CHAPTER FIFTY EIGHT
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
The faint glow of the embers reflects off the back of the rock shelter, tingeing the shadows with crimson. Spilling down off the heights of the mountains, the breeze carries with it a foretaste of the turning year, its scent sharp with pine and hemlock. Kirsten pulls the mylar blanket more firmly up over her body, settling her head in the hollow of Dakota’s shoulder. Her lover’s hand makes lazy circles against her back. On the other side of the dying fire, Asi snores softly, his paws twitching with his dreams. Cold with distance, a howl rises up into the night, coyotes hunting the lower slopes. Kirsten shivers, not with the chill but with the memory of the Salt Lake Clinic. It seems out of place here in the clean air, it the light of stars spilling across unimaginable distances.
But the dead will not leave her. She feels Koda stiffen where she lies beside her, and her soft breath ruffles Kirsten’s hair. "What is it, cante sukye?"
"Not nothing. Something cold has touched you."
Kirsten turns her face so that she looks directly up at the sky. She raises one arm to point at the great stream of the Milky Way where it arcs across the night. Almost bright enough to cast shadows, it blazes down on the earth as it has for millions of years, answered now only by wood fires and the occasional, scattered glimmer of artificial light. "You call it the Ghost Road, don’t you? My dad was into Irish heritage stuff, and he said the ancient Celts called it the Path of Souls. Funny how different cultures had the same idea."
"Maybe it’s the braids and war-paint." Koda shifts her weight slightly to keep Kirsten’s head on her shoulder. "Most Cherokee and Creek families who use European names are called Mac-this or Mac-that. Lots of Scotts."
"Do they wear kilts, too?"
Koda gives a soft snort, and Kirsten can feel the laughter as it runs through her. "Now that’d be a sight, wouldn’t it? Tartans and feathers."
From somewhere a mental picture floats up of Tacoma, tartan plaid clasped about his waist, a classic warbonnet on his head. Kirsten giggles at the absurdity of it, and the tension in her eases a bit. "What about the Dipper? Do you call that a bear, too?"
"No, but we have a summer constellation called Mato Tipila, the Bear’s Lodge. That’s Gemini, mostly. And Leo is The Fireplace."
"What about him?" Lazily, Kirsten points to Orion, whose belt of three stars just clears the peaks to the east. "Is he a hunter in the Lakota stories, too?"
"It’s part of what we call the Backbone, which is part of the Racetrack."
"Oh." Kirsten cannot quite keep the disappointment from her voice. The figure of a mighty man with upraised club seems so obvious to her—even though a part of her mind recognizes that obviousness as cultural bias—that it would seem to be the stuff of legend in any society. Get a grip, King. It’s a different world. Koda’s is a different world. And somehow I’m going to have to learn it all.
"There is a story, though." Koda’s arm tightens about her shoulders. "Want to hear it?"
"About a backbone? Sure."
"Not exactly. See his belt, there, and his sword? That, plus Rigel are what we call the Hand, Nape."
"A chief’s." Koda’s voice settles into a steady rhythm that is almost ceremonial, and it comes to Kirsten that among the Lakota, as among her own ancient ancestors, stories are not simply entertainment. They are history, as Blind Harry’s ballad of the Cheyenne is history now. They reach into the future, as well as into the numinous past. "There was a chief who was not generous with his people. He kept all the horses he took in raids for himself, instead of sharing them with his warriors. He showed no concern for the poor in his tribe, or for widows and orphans. And one day, the Wakinyan, the Thunderbirds, had had enough of his stinginess, and they tore off his arm."
"Too bad the Thunderbirds never took on the Congress. Talk about one-armed bandits."
"Not to mention the whole swarm of bureaucrats. Anyway, this chief had managed to do one thing right, and he had a beautiful daughter. Wicahpi Hinhpaye, or Fallen Star, who was the son of the North Star and a mortal woman, came courting her. And she agreed to marry him, on condition that he find her father’s missing arm.
"So he searched and searched, all through the Paha Sapa. Then he searched among the stars, because the landscape of the Black Hills is reflected in the sky, because they are both sacred. The Wakinyan tried to prevent him from searching, and he fought them. Then Inktomi, Spider Woman, tried to trick him, but he outwitted her.
"Finally he found the hand where they had hidden it in the stars, and he returned to earth with it. In a ceremony, Wicahpi Hihnpaye reattached the chief’s arm and married the daughter. He became the new chief. In the spring they had a son. And—" Koda leaves the word hanging.
"—they lived happily ever after." Kirsten finishes the sentence for her.
"And the people flourished, and the land had peace. It all goes together." After a moment she adds, "You okay?"
"Mmm," Kirsten says, turning again to lay her arm across Koda’s body. "Very okay. G’night."
"’Night, cante sukye."
"Ever after," Kirsten murmurs, and slips into sleep.
Late afternoon light filters through the branches of pine and spruce, grown thick and tall here on the western slope of the Nightingale Mountains. The Trinities lie behind them, now, the folded valleys and jagged bare-rock ranges that scar the Nevada landscape. Asi trots easily along a deer track paralleling a narrow stream that loops and swirls its way down the mountainside. Kirsten follows, Koda walking rearguard. A jay scolds from somewhere half a hundred feet up, and is answered by a chittering squirrel. From time to time the sun catches the crest of a small rapids where the stream banks pinch inward; occasionally it strikes silver off the scales of fingerling trout or minnows. Out of the corner of her eye, Koda can make out the shape of a mule deer doe drifting between the trees a hundred yards away. Her two spring fawns follow, their spots fading now with the end of summer. Gently Dakota taps on Kirsten’s shoulder, pointing silently, and a smile light the other woman’s face at the sight. Asi, too, turns to look but makes no sound, then pads on, his humans’ feet making no more noise than his own.
A pair of dark wings sails over them, to be lost in the trees. A moment later, another bird sweeps past, its cry low and harsh. Ravens, a mated pair, returning for the night to their roost and their young.
From somewhere to their right comes an answering call, and Koda pauses, staring into the shadows beneath the trees. Breeding ravens are territorial, pairs spaced out over wide distances to maintain hunting and scavenging grounds.
"Something wrong?" Kirsten looks back over her shoulder, her hand dropping to the pistol at her belt.
Koda shrugs. "Another raven, that’s all. Their ranges aren’t usually so close together at this season."
Just one bird skimming the edges of another’s territory, taking a shortcut home. That’s all. Maybe even, if it’s young and reckless, poaching a bit on a scrap of carrion or a pocket mouse. Dakota glances up, searching the patches of deepening sky for Wiyo, finding only wisps of cloud and a sweep of redwings making for one of the small lakes that dot the corner where Nevada angles into California. The absence is reassuring. Not even a red-tail will unnecessarily confront a raven pair on their territory, still less draw the attention of a feathered mob. Nesting ravens will attack owls and eagles without a second thought, and though Wiyo is a female, and large of her kind, she is no larger than Kagi Tanka. Koda says, "Start watching for a place to camp. Sun’ll be down in an hour."
Kirsten nods and sets off again, Dakota following. Dark will find them halfway down the slope; by mid-day tomorrow they should be on open ground again, crossing the basin of Lake Winnemucca. At this time of year it should be dry, the snow-melt gone, the autumn rains yet to come. Still, it should be less formidable than the alkali flats they crossed a week ago, or the edges of the desert between Salt Lake and the eastern Nevada border. After the endless miles where it seemed they sweated themselves drier than the sand itself, it is good to be in the mountains again. Here the sharp pine scent rides the breeze and small springs break from the living rock feed lakes and rivers on the plain below. Cool days fade to chill nights populated with raccoon and lynx, otter and bear, while the smaller life of the understory that persists stubbornly against the pressure of larger creatures with larger teeth. Geographically, at least, matters can only get better from this point on.
Everything else, of course, can get worse. Much worse.
A raven calls again, a low, rolling prrro-o-o-ok. This time the sound comes from somewhere ahead of them, off the flight path of the first pair. Cold ghosts down Koda’s spine, and she shrugs her rifle off her shoulder.
No law says ravens have to fly in a straight line. Still, she feels better with the gun in her hands. Kirsten glances back at her, her eyes widening when she sees the gun. Wordlessly, she draws her own weapon, reaching for Asi’s collar to pull him back to heel beside her. The big dog’s ears prick, his tail coming up to jut stiffly out from his spine. Something is in the wood with them. These mountains are bear country, with straggling populations of wolverines and the occasional wolf pack. Bear she can deal with, wolf she can talk to. Wolverine—involuntarily, her trigger finger twitches. She will be happy if she never sees another wolverine in her life, even if she lives to a hundred and fifty. More likely their company is a smaller predator, bobcat or coyote, even a badger. Later, over supper, they can laugh at their excess caution. They have come too far, though, to take unnecessary risks. It is not that more depends on them now than when they left Ellsworth. It just seems like more, the burden heavier and heavier as they come closer to their goal.
Another raven calls, this one to their left. Around them, other birds have gone silent, with none of the twittering fuss of settling in for the night. "All right," Koda says softly, ‘that’s just one too damned many." She slides her finger into the guard, to lie lightly against the trigger.
"Don’t ravens hunt with wolves, sometimes?" Kirsten whispers? "Lead them to prey?"
"Yeah. But we haven’t seen any sign of wolves all day, and we haven’t seen any other top predators, either. Nothing to sound an alarm about."
"We don’t count, huh?"
"Not to the birds."
Asi comes to a sudden halt, growling. His lips peel back, showing his canines, and his tail comes up to full staff, its plume quivering with the rumble that rolls through his chest and belly. Kirsten’s hand shifts on his collar, her knuckles white. ‘Easy. Easy. What is it, boy?"
"Company," Koda says grimly. "Hold onto him."
The raven cry sounds again from a hundred yards down the trail. Another answers from behind them, a third and fourth from either side, yet another from above them, close. Following the sound with her eyes, Koda can just make out a darker shadow against the high trunk of a pine, some thirty or forty feet up, almost directly overhead. Just beneath the tree stands a stake topped by a deer’s antlers, clusters of black feathers hung from its tines by sinew strips. A flat stone at its base holds a spray of dried sage bound with sweetgrass and lupine, the shed skin of an indigo snake and a hollow pebble, its inner surface paved with clear crystals. It sits within the horns of a crescent, drawn around the forward edge of the stone in deep crimson. Deer’s blood, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Koda remembers enough of her anthropology to recognize the symbols, older than Babylon, older than Delphi, older even than Crete.
Carefully she moves her finger away from the trigger of her gun, then bends to lay it on the ground. She rises slowly, open hands at her sides. Kirsten glances at her sharply, then, still holding to Asi’s collar, follows suit. "Who are they?" she asks, her voice scarcely audible.
"Women," Koda answers softly. "Goddess worshippers."
"Keep your hands visible!" The voice comes from high in the tree. "State your names and business."
"Dakota and Annie Rivers," Kirsten answers, squinting upward toward the sound. "And we don’t have any business here. We’re just passing through."
"Open your collars. Let us see your necks."
Moving slowly, Koda and Kirsten obey, turning so that the still invisible watchers can see clearly that they bear no circlet of metal.
"Good. Now, you, the tall one. Take off your clothes."
"What?" Kirsten stares up into the branches. "What the hell--?"
Koda, though, sits down on a rock by the stream to pull off her boots. "It’s okay, cante sukye. They just want to make sure I’m really a woman." She drops her pack beside her, then her shirt, finally stepping out of her jeans and rising to stand in the open. Loosened, her hair spills down her back. She turns slowly, her hands at her sides.
For a long moment, the glade is silent. Then, low-pitched and long, a wolf whistle comes from behind them. "Oh, yeah, now. Ain’t she a woman!"
Kirsten whirls to face the speaker, still invisible. Her face flushed crimson, she snaps, "Back off, bitch!"
A whoop of laughter answers her, a contralto rich with the dark earth of Mississippi. "Get you dander down, Shorty. I’m just admirin’."
Suppressing a grin, Koda lays her hand on Kirsten’s arm. "I’m ‘Shorty’s’ woman, sister. Anybody wants to argue with that, deals with me." Asi gives a high, challenging yelp, and Koda adds, "Yeah, and his human, too."
"How say you, sisters?" The voice from the tree again. "Shall they pass?"
Four answer her, more or less in unison. "They shall pass, and welcome." It has the feel of ritual, and Koda wonders again just how the crimson stain came to be on the stone. A rustling of pine boughs draws her attention back to the tree above her, and a back-lit shape plunges down the length of the trunk, rappelling off it with the aid of a rope. The woman lands with a thump on the carpet of fallen needles, one ankle turning slightly, as though she has not yet entirely got the hang of the maneuver. She has no trouble putting her weight on it, though, and she steps firmly enough out into the light. "Hi," she says, extending her hand to Kirsten, who takes it almost reluctantly, then to Dakota. "I’m Morgan." Her clasp is firm, her palm callused with work and, evidently, the handling of weapons. An AK slants across her back, and a Bowie knife hangs from her belt, both worn with use. "Hey. Annie? You want to put your clothes back on?" She turns back to Kirsten. "We have a permanent camp a few miles on. You’re welcome there."
From beneath lowered eyelids, Koda watches irritation and bemusement flicker across Kirsten’s face. She turns away to pull on her clothes, letting her hair fall forward to hide a smile. Okay, Ms. President, here’s a chance for some diplomacy.
Kirsten says softly, pointing, "I’m Annie. She’s Dakota. He’s Asimov. Who are you, besides Morgan?"
Koda turns just as her head clears her shirt collar. Kirsten stands straight as a birch tree, her face expressionless. Ms. President, indeed. Morgan’s grey eyes flicker over her, assessing, and she says easily, "I’m Morgan fia d’Loria, and I’m chosen Riga of the Amazai."
A small shock runs through Koda. For an instant, a fraction of a second, the vision of the Cretan coast flashes before her again, a blonde swimmer in the surf. But she keeps her voice even. "Amazai? Moon women?"
Morgan glances sharply at her. "You’re a linguist?"
"My first wife was. I had to learn a bit to talk to her while we were in school."
"Mmm. Greek’s not just ‘a bit.’"
Koda shrugs, tucking her shirt into the waistband of her jeans. "For a while we spoke a dialect unknown outside our dorm room. Some French, some Spanish, some Lakota, a few words of Sanskrit. It took a year or two to sort out. You?"
"Lawyer. We’ve got a Classics wonk in the band, though. She’s our history-keeper."
Warriors. A bard. How much of the social structure she is beginning to sense in this group of women is deliberate reconstruction based on texts? How much is instinct, repeating itself across the millennia? Koda sits again to pull on her boots, watching the other woman from beneath her eyelashes. Morgan, though not much taller than Kirsten, seems to fit the scale of the forest. Part of it is sheer personal presence, the kind of thing that would sway a jury in a courtroom. Part of it is the rippling muscle under her tanned skin, shown to advantage by her leather vest and wrist-guards. The left one covers her forearm almost to the elbow, marking her as an archer even though she carries no bow. And part of it is the series of diagonal hatch lines scored into each cheek, tattoos done the old fashioned way, with pigment rubbed into a bleeding cut. It takes no imagination to divine what they represent, no more a mystery than the crescent moon between her pale brows. Madame President, meet the Queen of the Amazons, with four, five, six, seven kills to her credit. Let’s keep it friendly if we can.
Morgan raises an eyebrow at her covert study. "Ready?" she asks.
"The others?" Kirsten indicates the surrounding trees.
"On patrol. We guard our borders."
"And men," Morgan says coolly. "We’re a tribe of women. No men. No man-gods. No man-laws."
Which makes sense. Ari Kriegesmann and his bachelor-babboon coterie can hardly be the only ones of their kind. It comes to Koda that Tanya and Elaine would fit into Morgan’s world as if born to it, and she wonders again how the fight at Elk Mountain ended. Not, for certain, with Ari in charge. "Ready," she says. "How far are we going?"
"The camp’s by Pyramid, across the dry lake." Koda’s face must show her dismay, because Morgan adds, "Not to worry. We have horses tethered at the foot of the trail. We’ll be there by full dark. You do ride?"
Kirsten snickers, and Koda says, "Yeah. I’m a vet. My family breeds horses."
The mounts tethered at the foot of the slope scarcely look up at the three women and one dog when they emerge onto the meadow. The grass grows thick here, interspersed with dandelion and columbine, salvia and mallow, good eating that makes for sleek hides and bright eyes. All the horses are mustangs, in various combinations of white with chestnut, white with buckskin, dapple grey and black. They are the classic mounts of the Plains Nations, the breed that made the Lakota and Nez Perce in their time the finest light cavalry in the world. None is equipped with more than a bridle and saddle blanket, some of those no more than a sheepskin. Koda’s respect for Morgan and her band takes a quantum leap, and she asks, "Wild caught?"
Morgan bends to loose a young grey from her ground tether, glancing back over her shoulder at Koda. The filly whickers softly and nudges at the woman’s pocket, obviously looking for a treat. Morgan pushes her nose away gently and says, "More or less. They were running loose, and none were broken. They’d had some handling, though. Take your pick; two of the patrol can double up on the way home."
"They’re good stock." Koda strokes the withers of a tall white and chestnut mare who sports a wide white blaze from ears to muzzle. "Annie?"
"I’ll take the black." Before Koda can offer a hand up, she springs up easily onto the horse’s back, sliding only a little on the loose buckskin that is its only saddle. It is an impressive performance, meant to impress. Alpha female, meet alpha female.
Suppressing a smile, Koda says only, "Good choice," and mounts the paint. The horse snuffles and turns twice widdershins at the feel of an unaccustomed rider on her back, but settles quickly with a pat and a word or two of assurance. "All right," she says to Morgan. "Lead the way."
The way takes them down the mountainside and onto the miles-long expanse of the dry lakebed. The dark gathers around them, rose and gold along the line of the western hills gradually giving way to deep blue that blends into black at the zenith and stretches behind them to become indistinguishable from the last slopes of the Nightingale range. The moon, one night off full, rises bright enough to cast shadows along the alkali-pale flats. Heat, absorbed during the summer day, radiates upward now, mingling with the already-cooling air of the evening. The breeze, slipping over the line of hills from the west, smells of water, and more faintly, dark earth and salt. Moving at an easy pace, the horses’ hooves clatter against the hard surface. Morgan leads, the weight of her pale braid bouncing between her shoulders to the rhythm of her mare’s gait. She chants as she rides, something Koda cannot quite make out, though she thinks she hears the words "Isis" and "Demeter." Kirsten follows, her hair a pale halo in the moonlight. Koda rides rearguard, her rifle slung over the saddlecloth in front of her. Asi trots along beside them, breathing easily. The wolf is an endurance runner, and for all his faithful breeding, the wild has begun to surface in the big dog, as if the genes of his ancestors have only been lulled by ten thousand years of domestication, lying dormant until the turn of an age in which humans no longer rule the earth. The dog, the horse, even the comfort-loving cat, may once again become something no living member of her own species has ever encountered in the flesh.
And we’re losing our domestication, too. Warriors and shamen. Tribes of women. Warlords. We are being drawn into our own past, dragging the remains of our
technology behind us.
The alkali lakebottom gives way to loose scree, and Morgan picks their way carefully through it, setting them on a path that winds through low hills and then rises, climbing the mountain slope. Columbine and Indian paintbrush grow close along its margins, leaving space for two horses to pass abreast; pine branches, low enough to sweep an unwary rider from the saddle, obscure it from above. Barely visible in the shadows, Kirsten slows to lean down and rub covertly at her left calf, shifting slightly on the horse’s back to ease what seems to be a stiffening back muscle. Koda knees her mare and pulls even with her lover. Careful to keep amusement out of her voice, she whispers, "Sprain something there did ya, Annie Oakley?"
Even in the dark, Koda can see the frown that knits Kirsten’s forehead, then the rueful smile. "That obvious, was it?"
"’Fraid so. I’m flattered, though."
The smile breaks into a grin. "You damned well better be. I wouldn’t bust my butt like that for just anybody."
"Such a nice little butt, too. Is it sprained?"
"Nah, just pulled. I’m fine."
Asi, doubling back from where he has been ranging ahead of Morgan, weaves between their horses’ legs, whining. The Amazai herself has halted. "You okay back there?"
"Cramp," Koda says, tactfully omitting whose. Morgan touches her heel to her mare’s flank, then, and turns her head to lead them up a branching pathway, narrower yet, that leads upward at a steeper angle. Twice along the way, she gives the low, rolling call of a screech owl, and is answered. The second time, when it seems to Koda that they must be about halfway to the crest, Morgan says, "This used to be a park campground, but we’ve blocked the main access on the other side. Nothing gets up here we don’t know about, and nothing at all with wheels."
Which may or may not mean that they have no vehicles. They could always be stashed lower down. Most state and national park had motor pools and the gas to fuel them. Unlike Ari Kriegesmann, Morgan and her sisters do not seem to be the kind to waste resources unnecessarily. They might, though, be persuaded to part with one in an excellent cause. A nice Jeep could put Koda and Kirsten on the Mendo coast in—three hours? Four?
Pipe dream. They’d be gunned down, by droids or hostile humans or both, before they got halfway there.
The path takes a final hairpin turn, then opens up to lead under a gate carved from knotty pine. Two torches flank it, and its sign, just visible in the dancing shadows, reads, ‘Welcome to Free Sierra." The letters are rough, cut into the arch over the original name of the park. And the red light shows something else; Kirsten, who must see it, too, jerks hard on her horse’s reins, then knees her again as she pulls up. She is, perhaps, not certain what she is looking at. Koda is not certain, either. Not entirely.
A round shape hangs from each gatepost. The red light strikes a steely gleam from the one on the left, outlining its bare metal dome. On the other side, the torch draws the shape in dark hollows; two that might be eyes, another that might be a gaping mouth above a caked and matted beard. With the sweet night air comes the smell of rotting meat. So much for ambiguity. No lilacs blooming in the dooryard here.
"Hell of a No Trespassing sign you got there," Koda says quietly.
Morgan shows her teeth in something that is not quite a smile. "Yeah. Got ‘em both on our last raid. Reno."
Which means that these women either do have vehicles, or whoever they took down in Reno did not. Kirsten, who has quietly nursed her sore muscles on the ascent, says, "On who?"
"A clinic. You know about that?"
Koda answers, carefully, "We know that women have been kidnapped for breeding in jails, sometimes in birthing centers, women’s clinics. Stuff like that."
They pass a couple of low signs, illegible in the dark except for their white arrows pointing directions to the various park facilities. Morgan leads them to the right where the path forks, and says, "Yeah. Stuff like that. They had another place in Reno, where they took the kids they didn’t kill. Right off, anyway."
Koda sees the flinch in Kirsten’s shoulders, remembering the death-pit in Craig, the ruins of the clinic in Salt Lake. Morgan, though, seems disinclined to answer questions. Up ahead, the path fans out into an open space where white smoke rises up into the moonlight above the embers of a fire. Cabins line the perimeter, small oblong log structures with coarse screening in the windows. Here and there he yellow glow of a kerosene lantern silhouettes women’s shapes as they move about in their lodgings; one, as they pass, seems to be tucking a child into bed. Looking up at the sound of the horses’ hooves, the women wave as they pass, calling greetings to Morgan. One, leaving her cabin with a guitar slung over her shoulder, pauses to stare at Kirsten and Koda; Morgan answers her unspoken question with a wave of her hand and a brief "Later." To Koda she says, "I’ll show you where the stables are, then where you can bunk. Come join us around the fire after you get settled; there ought to be some stew or something left in the pot."
The stables, obviously designed to accommodate only a handful of horses for the amusement of riders on family outings, now house mostly hay, grain and tack. The horses themselves are tethered along a picket line behind the building. Koda counts thirty-two as she and Kirsten lead their mounts to one end to remove their saddle cloths and rub them down. Add to that the ones left behind in the hills across the dry lake and those likely to be on patrol in other directions, and you get forty riders, a formidable warband when the population of the continent has been reduced by 99 percent or so. Most are mustangs, but one or two show signs of more aristocratic breeding: a chestnut walking horse with white socks and blaze, a couple Appaloosas. Almost all are mares, two of them beginning to swell with foal; a few are geldings. They whicker softly as Koda passes, one nuzzling at her back pocket where she has stashed a trail bar. Kirsten, following her gaze, says, "I guess the ‘no man’ thing extends to the critters, too. Maybe we should worry about Asi."
"Maybe Asi should worry about Asi," she replies, smiling and ruffling his ears where he walks beside her. "They’ve got a stallion or two somewhere; they just wouldn’t stake them out on the line with the rest."
At the end of the picket, Kirsten and Koda slip the skins off the horses’ backs and loop their reins around the rope that runs between a pair of tall pines. Tossing an armful of hay down in front of them, Koda hands Kirsten one of the two curry brushes she has brought from the tack room. "Know how to use one of these?"
Kirsten, her eyes wide in the low light, looks at Koda as if she has sprouted horns, or a second head. "You’re kidding, right? I’ve ridden before, but some stable guy has always taken care of the technical stuff, like getting the saddle on and off." Gingerly she stares down at the arcane instrument and shrugs. "How hard can it be, though? I mean, it’s basically a hairbrush, isn’t it?"
"Basically," Koda says with a smile. "Just watch and do what I do."
Ten minutes later, both horses stand munching contentedly at the hay, their coats smooth and free of dust and the small accretions of the trail. Kirsten has done yeoman work, following Koda move for move, watched by Asi where he has settled in among the tree roots, his gaze sardonic. He follows them to the cabin Morgan has shown them, which contains little but four bare cots and a galvanized pipe across one end for a closet. "Looks like we’ve got our penthouse to ourselves," Kirsten remarks. "We could shove a couple of these beds together."
"Mmm," says Koda. "We could. Just for warmth, of course."
"Of course." Kirsten grins back at her as she shed her pack. Asi hops up onto the bed in the far back corner and stretches out, making himself instantly to home. "Guess you’re not gonna come check out the place, huh, boy?"
For answer, Asi lays his chin on his paws and closes his eyes. "Guess not," Koda answers for him. "Want to go get something to eat?"
The path to the center of the camp leads them past other cabins like theirs, a slightly larger main office building with actual windows, a communal shower and latrine. "Wonder of that still works?" Koda murmurs. "The one good thing about the Elk Mountain Incident was that hot bath."
"Wonder how that came out? My money’s on Tanya and Elaine."
"If not, we could always introduce Ari to Morgan and her tribe." Koda flashes a grin. And I know where my money’d be on that one."
"But amusing." She pauses, sniffing. Her stomach turns over in a barrel roll of sheer joy. "Gods. They’ve found some onions somewhere. And chicken. Come on."
The fragrance comes from a circle of stones some twelve feet across. A fire pit in the center sends clouds of smoke billowing upward, and nestled in the embers is a Dutch oven of a size that would serve the entire Rivers family, with seconds all around and thirds for Manny and Phoenix. Around it, their faces flushed with the red glow, a company of perhaps a dozen women sits on rocks or skins or the bare grass. Some still hold their bowls in their laps, while a couple lean back on their elbows, gazing up at the sky, and the woman with the guitar strums softly, her voice weaving wordlessly in and out amidst the melody. Yet another pair sit with their arms around each other’s waists, a small dark woman leaning her head against her taller partner’s shoulder. Introductions go round the circle. Inga fia d’Bridget. Frances fia d’Alice. Magdalena, daughter of Rosario. Sarai fia d’Yasmin. They bear their own names and their monthers’, no acknowledgement of paternity or patriarchy. And every face that Koda can see bears, too, the marks of dead enemies. Three, five, not a few with seven to equal their leader’s. Morgan herself sits on a flat granite boulder at the northern quarter of the circle, her bowl still between her hands, a far-off look in her eyes. She takes note of Kirsten and Koda, though, rising to invite them to stand beside her while she makes the introductions. With Salt Lake behind them, their story is now that they are headed for Los Angeles to find "Annie’s" parents. At that, the faces around the circle grow grave, and Morgan says, "Haven’t you heard?"
"Heard?" Kirsten frowns. "It’s been a bit busy between St. Louis and here. We haven’t had any contact with anyone at all in California." And again, "Heard what?"
Morgan lays a gentle hand on Kirsten’s arm, and draws her down to sit on the boulder. "LA’s gone. Nuked."
Ruh roh. <G> Hope you’re still having fun. We’re ready to head down the home stretch (finally!). See ya next week! firstname.lastname@example.org
Continued - Chapter 59
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