Starlight and Judgment
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
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
“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,”
“And we all know they aren’t
working as well as we would like.”
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.”
“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
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.
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
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
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?”
“Ah, none here are sober enough to
hear me anyway. How about some cheese to go along with the bread?”
“How old is it?”
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
“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
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.
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“Erek,” she said.
He dipped his head. “What are you doing
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
Her eyes flamed with anger. “What is
“Then quit looking at me like that.”
“It’s just, well—you’re
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
“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.”
“Of your boarding house.”
“Oh,” Dane scratched his forehead.
“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
“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
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
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
“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!”
“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
“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
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.
Kira bristled at the question. “Because
I said so.”
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?”
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.
“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
“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.”
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
“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.
“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
She shrugged again.
“And why are you headed west in such
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.”
“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.
“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
“I’ll make my decisions accordingly,”
“And who cares if the report will hurt
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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,”
The wolf perked her ears.
“Well, she said you understood her,
do you me?”
The wolf cocked her head and swayed her shaggy
“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
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
Her eyes blazed, though why, he couldn’t
begin to guess.
“What else was I suppose to think?”
“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.”