T.C. McMullen's Disillusionment Series

Starlight and Judgment Excerpt

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Starlight and Judgment
Words and chapters subject to editing.
2009 T.C. McMullen
 
 
 
 

Starlight and Judgment

 

Prologue

 

Dane Valdor stood just inside the sitting room, its four walls lit up from within and colored blues and greens with images of wildlife said to exist on the world far below his home. Many times he saw the planet called Earth hovering in the star-speckled void of space just far enough beneath the station Dane had resided in since birth to be seen as a full globe. He wondered if the colors he saw on that globe were only those seen on Earth from the space station or if the actual world from within was full of such rich and vibrant  colors as pictures showed.

“Can you believe it?” Laurandra murmured, maybe to him, maybe to the several other scholar students who joined them. “The nerve of them to think one of us would be crazy enough to agree to go dirtside. And for what? To study the animals.”

“Indigenous people,” Dane said almost subconsciously. The images along the walls faded into new ones, all with the same shades, so vibrant, yet so lifeless.

“Same difference,” Thomasari said.

Dane clenched his teeth to keep from arguing. Being scholar students they all studied the Inaut people and knew they weren’t technically animals any more than he and the others around him were. Sure, the lessons taught that Inauts behaved like wicked brutes, but Dane was never so sure those facts were true. He had once heard stories that related other things, stories from his mother years ago.

“Hey.” Laurandra nudged his shoulder. “What’s so fascinating, we’ve seen these images a thousand times.”

Dane squinted, lashed by the sour truth of her words. He moved his gaze to her and wondered if she had any idea what she had just said. A thin waif of a woman, she peered at him through spectacles she wore more to look intelligent than because her eyes were bad. If her eyesight was at all weak, there were ways of correcting that, but she wore them because the dark-framed lenses did add an odd sort of authority to her appearance.

“Monarch said there is great compensation for whoever steps forward and agrees to the task,” Thomasari said. Laurandra directed her attention back to him and the three others around him.

“Except he’s forgetting we are scholars and don’t need anything he can give us that we don’t already have.”

Dane watched his fellow students converse, their voices low, eyes intense with passion for the things they said. Their life consisted of debates and study, of pondering fixes to any problem from the mundane to the life threatening, as long as they remained in their safe little capsule in space. He once felt a kinship to the small group of his classmates, but lately his mind had wandered. The oldest in the group, he had reached his twenty-fifth year, the year needed before one could leave the space station and travel to the world where gravity came from within nature, not machines, where air blew without fans and where rain fell to fill rivers and oceans. He knew it all, understood how nature worked, but he had never walked among it, never felt or tasted or heard the real thing. Somehow knowing he was of able age to go dirtside by choice had distanced him from all he had accepted of his life before.

He pushed from the wall he leaned against and hurried from the room, down the corridor just as dark and metal as always. The others had no desire to see anything more than this station. To them it, along with the files and studies provided to them by the Monarch, was enough. A part of him envied them for that. They were born to be scholars, always falling into the sect they now filled. He hadn’t been.

In the beginning he had resided with the bounty hunter students, the students trained to follow their parents in enforcing laws throughout the station and Earth. He was pulled from those ranks fifteen years before, but he never forgot. The moment Monarch Crakshandal told him of his mother’s murder, told him he would have no teacher to continue on with his hunter training so being a scholar was the best route for him, it etched deep into his mind.

“Dane,” Laurandra called, “where are you going?”

Dane turned on his heel to walk backwards and face her. He wondered if she really needed an answer to that question. The Monarch’s offices were the only rooms accessible in the station branch ahead.

She furrowed her brow. “You cannot be serious, have you heard nothing we’ve said?” She jogged to catch up with him. “It’s far too dangerous on the surface. We have years of work to do before we can make it safe.”

“There are peace treaties in place,” Dane said.

“And we all know they aren’t working as well as we would like.”

Dane shrugged.

She took hold of his forearms and yanked him to a halt, peering up at him from behind her lenses. “Why would you even think of doing such a thing? This isn’t funny, you know. You can’t just pick up and leave.”

“It’s one year,” Dane said.

Laurandra’s eyes darkened and she parted her lips, her grip tightening on his arms. She shook her head. “No, you can’t. You can’t leave me like this.”

He raised his hand to her cheek, an odd sick feeling sinking through him. A feeling of apprehension. They had been paired for five years and it all seemed well enough, but as the space station had started to feel wrong, his relationship with Laurandra wasn’t any better. The relationship hadn’t been one developed naturally. They had been assigned to each other by the Monarch.

“Look, I’m the best one for the job. I’m the only one of us with bounty hunter experience,” he said.

“Oh no, don’t go using that, there is no experience there.”

“Ten years.”

“No.” Laurandra shook her head as if breaking free of restraints. “You wouldn’t have started any kind of training or study until you were five. So five at the most and that wouldn’t have been full training. You can’t count that.”

“It’s still more than anyone else has.”

Laurandra released him and clenched her hands to her head. She murmured more refusals.

“I can’t stay here,” Dane said softly, not wanting her to be upset, but not being able to give her what she wanted. Not this time. “I can’t. You know this. I’m restless. Maybe if I go, just for one year, see it all. Then when I come back…”

“What if you never come back?” Laurandra snapped. Tears pooled at her lashes. “What if they kill you down there or—or if you decide you don’t want to come back?”

Dane sighed at her visible show of emotion. A part of him desperately wanted to fix everything for her, to make her happy, to stay with her, but he knew if he did, he would only continue to grow more bitter, more restless.

“If I don’t return…” he said, speaking softly, making sure to keep his words calm for her. “If I don’t, then I was never what was best for you to begin with and I’m sure they will allow you to move on with someone else.”

Laurandra huffed as if struck by a physical blow and spun away. She held her head low as she walked.

“Laurandra,” he said, not wanting her to leave this way. She only swatted air at him. There was no speaking with her until she calmed and that wouldn’t be for hours. He firmed his resolve and turned toward the Monarch’s business hall. He wanted to make sure he answered the call for a scholar before anyone else did. The need to step foot on Earth, to experience for real what he had studied so long in books and electronic files boiled to an unignorable need more potent than his need to see Laurandra happy. She would recover and deal. She had friends. His chance for an excuse to travel to the world he only watched from afar wouldn’t stay for long.  As he knocked on the tall doors to the Monarch’s hall, the flitting hint of a burning hidden desire flashed to him. Going dirtside wasn’t only to satisfy his hunger to experience it up close. Somewhere below, on the soil of the natural world, his mother’s blood had been spilled. Maybe, just maybe, he would have a chance to set right some of the wrongs done to her.


Chapter One

 

 

Kira held tense against the hot sheets, her lover’s breaths the only audible sound in the room. She listened to him exhale, softly, rhythmically for five minutes, ten, until she felt satisfied he would sleep soundly for hours more. The corner of the sheet slipped silently from her bare shoulder when she moved, careful not to disturb the half that covered Akron. Inch by inch she slid from the warmth of the mattress and covers and escaped to the cold emptiness in the room. She stood motionless, watching the shadowed form of the big man to be sure he remained in deep slumber.

He knew her only as Shindra. He thought her a farmer’s daughter who came in from the south fields just to see him. It was true, she found her way to Madai City to see him often, but her incentives were something more than he realized. When his even breaths continued, she pulled her clothes on and crept to the closed door, listening for a long moment before she dared to open it.

The hall was dark and silent beyond. The only guards in place at this hour stood outside the front and back lower level doors. She quickly swept down the passage and to the one locked door in the compound. The lock took a moment to relent to the wires she inserted. Blood pounded her veins when she reached the desk, all her senses functioning so sharply her mind hurt from the battering of information, the shadows of furniture, the outline of the one window and the quiet street just one story down, the creak of wind caressing the roof tiles. She scanned the papers by starlight, not reading every detail, but skimming for key words.

Her heart fluttered in a painful skip when she found the word “Tarjei.” The suspicions she was sent to investigate this night weren’t wrong.

The treaties between the Inaut and Madai people were less than eight years old, written when she was sixteen. Her people, or rather her stepmother’s people, agreed to assist in mining the world to help the Madai as long as they were not enslaved, not too much was taken from Earth too quickly, and the Inaut cities inside the Kharsag Mountains remained untouched and unthreatened. That included the city of Tarjei.

To date, pockets of Inaut people remained enslaved and whispers of attacks against Tarjei, the outer city at the mountain range base, drifted through the remaining underground information line. It was the information line she worked for as she sifted through the Madai military papers. She held Akron’s orders in her hands. He led the largest force of military-trained Madai known to reside on Earth, not counting those scattered throughout the smaller Madai settlements and in the huge space station hovering and growing just within Earth’s orbit.

Kira set the papers down and watched out the window a few steps away. Stars hung bright in the moonless sky, cold, distant. She shivered. She scrubbed her hands over her face, through her short hair, and shook emotions from her thoughts. Hope she would never have to actually turn on Akron had been futile. She knew that. She knew the only reason she met him at all was to infiltrate his impenetrable building. How she did it was no one’s business but her own. Climbing into his bed hadn’t reached her emotions until she had seen him for a year.

She knew him too well now, knew his secrets, his desires.  He led the military in hopes he would one day be a leader in Madai City. He wanted to protect the city’s people, to help it grow beyond its walls and not fall to the slums now pervading much the city grounds.

None of it mattered, not what he wanted or what he would do. What mattered were the orders he now had to attack Tarjei. She read through the page, taking note of the date. He would lead his troops out on the mission before month’s end to reach Tarjei with full force and authority to act as he saw fit forty days later.

The sheet below showed her the paths of his intended attack. Using images obviously taken by the space station, he had plotted out passages to the south and north of Tarjei. They planned to attack from three directions, push into Tarjei and then into Nikkar deeper inside the mountain range. She recognized the passes marked for military use, committed the information to memory, then slipped the papers back into the folder just as he had them, not one sheet out of order, not one corner bent. For seventeen months she had managed to do the same every other week but this was the first time she needed to remember and relay the information.

She crept back into the hallway, the latch of the door’s lock stabbing her nerves. She held perfectly still a moment, sensing as well as listening for any spying eyes. Anticipation for the unknown filled her with heat and urgency she nearly couldn’t contain. She paced her breaths as she moved along, turning to descend the main stairs.

It had been months since she left in the middle of the night like she had to do now, but hopefully the guards wouldn’t see it as suspicious.  At first she had done the same on each visit, claiming she had to return home for morning chores. Then she found how much she liked sleeping next to Akron. His strength, his desire of her, made her feel—wanted. She forced the thought from her mind and tapped lightly at the door.

The attending guard jolted in his seat. He squinted his eyes at her then nodded, allowing her passage through the glass door.

“Leaving so soon,” he said, a smirk on his lips.

“Chores need doing, brother is sick,” she said.  “Tell Akron I will see him next time he’s in town.”

The guard bowed his head to her and let her pass from the enclosed porch and into the dark street beyond. First order of business was to get some supplies, enough to carry her nonstop from the Madai City gates, through Eastnorth Forest, and a day’s travel through the grasslands to the small village of Westend. Problem was the only thing open at such a late hour was the seedier taverns in the lower parts of town. She would have to do with small rations.

She stopped at a barrel tucked into a shadowed corner outside a clothier’s shop three buildings away and retrieved her thigh length coat, a laser pistol, two short blades, and her travel pack all but empty now. The coat felt cold as she wrapped it around herself, tying the high collar at her throat and lifting the wide hood over her blond locks. One knife strapped easily and familiarly to each hip and the pistol to the harness on her belt. Where she was going, she had to be ready for anything.

She moved west, ignoring the increasing disarray of the buildings and condition of the streets. It was said Madai City had once been as shiny as an opal through and through, no slums anywhere, but as time passed and high level families left, things changed. She couldn’t remember it any differently than it was now and wondered if the stories of such a grand state were false.

Shouts, laughter, and out of tune music punctuated the night air. Vapor materialized with each exhale, a ghost in the night fueled by her quickened pace and heavy breaths. She pushed herself hard until the dirty lights of the relatively safe haven of Haston’s Tavern shined ahead. The volume of the occupants halted her until she determined the sounds were of amusement not aggression, at least not of the large battle kind.

She continued forward, dodging patrons jammed tight inside the doors. The air hung thick with smoke and stank of weak ale and unbathed men. She worked her way forward, careful not to catch anyone’s attention until she reached the scarred bar.

Haston worked alone behind the counter, filling mugs from hoses run from wooden canisters of ale on the wall-shelf behind. He worked fast, shoving rags into the pockets of his grease and ale stained apron as he wiped up spills and delivered full mugs. She stood patiently, her forearms rested on the counter edge so he would know she waited for service.

“What can I getcha?” Haston said, not looking directly at her.

“Two loaves of your wheat bread, and a jug of your best ale,” she said.

Haston shouted something to a man several seats away, then leaned over to her. “Is that all young Kira?”

“Shhh.”

“Ah, none here are sober enough to hear me anyway. How about some cheese to go along with the bread?”

“How old is it?”

“No mold.”

“Fine.”

Haston yelled the order to the back room where the kitchen hid, his deep voice cutting easily through the noise. Kira knew the back room existed, but refused to enter it, sure she would never eat or drink from this establishment again if she saw the conditions concealed by one wall.

A puff of cold air wafted into the tavern, an opening of the door, but Kira didn’t turn. She took hold of the ale jug Haston handed her. His eyes didn’t focus on her.

“Ah nah, not again,” he said.

Kira cocked one brow and turned just slightly to follow his gaze. A young man stood at the door, his flesh so pale and his clothes so clean and pressed, she knew at once he was a new arrival on the surface of Earth. He held his head a bit too high, haughty, and scanned the room.

“What is that?” Kira faced Haston again. 

“He calls himself a Scholar of the Monarch.” Haston rolled a mug to a man at the lower end of the bar. “He keeps coming in here looking for a guide but all he’s going to find is trouble.”

Kira hummed in agreement. If the man showed up to the crowd enough times, at least a few of the hardened surface dwellers would take offense.

Someone slurred an ignorant shout from a far corner table. Kira kept her head low, hiding behind her hood, and watched the pale man step farther into the room.

“I have need of a guide,” he said to the room. Everyone quieted, some turning to him, others too drunk to realize where the voice spoke from. The pale man lifted a small pouch from his pocket and held it in the air, shaking it to let the coins it obviously held jingle. “I can pay handsomely for your assistance, I assure you.”

Kira closed her eyes and sighed. “He sure is going to pay handsomely now.”

“I’ve tried to tell him,” Haston murmured from the corner of his mouth and rolled two loaves of bread and one cheese log with paper before sliding it to her. “You best clear out before all spirits breaks loose. I’ll put this on your tab.”

Kira nodded her thanks, tucked her stash under her arm, and with the jug in her other hand, pushed through the door and back out into the cold air. She paused at the side alley to pack the food in her bag. The jug she fastened to the back with leather ties. She just slipped the bag over her shoulders when the door banged open and the pale man stumbled out, two tall men following closely. Kira leaned into deeper shadows, not wishing to be seen by any of them.

“What are you doing?” the pale man asked. “I came in honor to fulfill my duty.”

The two men scoffed loudly, one drinking sloppily from an ale jug he carried. “Honor sh’moner,” he slurred and shoved the pale one. “We’s told ya not to show yer face ag’in.”

“No, I—I only need to procure a guide.”

The second man flanked the pale one, tavern light washing over his haggard face and beard. Kira scowled when she recognized him. “Hank” was what the other’s called him. She knew enough to stay clear of him and his ugly mannerisms. He was Madai and cruel to the core, known to kill anything that got in his way and it was said he had done the same to his wife. Blood pumped hot in her veins again. She watched, willing the pale one to leave without provoking further conversation, but he stumbled around, trying to face both the men at his front and back at the same time and suddenly held up his money purse again. Hank snatched the purse so roughly, he pulled the younger man to the ground with a thud.

“Look at this Toby, enough here for a month’s rations for the both of us.” The drunker Toby stumbled toward Hank, his empty hand out for the money.

“You can’t do that,” the pale one climbed to his feet and jumped for the bag, provoking a solid punch from Hank and a sloppy kick from Toby. He fell hard and face down to the dirt. The three blended in a cloud of chaos. Toby kicked again.

Kira felt the hilt of her laser gun against her palm, her finger on the trigger, knowing no one else around would stop the two. The pale one would surely end up dead, obviously not capable of defending himself. She rushed forward, elbowed the back of Toby’s head, knocking him unconscious instantly and aimed her laser into Hank’s beady dark iris. He pulled his hands up to shield himself and stumbled back from the pulp of a man at his feet.

Hank growled and lurched at her.

“Ut ut, I wouldn’t,” Kira said, prancing back a step to shore up her stance, ready for a tackle. She held her pistol steady, its ugly red aim slicing a line through the dusty air and onto Hank’s face. Anger hardened the angles of his sharp features, painting him as hollow as a corpse in the dim light. Kira shook her head. “Don’t go giving me a reason to kill you.”

Hank lurched for her again, too fast for a drunk man. Kira leapt aside and palmed one of her knives as Hank barreled past her, just missing her chest with his fists. He spun back on her and this time held a weapon of his own, a large knife she barley deflected with her smaller one. She aimed her pistol and squeezed the trigger twice, sending the buzzing zip of the laser into the man’s knee, then the hand that held the knife. He screamed in agony and crumbled to the ground. Kira pounced him, kicking the knife far from his hand, and swiping the now dusty money sack. Hank clutched his smoking knee with his unwounded hand and withered in the dirt beside his sleeping pal. Kira backed away from the downed pair to stand over the pale man.

“You all right?”

The man sat slumped, his knees up, head down. “No.”

“Can you walk?”

He huffed and slowly climbed to his feet. “I’m fine there,” he said and wiped his knuckles to the corner of his bloody mouth. He seemed taller now that she stood beside him than he had inside the tavern.

“Here.” She shoved his purse out to him, ignoring how heavy it felt and the lingering thoughts to just how much he had stashed there. “And for the future, don’t go making it public knowledge you carry this. Get out of here before anyone finds these two and stay out, will you? This is no place for the likes of you.”

She packed her pistol back at her hip and the knife at her side and headed west into the alley.

“Wait, please.” He hurried up behind her, his steps pounding sloppily and uncertain on the rough street. “Maybe you can help me.”

“Not my business,” she said and continued forward. “Check at the east wall, or the north sections of town.”

“I have, they’ve all told me to come here. And I’ve done that too, for three days and nights now.”

Kira scowled, not able to conjure something both the upper and lower class of Madai City would refuse for the price this man was obviously willing to pay.

“Just what exactly are you asking for?”

“A guide,” he said.

“To what?” There were plenty of guides in the city, many she knew who would have found him if they wanted.

“I need to travel west, to the Kharsag Mountains.”

Pure shock slammed Kira to a halt. She turned to glare at the man, obviously Madai, obviously from the space station.

“You know of them,” he said.

“I know you are absolutely insane to even mention going there.”

The man huffed and gazed down the dark alley. “Why does everyone keep saying that?”

Kira bit her tongue to stop her sharpest sarcasm, swallowed the jolt of pain, and reordered her thoughts. “Well, maybe because it’s true and everyone knows it but you.”

“It can’t be true. There’s a tried and tested safe road from here into the Enil desert now.”

“Why would you even want to go there?” Few of his kind ever had a need to travel to the Kharsags, not unless their intentions were less than honorable and in that case they wouldn’t announce where they wanted to go to an entire city.

“I have my orders,” he said, his voice more hushed than before, but not sounding like secrecy, more like uncertainty.

“Orders,” Kira said and peered back to the alley where she had left the injured Hank. Voices sounded, some loud, others not so loud. She wanted to be gone from sight of anyone who attempted to look for her. She hurried ahead, paying little attention to the man who tagged along.

“Yes, orders, direct from Monarch Crakshandal himself.”

Kira’s stomach soured and she suddenly thought maybe talking more with this man now wouldn’t be such a bad thing. If Crakshandal wanted a scholar to travel to the mountains, knowing about it could prove helpful.

“My suggestion to you would be to forget those orders.”

“Can’t.”

“Then you may very well end up dead.”

“I most certainly will if I return without the studies I promised to perform.”

Kira turned sharply down another alley, then right and left, keeping her main focus on reaching the west gates. “And what studies would those be?”

“I’m to study how the lands have changed over the last twenty years. I have all the surveys and information gathered at that time. I need to take census, study air quality, just record things like that to see what kind of impact we might be making on the environment. I really don’t understand why everyone seems so riled up over such a simple thing.”

Kira nearly laughed. “Gathering military knowledge is not so simple a thing.”

“Not military, not at all, just world study, purely for scholarly reasons.”

Kira huffed. “You can’t possibly be so stupid. How the lands have changed? How many people live there? The environmental quality? What’s that matter to anyone who isn’t wanting to move in on it?”

“It’s purely for study,” he said. “Monarch Crakshandal said so.”

Kira stopped short and peered up at him in the starlit night. “Do you really think your monarch cares about anything just for scholarly purposes? Do you really think he sent you down here without him knowing the resistance you would encounter? If he didn’t know, why put such a nasty penalty on your return without the information?”

The man’s pale face hung slack in the night, dumbfounded. He truly hadn’t thought of it in those terms.

“My Monarch,” he said.

Kira swallowed hard. She had forgotten that in this city, at this moment, she was Madai, not Inaut like they labeled her without the hair dye and bronzing lotions for her flesh. “I’ve never met him, I don’t agree with a lot of what he’s done down here, so I don’t really think of him as anything but the monarch who sits on his high and mighty throne out of world.” She started forward again. “Look, I suggest you find yourself a comfortable little room in one of the inns up town.”

“And what would you suggest I do about the reports?”

“Fake ‘em.” She finally stepped out into the brighter street. The gate stood just three blocks ahead, but she couldn’t go there with this man. She paused when she heard sharp voices ahead, guard voices. Something wasn’t right. “I have to be going now. I wish you the best, really. Good luck.”

With that, she hurried forward into a small slice between two buildings, slipping through the dark shadows, down and around until the outer wall came into view. The door accessible to her kind waited just below the gates, a door leading to the drainage tunnels newly installed to help alleviate the flooding during the rainy season.

She dashed between two more buildings and emerged ahead of the gate, the smaller door so near she smelled the green sweet air from the forest.

“Hey, you!” A guard shouted. Kira stood still, not wanting to panic, but when she turned, there was no mistaking the big brute of a man was stalking down on her. “Remove that hood and state your business.”

Kira breathed deep, her options swirling through her mind, but only one had any chance of ending with her still standing. She gripped her hood with one hand and pulled it down. Soft wind swept her hair aside, allowing her an unhindered view.

“You,” the guard said, complete confusion fogging his tone. “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the south gates?”

Kira stood tree still, silently berating herself for not going out the lower gates and skirting the city. It took more time, and one had to be careful not to be seen on the outskirts, but at least it wouldn’t have seemed so suspicious from the inside. Another guard moved from a larger group at the gate.

“Shindra?” She recognized his face from Akron’s front company, his second in command. She stumbled for his name.

“Erek,” she said.

He dipped his head. “What are you doing out here?”

Kira paused, but couldn’t pause too long. “I have some errands to run.”

“Errands? Out there? What kind of errands.”

“For my father.”

“There’s nothing for farms in the forest,” Erek said. “Why aren’t you still up at the compound with Akron?”

“I had to get an early start,” she said, but she knew he wasn’t believing her. Something in the night had snagged their suspicions. She doubted it was her, but because of it, the possibility she would be caught was higher. Erek murmured something to the other guard but neither of them looked from her. She heard Akron’s name, then the nameless guard hurried away.

“I think you need to come with me,” Erek said. He pulled his pistol from his belt. Kira cringed, knowing she couldn’t pull hers free in time to defend herself.

“Excuse me? Sir?”

The pale haughty man somehow appeared at her side and held out his hand to Erek. The guard responded by aiming the weapon away from her and at the newcomer.

“Dane Valdor,” the pale one said and wiped his hand on his chest. “Maybe you’ve heard of me. Monarch Crakshandal sent me dirtside to study the lands down here. I’m sorry if we’ve caused any trouble, but I was hoping to move west as soon as possible.”

“We?” Erek said, the suspicious squint of his eyes deepening.

“Yes,” Dane said and peered over his shoulder. “This young lady agreed to be my guide.”

Erek shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a sure sign of his uncertainty. “Her?”

Dane looked at her again, then to the guard. “Yes… is there a problem with that?”

Erek shook his head then straightened as if he suddenly realized something. He aimed his pistol at her again. “Then how come you said you had errands to run for your father?”

“Oh, I asked her to keep this whole mission secret, you see, although I didn’t mean with you guards.” Dane shook his head at her. “No, these men know my business, or at least they should, so you can tell them.”

Kira parted her lips, but couldn’t find anything to say. In one instant she seemed to escape the scrutiny of the guard, but in that same second, she was suddenly trapped in something that could be far worse.

 

~*~

 

Dane finished his false tirade at not finding his things by the west gates and turned himself and his newfound, though unwilling, guide back toward the room he rented and where his things really waited. 

“I can’t believe you did that,” the young woman said.

Dane wiped his aching chin again, wondering how much blood still showed on his face even after he scrubbed his hurts with his handkerchief. He’d never felt so bruised.

“What did I do?” he asked, still grasping at the fact the person who saved him from a horrible near-death beating was a woman. He looked at her again, hardly believing it.

Her eyes flamed with anger. “What is your problem?”

“Nothing.”

“Then quit looking at me like that.”

“It’s just, well—you’re a girl.”

She stopped and slapped a hand to her coat-covered hip. “A girl, hardly, a woman I’ve been. What did you think I was?”

Dane smiled at her feistiness. “Sorry, it’s just, well, I thought maybe you were a teen boy.”

She huffed and moved ahead again. Dane stumbled to keep up. Rocks and dirt felt so odd under his new hard-soled travel boots. He watched her stern expression, her features far too delicate for the mood.

“Seems to me you should be thanking me, not being so snippy.”

“Snippy! I should’ve let Hank have you.”

“Are you telling me you didn’t need any help back there?”

She hissed between her teeth.

“Well, are you?”

“I would’ve managed something, thank you very much.”

Dane grinned again but then winced at the pain it caused. “Sure you would’ve.  You’re welcome.”

She sighed and pulled her big hood over her head again. “Where exactly are we going anyway?”

“To get my things.”

He paused a moment to gather his senses and turned left to head back to his boarding house, or maybe it was right.

Shindra sighed. “Tell me the name.”

“Name?”

“Of your boarding house.”

“Oh,” Dane scratched his forehead. “Ms. Bow…”

“Bowman’s. This way.” She turned abruptly between two buildings. Dane jogged a few steps to keep up. Shindra didn’t pause or slow until he stood just beneath the familiar green awning of the boarding house he called home since his coming two weeks earlier.

He arrived with hopes of beautiful scenes, of seeing the sun from crystal blue skies and smelling fresh air. All he got was overcast skies, the scent of something that reminded him of rotting food, and angry glares everywhere he turned. He didn’t understand any of it.

He pushed the door open and turned to let her enter first. She stood at the street, watching him.

“I’ll wait here,” she said.

Dane let the door fall shut and stepped back to her. “No offense, but experience has me pretty convinced that if I go in there without you, you won’t be here when I come back out.”

She squinted, her brown eyes bright in the streetlight despite their nearly black coloring. She pursed her lips then swatted a tuft of blond hair from her brow. “You probably wouldn’t be wrong.”

Dane nearly gasped from shock. He had doubted anyone knew what truthful meant in this city.

“I honestly could use your help,” he said. “I will pay you, just as I would anyone else, I don’t expect it for free.”

Shindra shook her head. “What makes you think I can help you? Going so far west is not something you will come back from, not unless you have a full military battalion behind you and even then there would be a good chance of failure.”

Dane considered her words as he watched a young couple walk down the shadowed dirt street. He wondered how Laurandra was coping without him.

“You were heading west.”

Shindra shook her head. “Just to the grasslands to look for herbs. No farther.”

Dane cleared his throat and sighed. “That’s a start. I’m happy with that, anything to get out of here. I won’t pressure you to take me any farther, deal?” He held his hand out to shake hers.

“Just to the Grasslands,” she said.

“The first village,” Dane amended, still waiting for her hand. Shindra sighed and slapped her palm against his in a firm shake. He smiled again, not able to stop despite the pain in his jaw. He’d finally found a way to escape Madai City.


Chapter Two

 

 

Nightfall neared again. Kira struggled against the tension in her shoulders, building tighter and tighter through the last several days.  A trip that should have taken her no more than two days was nearing the end of the third and still the Eastnorth forest surrounded her.

Dane Valdor rode a gentle mare. Obviously in misery, he sat with shoulders slumped forward, his hands clasped together in a tangle of reins on the saddle horn in white knuckle tension, and his brow knit so completely he appeared to be squinting. It took only an hour of riding before he reined the poor animal in to a point where she barely moved at all, having to start and stop the heavy cart load she carried behind.

Kira led her steed, a spirited four year old black gelding her uncle had labeled unbreakable after trying every attempt to tame him. Somehow, she never had a problem with him and now wished she had found him before Tilak had so Bolt wouldn’t be destined as the last of his linage. He snorted and huffed with as much impatience as she felt.

“Can we, I mean, can we stop again, just for a few minutes?” Dane asked.

Kira tossed Bolt’s reins from her shoulder and slapped her hands to her hips. “Might as well call it a night. Again.”

Dane groaned and dropped to the ground. “I’m sorry, really,” he said. “I still can’t believe they didn’t have any transports available.”

Kira shook her head and circled back, eyeing the grounds flanking the road for a clear enough place to make camp for a third time. And she wished for it to be the last.

“Will the next town have transports?”

“Transports are useless for long hauls,” she said, hoping it was enough to quiet him.

“What do you mean useless?”

Kira spun back at him with full intentions of scolding him but she couldn’t help the pity growing in her heart. She scrubbed her scalp with one hand.

“I mean useless. Transports need fuel of some sort. Solar isn’t all that reliable these days, Madai have let it slip. Horses are fueled by nature, grass and water, a little oats and you’re home free. No getting stopped when the solar panels disengage and you can’t find fuel. It’s simple. Transports useless. Natural is better.”

“But the… Solar, they said it’s top form, nothing can beat it.” He dropped to the ground, his legs stiff, his brow twisted with agony.

“For the richest,” Kira said. “Not many of those down here anymore so finding the best is next to impossible.”

Dane covered his face with his hands. Kira rolled her eyes and desperately wished she wasn’t with Dane now. Every fiber of her essence wanted to rush across the lands to Tarjei, to reach the mountain city before Akron even moved from Madai City. But Dane Valdor alone in the wilds had no chance of survival. Leaving him would be the equivalent of leaving a newborn foal or a pup without its litter or mother.

“Come on, at least get off the road.”

Dane pulled his hands from his face and peered up at her from the corner of his eye. “Give me a few minutes.”

“A transport can whiz by here at any minute.  They do travel this road between towns and they don’t look where they are going.”

Dane shook his head. “I need a few minutes.”

“You might—”

“Stop! Even if I wanted to move right now, I doubt very much I can. So let me be. I did not expect to feel like this, did not expect any of this. Just let me be.”

Kira flared at his raised tone. She whirled to look west, walked several paces, then spun back. “Get up!”

Dane scowled.

“Don’t give me that. Stop wit h the pity and get up. Now!”

“Shindra, I can’t.”

“Can’t isn’t a word for down here. Down here, you don’t have that luxury. You say can’t—you die. You quit paying attention—you die, you move slow—you die. Did you come here to die?”

“Gods, woman. Who are you to drill me?”

“I’m your guide, and as your guide it’s my job to see you live. Move it!”

Dane growled a complaint as he rolled to his side and struggled more than she’d ever seen anyone struggle to get to his feet. Kira closed in on him and grabbed his bicep when he faltered.

He glared at her for a short second and leaned heavily on a near tree. “What are you doing?”

“Getting you off the road. There’s a clearing over here.”

“I don’t need your kind of help.” He stumbled on a low limb, nearly pulling Kira over before she managed to right him.

“Oh really,” she said and ignored his scowl.

She managed to keep him on his feet to the shaded clearing she found by a fallen log, easy to build a shelter against. She had pushed this tenderfoot to his limits and beyond. Going any farther soon wouldn’t work, not in the same manner she had been.

He whimpered in pain when she lowered him against the downed tree. She left him then and traipsed quietly through the forest, gathering branches strong enough to support others as a shelter. She worked around him in silence, securing the limbs together with vines and smaller saplings, camouflaging him from the road. When she finished, she took the horses down the slope to a nearby spring she knew from earlier travels. It took just a few minutes to relinquish the mare of her heavy load. It was a trunk large enough to carry a person but full of actual books. Or at least that was what Dane said. He refused to leave it behind in Madai City against her better judgment.

From across the stream, two sets of familiar golden eyes watched her. The female crept from cover to lap at the water’s edge. Kira dipped her fingers into the cold liquid, but never moved her gaze from her wolf friend. Shiva watched her and huffed a quiet woof toward a tree as if to point out Wiki, his tiny furry form clinging to the bark. In the thickening darkness, Kira wouldn’t have seen the primate had she not known he wasn’t far from the wolf siblings. Her three friends had followed out of sight since she entered the forest. She thanked Shiva for keeping her anxious brother, Kota, from acting out toward the unexpected company of Dane and for carrying the little marmoset so Wiki wasn’t left behind. The light colored wolf seemed to smile at her, then lay down and propped her nose on her front paws to rest and watch.

Kira refilled her leather water bag, tied the horses at the stream under the watchful eyes of Shiva and Kota and climbed the crest back to Dane. Darkness hung nearly complete when she returned. Dane squirmed in the corner of the shelter but didn’t speak. She moved to the center, beneath the small opening she left for smoke to escape, and used a wedge of old wood to scrape away leaves and as much debris as she could with both the makeshift tool and her hands. In the center of the clearing, she loosely arranged a few handfuls of dry grass from her pouch and some dry sticks, then piled larger ones on top. She set her laser pistol on the shortest burst and blasted the grass and small twigs, sparking it immediately. A few minutes later, when flames had burned down enough wood to create coals, she piled larger bits of logs she found and slipped her one pan over the heat. She poured a little water into it and followed it with a pouch of anti-inflammatory herbs. When it boiled and grew to a golden hue, she tipped the edge over her one mug, filling it, and held it out to Dane.

He sat silently watching the entire time. Now firelight glinted in his eyes when he looked at the mug, then at her.

“Drink it,” she said.

“Why?”

Kira bristled at the question. “Because I said so.”

“Mercy killing?”

She laughed at the sudden crazy suggestion. “If I meant to kill you, the laser would be quicker and a lot less effort.”

“Then why shield me from the road?”

Kira contemplated him for a moment. He wasn’t the wisest person to common things, but he learned quick and he was more observant than most.

“Because I’m leaving and you don’t need anyone bothering you.”

“Leaving,” he said and sighed. “Do I at least get to keep the horse?”

“No. We can’t leave her out here.”

“Not the mare, but me?”

“Just long enough for me to find a transport to haul you to Westend. Our deal was that I get you that far. I’ll do so. Now drink.” She shoved the mug at him, not taking no for an answer. He must’ve sensed her temptation to pour it down his throat for he snatched it up quickly.

“What is it?”

“It’ll ease the pain so you can stretch those legs, and I suggest you do so before they lock up on you.”

He sniffed the drink. “Not alcohol.”

“Just herbs,” she said.

“From the farm?”

Kira quirked a brow at his comment, forgetting for a moment that he overheard the guards mention a farm, the cover she used. “Sure, from the farm.”

Firelight snapped. Dane sipped from the mug, waited a minute, then drank more.

“Are you always so…contradicting?” he asked.

Kira rinsed the heated pot and refilled it to boil some roots into a sort of vegetable stew. Due to extended time in the forest, she found far more berries and tubers than she expected.

“Contradicting?”

“Yes, impossibly nasty one minute and feigning nice the next.”

“You’ve not seen nasty.”

“You shot a man, you scream at me.”

“Hank asked for it and how else was I going to get you up?”

Dane parted his lips to speak but quickly shut them.

“You can’t possibly think I can lift you,” she said. “You might not be much on the road or in a fight, but you’ve got enough bulk and height, I couldn’t haul you.”

Dane sighed and shifted his position, wincing, but at least trying to move his outstretched legs. He remained silent, just watching as she stirred the stew and served him a small portion.

“Thank you,” he said to the bowl.

Kira chewed a berry and shrugged. “Just a simple stew.”

“For everything.”

She shrugged away the offered gratitude.

“I realize now, despite thinking I was prepared, I wasn’t. I’m not. I am as good as dead down here, it’s why all my colleagues refused the job, why they called me insane. I just… I don’t know.”

“Book smarts help,” Kira said. “But they aren’t any replacement.”

“And neither is ten young years of training,” he said. “I realize you have somewhere else to be. I can see your impatience. And I realize how easy it would be for you to take my money, use that laser pistol of yours and be gone with no one any wiser. That’s why I thank you.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Kira said. She scowled at him for a minute but couldn’t keep from laughing at his expression. He shook his head and dug into the stew but she thought she saw the hint of a smile pucker his cheek.

“So, Shindra, where do you hail from?”

Kira gazed up into the trees, their black silhouettes a shade darker than the night sky. Stars danced in the black fabric. “Here, there, everywhere,” she said, more to the sky than to him.

“The farm?”

“South.”

“How far south?”

She furrowed her brow. She’d never really thought about it, nor did she know a whole lot about farm life. “Not too far.”

“Is that why you know this forest so well?”

She shrugged again.

“And why are you headed west in such a hurry?”

Kira sat up. “Why did you really come down here, knowing what you know, your colleagues refusing the same task?”

Dane squirmed in his seat, managing to stretch his legs a bit more. He breathed deep and glanced up at the low ceiling of the shelter. “I wanted to smell the wind.”

“Huh?”

“Smell the wind. I wanted to taste it, to feel the sun and fresh air, not manufactured and pumped through filters. The rain, the trees, the dirt. I needed to see it, feel it, taste it. Twenty-five years in that space station was too much for me.” He rubbed his thigh, wincing as he did so and then took another bite of stew. He looked up to her and shrugged. “Even now, I wouldn’t go back.”

Kira studied him, his thin build, his broad shoulders, a strange sensation of shock settling in her. For years, the rich and well off of the Madai had been returning to the station, few willing to share their cities and towns with Inaut kind. She never thought about what it was like in that space station, adrift in orbit with the moon.

He scraped his dish clean. “If I die tonight, I wouldn’t regret it.”

Kira served him another small helping, glad to see he wasn’t shy about the wild roots. Thoughts drifted in her mind, how much she dare say or ask. She decided she could risk a little.

“So, if you don’t care to return, why worry so much about getting those reports for the monarch?”

Dane glanced up from his food and swallowed. “Oh, he will hunt me down for them.”

She watched him a few moments longer. “And what if you come to find out reporting your finds would hurt many?”

He held his spoon in mid air. Broth plopped from the side. He lowered it back to the dish.

“How could it? The treaties keep things… they keep the peace.”

“A very thin peace,” she said.

He shook his head. “If the Inaut mean trouble, it’s my duty to let the Monarch know.”

“The Inaut,” Kira said, unable to keep shock from her voice. “The Inaut cause no trouble. They are giving what they can. It’s those who think themselves better that are the problem. Those who want to take too much, greedy, arrogant bastards.”

“What would you know about it?” He scowled, the firelight deepening the creases of worry lining his forehead.

“Yes, indeed. What would I know about it? I best get going. You have what you need here.”

“What is the matter with you?” he said, his tone harsh.

“With me?”

“Yes, with you. You’re the one who asked the question.”

“You’re the one who accused the peaceful people of causing trouble.”

“Well, I’m sorry. I can only state what I know and right now it’s not a whole lot.”

“And report what you find,” she said, then stopped, realizing what he said.

“I’ll have to make that call when I get that far.”

“And what if you find what you believe is wrong?”

“I’ll make my decisions accordingly,” he said.

“And who cares if the report will hurt many.”

“I’ll die before I give it!”

Kira’s breath caught in her throat. He admitted it far too easily, far too truthfully and emotionally for her not to believe he meant it. But it didn’t make sense. He was full Madia, as pale golden as the first break of dawn sky and born and raised at the space station. His kind didn’t change their opinions from what they were told by their great and powerful Monarch Crakshandal. At least not often.

He wiped his jaw as if to strip off the heated flick of anger he showed only a second before. “Look, I know something isn’t right in my gut. I knew it up there. I know it here. I don’t know what. I only know what I’ve been told and I can’t say what I will or won’t do exactly. But I do know nothing could make me give anything that could harm any people, no matter who they are.” He stopped and cast his gaze downward. “I don’t know why it matters to you so much.”

“No, you don’t, and you won’t.” She slapped the supplies she needed back inside her saddle bag.

“So that’s it,” he said.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Are you always so impossibly moody?”

Kira fumed at the question, started down the slope, then whirled back. “Contradicting.  Stick with the same word. Usually I’m worse,” she said. “Impossible and unbearable. I tried to tell you, you didn’t want to come with me, I told you, you would regret it.”

“Aren’t you at least going to leave me your gun? Something to defend myself. I know these woods enough to know I’m sitting prey here.”

Kira ignored him and swooped down the embankment to the horses, finding her way more by hearing the water and her sense of direction than sight. She snatched up the mare’s reins and mounted Bolt. She sat motionless for a long minute, knowing she had to snuff her anger, knowing Dane had no idea what ignited it so she had no right to continue to punish him. She closed her eyes and focused her thoughts when she heard large paws splash in the stream. Kota and Shiva with Wiki on her shoulders neared the horses. Kira felt more than saw them. She willed her wishes to them, her request that they remain with Dane, and rode Bolt to the crest of the hill where the small shelter stood in shadow except for the orange-red glow of the coals set just inside.

“Let the fire die out,” she said. “You won’t get cold and nothing will bother you if you aren’t afraid to let a couple wolves join you.”

Dane leaned over to peer up at her, though she was certain she saw much more of him than he could of her. “What? Are you insane?”

“Most likely,” she said. She waited a moment until Shiva dared to raise her head into the light of the dying fire. Dane swore and scrambled back out of sight. Kira wrestled with the temptation to leave him then but hopped out of the saddle. She ran her fingers through the wire coarse fur of her friend until she found the soft silkiness between Shiva’s ears and down her snout. She stooped eye level with Dane yet still outside the shelter. He stared at the wolf and had pulled his long legs as tightly as he could to his chest.

“Her name is Shiva,” Kira said and looked to her friend, asking Shiva to make Dane feel welcome. Shiva responded by lapping the side of Kira’s face, flopping onto her belly and patting her large paws forward toward the interior of the shelter.

Kira tapped the wolf’s flanks and looked to Dane again. “You have to let the fire die out so you don’t attract the attention of any bandits and many cross by here in the deep night. Shiva will keep you warm if you let her. Kota will keep watch. I’ll try to be back by mid day tomorrow, by evening at the latest. Wiki can bring you more water if you need it, just hand him the mug. It won’t be real full when he returns, but it’ll be something if you can’t walk down the hill.”

“I don’t understand,” Dane said. “That, that’s not a forest wolf, I mean, it looks too big.”

“Mountain dire wolf,” Kira said. “If I truly was impossible, I wouldn’t even tell you they were here. They’ve been with us since we entered the forest and they don’t usually leave my side unless I go into a town, but I’ve asked them to stay with you until I get back and they’ve agreed.”

“How do you… What do you mean they’ve agreed? How can you possibly know that? They’re wild animals and what’s a wiki?”

“It’s a who, he’s a nine month old pygmy marmoset, we’ve sort of adopted him. Be satisfied with that, because I’m not in the mood to share more. I have a lot of ground to make up.”

She mounted Bolt again, eased him out to the road and snapped the reins to let him know he was free to run as fast and far as the mare he led would let him.

 

~*~

 

Dane sat stiff with terror. Thundering hooves faded away into the chirp of insects and his own breaths. He was utterly alone in a wild forest staring into strange gold eyes of a wolf large enough to take him down faster than he could blink. He had studied the wild animals of Earth and knew how vicious mountain wolves were. They also didn’t domesticate, always remaining unpredictably wild, nor did they move outside the mountains many miles west. Their being in the forest was far too unnatural.

The light colored animal inched a bit closer, her head down, ears perked up, yellow eyes ablaze in the orange glow from the coals. Her paws were damp, the fur clumped to sufficiently show her claws and the large size not caused by fur. He thought for sure they were at least as big as one of Laurandra’s hands. He sat until his neck stiffened from the lack of motion. The wolf picked her head up and inched farther into the shelter as the coals died to an odd red glow. The fading embers pulsed between red and orange with deep shadows and would have captured his attention completely if not for the beast. He’d seen fire, or images of fire, before. In a space station, fire wasn’t something welcome but he understood it. Still, seeing it and how casually Shindra handled it held a certain kind of mysticism. A mysticism the wolf now commanded.

The big animal stretched its head out so her snout brushed his pant leg. At least he thought this one was the female. Not that it mattered. Or maybe it did. Males, from what he read, were generally bigger and worse tempered. He flinched at the sudden burst of wolf breath, as if she sneezed from the smell of him. She stood then, her head down to keep from hitting the top of the shelter high enough he could comfortably sit straight. She was even bigger than he first thought as she maneuvered around the smoking coals. He squeezed away from her when she neared, turning his face so he wouldn’t see her gaping jaw. She sniffed his shoulder then face, snuffling hot wet air in his ear, ruffling his hair.  He swallowed down the groan of dread, fearing any sound might cause her to react badly. Then she stopped and dropped down, half on him, half off. After a minute he opened his eyes just a squint and found she had positioned her head on his lap, half her body over his left leg. She felt impossibly heavy but a moment later he realized his muscles felt as though they thawed under her. After a few minutes, his heart quit banging against his ribs. The big wolf seemed to doze though with the light from the coals all but gone, he couldn’t see her fully.

Insects chattered, creaked and chirped in a chorus of strange sounds, so much louder, deeper and encompassing than any recordings he ever heard. He stared into the darkness wishing to the gods he’d trained his body for endurance not just strength before he came. Strength wasn’t near enough. He had no one to blame but himself for the uncomfortable predicament. Even though he truly wished he could blame Shindra.

Pain crept from his hips and up his spine to his tense shoulders. He tolerated it, hating the pestering sensation pushing at him until he finally had to dare a move under the big wolf. He tightened his muscles first. She lifted her head. He waited, trying to guess her notion before he shifted his position. She sat fully up and away from him but her ears remained perked, not low, and she regarded him with a leisure curiosity more than prey. Free of the weight but feeling a sudden chill, he pulled his coat tighter around himself and turned from the wolf to stretch out and at least pretend to sleep. A moment after he lay still, he felt the weight of the wolf again, this time alongside him with only what he guessed to be her head over his shin.

He closed his eyes to the thickening night, trying to envision a different place, but the rich woody smell of dew on trees, soil, and the decaying stump behind him kept him tightly on Earth’s surface. The lingering smoke from the fire filled his senses to a level he never before experienced. It was the first night Shindra had burned a fire and the first night rain hadn’t washed the air of all the other luscious scents. Even the sound of the insects demanded his full attention. He committed it all to memory, the off beat rhythms, the fading volumes, sudden cuts of near silence and then the building cacophony again.

Sneaky sleep peeled away under tender daylight. Dane opened his eyes with a start, shocked at the sudden light and realizing it wasn’t sudden at all. Somehow he had fallen asleep. He pulled his arm up. He had draped it over the molten gray and brown fur of the mountain wolf but his other arm was pinned comfortably under the animal. She raised her big head, her gold eyes too near his, so near he smelled the oddly odorless breath. Wild animals, he had assumed, were anything but odorless.  In fact, she did smell earthy, like dirt and rain. Not all that repulsive.

She wriggled from his arm and stood, lumbering outside the shelter into the misty morning where fog blended perfectly with her shaggy fur as if she wasn’t a wolf at all but a spirit.

“Hey,” he said.

She turned to gaze at him over her shoulder. Then the sound came.

Shivers slithered up and around Dane’s spine to raise every hair at the nape of his neck from the mourning cry, human but not. The wolf jolted alert and bolted off, fading into whirling mist until all sense of her was gone. Dane sat frozen, hoping the morning mist would hide him as efficiently as it hid everything from his view.

The fire pit was nothing more than an indentation of jet black charcoal, yet the scent of the smoke still clung to the air. Or maybe it was on him. He fidgeted, rubbing the sore muscles of his thighs until his hands hurt. If he planned to get anywhere, if he could trust what Shindra said about transports, he had to work through the pain and learn how to ride better. The first day had been the roughest, the saddle hitting him each time the horse’s rump shifted. By the second day he had gotten better at moving with the flow of the animal but by then the ache had taken over. Straddling the animal and the muscles it took to stay seated surprised him. He’d never thought to work that part of his legs.

As morning brightened into what he guessed might be afternoon, he wondered how far Shindra had to travel to reach Westend. He knew of the growing outpost halfway between New Key and Madai City and that it stood a clip outside of Eastnorth Forest. How far a clip was, he wasn’t sure. The forest hadn’t seemed so huge on paper.

The wolf didn’t return and he didn’t see or hear any other strange sounds. He dared a short crawl from the shelter and stood in awe of the colors surrounding him. The soil was dark, a warm black from rains and a stark contrast to the brilliant greens of ferns. His legs refused to carry him anywhere smoothly. His knees locked and unlocked, feeling more mechanical than organic. He forced himself to walk a few paces more each time he emerged from his shelter, more from boredom than anything. It was then he realized he had left all his belongings on the mare.

He raked his fingers through his hair, hating how stupid he could be and feeling sick at being stuck alone in the alien environment. His water canteen empty, he dared a little escape, following the path Shindra and the horses had the night before. The horse hooves made perfect imprints in the fine soil. A pale streak of water rippled through shadow and dapples of filtered sunlight at the bottom of a gentle ravine. He’d actually seen sunlight since leaving Madai City, but only for short periods. It was, after all, the rainy season.  He knew that. He just never knew exactly what it meant before. Rain got everywhere, clinging to the air and soaking into every last crease of clothing and skin. He limped stiff legged down the slope toward the water, still following the horse prints and spotting Shindra’s boot prints mixed in as well. He stopped when he reached the bottom and stared at the sharp corners of his travel trunk.

She left it behind. When they started out, she protested his need to have the horse drag it along despite the cart he had purchased with a small axel and two wheels to help support its weight. Inside he had all his research books and papers. He had much on electronic tablet too, but for him, being able to feel the words as he read them, to smell the ink on the paper, it didn’t compare to the digital version. Laurandra and the others had laughed at the collection of old tomes he had amassed, but many times he found her looking through the actual pages herself.

He shuffled to the trunk and stared behind it where his saddlebag sat, the bag with his clothes and coins. He shook his head in wonderment as he lifted it, then felt his hopes sink as quickly as they rose. His coin purse was gone. All of it. She had dumped all of him and left him. He dropped his bag and stared up the slope at a total loss as to what to do. He had a Comm in his trunk, but who he could contact, he didn’t know. No one in Madai City had wanted to help him before.

He stepped to the stream’s edge, wondering if it was suitable for drinking but figuring Shindra had already given him some from the prints he found on the shore. He started to stoop down, slowed from the pain in his thighs and clumsily dropped to his knees. Laurandra would laugh if she saw him now. He almost heard her perky voice gushing “I told you so” in his mind.

Air bubbled and popped from the spout when he submerged the canteen beneath icy liquid. Stones of every muted color shimmered beneath the surface, wet and smooth, perfect.

As bad as the situation was, he couldn’t fully regret it. He regretted not being more prepared. He regretted not having commissioned a bounty hunter from the Space Station to accompany him, but he didn’t regret coming at all.

He moved back from the damp edge of the bank to plop solidly down on his rear. Only one bounty hunter would ever put up with him and she’d been dead fifteen years. Or maybe she wouldn’t tolerate him now. She was his mother, but she would have trained him for tasks such as these, honed him to match her strength and will, filled him with all the knowledge she had. She had promised him she would, had promised him he would be the best bounty hunter the Monarch had ever seen. Then she died.

He wiped his hair from his brow. No, she was murdered, stolen.

He stood with new determination and turned to see the pale wolf staring at him. He froze, wondering what went on behind the intelligent expression of those beast eyes. If she regarded him as a good meal, she didn’t show it. Or maybe she was saving him for later. He scowled at the thought.

“She put you here to finish me off,” he said.

The wolf perked her ears.

“Well, she said you understood her, do you me?”

The wolf cocked her head and swayed her shaggy tail once.

“You know what, do what you will, I’m going to ignore you. I have work to do.”

He set to shoving his trunk from the soft soil it sunk into, wishing the wheels of the cart beneath its edge were larger and more suited to the task. He pushed and struggled, fighting against pain in his back, shoulders, legs. Soon, determination for what he had to do muddied the pains into fuel and he somehow managed to shove, tug, drag, and pull the heavy chest from the quagmire and up the slope, his hands bleeding from the rope. Once he got it to the road, it wouldn’t be quite so much work. He only hoped anyone who spotted him wouldn’t have a mind to stop. He had no desire to meet more strangers.

The wolf settled down under some brush, sleeping, lifting her head only when his grumbles and swears grew loud.

Daylight seemed to sweep impossibly fast across the canopy above, but he ignored the passing time, focusing only on what he had to do. He marched by the still intact shelter, ignoring it and the fake help it had provided. Sticks and larger branches seemed to jump from the soil to grab and claw the wheels of the cart, dislodging the corner of the heavy trunk several times, slowing him to a snail’s speed. He wiped sweat from his brow and neck and trudged forward.

All else faded from his mind, the sharp cut of the rope to his hand, the snap of sticks beneath tiny wheels. He nearly missed the whirling of a transport all together when it zipped to a stop just ahead.

Dane froze, wondering why anyone would choose right there to stop. He saw nothing more than a bit of orange metal to show it was there.

A scream or a childish squeal sounded above him from one of the trees. Dane startled, dropping the hoisted end of the heavy trunk, and something tiny and dark fell next to him then scurried impossibly fast toward the road.

“I see you can move.”

Dane spun and found Shindra standing just inside the tree line, one foot propped on a downed branch. She swatted at a dark ball of fur on her shoulder. A tail flipped out, brown striped with black, and the thing chattered.

“I said quiet,” Shindra said to it.

The creature cowered on her shoulder then puffed up when she stroked its small head with two fingers. Dane watched the odd scene, not able to place the creature in any of his studies.

“Wiki,” he said.

Shindra nodded once. “Were you bored?” She motioned to the trunk.

He shrugged. “Noticed you took the money pouch, figured my only way out was to get myself out.”

Shindra’s jaw twitched just above the collar of her jacket. A strange jacket for a farmer really.  It had too many pouches, flaps and layers to be ordinary.

“I told you I would be back,” she said. Her expression held stiff, hidden.

“You could have told me you took the coins.”

Her eyes blazed, though why, he couldn’t begin to guess.

“What else was I suppose to think?” he asked.

“How else was I going to buy you this?” She kicked the transport.  The creature on her shoulder squeaked and vanished down her back.

He sighed. “Guess I didn’t think of it that way.”

She yanked something from one of the many side pockets of her coat and wailed it at him. He caught the pouch against his chest, grunting from the punch of the heavy constrained coins. It didn’t feel any lighter.

“The only thing they had was junk, didn’t cost much. Doesn’t have much room either.” She glanced at his book trunk.

Dane reached down for the rope. He hadn’t slaved all day just to leave it behind now.  “I’ll manage something.”

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