I've Been Everywhere, Man

Eddie went back inside the booth and Tori leaned against the doorway, watching Jimmy trudge out of the parking lot and start down the road. She had been a little surprised when he had thanked her, but maybe the cub was starting to grow up. She wasn't really sure she believed that, but hope did spring eternal. Something she'd said to him, though, had shaken him up enough that he seemed to be completely off balance. He'd probably be fine, though, even going through the Free Lands down here. This was a little pocket that was relatively safe — it was far enough away from Los Angeles and looked like an island of unclaimed land on a map. Most of the people this far east, surrounded by five of the First Nations, were folks like Jimmy. They hadn't claimed refuge with the People. Most of them were mutants but probably some weren't. And they were sane enough to want to stay away from the horrors farther west but not really sociable enough to want to live in Phoenix.

She watched as Jimmy examined the embankment that ran along the road. It was a fairly steep rocky cliff, but it was barely twenty feet high and there were numerous handholds. Any reasonably healthy and coordinated person could climb to the top at almost any point, yet Jimmy seemed to be hesitating. Madeline had all but said he was lazy — which certainly fit with his sense of entitlement — and Andi's attitude had been even less charitable. He finally picked a path that any ten year old cousin kin could navigate. When he reached the top, he just kept walking, not looking back.

Tori shook her head and sighed. "Some days, you just have to wonder about folks, Eddie. Today's one of those days." Pushing herself off the door frame, she said, "Well, I need to get myself to Albuquerque for some tomfoolery. Take of yourself, buddy."

The man chuckled. "Good grief, what's Benally got you doing now?"

She grinned before turning toward her car. "Hell if I know, Eddie. Guess I'll find out when I call him." She got in the car and noticed the thermos on the passenger seat. Pausing for a moment, she picked up both empty thermoses, got back out of the car, and opened the rear hatch to stow them in one of the crates she kept back there. If she didn't do it now, one or both of them would wind up rolling around on the floor up front, thumping and banging around, and it would make her annoyed enough that she'd be forced to pull off to the side of the road to do exactly what she was doing now.

This would mean once less annoyance to her day.

She got back in the driver's seat, waved to Eddie, and turned north out of the parking lot. There was no need to exceed the speed limit on her way to Albuquerque. If she were in a hurry, she'd probably head up to Interstate 40 and keep going east until she got to her destination. In that case, it would have made all kinds of sense for her to pick up Elder Yazzie's other universe family in Gallup, and save somebody else a trip all the way to Albuquerque. Well, she would have had to clear out most of the supplies she kept in the back of her car. She had a feeling she'd probably want a good amount of it, especially the food.

But she wasn't in a hurry, or not so much of a hurry that she needed to drive all the way up to Interstate 40. And there were some people she needed to see if she was going on Walkabout again. There was a clan of cousin kin up in Chinle that had taken a liking to living among those who weren't cousin kin. From what Madeline had said, the Elder's family would look after the cubs she had rescued. However, Tori had no doubt the Chinle clan would find ways to make sure the young ones learned the ways of their people. But there were quite a few families of cousin kin who preferred the isolation of the mountains and forests, and the company of their own kind. As she'd learned long ago, there was no right or wrong way to live in the world. Just because she liked it more than most — she probably had her parents to thank for that — she appreciated that most of the others thought she was a little crazy.

She smiled to herself as she headed east on US 60 in Springerville. She wasn't as crazy as they seemed to think, though. She loved the stark beauty of the lowland deserts and the lush greens of the mountains in southern Arizona. Even living in Ganado allowed her the freedom to walk the land undisturbed, or be near people if that's what she chose to do. Every year, that wily Chief of Police Jeremy Kee tried to talk her into moving into one of the more populated areas.

You'll never rise any higher in the force than Deputy living out there in Ganado, he'd say every year.

And every year, Tori would laugh at him. She'd known him since he was a rookie out in Tuba City thirty years ago. And it's true that he had talked her into joining the Tribal Police Force. She had just returned from her most recent Walkabout and wasn't really sure what she wanted to be doing; Jeremy had made the job sound intriguing. Ten years later, they happened to both be stationed in Santa Fe.

That hadn't been a good year. There had been far too many mutant hunters sneaking into the Nation. The deputies in Santa Fe were tasked with collecting them from citizens who had "captured" them north of Santa Fe on up to the Diné-Comanche border. Then they were to escort the unwanted guests to the border station on Interstate 25. There was one man, though, who kept insisting he wasn't a mutant hunter, but he refused to claim asylum. They all thought he was a little touched in the head, including Tori. Someone suggested calling one of the Shamans, and the man screamed and fell into a near-catatonic state, perplexing everyone. They managed to get him into Tori's car, where he curled up in the front seat and wept. Jeremy stopped her as she was getting into the car.

"Are you going to be okay alone with him? Do you want me to ride along?"

She looked at him for a moment, then curled one hand into a fist and held it out to him. He knew who and what she was; it wasn't anything she ever bothered to keep secret when she lived in a place that was accepting of everyone. He looked at her fist and then at the resolute look on her face several times before he nodded.

The distance between the Santa Fe station house to the nearest border station was far shorter than most... only about thirty-five miles or so. That was almost the limit of Tori's patience for listening to the sobbing and wailing from the seat beside her, however. She understood that people often became frightened or hurt, but she never did understand not letting someone help.

As she came to a stop at the border station, the man stopped crying long enough to whisper, "Please help me."

"You need to talk to me instead of getting snot all over my car if you want my help." So many people over the years had said those words to her... please help. If all she could do was hear their story, she at least did that much.

He nodded and started telling his story. It was the sort of thing she expected to hear about in one of the cities back East... torture, experiments, things that turned her stomach even after all her years of seeing terrible things. She waved the guard off when he came over to see if there was a problem, and listened to the whole sordid tale.

"Why didn't you say anything before?"

"Couldn't." He tapped his temple, then pointed out the window. He wasn't pointing at the guard, though, but at the guard's wife, who had stopped by to bring her husband his lunch pail.

Tori's brows drew together. "These people did something to your brain and the Empath neutralizes it?"

He nodded. "Implant. Please. Help the others."

He didn't know exactly who the others were, just that they were mutants. But some of them, the people who were being tortured, were children. That much he knew.

There had never been many people living in Mosquero — and probably no more than fifty when all the troubles began — but now he was the only person left alive. The Cruel Ones, as he called them, only kept him around to clean up, to dig graves, to suffer a fate worse than death for resisting them when they had taken over the town. His wife and children, all his friends and neighbors, had been dead for years; he had dug so many graves that he'd lost count. He couldn't escape; something caused him to have a seizure whenever he crossed the town limits, and he'd wake up again in the tiny cell allotted him. It had taken months, but finally his hints that he could spy on the Navajos or the Comanche had paid off. He wasn't sure how they extracted information from him, but about every ten days or so he'd wake up from a fugue state. The only information of any possible use that had been gathered since he entered the Diné nation had been since his "capture" by a cattle rancher outside Pojaque. He had seen ordinary people and plenty of them. But worse, he had seen more than a few mutants. He guessed his next fugue state would happen the next day... possibly the day after. He didn't want the Cruel Ones to know anything useful about the Navajo or have confirmation that there were mutants here.

Tori resigned herself to helping when she learned children were involved. There wasn't a lot anymore that infuriated her to the point of losing control over her claws; hearing about children being tortured could almost do it, though. She looked at him long and hard; her nose barely twitched as she breathed in the scent of his fear and desperation. Underneath it, though, was the truth. Or at least truth as he knew it. She knew she was taking a risk... his truth might very well have been another implant in his mind. But she'd taken risks before and would no doubt take risks again. Finally, she nodded.

"I need to let them know what I'm doing," she said as she got out of the car. "Stay here."

The border guard was less than enthusiastic about her plan to rescue anyone, especially on the word of a man who appeared to the average person to be crazy. But Tori wasn't asking his permission — or anyone's permission, for that matter — she was doing this on her own. In fact, she went to the trunk of the car and pulled out her civilian clothes — jeans and a flannel shirt — and changed into them before tossing her uniform in the back, and getting back in the car.

"Guess I'm stealing a police car," she remarked. If these Cruel Ones the man spoke of could pick up information from his mind, maybe they'd get that thought from him... crazy woman stealing a police car to help him get back home.

Mosquero was only eighty miles or so from the Interstate 25 border as the crow flies, but by land... on the back roads... it was closer to a hundred and fifteen. Being back roads, it took Tori almost three hours to drive out there. There was desolation everywhere she looked. Buildings were abandoned, some just burned out shells; crop fields were forgotten; grazing fields were overgrown and there was no sign of cattle, sheep or even goats. As they reached the town, Tori would forever swear that she could smell the evil of the place.

As she parked the car in front of what had been the general store, she wondered what the hell she was doing. This was the only building left of the dozen or so buildings of the town that still looked safe enough to enter. Even if there were only one or two keepers here on most days as her passenger promised, that was one or two people to get in her way of rescuing the children.

He'd broken out into a sweat when they entered the town and looked like he was going to be physically ill. He staggered a little when he got out of the car.

"You okay?" she asked, reaching out to steady him.

He pulled back his arm and said through gritted teeth, "Trying to fight the haze. Better not to touch me."

She nodded and looked up and down the primary street in town. She smelled death everywhere, and the only sounds not coming from the building were those of scavenger animals. Tori wasn't exactly happy about not having anyone at her back, but it wasn't the first time she had walked knowingly into a fight alone. It probably wouldn't be the last either.

She did have to consciously keep herself from growling when she heard the sounds coming from the building, though. She followed the man into the building — funny how she couldn't get him to tell her his name, stupid that she was thinking of something like that right now — her eyes adjusting quickly to the dimly lit room. The stench of fear filled her nostrils, and even the tiniest cries and whimpers seemed loud in her ears. She stepped into the shadow of a tall shelf unit, moving with preternatural speed. There was one person who smelled of joy, and she needed to be out of sight before that one's eyes could focus on the doorway.

The man who'd ridden with her picked up a broom and started sweeping the floor.

"What are you doing back here?" the joyful one asked.

"Threw me out. Came back."

"Well, it was stupid to have let you go in the first place. Those savages weren't going to let you stay once they found you. I did mention that, didn't I?"

"Yes, sir."

"There's plenty to clean up. This place is a mess." The joyful one seemed to lose interest in the man then, return to whatever it was that made him so happy.

The man looked at Tori and mouthed the word hurry.

As she edged around the room, she saw people in makeshift cells... really little more than cages. Their condition...

Hold it together, Tori. Don't go wild yet. Think, think, think... have a plan first.

Some of them were able to look up at her as she passed, others looked to be unconscious. One was already dead.

Hold on, girl. Not yet.

She could see the cruel and joyful one from here. He leaned over a body spread face down on a table; Tori's nose told her the person was mercifully dead. The cruel one was carving off a wing with what looked like a butcher knife.

Hold on... that one is beyond help.

She took another step forward and heard a child's quiet cry from the cage beside her.

"Mama?" said the tiny one in the language of the cousin kin.

The next thing her rational mind knew was the sensation of cradling a young child in her arms. She looked around and saw the cruel one lying beside the table, eviscerated. All the cells were open and the few people able to walk were helping those who could barely crawl. The man who'd ridden with her was staring in horror.

"The others... coming. You... should go."

There were two cousin kin among the survivors, both males... one was in good shape, the other was having a hard time standing. There were four humans... the oldest couldn't have been more than twelve, and it was hard to tell their gender from where Tori stood. All of them wore metallic collars.

"The child... is she yours?" Tori asked the two cousin kin in their language.

Both shook their heads. "Her mother died months ago," said the healthier of the two. He looked at Tori and then the man beside him, who was shaking off the support. "My brother was poisoned, perhaps because he is much younger, so he couldn't heal. Without the poison dripping into him, he will be well soon. We can flee and find safety, but we cannot take the children. They cannot move quickly enough."

Sometimes Tori thought her native language conveyed more nuance than any language developed by any other people. His words and the way he said them spoke of his deep sorrow and regret. She nodded to him.

"I have a car. I can take the children to safety with the Diné."

Both men nodded. "They are good people."

Tori spoke in English then for the benefit of her passenger. "Before you go, we must burn this town to the ground. Those who have done these things must not ever use this place again."

They exchanged glances, worry on their faces and in their stances. Tori could hear it in his voice when the second one spoke. "We are few. We will do what we can, but they are many."

"How many?"

"I counted fifteen," said the oldest child with a cracking voice. "I can help." He held out a hand and a tiny spark flickered and died. "If you can take this off me, please, Miss."

"Magnetic... Cruel One... has the key." Her passenger's face twisted in pain as he grabbed his head and fell to his knees. "Hurry!" he croaked.

The small one in Tori's arms surprised the deputy by flinging herself toward a pipe along the low hanging ceiling above their heads. She moved faster than any of the others could have, except for Tori herself, swinging herself hand over hand toward the body of their keeper. She dropped lightly to the ground into a crouch beside the body, and yanked a chain that hung around his neck. The chain broke easily and she gripped it in her tiny hand. Then she looked at the man's face.

"BAD MAN! BAD MAN!!" she growled furiously as razor sharp claws sliced his face to ribbons.

Tori picked her up and held her tightly. "Shhhh, sweetheart," she chuffed. "Let's get the other children free, yes?"

The little girl cub buried her face in Tori's neck and cried softly, but nodded and carefully placed the metal cylinder in Tori's hand.

It took barely a minute to get the collars off the other four children, and the two cousin kin started for the door. Unfortunately, it was too late.

One man stood in the doorway, a rifle aimed at one of the cousin kin... the one who'd been poisoned. Two others were behind him with handguns.

"Well, now isn't this interesting?" asked the man with the rifle.

Tori set the cub beside the other children and whispered to all of them. "Stay together. Protect one another."

The five of them exchanged glances; four nodded as the cub looked at Tori. "Family?" she chuffed.

Tori nodded. "Yes. For now, family."

The little one took the hand of another girl — obviously older, but apparently blind — causing the other girl to smile.

I'll have to figure that one out later, Tori thought.

"Yeah, boss. Really interesting."

"Eugene, you promised us you could spy on the Injuns for us. Doesn't seem to me like you can do much spying from here," said the rifleman. "But you did bring us an Injun squaw, so that's nice."

If that were meant to get a reaction out of her, they would be sadly disappointed. "We can eliminate the enemy, Kinsmen," she chuffed.

"There are more of them coming," was the reply.

Tori smiled. "It hardly seems fair, with so many of us and so few of them."

"You think that's funny, Injun? Not gonna be laughing after we get finished with you. Eugene... bring the woman over here. That's a good boy."

The rifleman touched a band around his wrist and Tori's passenger jerked to his feet and walked toward her, his eye full of horror. He reached for her, and she backed away. Please. Help me, he mouthed. When he reached for her again, she pretended to stumble, allowing him to grab one of her wrists. He pressed her hand against his sternum as he reached for her other hand. "Release me," he whispered. "Please. Please..."

"Are you sure?" she whispered back even as her hand was curling into a fist.

"Yesss... please hurry," he said, bringing her other fist to his ribs on the left side.

"Hey, just bring her on over here, Eugene. There's no need for you to be dancing with her. That's our job." The three men in the doorway laughed.

Tori met Eugene's gaze and said softly, "Be at peace, Eugene. You have saved lives." Then she released her claws, piercing his heart and both lungs. He was dead almost instantly and dropped with a thud when she retracted her claws again.

"What the hell?" Rifleman tapped on his wristband several times, as Tori stepped away from Eugene with an innocent look on her face. "Eugene, what the hell are you doing?"

Tori could hear more booted feet coming toward them. Aw, crap.

Rifleman moved to the side just inside the door. "Boys, just get on in here... we'll just shoot 'em all. We might lose most of the kids, and I'd hate to lose the woman, but we'll still have the ones who heal up quickly."

No. No, I don't think so, Tori thought to herself as she moved in front of the children. A small hand reached out to touch her leg.

"Mama, Alisha can protect us," the cub chuffed. "If we hug her, she'll put a bubble around us."

Tori had heard about that kind of power, but in all her travels had never seen it. It made her even more angry to torture a child because she had a rare and precious gift. She nodded an acknowledgment to the cub, then moved toward the two brothers.

"Why don't you come on over here, woman. No need for you to get hurt in any of this," the rifleman said with a sickening leer.

Tori shook her head.

And the Cruel Ones, as Eugene had called them, filed into the building, lining the front. Including the rifleman, there were seven of them. If the boy was right, if there were a total of fifteen of them, there were another seven... somewhere. These seven, however, all had guns pointed at the brothers and the children. Tori noted with interested that the enemy didn't think she was a threat. That could certainly work in their favor.

The rifleman grinned and turned toward the other men, was just about say something when a blood-curdling scream echoed down the street. Tori and the brothers listened, tasted the scents in the air. It was the younger brother who chuffed out a single word. Kinsmen.

Again, Tori smiled. She'd recognized them, too. "I want to know who's behind all this," she growled. "I'll talk to the leader... the rest of them are yours."

It was a short and bloody fight. Tori moved so fast, the rifleman didn't notice she was in front of him until she'd ripped the gun from his hands and shattered the humerus in one arm. He didn't quite grasp that the tide had turned horribly against him until the other two bones in the arm were shattered, as well as all three bones in his other arm. She slid the gun across the floor to the older, closer brother, then pinned the rifleman to the wall with her claws through the soft, meaty part of his upper arms.

His men were all on the floor, their intestines spread like ribbons all around them.

Two figures appeared in the doorway, a man and a woman. They looked ordinary enough, but after one glance at them, the brothers both dropped to the floor on one knee and bowed their heads with respect. "Grandparents... you honor us with your presence."

They both laughed, and the woman cuffed both younger men lightly on the sides of their heads. "Get up, get up! Such formalities are silly," she said with a grin. The man walked over to Tori, and looked at the rifleman from head to toe, then back up again to look at the man's face. It was beading with sweat from the pain, and he was keening softly.

"Well, what have you gotten yourself into this time, Tori?"

"Oh, just the usual, Papa. Saving good people from bad people. What are you and Mama doing here?"

"Hmmm. Oh, we were in the neighborhood. Your sister said you'd left the Diné Nation. We thought it was curious, so we thought we'd come by and see what you were doing."

The rifleman moaned.

"That was really nice of you, Papa. I always enjoy seeing the two of you. How's Lelani?" Tori glanced at the rifleman. "I don't suppose you'd care to tell me who you work for, would you?"

The man mumbled something that might have been, "Fuck you."

Tori shook her head. "I ask politely, but people just don't seem to learn manners anymore."

Her father nodded sagely. "I've found that to be the case, yes. It's rather sad. And your sister is well. She has a new boyfriend, but I don't think he'll be around any longer than the last one."

Tori snickered. "The last one stuck around for over fifty years before he died." She looked over her shoulder at her mother, who had finally convinced the two brothers that she and her husband weren't royalty. Although Tori's guardian Spirit continually insisted they were, of course. Her mother was giving the brother pointers on their kill methods. Tori rolled her eyes. "Mama, would you take care of the children? The little cub is an orphan, but she's been incredibly brave." She looked at the rifleman again. "How about now?"

"Glllaaaahhh."

"Okay. I can wait." Tori looked at her father again. "So... in the neighborhood, huh? Where exactly was 'in the neighborhood'?"

"Up around Denver. It's nice this time of year, and for being part of the Free Lands, people are awfully nice."

Tori raised an eyebrow at him. "Denver isn't exactly 'in the neighborhood,' Papa."

He waved away her objection. "Nonsense, Tori! Most of the land between there and here is the Comanche Nation. It's easy to move freely and quickly. They're mighty friendly people.

Tori laughed. "Papa, you say that about the People of all the Nations."

"Well, just try and tell me it's not true."

She smiled fondly at him. "I'll concede your point. I've walked every Nation and always been welcomed warmly." Tori spoke to the rifleman, this time without bothering to look at him. "Ready to talk yet, friend?"

"Mmmmllaaaaggg."

"Right... didn't really think so." She looked down when two little arms wrapped themselves around her leg. "Hi, sweetheart, how are you doing?"

"I'm okay. All the bad people are dead." The cub looked daggers at the rifleman. "Except him. Can I help?"

"Well, I'd really like him to tell me who his boss is first. What's your name, little one?"

"Kinta. Mama said it's the place where her Mama was born." The child moved so fast her hand was almost a blur as her claws stabbed the rifleman between his legs.

The rifleman, of course, let out a lusty scream that seemed to go on forever, until he finally squeaked out a name. "Sanderson. Tom Sanderson."

Tori's father nodded. "We know of him. Holed up in Oklahoma City. No one can get near him."

"Figures." Tori retracted her claws and the man fell to the floor, writhing in pain. Kinta looked up at her.

"Can I kill him? I know how."

Tori looked at the cub. She didn't look to be any older than her daughter was when she was killed. White Deer had been five. "How old are you, Kinta?"

"I'm ten. Mama said all the time that I'm tiny."

In these times, ten was certainly old enough to kill an enemy. She nodded.

Kinta bent over the man and placed her fist over his heart. "You are a very bad man. You killed my Mama." She apparently let her claws out slowly, for the man had time to register surprise and more pain and a lot of fear before the life in his eyes dimmed. The youngster stood up again and looked at Tori. "I don't have anywhere to go. Your Mama said I could go with them. Could I go with you instead?"

Tori looked around at the death in the room, looked at the cousin kin brothers, looked at the other children, then she nodded. "Sure. I'll take all of you with me. You'll be safe." Then she looked at her parents. "We're going to torch the town. The brothers..."

"David and Daniel," said the older one with a smile, pointing to himself then his brother.

"...can make their own way. Come back to Santa Fe with me? Stay for a little while before you go wandering off again?"

Her parents exchanged a glance, then smiled. "For a little while," her mother said.

That visit had been the last time she saw her parents. She heard from them off and on over the next ten years, but with families as long lived as theirs, you don't think that ten or twenty years is a long time between visits.

Tori turned off US 60 in Magdalena onto Forest Road 354. It would be nice to see Kinta again, however.

Tori normally spent little time reminiscing, going years at a time without thinking very long or terribly deeply about past events of her life. But a Walkabout was meant to be a time of reflection, and preparing for a Walkabout was a time for closures and reconnecting with others. Perhaps this Walkabout was different than others, as Hawk had directed her to accompany Elder Yazzie's family from another universe. On the other hand, some of her most profound insights came to her during the journeys that she hadn't particularly wanted to make.

Reconnecting with Kinta was important; it could be years or even decades before she returned to this area of the First Nations.

Returning to Santa Fe with five children and her parents had surprised everyone who knew her. That she had rescued the children was understandable; that she thought the Diné Nation was the best place for all five of them was not quite as understandable.

"Wait... Jer, did you think I could look out for all these kids myself? I don't even know what Alisha does! And she's blind. Well, I think so."

"No, no! Not me, Tori. I know better. Someone else thinks that."

Tori looked at Jeremy through slitted eyes. "Who? Because I'm going to drop the kids off with whichever lunatic had that thought, instead of fostering them where it makes more sense."

"Nope, not saying a word, Tori. Besides..." Jeremy grinned at her. "...you're going to do what's best for the kids, and the hell with what anyone else thinks." He paused, still smiling as she glared at him. "So... what's your plan?"

"Gee, funny you should ask," she replied, and then sighed as she stretched her legs across a second chair in the briefing room. "My folks met a woman in the Hopi Nation who does the same kind of fire-work Julian does. He'd rather go home to his parents, but he knows the people who kidnapped him killed the rest of his family. That's a hell of a thing for a twelve year old to deal with. He's taken a liking to my folks, so they're probably going to hang out down there with him until he feels settled."

"That's gracious of them... I know you've mentioned more than a few times that they're trying to do something about the Darkness out there in the Free Lands."

"Yeah, but you know what, Jer? My dad's determination is sort of odd. I'm not sure how to explain it except that he seems to feel like this is his mission. Or maybe even his whole purpose in life."

Jeremy shrugged. "Why shouldn't it be? I mean... if a person is going to have a purpose, that's not a terrible one. Every little bit helps."

"I know, but it seems like it's more than that. It's just a feeling I have, I guess."

"What do your folks say?"

Tori snorted. "It's what I'm meant to do, Tori. My mom just shrugs. He's been doing this kind of thing for as long as I can remember, it just seems to be getting more... I don't know. Serious? Intense?" She shrugged.

"Well, like I said... if it's what he feels he ought to be doing, it's not a bad thing."

She sighed. "I guess not. Anyway, I put in a transfer up to Ganado."

"What?! Why?"

She shrugged again. "Seems like the right thing to do? There's a clan of cousin kin up in Chinle, and I think the little one would do pretty well with them. Alisha says the shield she makes is some type of energy, and that she can see the energy around her well enough to get around. I guess the Shaman out there is supposed to be an expert in that sort of thing."

"It's not like you have to transfer out to the middle of nowhere, Tori. You could drop the kids off... spend some time out there to see that they're settled, and then get your ass back out here." He crossed his arms as he leaned against the table across from her. "The only interior station that gets you anywhere career-wise is Window Rock."

"Unlike you, Jeremy, I didn't take this job to be Chief of Police. I just want to do some good for the People." She glanced out the door; she would have preferred looking out a window at this point, but the briefing room didn't have one. "There's too much going on here at border, Jer. The rest of you are cops to the core and aren't going to go off and do something crazy like I just did. I don't need the temptation."

He was quiet for several minutes. "Okay, Tori... I get that. And what you did was monumentally stupid, by the way. But you're the only one who could have pulled that off."

She looked back at him, her dark eyes serious. "I almost didn't, Jer. I lost control when I heard that kid call me 'Mama.' I haven't lost control like that in well over two hundred years. I need to get away from the temptation of doing that again. Because I know it was stupid. The only way I can go out there again is with a team. And you know damn well the Tribal Council won't put me on a team because my guardian Spirit isn't a warrior's Spirit."

"Well, they do have a point... there are ways of getting information out of anyone."

She swung her legs off the chair, turned to face him and folded her arms on the table, leaning forward. The two tables were close enough together that she had to look up at him.

"Jer, I've already experienced the worst torture possible. I watched the United States Cavalry kill my Mate, my seven year old son and my five year old daughter. At some point during all of that, they filled me with enough lead to kill me, too. How were they supposed to know I'd eventually get up again, right? But nothing is worse than watching your children die, Jeremy. Torture me, kill me again and again... I don't care. There might be things almost as bad... but there's not a damn thing in this life that's worse."

He pressed his lips together and just breathed a few times before saying, softly, "I'm sorry, Tori. I didn't mean to bring up old wounds."

She nodded. "I know. But that's why I'm going to Ganado. Maybe not forever, but for a while."

"I'll miss you."

She smiled then. "It's probably better that you miss me, Mr. Kee. That pretty lady you're dating is starting to get jealous of me, I think."

"She is not, and you know it!" he replies, laughing. "Tina likes you, and she knows you have no interest in me whatsoever."

Tori waggled her eyebrows at him. "Really? Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure, you crazy woman! I'm nearly four hundred years younger than you are." He laughed again. "Seriously, Tori... if you're going to date someone, don't you think he ought to be a little closer to your own age?"

"He... she... either way." She shrugged but grinned at him. "But probably. And that explains why I'm still single."

Jeremy shook his head and returned her grin. "Well, I hear the Shaman out there is longer lived that most. Maybe she'll strike your fancy."

"Not in a million years, Kee! The Shamans are mighty swell and all, but they're eerie. I've heard stories about people who've gotten involved with them. It starts innocently enough where you just start seeing the Shaman's guardian Spirits, but then one day you realize you're seeing half the pantheon." She shook her head vigorously. "No thank you!"

"Sounds almost like you're speaking from experience there, my friend."

"Oh, hell no! But I stayed with the Cherokee out in Virginia for a decade or so. The Medicine Man's wife and I got to be pretty good friends."

"If you say so," he said, obviously not completely convinced. "So what about the other two kids?"

Tori sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Both telepaths. The boy, Hakeem, apparently has relatives — distant cousins, but at least they met once — down in Brazil or Bolivia... somewhere in South America, anyway. Lelani's going to take him in, find his family. The girl, Julianna, says she's got grandparents up in Washington State. Not First Nation People, but you know how the Salish are. A bunch of sweethearts, the lot of them."

"And look how you turned out." He grinned mischievously.

"Hey, I only grew up with them. Spirits only know where my folks are originally from. They won't tell. Half the time, they claim they can't remember."

It took about two weeks for the Department to process all the appropriate paperwork, and another week to tie up loose ends in Santa Fe. It had been decades since she'd seen her parents, and it was good to spend some time with them. At the last minute, someone or another decided one of the rebuilt police SUVs ought to be taken out to Ganado, so she had a lot more room on the drive out. Not that she and the children needed it; all her belongings fit into a single crate and the children only had the items that kind folks around town gave them.

As dawn broke over the desert, her parents left with Julian and Hakeem. Lelani was going to meet them... Well, the Spirits only knew what Lelani did. But at some point twelve year old Julian would find a home with the Hopi People. Nine year old Hakeem would find a home with Lelani until she could travel with the boy through the entirety of the Nakaii Nation States and the northern knob of the South American Confederation, looking for his family. After seeing that they got a good breakfast, Tori cajoled the three girls into the SUV for the trip out west. Kinta insisted on sitting in the front seat with her; that worked out well since Julianna was the eldest girl at eleven and seemed very protective of young Alisha, who was the youngest at eight.

She encouraged them to remember their families' stories, and the youngsters in the back seat took the suggestion to heart, talking about parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings. Many of the stories were short anecdotes and fond memories; however, over the course of their rambling tales, the stories of how they came to be in that terrible place came out, too.

The Bad People had come to Julianna's refugee camp when she was about five or six... shooting anything that moved, cutting down trees, polluting the waterways in the area with their disregard for proper hygiene. From her descriptions, Tori guessed Julianna's family was from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana or Mississippi. None of the people in the camp were known to be mutants, but they were poor and relatively powerless. All those in the camp had been driven from their various homes in towns and hamlets as much as a hundred miles away.

The extended family had scattered, and Julianna only knew with certainty what happened to her grandparents and the aunts, uncles and cousins on her father's side of the family. They'd headed west and north; her grandparents were definitely in Washington. The aunts and uncles with their various children could be among any of the Nations in the Rocky mountains... or even with one of the First Nations of Canada. Her mother's sisters had headed for the Nations in Georgia and Florida; it had been several years since any word had come from them.

She and her mother, father and younger brother had been trying to reach the Osage Nation, but the Bad People had found them when they skirted passed Little Rock. Julianna's voice became softer and softer as she told her tale. The Bad People had killed her dad and her brother. Her mother had wept even as she urged Julianna to keep going, to run, to hide, to find safety. It had been days, perhaps an entire week later... She and her mother couldn't have been more than half a day from the Osage border when more Bad People literally ran her mother down with their car. She had been sobbing, trying to get to her mother, and the Bad People had just picked her up and toss her in a big truck with at least a dozen other children in it. There was a big building in Oklahoma City where the Bad People kept all sorts of people who were mutants. Sometimes, the Bad People would take one of the children — mostly it was children — away, and they were never seen again. About six months ago, they'd taken Julianna away to the place where Tori found them.

Alisha's story was quite different. Her parents were upstanding members of their community... her father was a preacher and her mother was a school teacher in Abilene. Their family was ordinary in every way. Alisha's paternal grandparents lived on the other side of town, her maternal grandparents lived about ninety miles away in San Angelo. She had uncles, aunts, and cousins living in many of the smaller towns between Abilene and Dallas; her mother had four brothers and a sister; her father had two brothers and three sisters. Her father's oldest brother was a very important man — Tori surmised he was some sort of politician, or what passed for a politician these days — in Dallas. Alisha had an older sister and brother, and two younger brothers. Naomi was fifteen, Adam was twelve, Alex was six... well, almost seven... and Stephen was almost two. She had always been particularly close to her brother Alex since they had been so close in age. Everything in life seemed to be fine until school started last September. Alex had started in first grade and there was one boy who had taken an instant disliking to Alex. 'The big bully,' as Alisha called him. No one really knew why the older child decided to pick on Alex. It could have been some as ridiculous as the bully not liking children with blue eyes, or the name Alex. It could have irked him that Alex was pretty smart and already knew how to write his name and read some easy books. The teasing and taunting, the pushing and pinching and shoving went on until right before Christmas.

At the school holiday party, the bully had been picking on Alex and tried to grab the small gift Alex had gotten from their teacher. It wasn't that the bully had actually wanted Alex's gift over his own. The teacher had given each child the same thing — a small notepad, no bigger than the palm of her hand, in the shape of the first letter of each child's name. No, it was that the bully wanted Alex's gift. Alex wasn't usually one to argue or fight over things; their parents had taught them that things were not as important as people, and things just weren't worth fighting over. But Alex loved his teacher; he thought she was almost as wonderful as their mom. And so getting a present — even if it was the same present every child received — meant a lot to him. It meant that she cared about the children in her class, each and every one of them, including Alex. His almost seven year old heart felt very joyful.

So when the bully tried to take his gift, Alex stood up for himself for the first time that year. He clutched the notepad to his chest and yelled, "NO! This is my present! You have your own." Alisha's attention was drawn away from her second-grade friends to the commotion her brother was causing. She hadn't liked the bully one little bit since the very first day of school when Alex had asked her why someone would purposely bump into him when there was plenty of space to walk by him. So when she saw the bully getting angry — all red in the face and shaking like Mr. Jacobson across the street did when he was angry — she made her way toward her brother. Mr. Jacobson wasn't a very nice man, not a good Christian man their daddy had said. Mr. Jacobson would hurt Mrs. Jacobson when he got really angry. Alisha was afraid the bully might try to hurt Alex. There was certainly a time and a place for turning the other cheek, but Alisha didn't think this was that time or place. She reached her brother's side, put an arm around him and told the bully to leave her brother alone. The bully had laughed and then pushed them both so hard they fell into a tangle together on the floor. Alex had whimpered a little when his shoulder hit the linoleum covered floor. Alisha was just pushing herself up, sighing and thinking how sad it was that some people just couldn't be nice to other people. That was when she saw that the bully was about to kick Alex really hard on the back of his head.

Alisha got angry. In fact, she got very, very angry... more angry than she'd ever been in her whole short life. But more than that, she got scared, too... extraordinarily scared. She didn't want her little brother to get hurt and all the grownups were too far away to stop the bully in time. Everything went fuzzy and silvery for a while until she heard her teacher calling her name. She blinked a couple of times and noted that she was sitting up with Alex in her lap, holding him close... his arms wrapped around her neck, and his face pressed against her shoulder. Miss Annie helped them up and said that their parents had been called to fetch them. That didn't make sense to Alisha because the party wasn't over yet. But when she looked around, all the grownups — all the teachers, and the parents who'd come to help for the party, and even Mr. Jenkins who cleaned up the school — were standing there, staring at the two siblings. The bully was lying on the ground crying, and Alisha knew she'd have to say extra prayers that night, but she felt a little happy that the bully was crying. She was terribly confused. But Alex wasn't hurt; that was the important thing.

The whole Christmas break from school was strange. Dad had prayed almost all the time. Mom cried all the time. She and Alex both had to go to the doctor even though they weren't sick. And then, on the day before they were supposed to go back to school, a stranger had come to the house. Mom ran into the bedroom, crying. Dad told her to get her coat. Then he sent her away with the strange man, who put her in the back of a van with some other children. Eventually, she was taken to the place Tori had found her.

"How... how come your parents didn't know you were different?" Julianna asked shyly. "You said you only see the energy of where people are and things aren't."

Alisha had shrugged. "The doctors told them I was born with cat... cataracts..." She said the word slowly, to get it right. "My grandma Ruth had them, too, except she was old when she got them, not a baby." She shrugged again. "Grandma could see fuzzy things before the doctors took hers off her eyes. Mommy said the doctors couldn't take them off my eyes because they were... I don't know, Mommy used really big words, but mine are different from Grandma's. So everyone thought I could see all fuzzy, I guess."

Kinta had turned around then and looked at the other girl. "Do you still pray?" Alisha just shook her head, but after a couple of minutes, she said softly, "There's no one to pray to."

That comment tore at Tori's heart. She hoped that Alisha would come to know Great Spirit, find peace and comfort, during her stay with the Shaman in Ganado.

The world outside the First Nations was a place that both repelled Tori and called to her to join the fight her parents had fought for centuries. As a member of the Diné Nation, she could not accompany the groups that did go beyond the border and fight the Darkness. And Hawk... Hawk simply said a time would come, but that time was not now.

Her first stop in Ganado was the station house, where she checked in with the District's second in command, Lieutenant Benally. He seemed pleasant enough, but his smile told Tori nearly everything she needed to know... and her nose told her everything else. He was an honest cop who was genuinely concerned about the three refugee, and he didn't seem to take himself too seriously. The officer from the Ute Police Department was already waiting, harmlessly flirting with the Lieutenant. She'd escort Julianna north through the northern part of the Diné Nation, through the Ute Nation, and meet one of the Salish shamans in lands of the Coeur d'Alene People. Lieutenant Benally would take Alisha out to see the senior Diné Shaman, who lived a few miles outside of town. Tori would drive up to Chinle with Kinta.

Looking back on those first few weeks in Ganado, Tori had to chuckle to herself. Julianna made it to the Seattle area with no difficulties, and — according to the reports that came back — tearfully reunited with her grandparents. Alisha had almost instantly fallen in love with the Shaman, and was also doing well.

Kinta, on the other hand... Tori laughed out loud to herself. Kinta was a handful.

Tori had driven Kinta up to Chinle twelve times in the past three weeks. This latest drive would make lucky number thirteen, but Tori wasn't sure who was going to be having the good luck.

"Tori," Kinta has whined for at least the thousandth time, "why can't I stay with you?"

The truth was that Kinta reminded Tori too much of her daughter, and that wound — despite being more than two hundred and fifty years old — had still not healed enough to properly foster a cub. She had explained that to Kinta once, perhaps twice. Despite having seen both her parents killed, Kinta couldn't quite understand how her pain resonated against Tori's to make the woman's so much worse... or how Tori's pain, despite her self-control, would likely resonate against the girl's to make Kinta's that much worse.

"I don't even have a home yet, Kinta. The cousin kin in Chinle can take better care of you than I can."

"But I don't want to live there!"

Tori sighed. "And you won't tell me why you don't want to live there. Are Tessaleene and the others cruel to you? Do they neglect you or harm you? I don't understand, Kinta."

The girl had been quiet then for twenty, maybe thirty miles.

"It's too big," she said finally. Her voice was hardly even a whisper.

Tori glanced at the youngling, then pulled the car off to the side of the road and shut it down. She unfastened her seatbelt and twisted in her seat to look at Kinta.

"How do you mean, child? There are too many houses, there are too many people? There's a fine forest nearby where you can run."

Kinta looked out the window first, perhaps just to give her eyes some privacy or perhaps to note their location. It well could have been both.

"It's all of that, Tori," she said without turning. "Too many, too much of everything." She turned to look at her rescuer. "Santa Fe was very large, and Albuquerque was the most frightening place I've been except for the bad place. But Chinle is still too big, Tori. Ganado is smaller, I feel safer there."

"You're just going to keep running down to Ganado if I leave you with Tessaleene's clan, aren't you?"

Kinta was trying very hard not to cry. "She's so nice to me, everyone is. They try to make it better for me. But I just... I don't..." She swallowed as a tear ran down her cheek. "It's too much. I can't do it. I try, Tori, I really do. But it's too hard."

Tori scooted over on the bench seat and wrapped her arms around the little one. It had been such a long time since Tori had felt overwhelmed by the presence of so many people — New York City, well over a hundred years ago, and she had had to work past the feelings of being overwhelmed — and she had been an adult for so long that she had forgotten some of the simpler worries of childhood. Despite everything Kinta had been through, she still had those simpler worries of childhood.

"I'm sorry, little one. You should have told me. I'm so used to being among people that I didn't realize you weren't used to it. You never did tell me your story." She smoothed the youngster's hair, then lifted her chin with a crooked finger. "Let's at least go let Tessaleene know, since we're nearly to Chinle anyway. Maybe she knows of a quieter place you could live. Okay?"

"Really?"

"Really."

Kinta nodded and tried smiling. "I don't mean to be a problem for you, Tori."

What had this cub gone through to make her think it was a bother or a problem for any cousin kin to care for her? She tousled the youngling's hair, and slid over to restart the car.

"You aren't a problem, Kinta. You're family. We all take care of one another. If living with the cousin kin in Chinle isn't working for you, we'll find a better place for you."

"Do you want me to tell you my story, Tori?" she asked, trying to hide the fear and dread in her voice.

"Not until you're ready to tell, dear," she said, smiling while keeping her eyes on the road. "Not until you're ready."

In the end, it was a problem easily solved. Tessaleene's daughter lived in the mountains of Cibola Forest south-southwest of Albuquerque with about a dozen other cousin kin. Another clan lived in the more arid crags and mesas slightly closer to the big city. There were a number of clans south of them in the Zuni Nation, as well. The drive down to the isolated area in Cibola took the better part of a day. But the farther they drove from cities, the more narrow and less maintained the roads became, the more relaxed Kinta was. By the time Tori pulled the SUV off the Forest Road near an unnamed road that was little more than a path, Kinta was smiling.

"This is my home, Tori. I'll be fine here."

As Tori stopped her SUV today, in the same spot she'd parked a slightly older one twenty years ago, she smiled at the memories. The path to the cousin kin village was more overgrown, the wildlife was more plentiful. She got out of her car and began the hike to Kinta's home.

Tori could tell she was being paced along the trail. She listened carefully and breathed in the scents floating in the air. It wasn't someone she knew, but she wasn't terribly concerned... cousin kin traveled frequently from the Nakaii Nation States through the Zuni Nation and into the Diné Nation. The population of the village waxed and waned; new people arrived and others left for new destinations. There was a core group of people who stayed; Kinta was one of them. It didn't take her long to reach the clearing on a plateau that had a breathtaking view of Bear Mountain and the surrounding peaks. The village matriarch stood waiting for her near the community fire pit.

"Good heavens, Tori, what kind of trouble are you causing down here now?" the woman asked with a welcoming grin and open arms.

Tori embraced her, unconsciously taking her scent to assess her health and emotions, then chuckled.

"I don't know what trouble you're talking about, Cora, but I'm pretty sure I haven't caused any lately."

"Don't try to tell me you don't know anything about the cousin kin bumbling around along the Zuni side of the border, woman. Their Shapeshifters are watching him to make sure he doesn't kill himself falling down a ravine. If Allo hadn't actually gotten close enough catch his scent, we all would have sworn he was a White Man."

Tori shrugged. "Well, he's not my trouble, but from what I understand from the woman whose trouble he is, the man spends his time out in New York." She rolled her eyes. "And not productively, either."

"Oooh, I see someone has rubbed you the wrong way! Come sit in the lodge and tell me all about it. Kinta's out with a hunting party, but they shouldn't be out much longer."

Tori followed the Village Mother into the lodge and looked around. It hadn't changed much since the first time she'd seen it twenty years ago. The roof showed signs of recent repairs, the curtains over the windows were new, but it was still a clean, utilitarian place with a long table and benches, a double sink, a big kerosene stove, and the ever-present percolator and tea kettle.

"Will you have tea or coffee today, Tori?"

"I'd love some tea, Cora. What varieties do you have today?" As a guest, she sat down and waited while she was served her tea before discussing business.

"The usual dark tea, of course, but one of the Nakaii brought up a nice mint and rosehip blend."

"That sounds wonderful! I'd love a cup."

Cora puttered with the tea kettle, the loose tea and strainer, the mug — a beautiful piece of pottery for which the Zuni were famous. "Is that boss of yours still seeing that nice Shaman up there in Ganado?"

"He sure is. As married as any two people I've ever seen, though I think he just figured that out recently."

Cora chuckled. "Men can be a little slow sometimes."

Tori grinned. "That they can. How's my little Kinta doing?"

"She's always going to be your little Kinta, isn't she? Never mind that she's been taller than me for fifteen years!" Cora smiled fondly. "She's doing well. She's started showing some interest in one of the Zuni lads who does the trading. I know she's only thirty, but I'll have to say it's about time."

"You fuss over her as if you were her mother, Cora. She's probably ignoring every eligible person in four Nations just to make you crazy."

Cora laughed. "Yes, that's the sort of thing she'd do. I'm not saying that's what she's doing... but it would be like her." She picked up the mug and brought to the table, setting it in front of Tori before fetching her own mug of coffee. She sat down across from the Deputy.

"So. This troublesome and bumbling cousin kin... who is he and why is he annoying all the wildlife in the area?"

Tori sighed. It's not that Cora wouldn't believe that there were people from another universe traveling through the Naabeehó Bináhásdzo, it's that... nope. She wouldn't believe it.

"It's a fairly long story, and even I don't know the whole of it. But he traveled out this way with — theoretically escorting — a woman who's... well, unusual. Her Mate and daughter are cousin kin, her son isn't... and with the children being twins, you can see how unusual that is."

"Twins who aren't matched? Has that ever happened before?" Cora was more than a little surprised.

Tori shook her head. "I've never heard of it. If Lelani were around, I'd ask her if she'd ever heard of such a thing. But that's not the most unusual part, Cora. Her sister with her children also met her out near Elder Yazzie's place." Tori shook her head. "They're not sisters of the same mother or the same father, yet they're closer than any two siblings I've ever seen... closer even than twins!"

At that, Cora shrugged. "Sometimes the heart will do what nature didn't, Tori. It's certainly not usual, but there are stories of it in our legends."

"I've heard the stories. And hearing the stories, then seeing it in front of your eyes and having your senses filled with it is something else entirely, Cora."

"I can well imagine. This world holds some true wonders, for all its faults." She sipped her coffee. "So this unusual family has something to do with the wandering ball of trouble south of here?"

Tori blew on the tea to cool the surface before sipping it. "Mmm, this is good. And yes. As I said, he believed himself to be escorting her to the Nation, but as you can well imagine, a woman like that would probably have little need for an escort despite the fact that she's from another land where the Darkness doesn't reign supreme. As you might also imagine, they didn't exactly become the best of friends."

"Ah. No, I would think they'd be somewhat antagonistic."

"Exactly. And then some. I was tasked with dropping him off at the nearest border station, which – from Ganado – is the southern one between the Zuni and Hopi Nations. And..." Tori paused, then drank another sip or two of her tea.

Cora watched with keen eyes. "And... there's more, or you wouldn't be here looking for Kinta."

Tori set the mug down and nodded. "They, this whole family, intend to head into the eastern Free Lands to do what they can to push away the Darkness before returning to their home."

"Taking up your parents' mission, then," Cora said softly.

Tori nodded. "Hawk has instructed me to accompany them. It's less of a Walkabout and more..." She sighed. "I'm not sure exactly what it is."

"You've been chafing at the Nations' restrictions for over thirty years, Tori. I think, despite whatever else you're meant to do by accompanying them, this is your Walkabout."

"Perhaps. From what I gathered when Madeline told her story, things have deteriorated more than I would have thought since the last time I was in the Free Lands."

"Without Ernesto and Angelina working to keep the Darkness from engulfing us all, would you expect anything else, Tori? Honestly?"

Again, the Deputy signed. "No, I suppose not. And even the story she tells — as dire as it is — doesn't truly surprise me much, given that my parents, as you said, are no longer fighting the Darkness."

Cora reached across the table to lay a hand lightly on the other woman's wrist. "Tori, you don't know they aren't fighting the Darkness from another plane. This Darkness... it's the sort of thing that would be pervasive among all of them, yes? So I don't doubt they still fight if such is a thing is possible."

Tori nodded slowly, staring at the tiny ripples on the surface of her tea. "Madeline's sister is... well, in her land she is a warrior, perhaps I'd even dare to say a Warrior Chief, but she possesses many skills of the Shaman. I sense she understands the workings of the different planes more than most. Perhaps better than the Shaman Yazzie in Ganado."

Cora raised her eyebrows in surprise. "From the stories you've told about Shaman Yazzie, this newcomer must be talented indeed."

"Well enough, I hope, that they can make enough of a difference that those who fight now have a chance at victory."

The Village Mother sighed. "Our warriors and those of all the Nations are cautious. It's necessary, I think, when we realize even our combined efforts can't eliminate this threat. If a band of warriors, this family of which you speak, can tip the scales in a way to allow us this chance at victory, then I wish them success. Has Hawk spoken of your role in all this?"

Tori shook her head. "Very little. Only that now is finally the time to leave the Nation, that this was the warrior band I was meant to join. That I will lend them strength, for they are missing two members of their family. These, as I understand it, did not make the journey from their land to ours. Beyond that, I expect I'll learn what I need to know... well, hopefully, I'll learn it before I need to know it." She flashed a brief smile before picking up her tea again.

"So is this man-cub heading back to his clan? Is it one of the clans you know from your journeys?"

She shrugged. "He doesn't actually have a clan, at least not that I could scent on him. But I would assume so... that he's heading back to his people, anyway. Madeline's going to bring his truck out of the Nation and leave it for him somewhere along the Zuni border, or at least that's what I assume. It makes the most sense. So he should be able to find his way home. It's a strange thing, Cora..." Tori looked into her tea again. "He could nearly be the twin of Madeline's Mate, yet he seems to have lost the spark that makes us cousin kin. It's almost as if he spent his entire life outside our clans and knows only the way of the short-lived people. He's like a cub who still thinks the world revolves around him." She sipped on her tea.

"Oh, and Madeline rescued a pair of cubs as she crossed Oklahoma. They'll be staying with Elder Yazzie's cousins in Nageezi." Tori shook her head again, a bemused expression on her face. "Apparently the girl cub has a soul bond with the youngest child of the household there. Madeline's niece and nephew seem to understand it, although no one else does. And yet... there it is," she said with a soft chuckle. "I've already sent word to the Chinle clan to check in on them, but if you could spread the word as well, I'm sure the family would appreciate it."

Cora's expression is one of surprise. "I can see why you didn't foster the children here or in Chinle, but... a soul bond between a short-lived and a cousin kin?"

Tori just shook her head and sighed. "I can't say such a thing has never happened before. How many cousin kin have lived for decades or even centuries knowing that a part of their soul is out there, waiting for them, and they just can't find the right person. I've met a dozen or so over the years. Who's to say they or their soul mate were not born at the wrong time or place? That's the theory of these two mystical ones, anyway. Young Mesa was meant to live as a short-lived, but... miscalculated? Good grief, for all the time I've spent striking up friendships with shamans of different Nations, this ought to make some kind of sense to me!"

The other woman chuckled. "And you're going on Walkabout with them!"

"Yes! And it's a good thing I like to learn new things because I think I'll be learning things from this family that I hadn't thought possible. Ah well... Madeline did say to expect the weird around her and her sister."

"Then it's a good thing you're not put off by the more spiritual traditions you encounter, isn't it?"

"True. I always manage to leave with something interesting."

"Well, this may cheer you up a bit... or at least set your mind at ease. We've had word that there's a fairly large clan interested in moving from one of the Nakaii States into the northern mountains." She smiled. "Too much peace in the Nation, people are spreading out — peacefully and respectfully, of course — but the cousin kin have decided to split the clan to accommodate the Popoloca, who are extremely grateful. The Diné Council is open to the idea, as the land they've requested to settle was once a state park, and most don't consider it habitable."

Tori chuffed out a laugh. "They said the same thing about this area."

"Exactly my point. It may take a few years for the clan to move up to the Diné Nation, but they plan to spread out on the western slopes of the mountain spur just west of Santa Fe... between San Miguel Mountain and the San Pedro Peaks. That's considerably closer than either the Chinle clan or any of us down here."

"Wow, that's fantastic news, Cora! It would be a trip of less than a hundred miles — only about fifty from the San Pedro Peaks to Nageezi — and an easy overland run even for younglings."

Cora smiled. "Everyone seems to be winning, in this case, then. I just hope your Elder Yazzie's family is as welcoming of cousin kin as you imply."

"Cora, you'll never meet a more welcoming family outside our own clans. And I don't plan to be on Walkabout for decades. It would probably make Captain Benally more than a little sad, but I would seriously consider transferring to the Farmington-Shiprock District to be close enough to the cubs and their foster family to help when needed."

She tilted her head, listening to the ongoing activity outside the lodge. She scented the air and grinned. Tori was well prepared, therefore, for the arms that wrapped around her from behind, hugging her tightly, and the young woman's face that brushed against hers.

"Oh, I've missed you so much, Tori!"

Crossing her arms over the ones that embraced her, Tori returned the hug. "I've missed you, too, Kinta. Good heavens, though, girl! You act like you haven't seen me in years!" she said, laughing. "It's only been three months."

The young woman laughed and released Tori long enough for her to get up from the chair and turn for a proper hug. "Don't you know that time works funny when you're missing your favorite person?"

Tori's smile was soft and bittersweet, and she hugged Kinta fiercely. "I guess I do know a thing or two about that, now that you mention it." She released Kinta but held her at arms' length... just looking at her. Ah, it was so good to see the youngster growing and flourishing! Noting the quiver peeking up over Kinta's shoulder, she asked, "How's your archery coming along, young lady?"

"I'm still no match for you, but I managed to take down a couple of jack rabbits and a squirrel." She looked past Tori to Cora, who sat at the table watching the reunion and smiling. "Mama Anna said you'd take care of the rabbits, Mama Cora. I left them with her."

Cora chuckled and stood, then stepped over to the sink to rinse her coffee mug before putting it back on the rack. "Good heavens, you can take the girl out of the city, but sometimes you just can't get the city out of the girl!"

Kinta giggled, and Tori just smiled. "She's the one originally from the Chicago area, right? It's not surprising, then. Even when I lived there, squirrels were a nuisance, and I understand it only got worse. Fluffy cute bunnies were adorable little pets."

"You lived in Chicago? Really? Oooh, what was it like?"

Cora smiled at the two of them as she headed for the door. "You two chat while I take care of the rabbits. Adorable little pets, my big toe!" She was still shaking her head as she left the lodge.

"Pets? Rabbits are pets?!" Kinta asked incredulously. "Dogs... maybe. But even dogs can help you hunt."

Tori laughed. "Sit down, kiddo, and let me tell you about the crazy people of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." She drank a bit more of her tea as she watched her young charge gracefully maneuver around the kitchen area, making herself a mug of tea.

"Would you like a refill while I'm up, Tori?"

"No thanks, dear. I'm good here, and I can't stay all afternoon... as much as I'd like to."

Ten years ago, Kinta still would have pouted and whined a bit, would have even attempted to cajole Tori into staying longer. Today, she simply nodded and finished at the stove before sitting down beside the older woman.

"So... I know something must be going on," she said with a smile. "I didn't expect to see you again until spring."

"You're getting more clever as you get older, my little one. Do you want to hear about Chicago... or the reason for my visit?"

"Well, both, of course! That's a silly question, Tori." Kinta grinned at the woman she often thought of as her surrogate mother, despite seeing her so infrequently. Oddly, Mama had been the first word she'd spoken to Tori... that day she'd come to rescue them.

"Chicago first, then," Tori replied, chuckling. "It's far more interesting. Well, my second stay there was, anyway. The first time I was there... I'm not sure exactly what year it was, but it was definitely before what they called the Great Chicago Fire happened. Good grief, what a filthy hellhole!" She shuddered at the memory. "Oh, the people were nice enough... though I was still understandably uneasy around the soldiers at Fort Dearborn. But it was absolutely filthy. They had no clue about what proper sanitation was. Burning down the entire central business district — and then some — was probably the best thing to happen to it, though I'll admit that people dying for such a cause wasn't necessary. But then I went back in... oh, it was probably the 1970s or 1980s..." She paused a moment, remembering. "It was considerably different.

"It was huge. Los Angeles sprawled more, but only New York City had more people living there." She shook her head. "You need to get used to being around people more, my dear, but even if there was still a city that big, I wouldn't recommend that any of the cousin kin actually try to live in a place with that many people."

"But Chicago still exists, doesn't it?" Kinta seemed puzzled.

"Oh, it does. And most of the buildings are probably still there, perhaps even still in fairly good repair. The problem is that, although there are fewer of them, the people there now aren't very nice. It's one of the worst places in the Free Lands.

"It was still on its way toward being a more egalitarian city when I was there the last time. For the most part, it was an interesting place to live. There were theaters and concert halls, a wonderful museum of art, the most amazing library system I had ever seen. I hope those last two weren't destroyed, it would be a pity to lose that kind of history. But different types of people were still fairly insular in their own neighborhoods and enclaves within the city." She was quiet for a moment. "I was working as a paramedic that time around. It was the beginning of the wave that they'd later call the AIDS epidemics. Damn, Kinta, I worked with some guys who'd refuse to go near a person if they were Two-Spirited. It didn't matter if the man — it was primarily men in the beginning — was badly injured or just in shock with no physical injuries. It was just another way to hate people, I guess... as if the Virus hadn't already given them reason enough." She snorted.

"Of course, they hated that I was working with them, too. First because I'm female, and second because I have dark skin. They couldn't tell if I was of the African tribes or the Nakaii or some combination. It baffled them to no end when I told them I was born of the Salish People."

"Wow. When did the White Man begin to understand the different people of the First Nations?" Kinta asked.

Tori laughed. "For some reason, most of them still don't understand. Those who live near one of the First Nations might understand the people of that Nation. But few of them can understand the obvious differences between the Salish and Comanche; they'd certainly never understand the subtle differences between the Northern and Southern Paiutes. Even on my last Walkabout, when most of the Nations had nearly finished establishing their boundaries, people were generally of the opinion that the Indians were taking back their lands. But they didn't understand why certain lands were being claimed or by whom they were claimed."

"Weird. Even when I was really little, my Mama told me all about the different Nations. And Mama Anna and Mama Cora make sure I learn just about everything." The younger woman rolled her eyes. "Is knowing everything really necessary, Tori?"

"Oh, you never know when something you learned a hundred years ago will come in handy."

"Oh, stop it!" Kinta said as she chuckled and leaned over to slap Tori's arm lightly. "You know I'm nowhere near a hundred years old."

Tori grinned. "And so in a hundred years, I'm sure something you're learning now will come in handy, and you'll be glad the clan here taught you everything they know."

"Yeah, I know. You're right." She sighed. "So why come down here with winter nearly settling in? Some of these roads have closed off earlier in the year than this."

"I came up from the south, so I wasn't too worried. Are any of the roads back up to Albuquerque closed?"

"No, we haven't gotten a real snowfall yet. So what's up, Tori?"

"I'm heading out on Walkabout again."

"So soon??"

Tori chuffed a laugh. "Kinta, it's been forty years since I got back from my last one! Good heavens, it was ten years before you were even born, you goof!" she said with a chuckle. But she quickly became serious again. "And besides, some folks could use my help and Hawk said it was time for me to go."

This time, Kinta did pout. "How long are you going to be gone?"

Tori shrugged. "I've been on Walkabout four times, and they've ranged from thirty to sixty years. I really don't think this one will last much more than a decade though."

"A decade! That's almost forever!"

"Oh, Kinta," Tori said, leaning forward to hug the youngster. "I know... it's a third of your life, and to me it's hardly anything. But you'll be so busy, time will fly by."

"But I'm going to miss you, Tori!"

"I know, sweetheart. And I'm going to miss you, too. But one of these warriors gives the air a strong taste of telepathy; perhaps while I'm traveling with them, I'll be able to send you messages." She leaned back to look at Kinta, hands on her shoulders. "But this is something that desperately needs doing."

Kinta nodded. "I know. If your guardian Spirit says that it's time to do something, it's a good idea to pay attention. And Elephant has all kinds of suggestions all the time." Then she smiled softly. "I feel really lucky to even have a guardian Spirit. I wasn't born to any of the Nations, so I was pretty surprised at my Kinaaldá when Elephant showed up."

Tori placed her hands on either side of Kinta's face, then kissed her forehead. "And why shouldn't you have a guardian Spirit, my dear? You were adopted into the Diné just as Alisha was. Plus, I worry less about you and Elephant than I do about Alisha and Dog."

Kinta seemed taken aback. "Why would you worry about Alisha?"

"Because Dog is one of the Spirits of the warriors... and Alisha's gift lends itself well to supporting a warrior and her band."

"Oh. And what of Elephant? What path should I be taking?"

"You should take the path that makes your life your own, Kinta. Our guardian Spirits guide and guard our path, but they don't make the paths for us. That said, Elephant is an excellent guardian for a leader."

"Ugh, I don't want to be a leader!"

"It can be in large ways or small ways, Kinta. You lead your hunting party, don't you."

"Well... yes. Most of the time, anyway."

"And that's leadership. As you grow older, you'll find there are many ways to be a leader."

Kinta nodded slowly, and then a smile spread across her face. "So Hawk isn't the guardian Spirit of a leader, then? Because you'd be Chief of Police instead of Jeremy if it were."

Tori chuckled. "I have no desire to be Chief of Police, and despite what Captain Benally says, I don't want to run a District either. No, Hawk is the guardian Spirit of... hmmm... well, messengers or perhaps counselors. Historians and the storytellers... those who remember. Sometimes the Shamans. But no, not really the folks one thinks of as leaders."

"Is that why you go so many places when you're on Walkabout? To learn and remember?"

"Gee, it sounds like someone is starting to get curious about the relationship between people and the Spirits! You're considerably younger than I was when I started being interested in such things. I should mention to someone on my way out to the Free Lands that a visit by a Shaman wouldn't be a terrible idea." The elder woman smiled at the look on Kinta's face.

"But... yes, I suppose that could be part of it. I think it's more likely that my parents always told such fascinating stories of their travels that they simply instilled in me the desire to see what they had seen. Or to at least see as many places they spoke of, and what became of them. They were great storytellers, my parents." Tori sighed.

"You miss them a lot, don't you?" Kinta rested her hand on Tori's arm.

"I do. When you're as long lived as the cousin kin are, especially as old as Lelani and I are, you get to a point where you believe your parents actually will live forever. My sister is close to six hundred years old. As near as we can tell, our parents were over nine hundred years old." Tori smiled sadly. "When we keep to the ways of our ancestors... that is, we don't fall into whatever trap the wandering man-cub south of us has fallen into... it seems we get stronger, harder to kill, as we get older. So we were devastated when they were killed."

"Do you..." Kinta hesitated a moment. "Do you know what happened to them?"

Tori shook her head. "No. I only know they're gone. I think Lelani might know, but that's the sort of information she'd keep to herself for half a century or more. She's more of a mystic, that one. She knows me too well, too. If I knew who was responsible for their deaths, I might be inclined to seek revenge in my grief. This way, if I do anything, it will be from a place of justice rather than revenge. That's always a better place from which to fight the Darkness. Revenge allows the Darkness to get a toehold in your soul; seeking justice protects you from the Darkness."

"Maybe I am still too young to understand this stuff. I know if anything happened to you, Tori, I'd want to hurt the people who took you away from me."

"I don't plan on leaving you anytime soon, Kinta. Not permanently, anyway," she said with a smile. "There's a job I need to do, and I'm uniquely suited to do it. Perhaps all my wanderings during my Walkabouts were just preparing me for this one job."

"So just what is it you're going out into the Free Lands to do? Those who've traveled through here have said things are getting even worse." Kinta shuddered.

"I mentioned this family, this band of warriors that I'm accompanying, yes? Well, Madeline believes they possess among them the skills to make a difference in the battle against the Darkness. I hope she's right. But she also had an idea to create a sort of an underground railroad to help those hunted by the Evil Ones to find their way to safety in the First Nations. Have you learned anything about the slavery of the African People when this country was being born, and when it was young?"

Kinta nodded. "Mama Cora's told me the stories her mother told her." She closed her eyes and sat silently for a few moments before opening them again. "Her mother was from one of the African Tribes and was brought here in a ship. All the things her mother went through... it's horrible, Tori. Even having seen terrible things myself, and even having lived through a terrible experience, I can't begin to imagine how dreadful it was for her mother."

"It wasn't a good time, no. There were places I certainly had to avoid during my first Walkabout. I suspect that was when the Darkness began creeping into the hearts of men here on this continent, although sometimes I wonder if the Darkness isn't always there... just waiting for a chance to grow. But there have always been people who carried hope, too. There was a woman whose name is remembered by many who facilitated the movement of slaves from their captivity to freedom in the northern lands. There were many people who wanted to help, but they had little power to oppose those who ruled with a whip and iron fist. But they could do small things, like hide runaway slaves and help move then to the next safe house. That was the Underground Railroad, and the woman was Harriet Tubman.

"Madeline seems to think the same thing could be established here and now. With all the people I've met over the centuries, it doesn't seem an unreasonable task to find the cousin kin I've met. I'll speak with the children and grandchildren of the good hearted people I knew. And we will see if they'd be willing to shelter, or find others willing to shelter, the cousin kin and mutants — people like the other children I rescued with you — on their journey to the nearest First Nation. Knowing that such a mechanism was in place could give so many people hope, and even more importantly, it could save lives."

"And that's why you'll be gone so long? Getting this network set up?"

Tori nodded. "It may not even take that long, but with the most reliable means of transportation being my own two feet, it does take a while to travel this entire continent. I'll go east first, but I promise to stop back here for a visit before heading westward... if it proves to be necessary." Tori laughed and shook her head. "I've no doubt once Lelani finds out what I'm doing, she'll find a way to create a similar network along the west coast. Those are the people she knows best."

Kinta was quiet again, fiddling with her mug of tea but not drinking it.

"It sounds as if..." She couldn't bring herself to look up at Tori; she just looked at the tea in her mug. "It seems like you're planning to strike at the heart of the Darkness before setting up this network," she said softly. "Tori..." Kinta looked up, just barely able to hold her emotions in check. "Tori, even you're not that strong."

Tori leaned forward and took the mug from Kinta's hands, then placed it on the table before taking the young woman's hands in her own. "No, I'm not. Not alone. But we'll be a band of eight. Three of us are cousin kin, the other five have the healing and long life characteristics of the cousin kin... plus they are experienced warriors. If there is anyone who can deal a fatal blow to the Darkness, it is the Wolf Pack. And there is no better time to strike than now."

"I have so many questions..."

"I have time. Not all afternoon, unfortunately, but enough time to answer some of your questions."

"Well... who are these people? Where are they from? How can those who aren't cousin kin have our traits? I know Hawk has told you this is the time to go, but why do you think these people can make a difference?" Kinta paused, then sighed. "You've been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. Tori... how big is a real elephant?"

Tori laughed at Kinta's last question. "Is your guardian Spirit giving you a hard time about that?"

Kinta merely nodded.

"Well, it definitely depends on the elephant... African or Asian, male or female. I'll assume you mean adult," she said with a smile. "But those I've seen — mind you, they were all confined in zoos in conditions that weren't exactly humane — have been about, oh, maybe nine to twelve feet tall at the shoulders. I'm almost afraid to ask, but how big is your guardian Spirit?"

Kinta stretched her hand out and seemed to rest it on something that wasn't there... although Tori had been living among the Diné long enough to understand that Elephant was right there. The Spirits seemed to be more ever-present in their lives than in the lives of People of other Nations. The older woman raised both eyebrows and smiled.

"I've been told Mouse is about the same size."

Kinta paused again, then rolled her eyes. "Elephant says to tell you that because humans have spread the tale that elephant and mouse are antagonistic toward one another in the human world, they chose to appear the same size to remind people they are siblings and work together to help all the People of the First Nations." She looked at her guardian Spirit with equal parts affection and annoyance. "You know... I already had that part figured out. What I don't understand is why you'd never tell me how big an actual elephant is." Her expression changed to one of confusion as she listened to what Elephant was saying. "Why in the world would you think a large as life version of you would alarm me?" She shook her head and smiled. "Sometimes you're just silly, you know that?"

Tori chuckled. "Apparently, Elephant isn't the only one. I've heard people call their guardian Spirits goofy, crazy, wacky, weird and a whole host of other interesting adjectives. And not a one of those Spirits was Coyote, by the way."

Kinta smiled. "Well, mostly Elephant is sensible. I like that."

"And if it's any consolation, sometimes Hawk is silly, too."

"Really?"

Tori nods. "Hawk delights in calling me 'Princess'."

Kinta giggles. "Shouldn't you have a tiara or something?"

"Now, wouldn't I look ridiculous wearing a tiara with my uniform? Come on!" she said, grinning broadly.

"Absolutely. What are you supposed to be the princess of?"

"I haven't a clue. And that's one of the things Hawk hasn't bothered to share."

Said Spirit appeared at her side, standing on the table. First it dipped its beak in her mug of tea, then looked at her.

Good tea. And you'll know these things when you need to know them.

Not before I need to know them? A person likes to be prepared, you know.

You are prepared.

Great. Every time you say something like that, I wind up on some outrageous adventure. I'll bring extra clothes in case I get shot again.

Excellent idea. Don't forget that sewing kit of yours, too.

Tori rolled her eyes.

"Hawk?" Kinta asked, although the answer was obvious.

"Oh, yeah. Wild adventure coming up again."

"Hawk tells you that?"

"Are you kidding? Hell no. I infer it mostly based on what Hawk doesn't say."

You wound me.

I do no such thing, my friend. You enjoy being teased as much as you enjoy teasing.

This might be true. The Spirit drank from her mug of tea once more before disappearing.

"So... these people you're going on Walkabout with... who are they? Is this Madeline you mentioned the leader of the group?"

Tori leaned against the table, getting comfortable... well, as comfortable as possible on a wooden bench. "She does seem to be, although she's the only one among them who isn't cousin kin or a mutant. Who are they...?" She sighed and looked at the closed door of the lodge, before turning to Kinta again. "This needs to remain between us, but after I tell you about them, I'm not sure you'll want to share what I'm about to tell you."

"Ah... that sounds ominous, Tori."

She shook her head. "No. Just weirder than most people can handle, I think."

"Yep. Ominous." But Kinta did smile.

"You know that there are different dimensions... this one where we live, the one where the Spirits live, others that only the Spirits and the Shamans know, right?"

Kinta nodded.

"Well, it turns out there are also whole other universes that mirror ours. Well, at least one, but I figure if there's one of something there's bound to be more than one of something... somewhere."

"Wait, like... a whole planet like this one?"

"Not just the planet, but everything that makes up our universe. Stars, planets, even other dimensions there that might be something like the ones here."

"Okaaaaay. That's something very large to try fitting inside my head, so... I guess I'll just accept it and think about it later."

Tori nodded. "Good idea. I'm not sure I actually understand it, either, although Ha'atathli Yazzie seemed comfortable enough with the idea. Well, Madeline — the leader of the warrior group — somehow managed to fall into our universe from hers out in New York. In her world, the place was different than it is here. Just how different, she didn't say, but given what I know of our world, it must have been far worse than the school she is accustomed to in her world. There, she met three people... two who had been dead in her world for over a hundred years, and one that she — at least momentarily — mistook for her Mate." Tori shook her head. "Her mind must have been very cloudy to have mistaken them. She knew she needed to reach us, the Diné. Had I not seen her sister with my own eyes..." Again, Tori shook her head. "It's a many pronged tale. But to tell it from Madeline's perspective, she was simply looking for the senior Ha'atathli, hoping — I believe — that it would be similar to someone she knew in her own world."

She picked up her mug of tea and took a sip before putting the mug down again.

"She... did she really intend to walk across the Free Lands to the Naabeehó Bináhásdzo?" Kinta asked, fear tingeing her voice and starting to show in her eyes.

"I think so, yes. But one of the men — I sensed that he had been a friend of the whole family in their world, but an especially dear friend to Madeline — suggested that the one who resembled her Mate... ah, watch out for her? Babysit her? He, at least, had a truck." Tori snorted. "And if he doesn't get himself killed, he may get his truck back someday, too. Now... I need to tell you about him because he's the reason I'm so far south in the first place... I was driving him to the border station. It's true that he's cousin kin, but..." She chuffed out a breath of frustration. "Well, I told Cora it's as if he's lost the part of us that makes us who we are. The Zuni Shapeshifters thought he was a White Man. I guess your friend Allo must have run considerably faster than I was driving to get the word to Cora that he's cousin kin. He told the Zuni, I'm sure, who... or rather, what... this traveler is. I guess they're going to make sure he doesn't kill himself falling into a ravine."

"But... wait..." Kinta shook her head sharply as if trying to settle things back into place that had been knocked askew. "He's cousin kin, so he'd heal right back up again, wouldn't he?"

"Indeed he would. And I'd expect he'd be even more ornery, obnoxious and self-absorbed than before. He's already more poorly behaved than any child. Also, if he fell into a ravine? I'm not sure he'd be able to get out. Well, not without some help, anyway."

"Tori! I'm not the best climber, and even I could climb out of those ravines. Don't be silly!" Kinta looked at her dearest friend as if she had told a stale joke for the millionth time.

"But he's more White Man than cousin kin, Kinta. He might be able to climb out of a ravine... but I watched him study the embankment off the road at the border station, looking for the best place to climb it. I've done the same... studied that embankment, because sometimes the people we escort to the border aren't very good climbers. For you, for me, the best place is a mere five feet beyond the border. The place he chose? It was a good twenty feet down the road, and you would have had no trouble climbing it even on the day I met you."

"I was a terrible climber then!"

"That exactly my point, Kinta."

"Oh. But the Zuni would help him. They're good people."

"They are, and they would. But he doesn't seem to trust anyone in the First Nations. And speaking of good people of the Zuni Nation, are you refraining from courting Allo simply to drive Cora crazy?"

Kinta inspected the ceiling. "Maybe."

Tori laughed and patted Kinta's knee. "Well, stop it. I understand wanting to tease people, but don't let that stand in your way of being happy, little one. Your eyes light up when anyone speaks his name, so I know you have feelings for him."

The youngster looked back at Tori, smiling broadly. "I do. And I wasn't going to tease Mama Cora for much longer, anyway. I really like the way Allo makes me feel when he's around."

Tori nodded once. "Good. I'm glad that's settled. I hope to see the two of you with your own cabin when I return."

Kinta blushed slightly but nodded. "I think we could manage that."

Tori grinned at her, then dove back into her story. "Since Madeline is a warrior, and this Jimmy is... not, you might imagine things didn't go well between them. It was only made worse because Jimmy is childish... and her marriage bond with her Mate was being frayed nearly past the point of endurance because of their separation. Her bond with her sister, too, was fraying badly, as well. That is a bond like I've never seen, and is only spoken of in some of the oldest legends.

"On top of that, she was traveling through the Free Lands, which simply don't exist in their world."

"How is that even possible?" Kinta asked.

Tori shook her head. "I think my later conversation with Ryan and Andrea will help explain."

"Um, Tori... you only call your boss and the Ha'atathli by their first names when weird stuff is going on."

"Yeah. I know. Anyway, given my recent experience with Jimmy, it doesn't surprise me that he went out of his way to avoid any troublesome areas on the drive from New York to New Mexico. But just about the only way to get into New Mexico if you started off heading south instead of west is Eye Forty."

"Oh, crud and crap. That goes right through Oklahoma City, doesn't it?"

Kinta would know. She didn't need to ask. But Tori nodded anyway. "Yeah. And she rescued a couple of cubs, too. Poor things were at the center of a mob..." Tori still couldn't fathom how that could have happened. No cousin kin had voluntarily gone near Oklahoma City in over a hundred years. Why had the children's parents been anywhere near a place they could be caught? The boy cub hadn't known why they left the Caddo Nation, only that they had.

"Whoever this Madeline is, I think she's a savior," Kinta said, eyes filling with tears and threatening to spill over. "I know the cubs must be grateful, but I'm old enough to be thankful."

"You're a sweetheart, Kinta, as much as you try to deny it," Tori said with a sad smile.

She got a slap on the knee in return. "She rescued a couple of cubs. Obviously made it to New Mexico."

Tori chuckled at the slap. "Well, I guess she headed up to Nageezi next, the reason for which will become clear soon enough."

"Well, you've already said the Ha'atathli has family there, so it obviously has something to do with her, right?"

"Sort of, yes. One of the young ladies of the household was going through her Kinaaldá, and desperately wanted her Aunt Andrea to Sing her Kinaaldá ceremony. It was a collision of serendipity, with Madeline and Jimmy arriving in Nageezi the night before the whole family was heading to Ganado for Katy's ceremony."

She paused for another sip of tea.

"The rest of this is second hand from the Chief. Madeline had asked to speak to the Ha'atathli when they arrived in Ganado, so the two of them were talking inside when the Chief noticed some peculiar growth in the driveway." Tori shook her head and shrugged. "I don't know what it looked like, I didn't get there until later. But he said it looked a little like a thin gray granite disc spinning on the ground. He called the Shaman out, she obviously saw that it was a portal..."

"What?! Dear Spirits, a portal opening in the Ha'atathli's front yard??"

"Yeah, that was pretty much his reaction, too, except being a cop he just did what any cop would do... he fetched his weapon and prepared to defend his people. When the portal opened and he was staring at a duplicate of the Ha'atathli and Jimmy..."

"Again, what??? How is that even possible?"

"Now, Kinta," Tori said fairly calmly, "didn't we agree that there could be other universes and they could be similar to our own?"

"Well, sure... but..."

"Okay then. So I guess the Ha'atathli's twin was kind of a smart ass... well, having talked to her... yeah, she kind of is."

"Worse than you?" Kinta asked with a shaky grin.

"Oh, believe it. Worse than me. And I think I've got about two hundred and fifty years on her, too. So she's honed snark to a fine art in a fairly short period of time." Tori grinned at Kinta. "Maybe I'll learn something from her."

Kinta groaned. "No, no... I don't think that's necessary."

Tori chuckled. "She was very polite, though, asking permission to enter the Ha'atathli's home and all. Here's the weird thing, though... she and Jimmy's double — obviously Madeline's Mate — stepped through the portal first, then the daughters, and finally the sons."

"That's proper Diné tradition, isn't it? The elders, then the daughters, then the sons?"

"It is. But even though they walked into the portal in that order, that's not the way they stepped out. First it was the daughters... one of whom was in all manner of turmoil the moment she stepped through... then the sons. The Chief said it was a few minutes before the elders managed to get through." Tori chuckled again. "You should have heard him describe it. It was like they came out tripping over something. The cousin kin — Logan — was steadied by his daughter, but the Warrior Chief — Andi — managed to land on her back at his feet. He swears she batted her eyelashes at him, but I spent some time in her company and find that almost impossible to believe.

"But he did say he could see into their world while the portal was open, and it was a beautiful and green place. It wasn't our planet... I guess they vanquished the Darkness long ago and managed to invent things that I only read about in science fictions books in the twentieth century." She sighed. "But he could see Andi's husband and Madeline's husband. The reason they couldn't pass through the portal is because they're Spirits." Tori's brows furrowed. "I don't understand how that's possible, and perhaps I'll learn more as I journey with them, but they truly are Spirits, as much as Elephant and Hawk are."

Then she rolled her eyes. "Oh, gods, Kinta! The drama! You know Captain Benally is a natural storyteller, and can spin a yarn as well as the Singers. But even this story was hard to believe. Let's see... Madeline's son and Andi's daughter — that would be Vincent and Maria — had unknowingly formed a marriage bond... I guess it was decades in the making. There was some sort of amusement when Andi finally made it as obvious to them as it was to everyone else. The reunion of the family was a wonder, though, and that I'll believe. Benally might be a great storyteller, but he's also one of the most romantic men I've ever met.

"But then Jimmy said something disparaging about the family, or some member of the family. The Chief didn't quite hear what he said, but apparently Andi did... and she got right in his face about it, defending her family. Whatever she said to Jimmy pissed him off so much that he jabbed her in the side with his claws..."

Kinta just gasped. That was... unheard of! Even as young as five, her mother had made sure she had enough control over herself to never let her claws out except to defend herself or her family. Using them in anger, losing control like that, never wound up with a happy ending.

"...which seemed to affect Madeline. But Andi moved so fast, the Chief said her hand was a blur. She just stood there with her hand on Jimmy's throat, practically ignoring the claws in her side. The Chief was pretty sure he saw Jimmy twist them some, too, but Andi just stood there as if nothing was happening." Tori shook her head. "Damn, that woman isn't cousin kin, but she's seriously scary. You see why I say she's not just Warrior, but Warrior Chief?"

Kinta nodded. "Obviously, she didn't kill this Jimmy... well, at least not permanently."

"Nope. Benally said she just kept squeezing his throat until he withdrew his claws. Then she spoke loud enough that he could hear, or maybe he got close enough because it was a rather volatile situation. Of course, with him being a mere mortal, it probably would have been smarter for him to stay as far away from those two as possible." Tori snorted. "Hell, I'd stay as far away from those two as possible. Anyway, she said something to the effect that she could rip out his trachea, leave him bleeding out on the ground, and draw her sword so fast that poor Jimmy wouldn't realize he was dead until his soul saw his headless body on the ground."

"Ew? Who even does that, Tori?"

"Warriors, sweetie. Warriors. Anyway, he backed down... I got called in to bring Jimmy down to the border station. You know me... I had to barter for some extra coffee in exchange for making the drive at night."

Kinta laughed. "Tori, you don't even drink that much coffee! You drink way more tea than coffee, in fact."

"True, my dear, very true. But I know people who like coffee and have a hard time getting it. But I didn't get any extra coffee this time around because Madeline asked to talk with me after the Sing was over. That's the first part of the story you already heard... her journey from New York to New Mexico. Well, most of it, anyway. Madeline and Logan's daughter is cousin kin, their son is the telepath I spoke of earlier; the two are actually twins, though. Andi's daughter is a Shapeshifter and her son is a Beastmaster; they're twins, as well. Apparently, Andi's children have secondary Curses as well, which is particularly unusual... but then, she has four guardian Spirits, which is completely unheard of."

Kinta was quiet for quite some time, mostly spent staring at the folded hands in her lap. Finally she looked up at Tori.

"Thank you for telling me all that, Tori. Some of it's hard to grasp, but... well, if these people are as accomplished as they sound, I'm less... well, frightened, I guess. I won't say I'm not concerned about you going out into the Free Lands, but the thought doesn't fill me with as much dread as it did when you first mentioned it." She smiled almost wistfully. "It would be really nice to meet them, but I guess that's not possible, is it?"

"Not unless you're interested in going to Albuquerque... and I know how much you hate being around a lot of people."

Kinta nodded. "I'd consider it, though. How soon do you have to leave?"

Tori leaned backwards so she could see out the window. "Hmmm. I probably have enough time to go through the village and speak to everyone, but not much more time that that." She looked at Kinta. "I know you're burning with curiosity, but don't let that overwhelm your judgment. I'll be Deputy Walking Eagle in Albuquerque, not your friend Tori. Well, I'll still be your friend Tori, but you know what I mean."

Kinta smiled and nodded again. "I know. You'll be working."

"Precisely. Are you going to be okay with all this? It's a lot of really strange information to take in all at once."

She nodded. "I think so. Elephant's been chattering to me, trying to help me make sense of it all." She shrugged, but smiled with the love of a child for her mother... even if Tori was merely a surrogate. "Maybe it's the right time to face my fear of so many people."

Tori rested a hand on the young woman's shoulder. "Kinta, I admire your courage. But the largest city in the Nation might not be the best place to start getting over your fear."

Kinta grinned. "What's that thing you like to say? In for a penny, in for a pound. I have no idea what it means, but it feels right for this situation."

Tori laughed and embraced her young friend. "You might be right, Kinta. I'll tell you what. Why don't you have a chat with Elephant while I go tour the village and say hello to everyone? I understand Allo might still be in the vicinity." She winked. "You might track him down and talk with him, too." She chuckled. "Or not. Totally up to you. But if your feelings are as strong for him as you say they are... this is a good thing to talk about."

Kinta return the hug with vigor. "You need to come back to me, Tori. Every time you visit, I learn something new."

She kissed Kinta's forehead before standing. "That is always my intention, dearest one. You're my family. It's still painful to think of you as my daughter, though it's less painful than it was twenty years ago. But regardless, you're family. And I always do my best to watch over my family."

She walked to the door and opened it part way. "I can give you another half hour, then I need to be back down the trail to my car. Okay?"

Kinta nodded. "Okay. Either way, I'll see you at the fire pit in half an hour."

Tori walked through the door and closed it behind her.

"Oh boy, Elephant. I just don't know what to do."

You have said many times, Kinta, that you would like to dispel this affliction you have that strikes when you enter areas with many people.

"I know, and it would be a good thing to do... get over this... whatever it is." Kinta leaned over and rested her head on Elephant's back. She tucked one hand under her head and slowly ran the other down Elephant's ear. She was pretty sure a real elephant's ear didn't feel like velvet.

In turn, Elephant swung its trunk around to whuffle her hair. At one time, I believe it might have been called a 'phobia' or one of the many names those on this plane gave to fears that were induced by traumas. I must ask, though... why now?

That was the question, wasn't it? Even in her mind, it was hard to say the words that she knew needed to be said. But keeping them in her mind was the problem, wasn't it? She had to speak them.

"Because what happened to the cubs that were rescued," she said so very softly, "is far too close to what happened to me."

Have you spoken of these things to Tori? She has the wisdom of many lifetimes, and Hawk has lent her its many gifts.

"No, not really. I mean, I've mentioned some vague details, and she's smart enough to fill in some of the gaps, but..." Kinta sighs. "I guess I haven't actually told anyone what really happened."

And yet you wish to test yourself among a multitude of people while still carrying this burden?

"You know, when you put it that way, it does sound pretty ridiculous."

Hearing familiar footsteps coming toward the door, Kinta sat up and smiled to herself. The door opened and a young man poked his head around the partially open door and smiled warmly at her.

"Hey, Tori said you were thinking of heading up to Albuquerque with her. Were you serious, Kinta?"

She took a deep breath and just patted the bench beside her as she slowly exhaled. "Maybe. Or not. But I might. I'm definitely conflicted and indecisive."

He chuckled as he came into the lodge, closing the door behind him. He sat down beside her, one leg bent with the knee resting on the bench almost touching Kinta's hip and the ankle resting on his other knee so he could look at her full on as they chatted.

"It's a big step, Kinta. Albuquerque isn't as big as, say, Phoenix, but... wow. That's brave of you."

She ducked her head and blushed slightly. "Maybe, Allo. I guess I thought I ought to work this stuff out so I can figure out what I want to be when I grow up."

Allo laughed. "Some of the folks in my clan are twice your age or more, and they still don't have a real direction."

The young man paused, then shrugged. "Of course, those are mostly the Shapeshifters... and most of them usually just keep doing what they're doing. You know, being border patrol and sort of... what would you call them? Search and rescue folks?"

Kinta smiled. "I guess. Tori said they're keeping the traveler from falling into a ravine and killing himself."

"Oh, she told you about him, did she?" He shook his head. "I'm telling you, Kinta, I was as shocked as I've ever been when I caught his scent! From all the bumbling about he was doing, I would have sworn he was a lost camper or something. I didn't believe my own nose! I've never seen a cousin kin in all my travels who was both over the age of ten and less dexterous than the traveler."

"It's not that I didn't believe Tori... or that I don't believe you... because neither of you would tell a story like that, but hearing about a cousin kin like that? I don't know. I guess maybe I feel a little sorry for him."

Allo considered that, and slowly nodded. "I suppose so. It's like he was abandoned with the short lived when he was a baby or something. Poor guy.

"But back you to, my friend. Why are you suddenly so anxious to put this terror of large gatherings of people behind you, or figure out what you want to do with your life for the next hundred years? All things happen in their own time."

"I don't know." Kinta sighed. "No. I guess that's not really true. Part of it's that Tori told me about some folks she met. One of them did something that really resonated with me, and they all sound so interesting I feel like maybe I should meet them. And part of it's that..." She looked at him more shyly. "I guess maybe that you already know what you want to do with your life, and you're hardly older than I am."

She ducked her head again and smiled. "And Tori called me out about this dancing around we've been doing with our feelings for each other."

He sat and just looked at her for a moment, too scared to say or do the wrong thing. He had been running the trade and message line between the northern Nakaii states and the Diné Nation for longer than Kinta had been living here. At first, it was with his uncle, and then for the past ten years on his own. Although he loved the travel through the Nakaii, Zuni, Diné, and Hopi Nations — sometimes even the Ute Nation — his passion was silversmithing. And this young woman had caught his attention the first time he saw her.

Tentatively, Allo took one of her hands in his. "Well, if it meant we could spend a little more time together, I'm all for it. How can I help?"

She looked back up and smiled more broadly. "See? That's so like you, Allo. The first thing you say is How can I help? You've got such a good heart."

"I don't say that to just anyone, you know. Well, not the first thing, anyway," he replied with a grin. "And I was born knowing what I wanted to do. Well, it seems like it, anyway." He tapped her nose lightly, affectionately. "And I am hardly older than you! Goodness, Kinta, even among the short-lived, ten years isn't much of a difference."

She rubbed her nose with her free hand and grinned. "I know. It's the part about you practically knowing from birth what you wanted to do that's mind boggling."

He chuckled. "I know. Even my parents have that reaction. But I blame them because they lived among the Diné until I was three, and across the road from a silversmith at that. It was fascinating to watch him. Do you have any ideas about what you'd like to do?"

She shook her head. "Not really. And I told Tori I'd meet her out at the fire pit by the time she finished walking the village to let her know whether or not I'd go with her. So I think that's a discussion that will have to wait." Kinta chuffed out a laugh. "At least until I figure out whether or not I'm going with her."

Allo tilted his head and regarded her intently.

"You know..." he began slowly. "I could come along. I was on my way up to Window Rock and Farmington anyway. If Tori were willing to stop for ten minutes with the larger clan, I'd come up to Albuquerque and help you be with so many people."

She searched his face as her mind raced, both grateful and terrified. "I... Yes. Yes, I think I'd like that. Thank you, Allo." She leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss.

He raised his hand to his lips. "Wow. For more of those, I'd walk the Free Lands!"

She squeezed his hand and shook her head. "No, no... it's way too dangerous. Much more dangerous than a big city full of strangers." Her smile was teasing, but her voice was quite serious.

"Well, how about you walk my message route with me, then? It would be a couple of months before you'd get back here, but... well, I think it would be nice to spend the time together. If you'd be willing to put up with me, of course," he added hastily.

Kinta giggled. "Well, it would be a good way to find out if we're really suited for one another, don't you think?"

"Gosh, beautiful and smart!"

She swatted his shoulder. "Oh, stop it! Tori is beautiful. At best, I'm pretty."

He shrugged and grinned. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Kinta." He folded her hand in both of his. "This really is a brave thing you're doing, and I'm... I'm happy you're allowing me to help you."

She slowly nodded. "It feels like the right time to go forth and, well, be brave. I don't necessarily feel brave, but this is the right time."

Allo raised her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. "I will be beside you, or at your back, or wherever you wish me to be, lovely Kinta."

"Ah..."

"Too much?"

"Yeah, let's not get carried away, okay?"

"Right. Keep the sweet, mushy stuff for later when we're away from Mama Cora." His eyes sparkled with mischief. "Is sweet and mushy acceptable around Tori?"

"Well..."

He nodded knowingly. "Possibly, but probably not."

Kinta shook her head. "Are you sure you're not a telepath?"

"Absolutely, positively certain. If it were a trait that was going to show up, it would have done so decades ago." He tilted his head to the side, considering other options. "I might have a touch of empathy, although I suspect it's really more that I'm crazy about you and..." He shrugged again. "Well. Just that."

She smiled. "What do I need to pack for a journey around the Nations with you?"

"Oh, a change of clothes, jerky and — if you have any — dried fruits and nuts. I have regular stops about a day apart, so I don't have to do any hunting unless I want to help supplement the family's food supply wherever I'm staying. But hunting is pretty lean from Gallup up to Farmington and then back down almost to the Hopi Nation. When I have a message or delivery for the Ute — I don't this time — I find the hunting is better on the other side of the Colorado River."

Kinta nodded. "Okay, I think I have a fair idea. Let me go pack, and I'll meet you and Tori at the fire pit in a few minutes."

As she jogged down the incline to the cabin she shared with the other two un-Mated women, Kinta wondered just what the heck she'd just agreed to do. She was only mildly concerned about traveling with Allo for the next few months... no, not even concerned really. Just nervous. And really? Only a little bit.

Albuquerque, on the other hand? She must be crazy.

You will speak of the things that burden your heart and soul, will you not, Kinta?

I really do need to, don't I? I really, really don't want to talk about it, but I know the only way to truly be free of this fear is to let the story go. She sighed as she pushed the door open and entered the small building.

As anyone who cares about you will tell you, carrying any sort of tragedy or trauma in your heart and mind... never speaking of it, never releasing it... can be quite crippling. Elephant paused to rifle through a box of Kinta's keepsakes, delicately pulling out a piece of turquoise with its trunk and placing it on her bed beside her pack.

She smiled as she picked it up, wrapping her fingers around it. It had been the first gift Tori had given her when she was adopted into the Diné. Then, it was larger than her palm and she could barely touch fingers to thumb when she curled her fingers around it. Now it was hardly a third the size of her palm and she could hide it in her closed fist.

"Why this?" she asked her guardian Spirit.

Elephant tickled the side of her neck, something that had always cheered her up when she was younger and missing her Mama and Tori both. Because it's pretty. Because it reminds you of Tori. Because you like it. Not everything in life needs to be serious or complicated or have deep meaning.

That made her chuckle, and it also made her think. Not everything in life needs to be serious. She did tend to take herself too seriously sometimes. Or more often that sometimes. Allo didn't; going on Walkabout with him would be good for her in many ways.

She checked her pack for a second time, making sure her piece of turquoise was tucked safely in one of the inner pockets. Then she spent several minutes retying the strap of her quiver so she could carry it at her waist while wearing the pack. Satisfied, she made sure her area of the building was neat, that all her belonging were put in their proper places, before picking up her bow and heading out to the fire pit.

Allo was already waiting and grinned at her as she walked toward him. Tori was approaching from the other side of the village, a surprised but delighted smile on her face.

"Well, well, well," she said, her smile turning into a grin. "I absolutely did not expect this."

Kinta smiled at both of them, slightly embarrassed. "I'm going to go on Walkabout through the Nations with Allo. I..." She glanced at Allo and blushed. "We should be back in the spring."

"Did you hear that, Cora? Our little girl's all grown up!" Tori called over her shoulder.

"I did," said the other woman, pretending to fan herself. "Goodness, I think I'm getting the vapors."

Tori laughed. "Come on, kids. Let's get out of here before Cora starts getting really dramatic."

The three of them started down the path as Cora called after them, "People just have no appreciation for art anymore!"

Tori was unusually cheerful as she walked down the path back to her car.

"Tori, you're enjoying this just a little too much," Kinta said after a few minutes as she and Allo followed the Deputy down toward the car.

"Nonsense, Kinta," she said, looking back over her shoulder, "I'm just happy."

Kinta watched Tori's back suspiciously. "You know, you've never gotten this excited about anything else before. At least, that I've seen."

Tori chuckled. "And you've never gone on Walkabout before." She unlocked the SUV and opened the hatch in the back. "There ought to be plenty of room for your packs. Yeah, just shove that crate out of the way." She looked at the two of them. "Should I chauffeur you up to Albuquerque... or do one of you want to sit unsafely in the front seat turned around to chat with the other? You could sit in the back looking miserable and pretend you're miscreants." She grinned at the two of them, making Kinta blush again.

"I've never been any good at looking miserable, Miss Tori, so I don't think that's really an option for me."

"Well, then that option's off the table, and please," she said, waving off the formalities, "just call me Tori. Hop on in." She watched with a hidden smile as the two of them went toward opposite sides of the car, and both climbed in the back seat. Cubs were funny. At least these two truly were young, unlike Madeline and Andi's children, and weren't denying their feelings... they were simply awkward and embarrassed about them as most cubs tended to be.

Kinta was almost still a teenager in the cousin kin society, with Allo hardly being any older. They could be forgiven the game they had been playing that had made Cora simply shake her head.

Part of the joy when one was that young and first realizing she or he was in love was the delicious anticipation of drawing out the initial courtship.

She closed the hatch and made sure it locked properly. There had been a day when closing these doors was sufficient. But every iteration of rebuilding and repairing these old vehicles made them slightly less reliable in certain areas. Safety was always the first concern. Convenience? Well, people had learned to live without that nearly two centuries ago. When once simply closing they doors would have been sufficient, locking them was now a necessity. Otherwise, a bump on the ground or – in some of the models – something as innocuous as a strong breeze would make hatches, doors, trunks, and hoods pop open unexpectedly.

She got in the car and started it up before turning to look at Allo. "Ten minutes at the northern village? Do you need me to head up the fire trail, or will pulling off to the side of Route 12 be sufficient?"

"Yes, M... ah, Tori. It's just a short message, no response necessary... and I'm meeting the Village Mother half way up the trail, so waiting on the road is fine," he said. "I think the trail has eroded a bit and become considerably more overgrown over the past couple of years, so I'm not sure the car could make it to the village anyway."

Tori flashed him a smile at his correction, nodded and started up Forest 354 Road.

The older woman could see why Cora might find their relationship something to tease Kinta about; she could vaguely remember when she'd first fallen in love with a young man. Her parents and sister had been overflowing with happiness, and it spilled out of them in the form of teasing. The Spirits only knew how long their parents had been married by then, and even her sister had grandchildren by the time Tori was in her twenties. That damn smallpox epidemic had killed Tonane and his whole family. His death, the death of his whole family, had been only one of the many reasons the four of them had gone on Walkabout together after that.

"Did I mention I'm proud of you, Kinta?" she asked almost absently.

"You did not," Kinta replied stiffly, then relaxed. "No... but... Well, thank you, Tori. I'll admit I'm a little scared and super nervous, but I think I'll be fine."

"I know you will, kiddo. You're a tough a one when you need to be." She glanced at the two youngsters in the rear view mirror while noting the changes in the environment in merely the three months she'd been up north. It often seemed to her that the Earth Herself had mutated in places as unpredictably as people had during the atomic testing in New Mexico and Nevada.

"This road gets worse every season," she said with a smile, "and my car gets older. One of these days, the road's going to win." She chuckled. "The days of getting between villages by vehicle in twenty minutes are long gone... I'm guessing about forty-five minutes, so settle back and enjoy your ride."

Since Kinta came up this way even less frequently than Tori did, she watched the vegetation and wildlife move past out the window for a few minutes. "Is this the route you usually take, Allo?"

He nodded. "At this time of year? Definitely. In the summer, I'll often skip the road and head over Ladron Peak on the game trails. It doesn't save much time, really only shaves off a few minutes..." He shrugged as he grinned. "It's just a lot prettier up in the mountains."

Kinta only nodded in response.

I do not intend this as pressure, Little One, but is there a better time to speak of the heavy burden you carry than while in the company of one you look to as a mother, and one you hope can be a helpmate?

No. I doubt a better time will present itself, Elephant, my friend. Stay with me?

Oh, Kinta... you know I never leave you.

"Tori? Will you hear the story of how I came to be where you found me twenty years ago?"

Tori flashed a look of surprise in the mirror at Kinta's formality, a level of formality usually reserved for the conclaves of the kin.

"I will hear you, Kinta."

Kinta sighed with relief. The formality somehow gave her strength to tell the story. But...

"Allo, will you hear the story of my youngest years?"

"I will hear you, Kinta." He took her hand in his and gently squeezed it. "Of course I will." Allo, too, lent her strength with his mere presence. She appreciated that.

"You should know that I was very young at the time, and did not understand everything that was happening then. It's only in retrospect, with an adult's knowledge, that I can piece together what life was truly like for me and my mother."

Kinta took a deep breath, then looked out the window at the mountain crags and trees that furiously grew, even flourished, despite all odds. "I think I was about five when my dad left... well, disappeared, I guess. We lived near the northwestern border of the Caddo Nation, along Sardis Lake. He was one of the village's hunters... and a good one if the stories I remember are accurate. One day..." She was quiet for a few moments, and when she spoke again it was softly. "One day, he just never came back. Neither did the other two hunters in the party.

"At least, not alive."

She shook her head, then turned from the window, looking first at Allo... then Tori... then finally down at the hand Allo held firmly in his own. "Memories of a child... there was so much crying and wailing. Etan had been found dead, just inside the Caddo Nation border, and... and, well, you know what it takes to kill one of us. They were to have been hunting within the Nation; none of them were foolish enough to stray beyond the borders. This is what all my elders said, from the oldest of the grandparents to the barely adult teenagers. And even as a small child, I knew the Free Lands of Oklahoma are some of the worst on the continent.

"Dad, Etan and Aleta were all siblings. Their parents... my grandparents..." Again, Kinta shook her head. "I was so small, and wasn't prepared for that kind of grief. My mother... Ravati, Aleta's Mate... Tedrik, I could hardly stand the pain and fear that seemed to saturate the air around me. The whole village seemed to be made of nothing but fear and pain."

She appeared to turn inside herself, remembering... watching... almost reliving those days and weeks and months and, eventually, years.

"How could someone have managed to kill Etan? That was the most frequently asked question, I do remember that. And how could an evil person have crossed into the Nation? That was another common question. And, of course, there was always, always... why?

"The Elder Shaman of the Caddo lived in Broken Bow, and he came out to our village. It was the first time I'd actually seen an old person; I was fascinated by him. He was... he was kind, but it wasn't hard to see the anger flowing just beneath the surface. It was clear he was deeply concerned. He performed rituals, he spoke with the Spirits. He wasn't able to reassure my mother or uncle, and I thought what he said — at the time — was terribly confusing. He said Dad and Aunt Aleta were alive, but not in the place of the living. He just kept staring north, speaking to the Spirits... it went on for days, I think."

Kinta shook her head. "All he could say to Mama, to Tedrik, to my grandparents, to me, was that the Spirits could see Kotori — that's my dad — and Aleta, but couldn't reach them... and that they would not stop trying to help. We all knew that the Spirits were more powerful than any of us; if the Spirits could not help them, there was nothing we could do either."

She took another deep breath, but didn't look up. "What I remember most is cuddling for most of the day... every day... with Mama. She was so scared. How could I not smell that, how could I not know what that was, even as tiny as I was? I remember that she held me so close. She cried so much. All I could do was reach up my hand – sometimes, only sometimes – and pat her face." Kinta glanced up at Tori for a second, then out the window again at the passing scenery. "I was tiny, too. You remember that, Tori, when you rescued me. You thought I was half my age. When my dad and aunt disappeared, when my uncle died, I barely looked old enough to walk on my own two feet.

"At some point, life returned to some imitation of normal. Tedrik... he had to leave our village because there were too many painful memories for him. There was another village of our kin near Texarkana; I think that must have been the one where his sister lived. He came to me one morning and just held me... he didn't say a word, just held me. But his sadness was like a stickiness I could taste, and it hurt. It hurt him, it hurt me. I held onto his neck almost as if my life depended on it. I love my uncle. I didn't want him to go. And for a while, I can't ever be sure how long, but I don't think it could have been as much as an hour, he let me cling to him, and he held me. After a little bit, perhaps five or ten minutes, he started singing to me. Just lullabies, but they were songs he and my aunt and my dad and my mom and my uncle all sang to any of the little ones. Some of them were in our language... some were in languages of several First Nations... some of them were in the languages of the White Man. They didn't stop the hurt, but... but he did let me know in ways a child could understand that he didn't want to go, but that if he did stay he might die from sadness.

"I remember... I remember asking him, Will I ever see you again, Uncle? And I still remember so clearly him saying, Of course you will, Tiny One. You will visit me one day, or we will meet on our journeys." She swallowed and did her best to hold back her tears. "Although we heard from the messengers that he'd arrived safely... and later that he was doing well enough with his sister and her cubs, I never did see him again."

The mountainside flowed by the window, the hardiest of trees hanging on despite the poor conditions; rabbits darted away and squirrels jumped from branch to branch; once a startled deer looked up from her lunch of berries still left on a bush. They reached the point on Forest 354 Road where it followed the right fork near an old mining encampment that had long been over grown. They drove over the bridge that spanned Rio Salado — fortunately built long ago by the US Army Corps of Engineers; for while the river itself was narrow enough to jump across except during the spring run off season, it was at the bottom of a fairly steep canyon, and the distance from one canyon lip to the other was about a tenth of a mile. It was a sturdy bridge built to last, and that was fortuitous as the US Army Corps of Engineers didn't exactly exist anymore.

Once across the bridge, Tori watched carefully for the turn off onto New Mexico 12. She didn't come up this way very often – normally she was coming off New Mexico 12 onto Forest 354 Road – and what vegetation managed to hang onto the soil in the area grew with a vengeance. She found the turnoff where she had expected it — it was actually easier than she'd anticipated since the Forest Road turned off and became little more than a game trail — but a tree had grown wildly and unnaturally fast just off the road. Amazing. She'd just been down here three months ago and that tree looked like it had grown a good five years worth of girth and height. She took the slight turn onto New Mexico 12, which continued north through the mountains up and around Ladron Peak before turning south again where they would reach the fire road a few miles later that led to the second cousin kin village.

Kinta didn't want to continue, because this part was really the worst, wasn't it? She couldn't be sure, in all honesty, what the worst part was... it was just all so terrible. But she felt the brush of Elephant's trunk on her cheek before it whuffled its breath through her hair.

"It might have been three or even four years later... I could count days and seasons and years, but it's hard to remember things like that beyond the ever present sadness that Mama... well, that she simply was. But one day — just as the sky was beginning to lighten into day — the Shaman returned, looking older... something I understood by then, but was still surprising to see... and he brought six warriors with him. Oh, they were so fierce looking! The Caddo had never been a People to make war, but the warriors had adopted the custom — I later learned it was for this single raid — of the war paintings of the Comanche and Sioux, as some of them had spent time among those People. I didn't understand what was happening, only that Mama and I, and my grandparents, needed to be present for the Shaman's ritual."

Kinta turned from her observations of the passing scenery to look at Tori. "I think if I recalled what I remember of that day to Ha'atathli Yazzie, she would understand what happened. I didn't understand then, and I don't think I understand even today what the Shaman and the warriors did.

"The Shaman had us sit near him, my grandparents on either side of my mother and me in her lap... and told my grandparents that they should grasp their arms around us... hold me and Mama in the circle of their arms. The Shaman began an elaborate ritual with chanting and dancing, shaking of dried gourds while his apprentice beat on a drum. Finally, a circle of darkness appeared... as if we could see into the night. I could see stars in the sky, but they weren't any constellations I knew. Then the Shaman blessed the warriors and they stepped into the nighttime. I..." Her brows furrowed in frustration. "I think, from things you've said, that as I look back at that day, I must guess that the Shaman opened a portal to another place. He continued his chants, his dancing... his apprentice beat out a rhythm on his drum that filled me with dread, and I could feel not only my mother's arms tightening around me, but my grandparents' arms tightening around both of us.

"He continued for so long that I remember thinking, He must be a very strong man to keep dancing all day. Now I know it was the Spirits giving him the strength to go on. The Shaman had told us that no matter what happened, no matter what we saw, no matter what we heard, we must not move from our spot on the ground. I know I must have dozed at some point because I remember waking to the feeling of my mother rubbing her cheek against my head.

"As the sun began to set, the warriors finally returned. Their clothing looked and smelled as though they hadn't washed them, or bathed themselves, in a very long time. They later said they had been in the other place for three weeks." Kinta shook her head. "I still can't grasp that, but the Shaman seemed unconcerned by it." She looked down again, giving her hand — held safely and securely by Allo — all her attention.

"The frightening thing that almost caused my grandparents to jump up was the sight of one warrior carrying Aleta's body. I know my mother screamed... it was so loud, my ears hurt. The Shaman completed his ritual, and when he turned to us, my grandparents sprang up to see to their daughter. Mama stood more slowly, and held me so tightly. She confronted the leader of the warriors. You return with the sister of my Mate, but what of my Mate? Mama asked her.

"We found only Aleta, Ravati, the warrior had replied. She was already dying; her heart had been cut out. She said two words, though, before she joined the Ancestors... 'Kotori' and 'Wetumka'. My mother held me so tightly then that I was truly afraid she'd hurt me. I didn't know then what it meant, other than Kotori was my father's name. I wish I had never found out what it meant."

She breathed, as she was taught, to push back the animal nature that tended to spring out when she was frightened or pushed past mere anger into fury. The latter was rare... until she'd become accustomed to living in Cora's village, the former — the near overwhelming fear — was an all too frequent and unwelcome visitor.

"The village once again performed the simple rituals we have when a cousin kin dies. Tedrik sent word that his grief was too great to allow him to safely come north. I didn't understand that. Grandmother explained that he feared he would leave the Nation to seek revenge on the ones who killed his Mate. At the time, I didn't understand revenge... I didn't really know what it meant." She looked up again at Tori. "Thank you for explaining it so well, Tori, when your parents died."

"Ah, Little One... I hope you never have a need to push aside the thoughts of revenge and think only of justice. It sounds like your uncle is a wise man. And there are good people in that village... I passed through there many, many years before your family was torn apart."

Kinta smiled softly and nodded. "I think he is. And... knowing you think well of the people of his current village sets my mind at ease. I hadn't realized until now how much I still worried for him." She gave Allo a smile before she looked down again. This was so hard to tell... the tale would be so much more difficult to relate if she had to look at the kindness and caring and affection shining through his eyes.

"After the Shaman and the warriors left us again, I thought life would return to the normal it had become since... since the day Etan was found. I couldn't believe how wrong I was. My mother was almost always agitated, and would hold me and cry... stroking my hair or just rocking me... and then without any notice set me down and stalk off, not to be seen for hours. Strangely, I adjusted to this new reality quickly. Maybe it was just the resilience of childhood, or perhaps I did have some inkling of just how desperate my mother was. She seemed to have understood Aleta's last words where no one else did. I was never abandoned, I was never alone unless I wished to be. No child in any of our villages is. Not then, not now... and I pray to the Spirits it will also be never.

"But then a morning dawned with my mother standing beside my bed, smiling. I hadn't seen her smile since before the day she began worrying about Dad and his siblings being late returning from their hunting trip. We are going to Wetumka, my little one, she'd said. I had so many questions, but she wouldn't answer them... she just said that I needed to get dressed quickly and have my breakfast."

Kinta paused again, and shook her head. "I cannot begin to imagine what was going through my mother's mind then. Knowing what followed, I have to think that perhaps... perhaps her mind had become broken in her grief." Kinta tried to hold back the tears; they were for her mother, a woman she could barely remember as happy... could hardly remember alive. She started in surprise when Allo wiped the tears from her cheeks that escaped her eyes.

"I promised to hear you," he chuffed. "I hope you don't mind that I'll also take care of you. Only when you need it, of course, fierce woman."

Kinta managed a smile. "Thank you, Allo," she whispered. It took several more minutes for her to compose herself, and she was grateful yet again for Tori's silent but solid presence.

"I don't know how we managed to escape notice when we left the village. It would have made more sense to me then and now if we were not wearing packs... mine was so small it held barely a week's worth of jerky, but Mama's was a full travel pack." She shook her head in bemusement. "But leave we did. We simply walked... and arrived at the border in the late afternoon. No doubt my mother could have arrived long before that, but though I was more dexterous and swift, I was no bigger than the children who had only reached four years. I walked as fast as I could, and ran as much as I was able, but I was still only a very small child.

"I believe the Caddo border operates the same way the Diné border does: those who are not recognized and welcomed into the Nation find the border anywhere from extremely annoying to downright painful to approach, and virtually impossible to cross. But neither the Diné nor the Caddo assess the people leaving their Nations." She looked at Tori as she pressed her lips together before speaking again. "When you're on Walkabout, could you... if it's possible... could you get the word to the Caddo People that I'm well, Tori? I know my grandparents and uncle may have given up any hope."

Tori glanced back at Kinta in the mirror and smiled. "My parents did that long ago, my dear. I didn't want to bring up your ordeal until you were ready to speak of it, but they know you are living among the Diné and are well."

"But Tori... how did they know? I'm grateful, maybe only you can truly understand how grateful... but how did they know?"

Tori chuffed out a sound that conveyed both sorrow and anger and so much more; there were no words for that feeling outside the language of the cousin kin. "You had nightmares when we stayed in Santa Fe, Kinta. You talked in your sleep. You remember how you refused to leave my side, even at night?"

Kinta nodded.

"You called for your parents and grandparents. It made my heart break, Little One. All I could do was whisper into your dreams that you were safe, that you were well. But once you called for your aunt and uncle... you called them by name. Aleta and Tedrik. So they had a place to start... or rather, they had names. And then Lelani..." Tori shook her head and smiled wistfully. "Through whatever mysterious methods Lelani has – and don't think I haven't considered the possibility that she's precognitive, or how else would my parents have arrived in Mosquero when they did? – when she met them in the Hopi Nation to fetch Hakeem, she told them to visit the Caddo Nation."

Kinta seemed to melt against the seat, resting her head against the back of the seat with her eyes closed. "Oh, Spirits bless you, Tori. Thank you. And if the Spirits are able to convey a message to your parents in whatever realm they now live, I hope they will bring my gratitude to them, as well."

We cannot communicate with them, for they are in a realm that is too far from ours. But we can relay the message to them through our friends in the intervening realms.

Kinta felt a great burden being lifted from her heart. She had never realized until this moment how deep and dark her fear was for her still-living relatives. Thank you, Elephant, my friend.

You are doing well, Little One. Elephant wrapped its trunk around her shoulders like a scarf.

"That day... I was so tired that I just wanted to stop, to rest, to sleep. But my mother insisted that we couldn't camp inside the Nation's borders. By that time, I was beyond being able to question her plans. Nothing we were doing made any sense, and all I wanted was to rest. I may have been hoping that things would make more sense in the morning.

"But it was summer then, so at least we still had daylight as we continued to the far side of Storrie Lake. That was the last time we traveled during the day, however. My mother set up a rudimentary camp, and went to fetch our dinner. Just as my father was one of the best hunters of the village, my mother had been one of the best fish catchers. There was enough daylight to cook the fish; we never had a fire at night, even if we weren't traveling. But we rarely stopped.

"I don't know how long it took to reach Mama's destination. Traveling at night with a small child, how fast can you possibly go? It probably took four or five nights to reach the place called Wetumka. Maybe it was a town once... from what I remember of the glimpses I saw, it may have had streets laid out in a grid at one time. I don't think it's a place that you'd find on a map; it seemed too small even to me to rate a mention." She sighed. "But I'm getting ahead of myself. First there was the night we arrived there."

She rarely thought of that night. It was frightening, it was horrifying, it was all the worst nightmares of a child... or even an adult, she suspected. Oh, perhaps not for people like the warriors Tori would be traveling with, for they surely must have seen worse. But for ordinary people like her and Allo, like Mama Cora and Mama Anna, like all the people she'd met before and after that night, it would surely be a thing of nightmares.

"It was the middle of the night, the moon was full and high in the sky. There was a place with lights where there shouldn't have been. They were just torches, but they illuminated the edge of the place and marked a path inward. I asked my mother what it was, and she said simply, That is Wetumka. Just looking at, seeing shadowy figures and a fence of some sort I'd never seen before... humans that smelled of awful things... I blurted out that it was a bad place, that we should go home. Mama just said, It didn't used to be this way. Now come, let me carry you. You must act small and young. Don't speak. Can you do that for me, my little Kinta? I could only nod, so she took my little pack and put it inside hers, then lifted me into her arms."

Again, she swallowed, and managed to continue. "I felt safe in her arms. For the first time since before leaving our village, I felt safe again. I think in the back of my child mind, I knew I was in more danger than ever before, but in that moment I know I felt safe. Perhaps it was only an illusion, my own mind trying to protect me from what my senses were telling me. As a child, the only way I could categorize all that input was bad... as cousin kin, no matter how small, I knew the place was nothing but danger.

"Mama carried me from the shadows of an expanse of trees, walking steadily toward what I later saw was a gate of some sort, not stopping until we were so close to a pair of humans that their stench filled the air; it made my eyes water, it made my stomach turn. I knew my mother had cautioned me to silence, but I couldn't keep a cry from escaping. Perhaps the humans didn't hear it, but Mama did. She patted my back as I tried to burrow my face even farther into the crook of her neck. Then I heard one of the humans speak.

"This is no place for a woman and child, he said. His voice held something I'd never heard before in my life. It was something terrible, and it made my skin crawl.

"I have come for my husband, the father of my child, my mother said. I was told he is here. I was stunned by her use of the word 'husband' rather than the proper term, 'Mate'. Now, I can look back and see that it was part of her plan. Also, in that moment, I understood Aleta's last words. It took many long years to understand the depth of my mother's grief in seeking him out, to understand the depth of her madness in bringing me with her. There is nothing I have learned in my short thirty years that can reconcile these things in my mind... why she would bring her small child with her." Kinta looked at Tori. "You have more wisdom than anyone else I know, Tori. Is there anything you can think of that might make sense of this?"

Tori sighed and shook. "No, Kinta. As you said, your mother was overwhelmed by grief and madness. I've known grief that powerful, and perhaps even more so, but I've never fallen to madness. Madeline spoke of a madness she herself knew well. Perhaps, if you still seek understanding and she is willing, you could ask her about it. But I have to wonder if it's something any of us can truly understand if we haven't experienced it... this all consuming madness. And think carefully on this, Kinta... would you really want to know?"

Kinta and Tori locked eyes for a moment in the mirror before Tori's attention was taken again by the road. Kinta sat silently, letting Tori's words echo through her mind. Perhaps... perhaps it might not be a good thing to know. She leaned against Allo, and he released her hand to wrap his arm around her shoulders. But her hand did not remain free for long, as his other hand took up the task the other hand forsaken. She squeezed his hand; it was the only thanks she could manage at the moment for his support.

"Perhaps not," she finally admitted. She took a moment to settle her mind and emotions before continuing her story.

"I remember the men laughing, saying things that I knew were terrible but didn't understand... only because I could feel my mother's arms tighten around me. They insisted that Mama give up her pack, and they insisted on... on searching her. She refused to let go of me, and when one of them touched me I screamed as loudly as my small lungs would allow. Even the humans could hear the pain and fear in my scream, I think, and they backed away from us.

"What's wrong with the child? one of them asked.

"She is young, she is frightened, she has never known her father, Mama had replied. I remembered that she said to act, to be younger than I actually was, but if my father truly was in this place... if he was alive... how would I be able to pretend I didn't know him? I kept my face buried in her neck because I didn't want to see these bad smelling humans.

"I don't know if they knew we were cousin kin. As an adult, I can say that I don't think they cared. They saw only a woman and a child. The worst things in the Free Lands happen to women and children," Kinta said barely above a whisper. She rested her head on Allo's shoulder and closed her eyes again. She wasn't sure if that was better than seeing Tori and Allo, the car and the scenery. With her eyes closed, the past became more real. But she felt Allo's arm around her, and knew both he and Tori heard her tale and would offer every bit of support possible as she continued to tell it.

"They opened the gate and laughed as they closed it behind us. Mama said to me, in our language, Whatever happens, Little One, do not let the animal take over. Do whatever you must to control it, I know you can do this. All I could do was nod against her neck. I was already so scared that the animal was coming too close to the surface, but I practiced my breathing to push it away.

"More foul smelling humans followed us. I peeked through Mama's hair to look around us. As I said, there was evidence of streets laid out in a grid, but there were no buildings. In many places, foundations or a few concrete steps remained, but it was as if the entire town — if it had truly been a town — was razed many years before that night. There was a single building, though... at least, it was the only one I saw... and that seemed to be our destination. My mother patted my back and stroked my hair and murmured the kinds of things she'd said to soothe me when I was half the age I was then, or even younger.

"The humans prodded my mother through the door into a room so brightly lit that my eyes teared even through the haze of her hair. It was huge, and it was full of humans... too full. Perhaps... I have only seen the buildings in Santa Fe and Ganado and Chinle, but perhaps it had once been some type of store. My memories are of a room devoid of anything but a large raised cage. There could have been other things in the room, but only that... and the people... held my attention. There were so many people."

She shuddered, and as she squeezed Allo's hand, she felt his arm tighten around her shoulders, pulling her closer. She didn't resist.

"When we entered the room, it was noisy... very, very loud. But once people began to notice my mother carrying me, silence started to spread like oil on the surface of water. A man's voice could be heard through the entire room then. Oh, dear Spirits! I have never heard a voice so full of evil that it seem to reach toward my soul to pull every bit of good that ever was out of my world. How I wish there'd been anything, anything at all that I could have said to my mother to make her leave... but it was too late. That voice and the man attached to it had already begun destroying my world.

"My, my... what have we here? he asked as if he didn't already know. Such a lovely flower and a bud not yet opened!"

Kinta felt the tears trickling again. Then, she hadn't known what the man meant. Now? Well, now she was an adult. Now she understood, and she was sickened by it. When she took up her tale again, her voice was barely audible.

"My mother held me tightly and said to the man, I have come to see my husband, the father of my child. I was told he was here. I could hear his steps coming closer. From the sound of his steps, he wore hard soled shoes. Such things were an oddity in my life to that point.

"And who would you be, my dear? Who is this husband of yours who is here among us?

"I could feel my mother proudly straighten as I clung to her as a much younger child would. I am Ravati of the Cherokee Nation, living these past years with the man I knew as my husband... Kotari of the Caddo People. Even in her grief and madness, she said the words in a way that taught me about her heritage and what she could of my father's. She was cousin kin, born into the First Nation of the Cherokee, as were her parents and likely her grandparents, as well. Dad lived among the Caddo when she met him, but he was not of their Nation.

"The man laughed. You seek Kotari? Then you have arrived just in time, for he is of no use to me any longer. Come... come say hello to your husband. Let the child meet her father. It seemed then that his voice turned to ice; it stole all the warmth from my body and the blood in my veins had frozen. Then you may bid him a fond farewell.

"I don't know if I understood the words or just the evil in the man's voice. I started to struggle in my mother's arms, but she held me tightly, and spoke oh so softly in our language. Be still, Kinta. You must be nothing more than a human child here. Small and helpless. I didn't understand why she wanted me to play that part, but still... it couldn't keep me from crying. He led us to a corner of the room and insisted that my mother set me down. I clung to her leg, and tried to hide, but the evil man barked out a command to my mother to make me look.

"Then the people in the corner moved to the side, and we could see a man chained to looped spikes that were set in the concrete... with... with..." Kinta involuntarily sobbed. "...with dozens of edged weapons, arrows, spears protruding from his body.

"It was my father."

Allo held her close; Tori stopped the car and parked it at the side of the road. Turning in her seat, she said, "Kinta... there's no need to live the horror again. We will hear all you will tell, but spare yourself this pain, child."

Kinta shook her head. "I must tell you everything that is a burden on my heart. My guardian Spirit has directed me to do so."

Tori looked at the seemingly empty seat beside her.

Truly, Hawk? Elephant has directed her to suffer so?

Truly, Princess. Elephant is wise and knows Kinta harbors a grievous wound in her heart and soul. It must be purged.

Is there no other way? She's hardly more than a child still. By the measurements of our people, at least, if not of the short-lived.

But would you not lance a wound to drain it earlier rather than later? The opening and cleansing of the wound, I believe, is Elephant's concern on the matter. Better this is done now, with you and one who may one day become her Mate to share the burden, is it not?

I suppose.

Tori, the family of the Ha'atathli have a saying... both families in both universes share this way of helping their friends. They say, "I will make this journey with you." You and Allo are making the journey with Kinta. You will help her safely reach the end.

Tori sighed and reached around to rest her hand on Kinta's knee. "I will hear all you have to say, Kinta. Shall I stay here until you finish?"

Kinta opened her eyes and looked at Tori. "No, no! I know you need to get to Albuquerque to meet Madeline and her band of warriors." She smiled wanly. "Allo has strong arms."

Tori studied the younger woman for a moment, then nodded. "Guard her well, Allo," she said before turning around to put the car in gear again.

"In every way she will allow, Tori."

She rested her head once again on Allo's shoulder and closed her eyes. She wasn't sure how she was going to manage to say all the words that told of the weight in her heart, but if her guardian Spirit believed she could do it... Well, Kinta would place her trust in Elephant and simply continue the tale. It helped more than she was willing to admit at the moment that Allo held her. She knew there wasn't anything he could do to make the telling of the story any less horrifying, but being held gave her a measure of comfort she hadn't realized she needed until it was right here, waiting for her... freely given.

She took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, then let it out slowly. It calmed her enough to continue.

"I screamed when I saw him, and even to my own ears it was a sound fitting a nightmare. I knew with certainty that I was awake, that I was with my mother, that we had just traveled nearly a week to reach this place. But my mind was trying to convince me it was all a dream, that what I saw wasn't real... that my mother's actions in bringing me there and allowing me to see my father that way — chained and tortured as not even an animal would be treated — was in no way real.

"She tapped me on the head... a human action... rather than cuff me. She spoke the human language rather than our own when she spoke to me from within her madness.

"Hush, child. You needed to see how your father abandoned you. You needed to see how my husband abandoned me. Now you have seen. Now I have seen.

"She spoke so calmly, as though the words she spoke were rational. I didn't understand. Although I was pretending to be a human child of perhaps four, I was neither human nor that young. I had already reached the tenth celebration of my birth, months previous to that day... or as humans call it, my ninth birthday. I knew my mother had gone mad... but I didn't understand what she was trying to teach me from that place of madness. Not then. Not yet.

"I tried to run to my father. I needed to tell him that I loved him, that I missed him, that I would not fall to the madness and renounce him. But my mother's fingers were twined tightly in my hair and she kept me at her side. She had lost all emotions; even her scent had changed.

"The evil man stood across from us, looking at my mother and then down to my father. The evil man laughed as my father tried to heal himself, but each time one of the weapons fell from his body and the wound closed over, one of the evil man's people would take it up from where it had fallen and plunge it back into his body... and kick at another to embed it even further. My father had become almost entirely possessed by his animal nature, and roared in pain as an animal might. And yet, there was a glimmer of the man inside when he heard my mother speak... and I felt that he could almost focus on me when I screamed.

"Is this what you came for, Ravati of the Cherokee? the man asked. Do you really want this sorry excuse of a mutant? Did you know he was an abomination when you married him? Or do you wish you could rip the foulness from your soul that allowed you to care for something like this?

"While my eyes were only for my father, unable to pull them from the horror, my mother seemed to ignore him completely. She spoke to the man in a voice that was not hers. She had become someone I no longer knew.

"I came to see if the stories told of him was true. I see they are. I came to show the child the evil that spawned her, that she might never follow her mother into hell.

"And what of you, Ravati? What of that delicious child of yours? Can you say you and the child are not the same kind of abomination that we see in this animal on the floor before us?

"My mother tugged on my hair and pulled me even closer to her side. Although she'd told me to be quiet, I couldn't stop the whimper of pain and fear and, yes, even betrayal that escaped. I wanted to cling to her; I wanted comfort... but I was no longer sure this was even my mother. Had she been lost completely to the madness? Instead, I simply wrapped my arms around myself, falling inward, falling all too quickly into despair. I have told you who I am. I am a true woman of the Cherokee People. My child is a true child of the Cherokee People.

"With those words, she severed my relationship with my father, she denied his heritage — whatever it may have been beyond cousin kin — in me. In truth, she was of the Cherokee People. She simply neglected to add that she was also cousin kin. In denying my father's heritage, I also became only a child of the Cherokee People."

Kinta allowed a sigh to escape. "I never knew who my father's People were beyond the family of cousin kin. Was he of the First Nations? Were his grandparents of the White Man? Would it truly matter, would it make a real difference in my life knowing from what Nation he came? No. But it would give me yet another way to remember a man who was a good father to me in all the short years he cared for me. Even to the very end, he was my father... he was a good father, and a good person.

"It's only now that I can see the craftiness that hid behind her madness... or perhaps it was the madness itself that was so clever. I couldn't stop crying and screaming each time one of the evil man's... minions? Toadies? Accomplices? I don't know what to call them. I only know that my fear and heartbreak increased each time my father was stabbed, each time he was struck.

"My mother leaned down, and spoke angrily in the human language... more harshly than I'd ever heard her speak to anyone, but especially more harshly than she had ever spoken to me. Be quiet, child! This wretch doesn't deserve your attention and certainly doesn't deserve your tears. But then, so contradictorily in our own language, she said, Do not let your animal loose, Kinta. Not ever. Not unless you know you are safe. Tell him I love him and will see him in the land of our Ancestors.

"I was so confused by that, but the confusion helped reign in the growing need for the animal to break free. I screamed again when another man plunged a knife into my father's side, and he roared again with the pain.

"You need a lesson, girl, my mother said again in the human language, and then shoved me away from her. Hard. It was so unexpected that I very nearly caught myself to keep from falling before I remembered that I needed to play the part of a human child. And so I fell, tripping over a foot that was suddenly in my way. There was laughter all around me when I landed on the bare concrete. I think it was pure luck that I didn't scrape any exposed skin, for then my healing would have shown my mother's words to be the lies they were.

"Instead, I fell nearly on top of my father, against his side, jarring several of the protruding weapons. This time, he merely grunted at the pain.

"Oh, Kinta... what has your mother done? he asked in soft, loving tones. No human language could have conveyed both his joy and sorrow at seeing us, his desperation to keep me safe.

"Well, isn't that a sweet reunion? the evil man said even as I had been falling to my father's side. Earl, let the man hold his child.

"I didn't see what happened next, but I heard well enough... the whistle of an ax blade swinging through the air, the sound of fracturing bones — far too similar in sound to grandmother's dismemberment of chickens for our stew pot — the sharp clang of steel on concrete, and the deafening roar of my father's pain. I sensed more than saw the spray of blood from the stump of his wrist as he brought his arm around to hold me.

"Be brave, Kinta, he said through his pain. Know that I love you, have always loved you, and will love you from beyond the veil of death. The only things the humans heard were his growls and moans.

"I began to cry — I was sobbing, really — and merely called to him as a child would. Daddy! Daddy! And because he never spoke a single word in the human language, I acted as a human child might... calling him, asking him to speak to me. He held me close, though, so I couldn't see all that was transpiring around me.

"Under my pretext of human behavior, though, I said in our own language, Oh, Dad, how I have missed you! I love you and always will. I fear Mama means to follow you to the realm of the Ancestors. I don't want to be all alone. I'm so afraid.

"Stay strong and brave, my little Kinta, he said to me. Your Mama is right. Do not let others know who you are until you are safe among our own kind again.

"Mama says to tell you she loves you.

"I know, my dear child. I heard. And she hears all I say, too. The world has become a terrible place, but if you hide your true nature, you may one day be safe again.

"Then the evil man called for one of his... his people. David! Come here. I have a task for you.

"Another cousin kin came from behind the people surrounding us. My father would not release me, but I could smell that he was kin. Sir? he said meekly... so meekly that I was startled and tried to look up.

"No, Kinta. Stay here. David and his brother are slaves to his man. Do not fault them for doing what I could not, dear child. And then my father spoke to David. My Mate has planned this. I could hear such despair and hopelessness and grief in his words. Keep my daughter safe if you can.

"David replied in kind, with kindness and understanding. I will do all that I can, brother.

"And then the evil man ordered our kinsman about like a common servant... or, as my father had said, a slave. David, would you be a good lad and verify the truth this woman speaks?

"The one called David said nothing else, but I heard him walk to my mother. Your plan is madness, Ravati, Mate of my friend.

"Yes, but madness is all I have left, David, friend of my Mate. It is what must be. If you have the chance to free yourself and your brother, take it. And care well for my daughter... please. She has been the brightest light of my life.

"I cried anew, though these tears were of unbearable sadness that so much time had been lost between us as my mother concocted her plan. I know I was far too young to be given an inkling of what she planned. But as I look back, I suspect my grandparents knew of it, and perhaps that was how we so easily walked from our village that morning. It truly was madness, but sometimes madness is necessary to do what needs to be done, I suppose. Perhaps... perhaps they hoped her plan would succeed and they would see their son again. How I wish they could have had that joy in this life!

"David spoke to my mother with respect and something approaching gratitude... for even attempting to free her Mate, and being willing to free others as well. All that is in my power will be done to safeguard your child, Ravati. This I swear to you. Then David spoke in the human language again. The woman speaks the truth, sir. She is as she claims to be... purely human.

"I knew then that David was truly a friend to my father; he was no more in league with the evil man than my father or my mother were. He layered a lie of his own upon my mother's lies. But his duties were not finished.

"And the child, too, David.

"I clung to my father although he loosened his hold on me. Let David care for you now, my dear daughter. I fear I have very little time left. If such a thing is possible, I will watch over you from beyond the veil. Trust David as you would trust me. Remember to hide your nature until you are safe, my dear Kinta. I love you.

"I felt strong arms lifting me away from my father, and I fought weakly... remembering that human children of such a young age are much weaker and far less dexterous. My kicks were barely taps against his torso; the slaps I aimed at his face never came close. I cried out for help from the two who couldn't help me. Daddy! Daddy!! Help me! Mommy! Please!!

"You are doing so well, child. I am so sorry you were brought into this. David's kindness was almost a balm, but I feared so terribly for my father... for my mother. I had heard the determination in their voices. Even then — as much as I wanted to deny it — I knew the evil man would kill my father. And I knew my mother would refuse to live without him any longer. I could not, would not dare to imagine how she might manage to follow my father into the realm of the Ancestors, but I had no doubt that she would. David settled a look of puzzlement on his face and looked at my mother.

"How old is this child?

"Only a few months before her fourth birthday, my mother replied with feigned disinterest.

"Then David shook his head and turned to the evil man, pulling me closer to him as I continued my weak attempts to fight him. He was purposefully maneuvering me so I could no longer see my father, but I did reach out my arms to my mother, begging her to take me back. She pretended not to care at all.

"It would appear the child is human, sir. However, in the case of mongrel children, it is often not possible to determine their true nature until they are older.

"Stay with David, Little One. Like your father, if such a thing is possible, I will be watching over you. Remember... despite my behavior of the past few months... I have always loved you with all my heart.

"I pretended to fall into despair at my mother's disinterest, and that wasn't very far from the truth. Although it would have been out of character to collapse against David, I allowed myself to appear lost, alone, hopeless. I didn't have to pretend to be full of fear. Before the evil man could decide my fate, David asked my true age... for he knew the age my mother had given was another of her lies.

"I turned nine in the winter, I replied, and I'm certain my voice conveyed the opinion that I would not see my tenth birthday.

"Then take her to your brother. He can watch her. Then return here. The evil man simply waved David away; David moved quickly, for he saw what I did not. A moment later, I heard the sounds of the ax again... the crunch of bones... the duller clang of steel against concrete. This time, though..."

Kinta wrapped her own arm around Allo and held tightly to him, as she allowed the great heaving sobs to pour twenty years of pain and sorrow to flow from her heart and soul. She cried until she felt empty and numb, though she didn't let go of Allo... and his arm held her close, while his other hand held hers tightly.

"This... this time..." She managed a shuddering breath. "This time... my father was silent."

"Once away from the evil man, David pulled me closer to him and I allowed myself to be... not comforted, but at least soothed by his soft words. Even today, in this moment, I'm not sure comfort is a word I would consider when I feel you hold me, Allo. I fear that I will never find comfort, at least not when I think of the day my father died. But perhaps... perhaps there was a small measure of comfort in releasing two decades of pain." She sighed, but didn't move. "I'm not even sure that makes sense."

"In a way, it does, Kinta," Allo said softly. "Perhaps the pain of that day is so great that there's no comfort for it, but sharing your burden with us allows us to carry it with you. Perhaps the small comfort is in the sharing, in knowing you're not alone with the pain anymore."

Kinta chuffed out a sound that was part laugh, and part exclamation of surprise. "You see clearly what I don't, Allo. Thank you. I think that is what I mean."

She was silent for moments that stretched to minutes. If only she could sleep, and then wake up with this ordeal behind her. She knew the pain in her soul would never heal if she didn't finish, though. She needed to tell him, tell Tori about Daniel... and Gabriel... and Nefertiri... and Lauren... and certainly her mother.

"David carried me toward a far corner, not as well lit as the whole of the room, to a small cubby... what might have once been an office of sorts if that place had been a store. It wasn't dark, of course; it was simply not as blindingly light. There was another kin there; my nose told me they were brothers before I dared raise my head from David's shoulder. I clung to him when he tried to set me down, whimpering like the child I was supposed to be imitating.

"Kinta, child... if I don't return, Mr. Shen will wonder too soon where I am. For your safety, I must leave you with Daniel.

"Daddy...? I couldn't ask, and yet I couldn't bear to not know if my senses had told me the truth.

"He is with the Ancestors now. He can no longer be hurt, he can no longer be made to perform like an animal, and he will love you always... until the end of your own days and well beyond. Come, Kinta. This is Daniel; he is my younger brother. He will sit with you, and hold you if you wish. I must go before I am missed.

"The younger man — my memories seem to say he was barely older then than I am now — sat up on his mat and leaned against the wall. I could see the brothers looking between one another with an odd expression that I've come to recognize as two people speaking telepathically to one another. That was something new to me, for there was no one in our village who was a telepath. And I had not seen my parents together in such a long time that I couldn't remember if I'd ever seen that same look on their faces. I know that it's often the case that Mates develop that manner of communication. Daniel patted the thin mattress beside him.

"Sit with me, Kinta. If you wish, I can sing to you so you can try not to hear the sounds from outside the room.

"I allowed David to set me down, but I still held onto his hand, looking up into his face. I'd never seen such deeply blue eyes — he shared that trait with his brother — and I wanted to memorize the kindness I saw there. What of my mother? Perhaps the tone of my voice seemed odd, far too mature, coming from a child as tiny as I was then, but he made no comment on it then... or at any time after that. He did come down on one knee to look into my eyes as his very large hands held mine.

"I will witness for you. I can't predict what will happen, child. But I swear to bear witness to your mother's bravery and tell you of it.

"Promise, I remember saying. Promise you will tell me the truth, that you will not lie and that you will not omit the things you think a child should not know.

"I think my words touched him in a way I can never verify, as though — perhaps — a child of his own heart and blood had asked him to make this promise.

"I trust that you will remind me that you are older than you appear and that you are wiser than your years might suggest, Kinta. I promise I will do as you ask of me.

"I recall that he brushed away the matted strands of hair from my face; I was not so oblivious that I didn't know my father's blood had soaked into my hair and clothing. David's gentle act was so like the actions of those who cared for me in my village... a home I know I may never see again. I think it was then that I realized why we call ourselves cousin kin... for we all seem to have an instinct to reach out to, and care for, all of our kind. I suppose there are those who may have forgotten how to be cousin kin... like the man you spoke of earlier, Tori. But I have never met a kin who did not behave as though we are in some way related.

"He left the tiny room that seemed to be his home, his brother's home, and I sat with Daniel for..." Kinta gave a tiny shake of her head as it rested on Allo's shoulder. "...I can't say how long, but it was not the remainder of the night, although it certainly must have been at least half that time. Daniel held me close and sang to me, his voice pure and rich and warm. He had such talent that my attention was easily stolen away from the sounds in the large space, and I believe I may even have begun to drift into sleep.

"I only realized something was very wrong when the drone of noise from outside the room stopped, when Daniel stopped his singing and shook me from my doze with a softly spoken, Beware.

"David slipped into the doorless room, and merely glanced at his brother before moving to the far corner. Daniel gave only the impression of a nod — or so it seemed at the time — before pulling me into his lap and leaning into the corner where we sat on his mat. I am sorry I disturbed your nap only to have you pretend to sleep again, he said very, very softly in our language, but this should look real, yes? I don't need to remind you to be a frightened human child, of course. He loosely wrapped his arms around me as I relaxed... well, appeared to relax... against him again.

"Of course not. The only thing that isn't true is the 'human' part, I admitted. I am very frightened.

"I won't leave your side of my own free will, I promise.

"A moment later, I smelled the blood. I heard the hard soled shoes of the evil man... this Mr. Shen... coming toward the doorway. But there was something wrong. It sounded as if he was perhaps... staggering? And when he fell against the door frame, I could smell things other than blood. I felt Daniel shift as he looked up... something any of us would do if assaulted by those smells. He gasped softly and held me in place. After all, I was supposed to be sleeping.

"Where is he? Where is your brother? The evil man still had breath to sound forceful, so I guessed that whatever would cause those horrible smells had not injured his lungs. His voice was full of pain, though... but perhaps that would only be evidenced by one of us who can hear such nuances. More than anything, he sounded angry... furious even. And he was loud enough that a child would wake at his words.

"I shifted enough to reach a hand up to my face, to rub the sleep from my eyes as perhaps a human child might. D-D-Dan-n-ny? Wh-what-t-t hap-p-pen?

"Daniel wisely shielded me from the sight of the evil Mr. Shen as he answered the man's question. I haven't seen him, sir. Not since he left the child with me. Is something wrong, sir? Perhaps he meant that as a further injury, albeit a verbal one, for my nose could tell me there was something dreadfully wrong; I know Daniel's could do the same. And the sight of the man... well, that, too, was clear evidence that so many things had gone very wrong for him.

"He lied to me! The woman is one of you!

"Daniel made a show of smelling my hair, then shook his head. Then the woman lied, sir, about... about the other being the child's father. She does not smell like one of us, sir.

"D-D-Dan-n-ny... I s-s-scared. G-go home, p-pleas-s-se?

"SHE IS ONE OF YOU! YOU LIE, TOO!!

"Daniel again made a show of protecting me, shielding me, and yet said in our language, If you seek truth, Kinta, turn and see what your mother has done. And turn I did, as though startled and frightened by the man's loud and harsh words.

"I saw the once impeccably groomed man thoroughly disheveled, with evidence that claws had not only shredded the man's clothing but cut deeply enough across his abdomen that several loops of intestines hung out. One loop had been severed. That explained the smell. He did not appear to notice his injury. Blood streamed down one side of his face from a long, deep gash in his scalp. I knew his death would be slow and painful if he did not have a kinsman or lieutenant to hasten his ending. Although I felt joy at his impending death, I also knew what a human child would do in that situation.

"I screamed as loudly as my lungs would allow, and continued screaming until Daniel enfolded me in his arms and pretended to comfort me. I paused only to take in more air to continue my ear shattering endeavor. At that point, my screams were muffled and I allowed them to fade into sobs.

"I will find that lying bastard brother of yours! I heard the evil Mr. Shen say before the hard soles of his shoes marked his turning and shamble back the way he had come.

"Daniel hugged me with true affection then and chuffed out a laugh. That was well done, Kinta! Did you see? You startled him enough that he very nearly tripped over his own guts.

"I nodded, but my joy had faded quickly. Is it wrong to be happy he will die horribly? I feel like it is not, but I also feel like that makes me a bad person.

"David slid from the relative shadow of his corner to pause near the doorway. You are a wise child, Kinta. Daniel and I will be happy to speak of such matters later, but if we are to escape this place, we must do so quickly.

"What of my mother? I asked as Daniel help me stand. I was so tired, I wasn't sure I could follow them. And I so very much wanted my mother.

"I swore I would tell you, and I will. But our first task must be to escape here.

"Never before in my life had I been as stubborn, and immovable as I was at that moment. I can't say with certainty if I have been as stubborn since that day either. And you know well, Tori, how stubborn I have been.

Although I don't believe my actions need to be defended, I will say I was frightened beyond anything I'd ever experienced. I was nearing exhaustion, I had witnessed things I'd never heard of even in stories... and I was still only a nine year old child.

"NO! I growled at him, tiny fists at my side, although truly I had no fear that my animal would escape. I might as well have set my fists on my hips and stamped a foot, for that was certainly the impression I was giving in that moment. I felt it, my own petulance, that is... growing and become something that seemed to take on a life of its own. Later, both brothers had verified it... that moment had been one we would remember in the coming months, and one of the few we could laugh over.

"David sighed then and glanced at Daniel, who leaned down to take me in his arms again. You must not cause our progress to be slowed by a show of temper or loud noises, do you understand that, Kinta? the elder brother asked me.

"David, I'm nine. I'm not stupid. I let Daniel lift me up as David looked out the doorway into the main room.

"No. You're not, are you? I will tell you now that your mother is with your father and the Ancestors, but more will have to wait. Can you wait patiently?

"I managed to nod as the sadness overwhelmed me, and I clung to Daniel. Knowing is better than not knowing. I may have spoken only loud enough for Daniel to hear, even as sharp as David's hearing was... that's how softly I spoke.

"I felt Daniel's nod to his brother and I simply allowed myself to be carried from the room. I tried to pay attention to what was happening around me, but David led his brother away from the lights and down a darkened corridor I would not have thought should be there. But at that moment I didn't care how impossible it was. I was frightened and so very tired, and the smell of blood everywhere was overwhelming. Whatever had occurred while I sat with Daniel, David had been at the periphery of it for I could smell nothing of the carnage on him.

"Only a few minutes later – even less, I suppose, if the brothers were moving as swiftly as they were able – David stood before a door. It was only then that the darkened corridor and shadowy spaces along the corridor made any sense. This would be one of the delivery doors. Or, having some inkling now of what a store is like, perhaps merely the door through which a delivery person might have entered, to announce her or his arrival so that a larger door might be opened, through which goods could be moved. But at that moment, the door seemed to be a miracle.

"I can't tell if there's anyone out there, Danny. The door is much too thick.

"It's death if we stay here, Dave. We might as well go. Death here... death there? Does it matter where we die?

"No, it only matters that we don't die, little brother. I promised our parents to get you safely to the rest of our family. I promised the child's parents to care for her. I don't want any of us to die.

"I know that, David. Really... I understand. But if the worst is to happen, then it doesn't matter where the worst happens, does it?

"The elder brother chuffed out a soft laugh that I later came to associate with his affection for his brother. In less than two hours, this child's wisdom has worn off on you, little brother. I think it might be a good idea to adopt her into our family.

"The younger of the brothers laughed softly as well. What do you say we get to our cousins' village first? Hmmm?

"Of course. And with that, David slowly opened the door into the darkness outside.

"All I could smell was the smoke of a fire that seemed both near and far off. There was burning wood... it was a familiar scent. But there were other things that were not familiar, acrid smells that made my eyes tears. I later learned it was the smell of burning rubber and plastics... someone had set an old car on fire. But still beyond that was something that was sickly sweet, something that seemed so wrong and out of place that I whimpered and clung to Daniel.

"We had just stepped through the door, and I heard it close with a soft finality as it locked behind us. What is it, child?

"Bad... something bad... I couldn't explain it, I had no references for what my senses told me. I just knew there was something wrong in the night beyond the door.

"But that was when the brothers noted it, too. Oh, shit! That was all I could recall of what David said before the night exploded with lights brighter than I had ever seen, brighter than those inside the building... and made all the brighter by the darkness. Though the moon had yet to set, it was the darkest part of a full moon night, just before the eastern sky begins its glow. The light from the westering moon was hidden by the building itself. Daniel held me close; the fact that I could smell his fear made me all the more afraid myself.

"Ah... rats fleeing from a sinking ship? Your loyalty to your master is commendable. The voice came from beyond the glare of the lights. I had thought Mr. Shen had a voice of evil, and if that was so, then this voice was the thing of nightmares... deep, dark and resonating with hatred. Neither of the brothers said anything, at least not verbally. I buried my face in Daniel's chest... not just to block out the light, but perhaps in a childish hope to block out the nightmare. And you bring one of your master's treasures along with you? Goodness, how inconsiderate of you. But good help is so hard to find these days, I suppose. Come, lad... tell me what you have there.

"I wanted to cry. I don't know if things would have gone differently if I had, but I was too afraid to do even that. I simply tried to make myself as small and uninteresting as possible. When neither brother spoke, I heard what I later came to know as the sound of a whip cracking. Daniel flinched, but David winched barely loud enough for us to hear. He later told me the whip cut a long gash on his face, and I... well, I didn't truly understand why they suffered what they did on my behalf, but I'm grateful. They saved my life many times over.

"Daniel let a sigh escape, so soft that it was hardly more than a breath. He'd do that so often over the time of our imprisonment. Perhaps it was simply a reaction to the words his brother spoke in his mind, or perhaps he never knew he did it. But he did answer the malevolent voice. A girl child that Mr. Shen believed to be a mongrel.

"Is that so? Now, why would that pathetic and pusillanimous excuse for a man believe such a thing?

"Her mother was of the kin.

"Ah, you mean she was a Feral, then, don't you? Like you and the lad beside you? Animals masquerading as humans? That's what you mean, don't you? That the child's mother was a filthy animal?

"Daniel said nothing more, merely held me tighter.

"The terrible voice laughed then. Oh, there's no need to deny it. True men would not bother with a mongrel so neither of you can be true men. And that is fortunate for me, as I seek out more of your kind for... scientific purposes. The mongrel's mother... where is she? She would make a fine addition to my... collection.

"Dead. After disemboweling Shen, it took the efforts of all fourteen of his lieutenants to subdue her. Only one remained standing when she fell. David's voice was clear and seemed to ring out through the night despite the low volume at which he spoke. There was something about his tone, though, that made me think it was best for my mother that she had died in battle.

"Well, that's really too bad. And it's said that it could take years for a mongrel to exhibit signs that it's an animal and not human. I do so hate to wait, but perhaps the waiting will be worth my while. I have always wondered if the animal women were in any way like human women. Perhaps I will keep the mongrel as a pet, and see what develops as it grows older.

"At those words, Daniel growled softly... oh so very softly... so I knew that what my child mind didn't understand then was something terrible indeed. Remember your mother's wishes, Kinta. Keep your animal hidden. But do not let this man's words poison your mind. You are a true person and more human that evil ones like him.

"I didn't know what was happening there that night or the subtext of what was not being said, but I learned far too much over the following months.

"Shoot the men, the terrible voice said, but mind the child. Then load them into the truck. Then I heard the sounds of gunfire. And something else, too, that sounded almost like that of arrows flying through the air. They were darts, of course, coated with a poison that temporarily rendered David and Daniel unable to heal. It left them with the pain of being riddled with bullets and no way to erase the pain or heal the wounds. Daniel fell to the ground, doing his best to protect me from harm. His arms were still wrapped around me and I held tightly to him as he fell to unconsciousness. I believe it was from the gunshot wounds and the pain, but... well, even he was never sure.

"It was only when the others, the cruel ones, tried to separate me from him that I began screaming again. Despite my fear, I felt sure I could contain my animal through this encounter. For my heart was so heavy with sorrow for my parents that I was truly just a small child, frightened to the edge of endurance. A large man picked me up by the back of my shirt and held me in front of his face.

"Shaddup. Ya don't shaddup, ya gonna wind up bein' food fer the wolves an' ya ain't gonna have no advantage a bein' dead afore ya get throwed outta the truck. There was nothing, absolutely nothing in his eyes save perhaps a touch of madness. They were the deadest eyes I have ever seen in my life, before or after that day. Ya unnerstan me, brat?

"I did stop screaming although my tears and sobs were no longer under my control. I could see others picking up David and Daniel, or trying to, anyway. Mostly, the brothers were dragged with no concern for their welfare to a truck of some sort. I remember seeing one in Santa Fe after you rescued us, Tori. And they were lifted then tossed into the truck as though they were no more than sacks of corn."

"I remember that, Kinta. It was a panel van. You shook so badly when it passed us on the street." Tori looked in the rear view mirror to see Allo holding Kinta protectively. If his arms could ease the pain of her memories, she would never hurt again. He caught her gaze and nodded minutely.

Kinta nodded slightly as well, her head resting on Allo's shoulder, her eyes closed. "Yes. That's what it was." She paused a moment before continuing her tale.

"The large man laughed at me, then threw me into the truck on top of David and Daniel. There were others in the truck, too. Most were unconscious, some were bounded and gagged. Too bad you so scrawny an' such. Ain't good fer nuthin. Maybe ya get fattened up, ya make a fun toy, huh? He laughed at me again and then looked at me in a way that sent fear coursing through my veins so powerfully that I wasn't sure I truly would be able to control my animal. But another man walked by on his way to the truck's cab and hit the larger man with the stock of his rifle.

"Asshole. You can't play with the little mongrels, and you know it. You do, and they never turn. The Boss is gonna really hate that if you fuck up one of his experiments. So get in the fucking truck, Abe. We have a long drive.

"And then they shut the door on us. It was dark. It smelled of fear, and the kinds of accidents people can have when they are not allowed proper sanitary facilities. I huddled between David and Daniel, unable to stop crying for such a long time. I patted their arms, I willed them to wake up. Perhaps it wasn't truly all that long before David began waking and healing. And moaning.

"David? I spoke in our language, and he instantly stopped making a sound.

"Kinta? Where's Daniel? I can't find him.

"I think if I had actually thought about those words, I might have been far more confused than I was. I simply thought that David couldn't find his brother because of the terrible smells in the truck. He's here. He's sleeping, and not healing well. My eyes had become as accustomed to the dark as they would get so I could see the outline of David's shoulder. I followed his arm down to his hand and held it with my so very small one. He's behind me. I'll show you. Although I could tell it hurt him to move the arm, he let me guide his hand to his brother's shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Kinta. I'm afraid I haven't done a very good job of keeping you safe.

"I'm not hurt. Daniel kept me from being hurt when he fell. I'm just really scared, David. What's wrong with Daniel? Why won't he wake up? Why isn't he healing?

"David tried to sit up, and I heard his sharp intake of breath. Kinta, can you reach the back of my neck? There's something there, I think, that's not letting me heal my neck.

"I reached up... I didn't want to make anything worse if there was something there... and felt the dart, and told him about it. Should I take it out? It might make things worse.

"He managed to chuff out a very small laugh. Dear child, thank you for your thoughtfulness. But it already hurts a great deal, and any further pain caused by taking it out would be passing quickly enough. Well... at least I hope so. I'm willing to take the chance, anyway. So yes, please. Do take it out. But keep a firm grip on it and don't let it fall to the floor of the truck. Can you do that?

"I nodded although I wasn't sure he could see. Yes. I can. And much to David's happiness, I did. I pulled out the dart and kept a good grip on it, as well. He sighed almost immediately.

"I thank you, Kinta of the Cherokee.

"I am Cherokee and Caddo. Well. Maybe Caddo. That's where my dad lived, and my grandparents. I don't know if they are of the First People, though. I couldn't keep the sadness from my voice as I spoke.

"I ask your pardon. I have met many of the People of the Caddo Nation. Your father was a good man, and they would be happy to acknowledge him as one of them. Shall we see if Daniel has the same problem as I did with this dart? That could be why he is not waking up.

"David's worry for his brother was very strong, but through it I could sense he was trying to distract me from my own sadness. I felt grateful for that. I still feel very grateful for the way he and Daniel tried to make my ordeal less dreadful, even when they were suffering greatly. I did manage to twist around and find a similar dart in the upper part of Daniel's arm, which I pulled out and handed to David. He sniffed them and in the darkness of the truck I wasn't sure if his expression was one of confusion or irritation.

"But it didn't matter, though, as Daniel groaned then.

"Brother, are you all right? As hard as I think he tried, David couldn't keep the worry from his voice.

"I'm alive if that's what you mean. But shit! Oh, sorry, Kinta. What the heck was that? I hurt everywhere, I've never had a headache before — I think this is what a normal person would call a headache — and I can feel how slowly I'm healing.

"Darts, David said. They don't smell like any kind of poison I've encountered before, but they certainly are some kind of poison. You seem more susceptible.

"You really know how to bring comfort and joy, my dear brother. Ow, how do people stand it when the inside of their head hurts like this. Maybe it's what causes so much madness. You're so much older and wiser, brother mine... do you have any ideas?

"Perhaps it's just exactly that... the fact that I'm older.

"Figures. Even the universe loves you best. Daniel's voice betrayed the words he said; despite the pain he was clearly experiencing, his words were playful and teasing.

"Oh, yes. Let's start that ridiculous nonsense again, why don't we? David's voice was just as teasing, but his relief at hearing his brother playing a game they had obviously played for many years was like a balm to me. Now you're going to start with 'Mother always loved you best', aren't you?

"Well, that is how this play goes, isn't it? I insist she does, you insist she doesn't, eventually we agree to track her down and ask her which it is. Except that every time we see her, we forget to ask her. And so now we'll somehow have to get out of this mess and track her down yet again. Daniel sighed; I think he meant for it to be a fake one, but by the way he relaxed I could tell his wounds were healing, that he was beginning to feel better. I swear, David, the trouble I go through to prove you wrong... it's monumental.

"I couldn't help smiling there in the dark. I'm not sure if they meant to cheer me up, or if their teasing was simply a natural reaction on their part to the healing of their injuries. But I certainly felt more hopeful than I had not too much earlier. Thank you. You're both very silly. If I were your mother, I'd love you exactly the same.

"Good grief, David, she sounds just like Mother! How can this be?

"David chuffed out a laugh, both for my benefit and his brother's, I think. You know our mother has her ways of being spooky and sneaky. I wouldn't put it past her to find a way to arrange for a smart and wise youngling to cross our path to remind us of what she's always telling us.

"You're right. It's exactly the sort of thing she'd do. Though I think perhaps she went a bit far in her arranging of things this time. There was no reason to involve a nice little girl like Kinta in this madness.

"You have a point, of course. You and I somehow manage to get ourselves into and out of all sorts of trouble. Kinta is too little to get out of this mess all by herself. We'll have to tell Mother she went too far this time. I could tell David's sigh was all a show this time, and I think he meant for me to know that.

"True, so true. Well... Daniel's sigh echoed David's almost perfectly. I suppose we'll just have to get Kinta out of this trouble when we get ourselves out, won't we? And then Kinta can tell Mother how naughty she was in arranging this.

"The two of them continued their playful banter, and I know they were doing their best to take my mind from the situation in which we found ourselves. For the most part, it worked fairly well. In fact, between their cheerfulness — no matter how out of place or contrived it may have been — and my exhaustion, the next thing I knew, Daniel was gently squeezing my shoulder.

"Wake up, Kinta.

"The first thing I noticed was that we had stopped moving. The second thing I noticed was... well, the air was strange. I had to rub my nose, it felt so dry. And my mouth was dry. Even my eyes felt dry. It was terrible.

"We're at a higher elevation, Kinta, and in the desert, David said. It almost has to be New Mexico; I'd be willing to bet we didn't cross any of the First Nation borders.

"My ears feel funny. I don't like it.

"Try to take it easy until you get used to it, okay? Daniel and I are more used to it; he grew up in the Comanche Nation and I spent most of my life there.

"I nodded and took note of the differences in the truck while I had slept. There was still one man who was unconscious, but everyone else had regained consciousness. The stench of fear was nearly overwhelming. I heard the unlocking of the door, but it was still a surprise when the doors of the truck opened.

"Alla youse, out! Before allowing anyone to pass him, though, the large man reached an arm into the truck as though to grab me. Daniel curled himself around me and David spoke calmly — mostly for my benefit I think, for the man was terrifying. Perhaps it would be best if my brother carries the tiny one; she seems exceptionally fragile. If she were to become damaged, it should not be through any fault of yours.

"There was complete silence then. It was as if everyone in the truck was holding his or her breath; even the wind stopped blowing for a moment.

"Then the other man, the man with the rifle, came around to the back of the truck. What the hell is taking so long, Abe?

"I want the little one.

"God damn it, Abe, I told you no! Are you trying to get yourself transferred up to Salina?

"I guess Salina must have been a really bad place because the large man started sweating profusely, and his fear was greater than any individual's in the truck. He did move out of the way, and the other man watched as we exited the truck. The large man was made to carry those who had been tied up into a building that looked like a small general store. But after David and Daniel climbed out of the truck — I being held in Daniel's arms — the man with the rifle looked in at the unconscious man.

"You... feral... carry this one inside, he ordered David.

"Both David and Daniel stiffened for an instant, just a moment of anger before they both sighed only loudly enough for me to hear. Then David fetched the unconscious man, and the man with the rifle followed us into the building."

Kinta fell silent. The sound of her ragged breath coupled with her silence was the only evidence of her difficulty in continuing with her story. Elephant again brushed its trunk against her cheek.

I swore I would not leave you to this task alone, Little One. I know how badly these memories burn your soul. Speaking of them is the ointment that will help them heal.

Are you sure, Elephant? Because I'm not sure how I'm going to get through this part. Tori only saw the end, and it made her lose control.

I am sure. And I wish it were not so because telling of the memories is as bad as remembering them. But Kinta... the remembering is not as bad as the living of it was, is it?

No. The living of it was far worse than the remembering.

And so the telling of it will not as bad as the living of it, either.

Kinta sighed heavily. The telling makes me realize how very much I miss my friends David and Daniel.

Then it is fortunate that you go on Walkabout with Allo, for he is a messenger. Perhaps someday there will be a message for him to deliver to the Comanche People, where your friends David and Daniel are living. And there is nothing that would prevent you from visiting even without the task of delivering a message.

"I don't know how to convey everything that went through my mind and heart when Daniel carried me into that place. You saw it much later, Tori, and I can't say how things may have changed from the day I arrived there until the day you came to free us all. Certainly the eyes and mind of a child would see it differently than an adult. And some who were there when I arrived died before you could free them; others came and went too quickly, and a couple — Alisha and Julian — had yet to be brought there.

"Daniel, with his kind heart, tried to shield me from the worst of that first impression, but my nose and ears told me so much that my eyes didn't see. Even in the dim light, where the store shelves still stood near the front of the room blocking much of the reality that existed on the periphery, I could smell the people. I smelled their fear, their loss of hope, their desperation. I could hear soft cries of pain and heartbreak. I didn't know what we had been brought to, but already it felt like a far worse place than that where my parents had died.

"The man with the rifle directed Daniel to place me in a cage on the end, far from the door, all too close to the place that I would come to know as the cruel ones' work area. I cried out as Daniel set me down... D-D-Dan-n-n-ny! D-D-Dan-n-n-ny! The man with the rifle, whom I later came to know as the one in charge there, the one who reported to his own masters, looked at me with such pure and fierce hatred that I was silenced by nothing more than his eyes. He slammed the door to my cage — for that's really what it was — and set a lock on it. I don't know how much time passed between that moment and the day you arrived, Tori. It was months, so many months; time for dozens of people to have died and more to have taken their places. But I did not leave that cage in all that time, save for once... because there was a single kind person in that place. Perhaps that was a blessing.

"And then the man with the rifle struck Daniel so unexpectedly, so suddenly and so fiercely that he fell to the ground. He tripped over some piece of shelving or another bit of remnant from what the room once was. I could hear Daniel's angry growl, and David's calmer growl, which only asked — in our own language — for Daniel to be peaceful, not to fight yet. For now was not a time we could win such a fight.

"In the intervening months, I know both of them regretted that moment on some level. The terrible ways in which they were treated was hard for me to bear. David bore his own captivity and ill treatment stoically, but every bit of torture and insult and indignity heaped on his brother tore at his soul. After that one moment of anger, however, Daniel was ever the quiet one, ever the submissive one, ever the one to suffer silently all that they did to him. I think that, more than anything else, broke David's heart. I know it's left a deep wound on mine.

"But at night, when the cruel ones had gone away, Daniel still sang so I could hear him. As you know, their cages were on the same side of the room as mine... I couldn't see them, and rarely were they removed from their cages. But Daniel sang to me at night... I don't know that it was much of a comfort to the other children when he sang in our language, but he knew many languages. And he sang in all of them. I know his lullabies sung in Spanish and English soothed the human children the most.

"I fear some of those who came to that place, who lived in those cages, did not live long enough for me to know them... to even remember their names or faces. The man who had been in the truck with us, for example, died within hours of our arrival there.

"My world was that cage, and I was treated like an animal. The floor was covered only with some straw. I had but a single wool blanket... more fit to be a saddle blanket for a horse than an item of warmth or comfort for a person. I was given an empty bucket, and that was to be my toilet. I was allowed another bucket of clean water... it was all I had for drinking, for some attempt at bathing. Most days, our captors slid another bowl of... Dear Spirits, I don't even know what offal they were trying to feed us! But it was so terrible that many days, perhaps as much as a week passed before I could manage to eat a bit of it. I cried almost constantly when I wasn't allowed to sleep.

"The man who left and came back with you, Tori... he tried to show all of us some small bits of kindness when he could. But they watched him so closely that it truly was a rare treat to have a bit of potato or a cooked carrot slipped into the bowl of what David later told me was what people before the beginning of the Terrible Times would feed their pet dogs and cats. He urged me to eat as much as I could, for while it was vile and insulting, at least it contained some amount of nutrition. Not what a human or a cousin kin needed to thrive, but enough... just barely enough... for us to survive.

"Oh gods, Tori, but it was the most awful stuff! How could people feed that to their dogs or cats... animals they, so David said, purported to love? I don't doubt that contributed to your misconception of my age."

Again, the young woman was silent for several minutes.

"I only ever really knew who was in the cage beside me. And who... whoever was unlucky enough to be brought from their cage to the area where the... cruel ones..." Kinta took several calming breaths as her tears began to flow. "...where the cruel ones hurt people. In the cage beside mine, when I arrived, there was an older girl, Lauren; perhaps she was eleven or twelve... not truly much older than my real age. She spoke to me when we were left alone... we, the ones whom the cruels ones viewed as animals. She had such long fingers, each of them longer than the whole of my hand, and her skin was so white I'd never even see cloth of that color. She would wrap those fingers around the partition between our cages... and for the time she was there, for the time she was alive, I would pat her fingers... or hold them.

"Why are you here? she asked me that first night. What is your name? Will you be my friend? I couldn't stop crying, but I could hear David from the other end of the room saying, Remember what your mother said, Kinta. Always, always, always I had to remember what my mother had said to me... that I was only a small human child. It was the most frequent thing David said to me in our language, and he tried to speak some kind word to me each day. As I think back over those many months, recalling things that happened there, I think perhaps he knew that there were always eyes watching us... there were always ears listening to us. I had to be someone I was not; that was the only way to survive. While David didn't say that... possibly couldn't say that... I was not as young as I pretended to be, and I was not human.

"And so, that first night, all I said to Lauren was, Kinta. Am Kinta. D-D-Don-n-n't kn-n-now why here.

"She asked many questions, and it could well have been a child's curiosity. It could have been another person searching for some comfort in that place of madness. It could be that my kinsmen's fear was infecting me, and she was more than she seemed. How old are you, Kinta? And I just pushed three of her fingers together and tucked in the fourth. I climb really, really well. What special thing do you do, Kinta? I shook my head in the dark and held her hand. M-m-m-miss M-M-Mam-ma.

"That seemed to puzzle her. She pressed more with her questions, different questions each night, different ways of asking what brought me to that place, why I was special, why the cruel ones were interested in me. But all I could tell her, all I would tell her was that I missed my Mama.

"One day the cruel ones took her from her cage. She tried to resist, but she was not strong. One man held her while another tied a rag over her mouth, so her screams were not as loud. Then she was carried out of the building. Everyone seemed to be pretending that nothing had happened. Other men came and did the normal things they would do... poke sticks into cages, mock us, call us animals. When it got dark, when it was time for us to have our food, Lauren was still not in her cage. And I foolishly hoped that she had been set free, that she had been returned to her family. When the kind man brought our dinners, mine had real food for the first time in... weeks? I had lost track of time. He slid my food tray to me and he whispered, I'm so sorry, child. It would not be the last time he showed me that kindness, and it took nearly the whole of the time before he left to understand what he meant... for him to make clear without saying the words that he was sorry not only that we were being treated as animals, but for his part in it.

"I never blamed him. I could see his despair, I could see how frightened he was of the cruel ones. I wish I could have thanked him better for his part in trying to make the life of a tiny child less of a living hell. I wish I had known his name."

"His name was Eugene," Tori said softly.

"Eugene," Kinta repeated. "Thank you, Eugene.

"Days passed, I think... two, perhaps three... before one of the cruel ones carried Lauren back and tossed her into her cage like a sack of grain. I could smell blood... so much blood... and other things, too. Urine, feces... but mostly blood. By her breathing, I wasn't sure she would live out the day, it was so ragged and labored. But she did, perhaps only to speak to me one last time. After dark, after all the cruel ones had gone away, after the kind... after Eugene brought us our meager dinners and went away again himself, I heard Lauren whisper my name. David echoed it, but in a warning tone... Lauren had not spoken loud enough for a human to hear. I'm grateful for David's warning for I had yet to be able to judge voices well enough, and my instinct was to respond to the agony in Lauren's voice. But she spoke my name again, this time more loudly. When I didn't hear David's warning, I pushed myself to the front of the cage, hoping to see her fingers curl around the partition like they always had. But I saw nothing, and only heard Lauren's increasingly painful breaths.

"L-L-Laurn? I whispered. She always seemed to have a smile in her voice when I said her name, all improper and one syllable like that. But there was no smile in her voice this time.

"Kinta... if they... take... It was as if she needed to breathe at least once or twice between words. ...you... away... find... a way... She fell into a coughing fit, and I thought that would surely be the end of her. I smelled more blood as she spit up the phlegm. She was determined to warn me of something, however. ...find... a way... to die... first."

Kinta took another deep breath, and tightly held to Allo. "As a ten year old, I didn't know what she meant. And as the almost four year old I was pretending to be, I would not have known either.

"Promise... Kinta.

"I was so confused; I didn't know what to say. But David did. Promise what she asks, Kinta. I will explain why later.

"K-k-kay L-L-Laurn. P-p-promise. I think that's all Lauren needed — that one promise from a small girl child — to feel she could pass into the world of the Ancestors. I don't even know what humans not of the First Nations believe happens to them when they die, but I choose to believe Lauren's spirit went to a place where she knows only love and peace.

"I cried then, so much more than I cry now... I think that might have been the moment when I understood just how hopeless our situation was. And when David did explain... I vomited in my bucket until there was nothing left to vomit up, and I kept on trying to vomit. And then when I remembered things the terrible one in Wetumka had said, I vomited yet again."

At this point, Kinta was shaking so badly that Allo's arms tightened simply to keep her steady.

"Do you want to stop now, Kinta? Perhaps rest a bit before continuing?" he asked, clearly worried.

She shook her head. "No. No, if I stop, I might not find the strength to finish. All of the horrors needs to be purged."

"All right. I won't let go of you, however. I will help you through this... and Tori hears you, too."

Kinta attempted a smile, but it was more of a grimace, really, before picking up the story again.

"I had seen the cruel ones take people out of their cages and chain them to the table they had set up. Well. You remember, Tori. Some of the cruel ones were only... guards, I suppose. The ones who pushed us and poked us with sticks through the bars of our cages; the ones who brought more of us to the place of suffering, and took away the bodies of those who had died. But some of them..." Kinta swallowed hard. "Some of them were depraved monsters," she whispered.

"The first time I saw two of the cruel ones, the guards, dragging Daniel to that table, I couldn't stop screaming. I would have screamed my throat raw if I were not cousin kin; every scream that tore from my throat and damaged tissues was counterbalanced by the healing each time I paused to breathe. The cruel ones... they believed I was only a young child, and that this was something that young children did. But as much as they tried to frighten me into silence, as much as they poked at me through the bars of my cage, there was nothing that could stop me from screaming for my friend. I was so afraid because Daniel could barely keep his feet under himself; he was dragged most of the way to the table. He looked like a sick and frail human, and I was truly terrified. Even the man with the rifle — he always had his rifle with him — could not make me stop. It was only when one of the cruel ones opened the door to my cage and pushed me over... then two others came with a tub of icy water and poured it over me, soaking me to the skin and saturating the straw and blanket in the cage... only then did I stop screaming and sit sobbing in the middle of so much water. They slammed the door of my cage again, locked it with their magnetic lock, and walked off laughing.

"Daniel couldn't even move his head to look at me, that's how weak he was. Likely that was the night his singing began getting softer and softer... until the end, before you freed us, David and I were probably the only ones who could hear him.

"I sat there all day, cold and wet and miserable. Had it not been for the kind one, for Eugene, perhaps I would have had to wait for the blanket to dry on its own, for the straw to begin smelling so badly that the cruel ones would insist it be changed. But after dark, after he had given everyone their meager portions of food, he came back to my cage and knelt in front of it.

"Little child, if you will promise me not to run away, I will bring you a dry blanket, dry straw, clean clothes.

"I just looked up at him; I'm sure to him I looked pathetic and small. Where would I go? I whispered. How would I survive?

"There was so much surprise on his face when I spoke without the stammer that I had been affecting, when I spoke as a much older child might. But he covered it quickly, and asked, Will you promise me you'll be a good girl?

"I nodded to him. Truly, where would I have gone? I didn't know where we were, and I'm not sure if I would have been able to survive on my own even if I did walk out the front door. And that wasn't something I was willing to do without David and Daniel. M-m-may I sit b-b-b-by m-m-my f-f-friend?

"His answer was to open the door and hold his hand out to me. He shuddered as he did so, sweat beading on his brow. He whispered urgently to me. Hurry, child. They try to control me; I try to fight them. Hurry, hurry.

"I left the cage as quickly as I could, but even I could not move that swiftly still soaking wet, and having been sitting in the cold all day. He guided me past the empty cage beside mine, the one where Lauren lived the end of her life. There was a space between two sets of shelving units left from the days when the place had been a store. There, he handed me a warm bundle of clothing. These belonged to my son. I think they should fit you.

"I took the clothes and held them carefully so as not to get them wet or dirty from what I already wore. Your son doesn't mind sharing? I asked in a whisper.

"He was silent as he tried to contain the sorrow that poured out of him like a terrible wave. They killed my family. My wife, my daughter, my sons. But he would gladly share. He was a good boy. He turned and pointed to darkened cages nearby. Your friends are there. You'll stay with them after you change? Please?

"I nodded again. I will. I promise.

"He left me then, to change out of my soaked clothing. He had given me a warm flannel shirt, jeans that were old enough to be soft yet still sturdy, clean socks and gym shoes that were only a little bit too big. My hair was filthy and matted and still a little damp, but there was nothing I could do about that. I bundled my dirty, wet clothes up and set the soggy bundle at the end of the shelf, then went to the cages where David and Daniel were being held.

"I reached a hand into each cage but spoke to Daniel first, very softly, in our own language. If one of the cruel ones had been standing beside me, they would have heard little more than my breathing. Daniel, what has happened to you?

"Kinta? Little One, how did you escape from your cage? Am I dreaming? Oh, Tori! The hope in his voice caused me to cry! And I would have said so many things, had I not felt David take my hand in his, brush his cheek against it, and then whisper, Remember what your mother said, dear one.

"I looked at David and nodded, then spoke again to Daniel. I did not escape. The kind one let me sit with you if I promised I would not run away. I... I was very scared this morning when I saw you. The cruel ones had to throw a tub of water on me to make me stop screaming.

"Daniel's chuckle wasn't much more than a forced breath. That is just what I would imagine it would take, my fierce little one. You are so very brave. I'm proud of you.

"Daniel? What's wrong? You can hardly walk... I saw that.

"You're so sweet, Kinta; you are such a dear child. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. Really. I just need... I just need some rest. I could see how much his hand shook when he raised it, trying to touch mine. He couldn't quite reach, and I couldn't stretch out my arm any more than it already was. He just let his hand fall to the ground. I'll sing to you later, sweetheart, okay? I need to take a nap now.

"I couldn't see him through my tears, but I managed to whisper, Okay, Daniel. Sleep well. Then I looked at David, at the pain and fear in his eyes, and it was all I could do not to break down sobbing. I wanted to asked David about it, but I knew if I opened my mouth for any reason, I might never stop crying.

"It's the poison. Do you remember the darts? I nodded and held tightly to his hand. I built up resistance to it almost immediately. But Daniel... we have the same mother, but different fathers. My father was kin, a warrior of the Comanche. He died in the battle against the Darkness when I was young.

"I'm sorry, David. I... Well, what could I say? Without falling into a puddle of tears, that is.

"I know, Kinta. Your father did the same, you know. I wasn't much older than you are now when my father died. Our mother mourned for a long time, but eventually another man captured her heart... Daniel's father. But he's not kin. And Daniel is much closer in age to you, dear Kinta, than to me. Given another hundred years, or perhaps even only fifty, Daniel's healing factor would be able to overcome the poison as easily as mine. But as the evil and cruel ones would say, he's a mongrel.

"I shook my head defiantly. No! He is kin!

"David smiled sadly. Yes. He is. To you, to me, to everyone who matters in this world, he is kin. There really is no in between with us, you know that, don't you, Kinta? A person is either kin... or they are not. But for some who have human parents, the healing factor is weaker when they are younger.

"I wiped the tears from my face. I didn't know about the healing. Will he... will Daniel be okay?

"It's not all that common, and most young people stay with their families and communities long enough that it never becomes an issue. Daniel just got unlucky. David sighed. If they stopped giving him the poison, he would be fine. They keep experimenting... some days he will get the poison, some days he will not. Most days... most days he does. I will be honest with you, Kinta, because you deserve honesty. If this does not stop, Daniel will die.

"I leaned my head against the bars of David's cell, drawing his hand close so I could rub my cheek against it as he'd rubbed his cheek against my hand. How long?

"I don't know. The more poison he gets, the more they cut at him... Well, the less time he has.

"My heart hurts so much, David. How do I make it stop?

"He came close to the bars of the cage and I could see that he didn't look very healthy either. Perhaps I gasped, I don't know. Shhhh, Little One, I'm fine. I have been giving most of my food to Daniel, and always turn into an ugly, scary man when I can't bathe. He smiled and brushed his cheek against mine through the bars. I know your heart hurts, Kinta. But that's proof that you are alive and are still a good person.

"The kind one came over then and knelt at my side. I'm sorry, child, but you must go back now. Will you please do that? He looked first at Daniel, then at David. I brought some meat for him. I thought it might help.

"David closed his eyes then and I could see how moved he was by the man's kindness. He nodded and waited another moment before opening his eyes. Thank you. It is the very thing that will help him most. May the Gods of your people bless you.

"The kind one ducked his head and would not look up as he spoke. I fear my God has forsaken me, but I still continue to do the small kindnesses that I can in hopes that one day He will remember me. Then he pushed a package through the bars to David. Here is all the food I have. I hope to leave to find help in the morning. I hope it will be enough to help him. He looked at me again. Come, child. You must go back now.

"I looked one last time at Daniel, then again at David... who nodded for me to go back again... then I followed the kind one to my cage. It was clean and dry, and he had left a real blanket for me. Before he locked me in again, I took his hand and tugged so he would bend down... so I could whisper in his ear... I don't think your God forgot about you. I think your God wanted you to help us. Or perhaps it is Great Spirit watching over all of us. Whatever the truth is, thank you for your kindness. I hope you find someone out there who can help everyone here.

"I recall the argument early the following morning between Eugene, the kind one, and one of the cruel ones. Well, I suppose it wasn't so much an argument, as much as the cruel one lambasting the kind one, who only repeated, But He said I could try. He was the leader, the man with the rifle always in his hands.

"Finally, the cruel one stormed off, slamming the door so hard I could hear the windows along the front of the building shake in their frames. The kind one then walked the perimeter of the room, simply running his fingers along the bars of the cages... a soft padding sound... and saying to each person, Be well. He stopped at my cage last and hunched down. For the longest time, he just looked in at me, and I looked back at him. Then I crawled from my habitual corner to the front of the cage and reached my hand out to him.

"Be well, little child, he whispered.

"Great Spirit guard you and guide you, I replied, as my tiny hand patted his weathered cheek.

"And then, so soon, he was gone. How long was it between that day and the day he returned with you, Tori? I can't say. That same day another girl, Nefertiri, was put in the cage beside me. She was as dark as Lauren had been light, but so much quieter. She rarely spoke, even when the cruel ones taunted her. I think she had already given up hope, and perhaps she had already been driven mad. After a few days, she began muttering to herself... I could easily hear her, but her words rarely made sense. When I could understand her words, she spoke of nonsense like butterflies riding bicycles or dandelions swimming in a stream. Perhaps it made sense to her.

"But every once in a while, sometimes once a day... sometimes once an hour... she would shout out defiantly, I am Nefertiri!

"She was the first one I saw who wore the metal collars the others were wearing when you found us. I didn't know what they were for, not then. Even David couldn't explain it. But eventually it became clear, the day the very frightening big man came to feed us. He gave me my food and just started at me, grinning and licking his lips. I huddled in the corner, trying to be very small, trying not to vomit again. He laughed finally and said, Pretty soon, you gonna be my toy. I might have screamed then, and never stopped screaming, and let my animal out and killed him then... except... except I could hear David calling my name, over and over. Finally, as the man moved away from my cage, still laughing, I was able to calm down.

"But the man had only moved to stare into the next cage, at Nefertiri. I had been able to merely cower in my corner and whimper; Nefertiri screamed nonsensically in rage at him. Move, move! You cannot take me away from me! How dare you? HOW DARE YOU?

"All the while the frightening man stared and laughed... laughed and stared... until he finally tapped the bars of her cage. Mine, mine, mine. You gonna be mine, too. Alla you pretty little things gonna be mine.

"I wept for the rest of the night. Even Daniel's singing, which was somewhat stronger then, couldn't comfort me. But later, perhaps much later, David said he believed the metal collars kept the mutant children from using whatever powers they had.

"There was a boy, perhaps about Julian's age when he arrived... perhaps slightly older... whose cage was on the other side of the room. I only saw him when the cruel ones brought him to their work area. He was..."

Kinta stopped. Breathed. Realized how soaked with her tears Allo's shirt was.

"...two days earlier, even one day," she whispered. "It might have been enough to save him."

"I'm sorry, Kinta. As hard as we try, as much as we do..." Tori whispered in response, "...it seems like it's never enough."

"How can you stand to keep doing it, then? Knowing that, know that it is never enough?"

In the front seat, Tori smiled sadly. "Because one small victory is better than no victory, Little One. And because... because I can't not try. It's not how Great Spirit put me together."

"But doesn't it hurt when you fail?"

"Every time, Kinta. Every single time."

Allo stroked her hair, calming her, soothing her. Finally, Kinta was able to continue.

"He was handsome... that's what I remember thinking. His hair was such a light shade of gold, something unusual in my experience where everyone I knew had dark hair. His wings were... beautiful. Why anyone would want to deny him that beauty is something I still can't fathom. The cruel ones hung him from the ceiling by his wrists... when they lifted him high enough that his feet couldn't touch the floor, his wings would spread out. I don't know if it was involuntary because of the pull on his shoulders or because he was trying to find a way to support himself, but... but that's what would happen. And the cruel ones would poke and prod at him, trying to see... Ah, dear Spirits, who knows? Perhaps they wanted to see how his wings worked or how they were an integral part of him. But they hurt him, and for no reason other than they could.

"I had been there so many months by then that I lost sense of time passing. I knew that the cruel ones were callous and sadistic monsters. Some seemed very intent on... on discovering things, and the fact that they poked and prodded, cut and jabbed human beings never occurred to them. Others... two others... they did what they did because it brought them joy.

"I lost track of any way to count the days or weeks or months. I spoke less and less; David spoke more and more. I could hear the worry in his voice. I think... I think it was the night they took Nefertiri away that I had to stop caring. The cruel ones dragged her away the same way Lauren had been dragged away... except Nefertiri never came back. A day... perhaps two days later, I think I may have begun speaking my frightened thoughts out loud. It was only in our language, so only David and Daniel understood me. To the others? I think they heard, perhaps, whimpers and cries. Tiny howls that could have sounded like wailing, but softly, always softly.

"I will die here, won't I? I would ask. Perhaps I was talking to David, who always replied, No, child. I will not allow it. Perhaps I was speaking to Great Spirit or my dead parents.

"Not long after Nefertiri didn't come back, the cruel ones brought Alisha in and put her in the cage beside mine. Like Lauren, she wanted to talk. Quite a lot, actually. I was so despondent, I just listened. She talked about her brother. She talked about how she did something wrong and her parents didn't want her anymore. She didn't understand what she did wrong. She kept saying over and over, Daddy, just tell me what I did wrong! I'll be good!

"Maybe that's what broke through my apathy... her desperate begging for someone to tell her what it was that she did wrong. It had been... who knows? At least weeks, maybe months? Who knows? ...since I'd spoken in the human language. But one night, after all the cruel ones had gone, I said, Nuthin. Nuthin wrong you. You have bad bad bad daddy.

"And then I screamed in our language, something that probably sounded like a howl, I suppose, And I remember what my mother said, David!

"Then I fell to the floor of my cage, sobbing as though my heart was shattering... but I think that was when the ice around my heart began breaking up. Just as Alisha kept asking her father to tell her what she'd done wrong, I kept repeating over and over between my sobs, Mama! Mama! Come back for me, Mama! I remember hearing Daniel's sobbing... and I think David's too... as I fell asleep, still crying.

"As usual, I woke long before the cruel ones arrived. When the kind one was still there, he would sometimes come that early to give us clean water and empty our soiled buckets. He'd sweep the floor. He'd try to show us all some small token of kindness. But he was gone. He said he'd try to come back, but... but I didn't have much hope of that anymore. That morning, I was aware, probably for the first time, that I heard Alisha in the cage beside me humming a tune that sounded extraordinarily sad.

"Long ago, the kind one had given me a piece of twine to tie back my hair. I tried to keep my hair tied back all the time because it had been so long since I had actually washed it that I feared it was simply the grime that kept it attached to my head. Of course, each night as I slept, the twine managed to slip off... each morning, I had to spend many painstaking minutes looking for the twine in the straw.

"At that time, I had no idea she was blind and was a little startled that she heard me pushing the straw around, looking for my improvised hair tie.

"Hi there, she said softly, but loud enough that I think a human would have heard her. I heard you crying last night. Are you okay? Well, no, I guess you're not. Not if you're here. I'm Alisha. What's your name?

"I held that piece of twine in my hand and all I could remember was Lauren peppering me with questions when I first arrived. I think I probably started crying again. But I edged to the front of my cage and slipped my thin arm between the bars so I could reach over to... I don't know... feel like I was a living person again? To touch another person, just to know I was still alive?

"Kinta. Mmmmy nnname is Kinta. By then, I was so very tired of playing the game of constantly stammering. But if there were eyes and ears always watching and listening as I think David suspected, I couldn't simply stop. I felt another warm hand wrap around mine.

"Hi, Kinta. That's a pretty name. If you want, I could tell you stories and maybe your wouldn't miss your mommy so much. Did your mommy and daddy give you away, too?

"I felt this kind little girl — who turned out to be even younger than I was — pat my hand, trying to comfort me. I know I was crying then with certainty. I tried to sniffle away the tears, but... well... it wasn't helping much. Nnnno. Mmmammma and D-Dadd-dy were k-killed... by... bad p-people.

"Oh, no! Oh, Kinta, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to make you cry! Oh, dear. Oh, oh, oh... I'm sorry!

"I tried to squeeze her hand back, but she was trying to hug my arm through the bars. I think she would have gathered me up and set me in her lap that very moment if we hadn't been in the cages.

"Lllong t-time ago, Lllisha. I think.

"I'm still sorry to make you sad, Kinta.

"Sssad f-f-forever. I would have sworn then that she could see my shrug.

"I'm sure they're in Heaven, though.

"I shook my head. Many of the People of the Caddo were Christians and believed that... believed in heaven, but many others were not... they kept to the old way. My parents, my grandparents... most of the people in my village had kept to the old ways. I often wonder if it matters though, really... what matters is what's in a person's heart. I believe that now, and I think I had already formed that opinion... or at least, had begun forming it... while I was in that terrible place.

"With Ancestors. Nnnot heaven.

"That seemed to confuse her, just a bit. Oh. I'm not sure I understand. Is it okay to say they're in a good place?

"I actually smiled then. For the first time in uncountable days or weeks, I actually smiled. Uh huh. Good p-place is... good.

"Kinta? Are you faring better today? David asked.

"Some. I'm sorry I scared you and Daniel last night. I... I just don't know how much longer I... I can do this.

"David was silent for a moment, as was Alisha. David... Daniel... I... we all hear the lock turning in the door then; it was only Alisha's silence that allowed her to hear the door opening.

"Ut oh, was all she said as she scooted to the back of her cage and I scooted back to the corner of mine.

"It was the most loathsome of the not guard cruel ones, and the big frightening cruel one guard. The big frightening man went to the other side of the room, and I was momentarily grateful for that. The horrible cruel one began turning on lights and pulling down the chains from the ceiling. He would poke and prod at Gabriel again today. I tried not to cry. I didn't want him or the big frightening man to notice me at all.

"The cruel one carried Gabriel to... to the lit up space. It wasn't really very light, but lighter than the rest of the room, and much lighter than any of the cages. At first... at first I thought Gabriel was pretending to be sleeping...

"Hey, dis one don' wanna wake up, the cruel one said as he dragged Gabriel by one arm across the floor. Pretty good at pretendin'. I pinched him good an' hard. Then he laughed as if it was something funny.

"There's no call for that sort of thing. Honestly, I can't believe some of you. Thugs, the lot of you. Well, bring it here! Bring it here!

"It made me so mad that the foul one called Gabriel 'it'... like he was a thing and not a person. But I wanted to cry, too. I wasn't sure if I hadn't cried enough the night before, or perhaps I was just never going to stop crying... ever.

"Then I saw the cruel one drag Gabriel into the lighter area... closer to me... and I could smell what the cruel one was too stupid to see... or too uncaring to see, perhaps.

"Well, you've gone and killed it, you damn fool. Did you forget to feed it? How am I to learn how its wings work if it's dead? The foul one sighed then as if... as if it didn't matter that a person had died, as if Gabriel wasn't even as important as a dog or a cat. Well, don't just stand there, you oaf! Put it up on the table!

"I know I was sobbing by then, although I was trying hard to be quiet. I watched in horror as the cruel one, frighteningly large and obviously uncommonly strong, just heaved poor Gabriel's body onto the table as easily as I might have flung a pillow onto my bed... I could hardly even remember having a bed or a pillow. The foul one waved the other away...

"All right, you can go. Shoo. You're in my way! Go, go... get out of the light, you lummox!

"The cruel one was happy enough to oblige. He started walking by the cages on the other side of the room... I could hear him running his fingers along the bars of each cage, saying, Who be next? Who be next? You be next toy? He laughed at everyone. Then he crossed to the side of the room where my cage was and did the same to David and Daniel, to Alisha, to me. Except... except he stopped by our cages, between mine and Alisha's, so he could look at both of us. His laugh was evil and so terribly frightening. You two, you gonna be mine, mine, mine... I play with you. I have so much fun! And then he laughed again, so sinister, so... nightmarish. Both Alisha and I were sobbing, but when he began laughing, that's when Alisha began screaming. Until you dead, dead, dead... even dead toys are fun toys!

"That's when I started screaming. I knew then that what Lauren had said was something I needed to plan for. The Spirits only know how long ago it had been. I needed to know how I could die should I be taken from that cage.

"What are you doing over there, you idiot? How can I concentrate with that caterwauling going on? The foul one glared at the terrible cruel one. Get out, you depraved simpleton. Out, out!

"The cruel one just laughed again, and said I come back for you, little toys before he left the building.

"And you two... stop that wailing this instant! I won't have it. Don't make me cross, little children!

"I couldn't completely stop, nor could Alisha, but we at least managed to quiet ourselves to mere sobbing. Apparently, that wasn't as distracting. Between sobs, I called out to David, Tell me how to die if he comes back. I need to know!

"Kinta, I don't...

"David, I need to know!!

"I don't know how, Kinta! Dearest Spirits, do you think I want you to suffer like that? I would rather die myself than see you taken by away by him. I could hear the agony and the horror in his voice. I could almost imagine the pain in those deep, deep blue eyes of his. Let me think about it, Kinta. It isn't something we learn. I need to puzzle it out.

"I turned in on myself then, rocking back and forth, crying inconsolably but quietly enough that I suppose I didn't disturb the foul one. I remember calling out, over and over and over, in our language, Mama, please come back for me... Mama, please come back for me.

"I don't know how much time passed then... it couldn't have been very long because the foul one was still simply poking and prodding at Gabriel, when I heard the door open again. The foul one didn't look up for a minute, but in that time I heard... I heard familiar footsteps, the familiar sounds of a broom shushing over the floor.

"What are you doing back here? The foul one sounded even more annoyed than he had been before.

"Threw me out. Came back. I could hear the wavering in the kind one's voice that meant he was lying... yes, he was frightened, too, but he was lying to the foul one!

"Well, it was stupid to have let you go in the first place. Those savages weren't going to let you stay once they found you. I did mention that, didn't I?

"Yes, sir.

"Sweep, sweep, sweep... the kind one was more industrious than usual, less slow and careful than I remembered. I thought it peculiar, but it didn't truly seem to matter. The kind one had returned. Oh, I knew there was no way he could protect me, or protect Alisha, from the cruel ones, but it would be good to hear a kind word again.

"There's plenty to clean up. This place is a mess. The foul one went back to poking and prodding at Gabriel.

"And that's when I heard it... the sound of other footsteps. Barely audible, I thought perhaps I imagined it, for the kind one kept sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. Perhaps it was my imagination and wishful thinking; perhaps it was brought on by my near-hysterical cries for my mother. But I heard David gasp. I recall thinking that it had been... it had been such a long time since I'd heard such a sound from David that it might have been years. It was so unlike him.

"But I saw the foul one pick up a large knife and begin cutting off one of Gabriel's beautiful, beautiful wings. I was sure that I would start crying loudly enough to annoy the foul one again. But then my mind registered, at least partially, the sounds of near silent footsteps and the faint scent of cousin kin... female... stopped before my cage. Had Great Spirit heard my prayers?

"Mama? I asked, softly... oh so very softly... in our own language. I was truly hoping to see my mother, to find that all that horror had been just a nightmare.

"But no... what I watched then was the fury of a cousin kin far greater than I knew my mother capable of. The woman I saw moved at near impossible speed, first to tear the cruel one open from his navel to his sternum. And then the woman begin moving around the room even before the cruel one's body dropped to the floor, before the cruel one had a chance to register the fact that he was as good as dead. I couldn't see the kind one, but his gasp was even louder than David's had been. I heard cage doors being flung open, practically torn off their hinges. And it seems only a second or two later that the door to my cage was torn off, and a woman's arms reached out to me.

"Come, child... come out of there.

"I could only crawl to the front of the cage, but... but you lifted me in your arms as though I weighed nothing. You held me. You held me... perhaps I wasn't dreaming.

"The others... coming. You... should go. The kind one spoke... to you, to all of us perhaps. I could hear David helping Daniel out of his cage, other people I had never seen, although I'd heard them before, coming from the other side of the room.

"For the first time since arriving at the place where my parents had died, I felt almost safe. And yet, I was scared, too, because many of the others were... so very cruel. You asked David and Daniel if I belonged with them... I think, perhaps, David might have said yes if the situation had been different, if many of the cruel ones were not coming to that place.

"Her mother died months ago, David said. Daniel and I exchanged a glance as he stood without assistance from David. Daddy, too, I whispered... perhaps so softly that it only reached my ears and my heart. But I understood, at least a little bit then, why David did not want to mention my father. It was a very terrible thing; he has a kind heart and did not want me thinking of that, reliving that night.

"David looked at me, too, with such compassion that I thought I might cry again from the love he and Daniel had shown me. There was so much pain in his voice when he spoke again, taking in all of us... besides him and Daniel, we all were children. We can flee and find safety, but we can't take the children. They can't move quickly enough.

"I understood that. Even I, a cousin kin, was far too small to keep up with them if they were to have any hope of freedom. And the others, all children, all human... no, none of us would have been able to keep up with them.

"I have a car, you said. I can take the children to safety with the Diné.

"They looked at one another then, just the briefest glance, but I'd come to know it... speaking mind to mind without words. They both looked at me then, nodding. They are good people. I knew then, in that moment, that if we reached the Diné lands, that we would all be safe. I trusted David and Daniel to know the best thing for me... for all of us.

"Then you spoke of burning the whole town to the ground. It was something that I thought to be frighteningly impossible. David knew there were many cruel ones... how could so few of us, and most of us children, do so much? Even as young as I was, I knew that causing a fire of such a size was a daunting task. But the older boy from the other side of the room — who we later learned was Julian — just held out his hand where a small blue flame dance. It was mesmerizing. There are fifteen. But I can help... if you will take this off me, please, Miss. His fingers seemed to dance on the metallic collar.

"And then the kind one cried in pain, holding his head. What had the cruel ones done to him? He'd never done that before! Magnetic... cruel one... has the key. Hurry!

"I didn't think, I just moved. Yes, I knew you and David could probably move faster than I could. But I had seen so often where the foul one kept his key for unlocking the magnets. I leaped to the pipes overhead, although I didn't get very far before I had to drop to the floor again. Even I was surprised how weak my arms had become. But I was still grabbing the foul one's chain from his neck in very little time.

"Then... oh, then I could not stop all the hurt and anger and disgust that I had kept hidden for so long; I had to let my animal have a say. For the first time in so very, very many months... I felt my claws extend and gave the foul one the insult he deserved. I took away his face. I felt sure I was cursing him as well, but it was important... it was necessary to take from him what he prized as much as his life. He deserved more, but you lifted me up then, reminded me that you... we needed to free the other children.

"After so long, after so many hundreds, thousands of hours of being treated like an animal... I had no words to say to thank you for showing me I was a person. I thanked Great Spirit with my tears for bringing you to us as I handed you the foul one's key.

"As you took the metal collars off of the others, as I said a sad goodbye to David and Daniel, we heard... well, we recognized what you hadn't had time to learn. The foul ones were coming.

"You will not go with them, Kinta. I swear this, David said.

"We swear this, Daniel added.

"You have been good brothers to me.

"Then the foul ones, led by the man with the rifle, came into the place. Had there been some sort of warning the foul one gave out before he died? It had happened so quickly; it was hard to believe. I think... perhaps what happened to the kind one, to Eugene, may have had something to do with it. Then, I simply thought we were unlucky. Now... I wonder if perhaps Eugene's return alerted them.

"Well, now isn't this interesting?

"The man with the rifle had such an oily voice. It made me shiver as you set me down. But you asked us to protect one another, and I think we all felt so... so worthwhile again with that simple request. You even confirmed that we should act as a family. That was not hard; we all had in common the fact that we had been treated like animals. Alisha's smile, when I took her hand, told me so many things that filled my heart. She was happy to be able to actually hold my hand instead of simply touch my fingers, she knew family already and would protect us as she'd somehow protected her brother.

"Oh, but I saw, too, what the man with the rifle did to the kind one! I don't know how he did that, but it was so horrible to watch. And he was so very, very brave to know the best way to save us all was to finally walk with his Ancestors. You honored him, Tori... and for all of us who saw our only moments of kindness when Eugene spoke with us, I thank you for that."

"He had spoken a little of his family, of what had happened in the town since those cruel ones arrived. He earned that honor, Kinta, a hundred times over," Tori said softly.

Kinta nodded. "I could see that Daniel was feeling so much better and that he and David were preparing to fight and kill every one of the cruel ones. You stepped between us and the cruel ones, to protect us, but... Well, Alisha whispered so softly in my ear that she could do that; she could protect us. And then you could fight with David and Daniel. I knew I wasn't big enough for fighting then..." Kinta laughed. "And I know I'm still not very good at fighting, but at least I'm tall enough now. The look on your face had so much surprise to it when I tugged on your jeans to tell you Alisha could protect us. But it seemed to make you happy too... almost like you were a warrior from legends avenging those who were wronged." She smiled a nostalgic sort of smile as she sat up straighter and opened her eyes to look at Tori. "And maybe you were. You certainly were to us.

"And then there was the terrible scream from outside. I recognized that voice, and the fact that the terrible and disgusting one was screaming made me very happy. David and Daniel recognized that there were kinsman outside, and you did, too... though I didn't. Perhaps it was because I was hugging Alisha and Hakeem so tightly. Not too tightly, of course.

"Even knowing how fast our kin can move, I was still surprised that it took so few heartbeats for David and Daniel to kill the cruel ones. And you to pin the man with the rifle to the wall. I had never seen anything like it before. And then... then when the two cousin kin came in and David and Daniel knelt before them? I thought I was seeing the very strangest thing possible!

"But then finding out they were your parents... and the very eldest of all cousin kin, at least in the Americas... Well, how could a little girl not be just a tiny bit impressed, yes? Especially when your Mama started showing Daniel better techniques for disemboweling an enemy. I was trying very hard not to giggle because I didn't think my new friends would have understood.

"Your Mama was so nice to come talk with us, and David had met them once before when he was very young... maybe even the age Daniel was then. She reminded me of... no, not so much my own Mama, but some of the other Mamas of the village. She liked to smile. She was very pretty."

"She was all of that and more, my dear Kinta. I wish you had had more than just a couple of weeks to know them."

"Their goodness and willingness to fight for what is right and good live in you, Tori. And we all walk with the Ancestors someday, don't we? I will meet them again."

"You're terribly wise for a youngling, aren't you," Tori said in a bit of a teasing tone.

"Oh, I think that's Mama Cora's doing."

Allo chuckled. "Quite possibly. She's a very good Village Mother."

"I asked your Mama if it was okay if I go and thank you, because I wasn't sure if it was okay to bother you while you were still trying to make the cruel one tell you his story. She said it was okay... and you looked like you were so happy to see your Papa that it made me happy to see the two of you. I think maybe I wished some of that happy would brush off on me if I were close enough to it.

"You were so kind to me when I came over. I knew David and Daniel were watching to see how I would act. I think, maybe, David was a little relieved that he didn't have to remind me yet again of what my mother had said. I was safe with five kin around me... with four friends behind me... and only one enemy alive in front of me. How are you doing, sweetheart? How can I forget how sincerely you asked, as though the man pinned to the wall with your claws was of no importance?

"I'm okay, I remember saying. All the bad people are dead. And then I looked at the leader of the cruel ones. He had not been the most horrible and depraved of them, but he was their leader and he let them be as horrible as they were. Except for him. Can I help? Truly, I had no idea if helping was something I could do. But if there was anything... even the smallest thing — fetch you a cup of water, perhaps — well, I would have been happy to do it for you.

"You said that you wanted to know who his boss was, first. He certainly didn't look like he wanted to tell you. And then... kindly asking my name! You were just about becoming my favorite person next to David and Daniel. Because neither of them had heard of such an unusual name, I explained again that it was the town where my grandmother was born. I'm not sure the town exists anymore, but I do. But I remember a tiny scrap of information Mama had shared on our journey from the Caddo Nation to Wetumka. She was always saying odd things, and most of them didn't make sense until many, many years later. But she'd mentioned there was a place on their bodies that men are very, very protective of."

She blushed deeply when Allo chuckled and said, "Your Mama was quite right."

"Well, I thought if I just jabbed him there, maybe he wouldn't be such an idiot, and he'd tell you what you wanted to know."

"It was really clever, Kinta. Even though Dad tried to be very nonchalant about it, he was quite impressed with your quick thinking."

"Well, it was rather effective in getting him to talk," Kinta replied. "You did try to hide how surprised you were when I asked if I could kill him."

"You looked five. Would you have expected anything else?"

Kinta shook her head. "No. And I'm pretty sure my tenth birthday had come and gone by then. Mama had taught me how to kill... another of those odd things from my journey to Wetumka; and I had seen how you released our kind one, Eugene, from his suffering. When I said to him, You are a very bad man. You killed my Mama, I wasn't certain — and still am not certain — that he personally killed her. It may well have been one of Mr. Shen's lieutenants... or rather, several of them. But he was there. I held him responsible for her death, and still do." She sighed. "It seems anticlimactic to say you brought us, the children, to the Diné Nation with you, but other than torching the whole town, there isn't much else to the story."

"Ah, Kinta, I feel like I should hold you and... well, just hold you while you feel however you need to feel about telling your story. But the fire road is about a hundred yards up on the left, Tori," Allo said ruefully.

Kinta hugged him and then patted his knee. "Thank you. And since I'm not going anywhere while you're delivering your message, you'll still get to hold me while I... probably fall asleep from exhaustion."

Tori slowed the car and parked across from the beginning of the fire road. "East of Ladron Peak Village. Next stop Albuquerque... the shuttle leaves in ten minutes."

Half a dozen expressions crossed Allo's face before he leaned over and kissed Kinta's cheek, then hurried to open his door and slip out. Tori chuckled as she rolled down her window. "I was just kidding about the ten minutes, Allo... take whatever time you need."

She rolled the window up again, then turned in her seat to look at Kinta.

"You look better. Lighter."

"I feel better." Kinta leaned forward and rested against the front seat, one hand on Tori's shoulder. "Thanks... for listening, for saving our lives, for putting up with my craziness when I couldn't handle living in Chinle."

Tori patted the younger woman's hand. "You're welcome. I can see why crowds of people... even a thin crowd as small as the residents of Chinle would be unnerving after all of that. I think giving up all that pain... allowing us to share it... will help you. It may still be rough at times, but you've got Allo."

"I'm really going to miss you, Tori. I know you have to do this; it's the kind of person you are. I'm going to miss you just the same."

"I'm going to miss you, too, Little One," Tori said with a smile. "I always do a lot of missing people when I go on Walkabout... in the beginning, anyway. But most of the time I'm leaving behind people who are human, ordinary folks who live the ordinary number of years. At least I have a family to come back to here." She sighed. "Some of them are short lived, though."

"Chief Benally?"

"Yeah, and Jeremy Kee, too. He's been a damn good friend for a long time. I watched him fall in love with Tina, went to his wedding, celebrated the births of all his children with him. The oldest got married a couple of months ago. He'll probably have grandchildren before I get back."

"It's hard, isn't it, living longer than so many people around you?"

"It is. I'm not going to say you get used to it because you don't. It's probably one of the main reasons cousin kin choose to stay among their own kind. Some can't bear the pain."

"Didn't you once tell me, If you never feel the pain, you'll never feel the joy?"

"Did I?" Tori chuckled. "It does sound like something I'd say. It's true, though. You've suffer so much, Kinta. In your first ten years, you probably suffered as much as I did in my first hundred and fifty. You have the capacity to experience so much joy, my young friend." She reached up and squeezed the hand on her shoulder. "Make sure you do. Allo knows the Diné, Zuni and Hopi lands and people fairly well. His uncle was a good teacher. Let Allo teach you now."

Kinta nodded. "I will. And maybe I can talk him into visiting the Comanche lands with me."

"All it would take is a simple request, I think. After hearing your tale, I think he's as interested in visiting your David and Daniel as you are."

Kinta blushed slightly. "They're not mine.

Tori laughed. "They are, dear. They're as close to brothers as you'll have. You survived something terrible with them, and that brings people together and forms the kind of bonds ordinary people — kin and short-lived folks alike — will never understand."

Kinta nodded. "Is Alisha still in Ganado?"

"She is. She's married, too. Has two beautiful daughters, and a son just last month."

"Wow. Life really passed me by while I was hiding in Cibola."

"You did what you needed to do, Kinta. Don't second guess your decisions; you needed the solitude. Alisha understands."

"Really? I mean, does she really understand why I seemed to abandon her twenty years ago?"

"You know how often I come down here... and so does she. She always says, I hope Kinta is doing well. And every time I return to Ganado, I reassure her that you are, indeed, doing well. This time she said, Tell Kinta I hope to see her soon. She does understand, my dear."

"I guess I have a lot to do while I'm on Walkabout, don't I?"

"Nope. That's not what Walkabout is for. It's simply doing what needs to be done, right then. Experiencing the world, the beauty and majesty of it; meeting people and just enjoying their company. There are no obligations on Walkabout... there's only the Walkabout."

"So you're not exactly going on Walkabout, then."

"Not really, no. But it's a convenient shorthand for people who want to know where I'm going and what I'll be doing. There's no definite plan beyond 'make things better'... at least there wasn't yesterday." Tori shrugged.

"Did you mean it when you said you might be able to get messages to me?" Kinta asked. "I have a feeling I'm going to worry about you, and... I don't know... I guess I'd feel less scared if I knew you were okay."

Tori smiled but shook her head. "I honestly don't know. If Madeline's son is as good as I suspect he is, maybe. But you know... you'll be off on Walkabout. I won't know where you are." She chuckled. "If there's a way to do it, I'll somehow get word back to you. I doubt it's going to be any more frequent than my visits down here, though."

Kinta nodded. "I know. Unpredictable out there... and at least mostly unpredictable here." She sighed and looked out the front window down the winding road. "I'm not as scared as I thought I'd be... but I'm still a little freaked out that I'm doing this. Not actually going with Allo on his messenger route, because, well... that just feels right. But going around meeting people. I don't have a lot of experience with that." She looked back at Tori and smiled. "I know, I know... you get experience doing things by just doing them."

Tori chuckled. "Wow, you were listening to me at times. And you'll be fine. Allo's a pro at being a people person. He cares a lot about you, and I have a feeling you'll pick things up in no time."

The object of their discussion was coming back down the road, and Kinta impulsively leaned to the side and kissed Tori's cheek before moving back to make room for Allo. "Thanks, Tori."

"You're welcome. And you know..." She paused a moment, searching for the words that would adequately convey the release of centuries of hurt in her own heart. "I think sharing your burden with us has helped me, too. So thank you, 'ach'é'é." Tori watched Allo turn and laugh as a small cousin kin came running down the road after him. The two began an animated and laugh-filled conversation.

"Kinta? I know that was rough, but I think parts of your story might be relevant to whatever it is we'll be doing out in the Free Lands. You don't mind if I share parts of your story — just the parts that relate to the Caddo borders and the cruel ones — with Madeline, do you?"

Kinta looked at Tori, surprised. "No, of course not. If it can help, please do. It was so long ago, I don't know how useful any of it could be, but if you think it would help... of course."

"If Madeline or Andi have any questions, would you mind trying to answer them? You just went through quite an ordeal," Tori said. "I'd hate to put you through more suffering."

Kinta leaned forward and squeezed Tori's shoulder again, and smiled as she leaned over to open the door for Allo. "As long as you and Allo and Elephant are with me — and I know none of you are going anywhere — I'll be fine." The young woman had been surprisingly touched when Tori had called her daughter. "You know I'd do anything I can to help you, Mama."

Tori's expression truly was one of a mother who'd seen her child do something unexpectedly wonderful. She nodded to Kinta, then looked at Allo questioningly as he settled in the seat, arm once again around Kinta.

"All set. Message delivered, and a few of the usual sort to pass along as I..." He looked at Kinta and smiled, hugging her shoulders gently. "...as we make our way through the Nation."

Kinta did close her eyes and drop into a light sleep for most of the remainder of the trip to Albuquerque, her head pillowed on Allo's shoulder. The young man closed his eyes, too, but less to sleep than to simply have the solitude of thought. He'd known that Kinta's life was unimaginably hard before she arrived in Cibola. The Village Mother, for all her teasing, had mentioned merely that fact and to keep it mind when dealing with the young woman. He had patience to spare, and could see that she had an inner strength that she seemed almost afraid to tap. He had enjoyed slowly getting to know her, and he was looking forward to learning more about her... her hopes and dreams. He was content to simply be her friend, and if anything more developed between then, that would only make their friendship shine brighter, wouldn't it?

Tori glanced in the rear view mirror a few times as she drove the next half hour down New Mexico 12 to Old US Route 60, then onto Eye Twenty Five. The north-south interstate was in considerably better condition than Eye Forty, and she was able to maintain a respectable sixty-five all the way from Old 60 to the outskirts of Albuquerque.

As she took the exit off the interstate to the southwest side of Albuquerque forty-five minutes later, Tori thought about what Kinta had been through at the end of her first decade. She was glad it had occurred so long ago. That helped stave off the rage she would have otherwise been feeling, and the chances of those specific humans still being involved in those specific capacities of their little games were small. She didn't doubt there were extraordinarily similar people still doing extremely similar things — wasn't Madeline's tale of finding Tomas and Mesa evidence of that? — and if she came across them... well, woe be unto them as some of the Blackcoats would often quote from their favorite book.

It wasn't surprising that Kinta had waited this long to say anything about it. At first, Tori had been surprised that the young woman had shared her story at all... at least now. But perhaps her guardian Spirit was right... going on Walkabout with her potential Mate with such a heavy burden on her heart would likely distort any feelings she developed for Allo as they traveled. The Spirits were, at times, anywhere from inscrutable to enigmatic to rather silly, but they were never capricious. They would never give advice of this nature to one of their charges unless it truly was the best thing.

Heck, that was the reason she was here right now, wasn't it... because Hawk had advised her that it was time to join Madeline's group and leave the Nation? In over four hundred years, Hawk hadn't steered her in the wrong direction. Tori figured that was a pretty good track record.

© Kelly Naylor