Jeb gulped water. She flailed and splashed, but sank to the top of her head. She hit a wall with her knuckles. Rose. Breathed, big gulps of air. Saw the sky, a round dark disk. No stars. Called. “Help!” Heard a couple of some-ones running away, their feet pounding on the hard dust of the central yard.
She trod the water faster to keep her head above it. Earth water was thinner than Lotor’s treacle-like stuff. The Earth-born ate Lotor’s water from a spoon. She bent her neck. Sucked in cool melt-in-her-mouth water with hardly a scent or flavor.
No cistern-woman would ever tolerate someone dunking in a cistern. Accidental or not, Jeb would be hauled to the magister and sentenced to waste-and-water-carrying for the rest of her time.
But this was a dream. Lucid dream, she’d had it so often. She stayed upright by paddling with her hands, hating the nightly drowning.
The sides of the dream-well tonight were dressed stone. Impossible. Lotor’s thirst for Earth’s water was legendary. Lotor would suck a human dry … say a man wandered home drunk between a pair of villages and accidentally stepped from the stone path … Lotor would’ve tossed aside his husk by the time the man’s friends came looking for him. As a child, Jeb always wondered how Lotor would suck a human dry?
But anyway, real cisterns had seamless metal envelopes inside their extruded-stone walls. How did this water not soak away between the dry-laid stones?
I open my eyes. Only while dreaming can I still be Jeb and even that isn’t my real name. I tip my head back to see the state of the day by the light in the window slot high in the wall opposite the door. The sky is grey. Therefore the time is dawn. Can I recall anything useful from the dream?
The fact that everything followed logically could mean something. I am getting better at lucid dreaming?
Be still. Don’t move. I listen. I’ve been here for three years and now they put a prisoner in the next cell? Does it mean they have discovered me? Who I am? What I am? During my first week here, guards told me every day they’d be fixing the gap between the top of the share-wall and the ceiling. Nothing was ever done.
Suspicion flares through me. They left it undone purposely. It took them all this time to find the right informant? The gap is about the height of a ten-cube, enough that I hear every move the new prisoner makes. He snores now. Why not before? He snuffles sometimes. Am I meant to think that a guard broke his nose? To make me believe he is not in their pay?
That tells me that he is in chains. He’s meant to be dangerous?
I grin silently and ferociously. He has to be dangerous to be next to me. I creep out of bed. Sling my cloak around me and silently slide down to sit cross-legged against the opposite wall.
“I heard you, you little fake,” the prisoner says.
My cloak slithered down the wall. I laugh silently. I’m pretty sure we’ve never met. I doubt he’d call me names if he did know me.
“You’re the shaman,” he says. “It’s up to you to save me.”
“What?” I’m so astounded that I forget that I’m masquerading as a young man.
“You’re the shaman that people out there are talking about.”
The man appears not to have taken in the girlishness of my voice. I hug myself to hold still my wobbling heart. “I’m not a shaman. I was kidnapped from the school after only three years training.”
“Half shaman, then. A fake. Couple of hundred of Lotor-born sleep in the right-hand yard. A Field of Dreams is their destination and you know what happens there?”
I don’t say a word of what I know. All Earth-born know Soowei’s story inside out. She who was the daughter of the first Captain-of-the-Ship, saved herself from the first Field of Dreams and told her story to all who came after her.
The man continues without even taking a breath. “The fifty Totems in the left-side yard are here for saving and though I’m not one of them, so am I. They’re saying that all the shamans know the way home and that there’s only the couple of you remaining. Process of elimination, wouldn’t you say?”
My heart rolls over, I swear it. When I was taken three years ago, there were eighteen shamans still in the world. Oh tell me tell me what do someone?
There’s never any answer to such whims, of course. Next time I have a minute, I’ll have to recall Soowei’s story. Might be something in it that I can use.
The prisoner is the griping sort. “Where I want to go too,” he says. “Home, I mean. I picked a fight so I could get in here alongside you. Get you going? If you do nothing, I’ll be taken to the Field of Dreams with the worn-out Lotor-spawn. So get your act together and save us.”
I narrow my mind’s eyes. Him fighting in the Lotor-born yard or in Earth-born yard makes a big difference to my suspicions as to whom he might be. I niggle at his logic. “And if you hadn’t picked a fight?”
“The salt mines. No one comes back from them either.”
With that he tells me he picked his fight among the Earth-born.
“Something going on outside,” he says. “Damn it, I can’t reach the window.”
Every night I stand below the wide slot in the wall that serves as my window and look up to see the stars. I look for a fast-moving speck crossing the sky. The Ark Ship. Never seen it yet.
To see the exercise yards at the base of the building, I need to step up onto the piss-pot and grab hold of the bars in the slot that stop me escaping. I cling to them while I wedge my elbows into the sides of the blessed width.
The slot’s narrow vertical dimensions are to prevent a grown man crawling through. How would it even help him with the cell not on the ground floor? Never mind, a prisoner’s lot is not to reason why. I push my right toe into a depression in the mud-bricks worn there by every prisoner in this cell since the beginning of time. With my other foot I scrabble for the angle the back wall makes with the side wall.
Spread-eagled, I can see out. “The Lotor-born are being encouraged to rise,” I say. “They that need it are helped quite gently. They are allowing themselves to be marshaled into lines. There’s a soldier doling out hunks of bread.”
“To chew during their walk,” the prisoner says.
I contradict him. “Their gates remain shut. It seems to me that they are being trained in the lining-up procedure.”
I’m chilled by the sight of the Lotor-born cast out from their villages for being sick, lame, old, and unproductive and being ministered by prison guards. I slide down to the floor. I sit down again, hunching my cloak around me.
“If the guards don’t come to get me in the next three minutes, you’ll have till tomorrow to spare me from the salt mines,” my neighbor says.