The Porcelain Doll
Dawn came and the travelers broke camp quickly, moving with a heightened alertness. In spite of the grim images from the day before, and the worrisome clouds that had gathered above the mountains ahead, their spirits were light. The Basin was only days away, Ish insisted. She studied the rocky pass that cut into the hills and was sure this was the road she had traveled so long ago.
"We are close, now," she told them. They hoisted their things and started moving. Their hearts filled with new hope as they started climbing into what they were sure would be the last range of hills separating them from their destination.
The road began to ascend. Giant boulders loomed alongside the Tribe, sitting atop rocky hills. The massive rocks were balanced precariously on the backs of other boulders, as if mischievous spirits had placed them there to scare off intruders. The Roamers passed through the immense shadows cautiously, wondering how, in all these centuries, the boulders had not fallen. Every sound they made was reverberated back from the rock giants.
Daniel took advantage of the natural sound effect to listen to his own cries echo through the hills. But Ish quickly put a stop to that. There was still something out there, she explained, something that might be watching them this very moment. So they continued in cautious silence, certain, at times, that they had heard the clattering of rocks falling, or muffled animal noises in the deep gullies that ran between the clustered rocks.
They were nearing the crest of a hill when Parker decided they should rest. The clouds were growing grey and ominous, and swirls of dirt and snow raced from crags and over the road as the wind rose. Parker was disturbed by this weather. He paced anxiously as the others dropped their packs and relaxed. His eyes were set on the troubled clouds. He had seen that type of turbulence before.
Ish had just freed a jerky stick from her pouch and handed it to Daniel when something caught her eye. She looked up and couldn't believe what she was seeing. She rose to her feet pointing a trembling finger towards a cluster of rocks on the tip of a large hill.
"Parker!" she said excitedly. The man broke from his thoughts and turned to see Ish pointing. He followed the path of her excited gesture and his heart jumped. The others noticed, too, and they all fell silent.
"Children!" Daniel exclaimed, jumping to his feet.
Standing along the ledge of a large bolder that balanced on the tip of the hill, stood a group of small figures. They seemed to line the entire crest of the rock. There must have been twenty or more of them, all bundled in thick animals skins and furry boots. They were close enough for their faces to be seen, but their expressions were hidden beneath their woolly hoods.
All, that is, except one.
He stood in the center of the group, his chin held high. He was a large, olive skinned boy, clad only in a single slip of animal skin that was fitted loosely over his torso. He could be no more than a year or two older than Daniel, but his gaze was menacing like no child any of them had ever seen. His frame was covered in small bruises and scars, visible even in the distance, and his head was bald, sporting only one long braid of black hair that ran down the length of his body. The boy's chin was high and his face bore a grimace that caused even Parker discomfort.
"What the hell?" Nayar said, stepping back. But he caught himself. He was determined to not let the Tribe see his fear. He didn't know that he was not alone in his concern.
Moments passed in silence. Ish pulled Daniel to her side, but the boy struggled against her grasp and walked closer to the rocks. He had never seen other children and was excited at the prospect of meeting them.
Rosa stepped to Daniel's side, a sigh on her lips. The sight of the ragged children disturbed her heart. She pulled her hood back and her hair danced on a sudden wind. She waved and smiled, to let the children know the Tribe was not dangerous.
That was when the angry looking boy let out a shrill cry that echoed throughout the hills.
"Yaaaaa!" the boy screamed. His voice echoed through the rocks. It was a shrill, fierce sound. The men of the Tribe automatically placed their hands on the handles of their blades.
Rosa turned and shamed them for their actions. "You'll scare them away," she said, angrily.
Emre' shook his head and laughed at the other men. "What are you all afraid of? They are children," he scoffed.
"They could be scouts!" Mak barked. But Emre waved away the concern, causing Otter to unexpectedly second Mak's suggestion. Ish shushed them all.
But when they glanced back up, the rock was deserted. The children had vanished into the crags along the roadside. For moments the Tribe could hear the pattering of small feet echoing in the stone gullies; the clattering of stones and childish laughter. Then there was only silence.
Rosa sighed, and glared at Parker as if to say, "I told you so." But Parker dismissed this slight and eyed Tomas. Tomas caught the look and a realization passed between them. Neither man spoke their thoughts.
"How can they survive out here?" Ish wondered aloud, when the shock of the sight had worn off.
"Let's go," Parker said finally, as if nothing had happened. "We can do nothing for them and we have to move quickly." They hoisted their packs and quietly began their journey. No one spoke of the encounter.
Mak and Otter were pulling the sled, now. It hummed over the surface of the road behind them. The Tribe walked protectively around it, watching the hills cautiously, as they headed up the pass and into the mountains.
The skies were growing troubled ahead. They forced their thoughts away from the strange children, remembering better days behind or imagining those that lie ahead, in the Basin; the greenery of the land and the wild game that roamed the woods. It would be better there. It had to be better. They had left so much behind.
As the sun reached began its slow descent, the skies became tremulous. Dismal grey clouds formed disturbing shapes that seemed alive with slow, inner activity. The shapes reminded Nayer of something.
"Dark Horse" he muttered. He cringed, realizing he had spoken aloud. But the wind had muffled his voice and he was grateful that no one had heard. He did not want to explain his ominous hallucinations.
Parker swore at the sound of thunder rolling through the hills ahead. The wind roared and kicked up dust from the ragged landscape, throwing of over the Tribe, stinging their faces
Then an angry cry came from behind him.
Parker turned at the sound, his weapon drawn and ready. But it was Mak he saw, shrugging his huge shoulders. Otter stood behind him, kicking the sled, his face burning in frustration.
"It's dead!" Otter yelled again and paced in an angry circle. The Tribe dropped their packs and gathered around the sled. Its was resting on the snow-covered road, pressing down with all the weight of its cargo.
"Damn to this thing!" Parker yelled, above the rising wind. He tossed his pack down and struggled with the controls on the sled's protruding handle. "How does it work?"
Emre' came to his side and the two men pondered the controls. "It's the batteries," Emre' said, anxiously. He turned to Nayar. "Old man! Come help us," he called. But Nayar did not respond. He was gazing up the road, his brows pinched in concern, his hand pointing at something that ahead of them.
A small group of hooded figures stood there, their faces indiscernible in the gloom of the overcast sky.
"More children," Parker said, instantly forgetting his troubles with the sled. "Where are the others?" he thought aloud.
"Only one way to find out," Emre' said, and walked towards the silent group. Parker stepped quickly behind Emre', angered that the young man had acted without waiting for his call. He motioned for Mak to follow, and signaled the others to wait behind.
"They're only children," Emre' said, when he noticed Parker's concerned expression. He was further annoyed when Parker gripped the handle of his weapon. "There is no need to scare them with that," Emre' said incredulously. But as they neared the group, he too became troubled by the way the little ones stared blankly ahead.
Their faces were visible, now, under their thick hoods. These were gaunt, hollow eyes that peered at the men. Were they boys or girls? He could not tell. Parker took control of the situation and moved forward, stopping just yards from the little ones.
"Where is your tribe?" he asked loudly, over the hiss of the rising wind. But the small ones did not reply. "How did you get here?" he asked. Still they were quiet, as if they did not understand. They stood unmoving, watching, as if they were …
"…waiting for something to happen," Parker finished his thought aloud. "Weapons!" he ordered, racing back to the group. He slid his dagger from its sheath and the Tribe clustered together, weapons in hand, confused gazes all around.
"Don't let them see your confusion," Parker hissed and ran back to Ish. "Keep the Machine woman with you," he commanded, and then looked at Daniel skeptically. "And the boy. Stay within our circle."
"What are you doing, Parker?" Emre' asked, as he walked back among the Tribe. "This is going too far. They are little children. What do you think they will do?"
"Not now!" Parker yelled. "We must act together, they are not alone."
Emre' scanned the roadside. There was nothing. "Maybe," he answered, "but we did not see any adult tracks, remember?"
"We didn't see any animal tracks, either," Tomas said.
Emre' turned to face the man. "What are you saying?" he asked. But even as the words escaped his mouth, he understood what the others had realized. He drew his weapon and quickly slid into the circle the men had formed around the women and Daniel.
"What is wrong?" Daniel asked Ish, annoyed that he was not allowed to go and meet the children. Ish had brandished the evil looking blade that she had taken from the fallen leader of the raiders, and placed her arm protectively around Daniel. She eyed the land on either side of the road. Boulders and gullies lined the broken mountainside. So many places to hide, she thought.
"They are wild, Daniel," is all she would say.
But Daniel had finally realized for himself the meaning of the missing animal tracks, of the slaughtered and eaten bodies. He understood the sudden fear.
"I need a knife," he said urgently.
Ish pulled her dagger from her vest and gave it to the boy.
Then they all turned at the sudden, shrill cry of a child's voice.
"Yayayayayaya!" came the cry that tore through the rising wind, echoing off the rocks and dancing all around them, "Yayayayayayaya!" as if a child's game was being played.
Parker turned and saw the boy with the angry snarl and feral eyes, rushing up behind them. He was bare to the cold; his cloth of animal hide was whipped back by the wind. But this did not seem to affect him as he came for them, his face burning with an expression of unbridled hatred.
"Yayayayayayaya!" the boy screamed. Other children crawled from the gullies, into the road beside him, teeth bared and eyes wild. The children who had distracted the Tribe began to voice the chant too, moving quickly behind the shocked nomads.
They were surrounded.
Nayar backed into the circle of the Tribe, his blade trembling in his hands. His feet would have him flying, if there were any avenue of escape. But there was none he could see. So he stood his ground, shaking, muttering prayers that he had not voiced for decades.
The attackers stopped, just out of striking range of the huddled Tribe. They snarled and spat at the blades that swished before them. The Tribe reeled in horror at the sight of innocent faces twisted in animal aggression.
The wild boy approached them confidently, and stopped just beyond the range of Parker's blade. They could see now that his skin was calloused and broken in places, and his wounds lined with dark scabs. More horribly, the boy's teeth seemed to have been filed, so that they formed jagged points. The feral child must have known the effect his dagger teeth would have on the huddled nomads, for he bared them in a gleeful, savage smile.
"Back!" Parker yelled, thrusting his blade defensively. "I will cut you!" he barked through the renewed pain of his wounds. But the feral boy just gritted his teeth in a mocking grin, threw his head back, and let out another piercing cry. Then he edged towards Parker slowly, as if he knew the man was Chief.
"Back!" Parker bellowed. There was a desperation in his voice that none of the Tribe had heard before. The sound of his fear cut through the rising wind and echoed off the rocks. "Don't make me do this, boy!" he cried, swinging his blade threateningly. He feigned a cut at the boy, to scare him off. But the wild child reacted with animal speed, dodged and jumped closer, making Parker strike again.
It occurred Parker that the boy was trying to provoke an attack, to draw him out of the huddle. Each time his blade missed, the boy cried out in triumph, emboldening the other children to move closer to the horrified Tribe.
Emre saw Parker's pain and understood his hesitation. He jumped towards the feral child, but the Chief intercepted him. "No!" Parker yelled, pushing Emre' back and kicking at the boy, who had taken the opportunity to jump at them again.
But the boy dodged the kick easily. He then began to prance around the huddled tribe, in the way that boys taunt one another. The other children laughed and yelled at the terrified nomads in a sharp, guttural tongue. The nomads had never heard the language before. The sound of it chilled their hearts.
The wild boy suddenly turned and bowed to the other children, as if he was putting on a show. When their laughter finally died, the boy turned back to the Tribe. He assessed the Roamers quietly for a moment, his face strangely calm. Then he looked over his shoulder and nodded his head.
The first rock hit Rosa. It struck her on the side of her head and she screamed out, swinging her weapon wildly to ward of any others. The next rock struck Emre who had sensed it at the last moment. It grazed his shoulder as he ducked. Another hit Otter, who bellowed angrily and swung at the children nearest him. Then Bosche was hit, and Mak, and Ish, who folded herself protectively around Daniel and braced her cloaked arm against the attack.
Soon rocks were being pelted from all directions. The nomads reacted quickly; picking them up and heaving them back at the predators. The little ones fell back, but the assault intensified. The air was quickly filled with the rock missiles flying back and forth, rending angry cries from each side.
The wild boy took advantage of the confusion to spurn his army on. He boldly jumped on Parker, his teeth bared and snapping. The man shoved the boy away and swung his blade, felt it connect. He heard the wet thud of its penetration and the boy's cry of pain and surprise. His heart cried, too, as the child fell back, his blood flowing from a new and savage wound.
In a sudden rush of ferocity, the feral children pounced on the Tribe, tugging and biting at their fur coats, trying to find a place where the flesh was exposed. Their attack was wild, unrelenting, like a pack of starving wolves.
Rosa cried as she slashed at a small attacker. She felt her strike connect, and then had to turn quickly, to ward off another. Tears of rage and sorrow blurred her sight as she swung wildly.
Mak and Tomas tried not to use their blades, but the intensity of the assault was too much, and they struck into the gang of small cannibals.
Bosche and Otter hacked at the children that had gathered around Ish and Daniel, trying to drive them back. But there were so many. The young warriors kicked and slashed, screaming as they fought for their lives.
Emre' felt no hesitation. He was fighting to protect his Tribe. His blade struck true and without mercy. He did not try to ward them off with his cries but fell into their attack, his blade flowing red with their blood.
Nayar's fear could no longer be contained. All around him the wild children were bounding into the defensive cluster of people, without regard for their own vulnerability. The horrified adults screamed with the pain of the small bites, and the deeper pain of their savage counter attack. Nayar looked wildly for an escape, and saw a glimmer of hope. Without hesitating, he ran, dodging the wild children as he went.
Ish cried, as she struck, ripping a tear into a small girl's coat, from which blood immediately flowed. The wild child screamed but did not stop her assault. Ish steeled herself and struck again. The attack stopped and the little one backed away with an expression of pain and dismay on her face. But others quickly took her place.
'Don't look!' her heart cried. 'Don't think of what you are doing!' But she could not hide from what was happening. Daniel pressed protectively against her, and her face was wet with tears as she struck at one child, and then another and another, sending them reeling in pain from their wounds. She turned, finally, and raced from the attack, weeping openly, embracing Daniel with one arm, flailed her weapon with the other.
Daniel screamed when he saw the wild children descend on Doll, who was standing alone and still, watching the fight with detached curiosity. "Get away!!" he yelled, breaking free of Ish's protective embrace. He dashed at the group that surrounded Doll, ripping at her dress and trying in vain to gnaw on her flesh.
"Daniel! No!" Ish screamed, but the boy broke away and made for his Machine. Mak saw Daniel make his dash to the robot's side, and the group of feral children that followed him. The warrior yelled a warning, but a gang of children jumped at him and there was no way they could get to the boy in time.
Daniel suddenly felt as if he were in a nightmare. He screamed with rage as he swung his knife at one of the children, and felt his blade hit the child's coat. He did not wait to see what happened to the boy. Suddenly he was at Doll's side. Her face held an expression of alarm, her eyes were wide with surprise.
"Doll! Come with me!" he screamed, pulling on her arm. But he stopped when he heard the hissing of the predators that had surrounded him. The exhilaration of his rescue attempt evaporated as he realized that he was isolated from the rest of the Tribe. Daniel screamed as he felt someone grab at his coat from behind. He turned and lashed with his knife, but numerous hands were suddenly on him, and the cries of the Tribe were lost under the hissing shrieks of his attackers.
Something fell from the suddenly sky. The feral children jumped off Daniel and backed away, bracing themselves against the sudden hail. They looked to see the road covered with shiny plastic wrappers.
"Food!" Nayar yelled, throwing another handful of the synthetics into the air. The man had worked his way to the sled, fighting through the onslaught of small attackers. He kicked another wild child away as he tossed handfuls of protein bars, dried meat and veggie patties into the air. "Eat! Eat!" he yelled. The savage children eyed the old man cautiously, ignoring the synthesized nourishment, preparing for another assault. Nayar saw this and quickly ripped opened a veggie-pack with his teeth. He began to chew dramatically, rubbing his hand over his stomach and making exaggerated sounds of delight, hoping they would understand. "Mmmmm!" he hummed through a mouthful of the dehydrated extract.
Parker was doing his best not to use his blade, when he saw Nayar. His hope surged. Using all his strength, he tossed aside his attackers and ran to the sled, assailants on his heels. All around him he could hear the screams of predators and prey alike, as they struggled for life. He jumped onto the sled, reached into the huge pack, and ripped open a meat stick. He mimicked Nayar's actions and soon his attackers stopped, watching him with sudden guarded curiosity.
One of the savage children reached down, picked up a stick and stared at it. Then he began to gnaw on the thing, ripping through the package quickly and chewing on the contents. He quickly devoured the bar. Others saw this and tried too. Soon a small group of them had ceased their attack and were scrambling to retrieve the small food bars from the ground.
"It's working!" Parker yelled. He turned to the Tribe and yelled. "Throw them food! Show them how to eat!" he bellowed, his voice thin against the rising wind.
Tomas was reeling from his own wounds, batting at the attackers, when he heard Parker and saw the sticks lying on the ground around him. He swung his strong arms in a great arc, throwing the small ones away from him, and grasped a patty from the ground. He then began chewing on it, making a dramatic display for his assailants, who were preparing for a renewed attack. The children stopped to watch. Then they looked at their feral counterparts who had already begun to gnaw on the strange food. Immediately they followed suit and in moments the feeding frenzy had changed focus.
Daniel dashed to Doll's side and began to lead her away. There were indents in the exposed flesh of the Machine's arm where the children had tried to penetrate her flesh. But the bites quickly smoothed and disappeared. Such was her design.
She had been dismayed at the sharp pains the little ones had caused her, but they had quickly stopped and stepped away, grimacing and looking at her oddly. They'd left her and jumped to assist in the attacking of others, but their focus changed again when the small shining packets had fallen on the ground around them. Doll stepped away from the group of ravenous cannibals, her head reeling with a new indescribable sensation.
Nayar dipped his hands into the pack of rations and emptied heaps of them onto the frozen road. Parker joined him, and the two men had soon thrown half the huge container onto the ground.
"Let them be!" Parker yelled when the predators were fully occupied with the new food. In moments the Tribe was a distance up the road, breathlessly looking back on the feeding frenzy around the sled.
Ish wept openly; the pain of feeling her blade strike against the wild children burned in her heart. The others were silent, staring at the feeding horde as they caught their breath. The wind had risen, it was tearing at them now, and they had to yell above it to hear.
"We We cannot let them take it all!" Emre' yelled.
"Should we go and take it from them?" Parker responded.
"No, Parker! You're right," Emre screamed back, "Let them have it. We can just starve out here!"
"The Piano!" Daniel bellowed. "What about the piano?"
Suddenly, as if someone had adjusted the controls of the world, the wind died down and a low moan filled the sky. The crazed, feeding children looked up at once, their eyes scanning the skies frantically. As one, like a herd of plains beasts sensing the presence of a great Cat, they dashed from the road, over the railing, and disappeared into the rocky gullies.
The Tribe did not have time to ponder the sudden retreat. They turned at the sound of rocks crashing on the hills behind them. Above them, like the accusing finger of an angry, neglectful god, a swirling bank of dark clouds was descending, racing in their direction.
"A whip!" Parker yelled and fell to the ground. It was too late to flee. Ish jumped forward, knocking over Doll and the boy, covering them in her heavy bulk as the Whip of God smacked the road, throwing a chaotic hail of rock and ice in all directions. The Tribe fell to the ground, covering their heads, bracing against this powerful new attacker. The voice of the whip was a horrendous sound, a wail of the furious earth fighting to move her frozen limbs. The world roared as the twister barreled over the place they lay. The chaotic tube of frenzied air grabbed at rocks and threw them everywhere. Rocks smashed into the road and the craggy mountainside; vicious, deadly projectiles, shooting over the heads of the cowering nomads. They could only lay in the road, terrorized and helpless, their faces buried into their hands, their terrified screams lost in the chaos.
And then it was over. As suddenly as it had begun, the wind moved away with the whip, out over the hills, throwing a hail of rocks and debris against the road and the hillsides, as it fled over the tips of the huge boulders. The earth's breath slowed, not a howl anymore, but the humble moan of a weary planet's resignation.
One by one the Tribesmen rose on shaky legs. Their eyes scanned the skies and roadside quickly for any more threats. But all they could see was the screaming twister fleeing like a thin, mocking lunatic, dancing maniacally over the rocky landscape.
Daniel broke the silence. "It's still there!" the boy yelled, and they all followed his gesture. Amazingly the piano was sitting on the sled. The whip had jumped right over them.
Daniel boy raced for the instrument and Ish followed quickly, calling him back. Doll walked after him, thinking of nothing but the device that held the sound that drove her.
"We've got to get it now!" Daniel yelled when Ish tried to grab him. "They're going to come back! We've got to get it now!" he repeated, and pulled away from her. The old music box was riddled with small scratches, and a palm sized rock had imbedded itself in the wood on its side. Daniel pried open the fur wrapping that covered the piano and quickly scanned the keyboard and strings. He sighed, seeing that they were intact.
Emre' raced to the sled, his face twisted in anger and pain from his bites and bruises "Boy, we have to go!" he said angrily. He began shoveling the remains of the food supplies into his coat pockets and bag. "Take what you can hold and let us go before those crazy killers come back. "
"Don't call me boy, damn you!" Daniel yelled. "I'm not a boy anymore!"
Emre' glared incredulously at the youngster. "What does it matter what I call you? They will call you food!" he yelled, pointing to where the attackers had fled.
"Don't fight! Don't fight!" Ish screamed at them both, surprised by the frantic edge in her voice. She turned away from them to see that the others had arrived and were picking up what little food the whip had left behind.
"But we can't leave the piano!" Daniel cried. "Doll needs it!" he screamed. He had to make them understand.
"We don't have time for the box!" Emre' bellowed, "We have to leave now, before-."
"Don't worry about them," Parker interrupted. Emre' turned to see the man standing at the edge of the road, staring out over the landscape. His face was grim and his tears rolled freely.
Tears? Emre' was taken back by the sight. He ever seen Parker cry? They all stared uncomfortably at their Chief. Then they followed the man's gaze and were struck speechless.
On the hills around the road, in places where they could not have climbed on their own, small furry shapes lay still, strewn about rocks and wedged into the cracks between the boulders. A careless God had pronounced its judgment, and executed that verdict.
Farther out into the distance there was a scattering of small shapes fleeing over the rocks, out onto the flat lands to the south. The stunned nomads could hear distant screams of the children fading on the now still air. Their cries were the sound of a lost future, crying for mothers and fathers that had long ago ceased to be solace or protection from an angry world. Their cries were the sound of the end of all things precious, of all things sacred.
Ish could contain herself no longer. She dropped to her knees, lost in grief. "Noooo…" she screamed to the skies, and to the rocks, and to the asphalt relic of a dead civilization. "Noooooo," she cried, to the silent gods and the devils they could not control. She cried unabashedly, her voice wavering like the whine of a small child. Her arms cradled bleeding memories, and she rocked them to sleep. Let them sleep to suffer no more. Let them sleep.
Rosa moved against the inertia of her own shock, and came to comfort Ish. Her head bled where she had been struck with a rock, and many bites had penetrated her coat. But no wound hurt more than the sight of the unmoving bodies on the boulders around them. The two women hugged, comforting each other in the frozen road as the men grappled with the strength of their own emotions.
Mak opened his mouth to say something, but no words would come. Tomas didn't even try. He looked down at the road and let the sadness take its course. Bosche and Otter stood quietly, regaining their breath, not comprehending the weight of what they witnessed.
Parker tried to contain himself but his body rocked with the effort. He had to be strong! He was their leader! But the sight of the small lifeless bodies tore a wound into him like no warrior's blade had ever done.
Emre' eyes were elsewhere. He saw something that the others did not seem to grasp. He saw that a threat had been neutralized by chance. His rage flamed and he jumped onto the piano, screaming to get their attention.
"We must go now!" he yelled. "We cannot help them! They would just try to kill us again! If we are to take the stupid box, then let us do it now! Before we run out of what food we have left!"
He jumped from the piano and marched quickly back and forth as he scolded them "We are still alive! This world will not beat us! We have lived through everything! Get up!" he yelled at Rosa and Ish who still cradled one another. "Get up!"
Parker broke from his gray thoughts, angered by the young man's words "Stop this, Emre'!" he commanded. But when he saw the look in Emre's eyes, he realized that a new storm had risen. It had been brewing for months and had finally arrived, at the worst of times.
"You stupid, stupid old man!" the young warrior yelled, burning with ferocity as he paced around Parker. "We could have stayed in the city until the skies were warm again! We had enough food! We had buildings to search! But you chose to come out to this wasteland, where we will die!" The youth stepped forward with a new dangerous light in his eyes.
"And I am more the ass for following you!" he said. His blade appeared in his hand.
Parker wanted to point out that the weather was never going to change, that it should already be warm, but the snow still fell. He wanted to explain that if they had not left, if they had kept devouring what supplies they had, there wouldn't have been enough left to get them this far. But he knew that Emre' would not hear him.
The Tribe backed away as the men squared off. Ish started to rise, to plea for peace. But it was too late. The moment had come and would now claim its due.
The first clash of their blades echoed out over the hills, and the wind rose as if provoked by the sound. Parker backed away, his sword raised defensively.
"No, Emre'!" he shouted. "This is not the time!"
But the young warrior was far beyond the call of reason. He rushed forward and swung again. His swing was quick and true. Parker dodged and blocked, but the unexpected power in Emre's strike surprised him. He parried and swung low with the flat of his blade, hoping to sweep Emre's feet from beneath him. But Emre was quicker than Parker had expected. He leapt and lashed out with his leg. Parker felt his side flare as Emre's foot landed solidly against the wound the Smart Soldier had inflicted. Parker dropped to one knee, his body shaking.
"Young dog!" Mak yelled angrily, and stepped toward the battle. But he was stayed by Tomas' grip on his coat. He turned, furious, to protest Emre's strike, but Tomas was nodding his head toward Bosche' and Otter, who had unsheathed their blades and were gazing expectantly on the two older men.
"Let the challenge stand," Tomas said, and held his open palms to the young men, to show there would be no interference.
Emre' paced a wide circle while Parker collected himself, fighting pain as he rose to his feet and caught his breath. Emre' could have attacked, but did not. Parker nodded to acknowledge this. Emre' glared back to show he was not motivated by any sense of mercy, that his actions had been calculated to assure the others would respect his office. This communication passed between them in the language of their faces. Then they took their stances again.
Emre' attacked, his blade flashing in the grey light of the overcast sky. Parker fought harder now, hacking into Emre's attack with renewed passion. Thunder boomed in the distance as the men struck and blocked and parried and thrust. But soon Parker found himself kneeling again, his breath lost in the fire in his side. Emre' paced an angry circle around the man, like a Cat waiting for his prey to collapse from exhaustion.
Parker stood, again, and started to take his stance. But he was old and wounded, and his heart burned from the violence he had inflicted on the flesh of a child. He stung, and would always sting, from that memory. Let the young man take over, he decided. It was his time.
Mak and Tomas could not believe their eyes as Parker's shoulders slumped and his head dropped in resignation. "You are right, Emre'," the man said, his palm held out in surrender.
Emre' hesitated a moment. He had expected his challenge to last longer, to the point where one of them was sent to the Shadows. He was certainly prepared for that prospect. But, to sounds of shock and incredulity from the Tribe, Parker let his blade fall to the ground.
Emre' turned and eyed a challenge at Mak and Tomas. Their faces changed from disbelief to suspicion as they exchanged stares. But Tomas finally stepped forward, head down and hands held out to his side. Mak stepped up quickly after him, reluctantly shadowing this gesture.
Emre' nodded back at the two senior men. It was done. He was in charge. But there was no time to celebrate this sudden shift of power.
"It is too late to turn back," Emre' yelled, slipping his weapon into his sheath. "Gather what you can from the road and put it back into the packs." He turned his attention to the mourning women.
"Ish and Rosa, get up now! There will be time for crying, later." He turned to Daniel next, and the look in his eyes told the boy that this was no time to speak out of line.
"You are a boy until I say you are not!" he commanded. "You will tend to your Machine lady and keep her safe, and the women will keep you safe and…" he turned then, to Nayar, and his face was uncertain. The old man was breathing with difficulty, rocking from the stress of their adventure. But he gazed back at the new Chief with unflinching eyes.
Emre's look softened. "You saved us with your actions, old man, and for that I will forgive your cowardice. You can consider yourself one of us, if that is what you want. But now we must go!" He turned to Otter and Bosche and waved them over to his side. There was hesitation, confusion that the reigns had been passed so quickly. But they obeyed his beckon. He was right, there was little time.
"Where is Doll?" Daniel asked, suddenly. Then he saw her standing over a small form that lay in the road. He went to retrieve her, and stopped when he saw what it was she gazed upon.
This is not the first malevolent face she has seen, but it is the youngest. Doll ponders the fierce expression, the savage, gritted teeth, the accusing eyes, and the tears that flow from them. Are these the eyes that have haunted the world and left it in ruins? Are these the eyes at the hearts of the men who care not for things of beauty? She ponders, innocently, this spirit, this anger that would curse everything it touches.
The boy was struggling with pain, his face still set in the mask of anger he had worn for the length of his short life. His body was covered in blood from Parker's deadly blow. Tears of rage, and hatred as thick as his blood, welled from his eyes as he gazed at the people who stood over him. He didn't understand what had happened, why his army had been driven back. They had overwhelmed greater numbers than these before. It was how they lived when no one had been left to provide for them. They had learned to take what they needed. But the other travelers had always been weary and hungry. These had been strong and fast.
He snarled up at the pale, golden haired boy and the others that came to gaze down on him. He reached up, as the Shadows came to embrace him, and twisted his fingers into a fist. He opened his mouth and bared his teeth, but had no breath left with which to curse them. He retreated into darkness.
The feral child's body buckled and then stiffened, as he passed into the Shadows. No one spoke. There was nothing left to say. Ish put her arm around Daniel, and led him away. The boy called out to Doll who followed obediently. The others backed away, numbed by the death that lay all around them.
Parker knew what spectacle held their attention, but he dared not go among them. He need not look on that sight. It would always remain in his head.
"We go now," Emre' said, after a respectful silence. They had a life yet to lead.
Quickly they harnessed the piano, using the strength of three men now that the sled was to be dragged over the surface of the snow. Soon they were on the move, making slow but steady progress with their burden, wary of what new threats might lay ahead.