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Oromaal wanted something.
Reqem didn't know what Oromaal wanted. Oromaal was dead, so Reqem didn't know how to question her. He knew she was gone, but still Reqem could feel her patiently waiting at his elbow.
It would be something to do with the Itadesh people, he could guess that much; Reqem hadn't bothered with the hugs and welcomes. His people knew him by now, neither friend or enemy expected a gentle word from him, but no one worked harder; finding spare corners and building beds into them, skinning and tanning yiirk skins and making children's winter gloves from them. Cutting a leather gather tent into boots so that Itadesh hunters could join the hunting parties. Anywhere a job needed doing, Reqem was doing it or organising it. He worked every day, long past the point where his creaking hips and knees pained him. Even in the evenings, as he sat by the fire, talking with the other elders, and giving advice to people who questioned him, there were knitting needles in his hands and he relentlessly knitted plain blanket squares as he talked.
Reqem was doing everything he could to help, everything he could think of, everything he knew how. It wasn't enough for Oromaal. He could feel her calm silence beside him, the silence and quiet gaze she had always used to nag him with. He remembered so vividly how she would just stand quietly and wait, until he agreed to mend some careless brat's broken toy. "You can mend it," she would say, and then wait until he did. Reqem worked himself to exhaustion, and nothing was enough, he still didn't know what Oromaal wanted from him.
By day, every breeze whispered "mend it, mend it", by night, the stars gleamed like the baby teeth on a raiser's gather dress, and the light of The Present moon gazed calmly down.
Reqem limped into the house of the council; frustrated by his own weakness. At sixty-two, he was still stronger and defter at some tasks than many men in their twenties, but as a man who had always been arrogantly proud of his own strength, he was vividly aware of how much weaker he was now than in his own youth. He had been working today since before light, building cradles, making yiirk traps, digging up vegetable roots, haunted by the driving fear that none of it would be enough. Reqem sagged into his place by the council fire and got out his knitting; there was too much to do and not a minute could be idle. He bit his lip against the pains in his hips and knees and started the next row.
After knitting a few rows Reqem glanced up to find Kalitelm standing by him. She was looking at him with the straight calm gaze that she had learned from Oromaal, who had raised her. She was holding a medicine glass, Reqem could smell the bitter herbs.
"You want me to drink that," he said flatly.
"You are in pain." Kalitelm agreed, "you are pushing yourself too hard." She stood calmly and waited.
"Never any sense in arguing with either of you, you're as stubborn as each other," Reqem said. He took the cup and swallowed back the contents.
Kalitelm would have advised him to sip the drink a little at a time, but she settled for being glad he had agreed to take it, and it would do him no harm, if he fell asleep now instead of just relaxing a little.
Reqem's head swam from the effect of the narcotic herbs, he leaned back against a ceiling post, and there were two dropped stitches in the row of knitting he was working on. Carefully he unpicked the row and put the knitting in its bag. The pain in his hip was easing. Reqem gazed around the room, usually full of busy chatter. People were sitting in silence, heads drooping, some clinging to each other, some hunched alone in corners. Like any Northerner, Reqem knew how the darkness of the long winters broke some people beyond bearing, so they drank until they poisoned themselves, or walked one way into a blizzard or just turned a face to the wall and gave up. For the first time he truly understood how losing Itadesh had knocked the backbone out of the people whose home it was. He understood that they could lose many more people than usual, even if none starved or died of winter fevers.
Now Reqem could see what was broken. It was the courage of the people.
Blurrily he could see Oromaal nodding at him. "You know I'm no good with people, woman. Why don't you pick on one of the furshirts?" He growled, but it was never any good to argue with Oromaal.
He was angry with Oromaal for nagging him, he was angry with his people for giving up, and that painkilling drink Kalitelm had given him was too strong. He was too woozy, too relaxed to hold back the anger that came spilling out.
Reqem lurched to his feet and, ignoring Kalitelm's outraged squeal, he swept her up into his arms. The silence was suddenly sharp,and men balled their hands into fists.
"Are you paying attention?" Reqem roared. "Twenty four years ago I caught a very nasty cold, pulling this little cripple out of a spring flood. Is there anyone here who would tell me, is there anyone here who would dare to tell me, that she wasn't worth it?"
No one spoke.
"Kalitelm saves more lives in a year, than I have in a lifetime." Reqem continued, setting Kalitelm down on her feet. "So I'm telling you, the weakest sickliest brat born this winter could be someone that our people need, someone that we can't afford to lose. I don't intend to stand by and let them go just because of numbers." Reqem sneered at their blank faces. "The people of Itrelir and Itadesh are clever people, I can tell by your miserable faces that some of you have even learned to count. You've counted, grain and roots and shagback herds, and then you've counted people, and the one don't balance against the other." Reqem glared around the room.
"So instead of getting up and doing something about it you are snivelling in corners like cowards, grieving for people who haven't died yet.
"Have a little cry for the friends who did die, and you can be annoyed that you don't have your own winter bed to sleep in, but if you are wilting around being miserable because of people who might die, then you might as well kill them yourself.
"The hunters and rangers will have to travel further, ask them: Are any of you too lazy to travel out a few more days so that our people can eat?" The rangers in the room raised their heads and straightened their backs.
"The domestics will have to make more winter clothes, ask them: Would any of you mind bringing your sewing and knitting to the evening fire and working a few more hours so that our people can be warm?" Reqem tipped the knitted blanket squares out of his knitting bag.
"Everyone here can do at least one small thing to help us through this winter, you all have the power to save lives even if only by not wasting what we do have.
"We have the problem of surviving this winter, and we have a village of buildings that have been destroyed. Problems are there to be solved and broken things are there to be mended. We will survive the winter, and in the spring we will begin building.
"We are the people who survived the Upheaval! Are we going to be broken by a few burned buildings? We have not lost Itadesh, I can see my children, my grandchildren, my friends, Itadesh is here and we will keep them safe, keep them safe until Spring, and rejoice that we didn't lose them as well!"
Reqem swept out his arms in a grand gesture and staggered, the room tilted around him and he fell. He lay muttering "Keep them safe," under his breath until he slid into sleep.
Kalitelm checked him over cautiously, "He drank his painkiller too fast," she told the worried faces. "He'll be fine when he has slept it off." Gently she tucked a pillow under Reqem's head and threw a fur over him.
Slowly the buzz of conversation became louder, several people slipped away and came back with handiwork, sewing, knitting, traps to mend. A group of rangers huddled together to plan a long range hunting trip.
In Reqem's exhaustion and narcotic induced dreams, Oromaal smiled and nodded, then leaned to whisper in his ear: