CLOUD DREAMS

 

Prologue

"So, it's all agreed then," Jacton sat back with an air of immense satisfaction, "we will stay here, in the north. The criminals, diseased and the layabouts will be sent over the mountains to the south. Stations will be set up along the range and Pass Keepers will make sure that no one crosses back over."

"But there's nothing in the south!" Xanato leaned forward, repeating the point he had been making over and over for the past few hours, whenever Jacton stopped talking for long enough.

"There's water, land, and vegetation... What more could they want?"

"But it's a hard, cruel area. Why else do you think the original settlers left it alone? The lake is full of salt, the vegetation tough and practically inedible, drinking water scarce..."

"It's more than they deserve!" Jacton jumped up angrily, "it's all right for you to be on their side, Xanato, I wouldn't expect anything else of you. Sympathizer to the poor and the weak," he muttered. Xanato flushed, but kept his voice even, "No, I haven't lost family as you have, but then..." Jacton cut him off before he could make the accusation.

"They don't deserve to stay here!" He pulled a map free of the other papers on the table, it's plasticised covering protecting it even after two hundred years of use by the colonists.

"Look!" He stabbed his finger in several places over the area south of the continent, "water, water, water..."

"It's buried..."

"They can dig," Jacton hissed with such icy fury that even Xanato was taken aback. Uncomfortable glances were exchanged among the other Council Members as the two men argued fiercely. Xanato sat, breathing heavily, attempting to control his frustration and anger at Jacton's blind condemnation of several thousand innocent people. He wasn't so much concerned with the willful men and women who refused to stop committing the crimes, but the layabouts, for whom he thought so much
more could be done, and the diseased, victims of other people's fear and ignorance.

Jacton had lost his only child to the virus that had recently swept the colony, and his wife had been shot in a raid on the gem store, leaving him bitter and hard. He was using his position on the Council to punish them all, regardless of whether they were guilty or not.

The vote, when Jacton called for it a few minutes later was for the suggestion; the colony would be split. Jacton directed a look of triumph at Xanato, but the other man had one last trick up his sleeve.

"Very well," he spoke into the sudden silence that had descended after the results of the vote had been called. Inwardly, Xanato had noted the discomfort and conscience stricken looks of the rest of the council. Indeed, their silence through most of what had been discussed that afternoon was surprising in itself.

"But before you close this down as a final deal, I want to propose something."

"Prolonging the agony, Xanato?"

"No. I want to suggest that the Pass Keepers be given autonomy to do their job. I can see that those you banish," Xanato exacted a quiet revenge for Jacton's earlier look, "won't go quietly and that the job of the Keepers will involve some danger at first. If they have to keep reporting to the Council for approval for their work, then not only will we lose their co-operation, but a lot will probably be able to escape through the mountains." Jacton paused and Xanato saw that he had caught the interest of the others.

All of the Council now sitting were from the plains, a co-incidence, rather than engineered, but it meant that none had a very clear idea of exactly what the mountains were like, except himself. Xanato had visited the mountains earlier in the month when he had seen the way that Jacton was leading the other members, and he was going to use their lack of knowledge to weight his arguments. If they thought of the mountains as they did simple land boundaries, then they might be more willing to hand over the vast area of land.

"We don't want the Keepers to favour the plight of the... southerners," Jacton's mouth twisted at Xanato's description, but he didn't say anything, "so if we make the mountains totally their responsibility, hand over the land for them to rule. They will be more likely to do the job that you want them to." Frowns were visible as they thought about this, "You're talking about total, political control."

"Yes. Three kingdoms, if you like."

The expected uproar over this suggestion didn't last long, something Xanato viewed as favourable, so when his suggestion was put to the vote he wasn't surprised that this came out as he wanted. The Council had found a way to assuage their consciences without having to think for themselves. Jacton was caught between anger at this ploy and the triumph of his own success, and Xanato had a sudden vision of a future where he would find himself fighting for what he had just suggested.

This came much sooner than he had thought.

"All right," Jacton rose to his feet and began to pace, slowly, "the mountains shall be the province of the Keepers, but this is to be a clean break, do you agree, Xanato?" Xanato's eyes narrowed warily, "Yes," he said cautiously.

"Good," Jacton clapped his hands together in a way that made several of the others jump, "then you'll agree that Kirako cannot stay where it is." Xanato paled.

"Kirako?" His world tilted crazily at Jacton's words.

"Yes. You see Kirako is a rather strange place, isn't it? Sprawling over both the mountains and the plains..." Xanato felt sick.

"Too close to the Keepers for comfort, wouldn't you say?" When he looked up, Xanato realised that he may have won a minor skirmish, but Jacton had taken the battle and that the war between them had barely begun.

Eight days later he stood on a small rise, overlooking the straggling line of buildings that was Kirako city. It had started as a few buildings to house the fuel oil miners, and had spread out from there. It was built along the valley of a canyon, following the path of a meager river that started in the mountains and eventually fed the Zoan Lake. It was one of the oldest settlements on the planet and housed more than half a million people. The logistics made Xanato's head swim.

"Will they all get out in time?" Beside him, the stockily built man nodded, "We can only hope, sir, but the message arrived here by the fastest courier available. Many have already left, though there are going to be those who don't believe."

"Or don't hear," Xanato mumbled.

"Sir," Iver replied neutrally.

"The explosive charges are all set?" Iver nodded and pointed out the places.

"When they are set off, the city will be effectively buried, if not completely destroyed."

"How long will it be?" A mischievous smile crossed over Iver's lips, making him look much younger than his twenty eight years, "There seem to have been problems with the charges..." He trailed off suggestively and Xanato looked at him sharply, then relaxed.

"Thank you, Iver. Let them all get out," he added in a whisper. He turned and began to make his way up the mountain to meet the path above them.

"Sir? Kirako should not be forgotten. We will make sure your actions here are remembered." Xanato paused but didn't turn around, "I'd rather you didn't."

"Sir?" Xanato turned then to look at the younger man, "History, Iver, most often depends on the perspective of those who wrote it." Iver watched him, a puzzled frown on his face, The Keepers will remember," he promised in a soft voice after the Council member was out of hearing.

 

Part 1

Kallithea stepped out of her home one hand trailing a heavy cloak, which she dropped onto the stone bench beside the door. She shut her eyes for a moment; breathing in the fresh smell of damp vegetation, enjoying the sensation of the chill morning air on her sleep warmed skin. She opened her eyes and glanced down the terraces to where low-lying cloud obscured her view of the Atahara Valley, and the pass, which was the entrance to Chanacas, her home village.

Above her, the spring sun promised to burn the cloud away by noonmeal, but in the meantime there was nothing to see below her. Even the shepherds hadn't yet come out to release the goats from their overnight pens and move them up the terraces to the pasture ground.

Kalli shivered and lifted her cloak over her shoulders. She would be hot wearing it for the climb up the mountain to the watcher station, but once she stopped moving, the cooler air of the exposed plateau would make her welcome the heavy folds of material. As she began to trudge up the steps, Kalli heard the pipe whistles of the shepherds as they released their goats, each calling their particular herd of animals. Glancing back, she paused to watch the stream of pale-coloured, woolly bodies separate into groups that skittered and bounced after their shepherds, a few pausing to nibble at vegetation on the side of the narrow path. The shepherds quickly disappeared into the mist, though the bleating of the goats and the pipe whistles followed her as she climbed.

"Ka-alli!" Kalli stopped and turned towards the sound of her name being called and smiled as a familiar, stocky figure waved at her from across the terrace.

"Ni-iko!" She shouted back in greeting. He pointed up the mountain and she waved her assent. As she began to climb again, Niko started up as well, taking a diagonal path up the terraces so that he would meet her at top of the steps. With a grin, Kalli began to run up the steps and heard Niko's laughter as he recognized her ploy.

Kalli reached the top first and both were breathless with the climb and their laughter. She poked a teasing finger into Niko firm stomach muscles, "You're getting slow and fat in your old age, Niko. I shall have to have a word with Corina, she's feeding you too well."

"I need to maintain my strength now that I'm a married man, so that I can provide for my family." Niko puffed his chest out in a mock attempt at dignity. Kalli laughed, "I'm going up to the watcher station to fetch the night's report, and you?"

"Thinning the carava crop. Who's up?" Niko gestured carelessly over his shoulder towards the plateau and the station.

"Papa had the watch last night. I think he's working on his book again." Niko rolled his eyes, "Another book on history to read."

"Knowledge is power," Kalli replied primly, but her grin spoiled the effect.

"Hah. More power goes to those with hard currency and, in hard times, food, Kallithea." Kalli shrugged, not taking the bantering argument personally. Niko had detested school and much preferred to feel earth between his fingers than a pen.


"Papa finds enjoyment in his research, Nikonor." Kalli imitated his formal naming and the light scold it brought with it. He grinned and glanced back down the mountain.

"I should get back to work. Corina wants me to take her down through the pass later so she can visit Melosa. That's why I'm up here before the shepherds have even risen." Kalli smiled at him.

"Corina wants you to take her down? I think it's more that you're fussing, Niko." He shrugged, a rueful turn to his lips.

"Just a safety precaution."

"She's pregnant, Niko, not sick! The path is perfectly safe."

"I know, I know. You sound just like her." He raised his hands in mock surrender, "what can I say, I worry." Kalli gave him a gentle push on the shoulder, an understanding look on her face, "I'd better let you get on, then. Tell Corina to send my greetings to Melosa."

"I will. Heyla, Kalli."

"Heyla, Niko."

They parted and Kalli made her way over the plateau to the small hut that provided protection for watchers from the elements.

She was unable to resist the urge to peer down the other side at the sheer drop, marveling, as she always did, at the insanity of the young men in her village who enjoyed dangling over the edge in their search for the best ice flowers to give to their girlfriends.

Turning away from the peculiar pull long drops seemed to exert, Kalli tugged open the door of the small hut.

"Morning, Papa!" Her father looked up from his writing and smiled at her, his blue eyes lighting with pleasure, "Kalli, lolo," he replied affectionately. She dropped a kiss onto his cheek before pressing hers against it as she looked at his work.

"Did you get a lot done?" Ranen nodded gently, careful not to dislodge the soft cheek that was pressed against his, even though wayward locks of his daughter's smooth, dark hair were tickling his nose.

"I've finished noting the legends of the Kafer plains people. The coincidences... the location of Kirako... Kalli they're so amazing! Three and a half centuries later..." She pulled away, smiling at him and his inability to complete sentences when he became enthused over something.

"Will you let me read it later?"

"Of course, of course." Ranen shuffled the papers, covered in neat handwriting into a pile and pulled a scrap from the bottom. Kalli accepted this, amusement dancing in her eyes, "Papa," she said reproachfully. Ranen looked back at her, the twinkle in her eyes matched by that in his.

"Well, it's a waste of good paper to use up a whole sheet when nothing has happened." Kalli couldn't help laughing, "Olmos will be giving you another scolding if you're not careful."

"Ach, Olmos," Ranen gave a careless wave, "he knows the value of my work." Kalli's lips twitched and Ranen shook his head at her, "You better get that back down the mountain, young lady."

"Yes, Papa," she straightened in mock obedience and Ranen swatted her on her backside as she went out. Kalli yelped and then laughingly warned, "Remember breakfast, Papa!"

"What? Will you poison me?" Kalli chuckled as she started downwards and let her last words float back to him on the breeze, "I was thinking of using up the cold grain cakes..." Her father's theatrical groan followed her down and she chuckled to herself.

It was going to be a beautiful day, she decided happily, contentment welling up inside her.

 

Part 2

Kalli paused on the first level to gaze out over the area below the mountain. From where she was standing she could see the edges of the Atahara Valley coming into sight as the cloud slowly moved away. On clear days from this vantagepoint, a person could see all the way out to the Zoan Lake of the Southern tribes. According to her father's painstaking measurements, the Lake was thirty percent smaller than it had been when the first colonists had arrived, almost six centuries before. With the building and desalination that went on at the settlements around the Lake, Kalli was only surprised that it wasn't higher.

The watcher station, positioned higher up the mountain, had a different view, of the pathways leading to the village and consequently, the major pass, which led to the Northern Kingdom. There were several places where the caravans from either side could cross over, but Chanacas' position made it the easiest to reach for a large section of the Southern tribes, and several smaller villages had grown up around her home to take advantage of the trading that occurred.

Kalli shivered as the breeze cut under her cloak and turned to move down again. As she scrambled over the rough ground that would eventually give on to the steps of the terraces, her pendant came free of her shirt and bumped against her chin. Kalli paused briefly to tuck it back inside and noted that the cord was becoming frayed and grubby. She absently rubbed her thumb over the bumps of the carved stone before pushing it inside her shirt.

A movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention and she shifted cautiously on the loose stone to watch the distant figure of a man smoothly jogging along the path above the Valley. A message runner. Kalli watched him get closer, recognising the even gait and tall, muscled figure as he passed out of the shadow of the cliff side into the sunlight. Her heart began to beat faster and she muttered softly, "Stop it, stop it."

She batted her hand down as if the air beneath it was her feelings, but she couldn't stop the silly grin, nor the way her body seemed to pick up eager speed as she trotted down the steps to the village. The runners were the links that kept the scattered Keeper villagers alive with news and information, and they were always warmly welcomed everywhere they went. As she took the last steps two at a time she almost collided with the tall figure of her cousin.

"Shasa!" The scout steadied her, grinning, "You'll break your neck if you run down like that."

"You do," Kalli retorted, but smiled slightly to take the sting out of the words. Shasa nodded and affected a superior air that made Kalli want to hit her, "Yes, but I'm a lot fitter than you and more practiced at it. All that running over the mountains..." Kalli wished she could think of the quick witty replies that her brother always came up with, but settled for a glare that made her cousin grin.

"Cheer up, squirt, I'm sure that there are advantages to being short."

"I am not short!" Shasa laughed.

"Ah, Kallithea, you shouldn't rise to my teasing all the time." Kalli relaxed a little and nodded ruefully, reflecting inwardly that it was all too easy to react as she had just done. Shasa was everything she wanted to be, tall, athletic and, if not beautiful, men always looked twice and three times at her. Kalli envied her the easy ability she had with men, especially the way she could talk to them and laugh at their jokes, be comfortable and desirable at the same time.

Shasa flicked back a lock of strawberry blond hair and winked at Kalli, her green eyes narrowing with her laughter.

"Justin is coming," Kalli found the words emerging from her mouth without any apparent thought from her brain. A little spark of selfishness inside her screamed at her foolishness, but she firmly squashed it as she saw the light that appeared in Shasa's eyes at the news.

"Really? When?"

"I just saw him as I came down from the plateau. He's on the path up from Atahara."

"Now? I'll go and meet him." As Shasa started off down the path, Kalli sighed enviously, aware of the folded paper in her belt pouch. Justin hadn't, as yet, shown any favouritism in his time spent with the young women of Chanacas, but he clearly enjoyed Shasa's company.

Who, Kalli reflected gloomily, would look at a freckled mouse, when you could have a clear-skinned.... Kalli frowned as she failed to find a suitable comparison to Shasa. At least, a suitably polite one.

"Now that's a big frown for a little face," Olmos greeted her jovially. Kalli felt her lips twist as her size was once more referred to. It was no good pointing out that she was of an average height for her people, somehow her slender build made everyone think that she was still a fragile little girl in need of protection. Even her father's affectionate endearment of lolo meant 'little love'.

"Papa's report, Olmos," she proffered the scrap of paper and Olmos took it, his face a comical mixture of disapproval and amusement.

"Let me guess, once again the Keepers are financing your father's work." Olmos shook his head indulgently, "Ah, well, I shall just have to have another word with him." Kalli smiled. They both knew it wouldn't do any good, her father's writing came a lot higher up his scale of priorities than his job and the paperwork it created.

"Heyla, Olmos," she said as she turned to leave.

"Heyla, Kalli. Remember that there's a trade caravan coming up from Maat later."

"I've remembered, I'll see you there."

Kalli trotted quickly home, answering the greetings that were called to her. Shasa would undoubtedly invite Justin back for a meal giving Kalli the opportunity to talk to him a little. She hugged her pleasure to herself and mentally planned what she hoped would be the perfect meal for a long distance runner.

 

Part 3

As was her custom, Kalli waited a short distance down the path where she could see the trade caravan coming up from the valley, absently playing with the stone pendant around her neck. In the village behind her, she could faintly hear the sounds of the collapsible market stalls being hurriedly set up. The Maat people refused to trade directly with the Northern Kingdom, some of the more reclusive among that tribe even forcing the Keepers to promise to wait until they were back home before selling their goods on. This gave the Keepers an ideal opportunity to barter for the best goods and to arrange dancing and feasting for the evening, instead of having to mediate between two suspicious, wary sets of people.

Since the Maat were also physically isolated in the position of their homes, their language was very different to some of the others the southerners used. They seemed to take pride in this, and even among the other tribes that made up the entire Maat people, the dialects could change so radically as to almost become a new language. Kalli found much to appreciate in their isolationist tendencies, especially in her position as one of the translators for Chanacas. It made her job a lot easier when she didn't have to translate between three different people at once.

"Kallithea." She turned at the sound of her name and smiled warmly up at the newcomer who had joined her on the outcrop of rock. He was one of the few people that didn't make her full name sound like a gentle scolding.

"Dominic."

"Can you see who it is?" Niko's elder brother narrowed his eyes to try and bring the colours of the caravan into focus.

"Mm, red awnings, yellow detail. Since the Maat-aya came only two weeks ago, this must be the Maat-poia."

"Good," Dominic grinned down at her with satisfaction, "metal-hungry people. I'll be able to trade for some of that fine sandpaper of theirs." Kalli returned his grin with an easy smile. Unlike his stockier built brother, Dominic was rangy and lean, standing a full head taller than her, his slim build hiding powerful muscles and a tender heart. In Dominic's company, Kalli always felt comfortable and safe.

"Is your father working on anything at the moment?"

"Dom, he's always working on something." Dominic smiled and tilted his head, his eyes still watching the caravan.

"He's just finished noting the legends of the Kafer plains people. Did you... did you hear that Justin is here?" Kalli winced at her clumsy attempt to bring the subject up, but she knew Dominic would never bring it up first. He looked down, his brown eyes warm, "Yes, I heard. Is he still here?"

"As far as I know. He said that he deserved a rest since he came all the way from Guascar and that he would stay for the dancing this evening." Dominic smiled, "Ah, I see." Kalli, aware that her cheeks were burning, turned back to the view and so missed the wistful expression on Dominic's face as he spoke.

"Will you save me a dance? That is, if you're not already booked for the entire evening."

"Silly. You know I always save at least one for you."

"My cup is full," Dominic placed a hand over his heart and grinned when Kalli thumped him lightly on the arm, "Watch it, you."

"Watch what?" Kalli eyed him, "You're too clever by half, do you know that? You're worse than Hajari sometimes."

"Ouch!" Dominic's hand flew to his heart again, this time in mock pain, "truly the lady's arrows are sharp. Comparing me to your brother, Kalli?" She wrinkled her nose and then grinned, "Yes, and I'm not even sorry."

"That could be arranged..." Kalli bit her lip to stop herself from laughing; she had timed their banter just right and turned to call a greeting to the lead rider from the caravan.

"You don't get off that easy," Dominic whispered in her ear and she had to cough to clear the bubble of laughter in her throat.

"I'm not afraid of you," she hissed at him, maintaining a friendly smile as the rider drew closer.

"You should be..." With that, Dominic poked her in the ribs, making her jump, sliding away before she could retaliate, to take the news of the near arrival of the Maat-poia to the village. Resisting the urge to shout an insult after him, she greeted the rider and exchanged brief snippets of news as he passed beneath the outcrop.

Tonight was going to be fun, Kalli decided, her eyes locating Justin in the crowd that was gathering just outside the village.

 

Part 4

For the next four hours Kalli found herself pushed and pulled from one stall to another, as her language skills were demanded for the more complicated transactions. Most of the villagers could speak a few words of the most common languages and a lot more was conveyed with gestures and vigourous arm waving, but her presence was demanded for the more important trades.

She didn't see either Justin or Shasa in the crowd, but caught a quick glimpse of her brother arguing vociferously at one stall, the trader responding just as loudly and neither understanding the other. She took a moment to appreciate the scene and glanced up when Dominic materialised by her side, "Do you know what galls the most about that," he said gesturing at the two men.

"What?" Kalli looked up and smiled at him, grateful for the protection his body provided from the surge of the crowd.

"That in a few moments they will both reach an apparent agreement that makes them happy, and I just know that neither have understood a word the other was saying!"

"You have to admit, Hajari has a charm which seems to get him through life," Kalli replied.

"A charm or is charmed?" Dominic smiled and touched her lightly on the arm, "look, what did I say?" Kalli turned back and saw the two men shaking hands in the age-old gesture of closing a deal. Dominic shook his head amusedly, "Are you free for a few minutes, Kalli?"

"Yes of course, if you need me."

"I do," Dominic replied firmly, "I can't shout as loudly as Haj." Kalli laughed, "For your precious sandpaper? Lead on, then."

"I was hoping you'd go first to protect me," he stood looking down at her, his face serious, but Kalli knew him well enough to see the teasing look in his eyes, "Walk, Dominic!"

By the time Kalli had finished her work, the dance was in full swing, flaming torches providing light and some warmth in the cool night air. She found her friends all gathered round a table, the remnants of a meal laid out before them, "Kalli!" Dominic looked up and smiled at her, making her feel instantly welcome and more confident of breaking into their circle. He pushed Hajari down a bit, making room for her to sit.

"Have you eaten?"

"Yes, little snacks here and there."

"I was going to get another round of drinks," Shasa offered, easing herself out from between Justin and Laina.

"For me please, Shasa!" Various requests were called, minds were changed and eventually the scout held up her hands, laughing, "I'll get everyone some ale and if you don't like that..." Kalli stood up, she disliked the flavour of ale, "I'll get some juice and some nibbles." Dominic called after her, asking if she needed help, but she waved him back. Her eyes for a brief moment, flickered hopefully towards Justin. He was turned towards Laina however, and didn't notice.

When Kalli returned, she quickly noticed that the place beside Justin was still free and she hesitated, torn between the boldness of actually sitting beside him, and the cowardice that pointed out that it was Shasa's seat. The scout's return effectively solved the problem for her, and Kalli blushed furiously as she met Dominic's gaze. He opened his mouth as she sat down and then shut it again.

"What?" she asked, trying to cover her embarrassment, "what were you going to say?" He shook his head and murmured beneath the noise of the others' conversation, "Nothing important."

"... Don't you agree? Kalli? Dom?" Both turned their heads, "Sorry?" Justin grinned.

"We were discussing the difference between runners and scouts." Kalli knew she looked confused and hated herself for it, "I don't understand." Out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw Dominic glance over at her, but concentrated on what Justin was saying.

"That being a runner is an entire way of life, not just a livelihood like scouting."

"Not true!" Shasa jumped immediately to a laughing defense of her occupation, "I get twitchy and uncomfortable if I stay in the village too long. Kalli can attest to how grumpy I can be if I stay here when I should be ranging the mountains." Since it seemed to be expected of her, Kalli nodded in agreement.

"So, there's not so much difference between us after all!"

"No, no, no!" Justin waved his hands before snaring a grilled potato chip to gesture with, "I feel happiest when I'm running over the paths, there's... there's a freedom in running that I don't feel anywhere else. You can be happy in the village as well as when you're in the mountains..." Dominic stepped in to divert the argument that was beginning, "I don't think that either of you are being fair to how different people can be. Some people are happiest, like you Justin, running free, others..."

"Like Kalli," interposed Shasa and Dominic nodded, "All right, like Kalli and myself, are perfectly happy staying at home." Kalli wasn't entirely sure she appreciated being included in the comparison, but couldn't think of anything to say. Justin laughed suddenly.

"Well done, Dom, a tactful diversion," he grinned, his eyes sparkling with the reflected light from the torches, "I'll add to it. Let's dance!" He slid off the bench and seized hold of the hand that Shasa immediately held out to him. Kalli suppressed her disappointment. Only to have her emotions soar back up again as Justin called back over his shoulder, "Kalli! Save the next one for me."

"I will!"

"Want to dance this one?" Dominic stood up and held his hand out. Kalli hesitated and rose to her feet before accepting, "Don't complain if I tread on your feet," she warned. Dominic considered this.

"Are cries of pain considered a complaint?"

"Yes," Kalli tried to keep the grin off her face at his gentle teasing, but failed. Dominic's lips twitched but he maintained a serious expression, "Even if I keep them quiet?"

"They wouldn't be cries then," she pointed out.

"True," he considered this, keeping them both standing on the edge of the dance floor. Somehow this didn't matter, and Kalli leaned against a nearby table waiting expectantly for what she knew was coming.

"Pained whispers?"

"That depends where I tread, doesn't it?" Dominic's mouth worked and then he burst out laughing, his fingers gesturing as he tried to enunciate what had amused him so. Kalli watched him, enjoying the sensation of having made her friend laugh.

"We'd better... not... dance the... high... step, then." Kalli stared at him for a moment before joining in with his infectious amusement.

"You're disgusting, do you know that?" Dominic just waved a weak hand and wiped away the tears from his eyes. Kalli grinned happily and waited for him to pull himself together.

"Are you going to dance with me or not?" she finally demanded.

"Definitely yes," his hand closed firmly over hers and Kalli was whisked away into the double pleasure of having a partner who knew exactly how to match his steps to hers, and the thought that very soon she would be dancing with Justin.

 

Part 5

Justin had danced with her. Kalli hummed happily as she prepared the family's meal, her feet occasionally tapping out a few of the steps from the night before. She was oblivious to her father's amusement as he worked on his book at the table in the corner.

"Ba-da-ba-da, ooh, cha-da..."

"You're sickening." Kalli finished chopping the vegetables and flung them into the pan, "It's not my fault you drank too much ale at the party last night," she retorted. Hajari groaned and rubbed a hand over his face.

"And the liqueurs and the potato wine," Ranen added absently. Hajari blinked, "Potato wine?"

"Well, Olmos claims that's what it is. I think Ames has been known to use it as a woodstripper at some time as well." Hajari dropped onto a spare chair and buried his head in his hands.

"Potato wine!"

"Sounds really... disgusting," Kalli said. "Wine out of potatoes?" Ranen lifted his head to grin at his daughter, "You can make wine out of almost anything, it's just the taste that takes some getting used to." Kalli's lips twitched into a smile as she glanced at her brother.

"Don't you mean the after effects?" Ranen chuckled and Hajari groaned again, "Can't you do that quieter?"

"Sorry, son, I've no sympathy for those who drink too much." Ranen shuffled his papers together before picking them up with the righteous expression of one who hadn't over-indulged the night before.

"I'm going to see Olmos and get his opinion on these." Kalli, taking pity on her suffering brother, caught the door just before it banged shut.

"Have something to eat, it'll do you good." She handed him a grain cake which he nibbled at distastefully.

"Had a good time last night then?" Kalli slanted him a look, "It was all right."

"Only all right? I just thought that since I saw you dancing with Justin... and you sound so happy this morning..."

"Oh yes? There I was thinking that you had eyes only for Laina as well..." Something flickered in his eyes and then Hajari grinned, "No, no, sis, you've got it all wrong. She had eyes only for me."

"Ah, that's why she seemed to be getting so much enjoyment from dancing with Tiso." Hajari eyed her for a moment and Kalli burst out laughing, "Yes," she punched the air, "the last word for once!"

"You're taking unfair advantage of my illness," he replied with dignity, rising to his feet.

"Self-inflicted," Kalli pointed out. This friendly brother and sister war was paused as Shasa entered, banging the door behind her. Hajari winced and moaned.

"Ah, baby! Too much to drink?"

"Go jump, Sha." Hajari went back to his room on the tail of his bitter comment, leaving the two women laughing.

"Poor, Haj, I shouldn't tease him."

"Yes, you should," Kalli replied immediately and Shasa grinned.

"Justin's gone," she announced, "he left with the Maat this morning, hitching a ride down as far as Tupaqui," a mischievous look danced in Shasa's eyes, "he said that I'd danced him off his feet last night and that he wouldn't be able to walk for a week."

Kalli smiled slightly and went back to her cooking.

"So I told him..." She let her mind drift as Shasa unraveled what sounded like their every conversation from the night before. Anxious voices calling outside dragged her back from her reverie and she dropped a lid on the pan before ducking outside after her cousin.

"What is it, what are they saying?" Shasa demanded as she joined her. Kalli tilted her head as the man and girl in Maat clothing entered the village.

"An accident," Kalli paled and ran to meet them, Shasa matching her every move, "there's been an accident."

A few people in the village spoke enough of the Maat common language to be understood, at least, for trading purposes, but the waterfall of words from the two was incomprehensible and Olmos waved her over urgently.

"What are they saying, Kallithea?" Kalli tried to wave them to a slower pace, but this seemed to frustrate them even more. Laina, another of the village's translators, moved up beside her.

"They're going so fast," she muttered, "all I get is something about an accident."

"On the path, a wagon has... turned over, I think. Tay vi, tay vi!" She shouted over their words and they finally slowed down. The man turned to her, his words still tumbling over themselves, but more easily understood now that the girl wasn't chiming in as well.

"There's been an accident on the path just above Atahara," Kalli half-turned her body to Olmos, but kept her eyes on the man's face, "one of the wagon's turned over. It hit a stone or something... haba yi perita..." she urged him on, "someone's hurt, badly..." Kalli felt all the blood drain from her face at the man's next words, and it was only her experience as a translator that kept the words flowing from her mouth, "the runner."

"Justin!" Kalli heard Shasa sob the name and distantly she was aware that she finished translating the message.

"His left leg has been badly crushed."

"Oh no!" Shasa's sobs were muffled as someone comforted her and Kalli felt the world spin about her.

"Kalli? Kalli?" A hand shook her arm, "Kallithea, don't faint now. We need your language skills," Olmos spoke beside her, but it was someone else's hands that supported her strongly, holding her up.

"Come on, Kalli," a familiar voice murmured into her ear, "Justin needs you to help him, don't faint on us." She looked up and around into Dominic's concerned face and his lips curved into a slight smile.

"All right?" When she nodded, he slowly released her, "Good girl, come on." Her hand was seized in his and he set off out of the village.

"Dominic?" Her feet were flying over the rough ground at a dangerous speed on the uneven surface, but she felt safe in the knowledge that he was totally in control and would catch her if she fell.

"Yes?" He didn't look back, all his attention on the ground before them. Behind them both, people were streaming out of the village, everyone clutching something they hoped might help, everyone aware of the tragedy of a runner who might never run again.

"If he can't run anymore..." Kalli choked on the rest of the words, feeling the wind dry the tears almost before they fell.

"I know, lolo, I know."

 

Part 6

At first glance, the scene Kalli saw seemed to be utter chaos, but as her mind sorted out the shouted commands and saw the purpose of the hurrying people, she recognised a kind of order. The man and girl had followed her and Dominic down the mountain, and they now plunged past, grabbing her free hand as they did so, pulling her into the fray. Kalli felt Dominic's hand slide out of hers, but couldn't risk a look back to see if he was following.

The cart that had overturned had been virtually empty after the market in the village, carrying only a few bolts of finely woven cloth and some metal tools. These were already being passed hand over hand out of the way, women and children making up the chain, while the men slid blocks of wood and stone under the cart to stop it tilting further.

The caravan leader strode up to Kalli and a rapid flow of words came from his mouth. She looked at him stupidly for a moment, then shook her head in effort to focus her mind.

"We do not have a doctor in the caravan," the leader said, his calm tone a direct contrast to the noise around him. Kalli nodded and glanced back at the people from Chanacas who had followed them, her eyes searching the crowd. Still hurrying down the path she saw Olmos and his wife, the doctor for their village.

"We have one, she's on her way." Laina pushed her way through the people to stand beside Kalli, breathless with the run, "Messages... been sent... other.. villages...." she bent over and concentrated on her breathing while Kalli translated.

"Message runners have been sent to other villages for their doctors also." The leader's eyebrows shot up and he glanced back at Justin, lying horribly still under the cart.

"This man is important?" Kalli had followed his gaze and couldn't take her eyes off Justin as she replied softly, "Yes, he is." The leader nodded.

"Come, I think that he would like to see someone he knows." Kalli trailed behind him as he wove his way among the people and horses, listening to the orders he called as his eye fell on first one thing then another.

Justin had been partially covered with a blanket, his head pillowed under someone's shawl, but most of his body was caught under the cart. As the leader walked around the crippled wagon judging the damage, she sank to her knees.

"Justin?" He had, she saw for the first time, grey eyes. She had never thought to look before, unlike Dominic's dark brown, Justin's hadn't immediately caught her attention. Her thoughtful frown faded as Justin focused on her and smiled crookedly.

"Kalli." Lines of strain marred his normally smooth skin and his eyes were filled with pain. She tucked her hand inside his in an instinctive gesture of comfort, reaching out with her other to gently lift away a lock of his fair hair from the gash on his forehead. Justin's eyes moved down as she bent forward and Kalli followed his gaze. Her pendant had come free of her shirt in the frantic dash down the mountain and she lifted a hand to tuck it back inside, her eyes lifting back to Justin's face.

"What is it?" There was something almost desperate in the way he seized on this distraction from his pain. Kalli paused and then lifted it over her head.

"It was a gift, from my mother."

"Your mother? But I thought..." Justin trailed off. Katarine had been killed in an avalanche when Kalli had been barely twelve years old, her body had never been found. Kalli fingered the familiar smoothness of the pendant before giving it to Justin, smiling to reassure him that he hadn't made a blunder by referring to the event.

"Just before she went off on that last scouting assignment, she gave it to me." Justin blinked, but said nothing to this. He raised the pendant to eye level, rotating it to look at the carvings etched in the stone.

"What's the pattern?" Kalli hesitated for a moment, but hurriedly continued as she saw Justin clench his teeth against a sudden assault of pain.

"It's a map to Kirako."

"Kirako?"

"The hidden city, the one that was buried when the colony split into three sections." Justin frowned and turned the stone over between his fingers again, "History was never my favourite subject..." He was interrupted by the arrival of Eirlys and Kalli reclaimed the pendant as she knelt beside them.

"I'm sure there are easier ways to get a holiday, Justin." Eirlys smiled as her hands moved deftly over him, assessing his injuries, using her words to distract him. He smiled back, rather weakly.

"I suppose."

"We need to get this cart off him, can we do it?" Kalli shook her head.

"The caravan leader is still clearing space so that everyone can get a safe hold. He doesn't want the cart to fall back onto Justin."

"I don't think Justin wants that either. How long will it be." Realising that she was now more in the way than being helpful, Kalli rose to her feet and attracted the attention of the leader. Eirlys watched as they exchanged a few words.

"Well?" she prompted, when Kalli turned back to them, "Five more minutes. I have to go and make sure everyone knows what they're doing."

"Can you see if there are anymore blankets to be had, I want to pad him as much as possible." Kalli met Justin's eyes for a fleeting instant, trying to convey support in that brief glance.

"Hurry back," he mouthed. Kalli felt her heart lift inside her and nodded before she went to find Olmos and the caravan leader.

Later, after the cart had been lifted and Justin had been slowly and carefully carried back up the mountain to Chanacas, Kalli found time to replay the morning's scene, dwelling over and over on the words he had spoken to her.

Justin had been taken to Olmos' home so that Eirlys could keep a close eye on him. He had been fortunate; the cart had been virtually empty, the ground still soft from spring rains and the thaw. Though it was definitely broken, his leg had been pressed into the earth rather than crushed under the weight of the cart and Eirlys and the other doctors were already speaking more of when he would walk again, rather than if.

In the evening twilight, from where she stood, Kalli could see Dominic talking to his team of builders and road maintainers, already planning to assess every single stretch of road and path in his assigned area. Hajari, always uneasy around things he didn't know how to deal with, had taken himself up to Ibarra Alta and the watcher station there. Shasa, by contrast, had vowed not to leave Chanacas until she knew for sure that Justin would be all right. Once the first fear had passed however, Kalli could see that her cousin would rapidly become a difficult person to live with if she stayed in the village for that length of time.

A familiar presence behind her made her turn.

"Papa," she whispered and felt tears well up in her eyes. He hugged her to his chest, his arms strong and dearly comforting around her.

"Kallithea," he murmured softly, "you've done much to be proud of today." He pressed his cheek onto the top of her head and she felt him smile, "I'm proud of you, lolo," he added.

"I didn't do so much," Kalli protested, but it was a half-hearted mumble into his chest. She needed some reassurance after the horrors of the day.

"You kept your head, as some did not." Kalli knew that he was referring to Shasa, who'd had a mild attack of the hysterics when she had first heard the news. She wasn't sure whether to be glad that she had stayed calm, or not. Did it mean that her feelings for Justin weren't as strong, or as deep as Shasa's? She felt her father sigh softly and moved to stand more by his side, holding his arm around her shoulders.

"Dominic is beating himself too hard, as usual."

"He told me that he had delayed the usual checks because of all that rain after the thaw." Kalli felt her father look down at her and turned her head, waiting for him to say something. He stayed silent however and Kalli strained her eyes in an attempt to read his expression in the fading light.

"Is something wrong, Papa?"

"No, lolo, nothing is wrong." She felt that something was however, some silent censure, as if she had forgotten to perform a task.

A soft chuckle from Ranen broke through her musings, "You'll never guess, Kalli." She pushed aside her attempts to see what she might have done wrong.

"What?"

"Hajari asked if he could take my manuscript with him to read."

"No! This is my brother we're speaking of? Tall, lanky, brown hair?" Ranen's arm tightened round her shoulders and she felt him shake with suppressed laughter, "Little mischief," he scolded her fondly.

"Do you think he'll read it?"

"I live in hope, Kalli, you never know what might happen." She smiled and watched him move inside the house into the warm. Before she followed, she couldn't resist looking back. There was a light still shining in Olmos' home, but Dominic was no longer in sight. She sighed softly and went inside.

 

Part 7

Justin limped out of the house and settled himself on the bench beside Kalli. She pulled out a footstool for him and he smiled at her gratefully.

"You spoil me, do you know that?"

"Yes," she grinned at him. Five weeks spent in his company had made her more at ease with him, though sometimes she wondered if her sense of humour passed him by. He gave her another, more tentative smile and Kalli resisted the urge to shake her head. Dominic would immediately have risen to the bait she had just laid down and teased her right back. She sorely missed his company and the comfort of being able to discuss things with him, to have him gently tease her into a happier frame of mind.

She supposed that she ought to be grateful that Justin was beginning to feel better, emotionally and physically. It had been a struggle for her to learn how to cope with someone lost in their depression and she'd had to fight to find a balance between too much fuss and too little.

Justin interrupted her musings, "Do you remember the night we danced, before my..." he gestured at his leg which was still strapped up, though it was healing fast.

"Yes, I remember." She almost added, how could I forget, but stopped herself in time.

"Do you remember the song?" Kalli made a show of hesitation before humming a few bars, fighting embarrassment in order to impress and please.

"Yes," he leaned back, "do you remember the name?"

"Cloud Dreams," Kalli murmured softly and then repeated it a little louder, as if to make it less pleasurably painful, "Cloud Dreams."

"Mmm," he closed his eyes and Kalli watched as his face became still and peaceful, his mind drifting. "It's a lovely song. Sing it to me?" Kalli drew away, her cheeks already flaming at the thought of singing aloud.

"Yes," a new voice entered their discussion, "sing it for us, Kalli." Her eyes flew to Dominic's face; he was smiling at her. He was road dusty and looked tired and worn, but she had never been so glad to see anyone and the feeling startled her into agreeing.

"All right."

"Hello, Justin, how's the leg."

"Healing. How are the roads?"

"Smoother." Dominic sighed and lowered himself onto the wall that surrounded the tiny vegetable garden that Kalli and her father cultivated. She watched, some inner part of her amused at the way the two men circled each other, never quite insulting, never totally polite. She wasn't sure whether they disliked each other or not, though Dominic claimed that he didn't know Justin well enough to make that sort of judgement. She hadn't yet had the courage to ask Justin how he felt.

"Sing, Kalli, please?" Justin turned his head to smile at her, charming her. Glancing over at Dominic, she saw something else in his eyes that she couldn't quite interpret, and then he smiled at her encouragingly. Sparing him a glare, because he knew how much she hated to make an exhibition of herself, she licked her lips and began, softly,



"I dream of the clouds,
Of the hidden person inside.
Of echoing sounds,
While on the wind I do ride.
Life's treasures are seen,
Like bright, shining air,
You'll know what I mean
If you meet me up there."


"I suppose you would call it romantic?" Justin asked, after the last notes had died away and she was staring rigidly at the floor, letting her hair fall forward to hide her scarlet cheeks.

"I would call it beautiful," Dominic sounded amused, but she didn't dare raised her head to see his expression and see exactly what had tickled him.

"Oh yes, you have a lovely voice, Kalli, but I meant the words." Kalli wasn't sure whether she should thank him for the compliment or not. Dominic solved her dilemma by speaking first, "Then, yes, I suppose it is romantic, but also sad."

"How so?"

"Kalli?" Dominic ducked his head to meet her eyes as she raised her head, his dark eyes friendly and appreciative, "what do you think?" She spoke quickly, "It's sad because the whole song is about something untouchable, unreachable. The title gives it away, there are nothing more intangible than dreams and clouds."

"Except when they're a damp, foggy mass around you," Dominic pointed out. Kalli grinned at him and shook her head, "But you still can't capture them, or hold them in your hand."

"Ah," he smiled and Kalli returned the gesture, realising that he had, with a few simple words, made her confusion pass.

"So perhaps it's not so romantic?" Dominic continued. Justin glanced from one to the other as they bantered, his eyebrows drawing together slightly.

"What's not romantic?" Shasa joined them, forcing Kalli to move to the edge of the bench when she dropped into the space between her and Justin.

"The song, Cloud Dreams." Shasa shrugged, not really listening, eager to share her own news.

"Mmm, maybe. I'll tell you what is romantic, though. I've just been up to the plateau and there are several men up there harnessing up for the ice flower hunt." She finished with a tiny defiant look shot at Kalli behind Justin's head. The scout knew her cousin's aversion to the tradition.

"That is not romantic," Kalli said flatly, suppressing a slight shudder, "risking life and limb for a flower?"

"It is," Shasa replied firmly, "I think it is. It's perfectly safe, they're all harnessed and roped and tied and whatever else you can think of."

"There's nothing special about an ice flower," Kalli replied, "Niko tried it last year for Corina and almost got himself killed trying to reach that little bit further. There are plenty of other beautiful things that could be given as a gift or a token."

"There's a tradition attached to the ice flowers though," Justin pointed out. He glanced ruefully down at his leg, "I'd go, if I could." Shasa gazed up at him, "You would? See," she turned back to Kalli, "now that is romantic."

"Not for me," Kalli got up, "if I knew that someone I cared for had hung themselves over a dangerous drop on the end of a thin rope just for a flower, I'd wonder if I wanted to know them at all."

"Isn't that a bit harsh?" Dominic's voice was quiet.

"No. I think that there are enough risks in life without deliberately adding to them. That isn't romantic," she gestured in the direction of the plateau, "it's just boys trying to prove how macho they are!" She ducked back inside the house, inexplicably upset by the discussion.

There seemed to be more differences between her and Justin than just a sense of humour and desire to stay at home. Cloud dreams, was that what her feelings for him were?

 

© 1999 Copyright held by the author.

 

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