12 The Withered Woman

June 24th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Broken Arch

She was tall, even without the heels that stuck and wobbled on the gravel road. It took a great deal of core strength to avoid stumbling in such situations, and her ability to do just that was a testimony to there being more power to her than that parched frame suggested. Her eyes were like the gutted houses past the railway tracks of Jonestown. They were so sunken, the shadows stretching down her face were abnormally large. They came to points, like sodden leaves on rotten wood. She had a wrinkled looking mouth, and thin limbs that were sun-tanned. Her blond-brown hair was going a sooty shade of gray. But the strangest thing about this incarnation of a famine, was that, if you squinted, she didn’t look much older than any of their parents. She could have been, had she not seemed so worn and weathered and shriveled, young.

The paradox alone was enough that Rose glanced at Pastor again. He must have heard the motion, because he shook his head. They were crowded around the window now, far back to stay out of sight.

“Who is she?” Pastor asked.

This question was directed at Jill or Fred, since they had recognized something about the cars.

“Drogheda Hound,” Fred said quietly. “She’s the press secretary or something. She’s been with them from the start.”

“Before that, I heard,” Jill muttered. She still clutched at her neck and arm. “The old folklorist, Dr. Sage, he said courts always have a king and four lords, but the King was missing one so they sort of got a temp way back.”

“But she’s human?” Rose insisted.

“She’s called a public relations assistant or something, but she has legal power too.”

“Has she come after us?” Rose worried.

“She’d arrest anyone if it made her look good,” said Fred. “And no one if it didn’t.”

“That does sound like their public relations,” Rose said grimly.


Drogheda was “Gheda” to her colleagues and Ms. Hound to her sycophants. She didn’t go in for friends. Her brown eyes sought out whatever she looked at with somber curiosity.

“What a ramshackle place,” she remarked, as she always did whenever she came here. “People must be living in the stink of poverty. It’s nothing like my hometown.”

This was, technically, a false statement, but it made her feel better. Gheda had never much cared for technicalities. Most were outside her experience.

The front door was a few meters off when a woman appeared and approached them. She wore an apron. There was a kerchief bound about her woven hair, and she carried a crinkling black bag of garbage towards the curb. She stopped when she saw them.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” she said, and waited, garbage in hand.

“Don’t let us interrupt,” said Gheda with some distaste. She never much trusted people who said sir and ma’am. It seemed ingenuine. Of course, she would say it sometimes, but no one was the same as she was and she knew it. “Just point us to the head of the place.”

“I am she,” said the woman.

Gheda had to recalibrate, especially given the unexpectedly keen grammar this statement revealed. “I didn’t realize things were so bad here.”

“They’re a’right.”

“You have services Sunday like normal people?”

“Saturdays and Sundays. You interested in joining our temple, ma’am? Dean says you come by quite often.”

Another thing Gheda did not like about the word ‘ma’am’ was that this woman should have known her name. Gheda was, after all, a trusted member of President Kennick’s outer cabinet.

Upstart.

“I don’t live here.”

“In for a visit?”

“Do you know who I am?”

The woman squinted. “Yes ma’am,” she said. “You were on all the cables.”

“Then you can use my proper title.”

“Like ‘Miss’?”

It sounded weak without her name. She scowled. “I am here,” she said, “in search of dangerous terrorists.”

The woman looked her up and down once and turned her head on one side. “By yourself?”

Gheda drew herself up as tall as her narrow frame allowed. “We’re in search of them now,” she reported, “and ready to call in reinforcements at a moment’s notice.”

“These terrorists have something to do with the cows?”

It was a strange question.

“What?”

“The cows, lying down in the fields,” the woman explained. “Any clear day they lie down in the fields. Usually they only do that when it rains. All’re lowing like a storm’s up. These terrorists trying to do something to our cows? Something biological?”

It was the strangest thing Gheda could remember hearing from someone other than herself. “What would terrorists want with cows?”

“Can’t say I know,” the woman said. “They are trying to take our cows?”

Gheda hadn’t gotten where she was—or stayed there—by being easily run off the rails. She could switch tracks faster than most.

“Fortunately,” she said, “the government isn’t the sort who’d know what terrorists are thinking. Terrorists have given up their humanity. They’re like animals, completely uncivil. You’re lucky we’re here to investigate.”

“What good is it not to be thinkin’ like them?” the woman asked. “Why don’t they send someone who does think like them, and help out our cows? Short-handed are they?”

The cows again.

“Now, if you want animals,” the woman went on, “I know there’s some bears livin’ east of here in those woods. There’s some caves there.” She glanced down. “I’d change your shoes if I ’ere you, Miss. I’ve some work boots in the back shed if you need them.”

Gheda had to suck in her stomach a bit, but she managed to stand up even straighter. ”You’re the head of this place?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So it’s your name on the bank books?”

“Absolutely not. We’ve accountants.”

“But those’re in the offices inside?”

“Priest’s office.”

“You said you were the head.”

“I’m the head, not the priest. You should come back for services, Miss. Might do you some good to have the peace of the gods over your life. You seem under quite a strain, trying to think like you can’t think to find out what’s going on with strange cows that aren’t yours…”

It was best to ignore the inane.

“I should remind you,” said Gheda sternly, “that the loyal officials of President Kennick have abolished the separation of Temple and State in every way, not just in taxes.”

The woman squinted. She set down the trash bag. Something inside of it went plink. She dug into her dress pocket, her tongue sticking out. “Religion ‘n’ State, you mean?”

“It’s the same thing,” said Gheda. “All religions. You know we can enter and search your premises if we like, service or no services. We’ve searched plenty of temples before. We can see if you, like the rest of them, have some subversive literature, some sermons making it seem there’s something more important than patriotism. If I were to find such a thing, I could have you arrested for preaching it.”

“Oh, I ain’t the preacher,” the woman said. “He’s not in before ten nor after four.”

“Then what’s the priest do?” Gheda asked, annoyed that some stupid detail like that was stopping this woman from absorbing the full import of a very practiced speech.

“I s’pose I could give ’im a call if you had a warrant…” The woman extracted a phone, unlocked it, and typed something. Gheda confidently knew her escort behind her was reaching into jacket pockets for their guns just in case—

The woman suddenly put her back to them and raised the phone. A false shutter sounded and a small flash sent white spots about Gheda’s vision as she hit a button. She blinked as the woman turned back around.

“Wait until the folks in Lotton see me now,” she suddenly crowed. “Standing with Ms. Hellhound herself.”

“What?”

“You’re a famous one, Miss. Your visits make us feel like the royalty!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Now, if you’ve got the warrant, I can give the priest a call…”

Gheda sent one of her men a look. He marched past the woman to the double doors of the building and gave them a tug. The locks rattled but held.

“Give us the key,” said Gheda, putting out a hand.

The woman pressed something on the phone and there was a click as it locked again. “Afraid it’s inside. Wait’ll they see….”

Gheda tried to parse this. It was an old-looking phone. Was it one of those rogue models? The ones that could upload pictures in an instant? She thought the restrictions on the market had discontinued those. Then again, the restrictions on the poor meant they’d hardly upgrade. Curses…

“You see,” said the woman, slipping the phone back into the pocket of her dress, “the building locks from the inside so last thing I do is take out the garbage. Now’m just waiting on my ride back.”

She picked up the plastic trash bag. It rustled and something went clink again. Gheda turned as the woman strode past her to the corner of the withered lawn. There was a dented wire basket at the corner. She dropped the bag into it with a clatter.

“You’re expecting someone?” Gheda asked.

The woman wrung her hands together and walked back down the path. “Sure am.”

“But who unlocks in the morning?”

“Preacher does.”

“You said you were the head here.”

“Last one in the building is.”

“You said the key’s inside.”

“There’s more’an one. It’s hierarchy.”

That word sounded dangerous, especially as it was known by one who looked so simple. Gheda glanced up at the sky. She had half a mind to call down the ’shot here and now, but there was only one woman, and she needed information.

“What time are you open?” she asked.

“Round nine o’clock—if there’s no traffic.”

Gheda looked back at the barren streets around the gas station and restaurant. She felt she was being mocked. It was time to get down to business.

“We can wait,” she announced.

“A goodnight to you then,” said the woman.

At this point a gray car was coming down the road. The woman hailed it.

Gheda stared after her, then at the building. “Well, we should follow her,” she said at last to her escort. “Get moving.”


Fred answered the phone on the second ring, fumbling to find a piece of telltale stationary just in case.

“Saint Balder’s,” he said, as professionally as haste allowed.

You’re a smart one, I think,” said the voice on the other end.

Fred sighed. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “But what now?”

She’s following me, gonna demand the key from who knows who next, I swear. Say, are you terrortypes?

We’re cross country hikers,” said Fred.

“And your blind friend, he takes to the scenic life?”

Fred grimaced. “Ma’am, thank you. What’s your name?”

None of that, too dangerous. Now look,” said the woman, “use the oil if you have to. There’s iron in the cabinet if you need it, showers by the ablutions room. Y’all heal up, clean up, and get out before we get back. Don’t make it look like you’ve been there. I know they’ll soon arrest any of us as soon as let us alone, so there’s no stopping that. Watch out for bears in the woods. Now the dark-haired girl, get her on the phone.

“You don’t know who we are,” said Fred, surprised.

We are all us. Get her on here.

Fred beckoned Rose. She’d stripped down to her tank top to treat her arm, and she’d lost her kerchief in the run. Taking the receiver, she leaned shakily on the desk. Fred moved away to take care of Jill, who was too stiff with elf-shot to self-medicate.

“Hello,” said Rose.

You know, they rain down elf- shot ‘least once a week here.’

Rose started in surprise. “You…”

I had a grandmother taught me what I know. It gets the cows at best.

She wasn’t sure what to say.

I see the iron ax, and I see your blind friend. Now what are you doing, child?”

Rose stuck a hand into her pocket. She drew a deep breath. A moment later there was a clack as she’d set the coin on the desk without looking. She cast her eyes down next, then answered,

“I think I can beat him,” she said. “The…”

I can guess who. Is that something you want him to know?

“No.”

I had my suspicions. Our blind woman, Ally, always knows when the ’shot’s coming. Lost her sight in a bad accident. The trauma does it, not the blindness: It opens your other eyes. People don’t travel with that kind for nothing in these times.

Rose waited, uncertain, remembering, without meaning to, the phone call from an emergency room not a year and a half ago. She slid the silver coin off the desk, closing her hand tightly around it.

What’ll you do?

Another clack.

“I can’t tell you,” she said.

Can’t you?

“I can’t tell anyone.”

Even your friends?

“No.”

And if you fail?

She turned the coin a few times. She was too nervous to flip it. She slapped it back down on the desk, lifted her hand.

“Then I’ll take the blame,” she said.

Right,” said the woman.

“But there’s no point telling.”

Your friends, they trust you?”

“They believe, yes.”

Fred looked up, the bottle of oil still in his hand. Jill was wincing as the stuff burrowed into unseen wounds to melt the needles. Pastor sat under the window, turning his staff in one hand.

You gotta know one thing,” said the woman. “You listenin’?

“Yes, ma’am…”

Fred looked up from a pad of gauze and the oil bottle as Rose hung up the phone. Jill rolled out a wince and Pastor turned his head inquisitively.

“Well?” asked Fred.

“We need to go as soon as possible.”

“She said to clean up before we go,” said Fred.

“Can we use the shower then?” asked Jill.

“I suppose.”

“I saw a sign,” said Jill immediately, suddenly sunshine with hope.

“Quickly,” said Rose firmly.

Jill was the first out the door at a limp, Fred hurrying after with worried shouts. Pastor slowly pushed himself to his feet. Rose stared at the dormant phone on the desk.

“I’d rather be safe and not be clean,” she said tersely.

“Rose.”

She looked up. Pastor had taken a few steps away from the wall. He was reaching a hand out to her, waiting, his face fixed on her direction in his usual, uncanny way.

She glanced back at the doorway, then reached over and folded her hand around his.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

“About…?”

“Since Carlotta.”

Again, Rose looked at the door. Pastor tightened his grip and he took a few steps forward. The closeness was unexpected, something she’d been convinced he was avoiding.

He dropped his voice.

“You thought she was dead,” he said apologetically.

“Tori.” It was the only person she spoke of in a whisper like that.

“Yes.”

“At the ER,” Rose added, the memory still freshly summoned since the phone call. There was a sound that was louder in her mind than it ever could have been in real life. “When you flatlined…”

“And I was left,” Pastor went on, “with just a memory, a… shadow. I know I said…”

“You think she’s really there?” Rose asked.

He squeezed her hand. “I know she is.”

It was so unexpected Rose couldn’t move. The thought zinged through her nerves like lightning.

“But you said…”

“I lied,” Pastor interrupted. “I said she was dead even after I realized she wasn’t, because I didn’t need my life to get more complicated.” He added, less tersely, “I know you missed her.”

Rose felt her chest clench.

“I missed you,” she said. “Deep down, you’re not a different person…”

“I thought I’d tell you,” he interrupted hurriedly, “because now my life couldn’t get much simpler.”

Rose swallowed and looked back at the open door. She was not, she told herself, about to cry about this. “What do you mean?” she asked, with some difficulty.

“I mean, it might be me who finally goes in the end,” he said. “You heard what he said. I guess I’m marked.”

“You’ve been wanting to say this since Carlotta?” Rose asked, swallowing hard not to shout.

You’ve been walking like a woman condemned since we left Jonestown.”

“I told you, the coin’s not an auger.”

“At the threshold, you saw your brother?” Pastor insisted.

Rose hesitated. “It was hallucination,” she said.

“You still feel guilty about that?”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” she said quietly.

It was, of course, a stupid argument. Pastor always knew what he was saying. But the alternative was to break down and cry, or worse demand he let her feel guilty, and then there would have to be other conversations.

So instead she said, “I have to believe it will be me who goes in the end. Maybe that’s why I saw him.”

“What do you mean?”

She drew a deep breath. “I have to do everything in my power to make sure it’s none of you, not you, not Jill or Fred, no one but me. I have to believe that.”

“There’s some solace in it,” he admitted. “But what if the coin says otherwise?”

“The coin doesn’t say anything.”

A reflective looked passed across Pastor’s face. Then, slowly, he allowed a sad smile and let out a sigh of relief.

“Brilliant.”

“Never…,” she warned.

“Ever,” he agreed with a nod. “To my grave, Rosalinda Thorne.”

Fred called from somewhere out in the sanctuary. “Rose! Pastor! Time!”

“We should go,” Pastor pointed out. “I’ll need Fred’s help again.”

She released his hand with some reluctance. He found her shoulder as he moved past.

“If we do get out of this—alive, I mean,” he said, with some hesitation, “I wouldn’t mind you calling me Tori again.”

After he’d felt his way out by the door Rose stood a moment in the office alone, rubbing her fingers over her own palm and fighting tears, wishing for something she could never have, something she thought she’d resolved to give up for the sake of the world.

A future.

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