Rudy spent most of the next day studying the strangers' horses. He was a solitary man, and avoided people. But he knew his horses. These thin necked, long backed critters . . . they had excellent shoulders, good legs, if perhaps a bit heavily boned. Their heads ranged from long and elegant to long and ordinary, their ears were a bit long . . . A single one of them he wouldn't have particularly noticed. But nine of them? Eleven, really. The two hitched to the wagon were a bit heavier, but still had a lot of the same qualities. Eleven of them. All the same breed, all something he'd never heard of. Their manes were all cut short and upstanding.
Damn he knew he'd seen horses like that before, but where? Maybe he'd only seen pictures. The saddles were different, the harness like nothing he'd ever heard of. Damned inefficient, if you asked him, which no one did.
Adrasos accepted the Father's invitation to travel with him. The opportunity to practice this language, “English" he called it, was useful. The opportunity to find out all about the society was invaluable.
"And the lingering poisons, we're still having horrible birth defects. Most of the children die. Our medicine just isn't what it used to be. What about the Old Country? Do they have a cure? Cures?" Not unusual for a woman to have three living children – but the wide spread of ages, Adrasos to Adelphie to Peep, probably indicated as many children buried. Father Odeil didn’t ask, the answers were usually too painful.
"For some things. Poison . . . I don't know. I am not an expert, or even a dilatant, to be honest." He nodded at the guards. "I am competent to deal with wounds."
Father Odeil sighed. "We all have to deal with wounds. The demons attack us regularly, and no matter how many we kill, there are always more to replace them."
Adrasos bit his lip. He didn't want to appear too ignorant, raise suspicions. He had no idea how they would classify people from another layer of reality. No doubt when the demons attacked, he would be enlightened.
They cast out the ones who change even a little, and hide magical abilities. We will have to hide what we are, and live apart from most of them. At least Yainni and I.
Well. I survived the Grand Overlap. I merged with everything from desert wolves to horses and dust devils. I became a natural shape shifter, learned a few things about magic that even the instructors didn’t know. I can survive this as well. We just need to be discreet.
"We will have to sell things, or work, or hunt or otherwise make money before we can claim land and pay those taxes."
Of course there are taxes in Hel. How not?
Peep came out and rode behind him, and shyly learned a few words of English.
The road arced around the foothills, first running northwest, and then northeast.
Father Odeil stopped at three small clusters of farms to give open air sermons. Adrasos talked with the famers, and managed to trade for two large wooden barrels. He was much happier with them strapped to the sides of the wagon, and full of water. Rudy had gone ahead, but Adrasos kept their party with Father Odeil and worked at getting everyone a smattering of English. They crossed the Bear River where it broadened as it left the hills behind. Then they turned more northwest and reached Red Bluffs farms six days after they had passed through the Gates of Hel.
Cinnamon hid her hair under a scarf, only a bit of ordinary brown hanging out in a corkscrew curl, for show. Her family helped hide her disgrace, the streaked hair of a woman who had merged with many other people. Or creatures. It wasn’t so bad, now. At first she hadn’t looked quite right, and the pale hair had been curly and rather reminiscent of a sheep’s wool. Her mother had cut it ruthlessly, even shaving small patches. Judicious braiding and coiling and bows had covered the damage, and by the second year the wooly hair had darkened and straightened. Not all the way, but enough that it almost blended. Almost. Jerry . . . Her father and Jerry’s had signed the papers for their engagement years before. Now Jerry wanted nothing to do with her, and with Father dead, there was no one to enforce the contract.
“Not that I want him, either,” she muttered.
Her uncle and his family had come, three years ago, now, to help Mother run the farm, and it wasn’t in Uncle Laru’s interest to have a local boy marry his niece and kick him out of his comfortable roost.
Lately he’d been acting like the farm was his, not mother’s.
Cinnamon kicked a dirt clod, then bent to grub up another weed. For all the snow in the mountains, down here they'd only had a few frosts. The garden was still producing, and the weeds were doing even better.
Cinnamon finished the row and tossed the weeds over the fence for the cows. Three left. Uncle Laru had sold a cow, without so much as a mention, so they hadn’t planned ahead and kept a heifer to replace her. Next year they’d have one less calf to sell or butcher, and be that much closer to losing the farm for taxes. Land already under the plow, with proven fertility, was valuable. Her grandfather had broken the ground here, and her father had helped, had planted the little orchard. Diverted the creek. Built the house. Mother’s brother had been only an occasional visitor, until Dad died. Now with his own father dead, and his older brother inheriting their parent’s farm fifteen miles northwest, he and his wife and three children seemed to have moved in permanently.
She heard the dogs barking and looked out toward the road. Father Odeil was unmistakable, on his fat gelding, but who were the other people following him into sight? They stopped at the camping spot, a wagon towing a big brown cow, and a ridiculous carriage, that looked like it should be carrying Ladies and Gentlemen around a city, not bumping over dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere. Five other men on horseback. She shivered. There’s not enough of them to be bandits! Stop being silly.
But she watched for a bit longer, until she saw women being helped down from the carriage, and horses being unharnessed. Why would they raid us? With eleven horses and a cow, they are richer than we are. The Father’s young initiates, and his grizzled servant were setting up camp communally with the newcomers. Obviously they knew them well enough to trust them. Cinnamon rubbed her hands together to get off the worst of the dirt, and walked out to greet the Priest.
He'd collected an instant crowd, and raised his voice a bit so they could all hear.
“They’re an odd group.” Father Odeil was saying. “The youngest fellow is in charge. His grandfather is, umm, quite old, his stepfather unreliable. The big fellow is simple, and the other three were hired guards before they got into trouble and fled west. Adrasos’s Mother, his two half-sisters, a maid, a cook and three women married to the guards make up the rest of the party. They speak Greek; only Adrasos has any English. They look pure, but I suppose we’ll see in a few days if we need to send them away.”
Cinnamon shivered. I’d never be accepted in a town. The neighbors only put up with me because they knew me before. She snuck a peek over to where Jerry Baker was ignoring her. And the Prestons were pointedly not looking at her. Her Uncle looked satisfied. When Mother dies, he’ll try to run me off and claim ownership, inherit from mother.
“We’ll be gone tomorrow, and be well away before the Full Moon. Now, why don’t I set up for a sermon under the trees here? The weather’s been lovely so far this fall, I almost hate to go indoors.”
It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a holy day, Father Odeil only got by three or four times a years. They quickly fetched benches and the little table that they always used for an altar. Cinnamon took down a braid of garlic and some of the remaining apples, arranged them in one of the clay bowls mother brought and they walked back out. The men had gotten their heads together, and Jerry trotted down to the road with an invitation to join them for the service and potluck dinner after.
All the people watched the newcomers. They listened, obviously baffled, except for the man with black hair who listened attentively. They were odd looking people, well, different, but all in the same direction. Long straight noses that started practically at their foreheads, like pictures of old statues she’d seen. It was most obvious in the black haired man, but even the little girl was like that. They contributed very little to the basket, when it passed, but brought plenty to the dinner, after. The girl ran off with the other girls, all of them chattering away, in their own languages.
Cinnamon smiled at the women and pointed at herself. “Cinnamon.”
The youngest woman, she looked to be close to her age, perhaps eighteen, smiled in return. “Alelphie.” She pointed as the woman who was probably her mother. “Adrasteia.” Hecuba and Despoina were the two middle-aged women, Memu, Lausian and Epeti were the last three women.
Gennadios was the husband of the mother, a very handsome man. The way he looked her over flustered her, and she retreated to let the other women continue the introductions.
The black haired man was talking to her uncle. “Tell me of hunting, a few deer I have seen.”
Uncle scrunched up his face. “You’re taking a chance, eating deer. No telling how much radiation they’ve picked up, grazing any old where. Now, rabbits, you’ve got to figure they haven’t travelled very far. So around a farm like this, it’s not a problem. Out there, between towns and farms, who knows?”
The man, Father Odeil had called him Ad-something, nodded and looked thoughtful. Or perhaps he just hadn’t understood. Cinnamon slipped back into her room and pulled out her box of books. Precious things, rarely made any more. She found the chemistry book and walked out, and looked for the man.