The story so far:
Renni grabbed the pale green knitted cap and set it about her ears, tucking in loose strands of hair. Mrs. Shoes sat on her cot, her hands moving quickly, as they always did. Grabbing her mittens, Renni turned to the older woman. “I’m going to work now, Mrs. Shoes,” she said.
“Okay, dear.” She looked up, her hands still going. “Where’s your scarf, Renni. It’s cold out there. You don’t want to catch a chill. What would Marshal think?”
Renni laughed lightly and snatched up the matching scarf. Mrs. Shoes set down her latest creation-in-progress. Standing, she took the scarf and wrapped it lovingly about the girl’s neck and shoulders. “Can I get you anything while I’m out?” Renni asked.
“No thank you, dear. I’m going to head to that nice restaurant down the street for a bite to eat a little later. You have a nice day at work now.” Renni hugged her and stepped from the warm tent to the crisp morning.
The world still slept in darkness as winter took hold of their sanctuary valley. Renni cringed as she sat on the freezing camp chair and put on her boots. Her feet slowly warmed the cold boots while dexterous fingers worked the laces. Standing, she looked out at the avenue of tents, some lighted softly by the lanterns used as street lights during the night. Several men and women made their way back to their tents, intent to sleep away the morning and afternoon after a full night on watch guarding the camp. A few waved to Renni as she stood and stretched her tight muscles, welcoming the warm rush of adrenalin as she did so. Mid stretch, she waved back watching them disappear behind white canvas tent flaps.
Very few were ever up that early. The colder the season got, the more people slept in, forgoing the freezing air for the warmth of their sleeping bags and blankets. Mrs. Shoes was a light sleeper and always woke up at the same time every morning. Renni didn’t mind. After a while in the camp, she became accustomed to the early hours and grew to treasure the solitude before a busy day.
She set out with a brisk jog, her boots crunching the crisp snow underfoot. One of the residents took it upon himself to always shovel the snow from the avenues every day, making movement in the camp easier. Carter and Renni helped him often, especially when the snow became deep and cumbersome. They had no vehicles so all snow removal happened by hand. One of the advantages was that the snow shoveled between the tents provided insulation.
She passed the snowman she’d made with Gloria a couple of days ago. He looked a sorry sight in the moonlight. The day before had been unusually warm and had melted the poor creation’s head and sides. Stopping for a moment, she retraced her steps. Renni scooped a few handfuls of snow onto the skinny snowman, and re-secured the scarf about his now thicker neck. Renni also replaced the bark that Gloria had placed on the snowman’s back. It was his own personal unit. “Just like Uncle Thomas, and Daddy, and Renni, and George,” Gloria had said, putting the bark over a patch of snow that George had accidentally dented in his enthusiasm to help them.
George stirred inside the dark tent adjacent to the snowman. He poked his bluish gray head between the tied flaps, a sleepy yawn escaping him.
“Good boy,” Renni whispered, offering the dog a quick pet. “Go back in and keep them warm.” George obeyed, satisfied that the one outside his home was not a threat to his family. She watched him disappear before she broke into another jog, heading towards the mess tent.
Two lanterns hung on the two outer poles of the massive tent. Renni ducked through the thick whitish flaps of material separating the outer darkness from inner dimness. Three lanterns lit the inside of the tent, casting off a strange, ethereal glow. She slid between the long picnic tables, set up similar to a school cafeteria. On each table sat an unlit lantern and some candles. As she moved to the back of the tent, she counted how many candles needed replacing.
Four long tables sat end to end near the back of the mess tent. Already several great big steaming pots sat covered upon the far end. At the other end were stacks of bowls and spoons. Hot rolls would be placed in between the two. She could smell them as Marshal and Phys walked in bearing the first batch of the morning.
No one ever really questioned where the food came from. The Harbingers provided it all, the tents, the cots, the food, everything. Thankfulness took precedence over curiosity. In the beginning, Renni had wondered. After a while, she’d learned the food came from Marshal’s ship. And she had learned the supply was not fathomless. The fare was simple and healthy. Nothing fancy ever came down the long trail. And, just as no one questioned, no one complained.
She took one of the hot trays from Marshals long arms and set them down on the table. He reached into a pouch on his ever present armor and handed her a lighter. She then went about lighting all the candles and lanterns until the tent fairly glowed with warmth and light, a beacon in the dark morning.
The three worked silently together, preparing the tent for the hungry and cold. Woolen wraps were set about on the seats of the wooden tables. On the right side of the tent sat a stack of extra supplies. When Marshal and Phys disappeared from the tent, Renni set about organizing the supplies, cleaning the chaos of the night before as the weather turned cold and people snatched extra blankets to take back to their tents after the evening meal. She noted a lack of lantern fuel and knew they would get low on wool socks by the end of the day. She would tell Marshal when he got back.
“Morning, Renni,” Thomas’ deep voice boomed through the tent as he stepped into the warmth and light. The orange glow of the many candles and lanterns glinted off his metallic units. She noted that he wore long pants and a coat that morning.
“Cold?” she asked, her voice light.
“In a way.” He handed her a stack of new fuel cans for the lanterns. “I noticed we were low last night,” he said.
She stood from her crouched position over the supplies and stretched her legs a moment. The unit felt stiffer than usual.
“It’s the cold,” Thomas knelt down and lifted the leg of her pants, revealing the metal and lights. She felt his gentle touch as he prodded the device that allowed her the freedom of movement and the ability to walk. “They get a little sluggish when the temperatures drop below freezing.”
“How cold did it get last night?” She asked, helping him rise. He groaned aloud. “Starting to get some feeling back, huh?”
“It got below zero last night. Thankfully, we were able to get the last of the space heaters charged and in the tents.” One half of his face cringed. “And yes. Getting a lot of feeling back. Phys did something to a few of my units yesterday. All of a sudden I can feel parts of me I haven’t felt in…” He stopped and rubbed his backside, a look of annoyance on his face.
“That has to be nice.”
“Right now, it sucks. Later it might be nice.” His familiar sheepish grin spread across the human half of his face. As of late, Renni had seen that grin more and more. “Keep your unit warm, Renni. Don’t let it get too cold or it’ll be a bear to move.”
She tossed an extra camp pillow at him. “You had to mention bear, didn’t you?” Her face fell as the memories flooded back.
“Don’t tell me you still have nightmares,” he asked, suddenly serious.
“Not as often.” She turned towards the food. Marshal stood beside the tables, in his arms another tray of piping hot rolls. Phys stood near him, laden with another hefty pot of oatmeal. Renni took the tray from her friend and set it on the table next to the others. Grabbing a bowl, she scooped a couple of ladles of oatmeal and snagged a roll.
“For Mr. Thorne?” Phys asked.
“As always.” Juggling the food, she snatched up an extra blanket and a few cans of lantern fuel. “If Thomas and I are having a tough time with our units, he’s going to be miserable.”