by Lynn Abbey
Saints and prophets, it was cold.
The whole point of rolling south for the winter was to avoid the cold and, usually, it worked. They’d roll into ’Nolia or Menbamgil in late fall, stay put for a few months, then roll north behind the storm fronts that marked winter’s retreat.
Sure, there’d be a few mornings when the frost turned to ice. And those weren’t the worst mornings, anyway, because the locals would hire anyone and everyone, including travelers, to work the hoses and pots overnight in the citrus orchards, protecting a crop they called liquid gold. If they won— if the sweet, round fruits didn’t freeze, then there’d be feasting all around with spit-roasted hogs and cream-filled pies that tasted like heaven.
There’d be no feasting this winter. They’d lost the crop a month ago and now they were losing the trees.
Deke laid in bed at night, rolled tight in his blanket and Maty’s and Elgan’s besides, ears pricked for the sound of a tree bursting apart as its sap froze. He heard them, too, like death shots in the darkness.
Some of the locals, the ones who worked the orchards but didn’t own the trees, were coming around, looking for a ride north when the weather changed. If it changed. Experience and science said it would, but Deke had never been so cold, so long, so deep down to his bones.
Ten days now of shivering and, then, two days ago, it had started raining. If there was anything worse than soggy cold feet in soggy cold socks in soggy cold shoes, Deke couldn’t imagine it. Between him and Dad, there were twenty socks hanging from the mollycroft, none of them dry, each of them contributing to the damp pong in the van.
Misery, that’s what this winter was. Deke still ached from mourning Momma, missing his sisters, and feeling guilty because the pain of Momma, who’d been the center of his life from the beginning, was subsiding while the pain of Elgan and Maty…the worry about them stayed as raw as the weather.
Both were worse, though, on the days when Deke was cooped up by himself in the van.
Dad spent his days at the canteen, playing cards for quarters and eighths, swapping the same worn coins back and forth, sun-up to sundown and beyond. Deke was too young to join them, even if he’d wanted to, which he didn’t. He’d figured out that were two kinds of card games: the shrewd ones where the craftiest player won everything and the time-wasters where luck, not skill, determined the outcome. Wise people played shrewd games with strangers. Dad and the other travelers wintering in ’Nolia were wise enough to waste time.
Momma hadn’t had patience for any religion, but she believed in sin and the very worst sin was wasting time, especially when you could be learning something.
Momma had sent him and the girls to the ladies in the sanctuary school—
The ladies wore blue here in ’Nolia. It had to do with candles and saints and getting called to do good works…or so they said. Privately, Deke figured it had more to do with the price of cloth and which sanctuary was close-by when a woman (or a father) decided there was more to be gained than lost by becoming part of a community.
Deke wouldn’t have been in school this winter, anyway. He’d passed his comps last winter. The ladies got subsidized to teach the rudiments to traveling kids (Momma got subsidized, too, when she helped out; Momma knew more than all the ’Nolia ladies put together), but there were no subsidies for teaching beyond comps. And no way for a traveling kid, even one with an ident chip, to go to a proper ’Nolia school. You needed local residency for that.
The library was different. Anybody with an eighth could use the ’Nolia library. Deke made his daily eighth, and then some, hitching one of the mules to a rickety, leftover cart, then giving the older lads a lift from the camp to town. They gave him grief—the underage, undersize kid who’d passed his comps years too soon—but they trusted him, too, and woe betide the townie who hassled him or the mules.
Altogether, Deke had probably logged two hundred hours at the library workstations trying to crack Momma’s code. Trying and failing. He’d looked up every word that wasn’t gibberish and learned any number of things he suspected he’d never again need to know—
Lying on his bed, listening to the rain, thinking about axinite, molussus, and thibbles, Deke could almost see Momma smiling down on him, at least until his eyes teared up and the north-ing threatened to take over his thoughts. He gritted his teeth, swallowing both the memories and the north-ing.
It wasn’t fair! It just wasn’t fair that he couldn’t think about Momma without that echo, that curse getting in the way.
Truth to tell, Deke was on the edge of anger with everything, including Momma. It wasn’t fair that she’d left him a safe he still couldn’t open and a legacy in a code that he plain couldn’t crack! Sometimes he felt like he was going to explode and sometimes he wished that he could explode into a million little pieces, each one of them not-thinking, not-feeling.
When those times came, all Deke could do was close his eyes and drift between awake and asleep until he was himself again.
It was dark by the time that happened, pitch dark in the van. He half-remembered Dad coming to tell him that there was stew to be had in the canteen and him replying that he wasn’t hungry. That must have been a while ago—if he hadn’t dreamt it—because he was hungry now. There was bread in the cabinet, nut-butter in the ice box. Easiest thing in the world to make himself a meal, but that meant moving and he was too heavy, too worn to move a muscle.
The rain had stopped and the air falling down from the mollycroft was, just maybe, a bit warmer than it had been.
Making the supreme effort, Deke rolled over. He opened the window.
“One for the Eye. Seven for the Whiskers…. Five, Momma, not seven or seven hundred or seven sextillion. Five, Momma. Seven’s got nothing to do with the Whisk—” Deke sat up with a jolt, cracking his head on a cabinet in the process, but that didn’t matter. “One, seven, five, ten, twenty-two, and one again!”
Agile in the darkness, Deke launched himself from the bed to the settee where he tossed pillows left and right until he’d exposed Momma’s safe. A lamp would have been nice, but it wasn’t necessary. He knew that dial by heart: the notch and groove where zero on the dial lined up with zero on the safe, then, with his ear close enough to hear the clicks, one to the right, seven to the left.
If that didn’t work, he could start with one to the left.
But one to the right was the way to start and one to the left was the way to finish.
Deke heard a different click, a solid, wonderful click. The door swung open and, at long last, the dash was in his hands. It was dead as a doornail but the rain had stopped and tomorrow morning he’d set it out in the sun and by noon it would be working again! And surely—surely—there’d be clues on the dash to help with his legacy code.
* * *
To no one’s surprise winter hung on weeks longer than it should have. It ended with the storm that flooded the camp and sheered the tops off hundreds of trees. And the next day—the very next day—it was too warm for long sleeves or shoes.
Deke got busy, readying the van for the long trek Merrimach. The dash, powered and polished, had plotted the best route. Factoring in weather and rest for the mules, the dash calculated they’d be on the road for six weeks.
Dad frowned and said, “Tell the bosses we’ll be there in seven. Long trek like this, something’s bound to go wrong.”
Momma’s dash was reliable and near indestructible, but bare-bones otherwise. It didn’t send or receive secure messages. Deke headed into ’Nolia proper, sent Dad’s message from the library, then laid in all the non-perishable foodstuffs they could afford because it wouldn’t be just a long trek, it would be a long trek through unfamiliar territory, territory other travelers had likely laid claim to. Jobs would be few, far between, and risky.
He stopped at the library on his way out of town, in case the bosses were quick to reply. They were. They’d even sent their own routing suggestions. Deke laid Momma’s dash on the workstation scanner. A blue light deep within the scanner flickered. When it went dark the bosses’ suggestions were flashed in the dash.
Dad wasn’t alone when Deke got back to the rapidly emptying camp.
“Deke, say hello to Elber Crawn—Mr. Crawn—and his wife. They’re paying to travel with us as far as Port Roussel.”
The look on Dad’s face said, No questions; no arguments so Deke stuck out his hand and did as he’d been told. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Crawn.”
Mr. Crawn dipped his chin and ignored Deke’s hand. He was a hard-looking stranger. Taller than Dad, but thinner, and maybe a few years younger. His hair was straw-yellow, but his eyes were dark and he was missing a tooth up front.
It hadn’t taken but a heartbeat to figure out what Dad had done…and it made sense. Crawn—Deke wasn’t about to mister someone who wouldn’t give him a hello or handshake—was one of the locals whose job went bust in the freeze. He was moving on to Port Roussel which, while it wasn’t on the direct way to Merrimach was closer than Merrimach…like following two shorter legs of a triangle instead of shooting up the single longer one the way they’d planned. Depending on how much Crawn had agreed to pay, they’d break even between ’Nolia and Port Roussel or, maybe, turn a profit.
Deke hadn’t been directly introduced to Crawn’s wife—he’d think of her as Mrs. Crawn for the time-being—and tried hard not to stare at her, which wasn’t easy. She wasn’t much taller than him, but clearly a woman, not a girl, and just as clearly foreign.
Deke knew a foreigner when he saw one—it was a rare entertainment that didn’t feature at least one exotic character—but Crawn’s wife with her oddly flattened face, braids wound around her head, not to mention the bright, little jewels embedded above her eyebrows was the first foreigner he’d met in the flesh. She grinned, as if she were both accustomed to stares and amused by them, and suddenly it was easy to look away.
“The Crawns will be riding in the van. Sleeping in the van—” Dad said with a hint of warning which made Deke wonder if he’d been wrong about turning a profit.
He and Dad didn’t talk about what had happened north of Celanor, but Deke hadn’t forgotten Dad’s promise and didn’t intend to let Dad forget about it, either. He sank in his thoughts a moment, checking for feelings and expecting them, too. But his lower mind was empty, except for the north-north-north. Deke might have his reservations about hard Mr. Crawn and his foreign wife, but the rest of him didn’t seem to notice or care.
—“That’ll mean some changes in the arrangements,” Dad continued.
That was when Deke noticed the horse tied to the mules’ tree-shaded line.
“We’ll manage. You’ll manage, at least as far as Port Roussel. We’ll see after that. Might not be bad to have another animal at the Bridge, in case we’re set up away from the work site.”
A horse for him to ride.
Deke had dreamt of something like that as a first step toward becoming his own man. Of course, he’d dreamt of a mule, not a horse. It was a good-looking horse, though, a young-ish gelding, nut-brown and black. And well cared for: a heap of horse-goods sat near the tree, including bright blankets, a varnished tack box, and a sleek, black-leather saddle.
Somebody’s heart had hurt when this horse was sold and that reminded Deke of his own un-healed hurts.
“I stocked up for us…the two of us, Dad. Hard traveling, you know, the way we planned.” He heard the whine in his voice and hated it, but that’s what happened when he got caught thinking about Momma and his sisters.
“No need. The Crawns will take care of themselves…for now…until they get the hang of traveling. We’ll stop for them—”
“I sent that message to the Bridge boss: seven weeks.”
“We’ll manage, Deke. You tend the mules and get acquainted with the horse while I get the Crawns settled. We leave in the morning, bright and early, the way we planned.”