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Xenolith, Page 67

A. Sparrow


  After a breakfast of roasted beets, crumbled flat bread and a few flakes of meat, Idala let them pick through a pile of old clothes that had belonged to some of her fallen Nalkies. Frank pulled on the only thing that had a chance of fitting him: a pair of padded breeches with patched-over patches, more collage than clothing. To fit in better with the locals, Tezhay reluctantly shed his sturdy jeans for a threadbare pair of hemp trousers. He replaced his T-shirt with a grey farmer’s smock.

  Teo leaned against the wall, watching with some amusement. Eghazi, beside her, seemed to mutter a joke at their expense.

  “You laugh, my friend,” said Tezhay. “But now is your turn.” He motioned Eghazi over. Tezhay turned to Frank, grumbling. “We can’t let this one go through village dress better than us. People might think he is important.”

  Eghazi rifled through the entire stack with disdain. He seemed reluctant to select any of the items. Tezhay chose for him, shoving a torn shirt and pair of stained pajamas into his arms. After he dressed, Tezhay hobbled his wrists and hobbled his ankles with rawhide, leaving just enough slack to walk, not enough to run. Eghazi looked liked he wanted to strangle Tezhay with his binds.

  Gusts swirled down from the precipices and clashed with updrafts spawned by the mid-morning sun. They started down the track, bearing satchels that Idala had stuffed with provisions. She waved from the edge of her compound, toddler on hip, amidst a swarm of children and dogs.

  Teo’s band waited for them down on the main road, bedrolls packed and weapons ready. A young man with sunken, sleepless eyes came forward to have a word with Teo. They seemed younger as a whole than Idala’s group. Most were unveiled. Some looked barely past puberty.

  Without dithering any further, Teo led them into the gorge. Idala’s defenders emerged from their hiding places to see them off, calling out what sounded like – from the differing reactions they provoked – a combination of encouragement and friendly insult.

  Clinging to the cliff-side, the road became too narrow for a cart to pass or for two people to walk abreast. At points, landslides had carried way the roadbed, exposing precarious gaps dropping hundreds of feet to the rapids. The others leaped them without breaking stride, but Frank did not trust his body enough to follow their example and traversed each exposure gingerly. His caution made him fall behind, but he jogged along the intact stretches to catch up. Tezhay paused frequently, to keep him within sight.

  They descended in shadow until the ravine walls diverged to embrace a tongue of swampy forest. Gaps in the trees revealed glimpses of a vast marshland fed by a conjunction of several meandering rivers. Numerous hills and hummocks protruded like islands from the sea of reeds.

  Here, the sun reacquainted itself, glinting off clouds of pale gnats that gave form to the swirling air currents. The whitewater ended with one final flourish: a waterfall spouting into swirling pool, in which the river collected its momentum and proceeded through broader channels, free to wander, unrestrained by the authority of stone.

  The remains of a village lay at the entrance to the ravine. Its sloping fields had long lain fallow. Saplings had already begun to reclaim them. Wooden houses on stilts –some burnt, some collapsed, their thatch caved and mossy – sprawled on both sides of the road like a tumble of dead spiders.

  They paused to rest. Teo and her fighters went forward to speak to a small group of Nalki lookouts perched on one of the intact structures. Tezhay wandered off to the water’s edge, leaving Frank alone with Eghazi.

  “Help me. I help you,” said Eghazi.

  Frank gave a start. “What?”

  “You want Piliar? Ur? You help me, I bring you.”

  “What do you mean? How?”

  “Help loose rope. Give knife,” said Eghazi, his eyes beseeching. “You can. They no expect. Help me. I help you.”

  Frank glanced nervously towards Tezhay who knelt by the water, splashing his face and hair. “I’m sorry. I … can’t,” said Frank. He stalked away towards the river.

  Tezhay rose up grinning and dripping. “How you feel, Doctor Frank?”

  “Fine,” said Frank, still unsettled by Eghazi’s request. He stayed mum about it, but his silence made him feel like an accomplice.

  “Not too scare?”

  “Scared? What should I be scared of?”

  Tezhay smiled. “Never mind. Is better … not to think.”

  “Think of what?”

  Teo whistled from the road. A bevy of anxious faces awaited.

  “We must go,” said Tezhay.

  The road plunged directly across the marsh, its bed barely elevated out of the mud. It wouldn’t have taken much floodwater to submerge it. Frank could see no cart tracks, no prints – no signs of any recent travelers.

  Tezhay’s cryptic words unsettled him, but he found it reassuring to walk among Teo’s young warriors. Her band seemed savvy and adept, their quivers full, blades ready. Though they gabbed constantly, they responded instantly to any movement in the reeds. One rustle turned out to be nothing but a large rodent. Farther along, something much larger snorted and charged through the reeds before splashing into the river. Though massive enough to roil the reeds, it stimulated no more concern than the rodent.

  The wind rippled the feathery seed heads in waves that propagated across the breadth of the marsh. The ravine and the headlands and pinnacles bearing Idala’s compound receded behind them like a distant shore.

  Where the river meandered into their path, the road kept going straight, crossing over a causeway of stone blocks. As Frank admired the way the water sieved between the stones, he bumped into Tezhay, who had stopped to probe at something with a stick. It took Frank a moment to realize that he was looking at a dead man, limbs broken and askew, hung up on the stones along with the other flotsam. His body was battered but relatively un-decomposed. He was a Cuasar.

  “Golly, he made better time than we did,” said Frank.

  “Oh? You like to make travel like him?” said Tezhay.

  “No thanks. I’d rather walk.”

  Teo and Tezhay extracted the Cuasar from the river and arranged him along the side of the road. Teo shooed her gawking band onward.

  “They’re not going to bury him?” said Frank?

  “Too much wet here,” said Tezhay. “We let crows have some food, yes?” He walked away.

  “That’s … just not right,” said Frank, shocked and sickened. No man, no matter how misguided or cruel, deserved such a fate.