The city lay in ruins. Nila didn’t know when, if ever, Michael was coming home. Power had gone out a week ago, and the looters had come through the neighborhood like locusts. She’d held them off when she could, hid with the children when she knew she couldn’t, but it was time to leave.
She settled Susan in her Kevlar sling and from there into her car seat, and made sure Allan’s backpack was balanced and light enough, taking the far heavier pack for herself. She checked all of her weapons and both of Allan’s, stared for a while at the note to Michael, and led her children out of their home.
The highways were buckled and bent, twisted like a ribbon in ways that would be unbelievable, if you didn’t know that god-monsters walked the earth now. Nila took the back roads near there, keeping an eye on the gas gauge. If she’d planned this right – yes. The car ran out of gas just as they reached the edge of the worst devastation, past the mobs and the crazy people, past the banks of less fuel-efficient cars and the toll-takers.
She settled Susan on her back and held Allan’s hand with her left, and sited a path south. South, she’d heard, the devastation was less complete. South, the winter would be warmer and more survivable.
She focused on the path in front of her, on her children, and tried to ignore the ruins around them that had been home.
They had been walking now for three days. They had to take it slow; Allan was sturdy for his age, but he still tired easily, and Nila couldn’t carry him, not and Susan, too. The kids were taking it like champs, but she could tell, as the sun began to inch downwards, that it was time to stop.
She was focused on the children, ignoring her training in a way that would have horrified her former Mentor, ignoring the surroundings, when they rounded a bend in the long country road and found it blocked.
There was a long awkward moment when she stared at the man-creature and he stared back at them. “Creature” because he was clearly not entirely human, “man,” because the part of him that was looked like a boy in his mid-twenties. “Awkward…” because the thing was clearly trying to decide if they were a threat. Them, a twenty-two year old girl and her two young children. She took a long look over him, cataloguing his injuries, noting that he wasn’t Masking the things that marked him as inhuman – or perhaps no longer had the energy to?
His doglike ears canted in her direction, and she dropped her own Mask, letting him see the flower-like patterns that swirled across her skin, and the blue “petals” of her ears. “We just want to pass,” she told him carefully.
He stepped out of the way awkwardly. “I won’t stop you.” From the way he was swaying, he couldn’t if he wanted to.
Nila sighed, and set her pack down. “Swear you mean me and mine no harm.”
The man-creature stared at her. This clearly wasn’t what he’d intended, and she could tell he was looking for the trap. With some people, it would be a bear trap, quick to snap shut. Nila’s ways were – if not gentler, at least a little bit slower. This would bite him – not that he’d notice, at least.
He seemed to be reading her body language . She, for her part, was too worn for dissimilitude. What he saw – a tired girl, concerned about her children and worried about the potential threat in the road – was all her.
He nodded, reluctantly but, she thought, seeming no other choice. “I swear that I will do no harm to you or to your children,” he gestured at Allan and Susan, who were being very good and very quiet.
It was more than she’d asked for. Nila nodded brusquely. “Shirt off. Sit down.”
“Take your shirt off,” Allan helped. “And sit down. Mom’s in business mode.”
Nila smiled appreciatively at her son, as the stranger sat down uncertainly, trying to pull off his shirt while watching her the whole time. “I notice you didn’t promise.”
“I’m a young mother with two small children. What can I do?” she asked innocently.
He coughed. “You’re an Ellehemaei. They’re baby Ellehemaei. And I’m out of power.”
“Well, then, you’d better just relax and trust me, oughtn’t you?” She smiled sweetly at him. “Allan, here, take your sister. Watch protocol.”
“Check.” Her son sat down with his back to a tree, watching the road in both directions, cuddling his baby sister.
“That’s my boy.” With a proud smile, Nila sank into lotus and began chanting a healing over the man.
After his first startled gasp, she looked up at him, smirking. “Name?”
Despite the good faith shown in the initial healing, he hesitated now.
She tch’d impatiently at him, and touched the part of him he was still Masking – the injuries he’d hidden under a glamour, to look less wounded, or to protect her children’s theoretical tender sensibilities. “I either need to see this, or to have your Name, to do this properly.”
Still, he hesitated. “Promise you won’t laugh?”
“What are you, seven?” The setting sun and her own impatience made her short. “I will not laugh at your Name. I can’t Work a healing while laughing.”
“You don’t want to promise anything at all, do you?” he grumbled.
“Nope,” she agreed.
The man sighed, those dog-like ears going flat. “I’m Tros, Named Ganymede.”
“Thank you, Tros.” There wasn’t time to giggle. She dove back into her Working, pulling out only when she was certain he wouldn’t fall over in the next day. “You were pretty badly damaged.”
“Nedetakaei and returned gods. It was a nasty fight.”
“It must have been. But you walked away from it.” She left the question unspoken.
“They didn’t. But there were four of them, and six of us, and as far as I know, now there’s just me.”
“Aah.” She studied him for a moment. “I’m sorry for your loss.” They’d all lost someone.
“Everyone loses people in battle.” His ears canted unhappily; she took the cue and dropped it.
“I’ve healed you well enough to get away from here. I’ll heal you fully – for a price.”
He watched her uncertainly, as he tested out her repair job. “What’s your price?”
“Swear to help me watch and protect my kids and my own back for the next-” she did quick logistics in her head – “twelve days, and I will heal you and help feed you for that long.”
“Seven days,” he bargained.
“Ten,” she countered. “Starting at sunrise.”
“You have a deal.”
He nodded slowly, not entirely willingly. “If you promise to heal me completely, and to keep me healed and help feed me for the next ten days, beginning now but counting from sunrise tomorrow, I will watch your back and help you protect you and your children.”
She smiled crookedly at him. “I knew you were one of the good guys. I promise to heal you as completely as my ability allows, and to keep you healed and fed for the next ten days, beginning now but counting from sunrise tomorrow.”
The air settled around them with a pop.
Tros nodded, a little uncertainly, his ears twitching at the feel of the oath. “The sun’s going down,” he pointed out. “Do you have shelter for the night?”
“Girl scout, always prepared. Is there a good spot around here?”
“Just off the road, there’s a decent overhang out of sight.” He pointed. “Be a bit hard for the kids to get down it, but I can carry your son if you carry your daughter.”
Allan bristled. “I can manage a hill!”
“Calm down, little man,” Nila murmured. “Let the man help.” Her son subsided unwillingly, and Nila turned back to their new companion. “All right, show us.”
He was still limping, she noted; how bad was the rest of the damage? Not for the first time, she wished for more strength in the diagnostic Words. But he picked up Allan with no apparent strain, and gestured down the steep cliff.
“All right, kid, just hold on tight, kay?”
“I know how to do this,” Allan complained.
“Your kids do basic training on the weekend?” Tros was studying Nila with amusement as he started descending.
“Watch your footing,” she muttered.
They made it to the bottom in silence, Tros still watching Nila uncertainly. “You seem like you planned for this.”
She shrugged, and pulled out the pop-out tent from her backpack.
“That’s… a little small.”
“Well, it packs better that way.” She muttered a complex working around the miniature tent, and it expanded into a shelter suitable to fit the four of them, albeit tightly.
“You… really are prepared.” He looked at his feet, abashed. “I was lucky to get out with a weapon and the clothes on my back.”
She patted said back, shooing him into the tent. “It’s all right,” she assured him. “I’m prepared enough for all of us.”
Next: A New Flower
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