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Xenolith, Page 80

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 68: Tussle

  Canu’s triumphant whoops pealed from a wood obscured by a blue haze of burning charcoal.

  Ara looked alarmed, but Ren’s eyes shined. “He must have found the stone!” she whispered.

  “Does he have to announce it to the world?” Seor hissed. The cadre scattered across the yard, weapons drawn. Baren held one hand up, and kept the other on his dagger, as he studied the forest fringing the shed.

  Seor slithered back, away from the woodpile, Ara and Ren beside her. The cordwood shrouded their movements.

  “I need to reach the shed before them,” Seor whispered. “Divert them. But don’t expose yourselves. Flee, then work your way back.”

  Seor rose into a crouch and threaded her way through a patch of tall, hollow-stemmed weeds. Cadre heads swiveled. Baren barked an order. Crossbows tracked Seor’s progress as she ran bole to bole.

  Behind her, an object knocked into the woodpile, dislodging a small log off the top. It rolled into the yard. Baren flicked his hand. The cadre reoriented towards the woodpile. Kera rushed to one side, training her crossbow on its flank.

  Baas kept his eyes on Seor, who, giving up all pretense of stealth, dashed to the shed, rounding the back just as Canu arrived, all giddy.

  “The convergence!” he said. “It’s in the brook.”

  “Shush, Canu!” Seor eyed the hammer stuck under his belt. “Is that your only weapon?”

  “This, too,” he said demonstrating a blade that flicked and retracted like the tongue of a lizard.

  “What’s going on out there?” said Pari, her voice creaky, as if she had just awakened from a nap. She peeked through a crack in the wall of the shed.

  “Keep away from the door,” said Seor. “Or the cadre will pick you off. Is Vul in there with you?”

  “Cadre?” said Canu.

  “I’m right here,” said Vul, coming around the corner of the shed, encumbered with an axe, a longbow, and a long-handled tree-trimmer – too many weapons to wield any effectively. “Mind Seor, Pari. If they saw me leave, they’ll be ready for you.”

  “Get her out of there,” said Seor. “Or she’ll be like a fish in a bucket when they come around.”

  A siren sounded in the valley. Quickly, another joined it, their wails entwining.

  Vul hacked with his axe while Canu pried off warped and mossy clapboards with the claw end of his hammer. They quickly made a hole large enough to tempt Pari, but she got hung up in the splinters when she tried to slip through prematurely. Vul grabbed her arms and hauled her out, snapping spikes of wood.

  “Careful! My bow!” Pari scolded.

  A bolt flitted past Vul’s head, from a sniper lurking in an overgrown hedge between the shed and the road. Vul knelt behind a tree and slotted an arrow.

  “Everyone back. Towards the stream!” Seor hissed.

  “I have a good line on this one,” said Vul. “Permission to shoot?”

  Before Seor could answer, a bolt thumped into the punky wood by her elbow.

  “Don’t ask, Vul! Just shoot!” said Seor.

  At the corner of the yard, she saw Baas slip warily into the forest. The shed door creaked open.

  Vul’s arrow sizzled through the leaves, and disappeared into the hedge, missing the unidentified sniper.

  “Damn! Only five arrows and I wasted the best.”

  A metal door slammed. Again, the old man ranted with reedy indignance. But now, his voice sounded deeper, carrying a swagger that had been absent before.

  Vul and Pari trotted after Seor towards the stream. The sirens grew louder, coming up the road behind the houses.

  Seor paused, spotting Ren, with Ara behind her, circling through the woods, working their way back not to the stream, but towards the shed. Ren paused for cover on the wrong side of tree, unaware of Baas behind her on the edge of the yard.


  Baas’ first bolt flew horribly true, catching Ren in the abdomen. She collapsed like a deer. Ara stooped to help Ren, but flinched back, barely avoiding the second bolt.

  Yet another bolt shot forth from the sniper in the hedge. Pari slid into a muddy depression and returned an arrow of her own.

  Seor relieved Vul of his tree trimmer. “You and Canu. Get to the convergence! Defend it.”

  Canu, staring grimly, walked off in the wrong direction.


  Canu strode towards Baas cautiously, flicking the finger long blade of his retractable knife.

  “Canu! No!”

  Baas diverted his attention from Ren and Ara, glancing back towards the yard as he slung his crossbow over his shoulder and drew his long dagger, his expression flat with purpose, like a weary farmer aiming to slay a chicken for his supper as if it were nothing but another chore. He closed the distance between himself and Canu with several bounds.

  He took a swipe at Canu, carving slivers from the bark of a pine tree. Canu dodged between saplings, jabbing without any threat of touching Baas. Seor circled around to Baas’ blind side, tree-trimmer extended like a saw-toothed pike. She could see Baas read Canu’s reactions to his probes, seeking the recipe for a quick kill. Stepping back, Canu tripped over a root, simplifying Baas’ task.

  He moved in to finish Canu. Seor lunged, raking his torso with the toothed blade. Baas retreated, swinging his crossbow around to a firing position. Seor lunged after him, but the teeth of the trimmer caught on the bark of a tree and slipped from her grasp. Baas’ eyes grew large as he drew his blade.

  Canu’s hammer flew past, tumbling head over handle. Baas ducked, but too late. It glanced off his crown. He dropped his dagger, crumpling to one knee, dazed. Ara came forward, a large stone in both hands.

  “Finish him,” said Seor, pouncing after the tree trimmer and scrambling to Ren’s side.

  Ara stood over Baas with the stone, as he teetered, eyes rolling. A bolt flew out from the yard, past her shoulder. Ara dropped the stone into the leaves and backed away from Baas, whose eyes had realigned and regained their clarity.

  “So now she runs with the rats!” Baas grinned. He snatched his dagger and scrambled into the trees before Pari could fix her bow on him.

  Seor stared at Ara. “Why didn’t you—”

  “I couldn’t,” said Ara, returning to Ren’s side, where Canu knelt trying to stanch her bleeding with his shirt. Ren trembled. Her eyes traveled to a place far from Ur.

  Baren and Dieno surged around the shed, glancing back towards the yard as they joined Baas on the fringe of the wood. The old man’s ranting increased in volume. The shed door creaked open.

  Snap! – cured sinew under tension, released. The old man gave a high-pitched yelp, but quickly his rage poured forth undammed.

  Ba-Dum! – he answered as a new hole appeared in the side of the shed in a cloud of splinters and paint chips and dust. Someone inside groaned and slumped against the ragged hole. A second blast peppered the hedge, too high to harm but flushing the prone sniper. The wind carried a swath of acrid smoke.

  The old man staggered around the corner of the shed, fingers trembling as he struggled to insert two red cylinders into a doubled metal pipe with a wooden stock. A crossbow bolt protruded from his clavicle. A red blotch grew down the front of his yellowed undershirt. He struggled to fold his weapon straight. Something was caught in its breach.

  Baren looking flustered, retreated. Baas, stood his ground, slotting bolts, sizing up the old man.

  “To the stone! Now,” said Seor.

  Sirens converged and crescendoed. Vapors billowed above the stream in clouds too symmetric for nature.