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The Ruined Land: a sampler

In this scene, Feather’s father Helm is waiting at the new settlement for news. He can wait no longer. His love and worry send him into the dangerous Outside…

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Too many days had passed.

Helm folded his arms across his chest as he looked out of the Newkeep hall, squinting against the watery brightness spilling from the low sun. Hall, they called this half-made, scarcely weatherproof building. He bit his lip. The autumn rains might be coming to an end, but if he was not mistaken, the mean fist of winter was about to close its cold fingers around them. The new settlers had never experienced a winter Outside. Helm frowned. They would have to learn, and he would not be there to aid them. The little rat terrier was right. Too many days had passed.

He bent one knee so he could crouch down beside her. Like him, Rasti was focused on the world beyond rather than the stuffy confines of the hall. She sat erect, her small folded ears pointing forward, a wrinkle of concentration on her forehead as she stared intently at the fence that ran down to the river. That was the gate through which her beloved Feather had gone, too many days ago, promising to return soon. Helm put one hand onto the little dog’s back. He could feel the bony points of her spine, the shivery nature of her breathing. Like him, she was finding the wait difficult. Though the injury to her leg had healed well, she was losing condition fast. Only the promise of Feather’s return, it seemed, kept her eating at all.

With his palm against her fur, Helm found it easier to hear the little dog’s scant and muddled mindspeech. However strong he was in the language that intelligent animals shared with humans, Rasti was weak. Only Feather had the ability for prolonged and detailed conversation with her. Helm took a deep breath, wishing like Rasti that his son would return. But wishing alone would not bring Feather back to them. As Rasti said too often: too many days, too many days. Helm ran his hand caressingly down the little dog’s skinny back.

‘Too many days indeed, my friend. Shall we go find my son?’

Rasti turned her head to look up at his face. There was a half-moon of white worry around her dark eyes. ‘Find?’

Helm nodded, and amplified his idea with hand gestures. ‘You, me. We walk. Find Feather.’

That had Rasti on her feet. ‘Find Feather!’ she agreed. Without looking back, she trotted immediately towards the gate.

Helm stood. ‘Wait!’ he called aloud. Rasti looked over her shoulder, one front paw raised, all of her scanty weight leaning forward in the direction she wanted to go. Helm nodded. ‘Wait at the gate,’ he said. ‘A little. Just wait for me.’

Rasti narrowed her eyes at him. Then she lowered her head in agreement. ‘Wait,’ she whispered. ‘Gate. Walk. Find Feather.’

‘That’s right. Let me get some gear, let me tell Jana. Maybe she wants to come with us.’ Helm noticed that Rasti trotted to the gate without looking back again. He watched until she sat, obedient but impatient, her whole attention focussed on the Outside. Then he turned back into the hall to make the quickest preparations he could. Now that the decision had been made, he realised that in his heart of hearts, he had been planning this for some time. Most of his gear he had already put aside, ready for picking up in an instant. Rasti would not have long to wait.

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