A fire crackled and sizzled as the juices from several snakes and lizards roasted upon it.
“Eat Lady. There’s still a long way to go.”
I sighed. “You know, I am still not convinced that I am not suffering a complete mental collapse.”
“I’m sorry Lady? I do not know what that means.”
I looked at him and gave a small grin. “It means I’m wondering if I’m not as crazy as a sunstroked mule.” I shook my head. “I’ve seen things that I wish I hadn’t and wish for things I can’t have. And now I’m wondering if what I’m seeing is real or if you lot are just something that I want to see so badly that my mind is giving it to me. I don’t think I could have carried on much further by myself. You’ve saved me.”
The boy – the only one that would address me directly – smiled bashfully before turning back to caring for his bow and arrows. He was the one that, along with a boy that looked to be a few years younger, went to hunt amongst the animals that were climbing to safety to escape the flash flood caused by the storm that had only started in our area as the worst of the rushing water had crested. The rain has now stopped but all around below the spire we rested in the water is still a wild torrent and I was informed that it would be tomorrow before things are sufficiently dry to travel.
All is quiet with the other children sleeping. The only three of us still awake are the boy across from me, a girl of about the same age that watches from the alcove entrance, and myself.
I hesitated before reaching for a piece of snake that looked well done to my preference. “Are you sure the other children have all eaten their fill?”
“Yes Lady. When we are out alone we feed ourselves well. It’s only the olders that try and keep us hungry.”
“You mean adults?”
“Yes Lady. The olders. They send us away as soon as they can so as to not have to starve us and to harden us up. The olders mostly have too many blessings to make traveling easy so we have to look after ourselves and each other. We come and take the newest youngers when we can but there haven’t been too many lately that have lived to be old enough to take. Lots of babes have been put on the field by the traveling priests and their guards. Damsie is weak but has travelled with us some. But she got a fever which got her noticed by the attention of the priests. Her olders had been hiding her, pretending she were a babe. Her blessing is that she will not grow. She don’t talk much does Damsie but she did all right until the fever.”
“And how old is Damsie?”
“Going on seven summers. She and Rulie – the boy that brought you the first lizard – are twins. Rulie don’t have no blessing, Damsie got it all.”
I was trying to absorb what he was telling me. I remember how it was in Harper. Once you reached an age where you didn’t need to be carried everywhere you started your training at your family’s guidance. My brothers were teaching me forest craft before Mother and Grandmother required me to start learning housewifery skills. Soon enough I was learning both when they weren’t sending me to the library with Nat. Still, the life these “youngers” led was many times more difficult than the life I had led at their age. Which truth be told isn’t as long ago as I sometimes think.
The boy looked at me curiously and said, “You aren’t what the stories say.”
Surprised I asked, “Excuse me? What stories?”
“The stories the priests tell. They call you the Devil Lady and make you out to be an older that wants to take the hearts and manhoods of men. But you’re no older,” he said with a shake of his head.
“Well, no … not really. And as for the other … please do not … er … mention that again. I have no wish to puke up this meal.”
“You prefer women?”
“What?! Oh by the saints … um … that’s not what I meant. I just mean …” I stopped completely embarrassed by the turn of the conversation. “It is rather personal.”
The girl had come back inside and said, “She didn’t like her match and it marked her heart.”
I looked at the girl and realized while she was younger than I it was only by a couple of years. It was her stature that disguised her true age. “Um … yes. I suppose that is as good an explanation as any.”
The boy nodded. “The Linder is a devil.”
Not wishing to perpetuate an unhealthy mythology I said, “Well … not precisely. The Linder that was my husband was very good at his job but wasn’t always … very good at anything else. Then his successor … a cousin … I never met so I can’t say how good at his job he would have been but he seemed determined to be as good a man as he could be from all reports. The current Linder is considerably younger than the previous two Linders and is learning the job of being both The Linder and The Guardian are far from as easy and straight forward as some people think it is. Lots of politics and such. So no, none of them were truly the Devil … they were and are just men like any other that battle weaknesses and do not always succeed in overcoming them.”
The girl looked at me strangely. “Are you interested in matching with The Linder?”
“Ew … I thought I asked that that particular topic not be brought up again.”
“So you really don’t want it. The Old Un said you didn’t.”
Curious I asked, “The Old One?”
“Used to be a priest but got took in by the Light.”
“Hmmm,” I muttered.
I was about to express some suspicion when I didn’t have to. The boy said, “He was your watcher.”
There it is again, an almost impossible coincidence. “I … I believe I found his body.”
The boy nodded and the girl went back to guard. He said, “We were with him. He told us to be on the look-out for you and if we found you to take you to the river and get you safe passage back to your people. Said it was the only way to save our people. Said they wouldn’t stop looking for you until they found sign of your life or death.”
“Goodness. He couldn’t have known where I would be. And I’m not sure anyone really cares if you want the truth.”
“Don’t be too sure Lady. The Old Un knew lots of things. Claimed the last couple of days before he died that the Light cleared his seeing and that he saw things others couldn’t … or wouldn’t. We were gonna go looking for you after we checked on Damsie but you saved her from the deadeater and took her off. We weren’t for sure yet if you were the Lady or not so we decided to just follow you until we were sure. You coulda just been a Damned or a Watcher that wanted a babe.”
“Such like that happens? The Damned … stealing children?”
“Ain’t thought to be stealing when they do it.”
The girl muttered angrily, “Is too. They stole Roj.”
“Roj?” I asked.
“Wait … Hela is the … is the …”
The boy nodded. “Let us say it quiet. She still hasn’t given up finding the babe.” At my nod he continued very quietly, “They matched her with one of the river men. She caught right off and called the babe when it was born Roj. He was born too perfect and there were some jealousies with the river man’s other women. To settle it a traveling priest took it away and sent it to an important Damned family that had pretended to not be damned to hide in plain sight. Hela ran away from the river man looking for Roj but she couldn’t find him so came back to us to finish healing up. Her chest still hurts for Roj. She has to keep it taped up tight.”
“Dear Saints and Martyrs,” I whispered. “Madness. Everywhere I look there just seems to be so much madness.” And I wondered if I wasn’t becoming part of it.