The Heretic – Snippet 17

Abel, nevertheless, thought of daks as an inferior species to the riding donts, not nearly so noble.  But they were useful animals, nonetheless, and they could and would interbreed with riding donts to produce remarkably strong mules on occasion.

Abel scrambled down and took a narrow, barely perceptible trail into the brush to deliver the caravan’s position.  He found the Scouts gathered in a clearing not far inside the thicket.

“Hundred strides, no more.”

Sharplett took in this news, then turned to the other Scouts and gave the hand signal for them to mount up.

The donts had been waiting patiently. But these were experienced beasts, and the fact that their neck plumage was erect indicated that they were aware something was afoot.  The Scout squad mounted adroitly and trotted up to the edge of the clearing they occupied.

Dont tongues flickered out to taste the wind.  One dont pawed the ground with a fore claw. Abel knew that, at speed, these donts would rise up on their rear legs and run like a human.  And when they did, those forefeet became rending appendages that could tear a man in half.

Men unlimbered muskets from saddle holsters and unlatched the black powder cartridge boxes hanging upon their belts.  There were only so many rifles to go around, and it wasn’t only Kruso but several of the Scouts who preferred a bow to a musket or pistol in a close fight. Three of the Scouts had decided to go in with bows rather than muskets.  What the bows lacked in firepower, they made up for in rate of fire.  Reloading a musket rifle was a three stage process, and stage one required tipping the muzzle up to receive powder — not an easy task to perform while riding a charging dont.  Reloading a bow could be done in a single, one-handed motion.

Abel returned up the trail to the thicket’s edge.  Kruso and Himmel were in position across the way.

He waited nervously for the first shot.

Remember, those carts are what matters here.

Why?  Why are they so important?

Because I am not sure what is inside them, even after extended extrapolation, Center said.  I have made a good guess, but I require specific confirmation for our future plans.

So they’re pay off goods or whatever and somebody in Cascade’s a traitor?  What of it?

For one thing, the good themselves may point to who is to blame, Raj replied.

On a larger scale, Center put in, knowing which of the Redland clans is most likely to initiate the new round of Blood Winds will be essential if we are to mitigate its effect and use the results as leverage against Zentrum’s strategy of prolonged technological stasis.

I’m a Scout.  I want to fight, not be a signalman and a slink!

Really?  Let us assume you have your way.  Observe:

What do they need a signalman for?  They’ll know when to strike from the muzzle blasts.  And it seems Abel is correct, for when he neglects to give the signal, but instead charges at point, his rifle at ready, his bayonet affixed, the squad soon comes thundering after.  The donts race past him, and he’s left sprinting in their dust, but he doesn’t care.

But his appearance on the rise has been spotted.  It is a matter of a few seconds.  But those seconds are enough.

A shout goes up from the Redlander leader.  Ambush!  He calls his men to turn back from pursuing the sharpshooters and soon they are in rough formation facing west.  Not perfect.  But good enough.

Scouts and donts charge.

Instead of being taken by surprise, the Blaskoye meet them with a ragged volley.  The Scouts are close.  It is difficult to miss, although most of the shots do.  Four do not and the Scouts are literally cut to half their numbers.  And before the still mounted Scouts can meet the line — the space of breath, a gasp, but long enough, long enough — the reload is done and another volley of lead scythes into the Scouts.

This one leaves no survivors.

Except for the two sharpshooters, who are attempting to escape into a desert that their pursuers know too well.

And Abel, who rushes forward, nearly trips over a fallen, screaming dont, drops his rifle in trying to regain his balance, pulls up short to find —

Thirty Redlander faces staring at him.

The leader begins to laugh.  He rides toward Abel.

Abel fumbles, lifts his rifle up.

The hammer is down, the charge spent.

The gun had fired when he dropped it.

He begins to reload. He tries to stay calm.  He pulls out a cartridge, bite the papyrus end off.  Pours powder into the muzzle.  Like the Scouts have taught him.  Carefully.  Agonizingly carefully.  Now take out the ramrod, tamp it down, tamp it —

He jerks the musket up to cock it, take aim.

He’s left the old percussion cap in.

Flick it out.  Get another.

Abel is fumbling in his cartridge box for a cap when the Redlander leader arrives and, with the butt of a musket, strikes Abel to the ground.

* * *

Abel awakens with a pounding headache.  It is night.  Two moons have risen, while Churchill, the largest of the Land’s three moons, is on the horizon.

He moves to put a hand to rub his aching forehead.

He cannot move.

It is then he notices that he cannot even see his hand.

The moons are bright enough, he reasons.  He ought to be able.

Beside him, he does see a human head, its blank eyes staring at him.

With a start, he realizes it is Himmel.

Just a head.

Then Himmel’s eyes open.  He takes one look at Abel and the disembodied head begins to laugh.  It is a dry laugh that soon turns to coughing, then choking, then gasping for air.

“Himmel,” Abel says, “what happened?  What are you?”

Again Himmel rolls his eyes toward Abel. “And what are you, boy, what are you?”

He spits in Abel’s eyes.  Why?  How?

Abel attempts to wipe the saliva away and realization dawns.

Sand around him.  Sand above his chin, to his lower lip.

He’s buried, with only his head above ground.

He struggles.

His arms will not move.

“They’ve bound and weighted us,” Himmel coughs out.  “No use.”

And then on the other side of Abel, a plaintive wail.  Abel just has the ability to turn his head to see.  Facing in the opposite direction, looking toward a back that Abel can never turn toward again, it’s Kruso.

“Alaha Zentrum, nish thet me over!” cries Kruso.

Oh great God, not over me!

What was Kruso seeing?  What was going to happen?

“Nish thet me over.” Kruso’s voice had become a whimper now.