Sanctuary – Snippet 14
What did bother Zilikazi — not quite concern, but close — was the method used by the Krek’s warriors. The Kororo had been able to trigger the rockfalls while staying far enough away to nullify Zilikazi’s mind power. He could detect them, but their mental auras were somehow obscured as well as dimmed by distance. Trying to impose his will upon them, at this range, was like trying to catch fish swimming in a murky stream with your bare claws. He might be able to move fast enough but he couldn’t detect their location well enough.
How were they doing that? And how were they causing the rockfalls? Presumably his soldiers would discover those secrets once they advanced further into the range. In the meantime, there was nothing to be done but heal those who could be healed and euthanize those who would never recover.
Zilikazi did not maintain a medical corps, as such. He relied on the females who still adhered to the Old Faith to serve him in that capacity, since the witless creatures insisted on maintaining their silly beliefs and rituals. They might as well be good for something. He did, however, keep a cadre of medical inspectors who would ensure that the females did not waste valuable resources tending to those injured soldiers who were doomed anyway.
The Old Faith’s notions of khaazik and duzhikaa were not absurd, in and of themselves. Any sensible and capable ruler understood the principles of thriftiness and obedience to norms. But the relative weight that the Old Faith assigned to those beliefs was impractical at best. Why keep a soldier alive who was so badly injured that he would never again be able to serve his purpose? That was simply a waste of food and healing supplies. Better to put him down quickly and efficiently — and painlessly, so far as possible, there was no need to be cruel — in order to concentrate resources on those who might someday be able to rejoin the ranks and be of use to Zilikazi.
But he spent little time musing on the matter. The medical inspectors would take care of the problem for him.
“What should we do?” asked Raish, peering through the slightly-open flap of the yurt. Her anxiety was plain in the timber of her voice. “The inspector will be here soon. If he comes in, he’s bound to discover…”
She nodded toward the far side of the yurt, where they’d hidden the Mrem and her kits under a mound of hides and thrushes. That had been enough to fool the soldiers who’d carried in their terribly injured comrade and given him over for treatment. They’d been in a hurry, since Zilikazi’s officers didn’t tolerate slackness when it came to minor tasks like tending to the wounded. But it wouldn’t be enough to fool the inspector. Adherents to the Old Faith had been known to hide severely damaged soldiers and the inspector would be on the alert for that. He’d poke through any piles that were big enough to hide a large body.
Zuluku wasn’t worried about the wounded soldier himself. He was barely alive and certainly wasn’t conscious.
What to do…?
Raish drew back from the open flap, a look of surprise on her face. A moment later, Njekwa came through into the yurt, pushing Raish aside not by physical force but by her sheer presence. When she chose to be, the priestess could be intimidating.
Njekwa cast a quick, knowing glance at the pile of hides and thrushes, and then looked down at the wounded soldier.
“Idiots,” she said, her tone calm and even. “Did you give any thought to what might happen?”
The priestess knelt and gave the soldier a quick and thorough examination.
“He has no chance,” she said. “Not once the inspector sees him. Bring over the blade and the bowl.”
Zuluku, realizing her intent, hesitated.
“Now,” Njekwa commanded.
Whatever her qualms and doubts might be, Zuluku had obeyed that voice since she was a youngling. She and Raish moved quickly to bring over the implements.
“Hold up his head,” Njekwa said. “Over the bowl. You know –”
She didn’t need to say anything further. Zuluku had done this before, on three occasions. She lifted the soldier’s head, as gently as possible, and brought it over the wide bowl that Raish held in position.
Neatly, quickly, efficiently, Njekwa severed one of the great veins in the soldier’s neck, being careful not to slice the artery. The cut was as small as possible for the purpose, not a great gash that would allow fountains of blood to spill everywhere.
It didn’t take long for the soldier’s life to drain away. Thanks to Brassu, the goddess of tranquility, he never regained consciousness.
When it was done, Raish removed the bowl and Zuluku lowered the soldier’s head back onto the hide he’d been resting on. After cleaning the blade, Njekwa assisted her in rolling the hide around the corpse.
Zuluku was about to finish the process, covering the face and tying the laces, when Njekwa said: “Wait.” The priestess’ head was turned toward the entrance flap.
Listening, Zuluku could hear footsteps approaching. A moment later, the medical inspector came into the yurt. He took two steps within, gazed down at the corpse and the three females — one of them still holding the bowl full of blood — and grunted with satisfaction. Then, without a word, turned and left the yurt.
Sighing, and trying not to quiver from tension, Zuluku said softly: “Thank you, Priestess.”
Njekwa’s responding grunt held more in the way of sarcasm, perhaps, than satisfaction. But she said nothing further and a moment later, she too had left the yurt.
“Now I understand,” said Meshwe to Sebetwe. “The Mrem dancing gives us strength — say rather, finer control — at the same time as it confuses — say rather, confounds — the gantrak.”
Sebetwe issued the throaty Liskash version of a chuckle. “I’m still groping for the right words. I think we may have to invent some. But, yes, that’s about my sense of what happens also.”
Both of them studied the gantraks. They had to look up to do so. It had taken the better part of the afternoon, but the family of predators had now settled down, more or less. Working hard under Meshwe’s commands, members of the Krek had erected a fair imitation of a gantrak nest atop a small hillock on the edge of the town.
Then, they studied the Mrem. The mammals had been given three yurts not far from the hillock. They were supply yurts, not personal dwellings. But they were clean and had been emptied of their former contents.
Most of the Mrem were inside the yurts, no longer visible. But their leader, the young female called Achia Pazik, was squatting outside one of the yurts and returning their scrutiny.
Calmly. And there was obvious calculation in that gaze.
Good signs, both.
“We will need to find more Mrem dancers,” Sebetwe said.
Meshwe made no reply. The conclusion was also obvious.
The scouts had come back with their reports. Zilikazi was coming. The traps would damage his army, but not enough.