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Xenolith, Page 79

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 67: AK-47

  A third wave of Cuasars topped the bank and thundered towards them in a loose formation. Lances sheathed, they wielded sabers curved at hilt and tip, whose gleam cut through the mists.

  Tezhay stood upright and in the open, waving like a spectator at a military parade. What prompted such insanity, Frank didn’t speculate. He winced and turned away, certain that Tezhay would soon be minus one head, and that his own would roll shortly thereafter.

  Frank expected to die soon enough, but not this soon, and not so violently. He huddled against the ribs of the dying horse, feeling just as helpless and hopeless. The horse’s legs twitched feebly; its blood filled a furrow beneath the bronze-headed arrow protruding from its throat. Its rider lay spread-eagled across the dark soil, un-pierced but trampled, with one too many joints in his leg and a dent in his helmet-less head.

  Impelled to peek, Frank glanced up in time to witness Tezhay perform a feat of gymnastics that would have snapped Frank’s spine had he attempted it: diving and rolling to his feet in one smooth action, evading blade and hoof, bounding to his feet and sprinting towards the river.

  But the Cuasar did not abandon his quarry so easily. He pulled back the reins, let his mount regain its balance, and went stalking back after Tezhay, his blade loose and limber like an extension of his arm. He would not be satisfied till Tezhay’s body lay still.

  Frantic with the prospect of sharing Eghazi’s nearly headless fate, Frank sought some means of defense. A splintered lance lay trapped beneath the legs of the dying horse. A sheathed saber dangled from the belt of the dead Cuasar. But neither either inspired as much hope against the Cuasar’s terrible grace as the large crossbow stowed behind the saddle, fastened with a pair of quick-release hitches.

  Frank tugged at the ends of each rope and the weapon dropped free. A thick bolt, the length of a man’s arm, was already slotted but un-cocked. Frank struggled to understand its mechanism which, despite its apparent simplicity, evaded his panic-addled brain.

  The Cuasar had cut off Tezhay’s flight to the river and forced him back towards Frank. Tezhay backpedaled, hopping and dodging, probing for a way around his attacker. The riverbed lay only about fifty meters beyond.

  The rider swooped in, swinging his blade down with power enough to cleave Tezhay in half. Tezhay leaped aside as the saber nicked his satchel, spilling kernels of puffed grain onto the dark mud. The Cuasar pulled up again to turn, but spotted Frank fiddling with the crossbow. He spurred his horse on, coming after Frank like a hunter settling for easier prey after failing to bag a nimble hare.

  He held onto the crossbow, too petrified to toss it and run. His fingers slid along the smooth wood and settled into a hollow against the bulge of a contoured lever, the design guiding his hand to a place that felt as natural and inevitable as two kittens snuggling. He grabbed the lever and pulled. A ratchet crackled. The string tensed.

  As the lever clicked into place, his hand brushed two arcs of bronze aching for two fingers to slide into them – the trigger. The Cuasar bore down, taking a line slightly to Frank’s right to avoid the fallen horse but allow free play for his sword hand. Only a few gallops away, Frank lifted the crossbow. With no time to aim, he just pointed and pulled.

  The trigger resisted Frank. He exerted more pressure, but it wouldn’t budge. He wondered if it had a safety lock. The Cuasar’s saber neared the apogee of its windup.

  Frank had a clear look at the Cuasar’s face: smooth and young, retaining a touch of baby fat. His expression was like a football player intent on making a tackle. He probably looked forward to sharing this war story over a meal back at the garrison. Frank saw in him a boy with a larger claim on life, a future more potent with possibilities.

  Concurrent with the urge to dash the weapon down and cringe, the trigger dissolved. A bolt ejected, catching the boy beneath the place where his breast plate curved to accommodate his hips. His saber released, flying up into the mists, end over end. The boy slipped out of his saddle, dangling like a sack of potatoes as his listing horse bounded past.

  Frank dropped the crossbow and ran for the spot where Tezhay’s form had just disappeared through the fringe of willows topping the riverbank. He whirled around, fearing pursuit, and witnessed a rout in progress. The thin Nalki line had tattered. The survivors fled but were cut down one by one, as yet another force, on foot and swaddled in blue, swarmed down the Alar’s hill.

  Frank popped through the willows and slid down the riverbank, splashing into water deeper and swifter than the northern tributary. Tezhay, standing amidst a jumble of boulders, looked stunned.

  “You live. How?” said Tezhay.

  Frank gasped, stepping out of the stream. “Guess it’s not my time.”

  “You face red,” said Tezhay, studying him. “Your heart is good?”

  “Works better when it’s beating this fast, I suppose.”

  “So we must keep it beat fast,” said Tezhay.

  “But not by playing matador with cavalry, if you don’t mind,” said Frank.

  “No worry. Excite may be good for your heart, not mine,” said Tezhay. “From now on, we walk in forest. No more in field.”

  Abandoned clothing and bedding littered the boulders. Spread on the rocks to dry, the owners had never come back to retrieve them. Shirts blown off the rocks lay rumpled, spattered with silt, sleeves wafting in the current.

  Tezhay clambered over the boulders, and into a patch of tree ferns. As Frank’s pulse wound down, the riverbed began to spin. He vomited bits of grain. Voices from the beet fields sent him scrambling after Tezhay.

  Tezhay lingered at the edge of the eastern road, staring towards the stone bridge and the trees that blocked it, both alarmingly close.

  “Where to now?” said Frank.

  “Away from road,” said Tezhay. “Road is danger.” He flitted across and plunged into the forest, Frank close on his heels.

  They meandered through a chaos of undergrowth. Tree ferns transitioned to a mix of hardwood and evergreen. Happening upon a footpath, Tezhay seemed reluctant to take it, but Frank was grateful he did. With his sluggishness returning, every step again required concerted effort.

  The path angled east, away from the road, through oozing, dripping, dribbling forest. Mist congealed on branches and dropped like bombs, splatting on their heads. The oil cloth that Sibara had given him now kept only two fingers of real estate dry on each shoulder.

  At the base of a steep and stony ridge, the path deflected, keeping to the valley floor. Every ledge and cliff hosted a waterfall. Pebbles tumbled and clattered down surging chutes and rivulets. This runoff surpassed anything a persistent drizzle could have caused. Somewhere in the heights, a more potent storm prowled.

  The dense overstory blotted light and robbed the forest floor of color; as if the forest were kelp and they walked along a sea bed, fifty fathoms down. Frank’s feet felt as leaden as the shoes of a salvage diver; his lungs tight as if squeezed by a dozen atmospheres.

  Frank fell behind, until he was alone on the footpath, rounding bends to find only empty path ahead. Ferns with soft fronds lined both sides and beckoned like feather beds. If he lay down, something told him he might never get up. But so what? What would he miss? Lizbet? Did he really believe this person, if they existed, could be his wife? She might be no more Elizabeth Barrett Bowen than Tezhay was Terrence Joseph Connolly – his high school buddy.

  He had pursued false Elizabeth’s before, like the never verified rumors of Liz dancing in night clubs in Santa Elena, or worse, the body the constables of San Ignacio had solemnly summoned him to identify, despite mismatching Liz in nearly every aspect – race, stature, physiognomy, age – everything except gender.

  And if this Lizbet of Sinta was indeed his Liz, what if she was a war victim, as Sibara had warned? What comfort or fulfillment would there be in finding her body? What would be the point of traversing years and worlds and continents to find Liz a week too late for it to matter?
br />   A patch of fuzzy, springy moss looked even more welcoming than the ferns. He could lie down, close his eyes, and let the mist kiss him goodnight. He turned a corner to find Tezhay stopped at a juncture with another trail.

  “Some feet prints,” Tezhay said. “Crasac come through here this morning. You hear or see anybody, you hide. Understand? No wait for me to tell.”

  “Why bother?” mumbled Frank.

  Tezhay squinted at him. “What’s wrong with you eyes?”

  They walked side-by-side, Tezhay moving slower, more warily; listening, watching the forest, watching Frank. Frank’s eyelids drooped. A thickness overcame him, as if his blood had turned to jelly.

  “I’m gonna rest,” Frank said, pulling up.

  “No! No stop. We must keep move.”

  “I gotta lie down, just for a little bit.” Frank steered himself towards a patch of ferns that looked particularly cushy, if soggy. As his knees gave way, Tezhay grabbed his wrist and slapped his face. Frank reared up and shoved Tezhay away.

  “Don’t you be fucking hitting me!” His heart accelerated. Alertness surged back like a hit of espresso.

  “Is danger here,” said Tezhay. “You need awake. You sleep here, maybe you not wake up.” He wound up to slap Frank again, but this time Frank ducked away.

  “Okay, I get the point. I’m wakey wakey now.”

  “I hit you again, if I see you sleepy. Understand?” Tezhay’s eyes were wide and earnest.

  “Yeah, well don’t be surprised if I hit back,” Frank muttered.

  “Good.” Tezhay smiled. “Be mad. If it keep you wake.”

  The trail took them to a place too dark even for moss, so dark, it seemed like night had fallen. Giant trees dwarfed the leafless and skeletal remains of out-competed neighbors, lichens and loose bark hanging from the limbs of the losers like sheets of rotted skin.

  Another path joined in from the left, following along a brook surging with runoff from the ridge. Over it, the canopy thinned enough to return some green to the understory.

  “We should be close for Sinta,” said Tezhay. “Soon we find some people.”

  A pale thing, like an odd, bloated orchid, protruded from the ferns fringing a gully cutting into the stream bank.

  It had toes.

  Frank halted in the path. “Tezhay, there’s—”

  “Crasacs,” said Tezhay, trotting up to the ditch. Pieces of burgundy and blue-striped armors were strewn about. Downstream, more bodies tumbled together, ten at least, all freshly killed, stripped of weapons.

  Tezhay stuck his hand under the first one’s breast plate. “This one … still warm.” The soldier had a small round hole in his breastplate, and a jagged crater in his back.

  “Gunshot wound,” said Frank. “What the fuck?”

  Tezhay crossed over a simple, two-log bridge over the rushing gully.

  “You sure you want to go this way?” said Frank.

  Tezhay looked at him as if he was crazy. “Anyone who kills Crasac is our friend.”

  Frank held his breath and shambled over the slick logs, certain he would plunge into the drink. He slipped a bit, but made it to the soft earth beyond. Sheer cliffs reared up to their right, stepping up in a series of horizontal fractures and terraces. Another path split off to the right, climbing through a rubble patch, slanting up a fracture in the cliff face. Unseen behind a dimple in the cliff wall, a waterfall roared, and a larger creek collected and vanished into a gorge.

  Tugga tugga tug!

  A burst of gunfire sent bark and splinters spraying from the tree limbs above their heads.

  Frank dove into the ferns. “I know that sound. That’s a fucking AK!”

  A bell clanged atop the cliffs.

  Tezhay stepped forward, arms raised. “Hello! We are friend. Friend!”

  “Don’t move!” came a strained and cracking voice.

  Tezhay kept going forward.

  “That was English,” said Frank, popping up. “He spoke English.”

  “Damn it! I said, don’t move!”

  Tugga Tug!