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RazorWire

Contents

Important Links

Introduction

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Thank You

Song Lyrics

 

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Introduction,

The Waste,

Not far in the future

 

My mother told me stories when I was a child. She said long ago The Waste was full of people. There were permanent settlements of strangers so large whole valleys were filled to bursting. There were so many people that buildings were built high into the sky just to make room. She said these sky buildings were taller than the tallest trees, so tall that when someone looked down from the top the people walking below appeared no larger than the bugs we swept from our tent floor each night. She said some of these settlements were so large that they had more people than all the needles on the tallest pine tree in The Waste.

I asked her how so many people could live in a valley. Was it full of food? Did the deer migrate there? Where were the flocks kept? How did streams and rivers not run dry with so many water skins to fill? My mother said there was a type of magic in the world then, like our sun keepers, but far stronger. She said this magic kept the settlements full of food and water for great masses of unmoving people.

I didn’t believe her. I usually didn’t believe people then and I am no different today. People don’t tell you where the best fish are, or where the ripest berries can be picked, why would they? There would just be fewer fish and berries for themselves. I remember her insisting it was true. She told me she knew it was. And her eyes agreed. She said if I was lucky I might one day live in such a settlement and practice such powerful magic.

She said there had been a great winter warring and that as a result the magic had been lost. She told me that the numberless people, without their magic to bring them food and water, had eventually dried up like the needles on a dying tree. As they fought to survive each person took from one another, seeking to fill their bellies. Eventually, the settlements had been deserted and those few people who were left had taken to wandering the world seeking out places of refuge, rarely staying long in any one place. Restless, they had become wanderers, like us.

She said there were still places in The Waste and beyond where these great abandoned settlements could be seen. Places where towers of stone and metal blocked out the sun at the height of its day’s path. But she said no one lived in these places anymore. They were overrun with the life of the wild. Overrun like a settlement where trees and brambles grew overnight and turned it useless. She said they were unsafe places now, like walking through a forest of rotten trees.

I don’t remember a lot about my mother. It wasn’t long after she told me this that she traded me to a passing clan for a small bag of dusters. She told me she could no longer keep me safe. I don’t remember how many dusters she traded me for, but I do remember how cold it was that night, and I remember her standing in the snow, alone and crying, as I rode away with my new clan. That was the first time I’d felt truly alone. And I’ve been alone since then.

I don’t believe there ever were settlements as large as my mother said. I’ve seen how people act when they gather in groups and I can’t imagine what a settlement with millions would be like, but it wouldn’t be safe, I’m sure of that. While I don’t believe in such a time, and I don’t believe anyone else remembers a world like that either, I do remember one thing about my mother. She didn’t lie, at least not to me, because she did show me where the best fish were, and the ripest berries. And sometimes while walking The Waste I stumble onto something that causes me to remember my mother and her stories, and I think maybe, just maybe…

 

Chapter 1

A Rock in a Hard Place

The man appeared to have traveled straight through the rain storm. His brown leather boots were caked in partially dried mud and his calf-length cloak, something no Indi Wanderer would be caught on the trail without, was still drying in the mildly damp after-rainstorm air.

He was expecting the men that were hiding in the grove of trees ahead of him. Well, he wasn’t expecting the men particularly, more accurately he was expecting there would be men hiding there. He’d walked this trail more than once and through his occasional fireside chats with fellow Indi Wanderers he knew a small clan of bandits had taken up in these hills. He also knew that one of the best places to catch an unsuspecting traveler would be the small grove of trees ahead. Hence, his knowledge, if you could call it that, that he would soon be doing something different than hiking in wet boots, something he had unfortunately been doing for the past three hours. He welcomed the change.

He went out of his way to snap twigs underfoot as well as kick occasional rocks from the trail as he walked the last couple hundred feet to the grove of trees. It was better if those concealed in the grove thought he was a bumbling traveler, too dumb to stay quiet just like he was too dumb to get out of the rain. Intentionally making noise was just as much of a learned act as staying quiet. In fact, when you lived your life on the trail silence became more second nature than sound. This was one of the things the younger Indies didn’t know, that bandits were quicker to attack when they couldn’t hear your footsteps. The man stepped on loudly.

As he reached nearer the grove he saw movement from within. Soon after a man stepped from the concealment of the grove and onto the path. Good. It was always better to have the opportunity to talk first, sometimes words were better than quick trading fire dust, though words were rarely as final.

“’Ho there Wanderer!” said the man who had stepped from the woods. The traveler scanned the tree line behind the man looking for any signs of his fellow bandits. They wouldn’t be far within the grove. You couldn’t take a clean shot with trees in front of you. He identified a small movement behind one tree. The only other area that could be hiding someone was a man-sized boulder to the left of the speaking man.

“I said ‘ho there Wanderer’,” repeated the man who had stepped from the trees with slightly slurred speech. Now he was standing in the middle of the path. His shoulders were narrow and he was taller than most, likely the largest of the bandits and sent out first to see how the traveler responded. He hoped there were only three, more than that could mean trouble.

“’Ho there,” replied the rain-dampened traveler. He stopped moving forward as was traditional when coming in contact with a stranger on the road in The Waste.

“What’s your name Wanderer and where do you hope to rest your head?” asked the tall, thin man. As he spoke the bandit pulled back his cloak and shirt, exposing what looked like a thick covering of chest hair.

‘They call me Rock,” the rain-dampened stranger replied. He followed suit and also pulled back his shirt exposing his own chest. Exposing your bare chest to a stranger was the Wanderer way of showing you were unarmored and had no intention of causing violence. It was a nice thought, but no one meant what they said in The Waste anyway, and a quick glance of a man’s chest hair was more likely to mean he was too poor to buy armor than it was to say he wasn’t planning violence. At least they weren’t rich bandits, Rock had that to be happy about. Rich bandits got rich because they were good at what they did, namely killing and stealing.

Once they had both exposed their chests to one another as custom permitted both began to approach. Rock did so warily, his eyes spent more time scanning the trees behind the tall man than they did observing the man himself. Movement from such a tall man would be easy to see, spotting a gun ready to fire behind a tree line would be more difficult.

“What do you carry with you Rock?” asked the tall man. Rock considered not answering. It didn’t matter what he said, if these men were bandits they would attempt to kill him regardless, but eventually he decided it was a good excuse to get the man talking, which would leave Rock more time to prepare for his friends.

“I’m simply a trader of trinkets and knick knacks,” replied Rock, he cleared his throat and was preparing to drop his pack to show the man some of its contents when the sound of exploding fire dust crashed from behind the large boulder. Before Rock had time to respond he felt himself blown backward off his feet, an aching pain filled his chest. After landing Rock was still, deadly still.

“I told you it’d be a one-shotter!” shouted an excited, yet grungy voice, from the grove. A man stepped out from behind the boulder holding a short rifle. White smoke floated through the air around him, evidence he had been the one to fire. A third man, holding a similar gun stepped from behind the tree where Rock had first noticed movement.

“Let’s see what sort of knick knacks and trinkets we just bought with a bullet,” said the man who had been hidden behind the tree with a laugh. All three men agreed and approached Rock’s still body with little concern to his condition. The shot had been accurate and Rock had been hit, as far as they figured whether he was still hanging to life or already dead, he wasn’t going to be any threat to them. Not anymore.

If they had been a bit more observant, or perhaps just a bit more intelligent, one of them might have noticed the lack of blood sooner than they did. In reality, whether it was poor eyesight or poor reasoning, by the time the men realized this little predicament it was too late.

There was a short, fast movement from Rock’s body on the ground. His cloak flew open and his hands, which previously had been hidden beneath the cloak fabric, each raised a six-shot revolving pistol. Two shots with the left hand and one shot with the right took less time than it took for all three bodies to fall to the ground, each with a hole in their chest. Rock stood up from the ground, never taking his eyes off the three bodies lying in front of him. This time, there was plenty of blood.

Rock hadn’t expected to be shot. It was a cold group of bandits that didn’t even allow a man to anticipate his own death. He shook his cloak about him and heard a dull “tink” as a flattened bullet dropped to the ground. No one told the truth nowadays, and Rock was certainly no different. Getting your hands on a set of body armor in The Waste was hard, really hard, and once you had a set you were a fool not to wear it, but the only thing dumber than a man that had body armor and didn’t wear it was a man that let others know he was wearing it in the first place.

Rock looked at the three men in front of him. They wouldn’t likely have much value on them, but he shouldn’t have too hard of a time finding enough to justify the loss of three bullets. Before he approached the fallen men he first opened the cylinders of his revolvers to verify he still had the three empty casings. Next he walked to the spot in the grove where the gun had fired at him. There was still a slight amount of white smoke hovering over the area. It didn’t take long for Rock to find the casing from the bullet that hit his chest. He picked it up and put it in a bag at his side.

Finally, he approached the dying men. Two were already gone and the third was almost dead, slowed by the fact that Rock’s shot had been just a hair further to the right than it should had been. I’ve got to fix that over-fire, thought Rock.

“Like I said, I deal in tidbits and knick knacks, certainly not something worth losing your life over,” said Rock to the dying man as he went through the man’s clothing and pouch. Rock didn’t need the clothing, his clothing and cloak was enough for where he walked. Each of the men had a small pouch with empty shell casings inside. Rock emptied them all into his larger pouch and picked up the two rifles and a handgun the larger man had tried to pull on him. Guns had real value in The Waste and could be traded to just about anyone for the right price. At least he’d get something out of the throbbing pain in his chest. Rock never could get used to the pain that accompanied each time his body armor stopped a bullet.

The clouds overhead were slowly transitioning into a darker gray and it seemed it wouldn’t be long until it was raining again. Rock was sick of the rain and had no intention of spending any more time in it today than he had already. No man should be forced to march through the rain after killing a man. Death added an extra layer of drizzle. He looked at the three men in front of him, by now all were dead, and realized his best bet was to find wherever it was they had been staying. They had to have some sort of shelter to get out of the rain and if Rock was lucky there would be a fire.

Plus, there might be more guns to find. A man could make a living trading in guns in these parts and no gun was better earned than one taken from a man who tried to use it on you.

Rock snugged his pack back on his shoulders and looked up at the mountains surrounding him. Somewhere up there was shelter and a fire and he had to find it before the rain started again.

If he didn’t he’d be wet all night.

Chapter 2

A Bandit’s Price

The camp was small. There were two horses tied to a tree outside a makeshift lean-to shelter. Rock listened outside the camp for noise coming from inside. He heard at least two separate voices from near a partially obscured small fire beneath the sub-par shelter. After making sure no one else was talking Rock stood up and walked directly into camp.

He didn’t walk quietly, this was another situation where quieter wasn’t necessarily better. Whoever was tending that fire was expecting the three dead bandits to return eventually and when they did they wouldn’t be worried about being quiet. Before he walked around the lean-to’s corner Rock heard a voice call out from near the fire.

“You son’s of bitches get anything today? We heard the gunshots.”

Rock didn’t slow down or respond. He stepped around the corner with both revolvers drawn. There were three men sitting around the fire, not two. It didn’t make any difference though. The first man to move was the cook who had been stirring something in a cast iron pot over the coals. Rock fired once and the man fell over backward, a direct shot through the heart killing the man before he touched the rocky ground. The other two jumped up at the sound of the gunshot. One attempted to pull a small gun from somewhere within his clothing but before he could get the weapon free he fell over with a clean shot. The third man raised his arms in the air and looked at Rock with a face of stupidity, fear, and shock.

“How many more are here?” ask Rock.

“Please don’ kill meh! Ah do whatchever you wanting from meh,” said the man. His hands and lips were shaking.

“How many more of you are here?” asked Rock again with a wave of one of his guns.

“Jess the ‘tree of us up here, den ‘tree more down nar’ the valley floor,” responded the man. There were six altogether if he was telling the truth, and Rock had already killed five.

“I have good news. You don’t have to be a bandit anymore,” Rock said. The bandit, or former bandit now depending on who you asked, looked at Rock with confusion on his face.

“The bad news is you’re gonna be dirt instead.” Before the man’s face registered understanding Rock pulled the trigger on the gun in his left hand. More white gun smoke filled the air. The last bandit’s face still registered confusion, then switched to shock and finally, while laying on the ground, his face relaxed and he passed. It must be nice to realize you don’t have to be a bandit anymore thought Rock.

Rock looked at the small camp around him. They hadn’t been here long, less than six months by the look of things. Like all bandits, this group seemed to be lazy. In less than two months they could have built a decent cabin with the surrounding trees, but instead, they had preferred to stay under the ineffective lean to. There was a locked, weathered chest under the lean-to. In the effort to save a bullet, Rock broke the old lock with a large rock he found from the perimeter of the fire pit. Inside the chest were a couple of bags of live ammunition as well as a small sized bag of empty shells. If each of those shells represented a killed traveler then this group of bandits had taken the lives of at least 30 people in the last half year.

It was a shame they had lasted as long as they did.

But, if they had killed so many people where was the loot? Bullets and shells were the tools of a bandit’s trade, but you can’t eat them and a bandit wouldn’t want to sell them. Somewhere around here should be the motherload of what they had taken. Damn it! Thought Rock, I shouldn’t have killed that last one before I knew where their plunder was. Now he would waste more time looking and Rock hated looking for things.

The horses had been relatively calm throughout the gunshots and apart from a few throaty neighs they both seemed ok with what had happened. Their reins were still tied to a tree near where Rock stood. He began approaching the horses when he heard a slight movement from the opposite side of the camp. Rock turned around quickly and dropped low. There might be another person here and it was always better to make as small a target as possible.

He walked through the camp listening closely for any repeat of the sound. By the time he arrived at the far edge of the small camp Rock had found what he was looking for.

Lying on the ground near a pine tree was a balled up figure, a person, a woman. Her hair was tied up behind her head and her clothing was dirty but well-made and without holes or too much wear pattern. Her arms and legs were both tied. She looked at Rock and grunted through a gag that ran through her mouth. Rock looked around to make sure she was the only other person in camp before he knelt down and untied her gag and bands.

“Are you going to kill me too?” asked the woman as soon as she could speak. She rubbed her swollen wrists and ankles with her newly freed hands. The dirt on her face did little to hide the sparkling blue sharpness of her eyes.

“That depends, you been killing innocent travelers on the road below?” asked Rock. The woman shook her head.

“They ambushed me three, maybe four days ago. They killed my traveling companion and took our horses.” She pointed to the horses tied near the lean-to. Rock understood now why the horses hadn’t seemed to have cared one bit when he had killed the bandits.

“Any they didn’t kill you? You got a reason for that?” responded Rock.

“They planned on ransoming me, my traveling companion told them they would make more money if they kept us alive and did it that way.”

“But he didn’t make the cut, huh?”

“I guess they didn’t think he’d fetch enough for the effort,” said the woman then continued. “If you aren’t going to kill me can I suggest we fill our stomachs on whatever horrible mess they’d been fixing over the fire? I haven’t eaten since the morning before I was taken captive and I feel like my stomach has been eating itself for the last two days.”

Rock nodded approval and gave her a hand in getting up off the ground. Five minutes later they were both eating some sort of root based stew straight from the pot.

“Who are you and why did you kill these men?” asked the woman. Rock looked her over for a moment as he decided whether to answer. Information was a commodity and Rock wasn’t the type to trade too willingly. Eventually, he decided a small conversation wouldn’t harm either of them and spoke.

“They call me Rock. Three of their companions attempted to kill me on the road below. It didn’t go well for them. I was sick of the rain and assumed they had a camp nearby. I found it, three more died. Now we’re eating stew.”

“The tall one, is he dead?”

Rock nodded, thinking about the first bandit he had met that day. The woman smiled at the news and subconsciously rubbed her shoulder. Then she took a big spoon full of stew. It was the first time Rock had seen her smile. Her thin lips parted ever so slightly. She had good teeth, straight and white like she had grown up on meat, not roots and nuts. It wasn’t just the first time he’d seen her smile, it was the first time Rock had seen anyone smile in at least a couple of weeks. Life as an Indi was lonely and hard. Smiles were reserved for times with warmth, beer, and bread and that didn’t happen as often as most people liked.

“Do you want the horses?” asked the woman. Rock looked from her to the two horses and back. They seemed to be good horses, calm if at least a bit hungry looking, but there was plenty of food for them down in the valley along the trails he would be walking. Horses would be good. Rock nodded.

“They’re mine. I’ll give them to you if you do me a favor.”

Rock looked at the dead men around them.

“Seems to me I’ve already done you a favor.”

“Another favor, I need someone to take me out of these mountains to my tribe below. They’ll be looking for me.”

“Everyone’s looking for something and if I want those horses they’re mine anyway,” said Rock.

“You’re right, you can take them and I can’t stop you. But if you help me find my tribe you might end up getting more than just a couple of horses. Think of it as a business decision.”

Rock did think of it as a business decision. It was probably a good one too, especially if her tribe wasn’t far from the valley below. He was already a couple of days ahead of schedule and getting where he was heading earlier wouldn’t do him a lick of good. He could drop her off and keep the horses. Plus her tribe might be interested in trading the guns and ammo he’d taken from the bandits.

“Where did they keep their loot?” Rock asked the woman.

“Will you take me to my tribe?” she replied.

“I will take you down the mountain and through the valley below. If we don’t find your tribe after three days you’re on your own. I have a schedule to keep. And no matter what, the horses are mine.”

The woman nodded.

“They have a small cave a few minutes up there,” she said and pointed to an area of the mountain above them. “I’ve seen them walk up to it and back twice since they brought me here. I don’t know what’s in it, or how much, but I know that’s where they drop off what they take from their victims.”

“Anyone else I should expect to find up there?” asked Rock.

“There were only six,” said the woman. Rock nodded and stood up. The warmth from the campfire had dried his clothes and the stew had filled his belly. There were still a few hours of sunlight left in the day and Rock didn’t want to camp near dead bodies. If the wolves showed up, and with this much fresh blood on the air there was no doubt they would, he would have to waste valuable ammunition keeping them away.

“Come with me,” said Rock. “Let’s go find the cave then get out of here.”

The woman was about to object. Her arms and legs were sore from being tied up for days, but she could tell by the look on Rock’s face he wasn’t about to leave her alone with the horses. She’d dealt with Indies all her life, they all had the same sternness on their faces as a result of years of walking alone, at least all Indi Wanderers that lived to a respectable age had it. She knew it would be pointless to object so she took another big spoonful of the tasteless stew, nodded, and followed him up the rocky mountain side.

As they walked away from the camp and up the mountain the woman spoke again.

“Thanks Rock. My name is Caroline.”

 

Chapter 3

Strange Things Happening

The next 24 hours passed without occurrence. Caroline had been right about the bandits cache. It had taken them less than five minutes to find it in a cave above their camp just large enough for a single man to lie down in. There hadn’t been much, at least less than Rock had hoped for. There were a couple of sets of saddles and saddlebags, which Caroline had told him belonged to her horses, and a wicker basket of broken gun parts and empty shells. Rock could get enough trading them to justify taking them, especially now that he had horses. They left the cast iron stew pot behind. It was valuable, but there had been no way to easily carry it, even with horses. Perhaps some gatherer would find it while scouring this mountain in a year of two and have something worth celebrating that night.

Then they traveled for the rest of the day, slept the night and traveled again the next day. Rock hadn’t said a word since the bandit’s camp.

After nearly 24 hours of silence, Caroline decided she was about to go crazy and spoke.

“What do you do Rock? Where are you going?”

“Is that one question or two?” replied Rock from where he sat astride the first horse after a pause. His eyes moved back and forth between watching the trail in front of them and the mountains on each side of the small valley they were traveling through.

“Two questions. Feel free to answer in any order you wish.”

“I collect tidbits and knick knacks. I’m looking for someone to trade with,” replied Rock. He didn’t like conversation; most Indies didn’t which was why most of them were Indies in the first place.

Everyone living in The Waste fit into two groups of people, the Stickers or the Wanderers. Stickers were a small minority of people who, for one reason or another, had chosen to settle down and “stick” to a certain piece of land. They committed to land in the same way a parent committed to a child, for life, barring some seriously unforeseen circumstances. Stickers tended to live near other stickers as a way to find safety in numbers. They also tended to live near the major migratory paths in order to be able to trade with the Wanderers that passed by.

Wanderers made up the majority of all humans in The Waste and were just that, wanderers. They traveled the land in regular patterns trading, gathering and hunting. Wanderers didn’t have time to put down roots and they didn’t show loyalty to anyone but those in their immediate group.

Wanderers fit into four major groups, tribes, clans, families, and individuals, also called “Indies.” Tribes were the largest and the slowest moving. A wandering tribe rarely traveled far during the year. Tribes ranged in size from a few hundred up to a few thousand but rarely more. They were large enough to take control of the resources in any area they moved to and they tended to stay until those resources began growing low.

This was the reason Rock had been willing to take Caroline to her tribe in the first place. Due to its size, a tribe shouldn’t be difficult to find. Also, since a tribe was so large it was likely there would be plenty of people interested in trading with him when he found it. If Caroline had wanted Rock to help find her clan or family he would have just taken the horses and left. Finding a clan wasn’t easy and finding a family, which might consist of just a handful of people, was very difficult in The Waste absent some bit of information that told you where they were. Finding a Wanderer family was one of the most difficult things to do in The Waste. But it wasn’t as hard as finding an Indi.

It was a common saying in The Waste that the best way to find an Indi was to sit down on the side of a trail and wait for them to walk by.

Indies were individual Wanderers. They traveled The Waste quickly, rarely stopping for more than a night in any place. They had few friends and fewer cares. Each Indi had his or her own skill or trade he would offer to larger groups he or she came in contact with on the road. Some carried herbs and medicines to treat fevers, some repaired small guns and machina and some, like Rock, were traders, whether of guns, dusters or trinkets.

The one thing all Indies had in common was they preferred to travel alone. They preferred the silence of the trail to the sound of conversation. They preferred a life of freedom where their only worry was for themselves and never anyone else. The rest of the Wanderers didn’t care much for Indies and only interacted with them when it was in their own best interest but to an Indi being left alone was usually all they wanted in the first place. Rock smiled happily, albeit a small smile, at the thought of being alone on a trail.

“What sort of knick knacks?” asked Caroline. Rock startled. He’d almost forgotten she was riding behind him. When he didn’t answer she asked again.

“Anything small and valuable, guns, bullets, fasteners. My specialty is books though, rare books.”

“All books are rare,” said Caroline.

“Extra rare then,” replied Rock.

“I’ve never known an Indi who had an interest in books.”

“Didn’t say I had an interest in ‘em. Just said I traded ‘em. I doubt you’ve known many Indies.” Rock said. Caroline laughed.

“I’ve known plenty. They visit my tribe many times each year. Perhaps you’ve visited my tribe before.”

“What is your tribe called?” asked Rock.

“Excuse me, was that a question? Are you telling me you’re interested in hearing something I have to say,” responded Caroline with another laugh.

“You wanted to know if I’ve been to your tribe before, I can’t tell you without knowing what they call themselves.”

“We call ourselves the Drenian.”

For the second time in a day, Rock was startled. Of course, he knew of the Drenian. Everyone knew of the Drenian. They were one of the larger and more influential tribes in The Waste.

“The Drenian don’t travel the western Waste, it’s a month’s journey to their wandering lands and there’s no way I’m taking you that far,” said Rock.

“We don’t usually come to this side of The Waste. But we’re here now. I guess we spot the campfires by the time we reach that ridge tonight,” responded Caroline while pointing to a ridge above where the trail led out of the valley.

“Why here?” asked Rock

“Why what?”

“Why have the Drenian moved here, to the western Waste?”

“Why not? The weather is just as shitty in the west as the east and the trails just as muddy in spring. We thought it’d feel like home.”

Rock was surprised. The Drenian tribe had well over 1000 members. Tribes that size didn’t pick up and just decide to move across The Waste at a moment’s notice, it wasn’t the way things were done, and if a tribe that size had moved that far why hadn’t Rock heard of it? When strange things went down in The Waste the Indies were usually of the first to know.

It didn’t make sense to Rock. And he didn’t like feeling surprised.

“If what you say is true we should meet with your tribe tomorrow. At that point, you will be free to join them and I will be on my way.”

“It sounds like you’d like that,” replied Caroline curtly.

“I’d like that very much,” responded Rock then he spurred his horse on to put some distance between he and Caroline, just enough so her voice wouldn’t carry.

 

Chapter 4

Just a Business Transaction

Caroline was right. When they finally reached the ridge above they could see flickering orange light from a hundred campfires on the grassy plain below. Rock didn’t bother stopping to take in the sight. As much as he enjoyed the solitary life of an Indi, when the option was available sleeping with a friendly tribe was always safer than sleeping on the trail.

Rock had his first impression something wasn’t right in the camp as soon as he and Caroline approached the perimeter. Living in The Waste was difficult whether you were a member of a tribe, a clan, a family or an Indi, but most tribes attempted to break up the seriousness of daily life by providing refuges of warm food and music in the evening. Unless something was seriously wrong a general cheeriness was the goal of most evenings.

The mood in the Drenian camp was somber.

The fires were lit, but the people milling around them were eating slowly and conversing in hushed tones. Absent were the sounds of music and merriment Rock had grown to expect while visiting tribes in The Waste. Rock smiled, not at the somber mood of the tribe, but with a Wandering Indie’s understanding that hushed tones meant fear, and fear meant top prices for his bandit haul. Fear, guns and bullets were good bedfellows. Rock would sleep well tonight.

The second thing Rock noticed was how different Caroline began to act once they entered the camp. When they reached the camp’s edge she spurred her horse forward and took her place in front of Rock and his mount. The people looked at them with weariness as the pair passed through the shadows. When the firelight around them grew bright enough and revealed their faces the surrounding people looked at Caroline with recognition.

But it didn’t seem like a good thing.

Hushed voices grew louder the closer they got to the center of camp. At one of the larger fires they were met by three men on foot, two stood silent and held shotguns while the third man, holding no weapon, spoke.

“You have returned. You’re father will be upset,” said the man. He, like many of the faces around him, had a short and thick dark beard covering what was still clearly a sharp chin.

“My father is always upset,” responded Caroline dismissively.

“I will notify him of your presence,” said the bearded man before turning and walking towards a large tent behind him.

“Be sure he has plenty of liquor Simon, you know how he hates conversing without it,” shouted Caroline loud enough for the surrounding onlookers to hear.

“If I’d have known how popular your homecoming was going to be I may have reconsidered my choice to guide you,” said Rock under his breath.

“Maybe if you had bothered asking more questions you would have gotten more answers,” responded Caroline without breaking her glance towards the entrance of the large tent in front of them.

“If you wish to leave feel free to do so. The horses are yours as we agreed on. Go, trade your trinkets traveler.” Caroline said. She then dismounted her horse and handed Rock the reins.

Rock didn’t want any part of this family feud. He could trade his wares somewhere else, anywhere else. He started to turn his new found horses away from the tent when one of the guards with a shotgun pulled the reins from Rock’s hand and shook his head.

Rock looked around him. The tribes people who minutes before had been, at least, Rock imagined, evenly divided between the many campfires, were being attracted to the commotion caused by Caroline and Rock’s presence. The space around them was quickly filling with curious faces. Rock was trying to decide if it was him or the horses the guard was forcing to stay when a commotion from the large tent got everyone’s attention.

“She WHAT!” echoed a powerful voice from within the fabric tent walls. The shouting was followed by the sound of clumsy movement accompanied by a rustling of tent fabric. Then the front flap opened and a large, shirtless man with dark hair on his chest and a well-earned belly appeared.

The man approached with that strange combination of agitation and concentration attained by those so familiar with the art of heavy drinking. A necklace hung over his hairy chest with a pair of keys strung on it. The keys jingled as he walked swayingly towards them. When he got closer Rock could not only see the similarity with Caroline, he had her sharp nose, but Rock could identify the man’s drink of choice based on the lingering scent surrounding him.

Bourbon.

Not the best bourbon Rock had ever smelled but who was he to argue with the man in the big tent? Even if he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

“I see you’ve dressed for the occasion Father,” said Caroline. “Forgive me for not bringing a drink of my own but unfortunately, water is all I’ve had for many days.”

“What are you doing here!” shouted the man. He momentarily looked towards Rock, but the look of surprise on the stranger’s face must have communicated to him that Rock was not part of this verbal assault and he quickly moved back to focus solely on his daughter. A daughter he clearly wasn’t thrilled to see at this time.

“Where else should I be? I have no food, no money and apparently now that I have arrived, no horses.”

“YOU KNOW WHERE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE!” shouted the man as loud as his drunken frame would allow.

“And I would be there too or at least on the way if the man you sent with me hadn’t sold me to bandits.”

Her father quieted for a moment of thought.

“Bandits?” he finally asked like a single word was question enough.

Caroline nodded.

“Two day’s ride from here. While you were drinking and driving the Drenian across The Waste I was tied in a bandit’s camp waiting to die.”

“I didn’t know. I would have sent someone. To free you,” replied her father.

“Someone like the man that lead me into their camp to begin with?”

“He was one of my best!”

“Clearly your best isn’t up for the task,” said Caroline.

Her father paused and looked from Caroline to the silent members of the Drenian tribe observing around them. He’d fought tooth and nail to earn the right to lead the Drenian. The faces of the members of the tribe around him displayed the tiredness that resulted from living a life in The Waste. While tribes usually tried to inflect happiness and comradely each evening there was no denying the obvious, they lived in a hard land, where hard answers were sometimes the only answers and the best way to implement hard answers was quickly and ruthlessly.

His daughter had to go back. And she had to be back now.

“You will go back,” said her father with a gruff finality.

“Who will take me, your second best man?” replied Caroline.

“I’ll send a whole family of men if I have to.”

“And who will defend this?” asked Caroline as she raised her arms and gestured to the tribe around her. “You and I both know this isn’t the time to divide our defenders.”

“We have no other choice. You must go back.”

“What if we could find someone else to take me?” asked Caroline quietly.

“Someone else in the tribe?”

“Possibly, but even someone else outside the tribe if we had to,” she responded. Caroline glanced ever so quickly towards Rock then back at her father. He must have picked up on her thoughts because for the first time he addressed Rock.

“How do you know my daughter?”

Rock looked at the faces of the tribesmen surrounding him. From the way they were responding to Caroline’s presence Rock thought it might not be wise to admit to having freed her. A quick look from Caroline convinced him otherwise.

“I met her two days ago. She was being held prisoner by bandits. I disagreed with their actions. They didn’t appreciate my ideas. Here we are.”

Caroline’s father looked at Rock quizzically. After a moment of silence, Caroline spoke.

“He takes some getting used to.”

“Did you free my daughter?” asked the father directly.

“Seems I did. My apologies. It wasn’t intentional.”

The father looked from Caroline to Rock then to Simon, the man who had summoned him from his tent.

“Give me a moment,” he then said suddenly and walked back to his tent, motioning for Simon to follow.

Rock leaned down to address Caroline privately.

“I don’t know what game you’re playing, but you are not my problem and I am not your solution. I came for the horses and the trading and that is all I intend to do.”

“It’s all trading Rock, don’t get your cloak in a knot,” responded Caroline.

“My cloak is what saved your ass back there and here you are offering me up to the wolves.”

“He’s a drunk, not a wolf, trust me. And your ass will be just fine. If I know my father he’s about to offer you an opportunity, nothing more. Refuse it if you wish, but it might not be as bad as you think.”

“Might not be as ba…!” Rock started to respond before he was interrupted by the sound of the tent flap opening. Caroline’s father stepped out, this time wearing a rough leather jacket. Whatever they had decided the decision had been made quickly. He approached and stood closer to Caroline and Rock than he had before.

“Since you seem to have a knack for protecting my daughter I’d like to offer you a business opportunity. Mr… what is your name again?”

“Rock.”

“Mr. Rock. Would you be interested in accompanying my daughter a bit further?”

“I think not. I have other plans.”

“Of course you do a busy man like yourself. Perhaps I could sweeten the pot a bit? What is it you do Mr. Rock?”

“It’s just Rock. I’m a trader of trinkets and knick kna…”

“He collects books father. Rare books,” interjected Caroline.

“Books! Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place son! I think you may be interested in working with me after all. Please, come into my tent. I’d like to show you something.” With a grand sweeping gesture he motioned Rock and Caroline into the open tent door. They dismounted and entered, Caroline quickly without thought, and Rock a bit more cautiously.

The interior of the tent was better lit than outside. A small metal stove placed in the center was burning with an open hatch to let out light and heat. There was a table set with a half-eaten plate of meat and cheeses and multiple empty bottles were scattered throughout the tent. If you were going to be part of a tribe there were certainly worse ways to do it than this, thought Rock.

“Call me Kaleb. I’m Chief of the Drenian,” said Caroline’s father then pointed to the table.

“Food? Drink?” Kaleb asked cheerfully. He prided himself on knowing how to put on the charm when he had too. Most tribes avoided physical conflict unless completely necessary, as a result schmoozing was seen as a survival skill by many chiefs.

“Drink,” replied Rock.

“Whiskey? Rum? Tequila? As you can see I have it all!” he boomed and laughed.

“Bourbon,” said Rock. He knew how to play the game as well.

“Ahh! I like you Rock! Bourbon it is!” Kaleb poured a liberal amount of the light brown liquid into a tin cup and handed it to Rock. He took a sip. The charred oak taste danced over his tongue and the scent teased his nose. The taste was far superior to the smell that had accompanied Kaleb outside. It’d been a long time since Rock had tasted a quality bourbon and he didn’t rush the feeling. He took a second drink while Kaleb watched and smiled.

“You like that?” Kaleb asked.

Rock nodded and smiled back. It wasn’t often he smiled, but in the rare moments he chose to he found the taste of fine liquor to be as good a justification for it as anything.

“More?” asked Kaleb. Caroline rolled her eyes.

“Don’t you have something else to show him father?” she asked.

“It can wait girl. Haven’t I told you to never get between a man and a good liquor?”

“Only every day,” she said then walked to an old chest in the corner of the tent.

“Rock. Let me show you what my father seems to have forgotten.”

“Oh all right!” said Kaleb and motioned for Rock to comply. He crossed the room and took off the necklace with the keys. He used one of the keys to open a large lock on the chest. Once the lock was removed he lifted the lid. It creaked, the sound of old hinges needing oil.

Rock’s eyes opened wide in surprise as light illuminated the interior of the chest. Inside were well over a hundred books, maybe two hundred. Rock had never seen this many books in one place before! The most books he had even owned at any given time was three, and that had been pretty big news for him. To have two hundred books in one place was something Rock had never considered.

“Like what you see, Rock?” asked Kaleb with a grin. Rock nodded slowly.

“Look through them if you like,” said Caroline. Rock knelt down and began to shuffle through the trove.

He pulled books out one at a time. Ahh, the smell! He thought. Rock had always loved the smell of books. Each tome unique in its own way, yet there was so much in common. A touch of grassiness, a bit of acidity all with the slightest hint of sweetness, almost a vanilla and all of that wrapped up by an underlying general mustiness. Nothing matched the smell of old books, not cooking meat, not rain, not even quality bourbon!

As he pulled them from the chest Rock slowly read the titles one by one.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Island of the Blue Dolphins

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Bloody Bozeman

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Wizard of Oz

Aesop’s Fables

This was a fortune in books! Just one of these, presented to the right buyer, would keep Rock fed for a year or more.

“Would you like one?” asked Kaleb with a smile.

“That depends on the price,” Rock replied without looking up.

“Not much. My daughter needs a guide. It’s simple.”

“To where?” asked Rock.

“The central Waste,” Kaleb responded.

“I’ve been there. There isn’t much,” said Rock.

“All the better, that means you won’t be in danger.”

“Plenty of danger, not much of anything else,” Rock clarified.

“A book is valuable.”

“As is my time.”

“Two books are more valuable,” Kaleb said quietly.

“As is my life,” responded Rock.

“Quit dancing with words boys. It’s embarrassing,” said Caroline. Then she looked to Rock and spoke. “Rock, it’s a long ride to the central Waste. If you will be my guide my father will be willing to pay you five books.”

“FIVE?” shouted Kaleb.

“Five?” asked Rock.

“Five,” said Caroline and looked back at her father. “He isn’t stupid. He knows what sort of trouble you’re in. Our little daddy-daughter date outside made it clear, your open tent makes it clear, sharing your bourbon made it doubly clear and if that wasn’t enough the fact that you’ve led your tribe over four hundred miles under the cover of darkness puts the icing on the cake, whatever the hell that means. Don’t insult him by low-balling.”

Kaleb scowled at his daughter for a moment, then looked to Rock.

“OK. I will pick five books if you will take my dau…”

“I choose the books,” said Rock.

Kaleb frowned and shook his head. Caroline scowled at him. She continued to stare at her father without speaking until Kaleb finally broke the silence.

“Fine. Five books. Your choice. Just take her. Now choose.”

It didn’t take Rock long. He’d been deciding since he first saw the open chest. The only change was Rock had been thinking he would only get three books out the deal, and he’d been preparing to accept two if he had too. He pulled three books out one at a time and set them aside.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The Grapes of Wrath

The Count of Monte Cristo

 

Rock knew all three of these titles. He hadn’t read them, the truth was he didn’t read well, but he knew these three were valuable, very valuable. The next two choices took a bit more time. Finally, he reached down and picked one from the pile.

How To Win Friends and Influence People

His last choice took longer than the first four combined. He compared the spines and overall quality of the books he was considering. Some were worn while others seemed to still be in good shape. He eventually made his final choice and pulled it from the chest.

The Wizard of Oz

Rock hoped he’d chosen well. What a day! And he had two new horses as well! He pulled a pitch-coated tightly woven bag from his pack. It was his book carrier and was airtight and watertight. He could wrap the books in this bag and float them across a river if he wanted with no thought for water damage. He carefully placed the five books in the bag and rolled the end up tightly.

Everything was right in the world.

Only after he had put the book bag back in his pack did Rock finally look back to Caroline and Kaleb.

“Glad to do business with you both. Where exactly will I be taking her in the central Waste?” he asked.

“Oh, I must have forgotten that too,” said Caroline. “I’m to be a sacrifice. You will be guiding me to the Wall-without-Walls.”

The Wall-without-Walls! Suddenly Rock wanted more bourbon.

 

Chapter 5

Rumors Travel Fast

Every time the Drenian set up camp in a new place, whether for a single night or a prolonged stay, the first area marked off in the new camp was the public square. The size of the public square varied from one camp to the next, it was typically larger if they were planning on staying in the area for a while and smaller if they were planning on leaving soon. The “Square” as it was called by most tribe members was the central location for any large public gathering. Tribal activities were held there when necessary trials occurred and breakfast and dinner, both provided by the tribe to its members, were issued and eaten in the public square.

Caroline’s father wanted her and Rock to eat with him in his tent the next morning, a “prerogative of the chief” he said, but Caroline insisted on spending her last breakfast with the tribe members in the square. Rock didn’t care much either way, he assumed the bourbon would be better in the tent with Kaleb, but there was a better chance of him finding someone to trade with in the square. When Caroline walked out of her father’s tent earlier that morning Rock just shrugged his shoulders and followed her out.

Caroline told Rock more about the Drenian as they walked from the tent to the square. The Drenian, like most of the larger tribes in The Waste, considered themselves modern. This meant they employed the use of black, reflective “sunkeepers,” which could be seen mounted throughout the camp.

In The Waste, sunkeepers, like books, were a relic of a life long passed. Rock’s mother had told him they were part of the magic that had ruled The Waste many, many years before. There were only a few things left from so many years ago, books for learning, guns and fire dusters for hunting and fighting and sunkeepers, night-boxes and machina for everyday life. Sunkeepers were dark, flat panels of glass-like material that had the ability to gather the warmth of the sun and store it long term in square-shaped heavy boxes called “night-boxes.” The purpose of storing the sun’s energy in night boxes was because once stored the energy could be drawn out and used to power the various machina.

Machina were too individually different to describe as a whole or give them any single purpose. In short, they were leftovers from an earlier age, bit’s of gears, switches, cords and engines that helped complete various and usually simple tasks. Some machina would heat water for boiling without wood or smoke, others would heat air for baking without fire. Some machina had spinning blades used to blend food into a consistency far thinner than a knife ever could and others toasted slices of bread like they had been laid over warm coals. Rock had even heard a rumor there was a type of machina that could bake an entire loaf of bread from scratch all by itself, all you had to do was put the ingredients in it and supply it power from the night-box. He’d never seen one in person, though.

Sunkeepers, night-boxes, and machina were amazing tools, and the number of each that a man or woman in The Waste owned was a direct sign of that person’s wealth. In spite of their social importance, none of these three things had much influence in the day-to-day life of the average Wanderer. This was because of a simple reason. The sunkeepers, nightboxes, and machina were slowly breaking to the point where they couldn’t be repaired.

Because sunkeepers, night-boxes, and machina were all remnants from an earlier time, the knowledge and methods used to construct them were no longer known to the people of The Waste. While there were tinkerers and mechanics who traveled The Waste and fixed simple breaks there were far too few of them and even a good traveling mechanic could only do so much. For example, when a gear inside a working machina broke, unless a mechanic could find a similar sized gear to replace it from his stockpile, the machina also broke, and often permanently because Wanderers couldn’t manufacture such small gears, or refine the metal to such pure qualities.

Because of this, the people of The Waste were good at keeping their machina and sunkeepers in working condition. They kept good care of them, inspecting them regularly and replacing worn parts when they could be acquired. However, when the machina eventually stopped working due to a large malfunction, as all machina eventually would on a long enough time table, there was little anyone else could do to get them working again. At that point, the broken machina was worth little more than the combined value of its parts and would be sold to a part collector passing through camp.

Due to their temporary nature machina were being employed less and less as years went by. For example, most tribes had, at least, a handful of machina that could be used to bake foods or heat water, but most of the time a simple fire and metal stove was used instead. While most camps had, at least, a few dark sunkeeper panels that would catch the sun’s light and store it in night-boxes, typically they were used for emergency situations or convenience in lighting tents when the sun went down, but little else.

Most technologies in The Waste were primitive and simple. The realization that every year fewer and fewer machina were in working condition was something most Wanderers were frustrated about. The belief that your best times are behind you is not something most people care to experience, and in The Waste, every day that feeling had to be dealt with. Every time Rock saw a sunkeeper, or a night-box or a machina, in the back of his mind he couldn’t help but wonder how much more use that particular tool would provide before it permanently broke.

As they walked through the Drenian camp, Rock noticed not only the small number of sunkeepers, but at least half of the ones he did see seemed to be non-working and likely only assembled for show, like stuccoed dried grass walls painted to look like stone. There was form yet no function.

“Ahhhhh!” shouted a high pitched voice when they arrived at the square. Rock jumped back at the sound, preparing for an attack. Caroline laughed and threw her arms up just in time to wrap them around a female body as it collided with her.

“I heard this morning you were back!” said a young woman to Caroline when they finally broke the embrace.

“Only for the morning, unfortunately. I’ll be miles away before the sun drops,” responded Caroline with a forced smile. “Nikki, this is Rock. He saved me from bandits three days ago.”

“Nice to meet you sir,” said Nikki. She extended her hand to Rock. He shook it. After acknowledging Nikki’s presence, he scanned the gathering square around him. He was looking for something particular, he thought for a moment he was out of luck until he noticed a bright yellow and blue painted covered wagon parked partially behind a large group of people.

A Fire Duster! Finally Rock could trade! He checked the saddlebags on his horse to make sure his goods were still there. They were.

There were five guns taken from the bandits, two of them rifles and three handguns, the small box of random gun parts he found in the cave, the bag of 30 empty shells and a larger bag of bullets, commonly referred to as “fire dusters” in The Waste, just like the men who traded and filled them as a profession. Rock didn’t care to keep any of it. The short rifles were a bandit tools, used for violence or defense, the barrel length made them less than ideal for hunting on The Waste but easy to conceal, both things Rock didn’t care about. He didn’t need the handguns either, he had two of his own already. And better quality than these. He planned on trading all of them if he could get a decent enough deal.

“Mornin’. Looking to trade?” Rock said to a middle-aged man with dark blond hair and an unlit cigar sitting alone on the front bench of the colorful wagon. The man was wearing a thick leather duster, bright red-dyed cotton pants, and thick shin-high boots. He pulled the unlit cigar from his mouth and flashed Rock a large smile then responded.

“I was hoping you’d pay me a visit sir. Honored by your presence and willing and ready to make you the deal of a lifetime today. Wha’cha got? Wait! Let me guess. I’m thinkin’ you’ve got guns and fire dusters, and ‘yer looking to trade them for some guns and fire dusters, am I right!”

“Seem to be,” said Rock. He pulled out the guns, the bag of bullets and the bag of empty shells and placed them on the wagon seat near the man. The man began to inspect the guns one by one with the keen eye of a shrewd professional.

“What were they used for?” asked the man absentmindedly while he peered down the barrel of the second short rifle.

“I think you know what they were used for,” said Rock.

“Them bandits a few days yonder?” said the man and rolled his eyes in the general position of the bandit hideout. Rock nodded.

“Its always a thrill to get my hands on the gun of a dead bandit. Coming from a traveling man, let me say there’s just too damn many ways to die on the trail, the last thing we needs is bandits with guns.”

“I didn’t say anything about them being dead,” replied Rock.

“Oh, they’re dead alright. Man like you woulda’ made certain o’ that,” said the man and laughed. “My name’s Lewis, by the way. Please to meet you Mr…”

“What are you willing to trade for these, Lewis,” asked Rock.

“Well, that depends on just who you are. I got to make sure no guns make it back into the hands of bandits, don’t I?” said Lewis with a smile.

“Call me Rock. Now, what can I get?”

“Well Rock, I guess that depends on what’cha want.”

“I’m looking for a long barrel rifle with ammunition.”

“Let me see what I have,” said Lewis and stepped back into the interior of his covered wagon. Rock could hear the sound of boxes being moved and chests being opened all while the spring mounted wagon shifted back and forth from the movement. Eventually, the wagon flap pulled back and Lewis reappeared, this time holding a .22 long barreled bolt-action rifle with a wood stock. He handed the gun to Rock then sat back down.

Rock looked the gun over. It was in good condition. The metal smelled slightly of gun oil, the bolt slid smoothly and the barrel was straight. It seemed like what Rock was looking for, apart from the smaller caliber, but even that would be OK. He wanted the gun to pick off small game on the trail. He didn’t have time to dress and cure game that would require larger bullets, or larger “fire dusters” in the common vernacular.

“Seems like it might work Ok. What comes with it?” asked Rock.

“For all you’ve got I could give you fifty shots,” said the man.

“A .22 and fifty shots for five guns and at least fifty dusters of my own plus the shells. You promised me a deal.”

“I didn’t promise ya’ nothing. I said I was willing and ready to make a deal, and I am. The small caliber rifles r’ good for a man on the road. They’re light’n accurate, but getting harder to find every year. Do you know how far I have to travel to find a case of fifty empty shells, much less live ones?”

“Well, that probably depends on who you’re telling the story to,” said Rock and handed the gun back. “I think I’ll try my luck elsewhere.” He grabbed his things then turned around and began walking back to his horse when Lewis shouted from the wagon.

“Now wait just one gol’durned minute there Mr. Rock. I was just getting warmed up. I can do you a bit better, as long as yer’ willing to admit this here is a beautiful gun,” he said and patted the stock of the .22 rifle. “It is beautiful in’t it?”

“I suppose she is,” said Rock. It was true, the gun was pretty. There was custom artwork on the stock he hadn’t noticed before too.

“Now I only have the fifty shots for you, I’d give ya’ more if I could but that’s all I’ve got until I find some more. What I can do is throw this into the package,” said Lewis then reached behind his back and pulled another gun from the interior of his wagon.

“This here is a twelve gauge shotgun. It’ll keep ya’ safe on the trail and finding shots for it is easy and relatively cheap. I can throw in fifty dusters if you like.”

“So my five guns, parts, dusters, and shells for these two guns and one hundred dusters total?”

“Not precisely Mr. Rock. I said I was willing to get a you a great deal, not bet the farm on some old bandit guns. I’ve got one more thing I need from you before we have a deal.”

Rock raised his eyebrows.

“I hear you’re taking the boss’s daughter to the central Waste. Just a rumor I picked up from some of my trading buddies here.”

“Rumors travel fast.”

“Well that matters where your ears are, but in my case I like to know what’s happening, being interested in rumors has made me a lot of trades I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Seems like listening to rumor is half my job some days.”

“Yes, I am,” replied Rock quickly.

“I’d like to make it down to the central Waste myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve been there and my itchy palms tell me I’ve got some opportunities wait’n but I want someone to travel with, for safety you know.”

“You seem plenty armed.”

“Well, that’s just it. You see, a man can only shoot one bullet at a time and guns and dusters is valuable. Some people think it’d be easier to steal the products I have managed to acquire with my hard work and sacrifice than to trade for it. And these people, as you seem to rightfully know, don’t care one bit about whether they leave you dead or alive when it’s all over. I’d like someone else by my side, at least while I’m sleeping on the side of the trail.”

“Won’t work,” Rock said and shook his head. “We have two horses and two people. We’re traveling light and fast, at least as fast as the girl can handle. Your wagon and goods would slow us down.”

“I don’t ask for ya’ to slow down for me, if I can’t keep up with your pace then by the sun go ahead and leave me behind, that’s my problem. But don’t be surprised if at the end of the day my wagon pulls into camp. I can move it fast. Ah’ keep my horses well fed and cared for and there ain’t nothing they like more than a vigorous days walk.”

Rock looked over the shotgun and a rifle sitting on the seat near Lewis. They were both good guns and would keep him fed and protected on the trail. On top of that, perhaps Caroline would stop talking with him and spend her time with Lewis. They both seemed like talkers.

“OK. But we’re leaving in less than a couple of hours. Be ready by then.”

“I’m ready now Mr. Rock and I’ll be just as ready in a couple hours too. Give me a shout when you’re heading.”

Rock nodded to Lewis then wandered off to find Caroline. He was hungry. It was time to eat.

 

Chapter 6

I Can’t be your Hope

Rock took a brass bullet casing from his pocket and handed it to the woman behind the breakfast line in the square. Empty shell casings, the brass portion of a bullet that holds the powder, were the basic unit of currency in The Waste. A single bullet casing would pay for more than a large meal in most places and Rock had refrained from trading a handful of casings from the bandit’s trove for just this purpose.

Like sunkeepers, night-boxes and machina, the people in The Waste were unable to manufacture more shell casings. Manufacturing the brass for the shells wasn’t difficult from what Rock had heard. There were at least a handful of places in The Waste where brass manufacturing was being done, but they still lacked the ability to form that brass into the proper caliber sizes to fit into the barrels of various guns without backfiring or blocking the barrel. Since they were yet to discover how to manufacture their own brass casings naturally there was a limited number of quality casings available in The Waste. In other words, there was scarcity.

This scarcity, combined with the value that came with having a bullet and the ability to fire it, provided value and this was the reason empty brass casings had become such a commonly used form of currency in The Waste.

The woman inspected the casing Rock handed her. It wasn’t in the best condition. From a look at its neck, the area of the casing that would take the largest shock each time it was fired, it looked to have less than 4-5 possible shots left in it until it would eventually have to be melted down. But the value of four to five more shots in The Waste was still well over the value of a plate of breakfast and the women nodded and handed Rock a plate of traveling food, high in energy, low in taste.

Rock scanned the square looking for a place to eat. On the way to a grassy spot nearby he heard Caroline’s voice coming from inside a closed tent. She was speaking softly. The other voice in the conversation sounded like Nikki, the girl who had found Caroline earlier that morning.

“Have you heard anything new about the orchards?” asked Caroline.

“Thomas, my father’s friend, got back two nights ago. He was a part of the group left behind to cover the main tribe. He said the orchards are gone, they burned every last tree in the days following the attack.”

Caroline gasped.

“Why?”

“Because they’re animals!” said Nikki.

“But the orchards, they were beautiful, they were going to feed so many of us! Why would they not want to keep them?”

“No one knows why. Thomas says they don’t want the orchards, they want the people. Having orchards in The Waste gives anyone willing to fight back something to eat, and that makes them strong.”

“They destroyed them just to starve us?” asked Caroline.

“Some say so.”

“Have you heard from your father or brother?” asked Caroline. There was a long pause. Rock heard sniffling.

“No. Not since the night before the attack.”

“They might still be alive!” said Caroline.

“They’re not. No one missing has been heard from.”

“I’m so sorry, Nikki.”

“Caroline, I’m scared. I don’t want you to go. The tribe has been different ever since it happened. I don’t even want to leave my tent in the morning. I know if I do all I am going to hear are stories about how bad things are about to get.”

“They could get better too. My father has sent messengers to the other major tribes for help. Some of them will send help, surely.”

“None of the messengers that came back have any good news. Most of them don’t believe us and the ones that do say it’s our problem.”

“It won’t be just our problem much longer,” said Caroline quietly.

“Everyone says you’re our only hope. Do you really think you will get through the Wall-without-Walls?”

“You can’t count on me, Nikki. I can’t be your hope. No one’s ever got through the wall. We don’t even know what the people on the other side are like. By the sun, we don’t even know if there are people on the other side.”

“I hope there are, and I hope you get through and I hope whoever is on the other side has a million guns and fire dusters and I hope they kill those monsters. And I hope it all happens before those monsters kill us!”

“Me too Nikki. I’ll do my best to get through. But no matter what happens to me you have to promise to take care of yourself. Keep your horse close by and always have your bag packed. You don’t know when you will have to move next, always be ready.”

“I’m going to miss you, Caroline.”

“I’ll miss you to Nikki. Don’t give up, we might still see each other again.”

Rock heard the sound of soft crying inside the tent. After a moment the flap opened and Caroline and Nikki walked out. Both their eyes were red. When Caroline saw Rock she rubbed her eyes and spoke.

“I’ll be ready to leave in an hour.”

Rock nodded and scooped up a spoon full of the food off his plate and put it in his mouth. Not only was it bad, but now it was cold. Rock watched Caroline walk away. Every day brought another question about who she was. Rock couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was more to this Caroline then simply being a chief’s daughter after all.

 

 

Chapter 7

You Say the Strangest Things

They left the Drenian camp less than an hour later. As they were riding away Caroline had refused to look back at the few members of the camp that had come to see her off. Nikki had been there, and her father’s assistant as well, but mostly the Drenian just went about their own business, oblivious of the fact their chief’s daughter was likely leaving for good. Maybe they just realized it had happened before and she had found her way back then so what was the worry now?

Lewis seemed happy to be on the road. Traveling merchants were an interesting lot. They made their living alone on the trail just like other Indi Wanderers like Rock, but they did so by trading materials with the average tribesman they came in contact with. This meant that unlike most wandering Indies the traveling merchants like Lewis tended to be far more talkative when the opportunity allowed. Lewis was no exception. Since the moment they had left the camp he had been singing songs and telling stories from the front seat of his covered wagon. Rock didn’t care to listen and even Caroline kept her responses short. She might make a good Indi, thought Rock with the smallest hint of a smile.

Rock thought about the trail ahead. He was expecting the journey to the central Waste to take three weeks. Rock had enough bullets to provide food for them on their journey and with Lewis the Fire Duster and his gun filled wagon they certainly had enough firepower to keep them safe from all but the most motivated bandits. Rock didn’t know how long Lewis would be able to keep up with the pace of their horses. Throughout the first day he did well enough. Lewis had told the truth about his horses, they did seem to enjoy life on the road.

The biggest thought on Rock’s mind that first day was his suit of dragon armor underneath his traveling cloak. He was frustrated he had been able to give it so little attention over the last few days.

Even with his five newfound books, Rock’s dragon skin armor was the most valuable thing he owned. In all honesty, it was likely the most valuable thing he would ever own. A set of dragon skin was probably the single most valuable object in The Waste. By selling a set of dragon armor a man could feed himself and a family for most of his life. This value was due in part to its rarity and in part to the role it played in keeping its wearer safe from almost any mode of attack.

No one knew for sure how dragon armor was made. All known sets had been passed down over the years from person to person. The armor was comprised of hundreds of circular metallic discs laced together with thin metal wire. The way the discs were attached, by partially overlapping over other discs, allowed the armor to fit comfortably and allowed the wearer a great deal of flexibility. The metal was light and intensely strong. Rock had yet to meet a man that had any idea of what it was made from. It had the strength of the metal referred to as iron, but it was light, light like tin. Wanderers had taken to calling the metal, dragon’s foil, but that was just a colloquial term, no one knew the real word.

Ever since Rock had been shot by the bandits that had kidnapped Caroline he had wanted to take off his armor and check it for damage. Dragon skin was the strongest armor in The Waste, but it wasn’t invincible. Even dragon foil scales could break off when enough force was mustered and after each shot it was important to take the armor off and check it for damage. Rock hadn’t been able to do that however because ever since he’d been shot he had been with other people, and the number one rule regarding dragon skin armor was that you never let another person know you had it.

Unlike more bulky types of body armor worn in The Waste dragon armor was easy to hide underneath your clothing. Since it was made with flexible joints of scales it moved like fabric, allowing the wearer to pull it aside in places and show his bare chest to other Wanderers when they first met, something that couldn’t be done with the more popular forms of plate armor some people wore. All in all, dragon skin was the very tops in terms of personal protection and the ability to hide its presence.

As a result, the value of the armor was so great that Rock had heard rumors of groups of men whose only purpose in life was to hunt down sets of dragon armor and take them from the owners. While dragon armor would do a damn good job at protecting a man in The Waste, it wasn’t foolproof. One man in armor didn’t have much of a chance against a team of men trained in taking down men in dragon armor. Rock couldn’t afford the risk of notifying these men, called “dragon hunters,” of his identity. Because of that instead of carefully inspecting his armor, he simply sat atop his horse and thought about it instead.

Rock was tired of worrying about something he couldn’t change. Eventually, he would be able to sit down and inspect his armor. Until then it would stay hidden and out of sight beneath his traveling cloak, where it was meant to be in the first place.

 

__________

 

They were walking over a short mountain pass later that first day when Rock approached Caroline. Like Rock, she had dismounted from her horse to both lighten its load as they summited the trail, as well as to stretch her own legs. Caroline had been quiet all day and Rock hadn’t seen her look backwards once. Whatever Caroline was thinking it seemed clear to Rock that she was committed to it, or at least, she was committed to Rock believing she was.

“May I ask you a question?” Rock asked Caroline while leading his horse by the reins.

“You don’t seem like the question sort.”

“I do prefer to listen more than talk, but sometimes you need to tell a person what you prefer to listen to.”

“You say the strangest things,” said Caroline.

“Ok,” replied Rock.

“Ask your question,” said Caroline.

“Why is your tribe in the Western Waste? Last I heard the Drenian were strong in the east. What benefit do you get in leaving behind your travel lands, your history, and your orchards?”

Rock watched Caroline closely after he said the word “orchards.” Just like he had expected, her face filled with a sudden burst of sadness, then converted to a stone-like stare looking ahead. Caroline didn’t answer.

Rock didn’t respond either. He knew the way this game was played. Caroline wanted to talk, she just didn’t know she did. By interrupting her thought process Rock would be changing the situation, perhaps he would accidentally send the conversation into a place where Caroline decided she didn’t want to talk any more. So Rock stayed silent, leading his horse behind him next to Caroline without saying a word. The next five minutes were accompanied by nothing more than the clopping of horse’s hooves over the rocky trail and the distant sound of Lewis singing a song about a goat at some point on the trail behind them.

Finally, Caroline broke the silence.

“We never saw it coming. Three weeks ago in the middle of the night our camp was attacked by hundreds, maybe thousands of men on horseback. All they had were bows and arrows. But they weren’t the type of bows that Wanderers use. Their bows shot arrows so powerfully that I saw one go straight through the body of my favorite horse like there had been almost nothing in the arrow’s path. Each man could fire arrow after arrow from the back of his horse while riding at full speed. Every time an arrow was fired it seemed like one of my tribesmen fell. Each man had a pack on his back holding many arrows, far more arrows per man than my tribe had in bullets.

“We were startled at first, but we managed to organize a resistance. Our line of firepower slowed them down and our bullets killed over a hundred, then two hundred, then three hundred, but they didn’t slow down at all. It was like they knew that we only had so many bullets, and they only had to wait until we were out to slaughter us completely.

“My father organized a retreat. He ordered the men with guns to cover the rear of our tribe as we ran. We ran to the mountains where their horses couldn’t follow. When we got there we set up a wall to stop the invaders from following after us. They never came. No one came, not even the men that had stayed behind to cover our retreat.”

“Who were they? Another tribe? Have you had quarrels with any other tribe in the past?” asked Rock.

“Sure, here and there. Occasionally blood has been shed between the Drenian and other tribes, the Swaebee, the Tutin. But this was different. This wasn’t about a quarrel. This was about annihilation, full, complete annihilation. If we hadn’t of made it to the mountains that night the Drenian tribe would have been wiped out to a man. They had no intention of letting any of us live. In spite of successfully retreating to the mountains, we still lost over half of our membership including most of our fighting force as well as the large majority of our guns and fire dusters.”

“Have you heard anything since then?” asked Rock.

“Yes, there was a large family that lived north of us that was attacked that same night. All of them were slaughtered. There were over fifty members and they all had guns. The members of other tribes said they heard the firing of hundreds of fire dusters that evening before silence finally came.”

“Who are they then?”

“No one knows. In the eastern Waste, we border the lands of grass where there is nothing but grass as high as a horse’s belly for as far as the eye can see. They came from somewhere in there.”

“How could men with bows and arrows be so fierce to men with guns and fire dusters?” asked Rock.

“I wouldn’t have understood myself if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. The way they ride their horses they are almost one with the animal. Each bump and jostle of the horse is anticipated and planned for by the rider and adjusts when he fires his arrows as to ensure that each shot finds its target. When he fires his arrows they are shot with the force of a spear, I saw more than one arrow shatter wagon wheels and drop horses and they each have so many arrows, far more arrows than we have fire dusters. All of that combined with an unexpected attack made by thousands of these men leaves little chance of a worthwhile defense. When I think back on it we were just lucky we got out alive with the people we did. We dodged a fire duster that night.”

“Or an arrow,” said Rock quietly. Caroline narrowed her eyes at him.

“We had lands we were improving. We had orchards of sweet fruit we were trading with other Wanderers. We even had some permanent buildings some of our tribe members inhabited all year. They burned it all, the orchards, the buildings, and the people. The only thing they didn’t burn were the stables, so they had somewhere to put their horses besides the grassy plains.”

“What is your tribe going to do in the west?”

“My father sent ambassadors to the other tribes in The Waste to inform them of the danger we faced. At first they were not believed, then other tribes began to tell similar stories. Now there seems to be an equal mixture of disbelief and fighting with each other over what to do. From what I heard the only people the tribes in the east aren’t fighting with are the invaders, who when they show up just cause the tribes they are invading to run. My father doesn’t know what to do. He says the tribes of The Waste will be gone in less than a year if something isn’t done…

“Somewhere out there is a new enemy, and they want nothing more than our complete destruction, the destruction of every Wanderer man, woman, and child.”

“And that is why you are being sent to the Wall-without-Walls?” asked Rock.

“My father says it’s our only hope.”

 

Chapter 8

Showing Death was the Man’s Job

The next few days passed uneventfully. The same pattern emerged day after day. Rock and Caroline would get up at the break of dawn to find Lewis and his horses had already left camp. They would eat a small breakfast around the fire and start riding shortly after. After a few hours, Caroline and Rock would usually catch up to Lewis and his brightly painted yellow and blue wagon as he rolled over the dirty, rocky trail. He was almost always singing as he traveled and taking small sips from a flask near his side on the wagon bench. His songs seemed to always be either about girls he had left behind or farm animals, especially goats. If Rock had been an inquisitive person he might have ventured to ask a question or two, but instead he and Caroline merely nodded at Lewis and passed him up day after day.

After another few hours of riding, they would begin to look for a place to bed down for the night. The most important things they looked for were water and grass for the horses. Most places they slept had an abundance of both. A couple of hours after Rock and Caroline had set up their camp Lewis would come rolling into camp singing the same songs and drinking from the same flask. He never seemed to be any more drunk no matter how late in the evening he arrived and he never seemed to be any less quiet either. Caroline had started referring to Lewis’s flask as “the goat” when she and Rock were alone on the trail. Rock quietly chuckled the first time she did so. At least, it made his songs make sense.

The fifth day on the trail things went a bit differently. Lewis had a cage of carrier pigeons in his wagon he used to send messages. Rock had seen him send one of the birds out five days earlier when they had left the Drenian camp together. The bird had flown in the direction of the central Waste the moment Lewis had let it go. It hadn’t bothered Rock. It wasn’t uncommon for Fire Duster merchants like Lewis to notify people when he was coming to visit them, it was good for business.

The morning of the fifth day the birds seemed to be more agitated than usual. They had been up most of the night “cooing” from inside the wagon. After he heard Lewis cursing the loud birds for the second time that night Rock had gotten up and found another place to sleep further away and quieter.

The next day when Rock and Caroline awoke Lewis had been gone as both expected. They were quiet as they ate and got ready for the day’s ride and once they were in the saddle they continued to ride just as quietly as they had eaten breakfast. Rock assumed Caroline had slept about as good as he had throughout the night of the loud pigeons and neither wished to talk.

It wasn’t just the cooing of the pigeons that had kept Rock up the night before. He had had a hard time sleeping because he couldn’t stop thinking about the Wall-without-Walls, his, and likely Caroline’s last, destination.

Rock had seen the Wall-without-Walls once before. It had been shortly after he had left the clan he had been raised with and taken off on his own as an Indi Wanderer. He heard his mother talk about the Wall-without-Walls as a child and Rock had always wanted to see it.

His mother had told him tales of the Wall-without-Walls. She had always been telling stories of it to him and the other children he had grown up with. She said it was a land of death where demons haunted and took the life of any Wanderer they found within. She said when you entered the Wall-without-Walls death was never more than the length of a hair away. She said when death found you it was in an instant, without warning or knowledge, one minute you were living, the next you were dead and your body rotted and decayed under the hot sun because there were no animals behind the Wall-without-Walls either, nothing lived there, but everything died.

When Rock had seen it for himself it had been with mixed emotions. It had been such a powerful place to his mother, a location where death awaited behind each blink of the eyes, yet to Rock what he had seen had simply looked empty. He had seen a vast empty plain that rose over a gradual hill until his eyes could no longer focus due to the distance. Apart from the occasional tree and boulder, the Wall-without-Walls seemed to hold nothing, at least, nothing but the remains of those that had foolishly, or purposefully, ventured into it to never come back out.

When Rock had first arrived at the border of the Wall years ago there was a man camped there who offered to show Rock the bodies of those that had died behind the Wall for the price of an empty fire duster shell. Rock had been young and curious and happily paid the price. The man handed Rock a glass lens that made it easier to see far distances and pointed out where Rock was supposed to look.

At first, Rock had seen nothing but an empty expanse of Waste in front of him. But then, after taking into account the instructions for where to look from the man Rock had managed to identify what appeared to be the remains of a human body. It was out of sight to the naked eye, too far away, but with the viewing tool he was using Rock was able to see it laying alone on The Waste. He could even see that whoever it was had been wearing a blue traveling cloak the last day of their life. The color of that blue traveling cloak had stayed with Rock for years afterward.

The man with the lenses told Rock there were more bodies, many more. He guided Rock for the next hour in a visual tour of the great expanse of The Waste behind the Wall-without-Walls. Before Rock was done he had come to believe his mother’s tales. Death was ever present behind the Wall. Rock had seen many, many bodies, some were so recent as to still have clothing on, other old and brittle, little more than dusty sun-bleached bones. The one thing they all had in common was they died alone. When Rock was done the man had taken his glass and his well-earned fire duster shell and handed the viewing glass to another Indi Wanderer that had arrived.

Showing death was the man’s job, nothing more. He did it for the price of a single shell.

Rock had wondered then what caused people most people to wander through the Wall-without-Walls. What possessed a person to cross the river that was the boundary of the Wall and walk out into a world full of unavoidable death? He had heard stories of heartbroken Wanderers walking straight into the Wall seeking a quick death and the hope they were leaving the world a memory in someone’s mind, perhaps someone’s heart. But Rock still didn’t understand the reasons.

He couldn’t understand why Caroline would want to leave the world this way. Why not, at least, stay behind and fight with your tribe? Why sacrifice it all to a mysterious death in a land without life?

Rock had been quiet most of the morning with these thoughts.

Then Caroline had called to him quickly.

They were on a mountain trail overlooking a valley below. Crossing the valley was the familiar yellow and blue painted wagon they had gotten so used to seeing. Lewis wasn’t far below. At this pace, they would catch him in the next hour.

Crossing the valley below Caroline pointed out to Rock a small handful of men riding horses quickly. They were riding in the direction of Lewis but by the time he saw them it would be too late.

“That’s them Rock! The same men that attacked my tribe!”

Rock couldn’t make out much from where they were above the valley floor below. Lewis was, at least, a mile ahead of them on the trail and a couple hundred feet below them in elevation.

There were five men on horseback and they were riding quickly for Lewis’s wagon. They were still over a mile away from him. Rock thought about how to respond.

“Are you comfortable shooting a rifle?” Rock asked Caroline. She nodded quickly.

“Yes, I’m accurate.”

“Follow me then!” said Rock and kicked his horse on. He and Caroline rode their horses quickly down from the trail above towards the valley below them. Each time they came over a bend in the trail they could see the five men getting closer and closer to Lewis’s wagon. It was a race against time. Rock only hopped the intruders below didn’t know there was someone else in the race.

By the time they reached the valley floor below Rock could see Lewis’s wagon in front of them. There was still no sign of any attack. They continued to ride quickly. Meanwhile, Rock pulled the .22 rifle from his saddlebag and handed it to Caroline without slowing down. She took it while bouncing on the back of her horse without a break in speed. She might be some help, after all, thought Rock.

With each second Lewis’s wagon grew closer and closer. Rock hadn’t had the time to test his newly acquired horse for speed, but with a mile to go Rock figured he and Caroline would be to Lewis in less than 90 seconds of full speed riding. He continued to slap the reins and spur his horse forward. Rock motioned for Caroline to take cover behind a bluff ahead just short of Lewis’s wagon.

“The rifle has a long range, stay out of the range of their arrows!” Rock shouted to Caroline. She nodded. When they got to the bluff Caroline pulled her horse back. It took a bit for her to slow the momentum down but eventually her horse stopped, unhappy about letting Rock and his mount continue full speed for the last 100 yards or so, to Lewis.

Lewis must have heard Caroline and Rock coming because his wagon was stopped on the trail ahead. His head poked over the top of the wagon’s covered top and he saw Rock riding full speed towards him with both his revolvers drawn and Caroline dismounted from her horse 100 yards back getting in firing position with a rifle.

Before Lewis could think through what was happening and why his traveling companions were apparently deciding to attack him at full speed a massive thump followed by a crash filled his ears and shook his wagon. Three arrows had slammed into the wooden supports of his wagon within a half a second of each other. The arrows had splintered the wood near where Lewis had been sitting just an instant before. Without taking time to survey the damage Lewis took action and pulled a shotgun from the back of his wagon.

“You sons of the dark!” shouted Lewis and he began to quickly fire his shotgun towards the five horse-mounted riders with bows drawn bearing down on him.

Rock kept riding. Both his revolvers were out and pointing towards the attackers. Before he had time to fire Rock heard the crack of a small caliber rifle from behind him. An instant later the lead rider tumbled from his horse.

Caroline!

The other four riders appeared to waiver, deciding whether or not they wanted to ride directly into three people and four guns now that their leader was dead. The adrenaline must have been stronger than the risk of death in their assessment because the wavering didn’t last long and momentarily all four riders were once again riding full speed towards Lewis. Luckily for Lewis, that moment of thought gave Rock enough time to get into range with his two revolvers. As his horse rushed past Lewis and his stationary wagon Rock pulled both triggers on his outstretched hands. He fired three times, twice with his left hand and once with his right. A single rider fell. Shooting revolvers from a horse was not an easy task.

They were getting closer now, only 40 yards from the three remaining attackers and growing closer by the second and Rock had lost the element of surprise. The attackers, who seconds before had been focused on Lewis and the treasures he held in his wagon, were now focusing on this strange cloaked figure with a revolver in each hand riding towards them shouting like a madman.

Another gunshot from behind him and a third rider dropped from his horse. Just two left. Lewis must have spurred his horses onward towards the fight ahead of him. He must have realized that a moving target was harder to hit than a still target, even if that moving target was moving closer to the one firing the arrows.

An arrow ripped by Rock’s head, splitting the air with a high-pitched whistle where Rock’s head had been only moments before. The sound from the rushing arrow almost knocked Rock off his horse in surprise. Caroline was right, these were not like any bow Rock had ever seen shot before. He looked up from where he was riding low on his horse and pointed both his revolvers at one of the last two riders. They were getting so close now that Rock could make out their facial features. He saw the way their faces remained as unmoving as stone when they pulled their notched arrows back. He saw the thrill on their faces when their arrows released and flew through the air at speeds close to that of a fire duster.

Rock did what he could to hold his guns still as he took aim at one of the last two men. It was a standoff on horses. Rock had the man in his sights with both barrels but the man was pointing his bow at Rock at the same time. Rock fired both his guns in unison. Smoke shot from the barrels and escaped into the blue sky above. Rock saw the man knocked backward from his horse with the force of a hammer.

Then Rock felt the same hammer’s force.

No, it was the force of ten hammers.

Rock was blasted backwards from his horse. He felt like his chest had exploded from within. The force was far stronger that what he had felt just days before at the bandit’s trap. This felt like every rib in his chest had been crushed under the pressure of the arrow. He heard the explosion of the wood shaft as it broke into a hundred pieces at the pressure of the collision.

Then he hit the ground and closed his eyes. But before he drifted away he heard one last gunshot and the sound of running footsteps.

 

Chapter 9

The Force of Ten Hammers

Rock felt like he had a bear sitting on his chest. He attempted to breathe in and out evenly, but the ache inside him brought on more pain than he wanted to think about each time he tried. He was laying down. At least he knew that. He heard the sound of a fire crackling near him. He could hear singing, a man’s deep voice singing some song about a mule.

Rock tried to sit up. His chest ached. Before he could move more than an inch he felt a soft hand on his shoulder, skin against skin, gently pushing him back down.

“Stay, you don’t need to get up, not yet,” said a beautiful voice. The voice was soft and familiar, was it the voice of his mother?

Rock laid back down. He listened to the singing from far away. He felt the cool night air play over his body on one side while the warmth of the fire warmed him from the other. His skin was open to the elements, his cloak was off and he was laying on the floor.

He could feel both the cool air and the warm fire.

Rock knew that wasn’t a good thing. Something about being bare-skinned left him vulnerable, but Rock’s head was too clouded to make sense of it. Rock felt those same soft hands raise his head a bit. The cold metal of a drinking cup was pushed between his lips. He drank. It was bitter, but as he drank the cold on his bare chest went away.

His bare chest?

Where was his armor?

Then Rock fell back to sleep.

 

Chapter 10

Pennies and Pounds

“Good morning,” Caroline said. She handed Rock a cup with a strange smelling greenish brown liquid in it and helped him sit up to drink it. Rock looked at the liquid questioningly.

“It will help with the pain. You should be able to ride today, but it’s gonna hurt unless we do something about it.” Rock grunted and drank it. It tasted foul.

“At this point I think it’s going to hurt if I drink anything shy of arsenic.”

Rock looked at the campsite around him. The first thing he noticed was that Lewis’s wagon was nowhere to be seen. The second thing he noticed was the sun was higher in the sky than he expected. The third thing he noticed and the most shocking of all was that Rock wasn’t wearing his Dragon Skin armor.

“Where’s my armor!” he shouted. Rock sat up quickly and instantly regretted it. Pain rocked his body, especially his chest.

“It’s in your saddle bags.” I needed the armor off to deal with your wound. You’ve had poultices on it since you were shot. You would be surprised at how much the bruising has gone down.”

Rock looked at his chest. It was one large, deep, purple bruise; the color of mashed blueberries on a leather tunic. In the middle of the bruise was an even darker colored section where the outline of the dragon skin armor could be made out.

“What happened?” asked Rock.

Caroline reminded him of the fight.

“We killed all five of the invaders. Lewis thought you were dying and took their clothing and horses with him and left us. I insisted he leave one of the bows and a set of arrows behind. I thought they might be useful.”

“Where did he go?”

“He left camp two days ago, the morning after the fight. I don’t know where.”

“I’ve been passed out for two days!”

“Almost three. For the first day I was scared you weren’t going to make it. I can only imagine how hard that arrow hit you. Lewis and I can’t even pull the bows back all the way.”

“My armor?”

“It’s Ok. I’ve never seen anything like it. The metal where the arrow hit is bent a little, but nothing got through. That arrow would have ripped you in half if you wouldn’t have had the armor on, trust me, I’ve seen it happen.”

“I had no idea anything could hit like that.”

“Welcome to the new Waste, same as the old one but with faster arrows,” said Caroline. She took Rock’s armor from his saddle bags and handed it to him. It was light, he had gotten used to that. The metal felt cool to the touch on his hands. He held it up in the afternoon sunlight and inspected it. He could see where the arrow had hit, there was a slight dent in the scale the arrow had connected with, but all in all the armor seemed to be in good shape. Rock hadn’t had his armor off in a long time and now that he had it in his hands he didn’t feel rushed to put it back on.

Rock continued to look over the undershirt of dragon armor. Even with the newly dented scale, the armor was in good shape, better shape than most other dragon armor he had seen, well, he had only seen one other set, on a tribe leader in the western Waste, but Rock’s armor was in much better shape.

There was only one place on his armor where the scales were loose. Rock absentmindedly touched the lower left side of the dragon armor, the area that would be over his kidney. The scale there was loose and would hang sideways off the armor if you weren’t careful and got hit in it. Rock tapped the area of the armor, the scale didn’t move. He hit it harder and the scale he had been looking at dropped and twisted, hanging sideways from where it had been previously, leaving a small opening through the armor. Rock had tried to fix it but the metal used to hold the plate to the armor had rusted leaving the single scale in a permanent state of disrepair.

It wasn’t that important. The flawed scale wasn’t located on the front of his armor where bullets, or arrows apparently, were likely to hit. Rock had a rule to never show an enemy his side or back anyway; always just the chest.

“Did Lewis see the armor?” asked Rock.

Caroline nodded.

Rock swore under his breath.

“How soon after I was hit did he leave camp?” he knew she had already told him but his head was still groggy and he couldn’t remember the answer.

“The morning after. He was in a hurry. I asked him to stay and help protect you, but he claimed to have a meeting he couldn’t miss.”

“Did you see him release any messenger pigeons?” asked Rock. Caroline nodded.

“He said he was letting the people nearby know to send some help for us.”

“Damn that traitor!” shouted Rock. His chest ached with the sudden emotion.

“What?” asked Caroline.

“We have to leave now,” said Rock and tried sitting up. It was difficult. He tried again, this time with more success.

“You need more rest. We can leave later this afternoon.”

“We don’t have time. Within twenty-four hours this camp is going to be crawling with Dragon Hunters. Neither of us want to be around when they get here.”

“Dragon Hunters? What is this, a god-damed fairy tale!” said Caroline. It seemed like Rock wasn’t the only angry one here.

Rock shook his head and took a deep breath.

“There are men that want the armor. The bird Lewis sent notified them where we were. These men do nothing but travel The Waste searching for body armor just like that,” said Rock and pointed to his armor. “The armor is incredibly valuable, you can see how well it does its job and there is a limited amount of it in The Waste. They won’t bat an eye over killing me and you to get a hold of the armor. Killing people and taking their body armor is all these men do, day after day, year after year. And as you can see I am not necessarily in the best condition to fight back.”

“Then why don’t we just leave the armor here for them to find? Wouldn’t they leave us alone afterward?”

“Perhaps, but why would I want to give them my armor? I’ve grown rather fond of it. And even if I did leave it there is no guarantee they would find it first, if someone else did they wouldn’t know it and they would keep following us until they found us, learned we didn’t have the armor anymore then kill us out of spite.”

“If this armor is so valuable how did you get it?”

“I shouldn’t have valuable things because I am an Indi?”

“No, but how would you get something like this armor?”

“I won it in a bet.”

“A bet?”

“A bet. Stop asking.”

“I can’t believe Lewis would betray you like that. You saved his life.”

“First, Lewis is a lying, selfish scum. He would likely trade his own mother if it fattened his pocketbook enough, most of them would. He is simply doing what his life code tells him to do, gather wealth. Secondly, from what I recall, I only killed two of them. Would I be wrong to guess you killed the other three?”

Caroline blushed. Then she nodded, understandably proud of what she had done.

“I was only worried during the first shot, after that, it seemed more natural to me. It’s the first time I’ve even shot a man.”

“I hope it’s the last time too, that is unless you’re into that sort of thing, if so then have fun I guess. Plenty of well-deserving targets in The Waste. Hitting a moving target from that distance is impressive anytime it happens, to hit three for three in less than ten seconds is even more so. Why don’t you carry the rifle with you from now on? I think you use it better than I do.”

“My father always told me a rifle was a woman’s gun,” she said.

“I don’t know what that means, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable arguing with a woman who felt that way.”

Caroline laughed. She was happy Rock was feeling better. The Waste had been even drearier without his dour face and mono-syllabic thoughts over the last couple of days.

Rock took a deep breath then looked at Caroline.

“Why did you stay with me?”

“You don’t leave people behind on the trail. It’s not the Drenian way. Anyway, you saved me earlier; it’s only fair I repaid the debt.”

Rock was uncomfortable at that thought.

She was right, he had saved her before, but he hadn’t done it intentionally. He hadn’t known Caroline was a captive when he stormed the bandits camp. He hadn’t gone out of his way and risked his life then, at least not for her. But that is what she did for him. At some point, Caroline had looked at his unconscious form and at Lewis’s wagon and made a decision. She had chosen to stay with him.

Rock wasn’t sure how comfortable he felt about it.

He lived the life of an Indi. It was him against the world. Rock liked it that way. He did what he wanted when he wanted, how he wanted. No one slowed him down. His world wasn’t a partnership, it was a road and as far as he cared he was the only one on it.

“So what’s the plan?” asked Caroline.

Rock cleared his mind of uncomfortable thoughts and responded.

“We start back on the trail. There is a trail on the other side of this valley. We beat the Dragon Hunters there and lose them on the side trail. They know our destination and they will be looking for us anywhere between here and the central Waste. We avoid major roads and stick to the single wide trails. Our trip just became slower and more dangerous.”

“In for a penny in for a pound,” said Caroline.

“I have no idea what that means,” said Rock. “What the hell is a penny?”

“It means risk is risk. As far as I know it’s just a made up word. It probably has something to do with risk, if it didn’t the saying wouldn’t make sense now would it?”

Rock wasn’t thinking about pennies or pounds anymore, he was thinking about another type of risk, one far closer to home.

“What are you thinking?” asked Caroline.

“I’m wondering how many invaders are here. That was just a scouting party. That means a major army is not far behind.”

“Plus the Dragon Hunters?” asked Caroline.

“Pennies and pounds,” said Rock and shrugged.

Chapter 11

In the Shadow of the Trees

It took them just over a day to get out of the valley during which time both Rock and Caroline were on constant lookout for Dragon Hunters as well as members of the invading horse archers’ whose tribal name they had yet to learn. As they reached the far end of the empty valley they came to a large forest pressed up against the grassland. In the shadow of the forest trees, they saw the campfires of a small tribe.

Rock wanted to avoid the campfires, he had no way to ensure they were not the fires of the invading tribe, but Caroline said she recognized the tribal standard of a friendly tribe known for traveling this area of The Waste called the Cimbri. They were growing low on food and Caroline thought it would be a good time to do some trading as well as get information on what was going on in this part of The Waste. After a short discussion, she was able to get Rock to agree with her though it was more due to his fatigue than anything else. Rock decided to stay back and let Caroline do the talking. She had met with the Cimbri before and claimed to be on good terms with them.

Caroline and Rock approached the tribe loudly under the quickly darkening dusk sky. To approach a tribe in silence would be a sign of bad intentions for many tribes. It was always better to make sure you were clearly heard. The sound of the tribes evening activities grew silent as they drew closer. A few men on the outskirts of the tents motioned Rock and Caroline to halt as they walked out to approach them.

As was standard between Wanderers on The Waste the first thing the men did was bare their chests to the travelers. Rock and Caroline returned the gesture. Caroline looked quickly at Rock, worried he would have trouble adequately hiding the dragon skin armor he was wearing. It was an unnecessary worry, Rock had long ago mastered the art of bearing his chest to strangers while keeping his body armor hidden. He was taking a risk every time he did so considering the entire purpose for the action was to show that you were unprotected by armor, but it was a risk Rock had grown so used to that he rarely gave it a second thought.

When the tribal guards were sufficiently convinced Rock and Caroline meant no harm they approached closer and waited for both to get down from their horses. They both did so. Only once their chests had been bared and they had dismounted from their horses did the level of celebration and discussion around the fire continue. Someone started singing and the rest of the group laughed and listened. The guards that had stopped Rock and Caroline smiled and motioned for them to follow them into their camp.

The smell of freshly cooked meat floated through the air, the people seemed happy. They were led to a tent larger than the rest in the camp and after a moment of waiting they were motioned to enter.

There was a large lantern sitting in the middle of the tent illuminating the inside, and the interior of the tent was better lit than the early evening sky outside. Sitting at a table was an old man. Caroline bowed her head to him then approached.

“Chief Tarrow. I am Caroline, daughter of Kaleb, chief of the Drenian tribe, a brother tribe to the Cimbri, thank you for allowing me into your camp.”

“Welcome Caroline the Drenian, what can I do for you?”

“My servant and I are on a journey ordered by my father to the central Waste. We were recently attacked by a foreign tribe two days journey from here over the valley. We killed all five of the attackers and have made it here, but we are tired and hungry for food, rest and words. Will you gift us food?”

“As long as my table is full so shall be yours,” said the man at the table solemnly.

“Will you gift us rest?” asked Caroline.

“As long as I am protected in sleep so shall you be within my camp,” he said.

“Will you gift us words?”

“Until my breath fails,” said the Chief.

At this last statement, Caroline smiled and the chief motioned both Caroline and Rock to sit down at his table. He called a pitcher of washing water to be brought as well as a pitcher of wine. They were only alone with the wine a moment before two large plates of freshly cooked food were brought before them. The tribe member who brought the plates of food pointed out the different choices on each plate. There was fresh Elk from the forest as well as a mashed root vegetable seasoned with herbs and spices also from the forest as well as a small wooden bowl of light seasoned broth. Compared to the dried meat and berries they have been eating for the last week it was a veritable feast.

“Tell me, daughter of my Chief Brother, what brings you to this part of The Waste?”

Caroline told her tribe’s story, at least as far as Rock understood it. She spoke of the attack on the Drenian by the invading horse archers and the consequent retreat and travels of her people. She told him she was being sent to the Wall-without-Walls as a sacrifice that would hopefully bring an end to the invasion. When she was finished she looked at Chief Tarrow and waited. His face was somber at the news he had heard. He took a piece of elk meat and dipped it into his broth and chewed slowly before responding.

“You bring hard news Caroline daughter of Kaleb.”

“I do,” said Caroline softly. “The men who attacked us on the trail were of the same tribe that invaded my people in the east Waste. I fear they are moving quickly across the ground on their horses and with their bows.”

“It is true, these horsemen do move quickly. We have found them in our forest for weeks. Every time we find them we kill them, their horses and bows do them little good in our forests, but I have been told by others that they are able to rain destruction on the open plain.”

“It is true Chief Tarrow,” said Caroline.

“And you servant, were you hit by one of these bowmen?”

Rock looked up from his food. He was caught off guard by the question but quickly made up for it.

“It was a glancing blow only Chief. Anything else and I would be dead.”

“As I have seen. Their arrows have found their occasional mark, even in our forests, and the resulting carnage is great.”

“Yes, it is,” said Rock.

“Do you have knowledge of their movements?” asked Caroline.

“I do not. They seem to have only sent small bands of men so far. It is no worry for those of us who live out lives in the shadows of the trees.”

“You are safe in the trees, it is true. But I saw these men destroy half my tribe. They fight with the fury of an angry bear. They do not conquer for land or wealth, they conquer for one reason, to bring death on as many Wanders as they can. If they kill we Wanderers who live in the plain I assure you they will come for those in the forests next, even if they have to cut down every tree in the forest, as they did to the orchards of the Drenian.”

“You may be correct and when that time comes we will fight them. But not until then, for they will not send their armies to our forests and our forests is where we fight.”

“Chief Tarrow, may I ask you a question?” asked Rock.

“You may.”

“Have you seen a Fire Duster bring his wagon through here recently? He calls himself Lewis.”

“The man you spoke to passed through our camp yesterday. He traded fire dusters with our hunters as well as three horses and three bows with me.”

“These horses and bows were taken from the attackers my servant and I killed in the valley while saving this traitor’s life. The Fire Duster you have traded with did not fire a single bullet that found its mark yet he chose to take their horses and bows while I was caring for my harmed servant. Is he still in your camp?” said Caroline.

“This is unfortunate to hear. I am sad to tell you he has left our camp. Would you accept my help in tracking him down? I could provide you with five hunters. With a fast enough pace you may overtake him tomorrow.”

Rock and Caroline looked at one another. There was no real reason to track Lewis down. The harm he had done was too late to revoke yet there was something just in the idea of collecting, at least, the payment Lewis had made from the stolen merchandise. Plus, traveling with five hunters from the Cimbri tribe would make the roads far safer for them as long as they had them. Rock nodded to Caroline who in turn spoke to the chief.

“We will gladly accept your offer of hunters as we gladly accept your hospitality this evening. Now let us speak no more of death tonight.”

“You will have all you ask for. I will provide the hunters and I will fill your bellies and I will protect you as long as you are within my camp,” said the chief and then raised his wine glass with a smile.

Rock and Caroline followed his example, with both the wine and the smile.

 

Chapter 12

SHIT

The next morning started early when a hunter of the Cimbri tribe opened Rock’s tent flap to introduce himself. His said his name was Julus and that he and his four hunters were ready to leave to hunt down the trader called Lewis. Rock woke Caroline and within 10 minutes they were packed up and on the trail.

The evening spent with the Cimbri had been beneficial for Rock. His chest was still one large bruise, but he could feel his body healing. Taking breaths was far easier in the morning than it had been the previous day and the full dinner had done wonders for his energy. All in all, Rock was excited to be back on the trail, especially at the thought of having five extra companions with him and hot on the trail of providing Lewis with some well-earned payback.

Unlike the Drenian, the Cimbri was not a modern tribe. Tribes like the Cimbri were called “Trads” by most of the Wanderers. A trad tribe was one that lived off hunting and gathering alone. They didn’t use suncatchers, night boxes or machina. As far as technology went, the only things trad tribes were interested in were guns and fire dusters, which they used in the very traditional ways of hunting and defense. They stuck mostly to forests or mountain terrain and rarely ventured into the more populated valleys and plains of The Waste. They would be safer for a longer period of time against the horse archers, but like Caroline had said, eventually even the forests would be cleared of all life if that is what the horse archer’s intended.

For being from a tribe that rarely left the cover of their forests Rock was surprised at how comfortable his Cimbri guides seemed while riding through the valley trails. They paid little attention to possible attacks or ambushes and mostly stuck together in a group of five ahead of Rock and Caroline setting a fast pace and laughing with one another.

They traveled for close to ten hours before Rock called for a halt. The Cimbri guides appeared agitated at the thought of stopping, but Rock was still sore and tired. And he was in no rush to catch Lewis anyway. The longer it took the longer the guides would be accompanying them and the longer they had traveling partners the longer Rock felt protected.

The next morning they were up before the sun and well on the trail by the time it began to rise over the mountains around them. By mid-morning they had risen above the valley floor on a trail that traversed some large stone mountains, mountains they had been looking at from the valley floor below the day before.

As they ascended the thin mountain trail the Cimbri hunters grew quieter and quieter. Rock wondered if they could tell if something was wrong or if perhaps they were just uncomfortable traversing a mountain with no tree cover. About 100 feet below the trail was a rushing river, cutting its way through the mountain rock.

On their way down the stone mountain their party turned a corner and into their view, just one hundred yards ahead was a wagon with a broken wheel, a yellow and blue wagon. Lewis’s wagon.

Lewis was sitting on a boulder when Rock and Caroline came into view. At first, he appeared happy to see another traveler then, upon noticing who it was his face lost the excitement. He got up and started to walk towards his wagon, but Rock pulled one of his revolvers and pointed them at him.

“Don’t move Lewis. My friend Chief Tarrow says you have some of our shells that you collected when you sold the goods we won.”

“Of course, of course! Come on over. I have it all. Just been keeping it safe for you, nothing more.” He continued walking towards his wagon.

“Don’t move!” shouted Rock again. Lewis stopped.

“I’ve got it in the wagon. Just need to get it, that’s all Rock. How you feeling anyway buddy, that was quite a shot you took.” Lewis took another step towards the wagon.

Rock fired his revolver. It hit the rock just in front of Lewis’s foot.

“Yes, it was quite a shot I took. Luckily I had a bit of help with it.”

“So I saw,” said Lewis. “That’s quite the toy you have boy. Mind if I ask how you got it?”

“Why’d you do it, Lewis?”

“What on earth do you mean, Rock?”

“Why’d you tell them? I’m within my rights to shoot you for what you did.”

“Now why would you think I’d go and do anything like that Rock. I’m your friend. You and I are traveling companions. Come help me get this wheel back on and we can get back on our journey,” Lewis said with a grin.

Rock was about to respond, with something witty he hoped when he heard a new voice shout. Then a second, then a third.

“Drop the gun. You know why we’re here. If you do what you say you might live.”

The wagon tent flap opened and out stepped two men. A third stepped out from behind a boulder further down the trail. The two men were wearing dark leather leggings and each held a rifle. When they stepped out of the dark of the covered wagon to the brightness of the sunlit mountainside Rock saw something glimmer on their shirts. No, something wasn’t glimmering on their shirts, it was their shirts itself that were glimmering. They each were wearing body armor. They each were wearing Dragon Skin armor.

The Dragon Skin they were wearing wasn’t in as good of condition as Rock’s. He could see multiple areas where scales had been lost over time, but it was still Dragon Skin armor, and it would stop any bullet Rock managed to fire at it. He looked back at the hunters of the Cimbri but before Rock could say anything to them the leader of the Dragon Hunters spoke to them.

“You can go back now. Tell Tarrow he’ll get his protection.”

The hunters smiled at the Dragon Hunters then they turned their horses around and began the day-long ride back to their camp.

“Tell Tarrow he will be cursed for breaking the bond of brotherhood!” shouted Caroline at their backs as they rode away. “He promised to protect us!”

Julus, the leader of the hunters turned around and stopped his horse.

“And you were protected, as long as you were in our camp.” He then turned and caught up with his brothers.

Rock looked back at the leader of the Dragon Hunters. Would he leave Rock and Caroline with their lives if he handed over the armor now or would he just see it as an easier chance to kill Rock once his armor was off?

“He’s fast with his gun!” Lewis said to the dragon hunters.

“And how exactly do you know that Lewis!” Shouted Rock, “Because last time I was using it was to protect your worthless merchant ass!”

Rock spurred his horse directly at Lewis. He pulled his second revolver from his side and pointed both guns towards the wagon in front of him. He fired two shots before the dragon hunters in the back had a chance to respond. Two bullets found their marks, one in each chest. Both men fell backward from the force of the collision, but Rock knew they wouldn’t be on the ground long due to the protection from the dragon skin armor they were wearing.

Lewis jumped to the side trying to avoid Rock’s horse. Rock swung the butt end of the revolver in his right hand and connected squarely with Lewis’s bald head. There was an oddly satisfying grunt from Lewis as he dropped to the ground into an unconscious pile of traitor.

“Follow me!” Rock shouted to Caroline. He kicked his horse’s sides harder, driving him away from the wagon, away from trail ahead where the man behind the boulder was steadying his rifle for a shot, he ran away from the trail behind where the Cimbri hunters had vanished moments before. He did the one thing no one would be expecting. He spurred his horse off the trails edge and into the empty air below. He rode his horse off the mountain pass.

Rock could hear shouting behind him, then gunfire, but he didn’t feel anything but the unexpectedness weightlessness of falling building up in his stomach as he plummeted through the mountain air towards the rushing river below.

Behind him, Caroline responded in a moment’s notice. She spurred her horse after Rock. The man behind the boulder fired his rifle, but he missed the moving target she had become. She was almost passed the wagon and was approaching the edge of the cliff when a body jumped out from the back of the covered wagon and collided with her. She fell from her horse onto the rocky trail below. She struggled with the dragon hunter who had knocked her from her horse but was quickly overcome when the second man from the wagon came to his friend’s assistance.

Rock turned around as he fell towards the river with his horse. He waited to see Caroline follow him over the edge. He expected to see the shape of her horse take the same crazy leap he had taken. She would have done it. He hadn’t just abandoned the woman he had been charged with protecting had he?

The fall was long. The longest of Rock’s life and he had no idea what the collision with the water would be like. It felt like he fell for an eternity but no matter how long he continued looking back at the cliff’s edge, Caroline didn’t follow. He’d left her behind. He’d left her with the dragon hunters. Rock only had one thought before he hit the icy water.

Shit.

 

Chapter 13

On Frying Pans and Fires

Rock hit the icy water hard. His bruised chest ached at the collision. He’d managed to holster his guns before hitting the water. His last wish before going under was that they would still be holstered when he came up from beneath the rolling rapids. He submerged beneath the cold, furious rapids. He had heard multiple gunshots before he hit the water, now, beneath its protective cover, all that sound disappeared and all he heard was the mad fluttering of air bubbles and the beating of his own heart.

Rock knew it was safer underwater. At least temporarily. It would be easier to avoid the bullets being shot from above. He held his breath and propelled himself underwater, traveling with the current of the river rapids. When he couldn’t hold his breath any longer he surfaced, refilled his lungs, and went back underwater.

The rapids became faster the further downriver the current took Rock. He continued staying underwater as long as he could before coming up for air until he had lost count of how many times he had done it. Eventually, he stopped going back underwater and did the best he could in the wild river to look back up river to the place he had jumped in. Rock couldn’t see it. He also couldn’t see anyone else following the river from the trail above.

He looked towards the sides of the river. There was no place to get out. He had to continue floating for the time being. He found his horse behind him and grabbed its tail. The water around him slowed down until Rock and his horse were merely floating peacefully.

Then Rock heard a noise he wasn’t expecting, another roar of water. This time, it was coming from ahead of him. He tried to swim sideways but it didn’t matter, there was no way to exit the flow, it was unavoidable.

Rock was heading down a waterfall.

He was too scared to be surprised at the childishness of his final thought, that this probably wasn’t the first time a rock had fallen down a waterfall.

But as far as he was concerned it might be the last.

 

Chapter 14

Something Wrong in the Universe

Rock woke face down on a pebble covered river bank. His horse was with him. A free fall plus a waterfall and the horse was still with him! He needed to take better care of this animal, it was something special!

Rock’s head ached. Perhaps he had hit it when he went over the waterfall; he didn’t remember. The last thing he remembered was dropping again, that lifting feeling in his stomach and worrying that his horse was falling behind him instead of beneath. After all that it was amazing he was still alive, that either of them was alive. It was probably good Caroline hadn’t followed him. She might not have had Rock’s apparent luck.

Caroline! She was with the dragon hunters!

Rock rubbed his temples. What was he supposed to do? He had his horse, his saddle bags, he checked his holsters, both his guns, and he still had his dragon skin armor, plus he was who-knows-how-many hours ahead of the men hunting him. This was everything he could have hoped for. This was his chance to be get away with his life and armor.

If so, then why did Rock feel so terrible?

He had been hired to guide her to the central Waste, but what good was that anyway? The woman was just going to end up dead like the other crazies who tried crossing the Wall-without-Walls. It’s not like by getting her to the central Waste he was doing her a favor. She was probably better off with the hunters. But part of Rock couldn’t shake the feeling that he owed it to save her, even if it just meant she could kill herself in her preferred manner.

Shouldn’t everyone have their choice of when to go?

But it was more than just that.

Caroline had risked her life helping Rock after he was shot by the arrow. She had claimed it made them even, but Rock didn’t agree. He hadn’t risked himself for her. He had risked himself at the bandits camp because he wanted to kill bandits, the fact he freed Caroline was entirely secondary. Caroline’s decision had been different. Without really knowing him, and with no need to stay behind, she had tended his injury and waited alone with him for three days. She made the decision to help Rock. Caroline made a sacrifice. No one had done that for him before.

Why did that suddenly matter so much?

Rock felt like something was wrong in the universe. Others weren’t supposed to take risks for him. Others weren’t supposed to care.

He stood up.

Rock knew what he had to do. It didn’t make sense why he had to do it, but regardless he knew he did.

He had to rescue Caroline.

But where were those damn Dragon Hunters?

 

Chapter 15

Keep the Dusters you Son of a Bitch

The three dragon hunters weren’t as far behind as Rock had expected. When he finally caught sight of them he was hiding behind a boulder in the valley below where the river had deposited him. The group of hunters was riding in a single file line on the narrow mountain trail and soon to enter the valley below with Rock.

In front were two horses with dragon hunters on them. These two were followed by Caroline, then Lewis and his yellow and blue wagon followed by the last of the hunters. They were making good time and clearly wanted to find Rock’s trail quickly, or more likely they hoped to find his body.

Well, not today… at least not yet, thought Rock.

Rock guessed they would be to him in less than an hour at their present pace.

Now he just needed to come up with a plan to deal with four men, three with dragon armor and the fourth with a wagon full of guns, all to rescue a woman riding a horse between them likely with her hands tied behind her back.

Rock sat down to form a plan. He couldn’t get rid of the feeling that no matter what plan he chose it wasn’t going to be pretty.

###

The group of hunters progressed quickly down the mountain trail and soon reached the valley floor below. Rock saw them inspecting the bank where the river came out of the mountain, spending most of their time around the area where Rock had woke up. As trackers by profession, it would have been clear to them that Rock and his horse had exited the river. They didn’t stay at the bank long and were soon back on their horses and heading in Rock’s direction.

Rock waited with his horse behind a large boulder until they were almost on top of him before he finally stepped into the road. He walked to the middle and stopped. The horses of the dragon hunters neighed and pulled back. The dragon hunters, surprised by Rock’s sudden appearance in the middle of the road, took a moment before they pulled their guns.

Rock’s hand slowly went to his gun belt. The dragon hunters watched him closely, their fingers on the triggers of their guns, which were already pointing at Rock. Instead of pulling his guns Rock dropped the gun belt from his waist to the dusty road below. Next he pulled his traveling cloak off, then he pulled his dragon armor off over his head.

Rock stood in front of three armored dragon hunters naked from the waist up. He held his armor out to the side of himself in clear view of the men in front of him.

“I’ll trade you. Armor for the girl.”

The lead dragon hunters looked at Rock, then at his armor then finally at Rock’s gun belt on the trail at Rock’s feet.

He slowly lowered his guns.

“Seems to me I could take the armor and the girl if I wanted,” said the first man.

“Seems you could,” replied Rock.

“Why should I trade with a man who isn’t a threat?”

“Takes more than armor to make a man a threat,” said Rock. He continued, “trade with me and get what you want without wasting bullets and lives.”

The man thought for a moment then nodded. He motioned one of his companions to take Rock’s armor. The man did.

“See! I said he wouldn’t be far and he wasn’t!” shouted Lewis from his seat on the front bench of his wagon. “It’s time I get paid my share now that you have the armor.”

The lead dragon hunter nodded and pulled a bag of fire dusters from his saddle bags. It was a large bag containing hundreds of bullets. He was about to toss it to Lewis when Rock interrupted.

“Wait. I believe that belongs to me. I’m the one that willingly made the trade. It was my armor and you didn’t end up taking it by force. This was a business transaction.”

The leader thought for a moment. Rock continued.

“That’s a fine set of armor, perhaps the nicest in The Waste. Whoever you are taking it to will be happy with your work. But those dusters are mine fair and square for the trade. Don’t worry about the merchant, he’ll get a finders fee.”

The lead hunter smiled then nodded. He changed his mind towards Lewis and threw the heavy sac of bullets to Rock who caught them out of the air.

“Now that you have my armor am I safe to put my guns back on?”

The dragon hunter nodded. Rock picked up his gun belt and re-buckled it to his waist.

“What! Those are my dusters! I earned those. I’m the one that told you about the armor, I’m the one that brought you out here, if it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have had anything to trade for in the first place!” shouted Lewis.

“Work it out with him. We just made a trade,” said the lead hunter and pointed to Rock.

“Don’t worry Lewis. I’m a man of my word. Like I said, you get a finder’s fee,” said Rock and hefted the heavy bag of bullets. Rock mounted his horse and rode to the wagon. He opened the bag and shuffled the contents around with his finger. He eventually pulled four bullets from his bag, large bullets, shotgun shells.

“Four dusters!” Lewis said angrily.

“And you earned every one of them,” replied Rock. Instead of handing the bullets to Lewis Rock casually pulled his shotgun from his saddle bags. He cracked the barrel and loaded the four shells.

Lewis, along with everyone else, watched Rock closely as he slowly raised the shotgun and pointed it at Lewis’s head. Rock, while holding the barrel steady, looked to the lead hunter and raised his eyebrows.

The lead dragon hunter shrugged his shoulders.

Droplets of sweat fell from Lewis’s face.

“Rock, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have told…

Rock dropped the gun barrel and fired. He blew away one of the spokes on the wagon wheel next to him. Then he went to a second wheel and blew away another spoke, then a third wheel and did the same followed by the fourth wheel. The wagon teetered on all four wheels for a moment, adjusting to the new distribution of weight. After it seemed to have finally steadied Rock threw the remaining, heavy, bag of bullets onto the front seat of the wagon. The added weight threw off the balance and one-by-one all four wagon wheels shattered and crashed, dropping the wagon box three feet to the dusty trail below.

Lewis grunted as he hit the ground.

The wagon wouldn’t be going anywhere for days. Not until Lewis could make some more wheels.

“Keep the dusters you son of a bitch. Buy some new wheels,” said Rock calmly and he put the shotgun back in his saddlebags.

The dragon hunters watched Rock with looks of approval.

“Are we good here?” Rock asked the hunters. They nodded.

“Then we’re off. We still have a long way to go before night falls.”

Caroline rode to Rock and smiled. They both turned around and continued down the long dusty trail through the valley, leaving behind Lewis and his broken wagon, as well as the dragon hunters and their new set of armor.

At least they had their lives.

“The bag of bullets, it would have lasted you a year,” Caroline said when they were out of earshot. “Why’d you give it up?”

“The bullets might have lasted a year, but a memory like that lasts forever,” said Rock.

Then he smiled. Things had turned out Ok. At least he had Caroline. For now.

 

Chapter 16

Vitae, Virtus, Visim

Rock and Caroline spent the next three nights sleeping on the trail. They didn’t light any fires. They didn’t want to draw any attention to themselves so they ate berries and dried meat instead.

Everyday brought them closer to the Wall-without-Walls. Rock could tell Caroline was thinking about what would happen when they finally arrived, she wasn’t her talkative self. On the third night, Rock broke the silence on the subject.

“Why do you want to travel to the Wall?”

After a moment Caroline answered.

“I don’t want to. I want to be with my tribe helping them fight our invaders. But I have a duty to my people and if they need me to try to cross the Wall then that is what I will do.”

“Have you seen it before?”

She shook her head.

“Have you?” she asked.

“I have. It was years ago. It’s mostly empty space. There was a man there. He said it was filled with the bodies of those that tried to cross.

“Probably just traveler talk.”

“He showed me bodies, many of them.”

“How did they die?” asked Caroline softly.

“I don’t know. We were looking from far away. I only saw bodies, nothing more.”

“You think I’m crazy to go, don’t you?”

“Every man, or woman, chooses their own life. I suppose they should have the right to choose their death too. I just hope you are the one making this choice and not your father.”

“It not that easy Rock. You don’t know what being part of a tribe means. We are not Indies like you. We don’t just take care of ourselves. We care for one another. Tribes work together to survive in this world. It’s the only way it will work for us. You have to have tribes if you want The Waste to work at all, without tribes Indies like you would have no one to trade with. No one would raise sheep and cattle. Everyone would hunt the wild game into extinction.”

“But what is the cost to you?”

“The cost was figured into the price of my life long ago. It’s not like I have always known I would sacrifice myself for my people. But I have always known I would if they needed it.”

“What do they get out of your bleached bones lying under the sun? Some warm feeling that someone died for them?”

“I’m not going so I can die Rock. I intend to do all I can to live.”

“But why go in the first place! Your tribe knows you left, why not let them believe you entered the Wall-without-Walls then go and start a life somewhere else, a life where you can be free.”

“Start a life with who Rock? You?”

Rock paused. He was surprised at the question.

“I’m an Indi. I don’t share life. I live for myself.”

“You risked your life for me. You gave away your armor. You could have been killed. Are you sure your life is your own?”

“But I wasn’t killed.”

“The only thing that means is that we are both still here to argue about it, nothing more. The question still stands. Are you sure your life is your own?”

Before Rock could respond Caroline continued.

“When I was a young girl and my father had just taken his place as the chief of the Drenian a visitor came to our tribe. An Indi like you. He told my father about the Wall-without-Walls. He said he knew a man that had crossed it and returned. The man said there was a great tribe on the other side, a tribe with a huge, camp, with tents so high they cast shade on the cattle. He said the tribe knew the old magic from the times before the Wanderers.”

“My mother told me the same stories, stories, and fairy-tales.”

“He said it wasn’t a story. He said the man gave him proof.”

Caroline pulled something out of her pocket. She held it cupped in her closed hand for a moment then motioned for Rock to open his palm. He did so and Caroline dropped something small and cold into it.

It was a small disc of metal, from the size and weight Rock guessed silver. It had two sides. On one side was the image of a sun. Around the sun, running along the top edge of the disc were the words:

Sol Resurgent

On the other side was what appeared the image of large bright trees. Along the top were stamped the words:

Vitae, Virtus, Visim

Rock didn’t know how to respond. He held the disc for a moment longer and handed it back to Caroline without speaking.

She took it and waited for a response.

Nothing came.

“It might not mean anything to you, but it does to me. There is something on the other side of the Wall. This token came from there. I know it and if I die attempting to find it so be it, at least, I will die serving my people. You don’t have to believe me.”

“I do.”

“No you don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway.”

“No, I do believe you. I didn’t expect to, but I do.”

Caroline was silent.

Rock reached into his saddle bag at his side, took something out of it and handed it to Caroline.

Moonlight reflected off the small object as it dropped from Rock’s hand to hers. It felt familiar. She looked closer.

It was the same token she had, the same size, the same material, the same images and the same words.

“How… what…” stumbled Caroline. Finally, she regained her composure and asked a complete question. “Where did you get this?”

“My mother gave that to me. She said it came from behind the Wall.”

 

Chapter 17

The Wonderful Wizard of OZ

“Your mother?”

“When I was young I lived with my mother in a small tribe near the central Waste. I don’t remember much of it. My mother traded me to a clan that was passing through for a bag of dire dusters not long after that. That was the last time I saw her. Before I left she gave me this and told me it was from behind the Wall.”

“Why? How would she know?”

“Who knows? I’ve carried it my entire life as a good luck token. It hadn’t failed me yet and until tonight it the only one I have ever seen. Do you know what it is?”

Caroline nodded.

“I think so. It’s a form of currency, but unlike fire dusters and shells, its only value is for trade. This form of currency was common in the past, years ago, with the magic.”

“What do the words mean?”

“I don’t know them all. I am pretty sure ‘sol resurgent’ means the sun will rise. The picture of the sun makes sense with that way. The other words I am not sure of. It may be an ancient language.”

“It may be made up.”

“Apart from your own token have you seen anything this finely carved in The Waste? Do you know of a Wanderer tribe that could produce such work?”

Rock shook his head.

“Then it’s not from The Waste. If it’s not from The Waste it must be from behind the Wall-without-Walls. That means there is a way to cross. I just have to find it. Do you remember anything else about your mother? Do you know where she got this?”

Rock shook his head again.

“I don’t remember much. I only knew her until I was six. Most of the time it was just the two of us wandering the central Waste. We scavenged for food. We set traps. We hid from others. She told me stories at night. She made up stories of a great city behind the Wall and told me one day we would go there and have all the food we could eat. I didn’t believe her. For the last year I lived with her we were both accepted into a small tribe of Wanderers. She cooked and cleaned up the campsite for them. I hauled water and mostly fought with the other children. When I was six she traded me to another clan passing through. She got a bag of fire dusters out of the deal and gave me this before I left.”

Rock held up the silver token in the moonlight.

“That’s worth more than a small bag of fire dusters,” said Caroline.

“Then why did she make the trade?”

“Maybe she wanted to give you a better life than she could afford. She gave you the token so you would realize she wasn’t really trading you for bullets, she was giving you another chance?”

Rock didn’t answer.

“What did she say about the city behind the Wall?”

“I don’t remember. I tried to forget all her stories. They were for children and I wasn’t a child anymore. Not when I was traded.”

“You weren’t a child when you were six?”

“I couldn’t afford it. There was too much water to haul and not enough children that wanted me around.”

“When did your mother tell you her stories?”

“At night, we would lay in our tent and she would talk. She said more at night than she ever did during the day.”

“You had a difficult childhood Rock.”

Rock shrugged.

“I’m not the only one. Life is hard.”

“That doesn’t make it easier, though.”

“I guess not.”

“Will you think about your mother’s stories for me Rock? Will you try to remember anything you can that might help me cross the Wall when the time comes for me to try?”

He nodded.

“I will.”

“Thank you. You’re a good man Rock the Wanderer. It’s a regret we won’t have more time to be friends.”

“I don’t have friends,” said Rock.

“You have one now. At least for the next week,” said Caroline. Then she smiled, patted his arm, and went to sleep.

Rock stayed up. He pulled the pitch-coated bag he carried his books in from his saddlebags and removed the five books he was given by Caroline’s father. He was looking for a particular title. He had promised Caroline something and he intended to follow through, even if it meant sounding out words for the evening.

This is it, thought Rock as he pulled one of the titles from the bag. He opened the book and heard the spine crack. It had been years since this book had been opened. The moon was full and bright, the night sky was free of clouds. It was good reading weather, at least for an hour or so.

Rock started from the beginning.

“The Won-dur-ful Wizard of Oz, by L Frank Ba-um.”

 

Chapter 18

When you do, I’ll help you

For the next three days, the trail to the central Waste was empty. On the fourth day that changed.

Around mid-afternoon, they came on the remains of what appeared to have been a campsite large enough for fifty to seventy people, the size of a clan. The site had burned and was still smoldering in ash and smoke. Everything wooden had been burnt, tent poles, hitching sticks, wagons. There was nothing left of the tent fabric. Charred and smoking wooden poles stood erect where tents had previously stood.

There were bodies on the ground. The bodies had arrows in them, large arrows, like the one Rock had been hit by days earlier.

It seemed clear the people had been slaughtered by the invaders. Rock was wondering if any of them had survived when he heard crying from outside the camp. He and Caroline followed the sound, Rock with his revolvers drawn, Caroline with the rifle out. It didn’t take long to find the source.

Laying across a female body was a young boy. The woman had been dead for less than a day from the looks of it. The boy was so engrossed in his mourning that it took until Rock and Caroline were standing over him before he realized he wasn’t alone. When Rock’s shadow fell on him the boy startled, looked up, then ran.

“Wait!” Caroline shouted to the fleeing child. “We won’t hurt you.”

The boy stopped fifty feet away and turned to face them.

“We aren’t going to hurt you. What is your name?”

He didn’t respond and instead wiped tears from his sooty face, smearing dark lines across his cheek as he did, all the while watching Rock and Caroline carefully.

Caroline spoke again.

“I’m Caroline. This is my friend Rock. We are travelers. What is your name?”

The boy sniffled before he spoke.

“Matthew.”

“Hello, Matthew. What happened here?”

He didn’t want to talk. His chin quivered and he wiped the tears from his face again with both his palms, putting a hand on each of his eyes and pulling them down his face, smearing dirt and tears.

“Bad men came at night. They killed everyone. I was scared and hid.”

“Is she your mother Matthew?” asked Caroline while she pointed at the woman the boy had been crying over.

Matthew nodded and started crying again.

“Would you like us to help you bury her Matthew?”

Matthew nodded again. He walked to Caroline and reached up to her. His child’s face couldn’t have been more than six years old. His cheeks, which would have been rosy had they been cleaned, were coated in dirt and tears. His blond hair was a mess and his clothing was ripped and worn in places. It was his eyes however that called for Caroline’s attention most, they were bloodshot from crying, but behind the red and the tears was a strange combination, a combination of profound sadness, and just below it anger, anger deep enough the boy probably hardly knew how to comprehend it. Caroline reached out and picked Matthew up. Once she held him he buried his face on her shoulder and began to sob.

—————

They did help. Over the next hour, Rock dug a grave while Caroline talked to Matthew. At first, she asked him about his family and life in the tribe. The tears that were so prevalent when she started talking to him slowed and dried as he answered her questions.

Eventually, Caroline asked Matthew more about what had happened to his camp. Matthew didn’t know much. He said the night before some men on horses had ridden out of the darkness and attacked the camp. They had bows and arrows and shot the people as they ran. They chased survivors over the plain until they were convinced they had killed them all.

Matthew had run out of the camp when the arrows started flying and hidden in the tall grass. He had stayed still while he heard the men slaughter his clan and loot the campsite. When the sun rose the next morning he found the bodies of his clansmen, including his parents and sister.

Rock dug the grave large enough for all of Matthew’s family. Once it was dug they laid his father, mother and sister side by side in it.

Caroline asked Matthew if he wanted to say anything to his family before they buried them. Matthew’s chin quivered and tears fell from his eyes. He nodded. Rock and Caroline were quiet. It was Matthew’s time to talk. He cleared his throat then in a quivering voice he spoke.

“I love you, Mom and Dad. I love you Sannah.” Matthew paused for a bit then continued. “I’m sorry I hid when the bad men came. I’m sorry I didn’t fight with you!” Matthew let out deep, raking sobs from his child’s chest. Caroline wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly. He continued to sob for a moment then slowly regained control. When he had finally stopped Caroline spoke.

“You know what your mother would say to you right now if she could Matthew?”

“No,” said the young boy.

“Do you want me to tell you?” Caroline asked.

“Uh-huh.” Matthew’s blond hair bounced back and forth as he nodded.

“Then I will. You listen careful though, OK? Your mother would say she is so happy you hid. She is so happy the bad men didn’t find you and she is so happy you helped to bury her with her family. Listen closely Matthew, can you hear?”

Matthew was quiet for a moment and then nodded. He smiled ever-so-slightly.

“She would also say she loves you and she is happy you met new friends who can help you find a new family. She wants you to try as hard as you can to be happy.”

“Ok. What.. what would my dad say to me?” asked Matthew.

Caroline swallowed and looked at Rock.

“Um… I don’t know. Maybe he would say that…” she started to respond before Rock interrupted her.

“That he never meant for you to be alone. He is sorry to leave you. Be extra brave now. He knows you can do it. He knows you are strong and brave because he made you that way.”

Matthew smiled again. This time the smile was wider and lasted longer than the first.

“I… I know what Sannah would say to me,” said Matthew.

“What would Sannah say?” asked Caroline.

“Stop crying like a baby.” Matthew sniffle-laughed as he said it. Rock and Caroline couldn’t hide their own sad smiles.

“Well, that’s just ‘cause sometimes we sisters don’t know what brothers feel like inside, isn’t it?” said Caroline.

“Yeah, I guess,” replied Matthew and wiped his nose with his arm. “Are you going to take me from here?”

“Do you want us to?” asked Caroline.

Matthew nodded.

“Then we are. Why don’t you ride with me?” asked Caroline. She mounted her horse. Rock picked Matthew up and put him in front of her on the saddle.

“One day I’m going to kill the bad men that did this,” Matthew said to Rock. Rock nodded, then replied.

“When you do I’ll help you, Matthew.”

 

Chapter 19

What the Hell is he Thinking About

They traveled hard and fast the rest of the day. Rock wanted to put as much distance between them and any invaders in the area as possible. He didn’t know where the invaders were coming from or going to so distance seemed like the safest approach. Apart from Matthew’s burned-out camp, they saw no sign of invaders, no sign of anyone.

It had been dark by the time they stopped that first night. Matthew was sleeping in the saddle. Caroline shared her blanket with him when they bedded down. He slept through the entire night without waking.

The next day they rode hard again. When the day was over and they bedded down Rock figured they had covered at least three days’ worth of distance over the last two days in the saddle. They were probably safe to slow down. The central Waste wasn’t far off, a few more days and they should arrive at the Wall. The Wall, where Rock and Matthew would say goodbye to Caroline and leave her alone. The Wall, where Caroline would attempt to cross. The Wall, where Caroline would die.

Caroline and Rock had talked about what to do with Matthew while he slept the first night. Rock thought it best to leave him with one of the permanent tribes of the central Waste. Caroline wanted Rock to take Matthew to her father and the Drenian tribe. She promised Rock her father would pay him more books. She would write her father a letter, both father and daughter could read and write, telling him to give Rock Caroline’s personal book collection when he dropped the boy off.

It was a generous offer. When Rock told Caroline it wouldn’t work she had been angry. Before he could explain himself Caroline turned over on her blanket and went to sleep.

Caroline had cooled off by the second night when she, Matthew and Rock sat down together. Rock lit a small fire to cook a stew, the first fire in days. Dinner would be warm tonight, a treat.

“Do you like stories, Matthew?” Caroline asked as they were sitting around the fire that evening.

Matthew nodded.

“Would you like to read a story?”

“Read? No.” Matthew said.

“Do you know how to read?”

“No. But I like stories and will listen if you tell me one.”

“Well, we will have to do something about your reading in the future, but for now I can do the telling if you like. Rock, can we read one of your books?”

Rock handed Caroline the book bag. She went through it, looking at each of the five books until she found one she approved of.

“Here we go, my mother read this to me when I was a little girl. It’s called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Matthew leaned up next to her then Caroline cleared her throat and began.

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was a farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber…”

“What’s a farmer?” Matthew asked.

“Oh, it’s good to ask that question now Matthew. If we are lucky we might see some farmers when we get to the central Waste. I hear farmers live there.”

“What do they do?”

“Farmers are the most peculiar of people. You remember the roots we found growing today. How we picked them and put them into our soup tonight?”

Matthew nodded.

“Farmers take plants like that and grow them, lots of them, in straight lines and rows and squares. I’ve heard some farmers can grow so many plants it takes a person most of a morning to walk around them!”

“Why do they grow the plants? Why not pick them off the trail, like us?”

“Well, sometimes they want more plants then they can find on the trail, so they grow them. Then they take the leftovers that they don’t eat and trade them to other people, for sheep, or cows, or leather or fire dusters, anything.”

“Farmers sound smart,” said Matthew.

“They are! They have to know lots of things, like what kinds of plants to grow, and when to plant them, and how to move the water to get to them and how to keep the bugs and animals away.”

“Have you ever known a farmer Caroline?” asked Matthew.

“I haven’t. My people are Wanderers like yours. We travel around The Waste. When we travel we take big heads of animals with us so they can eat fresh grass in all the new places we go. We don’t usually stay in places long enough to grow plants. But do you know what we did grow?”

Matthew shook his head.

“We grew some trees in our seasonal home where we camp every summer and fall. We had hundreds of trees. There were apple trees and cherry trees and peach trees and apricot trees. They gave the sweetest fruit. We had so much fruit that other tribes would send visitors just to trade us things for the fruit we grew.”

“What happened to them?”

Caroline paused.

“The same people who came to your clan came to my tribe. They hurt us like they hurt you, then they burned down our trees and all the fruit. It’s all gone now.”

“I’m sorry Caroline,” Matthew said. He faced her, wrapped his arms around her neck and hugged her. Caroline smiled.

“It’s OK. We can always plant more can’t we?”

“Yeah, you can. Can I help when you do?”

Caroline laughed.

“Sure you can. Do you want me to keep reading?”

Matthew nodded.

Caroline opened the book again and continued reading.

“Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon for many miles…”

She continued reading for ten minutes. Rock stirred the soup and listened with Matthew. Caroline looked at Rock between sentences and paragraphs. He seemed interested in the story. She wondered if anyone had ever read to him as a child. Caroline caught Rock’s eyes once or twice. She smiled at him, but he looked away quickly and went back to tending the fire and stirring the soup.

What the hell is he thinking about? She wondered.

 

Chapter 20

Called the “Wanderer’s Welcome” o’ sum’ shit like that

Two days later they reached the basin of the central Waste.

From this point on the ground around them began a gradual slope until it eventually ran into a river that divided the central Waste from the area protected by the Wall-without-Walls. Rock hadn’t been here for years. He remembered it as a child with his mother during the time they had wandered alone without a tribe. He had returned a few years after he had become an Indi Wanderer to see it with his adult eyes, but that had been over a decade ago.

The central Waste hadn’t changed much in the last decade. It was one of the few places in The Waste where people stayed put long enough to grow crops and many farms sporadically covered the land with the space in between the farms still growing wild. Farms in the central Waste grew many different crops, anything that would grow in the climate was thought to be worth trying. Their specialties, however, were crops used in the production of alcoholic drinks, always a Wanderer’s favorite. There were farms growing grain that would be used to make whiskey, farms growing barley and hops for beer and even orchards of grapes used to make wine. The Waste might not have had much in the way of commerce, but bottles of wine, grown and pressed in the center would find their way throughout almost every part of The Waste, usually by way of traders and merchants. Wanderers loved alcohol, especially wine.

They passed many farms on their descent into the central Waste basin. Each farm could be reached by its own individual road that met with the main road Rock and Caroline traveled. In front of many of these farms, at the side of their private roads, were men sitting under sun shades watching main road travelers as they passed.

Officially these men sat in front of individual farms to help facilitate trade with passersbys who might be interested in buying stock from the farm, they were there to answer questions about crops grown on the farm or to take orders. Rock knew from personal experience that simply facilitating trade and answering questions wasn’t all these people did. One of their more important purposes, yet a purpose less-that-obvious to most, was to keep the owners of the farms appraised on what sort of people were traveling the main roads of the central Waste, and since all roads go two ways, who was leaving. As information gatherers, Rock knew these men could be good sources of information on their own. He pulled an empty brass fire duster from his side pouch and threw it to one of the men they passed.

The man was seated on a wooden chair beneath a canvas sunshade. The wood was sun bleached and rotting and the shade was ripped in so many places Rock thought it unlikely anyone could claim it had properly done its job in years. In spite of the less-than-optimum shade, the seated man seemed at peace. He was reclining in his chair with his legs resting horizontally on a crate. He had a straw hat pulled down over his eyes with a brim that seemed to be doing a good enough job blocking the sun to allow him to forget about the ripped canvas above.

The brass fire duster Rock threw landed in the man’s lap. He slowly adjusted his position then picked up the duster with his right hand and inspected it. When he was done inspecting it he raised his straw hat and met Rock’s eyes.

“What kin I dew ya fer stranger?” asked the man slowly.

“There is a new tribe of invaders in The Waste. Have they been here?” Ask Rock.

“Jest rumors ‘n such.”

“And they say?”

“There’s a tribe of n‘vaders in The Waste.”

“Where are they?”

The man looked around him slowly, first behind, then to each side, left and right, then back at Rock and continued.

“Not ‘ere.”

“You have anything else?”

“Meeh-bee,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders and looked at Rock’s duster pouch. Rock picked out another empty shell and tossed it to the man. The man caught it and put it in his pocket, this time without inspection.

“Rumor says somethin’ going’ on a few days north. Mostly smaller tribes getting kilt’ n’ scattered. Ain’t likely they make it to the central Waste. We’z organized.” He said then spit on the dusty ground and wiped his boot in it.

“Any news of the Drenian tribe?” asked Caroline.

“Dra-nee-un? Ain’t heard of em’.”

“Thank you. Is there a place we can sleep indoors tonight?” said Rock.

“Got ‘ne friends?”

“I mean public.”

“Ye’a. Down the road a bit further. There’s a place you’ kin bed down and drink some drink. Off this road. Called the ‘Wanderer’s Welcome’ o’ sum’ shit like that.”

“And the boy…” said Rock as he gestured to Matthew, “he’ll be safe there?”

“If you stay close enough to ‘im,” said the man with a broken laugh.

Rock turned his back on the man and motioned for Caroline to follow. They were short on daylight and Rock wanted to get inside before dark. It was good to hear there hadn’t been any invaders within more than a couple of days of the central Waste. Hopefully, it would stay that way. Most of the alcohol made in The Waste came from ingredients grown on farms down here. If the central Waste was attacked and the rest of The Waste turned dry the invaders would likely have a fully organized return attack on their hands before they knew it. The Waste loved their alcohol and the farmers of the central Waste made sure to give it to them. They wouldn’t lose their drinks without a fight.

Rock looked down the long road in front of them. The road ended at the small ribbon of river that cut the sweeping vista in front of them in half, everything before the river where they were now and everything beyond it. It was too far away to see any distinguishing features past the river ahead, but Rock knew there wasn’t much more that dirt anyway. He pointed out the area to Caroline.

“See that river?”

“I do,” said Caroline.

“That’s where I’m taking you.”

“The river?”

“The land beyond. That river is the border of the central Waste. Behind that river is the Wall-without-Walls.”

 

Chapter 21

I’m the Woman who sells the Carrots

Ahhh… the beauty of the central Waste thought Rock as he led Caroline and Matthew down the road. Further ahead, at least a couple of miles further, Rock could see an area of more buildings.

The central Waste had changed in the years Rock had been gone. There were more farms on the outside and more people on the inside. Permanent buildings had been set up on both sides of the entrance road where years before had been nothing more than bramble-filled untouched land with the occasional tent. Something was happening here. Something Rock hadn’t seen before. The people in the central Waste seemed to be turning fully permanent, something most Wanderers would scowl at the thought of. Permanent?

The further down the road they got the more people they saw, and the bigger the structures became. They still had a ways until the end of the road, how much bigger would these structures get? They had essentially, with little deviation, been traveling on the same road since Rock and Caroline left the Drenian camp weeks before. Over prairies and mountains and through forests and finally, the road they were on would come to an end, right into the river ahead of them, the river that divided the central Waste from the Wall without Walls. Night and day, knowledge and mystery, Wanderers and who knows what was hiding behind the Wall. The end of the road was soon.

“A carrot for your child miss?” said an old woman from a wooden cart on the side of the road. Caroline motioned for Rock to stop.

“And what do you want for it?” asked Caroline.

“Trifle really, ‘jess a dust’r,” replied the woman.

Rock rolled his eyes, an entire duster! A crazy price for a single carrot. Certainly the old hag was hoping to overcharge travelers outside of the settlement before they got close enough to realize they’d been had.

“You’ll get ten for that where we stop tonight,” said Rock and motioned for Caroline to follow.

“Not likely, ‘less ye planing on stopping somewhere three men’ths ago.”

Rock raised his eyebrows and motioned her to continue.

“Three men’th ago, ‘for anyone’d heard of the Vorin. Now’s ‘da price’s up everywhere.”

“The Vorin?” asked Rock.

“The dirtiest murderer’s The Waste’s ever seen. They and their herds of horses and forests of bow wood ‘ive been cuttin’ off trade, making it hard to get me carrots out to those deserving wanders that ‘ave been countin’ on em.”

“I thought the invaders hadn’t been seen any closer than three days from here,” asked Rock.

“Depends on who you ask,” said the woman and shrugged.

“And who say’s they’re closer than three days?” asked Caroline.

“I jess’ heard tell ‘bout a herd of ‘em only a day north of ‘ere. Said they be attacking the smaller clans.”

Rock looked at Matthew and Caroline. Matthew wasn’t paying attention to what was being said. His eyes were focused on the bright orange carrots in the woman’s cart. Caroline, like Rock, looked concerned.

“Are you worried about the invaders, these Vorin, coming here?”

“Not unless they don’t eat carrots,” said the woman with a laugh.

“They might kill you and take your carrots.”

“I might not wake up tomorrow none either. Still gonna be carrots and carrot sellers. Anyways, Mayer Jude will stop ‘em, he the one been running the Center these last few years. He’ll keep us safe from those horse lovers like he keeps us safe from the Wanderer tribes.”

“You are Wanderer, we all are,” said Caroline.

“Not me, I’m Kappelist, like the rest of the Centralians. We ain’t dogs ‘ohh move from home-da-home like Wanders, we don’t move for anyone, the central Waste is ours no matter the seasons or rains.”

“And how long has it been since you stopped moving?” asked Rock.

“Ain’t never stopped moving, jess’ stopped running and did that with the rest of Mayer Jude’s clan two years ago after ‘da big snow.”

“And since that day you haven’t moved your tent?” asked Rock.

She shook her head.

“Sold it to a Wanderer passing through, I live behind wooden walls now. Ain’t need no tent no more. Keeps us safer from the Vorin, at least, says Mayer Jude.”

“Wood does stop more arrows,” said Rock quietly.

“That it does,” said the woman.

“But you can’t pack up and carry it on the back of a horse. Where can I meet Mayer Jude?”

“Behind the biggest walls at the end of the road. ‘e lives in the biggest ‘ome in town and it gets bigger every month, just like the Center itself.”

“Will he see a stranger?” asked Rock.

“H’ll talk with anyone ‘has something t’ say,” said the woman.

“Good,” said Rock. He pulled a duster and handed it towards the woman, “a carrot, for the boy.”

“I ain’t taking yer’ money now, not least if you’s going n’ see Mayer. Jess tell him I sent ya, he likes meetin’ strangers.”

“And you are?” asked Rock.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid… I’m the woman who sells the carrots.”

 

Chapter 22

So, you Still want my Address?

The crazy carrot woman’s conversation hadn’t properly prepared Rock for just how big the changes had been over the last few years to the central Waste. The further they progressed down the main basin road the more alien Rock’s surroundings became. It was as if overnight the central Waste had transformed into something that Rock had never seen, and he’d seen the central Waste before! It was as if something was in the water, or an invisible giant had overnight scattered magic over the area and caused those living here to become something completely new. These people were not Wanderers.

They eventually passed so many wood buildings that Caroline, who had been counting them out loud to teach Matthew his numbers, eventually lost count. Rock seemed to recall it was somewhere around the number seventy-five, but he wasn’t really sure either.

There were people inside and around and even on top of some of these structures hammering with tools and laughing with one another. Every time they stopped to marvel at the construction for more than a moment the three of them were approached by people looking to sell more goods, more carrots, roasted apples and one man even had cooking meat on metal rods. Rock was hungry and bought enough to feed all three for an evening dinner in the saddle. The meat was rough, some small rodent-type animal, but it was well seasoned and perfectly cooked. Rock ate all of his and half of Matthew’s, who didn’t seem to care to finish his food most of the time anyway.

The woman who sold the carrots was right. There was no missing Mayer Jude’s home. It was at the very end of the road. Where Rock remembered the road used to end by dropping down into the wide river now stood a structure so large that Rock could have driven Lewis’s wagon under its roof with space to spare before the ceiling. Not only was the wooden building large enough to hold a wagon, but Rock could see men and women walking around inside the building on a level completely above the ground. There were two levels inside the building! Now that was something you couldn’t do with a tent!

There were two guards stationed outside the entrance. Each held a shotgun similar to Rock’s. The guards were perpetually scanning the area in front of them and didn’t stay on Rock for more than a moment until he dismounted from his horse and approached them.

“Evening Friends,” said Rock. The guards nodded but otherwise didn’t respond. “I’ve heard a man can talk with Mayer Jude if he likes. Is this true?”

“Sure it is. What’s your name?” asked the bigger guard.

“I’m called Rock.”

The smaller guard laughed but stopped himself soon enough when Rock stared at him.

“Mayer Jude is out now Mr. Rock. If you would like to meet with him sign your name in the book with your address and he will contact you when he is available.”

“Address?” asked Rock.

“Where you live,” said the bigger guard. “Like if you lived in the wooden house near the original corn field you would put wooden house, near original corn field.”

“And if I lived in the wooden house at the end of the rock road I would write…”

“Easy, wooden house at the end of the rock road,” said the smaller guard. The big guard nodded and smiled.

“Do you know where the ‘rock road’ is?” asked Rock.

“Yes, the one by the, I mean over the side of the corn fields… well, I don’t believe so,” replied the smaller guard.

“And you?” Rock asked the bigger one.

“What rock road in particular? The road to the quarry, or the road that runs near the river?”

“The one with the wooden house obviously,” said Rock.

“I don’t. I suppose it’s a problem when there’s more than one,” said the guard.

“So what good does it do for me to leave it?”

“Leave what?”

“My address!” said Rock.

“The wooden house at the end of the rock road, right?” said the guard.

“What rock road!” said Rock.

“Not my problem. That will be for the inside help to deal with. I just guard the house.”

“So you still want my address?”

“Well, how else would we get in contact with you when Mayer Jude’s available?”

“But you don’t know where my address even is?”

“But you have one, that’s all that matters. Paper trails you know and accountability.”

Rock rolled his eyes for the second time that day.

“Where do I put my address?”

“Over there, near the front gate,” said the guard and pointed. Rock was about to walk where the guard pointed when a voice called down from a balcony on the second floor of the large house in front of him.

“Why, hello stranger! Would you like to come in?” shouted a slim, youngish man with blond hair waving from above Rock.

“I was instructed to leave my name and add…” said Rock before he was interrupted by the man above.

“Rubbish!” said the man with a smile and a large beckoning wave.

“Mayer Jude, we told him you was out, just like you said, he was ‘bout to write his address and…”

“Good job Jacob! But this man clearly isn’t a Centralian. Why you’re looking at a genuine Wanderer, even more so an Indi Wanderer, if I was gonna put money on it,” said the man from above, Mayer Jude apparently, to the youngest guard. “I’d say this man has walked many a mile to end up at my home. We wouldn’t want to turn him away now.” Mayer Jude looked over Caroline and Matthew with curiosity for a moment then spoke again, “so how then, may I ask you, Jacob, was a Wanderer going to have an address? Would you have accepted ‘The Waste’” had he written it?”

“No, he lives in the wooden house at the end of the stone road,” said the young guard with a look to Rock.

“Rock road,” said Rock quickly.

“Rock road I mean sir! Rock road.”

“What ‘rock road’?” asked Mayer Jude.

Jacob opened his mouth to answer then paused at the question. Perhaps his open mouth pause was because he knew he didn’t know the answer to it, or maybe it was because he just thought he didn’t know the answer but hadn’t thought far enough ahead yet to be certain. Eventually, Jacob shrugged. Mayer Jude laughed from above and Jacob smiled in response. If Mayer Jude was laughing then nothing that bad must have happened anyway.

“Send him up, all of them!” said Mayer Jude, then he suddenly spun around on the balcony and disappeared into the interior of the large building.

 

Chapter 23

it’s Time for us All to Walk up the Stairs

“Welcome! Welcome!” said Mayer Jude as he walked down a wide series of progressively leveled flat surfaces that apparently were used for ascending and decreasing the two floored building.

“Stairs!” said Mayer Jude and pointed to the floor beneath him. “It’s so much better than the ladders we used last year. They were my own design and had them built in less than a week!”

Rock was uncomfortable. He couldn’t identify the feeling exactly, at least not at first. Was it because the central Waste was nothing like he’d been expecting it to look? Was it because in a matter of days Caroline was going to wander her way around the Wall-without-Walls until she died like everyone else? Was it because this man that apparently was in charge of this tribe, this permanent tribe no less! Seemed far too friendly?

Rock dismissed each idea as it bloomed. He was uncomfortable at the change in the central Waste, he felt vulnerable here in a way he’d never felt vulnerable before. He worried about Caroline and her pointless quest also. His payment of five books had seemed like a dream when he’d accepted, but now the thought of knowing she would die in a matter of days made Rock wish he’d never taken the job anyway. And friendly Mayer Jude, well, Rock still had time for that issue.

No. None of those things were what caused the shakiness in Rock’s stomach. What it was was simple. It was the building, or more so, the ceiling above him, the ceiling between Rock and the sky. Rock had slept plenty of nights in tents, but he had never been in a tent this large. It felt wrong, unnatural, to build something that could block out the sky so completely. Rock couldn’t stop looking at the ceiling.

“It blocks the sky doesn’t it?” asked Mayer Jude with a slight smile.

“It uh… it does,” replied Rock.

“Most of them don’t like it that much, at least not ‘till it snows, then all the sudden sky be damned and let me in!” Mayer Jude shouted with a laugh.

“Them?” asked Rock.

“Well, us and them I guess,” replied Mayer Jude.

“Who are?” said Rock.

“Wanderers of course! Wanderers don’t like it when they can’t see the sky, but they don’t usually realize that until they visit a place where it actually happens.”

“You are not a Wanderer?” asked Caroline. She had been standing behind Rock when they first entered, but she quickly made her way to stand beside him as she addressed Mayer Jude.

“What I am my dear, is enchanted,” said Mayer Jude. He descended the final few stairs and pulled his robe back, baring his chest to her. Caroline looked quizzically from Rock then back to Jude.

“Thank you?” said Caroline.

“My dear, I am showing you I am unadorned with armor and as open to assault as yourself. Is this not the tradition where you travel?”

“This is Wanderer tradition,” interjected Rock, “but the lady is the daughter of the tribe of the Drenian and is not required, or expected, to bare her breast to anyone.”

“Perhaps it was just to show the beautiful woman that my heart, like my chest, is laid bare before her. Not to anyone you say?” continued Mayer Jude with a sly smile directed towards Rock. Before Rock had time to respond Mayer Jude moved past him and Caroline and spoke while looking at Matthew.

“Clearly you have not shown your breast to this child, don’t worry lad there will be other chances, it’s a HUGE world out there, because clearly this young man is not your child.”

“This is Matthew,” said Caroline. “He comes from a tribe traveling a few days west of here.”

“And why, Matthew, are you not still with your tribe three days west of here?” asked Mayer Jude.

“His tribe was…” Caroline began.

“Let the young man answer Caroline,” Mayer Jude said to her quickly without breaking eye contact with Matthew.

“Matthew, why are you not with your tribe?” Mayer Jude asked softly.

“They’re dead. The bad men killed them” the answered just as softly.

“The Voro?” said Mayer Jude quietly.

“When I’m older I’m gonna kill the bad men. And Rock said he’s gonna help me too!”

“It looks to me like Rock would be a good friend to have when hunting bad men Matthew. Do you have any previous experience in that line of work Mr. Rock.”

“It’s been known to occur,” said Rock.

Mayer Jude laughed loudly at the response.

“Now Mr. Rock, Mrs. it is miss, is it not? Caroline and young Mr. Matthew, would you like to come, I always love saying this, would you like to come…upstairs, and speak on the balcony. The view is wonderful and if we are lucky we might even have some food tonight.”

“What kind of food?” asked Matthew.

“Well, that depends. What is your favorite?”

“Mutton. I had it at a solar gathering once,”

“You know, I think Mutton is exactly what is on the menu tonight, isn’t that right?” said Mayer Jude loudly.

“Yes sir,” answered a male voice from another area of the house.

“There you go Matthew, mutton, just like you wanted. Now, no putting this off any longer, it’s time for us all to walk up the stairs!”

 

Chapter 24

By the Solar Disk, Such a Leap

“OK Matthew, watch carefully, this part is a bit tricky,” said Mayer Jude as he slowly lifted one leg and carefully placed it on the first step in the stairway. “To conquer the stairs, you must do it one step at a time, and very cautiously. Stairs are a dangerous thing to have in one’s house and the accidents they cause can be disastrous, isn’t that right?” said Mayer Jude, the last three words he again said loudly.

“Yes sir,” said the same male voice from another area of the house. Mayer Jude smiled again.

“Now Matthew, are you ready to walk your first stair?”

“It looks easy,” said Matthew.

“But looks are so often deceiving are they not Mr. Matthew?”

“I guess. But it looks easy.”

Mayer Jude rolled his eyes back in mock frustration. It didn’t worry Matthew; he’d seen the quick smile that ran across Mayer Jude’s lips before.

“I bet you think you could take the stairs two at a time, like a genuine stair-master, don’t you?”

Matthew put his hands on his hips, shaking his head and smiling while refusing to step on the stairs.

“Wait! You don’t mean? Are you saying…” Mayer Jude took a long pause while he dropped to his knees in front of Matthew and looked him in the eyes. “Matthew, are you telling me you think you could take these stairs three at a time?” Mayer Jude said it like a secret for Jude and Matthew alone. Matthew beamed and nodded vigorously.

“Alas we shall soon have another injury, but who am I to stop such a courageous heart. Matthew, feel free to ascend these stairs anyway you wish. Is the medic ready?” Mayer Jude asked loudly.

“…Yes sir,” a voice echoed back from the large house.

“Well, there you have it Matthew, the stairs, like the medic, wait for you. Please begin,” said Mayer Jude with an unexpected flourish towards the stairs with his hands.

Matthew looked at Mayer Jude, then to Rock and then to Caroline before he finally stepped up to the first stair. He stood still for a moment then leapt up and ahead, landing on the third stair.

“By the solar disk, such a leap!” said Mayer Jude with quiet mock-disbelief.

Matthew jumped again, then again, each time skipping multiple stairs. He jumped a fourth time and landed on the halfway platform where the stairs changed directions.

“Come now, both of you, or we might miss seeing Matthew reach the top of his very first staircase!”

Mayer Jude ran behind Matthew and up the stairs like a child himself. Rock and Caroline followed slowly enough after that by the time they reached the halfway platform Matthew had already reached the top of the stairway.

“See! I told you!” Matthew said to Mayer Jude when he reached the top.

“You did, you did. And the medic wasn’t even needed. Which is a good thing, let me tell you, the last child he worked on grew up seven years too early and now has had toes made of candy. I’m glad you avoided such an unwholesome fate.”

“And you two,” Mayer Jude continued, “How is your first experience walking up stairs?”

“They’re logical I guess, if you want to live in a place with two levels,” said Caroline.

“I’ve walked such things before,” said Rock.

“You have? Interesting, please tell me where,” said Mayer Jude.

“In the mountains, there are passes where stairs such as these have been carved out of the stone. It’s not like these wooden ones, but they are both stairs.”

“Yes! I have walked such passes myself. But to have them inside, isn’t it beautiful?”

“We came to speak with you about other things. May we do so?” asked Rock.

“We may,” said Mayer Jude while pointing to a table and chairs set out on the balcony before them. The table had been set with plates and dishes of food. Rock could smell the sweet savor of roasted mutton.

“After we eat of course,” said Mayer Jude and pulled out chairs for all of them at the table. The food smelled wonderful, perhaps the conversation could wait just a moment longer.

 

Chapter 25

Sorry, I’m ‘Primal’

When dinner was over two people came to clear the table. One of them, an older man, spoke quietly with Mayer Jude. Rock recognized in the man the same voice that had replied to Jude from across the house earlier. After the table had been cleared Mayer Jude suggested Matthew meet some of the children living nearby. When Caroline seemed worried Mayer Jude assured her he would be kept safe. Matthew waved goodbye and was gone before Caroline could voice a protest. Rock could tell she thought about saying something but stopped. She had too much on her mind.

The view from the balcony was impressive. The evening was falling on the central Waste. This area, which ten years before had been open fields and wandering tribes, was filling up with wooden houses surrounded by large farms growing produce and building products being traded throughout the entire Waste. Rock didn’t know what had happened, but he had a feeling Mayer Jude featured somewhere in the story, a story he was hoping to hear.

The story of the transformation of the central Waste was only one of the stories Rock wanted to hear tonight. He looked across the river to the empty expanse of the Wall-without-Walls beyond. Everything stopped after the river, no trails, no wooden houses, no farmer’s fields. Just a blank, dusty expanse as far as the eye could see. An empty expanse which killed anyone within. And Caroline intended to cross it.

“It’s quite the contrast, is it not?” Mayer Jude asked Rock. Mayer Jude pulled out a pipe and lit it.

“In seven years we’ve built all you see. We brought in wood for homes, we’ve planted fields, we built roads and we’ve dug canals to irrigate the crops. And in all that time that side of the river is denied me. No matter what we do on this side of the river that side is kept permanently out of reach.”

“The Wall-without-Walls?” asked Rock.

Mayer Jude nodded.

“Do you know anything about it?” asked Caroline.

Mayer Jude shook his head.

“Not enough,” he said. “I can convince my Centralians to do a lot of things, but I can’t ask them to walk into certain death. I’m not a king or a chief, I’m no tyrant.”

“What are you?” asked Rock.

Mayer Jude smiled.

“I’m what The Waste needs. An injection of life, I’m the hope for tomorrow, I’m a servant of the Phoenix.”

“You speak of the Gods, like the men from the mountains?”

“By the solar disk, no!” said Mayer Jude quickly with a laugh.

“The God’s they speak of know nothing of the seasons, or of building or planting. Their God’s say nothing but obedience and sacrifice.”

“And your Gods?” asked Rock.

“I am my God!” Mayer Jude said. “The Gods I teach are the gods that are mankind. The god of the mind, the god of potential, the god of rough-worn hands and sketched buildings plans. My Gods are the gods of ideas and more than anything else, the gods of implementation.

“In the beginning was the word, and in the end, the word is all a man has,” said Jude.

“You built this?” asked Rock, gesturing to the central Waste around him.

“I did. Years ago in my mind.”

“Your mind?” asked Caroline.

“My mind. The mind is the only place where something can be created from nothing,” said Jude.

“How? What happened here?” said Rock.

“Commerce. Industry. Mankind. This is life as it was meant to be lived. Not as fearful animals roaming a hunting ground, but as powerful men and women, deciding on a life and taking it. Creating, building, growing, trading. This is changing the world to better match your needs instead of adapting to what the world chooses to provide.”

“So you are a trader?”

“Among many things. Seven years ago I was the leader of a small clan. We were poor. We had few guns and access to fewer hunting grounds. We were able to trade with the larger tribes only after they best trades were gone. Like most Wanderers we traveled The Waste looking for ways to improve our state.

“We came here one season, to the central Waste. It was late in winter and a heavy snow had fallen, trapping us in our camp. We were hungry and we were tired. We no longer had the desire to move on, to find new grounds and to fight over them with others. We looked at The Waste around us and we made a pact amongst one another that from that day on we would live here, in the central Waste as a permanent people. We would learn to plant and grow crops, to build homes that would keep us warm in the winter, to become a people no longer on the run.

“We were freezing and we were sick and we realized we were something else, or, to be more accurate we realized we were no longer something else. We were no longer Wanderers taking the things that life bestowed on us only but we were builders, creating the life we wished to live.”

“And since then there have been none that have left you to wander again?”

“There have been some, but few. The life of primal nature calls stronger to some than others, but far more than have left have chosen to join us. Every year more and more Wanderers settle down in the central Waste and become part of our new way of life. We are now one of the largest tribes in The Waste, in another year or two we will be the largest tribe.”

“That is if the Vorin don’t take it from you first,” said Rock.

“Yes, the Vorin, they were unanticipated,” replied Jude.

“You called them something different before?” asked Rock.

“Did I? I don’t recall.”

“You said they were the ‘Voro’ when you were speaking with the boy.”

“Sounds the same. Some say Vorin, some say Voro. It is hardly a mistake,” said Jude.

“Where did the name come from?” asked Rock.

“Where every name comes from, inside the mind.”

“How long have these Voro been raiding near the central Waste?” asked Rock.

“Less than a month. They mainly hit the smaller groups outside of the Center. They haven’t come close enough to be a threat to us directly yet though they are raiding our supply caravans and stealing our trade.”

“Have you had any encounters with them?” asked Rock.

“I haven’t. I rarely travel away from the Center these days. I have heard of other’s encounters, but from what I have been told the Voro are vicious and efficient killers. People rarely live through encounters with them.”

“We did,” said Caroline.

“Did you? Please explain,” said Jude.

Caroline told the story of the attack, how the Voro had only had bows and arrows, no guns, and had attacked on horses. She told how she and Rock had killed five of them and how Rock had been hit by an arrow.

“You were shot? I hear their weapons are powerful and that those that have been hit rarely live,” said Jude.

“It’s true. It was rare fortune and nothing more which allowed me to live.”

“Well, you must be a man of ‘rare fortune’ then Mr. Rock.”

“I was that day.”

“I could use a man with your experience in the central Waste. Any chance you would be interested in sticking around for a time?”

“Sorry, I’m ‘primal,’” Rock said and shook his head.

“Unfortunate, but overall not a problem. More Wanderers join us everyday. The Voro raids are scaring members of the smaller clans and families. They come to the central Waste for protection.”

“And you give them…?”

“Protection. Naturally. I take my responsibility to my people very seriously.”

“As any tribe chief should,” said Caroline.

“Mayer,” said Mayer Jude.

“Mayer?” asked Caroline.

“Yes, Mayer. It’s an old title for a person that runs not a tribe, but a settlement. I’m not a chief, I’m the Mayer.”

“I thought that was your name.”

“Just a title, my birth name is Jude Smyth. My people call me Mayer Jude. If you didn’t come for protection then why are you here?”

Rock and Caroline looked at one another. Did she want Mayer Jude to know she had been charged with crossing the Wall-without-Walls to find support against the Voro? He would probably see it as Rock did, a worthless task that would result in nothing more than Caroline’s unnecessary premature death. Rock waited on a signal from Caroline before responding. If she didn’t want it discussed it wouldn’t be.

“Interesting…” said Mayer Jude with a smile. “Do I detect something hidden? Is there a secret here?”

Caroline looked at Rock. Deciding.

In a few days, nothing would matter anymore. She had started this journey hopeful she might succeed but traveling had worn her down. The state of flux the entire Waste was in exhausted her emotionally, seeing Matthew’s loss exhausted her and seeing the immense size of the Wall-without-Walls for the first time had seemed to have robbed her of all hope. Who was she to fight whatever patrolled the Wall?

But what reason was there for secrecy? She nodded at Rock then spoke herself.

“I am charged by my tribe to cross the Wall-without-Walls and make contact with those on the other side. I am to convince them to join in the fight against the Vorin and assist my people in getting their ancestral lands back.”

“And you think it’s a waste? That you have no chance?” asked Jude.

“I know nothing about the Wall. I feel unable to complete such a charge.”

“You know as much about the Wall as most of us do,” replied Jude.

“Nothing is nothing, even if everyone knows it,” said Caroline.

“I said ‘most’, not ‘everyone,” said Jude.

“There are those who know about the Wall-without-Walls? How could they? No one has ever returned.”

“That’s overly dramatic horseshit. Lots of people that cross the river return. Hell, it seems like half my tribe crossed that river that first year we stayed here.”

“They crossed?” asked Caroline.

“Sure, the trick was they turned back around before it was too late.”

“What kills those that don’t turn around? I saw a body of someone in the Wall when I was younger from afar,” said Rock.

“The man with the spyglass?” asked Jude.

“Yes,” said Rock.

“He was around when we got here. Would have made a pretty duster off my clan at that time if we’d of had any dusters to trade him. He let me look through his spyglass occasionally. I saw the same bodies.”

“Has anyone that’s come back seen the bodies in person?”

“A couple. Not many.”

“What do they say about them? What killed them?” asked Rock.

“Bullets.”

“Bullets?” asked Rock.

“Dusters, bullets. Someone had shot them.”

“With bullets?” asked Caroline.

“How else would someone shoot them, arrows? What did you expect? That the Wall-without-Walls was some magic land where ghosts lived on Wanderer souls? When you want to kill a person you use bullets.”

“Bullets,” asked Rock again.

“’Bullets’ with an ‘s’ to describe the number that is used to kill multiple persons. But as far as each individual death goes it’s just one bullet,” Jude leaned over the table and placed his index finger on the middle of Caroline’s forehead, “right here.”

Mayer Jude got up from the table and left the room. He returned a moment later holding a sun-bleached skull. He placed the skull on the table.

The bone appeared bright white and brittle. Whoever had held claim to the skull in their life had obviously died long ago and their remains had laid on the dry dirt of the Wall for years.

There was a small hole in the front of the skull, above and centered between the eyes, almost exactly where Jude had touched Caroline moments before. The back of the skull had a larger hole, where the bullet had exited the head. Clearly the owner of the skull had died instantly, and Jude was right, they had been looking directly at their killer moments before instant death came.

“Look on the bright side, they die quick,” said Jude with a chuckle.

Caroline appeared very far from smiling.

“You sure you want to cross?” asked Jude.

“I have a duty to my people,” responded Caroline.

“A duty to try to help them, or a duty to sacrifice yourself?”

“A duty to honor my people.”

“Don’t try to baffle me with bullshit. Suicide is suicide, and honor is just a word we use to feel better about making poor decisions. You can walk into the Wall-without-Walls and take a bullet in the head any time you want and no one will stop you though I think there are some here that would stop you if they could.” Jude looked at Rock then after a moment continued. “But if you really want to help your tribe it will take more than the thoughtless actions of an automaton.”

“Automaton?” asked Caroline.

“A human, or, at least, something that looks human from the outside, but inside it lacks everything that makes a real human the courage, the drive, the initiative, the determination, even the fear, and selfishness.”

“The love?” asked Caroline quickly, then she went silent, almost embarrassed like she’d shared a thought that she’d intended not to.

“Yes, even love,” said Jude quietly. “Everything has its opposite.”

“And fear, it’s the opposite of love?” asked Caroline.

“Not hardly. Opposites can’t exist in the same place at the same time. Something can’t be hot and cold at once, a trail can’t turn right and left at the same moment and remain the same trail. But a person can feel love and fear at the same time, sometimes even towards the same people.”

“So what is the opposite of love?” asked Caroline.

“Nothing,” said Jude.

“It has no opposite?” asked Caroline.

“No, the opposite of love is nothing. It’s emptiness inside. It’s walking into the Wall-without-Walls with no plan to actually cross it, it’s giving up without a fight because inside the emptiness just isn’t worth fighting any longer.”

Caroline broke down. She couldn’t take it any more. For weeks she’s been bottling what she’d felt inside. Her last few months had been one dashed basket of hopes after another and here, in the central Waste, in front of a man she had just met, and a man she had only known for a handful of days, she stopped fighting so hard to hold it all back. The fear, the sadness and strangely enough, the nothing, it all came out in a torrent. She didn’t say anything, she didn’t know what words to say anyway, this wasn’t thought, this wasn’t logic, this wasn’t language. It was feeling, and because of that it was so much more.

Rock didn’t know what to do. She was sobbing. Deep sobs with fast, powerful breaths in between. What was his duty? Should he comfort her? Should he hold her? He didn’t owe the daughter of the Drenian chief anything more. He’d gotten her here, to the Wall-without-Walls, that was the only duty he had. But did he owe her, Caroline, anything more? Not the daughter of a chief, but the woman who had saved his life? The woman who had stayed with him after he’d been shot by the Vorin arrow. The woman who had insisted to Rock that Matthew join their small group? Rock didn’t understand any of this. He could look at the sky and tell you the weather for the next two days. He could spot a game trail from atop a riding horse, he could ride straight into the arrows of barbarian invaders and know exactly what to do to live through it. But this was more than Rock understood. The reality of it was that a primal life, a life of instinct, was far less complicated and required so much less of Rock.

Caroline continued to cry, but her racking sobs gradually lessened. Eventually, she looked up, her tear stained face looking first at Mayer Jude, then to Rock, where she lingered.

“Feel better?” asked Jude with a smile.

“I… I think I do,” said Caroline.

“People need floods, just like the mountains need ‘em. It clears the dead mess that grows as the seasons pass. Now how do you feel about crossing the Wall-without-Walls?”

“I don’t want to die,” Caroline said.

“But?” asked Mayer Jude.

“But I don’t want to let my people down. I don’t want to abandon them.”

“Then don’t.”

“But how can I do both?”

“Cross the Wall.”

“It will kill me,” said Caroline.

“It will try to kill you,” corrected Jude. “Don’t let it.”

“How do you expect me to do that? Fly? Do you think I’m some magic ghost? Living in the soul of a Wanderer?”

“No, But I assume you know well enough to read a map,” said Jude.

“There are maps that can show me the way across the Wall?”

“No, there are not ‘maps’. There is a map. Singular, one.”

“And you have this map?” said Rock, finally jumping back into the conversation.

“I know who does. And I can tell you how to get there.”

“Then please, share this map with us,” said Rock.

“It’s not that easy. I’ll tell you how to find the map. It’s not far. First, though, I need something from you…” said Mayer Jude, and he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket.

 

Chapter 26

You Leave in Ten Minutes

“I need your help Mr. Rock. If you agree to give it then I will tell you where and how to find the map across the Wall. There is a way across. I have personally met men that have done it and come back, but without the map it’s suicide. The trail isn’t marked and if you wander off, you die.”

“What do you need from me?” asked Rock.

“Really not much. This sheet of paper describes the details of a shipment of product that I have agreed to provide to a tribe two days west of here. When I agreed on sending the shipment I hadn’t anticipated that by the time I would have to deliver it the Voro would be between the central Waste and the destination.”

“You need me to take it?” asked Rock.

“I need you to accompany it. You won’t be alone.”

“And what will I be delivering?”

“Does it make a difference?”

“You know it doesn’t,” said Rock.

“You’re right, it doesn’t, but in this case you will be delivering wheat. Seven wagon loads of it to be truthful. You’ll be delivering it to the Tongsta tribe.”

“A mountain tribe?” asked Rock.

“Yes, they tell me it’s hard to grow wheat in the mountains.”

“That’s understandable,” said Rock.

“Wait,” interjected Caroline. “I have a say in this too, what if you get killed?” For the first time that day Rock laughed out loud.

“What if the sun doesn’t rise tomorrow? What if wolves walked and talked as men? What does it matter?”

“It matters because, well… it matters! Life is important.”

Rock raised his eyebrows at the woman who, until moments ago, had been planning on walking into the Wall-without-Walls unaided in any way.

“Don’t look at me like that,” said Caroline, frowning.

“He’ll be well guarded. He has weapons I assume. The other men traveling with him will also have weapons.”

“I have a gun as well,” said Caroline.

“You?” asked Rock.

“Me. I’m going to.” Rock started to say something, but Caroline continued. “And don’t you pretend like I’ll be a burden. You know as well as I do I saved your ass during the Voro attack. I killed more than you did, from further away too!”

“Clearly you know what’s best,” said Rock.

“No. She’s right. A woman can fire a gun as accurately as a man. I’d love to have her accompany you. The more guns you have the safer the load will be,” said Mayer Jude.

“I’m not going for free,” said Caroline.

“Excuse me?” asked Jude.

“You’re paying Rock with information. You pay me with a promise. After I cross into the Wall-without-Walls you take care of Matthew. I want to send him to my people, the Drenian, but the central Waste is safer for now.”

“Agreed. Matthew will be provided food, shelter and full membership in the Centralian tribe until he is old enough to decide to choose to leave himself,” said Jude.

“Well?” asked Caroline.

“Well, anything else?” asked Jude. The three stood silent for a moment, and then they each nodded to the other. “Then let’s get out of here. The noises you’ve been hearing for the last half hour are the sounds of the final touches on the caravan. You leave in ten minutes,” said Jude.

 

Chapter 27

It Should be Easy Then

“Rock, meet Belasar, we call him Belas for short,” said Mayer Jude. The man Jude was speaking of was sitting on a muscular brown horse well above Rock and Jude’s eye level. He looked down at Mayer Jude and Rock and nodded then dismounted before addressing them.

“It’s an honor to meet you Mr. Rock,” said Belas. He was tall, almost as tall as Rock and had hair colored somewhere between blond and brown. The muscles in his forearm, the only part of his arms and chest that wasn’t covered by a dark cloak, were powerful and defined. Under his riding cloak, his chest was clearly large and rounded. His grip on Rock’s hand when they shook was as Rock would have expected, strong. Physically Belas was a powerful man.

In spite of Belas’s physical size and strength, there was something about his face that was friendly, playful almost.

“Rock and Caroline will be accompanying you on your journey. They have their own guns and fire dusters and from what I’ve been told the lady is quite the shot, so don’t get any ideas,” said Mayer Jude with a chuckle. Belas frowned slightly at the joke. “They have both encountered the Vorin before and lived to tell of it. I want you to consider what each of them has to say on this trip. They’ve seen action we haven’t. They might have perspectives that are worth considering.”

Belas nodded.

“I’m glad to have you both accompanying,” he said. “What are you thoughts on traveling through lands with the Vorin?” he asked Rock immediately.

“Dangerous. But if we stick close together we might be OK. How many are there?”

“We don’t know. They’ve been using the valley between Centralia and mountains of the Tongsta tribe to feed their horses. The last Wanderers that passed through said there were over a thousand, but it was at night so we can’t be sure. Is it true they don’t have guns?”

“Just bows and arrows,” said Rock.

“It should be easy then,” said Belas with a smile.

“No. It’s not. What they lack in guns they make up for in maneuverability. They ride their horses like they were born mid-gallop. Their bows are powerful and their arrows fly far and strong. They will pass through the thickest man and still stake into an ironwood tree.”

“And the most important thing to remember is they have far more arrows than you do dusters. Don’t engage them unless it’s absolutely necessary,” said Mayer Jude.

“We’ll travel at night, sleep in the daytime,” said Belas.

“Good idea,” said Rock.

“You know where the Tongsta will meet you?” Mayer Jude asked Belas.

“Yes,” Belas replied.

“Don’t take long. Unload the wheat and load the items they have brought for the trade. Here is a list of what you will be bringing back. You shouldn’t need all seven wagons to get the traded items back. If you have to leave empty wagons behind do it. But try not to.”

“Understood,” said Belas. He took the sheet of paper from Mayer Jude.

Wagons were exiting a large barn nearby on Mayer Jude’s property and lining up together on the road near the front gate. They were open wagons, not covered. In the back of each wagon were many sacks full of what Rock assume was wheat. Each wagon had four horses pulling it and two men sitting on the front bench, one to hold the reins and another to hold the rifle. There were also another ten men, plus Belas, Rock, and Caroline, that would be riding their own horses. Twenty-seven people total.

Twenty-seven people was a lot to risk on a job like this. Mayer Jude must really need what he’s trading for, thought Rock. He mounted his horse and looked around for Caroline. He found her standing underneath the balcony, a man was holding her horse by the reins near her. She was crouched down talking to Matthew. Rock turned his horse and rode towards her.

“Goodbye Matthew. We will see you in four days,” said Rock.

Matthew was hugging Caroline, holding himself close to her. Rock could tell that she had been crying.

“Why are you leaving me?” asked Matthew.

“We have to, we don’t want to. But you will be safe here Matthew. And we will see you when we get back.”

“You promised to help me kill the bad men when I get older.”

“And I still will Matthew, don’t worry, there never seems to be a shortage,” said Rock.

“Please be safe,” said the little boy. He let go of Caroline. She forced a smile and nodded.

“We will. Now have fun while you’re here. And work hard if Mayer Jude asks for your help. There are a lot of important things happening right now and we need all the help we can get. We’ll see you in four days.” She hugged Matthew again then mounted her horse. She didn’t like the thought of another day’s journey before she’d gotten any sleep, but it certainly wasn’t the most difficult thing Caroline had ever been asked to do.

She looked at Rock as Belas approached.

“If you two are ready let’s go. You’re both riding in the front with me. I want to hear everything you know about the Vorin and we have a long night’s ride ahead.”

 

Chapter 28

If you Saw their Women you’d Understand

They traveled the next four hours without rest. Because of the wagons and cargo, they traveled slower than Rock and Caroline had grown used to over the past few weeks. For the first hour they had a couple of torches in the front of the column of wagons, but by the time they got far enough away to lose sight of all lights in Centralia (that seemed to be what Mayer Jude called his settlement anyway) Belas told the torchbearers to put them out to avoid being seen by anyone else. For the rest of the evening, they would navigate by the light of the moon and the knowledge of the stars.

It hadn’t taken long for Rock and Caroline to tell Belas all they knew about the Vorin. It did seem to be the Vorin again at least from what Belas called them. The term “Voro” had only been used by Mayer Jude so far and come to think of it, he hadn’t explained why. Belas asked many questions, why they thought the Vorin were here, to rape and plunder most likely, where they thought they came from, some goddamned place I hope they’d go back to according to Caroline and what was the best way to combat them, bullets, fired from far away, quickly and accurately. It was this last question they spent most their time discussing until halfway through the day’s travel, or nights travel to be more accurate, when they stopped at a stream to rest and water the horses.

“Have you made this journey before?” Rock asked Belas while filling his waterskin.

“Yep, lots of times. It’s a straight shot out of the central basin and two days journey to the foothills of the mountains where the Tongsta live.”

“What do the Tongsta do in the mountains?” asked Caroline.

“Screw sheep!” said one of the men sitting in a wagon and laughed. His partners joined in the laughter until Belas motioned them to be quiet.

“The Tongsta raise sheep,” said Belas, then continued, “though they might screw a few here and there. But if you saw their women you’d understand.”

Rock smiled. He preferred the solitary life to company for the most part, but company like this wasn’t too bad as long as it didn’t happen all that often.

“And we’re trading sacks of wheat to a mountain tribe for sheep?” he asked Belas.

“Does the fact that the sheep we’re trading for are no longer virgins hurt the trade in value?” asked Caroline with a smile.

The men around them went quiet, surprised to hear such a joke from a woman. Rock was just as surprised but tried to hide it.

After a moment Belas responded.

“Nope… the people we trade ‘em too like a bit o’ experience.”

Everyone laughed.

“How will you keep the sheep quiet on the trip back?” asked Rock.

“We aren’t trading for sheep this time, no matter how bad some of these sheep shaggers want to,” said Belas, motioning the men around him with a smile.

“What are we picking up?”

“Ore, according to the paperwork. Something called, let me see… mag-ne-tite.”

“Why would Mayer Jude want that?” asked Caroline.

“I don’t ask the questions. I just move the merchandise,” said Belas.

“Will it be heavy?” asked Rock.

“Ore usually is,” said Belas.

“But the wagons, we have enough to move it all?”

“We should, but we won’t break any speed records on the way back.”

“Belas!” shouted a voice from further upstream. Belas motioned the man to come closer.

“There are horse tracks, fifty yards up,” said the man.

“How many,” asked Belas. The men around him grew silent.

“I don’t know, fifty, a hundred maybe?”

“How long ago?”

“Fresh, definitely earlier today.”

Belas motioned for the men to gather around. When they were all close enough to hear he began speaking.

“Looks like there might be some Vorin close by. I don’t need to remind you we do not want to fight them if we can avoid it but if we have to we need to be prepared. No sleeping in the wagons, gunmen, I want you on the lookout. No talking, no laughing. Wagon drivers, stay close to the wagon in front of you, no more than three horse lengths. This is pasture land and it’s easy driving, pay attention and you’ll be fine. If we see anything I’ll give the signal to circle the wagons and set up a defensive perimeter. We’ll shoot from behind the wheat. Again, stay quiet and keep your eyes open, the first man to see the Vorin gets first dibs next time we pick up sheep.”

The men quietly laughed at the joke, but they understood the importance of staying alert. Then they all remounted their horses and got back on their wagons. Now that signs of the Vorin had been spotted the journey was bound to get more interesting.

 

Chapter 29

An Enemies’ Appreciation for Beauty

They continued to see signs of Vorin nearby as they traveled. When the sun came up that morning Belas called a temporary halt to the journey. They would stay still during the sunlight, less movement meant less chance of being spotted. No fires were allowed. They posted sentries on the camp perimeter and ate cold food. It didn’t matter to Rock and Caroline. They were both exhausted after the double day of traveling, the first day into the central Waste and later that night leaving the central Waste with the trade caravan. After eating, they both laid down and got what rest they could under one of the wagons. They kept their horses and guns close. They didn’t know if a Vorin attack was in the future.

The attack came midway through the day. Rock was woken up by the sound of a ram’s horn being blown. It was the signal that sentries had spotted Vorin. Rock was up instantly, Caroline wasn’t far behind. The wagons were already circled and Rock helped bring the rest of the horses into the interior of the protective enclave.

One of the sentries was riding back towards the circled wagons like there was a pack of wolves at his heels. Behind him was a group of men on horses, riding just as hard, like they were the wolves and were moments from their prey.

Rock looked around him. He and the rest of the group, minus the single sentry that was riding mad towards them, were behind the circle of wagons. Running from one wagon to the next was a length of thick rope. This rope acted to block the ability for others to ride straight into the protected center through the gaps between the individual wagons. As far as defense was concerned the rope wasn’t much, it certainly wouldn’t block any arrows, but combined with the mass of the grain-filled wagons Rock hoped the rope would do its job at keeping the Vorin away, at least out of arrow range.

“Open the wagons!” shouted Belas. Two men pulled the rope between two wagons off, opening a place for the escaping sentry to enter the circle.

“Rifles up!”

The sentry was less than one hundred yards away and closing in fast. His pursuers were another fifty yards beyond and appeared to be closing faster.

Rock and Caroline were sharing the same wagon. They were propped up in the back using bags of grain to stabilize their rifles.

“Fire on my order!” shouted Belas. “Hold…” the pursuers came closer. Rock estimated there were at least fifty of them. It was enough that there was a considerate amount of dust being thrown into the air behind the core of riders. They were outnumbered two-to-one, but as long as most of these men knew how to shoot straight Rock knew they had a decent chance of getting out of this alive.

“Hold…” continued Belas again. The sentry was close enough now Rock could make out the fear on his face as he rode

Rock heard a command come from the Vorin, a single word shouted loudly by the lead rider. As a single body, each of the Vorin pulled bows from behind themselves, in almost the same instant each bow had an arrow notched.

The lead rider in the Vorin attack force shouted again. Before the word had fully left his mouth each of the riders fired their arrows.

With the sound of fifty bows being fired was also the sound of a single gunshot. Caroline had fired her rifle into the body of charging men. The man shouting the orders hesitated for a moment, then adjusted on the back of his saddle before falling off the side. He’d been hit.

“Fire!” shouted Belas, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

At almost the same moment the Vorin let loose their arrows the Centralian men fired their guns. Rock fired twice, two men fell from their saddles. Around them, at least, ten more men fell. But some of the Centralians were hit as well. Rock saw two men take arrows directly to their foreheads as they peered over the sacks of grain. Their heads were the only part of them that were open to Vorin arrows. The accuracy of their bowmen was astounding. Each Centralian hit died instantaneously, his head and neck snapping back and exploding into bits of bone and blood.

The Vorin appeared to be as well trained with reloading arrows mid stride a galloping horse as they were at firing them. But no matter how quickly they could reload their bows with another shot it wasn’t as quick as the Centralians could tap off another round from their semi-automatic rifles. While close to 40 of the Vorin found time to reload before the second volley of arrows could be fired another ten Vorin fell from their horses as a result of the second volley of bullets. Now that the Vorin had lost over twenty men from bullet fire and the Centralians only two to arrows the numbers had to have been much closer to being even. But Rock wasn’t sure how much that mattered anymore since the Vorin were almost on top of them.

“Open fire!” shouted Belas. The men sitting behind the grain sacks fired freely. Rock fired off two more rounds. One hit a horse’s neck causing a stream of blood to shoot at least a foot from the animal. Rock’s second bullet hit a Vorin man in the upper chest, knocking him from his horse. Caroline was having just as much success, perhaps even more. It seemed like every time she pulled the trigger another Vorin tumbled from his mount.

The Vorin were almost to the circled wagons by this time, but they had lost well over half of their fighting force. If they continued to ride hard into the wagons they might break through the ropes then it was anyone’s guess who would be successful fighting in such a close environment. But the Vorin didn’t break through the rope. The body of riders split into two. The body of men on the left turned to their right and the body of men on the right turned to their left. The Centralians continued to fire and more Vorin fell from their horses while the group as a whole attempted to put distance between them and the gun fire.

“They’re running!” shouted one of the Centralians.

“Keep shooting!” shouted Belas. As the Vorin rode away men continued to fall from their horses up until they were a couple hundred yards from the Centralians. Finally, when there were still gunshots sounding, but no Vorin were falling anymore, Belas called for the men to conserve their bullets. The final group of Vorin that escaped was less than ten in number, and some of those appeared to be hit as well based on how they were riding.

There was movement in the open field outside the circle of wagons. A few horses and many Vorin were twisting and moaning on the field where they had fallen. The Centralians ran into the open plain and began shooting the still living, but seriously injured, Vorin.

“Hold your fire!” should Belas. “We don’t need to waste ammunition on men that are going to die anyway.

Rock checked the status of their group. Three were dead, the two men that had taken arrows to the forehead in the first volley, and the sentry that had ridden back to the circle. He had an arrow in his back. Two other men had been nicked by arrows and had flesh wounds that needed to be bandaged and one had taken a chunk of wood in his face when an arrow had hit nearby and exploded. His face and eye were scratched, but nothing too serious.

The Vorin around them were half dead already and half would be dead within the next 12 hours. One tried to fire an arrow at the Centralians as they walked among the causalities, but his broken body didn’t have the strength.

Belas instructed the men to bury their dead quickly. He put other men in charge of stripping the Vorin of any valuables, especially any unbroken bows or arrows. This was the first time most of the men had seen the Vorin up close. They were shorter than the Centralians with dark hair and rounded faces. The shortest hair they found on a Vorin body was shoulder length while the longest they found was well down the man’s back. They had thick shoulders and strong arms. They all had leather protective clothing that was decorated in bright stitchings showing various symbols and pictures. The stitchings were made with a type of thread, differently colored and pushed through the leather and back again. At a different time and place it might have been beautiful, now it was just uncomfortable to see an enemies’ appreciation for beauty. On each of their backs was a leather pouch which held their arrows.

The Centralians worked quickly. The Vorin, living and dead, were stripped of their clothing and weapons and the injured Centralians were bandaged as best as possible. Now that the Vorin knew about their company it was a waste, said Belas, for them to sit around the remainder of the day. He decided the Centralians would start back on the trail for the Tongsta and they wouldn’t stop until they were away from the pasture-like valley patrolled by the Vorin and into the foothills of the mountains.

 

Chapter 30

What Might have Been Doesn’t Matter

“You fired too soon,” Belas said to Caroline from the front of the caravan where the two of them, with Rock, were riding together.

“I killed the leader with that shot,” said Caroline.

“I know. But I hadn’t given the order.”

“Does it matter? We’re alive, they’re dead. It might have gone differently, but it didn’t.”

“It does matter. I am the leader of this group. My men know that you didn’t follow orders, they saw that, and that undermines my ability as a leader,” said Belas.

Rock stayed quiet, content to let this play itself out without his involvement.

“Undermines? The fact that I didn’t obey your orders might have made the difference between the fact that we lived instead of died. If I hadn’t killed their leader they might not have retreated and more of your men might be dead.”

“What might have been doesn’t matter. What matters is what did happen, and what did happen is you didn’t follow my orders in front of my men.”

“And I suppose I get a spanking for that?” continued Caroline.

“You won’t get anything for that. You aren’t one of my men and I appreciate your help and what you did. But you won’t do it again. Do you understand?” asked Belas.

“Yes,” said Caroline frustratingly, then she turned her horse around and rode to the back of the caravan. This was ridiculous and she needed some time away.

 

Chapter 31

He Doesn’t Understand the Concept behind the Word ‘Secret’

They arrived at the foothills of the mountains where the Tongsta tribe lived not long after the sun had set. The Tongsta were waiting already. Here the ground was rocky and strewn with boulders. The wagons moved slowly through the terrain, but so would horses. This knowledge kept the Tongsta relatively safe from the Vorin, there was no reason for the invading people to attack the well-entrenched and protected Tongsta in their mountain home, at least not while there was still plenty of easy pickings on the plains below.

There was a fire going when the Centralians arrived and many of the Tongsta had begun drinking. They were laughing and playing. At the Centralian arrival, they initially quieted down for a moment, but soon after the laughter and song started again.

Belas met with the Tongsta chief. They were friendly to each other like they had traded many times before. Belas showed him the sacks of wheat, some had holes from arrows in their sides, but not much had been lost overall. The chief was happy with the wheat and he called his men over to unload the wagons.

“Attacked on the plain?” asked a voice from behind Rock.

He turned around and saw a young man. He wasn’t wearing the wool clothing worn by the rest of the mountain living Tongsta and he had a strange object resting on the end of his nose made up of two clear glass like circles behind which Rock could see his eyes. The young man seemed to fit in well with the natives in spite of his differences. Rock nodded and responded.

“About fifty. We killed most before the rest retreated. They killed three of us.”

“Robert Ethredge,” said the man and extended his hand to Rock.

“Rock,” replied Rock.

“Rock? Your name is Rock?” asked Robert?

“For as long as I can remember.”

“Wonderful! Why absolutely terrific! That may be the greatest, most truly wholesome name I’ve ever heard. Definitely better than Robert!” said the young man.

“I see…” said Rock. He tried turning away from Robert, but the young man wouldn’t have anything to do with it.

“Mr. Rock, you are named after my absolutely most favorite things in the world! Why, when Mayer Jude told me I was going to be living with this sheep-shagging Tongsta, no offense to ‘em, they’re a great people once you get to know ‘em, but when he told me I was gonna go live in the mountains with these strange people do you know what I said?”

“Something multisyllabic?” asked Rock.

“No… Wait, yes… well, what I said was absolutely, because I know that in these mountains I’d have the chance to study all the rocks, that’s your name!, that I could possibly want to.”

“Lot of rocks in these mountains ehh?” said Rock.

“You bet there are! Why I can see igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks some days before I even stop for lunch. I’ve seen flint, jaspillite, limestone, phonolite, obsidian, dasite, granite…” Robert continued listing at least fifteen more types of rock before he had to stop to take a breath. When he did Rock interrupted before Robert could continue listing his many geological friendships.

“And the one we’re picking up today, have you studied that one?”

“Magnetite? Absolutely! I was the one that suggested to Mayer Jude we’d find Magnetite in these mountains in the first place. I said to him, Mayer, I can’t be sure where we’ll find it, or how difficult it’ll be to get it out, but I’m willing to bet my first chunk of quartz those sheep shaggin’ mountains are full of it!”

Rock didn’t know why Mayer Jude needed this mineral so badly, but he figured the best way to get information was from a person that enjoyed the sound of their own voice so he continued asking questions.

“And the purpose Mayer Jude wants’ this magnetite for, do you think it’s going to work?”

“Well, of course it will, it’s not the only way to make pig iron, but it’s the easiest way available to us presently. Just add some charcoal and let ‘em burn.”

“And the pig iron, it will be high enough quality?” said Rock, fishing as best he could for answers.

“High enough quality? It’s just pig iron, ain’t much too it. It’s turning it to steel that’s the tricky part.”

“Steel?” asked Rock.

“Absolutely,” said Robert. “I told Mayer Jude that with the right resources we could be forging steel, just like in the days before the Wandering, inside six more months. Once that happens we’ll be able to make our own steel tools, knives, steel cable and even our own guns. Once we can do that we can start building bridges, and railroads, and even motors and engines eventually.”

Rock had no idea what Robert was talking about. He knew what knives were, and guns. He understood what a bridge was and basic tools, but he had never heard of railroads, or motors, or cable or engines. Robert could tell by looking at Rock’s face that he didn’t understand what he was explaining.

“Look, see that rope you’ve got in the back of your wagon?”

“Yes.”

“It’s made of fibers and will hold a thousand pounds before it breaks, maybe two. It can be cut with a small knife, it can burn up in a fire, if it gets wet it can get moldy and break down. But when we can build steel cable it will be the same thickness as that rope, but it will hold twenty times as much weight, it will last for years and years, it won’t get moldy, it won’t get wet and it won’t burn.”

“Why would we need that?”

“Why wouldn’t we! There are a thousand things that we will be able to do with it, and some of those things will open roads to lead to others things that we can’t even imagine now!”

“And guns?” asked Rock.

“The guns! We will be able to forge our own barrels, receivers, bolts and firing pins. All the guns we have right now have been passed down since before the Wandering. They’re wearing out. Soon, without our guns, we won’t be able to fight with tribes like the Vorin because of their mastery of more primitive fighting styles like horses and bows. With the ability to forge steel we can make new guns using patterns from the broken ones. We can build new gun styles, guns that shoot over a mile for long distance protection, small guns that we can carry in a pocket or bag. All this takes an understanding of steel.”

“I see you’ve met Robert,” said Belas.

“I have. He’s very excitable,” said Rock.

“He is. But don’t let that fool you. He’s the best man for the job up here. And Mayer Jude’s trusting him with a lot from what I can tell.”

“How long are you staying in these mountains?” asked Rock.

“Now that we have enough ore to experiment with I’m heading back to Centralia with you tomorrow. The Mayer and I got a ton to talk about, like how to build the mine and how the smelting process is really supposed to work, not to mention the experiments! Mayer Jude was only able to get me the books I needed last year and I’m excited to finally see the process in person. Just imagine it, by this time next year Centralia will be forging steel!”

After his last excited outburst Robert smiled at Rock and Belas then wandered off to the wagons to oversee the loading of the raw ore, Rock heard him yelling at one of the Tongsta tribesmen to be careful picking up what was likely some of Robert’s personal things.

“Sounds like you’ve been initiated?” said Belas when Robert was gone.

“Initiated?” asked Rock.

“Robert doesn’t understand the concept behind the word ‘secret’. Sounds to me like he shared a bit of his excitement with you.”

“He certainly does talk. I don’t see how it matters to me.”

“It doesn’t. I’d of told you the same info if you’d have asked. Mayer Jude’s got some big plans in store for Centralia. Robert’s a part of some of the most important aspects.”

“What about you?” asked Rock.

“Me too. I’m the muscle. I’m in charge of keeping the bad guys away and the good guys safe.”

“But occasionally you also guard ore?”

Belas shook his head.

“It’s not the ore I’m here for. It’s Robert. Come tomorrow morning when we start heading back to Centralia there isn’t a person whose safety is more important to me than his. His brain is the reason why were here. We’re not trading the grain for the ore, the Tongsta just think we are. We’re picking up Robert and what he needs to perfect whatever process he has going on inside that dizzy head of his. That’s my duty, straight from Mayer Jude.”

“Interesting,” said Rock.

“Now let’s have some fun tonight, it might be our last chance. Now that the Vorin know where we are I worry some of these men won’t live through tomorrow.”

 

Chapter 32

I’m Going to need your Help if we’re Going to Have any Chance

Before leaving the Tongsta camp early the next day, Belas suggested to his nervous men that the Vorin might not attack them at all after losing so badly in the earlier encounter. Rock understood enough to realize invading people wouldn’t see it that way and the only thing they could expect to be different next time they came in contact with the Vorin would be that there would be many, many more of them to ensure they didn’t lose.

Rock suggested to Belas traveling under the cover of night would be safer, but Belas didn’t want to wait another 12 hours once the sun came up. Belas had abandoned the idea of traveling only at night after they had been attacked on the way to the mountains. He claimed the purpose of night traveling had been to avoid notifying the Vorin of their presence but now that they had been spotted and survivors had most likely made it back to their camp to notify the rest, traveling at night was unnecessary. Rock didn’t see how this was the case, but he didn’t see how it was his responsibility either.

The first day of traveling went without incident. Robert rode in the front of the group with Belas, Caroline, and Rock. Rock seriously considered moving his horse to the back of the caravan, behind each of the wagons that had been loaded up with a few sacks of heavy ore, but decided against it partially because there was too much dust at the end of the caravan and partially because he could keep a better eye on Caroline riding with her, and Caroline, unlike Rock, loved talking with Robert.

Caroline and Robert had become instant friends the moment they had met. From Rock’s observation, Caroline was interested in hearing what Robert had to say and Robert was interested in telling Caroline everything he could possibly think about. Over the course of the first day, Rock heard them converse about minerals, the Vorin, the Drenian tribe, the elements of a fine horse, the best ways to celebrate the solstice and what it was like traveling with a companion who didn’t like talking. According to Robert, it was understandable as long as they were willing to listen, to Caroline listening by itself simply wasn’t enough.

They camped without fires the first night and got an early start the second morning. Belas wanted them back in the safety of Centralia shortly after lunch time and he pushed the caravan like he meant it. They made good time and Rock was just starting to believe that they actually might get away with crossing the plain without being attacked by the Vorin when the attack finally came.

The Vorin had learned their lesson about approaching people with longer range weapons on the open plain after being decimated the first time. The rifle range of the Centralians outmatched the Vorin bows any day. The Vorin had learned that and when the second attack came it came at a point where the trail turned around a slight rise in the plain.

In one moment everything seemed to be going according to plan then the next the thundering roar of fifty horses filled Rock’s ears. By the time he got his rifle to his shoulder he could see the mass of Vorin pouring around the slightly raised hill with their bows already drawn and already in arrow range.

It was a trap! A well-placed trap for unsuspecting prey.

The Centralians panicked. While a few of them, including Rock, Caroline and Belas fired repeatedly at the approaching horde, the majority of the men broke rank and ran. Even men riding in the wagons, when they realized they couldn’t turn the wagons around fast enough, jumped from the wagon benches and tried to run from the horsemen. Rock didn’t understand why grown men would think they could outrun men on horses with bows, but he assumed the combination of sudden panic and human nature had something to do with it. No man who ran stayed running long. The first Centralians to fall all fell with arrows in their backs.

Firing together Rock, Caroline and Belas had begun to open up a fairly large hole in the middle of the approaching body of horsemen. They continued to combine their fire into the middle of the group and before long there was an opening. The three of them, with Robert following, spurred their horses forward. The arrows shot at them as they approached, somehow all missed their mark. It was as if the horsemen were used to hitting targets running away, not targets riding towards them and were novices at a new task.

Luckily for Rock, he wasn’t unfamiliar with shooting from horseback while riding towards a person. His rifle didn’t stop firing as he rode, dropping horsemen from the ranks of the pile to his left while Caroline and Belas dropped horseman on the right. Rock was certain all four of them had broken through.

“Full speed to Centralia!” shouted Belas. He and Rock were riding neck and neck in the front, with Caroline and Robert pulling up the rear. The rest of the Centralians were a lost cause. The three of them at the front had probably killed fifteen Vorin in the escape attempt, but the rest of the Centralians hadn’t done much at all and the first volley of Vorin arrows into the caravan dropped, at least, half of the Centralians.

It was a rout.

Every man for himself.

Except Rock didn’t live that way. Caroline was his responsibility, at least, he told himself that. After he and Belas had ridden a half mile from the ambush site he turned around to check on her and make sure she hadn’t been injured.

Rock’s stomach dropped when he turned around. He was certain Caroline had made it through the group of Vorin but she and Robert weren’t behind them!

His eyes scanned the ground they had just covered looking for fallen bodies. After a split second, he found them. It looked like one of their horses, Robert’s, had been hit by a Vorin arrow and had collapsed. Caroline had stopped her horse and was helping Robert back to his feet. They were, at least, half way between the Vorin and Rock and Belas.

A group of twenty Vorin broke off from the main group. They saw Caroline and Robert and were moving in for the kill. Rock raised his gun to attempt to lay some cover fire, but Belas lowered Rock’s barrel before he could pull the trigger.

“As good as shot as you are you’re still just as likely to hit one of them as you are hitting a Vorin from this distance.”

“Then let’s ride closer!” said Rock and spurred his horse.

“It’s too late boy!” shouted Belas. “Let’s watch and see what happens from here.”

“They’ll kill them! That’s what will happen.”

“Not necessarily. Look!”

Rock stared ahead at Caroline and Robert. It was difficult to see detail from this far away, but it appeared that the Vorin that approached Caroline and Robert did so hesitantly. Their arrows were notched and their bows drawn, but for some reason no arrows flew.

Robert’s hands were up. He was waving them back and forth. The Vorin dismounted and approached Robert. They reached out and touched his face, pulling the object, the glass circles, that Robert wore from the bridge of his nose and looked at them quizzically.

Then the Vorin near Robert pulled out a club and hit Robert over the head, dropping him to the floor. Caroline tried to run but was blocked and she was clubbed too.

Rock shouted when he saw Caroline hit and again started to ride towards her.

“You’re killing yourself Rock!” said Belas. “They’re both alive, at least for now. They appear to be taking them prisoner and I’m going to need your help if we’re going to have any chance of freeing them.”

 

Chapter 33

I Have an Idea

Rock and Belas hid the rest of the day on the open plain. The tall grass on the plain made it easy to conceal a horse and man as long as they were laying down and all Wanderer horses, and Centralian horses too, now that they were different people, had been trained to lay on their sides when commanded for just that purpose.

When night fell by the light of the moon they made their way back to the ambush site. Almost everything was still there, the wagons, the dead men, a few dead horses and the bags of ore. The bags of ore had been ripped open to check the contents, but all the ore had been left behind. Rock couldn’t imagine these horse archers had much use for what appeared to be regular mountain rock to them, hell, that’s what it looked like to him too.

Rock and Belas walked around the site. They counted twenty-one dead bodies. Each of these men had had a rifle and 50 bullets when the attack commenced, now that was all gone. Taken by the Vorin as spoils of war.

“Twenty-one, plus you and me and Robert and Caroline makes twenty-five. We had twenty-eight.”

“Three men might still be alive,” said Belas.

“Might. Chances are we just haven’t found their bodies,” said Rock.

As if on cue, Rock and Belas heard the sounds of a horse approaching. They crouched behind a wagon and waited. The horse approached slowly. Rock heard a rider breathing and muttering under his breath. Rock couldn’t make out what was being said, but Belas must have recognized something because he stood up from his hiding place and called to the rider.

“Tanner!”

The rider looked their way and responded.

“Belas?”

“Yes, I’ve got the Indi with me as well. Have you seen any others alive?”

Tanner approached and dismounted. Rock recognized the Centralian whose face and eye had been injured the day before in the first Vorin attack.

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen any. I ran Belas. I ran and hid in the grass when the Vorin attacked.”

“It’s OK. You’re alive now,” said Belas.

“I killed three with my rifle from my place in the grass, but they were moving so fast, and, and once I saw how many of our men they killed I knew it was suicide to keep firing at them, so… so I got up and ran as hard as I could. I didn’t expect to make it, but I did. By the time I collapsed there were no Vorin anywhere near me.”

“And the horse?”

“It’s Teller’s horse, my brother. I heard it wandering the plain just an hour ago. He loaned it to Mayer Jude for the trip. When I recognized the horse I called it and came back here. How are you alive?”

Belas told their story.

“We’ve been slaughtered Belas. They killed almost all of us. I had no idea this could happen. I thought the Vorin were just bullies, able to kill the smallest Wanderer clans and hurt the weakest tribes, but that a group of men with rifles would easily fight them off. I was wrong, I almost died.”

“What’s worse is the Vorin have our guns,” said Belas.

“All of them?” asked Tanner.

“All of them,” replied Belas.

“I still have mine, plus about fifteen dusters.”

“Between the two of us we have fifty dusters, so that makes 65 shots total,” said Belas.

“There were close to that many men!” said Tanner.

“Not more than fifty,” said Rock. Tanner looked at Rock then back to Belas.

“What are we going to do? We have the ore. We could load as much as we can in one wagon and hook our horses to it and try to make it back to Centralia before the sun comes up?”

“No. The ore wasn’t the point of this caravan. We need the man they took prisoner,” said Belas.

“They took prisoners?” asked Tanner.

Belas explained what had happened to Robert and Caroline.

“Mayer Jude’s plans rely on that man’s knowledge. I was told under no circumstances to allow him to be hurt. We have to get him back.”

“And Caroline,” said Rock.

“Ok. So how will we do it?”

“I don’t know,” said Rock, “I’ll think of something. But one thing’s for sure, it won’t be hard to find their camp.” Rock pointed to the ground that had been trampled by the hooves of fifty horses. Even under the light of the moon, it was easy to tell which way horseman had traveled.

###

Rock, Belas, and Tanner were on a small, raised hill overlooking the Vorin camp. They had followed the trail left by the traveling Vorin, even in the moonlight the trail was easy to see and follow. After a couple of hours, they saw firelight in the distance.

They tied their horses up before crawling to the top of the small hill. It didn’t provide much of a view of the Vorin camp, nothing in the plains was that tall, but it was better than the alternative of just riding into the camp blind.

There were, at least, twenty fires burning below. It was late and the fires were small with only a few men sitting around them. The men that were awake seemed to be drinking and laughing. Likely celebrating the victory on the plains they’d had earlier.

The camp was laid out similarly to a typical Wanderer’s camp. In the center of the camp, the tents got closer together and larger. Near these larger tents was an open space, perhaps for camp meetings or some other public use. Rock could just make out two figures tied to poles mounted in the ground in this open space. Their backs were against the poles with rope tied around their necks and the ankles. Their heads were drooping as if they were sleeping, or… Hopefully, they were sleeping because the two figures were clearly Caroline and Robert.

Standing next to the still figures tied to the poles were two other figures, walking back and forth, guards. That was good and bad news. The bad news was, well, guards. The good news was you didn’t guard dead bodies.

In spite of the few Vorin who were staggering around the camp drunk, it appeared most of the Vorin had already gone to sleep in their tents. In addition to the larger tents in the middle of the camp, there were also, at least, a hundred tents sprawled out on the plain below. Rock didn’t know how many men would be sleeping inside each one, but he could count their horses to get a general idea of the camp population.

The Vorin horses were open corralled to the west of the camp. There were hundreds of them in a fairly close body with no fences or ropes. Well behaved animals, no doubt about that, Rock thought. He couldn’t count them accurately in the darkness but guessed a herd that large would have to be at least three to four hundred animals. The horses were standing still, but sleeping, the same way Wanderer horses slept.

People like the Vorin, so dependent on their horses, might have more than one horse per man, perhaps as many as three. Still, that meant in the tents below were as few as 100 Vorin and as many as 400. Whether there were one hundred or four hundred didn’t matter much anyway. Rock had known since they started following the trail from the ambush site that a direct attack on the camp was out of the question.

If he was going to accomplish something he had to use his mind. Not his dusters.

“How well can you see?” Rock asked Tanner quietly.

“As good as any man with only one good eye,” said Tanner, while adjusting the bandages covering his injured eye.

“Can you ride a horse, hard?”

“On the open plain? Sure.”

“Can you shoot?”

“Maybe while laying down, but not accurately while riding, not now.”

Rock pulled a length of rope he had taken from the wagons at the ambush site from off his saddle. It was the same rope that had been used to ‘circle the wagons’ at the first attack. “I have an idea,” said Rock. Belas and Tanner leaned in to listen.

 

Chapter 34

You Have no Idea of the Legions Assembling

The plan didn’t take long for Rock to explain, or for the three of them to get ready for. Within five minutes Rock was creeping towards the sleeping Vorin camp with nothing between him and the camp but a single drowsy sentry sitting on the plain.

Rock approached the sentry silently. The dirt below his feet was soft and cushioned and left no chance for scraping stone or other harsh sounds. In a moment, he was behind the sentry. He didn’t know if the man’s eyes were open or closed when Rock, from behind, wrapped his strong right arm around the man’s throat and flexed his muscles till the point of almost ripping. The man struggled, but only for a moment, then he went limp. Rock knew men who told stories of knifing sentries, but he’d always been of the opinion that the best way to keep a man quiet was to knock him out, and there was no quieter or quicker way to do that that by cutting off blood supply to the brain. Most men went unconscious in less than two seconds, this sentry had been quicker.

Rock didn’t like killing unconscious men, innocent or guilty. But even more so he disliked the thought of the sentry waking up and alerting the Vorin to Rock’s presence. Besides, he was Vorin, and they took Caroline. He deserved to die. Rock pulled his knife from its sheath.

The sentries’ life blood was spurting out of his neck and sinking into the loose dirt ground seconds later when Rock started the rest of his crawl towards the camp.

The camp was silent apart from a few drunk Vorin huddled around the fires. Rock crept past the tents on the perimeter, avoiding as much firelight as he could, until he reached the main tents in the middle. He peered around the corner of one of the larger tents and could see Robert and Caroline tied to their individual posts fifty feet away. They were both breathing.

Now, all Rock could do was wait.

###

Belas and Tanner watched Rock sneak up on, knock out, then kill the sentry on the edge of the Vorin camp. He moved like a professional, like it was his job. After they saw Rock disappear into the interior of the tent camp Belas counted to three hundred silently, like Rock had instructed. When he finished counting he signaled to Tanner and they each mounted their horses, leaving Rock’s horse staked to the ground, and with a final, perhaps-this-is-the-end nod of the head they spurred their horses down the overlooking hill towards the large herd of Vorin horses below.

They stayed quiet as they could at the beginning of the run. Belas wasn’t proud of what they were about to do, but it was the best chance they had of freeing the prisoners and what the hell, they were Vorin horses anyway. Every living, healthy Vorin horse represented another Wanderer, or Centralian, attacked or killed.

The two men rode most of the way to the slumbering horses without being seen by man or horse alike. They rode side-by-side, never more than a few feet from one another.

When they were fifty feet from the first of the slumbering horses they were spotted by a sentry. The man shouted, the shout was echoed from different positions around the camp and the rest of the sentries joined in. Soon the entire camp was coming alive. But it didn’t matter, at least not to the horses. Before Belas and Tanner reached the horses they split up, each turning away from the other, turning their straight line to the horse herd into two angles, each heading towards the opposite side of the closely packed herd. Between the two men wasn’t an empty space though, instead, between the two horses was a length of rope, each end tied to the saddle horn of each of the two horses saddle’s, the length of rope was growing in length as Belas and Tanner got further away from each other as Belas fed it the extra rope. Each man spurred his horse on harder, each wishing to hit maximum speed at the exact moment when the rope, with each end tied to one of the horses, came in contact with the legs of the horses inside the herd.

Belas had not been expecting there to be much sound associated with thick rope clotheslining horse legs, but he was wrong. The sound he heard was a mixture of breaking bone, screaming horses and even tearing flesh. The rope held strong though it did almost pull his horse to the side at the moment of the initial impact.

The rope had been Rock’s idea and had a two part purpose. First, with luck, it would put out of commission possibly a hundred or more of the Vorin horses, permanently. This would not only slow the Vorin down during the chase if Rock managed to free Robert and Caroline, but it made them more open to attack in the future. Secondly, it would create a diversion that would allow Rock, at this point already inside the camp, to free Robert and Caroline.

Belas and Tanner spurred their horses on. The weight of the hundreds of horse legs they were pulling the rope against gradually slowed them down until their horses could no longer move forward. Belas turned around to observe the damage done. A full half of the horse herd had been decommissioned and were laying on the ground or trying to stand on broken legs. If he hadn’t of been in mortal peril Belas would have likely felt compassion for the injured animals, but instead, his mind felt only the need to move faster. He shouted to Tanner to cut the rope. They each cut the rope on their saddle horn, freeing their horses from the mess that the larger herd was going through.

The rest of the horse herd was wide awake by now and already agitated by the sounds of their fellow horse’s struggle and pain. When Belas and Tanner pulled out their rifles and began picking off the Vorin who were running to check on the horses from the camp it was the last straw for the still undamaged Vorin horses. At the sound of gunfire, a sound the Vorin horses were still not accustomed to, the well-behaved horses snapped and began to stampede.

Directly towards the Vorin camp.

The men of the camp had just reached the edge of the line of tents when they were greeted by the mass of stampeding horses. They threw their hands in the air, trying to scare the horses into stopping, but to the gone-mad horses, the sounds of their truncated brethren neighing and screaming behind them, with the addition of the rifle fire, weren’t stopping for anyone, not for a long time.

Belas fired three more shots, three Vorin went down. He saw Tanner firing as well, with his bad eye he didn’t imagine Tanner was hitting much, but the gunfire alone was helping ensure the stampede continued.

More Vorin were exiting their tents and shouting at their horses in their own language. Belas saw a Vorin shoot his bow at one of the animals, it collapsed and the horses behind it tripped over it, falling into the standing line of Vorin. Breaking both human and horse bone as they fell.

Belas didn’t know how much longer they would be able to keep it up. Already there were more Vorin in the camp than there had been a moment ago. While some were shooting their bows at horses most were looking for other targets, human targets, and as long as Rock kept his head down Belas and Tanner would be the recipient of all those arrows.

They didn’t have much longer. Rock had to hurry.

###

Rock’s waiting was over.

He heard the shout of the sentries just prior to Belas and Tanner’s attack on the horse herd. A moment later he heard a loud commotion come from the meadow areas where the horses had been sleeping. Even from this far away Rock recognized it as a sound he had never heard before.

He sat down on the ground beside the large tent he was hiding behind. He knew in only a few seconds the camp would be full of running Vorin and it was crucial he stayed out of sight until he could slip into a vacated tent.

The Vorin began evacuating their sleeping tents. A few held hand-to-hand combat weapons like axes, but most were holding bows and quivers of arrows, expecting to mount their horses most likely. They looked around. After hearing the commotion being made by their horses, they seemed to be expecting an attack already in camp. When all they saw around them were other Vorin it confused them. In the confusion, Rock slipped into a large, recently emptied, tent.

He was surprised at how well the fabric of the tent blocked external noise. The sounds of the camp, which had been loud, were significantly softer within the tent walls. The tent wasn’t how he expected it in other ways too. It was softer than he’d expected, not in the way that light is “soft” but in an almost, well, a feminine way. The interior of the tent had feather decorations on the walls and a table with an open book resting on it as well as incense burning. It smelled sweet. The smell tickled Rock’s nose. Rock pulled back the tent flap and looked outside where Caroline and Robert were tied. He was about to leave the tent when he heard a voice behind him.

“Who are you?” said a voice, a woman’s voice, deep for a female and full of confidence and curiosity, and in a strange way, Rock knew the woman asking the question fully expected an answer.

Rock turned around. A woman stood before him. She had dark hair and dark eyes and like the rest of the Vorin she wasn’t tall, but what she lacked in height she made up for in regal bearing. This strange woman stood before Rock with no fear, no concern, merely questions. Who was he and why was he in her tent?

“Rock,” answered Rock without thought. Why would he answer this woman? She didn’t matter, she was a risk, a loose end he needed to tie up. Rock was still holding the tent flap open. From the corner of his eyes, he could make out Caroline, still tied to the stake in the middle of the suddenly very alive Vorin camp. She and Robert were likely the only people in the camp not running here or there.

“Close the flap. Come to me,” said the woman.

Rock didn’t want to close the tent flap. He wanted to rescue Caroline, but something else pulled him to this woman, was it her voice? Her bearing? Her beauty? He didn’t care. Right now Caroline would wait, he had to know more about who this woman was.

“Who are you?” Rock asked the woman.

“You question me?” said the woman, a brief flash of anger contorted her face, but in a moment it was gone and the cool, calming, words continued. “Come, and I will tell you about myself, who I am, and who you could be too.”

Rock blinked and shook his head. Nothing changed.

“Close the flap. Come to me,” said the woman again.

Rock decided to obey. It was his choice, this is what he wanted to do. Caroline would be there when he was done. He slowly closed the tent flap, but before the flap closed completely he heard gunshots begin outside and then he heard something else. Caroline screaming his name.

Hearing Caroline scream Rock’s name snapped him out of the mind space he’d been in just moments before. He pushed back the tent flap quickly and looked out.

“Close the tent!” shouted the woman. Rock ignored her and looked at Caroline. She was staring back at Rock, her eyes were begging him to come to her now before it was too late. Rock looked back at the woman in the tent just in time to see her surging forward to meet him. In her hand, she held a six-inch knife.

Rock stepped to the side. Her knife slashed through the tent fabric instead of Rock’s back. Rock spun around and knocked the knife from the woman’s hand. She lunged at him again, this time with nothing but her fingernails racing for his eyes. Rock pushed her back and her nails came in contact with Rock’s cheek and beard. Rock felt blood drip from the fingernail cuts.

He stepped back from the woman. Who was this tiger with the golden tongue? She stepped up to him again and, this time, did so while opening her mouth to scream as loudly as she could. Rock might be able to fight off a single woman without much risk, but if she called a group of Vorin into her tent the rescue attempt would be officially over, and Rock knew that.

He quickly backhanded the woman with all the force he had. He felt her jaw snap under the blow and she fell to the floor, still and unmoving, before she had a chance to notify anyone with her screams.

Rock picked up the knife she had attacked him with from the floor where it had fallen and ran out of the tent into the crazy night outside.

Rock could hear the sound of horses galloping in a wild frenzy. The sound was getting closer, that only meant one thing, the horses were stampeding! Rock ran to Caroline and Robert. He quickly began cutting Caroline’s ropes.

“How did you do it? What’s going on?” asked Caroline.

“Horses,” said Rock. He finished cutting Caroline’s ropes and ran to Robert. As he cut the ropes Robert shouted to him over the sound of the quickly approaching herd of terrified horses.

“They have my books! And my glasses, I need them!”

“No time! I’ll give you one of mine,” shouted Rock. He hadn’t expected the horses to stampede, especially not directly through the camp. He saw Vorin all around him waving fabric through the air trying to get the animals to calm down. It didn’t sound like it was working and the sound of the stampede grew stronger and stronger.

“I have to get them! Without them, it’s all useless!”

“Where are they?” Rock asked loudly.

“The woman!” said Robert and pointed at the tent Rock had emerged from.

Rock could see the horses now. They were coming straight for the center of camp where the three of them were and were crushing tents and men as they ran. The horses ran through the campfires, kicking up coals and burning bits of glowing wood. Rock could see tents that were burning.

The horses were coming straight for Rock.

“What is it!” shouted Robert. Rock pointed to the mass of horses only a couple hundred yards away and getting closer, but Robert just squinted at the horizon.

“I can’t see without my glasses!”

Rock motioned Caroline over to him.

“Take Robert out of the camp. There is a hill that direction, behind it is my horse and gun. Take them both and ride to Centralia. I’ll meet you soon!”

“Come with us!” said Caroline. Rock shook his head.

“I need to get his book and…” said Rock but before he could finish Caroline flung her arms around him and pressed her lips to his. It was a strange feeling. Rock had never kissed a woman like this, it was more than primal like the other woman he’d been with, in the heart of stampeding horses and burning tents this sudden kiss was calming.

Still, Rock pulled away.

“Go!” he shouted to Caroline.

“I can’t see!” said Robert, his hands were out in front of his body as he walked, moving through the air like a type of torso-based radar. Rock grabbed him and pointed him in the direction of the hill.

“Run… that… way!” shouted Rock. Robert was still moving cautiously, “or be trampled by horses in seven seconds,” shouted Rock even louder. Either Robert finally understood what Rock was referring to, or the horses were finally close enough for him to see, because Robert took off like a rabbit. A blind rabbit. Rock motioned for Caroline to follow him.

“We’ll be waiting!” she shouted.

“Go!” shouted Rock again and suddenly Caroline was running to catch up with Robert.

Rock ran back into the woman’s tent. She was starting to sit up in front of the table with the book on it. Rock reached over her and grabbed the book. He saw what Robert called his ‘glasses’ resting near the book and he grabbed them too. He threw both into his bag, along with the woman’s knife.

“You’ll suffer for this Rock. You have no idea of the legions assembling. You could have been a king if you had the proper obedience.”

She was right, he should have closed the tent flap like she asked, she was only… Rock felt himself thinking, and then thoughts of Caroline filled his head, the kiss, and Belas and Tanner and Robert, all out there and hopefully waiting for Rock. What was he thinking stopping to listen to this crazy Vorin woman?

“Stay with me,” said the woman commandingly.

“Fuck off,” replied Rock.

The woman stared at Rock, almost in shock at his disobedience towards her.

“You’re dead Rock! Not even I can save you now! Everyone knows your name!” shouted the woman as Rock ran from the tent.

He was too late. The stampeding horses were too close, they were just seconds away. He’d never beat them out of the camp now. He looked at the horses in the front of the herd. Their eyes were glowing red in the firelight from the burning tents. The breath coming from their nostrils was white in the evening chill.

Rock stood still facing the mass of running horses. He’s seen a man once mount an already running horse from the front. The man had been an Indi Wanderer, just like Rock, that traveled from tribe to tribe and taught people horse riding tricks for food and lodging. Rock was younger then and remembered how amazing the trick had looked at the time, but guessed it had taken years of practice to learn.

Rock had one chance.

He spotted the horse he would attempt it with. It was a small animal in the very front of the stampede with tall ears and eyes full of fear. Rock tightened the pack over his back and waited the last couple of seconds for the horse to arrive.

When it finally did Rock jumped into the air like the man he’d seen do it so many years ago and wrapped his arms around the horse’s’ neck. He felt the wind knocked out from his chest but he didn’t dare let go, knowing if he did it would only take a moment for him to be trampled by the horses running after. He swung his body to the side, using the forward momentum of the already moving animal and in a moment found himself sitting on top of the horse’s saddle-less back.

It had worked!

Rock kicked the horse and directed it to the side of the stampede with its mane. The horse ran ahead of the others and to the side and in a moment Rock found himself with a new horse and away from the perilous stampede.

He looked back at the Vorin camp. It was completely trashed. What horses hadn’t been permanently damaged with the rope had trampled the camp and fire was still burning multiple tents. There were many Vorin men standing on the outskirts of the camp. They had likely seen Rock mount the running horse and ride away from the stampede. Rock could also see that more than a few had been caught under the hooves of the stampeding horses and lay dead within the destroyed camp.

“I hope the woman in the tent is one of them,” was the last thing Rock thought before he rode his newly acquired horse away from the burning camp and towards the trail to Centralia.

It was time to head back.

 

Chapter 35

Imagine That! A Woman!

Rock was young and tired. He’d been riding horses all day with the son of the tribe chief and his muscles, legs and seat ached. He and his riding companion had been out for hours and were just arriving back to camp as the sun set. As they directed their mounts Rock heard a woman shouting. Shouting was far too common of an occurrence in this tribe. Sometimes Rock wished he could just stay alone in the woods at night and not have to hear the constant fighting. Once again Rock’s mother was being berated by a female member of the tribe, something about clothing not being cleaned according to expectations.

Rock and his mother had been accepted into the safety of the tribe on condition they each filled needed roles in the tribal society. As a young boy, Rock was mostly exempt from the manual labor and was instead expected to spend his days as a playmate and riding partner to the chief’s son. From the beginning, Rock and the chief’s son got along well and Rock found his responsibilities enjoyable.

His mother, on the other hand, had been put in charge of washing the tribal clothing and tents when needed. Washing the clothing was one of the hardest jobs in the camp and it wasn’t a surprise that a new tribe member was put in charge of it.

To wash a dirty shirt or pair of pants took multiple, labor-intensive, steps including transporting the wash water from the nearest river or stream and gathering wood to light the fire to heat the water. Once the water was hot enough Rock’s mother would add special black soap she made in the evenings using urine collected from the tribe members and animal fat. Once the water was transported and heated and the soap had been added his mother would add the daily load of clothing needing to be laundered and spend the next hour or two stirring the wash pot contents to make sure nothing settled at the bottom and burned.

After that was done and the clothing had been washed his mother still had to rinse it, which meant emptying the pot and refilling it with a new load of water then ringing out each piece of clothing individually by hand before hanging it on the clotheslines. Rock would usually help ring out the clothes and hang them up. While he did his mother would tell him imaginative stories about when she was a child.

The cranky, wizened old hag was the screaming at mother, again. She had screamed at mother three times this week, always over something stupid like her clothes not smelling clean enough. The soap and lye could only get clothing so clean, but the old woman seemed to simply want to find justification for her anger.

This time, she was yelling at his mother for allowing wet clothes to fall off the clotheslines. It was probably the younger son of the tribal chief’s fault. He was always running through the camp and hitting things with a peeled wooden stick he carried. He loved hiding in the drying clothes and sometimes would pull pieces down, whether intentionally or not.

Whatever happened, it couldn’t have been his mother’s fault. She was meticulous (his mother had taught him that word a couple of days ago) in keeping the clothing cleaned. She worked so hard that Rock would sometimes see her crying as she rubbed her sore hands at night in the tent she and Rock shared. It hurt Rock to see his mother treated so badly by the tribe. When he told his mother how he felt she would shrug her shoulders and say, “If I’d have wanted an easy life I wouldn’t have left home. This is life in The Waste,” then she would smile at him and give him a hug. Every time it was the same words and actions.

Rock pulled his horse ahead of his playmate and beat him home. Rock was faster than the chief’s son, no matter what horse he was riding. The horses would always push themselves harder for Rock than any of the other boys. He slowed his horse as he got back to camp and dismounted just as the yelling was ending and the crowd was dispersing.

“That old hag again?” asked Rock with frustration. His mother nodded and motioned for him to keep his voice down.

“Some people are always angry Rock, no matter what happens, so they go through life looking for reasons to justify it.”

“I hate her,” said Rock.

“She doesn’t bother me. If I’d have wanted an easy life…” his mother started saying. Rock chimed in with her.

“… I wouldn’t have left home. This is life in The Waste!” he said and smiled at her. His mother, like every other time, smiled down on him and gave him a hug. This time it was a little longer than usual.

“Why do you always say that?” Rock asked before she broke the hug. His mother let go of him and held him out at arm’s length and looked him up and down.

“Because it’s true,” she finally said.

“How is living in The Waste worth it? It’s so mean and everyone’s angry! Tell me about the tribe you grew up in again.”

His mother smiled.

“Living in The Waste is worth it because I have you Rock and if I could go back in time I wouldn’t change a thing. You know what I would like to talk about? Let me tell you about the magical machines that are built only to wash clothes, and they do such a good job of it. You just lift the lid and put all your dirty clothes in and then you push some buttons and in half an hour your clothes are clean and fresh!”

“You always tell me that story,” said Rock disappointedly.

“Maybe because it’s my favorite story,” said his mother.

“Tell me about your mother. You told me about her once.”

Rock’s mother went quiet for a moment.

“I don’t want to talk about her right now.”

“But I want to hear about her!”

“Give me some quiet time, please Rock?”

###

“Please Rock? Wake up, please!”

Rock heard a woman’s voice close to his ear. Caroline? He opened his eyes. The morning sun was rising over the mountains. He was bent over on the back of the horse he’d stolen from the Vorin. The last thing he remembered was the silence of the trail to Centralia and the bright night stars above him while he rode alone on the horse, unsure if anyone else had made it out.

He looked around. He was in front of Mayer Jude’s large home. Next to him were Caroline, Robert, Belas and Tanner, everyone involved on the raid on the Vorin had made it back to Centralia safely.

“We thought you were dead Rock. Caroline told us you got caught in the stampede. How did you make it out?” asked Belas.

Rock told him how he had mounted one of the horses at the front and ridden it from the camp. Belas stared at him, amazed.

“I’m glad you’re safe Rock. My books and glasses? Are they lost then?” asked Robert.

Rock pulled off his backpack, took both objects from within, and handed them to Robert.

“Thank you!” said Robert.

“I only saw one book, were there more?” asked Rock.

“A few, but don’t worry, this is the only one we don’t have another copy of.”

Rock saw the title of the book for the first time:

 

The Forging, Shaping and Treating of Steel

 

“Sounds like you have many exciting nights ahead,” said Rock.

“Yes, I can’t wait. I’ve read it all before but there a lot of tables and figures inside that I don’t have other copies of. I might have been able to make up for the loss of it, but it would have taken at least a few years of trial and error before I could reproduce what this text will allow me to do the first time. For example, providing the coke alone would have been out of the question had I not…” continued Robert without any sign of stopping.

“Did the clothesline work?” Rock asked Belas.

“It did. By the time we had to cut the rope I guess we’d plowed through over a hundred horses.”

“Poor animals! Will any of them be able to be saved?” asked Caroline.

“Hopefully not. If you ask me it’s a shame we didn’t take out the rest of the animals. That would have left the Vorin on foot. They wouldn’t be nearly as formidable if they didn’t have moving horses to shoot from,” said Tanner.

“How many horses do you think they have left?” Rock asked Belas.

“I guess a couple hundred by now. More every hour since they’re probably out hunting them down as we speak. They’ll probably have a few hundred eventually.”

“There weren’t that many Vorin in the camp,” said Rock.

“No. Less than a couple hundred men total. They must have a couple of horses per man.”

“You meet the woman?” asked Robert.

“What?” asked Rock.

“The woman. Caroline said you were in the tent with the woman. What was that like?”

“It was… uh… a tent.”

“She was so interesting! I wanted to ask her questions, but they gagged me not long after we arrived in camp. She’s in charge you know. The men would go into her tent when they had a question and when they would come back out they acted like they knew exactly what to do. Imagine that! A woman!” said Robert.

“Hey!” said Caroline.

“No! I don’t mean a woman couldn’t be capable, it’s just surprising such an aggressive culture takes its orders from a female leader. I’ve read a lot of books about the world before the Wandering and I can’t think of many example of females leading men in the same way.”

“She had a way of speaking…” said Rock.

“Speaking?” asked Caroline.

“It just made sense. I can’t explain it.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to. Council’s been called. The tribes of The Waste have sent representatives to the Wall-without-Walls to discuss the Vorin invasion at Mayer Jude’s request. Most of them have arrived by now and he’s asked you and me to speak,” said Belas.

“Speak? To a group of tribal leaders?” asked Rock.

“Mostly ambassadors. They’ll take messages back to the tribal chiefs after.”

“That’s not my sort of thing,” said Rock.

“Mine either,” said Belas, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it. I think you should too.” Caroline nodded in agreement.

“You and I have more experience with the Vorin than most people in The Waste. We’ve been attacked three times and we’ve seen the inside of their camp. We don’t know much, but it’s more than most,” said Caroline.

“You’ve been asked to speak too?” Rock asked her.

She nodded.

“We’ve only been back an hour before you, but it was the first thing Mayer Jude asked me.”

“When? Unless you’re reconsidering your future plans Mayer Jude owes us a map.”

“Owes you a map? Not hardly Rock my friend,” said Mayer Jude. He’d walked up to the group without being noticed. “From what I recall I’m duty bound to tell you who has the map, and I’ll throw in some free directions on how to get there, it’s not hard. But as far as getting the map, that’s between you and him.”

“Sounds fine to me,” said Rock.

“It’s good to see you back,” said Jude and smiled while he reached out to shake Rock’s hand.

“I’m sorry about your men Mayer. I suggest you consider sending a group of Centralians back out immediately. The Vorin will be struggling from the raid last night, they’ll be exhausted and their horses will be skittish. Now’s the chance to hit ‘em hard. Do it right and you should get your guns back” said Rock.

“Well, I do believe that’s the longest thing I’ve ever heard you say Mr. Rock. I’ll consider your advice and I hope you wouldn’t mind saying something at least equally as long at the council this evening.”

“As long as we can leave to get the map tomorrow evening I don’t mind saying a thing or two for you at the council tonight.”

“Good. Expect some questions. I’ll send my men for your clothing. You both stink,” said Jude to Rock and Caroline with a smile and walked away.

“He’s right you know,” said Caroline with a wink.

First Rock smiled. Then he laughed.

 

Chapter 36

Well, Get Over it Mountain Man

“They have a school for children here. Matthew’s in it. I saw him with the other children,” Caroline said to Rock in the afternoon while they were both resting on the balcony of Mayer Jude’s home.

“Good. Maybe he’ll learn to read,” said Rock. He was drinking from a glass of wine on the table.

“Mayer Jude says he will, and write too, plus they’ll teach him arithmetic to help out with the trading business in Centralia when he gets older.”

“Maybe the Vorin attacking his family wasn’t all a bad thing then,” said Rock.

“Rock!”

“What? Life in a small tribe on the Waste is hard Caroline. As the daughter of a tribe chief you don’t understand what it’s like to have to fight for every scrap you’re given, to have to scrounge for food because you’re not big enough, or fast enough to take it from someone else, to have to ask for someone else to take care of you because you can’t do it yourself.”

“What wrong with you Rock?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Matthew will have a better life in Centralia than he would on the plain in a small clan. I’m happy for that.”

“I’m happy for him too.”

“At least, he’s found a tribe to take him in,” responded Rock.

“Unlike you when you were his age?”

“I had a tribe,” replied Rock.

“Tell me about it.”

“Why?” asked Rock.

“Because I want to know,” said Caroline.

“Why do you care about me? I’m just someone doing a job.”

“That’s all? Just a job?” asked Caroline.

“What else is it supposed to be? I was hired to take you to the Wall-without-Walls, I was paid five books to get you here. It’s work.”

“Well, I’m here. You’ve got your books.”

“I do,” said Rock.

“So?” asked Caroline.

“So what?” responded Rock.

“If taking me to the Wall-without-Walls in just a job, and I’m here, and you’ve been paid, why the hell are you hanging around!”

Rock was quiet. Not because he wanted to be, although he did, he was quiet because he didn’t have an answer to Caroline’s question. He didn’t know why he was hanging around. Why he was getting involved in this world. He was an Indi Wanderer. His only life was traveling the trails of The Waste, alone. He had houses in trees and caves and meadows all over The Waste, but no home. He had lovers in many tribes, but no love. His life was one where everyone and everything but him were completely expendable. So why was he not expending?

“I don’t… I don’t…” Rock started to say before Caroline cut him off.

“It’s about the kiss, isn’t it?”

Rock thought back to that moment, stampeding horses, a burning camp and arrows flying every which way, all that, plus feeling Caroline’s lips on his. The thought had been in his mind for hours.

“No,” said Rock and took another drink of wine.

“Bullshit,” said Caroline. “You’re bothered I kissed you. Well, get over it mountain man.”

“That’s not a problem.”

“Like hell, it isn’t, I bet you’ve been thinking of it since it happened. Did it inspire you Rock? Did you have to stay alive just so you could have some closure on why it happened?”

“Why did you do it?” asked Rock suddenly.

Caroline paused, but only for a moment, then continued.

“Because you were there, because we were going to die, because you came back to rescue me, because of the horses and the arrows and that bitch in the tent, because I’m a woman and you’re a man and because eventually, I’m going to walk out into the Wall-without-Walls all alone, with or without a map and when I do I’ll likely never see anyone again, including you Rock, whatever the hell that means.”

“Do you care about me?”

Caroline looked at Rock. His Wanderer’s beard hid any emotion he might be feeling. His skin was dark from all the hours lived outside. His lips, the one’s she’d kissed last night, were, from what she remembered of the frantic moment, surprisingly soft. Regardless of all of this, it was Rock’s eyes that called to her strongest. They were piercing, dark and fierce, the eyes of a man who knew how to fight and wasn’t afraid of it. The eyes of an animal if one looked long enough, deep enough. But they were, above all, the eyes of a protector, a protector who hadn’t yet discovered who he was or what he was to supposed to protect.

“I don’t care about you Rock,” she said quickly. Then she got up from her seat and walked down the balcony stairs, leaving Rock alone with his wine and his thoughts.

 

Chapter 37

Welcome to Centralia, first City of The Waste

The Centralians, under the direction of Mayer Jude, had built a wooden circular raised platform in the middle of a large empty lot bordering the river. Across the river was the empty expanse of the Wall-without-Walls. The usually empty field where they sat, which was only used sporadically due to seasonal flooding, was currently filled with Wanderer’s and Centralians alike.

The field had only been a few minutes’ walk from where Rock was staying at Mayer Jude’s home. After Caroline had walked away Rock had spent the rest of the morning alone, until the sounds of the gathering nearby reminded him that Mayer Jude had asked him to attend the meeting.

As he approached the gathering Rock recognized members from many different Waste tribes. He didn’t recognize individuals themselves, but many tribes in The Waste wore unique clothing and other identifying factors, it was these that he recognized.

The atmosphere in the field-turned-impromptu-gathering-place was more akin to a tribal carnival than a meeting. Centralians with carts were selling their wares of food and objects. Children ran over and underfoot and guards stationed around the raised wooden platform shooed the children away from the structure with regularity.

The platform held twelve chairs placed around the perimeter of the circle facing inwards towards the middle. In the center was another smaller raised platform with no chair; the speaker’s podium.

“Rock!” shouted a voice behind him. Rock turned his gaze from the platform to the man addressing him. It was Belas.

“I’m glad to see you made it. The Mayer asked me to fetch you and you’ve saved me the walk.” Belas held a young child in his arm, a blond haired girl. “This is my daughter, Tenaya. Tenaya, this is my friend Rock, he’s a hero!” said Belas with a smile. The child was too young to understand words like hero and instead giggled and goo’d at the sight of Rock’s thick beard.

“What sort of meeting is this?” Rock asked Belas while doing his best to ignore the little girl who clearly had no intention of ignoring him.

“Over a month ago, when the Vorin were just entering the basin Mayer Jude contacted the leaders of every tribe in The Waste. These are the members that cared enough to send someone.”

“Looks like quite a response,” said Rock. Belas shook his head and frowned.

“Hardly one in ten responded. Less than half of those actually sent a representative,” but his lost smile reappeared as he watched his daughter smile at Rock. “I think she likes you, would you like to hold her?”

“I don’t think that…”

“Come on, you think I offer to let anyone hold my daughter?”

“I’d prefer not…”

Tenaya began to cry as Rock shook his head. Belas ignored Rock’s objection and handed the child to him.

“You can transport daughters of tribal chieftains across a hostile Waste, you can rescue others from invading tribes, trust me, you can handle a child for thirty seconds, anyway, you’re the one that made her cry!”

Before Rock knew it the fussy toddler was in his arms and had replaced her insistence on crying with an equally strong insistence to see exactly what Rock was hiding behind his beard.

“You look good with a baby,” said Caroline as she stepped out of the crowd. Her arrival surprised Rock, so did her friendliness. He looked at baby Tenaya uncomfortably, then smiled slightly, just enough that only the child saw it beneath his beard, then he handed her back to Belas.

“Have you spoke with Mayer Jude about the meeting?” Belas asked Caroline. She nodded. “And you both know where you’re sitting?”

“Sitting?” asked Rock.

“On the stand, your seat,” said Belas and pointed to the wooden platform.

“I didn’t know it was that sort of meeting. I don’t like crowds, or speaking,” said Rock.

Belas and Caroline looked at each other then broke out laughing in unison.

“An Indi Wanderer who doesn’t like crowds, I’m sorry Rock, I had no idea,” said Belas playfully.

“And here I’ve been telling Mayer Jude you were a natural orator. However would I have gotten something so wrong!” echoed Caroline.

“I just don’t like speaking.”

“Or crowds, we know,” said Caroline.

“I hate to tell you Rock, but you and Caroline here are being touted as the resident experts on the Vorin. As far as we know you’ve faced ‘em more times that anyone. You can leave now, but until you tell these men what they want to know about this new enemy don’t be surprised if they all follow you asking questions as you wander The Waste. You might as well tell ‘em what you know now and save yourself the hassle. That is unless you’re tired of being an Indi Wanderer, and fancy some wanderin’ company,” said Belas, with an emphasis on the word “indi.”

Rock was saved the effort of responding when all three were joined by Mayer Jude.

“Rock! Caroline! I’m glad you both could make it!” Mayer Jude was wearing a style of clothing, no, perhaps costume was a better word, which Rock had never seen before. A tight-fitting overcoat of the darkest blue with shiny cords that appeared to be made of metal, but on closer inspection were just some sort of reflective fabric, running along many of the seams. He had an old, but well-conditioned, metal sword in a scabbard at his side and a stiff hat. All in all, it was the first time Rock had ever seen anyone dress quite like this. The end result was sure to get attention from anyone in the general vicinity

“You like my uniform?” asked Mayer Jude with a smile.

“It’s certainly something,” said Caroline.

“It’s the uniform of the Lieutenant-General of the Centralian Legion.”

“Centralian Legion?” asked Rock.

“Our defensive force. We drill for one day every other week and two weekends a month. We’re trained to defend Centralia from the Vorin and any other invading tribes.”

“And you are the general?” asked Rock.

“Well, as Lieutenant General I’m more of a figurehead, but don’t tell anyone that, Charlie and I come out for the monthly parades, but, for the most part, I leave the training to my commander.”

“Your commander?” asked Rock.

“Me,” said Belas.

“So that group we took to the foothills?”

“Part of the Legion,” said Mayer Jude with a smile.

“And the raid of the Vorin camp?”

“Our first great victory!” Jude replied. Caroline rolled her eyes, but the slight fortunately was unseen.

“I’ve seated you and Caroline together. I will show you your seats when I call you up.”

Rock was about to ask another question when Mayer Jude pointed to a man standing nearby.

“I believe that’s Brolo the Bear of the Coalition of Clans.”

Rock’s gaze fell on a massive grizzly of a man. The comparison to a bear didn’t stop at his size. He wore a cloak of grizzly fur with the head of the animal pulled up and over his dark black hair. This gave Brolo not only the size of a grizzly but the appearance. It was as if he was standing inside a great bear, watching the world from its dark eyes. Around his neck hung a necklace of three-inch claws spaced out with beads made of white bone. Standing around Brolo stood three others, two men and a woman. Though he was the only one wearing a bearskin, all three of them had bear claw necklaces as well and the same intimidating frown on their faces.

Looking around Rock decided while this man called Brolo might have been the largest in attendance, he was not necessarily much more memorable than others nearby. It was as if each attending tribe had wanted to represent their tribal characteristics as boldly as possibly. There were other animal skins, feathers, full leather bodysuits and lots of weapons, fire dusters, knives, even swords like Mayer Jude. Rock would have preferred his dragon skin to anything he could see around him. The thought of the body armor that had been stolen sent a jolt of frustration through him. Losing dragon skin was a major loss on The Waste. But at least, he still had his life. Most people that lose dragon skin armor tend to lose their life at the same time.

Mayer Jude had spoken to the bear called Brolo briefly and now was approaching the raised platform in the middle of the crowd. Belas, who had by this time handed his daughter to a woman standing nearby, was leading the way before Mayer Jude and parting the sea of bodies.

When Mayer Jude reached the platform he walked up its steps quickly then slowed his walk across the flat surface to the speaker’s podium in the middle.

Then he waited… and watched. He didn’t speak, he didn’t motion for the crowd to quiet down. Mayer Jude simply stood on the speaker’s podium staring at the gathered crowd. At first, there was little, if any, response. Then gradually people began to notice the presence of the Mayer. His general’s uniform and reflective fabric, his sword and hat, it gave the Mayer the appearance of someone to be noticed, someone to listen to.

He looked around the crowd, making eye contact with people as he did. Eventually, everyone had noticed this silent man standing alone. All speaking lessened, then stopped, but only for a moment. But that moment of silence was all Mayer Jude needed. In one grand sweeping motion, he pulled the hat off his head and whipped it through the air and he bowed to the people surrounding him. The sparkling ropes of fabric reflected sunlight as he turned three times, making sure everyone got a good look. After he had bowed to all sides of the crowd surrounding him Mayer Jude finally spoke.

“Welcome to Centralia, the first City of The Waste. We have grave matters to discuss.”

 

Chapter 38

The Bushel of Wheat that Smashes the Buzzing Bee!

“We’re gathered together today as Wanderers and those that have been Wanderers,” said Mayer Jude to the crowd. “We know the struggle that comes with etching out a life in The Waste, the daily fight for food and grazing lands for our animals, the never ending battle against the elements, the wind, the rain and the snow. We’ve buried loved ones, both children, and parents. Over every bit of land in The Waste, we’ve fought, flourished, famished and even fucked…”

The crowd laughed at the joke.

“At least, that’s where I assume my general’s newest child came from, right Belas?” shouted Mayer Jude. Belas smiled, his wife grimaced and the child giggled and waved.

“I only point out the growing family of my trusted general to draw concern on an even larger problem. A problem that, if not dealt with, could snuff out the life of every brave man, every powerful woman, and every laughing child in this home we call The Waste. I speak of the invaders who have been plundering our lands and yours. The horse loving barbarians we’ve come to call the Vorin!”

Boo’s and hisses rushed out from the crowd. The majority of the sound came from Centralian voices. Rock wondered if the support from the Centralians came as a natural love for their Mayer, or if Mayer Jude had enticed them in other ways to cheer so animatedly. Most of the visiting Wanderer groups remained silent, uncomfortable at the thought of this new, unmoving settlement of Wanderers, that seemed so different from themselves.

As if Mayer Jude could read Rock’s mind, or perhaps he could just read the crowd, he continued.

“Our visiting brothers and sisters from throughout The Waste, don’t look at us Centralians as foreigners or others. We’re brothers, we’re Wanderer’s just like you, Wanderer’s who have simply found the place to which we were wandering. We grow your wheat and barley, we grow your corn and potatoes, we grow your grapes, we brew your beer, distil your spirits and bag your wine!”

Rock saw some of the visiting Wanderer’s nodding slightly in rhythm to Mayer Jude’s words. Others remained silent and unmoving.

“But I’ll tell you what Centralians don’t do. What Centralians will never do. We don’t raid your land, slaughter your children, steal your livestock and burn your orchards. We don’t attack you like a swarm of bees in the night, shooting our stingers at anything that moves. We don’t gather up the product of The Waste and consume it whole with our voracious appetite. We don’t do those things. But we know who does.”

“The Vorin!” shouted voices from the crowd. Mayer Jude paused for a moment longer, nodded, and moved on.

“Why just a few days ago a poor child was brought to me by one of my Wanderer brothers and one of my Wanderer sisters, the daughter to the chief of the Drenian. Caroline, Rock, will you please bring Matthew to me?” asked Mayer Jude. Rock almost choked at being put on the spot in front of such a crowd. He felt his throat tighten up like he’d eaten too many of the wrong berries. His skin itched as everyone looked to him. Caroline was standing nearby. A Centralian, who Rock recognized as having seen at Mayer Jude’s home prior to his trip to the foothills, walked from the crowd with Matthew at his side. While he did so he held the boy’s hand. When they arrived Matthew smiled up at Rock and Caroline. Caroline nodded to Mayer Jude and took Matthew’s hand. She motioned with her eyes to Rock to take Matthew’s other hand. Rock grabbed it quickly, mechanically, holding it too tight and, while holding the boy’s hand he walked stiffly with the both of them through the crowd.

“Thank you, my friends,” said Mayer Jude as he met them at the edge of the platform. He crouched down and took Matthew’s hand and guided him alone up the four steps. When he got to the top of the stairs Mayer Jude turned him around for all to see.

The child was wearing new clothing provided by Mayer Jude and the Centralian school. His hair had been brushed. He was smiling; at least, until he saw the size of the crowd around the platform, then the smile vanished.

Good boy, you can do it, Rock thought quietly to himself.

“Matthew, tell these people what Clan you come from,” said Mayer Jude warmly.

“Uh… the… we were part of the plain’s clans,” said the boy haltingly.

“And how large was your clan?”

“Some were big and some were just kids,” said Matthew.

Many faces in the crowd smiled at the boy’s innocence.

“No Matthew, how many people were in your clan?”

“Oh, well, it was my papa and his brothers and his sisters and their husbands and their families and then some more. There were sixty-three of us. It was going to be sixty-four in the fall when my aunt Julia had her baby.”

“And how many of your clan are left Matthew?” asked Mayer Jude.

“Just… now there’s… the only one… my family…” said the boy, stumbling over his words like someone gathering wood in the forest at night. Mayer Jude put a calming hand on Matthew’s shoulder and looked over the crowd, then asked him again.

“How many are left Matthew?” Matthew hung his head. His diaphragm raised up and down, a simple child crying. Mayer Jude let him cry. The crowd let him cry. Finally, he looked up at Mayer Jude and answered.

“Just me.”

“Your mother? Your father? Your family? All your clan?” asked Mayer Jude softly, but loud enough that the crowd could hear.

Matthew nodded.

“And Matthew, what are you going to do to the men that did this to your family?”

“Me and Rock are going to hunt them and kill them!” said little Matthew with clenched fists. A general cheer went up from the crowd. Even the Wanderers were joining in now.

“I know you are son. You’ve paid an unfair price, my boy. Thank you. Now go back to Rock and Caroline. You’re safe here,” said Mayer Jude and pointed. Matthew nodded and ran down the steps.

“As you just heard, this poor young boy had his entire clan wiped out in a single evening by an attack of the Vorin, every last one of them. He managed to survive by hiding in the tall grass and playing dead. While I can’t give Matthew his family back, I can give him a new home, a home here in Centralia where he will learn in our schools. Instead of playing with his clan friends in the plains, he will play with Centralian friends in the streets and in the fields and in the river. I can’t give Matthew his old family, but I have already helped him find a new one. But there is more I can give him. Do you know what it is?”

The crowd surrounding the platform remained silent.

“Revenge! Revenge and Protection. I can track down the men who slaughtered his family. I, with my valiant men have just had a resounding victory against the Vorin only yesterday. Hundreds have been slaughtered. Their animals we crippled and their warriors we slew. We will speak of the success that the Centralian Legion is already having against the Vorin more in our meeting.

“I can protect the other Wanderers living on the plain, the Wanderers living in the mountains, the Wanderers living in the desert and the Wanderers living in the forest. I can protect those of us living here, in the great basin of The Waste. But in order to do it, I need you and you need me and we need to work together. To do it we need to fight, to fight as one, our dusters to their arrows, our companionship to their horses. We need to form the bushel of wheat that smashes the buzzing bee! What say you men, do you wish to crush the invading Vorin?”

A cheer went out from the crowd, full and resounding. Though not all voices were raised in support Rock could tell the energy of the crowd had been harnessed by Mayer Jude. Clearly he was a man of many talents. But the meeting had just begun, and Wanderer’s were a fickle lot. Time would tell their sincerity.

Mayer Jude let the crowd cheer for a bit longer. Eventually, he motioned the cheering crowd to quiet with his hands.

“I hear your cheers and my heart grows glad. One month ago I sent runners throughout The Waste to call the tribes to gather and talk about this unfortunate invasion. The brave tribes of this land responded powerfully and sent their best and their brightest men and women here, to Centralia, to represent them. I know together we will crush this menace to the Wanderer way of life. Now please let me introduce you to the men and women representing the tribes that will help make this happen!”

 

Chapter 39

The First Gathering

The crowd of people cheered in anticipation of the introduction of the Wanderer ambassadors.

“Malin George, sent to us from the land of the federation of the High Montana’s representing the Helene tribe, the TriForks tribe, and the Capitol tribe.” Cheering followed the introduction and a light skinned woman with dusky golden hair and blue and green beads left behind a group of men and women standing below the platform wearing similar clothing. In the woman’s hair was also a small pinkish-white star shaped flower. Protecting her body was a doe-skin suit with tassels, the soft, supple leather looked as flexible as she. Malin approached the podium then skillfully skipped up the steps and waved to the cheering crowd before taking her seat in the chair pointed out by Mayer Jude. Mayer Jude smiled at her then looked back at the crowd.

“Brolo the Bear, representing the Coalition of Clans!” he shouted. The large man with the bear skin walked towards the platform. He was like a slow moving boulder, in no hurry to get where he was going while everyone in front of him stepped quickly out of his way. As he made his way up the stairs the steps creaked under his muscular body weight. When he reached the platform Brolo turned to face the cheering crowd and sneered then removed the heavy bearskin. The body displayed beneath was as chipped and hard as the boulder the man brought to mind. From waist up he was uncovered. Scars ran from one side of his chest to the other, thick scars in parallel lines, claw marks… bear claws. Brolo walked to his seat next to the doe-skin wearing woman, Malin, and laid his bear skin robe over his chair before sitting down. As he sat the beads and bear claws on the necklace around his neck rattled against his hard, scarred chest.

“Serilda and Sigurd of the Western Vidar tribe!” A man and a woman stepped out of the crowd. Each wore a soft blue robe. In addition to the unique shade of their robes, the two appeared to fit together, like a brother and a sister would, or perhaps even a well-matched husband and a wife. The man’s hair was soft colored and short, the woman’s was a similar hue and very long, past even her waist and brushed straight and clean. The sunlight bounced off it, giving it ripples, like the surface of a small stream. Each walked up the stairs, the man motioning for the woman to approach the steps first. Once on the podium, they took their places near the large shirtless Brolo.

“Powerful Ajax Rogan of the Rogan tribe!” shouted Mayer Jude. Ajax, like Brolo, was already shirtless. He wasn’t overly tall, but he appeared very strong. His chest was rounded and powerful. Colorful tattoos covered one of his arms completely; the other arm was halfway covered by similar colors. He wore tight brown pants with a belt. He was completely bald. On the belt was a holstered ax. Strapped to his back by a thick leather strap was a rifle. He walked quickly up the stairs and took a seat on the podium.

“Cochise, the great hunter of the Novo Apache!” A browned skinned, tall man with a wide face approached. He had a feather and beads in his long black hair. Like Ajax, Cochise had a rifle strapped to his back by a leather strap. He also had two pistols at his waist and a large bag of fire dusters clipped to his belt. He walked quickly up the stairs and directly to his seat, ignoring the cheering of the crowd completely.

“Dustin Worthen of the Nanar Tribe!” shouted Mayer Jude. A young, tall and thin man with a large smile ran to the podium and up the stairs. He was wearing standard Wanderer clothing, a plain white shirt with a pair of spun pants. He had a pair of handguns, revolvers, holstered at his waist and a wide brimmed fitted black hat on his head. Dustin smiled at the crowd then waved to them before taking his seat on the stand.

“Caroline, daughter to the Chief of the Drenian tribe!” The crowd cheered louder for her than anyone else so far. Caroline walked quickly through the crowd and up the steps. She turned and waved to the cheering voices. As she waved she smiled then she crossed the podium and took her seat.

“Rock, representing the independent Wander peoples of The Waste,” shouted Mayer Jude. Mayer Jude clapped for Rock while the group of people cheered him on. Matthew’s story and introduction must have won the crowd’s favor because Rock and Caroline seemed to be two of the favorites. Rock did his best to ignore the cheering voices and clapping hands as he walked quickly to the podium. When he reached it he quickly ascended the stairs and sat down in the seat next to Caroline.

“Belas Arias, First Lieutenant of the Centralian Legion, and destroyer of the Vorin, as he showed in last night’s battle, where he destroyed the combined forces of hundreds of Vorin invaders!”

Battle? Thought Rock. At best it was a skirmish. And the Centralians had been clearly on the losing end. Was he talking about the raid on the camp? With the horses? They hadn’t killed hundreds of Vorin, with the stampede perhaps they’d killed 20 or 30 if they were lucky? What? Was Mayer Jude counting horses as men?

But the crowd didn’t know these things. Like all crowds, they didn’t give a shit about details, they cared about what they were feeling at that moment and what they were feeling was hope. So the crowd exploded! Whoops and hollers filled the air around the platform. Both Wanderers and Centralians screamed “Belas! Belas! Belas!” while Belas calmly walked up the stairs. When he reached the top of the platform Belas waved to the people who cheered his name. Shouts of “Victor!” and “The Destroyer of Vorin!” came from the crowd at the base of the platform. Belas simply continued to wave and smile. After a moment of unsuccessfully waiting for the cheering to die down, Belas motioned for the crowd to stop. The crowd reluctantly obeyed. When they were silent enough, with a nod from Mayer Jude, Belas spoke.

“I thank you for your support. But truly I could not have been successful yesterday without my good friends Rock, Caroline, Robert and Tanner, all were involved in the conflict.” The people cheered again and quieted when Belas continued, “And more importantly, we must remember those who lost their lives yesterday, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice for a free Waste. May we all show a moment of silence in honor of our fallen.” The crowd obeyed and went still. After a moment, Belas spoke again. “Thank you, and may they always be remembered. Now it is my opportunity to present to you the man that has brought us all together. The man who I served in yesterday’s defeat of the Vorin, the man whose vision has created the Centralia, the man that has called us all together today and the man, who will, with your help, drive these invaders from The Waste forever! I give you the first Mayer of Centralia, Mayer Jude!”

Mayer Jude smiled and waved to the crowd after Belas introduced him and the crowd cheered and waved back. Mayer Jude seemed to be in his element. He loved the adoration of the people around him, he waved at the men, smiled at the women and cheered back at the children. If he hadn’t been on the platform above the crowd then Rock wouldn’t have been surprised if Jude would have reached out and picked up one of the small children. This man loved crowds and he knew what they wanted from him. Now all that was left to determine was whether or not he could control a meeting of representatives of the various Wanderer clans as well as he could elevate a crowd. Something Rock was about to find out soon because both Mayer Jude and Belas took their seats in two chairs next to one another.

It was time for the meeting to begin.

 

Chapter 40

Remind me Again Just how Much Blood a Bear has

After Mayer Jude had taken a seat he nodded to a guard standing on the ground near the raised platform. The guard nodded back and grabbed a large wooden switch and pulled on it. Rock felt the platform shake slightly in response. The cool confidence of Brolo the Bear, along with other participants quickly disappeared as they felt the platform shift in surprise.

Before anyone had the chance to object wooden walls moved out from underneath the raised platform. The walls slowly raised around the perimeter of the platform, cutting off the view that the representatives had of the spectators, but, more importantly, cutting off the view the spectators had of the stand. After they had fully raised, the wooden walls dropped down into prepared slots around the perimeter of the stand and locked into place. All of the movement had been done without any manpower at all. Now the open platform was a closed platform minus a roof.

“What is this!” shouted Brolo.

“Be at peace Brother Brolo,” said Mayer Jude. “The open sky is still above. These moving walls are my own creation and are merely an attempt to allow us to discuss these important matters away from prying eyes. Nothing more.”

There came some laughter from across the platform where the young cowboy, Dustin Worthin, sat.

“You have found something humorous?” asked Brolo with narrowed eyes.

“Why yes I do, at least, every now-n-again. This time, I found it funny what ‘ol Cochise here said, ‘bout bears liking caves more anyway, or summin’ like that,” said Dustin.

“Argh!” shouted Brolo and jumped up from his seat. He pulled an ax from his side and crossed the open space across the platform running towards the young cowboy. Dustin, with a quick draw, drew two revolvers from his waist and pointed them at Brolo’s chest before the large man could bring down the ax.

“I’d watch where you put that thing if I were you. If you don’t, I can assure you this wouldn’t be the first time I bagged me a bear.”

Brolo sneered at Dustin then slowly turned around and walked back to his seat. Rock could see Belas and Mayer Jude exchanging looks of concern.

“I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot here my dear friends,” said Mayer Jude as he stood up. “I’ve asked you all here to help discuss a plan for driving the Vorin from The Waste, not driving each other from this platform. If we could begin now? We clearly have much to discuss.”

“As you know,” he continued, “The Waste is currently being invaded by these Vorin scum. They have attacked families, clans, tribes and even lonely Wanderers from as far south as Centralia to as far north as the High Montanas. They are a problem for anyone who calls himself a Wanderer, they are a problem for anyone who calls himself a Centralian. Fortunately, for us, I have gathered two of the most knowledgeable people in The Waste regarding Vorin attack methods and it is for this reason that I would like to ask Rock Wanderer and Caroline, daughter of the chief of the Drenian tribe, to take the floor.” Mayer Jude motioned to Rock and Caroline and nodded slightly before sitting down.

Rock went rigid. He didn’t speak to groups. He had nothing to say. Sure, he’d fought the Vorin, but only a couple of times and each time he’d been lucky to leave the fight alive. If he started talking he was certain it wouldn’t be a benefit to what Mayer Jude was planning. What could an Indi Wanderer say about the need of bonding together and fighting, uh, excuse me, but we should all just walk over the western mountains and hope the Vorin don’t find us there?

Caroline must have seen Rock’s reaction because she reached out with her left hand and rested in on Rock’s right. She then stood up to address the group, but before she did she leaned over to Rock and said, “I’ll take care of this.”

“My fellow Wanderers, I will be happy to explain to you the things that I, and my traveling companion, Rock, have learned about the Vorin over the last few weeks,” said Caroline. The Wanderers in the circle were watching her with mild attention at best. Brolo still seemed to be heated over the interaction with Dustin, Dustin was looking at Brolo with an overemphasized smile on his face. No one else really seemed all that interested in listening to what Caroline was saying. But she said it anyway. She talked about how her clan was attacked by the Vorin and what the attack was like and how the Vorin, after the Drenian had retreated across The Waste, had destroyed their orchards. This information brought a degree of interest from most of the listeners, who would have been familiar with the famous Drenian orchards. Caroline discussed the fight she and Rock had had with the scouting party on the way to Centralia as well as both encounters they had on their trek to the mountains to pick up Robert and the ore. She was especially detailed when she described what the Vorin camp had been like for the few hours that she had been kept prisoner there and the female leadership that the Vorin seemed to employ.

When she was finished Mayer Jude suggested that they go around the circle of representatives and for everyone to share any experience that they, or their tribes, had had with the Vorin.

All the remaining representatives but one had had some sort of interaction with the Vorin, but the skirmishes had been small, likely only scouting parties, sent to get an overall understanding of the land and tribal makeup, at least if this was a full-fledged invasion, thought Rock.

The one representative who had had no interaction with the Vorin was Brolo the Bear, the representative of the Coalition of Clans. Perhaps it was due to this that he had been playing the part of antagonist since the meeting started.

“Why should the Coalition of Clans step forward to fight your battles for you? You have warriors. You have guns. Then why can’t you protect yourself from simple horsemen with sticks and bows?”

“The Vorin are a greater enemy than you realize Brolo the Bear,” said Caroline in response. “Unlike other targets, such as those that stand still and allow you to fight them, the Vorin swarm, thousands of hooves from hundreds of horses scatter the ground as arrows rain down all around us. They came out of the night without warning and their arrows reached our camp at almost the time the sounds of the horse hooves did.” Caroline continued. “They are trained to target any man with a gun first. There were many men after the first night attack that we found with three or more arrows in them, all in the chest, all shot by different bows at slightly different moments but each arrow by itself would have delivered a killing blow.”

“You have fire dusters, no? And they have merely wooden sticks and string, the weapons of weakness!” shouted Bolo. His large chest heaved up and down as he yelled.

“Yes, we had fire dusters,” continued Caroline, “It was having dusters that caused us to make the Vorin run both the first night and the second night of the attacks. But metal dusters are rare and valuable in The Waste. We must trade for them, and we never expected to go through so many so quickly.”

“How many bullets did you expend in the fighting?” asked Malin George, the doe skin wearing representative of the High Montanas.

“Nine hundred,” said Caroline.

“Nine hundred!” responded multiple voices with shock.

“Nine hundred in the first night, and another four hundred in the second. When we left our lands on the tribal retreat we had only eight hundred bullets left in my father’s duster chest.”

“Why were so many bullets fired? How many men attacked you?” asked Malin.

“As to the number of men that attacked us we have no knowledge. We counted fifty-seven dead Vorin the morning after the first night. Another sixty were killed the second night when we were better prepared.”

“One hundred and ten dead and thirteen hundred bullets expended? That is to be shamed!” said Bolo.

“I am happy to know the ambassador of the Coalition of Clans can count big numbers, but if I may explain to him, it is not shameful, it is expected. The Vorin attacked at night both times. The sky was moonless the first night and only slightly lit the second. When they attacked they wore black clothing, shot black painted and fletched arrows. and rode black horses with black burlap tied around the hooves to mask the sound as much as possible. Our guns, like yours, made both noise and fire from the barrel each time they were shot. The Vorin had been trained to fire their arrows instantly on any location from which they have heard a gunshot or saw the fire from a barrel. Most of our dead were defenders with guns and most of them were hit within moments of firing at the enemy.”

Caroline continued. “In addition to it being difficult to see them, and it being easy for them to see us when we fired, they knew how to fire while riding wildly on their horses. A Vorin horse weaves while attacking, one moment this way, the other that way. Hitting them with bullets is like hitting a pebble thrown into a moonless night sky. By the moment you see one and fire it’s gone, moving a different direction, then the next moment you are dead, with three arrows, buried up to the fletching in your chest, fired from three different bows held by three different men riding three different, though equally silent horses.”

“And yet the Centralian’s have been victorious in battle against them?” asked Bolo.

“They have, and I was there for the victory. We fought them three times in a night and a day. The first time was a scouting party, the second was a raiding party, the third was a raid on their camp, a raid they were not expecting or prepared for.”

“What is the goal of these horsemen and how does it affect the Vidar Tribe?” Asked the blue robed Sigurd, interrupting the argument.

“I will answer this to the best of my ability,” said Mayer Jude. “We are unaware of any goals of the Vorin. At best knowledge they entered The Waste from the mountain passes to the east. Their lands are the flat plains beyond the mountains. As for what they want with The Waste, the only things they have cared about has been the slaughter and rape of Wanderers and Centralians. They don’t take our women and children, they kill them. They don’t tend our orchards or farms, they burn them. Unless the Vorin are simply confused about the best way to make friends the only thing we can assume is that their goal is the complete and utter destruction of The Waste and the killing of its inhabitants.”

“Yet there has only been one tribe that have been openly attacked by them,” said Sigurd.

“There has been only one tribe that has been displaced by their attacks, consequently this is also the only tribe that has been aggressively attacked. But as most of you mentioned earlier many tribes have had skirmishes,” said Mayer Jude.

“Thank you for that clarification Mayer Jude,” responded Sigurd. “But please tell me why we should expect any sort of large attack in the future. Is it not entirely possible that the skirmishes have simply been the Vorin probing the tribes of The Waste, and determining which tribes would bring the easiest victories?”

“The Drenian are NOT a weak tribe!” shouted Caroline, standing from her chair as she did so.

“Weak was not a word I used, Drenian daughter,” replied Sigurd.

“We fought the Vorin like dragons. We sacrificed everything we had to hold them back and they paid in blood for what they took from us!”

“Perhaps the Drenian Daughter could remind me the price of a cherry tree, that is if I pay in blood,” said Brolo the Bear with a hearty chuckle.

“That depends on, remind me again, Brolo, just how much blood a bear has,” responded Caroline.

“People please, we are here to discuss, not fight amongst ourselves.”

“And what exactly do you want to discuss Mayer Jude of Centralia?” asked Sigurd, “what is it you want from us?”

Mayer Jude looked at the blue cloaked Sigurd, then around the circle to the other attendees before he stood up to address them.

“As separate peoples of The Waste, we are weak before the Vorin. We have heard what they have done to the Drenian, truly not a weak tribe. What will they be able to do to each of our tribes individually when they decide to?”

“The Coalition of Clans will protect its members from these Vorin, just as we have protected our members from all previous threats in the past,” said Brolo.

“It is easy to imagine how strong your tent is before the rains come, Brolo,” said Mayer Jude.

“And your tent, Mayer Jude, is it strong?” asked Ajax Rogan, the first time the muscular Wanderer with the tattooed arm had spoken.

“Like all of our tents, my tent has not yet faced the force of the rain. I pray when it does it will be strong enough to weather it, but I would be lying to you if I said I was not concerned.”

“And what do you propose to increase the strength of these, tents?” asked Sigurd.

“Separated across The Waste we are easy targets for this Vorin swarm. We don’t know how many riders and horses they have, but we know the damage they can do to a strong tribe when they attack in force,” said Mayer Jude as he looked at Caroline. “There is good land here in the basin of The Waste. There is pasture land for your flocks and farmland for crops. If we bond together here in the central basin we can withstand the Vorin assault. But if we remain separated the Vorin will swallow us one by one.”

“Move our tribes? Here!” shouted Brolo. He wasn’t the only one concerned. Each of the attendees seemed shocked at what Mayer Jude was suggesting.

“Why not bring your Centralians to us Mayer Jude?” asked Sigurd.

“The Western Vidar tribe does not have enough land to grow the crops needed to feed another tribe. If we moved to your lands, even for a short time, we would soon run out of food and become even weaker targets for the Vorin. Here in Centralia and throughout the basin, we can grow enough food to feed us. I have worked out the plans with my experts on farming, they have said…” said Mayer Jude, but he was interpreted by Sigurd.

“Your farming experts have said they would be happy to have all Wanderers move to Centralia and become farmers, how surprising.”

“You wouldn’t have to be farmers, only those that wanted to would. We would also need bakers, and shepherds, and builders and soldiers…”

“So you want our tribes to act as the soldiers that give their lives defending Centralia?” said Sigurd pointedly.

“I want your tribes to act as the soldiers that live their lives defending The Waste, and I want them to do it after gathering here to Centralia because this is the only place where the defense even has a chance!” said Mayer Jude forcefully.

“Well, I think your position has been noted Mayer Jude. I for one, promise to relay your message to the chief of our tribe but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t find your offer of subjection attractive. Now please, lower the walls. Our time here is over,” said Sigurd and stood up. With him stood Serilda and Brolo.

“This is not subjection. We can discuss the details of how it would work, you will maintain your tribe and your leadership. You will be under no obligation to submit to anyone, least of all me. What I offer you is the only way The Waste will survive a full Vorin attack. Eventually, we will join together, or we will perish,” said Mayer Jude. The walls around the platform began to lower. “Listen to me, please, here in Centralia we grow the grains that make your bread. If Centralia falls, and it might, then The Waste will fall, sooner or later it will fall.”

“If Centralia needs the strength of The Waste tribes to fight for its own land, then perhaps it deserves to fall Mayer Jude. Good Wanderings to you,” said Sigurd, then he gathered his cloak around his waist and, with Serilda, walked off the platform. When he got to the bottom he turned around and spoke one last time.

“If you ever choose to wander again, that is.”

 

Chapter 41

That Boy’s Mouth is like a River, it Never Stops Running

Mayer Jude poured a glass of wine for Rock and Caroline from his patio. The meeting had ended two hours ago and Jude had just gotten back to his home.

“Well, that didn’t go well did it?” Mayer Jude asked.

“People are people,” said Rock with a shrug. He hadn’t expected anything different. People were selfish. They acted in their own self-interest and if it wasn’t in their interest to help the Centralians then they wouldn’t do it. Same day, same travels.

“Wanderers are Wanderers. We’ve spent too many years wandering. We’ve forgotten how to work together for greater results. I wasn’t lying to them. If Centralia falls and our grain production dries up it will be easy pickings for the Vorin to take out the remainder of the tribes. We’re fighting a conflict of attrition. We only have a limited number of dusters. We’re not making any more.”

“Some people make dusters,” said Caroline.

“Worthless pieces of shit,” said Belas. “Just as likely to explode in barrels and kill good men as they are to make it out. You’ll lose more guns than it’s worth trying to make Waste-made dusters work.”

“Belas is right. I’m glad people are trying, but they’re not far enough along to make a difference regarding the Vorin. We need more knowledge of metals and ores before we get that far.”

“That’s where Robert comes in?” asked Caroline.

“Yes,” said Mayer Jude without raising an eyebrow. He didn’t act even the slightest bit surprised that Caroline and Rock understood Robert’s responsibilities.

“You can’t think I didn’t expect him to explain everything to you on the way back? That boy’s mouth is like a river, it never stops running. I want you to understand what we are doing here. Both of you,” said Mayer Jude.

“Why?” asked Rock.

“Because he wants us to stay,” said Caroline.

Rock looked at Mayer Jude. He stared back at Rock unmoving.

“It’s true. Your Chieftain’s Daughter is as quick as I am. I want you to understand the changes that are coming to The Waste. We’ve lived like animals since the wandering but times are changing and mankind is ready to be born again.”

“At least, if not for the Vorin,” said Rock.

“Screw the Vorin. They’re a bump on the road. We’ll survive this and come out stronger from it.

“And this is why you want to talk with us. To convince us to stay in Centralia and make your fight ours?” said Rock.

“Your fight is already mine, that is unless I’m wrong about the identity of the man that trampled their camp under the hooves of their own horses last night. But no, that’s not why I wanted to speak with you. I’m a man of my word. I’m just fulfilling my end of the bargain.”

Rock frowned.

“I’m ready to give you directions to the man that knows the way across the Wall-without-Walls. I hope you choose to put off visiting him until later. But no matter what you choose I’ll fulfill my side of the contract.”

Mayer Jude pulled a folded paper from his pocket and handed it to Caroline.

“Here’s the directions to Wordworth’s. When you get there show him the document. I’ve spoken well of you for him to read and unless for some reason he is disinclined, he is a bit gusty after all, I think it’s likely he tells you what he knows. It’s one day’s journey and the road is easy.”

“Thank you Mayer Jude,” said Caroline. She was about to ask him some questions about the journey when they heard someone coming up the stairs. Caroline turned around and saw the leather clothed woman from the platform earlier.

“Malin George,” said Mayer Jude and extended his hand to hers.

“Mayer Jude,” she said and took it before continuing. “I’ve come to tell you that the Federation of the High Montana’s has heard your call. We agree that if this place you call Centralia falls that it will only be a matter of time until all The Waste falls. We will agree to send you men with guns and dusters for your defense. We will begin our ride back tonight and in six weeks there will be at least 500 men, each with a gun and personal dusters, to help you in your defense.”

For the first time since they had met Mayer Jude appeared, at least to Rock, to be speechless. He looked at Malin George long enough for the slightest bit of moisture to form in the side of his left eye. Before it could drop as a tear Mayer Jude took control of himself and smiled like a child at their first feast festival.

“You make me proud to come from Wanderer’s, Ambassador George. I was worried that my pleas had fallen on strictly deaf ears.”

“On the contrary. I felt your information compelling and logical. We are under attack, and not as individual tribes in the mind of these invaders, but as a single people. Divided we are weak. It’s my hope that united we will stand stronger.”

“You said nothing at the meeting,” said Belas sternly.

“I apologize General Belas of the First Centralian Legion. It is the way of the tribes of the High Montanas. We wish to make our decisions independently and see it as bad taste to attempt to influence others in decisions that involve ourselves. Our silence was not a sign of disagreement, simply a necessary part of our tribal culture.”

“And you’re a ‘federation’ of tribes with this belief?” asked Mayer Jude skeptically.

“We are.”

“While I might not understand your culture I appreciate beyond measure your conviction to the defense of The Waste. My men will be thrilled to hear so many brave Wanderer’s will soon be joining the fight with them.”

“As will our men be glad to join a worthy fight Mayer Jude. Before I go I would like to give you this flower as a sign of conviction of our people.” She pulled a small pink star-shaped flower from her hair and handed it to him.

“This is the flower of our people, grown only in the center of our lands in a valley called “Bitter.” It is the first flower born each year as the snows melt and reminds our people that beauty is always just a snowfall away. Please keep it in honor of our friendship. Before that flower wilts, our men will arrive.”

“Keep it I shall and as for the honor of our friendship it will be my reminder that snows will pass as well,” said Mayer Jude.

“Mayer Jude!” shouted a breathless voice from below the balcony. Rock looked down in the courtyard below and saw Robert breathing hard like he had sprinted to get there.

“What in tarnation is it Robert? Did someone throw your rock collection in the garden again?”

“Mayer Jude, it’s the Vorin. They’re grouping just outside of town!”

 

Chapter 42

And he’s Worried we’ll be Dinner if he’s Not?

Rock rode hard. He assumed that somewhere on the road ahead the ambassadors were still traveling as a group since all of their tribal lands were north of Centralia to some degree. There were a couple tribes that lived to the southeast and southwest of Centralia, but those tribes had sent no ambassadors. Directly south of Centralia was the Wall-without-Walls and no one went there, at least, Rock had believed prior to tonight. Did this man suggested by Mayer Jude really know a way across the Wall? Wordsworth, right? Rock felt an unexpected smile fall over his face for just a moment as he thought of the perfection found in the name of a book trader.

There were many book traders in The Waste. The average Wanderer couldn’t read, but the powerful ones often could. Everyone knew that books were valuable, that books held information, all sorts of information like when to plant or how to fix broken sunchasers, or what everything was like before the Wandering. This information was valuable, so books were valuable in spite of most being unable to read. Rock could read, he wasn’t raised by anyone powerful, but he had been taught by his mother when he was a young boy. Rock remembered the worn copy of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” she had read to him during the dark days when they lived alone on The Waste; the days before they were accepted into an adoptive tribe.

She had probably read that strange story to him twenty times during the cold nights. There were rarely fires lit then, they were too much of a risk for a young girl and a child boy without weapons, but when the moon was full and the land dark she would read to him of Dorothy and a Tin man, a man made of straw and a lion full of fear. His mother had a beautiful voice, but when she voiced the words of the “Wicked Witch of the West” she’d been able to raise her pitch so perfectly as to convince him that, at least for a moment, she was no longer his mother.

Rock subconsciously felt the mass of books in his bag while he rode. It was in there, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” He’d seen it instantly the moment Caroline’s father had opened the chest of books what seemed like years ago at the Drenian camp. He’d known without a doubt that was the book he wanted most. But he’d kept his desire for it hidden and picked it up only after choosing four others, and then only after an exaggerated decision between a few other titles. You hold your cards close in the trading game. Information is valuable and Rock had learned long ago that the less information people had about you the harder it was for them to hurt you with it. He had dreamed about this book and when the chance came to own it he jumped at it even if just for the memories.

He’d dealt with book traders before, but mostly those that were mobile and would travel The Waste buying and trading the titles and tomes. The titles that were valuable in one part of The Waste weren’t always considered so in others. Mobile book traders capitalized on these inefficiencies, trading books like a man trades wine or fire dusters, a small value in one place could mean much more in another.

Permanent book traders were a different lot. At least, that is what Rock had been told by other Indi Wanderers. Permanent book traders didn’t trade in common books. They were looking for treasure and occasionally found them. To be a successful permanent book trader a person needed deep knowledge of what choices held the greatest value and they needed to be located in a permanent place that got enough traffic to ensure the occasional find. That’s what confused Rock most about this Wordsworth. His location just didn’t make sense. Thanks to the permanent settlement of Centralia commerce in the basin was becoming far more popular with traveling Wanderers. But Centralia and its people were just a few years old. How would a permanent book trader have survived living right against the Wall-without-Walls for so long before Mayer Jude and his people arrived? It didn’t make sense. The Wall-without-Walls was a stopping point. People didn’t cross it, so traditionally people didn’t come down this far.

If that was true what was this man doing trading books down here?

There was the light of a small fire burning ahead. Had the sun been out Rock would have seen the smoke at least a mile before, but darkness of night had arrived while he was on the road. He pulled his horse up as he approached the perimeter of the campfire.

“Ho there, Wanderers!” he shouted before growing too close to the campsite. Rock could see a handful of men and women around the fire, they were all watching him approach cautiously.

“Rock the Indi?” asked a voice.

“I am Rock,” he replied.

“Why have you followed us?” asked the voice again. It was a male voice, The voice of the blue-cloaked Sigurd of the Western Vidar tribe.

Rock told them the news.

“And he wants our help fighting them off? Us?” asked Dustin Worthin from underneath his wide-brimmed hat.

“He does. But if you are not willing to help I have been instructed to warn you to stay off the trails and light no fires tonight.”

“Why? It seems like tonight, of all nights, we’ll be safe as long as we are away from Centralia,” said Sigurd.

“We do not plan on the fight lasting long. Methods are being taken which we hope will drive the Vorin away from Centralia, at least temporarily. A hungry wolf denied an expected meal can get very angry,” said Rock.

“And he’s worried we’ll be dinner if he’s not?” asked Dustin.

“It may be a concern, for some,” replied Rock. Sigurd looked stoically at Rock.

“Tell Mayer Jude we appreciate his concern and will take his advice for tonight. We also wish him the best of luck in his battles, but we will not be returning to join him in a fight we see as his and his alone.”

“I’ll tell ‘em. Soon enough you’re going to realize this fight is far larger than you with your closed eyes have hoped it’s been.”

“On that day, we’ll speak again then.”

“If your tribe is left to talk,” said Rock to Sigurd, then he addressed the remainder of the group.

“Will no one come back with me and stand in the defense of Centralia, the first city of The Waste?”

The group was silent. There was no noise but the crackling of the small fire on the night air.

Rock identified the faces of the tribal ambassadors in the firelight. Most of them from earlier in the day were here, but not all. He could see the brother and sister, Sigurd and Serilda, along with Dustin Worthin, the feather-haired Cochise plus some additional attendants. He couldn’t see Brolo the Bear, or…

“I’ll fight with you,” said a voice from a man from the side of the road. “Hell, like you said it takes a blind man to not realize we’re all in the same fire pit,” said Ajax Rogan. The short muscular man stepped from the shadows on the side of the road, the firelight reflected off his smooth head and illuminated the tattoos covering one of his arms. He was holding an ax in his hands with his gun strapped over his shoulder. Ajax looked directly at Sigurd while he answered Rock’s call.

“The Rogan Tribe is honorable Ajax and you do them well. I appreciate your assistance,” said Rock.

“Then return the favor someday,” grumbled Ajax as he saddled his horse. When he was finished he pulled himself up in the saddle gracefully and sat next to Rock on the road.

“You’re wrong to think the Vorin won’t come after your tribes. They might not come tonight or tomorrow, but they will come, just like they have for others already. When they do you’ll wish you would not have turned your back on the idea of a unified Waste so quickly,” Ajax said then turned his horse and spurred it away from the fire.

“Protect yourselves tonight friends and hope that one day we have the opportunity to fight alongside one another,” said Rock before following Ajax’s example and chasing behind him down the dark road back to Centralia.

 

Chapter 43

Centralia! Centralia! Centralia!

When Rock and Ajax arrived back in Centralia the city was buzzing with activity as men and woman ran back and forth while preparing for the possible attack. Rock could see piles of wood on the outskirts of the town edges. There were torches burning all over within the town. The darkness of the night was strong outside the city around the fields, but within the living environment and among the recently built buildings and homes the burning fires made it as bright as the brightest full moon. Tonight the Vorin were not the enemy, neither were their arrows or their horses. Tonight the enemy was the dark and from the looks of it, the Centralians had declared an all-out war against it.

Rock took Ajax with him to Mayer Jude’s home. There were torches burning there too and Rock found Mayer Jude behind the home bent over some dark boxes and suncatchers with Robert.

Suncatchers were growing rarer in The Waste. When Rock was younger the dark reflective flat panels which faced the sun and gathered its energy had been more common. It was rare to find a large tribe that didn’t have an array of the objects, gathering sunlight and somehow using that sunlight as a type of magic to bring to life the additional tools machina owned by the tribe. As the years had progressed however more and more suncatchers had stopped working and there were few on The Waste that had the ability or knowledge to get them working again, tribes had still carried the broken suncatchers with them for a time, hoping they would eventually be fixed, or cannibalizing portions of the broken suncatchers to replace in suncatchers that were working but in need of new portions. Eventually, many tribes had given up on their suncatchers all together and either traded them for just a handful of dusters or if a trade couldn’t be found they had just left them behind while moving altogether. It must have seemed like a miracle for the tribe that managed to trade Mayer Jude a wagon full of catchers for a wagon or two of grain to get such a great value for their unwanted and unneeded old objects. But old, broken objects could be of great value if you knew someone that could fix them.

“Are you getting anything?” Mayer Jude asked Robert.

Robert grunted from under a table of dark boxes and nodded.

“Good, ‘cause if this doesn’t work I think we may be screwed.”

“Sunstores?” Ajax asked.

“Ajax Rogan? I’m glad to see you,” said Mayer Jude with a tired smile. “If we make it through the night please be assured as a result of your returning to assist your people will always be able to count on the might of the Centralian lands in the future.”

“Might?” asked Ajax with a raised eyebrow and a smile.

“A might that will out rival the combined might of the rest of the Wanderer’s of The Waste. Provided we live through the night that is.”

“Night makes might,” responded Ajax and continued. “I don’t see how a few old sunstores will make any difference. Might be better if you were out there setting fires with the rest of your men?” he said to Mayer Jude.

“I’ve been assured by my first commander Belas Arias that he will have the fire lighting completed in time. As for us, what use is it having a mind like Robert’s here if I don’t let him put together any of his frazzled ideas?”

“What ideas?” asked Rock. Robert still hadn’t said a thing, not since Rock and Ajax arrived. Rock thought it might make some sort of record as far as Robert was concerned.

“Robert’s building a, well, what did you call it Robert?” asked Jude.

“Light thrower,” mumbled Robert as he continued to focus on the heavy black boxes with inter-crossing wires in front of him.

“As you can tell, we’ve decided the best time to fight the Vorin is during the day. So we’re going to make that happen.”

“You’re making it day?” asked Rock.

“Let there be light? Right?” said Mayer Jude with a tired smile.

Rock was just about to ask another question when a blinding explosion of light, like the white sun had risen from Mayer Jude’s porch, came into existence and then just as quickly flashed out.

“Dammit!” groaned Robert.

“By the sol!” shouted Ajax, his hands had been too late to shield his eyes and he was blinking trying to get his night vision back.

“You weren’t kidding Robert!” said Jude with a laugh.

“Almost there. Just need to tighten this connection and we should be good,” said Robert from over top of the sunstores. “I’ve set the batteries to run in parallel. This means you’re going to get all the power you need to light the bulb, but we don’t have a ton of light time. Maybe twenty minutes total. We can charge the batteries tomorrow using the solar panels, but we’ll have to get to tomorrow first. Until then we’ll save power tonight by only connecting the series when we’re ready to use it.”

“Robert, I’ve no idea what you just said. But I’m ready to play God! Let my light shine!” said Jude with a laugh. Jude sat down in a chair on the edge of his balcony. There was a reflective surface mounted to the front of the chair. A mirror. Rock had seen them in the tents of some of the Wanderer tribal leaders he’d visited before, but this mirror was larger than any of the others he’d seen, easily the size of a small child. A grown man could see most of his body reflected in its long narrow design.

“And you’re certain we can refill the sunstores tomorrow?” asked Jude.

“Technically, provided the sun rises and someone is alive to hook up the batteries. The problem is having both those things happen at the same time.”

“I understand,” said Mayer Jude then he pointed out over the groups of men and women below while they prepared for the attack.

“Those people are scared. They’re safer here than anywhere else in the central Waste right now, but some of them don’t feel that way. A few seconds of well-timed light now can give hours of hope. Turn it on, just for a moment, Robert.”

Robert shrugged then connected two of the sunstores and flipped a switch.

The light at the base of the chair Mayer Jude was sitting in flared to life again. This time, Rock was ready for the sudden influx of light to his eyes and was able to avert them enough to not lose all vision for the immediate future.

“Yee-Haw!” shouted Mayer Jude from where he sat. He swiveled the chair beneath him and pulled a sheet of fabric from where it had rested between the light and the mirror. When he did the overpowering light shot from the bulb where it was being created and reflected off the mirror mounted to the chair. Mayer Jude was able to swivel the chair left and right, up and down, and with each move, he could direct the stream of light from his place on the balcony into the dark field in front of them like a lighted tunnel moving through the air. The beam wasn’t very large in the place where it fell on the field in front of them, but it was large enough to illuminate a single man on a horse from that distance very clearly.

The Centralians working below paused in awe at the brightness of the unexpected light.

Mayer Jude shouted down to them from his seat in the lighted chair.

“My fellow people of Centralia, tonight, if we are attacked, the Vorin will wonder how it was we Centralians flew to the sky and brought back the sun!”

The people below cheered.

“I’ve got ten dusters to any man that drops a Vorin with his first shot, and I’ll light the way for you!” Cheering came from below along with some catcalls and objections.

“Of course ladies, I wouldn’t want the Vorin to think they were attacking a people where only the men can fight. I know some of my Centralian woman are better marksmen than their husbands, the ten dusters will go to you as well!”

More cheering sounded.

“Tonight we will fight for our rights to live in peace. For our rights to plant and to sow, to build and develop, to trade and increase. We fight for our loved ones, our wives, our husbands, our partners and our children and tonight we will especially fight for ourselves because when the sun sets a person’s right to be as he wishes is the greatest opportunity to fight for,” The people below cheered and called out for Mayer Jude to continue.

“Tonight we say to these invaders to turn back. We tell them that we have chosen our homes and we will not run. We are no longer Wanderers in a barren Waste, but we are men and women of courage and conviction!” Mayer Jude lifted his arms above his head as he spoke.

“Tonight, as one people we walk through the fires of the crucible. Tonight we are tempered into the metal of Centralians. Tonight you shout these words…”

Mayer Jude paused, allowing time for the words to sink in, then he began to chant.

“Centralia… Centralia… Centralia…”

He looked down at the faces of the people below as they began to chant with him. They weren’t specialized people with great knowledge or understanding. His Centralians were like the Wanderers throughout the rest of The Waste. But they were different in that they shared a common vision for the future, a vision that said they had claimed a place as home and were willing to fight for it, to die for it.

A loud cheer went up around Mayer Jude as the people chanted as one.

“Centralia! Centralia! Centralia!”

Mayer Jude shouted over them as they chanted. “Tonight you learn what it means to be a Centralian, and come tomorrow the Vorin will have learned too!”

Rock looked at the scene surrounding him. Fires were burning, lighting the empty space around the perimeter of the settlement. Men and women were organized in lines, each with a gun and hopefully as many dusters as necessary. Belas rode among the people, shouting orders to his soldiers from the top of his horse as if he’d done it hundreds of times before as if these men and women were something more than simple Wanderers turned farmers as if they were soldiers. And maybe they were Rock caught himself thinking, even for just a short moment maybe they were soldiers in a way, soldiers of The Waste. The light of the fires reflected off any metal they were wearing and the shine in their eyes. Eyes that were as ready as they would be, at least for tonight, for whatever attack the Vorin brought.

And it was good they were ready, because as if on cue Rock saw movement in the fields beyond the fires, at first just small movement, a shape barely discernible in the darkness of a moonless night, but then more and more shapes appeared. Men and horses forming in a line, silent, determined.

The Vorin had arrived.

 

Chapter 44

But this was no Great Civilization with Thousands of Young Men to Send to War

There were, at least, a few hundred Vorin on horses coming into the light of the campfires. Maybe, if they were lucky they would see the campfires burning and decide to turn back, thought Rock. It was unlikely though, no matter how well prepared the Centralians were tonight, after seeing a hostile force of Vorin on their boundaries they were bound to become even more prepared from this point on. Now was the best time for the Vorin to attack. Rock knew it, and apparently the Vorin did too because they didn’t seem to have any interested in leaving.

“Centralians to your places!” shouted Belas from atop his mount in the courtyard below the balcony. People scattered, each running to a predetermined location where they crouched down below barricades or hunkered near piles of wood to re-stoke fires when necessary. They pulled out their guns, Rock was surprised to see that many of the Centralians didn’t have a gun to fire with at all, and instead only held long sharpened poles.

“You don’t have guns for all your people?” Rock asked Mayer Jude.

“Does any tribe?” responded Mayer Jude and shook his head. “As time passes more guns break; there are fewer every year.”

“So what are they doing out there? The people without guns? Shouldn’t you bring them back behind where they will be more protected?”

Jude shook his head.

“If the Vorin break through our line of gunmen no one will be safe anyway. Besides, the Vorin don’t know they don’t all have guns.” Jude looked back at Robert where he stood near the black sunstorers.

“You ready Robert? It’s time to call the sun.”

Robert nodded and waited for Jude’s order.

Mayer Jude shouted loudly to the Centralians below.

“Remember, every Centralian that hits a Vorin with his first shot…”

Boo’s echoed from below.

“…With their first shot,” corrected Mayer Jude to the approval of the crowd, “will be awarded ten more dusters upon completion of the fighting.”

“What if we’re all dead?” shouted a voice from below.

“You better not be, at least not if you want your dusters,” shouted Mayer Jude.

“They’re riding!” shouted a sentry from above. The line of horse archers was advancing, but not in an ordered line. They were riding towards the line of Centralians in one ever-shifting mass of bodies, both horse, and man. The fluctuating lines made it difficult for the Centralian riflemen to focus on any one target among the movement. Then Mayer Jude gave the order for Robert to turn the light on.

The sudden illumination shot from the balcony like a sliver of newly born sunlight. It took a moment until Mayer Jude had enough control over the direction of the beam of light to put it where he wanted it, which was directly at the front of the charging mass of men and horses. When he finally found the first target with the beam of light it was shocking how clearly it illuminated the target.

The light followed a rider on a horse at the front of the charge. Even from the distance of a couple hundred yards, Rock could make out the surprise on the man’s face when he suddenly found himself and his horse, both expecting protection of nightfall, fully exposed to the view and bullets of the men below.

“Ten dusters!” shouted Mayer Jude.

He did his best to hold the beam of light steady and follow the single living target he had picked out. The rider tried to turn left and right to avoid the beam that followed him, but the only result was his horse tripping up the horses of other riders near him. Eventually, the mass of bodies grew closer and closer to the burning fires on the perimeter of the settlement which resulted in many more Vorin coming into illuminated view of the Centralians.

Still, however, they held their fire.

The attacking Vorin grew closer with each second, but apart from the soft rumble of the fabric wrapped horse hooves there was no other sound. No shouting, no yelling, just the deep rumble of horse hooves on the dirt.

They were less than one hundred and fifty yards away when the first gunshot sounded. It came from the balcony not far from Rock. He glanced with the corner of his eye to see Caroline reloading her rifle. One hundred and fifty yards away the Vorin that Mayer Jude had been following with the spotlight fell from his horse. A cheer went up around the Centralians. Rock smiled and fired his rifle. Another Vorin fell. Then the sound of many rifles followed.

The current distance of the Vorin was the sweet spot for the Centralians. From experience fighting them Rock and Belas had determined the Vorin bows were most dangerous from under fifty yards. Still a huge distance to be firing an arrow from the back of a moving horse accurately, but far inferior to the distance a bored rifle barrel could fire accurately from. The Centralians had from 150 yards to 50 yards away to kill as many Vorin as they could, inside this distance the Centralians ruled supreme. It was their goal to kill as many Vorin as they could as they passed within those distances. This had been explained to the Centralians before the attack began and from the fire of bullets that broke out over the night sky the Centralians remembered.

Bullets fired and Vorin fell, five, ten, fifteen, but they kept coming. They were getting closer now, a mass of life moving as fast as they could, also understanding how important it was they get closer to their enemy. Their bows were out and each had an arrow nocked as his horse, guided by the movement of the hips of its rider as well as an inborn battle instinct, continued to charge forward into the guns and bullets of the defending Centralians.

Mayer Jude wasn’t wasting his spotlight time. After the first rider had been dropped by Caroline he quickly found another rider, who was dropped by another bullet, then another rider who was dropped. He was now illuminating his fourth Vorin rider with his spotlight from his chair atop his balcony above.

From every direction came the sound of violence, the sound of killing and the sound of dying. Rock had heard all these sounds before in his life as a Wanderer in The Waste, but he’d never heard them to this extent. He’d never heard these sounds fill the air around him like they did tonight.

Arrows passed overhead, whistling above, then embedded themselves into the wooden walls behind where Rock and Caroline had been standing moments earlier. Before Rock could right himself and ready his gun to return fire the group of Vorin were attacked by a number of pike-wielding Centralians who charged the giddy horses. Two of the invader horses reared back on their hind legs dropping their riders to the ground at the feet of the attacking Centralians. One Centralian was in the process of stabbing a fallen Vorin with his pike when he took an arrow through the throat. The arrow passed straight through, pulling blood and flesh with it from the back of the man’s neck as it exited. The man collapsed and his lifeless body hit the ground before his dropped pike did. Another pikeman took an arrow before Caroline and Rock finally got back to their feet and fired four quick shots at the six Vorin. Three fell from their horses and the other three, seeing that a full five of their companions had by now been killed decided they didn’t like the odds and spurred their mounts away from the Centralians and into an area of dark night that fire’s flame was not illuminating. The remaining Centralians with pikes cheered briefly when the Vorin ran, then, remembering their fallen friends they quickly turned their attention to them. Rock couldn’t save them all. It was too late for the fallen.

The fighting continued for a time, Rock didn’t know if it was days or seconds. One… two… three! Rock fired duster after duster into unsuspecting Vorin riders. But it wasn’t only the Vorin that were dying. Around them were dead and dying bodies of men and women without horses, Centralians. Rock didn’t know how many. What he did know is that it was happening and then, as suddenly as it all started, it seemed to be ending.

“They’re retreating!” shouted Mayer Jude from near Rock’s shoulder on the balcony. “They’re retreating!” he yelled louder to any Centralian still alive to listen. Rock looked out at the pasture land that had become a battle site in front of him. He saw the backsides of galloping mounted and unmanned horses growing smaller as they ran away. There were dead horses lying in the field, horses that would never attack again and there were dead men, lots, and lots of dead men.

The carnage was nothing compared to the great battles of the forgotten world’s past. In the place of thousands and hundreds of men were instead the bodies of fifty, or maybe seventy-five. But this was no great civilization with thousands of young men to send to war, this was Centralia, the first city of the Waste, and in the harsh world around them losing seventy-five men from your settlement could be as much a death sentence as losing them all. This type of death sentence simply took longer to bring to pass and provided pain for a longer period.

But the men Rock looked down and saw lying dead and dying on the ground below him were not all Centralians, in fact, from the look of it the Centralians had given better than they had taken. The majority, though not a great majority, of the dying men were not Centralian, but the invading Vorin. Rock was surprised he could tell from this far away the markings of each individual man in the dark of night, when the battle started it had been difficult to see the men running across the field in the dark night, now it was bright enough to see the dead and dying bodies. Had the sun risen so early?

Rock heard screaming. He’d heard screaming since the battle started, but this was new screaming, screaming and shouting for a new subject. He looked to the side and then realized why he had such a great view of what should have been a dark plain below him.

All around him, Centralia was burning.

 

Chapter 45

Too Bad Duties and Honor have Never Filled a Belly

The fire crews fought what they could throughout the night, but they might of well have been throwing buckets of hope on the fire in place of water for all the good it did. There wasn’t enough organization. There wasn’t enough water. There weren’t enough buckets and more than anything there weren’t enough men and women to fight the flames. Those that hadn’t died in the Vorin attack were equally divided up between those in a state of panic, wandering around the burning landscape shaking and talking to themselves, and a second group of Centralians trying desperately to save the burning buildings in spite of their absence of water, buckets or manpower. An equally sized third group was made up of children and most of them were crying aloud for their parents, hoping to find them in the burning night.

“Do you think the Vorin will come back?” Mayer Jude asked Rock while taking a break from moving buckets of water.

“Tonight?” asked Rock as he wiped the sweat from his brow. Jude nodded.

“No,” said Rock looking at the ruins of the town all around him. “They got what they wanted tonight.”

“Just to burn it?” asked Jude. Rock nodded.

“To kill it,” said Rock.

“Why?”

“Why kill, or why choose Centralia?”

“Both… I guess.”

The smoke-filled air burned Rock’s nose. He coughed before answering.

“Threat. A city is a gathering place, a beacon for others who are lost. From what we’ve seen the Vorin are waging war on the entire Waste, not just a portion. That means until they succeed there are going to be a lot of Wanderers without a home. The last thing the Vorin want is to give the displaced a gathering place. Destroy the city destroy the beacon, destroy the beacon destroy the home.”

“What are you going to do now?” asked Jude. Rock shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter. What are you going to do?” he returned the question.

“These are my people, Centralia is our home. We’ll rebuild.”

“Not now you won’t. Winter is coming. You don’t have enough men, wood, bullets or walls to stay here.”

“We’ve never had enough of anything, yet here we are, and here we’ll be,” said Mayer Jude.

Caroline approached the two men. She handed a bucket of water she had been carrying to another Centralian and took a seat next to them.

“We need to leave. There is nothing left for us here and I have a duty to my tribe to find assistance from across the Wall-without-Walls. I’ve put off my duties long enough.”

“Too bad duties and honor have never filled a belly,” said Mayer Jude. “Were it so, your actions might actually help someone.”

Caroline ignored him.

“Do you still have the map?” She asked Rock. Rock nodded.

“You’ve said yourself that someone could help us. I pray your assistance was not given in bad faith?” Caroline asked Mayer Jude.

“Men say a lot of things, especially when they want others to think well of them. Don’t confuse the boasting of a drunk book trader with the value of decades of experience. I’ve given you a map to Wordsworth’s trading post. When you get there you can see whether or not he’s worthy of your trust.”

“And when we leave, you still intend on caring for the boy Matthew?” asked Caroline.

“How did he fare tonight?” asked Jude.

“As expected, but he is alive and he has made some friends from what I’ve seen. You will care for him?”

“I will,” said Mayer Jude without much thought.

He looked at the burned-out buildings around them. There hadn’t been many buildings in Centralia to begin with. Less than thirty in total including stores to trade in, common dining halls, communal family apartments, and a few other structures. Most of them were just burned rubble now. The only building that remained completely untouched by the fire was Mayer Jude’s home, where the defense had been centered. Earlier that morning he had opened up his home to all the Centralians. His home was crowded but warm, the cooling fall air kept at bay by a small fire in the fireplace, the only intentional fire in the town at the moment.

“Then we leave now. There is no reason to wait,” said Caroline. She looked at Rock and continued. “Are you willing to extend our agreement as discussed and take me to this Wordsworth’s trading post on the map?”

Rock nodded.

“I’ll get the horses,” he said and walked towards the stables.

 

Chapter 46

Maybe it’s You that Doesn’t Deserve Humanity

Rock’s five books were safe in his bag where he had left them. Five books were worth many bullets in The Waste and he’d been foolish to leave his bag unwatched at Mayer Jude’s home, but no harm had been done. He pulled out the copy of the book called “The Wizard of OZ.” It felt warm and comforting. It felt familiar. Rock was interested in trading with this book trader, but he wouldn’t trade this book. This book would remain his for a long time and short of his dragon skin armor, which he would likely never see again, Rock couldn’t think of anything he’d be willing to trade for this copy of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“You know you don’t have to come with me. The trail doesn’t look hard. I can make it on my own,” said Caroline as she walked up behind him while he saddled his horse in Mayer Jude’s stables.

“No one deserves to die alone,” said Rock, then ignored her.

“Is there even some small part of you that can understand why I’m doing this?” asked Caroline softly.

“Understanding isn’t something that interests me,” said Rock and mounted his horse in a single fluid movement. He kicked its sides to ride out of the stable when Caroline stepped in front of him and grabbed his horse’s bridle.

“Bullshit,” she said, unmoving in front of his horse.

“What?” asked Rock.

“I said bullshit. That’s bullshit that understanding isn’t something that interests you. Understanding is as much of your world as loneliness. You do understand. You understand what items traded for cheaply in one tribe will sell for more in the next. You understand what clouds mean days of rain and what clouds mean simply a break from the sun, you understand the difference of a man with a gun defending his family and a man with a gun robbing travelers. If you didn’t understand you would have died a long time ago. You understand tribe, you understand honor and you understand courage. What you don’t understand is why I won’t just abandon it like you have!”

“You don’t know know me, or my past.”

“You’re right, no one does Rock. And that’s why I’m going to the Wall-without-Walls. So I don’t grow old just being one more Indi Wanderer whose life or past is unknown by anyone. Mayer Jude may be eccentric, or he may be mad, but he’s right about one thing. Humanity is meant to live together. To grow as one body. To flourish and prosper as one, or to fight and fall as one. And I won’t cut myself from that body, because that body is me, and although the sacrifice of one life if need be is small, I will make it because small or not, it’s the biggest sacrifice I can make.”

Rock pulled the reins of his horse from Caroline’s hands and rode around her in the stable.

“I’ll be waiting for you to depart. I’ve got one day of service left to your father. I’ll take you as far as Wordsworth’s, but don’t expect anyone to travel any further with you.”

“I won’t,” said Caroline.

“Caroline, maybe you’re right, maybe working as one is the best way for humanity to grow. But maybe you’re wrong. Maybe humanity doesn’t deserve you.”

“Maybe it’s you that doesn’t deserve humanity, Rock,” said Caroline and walked away.

###

There was no conversation on the road to Wordsworth’s trading post, which was fine with Rock. In the past few weeks, he’d forgotten how much he enjoyed the silence of the road and Caroline’s cold shoulder was a nice reminder of what he would have again once he dropped her off at the trading post.

He’d spent the silence of the road thinking. Thinking about the tribes in The Waste, always fighting and stealing and hoarding. He thought of his childhood spent in a tribe. Of his mother working her fingers to the bone washing other people’s clothing. Of the chief’s son’s fast horse. He thought of Caroline and the life she might have had before the Vorin invasion as a daughter to the chief of the Drenian tribe. He thought of the Vorin, spilling over the mountains and valleys of The Waste like water from a broken beaver dam. He thought of this Wordsworth’s trading post. A book trader living on the tip of the fingernail of The Waste. He wondered again how he could survive with one foot in The Waste and one foot seemingly in the Wall-without-Walls. He thought about what he would do after delivering Caroline. He still didn’t know. He could sell a couple of his books for enough dusters and supplies to get him through at least a couple of seasons living on his own in the mountains. Vorin horses weren’t bred for mountain riding, Rock could tell that by the way they had attacked Centralia last night. The Vorin were a plains people, and their horses were plains horses, not familiar with the rocky ledges and vertical drops that mountain horses trotted over as surefooted as a goat.

Rock would be safe in the mountains. At least for a couple of years. He knew meadows with enough grass to feed his horse and enough game to feed him. He could build a shelter. He could build traps and trade furs occasionally when new supplies were needed.

But would that fix anything? The Vorin were in The Waste and Rock couldn’t see that being a good thing in any way at all. The tribes wouldn’t unite together. Mayer Jude had tried at the meeting, but Rock could see there was no chance. Sure, a couple of groups would hold hands and fire guns, but a couple of groups wouldn’t be enough. Not by a long shot. And when this was all over in a year or two, when the Vorin had overrun The Waste, would Rock be any safer than he was right now? Could he come down from his mountain retreat and trade with them or would they kill him at first sight?

The more Rock thought about it the more he realized that Caroline’s plan to enter the Wall-without-Walls might not be as bad as he thought. At least, for her, it would be over quickly. Either she would get through, not likely, or she would end up dead to whatever creature patrolled those empty lands. Either way, she wouldn’t be worrying much longer.

What about going west and over the great mountains? He’d heard there were some people over there. And the Vorin likely wouldn’t be going over the mountains any time soon. He could start a new life. Surely the people on the other side of the mountains, those outside of The Waste, traded books? Rock had five now, that would be enough to start a new life. That is what he should do. Leave The Waste and its soon-to-be-lost people and start a new life over the mountains in the West.

“Is that it?” asked Caroline from her horse ahead of Rock on the trail.

They had been climbing a small mountain for the last few hours and were high up on an overpass. Below, their trail meandered down the far side of the mountain until it arrived at a small home in the valley below. The home sat near a river, the same river that ran next to Centralia. Across the river, Rock could see the flat and empty expanse of the Wall-without-Walls. The shadows of the surrounding mountains were slowly covering the homestead trading post and growing longer and darker as the sun dropped out of the late afternoon sky.

“Must be,” said Rock.

“Will we get there before dark?” asked Caroline, looking towards the sun.

“Not if we don’t move fast,” said Rock and spurred his horse on. Caroline didn’t follow him right away. While Rock and his horse moved down the trail towards the small building in the valley far below Caroline sat stoically atop her horse, silently looking out over the empty expanse of the Wall-without-Walls, then over her shoulder towards where she had come from. She stayed still for a moment. Hardly breathing, then she wiped a small tear from her cheek and started down the trail after Rock.

 

Chapter 47

Understand what I Just said, that Everything is For Sale

The windows of the trading post glowed with the warmth of the fire within the trading post walls. Rock called out as he and Caroline approached and although Rock could hear someone inside singing loudly no one came out to meet him. So Rock called out again to no answer.

The trading post was a small, rectangular building. Rock had seen that it had an earth roof when he’d looked down on it from the mountains above, but from this angle, down on the ground level with the building, the roof was high enough to be out of sight to all but the tallest men riding all but the tallest horses.

There was an empty corral to Rock’s right and a large storage building, perhaps a barn or a stable, to Rock’s left. In front of the small trading post were two tall wooden poles. Each pole had a different size bell hanging from it and a wooden sign attached near each bell. Rock called again, and while the singing from inside the building continued, no one answered Rock’s call, so he rode closer to the posts to read the signs.

The first sign said:

If you come to travel or trade peacefully, ring me

Below was an old rusty bell. The type that rich Wanderers would attach to their cattle before letting them go for the night. The sign on the next post said:

If you come to trick, take, swindle, or do violence, ring me

Below the second sign was a shiny, smaller metal bell. There was no rust on the second bell, and in spite of having no intention to trick, take, swindle or do violence, Rock couldn’t help but want to hear what this second bell sounded like. He reached out to touch it but looked to Caroline first. She frowned at him and shook her head. Rock grunted and changed his approach, instead taking hold of the old cow bell and giving it a solid ring.

The clatter of the bell was easily heard inside the house and the singing stopped. Rock heard the sound of a metal pot being set down and footsteps walking across floorboards. The front door opened and in the increasingly darkening twilight sky, Rock made out the form of a slim man’s body standing in the open doorway, illuminated by the back-light of the building interior. In his right hand, he held what appeared to be the barrel of a rifle, with the stock resting on the floor near his feet. The rifle was probably loaded and ready to fire, but it wasn’t in the man’s hands. Likely a message, but not as much of a threat as pointing it would be.

“You read the signs?” said a man’s voice.

“We did,” responded Rock.

“And you rang the right bell?” asked the man.

“We did,” said Rock again.

“And you have no intentions to trick, take, swindle or do violence?”

“We don’t.”

“Well, in that case. Welcome to Wordsworth’s, come into the light where I can see my visitors better.

Rock and Caroline looked at one another then Caroline nodded and moved her horse ahead. The darkening sky made it difficult for the man in the doorway to see her until she drew almost close enough for him to reach out and touch her horse.

“A woman of great beauty! To you lady I shall be your Byron.” The man stepped from the open doorway, leaving the gun behind, pulled off a worn hat, and bowed low in front of Caroline. When he rose up again he smiled and began to slowly speak:

 

“She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect, and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

 

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress

Or softly lightens o’er her face,

Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure! How dear their dwelling place

 

And on that cheek and o’er that brow

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent.”

 

“Beautiful words dear poet. But incorrect,” said Caroline and smiled at the man.

“Surely not. Your beauty is unquestionable!” said the man with a flourish.

“Of my beauty, I will leave it for you to argue. But the lie was in the last stanza. For my mind is not at peace with all below.”

“Oh, a poet’s license, nothing more dear lady. In these trying times, only a fool could find such peace. And your man friend. Should I find lines for him as well?”

Caroline looked back at Rock who shook his head vigorously.

“I would appreciate that greatly,” said Caroline with a smile.

The man stepped further out of the house and approached Rock. He looked him up and down and took in the details that the life of an Indi Wanderer of The Waste tended to pick up. The worn leather clothing, the well-oiled gun, the sun-worn hat and the strong horse.

The poet smiled at Rock then cleared his throat and spoke.

 

Happy the man, whose wish and care

A few paternal acres bound,

Content to breathe his native air

In his own ground

 

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,

Whose flocks supply him with attire,

Whose trees in summer yield him shade,

And in winder fire

 

Blessed, who unconcernedly find

Hours, days and years slide soft away

In health of body, peace of mind

Quiet in the day

 

Sound sleep by night, study and ease

Together mixed sweet recreation

And innocence, which most doth please

With sweet meditation

 

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;

Thus unlamented let me die,

Steal from the world, and not a stone

Tell me where I lie.

 

The man bowed to Rock at the completion of the poem and smiled. Rock quickly smiled back and Caroline laughed.

“Quiet in the day! You have no idea!” she said to the poet.

“I am proud you have enjoyed my recitations, now do you have any for me?” asked the poet.

Caroline was taken back. She’d read books of poetry from her father’s chest when she’d been a girl, but she hadn’t thought of them for years. There was something about a little bird, or was it a dragonfly, or was it… Rock interrupted her thoughts.

“The mountains are tall. Your house is small. We’re hungry.”

The poet stayed silent for a moment, anticipating another line. When it became apparent that nothing more was coming he threw back his head and laughed.

“Surely the quiet one is a master poet. So simple, so direct, not a single syllable out of place, not a single needed word unsaid or a single said word unneeded. So clear that I feel your hunger myself wild, quiet poet. Please, please come in!” He said and motioned Rock and Caroline to dismount from their horses.

He introduced himself as Charles Dickens Wordsworth. But he went by Dickens. He told Rock and Caroline to make themselves comfortable in the warm house while he put their horses in the barn with his own. Rock and Caroline looked at each other quickly, then nodded, handed him the reins, and walked into the house.

Rock wasn’t prepared for what he saw in the house. There were books everywhere! They were piled on the table, they were stacked on the floor and they even lined the walls. He’d been impressed with Caroline’s father’s chest of books, but this was something else entirely. There were hundreds, no more than hundreds, there were over a thousand books. Apart from mosquitoes, or stars, or trees or grass Rock couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a thousand of anything in one place, much less books!

“Amazing!” said Caroline. Also clearly impressed by Dickens’s collection.

“I didn’t know there were so many books in The Waste,” said Rock under his breath.

“I didn’t know there were so many books in the world,” said Caroline.

“I didn’t know a lot of things too. Then I started reading books,” said Dickens from behind them with a laugh. He’d come in from securing and feeding the horses and went straight to the pot of what smelled like cooking stew over the fire. The pot was large, enough for all three of them.

“Do you always make so much food?” asked Rock suspiciously.

“It depends, did you know that the human brain is only two percent of the total body mass, but consumes over twenty percent of all the body’s energy?”

“What’s a percent?” asked Caroline.

“Do you always make that much food?” asked Rock again. Looking around the room for more people.

“A portion of a whole. Speaking of percent’s, I could say that you are one hundred percent of the beauty that arrived at my trading post today, and he is one hundred percent the dick. Or I could say that I always make three hundred percent of my allotted dinner amount when I am notified beforehand that I will be sharing it with two other people.”

“You knew we were coming?” asked Caroline.

“I did,” said Dickens.

“How?” asked Rock.

“Reading,” said Dickens. “What I knew is that two others would be coming, a dangerous man and a beautiful woman…”

“I’m dangerous too!” said Caroline.

“Surely you are Chieftain’s daughter. But he is not beautiful, so I have chosen different words for each of you. What I don’t know, until I have been handed proof, is whether or not you are the people I have been told to expect.”

Rock and Caroline looked at each other with confusion then Dickens spoke again.

“The letter I presume?” he asked.

“Oh yes! The letter from Mayer Jude” Caroline said and reached into her pocket and pulled a bent letter out then handed it to Dickens. He smiled and took the letter, motioned Rock to the cooking stew pot as if to remind him to not let it burn, and sat down at the table to read the letter.

He read through the letter, folded it back in half, then handed it back to Caroline.

“So, you want a way through the Wall-without-Walls? You did speak the truth when you said your mind was not at peace. Do you mind me asking why you want to do such a dangerous thing?” asked Dickens.

Caroline explained to Dickens the history of her tribe and how they had been driven from their homelands by the Vorin invasion and her need to pass over the Wall-without-Walls looking for assistance.

“And you believe there are people past the Wall that would help you?” asked Dickens with a frown.

“I don’t know what I believe. What I know is that I have a duty to my tribe to help them. If I lose my life in the process then at least I die doing my duty.”

“We have an honorable one here! How exciting!” said Dickens and laughed.

“And you, quiet poet, why are you here?” Dickens asked Rock.

“I was paid,” said Rock.

“You were paid to take her to me?” asked Dickens.

“I was paid to take her to the Wall-without-Walls.”

“Which from what I have been told you did adequately over a fortnight ago. Why have you brought her to me?”

Rock looked at Caroline, then at Dickens, then at all the books surrounding him.

“I came to trade,” said Rock.

“You have books?” asked Dickens.

“I do.”

“Wonderful!” said Dickens and rubbed his hands together in front of him giddily. “I love nothing more than a fair trade! May I see what you have brought?”

Rock opened his pack and pulled his books out one-by-one and handed them to Dickens.

“How to Win Friends and Influence People, simple, give them what they want when they want it, killing works too. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hu-got to be kidding me, ha! get it, Hu-got, Hugo?” Dickens looked at them with an anticipatory smile, like he was just waiting for them to join him in a belly laugh. After it didn’t come he frowned and said, “literary humor is so underappreciated in this grisly world. And what else do you have?”

Rock pulled two more books out of his pack and handed them to Dickens.

“The Grapes of Wrath! Poor Lenny, put down the rabbit! and, ah, one of my favorites, The Count of Monte-Cristo. When you absolutely, positively have to see the bad guy totally destroyed.”

Rock didn’t hand him the fifth book. He didn’t need to. He wasn’t willing to trade “The Wizard of Oz,” so there was no reason for Dickens to know that he had it. He was closing his bag when Dickens spoke.

“And the fifth? How can you expect honesty from me and not give it yourself?”

Rock looked at Caroline. She nodded to Rock who shrugged and pulled The Wizard of Oz from his bag.

“My favorite, and one of yours too I might think. Emerald cities, flying monkeys, tin men and a cowardly lion!”

“It’s not for trade,” said Rock gruffly.

“You’d be a smart man not to trade that, at least with where you are going,” said Dickens with a slight smile. “But surely everything is for trade?”

“Not that book.”

“What if I were to offer you this table full of books for your single copy of the Wizard? Would you trade me then?” asked Dickens.

“No,” said Rock quickly.

“No? What if I offered you the books on the table and the tallest stack of books on the floor? You would be a very rich man. Would you trade then?”

“No,” repeated Rock.

“No! What If I were to trade you all the books in my trading post, all these…” said Dickens while spreading his hands wide and turning a circle, “all for that single, simple allegory in your hands? Would you trade then?”

“No,” said Rock.

“Perhaps it isn’t for trade then. Shame. But I have one more. What if I were to tell her the way to safely cross the Wall-without-Walls? Would you sacrifice your yellow-brick-road then?”

Rock thought for a moment.

“Could you keep her safe?” he asked Dickens softly.

“Ha! I knew it was for trade! Everything has a price, does it not? Every thought, every relationship, every desire has a price doesn’t it Rock?”

“Could you keep her safe?” Rock asked again.

“Alas, I could not. Only she could. But I could provide her with the information needed to cross safely. But only she could keep herself safe, by following it.”

Rock looked at Caroline.

“No Rock,” said said. “I don’t need anything else from you. You’ve brought me here, now trade your books for yourself, as you have lived your life.”

“Ah, she doesn’t understand then, does she?” Dickens asked Rock with a smile.

“Understand what?” asked Caroline.

Rock’s face went white. He frowned at Dickens.

“A shame then,” said Dickens and nodded.

“Understand what?” asked Caroline again, this time, more agitated.

“Understand what I just said, that everything is for sale,” said Dickens.

“You said everything has its price,” corrected Caroline.

“Did I? I fail to see the difference. So Rock, have I found your price? Information on keeping the woman alive, and in return the quiet poet gifts me a Wizard of Oz?”

Rock thought for a moment. This wasn’t what he’d intended. He’d thought that when he arrived he would be trading the other four books for dusters, or supplies or more books, and that he would be leaving Caroline behind, with The Wizard of Oz still in his bag. Now it looked like he might have to trade The Wizard of Oz and leave with the other four books he came with while still leaving Caroline behind.

“Can you convince her not to go?” asked Rock.

Dickens looked from Rock to Caroline and back to Rock again.

“Not hardly. When a woman has made up her mind no amount of convincing will change anything.”

Caroline frowned at him and Dickens threw up his hands in mock surrender, “at least that is what the books I have read say!” he said with a sly smile.

“I will not change my mind, no matter what you offer me,” said Caroline.

“Once again, the books are right!” said Dickens and laughed.

“And you can tell her how to be safe while crossing?”

“I can tell her,” said Dickens. “But then again, perhaps the book could tell her just as much? Maybe you don’t want to trade after all?”

“I’ll not have you involving yourself with me anymore Rock. We’re done,” said Caroline forcefully. “Take your Indi ass and put it on your Indi horse with your Indi books and leave me! I don’t need you anymore!”

Rock was about to respond when he heard a powerful ‘thump’ on the door of the cabin.

 

Chapter 48

Just Big Rabbits, Riding Horses, with Bows

“No one rang the bell!” said Dickens and walked to the front door, more peeved than anything else. He opened the door and began to shout aloud “You have to ring the bell! Read the god-damned signs!” Rock saw that embedded in the front of the open door was an arrow. A Vorin arrow. He rushed towards the open door and grabbed Dickens and pulled him out of the doorway just as an arrow flew through the space Dickens had been standing in and exploded into a pile of books that had been resting on the floor.

“They have to ring the bell!” said Dickens angrily.

“Violence, they chose violence!” said Caroline quickly.

“Violence?” asked Dickens, almost surprised at saying the word.

“I fucking think so!” said Rock.

“Then I must fight back!” said Dickens with a strange sort of surprise and grabbed his rifle from where it was resting near the front door.

“Kill the lights!” said Rock, pointing to the few candles that were burning inside. Caroline snuffed two out and reached for the third, knocking it off the table where it extinguished.

Rock ran over to the fireplace with the stew roasting over it. He grabbed the pot of stew and turned it upside down over the glowing coals. The fire hissed and steam filled the air, but the light from the coals slowly disappeared.

“That was three servings!” said Dickens with almost unreal sadness in his voice.

“I hope you eat again sometime,” said Rock. He motioned to Caroline to set up in the front window. She was a better shot than Rock with a rifle. He’d rather have her covering the front attack than him. He would find another window to shoot out of.

“How many are there?” Rock asked.

“Too many to count yet. At least twenty!” said Caroline.

“Do you have enough dusters?” Rock asked. Caroline felt a pouch at her side and shook her head.

“Maybe ten,” she said.

“Better make them last,” said Rock.

“I’ve got more in my saddlebags,” said Caroline.

“You can’t go out there! It would be crazy!” said Dickens.

“I’ll go,” said Rock.

“They kill you!” said Dickens.

“I think that’s their plan regardless. More dusters are probably the only way to stop it. Can you shoot that thing?” Rock asked Dickens.

“This?” he said, pointing to his gun. “Sure, someone has to hunt the rabbits.” He looked at the empty pot of stew like the disappointing memory it was.

“Then start shooting. They’re just big rabbits, riding horses, with bows,” said Rock.

“Big rabbits? I can do that! I’m coming Lenny!” shouted Dickens. He spun around and fired three shots into the dark night air. Rock heard at least one Vorin fall from his horse. Three arrows flew through the open window the moment after Rock pulled Dickens back from it, flying through the open room and slamming into the wall on the far side.

“Don’t stay in the window long. Turn, shoot, disappear. Do that fast enough and they might not get you too soon!” shouted Rock.

“Too soon?” asked Dickens, looking at the three arrows embedded into his back wall. Rock ignored Dickens concern.

“Is there a way to the roof of the building?” asked Rock.

Dickens nodded and pointed to the back corner of the darkened building. Rock squinted through the dark and thought he saw a series of footholds carved into the corner wall. He ran to it and leaped onto the wall, his foot entering the middle foothold and from that point springing himself up into the air. He hit the ceiling of the building with a solid thud, but the roof gave way to the pressure of his collision. He used his feet in the top foothold now to continue to push up and when he did Rock managed to lift a squared portion of the ceiling off and climb up onto the dirt, earth roof.

It was cool outside. There was a breeze coming from the empty expanse of the Wall-without-Walls over the wide river. He could hear the muffled sounds of clothed wrapped horse hooves galloping and the whizzing of arrows as they cut through the dry air around the house. He looked over the front of the roof and saw well over a dozen Vorin riding their horses back and forth and in circles while they fired arrows at the front of the trading post.

He heard three more shots fired from the interior of the building beneath him and saw another Vorin fall from his horse and lay still on the ground. There were four unmoving Vorin on the ground. But far more were still very much involved in this fight.

Rock ran to the back of the roof and peeked over. He saw two Vorin, one on a horse, the other dismounted and on the ground, fiddling with the back door. He hoped Dickens had seen fit to board it from the inside. He checked his holster for his revolver.

It was gone!

He must have lost it when he climbed up the steps to the roof, or maybe it was in his saddle bags. What a foolish mistake! It was mistakes like that that got people killed in The Waste. Hell, Rock thought as he looked out below him, twenty to three tended to get you killed even when you didn’t make mistakes. Maybe he could forgive himself this time? Rock pulled his long-bladed hunting knife from its sheath and threw himself over the side of the back wall of the trading post.

He fell faster than the two Vorin below could draw their bows. He hit the Vorin on the back of the horse and stabbed wildly with his knife. Rock had never been a knife fighter. Knife fighters never lived long, they were always too damn close to their enemies. As if to remind him of that truth Rock smelled the breath of the Vorin he was attacking. It smelled like blood and raw meat. Or maybe that was the Vorin’s blood that Rock was smelling as it splashed up on Rock’s face and hands. Rock had cut the man’s jugular vein with one of his first wild stabs when he fell on the man and it was as if his throat had exploded.

The first man fell from his horse and could do no more than gurgle and kick when he hit the dirt ground. The second Vorin, the one that had been off his horse fiddling with the door turned to attack Rock. It wouldn’t have been quite as scary except that Rock was now sitting backward on the first man’s horse. He kicked aggressively with his legs at the first man who Rock assumed, but couldn’t be sure since it was hard to see when you were facing the wrong direction on a horse, was reaching for a knife or some other close quarter weapon.

Rock spun around to face the Vorin straight on. The first man had stepped away from Rock and was notching an arrow into his bow. Rock knew if the man was given the time to fire that Rock would be a dead man. He screamed and threw his bloody knife at the man. It hit him in the face.

But it wasn’t the blade end that hit the man, it was the handle!

The Vorin dropped the arrow and grabbed his face where Rock’s knife had hit him. His face was cut, but only superficially, showing that the blade on Rock’s knife had done something, but not much. Before he could raise his bow and fire, Rock leapt from the horse and landed on top of the Vorin. They both fell to the dirt in a heap fighting for dominance. They struggled back and forth for a moment. Rock fought with everything he had, tooth and nail, but he didn’t have any weapons left. The Vorin pulled a knife from his side and swung it at Rock. Rock pulled backward and avoided the first swing. When he jumped back his hand fell on something hard. He grabbed it and pulled it up, hoping it was his knife, or perhaps a rock.

It was the arrow that the Vorin had dropped.

The Vorin called out to his brothers that were on the other side of the building for help. He stood up and approached Rock cautiously, his knife extended in front of him, keeping it between him and Rock. Blood was spilling out from the cut on his face and streaming over his open right eye, blocking portions of his vision.

Rock held the back of the Vorin arrow. He didn’t have much time at all. He had to disable this Vorin and get back on the horse before more came to inspect what was happening around the back of the house. Rock had always been quick, not necessarily fast, which included speed running, but quickly, which meant his body itself could move quickly. This basically means that Rock might not be able to catch you, but he could catch you off guard. And that is what Rock did.

Rock took advantage of his speed and his opponents impaired vision and stabbed up quickly with the arrow in his hand. Normally, facing a man with a knife, an arrow wouldn’t be considered that aggressive of a weapon. Arrows were certainly made for shooting, not stabbing, but if Rock could stick him in a sensitive enough place it would make all the difference.

Which is why Rock aimed for the man’s blood-covered eye.

Rock snaked his arrow holding arm out like a mini explosion from a gun barrel. Before the Vorin had time to react the arrow was buried six inches into his left eye. The man pulled back in shock, then dropped to the ground and stopped moving, the back of the building was silent again.

Rock still had a job to do. He had to get to the barn and retrieve Caroline’s bullets. He didn’t know how many she had left and once she and Dickens were out their chance to live was also. He mounted the Vorin horse again and rode it around the building into the movement out front.

It wasn’t what Rock expected to find. Instead of Vorin circling and firing quickly he saw a group of Vorin huddled together on their horses, just waiting. But what were they waiting for?

Rock rode by them and slammed his horse directly into the partially open barn door. He heard his horse call out to him from the darkness within. He found his horse and freed it then grabbed Caroline’s saddlebags. Rock switched from the Vorin horse he was riding to the back of his horse. He held the reins of the Vorin horse with one hand and Caroline’s saddlebags with the other. He reached into his own saddlebags and pulled his rifle out.

He freed all the animals in the barn then rode his horse out behind them as they scattered from the barn in panic. Beside Rock he was holding the reins of the Vorin horse he’d stolen in back of the trading post. This Vorin horse was amazing. It didn’t vacillate the width of a sapling from Rock and his horse, but ran side by side as long as Rock continued to hold the reins.

He shot out of the barn with the two horses, Caroline’s saddlebags and a rifle. He lost no time firing at the grouped Vorin, who were still not moving much for some reason. He put five quick shots into the group of horsemen, dropping three men and causing the rest to scatter.

Then Rock saw what the Vorin had been waiting for.

The trading post was burning!

One of the books inside must of caught fire when they put out the candles, or the Vorin had shot a flaming arrow in or something else entirely. How it happened didn’t really matter at this point did it? What mattered is that the trading post, the building filled with more books than Rock had thought The Waste even had, was quickly going up in flames!

And Caroline was still inside!

 

Chapter 49

The Last Place on Earth

“Is there a bridge!” shouted Rock.

“Yes,” said Dickens. “A quarter mile upstream. It’s the only place you can cross.”

“Come on!” said Rock and pulled Caroline up on his horse.

“But my books! They’re burning! Oh, Bradbury, It’s true!” shouted Dickens.

Caroline slapped Dickens then grabbed him by his coat and shook him.

“Forget the damn books! You’ve got to get out of here! How do we get to the bridge?”

Dickens shook his head then nodded.

“Out the back door. Turn right and ride even with the river. You’ll ride up a bluff. The bridge is at the top.”

Caroline jumped on the horse with Rock. Rock motioned for Dickens to get on the Vorin horse. Dickens climbed up and Caroline handed him his rifle, which still must have had dusters because Dickens turned around and fired out the window.

“Let’s go!” said Rock. He grabbed his bag from the table and spurred the horse with Caroline on back, across the interior of the small house and through the back door, which splintered with the crash of the horses. Rock could hear Dickens following behind them, shouting something, screaming, what was it? The sounds were like pure rage mixing with the wind? Was it poetry?

 

“If the red slayer thinks he slays,

Or if the slain thinks he is slain,

They know now well the subtle ways,

I keep, and pass and turn again!”

 

The Vorin, who had been waiting for the three of them to be smoked out of the burning house with a surprising degree of patience, were suddenly spurred after their prey when they saw they were escaping.

Dickens continued to shout strange words as he followed behind. Words that came in and out of Rock’s hearing as the wind gusted and arrows flew around them.

Behind Rock, Caroline and Dickens rode, at least, ten very-angry Vorin horsemen constantly firing their bows while chasing. Rock heard Dickens continue to shout.

“They reckon ill, who leave me out

When me they fly, I am the wings!

I am the doubter and the doubt!

And I the hymn the Brahmin sings!”

 

Arrows continued to fly, but the accuracy of the Vorin seemed to be hesitant tonight as they chased by the riverside. Perhaps it was the dark of night, perhaps it was that they had, at least, ten seconds of hard riding between the escapees and the pursuing Vorin. Rock could see the bridge that Dickens had spoken of. It was just where he said it would be. At the top of the bluff and extending out, at least, fifty feet above the rapidly moving river below. The bridge was long like the river was wide, and it was just ahead of him.

Though long, the bridge was narrow and made of little more than rope and boards. Made apparent by the fact it swung back and forth in the windy night. Rock wondered if it would hold the horses, then he looked over his shoulder at the pursuing Vorin and stopped worrying about whether it would hold them. Too much weight or not, they were taking that bridge now!

Rock turned his horse towards the bridge and hit it at full gallop. The bridge swayed and waved a bit, but not more than in the wind alone. Someone had secured the bridge with additional ropes below, which didn’t allow it to sway much. His horse didn’t like it but kept running, understanding the danger behind them. Caroline held tight to Rock’s waist as he spurred his horse. He could smell her body as she pulled herself next to him.

Rock could hear Dickens behind him, still shouting, still screaming, but still riding and that was all that mattered. He could hear when Dickens, riding the Vorin horse, also rode out onto the bridge. Both horses and all three riders, plus all their gear were now on the rope bridge, and it was holding beneath them. Rock could hear Dickens shouting words of raging poetry into the dark night, then he heard Dickens grunt… and cough.

Rock and Caroline reached the other side of the bridge. He halted his horse and turned around. The Vorin horses were galloping after them, still running across the bridge, but Dickens was not there. Dickens horse, absent a rider, ran across the swaying bridge and Rock barely moved out of the way in time, then the horse shot by both he and Caroline and continued running full speed out into the dark emptiness, past them both.

But where was Dickens?

Then Rock saw him. He’d fallen from his horse, but not from the rope bridge, he was laying in the middle! He looked up at Rock. Their eyes met. Rock looked above Dickens, to the other side of the river now. He could make out the orange flames of the trading post burning, and even worse, he could see the Vorin reaching the other side of the bridge.

Dickens looked up at Rock and shouted.

“The strong gods pine for my abode…”

What? Poetry still?

“And pine in vain the sacred seven…” he continued.

Dickens coughed and the Vorin horse riders entered the bridge.

“Dickens!” Shouted Rock. Caroline pulled her rifle from her saddlebag and shot at the Vorin as they entered the bridge, but there were too many of them, for each Vorin she hit five more continued to advance.

“You have to run!” shouted Rock.

Dickens shook his head. He was laying right in the middle of the small bridge. There was no room for the horses to run past or around him. He was going to have to get up and run or be trampled by the hooves of nearly a dozen horses.

Dickens shook his head again. Rock wondered why he wasn’t moving, then he saw the arrow sticking from his back. The Vorin arrow. Dickens coughed, even in the dark night Rock could see blood spew from his mouth and onto the bridge.

“But thou, meek… lover… of the god.”

Dickens pulled something from a pouch at his waist. At first Rock couldn’t see what it was, then the moonlight flickered off something shiny, a knife blade! Dickens began to saw back and forth against the thick ropes holding the bridge up. The Vorin rode faster and with each second got closer to him, the first of them was only feet behind him when Dickens rolled to the side and allowed the horse to pass by him on the bridge.

More Vorin horses passed by him. Rock pulled his revolver from his saddlebag and fired at the approaching Vorin. Caroline fired near him as well. Two Vorin fell from their horses, but more continued towards them.

“Find me… and turn.. thy back on heaven!”

With one last forceful cut Dickens ripped through the stabilizing rope and the bridge began to fall.

When the bridge fell, so did everything on it, the Vorin, their horses…

And Dickens.

“Cover your eyes!” shouted Dickens while he fell with the cut side of the bridge. He swung with the rope towards Rock’s side of the river and came to a bone-crunching stop when the cut bridge collided with the rock cliff the bridge had been built to span. Rock looked over the side.

Dickens was still holding onto the rope!

“Dickens!” shouted Rock.

“No… Emerson,” said Dickens softly. Then he let go of his hold on the swaying bridge, followed the actions of all the Vorin, and fell into the black, churning rapids of the river below.

Rock shouted something. It might have been Dickens name. It might have been the word “no,” it might have simply been an obscenity. But he shouted with all the voice he could muster. When he was done shouting he turned around.

Sitting on his horse in front of him was Caroline, her rifle still in her hand though she was no longer shooting at the Vorin as they tumbled with their horses through the rock-filled rapids below. They were no longer a threat. The river would get them. Behind Rock was The Waste, The Waste, plus an uncrossable river and a broken bridge. None of those things bothered Rock, at least not by themselves. What bothered him was that behind Caroline was the empty expanse of the Wall-without-Walls, the place where Wanderers went to die. To kill themselves and to be killed. They had little food, few dusters and no place to go. Rock had no place to go now.

No place but into the Wall-without-Walls.

A place he’d traveled into once before, and the last place on earth he ever wanted to go back to.

 

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Book 1

RazorWire: After Civilization

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To listen to “A World Full of Walls”, click here.

 

A World full of Walls (Lyrics and Melody by Troy Hallewell)

 

Another gate, another war, I look around and wonder what It’s for

Another Path, I’m gonna walk, not stopping till I’m there.

 

The dreams that come at night, erase my peace and steal the light,

They won’t be gone without a fight it’s time for me to care.

 

I’m done living in a world of walls, I’ll take my shot I’ll take my falls

If I don’t stand then soon I’ll crawl, I’ll face it on my own.

 

I don’t hear the voices say it’s over

I don’t see the moonlight disappear.

 

If you are my Rock and my River

To both stand still and take me from here

If I am your princess, your giver

Then my world full of walls disappears

 

Another day, another time, You might be just another wall to climb

Another you, another me, It wouldn’t be the same.

 

The dreams that come at night, My dreams of you they feel so right,

They’ll be gone to soon without a fight it’s time for me to care.

 

I’m done living in a world of walls, I’ll take my shot I’ll take my falls

If I don’t stand then soon I’ll crawl to face it on my own.

 

I don’t hear the voices say it’s over

I don’t see the moonbeams disappear.

 

If you are my Rock and my River

To both stand still and take me from here

If I your companion, your giver

Then my wall-without-walls disappears

 

My world, full of walls, disappears.


RazorWire

Once the world was beautiful and full of people. Great concrete cities filled the landscape and steel buildings reached high into the sky. But now, a century after an unparalleled destruction, very few portions of that old world remain. In the land now known only as “The Waste”, the few remaining fragments of mankind's glorious past are breaking down, wearing out and disappearing on a daily basis. Yet, it is more than just artifacts and memories of the past at stake when a new enemy arrives. Flooding over the land and leaving total destruction in their wake, these mysterious invaders will stop at nothing until all ties to the old and glorious world are destroyed and forgotten. But there is one last hope, a rumor which speaks of a powerful people who survived the cataclysmic destruction of years before unscathed. Could they be the answer the tribes of The Waste need in their darkest hour? Could this rumored people hold back the tide of destruction or will The Waste, along with the final remnants of humanity’s glorious past, disappear forever like dried grass in a flame?

  • ISBN: 9781310401961
  • Author: Troy Hallewell
  • Published: 2016-02-03 03:40:19
  • Words: 73962
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