Sanctuary – Snippet 02
The work was done, all their belongings back in their packs. Sebetwe straightened and gazed up the mountain. They still had a long way to go before they reached their destination. The trek up the slope would be arduous. The thin and cold air of the mountainside would sap their energy, making them more sluggish as the day passed.
That was how Knest had died, in late afternoon of the previous day. His brain had become dulled; so dulled that he had not noticed the filaments of the grek wadda lying in wait against the rocks until the monster struck.
They would have to be careful — and ever more so as they neared their goal. The gantrak of the mountains guarded their nests fiercely.
Lavi Tur slid down the slope to come to rest beside Achia Pazik. Despite the peril of the moment, the dancer was amused by the young male’s graceful flamboyance. Because of his age, Lavi Tur was not formally a warrior yet — a fact that aggravated him no end because he felt, probably rightly, that he was as strong and agile as almost any warrior in the clan.
“Probably” rightly? Achia Pazik asked herself silently. The question was a bitter one. After the disastrous outcome of the battle three days ago with Zilikazi’s army, Lavi Tur was almost certainly as strong and agile as any warrior in the tribe. She didn’t think there many left who weren’t dead or captured or so badly wounded that they were unavailable for any more fighting. For a time, anyway. And the casualties among the dancers had been worse than those suffered by the warriors.
Zilikazi had targeted the dancers from the very beginning of the battle, sending massed units of mounted warriors at them. The mind power of the Liskash noble who lorded it over the lands bordering on the great southern mountains had been incredible. No scaled noble they’d encountered before had been nearly as domineering.
The dancers had been stunned, the warriors even more so. The battle had been over within two hours. Only small groups of the tribespeople had escaped; the rest, killed or enslaved. Most of those who had escaped, Achia Pazik thought, had fled back in the direction from which they’d come, to the northeast. But she and the handful with her wound up, in the chaos and confusion, being separated from all others and making their escape to the south. They’d apparently moved completely around the huge Liskash army, although they’d had no conscious intention of doing so.
But it was too late now to do anything more than continue south. Trying to retrace their steps would surely be disastrous. Achia Pazik wanted no further contact with Zilikazi until and unless she could figure out some way to counteract his incredible mental force. And how was she supposed to do that, with no more aid than could be provided by one other dancer, five warriors, one not-quite-a-warrior, four other females — one of them elderly, albeit hale and vigorous — and three kits?
Their only chance was to make it into the mountains. Hopefully, the dropping temperatures would deter Zilikazi’s soldiers from pursuing them. Liskash didn’t like cold; it made them sluggish.
“Chefer Kolkin says the way is clear as far ahead as he can see.” Lavi Tur spoke in a hissing whisper, which Achia Pazik thought was a bit dramatic given the very content of what he had to say. If the way was clear, why worry about being overheard?
But she didn’t chide or tease him. Like most younglings, Lavi Tur was sensitive to criticism.
“All right,” she said. “Pass the word to the others. We’ve rested long enough. We have to get higher before nightfall.”
After Lavi Tur left, Achia Pazik looked up the slope. She was in a slight depression and couldn’t see the peak of the mountains whose side they’d been climbing. But she knew they still had a long way to go.
A screech somewhere in the distance caused her to tense. That had been made by some sort of animal, not a Liskash scout. A big animal, from the sound.
What animal? She had no idea. To the best of her knowledge, no Mrem had ever gone into the great southern mountains. There had been no reason to. Mrem were more resistant to cold than the reptiles, but they still didn’t like it — and with the plains available, why go into the mountains?
But the plains weren’t available now. There might never be again. Not those plains dominated by Zilikazi, at least, and they were the only ones within reach.
So, up they would go, no matter what dangerous animals might live up there. Achia Pazik didn’t see where they had any choice.
“Kill the injured,” Zilikazi said. “Any who can’t move without assistance.”
He gave one final glance at the huddled mass of Mrem captives, and then decided he’d better qualify that. His underlings were prone to interpreting his orders excessively. He could hardly complain about that tendency, given that he’d fostered and encouraged it himself. But he saw no reason to waste captives unnecessarily.
“By ‘assistance’ I mean any who need to be carried on a litter. If they can walk with the support of one or two other Mrem, we’ll keep them alive. For now, at any rate.”
He didn’t bother to wait for his lieutenants’ gestures of assent before turning away and moving back toward his pavilion. That abruptness was another trait he’d fostered over the years. For him to wait to accept an underling’s sign of obedience would suggest there was a possibility the underling might not obey Zilikazi, which was unthinkable.
Zilikazi’s dominance resulted mostly from his immense power. But he’d buttressed that innate ability with shrewd methods of rule as well.