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Xenolith, Page 53

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 45: Lost Among Ferns

  Buoyed by their unexpected freedom, Seor gamboled down the forested slope with her comrades, bowling over shrubs, weaving between trees, leaping over stone walls. Ren beside her, face alight, skipped and whirled through the clearings. When the road below came into view, they dug in her heels and skidded on the leaf litter, stopping near the ledge where Baren had first relieved them of their few and pitiful weapons. Pari caught up with them, then Vul, hobbled and lurching.

  “Stay watchful, everyone,” said Seor. “The cadre may still be near. They’re likely moving cautiously in the daylight.”

  “That woman … why do you suppose she helped us?” said Pari, wistfully.

  “Why wouldn’t she?” said Seor. “Haven’t you ever freed a cricket trapped in a puddle? She is human, like us.”

  “Ah, but would you do the same for a spider?” said Vul.

  “Of course,” said Seor, narrowing her eyes.

  Vul shrugged and glanced away.

  Seor’s exhilaration dissipated. Being lashed to the obelisk had brought a perverse sense of relief because it rendered her powerless to affect her comrades’ fate. Freedom simply replaced one set of binds for another. Feeling compelled to blaze the way again, the anxieties of leadership reasserted in her gut.

  She listened for the cadre’s whistles. They would be signaling to each other frequently, reporting hazards, providing directions, as they moved between cover. But through the din of insects and distant engines, her ears could discern only the lazy, loping calls of Urep’o birds.

  She waited until a vehicle whooshed past and rolled out of sight, and dashed across the road, plunging into the patch of bee-infested weeds, skidding down the bank to the muddy shoulder of the stream that meandered through the broad, thickly forested terrace.

  Houses with sunny yards bordered the woodlot on two sides, but the stream coursing between was wild and dark as any in Gi. Pari and Ren joined her, and then Vul, a few steps behind, as another vehicle hurtled by, spinning off vortices that displaced the hovering bees and shuddered the weeds.

  Unless someone could convince her otherwise, she planned to retrieve the stone and take it somewhere more secure, a place where Baren could never find them, where not even the Urep’o ventured. Surely some wilderness must exist within a day’s walk with forage and game and the means to make a shelter where Vul could heal, all of them could rest and they could watch the convergence cycle in peace.

  She assumed that Baren, if diplomacy with the Venep’o still held sway, planned to pass through to Ubabaor using the relay upriver. But she couldn’t rule out the possibility that some or all of his group might be returning to Gi through the fragment they carried. As difficult as it would be to resist an open portal, even one that opened into Gi, she thought it prudent to skip the next convergence. Without weapons, they had no chance against Baren’s people, on whose further charity they could no longer depend. Sesei had never felt so far away.

  Seor studied the indentations in the mud and moss beside the stream. The record of their prior traverse was confused by the presence of other, smaller prints with patterned soles. A pair of Urep’o children had passed through this spot not long after them. Their presence so close to the place she had left the stone worried her.

  She looked across the stream, confused by the sameness of the landscape. Each bend of the stream looked like the next, with scaly moss fringing flow-carved micro-cliffs of yellowish clay, supporting a table of dark topsoil where ferns vied with hollow-stemmed plants bearing speckled orange flowers that dangled from stalks.

  The cadre’s sudden appearance had flustered and preoccupied her, so she had not been fully attentive. After she flung the stone, she saw it ripple though the soft canopy of ferns like a bird vanishing into a fog bank. That was all she remembered.

  “Ren, did you see me toss the fragment? Do you remember where I stood?”

  “Not … exactly,” said Ren.

  With the others watching patiently, Seor looked towards the road, hoping to spot a definitive landmark. She recognized a tree with a bark shaggy like matted fur, so she put herself on a line perpendicular through it to the road, and stepped into the water. Silver darts scattered from her footfall. She bounded up into the soft greenery of the opposite bank.

  “I think this is the place,” she called, pushing aside the ferns with her toe. She expected the xenolith’s dark matrix and iridescent sheen should make it easy to spot against the leached and pale leaf husks that papered the ground. She made several passes upright before dropping to her knees, groping and patting at the damp earth.

  “Look at you all, standing there,” she teased. “Come, help me look.” Ren and Pari crossed the stream and dropped down beside her. Vul descended gingerly on his injured leg.

  “Don’t clump up all together like that. I’ve already checked here. Spread out. It might have rolled.” The words came out sounding a bit more frantic than Seor had intended.

  “Could Baren have taken it?” said Ren.

  “Don’t see how,” said Seor. “He didn’t even notice that the stone was broken.” She worried more about Urep’o children, but kept that possibility to herself for now.

  Pari and Ren went upstream a short ways, and Vul moved down. They crawled in circles, tossing any stone they deemed out of contention into the stream. They searched without complaint for many minutes, but when Seor had trampled nearly ever fern in the patch and found herself straying far beyond the point she could have reasonably have flung a stone, she stood up abruptly. “Enough,” she said. “We’ll simply have to find it at the next convergence. Let us make camp.”

  “Here?” said Vul. “But this a terrible place to stay. Too exposed and too damp. The gnats will suck us dry.”

  Seor turned slowly to face him. “Have a better idea, Vul?”