Space Refuge 39
The temperamental wind would not fix on a single corner, rattling the tent canvas from a new direction every few minutes and throwing handfuls of rain about like grim confetti. Muttered conversations mingled with the sound of the weather, infants whimpered, a mother recited an ancient myth from memory, hoping to distract her children from their hunger. A rescue shuttle roared overhead, engines spluttering. Supplies were running low and still they came, wave after wave of refugees fleeing before the alien menace.
Xoco shivered and wrapped the insulation blanket tighter around herself, feeling numb from more than just the cold. Around her dim figures were stirring, hope bringing them to life, faith that this time the shuttle was bringing the companions and kin left behind when they ran. For Xoco there was no such hope, Latil, her lover, her life, was months dead, slaughtered, long before the invasion, by a human warlord intent on taking the riches of Teoti for himself.
Three days before a shuttle had brought the warlord and his household to this desolate place, his guards claiming more than his share of the dwindling rations. For two nights the sounds of merriment had echoed down the valley from his fortified encampment, mocking the huddled poor. Now Xoco touched her hunting knife like a talisman and swore that there would be no third night.
Leaving the tent, Xoco was just one more miserable figure among those flocking towards the landing pad. She saw a young boy, near blue with cold, teeth chattering, she offered him her blanket. The silvery material, ironic echo of the deep mines of Teoti, was too reflective for her purpose. He smiled. The gratitude warmed her more than insulation could. "Be strong." she told him. She walked away.
Scrub grasses clung to the valley walls and wiry bushes, denuded for winter. Xoco slunk from one tenacious patch of vegetation to another, her footfalls no louder than those of her shadow, her outline no more noticeable in the falling dusk. She skirted the warlord's encampment. Grey green boulders formed a rough wall, smaller ones dragged or rolled to fill the gaps nature had left between the largest, an imperfect defence, the rocks would be an easy climb.
Watching the guards, Xoco was reminded of the mazat herds of Teoti, which she and Latil had hunted together. She remembered the hot winds of the plains, smelling of damp earth and spices. She remembered the warm ache of muscles after the chase, the fierce joy of the successful hunt. She remembered the touch of Latil's hand, silently reminding her to remain cautious. The memory brought fresh tears to her eyes and new resolve.
Xoco steadied her breathing and focused on the task ahead, the guards were too thinly spaced to mount an effective defence and they must have known it, starting at small sounds and staring too long into empty shadows, nervous behavior so reminiscent of herd creatures expecting a predator. Xoco suspected that fully half the warlord's garrison must have been down at the shuttle pad commandeering whatever luxuries they could for his personal use. His selfishness angered her, but it had it's uses, she doubted she could have crept into the encampment unseen if all his warriors had been present.
Instincts honed by the hunt allowed Xoco to slip through the gaps in the warlord's defence, the stealth learned on the plains had it's place here, careful movement that left loose stones untouched as useful for evading notice by guards as by prey. The warlord's tent was easily identifiable, by it's relative opulence, by the bodyguards flanking the entrance, by the voice Xoco heard in her nightmares raised in petulant anger.
Under the sounds of argument the faint rustle of tearing canvas went unnoticed, Xoco cut a single slit in the fabric, a mere forearm's length from the ground up and peered into the dim interior of the warlord's personal tent. A disorganized pile of cushions and discarded clothes was not much in the way of cover, but it was the best Xoco was likely to get, she crawled through the gap she had made, careful to make neither sound nor sudden movement though she need hardly have bothered, all eyes within were focused on the warlord.
The girl in rags was dimly familiar, a villager from another tribe, glimpsed at some festival, barely recognizable without her ceremonial make-up. Something she had done or not done was the source of the warlord's current displeasure, he sneered at her as his guards hauled her away, leaving him, just for a moment, alone in his tent.
Xoco didn't hesitate, in her eyes it was fate, this one moment in which to act. A half dozen swift strides took her to the warlord's bedside, a hand a cross his mouth before he could call out, her hunting knife to his throat. Xoco looked into the warlord's eyes, widening in sudden fear "For Latil." she whispered and drove the blade into artery letting his life spill out in a ragged scarlet stream.
"For Latil." she repeated. Whatever came next, her lover was avenged.