The Major put Gregor, comfortably padded by the bedroll and saddlebags, up behind him. Cordelia faced one more climb onto that torture-device for humans and horses called a saddle. She would never have made it without Bothari. The Major took her reins this time, and Rose and his horse walked side by side with a lot less jerking of the bridle. Bothari dropped back, trailing watchfully.
"So," said the old man after a time, with a sideways look at her, "you're the new Lady Vorkosigan."
Cordelia, rumpled and filthy, smiled back desperately. "Yes. Ah, Count Piotr didn't mention your name, Major . . . ?"
"Amor Klyeuvi, Milady. But folks up here just call me Kly."
"And, uh . . . what are you?" Besides some mountain kobold Piotr had conjured out of the ground.
He smiled, an expression more repellent than attractive given the state of his teeth. "I'm the Imperial Mail, Milady. I ride the circuit through these hills, out of Vorkosigan Surleau, every ten days. Been at it for eighteen years. There are grown kids up here with kids of their own who never knew me as anything but Kly the Mail."
"I thought mail went to these parts by lightflyer."
"They're phasing them in. But the flyers don't go to every house, just to these central drop-points. No courtesy to it, anymore." He spat disgust and gum-leaf. "But if the General'll hold 'em off another two years here, I'll make my last twenty, and be a triple-twenty-years Service man. I retired with my double-twenty, see."
"From what branch, Major Klyuevi?"
"Imperial Rangers." He watched slyly for her reaction; she rewarded him with impressed raised brows. "I was a throat-cutter, not a tech. 'S why I could never go higher than major. Got my start at age fourteen, in these mountains, running rings around the Cetagandans with the General and Ezar. Never did get back to school after that. Just training courses. The Service passed me by, in time."
"Not entirely, it seems," said Cordelia, staring around the apparently unpeopled wilderness.
"No . . ." His breath became a purse-lipped sigh, as he glanced back over his shoulder at Gregor in meditative unease.
"Did Piotr tell you what happened yesterday afternoon?"
"Yo. I left the lake day-before-yesterday morning. Missed all the excitement. I expect the news will catch up with me before noon."
"Is . . . anything else likely to catch up with us by then?"
"We'll just have to see." He added more hesitantly, "You'll have to get out of those clothes, Milady. The name VORKOSIGAN, A., in big block letters over your jacket-pocket isn't any too anonymous."
Cordelia glanced down at Aral's black fatigue shirt, quelled.
"My lord's livery sticks out like a flag, too," Kly added, looking back at Bothari. "But you'll pass well enough, in the right clothes. I'll see what I can do, in a bit here."
Cordelia sagged, her belly aching in anticipation of rest. Refuge. But at what price to those who gave her refuge? "Will helping us put you in danger?"
His tufted grey brow rose. "Belike." His tone did not invite further comment on the topic.
She had to bring her tired mind back on-line somehow, if she was to be asset and not hazard to everyone around her. "That gum-leaf of yours. Does it work anything like coffee?"
"Can I try some?" Shyness lowered her voice; it might be too intimate a request.
His cheeks creased in a dry grin. "Only backcountry sticks like me chew gum-leaf, Milady. Pretty Vor ladies from the capital wouldn't be caught dead with it in their pearly teeth."
"I'm not pretty, I'm not a lady, and I'm not from the capital. And I'd kill for coffee right now. I'll try it."
He let his reins drop to his steadily plodding horse's neck, rummaged in his blue-grey jacket pocket, and pulled out his pouch. He broke off a chunk, in none-too-clean fingers, and leaned across.
She regarded it a doubtful moment, dark and leafy in her palm. Never put strange organics in your mouth till they've been cleared by the lab. She lapped it up. The wad was made self-sticking by a bit of maple syrup, but after her saliva washed away the first startling sweetness, the flavor was pleasantly bitter and astringent. It seemed to peel away the night's film coating her teeth, a real improvement. She straightened.
Kly regarded her with bemusement. "So what are you, off-worlder not-a-lady?"
"I was an astrocartographer. Then a Survey captain. Then a soldier, then a POW, then a refugee. And then I was a wife, and then I was a mother. I don't know what I'm going to be next," she answered honestly, around the gum-leaf. Pray not widow.
"Mother? I'd heard you were pregnant, but . . . didn't you lose your baby to the soltoxin?" He eyed her waist in confusion.
"Not yet. He still has a fighting chance. Though it seems a little uneven, to match him against all of Barrayar just yet. . . . He was born prematurely. By surgical section." (She decided not to try to explain the uterine replicator.) "He's at the Imperial Military Hospital. In Vorbarr Sultana. Which for all I know has just been captured by Vordarian's rebel forces . . ." She shivered. Vaagen's lab was classified, nothing to draw anyone's attention. Miles was all right, all right, all right, and one crack in that thin shell of conviction would hatch out hysteria. . . . Aral, now, Aral could take care of himself if anyone could. So how had he been so caught-out, eh, eh? No question, ImpSec was riddled with treason. They couldn't trust anyone around here, and where was Illyan? Trapped in Vorbarr Sultana? Or was he Vordarian's quisling? No . . . Cut off, more likely. Like Kareen. Like Padma and Alys Vorpatril. Life racing death . . .
"No one will bother the hospital," said Kly, watching her face.
"Why did you come to Barrayar, off-worlder?"
"I wanted to have children." A humorless laugh puffed from her lips. "Do you have any children, Kly the Mail?"
"Not so far as I know."
"You were very wise."
"Oh . . ." His face grew distant. "I don't know. Since my old woman died, 's been pretty quiet. Some men I know, their children have been a great trouble to them. Ezar. Piotr. Don't know who will burn the offerings on my grave. M' niece, maybe."
Cordelia glanced at Gregor, riding along atop the saddlebags and listening. Gregor had lit the taper to Ezar's great funeral offering-pyre, his hand guided by Aral's.
They rode on up the road, climbing. Four times Kly ducked up side-trails, while Cordelia, Bothari, and Gregor waited out of sight. On the third of these delivery-runs Kly returned with a bundle including an old skirt, a pair of worn trousers, and some grain for the tired horses. Cordelia, still chilled, put the skirt on over her old Survey trousers. Bothari exchanged his conspicuous brown uniform pants with the silver stripe down the side for the hillman's castoffs. The pants were too short, riding ankle-high, giving him the look of a sinister scarecrow. Bothari's uniform and Cordelia's black fatigue shirt were bundled out of sight in an empty mailbag. Kly solved the problem of Gregor's missing shoe by simply stripping off the remaining one and letting the boy go barefoot, and concealing his too-nice blue suit beneath a man's oversize shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Man, woman, child, they looked a haggard, ragged little hill family.
They made the top of Amie Pass and started back down. Occasionally folk waited by the roadside for Kly; he passed on verbal messages, rattling them off in what sounded to Cordelia to be verbatim style. He distributed letters on paper and cheap vocodisks, their self-playbacks tinny and thin. Twice he paused to read letters to apparently illiterate recipients, and once to a blind man guided by a small girl. Cordelia grew twitchier with each mild encounter, drained by nervous exhaustion. Will that fellow betray us? What do we look like to that woman? At least the blind man can't describe us. . . .
Toward dusk, Kly returned from one of his side-loops to gaze up and down the silent shadowed wilderness trail and declare, "This place is just too crowded." It was a measure of Cordelia's overstrain that she found herself mentally agreeing with him.
He looked her over, worry in his eyes. "Think you can go on for another four hours, Milady?"
What's the alternative? Sit by this mud puddle and weep till we're captured? She struggled to her feet, pushing up from the log she'd been perched on waiting their guide's return. "That depends on what's at the end of four more hours of this."
"My place. I usually spend this night at my niece's, near here. My route ends about another ten hours farther on, when I'm making my deliveries, but if we go straight up we can do it in four. I can double back to this point by tomorrow morning and keep my schedule as usual. Real quiet-like. Nothing to remark on."
What does "straight up" mean? But Kly was clearly right; their whole safety lay in their anonymity, their invisibility. The sooner they were out of sight, the better. "Lead on, Major."
It took six hours. Bothari's horse went lame, short of their goal. He dismounted and towed it. It limped and tossed its head. Cordelia walked, too, to ease her raw legs and to keep herself warm and awake in the chilling darkness. Gregor fell asleep and fell off, cried for his mother, then fell asleep again when Kly moved him around to his front to keep a better grip. The last climb stole Cordelia's breath and made her heart race, even though she hung on to Rose's stirrup for help. Both horses moved like old women with arthritis, stumping along jerkily; only the animals' innate gregariousness kept them following Kly's hardy pinto.
The climb became a drop, suddenly, over a ridge and into a great vale. The woods grew thin and ragged, interspersed with mountain meadows. Cordelia could feel the spaces stretching out around her, true mountain scale at last, vast gulfs of shadow, huge bulks of stone, silent as eternity. Three snowflakes melted on her staring, upturned face. At the edge of a vague patch of trees, Kly halted. "End of the line, folks."
Cordelia sleepwalked Gregor into the tiny shack, felt her way to a cot, and rolled him onto it. He whimpered in his sleep as she dragged the blankets over him. She stood swaying, numb-brained, then in a last burst of lucidity kicked off her slippers and climbed in with him. His feet were cold as a cryo-corpse's. As she warmed them against her body his shivering gradually relaxed into deeper sleep. Dimly, she was aware that Kly—Bothari—somebody, had started a fire in the fireplace. Poor Bothari, he'd been awake every bit as long as she had. In a quite military sense, he was her man; she should see that he ate, cared for his feet, slept . . . she should, she should. . . .
* * *
Cordelia snapped awake, to discover that the movement that had roused her was Gregor, sitting up beside her and rubbing his eyes in bleary disorientation. Light streamed in through two dirty windows on either side of the wooden front door. The shack, or cabin—two of the walls were made of whole logs stacked up—was only a single room. In the grey stone fireplace at one end a kettle and a covered pot sat on a grating over a bed of glowing coals. Cordelia reminded herself again that wood represented poverty, not wealth, here. They must have passed ten million trees yesterday.
She sat up, and gasped from the pain in her muscles. She straightened her legs. The bed was a rope net strung on a frame and supporting first a straw-stuffed mattress, then a feather-stuffed one. She and Gregor were warm, at least, in their nest. The air of the room was dusty-smelling, tinged with a pleasant edge of wood smoke.
Booted footsteps sounded on the boards of the porch outside, and Cordelia grasped Gregor's arm in sudden panic. She couldn't run—that black iron fireplace poker would make a pretty poor weapon against a stunner or nerve disruptor—but the steps were Bothari's. He slipped through the door along with a puff of outside air. His crudely sewn tan cloth jacket must be a borrowing from Kly, judging from the way his bony wrists stuck out beyond the turned-down sleeve cuffs. He'd pass for a hillman easily, as long as he kept his urban-accented mouth shut.
He nodded at them. "Milady. Sire." He knelt by the fireplace, glanced under the pot lid, and tested the kettle's temperature by cupping a big hand a few centimeters above it. "There's groats, and syrup," he said. "Hot water. Herb tea. Dried fruit. No butter."
"What's happening?" Cordelia rubbed her face awake, and swung her legs overboard, planning a stumble toward that herb tea.
The tea had to wait while Cordelia escorted the Emperor downslope to Kly's outhouse. Gregor wrinkled his nose, and eyed the adult-sized seat nervously. Back on the cabin porch Cordelia supervised hand and face washing over a dented metal basin.
The view from the porch, once she'd toweled her face dry and vision clear, was stunning. Half of Vorkosigan's District seemed spread out below, the brown foothills, the green- and yellow-specked peopled plains beyond. "Is that our lake?" Cordelia nodded to a glint of silver in the hills, near the limits of her vision.
"I think so," said Bothari, squinting.
So far, to have come this fast on foot. So fearfully near, in a lightflyer . . . Well, at least you could see whatever was coming.
The hot groats and syrup, served on a cracked white plate, tasted wonderful. Cordelia guzzled herb tea, and realized she'd become dangerously dehydrated. She tried to encourage Gregor to drink, but he didn't like the astringent taste of the tea. Bothari looked almost suffused with shame, that he couldn't produce milk out of the air at his Emperor's direct request. Cordelia solved the dilemma by sweetening the tea with syrup, rendering it acceptable.
By the time they finished breakfast, washed up the few utensils and dishes, and flung the bit of wash water over the porch rail, the porch had warmed enough in the morning sun to make sitting tolerable.
"Why don't you take over the bed, Sergeant. I'll keep watch. Ah . . . did Kly have any suggestions what we should do, if somebody hostile drops down on us here before he gets back? It kind of looks like we've run out of places to run to."
"Not quite, Milady. There's a set of caves, up in that patch of woods in back. An old guerilla cache. Kly took me back last night to see the entrance."
Cordelia sighed. "Right. Get some sleep, Sergeant, we'll surely need you later."
She sat in the sun in one of the wooden chairs, resting her body if not her mind. Her eyes and ears strained for the whine of a distant lightflyer or heavy aircar. She tied Gregor's feet up with makeshift rag shoes, and he wandered about examining things. She accompanied him on a visit to the shed to see the horses. The Sergeant's beast was still very lame, and Rose was moving as little as possible, but they had fodder in a rick and water from a little stream that ran across the end of their enclosure. Kly's other horse, a lean and fit-looking sorrel, seemed to tolerate the equine invasion, only nipping when Rose edged too close to its side of the hayrick.
Cordelia and Gregor sat on the porch steps as the sun passed zenith, comfortably warm now. The only sound in the vast vale besides a breeze in the branches was Bothari's snores, resonating through the cabin walls. Deciding this was as relaxed as they were likely to get, Cordelia at last dared quiz Gregor on his view—her only eyewitness report—of the coup in the capital. It wasn't much help; Gregor's five-year-old eyes saw the what well enough, it was the whys that escaped him. On a higher level, she had the same problem, Cordelia admitted ruefully to herself.
"The soldiers came. The colonel told Mama and me to come with him. One of our liveried men came in. The colonel shot him."
"Stunner, or nerve disruptor?"
"Nerve disruptor. Blue fire. He fell down. They took us to the Marble Courtyard. They had aircars. Then Captain Negri ran in, with some men. A soldier grabbed me, and Mama grabbed me back, and that's what happened to my shoe. It came off in her hand. I should have . . . fastened it tighter, in the morning. Then Captain Negri shot the soldier who was carrying me, and some soldiers shot Captain Negri—"
"Plasma arc? Is that when he got that horrible burn?" Cordelia asked. She tried to keep her tone very calm.
Gregor nodded mutely. "Some soldiers took Mama, those other ones, not Negri's ones. Captain Negri picked me up and ran. We went through the tunnels, under the Residence, and came out in a garage. We went in the lightflyer. They shot at us. Captain Negri kept telling me to shut up, to be quiet. We flew and flew, and he kept yelling at me to be quiet, but I was. And then we landed by the lake." Gregor was trembling again.
"Mm." Kareen spun in vivid detail in Cordelia's head, despite the simplicity of Gregor's account. That serene face, wrenched into screaming rage and terror as they tore the son she'd borne the Barrayaran hard way from her grip, leaving . . . nothing but a shoe, of all their precarious life and illusory possessions. So Vordarian's troops had Kareen. As hostage? Victim? Alive or dead?
"Do you think Mama's all right?"
"Sure." Cordelia shifted uncomfortably. "She's a very valuable lady. They won't hurt her." Till it becomes expedient for them to do so.
"She was crying."
"Yes." She could feel that same knot in her own belly. The mental flash she'd shied from all day yesterday burst in her brain. Boots, kicking open a secured laboratory door. Kicking over desks, tables. No faces, just boots. Gun butts sweeping delicate glassware and computerized monitors from benches into a tangled smash on the floor. A uterine replicator rudely jerked open, its sterile seals slashed, its contents dumped pell-mell wetly on the tiles . . . no need even for the traditional murderous swing by the heels of infant head against the nearest concrete wall, Miles was so little the boots could just step on him and smash him to jam. . . . She drew in her breath.
Miles is all right. Anonymous, just like us. We are very small, and very quiet, and safe. Shut up, keep quiet, kid. She hugged Gregor tightly. "My little boy is in the capital, too, same as your Mama. And you're with me. We'll look out for each other. You bet."
* * *
After supper, and still no sign of Kly, Cordelia said, "Show me that cave, Sergeant."
Kly kept a box of cold lights atop his mantel. Bothari cracked one, and led Cordelia and Gregor up into the woods on a faint stony path. He made a menacing will-o'-the-wisp, with the bright green-tinged light shining from the tube between his fingers.
The area near the cave mouth showed signs of having once been cleared, though recent overgrowth was closing back in. The entrance was by no means hidden, a yawning black hole twice the height of Bothari and wide enough to edge a lightflyer through. Immediately within, the roof rose and walls flared to create a dusty cavern. Whole patrols could camp therein, and had, in the distant past, judging from the antique litter. Bunk niches were carved in the rock, and names and initials and dates and crude comments covered the walls.
A cold fire-pit in the center was matched by a blackened vent-hole above, which had once provided exit for the smoke. A ghostly crowd of hillmen, guerilla soldiers, seemed to hover in Cordelia's mind's eye, eating, joking, spitting gum-leaf, cleaning their weapons and planning their next foray. Ranger spies came and went, ghosts among the ghosts, to place their precious blood-won information before their young general, who spread his maps out on that flat rock over there. . . . She shook the vision from her head, and took the light and explored the niches. At least five traversable exits led off from the cavern, three of which showed signs of having been heavily traveled.
"Did Kly say where these went, or where they came out, Sergeant?"
"Not exactly, Milady. He did say the passages went back for kilometers, into the hills. He was late, and in a hurry to get on."
"Is it a vertical or horizontal system, did he say?"
"Beg pardon, Milady?"
"All on one strata, or with unexpected big drops? Are there lots of blind alleys? Which path were we supposed to take? Are there underground streams?"
"I think he expected to be leading us, if we went in. He started to explain, then said it was too complicated."
She frowned, contemplating the possibilities. She'd done a bit of cave work in her Survey training, enough to grasp what the term respect for the hazards meant. Vents, drops, cracks, labyrinthine cross-passages . . . plus, here, the unexpected rise and fall of water, not a matter of much concern on Beta Colony. It had rained last night. Sensors were not much help in finding a lost cave explorer. And whose sensors? If the system was as extensive as Kly suggested, it could absorb hundreds of searchers. . . . Her frown changed to a slow smile.
"Sergeant, let's camp here tonight."
* * *
Gregor liked the cave, especially when Cordelia described the history of the place. He rattled around the cavern whispering military dialogue to himself like "Zap, zap, zap!", climbed in and out of all the niches, and tried to sound out the rude words carved in the walls. Bothari lit a small fire in the pit and spread a bedroll for Gregor and Cordelia, taking the night watch for himself. Cordelia set a second bedroll, wrapped around trail snacks and supplies, in a grabbable bundle near the entrance. She arranged the black fatigue jacket with the name VORKOSIGAN, A., artistically in a niche, as if used to sit upon and keep someone's haunches from the cold stone and then temporarily forgotten when the sitter rose. Last of all Bothari brought up their lame and useless horses, re-saddled and bridled, and tethered them just outside.
Cordelia emerged from the widest passage, where she'd dropped an almost-spent cold light a quarter kilometer along, over a rope-strung ten-meter cliff. The rope was natural fiber, and very old and brittle. She'd elected not to test it.
"I don't quite get it, Milady," said Bothari. "With the horses abandoned out there, if anyone comes looking they'll find us at once, and know exactly where we've gone."
"Find this, yes," said Cordelia. "Know where we've gone, no. Because without Kly, there is no way I'm taking Gregor down into this labyrinth. But the best way to look like we were here is to actually be here for a bit."
Bothari's flat eyes lit in understanding at last, as he gazed around at the five black entrances at their various levels. "Ah!"
"That means we also need to find a real bolt-hole. Somewhere up in the woods, where we can cut across to the trail Kly brought us up yesterday. Wish we'd done this in daylight."
"I see what you mean, Milady. I'll scout."
"Please do, Sergeant."
Taking their trail bundle, he disappeared into the dim woods. Cordelia tucked Gregor into the bedroll, then perched outside among the rocks above the cave mouth and kept watch. She could see the vale, stretched out greyly below the tops of the trees, and make out Kly's cabin roof. No smoke rose now from its chimney. Beneath the stone, no remote thermal sensor would find their new fire, though the smell of it hung in the chill air, detectable to nearby noses. She watched for moving lights in the sky till the stars were a watery blur in her eyes.
Bothari returned after a very long time. "I have a spot. Shall we move now?"
"Not yet. Kly might still show up." First.
"Your turn to sleep, then, Milady."
"Oh, yes." The evening's exertions had only partly warmed the acid fatigue from her muscles. Leaving Bothari on the limestone outcrop in the starlight like a guardian gargoyle, she crawled in with Gregor. Eventually, she slept.
* * *
She woke with the grey light of dawn making the cavern entrance a luminous misty oval. Bothari made hot tea, and they shared cold lumps of pan bread left from last night, and nibbled dried fruit.
"I'll watch some more," Bothari volunteered. "I can't sleep so good without my medication anyway."
"Medication?" said Cordelia.
"Yeah, I left my pills at Vorkosigan Surleau. I can feel it clearing out of my system. Things seem sharper."
Cordelia chased a suddenly very lumpy bite of bread with a swallow of hot tea. But were his psychoactive drugs truly therapeutic, or merely political in their effect? "Let me know if you are experiencing any kind of difficulty, Sergeant," she said cautiously.
"Not so far. Except it's getting harder to sleep. They suppress dreams." He took his tea and wandered back to his post.
Cordelia carefully refrained from cleaning up their campsite. She did escort Gregor to the nearest rivulet for a personal washup. They were certainly acquiring an authentic hill-folk aroma. They returned to the cavern, where Cordelia rested a while on the bedroll. She must insist on relieving Bothari soon. Come on, Kly. . . .
Bothari's tense low voice reverberated in the cavern. "Milady. Sire. Time to go."
Cordelia rolled to her feet, kicked the pre-arranged pile of dirt over the last coals of their fire, grabbed Gregor, and hustled him out the cave mouth. He looked suddenly frightened and sickly. Bothari was pulling the bridles off the horses, loosing them and tossing the gear on the pile with the saddles. Cordelia pulled herself up beside the cave and snatched one quick glimpse over the treetops. A flyer had landed in front of Kly's cabin. Two black-uniformed soldiers were circling to the right and left. A third disappeared under the porch roof. Faint and delayed in the distance came the bang of Kly's front door being kicked open. Only soldiers, no hillman-guides or hillman-prisoners in that flyer. No sign of Kly.
They took to the woods at a jog, Bothari boosting up and carrying Gregor piggyback. Rose made to follow them, and Cordelia whirled to wave her arms and whisper frantically, "No! Go away, idiot beast!" to spook her off. Rose hesitated, then turned to stay by her lame companion.
Their run was steady, unpanicked. Bothari had his route all picked out, taking advantage of sheltering rocks and trees and water-carved steps. They scrambled up, down, up, but just when she thought her lungs would burst and their pursuers must spot them, Bothari vanished along a steep rock face.
"Over here, Milady!"
He'd found a thin, horizontal crack in the rocks, half a meter high and three meters deep. She rolled in beside him to find the niche shielded by solid rock everywhere but the front, and that almost blocked by fallen stone. Their bedroll and supplies waited.
"No wonder," Cordelia gasped, "the Cetagandans had trouble up here." A thermal sensor would have to be aimed straight in, to pick them up, from a point twenty meters in the air out over the ravine. The place was riddled with hundreds of similar crannies.
"Even better." Bothari pulled a pair of antique field glasses, looted from Kly's cabin, from their bedroll. "We can see them."
The glasses were nothing but binocular tubes with sliding glass lenses, purely passive light-collectors. They must have dated from the Time of Isolation. The magnification was poor by modern standards, no UV or infrared boost, no rangefinder pulse . . . no power cell to leak detectable energy traces. Flat on her belly, chin in the rubble, Cordelia could glimpse the distant cavern entrance on the slope rising beyond the ravine and a knife-backed ridge. When she said, "Now we must be very quiet," pale Gregor practically went fetal.
The black-clad scanner men found the horses at last, though it seemed to take them forever. Then they found the cave mouth. The tiny figures gesticulated excitedly to each other, ran in and out, and called the flyer, which landed outside the entrance with much crackling of shrubbery. Four men entered; eventually, one came back out. In time, another flyer landed. Then a lift van arrived, and disgorged a whole patrol. The mountain mouth ate them all. Another lift van came, and men set up lights, a field generator, comm links.
Cordelia made a nest of the bedroll for Gregor, and fed him little snacks and sips from their water bottle. Bothari stretched out in the back of the niche with the thinnest blanket folded under his head, otherwise seeming impervious to the stone. While Bothari dozed, Cordelia kept careful count of the net flow of hunters. By mid-afternoon, she calculated that some forty men had gone below and not come up again.
Two men were brought out strapped to float pallets, loaded into a medical-evacuation lifter, and flown away. A lightflyer made a bad landing in the crowded area, toppled downslope, and crunched into a tree. Yet more men became involved in extracting, righting, and repairing it. By dusk over sixty men had been sucked down the drain. A whole company drawn away from the capital, not pursuing refugees, not available to root out the secrets of ImpMil . . . it wasn't enough to make a real difference, surely.
It's a start.
Cordelia and Bothari and Gregor slipped from the niche in the gloaming, cleared the ravines, and made their way silently through the woods. It was nearly full dark when they came to the edge of the trees and struck Kly's trail. As they crossed over the ridge edging the vale, Cordelia looked back. The area by the cave mouth was marked by searchlights, stabbing up through the mists. Lightflyers whined in and out of the site.
They dropped over the ridge and slithered down the slope that had so nearly killed her to climb, hanging on to Rose's stirrup two days ago. Fully five kilometers down the trail, in a rocky region of treeless scrub, Bothari came to an abrupt halt. "Sh. Milady, listen."
Voices. Men's voices, not far off, but strangely hollow. Cordelia stared into the darkness, but no lights moved. Nothing moved. They crouched beside the trail, senses straining.
Bothari crept off, head tilted, following his ears. After a few moments Cordelia and Gregor cautiously followed. She found Bothari kneeling by a striated outcrop. He motioned her closer.
"It's a vent," he announced in a whisper. "Listen."
The voices were much clearer now, sharp cadences, angry gutturals punctuated by swearing in two or three languages.
"Goddammit, I know we went left back at that third turn."
"That wasn't the third turn, that was the fourth."
"We re-crossed the stream."
"It wasn't the same friggin' stream, sabaki!"
"Lieutenant, you're an idiot!"
"Corporal, you're out of line!"
"This cold light's not going to last the hour. See, it's fading."
"Well, don't shake it up, you moron, when it glows brighter it goes faster."
"Give me that—!"
Bothari's teeth gleamed in the darkness. It was the first smile Cordelia had seen crack his face in months. Silently, he saluted her. They tiptoed softly away, into the chill of the Dendarii night.
Back on the trail, Bothari sighed deeply. "If only I'd had a grenade to drop down that vent. Their search parties would still be shooting at each other this time next week."