Cran Palto | Books | Raheem




Chapter 14

A visible leader is a problem, not a solution.

—Radhika Dubey, The Philosophy of Exploration

Vaega kept track of days. She wrote in a little journal at the research bench in which she noted the date, the weather, the temperature, the condition of the soil, the humidity, the way clouds looked as they raced across the sky or hung around like marshmallows clinging to invisible sticks.

She was standing in the middle of the garden, eyes on the leaves of potato plants, watching dew glitter in the very early morning light.

A crack like a branch falling to the ground sounded just outside the palisade. Vaega froze.

“Ah!” A plaintive, desperate cry, then a muffled voice urging: “keep quiet!”

Vaega stepped backward through the rows of potato plants, then turned and ran back to the cabin.

She burst in through the door. Trion was not there. Agra was asleep.

Vaega shook Agra. “Wake up, wake up!”

Agra sat upright in the bed. “What’s wrong?”

Vaega pointed outside toward the gate. “There are people outside. I think one got caught in a trap.”

Agra stood and shook the sleepiness off. She grabbed her spear in her right hand. “Find Trion!”

Vaega nodded, then dashed outside.

“Vaega,” Agra called after her, “arm yourself.”

Vaega looked back at Agra. Her eyes were full of fear and uncertainty.

“Bow and arrows. Shoot with all your strength,” Agra said. Then she then ran toward the gate.

Vaega went back inside and took the bow Trion had made for her. She had only hunted rabbits and a single squirrel. She took five arrows and held them and the bow with her left hand. Then she went to the work shed to find Trion.

At the gate, Agra stopped and crouched behind the wooden wall, shielded from the corridor of traps. She heard someone moaning in pain, down toward the entrance of the corridor. She heard another voice. “I can’t get you loose. I can’t cut it.”

Agra raised her head into the shooting embrasure. It was a narrow, vertical V cut into the wood. She lined up her right eye at the narrowest opening. Fifteen meters from her, two men were kneeling in the path. One held his arm up at an odd angle. He was covered with blood. The other had a strange bow, which he had propped up against the wall while he tried in vain to free his companion, who had sprung a trap. A long, barbed steel rod had punctured his right arm through, the barbed tip making it impossible to pull it back out again.

Vaega found Trion in the cold room, stacking up frozen chunks of meat. When he saw her carrying a bow and arrow, he understood and got the pistol from the workshop. “Where’s Agra?”

“At the gate, with her spear.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

Vaega hesitated, her eyes darting from left to right, looking for a place to hide.

Trion took her right hand in his left. “Come with me. I’ll show you what to do.”

When they reached the gate, they crouched behind the wooden wall next to Agra.

She turned her face to them and whispered, “two men, armed. One is stuck in a trap.”

Trion turned to Vaega. “If you see someone, shoot like with the rabbits, but fast and as hard as you can. If they are aiming at you, duck, roll away, and take cover.”

Vaega dropped four arrows to the ground and notched the fifth awkwardly between the wood of the bow and her left index finger.

Trion whispered to Agra, “have you heard any others?”

“No one else, no,” Agra replied.

Behind them, while they were talking, Vaega pulled on the bowstring, stood so her head and shoulders cleared the wall, and let loose her arrow toward the men kneeling in the corridor. She returned to crouching and picked up another arrow. Trion looked at Vaega with a strange stare, but said nothing. Agra peeked in the embrasure. The man stuck in the trap had not moved. The other had picked up his bow and was notching an arrow. His body was half-hidden behind the end of the palisade.

Trion stood, pointed the pistol, and fired. The noise of the gunshot echoed like a clap in the corridor. The bullet struck the palisade and splinters exploded.

A scream. The stranger dropped the bow and fell to his knees.

“Uweps! Leave me, get to safety. Go get help!” The man with the arm in the trap begged.

“I can’t leave you, Yigars! You’re as my brother!” The other pleaded miserably.

“Go! Get to safety!”

“I’ll come back for you!”

An arrow struck the wall next to Uweps’ head. Vaega had shot again.

“Go! Leave me! Go!” Yigars cried out in desperation.

With a great anguished cry, Uweps stood and turned, escaping beyond the palisade, holding his left hand over his bleeding cheek.

Agra opened the gate slightly and looked for others.

Vaega took another arrow and stood to shoot again. Trion put his hand on her left shoulder and said, “enough.”

Agra closed the gate again. “He’s gone. I saw no one else.”

Vaega was standing with her bow in her hand, eyes and face pointed to some horizon, not moving. Trion came to stand in front of her and took the bow, then set it against the wall. He took her hands in his and looked down at her eyes. Slowly, after several seconds, she lifted her eyes to his. Trion felt a chill. In Vaega’s eyes, he saw death, or rather murderous intent. This shook him and he dropped Vaega’s hands.

Agra saw this and understood. She remembered Chorix, the moment the tip of her blade had pierced him, how he had struggled to live, but how she had felt nothing at that moment but feral satisfaction.

“Vaega,” Agra called out softly.

Vaega shifted her eyes to Agra without turning her head.

Agra brought her body against Vaega’s gently, deliberately, and held her in a tight hug. She cradled her head with her left hand and at last Vaega let it rest against her shoulder.

“You did the right thing. You made an enemy flee. We are safe because of you,” Agra said. She slowly caressed Vaega’s back. “Thank you.”

Vaega lifted her head again and looked into Agra’s eyes. “I wanted—I wanted to kill.”

Agra held Vaega’s gaze and matched its intensity with her own, but did not reply or comment, letting that last word hang in the air that surrounded them.

Trion was running back from getting a metal saw. “Let’s see about the man in the trap.”

Trion approached the man, who had slumped from exhaustion, and cut the metal bar off the spring mechanism. Agra helped carry him to the little jail infirmary where Vaega pulled the rod through, cleaned his wound, sewed the skin, and dressed his arm.

The man was younger than them by several years. While cleaning him, Vaega noticed that Agra’s gaze lingered several times on his copper-tone, muscular body.

In the evening after dinner, they checked on Yigars one more time but he had not moved. His breathing was steady; his fever was low. They locked up the jail and went back to their cabin.

In the darkness, Vaega could not sleep. Trion’s breathing had this characteristic purring that came and went randomly, that told her he was sound asleep. She turned her head to see Agra’s bed, and in the darkness, tried to find her face, her eyes. When she found them, she saw Agra was wake and staring at her. Rather than feeling startled, she experienced a wave of gratitude.

Without a word, Vaega rose from her bed, taking her furs with her, and stepped on the cold wooden floor to Agra’s bed.

Even though the frame and makeshift straw mattress were narrow and uncomfortable, Agra scooted to the edge and Vaega laid down, her back to Agra’s body, who cradled her and covered her limbs with furs.

When they had settled and the only movement was the gentle rhythm of their breathing, Agra whispered a lullaby in Vaega’s ears, one common enough throughout the galaxy to soothe little ones to sleep.

All the stars in the sky,

All the flowers on the ground,

All the people everywhere,

Are not as precious as you.

Sleep, sleep my lovely,

I will stay and watch over you,

From nightfall ‘till morning.

Vaega smiled. She was uncertain whether Agra knew this song was popular among lovers, but she did not wonder further and simply enjoyed this unexpectedly intimate gift. She fell asleep with a smile on her lips.

Next chapter: Making Bows

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