She needed Andrew Simpson Smith, it was that simple. And he had spent his life training to help people like her. Gods.
"Okay, Andrew. But let's leave today. I'm in a hurry."
"Of course. Today." He stroked the place where his slight beard was beginning to grow. "These ruins where your friends are waiting? Where are they?"
Tally glanced up at the sun, still low enough to indicate the eastern horizon. After a moments calculation, she pointed off to the northwest, back toward the city and, beyond that, the Rusty Ruins.
"About a week's walk that way."
"That means seven days."
"Yes, I know the gods' calendar," he said huffily. "But a whole week?"
"Yeah. That's not so far, is it?" The hunters had been tireless on their march the night before.
He shook his head, an awed expression on his face. "But that is beyond the edge of the world."
FOOD OF THE GODS
They left at noon.
The whole village turned out to see them off, bringing offerings for the trip. Most of the gifts were too heavy to carry, and Tally and Andrew politely turned them down. He did fill his pack, however, with the scary-looking strips of dried meat that were offered them. When Tally realized that the grisly stuff was meant to be eaten, she tried to hide her horror, but didn't do a very good job. The only gift she accepted was a wooden and leather slingshot offered by one of the older members of her littlie fan club. Tally remembered being pretty handy with slingshots back in her own littlie days.
The headman publicly bestowed his blessing on the journey, adding one last apology - translated by Andrew - for almost cracking open the head of such a young and pretty god. Tally assured him that her elders would never be told about the misunderstanding, and the headman seemed guardedly relieved.
He then presented Andrew with a beaten copper bracelet, a mark of gratitude to the young holy man for helping to make up for the hunters' error.
Andrew flushed with pride at the gift, and the crowd cheered as he held it aloft. Tally realized that she had caused trouble here. Like wearing semiformal dress to a costume bash, her unexpected visit had thrown things out of whack, but Andrew's helping her was making everyone relax a little. Apparently, placating the gods was a holy man's most important job, which made Tally wonder how much city pretties interfered with the villagers.
Once she and Andrew were past the town limits, and their entourage of littlies had been called back home by anxious mothers, she decided to ask some serious questions. "So, Andrew, how many gods do you know...uh, personally?"
He stroked his non-beard, looking thoughtful. "Since my father's death no gods have come but you. None knows me as holy man."
Tally nodded. As she'd guessed, he was still trying to fill his father's shoes. "Right. But your accent's so good. You didn't learn to speak my language only from your father, did you?"
His crooked grin was sly. "I was never supposed to speak to the gods, only listen as my father attended them. But sometimes when guiding a god to a ruin or the nest of some strange new bird, I would speak."
"Good for you. So ... what did you guys talk about?"
He was quiet for a moment, as if choosing his words carefully. "We talked about animals. When they mate and what they eat."
"That makes sense." Any city zoologist would love a private army of pre-Rusties to help them with fieldwork. "Anything else?"
"Some gods wanted to know about ruins, as I told you. I would take them there."
Ditto for archeologists. "Sure."
"And there is the Doctor."
"Who? The Doctor?" Tally froze in her tracks. "Tell me, Andrew, is this Doctor really...scary-looking?"
Andrew frowned, then laughed. "Scary? No. Like you, he's beautiful, almost hard to look upon."
She shuddered with relief, then smiled and raised an eyebrow. "You don't seem to find it too hard to look upon me."
His eyes fell to the ground. "I am sorry, Young Blood."
"Come on, Andrew, I didn't mean it." She took his shoulder lightly. "I was only kidding. Look upon me all you...um, whatever. And call me Tally, okay?"
"Tally," he said, trying out the name in his mouth. She dropped her hand from his shoulder, and Andrew looked at the place where she had touched him. "You are different from the other gods."
"I certainly hope so," she said. "So this Doctor guy looks normal? Or pretty, I mean? Or, anyway...godlike?"
"Yes. He is here more often than the others. But he does not care for animals or ruins. He asks only about the ways of the village. Who is courting, who is heavy with child. Which hunter might challenge the headman to a duel."
"Right." Tally tried to remember the word. "An anthro - "
"Anthropologist, they call him," Andrew said.
Tally raised an eyebrow.
He grinned. "I have good ears, my father always said. The other gods sometimes mock the Doctor."
"Huh." The villagers knew more about their divine visitors than the gods realized, it seemed. "So you've never met any gods who were really...scary-looking, have you?"
Andrew's eyes narrowed, and he started hiking again. Sometimes he took a long time to answer questions, as if being in a hurry was another thing the villagers hadn't bothered to invent. "No, I haven't.
But my father's grandfather told stories about creatures with strange weapons and faces like hawks, who did the will of the gods. They took human form, but moved strangely."
"Kind of like insects? Fast and jerky?"
Andrew's eyes widened. "They are real, then? The Sayshal?"
"Sayshal? Oh. We call them Specials."
"They destroy any who challenge the gods."
She nodded. "That's them, all right."
"And when people disappear, they sometimes say it was the Sayshal who have taken them."
"Taken them?" Where? Tally wondered.
She fell silent, staring down at the forest path in front of her. If Andrew's great-grandfather had run into Special Circumstances, then the city had known about the village for decades, probably longer.
The scientists who exploited these people had been doing so for a long time, and weren't above bringing in Specials to shore up their authority. It seemed that challenging the gods was a risky business.
They hiked for a day making good time across the hills. Tally was beginning to spot the trails of the villagers without Andrew's help, as if her eyes were learning how to see the forest better.
As night fell, they found a cave to make camp in. Tally started to collect firewood, but stopped when she noticed Andrew watching her with a mystified expression. "What's up?"
"A fire? Outsiders will see!"
"Oh, right. Sorry." She sighed, rubbing her hands together to drive the chill from her fingers. "So this revenge thing makes for some cold nights on the trail, doesn't it?"
"Being cold is better than being dead, Tally," he said, then shrugged. "And perhaps our journey will not last so long. We will reach the edge of the world tomorrow."
"Right, sure." During the day's hike, Andrew hadn't been convinced by Tally's description of the world: a planet 40,000 kilometers around, hanging in an airless void, with gravity making everyone stick to it. Of course, from his perspective it probably did sound pretty nutty People used to get arrested for believing in a round world, they said in school - and it had usually been holy men doing the arresting.
Tally picked out two packages of SwedeBalls. "At least we don't have to build a fire to have hot food."
Andrew drew closer, watching her fill the purifier. He'd been chewing on dried meat all day, and was pretty excited about trying some "food of the gods." When the purifier pinged and Tally lifted the cover, his jaw dropped at the sight of steam rising from the reconstituted SwedeBalls. She handed it to him. "Go ahead. You first."
She didn't have to insist. Back in the village the men always ate first, and the women and littlies got leftovers. Tally was a god, of course, and in some ways they had treated her as an honorary man, but some habits died hard. Andrew took the purifier from her and stuck his hand in to grab a meatball. He yanked it out with a yelp.
"Hey, don't bum yourself," she said.
"But where is the fire?" he asked softly, sucking on his fingers as he held up the purifier to look for a flame underneath.
"It's electronic ... a very small fire. Are you sure you don't want to try chopsticks?"
He experimented with the sticks hopelessly for a while, which allowed the SwedeBalls to cool, then finally dug in with his hands. A slightly disappointed expression crossed his face as he chewed.
"I thought that food of the gods would be ... better, somehow."
"Hey, this is dehydrated food of the gods, okay?"
Tally ate after he was done, but her CurryNoods were underwhelming after the feast of the night before. She remembered from her days in the Smoke how much better food could taste in the wild. Even fresh produce was never spectacular when it had been harvested from hydroponic tanks. And she had to agree with Andrew - dehydrated food was resolutely not divine.
The young holy man was surprised when Tally didn't want to sleep curled up with him - it was winter, after all. She explained that privacy was a god thing - he wouldn't understand - but he still moped at her as she chewed her toothpaste pill and found her own corner of the cave to sleep in.
It was the middle of the night when Tally awoke half-frozen , regretting her rudeness. After a long, silent session of self-recrimination, she sighed and crawled over to nestle against Andrew's back.
He wasn't Zane, but the warmth of another person was better than lying on the stone floor shivering, miserable and alone.
When she awoke again at dawn, the smell of smoke filled the cave.
THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Tally tried to cry out, but a hand was planted firmly over her mouth.
She was about to thrash out with her fists in the semi-darkness, but some instinct told her not to - it was Andrew holding her. She could smell him, Tally realized. After two nights of sleeping next to each other, the back of her brain recognized his scent.
She relaxed, and he let go.
"What is it?" she whispered.
"Outsiders. Enough of them to build a fire."
She puzzled over this for a moment, then nodded: Because of the blood feud, only a large party of armed men would dare build a fire outside the safety of their village.
Tally sniffed the smoky air, detecting the smell of searing meat. The sounds of raucous conversation reached her ears. They must have camped close by after Tally and Andrew had gone to sleep, and now they were cooking breakfast.
"What do we do?"
"You stay here. I will see if I can find one alone."
"You're doing what?" she hissed.
He drew his father's knife. "This is my chance to settle the score."
"Score? What is this, a soccer game?" Tally whispered. "You'll get killed! Like you said, there must be lots of them."
He scowled. "I will only take one who is alone. I'm not a fool."
"Forget it!" She took hold of Andrew, locking her fingers around his wrist. He tried to pull away, but his wiry strength was no match for her postoperation muscles.
He glared at her, then spoke in a loud voice. "If we fight, they'll hear us."
"No kidding. Shhh!"
"Let me go!" His voice raised in volume again, and Tally realized that he would gladly shout if he had to. Honor compelled him to hunt the enemy, even if it jeopardized both their lives. Of course, the outsiders probably wouldn't hurt Tally once they saw her pretty face, but Andrew would be killed if they were caught, which was going to happen if he didn't shut up. She had no choice but to release his wrist.