Hours later,Ava finally heeded the call of her rumbling stomach and went to look for Astrid. There was a road leading into the isolated valley, but a visitor clearly needed to know where they were going to find it. Ava had seen a few cars come and go, along with a truck that delivered boxes of supplies on Wednesday morning and took some of the milk and vegetables the haven produced.
In addition to the Irina, there were also a few Irin families. They seemed to keep to themselves, but Ava had seen a few men hanging at the edge of the compound and even a small child. The families lived in a group of cottages half a kilometer or so deeper into the valley and away from the main house and the road. Clearly, protecting them was a priority since Ava had only caught glimpses.
To any visitor driving in, the compound would seem like a commune of sorts, with animals and greenhouses to grow food. Low buildings housed workshops and storage units and a small clinic that Damien said was open to any emergency since Astrid was the only trained doctor for miles around. What the average visitor wouldn’t see was the interior of the brightly painted barn where women fought and parried with sticks, staffs, and knives. The archery range was hidden behind innocuous greenhouse fronts. Ava doubted many would see the cameras so expertly hidden among the buildings or understand them if they did.
Ava saw everything. And far from just being a haven for wounded Irina, she could also see what the Irin scribes hadn’t known.
This was a training center, and it might have been isolated, but it was far from idle.
She knocked on the door marked with a bright red cross. She heard shuffling, then the door opened.
“Welcome,” Astrid said with a smile. “Come in, come in.”
If Astrid caught Ava’s swollen eyes, she said nothing.
Astrid’s clinic looked just like a small cottage with a sitting area and kitchen in the main room, then three doors leading off a small hall in the back. Her desk was in a corner of the living area, and a kettle was on the stove. Ava wandered around the room, which was decorated with pictures of women, children, and families.
“I didn’t know there were so many families left,” she said as Astrid went to the kitchen. “How many are there?”
“More in the last few years.”
“I thought most of the Irin and Irina lived apart.”
“Most, but not all. The girls who weren’t mated after the Rending mated quickly, if they were still interested. Many weren’t. But some. So there are still a few families.” The smell of pepper and red meat filled the air. It smelled like Astrid had made chili. “There are more in Vienna since it is the safest Irin city. But even there, Irina live very quietly. A very few live in scribe houses with their mates. Some live in places like this. But most Irina have hidden in the human world.”
“Does the council know about them?”
“They do and they don’t. They know we exist. From the news that leaks out of Vienna, there are as many solutions to the ‘Irina problem’ as there are elders.”
“I doubt that,” Astrid said, but she didn’t seem condescending. Just tired. Her movements were deliberate as she set out the cups for tea. “So, only a few families. And of course, there were some children left.”
“Fifteen… maybe twenty percent of the children survived.”
It seemed impossible that any people could endure so much tragedy.
“Can the Irin survive, Astrid? Really?”
Astrid cocked her head. “Biologically? Yes. There are enough of us to survive. But will we? Who knows? Things are still very fresh for us.”
“But the Rending was two hundred years ago.”
She smiled. “It seems strange to you, I know.”
“More than a little.”
“Life didn’t stop for us, Ava.” Astrid waved her toward the table and Ava sat. “But it did slow down. For many years we all just… waited.”
Astrid’s eyes had drifted off; she stood at the stove, but was looking out the window over the sink.
“For what?” Ava asked.
“I think I spent ten years after Marten died, waiting to wake up and realize it was all a horrible dream. Life seemed to stand still. It was easier for those with children to move on, because children don’t stop growing. But there were so few children left. The villages were destroyed. No one even wanted to try to rebuild. The council was… unbelievable.”
“Immediately after the attack, there were some who blamed the Irina for letting their guard down. ‘They should have been more prepared,’ they said.”
“Most who took that view were condemned, of course.” Astrid shook her head. “What a horrendous thing to say! One elder was attacked and killed by scribes from a house near Leon. They’d lost everything. Not a single survivor from their village. It had been burned while the scribes were fighting the Grigori attack in Paris. They blamed the council for ordering them away.”
Astrid shrugged as she ladled stew into deep bowls and set one in front of Ava. “I don’t know. It wasn’t like now with instant communication. Letters would take weeks or months to arrive. There was so much confusion. Those of us who remained went into hiding. We didn’t know if more attacks were coming. None of us felt safe anymore. Many of the scribes whose mates had survived left with them and hid, even though they abandoned their posts at scribe houses and libraries.”
“They could do that?”