Xenolith, Page 73A. Sparrow
Chapter 61: Kovalev’s Abode
The soldiers rolled Frank over the thorns topping the slatted fence. Barbs raked his face. His trousers snagged. Threads pulled and ripped. He plunged, crashing shoulder-first into a dense pile of manure, breath knocked away. Rolling down the heap, he settled beside a pair of knobby hooves and ten, tiny, smudgy toes. Frank’s balled-up veil came flying over, opening up like a parachute, spinning down, ties extended. Guffaws trailed off across the fence.
A horse with a scarred, fly-bitten muzzle ducked down to nibble at a shriveled flower in the dirt, unfazed by his presence, as it were accustomed to bodies tumbling over the fence. Beside it, a stunned toddler, her sparse hair tied up in a single vertical tuft, dropped the fistful of wilted blossoms she had been clutching. A woman rushed out of a mud brick house, tossed down an armload of rolled-up mats and scooped up the child.
Frank braced himself for blows, but the woman helped him to his feet. She led him over to the house and sat him on a stump, brushing him clean with a whisk, plucking thorns from his face, daubing at the blood with a clean cloth. The little girl, chin dangling, stood close and studied him, reaching for his red beard.
Frank’s heart beat off-kilter again. The palpitations were violent enough and his breath felt short, but his mind and senses were no more foggy than usual. He felt none of the sense of impending doom that had accompanied previous incidents. Had his fibrillations always been this symptomless?
Tezhay and Harm came clambering over the fence, heads swiveling like burglars, and landed on their feet, undamaged by thorns. Harm laughed and pointed when he saw the lady of the house reaching around to replace Frank’s veil. Tezhay approached, thanking or apologizing to the woman or both, profusely. She accepted his words without a smile. Anxious for them to move on, she ushered them through a squeeze way leading out to the street.
“Those soldiers,” said Frank. “Why’d they let me go?”
“What, they should cut off your head for steal fruit?” said Tezhay. “If that was so, no one in Raacevo would have a head.”
“You mean … that whole shebang was about … apples?”
“Orchard belong to garrison,” said Tezhay.
They walked briskly down a lane packed densely with brick dwellings; their yards barren save for the rare patch of scrub spared from goats by the limits of their tethers. Tezhay stopped just before the juncture with the main road. He edged out cautiously, looking back towards the roadblock they had circumvented.
Behind the barrier of tree trunks and heaped rubble, a diverse array of loaded carts lined the road two abreast. Another, stacked with wooden crates was being added to the collection as they watched. Soldiers seemed to be confiscating any load that struck their fancy. As one wagon owner pleaded, a Crasac came up from behind and struck the back of his knees with his lance, spitting on him as he crumpled down. A boy struggled to reverse a small herd of sheep bound for home and determined to pass the roadblock. He might as well have been trying to get the river to run uphill.
“Is clear. Fast. This way,” said Tezhay, stepping out and turning right towards the thick of the city. The random skitter of Frank’s heart messed with the meter of his steps, but at least he could walk.
Raacevo occupied a broad shelf, spilling down to the river and splashing up into the denuded hills on the city’s verges. The uplands in the distance displayed tier after tier of nearly unbroken forest.
One hill close to town was studded with pale structures that seemed to glow even under the thick overcast. A bone-white dome dominated the summit. A dark pillar pierced its center, dwarfing the trees that grew beside it.
“My God, what is that place?” said Frank.
“The Alar stays there,” said Tezhay, glancing quickly, eyes preoccupied. “Is like temple.”
“He is like priest, or Eldest Brother, but governor, also.”
“Governor and priest?”
“Is Venep’o way. They mix it.”
A wind blew up as they plodded up the road behind donkeys hauling water. Raindrops spattered the road and raised the spices of a long-deferred rain: petrichor and geosmin; pepper and copper.
Harm gave a shout and laughed when he spotted two women and a girl standing beside a stopped donkey cart staring forlornly at the chaos at the checkpoint. He ran towards them, as recognition and surprise registered on the women’s faces.
“Ah, must be Harm sister and mother and mother,” said Tezhay.
“Two mothers,” said Frank.
“Yes, because in Gi—”
“Yeah, I know. You told me.”
A lanky man stepped out into the road near a makeshift, roadside tea house and watched Harm approach. Another man scrambled to fetch a pike leaning against a wall, and yelled down a passage leading behind the shack, summoning another who came running with pants partly undone, blue swatch on jacket flapping.
“Polu!” said Tezhay.
Harm, oblivious, his attention focused on his family, heard the warning too late. The man seized him before he could make it to his mothers’ cart.
Tezhay grabbed Frank and pulled him through a gap in a fence. The man who had taken Harm dragged him towards the tea house where the Polu and the pike-wielder waited. Harm resisted, dragging his knees in the dirt, twisting. He squirted free, and ran to his mothers before his abductor could regain his balance. The women already had daggers out and were shouting epithets at the Polus. Passersby joined in, stopping beside the women’s cart, adding to the verbal barrage. The sister pulled Harm behind the cart and tucked him under one arm, dagger ready in the other.
Rain fell softly, evaporating nearly as fast as it fell. More people gathered, some lining up behind the Polu, others joining in the defense of Harm. The Polus advanced on the women’s cart, but the building crowd intimidated them and they halted halfway across. They kept looking toward to checkpoint as if hoping for the Crasacs to send some support.
Harm looked around for Frank and Tezhay until he spotted them behind the fence. Tezhay shook his head, frantically. Harm broke eye contact and snapped his attention back to the Polus. But one of the Polus noticed Harm staring and turned to see where he had been looking. Tezhay hauled Frank down below the fence top.
“This way,” said Tezhay, ducking into an open doorway, nodding and muttering apologies to a man with a grizzled beard protruding from beneath his veil. Their trespass hardly fazed the man, who crouched, repairing a slatted partition with wood lathing softened in a bucket of water. They passed out his back door, following a path through a garden that led to another row of brick dwellings lining a parallel avenue of rutted dirt.
This roadway lay eerily empty. People cowered behind walls and sheds, watching. A few dared to cross in mad headlong dashes, as if the road were paved in blazing cinders. An syncopated stomping arose and grew until a troop of soldiers, marching out of time, turned the corner. They came two by two, each packing a thin bedroll, crossbow and sword. They wore open-faced helms with flanges extending below their jaws. Leather-clad breastplates protected their torsos. Three groups of about thirty passed, in all.
“This not the Raacevo, I remember,” said Tezhay. “Some Crasac here when I first come, but not so many like this. Everywhere.”
They hunkered behind a trellis of sickly, yellow vines, until the soldiers’ footfalls faded and people began to venture back onto the street. A short figure came running past them down the path.
“Harm!” said Frank, rising up.
“Shut up!” said Tezhay, staring in the direction Harm had come.
The boy skidded in the dirt, and turned to face them, raising his beaming, breathless face. He reported to Tezhay, excitedly.
“He says Polu no see him go,” said Tezhay. “Too many people.”
“Hope he’s right,” Frank said, as they emerged from the vines. His eyes clung to the path as they rejoined Harm on the road.
They walked opposite the direction the soldiers had gone, past ho
vels and stacks of mud brick. Many dwellings were under repair after some calamitous event had buckled their walls and collapsed their roofs. Fire-blackened thatch sat in heaps along the street. Goats kicked at the char to expose the unburned straw.
Harm turned onto a cobbled lane that led down towards the bluffs overlooking the river. The squat houses lining it seemed older and sturdier than those they had seen thus far. Not much larger than the ubiquitous, mud-brick dwellings lining other streets, their walls were made of quarried stone, and had wide compounds separating each dwelling from the next. The many stumps suggested how shady and green the area had been before the occupiers hacked all the trees away. The rain continued to lap langorously. Drops beaded and spread across the cobbles.
Harm stopped before a damaged gate, opening into a stockade fence of halved timbers. A limp flower hung from a crevice, wicking raindrops down its creamy petals. An iron latch lay on the ground among hunks of splintered wood.
A teenage girl emerged from the house across the street and stood in the rain, watching them, her posture stiff, her face as blank as the stone walls behind her.
Harm looked to Tezhay, waiting for his nod, before pushing the gate open. Two attached structures lay beyond: a squat, stone house like the ones they had passed, and a peaked wooden cottage, its trim carved with ornate scallops and points – a ginger breaded, fairytale dacha. The unfinished wood had attained a silvery patina, accented by patches of lichen and streaks of algae. Grey-blue flagstone led to the covered porch where the two structures merged.
“Kovalev house,” said Tezhay.
Tezhay stepped past Harm onto the flagstone. He called out a greeting.
It occurred to Frank that Tezhay planned to dump him here. His feelings jumbled. On the plus side, this property seemed much more comfortable than any he had yet seen in Gi. And being among a community of fellow travelers might be nice for a change.
But the idea of being stuck here forever once Tezhay moved on filled him with dread. Death was beginning to look like the shinier option. His palpitations began to suggest to him a different kind of hope.
Tezhay certainly seemed excited when he first made his way up the walk, but his face tightened up with concern when no one responded to his repeated calls.
“Nobody home? No servant? No family? No dog? Nobody?”
Not even a chicken twitched in the compound, though their feathers littered the ground before a coop. A lone, upended shoe sat in the middle of the walk, knobbed soles nearly worn through. Several partly severed branches dangled from a shrub, leaves wilted but green.
They stepped onto the porch to find a massive wooden door slightly ajar. A crude, metal mezuzah case was nailed at an angle to the left door post. Pungent but pleasant food odors wafted out.
Tezhay ducked his head inside. “Kovalev!” he shouted. They waited. Harm shifted his weight nervously and looked all about. Movement near the gate made Frank start. It was the girl from across the street. She hovered cautiously, hands clenched, watching.
A meowing cat came prancing up from inside and slinked around the door, holding its head high and haughty as it rubbed against Frank’s shins. Tezhay flung the door open and stepped inside a blank room, devoid of any decoration or furniture. Empty, floor-to-ceiling shelves of rough-hewn planks dominated one wall. Dust lines traced the angular outline of whatever once resided there. Books? A shelf full of readable books would have made existence in such a place more bearable. But these shelves held nothing, not even a scrap.
Frank walked over to a clay hearth and held his hand over the ashes. They were cold. A cauldron rested on an iron rack supported by stones. A pleasantly piquant aroma emanated from the blackish-purple and green sludge lining its bottom, bearing no hint of decay. Withered beet greens and trimmings were heaped on a pale stone slab beside the hearth. This was borscht, with all its liquid boiled away.
“I see no blood,” said Tezhay. “This is good sign, yes?”
“So what now?” said Frank.
“I don’t know,” said Tezhay. His vacant eyes wandered like whirligigs. He swiped his finger at the dust on Kovalev’s empty book shelf. “I said we find you some exile. So … we find you some exile.”
A figure appeared in the doorway. Tezhay’s hand went to his dagger. It was the girl from across the road.
She hovered, hesitant, half in, half out. Tezhay stalked up to her as if trying to pet a shy dog. He spoke to her softly. She responded in a voice unusually gruff for her age and gender.
“He’s gone,” Tezhay interpreted. “Venep’o take him.”
“Took him where?” said Frank.
The girl continued to speak over them.
“She say we have to go,” said Tezhay, striding back to the door. “Here is not safe. The Venep’o have people watching this place. They will come.”
“Peregrin,” said the girl, looking at Frank.