towns of Sinta and Xama, over the mountains into the grasslands of Maora. Sibara told them that the Lizbet
woman, if she still existed, might be found on a small farm perched in a hanging valley above Sinta.

  Tezhay took pity on Doctor Frank and slowed his pace, finally stopping entirely and waiting for the lumbering doctor to catch up.

  “Any chance a city like this would have any of that bolovo?” said Doctor Frank, dropping heavily to the ground.

  “I told you,” said Tezhay. “Not this side of ocean.”

  “Wishful thinking,” said the doctor.

  “You walking … pretty good.”

  “Not as strong as yesterday, said Doctor Frank. “You’ll have to bear with me.” He had a fistful of Sibara’s grain that he had been chewing on along the way.

  “Save some for later,” said Tezhay. “It may be only food we get.”

  Tezhay squatted down and studied the valley for a passable route. The eastern road looked like trouble. Overturned carts blocked both sides of the bridge. Crasac sentries milled about under impromptu rain shelters rigged with posts and canvas.

  A clear stretch of northern road passed directly below them, curving around the backside of the Alar’s hill. Beet fields laced with windbreaks undulated beyond. Across this expanse, Tezhay could see the eastern road disappear into trees, well beyond the bridge and barricades. They would need to cross two streams to reach the forest, but neither looked impassable.

  Doctor Frank had subsided into clumps of stubbled hay, huffing air like a boated fish. Though he didn’t look rousable, he clambered to his feet the instant he saw Tezhay stand, eager to move on.

  Tezhay kept to an uncultivated hollow in the slope, using its scattering of scrub to screen them from the sentries below. Rivulets carved channels in the clay that sometimes ran beneath the soil’s surface in tubes that collapsed when trod. The steepness challenged his grace. Doctor Frank kept slipping to his knees in the slick mud.

  The northern road bore the mark of many hooves and boots. None looked fresh, but Tezhay saw no need to add fresh ones for some enterprising or bored Crasac to track. He veered away from the road, climbing out of the gully and along a meager fence of braided thorn that kept stray goats out of the rye. They heard the rush of the stream unseen in its channel.

  The Alar’s hill rose before them, its forested backside bearing little evidence of occupation but for a heliograph tower jutting above the trees on the upper slopes. The rains had rendered its signal mirrors dark and mute. Tezhay didn’t dare wander too near, knowing there must be guard posts and fortifications hidden among the trees.

  “Tugga-tut! Tugga tugga-tut! Tugga tugga tugga tugga tugga tugga!”

  Distant, but loud, it echoed between valleys and then was gone, followed by a silence that made raindrops striking leaves sound like explosions.

  Tezhay and Doctor Frank stood staring at each other. “What was this?” said Tezhay, frozen in mid-stride.

  “Weird,” said Doctor Frank. “Sounded like a … machine gun.”

  Tezhay looked back towards where the northern road left the main road. He could hear men’s voices, excited, but the junction was empty. The stone bridge lay out of sight beyond a clump of trees.

  “Is no more,” said Tezhay, shrugging. “We cross here.” He slid down the bank on his heels and hopped the shallow ditch at the bottom. He hesitated, looking for a way to minimize their tracks, but the road was a sheet of mud, so he bounded across on the tips of his toes in three wide leaps, not bothering to ask the cloddish doctor to copy him. They would have to rely on the rain to disguise their crossing.

  Tezhay pushed through a patch of saw-toothed grass to get to the stream, which ran swiftly through a rocky bed. Luckily, it had not yet risen much from the rains, at its deepest, barely covering their knees.

  Beet fields abutted the opposite bank, as close as could be plowed. Leaf clusters so dark they seemed black, arced away in sinuous rows that revealed the curve of the land. Windbreaks of diked earth and young trees criss-crossed the expanse. A cottage and stable topped a distant rise.

  Doctor Frank looked across the fields, sodden pants clinging, revealing skinny legs. “Christ,” he said.

  “What is wrong?” said Tezhay.

  “All those beets.” He sighed. “I hate beets.”

  The confluence and bridge were now visible, which meant they would be seen if they simply trudged across the middle of the field. But the windbreaks offered cover. Tezhay made for the nearest before turning towards the east.

  Odd, that no farmer worked any of the fields, though the morning was well advanced and the beets seemed in urgent need of thinning and weeding. Tezhay’s stomach knotted. It would take more than a gentle rain to keep the farmers out of their fields.

  As they rounded the top of the gently mounded landscape, the hollow nestling the eastern branch of the river came into view.

  Doctor Frank jogged up behind Tezhay, close enough to whisper. “We’re being watched,” he wheezed.

  Tezhay spotted them. Two young men, unveiled, knelt at a juncture between a windbreak and a stone wall. They faced the northern road and the Alar’s hill, longbows at the ready. The men did not greet them, threaten them, or even try to speak as Tezhay and Doctor Frank approached. One indicated with a firm flick of his head that they should keep moving.

  “Nalkies?” said Doctor Frank.

  “No talk. And no stare. Just keep on walk.”

  “What are they doing?”

  “No talk!”

  They passed alongside a stone wall connecting the two windbreaks, also swarming with Nalkies, lying prone, facing down slope towards the bridge; a roughly even mixture of women and men, old and young, veiled and unveiled. How reckless of them to operate so close to Raacevo.

  The second windbreak harbored two lines of warriors, one behind the tree-covered berm itself, and another in a drainage ditch that fronted it. They carried longbows and spears. None spoke. They hardly budged, looking like toy soldiers that someone had left out in the rain. Their attention fixed down slope towards the river. Few even bothered to glance at Tezhay and Doctor Frank, who no longer lagged behind.

  Doctor Frank gawked over his shoulder. “Are we sure we want to go this way?”

  “No look!” Tezhay scolded. “Maybe they want set ambush. You ruin if you keep look.”

  They were halfway across the next beet field, with no more windbreaks to protect them, when snorts and rustling erupted from the riverbank below. Tezhay altered course to take them towards a berm far up the fields that would take them away from the river but out of the line of fire.

  A brilliant white light flared atop the Mercomar station on the hill. Tezhay knew they ignited metal powders to send messages in the night, but this flash was immediately followed by hoof beats thudding up the riverbank. Someone on the Alar’s hill was coordinating an attack from afar. Tezhay felt sick. The Nalkies were not the hunters but the hunted.

  Tezhay stopped.

  “What’s happening?” said Doctor Frank.

  A squadron of Cuasars with lances surged from the riverbed. They tore through the beets, mud clods flying, galloping in a tight cluster towards the Nalkies’ left flank.

  It looked like the horsemen would ride past them if they stayed put. A second group of lancers emerged and destroyed that hope, arraying themselves in a long line atop the riverbank. Their captain raised a black-barred flag. The riders started forward at a slow trot.

  “Maybe they’ll ignore us?” said Doctor Frank.

  “Yes, maybe,” said Tezhay.

  “You think?”

  “Like they ignore Eghazi.”

  The first wave of lance-wielders broke formation, exploding like bees from a hive, riders peeling off and sweeping across the Nalki front. By the riverbank, a red flag rose. The second wave charged straight for the Nalki line, Tezhay and Doctor Frank standing in their path like mileposts in the middle of the field.

  Nalki arrows began to fly. Tezhay sidled away from Doctor Frank. He crouched, balancing on the balls of his feet, seeing no recourse but to get low and try
to dodge. If they ran, they would be run down. The doctor was on his own now. Tezhay would be lucky to save himself.

  The first wave of Cuasars swept before the Nalki line, drawing volleys that mainly missed their mark or slapped into the thick padding armoring the Cuasars and their mounts. The Nalkies took no casualties, but dropped only a few lancers as they swarmed towards a position on the thinly defended Nalki flank. Meanwhile, the second wave of lancers advanced full-bore and untouched behind their screen.

  Tezhay studied the spacing and attitude of the advancing riders, locating the one most likely to line up Tezhay with his lance. He found two riders measure him up, making slight adjustments to their course, lowering lances. Tezhay stepped crab-like to one side, taking one rider out of contention and faced down the other, waiting till the last possible moment before feinting one way, spinning the other. The Cuasar brushed past so close Tezhay could smell his horse, his lance catching nothing but air.

  Doctor Frank rolled among the beets, barely evading hooves and several lances that swooped down to impale him but only scratched the earth. When yet another rider drew a bead on him, a flurry of arrows came overhead. The mount pulled up and the lancer was thrown, landing headfirst with a sickening crunch. The horse stumbled and collapsed with an arrow in its throat.

  The lancers passed, maintaining their formation and discipline, leaving Tezhay and Doctor Frank intact in their wake. Tezhay started to run towards the river. Yet another wave of Cuasars appeared atop the riverbank to put an end to any notion of escape.

  The Nalkies swapped bows for pikes and spears as the second wave of lancers crashed into their line. Simultaneously, the first wave wheeled about and attacked their flank, some dismounting to pry defenders out of ditches. Meanwhile, the third wave of Cuasars, lances stowed, sabers drawn, came forward without hesitation,

  Doctor Frank crawled behind a fallen horse, a twitching hoof almost catching him in the face. The sabers closed in. Tezhay left his dagger sheathed, knowing his only hope, again, was to dodge and run and pray there were no more Cuasars waiting in the riverbed.

  He identified the Cuasar in the best position to take him on, and stood facing the rider, waving and imploring for mercy with his palms up, though he knew Cuasar doctrine advocated clearing battlefields to prevent trickery. He wanted to make the rider think he had an easy target, staring into the open helm, looking into his mature and focused eyes, trying to smile like a naïve and innocent farmer who thought he had a chance.

  He waited until the saber rose to strike him and dove across the horse’s path to the man’s left. The saber sang through the air as Tezhay rolled in the mud, bounded upright and stumbled towards the river.

  Tezhay glanced back towards the crumbling Nalki line. Unlike the lancer before, the saber-wielder had wheeled about and was coming back for him, determined to finish the job. He reached for Eghazi’s pathetic dagger, and enjoyed his next breath as if it would be his last.