LOST COLONY CH. 05-1

Lost Colony: Chapter 05

***

“You owe me four-hundred tokens,” Efreem said.

“Shit!” Sparr cursed. “That was a lucky throw.”

The two were playing a game devised to pass the hours between caravan stops. In the wagons, maidens sang songs, the pious debated theology, and the bachelors argued who was the most successful or had the largest penis. Sparr and Efreem walked alongside, just far enough away to escape the dust.

“All of my throws can’t be lucky, Alain.” He was smiling thinly, a rarity for the otherwise reserved man. “Anyway, it’s your turn.”

“That one,” Sparr said, indicating a tree perhaps thirty meters to the side of the road. “Three, two, one.” Both he and Efreem hurled stones toward the tree. Sparr’s stone struck near the base, but bounced wide. Efreem’s stone landed short before rolling to a stop no more than two meters from the trunk.

“Two hundred and twenty tokens,” Efreem said. “What did we agree on? For each hundred tokens, you’d pack up my tent for a week? A few more rounds and I’ll be set for the entire pilgrimage.”

Sparr groaned. Both he and Efreem had only a handful of tokens. Sparr had earned his at the Departure show one week earlier, the coins raining down as he and Phia had fucked in front of the rowdy crowd. Efreem had been given a few for filling-in for one of the guards. Neither of them had anywhere near enough to gamble. Instead, the two had settled on ‘imaginary’ tokens as a medium of exchange.

“I think you have enough imaginary tokens to buy my freedom.”

“Now, why would I do that?” Efreem asked. “Then you wouldn’t stick around to pack up my non-imaginary tent.”

Sparr had yet to tell Efreem that he had no intention of returning to Vonde with the caravan. Once in Shong, he would either stay to search for answers, or find some new direction. He had toyed with the idea of recruiting Efreem. The man was capable in a fight, and would know local geography and customs. On the other hand, Efreem’s seeming acceptance of enslavement left it unclear whether he would run if given the chance. The question was worth exploring.

“Efreem,” Sparr began, “your village taught its children to fight, as protection against slavers.”

“Yes,” said the dusky skinned man. He picked up a stone and cast it toward a new tree.

“So, why don’t you try to escape? You’re young, fit, handy with a blade. Don’t you want to get back home?”

Efreem stared back at Sparr with his usual, bland expression. He looked back toward the caravan. “The guards are more alert than you think,” he said. “They let us walk alongside the wagons, but no farther than that.”

“I don’t necessarily mean right now,” Sparr said. “At night, or when you go to relieve yourself. Or back at the temple. We could easily have escaped from the roof.”

This time, Efreem’s gaze was more direct. “Why haven’t you?”

“I’ve thought about it,” Sparr said. “But I want to get to Shong, so for now…” He trailed off.

“Why Shong?”

Sparr noticed the way Efreem had redirected their conversation. “Well, I asked you about going back to your village, right? To your family?”

“You have family in Shong?”

“No,” admitted Sparr. “But I may be able to contact them from there.”

Late morning welcomed them, its warm, gentle light chasing away the thin line of clouds. The two men trod over a ground cover of tightly coiled sprouts that grew wherever enough light reached the soil. For a time, Sparr let himself be distracted by the segmented insects that made the plants their home. When nudged, they would curl into a ball.

“Servant or slave.” Efreem hadn’t forgotten Sparr’s question. “My brother was apprenticed to a cooper. I only saw him one time since, before I was captured. He worked long days, slept in the shop, and was given little food.” Efreem produced a twisted smile. “At least I get to see the world.”

It was a fair point. Efreem was fed, had the protection of the group, and even given a few tokens. The same was true for Sparr, who in addition, experienced a surprisingly rich sex life.

“I don’t think they’ll keep us long, Efreem. We don’t belong in the temple.”

Efreem eyed him quizzically.

“Liette bought us to spite the Governor. You she keeps around because they needed one more guard for the pilgrimage. I’m still here because right now she likes having an animal to show off.”

“And because you fuck her.”

“Yes, yes, and because I fuck her. Shit.” Sparr by now had all but given up on any shred of decorum. “But how long will that get me by? Lell already warned me that Liette has a short attention span when it comes to men.”

“So once you get to Shong…” It was Efreem’s turn to dangle a question.

“I don’t know what I’ll find in Shong. But I’m sure the temple isn’t my destiny.” Sparr tried to read Efreem, but the man was like the sphinx. “I could use a friend on my path.”

Efreem turned toward the wagons, then back to face Sparr. “A friend. That’s-.” He was about to say something more when a voice called out to them.

“Efreem, Animal!” Kern, the head of the caravan guard, was calling out. He gestured toward the front wagon. “Clear that!”

The two trotted back toward the first wagon, where a fallen tree had halted the pilgrims. It was thick enough to block the road, but not too heavy to move. The driver had already hopped down to help. Kern watched from the seat of the second wagon.

“You two,” Sparr said, gesturing to Efreem and the driver, “take either side of the branches. I’ll grab the base.” He began to lift the trunk, then stopped. Something was odd. The trunk had been cut with a blade, the wood just starting to ooze a thick sap. Sparr dropped the tree. There was movement. “Kern! Watch out!”

A band of men leapt from concealment along the side of the road, tossing aside the brush which had acted as camouflage. Kern just had time to block a blow aimed at his head. Off balance, he fell back. The attacker, a gaunt, feral-looking man, leapt onto the seat. He might have killed Kern with his next blow, but was startled by the shrieks of the driver, who fled the wagon by leaping between the two draybeasts. Kern dropped the attacker with a kick at his legs. The two grappled desperately.

Two men sprang toward Sparr, each armed with crude knives. The first stumbled, caught up in the camouflaging branches. Sparr lunged, knocking the man backward, and clutching at the arm which held the blade. Like the man attacking Kern, Sparr’s attacker was thin and wiry. Sparr felt the sting of the blade on his arm, but found the man’s wrist. He hammered the man’s hand against the ground, then repeated the motion until the blade fell. When the man tried to wriggle free, Sparr punched him, seized the blade, and drove it into the man’s side.

Something loomed behind him. The second man aimed a blow at Sparr, who, half-laying on the ground and facing away, was defenseless. The best he could manage was to twist away, trying to present a moving target. To his surprise, his attacker faltered. The man turned away. Sparr scrambled to his feet.

Efreem had engaged the man, jabbing and swatting at him with a tree branch, giving ground but staying clear of his attacker’s knife. The man seized the other end of the limb, and for a moment the two wrestled for control. Sparr stabbed him in the spine.

Behind them, the line of wagons was erupting in chaos. Kern had gained the advantage over his assailant, and was slowly choking the man. The other guards hadn’t fared as well. The stout man guarding the supply wagon lay on the ground, dripping blood from half a dozen cuts. Two of the attackers had taken the reins and were trying to goad the draybeasts off of the road. Farther back still, the pilgrims screamed in terror as they fled the wagons. The last two guards still stood, but were outnumbered. Though almost certainly too late, Sparr rushed down the line of wagons toward them, followed by Efreem. One of the guards took a blow from a club and staggered back, dazed. Another of the attackers leapt forward to finish him with a knife. He never reached his target.

Tuck and Drian stormed into the melee, hooting, and swinging the stout poles they used in practice. Tuck struck the shoulder of the man with the knife, disrupting his attack. The man with the club swung, but the youth, perfectly adopting the defensive stance Sparr had taught him, knocked the blow wide. Before the attacker could try again, Drian cracked him hard on the skull.

The ambush turned into a rout. The attackers turned to face the youths, but failed to notice Sparr and Efreem. Sparr slashed one from behind, as did Efreem. As the two men stumbled forward, they became entangled with their remaining comrade. All three fell quickly.

A scream rang out behind them. Sparr, fearing he had missed one of the attackers, sprinted back. Kern was just pulling his sword from the body of one of the two would-be wagon thieves. The other was stumbling frantically toward the edge of the wood. They let him go.

***

It didn’t take long to sort out a new order in the caravan.

They had lost two guards, the stout fellow that had fallen at the supply wagon, and one that Sparr hadn’t seen killed. Another was in terrible pain, probably from a broken collar bone. Silla served this one strong spirits while Kern and Liette quarreled about the correct path.

“Turn back now,” Kern said. The guard captain was a greying, but solidly-built man, a modest network of scars tracing across his cheek, chin, and arms. He was, Sparr decided, exactly the man you’d expect to see if you called central casting and asked for a ‘grizzled veteran’. He continued. “I can’t secure the caravan three men down.”

“We can’t,” insisted Liette. She shook her head. “You know how much is at stake here, both for us and the Governor.” The priestess made clear the implications for the Governor, and, by extension, Kern, if the pilgrimage was a failure.

“Right now, we turn around, we can probably get back safely.” The guard captain’s expression was as hard as Liette’s. “Another attack like that one and what the Governor thinks will be of no interest. Half of securing the caravan is looking well protected. Can’t do that with only three uniforms.”

Liette was about to counter when Sparr spoke up. “If I might,” he said. Liette stared at him coolly.

“Tuck and Drian fought well today. Yes, they need further training, but put them in a uniform, given them a blade, and they’ll look just as dangerous as the men you’ve lost. And they’re young.” Sparr knew this last point wouldn’t be lost on Kern. Both of the fallen men were over thirty-five.

Kern considered it. “We could outfit them, I suppose. They’re undisciplined, though.”

“I’ll keep training them,” Sparr said. “And Efreem and I will guard, too, just like we did today.”

Liette was still fixing Sparr with a cool look. He suspected the priestess didn’t like him reassigning her property. Sparr turned to her. “Liette, I know you took a chance buying us from the Governor. Let us prove that wasn’t a mistake”

The priestess looked past him to Kern. “Are we in agreement?”

Kern grimaced, but nodded. “They can start by helping us bury the dead.”

***

“I think we’re lost, Alain. We’re going to die out here, aren’t we? Get swept out to sea.”

Sparr and Calista bobbed just off of the Florida coast, each in a graphene kayak. But while Sparr sat at peace, Calista worried and fretted.

“We aren’t even two hundred meters offshore,” Sparr reminded her. It wasn’t the first time that his fellow advisor had expressed misgivings about the nighttime excursion. “We’re each tracked within one meter or our position. It’s fine!”

“Great, so they’ll know where to find my body,” Calista grumbled. “Hey,” she said, trying a different tactic, “let’s race back to shore!”

“No!” Sparr shook his head in disbelief. “Can you not sit still for even a few minutes?”

“You’re afraid I’m faster than you. Admit it.”

“I’m afraid we’ll come all the way out here and miss the show.”

The two had put in three kilometers up the coast, at a beach reserved for Alliance crew and passengers. As dusk settled into night, they had paddled just outside the gentle surf to a point that Sparr insisted Calista would love.

“Looks like we missed the show,” Calista said, still restless.

“It’s almost dark enough,” Sparr assured her. “Just enjoy the moment. Float. Relax.” He flicked his paddle to come alongside Calista, who eyed him skeptically.

The two were settling into a cautious friendship. Sparr occasionally flirted with Calista, as much to prompt a reaction as to test for interest on her part. Every so often, he would boast of some new, supposedly appealing, feature of his quarters, if she would only visit him there. So far he had claimed a balcony with a waterfall, a champagne fountain, furniture hand-carved from rare timber, and a violinist who did nothing but wait for Sparr to return with a woman on his arm. For her part, Calista claimed an ever more outlandish set of obligations or difficulties that prevented her from joining him. “I can’t tonight,” she would say, “I’m entertaining the King of Siam.”

None of this prevented them from enjoying time together. In particular, any competitive activity drew Calista’s interest. The two were well-matched at racquetball, and reserved a court more days than not. Sparr’s greater reach served him well, but Calista could change direction quickly, and hit precise corner shots. The woman was extremely competitive. On days where Sparr took two out of three games, Calista would scramble to schedule another court as quickly as possible. And although the two never spoke of it, Sparr strongly suspected that she kept a running tally of games won or lost between them.

Even their kayak outing turned into ‘kayak racing’ when Calista spoke of it. Sparr explained that he simply wanted to show her something beautiful on the water. “Okay,” she had said, “we’ll race, see this mysterious sight, then race back, right?”

But tonight, finally, Calista dropped her guard. The two rocked and bobbed, their boats sometimes drifting apart, sometimes pulling together. The night breeze grudgingly turned cool. Sparr could sense some of the tension between them ease. Gaps began to open in the wall that Calista otherwise so readily hid behind.

“I found this spot in the months leading up to my first mission,” Sparr said. “Used to paddle down here at dusk, just like this. Farther, actually, most evenings.”

Calista kept her eyes on him, but said nothing.

“I needed the exercise, and I like being on the water. It’s soothing.”

“So what’s special about this particular spot, then?” For once, Calista didn’t challenge or mock him.

“I’ll show you,” he said. “The current, when it turns this point, concentrates the plankton.”

“And?”

“And this,” Sparr said. He dug his paddle into the water, and with a sudden motion, stirred the surface.

“Oh my god!” Calista said. The surface of the water, where Sparr had stirred it, flashed alive with blue and green sparks of light.

Sparr did his best to conceal his smile. “And this.” He repeated the move, this time sending a whorl of sparkling light toward Calista.

“What is it?” she gasped. The blonde’s eyes were wide.

“Bioluminescent plankton,” Sparr said. “It’s actually everywhere, but just off this point the effect is particularly strong.”

“It’s beautiful,” Calista said. She flashed a smile.

“Try it.”

With surprising gentleness, Calista mimicked Sparr’s motion, and was rewarded with a small stream of aquatic sparks. She giggled, and repeated the trick. “I had no idea,” she said.

“They were almost extinct, if you can imagine that.” Sparr watched as Calista dipped her paddle into the water with ever more dramatic results. “Three hundred years ago we had almost killed off the oceans.”

“What changed?” Calista was half listening, half distracted.

“Well, when we stopped shipping chemicals across the oceans things got a bit better. When we stopped producing those chemicals altogether, that was the real turning point.” He sighed. “By that time we had lost so many species.”

“I know,” Calista said somberly, but continued to play. “I can see why you were drawn to biology.”

Sparr savored the rare, unguarded moment between the two. It wasn’t just that Calista thrived on competition, there was something else, something that stood between them. To see her giggling and relaxed was a treat he had no intention of interrupting.

When both had their fill of the simple, yet magical, experience, they headed back. Side by side, they teased their way through the swell, any thought of racing forgotten. The only sound was the splash of their paddles against the gulf stream. Sparr was content just to enjoy the night, but Calista held one more surprise.

“It’s a sub,” she said.

“Ahhh, what?”

“It’s a sub. The mass exception that we’re negotiating with the Alliance.”

“A sub? Wow, why?” The unexpected revelation left Sparr off guard.

Calista didn’t meet his gaze, choosing instead to focus on her paddling. “We know Kaybe has liquid water,” she began. “K2 Mineral believes there may be chemical elements found only in suspension in seawater, or possibly in abyssal environments. The sub will let us explore them.”

“Well shit!” It was the best Sparr could manage. His mind raced. “Is there any way we can partner on this? I mean, could we attach-“

“Alain,” Calista said, cutting him off. She chuckled. “Get your own sub!”

***

The attack weighed on the pilgrims. Tuck and Drian were thrilled to be named guards, proudly wearing the Governor’s colors. They strode up and down the line of the caravan self importantly, resting their hands on the pommels of the short swords that Kern had given them. But for the others, the festive mood had turned grim.

Liette did her best to refocus the party’s concerns. “Omm was tested,” she reminded the group. “So too have we been tested on this journey.”

“The guards certainly were,” muttered Toph.

The ambush, and subsequent burial, had slowed the group’s progress. Only after an over long day on the road did they reach the first of the spiritual stops. While Kern instructed the youths how to keep a watch, most of the party settled down for an uneasy meal around the fire. Silla served the Kaybe equivalent of comfort food, a lentil-like bean stew with root vegetables, Kaybe ‘onions’, and a gamey meat that Sparr chose not to enquire about.

“A toast to the fallen,” said Lord Affan. He stood, and raised his glass.

“The fallen!” the group repeated. They drank, and for a time, all were quiet.

“What sort of beasts would do that?” asked Lady Gast. She had been badly shaken by the attack.

“They were starving,” Sparr said, drawing surprised looks. “Did you see them? The one I grappled with was mostly bone.”

“And no plan,” said Lord Toph. “Two of them tried to steal the supply wagon, but the road was still blocked. Plus, they left their friends to fight without them.”

“Yes,” agreed Sparr. “They weren’t bandits or slavers. More like hungry villagers. They were desperate.”

“Well,” said Lady Gast, “that may be, but there’s no cause for violence!”

“You’re absolutely right.” Liette spoke to Lady Gast soothingly, but shot Sparr a warning glance. The meaning was clear. He was Animal, allowed to defend the caravan and perform in bed only, not weigh in on temple business. He turned his attention back to the stew.

As dinner came to a close, Liette once again raised her voice. “Traditionally, we reach this stop before dusk, but Omm’s will was otherwise. No matter.” She stood. “The princes have lit the way. If you will follow me, we will visit the site.”

Leave a Comment