"Nubb, let's heave him up and see if they've taken his face," she said.
"No blood," said Nubb.
"Blood may have run off in that cloudburst. Steel yourself, now."
They got on either side of the body and bit their lips. She looked at Nubb, meaning: It's only the next thing, it's not the last thing. Let's get through this, fellow.
She jerked her head in the direction of the hoist. One, two, heave.
They got him up. His head had fallen into a natural scoop in the stone, a few inches higher than where the rain had pooled. His face was intact, more or less; that is to say, it was still there, though shattered.
"How did he get here?" said Nubb. "And why didn't they scrape him?"
Oatsie just shook her head. She settled on her haunches. Her travelers had come forward and were congregating on the rise behind her; she could hear them rustling. She suspected that they had gathered stones, and were ready to kill her if she insisted on a burial.
The jackal moon rose a few notches higher, as if trying to see into the gulley. The prurience of the heavens!
"We're not going to dig another grave." That from her noisiest client, a wealthy trader from the northern Vinkus. "Not his, Oatsie Manglehand, and not yours, either. We're not doing it. We leave him unburied and alone, or we leave him unburied with your corpse for company."
"We don't need to do either," said Oatsie. She sighed. "Poor, poor soul, whoever he is. He needs no grave. He isn't dead yet."
In time, when the travelers had rejoined their cronies and relatives in the Emerald Cityin salons, in public houses, in taverns of exchangethey heard more chatter about the hostilities they had managed to sidestep.
Rumor flourished. Forty, sixty, a hundred deaths resulting from the skirmishes between the Scrow and the Yunamata. Barbarians, the lot of them: They deserved to kill off each other. But not us. Rumor could be wrong, of course, but it couldn't be uninteresting. Two hundred dead. Twice that. Mass graves, and they would be found any day.
But the luxury of safety came later. First, the Grasstrail Train still had to resume its snail's progress through the Disappointments. Geographical varietythe hills, mountains, dales and forests that made the rest of Oz so memorable, such a heartlandwas in short supply here. Just flats, shales, more flats, grey as pulped newspapers.
The prospect was dispiriting, and the notion of having to carry an invalid with them didn't improve matters. Oatsie Manglehand's clients had paid good hard cash for her service. Some originating from as far away as Ugabu, and others having joined the group along the eastern foothills of the Great Kells, they considered their own safe travel should be Oatsie's sole concern.
Oatsie reminded them that they didn't have a vote. She'd never represented that her clients would travel unencumbered by waifs and strays. Indeed, by terms of their contracts, she was free of liability should any of the travelers be murdered on the trail by a fellow passenger, a stowaway, a hitchhiker, a native. Oatsie had promised to lead the caravan as safely as she could, relying on her knowledge of the terrain and its populations. That was it. Period. To that end, she'd chosen a new route intended to avoid the current hot spots of intertribal conflict, and so far so good.
The invalid was loaded aboard.
Despite her bravado, Oatsie was indeed sensitive to her clients' fears, and in a way she was glad to have the unconscious young man with them. It distracted the travelers, while he remained oblivious of their resentment.
She bedded him in the third carriage back, requisitioning from her clients the warmest of winter robes. She mounded him into a cocoon. There he languished, day and night, not so much fevered as feverlessan equally worrying condition. After a day of trying, Nubb was able to spoon a few tips of brandy between the lad's lips, and Oatsie fancied she saw his muscles relax in a new way.
The foregoing is excerpted from Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire, pages 1-8. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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