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Xenolith, Page 63

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 54: The Shed.

  Seor was an island in a sea of ferns, lapped by fronds bobbing in the breeze, exposing their rows of rusty spores beneath. Seor felt naked, not having a weapon to hold, and wished she had brought something from the shed they had claimed for a shelter. A hammer, a set of shears – anything heavy or sharp – to empower her and make her feel less like a victim-in-waiting.

  A moth spiraled past, struggling to fly straight with a damaged wing. Children’s voices resounded beyond the edge of the wood, making music with the purl of the brook and the blended whine of mosquito and distant machine. She had finally given up searching for stone. All that could be done now was to wait and watch for a convergence.

  As the children’s manic but playful calls grew louder and closer, Seor retreated beneath some tall shrubs set back from the stream. She lay on her side, knees drawn up, head appressed against the back of her hand. The twigs above her were sparsely laden with small, dark berries. She plucked some with her free hand. They were pulpy and dry, but had enough sweetness to pass for food.

  She peeked through a screen of fern stems until the trio appeared: a girl about nine and two smaller boys. They traipsed along the stony bed turning stones, seeking salamanders and chasing after the tiny fish that fled between the riffles. The way the older girl bossed the little boys around reminded Seor so much of her own child.

  Before the war, Dima had spent many a day along the shallow river that ran behind their homestead in Suul. Once the laundry had been scrubbed and stretched to dry over the boulders she would go off to play and explore, much like these children.

  Seor didn’t know why the familiarity of their behavior should surprise her. They were human after all. Why shouldn’t curiosity about the natural world transcend the accoutrements of culture and contraption?

  Seor stayed down long after a woman’s voice rang out to summon the children back home. She didn’t rise until Vul came to relieve her.

  He wore the long, black coat she had found for him in the basement of the house beyond the shed. As she stood, startling him, he lifted a tiny, toy bow to face her. Besides the one strung, a handful of arrows refitted with tips of scrap metal protruded from his fist.

  Seor smirked. “And what do you expect to accomplish with that thing?”

  “It’s better than nothing,” said Vul, defensively.

  “Take care,” said Seor. “There’ve been some children about.”

  She wove her way back to the shed through a wide patch of waist-high weeds, taking care not to bend or bruise the stems, hoping to leave no track. But no matter how delicately and randomly she walked, an indelible, green wake appeared in the leafy surface. When she came across the wide path that Vul had trampled, she abandoned all pretense of stealth.

  Seor whistled softly as she approached the shed to warn Ren and Pari of her return. The shed’s back wall was in the process of becoming one with the forest. Its clapboards were rotted or mildewed, retaining few flakes of the red paint once coating it. Moss grew over the shingles in the shade of a branch that pressed against the sagging roof like a many-clawed hand.

  She lifted the sagging door to get it to swing open. From the dimness within, Ren and Pari’s eyes met hers like cornered vermin. Both women crouched on the wood floor, metal tools and gardening implements spread before them. Ren scraped a stone along the edge on a long-handled axe. Pari had split a pair of wooden skis, and was whittling one of the staves down with a knife. Several dozen green-tinted reeds lay fletched and glued before her, but without points.

  “Any luck with the stone?” said Ren.

  “No, but I didn’t spend much time looking,” said Seor. “I suppose it will show itself when it’s ready.”

  Ren kept her eyes engaged. “And if not?”

  “Then, I’ll find us one,” said Seor. “Even if we have to walk a dozen moons.” But she wondered if she believed her own words. She had used other portals in training but they were half a continent away, at least, and she had no tabulators to help find them. “Some children came by the stream again. It seems to be their regular habit.”

  Pari looked alarmed. “Children? We just sent Vul out there with a weapon.”

  “Don’t worry,” said Seor. “I warned him. He’ll take care.”

  “It wasn’t much of a weapon,” said Ren. “We don’t have a lot here to work with.”

  “I don’t know about that,” said Seor. “Pari’s bows look like they’re coming along well. And that axe you were working on certainly looks serviceable.”

  “In close quarters we might do okay,” said Ren. “But against crossbows?”

  “With any luck, we won’t have to fight anyone,” said Seor. “But it’s good to be prepared.”

  “Do you suppose one of the children might have taken the stone?” said Pari.

  Seor shrugged. The possibility had nagged her, but she didn’t want to stalk their home unless they had no other choice.

  She peeked into the box in which they kept their collected food. It contained only a few wilted squash that Ren had plundered from one of the neighbors’ gardens. She had hoped to have a bit to eat and rest, but it looked like she would first need to do some foraging. She didn’t want to distract Ren and Pari from their weapon-making.

  “I’ll be right back,” she said, exiting the shed.

  The main house was nearly as decrepit as the shed. Thinking it abandoned, they initially intended to squat, but it turned out to be occupied by an old man who kept the windows closed and made only occasional, fleeting excursions onto his front stoop. Though he received an occasional visitor, he clearly lived alone.

  Seor cast a wary eye towards the road as she crossed the drive to the rear of the house. She slipped in through a basement window with a broken latch. An earlier foray had yielded several bags of clothing and an armload of slightly mildewed bedding and crumbly pillows that had greatly improved the comfort of their sleeping arrangements in the shed.

  Besides the long black coat, Vul had replaced his torn and bloodied pants with a baggier pair that rubbed less on his wounds. Seor and Ren picked slacks and sweaters that kept them warm on their dewy watches. Pari had chosen, less practically, a dress that swirled when she walked and caught too easily on thorns.

  In the basement, Seor searched for food amongst stacks of moldy boxes and objects diverse and bulky, dangling fork-tipped cords. The din of the old man’s picture box coming through the floorboards drowned out any scrapes and bumps she made as she rummaged through his clutter.

  The only edibles were shelved in glass jars thickly coated in dust and packed with globular brown objects that could stir no appetite in her. The fungus infesting one of the cracked containers had dried into a scaly, black scum.

  A swath of light slashed diagonally across a crude wooden staircase. Seor made her way up towards source of the light – a door ajar. The hinges squealed as she pushed it open, revealing a kitchen with no horizontal surface unoccupied by dishes and cartons and utensils. She tiptoed across a blotchy floor and peeked into the room from which all the noise emanated.

  The old man sat enveloped by a bloated armchair, his head teetering in a sleepy stupor. Patches of wiry hair either plastered his scalp or flew askew over ears that protruded like wings frozen in mid-flap.

  Seor wondered how such an old man could end up alone in such a big house. What had happened to his family? Had they all perished? She had seen signs in the yard that once children had lived here: a twisted wooden frame with collapsed swings, sun-faded toys with missing wheels.

  A large brown bag sat unopened among the detritus on the counter. Seor unfurled the paper to find a white box inside. Under its lid was an ample meal with the meat of a large fowl, mashed tubers, vegetables and several puffs of bread. Though the sauce congealed into a gel, the food was far from spoiled. She closed the box and crimped the top of the paper bag. Another similar bag rested unopened in a trash can. The meal it contained was at least a day older and fouler, so sh
e let it stay.

  Curious, she opened some of the many drawers that lined the counters. In one, she found an array of brightly colored lozenges in clear wrappings. She stuffed a handful into her pocket. Another drawer contained cutlery, mostly tame, but a long knife with a wide, triangular blade caught her eye. It would make a decent pike once affixed to the end of a stout staff.

  She opened a large white box as tall as herself. A light turned on and cool air poured out. It was mostly empty, except for some half-empty bottles and jars, a hunk of thick sausage and a block of cheese. The end of the sausage looked pink, recently cut. Apparently the old man preferred it to the packaged meals that were brought to him. She left it alone and shut the door.

  Coughing erupted in the next room. Startled, she reached for the bag, but her hand bumped an empty mug and sent it clattering into the metal sink. Between paroxysms, the old man called into the kitchen. His voice was loud, but calm, as if he expected someone to be there. Seor stood frozen, with one hand on the bag and her eye on the basement door.

  The old man’s words provoked another round of coughing and wheezing; erupting from the deepest recesses of his lungs. It pained Seor to listen. She rinsed out a mug and filled it with water. With some trepidation, she carried it into the next room. She snuck in and tried to set it down on the lamp stand beside his chair without him seeing her.

  But his head snapped around and he flinched at the sight of her. He quickly concealed his surprise, grappling to compose himself by pretending he remembered her, as if accustomed to compensating for forgetfulness. He muttered as he picked up the mug, sipping between coughs, forcing his attention back to the picture box. As she retreated back to the kitchen Seor saw him sneak a puzzled glance back at her.

  She pasted a smile on her face and backed away into the kitchen, grabbed the paper sack and slipped off down the basement stairs. She pushed the bag through the casement window, climbed out and pushed it closed. She worried what trouble, if any, the old man would bring them, if it would be prudent to move out of the shed.

  As she regained her feet on the cracked walk, a bright yellow vehicle squeaked to a stop on the far side of the woodlot, just upstream from where Vul stood watch. She stepped behind a sprawling bush with broad, leathery leaves and waited for the vehicle to move on. But it lingered, engine chugging as faces peered out its windows, scanning the woodlot.

  She scurried back to the shed and swung inside.

  “So what did—? What’s wrong?” said Ren, as Seor pulled the long kitchen knife out of the bag.

  “Someone’s here,” said Seor. “It may be nothing, but you should stay alert and have a weapon at the ready, just in case.”

  She moved out and into the overgrown border that blurred the distinction between forest and yard. Doors opened in the vehicle, front and back. Two figures climbed out, a man and a woman. The man walked with a loose gait that looked familiar. Canu. A thrill rippled through Seor, though tempered by the presence of Baren’s interpreter.

  The pair descended from the road to the stream and cast about in the ferns, obviously searching for the stone. As Seor hovered, uncertain how to react, a black shape reared up from the ferns, the child’s bow looking ridiculous in his large hands. An arrow flung out and caught the woman in the side as she turned to flee. She cried out and fell into the shrubbery.

  Seor ran through the shrubs, no longer bothering to disguise her tracks. She leaped over the stream as Canu charged up to Vul and ripped the bow from his arms.

  “You idiot! For once, can’t you think before you shoot?”

  “But she’s one of them. She’s one of those cadre swine,” said Vul.

  “Ara’s with me … with us now,” said Canu. Ara had already plucked the arrow from her side, and pressed her fingers over the wound. Her calmness bothered Seor. She had reacted too calmly, too analytically. Seor took two steps, shoved the woman down and held the kitchen knife to her throat.

  Canu started towards her. “Seor, no! She’s one of us.”

  “Back off! True cadres don’t turn so easily,” said Seor, disappointed in the dullness of the blade as it creased the skin on Ara’s neck. “Where do your loyalties lie?”

  “With Sesei,” said Ara, staring back, fiercely.

  A spot of blood grew on Ara’s side. Seor pulled up Ara’s shirt to reveal a shallow puncture wound in the flesh below her ribs.”

  “We’re going to need arrowheads better than these,” Seor muttered.

  Ara reached into a pocket and pulled out a fistful of paper tabs.

  “Take one. Look inside.”

  Vul tore one open to reveal a shard of extremely sharp steel.

  Seor looked again in Ara’s eyes and saw none of the jaundice she would expect in a traitor or a spy. She retracted the knife from Ara’s neck.