We walked for several hours after entering the lava tube, eventually coming to a point where part of the wall had collapsed leaving a convenient alcove of sorts. Of course I didn’t know that until my guide pulled me into the area and Ropsy started a small fire upon which he placed a small rotisserie already threaded through with multiple lizards. I discovered they were a mainstay of the children’s diet and their primary source of protein being easy to catch once even amongst the youngest of their troop.
“Where did those come from?” I asked suspiciously, having no desire to ingest corrupted fare.
“Hela captured them while she was watching. We do that when we know we’ll be moving underground. Jest having done it in a while.”
“You move underground?”
Ropsy continued to cook so Hela and Rulie took up the explanation. “We use the Little Darks if we be hiding from olders or the priests. Most of ‘em are too small for them but for us – and you – we can move about without banging our heads.”
Rulie smiled. “It were close once or twos. Why can’t you see the stites and mites?”
It took me a moment but I realized he meant stalactites and stalagmites. “Are you playing a prank on me? Surely you aren’t telling me that you can see in this infernal darkness.”
Hela shook her head and said, “This isn’t an infernal dark, thems in the hots. This is just a Little Dark and some of us can see better ‘n others. Ropsy sees best as his brother did before him.”
“You have a brother?” I asked.
“Did. Then he wanted a woman and went to live as an older because that is what it takes to get one. He told our troop not to come round him no more as he might have been ready to have a woman but he didn’t want all the things of being an older … meaning he didn’t want to have to turn on us. So he took a woman – girl that used to troop with us before her seasons were on her and she was caught and placed as a breeder – and they left to cross the river. Heard the priests …”
Ropsy stabbed his blade into the ground and turned from me, anger lighting his eyes. This more than words ever could told me that the troop of children were not Priests of the Damned worshippers. It also explained their lack of awe when speaking of them while they had spoken of the old Borderlander who had been my Watcher. A hope kindled in me that if I did ever get back to Linderhall that I could find them homes – real homes – where they might grow up, learn a trade, and live something akin to a normal life.
The meal, such as it was, was a silent affair only livened up by me pulling out the sticky journey cake and insisting that they eat what remained of it. Hela said, “You don’t have to give us gifts to take you to the river Lady.”
“If you think I’m bribing you think again. I was raised that a job well done, while a reward in and of itself, should be duly appreciated by those that benefit from it. And I’m also concerned that you are using up your supplies on my behalf when … well, I wish to do my part to contribute to our success.”
Hela snorted. “You talk a lot of words to say things that should only take a few.”
“If by that you mean that I’m talking too much again, my apologies. My brothers and my cousin often said much the same thing.” I smiled at my memories of the many times they’d threatened to shove a turnip in my mouth if I didn’t stop asking so many questions.
Hela realized I wasn’t offended and she looked at me like I was a puzzle she wasn’t quite sure had all its pieces. Finally she said, “Ropsy needs resting but he won’t if he thinks you need guarding.”
“I do not need a harness Hela. I may not be an older but I certainly am old enough to know when not to go wandering about. I will remain here. My only caveat and concern is that while we rest we are being followed.”
Hela shook her head then looked at Rulie. “Explain it. I’m going to tend to Ropsy. And see you don’t give Damsie the trotting ‘mares by telling you’re awful stories. We don’t need the trouble.”
The boy said, “Yes Hela. I’ll watch the Lady. And she didn’t mean to make you and Ropsy’s hearts burn.”
Hela shrugged and said, “We know it but that don’t stop the burning.”
When she went over to the far side of the alcove I turned to Rulie and asked quietly, “What did I say to hurt them?”
“You didn’t hurt them, old thoughts did.” To his sister he said, “Come Damsie, time to rest. Lady has been packing yours long enough. You need to lay out and let the lizards in your gut rest or you’ll be sick tomorr for sure.”
The alcove had a damp chill to it and Damsie was resistant to leaving my side so I made a small bed for her with the cloak I wore and she curled inside it and went quickly to sleep.
I sighed, “She needs fattening up.”
“No Lady! Don’t say that!”
Surprised I asked, “Why forever not? It is the lack of fat that has her feeling the cold so much.”
“Had she more meat on her instead of a sacrifice, the priests would have used her as a chosen.”
Understanding the euphemisms having heard them while Ronald Nealy had been tortured I shuddered. “Poor child. I certainly did not mean that I wished to subject her to that.”
“I know Lady. Just like you didn’t know your words would burn Ropsy and Hela. You just need to be more careful of your words like.”
“Why did my words burn them? I can guess it upset Ropsy to be reminded of the loss of his brother but why did that hurt Hela?”
“The woman Torm … Ropsy’s brother … run off with was Hela’s sister. She had said she and Torm would find a place and then find a way to send for the rest of our troop. But then Hela’s father found out and … and set a trap. Hela was captured and sent to the river man and you know what came of that. Some of the other girls were given away too. The priests sacrificed the others they captured. And we heard they’d tracked down Torm and … and you can guess that too. And then they took Hela’s father for a Chosen for fathering breeders and not turning them over to the priests sooner so they’d be properly trained to know their place. That’s when many of the olders …”
“They’ve turned away from the Priests of the Damned?”
“Naw … they still listen to ‘em … they just don’t listen to ‘em as much. Still ain’t safe though.”
“But I thought your parents hid Damsie.”
“Damsie yes but that because our dame is soft in the head and softer in the heart and our sire pacifies her to keep her quiet so she don’t get take away by the priests.”
That wasn’t the only horrible story that Rulie told me before we both took our rest but it is the only one that I’m inclined to remember. The others I must purge or risk going mad. What these children have lived with is truly hellish, and has apparently been the normal since the Days of Destruction. If it is the last thing I do, I will do something for these children. I do not know what but surly Nat and his Order will assist me in this. Perhaps it is the one thing that my status is fit for.