keeps this site and its author alive.
Stories from the Verse
Re Verse All
Chapter 25: Hastings 194
Table of Contents
Previous chapter: Beam 63
Their new tunnel was considerably larger than the previous one. It was wide enough that they could have traveled four abreast and still had enough elbowroom to fight an enemy. The ceiling was also higher--not vaulting like the caverns, but a good fifteen to twenty feet. It was devoid of stalactites and stalagmites, which Lauren realized meant it was either considerably newer or considerably dryer than the other places they had been. She wondered what had made it so.
It also had a slight but distinct downward slope.
Lauren was on rear guard today. She had not realized it previously, but one member of her squad and one member of Malacon’s squad had the perhaps less than pleasant task of walking behind the animals to keep a watch for anything following them. Her companion in this was a man, human from what she could tell, named Apatukwe. He seemed to be highly alert, and Lauren was reluctant to talk to him entirely because she did not want to disrupt his concentration. He carried a lantern set up to shine in one direction and equipped with a shutter to blind it quickly without snuffing it, and was constantly looking behind, above, left and right, as he walked quietly in soft boots. Lauren felt that her presence was redundant, that she would not notice anything he had not noticed first. However, redundancy was often the key to survival. She remembered a joke she had read somewhere in which someone was telling astronauts in a malfunctioning space capsule that they had to cut the budget somewhere and couldn’t afford wall-to-wall carpet and also a backup life support system.
Apatukwe stopped; Lauren realized it immediately, and also stopped. The animals kept pace with the troop ahead.
“Do you hear that?” he asked quietly.
She paused a moment, and said in the same tones, “For what should I be listening?”
“Something is following us.”
Lauren tried to send her clairvoyance back up the trail behind them, but it was quickly met with darkness; whatever was there, if there was something, didn’t need light.
“I don’t see anything,” she said.
“Don’t look,” he answered. “Listen.”
She shifted to the clairaudience and sent it the same direction. Fortunately, she thought, the path has been straight with a consistent slope--even so, it was entirely possible that her remote hearing would go through a wall or floor or ceiling. In a moment, though, she did hear something, the sound of a group probably walking behind them.
“Yes,” she said, “there’s something back there.”
“The orcs, I’d wager,” Apatukwe said.
It made sense. The orcs had sent them this way, but had said it was a dangerous road. They probably expected the group to hit some kind of trouble that would leave them too busy to protect their rear, or even that would rout them into the waiting weapons of the orcs, giving easy plunder to the creatures. “So, what do we do?” she asked.
Apatukwe turned abruptly and took a quicker pace to catch up with the receding team. “We should inform the leadership. At this point, Tiras won’t engage a group that hasn’t been aggressive, and we can’t really say that following us is aggressive whatever we think their intentions are. But they should know. So one of us should keep watch here while the other gets past the animals and informs a squad leader.”
Nodding, Lauren replied, “As much as I dislike leaving you back here without someone to watch your back, I’m persuaded that you are much a better watchman than me, and I’ll bet I can get past those animals much more easily than you, so I’ll go inform Gojo. Bring my wagon.” On a confirming nod from Apatukwe, Lauren levitated above the animals and flew forward until she reached Gojo Mupar in the front of her squad. She landed alongside him. Malacon was also there. Both of them instantly had hands on the hilts of their weapons, but she said, “It’s Lauren, with news from the rear.”
It could not be said that either of the seasoned fighters relaxed, exactly, but they did release their grips on their weapons. She continued.
“We are being followed. We think it’s the orcs, but we haven’t seen them, only heard their footfalls in the distance.”
Gojo nodded and glanced at Malacon before answering.
“Carry the message to Tiras,” he said, “and wait to bring back his instructions.”
Lauren nodded, and concluding that that was the entire message she again flew forward, landing alongside the winged leader of the mission. He showed no surprise, and although he was not touching his weapons Lauren had the distinct impression that he could have them drawn at least as fast as she could had he thought it necessary.
“Yes?” he prompted.
“Apatukwe and I have heard footfalls following us which we think are the orcs we encountered earlier. We haven’t seen them.”
Tiras walked several steps in silence, apparently thinking. Sheegoka spoke.
“They expect we will walk into some kind of trap, and that they will be able to attack us when we have been weakened.”
“Undoubtedly,” Tiras responded. “But what would you have us do? Malacon would certainly advise that we stop and kill them, but I’m sure you and Gojo would agree with me that we are not going to kill creatures whose only threat is theoretical. It is not enough that we oppose evil; we must do so while remaining good.”
He turned his attention to Lauren. “Do you and Apatukwe have any advice?”
It was Lauren’s turn to pause for a moment of thought, but she thought of something.
“You know your world and your mission far better than I,” she said, “But I think it a mistake to plan to fight a two-front battle without better information. Stop here. Send scouts ahead to try to learn what is ahead--it can’t be too far or it wouldn’t be worth it for the orcs to follow us. Meanwhile, set a defensive line to the rear. If it is the orcs or some other group hoping to ambush us, they will try not to be seen, and so won’t approach; if it isn’t, they’ll continue their advance and we’ll find out who they are and ask what they want.”
Tiras raised a hand, and the columns stumbled to a halt.
“Good plan. Tell Gojo and Malacon that I want a meeting, and then rejoin Apatukwe on the rear guard. As soon as we have organized who will do what, someone will let you know.”
Lauren nodded. She felt like she should say something like, Yes sir, but she didn’t. Instead she flew back over the heads of the party, delivered the message to Gojo and Malacon, and returned to let Apatukwe know what was happening.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with five other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #361: Characters Explore. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: