WE RUN. THROUGH THE NIGHT. THE FIVE OF US. THROUGH the white night-time woods of New Eden. Lugh an Tommo an Ash an Creed an me. The five of us. We run.
Dry tree litter cushions the ground. Hushes the pound of our boots. Our breath puffs steam in the chill. We’re all sharp, tight with intent.
Lugh’s got the rope, slung around his chest. I carry the blastpack. Swaddled in cloth, tucked in my sack, along with my meagre gear.
Long-looker. Sleepkit. Flint. Waterskin. Salt twist. Cooktin. Shirt. Medicine bag. Knife in my boot sheath. Bolt shooter. Ammo belt. My whiteoak bow an a full quiver. An the heartstone hangs at my neck. Cool in the hollow of my throat. That’s pretty well it. It ain’t much.
Guerillas travel light. An fast. An that’s what we are. We’re the Free Hawks, reborn. Set to fight fer the right to live in New Eden. Good land an clean water’s scarce in this world. But it’s here in New Eden. An it’s the birthright of all. Weak an strong. Old an young. People an beasts an all that share the earth. Not jest him an his Chosen ones.
Him. DeMalo. The Pathfinder. His Chosen ones, the Stewards of the Earth. Pure young people. Strong an healthy. Breeders, workers fer his shiny new world. Forced to his service at gunpoint. To be flattered an wooed by him. Convinced an overcome an bent to his will. Kept in line by his Tonton militia.
Tonight we thread through the trees. We each map our own course. We leap over streams. Over rocks. Then a sudden slowdown to pick-pick safe passage through a gangle of overground roots. We cain’t afford no injury. No slips or twists or breaks.
We’re at the dreg edge of New Eden. In the far southeast corner, where it bleeds to the bleak of the Raze. This is deadbone country. No settlement or farms. It’s ridges an hollows an hills. Here the land holds itself close. The earth spreads thin over rock. The trees root wily an tough.
As much as we can, we keep to the high ground. Our forest world’s clear-lit. Washed cold white by the moon. We move outta the shadows. Into the light. Then back to the shadows agin. In an out, over an over. We’re silvered. Whitewashed. Ghosts on the run.
An Tracker’s my ghostly wolfdog. Rough-haired lord of the woods, his great body skims at my side. High above, Nero crow-surfs the night. Ridin the wind on a sea of stars. A sea of restless stars.
It’s star time. Star season. In these short days of the year when the light fails early an things perish, the stars streak through the night. They’re the unquiet souls of the dead. Returnin to earth on unfinished business.
I run at the front fer the most part. But I slip back now an then to save my breath. East, that’s our course, due east by the Plough. It warn’t my plan we should run all the way. It’s jest what we did, what happened. As we left the cave where we’d stopped to rest, I started off a quick walk pace. A few strides later, we was runnin. We’re too wired, too buzzed to go slower.
I keep sharp-eyed from the off. I’m lookin fer Jack’s first waymark. The start of his white spruce trail. White spruce, a tree like no other. Stunted an twisted. Easy to spot, night or day. When I clock the first tree, his first mark, I smile. He’s done jest like we said. On the tree’s north side, on a shoulder-height branch, he’s hung a twist of root. He’s tagged me this shortcut every half-league. It’s our secret. His an mine.
An Jack’s my secret. Everybody else believes him to be dead. They think he got killed a month ago. When we blasted the Tonton stronghold, Resurrection. An that’s how it must be. He’s gotta stay dead. Jack has few friends among us. Them I run with tonight in these woods ain’t his friends.
Ash an Creed hate him fer his time in the Tonton. Jack joined the enemy, sure. To work aginst them, though, not with ’em. But he got tainted by blood. He was there that night, at the Darktrees slaughter when the Tonton killed our friends. The Free Hawks an the Raiders. He took no part in that bloody deed. In fact, he saved their lives. Creed an Ash, that is. Maev too. An he helped us at Resurrection. He was the one who blew the place up. His quick thinkin spared Emmi’s life.
None of that stands to his credit. Not with Ash an Creed. They lost their tribes at Darktrees that night. Their souls was cut deep an fer always. Jack rode with the killers, that’s enough to damn him. If they know he’s alive, they’ll betray him fer sure.
Lugh’s got the biggest hate fer Jack. Tommo comes a close second. Both of ’em fer reasons to do with me. Slim don’t know Jack. Molly an Emmi love him. As always with Jack, it ain’t simple. So we decided, him an me. We cain’t trust all of ’em, so it’s safest we tell none. To them, he has to be dead.
If only they knew. Jack’s on our side. He’s my scout, my spy. Busy workin his tiny network of New Eden rebels. He’s got a few insiders, clear-eyed Stewards who share our aims. An some outcasts. So-called Treedogs, becuz they went to ground in the woods. When DeMalo seized their land, they chose to stay. To stay hidden an cause him trouble.
Jack’s helped me plan this first action. He scratched maps in the dirt. We talked tactics an ammo. He tagged our trail all the way, jest over two leagues from the cave to the bridge. The bridge that spans the Eastern Defile, to join New Eden to the Raze. The bridge that we’re set to blow.
It’s bin newly built by slave labour. DeMalo’s a builder of roads an bridges. Faster travel fer the Tonton. Easier passage fer his Stewards of the Earth as they work their stolen farmland. We aim to smash all of ’em, bit by bit. Way out here’s a good place to start. We’ll test our drill, our discipline, our method. Without no fear of disturbance.
Good thing Jack marked the way fer us. We know New Eden pretty good by now. But till they built this bridge, there warn’t nuthin in this lonely corner. We know it in general, not particular.
I slipped to the rear a while back. Keepin my eyes peeled fer Jack’s final waymark. There’s a white spruce ahead. This one hunches alone an apart. As I come up on it, I slow a bit. Yes, there it is. The twist of root on a branch. The Defile an the bridge lie jest ahead. Hot excitement kicks in me. Now I’ll lead the way agin. As I surge forwards, Tracker keeps pace.
Creed’s a little off to my left. He’s shirtless, like always, tattooed neck to waist. An he’s bootless, also like always. He says his feet map the land as they touch it. The chill’s nudged him into a dandyboy frock coat. Its shabby swallowtails stream in his wake. As I pass him, he flashes a wide, white grin. Silver rings gleam in his ears.
Ash stretches out in a casual lope. Long legs easy. Shoulders low. Her hair flies behind, a waist-length banner of plaits. I nod as I shift past her. Almost there. Her square-jawed face cracks a rare smile. Ash ain’t no misery, not by a long shot. But she ain’t cheerful by a long shot neether. Unless there’s trouble or danger or a fight ahead. Which is what she’ll be hopin. But not in a bad way.
I press on to Tommo. Come right up, close up to him. He shuns me. Ducks his head so’s his hair hides his eyes. But I know what I’d see if I could see ’em. Hurt. An anger. I touch his arm to let him know we’re near the bridge. He shrugs me off. Quick. A bit rough.
Tommo hates me fierce right now. An he’s justified. Steppin on his heart like I did. Heedless, careless of the fallout. At fifteen summers, he tips between boyhood an manhood. An I played them both false, man an boy, with a kiss. A lover’s kiss that was a lie. Now he nurses the bruise of my deceit.
Me an Tracker forge ahead, closin in on Lugh. He’s bin holdin fast as leader fer some time. I noticed he wouldn’t yield to Tommo a little while back. I s’pose he’s makin some kinda point. What that might be, I ain’t got time to consider.
Lugh! I keep my voice low as I pull alongside him. We’re nearly there, I says. I’ll take it from here.
He throws me a glance. His beauty’s whitewashed by the moon. His birthmoon tattoo stands out darkly sharp. High on his right cheekbone, jest like mine. Put there by Pa to mark us as special. We two, rare Midwinter twins. The boy made of daylight, gold as the sun, child of our mother’s heart. The girl, me, dark as the night-time, bein in her brother’s shadow. You’d hardly take us fer kin, Lugh an me, let alone think we shared our mother’s womb.
Fall back, I tell him. I’m leadin us in, you know that.
He don’t acknowledge me. Jest stares straight ahead, with his chin set to mulish. He starts to speed up. So I do too. Before I know it, we’re racin each other. Neck an neck. I glare disbelief at him. Cut it out, I says. C’mon Lugh.
He makes no answer. He’s pushin hisself. Breathin hard. Nostrils flared. Jaw clenched. But he’s bin flat out runnin too long.
With a shake of my head, I kick up my speed. Fine! I says. Be like that!
I pull away easy. We leave him behind, me an Tracker. I glance back. He’s stopped. Bent double with his hands on his knees. His chest heaves as he pulls in air. Ash, Creed an Tommo hafta swerve around him.
What a time he picks to lock antlers. I’ll hafta have speech with him later. Fer now, that problem’s parked. Now, we got a bridge to blow.
† † †
We crouch behind a cluster of rocks, well up the hill above the bridge. We git our breath back as we take in the lie of the land. Tracker flops between me an Ash, his tongue hung out to cool.
Nero sails down onto my head. His claws needle my scalp. As I pick him off, I see the tiny scroll of cherrybark tied to his right leg. It’s a message from Jack. Outta sight of th’others, I untie it. It might be somethin I need to know right away. He’s scratched a pyramid on the bark. No, not urgent. He’s changed our meet place fer tonight. He’ll see me at Irontree. I tuck the scroll in the small leather bag at my waist.
I train my long-looker on the bridge an terrain all around. It’s jest like Jack drew fer me, with a stick in the dirt. An how I drew it fer my crew as we stepped through this op. To a tee it’s how he said it ’ud be. He’s a good detail man, Jack, that’s fer sure.
They’ve built on the iron remains of a old Wrecker bridge. Added some wood support struts an a new bridge deck an beams. Plain an sturdy, forty foot from start to finish, it spans the steep gash of a rocky ravine. The Eastern Defile. It’s a savage axe-slash in the body of the earth. In its belly, far below, runs the wrath of fast water. A thread of river, silver in the night, fumes an foams as it bucks its way downhill.
Ash gives a low whistle. Hope you got a head fer heights, she says to Lugh. If you wanna trade jobs, my offer’s still open.
What? You don’t think I’m up to it? he says.
She blinks at his chippy tone. Don’t git the hump, she says. You know I jest like blastin things.
Specially if it’s built by the Tonton, says Creed.
Slaves, you mean, she says. They’re the ones buildin New Eden.
Okay, I says, let’s run through this one more time. I tap Tommo’s arm. Jest barely touch him. He looks at me. Tommo, I says, advantages.
His dark eyes glitter, unreadable in the night. There’s a mocky little smile on his lips. No cloud, he says. Sharp moon. Small bridge. Quick job. Okay? His rough voice lays down each word over-slow, over-clear.
Heat scorches my cheeks. Of late, he’s bin makin like I talk down to him. Which I most absolutely do not. Maybe a deaf boy shouldn’t fight from the front. Ike used to worry about that. But Tommo don’t ask fer no quarter fer his deafness. He don’t need none. We fought our way outta some real tight spots an Tommo ain’t never let us down. Not once have I treated him special. So it stings that he makes like I do. He knows it irks me. That’s why he does it.
Good, I tell him. Okay, disadvantages. Creed?
He scans the road. That’s our main problem right there, he says.
While he talks, I start takin what I need from my sack. A shrill tin whistle on a cord that I hang around my neck. Our emergency signal. Two blows means split up, run, meet at the rendezvous. Next, the blastpack. Like a brick in size an weight. Wrapped in oiled cloth, the long nettle fusecord in a tidy bundle.
Our sightlines ain’t good, says Creed. Tommo an me’s only gonna have a clear view a hunnerd foot this side, not more’n seventy on the far side. Eh, Tommo? Tommo nods agreement. If anybody was to come around these hills, says Creed, they’d be right on top of us an that means quick decision time. Shoot or don’t shoot.
The narrow dirt road runs from west to east. It hugs the curve of the hills an sweeps into our view at the last minute. Jest like Creed called it.
Yer informant, says Lugh. They’re absolutely sure the Tonton don’t patrol this far out?
Positive, I says. But we stay alert an keep cool heads. An that means all of us, Creed.
What? he says. I’m some kinda hothead? I’m like ice.
Ash, I says, you an Tracker’s our early warnin system. Where you gonna stand lookout?
She’s usin her own long-looker to con the hills all around. She points to the scrubby hogback ridge that runs along, high behind us. There, she says, no question. It’s the highest point around.
Okay, Tracker’s with you, I says. Good luck. Go on, boy, go with Ash.
He hesitates. Obedient, but torn. He’s a one-woman wolfdog. Mercy’s dog when I met him. Then somehow—many days distant from his home—I found him. Rather, he found me. An he claimed me fer his.
Tracker, go, I says.
As he sprints off with Ash, Creed an Tommo take their position behind the rocks. Advantages, disadvantages, the best spot fer lookout, we knew it all before. We talked an walked this entire op agin an agin, but this is the real thing. To repeat everythin now that we’re here sets it in our eyes an minds. I shove three small birch torches in the back of my belt an tuck the blastpack unner my arm.
You sure that thing packs enough power? says Lugh.
I’m sure, I says. Slim knows what he’s doin. Okay, this is it. We’ll work fast as we can.
We gotcha covered, says Creed. He’s all business now, hard-faced an sharp-eyed as him an Tommo load their bows.
Lugh an me hurry down the slope. Nero flies ahead of us. We hit the road, run the few foot to the bridge an scramble down the rocks. It’s dark unnerneath the bridge. A strong smell of fresh-cut wood. As Lugh shrugs off the rope he’s bin carryin, I lay down the blastpack an light a torch with a spark from my flint an steel. I hold it high so’s we can see the structure.
It’s simple. Like a flat roof held up by a peaked roof. The two main girders left from Wrecker days—iron, dead straight, a foot wide—they ram deep into the sides of the Defile. From there, they rise at a angle to meet at the middle of the bridge deck. There’s one vee of new wood struts on each girder. No surprises. It’s all jest as we espected.
I dare a glance at the canyon below. An I wish I hadn’t of. I look away quick. The Defile plunges dizzily, steeply down to the deathly rage of the river. I light Lugh with the torch as he loops his rope around the girder, jest at the point where it spears into the side of the ravine. He ties it off with a slipknot. I light th’other two torches from the first. Then I stick all three into the rocks so’s the unnerside of the bridge is lit.
Meantime, Lugh’s passed th’other end of the rope around his chest. Another slipknot to secure him an he’s ready to go. He straddles the girder. I hand him the blastpack. He tucks it snugly in his coat an starts to hitch along. Up up up towards the middle of the bridge. I pay out the rope as he goes.
Easy now, no hurry, I tell him.
I ain’t got it in mind to run, he says.
He reaches the vee of the new wooden struts. Now he’s gotta pick his way past ’em. Gimme some play on the rope, he says.
Usin the first strut to help him, he gits into a crouch. Then he stands up on the girder. My breath stalls as he makes his way around, over an between the two struts, huggin ’em as he goes. It’s awkward. He places his feet with care. I make sure the rope don’t hamper him.
Then he’s done it. He smiles. Slippy fer the feet, he says. His teeth gleam white in the gloom.
Once agin, he straddles the girder. Once agin, he inches hisself along. Along an up towards the centre of the bridge as I pay out the rope. Unease pricks my skin. Don’t listen to the roar of the river below. Don’t think about the sharpness of the rocks. He slides the blastpack from his coat.
Make sure you wedge it tight, I says. Go slow, Lugh, be careful.
Would you hush, he says.
A wolfdog howl shivers the air. It’s Tracker. It’s the signal.
Someone’s comin, I says.
Git the lights, he says.
But the rope—
Douse the lights!
Don’t move, stay there, I order you! I drop the rope an rush to snatch the torches. I shove ’em flame first in the rocks to douse ’em. As I grab the last one, as I turn to make sure Lugh’s okay, I see him reach out. Reach to jam the blastpack into place.
Lose his balance.
I scramble down the rocks. Leap to grab the rope. With a rush, it snaps taut. Reefed to full length by the weight of Lugh’s body, it catches on the vee of the struts.
Lugh hangs in thin air, high above the river. Held by nuthin but the rope around his chest. In one hand, he clutches the fuse cord by its end. The blastpack dangles far below him.
I fling myself onto the girder. Scrabble along it as fast as I can. Nero swoops an screeches in a panic. Shut up, I hiss.
I clamber into the vee. Wedge myself in. Reach down. Grab hold of the rope. To do what, I dunno. The blood’s poundin in my ears. My gut’s like water.
Lugh stares up at me. His face tight with terror. He twists an swings. The rope creaks.
Then we hear it. Faint at first. The beat of hoofs on the road. Comin at us from the west. A horse snorts. Bridle jingles. Metal. That means primo gear. Two riders. Not in a hurry but not laggin neether. Then they’re upon us. I don’t dare breathe as, not five foot above me, iron-shod hoofs clatter over the bridge. As Lugh hangs from it below. As he twists. An creaks. One rider says somethin. The second one laughs. Two men.
They pass onto the road. I breathe agin. The sounds of ’em start to fade. As the road curves around the hill to the east, I git a clear sight of their backs.
They ride well-groomed mounts with polished kit. Their leather knee boots gleam. They’re turned out neat, with short cropped hair. Dressed head to toe in black. Long black robes. It’s the Tonton. DeMalo’s militia men. In the middle of the night. At the edge of nowhere. What the hell’re they doin out here? They disappear around the bend.
Tonton, I tell Lugh.
Swing me, he says.
Swing me to the side!
I git what he means right away. There’s bushes an tough little trees rooted in the steep sides of the Defile. If I can swing him—some ten foot or so—he can try to grab hold of one an climb to safety. I start workin at the rope. Towards the rocks, then back agin. I’m strong, but I’m crammed an cramped an Lugh’s a dead weight. He hardly moves.
Keep goin, he says. Harder.
I pull. Let go. Pull. Let go. My muscles burn. My shoulders scream. Inch by inch, I labour. I rage the red hot. Make it forge my strength.
Work with me, I gasp. Breathe with me. Out on the out. In on the in. An lean yer weight.
Our eyes fix on each other. We start to work together. Breathe together. Out as I pull. In as I let go. An he leans his weight . . . on the out . . . an the in. Bit by bit, it goes more easy. We swing him out. We swing him back. He goes a little further with every breath.
There’s a rush of feet an Tommo hustles down the side of the bridge. Sent by Creed to see what’s wrong. He takes in our plight at a glance, with a curse. He scrambles down the rocks, further into the gash of the Defile. He finds a handhold on a sturdy scrub tree. He gits in position to grab Lugh the moment he swings close enough.
We swing once, twice, an—
Now! says Lugh.
His arm reaches out as he sails towards Tommo. Tommo stretches to meet him. They grab hands. The force of Lugh’s backswing sweeps Tommo off his feet. They let go. Rocks shower as Tommo scrabbles back from his death. He braces hisself more firmly.
Ready, he says.
This time, as their hands grasp, Lugh’s that much closer. Tommo gives a mighty tug. Lugh grabs the tree an they tumble on top of each other. But he’s safe. Lugh’s safe. They both are. I let go a gasp of relief.
While Lugh clings to the tree an recovers his wits, Tommo hauls up the blastpack with care. I motion him to bring it to me quick. He clambers to the bridge an hitches along the girder to where I’m wedged between the struts.
We should abort, he says.
Hand me the pack, I says. Go help Lugh.
I don’t like the feel of this, he says.
Tommo, do as I say! I tuck the pack safe inside my shirt. I git myself around the struts an then, not lettin myself think, not lookin down, I start to move. Along the girder, inch by inch, in the pitch dark unner the bridge, till I feel my head touch the deck. Then, movin slow, oh so careful, I slide the pack out an, with one hand, I feel it into place. I make sure it’s jammed in tight, then I hitch myself backwards, payin out the fusecord as I go.
Then I’m back on solid ground. It’s done. Lugh an Tommo help me down. As we hurry up the hill, a bank of low cloud tumbles in. Damp an white an thick as woodsmoke. I cain’t hardly see my own feet. We run the fuse as straight as we can. Over boulders, between bushes an trees. By the time we reach Creed, there’s a foot or so to spare.
He’s got a lit spill ready. What the hell happened? he says.
Later, I says. Light it, we bin here too long.
The fuse don’t catch right off. Damp, says Creed. It’s this damn cloud. You know what this means? Ash won’t be able to see nuthin. She won’t hear so good neether.
Lugh’s shiverin with shock. I hug his shoulders. Okay? I says.
Thanks to you, he says. An you, Tommo. He grabs Tommo’s hand. Thanks, man. You saved my life.
I dare to take Tommo’s other hand. To my surprise, he don’t pull away. I couldn’t of done it without you, I says. He gives me the tiniest of smiles.
C’mon, c’mon, Creed mutters. The fuse catches. There’s a hiss. It starts to sizzle. But it’s sluggish. C’mon, he says, burn you beauty, gawdamnmit.
Jest then, Tracker’s wail shudders the cloud. Our heads shoot up.
Tommo mouths, What? at me.
It’s Tracker, I says.
But if Tracker’s wailin agin, that means—
My thought dies. The wall of cloud splits an rolls open, like a door. Down below, three Tonton ride into view. Comin from the west, jest like the other two. Behind ’em, two horse-drawn carts rattle along. Creed curses. I snatch my looker.
In the first cart, straight-backed on the driver’s bench, a boy an a girl sit side by side. In the white cloudlight, the quarter circle brand stands out starkly on their foreheads. Stewards of the Earth. DeMalo’s Chosen ones.
There’s a spotted kercheef tied round her neck. Her hair ripples loose down her back. She ain’t seen more’n fourteen summers. Him, the boy, about the same. Strong an shinin with health, like all Stewards. So young, they’re probly newly paired outta Edenhome. Chosen fer each other by DeMalo, like the top breedin stock they are. The cart’s piled high with table, chairs, tools an other necessaries fer a life on the land. A life where, though? Surely not the Raze. It’s a wasted, desolate place.
But it’s the second cart that stops my heart.
One Tonton drives. Another sits facin backwards, firestick at the ready, keepin watch over their load. It’s slave workers. Maybe ten, maybe twelve of ’em. Men an women, crammed tight together. Sittin on the floor of the open cart. Shaved heads. Iron collars around their necks. Chained together, like slaves always is here. By the ankles when they’re workin, by the ankles an hands an necks fer transport.
Eight more mounted Tonton bring up the rear. Two great hounds pace beside them. Smooth white skin. Raw pink eyes. Massive heads with powerful jaws.
Ghosthounds, says Creed. Dogs of war.
My eyes flick to the fuse. It’s burnin, still sluggish but steady. Headed fer the bridge an the blastpack. Slaves. Innocent blood. I’m on the move. Throwin down the looker, snatchin my knife from its boot sheath.
Tommo grabs my sleeve. Too late, he says.
I fling him off an I run.
Saba, come back! says Lugh.
I pelt downhill, keepin low, chasin the lit fuse. Gotta beat it. Gotta stop it. Lucky it’s damp. I’m gainin on it. I pass it. Do a quick swing about. Snatch at the unlit fusecord, sweepin my knife in, ready to cut, to kill it.
My feet hit some scree. I slip. I’m fallin. I slam to the ground an I’m gone. I slide on my back, boots first, down the hill. Now the fuse burns brisk, hissin past me, racin home. I wing offa trees, crash into bushes. I flail with a wild hand, reachin fer somethin, anythin at all to stop me. I grab a thick root. Sharp jolt, wrist to socket. I jerk to a sudden halt.
I am. Too late.
The first three Tonton ride onto the bridge. Their horses sound soft thunder. An right behind ’em, the Stewards’ cart, loaded high, rolls onto the boards. The sizzlin fuse nips outta sight. Now the slave cart’s about to hit the bridge. I throw myself face down. Arms around my head, cramped tight to my ears.
It blows. A thick boom shakes the earth. I’m thrown in the air. I land with a thump. Stones an dirt shower down. On top of me. Around me. The sound of the world’s gone dull. Like listenin from deep down in water.
I raise my head. My throat’s choked by a warnin scream. A scream I never gave voice to. I squint through the shift of the cloud. An as the boom starts to fade to heavy, shocked air, I see. In flashes. Like dream shards. Through the rain of debris, I catch glimpses of our work. An my skin shrinks to my bones.
Gone. The three Tonton. All gone. The Stewards in their cart. The blameless beasts. Animals an people, now bloody lumps of flesh. Flung like so much bad meat. On the rocks of the Eastern Defile. Bits of cart. Sticks that was chairs, a table. They smash, slide, tumble an crash. Head fer the river below.
No dream, this. A nightmare. The sight seared cold to my soul. I git to my feet. A cart wheel hurtles from the clouds straight at me. Vengeance slammin down from the sky. I scramble an duck. It hits the ground. Bounces wild. Strikes my shoulder an knocks me flyin.
Fire gobbles at the bridge. Orange flames score the night. Smoke billows an rages.
Then. Sounds fade in. Horses. People. Screams. Cries. Through the smoke an cloud an chaos. A Tonton’s bin crushed by his horse. It strains an thrashes as it struggles to its feet. The slave cart’s shattered. Bodies spilled, sprawled still on the road. Still chained at the wrists.
Somethin flutters down to land on my arm. I pick it off an stare. It’s a tatter of spotted cloth. The Steward’s kercheef, the long-haired girl. It’s wet. Dark wet with her blood.
With a clatter of scree, Lugh skids in. C’mon! He hauls me to my feet. Starts draggin me uphill. What the hell, Saba, what was you thinkin?
The words stick to my lips. I tried to stop it, I says.
There’s a shout from below. We glance back to the road. Tonton. Gittin to their feet. Dazed. They’ve seen us. One points at us. Shouts. Gives orders. Six start to run in our direction. The ghosthounds come with ’em, howlin pursuit. A high-pitched wail, like a winter north wind.
Hurry! Creed an Tommo speed us on with anxious hands.
I grab the whistle. Blow two long blasts. Run! I yell. Go! Run!
Creed grabs Tommo an they’re gone. Scattered to the woods above. Ash’ll hear it too, wherever she is. She’ll head right away fer the meet point.
Go! I tell Lugh.
No, I ain’t leavin you!
We meet at the rendezvous. Dammit, Lugh, go. Go!
I shove him in the chest. With a curse, he scrambles off over the hill. I head the opposite way.
† † †
The red hot’s wild in me. Floods me. Speeds me. It flies my feet as I flee through the woods. As I leap felled trees. Vault over rocks. Nero flees with me. He’s silent. Smart bird. Don’t caw, not a peep, or they’ll find us.
Sounds of pursuit. Shouts. The Tonton. Headed away from me. Good, oh good. No, they could be chasin one of th’others. Maybe Lugh. No, not Lugh, please oh please. They’ll hurt him if they find him. Revenge, they’ll want revenge. Fer what we done. What we done, ohmigawd. The blood an the screamin an the blood an the flesh an bits of body blasted an flung—
My stummick heaves sour to my throat. I stumble to a halt an I’m sick. Thinly, wretchedly sick. Bent over, one hand on a tree. With a gasp, a sob, I run on, swipin at my mouth with my sleeve.
Wait. What’s that? Banshee yowls knife the air. Wails that slice to my bones. The ghosthounds. I falter. Listenin. Fearin. Oh gawd, they’re comin this way. Panic sweeps me on. Faster. Faster. I cain’t outrun dogs. I need water. A stream. Gotta lose my scent now.
I crash through the forest. Think, quick quick, think. Water. The bridge. The ravine. The river. Yes. Where did it fall from? Think. Nor-nor-east? Yes, where am I now? Wind’s lifted the cloud. I see Jupiter. Low, behind me. I peel off to the left. Nero sticks with me close.
I scramble over rocks. Stumble. Race on. My lungs burn. I start to hear somethin. Faintly. A rush. Wind in the trees? No, more like water, I think. I follow the sound. The unearthly yawl of the ghosthounds ever louder. Closer, closer, ever closer. My skin reeks of fear. My trail must hang sharp. Faster. Faster, run faster.
Then I bust from the woods, I’m free of the trees an—yes. A river. Narrow an fast. Clear an—oh merciful—shallow. A foot or so deep, no more. I hurry downstream. Dodgin low-hangin boughs, takin care to flag my direction. A snapped twig here, a cracked branch there. Nuthin too much, jest enough. I go a little ways along, then double back an head upstream. Roughly north. That’s good. North. The right direction.
Nero scouts ahead, flappin low to the water. I keep my head movin. Check this way, that way, all around. But it’s quiet. The shallow rush of the river. A redthroat warbler tunin up. The soft sounds of a wood as it gladdens to the day. Not long till dawn, not long now. The hounds ain’t wailin no more. Could it be? Did I manage to throw ’em off my trail? What if they found other quarry? Tommo or Creed or Lugh? I cain’t hear nuthin though, not a thing. Surely I would. Shots or shouts or somethin.
I scoop handfuls of water as I go. Swill my mouth clean an spit.
Jest ahead, a dead pine’s toppled. It bridges the river. Blocks my way. Nero lands on it an goes fer a bug. Stabbin the bark with his beak. I straddle the tree an grab him.
Find ’em, Nero, I whisper. Go find the dogs.
I launch him high to the air. He soars above the woods fer a bird’s-eye view an disappears from my sight. The grey sky’s smudged to palest pink. Dawn’s on the break. A new day.
I slide off my bow an nock a arrow. I slip back into the water. Armed an wary, I track upstream. Above the water’s chatter, the air hangs heavy. Intent. It’s a stalker’s silence. My heart ticks in my throat.
The river curves. I edge round the bend. A few strides on, it widens to a pool calm an peaceful. The woods huddle close. Tangled roots sprawl into the water. As I wade through the pool, it deepens. To my knees. Then my thighs.
Nero dives at me. From nowhere. The world explodes. A racket of howls an wails. The ghosthounds! There! White terror streakin through the woods straight at me. Here, they’ll be here any second. A wild glance around as I shoulder my bow. A sturdy big cedar sweeps low to the pool. I leap from the water. Grab a branch. Pull myself up an start to climb.
The ghosthounds blast from the woods. They land with a splash in the pool jest below an throw theirselfs up in the air at me. Their bodies twist. Fangs slash. Jaws snap. I snatch my foot away jest in time. I scramble higher, higher. Their hot rage blasts me. They snarl an slaver. Claw at the air. Crash back in the water an leap agin. They’re frantic to tear me apart.
I go high as I can. I crouch tight to the trunk. I cling to it, huddle among its thick boughs. I’m tremblin. Hand on my heart. My rackety heart, set to bust from my chest. The heartstone. It’s hot on my skin.
The heartstone? I grab it. Hot. That means Jack. But—Jack? My lips move, soundless, as I think his name. Jack’s leagues away. I don’t unnerstand.
Skoll! Hati! Down! A man’s voice commands the dogs. Come, he says. To me.
The ghosthounds hush. I can hear ’em splash from the pool. Hear ’em pantin fer breath. That voice. That voice.
Down, the man tells ’em agin.
There’s silence fer a moment. Then he laughs. A short, this-ain’t-funny kinda laugh.
Treed like a cat, he says. I was wondering when you’d show your hand. Come down, Saba. I know you’re there.
That voice. Deep an dark. Cold panic grips me.
It ain’t Jack. Oh no. It’s DeMalo.
† † †
DeMalo. It cain’t be. But it is. That means he was at the bridge. He must of bin with them Tonton at the rear. Ridin among his men, like he’s wont to. DeMalo. Here. I don’t believe it.
So, not dead after all, he says. Not that I ever thought you were. He’s outta breath from the chase. His anger’s leashed tight. You see, they brought me her body right away, he says. The girl in red. Your friend, the Free Hawk.
Maev. At Resurrection. Shot by the Tonton. Her hand pressed hard to her side. Her life drippin to the floor.
Gimme yer dress, she says. That’s all they seen, a girl in a red dress. Help me, Saba. Quick.
We’d rescued Emmi. Nearly got away clean. Jest me an Maev left in the fortress. Then I made a mistake. An we got found out. The Tonton gave chase an shot Maev. A mortal wound. She was done an she knew it. Her final act was to save our lives. All of our lives. By puttin on my dress.
Not a bad idea, says DeMalo, her wearing the dress I gave you. I’d think it was you who fought to the death. You who held off my men so your friends could escape.
Now git outta here, she tells me. As far as you can, as fast as you can. Go!
That was my last-ever sight of her this side of the stars. As I jumped to the lake far below, I glanced back. Her head held high, hair loose to her waist, a shooter gripped in each hand. Maev. The Free Hawk warrior queen. Frozen in that moment in my memory.
They said she was fearless, says DeMalo. That she fought with blazing courage. I laid her on the pyre myself. Honoured her with full warrior ceremony, in case you care. What a tribute to her sacrifice, Saba. You, cowering in a tree. She was worth a hundred of you. Whoever she was.
Blood slams to my head. I scramble down the tree an drop to the water. I face him. Bow drawn. Arrow nocked.
Her name was Maev, gawdamnn you, Maev, I says.
We’re ten foot apart. Me in the pool, thigh-deep. Him standin at the edge, the two ghosthounds eether side. They’re laid down all obedient, tongues drippin, their raw pink eyes fixed on DeMalo. He ain’t armed. Jest a shooter in his belt. He wears knee boots, britches an shirt. A black cloak draped over his shoulders. Slung across his chest is a worn leather bag. He holds my barksack in one hand.
Oh I see, he says. So I’m the one at fault here, am I? He dumps my sack, throws off his cloak an steps into the pool.
Come any closer, I kill you, dogs or no, I says.
He don’t pay no heed. He moves slowly towards me. Who left their wounded friend to die? he says. Who blew up that bridge? Who killed those people? Twelve at my count. What do you make it, Saba?
I pull my bowstring tighter. I mean it, stay there, I says.
But on he comes. Dark eyes fixed on me. Let me remind you what you said, he says. That night you came to my room. You said, there’s no point to this life if we don’t at least try to make things better. You do remember that?
Shut up, I says. I cain’t think fer the noise in my head. It’s screamin, Shoot! Finish this! What’s the matter with you? Shoot, fergawdsake! Shoot him!
He wades silent, intent, towards me. Do you remember what else you said? You said, I want to work with you, Seth. I want to make the world a better place.
His voice is rich brown earth.
We can’t go on as we are. We need to find a new way. That’s what you said, Saba. Is this your new way? Destroying? Killing? I’m creating something. I’m bringing order to chaos. I’m making a new world, one blade of grass at a time. Healing the earth and its people. I thought we wanted the same thing.
Shut up, would you? Jest shut up! I grip my bow tight. Tighter. C’mon, c’mon, I tell myself. One shot an this’ll all be over. Chop off the head of the snake. Do it an be done. Do it now.
He stops two foot away. He opens his arms wide. He’s givin me a clear shot to kill him.
His silver bracelet gleams on his wrist. His thin white shirt hangs damp. Through it, I can see his Tonton blood tattoo. The red risin sun over his heart. My skin tightens at the smell of him. Darkly green. Warmly juniper. The sun trickles shy through the trees. It trembles on his hair, thick an black as Nero’s feathers. His broad cheekbones. His smooth, unreadable face. His watchful, beautiful face.
I cain’t. I cain’t do it. Slowly, I lower my bow. I says, Gawdamnn you sonofabitch.
He brings his arms down. Another perfect chance wasted, he says. Just like that night in my room. Whatever you put in my wine to knock me out, another drop or two would have killed me. Isn’t that right? It would have been so easy. But you didn’t. Why is that, I wonder? He steps in close. Touches the heartstone. It burns in the hollow of my throat. Sweat trickles between my breasts.
He touches my bare skin. It shivers at his touch. His hand brushes aginst the heartstone. It’s hot, he says.
It’s a heartstone, I says. The closer you git to yer heart’s desire, the hotter it burns.
He says, Am I your heart’s desire?
No no no. Step away, step away from him now. He cain’t be trusted, he’s dangerous, my enemy. But I don’t. I don’t move.
Why can’t you kill me, Saba? he says.
I could ask you the same, I says.
The first time I saw you at Hopetown, he says, I knew you. Who you really are. Who you can be.
You don’t know me, I says.
Oh, but I do, he says. You have a rare fire within you. The power to change things. The courage to act in the service of something greater than yourself. And you lower yourself to this shabby misadventure. What are you doing?
I’m doing good, he says. I’m guiding people, freeing them from want and hardship and suffering, showing them the way to a better future. You were there at that dawn, in that bunker. You witnessed my visions of the world as it was. The lushness of the land, the richness of the seas. Those magnificent creatures. Unimaginable wonders. You do remember?
I couldn’t ever fergit what I seen at that dawn.
At this moment, he says, in this place, we have a real chance, maybe our only chance, to start again. To do right by the earth this time. We can make a better world. We can know some of that wonder. Don’t tell me you don’t want that. I was watching you. I saw your face. Your tears. You care just as deeply as I do.
His words slide softly around me. They grip. Tighten. Pull me towards him.
You kill people to git what you want, I says.
So do you. You’ve just done it again, he says. But this isn’t about what I want. I’m doing what’s right. I’m making difficult, real decisions every day. Allocating what scarce resources there are to those who can make best use of them. I’m behaving morally. Responsibly.
Morally, I says.
Most people just survive day to day, he says. I have a higher calling. To serve the greater good. Any violence is regrettable, but it’s a means to an end. You might even say, a virtuous necessity. You remember what I told you. We’re cleaning the infected wounds of Mother Earth. Did you weep when you destroyed that cesspit Hopetown? Did you lose sleep over any scum that might have burned in its flames?
I cain’t make no answer to that.
No, he says. We are so alike, Saba.
A virtuous necessity, I says. Is that what yer Stewards call it when you murder their newborns?
There’s no killing of infants, as you well know, he says. The weak are left in the open overnight. If they’re still alive in the morning, they get another chance. It’s the way of the world and everyone here understands that. Does a bird feed all its young equally? Of course not. The healthiest and largest grow and thrive. The weak fall back and perish. If we have any chance of healing Mother Earth, we need the strongest and the best. The greater good must always be served.
His eyes persuade. His voice woos. His words caress. We have a destiny, he says. Together, Saba. We’re born to command, not obey.
At last, at last I look in his eyes. Eyes so dark they’re almost black. Heavy lids that hide who he is. In the night-time mountain lake deep of his eyes, I see a tiny reflection. It’s me.
I ain’t yer creature, I says.
I don’t want you to be. I have plenty of those.
He bends his head. His mouth so close. His warm breath kisses my lips. Oh, my traitor soul. What is it in me that cleaves to him? To blur me melt me lose me.
I lose myself in the touch of him. The taste of him. The smell of him. Till I feel the moment when the edges of me start to blur. I lead him to his bed. We lie down together. An I melt to the dark, blank heat.
My skin trembles. Jest barely do I whisper. But I do. I whisper,
You will not . . . have me.
He goes still. Perfectly still. In the silence between us, the day holds its breath. Then,
I step back. From him. Away. From him. Air floods my lungs with such a rush that I’m dizzy. To heal the earth. That’s right. But how he’s doin it is wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. The greater good. Moral. Virtuous. He can twist lies into truth an truth into lies till I don’t know one from the other. An he can twist me. Till I don’t know who I am. Till I don’t know what I believe.
We did wrong today at the bridge. An he’s wrong. He is wrong. What’s right must lie somewhere else. Between us maybe. Or beyond us.
If you keep on with this course, he says, more people will die. Maybe even people you care about. Your sister. Your brother. How many are you? Ten? Twelve? You’re out of your depth. If I were you, I’d weigh my chances carefully.
I says, This earth belongs to everythin that lives here. Not jest yer Chosen ones, them that you deem worthy. Clean water an decent land is everybody’s birthright. You cain’t take it. You cain’t own it. The Free Hawks ain’t goin nowhere.
Well rehearsed, Saba, he says. Who put those words in your mouth? He’s silent fer a moment. As always, I cain’t read nuthin in his face. Not a hint of what’s goin on inside of him. Then he says, I’m going to make you an offer. It’s a generous one, in the circumstances. You’ll formally surrender to me, all your weapons and your fighters. I’ll guarantee everyone safe passage over the Waste, your family and friends. I’ll provide them an escort as far as the Low China Pass. From there, it’s a decent trail west through the mountains. This is all, of course, with the strict understanding that if they ever return to New Eden, they’re dead.
An in return? I says.
You, he says.
No. My wife.
Same thing, I says. I’ll see you in hell first.
You and I are on the side of the angels, he says.
He wades to the edge, grabs a branch an pulls hisself outta the pool. Water showers offa his britches an boots. As he picks up his cloak, the ghosthounds rise. I’ll rebuild the bridge in a week, he says. If you hit me again, I’ll hit you back tenfold. When you’ve had enough, if you’re still standing, come and find me. My offer’s good until the blood moon. Like I said, I’m feeling generous. After that, I’ll have your whole misstarred mob hunted down and killed. Wherever you run to. And that includes you, Saba. Believe me, I’m not sentimental.
So you say, I says. You had yer chances, jest like I have. I’m still here.
This is the endgame, he says. We play by new rules from now on. He starts to go. Oh! He turns back, like he’s jest remembered somethin. I don’t suppose you’re pregnant, he says.
A swift move, my bow’s up an I fire. My arrow close-shaves him. Spears the tree next to his head. The dogs move. Ready to go fer me. A lift of his hand halts ’em. DeMalo didn’t dodge. Didn’t flinch. His ear drips red on his white white shirt.
New rules, I says.
The blood moon, says he.
With a bow of his head, he disappears among the trees, the great white dogs at his heels.
† † †
I don’t move. Not a twitch. My tight twisted heart tracks DeMalo. Not by sound. He moves silent, him an his dogs. No, I track him by the heat of the heartstone. It fades. It cools. Then it’s cold. He’s gone.
I let down my bow. A long breath shudders out. My bravado whimpers an dies. His will drags at me, strong as a fast river current. It takes all that I got to resist.
I wade my shaky legs to the bank an slump among the mossy roots. Gawdamnn heartstone. Not DeMalo, my heart’s desire. Never, never DeMalo. I rip the thing off. Pull my arm back to fling it, drown it, rid myself of its hot lies. But I hesitate. I cain’t. It was my mother’s. The only thing I ever had that belonged to her. I shove it deep in my pocket.
I ease my achin shoulder. Only now do I feel it. That cart wheel at the bridge slammed into me hard. I’ll have a bruise an then some to show fer it.
DeMalo’s rattled me to the marrow. His last words grip my head like a vice. I ain’t with child, I sure as hell ain’t. Oh, help. First that nightmare at the bridge, then him trackin me, huntin me down with them unearthly hounds. Can he really mean what he says?
The blood moon. The first full moon after the harvest moon. Think now, think. Last night, as we ran through the woods. The moon was on the wax. A quarter moon. That means . . . when? Seven nights from now? Seven. Generous, he said. That ain’t nuthin. He could be lyin. Bluffin. No. We’re in the endgame, he said. New rules.
If you keep on, more people will die. Maybe people you care about.
I lost so many that I care about already. An we ain’t no further ahead. Seven days. We’ll never defeat him. We’ll hafta run.
I’ll have you hunted down and killed. Wherever you run to.
He will too. An I’m instantly hot with shame I’d ever think of runnin. Like I’m some common, everyday coward. That jest proves how he gits to me. We’re all set on this fight. But Emmi. I need Emmi away from danger. I should of done it long ago. I’ll send her to Auriel Tai. Back to the Snake River camp. She’ll be safe there. If we was to die, she’d have Auriel to raise her to a woman. Lugh can take her there. No, he’d never leave me an he won’t have a star reader raise Em. Tommo, then. He can go with her.
So. Stand an fight. An win. But we ain’t gonna win by blowin bridges.
If you hit me again, I’ll hit you back tenfold.
There must be another way.
A cautious quork comes from the tree above me. Nero sidles out from wherever he’s bin hidin all this time. This is the crow who’s fought wolfdogs with beak an claw. Who’ll rush to defend me from all dangers. Unless, of course, that danger’s called DeMalo.
Fat lotta good you are, I tell him. Thanks fer nuthin. You led him straight here.
He drops onto my lap then climbs my front to nibble on my ear. He always does that when he feels guilty. The thing is, he likes DeMalo an he knows he shouldn’t. He’d of gone fer the dogs in my defence, no problem. But he’d never harm DeMalo an the dogs was with him, so he must of got confused.
Whose side are you on? I says. I hug him close an stroke his breast feathers. They’re growin back good. Where DeMalo’s hawk wounded him, where DeMalo stitched him—a month ago now—it’s healed well. Who am I to talk? I says. Whose side am I on? I had him an I couldn’t kill him. I couldn’t. What the hell’s wrong with me? I kiss Nero’s head. We cain’t tell nobody about this, you hear?
He chitters agreement. Nero. Th’only livin creature I can speak to freely these days. I gotta guard myself close with everybody else. A leader tells her people as little as possible, only what they need to know. That’s somethin I learned from Slim.
More people will die. People you care about. Your sister. Your brother.
Lugh, I says. Ohmigawd, Lugh, of course. C’mon, we gotta git to the rendezvous. Make sure they all made it okay. I jump to my feet. Nero spills to the ground with a squawk of protest. As I gather my gear, I says, They’ll be wonderin where we are. Emmi’ll be inside out with worry. Nero, we gotta go. C’mon.
He plays deaf. Beak deep in his birdy armpit, mutterin somethin about a mite. He’ll catch me up later. When it suits him.
I shoulder my barksack an bow. As I pass, I wrench my arrow from the tree.
It’s the first time in my life I ever shot to miss.
† † †
I’m cautious as I leave the pool. I set a course due north fer the rendezvous point at Painted Rock. I keep my eyes sharp, my ears keen, my bolt shooter ready in my hand. All clear. Nuthin untoward. No sound in the woods but the sounds of a wood. The bubble chat of warblers. The sigh of the wind. The creak of trees as they ease their bones.
After a couple hunnerd foot, I start to relax. Then. Behind me. A shift in the air. Not a sound, but somebody’s there. As I start to move, a gun shoves me in the neck. Hard to the base of my skull. I stop dead. I know the feel of that snubby nose. A shortbolt shooter. A fast blast. A messy end.
The voice comes from close behind me. I’ll be takin your weapons an pack. An it’s all the same to me if I have to kill you for ’em. You’re gonna drop your gun first, then your bow. One at a time, nice an easy.
It’s a woman. She’s steady-handed with the shortbolt. I can tell by the angle she’s taller’n me. A whisker below six foot.
I let my shooter fall to the ground. She smells of earth an sweat. She sounds of hard years an hard choices. Somethin starts to jig at the edge of my mind. I hesitate a moment.
I said, the bow! She presses the shortbolt fiercer, deeper into the tender spot between my spine an skull. I slide it offa my shoulder. My rare whiteoak bow, the gift of a shaman. I toss it carefully to one side. My quiver follows. I don’t think she’s clocked my knife yet. It’s tucked away in my boot sheath.
She snatches it. Quick as a rattler, she moves. The knife’s gone an the gun didn’t budge. She’s good. Must have long arms.
Let’s have your pack, she says.
I drop that too.
Hands up, she says. On your head.
I do it.
Now, she says. On the ground. Kneel.
The red hot flashes an I’m back at Pine Top Hill. With Emmi, prisoner of Vicar Pinch. The rest of us beat by him an his Tonton. Outfoxed. Outnumbered. I knelt at his feet an begged fer their lives.
I don’t kneel fer nobody, I says.
She grabs my collar. Kicks me. Back of my legs. I’m down. On my knees. Gun hard to my skull.
Didn’t your pa ever teach you manners? she says.
Them words. The very same. An I’m thinkin, me an Emmi in a sweetgrass valley. A cabin by a stream, bowls of stew an tough kindness. No. No. It cain’t be her.
Nero drops from the sky. He’s a screamin fury. Full attack, with beak, wings an claws. He slashes, beats an screeches. The woman staggers back an I’m free. I scramble around. Jump to my feet. An it is, it’s her. It’s Mercy. Ma’s friend Mercy. We thought she was dead. What’s she doin here?
She’s on the ground, scrabblin to git away from Nero. Arms huggin her head, pertectin herself. Her hair’s bin shaved to snow-white stubble. Around her neck there’s a iron collar. A slave collar.
Nero’s at her. In a flurry of feathers. I can see he’s drawn blood. He means to do worse. Nero, no! I yell. Stop! Go on! I shoo him away an he takes to a tree to glare at me an grumble. Mercy’s lyin on her side, folded in on herself. I crouch at her side.
Mercy, I says. It’s okay, Mercy. It’s me. It’s Saba. Allis’s girl. Willem an Allis. I touch her hand. Lightly. Jest barely. In case she’s a shade, a shadow. But she’s warm. She’s real.
We came to you at Crosscreek, I says. Half a year back an more now. Me an Emmi, remember? When Pa got killed. When the Tonton took Lugh. I found him, Mercy. I got him back.
Slowly, slowly, her arms come down.
Here, I says. Look! I pull the heartstone from my pocket.
She stares. Dazed. Disbelievin. Ma gave the heartstone to her, long years back. Well before I was born. Then Mercy gave it to me. From friend to friend, from friend to daughter.
Saba, she says. Can it really be you? I help her to sit. She stares at me. She lays a work-rough hand on my face. It ain’t possible, she says.
I feel tears prick my eyes. I smile ’em away as I hang the heartstone around my neck. I say what Jack always says. Nuthin’s impossible, I says. Unlikely, but not impossible. That’s one thing I learned since last we met.
An much more besides, I’d say. Her shrewd brown eyes is readin me. Seein further, deeper than I’d like. A raw girl came to me at Crosscreek, she says. I don’t see that girl no more.
Lemme help you, I says. I hand her to her feet an we stand there. We take a long look at each other.
Tall an lean an weathered an tough. An so strongly alive an wise. Mercy was like some magnificent tree. Livin free an alone in her little green paradise, hidden away deep in the woods. A handsome woman with high cheekbones, cropped white hair an dark brows. Now her flesh clings to her bones. Her mean hemp slave shift hangs ragged to her knees.
In body, she might be less. But in spirit, she’s somehow more. She wears her slave collar like the finest Wrecker gold.
We thought you was dead, I says.
I nearly was, she says. Some bugger blew up a bridge just as we was about to cross it. But I thank ’em just the same. Gave me the chance to slip my chains. It’s easier to steal the key from a dead guard. Not to mention his gun. Speakin of which—
As she goes to collect the shortbolt from the ground where it fell, I says, Yer welcome. My pleasure.
She turns, startled. It was you? she says.
Me an some others, I says. I gotta rendezvous with ’em at a place called Painted Rock. Four leagues north. Yer comin with me. I gather my stuff as I’m talkin. The scattered weapons an sack.
I’ll do my best to keep up, she says. If I slow you down, you leave me.
I wince at the sight of her arms, bloody where Nero attacked her. Sorry about Nero, I says. Are y’okay?
I’ll survive, she says. I’ve had worse. Thin white lines, the scars of a whip, criss-cross her sun-tough skin.
How’d they git hold of you? I says.
Later, she says. Let’s move. They might still be about.
She readies her shortbolt fer action an I do the same with my shooter. She grabs my barksack an shoulders it. Kills my protest with one fierce look. I ain’t dead yet. Lead on, she says.
I whistle at Nero. We set off at speed, alert to any sound, any movement. An me an Mercy head fer the rendezvous.
† † †
He was caught soon after they’d all split up. Hijacked by the mist, tricked by the terrain, he ambushed himself at a dizzy steep ravine. As he reeled back from the edge, there they were. Three Tonton, their firesticks aimed at his heart.
He braced himself for the shot. The flare of the muzzles. The impact. The oblivion, swift and sure. He was calm. Blue calm. He felt a beat of wonder at that.
But no shot came. Death, his choice. To turn and leap and cry out for life as he pedalled the air to the rocks below. No blue calm there. He surrendered. Hands bound behind him, hooded and gagged, they led him stumbling through the woods. Half a league or so, he reckoned. They stopped in what he took to be a clearing. He was made to sit on the ground.
They waited. The four of them waited. He could feel when the mist began to lift. The day warmed itself on his skin. Time passed. They waited.
Suddenly, they were scrambling, hauling him to his feet. His hood was taken off, his gag untied.
The two ghosthounds came first. They slipped through the trees into the clearing and sat right away, panting. A few moments later, he appeared. The man they were all waiting for. He’d been more than half expecting it—who else would the Tonton wait on with such disciplined patience? Still, his heart lurched and quickened.
Up close. Full power. The night dark gaze tethered him. Circled him. Considered him. Then. In the black water deep of the Pathfinder’s eyes, there was a ripple.
He smiled. The smile of a man who’d found what he’d been seeking.
We have much to talk about, he said.
† † †
I’d fergot about Mercy’s crippled ankle. The one she broke an had to set herself. Did a bugger of a job—her own words—an got left with a limp. Her spirit’s bin forged by hardship. Her body’s tough from a lifetime of toil. She don’t ask fer no favours. She don’t let herself fall behind. But she’s taxed by the pace, I can tell.
By mid-mornin, she’s slowed down considerable. We’ve only gone two leagues, jest halfways there. Weak to begin with, her flight up the hill an through the woods must of tapped her out. It’s only sheer grit keeps her goin. I hate to, but we’ll hafta stop an rest soon. I bite down my frustration. If I was on my own, I’d be runnin flat out.
Deadbone country’s given way to a scrubby grassland. The day’s bloomed to a muggy fug. Hot an sticky an close. We skirt a leery path around a lonesome farm, keepin to a narrow ribbon of jack pine. Some cack-handed fool’s bin hackin it hard fer firewood.
Can you believe it? Mercy shakes her head in disgust.
A few steps on, we see the fools. In a field in front of a tyreshack, a Steward couple quarrel furiously over a broken plough. A pair of kids, fifteen or so, bein kicked in the pants by nature. They’re managin to keep around the shack clear an the track to the road too, but that’s it. Billows of bramble an chokeweed romp the fields. Tethered to a spindlebush next to the shack stands a neat red pony.
Wait here, I tell Mercy.
Keepin low, I dash through the chokeweed, slip the pony’s tether an lead him quietly back to her.
He’ll make yer goin easier, I says. Lemme help you on. She steps in my cupped hands, I boost her onto his back an we hurry away without notice.
Once we’re well gone I says, They’ll find life a bit harder without no pony.
From the look of ’em, says Mercy, I’d say it might well be the last straw. Them two got no skills, no knowledge. You can see there ain’t no trust between ’em. They probly hardly know each other. It won’t take much to make their house crumble. It don’t stand on strong foundations.
Let’s hope, I says.
That was a half-decent place, not so long ago, she says. Resettlement, the Tonton call it. I call it what it is. Stealin. Whoever had that bit of land stole from ’em, they was earth-wise. Not like them hopeless kids. No, they would of watched an listened an worked through the seasons. They would of learned from their patch of earth. What it needs. What it don’t need. How they could live together. That takes years.
I know she’s thinkin about her green valley at Crosscreek. The cradle of her toil an care an hope. Wonderin if it’s in good hands or gone to ruin. Her small wooden shack shaded by pines. The red bench by the door. The murmur of shallow water over stones.
If Lugh saw that mess, he’d spit fire, I says. It’s his dearest wish to have some good land. To work the earth. Fer us to be settled.
An you? she says. Is that what you want? A life workin the land?
I ain’t thought about it much, I says. That’s fer later. Right now, I got bigger things on my mind.
The blood moon. That’s what’s on my mind. Seven nights away.
† † †
I told Mercy a lie. I have thought about it. A life workin the land.
Lugh’s always wanted the same thing. To be planted in one place. To live by the heartbeat of the earth. Its rise an fall an rise an fall. Where nuthin changes, but everythin changes. When we was little, he’d kneel in wonder to the first grass of spring. I’d trample it as I tried to do the same.
I wanted what he wanted, though. Of course I did. We belonged together. We was made together. Two halfs of one whole. Boy an girl. Fair an dark. We took it as a given that we’d be together all our lives. It would never of occurred to us that we wouldn’t. But that was before. Before the Tonton came to Silverlake an killed Pa an took Lugh an everythin got changed ferever.
This time we’re in is after.
After is like this man Pa told us about. He got gangrene in his arm an had to have it chopped off, jest below the shoulder. He’d bin without it fer years when Pa met him, but he swore blue he could feel that arm still. The weight of it. The urge to reach out with his long-gone hand. I could never imagine that. Not at all. Then Lugh got took from me. The first cut was made. An before we knew it, before eether of us could stop it, he got cut from me an me from him. By fate an chance an destiny. By death an betrayal. By wounds to the soul too big to be spoke of. By secrets an half-truths an lies.
When I lived in before, I never thought there’d be after. Now I know how that man must of felt.
† † †
I still got stones in my boots from the bridge an Mercy’s badly in need of water an food. A half league on from the farm, I call a rest stop at the ruins of a small Wrecker temple. The few pine trees growin within its crumbly stone walls grant us some welcome shade.
As the stolen pony gits to work on a patch of late nettles, I tip a stream of tiny pebbles from my boots. As Mercy loosens the cords on hers, a shadow of pain tightens her lips.
You okay? I says.
She nods. I hand her the waterskin an she takes a long, parched pull. That’s good, she says.
I drink an pour some in the cap fer Nero. Once he’s dibbled his fill, I trickle the rest over his head to cool him. He shutters his eyes in pleasure. I rummage in my sack for eatables. A cake of dried bitter-root wrapped in a leaf. That’s it. Sorry, I says. It’s slim pickins.
Not to me, she says.
I give her it all. I ain’t hungry. I gather a lapful of fallen pine cones an crack ’em open fer the nuts. I give most to Mercy. A few to Nero fer a treat.
She chews slowly. Makin each bite last. Pine nuts an bitter-root, the taste of freedom, she says. Who’d have thought? An who’d have thought it ’ud be you come to my rescue? The ways of chance are strange indeed.
Some chance, I says. Meant to be, I’d say.
She smiles. There speaks the daughter of a star reader, she says. Who knows? You may be right.
We’re silent as she eats. The weight of our unasked questions grows ever heavier. Hers to me. Mine to her. An I feel somethin else growin too. Inside of me. The need to say somethin. To tell. To confess.
A lot happened after I left you, I says. When we got to Hopetown—you did warn me it was a bad place. It was worse than bad. I done some . . . things. So many things along the way. I killed some people. Not becuz I wanted to, I had to. It was kill or be killed. Is that wrong?
I didn’t mean to say all that. I really hadn’t. Hell.
That’s a big question, says Mercy. Is it ever right to kill another person?
I’m jest openin my mouth, jest about to ask how she got slaved when she says,
The Tonton came to Crosscreek one day. To run me off or . . . burn me out or kill me an take my land. That’s the first time I felt the lash of a whip. But when they found out I heal, they decided I’d be useful. I was set to work in one of their babyhouses. I’ll help any woman give birth. I will not be party to leavin a newborn outside overnight, to be took by a beast or killed by the cold. That’s what they do with the weak ones.
So I’m told, I says.
Exposure, they call it, she says. The baby’s left out, naked. If they make it through the night, they’re judged tough enough. They git another chance. But I ain’t never seen one brought back. I used to sneak out to try an save ’em. Oh, I had all kinds of schemes, but I never managed it. Always got caught. They whipped me plenty, but I kept on tryin. They got fed up with me in the end. Decided to wring the last little bit of life outta me labourin on their roads. We was headed to start work on a new one when you blew the bridge.
What’s all that about? I says. A new road in the Raze an settlers. The Raze is a deadland.
No idea, says Mercy. I’ll tell you this, though. Them big hounds that was runnin the woods—
Yeah, I lost ’em in some water, I says.
—they came with this Tonton, she says. He showed up with the dogs when we was well on our way. He just started ridin at the back. None of ’em said a word, but they knew who he was all right. They rode a lot taller from then on. If they send somebody important like him, I figger it means the job’s important.
I figger you might be right, I says.
I’ll tell you this too, she says. That road in the Raze would have bin my last. There ain’t much left of me.
We’ll git you strong agin, I says.
She pops another nut in her mouth. With a frown, she eases the iron slave collar.
Is it heavy? I says.
The worst thing is how fast you get used to it, she says. She tips her head back an closes her eyes. Where Nero pecked an scratched her, the blood’s dried. On her arms an shoulders an a couple places on her neck. I dig my medicine bag from my pack. I wet the end of my sheema from the waterskin, kneel at her side an commence to dab her clean. At the first touch, a little smile curves her lips.
Don’t git yer hopes up, I says. I ain’t no good at doctorin, not like you. Remember you fixed my hand that got shot? I show her my right hand. You did a neat job, I says. I tell you, I collected a good few scars since then. I got goatweed unction. You want some?
Thanks, she says. As I smear it on her wounds with a careful pinky, she looks at the heartstone. Our eyes meet. My face starts to warm. I drop my gaze to my task.
Feels like a lifetime ago I gave you that, she says.
What is it? It’s pretty, says Emmi.
The pale rosy stone feels smooth an cool. Shaped like a bird’s egg. A thumb’s length in size. The light gleams through it, milky an dull.
A heartstone, said Mercy. It leads you to your heart’s desire. The closer you get, the hotter it burns.
It burns fer Jack. It burns fer DeMalo. Desire, yes. An danger. An betrayal. That’s what the heartstone’s led me to.
I remember that mornin well, says Mercy. Crosscreek looked like paradise. After a moment, she says, We slept in these wooden sheds. Us slaves, I mean. Crammed together, chained together, men an women. My first night, I was lyin there an it was silent but . . . there was such a clamour from all them souls. So, after a while I said, My name is Mercy. My home is Crosscreek. A sweet green valley that sleeps in the sun. They was all quiet. Then one of the men said, The name’s Cade. I ain’t got no home but the road. Don’t need no roof but the sky. One by one, we all spoke. Our name an where we come from. After that, we did the same every night. Just before we went to sleep. Every night without fail. To remind ourselfs. So’s we didn’t forget.
Jest like me at Hopetown, I think. That’s what I did. Night after night, in that cellblock. In the dark, on my own, with little left to anchor me to this earth. Knowin that the day would see me brought to the Cage, to fight fer my life, agin an agin. I came so close to losin myself. So very very close.
Right, I says. I’m done here. We better make tracks. I pack my barksack an she cords her boots. I reach down a hand an help her up. Slim’s got a junkjimmy friend’ll git that collar offa you, I says. He can be trusted not to talk.
She grips my hand tight. So can I, she says. An I’m a good listener too.
Thanks, I says. I’m okay.
She touches my cheek. You look so like Willem, she says softly. He was the finest man I ever laid eyes on.
It’s the way she says his name. As if, long ago, it flamed in her like a sunburst. An suddenly I know. She loved Pa. Mercy loved my father.
Amazed questions rise in me. How? When? Did he love her? Did she keep on lovin him, even though she couldn’t have him? He was so crazy about Ma, it must of hurt her to see them together. An yet, she was Ma’s true friend. She birthed me an Lugh. She kept Emmi alive.
I don’t git the chance to ask. She’s read my face. Realized her slip. Slammed the door on her secret. Her face is a careful blank as she goes over to the pony. I think I’ll call him Tam, she says. She climbs aboard without my help. How much further? she says.
I squint at the sky. We should be there by middle day, I says.
† † †
As I set a fast pace an Mercy follows behind on the pony, I ponder. On the dark seam that runs through my life. From before I was born to this moment an beyond. Chance. Fate. Destiny.
That I should meet with Mercy agin. At this time, in this place. It’s fer some reason I’ve yet to know. But time will tell. These days, if somethin seems like chance, my muzzle lifts to the wind an my ears prick.
Oft-times I hear Pa. His voice still echoes in my head, in my blood. Our lives was fixed in the stars the moment the world began. You cain’t change what’s written. Fate. That’s what he believed. So I did too. Till I started to think fer myself. Pa’s very last words to me was a warnin from the stars. Maybe the only truth they ever gave him.
They’re gonna need you, Saba. Lugh an Emmi. An there’ll be others too. Many others. Don’t give in to fear. Be strong, an never give up. No matter what happens.
Them words, his last words, they’ve kept me goin time after time. Given me strength when I was weak. How strange that Mercy should love my father. Her, rooted in the wisdom of the earth. Pa, who looked in vain to the stars fer answers.
I wonder what Mercy would make of Auriel. How they’d git on if they was ever to meet. I’d sure like to talk with them both together.
Auriel. Auriel Tai. The star reader girl with the wolfdog eyes. Grandaughter of a warrior shaman. Namid the Star Dancer, maker of my whiteoak bow. Auriel’s rare. She’s the real thing, not like Pa was. She walks the thin place between the earth an the stars. The place of dreams an light an spirit. What she knows an how she knows it cain’t easily be explained.
If it warn’t fer her, I wouldn’t still be in this life. I was nearly lost to the madness of grief, seein the dead day an night, when Tracker led me to her at the Snake River. Auriel helped me, she healed me, she spurred me on. She gave me hope an purpose. Fer the first time, she made sense of everythin I’d bin through. She was the first one to say the word to me. Destiny.
There are some people, Saba—not many—who have within them the power to change things. Through their actions, they turn the tide of human affairs.
To turn the tide aginst DeMalo is my destiny. That’s what she said. She said all of my roads lead to him. An she’s bin proved right over an over.
Turn the tide. I thought I knew how to do that. That the way ahead looked clear. Hit him hard where it hurts. Hit him often. Weaken his grip. But after today—I need to think agin. If only Auriel was here. She wouldn’t even hafta think what I oughta be doin. She’d know becuz she’d read it in the stars.
Well she ain’t here. I need Jack. Right away. But I gotta hold myself in patience till tonight. When I meet him at the Irontree. Together we’ll figger out what to do.
He jest cain’t know. About DeMalo. The blood moon. The endgame.
† † †
Painted Rock rises high among the trees. It ain’t one rock but three of ’em, crowded close together. Great old buffaloes of sandstone, their backs hunched aginst the sky. In the middle day brightness their worn flanks blaze pink an gold. All is silent. Nero swoops ahead to herald our comin. The rush of his wings flicks the hush.
Mercy sniffs the air. There’s a hint of cooked meat, rich an deep. Somethin sure smells good, she says.
That means Molly ain’t cookin, I says. Lucky us. It’s the devil’s work when Molly’s at the cookpot.
I cup my hands to my mouth an give our daylight signal. The three-cheep call of a pinewax. I wait a count of two, then I call once more. There’s a cheep in reply from the top of the rock. A small figger appears.
There’s Emmi, I says.
Light glints offa the glass of her looker as she trains it our way. I raise a hand. So does Mercy. A shriek of excitement cracks the silence. Then she disappears.
She’s seen you, I says. Better brace yerself.
Camp’s in the middle of the great rocks. We ride through a wide gap between two of ’em into a big circle space, open to the sky. This is one of the old places. A site of long memory an much use. The ground’s bin worn smooth by many feet. Many hands down the ages have scarred the rock walls. Words an pictures scratched into the stone. By dreamers, idlers, artists an fools.
The Cosmic’s parked up. Slim’s medicine cart, the Cosmic Compendalorium. Fourth of its Ilk, says Slim. Whatever the hell that means. Painted bright yellow, with suns an moons an stars all over, stuffed to the gunnels with potions an cures. The horses bunch together, jostlin noses over heaps of dry grass. There’s Molly’s Prue, a placid mule called Bean, Slim’s carthorse, my own Hermes, eight beasts in all.
Every head turns as we come through the gap. Horses an people alike. Slim’s at the cookfire, ladlin stew into Ash’s tin. Molly’s sat on a rock, eatin. Nero’s already on the mooch, hoppin around her, beggin fer a share. But no Lugh. No Creed. No Tommo. My gut tightens.
Where are they? I says to Ash.
No sign of ’em yet, she says. When you blew the whistle, I jest legged it. What happened? I heard the blast go off. Loads of smoke. Damn, I wish I’d seen that.
We got chased, I says. They should of bin here by now.
You only jest got here yerself, says Slim. What was the Tonton doin there? I thought yer contact swore they didn’t patrol that far out.
It warn’t no patrol, I says. They was headed fer the Raze. Resettlement. A work party. It all went to hell, I—gawdamnmit, what’s keepin ’em? Not even one back yet.
Simmer down, he says. They probly jest had to take a roundabout route. We’ll debrief once everybody’s back an settled in. Here, where’s yer manners, you savage?
He makes a waddly beeline fer Mercy. We’re used to Slim’s quirks, but to her he must look a odd fish—jobble-bellied in a patchwork frock the size of a tent, grubby eyepatch askew, muttonchops an hair in a mad dandelion frizz. A mangy old rabbit’s foot dangles from a chain on his belt. Young folk today, they got no couth, he says. Wouldn’t know polite if it walked up an slapped their face. We’ll jest hafta make our own innerductions an shame on them. Doctor Salmo Slim, TPS. That’s Travellatin Physician an Surgeon. Inchantee, ma’am.
I’m Mercy, she says.
She was with the work party, I says. Managed to free herself in the confusion. An, as chance would have it, she’s a friend of the family. That there’s Ash. An that’s Molly.
Mercy’s drawn an exhausted but she manages a smile. Glad to know yuz, she says.
Me an Slim help her down from the pony. Mercy’s a healer, I tell him.
A fellow perfessional, eh? In that case, I am double-delighted to make yer acquaintanceship, Miz Mercy. As he bows, all gallant, over her hand, they take each other’s measure with keen eyes. I’ll have a gander at that ankle if you like, he says.
Thanks, she says. What I’d really like is to get rid of this collar.
Slim peers at it closely. You need a junkjimmy with a cuttin tool fer that, he says. I know one’ll git it off, no trouble. We’ll git you over there aysap.
Ash says, In case yer wonderin, ma’am, yes, that is a dress he’s wearin. It belonged to his late mother.
Don’t let that faze you, though, says Molly. He’s a blue-chip quack, is our Slim.
Mama Big Doe bequeried me three frocks, her wood leg an two left shoes, says Slim. A salt johnny from Pooce bought the leg an a shoe, but her frocks fit me—an as you can see, I’m a awkward size—so, waste ye not, says I. I’m a fashion free-wheeler an damn the torpedoes.
Mercy! Emmi yells. She comes runnin through the gap with Tracker right behind her. It’s you, it really is! We thought you was dead!
As she rushes at Mercy, Mercy sees Tracker an he sees her an, as her mouth falls open an she’s sayin, Tracker? Can it be? he’s flyin at her, barkin with excitement. Then she’s bein hugged by Emmi an Tracker’s turnin hisself inside out, lickin everywhere with his long sloppy tongue an the whole thing’s a giddy jamboree. Mercy says to me, How on earth did you find him? Why didn’t you say?
Sorry, I fergot. I’ll tell you later, I says.
She’s lookin dazed. Em’s already bolted into a breathless gallop about how Tracker found us, so I go over, sayin, All right, that’s enough, you can tell her later. I peel Emmi away from her.
Slim helps Mercy to a seat by the fire with Ash an Molly. He bustles about, fillin her a tin of food while he clackets on in his usual cheerful way.
What took you so long? Emmi clings to me. Her legs clamp my waist. Her skinny arms bindweed my neck. Where’s Lugh? Where’s the boys? I bin watchin ferever.
Hey hey, yer stranglin me, I says. Git down, yer too big.
She twines me even tighter. Grabs my face in her grubby hands. Worry clouds her blue-sky eyes. I was worried an worried somethin bad would happen to you. An it did, she says. The Tonton came. Ash said. What happened? Where’s Lugh an Tommo?
They’re on their way, I says. Now lemme go. On yer feet.
She slides down reluctantly. Her hands might be dirty but fer once she’s washed her face. In fact, she’s clean an neat. Positively respectable. Her wayward brown hair’s in a plait. Her shirt’s tucked in. Her britches buttoned. She’s even laced her boots. This is Molly’s doin. Left to herself, Em’s a scarecrow of a girl.
She stands with arms crossed, all sulky chin an scrimped up mouth. What did I do now? she says.
Don’t gimme that mardy face, I says. Listen, Em, yer a Free Hawk now. You cain’t go screamin around like you done jest now, like some little kid. I told you before.
Who’s on lookout?
Me, she says.
So what’re you doin here? I says.
She heaves a sigh. Well, pardon me fer bein glad you ain’t dead, she says.
Git back there this second, go on, I says.
Saba? says Slim. There’s fruit bat gumbo in the pot.
I thought somethin smelled good. Lugh’s voice comes from the entranceway. I whirl around. He’s all in one piece. His smile stretches ear to ear as he opens his arms wide. Anybody miss me? he says.
I did, I did! Emmi dashes at him, leaps at him. He twirls her in a circle. You bum! she cries. I bin worried sick. Did you see Tommo? Creed?
What? They ain’t here yet? Sorry I bin so long, he says to me. I had to cut out wide to lose them Tonton. They took some shakin.
What did I tell you? says Slim.
Look who Saba found. It’s Mercy, Emmi says.
What? Then Lugh’s shakin Mercy’s hand, sayin, I sure wanna know how this came about. It’s bin a long time, ma’am.
You must be starvin, son, says Slim. Everybody come an eat.
That’s it fer Em goin back on watch. I’d hafta drag her there by her pigtail. An, after all, it’s daylight. We crowd around Slim’s cookpot an he loads our tins. Tracker an Nero make fast work of a stringy squirrel that he tosses their way. They keep a wary eye on him, anxious not to splat him with guts. Last time they did, he banished ’em from the fire fer two chilly nights. We’re jest gittin stuck into our meal an all wantin to ask Mercy this or tell her that, when Tommo pitches up at last. He tells the same tale as Lugh. He had to go off his set course to lose his pursuers. He falls on the food like a jackal.
Then a short while later, Creed arrives. He’s bare chested. His precious frock coat’s folded, tucked unner one arm. The other arm’s streaked with dried blood. There’s a arrow stuck in his shoulder.
† † †
Creed lounges aginst a boulder while Molly stitches his wound with a fine bone needle an gut thread. He looks like some spirit of nature. Wild curly hair, silver rings in his ears, tattooed waist to neck with twined vines an serpents.
Molly bends her head to her work. As always, there’s a scarf tied over her long blonde curls. Pulled low on her forehead to hide her brand. That loathsome letter. The lie that the Tonton seared in her skin. W. W fer whore. But it don’t mar her beauty. Nuthin could. A face to make angels weep fer joy. That’s what Ike used to say of Molly. An lips that detoured many a man to her Storm Belt junkshack tavern. In the hope that she’d serve them a smile with their drink.
She ain’t smilin now. She’s got her Creed look on. It says, if he does it agin, if he declares his love fer me in front of everybody I’ll slap his head from his neck. But Creed’s so punch drunk in love with her, he cain’t seem to stop hisself. He’s only got the one tactic. Open desperation. He must think she’ll be flattered or take pity on him an eventually give in. As if a delicious woman like her would ever go fer a hobbledy boy like him. Molly’s used to swattin off lust-lorn loobies from her tavern days, but Creed’s a whole new world of aggravation.
I go over to crouch beside them. Give her some relief. I says, With all them tattoos, I’m surprised you can see what yer doin. How deep did the arrow go?
Not very, she says. Surprise surprise, he’s makin out it’s worse than it is.
Creed says, Anythin to keep you close to me, darlin.
I ain’t yer darlin, she says.
Cut it out, Creed, I says.
He leans his head in close to hers. I’m crazy fer you, Molly. Marry me, he says.
She slaps him hard. Almost slaps his head off. Everybody turns at the sound. The angry crack of skin on skin. Her brown eyes spit. In a voice of low fury she says, I’ve told you an I’ve told you but you don’t pay no heed. I’m sick to death of this buck-at-the-rut pursuit. If you was a man, I’d of shot you by now. Fer once an fer all, Creed, leave me the hell alone!
She ends on a shout of frustration. There’s a fat silence as she goes to the fire an sits. Nobody dares move fer a long moment. Then they start eatin agin, with nervous caution. Not so much as a tink of a spoon. In case the sound sets her off agin.
I should never of let it come to this. Me an Slim had a talk some days ago. We agreed I oughta call Creed to order, but I bin puttin it off as ticklish work.
He looks at me with a plea in his eyes. The mark of her hand blooms ugly on his face. She’s left him half-stitched. The needle’s stuck in the wound, the thread danglin. I’m a nervous doctor but I sit down. I pull out the needle an, with clammy hands, I start to sew. I start in on him too, my voice hushed.
You gotta stop this right now, I says. It don’t jest vex Molly, it unsettles all of us. You know she’s still mournin Ike. It’s only bin six months, fergawdsake. Show her some respect.
He’s silent, frownin.
Are you listenin to me? I says.
I gotta make her see, he says. What can I do?
Be a man, Creed, I says. Accept that she don’t want you an leave her alone. There’s too much at stake fer us to fall out. We gotta be able to depend on each other, stick tight together. Okay, I’m done here. I’ll git Emmi to bandage you, she’s got neat fingers.
I jest don’t unnerstand, he says.
I grab his knee an shake it hard. Molly ain’t fer you, I says. Accept it. Capeesh?
He looks at me. No, I mean, I was so sure, he says. That first time I seen her, my heart knew. It went . . . oh, it’s you, yer the one. How can that be wrong?
Yer heart, I says. More like yer britches.
I stand up an he does too. A storm brews in his grey-blue eyes. Yer really somethin, y’know that? he says. Depend on each other. Stick tight together. That’s rich, comin from you.
I start to hear the pound of war drums. What’s the problem? I says. Say what you mean an be done.
He raises his voice so all can hear. Yer the problem. That’s what I mean. We’re all thinkin it, he says. I’m th’only one’s got the guts to say it. What the hell was that, Saba? Back at the bridge? You, chasin that fuse? We should of bin long gone, safely away. Instead you nearly got us all killed.
You know why, I says. There was innocent people there. Slaves, like Mercy.
That’s their bad luck, he says. Whose side are you on? We’re yer people, not them.
I jest bin told what went down today, says Slim. He fixes me with his watery one-eyed pebble stare. Creed’s right, he says, we agreed the plan. Set the charge, blow the bridge an skedaddle. In an out, quick an clean.
Around the fire, every head’s turned to look at me now. Emmi’s wide-eyed worried, seated at Mercy’s feet.
Killin warn’t part of the plan, I says.
It’s called collateral damage, says Slim. Would you rather yer comrades got killt? You keep yer eye on the goal an you keep discipline an that includes you.
Sometimes you gotta change tactics, I says.
Agreed, he says. But that ain’t what you did. You change tactics fer two reasons. To win the goal or save yer crew. You’d already won the goal. What you did was risk yer crew. That’s a bad leader.
Ash says, I don’t git you, Saba. What about Darktrees? The Tonton slaughtered our friends while they slept. Forty lives. Free Hawks an Raiders. Have you fergot that? An Epona an Maev. Ike an Bram. They all died fer this fight. I’m sorry, but Creed’s right. Where’s yer loyalty?
I am loyal, I says. I ain’t fergot. Not Darktrees an not one of them you name. Far from it. But this ain’t about loyalty, I—
It is fer me, says Tommo. Loyalty.
But it’s different now, I says. Doncha see? Here in New Eden, I mean. There’s too many people caught between us an the Tonton. Innocent people.
We cain’t afford a weak leader, says Ash. Me an Creed bin down that road before, with Maev. An it leads to defeat an death. Yer strong. Certain. Single minded. You ain’t that bleedin heart we seen today. Gawdamnmit, yer the Angel of Death. Yer epic, Saba. That’s why we all lined up behind you.
Maybe you ain’t got the stummick fer this no more, says Creed.
I go cold still inside. Is that a challenge? I says.
He says, Be who we need or stand aside.
That’s enough, says Lugh. He rises to his feet from his place by the fire. He’s bin listenin all this time. What happened at the bridge was my fault, he says.
Everybody looks at him. Surprise on their faces. Puzzlement in their eyes.
How d’you figger that? says Creed.
I got spooked by them first two Tonton, Lugh says. I was unner the bridge with the blastpack. Saba ordered me not to move but I did. I slipped an fell an she came to save me. If it warn’t fer her an Tommo, I’d be dead. I defied a direct order from my commander. I’m the one who broke discipline. I put her an the rest of yuz at risk. If Saba did anythin wrong, it’s becuz I rattled her. She couldn’t depend on me. The blame fer today is mine entirely. I’m sorry. I let everybody down.
He’s said all of this lookin straight at me an no other. My throat’s tight.
After a moment, Slim says, Well, we got lucky this time. Nobody got killt. So, I say we accept Lugh’s apology an leave it at that. We learn, we move on. But we cain’t afford no more mistakes. Not from any of us. An that includes yer contact, Angel. Whoever they are, they gave us bad info. Not on purpose, I ain’t sayin that, but if things’re changin quick here, they gotta keep pace. Our lives depend on their intel. Now, I want you two—he waves at me an Creed—to shake hands, make yer peace.
As they all turn back to their meals an quiet chat, I hold my hand out to Creed. His eyes still hold a knife to my throat. Then he’s smilin an pullin me to him fer a quick one-armed hug, sayin, Sorry, you know I git assy sometimes. Thanks fer the stitches. I hear what you say about Molly.
An I wonder if I imagined that look in his eyes.