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Thanks to [ profile] maycat55555 for her aid with Schuldig's Serbian swearing!

Chapter Fifty-Four

The uncharted Martian wastes, 1880

"In there! Quickly!" cried Crawford, indicating a deep and dark crack into which the cart might just fit as Schuldig landed neatly on the balls of his feet beside him. Seizing the cart, Crawford, Micah, Schuldig and Farfarello pushed it as deep within the crevice as they could, and took up positions at the edge of the crack, peering out carefully. Their pursuers came up fast on their great dov, spreading out and circling the rocks, looking all about them with care and intelligence.

"Twenty of them?" said Farfarello quietly, "Or more?"

"I think that is all of them," whispered Schuldig's voice in his mind. "Let us not use speech any more, my friends! There is no need to attract more attention than we must."

"At least their dov do not have their claws armoured for fighting," thought Crawford. "I would not like to think of them digging us out with ease."

Farfarello gave him a sharp and worried look at that, but turned at once again to peering out at the enemy. Micah contributed nothing to the silent conversation, preferring, as it seemed, to watch the Martians as they conferred amongst themselves. They were attired, as were most Martian men seen by the young men, in colourful kilts wrapped about their slender hips, with twin narrow-bladed swords belted about their waists. Most carried the long lances with leaf-bladed heads that the natives who had attacked the garrison fort in New London had borne, and fully half that could easily be seen from the young men's restricted vantage point also carried rifles of what seemed like modern construction. Their dov seemed excited, lashing their great tails and hissing at each other should one of the beasts shoulder its way into another. The Martians who rode them, although it was often difficult for men to tell with any accuracy the age of the natives, seemed to be youthful in the main, their movements and gestures full of the vitality and urgency of the young of all races. They looked about them with their great eyes, speaking loudly as if they scorned to hide their plans from their prey, then the youth who seemed perhaps to be their leader, from his lordly mien and richer clothing and jewellery laughed, his teeth shockingly white in the mahogany colouration of his face, pointing upwards in the native manner, with all his fingers outspread.

"Nagi," muttered Crawford. "Is the little fool looking out, Schuldig?"

"Yes," said Schuldig grimly in his mind, a look of concentration upon his face as if he were looking at two very disparate things at the same time. "I'll teach him to be so silly!" He sighed, rubbing his face. "It is difficult when one does not know their tongue, but I have no doubt they are well aware of our position, Crawford. Perhaps they wish to take Nagi first, for the sake of amusement, or to lessen our morale, or for some other reason I cannot divine." He closed his eyes briefly in an attempt to stop the fancies that made him see Nagi spitted on a native lance, and thought, as strongly and angrily as he might, "Nagi! Stop that and get into cover at once!"

"Oh!" came the immediate thought in reply, "I am doing nothing! I won't let them get me, Schuldig!" The underlying current of thoughts that ran, "Oh, I hope he doesn't realise --" suddenly were cut off with a torrent of exaggerated concern for the safety of the dov.

"I am going to strangle him later," thought Schuldig to himself in annoyance at Nagi's silliness. "Behave yourself!" he thought at Nagi and returned to peering out at the Martians. He had scarcely done so when one of the native youths raised his rifle and shot towards the crevice, making the young men within duck and curse.

"Well done, Crawford," hissed Schuldig. "What a wonderful cage you have found for us to hide in!"

"Would you have them steal our water?" said Crawford angrily, adding in thought, "Must you speak so to me at this time?"

"Are we not all friends? May I not speak as I wish, Herr Crawford?" thought Schuldig in annoyance, his anger immediately fading. "I'm sorry," he thought. "It's just I am so damnably worried that this might be what you foresaw." He felt suffused with shame at the smile Crawford sent his way and the thought that accompanied it. "You'd better live out the day," he thought brusquely. Crawford nodded, his eyes on the enemy beyond the crevice's entrance. The Martians rode back and forth, aiming their rifles and shooting when it seemed to them that the opportunity arose.

"I do not think they are all out there," said Micah.

"I believe you are right," said Crawford. "It may be that -- above us!" As he spoke several of the youths urged their dov at the crack, shooting wildly and forcing the young men to shrink back against the walls of the crevice. Crawford looked upwards and, as he had foreseen, after the smallest passage of time there was a scrabbling noise and the great bulk of a dov blocked out the light that shone down through the narrow entrance at the top of the crack. The beast's rider jammed his rifle into the crevice, firing downward and making the bullet ricochet wildly about the narrow passage in the rock.

"Farfarello!" said Micah in alarm, as the bullet scored a path across the young Irishman's arm.

"What's one more scar?" said Farfarello. He regarded the blood seeping into his sleeve with interest. "This will teach me to fight in my shirtsleeves!" he said jokingly. "It's not deep, there's no need to worry." As if to indicate the veracity of his words he lifted his rifle, unheeding of the pain such an action would cause any normal wounded man, and shot out of the crevice, hitting one of the dov. "Thank you for having targets large enough for even a one-eyed man to hit!" he called mockingly.

As Farfarello did this, Crawford and Schuldig aimed upwards, firing again and again as the dov scratched at the rocks at the top of the crevice as if it were a large dog hunting out rats. It bellowed as their bullets hit its legs and belly, and all at once it went limp, succumbing to their attacks and sliding down a little into the crack, blocking yet more light from the young men below.

"Did we get the rider?" asked Crawford.

"I don't know," said Schuldig. "At the very least he will not be able to move his dov to shoot down at us!" He directed a worried smile at Crawford, murmuring, "You are bleeding."

Crawford rubbed at his face and looked at the blood on his fingers in surprise. "It's nothing," he said. "A chip of the rock, perhaps -- you know how head wounds always bleed so profusely! I am all right."

"Pray remain so," said Schuldig, creeping nearer to the mouth of the crack.

"Here they come again!" cried Micah, and a barrage of fire was unleashed upon the little group's hiding place. "Damned savages!" said Micah viciously, shooting back and crowing with pleasure as one of the Martian youths tumbled from his mount to lie lifeless in the dust.

"Good shot," said Farfarello in appreciation, then gasped as Crawford jumped forward and bore him down. A bullet cracked through the space until then occupied by Farfarello's head to hit on the rocks beyond. "Thank you, Crawford," said Farfarello in tones of more fervent appreciation than he had used to compliment Micah's skill.

"They're the ones who must die, not us," said Crawford, climbing up again and pulling Farfarello after him. He looked at the mouth of the crevice, where Micah and Schuldig stood side by side as if they had never had words with each other, calmly and skilfully firing and keeping the enemy at bay. He found suddenly that it was Farfarello who held him up rather than he who held Farfarello.

"Brad?" said Farfarello in distress, the familiar manner of his address clearly indicating the worry he felt. "Schuldig!"

"Gott, Gott," said Schuldig, looking back at them. "Micah! Hold them off!"

"Yes," said Micah grimly.

"Brad!" cried Schuldig, taking Crawford from Farfarello. Anxiously, he slid his hand into his friend's hair, his fingers immediately slick with blood. "Your damned chip of rock has sliced open your head," he said angrily. "For you to be so faint perhaps it has cracked your skull."

"No," said Crawford, shaking his head and finding that such an action was more painful than he had considered. "No. It's a vision, mixed in with the pain. It's Nagi, Schuldig, they're killing him --" He clung to his friend, trying to beat back the horrible images in his mind, for he well knew that to be distracted at this time would prove fatal for them all.

"I can hear him," said Schuldig comfortingly. "Don't think like that, Brad. He is all right." He paused, anger darkening his face. "I think they're going up to his cave. I won't let your vision come to pass, don't worry." Seeing shame within his friend's mind, he touched Crawford's face briefly, saying, "No, I do not think you weak. Do not be so silly!"

"I am all right," said Crawford. "It took me strongly, that is all. The wound is nothing, truly, Schuldig."

"Don't be ashamed of caring for the lad," said Schuldig, reloading his rifle. "Now, I am going out there, and I would very much like some covering fire!" He grinned with a gaiety he did not truly feel, for the images he had seen within Crawford's mind had unsettled him with the horrors inflicted therein upon Nagi's small frame.

"Don't be stupid," said Micah. "The boy can keep them back, don't you think?"

"If he is not distracted, or tricked," said Schuldig. "I am best fitted to go out there, they'll find it hard to hit me if I move as fast as I might!" He froze, alarm suffusing his narrow, scarred face. "Nein!" he said in fury. "Nagi, you little fool --" He paused a moment, saying, "Cover me!" and sprang from the crack out amongst the enemy, shooting one of the Martians in the face as he did so. He looked up the rocks in alarm to see two of the natives on dov clawing their way up to Nagi's place of refuge. "Stay there!" he thought fiercely, but it was too late.

The natives climbing to the cave seemed surprised as rocks shot at great speed out from its mouth, and hung suspended in the air. As Schuldig ejaculated an oath, Nagi's dov sprang out, its eyes fierce as it glared at those beasts ridden by the natives, with Nagi perched upon its unsaddled back. The brute seemed unalarmed by the slow speed with which it descended through the air, lashing its great thick tail in fury and hissing at its foes. The Martians cried out in shock to see the rocks sit motionless in the air as Nagi quickly looked around, marking their positions.

"Hah!" ejaculated the lad, flinging his arms wide in an angry and quick gesture. The rocks shot outwards, thudding into the Martians and their beasts with a force as if they were cannonballs fired by great guns.

"Jebem ti sunce!" cried Schuldig in the manner of the more uncouth of the Serbian rebels with whom Crawford and he had been acquainted, throwing himself to the ground and shielding his head with his arms. All about him were screams, cut off abruptly with horrid thumping noises, and the air was full of dust and sand flung upwards by Nagi's ability. At last Schuldig raised his head to see Nagi sitting quite calmly in the midst of wreckage, his dov looking about it as if it wished for nothing more than to devour the first creature it saw move.

"Dummkopf," muttered Schuldig, looking then over his shoulder. He froze, seeing the remains of the rocks that had thudded into the mouth of the crevice with a force strong enough to shatter them. He could not hear Crawford's mind, he realised. In panic he leapt up, ignoring his peril as the dov began an angry rush forward, stopped only in its attempts to intercept him when Nagi flung up a hand and it stopped at once as if it had run into a wall.

"Brad!" yelled Schuldig. "Brad!"

His voice sounded very queer in his own ears, he thought, and suddenly the fear lifted from him a little. His head was ringing with the great impact the rocks had made, and he had but been momentarily distracted. Crawford and the others stepped out of the crack, their clothes and hair grey with dust. Schuldig seized his friend tightly.

"I thought --" he began and stopped, not wishing to appear foolish.

"What happened?" said Crawford. "Those rocks -- I barely warned the others to fling themselves down in time."

"Our little friend," said Schuldig, not relinquishing his grasp upon Crawford's arms.

"Don't look so worried," said Crawford. "Though large pieces of rock penetrated the crack, my foresight allowed us all to escape unharmed. Really, Schuldig, I am quite all -- damn!" He pulled away from Schuldig as Micah walked past, his face set in fury. He reached up and pulled Nagi bodily from the back of the dov, and, still holding firmly to the boy's arm, hit him soundly across the face.

"Ah!" cried Nagi.

"Laß ihn los!" shouted Schuldig in fury as Micah gave every indication that he would hit the surprised boy again. He sprang forward, shoving Crawford aside, and punched Micah on the nose.

"Damn it!" cried Micah, staggering back, his hand over the assaulted facial feature in question. "Get your lapdog under control, Bradley!" He glared at Schuldig's attempts to comfort Nagi, snarling, "You stupid, unnatural creature!"

As quick as a snake striking, Schuldig whipped about and punched him again, a look of vicious pleasure in his face, shrieking, "Hau ab!" Micah returned the favour and within an instant they were rolling over and over on the sand, each young man intent on inflicting as much damage as he possibly could.

"Schuldig!" wailed Nagi, his attention divided between his friend and his dov, for the great beast, still being excited from its recent martial exercise, gave every indication that it would like nothing more than to intervene in the fight to the best of its horribly-clawed abilities.

"Stop this!" roared Crawford, striding forward and pulling them apart. "Stop this ridiculous behaviour at once!" As Micah and Schuldig loudly cried that it was the other that had started it, Crawford stood between them, keeping them both at arm's length. "He started it?" quoted Crawford in contempt. "Are you children? Act like men and stop this stupidity!"

"He is a spoilt and immature creature!" cried Micah. "He would not act so if you ever once showed him some discipline, Bradley!"

"Now we see the level you're most comfortable at," snarled Schuldig. "Hitting someone so small! He's nothing but a contemptible bully, Brad!"

"Stop!" shouted Crawford at the top of his lungs, shaking them both. "I'm most gratified to see how you both respect my opinion so much that you must try to persuade me of your complaints," he went on icily, "and I am truly flattered in the way you both continually compete for my affections, like besmitten schoolgirls." He turned away in disgust, saying, "You are both fools."

"He hit me first," said Micah sulkily.

"You heard what he called me," muttered Schuldig.

"You hit Nagi first," said Crawford in annoyance to Micah. "Did you think Schuldig would applaud your actions? And you," he said in anger to Schuldig, "don't even think I am taking your side. I expected more from you." He took a deep breath, calming himself. "We were all agitated," he said, "that is only to be expected in this circumstance. Let us remember that we are not enemies. No more fighting, and really, Schuldig -- are we not all unnatural? And we are the better for it. Now, both of you. I expect that when I come back you shall have apologised and shaken hands, and we shall not indulge in this sort of behaviour again." He turned to Nagi, his face darkening once more. "As for you," he said as the boy quailed, "come with me."

Nagi obediently and with heavy heart stepped forward, his great reptilian protector shuffling forward too, its eyes set with evil intent firmly on Crawford.

"Farfarello," snapped Crawford as the young Irishman looked between him and Schuldig. "Put that knife away and take hold of this animal!"

"What knife?" said Farfarello innocently as the blade in his hand vanished. He wisely did not meet Crawford's eyes, but simply called the dov with the native commands as Nagi patted it and assured it that he was quite all right.

Seizing Nagi's arm, Crawford walked away till they were out of earshot of the others, before crossing his arms and looking down implacably at Nagi.

"You were told to stay where you were," he said.

"Crawford --" began Nagi, his eyes fixed in worry on his older friend's bloodstained face.

"No excuses. You disobeyed orders."

Nagi looked at his feet in shame. "I wanted to help," he said in a small voice. "I was being useless."

"You were not. You were keeping the dov safe and in one place. That was vital."

"Schuldig thought I should be kept out of danger!" said Nagi looking up once more. "He was worried, I could feel it! And he was worried about you too, Crawford! So was I! And, and you're hurt!" He looked down and wiped his eyes so that he would not weep like a baby, feeling that he had disappointed Crawford and would never regain his regard.

Crawford sighed, feeling his anger drain away. "It's a shallow cut on my scalp, that's all. It looks worse than it is. Nagi, listen to me -- it's true we wanted you safe. It's also true that everyone should do as they're told at times like this. Have I ever led you astray? Well? No. So you should trust me. There isn't always time to explain things fully, but you must trust that I have reasons. We need the animals so that we may cross the desert. We need you for you are someone that Schloß Rosenkreuz will find it difficult to effectively combat. And there's another reason we wanted you out of the fight, as safe as you might be." He put a hand under the boy's chin, lifting the little face up. "We love you," he said. "We could not bear anything to happen to you. No, no, don't cry!" He pulled Nagi into an embrace wondering when the lad had become so dear to him. Love, he thought, was a trap both for those induced by it to serve more loyally and for those to whom the service was offered. "Nagi," he said quietly, holding the shaking boy tight against him, "think how unhappy Schuldig and I would be if you had ended up spitted on one of the natives' spears. You could not cause poor Schuldig such misery, could you? And think what might have happened if, in our worry over you, we had become distracted - don't you think I would be sad if Schuldig had been hurt? Or that Farfarello would mourn or be mourned by us? And Micah, having found me so recently, don't you think he and I would be saddened to lose a brother so soon?"

"Micah doesn't like me," sniffled Nagi against Crawford's coat.

"Yes, he does. He lost his temper -- Nagi, we are all violent men, and all of our tempers were raised. I am sure he regrets hitting you, and that he forgot for a moment that you, unlike us as children, are used to adults dealing with you in more pleasant ways. I want you to forgive him, will you do that?"

"Yes," sighed Nagi.

"Good boy," said Crawford, setting him back a little. "That's the grown up thing to do." He smiled a little, saying, "Although how you are to learn to act like a man when those two act like small boys --"

Nagi looked more cheered, seeing that his chastisement was at an end. "I'm sorry, Crawford," he said. "I just wanted to help you."

"I know," said Crawford. "But in future remember you should do as I say. Come now, let's get back to the others. I want to get this damned cut looked at and cleaned." Taking Nagi's hand more gently than he had seized the boy before, he led him back to the site of the battle.

"You were effective at least," he said, looking about at the carnage.

"Oh," said Nagi in the smallest of voices, for now that the excitement of the moment was over he felt quite sickened by what he saw. All about them lay dead Martians and dov, their bodies horribly beaten and crushed by the assault of the rocks upon their frames. Feeling it would be babyish to hide his face against Crawford, he instead looked firmly at his own shoes.

"Nagi," said a voice beside him, and Nagi looked up to see Micah's sorrowful face. "Nagi," said Micah awkwardly, "I am very sorry to have hit you. I was angry and concerned for my brother, but I should not have done that and I regret it. Will you shake my hand?" So saying he extended his hand, which Nagi willingly took, thinking he would do anything that would gain Crawford's approval.

"Of course," said Nagi, striving not to sound childish. "We all lost our tempers." He told himself it was not grown up in the slightest to be glad that Micah's nose looked very sore.

"Thank you, lad," said Micah, squeezing Nagi's hand. "I truly am sorry, I should not like you to be hurt."

"That's all right," said Nagi, moved to magnanimity as Crawford put an approving hand upon his shoulder. He nodded graciously at Micah's smile.

"I've apologised to Schuldig, brother," said Micah quietly to Crawford, not relinquishing his hold on Nagi's hand. "And I must apologise to you as well. I acted foolishly."

"We were all in a most excited state," said Crawford calmly. "I'm glad we may now act more rationally." Giving Nagi's shoulder a final pat he led Micah away, dropping his voice so that Nagi could only hear, "I am rather tired, Micah, of being caught between you two like this --" Glad to see that he was not to be the only one to be privately chastised by Crawford, and happy indeed that he had not also been shouted at before all the others, Nagi turned about in search of something of interest. He was not long in finding it.

"Hey!" cried Farfarello, who was amusing himself amongst the bodies of their fallen enemies. "This one is alive!"

At once everyone congregated at the spot where Farfarello stood, looking down at the young Martian. His legs were trapped beneath a rock, and it was clear to see that with every breath he took he struggled not to give voice to the pain he undoubtedly felt. He watched them silently as, whistling cheerfully, Farfarello took his knife and knelt, pulling the youth's head back.

"Wait," said Micah hurriedly. "Bradley, don't you speak the native tongue? Perhaps we can get intelligence from him as to whether we might expect more pursuit."

"I can speak but a little modern Martian, and of the dialect favoured by the natives in the region of New London at that," said Crawford. "Nonetheless, we must ask."

"I think he'll probably need persuasion," said Farfarello in a dreamy tone. "Nagi, move this rock, for who wants to work in the full rays of the sun?"

Nagi obliged, and once his broken and crushed legs were freed, the youth was quickly and ungently moved to the shade of the rocks. Crawford spoke to him, slowly and carefully, but received no reply. After the third question he waved Farfarello forward.

"Six fingers seem a little much, don't you think?" said Farfarello gaily, kneeling on the youth's arm to stop him squirming.

The young Martian bit back a cry of pain and spat at them as they laughed.

"The natives understand knives, Farfarello," said Micah. "Give him something a little different and perhaps we'll hear him jabber!" Turning the youth's head with a foot so he had no choice but to watch, Micah smiled pleasantly as flames suddenly danced about his hands. Nagi felt aggrieved as Micah moved and knelt by the youth, for he could not see what was happening. Then, as the young man screamed and screamed, he was all of a sudden glad that his view was blocked. "So you've a tongue in your head after all, you damned son of a bitch," said Micah in ugly laughing tones. "Answer when your betters ask you a question!"

"Nagi," said Schuldig, slipping an arm about the boy's shoulders. "Come on, come with me."

"But I want to see," said Nagi in a faint voice.

"No you don't. Come on."

Nagi let himself be led away, telling himself he was merely humouring Schuldig. He was very glad when they went around to the other side of the rocks and sat down. After some minutes of silence he looked up and put a careful finger up to Schuldig's bruised face, seeing how his friend's eye was blacked.

"Ah!" ejaculated Schuldig mildly, jerking a little as the tender flesh was touched. "Careful, there!"

"I'm sorry," said Nagi, feeling that he was to blame for such wounds upon his friend's face.

"Don't be," grinned Schuldig. "I found that quite satisfying. You needn't fear that I will, as Farfarello might say, give out to you." He stole Nagi's hat and ruffled the lad's hair. "We are as friendly again as we ever were, Micah and I," he said merrily, smiling evilly at how Nagi took such a statement.

"The others will think I'm a baby for letting you take me away like this," muttered Nagi, wishing both that he had not accompanied Schuldig and that his friend had taken him even further away.

"So? Don't be in such a hurry to grow up, mein Herz. There was nothing pretty back there." As Schuldig spoke they heard the most desolate and despairing cry, faintly from beyond the rocks. Nagi felt ill and was most grateful to be held. "Why don't we get things ready for this evening?" said Schuldig in a determinedly normal voice. "That will keep our minds off unpleasant matters."

"Yes," murmured Nagi, clinging on tightly. Then, "Schuldig? Have you ever thought whether it is wrong to kill people?"

"What funny ideas you have," said Schuldig. "It's not wrong when they are attempting to kill one, that's for sure. In all honesty, Nagi, it's not a topic I can ever remember having given thought to. That Martian - he was trying to kill us, he failed, we won and he must bear the consequences. That is all. Come along, we'll put up the tents and start dinner." Nagi went with him willingly, hoping that Schuldig would not propose cooking meat. The young German smiled at him brilliantly, and flung an arm about him. "Do not ever change," laughed Schuldig. "Never. And stop worrying that you shall not be able to sleep tonight. I will put you to sleep and you shall have peaceful slumber. Crawford and I will wish to engage in conversation and we won't want you distracting us!"

"Are you going to talk about me?" said Nagi suspiciously.

"If we do," said Schuldig innocently, "we shall say only good things." Saying no more he merrily chased Nagi about for a little until the lad's mind was full only of good cheer and friendship, and he had no room in his thoughts any more for glum wonderings and gladly helped the young mind reader with the preparations for the evening, having no more doubts or misgivings about the events of the day.

* * * * * *

A sampling of Schuldig's show of modern languages, much of it too filthy for maidenly girlish eyes to read in translation:
Jebem ti sunce! "Fuck the sun!" (Serbian)
Laß ihn los! "Let him go!"
Hau ab! "Fuck off!"
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