“What’re we gonna do about all our bags and stuff?” Audlay-asked. “I mean, we can’t carry all that, and not even your cute little pony can take all that much.”
“Yeah, we’re gonna be in the middle of nowhere,” Kuzi agreed.
“I had hoped we could take more by hiring natives or animals when we needed them,” Campos told them both. “It seems like we can’t count on anything being what we think of as normal up here, though. We’re just going to have to go through the stuff, see what we have to take and what we can take. Anything else will have to be left.”
“You can leave that bird for all I care,” Audlay commented. “That thing’s gonna be what takes up a lot of room.”
“We can use some of the clothing to make a kind of brace, and she is light enough to be able to be carried by our pack mule here. If she is truly charmed, she won’t starve. With all these plants there must be insects by the millions, so if we just tie her to a stake at night with a very long rope, she can go find her own food. The Mixtim say that the natives here are not hostile but demand respect and that fruit and such are available if you do. We will have to depend on that.”
When the train stopped for the servicing in a wooded glade near a rushing waterfall, it was already very late in the day. They had spent a full day and night going back and forth on the trains of Mixtim and now, at the end of a second day, were in the middle of nowhere in Leba. The two companions were not at all thrilled with this adventure anymore, and Campos was beginning to wonder if she hadn’t made a mistake herself.
It was gray and depressing, there was a light rain falling-there always seemed to be a light rain falling-and they were in a wilderness setting surrounded by mountain-sized rolling hills. Where there wasn’t grass or puddles there was mud. “You sure this is a good idea?” Kuzi asked her. “I mean, we’re gonna go off in this muck toward who knows what. And we don’t even know if anybody’s really following us! If they just got an all-points out, hell, we oughta go on to that high-tech place at the end of the railroad and be comfortable for a night or two until we can figure out what to do next.”
“Sounds good to me,” Audlay chimed in, looking at the mud as if it were acid about to swallow her up.
Campos shook her head. “No, I have been hunted before. You get a feeling for it. Still, we cannot do much, starting this late in the day. Perhaps before we do figure out anything, we ought to see just who we are up against. I propose that we stop here and camp out, no matter how miserable that sounds, but not close to here. Up there, overlooking these yards, might be far enough if we can fool these Mixtim staff into thinking we went some other direction. Then we wait for more trains and we see who gets off. There is one late-night train and then not another until morning. There is also no question that we can hear them when they come. If we look and no one gets off of either train, or no one gets off who does not then climb back on, we can decide what to do, perhaps even take something of a risk and catch the next train after that toward civilization.” “But what if a bunch does get off?” Kuzi asked her.
“Then we will be in back of them rather than ahead. Then, if they do not discover that we remain near here, they will go off into this wilderness in search of us. If they do figure out our plan, then we will have to deal with them. Come. We are in for some very heavy lugging that will take all of us and Lori to do and then a more miserable climb and a miserable dark, wet night. But by tomorrow we may well be able at last to act.”
Kuzi looked around nervously. “I wish we’d seen some of these Lebans. I’d like to know what we’re dealin’ with here.”
“Oh, yuck!” Audlay said with obvious disgust as she sank ankle-deep into thick brown mud. “I don’t think I’m gonna be able to take this!”
“Just pretend you’re back on the farm you ran away from,” Campos told her. “You weren’t city born and bred.”
“Yeah, but that was comfortable!. I just didn’t realize it till now.” Campos grew alarmed. “Don’t you cry on me, you silly wimp.’ Give me a hand with this-now!”
It was said in the Campos tone of voice that few ignored; those who did lived to regret it.
They had managed, with Lori doing some pulling, to get what gear they’d saved a hundred feet up the mountainside, although it was exhausting work. Mavra was finally out of the box and on a rope tied to her ankle, but she was expected to walk, and she managed, her feet actually able to dig into the mud and turf, although she moved slowly.
Although near exhaustion, Campos made sure that they had a tent up and that the gear was either repacked or sufficiently hidden from view. The station crew had paid them no real attention, but they were certainly bound to be remembered, so after all was said and done, leaving everything on the bluff overlooking the yard, the three of them and Lori managed to make a show of going down, through the whole yard, across into the darkness beyond, and off toward the northwest. They then circled around, came up below the yard, crossed the tracks, and at last made it back up to the camp.
If anybody in the yard was asked, he would swear that the trio had gone off in that direction.
It was enough, but it had been done only with Campos threatening and cursing. In the latter stages she was pretty physical with them, particularly Audlay, but it was accomplished.
Now there was nothing to do but huddle in the tent, in the sleeping bags, and wait for the sound of a steam locomotive.
The late-night train had brought nobody familiar, nobody suspicious, and nobody who didn’t look like a large insect. Campos didn’t know whether to be relieved or worried, but she decided that finally she might be able to get some sleep. It seemed like only an instant, but somebody was shaking her, and hard. She resisted, then started, reflexes taking over, and grabbed the nearest strange arm.
“Take it easy!” Kuzi snapped. “You was out like a light! I heard the train and went down and took a look, and you’ll never believe who got off.” Campos shook herself awake. “Who?”
“Your jilted lover, the great himself!”
“Gen Taluud? Here? But he never goes anywhere! And he never, never does his own dirty work! This isn’t his style!”
“Well, it’s him, all right. Think I could mistake that son of a bitch, fat cigar and all? And he’s got five guys with him; looks like Pern and the whole bodyguard.”
This was an even more unexpected curve. Campos hadn’t expected to be chased by Taluud at all. “Anybody with them?”
“Maybe. I dunno. There was this-this thing with ‘em, and they all seemed to be talkin’ to it, but I couldn’t tell you what it looked like even now. I will tell you they got horses with ‘em, but the horses sure don’t like whatever it was.” Campos pulled herself out of the sleeping bag, every single muscle aching, including some she had never known she had. “Are they still there?” “Last I saw, yeah. I figured I better get back here and wake you up fast.” “You did exactly right. Stay here and keep Audlay quiet if she wakes up and don’t tell her about this yet. If she hears it’s Genny in person, she’ll panic. I’m going for a look myself.”
Kuzi was right; it was Taluud in the flesh, and she really couldn’t make out what the hell that thing with the boys was, either. One thing was for sure: he’d come in style. Not only horses for all the boys but pack animals, too. He must’ve spent a fortune on that outfit. This wasn’t personal anymore, that was clear. She knew him too well. He’d have ducked underground under most circumstances and just sent out feelers to everywhere to report to him if the girls were found. No, for Genny to do it himself, there had to be more to it. There was only one possible explanation: Genny had found out or figured out who the bird was and had come to the same conclusion she had. He’d have stayed in character if he just wanted to give them back as he’d said. No, clearly he knew of Mavra’s value and was determined to use her to work his own deal. Back on Earth her brothers and father had always teased her about thinking too small. Maybe they were right. What would amnesty mean to Genny? He was so crooked, he’d have new charges in a week. And as for riches, he probably had enough stashed away to buy his own hex. She’d had a certain admiration for him from the start for what he’d built and how much he’d accumulated and how comfortable he was with all of it-very much like her own father. Now that admiration was justified. That fat old SOB was rolling the dice for all the marbles, winner take all.
What was that thing with him, though? It kind of flowed or oozed, but sometimes it looked almost like a very large man-an Earth-type man. What could one do to stop it if it found one? she wondered. It would be like shooting into a giant wad of gum. It would be best not to find out. Genny alone would be bad enough. She watched, worried and impatient, until they finally mounted and rode off slowly in the direction they’d faked the crew out on the night before, leaving one of the bodyguards at the station just in case. The thing with them had gone, too; although the animals hadn’t liked it, it had assumed its manlike shape and managed to mount a saddle.
They’d be back because they lost the trail, because there wasn’t one, or because they would finally figure out the deception. Still, where could they go? What could they do at this point? Where they were was as safe as anywhere else around here, and it would be pretty tough to surprise them.
At least it wasn’t raining. It was still as humid as the jungles but much cooler, and there was still a lot of fog and mist around. Without the rain there seemed to be something saying that not everything was hopeless. Audlay was up by the time she returned, and Kuzi had made a small fire with the camper oven, really just a metal device with a chemical fuel that could be used to heat one thing at a time. It didn’t give off a lot of smoke; Campos decided to let them eat something.
Both Lori and Mavra looked wet, muddy, and miserable, but they were still there and still secure.
“You are very popular,” she told them. “We will see who gets who, though, in the end. Do not get your hopes up. No matter who winds up with you, you will still be what you are and they will still lock you away. In a way, you are both very fortunate to be with me and not them. I need you. I need both of you. They only want my little Mavra.”
Lori’s head jerked up. Mavra! So that was what all this was about! If only there was some way to communicate directly with her and not just through Campos! “Yeah, I’m real popular,” Mavra responded. “And hungry. There were some pickings around here, but not enough.”
“You will have to eat what you can. I have nothing to spare right now,” Campos told her. “Would you prefer I shot my pretty pony here and let you feast on him? He’s another like you, you know.”
Mavra turned and looked up at the pony and for the first time noticed the horn, painted black though it was. No. Couldn’t be, she thought. But then again, maybe it could … Like Lori, she tried to think of some way of communicating. An hour later there was the sound of another train pulling in, but it turned out to be going in the opposite direction. For a moment she was tempted; that certainly was one option, considering their fix. But if Genny had left one man here, had he also left others elsewhere? There was that long layover at the border coming up; there was probably a similar one going back and nowhere at all to hide. After another hour there was no sign of Taluud’s party returning, but another train was coming up from the south and it stopped at the station. More people did indeed get off, and they stuck out worse than Cloptans.
Two centaurs-blond and beautiful, Campos thought approvingly. And an unmistakable Erdomite female. Probably the little bitch they said was with Lori on the boat.
And then, suddenly, her bill opened in complete amazement. It couldn’t be! It just couldn’t be! But it was!
Theresa Perez, naked as the day she was born and fatter than a stuck pig but otherwise looking much the same.
Campos couldn’t take her eyes off the girl or fight the near lust for complete revenge that was rising within her. 7 could have them all! Even now! I could have them all to play with …
She saw the Cloptan left behind start to walk out toward the train, spot the other foreigners getting off, and quickly duck back behind a shed, pulling his pistol.
Shoot them all, you idiot! Just leave me the girl …
He looked as if he might well be going to try to do just that, perhaps to all of them, but just as he steadied his arm and aimed, something had him. Something that somehow hadn’t been visible before but now was a huge, monstrous lizard, wide jaws chomping down on the man, who struggled once and was still. The pistol fired once, a totally wild shot that seemed to go nowhere, and that was it. Campos was upset less at the scene than at the sudden appearance of their savior. Where had that creature come from? And for that matter, where was it now?
This was going to take a great deal of thought.
“Sorry to mess up your station. It was not intentional,” Anne Marie told one of the Mixtimite workers. “I’m afraid he was going to shoot us.”
“We have an absolute dictum neither to judge nor to interfere in the strange customs of other races,” the creature responded philosophically. “Please just clean up any messes you make before you leave and take only your memories and what you brought in with you.”
Gus stared at the large insect as he walked off, apparently unconcerned about what had happened. Finally he said, “Why do I feel like I’m about to be arrested by Smokey the Bear?”
“Forget it,” Julian told him. “Good job. How did you spot him?” “Just luck. Even Dahirs have to take a leak now and then.”
“Well, we ought to be more careful from now on,” she warned them. ‘Tony, see if you can find out what this was all about from some of these workers. I want to know what Cloptans are doing here trying to take us out.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Tony agreed, and trotted over to some of the workers who were tending the water tank.
Julian looked around at the high mountains and dense forest with its puffs of fog and frowned. “I don’t like this. I feel very exposed here.” “You went through that whole nasty business at that underground nest of cutthroats, and this beautiful spot makes you more nervous?” Anne Marie responded, a bit amused by the contrast.
“We were attacking there, and they had to contend with us,” Julian reminded her. “Now we’re the sitting targets.” She looked around and above them and then seemed to see something. Her Erdomese eyes adjusted for the long view, bringing the bluff into clearer view as if through mild binoculars.
“Something?” Anne Marie asked, a bit nervous again. “I thought I saw something on that bluff, but I can’t be sure. Whoever it was is gone now, though.” She kept watching the area just to make sure.
Anne Marie twisted around and rummaged through her saddle packs, bringing out a medium-bore rifle with a scope and a clip of ammunition, which she inserted into the stock.
She checked it, then raised it to her shoulder and panned the area, looking through the scope.
“Can you really shoot that thing straight?” Gus asked her worriedly. “My great uncle Reggie used to sit around and tell the family stories about his war in Burma. I’m not sure we believed them, but he was a member of the Aldstone Downs Shooting Club, and he took me with him once when I was still rather young. Took pity on me, I suppose-young girl in a wheelchair and all that. I watched them shoot some clay pigeons, but it looked rather silly. They had a rifle range there, though, and Reggie wanted to show off how good a shot he was to his unbelieving niece. He was quite good, I might say, and just for a lark he let me try it from the chair. It proved quite a good platform for small-bore. He’d take me back now and then because I liked it so much. Finally stopped, though, when I began outshooting him.” She sighed. “He’s long dead now, but these are stronger arms, better eyes, and a much better platform.”
“I wish I could hold something that would shoot,” Julian commented, still looking. “My own abilities seem to be purely defensive and useful only close in.” She finally looked away, and after a moment Anne Marie lowered the rifle. “You are sure you saw someone up there?” Anne Marie asked her. “I’m sure. But who knows? It might be one of the elusive natives for all I can tell about them.”
“Stay here, all of you,” Gus said. “I’m going to go look for myself.” Terry started to follow, but he cut her short. “No! They can’t see me, but they can see you now.”
Tony came back over, noticing the rifle. “What happened?”
“Julian thinks someone is up there. Gus has gone to check,” Anne Marie told her. “In the meantime, I thought we’d be ready just in case,”
“Interesting,” Tony said, thinking and looking at the bluff. “The Cloptans-almost certainly Campos with what might well be Mavra and possibly Lori as well-arrived just before dark last night. They went off in that direction, toward the northwest, leaving much of their baggage behind one of the train sheds, and weren’t seen or heard of again. The colonel and five Cloptans came in this morning, fully armed and with horses and pack mules, left that one back here, and set off after the first group. They, too, haven’t returned.” Julian shook her head slowly from side to side and said, “I wish Gus was back from his scouting. I seem to remember him saying Campos was from a pretty wild area, maybe the jungle, back on Earth.”
“Nobody with any survival experience would go into an unknown wilderness at nightfall. No roads, no trails to speak of. It doesn’t make any sense. And why northwest? Why back yourself up against the equator, which I am told is a solid wall like the Zone wall in Erdom? I kept trying to think what I would do in their place.” She clicked her two hoofed hands together. “That’s it!” They never went anywhere! I’ll bet you they’re right up there in a solid defensive position!”
“We should know when Gus comes back,” Tony said optimistically. “Until then I suggest we move a bit more toward some protection from that bluff just in case there’s a rifle as capable as the one Anne Marie has up there.” “I agree, but I wouldn’t worry too much. After all, they can’t see Gus, you know,” Anne Marie reminded her.
“I wouldn’t get overconfident,” Julian warned. “That is Gus’s one big weakness. I do not think that this Campos is any pushover. If she saw Gus in action …” Mavra had been trying to figure out a way to communicate with Lori. She walked over to the black unicorn pony and looked at the ground. There was a fair amount of mud there, and slowly she began to smooth it over with her broad bird’s feet. Lori, on a short rope tied to a stake, was nonetheless able to come over to the area and watch.
Language … What language? Greek had worked before. Try it.
The feet weren’t adequate for writing, so she leaned over and began writing in the mud with her sharp, slightly curved bill.
Lori understood what she was trying to do but couldn’t make out what it was. Once he had known these things, once he’d read many languages, but it was so hard, so hard to remember … He shook his head no.
Mavra was elated that she’d gotten any reaction at all but disturbed at his inability to read what she thought looked fairly clear. She wished she had been able to learn this English tongue the others knew or at least the alphabet it used. English … England … England was a part of Britannia, right? The Portuguese had hated the English and spoke as if they were not distant in their native lands. So England. Britannia … Conquered by Rome, as had been most of Europe and north Africa. Latin? If something was wrong with learning Greek, he might not remember Latin, either. But what if the alphabets were the same thanks to the Roman conquest? It was worth a try.
Lori twisted, took a look at the letters, and tried to remember, tried to bring something back. A,B,C,D,E,F,G … The old rhyme came from somewhere, and out of the depths of his brain he saw MARVA there.
A nod of the horse’s head.
Mavra felt better. Something was better than nothing. But how was Lori spelled? Did it matter?