There’s jogging and there’s jogging, I think. The second kind is when a pair of people jog with a stretcher on their shoulders. The person on the stretcher jounces mercilessly and indeed must jounce to help the joggers keep their pace. Which is what I discover when I try for a change to sit with my back straight.
Wren and Meerkat, my bearers for that stretch, slow to a walk. As we’re approximately in the middle of the line everyone behind us also slows. What’s worse, the line breaks. The fast front continues jogging. The rear slows to a walk.
Limber drops back from the front to discover the wherefores. “You two tired already?” he asks my bearers.
“Only been at it a couple of hundred paces,” Meerkat says. He sounds offended.
“It’s the way she’s sitting, straight as a maul-handle,” Wren says. She indicates up with her thumb, steadfastly refusing to name me. “Without give in her, she bounces, comes down hard. The sticks bend deeper. They want to spring off from our shoulders.”
“Show me,” Limber says.
We advance the few paces needed to illustrate Wren’s explanation. “She wants to ride, she’s got to move to the rhythm of the ponies,” Wren says.
“Wren has a point, Shaman Jeb,” Limber says. “It’s important we don’t split the group. Easier for Lotor to take out a small group than a larger one.”
“I apologize, Wren. Meerkat. Limber.” I try to catch their eyes to show that I mean it. I force myself to relax into the cross-legged jouncing posture and my bearers resume their labor.
Limber springs ahead to warn the fast front about the gap and the need to allow the rest of us to catch up.
I wonder whether the rules Puma has set for this stage are really necessary. Keep the line unbroken. The pace is a slow jog. Follow in the footsteps of the person in front.
As in, keep exactly to the single-file trail. “Who leads?” I ask. I’m guessing Meerkat will answer.
“Every thousand paces, the leader of that stage falls back,” Meerkat says.
“Funny how she hasn’t noticed them checking their way to the rear?” Wren says. “What Limber just did, didn’t he?”
Oh. I continue the conversation silently. This is my first time traveling by stretcher. I sneer at myself. That’s just an excuse. There’s a lot to see. Another excuse. But none of my conversational gambits will solve the reason for Wren’s dislike if I don’t open my mouth. “This is my first time traveling the desert. Lame excuse, I know.”
“Limber was at the end of the front,” Meerkat says. “I never heard about anyone being born on a platform. Everyone else will have had a first time in the desert too.”
“All you boys are smitten with her, and for what?” Wren says.
“Oh!” I can’t stop myself bursting out. “I suddenly see why you persist in speaking about me. It allows you to do exactly what you just did.”
I’m not totally sure what I am accusing Wren of, just that it suddenly made sense for a moment. The effect of my outburst is total silence in our little group. I have time to notice that the wind from the south is picking up. Its searing soughing hits the cavalcade side-on. Everyone’s clothes flap northward.
I see Limber skipping back down the line from the front. The person he needs to pass sways to one side, Limber sways to the other. Both manage to keep their feet on the single file path.
Very clever I’m sure, I think grumpily. Why couldn’t I have noticed that before?
Limber reaches us.
“Wren is done here,” Meerkat says. “But I will need a hundred thousand paces to work off my rage.”
Limber looks to me. I shrug helplessly. I feel as hopeless as ever about my chances to fit into the society of my age group. I used to pretend high and mightiness and that their resultant dislike was because of my totem. “I’m sorry.” For being what I am.
“I am so fucking angry,” Meerkat says conversationally. “I’ll probably strangle someone if I get loose. Get Ant.”
“I am so fucking angry I could burst,” Wren says. “That ugly bitch up on the sticks takes both my boyfriends and I’ve got to carry her like she is an Earth-born princess?”
Limber signals to the rear.
I pull my hood over my eyes and close them for good measure. I try not to take any notice of the changeover. I hear Wren and Meerkat take the loads given them. I hear Meerkat sent to the front. I hear Limber order Wren to the rear. Was Mongoose one of Wren’s recent boyfriends?
“There now, my pretty,” I hear from a way to the front.
The old shaman strokes my soul and my eyes almost overflow. I imagine the Totem Reality. It has slopes of lush grasses, stony outcrops and a blue sky. Sunlight beams down.
I spread my wings and hunt down a rabbit. Just when I’m about to crush its life, I notice it has Wren’s face. Out of shock I release her and she escapes down a hole. I press my hood against my eyes to soak up my tears.