Methven - Day Thirty-Five - Part Two
Our plan--such as it was--depended entirely on Mantami's untested acting skills. It was Pith's idea.
"Hey now! Could we mebbe put th'bad dogs in a whole differ'nt movie?"
Mantami just looked quizzical.
"I do not understand, Mr. Pith."
I translated the Pith-speak into the Traders' Tongue for him.
"He means, 'Why don't we let old Chrome-dome's buddies think you're just a regular Vomisa kid who just stumbled across Ugly and Company while you were out training for your Ordeal?' Right, Pith?"
"Meanwhile, the three of us stay out of sight and keep our ears peeled. All you have to do is strip down, dummy up and let whoever you tune in do the talking. If it's the good guys, we all jump out and yell, 'Surprise!' Otherwise, you just stick to the 'No habla Inglés' routine, spin the wheel and take a look at what's behind Door Number Two."
Gravely, Mantami nodded.
"It is a good plan, Mr. Drew."
"Well..at least it's a plan."
. . .
Just over an hour later, in a ravine a couple of miles north of where Pith--who'd drawn the short straw--stood watch over our wounded, Mantami skinned down to his birthday suit. As he flipped open what, in fact, turned out to be the microphone boom on one of our looted communicators, Bill and I strained to listen from where we were hiding behind a rock the size of a Taurus.
He was immediately greeted by a burst of mostly-unintelligible coughing and barking that I recognized as Vomisa--and whoever was speaking didn't seem happy to see him.
Mantami's equally-incomprehensible response had what I thought was just the right tone of wounded innocence.
"The kid's a natural," I whispered.
Bill responded with a fierce scowl and a finger to his lips.
The voice of Mantami's invisible friend turned harsher, more demanding.
Mantami's response sounded puzzled, as if he were having trouble understanding what was being asked.
That prompted his questioner to change tactics. As he queried our Vomisa friend, his voice became downright friendly.
Mantami kept his replies short--most of them were no more than one or two words. He'd been playing poker with Bruno and the boys every night since we'd left his Clanhome and the lessons showed.
A faint crackle of static washed over his inquisitor's voice. Suddenly, that demanding tone--edged now with pleading--was back. Then, in a burst of noise, their exchange abruptly ended, cut off in mid-word.
I heard the snap of the microphone boom closing, then Mantami called softly to us.
"Mr. Bill? Mr. Drew?"
The way each of us poked his head around a different side of that stone, we must have looked like cartoon characters to him. He looked first at Bill, then at me, then back to Bill.
"So, what gives, Mantami?"
"We are eager for you to relate your experience to us."
"I think you were correct, Mr. Bill. The communicator was set to speak with the ones who sent our attackers."
"Yes, Mr. Drew. The one who answered my call looked just like the bald one we killed."
"Did he, too, have a disc set into his forehead?"
"Yes, Mr. Bill."
"What did he say, Mantami?"
"At first, he seemed surprised to see me, Mr. Drew."
"Then he asked how I came to possess the communicator."
"And you said what, exactly?"
"As Mr. Bill suggested, I told him that I found it near a fresh rockslide, Mr. Drew."
"Good, good..then what?"
"Mr. Drew, he asked if I had seen anyone that looked like him. Then he asked if I had seen any non-Vomisa."
"I assume you responded in the negative?"
"Yes, Mr. Bill."
"Then he asked me to stay by the communicator until his search party arrived, Mr. Drew. He was telling me that it might be as long as two days until it arrived when I started turning the right-most wheel. Then he vanished and I shut off the communicator and called to you."
I shook my head in amazement at our luck.
"Bill, did I mention it's a damned good thing you had the sense to suggest we do this out here?"
"That appears to be the case, Drew. Shall we undertake the second element of our scheme?"
"Why not? We've got at least a day or so before we need to make ourselves scarce."
. . .
We'd used one of my Razorpoints to made a mark where each of the communicator's thumbwheels was originally set. In the process of cutting off his dialogue with Baldy's homeboy, Mantami had pretty well established that the right one adjusted the frequency of the device--and the volume was fine, so we were in no particular hurry to screw with the other control.
Part two of our plan was a lot like part one--once again, Mantami played the beard, while Bill and I took up positions behind the same boulder.
I could tell the moment Mantami flipped on the communicator by the sudden hiss it emitted. Likewise, I could follow him slowly scanning the available frequencies by the series of clicks, pops and occasional bursts of static that it produced.
Then came a second of silence, immediately followed by a female voice speaking the Traders Tongue.
"This is Tacid Control. What are you doing on this channel, child?"
"Do you know one named Læ of Centra, Mistress?"
"Læ? Of course, child. What of her?"
"Her party has been attacked in the foothills of the Vomisa Mountain, Mistress. She is gravely wounded--as are others.."
"What? Attacked by whom, child?"
Bill and I both broke cover and grabbed for the communicator. He was just a fraction faster than me.
"We did not know our assailants, Madam. They were led by a man with a metallic disc-shaped device implanted in his brow--and they bore energy weapons."
"Who are you, sir?"
"My name is William Wilson. I am in Læ's employ, as are my companions."
I was peering over Bill's left shoulder and Mantami--who'd have to stand on a couple of phone books to look over anybody's shoulder--was leaning in from his right, so the voice of Tacid Control could see us as well as we could see her--which wasn't all that well. Her image was clear and sharp, but it was also tiny--just a couple of inches high.
It showed enough detail to confirm that we were talking to a Centran, though. Her hair was the same flame-red as Læ's and--although I couldn't tell what color her eyes were--there was no mistaking that bull neck.
"Mr. Wilson, I cannot provide any direct assistance to you--Tacid is much too far away from your location and we Centrans cannot be seen to interfere in local affairs."
"We understand your limitations--but our situation is dire, Madam. We would greatly appreciate any aid you can offer--even indirectly."
There was a short silence from the other end.
"The Administrator will censure me for taking action without his approval.."
"But it can't be helped. Please hold and I will transfer you to Tarnhold."
"Thank you, Madam."
It took only a few seconds--long enough for me to realize just how wide my grin had to be to make my cheeks ache like that--before the likeness of my new friend-for-life was replaced by that of a youngish-looking guy with a hawk nose, hooded eyes and black hair. He spoke to Bill in the Trader's Tongue.
"Your service, traveler. What is your situation?"
Bill began a quick recap. When he got to the part about Baldy and the boys, the man from Tarnhold frowned.
"You are sure this giant had a device embedded in his forehead?"
"I could not be more certain."
"Hold a tick, please."
The communicator went silent as he turned to speak to someone we couldn't see. Without sound, their exchange seemed to go on forever. It ended with the young guy giving up his seat to a man who looked closer to my age--but who shared the same prominent beak, deep-set eyes and sable hair.
"Your service friend. I am Garl ta-Gray ka-Tarn, Third Horse to Li-Tarn."
"And I am Bill Wilson, Mr. Garl--currently in the employ of Læ of Centra."
"It is good to make your acquaintance, Mr. Bill. Please go on with your tale."
Bill laid it out for him, concluding, "Without immediate assistance, our situation is untenable and our prospects are dire."
The dark-haired man nodded.
"Do not fear, Mr. Bill. We have a patrol within a day's ride of your position. At speed, it should arrive there by the morning cycle."
"Uh, how public is this conversation, Mr. Garl?"
"And you are whom, stranger?"
"Drew Wilde..of Berkeley."
"Your service. Why do you ask, Mr. Drew?"
"Can the bald guy's friends listen in?"
He shook his head.
"This link is secure."
"Then tell your patrol that we'll be an hour..I mean a dec's hike South of here."
"Is that where your wounded are camped?"
"A dec's march South, then. Look for them in the morning cycle."
"Would it assist your riders if we were to leave this communicator here as a beacon?"
Garl shook his head.
"That will not be necessary."
"We should leave it here, anyway, Bill."
"Do I take you to mean, 'In order to misdirect our opponents?'"
. . .
So that's what we did. We propped the communicator up with a thunderbunny's-eye view of a pile of rocks and left it turned on and tuned in to pure static. Then we high-tailed it back to where Pith was keeping watch over our meager possessions and comatose comrades, determined to get there before dusk fell--and the rats came out to play.
. . .
We made it back to camp with a couple of hours of daylight to spare.
Pith greeted us with the news that the zardhosi tea that--on Mantami's instructions--he'd been dosing Tong with had done the job. Our wounded friend's fever had finally broken a couple of hours after we'd left. He was breathing easier and his color was better, too.
That kept us a tad more cheerful than we would otherwise have been as we went about the grim, but crucial task of disposing of the bodies of our dead assailants. They hadn't begun to stink, yet, but it was only prudent to assume that rats' noses would be a whole lot keener than ours--and that, unless we wanted to join them on the menu, we'd be smart to put some distance between us and the carrion before dinner time rolled around.
So Bill and I dragged the corpses as far downhill as we could manage in an hour or so of hard work, while Pith scrounged firewood and Mantami stood watch.
By sunset, our uninvited guests were resting comfortably a half-mile downslope and Pith had collected enough fuel to keep a good-sized blaze going through the night. The four of us shared a thin stew made of rations looted from old Chrome-dome and his pals, drew straws to determine the night's watch order and settled in to wait..
. . .
I stood second watch. It was a still, clear night, with a riot of almost-familiar stars blazing overhead. My vision swiftly adjusted to the dimness--and so did my ears. To my distaste, I discovered I could make out faint squeals, grunts and snarls from the feeding frenzy on the mountainside below us.
I wish I could have used my inner eye to See whether there were any immediate threats to our safety--what Mantami calls "sensing the Ambience"--but I simply couldn't achieve the necessary level of interior stillness. I hadn't been able to sleep during Bill's watch and I was physically and mentally exhausted, but I was still too keyed up to perceive "the numinous".
After a while, I gave up trying and just sat there atop the boulder that served as our sentry post, straining to see into the darkness beyond our campfire's glow. And--naturally--the distant sound of feasting rats and the dancing shadows thrown by the fire flickering behind me played dirty tricks on my imagination the whole while. Not once, but a dozen separate times, I could have sworn I spotted a pack of sinuous, malevolent forms creeping, belly-down toward my sleeping companions. But, always, just as I was on the verge of calling the alarm, the ghostly marauders somehow metamorphosed into harmless jumbles of stone.
I almost jumped out of my sweaty skin when Mantami--silent as a cat in slippers--tapped me on the shoulder to tell me I could finally turn in.
. . .
I barely slept--and my dreams were filled with terrible things.
Sometime before dawn, I woke from a particularly nasty nightmare to the echo of distant thunder and the sight of faraway lances of fire stabbing the starry Northern sky. A few minutes later, both the reports and the light show abruptly stopped.
Eventually I sank back into an uneasy sleep.
. . .
It was just past sunrise and I was blowing on a cup of "tea"--a foul concoction brewed from roots and leaves Mantami had gathered--when Pith hissed a warning from his post atop the sentinel rock.
"Lock'n'load, dogs! Riders headin' this way."
I threw my "tea" into the fire and kicked dirt over it in the forlorn hope that its smoke hadn't yet been spotted, then climbed a small chimney to a cleft between two boulders that promised reasonable cover and a clear field of fire. Bill and Mantami took up similar positions to either side of my little sniper's nest--and then we waited for the riders to approach.
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)