Kinter stood up, placing her clenched fists on her hips. “It’s about time you came back! I was beginning to think the Whitish really had eaten you. I was just about to leave you for dead.” Her anger didn’t fool the others; she looked frightened.
“You don’t believe that nonsense that the Whitish eat people, do you?” Collin said, winking at Kairma and then raising his eyebrows at Kinter.
Real anger flashed across Kinter’s face. “You think it’s funny!”
Suppressing a grin, Collin’s cheeks dimpled at her reaction. Sobering, he whispered to Kinter, “You can leave all this food here if you want, but I’m taking this with me.” As he picked up a small loaf of bread from the altar he added, “Did you know, on the night of the last full moon, I left some bread by one of the caves, and when I went back the next day,” he looked around in mock anxiousness, “something, or someone, had eaten all of it.”
Kinter fought back tears, and Kairma felt her skin crawl.
Grabbing Zedic’s arm, Kairma said, “Come on. Let’s go.”
Zedic pushed her hand away and turned to Collin. “Why aren’t you leaving your tributes here?”
Collin explained. “Whitish don’t eat people. They eat the food we leave here. There won’t be any great stone gods eating dinner here tonight, just a bunch of hungry White Ones. One of these days I’ll show you. I’ll prove it to everyone.”
Kinter’s cobalt blue eyes flashed as she gave Kairma an I told you so look.
Kairma wondered if there might be some truth in what Kinter had said about Collin, and then quickly decided she was just being ill tempered. “Zedic,” she pleaded, “let’s go. I don’t feel good about being in here as it is, and I don’t want to test the gods tonight.”
Zedic turned back to Collin. “Are you coming?”
Collin smiled, as if daring the gods to stop him. “I’m coming, but I’m not leaving all this food to be wasted.” Collin tossed a few more loaves of bread into his pack. “I don’t feel like feeding the White Ones. One night I’ll sit here and watch.” In defiance, Collin chomped on a piece of bread. “Actually I do think the tributes protect the hunting party from White Ones. After all, once they have been fed they don’t need to attack anyone, right? Or maybe Whitish don’t come out during the day because of the light, and they don’t come out under a full moon for the same reason.”
“Come on, Collin.” Zedic’s voice was stern now. Collin often had elaborate theories for things they didn’t understand. Because the Word says it is so didn’t usually cut it with The Rogue. Zedic tugged on his friend’s arm. “It’s getting late. People will worry.”
Closing his pack, Collin looked wistfully at the great Godstones. “Well, I guess there’s always tomorrow.”
Kairma walked behind the two boys. Collin wasn’t quite as tall as her brother, but was slightly wider in the shoulders. His unruly hair curled haphazardly about the collar of his cloak. She loved his boyish charm and his quick smile. When he laughed, his eyes, the color of spring clover, crinkled, and his cheeks dimpled. Collin was interested in everything and everyone. Although he teased her unmercifully at times, of all the boys she knew, he was the most fun to be around.
Other than her family, it was only with Collin and Zedic that Kairma felt comfortable taking off the scarf that hid her snow-white hair. Naturi had once said he liked her hair, but it had embarrassed her. Kairma liked Naturi, though she often felt very young and simple around him. Naturi was older, exceptionally refined, and very handsome. She watched Collin’s broad shoulders as he walked in front of her, wondering if he ever saw her as more than Boo, the pesky little sister of his best friend.
As she watched, Collin seized a branch and wrapped the end of it with dried vines. “Just in case the sun’s gone before we get back to the village.” He flashed that smile at Kairma. Feeling her cheeks flush warmly, she started walking faster. The last thing she wanted to see was another White One.
It was four annums ago when she wandered too far from her brother, and she still bore the scar on her right shoulder where a White One had bitten her. It had run out from the woods hunched over like a very old man. Its pale skin was covered with sores oozing pus, and the thin wisps of white hair on its head were tangled and wet. She screamed as the White One wrapped its arms around her waist as it attempted to carry her away. Zedic came to her rescue. The first rock from his sling just missed the monster’s head, but the next rock hit it square in the back. The beast screamed in pain, biting down on her shoulder as it dropped her and ran into the woods. She stumbled and fell at Zedic’s feet.
Kairma was ill for many weeks. At first she developed headaches and the only relief was cold packs over her eyes. Then the fever came, lasting for weeks, giving her the most horrendous nightmares. Her grandmother rubbed the painful cysts with eucalyptus and lavender oil to keep the sores from opening and spreading. When word spread that her hair had turned white, many Survinees told her family it was hopeless to try to save her. Diakus and Grimly had suggested taking her to the Godstones, as was usually done with others who suffered from the white fever. There she could die in peace, close to the gods, as her time neared.
Isontra insisted on continuing her ministrations until Kairma either lived or died, and after ten weeks of sitting with her constantly and feeding her broth, Kairma began getting stronger. Isontra removed the bandages from her eyes, but it was another three weeks before Kairma could sit up and feed herself.
It was then that Kairma discovered her strange abilities. At first she noticed the clouds that appeared around her grandmother. They were a soft blue like a summer sky, mixed with streaks of yellow and white. Although the halos were beautiful, Kairma didn’t mention it for fear it was another, far worse, stage of the illness. When she finally confided in Zedic, he suggested she keep this secret because people often feared what they didn’t understand. It would be hard enough for people to accept that the white fever had changed her appearance so radically. This new ability would undoubtedly make their bigotry far worse. Kairma was intensely grateful for Zedic’s understanding and friendship.
Because she looked white as a ghost, Collin had stopped calling her Boo. Whenever he called her Kairma, she would ask him if she had done something wrong or if he was mad at her. Eventually the nickname returned.
Several people were outraged by the unorthodox decision to keep Kairma home instead of taking her to the altar of the Godstones; a few members even refused to attend the weekly services at the Nor monument. Grimly and Diakus never relented their position and so there remained an obvious split in the Church. About twenty members regularly sat together at the meetings, raising questions about the decisions the Healers made.
Collin led the way as the young people reached the end of the wide roadway and turned to the south. The path here was tight and the forest closed around them. Kinter was feeling better now that they were more than halfway home. To no one in particular she said, “Wrote a new song today. I think I’ll play it at the Spring Celebration.”
Zedic encouraged her. “What’s it about?”
She felt her cheeks warm. “Oh, it’s nothing, really. ” She couldn’t tell them it was for the man she dreamed of mating. They would just laugh at her.
They headed down the narrow path with Collin in front, Kairma leading Kinter by the hand, and Zedic right behind them, pulling the small wooden cart. It was comforting when Collin began to talk casually about the strange man who had come to their secluded village. “Did you know they can make clothes in hundreds of different colors in the city? Trep says that they have huge buildings where all they do all day is make cloth.”
Kinter found the idea interesting but didn’t want to encourage Collin’s interest in the stranger, while Kairma, thinking about how long it was taking Isontra to make her ritual mating dress, couldn’t help asking, “What do they make the cloth from?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t say. I asked him about the tee and leggers he wears, and he told me about the place where they make them. He called them a shirt and pants. Funny names, huh?” The stranger’s clothes were also made very different from the suede, leather, and fur the Survinees wore. Kairma had to admit Trep’s clothes looked more comfortable than her own.
Collin continued. “Trep has funny names for lots of things. I didn’t tell you this before, but I spent three days trying to figure out what he was saying. He’s learned how we talk to some degree, but sometimes when he talks fast, I don’t understand a thing.” Trep’s accent was rapid with an odd lilt on the second syllable of most words.
Kinter interjected, “I don’t think you should be talking to him at all. The scrolls tell us not to befriend strangers.”
“That might be, but we could learn some things from him. Like riding horses. How much better would our hunts be if all the men had horses?”
Kairma didn’t say it, but Trep fascinated her. He was an olive-toned man standing at least an inch shorter than Kinter. He came to their canyon village six weeks ago riding on a horse, causing quite a stir in their sleepy little community. Of course, Collin befriended him at once.
As the darkness gained on them, Kairma began to have the uneasy feeling they weren’t alone. She asked Collin to light the torch and pulled Kinter closer to her, but the feeling continued to grow stronger.
They walked down one side of the small gully where the path followed the stream for a while. Collin and Zedic lifted the cart as they stepped across the stones rising out of the swift water. Kinter was shaking because she had never been out this late and Kairma knew her sister was a firm believer of the horrible stories about the White Ones. As they walked, Kairma was sure she heard voices, very sad voices. Before she could say anything to the others, several small White Ones surrounded them. Kairma could sense as many as twenty of them hiding in the woods, about ten feet away, their almost colorless eyes watching as the four young people made their way up the steep slope of the ravine.
Kairma felt a distant pain, more in her mind than her body. “Why aren’t they attacking? There’s only four of us and so many of them.” She stopped momentarily to see what the White Ones would do.
Zedic put his arm around her shoulder, easing her fear, and possibly his own. Collin raised the torch higher. “They won’t come near our fire. Whitish don’t like the light.”
The path narrowed further as they reached the more heavily wooded area, making them walk in single file. Collin led the way with their only source of light. Kairma’s sense of pain grew stronger with each step, making it harder to breathe. Her head ached and her eyes burned. She shielded her eyes from the torch as the pain began to overtake her. No one spoke until they came to the bottom of the cliff. Here the road doubled back on itself several times, winding up the cliff face. Collin said, “Let’s climb up the cliff. It’s a lot shorter. If we stick to the road, it’s at least four times as far. We’ll leave the cart here. We can come back tomorrow and get it.”
The wall before them was terraced with clumps of bushes, good for holding onto while climbing. The north entrance of the village was no more than sixty feet from the top edge of the cliff. Although they had climbed up and down the face of the cliff many times during the day, the meager light from the torch made the cliff look ominous. When they reached the first level, where the road crossed the cliff face, Kairma turned toward the woods. She could make out the shadows of several hunched-over figures making their way down the mountain, along the sides of the trail. She began climbing to the next level of the cliff, when her foot caught an outcropping of stone and she tumbled down the steep embankment. Kinter screamed, “Zedic, catch Kairma! She slipped!”
Catching Kairma by the wrist, Zedic stopped her fall. A branch caught on her scarf, pulling it off, and her snow-white braids glowed brightly under the torchlight. One of the White Ones reached out to her and Zedic kicked at it. It drew back as Zedic lifted Kairma to his side with an unexpected surge of strength. Collin handed him the torch and he waved it frantically at the White Ones.
Some of the creatures stood just beyond the light of the torch and watched the young people scramble up the steep cliff, while the others continued on their way down the mountainside. Kinter raced ahead, passing Collin in her hurry to reach the top. Streams of tears were flowing down her cheeks.
Kairma regained her footing and climbed as quickly as she could. Zedic was right behind her, and Collin brought up the rear. Kairma was so frightened she hardly noticed the easing of the pain that she had felt so strongly only moments before. As she reached the top of the cliff, she could see the shadow of Kinter against the light of the north door. Kinter’s hands were clasped tightly around the Crystal as she prayed for their safety.
Running past the heavy wooden doors of the hospital, Kairma grasped Kinter’s hand and thanked the gods for protecting them. They didn’t stop running until they were safely inside the canyon walls.
Collin and Zedic were a breath behind them. Dropping to his knees just outside the Chancery, Collin almost laughed. “Well, that’s the second time you’ve rescued Boo from the White Ones.”
“I know one thing,” Zedic said as he glanced at his sisters, who were as pale as the full moon. “If she keeps this up, I’m going to be very old, very soon.”
Collin stood up. “We’d better get inside. The adults will be thinking we’re bait for the White Ones.”
Zedic rubbed his head. “We were!”
Kairma didn’t say anything as she huddled Kinter close to her, wondering if Zedic or Collin had felt the same incredible pain. She didn’t think so.
Collin headed up the canyon toward his home. Holding hands, the other three walked into the Chancery, the grand home belonging to the Miral and Comad of Survin.
As they came through the doorway, their mother Jettena shouted, “Where have you been? You’ve been gone for hours. Your father’s hunting and here I was, trapped with four little ones. I couldn’t even go look for you!”
They all hung their heads as Jettena angrily ladled stew from a blackened pot into wooden bowls. “Your supper is cold. Serves you right, worrying me like this. Isontra’s gone to bed, but I’m sure she isn’t sleeping.”
Still ranting, Jettena set down bowls of cold stew for each of her children. “Zedic, I thought you would have more sense than this. You said you were getting blooding rods to dress the meat from the hunt. Does that take you all day and half the night?”
Zedic turned to Kairma, looking panicked. They hadn’t picked up any rods.
Jettena poured them each a cup of lukewarm terrid. Shaking her head, she directed her last outburst to Kairma. “I don’t even know what to say to you, young lady. You’re supposed to be a leader of Survin by this time next annum. Do you have any idea what that means. Any idea at all? Sometimes I think Nor gave the goats better sense.”
As Jettena turned to leave the dining hall, she sounded less angry, almost relieved. “Now eat your supper and go to bed!”
Looking back at her siblings, Kairma watched a smile blossom on Kinter’s crimson lips. Now that they were safe, Kinter enjoyed seeing her celebrated sister get in trouble.