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Ivara stepped gently, as if she were dancing. Each step raised a puff of ash, intensifying the smell of things burnt. But that smell didn't cover the stench of the half-burnt and rotting bodies which lingered even after the dead had been carried into the hills to their final bowers. She was wearing her mottled blue work clothes, from one of Laisesu's early experiments in making a blue dye that was both bright and colorfast. Although the experiment had been a failure in the dyer's eyes because the blues came out dull and uneven, the color reminded her of the dead woman.
The younger domestics had already gone through the camp, pulling out what they could quickly extricate from the wreckage of the burnt and toppled houses; even half-burnt blankets and clothes were gathered, so someone could make patchworks of them to keep people warm through the winter. Ivara had gone to the stream where they were washing all of the scavenged garments and bits of cloth, taking a rough inventory.
It wasn't enough.
After offering words of encouragement and praise, she'd ridden an older, steady snowy to the village, to see for herself if people were digging in all the likely places where fallen timbers or good luck might have spared something useful. Logically, she knew everyone was being thorough. Everyone knew how important the salvage efforts were. But emotionally--she couldn't just guide and encourage any more. She had to try.
Here and there, people were digging out areas where someone thought some stored food or other supplies might have survived the fire. She stepped down into the first house; the concrete stairs were still whole, if scorched. But the timbers of the roof were mostly gone, and the ones that remained had fallen into the house pit. Where the timbers had burnt to ash, it was easy to walk, but nothing was left. Bunks, pillows, blankets, all gone. She dragged her foot through the ash, feeling something hard.
She bent and lifted out a set of stone carving tools, now lacking their wood and leather handles and grips. Carefully, she searched the ash to get the whole set, carefully wrapping them in a fragment of burnt hide that had been set on the blanket laid to one side of the house.
"Find something, Grandma?"
Ivara realized that the taller of the filthy young men painstakingly clearing charred timbers to the far side of the building was her eldest daughter's youngest son, Varanoth.
"Just some carving tools. What about you?"
"We think there's still some dishes or pots next to the fireplace." The other voice allowed her to identify Varanoth's companion as Keliselm.
"Good work." She turned to move on.
"We're afraid that these timbers will collapse on them if we move the ones on top."
She turned and peered at the setup--there were charred timbers over a hollow, held at an angle by the weight of a substantial pile of wood on the other end. "What do you want to do about it?"
"I think we can lift the timbers up, and then somebody smaller could reach in and grab stu--whatever's there."
She took the timbers in her own hands and tried to lift them, turning her hands from dusty to black. She wanted to be sure they were solid enough to not just fall apart on top of her before risking her neck under them. They seemed solid, so she nodded. "If you boys get tired, warn me!"
She picked up one of the saddlebags and waited.
They lifted, and Varanoth shifted his body to set his back to the stone of the fireplace. "Go!"
There wasn't much room between the two young men, but Ivara had a dancer's slim build. She twisted between them, reaching for the pale shapes of pottery in the dark hollow under the timbers. There was a stack of plates and a scatter of cups and even some precious metal pots and spoons. She scooped the smaller and more fragile things as quickly as she could into the bag, tossing the pots out into the ash.
"Out!" It was more a grunt than a word, and she hadn't gotten everything, but Ivara slid back out, dragging the bag behind her. Sighing, Keliselm and Varanoth set the heavy wood back down.
She unpacked the bag, setting the dishes out to be more carefully packed. Seeing the pattern of flowers glazed into the dishes, she realized she was in the healer's house. She tried to remember where the dishes were stored. "Boys, if I'm not mistaken, the chest with the healing herbs is under that pile of wood you've started moving."
Keliselm brightened. "That would cheer Aunt Kalitelm's day!"
Ivara nodded. "It might save some lives, if the herbs are still usable. Once you start moving the wood, this area will be exposed to the weather. Make sure you get the chest out by nightfall or cover the area--many of the herbs are damaged by water." Lenaroth had told her that it would start raining in the next couple of days, and his predictions were usually accurate. If it blew in a little faster--well, best to be careful.
They nodded soberly, then lifted the timbers again for Ivara to duck in and grab more dishes, and a sack of dried beans that was still intact, though the felt bag was crisp and fragile under her hands. They repeated the process two more times before Ivara declared the sheltered area empty, and they thanked her prettily for her assistance before returning to work.
She climbed back out of the ruins of the healer's house, some broken plates and the pieces of Kalitelm's favorite bowl in her hands. Her outfit was streaked with grime and charcoal. The destruction dragged at her spirits, making her feet heavy. Even the hope of recovering at least some of Kalitelm's store of medicinal herbs didn't cheer her.
Reluctantly, she took the broken pottery toward one of the trash heaps that had been set up nearby around the village. Just beyond it were some large drifts of ash. Ivara frowned--there had never been buildings there. "What...?" Silently, she laughed at herself. There was no one nearby to hear her, much less answer.
Carefully, she moved forward, keeping the larger pieces of bowl and plate in hand in case she had to dig through something harder than drifts of ashes.
As she drew nearer, the shapes started to resolve. At first, she thought the half-dozen mounds looked like dancing drums, but Itadesh had never had so many. Then she remembered one of the reasons she'd never wanted to visit the village in the summer--Laisesu's inevitably stinky dye-vats.
Involuntarily she took a step back, then resolutely she stepped forward again. Some or all of whatever might be in those vats might have survived, and no matter how ugly the colors had turned, with the heat and contamination from the fire, to say nothing of having sat in the remains of the dye bath for a couple of weeks, wool yarn, cloth, or fresh-cured hides meant they could make garments to save fingers, toes, ears, and noses from being lost to frostbite.
She walked up to the first vat. Either the fire had struck when the lid was off, or it had burnt the lid to ash. She scraped at the side of the vat, and found it was badly burnt, the timbers less than half their original depth. Gingerly, she brushed ash and debris off the top. Inside were skeins of wool, and as far as she could tell through the ashes, they looked whole, and still damp. They would need rinsing, of course. She pulled a few of the top skeins out, setting them aside, and reaching for one that hadn't been covered in soot, and lifted it up to the light -- was any of it burnt? Her breath caught--the yarn was the deep blue of the sky overhead at midsummer, such an incredible, unlikely beauty in this devastated place that Ivara started to cry.
Eagerly, she ran to the next two vats, reaching through the ashes to pull out skeins the colors of thunderclouds and spring mornings. The next was a blue-purple so deep it was almost black. Then one with green tones, almost enough to call it teal instead of blue. And finally, a large tub filled with yarn the color of blueberries.
There was so much, Ivara would have to bring back two snowies to carry it all to the stream and two age-sets of youngsters to wash it all. Her heart ached, knowing that Laisesu would never see the colors she'd achieved. But still, she couldn't stop smiling. The dyer would be remembered, now, not only for saving her people from the cold of midwinter, but even more for the beauty she brought to them even in the midst of this devastation.
Clutching bright blue skeins of yarn to her chest, she headed back to camp, to bring people with clean hands and capacious bags back to harvest Laisesu's blues.