“Do what?” I ask as I clamber to my feet, unsure if I can trust the ground or my legs.
“No there, then there,” he says, looking around the open courtyard for some hidden way I might have snuck to my present position. “Good move.”
The courtyard seems as it should be. Rain and wind have long since washed any trace of rock salt, my blood, or my father’s blood from the courtyard stones. The pit is overgrown with briars such that no entry is possible.
“I was having a vision,” I tell him. “Of this place, this spot.”
But he shakes his head. “No. You gone. Not here,” he adamants. “Went somewhere else.”
“Yeah,” I tell him. “That is a good idea. I think maybe Agafya’s people are gathering on the other side of the river. I don’t think we have much time.”
His smile is confused, but he sets the fruit down.
“You see Agafya?” he asks.
“Some of temple warriors, I think.” I answer, looking around at the ruin and the thousand places eyes might hide to watch us here. “I saw many things, but I think I was also seen.”
He frowns, doesn’t understand.
“Nai,” I tell him, “Go back to the boat. These enemies know things I’ve barely begun to glimpse. They’re beyond you.”
He frowns. “Drydus said help you. I help you.”
A wisp of red like a finger of colored smoke reaches across the clearing from the bushes to my right. It touches his chest and begins to tighten like a silk scarf pulled taut. Someone’s aggression focuses on Nai exactly like a marksman preparing to take a shot.
Another joins it, and two others point at me.
“Run!” I shout.
To his credit, Nai has great reflexes, and he doesn’t hesitate.
We pound across the open courtyard, racing for the shelter of a fallen arch and the bushes behind it. A single rifle shot chases us. The bullet buzzes into the flagstones beyond us, splitting a stone and spitting moss into the air. The thunder scatters the birds.
But only one shot. A whisper of red rises from behind the arch and then two men follow it. Both wear red cloth strips, one around his head, the other around his arm. I have time to register homespun clothes stained with dirt, missing teeth stained red and knives in their hands before we spring the pile of stone and meet them.
Nai fights with an elegant simplicity. He knows nothing of crosses, hooks, uppercuts or corkscrews. His weapons are a straight jab, a straight right, a pushing front leg kick like a spear, a devastating back leg kick like an axe and a knee strike like a thunderbolt. He doesn’t even use the elbow strikes common to the style. But the weapons he has he wields with the subtlety of an ink calligrapher, combining a dozen refined intentions in the flick of one stroke.
With his right hand a mess, he leads with a left straight, but it’s a feint, a slip and a finisher all on one. The man who tries to meet that charge is rocked from his feet like he tried to stand before a crashing wave.
I’m a beat behind him, but it’s long enough to marvel.
Then the knife flashes at my face, riding the heels of its wave of radiant bloodlust. I duck the move and counter with a body shot that misses the purple-marked weakness in his ribs. His return stroke with the knife nearly widens my ear-hole and I have to catch his arm with both hands.
We’re the same size, both malnourished, both desperate. We struggle over the knife, spinning in place. He pushes me to the right, I push him back. The knife wavers between us. Wood shoes slap stone in the courtyard – many running feet. How many more are there?
Nai’s rabbit punch hits my opponent in the base of the skull and snaps his head back. He crumples, dropping the knife.
Six men have entered the courtyard from the ruins around it. All have rifles and red cloth bands, but none of them match. One skids to a halt and points his gun at me.
As his aggression billows across the space between us, I drop to a crouch behind the fallen arch. The gunshot adds its echoes to the first.
Someone shouts an order in what sounds like Thai but I don’t know the dialect.
They’ll flank us. We can’t fight six men with guns. Nai’s already moved deeper into the bush and I follow, crouched low, zigging and zagging. A few more rifle shots send buzzing bullets through the brush and splinters sting my calf from struck stone inches away. But their aggression is fogged by the branches, and no distinct lines reach for us.
Ahead a low wall cuts through the bushes, submerged in dirt and plants. Nai’s already over it and I follow, skidding down the dirt slope behind to land in a hollow surrounded on three sides by mildew smelling brick half consumed by some spread-limbed tree’s roots.
“Agafya.” Nai tells me, frowning as another shot skips off the stone wall above us.
“You recognize that dialect?” I ask him. “The shout, what language?”
He nods and his smile is grim: “From north. Mountains.”
They’re shouting at each other and they seem to be moving in small groups of three or four. Though I can’t understand the shouts, two of the groups are moving to our left and right while one remains behind us. The shouts are coordination. They’ve worked together before, but they don’t have uniforms and their weapons don’t match.
“Agafya.” Nai confirms again, with a shake of his head.
“Come on,” I say and pull Nai to his feet.
He follows as I rush away from the shouting. A narrow alley between thorny bushes goes left and right, but the enemy fire teams are those ways. We won’t get far in the thorns, but if we stay put we’ll be surrounded.
I listen a moment. They’re moving more slowly on the left. We go that way.
The densely overgrown ruins of a fallen building line the alley here, and I guess that’s what slows the rifle squad. We sprint along its gap-windowed wall. Shouts and running feet slap the stones far behind us, and more to the left. The three teams chase.
Red overtakes us from behind like a wave we can’t outrun. We’ve been seen. Shots thunder and bullets rip by. We caper and duck.
An alley intersects ours but I can hear the other fire team shouting from it.
Nai starts a burst of speed to get across that intersection, but I catch his collar and haul him up short.
This gap is flooded with the red lines of focused intent to kill, and even as Nai’s legs scramble to backtrack, the alley fills with the volley of a dozen bolt-action rifles, and the sudden rattling roar of a machine gun.
We scramble back from the alley, but the other group approaches from behind.
In the alley between thick thorns and the ruined building’s wall, we’re stuck against the machine-gun and the firing squad. Six figures spread out to aim and the lines of their aggression coalesce in a waving crisscross like a deadly cat’s cradle.
Nai turns to the fallen building beside us and dives through an open window gap. Even as his feet disappear over the sill, shots ring out.
For a moment, I’m dodging bullets. The red lines of their focus make it like dodging the spurts of six garden hoses. As they work the bolts on their rifles, I vault the window frame to follow Garland.
Leaves give way before me to reveal a three meter drop to the rubble strewn bottom, knee deep with mud. I hit a protruding rock and my hands slap the stone as tingling pain shoots up my ankles to my knees.
Nai crouches a long step in front of me with mud staining a line over his shoulder and down his back. He must have rolled, because he came through that window face first.
Well we’re surrounded now.
And they have a machine gun.
The room we’re in is square, the basement of some old building, but a tower of rubble fills its center in a cone. The roof is all overlapping branches from trees that block every avenue of escape, even where the walls of the pit can be climbed. In one gap in the toothed ruin around us, the green branches part and a women steps through.
She’s oriental but something tells me not Thai. Her skin is painted white, her eyes and lips black, and her hair’s streaked white, matching the strips of black or white cloth dangling from her every joint, but what’s most striking is the armor. She wears a shirt and sleeves of articulate plate armor like a gothic knight, all of burnished bronze, fluted, tooled in intricate patterns and hung with a skirt of knitted mail. She holds a one-meter short spear with a maple leaf blade like you might hold a hiking stick, and she taps it against the ground three times while her black eyes consider us.
Her head tilts to the side, the eyes alight on me, and black lips part as if to speak.
Gunfire explodes outside the dell, and not the sporadic rifle shots of the fire teams we were escaping, but the sudden storm of a coordinated ambush. The fire comes from every direction, and a couple of ricochets bounce through gaps in the walls and spring around the pit. The lady in armor steps back into the bushes and vanishes completely as if she were never there.
The mismatched rifles return fire, rapid and thunderous. Shouting echoes around us.
“Fear,” Nai says. ‘Defeat. Someone new.’
Then silence falls.
Someone shouts in a cockney accent:
From the pit’s other side, another voice answers, this one Scottish. “Clear here.”
Others echo the same shout, at least a dozen voices.
Then the cockney:
“Looky here, I love this gun, they had a MG34!”
“You’ve never seen one before!”
“Well I love its roar.”
“You lot, tighten up! They were shooting at someone, find out who!”
“Right then, listen up whoever was being shot, we has come to rescue you!”
Nai and I exchange a long look. He shrugs.
‘You know them?’ He whispers.
“Dunno. Let’s go find out.”
The camp has two huge tents at the center; one is a mess tent, with open sides that show about a dozen locals and about twice that number of foreigners eating dinner at a set of two long tables. The other big tent is the same make, and lined with tables also, but on its tables sit rows of stones and broken things, carefully arranged with little cards. The rest of the camp comes in the form of a disciplined cluster of the two-poles-and-a-rope variety of mobile home used by armies everywhere.
The camp lays on the edge of one of the big rivers, which means they probably came by boat but I don’t see one moored there. The flat shelf of the old docks is the south side of their camp, and the fallen ruins of buildings make a kind of bowl that walls them in from every other side. Along that wall perch a couple of sentries with watchful eyes turned out.
A dozen men walk with us, all of them armed with matching rifles and green uniforms and mismatching accents. The one with the most bars on his chevron is Scottish and has nine fingers and black teeth. He carries the captured machine gun easily over one shoulder, and doesn’t talk much. The others chat amicably in what sounds to me like rhyming gibberish.
“Aris-a-ooze,” muses one to the other with a straight face. “Bit of bendy with a brass flute.”
“Oedipus Rex,” replies the other, with a distant look in his eye, “tip top rubies or your skin and blister.”
“Naw,” says the first, “she’s a horse’n cart.”
Nai’s expression is study in confusion.
The tent they take us to is army green, tall enough to stand in, and an oven. There’s a folding steel table in it, covered with papers and supporting an electric light with its own battery. Opposite the table sits a fellow with a military haircut touched with lines of grey despite his youth and hard blue eyes with a halo of green at the center. There are three rank pips in his collar, a cast on his ankle, and on his left ring finger a simple wedding band made of silver and worn so thin it’s barely there. At the edge of focus, his aura flickers the pale red color of Indian dirt.
A bagpiper belts a jaunty tune from one pace outside the canvas flap. From this close, its loud enough that talking over it is troublesome.
The officer doesn’t look up from his papers. His voice is deep, cultured, monotone, and carries a subtle Yorkshire brogue.
“I heard shooting. Report?”
The Scott with the machine gun over his shoulder tosses a strip of red cloth onto the desk.
“Saw about a dozen badies wearin those an we put the boot to ‘em.”
The Captain looks up and notices me for the first time. His eyes freeze and whatever he was going to say hangs in suspended motion for a whole second, before he says to the Scott:
“Sergeant, when I said ‘take your men out to stretch their legs,’ did I not also say ‘for God’s sake don’t shoot anything?’”
The Scott shows his black teeth and drops the butt of the machine gun so it kicks up a puff of dirt from the floor. With his thumb he points at Nai and I.
“Sorry Captn. The bootlickers ‘ad this, an they meant to kill these ones. An even then, wouldn’t ‘ave done it but I saw one of those disappearing ladies with’em and I thought I had a shot.”
The officer’s eyes track from the gun to the sergeant’s face, then to me and Nai.
“Condition banshee, sergeant, and go fetch Dr. Tellerhorn would you,” he says, firmly. “Leave the gun.”
It makes a deep dent in the paperwork on the officer’s desk. He turns it over, examining the weld lines while Black-Tooth the sergeant vanishes out the tent flap.
“This,” mutters the officer, “this is not good.”
I clear my throat. “When this is all over, I think you owe me a new door.”
His attention returns to me and he sits back in his chair. “Mark Simmons.”
“That’s me,” I reply, “and you’re the fella who busted into my apartment back in Chicago. How’s your ankle?”
“Still broken,” he replies. “Where’s my drug?”