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|Aftermath of Ashes
|Creators: Ellen Million (Writer)|
|Kativa and Tolnam take the news of Itadesh back to the other villagers.|
|Posted: 10/22/10 Updated: 10/25/10 [No comments yet]
~ 2170 words.|
Tolnam regretted their decision to scout around before camping for the night and then returning to intercept the column of villagers who came behind them with the bad news of the demise of Itadesh. He wasn't going to admit that regret to Kativa, though; she was already pathetically subdued and Tolnam wasn't ready to add to that. There was just enough time left in the day to make it to the site of the village and return to the ridge of the valley to make camp above the ruin that was left of it, so they didn't dawdle.
A closer view did nothing to dispel the horror of the moment, and neither of them had any inclination to linger.
They wandered the ashes of the village numbly, and when Kativa found Tolnam's hand, he grabbed her back, clinging as desperately as she was. They didn't pick anything up, though they found several blackened items: metal tools, cracked ceramic pots, half-melted beads scattered across the indentation in the earth that had been a house. One of the houses was gone entirely, another was a log-jam of collapsed, blackened timbers. A charred body was curled up beneath those timbers - Tolnam tried not to wonder who it was, and whether they'd been crushed or burned to death, or to speculate about the owner of the beads. He nudged a stick with his foot, only to realize it was a human arm, the rest of the body gone, perhaps scattered by a scavenger bird.
They had answered the most pressing question - it didn't appear that anyone had survived - and made a hasty retreat back through the eerie burnt-out forest to the edge of the valley.
The transition back to untouched forest was uncanny - one moment they were crunching through an open field with occasional standing black tree trunks, scarves over their faces to keep from breathing the ash that the snowy hooves stirred up, the next, they were in familiar forest. The trees closed behind them, and there were even birds singing - a cheerful, brilliant sound that didn't at all match the destruction they'd just walked through.
The sun continued to shine over the south mountains, cheerful in a way that choked Tolnam.
They found a good place to camp at the base of the valley wall, and went through the habits and motions of setting up, speaking as little as possible. It was strange to hear so little out of Kativa, and after their camp was settled, he settled next to her by the little fire they built and put an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him with a sigh.
"What are we going to do?" she asked in a very small, un-Kativa-like voice.
"We'll manage," Tolnam said with bravado that he didn't feel.
A slight sob shook Kativa's shoulders. "Don't cry," Tolnam begged her. He'd never been able to face down her tears, and had always been grateful she wasn't a tearful ninny. "We'll be fine," he insisted, brushing loose locks of hair back from her face. "It's alright..."
As she turned to look at him, gray eyes big in her pale face, the enormity of their situation seemed to crash down on him. He was suddenly aware of her warmth beside him, and the smell of her - damp snowy and pinesap in a combination that was somehow very alive. Without stopping to think about it, he kissed her, and she kissed him back desperately. There was only a moment of doubt as he reached into a pocket for a bead, and then there was only need and desire and primal reminder of life.
It was hard to think about the ashes of Itadesh that they left behind. The burned village had no place in the day that Kativa woke to, and as they rode back to greet the column of homeless villagers, she could not help but play with the new bead at the center of her necklace and smile foolishly.
The smile faded when they spotted the train of Itadesh villagers, across a small valley in the hills in the late afternoon. She paused, and let Tolnam catch up beside her. "How do we tell them?" she asked.
Tolnam squinted at them, rather than looking back at her, and Kativa caught a lopsided smile trying to bloom again as she looked at the familiar shape of his handsome profile. She schooled her features and took her hand off her necklace.
"We just... do," he said, grimly. "There isn't anything else to be done." He seemed more subdued than Kativa felt, and justly so. She squashed another inappropriate smile.
They were spotted early, and could see several snowies jostling forward in the line to come meet them as they descended into the valley; it wasn't usual that advance scouts would double back.
As they approached, the riders coming to meet them gave arm signals, asking if there was danger. There were no signals that Kativa knew to explain what had happened - she could only signal that there was no danger, and chafe at the knowledge that the signal was sadly lacking in depth.
"What is it, then?" Lenaroth was the first to reach them, Kether and Anler close behind.
Kativa couldn't quite bring herself to look fully at Kether, and she wasn't sure if it was the news she was bringing that made her feel so filled with guilt and confusion, or if it was the bead on her necklace that she quickly made herself stop playing with again. "Itadesh burned," she said flatly to Lenaroth, not sure how such news should be given. "There's nothing left of it."
Lenaroth went white behind his summer tan, and the anxious look he'd greeted them with turned to shock and dismay. Anler swore, and Kether was only quiet. Tetefii and Dlameda caught up with them then, calling an inappropriately cheerful greeting. Dlameda's snowy shouldered to the front. "Something wrong?" he asked.
Unexpectedly, tears sprang to Kativa's eyes as she realized that the villagers that had summered over in Itadesh could not be helped by the healer now.
"It's gone," Tolnam croaked, from beside her. "Nothing but ashes and scorched timbers."
Tetefii put a hand to her mouth, and Dlameda's swearing made Anler's sound tame.
More villagers caught up with the tangled group, and Kativa despaired to think of how many times they were going to have to explain. Lenaroth saved her that, at least, and put a hand up in a gesture of convening. "We'll stop here," he said. They were in an open space, if not thoroughly suited for a camp, it would do in a pinch. There were murmurs and calls of confusion - it wasn't where they usually had their last camp before going home, and it was clear even before the news had filtered back along the travelers that something was very wrong with this homecoming.
They pitched tents by rote as the bare bones of the news spread much like the fire itself had consumed Itadesh, and hobbled the snowies to graze. The mood was subdued, shocked and despairing. Over and over, Kativa was asked about missing people and what she'd seen. "There was nothing left," she could only say. "Not one building was spared." She wished that Tolnam was with her, to help her answer the questions that couldn't be answered, but he'd disappeared into the swirl of villagers shortly after dismounting. She found that she was fingering her bead again.
"What about Jrilii?" a young man she didn't know asked her again. "She might not have come back from the mountains yet."
"I don't know," she told him helplessly. "I just... don't know. I don't know how anyone could tell!"
Stonefoot snorted at her as she took off his saddle and groomed him, and the young man scowled and left her alone.
When Fala, as tail guard to the group, caught up with the unexpected stop, the ranger grilled her with questions about the burn patterns and how much had grown back, until Kativa snapped, "Wait and see for yourself! I don't know!"
Fala frowned at her, and Kativa felt ashamed, and was glad when Fala left her in peace to groom Stonefoot and the other snowies as the late autumn twilight finally descended.
"Are you alright?" Kether asked. He didn't ask about what she'd seen, or pester her for details about the burned-out village. Kativa was glad the light was faded, to hide her blush as she realized she was playing with her necklace again.
If she could confess to anyone how inappropriately happy she felt, it was Kether. "I'm alright," she said warmly. "I really am. I mean, it's..." she smiled at him brightly, beaming all of her muffled joy. "I'm out of words!" she laughed. "The timing is so awful and so completely like me."
Kether smiled back at her, but it was a forced smile.
"Have you talked to Tolnam?" she asked him shyly. The three of them had been inseparable as age-mates, and that friendship had lasted well into adulthood. "I haven't seen him since we got back. I wonder if he's got a tent set up for us." It had stopped raining, but still threatened from a low gray sky.
Kether's smile faded to nothing. "Aniya is wearing his bead this month, too," he said reluctantly.
Kativa blinked at him without understanding for a moment, and then felt remarkably as she had when they had first seen the ruins of Itadesh. Her world stood still for several heartbeats, then came crashing down around her as she digested what Kether was telling her. "He's... with her tonight?"
Kether's awkward silence was answer enough.
"Well," Kativa said too quickly. "Of course I shouldn't have expected differently." She had, though, and let her mouth babble on without her. "It was just a thing, of course, just a moment of shock. I should have known that it wasn't anything else. We were just glad to be alive, you know? Nothing else, I'm sure. Don't worry, I'm not going to turn all heartbroken, I know better."
Kether knew her too well to believe her lies, and wordlessly opened his arms to her. She cried on him messily, a confused jumble of emotion and despair, and he patted her hair and let her sob herself out.
Kether hated confrontation. He avoided it whenever possible, and remained silent with indecision more times than he liked to admit.
It was very reluctantly that he caught Tolnam, washing his face in a stream by the camp the following morning.
"You shouldn't have done that," he said gruffly.
Tolnam looked around in surprise, and wiped his face off with his sleeve. "You mean Kativa," he guessed.
Kether grunted an affirmative.
"It was just a night," Tolnam said dismissively. "And we're not children to think that a bead means true love forever."
"She didn't know that," Kether pushed. "And you know that she's had a torch for you for years now."
"I thought she was past that," Tolnam said with a shrug. "Are you sure that you aren't just jealous because you want to give her your own bead?" he teased.
Kether balled fists at his side and ground his teeth, wanting to shake Tolnam for not taking his error seriously.
"Kether, come help an old woman freshen her face." Tiny Marda had come up on them quietly, and stood, leaning on her gnarled cane, by the stream. Her joints made it hard for her to kneel.
"I'll speak with you later," Kether growled at Tolnam, before turning respectfully to help Marda. The other young man scowled back, and left.
"It's my fault," the old woman said, as Kether dampened a rag for her in the cool water and wrung it out.
"Tolnam and Kativa," Marda said with a sigh as she wiped her face. "She'd grown up so much this summer, I thought it would be good for her to clear the air with him, and leave her childhood crush behind. I was the one to suggest that they be the forward scouts."
Kether took the rag back and rinsed it again. "You couldn't have known what they would find."
"I couldn't have known that Tolnam would let his pants make his decisions for him instead of his head, you mean?" Marda was all vinegar, for all of her age and infirmity. "That, I should have known."
Kether snorted, wringing the rag with more vigor than was strictly required. "Kativa isn't the tiniest bit over him," he said, though he didn't mean to.
"You aren't the tiniest bit over her, either."
Kether could not deny it, and didn't try.
Marda patted his arm, reassuringly. "Don't worry, Kether. These things will work out. Everything will work out."
Kether thought about burned Itadesh, and the hard winter ahead, and Kativa's heartbroken sobs. He couldn't bring himself to believe Marda, any more than he'd believed Kativa when she claimed it hadn't meant anything.