The industrial radblowers were effective, yes, but the road
wasn't built to drain off such torrents of meltwater, and the wheels of the
carts were dragging heavy in an ankle-deep stream. Porett had played with
the idea of constructing some kind of mounted shovel to divert the main
flow away, but there was nowhere else for it to go; except for where his
forward scouts were clearing a path, the whole of this part of Elet was
under a cake of snow. The flakes still fluttered, fell.
He reached inside his coat, felt for the small bottle. Warm,
good; if its contents were to freeze and crack it open, a lot of people would
be very dead, very quickly. What if it took him, took everyone? His com-3
soul would wretch in desolate solitude.
He began to gesture, readying the Trans/Disc box to bring in
grain for the horses. There was a wood ahead, evergreens, a place to
shelter from the pitiless weather. Convenient, but what kind of a country
was this that had roads running through clumps of trees instead of around
them? Didn't they have bandits? A pinch point like that was a gift to
outlaws! Yet in Elet it was almost commonplace: today alone, there must
have been five or six such copses straddling the highway. It was
suspiciously like they were placed there deliberately. Strange, though, that
the main routes bypassed towns, but not -
His sound-set picked up people, running in, quick. He broke off
mid-gesture, shouted, "Helmets on, we're under attack!" His hand slid
back to his saddlebag, reaching for a flash thrower as the enemy came into
view: Elets! Hundreds of them!
His mercenaries had reacted instantly, were at their posts within
moments. The Elets checked their advance, were drawing bows. Close
enough for accuracy, but the point armour could take it, and helmets would
deflect any shots to the head.
There was no word of command, but the Elets released their
arrows together. Porett felt himself brace, instinctive, ready for the
momentary tightening that followed impact. He heard the peppered thuds as
the flight hit, but found himself tumbling to the ground, a sudden tumult of
pain screaming around him.
What? He hadn't felt - hell, they've gone for the horses! He'd
thrown himself clear, saved a crushed leg, but others weren't so lucky.
There were arrows studding everything, but maybe half were in horseflesh.
Someone was helping him to his feet; he realised that he still gripped the
flash thrower in his hand, peered determinedly through the icy swirl, sought
a target among the onrushing foe, furious to show an immediate response...
Nothing met his eyes except the white and grey of the
featureless, focus-teasing snowscape. The Elets were gone.
He noticed his whole left side was soaked, looked down. The
river of radblown water ran red around his boots.
* * *
Malva would have been able to hold the mercs together better.
Porett wasn't a soldier, didn't know the right things to say to them, or what
they'd been trained to expect. They were scared, clearly, so reasoning
wasn't going to work, and that meant he'd have to use threats.
So, when four of them approached him, weapons drawn,
demanding to be transferred to Trilith, Porett made a few quick gestures
and burned the leader alive. His victim co-operated splendidly by reacting
in a most spectacular fashion, although when you're wearing flameproof
point armour that's been inverted then even rolling around in the snow isn't
ever going to save you.
That gave Porett the respect of the others, but how long it
would last he wasn't sure. He encouraged them to believe he'd port in more
horses, but just how you'd get even a mule to fit in a Trans/Disc box he
didn't know. Maybe he'd try arrange something once the device was out of
Most of his men were now hauling the carts towards the clump
of trees up ahead, where the group would be unobservable, safe from
arrows. Guarding the flanks and directing the radblowers were the
remaining men and all the women (only three: despite her disposition,
Malva apparently regarded others of her gender as potential challengers).
Porett had sent a small party forward to check for waiting Elets, but they'd
found none. He didn't doubt that the attackers were still nearby, staying out
of sight, but at least they weren't waiting in the wood. He'd have time there
to think out the situation, decide what to do next. Maybe he'd merge with
the com-3 and set two minds working on it.
* * *
It was dark, and he'd lit a fire. A simple sequence of gestures,
but impressive to his magic-illiterate mercenaries. The branches of the leafy
trees made wonderful tinder, even though damp from the snow; they had a
sticky, sweet-smelling sap that caught ablaze the moment it was shown a
spark. Great for grilling pony steaks, or whatever the hell that was in the
Skis would be the best way of getting to Liagh Na Laerich. That
would mean dismissing the Lowlanders, of course, but the Akreans should
be competent. How to move the Trans/Disc transmitter, though?
He sighed. What an expensive folly this had turned out to be!
The Elets had him pretty well beaten: he couldn't really continue the
expedition without his sole means of returning to civilisation. He'd been
prepared at the outset for a reasonable level of risk, but not the amount
entailed by abandoning his only lifeline. Maybe he could flick a porter spell
to propel the box along? No, you have to be stationary when you use one of
those, or you never know which direction you're moving it.
Would it really be so bad if he didn't find out how Sage
overcame magic? He could wait, learn later, after Justan had done for the
Elets. She'd still torment him, though, pain him with ever-worsening side-
effects she didn't even know about. Perhaps, if she did know, she'd stop?
Was there some way to bargain with her? Not for a while, no; not before
she'd killed him...
What if he didn't merge, just overwrote the sphere, spoke from
there but never recombined his dual experiences? Daily suicide? Ha! At
least then there'd be no risk of Sage hitting him mid-merge - and the
thought of that had haunted him for days.
It's over, better admit the fact and go home. Merge with the
comsphere now and -
"Fire!" Sentries, all around, panicked. Flaming arrows, must
be, despatched simultaneously. A trap!
"Stay your ground" he bellowed. "You're safe in your point
armour!" A fire-dripping branch fell before him, he heard crackling above.
Damn, the foliage is alight! But it should be too wet, shouldn't it?
More timber was crashing down, hell, this has taken hold
quick! His mercenaries were running for the open, ignoring orders,
desperate to avoid being cooked alive. He heard shouts, screams - the Elets
were waiting for them, beating them to death with clubs, maces, morning
The Trans/Disc box! The air was thickening with fragrant
smoke, hot, rasping to the throat. He struggled to his feet, felt the sting of
airborne ash in his eyes. There was fire everywhere, spitting, cracking -
how had it got such a hold? They must have used pitch or something. Life,
where's that box?
Breathing was difficult, hell, the flameproofing would stave off
fire but he was going to suffocate! His eyes were steaming tears, his lenses
aggravated, he could hardly see. Is that the T/D? Yes! He staggered, groped
for the side, hot to the touch but not alight. Good, strong, Muraki oak! He
clambered in, began gesturing. Above him, the sky was raging with intense
yellow flame, flowing patterns of gold and orange flooding chaotically
across. Breathless, keep calm, make the gestures, get out of here...
* * *
He opened his eyes, slowly. They hurt. Slate-grey clouds were
overhead, slipping silent snowflakes into drifting descent. He turned his
head. About him was the charred fossil of what was once woodland. Smoke
rose in wisps from glowing cinders, winding with the steam that hissed
whenever a flake touched. His throat was scrapingly sore.
He realised the Trans/Disc box was still smouldering, that it
was why he wasn't covered in more than a dapple of snow. Was he burned?
Or had the suit saved him? He remembered starting the gestures, but not
finishing them. Must have passed out, else the spell would have blown me.
He moved his hands: no pain. Slowly, he levered himself
upright. There was still a good deal of heat around, mainly fallen branches,
burning like Winter logs. He figured that the Trans/Disc cabinet had saved
him, kept him away from the flames at ground level. Luck, though, that
nothing alight had dropped in from above.
The box had been on the back of a cart; most of that was gone
now, just a fragile black frame with pinpricks of dying red when the wind
blew. As for the transmitter itself, well it was useless. The cheap glass
com-1 once fixed on the top was broken, split in two. Maybe the heat,
more likely the fall that did it. He felt for his com-3, he'd had it hanging
from his belt last night. It wasn't there, but his eye caught it in a corner,
where it had rolled when its pouch had scorched open. Relief! His other self
would have had hours to think of some way out of this, he could merge
now and... What was that noise?
He threw himself back, flat against the rear panel of the
Trans/Disc transmitter, breath held, heart pumping wildly. His still-
functioning sound-set had picked up the squelching of feet on slush, over to
his right, along the road. He'd only glanced, but it was mortifying: Elet
after Elet, a vast column, trudging eastwards, grim, purposeful, muted.