the short story project


Mike Stone

Little Boy Blue

by Mike Stone

A short story excerpted from “The Rats and the Saps”


Chapter 1: Mother
I guess I’m older’n them hills on this god-forsaken planet. I don’t reckon I know how old those hills are. Come to think of it, I don’t rightly know how old I am neither. No matter. I usta turn a man’s eye. Now I ain’t much to look at. No matter. I’ve had a hard life. I don’t need no man’s pity and I ain’t ashamed of anything I ever done. Not even birthing my son. Tell you the truth, it’s the one thing I’m proud of. My son. Even though he don’t come around to see me very often anymore. I keep hoping he’ll come through that there door and pick me up in his arms and dance me around the room like a straw doll. I’d tell him he shouldn’t treat his old mother like that. I’d tell him he should treat me with more respect because I’m older’n those hills. But inside me I’d be proud as a purdybird. You should hear him talk. He’s a smart one, he is. I don’t know what all goes on in his head. He’s always one step ahead me. He’s also one step ahead of the neighbors too, thank God!


Chapter 2: History
Sometimes time lapped against the shores of the planet like a mirage slaking its vacuous thirst. Sometimes it came crashing down in terrifying waves like the rising ocean but these are not the metaphors that the Saps would have chosen to describe their troubled times. These are the metaphors of another species.

Draco.763.3b was a backwater moon, the larger of two moons revolving around an uninhabitable planet revolving around a distant blue giant star in a godforsaken dwarf galaxy named Draco since it was first viewed by Ptolemy in the second century of the Common Era on Earth1. The 763.3b suffix was a robot designation from the universal astronomical catalog signifying Star number 763 within the Draco galaxy, planet number 3 within that star’s planetary system, and the naturally formed satellite “b”. It was neither the best of worlds nor the worst of worlds. It was the only world its inhabitants had ever known since the mists of oral history.

Of course, its inhabitants called it “earth” rather than Draco.763.3b. The moon was roughly the same size as the first earth to be populated by humans, according to the robots who kept impeccable records of such things.

The moon completed one day-night cycle every 27 hours and revolved around its planet every 35 days (one month). It completed an annual revolution around its distant sun every 4125 months. There were four seasons, winter, spring, summer, and fall lasting more or less 1031 months each, depending on what part of the moon you inhabited.

The moon had been genesised by robots a long time ago to make the world suitable for human colonization. Of course, “suitable” might have been open to interpretation. Conditions on the moon were rough and unforgiving. If you were careful and if you were lucky, you could survive on this world, but just barely.

Take Sector 84 for example. The winters were particularly harsh there. It was mostly snow and ice. The terrain was all scrunched up with low lying mountains crisscrossing each other and caverns in those mountains sinking deep into the frozen bowels of the underworld. The spring and fall weren’t much different than the winter, just dirty snow replaced by dirty drizzle and mud slips. Come to think of it, the summer wasn’t much different from the winter, spring, or fall. You rarely saw the sky or anything else capable of taking your breath away and making you forget, if only for a moment, the miserable life you had to bear from birth to death. The only thing you could do to make an honest living was to work in the mines, as generations of humans had done all their lives, to chip away at the gold or the cobalt in those mine shafts and carry up cartloads of it back to the surface to trade with the robots when they came, once every 64 years. The robots brought food supplies, clothing, medicine, and other necessities in return for the gold and cobalt. Only God knew what the robots did with the stuff.

Sector 87 was different, though it wasn’t much better. The winters were milder and the summers were dry as a parched throat, mostly dust. The land stretched flat all the way to the horizon in every direction. It stretched over underground rivers and lakes. The only thing you could do in this sector was farming and you couldn’t even do that very well. There wasn’t enough produce left over for reseeding the fields, let alone for trading with the robots. There was just barely enough for a meager subsistence.

It was never ascertained why the humans had not been very successful in colonizing the moon. It might have been because the human species had been cloned by a robot or due to the limited gene pool resulting from early inbreeding. It was pretty much the same on all the worlds that humans inhabited.

How did it all begin? A group of humans on NGC 206.572.3, otherwise known as Earth2, nestled in the warm entrails of Andromeda, had looked up at the stars in the night sky and contracted a case of wanderlust. They hadn’t developed the technologies required for interstellar travel but they knew that the robots had. A few humans who possessed a scientific bent visited a robot colony nearby and requested a ride to other Earth-like worlds. The robots listened politely but at the end they asked what the humans intended to do with themselves for the millions of years, give or take a few thousand, that it would take to travel from here to there. To make a long story short, the humans agreed to be put to sleep cryogenically and awakened when they arrived at their destination. The robots attempted to dissuade the humans from their endeavor using logical arguments, but to no avail. The robots sat down with different groups of humans and discussed possible Earth-like worlds within the local group of galaxies.

One group of a couple hundred humans chose to go to Draco.763.3b. One of the robots pointed out that the moon had no atmosphere and would require genesising. It proved impossible to deter the humans from their desires once they became aware of them.

The next robot interstellar ship going to the Draco galaxy took along a hundred or so human passengers, the great-grandchildren of the group who had requested to be taken to Draco.763.3b in the first place. There were 53 males and 51 females. The youngsters were spellbound looking out the huge windows of the starship as it slowly picked up speed, still well inside the NGC 206.572 planetary system against Andromeda’s bejeweled night. After a few months, the humans had had enough of looking through the window and requested to be put to sleep in the cryogenic containers that the robots had brought along for that purpose. The robots shut off the oxygen in the ship, except for the containers, and concentrated on maintaining course. After a while, they set the controls on auto-pilot and rendered themselves unconscious.

When the starship was one light year out, a welcome wagon of robots from a neighboring planetary system was called in to ready Draco.763.3b for human colonization.

When the starship was within 30 light minutes of Draco.763.3, the star ship’s auto-pilot woke up the robots, turned on the oxygen supply throughout the ship, started brewing coffee, and gently woke up the sleeping humans.

The atmosphere was still barely breathable and the soil scarcely arable by the time the auto-pilot had woken up its precious human cargo.

The robot shuttle descended in lazy spirals until it hit the dense low cloud cover. Lightning bolts and booming thunder smashed and rocked the small craft as it struggled to maintain integrity while looking for a safe place to land. Most of the humans vomited bile because that was all they had in their stomachs after their long hibernation. Somehow the shuttle managed to land on a flat piece of ground among bleak low-lying hills.

The shuttle door opened and a narrow ladder protruded downwards to the ground. Hailstones pinged and zinged the shuttle hull as the first human-made his way cautiously down the ladder bundled in a thick furry coat and heavily laden backpack. As soon as he hit the ground with his thick boots he ran across the rock-strewn plain to a cave with a wide entrance protected from the elements by a rocky upper lip at the base of the foothills.

Another human similarly dressed and laden stepped down the ladder and ran across the field to the cave. Another came, another and another. Soon the last human came down and ran across the field to the cave. The shuttle door closed and the rockets ignited lifting the shuttle slowly off the ground. The shuttle continued its laborious ascent until the sound of the rockets disappeared among the thunderous clouds and lightning bolts.

They lit a fire in the cavern and boiled the tasteless soup the robot welcome wagon had left them. It was nutritious though synthetic. They warmed their hands wrapping their fingers around the hot tin cups of soup and thought about their chances of survival. Disorientation and depression made them sleepy, along with the relentless drizzle and hail.

The first structure they built outside the cavern was a church. They called it The First Church of God’s Forsaken. They built it from rocks and mud.

The humans began to explore their surroundings. The grasses and plants were stunted, sparse, and inedible. A few dead twigs had been hopefully planted in the mud at regular intervals, most likely by the robots. The few animals they saw were small with more bone than meat, but they would have to do.

A provisional government was elected. Actually, the church elders had formed the first government. The people could not imagine anybody else suitable for the job of governing them.

The humans began to split up into pairs, one male and one female, and solemnized their relationships beneath the mud and stone arches of their primitive church. The newlyweds took their leaves of the rest of the brethren still living in the common cavern and set up households in smaller caves nearby. Eventually, the cavern was relegated to storage and trading of foodstuffs, seed, and hardware. Room was made for a public bath and barbershop, a doctor and dentist clinic, and the like.

A second generation was born. Many infants survived but many more did not. 27 humans died in the first twelve months, 14 females and 13 males. Nobody lived to see more than two seasons. That was because each season lasted roughly 1031 months and the average human life span was 960 months. The first four generations of humans calculated their years as if they still lived on their homeworld, Earth2, in Andromeda. By the fifth generation humans fell into figuring their years in accordance with their planet’s orbit around the local sun, and thus their homeworld was forgotten.

During the spring of the first Draco year, human settlements expanded throughout the sector. A mapping expedition was organized and the known areas were divided into sectors. Wild animals were husbanded and arable land was farmed.

The land gave little worth eating in spite of their efforts. By summer the fields turned into large dustbowls and the dry fruit withered on their vines. Lakes receded, rivers became trickling creeks, and creeks became paths of dry cracked mud.

In the fall of the first year, gold and cobalt were discovered in the depths of the caverns and caves of Sector 84. Many destitute families from Sector 87 abandoned their skag wood houses, barns, and barren fields, loaded up their drac-drawn wagons, and migrated northwest to Sector 84.

That turned out to be a fixed pattern. In late fall, early winter, many families would migrate southeast to Sector 87. In late spring, early summer, those same families would migrate back to Sector 84. Some families stuck it out in both sectors all year around.

A robot trader ship usually visited the human moon twice a season to exchange goods and raw materials for much needed or desired supplies. The gold and cobalt fetched a good exchange rate.

By the 174th Draco year, the human population had grown to approximately one million inhabitants. They had spread out over thirty percent of the charted areas. With drought, famine, disease, and wars, the human numbers stayed pretty much the same over the next 500 years and nothing much happened that was worthy of being recorded unless you counted the daily evils that neighbors perpetrated on each other.











Chapter 3: Blue Eyes
It’s time.

The words did not mean anything yet in Dagor’s mind. They were just words that didn’t make any sense, that were disturbing the sleep he so needed before getting up to go to work at the mine before first dawn. His wife didn’t seem to appreciate how much he needed those few precious hours of sleep to gird himself for the physically grueling work. He tried to will himself back to sleep.

“It’s time, Dagor,” Terpa said again patiently. This time her words had meaning. Dagor shot up to a sitting position in their bed in a sweat trying to think of the list of things he must do now that the time had arrived. She smiled at him, knowing he would fall apart when the time came. She loved him anyway. “Go fetch the midwife and the preacher. Tell them the baby will come soon. Fetch my mother too. I’ll be ok until you return,” she said to him.

Terpa sat in a warm pool of amniotic fluid and blood. There was nothing to do about it now. She’d wait until female help came to get the bed sheets changed. Dagor pulled on his pants and slipped his arms through the sleeves of his shirt. He put on his heavy coat, boots, hat, and gloves. Dagor bent down to kiss his wife and ran out the door into the cold night.

Terpa’s mother lived next door to them, so he knocked on her door first. Her father answered the door. Dagor said, “It’s Terpa. She’s ready to give birth. Tell your wife she’s needed. I’m going on to get the midwife and the preacher.” Terpa’s father produced a toothless smile and mumbled male encouragement. Dagor had not waited for her father to finish his blessing. He disappeared into the night.

The midwife lived in a small cabin on the far side of their village. Dagor ran through the gate and up the steps to the porch. He pounded on the door with his gloved hand. After a few moments, the door opened cautiously. The midwife stood inside the doorway clutching her tattered robe around her corpulent body. Her face was not appealing, but neither was it unkind. Dagor told her to come with him now. “Why,” she asked. “It’s Terpa, my wife.” He knew he had mixed up the order of what he was supposed to say. “She’s big with our baby,” he stuttered, “and it’s about to come out.”

The midwife said, “You just wait here on the porch. I’ll close the door, get myself dressed, and come back with you to your wife.” Dagor waited impatiently on the porch. He beat his arms and stamped his feet against the biting cold. After a few endless moments, the midwife opened the door, slipped through the doorway with a bag in her hand, and closed the door. “Lead the way,” she told him.

When they had gone a short distance, the midwife asked Dagor whether he had called for the preacher. He shook his head and said they would call for him on the way back home since the church was on the way.

Dagor ran up the steps of the church, taking two at a time. He banged on the heavy doors with his gloved hand until it throbbed with pain. There was a creak that descended slightly before it rose as the massive doors opened. The preacher was a tall skinny man in a nightshirt. “What do you want?” the preacher asked gruffly, somewhat resentful of having to relinquish his warm bed. Dagor told the preacher his wife was going to give birth any time now and the midwife was here beside him. “Do you have your towels, scissors, and salts?” the preacher turned to the midwife. “Yessir,” she answered. The preacher closed the door without saying a word. In a few moments he returned, fully dressed in a black suit and a more-or-less white shirt, and a bible of sorts. The preacher and the midwife trotted behind Dagor as they hurried down the muddy lane to his cabin in the woods.

When they entered the gate, Terpa’s mother opened the door shedding cold light on the snow and ice. “Hurry!” she whispered, “She can’t keep it inside her much longer.”

“You stay outside and wait,” the preacher ordered Dagor. “You and you get to work on that young woman,” the preacher pointed at the midwife and the mother with his skeletal finger. He stepped inside and shut the door behind him. He opened the bible and began to drone relevant passages from the open pages of the book, scarcely audible, while Terpa groaned. The midwife told the mother to boil water for the towels. She lifted the bed sheets and examined Terpa’s swollen vagina. She did not like what she saw, one bit. Between the parted lips she saw a small patch of hairy scalp. The patch was bluish in color, rather than the usual reddish-brown. The midwife shuddered. “What is it?” the mother asked. “Is something wrong?” Terpa asked, “What’s wrong? Is something wrong with my baby?” The preacher paused momentarily from his droning and glanced under the sheets. He lacked the experienced eye of the midwife. Terpa screamed. “Push!” the midwife ordered Terpa. “Push now … wait … now push! Push again … again!” Terpa was arching her back and pushing for all she was worth. The head was already in the midwife’s open hands and the slippery body was about to follow. The baby was blue all over, skin, hair, and eyes. The midwife cut the umbilical cord quickly, spurting blood over the bed and floor. Terpa’s eyes were still closed against the terrible pain she had just undergone. The mother looked at the baby with terrified eyes. The midwife showed the baby to the preacher. The baby’s eyes opened widely, deep pools of blue. The preacher whispered, “I commend thee to Thy Maker little one.” He put the palm of his hand over the baby’s mouth and twisted its head until its neck snapped. “Ashes to ashes,” the preacher said sadly. Terpa keened uncontrollably. Dagor broke through the door. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with our baby?”

“Your baby son was born dead,” the preacher explained as sympathetically as he was capable of doing. “He was blue when he came out … he didn’t even cry.”

The midwife looked blankly at the preacher and did not challenge his words. Dagor held Terpa in his arms, rocking her back and forth as she screamed.

After a while, Dagor took a shovel from behind the cabin and dug a small grave in a corner of the backyard. It took him a long time because the ground was frozen hard as rock. He came back to the house. Dagor took the dead infant, wrapped in towels, in his arms. The preacher followed Dagor to the grave, along with Terpa’s mother and the midwife. Terpa was moaning inconsolably as the midwife shut the door.

The preacher praised the infinite wisdom of god and prayed for the infant’s soul. After they had shoveled dirt into the open grave, the preacher offered words of condolence to Dagor and his wife. Lies, every one of them.



Chapter 4: Abomination
The humans appeared to be holding their own on this harsh world. With a population of roughly one million inhabitants, there were somewhere between 273 and 456 births reported every day from all the sectors. The humans were a hardy species and that hardiness expressed itself in the gene pool from which their infants emerged.

There were isolated reports of infants born dead. Giving birth was always a risky business. Not all infants survived delivery and those who did would not necessarily survive the first twelve months. Those who survived the first 60 months had decent chances of surviving the next 800 or so months.

What was strange was not the number of infant deaths but the fact that most of the dead infants were blue. They were usually buried immediately. People talked about the blue babies in hushed voices. Preachers ranted about them. Rumors were rampant and opinions were divided and diverse. Some people thought it happened from working in the mines. Everybody knew somebody who had blue lung and died of it; that is, everybody except for the mine company doctors who ignored the miners’ complaints. If that blue dust could get into your lungs, why couldn’t it get into your infant’s blood?

The preachers were of a different opinion. The Sectarian Church Council had met to pray on the blue baby deaths and the conclusions were sermonized from the wooden pulpits of every village church and house of worship. The blue babies were an abomination and offended the eyes of the Lord. They were the Devil’s own spawn. They were a sign of God’s displeasure with the sins of the people and the approach of the End of Days.

That was what the preachers told their flocks. What they said amongst themselves, far from the ears of the unanointed, was different. The preachers who had attended births talked about the blue babies. Some were honest and told the others that many of the blue infants had taken a breath or opened their eyes or cried out. There was no moral issue with those that were born dead. Nothing could be done about them. Those who were technically alive in the first few moments were the issue. Obviously, they were not viable. Who knew what suffering was in store for them. The only moral action left to the preacher was to put the child out of its misery. Or was it? There were a handful of younger preachers who questioned the wisdom and the morality of snuffing out the flame of innocent life of a child of the Lord. The elders who participated in the council deliberations told those young preachers that they would be well advised to follow the orthodox line, which they would better understand when and if they reached the venerable age of wisdom.

You had to understand. This was not a time to buck the opinions of your neighbors or to go against the preaching of the Church. You would survive as part of the group or you would die alone.

Neither was it a time to be blue.

Chapter 5: Lem
Evanor sat in her kitchen with Dorka sipping a cup of skagbroth. Dorka had been Evanor’s friend ever since she and Thort moved to their house, if you could call it that, nearly 36 months ago. They’d lost their farm in Sector 87 during the last Big Drought and Thort had heard there was work in the mines to be had, if you had a strong arm and a wide back. Dorka lived down the row of cabins from them with her husband Javid and their infant son, Sangor. Sangor was playing quietly on the kitchen floor beside his mother’s chair. The fire in the hearth warmed the floor and the air. Dorka was probably Evanor’s best friend. She was the only one of the neighborhood ladies who welcomed her when they moved in. Evanor remembered that first day when Dorka knocked on the door, carrying a basket of meat pies and fruit and vegetables fresh from their garden.

Evanor was a diminutive woman except for her surprisingly large belly. She was large with a baby that was about to be born any day now. Dorka seemed to have so much more experience with these things, having recently given birth to Sangor. She promised to help Evanor through the hardest times. “There was nothing to it,” Dorka said. “Every woman went through the experience and most survived. The funniest thing about it,” she said wisely, “is that it will be the most excruciating pain you’ll ever experience and then, the next day, you won’t remember the pain at all since you’ll already be thinking about the next baby.”

Maybe it was the power of suggestion. Evanor felt two blunt stabbing pains deep in her uterus. Her hands clutched instinctively at her stomach. She nearly passed out. Then she felt all right again as though there had not been any pain. She looked at Dorka to see whether she had noticed anything out of the ordinary. Dorka was watching Evanor worriedly. Evanor picked up her cup to sip the tea, as though nothing had happened, hoping that if she could persuade her friend that everything was all right, then maybe everything would be all right. The pain thrust into her uterus again. Evanor’s hand shook and the cup fell to the floor, bursting into shards and spilling the tea on the floor. Dorka picked up Sangor quickly from the floor before the hot tea could scald him.

Dorka smiled into Evanor’s frightened eyes and calmly told her friend, “I think we’d better get you into bed…”

“But my baby…” Evanor whimpered, “I think something might be wrong!”

“Just you relax now girl,” Dorka said taking charge of the situation. “A million girls before you have gone through exactly the same thing. It’s perfectly normal… It’s time to get your husband and call for the midwife and the preacher.” Dorka put Sangor in his babycart and then she helped Evanor walk to the bedroom. She undressed her and helped her put on a loose nightgown. Dorka covered her with the quilt and told her she was going to leave Sangor with the neighbor lady and then send word to Thort to come home as quick as he could. Evanor was sweating and kicked off the quilt. “Please hurry Dorka!” she moaned. “I’ll be back before you know it,” Dorka assured her friend and rushed out of the house with Sangor.

After Dorka had deposited her son with one of the neighbors, she hurried off in the direction of the mine where Thort and her husband, Javid, worked. She couldn’t go into the mine itself, of course. The elevator cage was down at the bottom of the shaft where the workers were and they weren’t about to bring it up just for her. She was out of breath when she walked into the mine boss’s office. “What do you want?” the boss asked gruffly when she knocked timidly on the open door. He was chewing on a drac leg bone. The meat was tough but the fat dripped from his clenched fingers.

“I need to get a message down to Thort,” she said urgently. “His wife is about to have a baby!”

“It’ll have to wait until he comes up at the end of his shift,” he said. “I’m not about to bring that elevator cage up and down and then up and down again just for one miner’s wife. Besides that, he probably wouldn’t come up, if he knew what’s good for him, ‘cause I’d dock his paycheck good!”

“But she’s gonna have his baby and she needs her husband,” she pleaded half-heartedly, already knowing it was a lost cause. What was she thinking?

“Close the door on your way out,” the boss told Dorka coldly.

She went to the entrance of the mine shaft and wrote a note to Thort in big letters that, hopefully, he wouldn’t miss. She pinned the note to the board where the miners passed by when they came out at the end of their shift. She prayed that Thort would see the note and come home as quickly as he could instead of going to the pub in town with Javid and the rest of his friends.

Dorka rushed to the midwife’s cabin and banged on the door with her clenched fists. She shouted the woman’s name and banged on the door. One of the neighbor ladies leaned out of her window and said the midwife is out delivering a baby, that new couple that just moved here from Sector 88. “When did she leave?” Dorka asked the older woman, seeing the disaster looming in front of her.

“About an hour ago,” the woman drawled.

Dorka didn’t really have all that much experience. All she had was the fact of recently giving birth and she’d done that lying on her back and pushing. She’d never delivered a baby herself and never really watched how it was done. There was no use going to the preacher’s house since he’d probably be with the midwife at the new couple’s cabin on the outskirts of the village. What was she going to do?

Dorka debated with herself while she rushed back to Evanor’s cabin. By the time she got to the door, she’d decided what she was going to do, God help her. It wasn’t like there was anything else to be done.

Dorka hurried breathlessly into the bedroom. “Where’s Thort?” Evanor cried, her eyes uncomprehending. Dorka sat down on the bed beside Evanor and said as calmly as she could, “I told his boss to let Thort know he had to come home as soon as possible. He should be here any moment now… Right now it’s just you and me girl.” She rubbed Evanor’s trembling leg.

“It hurts so badly,” Evanor said, pain accenting her words strangely.

Dorka shushed her. “Don’t you worry girl,” she said, “It’s perfectly normal and before you know it it’ll all be over.”

“Where’s the midwife?” Evanor asked Dorka suspiciously.

“I left word with her neighbor to come over as soon as she can,” Dorka lied. “What’re you worrying about? I’ve been through it myself and, if she doesn’t come in time, I’ll deliver your baby myself. How difficult can it be?” Dorka looked under the quilt and sheet-like she saw the midwife do when she delivered Sangor. She put her hand near Evanor’s private parts without touching to measure the opening. Two fingers. It’s starting! ”Don’t you dare push girl,” she ordered. “Just you relax between your pains … we’ve got lots of time yet.” Dorka looked at the clock on the table beside the bed. Come on somebody, rescue me! Dorka held Evanor’s hands. Evanor squeezed Dorka’s hands with inhuman strength, smiling from the concentration of her pain.

The pains were coming closer together. Evanor was grunting now. “Don’t push yet!” Dorka tried to raise her voice above Evanor’s grunting. “Wait as long as you can …”

Evanor wasn’t acknowledging Dorka’s command. She was just letting the roar of pain come through her mouth. An animal had taken over Evanor’s body and soul. There was nothing Dorka could say to talk sense into it.

Time slowed down almost to stopping.

Dorka looked under the sheet again. Oh God, nine fingers! I see the baby’s head. Oh God, what’ll I do now?

Evanor let out a scream as long as a drac’s tail. The baby’s head was all the way out. Dorka saw the shoulders. The baby … oh God! It’s – The baby was all the way out and in her arms, the afterbirth hanging like a grotesque bridge between the infant and Evanor’s uterus. Dorka’s brain froze. “It’s dead!” Dorka moved her dry lips incomprehensibly. “God save his …”

“Nooooooooooo!” Evanor keened. Thort burst through the bedroom door wrested the infant from Dorka’s arms, almost knocking her over in the process. “It’s an abomination!” Dorka mumbled incoherently. “That’s what the preacher says … It’s the devil’s spawn. See, it’s not even breathing … It’s limp.”

Suddenly the baby’s eyes opened widely, deep pools of blue. He shook a small fist in the air and grasped at Thort’s cheek. His small blue hand opened and closed. Thort put his thick coarse finger in his son’s tiny palm and the blue fingers closed around it and squeezed for all they were worth.

Evanor saw that Thort’s eyes were shining. She was still whimpering when Thort bent over her placing the infant in her hungry arms, gently withdrawing his finger from his little son’s grip. Evanor cooed and soothed the tiny impossibly blue life. He was perfect except for the fact that he was … No, God damn it! He was just plain perfect and that was all there was to it.

Nobody paid attention to Dorka standing in the corner of their bedroom mumbling to herself and gesticulating.

Thus Lem was born.



Chapter 6: Welcome Wagon
It was strange, Evanor thought, that nobody came to visit to see whether she needed anything, not even her best friend Dorka. Not that she needed anything in particular, really. The delivery had not been so bad. There hadn’t been any complications where she was concerned. Lem seemed perfectly healthy. He took his fill of milk at her breasts, God bless him. He was quiet, she told herself. There was so much she wanted to say about him, to tell her friends. She was so proud of every coo and burble that escaped his lips but there was nobody to tell, no one with whom to share her first experiences of motherhood.

Lem seemed like a happy baby. He never ever cried. He slept most of the night. When Thort or Evanor would get up at night and check on Lem, sometimes they’d see him lying on his back, his little arms and legs flailing, looking towards them and smiling. Lem didn’t seem anything like Sangor, at least the way Dorka told it.

It was like Lem’s birth didn’t count, Evanor thought bitterly. The neighbor women pushed their babycarts around proudly, like there was a trophy inside instead of a baby, and shared their child-raising experiences as though they were the wisdom of the elders to anyone who hadn’t had their own baby yet. To tell the truth, Evanor was a bit envious of that. She wanted to share the wisdom she’d acquired from raising Lem. She had earned the right to be respected too. Instead, it was as though she were invisible.

Sometimes Evanor and her family were not invisible, and then it was worse for them. When Lem was three months old, Evanor said it was high time they attended church. Thort didn’t have much patience for church in general and preachers in particular. They were pretty useless, as far as he was concerned, and religion seemed to put people up to no good. The only thing the church was good for was dying and getting yourself buried. Thort kept his opinions to himself since it was important to Evanor to stay on the good side of church society and she wanted little Lem to be raised properly. Thort refused to go to church every Godsday but once in a while was tolerable. He told Evanor, with his side-mouthed sense of humor, that if he’d go to church every Godsday, he might want to become a preacher and live off the alms of honest working people instead of working in the mine from first dawn to last dusk. She’d heard that so often that she didn’t laugh anymore, but he got a good snort every time he said it.

Evanor dressed Lem in the finest clothes she’d made for him, knitting near the kettle fire in their kitchen. She wrapped him in a warm blanket. When they were all ready to leave for church, Thort bent down and picked his tiny son up ever so gently. Evanor never ceased to be amazed by her gentle brute of a husband whose heart had been so thoroughly conquered by such a frail wisp of a child. Thort carried the bundle of Lem in the crook of his thick arm through the door. Lem’s blue eyes seemed to widen in his blue face.

When they approached the church gate, Evanor and Thort heard the sounds of people who hadn’t seen each other since last Godsday talking to catch up with events that had transpired before the preacher began the service. Evanor straightened her hair as they walked up the steps and through the tall wide doors.

The sounds of friendly conversation seemed to dry up in the desiccated air. They were replaced by a thick unbreathable atmosphere of unfriendly silence. Thort and Evanor walked down the middle aisle looking for a place for them to sit. Lem also looked out of his swaddling clothes. There was room for them to sit in the middle of the pews, but nobody welcomed them to sit next to them or made room for them to pass, not even Thort’s co-workers from the mine. Evanor saw Thort heading for the last pew near the door and knew that look of determination on his face that nothing or no one was going to stop him from clearing a path for his beloved family. She put her hand on his throbbing shoulder and said to him, “Come, let’s go home, please Thort, let’s just go home.”

They walked out of the church and Thort slammed the heavy doors shut with all his might. Evanor thought the doors would explode off their hinges. They went home. Evanor never asked Thort to go back.

When the fuss appeared to be over, the preacher walked into the large room where everybody sat expectantly. The preacher’s robes scuffed the wooden steps as he ascended to the platform where he would deliver his sermon to the congregation. “Blue is the color of abomination in the eyes of our Lord … He shall smite it down with His righteous arm!” the preacher worked himself up to a feverish pitch.

One night when Lem was six months old, Evanor heard him coughing hoarsely in his crib. She got up quickly and went to see what was wrong. Lem was breathing raspy breaths and coughing something frightful. She didn’t know what to do. Thort had jumped out of bed and was pacing back and forth uselessly. She sat with Lem on the chair rocking him back and forth, trying to soothe him against her warm breast. Evanor sang whatever lullabies she knew and eventually he stopped his coughing fit. He was still breathing with difficulty and looked into his mother’s eyes helplessly. Evanor sang lullabies all night.

In the morning, after Thort had left for work reluctantly, Evanor wrapped Lem up and put him in the babycart. He was still breathing raspy-like. She pushed him out the door and through the street all the way to the doctor’s house.

She carried Lem into the waiting room. There were two other mothers with sick children in their arms. They both looked at Evanor and Lem, as though she’d brought an animal into the doctor’s clinic, and then they went on talking, ignoring her. The door opened to the doctor’s office. A woman walked out carrying her baby in her arms. Evanor thought she recognized her, but she wasn’t sure because the woman didn’t seem to recognize Evanor. One of the two women got up with her baby to enter the doctor’s office and closed the door behind her. After she came out and left, the other woman and baby entered the office and closed the door. Evanor listened to Lem’s labored breathing. She was so anxious she felt like bursting through the door of the doctor’s office. Finally the door opened and the kind-eyed white-haired doctor came through it into the waiting room. He looked at Evanor and down at Lem, and back at Evanor.

“Doctor, he was coughing terribly all last night and he is breathing terribly …” she said to him.

“You should have let him die the day he was born,” the doctor said. “What kind of life do you expect for him? You’ll all be better off when he is dead. I know you don’t understand that now but you will sooner or later…”

Evanor could not believe her ears. She wanted to scream at the doctor. “Please Doctor,” she pleaded, “make my baby well again … just this time! Please God!”

“He’s already dead,” the doctor said, “you just don’t see it. Please leave my office. Go back home … There’s nothing I can do for you!”

“You mean there’s nothing you will do for my son, you monster!” Evanor rose from her seat with Lem in her arms and stormed out of the house, so angry with the doctor that she forgot the babycart.

After three nights, Lem’s breathing eased a little. His cough lessened and was less frequent. Evanor sensed Lem was getting better and she told Thort because he worried so and didn’t know what to do.

After a week, Lem was back to normal.

Lem never saw another human doctor.



Chapter 7: Invisible Fortress
Somehow Lem survived his first 36 months. How he loved his mother’s singing. Sometimes Evanor would sing the lullabies she remembered from her childhood. Sometimes she would make up the words as she went along and sometimes she’d just hum melodies. Evanor sang when she fed Lem and sang when she dressed him and bathed him. Little Lem’s blue eyes would widen to swallow her whole and he’d smile for all he was worth. Evanor’s and Thort’s hearts would melt just to talk about how he smiled as though that were the only thing that made their dismal lives worth living.

One evening Thort came home with a cloth bag under his arm. Lem looked up at his father expectantly. Thort laid the bag on the wooden table by the door and swooped down on Lem picking him up high in the air and lowering him gently for a fatherly kiss. Lem’s eyes averted to the bag on the table. Evanor asked Thort what was in the bag. Thort said it was a surprise. Lem leaned toward the bag with his thin arms pointing at it. “Very well,” Thort said in a mock gruff voice. He set Lem down on the floor and handed the bag gently to Lem. Lem’s eye’s widened. He looked into the bag and pulled out a longbow with a ribbon of drac hairs stretched between the two ends of the bow. Lem pulled out the fiddle from the bag. He looked from the fiddle to the bow and back to the fiddle. Lem turned the fiddle over and looked at the strings of drac hairs stretched tautly over the bridge. There were thicker strings and thinner strings. He looked at the tuning pegs. The body of the fiddle was made of skagwood. Lem felt the smooth wood against his blue cheeks. He closed his eyes and smiled.

Thort asked Lem, “Aren’t you gonna try to play it?” Thort picked up the fiddle and scratched the bow across the fiddle strings. Lem closed his eyes and covered his ears with his hands.

“There go a month’s wages,” Thort sulked under his breath.

Evanor said, “I think he likes it very much … He just doesn’t like it when you play it. Let’s hang it on the wall where Lem can see it.”

Thort got a hammer and pounded some pegs into the wall. He hanged the fiddle and bow on the wall. When he finished, Lem closed his eyes and smiled. “I guess Lem’s smile was worth a month’s wages,” Thort said to Evanor and kissed her.

A couple months later, Evanor found a job as a seamstress at a local clothes factory. Her wages would help with their expenses but, best of all, there was a communal day-care near the factory where she could leave Lem while she worked. Evanor laid out Lem’s clothes and he dressed himself. She took hold of his hand and they walked all the way to the day-care. She opened the gate for Lem and they walked up the flagstone path to the door. Evanor peeked in through the doorway. She saw the children playing and the toys strewn over the floor. In the corner sat an obese woman whose age was impossible to ascertain. She was smoking a thick cigar and reading a newspaper. The fat woman looked beadily over the open newspaper and through the cigar smoke at Evanor and that little blue devil by her side, sizing them up and down. “Well, are you coming in or ain’t you?” she asked Evanor coldly. “Don’t make much matter to me, one way or the other.” The children looked at Lem and back at each other smirking. Evanor recognized Dorka’s child, Sangor, playing with a group of children and thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for Lem after all.

“His name is Lem. He’s a good little boy and …” Evanor answered hopefully. “Don’t much care what the little devil’s name is, do I?” the fat woman said. “As long as he keeps to himself and don’t cause no trouble, we’ll get along just fine.” She’d thought about telling Evanor to take her little devil and get out of her house, but she needed the money. In any case, there’d be hell to pay when the other parents found out there was a blue devil playing with their children. She’d think about that later.

“Please ma’am,” Evanor pleaded, “he’s a good little boy and I’ll be back for him before the other mothers come to collect their children.” She led him over to a corner where the blocks were. She bent down to kiss Lem and whispered in his ear that she would come back for him as soon as she could. Lem watched Evanor as she turned away from him and walked to the door. She didn’t want Lem to see the tears in her eyes.

The door closed and Lem was alone without his parents for the first time in his short life. He looked expectantly at the children playing near him. He listened to them talk to each other and learned the rules of their games which they made up as they went along. He waited for them to invite him into their games. He smiled when they smiled, but they weren’t smiling at him. When they did notice him, they usually made mean faces and jeered at him threateningly. Lem quickly stopped smiling.

He looked at the blocks in the box by the wall. They were soft and oversized. He smiled at the blocks. At least they didn’t jeer back at him. He picked one up out of the box and laid it on the floor. He picked up another and laid it down beside the first. Lem picked up another block and another, laying them down so that they encircled him. Then he put a layer of blocks on top of the first blocks. Lem built another layer of blocks on the first two layers. The other children, including Sangor, were watching Lem building this strange fortress of blocks higher and higher, until they couldn’t see Lem inside.

Lem sat quietly inside his fortress and ate the sandwich his mother had prepared for him. He hummed a lullaby to himself and felt safe inside.

Sangor whispered something to his friends and they laughed at what he had said. Sangor got up and walked over to Lem’s fortress. While looking at his friends to make sure they were watching, he pushed against the fortress slowly until the blocks tumbled down on top of Lem. One of the blocks had a sharp corner which cut Lem’s upper lip as it grazed past him. The cut stung a little and he licked the salty trickle of blue blood.

Sangor skipped back to his group of friends in triumphant syncopation. The fat woman squinted through the smoke of her cigar at the hateful blue child. He won’t last long here, she harrumphed to herself.

Lem stood up amid the tumbled blocks. He collected the blocks and put them back in the box by the wall. Lem turned to look at Sangor and his friends. Unable to read them he looked at the fat woman smoking a cigar, reading her newspaper. She was as unreadable as the children. Lem turned back to the box of blocks and reached in with both hands and pulled out apparently nothing at all. His two hands seemed to be pressed against a big invisible block. Lem laid it on the floor carefully. He picked up another invisible block and laid it down beside the first. Lem picked up another and another, laying them down around him. He laid a layer of invisible blocks on top of the first one. Lem built another layer on the first two layers. The other children, including Sangor, were watching Lem building this apparently invisible fortress of blocks higher and higher. When he had finished, he sat on the floor inside of it.

Sangor got up and walked over to Lem’s invisible fortress. He looked at his friends to make sure they were watching and pushed against the fortress walls slowly until he lost his balance. Sangor nearly fell on Lem but Lem moved so quickly that the other children could not believe their eyes. One moment Lem was sitting next to Sangor’s knees and the next moment Lem was standing near the box by the wall. Sangor fell on the floor and hurt his knee. The other children laughed and Sangor blushed with anger. He rose quickly and lunged at Lem, but suddenly Lem was standing in the other corner. Sangor ran at Lem and began to flail at him with his fists but he never made contact with Lem. The children laughed again. Sangor walked back to his friends, jerking his thumb up and back at Lem, saying look at that scared blue baby.

Good to her word Evanor arrived before the other mothers. She saw Lem sitting by himself silently and her heart was pierced. She went straight to Lem without asking the vile woman how Lem’s day had been. Evanor took Lem’s hand and they walked past her. “Don’t bother bringing him back tomorrow,” the fat woman said. “He’s a trouble maker, that one. One of the kids over there got hurt because of him and there’ll be hell to pay when his parents find out.” She tossed back her head and exhaled a flume of cigar smoke. Her hand flinched with a desire to smack the blue devil, to teach him a thing or two about his betters, but she realized she was too old and slow to do so.

At the door, Evanor turned to say, “Lem’s not a mean child. I’m sure you were all perfectly evil to him.” They walked through the door without waiting for a response.

The next morning at the mine Javid made sure he was working in the same part of the shaft as Thort. “You keep your kid away from my Sangor,” Javid told Thort, “if you know what’s good for you.”

Thort’s anger rose in his throat. “Lem was minding his own business,” he said. “It’s your boy who caused all the trouble!”

“That ain’t what the old lady told Dorka,” Javid raised his voice.

“Well, she’s lying!” Thort said.

“Who are you calling a liar, you whoreson?” Javid shot back.

Thort’s fist came from nowhere and hit Javid squarely on his jaw. Javid licked blood from his cheek and smiled at Thort crazy-like. He plowed into Thort, knocking him to the hard ground. Javid was on top of Thort pummeling his face, while Thort tried to turn over and lift himself up where he’d have an advantage over Javid. The other miners gathered around to see the fight and size up the fighters. They shouted encouragement to Javid and taunts to Thort. Thort twisted his body around so that Javid was pummeling his back and neck instead of his face. Slowly Thort rose up to his feet and Javid slid away. Thort punched Javid in the stomach lifting him off the ground slightly.

One of the miners shouted, “Hey, the assistant manager’s coming!” The other miners pulled Thort and Javid apart but Javid wriggled loose and kicked Thort in the groin.

“Who started it?” the assistant manager asked, looking at Thort, Javid, and the rest of the miners.

One of the miners said he saw Thort take a swing at Javid first. The others nodded in agreement. Neither Javid nor Thort said anything.

The assistant manager turned to Thort and said, “If you cause any more trouble, I’ll kick you out of the mine myself!”


Chapter 8: The Local Tavern
The horn blew loud and shrill in the mine shafts, informing the miners that their shift had ended. The first batch of men put away their shovels and pickaxes in the boxes by the main elevator shaft and filed onto the wooden elevator platform while the others waited for the elevator to return. Javid and most of Thort’s work buddies shoved their way onto the platform, leaving Thort and the miners from the other shafts to wait for the next elevator. The wired doors closed flimsily and the platform started to rise, creaking and groaning under the weight of the miners. Every man in the elevator said a little prayer that this would not be the night the elevator fell in the shaft.

After a maddeningly long time, the elevator returned to the waiting miners. Thort pushed his way onto the platform. He was pressed tightly against the other miners. He looked forward to drowning his pain and his troubles in some good brew with his buddies at the local tavern. He’d try to smooth things over with Javid. Thort didn’t want any trouble with his neighbors or co-workers.

Evanor knew Thort would stop at the tavern on his way home. He needed to unwind with his friends at least once a week. Thort saw the welcome lights streaming out of the windows of the tavern at the end of the road and could hear the raucous music and manly laughter spurt out every time the doors opened. Finally, he arrived. Thort walked through the doors and looked around the crowded room for his buddies. He saw them sitting at the long table by the far wall. They already had their tankards of brew in front of them. They were laughing and talking and poking each other. Thort walked toward them with a wide-open smile on his face, which soon disappeared. His friends had spotted him and stopped talking and laughing for a moment, but nobody moved aside to make room for him. They turned back to their laughing and talking and poking.

Thort found a small table nearby with a single chair nobody had taken yet. He sat down and made a drinking sign to the mistress of the tavern to bring him a tankard of the usual. When it eventually arrived, Thort slaked his tremendous thirst and dulled his pains, but his heart wasn’t in it. There wasn’t much point to it if he wasn’t drinking with his buddies, was there?

Thort could see Javid drinking with his buddies at the long table and hear him telling everybody his side of events at the mine that day. Javid was telling his buddies that if Thort were to show his ugly Rat-loving face at work tomorrow, he had better keep out of Javid’s way or Javid would give him another blue eye. Thort heard Javid’s threats and his buddies’ jeers.

Thort stood up unsteadily, upsetting his table. His tankard of brew crashed and spilled on the floor by his feet. He picked up the small table and threw it at Javid, hitting him hard and knocking him over in his chair. Thort was standing over Javid, legs planted on either side of Javid’s capsized chair. The buddies pulled Thort away from Javid and held his arms while Javid got up and hit Thort hard in the face and stomach. Several buddies took turns punching Thort wherever they found an opening, with a few carefully placed kicks to the groin just to make sure Thort couldn’t sire any more blue babies. Thort doubled over vomiting on the floor. Javid swung his knee up hard into Thort’s face breaking his nose and two teeth. Thort’s head flew back almost breaking the nose of the man who held Thort’s arms. Javid’s thick fist punched deep into Thort’s solar plexus and he slumped heavily to the ground barely breathing.

After Thort lost consciousness, the buddies dragged him out of the tavern and threw him into the road. The tavern owner followed the men out and stuffed a bill for brew and damages into Thort’s shirt pocket.

Javid and his friends went back into the tavern, picked up the chair, setting it right again, and ordered another round of brew.

When Thort regained consciousness the tavern windows were dark and silence issued from the padlocked doors. He pulled himself up on one knee to determine whether he could stop the world from spinning around him. Everything hurt and he had the taste of dirt and blood in his mouth. He tried to stand up but the pain in his groin made him double over. He tried again more slowly this time. He took a step and a sharp pain shot through his groin. He took another step and another.

Thort hobbled up the road slowly until he reached the gate to his house. He opened the gate and nearly passed out before reaching the steps. He dragged his right leg up the three steps until he stood in front of the door. Evanor opened the front door in her nightgown and gasped. Lem stood behind his mother horrified in the rawest of silence at what he saw.

She tried to support his tremendous weight, maneuvering him to the sofa. He fell backward onto the sofa and laid his head back. She went to the kitchen to bring strips of cloth and a bucket of water. “What have they done to you,” she asked him over and over, not waiting for or expecting an answer. She dabbed his gashes and bruises with water-soaked cloth strips. She had to go back to the kitchen to change the water in the bucket many times.

Thort fell asleep on the sofa. She didn’t have the heart to wake him and try to get him up the stairs into their bed. She went upstairs to get the quilt blanket and bring it down to cover him. She slipped inside the quilt blanket and pressed her warm body against his. She couldn’t sleep.

There were only two hours left before first dawn. He couldn’t miss a day of work.



Chapter 9: Dolarosa
It was still night when Thort woke up. The only part of him that didn’t hurt was Evanor, asleep beside him. He tried to move carefully not to disturb her. He recovered her with the quilted blanket. He wanted to bend down to kiss her but his back throbbed too painfully for that.

Thort went to the kitchen, relit the candle, put some wood in the stove, and kindled a fire in it. He splashed cold water on his bruised puffy face. He moved his tongue tentatively over the missing tooth.

Thort boiled a pot of coffee on the stove and cut half a loaf of yesterday’s bread for his breakfast. He put the rest of the loaf in a sack to take with him to the mine. He sat down at the table and gulped down coffee between munches of bread. He noticed Lem sitting silently across from him at the table. Thort was used to Lem’s quick and quiet ways. He winked at his son to show him he didn’t have to worry.

Thort kissed Lem on his forehead and went out the back door with the sack of bread in his left hand. He reached the mine just before the horn blew for the start of the shift. He pushed his way onto the elevator. The rancid odor of the men around him permeated Thort’s nostrils. He was in good company. Most of the other men on the platform, like him, had slept the previous night in the clothes they were wearing to work this morning, but Thort’s clothes were also stained with blood and mud.

Thort avoided contact with Javid and his co-workers. He worked at the other end of the shaft, striking the walls with his pick ax and shoveling the rocks and grit into the shuttle car behind him. He tried to keep pace with his buddies at the other end of the shaft but the pain of his wounds and the bandages slowed him down.

The assistant manager told Thort that if he did not shape up and work with his team, he could turn in his pick ax and shovel and look for another line of work. Thort tried to pick up the pace of his work but everyone could see that he was falling behind.

At the end of his shift, Thort was told to come to the assistant manager’s office. He stood in front of the AM’s desk. He had been too proud to go back to work with the same men who had talked about his kid and worked him over the way they did. To hell with the job and the damned assistant manager!

The AM told Thort unceremoniously to take his last wages and get the hell out of his mine.





Chapter 10: A New Beginning
Thort came home to his wife and told her he’d been fired. Evanor had had to quit her job at the factory to stay at home with Lem because there was no one else to care for him. There was no other work in the village for Thort besides the mine.

He could have stayed home with Lem while Evanor went to work as a seamstress but there wouldn’t have been enough wages to survive on. Besides that, Thort didn’t have the soft kind of intimacy with Lem that Evanor seemed to have. Thort loved Lem but it was a gruff sort of love. It was as though Evanor and Lem shared a single heartbeat.

“We have to leave,” Thort said finally. “There’s nothing left for us here.”

“I know,” Evanor said and forced a smile on her face. “It will work out for the best. You’ll see. We’ll make a new beginning.”

Thort picked up her thread of hope. “Maybe we’ll leave this grey and dreary sector altogether. I hear there’s farming work to be done over in Sector 87. It’d be nice to breathe fresh air and see a bit of blue sky … to let the sun warm my sore bones.”

Lem was also caught up in this net of hope. He said with a big smile and eyes like searchlights scanning his parents’ faces, “Maybe I’ll find some friends who’ll play with me!”

Then it was decided. Thort used most of his wages to purchase a wooden cart with decent wheels and axles to transport their few belongings. Their house belonged to the mining company so there was not much they could convert to money or barter script, so a drac to pull the cart was out of the question. Thort would have to pull it himself. Thort removed the fiddle and bow from the pegs in the wall. Lem’s eyes locked onto Thort’s, but he looked away saying, “I’m sorry Lem. We’ll need the money to eat.”

Lem said nothing but imagined the scales running parallel in four keys all the way up to a note that nobody else could hear. Thort walked out the door with the fiddle and bow under his arm.

When Thort returned empty-handed, he explained to no one in particular that he was only able to get back half what he’d paid for it.

Evanor said, “That’s all right. We’ll get by. Don’t you worry.”

The rain had been falling steadily for the last several days. The winds whistled through the naked branches of the trees along the row of similar houses. Thort had rigged an oil-soaked blanket over the cart to protect their cartons of food and clothing. He picked Lem up easily, swung him over the sideboard of the wagon, and told him to sit under the blanket to keep dry. It would be hard enough to pull the wagon through the mud of the road so Evanor walked beside Thort as he trudged along gripping the thick handles of the wagon meant for drac pulling.

They didn’t look back or anywhere but forward as they advanced up the row road past Dorka and Javid’s house and the houses of other neighbors who watched them from heartless windows. Thort pulled the wagon past the Church of God’s Forsaken in the middle of the village. He pulled it past the midwife’s cabin and then the last house on the outskirts of the village. The ruts in the muddy road crisscrossed and deepened from lack of maintenance and the pulling became more difficult.

The daylight was ebbing. Thort pulled the wagon off the road behind a clump of young skagwood trees. Thort helped Evanor climb into the wagon and slip under the oiled blanket with Lem. Then he climbed into the wagon and slipped under the blanket so that Lem was warmed and secure between them. Thort reached into one of the food cartons and pulled out a half loaf of bread Evanor had baked that morning. He tore off hunks for Lem and Evanor, and a small piece for himself. They chewed slowly in silence contemplating, each according to his own ability, the path that lay ahead of them.

The pain in his shoulders and legs overlaid the other pains from the brawl at the tavern two nights ago. The unfamiliar sounds of the forest also made it difficult for Thort to drift off to sleep. What would be tomorrow? He tried to calculate how far he could spread their meager food supply…

Thick rain drops thrummed and thumped the oiled blanket over their heads. Soon Thort slipped into a blessed dreamless sleep beside the soft snoring of his wife and child.

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