Chapter 7 - Goodbye

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We spent the rest of the day making our way back to the next village. During the morning Tobin frequently tried to make conversation, but my mind was a labyrinth going from one idea to another. Receiving only one-word answers, he gave up, and we carried on in silence.

An hour into our walk, the ravine widened, and the trail became rougher. The rock beneath our feet rolled, trying to turn our ankles, and the brambles thickened. My thin cotton shirt provided little protection against their thorns, needle-like streaks of blood appearing on the blue fabric. It was still better than having exposed skin. Tobin, even in his gauzy clothes, avoided most thorns. His bulkier body seemed to dodge and weave with ease.

Occasionally, he would stop and gather berries and roots. Examining each one, he'd pick it with a quick snap and flick of the wrist. He didn't waste energy with extraneous movement, and he never grabbed at something inedible. I wondered if I would tell him if he harvested a toxic plant. Surely, the plants here were different than up by Lake Shasta. The situation never arose, but who was I kidding? Of course, I would've told him.

He didn't offer me any food, an unspoken agreement. Tonight, the village would honor me with their best fare. My stomach rumbled at the thought of fresh-baked bread and dried pork washed down with a cool berry-infused water.

In the afternoon, the landscape flattened, and the scrub thinned again. Remains of old buildings speckled the baked earth, some caved in and blanketed by dirt and weeds. We neared the next village where we would part ways.

Tobin led me towards what must have once been a large thoroughfare. A vast swath cut through the land and scrub here, a scabbed wound. Carriage and foot traffic used a part of this old road, making maintenance a necessity. The remainder of the highway contained huge blocks of black pavement overlapping one another here and there, upheaved through time. My mind boggled with the idea that the vast amount of people in the past necessitated a road this size.

Ahead, remains of buildings clustered together more so than earlier. The village was likely in the center of these ruins. After the Warming and the subsequent onslaught of pestilence and death, the survivors had to resettle. All the systems those earlier people had used — electrical grid, water pipes, water purification — were gone, too damaged or too unwieldy to make it worthwhile to fix and maintain. Those people had two options: settle inside the skeleton of a ruined city, scavenging off what was nearby and using the ruins for protection, or settle further away near a water source and open land that could be farmed. Chernibden had settled in the open land on the outskirts of an old, enormous city now drowned beneath the ocean. The village I was coming up on had chosen the first option.

As the carcasses of old stores and homes increased on either side of the massive highway, Tobin spoke, "I need to leave the road soon. It wouldn't do us any good if anyone saw me."

He was right, again. An unwanted feeling threatened to make me reach out for his hand, but I ignored it. "I need to change into my Offering dress."

Tobin turned his head to look at me before he squinted at the side of the road nearest us, nodding towards a copse of trees near a ramshackle hut. Grabbing my elbow to prompt me to turn around, he led me to the shack.

"Change in there. I'll stay out here and keep watch."

I eyed the building with it's partially caved in walls and roof. No way. I opted to go behind it. Tobin only shrugged, remaining near the front.

Around the back, I dropped my things before grabbing my bottle and gulping down now warm water. The heat of the day was brutal, and sweat dripped into my eye. I rubbed at the sting with the back of my hand, spreading dirt and salt across my eyelids. It was a dumb move. With my now irritated eye clamped shut, I tipped my head back before pouring water over my face. The water sluiced across my eye and face and into my hair, dripping on to the ground and mixing with the parched dirt. At least it would look like I tried to make myself presentable.

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