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Doc, who had been travelling in one of the wagons bearing wounded and children, climbed with some difficulty onto his horse, which was tied to and followed the wagon, and joined with Pran, who rode beside the wagon bearing his wife, Rani and Zuic, and riding together, they moved forward through the ranks to join Ralph and Malina. By this time, the banks on either side of the river were beginning to steepen and hem in both road and river. They had entered the narrow valley of the Mirrow, following the river upstream and uphill as it wound its way through the crumpled foothills of the Alandiin Mountains.



The exposed bones of the land showed several odd features here: the hills overall had a blunted, worn look, yet the travellers could see from the valley cut by the river that hard unbroken dark grey stone lay beneath; yet near the surface, and especially in those places where the road had been cut into the riverbank, the stone lay in broken layers, like brittle shards of broken crockery.



Few trees grew on the surrounding hills, save for the odd stunted pine, and a ground-clinging variety of juniper. Fireweed and other tenacious wildflowers seemed to thrive, though sparsely, in the rocky soil, however, creating an odd sort of illusion: when viewed from a distance, the landscape seemed to possess an etherial beauty; yet as one came near enough to see it closely, the illusion of beauty was gone, replaced by a few weeds growing out of bleached and dry-looking red gravel.



‘How far are we from Mirrindale?’ Ralph asked Pran.



Pran smiled tiredly in response. ‘You ask such odd questions sometimes, that I must remind myself that things must be done very differently in your world. We should arrive at the gates of Mirrindale in the morning, two days hence. The actual distance has never been reckoned, at least not to my knowledge. Were the road somewhat straighter, and the view ahead unobscured, I could make a guess as to how many leagues.’



Doc smiled at this exchange, was about to say something, when Ralph abruptly broke away and left them for a time. He returned shortly, alone. ‘I put her in the wagon with Theuli,’ he explained. ‘She goes so limp when she’s asleep that she’s difficult to keep hold of.’



He looked skyward and frowned. ‘There’s something else.’ Doc and Pran, to his right, looked at him, waiting for him to continue. He nodded skyward. The sky was black and crystal clear, and more full of stars than Ralph had ever seen.



‘Notice anything, Doc?’



Doc Wallace looked upward and frowned. ‘Beautiful night sky, if that’s what you mean. Lots of stars. There’s the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion’s Belt . . . that’s Mars over there.’ He gestured to a glowing band which stretched across the heavens. ‘You can even see the Milky Way. Why, is there something unusual about that?’



‘Yes, there is,’ Ralph replied. ‘When we came here, I thought this was another world. But if these are the same stars and planets we have at home, then this is our home.’



Ralph and Doc both turned to Pran, expecting an explanation. But he said, ‘There is no point in asking me to make explanation when I can provide you with none. I used to ponder upon such things myself, and have never yet heard any given reason that rings truly in my ears, or satisfies my mind. For this, my friends, I have no answer.’



Doc then recalled a letter he had received from a certain linguist, concerning the two tongues spoken by Malina. And he wondered to himself whether he and his friends now walked in some forgotten avenue of the past, or whether this was in truth no world at all, but rather a dream, seemingly with no waking.

***

An hour or so later, the road cut sharply left and rose steeply, then turned right and levelled off once more. The perpetual roar of the river, as it tore through its constricted throat of rock, suddenly diminished as the road left it behind. The surrounding ambience, too, had changed, as the left bank had disappeared, replaced by a flat, wide open space. It was hard to tell in the dark, but the ground seemed entirely covered by thick grass, and around the perimeter of the cleared space, the shadow of an evergreen forest blocked out the starlight along the horizon.



They made camp then, setting out their tents and building fires in well-tended fire-pits; beside each was a good supply of wood and kindling. Lamps were lighted, and the weary travellers ate a hot meal, talking quietly in subdued voices. Ralph tried to wake Malina, to get her to eat something, but she was so deep in slumber that he feared waking the others. On a sudden unbidden impulse, he looked to the other end of the wagon, to where Nevana slept; but there was nothing to be seen except a tangle of bodies laying beneath various blankets and quilts, and the quiet susurrus of somnolent breathing. He left, reluctantly, taking his bedding, found a place by the nearest fire, threw himself upon the ground, and fell asleep asking himself uncomfortable questions for which there were no satisfyingly straightforward answers.

***

He awoke to the smell of wood-smoke and cooking and the laughter of children. The fire-pits had been allowed to burn themselves out with the coming of dawn, but to one end of the field there was an enormous open grill, surrounded by benches, and covered overall by a cedar-shingled roof supported by thick wooden posts. The grill smoked little, but heat-waves could be seen just over its surface. The smell of cooking made Ralph’s mouth water.



To the left of the cooking area was a gravelled patch. The line where the gravel ended and the grass began was lined with animal shelters, watering troughs, hay, and hitching posts to which the horses were tethered. The wagons remained where they had stopped the night before, on the gravelled area near to the road.



To his surprise, and with some relief, Ralph spotted Malina with three other young women, two of whom had babies and small children. They were seated at the table furthest from the stove, and on the grass near to them the older children played and ran about. Two older women nearby Ralph recognized as Pran’s neighbours, Durus and Mari, and realized that their group had been augmented by others during the night as he slept. A hand on his arm got his attention, and turning, he suddenly found himself looking down into the expectant eyes of Nevana. At once, he felt his heart leap; instinct told him that he could simply take this girl in his arms, and she would be his!



But thoughts of Malina, like a restraining hand on his heart, held him in check.



Nevana, however, had no such reservations. She moved toward him, moved against him in such a way that it seemed he had no choice but to accept her into his embrace.



‘You saved my life,’ she murmured happily. ‘You know what that means?’



Ralph thought of a number of answers, but for some reason held his tongue.



‘It means,’ she said, when he didn’t answer, ‘that I am yours. Mother and father will be so pleased-’



‘What do you mean, “you are mine”?’ Ralph asked her.



‘Why,’ she stammered, ‘I mean that, were you to ask me to marry you, I would readily give you my consent! You have already saved my life! What greater proof could I ask of you?’



‘Nevana,’ he said slowly, trying to think of excuses, though every fibre of his being cried out for him to say “yes” to this incredibly beautiful, alluring young woman, ‘where I come from . . . that is not the sort of reason people get married.’



Undaunted, unsuspecting, all too sure of herself, she said, ‘Well, then, what? Speak plainly! You were ready to take me that day in the woods, so don’t try to tell me that you do not desire me. What more is needed?’



‘Nevana,’ he said, patiently, ‘in my world, two people are drawn together, have physical relations together, and get married, because they fall in love with one another. It is more of an equal partnership- is something wrong?’



Nevana swallowed, trying to grasp the full import of his words, as though what she had thought of as her wildest dream had just turned out to be her worst nightmare. She felt suddenly smaller; her very being seemed to have shrunk in upon itself as she stared at the Man, who in her eyes, seemed suddenly larger, stronger, frightening in an exhilarating sort of way. But there! He had said the words she least expected, had always avoided, had always believed that she could evade, by cleverness, by manipulation, by pretending.



But he would remain forever unattainable unless she could give him something in return.



Love.



The very idea made her feel sick inside. It meant that she would have to learn to share of herself, something she was entirely unequipped to do. It meant that she would have to swallow her pride, admit to this man that she knew nothing . . . nothing at all beyond the carnal instincts of animals . . . and try to learn.



‘Nevana?’



She took a good look at him. Perhaps her first real look, unobstructed by her own preconceptions or designs. Seeing his concern, she forced herself to respond, though she wanted only to return to her parents, to show them the failure they’d created, the emotionally blind and stunted young woman they’d made.



Taking a deep breath, steeling herself, afraid but heedless of the consequences, she said, trying unsuccessfully to keep her voice steady, ‘I love you, Ralph,’ she almost choked on the lie. Or was is a lie? ‘I am yours. If you refuse me, I shall kill myself.’ Was it him she wanted? Or was it instead an overpowering urge to be removed from the cheerless sphere of her parents? Why was she unable to tell the difference?



For the longest moment, Ralph found that his mind was blank; that he could only answer her with silence.



‘Say you will marry me,’ she persisted, pressing herself to him, sensing how close he was to giving in. ‘Please! At least tell that me you love me.’



She began nuzzling him, when a familiar sound came to the rescue; that of Doc clearing his throat.



‘Excuse me, young lady. I need to have a word with Ralph here. Alone.’



She drew away reluctantly, crimson, but determined.



‘I shall tell my parents-’



‘Nevana! You and I both know that would not be a good idea,’ he told her.



Almost in tears, not looking at either of them, she left, first walking, then breaking into a run as her self-mastery failed altogether.



Watching the girl go with an annoyedly knowing expression, which he knew was lost on Ralph, Doc said, ‘We’ll be moving along right after breakfast, from what I hear. You should get something to eat, and be packed and ready to go.’



‘The neighbours made it out okay, I see,’ said Ralph. ‘But who are those other people?’



‘Various assorted relatives and close acquaintances; the people living near Pran’s home who managed to escape,’ Doc replied. ‘We didn’t see them before because they were searching the Eastland Waik area for survivors, before they were ordered out of there for their own good.’



‘How’re Deborah and Theuli?’ Ralph asked. ‘I thought that was you over by the wagon a little while ago.’



‘Theuli’s on the mend,’ Doc told him.



‘And Deborah?’ Doc’s worried look, so seldom seen, made Ralph go cold inside.



‘She’s still pretty much out of it.’ Then, sounding as though he was trying to convince himself as much as Ralph, he said, ‘She’s going to be one very sick young woman for a week or two. Maybe longer. In any event, she’s not getting any worse, so I’m taking that as a good sign, for now.’



Ralph nodded to the wagon. Deborah and Theuli were hidden from view by the sideboards, but Pran was clearly visible, kneeling over his wife. ‘Has she told him, and Zuic? About what happened?’



Doc gestured to Ralph to walk with him towards the cooking area. Moving at a slow walk, Doc said, ‘Pran has heard. But Zuic hasn’t yet. And he won’t until we get to Mirrindale, where he can be given Pran and Theuli’s undivided attention. Now let’s get some breakfast for the injured, and then for Pran and ourselves. I’ve been told that the sooner we head out the better, that if we head out later, the roads are going to be clogged with traffic. They tell me there’s a hospital of some sort in Mirrindale.’ Doc didn’t say so, but Ralph could tell that the old man’s concern for Deborah would hopefully be dealt with in Mirrindale.


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