Sanctuary – Snippet 22
In the event, it took Zilikazi quite a while to calm down his troops after the dam burst. The water rushing down the ravine carried not only rocks and logs with it, but specially designed spears as well. The Kororo, exhibiting a fiendish imagination that fit poorly with their philosophical claims, had tied crude blades to both ends of many bundles of reeds. The buoyant reed bundles raced down atop the surging flood, spinning and whirling. The blades added their share of carnage to the damage done by the force of the water and the other debris.
It was a fairly small flood, and brief in duration. But the ravine was steep and because of the difficulty of the terrain the soldiers had been packed too tightly. Their officers had become complacent, certain that the Kororo wouldn’t have had time to prepare any more elaborate traps — or, if they had, wouldn’t be able to stay close enough to set them off at the right time. By now, the troops had gotten adept at spotting and disarming inert triggers left in place. So the deaths and injuries produced were much worse that they should have been.
Zilikazi was quietly furious with those officers, and made a silent vow to punish those most responsible. But he had more pressing concerns at the moment — and, being honest, was at least as angry at himself. He’d consistently underestimated the powers of the Krek’s so-called “tekku.” To make things worse, the Kororo shamans were either getting stronger or he had finally started encountering those among them who were most powerful and adept at their peculiar mind skill.
He still didn’t really understand the nature of that skill. How could harnessing the pitiful brains of animals be of any real use?
In the distance, he heard the screech of a gantrak, but paid it little attention. The mountain predators were ferocious, certainly, but they would never dare attack such a large group of Liskash. The creature was just angry that its hunting territory was being encroached upon.
Zilikazi was wrong about that. The gantrak’s screech had been one of triumph, not fury. The predator was not an intelligent animal, but she was far smarter than most dumb beasts. She understood, in some way, that the creature she and her mate had mysteriously become partnered with had just scored a great victory — and she shared in that victory herself.
For his part, Sebetwe winced. Whether it derived from anger or elation, the screech of a gantrak up close was hard on the ears and unsettling on the nerves.
He managed not to jump, though.
Achia Pazik didn’t jump either. But that was only because Gadi Elkin, tired by the dance, had stumbled over a root and Achia Pazik had barely managed to catch her before she fell. The gantrak’s screech jolted her nerves, but her grip on her fellow dancer kept her steady on her feet.
“I’m starting to hate that thing,” hissed Gadi Elkin, once she regained her balance. “Aren’t you?”
Achia Pazik let go of her grip and shrugged. “Not as much — not nearly as much — as I hate that Liskash noble down there. The worst the gantrak will do is bite your head off, but at least your mind will still be yours right through to the end.”
“That’s a low standard!” the other dancer said, grimacing. “Lose your head or lose your mind.”
“Our choices are pretty limited right now.” Achia Pazik started up the slope, following Sebetwe along what might be called a “trail” if you were in an expansive frame of mind. “Let’s try to keep both.”
The first little group of Mrem they found were of no practical use. There were two females in the group, but it turned out neither of them were dancers. The two warriors also in the group wouldn’t be any help, either. One had suffered injuries which, even if he recovered from them — a process which would take months — would still leave him lame. And the other was really too old to still be serving as an active warrior.
The young male in the group might be of use, eventually. But the Krek’s current circumstances made concepts like “eventually” lame as well.
Still, Nabliz took it as a good omen. If two groups had survived from the catastrophe the Mrem tribe had suffered at the hands of Zilikazi and his army, surely there had to be others.
Two warriors were detached to escort the Mrem to the Krek. The rest, including Nabliz and Chefer Kolkin, continued their search.
Chefer Kolkin was pretty sure the Liskash would have simply left the small Mrem party they’d found where they were, once they discovered there were no dancers among them, if Chefer Kolkin hadn’t insisted otherwise. The reptiles were sometimes astonishingly callous. Not cruel, no, at least not in the way Mrem understood cruelty. Even at their worst, there was always something a little cold-blooded about Liskash. The sort of hot rage which sometimes led Mrem to commit acts of utter barbarity was just not something that seemed to afflict Liskash. On the other hand, they had much less in the way of simple compassion, either.
It took some getting used to. But so, Chefer Kolkin reminded himself, did many things that turned out in the end to be beneficial. Spices took some getting used to also, when you were a youngling. Yet for an adult, food without them would be horribly bland.
When the priestess came into the yurt, followed closely by the shaman Litunga, she glanced around and then headed unerringly toward the one pile of hides and thrushes which was large enough to conceal a big animal. As she went, she gave Zuluku and her two companions a peremptory summoning gesture.
“Get up,” she said. “We haven’t much time.”
Once she reached the pile, Njekwa crouched and flipped back the two hides on top. Now visible below were an Mrem female and, pressed closely to her side and staring up at the priestess also, two of the mammal younglings. “Kits,” she thought they were called.
There was no expression on the adult Mrem’s face. None that Njekwa could discern, at any rate, but she was not very familiar with the creatures. One of the kits seemed frightened; the other, either less anxious or less intelligent, simply looked curious.