In the darkness behind her eyelids a green shadow bloomed, a voice whispered. "Gone the demons and ouphs, but not gone that other thing. You must stop thinking "
The suggestion was familiar. She stopped thinking. The green shade expanded to contain her as she retreatred to a central fastness she was seldom able to find. Bird song wove a crystal cage. The sun pulled itself another rung into the sky. When its rays struck her full upon her head, she looked up without thinking anything and saw before her a looped line of light.
"What is that?" she asked in a whisper.
"The Guardian's sign," the voice murmured. "Go home now."
The darkness inside her gave way to a rush of scintillant sparks, edged light, pricking fire, sticking burs of brilliance creating an instant's perfect illumination. No voice. No demons. No ouphs. No ping, no ting, only the prickling star-burn, an itch of the intellect and the memory of a familiar but unplaceable voice.
So many sharp-bright questions! So many mystery -marvels that cried out for explanation! Thousands of things she wanted to know, and among them all, not one, not a single one that she, who yesterday had celebrated her eighth birthday, was still naïve enough to ask.
Among the trees, the demons met others of their fellows. From the wagon, straw mats were thrown aside to disclose a pile of bodies to be unloaded and laid on the grass. Wolf, the demon in charge, went down the line, checking off each one as they came to it.
"Malvis Jones," he read from his work sheet. "Malvis goes to Warm Point with you, Mole. Rickle Blessing? That's him, in the green overalls. He's been allocated to Benchmark along with his wife, Lula, third one down in that row."
"As he spoke, demons moved forward to load the still forms into smaller wagons hitched to pairs of horses. Beside the last body, a small one, the demons gathered, their faces twisted with anger and revulsion.
"Another one," said Mole, leaning down to fell the faint pulse in the child's neck. "What hellhound did this to her."
Wolf said between his teeth, "She goes south, all the way."
"To Chasm? You mean we call for transport?
"You think she'd live to make it any other way? Perhaps they can salvage something "
Mole cried, "Does anyone know anything about this?"
"Nothing. Except that there's more of it, all the time."
Silently, the demons wrapped what was left of the still body and laid it on a stretcher. Four of them carried it off among the trees. As the others were about to move away, every demon froze. Sections of their horns became strangely transparent, as though little windows had opened there. After a long moment, they moved, though only tentatively.
"Did you feel that?" demanded Wolf. "What was that?"
"Something watching," muttered Mole. "That's all I could get." He fished a notebook from a pocket. "How many bodies were there, all together?"
"Twenty-three. Twelve alive, eleven dead."
"No body parts removed?"
"Just that little girl," said Wolf, his lips twisting with revulsion.
"Why is it always children?"
"It isn't always, just mostly. Speaking of children, j'you notice the girl on the wall, Mole? Little thing, out there alone? How old?
"Yeah, about that. I used to see her there with her mother. Lately I've seen her there by herself, but it's the first time she's caught us out in the open. Do we need to "
"No. Let it go. There's no threat there."
Because of the watcher, Dismé was late leaving the wall, and she made it home just in time to avoid being caught. As it was, only Rashel observed her return past the bottle room.
"What were you doing out there?" she demanded imperiously, nose pinched, lips pursed, a flush of indignation on her face.
"There was a bird on the wall," said Dismé, carefully, expressionlessly. "I went to get a closer look at it."
Copyright 2002 Sherri S Tepper. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher HarperCollins.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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