Dolores J. Nurss

Volume II: Tests of Fire and Blood

Chapter 16

Shelter From the Storm

Tuesday, April 28, 2708, continued

Thunder breaks over us and then the rain spills down, soaking us instantly while we grumble and unpack coverings for the guns.  I pray to God that the cloudburst loosens the stains before they set.

"God kicked over her washbasin," Damien says with a grin.  "That's what my mother would've said."  It comes down just that heavy and just that sudden.

"The way I heard it," Lucinda says as rain runs off her flattened hair, "God tripped on his piss-pot."  The weasel-girls giggle and look at each other.  "But maybe where you came from life didn't stink so bad."

"No," he says, his face sober now and surprisingly adult.  "Life used to smell fragrant indeed in the village where I grew up, perfumed by fruit and vine and blossom where the forest loved us, green arms reaching up the gorge to us."  The creek gains strength and volume even as we move higher up above it, its chattering angrier now, a building mob sound fed by the pounding rain.  "Oh, we suffered, sometimes, same as anybody else, but we thought that we could sing it all away.  We listened to the legends and thought that we could do something about anything wrong in our lives."

We take maybe a dozen steps more before the rain stops as abruptly as it began, the clouds break up, and birds sing again in a new flood of sun.  "But oh what a stench," Damian says, "blew our way at last--we had no idea."

Our lead-laden clothes feel even heavier than before and our shirts become steam-tents; I long to strip down to skin.  Fatima says, "Where I grew up, when the rains came down like that, we'd just take off our clothes and let it pour on down--but only groups of women and girls, you know, out of the men's sight.  I was just a girl, myself,” she says with a sigh.  “I didn't know then what I know now about what happens to a man at the sight of a little skin."

"Not all men," Damien says, keeping his eyes straightforward.

Fatima just smirks, but Kanarik says, "No, he's not talking about just the ones with something missing, either--I know."  She puts her arm in Damien's and holds her head up like her own pride had taken the blow.

At least the deluge has diluted the bloodstains somewhat; I know that with a little bit of work I can wash them out.  Not so bad, not when I look at them objectively.

Our path takes us down again, to where the canyon widens a bit to make room for rocky shallows and a little stretch of beach.  Before we can set foot on it, though, Kief blocks us with his arm.  Over his shoulder I see the footprints in the sand.

"Damn," he says.  "The rain filled them up--we can't tell much about them."

"We can at least read the gait," I say.  "Small--child-sized steps."

"But adult-sized feet--unless the rain enlarged them."  He frowns doubtfully down at them.

Cautiously I approach to squat down beside the first.  "Shod, I can tell that much.  Not the shape of a bare footprint--even one eroded."

"Even, almost rectangular," he says.

"Yes, you're right--homemade sandals, not tapered store-bought shoes.

He nods.  "It's okay," he tells us.  "I know who it is."

He leads us not onto the beach but stepping precariously from stone to mossy stone through the stream itself.  "That beach has warned us more than once of invaders."

"But your friend walks on it anyway?" I ask him.

"Got no choice in the matter," he says.  (Ah, Petro, Petro, of all my fathers, one of the sweetest, one of the longest-lived--how lucky I've been to keep you, still embraceable for so long, my dear and laughing Petro!  And we shall meet again?  Ah, you wicked ol' backnifing ruffian!  How fortunate, this day!)

A tributary stream joins ours, and Kief leads us back to its source.  At first the cul-de-sac that it comes from appears to dead-end, a thin trickle of waterfall over stone in a deep oxide red, with greenery luxuriating at its base, but then I see the crack in the rock.  Without hesitation Kief squeezes into it and disappears.  We all follow suit.

Within it widens a bit, just enough to let us brace our backs to one side and feet against the other.  We slide along that way, our backpacks on our bellies, to keep our feet from getting jammed in the ever-narrowing crevice beneath us, as our hammocks full of guns dangle between.  Earthquake fault, it looks like, bigger inside than out.

"This must be murder for Petro," Kief says, "But he'd never let on, you know."  The crack mostly leads straight, only a couple jags to negotiate around.  The cold, firm stone feels good on my back at first, though it rubs some bruises, but after awhile my mind goes blank of everything except the ache in my legs from keeping up this unaccustomed pressure.  I try not to think of anything at all...

(I think I had a mother.  I must've had a mother.  In my earliest memory some long-fingered lady stuffed cartridges into my diaper and pushed me out to send me toddling across the street.  Then, on the other side, a man behind a bush grabbed me, clapping a callous hand over my mouth to silence me as his fingers relieved me of my uncomfortable burden--his hand held back my giggles.  By this I figure I must've already gotten used to friendly people snatching me from bushes and stuff like that.

I remember exciting noises after that.  When his hands got too busy to restrain me I shouted "Bang!  Bang!  Bang!"  The last part I recall is how he grabbed me up and ran out of there so fast, so fast, oh, so much fun!  I remember how he held me so lovingly tight against his chest that I could feel the pounding of his heart.

He might've been my father.  And the long-fingered woman--my mother?  But I changed hands many times, all the different, loving hands, work-rough, warm and caring touches.  And I remember voices that would sing me to sleep with brave, bold songs as good as anything this Damien guy can sing, tell me flashing bedtime stories of gunpowder and heroism, and say over and over what a good little boy I was for doing as they said.

Oh, I know my parents, all right, when it comes right down to it: the Egalitarians.  I'm their darling, always have been.  They shaped my muscles and trained my sharpshooter eyes as surely as if they’d passed them on in genes.  I don't even remember learning how to shoot, I just always have; I haven't missed my mark in years.

God bless my blood-kin parents, whoever they were, for leaving me in such company.  I figure they must've died, somewhere along the line--so many have, but others always stepped into their places, at the breach and in my heart.  I have never lacked for love.

And when my turn comes, when I die, too, what fear could possibly hold me back?  A hundred loving hands will reach out for my soul, gather me up again like a baby giggling on the battlefield, and I will hear all of my mothers and my fathers sing to me again.)

We reach a point where we can put our feet down on solid ground again.  I thought I'd welcome the chance to stretch my legs at last, but they unfold with sudden pangs.  That's just like life, I think wryly.  We all grumble on the way to heaven 'cause we're used to hell on earth.  For the moment I get the eeriest feeling that the thought isn't entirely mine, then I work my pack around back to where it belongs and follow after Kief.

The rock closes over us and night falls upon us at noon.  Kief strikes a match; I think at first that he will light a candle, but instead he sucks the flame into a pipe that he carries and then he leads on, an orange glow ahead, wafting tantalizing smoke back onto us.  I really think that I could use a puff, myself, after all that I've been through.

The passage turns and I see an entry glowing at the end of it.  Kief calls out, "Keeping the home fires burning for us Petro?"

"Kief?  Kief, you rascal!  Come on in here and grab yourself some food.  Still always hungry?  Then you've come at the right time--I've just restocked."

We stumble wearily into a cavern luminous with oil lamps, dropping our guns with a clatter that echoes around the stalactites.  A rainbow of thick blankets hang on walls or spread on floors (raised or sunken) as rugs, or canopy certain sections to give the illusion of rooms, or span as curtains between natural pillars of stone.  I see still more blankets stitched together into huge cushions for furnishings here and there.  In one corner rests a loom so big that it must've been assembled on the spot, half-filled with brilliant yarn.

A bearded old man--no, a middle-aged man with a white, wizened face and half-crippled hips that only allow him baby-steps--totters over to Kief and gives him a bonecrushing hug.  "Good God, man, you're taller than me now!" he booms.  "Every time I turn around you grow--what is it with you?"

Kief grins and says, "Just can't keep me down, I guess."  He has never looked so boyish as now.  As they talk I rummage with the rest through Petro's hospitality-bureau--mostly full of little woolen pouches, fragrant with tobacco, but I find a box of matches that I could surely put to use.

"And these others--Lucinda I know, of course, and Fatima, and Chulan you sweetheart, you can warm up under my blankets anytime you please.  But the rest?"

"New recruits."  His arm sweeps proudly towards the hammock-loads of guns.  "And look what harvest they've won for us already!"

Petro frowns at that.  "Now you know my policy, Kief," he says.  "I'll cache food, blankets, medical supplies, but never weapons.  If they dig me up here they've got to find only a crippled old weaver with no harm in him to anybody, who has to stock up on supplies because it's so hard for him to get around."

"We didn't come to cache, just to stop on the way to a delivery.  Besides," Kief says, "who would even believe you could make it in here?"

"Oh, I have my tricks to it.  'Why' is what I fear they'd ask."

Kief doesn't look like a boy anymore.  "Your history'd give anyone reason enough for you to hole up in a rock."

"Enough talk!" Petro claps his hands together all too heartily.  "Introduce me around, and then let's get food into all these hungry faces--look at 'em, ready to drop while we stand around chattering!”

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