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Chapter Eight

Arms crossed, Bannor watched two of the six stone-tipped arrows hit the tall hide target. Another one hit and glanced off its tarred-bone frame. The last three sailed past, raising a cloud from the pile of sand behind it.

The senior trogan from the caravan, Kogwhé, howled both imprecations and instructions as he stalked along the firing line. The six trogs toeing it either looked sheepish or stoic. They’d learned that their other reactions—indifference or irritation—would earn them a full half-hour of what the small human Peter Wu called “PT.”

Rulaine strolled over to where the calm “trainer of trogs” watched the proceedings. Off to one side, the other three in the class busily repointed arrows damaged during practice. “How’s it coming?” he drawled as Kogwhé released the trainees to retrieve their shafts.

Wu glanced at Rulaine, one eyebrow raised. “At this rate, they might be ready next year.”

“Really? That soon?”

“You are a font of infinite mirth.”

“So I’ve been told.”

Peter sighed. “Your actual question is, ‘are we going to get any new archers out of this group?’” He shrugged. “Kogwhé claims four show reasonable promise: three of the scouts and one kajh.”

“You sound unconvinced.”

“I think he is optimistic. However, I am no archer, and he is.”

Bannor leaned back to keep himself in the receding shade of the canyon wall. “And the other training?”

Wu shrugged. “Most show promise at sword drills, fewer at fletching and pointing.”

Bannor let him finish before clarifying, “I meant, how is the Crewe’s training coming along?”

Peter started. “Oh, that. Most everyone has had some wilderness survival preparation, so that’s going well. The slowest area is in becoming accustomed to using swords while wearing stiff armor. Only half of us had any prior training in melee weapons. Shields only make it worse.”

Bannor nodded. “I heard you stopped that training.”

Wu sighed. “Even if we had a qualified instructor, no one wants to give up the advantage of a free hand for weapons, tools, a light. Even for trogs, shields don’t confer most the advantages they did on Earth: no one here fights in formation or mounted.”

Bannor shrugged. “Just so long as we can fight with local weapons, survive with local gear, and handle them comfortably, not like costume props.” He glanced at the sun. “You’re not going to the all-hands meeting, I take it?”

Wu shook his head. “The trogs are more diligent when one of us is present. You’ll catch me up on anything important?”

Bannor nodded and left the training paddock, wending his way back to their laager.

* * *

Duncan put aside the list he’d scribbled on the coarse parchment that was a Bactradgarian standard, and turned toward Bannor. “So, in exchange for most of the gear from the caravan and half our dried food, we got the weapons and armor we wanted.” He grinned. “As well as ‘items and services yet to be specified.’”

Seeing Dora’s frown, Bannor expanded, “Firstly, that kind of open-ended collateral buys us a lot of goodwill and reciprocal trust. Makes it more of a diplomatic than mercantile agreement. Secondly, we still don’t know what we’ll need when we set out for the ‘dunes-that-do-not-move.’ We might require porters, diggers, supplies—and maybe a secure fallback point if things go sideways.”

Newton frowned. “Has Chief Vaagdjul decided to allow us to hire some of the locals after all?”

Riordan shook his head. “Short-term laborers don’t concern him; they’ll add more to the local economy working for us than whatever they’d be doing here.”

Solsohn rubbed his neck. “Speaking of organization . . . ”

Bannor smiled. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well, just that: organization. Ours.”

“What about it?”

“Frankly, sirs, we’re a damn mess. We have no unit structure, no T.O.O. Until we organize the new trogs into regular groups under steady leadership, they’re going to remain as we found them: a mob. When poor Bey comes back, she’s gonna have a hell of a time managing them.”

Bannor glanced at Caine. “Which points to yet another challenge.” Riordan nodded for him to continue. “No local has prior experience forming up and training regular units, because Bactradgaria doesn’t have any: just war bands. And they don’t fight battles: just big brawls.”

Dora was frowning. “So, are you saying we don’t need to train them up in units?”

“No: it would give us a huge advantage in any engagement. But Bey can’t take that on; both the concept and practice are completely alien to her.”

Duncan shrugged. “We could help her. Give her the basics and then provide input if she gets in over her head.”

Bannor was about to reply but Ayana leaned forward. “However, if she is seen or suspected not to possess the expertise herself, our help could undermine her stature among the trogs.”

Riordan began nodding. “True, but I think we could prevent that. Maybe reverse it.”

Wu squinted. “How?”

Bannor was careful to remain expressionless as Caine explained. “We include her in our command circle to advise us on local matters. That will boost her standing among the trogs, and they’ll have no reason to suspect that we, in turn, are advising her.”

“Sir,” Eku sputtered, “a . . . a trog? In the command group?”

Bannor glanced toward Riordan, who managed not to lose his temper. “Yes, Mr. Eku: a trog in the command group—although heaven help you if you call her anything other than a crog, now. She’s proven her loyalty and commitment, and her skill was never in question. Pending Miles’ review of her performance with the task force, I think it’s time to include her in our planning sessions.”

He gestured toward the world beyond the canyon walls. “All of us see everything on this planet as outsiders. That’s why we keep stubbing our toes against things we don’t—can’t—foresee. In large part, that’s because asking for Bey’s input has been the last step in our planning. If we’d had her input from the start, I doubt we’d have stepped so wrong so often. Or left so easy a trail for any enemies that might be following us.”

Bannor maintained his silence for a moment; Riordan’s arguments all made sense but he wasn’t putting them forward with his customary calm objectivity. Careful to keep his tone neutral, the ex-IRIS colonel commented, “Adding a local to our command group: that’s a big step, sir.”

Riordan nodded. “It is. But I think it’s the right time. If not overdue.”

Duncan’s tone was equally cautious. “Sir, I’m sorry if my remarks brought us to this place—”

“Major, I’m glad you brought us to exactly this place. If we mean to be change agents on this world, it’s both practical and ethical to have a local sitting in on that process.” He rose. “Unless there are other pressing matters, I promised Peter I’d look in on the archers, and I’m overdue.” He glanced toward Bannor. “Coming along?”

“Already dropped by, sir.”

Caine nodded to the group and started toward the practice range.

Katie’s small smile became wider along with the distance between him and the Crewe. “The commodore certainly made quite the case for Bey.” She nudged Dora. “Bit like the line from the Scottish play, innit?”

Pandora stared at her. “Huh? What play?”

“C’mon, you heard him, yeh?” Katie said, nudging her. “Makin’ that fine, fine speech about all the reasons we should have Bey sittin’ in.”

“What are you talking about?”

Katie rolled her eyes. “Och, it’s one of the play’s most famous lines! You know: ‘Methinks the laddie doth protest too much.’” She glanced at Ayana—who barely managed to hide a small smile of her own.

Rulaine stared as Duncan chortled and Yaargraukh rose to leave. “That’s not Macbeth,” Bannor informed Katie sternly. “It’s Hamlet.”

“Och, an’ like I care? Er, sir. But tell me: don’t you think he was a bit quick to defend Bey’s, well, honor?”

“As I said,” Bannor muttered, “the play is Hamlet. Dismissed.”

As he turned to go, he thought he glimpsed Ayana returning a wink in Katie’s direction.

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