Cran Palto | Books | Raheem
Rifle for Rifle
Rifle for Rifle
Night after night I stared at the stars. I saw none of the constellations from the ealiest books. I wondered if they had been real at all.
In the weeks that followed, the dynamics of camp life remained constant.
It was mid-afternoon that day. Agra had returned from hunting, having caught three rabbits. Yigars had announced the bison was pregnant again. Daroo was helping Vaega harvest, and Trion was laying out spools of wires to install YeohLed in the tunnels Ipsena had dug into the rock butte.
Agra was in the kitchen, cleaning the rabbits, cutting them into meal-sized chunks to put them in the freezer. Yigars walked in at that moment. Agra dried her hands on a towel and wiped the knife before setting it in the wash pan.
“Are you okay?” Agra asked, as Yigars was standing, looking at her with an odd melancholy.
He took a step forward. “I don’t know. Ipsena has been acting strange lately.”
Agra wrapped a rabbit portion into a small leather sleeve. “Oh? Strange how?”
Agra held up her right hand. “Don’t tell me anything that’s going on between you two. I don’t want to pry.”
“It’s not that.”
Agra set the rabbit meat on the tray. “Okay, so what is it?”
“She’s been telling me about her life before Raheem.”
“That’s good, yes?”
“I’m not sure. She talks about her life on the mining colony of Mûr, and about learning to fly mining barges.”
Agra listened in silence; the rabbit forgotten.
“But when I asked about the trip that brought her here, all she said was she was with her brother and three others, but she won’t say anything more.”
“We found only her, so maybe their pods got separated?”
“But then wouldn’t she want to go looking for them, or wonder whether they are still alive?”
Agra suddenly remembered how she had felt when Terga had not escaped the ship.
“She must have a feeling they didn’t make it.”
“You remember how she had bruises on her face when we found her?”
“I’ve been in enough fights to recognize a head-butt injury.”
Agra’s eyes opened. “What are you saying?”
“I think there might not have been enough pods, and there was a struggle…” Yigars stopped. “I don’t know. She won’t talk about it. I think she’s hiding something.”
The door opened. It was Daroo. “Traders, by the gate.”
“Go tell Trion and Ipsena,” Agra said.
“They sent me to get you.”
“Very well. Please put the meat in the freezer?”
Daroo nodded. Agra and Yigars took their weapons and left the kitchen.
Vaega was already outside camp, by the fence of the animal pen. The traders had fanned out in a circle around their little caravan of mules and horses.
By the time Trion, Ipsena, Yigars, and Agra crossed the threshold of the gate, Vaega was already deep in discussion.
“We have a rifle with a few bullets, Pax,” Vaega said.
“We have very good rifles—very accurate—perfect for hunting and defending, and the ammunition to go with.”
Daroo had joined them. Vaega turned to Trion, extending her hand toward the trader.
“This is Pax Valennes, of the Metamex tribe.”
Trion waved. “I’m Trion. I’m happy to meet you.”
Pax smiled broadly. “Likewise.”
“They have rifles and bullets,” Vaega said.
“Really? I’ve been waiting for this. I’ll be right back.” Trion left, running back to camp.
“Do you have food?” Vaega asked.
“A few pemmican balls, a few dry rations, in case we find crash survivors.”
“I see. How about medicine? Do you have Medkits?”
“Only three to spare. I’ll sell or trade those.”
Vaega walked to Daroo and whispered in his ear. “Bring me the jade ball, please.”
Daroo nodded and left.
Vaega returned to Pax. Agra, Yigars, and Ipsena were standing silently with bows and spears, trying to look relaxed yet imposing.
Pax smiled and told Vaega, “tell your friends there is no danger.” His teeth glittered in the sunlight. His skin was the tint of rusted tools left out in the field.
Vaega caught herself admiring him. She didn’t know what it was about him that stirred memories and unsettled her usual poise.
“They’re on the edge since the wilderwolf attack.”
Pax stood back and pursed his lips in appreciation. “A wilderwolf is a fierce animal. Very dangerous.”
Vaega pointed at Ipsena. “She skewered it with a spear.”
“Not a gun?” Pax was taken aback. “That’s impressive. None of us has ever fought a wilderwolf in close combat.”
Ipsena had not moved, and merely rested contrapposto, one knee slightly bent, foot forward by a fraction, holding her spear next to her, the hilt in the grass, the blade above her head, glittering in the light. She seemed fierce and indomitable.
At that moment, a blue and yellow butterfly carried by its flittering batting of wings on an invisible wind made a great circle, looped back, then landed delicately on Ipsena’s forehead. It opened its wings wide and stayed still, seeming happy with its new resting place.
“Blessing of the aflaxid,” Pax said.
From behind him, another voice echoed. “Blessing of the aflaxid.” Now each of the traders looked at Ipsena, some glancing for an instant, others letting their gazes linger.
Daroo and Trion returned together. Pax looked at the rifle Trion handed him, turning it this way and that before handing it back. “It’s been warped. How long was it in the escape pod?”
Trion scratched the back of his head.
“Right. It needs a new barrel.” Pax continued.
“How can we—”
“I’ll trade it for a new rifle and ammo. What else can you give in exchange?”
“How many bullets?” Vaega asked.
Pax looked at Vaega, glanced at Ipsena, then walked back to one of the mules. He returned with a leather rifle case and a satchel.
“This rifle’s been machined in our armory workshop, far to the north. It’s accurate to five hundred meters in the right hands.”
Pax pointed at the rifle in Trion’s hands. “I wouldn’t trust this past ten meters.” He turned to Vaega. “A thousand silver for this rifle and ammo.”
Vaega took the jade orb from Daroo and placed it in Pax’s hands. She saw him hesitate. “We’ll add a kinetic vest and helmet.”
“And some bullets for this pistol?” Trion asked.
Pax closed his eyes and squeezed his lips together. He opened his eyes again. “I will trade, yes.”
At that very moment, the yellow and blue butterfly launched into flight from Ipsena’s impassive forehead, spinning into the air in a great circle before turning north.
Agra watched the scene with interest and new understanding.
Later that night, around the campfire, they were eating quietly. Ipsena had not said a word all afternoon, and now in the coming darkness there seemed a great sadness had descended on her and robbed her face of smiles.
A single drop of rain, heavy and loud, landed on the bench. It left a dark, wet patch on the flat stone.
They quickly put everything away and retired for the night in the cabin.
Everyone was in their own bed, exhausted and wanting a good rest, but before they could sleep, Ipsena spoke quietly. “Would it be okay if I sing?”
Vaega replied. “It would be lovely.”
In the dark cabin, accompanied by the drumming of raindrops on the roof, Ipsena sang to herself and to them. Her voice, solemn and grave, then lilting and cheerful, intoned an old prayer to Esiron.
In her sleepiness, Agra heard these words repeated several times until Ipsena fell asleep and her chanting ended.
“Thou lover and friend, always on my mind, your sweet presence felt, Esiron, Esiron, guide me through the night.”
Next chapter: Rainy Season
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