The rain came shortly after nightfall, a heavy downpour that flooded their camp and forced them out into the open. Samina stood watching the children gather up blankets and utensils, what little they had, and wondered what to do. The baby in her arms was wrapped in a wool blanket, but the blanket was already soaked. She could make shelter, of a sort, but they were already drenched and she had no way to keep them warm.
Oberon tugged on her sleeve and pointed off into the woods. At twelve, he was the oldest of the children in her care. He was trying to tell her something, but she couldn't hear him over the steady roar of the rain. He moved a little bit away, then came back and tugged on her sleeve again.
Where...? He wanted her to follow, that was clear. The other children were gathering around, carrying what they could find. Whatever they did, they couldn't stay here, and moving would help them stay warm, at least. Untangling one arm from the baby's dripping blanket, Samina made a go on gesture.
Oberon stepped past her to Amarie, and placed the blind girl's arm on his elbow. She followed when he started walking, using him for support as they picked their way over roots and between trees. Samina followed them, and the others followed her.
They stayed close together. The storm washed away scents and limited sight; it drowned out every sound but its own, and shrank the world until nothing was left but the trees around them, the mud beneath their feet, and the cold, steady weight of falling water. Oberon seemed to have a destination in mind, but Samina couldn't imagine what it might be. Still, they were going generally downhill, half trudging and half scrambling through the mud.
Her shoulders ached from carrying the baby and the children were starting to stumble when Oberon came to a sudden stop, then gestured up ahead. Looking up, Samina saw light through the trees. A heartbeat later she realized she was looking at a house. Built with clean lines and angles, set in a little pocket of cultivated land that had been carved from the surrounding wilderness, it was the sort of place where the Dayborn lived.
A breath after that, she realized that she was exactly desperate enough to go there anyway.
She looked at Oberon and realized that he was waiting on her: giving her a chance to object, she suspected. What choice do we have? She motioned for him to go on.
The man who opened the door was almost exactly Samina's height, with dark hair cut close to his skull and a heavy, muscular build. He looked down at Oberon and said, barely audible over the rain, "You again?" Then he looked up at the rest of them, paused, and said: "Jesus Christ. Inside. Come on. All of you."
He stepped back and they shuffled in, Oberon still leading the way. Samina stayed back to make sure everyone was inside, then closed the door behind them.
It was surprisingly dark inside. There was some light from around the corner, but nothing else. They were crowded into a short entry hall which opened directly into a large, central room; the light came from a small area along one side of that room.
Then the man turned and stepped into another hallway. More light spilled over them, the unwavering glow of electrical lighting. "This way," he said, and the children followed. Samina trailed along behind, carrying the baby in one arm, exhausted and wary.
There were three doors at the end of the hall. He led them through the middle one, into a small room equipped with a sink, a tub, and a toilet. "Wet clothes in the sink," he said. "Kids in the tub." He bent down and twisted a knob, and a stream of water began to fill the tub. He was kneeling with his back to them, but Samina wasn't sure whether that was a deliberate show of trust, or whether he simply didn't consider them a threat.
He made some adjustments, and the flow of water moved from the lower spigot to a higher one, spraying down into the tub from overhead. Three breaths later it was warm enough to fill the air with steam. He straightened, turned, and met Samina's eyes before she could look away. "There are towels under the sink. I'll see if I can find something for them to wear while their clothes dry."
He edged his way out past the children, then past Samina, and went back up the hall. By the time he came back, all five of the children were crowded into the warm water, the baby was wrapped in a dry towel, and Samina was trying to decide whether it was safe to take off her dress. She was shivering with cold and exhaustion.
"Here," he said, and set down a pile of clothes. "Spare outfits, things that got left here over the years."
He looked her over, then disappeared down the hall again. This time, when he came back, he was carrying a single bundle of grey cloth. "These should fit you," he said, and set it beside the larger pile before turning away again.
The children, now warm, were reluctant to leave the shower. Oberon was the first to abandon his comfort; no doubt he felt it was his duty. As he was dressing (there was a pair of denim trousers that fit him almost perfectly), Samina said: "You've spoken to him before."
Oberon froze, then nodded.
"You spoke to a Natural." She didn't put any particular emphasis on it; just let the observation hang there. After a moment she added, "Are we safe here?"
Oberon hesitated, but he didn't look uncertain; he was thinking. Samina suspected that he was trying to put words to a decision that had been mostly intuitive.
"I think so." He glanced down the hall, then turned to face her. "I talked to him yesterday, and he... he didn't want me there, but he wasn't mean, either. He didn't care. So I think we're safe. Does that make sense?"
"No," said Samina, "but at least it doesn't sound like he wants anything from us. Go and watch him while I get the others dry."