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Xenolith, Page 68

A. Sparrow


  They crossed several more meanders, some of them waist-deep fords without causeways. The entire party finally stopped to rest beneath the shade of a rare clump of trees. Teo and Tezhay shared the bread and dried fish that Idala had packed in their satchels with the entire group which provided enough for everyone to have at least a few bites. Even Eghazi received an equal share.

  Tezhay conversed in low tones with Teo. Frank eavesdropped, hoping to gather some of the gist, but he could only ascertain that they were talking about Raacevo. Tezhay noticed Frank staring.

  “Soon our friends will go,” he said. “There is a road coming. Crossroad. Teo goes another way. But we stay on this road.”

  “They’re not going into town with us?” The news rattled Frank. He had grown accustomed to having an armed escort.

  “They can’t,” said Tezhay. “Raacevo is under Venep’o control.”

  “Then why the hell are we going there?” said Frank.

  “We be okay, just us. No weapons. We look like farmer, maybe?”

  “I’m not so sure about that,” said Frank.

  Teo, who had been pacing ahead on the road, darted into the reeds and waved frantically for the others to follow her. Her warriors scattered, some slipped into the trees, most dispersed into the marsh.

  “What’s going on?” said Frank, dawdling on the edge of the road.

  “No question, just go!” said Tezhay, pulling Eghazi into the tall grass.

  The marsh’s surface was dry and thickly crusted close to the road, but the crust thinned and broke under their weight as they approached the river. Frank sank in up to his knees in mud, deep and loose. The lighter Tezhay fared somewhat better. A roar like an endless thunder grew.

  “Cuasars,” hissed Tezhay. “Too many.” His eyes popped with concern. “Where is Eghazi?” He rose up.

  Frank could see a head bobbing above the seed heads. “He’s over there.”

  Eghazi, who had initially fled into the marsh with the others, turned and ran back to the road, his bound hands held high over his head.

  A Cuasar appeared on the roadway, pulling his mount to a halt when he spotted Eghazi, then started forward again raising a yellow flag with a black dot in one corner. Eghazi shouted to him as he climbed out of the marsh onto the road. The Cuasar rode right past him without more than a glance, causing Eghazi to turn, bewildered. The main body of Cuasars came into view. Six diverged into the marsh behind Eghazi.

  “Shit, they’re coming straight for us,” Frank said, ducking back down.

  “Dig yourself down,” said Tezhay. “They won’t find ….”

  But Frank, panicking, tried to flee to the river. Mired in mud, he kept falling and made slow progress. He crawled past one of Teo’s band who had inserted herself deep inside a clump of reeds and had pulled a screen of detritus over herself.

  Frank could see the river now. He pulled himself closer. A splashing erupted. He stopped and laid flat. Two Cuasars rode past up a graveled flat. One of them held a yellow, un-dotted flag. Frank kept still as death until they went past; hoping the grass separating him from the river had been dense enough to conceal him.

  A shout from the road transformed into a scream, increasing in pitch, until it fell silent. The reed stems only a few meters away began to writhe. They parted, revealing the rump of a horse struggling to free its hooves from the sticky mud. Its rider dismounted and threw his weight into the horse’s side to keep it from toppling, and guided it to the drier soil closer to road.

  The thunder of Cuasars peaked finally began to recede. Hundreds must have passed, thought Frank. Thinking they had left, Frank started to rise again, but caught a glimpse of one rider still lingering on the road, supporting a crossbow with one arm, keeping his other hand on a flag. The rider scanned the reeds carefully, before raising the flag, blank and yellow, which drew the other riders out of the reeds, their horses plastered with dark mud. The rode off, until their hoof beats merged with those fading into the distance, until all trace of them was lost beneath the rustle of grass, and the chirp of small birds fluttering between the seed heads.

  “Doctor Frank! You okay?” Tezhay called. “Speak, or come to road, if you can.”

  “I’m here!” Frank shouted, climbing onto a shelf of firmer mud. “I’m okay.”

  When he reached the road, Eghazi lay beside it, his body trampled and soiled with mud and blood. His binds had been slashed but so was his neck. His arms were free but his head sat at an unnaturally acute angle on his shoulders in a puddle of gore.

  Teo stood staring in the direction that the Cuasars had ridden. Members of her band began filtering out of the marsh, looking like mud people. Tezhay crouched by Eghazi. Frank came up beside him.

  “He not suffer much,” said Tezhay, repositioning Eghazi’s head, misshapen by a blow, to where it belonged. A long stretch of bloody mud marked where his body had been kicked about by the horses, their hooves blending it with the firmament of Gi. “He not so pretty anymore. Is a shame.”

  Tezhay stood up, and stared at Frank, unnerving him. His brow wrinkled. He reached a finger to touch Frank’s wrist. Frank slapped his hand away.

  “My. Heart. Is. Fine!” Frank said, through gritted teeth.

  Teo still gazed towards the uplands, erect as a meerkat, watching and listening for threats.

  “That was a lot of cavalry,” said Frank. “Does Idala stand a chance?”

  “I don’t know,” said Tezhay “You see how this road is no good for horse soldier. Idala’s people will see them come from far. But the Cuasar have so many and such good armor.”

  Teo turned to them. She said nothing. Though none of her band had suffered any casualties, her face looked stern and troubled.

  They buried Eghazi in a mound of dirt near the crossroads. Tezhay decorated the shallow grave with a knotted vine, a traditional representation of the fist of Cra, reflecting his Sinkor faith and Diomet roots.

  Teo tapped Tezhay on the shoulder. She pointed at a large hummock in that distance and prattled on. Frank made a futile attempt to gather meaning from their conversation. He studied the hummock that bulged up like a beached whale along the fringe of trees bordering the edge of the marsh but this time had no idea what she told Tezhay.

  Teo’s band seemed agitated and anxious to move. She bumped shoulders with Tezhay, nodded towards Frank and broke off into a jog, heading back the way they had come, after the Cuasars with her band.

  “Where are they going?” said Frank. “I thought they were taking us to the crossroads?”

  “Eghazi is dead, so now they go to help Idala,” said Tezhay. “I tell Teo, is too many Cuasar, and they move too fast, but Teo, she doesn’t care.”