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Chapter Ten

Caine Riordan did not allow his gaze to drift back toward the doglegged passage that connected Achgabab’s box canyon with the outside world. Instead, he watched Katie Somers enter the final reconfiguration protocols that would convert the helmet of the late, unlamented Hsontlosh into a second, albeit makeshift, Dornaani translator.

Somers, who was a natural hand with electronics, sped through the selection screens and called up the module dedicated to Low Praakht: the language most common among trogs. “Finished, sir.”

Riordan nodded, tried not to return to the cycle of worry and projection that had risen with the sun. It was the eighty-third day of spring: one more than the return ETA Miles had sent three days ago.

Somers’ voice pulled him back into the moment. “Ye’re worried too, eh, Commodore?”

Riordan arrested the officer-reflex to reassure the troops. The situation was too obvious and the personal stakes too high for that kind of crap. “Yes, Corporal, I am concerned. Not that I have any reason to expect a problem. We knew that the closer the Chief’s section came to the canyons, the more his radio would be screened by the high rock. But I’ll be a lot happier when the task force comes around that corner.” He glanced back at the entry to the box canyon. Still nothing. Which meant the hidden observers who watched the western approaches hadn’t seen anything yet.

“Aye,” Katie agreed, “seems everybody is waitin’ on somebody. Us waitin’ on our lads, the h’achgai for their own warriors—and that mad, brave lad Djubaran on his second walkabout. I just hope—”

Shouts echoed out of the dark cleft opposite the dogleg: the one through which the spring ran to the smaller canyons to the east.

Riordan stood as Miles O’Garran emerged from its shadows, barely stooping. “Well, where’s the brass band and the town fathers? Hell of a welcome for homecoming heroes!”

Riordan started toward him at a brisk walk, but discovered he was looking beyond “Little Guy,” already watching for Yidreg, and Ta’rel, and Orsost. And Bey—whose face, he realized with a start, was the only one he was actually scanning for.

All of those individuals emerged, single file—but no one else.

“Where’s the rest of yer lot?” Katie asked anxiously.

“Couldn’t bring ’em in here any more’n the other trogs, and certainly not through the secret passage,” the small SEAL replied. “Just after I sent our ETA, we caught sight of a larger group moseying toward the western approaches. So we changed course and decided to come in through the east. Which we’d never have been able to do without our master hunter.” He nodded gratefully to Yidreg. The hunter returned the nod, bowed slightly toward Riordan, and angled toward the cliff-side openings from which h’achgai were now streaming, hands held high in welcome and joy.

Miles jutted his chin after Yidreg, who was already pressing through the welcoming crowd. “He’s gotta get instructions from Vaagdjul on how to handle the rest of us. Probably blindfolds, but that’s up to the chief. They’re waiting a few small canyons back.”

Ta’rel and Bey approached Riordan. “Leader Caine,” Bey almost shouted, “we have been successful!”

Riordan grinned. “And hello to you, too, Bey.”

A moment of perplexity creased her forehead before it was smoothed by a broad smile. “It is good to be back.”

As Riordan suddenly became aware of how dusty they were, Miles started toward the spring. “I could use some of that cool, clean water right about now,” he muttered. He glanced around the paddock. “Where’s everyone else, sir?”

“Being trained or training others, mostly. Why?”

O’Garran kept his voice low. “After-action report, sir. Some odd activity out on the Orokrosir.”

* * *

It took an hour to get the Crewe gathered at the main encampment. As they started to sit in a circle, Bey stepped back. She was in the middle of a departing nod when Riordan put up a hand. “Join us, please.”

She stopped, might have been about to stare, but managed to effect an air of nonchalant aplomb as she sat next to him.

Miles raised an eyebrow, but either had no reservations at including her or hid it extremely well. “Short version, sir?”

“How long would the full after-action report take?”

“Conservative estimate? Until just after dawn.”

Eyes rolled. Yes, Chief Miles O’Garran had returned with his irony and facetiousness intact.

Riordan couldn’t help smiling. “A shortened AAR will be fine, Chief.”

“Okay, then—and Bey, you chime in if I forget something, okay?”

“‘Chime in’?”

“Uh, tell everyone what I forgot to mention.”

She nodded.

“So bottom line first: it was a success.”

Bey exercised her right to interrupt immediately. “Leader O’Garran is incorrect. It was a great success . . . thanks to him.”

“Now, Bey,” Miles sighed, “here’s the first rule of chiming in: don’t lie or exaggerate.”


“That’s a joke, Bey.”

“Oh. Still, I stand by my correction.”

Bannor smirked at O’Garran. “So: details?”

“Sir, yes, sir, Colonel! Not counting minor slashes and scrapes, only two casualties: one KIA and one MIA, who was probably wounded.” Miles held up his hand against the questions that were opening half of the Crewe’s mouths. “Specifics will follow. The task force is still rough around the edges, but they learned to follow complex orders and work together. And to top it all off, we picked up thirteen new recruits.”

“What?” asked several voices, Caine’s being one of them. “How?” asked Bannor and Dora.

“I’m getting there. We also came back with more supplies and gear than we started out, particularly spare kits and weapons. Had to abandon a lot, actually. I never got a chance to run a tally of what we kept.”

Duncan rolled his eyes. “Damn it, Miles, I’m the guy obsesses over that stuff—and even I’m getting impatient. What actually happened out there? Are you waiting for a drum roll?”

The SEAL shrugged. “After splitting off from you, we headed south for about a week. No enemy contact, no handy game. So we had to start hunting. First day we sent out scouts, we ran into one of those armadillo humanoids that everyone says aren’t actually x’qai.”

“She was an illithrakz,” Bey interjected.

“She?” Duncan wondered. “I thought x’qai were sexless?”

Newton huffed. “As the chief reminded just us, illithrakz are not x’qai.”

Miles nodded. “Almost as tough as them, though. Despite the monoscope—which was the single most valuable piece of gear we had—we didn’t spot her in advance. She was probably behind a ridgeline, and without a Dornaani helmet to process the ’scopes’ thermal returns, we didn’t detect any glow over the lip.

“Anyhow, she takes Orsost by surprise as he goes around a boulder, trog in tow. Her claws opened up his armor like it was cardboard, but just barely reached his skin. But the force of the blow threw him back on his butt.”

“He was a goner but for the trog with him: Falkurg, one of the kajh from the caravan. He stood toe to toe with her. Paid with his life. But as soon as he fell, Sergeant Girten here”—O’Garran shook Craig’s shoulder fondly—“put her down with a crossbow quarrel.”

Girten shook his head. “The chief is leaving out one little detail: he was the first to fire. Hit the illith-whatever in the leg. That’s when she saw the rest of us and turned tail. She’d just started limping away when I got in my lucky shot.”

Bey crossed her arms. “There was no luck involved, Leader Caine. Your Crewe are skilled warriors, which the rest of the task force noted repeatedly.” She smiled at O’Garran. “I am done amending your account, Chief. For now.”

Miles smiled. “Wouldn’t be a real after-action report if it wasn’t derailed every few minutes. So, as I was saying, we’d started looking for dustkine as well as bounty hunters. Between Ta’rel’s knowledge of the wadi country and the monoscope, we saw targets half a day or more before they could see us and where they were headed long before they’d get there. That’s how we took the first dustkine.

“A few days later, we spotted a big band of bountiers. And by big, I mean two-and-a-half times our size. But we tracked them, saw that they had crap organization, and were headed toward a point where we could ambush them from high ground. Still wouldn’t have taken the chance if Ta’rel and Yidreg hadn’t known the slope was so rough and steep; if things went sideways, we could run like hell and get hidden before they reached the crest.”

Craig laughed. “Wow, talk about worrying about the wrong thing!”

“So things did go, er, sideways?” Eku asked.

O’Garran scoffed. “Yeah—for them. We started by taking out the x’qao leader, then his lieutenants—and the whole damn gang just melted away. Well, those that could.”

Wu frowned. “So what was the problem?”

“We weren’t ready to take that many prisoners scattered across so wide an area. And three of those prisoners—well, recruits now—are really big. Two are a pair of trogres—or as the trogs say, prakhbrai—who are some kind of celebrities.”

“They are twin sons of a famous warrior among their kind,” Bey explained.

“Yeah, and you’re going to just love the other heavyweight,” Miles added, beaming at Yaargraukh. “It’s a grat’r that makes your current one look like a midget.”

“I presume,” the Hkh’Rkh asked in a dry tone, “that you are once again speaking figuratively, Chief O’Garran.

Little Guy waved off the droll inquiry. “Yeah, yeah. He’s also sharper than the one from the hovel.”

Caine leaned forward. “And you took no casualties?”

Miles frowned. “Only one: the caver kajh. And all I can say for sure is that he went missing, mostly because managing our victory became a total clusterfu—madhouse. The survivors still outnumbered us almost two to one. Bunches were running off in every direction, wounded were crawling away, and about half a dozen stood their ground huddled together. That’s where most of our recruits came from.

“But Bey sent a few two-man teams to dog the ones rabbiting for the horizon, partly to make sure they wouldn’t regroup and double back, partly to see if we could grab them or at least their gear. At some point, the caver surprised an enemy trog who’d been hiding, got his arm wounded in that fight, then ran after another.” O’Garran shrugged. “At least that’s what our kajh sweepers saw from a distance. The caver got way out ahead of them chasing the second guy.”

Bey frowned. “That assumes he was chasing the ‘second guy,’ rather than deserting.”

The chief shrugged. “We’ll never know. The weather came in quick from the south: low clouds moving so fast they weren’t on the horizon when the ambush began. Rain and mist reduced visibility to damn near zero and we lost sight of the caver.”

Bannor leaned toward Bey. “Why do you think the caver would risk striking out on his own?”

Bey’s eyes were hard. “As I said from the outset, cavers are not to be trusted. Up until that point, he was cooperative—but no more than that. I suspect he was waiting for just such an opportunity.” She looked around the group. “I have not said it so directly before, but I plead with you: do not bring cavers into our force. They will never bend to your ways. To them, loyalty, kindness, and fair dealing are all signs of weakness. I have never known one of them to behave or believe otherwise.”

Riordan nodded and looked around the grim-eyed Crewe. “Bey, we will give your advice serious consideration.” He turned back to O’Garran. “And after that?”

Little Guy waved at the wastes. “Wandered around for four or five days before spotting another group behind us. Smaller, just as disorganized, but they’d apparently found our tracks. So we danced around each other for a day or two before we decided to play dumb and let them ‘find’ our camp. They probed us—and that was the end of them. But their leader . . . well, I’ll let Bey explain that bit of strangeness.”

Bey’s chin rose. “The battle was very brief. They were not well equipped. Only their leader had a bronze weapon, and a worn one, at that. Our first two volleys inflicted many casualties and those who could broke and ran. The leader was among the wounded.”

“Or so we thought,” Craig put in mysteriously.

Bey nodded. “We discerned that the one we believed to be the leader was not. A larger but less well-equipped trog had been the one giving orders.”

“And we learned it just in time,” O’Garran added, “thanks to her.”

Ayana’s eyes had not left Bey’s face. “What does the chief mean by that?”

Bey shrugged. “The trog was clever. He let the other appear to lead, but he was more powerful. He is a shaman.”

“‘Is’?” Duncan repeated, sitting straighter.

Bey nodded. “He is one of the prisoners.”

“And he could have made real trouble for us if she hadn’t known what to look for,” Craig added. “But she saw signs—tattoos and, uh, witch-doctor stuff—that marked him for what he was . . . er, is.”

Caine nodded slowly. “I am surprised you brought him here. And even more surprised that Yidreg allowed it.”

Bey nodded. “Normally, I would not have done so. But the circumstances of this shaman—Zhathragz—were unusual. He was one of the few survivors of a band that clashed with cavers, well to the west. Alone, he fled to Khorkrag and arrived just as an increased bounty was announced: two hundred fifty gruhs per human, one hundred for any being traveling with them.

“Gruhs?” Eku asked.

“A day’s worth of food,” Duncan answered. “Pretty much the only standard of value around here.”

Katie was frowning. “That sounds like a verra high bounty.”

Bey nodded. “I have never heard of a higher one. Which is why Zhathragz hit upon the idea of gathering a group around him and joining the bountiers fanning out into the Orokrosir. His Gifts made it a fairly simple task.”

Dora frowned. “Gifts? Are they like Talents?”

Bey nodded. “He possesses several that make it easier for him to convince others to believe or obey him, and others that find game, water, or approaching predators. I am not learned in the ways of shamans, other than to be certain he has not revealed all the miracles he might summon.”

Dora’s eyes were wide. “And still you let him travel with you?”

“I felt it safe, in large part because he is not a city trog; he is from a Wild Tribe and born of a mother captured from a Free Tribe. But also, because Ta’rel, who grew up alongside mangle shamans, was unbothered. He pointed out that if Zhathragz had greater Gifts, he would surely have used them to attract more followers.”

Baruch was shaking his head. “I cannot believe that we are having such conversations: about the dangers presented by the powers of a shaman.”

“You’ve seen such powers yourself,” Peter pointed out.

His friend glowered. “I do not deny they exist. But to discuss them in the same breath as tactics, missions, outcomes . . . ” He shook his head. “I do not know when, if ever, I will become accustomed to it.” He glanced at Bey. “So, you trust this witch doctor?”

Bey shrugged. “He is determined not to return to Khorkrag, which often preys upon us tribals, whether Free or Wild. It was he who did not merely suggest, but petitioned, that we attach what was left of his band to our task force.”

Bannor glanced at Miles. “And are you also convinced his appeal was made in good faith?”

The chief leaned back on his elbows. “I’ll tell you, sir, I’ve seen a lot of scared locals in my time. Trog or human, they send most of the same signals. This guy Zhathragz doesn’t act like a gang leader; he reminds me of a civilian caught in a war zone. Just wants to travel with folks who are relatively sane and would rather not kill for a living. Besides that, he doesn’t strike me as a liar, is pretty sharp, and was an easy fit for the task force. Kinda reminds me of Bey,” he finished, grinning at her.

She raised one eyebrow. “As is often the case with Leader O’Garran, I cannot tell if he is taunting or praising me, but it is of no matter: Zhathragz has been a promising companion.” She looked around the group. “I understand your hesitation at accepting so many new members into your force. I perceive that, where you are from, such things take place gradually and require more tests of loyalty.

“But that is not the case here. Trogs and other beings readily join new groups because attempting to survive alone is extremely dangerous.” She shrugged. “It is also true that bonds made swiftly also dissolve more easily. But Zhathragz and his band seem at least as trustworthy as the trogs from the caravan. I say that knowing I shall be responsible for their conduct.”

Bannor nodded. “While we’re on the topic of your responsibilities, Bey, we’d like you to resume training our recruits. Both old and new.”

Bey frowned before nodding slowly. “I would speak plainly, Leader Bannor.”

“We wouldn’t have you speak any other way.”

“Then here is my answer. I believe such training is wise, since I foresee that we will more frequently need to rely upon our skills than our numbers.”

Caine smiled. “Our thinking exactly. But I notice that you haven’t said ‘yes.’”

The smile Bey returned was one of regret. “That is because if I accepted this role, it would lessen my effectiveness as the leader of trogs. Among us, even in the Free Tribes, leaders refrain from teaching. There are many reasons for this, but trogs will only see that as a teacher, I am not at a remove from them—and so, am not a leader.”

Riordan nodded: not a surprise. “So if this is a matter of status, would it help if one of us was a student in every group you trained?”

Bey tilted her head, considering. “I think it would, yes.” Her concluding nod was firm. “I shall set about it immediately, if I am no longer needed here.”

She was on her feet before Riordan stopped her. “Bey, one last thing. We would like you to return here this time tomorrow.”

“To report my progress?”

“That—but another matter, also.”

One of her eyebrows rose. She inclined her head and departed with strides full of purpose.

Miles glanced at Bannor then at Caine. “That request for Bey to become our master instructor didn’t come out of the blue, Commodore. Am I wrong, or do you need to read me in on a new command policy?”

Riordan nodded. “Chief O’Garran, how would you feel about adding Bey to the command group?”

The SEAL emitted a bark of laughter. “Hell, I’d feel relieved! That way I don’t have to push for it myself!” Several surprised stares fixed on him. “Look, there will be awkward moments, but we’ve got to have her perspective in our planning sessions. I saw it again and again when we were in the field.

“Don’t get me wrong; Yidreg was fine. He knew the land, the basic tactics, was very competent. But Bey?” O’Garran snorted. “She’s sharp as a tack and totally gung ho for the mission, even though she’s not sure where it might lead.”

Duncan nodded. “I’m in, too. Just so long as we remember to refer to ‘Shangri-la’ whenever we have to talk about reaching orbit, space, or the ship. And ‘ronin’ if we’re talking about the Crewe.” O’Garran made a sour expression at Solsohn’s second reminder. “What? You don’t like that code name?”

Miles couldn’t maintain the scowl; the laugh hiding behind it broke through. “The only thing I don’t like about ‘ronin’ is that Ayana and the commodore came up with it.” He glared at them. “Damn it, making up catchy nicknames is my turf!”

Riordan smiled. “I think we’ll be fine; as it is, we only discuss those topics during our Fireside Chats.”

Bannor nodded. “Which we’ll keep as our Crewe-only tradition.”

“Damn,” Craig yawned, “just hearing the words ‘Fireside Chat’ almost puts me to sleep.”

“Which you should do.” Riordan rose. “You and the chief are off the clock. Same goes for Ta’rel and Orsost. But the rest of us—”

“Yeah, yeah, Boss,” Dora griped, rising. “With you it’s always ‘back to work!’” She smiled at him, shouted “Slavedriver!” and led the others back toward the day’s labors.

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