The Heretic – Snippet 18
There was no way to turn his head. There was only waiting.
On the horizon in front of Abel, Churchill rose fully above the horizon.
And then something came down from above and blocked the view. Blocked the moon. Blocked the stars.
From the smell of it, Abel knew immediately. One of the transport urns. An earthenware pot that had lately contained liquor, now emptied. Someone had, perhaps, been celebrating a victory and drained the wine.
True night descended forever.
* * *
Ninety-four percent probability, given known Redlander torture methodology, with a nine percent chance that arrows will be set through hands and feet in lieu of binding with weighted rocks, Center intoned. More unfortunate —
More unfortunate! How?
More unfortunate is the cascade of consequences. Your father will blame himself. There is a significant chance he will take his own life. In any case, Treville governance degrades inexorably. The Scouts will only desultorily be rebuilt, and a moment for Redlander containment will be lost. Zentrum will accommodate and incorporate the invasion, as he has before, and the chance to break Stasis will be lost for several more generations. In fact, there is a probability function trending toward one hundred percent that, should he decide against self-slaughter, your father will be killed in a manner similar to you as the victorious Redlander forces make an example of regional military leaders.
Okay, Okay, I’ll obey orders, damn it, Abel thought. I guess that’s what you’re trying to tell me.
Wrong lesson, lad. How about you merely avoid doing anything incredibly stupid that’s liable to get you killed in horrible ways, Raj replied.
He could hear the Blaskoye donts that were hitched to the wagons groan as they strained to pull the heavy-laden vehicles forward into the sandy defile.
What you need to do is get to those carts, said Raj.
So — you want me to obey orders or do what you say?
A cloud of dust from the north, and the Redlander caravan came into sight and into range. Himmel fired the first shot from his long rifle. Abel saw no effect, and counted three heartbeats before the Blaskoye vanguard began to scramble. It seemed the ball had hit something, if not someone. Then Kruso fired. A man fell into the dust as if his legs had been cut out from under him.
Himmel must have quickly set aside his rifle and rearmed with his riding gun, a carbine, its shorter barrel intended for shooting from dontback and for close work. Crack!
With that, the Redlanders charged to the east. Evidentially, whoever it was Kruso had dropped was important and they shouted with rage.
Abel glanced over his shoulder. Sharplett had led the Scouts up from the bushes on the narrow piss trails and they stood only a few strides deep in the underbrush behind Abel. They still did not have the view of the action that Abel did — which was the point, of course, for that also meant they could not be seen by the Redlanders.
Abel raised a hand.
The five Scouts behind him shifted in their saddles, and a dont pawed the ground.
Kruso and Himmel came into view through gaps in the Redlander grouping. They both charged toward the Redlanders. Himmel carried his bayonet-tipped rifle. He had probably not reloaded, but the Blaskoye had no way of knowing this. Kruso was armed with his bow and let fly arrow after arrow. Abel had never imagined the gnomish man could be so graceful. He simultaneously sprinted forward, fired, reached for an arrow, notched it, and fired again.
Several of the Redlanders returned fire with muskets as they ran, but no bullet hit either Himmel or Kruso.
Then, when the Blaskoye were within only a few paces, Himmel stopped short, took aim, and calmly dropped the Redlander’s point man.
I guess he did reload, Abel thought. It had been with amazing speed.
At the same moment, Kruso put an arrow into a man’s chest.
Abel dropped his hand.
Across the rise, the two Scout sharpshooters turned on their heels and ran as fast as they could back in the direction from which they’d come.
As if on cue, the enraged Redlanders followed.
The remainder of the Scout squad flowed over the hill crest, thundering past Abel, and charged into the rear of the Redlander soldiers full tilt with bayonets fixed.
It was not a fair fight, which was a good thing, for the Scouts were outnumbered threefold.
At a shout from Sharplett, the dontback Scouts raised their weapons and, at the same time, urged their donts into a full bipedal sprint. Each Scout aimed over his dont’s shoulder. The Scout carbines crackled to life, spewing minié slugs or buck and ball shot — in either case, death and destruction.
But there were ten more Blaskoye, plus the drovers and passengers of the wagon retinue. It was going to be a long, hard fight.
As if to underline this fact, one of the Scout’s necks exploded with blood. He clutched at it as he fell from his mount and into the dust. At least one of the Redlanders had found the presence of mind to turn and shoot.
The wounded man looked to be Dornberger, a Scout who was not that much older than Abel.
Don’t think of rushing out there to drag him off, lad. You’ll just get yourself killed.
Besides, he is already dead, Center intoned.
Time to get into the brush and mount up.
Abel went back into the thicket to find his dont, a creature he’d named Corie. His personal riding dont, Mot, was safely in a stable back at home. Mot was far too old and too much of a Valley-bred creature to be used for scout work. Corie was patiently waiting, chewing on a needleplant.
Check your carbine, lad, and have caps and cartridge limbered, said Raj. The blunderbuss dragon from your father, as well. Put it in your belt.
Joab had insisted he carry a flintlock sidearm in addition to his military issue rifle when he went on patrol and had given Abel his own old dragon, which had been in the family for generations. The dragon had seemed an encumbrance at times. It was singular among the Scouts, and it caused him stand out as different among them — something he strove not to do — but now Abel was glad of having it. He checked that the dragon was at half-cock and the flashpan frizzle had not come loose and spilled his power. It had not. Then he stowed the pistol in his belt and took up his rifle, a shorter, carbine model of more modern vintage, and ran a finger down and felt the edge of the percussive cap where it covered the fire nipple leading to the barrel. Should I cock my rifle now? he asked.