Sanctuary – Snippet 21
If Zilikazi’s absence from his lands was prolonged, and if he’d left a large force behind, one of his lieutenants was likely to grow ambitious. After the successful wars he’d waged against his neighboring nobles, the strongest enemy he could face would come from within his own ranks, if he let slip his grip.
No, best to bring everyone with him. Under his direct and watchful eye, none of his subordinates would even think of rising against him.
“You’re certain?” Meshwe asked.
The scout nodded firmly. His fellow added: “There’s just no way, Tekkutu. It’s not a deep ravine the same as it is trying to the north. But the river that runs into the sea on the south is very wide, and there are marshlands on both sides. We could certainly cross it, given time –”
“A lot of time,” the first scout said.
“– but I don’t think we’ll have much time. Not enough.”
Meshwe looked away and pondered the matter. “But you say the area is wooded?”
“It’s something of a forest, even down close to the shore,” said one. “But it isn’t dense enough for us to hide from Zilikazi in it. Not the whole Krek.”
Meshwe shook his head. “I understand that. But is there enough wood to build rafts that would allow us to cross over to the island?”
Now, the scouts looked confused.
“Well… Yes, certainly. But…”
“But…” his companion chimed in.
Meshwe grimaced. “I know the strait is full of monsters. But surely some of the rafts would make it across. And what other option do we have?”
The trap was almost ready. Sebetwe just had to hold Zilikazi’s mind at bay for another five minutes. By then, the lead elements of his army would be too far into the gully to make their escape when the dam was ruptured.
The flood that followed wouldn’t be enough to hurt most of that great army. They’d only had two days to let the water pile up behind the dam, and it wasn’t a great river to begin with. More in the way of a large creek, really. Still, there’d be enough of a flood to kill dozens of Zilikazi’s troops; maybe as many as a hundred, if luck went their way.
Looked at from one angle, that wouldn’t be much more than a pinprick. Sebetwe had now gotten close enough to have a good idea of the size of Zilikazi’s army. There had to be at least six thousand warriors down there. More, if you added those still too injured to walk but recuperating.
There were other factors involved than simple numbers, however. Sebetwe was pretty sure the morale of Zilikazi’s army wasn’t too good right now. Better than it had been two or three days ago, yes, due to the greater ease of traveling across the plateau. But if they suffered a sudden and sharp blow just as they entered the next range of mountains…
That army had its own scouts, who’d been ranging ahead off to the sides. By now, at least some of them would have returned and given their reports. The gist of which would be that this next mountain range was wider than the first had been, and if the terrain was no worse — might not be quite as bad, in fact — the roads were ancient memories and the trails were mostly figments of the imagination.
Zilikazi would order the scouts to remain silent, but they were bound to talk to their mates nonetheless. As word spread through the noble’s army that they still had many days of slogging ahead of them, their morale would sag again. The flood would damage their spirits far more than it would their bodies.
There came another unseen blow from Zilikazi’s mind. The noble was now just trying to batter his way past Sebetwe’s shield. He’d apparently given up trying to penetrate the psychic fog that Sebetwe had created.
The force of that blow was well-nigh astonishing. It was almost like being struck by a physical blow delivered by an ogre. But, again, Sebetwe was able to shed the force. The pure focus — you could even call it indifference — that the gantrak’s narrow fierce mind gave to Sebetwe was in its own way also well-nigh astonishing.
Whether he was real or not, Sebetwe whispered a murmur of thanks to Ghammid, the god of good fortune. The day the god’s blessing — or fate, or destiny, or sheer blind chance, it didn’t really matter — brought Achia Pazik to them, had been a most fortunate day indeed. Without her, Sebetwe could never have hoped to keep the gantrak under any control, much less the tight reign he needed to withstand Zilikazi.
Just three minutes, now.
Achia Pazik was tiring, but neither she nor Gadi Elkin faltered in their steps. The two dancers had been trained in a harsh school that prized endurance and they came from a breed of folk who were contemptuous of self-pity. They’d drop unconscious before they began fouling the dance.
Which… they might, if Sebetwe kept this up much longer. With experience, Achia Pazik and Gadi Elkin had learned how to modify the dance in ways that suited this purpose better. The initial effect was to make the strain of the dance less harsh. They were working with a Liskash tekkutu and his predator partner, not directly against a noble. Still, the force of Zilikazi’s mind, even when it came second-hand and filtered through Sebetwe, was wearying. As he got closer, it felt more and more like they were dancing in a sea of spiritual mud.
Finally, she saw Sebetwe give the signal. A moment later, grinding noises from above were followed by what sounded like a thunderclap in the distance.
Sebetwe rose and moved toward the gantrak. The beast was perched on a nearby rock, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings.
“Let’s go,” he said. “You can stop the dance in two minutes, Achia Pazik. By then, the turmoil in the minds of Zilikazi’s troops will require his full concentration.”
Two minutes. Not so bad.
She and Gadi Elkin even finished with a flourish.