To my surprise, the trail north out of the city ruins ignored the magical blacktop pavement entirely. Instead, Laurel directed us through a various back streets and even alleys, none of them seeming particularly dangerous to the horses’ feet yet all a challenge for my mind to memorize. Fortunately, my mama taught me to multitask from the cradle. Part of my woman-brain catalogued each block securely while the rest tried to figure out the new woman in our life.
It was the first time I’d had the opportunity to slow down and think, really. We’d lost, what, a week? Ten days? Whatever, the exploration of the Library and tunnels with the slim beauty to explain much more than we saw had taken us past the worst of winter. At least according to the way the snow was melting and the feel of the air, spring was coming. Slowly, perhaps, but definitely. Back home, my Dad and sibs would be breaking the three year old colts to ride. New foals were being born. And where was I? Riding drag behind another woman who followed my mate, the three of us well enough mounted despite the fact that Laurel rode one of our pack horses. The best of those, of course. The remaining pair of ponies, trailing behind me, were not overloaded because of their coworker’s defection, either; some of our gear was stashed in one of the Library’s vaults.
“It’s no more than a two day ride,” the woman had said. “And we’ll be coming right back once you’ve seen the Hold.”
The Hold, she called it. According to our lovely informant, one of the many earthquakes near the end of the Fall had upthrust a huge chunk of land, forest and meadow atop a solid granite base. “It’s a little like the old Devil’s Tower in Wyoming,” she explained, which meant nothing to us. “Or maybe like Masada.” Which meant even less. “What had been a valley in the foothills suddenly found itself elevated drastically. I think it might work as a stronghold for the people you mean to free.”
She only thought it might; Laurel Evans was no warrior, not of a military mindset at all, so she felt we should see it for ourselves, and decide. Neither Michael nor I could quite envision the place having a stable water supply of its own, but we would look.
Finally, we were clear of the dead urban mess, angling more northeast than true north now, the animals trudging steadily up an easy grade toward a dark and distant mass of timbered slopes and steep ridges. Michael turned in his saddle to question Laurel whenever he doubted the way forward, but that was not often now, with the buildings behind us. Strangely, the dried winter grass looked better here, more abundant and a bit taller than in most of the areas we’d traveled to date.
And the New Woman? Yeah, she looked pretty awesome, too, clad neck to ankle in some sort of one piece, pure white garment that gave the impression of being every bit as warm as an ermine’s fur. Chocolate covered boots topped with fire engine red ruffs covered her feet; similar bright ruffs provided a warm collar around her neck and circled the matching chocolate gloves at the wrists. She rode bareheaded, her long, light honey-brown hair gathered in a loose ponytail that allowed her ears a bit of cover. All in all, the female was a vision of mature loveliness, an absolute idiot to wear flashing red fur signs marking her position for any enemy raider who might happen to come along, and with all of that, she exuded sexuality as well. I knew I ought to be as jealous, yet somehow the emotion was never able to take root. It felt like we were both engaged to the lady.
Either way, regardless of the potential relationship, we had to be double wary while she was with us. Laurel rode well enough–she was clearly no stranger to horses–but she would be a prime target for raiders and utterly useless in a fight. Or so Michael and I believed. There was an extreme gentleness to her, an impression that even a harsh word or a crude joke might actually cause her pain.
She was certainly not the sort of fierce killer who would be on the move with the weather improving, or for that matter the fierce killers my man and I had proven ourselves to be. We even found ourselves watching our language around her. Frankly, we were even watching our language when she wasn’t within earshot, coining euphemisms, as if we feared a stray cussword might taint our auras or she could read our minds or something. Using da meat! in place of dammit! for example.
And yet…and yet…the mystery known as Laurel was certainly no prude. The first new-to-us room she’d showed us was filled with a bank of shower stalls. She had to explain a bit; neither of us had ever heard of a shower before, except when it was raining. The mystery of the heated building was explained. Geothermal, with a hot near-geyser providing all the radiant heat imaginable throughout the building walls and a cold water near-artesian well providing chilled water. Two water sources from two sides of an earthquake fault, Laurel explained, with the Library built squarely astraddle of the crack in the Earth. When he heard that, David had looked at me with incredulity.
“Schenk had this built right on top of the fault? Was the man crazy?”
“I don’t know,” she’d replied calmly. “Mr. Schenk was too sick to see anybody when I arrived here.” I’d noticed her use of the word arrived; we still didn’t have any idea of her true age or where she might have come from originally. But if she’d “arrived” before William Johnson Schenk had died, even if “arrival” meant birth, she had to be over forty years old, not the thirty she appeared.
And a trim, attractive thirty at that. We’re both so shocked that for a moment neither Michael nor I can do anything but stare at each other as the naked woman faces us from inside the shower stall, full monty, smilingly demonstrating the uses of two separate faucets, the adjustable shower head, some sort of liquid soap that taken from a bowl in a niche along the back wall. Michael speaks, sort of, muttering, “When in Rome,” stripping his own field-filthy buckskins, stacking them on the individual bench outside the end shower, and strolling into the–glass?– enclosure as if he owned it. I wasn’t far behind, nearly scalding myself twice before getting the near shower adjusted the way I wanted it, and oh what sweet release that steaming, streaming water after months of hard winter trail. Yet the steam was not enough to fog the glass, if that’s what it was. We could still see each other as if no walls existed between us at all.
And she was staring openly at me, checking me out. Not fiercely or possessively but with a pleased look in her eyes that left me warmer than the water. Was this slim thing a liker of ladies? I’d heard of such. Not knowing what to think, except for a moment that this could be some kind of trick to get us away from our weapons, I determined not to let her know she’d thrown me off balance. I returned her interested gaze calmly.
Yeah, right. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Then she turned the other way and began to scrutinize Michael, her perfect little buttocks and nicely shaped back presented for me to view. Neither Michael nor I stood quite as close to the shower head as Laurel did. I had just time enough to notice that either discomfort at the social situation or extreme self control had kept the man from displaying his own interest too, um, openly–and then I noticed her back. I mean, yeah, I’d been looking but I hadn’t been seeing. The upper two thirds of that well formed surface was completely covered with a mass of…what? Some sort of skin disease? Tiny rasied-edge circles, like…oh no. Scars. Scars in a place they simply could not have been self inflicted. There were dozens of them, each little more than a quarter inch in diameter.
None looked recent, but…sometime in the past, this woman had been tortured. With something that could be heated at one end like a branding iron. A tiny pipe, maybe, like the books said the ultra-antique Before automobiles used for fuel lines. She had been painfully marked, again, and again, and again.
I jerked myself out of the reverie. Appy’s ears were pricked toward a small copse of trees off to the left, maybe fifty yards wide of the course we were taking. My peripheral vision noted the same attention from Michael and his Roan, Laurel and her pack mount plodding along entirely unaware. No wild rider, as I often thought of myself now, at least in comparison with Laurel, would ever ignore her horse’s ears. Our little group kept moving forward easily; there was no point in changing our behavior too obviously just yet.
A blacktail deer stepped out into the open, looking at us curiously but with no alarm. Another, and another, and yet another until a herd of eleven were gathered, some peacefully grazing while others watched us without fear. They had not known the dangers of humans for generations.
Michael brought Roan to a halt now, hand signaling for me to take the shot. Looping the reins around the saddle horn, I eased the great Gunderson hunting bow–which we’d used all too seldom on this adventure so far, but silent hunting is safer hunting any time–I eased the bow from the lashings that held it behind the saddle’s cantle. The broadhead arrows hung in a quiver at my left knee; as I selected one, carefully not thinking about the deer at all, my stomach growled. We needed meat. Lots of it, so the biggest animal was targeted, never mind looking for tender. Nock, pull, lift, release in one smooth, steady motion.
From the first I knew the arrow flew true, one with the big doe. She took one jump and fell dead, shot through the heart. We would be stopping for lunch here, feasting on liver unless she had flukes, powering our bodies with the kind of protein man must have or die weak. I turned to glance at Michael. He nodded in approval, already turning his rough-gaited gelding toward the kill. I would gut and skin the carcass while Michael built the fire. We’d feast, then skin the deer and quarter the meat, packing the quarters and the melt-in-your-mouth backstrap onto our remaining two pack horses. Those two wouldn’t be carrying light any more, but they’d carried heavier before.
Only then did I notice Laurel’s expression. Sadness radiated from her eyes. Silent tears streaked down her face. Her lips moved subtly but made no sound; I somehow knew she was praying for the deer. All the rest of them were long gone, jump-running like the Hounds of Hades were after them. The great grandmother of the family would lead them through the days of Life no more.
I hadn’t believed her when she’d told us she ate no meat. Whoever heard of such a thing? I believed it now.
Utterly focused on the task at hand and the ever present need to keep scanning skies and land alike for signs of danger, I didn’t realize anything was going on with Laurel until I dismounted to ground tie Roan and start gathering firewood from the nearby trees for our midday meal. It was at that point she brushed by me, lightly, a whisper of her scent teasing my brain as she strode unflinchingly toward the downed deer. I hadn’t expected that; she’d never seemed like one who’d be comfortable with blood and guts. I froze in place.
Without hesitation, she knelt in the melting snow by the doe’s head, reaching a hand down to rest on its neck as she stared into its already glassy eyes and murmured words too soft for me to catch, yet which I felt the meaning was right there, barely beyond my grasp. A prayer for forgiveness, a request for Spirit to ease the animal’s true essence into the next world, and something else.
None of us, horses or humans, even breathed loudly until she finished and stood, turning to walk back past me. I could have sworn there was apology in her eyes, but that made no sense. I was the one who needed to do that. I’m sorry wouldn’t cut it, though. “Laurel.”
She stopped barely an arm’s length away. Watching. Waiting for what I might say.
Where the words came from I had no idea. “Jules and I…we don’t kill because we like it. For myself, I would gladly forego hunting if I could, but our bodies simply cannot survive without meat. I found that out the hard way years ago, as a boy slave at Fort Steel. The Strator decided one day that slaves could live on potatoes and vegetables alone, which would make us cheaper to keep. We were on that diet for 93 days before he reversed that rule. All of us were weaker. Two died. I myself was assigned to heavy work in the foundry, lifting and carrying more weight than some full grown men could handle, but toward the end in my weakening state, I stumbled more than carried, nearly tripped into a vat of molten iron once, and was whipped several times daily for my sloth. I…truly, I have no choice.”
I could hear Julia breathing behind me, but she held her tongue. Guilt and worry weighed me down worse than those foundry buckets had done.
Laurel stepped to me, reached out a hand, placed it on my chest. Her eyes were–“I understand.” Voice so soft I could barely hear it. She inhaled deeply, let it out slowly. “It is…easier for me if I do not have to witness the killing. Easier still if the head is not brought along with the rest. And…easier still if the first time I see it, it is nothing but meat, with the hide magically elsewhere. I am no hypocrite; I wear leather. It just…up close like this, it really…hurts me.”
My arms opened of themselves. She stepped into the embrace, snow white garment encircled by worn buckskins tanned from deer very like this one. I felt the tension go out of her body, and then Jules was there, arms wrapped around both of us. We stood like that for a time, still as graven statues, tears running down every cheek.
By the time we eased apart, the horses had decided the show was over and were calmly pawing through snow to select the least objectionable winter grass for munching. Laurel joined me in searching for suitable firewood. By the time we had a suitable fire going, well away from the kill spot, my efficient had the cleaning and skinning done. Neither head nor hide nor lower legs were anywhere to be found; Julia had most likely tossed those into a snowbank. Normally, neither hides nor brain matter was to be wasted, but these were not normal days. There was blood on the snow, but no more.
Minutes later, with a tin plate piled high with fresh-cooked deer liver and boiled potatoes snagged from the Library’s still-operational greenhouse, I dug in. Jules was right behind me on that. The three of us sat around the little fire in what had to be close to forty degree weather, a regular heat wave. Laurel was working her way through a pile of lightly salted potatoes when Julia swallowed a mouthful of liver and spoke. “The smell doesn’t bother you?”
“No.” She did look okay now, no longer upset. She even smiled a little. “I have no problem with other people having meat on their plates. I’m not a preacher or anything like that. Zealots are no fun.”
Fun? Hunh. I started to open my mouth but she answered my next question first. “I can even cook meat, and do it well, and enjoy seeing folks chow down with gusto, knowing I’ve been of service with seasonings and the love put into the process. “I just have…a Bambi problem?” There was definitely a twinkle in her eye now as she attempted to put us at ease.
“Well,” Julia observed, “how about that?”
After we’d eaten, we settled in for a good long talk over mugs of chamomile tea. Laurel seemed confident that a excellent camping spot lay no more than a few hours ahead, enough for a longer lunch break than usual on the trail. This was good, since a whole bunch of nagging questions had reared their heads as we rode.”
“Laurel, your help with the tunnels was beyond price. We’d never have known that Tunnel F, not G, had its far opening in the park we’d been using. We’d never have known that Tunnel G had been blocked by a cave-in during one of the earthquakes, or that beyond the blast doors the space is filled with fumes that would have killed us with one breath. Also, we understand about the Library not being a good place to bring refugees from Fort Steel, as the building, amazing as it is, could never sustain them long term, nor could it be indefinitely defended long term against attackers who were actually thinking. But you never got around to explaining who, or what, maintains the botanical garden, the greenhouse, even keeps the building clean. There’s got to be something.”
“Yes.” The slim woman nodded, chin stirring the hairs of her garment’s red fur collar. “You do need to know about them.”
“The know ’em?”
“That’s the right pronunciation, yes, but it’s a family name, N-o-e-h-m. Jonnie and Jessie Noehm were the first to hire on with Mr. Schenk as Library caretakers, or so they’ve told me, but they didn’t come alone, and more came after. Sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, cousins and in laws nearly too numerous to count. Jonnie was undisputed ruler of the Noehm clan, whatever their numbers. He’d been given a huge budget to work with, but had his wife take control of the Library finances, and Jessie Noehm could squeeze a copper penny till Lincoln choked to death and his hat fell off. The Noehms aren’t seen often; most of them are terrified of outsiders. Except for me. They took to me, and when tensions began rising after Mr. Schenk died, they made room in their own living quarters so I’d not have to deal with the harsh vibrations shuddering the main hall and second story.”
I wouldn’t have interrupted Laurel’s recitation, but Julia had her hand up. “But–where do they live? You escorted us through every square foot of the building and down the length of every safe tunnel.”
Laurel hesitated for a moment, thinking. “I suppose it’s all right to tell the two of you. You won’t reveal their secrets to anyone else.” I held up two fingers, Scout’s honor, and she nodded. “Three of the tunnels have hidden doors, originally commissioned by Mr. Schenk himself, long before Jonnie and Jessie were hired. The doors look like rock, even feel and sound like rock if you knock or tap on them, but they access short tunnels leading to quite sizeable rooms, many of them with full plumbing, kitchen facilities, the works. I confess they seem magical to me; the engineers that designed those were geniuses. Where does the sewage go? The Noehms all spend their time in these underground rooms, some quite sociable among their peers, some solitary by nature, but none interested in life Outside. That is, life beyond the Library building itself, or even Outside life that comes inside, like you two. Yet their life purpose as they see it, around which their entire culture revolves, is no more or no less than to maintain Mr. Schenk’s pride and joy in pristine condition, or as close as possible, time without end. The only areas they will not enter and thus do not clean are the two entrance guard posts.”
“Like the elves who came at night to make shoes for the cobbler,” I said. This was even a better story than that one. “And I’d bet a dollar to a donut hole the group of scientists who left after the big battle at the back entrance, those oh so sensitive types just delighted in calling them gnomes, didn’t they?”
Our slender informant sipped her tea before answering. “They did exactly that. Some of those people had cruel tongues. Most were thoughtless at best. No offense to your ancestors.”
I gave her a half-grin, only one side of my mouth lifting. “No one can wonder more about most of them than me. I grew up with two of the most senseless as parents, until the Fort Steel slavers came.”
“Yes. That should have killed you, what you went through.” Her voice was soft, her hand on my right knee. And, I realized, Julia’s hand on my left knee. Hmm….
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I shrugged. Macho man.
“It was that much worse, that much more cutting, because the Noehms are not of large stature. Not dwarves, you understand, but the biggest male among them comes up barely to my chin. It’s important that anyone they decide to meet face to face get their name pronunciation right. Call a Noehm a gnome one time and you are on the blacklist for life with all of them. But they are as smart as smart can be–Mr. Schenk selected for that when he hired–and their work ethic is astounding.”
“Which is why,” Julia observed, “the Library is so well preserved. One thing, Laurel. How many of them are there in residence now? If you know. Or can say.”
“Two hundred and three at last tally. Possibly 204 if Sallie Noehm has delivered. She’s due any day.”
Two hundred. “So,” I ventured, “the Noehms were at least part of the reason you counseled us that the Library would not be a wise hideout for the slaves from Fort Steel I mean to free. Their presence, especially with attacks on a regular basis more likely than not, would be too upsetting for these caretakers.”
“Yes. That, and other reasons as we’ve discussed. All are true. The Library survived the Fall only because the final mob had no sense. A long term siege with well thought out probing attacks at intervals, from different angles, would tear the building apart in the end. Or so Wild Bill told me. I’m no military strategist, nor do I want to be, but I believed him.”
“No, he was right about that.” My eye for strategy and tactics seemed inborn. If I had the choice of sides in a war for control of the Library, I’d much prefer attack rather than defense. I’d already come up with 53 different ways and means of taking the place and that was just idle speculation. “Well, we’re burning daylight. Suppose we might should get a move on?”
By sunset, we were camped for our first night out away from the city in high, rolling foothills, tucked in a little hollow with scrub pines scattered about the eastern and southern slopes. The western and northern rises cut the wind almost entirely, sending it streaming well over our heads to whisper the tops of the pines. Plenty of firewood, and a trickle of fresh snowmelt water gliding down over a man-sized boulder, pooling at the bottom, more than enough for horses and humans alike to drink our fill and top off our canteens. We kept the fire small out of habit, but neither Julia nor I felt it likely we were in any danger of being attacked tonight. There would be a full moon; a sentry could spot trouble heading our way from a long way off.
I took first watch, slowly shifting around the hollow’s perimeter, making myself look like a scrub pine snag when I wasn’t actually in the timber. The melting snow froze as night wore on, reflecting Luna’s light. I swore I could see forever. Which wasn’t precisely true, but I could certainly see to the edge of the forest to the north of us, and curling somewhat eastward as well, a great crescent of black sharp-outlining the expanse of glowing white snow. To the south, only bare foothills, a snowscape, a gently rolling sea, endless to the horizon. To the west, more of the same. Fort Steel and Schenk’s ruined city both lay to the southwest, well hidden from view. Tomorrow, late, we should arrive at this Hold being promoted by Laurel. My thoughts were filled with plans for a redoubt I’d never even seen. Half a dozen well trained sentries posted along forest’s edge could spot strangers approaching from miles away; with a long glass or two among them, they could count the hairs on their chins and the chips in their fingernails at two miles out.
A lone wolf howled, distant and faint, bringing me out of my reverie. No threat to us tonight, but I realized with a start that my shift was over, plus an extra hour. Time to wake Julia, if she wasn’t awake already.
Our tarped-over shelter stood out darkly against the snow. My hand stopped, inches from the closed flap. Those were not snores I was hearing. My breath caught. Easing back, I turned, headed for the rim of the hollow, and took up my slow patrol once more. No way was I interrupting that.
If there had been a raider trying to sneak up on us, this would have been the time for him to go for it. Heh. Go for it. My ever snug buckskin pants had a bit of a situation. My attention struggled to stay focused on the landscape, but without much success. My breathing was louder than normal. As for my imagination…well.
Another hour passed before Julia’s form moved out from the shelter, climbing the slope to meet me near the northeastern edge of the pine trees. Her shoot gun was slung over her back. She walked right up and wrapped her arms around me, murmuring, “You should have said.” There was nothing but love in her voice. She smelled like women, a mingling of her own scent I knew so well and the more delicate fragrance that was Essence of Laurel.
“Would have been rude.” My voice was rough. Not by intention. “Besides, it’s a beautiful night. Spring is definitely coming.”
She stepped back, unslinging her rifle, checking the sword in its scabbard to make sure it drew freely. “She’s waiting for you.”
I kept my pace slow and measured, all the way back to the shelter. It wasn’t easy. The tarp flap’s edge seemed to be hiding from my clumsy fingers despite the moonlight. Inside, blessed warmth, boots off. Coat off. I was fumbling with the laces on my shirt when I felt Laurel’s light touch in the dark, skimming my hands, taking over. In the mine stope with Julia, that first time, we’d kept a light going against a known possible threat. Not so, here. Perfect darkness, eyes useless yet my other senses on fire.
Suddenly I was glad I’d stood watch for more than half the night. I couldn’t have pried myself away to take another predawn shift for all the rice in China.