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Authors: J. Patrick Black

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BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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FOUR

NAOMI

W
hen next I open my eyes, morning has arrived, and I am surrounded by empty bedrolls and cool ashes and bodies bustling as they ready for the day. Breakfast is well under way in the great hall, everyone seated at long tables loudly devouring hotcakes. Most will spend their day clearing the town, heavy labor and cold but work all are eager to begin. I spot a place next to Baby Adam and have annexed one of his hotcakes before he registers my arrival.

“You give that back!” he shouts, grabbing.

I pretend confusion, my mouth full. “Give what back, Baby?”

“I'm not a
baby
!” I have chewed enough of his meal now that he no longer wants it returned, and so Baby tries to bite me instead. “And you're a big old priss, Miss Priss!” We all have names for one another in my family, and this is Baby's for me.

“Careful there, little man. You don't have so many sisters you can afford to just go eating them willy-nilly.” Rae has arrived with a tall stack of hotcakes, all dripping goat butter and burned-sugar syrup. She makes remuneration to Baby for his lost cake and plops the rest in front of me. I tuck in with gusto, both because I'm famished and because I am anxious to get going, but when I'm done, Rae makes me drink a big glass of goat milk before I am allowed to leave, insisting I'll need the energy. I am so full of nerves that I neglect even to remind her that I can feed myself, thank you very much. I finish in one great gulp and run to put on my boots and woolens and leathers and run back to the hall.

Mama is waiting with packs for me and Rae, each with a lunch of hard-boiled eggs and a sandwich made with thick-cut bacon and no little grease, one bottle of milk and one of whiskey, plus blankets in case we are
caught outside tonight. She gives Rae her pack and Rae bows to receive a kiss on the forehead. “Come back to me, sweet girl,” Mama says.

“I will, Mama,” Rae replies softly.

Mama removes my hat to kiss me on the crown of my head. She and I are colored alike, freckly with eyes and hair shaded like coffee, though if Mama's brew would keep you up all night, mine is milkier and not so potent. “Come back to me, sweet girl,” she says.

“I will, Mama.”

This is no idle promise or needless benediction. It is the duty of the scouts to spare our coda peril by facing that peril first. If there is violence waiting beyond the safety of our camp, the scouts will bear the worst of it. We were fortunate this year not to lose a single soul, though at the summer gathering, Timothy Sullivan did convince some poor, misguided girl to marry him and left our coda for hers. But if we ever imagine partings are always so cheerful, we have the tablets to tell us otherwise.

The tablets are tall wooden slabs, all carved with the names of friends and family lost to the wilderness, taken by sickness or cold or by our enemies. Among the names are three Rae carved herself: Everett Ochre, which is Papa's name, and those of our brother and sister, Jesse and Delilah Ochre, all three taken in a raid by Leafcoat warriors eight years ago. The tablets are hinged like cabinets and have shelves holding candles and pictures and toys and other tokens of remembrance. No one leaves the safety of our camp without first touching them for luck. Much of our coda's history is held in those tablets, and as I follow Rae from the great hall, my hand running across the wooden grain, I feel the warmth of memory beneath my palm.

The other scouts are at the gun racks set just inside the arch of Everett's Palace, jostling and joking as they shoulder their rifles. I hang back, not wanting to get in the way, suddenly remorseful for stealing Baby's breakfast. I feel much the baby myself now, unsure how to find my way in. Rae shoves and laughs with the rest, but when she turns away, I see she has my gun beneath her arm.

“Cleaned it this morning,” she says, presenting me with the rifle. “And this is for you.” In her other hand is a pistol, a revolving sixer, new and dimly gleaming, with a textured wooden handle.

“Where did you get it?” I ask, awed. I had expected to be stuck with one of the old rusty things used for practice.

“At that township a few days back.” Rae is plainly pleased with herself,
and for good reason. Townspeople are notoriously stingy when it comes to their weapons, and coaxing the tiniest peashooter from them is a lengthy and expensive production.

“But how did you pay for it?”

She flashes me a jaunty smile. “My secret. Go ahead—put it on.” The pistol has its own leather holster, which Rae helps affix to my belt. The gun hangs heavily, frightening and reassuring both. “Good girl,” Rae says, when I'm set. “Now go saddle up Jumbo.”

Rae must have known how I would feel about riding Jumbo, which is likely why she gave me my present first. I often imagine myself out with the scouts, and always I am atop some swift and spirited steed—Sherlock or Cloud or Roadster, or Rae's own Envy. Jumbo is a plump, dappled gray, a sturdy and reliable mount but rarely moved to quick action. Rae claims he is among the wisest animals she has ever known, but he strikes me as indolent and something of a smart aleck.

In my twelve years of life, I have learned only one thing for certain about horses, which is this: All else being equal, they would rather not have you on their back. Unless you are Rae, that is; horses seem to consider carrying my sister a privilege. It takes little time for Jumbo and me to reach cross-purposes: I want him to take his bridle, whereas he would rather put his nose under my hat and munch my hair. Much to my humiliation, Rae comes to help me. From her, Jumbo accepts the bridle as though it were a candied apple.

“You do as I say unless Thom tells you otherwise,” she instructs as we go to join the other scouts. “Twelve isn't too old for a spanking, and that's the best you'll get if Mama hears you've been goofing.”

“I won't goof,” I mutter, angry Rae thought such a warning necessary. Winter outings are a kind of audition for new scouts, and if I prove a liability, I won't be invited to stay on when we set out again in the spring. I know better than to mar my chances by making some ignorant or frivolous display.

The other nine scouts are waiting on their mounts, all slung up with packs and rifles. They call out to Rae and offer me exaggerated compliments on my new gun. But all joviality flees the moment Reaper Thom appears.

Reaper Thom Mancebo is our coda's boss scout, a bachelor of some fifty years, with a hard, lined face and a beard of wild black wires. However many of our people raiders have taken over the years, it is merely a
fraction of the enemies Thom himself has mowed down. It is said he ships so many souls to hell, the Devil ought to put him on commission. He is dire and imposing and dangerous, with the bearing of a starved lion. I can think of no two people less alike than Reaper Thom and Rae, yet the two of them are close as kin.

Reaper Thom is not one for grandiose speeches. He tells us only that we will be riding as far as the Great Ridge and not to get cocky just because most of the terrain was scouted yesterday. Several tribes claim these mountains as their territory, and a single outrider is enough to bring an entire war party down on New Absalom. Leafcoats, Downeasters, What-Whats, and Niagaras have all been spotted in past years, and with winter now upon us, no tribesman will pass up the opportunity to pillage our stores.

“I want you all keen. Any antics are to be saved for tonight,” Thom growls. “Sally Fisher has prepared three barrels of her special brew and promised a mug waiting for each of you. If I get the idea anyone is celebrating before that tap goes in, said person will be returning to New Absalom on foot and without boots. Understood?”

The scouts convey their understanding with a shout, and we are off into the woods and slopes of the mountain. Overnight, the world has become a whirl of crisp, glittering white, ankle-deep powder that will make quarry easy to track but also leave clear sign to anyone tracking us. But today our task is seeking, not hiding, so on balance the snow is more help than hindrance.

We all dearly hope the trails will show nothing of any humans save ourselves because if there are strangers in these woods, we will have little choice but to uproot rather than risk a raid in the deep of winter. The mood is tense as we sift between the snowy trees, tenser still as we pass the limit of yesterday's scouting into land none in our coda has seen these past five years. But by lunchtime it seems our only neighbors are deer and rabbits, and spirits begin to rise. Even Reaper Thom looks in danger of breaking into a grin as we approach the Great Ridge.

The Great Ridge is the far boundary of scouting from New Absalom, a wall of rock that sweeps up from the mountainside, then plummets into a valley below, the drop so steep and sheer that only the hardiest raiders could hope to climb it and afterward would be in little shape to cause us trouble. I know this place from stories: The Ridge is a favorite subject of the scouts, though not as much as the land beyond, which they name the Valley
of Endless Summer. It is said that winter never touches this country, that the meadows are always flowering, the trees always heavy with fruit. I have never put much stock in such tales, thinking they were only the scouts funning us littler kids, and so I am astonished indeed to find the Ridge just as they described: the high plateau of mountain, and below, the fields and woodlands as lush and verdant as if summer had just reached its peak. Snow is falling again, but over the valley it vanishes, as if encountering a border beyond which winter cannot pass.

“It's something, isn't it, Sunshine?” Rae says as we look down over the Valley of Endless Summer.

“It's just like you said.”

“Don't sound so surprised!” She laughs. “Not everything I say is some tale, you know! I do have a little useful advice for you now and then.”

I am about to ask her to name another instance of this useful advice, but just then we hear someone calling for Thom, and I can tell from the sound, the news is not good. Rae and I have left our horses to climb the Ridge, and we slide back down the icy slope to join the others.

Simon Grumble has made an unsettling discovery. Off beyond a stand of trees there is a breach in the Ridge wide enough for several men to pass and fissures in the rock below that seem to create a path down into the valley. This in itself would be nothing but enticement to a dangerous adventure, one to be argued over and likely abandoned in favor of Sally Fisher's brew, were it not for the signs of violence all around the breach. The rock walls are scorched black in places, or stained brown with blood, and beneath the snow we find broken arrows and spent shell casings, rags of bloodied cloth, what appear to be shards of bone, and human teeth.

Discussion ensues. The carnage here is not fresh, but it is new enough that whoever left it could yet be nearby. The only way out of the mountains goes through New Absalom, meaning either the shedders of this blood departed just before we arrived, or they are still roaming these ridges, or else they descended into the valley. The consensus among the scouts is that we cannot stay the winter with such danger lurking. We will have to leave New Absalom behind—that is clear enough. In the morning, we will load our wagons again and set out for another of our hidden refuges, only now we will be moving in winter, harried by snow and frost and cold. It is a drastic shift in our fortunes and hard news to take.

I am mulling through these and similarly dismal thoughts when I hear
Rae speak up. “I will go and look,” she says, glancing first at me, then at the other scouts. “It could be whoever fought here died afterward, and the bodies were taken by wolves or other scavengers. I will go down into the valley and see if they have left any trace. I won't need to travel far—only a few miles. If I find nothing, and you find nothing more along the Ridge, then maybe we stay the night here on watch, and in the morning get a few good workers from New Absalom to help seal up this hole.” She nods toward the breach. “So what if someone did go down there? No reason we have to let them back up.”

Rae has hardly finished speaking before every one of the scouts has volunteered to accompany her. No one wants to leave New Absalom behind if by some extra effort we can make it secure. Only Reaper Thom is reluctant, but eventually he agrees to Rae's plan, sending Lester Silva and Apricot Bose, our two fastest runners, down with her. Half-Moon Hollis takes a party of three to follow the Ridge as far as the cliffs at the edge of the mountain, while the rest of us remain behind to make camp.

There is no more jollity among the scouts, only a grim, businesslike manner as we set to our tasks. I am charged with assembling makings for a fire, to be lit once the Ridge and valley are cleared, and this I do methodically, gathering and splitting wood and constructing a cone of tinder to incubate the flames. I have just finished stacking my kindling when Half-Moon comes crashing through the woods and about flattens the whole pile. Before I can voice even a single curse, he makes an urgent motion with his hand: the signal for enemies nearby.

BOOK: Ninth City Burning
3.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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