The Porcelain Doll
Day became night, and the travelers built a fire, erected their tents and wrapped themselves in their bedding. All except Doll, who sat alone under the cover of the women's tent.
The women had decided to bed together, to keep resentment from building among the men. Tensions were high enough without adding jealousy to the mix. The men paired off, sharing furs to keep warm. The Tribe had done this before but the practice was new to Daniel and Nayar who were set with one another, primarily because the boy was the only one who would tolerate the hermit's company. The two were uncomfortable at first, especially Daniel who was bothered by the hermit's sweaty odor. But when the wind kicked up outside the tent they understood the value of this practice. Their combined warmth buffered the harsh chill.
Night became day again, and the travelers packed while the sun was just peeking over the horizon. They moved slowly, up and down the sloping surface of the road as it wound through the hills and mounts of a deserted world. Occasionally they saw small wildlife scampering away at their approach. These sighting excited them. There was still life along the road. Perhaps serious game might be found on the plains. The men smiled for the first time since before the raiders' attack, as they imagined an opportunity for the hunt.
Soon the sun broke thorough the stubborn clouds and the daylight warmed the earth around them, creating icy streams from which they filled their water sacks. Things were going better than they had anticipated, and their spirits slowly lifted.
The night and day cycle passed again and again and they settled back into the mindset of the path. Soon Parker was walking tall, though it was clear that he might never regain his imposing, regal stature. His pain was not completely gone, bit it had greatly diminished and he was determined to not show his weakness. He laughed and joked with the others, turning away and pretending to scan the horizon during those moments when he had to grimace from his wounds.
Just as the boy had initially complained, old Nayar had, at first, muttered and glared at Parker, obviously upset that he had been forced to come along. But after a few days time, his soft complaints had ceased and he tried to start conversations as they walked. His attempts were generally futile, but he was not so upset with this. He was feeling stronger and his steps were quicker, his gaze not so withdrawn.
After eight cycles of night and day, the group came to a plateau where they could see across a great valley. The road descended before them, declining through the hills for many miles. The weather was light and they could see no grey clouds on the horizon. They thought they might have seen the worst of the storms.
The men shifted their positions around the sled. It was Tomas and Emre's turn this time. They placed the rope harnesses over their shoulders and let the burden hover down the decline before them, checking its speed and pushing, occasionally, when the road leveled off. In this way they would not loose control as they worked their way down the hillside.
Slowly, day by day, the land leveled, and finally they had made it through the first mountain pass with no problems. But they still had to travel through the flatlands and over the second crop of hills, the other side of which, if Ish's memory was correct, lay the Basin.
On the fourteenth day of their journey, Parker halted the procession. The wanderers were grateful for a reason to stop and dropped their burdens to the ground. Bosche and Otter turned the sled off and it fell softly to the ground. Parker beckoned Emre' and the older men from the group.
"Look there," he said pointing ahead. The men gazed out across the flat plains to the place where Parker had gestured. Ahead there were patches of land where the snow had relented to the demands of the sun's rays, and outcroppings of rock and bare earth could be seen. But they had been seeing that for days. That couldn't be what Parker was so excited about.
"What," Emre' asked after a moment.
Then they all noticed the small dark figures on the road.
"People!" Emre' said. It was an unnecessary observation, for all the Tribe had noticed them by now. They gathered together, watching as the small dots morphed slowly into a cluster of dark shapes. As they grew closer, the shapes were revealed as thin, darkly clad travelers. There were perhaps a dozen of the wanderers, and the Tribe could see no baggage on them. They pulled no sleds and were spread out in an unorganized fashion, over the width of the road. As the distance between the groups closed, Emre' toyed nervously with the handle of his blade. Otter and Bosche' noticed this, and followed suit.
"Do they even see us?" Mak asked. No one replied, but it did seem that the group had yet to notice the Tribe. Their heads appeared to be cast down. Though, from this distance, it was impossible to tell where their gazes lay.
Mak walked to where Parker stood. "Shall we go ahead and greet them? Check them out?" he asked, his brow creased in concern.
Parker was just about to say yes to this suggestion when, suddenly, the black clad wanderers stopped moving and crouched low, as if this maneuver might offer them some obscurity against the frozen white backdrop.
"I think they've finally seen us," Emre' suggested, withdrawing his blade.
"No," Parker said quickly, reaching over to stay Emre's anxious hand. "Don't let them see you do that. Not yet."
The two groups stood still, straining their eyes against the distance. Then, as one, like a flock of birds changing direction, the dark strangers slipped quickly over the railing of the ancient freeway, down the rocky slope beside it, and onto the flatlands. They moved away rapidly, glancing over their shoulders to see if they were being followed. In a short time the strangers were, once again, little black dots against the white horizon, fleeing towards the clusters of rocks that lie far to the west.
The Tribe watched their flight curiously. "What was all that about?" Tomas muttered, twisting his beard in his fingers.
"Well, whatever it was, it is over and we can be on our way," Parker said, gesturing to the Tribe to hoist their packs up again.
But Emre' turned to face Parker. Concern was in his eyes. "Why were they headed away from the Basin?" he asked. The Tribe stopped lifting their packs. Worried glances were exchanged.
"Maybe they are lost, don't know where they are going," Mak offered when Parker didn't respond.
"We don't know that they were even coming from the Basin," Ish said, defensively.
Parker chose to ignore the question. "Let's get going," he said. "We'll talk of these matters tonight, around the warmth of a fire." But Emre' wasn't giving in so easily.
"We should send two men after them. Let them know we are not dangerous, and find out where they are from, what they might know," he said.
Parker wasn't ready to confront Emre'. Not yet. He had to proceed without challenging the young Chief-in-waiting. "That might be a good idea," he agreed. "But what if they are dangerous."
Emre' didn't miss a beat. "Then why would they run? If they are scared of us, scared of a small group like this, then how can they be dangerous?"
"Maybe they are weak and tired," Parker shot back. "It does not mean they will not defend themselves if they feel cornered. We need everybody here."
Emre' shook his head. "How would they feel cornered by just two?"
"Send the old man after them," Otter interrupted, laughing. "They won't be afraid of him. And if they are, then we know it is probably their own shadows they are running from." Laughter broke out, relieving the tension created by the sight of the strangers. Emre' smiled, too, in spite of his attempt to remain serious. Parker patted the grumbling old hermit on the back.
"No, not even the old man will go. Maybe we will need him soon, too," he said, glad that the situation had been diffused, at least for the time being.
Even in the passage of two centuries, Doll had not walked as far as she had in the last few months of her life. In the past, she had been taken places, escorted in vehicles that zipped through the skies or rolled quickly over the ground. In the earliest times the vehicles had been of elaborate design, reflecting the wealth of her keepers. But as the years wore on, her transit was accomplished in simpler craft, and then, when the currents that guided society had become turbulent, she fled in secret, through the dark streets of night.
Now she made her way as her new family did, over the rough and icy terrain, by the oldest method of transport. She was not tired. She could not get tired. But the unceasing travel, since the their flight from the dead city, was amplifying a sensation that had manifested in her head. Slowly it materialized out of her digital recollections and a longing for the sound that was so close, yet so unavailable, to her.
The piano had been wrapped and rewrapped with furs and blankets. The Tribe would do all they could to protect it from the cold and wet. It was strapped to the sled that was pulled beside her. But she would not be able to play until they reached the Basin and found a safe place.
Doll had no mortality looming over her, like her flesh and blood counterparts. But she felt a new anxiety as they traveled. Impatience and frustration would be what she would have called these new, restless spirits, had she been better acquainted with them.
The Tribe set off again, passing alongside the tracks of the strangers who had fled into the wastes. The prints cut into the distance before them, wavering to and fro across the road. They were an ever-present reminder of the uncertainty of what lay ahead.
Emre' mulled over the tracks as he passed. Why would they have been headed in this direction? He eyed Parker accusingly, but said nothing. Parker saw the look from the corner of his eye, but chose not to address it. It was still a week's journey to the Basin, perhaps longer. The dark strangers could have been coming from anywhere. They could have been lost.
The Chief hitched his shoulders against the cold and began to sing a road song. His voice was strong and determined. After a few verses the rest of the wanderers joined in, their doubts once again set aside.
As the days passed, the tracks were covered by snowfall, and then disappeared altogether.
By the 21st day of their journey the mountains in the west were looming starkly on the horizon. Every day they had been watching the hills grow closer, more defined in the burning sunsets. From their latest encampment, they could see clearly the point where the road ascended into the snowy hills, in-between the boulders that lay on the mountain slopes, seeming ready to fall at any moment.
They weren't far now, Ish insisted. Perhaps it was not much more than a few days. If the weather continued to be in their favor, and the climb did not prove to be steeper than she remembered, it might be less.
The Tribe's mood was light and they had decided to relax a day, to share some time playing and enjoying the clear skies. The men were too road-worn to fight for sport, but there was banter and singing and even Nayar was afforded some casual conversation. It wasn't full acceptance, but it was enough for the old man.
He had finally grown accustomed to the road. He was stronger now, and his eyes seemed to glow with a new determination. The Tribe didn't know of the memories that still vexed him, memories that had been subdued by his travels and exposure to these vast new environs. The idea of a new beginning filled his heart with something he had not felt in years: hope.
Parker was feeling stronger, too. No longer was his back bent in pain; no more did he have to look away to hide an involuntary grimace. Their supplies were holding out well, and they did not have much farther to go. But Parker was concerned about the shapes of the clouds in the skies above the mountains on the horizon. He had seen that manner of cover before. Fortunately, due to the fair conditions of their journey so far, Emre' had not found another occasion to challenge his command.
Tensions between he and the younger man were light and they talked casually, over the fire at night. The delineation of office had not become an issue between them.
As tensions had diminished, Rosa and Ish started taking turns with the men, again, changing partners each night, loving them and healing their fears in the manner only a woman's touch can achieve. Only Daniel and the old man did not participate in this ritual. Daniel was too young, yet, and none of the women would have Nayar. The old man accepted this rejection with humility.
Bosche's young heart was still yearning for his lost love, but he took what comfort he could from the women, and it was not uncommon for Otter to bed with him, on those nights when the women were elsewhere. This sharing kept them together. They could not allow jealousies, or envy to separate them. They were too few for such divisions.
On the 25th day of their journey, as they began their slow ascent into the last line of mountains in their path, they came across more tracks on the ground. And they found something that they were not prepared for.
"Look at these, Parker," Emre' called, squatting near the marks. Parker, moving much easier, but still not his old self, waved for the Tribe to wait, and knelt near Emre'. Tomas joined them and they all gazed on a faded cluster of small tracks in the snow.
"Children?" Emre' asked.
Tomas grunted an acknowledgement. Emre' was right. Not one of the tracks seemed to be larger than that of a child. "Has to be little ones, or some very small people," he said, trying to be light. No one laughed. There was something disturbing about the tracks, something fundamentally horrible about a flock of children roaming alone in the wastes.
"Maybe they live out here?" Emre' offered, "Maybe there is a settlement nearby?" But one look at the miles of flatland around them, and the frozen mountains ahead, dismissed that suggestion.
Parker rose and walked across the road, following the tracks to where they disappeared over the side of the railing. It was warmer here, and the air dryer. The tracks, which led off into the flatlands, had mostly faded with the thinning snow.
"How?" he asked aloud. How had a group of children survived so far away from any settlement?
That's when Tomas saw the horror lying further up the snowy asphalt path. He signaled quickly, crouching and scanning the road and flatlands. Parker drew his blade and dashed to the man's side.
Ish saw Tomas's signal, and Parker crouching in the road ahead. The men were alerted. Something was wrong. "Drop and circle!" she hissed. Rosa and Daniel dropped their packs and drew to her side, pinning Doll between them. Otter and Bosche moved protectively around the vulnerable members of the Tribe.
Nayar stood in the road, his hands trembling at the handle of the blade Parker had given him. Would he be able to use it if the situation demanded?
Emre' caught up with Parker and Tomas, and the men stepped closer to the grim mass on the road. Small tracks encircled the area; traveling packs lay torn and unidentifiable items were strewn about. In the center of this chaos lay a terrible sight.
"What do you think killed them?" Emre' asked, grimacing.
There were two of them. Men? Women? It was impossible to tell. They were naked, and what flesh was left of them was ripped, as if torn savagely from their bones. What body parts remained were flung into the road, dried and shrunken, covered in a thin layer of snow. Blood, dried and blackened by exposure, gathered in frozen black puddles that marked the snow around the site.
One of the dead faces was still intact, its flesh, white; its eyes, wide in final shock; its mouth frozen in an eternal scream.
"An animal," Emre' said, answering his own question. "A cat or bear. "
Tomas stepped closer, to study the carnage. The reek was obvious now that he knelt close. It was only the freeze that had subdued it. After observing the scene for moments, he sighed and looked at Parker.
"These are no children. And they have not been dead very long, Parker. This happened within days." He knelt over the pile of bones and studied them carefully. They were mangled and eaten, flesh torn to the bone. "But something's not right…" Tomas said standing. "Something big must be around, but…" the man trailed off.
"But what?" Emre' asked.
"This had to happen fast," Tomas said, his face darkened by his thoughts. If something that big had come at them, surely they would have tried to run and hide. "They would not have died in the middle of an open area like this."
"Tracks, Tomas,'" Mak said, eyeing the roadside nervously. "Something big that leaves no tracks?"
None of the men responded. Their silence was punctuated by the grumble of distant thunder on the air. A storm was raging somewhere ahead.
The others came and gazed quietly on the scene. "What of the little ones?" Rosa asked, when she noticed the small footprints.
Tomas frowned. Parker looked away. Ish moaned at the thought and the others bowed their heads, quietly pondering the fate of the children whose tracks wandered off into the wasteland. Sad memories, not yet diffused of their potency, came back and were struggled with silently. No one would speak such grim thoughts aloud.
"May fate be merciful," Rosa said,softly.
"Or swift," Emre' added.
"We will keep an eye out," Parker commanded. "Daniel, you will walk in the middle with Ish, now. Doll will walk with you." He turned to their youngest warrior, "Bosche' you will to protect them. Stay alert. Keep your eye on the road. Call a warning if you see anything … odd. Anything!" He squeezed the young man's shoulder. Bosche' pushed up his chest to show he was ready for the task. Parker nodded approvingly. "And now I will take my turn with Emre', pulling the sled." he said.
Emre' looked up at Parker, surprised. Ish shook her head, but said nothing. The man would die trying to prove himself.
"You're ready for that?" Tomas asked, concerned.
Parker nodded slowly. "Let's get going," he said and slipped a harness around his shoulders. Emre' fastened the other harness across his shoulders and they were quickly on their way. Emre' glanced at Parker as they heaved the cargo over the frozen roadway. He wondered if he would prove to be as strong, as unrelenting as this man. Then he thought of the shortsighted decisions that had brought them onto this wasteland, and quickly decided that even strength had its weaknesses. He looked away from Parker, and set his mind on the future, his resentments flaring anew.
The Tribe continued slowly, silently, each of them carefully scanning the land along the roadside, grateful that it was not forested. There was something alive out there, something hungry. It was reassuring to be able to see as far as they could. They made their way cautiously into the growing foothills, until the light grew too dim. Then camp was broken.
They gathered piles of old sage from alongside the road and a decent fire was built. They huddled together against the cold, doing their best to remain light of heart. But conversation was stilted and much that lay between them was left unspoken. When it came time to sleep, they went back to the old arrangements and the women shared their tent with Doll while the men slept alone, and alert.
There would be no distractions tonight. It was too dangerous and they had to be prepared for anything.
In the deep of the night Parker was aroused by the sound of someone calling his name. He groaned from little aches and pains as he slipped from his fur and walked out into the cold night. Pulling the giant sled had taken its toll, and he knew he taken his turn before his body was ready. But such was the responsibility of his office.
The wind had died and clouds had cleared so that the sky was a canopy of glittering stardust. The fire was nothing but crackling embers.
Parker," the voice came again, "Over here." It was Bosche'. Parker walked to the young man's side, stretching his sleep away. "Look there, in the south," Bosche' whispered, pointing into the darkness. Far in the distance there was a speck of flame. It was no more than a glowing yellow dot on the horizon. It must have been miles away. "There is someone there, Parker. Maybe the children?" Bosche' suggested.
Parker shrugged. It was a meaningless gesture in the dark "Could be," he admitted. "They are too far to tell." But something bothered him. It was nothing he could identify, but he had to trust his instinct. "Don't rebuild the fire, let it simmer low. The night is lifting soon and…" then he realized what bothered him. "And whoever would maintain a fire so large, this deep into the night, is up to something strange." The two stood quietly for a time, watching the distant glow.
Eventually Parker yawned to announce his departure. "Let's hope it is their fire that attracts whatever beast is roaming the night," he chuckled before he went back to his tent. Bosche returned the laughter, but stopped as soon as Parker was gone.
The remainder of the night passed uneventfully.