Sanctuary – Snippet 20
“Are we finished with the mountains?” Nurat Merav asked weakly. The past few days had been very hard on her. Despite the best efforts of the young Liskash females who’d been sheltering her and her kits, the rigors of travel through rough terrain had almost killed her. So it felt, anyway.
Twice, they’d had to dismantle the yurt completely, since the trail was too steep for the big draft animals that normally carried it perched on a great litter. Too narrow, rather — the beasts were immensely strong and surefooted, but they had to be able to march two abreast to carry the litter. During those periods, Zuluku and the other females had concealed Nurat Merav within a great rolled bundle carried by one of the animals.
They’d been warm, at least. But the constant jolting had been stressful, and the lack of food even worse. It seemed that during times like this, Liskash simply went without eating for two days or even more. They’d made up for it when they reached the plateau by preparing a great feast.
While that sort of regimen might have suited the reptiles well enough, it was not good for Mrem, even healthy ones. For someone trying to recover from injuries like Nurat Merav’s, it was far worse.
She hadn’t complained, though. She knew the reason the female Liskash hadn’t fed her during those periods was because they couldn’t. At Zilikazi’s order, all foodstuffs and cooking equipment and implements had been stored away. They’d most likely have been spotted if they’d tried to feed Nurat Merav and her kits.
Thankfully, her kits were not much given to squalling. It was a good thing, too. While the Liskash beasts of burden made quite a racket themselves, there was precious little resemblance between their basso grunts and bellows and the high-pitched squeals of unhappy Mrem kits.
“Yes,” Zuluku replied. “For at least four <garble something>.” Nurat Merav wasn’t sure, but from the context she thought the word she hadn’t understood meant days.
“And after that?” she asked.
Zuluku looked unhappy. From experience, the Mrem dancer was coming to recognize the facial expressions used by Liskash. She’d found they substituted subtleties in the way they moved their jaws for the lack of mobility in other parts of their faces. This particular half-open, lower-jaw-skewed-to-the-left grimace indicated a mixture of distress and apprehension, but one which fell short of extreme anxiety. That would have been indicated by jaws held wide open.
“Not sure,” was the answer. “If the Kororo fight <garble something>, travel may become very hard again.”
The lower jaw closed further and shifted to the right. That seemed to indicate something along the lines of dawning-hope, or maybe anticipation-of-improvement. An Mrem would assume an exaggerated upside-down smile and a wag of the head.
“But the warriors I talked to <garble something> that was not likely.” That word must mean thought, or maybe believed. “They say the Kororo can no more use <garble something> because they won’t have time to <garble something> the way they did before. If they try, Zilikazi will get close enough to <garble something>.”
That seemed… fairly clear. If she was interpreting Zuluku correctly, the Kororo would not be able to put up enough resistance in the next range of mountains to require Zilikazi and his army to move off the road into the narrow trails. The yurt would remain intact, which would make it easier for them to keep Nurat Merav and her kits hidden — and fed.
Moved by a sudden impulse, she said: “You have been a good friend. I thank you for it.”
The expression that now came to Zuluku’s face was not one Nurat Merav had seen before. It seemed to have traces of uncertainty and… chagrin? No, more like doubt.
But all the Liskash said was: “We are <garble something> by Morushken to be thrifty in all things.”
After the frustrations of the passage through the mountains, Zilikazi was almost enjoying the march across the plateau.
Exasperating, that had been. The traps, pitfalls and rockslides set off by the Kororo had taken a toll on Zilikazi’s equanimity as well as his army’s numbers. Many more of his soldiers had been injured than killed, it was true. But Zilikazi wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse. While on campaign, one wounded warrior required two or three to tend to him. Injury depleted an army’s strength faster than death did.
But the wounded could not be left behind, or dispatched, unless they clearly couldn’t survive their wounds. There were limits to any noble’s power, even one as mighty as Zilikazi. His control over his warriors depended more on their acquiescence than his sheer force of mind. If nothing else, he had to sleep — and who would protect him from his protectors then?
In the end, as in any society of intelligent and social animals, the power of the masters depended on a great lattice of custom, ritual and accepted practice. Brute force was needed to maintain that lattice, for there were always those who sought to unleash chaos. But force could not substitute for it.
So, the wounded were tended to — and well; better than they would have been in most Liskash armies. And the army’s lord and master accepted the need for patience.
But he was glad now that he had made the decision to bring his whole realm on the march. He had left no one behind except those too ill or infirm or old to march, and the few needed to take care of them. Doing so had run the risk of allowing one of his neighbors to overrun his lands, but he had deemed it a risk worth taking. If need be, he could retake the lands when he was done with the Kororo and he thought all his neighbors understood that quite well. He’d already beaten the most powerful of them, had he not?
The greater danger had been rebellion. He could not predict how long the campaign against the Kororo would take, for some of the terrain would be new to him — most of it, if the Kororo chose to flee. (As, indeed, they had chosen to do.)