The cool air of dusk fell upon them a little at a time, like a blessing. Thort was tired in his bones. He pulled the wagon off the road under a clump of trees. They needed water. Thort’s tongue and throat were thick with thirst. What could he do? He couldn’t leave his family to look for a well or a creek. He couldn’t send Evanor or Lem to look for water. It was just too damned dangerous.
Thort decided to move the wagon further back into the woods so that it’d be hidden from the road at least. Then he’d take his wife and child with him to look for water. That way they’d never be out of his sight or beyond his protection. Lem was covered from head to toe. Not a centimeter of his skin was exposed to view. Only his gleaming blue eyes looked out from the darkness of the swathing around his face.
They walked through the brambles down the gully and up the small ridge. They stopped to survey the fields below and listen for telltale sounds or signs of water. Lem raised his hand in a way that made Thort and Evanor hold their breaths. He heard something and pointed to a cluster of rocks over on the ridge opposite them. Lem walked down the treacherous path in front of his parents. Thort didn’t feel right about allowing himself to be led into the deepening night by his small son. Lem had never taken charge of the situation before. How would they find their way back to the wagon? What if one of them fell and twisted an ankle or worse? Evanor wanted to ask Lem whether he was sure about where he was leading them but she was too out of breath to speak and be heard.
Then both Thort and Evanor heard the sound of water trickling between the rocks half way up the next ridge. Thort took a swig of water and swirled it around in his mouth without swallowing. The taste was cool and refreshing. No, it was the best water he’d ever tasted. He let himself swallow the water this time and it cooled his innards all the way down. He nodded and Lem took a tentative drink. Then he put his lips against the wet rocks and drank long and deeply. Evanor took her turn next, at first daintily and then generously. They filled their water bags with the mountain water and walked back to the wagon, retracing their steps as well as they could. Again Lem guided them uncannily to the clearing where Thort had hidden the wagon. Thort was proud of his little boy who was becoming a man in front of his very own eyes.
In the morning they pulled the wagon back onto the road and continued southward in Sector 87. Sometimes Thort would exchange pleasantries with friendly looking men passing them on the road. “God’s greetings to you brother,” Thort would say to the man. “Do you know of anyone in these parts who needs a man and wife to do good honest work in return for food and boarding?”Most people looked at Thort and Evanor suspiciously and closed their mouths tighter than a gorm trap, continuing in whatever direction they happened to be going.
After a few more hours of pulling the wagon in the mid-morning sun, Thort saw a nondescript thin little man of indeterminate age sauntering toward them from around the bend just up the road a ways. “God’s greetings to you brother,” Thort said to the man smiling. The man stopped and looked at Thort quizzically. “You talkin’ to me mister?”
“Yes sir,” Thort stopped and wiped the sweat from his brow with his rolled-up shirtsleeve. “I was just wishing you God’s greetings.”
“Well, in that case,” the man allowed, “God’s greetings to you too.” He started on past Thort.
“I was just wondering,” Thort called after him. “Do you know of anyone in these parts who needs a man and wife to do good honest work in return for food and boarding?”
The man strode another two steps, stopped, and turned around slowly. He raised his head and looked at Thort through two slits. “Who’d be asking?”
“My name s Thort and this here’s my wife Evanor.” Evanor nodded to the man hesitantly. My little boy is sickly. He’s under the oil blanket, covered up from head to toe to keep the chill away from him…”
“Where you folks from?” the man asked.
Thort said, “We just came down from Sector 84. I’ve worked my whole life in the cobalt mines. My wife was a seamstress at the local clothing factory. I’ll be honest with you – I lost my job. I thought there might be work down here in Sector 87 to support and raise my family.” Slow down, he told himself. Thort felt he was talking too much, being a damn sight too friendly.
“Well,” the man said, “you thought wrong.” The man looked Thort up and down. “There ain’t no work in this sector … except for my place.” Thort looked up at the man suddenly, not believing his ears.
“The missus and me have a small farm half a day’s walk from here. We have a decent sized field, a barn for our animal stock, and a house,” the man drawled. “I’d be willing to put you and your family up in the barn, along with my animals, and serve you all one hot meal a day in our kitchen, providin’ you give me a hand with the farm chores and your wife helps the missus with the household chores. Your kid won’t have to work… What d’ya say?”
Thort was speechless. Evanor looked at Thort, and then back at the man.
Thort found his tongue. “Much obliged,” he said.
Lem raised the edge of the oil blanket slightly so he could get a better look at their redeemer.
“Hey little feller,” the man spotted Lem. “Are you one of them blue devils?” Lem stared at the man, unsure how to answer.
Thort’s heart sank down into his stomach. Evanor looked away.
“I heard of ‘em,” the man said to Thort matter-of-factly, “but I never seen one in my whole life… Woo-eee! Just wait’ll the missus sees him! She ain’t never seen no blue devil either! Sorry to be talking about your little boy that way. It’s just I …” he mumbled into incoherence.
Thort was incensed at the man for referring to his son as the blue devil, of course, but they were way beyond honor, almost to starvation. Thort and Evanor had tried their best to raise Lem as a normal child. They were both blind to the fact that Lem was different that the other children.
Lem was just happy that he didn’t have to hide his skin any longer.
Thort turned the heavy wagon around, causing the wheels to dig into the dirt road. They followed the man on his way back to his farm.
They arrived at a wire fence. The gate needed fixing. The man unlatched the gate. There was a crude sign attached to the gate.
It said, “Styg’s Farm”.
“I’m Styg,” the man said. “Get yourselves settled into that barn there,” he pointed, “and then come over to the house to get something into your bellies.”