The dust was the worst of it, not that she’d mention that to anyone around her. People beside her had bigger burdens, ones she couldn’t blame them for; she was amongst the few to have left very meagre belongings behind - though what blessing it was to have little to lose in the first place, she didn’t know - and Ruby walked with a lighter step and better mood than most others.
But the dust... the sands didn’t care if you were wealthy or destitute, if you were in high spirits or the absolute lowest. The desert wastes kicked up a small sandy squall with every step, and the refugees currently making their way across the wastes were like a miniature army; the march begat a storm continually assaulting the lungs and skins of every man, woman, and child.
“Excuse me, I’m quite hungry, please let me through”. An elderly man was pushing his way through the trudging crowds, finding a new gap in the mass whenever he was unable to force an opening.
“Oh goodness no-”
“Is it too much to hope that he’d been one of the lot to die?” A cackling rang out along with the comment.
“Oh you’re just terrible,” the first voice laughed. The judgemental voices came from a pair of sisters walking a few feet away from Ruby; they’d been her neighbours for a great many years, living in the adobe abode above hers, and their presence in the march had been the sole thing that bothered her almost as much as the dust storm.
“Ahem”. A middle-aged man in a hickory-brown robe let slip a disgruntled snort, making no effort to hide his indignation towards the two women as he walked towards them. “The veiled goddess promises no sanctuary to those who would scorn the responsibilities of kith and hearth,” he exhorted loudly across the travelling congregation.
“Oh, we meant nothing but a private joke Pastor,” the shorter of the women said. Ruby found herself trapped between the three, and began eyeing which nearby groups she could slip into without being noticed.
“Hush Lucinda,” the taller implored. She held her pack to her chest with both hands, a broken strap preventing her from wearing it as most other refugees did. “You don’t need to pay him tithe anymore, his seat fell along with the crooked church that held it”.
The moment the remark landed upon the priest's ears his face reddened, swelling with bluster; before he could launch a retort of his own someone else stepped up to him - the elderly man.
“Which way to the s-store?” the man mumbled. The pastor turned to look at him with a curious stare, whilst the two sisters huffed and whispered amongst themselves again.
“The store sir?” The Pastor asked. Ruby glanced around at the march - each was leaving a ruined home, and salted earth, travelling with what little they had managed to salvage. “There is no store I’m afraid, not anymore”.
“Oh, yes-” the elderly man said. “I u-understand that,” he murmured. A second passed as the two walked in step, the older man never breaking eye contact. “-could help me find the store sir?” he asked again. I have to buy food-”
“There is no store,” the Pastor said, cutting the man off. “I’d offer you some... the church already has precious little...” He turned away slightly. “-we must tend to our own first you see”.
“You!” The elderly man’s voice perked up, his eyes inflamed with fury and recognition. “You stole my bread!”
“I promise, that the church has-” the priest trailed off as he noticed the man was no longer looking at him. Ruby stepped back as she realised the man was instead stumbling towards her.
I don’t have your bread, Ruby meant to reply. “I-what-I’ve never met you-” she stammered instead. The elderly man stepped up as close to her as he could get without actually touching her.
“Sir, the young woman doesn’t have your food-” the pastor walked closely behind, and as the trio stopped he put a gentle hand on his shoulder; the confused old man snapped away from the touch, recoiling so quickly that he stumbled for a moment before righting himself.
“No-no, she stole my bread, I don’t have my loaves-” he croaked.
“She didn’t steal your food, you old fool”. The taller of the two sisters, Grissa, suddenly leapt to Ruby’s defence. The pair had stopped beside the disagreement to join in.
“She did, stole all my loaves- they were cooling on my window and now that’s gone and s-so are my loaves-” the elderly man was growing much louder, his voice rougher and hoarser than it had been before. The dust beat down disproportionately on the five stopped travellers.
“I only have this loaf,” Ruby explained, opening her hastily-strung knapsack to show it, as well as the sparse clothing beneath it.
“Perhaps you can share a little with the poor man?” the pastor suggested.
“Child, don’t you give it to either of them, you’ll need it and don't count on anyone to share with you,” Lucinda chided.
“Well someone must help, else this gentleman will starve!”. None of the travellers passing by stopped to investigate or offer their own food, in spite of the priest's cries.
“Well, what of your church?” Lucinda asked.
“The church is not in the position of giving handouts at such a trying time, we must protect our assemblage. Why can’t one of you obviously well-off women help the poor man?”
“We’re not in the position of giving handouts at such a trying time-”
Ruby shrank back, trying to escape the conversation. The moment she took a step back, however, all heads turned towards her, as if expecting her to resolve the disagreement. The bread hung heavily within the knapsack in her hands, even though it objectively weighed little. She had stolen it, just not from the man in front of her.
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