Dolores J. Nurss

Volume III: Responsibility

Chapter 24

The Hunting Lodge

Tuesday, June 23, 2708, continued

We make the lodge by nightfall; some of the children run ahead, but I whistle them back.  No particular reason why it might be a trap, but why take chances?  I go up and pick the lock for them, then detail Damien, Lufti, and Gaziley to check it out.  Gazi comes out of the pantry with a sausage sticking out of his mouth like a cigar, but nearly drops it when Damien emerges from the bedroom with a real cigar and a humidor of high-class tobacco.  I hurry up with pipe in hand as fast as anybody, but one whiff of the brandy-scented smoke sets my eyes to watering—Kief used to steal this brand.

Yet the body doesn't care how much the heart may cringe.  Soon I completely lose my head to smoked meats and cheeses, fruit preserves and pickled vegetables, and fat slabs of ham, eaten greasy in the hand because nobody has the patience to bake bread, to tobacco and to fire on the hearth, and toes in a fur rug so warm that it hurts like stabbing till the blood flows freely in my feet again, and then it feels like heaven.

I do assert myself, however, when one of the redheaded twins brings out a bottle of brandy.  "Pour one snifter-full, and each person gets one sip—sip, mind you, not gulp.  I'll be watching to see how much your lips part."  I desire more than that, myself, when I hear the liquid music of the pouring liquor, but I grit my teeth.  "We'll set the rest aside for medical necessity."  I get a few hostile smirks, but they comply.  Alcohol on a stimulant crash can only make things worse in the long run.  But who needs chemical sedation when the cushions in this mother-soft sofa pull you gently down, deliriously sweetly deep into a dream...

(...I see a flower bud, big, maybe when it opens it'll spread out to the width of a sunflower.  Even as I think that it begins to open, just the barest quiver, I almost wonder if I see it—no, surely I do, it really does open, hinting at the color within.  Such a delicate shade of violet, or perhaps periwinkle blue.  Each petal seems long and slender, yet rounded, thick like some succulent.  As it continues to open I bend forward to sniff the perfume, faint sweetness beckoning me...

...cloying-sweet corrupted rottenness!  The petals oh my god the petals ARE DEAD HUMAN FINGERS!)

I wake abruptly; I blink for a moment till I remember my surroundings.  Night still hangs thick upon us like the blanketing warmth of the fireplace, now dwindled down to coals, but the soapstone hearth still radiates a gently stunning heat.  I slip out from under the coverlet that someone tossed over me and step around children sleeping on the furs, past bedrooms where more children and a few adults softly snore, crowded together in honest-to-goodness beds.

Did nobody set a guard?  No, of course not.  We haven't had the stamina for guards since we raced from Cumenci who knows how long past.

I can guard.  A few more hours till the dawn, I can handle that.  Snow falls outside the window and I know I won't like it out there much, but I've dealt with worse.

(Watch over them and keep them safe, all my mothers, all my fathers...)

Where did that thought come from?


Wednesday, June 24, 2708

Maybe nobody here ever ate authentic Alonzo Valley wraps for breakfast before, but no one objects in the least to my cooking.  It’s what I know how to make.  Besides, tortillas cook much faster than bread, anyway.  Kiril set the beans to soak the minute she found them last night, but that didn’t mean she has to be the one to boil them this morning; the poor thing looked so thin and wan, curled up on a cushion by the fire, that I couldn’t bear to see her wake up to another chore.

Now those beans, nicely intermingled with cheese and chilis, warm our tummies on the march, the way the fur-lined boots, that used to be a rich man's rugs, warm my feet.  The lodge’s owner spread his trophies of the hunt on the floor of every room, and more hung on the walls.  Too bad we lost the village cobbler, but her apprentice survives, and Damien turned his instructions into a teaching-tune (just like he’d done in Cumenci before, with a formula for explosives) so that we could crank the boots out assembly-fashion.

Hunting-lodge—he must've shared his vacations with friends, he left behind so much gear.  A real pack rides comfortably upon my back, full of food and camping gear, a real sleeping-bag rolled up on top of it, stuffed with that seed-puff fiber that only grows on this continent, that backpackers covet all over the world.  And oh yes, a much better rifle than the one I took from Kief.  I gave Mori the other.  And bullets to match, plenty of bullets, of a caliber fit to take down a corrie or a man.

No.  They couldn’t have had that many guests.  The place didn’t have enough rooms.  And a lot of this stuff looks too worn for the rich to keep, let alone display to friends.  The servant network must have squirreled away supplies here, from different households, from the moment they heard of the doings at Cumenci till their masters tired of the autumn hunt.  Whatever they could think of, whatever would not be missed that they guessed we might find useful.

Hardly any of the apparel fits our circumstances, of course, but the guerillas among us carry needle and thread, and the lodge has more than that in the servants’ quarters, and so we’ve made do, supplementing, repairing, or replacing everything we’ve got.  We felt happiest of all about several capes in the closet, fit to cover the voluminous clothing of the rich, which we have split into enough for several children apiece, though not enough to go around.

And Kief wanted to shoot these people down?

I curl my fingers around my straps, underneath the serape cut from one of the designer blankets that we found.  We did find a jumble of mismatched gloves, and another of stray socks, hidden in jars behind the preserves—lady’s wear, gardener’s gear, skier’s equipment, whatever lost a mate and so could safely go missing.  Again, not enough to go around, but it helps.  Who needs anything to match out here?  A good leader, however, takes the last pick, not the first.

Winter blows snow in my face, but I still have my scarf from Tumblebugs, so most of it won’t reach skin.  As for the rest of my band, soldier and civilian, a lot of silk goes into a rich man's blousing, from which they've all torn strips to wrap themselves from neck to nose.  And nothing keeps you quite as warm as silk.

I can't remember when I've marched so well-equipped—certainly not since landing in this country.  Now if only the makeshift leggings didn't keep either slipping or cutting off my circulation, depending on how I tie them.

"Turn over there," Malcolm says and points, "at that boulder that looks like half a skull."  I didn't realize it did till he pointed it out to me—aren't we all a morbid bunch, these days.  "Deirdre, it's time to tell you something."  He steers me by the arm out of hearing range from the rest.

"Go on," I say, not sure that I'll like whatever he's put off.

"People thought that I'd arrived right before you at the gate, but I'd hitched a ride earlier in the day.  I knew the servants.  The gardeners hid me, though they couldn't hide you all."

"Malcolm, you don't have to confess anything so..."

"I'm not confessing, I'm telling.  They're part of my network.  They told me about the hunting-lodge, and that they’d stocked it for us the best they could, on orders from Cyran.  Because they also told me to meet hir in a valley beyond that second ridge."

Cyran.  I'd almost forgotten about Cyran.  Hey, I'd almost forgotten that we fight a revolution here, for a cause, not just battling off people trying to kill us, fighting to survive.

"Why didn't you tell me before?  No—never mind.  I know why you didn't tell me before."

Cyran, huh?  That'll feel good, to have hir leadership again.  Then my heart sinks.  The first thing e'll do, I know, will be to redistribute all our loot among the larger force and make us poor again.  And I'll have to report on the casualties and on...

 will I ever tell hir about Kief?

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