Thyal woke me from the waking-dream I was in but, though I don’t look at Simmon, I can feel him still beseeching me with soulful staring.
I’m walking looking at where to put my feet, with my hood pulled right down over my head. I glance up to keep track of what’s going on.
The meat-eating sand does not even nibble at Simmon, and from that I know that Lotor truly knows him. Way back when, he could’ve chosen a totem and married a settler girl.
My settler father loved my Earth-born mother. I remember that he called her his loon-lover. That’s almost the same as Mongoose and me. Does it count if it is the other way around?
The direction that my thoughts are wandering in gives me an idea. “Could I ask you some girl questions, Vulture?” I say though Lithe and Puma walk between us.
Vulture splits her sides laughing, but that’s all right. The men try for straight faces, apart from Simmon who frowns. Does he suspect me?
“Signal Eider?” Lithe says.
“That’d be good,” Vulture says.
Vulture carries the stretcher by balancing it in its middle.
Thyal too follows the rest of the men. Reluctantly, it seems to me.
Eider, arriving, notices that too. She calls after him. “Limber told me girl questions, Thyal.” She laughs. “There go a couple of noses out of joint, Shaman Jeb.”
Now I’m nervous. Though girl questions were a ploy, I do start with one. “I was going to try to be a girl among the other girls again.”
“Sounds like you’ve always had trouble with that, Shaman Jeb,” Eider says.
“What Eider means is that you can often foresee by looking back,” Vulture says.
“That’s right,” Eider says. “The way I knew I was always going to be some troop’s tattooist because looking back I discovered that as a child I scribbled designs and totem portraits on every surface available to me.”
“Though probably you only had that insight when someone pointed that out to you,” Vulture says.
“Not wrong. I am therefore respectfully pointing out to you, Shaman Jeb, that you may never achieve being a girl among the girls of your own age group. For one thing, I think you’re so good at being a girl among the boys of your age group that that could be the problem in this troop. Has that been so all along? For other girls, I mean?”
I thought back on Wren’s claims. “I don’t know.” I ask another stupid question that I already know the answer for. “What’s it mean, being a loon? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the totem?”
I’m nervous. Puma should’ve made the move I am contemplating. How will he take my interference in his leadership?
“What do they teach them in Shaman Schools?” Vulture asks the world.
“Not about love,” Eider says. “It’s way of saying how a person falls in love, Shaman Jeb, not the long and slow way.”
“Like you’re struck by lightning,” Vulture agrees. “No rhyme to it.”
“Mongoose saying he’s my loon seems kind of weird to me, given what I look like.” I hate what I’m doing to these women. In reality I bask in Mongoose’s love.
“He told you. Good for him,” Eider says.
I wish Mongoose were here with me right now. “Girl talk was an excuse,” I confess. “Puma seems to be refusing to accept the danger. I couldn’t speak with Simmon here.”
Eider raises her eyebrows. “I’m listening.”
“Better be good after two false starts,” Vulture says from in front of me.
I tell them about the Earth-born disease. About my mother and my father. How quickly my father, a settler, died. He was gone in a few hours. What the early symptoms in an afflicted Earth-born look like.
“Which Simmon had in the prison already, and Puma learned about when we all met on the second platform. Why is he holding back? Because of things he still wants to learn? With whose lives will he pay?”
It feels to me that I’m challenging Vulture and Eider. Needs must. “If Simmon gets too frustrated, he’ll lash out. I’ve seen bits falling off him. No one near him is safe. There should be someone sweeping the detritus from the path behind him.”
“Let’s hurry. Catch up with the front,” Vulture says.
“You should be carrying him,” I say. “We should tie him to the stretcher if we must keep him. Bandage my feet, I’d rather walk.”
“Village Square is coming up,” Vulture says. “The halfway point. We’ll have a rest break. I’ll talk with Red-Tail.”
She raises her arm and waves. They bundle me back onto the stretcher. Jog. Red-tail and Crow join us, and Eider spells out the emergency.
“We’ll end it at the Village Square,” Red-tail says. “Carry the weight, ladies.”
She vaults up onto the stretcher with me. She stands astride on the sticks to survey the troop rear and forward. “Crow, call Mongoose from the back.”
Red-tail whistles the wild Black Cockatoo calls of her Totem toward the head of the column. Jackal howls a reply. A cold shiver runs up my back. I’ve set something into motion.
Mongoose clears his throat, letting us all know he’s there, jogging behind Crow.
“Like he was waiting for the call,” Crow says.
Mongoose laughs. “What if Simmon had been a woman?”
“I’m only saying I enjoy your style,” he says.
Even Red-tail is exasperated. “A loon still with the love talk.”
Red-tail vaults over Vulture’s head.
“I guess Shaman Jeb has the oldest crappiest cloak?” she says. “Tear off a good length, Jeb. We’re making a sloppy broom. I see lover-boy is carrying the sticks for the screens? You and your Jeb shred this cloth to the hem,” she tells Mongoose.
“Roll it round a stick. Tie it. When we’ve done the hardest thing we’re going to do, I’ll need two more like it.”
“The hardest thing? I don’t like the sound of that,” Vulture says.
“Crow, I need Ant and Wren here,” Red-tail says.
When they arrive, she continues. “The loon and Wren will be gatekeepers at the Square. Dust off everybody and sweep the bits into the sand. Don’t allow any sand onto the pavement.”
She holds up her hand to silence Vulture about the hardest thing again. “The hardest thing will be getting Shaman Jeb past the Earth-born without him noticing, with the path still as narrow as. Safer for everyone with him at the rear where my crew can prod him along gently, enabling the rest of you to organize some kind of temporary camp at the Square.”
“Touching Simmon for a second won’t hurt us if we’re covered all over,” I say though I’m petrified at the thought.
Mongoose, Eider and Vulture make noises of disbelief about getting me past Simmon without Simmon noticing.
“Step one,” Red-tail says. “Eider, Vulture and Shaman Jeb wrap up like Egyptian mummies. Use the screen-cloths. Rip and tear as required. Every bit of you must be covered.”
While we’re busy with that, she tells us the rest of her plan. It sounds do-able. Red-tail’s final instructions place Ant with her group, he being the person most able to efface himself. He’ll be sweeping scraps from among their feet. The rest of us are ahead getting Puma into the picture. Here she laughs. “If he complains, tell him Red-tail knows the Void. Ask him, does he?”
I’ll happily let Vulture do that telling and asking. We approach the back of the group fore-and-afting Simmon. I can’t see, being wrapped like a mummy as well as spread-eagled facedown—because my right hand and foot are the stronger—between two layers of blanket.
Eider is carrying at the front. I hear her murmuring. Then I feel a couple of hurried bumps to my stomach and legs. Maybe it is Limber pulling Thyal back with him and them duck-walking under the stretcher still in its horizontal shoulder-high state.
Uh oh, here we go. My carriers drop the left side of the stretcher from their left shoulders. I strain to support my weight from my right hand holding on to the right-side stick and from my right foot wedged crookedly between stick and cloth. I’m so busy concentrating that I hardly notice the little side steps Vulture and Eider do into the meat-eating sand to get past Simmon and his keepers.
Back on the straight and narrow with the stretcher horizontal again, there’s a bit more jostling while a couple more people, Jackal and Ax probably, get past us to the rear. I visualize them dancing the side-skip, the dip under the stretcher, and the next side-skip.
After I’ve counted two hundred paces, I ask my carriers to turn me face-up, so I can start undoing the wrappings, to breathe a bit better.