Aug 232012

Detail from "The Bellman"-- Moonrise behind foothills with sleeping village in foreground.Ravin slithered against the side of the stable, and became one with its shadow. The Klarosian patrol, searching, was making its way up this narrow, dusty street. Four men—at least they accorded him that respect—he smiled a little grimly at the thought.  Four might be enough, if they were the right men. Two were in the street, in front of the small shops, houses, businesses. Two moved through the narrow dirt alley behind, checking stable yards, storage sheds, forges, gardens. Even in the crowded streets of the older parts of town, every Veran tried to have some kind of garden.

The Klarosians methodically tramped over and through any vegetation that impeded their search pattern. As they reached a particularly lush yard, crackling heavily through stands of rennit-bushes, Ravin swarmed up the drystone wall of the tiny stable, in an instant, almost noiselessly. On the roof, he lay flat, his dark-grey tunic and breeks blending seamlessly with the roof slates in the dim moonlight.

Now the patrols were directly below. One kicked the stable door open—a gratuitous action, as there was no lock, but a simple wooden peg-bolt, easily enough lifted. But Klarosians liked kicking doors in. The startled whuffle of the kouri inside blended with the heavy tread of the trooper as he methodically checked the stall, the grain-bin, the harness-nook. A moment’s silence. Was he looking up? Considering the roof?

It would be a difficult and noisy climb for anyone but a stealth-trained Guardian, who learned in years of grueling training to move with the noiseless celerity of smoke. Breathing with noiseless, purposeful relaxation, he became part of the roof slates.

Below, a few harsh, staccato Klarosian syllables were whispered. Ravin grinned. Noisier than a whole herd of kouri, these troopers. The heavy bootfalls moved on. He remained where he was, considering.

They would reach the end of the street, then what? Send for reinforcements? Continue the search as a unit? Split up and move in two directions along the cross street? Wait, sending one of their number back to the intersection, to cut off possible routes there? Still motionless, Ravin waited, every sense alert.

At the end of the street, Rankserj Traggoj and Trooper Wedat, waited for the other two troopers to report in. Trag knew they hadn’t lost the Guardian yet. He was still in the village. But the portable LD unit that was such an efficient tracking device in the warrens of a habitat was so much less effective as to be virtually useless on this primitive, Creator-rejected, anachronist world. Too many life-forms in close proximity, not enough plastic and metal to provide proper background differentiation.

The troopers moved up from a little alley, at a jog. A quick headshake from each. Almost silently, using signs and a whispered order or two, Trag deployed his men. One trooper jogged to the end of the main street that trailed off into a travel-track, leading through the rocky defile that was the beginning of the Redval foothills. He would position himself at a high vantage point and scan the area with the snoopscope.

Wedat he sent back to Villruadh’s crossroads, a point from which all the main approach and departure routes from the small village could be observed. The third trooper he motioned into the shadows near the largest of the stone houses, with a quick signal. All three clicked their teeth to activate the close-contact circuits on their communications implants, and made subvocal acknowlegments.

With a not-too-elaborate gesture, Trag palmed a button on his communications panel. In an audible voice, he reported:

“Patrol VR3, reporting. Search object is still concealed within the village; we have been unable to acquire. Suggest commencing plasma obliteration of the village in 10 time-clicks, we will evacuate immediately.”

He waited a moment, then pressed a contact-seek button twice, generating two small clicks that might betoken acknowledgement. “Received.”

With that, he gestured to the man in the shadows, and jogged back down the main street to the crossroads. The trooper there fell into step with him, and they continued on out of the village.

Flattened on the rooftop perhaps thirty yards from where the Klarosian had made his report, Ravin considered. Was it a bluff?

There was no doubt that the Klarosians could obliterate the village in one quick bombing run. The plasma shells would thermally destructure/restructure all matter within their range in a fraction of a second. He’d seen the results. Inanimate lumps of matter where humans, plants, rock, wood, metal had been. Organic and inorganic material melted together into shapeless lumps of slag.

But wartime intelligence indicated that the Klarosians had a limited supply of the highly sophisticated weapons. Would they waste two or three of them, just to kill one Guardian? He already knew that the lives of the citizens of Villruadh would not even enter into their calculations. They’d shown themselves more than willing to inflict appalling civilian casualties to achieve tactical and strategic objectives.

Ravin was no Klarosian. Not even the elaborate, intensive, ferocious mind and body conditioning of Veran’s League of Guardians encompassed the ability to calculate a few hundred Veran lives as acceptable collateral for one Guardian. He didn’t think they’d waste their precious plasma shells on him. But he couldn’t be certain.

He reviewed the disposition of the Klarosian patrol as he’d seen it vanish, and called up in his near-eidetic memory a topographical analysis of the village and its surrounding terrain. Silently, he eased himself down from the shed roof. In the space of five heartbeats, he reorganized his metabolism. Moving like a shadow around the silent cottage, he stepped into the street, into the clear shaft of moonlight—

And exploded into a broken-pattern run of blinding speed. Behind him, a forcebeam tore a three-foot, smoking slash in the packed gravel of the road. The humming whine twisted down the erstwhile-silent streets, but he was gone already, even as shutters flapped open, and sleepy, cautious voices made bewildered enquiries.

Twice more the forcebeam left scars in walls or street, before he reached the cover of the canyon of stone dwellings that lined the village’s main cross-street. Behind him, he could hear pursuit, running feet… two men. And one at the top of the village with a ‘scope and a long-range weapon. That left one man unaccounted for. But at least they knew where he was, now.

Moderating his pace just slightly, he settled into a speed/endurance pace that would keep him ahead of any foot pursuit, with his lead, for a considerable time. Using cover where he found it—walls, buildings, trees—he reached the end of the village, where the buildings thinned and the road wound in a sloping curve toward the foothills and the demesne lands of House Red Branch, the Keepers of the Val’Hal pass.

He would have a short respite, when the man with the long-range weapon must move his position or lose his vantage. That should come—a quick glance at the foothills rising on his right—in about ten seconds. Ravin calculated it to the last second, then veered from the road, just as another forcebolt from his pursuers plowed into the spot he would have occupied had he maintained his run.

They were better than many Klarosians, or perhaps they’d encountered Guardians before. It hadn’t taken them long to assess the inevitable pattern in his run, and adjust their targeting.

He moved slower now, a necessity to minimize his trail in the brush. Instinctively, he veered around a stand of balathorn plants, and sought the cover of the sinuous, flexible fronds of a high-growing relnara colony. A few steps away, a hidden syncline offered better cover and a possible escape route—if he could reach it.

Two of the Klarosians were already circling to flank his last known trajectory, and the one with the forcebeamer was moving around the embankment that protected Villruadh’s small hydrocharge mill, where a rise in the streambank would give him firing vantage in this direction. Now or never.

Noiseless as a shadow, Ravin slid out of the relnara spikes, and vanished into the steep defile.

Eight clicks later, Trooper Wedat found the sharp, twisting, trenchlike defile by falling over the edge. But by that time the Guardian was long gone.

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