Lovers in the Wood
by Ann Raina
eBook ISBN: 978-1-77111-530-8
Rayenne thought this would be an easy police job—take the suspect to Belson Park for interrogation and make it fast. However, there is a strange wood to cross with stranger creatures to encounter before she gets rid of him. Can she withstand the challenges of both her male companion and dangerous animals to reach her destination and not lose herself on the way?
Sajitar woke up to sunrays trying to hack through his closed eyelids. His head felt like a medium sized bomb, close to exploding. Wearily, he slighty opened one eye to glimpse at the dark yellow sun and then, with some effort, at the line of orange trees in front of the window. After all that I’m still where I started. That’s comforting. However, he did not know exactly where he was, who had brought him to this room that looked like some cheap hut, or for how long he had been kept here. Fact was that his right wrist was handcuffed to the wooden bedframe. Should I be glad it’s not some dark hovel and a monster waiting at the entrance? Not by much. He closed his eyes once more, moaned, and tried to figure out how he had spent the last hours. There was not even the glimpse of a memory lurking in the back of his mind. There had been other days and more nights when he had drowned in Kaniza, but this utter blankness was new to him. And it was frightening.
He tugged the chain and, as if waiting for a signal, a black-haired woman entered the room. She was about twenty-five years old, although her demeanor told of more experience and self-confidence than her years. Her tanned face was dominated by two large brown eyes and framed by thick brows that were not really ladylike, but complemented her expressive features with high, prominent cheekbones and dark red lips. She smiled as if she knew more than she would ever tell.
Sajitar sighed and rolled his eyes. Though she had not worn a Belthraine Police Division One uniform before, he recognized her. She had shared some strong drinks with him at the only bar in this remote village, whose name—if there had been any—he could not recall. Now she stood with her hands on her hips, looking cocksure and very attractive. To his chagrin she didn’t look a bit hung over, which left him wondering if she had fed the bar’s plants with her drinks. She was tall and he imagined her long legs without pants easily. Hadn’t she worn a dress last night?
He cleared his dry throat, trying to focus on the main problem.
“Where are we? And why—” he lifted his tied hand. “—am I here? Don’t misunderstand me. You look great, positively radiant in that uniform, but I hope we are not here for the game I think we are here. Am I right?”
Her frown quickly vanished and was replaced by a gentle expression of mockery.
“You had one drink too much, and when you pestered the other guests I brought you up here.”
Her voice was pleasant, her words were not.
“Pestered?” His mind tried a catch-up on the tidings. “I don’t remember to ever have…okay, never mind. But what’s the story with these things here? Is there a special reason why you handcuffed me to the bed?”
Her right eyebrow twitched.
“You had your hands everywhere, Sajitar Haju.”
The words rebounded like a shockwave through the lower parts of his body. His catch-up attempt came to a sudden halt. Is this a game? Where does it lead?
“Oh, and that displeased you? Rayenne, right?” Sajitar’s lips twisted to a smile when he suddenly realized that he wasn’t wearing his pullover anymore. His hiking boots stood like good soldiers in front of the bed, his pants, pullover and socks were draped across the foot end of the bed and his boxers… He checked. He was still wearing his underwear. The day started looking up.
“I had to check you for weapons,” Police Officer Rayenne said with an all but innocent shimmer in her eyes. “I like to be thorough.”
Sajitar’s smile couldn’t compete with hers so he shut it off. Now he knew she was only playing around, as she obviously had the night before. He had never been shy when it came to women, so he cursed his lack of memory, sighing.
“Sure. But now that I’m sober—and I assure you I’ve never been that sober so fast—you could be so nice as to untie me so I’d be on my way.”
She moved to the foot end and lowered her head. “Your way and mine will be the same for a while.”
“Safe bet. My colleague and I are ordered to take you to headquarters for interrogation.”
His heartbeat sped up and the exchange of pleasantries was over. Sober was not enough now. He was wide awake and on alert.
“Concerning what?” he asked, more sharply than he wanted to.
Apparently not insulted, she didn’t change her expression.
“A trial. Captain Felberi and I are escorting you because of your knowledge concerning the case against Sananda Wang, accused of illegal export of substances deriving from protected Belthraine animals, and the assassination of Environment Senator Rhyhis Tafni. The trial will take place as soon as all of the witnesses are gathered.”
Sajitar swallowed, trying to cope with the news. The remotest village was not remote enough. If they found me, who else will?
He sounded breathless when he finally nodded.
“So I am a witness. Fine with me. It includes that I’m not to be treated like a criminal.” He clanked the handcuff again. “Untie me.”
“Not so fast, Mr Haju.” The smile vanished and left a mask of seriousness, all down to business. “The investigation not only brought forth your connection to Mrs Wang, but revealed that you were an accomplice to the assassination.”
“An accomplice?” he echoed. In his mind, the different possibilities of how to get out of this situation reverberated, but he came up with nil. The two officers were armed and he was not. His fighting skills had been honed in street fights, but would not suffice against shotguns. And he had no chance as long as Ms Officer kept him handcuffed.
“If I got it right, you also succeeded in getting money from Mrs Wang illegally.” Mockery was back. She cocked her head. “If that is possible under the circumstances. I wonder why she didn’t give you the money voluntarily. Did you disappoint her?”
Sajitar shook his head. He was sweating, searching his memory for all the deeds and misdeeds in his recent past. He didn’t come up with anything, since he’d tried to vanish from the radar of everyone during the last moon phases. He licked his lips and tried to take a deep breath, but it felt as if a load of stones weighed on his ribcage. Why have I been so stupid?
He put on his best innocent look.
“No, Ms Police, you got the wrong guy. I don’t know this Mrs Wang and I never had anything to do with an assassination, no matter what you investigated or where.”
“Believe me, we work thoroughly. There’s no mistake. You’re not just a witness.”
He put a hand to his temple. The headache had reached its climax.
“And I’m telling you that you handcuffed the wrong man. How did you get me that drunk, anyway? Usually, I remember where I was and what I did.”
Officer Rayenne smiled knowingly. Her voice turned cheerful and still he could not tell how much of it was real or just mockery on his expense.
“It’s a pity you don’t know anymore.”
With that unnerving shot, she left Sajitar behind to brood over lost hours, the context of Rayenne’s happiness and how to get rid of the handcuffs. He needed to see a man about a horse and had forgotten to tell her.
Police Captain Ron Felberi made the impression of a no-nonsense guy in his late forties, ready to leave Belthraine to find joy and happiness on a planet with more water, beaches and attractions instead of woodland and one booming city that was as crowded as it was dangerous. When he walked into the room, grunting and lifting his wide-cut pants to fit under his paunch, Sajitar realized he was caught between a rock and a hard place. While Rayenne would take him to headquarters to earn praise and promotion, Felberi would do it to get rid of a nasty obligation and start an overdue vacation.
“Thank you,” Sajitar said politely when Felberi opened the handcuffs. He eyed the man and came to the conclusion that it would do no good to try and convince him to let him run. It would only earn him a grunt and a bullet in the back with the first wrong step. “I thought, I’d burst any minute. Where’s the bathroom?”
Felberi grunted again and nodded across his right shoulder. His oblong face with thin lips and eyes the color of stone did not even twitch.
Sajitar hastened to relieve himself. When he got out of the bathroom, washed and smelling of soap, Rayenne checked his body up and down to end with a curt twitching of her brows.
“Nice as before.”
Felberi stood in the doorway, hands on his hips, looking bored and angry at the same time.
“Stop undressing him with your eyes, Officer Whiteclaw. He’s wearing little enough for my taste.”
“Whiteclaw? You’re one of the Whiteclaws?” Sajitar lowered his voice to imitate the rumble of an advertisement speaker. “A member of the famous family, known to find traces everywhere and under any circumstances. Great.” Sajitar whistled through his teeth, indicating a bow. “I should be honored, I guess, to have you at my heels.”
“And you stop flattering her,” Felberi warned with a pointed finger.
Sajitar kept the smile to himself, got dressed and joined the officers, who packed their stuff. Felberi indicated with one hard glance that he would suffer no offences or tolerate misbehavior. Sajitar grimaced. This will be a hard and long ride.
“Where’s your headquarters?” he asked, just to start a conversation.
“Belson Park, of course,” Officer Whiteclaw answered, and swung the saddlebags across her shoulder. She appeared light-hearted and in a fine mood. She was smiling as innocently as a student girl he had once known.
Sajitar’s memory made a virtual jump. Bits and pieces of yesterday’s entertainment came back to him. The slim cut of her gown, the view of her deep décolleté, and her inviting glance. Music had played and she had wrapped her arms around him. Her perfume, an invitation to do much more than talk.
“I suppose you’re used to riding long hours?”
Sajitar glanced away from Officer Whiteclaw and put on his light brown canvas jacket. The question was just another mockery. Everyone of Belthraine was used to either riding or driving a coach. There was no other way to get around.
“Did you take care of my B-horse?”
“Can’t you truly remember anything?”
Oh, yes, your radiant smile, big shining eyes, intelligent words and heaps of understanding to make me feel good. You were like fire to a candle.
Sajitar decided to stick to his amnesia. “If that’s a trick question, I’m already sick of it. Try something new.”
“Your mare’s all right. She bristled a bit, but I calmed her down when we got here.”
“By telling her a goodnight police story? I’d have loved to hear that.” He got a nasty glance from both officers, and under different circumstances he would have laughed.
She followed him through the door and into a misty alley toward the stable. Only few people were up at this hour and all of them looked nervously at the man being escorted by two officers of the Belthraine Police Division One, short PDO, trained for cross-country chases. Sajitar understood their distrust and pondered once more about a way to escape. But he knew no one and could not expect a stranger to help him. Those men and women who chose to live far away from the pleasantries of a large town had either a criminal record or religious motifs. Wherever the police showed up there was trouble ahead for everyone, even in the remotest districts.
Two men evaded them by escaping through a swinging door, another vanished behind a curtain. They avoided eye contact, but Sajitar knew they would watch the police walk by before they went about their business. It was a pity he didn’t even know anyone with a gun in this town to help him out. Remaining alone had been the trick to stay unnoticed. No questions asked and no trouble for anyone. He, for that matter, would not have acted any different.
“If you start to get on my nerves during the trip,” Rayenne pointed out, “I’m authorized to gag, handcuff and throw you across the saddle.”
Sajitar couldn’t help but smile.
“Authorized, hmm? Officer Whiteclaw, do you like using this phrase when talking to your…suspects?”
“Beware if I turn my phrases into your harsh reality.”
“Beware if you find out that you’ve got the wrong guy,” he replied earnestly, ignoring her mockery once again. “Your suspect is still on the move, don’t you forget that. And if he learns you’ve arrested me, he’ll double his efforts to get away.”
Whiteclaw frowned, then after scrutinizing his face, shook her head.
“No, we know that you worked there. We also had a definite description and visual confirmation of you being there at the time in question. Plus your fingerprints were at the spaceport. There’s no mistake.”
“You got my…” He broke off, pretending that he still could not recall the evening hours.
“Yes.” She nodded slowly, clearly letting him feel her superiority. “And we found remnants of the substance known as Barylom. A soft grey powder, as you well remember.”
“Save your breath and spare your explanations for the judge. I’ve heard all of this before.”
Sajitar complied, realizing that no argument would get him off the hook.
They reached the stable and Sajitar was relieved to see his mare in one of the stalls. She pricked her large ears and gave him a quizzical look out of dark brown eyes. Sajitar stroked her nostrils gently.
Due to the high percentage of oxygen in the air, all animals on Belthraine were able to run for miles once they had enough training. Cross-breeds with the zebra-like animals living on the planet were called B-horses. They were the only animals the settlers could ride, since the native ones were too wild to be tamed. Few lines of breeding existed that would take men half across the planet without asking for a stop. Sajitar loved his brown mare dearly. He usually stayed in her box or slept close to her while they were outdoors. The night was lonely for her. And I was too drunk to know.
“How long will the trip take?”
Rayenne frowned and watched the groom take up his hayfork and leave through the back entrance. “Four standard weeks’ ride, if it works well. We’ll leave the road and cross a part of Emerald Green to be faster.”
“Cross…” He stopped stroking the mare, searching eye contact with Rayenne, trying to make her listen to his words. “Do I hear badly this morning or are you truly nuts? There have been reports of Horlyn attacks. And we are talking of the large sizes here, not the small ones you know from the outskirts of Oak Village. Don’t you know anything about this area?”
“We have protective gear,” Whiteclaw replied, glancing at Felberi, who was already currying his B-horse. The captain was listening, but did not interfere. He only patted his saddlebag with a sideways glance. “No Horlyn with more than one brain cell will get close to us.”
“That’s what you hope, but it’s not knowledge.” Sajitar exhaled, trying to calm down. The situation grew stranger by the minute and he racked his brain about how to escape this damned trap. Escorted by the police, who would guard him and therefore be slow, the ride would take much longer than they anticipated. There was no shortcut through the wood, that much was certain. And no matter what kind of protection the police had developed, the animals of the forest were hard to keep at bay if they searched for prey or were disturbed. And though the aggressiveness of Horlyns was disputable, they did not like strangers to enter their territory.
Dissatisfied, he grabbed a curry-comb and fondled the mare’s ears with the other hand, but she shied away, sensing his anger. He exhaled in frustration.
“You don’t understand. All this protective stuff is nice around the villages. The Horlyns there are mostly young and inexperienced. They try to find out about the occupants who invade their territory and if you scream loud enough they’ll fly away. The older ones know us and stay in Emerald Green or Beechtree Pride. They don’t care about us as long as we keep a distance. Entering their territory for more than a few hours is…dangerous to say the least.” He shook his head. “And the Horlyns are not the only ones you need to fear—and now you make me part of it. Thanks a lot.”
Rayenne looked at him for a long time, as if his ability to speak in whole sentences had surprised her. Then she nodded.
“In the old days it was risky, I agree. But you don’t know about the latest technological developments, Saji. We will be protected, don’t worry.”
Sajitar curried his mare, still shaking his head, then fetched the saddle and added the small saddlebags, which held water, food, clothes and some useful items to survive on a long ride. Used to traveling a lot, he had come to take less and less with him.
Two men entered the stable, the first one tall and broad, the first one, the other small and fat. They checked the stable with dark skeptical eyes, taking up details in a second. Their stance and bearing made clear they had not come to claim their mounts. They looked displaced in their long dark brown coats and grey buttoned-up shirts. Sajitar glanced at the polished riding boots and his heartbeat sped up.
Felberi saw them at the same moment and, cursing, went for his high-pressure gun. Swiveling around, he fired three shots in a row.
“Get down, Ray!”
The men cussed, ducked behind the stable doors for protection and shot back the same instant.
Rayenne cleared her gun to aim across the stall door. The B-horse behind her reared, startled by the noise. She was pushed against the wooden wall and screamed in pain.
The B-horses in the adjacent boxes went wild, trampling the ground while they tried to break the doors. Sajitar opened the stall door next to him and the animal jumped, its eyes wide, hooves hitting the wall. Then in fear it bolted down the small alley and fled into the street, hooves clacking on the hardened sand.
The two attackers forgot to shoot and flattened against the wall. The fat man shouted. “Damned beasts!”
Felberi’s gun roared again and the tall man went down screaming. His gun skittered across the floor and he did not move anymore. The second attacker seized the moment, raising his gun and shooting at head-height through the stable, clearly not caring if he hit men or B-horses.
Sajitar had seen it coming. He pulled Rayenne down behind the dividing wall, shielding her with his body. The air was thick with dust from the trampling animals and the noise was deafening. Gasping for air, he coughed and prayed for a gun to defend himself. The sound of stones and metal pieces hitting the wall froze him. It was unfamiliar, more threatening than anything he had heard so far. In the alley, Felberi shouted something Sajitar couldn’t decipher. A scream followed. Rayenne stood up to fire once more and stumbled backwards. The attacker was right in front of her. She looked into the muzzle, frozen. For a second, there was only the gun and the smile of the fat gangster behind it.
“That’s for my partner, you slut.”
Sajitar kicked the door open and hit the man’s chest. His gun fired at the ceiling as he fell and Rayenne pulled the trigger, blowing the wooden bullet in his face. He went down without a sound. The gun dropped and Ray was at his side to make sure he would not try to grab it again.
“Thanks.” Turning to Sajitar, Rayenne put up the gun. Her eyes were wide with fear. She had seen death coming and had been left untouched. She took a deep breath and winced at the pain in her back. “You’re fast.”
Sajitar nodded. He shivered and for a few heartbeats his vision was blurred. “You’re welcome. Who the fuck were they?”
“We’ll find out. Felberi?” She stepped over the unconscious man to run for her partner. “Hey, Felberi? Are you all right? Oh, goodness, no!”
The police officer had fallen backward into the alley. The right half of his face was covered with blood as were his neck and shoulder. “Damn it. Damn these monsters!” She hit the ground with her fist.
Sajitar checked the second attacker and found him unconscious like his partner. He would be out for hours, long enough for them to get away.
“Did they kill your partner?” Sajitar asked.
Rayenne glanced over her shoulder, rage and grief clouding her voice.
“They use dirty shot, Saji. Have you never heard of it? Stones, metal spikes, everything else they can force through the muzzle without blowing it. I don’t know how they alter their guns, but it’s deadly. It happened before. Fuck! Felberi was a good guy.” She shook her head, took Felberi’s guns and stood to bind the attackers’ hands on their backs. “Maybe I should kill these muggers and leave.”
“Maybe you should.”
While she bound their ankles, too, Sajitar got a closer look at the attacker. He pushed away the hair from the back of his neck and saw a dark red circle with another, smaller one, crossing it. One letter was printed in each of them, but not of an alphabet he knew.
“They have a tattoo.”
“A tattoo?” Rayenne wiped away a tear from the corner of her eye, then turned the head of the second man, grimacing at what she saw. “Yeah, he’s got that, too. Two circles and two letters.”
“You saw that before, I suppose.”
“Sanjongy. No surprise they’re in this game.” She looked up when Sajitar got closer. Her tone was harsh, but he saw pain and fear in her eyes. The shootout had terrified her. Somehow it was satisfying he was not the only one almost wetting his pants. “It’s a well-organized group of criminals. You know that.”
Sajitar balled his hands to fists. He pressed his lips tight, but the words came out in a heated rush.
“No, I don’t! I have nothing to do with them!”
“Really? Do you take me to be some stupid village girl?”
Sajitar growled in his throat, wishing he could somehow convince her.
“Anyway, how could they have known I was here?” He stood and stepped back, as if getting distance would prove his innocence. He ran a shaking hand through his hair. I need to get away. Fast. “After all, this is one of the remotest districts on this planet, right? Even the usual police forces avoid coming here. That’s why you were sent after my tracks.”
Rayenne nodded, keeping him in her stare. “If I knew how to find you, so did they.”
Sajitar opened his mouth for a reply and shut it again without a word. Suddenly, the two men looked more dangerous than before. He wiped sweat off his face. His gut twisted and he felt sick to his stomach. Even swallowing was difficult and he regretted having eaten an all-too-hearty breakfast.
“Guess that wasn’t a thought that came to your little mind, right?” Rayenne went past him to cover Felberi’s body with a blanket. Then she removed some items from his saddlebags, took the saddle and bridle off his B-horse and fetched her own.
Her gait and her voice were firm, and in that moment he hated her for being composed and armed. She knew how to handle the situation even though she had just lost her partner and had to be afraid. He hated that leaving with her was his only option. The idea of more men waiting somewhere made his heart race and his palms sweat. He couldn’t stay and hide anymore. The plan had sounded so foolproof in the beginning!
“Come, Mr. Sajitar Haju, you’re still under arrest. And I prefer to put some distance between them and us and call HQ sooner rather than later. These muggers are known to travel in groups.” She turned one last time to face him. Grim determination twisted her features. “If they’re out to kill us, they’ll send an army after us if they have to. So you’d better stay close to me. Is that understood?”
He wanted to ask why she knew, but came up with “Where do we go?” Glancing over his shoulder, Sajitar considered it careless to leave the unconscious men behind. If they awoke and were able to get rid of the handcuffs, they would go about their business which meant they would take up the hunt again. He would have voted for Rayenne’s anger to explode and put an end to their lives. The thought came around again and frightened him. Did I really think about killing someone? As much as possible, violence and he walked different paths.
“There’s a small station north of here with an overhead transmission line. Just a few hours ahead. We’ll call for help and wait there.”
She waited for him to lead his B-horse out of the stable carefully. The stench of blood was in the air and though his mare had been in many places, she shied away and would have bolted without his hand at the reins.
Outside, he mounted the fidgeting B-horse with some trouble and watched Rayenne do the same. She was slender, but he knew better than to take her to be fragile. He had met enough women to accept that there was no such thing as a helpless woman—not on Belthraine, anyway. And truly not in a job that consisted mostly of dealing with hardcore criminals.
Again, it cut him to the quick that she considered him to be one of them.
The thought of being the target of Sanjongy caused him to turn every now and again while the B-horses trotted down the street. He had done some illegal things in his life, but to be on a death list had never been a possibility. Sanjongy! Every man and his mouse feared the gang that had more deaths on their list than the police had employees. And that was a conservative estimate.
He tried to calm down and tell himself that police officers made a much better target. No one loved to be around them, and their reputation was worse than on other planets.
There were stories of policemen being bribed by high ranking criminals to look away while a robbery took place. Stories of how they used brutal force if they thought it appropriate, and sometimes even if they were just out for a brawl. Their appearance far away from Belson Park had made some local folks nervous. This has to be the reason for two killers to show up. Probably Felberi and Ray were in trouble with the gang and now they want revenge.
Reflecting on his situation, he was not sure if the police escort would do him any good. Sanjongy might catch him anyway. What was one police officer against gang members? He inhaled deeply. Don’t expect the worst every time.
Rayenne held the reins with one hand while the other rested on the butt of her gun. Her fingers danced along the trigger and her dark brown gelding fidgeted, sensing her nervousness much better than the people watching them leave town.
Sajitar kept quiet. He tried to look in all directions at the same time, but he was not experienced enough to recognize an assassin without looking into a muzzle. The end of the shootout in the stable had been pure luck. He knew it, and he was sure Rayenne did, too.
If Sanjongy sent more freaks with the mission to kill, there was no doubt about the outcome.
They reached the main street of the village. Now that the sun was up, there were women with children as well as workers on coaches, snapping whips at their B-horses. With one uniformed escort they were still worth a shy glance—then all the passers-by hurried on. Sajitar sensed their sudden unrest. The few men he had talked to had a crime register longer than his arm, and right now Sajitar envied them being left alone while he was led out of town. He glanced over his shoulder, but there was no one to regret his departure.
Belthraine had been a settlers’ dream for one and a half centuries. There were diggers who had thought the planet would be rich in gems or minerals, coal or oil, but for years they had been unlucky. They had built settlements around the huge woods and cut down trees for huts and coaches. Only then did they realize that the wood was special. Its grain in orange, light yellow and dark red quickly became famous among rich people all over the quadrant, and therefore expensive.
Large corporations established subsidiaries to enhance the clearing and maximize exports.
Sajitar smiled. The news of the corporations—especially one called 2Harvest—pumping credits like confetti on New Year’s Eve into the planet had been welcomed by the local authorities, but the planet’s extraordinary mixture of gases, some of them not yet identified, ruined all plans for a quick clearing immediately.
There was no way to use machines fueled with fossil energies. Every spark led to explosions and lives lost. The atmosphere’s high saturation with oxygen prohibited the use of powerful machines effectively, much to the chagrin of wealthy and greedy corporation owners. Many alterations were tried and in the end it was back to axes. The logging made slow progress and the wood became even more expensive. Scientists were hired and fired, but still the planet’s breathable air was a mystery.
Among those settlers living off the wood had been Sajitar’s grandparents and then his parents. They had made a small fortune with selling trunks, but Sajitar did not strive for a living in the rural areas of the planet. Belson Park had developed into a town and would soon be a city due to the money spent by the corporations and some illegal businesses. He had longed to be there like a moth to a flame.
Even if it burned.
“Two attackers, ten o’clock!” Rayenne shouted and had her gun up at the same moment. She shot without taking time to aim, hitting one of the assassins in the shoulder. The masked man screamed and fell backwards, dropping his gun while the other took a dive. “Bastards!” Her B-horse reared, but she turned it one-handed and shot again, if only to push the attackers back.
The second man had a better defense position. He shot several bullets in a row, not caring if he hit trees, bushes or men, but was a bad shooter. Bark blew up, littering the way with pieces in orange and brown while some of the settlers’ B-horses reared and galloped away, pulling their coaches with them. Passers-by fled the scene screaming, running for cover. One went down, his face distorted by pain. Some people shouted for the police. A B-horse ran through the line of fire and wondrously escaped unharmed.
Sajitar did not wait to learn the winner.
“Run, Tessla, run!”
He pressed his heels into Tessla’s flanks, spurring her to run flat into the woods. The mare complied, eager to leave. He ducked on her back, her soft mane in his face. He did not look back. The sound of high-pressure guns filled the air. Something hit his side, stung and was gone a moment later. His cry went unheard. Shouts followed him, words he did not understand and did not want to hear.
Maybe Rayenne was still trying to catch him. Maybe she shouted at the assassin to give up or went down this very moment. Sajitar only saw the dark wood in front of him, trees with trunks so thick not even three men could embrace them. The bark was rough and full of deep runnels. Branches hung low like arms reaching out for him with twenty fingers each. They scratched greedily over Sajitar’s back, but did not bring him down. The B-horse stumbled over a root, caught her step and ran on. He clung to the mane, pressed his knees against the saddle, knowing he might break his neck if he fell off. Listening to the mighty inhale of the B-horse, he hoped the odds were on his side to get away. If he could shake off Rayenne and the freaks he would be in great shape.
The shooting stopped abruptly and he was still close enough to hear a woman’s voice.
“You stupid, damned idiot! Wait! Wait for me!”
Sajitar closed his eyes as if to close his ears, too. He was escaping, no matter who the attackers were. He could survive in the woods. He had done so before, even if it had cost him. In his mind there was no better option than being alone.
No, all of his working brain cells shouted. No stopping! You’re close to escaping!
He forced his mare on. The mount complied eagerly, pumping air in her lungs and flattening to a hard gallop wherever the ground allowed it.
The hooves behind him were getting closer. He heard Rayenne’s voice through the blood pulsing through his ears.
“Stop, Saji! Or I’ll shoot you in the back!”
“Fuck this day.”
He reined his B-horse. Tessla slowed down from gallop to trot, then to a walk that allowed him to turn in the saddle. With wide nostrils the mare pumped air into her mighty lungs, as if saying she had strength for another twenty miles.
He could not believe that this young police officer had in fact caught up on him. He did not like her threat, either. His mare shook her slender head unwillingly. She wanted to run on and he wanted that, too. The B-horse had more common sense than he, and once again, he felt closer to his animal than to any person.
Rayenne brought her gelding close. The B-horse pumped air like its owner, but did not appear out of breath. Sweat poured down Ray’s face. A black strand of hair hung wet across her forehead, decorated with small twigs and leaves. She wiped it away, glaring at him as if he had tried to murder her instead of escaping. Irrationally, he thought that not even being afraid and sweaty took an edge off her beauty. Her large brown eyes were even larger now and he wanted to touch her reddened cheek. The sudden emotion was unwelcome and irritating. A minute ago he had wanted to leave her behind, ignoring the consequences. Am I out of my mind? Men lost homes and lands for a woman. Don’t be one of them!
He cleared his throat, trying to look as innocent as a young B-horse. He took out his flagon of Kiliak and drank deep. He needed some strong wine to soothe his nerves now.
“Did you get him for good?”
She panted so hard she needed a moment to find her voice again.
“I saw him fall. He won’t follow us anymore.” Rayenne shook her head and looked over her shoulder where the wood had closed like a flap behind them. “At least he stopped shooting and I’m grateful for that.” It was almost night where they stood and the street and people, good or bad, seemed miles away. Their sounds were muffled, too, strengthening the impression that the small town was a day’s ride away. “But he’s not dead.” Exhaling, she turned back, fighting again with a loose lock that wouldn’t stay behind her ear. “You unhurt?”
After she’d threatened to shoot him, the question seemed misplaced, but he kept his voice blank as he screwed his flagon closed and put it away.
“If you don’t count the bruises from the branches around here, yes, I think so.”
“Good. Guess that leaves us both stranded in the wild. We can’t go back,” she cut him off, sharply. “Looks like they sent a whole bunch of those killers. You must be really important.” She cocked her head. “Whose toes did you step on? Wang, personally? Were you…related to her?”
“You still think they came for me?”
“Do you want to contradict?”
He put his fingers on his chest, lowered his chin and raised his brows to ask, “Do I really look like a hardcore criminal to you?”
Rayenne flashed a short-lived smile that was not meant to entertain him.
“I’ll be in your company for a while, so I won’t call you anything until we’re out of the woods. No pun intended.” She looked around, up and down, then lowered her voice. “I can’t say that I like to be here.”
He followed her scrutiny. The trees stood close to each other, the branches touched ground here and there and all of the orange, brown and golden leaves seemed to turn like eyes toward the two strangers who dared to venture into one of the wildest areas of Belthraine. Despite the great beauty, there was no denying the danger. Everyone had heard of Emerald Green and the many animals—predators as well as fearsome squirrels—it harbored. There were few men who had ventured further than a day’s walk into the woods. Some of them had come back, claiming they did not understand why their three partners were gone without a trace. Some came back and were changed for life. Some never found their way back to reality and wandered in and out of the woods like dreamers, never talking to anyone in sentences their friends understood.
Rayenne pushed off leaves and loose moss from her jacket and pants with short, harsh movements.
“It was Felberi’s idea to cross the wood. He said it would be a shortcut. I wasn’t so certain it was doable.” She looked up. “Are you?”
“I wouldn’t dare ride straight east,” Sajitar declared when they got their B-horses into a slow trot again. He looked back over his shoulder once more. Even the faintest sounds from the streets were gone. In a few hours there would be no telling where they had gone and no Sanjongy member would find them. “We’ll stay at the edge and hope to avoid people. If that’s okay with you, Officer Whiteclaw.”
She frowned. “My idea exactly.”
He caught his tongue before a brassy reply came out.
“Do you still have your fabulous equipment?”
“Parts of them, yes.” She patted the saddlebags. “My B-horse couldn’t carry all of the things Felberi had.” Again she turned to scrutinize the way they had come, but they were alone as they could be with a living wood around them. “It will be only for a short while. I need to reach the transmission station.” She looked at him curiously. “What?”
“Does your B-horse have a name?”
Sajitar leant forward over the withers.
“Well, Bunty, may I introduce Tessla to you? Tessla, this is Bunty at your side.”
The mare shook her mane, uninterested in her master’s speech.
“Okay, play indifferent. But you’ll be with him for some time. So be nice. You hear me?”
This time, the mare did not even twitch her ears.
Rayenne patted the gelding’s neck, smiling. He liked her smile, but looked away when she lifted her gaze.
“He took me lots of miles since I got here. He’s really in good shape.”
Obviously. He even outran my mare.
“For how long have you been on Belthraine? Oh, don’t gimme that look. You were out of breath from the short run.”
Rayenne flinched, but conceded.
“I got here a while ago.”
“A moon phase.”
“Two, in fact. They invited policemen from other settlements, especially from Helan-Sek II, and some other forces, too.”
“Like your family, hmm?” When she did not reply, he knew he was right. “Some say Belthraine’s such a bad place it begged for a police force like yours, right? To catch the bad guys even if they dare leave populated places. Which is, of course, a crime in itself.”
“The police division was necessary so the town wouldn’t be impaired every time a crook left it.”
“As you please, Ms Officer.” He made a mock bow, earning a hard look. “But I tell you, some people enjoy making this area around Belson Park a bad place. I remember different times. My father and grandfather remember different times, that is. I was too little to know.”
“You accuse the large corporations of bringing in crime.” She nodded, familiar with the subject. “I heard that before and from other planets and regions, too. But there’s a difference between what the corporations offer and what people are willing to do. They don’t have to turn into burglars, thieves, or even murderers.” She looked him in the eye. “How come you ride such a pretty mare? She’s quite expensive.”
Sajitar pushed away her implied accusation with a smile.
“It’s a pity you can’t use one of your pretty gliders around here, hmm? It would be easier to fly from one place to the other and search crooks from above, yet in all these years, no scientist has found a way to get the drives work in this oxygen-laden atmosphere. Quite strange, if you ask me. The only thing they managed building was that vertical tube at the spaceport and that, I remember, caused trouble enough to keep it working.”
“As far as I know there are other gases included that cause explosions. And the tube works excellently. But that’s not the point. Where did you get this B-horse?”
“My ancestors bought several B-horses once the cross-breeding had been successful.” He patted the mare’s neck. “I’m glad they did.”
“Pardon my rudeness, but yours is a Negov-B-horse, not one of the usual simple country mares farmers would breed.”
He hid his astonishment about her knowledge the best he could. “Yes, she’s one of the best. Did you know that in the beginning the settlers tried to breed pure horses? They had to change that fast because the horses suffered and died. Now all of these animals look like horses, but they are a mix of two to three species, give or take. I think it’s a pity that the villagers gave up contests of who could tame a true Yali. They were fun, said my pa. He had some on his ranch.”
Rayenne remained unruffled. “How can a thief afford such an expensive Negov?”
Sajitar frowned and tightened his hands on the reins. “I’m no thief, and to answer your question, I won it fair and square.”
“Won it.” Rayenne snorted. “Yeah, I’ll believe that when it starts snowing on Belthraine.”
He held her in his stare. “It might happen. And as long as my guilt’s not proven, shouldn’t you assume I’m innocent?” He urged the mare south, forcing her to follow him.
“Where are you going? That’s not our direction.”
“We entered the woods without permission. That’s not a good idea.”
“But we’re already in. What are you doing now?”
He dismounted, feeling her gaze on his back. “Put some fruits on the path.”
“And if the animals of the woods or whoever take it, it means it’s okay we are here?”
“More so than not.” Sajitar laid a couple of small fruits and two hard cookies close to the wide roots of a tree, then, after a critical look around, mounted again. They rode on. He felt the presence of a wild, but nevertheless intelligent being close by. An image consisting of various colors blurring in the center of trees came to his mind. He gasped from its intensity, glad to be on horseback. A heartbeat later he had to press his knees against the saddle to keep from swaying. Closing his eyes, he tried to make sense of the swirl of colors. He saw wings of orange and blue, pervaded by light pulsing through it. There were large bodies with antennae, summoned by a great happening. More beasts without wings got closer, pressing their bodies against others, enhancing the lights around them. Their meeting was more important than any previous meetings and the weight of seriousness stretched to Sajitar as if he were a part of it. There was tweeting and chirping and some deep growling, too. Yet, to his chagrin, he did not understand an iota of its meaning.
“Did you do that before?”
Sajitar shook out of his unbidden trance, lifted his head and swallowed. Automatically, he reached for his flagon to drink. The beginning of a headache formed behind his brow.
Rayenne repeated her question.
“I prefer to be cautious,” he said, catching his breath.
“But how do you know what you have to do to soothe them?”
“Let’s say, I got the memo in time.”
“You know much for a man who’s said to be the right hand of an assassin.”
Sajitar preferred not to answer.
* * * *
Rayenne surveyed the surrounding woods carefully, as if the Horlyns were about to attack them by the hundreds. Conversation had stopped, since they both relied on their ears to be warned about the dangers around. The deeper they got into the woods the darker it became, though it was not even noon. And in this semi-darkness she could make out neither a route nor animals lurking beneath the large bushes and branches. She had heard of predators larger than their B-horses. There was no way to stay on alert throughout the day. She had to nourish the hope that any beast would prefer evading them over searching them out. Unless they need prey. Rayenne took a deep breath and tried to think of something else.
Based on the information police HQ had provided, Sajitar had spent more than a moon phase in Emerald Green, though there was no exact time available. From her point of view, he appeared to be less frightened by the permanent dusk than she was. The fact made her calmer and, yet, more alert. Whenever she glanced at him, he was studying the trunks and tree-tops for reasons she did not understand and dared not ask. It felt odd and oppressing to ride through a wood that was more alien than any other she had crossed. In her younger years, when she had still worked for her father, she had ventured everywhere a space cruiser had taken her, polishing her family’s reputation and living happily in the wilderness. Yet that wide-ranging experience had not prepared her for Belthraine and the thick woods that seemed to tell visitors to stay away. She got the impression of being watched permanently. Fear constricted her throat and she wished her partner were with her.
When at first Felberi had come up with the idea of a shortcut through the woods she had been skeptical, but he had sounded so experienced and had described the trip as easy and their equipment sufficient. She wondered how much of his talk had been bragging. Had he wanted to impress me? Had he thought that being with one of the Whiteclaw family members would make him look small if he did not dare ride through Emerald Green? She could not ask him anymore, and suddenly sadness overflowed her.
I wish I had had a choice.