Jandrax 35

Two days passed. The river gate was crudely patched. The ten offworld rifles were charged and distributed and twenty men ten rifle-armed, ten armed with bows – stood atop the palisade.

For two days there had been no sign of the renegades, but they would return. It would be months before the melt and in all the barren desert outside the palisade there was no food. Armed parties had gone upriver, then along the shore of the lake in both directions without finding either the renegades or any trace of their presence. Of course the colonists knew that Andrax was a master of his trade; he would have covered the fugitives’ tracks and there was no reason for the band to stay near water; they had merely to come down once or twice a day to drink.

But they had to have food and in all that barren waste there was none. So the colonists thought.

In fact the seven renegades were eating well enough on the dried meat that Valikili had stored against such an eventuality, nor would they have starved in any case. Along the river grew a thin fringe of siskal and lal which would have provided a meager fare; and the small, rodentlike miliks – creatures which live on the dried seedpods left behind by the herds – were available. There were few enough of these, but Jan could have trapped or shot them. In all there was enough to eat if one remained within reach of the river and stayed on the move, never exhausting the supplies of a given piece of ground.

It was fortunate for Valikili that this was not necessary, for his arrow wound, though well treated, gave him much pain. Jan had abandoned his Scout’s leathers in favor of furs in order to better blend into the community, but he had not left the uniform in his quarters. He had buried it with a bow, quiver, three knives, a twenty-liter water container, some dried siskal fruit, and medical supplies judiciously stolen from the community infirmary.

Helene remained locked in her quarters, the window now sealed shut and a newly attached padlock and hasp securing the door. The patriarch had met with his closest advisors to decide her fate, but as yet they were content to use her as bait.

Two more days passed and the colonists began to wonder what would happen. No carnivores nosed about at that time of year, and only one of the renegades seemed to have been injured. Where could they be? Surely their hunger would have driven them to some desperate move by now?

What if they had decided to abandon Helene Dumezil? What if Valikili had died and the others had gone upstream toward the mountains? There they would find game throughout the year, though it was never plentiful. Of course they would never make it to the mountains; they would starve on the journey.

***

On the fifth night Jan slipped past the sentries and found Helene. She was unhurt, she assured him through the wall, and safe enough for the moment. The patriarch had bragged to her that she was being used as bait.

Jan considered the situation. He could destroy the padlock with two shots but that would alert the guards who manned the palisade. Could he and Helene win free with the guards alerted? It was a chance he chose not to take, so he faded back into the night.

Where there was a lock, there was a key; and in a colony where one man ruled with the voice of God, that man would have the key. Jan slipped his express pistol back into its holster and drew his knife.

He had not been surprised to find Helene’s door unguarded, for he had already spotted the three hidden sentries who waited to pounce on anyone who came to rescue her. He had seen the same tactics used on Hallam for the same holy ends.

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