Xenolith, Page 58A. Sparrow
Chapter 49: Underground
Immobilized by shock, Ara watched Dieno and Kera pounce on Canu, pulling his arms behind him, kicking his legs out and dropping him into the water ponding behind a weir of branches entangled with leaves and trash. Kera fell upon him, looping cord tightly around his wrists as Canu cringed on the floor of the culvert with Dieno’s foot pressing his head into the damp sand beside the shallow pool.
“Get off him!” said Ara. “What are you doing?”
“Baas thinks he and his group are elite militia from the fallen Provinces,” said Kera.
“Counterforce,” said Dieno.
“Ridiculous,” said Ara. “Have you seen them fight?”
“Hey, I held my own just fine against that Cuerti,” Canu protested.
“Shut up, Canu. You’re not helping your own cause,” said Ara. Voices carried down the length of the tunnel. “What are you all doing here, anyway?”
“We thought you were taken, so we moved on,” said Kera. “We were headed upriver, but the bank is too exposed here, so we might follow this stream up a gulch to get around the town. Baren sent Lev ahead to have a look.”
“There’s nothing upriver worth pursuing, believe me.” She felt her stomach sink. “Where’s Baren? I need to talk to him.”
“Up the other end,” said Kera.
Ara sighed. “Please, go easy on Canu, he’s injured.”
Dieno gave her a strange look as she moved out of the light and splashed her way up the tunnel, parting strands of cobweb with her fingers. As she passed into the shaft of light descending from a rectangular grating, she caught a glimpse of a woman pushing a shopping cart.
She found Baren and Baas slouching by the intake of the culvert. A reed-cluttered, algal pool fed the trickle that ran through the tunnel. Baren rose abruptly and approached her, smiling.
“Ara! What a nice surprise. Baas saw you taken by the Urep’o.” Baren nudged shoulders and gave her a hug. “How did you manage to get away?”
“They only wanted to talk,” said Ara, shrugging.
“I assume you weren’t able to make it upriver,” said Baren.
“Actually, we did,” said Ara.
“We found the emissary and his escort. Dead.”
Baren’s face blanched. “By whose hand?” he said.
“The counterforce, of course,” grumbled Baas.
“It’s … not clear,” said Ara, not intending to lie, but feeling somehow compelled, though the act jangled her nerves.
“Their wiles are clear enough to me,” said Baas. “They moved the stone to prevent us from interfering with their ambush. A spy must be close to the negotiations. How else could they respond so quickly?”
“Ubabaor needs to be informed,” said Baren. “We need to reach that relay upriver.”
“There is no relay,” said Ara. “It’s been destroyed.”
“You’re certain?” said Baren. “It’s … not just hidden?”
“I saw it turned to grit all over the emissary’s prayer cloth,” said Ara. “I … we arrived too late to salvage anything.”
“Bastards!” said Baas.
“What happened to … where are Canu’s comrades?” said Ara.
“We left them bound in the burial ground for the Urep’o to find,” said Baren.
“Those traitors should have been executed,” said Baas.
“The Urep’o have them by now,” said Baren. “They won’t be talking their way free the way Ara did.”
“Where’s the one you guided you upriver?” said Baas, his face stiffening with dark resolve. “Did he return with you?”
“Canu? Kera and Dieno have him restrained down at the other end of the tunnel.”
Baas withdrew a hooked blade from his sheath. A lump of panic bulged in Ara’s throat.
“What are you intending?” She blocked his way when he tried to move past.
“Out of my way,” said Baas.
“We should preserve him … for questioning,” said Ara. “He can tell us about his masters, his mission.” She appealed to Baren, who leaned against the curve of the culvert wall, making no move to join Baas.
Baren pushed himself off the wall. “Baas, she has a point. It would be good to know who sent them.”
“What’s to learn? It’s one of the Fallen Provinces. Doesn’t matter which. Each have private armies. All should be nipped in the bud.”
“But he might know of other missions … other forces,” said Ara, looking back at Baren, who remained rooted by the entrance of the culvert, acting as if he had expended whatever influence he retained over Baas.
“We can’t keep prisoners when we’re on the move,” said Baas. He shoved her aside and barreled down the length of the tunnel like a rolling boulder. Ara scurried after him.
In the light at the other end of the tunnel, Kera and Dieno stood watching over Canu, who sat up against the wall of the culvert, joking with his captors. He looked pleased to see Ara and Baas, but his naive optimism sent a spike through Ara’s heart. It reminded her of a lamb she once raised, that had come bounding into her arms at slaughter time, expecting to be cuddled and brushed.
“Tell these fools to let me go,” said Canu, haughtily. “They jabber on about some counterforce. We didn’t come to counter anything; we’re just a bunch of scouts.”
Ara seized Baas’ knife hand. He yanked it free from her grasp and pushed her away. “Go stay with Baren, if the spilling of blood bothers you so,” he whispered.
Canu spotted the knife. His attitude shifted as quickly as the wind. “Blood? Whose blood?” he said, cringing.
Without a word, Baas grabbed a swatch of Canu’s thick hair with one hand and lifted his hooked dagger with the other. Canu squirmed away.
Ara latched onto his arm again. “Baas, there’s no need. This one’s … docile. He’ll cooperate.”
“Get your hands off!” said Baas.
“If you kill me, you’ll be stranded,” said Canu, frantically. “You can’t get back to Gi without me.”
Baas shook away from Ara’s grasp but lowered his knife. “What are you saying?”
“Look at your stone,” said Canu. “It’s just a fragment. You can’t go anywhere with it. I know where the other piece is hidden.”
Baas took a deep breath and looked down at Canu with disgust. He turned and called down the tunnel. “Baren!”
Baren plodded down the tunnel, looking skittish, but hopeful. “You’ve decided to spare him?” he said.
Baas gave him a look of disgust and reached for the satchel bearing the stone. Baren reacted defensively, stepping back. Baas lunged and snatched it away from him. He yanked open the flap and pulled out the stone, rotating it back and forth in his palm.
“You lie,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with it.”
“It’s the truth,” said Canu. “Look at the flat edge in the light.”
Baas went to the end of the culvert, held the stone up in the sunlight and studied it carefully. His face slowly contorted into a scowl. “You wretched scum.”
“What’s wrong?” said Baren, splashing up.
Baas handed him the stone. “See how it glints on the flat, but only on this plane? It’s a large and recent fracture. This might be only half a stone.”
Baren looked perplexed. “But it’s been in my possession ever since we crossed. When could they have possibly done this?”
Baas narrowed his eyes. “Maybe it was already damaged,” he said. “Maybe that’s why the tabulator was off.”
“We crossed through a damaged stone?” said Baren. “Is this even possible?”
“It’s possible, but damaged stones are unstable,” said Baas, grudgingly. “I’ve seen men crushed, attempting such passages.”
Canu fixated, eyes almost crossed, at the stone in Baren’s hands. Ara had seen that look before, just before he went after the Cuerti upriver. But before she could stop him, he lunged at Baren and head-butted the stone out of his hands
. It dropped into the water. Canu fell on it, pounding at it maniacally with both elbows together.
“You swine!” Baas fell on Canu and wrestled him away from the stone, secured him with one arm and slipped his knife up under his chin.
Baren dropped to his knees and felt around in the water for the xenolith. When he picked it up, it came apart in three shards. He fumbled them and all but one splashed into the stream. He looked at Baas, beseeching.
“This militia scum is nothing but trouble,” said Baas, slipping out his blade with his free hand.
“But you need me,” said Canu, elbows bloodied, his voice garbled by Baas’ forearm. “To find the other half. There’s enough left to open a portal. I saw it happen. I’ll tell you where it is if you free me.”
“Ara, you’ve traveled here before,” said Baren. “Do you know of any other stones?”
“I … used to,” she said. “It’s been years. I don’t know.” Though she remembered precisely which road and which stream would lead her to the forested glen in Vermont where she first entered this world. “I’m not even sure it still exists, and even if it does, it’s seven days walk, minimum.”
“He must show us then,” said Baren. “He must take us to the other half, or he will die.”
“And if I do, you will free me?”said Canu.
Baren stared back, silent. He looked to Baas.
“You won’t ever find it on your own,” said Canu. “Just go and leave me behind in Ur and you’ll never hear of me again.”
Baas’ eyes looked as cold as the metal of the blade he sheathed. He tugged Baren deeper into the tunnel where Canu couldn’t hear him. Ara sidled after them. “Humor him,” Baas whispered. “Once we have the other half, I’ll do what needs to be done.”
Baren pursed his lips and nodded grimly. He waded back into the light where Canu lay expectant. “Bring us to the stone,” he said. “And I’ll guarantee that you’ll remain in Ur.”