The Heretic – Snippet 15
It looked like danger had done just that.
“How many do you make out, Kruso?” called out a nasal, brassy voice. It was a voice made to cut through a harsh desert wind, and it belong to Sharplett, the captain of the Scout squad.
“Ten,” Kruso replied. “Ten of many.”
From the vantage of the overhang where he and Kruso shared lookout, Abel could clearly see that they were more than ten. Then he remembered that Kruso could not count any higher.
“I make out twenty. . .twenty-three on foot,” called Abel. “At least. . .fifteen armed with muskets.”
Correct, based on tactile input and spectral analysis of your visual stimuli for metallic content, Center announced.
Isn’t that the same thing as what I just did on my own?
As in mathematics, it is often useful to check one’s work.
“Three wagons, three drivers, Captain,” said Kruso, perhaps in an effort to redeem his counting skills. “Too, a passel of Blaskoye does. Wear they thom ugly robes what hiden thar milkers, curse tham to darkness.”
“How many women?”
“Five. . .no, six,” Kruso replied, looking down at his fingers, where he’d been enumerating his sightings, to be sure his tallies matched. The only problem with that method was that his left hand was missing a pinkie.
The Blaskoye clan were generally excellent at evasion both of Scouts and of one another and did not repeatedly follow the same travel routes through the Redlands. In addition, they almost never returned on a route on which they’d left. Redland pathways often frayed into dozens of possible paths, especially when there were no features in the landscape such as rocky outcrops or higher mountains to avoid. Nevertheless, this time a caravan had come back precisely down the path upon which, two weeks before, it had traveled north. A single lookout had spotted them at a great distance, and soon the flags wigwaged across Scout held territory from signal hill to signal hill — all the way back to the High Cliffs, the Scout base on the upper Escarpment. Abel had been there and had been part of the general scramble for muskets, bows, and donts as Fleischer, the signalman among the Scouts, translated the incoming message from the next hill over. Sharplett had instantly ordered the troop to ride.
I really can’t be blamed for going along with them. If I’d stayed, I would have been alone at the High Cliffs, and that could have been dangerous too.
Except, of course, the squad cook and those two Scouts getting over their heat blisters stayed. They should be able to mount a drawn-out defense if they’re attacked, said Raj. And that base is at a hell of an excellent locus point, too. Three men could stand off a hundred for who knows how long, if the three were brave, fed and watered.
And given the stores, the interior spring, and the possibility of slaughtering stable donts, eating them or drinking their blood if need be, that would not be a problem, Center added.
Whatever, Abel thought. I’m here now. I can apologize to my father later.
Kruso strode up and slapped Abel on the shoulder. He said in a low voice: “View you tom waginen. Dre, t’is peer. You so tally?”
Abel took a close look through the formed by two boulders next to one another. “I see two high wheeled carts. . . no, you’re right, three,” he replied. Abel knew that Kruso understood Landish well enough, and Abel still wasn’t as comfortable speaking the Scout patois as he was understanding it when spoken to.
“Wagonen be goodsheavy, thay are hitched wid wubblebund donts ableatinz,” Kruso said.
The carts must indeed be loaded down with goods, for the donts teamed to pull it were straining and groaning. Their cries could be heard even at this distance.
“They’re coming from upper Treville, down the Pricklebush Route. Think they’re getting back from a raid?”
“Never,” said Kruso. “Our wigwag be quiet as fuckabone.”
There had been no semaphore traffic from the north, no indication that a raid on the Land had taken place in upper Treville or the Cascade District. So it was possible these Redlanders had utterly wiped out a Land village, leaving not even a survivor to report or they’d acquired the goods by trade or raid on another Redlander clan.
There’s another possibility lad, Raj growled in his low voice.
It’s a payoff from Cascade.
From people in the Land? But the Blaskoye are blood-thirsty killers. Why would someone do such a thing?
“I’d say they’re quite as bloodthirsty as their reputation makes them out to be, Raj said. But where they decide to drink that blood is another matter, isn’t it? Maybe the goods are an effort to persuade the Blaskoye to take their muskets and bows elsewhere. Somewhere like Treville District, where the protection geld doesn’t flow like honey.
As if to confirm Raj’s suspicion, Kruso nodded and muttered, “Dortgeld,” the Scoutish word for ill gotten gains.
Because they were the two best pairs of eyes in the squad, Kruso and Abel had been put on lookout. They entire squad were on a rise in the desert. It was a rocky area, bare of Redlands vegetation. They’d left their dont mounts in the brush below. Near the highest point on the rise was an uptilted stone of darker basalt that Kruso and Abel had scrambled up to get the best view. It was from here they called down their report.
The trade route cut through the center of the rise north and south. The forbidding brush of the desert surrounded the rise in a thorny, dense thicket, whereas the bare hilltop with the path running along it provided a quarter league of prickle-free travel.
When they’d first arrived at the place, Sharplett, the squad captain, had remarked in Landish that it was “not the best place I’ve ever seen for an ambush, but it’ll do.” Sharplett, unlike Kruso, came from a better-off family from the lower Delta and, although he understood Scoutish well enough, spoke Landish with only a trace of downriver accent. But, educated and skillful he may be, he was still a Delta man. He was considered a lesser breed by the military Regulars, who were almost entirely upriver men — and, Abel had to admit, it was hard not to think of the squad commander as a bit of a marshland barbarian.
Abel and Kruso climbed down from the lookout. Sharplett had already sent the main body of six Scouts down the western side of the rise and into the brush. There the hardy, desert-bred donts were grazing on the thorny vegetation.