Tian stood out front with the feather now in his hands, watching the sun as it sank toward the horizon, its gold steadily deepening to a color that was like infected blood. When it touched the land, he took one more look up the high street. It was empty except for three or four roont fellas sitting on the steps of Took's. All of them huge and good for nothing more than yanking rocks out of the ground. He saw no more men, no more approaching donkeys. He took a deep breath, let it out, then drew in another and looked up at the deepening sky.
"Man Jesus, I don't believe in you," he said. "But if you're there, help me now. Tell God thankee."
Then he went inside and closed the Gathering Hall doors a little harder than was strictly necessary. The talk stopped. A hundred and forty men, most of them farmers, watched him walk to the front of the hall, the wide legs of his white pants swishing, his shor'boots clacking on the hardwood floor. He had expected to be terrified by this point, perhaps even to find himself speechless. He was a farmer, not a stage performer or a politician. Then he thought of his children, and when he looked up at the men, he found he had no trouble meeting their eyes. The feather in his hands did not tremble. When he spoke, his words followed each other easily, naturally, and coherently. They might not do as he hoped they would -- Gran-pere could be right about that -- but they looked willing enough to listen.
"You all know who I am," he said as he stood there with his hands clasped around the reddish feather's ancient stalk. "Tian Jaffords, son of Luke, husband of Zalia Hoonik that was. She and I have five, two pairs and a singleton."
Low murmurs at that, most probably having to do with how lucky Tian and Zalia were to have their Aaron. Tian waited for the voices to die away.
"I've lived in the Calla all my life. I've shared your khef and you have shared mine. Now hear what I say, I beg."
"We say thankee-sai," they murmured. It was little more than a stock response, yet Tian was encouraged.
"The Wolves are coming," he said. "I have this news from Andy. Thirty days from moon to moon and then they're here."
More low murmurs. Tian heard dismay and outrage, but no surprise. When it came to spreading news, Andy was extremely efficient.
"Even those of us who can read and write a little have almost no paper to write on," Tian said, "so I cannot tell ye with any real certainty when last they came. There are no records, ye ken, just one mouth to another. I know I was well-breeched, so it's longer than twenty years -- "
"It's twenty-four," said a voice in the back of the room.
"Nay, twenty-three," said a voice closer to the front. Reuben Caverra stood up. He was a plump man with a round, cheerful face. The cheer was gone from it now, however, and it showed only distress. "They took Ruth, my sissa, hear me, I beg."
A murmur -- really no more than a vocalized sigh of agreement -- came from the men sitting crammed together on the benches. They could have spread out, but had chosen shoulder-to-shoulder instead. Sometimes there was comfort in discomfort, Tian reckoned.
Reuben said, "We were playing under the big pine in the front yard when they came. I made a mark on that tree each year after. Even after they brung her back, I went on with em. It's twenty-three marks and twenty-three years." With that he sat down.
"Twenty-three or twenty-four, makes no difference," Tian said. "Those who were kiddies when the Wolves came last time have grown up since and had kiddies of their own. There's a fine crop here for those bastards. A fine crop of children." He paused, giving them a chance to think of the next idea for themselves before speaking it aloud. "If we let it happen," he said at last. "If we let the Wolves take our children into Thunderclap and then send them back to us roont."
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