Here’s the next chapter of that serialized thing I’m working on. Let me know what you think.
She jerked awake, sitting bolt upright with her mouth wide open. Silent at first, she drew a breath to scream, but he was there with his hand pressed tight to her lips.
“That would be very bad,” he whispered. “There are things out there in the dark that I cannot save you from, cannot save myself from, either. So in order to keep us both alive long enough for me to answer your questions, you must be very quiet. Can you do that?”
She nodded. He took his hand from her mouth and moved a few feet away, far enough to let her feel less threatened but not so far away that she had room to escape, should that be on her mind. She looked around, at the rough campsite that was nothing more than his bedroll, the spare blankets and clothing he had scrabbled together for her, a small cookfire surrounded by rocks, banked to glowing embers and dug deep enough into the sand as to be invisible from more than a few feet away, and a metal pole jammed into the ground with a ring atop it. His horse was tied to the ring and stood staring at her, as if waiting to see if she was going to be interesting, or edible, or both.
Other than the three of them and his meager belongings, there was nothing to see but the night sky. The moon had set, or perhaps had yet to rise, and stars dotted the dark like some demented toddler had thrown a bucket of glitter into the blackness, with little clumps and streaks of shininess blinking overhead. The moon was down, but one of the blinking Voltarr motherships hung huge in the sky, too small to be a moon, but obviously too large and close to be a star. It could only be one of the orbiting homes of the invaders. Turning her head past each shoulder, the girl saw no lights in the distance to indicate the presence of a town or city, or even fires to show some sign that they weren’t the only people in the world.
She looked at him, sitting cross-legged by the fire. His wide-brimmed leather hat lay on the ground beside him, and he watched her with a steady gaze. His eyes, reflected flickering crimson in the dancing light of the cinders, tracked her every move like a wolf staring down a rabbit. His face was narrow, with chiseled jaw and cheekbones covered in greying stubble, and the creases in the corners of his eyes seemed like they came more from squinting against the sun that any tendency to smile.
“Wh-whe-“ she tried to speak, but couldn’t force the words out through sun-scorched and desert-parched throat. He tossed her a battered metal canteen, and she looked at it for a moment like she’d never seen such a thing, then twisted the cap off and took a sip. Clear water flowed over her teeth, quenching her mouth and throat. She gulped, raising the bottle higher and letting the glorious liquid dribble from the corners of her mouth and down her chin. She lowered the bottle from her lips and took a breath, then raised it again.
“Careful,” his whispered voice sliced the night like a razor, and she stopped, hand halfway to her lips, and stared at him.
“You’re dehydrated,” he said. “If you drink too much at one go you’ll throw up. Then you’ll be even more dehydrated, and I’ll be out a half day’s worth of water. I don’t think that’s something either of us wants.”
She looked back at the canteen in her hands, longing writ large on her face, but she screwed the cap back on and extended it to him.
“Keep it. You need to drink, just don’t drink the whole thing at once.”
She nodded and set the round canteen upright in the sand beside her, leaning it against her leg so it didn’t fall over.
“Where am I?” She asked.
He chuckled, an unexpected sound that rolled across her in the darkness and warmed her fingers and toes. “That’s an interesting question, miss. How do you want me to answer that? Do you need your location, because you were set upon by bandits, or reavers, or sand dogs and don’t remember how far you ran? Do you think you are dead, and this is Hell? Because you surely wouldn’t be the first to think that, although I must unfortunately notify you that we are most definitely alive, and this is no more Hell than a piece of Oklexas dirt can be, which I will acknowledge might be closer to Hell than I care to admit. Are you a Traveller? Which I doubt given that I found you with no tech and practically no clothes, much less anything to indicate you are from anywhere other than Earth. Or are you purely a creature of philosophy, and my correct answer would be ‘here?’”
The girl stared at him for a moment, then took another small drink of water. “Could we start with the first one, please?”
The man laughed an almost silent laugh, then said “We are currently four days’ ride west of Amarillo on the edge of northern Oklexas. I was planning on crossing into Nueva España tomorrow morning and heading to Albuquerque from there, but you might be throwing a little wrench into that plan.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said, and he realized for the first time that she was very young, or at least very innocent. He struck a few options off his mental list of things that may have brought the young woman out into the wilderness on her own, and this raised even more questions.
He stared at her across the fire, his one spare shirt swallowing her gaunt form. The rag she wore as a shift fell almost to dust when he picked her up and tossed her across Mazy’s back to carry her to camp, so when he found a spot he thought looked defensible enough to make camp for the night, he dressed the scratches on her back and stomach, put aloe cream all over her face and arms, and wrapped her in his spare shirt. Now he could see how small she was, how slim her figure, stirring emotions in him he thought were long dead. Not lust, no, she was too young for him that way. Just…feelings.
“Where are you going?” She asked.
“I might ask you the same thing,” he replied. “But let’s start with the less important things. What’s your name, child? I’m Brother Wayland.”
“Are you some kind of priest?”
“Some kind,” he chuckled. “I’m a Brother of the Gun.”
She looked blank. “I don’t know what that means, I’m sorry. I don’t…I don’t really seem to know anything.” Her brow knit and she closed her eyes. “I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what a Brother of the Gun is, I don’t even know my name. I don’t know anything!” Her voice climbed in pitch and volume as she spoke, so Wayland moved to her side.
He put an arm around her, and she clutched at him, trembling. Way felt her ribs through the shirt, reached inside his pocket for a handkerchief, and passed it to the girl. She took it, dabbed at her eyes, then wiped her nose and held it out to him.
“Keep it,” he said, hiding his smile in the darkness. “If you really can’t remember who you are, it might not be the last time you find yourself in need.”
“What is a Brother of the Gun?” she asked again when she had herself more composed.
Wayland fixed her in place with his steady gaze. His eyes were cold, light grey like sun-bleached steel, and spoke of long days in the saddle. “We help people. We deliver justice in places where there often is none, and we offer protection to those who would otherwise be defenseless.” The words sounded old, like something memorized long ago, but also heartfelt. Brother Wayland meant what he said.
The girl sat, pulling her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. She looked across the fire at Wayland. “So who am I?” Her voice trembled a little, but she didn’t cry. The bulging muscles along her jaw told of the effort that required, but she held her emotions more tightly than she clutched her knees against the cool desert air.
“I have no idea.”
“Why am I here?”
“This is as far as I could carry you from where I found you.”
“You were laying out there in the desert, half-covered up in sand and scorched from being out there for at least a couple days. I found you, and brought you here. I thought to put you on Mazy and take you on to Nueva España with me, but you ain’t got the strength to ride yet. So here we are.”
She looked at him, fire kissing his jawline and painting him orange and yellow. He had a strong jaw, a narrow face, and a short beard. Mostly brown, but with a few touches of grey popping through to catch the firelight different. “I…thank you,” she said.
“Don’t thank me yet, little one. It won’t take much time in the sun for you to realize I didn’t do you any favors keeping you alive, and if some of the predators in the night get ahold of you, well…then I reckon I’ll have done us both a disservice.” He scooted away from her, creating space between her bare leg and his denim-clad one.
The girl picked up her canteen and looked across the top of it at Wayland. “You said I…threw a wrench in your plan. What does that mean?”
Way looked at the girl, her wide eyes, dirt-crusted hair and sunburned face. There was no hint of irony or guile in her. She honestly didn’t have any idea what he meant by the common expression. “Well, I reckon I meant that since you can’t ride yet, or couldn’t at least, that I probably won’t get to Albuquerque in three days like I expected to. That, coupled with the fact that I only carried water for one, means that I’m going to have to some refiguring of my plans to keep us both alive long enough to get anywhere that’s anywhere. As opposed to here,” he said, gesturing to the wide expanse of empty desert. “Which is about as close to nowhere as anything I can imagine.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said. Her voice was thready, weak, as if she could barely move enough air to cause a sound. Way couldn’t tell if she was trying to keep quiet, or was just that broken down by whatever left her lying under the sand.
“Don’t be. I couldn’t just leave you there to die. Nobody would do that.” He didn’t bother to tell the child that a fair number of somebodies had obviously done just that. The road between Amarillo and Albuquerque wasn’t heavily traveled, but Way had met at least a half dozen riders or wagons since he’d left the last outpost in Oklexas. At least some of them had to have ridden right by the child lying by the roadside, slowly being bleached to bone in the scorching sun.
“Then thank you,” she said, stronger this time. “I…I think I need to pee.”
Wayland waved his hand off to the right. “It’s pretty safe as long as you stay within sight of the fire. I have no interest in watching you relieve yourself, so you don’t have to fear me peeking.”
She stood, legs wobbly, and Wayland scrambled to his feet to help her stay upright. After a minute, she took a tenuous step forward, holding her arms out to the side for balance. Way held her elbow to steady her, and after a few more shaky steps, she shook him off. “I think I’m fine now.”
“I think you’re a long way from fine, child, but I reckon as how you can manage to go to the bathroom by yourself. Call out if you fall or need help.”
“I thought you said things out there would hear me?”
“They might, but that’s a sight better than something finding you out there helpless. And I don’t have a light, so I won’t be able to find you without some kind of help.” He watched as she walked out of the circle of firelight, wobbly at first, but gaining confidence with each step. Way went over to his pack and pulled out a few strips of jerky, tearing a hunk off one and chewing it as he stared out into the night.
Who was this child?
What was this child?
What did it mean, finding her out here like this? It all means something, it always did,
What kind of Hell was he calling down upon his head, helping her?