There are people who say you shouldn’t take a crossbow to a house viewing.
Okay, they probably don’t say it regularly but if it came up in conversation, they’d most probably come down on that side of the fence.
And I suppose, in their defence, when the most fearsome thing you’re likely to encounter is a septuagenarian named Ethel with outdated attitudes and a tendency to get a bit shouty when discussing proper cross-stitch technique, they’re probably on to something.
Sadly, that has not been this girl’s experience. If it were me, I guarantee that little old Ethel would turn out to be a skinsuit for something unpronounceable that could list the top five most succulent human brain parts and provide tried and tested recipes for each one.
Which I reckon might have exacerbated my pre-existing trust issues.
So, when we roll up to Sister Quashalla’s community, yes, I’ve got my crossbow slung over my shoulder. I’ve also got my spear in my hand, my sword on hip and I know where my little knife is too. It’s stashed in my boot (which is actually a silly place to put a knife as it’s really uncomfortable and feels like it’s going to fall out any second.)
The only reason I’m not packing one of those high-end Shroom beam rifles with a battery pack that lasts until the heat-death of the universe is that I don’t have one. Yet.
I don’t really know how to use any of my weapons, but they’re so outrageously sharp that I’m hoping it won’t matter. Unless we meet someone who really does know how to use weapons. In which case we’re scuppered anyway.
In the boarding house before I grabbed my stuff, I even did some stretching exercises in case we need to leg it and I’ve got my backpack should we need to go on the road again.
Proper prep, I’ve discovered, makes me less anxious.
Nearly murder me once; shame on you… etc…
The community is just out of town, so we have a bit of a hike. We follow the river downhill for a while and then take a turn between two large boulders, emerging onto a vista of flowered meadows tumbling downhill over each other apparently forever.
There are some forests here and there and herds of deer-like creatures. In the blue sky, one of those rectangular craft trundles by, high up. Lower down, there are birds, bugs and butterflies. It’s a scene that is busy and full of life, which is all rather remarkable when you consider that a few days ago this was a snowy wasteland.
“Wow, it’s so green,” Nom says. “Shoo, look how green it is!”
And by ‘remarkable’, I mean deeply ruddy suspicious.
You kind of forget about it in town, certainly no-one mentions it, yet once you’re out in it, it kind of smacks you in the face.
“What’s going on with the weather, then?” I ask Sister Quashalla.
“Indeed. That’s the question on everyone’s lips,” she says, serenely
“No, it’s not,” I say, because it isn’t. No-one’s said a word.
She considers this, “No, you’re right. We don’t know what happened, but it feels… right somehow. Don’t you think? Like the world is somehow correcting itself.”
“That’s right”, says Nom, trying to catch a butterfly. Presumably to eat it.
Funnily enough, it does feel just like that. When I consider it now, I get a sense of a certain rightness about things, like it was the Winter that was wrong, and this unusually springy Spring is a kind of an adjustment to where things should be.
In fact, when I open myself to it, I get a feeling of something else…
What is that? Gratitude?
Yes. It is. It’s gratitude. The very air is suffused with it. It’s like the birds are singing songs of thanks and the butterflies are scribbling grateful messages in their fluttering patterns. It’s like the world is saying thank you to someone. For something.
We continue a little further down the hillside, approaching the start of a forest. Nom explores the world I notice partly by eating it. Every plant she can try, and insect slow enough to be caught goes in the gob. I’ve given up telling her not to. I don’t think she can be poisoned.
“We’re here!” announces Quashalla, which surprises me. That was quick. We’re not an hour out of town. I suppose it’s more of a trek in snowdrifts, though I can’t see where ‘here’ is. We’re just standing next to a forest.
The sister takes us through the trees and into a glade. At the end of the glade is a path down a rocky incline. We follow it for a few minutes and come out in a space nestled between two high cliffs.
Before us are whitewashed stones walls taller than I am and sturdy wooden gates wedged open. Inside is a complex of maybe half a dozen whitewashed buildings with heavy sloped roofs.
There are crops, cattle, goofclucks and lots of people. They’re not in a culty uniform, or throwing hate and/or fear-filled glances in our direction. They seem happy, some of them wave at Quashelle, pleased to see her. She waves back.
None of them are armed. Or blood-splattered. Or have tentacles where they shouldn’t.
It seems very much like a wholesome, well-run little outpost apparently as serene and benign as the town of Gold-Under-Shadow turned out to be.
Which, naturally, does nothing for my anxiety.