Elthán pressed her lips into a grim line.
She looked around again, this time to assess the security of the group. The goats were crowded outside the shelter in a natural scoop of the valley. The chickens were in their larger cage. Everything was wet and rivulets were forming along the valley floor. If the rain kept falling, a stream would start to flow.
“Why would Rosa not let you near Ellen?” she asked Chris.
Chris shook her head unhappily. “Lian Ellen is ill, Mistress. After the climb up the escarpment she lost consciousness. We tried to get her to safety, but the helicopters came and then Rosa put her under a wing and we couldn’t get near her.”
“Something happened just before the helicopters came. Ellen wanted to do something – something about cleaning herself,” Müther spoke up from her mat. “Then it is as Chris says. Rosa would not let us near her.”
“Still, you should not have left her! Thimon and Richard, pack up and get yourselves out of here before flood waters sweep you out. Go up the rift to the cave. Use the cave to dry out your gear and get yourselves ready to journey on.”
“Is that wise?” Thimon said carefully. “We may be followed.”
Müther also made a noise of protest, shaking her head. “I can’t go into the Cryptal tunnel!”
Ignoring Thimon, Elthán said: “Müther, the cave is large and has very good ventilation. It will fit all the goats, chickens and yourselves. Cryptals do not use the cave. Their scent will be faint.”
Richard knelt next to his mother. “She is right about this cave, Müther. I have been in it. The smell is like that of the Crystalmakers. There is no poison.”
Elthán gestured to Sam. “You will help here and go to the cave with these people, and you and the others are to provide them with everything they need to continue their journey.”
Elthán took Chris’s arm. “Show me where Ellen is.”
Chris led the way but it was Elthán who set the pace, following closely behind when they travelled single-file, or edging forward when they walked side-by-side.
A dead goat lay to the side of the path in a dark pool of blood. Elthán paused to inspect it.
“Richard cut its throat. See, its back leg is broken and a bullet hit its thigh,” Chris said.
Chickens clucked nearby, nervously pecking at the ground, unused to their freedom.
“How many chickens did you lose?”
Chris shrugged. “I don’t know. Twenty. Thirty.”
Again Chris shrugged. “Maybe twenty. Maybe more.”
They walked on, past another dead goat and a few more chickens. Elthán stopped again, frowning. There was too much food here to leave – too much to leave when the current harvest was faltering.
“We are close,” said Chris, wiping her dark glasses. Her hat stopped a lot of the rain from hitting her face, but the damp air fogged the lenses of her glasses. A shiver shook her body. Elthán winced, realising that Chris must be close to exhaustion. She led Elthán past a tumble of boulders and into the area where the shooting had occurred. Broken chicken cages lay strewn around, some wedged between rocks, others still tied to the broken bodies of goats. Rain had washed blood to a pink stain over the gravely earth.
“Over there,” said Chris, pointing.
Elthán peered into the rain. She saw movement. The two Cryptals who had transported Elthán shuffled out from a rock ledge.
Chris saw them too. “Cryptals!” she exclaimed softly. “What are Cryptals doing here?”
“I’m not sure,” Elthán said, but she thought: They are here because of Ellen.
“Where is Ellen?” she asked Chris.
Chris pointed again. “You can see Rosa – see her move?”
In the uncertain light the bird had been another dark form on the boulder-strewn ground. As the women approached Rosa reared her head threateningly.
Chris put a restraining hand on Elthán’s arm. “She will hurt you. She would not even let Phan come near. He has a bruise on his shoulder where she struck him.”
Elthán was about to walk forward despite Chris’s warning when one of the Cryptals began to sing. Rosa turned her attention to the ancient creature. She wagged her head unhappily, chirruping a protest, but the Cryptal sang on and Rosa submitted. She folded her neck over her shoulders and did not move as Elthán stepped forward, though she emitted a worried warble as Elthán lifted the spread wing to reveal Ellen’s still form.
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