“Lady? The washing water below has run off and the skins are all filled. Best we move now,” said the boy I now knew was called Ropsy. I suspect the name may have started as Robespierre of all things in generations passed given the linked sounds of the garbled string of syllables he’d tried to pronounce for me while we’d been getting to know each other; but when he’d said to simply call him Ropsy as the other children did I readily agreed.
“Are the children rested enough to continue? Have they eaten sufficiently?” I asked as I gathered my belongings in preparation of leaving the dank cave.
I fixed the sling back under the cloak and turned to Damsie and then thought better of just assuming things. “Excuse me. I’m sorry I treated you like a babe. And I do not wish to be insulting so I’ll ask. Do you wish to continue allowing me to be your steed?”
Damsie gave me an innocent grin and lifted her arms for me to pick her up. She was still unnaturally thin and I couldn’t help but wish for a chance to see her filled out more. Would she be better able to keep up with children her own age or would she forever remain fragile?
Once Damsie and my pack were well set I turned to find the other children staring at me. “Oh. Should I have asked Rulie? Her brother?”
Rulie himself grinned bashfully at me and I saw a gapped space where a tooth should have been, but whether it was because he had lost it because it was time or due to malnutrition and poor hygiene I wasn’t up to guessing. “No Lady. Damsie likes you. Jest …”
“You’re not an older, but you bain’t a younger either. We can take turns carrying her as she is one of ours. We usually do.”
“Well, truth be told I find Damsie’s presence … comforting. She’s quite a nice person and petted me quite nicely when I had a bad dream the other night. I would like to continue helping her if it isn’t against your rules.”
“No rules,” Ropsy said. “Least not rules as you would call thems. Enough speaking now. We need to move. Hela says she saw dust signs on the other side of the ridge before the sun went to sleep, back the way we come. Could be a devil pack what got spooked by the storm or could be a Friar Dance come nosing around. Either way not something worth letting find us unless we want to go to the big dark.”
The remainder of the evening and night was spent moving more quickly than I would have normally travelled even had I been at my best. How these children did so was nearly miraculous given the degradation and malnutrition that they had been subjected to. Several times I almost slipped until Ropsy found a gnarled tree and broke me off a staff to help keep my balance with while walking through steep grades of scree and gravel. About two hours before dawn – or what would have been dawn had I witnessed it – the landscape began to make a noticeable change, from the texture of the ground to the smell on the air. It was not a pleasant change.
The moon revealed a gray landscape, as if dust had settled on everything and hardened. Every step caused the ground to crunch and my foot to sink into sharp, flat rock. It reminded me of walking in a drought riddle river bottom, but this was surely no river bottom and stretched as far as my eye could see. The air was noisome, smelling like a cross between an old lye barrel and a burn pit. The area wasn’t completely devoid of plant life but what was there looked tortured, bent and most definitely a sickly color. A few animals were disposed to scurry away at our approach but they too looked tortured and bent, reminding me rather forcefully of the so-called priest to whom Ronald Nealy had turned me over to.
Despite myself and all I’d been taught I became nervous, even bordering on fearful if I’m honest. Questions wanted to fall from my lips at every turn but I held them in check until the troop of children led me back through a strange cavern. Or that had been in intention only upon investigating our new surroundings my heart pounded anew when I realized what it was. “Saints and Martyrs, is this a … a lava tube?” I whispered, aghast at the very idea.
Hela answered me. “No more it is. Was during the Days of Destruction.”
“This … this is a Hot Zone?”
“No more it is,” she repeated.
I wanted to ask her how she could be sure of its “no more” status but one of the children took my arm to lead me deeper underground while ahead of us Ropsy whispered, “The Light must’ve decided to come down and help you Lady. The blockage that was here last time has slid into the abyss. We won’t have to do any digging or climbing like I’d supposed.”
“And … that’s a good thing?”
“This will let us travel for daylight hours and not get roasted. If’n you’re able to continue.”
I heard the doubt in his voice and I admit my pride was pricked. Being rescued was one thing. Even acknowledging that I was feeling fear. But allowing myself to act like a complete nitwit in distress was quite another. “I can continue. However when we get to a place to rest I insist that you lot eat the last of the journey cake I have in a tin in my pack. There is no way that you can continue on with so little sustenance and …”
“Shhh Lady,” Hela whispered. “The rocks come down sometimes with too much talk.”
I whispered to Damsie, “I do believe that is the most polite way that I’ve ever been told to shut up in my entire existence. I must remember it and use it on someone else. Though when I’ll ever find myself in another such cavern I don’t …” I was unable to finish as Damsie’s small hand drifted over my mouth. But I heard a faint giggle in my ear. I also sensed rather than heard the humor of the other children around me. I gave a quiet snort but remained silent for the remainder of that long, long trek to the surface.