The morning was a jewel, and the sun alighted on its every facet. It danced along the quivering blades of grass and splashed itself recklessly across the faces of boulders that stood to meet it. It rippled along the billowing tents at camp, and it glinted off the gentle rapids of the river as they murmured along.
Baultu’u took a deep breath into his massive lungs, gulping down the glittering air. He loved cloudless and bright mornings like this. They made work seem less like toil and more like hobby. He was eager to walk to the river’s edge, pail in hand, and to scoop up her cool waters. The tent needed patching, and that seemed like a fine chore for the afternoon. But first, he thought, he would find Sulma and see if she needed anything.
She was outside, sweeping the ground, her broom kicking up clouds of dust that she would disturb again as soon as they settled. It wasn’t unusual to see her around the encampment “tidying up.” She would dust the ground, the rocks, the bark of trees; she would even thrust the broom into the canopy and dust the leaves. This always brought a shower of them down, which just gave her something else to sweep up.
Always, the all of everything was covered with dust.
The world was constantly shedding its dessicated skin, all of it detritus, and she swept it all into riotous clouds and in the swirls she saw the future. The patterns revealed things to her. So many things. Sad things. Happy things. Small things. Seismic things. Distant things. Impending things.
“Ain’t ever gonna get the outdoors clean,” Baultu’u teased.
She barely looked up but gave a polite laugh. “Who’d want to. I see through the dust.”
As a shaman, Sulma held a high post, but her methods were odd. The others derided her in private, but not Baultu’u. Even when she stopped using her echo, and asked others to do the same, he still found her endearing. Maybe more so. She insisted the echo was just one more thing that could be shed.
“Wondering if there were any chores I could do for you this morning.”
“No, no, no.” She kept sweeping, looking more disturbed with each new plume of dirt she kicked up. “Clouds ain’t kind today. Today’s no day at all for chores.”
“There’s not a cloud in the sky.” He held his arms out and basked in the sunbeams.
“You know what I mean.”
“Come on, now. It’s beautiful.”
“Now, maybe.” She stopped suddenly and pointed to the horizon. “They’re coming.”
“Who?” He squinted but could see nothing.
“But they’re missing so many.”
Still, he saw nothing. “Sulma, what are you on about? You sure I can’t fetch you some water? Build you a fire so you can cook some lunch?”
She smacked him with the broom. “Don’t be a twit. Who could eat? Today’s no day at all for eating.” She swept some more, stirred new storms. “There they are. You see ‘em? There they are,” she said, staring into the gritty vortex.
Sure enough, on the horizon, a line of tiny figures, still indistinct, inched into view. “Who are they?”
“Us. Ours. From the northern encampment. But…they’re missing so many.” Her tone was puzzled. She watched with searing intensity the final particles of dust that fell back to the ground, hoping that in them she would find the disappeared. The earth silently embraced the motes. “So many…dead.” She lurched over as if struck by a club and thrust the broom into the ground to hold herself up.
Baultu’u rushed to her side to support her. “What you mean?”
She looked up and her eyes clutched him with bloodcurdling sympathy. “Karkori’i…Baultu’u, I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”
A strange feeling seized his chest. It was as if he had been instantly hollowed out. Gone. It was gone.
“Hold on, Sulma,” he said. “We don’t know nothin’ yet. Just need to wait.”
She gripped his arm and shook her head and he knew. Her eyes closed as a new vision struck her. “And Akura’a…”
“No. You’re right. No. She isn’t dead.” Heavy tears began to drift from her eyes, running down the gulleys of her pebbled cheeks. “Worse, Baultu’u. I’m so sorry.”
“You’re not making any sense, Sulma.”
“She isn’t dead. But she isn’t with them. She’s gone.”
His knees began to buckle, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to hold her up any longer. “What do you mean?”
“She deserted.” Her whisper was frenzied, and it came out a bristling hiss. “She’s gone, Baultu’u. She ran.”
The hollow in his chest filled as quickly as it had emptied. In the vacuum, a new feeling mineralized–jagged resentment, obsidian anger.
“She wouldn’t. She was one of our strongest. One of our best.”
Sulma finally righted herself. She wiped the tears from her face and prepared to sweep again, but it wasn’t necessary. She knew. They both knew. The future was certain. “She ran, Baultu’u. We both know what the Codes say. They’ll send a Retriever. They’ll have her head.”