This story appears in Bill Fawcett’s Anthology, By Tooth And Claw, which should be available now. Therefore, this is the last snippet.

Sanctuary – Snippet 23

“Can she move at all?” Njekwa asked, turning her head toward Zuluku but not taking her eyes from the subject of her scrutiny.

To her surprise, the Mrem answered. “I can move a bit. Not far, not quick. But I can move.”

“You speak our language?”

“A bit.” An odd little twist came to her mouth. “Not far. Not quick. But I can speak a bit.”

By then, Zuluku was squatting next to the priestess. “What’s wrong?”

Njekwa issued the little whistling noise from her nostrils that served Liskash as the equivalent of a snort of derision. “What do you think is wrong? Everything is wrong. It is wrong that you sheltered this creature. It is wrong that the Old Faith is ignored. It is wrong that nobles such as Zilikazi lord it over all others. For the moment, though, what is most wrong is that Zilikazi led his army into another trap, the soldiers are angry and upset, he is trying to quell them, and naturally he is resorting to ancient ruses which always seem to work even if they require everyone to be stupid.”

Zuluku stared at her, uncomprehending.

“Zilikazi says treason must have been the cause,” Litunga explained. The old shaman’s jaws snapped twice wide with sarcasm. “Would you believe, it seems some of us are harboring Mrem spies in our midst?”

Now wide-eyed, Zuluku stared down at Nurat Merav. The notion that the badly injured Mrem female was a spy — and what would she have spied upon, anyway? — was ludicrous. But…

They were indeed harboring an Mrem in their midst.

“What do we do?” she asked Njekwa. Her voice didn’t… quite… squeak with fear.

Say what you would about the priestess, she had steady nerves. In times of crisis like this, whatever doubts about her the young females might have, they instinctively looked to Njekwa for guidance and leadership.

The priestess studied Nurat Merav for a moment. “If she can move at all, you need to take her out of the camp. Her and her younglings, all of them.”

“Take them where?” That question came from Raish, who was now squatting by the pile also, along with Selani, the third of the young Liskash females who’d been tending to Nurat Merav.

Litunga jerked her head toward the wall of the yurt facing north. “There is a grove not too far away, and a small gully that leads most of the way to it. Once night falls, you can move them through the gully and hide them in the woods.”

Raish glanced at the entrance flap, as if to reassure herself that it was still closed and no one could see inside the yurt. “Can we wait that long?”

“I think so,” said Njekwa. “The search for supposed spies is starting at the other end of the camp, among the warriors and their yurts. It will take the inspectors half the night before they come this far. They may not even try to search this side of the camp until tomorrow.”

“They might search the grove too, then,” said Zuluku.

“They will almost certainly search the grove,” said Litunga. “We were told they were searching anywhere in the army’s vicinity where spies might be hiding.”

Zuluku looked down at the Mrem. “She might — probably can — make it as far as the grove. But then…”

Njekwa gave her a sidelong look. “And so now you finally realize that recklessness has its own reward? Stupid child. The ‘but then’ is obvious. Once you get to the grove — all of you, not just the mammals — you and Raish and Selani will have to carry her away on a litter.”

The three young females looked at each other. “Carry her away, where?” asked Raish.

Again, Njekwa issued a derisive whistle. “How should I know? The camp is too dangerous. I suggest you try to find her own people, wherever they might be, and hand her back into their care.”

“But –”

Zuluku looked down at Nurat Merav. The Mrem was obviously trying to follow the discussion but having a hard time of it.

“Where your people are,” Zuluku said to her. Then, remembering the lilt at the end of a phrase that the Mrem used to indicate a question, she rephrased the intonation: “Where your people are?”

Nurat Merav’s face got scrunched up the way Zuluku had come to recognize was the Mrem way of indicating puzzlement and uncertainty. “Don’t know. Most were captured. Killed. The rest…”

The mammalian face-scrunch got more pronounced. “Don’t know your word.” She raised her hands and made little fluttering gestures with her fingers. “Like straw in wind.”

“Scattered,” provided Litunga. “You’ll likely never find any of them. Better you try to reach the Kororo. Even carrying a litter through these mountains you’ll be able to move faster than the whole army.”

For the first time, Selani spoke up. “Why would the Kororo take her in?”

“They probably wouldn’t,” replied Litunga. “But they’ll take you in. It’ll be up to you to persuade them to take the Mrem also.”

She shrugged. “Whether they would or not, I have no idea.”

“There’s a fair chance, actually,” said Njekwa. She gave Zuluku an intent gaze. “But you have to do it right. Talk a lot about Morushken — no, don’t do that; you’ll just get a tedious philosophical lecture about the unreality of deities. Just talk about your adherence and devotion to the principle of thrift.”

Yet again, her jaws snapped sarcastically. “You shouldn’t have any trouble with that, since it’s true. You idiots.”

The priestess rose. “Litunga and I will come up with a story to explain your absence — if the inspectors even ask, which I doubt. And now, you’d better get ready to leave. You only have a few hours until nightfall.”

She turned and left the yurt, Litunga following behind.

The three young Liskash females stared at each other. Then, stared at Nurat Merav. Then, went back to staring at each other.

Finally, Zuluku said: “We can make a litter easily enough. Can’t we?”

Having a practical problem at hand steadied them all. “Oh, yes,” said Raish. “We can make the poles out of –”