They paused in the middle of the day for a luncheon break in a shallow cup valley created by the stream they were following. Like the larger valley it created up by the slate cave, this valley was spotted with vegetation and snails and other insectoid things. Noah stretched his leg out in front of him on a patch of moss and cautiously poured cool stream water over the overheated flesh. It helped a little. Not much.
Andy and Michelle kept busy, not asking for his help. Chewy food was put into his hands and he ate it.
He noticed, after a while, that no one was moving to get on with things. He grabbed his torch from the ground nearby, the better to lever himself upright.
He was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. It was Andy.
“We’re stopping here for the day,” Andy said.
“There’s hours of daylight left!”
“And you shouldn’t be walking on that leg at all, and now we have someplace to rest with a little food and shelter.”
There was, admittedly, an overhang by the edge of this little cleft in the rocks that would shelter all of them.
“I can be the judge of my own damn leg, Andy!”
“We aren’t going. That’s final. You think you can go on without us?”
She knelt next to him, and hugged him.
“You’re not doing anyone any good if you tear yourself to pieces, kid,” Andy said quietly in his ear. “Michelle and I will tear this bit of land to pieces getting us more road food, okay? We won’t waste the time.”
“And I sit here?”
“You sit about two yards that way,” Andy nodded towards the overhang. “So that you can mind the fire.”
Noah nodded tiredly, and hesitated.
“Help me up?” he asked.
She did. He held on tight.
They paused for the afternoon in the valley, and Andy and Michelle were as good as their words regarding gathering food, including sheets of lichen, the little black shelled squids, and even a patch of tubers from the razor-edged reeds they’d first encountered down in the marshes. Roasted for dinner, the tubers turned pungent and mealy, falling apart once you bit through their blackened crusts to the white interior.
“We’ve got more of these, right?” Noah asked.
“A few meals worth,” Michelle agreed, biting into her second tuber.
“Can we call them marsh potatoes? They remind me of potatoes.”
“Potatoes are bigger,” Michelle argued.
“Well, my point is,” he did have a point, probably, “Can we set a couple aside for me? I want to try planting them when we get back down to the river.”
“Sure,” she said. “We’re not to the point of gnawing our own legs off just yet.”
Wasn’t that a gruesome thought. But he got his potatoes, so it was okay in the end, wasn’t it?
The rest of that leg of the journey, restarted in the morning, went well, if more slowly than they’d hoped. It took them eight days in total to make the trip they’d made in six on the way down, even once they reached the relative flatness that was the top of the foothill they were seeking. With clouds threatening, they pushed on into twilight on the last day, finding the now well-traveled path from the broad bare valley below the cave to the cave proper.
It was dark in the cleft in the rocks that led down into the cave. The light from the torch made it possible, if unnerving. They went slowly.
“Who’s there?” a male voice called, voice cracking.
“Just us,” Noah called back. “Hope that’s alright.”
Tension ran down his neck, down his spine. He wasn’t sure of their welcome, no matter how fast he’d wanted to get here.
Zack’s hug was reassuring, though Zack’s appearance in the faint torchlight was not. His skull showed behind his face, especially in the flickering light that created more shadows than illumination.
“The rain’s chasing us,” Michelle added. “Can we get under cover?”
“Of course, of course. Um.”
He was looking at Andy. Noah looked at Andy blankly too, trying to remember what was with that. It had been a long day, and though he’d been using a walking stick very rigorously, not a pain-free one.
“I’m Andy. Andromeda.”
“Zack,” said Zack. “Come on, everyone.”
Into the cave they went. The moss had gathered into two distinct smaller piles. Most everyone was asleep in the shadows, though it was impossible to tell who was who.
Automatically, the three travelers found a space near the back and began arranging it to hold their fire for the night. Small stones arranged to keep the wind out and the heat in, a bundle of twisted grasses to extinguish the torch in, and a loose piling of mosses completed the task.
“Should you waste those like that?” Zack asked.
“Waste what?” asked Noah.
“I – nothing. What have you been eating? Where have you been?”
“I’d prefer to save the long explanation for everyone,” Noah said. “But in short, fish. Want some?”
Zack didn’t answer out loud, but he did nod. Noah missed it, but he turned to check on Zack in time to find Michelle handing Zack a small handful of fish strips.
“We’ll talk in the morning?” Zack offered. “Everyone’s really tired.”
“Of course,” said Michelle. “Thanks.”
It felt odd to be strangers with him. They hadn’t been gone that long, had they? No, he thought, counting back, it had been about a month since they’d left this place. How very odd. Noah fell asleep with his head on Andy’s shoulder and Michelle tucked back-to-back with him for warmth, lost in the strangeness that was his life and the pounding sound of the rain starting outside.
Noah and Andy weren’t morning people. As far as Michelle could tell, no one in the whole damn camp was a morning person. She was the only one up and awake, and she wasn’t just awake, she was restless. She felt like she should be taking off hiking again. She should be doing something.
For lack of anything better to do, she rolled up and out of bed, threw a little more on the fire, and wandered over to the big bowl of Harry. The sky was clear as a bell, the wind in the rocks making its usual whispering song. The bowl was washed clean. She could do something with that.
A few trips back and forth from the spring for water, and a pile of lichen added to the large bowl to soak, and she had the beginnings of breakfast. Judiciously, Michelle tipped in a few other things, including some of the reserved fish. It was, they’d found, far more palatable soaked a little.
As quietly as she could, Michelle arranged stones by the fire to heat and ferried them to the bowl. The water warmed, then steamed. It took an hour – an uneasy hour, because she’d done a headcount, and a few were missing.
Noah and Andy trailed over and had their shares. They sat in silence, not wanting to disturb their hosts. Zack, once again, was the first to come to them. He looked worse in daylight than in darkness – there was no spare flesh left on him anywhere, and he moved slowly, as if he was worried he would break. He sipped his cup of broth as if he thought it would disappear.
When everyone else awoke, it was in a flood. Some got cups, but most ate from the bowl with their hands – it was just lukewarm by that time anyway – and while the returning company got touches and hugs and greetings were exchanged, and thanks for the food, no real conversation occurred until the bowl was empty and scraped clean.
There were Sam, Caleb, Zack. There were Kitty and Louisa. There was Dev, one of the Indian boys, but not the other one. No Kelsey, either, with her distinctive blonde hair. Michelle hadn’t known the other Indian boy, Aadi, well, and she’d had a horrible unreasonable jealousy of Kelsey and her stupid hair and meek ways, but – she didn’t want to ask.
She didn’t want to ask at all.
“Do I want to know what kind of meat that was?” asked Zack, finally, after everyone was done licking their fingers.
“Fish, or as near as this world comes to it,” Michelle said. “Maybe a little eel, hard to tell. We’ve got a good place, down on the coast, with a cave and water and a reef full of stuff to eat.”
“Well. Wouldn’t that be nice.”
“We thought we’d invite you to come down,” Michelle tried. “If you’re interested?”
“How far away is it?” Caleb asked quietly. He looked worst of any of them, she thought, his dark skin had a nasty undertone to it and he moved like it hurt.
“About a week’s travel,” she said. “Depending on how fast we go.”
Zack glanced around uneasily.
“I’m not sure how many of us are okay to travel. I mean… things got pretty bad, here.”
“I noticed. Kelsey and Aadi?”
“They’re gone. I mean, dead. You were gone.”
“That’s a longer story,” said Louisa. “Deserves to be told right. And I want to hear more about this place you want us to hop off to.”
“I think we can start another round of soup,” Michelle suggested. “And talk and eat?”
That got general noises of affirmation.
“How much food did you bring?” asked Kitty.
“We’ve got some more bags of the fish. And I picked up some other stuff on the way up. The valley down there looked pretty bare-?”
“We’ve been scraping by,” said Caleb. “Food now. Talk later.”
Michelle thought it was as reasonable a suggestion as any. The last of her lichen and more dried fish went into the bowl to soak – no talk of heating it this time, people started eating as soon as it seemed vaguely soaked. It disappeared so fast. There were nine of them now. Michelle was uncomfortably aware just how much the food they’d brought would only stretch to cover nine people for a handful of days, even on as slim rations as they’d been traveling. She wasn’t sure they could get them down the mountain on such slim rations.
One thing at a time.
Except she didn’t think she and Noah had looked nearly this bad, even after leaving the way they had. Sure, they were skinny now, but everyone was skin and bones and knobby joints – Sam’s ankle was especially knobbly, though it bore her weight, which Michelle loved. Sam walking over to give her a hug had been her favorite thing so far this morning.
“So who wants to tell their story first?” Michelle asked.