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Jennifer woke when rising sun hit squarely in her eyes. She stretched cautiously, groaned as a variety of muscles protested, rolled onto her other side and pulled the thick, gaudy woven blanket over the top of her head. The wind that had come up with the sun was icy.
Dahven's gift slid across her throat, warm from contact with her skin; she smiled and closed her eyes resolutely. It could not be later than five-thirty, real time. Real, of course, being home—Los Angeles. Santa Monica, actually. She ordinarily didn't have to fight early sun like this; her apartment faced west, toward an ocean she couldn't actually see from her second-floor windows. It had; it wasn't hers any more. That was gone. Gone. It washed over her—overwhelming, unbearable loss: career, apartment, car—everything.
She bit her lip and fought tears. Merrida had manipulated Night-Thread to find an armed guard within Rhadazi borders for Aletto and Lialla, or so she'd told them. But the magic had found them instead: dragged them from their world to this one on the way home from a Saturday picnic at the Devil's Punchbowl. Chris had lost out on his D&D night; Robyn—Robyn probably on a Saturday night drunk. Jennifer didn't want to think what she'd lost. A bright if predictable future in a Century City law firm, her apartment, her cello, the brand new red Honda. Concerts, movies, classical music on the radio, makeup, a perm when her hair started growing out—the things she'd taken for granted, the way people did, until she didn't have any of them.
Damn Merrida. Manipulative, arrogant old woman. Jennifer wasn't certain she believed what Merrida'd said about the magic choosing, about her own music and Chris's virginity combining to catch hold of them. Even though she no longer doubted the magic itself. Magic. Who would have thought? Merrida's talent had filled her, going with her as far as the cave where Lialla and her badly wounded brother were hiding; she'd used Merrida's magic to heal a ghastly cut in Aletto's arm.
Oddly, Merrida had been right about music, though she hadn't explained that any more than she'd explained anything else. Jennifer could hear Thread. And she was developing a formidable talent in the few short days since she'd walked into that cave.
Which made life with the prickly Lialla that much more difficult. It's not my fault, Jennifer thought sourly as she tugged the blanket tight against the back of her head to shut out drafts before she tucked chilled hands between her knees. Jennifer knew little about Lialla's own training, but the sin-Duchess apparently didn't hear the music Thread made, and thanks to her own temperament and Merrida's teaching, she was so hidebound she couldn't accept any alternate approach to the magic. When I told her I could see the stuff in daylight, I thought she'd have me burned at the stake. Jennifer rolled her eyes under closed lids. I can see it, and hear it, she's just going to have to come to grips with that. And it isn't my fault the woman was badmouthed by her uncle. Beaten, too, judging by her reaction in that tower. Jennifer still felt guilty remembering the look in Lialla's eyes, the way the woman had flinched away from her. As though I'd have actually hit her. I've never hit anyone, ever.
Well, it was a pity: Like her brother, Lialla could be a nice person to be around; at least when she wasn't overreacting to things. She came unglued too easily, and at the damnedest times. At least Aletto was fairly predictable. He was touchy about his limp, about the scars left on his face by marsh-sickness, about the hitched shoulder; he didn't like being reminded that Jadek had kept him from learning a nobleman's weapons, didn't like being dependent on magic or women—on anyone but himself, though he was painfully aware he didn't know how to take care of himself. He was rather touchingly protective of Robyn—at least, Birdy put up with his heavy-handed chivalrous behavior; it would have driven Jennifer mad. Chris—who'd babied his poor weak mother since he'd been able to walk—was visibly irked by Aletto's obvious "case" on his mom, but for once he was keeping the whole thing to himself instead of pouring it all on his aunt. Jennifer wondered whether he was spilling his guts to Edrith, if he was simply giving up on the situation. Then, too, perhaps he was being realistic about it all: Robyn was ten years older than Aletto, after all; she was outlander and common both. Jennifer couldn't see any chance of a permanent relationship, whatever Aletto said.
Poor Birdy. Robyn's taste in men had always been rotten. Sweet, dependable Chris seemed to spend half his life helping his mother put her life back together after the Arnies and Terrys and Johns left.
Jennifer sighed deeply, rolled onto her back and glanced around. Robyn was still asleep, and so was Aletto: His cheek rested on her long, blonde hair and another strand of it blew across his pale face, hiding the pockmarks. Chris was a wad of blanket at the base of a scrawny bush, only recognizable by the large high-topped sneaker sticking out of one end. Edrith was wandering around the mesa, gathering bits of dry wood for a breakfast fire. Lialla was somewhere out of sight; her blankets were folded and stacked.
Jennifer snugged the blanket around her shoulders once more, then pulled her knees up to her chest one at a time to stretch out her back. The ground had been very hard, and she would have been stiff from a flat-ground ride covering that many miles. But the way they'd come to reach the top of the mesa had been—God, it had been grim. She couldn't remember specifics; she seemed to recall climbing past the same trees and riding through the same cleft between crumbling, dry banks of a slender stream ten or twenty times. As though they'd ridden in circles for hours. Her first glimpse of the way they'd come, when they first arrived on the mesa, showed an appalling drop. She hadn't seen anything that might have been Sikkre out there, either.
Horses. I hate riding, she thought with an inner groan. She should stretch everything out, keep stretching so she didn't freeze up. After all, they'd probably be riding again this evening—and every evening from now on, at least until they reached Bezjeriad. They didn't have enough food and water to fool around getting to that prosperous merchant center, and she personally didn't want to spend any more nights like this last one than she could help. Stretch and massage, she thought, but fell asleep again instead.
She was wakened hours later by a familiar odor: Pancakes? The blanket was still over her head but it had rucked up above her feet; fortunately, since a cool ground breeze blew along her legs, keeping the actual temperature under her thick cover near bearable. Hair was plastered to her forehead and flat under her ear where she'd slept on it; the morning air felt downright cold when she threw the cover aside and breeze struck wet skin. She found her chambray shirt and blotted sweat with the tails before it occurred to her she wouldn't be able to wash the shirt any time soon. "God," she mumbled. "Or my hair. Disgusting." The leather bag that held her drinking water lay next to the saddle pad, close to the leather shoulder bag she'd brought with her before Merrida sent the Honda back to that two-lane blacktop road. "God," she said again as she fumbled through it for the precious aspirin bottle. "Next time I lay a couple of these out before I go to sleep, right?" Her head was pounding madly from sleeping on hard ground; the down-side hip was, too, but that was probably as much the discomfort of riding a broad-backed horse, of the curious saddle—though even a western saddle would have left her limping after that last night's ride. She rubbed her eyes, yawned and stretched, groaned as more muscles protested. Everything ached.
But the smell was definitely pancakes, and there was Robyn, squinting against the sun, cussing in English when the wind blew ash and smoke all over her, fighting with the strange pans. Edrith and Chris were eating rolled-up cakes with their fingers.
Robyn must have been watching for movement; she stood partway and shaded her eyes. "Finally awake, are you? You'd better hurry up or these two varmints will finish everything."
"Pancakes," Jennifer inhaled deeply as she walked tiptoe on bare feet across sandy ground. "Birdy, I knew you were good, but how did you manage that?"
Robyn snorted good-naturedly. "You always use a mix or something? They're just flour and milk and eggs. The flour's a little coarse and the flavor isn't quite the same, but we won't be able to keep that skin of milk fresh and I wouldn't want to fool with the eggs beyond tomorrow." She scraped at the pan with a wide wooden spatula, slid a round, thick cake onto one of their tin plates and held it out to her younger sister. "Lialla had hers plain; the boys found a pot of some kind of mixed fruit butter Aletto bought in one of the packs. It's not too bad." She emptied batter into the pan and nodded at the grubby pan she'd used for mixing. "You two earn your keep; go find a way to clean this up for me without using half the water, all right?" She glared at Chris, transferred the look to his companion. "This is mine. You want to live long enough to have seconds when we get to this Bez place, go clean the pan and keep your grubby paws away from the contents of this pan."
"Yes'm," Chris said; Edrith laughed and grabbed up the mixing pan.
Jennifer scooped thick, dark sweet stuff out of the brown glazed pot with two fingers and dumped it in the middle of the cake, sucked her fingers clean and rolled the pancake around it. "Lord, Birdy, this is just great. I don't think I'd have dragged myself out of that godawful bed for anything else."
"Not bad," Robyn allowed. "Lialla wants to talk about which way and how far, once you've eaten. I think we'd better have a good understanding about the food—like, how much we have and how far it's going to go." She nipped the pancake, set the pan down at the edge of the fire. "I want you to step on her, if you have to, Jen." She glanced up. "You know?" Jennifer, mouth full of pancake, nodded. "Good. I don't think she likes me much."
"She doesn't like me much right now, either," Jennifer mumbled around her food. "She has enough sense to pay attention when she has to, though."
"I'm glad you're sure about that," Robyn said dryly. She gingerly picked up the edge of the pancake between two fingers and peered at the underside, swore as it burned her and slid it out onto Chris's empty plate. "You want this?"
Jennifer shook her head. "You said it was yours, remember?"
"Just to make sure you got enough. But I'll eat it if you don't."
"Do it. They're huge, Birdy, I couldn't possibly eat two."
"Don't you go shorting yourself food—"
"Don't you," Jennifer said. "That's more your style than mine, Robyn—I seem to remember a few years ago when you lost the food stamps; Chris ate, and you didn't."
Robyn waved sticky, fruit-buttered fingers. "Come on, it wasn't that bad! He was growing and I was fat. So it was a good opportunity to go on a diet."
"If I'd known—"
"Well, I didn't tell you," Robyn said rather shortly. She licked her thumb, smiled apologetically. "Sorry. I don't do charity from family, remember?" Her face fell and she bent over the plate, very carefully rolling pancake around the fruit butter. "Well—I didn't. Guess that's behind us now, isn't it?"
"Shhh. I'm not going to unglue on you or bleed all over you, Jen. I told you, first night that old witch Merrida grabbed us, all I ever needed was you and Chris. I've got that. I'm luckier than both of you that way. My poor kid." She bit into the pancake, plate held high under her chin to catch spills. "He had his senior year, all the good stuff that means—I was looking forward to it as much as he was, maybe more 'cause I never had that. I— God, I think I was living just off the Strip with half a dozen people in a two-room apartment when I was seventeen. Even then I didn't care much about possessions, but Chris—he was saving for a car, he had that fancy disk player. I know he misses the music, the concerts, TV—all that." She chuckled. "I guess you were still asleep this morning; I could see him out there with Edrith, trying to show him some of that new dance stuff, rap or whatever it is. I don't even try to keep up with it."
"Missed that." Jennifer grinned and wiped crumbs and spilled fruit butter from the plate with the last bite of pancake. "Sorry I did, too. That was terrific, Birdy. What are you doing with plates?"
"A dribble of water on a bit of cloth for the sticky stuff; that's it until we find running water. Chris says the map shows some; Edrith said he doesn't think it's too late in the season. I guess it's like where we were. They go dry once it gets hot."
"Gimme," Robyn said, and took the plate from her hands. "The boys are on K.P. until further notice. Anyone eats like those two do better have to pay for it somehow."
"Sounds fair to me." Jennifer stood, bent over to stretch out the small of her back. "God, I ache!"
"Could have been worse. We might have been on foot."
"I could handle that." She straightened up, dug both hands into her hipbones and bent back, to one side and then the other. "I'm not sure that helped a lot; we'll pretend it did. I'd better go find Lialla." She sighed. "You've seen her today. How is she?"
Robyn shrugged and stacked plates in the pan she'd used for pancakes, set the pile aside and began hand-shoveling sand and dirt over the fire. "You know Lialla. She's not actively pissed off at anybody yet, so I guess you can call that a good mood." She sat back, pushed hair off her forehead with her wrist and looked at her hands glumly. "I feel like what's her name. Lady Macbeth." The English name jarred, as English words did in the middle of Rhadazi, frequent reminder that they were speaking a language somehow grafted onto and into them—Merrida's one truly useful gift. "Grubby hands forever, you know."
"I know. My hair—"
"Don't," Robyn implored. "I do not want to even think about my hair. And this black thing shows dirt so bad, I think I'm gonna go back to my jeans. At least I can dust my paws on those without the prints being visible all the way across the plateau."
"It's fine with me," Jennifer said. "Unless we're going to be meeting people, I don't see why we have to try to dress like locals. And I think jeans might be better for riding." She touched the inside of one thigh and winced. "I think all that material that makes up the crotch of these so-called Wielder novice blacks was rubbing my legs all night. I'll bet anything you like I've got blisters."
Robyn shook a finger at her. "You check on that. We set up the latrine just off the edge, down past that dead bush; see it?" She used the finger to indicate direction; Jennifer turned to see where she was pointing and nodded. "Check right away, because if you blistered we'll have to do something about it before you get back on that horse. People get gangrene in this kind of climate—"
"Bite your lips," Jennifer interrupted hastily. "I'll go, you save the horror stories for Chris."
Robyn nodded. "All right, deal. I think Lialla said she brought a first-aid kit from the fort—what passes for that kind of thing here. Probably herbal stuff, but that can be just as effective. If you're rubbing, get out of those goofy britches and back into your jeans, girl."
"Yes'm," Jennifer said, consciously aping Chris. Robyn grinned up at her.
"Smart kid; I see where my brat gets it now. It's all those months I let him stay with you. Thought you'd be a good influence; I should've known better."
"Yah. Think of all the bad influence he had on me. I actually started liking M.C. Hammer."
"Never heard of it," Robyn said firmly. "Is that post-Baez?"
"Possibly." Jennifer laughed, gave her shoulders one last stretch and went back to get her shoes. The ground was rough, there were splintery things everywhere—and it was getting too warm to walk on anyway.
Excerpted from The Two in Hiding by Ru Emerson. Copyright © 1991 Ru Emerson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 13, 2009
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