Fresh morning air stirred the white curtains. It was high summer, but the breeze held a touch of autumn that morning. Helena stirred beneath the covers with a sigh, as if reluctant to let go of a pleasant dream. Her eyes opened, studying the room where she had slept.
Only minutes later, the door opened and its owner entered. “You’re awake!” exclaimed Hapzah Tate, quite unnecessarily. “Was the floor too uncomfortable?”
Helena shook her head as she sat up. “I usually wake with the sun.” She began gathering up the loaned bedding to fold.
“Mother found this in the attic,” said Hapzah, “and we thought it would look good on you.” She held out an armful of cloth. “It was her coming-of-age dress years ago. It’s good cloth, if you don’t mind borrowed.”
“It’s a beautiful color,” Helena observed as she held the flowing dress at arm’s-length to examine it. “And I can’t deny I’d be glad for a chance to wash my clothes. Where may I wash up?”
“The boys are up and working already, so the upstairs bath should be free. I’ll tell them to stay downstairs until you’re ready.”
Helena went up the steep stairs. In the hallway, four closed doors greeted her, with nothing to indicate which was the bath. She took a guess and opened the wrong door, the door to a bedroom with two beds in it. Helena blushed a little and backed out into the hallway.
Her second guess was correct. She washed quickly and economically, out of habits developed through living in an apartment with an aged water heater. The borrowed dress, a green one-piece with white rosebud sprigs, was a little tight around the chest, but Helena smiled a wistful smile as she gazed down at the narrow ankle-length skirt.
Downstairs in the main room, three women turned to admire Helena’s entrance. The eldest, Apple Tate, nodded emphatically. “I knew it would suit you. You’re a bit better endowed than I was at your age,” she added. “Are you sure it isn’t too uncomfortable?”
“Not at all. It’s a beautiful dress. Thank you for loaning it to me.” Helena moved toward the table, only to draw up short at the discovery of a new face in the room. She hesitated just a moment before saying, “You must be Fineas.”
The young man raised his eyebrows. “How do you know my name, Miss Jeru?”
“Michael talks about his family so much that it would be strange if I didn’t know,” she answered. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Michael says that you’re to take over the farm, thanks to your sympathy. He says you have an unmatched understanding of what soil needs for growing good crops.”
“Does he? That’s surprising.”
“He is so proud of all his brothers,” added Helena, “that he often makes me feel quite envious.”
“You don’t have any brothers?”
Helena flinched. “Not anymore.”
Fineas Tate immediately apologized. “That was tactless of me.”
“I had two brothers,” Helena explained, “one older, one younger, but even when they were still alive, they were nothing like you and Lyndon and Rusza.” She turned her attention to her breakfast as Hapzah set it before her. “It’s strange; I suppose I ought to be anxious, being practically in hiding like this, but you’ve all made me feel so comfortable here that I just can’t manage to worry.”
“That’s as it should be,” declared Apple. “Finn, why don’t you stay here and wait with us a while. I saw Nell Robbin headed up the street just now, and if I know her, she’ll get the latest news if there’s any to be gotten. Have some tea.”
“Thanks, Grandma Apple.”
Apple Tate chatted with her grandson over tea, while her daughter Hapzah and daughter-in-law Feilin washed dishes. Helena simply listened while she ate a farmer’s hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, mushrooms, and porridge. Sometimes she smiled to hear a casual endearment pass between the family members, and sometimes she looked slightly wistful again.
Then a brisk knock at the side door sent Helena and Echo hurrying to the bedroom hallway, out of view of anyone who might look in when Fineas answered the door. A stranger’s voice exclaimed, “You’re here, young Finn? That’s good. Your grandmother will need you near.”
“What have you learned, Nell?” said Apple Tate sharply.
“All kind of folks are gathering. Those children at the Government Center are claiming to speak in place of the rightful elders because– get this, if you will– the elders have nearly all been infected by the Decay! I ask you, have you ever heard such a thing?”
With scarcely a noise, Helena Jeru slid down the wall into a huddled crouch. Her face lost all color. She covered her face with both hands. Echo bent over her, wordless in his distress, but he could not move her from this posture.
Feilin, a slight woman of middle age, set down the dish towel she held and slipped out of the main room unobtrusively. Finding the two assistants in this state, she knelt beside Helena and pulled the young woman into a comforting embrace.
The neighbor tactfully left the family with the offer to help “in any way I’m able,” and Apple came to join Feilin beside Helena. “Thanks, Echo,” said the elderly woman, “for standing by her. Help me move her to a chair.”
“Thanks,” said Echo. He took hold of Helena’s right arm when Apple took the left arm, and together they lifted Helena until she stood, braced between them. So violently did she tremble that neither let go until they had settled her in one of the armchairs by the upright piano, opposite the kitchen area.
“Helena? Helena, breathe deeply,” said Apple softly. “You are safe here.”
“I’m sorry,” Helena replied, her voice faint. “I didn’t mean to be so weak…”
“No, dear, not weak. Just remember that Gar and the other elders are too sensible not to know how to deal with any Decay they might meet. They wouldn’t be so easily infected.” Apple hugged the girl. “I’m just sorry you had to hear those words. It’s harder for you, isn’t it? Conneran told us about your father. You need not talk about it if you’d rather not.”
Helena lifted her head. Already the natural color was returning to her lips and cheeks. “I hadn’t expected him to remember, never mind tell anyone.” She looked at the others gathered around her out of concern, but none of them showed any comprehension.
“He told only Gar and me,” Apple added, correctly interpreting the look. “You need not talk if you don’t want to.”
A shaky smile touched Helena’s face. “Sorry to worry everyone.” She met each gaze in turn. “My family died infected.”
Feilin sighed. “You dear girl. So hard, hearing those words when you’ve lost people you love to the Decay. But no worries: the elders know what to do.”
Apple had kept her arms around Helena all the while; now she took both of Helena’s hands in hers and clasped them together. “That Conneran, though! Did he never tell you what to do when you feel such fear? He knows nothing of children.”
“I hardly count as a child anymore, Missus Apple,” said Helena with a stronger smile.
“In your own eyes, maybe. Repeat what I say: ‘To the Only One, who can bring life out of death for both body and soul, we surrender our fears and ask for courage.’ That’s what you should say at such times.” Apple tightened her embrace once more before releasing Helena. “Help us with the housework, and the time will fly. It’s better than brooding.”
There was laundry to wash, bedding as well as clothing. After Lyndon left for his early shift at the hospital research labs, Fineas went upstairs to collect the bedding from his younger brothers’ room. Apple sent Helena to bring down Michael’s bedding from the other bedroom, as a help to Fineas—but her eyes twinkled when she said it.
Helena entered the room she had mistakenly entered earlier that morning. Two beds, both neatly made up, created two focal points at opposite sides of the room. One obviously belonged to Michael’s father Archet, head researcher at the military hospital labs. Bottles of dried plant matter crowded his bedside table, and medical reference books stood in a heap just under the table.
On the opposite side, under the window, was Michael’s bed. Helena began to pull the covers off, folding the lightweight blanket and shucking the pillowcases off the pair of pillows. With her arms full of sheets, she turned to leave, but before she stepped into the hallway, she stopped to bury her face in the bedding for a momentary breath. A blush covered her cheeks. Then she hastened downstairs to deliver her armload to the laundry pile.
Feilin and Hapzah had gone outside to work in the small kitchen garden. Apple had set Echo the task of taking down the curtains for washing. She took the sheets from Helena and added them to the washing machine. When Fineas returned with his load, his grandmother said, “Would you go out to the shed and throw the second switch, Finn? With Rusza out of town and Michael not here, we’ll have to use the other bank of batteries.”
Fineas obliged. When they heard the door open and close a second time, the two women assumed it was Fineas, coming back from his task. But it was Michael who exclaimed, “You’ve been here all this time?” He had halted in surprise just inside the front door. Then he crossed to the kitchen table, sat heavily in one of the chairs, and leaned his head back. “I’m so glad. I’ve been so worried.” He breathed like he had been running.
“Michael!” both women said in unison. Apple was first to recover. She went to hug her eldest grandson. “When were you released? Has everyone been released?”
“Mother Coralie got back into town,” said Michael, “and trod on everything the Glazmeres had planned. Grandfather is helping to sort it all out, but he sent me to see that you were all well. He asked me to try to find Miss Helena and Echo while I was at it, but I never thought I would find you together.”
Helena explained. “When Elder Stone saw the way everything was going, he told Echo to find us a safe place to hide and said we were to keep out of sight until it was all settled. Echo brought me straight here.”
Echo said, “It was the safest place to hide.”
“Was it? I’m glad. I stopped at your house, Echo, while I was out searching. Your mother said to tell you to come home as soon as you can.”
The young man nodded. He turned to Apple. “I have to go home as soon as I can.”
“I’m sure your mother has been worried,” said Apple. “Greet her for me and say I was glad for your company.” She gave Echo a light kiss on the cheek.
Michael stood up. “Thanks,” he said as he shook Echo’s hand. “You took good care of Miss Helena.”
Echo returned the handshake solemnly. “Thanks. Take good care of Miss Helena.” Then he hurried out into the morning sunshine.
Helena said, a little breathlessly, “If everything has been set right again, I should go back to my apartment and not impose on you any more, Missus Apple. Thank you for letting me stay the night; I enjoyed very much just… just being here,” she finished.
But Michael said, “Miss Helena, I think you should stay a little longer, at least until tomorrow. I stopped at your address on my way here, thinking they might have seen you. As it happens, someone broke into the building, and your apartment was vandalized rather badly. I think it was connected to the Glazmeres. Until we know for certain… you should stay here.”
“My apartment?” Helena frowned. “What could they possibly gain by vandalizing my apartment? What about Missus Imogenia? Was anyone hurt?”
Michael seized her by the elbow when she moved toward the door. “As far as I saw, everyone was more or less unharmed, but really, I do think you should stay here.”
“If I may suggest,” said Apple firmly, “Michael, I think you should escort Helena to her apartment so that she can see for herself what has happened and gather whatever she might need. Helena, I think that you should come back here after you’ve seen what you need to see and gathered what you need to gather. Until Conneran turns up again, I would like to have your company here. I too have enjoyed your being here,” she said, “and I’d like to have more time to get to know you better.”
Helena was silent for a moment. Then she smiled. “I can’t say no to you, Missus Apple. It’s very kind of you.”
“Not at all—just an old woman’s selfishness,” Apple insisted. “Now go about your business, so you can return the sooner.”
Michael preceded Helena out the door, surveying the area before he would let her follow. For her part, Helena kept close to his side as they walked. “What happened?” she asked. “We heard so many things, but none of them were very believable.”
So Michael related to her all that he had witnessed since the previous afternoon. When he mentioned the name Skye Taorri, Helena frowned. “I have met him only once, but even just the once, I was troubled by what I sensed in him.”
“Rightfully so, as it turned out,” Michael replied.
“Elder Stone seemed to know about most of this well ahead of the rest of us,” Helena added. “He knocked at my door yesterday morning and told me to follow him. We went to a building that I had never seen before, and even now I have no idea what it was. We entered through the back and went straight down to the cellar. In the cellar were Echo and Elder Wingate already. Elder Wingate was hurt really badly, and Echo was looking after him. Elder Stone gave us our instructions: we were to remain there as quietly as possible while he scouted around more, always being ready to move out at any time. He was gone until past noon. When he did return, all he said was that the trouble he had expected had happened, that he would get Elder Wingate away but it was too dangerous for all four of us to go together. Echo was to catch one of Mother Locke’s messenger pigeons and send a message that Elder Stone had already written, and then we were to find somewhere safe to hide until it all was resolved.”
Michael nodded thoughtfully. “That explains several points that confused me. I’m happy to hear that Elder Wingate is alive. I know the other elders were worried about that. Where did Elder Stone take him, though?”
“I can’t imagine.”
They conversed in this way for most of their walk toward the edge of Metal District and the apartment building where Helena lived. There, they were noticed from a distance. The landlady, Imogenia, ran to meet Helena. She had a small bandage covering her right temple, but her round dark eyes were bright with emotion. “Miss Jeru, how good to see that you’re well!” Imogenia threw her wiry arms around Helena and squeezed. “We were so worried for you. Where have you been?”
Before Helena could answer. Michael said, “Excuse me, but may I sit down? I’m feeling a little lightheaded.”
“Of course, of course,” said Imogenia, “are you feeling ill, young Mister Tate?”
“Not ill, but I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday.”
Imogenia, all aghast, cried out, “Minou, Minou, put the kettle on to boil and set the table!”
One of the many young ladies gathered in front of the apartment building ran back indoors ahead of them. After the trio had passed through the gauntlet of Helena Jeru’s well-wishers, they reached the kitchen, where the girl Minou had already set out bread and butter, salami and cheese, pickles and olives, and was slicing a pear to add to this abundance. “Mister Tate, you rest here and fill yourself up. I’ll take Miss Jeru up to see her apartment.”
Halfway up the stairs, the landlady said to Helena, “So blessing has come of all this already! He came to look for you and walked you home!”
Helena blushed slightly. She explained the situation to her landlady, adding, “It was really Missus Apple’s wish, not any eagerness on his part.”
“You can’t fool me,” retorted Imogenia. The middle-aged landlady was even more aflutter. “He was that worried, he never stopped to eat. You can’t tell me that a man would forsake his first meal in almost a whole day to escort you if he didn’t care just a little. Make good use of the opportunity, Miss Jeru, and get acquainted with his family. It’ll do you untold good, and it’ll put you closer to the man you love.”
Helena didn’t reply.
“And don’t think you can mislead another human soul sympathist, especially one twice your age and experience,” warned Imogenia. “I can sense how you feel about him and his family, and you know it.” They arrived outside Helena’s apartment door. Imogenia pushed the door open. “I’m sorry to say we didn’t catch the vandals in time to stop them ruining some of your things, dear, but it looks worse than it is, I believe.”
Splashes of black paint had dried across the floor and bed, while the same paint proclaimed from the bare wall above the bed, Outsider go away! The small wardrobe stood open, and one garment, a white blouse, remained on its hanger inside. “Some of your clothes got doused in paint,” said Imogenia, “and those I have soaking in the washroom downstairs. Your nice blue dress got torn, and that Olivianna is working to mend as we speak– that’s why she wasn’t at the entry to greet you.”
“Were you hurt very much?” asked Helena in a remorseful tone.
Imogenia waved aside the question. “A little cut, nothing more. I’m sure the young woman I headbutted is feeling much worse. We apprehended all of them– there were five in all– and turned them in at the army base for confinement. No one gets away with behaving like that at Imogenia Platte’s Apartments for Young Ladies,” finished the landlady with dark satisfaction.
“Yes, I remember,” said Helena with a soft giggle. “You run a respectable home.”
“That’s what I promised Elder Stone when I took you on as a boarder, and that’s what I mean to provide.”
Helena gathered what little she had that remained undamaged, just a small travel bag not even halfway full. “Suddenly I’m so very glad that Missus Apple insisted,” she admitted.
“And so am I. Stay with the Tate family as long as they’ll keep you,” advised the landlady. “For good, if the young man makes the offer, as I suspect he will.”
“Hush,” Helena said with another blush. They were at the top of the stairwell. “He might hear.”
In the kitchen, they found Michael looking much more energetic. He thanked the landlady for the food and said, “Grandma will be expecting us back. Do you have everything, Miss Jeru?”
“If the rest is salvageable,” said Imogenia, “I’ll send it after you later today. You two look after each other now.” A beaming smile overtook the landlady’s face, cherubic in its innocence, but Helena still blushed.
On the walk back, neither Michael nor Helena said much. Michael had his face tilted toward the sun with an expression of contentment, and Helena seemed tongue-tied. After a time, however, she began to show signs of discomfort, almost of alarm. She kept looking around, left and right and backward, as if seeking for a thing that couldn’t be seen. Michael, with his face toward the sky, noticed nothing and seemed to have no worries anymore.
They had walked about half the distance when Michael said, “Elder Fulke and Finn are heading this way. I wonder why.” But before he could raise his hand to hail them, Helena gave him a forceful shove that knocked them both off-balance. Michael stumbled but regained his footing quickly, just as a man in army uniform slashed with a knife through the space where they had just stood.
Michael was not slow to respond. He lifted Helena by the waist and swung around so that his body was between her and their attacker. Then he spun around again to parry the attacker’s knife arm and kick the attacker’s knee. “It worked!” Michael exclaimed. “I have to apologize to Elder Stone for not quite believing him when he–” Michael dodged a step backward as the knife came swinging toward him again.
Then Fineas tackled the man in uniform with such force that both of them skidded and tumbled across the ground. Fineas was first to recover and pinned the man to the ground with all the power of a young man who spent most of his time doing heavy manual labor.
Rosamund Fulke ran up to Michael. “Are you hurt?” And to Helena, “Are you hurt?”
They both assured her that they were fine, although Michael had a slash through his shirt, directly across his chest, to show how narrowly he had dodged the last attack.
“When we realized he wasn’t with the rest,” Elder Fulke said breathlessly, “I volunteered to go, because I’m a quick runner still, to warn you to watch for him. I had no idea he meant to go after you.”
“He?” said Michael. “He who?”
It was Helena who answered first. “Skye Taorri.”
“Are you acquainted with him, Helena?” Elder Fulke asked.
“No, but he gives off a quality of the soul that I won’t soon forget.” Kneeling by the man’s head, she gazed into his fierce eyes. “His obsession has gone beyond the limits of reason. He’s in danger.”
Elder Fulke studied the young assistant. “Be more specific, Helena. Are you saying he has become infected?”
“Nearly,” said Helena. “He wavers on the edge.” Her steady stare remained on Skye Taorri. “He gives off the same quality I sensed in my father, just before my father fed my elder brother to the Decay.”