It was still dark, a blustery predawn, when passengers began to gather at the terminal. One woman sat quietly by herself, watchful as the other passengers congregated in twos and threes for hushed conversation. She straightened her back at the sight of a crowd approaching the terminal. Several in this crowd were yawning. One who was not yawning paused in mid-stride and said, “Sarlota Moor?”
Sarlota Moor hitched her purse over her shoulder and stood to greet them. “Hello, Axel Taivas,” she responded.
“I never expected to see you here, especially this early in the morning,” Axel said.
“I arrived on a bus late yesterday. I’m on a tour of the territories. I told Dad, ‘I haven’t had a vacation since I started working at the bathhouse when I was ten. I want a break.’ Cavern is my first stop.”
At Axel Taivas’ shoulder appeared her sardonic nephew Maccani. “Well, fancy seeing you here, Aunt Sarlota. Odd choice for your very first outing.”
She did her best not to blush at his tone. “That’s enough sass out of you, Maccani. Of course I heard so much about Sky-wind, with Mr. Taivas working for us at the bathhouse, that I wanted to visit and pay my respects. This must be your niece,” she said to Axel, directing a meaningful gaze toward the fair girl at his other shoulder.
“Yes, this is Sanna, my brother’s daughter. Sanna, this is Sarlota Moor, one of Kap Moor’s daughters.”
The two women clasped hands briefly. “I appreciate all that your family did for my uncle,” Sanna said. “His health improved beyond measure while he was working with you.”
“That’s what we’re there for,” Sarlota replied brightly. “And he was an excellent worker, so it was our pleasure to help him out. He certainly likes to brag about you.”
“Uncle,” was all Sanna said in reply, but her tone was both embarrassed and reproachful. Then she said, “This is my cousin by marriage, Fiola, and her brother Soren you’ve met.”
“I have met Soren.” Sarlota shook Soren’s hand gravely, as if he were grown up. “And Fiola, I’m pleased to meet you.” She clasped the girl’s hand.
The rumble of the bus engine distracted them from their introductions. Father Locke began organizing his students and guests to board the bus. Sarlota drifted to the back of the line and took a seat near the front of the bus. She could hear the students settling in somewhere farther back, but even they sounded in a subdued mood.
It was a long drive in the dark. Sarlota dozed for a short while, waking to find that the locals on board the bus had struck up a song. She didn’t recognize the tune or the words, but there were some fine singers among the passengers. When she turned in her seat to look back, she discovered that Axel Taivas was singing as heartily as anyone, in a clear tenor voice.
Sunrise provided a welcome spectacle for Sarlota to admire. The new-risen sun revealed a panoramic vista on her side of the bus, but she could only marvel at the heights for so long before she started to feel weary again.
Two hours into the drive, they reached the first waystation, a tiny village perched on a narrow plateau between the mountain slope and the highway. Sarlota was glad to disembark and stretch her legs. She drifted toward Father Locke’s group on the way to the public meeting house. There, they met residents of the village who had prepared a hearty morning tea for the bus passengers. There were open-face sandwiches, little cookies, venison sausages, hard-cooked eggs, and endless pots of herbal teas. As one of the elderly ladies explained it, “This one is good for restoring low spirits, and this one for soothing the nerves, and this for raising energy.”
One of the young men, a lanky boy with red hair, reached for the last one, only to get his hand slapped lightly by Axel’s niece. “You don’t need to be more energetic, Rusza Tate,” she said. She herself took a cup of the spirit-restoring tea.
Sarlota chose the energizing tea. After helping herself to a sandwich and a hard-cooked egg with salt, she drifted toward Axel. “You sing well, Axel Taivas.”
He smiled rather sheepishly. “Thank you for the compliment. I haven’t sung except in assembly for a long time.”
“I can understand that. I hope that, someday, you are able to sing freely again.”
Axel nodded in an abstracted manner. He was gazing toward the bus and the highway. “The nearer we come,” he admitted, “and the more familiar everything is to me, the more I wish I had put it off. I’m afraid of what I’ll find,” he added in a half-whisper Sarlota was sure wasn’t meant for her ears. But Axel shook off the moment and asked after her family members by name, whether they were all well and content.
In this way, Sarlota was able to help him keep his mind fixed on more pleasant thoughts until their time came to reboard the bus.
The next phase of the drive was quieter than the first. No one lifted a voice in song; even conversation was muted and brief. Sarlota heard one of the elderly Northern visitors murmuring a prayer for comfort to the grief-stricken, just that one prayer over and over. At first she paid little attention, except to wonder a little irritably at the monotony of the murmur. Then, as she found the words lodging in her own thoughts, she suddenly thought of Axel Taivas and his family farther back in the bus. The children were heading toward their parents’ graves. If Axel, a mature man, could fear what he would find there, what must the children feel? And what could someone like her, a stranger entirely unrelated to them, do for them except plead for the intervention of the Only One, who (in the words of the repetitious prayer) felt their grief as deeply as they did? So she joined the elderly woman under her breath, so as not to disturb anyone else.
The second waystation occupied another plateau, this one just under the shelter of a ridge that connected one peak to the next. Again, they were directed to the small public meeting house for refreshments. Here, however, the wind blew so roughly that the tables had been set up indoors. After availing herself of the toilet facilities, Sarlota went to browse the food on offer. She chose a hand pie and bit into it, surveying the faces for one she knew. She saw her nephew Maccani strolling the side aisle, but she only received an amused glance from him. There was an older man kneeling in prayer at the end farthest from the tables. Finishing the last of her little pie, Sarlota went to kneel near him for the time it took to pray for the Taivas family’s coming ordeal.
When she rose, the older man also rose. “Is this your first visit to Sky-wind?” he asked kindly.
“Did you know any of the residents there?”
“No, but I know someone who does. I wanted to see for myself.”
“Ah, who is your acquaintance? I might know her.”
“Him,” Sarlota said, both as a correction of his misapprehension and as an indicator of Axel Taivas standing a little apart from the rest of the visitors.
The stout man at her side, in his upper fifties if not older, broke into a lumbering run. He threw his arms around Axel Taivas, whose startled exclamation caught everyone’s attention.
“Wray Melkor,” he exclaimed in disbelief. “What are you doing here? Careful, you’ll knock me off my new leg.”
The older man pulled back from the fierce hug and shook Axel by the upper arms. “You! Look at you, you skinny ba—” He arrested himself sharply and started again. “Axel Taivas, I was just wondering just the other day how you were doing— oh, I have to show you to everyone.” Taking Axel by the arm, he marched him toward the door.
The two nieces ran after them, with Soren borne in Sanna’s arms. Through the open doorway, the older man’s voice was quite easily audible: “Sanna, little Sanna! And Fiola— and is this Soren, grown so big? I’m overcome, I truly am…”
Sarlota noticed other members of Father Locke’s group following the exit as well, so she joined them. She heard the man called Wray Melkor shouting, “Ma! Ma, look who came!” Then other voices began to resound in the thin air, making it easy for the visitors to find their way to one of the larger cottages in the village. Melkor and an older women, probably his wife, were busy hugging Axel Taivas and his nieces, while a younger man tossed Soren high in the air and caught him again. Their voices were a muddle, but it seemed that each one was exclaiming over how big Soren had grown, how grown-up Fiola looked, how wonderful it was to see Axel and Sanna again. By the time Sarlota and the other visitors had caught up with them, two more young men, a young woman, and a preteen girl had joined the reunion. The young girl in particular ran to hug Sanna, who embraced her with tears, saying, “Metta! Metta!”
Axel freed himself from Melkor’s grip and went to throw his arms around Sanna and the preteen girl. “How did Metta come to be here? And you, how is it that you’re here?”
“We live here now,” said Melkor’s wife simply. “When we went to Cavern for a visit, before we moved here, we took the chance to check on Metta. She wasn’t flourishing where she had been placed, so we asked if we could adopt her. There was some difficulty, until Wray burst out saying he would have stopped first at the citizenship office if he had known she was doing poorly.”
“That sounds like you, Wray,” Axel said, “and nothing like you, both at the same time.”
“Maybe it wasn’t like me before… before that,” Melkor said, “but there wasn’t a chance I could see that and not change my mind. Not a chance.”
Axel blipped the girl’s nose with a light fingertip. “How is Wray as a guardian, hmm?”
She gave him a shy glance and an inaudible murmur that made him grin.
“I can well believe that.”
Melkor rested a hand on Sanna’s head. “You’re doing better, controlling your sympathy. I’m relieved,” he told her, “but are you certain you want to go back? No one would blame you if you stayed here.”
Icy tears glinted on her cheekbones under the thin sunlight as she tilted her head back. “I know, but I’m going. It’s time. And I’m not alone.”
For the first time, the Melkor family seemed aware of the onlookers. Father Locke and Mother Locke went forward to introduce themselves. Father Locke said, “Sanna told us that you were indispensible to her during her greatest need. I’m glad to meet you. She has been training with my adjuster, Dr. Rao,” and he gestured for an older woman to come forward, “and talking with one of the Leeward trauma counselors, Dr. Zuma.” When both women stood beside him, he let them exchange what remarks they wanted to make.
Melkor shook each by the hand. “It’s a joy, knowing that someone has been looking after them while they were away.”
“Dad,” said his wife, “you’re going to be late.”
Melkor glanced around at the sun and then at his watch. “Right, Ma, I’ll rein it in. Father Locke, Mother Locke, all, let’s head back toward the bus. I have to give my speech.”
“Speech?” asked Axel.
“I’m the tour guide,” said Melkor.
“That’ll take some getting used to,” Axel grumbled, but with a twinkle in his eyes.
Melkor led the group back to where the bus was parked. The other visitors had clustered out of the wind on the far side of the bus, so Melkor brought everyone together. “Good day, folks. I’m Wray Melkor, and I’ll be your guide when we get to Sky-wind. How many are making their first visit today?” He looked around at the raised hands. “Apart from you four,” he said to Axel and his family, “how many have a specific grave to visit?” He counted hands again— far fewer than before. “Usually I would tell the whole story on the way up, but today we have a Sky-wind family with us. I’d rather not put them through the retelling, especially little Sanna. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard the whole story?”
The only one who raised a hand this time was Sarlota.
“I’ll sit with you on the way up,” Melkor said. “Let’s get moving.” He ushered the visitors onto the bus. Sarlota found herself in the front seat behind the driver, with Melkor seated beside her. “How much do you know, miss?”
“Just what everyone heard in Leeward,” Sarlota answered. “That the village was attacked by the Decay, and barely ten percent survived. Axel Taivas barely escaped, after his niece amputated his leg and helped carry him clear of the village.”
“Indeed. Let’s begin with the collapse.” Melkor started in a low voice to describe an initial sinkhole collapse that killed many people, with the Decay lurking at the bottom of the sinkhole to devour anyone it could. He talked of a second collapse, killing more people and casting others who had just barely escaped back into danger. He talked of underaged survivors like Metta, left without any guardians. He talked of the nonstop efforts after the catastrophe, identifying the bodies and burying whole families together. What finally made the tears spill from Sarlota’s eyes was Melkor’s description of standing beside Sanna Taivas during those two first heartbreaking days. “That dear child,” she breathed.
Melkor nodded his agreement, his breathing less than steady. “Dearer to us than ever before, since she’s the last of her family. I miss her father with a piercing grief— such a good friend to me. But my joy at seeing Axel again, on two feet and healthy, is almost as sharp as the grief. How did you come to know those two?”
“Axel Taivas came to Leeward with his niece for her training,” said Sarlota, “and my nephew, one of her classmates, introduced him to our bathhouse. My father, who never had the use of his legs, took on the challenge of getting Axel strong enough to manage a prosthetic.”
“Then I owe you and your family thanks, on behalf of my friends who can no longer speak to us here,” Melkor said. “Axel and Sanna Taivas need all the friends they can get, having lost so much.”
Sarlota agreed fervently.
Their conversation lasted until the bus climbed one final slope and stopped in an open space. Wray Melkor stood. “I’ll have you get off here, since we’ve decided it more respectful to approach the village on foot instead of in vehicles. The time is…” He checked his watch. “The time is just a few minutes short of 10:30. We’ll stay here until 3:30 this afternoon. That should give everyone enough time to see what they need to see.” He stepped off the bus and let the North Territorial visitors file past him.
Sarlota stood as the first of Father Locke’s students passed her. It was Maccani, of course, and he paused long enough to offer her his arm with his usual sardonic glance. She thanked him in a soft voice and let him escort her off the bus.
They emerged onto a broad plateau, much like the ones inhabited by the previous two villages. Maccani stood aside until his entire group had disembarked. “Where do we begin?” he asked Sanna Taivas.
The girl raised her fair eyebrows. “Why do you ask me?”
“You’re our tour guide. I mean, we’ve heard the story,” he added in an unusually serious tone.
Dr. Chinara Zuma from Leeward put her arm around Sanna’s shoulders. “Would you show us?”
“If you want,” said the girl gravely. “This way.” She led them to the side of the plateau and stopped at a barren patch of rock. “If I’m to be a good tour guide, then I should explain the sights, right? This is where Uncle Axel lost his leg.”
Sarlota glanced at Axel, who was staring at the ground blankly, as if he couldn’t see it. His niece Sanna likewise gazed at the ground, but her gaze was focused and somber, as if she saw what wasn’t there anymore. “Three years,” she said, “and still nothing will grow here.”
Father Locke came alongside her. “Sometimes it takes generations before anything will grow in soil touched by the Decay.” He dropped to one knee on the mossy ground outside the barren patch. “We who visit this tainted ground ask the purifying blessing of the Only One, who can restore fertility and beauty here, upon this place.”
A few of those gathered around them murmured, “We agree and attest that our brother’s words are true.” Axel seemed to murmur the response instinctively.
When Father Locke rose from kneeling, he gripped Axel’s shoulder with a powerful hand. “Can you continue, Axel?”
Axel Taivas blinked, and some of his daze fell away. “Thank you, yes. I can.”
Rusza Tate seemed to appear out of nowhere at Axel’s other side and said, “You left your cane on the bus.” He handed the cane to Axel, but even after he had completed this transaction, the boy stayed beside Axel. “This was the main road out of town, right?”
“Yes, the main road to Cavern for us,” said Axel. “There are other routes, but this is the only one fit for vehicles.”
“I see.” Rusza Tate studied the plateau.
Sanna started walking toward the gap at the back of the plateau. She was flanked by Dr. Zuma and Father Locke’s adjuster as she led the way to a slight rise and then a moderate slope downward. At first glance, it looked just like the two villages they had visited along the way: a small public meeting house stood just beyond the gap, and a few cottages to either side of the dirt road. Beyond them, a fence made of wrought iron posts and a single chain blocked off a sudden drop. “We met the disposal company about a half a mile up the road,” said Sanna in a quiet, husky voice. “When I turned back with them, we came this far and saw… everything below,” she faltered. “I jumped from up here.” Sanna led them to the fence and pointed down. “The rubble was higher here, after the second collapse. It’s gone now.” She said the last three words with a kind of wonder.
Sarlota came to the fence and looked downward at a sheer cliff. She guessed the depth to be between thirty and forty feet. She saw only a smooth clearing of stone at the bottom. “I can’t imagine,” she said to herself.
Her nephew looked down next to her. “No, nor can I.”
Sanna walked along the railing, still guarded by the two doctors and followed closely by Axel Taivas and his two attendants, Father Locke and Rusza Tate. Fiola and little Soren walked close behind them, with Mother Locke at their backs with a hand on Fiola’s shoulder. They reached a set of stairs cut into the cliff, and the stairs were so narrow that they could only descend one by one. Sanna forged ahead as if she had a specific destination in mind. At the bottom of the steps, she looked up at the surrounding scenery as if taking her bearings. She pointed. “This way.” Leading them back toward the point below where they had stood at the fence, Sanna stopped next at a barren patch of ground. “It was hereabouts I found Anna and Aaki. There was fire all along that side,” she gestured to her right, “and the middle stretch here was occupied by a long mound of the Decay, as high as my waist. It had come from that way,” she pointed toward the left, “but the fires had cut off this part of it from the rest.”
Sarlota gripped Maccani’s arm a little tighter as they followed Sanna’s lead across the bottom of the giant sinkhole. Just listening to Sanna’s running narrative made Sarlota feel chilled and a little sick. They paused by a solitary patch of moss growing on the barren ground, and Sanna remarked, “This is where Mette lay, covered by her blanket and Mom’s body. It’s the only part of this area the Decay didn’t touch.”
The ground sloped upward as they continued toward the far end of the sinkhole. Sarlota felt a gentle resistance in her nephew’s arm, slowing her down. She looked to him to see what he was doing, but he was staring intently at one of the other young men of the party. This other young man resembled Mother Locke, so Sarlota assumed him to be one of her sons. He had been standing half-turned away from them when Sarlota first noticed him, but he glanced in their direction as if he could feel Maccani’s attention upon him. Without making much of it, he strolled toward them.
When this young man was near enough, Maccani said in an undertone, “Locke, can I ask you to gauge little Fiola’s thoughts right now?”
The young Locke pivoted to study Axel’s niece. A slight furrow appeared between his eyebrows. After some seconds had passed, he replied in an equally hushed voice, “I can’t say for sure what it is, but she has something definite in mind that she wants to ask Sanna Taivas, but at the same time she doesn’t want to ask.”
“Aunt? You should go with Mother Locke and stand by Fiola. She would be more comfortable with a woman asking her. Locke, you’ll go with her, won’t you?” Maccani didn’t wait for an answer. He slipped his arm free of Sarlota’s hold and strode toward Axel Taivas. It wasn’t Axel he spoke to, however. It was the boy Rusza. He said a few words and jerked his thumb in Fiola’s direction. Whatever he said propelled Rusza away from Axel’s side, but Maccani stepped smoothly into the vacant place with a soft query about the footing and Axel’s prosthesis.
Rusza, meanwhile, crossed rapidly to where Fiola and her brother stood. He picked up Soren and without warning sat the child on his shoulders. Soren’s delighted giggle was a shocking sound in that solemn place. The child asked, “Can we play?”
Rusza said slowly, “I like playing with you, Soren. It’s fun. But this isn’t the kind of place where we should play. You wouldn’t play in the meditation rooms, would you?”
Soren shook his head in a violent negative. “That’s where we pray.”
“This is a place like that. This is a place where something really bad happened, so we come here to remember and pray.”
As Sarlota accompanied young Locke to his mother’s side, she made eye contact with Coralie Locke. “He explained that very well.”
One of the girls flanking Fiola said, “Rusza is still such a kid inside that he knows how to talk just like a kid.”
“I heard that, Linnie,” Rusza said.
“I know you did,” the girl replied. “I wanted you to.”
“Hush, you two,” Mother Locke chided gently. She gave a worried glance at young Fiola, but the girl seemed so distraught that the entire conversation had bypassed her.
Sarlota set her hand on Fiola’s shoulder. “Fiola? What’s wrong?”
This jolted the girl out of her abstraction. She rubbed her nose in a self-conscious gesture. “Sorry. What did you say?”
“I couldn’t help noticing that you’re thinking very deeply about something,” Sarlota began, “something that worries you. Is it something you can share with us?”
Tears welled up in the girl’s eyes. She sniffled convulsively as she fought not to yield to her emotions. “Daddy,” she said. Her voice was barely audible. “He’s the only one Sanna doesn’t say anything about.”
Coralie’s son drew in a sharp breath. “About how he died,” he said.
“You’re… afraid it was worse than the rest,” young Locke continued, “because she hasn’t talked about it, but if it’s that bad, you don’t want to force her to talk about it.”
Fiola’s restraint broke. The girl sobbed, and her two friends hugged her tightly while she cried.
Coralie Locke and her son exchanged a look. Coralie took his hand and squeezed it. Then she wrapped both her arms around the three crying girls. “You’ve been so brave,” she said in a teary voice. “All this time, you’ve held back, but Fiola, you can rely on us too, you know.” When their weeping subsided, she pulled back to look Fiola in the eyes. “Does it help, now that Mica said it for you?”
Coralie’s son said, “I can’t answer your question, not directly, but I know your dad died a hero. He saved most of the survivors. I heard one of them say so. So I don’t think it’s as bad as you fear.”
Then Sanna was in their midst, blind to everyone but Fiola. “Little Fiola, you should have asked. Even if it’s hard to speak of, it’s your right to know. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it sooner. I’m sorry you thought you had to hold onto needless fears for my sake. Here.” She drew the girl to her side and walked with her arm firmly around Fiola’s back, and Fiola clung around the older girl’s waist. As they walked together like this, Sanna said, “You know how Doc was about praying in front of people: always saying he had never been taught how, always pushing it off onto Aunt Nilma. I never understood why he did that, because it wasn’t as if he didn’t pray, and it wasn’t as if he was a shy man.”
Fiola laughed unsteadily at that.
“It was sunrise,” Sanna continued, “and we had located almost everyone by then. Doc was one of the few we couldn’t find. I knew the direction he’d last been seen headed toward, but all we saw in that direction was the main body of the Decay. In the dark, it was… it was really hard to see people who were submerged more than just a few inches deep. Then the sun came over the ridge.” She went silent for a while after this.
Everyone in their group had fallen into line behind them by unspoken agreement. Sarlota walked beside Mother Coralie, just behind the two cousins, so she was near enough to see the tracks of tears glimmering down Sanna’s face.
“Someone shouted, so we ran this way. When I got there, most of the disposal company was already there, not speaking, not moving, just staring like they couldn’t believe what they saw. And I couldn’t believe it, not at first.” She stopped near the wall of the crater, where a circle of moss almost six feet across marked the rough ground. “Doc was kneeling there,” Sanna pointed, “with Nana Elle and her three grandsons gathered around him. He had the smallest boy, Carlen, on his knees with his hands folded around Carlen’s hands. Praying. The Decay covered them higher than my head,” Sanna said, “but… it never touched Doc. They died of suffocation, all of them, because no air could get to them, but there was no corrosion. The Decay couldn’t touch them. It was the most astonishing thing any of us saw that night.”
Fiola dropped to the mossy ground in the spot Sanna had indicated. She was sobbing so violently that her thin body shook. Sanna knelt and cradled the younger girl’s head against her bosom.
“It was mentioned in the report,” Father Locke said. “The only peaceful-looking deaths in the entire catastrophe, they called it— due to a mysterious bubble, formed around the victims through no known mechanism, that spared their bodies the usual damage. The report does not mention that they were kneeling in prayer. That detail does make me wonder.”
“It was a wonder,” Sanna replied in a thick voice. “Especially under the first of the morning sunlight, as if… like a vision… of what was promised…”
Father Locke walked forward to take a knee behind the two girls. He put his arms around them together. “We thank the Only One, who grants us glimpses of a future freed from pain, grief, and death, for the hope provided by a good man’s example. May we all find our way to such a place: peace amid tears, trust amid fears.” He held the two crying girls until they were still again. Sarlota could only see their backs, but she heard Father Locke say, “Is she asleep?”
Sanna answered, “I wonder if she slept last night at all.”
Axel, standing just to the side, shook his head. “She keeps so much to herself.”
At Axel’s side, Maccani said, “I can carry her on my back. I do it with my little sister often enough.” He came to kneel down beside the grouping on the moss. With Father Locke and Sanna assisting, he hefted the sleeping girl onto his back. “We sly ones need to stick together.”
“I never thought of Fiola as sly,” Sanna said, “but I’m beginning to see signs of it.”
“Takes after Doc,” Axel murmured.
From the far end of the crater, which was by now the nearest end to their group, the stocky figure of Wray Melkor trotted toward them. “I wanted to show you something,” he said to Axel and Sanna. He cast a compassionate smile toward Fiola. “Too much for her? She’s a dear girl, but she has too much of her father in her,” he declared, unwittingly echoing Axel’s comment. “Come with me.” He led them up the stone steps carved into the much lower north wall of the crater.
“That’s—!” Sanna arrested her outburst after one word, but her gray eyes opened wide and her nostrils flared with each breath.
“Your house,” Melkor finished for her. “It survived practically untouched, with a few others. My boys and me, we’ve been taking care of it. We took out the personal belongings, mind you. I have those boxed up for you, whenever you want them. The surviving houses serve those visitors who come to stay for a few days. We’ve put up remembrances in each house, so no one who stays in them can go away without knowing something about the families who originally lived there.”
They came up to a small cottage. A riot of alpine wildflowers had taken over the tiny front garden, but the path to the front door was clean of growth. Sanna walked forward as if in a trance; everyone else held back, watching as she pushed the front door open. A quick, shuddering sigh escaped her. It took only a moment for the two doctors to rush to her, supporting her from both sides as she cried. Only three words emerged audibly from Sanna: “I miss them.”
Sarlota stayed back. She saw Maccani watching as his friends entered the cottage. “Lay her down here,” she told him, pointing to the carpet of white clover under a nearby aspen tree. “I’ll watch over her.”
Her nephew didn’t argue. He accepted her help in sliding Fiola gently off his back. Sarlota knelt to lend her lap as a pillow while Maccani went after the others.
Axel Taivas leaned against the tall, straight tree trunk. When everyone had moved off, leaving Sarlota and Axel alone together with the sleeping girl, Axel said, “I don’t have enough courage to go in there.”
Sarlota glanced up at him. “Courage?”
He stared at the open front door. Voices drifted out to them. “We were always coming over here for one reason or another. I was the eldest, so my family lived in our childhood house. Erno, when he married, built his own house. Kaisa was a great gardener. She would like this.” Axel gestured vaguely toward the wildflowers. “There were always neighbors coming and going, asking her for advice about… household things… or asking Erno for his opinion on something. I always thought he should have been the elder brother instead of me,” Axel added. “So many things should have been different…”
After almost a minute of silence, Sarlota asked, “What sorts of things?”
“He should have been sent to take the children to safety, not me.” Suddenly Axel wiped his hand across his eyes. “Do you know why I lost this?” He raised his prosthesis slightly. “I stopped and looked back. Erno wouldn’t have looked back. He wouldn’t have been caught so stupidly and put the children in danger. He wouldn’t have forced Sanna to… to chop off his leg to save his life. He wouldn’t have left them without a father’s comfort and leading for half a year. If Erno had been the one to go with them, Fiola wouldn’t have been able to keep all that stress and fear to herself. He would’ve noticed and done something about it, instead of getting caught up in his own dread of seeing… of seeing all this. Erno was stronger than that.”
Sarlota drew a long, slow breath and released it. She braced herself to speak. “But they sent you. They trusted you.”
“They coddled me,” Axel replied. “Marinen always did. She used to tease me about being sensitive, but whenever there was anything difficult to face, she took care of it without even discussing it with me. Doc was the same way. He asked me to take the children to safety because he knew I wouldn’t be able to help in any other way. Erno… he never coddled me, but… he always told me exactly how things were. He said Sanna would need me. I don’t understand that at all. Nobody ever needed me or asked my advice. I was always the frivolous one, the talker, the singer. The most I ever did to guide anyone was to teach my children how to dance.”
“And yet,” Sarlota mused, “the one everybody asked for advice said you were what your niece would need. I remember you telling me that Sanna had always been serious, always watching and thinking. Is it possible that your brother foresaw a need for her to… to learn how to dance? That isn’t exactly what I mean, but she’s already so serious and responsible. She must need joy in her life, all the more after knowing so much sadness. Isn’t that what he wanted you to do?”
“But I can’t even step inside that house,” Axel protested. “How could such a coward help anyone?”
“I think you were right in saying your family coddled you,” Sarlota said firmly. “They lifted all these things from your shoulders, so now that you don’t have anyone to take the weight, you aren’t ready to carry it yourself. There’s only one way to fix that: grit your teeth and go at it. Kap Moor doesn’t coddle anyone,” she added with a little humor. “You know that. When you were learning to use his trolley track, did he let you use your crutches for support?”
“He hid them,” said Axel, smiling weakly.
“He made you dangle from the strap as often as it took for you to get a feel for what you had to do. But you never fell, did you?”
“Not once,” he said. “He caught me whenever I was about to lose my grip.”
“And you got stronger, doing that. You have a lot of people around you right now, able to catch you when you’re about to lose your grip. You won’t always have their help.”
Axel bowed his head.
“And it seems to me, if you’ll pardon a little more meddling,” Sarlota added, “that you’re still looking back. Last time, it cost you part of a leg. I don’t know what it might cost you next time.”
“Or what it might cost them,” Axel breathed.
“You don’t need to be your brother, do you?”
“I can’t, even if I needed to be.” Axel raised his head to gaze at the cottage again.
Some of the students were beginning to wander back out into the wan sunlight. Fiola’s two friends hurried toward Sarlota. “Thank you,” said the dark-haired one. “We can watch over her now.”
Sarlota eased herself out from under the sleeper’s head and stood on tingling feet. She dusted off her skirt front. “It won’t be as crowded now. Shall we go in?” She held out a hand in expectation, watching Axel’s face.
He gave her a quick glance of gratitude and held out his free arm for her to rest her hand on his forearm. “Yes. Let’s go.” He leaned hard on his cane for the first several steps. Then they were in the doorway, looking at an all-purpose room with a large hearth in the middle of the back wall. Axel drew a shaky breath. His cane tapped against the flagstone floor.
Wray Melkor met him halfway. The stout guide said nothing at first, but gripped Axel’s shoulder in reassurance. “The rest are in the lean-to,” was all he said before exiting.
Axel gazed around the room. His attention drew him toward a plaque on the wall above a narrow bookcase. “These aren’t Erno’s books,” he murmured.
Through the open doorway, Melkor said, “I packed those up for little Sanna to have. These are a few I bought in Cavern that I thought were enough like the others to give visitors a good idea of Erno’s tastes.”
Axel read the spines. “They are that,” he admitted. “The plaque could say more.”
“Complain, complain,” retorted Melkor with a chuckle. “It says enough. If anyone wants to know more, they can ask me. And some have done so,” he finished.
Sarlota read the small plaque: Erno and Kaisa Taivas lived here with their three daughters, Anna (20), Hannah (17), and Sanna (14). Erno served well as a village arbitrator, a learned man. His wife Kaisa, born to the Sikanla family, was a noted home economist and gardener. Anna was engaged to marry a neighbor boy, but the tragedy struck them both down two days before their wedding. Hannah was a gentle girl with a wide circle of friends. Sanna, the youngest, is the only surviving member of the family.
Axel waited until she looked away from the plaque. He led her toward a side doorway. “Erno built the house with two bedrooms, one for him and Kaisa, one for the children.” He pointed toward the two closed doors, but he made no movement in their direction. “When it was clear that Sanna couldn’t sleep in the same room with her sisters, for their safety, Erno added a lean-to as Sanna’s bedroom.”
Sarlota accompanied him to the left, toward the back of the house. They entered a long, narrow room full of people. “Did you say less crowded?” Axel asked her.
Sanna was seated on an old cot, Dr. Zuma seated on her left and the other doctor on her right. She reached out a hand to her uncle. “Are you all right?”
“All right enough,” he said, “not that that should be any worry of yours. What about you?” He stretched out the arm Sarlota had held, so Sarlota let go and backed into the corridor just outside.
Sanna didn’t answer the question. She sighed.
“I see. That can’t be helped. Come outside. It won’t do to stay in here, where everything is the same but nothing’s the same. We still haven’t visited their graves.”
Sanna stood up, but not all the way due to the sharp slant of the ceiling. “You’re right, Uncle.”
Sarlota led the retreat to the main room and out onto the path. The rest of the students, seeing their elders emerging with Sanna, began to congregate. Melkor said, “Where next?”
“The grave site,” Sanna replied. “Uncle is right: it does no good to linger here. They won’t come home to me; I must go to them.”
Dr. Zuma draped her one arm around Sanna. “We’re with you.”
They followed a path of crushed stone around the edge of the sinkhole toward the west. There they arrived at a wide, flat meadow. The grass was carefully mowed around long stone blocks, each about as high as Sarlota’s knee. These blocks were aligned end to end in regular rows. She counted eight of these rows. Only a foot or so of space separated one block from the next in each row, and the rows stood about seven feet apart.
“You took down the boundary walls,” Axel remarked in a voice of forced nonchalance.
Melkor said, “Well… the smallest snowplow blade we had still was an inch and three-quarters too wide. That first winter, the visitors couldn’t get near any but the first few graves.”
“I’ve visited graves before,” Rusza Tate said, “but I’ve never seen anything like this before. Where are the markers?”
Sanna walked to the nearest stone block. “These are the markers. One for each family.” She saw Rusza’s expression of shock. “Yes. It was summer, and there were so many to bury… we had to lay whole families to rest together. The nearest villages brought up their digging equipment, but it wasn’t enough.”
“A fellow I knew,” Melkor added, “he went back to our village— the village I lived in before— to fetch his backhoe. He dug trenches for us, and the rest of the workers filled them in as we laid the people to rest.”
“Looking at this place now,” Sanna remarked softly, “it’s hard to believe how busy and noisy it all was. The disposal squads were disinfecting and preparing the bodies as fast as possible. I was the only one present at first who could identify them and say what family they belonged to. There were two clerks writing the certificates and creating temporary grave markers. I had to check them to see they were correct and place them after each burial. The chaplain collapsed from the stress not long after Uncle Wray got here. All the emotions… It was too hard on him, and it was some hours before we could get another chaplain. That gave the disposal workers time to get ahead of the burial schedule, but it meant we had… we had bodies laid out in the open trench for all that time. I walked up and down, keeping the area cool and praying, until I had memorized the order of the bodies. Even now,” she said with a distant gaze across the site, “I could probably walk the first two or three rows and name everyone without looking at the markers.”
“Where…” Axel’s voice cracked. He swallowed hard and started again. “Where are Ma and Dad?”
Sanna gestured at the ground beneath her feet. “They were the first to be gathered all together as a family, because they were the ones I looked for first. Grandma, Granddad, Dad, Mom, Anna, Hanna, Kaya, Valte, Onnika. Together here.” She cast a glance at Fiola, sleeping now on young Locke’s back, and said, “We couldn’t separate Aunt Marinen from Aunt Nilma, not without doing more damage, so I decided to bury them together under the Taivas name. It didn’t make sense, then, once we found Doc, not to lay him next to Aunt Nilma.”
“No one would object to that,” Axel said.
“No,” replied Sanna, “there was no one to object.”
Axel took a different grip on his cane in preparation for lowering himself to the ground. “I wonder if Marinen is satisfied now? She died fighting; that must have pleased her.” He shook his head and sighed. “Combat maniac.” He ran his hand over the coarse, short-cropped grass. “I wish I was there to hold the children when they were hurting. That was almost my only job, as a parent. Marinen did everything else, but she was never very good at sympathy.” His face twisted for a moment, but he recovered himself with visible effort.
Sarlota, unnoticed, slipped around behind young Locke and rubbed Fiola’s back until the girl began to waken. Then she retreated, still unseen, as the young soldier let Fiola slide down onto her feet, apologizing to him in embarrassment for burdening him. As Sarlota had expected, as soon as Fiola realized where they stood, the girl hastened to sit on the grass beside her uncle, and Axel put his arm around her shoulders in a comforting hug. “Good morning,” he said simply. “Feel better now?”
“Not much,” she admitted, “but I can sleep on the bus, can’t I?” Fiola seemed more open and childlike now than before. She wrapped her arms around her uncle’s chest and buried her face against the front of his jacket.
Sanna came and planted herself on the grass at Axel’s other side. She too put her arms around Axel and leaned into his chest. “It’s so strange,” Sarlota heard her say. “So close, but so far away.”
Axel nodded. Tears stood in his eyes, but he just hugged his two nieces close and said, “I know. I know.”
Sarlota wandered down the row of graves, looking at the markers but not really seeing them. She realized after a while that her nephew had followed her and was at her elbow. “Yes?”
“I think,” said Maccani, “I’ve underestimated you, Aunt.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re one of us.” He offered her his arm and walked the length of the row with her. “And we sly ones need to stick together. Are you going to marry him?”
Sarlota glanced at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“Ah, too straightforward? I’ve obviously been spending too much time around these northerners,” he said. “Your tour of the territories, does it stop next in Sawtooth Ridge? For, maybe, a month?”
“I’ll be here for another two weeks,” Sarlota said with dignity, “and then, yes, the next one on the list is Northwest Territory. My stay there… I haven’t decided how long I’ll stay. It depends on the weather, in part. I worry about getting snowed in.”
“True, that could be a problem,” Maccani replied. “I doubt we’ll stay there very long ourselves. Master Sanna has trouble enough controlling her sympathy in temperate areas, let alone in a northern winter. I expect we’ll only spend a few weeks in Sawtooth Ridge. I haven’t asked yet where we go after that.”
“Is there a pattern to it? It seems like Father Locke is taking the territories in order,” Sarlota observed. “Counter-clockwise, anyway.”
“Well,” said Maccani, “it wasn’t like that before. When I first started with him, I came in halfway through his previous class, and it sounded like he took them along wherever he was needed. It sounded like Father Locke always starts in Leeward and then just goes wherever he has to go after that. Our stop in Cavern, really, only happened because we had to drop that Turstin off at his new assignment and then make this trip up here. I hear we’re going to Sawtooth Ridge because Tarbengar has a brother there he hasn’t seen since he was small, and there’s an army company that Father Locke wants Master Sanna to work with there. It makes me wonder,” he added, “if we head somewhere completely different, will you keep on with your tour, counter-clockwise?”
Sarlota said, “Of course I will. I intend to see as much of the world as I can. I’m not following anyone, whatever you may think.”
“Hmm,” was all Maccani said.