The Heretic – Snippet 29
They awoke the next day and washed themselves off at a common bath near the stable. A line of other men joined them, each trying not to catch the other’s eyes. The donts seemed fine, well fed, and rested. Abel never liked to leave a dont entirely in unknown hands, but it seemed Spet was none the worse for wear as a result.
Abel and Golitsin rode side by side into the bustling town morning. They stopped to buy a flatcake rolled around grilled dakmeat, and Abel followed it with a pitcher of milk, which he finished in three huge gulps. Golitsin watched in amused amazement. Abel hadn’t realized how thirsty he’d been.
“So, back to the priests or to the District Military Headquarters?” he asked. “I’d say we have about equal chances of having gas blown up our asses at both places.”
“What are we going to do?” Abel said. “What if nobody will help us?”
Golitsin shook his head. “Was ever thus in the Land,” he said, echoing a Thursday school mantra. “I don’t know. Improvise, I guess.”
“All right,” Abel said. “Let’s try the DMC headquarters first, and if that doesn’t work, we go find — is there somebody like you around here?”
“Chief of Temple Smithworks, you mean?”
“There should be. It’s part of the Mandate.”
“Let’s try the military first,” Abel said. “They have guns.”
They crossed the River on a ferry, and approached the DMC HQ, which was in a desert-facing fort about league from the River bank. But even as they approached, Abel knew something was wrong.
There were Scouts here. Too many Scouts. They ringed the encampment like some gnarly outer hull of a nut.
They’re staying in shacks, he thought. Like they’ve been here a while.
A long while, by the looks of it, Raj growled. Living in filth and debauchery. These men haven’t been on patrol in weeks, maybe months.
What Raj said was true. The ground was covered with the remains of people not giving a damn. Dak orts, broken down wagons, pieces of body armor, stray scraps of papyrus that had blown from a stinking common latrine.
And worst of all, from Abel’s perspective, a dead dont lay in the middle of the road. Not in the exact middle, true. Someone had attempted to pull it to the side just enough for a person to get past, although the very act of pulling had produced a vile trail of rotten intestines running out from the dont and lying across the entire road like a purple-pink line that must not be crossed.
Spet, in fact, shied away and would not cross it. The dont smelled his dead kin and drew back fearfully, his eyes rolling and his shoulder crest feathers erect. It was all Abel could do to calm him, and no effort to urge the dont forward succeeded.
Abel dismounted, as did Golitsin, who was having just as much trouble with his mount.
“I guess I’ll have to lead you across, boy,” Abel whispered gently into the dont’s ear opening. “Don’t worry, I’m just as disgusted as you are, but we’ve got a job to do.”
He did not get the chance. He turned to see two Scouts stumbling up to him armed with muskets. Each wore a muddy-speckled russet tunic with leg wrappings unraveling and boots covered in dust and muck. The smell of the two — part carrion wallow, part alcohol reek — reached him and Golitsin before the Scouts actually did.
“Treville man, what yer after?” one of them said. “Tha dont’s brand ye o’ercast. And priest and man ov war brungether tell it Garangipore, dinken I.”
Abel said nothing. They hadn’t addressed him by his rank or asked him a question he felt any obligation to answer.
The two drew closer, came to a stop directly in front of them, blocking their way as much as the dead dont.
“Meh tha anshur giben,” the Scout continued, “or pay hell with a shotgut bender.” The Scout raised his musket and put a hand on the trigger.
Stupid, Abel thought. One flinch, one false quiver, and you will do what your stupid mind doesn’t even know it is prepared to do, kill a man in cold blood.
But Abel did not reply. He straightened his tunic, slowly unlimbered his carbine from its saddle holster, made sure of his percussion cap, then checked for something under the saddlebag. He felt its snake-like coils. With a quick tug, he unfastened it from its tong holder, then spun and faced the Bruneberg Scouts with a furious glare.
“Ah think tha hell shalt pay woth a nine-struck back,” he said. As he spoke he allowed the thing in his hand to uncoil. It was a nine-elb-long whip. It uncoiled, but before it could reach the ground he tugged it back hard and it swung behind him. And when the tip reached its greatest possible distance behind him and the braid stretched taut, he pulled it forward in a smooth, inexorable circle.
The pop of its acceleration reached his ears just as the sight of the tip striking. The whip laid open the back of the hands of the Scout pointing the musket and its momentum carried the musket out of the man’s grasp. The weapon discharged, but its ball flew up and over himself and Golitsin to crash through the willows behind them.
With only instinct and long hours of practice behind him, Abel yanked the whip against its course and laid down a ripple that traveled down the length of the whip and issued forth at the end with a pop to the face of the other Scout. He also dropped his musket. The Scout reached up and grabbed his face, which was welted and not gashed open yet. Once he touched it, the welt broke open, however, and blood trickled out of the newly tenderized skin.
Both men stumbled back in agony, the first clutching his hand, the other his face.