Xenolith, Page 76A. Sparrow
Chapter 64: Foraging
Seor emerged into light from the shadowy hemlocks to find a person with blue tufted hair and bright yellow pants standing behind a white tent, adjusting a red-spotted neck kerchief. She retreated behind a thick screen of low-hanging boughs.
“What’s wrong?” said Ren, bumping Seor from behind.
“There’s a … a person. Oddly dressed.”
Ara caught up with them, wielding the boxy, red bundle she had stolen from the open door of a vehicle one terraced street below. Seor and Ren had cringed behind a hedge, watching as Ara sauntered up and snatched it from a front seat while the oblivious delivery person transacted at a homeowner’s door.
Ara peered through the branches. “Oh! It’s a clown. Must be a party. A child’s birthday.”
“Clown?” said Seor.
“For entertainment,” said Ara. “They do magic tricks. Tell jokes.”
Seor parted the branches. Now, the clown spoke to a normally dressed man carrying a chair under each arm. A movement near the stream attracted her attention. A gaggle of children crouched besides the riffles only steps from the watch point. They swished nets through the water and chittered excitedly. Two young women hung back, arms folded, chatting.
“We’ll go around,” said Seor.
They backtracked downstream and cut into the thick of the wood, carving a wide circle through deadfall mazes swarming with wild grape vines and thickets of evergreens so dense their dead, lower branches overlapped. Ara struggled to maneuver the puffy red cube through the tangles.
“Whatever’s in that box must be precious,” said Ren. “All the trouble you’re taking.”
“You’ll be grateful I did,” said Ara. “This stuff is almost like skillet bread back home. Beats the marrows you wanted to pinch from that garden.”
Seor still didn’t know what to make of Ara. For a cadre officer, she seemed a little too quick to subjugate herself to her lessers in the militia. Sassy and arrogant at times, she nevertheless deferred readily to Seor’s command. Loyalty to their cause alone didn’t suffice to explain her defection.
One clue to Ara’s motivation came from how she spoke of Canu. She asked about his relationships in the squad and back home in Sesei. Her words of praise indicated a jarringly high regard for Canu, far higher than his own militia mates held. Too often, members of the squad had had to repair the consequences of Canu’s rash decisions. Perhaps Ara hadn’t encountered that side of him yet.
That Ara’s turning might involve matters of the heart helped mollify Seor. It explained the dearth of sense in Ara’s decisions. Seor could only wish her better luck than her own ill fate in that realm. These were tough times for young love, but how could such matters wait for a peace that might never come?
Seor held onto a branch so it wouldn’t flip back and strike Ren.
Ren’s face shifted. “What was that?” she said.
Seor looked about. “What? I didn’t see anything.”
“I heard a signal,” said Ara. “Cadre.”
“Ren, did you—?”
“Again!” said Ara. “Two ascending sharps and a falling trill. That’s an all clear. A maneuver order.”
That time Seor heard it clearly. It came from somewhere ahead and to their right. She stared at the red case in Ara’s hand. “Get rid of that thing. You stand out as plainly as that clown.”
Ara tucked the case under a bush and pulled a metal tag that caused an entire seam to come undone.
“What are you doing?” said Seor.
“Can’t let this pizza go to waste,” said Ara. She folded over a wedge and wolfed it down. Ren grabbed a pair, mimicking Ara’s technique. Seor, weary of self-deprivation, helped herself to a slice as well. It was not quite skittle bread, but satisfied the ache in her stomach just as well.
Ara sealed the red case and heaped it with leaves. Seor chose a route favoring stealth over directness. They meandered towards a patch of open sky in the canopy, emerging on the far side of the yard from the shed, steps from the peeling clapboards of the old man’s house. Seor stopped to scan and listen. Ara caught her eye, nodded.
“All seems clear,” whispered Ren.
They worked back around the yard’s periphery, remaining under cover of the forest’s fringe, passing beyond a stack of rotting cordwood and around the base of a plum tree whose gnarled, gall-blighted branches dangled spoiled fruit, some clad in moldy jackets of green velvet. Vapors of ferment rose from decayed plums on the ground.
A figure emerged around the front of the house, stalking along the shaggy hedges growing along the side. Seor dropped flat into the tall grass. Ara and Ren, needing no prompting, hit the ground with her.
He held a short-winged crossbow appressed to his thigh, two bolts slotted and cocked. He extended his hand, palm up. A signal. Seor strained to see through tufts of wafting, knee-high grass. Other figures appeared on the hillside across the road. Ren and Ara lay like corpses beside her.
Seor prayed no one came out of the shed. They would make easy prey for Baas. With no obstructions and a modest range, two bolts would easily procure two deaths. She saw the sheathed dagger on his hip and realized there would be little she could do to stop him. She carried no weapons. Nothing suitable for defense lay in reach; no stones, no staffs, only rotten plums.
Dieno crossed the road first, with Baren and Kera and Lev close behind. Baren chatted casually with Kera, crossbow slung loosely over shoulder. A good sign. He expected no adversaries.
A curtain flipped up behind the kitchen window. Baas snapped around to face it. He jerked a hand signal. His comrades spread out and sought cover. The curtain fell. The back door squeaked open. The old man hobbled out onto the concrete block porch, one shirt tail un-tucked, posture listing. He laid into Baas, scolding him with surprising vigor, white-stubbled jowls flapping like laundry, voice raspy as a dog’s bark.
“The poor man has no idea,” whispered Ara. “He speaks to Baas as if he’s caught a child playing in his yard.”
Baas rotated his crossbow slowly up to meet the man’s chest. The old man aborted his tirade mid-sentence. Lips trembling, he stumbled back inside. The door slammed. The latch rattled shut.
Baren rose from behind a stone wall. “I thought you said this house was abandoned.”
“So, I thought,” said Baas. “I can clear it.”
“No,” said Baren, stepping onto the wall as the others emerged around him. “We’ll find another place. Camp up the hill if we have to.”
Baren’s gaze lingered on the shed. Seor held her breath. He turned abruptly and strode back towards the road.
Shouts rang out. It was Canu, calling excitedly from the watch point, in Sesep’o.
Baren froze. Baas un-slung his crossbow.