Chaos Calls 03: the Dragon Dilemma
Chapter 04

Copyright© 2011 by Ernest Bywater

The Exchange

The next morning we’re up early to get ready for the exchange. I’ve several troopers organise twenty bullocks and twenty sheep with fifteen horses. Twelve of them pulling the four wheeled cavalry wagons after we unload them in the barn and put a load of blankets in them, along with food and water. I want to be ready to cart the people out if they can’t walk that far. Twenty of us head off to the exchange.

Mid-morning we arrive at the glen. To show my good faith I herd the bullocks and sheep over to the other side of the boulder. I leave my people and the horses in the forest. When I walk out to take up my usual position beside the boulder I spot a watcher in the distant sky. At the boulder I take a seat and await events.

About half an hour later, judging by my internal clock, I spot four of the Kukulka flying this way. They land and approach me.

The older one from yesterday stops and tells me his name, which is very poetic and very long. I shorten it in my mind to ‘Morning Breeze’ as their names use a process that’s a cross between the Japanese and the American Indians. Breeze continues, saying, “What is your name?”

“I have many names. But the people around here call me Lord Al.”

“We have a problem, Lord Al. My people have agreed to stop taking your people for food. We’ve agreed to all the other matters you said. But one of my people, Fast Dive, refuses to hand over the female she has taken after her mate was killed. How does this affect the agreement?”

“The rest will bring their captives safely here to exchange them for the food animals, as we discussed?”

“Yes. They await word to bring them here, safe and sound.”

“Then I see this as you and your people agreeing with me and mine on the terms we discussed last night. The agreement is accepted and in place. With regards to Fast Dive, she’s acting as an individual outside of the agreement. I won’t press you to force her to bring me her captive. I will ask you do not punish me for violating the sanctity of your valley when I go into it to take the captive away from Fast Dive. All else will be as agreed.”

“Good. I do not think you can safely approach our valley to get the captive, but I accept you have to try. If you are caught doing this I will see to it you are brought back here. But only twice will I give you safe return. Is that acceptable?”

“Yes. We have an agreement. I don’t think I will need to accept your offer of safe return, but I’m glad it’s there if I make a mistake. I have more of my people with horses and wagons to take the captives away, once they’re brought here. Your people can bring the captive to me then select what they want from the animals beyond this boulder. I brought more than was needed in case your people found some of the animals unacceptable to them. Once the exchange is over I’ll leave the rest here for you to decide on what happens to them, because I’ll give them to your community as a whole.”

“Good. We have some elderly who can’t hunt well. We will take the left over animals to them.” He turns to another Kukulka and orders, “Go get the people with the captives. Once they’ve selected their stock we will eat from those left and take the rest back for the aged and sick.” The one addressed takes to the air, and is soon gone from sight.

The rest of the Kukulka relax on the ground near me, with one watching the forest where my people are. Several minutes later a large group of Kukulka are flying toward us, and they’re carry something.

A few minutes later thirteen people are deposited beside my boulder then twenty-six Kukulka select stock. The couples choose, kill, and eat a bullock before selecting a sheep to take away. It takes them a while to do this. When they leave Morning Breeze takes the others over to kill and eat a few bullocks, then they take the remaining sheep away. A couple of bullocks are still alive. They’ll send others back for them.

While that’s happening I check over the released captives. Most of them need some minor medical attention, but it can wait until we get them back to the farm. They’re very happy to be free of the Kukulka.

Checking them over I find I’ve seven Damsels but I’m missing one of those on my list. It seems they found an eighth while I was in transit. I also have six local Chaos people and four of them are teen-aged girls.

When the Kukulka leave my people bring the wagons and horses over. It takes only a few minutes to get all of the released captives settled down to ride in the wagons. Most are still in shock from the flight here so I don’t trust them to stay on a horse. The four girls are related and wish to stay together, but they have to be split into two pairs with each pair sharing a wagon. When we form up to leave some more Kukulka arrive and head for the stock. We watch them while we head out.

Crossing the glen I walk by each wagon to have a short word with each of the released captives to reassure them about their freedom and their future. They respond well to my assurances. The biggest responses come from the Damsels when I address six of them by name and tell them we’ll be on our way back to Crossroads when my work here on Chaos is finished. They’re very surprised to see such a young Hero.

When I reach the Damsel I don’t know, she was the first delivered to me, I say, “I’m sorry, M’lady, I know you’re from Cassandra, any fool can see that, but I don’t know your name because you weren’t on the list I was given of Damsels captured by the dragons.” Her eyes go wide when she realises I’m the Hero come to save her from durance vile.

She gives a small smile as she replies, “I’m Nina Programmer. Thank you for rescuing me. I do have to admit the rescue is not anywhere as dramatic as what I envisioned. Being exchanged for a sheep and a cow is sort of anti-climactic.”

Grinning, I respond, “Better an exchange of food stock than have you become the first meal for their young when they hatch. Anyway, that’s my view. I still have to do a much more dramatic rescue. One of the Kukulka hasn’t exchanged Mary Violinist, so I have to go to steal her back. That will take some days. It’ll allow you time to recover.”

“Please, don’t get hurt while you get Mary back.” I smile as I agree.

We take our time going back through the forest, so we get back in the late afternoon. Joan and all of the other ladies at the farm are soon busy getting the released captives comfortable in beds in the farm houses. I figure a couple of days of rest should see most of them recovered, but I’ve Warren and Carla watch them for any emerging mental issues.

While we’re eating dinner that night I’m told the two men who’d been sent to the south by David have arrived here. Along with six other men and a lot of stock they want to be paid for. They’re in the inn for tonight. Warren promised Lief I’d pay for their keep when I see him in the morning.

The Next Day

After another early breakfast I’m off to the inn to pay Lief and meet with the men. I arrive in time to sit with them while they eat breakfast. I pay Lief while they eat.

After their breakfast we go to the bank and I get out the money to pay them. At my suggestion they open accounts to deposit the bulk of the money so it’ll be safe on their trip home. They can get it out from their local bank. Outside of the bank the sellers head home. I head to the farm as they took the stock there yesterday when they arrived. I get there in time to see the last of the farmers cutting out the best stock to be kept by them on the farms. The provision of good breeding stock was one of the incentives I offered them to come along to set up here.

By late morning all is ready. We have an early lunch and set off to herd just over a thousand head of stock into the forest and up to the glen. I’m not worried about the stock that gets lost in the forest, because the whole forest area is now surrounded by a sturdy fence. The main water supply is the stream in the glen while a smaller one runs through the forest, flowing north before it curves back to flow across the new farms. I figure most of the stock will eventually move up to the glen area since it’s quieter. At the moment I’m concentrating on getting the bullocks, pigs, and sheep up to the glen. We get there in the late afternoon with most of the stock. We’ve lost many of the deer and others on the way. After chasing the stock into the glen we head back to the farm.

Rescue Raid

When the group of us pass near the forest on the way out Kira and I slip into the forest to wait for nightfall. While I was busy paying the men for the stock she was busy packing all we’d need to mount the rescue of Mary. We move well back into the forest and hide in a large bush.

During the remaining hours of daylight we hear the odd squeal of one of the stock animals being killed when the Kukulka visit for food. The afternoon moves on and night begins to fall. We wait until well into the evening before we move out. When we reach the edge of the forest the sun is still high enough for us to see across the glen. One lone Kukulka is feeding on a pig it’s killed. It often looks up and around the glen. I’m not worried because I know their eyesight isn’t that good in this dim light. Still, we wait behind a tree in the forest until well after it’s finished its meal and left. When we emerge from the forest we check the sky. There’s not a thing in sight, so we head across the glen to the far western edge.

In minutes we’re at the starting point for our climb and getting our gear ready. The first part will be easy as there are plenty of handholds for us to we go up twenty yards to a shelf. We use that to move around the cliff. That’s where the hard climb starts. There are fewer handholds and the rock is more vertical than in the glen. Once we get around the corner there are places where I use the hexes to create acceptable handholds. I make a point of using more than is needed so it’ll be easy for Kira to collect them when she follows behind me. We won’t be coming back this way and we don’t have all that much gear to start with, so we take it all with us. While we climb I place the holds and she collects them.

A few hours of hard work sees us up the cliff another hundred yards and into the crevice where we’ll be doing most of the climbing. This will be easier because we can use the opposing walls for assistance while we climb. Our rate of ascent increases a lot at this point. We’re ahead of our planned schedule when I reach the ledge that’s our target for tonight. We could reach the top soon, but we won’t have enough time to get to a safe hideout tonight. So we stop early and we’ll go on tomorrow night. We set hexes to secure ropes to keep us on the ledge, then we set a rock coloured canvas over us and the ropes. We eat then go to sleep.

Some hours later I wake up to the sound of two Kukulka having a discussion. When Kira stirs I place my finger against her lips so she knows not to talk as the Kukulka are only a few meters above us. One’s saying, “I’m sure I can smell some of those animals we can’t eat now as they aren’t animals. But I can’t see any. This is where the smell is the strongest. Can you see anything?”

The sound of small rocks being kicked, wings flapping, and I see the canvas bow in a little, as if in a breeze. Both Kira and I reach out to hold the canvas in place. After a few minutes silence another says, “I can smell something odd too. But I can’t see anything except rock. Maybe there is a strong draft pulling the odour into the rock crack and concentrating it as it rises up to here. After all, they are working on the land below while they clear the trees from the area beside the reserved forest. I’m not at all surprised we smell something with so many of them hard at work down there below us.”

“You could be right, but I think it’s stronger than something that far away would create. I think I’ll stay watch near here today and see what develops.” More sounds of them moving around. We settle back down and we take turns getting some more sleep with one sleeping while the other watches to make sure our cover isn’t disturbed.

Second Night

Kira wakes me when the sun sets. We eat while we wait. I’m not going to move until I know the Kukulka have gone home for the night for sure. No point getting caught when a few minutes waiting will see us safe. About an hour later, when it’s almost full dark, I hear an odd sound and some rocks rattle when something moves on the surface above us. After several minutes I hear wings flapping. Looking out around the edge of the canvas I can’t see a thing. So we get on with unwrapping ourselves and putting all of the gear back into our packs. About five minutes later we’re ready to finish the climb. Another ten minutes sees us standing on the rocky plateau that makes up the top of the cliff here. We take care while we make our slow way across the rough ground. Each step is placed to ensure we don’t knock any rocks about. We don’t want them to know we’ve been here, so we don’t disturb the ground at all.

Chaos has no moon. Though the starlight is a lot brighter than on Earth on a moonless night it’s still not much light to let us examine the ground. So it’s a long slow process of checking the ground and moving forward one step at a time. It’s almost dawn when we near the far edge and the place where we plan to hole up for the day. We crawl into a small hole created by some large boulders resting against each other. Reaching the back of this cave we settle down, set our canvass to cover us, have a fast light meal, and go to sleep. I’ve no concerns about the Kukulka here as the entrance is way too small for them to get in. Most humans would have trouble getting in and the rocks are far too heavy for them to shift without mechanical aid.

About mid-morning I wake up to the sounds of scratching on the rock. I concentrate on listening, and I can just hear a Kukulka say, “Now I can smell those animals here. It’s like they’re in these rocks. But I can’t see how they could be.”

Another replies, “If they’re there they have to be very small. The biggest entrance I can see here is about the size of my hand. At the far end of this pile is a bigger entrance, but it’s only big enough to get my head in and I can’t see anything except rock in there.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s the same thing I smelled yesterday at the edge of the cliff. I think it may be moving only at night, whatever it is. I know those animals don’t like moving at night, but they can, a little.”

“Have you looked over the markers? I have, and not one has been moved. If they came over that ground last night they did it without touching the ground or moving anything. So they must have flown. We have no reason to fear anything that can fly as they’re all too small.”

“OK, so it can’t hurt us. But I still want to know what the hell it is. I hate mysteries!”

“Look, if it’s so small it can hide in there and it can cover the ground without disturbing the marker stones and only moves at night, then it doesn’t matter what it is. It can’t hurt us, so it’s no danger. Forget it.” There’s a bit more grumbling and arguing while they move away.

Third Night

We wait until well after dark before crawling out. I take time to look very hard for any waiting Kukulka, but I see none. We move over to the cliff edge and the drop into the Valley of the Kukulka. We look down into it. It’s a lush place with a couple of shallow streams wandering along the floor of the valley. Most of the ground looks like marsh or fen. We take care when we move over to the tree we’ll use to get down. It takes just a few minutes to toss the ropes over the branches and around the trunk, tying them to a maillon which we use to secure the rope I’ll be climbing down on. Kira is staying up here to remove this set up and to set it up on another night so I can get out. We wish to leave no evidence of where or how we got in, none at all. Our way out is along a different line. We can’t think of how to get down without leaving some evidence, so we don’t want it near where we came in.

All is ready, so I give Kira a hug and thread the rope through my descender before I secure the rope to the maillon. So we won’t have any rope hanging down the cliff I’ve got it in a shoulder bag set to run free while I rappel down the cliff. Kira will wait here until I give the signal for her to pull the rope up after I get down. I’ll be stopping to check a few things on the way down so the rope has to be available until I’m where I want to spend tomorrow.

About half way down is a cave, but it’s very small and shallow so I keep going to the next one. The one thing the Crossroads 3D external views couldn’t give us was the details of the insides of any of the caves. Thus I have to check them out as I go.

The next cave is about a third of the way up from the bottom and it’s quite deep, so I’ll stay in it for tomorrow. I need to find out which cave Mary is in before I can go any further. For the next few days Kira will come to the cliff to drop a light line down so I can send signals by tugging on it. We only have a few things she can do to help me so they have tug counts, all five of them. Leaving the rope at the entrance I tie the remaining rope to the hanging line and I enter the cave. After giving the cave a quick check I go back to the rope and give Kira the signal to pull it up. A moment later it vanishes up the cliff.

Now comes the hard part. I have to trust Kira to get the rope back, the gear off the tree, and pack it away without leaving any traces. She’ll make her way back to the cave we stayed at yesterday and will spend the day there. A few hours after dark tomorrow she’ll return to drop the signal line. We’ll go from there, depending on what’s needed after I spend tonight and tomorrow finding out what I can.

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