The stench of black smoke invaded Ffenyi’s nostrils. She had tolerated the scents of the Hunters’ Pit when they were there: unwashed men and blood and what she now knew as machinery. Now those same scents combined in greater power. She breathed lightly through her mouth.
In the twilight, the sky poured down thick white flakes on them. She hadn’t scented a blizzard on the breeze, though, so they were safe for now.
Nick turned. “We’ll be able to see the Pits once we top this rise. It’s good we’re getting a thick storm. It’ll hide you and maybe keep away the crowds until we can get you someplace a little more controlled.”
“Friend Nick, we desire to meet the people,” Djellian answered.
“Yeah, well, we want to make sure not to overwhelm your wife again. My father can take care of both of you and introduce you to everyone you want to meet, a few at a time.”
Nick was an odd man from another place, but he proved to have a heart worth knowing. Ffenyi took comfort in that. She paused her ascent and swung her head around. “What is that sound?” she asked.
Nick cocked his head. “You might be hearing the flocks. We’re approaching the Pits from the South, where the shepherds live.”
“It sounds like goats,” Ffenyi answered. “We may have something in common after all.”
Nick smiled. “This is the first time we’ve ever found someone outside the Pits. We thought we were the last ones. But we’re still human.”
They topped the rise. Ffenyi and Djellian gasped in unison.
Below them spread a broad, long valley. They could not see much in the thick snow, but they saw enough. Yawning pits swallowed the falling snow. Wooden scaffolds circled the pits like strange teeth. Ffenyi wondered if they would devour her. Lamps illuminated the rims of the pits, filling the valley with rings of light.
Nick pointed. “Many years ago, we discovered that if we dug down, we could find heat deposits. We started on this end of the valley. As each heat spring dried up, we’d dig another pit. At most it’s about five or six pits wide, but it goes on for miles. We’ll travel on the Lattice, the network of paths that go around the pits.”
The bleating of the goats grew louder as they descended. Out of the snow a shaggy head appeared, followed by a white body. It regarded Ffenyi with a modicum of interest.
Nick waved his hand. “Don’t worry. Its shepherd will be here soon.”
A young voice called out, “Starhoove! Starhoove!”
Ffenyi answered, “Your goat is here!”
Nick shushed her, but Djellian raised a hand. “It is proper to return the goat to its family. In this snow, it might not find its way home.”
A young man appeared. “Starhoove!” He embraced the beast around the neck.
Ffenyi smiled. “You care for this beast?”
“Every member of the herd!” The young one stood. “Thanks for calling. It helped!” He squinted in the fading light. “Are you ok? Your skin’s all dark.”
Ffenyi’s chuckle filled the space around them. “And you are so pale! What is your name?”
“And I am Ffenyi.”
Nick kept looking toward the Pits. Djellian continued to wait patiently.
“Tell me, Davin, do you keep your herd in the snow?”
“No, I got to get this stubborn one back into his pit, where he’s safe. Listen, I owe you a favor. Anytime you need something, ask the shepherds for me. They’ll know where to find me!” He dragged Starhoove away into the thick white.
Ffenyi coughed as she bid Davin farewell.
Nick stepped close to her. “That could have gone far worse. Shepherds can be a rough group. They don’t’ always react well to people from the Pits, much less, um, people that aren’t from here. Next time, don’t talk unless I tell you it’s safe.”
Ffenyi looked to her husband, who nodded. She lowered her eyes to the ground. “It will be as you say.”
Nick sighed, “All right. A shepherd isn’t who you want to talk to, anyway. You want to talk to my father. He’ll get you everything you need.”
Djellian regarded Nick. “You say your father is an important man?”
“One of the most important in the Pits.”
Again, they descended. They walked over the Lattice. The space between pits was a wide swath of rocky ground piled with snow. Paths cut through the white, though. Djellian glanced over the edge of a pit and backed away. “That is far deeper than the Hunter’s Pit, friend Nick.”
“We dig as far as it takes to get to the heat.”
“It will be difficult for me to navigate here. We have no cliffs so high at our home.”
Ffenyi ventured a look down and saw a pit filled with greenery. “What is this?” She asked.
“It’s a co-op. Poorer families band together and grow food. While the men work on the heavy machinery, a lot of the women and children and older men work here.”
Ffenyi nodded. “It is like us! I stay and fish while Djellian goes out and hunts!” She looked at her husband with a twinkle in her eye. “But I am a better fisher than he is a hunter!”
Djellian backed away from the edge another short step.
Ffenyi frowned. His laughter always comforted her, and her jests lifted his spirits. This journey taxed them both.
A man came up from the scaffolding of the pit, his head down in the snow. He aimed to walk around Nick, but as he passed his eyes scanned Djellian. He stopped, examining the stranger. He glanced back at Nick. “You a hunter?”
“Move along, old man.”
The man raised his hands in surrender and pressed on, vanishing into the heavy snowfall.
As they passed on, another man passed. He had the same reaction. Again, Nick told him to continue on his way. Soon they passed clutches of people pressing on through the snow, clutching their coats against the cold or chattering with each other. Each noted the strangers.
A woman with red curly hair sticking out from under a knit cap passed by and didn’t notice the strangers; rather, she called out, “Nick! You’re back!”
“Zeresh.” Nick’s voice held a coldness that reminded Ffenyi of the waters she fished.
Ffenyi gazed at that hair. Red hair? Red was the color of blood, not hair. Had this woman used something to dye her hair? Why would any woman waste her time doing that?
Zeresh offered, “I just got back with Danal. We’re heading out again tomorrow. Do you have time tonight?”
Ffenyi could not place that tone; the closest she could think was when her husband wanted to spend special time with her.
Nick stepped forward a space. “No time. We need to move along.”
Zeresh glanced behind Nick at Djellian and Ffenyi. “Oh!” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh. Are you ok? What’s wrong with your skin?”
Nick stepped between, blocking her sight. “Move along, Zeresh.”
A mumble behind Ffenyi made her turn. A young man stood there with two young women. They examined Ffenyi’s clothing from a few paces away. Ffenyi backed away. They pointed at her. When their eyes reached her face, they stepped back in surprise.
One of the girls cried out, “It’s plague!”
The group scurried away into the dark.
Zeresh cocked her head. “You wouldn’t be so dumb to bring someone with plague into the Pits. Nick, what’s going on here?”
He pushed past her. “Come on. We need to move before we attract a crowd. You’ll be safe at my father’s house.”
Djellian nodded and gave chase. Ffenyi followed.
The woman with red hair – Zeresh? – chased after them. “Hey! Nick! Come on, tell me what’s going on, for old time’s sake!”
Nick glanced back. “If I run, can you two keep up?”
Djellian nodded. “Of course.”
Ffenyi coughed but assented.
They ran. Those who walked the Lattice noticed. Some, curious, chased after. Others fled.
They passed pit after pit. Ffenyi wanted to ask questions about each one. Djellian stayed away from the edge of every one.
The chase went on. The group following them became a mob. Some people called out, “Plague!” Screams filled the night.
Ffenyi’s heart raced. She felt her hip joints jolt with every step. She could run; her white hair did not mean she was an invalid. Yet, she was not made for this. Not anymore.
Finally they approached a brightly-lit pit. Large men stood at the entrance to the scaffolding. Nick skidded to a stop and offered a small flat square to the men. They nodded. Nick gestured. “This way! The guards will keep the mob out!”
And indeed, the people stopped chasing when they saw the men standing at the entrance to the scaffolding.
Nick gestured. “This is the home of my Father,” he panted.
“Which home is his?” Ffenyi scanned the many hatches that burrowed into artificial rocky cliffs. Her joints ached, but she would survive. Tomorrow would be painful, though.
“He owns this entire pit. I told you, my father is important here.”
The crowd stayed a distance away. Clearly they knew not to approach this pit.
Ffenyi knit her eyebrows together. “What does he do that is so important?”
“He mines for heat. And he is very good with it. In fact, some of the people call him a heat baron. You see the people respect him. Come on; he’ll want to meet you right away.”
Nick led the way. Ffenyi and Djellian followed into the gaping maw, into the pit, that swallowed them without needing to gulp.
Read more of the world of Snow and Smoke here.
Read the previous story, Reveling in Dying Songs, here.
Read the next story, Like Discovering New Heat, here.