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Chapter Six

The sun was in the same part of the sky when, a day later, Ulchakh leaned toward Riordan as they neared the last, sharp turn in a narrow canyon. “This is the place where even your closest companions must wait.”

Riordan turned and nodded at the group following him and Bannor: roughly half the Crewe. They halted, turned, and waved a confirmation to the much-diminished balance of the formation waiting at the first checkpoint. Sharat’s group had processed through to Achgabab an hour earlier, reducing the total number of bodies by half.

Ulchakh walked around the corner, faced left, and raised his hands. He waited almost a minute, then returned. “We are recognized. We may advance.”

* * *

Several doglegs later, they entered a wide, bright space where the walls of the box canyon fell away and left a space akin to an immense arena. Off to the western side, Sharat’s two rads were parked in a growing margin of shade. Along the northern face, a spring emerged from a slightly sloped stone shelf; it flowed hard against the wall until disappearing into it. On the east, a single switchback trail, carved from the rock, ascended toward the canyon’s upper reaches, which were seamed by crevices and pocked by shaded alcoves.

Ulchakh sighed in relief, waved a hand at the tableau, and proudly announced, “Achgabab.” His tone was one of celebration, not announcement.

Riordan waited for the h’achga to lead them toward the walkway, but he showed no intent to do so. “Are we waiting for a delegation?”

“No, Friend Caine. We are giving my people a chance to look at you and Friend Bannor, even as they observe your companions.” He smiled. “The openings in the canyon wall connect to tunnels that run quite far. Far enough that a sentinel watching through a shaded slit spotted our column before midday yesterday. There are similar hidden places that watch every approach. Without them, we could not have endured.”

“I can see why the x’qai never attacked this place,” Bannor muttered as he ran his gaze around the steep sides of the canyon.

“Oh, they tried,” Ulchakh said ruefully. “But to overcome such defenses, they would need much greater patience than most of them possess. So they have usually driven trogs in before them. But even so, they ultimately have to turn back.”

“Because their casualties were too great?”

“In a manner of speaking. The x’qai cared nothing for the trogs they lost. Well, not until the dead were piled so high that they could not advance further.” He shrugged. “None of us delude ourselves by believing Achgabab is impregnable. It has simply never been worth the effort and resources required to take it.”

Riordan pointed. “Where does the spring’s runoff go?”

“Through the stone to a long chain of similar but smaller canyons. It is good hunting there. And at the end of that winding gorge, it empties into the northeast extents of wadi country: grazing and mating grounds for dustkine.”

“How many h’achgai dwell here?” Bannor glanced at Ulchakh. “Assuming you may answer that question.”

Ulchakh smiled. “I will answer it as much as I may. A generation ago, we were over six hundreds. Now?” He shrugged. “Who can say?”

Riordan smiled back. It was a near certainty that Ulchakh not only knew, but was consulted on the accuracy of the latest headcount. “It must be upsetting to leave Achgabab. It is a unique place.”

“Because of its safety?”

Caine shook his head. “Because of its stability.”

Ulchakh squinted into the sun. “So it is. Sometimes a little too stable, I suppose. But that is the trader in me, speaking foolishness.” He allowed himself a small grin. “Of course, if there were no such foolish h’achgai, we would have little more than stone and bone. So, just as there are families known for hunting, tracking, and metalcraft, there are others known for trading and the learning of languages.”

“Such as yours.”

The old trader showed surprising strength as he thumped his chest once, sharply: the first wholly simian gesture Riordan had witnessed from him. “I am First Trader Ulchakh of family Awtsha, the Third Branch of Clan Odrej’j.” He smiled again. “Which is to say I am from a long line of similarly foolish h’achgai. As I intimated when we first met, our goods do not move in caravans: such routes are too predictable. And, as you so recently proved, that makes them tempting targets. Rather, we sometimes move our goods by boat, but mostly along ancient portage paths, none of which are used more than one year in every four. That way, they all fade back into the dust and are forgotten. Except by us.”

Bannor frowned. “So do your communities work together, like a network of small caravansaries?”

Ulchakh’s eyelids half-lowered like heavy shrouds. “Ah, swift insight. Humans are well worth the trouble of dealing with them—if they are safe.” He smiled at Caine. “And best of all, if they have our chogruk.”

His attention was caught by something high on the canyon wall. Caine saw nothing. He glanced at Rulaine, who shook his head.

Ulchakh waved at whatever or whoever they had not detected. “An escort shall arrive presently.”

“We can find our way, I think,” Bannor muttered, nodding toward the dark, prominent cave mouth that bore into the far wall of the canyon.

“Even so, it is our way. Caine Riordan, come with me.”

“Wait! What?” Bannor stepped forward briskly.

Ulchakh raised a hand—toward the canyon walls. “Friend Bannor, do not move so quickly. Especially not toward me.” He faced the two of them. “I apologize that I neglected to make this next step clear. A leader who comes to meet our chief stays in Achgabab the prior night.”

Caine put up a calming hand toward Bannor. “It’s fine, Colonel. It makes sense. I’ll be—”

“Ulchakh,” Rulaine said sharply. “We have come a long way, endured much. My friends have fought to save, feed, and enrich you.”

Ulchakh blinked. “This is true,” he said quietly.

“Then I ask one favor in exchange: that it is I who shall stay in Achgabab for the night. You have said that both of us will have an audience with your chief. Surely, then, it is not so different if I go with you instead of the commodore.” Ulchakh hesitated. “Caine is our leader, yes, but who leads in battle more often, and closer to the enemy? Him or me?”

It was the first time since meeting Ulchakh that Caine saw him become uncomfortable. “Well, eh—”

Riordan nodded at him. “Your answer will not insult me, Friend Ulchakh.”

The h’achga trader looked as if someone was twisting his very long arm. “You are a high leader at the front of the battles, Bannor, but—”

“Then if the logic of having a leader remain separated from his forces the night before meeting your chief is rooted in defending against treachery by arms, am I not an even wiser choice than Caine?”

Ulchakh looked away and nodded. “You would have made a passable trader yourself, Bannor Rulaine. Very well: Friend Caine, the escort emerging from the cave shall walk you back to your forces. Friend Bannor, I shall settle you in your lodging, but must then go to confer with Chief Vaagdjul. I shall ask that he speak to you both tomorrow, assuming that he has concluded his business with Sharat, who has urgent need to depart quickly. Tomorrow, he hopes.”

Riordan was surprised: the Legate captain had not mentioned it. “Why?”

“You must ask him that yourself.”

“And will Ne’sar go with him?”

“Again, that is a question only you may put to him. Now, follow the escort. Friend Bannor, you must follow me. Without any sudden motions, please.”

* * *

A day later, the sun was once again in the same place as Riordan and Yaargraukh sat waiting for Bannor to emerge. Caine leaned toward his friend and pointed at the whispering spring. “It’s always in the shade, from sunup to dusk.” He stared up at the blinding white sun, gauged the seasonal angle. “Probably not in winter, though. I’ll bet that keeps the ice from accumulating.”

After a moment, Yaargraukh emitted a distracted huffing sound: the Hkh’Rkh equivalent of an absentminded “uh-huh.”

Riordan raised an eyebrow. “What I can’t figure out is why all those h’achgai children are urinating in it, though.”

For a whole second, Yaargraukh didn’t respond, then started, looked up—and discovered Riordan smiling at him. “Ah. Apologies. I was distracted.”

Caine smiled. “Couldn’t tell.” H’achgai had begun emerging from the various apertures lining the highest wall-following walkway. “You’ve been quiet ever since we left Forkus.”

“Is that true?” Yaargraukh’s eyes protruded slightly, then retracted: reflection. “I suppose it is as you say. Why have you not mentioned it until now?”

Riordan shrugged. “In the first place, I know just enough about Hkh’Rkh ways and traditions to be aware of how very much I don’t know. But the executions at the hovel—that left a mark on us all. Everyone’s dealt with it differently.” Caine discovered he was staring at his palms; he half-expected to see bloodstains. “I thought your way might involve silence.”

Yaargraukh’s head-neck raised, straightening. “It involves reflection, certainly, but I suspect my concerns are different than yours.” He pony-nodded toward Caine. “I was relieved not to be one of the executioners—”

—Riordan winced—

“—and so, am without the burden of having performed such a deed. I am even more grateful not to carry the greater weight of having to order it. Which your face shows even now.”

Yaargraukh shook himself irritably. “And yet, honor mutters, unsettled. Even though I am not human, and law and diplomacy both dictated that I take no part in those affairs, you are my comrades—more true and loyal than many Hkh’Rkh—and I did not bear my share of that night’s terrible necessities.”

His quadrilaterally arranged hands opened and closed sharply: a reflex of frustration. “But my greater concern is with the strange phenomena we have witnessed since then: the mindspeaking and impossibly swift curatives. They are not to be denied, yet they defy science.”

Riordan smiled. “Or so we think.”

Yaargraukh fluted phlegm in all three nostrils: aggravation. “That uncertainty troubles me even more. If what we have seen cannot be reconciled with our understanding of physics, it threatens further chaos in what are already distempered times. I hoped that Tirolane might explain some of its workings, but he remains silent.”

Caine nodded. “I think he senses our eagerness to learn more and is shying away from it.”

The Hkh’Rkh fluted air through his nostrils: exasperation. “Perhaps that is why the only time he spends in our camp circle is when he retires to his furs.”

Riordan shrugged. “I suspect it’s sympathy that keeps him with the humans we liberated from the caravan. He understands their life, and upbringing, in a x’qao stable; we don’t.”

Yaargraukh pony-nodded. “And the mystery of our origins ensures that they understand us even less. Still, Tirolane’s solicitude for Orsost and Enoran should not be so time-consuming that it keeps him a stranger to us. If he means to be our companion, his distance is . . . problematic.”

Riordan was about to agree when he spied a distinctly non-h’achgan silhouette—leaner and slightly taller—emerge from one of the dark alcoves at the lowest level of the walkway. “There’s Bannor.” Another figure followed. “And Sharat, I think.”

Yaargraukh stood along with Caine. “Shall I return to our laager, or—?”

“No. Best you hear what Bannor has to say. And Sharat, too.”

As the two humans crossed the canyon’s wide paddock, h’achgai appeared out of the same shadows. Bearing hide sacks, they headed for the Legate-pennoned rads. A single figure started out from between the vehicles: Ne’sar.

She reached Caine and Yaargraukh just a few moments before Bannor called out, “Ulchakh is waiting for us back in the guest quarters. Or maybe the closer translation is ‘quarantine zone.’”

Sharat closed the last few strides with hand outstretched. Caine met it—but was surprised when the Legate captain reached further to clasp his forearm in what old films had popularized as a Roman handshake.

“We leave presently,” Sharat announced. “It has been an honor fighting and traveling beside you and your, eh, Crewe.” He nodded at Bannor and Yaargraukh. “I hope our paths shall cross again.”

“Where are you bound?”

“Atorsír. A h’achgan community a third the size of this one. At most.”

Yaargraukh emitted an interested rumble. “Where is it located?”

“South. In a cluster of hills and mesas at the approximate center of the wadi country.”

Caine turned toward Ne’sar, nodding. “That sounds close to your home in Ebrekka.”

“It is certainly much closer than we are here. And I hope I shall see you there in the future.” Her tarsier-eyes widened, as if she’d spoken too casually. “However, we could not allow so large a group.”

“So, just a small delegation of us?”

The tufts on her ears bunched into vertical columns. “Ebrekka could welcome almost all of your number. Except the trogs.”

Riordan nodded. You, too? Even mangles won’t trust trogs?

Ne’sar apparently saw his thoughts reflected on his face. “Even those trogs who would never share what they see of our secret ways and places cannot resist torture forever. And the x’qai have a method which breaks the resolve of their most stalwart warriors, merely by threatening to apply it.”

Yaargraukh’s eyes protruded slightly. “And are humans—and mangles—so courageous that they can endure what trogs cannot?”

Ne’sar’s eyes lowered. “My people are immune to the threat of which I speak. The x’qai cannot infest us. However, we are not immune to pain. Which is why we carry lethal herbs.”

Caine felt her calm revelations wash over him with a double-chill: that x’qai torture was infestation by lethal parasite, and that mangles carried the local equivalent of suicide pills.

Ne’sar had not paused. “Humans, on the other hand, are not frequently tortured. You are too valuable.”

“As sources of information?” Yaargraukh wondered.

Sharat almost spat. “No: as breeding stock.”

Ne’sar confirmed his answer with a small nod.

Caine put out his hand. “Ne’sar, thank you for your candor and your friendship. Should we ever be close when you have need to travel or shelter with friends, you have but to ask.”

The mangle bowed from the waist. “You do me great honor. I shall remember your invitation and be sure to convey the depth of your solicitude to my father. You will surely be received in Ebrekka with great honor,” she concluded, including Bannor and Yaargraukh in a sweeping glance.

She turned to Sharat. “The h’achgai are loading the last of the supplies. I shall prepare myself for travel.” With a nod, she started back to the rads; they were being slowly maneuvered to return the way they had come, the windrad hitched to the one with an engine.

Riordan watched the small convoy readying itself. “Sharat, why did you send most of your people back to stay with us?”

He shrugged. “They had to watch our pawns and deadskins.”

“And why did you send them back?”

He shook his head. “I didn’t; the h’achgai do not permit them to come this far.”


Sharat shrugged. “Because those with s’rillor could be manipulated by a distant x’qao if they have been blood-bonded. That’s why they’re called pawns.”

Bannor frowned. “Can’t a mindspeaker determine if they’re, eh, blood-bonded?”

Sharat shook his head. “Detecting such bonds requires a different Talent.”

“So a pawn could be, eh, activated to attack once within Achgabab?”

Sharat shrugged. “Yes, but the h’achgai’s deepest fear is that a x’qao liege might be able to tap into its senses.”

Bannor’s voice was low. “You mean, the way they do with the insects? The kiktzo?”

Sharat nodded. “It’s a possibility.” He straightened. “While we are on the topic of such powers, Tasvar sent a message for you.”

Damn: the strangeness just doesn’t stop. “Should this message be shared in a more private place?”

“No. And I imagine you will understand its urgency better than I. It seems that Tasvar sent a convoy out the same night you rescued Eku in Forkus, yes?”

“That is correct.”

“I was instructed to inform you that it never reached the town of Uhr, its first intended destination.”

Bannor crossed his arms. “Considered in the context of the well-paid traitors that marched north with us, I’d say we’ve attracted the attention of a liege.”

Sharat nodded sympathetically. “Sadly, I agree.” He took a step back. “Beyond Atorsír, my travels bend farther south. More than that I may not say, but it would be a fine thing to share another journey with you.”

“Likewise,” Riordan called after him. When the Legate captain was well out of earshot, Caine looked at Bannor. “Remember how, about three days after rescuing Eku, we wondered if we’d put cross hairs on our backs for the rest of our lives?”

“It was four days,” Bannor murmured, “but yes. Don’t you hate being right, sometimes?”

“I’m getting to hate it all the time. Let’s find Ulchakh and talk with Chief Vaagdjul. Who knows? If we’re really lucky, we might manage not to sound like fools.”

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