Jenna's Sacrifice Ch. 1

Morning Foray

Jenna looked all around herself before she guided the heavy door closed behind her, but she saw nothing but the usual dull browns of the late summer sky after the passing of one of the worst dust storms of the season, and the grey browns of the ground all around the Door.

Then the colors gradually began swimming back into focus through the still settling haze of dust; oranges and reds being the first to return to clarity, followed by the greens of the trees and the grasses all around the Door she stood beside with her goggles and mask in place to keep her from breathing in the clouds of noxious dust..

And she knew that as soon as the dust finished settling, she would be better able to tell what damage the storm had wreaked on the exterior of the Fort as she stood breathing through her dust filter carefully to avoid inhaling so much of the foul smelling dust.

In that instant, she hoped that the damage wouldn’t be too bad; she knew that Oseki hated like poison having to rebuild the exterior walls, and Tekken wouldn’t like it any better than his teacher did. He had been assimilating that attitude since he was taken on as the older man’s apprentice in the craft of building, more than six seasonal cycles ago.

And Jenna knew that spending the evening hearing Oseki grumbling about the storm—as well as listening to Tekken worrying about what it was going to do to his master in the morning to have to fix all the damage—last night had been punishment enough for anyone who had been at the main hearth for even a part of the evening. And for the sake of any who had been there to hear the whole thing, she hoped that the damage was minimal this time.

Seeing—and hearing—nothing immediately inimical to her presence as she stood beside the Door listening to the waking world all around her, Jenna knew that she would be safe if she closed the door behind her.

Hope nobody else knows I went out this way this morning, she thought as she slowly pulled the door shut behind her as quietly as she could, hoping to not stir much of the dust as she did, or wake anybody who lived close to the Door with its passage.

It’s bad enough that Labri knows what I’m doing today, even if she doesn’t know exactly where I’m going...or why I have to go out today... she thought, knowing that it was a safety measure, but not liking it any better now than she had when she was a youngling and had wanted nothing more than to try to get off by herself, to find a little privacy to dream a young girl’s dreams without the disapproving eyes of the Olders always on her.

And she knew that the Spiritdream that had come to her that day was still ruling her actions, though she always made the time to be available to Jerek and the rest of the Olders in the Fort. Aside from it being her duty as his apprentice, she genuinely liked the Older who was also the Leader of their colony.

But the days she had wanted to get out to dream were in the past now. And after last night, Jenna knew that anyone would want to get out of the Fort for a little while, if only for a finger of time or so, just to have a glimpse of the sky once more. And today, the weather was better for such things.

Today, it was only dusty, unlike some mornings when it wasn’t safe to leave the shafts at all, because of the Vogs that sometimes filtered down from the smoking mountains at Noam Peak and Mount Ilfhie. And it was Oseki and Tekken who kept the filters running that kept the Vogs out of the air system that the Fort used during those times, so she knew that keeping them happy was a good idea.

As the dust settled a bit more, Jenna glanced over at the covers over the filter bays, and smiled a little; knowing that there wasn’t any serious damage that she could see from this angle. That should please them... she thought. Better take a look at the other side, though, just to be sure. Jenna decided as she stepped around to the other side of the filter bay covers that had been angled to prevent the rain and dust from last night’s storm from getting into the air ducts.

She was pleased to note that there didn’t seem to be much damage on that side either, but she knew at the same time that Oseki would likely still complain anyway; he seemed to prefer having something to complain about sometimes.

However, the dust was hazard enough for some of the Olders, Jenna knew. And the filters that worked so well against the Vog didn’t do as well with the fine particles of the dust that seemed able to find the tiniest cracks and sift into everything. But that wasn’t the only consideration; she knew she had to be sure that the ones she left inside would be safe if she shut the door as well and that was harder to tell by simply looking out the door.

However, Jenna knew too that Jerek would have her hide if anything happened to those she left behind while she was out Hunting, so Jenna made sure that she did everything the way he had told her it should be done. This time, anyway, she thought as she stood beside the Door and watched the dust settling through the screen on her breathing filter.

There was nothing on the wing as yet, though the daystar had barely risen over the edge of the world and was still blinking the sleep from his eyes, even the creatures that normally would be active at starrise. That didn’t really surprise her; the storm had been bad until about three fingers of time ago, and she would have been amazed if there had been anything out already in the wake of the storm they had just weathered.

And though it was quiet and somewhat out of the ordinary, Jenna was glad; she liked this time of day best, when all was still, and the light was dim. Though she did wonder a little why nothing seemed to be moving yet; not even the predators that hunted in the still of the earliest parts of the day. But at the same time, Jenna knew that she wasn’t going to find out about it by standing here listening to the dust settling all around her.

After all, the dust was settling; and the predators at least should have been beginning to stir from their lairs; hunger should have been driving them out if nothing else would, Jenna knew. It was certainly one of the things driving her to be out this early in the wake of the storm, she decided.

To hear the Olders tell it around the hearthfires, Bombdrop had happened more than a Dredyer ago, and almost everything in the world had changed. But then too, to hear the Olders and their Tellings, the world was once green, pink and blue at the same time—instead of green, gray, bluish and brownish—and the dust storms were not something that happened, except in faraway places.

And as she always had, Jenna wondered what Bombdrop had actually been; the way the Olders spoke of it, it had been something very bad that had killed many people, though it had created the Muties at the same time. Jenna had wondered how one thing could kill so many all at once, until Labri had explained about "diseases", and something she called "viruses", and how they were so small that no one alive could see them, but their influences were all around all the time.

Jenna had wondered then if the "viruses" were another name for the spirits, but Labri had explained that "viruses" were more like the invisible Monsters of the plains; mindless killing creatures bent on destroying what little of the population still remained. And Jenna knew that Labri wouldn’t lie to her about something as important to her as the saving of lives, so she knew that Labri’s precautions were only sensible, even if they seemed to make more work for almost everyone involved in a Healing.

But at the same time, the way the Olders spoke of the cities in their Tellings, nothing there had been destroyed when the people had been killed and the Muties had been born. And that confused Jenna, though she knew none of them had any more answers to her questions than she did, so she knew that she would have to find the answers for herself if she was going to find them at all.

The ruins that she had seen looked like there had been many bad groundshakes since Bombdrop, but she knew too that even a large groundshake wouldn’t do the damage that the Olders had described in their Tellings. Because Bombdrop had happened all over the world, all at the same time, according to many of the Tellings she had listened to as a youngling, and no groundshake could cover the whole world at once, Jenna was sure.

And she wondered if the Muties were responsible for the damage to the buildings that she saw every time she went into the ruins of the nearest city—Chiostae—on a Hunt.

If the people had all been killed, then how were there people alive now, she had asked when she had first heard this Telling. But Mali had explained that some people had been strong enough to get better from the disease that Bombdrop had caused, or they never got sick from it in the first place.

But that had only confused Jenna further, until Labri had reminded her that it was like when she had been a younger youngling and she had been sick and Cole hadn’t because he had already had the sickness she had caught.

And Jenna had finally decided that asking too many questions led to her head hurting from all the information that the Olders carried around in their heads and dispensed when they felt the need to speak up. But, at the same time, she couldn’t stop herself from asking them; they just came out of her, the way fungus came out of the ground after a hard rain.

After that, a lot of her answers had come from Cole—until he went out one suncycle and didn’t come back when the daystar sank into his home in the waves—as had become his habit as soon as he was made a Hunter. She had found out the next suncycle that he had been killed in an accident while he was out Hunting.

After that, she had known that if she wanted answers to her questions, they would have to come from Jerek or from finding them herself. She hurriedly pushed away the memories of how she had grieved for her brother, knowing that they couldn’t help her right now.

Another Telling that Jenna had always found fascinating when she was a youngling had involved there being many more living things in one footlength of the ground in most of the world than Jenna had ever heard of. But Jenna wasn’t sure about that even being possible, except in the deeps of the Foreverdeep Forest to the North of the Fort and the ruined city it had guarded in the days just before Bombdrop.

Or maybe in the deeps of the bay, out beyond the breakers, she thought. But that was something else that she wasn’t going to be able to find out about until she was able to test the theory for herself. And to do that, Jenna knew that she would need the use of a boat. However, that wasn’t going to happen today, and she knew it, so she pushed the enticing notion aside and focused on her plans for the suncycle.

But the Olders insisted that not only was it possible, that was how the world had been, everywhere, not just in the forests. Even in the seas there had been so much life that no one could use all of it, or even see all of it in one lifetime. Then Bombdrop had happened, and everything in the world changed, almost in an instant.

Now, the only places there were still abundant life was in the forests, the seas, and in the ground. Bombdrop hadn’t affected that. And Jenna knew that the people of the Fort were grateful for that; the gardens at the Fort were the most extensive in all the area of the ruined city, as well as the best maintained.

Another thing they insisted was the way the world was, was that there were many different kinds of people, and because of that, tolerance was more appreciated than anger, though tempers sometimes got the better of people who had been kept too close together for too long, Jenna knew from experience. But Jenna knew too that it was true; there were many different kinds of people in the world, and many of them were really good at what they did; their trade goods were of the very highest quality.

However, now the few kinds of people who had survived Bombdrop were scattered, divided into tiny colonies, and struggling to hold onto life as best they could, wherever they could manage to cling to a tiny foothold of their once proud cultures.

And the sky wasn’t brownish gray after a long storm before Bombdrop, like it was now, it was blue and pink, or dark gray with fluffy clouds and rain, or reds, pinks and dusky purples when the daystar went to sleep, and then it would fade to black and anyone could see the little lights through it, like the sky was a vast bowl full of cracks and pinholes, and there was a bright, bright light behind it, showing through.

Gavi had told her about it again last night; going over again what he had been told when he had been a Hunter, seeming like he had forgotten that he had already told her all about it when she had been a youngling, and she remembered this particular Telling better than he did.

But too, she knew that—for some reason—he was having trouble remembering what he had told to whom, and when, and Jenna had found that simply nodding and letting him know that someone found his stories important enough to listen to was good enough to make the Older feel needed once more. And often enough of late, that was good enough for him.

When the sky was clear now, it was more green than blue and pink, and the only time it was brown was during a dust storm, but Gavi’s mind had been wandering worse than usual lately, ranging backwards in his memories to when he had been younger, and the dust storms had been worse; both longer and stronger than they were now.

When he had been young, the sky had always been that dusty brown color that it became after a storm now—there had been no clearing until after he had been an adult for many season cycles. And she wasn’t sure that he even looked up at the sky very often, because of the storms that were so common when he was a youngling. After all, lately when someone looked up, the usual thing that seemed to happen was that they got a faceful of water—or if there was a dust storm on the way—a faceful of dust.

But she wasn’t too sure that she believed the part about the truly bright light that made the little lights in the sky, after all, the daystar was much larger than the little lights, and it was a star too, so they had to be of a similar size as the daystar that shone on their world. And that meant—as far as Jenna could tell, anyway—that the lights in the sky had to be at least as big as the daystar; it was just that maybe they were further away from where their world was, and that was why they appeared to be so small.

It wasn’t that Gavi embroidered the truth, exactly, Jenna thought as she moved through the undergrowth; it was more that the tales he told were so outlandish that they were hard to prove, she had thought as she lay wrapped in her sleep furs that night.

She hadn’t been out of the shafts at night often enough to know for sure one way or the other, though she knew that the little lights were still there; after all, there hadn’t been a rain of them in the skies overhead for more cycles of the seasons than Jenna could remember.

After all, if they were real, they weren’t part of this world—though the people of this world could sometimes see them more clearly than other times—so why would they have gone away simply because they couldn’t be seen, Jenna wondered. Besides, they didn’t affect the rains or the dust storms, the way the two globes in their skies did, so why should she worry about them, she thought as she stood by the Door.

It still rained in the winter and in the spring; it was just that the rain wasn’t something anyone would want to be out in in the winter for the most part; hard, driving needles of icy water mixed with dirt and tiny, sharp rocks that punished more than nourished the plants all around the Fort.

In the spring, the ice wasn’t there anymore, and that was how they knew it was spring. Though the tiny stones were still present year round in the rains, Jenna had noticed that there weren’t as much of them when it rained as there had been when she had been younger.

And when she had been a youngling, Jenna had wondered why the ice should go but the stones would remain when the rains fell on the Fort, but none of the Olders knew, so she had eventually let the matter drift away in the face of more important considerations, like bringing in enough food for the families the Fort housed each day. Or keeping dry in the face of yet another storm.

And this most recent storm had been a really bad one; so bad in fact that many of the Olders had been worried about the shafts flooding with the vast amounts of rain they had gotten. But this time, they hadn’t, and Jenna was just as glad that the storm had passed so quickly this time, but allowed so much of its moisture to fall on the thirsty ground around the Fort. She sighed, thinking, maybe now there won’t be so much dust for a while.

Though she knew that the dust storms were just as bad as the rain storms in the winter, because of the stinging of the tiny stones the wind hurled with such force at anyone caught outside during one. It was just then that Jenna realized that there had been no stones falling with the rain this time, only wave after wave of fine dust filling the rising winds before the rains had begun. And she wondered why that should be, though she was glad of it.

But this was a late summer rain, and there had been wind and a huge dust storm with it, and it had done a fair amount of damage to the plants that crowded ever closer to the Door, though it didn’t seem to have done much to the covers that had been rigged over the filters for the atmospherics for the shafts. And that would please Oseki and Tekken, Jenna knew.

There had been other times when the storm hadn’t passed quickly enough to avoid some level of flooding, even with the pumps working at maximum output. But at the same time, Jenna didn’t want to think about how much work it would be to clear the storm fouled water from the shafts. She also didn’t want to think about how many people’s personal belongings would be damaged or destroyed by the floodwaters, though she knew it had happened before and would happen again in the future.

And she hoped that if the shafts flooded, that people would be more concerned with getting the people safe than with securing possessions; after all, most kinds of items could be replaced, but people’s lives couldn’t be. There were some people who wouldn’t agree with that thought, especially if it was their stuff that was being lost, but she knew that it would be for the greater good that the people be saved and the possessions deliberately left behind.

But at the same time, Jenna wondered about the clouds from before Bombdrop; were they like Vog, so poisonous that you had to stay deep in the shafts to be safe from it, or were they more like the steam that rose from the kettles when the water was being boiled to clean it, even after it had been through the big ‘still in the kitchen corner of the Main Hall twice?

She had wondered that when she had been a youngling, too, but she still didn’t have an answer, and she wasn’t sure that there was one to be had. It crossed her mind again to visit the Scriptorium and find out, but she wasn’t sure she would have the time to do that as well as everything else she had planned and promised to do while she was out this suncycle.

Or were they more likely to be like the smoke that rose from the hearthfire? she asked herself. Jenna shook her head, still confused, but knowing that the clouds that the rain she knew fell from were not like the clouds from before Bombdrop, even if she couldn’t tell how they were different.

But she knew that if she asked about it again, it wouldn’t get anything done; she’d end up spending the day sitting around listening to the old tales again and she still wouldn’t find out what she wanted to know. And she found that she had lost her taste for that type of stillness years ago now when she had finally come to adulthood. Besides, she wasn’t sure that even the oldest of the Olders knew for sure anyway, so what was the good of asking?

But when it had fallen on the people, Bombdrop had ruined the world for most people to live permanently on the surface, it was thought. In the shafts, there was safety to be had for the population of the Fort, even though it was also confining and cramped most of the time, even in most of the larger rooms in the Fort.

And there were other dangers than the close quarters too. People had been known to go a little... lost in their heads from being too close together for too long, she had been told. Though she hadn’t encountered that herself, Jenna thought as she studied the plants and the walls of the Fort as she waited for the dust to finish settling.

That was why they were digging new tunnels, to expand the living spaces they had in the sheltered area of the Fort, Jenna suspected. And Tekken and Oseki had taken on new apprentices to help with the project that Jerek had insisted be begun before he went into the keeping of the spirits, she knew.

But they had also been asked to dig other dwellings that started with their tunnels outside the walls of the Fort, and that worried her a bit, though she knew that the shelters would be needed if their population continued to expand as they had been.

However, being outside brought its own share of perils; predatory animals, weather related dangers, Muties and of course, the Monsters, though none of the Monsters of the plains had ventured this far toward the city in living memory. And she hoped they were being sensible about how they began the tunnels from the outside that eventually led to the newer dwellings they were being asked to make for people; after all, the Muties that lived in the area of the ruins of Chiostae weren’t stupid.

Everyone knew that the Muties knew that tunnels under a building generally led to something good to eat, and they had been known to hunt down people simply to have a ready supply of meat handy. And Jenna knew that Oseki knew that. He wasn’t likely to build in such a way as to attract the attention of a wandering pack of Muties; that was just inviting trouble to come into your home and have you for lunch, she knew. And he made sure to build in all sorts of traps and safety features to keep them out of the houses, even if they found the tunnels.

But that didn’t mean someone wouldn’t step out the door of the Fort into a pack of Muties if’n they left at the wrong time, she knew. And everyone was careful to train in the best methods of dealing with the Muties who lived in the area too, in case that happened to them while they were going out, or coming back in.

The gardens too were inside the walls, so she knew that they were safe, but many times something that was wanted would have to be gathered from outside the walls, and the only way for it to be brought in was if one or more of the Gatherers or the Hunters went out to get it.

And even at that, the gardens had needed more space for seasons, but it wasn’t possible to move the main walls of the Fort to obtain it, so the gardeners had been forced to content themselves with building up instead of building out when it came to expanding the available food growing space.

And now the gardens were far taller than they were wide, and Jenna spent as much time in any given suncycle tending them as many others did. considering what they were growing there was nothing more or less than a part of their future survival.

However, that didn’t mean that no one else ever went out, either. People went out all the time, and really, the only time everyone was actually inside the Fort itself was during the hours of darkness, or during a storm, but especially when they both happened at the same time.

The Hunters—like Jenna and several of the others—went out to get food, water, scavi; whatever they could find. And sometimes they also brought back news. Especially when there was a Trader train due in, Jenna thought, wishing that she knew if there was one due anytime soon.

She would find out soon that Jerek had known for days that there was one due in, but they were running a couple suncycles behind, due to some unexpected hazards across their path. The river that skirted the plains was running higher than normal because of the storms that had blasted the lands to the Northeast of the Fort, and that meant that not only was the river high, but the Chasms might be filled with river hazards that hadn’t been there before.

And to complicate things still further, there seemed to be a fyssch migration going on, of a kind that no one had seen this far upstream in many seasonal cycles; the fyssch were bound to be aggressive and Jerek had hoped that no one would be injured when the trains reached the side of the river and began their crossing.

But Mali hadn’t known anything about it when Jenna had asked her what she and Jerek had discussed, last night before bed. And Jerek hadn’t told Jenna anything when she had been in his chamber to spend time with him this starrise. But at the same time, Jenna hadn’t asked anything of him either; he had looked drawn and tired, so she had held her peace.

She knew that if he felt better later, he might confide his troubles to her again, or he might keep silent about them until after he had corrected whatever had been bothering him. It had happened that way in times past; why should now be any different, Jenna wondered, though she held her silence out of respect for his unspoken wishes for stillness.

***

And this starrise, Labri had said that today looked like being another one of Jerek’s "bad" days, so she wasn’t going to ask him anything that wasn’t to do with helping him get better when Jenna had stopped by his chambers to check on how he had fared over the passage of the darkcycle. Labri had held her peace about her fears for the health of the old Leader when Jenna had been there, knowing too that she wasn’t going to tell Jenna or Minz about how worried she was for him.

There had been entirely too many of those 'bad" days of late, and she was unaware that both Jenna and Minz had noticed that Jerek seemed to be getting worse, instead of better.

***

But Jenna knew that both Labri and Mali were worried for the health of Jenna and Minz’ father. The truth was they both knew that he wouldn’t last much longer, though neither young Hunter would disgrace their family by mentioning that they knew what was happening to Jerek.

Labri had added as Jenna had turned to go, “You might want to be back as soon as you can today, Jenna. He was calling for you—and your Mother—both in his sleep again last night, and I thought I heard him speaking to Cole again too, though I wasn’t sure. I think he has something he wants to tell you, but I don’t plan to wake him until his food is ready, and I know you don’t want to wait that long for getting a start on the day’s Hunt.” Jenna had nodded wordlessly as she studied the way her father was breathing as he lay sleeping in his nest.

***

And Jenna knew that there wasn’t much time left to him before he would rejoin the spirits of the ancestors. There was almost nothing she could do about it, save be present when he was ready to pass on the Mantle of Leadership, but that was something that he would do in his own good time, she knew. However, she knew too that she hoped that he wouldn’t choose to do it while she was out of the Fort on foray, like she had planned for this suncycle.

***

At the same time, Labri shook her head, and sighed, knowing that—no matter what she had said—if Jenna was wise, she would stay out as long as she could today, to make something memorable of one of her last days amongst the Hunters, before she had to take on the mantle of Leadership. However, Labri knew at the same time that Jenna would only do that if she knew that her Father was near death, which Labri knew he wasn’t—not quite yet, though the end could come without warning.

By nightfall, he could be, she knew. If he got much worse over the course of the daystar’s transit across the sky, he could be gone before Jenna got back from her Hunt, no matter how much she hoped otherwise. And they didn’t have anything left of the medicinal plants that could have helped with his sickness; they were only known to grow in one place nearby.

That was a journey of many suncycles to get to the place where the plants were grown as a trade item by a people called the Tyyela that looked a bit like Winslee that had chosen to walk upright and learned to communicate in a language that many others could speak.

And she was also aware that Jenna knew it, so she knew that Jenna would be likely to take as much time as the passage of the daystar allowed her in the hopes of finding some of the very rare plants that were his only hope, only trying to be back inside the walls of the Fort by the time the daystar was on his way to his rest once more.

“I’ll try, Labri, but you know it takes as long as it takes to bring stuff back.” Jenna had said quietly, not wanting to wake Jerek before he was ready to be awake, and had slipped out of her Father’s chamber before Labri could come up with something else to delay her departure for the morning.

But the whole time, Jenna had been uncomfortably aware that there was something that Labri was trying to keep to herself about Jerek’s condition, though the Healer didn’t think that she had mentioned anything that might have given that opinion to the younger woman.

And Jenna knew that the time was coming soon that her Father was planning to hand over leadership of the people to her; he knew that he was growing too weak to lead them effectively, and she was aware that he knew too that they would need a strong leader.

To that end, he had chosen Jenna more than three seasonal cycles ago and began training her to take over the leadership when he went to the realm of the spirits.

But Jerek hadn’t known that Jenna knew that she had been his second choice; her brother Cole had been the original heir of the mantle, but Cole had died in a hunting accident slightly more than three seasonal cycles ago—just before Jerek had begun her training, and Jenna had figured it out about a mooncycle afterwards, after she had grieved as much as she could for the brother she had loved.

Shaking her head over her worries already that starrise as she had closed the Door as quietly as she could behind her, Jenna heard again in her memories, “You never knows what you’ll find, m’girl, when you step out that Door. So, keep ‘em skinned, keep ‘em rangin’. All senses on alert, whene’er you’re out an’ about!”

And in that instant, Jenna remembered that Gavi had said that the night before, out of nowhere, while they had sat around the hearthfire, cooking her most recent lucky find: a pair of very large rasts, a few handfuls of bogberries, some of the red shelf fungus that nearly everyone in the Fort liked, and some shootreed roots that were still firm with short greens.

That was something that there were almost always reasonable quantities of available, at the beginning of the cycle of seasons, she knew. And this morning’s foray had already proved how right he was.

Just outside the Door, she had looked down, only to find a cluster of Pisos the size of her head, just sitting by her feet! Looking ahead, she spotted another, much larger one, less than three footlengths away from the first one, and she knew that the fungi were responding to the rains that had fallen last night.

That meant that there might be more that were ready to be harvested in the ruins, and that decided her as to where she was going to be spending much of her Hunt while the daystar made his journey across the sky to his home in the waves. At the same time, she knew too that there would still be much wild food that was available, and it was her responsibility to bring in her share of the plants as well as the meat that any Hunter would willingly bring in, as well as any scavi that she happened across.

And she thought then that maybe there would be more bogberries that were ready to be harvested in the place she had found those handfuls last evening just before she got back to the Fort only instants ahead of full dark, but she would have to head back there to find out, and that might be a bit farther than she really wanted to go today.

She had been further than that in a single suncycle before—many times—but she knew that she was needed closer to home today, and she didn’t want to be too far away if her Father needed her for anything, even though she had promised to gather the stingleaves for Mali. And she wondered again where the spirits of people went when someone passed on; did they go to the Blade of the Ancients?

Glancing into the sky, to where the Blade showed up as a fuzzy purple band against the creamy, greeny-blue of the sky, she decided she hoped that was what happened.

Jenna had no idea what else she was going to find, but she had a feeling that it was going to change everything in her life as she reached down, quickly gathered up the big cluster of Pisos and a portion of the other, stuffing them into her harvesting bag, as she thought that Mali would be glad to see these big ones for the cloth that she was going to dye later in the mooncycle.

And she knew then that many of the other species of fungi that her people relied on would likely be ready to be harvested as well. So she probably should be looking for more of the fungi while she was out.

At the same time, she hoped that the other Hunters had as good luck as she had had so far, though she wasn’t sure that she would wish that for young Minz; that young woman seemed like she thought she had the right of Command, but she didn’t. That right was reserved for the oldest of the Olders, and that was Jerek, until he passed on into the keeping of the spirits of the land and sky once more, Jenna thought grimly.

Minz should think more about the fact that their Father was sick, Jenna thought worriedly, knowing that Minz seemed to only think of herself, not others.

Jenna knew that could be any time; he had been sick, and getting worse for the past several suncycles and Labri—the Healer—was getting more and more worried for him with each passing day. And more and more frustrated with the lack of knowing what more could be done to ease his pain, though she was always trying new ideas to see if they would help.

However, she had sadly told Jenna not even a suncycle ago that they were out of the healing plant that Labri had been using to treat his failing lungs; a broad leafed plant that grew in poorly drained soil, had smooth gray basal leaves, and a large central flower spike shaped like a padiwerwing tree and covered with tiny cream colored flowers that seemed furry, like some of the wings of the other types of flyers that filled the skies.

And Jenna knew from the description of the plant that it was one that she had never seen herself; she wouldn’t know what she was looking for if she went out hunting for it between here and the Tyyela.

But Jenna knew that there wasn’t the time to go and get any from the Tyyela; Jerek wasn’t going to wait much longer before he began his journey to the realms of the spirits, and she also knew how upset Labri would be when it happened. And Jenna hoped that she would have the time and energy to be comforting to Labri for the loss, but she knew from her training that it might not be that way, simply because she wished it so.

But at the same time, there was nothing more that could be done than Labri was already doing for Jerek each suncycle that he remained with them, beyond see that he didn’t suffer any pain. And in case of the worst, Jenna knew that Labri knew that Jerek had already been training her—as his heir—to lead the population of the Fort for the past three cycles of the seasons because of the possibility.

Jenna knew too that she would have to take over if he did, and that thought made her feel very tired and sad.

On the one hand, she knew that she had absorbed much of his training in leadership of the clan over the past three seasonal cycles, but on the other, she wasn’t sure that she was the right choice for the one to lead the people of the Fort into the future.

And she worried that he might have chosen poorly, though she knew that she would do her best to uphold his training and his confidence in her abilities. And regardless of her own failings, she was still a better choice than his youngest youngling, Jenna’s sister, Minzajiara.

But he had known that Jenna would get tired of being inside the Fort all the time, so he had suggested last night—his voice thin and reedy with pain and effort—that it would be good for her to do something else in the morning for a change of pace. And Jenna had jumped at the chance, as he had known that she would.

This was the first time Jenna had been able to attend her Hunter duties for the past handful of suncycles, and she knew she was glad to be outside, even if it was only to go to the creek to fetch stingleaves for Mali and perhaps a few Wildshake fungus for Labri to use in helping treat Jerek’s worsening tremors. And she hoped that he wouldn’t fail while she was away from the security of the Fort, though Jenna knew she had to face the possibility that he might.

Shaking off such morbid thoughts, Jenna wondered if it was too early in the season for the great yellow shelf fungi that Mali liked so well. And she knew that if she found some, she would make a special trip back to the Fort to bring it to Mali as a gift.

Oh well, if I find some, I find some, Jenna thought as she stood by the Door, absorbing the sounds of the morning that were beginning to go on all around her; small scufflings in the fading shadows, growling in the distance that faded away and many other sounds too softly expressed for her to immediately know what they had been.

Suddenly, Jenna’s sharp ears twitched as she caught a soft, almost... slithering sound, from very close by, and she had her glowing kiv out and activated before she had consciously thought about what the sound could mean.

Glancing around again, she spotted a turawee slipping out of the shadows on the other side of the frame of the Door, and she was in motion almost before she realized she had planned to be, exactly like what had happened with the rast last night.

A sizzling swish, a tiny, shrill squeak, and the turawee’s head was missing, and the body dropped to the ground at her feet while the head rolled a couple feet away.

There was almost no blood, but what little had leaked out—from where the turawee’s head had been removed from the creature’s body by her kiv—she covered with a little bit of scuffed up dirt from the ground. And then she covered the smaller spot of blood that had formed where the head had sat after it had come to a stop, murmuring a prayer of thanksgiving to the spirits for the gift of the turawee’s life.

Stuffing the body into her bag with the Pisos and collecting the head by the tuft of singed looking fur at the top of its crest as well, she began walking quickly away from where she had stood in front of the Door before beginning the morning’s hunt. The turawee would make a perfect firstmeal for her, Jenna thought as she planned quickly where she was going first to cook it.

She knew that she had been asked to pick fresh stingleaves today for Mali’s mate’s joint-ail, but that was a job best done when the light was high, Jenna knew, so that would wait until after her firstmeal. But not long after that was done, she would have to go get the leaves that she had promised to fetch for them, Jenna knew.

She was heading through the thin trees toward the ruins that were nearest the Fort, aiming for the entry that had been carved into the tallest of the towers in the ancient city that morning, knowing that most of the top of the tower was flat—except for the overhang that was formed of one section of stone that held up a portion of another level above the spot where so many Hunters before her had lit small fires—and a good place to sit and watch the daystar rise from his rest.

After all, it was quiet and peaceful up there, and she would be able to see for many li in every direction, and that would help her plan out how best to accomplish all of what she wanted to do with the day she had been given by her Father.

And perhaps she would even be able to find the time while she was there to think about how she was going to deal with the scene her sister was almost sure to stage when their Father passed into the keeping of the spirits, though Jenna wasn’t sure what she would be able to do about Minz’ temper tantrum.

The overlook that was formed by the overhang gave a commanding view of the rest of the vast ruins of the city of Chiostae, but for now, all she wanted was a place to cook her turawee in peace and to be able to sit and watch the daystar rise without interruption while she ate her morning meal and thought about what she was going to have to do eventually about her sister and many of the other problems of the people of the Fort who would so soon be Jenna’s responsibility to lead.

After firstmeal was soon enough to begin exploring for the day, Jenna thought, beginning the climb that would lead her to the lookout perch near the top of the Tower. For now, she wanted to see what the dust had done to the ruins, if anything, and see if the muties were awake as yet, if she could see them through the dust that was still settling to the ground.

She knew she may not have been able to see Noam Peak, or even the tip of the peak of Mount Ilfhie from there, but she knew from the many Tellings of the Olders of the Fort that the two mountains to the northwest and nearly due west were present and their names.

And if she were to turn—just a little to her left—she might see one hump of the smaller range of mountains that she had heard called the World Spire where it stood as though it was guarding the path that led deeper into the valley.

And further down that path were places like Sakamlio on the coast and Dzeyon, which lay further yet to the south. She knew there were still people who lived that far away, but those places were so many suncycles away that she had never been there.

She only heard of people coming from as far away as Sakamlio once in her lifetime, but she knew that there were Trader trains from there that occasionally got this far north, and that meant there were enough people there to make the things that the Traders carried to be traded for with other people still in Tocosquai.

It seemed like the world around her was completely still as she climbed the Tower, as though all Life in the area was holding its collective breath. And, as she reached the flat ledge near the curved top where so many generations of Hunters before her had stood sentry duty for the clan and the colony that made their homes near this upthrust stone near the edge of the ruins, she had unslung her bow from her back where she normally carried it.

Looking out the opening in the stones, seeing the ruins of the ancient crystalline city spread out before her like a patched fur blanket—the individual ruins rising out of the enshrouding layer of dust from last night’s storm like sticks from an ice choked pond—she began to feel a tiny caress of a breeze again that grew stronger as it moved through the hollow where she stood.

As it touched her skin and shifted the thickly braided Hunter’s lock she wore on the right side of her head, she sighed in contentment, knowing that it was bringing her the scents of Life as it stirred the tips of her crest as well and the lower tips of the feathers of her wings.

But, at the same time, she knew that she couldn’t afford to relax too much up here; this was more than just a good vantage point to see out from.

It was also a wonderful place to see if anyone was keeping an eye on what was going on around the Tower. And she knew that if Jerek heard of her breaking the first rule of the Hunt—Never allow your opponent to see your position—he would be most upset and that would make his condition worse. And that was something that she knew she didn’t want to do, ever.

Jenna knew that she owed him her allegiance, even if he hadn’t been the Hunt Leader; he was the man of her heart, and that made him even more important to her. And because of that, she knew that she didn’t want to do anything that would make his difficulties worse.

Below her, in the thickening fringe of woods on the other side of the Tower, she knew by scent on the breeze that the branchorns would be coming down to the water’s edge to get their first long drinks of the suncycle soon, and the hunting would be good by the water, for about two hands of the time it took the light in the sky to move.

And in the shroud of dust over the ruins, she thought she could hear the beginnings of the movement of the muties for the suncycle, though she knew that until she saw them, she wouldn’t be sure that they were even in the ruins at all. And she knew too that going into the ruins herself would have to wait until after more of the thick layer of dust left from last night’s storm had settled.

After that short amount of time had passed, there wouldn’t be much of anything available on this area of the water, but small creatures like rasts or turawees, myca, rovers or even long eared leapers available there for a good chunk of the suncycle in this section of the woods. And the Hunters in this section of the Foreverdeep would find themselves forced to look elsewhere for opportunities to bring in meat for the Fort.

And Jenna knew that would make things harder for her as well. In that instant, in the distance, she heard the hooting hunting cry of a number of Muties, and she knew that staying where she was until she knew the direction their hunt was taking them was only good sense.

But there were plenty of other streams and small rivers in the Foreverdeep forest. And many of the bodies of water there had lots of different kinds of fyssch swimming in them that were very good to eat in Jenna’s estimations, as well as other things that grew or hunted in the area that were just as tasty as the turawee—that was soon to be sizzling over her fire—would be when it was finished cooking.

Maybe she would take Minz and go to the coast for a couple suncycles and gather various sea foods, Jenna thought as she worked on clearing the dust from the spot where the fire was going to be. But she knew it wouldn’t be today. Maybe tomorrow, she thought as she finished pushing the old ashes off the edge of the overlook to the small but growing ashpile at the bottom of the Tower. And she knew too that she wasn’t going to be headed back to the Fort for a while today either.

At the same time, however, she hoped that she would have the patience to work with her sister on a foray again, though she knew she wouldn’t find out until she tried.

The last time, they hadn’t found anything and Minz had spent the entire suncycle blaming Jenna for their poor luck in the harvest. Jenna shook her head and scoffed softly, knowing that she hoped nothing like that happened this time, but she couldn’t predict what her sister would do or say from one suncycle to the next.

At least, not until the daystar was on the downward limb of his journey, she knew. Then, a whole different cast of players were drawn to the water’s edge, and many of them were predatory, even though many of them were also good to eat in Jenna’s opinion. And she knew that when she was done with her meal, she likely would be heading down to the water herself to see if there was any chance for her to get one of the branchorns today to augment the food supplies of the population at the Fort.

Especially the four or five nursing mothers, who needed the extra nutrients for their new babies. Because they couldn’t produce the milk their babies needed if they couldn’t find enough to eat. After all, that and the chance for a little scavi were the main reasons she was out here today, other than the stingleaves she had been sent for.

As she thought about the stingleaves, Jenna knew that she would have to bring back more than she knew Mali needed; several of the others had already mentioned that they wanted some to be brought the next time she was able to go out on foray.

This was the next time she had been able to find two fingers of time to rub together, so she knew that this would have to be the foray when she gathered enough of the tasty leaves to be able to give some to everyone who had asked her to bring them some.

Having cleaned her small kill quickly a little bit later, Jenna gathered materials for a small but smokeless fire in the shelter of the overhanging capstone of the Tower itself. Arranging them to her satisfaction, she carefully shook out the coal she had been carrying from the covered stone cup at her belt into the dry tinder she was planning to use that morning.

Once her fire was going to her satisfaction, she sat back on her heels and looked around at her surroundings after arranging the skinned turawee over the flames and rolling the hide for transport back to Berti, whose current passion involved tanning hides into leather.

And she knew that if she was able to bring him one, the tanner would really enjoy having a branchorn hide to work on, along with anything else she got that suncycle. So she knew that she would be trying for one to bring in to the supplies for the Fort. But it would have to wait until after she was done with what she was doing right now, she thought as she watched the flames curling around the edges of her turawee.

However, at the same time, she knew that she would also be thinking about how many other pelts she could get that day for Berti to work with, and wondering how much longer it would be before the rover pelt she had brought in a few suncycles ago would be ready to made into something useful.

And as she thought about the colony’s hide worker, she wondered why the rovers didn’t seem to like the area around the Tower, though most of the time she was grateful for it, whatever the reason was.

The Tower looked like a natural stone formation, but it didn’t at the same time; the edges of the almost square reddish stones in its creation were just a little too sharp to have been randomly created by Nature, and many of the shapes within showed more clearly the hand of Man in their design.

But the body of the Tower was empty space after so many cycles, though it could have housed many against the cold seasons, Jenna thought, as she usually did while waiting for her coals to be right to cook her turawee.

And she knew too that it was different from many of the other buildings in the ruins that had been the crystal city of Chiostae, in the years before Bombdrop. And she wondered if it had been shaped the same way the others had, or if there had been some other method employed in its creation.

Dark stains on the stone over her head told her that many others had done the same thing, time and again, so she knew that what little smoke her fire made would cling to the stone until it found small holes to trickle out of and escape without filling the interior of the space where she was. And the breeze toying with the hanging vines all around the open space at the edge of the Lookout showed her another way the smoke could go as well as she let her thoughts roam over the types of food she could bring into the Fort when she returned this time.

The season was getting too late for the giant clouds of multicolored leaping insects that devoured every sign of living green on the plains outside the edges of Chiostae, so that resource was gone for another cycle, unless the steady rains came early this cycle, then retreated once again, like they had done once before during Jenna’s lifetime, she thought as she added a little more fuel to her small fire and watched the flames as they danced as though for joy.

It had rained hard last night, but that might not be enough to bring on a flush of the insects, she knew, though she hoped that it would.

It had been about ten season cycles ago that the last really good flush of the giant insects had been brought in just that way, if Jenna remembered correctly, she thought reminiscently.

As she sat remembering the delicious flavor of insect stew with wild grains and roots in it to thicken the stew, she wondered how hard it would be to try to get people together for a foray to see if there was any possibility of finding the insects where they usually could be found before the weather shifted completely to the cold that Jenna knew was coming. After all, if they had a couple suncycles of warm weather without more rain or dust storms, then there might be a chance.

Thinking about the insects only made her hungrier, and she was suddenly grateful that she already had her turawee over the fire cooking. There hadn’t been as many of the massive whirring clouds of insects this year, for some reason, Jenna thought, and she wondered why that was. And the few clouds that had been seen had been so far out on the plains that it was only deemed safe to try for one of the nearest of them. And that hadn’t lasted anywhere near long enough to preserve most of the insects for later use.

Many families in the Fort only had a few pounds of the precious commodity left to them right now, and Jenna knew that it would soon fall to her to say which clouds of the insects they would be best able to try for. And that made her hope even more that there would be a shift in the weather that would allow the insects to return even one more time before the cold season closed in around them like a hard fist.

But then she remembered something else about hunting for the giant insects; it required going out to the plains outside the ruined city, and if the clan was going to have enough of them, every able bodied person had to help with the harvest. And that thought made her nervous, for some reason, though she wasn’t exactly sure why it should.

However, there were always greatgrubs to be gathered, as well as the possibility of finding a few of the faliryari, so she knew that there would likely be a large kettle of insect stew going on the hearth in the kitchen corner as soon as someone came back with the grubs or the faliryari to put into it.

Even though the giergloy were quite large—as long as Jenna’s hand in some cases, and nearly as long as the first joint of her wing in others—it never seemed like they had enough of them, and many times the insects hadn’t lasted more than two or three meals. They were very popular as a meat source amongst the clans, Jenna knew. But the insects likely weren’t going to come back until next cycle, and Jenna knew it.

However, there was also danger in going out on the plains to gather insects; many other things liked the tasty creatures too, and some of them wouldn’t hesitate to take a human too if chance put one across their path, she knew from experience. She had seen it happen when she was younger when the whole clan had gone on foray to the plains.

And she didn’t want that to happen again; their clan was already too small as it was. And another baby had arrived stillborn last night; the young parents were already in mourning for their lost child, though they had another amongst the living that still needed their almost full-time attention.

But the day was too nice to spend it thinking about those who had died, so Jenna deliberately turned her thoughts back to the tasty insects once more. If they were able to go out on foray for them, even one more time, she knew that the fine nets would need to be in good repair, and the carrying bags that she hoped would be loaded with tasty cargo within moments of beginning the Hunt.

And that meant that she would have to find out what was going on with the repairs to the nets from the last Hunt as soon as she got back to the Fort this darkcycle.

She had helped gather insects this season too; she always did, but they had been lucky this time. The Monsters had been in another part of the plains, and though the clan had seen two or three of them from a distance, no one had gotten hurt this time. And she knew that they might not have as good luck if they went out again. But, at the same time, she knew that if the opportunity presented itself, she would have to at least try to take advantage of it.

Especially if the signs she had seen already that were pointing at a hard winter were at all accurate; she knew they were going to need as much food as they could store and more. And she knew that if they weren’t lucky, there would be more Tellings about the Monsters that were born from the encounter.

For example, she had spent many nights around the hearthfire, listening to the Olders speaking of people who had crossed paths with some of the Monsters of the plains, even on the most innocent of errands, and had gotten mauled for their presence. One or two had escaped to tell the tales, but for the most part, in the most of the tales the Olders told the younglings around the hearthfires, no one got away from the monsters, once they had grabbed someone.

And in that instant, Jenna wondered again where the Monsters had come from, and what the muties did about them, if anything. But she knew it wasn’t likely that she would find out about it, even if someone else did know amongst the Olders in the Fort.

Labri had mentioned that she thought the muties might be intelligent enough to trade with, though she had no idea what they might want, or what they could have to trade, or even how they would be able to communicate their desires to a person if someone were to try to trade with them. But if they had some way to conquer the Monsters of the plains, then maybe it was worth talking about.

But that too could wait; right now, all Jenna wanted to deal with was waiting until her turawee was cooked enough for her to risk scorching her mouth on the still sizzling flesh. At the same time, she knew that the weather would be the key to bringing back the insects that she hoped to be able to find sometime in the next few suncycles.

A good storm—like the one that had pounded the Fort last night—followed by a few warm suncycles would possibly bring one out last good flush of the insects, as well as several of the many different kinds of fungi that were prized by their people, Jenna knew from what Gavi had told her about the fungi in the past and her own past experience.

And though she wasn’t sure he was telling her the truth on some things, she knew she had no real reason to doubt his words about the insects or the fungi, but she didn’t know if that would happen this cycle.

Or what she would do if he was wrong about what he had told her, and she knew that until she saw proof one way or the other, she wasn’t planning to rely on what he had told her on either topic. Experience was a better teacher than what another person told you at any rate, Jenna knew.

And she had found that to be the truth over her years as a Hunter. But, she also knew that some things you could only learn through pain, and those were harder to endure; things like how long you could go without eating, drinking, sleeping or even breathing.

She had learned a very painful lesson when she had tried holding her breath for longer than another of the young Hunters when she was younger; he had won and she had lost consciousness. Labri had had to revive her with a thump to the chest, and Jenna had also received a sound scolding from Jerek for having put herself at such risk that suncycle.

And now Jenna knew that competitiveness was acceptable, but foolhardy risk and stubborn pride in competition was not.

But that didn’t stop her wanting to be the best Hunter the clan had ever had, and that meant that she had excelled at the training that was compulsory for young Hunters with their weapons of choice, in Jenna’s case, her bow, sling, daggers and her kiv.

And while her clan could survive on small creatures or even the insects that seemed to flourish in the area—they had before this, and likely would have to again in the future—she also knew that they needed to get something the size of a Cloudfur or four or five branchorns each if they were to be assured of having enough meat stored to feed everyone over the coming cold.

And it would be better—for the food supplies of the clan as a whole—if every hunter who went out over the next sevencycle were to be lucky enough—or smart enough—to get something about the same size too, Jenna knew. Or even over the next mooncycle, Jenna thought as she looked her turawee over, hoping that it was done enough to be able to eat it as she pulled it off the fire for a moment.

Testing the meat with the tip of one finger, she decided that it wasn’t quite done enough to suit her preferences and put it back over the coals once more, turning it so that it would cook evenly, and she sighed, rubbing at her stomach, hoping that the turawee would finish cooking quickly, and that her hunger would wait until the food was ready to be eaten. And she knew that she would have to work out what exactly she was going to try to bring in while she was out here this starrise.

A Cloudfur would be nice to have... or a Blackhorn, but I would need some help to bring even a young one of either kind of creature in, I think. Though their hides make some of the nicest sleepfurs...

But the Cloudfurs were far to the south at the moment, feeding on the vast stands of wild rivergrain that grew along the course of the river that led to the delta and then to the coast. They would be back when they had finished fattening up for the winter, their current crop of younglings in tow behind them.

Blackhorns were bigger yet, but they were on the far edge of the plains, with all the Monsters of the plains between them and where Jenna was right now, so Jenna knew that she wouldn’t be able to bank on getting one of them anytime soon, though she knew that it would certainly help. And she couldn’t help wondering what the other Hunters were planning to try for this suncycle.

There were many things in the area that were the size of a Branchorn, and others that were bigger, like a Cloudfur, for example, or a Blackhorn. But members of those two species were too big for a single Hunter to bring down on their own; those creatures needed the cooperative efforts of all the Hunters to bring down an adult of either species.

Though even one of them would feed them very well for more than a sevencycle. And Jenna wondered when there was going to be another community Hunt; there hadn’t been one since they had brought down that pair of young Blackhorns at the start of spring.

And that was something she knew she would have to think more about, for when Jerek passed into the keeping of the spirits once more. Though she might be able to suggest that there should be another soon, and cite the shrinking amount of preserved meats currently stored in the supply cavern as her evidence of the growing need.

She would have to hope that her Father would decide that she had been right if she brought her concerns to him so soon after the most recent communal Hunt. But for right now, she watched from her high perch, thinking about how to solve that problem as she ate when her meal was finished cooking.

After her meal, Jenna carefully put out all but one of the coals of her fire, loaded that one into the covered cup that she kept for that purpose and climbed up to the flattened upper curvature of the Tower, put the bones of her turawee into her bag for later use, then launched herself into the sky with a hard pushing downstroke of her wings.

She flew out from the Tower for several minutes and then spiraling down into the woods below and to the north of the foot of the Tower, intent on getting one of the Branchorns she knew by scent were down at the water’s edge still.

She selected her prey carefully from the air, gliding above the course of the creek the small herd of branchorns stood beside, and had drawn back the bowstring to allow for the best shot to drop the one she had selected where it stood with its forelegs in the water, without panicking the rest of the herd, knowing that would have broken the third Rule of the Hunt: Never allow your prey to suffer for your needs. They are your brothers and sisters as much as we are. Compassion in all things, and compassion will be yours.

The arrow had flown straight and true, striking and piercing the hide smoothly; the beast simply dropped into the water, as she had intended as the rest of the herd ambled downstream because of her arrival, not due to the death in their midst. A few seconds later, Jenna had landed not far away and quickly crossed the distance to the wounded branchorn, drawing her knife and slitting its throat to complete the kill, allowing it to bleed out into the water.

“Thank you for sharing the gift of your life with me and my clan, my sister. Your blessing will not be forgotten as you wend your way back to the spirits of the Ancestors.” Jenna murmured as she began the process of cleaning her kill beside the stream.

However, the hunt had gone entirely too quickly for Jenna’s tastes, and she knew she was going to have to bring in more than simply a single branchorn anyway. So, after she had finished cleaning her branchorn and had put into the spacious pack she carried, she went in search of the stingleaves she had been requested to bring back, knowing that was something that would take time to gather enough of the leaves for Mali and Labri’s uses plus a little extra for cooking for the clan. After all, stingleaves were some people’s very favorite vegetable, Jenna knew.

But at the same time, the bag—no matter how much of any one thing she put into it, it never felt like it weighed more than about five or six pounds; never even felt full, and she knew that it was among the special items the ancestors had had, before Bombdrop for special trips in which they had had to cover great distances but carry enough food to be able to travel for many suncycles in any direction.

The branchorn had weighed more than Jenna did; she’d had to wrestle it into the bag in the first place, but once it was within, the weight dropped away to nothing noticeable, and she knew she would be able to carry it for hours yet before she had to be concerned about how much weight she was carrying.

And maybe while she was there, she would try for some of the fyssch that she knew were in that section of the stream, she thought, catching sight of her net where it lay, folded neatly away at the bottom of her hunting pack. Fyssch are good... but the big ones are sometimes harder to catch in just a little net like mine... Jenna thought, thinking about what she wanted to do next, and well aware that predators would be drawn to the scent of the meat she was already carrying, if she hadn’t put it in her pack already.

She thought as she followed the path of the water upstream to the pool at OnaMie, skirting the downed bridge that had once spanned the dam that had held back the body of the pool, and the loop of the river that had resulted from the collapse of the bridge, I’m glad I have my net with me...and if all else fails, I’ll use it for carrying food in as well.

After all, that really big patch of stingleaf was growing on the banks of the pool at OnaMie, and that was always a good place for things like ground crawling spiralshells, fireshells, fuzzcones, hotglobes, sweetpods, greenweed, roundleaf, and both the sweet and the starchy kind of groundtubers, all of which many of the people in the Fort had mentioned being almost out of already.

But, at the same time, in amongst the some of the more fancifully shaped buildings in the ruins was a better place to find the fuzzcones, Jenna knew; they seemed to like the places people had lived before Bombdrop. And they would be bigger there than they would be out here in the patches nearest the water’s edge or under the trees that were back from the water a bit.

But after she was done with picking the stingleaves—if it wasn’t too late in the suncycle by then—Jenna planned to head into the section of the ruins where she had left off in her explorations the last time she had been given an entire suncycle for her own uses, where she was going to begin gathering the silver and copper colored fungi which her people called Masipe that would be growing on the cream colored stone of certain buildings in the ruins.

If there were any there to be picked, she thought as she picked stingleaves and watched the water beside her feet, knowing that the fyssch still needed to be caught if she was going to have them to bring back to the Fort this evening. As she picked, she wondered how the ancestors had built their buildings in such straight, yet curving lines, though she knew it wasn’t too likely that she would get to find out.

And she wondered where she would look for Dyuck eggs at the moment; the last time she had been out for them, they had been closer to the clearing where the birds rested after they had been floating for most of the morning.

However, she knew that once the younglings that were traveling with their mother were fully fledged, there wouldn’t be any more eggs until spring, which was why she and the other Hunters had been judiciously stealing eggs from the females, knowing that if there were a few eggs missing, the dyuck hen in question would simply lay to make up the difference, though it wouldn’t stop her setting on the ones she already had. And since there were hundreds of the birds nesting in the area all at the same time, it wasn’t any chore to gather eggs in the spring.

But now that it was so late in the season, Jenna knew that it was more a question of stealth, to find a nesting female and steal the entire nest from under her. And the Hunters had made a game of seeing how many they could get in a day without disturbing the females from their nests.

However, that only worked if they knew where the last few dyucks were nesting at this time of the summer. With a shake of her head, while Jenna had been nearest the fallen bridge, she gave up on the idea of finding any more dyuck eggs for now; there were more important things to be done while she was here. And she knew that she would have to head out into the ruins too if she planned to get everything that she had thought about collecting while she was out of the Fort.

There were also several young Wildshake fungi growing nearby, Jenna noticed later when she had arrived in the ruins after gathering the stingleaves, the fyssch and the other items she had gone to the water to get that morning, and she remembered to gather two or three for Labri, hoping that there would be room enough in her pack for all of what she was finding this time, and knowing that it was likely that there would be.

Then, a few paces ahead, on the path between the crumbling remains of two half intact buildings that seemed to have been made of pure crystal at the edge of where the forest met the more intact of the ruins at the edge of the city center, she saw several of the more brightly colored species of fungi that her people considered edible that grew in the ruins at this time of the cycle, so she gathered a few of them as well, only subconsciously noticing the slight skritching of the small shards of crystal under her feet as she walked further into the ruins.

The path before her seemed to sparkle with the shards in an abrupt break in the growing overcast, and Jenna knew there was another storm brewing. And as the light opened out of the break in the sky, she gasped in awe at the sudden beauty of the spectacle before the light could fade as the rent in the sky over her head closed again. A few seconds later, she bent to see something she thought that she had seen when the light had traced over the path in front of her.

Getting closer to what she thought she had seen, she realized that it was what she thought it could have been, and she pried it out of the ground where some heavy foot had pushed it, who knew how long ago, and looked at her prize in the light as she brushed the dirt and shards of crystal from the shape in her fingertips.

Deciding that she was going to put this one with her others, she stuffed it into her pocket, and hoping that she would find others, she looked back to where she had found this first one, and she smiled as she found three more within a few steps, and a couple more a couple steps beyond them.

In the end, as she pried herself away from that spot, she had found more than a double handful of the little stones with the numbers on them—she had been collecting them off and on since she had been a youngling—of various sizes, shapes and color patterns, including one really pretty set of seven of them that looked like they had been made of some sky blue stone with brown and green bands running through it and the numbers painted in some yellow metal. And she was surprised to find them here—normally they were only to be found deep in the ruins—and her Father had forbidden her to go looking for any more if it put her life in danger again.

But she was reasonably sure that she wasn’t in any such danger now; after all, there weren’t any chances that she was going to fall into a bottomless pit while she was trying to grab one last stone this time. And the section of the ruins she was in was one that she frequently went to in search of the fungi that were such a necessary part of life for her people.

And she shook her head, knowing that she likely wouldn’t find out why they had been out on an open path. All she could do was enjoy them for their beauty and hope that she would be able to find more of them the next time she was able to get back to this section of the city as she went back to harvesting fungi, gradually filling an entire pouch in her bag with them.

There were lots of the tiny but vibrantly purple-green fuzzcones sticking up like little flowerbuds in amongst the shattered chunks of wood that littered the ground near where she had come out of the woods a few steps later, a handful of brilliant scarlet marlfeythers beyond them, a few goldcrowns back under the branches of the nearest of the trees, and several big clusters of the bright pink skyledges that were growing on the side of one of the largest trees in the area, and she was glad to find them in such numbers.

They were one of her sister’s favorite foods, and she knew that Minz would be glad to have them, even if she didn’t get to gather them herself. And in the long run, they might serve as something of a peace offering between them for last night’s disagreement.

She hoped that Minz wouldn’t disdain them, simply because they had come from Jenna’s harvest, but the chance was always there that Minz would simply reject them out of hand because her sister had touched them. And if that was the case, then Jenna would simply eat some of them herself and not feel guilty about it, because it was her right as the harvester who had brought them in.

Glancing up, Jenna realized it was getting later than she had thought—or the storm was moving faster than she had thought—and she knew that she would have to hurry if she was going to get back to the Fort before full dark or the storm broke and she was caught out in it.

That wasn’t something that she wanted to have happen, so she turned and headed back to the Fort as quickly as her wings could carry her in the suddenly stiff breeze that told her that the storm she had seen coming in was almost on top of her.

Flying as hard as she could, Jenna made it back to the Door as darkness was falling, and she had opened the Door as the storm broke with a rumbling boom that shook the frame of the Door, and knocked her sprawling as the wind blew in a fierce gust behind her. Then the wind was cut off as the weight of the Door swung shut behind her once more, closing the wind out and her inside the sheltering space of the Fort.

And the storm roared and howled all around the Fort as she headed to the kitchen with the supplies she had brought in, hoping that she hadn’t broken any of the fuzzcones or the other fungi when she had fallen. Jenna also hoped that her Father was still okay, and she knew that his chamber would have to be one of the first places she went after she had dropped off the branchorn, the fyssch and the fungi she had brought in from this foray into the area outside the Fort.

But when she arrived, he seemed fine, if a bit stiff of wing, and she wondered why Labri had been so worried about him that morning. By the end of the evening, she knew better, though; he had been coughing, and she had caught him coughing up blood onto a cloth that was already liberally spotted with old blood; a sure indication that he was still very sick, and getting worse, not better like he insisted that he was.

For the next few suncycles, the light was muted as the storm raged all around them, and the pumps had to be kept going the whole time to keep the rain out of the tunnels and the rooms that people nested in, at least. And Jenna stayed by her Father’s side for hours; running errands all over the Fort for him, fetching and carrying all sorts of things he said he wanted brought to his study for him to peruse. Maps, scrolls, and some of his precious hard bound books were among the items he most often requested, but none of them had the information he sought.

None of them contained a cure for what was wrong with his lungs, and by the time the storm had peaked in intensity, he knew what Labri had known for days; he was dying. But the garden profited from such intensive watering, and soon the plants there that survived the storm were larger than they had been expected to be by this time of their growth.

During the storm, Jenna attended to her studies with Jerek, ate and slept, but she slept poorly; her sleep was troubled by incredibly vivid dreams that she didn’t understand when she wasn’t dreaming about being the one to find his lifeless body.

Or worse, the ones where he sat up and tried to tell her something, but though she could see his mouth moving, she couldn’t hear what he was trying to tell her, and she knew it was of vital import to her to know what he was trying to pass on.

One dream, in particular, kept returning, images of a Melgyr in the ruins. At first, the image confused her when she was awake enough to consider what it might mean, but gradually she began to see that it meant that the creature might have a message for her; she simply had to work out what it might be.

Always in the dream, she was running through the ruins when suddenly she heard something overhead that sounded like the hunting cry of a Melgyr, and she instinctively dodged to the side as she realized that it was stooping on her. But to her surprise, the creature landed on an unstable looking upthrust of stone nearby where it stood watching her without pressing the attack, though it had clearly had the advantage.

And Jenna wondered why it was acting so... unlike a predator right now. The bird was the size of a person, and could easily have taken her down, but this one seemed intent on something else at the minute, and she wondered what was going on. But always the dream shifted then, becoming her standing at what appeared to be a locked door.

And gradually, she realized that the door was badly decayed; she could see parts of what looked like a chamber beyond, though she didn’t know what was inside the room yet.

There looked to be just enough room for her to squeeze past the frame, but she knew it would be a very tight fit, and she wouldn’t know if there was enough room to get back out until she was committed to making the explorations.

And she knew that she wanted to know what was in that room; it felt like she needed to know what was in that room, but at the same time, Jenna knew that the only way to find out was to take the risk. So she began the process of squeezing through the narrow gap without putting any weight on the floor of the passage, in case it too decided to collapse like the floor of the room overhead had tried to do.

Several fingers of time later, she was drifting less than half a footlength above the floor of the chamber beyond the portal, staring in amazement at the images on the walls all around her. And she knew that she would never be able to recall all of what she was seeing here unless she had proof of what she had seen in this chamber, so she knew that she would have to take at least one of these images with her, if she could. But which one? And how would she go about getting it off the wall without damaging it too badly?

In the dream, she saw her hand reaching out to touch, then the image shifted again, flooding the room she stood in in the dream with light, like the daystar coming out from behind a huge dark cloud, and she realized abruptly that she was in a most unusual place.

The whole room was full of treasures! There were images covering almost every fingerlength of space, and many freestanding pieces, as well as what looked like weavings, though they were far more complex than anything she had seen Nieffa making, and—in another corner, what looked like more books than the Scriptorium held and perhaps even magazines, though she couldn’t be sure.

Then the thunder boomed again, and Jenna found herself blinking awake again, shaken out of her dreams by the noise outside the Fort. And she knew that she would be spending the suncycle inside once again. And she hoped that when the storm broke, she and the other Hunters would be able to go back to their duties; people were beginning to get hungry again. But Jenna knew that there was a problem that precluded hunger; her Father—the Hunt Leader—was sick, possibly fatally. And no one, not Labri nor Mali or anyone else in the Fort, knew what to do to heal him of his illness.

Even a dose of the freshest Healall that the colony had in stock at the time had done nothing to bring him back to health, so Labri had known that it was an illness, not an injury that had felled him this time. And though there was a chance of finding the plant that had been used to treat the condition before, the only place they were sure it grew was many suncycles away.

And Jenna was worried, though she endeavored not to show it, as befit the heir to the Mantle. But she wondered what would happen when Jerek finally let himself begin his return journey to the keeping of the spirits of the ancestors. At the same time, she knew that it would mark the beginning of a very difficult time in her life. 

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Jenna's Sacrifice Ch. 1