Fiction (Short)

The Farewell

OURFAREWELL

It was late, and we were loud, but for tonight, that was alright. Tabby had told us hours ago to not worry about it. The corner table at the pub was ours as late as we wanted it. And so far, no one had seemed inclined to complain anyway. The only looks that came our way were smiles and nods, and Reuben and I didn’t end up paying for any more than a third of our drinks. The rest were covered by our friends, and a couple of rounds appeared at our table, courtesy of grateful, generous strangers. The other members of the crew were probably doing the same thing with their own friends in some other bar.

We tried not to call it a suicide mission. It might have been. Probably was, really, but on the off chance that it wasn’t, we promised each other that we wouldn’t count ourselves out until our ship was blowing up around us. Either way, we were leaving the next morning. Our ship was already prepped and ready, and it waited at the launching grounds at the edge of town with the course out to another system and another planet somewhere beyond colonized space already programmed into its computer.

But that was tomorrow. Tonight, we were still here.

“So, Erin.” Reuben’s dark eyes glittered wickedly at me from across the table, and even the fuzz left by my last beer wasn’t enough to dull the feeling of sudden dread.

“Don’t even think about it,” I said.

“Think about what?” His grin showed more teeth than it ever did when his motives were good.

I grinned right back at him. “The same thing you’ve been hounding me about since it happened.”

“Come on, Erin. It might be our last chance. Everyone wants to know the old tractor story.”

A general clamor in Reuben’s favor went up from our friends, encouraged as much by his sly fox smile as my pretended scowl of disapproval.

“You’ve got to tell it now!”

“Cat’s half out anyway.”

“One to remember you by!”

“You’re a bloody cheater, Reuben,” I said, but there was nothing believable about my frown.

“So, will you tell it or will I?”

“You.” I balled up a napkin and threw it at him before he could start. “But not until your sister gets here, because she’s been demanding the details since it happened and she’ll kill me if everyone else finds out before she does.”

His smile faltered. “I’m not sure she’s coming.”

I gave him a quizzical look, but he waved it off and I didn’t push. I just paused for a moment, playing along with the game before giving the answer everyone knew I’d give. And I still smiled when they cheered. Our joviality was fragile, but it was enough.

The only thing I would have changed would have been to have Luca there with us.

 

 

An hour passed. Another one followed it. The late night grew later, and we grew sleepier and even a littler quieter. The pub’s other patrons left, one by one. So did a couple of our friends, citing the years they had gained since we’d first met. They promised to see us at the launching tomorrow as they went.

Luca never came, and it didn’t need to surprise me to hurt. I’d sent her a handful of messages throughout the evening, surreptitiously touching my fingers to my commphone’s controls to activate the contact display and tap out the words I wanted. Reuben caught the telltale, electric glimmer across my eye the second time I did it, but he didn’t say anything, just offered a quiet, sympathetic smile and looked away before anyone else noticed. I’d tried to be as present as I could the rest of the time, but I’m not sure how well I succeeded. It was hard when I was waiting for a response that didn’t come.

At least, it didn’t come until the night was over and last few of us were finally admitting that we should sleep. My contact display lit up, and I jumped despite myself. The message was short and simple, but it said everything it needed to.

I’m out by the launch field.

It took me less than a second to get up from the table. I grabbed my jacket, apologizing as coherently as my midnight-addled tongue could manage and confirming that I would see them all for last goodbyes before we left. Reuben gave me a look that I returned as best I could, and then I took off. I broke into a jog before I was five steps out the door.

I found Luca leaning back against the wall of the maintenance bay, staring towards the dark outline of our ship where it waited in the field. She turned her head as I approached.

“We missed you tonight,” I said. I think I said it without letting it sound like an accusation. I didn’t mean it to be.

“I’m sorry,” said Luca. She paused before saying something about being at the launch tomorrow.

“For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate it,” I said. “Reuben will too.”

She didn’t respond, quickly or otherwise. I’m usually comfortable with silences. The stretch of wordless seconds that clings to the edge of a conversation has always just been another way to enjoy a friend’s company. Nothing more, nothing less. But this one wasn’t like that.

I forced a laugh. “Hey, if we get ourselves killed, at least you won’t have to worry about keeping us out of trouble anymore.”

“What the hell, Erin?” She jerked away from the wall. “Seriously?”

An apology slipped off my tongue, and I followed her out into the field, into the deeper shadows where the hull of our ship blocked the light of the moon. An excuse or two stuck in the back of my throat, whispers and mumbles about coping mechanisms and an attempt to lighten the mood. But Luca kept talking before I made anything worse.

“I wanted to sabotage this thing, you know.” She was looking up at the hull. “To find a way to break it enough that it would never get you to deep space.”

My stomach tightened. Only the fact that she kept talking kept me from making some stupid inquiry after the state of the ship.

She shrugged, or that’s what it looked like. “I might have actually done it if I thought it could have stopped you.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Keep us behind, safe and sound. That’ll work great until the bad guys come and kill us here instead.”

Luca snorted in disgust. “There’s every chance they’ll do that anyway.”

“No! Not every chance. If this works they never get past Relfa.”

“If!” She hissed the word through gritted teeth. “’If’ means nothing! ‘If’ means we’re down to dreams and delusions!”

“’If’ means that some of us haven’t given up just yet!” I shouted, and my words echoed out across the field. They faded without interruption.

Her response came slowly, cold and delayed. “Or maybe it means you’re just going to die in denial.”

“Better that than whatever it is you’re doing.”

Her hand moved in the darkness, and I braced myself for a blow that never landed. Her fists jerked at the air above her head instead, threatening to beat her own skull. A ragged scream wedged and died in her throat. “How can you say that? You! Of all people! I’ve been in every meeting you have, come up with dozen insane schemes of my own—I lost my husband to one of them and it never stopped me!”

“It broke you when Aaron died!” There was a moment, just a moment when I could have kept from going further. “If he was alive he would have been the first to volunteer”

I thought she was going to hit me. I’d have deserved it. If I’d been her I probably would have. The dead silence was worse, and it remained unbroken even when she left half a minute later, leaving me alone to justify myself to the snarling in my head. It was a lost cause, and I gave it up after the barest handful of seconds.

I woke early the next morning, well before my alarm and only five or six hours after I’d finally collapsed into bed. I should have been able to fall back asleep. Exhaustion squatted on my chest, and I didn’t need to look in a mirror to know that my eyes were bloodshot. Another hour of rest would have smoothed the roughest edges if nothing else. I knew without trying that I’d never manage it. A resigned curse escaped through my teeth, and I dropped my feet to the floor.

Not that I had much to do before the launch. My bag was packed and skulking by the door. My uniform hung over the back of my chair, waiting for me to pull it on. A pile of letters sat on my desk, filled with sentiments I’d already said out loud to the recipients, though perhaps not so eloquently as when I put pen to paper. Actual paper. It was old-fashioned, perhaps, but it seemed fitting. It would be something to hold onto if things turned out the way we feared the most.

One of them was for Luca. It was one of a dozen, but when I looked at the stack it was the only one that mattered. Fortunately, I’d written it before last night, and the things inside were things I meant, things that I wanted her to know and remember. If she decided to read it instead of burning it, it might bring her a little peace.

A twisting in my gut told me that I was still angry. Of course I was. I would be until we made up, and unless Luca felt like seeing me in the next few hours, I was just going to have to live with it. Or die with it. One or the other. I gave a snort. It was as close to a laugh as I could manage.

It didn’t take me long to get dressed and ready. My uniform went on easily, comfortably. I dragged a comb through my hair until it was vaguely presentable and able to be tied back in a tight braid. I tossed my dirty clothes in a laundry basket. I made my bed. I yanked my boots onto my feet and laced them up. Within fifteen minutes, I was out the door with my bag slung over my shoulder and the packet of letters clutched in my hand.

The colony was quiet. The streets weren’t quite empty, but the few of us who walked them were more inclined to enjoy the silence and the solitude than to strike up a conversation. We exchanged civil nods when we passed and little else. When I reached the little shop that operated as a post office of sorts, I dropped off my letters with a minimum of talking. Old Man Rufus who ran the place did the same, though he offered his well-wishes and only charged me half price for sending the letters. I smiled and thanked him and left.

I wandered the streets after that. I still had hours before launch, hours even before the crew had to be there for our early checks, and I wasn’t about to spend the last of my free time aboard the same beast of tech and metal that I would be tied to for the next weeks. My bag wasn’t all that heavy, and I took simple comfort in its weight against my back as I said my goodbyes to the colony.

I was halfway to Luca’s house before I realized where my steps were taking me. I stopped walking. The urge to turn and go back the way I had come thrummed in my chest. I could put aside the argument from last night. I could make myself believe it didn’t matter. I could bury it deep and let it fester until the mission was done or I was gone. Just not if we came back for round two now.

But if we didn’t, there was no way we were going to reconcile. The odds weren’t good for any encounter turning out that way, but it wasn’t as if I was paying much heed to probabilities these days anyway. I started for her house again with a sigh and a muttered prayer.

Of course, everything hinged on her actually being home and willing to open the door. I’m not sure which one of those wasn’t true, but I imagine that in the end it doesn’t really matter. After the fifth time I knocked only to be met by silence, I admitted defeat and wandered back the way I’d come.

I passed the rest of my time in one way or another. Fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there. Half an hour saying goodbye to the hollow in the corner of the park where I’d always hidden when I wanted to get away. Forty-five minutes getting lunch and coffee at my favorite cafe. Seconds and minutes and hours that I used to make sure I remembered.

Finally, I made my way back towards the launch field. We still had an hour to go before the crew was scheduled to gather for our final checks and any last updates on the mission, but it was close enough, and I was ready to not be alone anymore. I wouldn’t be the only one of the crew already feeling drawn to the ship.

I didn’t expect to find Luca there, but as I emerged onto the launch field I saw her there, standing next to Reuben. She saw me too, said something to her brother, and started making her way across the field to meet me. As soon as she got close enough for me to see it, the dark look on her face made me hesitate.

“You were out of line,” she said. “Tell me you know that.”

I didn’t want to. I did know it, but the words shriveled on my tongue and others to describe her own faults grew in their place. I choked them back and said nothing instead.

But Luca didn’t say anything else either, just kept staring me down even as I dropped my gaze. I tried again.

“I went too far.” It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. It was lame, and it wasn’t what I should have said. I hoped it was closer than anything else I’d come up with.

“I’m supposed to say it’s all okay now. That it was nothing,” said Luca

“Yeah,” I said. “But neither one of us believes that.”

“At least you’ve got that right.”

I felt the words of an apology trying to form just behind my teeth, but I couldn’t tell if they were sincere or self-serving. I could express remorse without taking blame, voice regret without admitting error. Smooth our feathers. Steal goodwill for an hour.

I could. I didn’t. “I shouldn’t have said what I did,” I said. “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

If Luca was surprised she didn’t show it. If she accepted my apology I couldn’t tell, and the time that passed before she said anything at all left deep dread in the pit of my stomach. When she spoke, her words came slow and with a terrible deliberation.

“I’m still mourning Aaron, and you used him just to make a point.”

She looked me in the eye, and I kept her gaze, barely, as she continued.

“Maybe I should be able to let it go. Maybe it was only thoughtless words spoken in the heat of the moment. And maybe you’re right. Maybe if he was here he’d have volunteered right along with you and Reuben, and I’d be watching the three people I love most climb onto a deathtrap instead of just the two I’ve got left.”

She paused and shook her head, and her mouth opened and closed as she hunted for the right words. “But the fact that you’d use him against me without thinking hurts deep. And I can’t just forget it and I can’t just let it go. Even if maybe I should.”

I set my jaw and nodded once. Before I managed a single word she reached out and put a hand on my shoulder.

“But I forgive you.”

Her hard look cracked just long enough for me to see a whisper of a smile. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her in a tight hug, and as she did the same a weight I’d tried ignoring slipped off my shoulders.

“We’ll need to talk about it,” she said. “When you get back.”

I nodded, still hugging her. “Then I’ll make sure we come back.”

“You’d better.” If her words were an act to make me feel better, then I couldn’t tell. We stepped apart and she smiled again, and this time it lasted a little longer. “And you’d better tell me the tractor story before you go.”

Fiction (Short)

Grey Dog Inn

GREYDOGINN

It was winter, and the Prince’s men were far away. Under the low roof of the North Forest Inn, Revi moved back and forth between her cooking fire and a few woodsmen who had braved the cold evening and the driving snow, bringing them hot stew and wooden mugs full of her best brewed ale. They responded with cheers and toasts to her health, and the sound of their talk and laughter filled the low, smoky room.

“Here’s to Revi, queen among innkeepers!”

“May her barrels never go empty and her stew never grow cold.”

The woman grinned over her shoulder, flinging back her still dark hair as she danced back towards the kitchen. “Keep bringing me wood for my fire and silver for my coffer, Bram, and you know they never will!”

They met her words with shouts of approval, raising their mugs and high before setting to with a will. For just an instant, the room was quiet. Flames snapped in the hearth. Spoons scraped on bowls. Someone called out at the door.

If the sound had come at any other time, it would have drowned beneath the roars of merriment. It was a quiet noise, a small noise, just a low call that wavered in the cold. Revi stopped on her way and turned back to look at the door.

“Boys, did you leave someone outside?”

The oldest of the woodsmen paused and shook his head. “No, marm. It was just the four of us today.” He lowered his mug to the table. “You heard someone?”

“I heard something,” said Revi.

All the woodsmen grew quiet, glancing to the door and burying themselves in their food, leaning in over the table as if to wall themselves away. Revi pulled a heavy stick from its place on the wall as she continued toward the door and gripped it with one hand as she reached for the latch with her other.

Cold air and powdered snow fell inside as soon as the door swung open, and the innkeeper frowned into the night and white storm. She found nothing there she had imagined. No ghosts, no monsters, no soldiers waiting for half an excuse. Nothing at all, she thought, until she looked a little farther and saw the dark figure fallen on the path just beyond the light that spilled past her and into the night. It was already half buried in falling snow.

“Bram! Lucas! Get over here and help me! Some poor fool was out traveling tonight.”

Chair legs scraped on the floor. Rough voices muttered wariness. The two men she called joined her at the door and ventured into the cold with her, towards the still and snowbound visitor.

It was a man, wrapped in a woolen cloak that was stiff with cold. His brown hair stuck to his face and his eyes were mostly shut. He barely shivered, barely had a voice to lend to his words as he whispered his thanks again and again while Bram and Lucas hoisted him upwards and draped his arms over their shoulders. Revi went ahead and chased the others away from the fire, pulling an empty chair close and ordering the men to bring their burden forward.

“Set him there. Get him some strew. Quickly!” She cleared the way. “Roosh, go to the back and fetch my cloak from my room. The one on the end!”

They all obeyed. The half frozen stranger sank into the chair, leaning heavily on his rescuers. He made no argument as his icy cloak was pulled from his shoulders or his snowy boots from his feet. His hands shook more violently than before and closed around an offered bowl full of hot food. It took him several seconds more before he could wrap his fingers around the spoon and lift it to his blue lips and hungry mouth.

Roosh returned with the demanded cloak and Revi snatched it from him and warmed it by the fire for just a moment, just enough to heat it above the temperature of the room before she draped it around the stranger. He shuddered as sudden heat returned to his bones, and he groaned quietly.

“There,” said Revi. “Good. Eat that and then you can tell us who you are.”

The stranger nodded and managed to swallow a spoonful of stew. It was enough to satisfy Revi for the time being, and she breathed out a quiet sigh before smiling her thanks to the woodsmen and waving them gently away so that the visitor might have a moment to himself. They went, returning to their bowls at the table nearest the fire and sliding them to its far side so that they could sit and still watch the newcomer.

If he noticed or minded his audience, he gave no indication. Instead, he focused on his bowl and all the little movements required to lift each bite to his mouth. It seemed to grow easier for him after a while, requiring less effort to keep from spilling until the simple movements came to him naturally and easily once again.

Revi gave a short, satisfied nod. “That’s a bit better,” she said. “You look less like death, my friend.”

The stranger paused and managed a wry smile. “I feel less like death,” he said. His voice cracked and rasped. “Thank you.”

“Consider it our pleasure,” said Revi, and her own face wrinkled with warmth and welcome. “That being said, now that you’re a bit warmer, perhaps you’ll tell us who it is we’ve rescued? I can’t imagine a man could travel far in this weather.”

Another wry grin. “Ah, yes,” he said. “A man would have trouble with it, that’s certain.”

Revi waited for him to continue, and a pointed look glimmered in her eyes until the visitor continued speaking.

“No hiding for the traveler here, then.” He pronounced the words lightly, though they fell from his lips with a certain seriousness.

Bram and his companions looked over from their own table again and allowed their curiosity to trail across their faces. The stranger chuckled when he saw them.

“You can try, certainly,” said Revi, “but I hope you won’t. We’re friendly folk here, and I think there’s no need.”

The stranger laughed again, low and gravely in his throat, and he paused before speaking. “I won’t, then,” he said, slowly, “though it’s nothing so remarkable. I’m Eriat, just a traveler who misjudged the road north.” He shrugged and spooned another bite into his mouth, chewing it and savoring it longer than he needed to before swallowing it down.

“Just a traveler?” asked Revi as the quiet began to stretch on a little.

The man smiled again and nodded. “Just a traveler.”

A careful glint flashed in his eyes, though it faded quickly. Revi saw it, but there was nothing she could do with it. And the man seemed simple enough. Just a traveler. Just a guest caught in the cold and half frozen to death. She filled his bowl again when he finished, and he thanked her warmly and profusely.

 

He stayed at the inn for several days, helping where he could and keeping out of the way when he couldn’t, always keeping one eye on the door. The harsher weather that had caught him days before let up, bit by bit, until the grey sky hung less heavy and the falling snow eased and stopped. More guests visited the inn. Shepherds and woodsmen, a few travelers whose business took them along the long North Road despite the season. Revi served hot food to those who came and prepared warm beds to those who stayed, and short, cold days passed.

On the fourth day after Eriat’s arrival, on an evening that saw no guests, Revi joined the stranger in front of the fire. They sat together for a while, Revi sighing and leaning back and resting her feet, Eriat staring into the low, orange flames and watching as they flickered on a half burned log.

“So, my friend,” said Revi. “What was it that brought you here?”

Eriat kept looking at the fire for a while, and its light reflected in his eyes. Finally, he glanced over at Revi. “I was traveling,” he said. “Just traveling.”

“You don’t seem anxious to be on your way again,” said Revi. Her words were gentle, and instead of looking at the man she stared into the fire as well.

“The weather is still cold,” he said. “I can finish my journey once the way is a little more hospitable.”

“Most would have waited for that before starting.”

Eriat laughed, faintly. “My business was urgent.”

Revi turned to him with a quick grin. “Not so urgent as that, I think.”

The stranger grunted. “Perhaps not.”

They let the conversation lull for a while, listening instead to the dying cracks of the fire and the hiss of the wind through the needles of the dark evergreens. Revi chuckled.

“We could sit here for many more nights than this before you told me where you’ve actually come from.”

“Ah, perhaps,” said Eriat, and he paused for a while before continuing with a clever grin. “Or perhaps I’m exactly what I’ve said I am. Just a traveler who made a poor decision regarding the timing of his journey.”

Revi snorted.

Eriat’s grin remained. “You can believe it or not. It won’t make it any more or less true.”

“No, I suppose not,” said Revi. “But then, that cuts both ways, doesn’t it?”

The next days continued in much the same way. A trickle of visitors, more or less steady, kept them busy much of the time, and chores filled most of their remaining time. Their routine was simple and pleasant, and Revi appreciated the company almost as much as she did the help, and it remained so for almost two weeks.

Then, a shift in the weather brought a warmer wind and the roads that had been difficult to pass opened once again. With them came more visitors to the inn, and the quiet hum of three or four voices on the busiest of evenings was replaced by the songs and enthusiastic roar of a full dozen guests.

The soldiers came later, well after sundown.

The sound of their marching tramp on the road gave them away before they could be seen, but that seemed to be their intention. It seized the attention of the merrymakers in the inn, silencing their songs and their laughter. Those who ate hunched over their plates. Those who drank clutched their mugs closer to their chests. Every eye lowered. Every back turned. Eriat was with Revi in the kitchen, and in the instant before the soldiers came through the door, she saw that his face blanched pale and his calm frame went rigid.

There were four of them, all armed and draped in the Prince’s blue and silver. Revi felt a a familiar, uneasy twist make its home in her gut, coiling and sliding and waiting for inevitable trouble. She stepped out to greet them anyway.

“Good evening, sirs,” she said. “You look like you’ve traveled some way. Find a seat by the fire and I’ll bring you meat and drink to warm you.”

The leader of the soldiers stopped in front of Revi. “No, thank you, goodwife. We are not here for your food.”

He motioned for the three who followed him to move throughout the room, which they did, looking at the faces of each of the guests as they passed. The knot in Revi’s stomach twisted again.

“We’re here looking for a traitor to the Prince, a man called Taire. Have you seen him? He’s a man of about your age, mousy haired, dark eyed. He fled from us at Kedon about two weeks ago after we attempted to arrest him for stirring up the Prince’s subjects.”

“I don’t know of any men named Taire,” said Revi. She did not move as the soldiers continued to make their way around the room, and they were forced to step around her. She remembered the frightened look that had rushed across Eriat’s face, and she kept herself from even glancing in his direction. The description was vague enough. It could be him. It could be almost anyone.

“He might have called himself by a different name,” said the soldiers’ leader, a cold-eyed sergeant. “Do you remember seeing anyone who might be the man we’re looking for?”

“You’ll forgive me, sir, but over the case of any given week I’m sure I see four or five men that might match that description.”

Behind her, Revi heard the soldiers’ boots still crossing the floor. Tromping past the tables. Moving towards the kitchen.

“Anyone you’ve never seen before? A stranger, perhaps?”

Revi opened her mouth and cast about for an answer. She never had a chance to give it. A shout came from behind as one of the soldiers caught sight of Eriat in the kitchen and gave a cry. The soldiers all rushed to the back. Their leader pushed Revi aside as he joined them. A terrible crash and splatter and clang shattered through the room as Eriat grabbed the big cooking pot, still half full of broth and meat and hurled it at the soldiers advancing towards him.

It bought him an instant. And instant was all he needed. He rushed past his attackers, shoving them violently aside, narrowly missing the blades that slipped from their sheaths to hunt for his flesh. He bolted past the tables, flung himself towards the door, out and away to vanish in the night and snow. The soldiers gave chase, rushing back out after him and leaving the aftermath to the inn.

Within a moment, all of Revi’s guests were gone. Some muttered apologies. Others offered looks of sympathy. Every one of them rose and slipped out through the door and away from the inn. The soldiers would return. The soldiers always would return. But perhaps they had not noticed them, had not marked their faces. So it was that Revi found herself alone, sitting in an empty inn and waiting to see if fate meant to come calling.

It did not come. Not that night. The soldiers came back, empty handed and asking a thousand questions and breathing threats, but they did not act on them. When they left, she bolted her door and went to her bed and fell asleep, leaving the dishes and the cleaning until the morning.

The next day was quiet, devoid of guests and company. She cleaned and set the inn back in order. The day after that was much the same, and she gathered wood and made a little food in case someone should brave the winter and the danger of the Prince’s men. No one did.

On the third day, a few visitors came creeping back. Bram was the first, faithful if sheepish, though he did not stay long. Others came after, and each successive day brought more and returned things to the normalcy that had been before.

On the ninth day, the soldiers came back, asking more questions that could not be answered, and the cycle started over once again. The same happened six days after that, and then eleven days after that, and on and on. The shepherds and trappers and woodsmen who frequented the inn learned the pattern, such as it was, and most stopped avoiding the North Forest Inn in the days following such a visit.

There was the dog, too. It was a big creature, shaggy and grey and a little dirty. Revi found it on the steps leading up to the inn door almost a month after the soldiers’ first visit. She paused a moment and looked at it, eyeing the lanky canine before leaving it alone. It was still there when Bram arrived that night, and if a few scraps of food made their way outside, it might not have been by accident.

And the dog stayed. “I think he thinks he’s guarding you,” said Bram, chuckling a little to himself.

Revi grimaced. “He looks to me like he’s mostly just sleeping his days away,” she said, but giblets and dry bread crusts and other scraps continued to make their way to the porch. After a while, she wasn’t sure when, she even caught herself reaching down to scratch behind the animal’s ears when she passed by. And on a particularly cold night, she let the dog inside to sleep beside the fire.

“You seem to have warmed to him,” said Bram.

“Hush, you,” said Revi.

 

So it continued until the snow began to melt and the air began to warm. Almost two weeks had passed since the last visit by the soldiers, and Revi almost allowed herself to believe that things might return to the way they had been before. Bram came by less often, busy as he now was with traps and hunting, but when he did return he brought fresh meat and Revi welcomed him with open arms.

The dog had begun to look almost respectable, or at least as respectable as a shaggy canine could. He had no name; Revi only called him the Dog. Even without a name, visitors to the inn knew to expect him, and a few seemed to visit specifically to see him.

He would vanish now and again, disappearing for most of a day or even several days at a time. No one ever saw him go, and when Bram once tried to track him out of curiosity, he lost the trail before it led anywhere in particular. But he always came back, and it seemed wisest to consider it more a mystery than a puzzle.

Revi was outside the last time he returned. It was a warm day, the warmest yet that spring, and she had a tub of wash to hang up to dry. She had emptied half of it when the dog trotted up, bumping her hand with his nose as he went by and slipped inside the open inn door as if to hide inside.

The soldiers arrived only half an hour later. There were five of them marching in line behind the same sergeant who had led the first group during the winter. His eyes were still cold.

“Did you miss me, goodwife?”

Revi frowned. “No, I’m afraid I can’t say that I did. But what can I get for you?”

“The same thing I asked for the first time I was here, perhaps? You know where the man called Taire is.”

Revi stiffened as a chill spun its way down her spine. “I don’t, sir.”

The sergeant took a step towards her, and she only held her ground through a fierce act of will.

“I’m sure you do,” he said. “We’ve tracked him here.”

She swallowed once. “That can’t be possible. No one has come here since last night, and I know each of those men. None of them are called Taire.”

The sergeant stepped forward again until he fairly towered above her. “I’m not talking about last night, woman. He was in Kedon this morning, wreaking his havoc.”

“And I’m telling you that no one has arrived here today, not from Kedon or anywhere else,” said Revi. Her heart thumped and leaped in her throat, but she reached out to push past the man anyway.

He caught her her wrist in a tight grip. “I wonder,” he said. “Are you perhaps a sympathizer with his rebellion?”

She yanked her hand away and stepped back. “I know nothing of any rebellion,” she said.

The sergeant moved to follow her, only to stop as a sudden, deep bark sounded out from the door of the inn. The dog stood there, hackles raised and teeth bared, staring down at the soldiers with a ferocity in his eyes too intelligent to be only animal.

“A skin-changer,” hissed the sergeant, and he cursed. “Kill him!”

The five soldiers following him jumped forward, their blades out, bearing down on the single, shaggy creature. The dog barked again, then a third time, and he snarled and growled. He charged between the legs of the nearest man just as one of the swords flashed down towards him. He bounded back and forth, always keeping just inches away from death. He broke from the gang surrounding him and charged at the sergeant, gathering himself and leaping and bearing the man to the ground before snapping at the man’s neck with his teeth and bolting back down the path and vanishing down the road.

Three of the soldiers gave chase. Two stopped to help their fallen leader, taking him inside the inn and demanding that Revi render aid. She did so, enough to stop the bleeding and keep him alive until a more skilled healer could see to his needs. They took him away before the end of the day, commandeering a cart from a nearby farm so that they could take him back to Kedon more easily.

Revi never saw him again She never saw Eriat or the big dog again either, but months later a nameless traveler heading north spent the night at the inn and handed a folded letter to the innkeeper without more than a word or two of explanation. She read it later and exchanged a word or two with Bram the next night, and though neither one spoke of it after that, they would share a smile from time to time. Revi changed the name of the inn as well, though she never gave an explanation. Those who had frequented the inn during that winter, though, could guess why the sign that hung above the door was repainted with the image of a shaggy grey canine.

Fiction (Short)

Wisp Night

GHOSTLIGHTPATH

It was a wisp night. A fey night. Sada felt it as the sun sank and a new moon left the sky to stars and mist. She could hear it in the muted birdcalls and the way the lake below the cabin lapped against the shore. She knew it by the chill that clung to the edge of the warm summer wind and the fear that coiled tighter in her chest with every minute that passed and did not bring her sister home.

She left the cabin door open until the sun was gone, letting the last orange sunbeams spill onto the packed earth floor in patches. A fire burned low in the hearth, wavering a little and growing red. Sada pulled her shawl a little closer to her shoulders and fed another small log to the flames, then began to prepare a small stew for supper.

The whispering began as the final russet smudge faded on the horizon. It was a soft sound, dark and sing-song. It was too loud to be a breeze and more silent than a voice, and it built images in the corners of Sada’s mind that shattered when she looked too close. It hissed. It hummed. It chanted.

Sada was halfway through chopping a potato into pieces when she heard it. She dropped the vegetable and the knife and clenched her teeth in an attempt to master the dread that roared through her body. She took two measured steps to the window and cracked open the shutters just enough to peer into the gathered host of shadows.

They were there. Two burned at the edge of the path that led down from her door. Three more winked and glowed between the trees or on the lakeshore. More kept themselves half hidden in the fog. One wavered only yards away. They were tiny balls of light, white or pale blue, hovering two or three feet above the ground. The whispering came from them.

Sada hissed through her teeth and pulled the shutter back and latched it shut. Her heart thrummed and pulsed in her throat. She reminded herself that she had known they would come. She forced her breaths to slow.

It would be alright. Eska knew not to follow them. She would not follow them. They deceived but never lied. She could defeat their tricks.

She’s still out here, said the whispers. She’s with us, out here.

Sada ground her teeth. It would be alright, she told herself again. Eska would not follow them.

The path from Trasliy is a long one. There’s a thousand places we can confuse her, turn her.

Sada went back to the table and took the knife and the half cut potato again. In a few strokes, she finished the job and dropped the pieces into the pot that hung above the fire.

She has to come back through the darkwood. How well does she know the way? There are forks she should not follow.

A handful of grain, pinches of herbs and spices. It all went into the pot.

She has to come back through the marshes. What if she misses the road, even by a little? The bog comes so close in places.

A little milk to finish it. It only had to cook. It would be ready when Eska made it back.

An awful giggle pealed through the night, coming from everywhere and nowhere. Sada’s skin crawled and horror pricked her fingers. She waited for the mocking, impertinent whispers to come again. She did not breathe.

She forgot about the cliffside! It’s such a long way down to tumble!

“No!” The word burst through her teeth. A flickering showed between the shutter slats. Sada cursed herself for the betrayal of her panic.

Her leg is in such pain! She should have been more careful!

The vicious laughter came again, louder than before. White cold terror seared her chest. The wisps deceived but never lied.

Sada left the stew and snatched her cloak. She took her staff. She grabbed her lantern from the corner and lit it at the fire. She strapped her dagger to her ankle. She opened the door and slipped out to the night.

The wisps were all around, more than there had been before. They ringed the cottage, wavering, giggling, floating back and forth. Their lights left impressions on Sada’s eyes, but they offered no illumination to the ground below.

“Where is my sister?” Sada lifted her voice above the whispers and the tittering. She shouted her demand. “Tell me where she is!”

The ones who follow the wisps are lost.

Another giggle followed. Sada’s stomach knotted; bile slithered up her throat. She swallowed it back.

“Tell me where I can find her!”

We don’t undo what we have done.

“Take me to her!”

Sada let her words hang in the air, in the mist. She let their meaning echo loud.

You would follow us?

A gleeful mischief clung to the question.

“I would follow you,” said Sada. The words tasted wrong in her mouth. “If you take me to her.”

All the whispering stopped, just for an instant, and the void it left in the night was more terrible than the noise.

This is a new game. We will play it! We will lead, if you can follow.

A feeling of malevolent delight filled the air, and every light vanished. Sada was alone, with only the poor, pale light of her lantern. A second passed. Then two. Then three, four, five. And then, finally, she saw a fickle blue twinkling between a pair of trees a little way away, barely bright enough to be seen against the lantern’s glow.

She followed it. Her feet kept to the path as long as they could, but the wisp was long yards from its edge. It disappeared as she hesitated.

Her stomach dropped and twisted. Her heart leaped up her throat. She plunged off the path and forged through undergrowth and bracken to the place where it had been. When she reached it, there was nothing. And then another wisp flashed and waited farther on, even fainter than the first.

This time, she did not allow herself to hesitate. She followed, leaving the path behind. This light, too, winked away before she reached it, but not too quickly. Another, still fainter than the others took its place, and Sada almost missed it in the lantern light. Before she reached the fourth one, she extinguished her own light and followed all the rest in darkness.

The wisps were easier to see this way. They must have meant it to be so, and Sada would swear that they grew even brighter as they went, until she could have seen them through the lantern light. But she could not relight her lantern, and even if she could, the wisps would not have stayed so bright. That was not their way.

So they went. Sada tripped again and again. Her knees were bloodied. Her palms were ripped and raw. The wisps led her back and forth, never on the path, never over easy ground. They blinked here, they danced there. The route they took twisted all around, back over itself, left and right and sideways, never moving in a simple line. It moved through woods and into wetlands and out of them. It stopped in a stream and beside a bit of boggy ground. It went everywhere it did not have to go.

Exhaustion crept through Sada’s body and lurked in Sada’s heart. She continued even so. She fell and got up. She sank into mud and pulled her feet out again. She numbed herself and followed. The wisps led her one way, then back again the way they had come. They laughed when she realized what they had done.

And then they were gone. There was no warning. They gave no indication. One wisp led her across a patch of soggy earth and into darker forest. The next one never came. Sada stood in a daze, heart beating hard. She had no light, no way, no path to follow.

Her sister was not there.

She swayed and nearly sank down in despair and rage. Perhaps she would have, had her body not rebelled against it, her aching muscles complaining at the thought of bending enough to sit. It was enough to keep her standing. And standing was enough that she could start walking once again.

She had no path, but that was alright. How much more lost could she get than this? She had no direction, but that would come with morning light. She did not have her sister. She had no answer to that problem, so she walked instead, through the darkness, through the forest.

The ground disappeared beneath her, suddenly. One foot touched solid ground. Her other found a void. Sada cried out as she pitched forward, tumbling. She struck the sloping ground on the rough way down. Her shoulder, her hip, her head, her knee. She tasted dirt and blood. The world spun in shadow. She reached the bottom, stunned.

Her pulse beat deep inside her ears. Her chest ached as she breathed. She smelled loam and dirt and mud. Instead of moving, she let herself lie there, sprawled and beaten. She was still there when she heard approaching footsteps. The rush of panic was enough to set her upright. Her hand moved to her ankle and her dagger.

A low, familiar voice called out her name.

“Sada! Sada?”

The sound seemed impossible. It could not be Eska.

“Sada? Are you here?”

It could not be, but it was. The laughter that burbled up her throat broke out of its own accord, and she called out in incredulous response. “Eska?”

“Sada!”

The footsteps came closer, uneven in their rhythm but quickly nonetheless. By the time they reached her, Sada had found her own way to her feet, and when her sister found her she was standing and laughing and full of disbelief. They threw their arms around each other, and held each other tight until it felt right and safe to let go.

“I found you,” said Sada. “I followed the wisps and I found you.”

“You followed the wisps?” Eska’s voice went sharp. “Why would you do such a foolish thing?”

“You were hurt,” said Sada. “They told me. You fell down a cliff.”

Sada felt Eska’s grimace, but her voice was gentle when she spoke again. “I tripped on the road and scraped my shin,” said Eska. “That’s all. I stopped and rested for a moment and then kept going.”

“Then how did you find me?” asked Sada.

“I heard you fall. They brought you to the road– it’s only a little ways away. But you came at it from the cliff, and the fall could have broken you.” Eska hugged her tight again and breathed an easing sigh. “Don’t follow wisps, Sada. Don’t play their games.”

Sada hugged her back just as tight, burying her face in her sister’s hair. “No,” she said. “No, I won’t.” Everything was warm and safe, despite the pain and cold. Her sister was alright. “Let’s go home,” she said.

And Eska squeezed her one more time, and then they went.

Fiction (Short)

The Ethan Lindsay Job

WHISKEYHILL

I noticed him before Tanner did. He was a clean cut man in a pale button-down shirt and a look that reminded me of a salesman. Or a politician. It was hard not to dislike him outright, but I did my best. He stopped just inside the door of our rough little bar and scanned the room as if looking for someone. Tanner still hadn’t seen him, so I tapped his shin with my boot and nodded towards the door.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Lost or looking for trouble?”

We were sitting at a table on the far side of the room, nursing a couple of beers, and Tanner peered through the low light and smoke haze. The man was at the bar now, exchanging a few words with the barman, Teddy. Teddy nodded and pointed towards our table, and I made up my mind to have words with Teddy later. My brother turned back to me with a sideways grin. “Well, he’s not lost.”

The man saw us now and was approaching quickly. He waved to catch our attention. “Hey! You’re the Griff twins, right? Soldiers of fortune?”

“Just brother and sister,” I said, “but that’s us. I stood up and extended my hand. I smiled, too, and I think it was even believable. “I’m Miranda.”

Tanner got up and introduced himself as well, and we both waited for the man to return the favor. He did so with a smile so sincere it had the opposite effect.

“Ethan Lindsay,” he said. “My partner and I own a business that ships in machine parts from Earth. Mostly high tech stuff—control boards, simple VIs, some labor ‘droids. All the stuff that doesn’t manufacture well out here on the colonies.”

Tanner and I sank back down into our seats and motioned for Lindsay to do the same. As he did, I would swear that he eyed our half finished beers with distaste, but the expression passed quickly. I grabbed my bottle and took another sip.

“Anyway,” he continued, “it’s all expensive, and I’m sure you know how long it takes for the ships to make the trip from Earth. So you can imagine that we have a vested interest in making sure everything gets where it’s going in one piece once it makes it planetside.”

“Sure,” I said. “And at a guess, that’s what you want to hire us for.”

“That’s assuming, of course, that you do want to hire us,” said Tanner. He spoke in that friendly, conversational tone he used when he was pretending I was the mean one.

“Which I do,” said Lindsay. He chuckled, and I felt with sudden certainty that my first impression had been the right one. “You’re familiar with West Edge, aren’t you?”

“Last town before Dalton, right?” I asked.

“That’s the one. We’ve got a shipment that needs to get out there by early Friday, if possible.”

Less than two days with cargo. I tried not to widen my eyes too much and exchanged a quick look with my brother.

Lindsay went on like he hadn’t noticed. “We have a Rhino available to make the trip, but none of the drivers we’ve spoken to have been willing to go that way.”

I couldn’t blame them, and took another sip of my beer to keep from saying so. And then he asked the question.

“Do either of you know how to handle a Rhino?”

My most recent sip of beer tried to reroute to my lungs, and I almost fell prey to a violent coughing fit.

“That’s not generally one of our marketed skills,” said Tanner. I thought he was being too diplomatic. Though, Lindsay had guts. Most people wouldn’t think of asking a couple of glorified gunslingers to drive one of those behemoths.

“But you can do it?”

Tanner hesitated before nodding. “Not like a full time driver could, but I could get it where it needs to go.”

Lindsay pulled a small datapad from his pocket and slid it to us across the table so that we could read the screen. I found myself immediately grateful that I had not taken another drink. The numbers displayed on the device were substantial.

“I thought you might appreciate seeing the actual amounts. That’s what you’ll receive if you deliver the goods on time.” He left the pad where Tanner and I could both see it, and we both checked it again. The numbers didn’t change. “So, can I count you in?”

I glanced over at Tanner again. “It’ll be tight.” Looking back to Lindsay, I asked, “What happens if we don’t make it on time?”

Lindsay waved, as if to dismiss the question as unimportant. “We wouldn’t be able to pay you the full amount, of course, but you’d be compensated for your time.”

Tanner shrugged and nodded at me, and we both ran through all the ways we could imagine the job turning sideways. None of them seemed any worse than usual.

“We’ll need a small advance,” I said, “and I’ll send you our standard contract. If you’re alright with that, you’ve got yourself a deal.”

Lindsay grinned and extended his hand. “Wonderful. It’s a pleasure doing business with you.”

We spent the rest of the day making the preparations necessary before going anywhere near the Outlands. We checked our gear and bought supplies. We talked with anyone we could find who had been west in the past few weeks. We stopped by the garage that held the Rhino, and Tanner introduced himself to the man who owned it. And then we went back to our boarding house and turned in early in the hope that it would make the morning a little less painful.

We were both asleep within an hour. Within two, I was blinking in annoyance at my comm where it lay on the nightstand, chiming noisily for all it was worth. I grabbed it and shoved it in my ear.

“This is Miranda. Go ahead.” My voice was groggy. I hoped whoever was on the other end would hear it and be filled with shame.

“Hi, Miranda. It’s Ethan Lindsay.” Whatever he was full of, it wasn’t shame. “Our packages have arrived at the garage, and we’re ready for you and your brother to help us load up the Rhino.”

I gaped, and the first three things that came to mind were things I couldn’t say. The pause must have lasted just a little too long, because Lindsay’s voice crackled in my ear again.

“Miranda? Did you get that?”

I cleared my throat. “I got it. I’m sorry, Mr. Lindsay. Tanner and I were not under the impression that our services were required for that.”

The silence on the other end was anything but comforting. The next thing he said wasn’t any better. “We had assumed that was included when we hired your services.”

“I’m afraid not, I said.” My half-unconscious mind cast about helplessly for a moment before settling on a vague reference to our contract and our conversation in the bar. I might have also attempted an explanation on our need to be rested for the run to West Edge, but I don’t quite remember. Whatever I said, it seemed to work.

More or less.

After another pause, Lindsay said something I took to mean that he understood, and my comm chirped as he broke the connection. I pulled it out of my ear and tossed it back onto the nightstand before dropping into the pillow with a grunt. Somehow, Tanner slept through the whole thing.

He laughed when I told him about it in the morning. I glared at him and threatened to make sure that the next client had his contact information instead of mine. He grinned in a way that suggested he didn’t believe me.

I was almost in a better mood by the time we made it back to the garage. We’d had annoying clients before, and we’d survived their worst. Even the Rutherford job. Lindsay was frustrating, but he wasn’t trying to kill us. If I got a full night of sleep, I might not even hate him.

Then we saw the Rhino and the massive stack of crates right in front of it. I muttered something unfriendly under my breath. Tanner looked like he was trying to decide between panic and laughing. He was still caught in the middle when he glanced at me.

“That’s our cargo, isn’t it?”

I growled something unfriendly out loud.

The man who owned the garage was in another corner of it when we came in, but he came over now, waving to us and moving at a half run.

“You want a hand getting this all loaded up? I thought the guy who hired you was going to get it all loaded up last night, but he and a couple of guys just brought it by and took off.”

“Of course he did,” I said. The last vestiges of my good mood were gone.

“We’d appreciate that, man,” said Tanner.

The owner called over a few of his workers, and with their help it only took us half an hour to get the Rhino packed and ready to go. We stashed our own gear and necessities in what little space was left over. We were just about to climb into the beast and start the trek out when Lindsay himself showed up again.

My first impulse was not a charitable one. I fought it down and managed a civil nod. “Everything’s loaded and we’re just about to head out,” I said. “Anything we need to know before we hit the road?”

Lindsay shook his head. “No, nothing new,” he said. “I’m actually here on other business, and I’m a little surprised to see you here. I had thought you would already be on your way. Do you think you’ll still be able to make the trip on time?”

“We’ll do our best, Mr. Lindsay.” I smiled as I answered. Anyone with a shred of human sensitivity would have noticed that it didn’t reach my eyes. “We had to load the Rhino when we got here this morning.”

Tanner came up and stood just behind me, though I wasn’t sure if that was to show his support or to keep me from doing something stupid.

“Ah, of course,” said Lindsay. “In that case, I won’t take up any more of your time. Safe travels!”

He gave us both a short nod and left to go about his business. Tanner and I thanked the garage owner and climbed up into the Rhino. We pulled on the headsets and ear protection we found on the seats and strapped ourselves into the safety harnesses. Tanner keyed in the sequence to bring the engines online, and they came to life with a rumble and a roar. The Rhino rose until it hovered about a foot above the ground, and we were finally on our way.

I only made it to the edge of town before I gave vent to my feelings.

“Tell me you think he’s being ridiculous,” I said, adjusting my mic to make sure it was in place.

Tanner grinned, and his voice came crackling through the headset. “Probably not as much as you do, but I’m the one who slept through the night.”

“Rub it in, why don’t you.”

“I will, thanks.” Tanner grinned again, but reached over to punch my shoulder. “It’ll be alright. For what he’s paying us, we can put up with a quirk or two.”

“That’s a nice way of putting it,” I said, but I didn’t argue any further. It was a good point.

The Rhino made good time. Better than anything on wheels or caterpillar treads would have, and the ride was smoother, too. Plus, given the reputation of the West Edge road, it was nice to have a little armor between us and the outside world. A dedicated band of highwaymen would still be able to break through, but that was what the guns were for. If we were lucky, we wouldn’t have to use them.

We weren’t lucky.

About two hours after we left town, the grassy fields we had been traveling through gave way to rougher terrain, and the road dropped down into a narrow canyon. Rock walls rose up high on either side, and a bend in the road kept us from seeing much more than forty yards ahead. There had been five ambushes here in the last few months. We could have guessed that even if we hadn’t heard the reports.

Tanner brought the Rhino to a halt just before the road began its descent and let it hover there. We both looked out through the windshield.

“We could try to go around,” I said. “The Rhino could handle it.”

Tanner frowned. “Maybe. We’d lose a lot of time, though.” A little bit of static rustled in my headset while he spoke.

“We’ll lose time when we get jumped down there,” I said, “and we’ll probably get shot at.”

“Well, yeah.” He shrugged and paused, then looked over at me with a daredevil twinkle in his eye. “But if they can’t stop us…”

I looked over at him and glared. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not! We’ve got a Rhino. What are they going to do, stand in front of it and hope we stop?”

“Put up a blockade?”

“Sure, and that’s how you’d stop a jeep caravan. But anything that could stop a Rhino would take too long to move in and out of the road. They couldn’t hide it from the Rangers.”

I grimaced. He was making sense.

“You can grab the rifle and cause problems for anyone still looking for trouble.”

“And you’ll just drive like the devil and get us through as fast as you can.”

Tanner grinned wide. “And I’ll just drive like the devil.”

I waited a second or two before responding again, breathing in and out with a heavy sigh. “Fine. But only because I don’t have a better idea.” Before Tanner looked away, he caught the edge of my own hellcat grin.

All things considered, the plan worked well. There was an ambush, and four would-be bandits had set up exactly the sort of roadblock we had expected. The Rhino turned it into matchsticks. What we were not prepared for was the rocket launcher that one of them had somehow managed to acquire. I took him down with a well-placed shot, but not before he got off one of his own.

We were lucky; the missile just grazed us, clipping the back of the Rhino and spinning us sideways before exploding against the rock wall above us. Tanner only barely kept us from our own headlong collision with the side of the canyon, and we still slammed our side against the rocks. I yelled something with four letters at the top of my lungs. The engines whined and screamed. Tanner started giggling through clenched teeth. Smoke began to seep into the cabin, and the Rhino began to falter, but we didn’t stop until we made it out the other side of the canyon.

Tanner brought us down in the shelter of a crooked rock formation, and we climbed out to check the damage. It could have been worse. The Rhino’s left side was all torn up, scraped and dented in at least a dozen places. Its right rear corner was even worse, chewed apart and scorched black where the rocket had caught us. Somehow, the structure was still sound. Even better, our cargo was still intact.

“So, I know you can get it running again,” I said. “How long is it going to take?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. Longer than I’d like. Are you going to call Lindsay?”

“I’d rather not,” I said, but I started to make the connection on my comm all the same. “Just get us going again as soon as you can, alright?” I ducked away as much to find a quiet spot to make the call as to avoid the look that Tanner gave me.

Lindsay answered almost immediately. “Miranda? I was hoping to hear from you. My contact in Norberg says you haven’t come through there yet. Is that correct?”

“It is,” I said. “We’re still a little further south. We ran into some trouble and the Rhino took some damage.”

And the cargo?”

“It’s fine,” I said, and didn’t have to say anything for his relief to be palpable. “Tanner is making the repairs we need to get on our way again. Hopefully we won’t have any more delays.”

Of course,” said Lindsay, then after a moment he added, “I’m sure you understand that this won’t change the required delivery time for the goods?”

“I never expected it to,” I said. It’s a good thing I only had to make my voice sound friendly. There was no way I would have been able to hide the cold look that flashed across my face.

Wonderful,” said Lindsay. “Then I’ll expect to hear from you once you get closer to West Edge. I’ll make contact with our buyer and let you know where to meet them. Until then.”

We finished the call. I unclenched my jaw and went to see if Tanner could use my help.

We made our repairs with a combination of spare parts and the creative repurposing of a couple of backpack straps. And thanks to a little luck and a lot of providence, it worked. We were moving again less than an hour later.

The engines had an unsteady sound about them now, which we did our best to ignore. The smell of smoke slowly faded in the cabin, or we got used to it. Little by little, Tanner pushed the engines harder, almost bringing them back up to the speeds we had been going before the canyon. The Rhino devoured the miles, taking us through Norberg and on to Bascow where we had to redo some of our repairs. We refueled in Tupesti when the sun was low in the sky and casting long, black shadows behind everything it touched.

We had hoped to make it before dark. So much for that. There were still a lot of miles to go, and only enough daylight for a fraction of them. I checked our rifle and the pistol in my belt, just in case.

Right as the sun started slipping below the horizon, I got another call from Lindsay. For just a moment, I thought about not answering. I did let him wait long enough to tell Tanner who was calling, and the look of commiseration made it a little easier when I did pick up.

Miranda? It’s getting a little late, and I understand you and Tanner haven’t reached West Edge yet.”

“That’s correct,” I said. “We’re still on our way. We should reach it sometime after dark.”

A momentary quiet on the other end of the line tied my stomach in a knot. “Our client had hoped to have it by the end of the day. Is that not going to be possible?”

I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek and rephrased my next statement in my head five times until it came out more courteous than not. “We agreed to deliver your merchandise by Friday morning, Mr. Lindsay. That is still our intent.”

I see,” said Lindsay, followed by “Then it will have to do. Please contact me once you reach West Edge.”

I said I would and ended the call maybe a little more abruptly than I should have. A handful of seconds passed. My rage began to abate, or at least it seemed to. I took a deep breath.

I screamed.

Tanner heard it over the sound of the engines and despite his headset, and the look he gave me was the one that said he wasn’t going to laugh at me until he knew I was alright. And that was when I realized I wasn’t.

“He’s an inept, idiotic son of a mother.” I snarled the words into my headset and looked over at Tanner to see his nod of agreement.

God bless him. He didn’t give it.

I tried again. “He can’t plan ahead, doesn’t take any blame.”

Tanner still didn’t reply, and the fact that I knew he was listening almost made it worse.

“He asks for the impossible and throws a passive aggressive fit when we only almost pull it off, as if suddenly we’re the ones who don’t know what we’re doing. We helped him out! He was up a creek, and we helped him out.”

“For the money,” said Tanner.

I glared. “Fine, for the money, but only because we thought we could do it. And we could have, if he hadn’t changed the rules.”

“So, he’s a sleaze. We both knew that when he walked in the door.” Tanner shrugged. “We deal with jackasses like him all the time.”

“Why doesn’t this bother you?”

“Why is it bothering you so much?”

Several answers came to me, and they were all wrong. The right one followed a moment or two later, and it slipped between my teeth. “We’re good at what we do. We’re really good, and he’s saying we’re not. No one else could have done half as well as us, and it’s like he thinks we’re a couple of two-bit mercs looking to rip him off any chance we get. We’re better than that.”

“Yeah,” said Tanner. “We are.”

I slumped back in my seat and stared up at the roof of the Rhino. I could still taste the bile rising up from my stomach. It wasn’t quite as bad as it had been. “I’m still mad,” I said.

“I know,” he said.

We reached West Edge almost three hours before midnight, and I called Lindsay one last time to tell him we’d arrived. He started to suggest that we hadn’t earned our full payment, but I reminded him of the contract and even he didn’t feel like arguing the point. Our earnings would be transferred into our account by the end of the next day.

“I’ll call the buyer and let him know you’ve made it with the delivery, then. He’s got a warehouse about halfway down Main Street. He’ll meet you there.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Tell him we’ll be there momentarily.”

Whether he did or not, a man and a youth rode up on four-wheelers a few minutes after we reached the warehouse. Tanner and I jumped down from the Rhino to greet them, and the first thing they did was to thank us profusely.

“We didn’t think these were going to get here for another day or two. We appreciate this more than we can say. I hope Lindsay paid you well?”

Tanner found a way to step on my foot before I could express my feelings on the subject.

We ended up using about half of what we earned to cover the costs of repair for the Rhino. It turns out those vehicles aren’t particularly cheap to fix, and there was a lot of damage. Technically, the bill should have been forwarded to Lindsay, but when the owner of the garage tried, Lindsay found a couple of legal loopholes that let him weasel out of it. So, we helped. I can’t lie and say it was our first choice. For better or worse, we’re not that generous. But we did help. And I’m glad we did.

Fiction (Short)

Under Whiskey Hill

WHISKEYHILL

“It’s a bad plan.”

Tanner and I sat in the questionable shelter of a rotting hut. The Outlands spread out for miles on every side of us, broken only by the brush and thornbushes and the ugly silhouette of Whiskey Hill.

He looked up from the map with the sort of grin used exclusively by older brothers. “So, you just don’t like it?”

I gave him the glare perfected by generations of younger sisters. “I said what I meant.”

“Alright, hotshot.” He shoved the map towards me across the dusty floor. “Come up with something better.”

I snatched it and scowled down at the crude lines representing the discouraging sum of our knowledge about the system of caves that ran beneath the Hill. We’d gotten the thing from Dalton, the little town that had hired us, and they’d only been able to give us that much because a couple of them had been out here years ago, hunting and exploring. Their recollections, reliable and otherwise, were what they’d used to draw it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly detailed, and beyond one passageway in from the west, a chamber of some sort in the center, and a tangled warren of smaller passages to the east, we didn’t know what we’d find.

“So, Miranda, my great and mighty strategist. What do you see that I don’t?”

I grunted. “Not a damn thing. Looks like your idea’s the best we’ve got.”

An odd half chuckle escaped Tanner’s throat. “And here I was hoping you were going to pull our butts out of the fire again.”

A wry grin crossed my face. “Not this time. Don’t beat yourself up too much, though. I’m sure we’ve used worse strategies than this.”

He made a face at me, and I sent it right back.

The sky turned orange, then purple as the sun went down, and the outline of Whiskey Hill showed black against the stars. Tanner and I pulled on our packs and geared up by the light of a flashlight, keeping quiet as we did so. My pistol hung from my belt. Tanner strapped his rifle across his shoulders.

“You ready?” I asked, more because I wanted to hear my brother’s voice than because I needed the answer.

“Just about. Yeah. Let’s go.”

I grabbed the flashlight and extinguished it, slipping it back into my pack, and we started off into the dark. I went first. I’m a little quicker and a little more sure of foot, and I’ve always been better at picking a path than Tanner. That, and it meant that he got to keep watch for trouble.

The march to the Hill would have taken an hour under the best conditions. In the dark, worried that someone would see us and start taking potshots, it took even longer. We didn’t talk as we went. We didn’t linger. We just hiked, one behind the other, going slow and steady until we reached the low ridge that led up to the western entrance.

Whiskey Hill hulked above us now, massive, rocky, and unmoving. We crouched down, keeping low and inching up towards a scraggly tree that might disguise our presence. Whether it did or not, nothing greeted us. No shouts, no challenges. No telltale lights. No gunshots. Just nighttime bugs and birds conversing in hums and whispers.

I leaned towards Tanner. “Still think this is a good idea?”

“I never said it was good.”

He hadn’t. Bloody semantics.

“They couldn’t know we were coming, could they?” I asked.

“I don’t see how, unless someone told them.”

A second or two of silence stretched between us. “We’re sure the people in Dalton aren’t still pissed at us, right?”

Tanner’s non-commital answer was less than comforting.

The cave entrance was barely visible fifty yards up, a slightly darker black than the surrounding rock face, and the starlight was just bright enough to illuminate a narrow path leading up towards it.

My brother and I exchanged a look, and I shrugged. “Cover me?”

He nodded and swung his rifle off his back, settling its stock against his shoulder as I crept out and up towards the mouth of the cave. I picked my way between rocks and scrub brush, managing, by some combination of luck and practice, to avoid making too much noise. By the time I reached the cave, I got the impression it wouldn’t have mattered either way. There was no one there. I gave a sharp whistle, and Tanner joined me a few moments later.

“We’re sure this is where they took the kid, right?” My whisper sounded harsh in the interior of the cave.

There was just enough light for me to see Tanner shrug. “That’s what Cole said. They could have moved him.”

“If they were here in the first place.”

Tanner shrugged again. “At least no one’s shooting at us yet.” He gestured down into the darkness. “Shall we?”

“You want to take point?”

“Works for me.”

I slid my pack from my shoulders and retrieved my flashlight as Tanner did the same, and we gave a quick countdown before switching them on and searing the cave with light. Even prepared for it, it took our eyes a moment to adjust. As soon as they had, we started down the passage. I had my pistol out and ready in my other hand.

Our path was straight and even for just a few yards, and then it dipped down sharply into a savage descent that caught us by surprise and nearly sent us tumbling while the ground veered away beneath us. We both yelped soft words of surprise, and the silence that held our echoes was unnerving. The mountain felt empty. We kept on anyway.

We went sixty or seventy yards more before we got the first indication that we were where we needed to be. A pebble went skittering across the stony floor some way ahead, and a sudden void of sound betrayed the presence of something other than rock and cave. Tanner and I stopped cold. I forced myself to keep breathing, slowly, steadily, anything to keep my blood from hammering between my ears.

Nothing.

A glance at Tanner confirmed the same. So we continued forward. Inch by inch. Foot by foot. Down into the bowels of the mountain. And then we found them.

The passage turned hard to the right and opened up into the central cave. On the far side, a tiny campfire spat and guttered and gave off just enough light for us to see a pair of rough looking men and a slight figure that looked like it could be the kid.

We only had a split second to realize anything was wrong before it all went to hell.

They shot first. Not the ones by the campfire. Others we didn’t see. Tanner and I hit the floor, dropping and scrambling behind something, anything for cover. A bullet grazed past my shoulder. A stone collided with my shin. I doused my flashlight and fired back at sounds and muzzle flashes. Someone yelled. I shot again. And then I ran.

They must have made a lucky shot. Or the noise I made betrayed me. My side exploded in hideous pain even as I stumbled into some opening that led deeper into the caves, and I screamed and fell and rolled.

Nothingness opened up beneath me, and I was gone. I don’t remember hitting the rocks that broke my fall.

It was too long before I woke up. I was cold. Shivering hurt like getting stabbed. And the wave of relief that rushed over me as I remembered sent a weird giggle bubbling up my throat. It could have been so much worse. It should have been so much worse. They hadn’t gotten a clean hit. I wasn’t bleeding out.

I tried to sit up, but my spine and ribs and all the rest howled in protest. I coughed, and the tang of metal on my tongue suggested further injuries. I gritted my teeth and tried to push myself up again, and this time I succeeded. I would just have to wait a minute or two before trying anything else.

Everything was quiet. My movements, my boots scraping across the rocks, sent cold echoes off into the blackness, but that was all. I didn’t hear shouting or footsteps or gunfire. I didn’t hear Tanner. My stomach would have knotted up if it wasn’t already as tight as it could get.

A breath of air stirred up new smells, everything damp and stony and covered with lichen and cave water. I had a good guess where I was. That unmapped tangle of passages to the east. The one that led everywhere and nowhere. The one that Tanner had thought we could escape through, or hide in until we could get back out the other way. Given that I was alive, it seems he might have been right after all.

I called my brother several colorful names under my breath, more because I was here and he was not than because his plan involved bruised ribs. I promised myself I’d yell at him when I got out. He’d already be out, and I’d find him and the kid as soon as I escaped into the air, and then I’d yell at him until my face turned blue.

The worst of my throbbing subsided enough for me to get on my feet again. Slowly. I cast my hand around until I found my gun where it had fallen, and my fingers closed around the grip. I rolled to my hands and knees. I tried to stand.

I nearly rethought the whole thing as soon as the upward motion set my head spinning and reignited the fire in my side. I was about to accept temporary defeat when the sound of voices stopped me cold.

They were still far away. Too far away to understand. Close enough to know that neither one was Tanner. I sank back against the wall; my legs weren’t strong enough to hold me up. I steadied my gun in my hand and aimed it down the empty passage, into the black. I held my breath and waited.

A second passed. All was silent. Another slipped by, then a third and a fourth and more. The tang of blood and fear mixed in my throat, and I wondered if I’d imagined the whole thing. And then the voices came again and footsteps scuffed on rocks. So much closer. Drawing closer still.

“She couldn’t have survived that fall. We’d have heard her if she did,” said one.

“We’ve still got to get the body if we want the reward,” said the other.

I clenched my jaw and licked my teeth just to snatch a little focus. Just to steady my breathing. Just to give myself a fighting chance when they came around the corner. Just so they couldn’t turn in my body for a reward.

The beams of their flashlights preceded them by an instant. It was enough. My gun was up and aimed and ready. I fired as soon as I saw them. My shots went home. It was all over in three seconds. I breathed in deep, ragged breaths and stared up at the pools of light the dead men’s flashlights left on the walls of the cave. I could see their faces in one of the beams, and I recognized the one we’d assumed was the kid. We’d been wrong.

I was too exhausted to react when another voice flew through the quiet of the cave. Too spent. Too relieved. Too happy to hear my brother calling my name.

“Miranda! Miranda?”

I heard a scrambling, and then he dropped down next to me. My whole face quirked into a lopsided grin, and I laughed and coughed all at once. “Got any more bad ideas, Tanner? I want to go home.”


Originally published as part of the 2017 Spring Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.

Fiction (Short)

Stone Street

STONESTREET

This was the night it ended. This was the night it all came undone. Rhodes and a dozen others lay dead in the square, shot full of holes. The rest of us ran. It was our city. We knew the streets, knew the alleys, knew the shortcuts. We knew the hiding places for the weapons we were not supposed to have.

Martin and I reached Stone Street while sirens and gunfire and screams announced the advent of the ugliest of wars. The hulk of the old warehouse rose up black against the sky, and we vanished into the darkness inside through a gap in the wall.

The interior of the old building was pitch black, but we knew our way. Practice stood in for illumination. Our hideaway was in the back, behind stacks of rotting boxes and an iron hatch. Our hands found the rusty wheel that sealed it shut, and we strained until it turned. So much for the quiet; the iron shrieked like a wounded animal.

Neither of us spoke until the door fell shut behind us, and then as little as possible.

“Get the guns. Like we practiced. We move out in ten.”

“Same plan, Liesel?” Martin’s hoarse voice came from somewhere to my right. He switched on a flashlight and set it on a shelf on the other side of the room.

I nodded. “Like Rhodes wanted.”

“And the others?”

“Hopefully they make it.”

I wondered if all revolutionaries felt this way. Terrified. Out of their depth. Just smart enough to realize the odds, but too stupid to let that stop them. All because they thought they could make the world a better place.

We could worry about that if we survived the night.

And then someone’s fist beat on the hatchway door. Martin cursed. I bit my tongue to keep from doing the same. Both of us trained our guns on the door. The knocking came again, followed by a voice, muffled but familiar.

Bax.

I lowered my rifle but motioned for Martin to keep his aimed at the door. Just in case. Then, I opened it. And there was Bax, alive and in the flesh, with a pair of kids no more than five years old. He pushed inside as soon as the door was open and helped me pull the hatch shut again without a syllable of explanation.

“Who are they?” I stopped him before he could push past me.

“Their parents got killed in the fighting off the square,” he said, as if that would suffice.

“We can’t take them with us.”

One of the kids started to fuss, and he bent down to pick her up.

“You won’t have to. I will. What are you going to do, send them back out to the streets?”

I couldn’t answer that. Martin did instead. “Kids aren’t part of the plan.”

“Then we change the plan,” said Bax. The little girl quieted in his arms.

Martin was about to say something else, but I cut him off before he could. “Did anyone else make it out?”

Bax shook his head. “I wouldn’t count on it.”

“Right.” I swallowed another curse. “At least we’ve got you.”

“I’m not going to be much help,” said Bax. “Not until I get these two somewhere safe.”

Martin growled an expletive.

I almost did as well, but managed to stay civil. “We don’t have that luxury, Bax.”

“We don’t have the luxury of not. If kids get hurt, who’s going to catch the blame? The government boys or us damn rebels?”

“Saving a couple of kids isn’t going to change that, you idiot,” said Martin. “We’re already the bad guys. We wouldn’t sit down and shut up, and now the city’s on fire.”

“Oh, that’s great. So I should just forget them and hope they don’t get killed in the crossfire?”

I broke in before Martin could express agreement with that statement. “Who were their parents anyway?”

Bax hesitated before answering, and I felt my gut knot up. “I’m not sure. They looked upper class.”

Martin would have killed him then if I’d let him. He swung at him with his rifle butt even with me standing right there. Bax jumped back. I caught Martin and threw him down with his own momentum, and he hit the ground hard enough to think twice about trying again.

“Upper class kids, Bax? What the hell were you thinking?” I was yelling. Both kids started crying.

“They’re kids, Liesel! Just kids! It doesn’t matter who their parents were, they’ll die just the same as the rest of us.”

“Yeah, you bet they will.” Martin picked himself back up off the ground and snapped his mouth shut at a dirty glance from me. Disgust flamed in his eyes.

“I don’t care how many orphans you’ve picked up, Bax. We’ve got work to do, and I need you with us. Find someplace for them on the way.”

He looked like he wanted to argue. For whatever reason, he decided not to. We gathered up our gear and weapons. Bax managed to get the kids quiet again. We opened the hatch and moved back out through the shadows of the warehouse towards the gap that led to the street.

Sudden light blinded us as we reached it. We tumbled back as a spray of gunfire laid waste to the ground in front of us.

“Rebel fighters, we have you surrounded.”

The voice came through a megaphone and was just as jarring as the violent light.

“We know you have two children as hostages. Why don’t we talk about how you’re going to return them?”

I turned on Bax. “They saw you take them? You let them follow you? Are you sure you’re actually one of us?”

Bax looked stricken. “I thought I lost them.”

“Well, clearly you thought wrong,” said Martin. The severe light cast weird shadows across his face, and his sneer was demonic.

Both kids started wailing. Bax tried to quiet them, but had no luck. He glanced around, horrified. Then, with a look at me, he grabbed each of the kids by one hand. “I’m so sorry. They shouldn’t be part of this.” And he started for the gap. “Don’t shoot! I surrender!”

He didn’t make it through the opening. Martin tackled him and started punching him in the face. The kids scattered, screaming.

“This isn’t a game! You don’t get to do whatever makes you feel good! Without those kids none of us are getting out alive! With hostages maybe, maybe we have a chance!”

Bax tried to fight back, but Martin outmatched him. The gap in the wall was between me and them. More gunfire forced me back when I tried to cross.

“This is war! Your conscience is out of place!”

He punctuated every sentence with blows. Bax lurched and finally dislodged him, only for Martin to leap at him again.

“There’s never going to be any change unless jackasses like you finally figure out that we have to pay for change in blood!”

“Martin, get off of him!” I tried the gap again, only for another shot to keep me down.

Bax wasn’t fighting anymore. He lay limp as Martin’s bloody fists beat him again and again. He was dead when Martin finally let him go.

“Traitor.” Martin spat. Then he pulled his handgun from its holster and grabbed the nearest of the kids. She screamed and squirmed and wailed, and Martin moved to the gap and yelled louder than it all. He had the girl out in front of him, his gun menacing the back of her head. “You want these two alive? Then here’s our demands. Safe passage. Weapons. Transpor—”

I shot him. He fell. The girl fell too, terrified and screaming but alive. Outside, I heard shouts and orders. It wouldn’t be long. I looked at Martin where he lay, sprawled in the gap and with blood covering his face.

“Why?” His voice rasped and rattled. “We might have won.”

I sank down beside him. Bax’s body was only a few feet away. The kids were in the shadows, huddled and crying. They’d be fine, now. They weren’t rebels.

“We might have won,” he repeated.

“Not this way,” I said.

Boots stamped closer. Black figures blocked the spotlight. Harsh voices barked for me to raise my hands, stay on my knees, lock my fingers behind my head. Rough hands clapped me in handcuffs and hauled me away, and the last things I saw were my two dead friends and two rescued kids.


Originally published as part of the 2016 Winter Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.