Tally looked around at the others, and found all of them shrinking from her gaze. They could barely meet her huge, copper-flecked eyes, almost couldn't stand to face her beauty.
God, he'd said. The old Rusty word for their invisible superheroes in the sky.
This was their world out here - this raw, cruel wilderness with its disease and violence and animal struggle for survival. Like these people, this world was ugly. To be pretty was to be from somewhere beyond.
Out here, Tally was a god.
The hunters' camp took about an hour to reach. With torches extinguished, the party followed pitch-black trails and waded down freezing streams, never uttering a word.
Tally's guides displayed a strange combination of crudity and skill. They were small and slow, a few even disfigured, shuffling along carrying all their weight on one leg. They smelled as if they never bathed, and wore shoes so poor, their feet were scarred. But they knew the forest, moving gracefully through the tangled undergrowth, guiding Tally unerringly through the darkness. The hunters didn't use direction-finders, or even pause to check the stars.
The suspicions that Tally had nursed the day before were proven right. These hills were laced with human-made paths. The trails she'd only half-glimpsed in daylight now seemed to open up magically in the darkness, the old man who led her taking turns and switchbacks without hesitation. The group moved in a single line, making no more noise than a snake among leaves.
The hunters had enemies, it seemed. After their cacophonous attack on Tally, she wouldn't have imagined them capable of stealth or cunning. But now they sent signals up and down the line with clicking sounds and birdlike chirps instead of words. They seemed perplexed whenever Tally tripped over an invisible root or vine, and nervous when she let out a string of curses as a result. They didn't like being unarmed, she realized. Perhaps they regretted breaking their weapons at the first sign of her displeasure.
Tough luck, Tally thought. No matter how friendly the hunters had become, she was glad they'd discarded the clubs, just in case they changed their minds. After all, if she hadn't fallen into the water, washing the day's mud and muck from her pretty face, Tally doubted she would be alive now.
Whoever the hunters' enemies were, the grudge was serious.
Tally smelled the village before they reached it. It made her nose wrinkle unhappily.
It wasn't just the scent of wood smoke, or the less welcome tang of animal slaughter, which she knew from watching rabbits and chickens killed for food back in the Smoke. The smell at the outskirts of the hunters' camp was much worse, reminding Tally of the outdoor latrines the Smokies had used. That was one aspect of camping she'd never quite gotten used to. Mercifully, the smell faded as the village came into sight.
The camp wasn't big - a dozen huts made of mud and reeds, a few sleeping goats tied to each, the furrows of vegetable plots casting ruffled shadows in the starlight. One big storehouse sat in the middle of everything, but there were no other large buildings that Tally could see.
The village's borders were marked by watch fires and armed guards. Having reached home, the hunters felt safe enough to raise their voices again, shouting the news that they'd brought back a ...
People began to flow out of the huts, the hubbub growing as the village gradually awoke. Tally found herself at the center of a gathering crowd of curious faces. A circle formed around her, but the adult villagers never pressed too close, as if held back by the force field of her beauty. They kept their eyes averted.
The littlies, on the other hand, showed more courage. Some actually dared to touch her, darting out to lay a hand on her silvery jacket before retreating back into the crowd. It was strange seeing kids out here in the wild. Unlike their elders, the littlies looked almost normal to Tally. They were too young for their skin to show the ravages of bad nutrition and disease, and, of course, even in the city no one got the operation until they were sixteen. She was used to seeing asymmetrical faces and squinty eyes on littlies, and they were cute, anyway.
Tally knelt and reached out a hand, letting the bravest of them nervously stroke her palm.
She also saw women for the first time. Given that almost every man wore a beard, it was easy to tell the sexes apart. The women hung back in the crowd, tending to the smallest littlies and hardly daring a glance at Tally. A few were building a fire on a blackened pit in the middle of town. No men bothered to help them, she noticed.
Tally dimly remembered learning in school about the pre-Rusty custom of assigning different tasks to men and women. And it was usually women who got the crappy jobs, she recalled. Even some Rusties had doggedly clung to that little trick. The thought gave Tally a queasy feeling in her stomach, and she hoped similar rules didn't apply to gods.
She wondered exactly where the god idea had come from. Tally had her firestarter and other equipment in her backpack, recovered before she and the hunters had started on their way here. But none of them had seen those miracles yet. All it had taken was one glance. From what she knew of mythology, being divine meant more than having a pretty face.
Of course, she wasn't the first pretty they'd seen. At least some of them knew Tally's language.
They might know something about high technology as well.
Someone shouted from the outskirts of the throng, and the crowd parted before her, growing silent. A man came into the circle, oddly shirtless in the cold. He walked with an air of unmistakable authority, striding right through Tally's divine force field and to within arm's length. He was almost her height, a giant among these people. He looked strong as well, wiry and hard, though Tally guessed that his reflexes were no match for hers. In the firelight, his eyes sparkled with curiosity rather than fear.
She had no idea what his age might be. His face had some of the lines of a middle pretty, but his skin looked better than most of the others'. Was he younger than most of them? Or simply healthier?
Tally also noticed that he wore a knife, the first metal tool she'd seen. Its handle shone with the matte black of plastic. She raised an eyebrow: The knife had to be city-made.
"Welcome," he said.
So he also spoke the gods' tongue. "Thanks. Um, I mean...thank you."
"We did not know you were coming. Not for many days."
Did gods usually call ahead before visiting? "Oh, sorry," she mumbled, but her response only seemed to confuse him. Maybe gods weren't supposed to apologize.
"We were confused," he said. "We saw your fire, and thought you were an outsider."
"Yeah, I got that. No harm done."
He tried to smile, but then frowned and shook his head. "We still do not understand."
You and me both.
The man's accent sounded slightly unusual, like someone from another city on the continent, but not from another civilization altogether. On the other hand, he seemed to lack words for the questions he wanted to ask, as if he wasn't accustomed to making small talk with gods. Possibly he was searching for: What the hell are you doing here?
Whatever concept of the divine these people had, Tally evidently wasn't fitting into it very well.
And she had a feeling that if they decided she wasn't really a god, that would only leave one other category: outsider.
And outsiders got their heads caved in.
"Forgive us," he said. "We don't know your name. I am Andrew Simpson Smith."
A strange name for a strange situation, she thought. "I'm Tally Youngblood."
"Young Blood," he said, beginning to look a little happier. "So, you are a young god?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess. I'm only sixteen."
Andrew Simpson Smith closed his eyes, evidently relieved. Tally wondered if he wasn't very old himself. His earlier swagger seemed to abandon him during his moments of confusion, and he hardly had any beard yet. If you didn't notice the lines and a few pockmarks, his face could almost be an ugly of about David's age, maybe eighteen or so.
"Are you the...leader here?" she asked.
"No. He is headman." He pointed at the fat hunter with the bloated nose and bleeding knee, the one Tally had knocked down during the chase. The one who'd been totally about to cave her head in with his club. Great.
"I am the holy man," Andrew continued. "I learned the gods' tongue from my father."
"You speak it really well."
His face broke into a crooked-toothed smile. "I ... thank you." He laughed, then a look that was almost sly crossed his face. "You fell, didn't you?"
Tally held her injured wrist. "Yeah, during the chase."
"From the sky!" He looked around with a stagey bafflement, spreading his empty hands. "You have no hovercar. So you must have fallen!"
Hovercar? That was interesting. Tally shrugged. "Actually, I guess you've got me there. I did fall from the sky."
"Ahh!" He sighed with relief, as if the world was beginning to make sense again. He called out a few words to the crowd, who murmured sounds of understanding.
Tally found herself beginning to relax. They all seemed much happier now that her presence on earth had a perfectly rational explanation. Falling from the sky, they could deal with. And hopefully young gods were held to different standards of conduct.
Behind Andrew Simpson Smith, the fire exploded to life with a crackle. Tally smelled food, and heard the unmistakable squawk of a chicken being captured for slaughter. Apparently, divine visitation was a good enough excuse for a midnight feast.
The holy man spread one arm toward the fire, and the crowd parted again to open a path toward it. "Will you tell the story of falling? I will change your words to ours."
Tally sighed. She was exhausted, bewildered, and injured - her wrist still throbbed. She wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep. But the fire looked warm and cheery after her soaking under the waterfall, and Andrew's expression was hard to resist.
She couldn't disappoint the whole village. There were no wallscreens here, no newsfeeds or satellite bands, and touring soccer teams were no doubt few and far between. Just like back at the Smoke, that made stories a valuable commodity, and it probably wasn't very often that a stranger dropped in from the sky.
"Okay," she said. "One story, but then I'm passing out."
The whole village gathered around the fire.
The smells of roasting chicken came from long spits held over the flames, and earthen pots were shoved in among the coals, something white and yeasty-smelling gently rising in them. The men sat in the front row, eating noisily, wiping their greasy hands on their beards until they glowed in the firelight.
Women tended to the food while littlies ran amok underfoot, the older ones feeding the fire with branches scavenged from the darkness. But when the signal went up that Tally was going to speak, everyone settled down.
Perhaps it was sharing a meal with her, or possibly young gods weren't so intimidating, but many of the villagers now dared to catch her eye, some even gazing unapologetically at her pretty face as they waited for the story
Andrew Simpson Smith sat beside her, proudly ready to translate.
Tally cleared her throat, wondering how to explain her journey here in a way that would make sense to these people. They knew about hovercars and pretties, apparently. But did they know about Specials? What about the operation? The Crims? The Smoke?
The difference between bubbly and bogus?
Tally doubted her story would make any sense to them at all.
She cleared her throat again, looking down at the ground to escape their expectant gazes. She felt tired, almost pretty-headed from the night's interrupted sleep. The whole trip from the city to this fireside seemed almost like a dream.
A dream. She smiled at that thought, and gradually the words for her story began to find their way to her lips.
"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young goddess," Tally said, then waited as her words were translated into the tongue of the villagers. The strange syllables that came from Andrew's mouth made this firelit setting even more dreamlike, until the story was flowing from her without effort.