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That would have to do.
We traveled north along the river.
The ruins went on much farther than I could have ever imagined. They encompa.s.sed an incredible amount of territory. I could barely believe people once filled all that s.p.a.ce. We stayed ahead of the Freaks, if there were any nearby. I watched for signs and sniffed the air, but the farther north we went, the less I saw any hint of habitation, human or otherwise.
At first, we set a good pace because we had some supplies left from the ruins. Once those ran out, the trip slowed because we had to find food, and boil water in the evenings to make sure we had some to drink the next day. Once we pa.s.sed out of the ruins, we went longer without seeing any relics of days past. We still saw no indication anyone had survived the plague, other than the underground tribes and the gangers.
We had been walking for eight days when Stalker and Tegan complained about our hours. It was the first time they’d agreed on anything, though they were careful to keep the animosity silent and simmering. Neither of them let their past color our journey outwardly.
Stalker brought it up. “We can stop traveling at night. It’s getting colder, and there’s nothing much out here to avoid.”
Apart from wild animals, I had to agree with him.
Tegan seconded. “I’d like to see the sun again.”
Fade looked thoughtful. “We’d have to lay off travel for a day. Stay awake and gather supplies so we can shift to sleeping at night.”
“It’s not like we’re going to be late.” Tegan grinned at him.
I nodded. “It’s fine.”
Everyone had to make sacrifices, so it was my turn. But part of me couldn’t help but fear what would happen. The sun was going to burn me to a cinder.
“Your skin will get used to it,” Fade said softly. “Just stay covered up as much as you can during the adjustment period.”
“Good thing it’s cold anyway.”
We’d picked up warmer clothing on the way out of the ruins, but it had been harder than I’d expected. Bugs had chewed a lot of fabric and mold and mildew had gotten a lot too. The slick fabric I wore now was the most resistant, so we’d started looking for heavier clothing made of the same stuff. Layers made sense, so we were all bundled against the bitter wind.
It was nearly dawn now, the first fingers of light tapping at the sky, and we needed to find a place to rest. Fade didn’t like going too far from the river, so I scanned in both directions. I had the best eyesight in the dark, which balanced against the fact that the light hurt my eyes even through the gla.s.ses we’d scavenged. Stalker had the best day vision, by far, so once we started walking during the day, he would lead and scout for danger. I didn’t know how I felt about that.
“I see something over there. Might be a building,” I said.
“Can you tell how far?” Tegan asked.
I could tell by her posture that she was ready to drop. Of us all, she was least suited for a long trek like this. She wasn’t strong; her life with the Wolves had prepared her to do one thing—and it wasn’t walk all day long.
I shrugged. “Fifteen minutes, maybe? Can you do it?”
Otherwise, we had the prospect of rolling up in our blankets on the cold gra.s.s again. I didn’t know about anyone else, but I could do with shelter, particularly if we had to stay awake through the day. Stalker and Fade nodded; they could do fifteen more minutes, no problem.
I set off in front because at this distance, n.o.body else could see what I saw. We’d walked half of that time before Fade said, “I see it.”
As the sky lightened, the lines of the building came clear. Built of rough, irregular stones, it was very old, maybe the oldest thing we’d come across in our trek, but it had four walls and a roof. That was good enough for me.
The door had warped away from the frame, so it stood open as if in invitation. I shivered as the wind cut through my clothing. Inside, it was a little damp, and none too clean. Relics of days past gathered dust, and cobwebs trailed in the corners. Even with the dawn coming, there was no banishing the desolation from this place.
Broken furniture lay in piles in the first room, like someone had fought—and lost—here. It wasn’t a big place, just four s.p.a.ces. I recognized the kitchen from the basin and the rickety table. The chairs’ legs had rotted away, built of lesser wood, and they lay tilted on their sides. There was an indoor waste closet and a room for sleeping, I thought, based on the lumpy pallet that had sunk into its wooden shelf.
In the waste closet, I pulled a handle down and was shocked that the stool responded with a gurgle of water. I pushed another lever, and the basin spat water at me too. I squeaked in surprise. How was that possible?
Fade came to the door with an inquiring look. “Everything all right?”
“Look at this.” I showed him what I’d found.
His expression reflected the same wonder I felt. On the far wall lay a bigger basin, one large enough to hold a person. He turned the lever there and more water spat out. It was a little brown at first, but then it ran clean, cold, but clean.
“If we boil a little water, we can add it to this and take a warm bath,” he said.
It sounded like the best thing ever, better even than the prospect of being warm and dry for the first time in days. The first part of the day, we spent cleaning, and then we dragged all the dry wood into the fire pit in the main room. With a little help from Fade’s lighter, we got a nice blaze going.
Indoors, the light didn’t bother me as much, though I still wore my gla.s.ses. The pit actually had a metal device that looked suitable for hanging pots. I was eager to test the idea that we could bathe in the waste closet, so I filled a pan with water and heated it. I used about three of those along with a judicious amount of cold from the spout. Under the basin, I discovered what appeared to be soap. It crumbled when I opened the paper, but it lathered when I stepped into the water and dunked it.
I only had a little water to stand in, but it worked, far better than the cold, quick washes we’d been doing in the river. Afterward, I washed my clothes in the water and rinsed them in more cold. I put on the one outfit I had left from the enclave and tried not to think about how I’d feel when it wore out too.
After I succeeded in getting clean, Tegan took the next turn. We were all filthy, after mucking out this place on top of all the days of hiking. But the fire felt fantastic as I settled down in front of it. I was tired and hungry still, but at least I was warm. I beat some of the dry dirt off my blanket, wrapped up in the clean side, and tried to comb some of the tangles out of my hair with my fingers.
A bit later, Stalker pushed through the front door on a cold wind. He let in both chill and brightness, an interesting contrast, I thought. In one hand, he carried a b.l.o.o.d.y something. On closer inspection I saw it was a bird. In the other, he held a furry animal.
“You may want to clean and gut those outside,” I said. “I’ll cook them if you do.”
I’d watched Copper do it a hundred times. We had a fire, how hard could it be?
He raised a brow. “You’re welcome.”
But he was already going back out. He pulled the door as far closed as he could, but it didn’t shut all the way, even when you applied force. Stalker was quick with a knife, I’d give him that. Before too much longer, he came back in with the flesh skinned from the bone and pierced on sticks. That looked like a good idea.
He sat down beside me and kept one of them. We roasted the meat companionably. Watching him, I turned mine often to prevent it from burning. Pretty soon, the room smelled so good my mouth watered.
Fade came in shortly with more meat, animals I’d never seen before. They had funny back legs and long ears. I pointed at the door.
“No blood and guts in the house.” It was an absolute rule.
He stood in the doorway, watching us for a moment while the wind swept through in a low moan. I couldn’t read his expression. Then he went back outside.
By the time Tegan finished in the waste closet, we had more hot water for the next person. She took Stalker’s place holding our food while he went to clean up. Once everyone had bathed, the meat was done; cutting it into smaller chunks helped with the speed of the cooking. Burning my fingers, I s.n.a.t.c.hed a piece and blew on it until I thought it was safe to eat. It still stung my tongue a little, strong and gamy, but also juicy and delicious. We hadn’t eaten well while we traveled, mostly fish we snagged out of the river.
Everything the guys had brought in, we ate. Maybe we should’ve saved some for later, but I think we were all too hungry to be cautious. Afterward, Tegan went into the kitchen to prowl around. I followed her, curious.
“There’s more food in here!”
I peered over her shoulder and spotted tins like those we’d found in the ruins. She pulled them out while I examined the tins: mixed vegetables, tuna, something called “Spam,” peas, and more creamed corn. All of it was sized to carry too, unlike what we’d found at the school. Divided up, this stuff wouldn’t add significantly to our weight.
It was late afternoon by this time; I could tell by the angle of the light slanting through the dirty windows. My head ached with weariness, but we had to stay awake until dark. Then in the morning, I’d face my enemy the sun.
To occupy our time, Fade read to us from The Day Boy and the Night Girl. We were nearly to the end of the story, and I wanted to know how it ended, if they escaped from the witch, or whether she caught and killed them. Though I would never admit it, I felt their story had some connection to mine. Like Nycteris, I had grown in darkness and feared the light. In my heart I felt if she came to a good end, then I might also.
When dark finally fell, I felt weary enough to sleep without worrying about the future. But when we woke, the world had changed.
A white blanket lay across everything; it had appeared during the night and only the tiny paw prints dotting the surface gave me any a.s.surance we weren’t completely alone in the world. The sky hung heavy gray, and even the sun seemed dimmed, though it reflected brighter off the ground than it did up above. I pulled the door open, picked up a handful of the stuff, and then dropped it in amazement, rubbing my fingers against the cold. The others looked at me strangely, and I realized I was the only one who had never seen this before.
“What is it?” I asked with some resignation. There was no hiding my ignorance this time. They should be used to it by now.
“Snow,” Tegan answered. “It’s what happens when the rain freezes.”
“It would be death to keep going north in this,” Stalker said. “We’re lucky we found shelter. We have water and food and the prospect of hunting more. This is a good place to wait out the storm.”
“We should have a bit longer until true winter falls,” Fade added.
“Winter.” That was a new word. It sounded cold. I glanced at Fade, whose face was closed and blank. If he wanted to keep going, I didn’t know. These days, I didn’t know much about him. He hadn’t been the same since Pearl’s death.
“The river’s close by for fish too,” I said, and then wondered if they froze to death when it got cold. Maybe there were no fish after the snow fell.