Xenolith, Page 37A. Sparrow
Chapter 29: Taken by Cuasars
Nine dust trails spun down the side of the mesa, commas looping up with the wind. Frank traced their direction and arc to the road behind him, where another lone rider had appeared on the way from Ubabaor road, creating a dust cloud of his own. The Ubabaor rider drove his steed hard, closing the distance with unsettling speed. All this sudden action in what had been a lonely valley made Frank uneasy. He hoped all these folks would pass him by and ignore him like a shrubbery.
Fat chance. The lone rider proved to be his captor and tutor. Tezhay.
“No way!” The blood rose in Frank’s face. How could Tezhay have located him so quickly? He was supposed to be off traveling.
Tezhay’s panting mount pulled up abruptly, its hooves sliding in the gravel, showering him with pebbles and sand. His saddle was loaded with satchels and his patched up guitar.
“You stupid shit! I turn my back one minute and look where he goes. Up, up quick. They coming!”
“No,” Frank said, stepping away. “I don’t want to go back to Ubabaor. I’m going to Piliar.”
“Piliar?” Tezhay’s eyes widened. “You can’t get to Piliar this way, you idiot!” He sidled his mount over, cornered Frank against the causeway and seized him by the collar. “Get up now or die! Cuasar coming!”
He could hear the others’ hooves pounding down the fallow fields on either side. Behind them, a lone rider came down the road at a relaxed gait. He held high a white flag with two black circles. Projectiles larger than any arrows he had ever seen whistled barely a meter above Tezhay’s head.
It finally dawned on Frank that the other riders had not come down the mesa to race or gather water. He grabbed onto Tezhay’s saddle and tried pulling himself up, but kept slipping down. Tezhay pulled up on his collar with amazing strength for such a slight man, but not quite strong enough to haul Frank onto his saddle.
“Shit!” said Tezhay, his voice cracking.
He turned his mount and tried to gallop away with Frank dangling from the saddle, his feet dragging against the roadbed. The horse kept lurching to one side, unable to gallop away at full speed. The other riders swept around their flanks.
The horse screamed and reared as a heavy bolt struck it in the chest. Frank fell away and tumbled in the dirt. Tezhay shouted in fury and leapt free as the horse stumbled and collapsed, eliciting a discordant glissando from his cracked guitar.
Tezhay instantly rolled to his feet and rushed to the horse’s side. He withdrew a short sword from his hip and slashed the animal’s throat. He flung the blade to the ground and threw his arms wide, palms open.
Frank lay in the dusty roadway, feeling as though a pigeon were trying to flap its way out of his chest.
“Open your palms if you don’t want your head cut off!” said Tezhay.
The riders circled once then spiraled in. The one with the flags stopped on the other side of the causeway and held up a red circle with a centered black dot like a bull’s eye. One rider from each group charged up, dismounted on the run and held them at bay with huge arrows strung on longbows as tall as themselves. The others milled about on the Ubabaor side of the road, their gazes drawn nervously up to the watch tower on the hill.
Frank sat up in the dirt, cross legged with his palms up as if meditating. Two more Cuasars dismounted and approached, carrying short lengths of rope with weights dangling from both ends. They wore dusty, sueded leggings with pale shin guards made of something that looked like bone. Their long shirts had flaps of similar armor sewn into the chest and upper arms. Crown-like headdresses of coiled leather protected their ears.
Frank fought for breath. He felt as if he were drowning. His eyes teared. He vision began to blur. His pack had come off in the fall but lay within reach. He eyed the pocket holding the red ampoule that Tezhay had given him of the narcotic that had evened out his heart rhythm before. He reached with one hand. One of the bowmen screamed at him.
“Take your hand away, you fool!” Tezhay scolded.
“Can you explain to them … I’m … I’m having trouble breathing.”
“If you no take your hand away, you don’t have to worry about breathe.”
Frank lifted his hands over his head. One of the Cuasars spun a weighted rope by his side and let it fly. It struck his forearms, wrapping around until the weights cracked into his elbows. The force rocked him back prone. Another set of weighted ropes took out Tezhay’s legs and felled him.
One of the Cuasars slapped a metal clamp on the rope entwining his arms and squeezed it several times, ratchets pulling the cords tighter. They worked quickly, pulling off his day pack, searching his legs and torso for weapons. Another did the same to Tezhay and pulled the saddle and saddlebags off the dying horse. The other Cuasars watched impatiently as their mounts stomped and whinnied.
Arms hefted him up off the road and onto a horse. They slung Tezhay belly-down over another mount. One of the Cuasars had disemboweled Tezhay’s horse with a long sword and removed its liver. Another hacked away at the horse’s rump.
The one with the signal flags gave a shout and raised two solid red flags high. The soldiers looked over their shoulders up at the hill behind them. A tight knot of mounted riders appeared on the road below the watchtowers, churning up a huge cloud of dust as they charged.
The officer with the flags backed up his horse until the others had remounted then turned and fled up the hillside. They bounded up the slope, all riding close, all keeping to the road. At a switchback, Frank caught a glimpse of the hill below the watchtower. The dust cloud had separated from the riders from Ubabaor. Their shapes stood still on the road, watching. Already, they had given up the chase.
The upper slopes of the mesa were dense with fortifications not apparent from below. A web work of trenches several layers deep and filled with spikes and bundled sticks straddled the road. They conformed to gullies and terraces and other natural depressions in the landscape to disguise their presence from below. The spoils from their digging had apparently been hauled away. In few places did the soil look obviously disturbed, though every bit of tinder and forage had been plundered from the upper slopes.
They threaded through a bulwark of cleaved ledges. The road leveled out onto the summit, revealing that what Frank had mistaken for a village was actually an enormous military camp. Spiky tents with prominent peaks stretched all across the mesa top, mingling with an occasional square structure of brick and stone in various phases of completion. A dome surrounded by scaffolding loomed over all from a low hump in the center of the camp.
The horses halted in an open space surrounded by a ring of tents and buildings. Frank, still hyperventilating, was hauled backward by unseen hands and dumped onto hard clay. He rolled and came to rest with his bound elbows embedded in a mud puddle. Tezhay fell beside him and passed him a look of disgust.
“How you like your freedom now, exile?” said Tezhay, with considerable bile.
“I … I can’t talk. I’m having trouble. It’s hard to … breathe.”
Tezhay studied him. His eyes softened slightly, a smidgen of sympathy returning to his expression.
“Maybe it is good that you die. Soon, I might envy you.”
“That stuff …” Frank coughed out between breaths. “That drug you gave me … I need it.” He saw his pack lying next to Tezhay’s saddle and possessions. He lifted himself up and inched towards it.
A soldier, spotting him, shouted and stomped him flat.
“Better not move, if you ever want to move again,” Tezhay hissed.
Frank could only gasp, unable to respond. The two Cuasars with longbows stood guarding them as the others led their mounts to a corral. The officer with the flags disappeared inside a large tent marked with a blue banner.
Frank concentrated on drawing adequate breath as he attempted to diagnose his ailment. He surmised it had to be atrial fibrillation or else he wouldn’t be conscious. Though less lethal than the ventricular ver
sion, atrial fib was no picnic. Blood pooling and clotting in his malfunctioning chambers could trigger a fatal stroke.
Tezhay in contrast, looked unusually composed considering the circumstances. He seemed resigned, almost bored with the situation. He dressed as if he had just strolled off an American street: black Calvin Klein jeans, a dark t-shirt displaying a stylized portrait of President Obama, Mephisto walking shoes and a Citizen’s wristwatch with a face that tracked the hour in multiple time zones.
“You could have just let me go,” Frank rasped. “You didn’t have to come after me.”
“I am responsible. I have to come,” said Tezhay.
“But weren’t you supposed to be gone already?” said Frank.
“I was gone. They summoned me by Mercomar.”
“Mirror on watchtower.”
The Cuasar who had led the raid came out the tent with another, older officer, who wore leggings without armor and a coat that came down almost to his knees. Three unequal stripes of cobalt blue slashed across his chest. One of the bowmen touched an arrow to Frank’s neck as the officer approached. The older man was tall, like the other Cuasars. His slitted eyes revealed only pupils through exaggerated epicanthic folds. Sleek auburn hair, only lightly peppered with grey spilled from a padded headband.
He pointed and chuckled at Tezhay’s clothing and the guards laughed heartily along with him. Bending over Frank, the officer clucked with disdain, pinching his bicep between thumb and forefinger, prodding his thigh with one foot.
“What the … fuck is he doing?” Frank wheezed.
“He decides if you are fit to be slave.”
“Slave?” Frank’s head swirled with panic and vertigo.
“Don’t worry. He says you are strong enough for some work.”
“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” said Frank, his head sinking into the mud. “I’m getting really dizzy.”
“No,” said Tezhay. “This not a good time. You must stay strong.”
“I’m losing it. I feel like I’m not … not … getting enough … air.”
The officer strummed his finger against Tezhay’s detuned guitar and tossed it aside. He selected Frank’s pack from the pile and played with the zippers. He reached in and pulled out the remaining biscuits, tossing one each to the guards.
Frank’s eyes widened when he saw the man extract the wax-sealed, reed ampoule from a pocket on the flap.
“Tell him … I need that. I need some … now.”
The officer snapped the ampoule between his fingers, sniffed the dark fluid that dribbled out, and tossed it aside with disgust. The last thing Frank saw, before the world spun away from him was the Cuasar officer shaking his fingers, sending droplets of cardioactive herbal extract scattering in the dirt.