Continued from 19. Escape to the Tunnels.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
[Editor’s Note: I’ve caught a continuity problem that I’m going to have to fix in the final edit. Please pretend that Julin and Sari spent the night in jail at Central Command, and so the events of the last few episodes, “Cold Water”, etc. occur the morning after their arrest. Thanks! —David]
One step after another, one foot in front of its brother. The singsong rhyme bounced around Kolteo’s head as the party plodded along. Dim tunnel gave way to dim tunnel. The only way of tracking their progress was the occasional sign at an intersection. They had covered nearly six miles already. Half-way there.
The Enforcers walked ahead, saying little. Romik still wore his damp armor, carrying only his helmet. The others had removed the upper plates and carried them over their shoulders in improvised slings. Their black tunics steamed in the cool air from the heat of their bodies.
Kolteo, Sari, and Julin walked behind them, three abreast, with Sari in the middle. She stumbled frequently, and Kolteo and Julin watched her warily to offer a steadying hand.
Kolteo himself still felt chilled, especially when they stopped to rest. Walking combatted it well enough, though.
Julin had seemed to recover from his knock on the head, though when Cottack pressed him, he admitted to continued dizziness and nausea, not to mention a splitting headache. Otherwise, he had not complained once.
Kolteo worried for his wife, though. For the first few miles of their trek she had perked up some as the exertion warmed her. Fatigue had begun to set in after that, and her haggard face had taken on a miserable gray pallor.
One step after another, one foot in front of its brother. They walked in weary silence another mile.
At the next rest, Julin spoke. “I’m trying to understand how we got away so easily. Why aren’t we being pursued?” He looked at Kolteo, and his tone took on a sour note. “When you were after me, once you flushed me out, I didn’t have a moment’s rest.”
Kolteo nodded. “I’m trying to figure the same thing.”
Romik answered, “It looked like a rush job to me, sir. I think that might have been the same armored car we used against Belaw.”
“They certainly weren’t well prepared,” agreed Kolteo. “They should have had a squad ready on each bank to pick us off in the water. We had no right to get so far. That tells me Marrem wasn’t involved, for which I’m thankful.”
“Marrem?” asked Julin.
“Major Marrem Mus. My aide.” Kolteo smiled weakly. “Former aide, I suppose.”
Romik chuckled. “Some blokes call him the Shadow General.”
Kolteo nodded. “He’s a good man. He’s resisted promotion to stay in my office. I’ve delegated a lot of authority to him over the years. No, I’ve taught him better than this: if he’d wanted to kill me, I’d be dead. But the traitor has to be someone close to him.”
They set off again, and talk subsided. They went on in silence for another mile, then two. Kolteo noted that Julin’s feet were beginning to drag, and he winced frequently.
Suddenly Sari stumbled and fell in a heap. Kolteo and Julin were instantly kneeling at her side. “Sari?” said Julin, gently prodding her shoulder.
She moaned softly. “I’m sorry, Julin.” She made no move to rise.
Kolteo felt her forehead with the back of his hand. “She’s burning up. Cottack!”
The medic joined them. “She’s definitely got a fever. There’s not much we can do at the moment, except carry her.”
Kolteo nodded. “Help me get her on her feet.”
The other Enforcers crowded in. Petrishes and Jaker won the race and helped Cottack to gently lift her.
Julin put his hand on Kolteo’s shoulder. “I’ll take her.”
Kolteo frowned. “No you won’t, I will.”
Julin persisted. “She’s my sister.”
Now he was annoyed. “She’s my wife. And besides, you look ready to collapse, yourself.”
Julin drew himself up. “I’m younger and stronger than you, old man.”
“Old man, is it?” Kolteo’s hand strayed to the pommel of his sword.
“I’ll take her,” said Romik. He stooped and pulled her over his shoulders, just as he’d carried Julin earlier. “Let’s keep moving.”
Kolteo glared at Julin, fuming. Julin glared right back. Kolteo shook his head, then strode forward to walk beside Romik. A moment later Julin walked on Romik’s other side. The other Enforcers walked behind them, exchanging glances of their own, eyebrows raised.
The party walked on in tense silence now. The singsong words crawled out of whatever corner of Kolteo’s mind that they’d been hiding in, but now they jostled with other, darker thoughts. One foot after another. He had offered Julin olive branch after olive branch of respect and esteem, and the man had thrown it all back at him with a handful of words. Old man, indeed. He’d better be thankful they hadn’t ever met in combat. Kolteo had no doubt that he could lay Julin out in a fair fight. No contest. He had ten years of experience on Julin, and many more years of training.
One foot after its brother.
The miles mounted in that way, one after the other, in silence, each man alone with his thoughts, Sari occasionally moaning in a fever dream. There was no more companionable conversation at rest breaks, no more shared speculation as to who the enemy might be or what he might be doing. They simply walked on.
Julin was obviously limping now. Blood had begun to seep through the dressing on his leg. At one of the rest breaks, Cottack tried to look at Julin’s leg, but Julin shoved him away. “I know what’s wrong with it,” he growled. He tore a strip of damp cloth from his already-torn pant leg, discarded the old dressing, and bound the wound. He stood shakily to his feet.
“Pick it up,” said Kolteo.
Julin glared. “Pick what up?”
Kolteo indicated the discarded dressing.
Julin bent and snatched it up with a scowl, stuffed it into his pocket, and started walking. The Enforcers exchanged glances, then looked at Kolteo.
“Let’s go,” he said.
They rose and plodded on.
Finally, up ahead, Julin called out, “There it is.” He pointed to an odd chalk mark at a tunnel intersection. “We’re almost there.”
Shortly they approached a blast door that was most definitely out of place.
Julin raised his hand to call a halt and flashed a wan grin at the others. “He’s not going to be happy to see me, but I have an idea. Cottack and I will take Sari. The rest of you, around the corner. Here’s what we’ll do.”
Julin and Cottack stood before the blast door, supporting Sari between them. Cottack still carried his armor plates slung over his shoulder.
Julin knocked a pattern on the door. They waited.
After a minute, the blast door raised suddenly with a whoosh. A slim figure appeared.
“You again?” said Dorgio, scowling.
“Good to see you too, old friend,” said Julin. He looked at Cottack. “Let’s get her inside.”
They pressed past Dorgio without another word. He stepped back and yelped, “Hey! What’s going on?”
“My sister is sick. You got any drinking water down here?”
“Yeah, uh…” Dorgio paused only a moment, then went to fetch some water.
He returned with a bowl and ladle. Julin and Cottack had lain Sari out on the ancient sofa with her head propped on a pillow.
“Here,” Julin beckoned to Cottack.
Dorgio brought the water to the Enforcer. Julin raised Sari’s head and Cottack brought the ladle up to her lips. Unbidden, she sipped at the cool water and smiled.
Dorgio stood back, taking in the scene. He eyed the bundle of armor plating, the rifle and sword, then Cottack. “Yeah, wait a sec… you’re an Enforcer?” He practically spat the word.
Cottack looked up at him. “Was. What’s it to you?”
Julin looked up. “He’s a medic. The others will be along shortly.”
Dorgio knit his brow. “Others?”
A knock came at the blast door. The same pattern. Julin smiled. “That’ll be them. Bring them in, will you?”
Dorgio put his hands on his hips. “Yeah, not until you tell me what’s going on.”
Julin rolled his eyes. “Sari was in trouble. I rescued her with the help of Cottack here and some of his friends. They’re defecting.”
The patterned knock came again. Julin pointed at the door. “Would you, please?”
Dorgio scowled and went to the door. Soon, Jen and Atrilkol were in the room. They set their bundled armor and weapons down next to Cottack’s.
“Have a seat on the floor, men, take it easy,” said Julin.
“Nah,” said Dorgio. “I got some chairs. Let me get them.”
He disappeared into the back room. Julin winked at the Enforcers.
Dorgio soon returned with four battered folding chairs. He set them out against the wall. Jen and Atrilkol sat gratefully. Julin and Cottack stayed at Sari’s side.
Julin smiled at Dorgio. “Thanks, D. Sari and I wouldn’t have made it without their squad.”
“Wait, squad? There’s only three of them.”
Another knock came at the door. The same pattern.
“That’ll be the rest, I bet,” said Julin. “Bring them in, will you?”
Completely flustered now, Dorgio did so. Jaker and Petrishes appeared, set their armor and weapons down in the growing pile, and sat in the empty chairs.
Dorgio folded his arms and huddled his shoulders in. “Julin! What are you doing here with a squad of defecting Enforcers? I gotta know.”
Julin chuckled as Cottack ladled more water for Sari to sip. “It’s a long story since I saw you last. Let’s just say that Kolteo and I reached an understanding.”
Dorgio looked around. “Yeah, and which one o’ you is Kolteo?”
The Enforcers looked at each other, then at Julin.
Julin looked up. “You know, Sari’s husband? He’s not here yet.”
Dorgio stared at him. “Sari’s husband? Isn’t she married to…”
Yet again, the knock sounded at the door.
Julin smiled. “That must be him, with his armsmen.”
Julin nodded at the door. “Would you?”
Dorgio groaned, and went to the door. Soon, Cojareson, Romik, and Kolteo stood in the now-crowded room. Dorgio disappeared into the back room and returned moments later with more folding chairs.
“You have more water?” asked Julin. “It’s been a long hike to get here.”
Muttering to himself, Dorgio disappeared again. Julin grinned a lop-sided grin at Kolteo.
Kolteo ignored him. He took the bowl and ladle from Cottack and replaced him at Sari’s side. “How is she?”
Cottack shrugged. “Hard to say, sir. Still feverish. She’s drinking water, at least. I’m just a combat medic, though.”
Sari shivered. “Cold,” she whispered. “So cold.”
Dorgio was hovering quietly behind them now while the Enforcers passed round a jug of water. Julin looked up at him. “You have any blankets?”
“Blankets?” Dorgio looked surprised. “Yeah,” he said, and disappeared again.
He returned with a heavy woolen blanket. “Here,” he said and went back to hovering.
Only jostling a little bit, Kolteo and Julin got Sari covered with the blanket. She shivered visibly, then coughed a deep, wracking cough.
Cottack frowned. “That’s not good. We’ll want to watch that cough. Could be pneumonia setting in.”
Kolteo looked at him. “We’ll need medicine.”
Julin looked at Dorgio who raised his hands. “Don’t look at me, I ain’t a dispensary.”
“But you’d know where to get it, no questions asked.”
“Well yeah, but look, none of this is free.” He looked around and licked his lips. “I got expenses.”
Kolteo stood and fixed Dorgio with his gaze. “We haven’t met. Please forgive my rudeness, I was concerned for my wife. I’m Kolteo Ais.”
Dorgio shook the offered hand. “Yeah, Dorgiovan Leo. Call me Dorgio.”
“Thank you for your hospitality. We’ve been in a tight pinch.”
Dorgio looked down at the floor. “Yeah, I been there too.”
Kolteo nodded, not dropping his gaze. “I would be grateful if you would let us stay on with you, at least until we’re dried and rested. Maybe longer, for my wife, until we can find a better place to care for her.”
Dorgio looked up and met Kolteo’s gaze. He licked his lips. “I don’t mind so much, but like I said, I got…”
“Expenses,” finished Kolteo.
Dorgio looked down. “Yeah.”
Kolteo nodded. “I can get access to funds fairly soon. Can you obtain the medicine she needs?”
Dorgio frowned and looked around. “Uh, I’m not exactly liquid right now. In between gigs, y’see.”
Kolteo raised his eyebrows. “I’ll see that you’re well compensated.”
“Yeah, well…” Dorgio hesitated. He looked at Julin with pleading eyes.
Julin grinned and let him squirm.
Kolteo frowned. “What’s the matter?”
Dorgio looked up. His nostrils flared, and his eyes flashed. “Yeah, I got no credit right now, alright? I need something up front ‘fore I can get any medicine.” He turned and looked away.
“Oh.” Kolteo looked at Julin.
Julin shrugged. “How far away are your funds?”
Kolteo frowned. “The farther the better. Accessing them will attract attention.”
Kolteo stood and handed the bowl and ladle back to Cottack. “I’d better go soon, then.”
Romik stood. “I’ll go with you.”
Julin stood too. “I’ll go. I need to keep an eye on you, and I’ve got another errand too.”
Kolteo looked at Julin, considering. Finally he said, “Three’s a good number.”
Julin nodded, and turned to Dorgio. “Hey D, you got any dry clothes we could borrow?”
Dorgio frowned and put his hand out to feel Julin’s shirt. “Yeah I do, but… why are you all *wet?*”
Continued in: 21. The Rolling Road…
Tired and hungry, our heroes must venture out for desperately needed money and medicine… but can they escape detection by their pursuers?
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