Bethany slept better than she had expected, her racing mind soon overcome by her exhausted body. Even the vast, eerie emptiness of the chapel and the cold seeping through her pallet from the stone floor was an improvement on the wagon. She came to wakefulness slowly, dreamily, awake long before she opened her eyes to the dim light coming in the clarestory. She sat up, and suddenly discovered Ace crouching right at her feet. She startled and scooted back, grabbing her quilt as though it were a shield.
He laughed. "Good morning to you, too."
"Good morning," she said, warily. She felt unsettled by his piercing gaze and smug laughter, and looked around the chapel for others. It was empty. Everybody must have gotten up before her. "Do you need something?"
"Your pa's decided that your family is going to join up. Smart man," he said. "We're all leaving in less than an hour."
"What time is it?" she asked.
"Seven," he said, laughing again at her befuddled expression. "You must've been mighty tired. You know, where I come from they say no decent woman is in bed after six in the morning unless she's dying or in labor." He looked at her suggestively. "I never thought you to be the indecent type, but I could be proven wrong."
"Seven? Already!" She turned red, pulling the quilt around her. "I can hardly believe I slept so long. Believe me, Captain Rogerson, I am typically up by five." She blinked hard, trying to shake off the rest of her sleepiness. "Yesterday was just a long day for me, that's all."
"Same length as any other day, I'm told," he said, grinning.
"You know what I mean." She sighed and then paused, expecting him to leave and allow her to get ready in privacy. He remained crouched at the foot of her pallet, looking at her with that infuriatingly smug expression. "Do you mind?" she finally asked, gesturing towards the door.
"No," he said, his grin growing wider. He made no motion to move.
"I do not see why you enjoy tormenting me so," she said, stiffly. "Will you please leave so I can get ready?"
Ace stood up slowly, his knees and elbows cracking. "I suppose since you asked so nicely," he said, doffing his hat and putting it over his heart. "I might oblige. Someday you're going to be asking me to stay, though."
"I doubt it," she said between her teeth.
"You'll see." He winked, and then finally left by the courtyard door.
Bethany sighed in relief when the door shut before her, and then rose to her feet. She shook out her travelling dress, stiff with sweat and dust, and regarded it with distaste. There was nothing to be done for it, though, so she pulled it on. Her face and hair would need water before they could be presentable, so she grabbed an empty bucket and washcloth headed outside for the well.
Her parents were standing by the exit of the courtyard, deep in conversation with each other. Ace's friends walked to and fro, carrying things they had looted from the priest's quarters to the horses and wagons waiting outside. The sandy space was crammed with far more chollas than she had seen the day before, and she hovered cautiously by the doorway, gripping her bucket.
The chollas seemed content at the moment to remain as stationary cacti, seemingly no different from the nearby saguaros and prickly pears. Bethany shivered, seeing again in her mind's eye the cholla shifting, turning from a simple bush into a long-legged, bearded creature. "This is ridiculous," she muttered to herself. "They're just plants." Steeling her nerve, she straightened her shoulders and carefully picked her way to the well, choosing a path that would keep her farthest from all the cholla.
She knelt down at the well's side and opened its cover, breathing in the delightfully cool and humid air that rose from it. She dropped the bucket down and smiled with pleasure as it filled. It was amazing how just a short time in the desert made you grateful for little things, like shade and cool water. She pulled it up and took a drink straight from the bucket before dampening the washcloth. Just as she was about to clean off her face, she heard a sound that made her stomach muscles clench and her spine shiver. It was hushed but piercing, like the sound of a hundred whispers. Slowly, frightened of what she knew she would see, she lifted her eyes.
Every cholla in the courtyard had shifted into Dryad-form, branches becoming knotted limbs and faces. They surrounded her on all sides, their black, void eyes focused on her, the spines on their many limbs chirring and reflecting the morning sun. Her heart pounded in her ears and fingertips, and she rose to her feet. "Get away from me," she said, her voice coming out as a dry whisper. She cleared her throat nervously.
"Beth!" her pa called, starting over towards her. He stopped in mid-step as one of the dozen or so chollas that surrounded her turned on him, menacingly. Lydia clutched his elbow. Everybody in the courtyard seemed to be frozen in their steps, wondering what was going to happen next. Each of Bethany's breaths seemed unbearably loud in the silence. The wind whined restlessly over the landscape.
The tension was unexpectedly broken by an approaching conversation. Jericho and Ace walked into the courtyard through the outside door.
"So the first thing to do, after the situation in Tucson is settled, is send somebody to..." Jericho trailed off as he saw the dryads surrounding his sister. "I thought you told them to leave her alone, Ace."
"So I did," said Ace, slowly, his eyes crinkled as he looked over the scene. "But they're stubborn things, you know."
"So could you ask them again? I don't like this."
"I don't either, I might add," Bethany spoke up. "Call them off. Please."
"I'll see what I can do," said Ace, shrugging. "No promises, though. The dryads aren't servants, they're allies. And important ones, too." Shoving his hands in his pockets, he walked up to the nearest dryad, and the air filled with the chirring sounds of their conversation.
Bethany's stomach twisted while Ace talked, somehow suspecting from the posture of the cholla that Ace wasn't doing very well at changing their minds. His expression changed from stony to surprised to intrigued to annoyed as the cholla talked back, all of the cholla joining in on some kind of ominous chorus. Hoping to take advantage of the distraction, Bethany took a few steps to the side, only to find herself confronted by another dryad blocking her escape. All at once, the dryads fell silent, and Ace looked at her with a curious expression. "So?" she asked. "Why do they keep bothering me?"
"Well, I'm very sorry, Miss Bethany, but they've just told me that they need to kill you now," said Ace, still looking at her piercingly. "Can't even really explain why. I asked them, and they just said something or other about your gift. You frighten them. You know I've never seen a dryad frightened before? And by a little girl like you ... I can't puzzle it out. I tried to talk them around, but they're just bound and determined. In any case, miss, it was a pleasure to know you." He doffed his cap politely and then turned on his heel to leave.
"You can't be serious," Lydia cried out, her forehead creasing. "There's no reason behind this! You can't let them... Stop! Don't you walk away from me!"
"Why, you sound just like my Ma, Missus Smythe," said Ace, laughing. "Can't and Don't and so on. But seeing as you're not my ma, it's not your place to order me around. I've done my part by trying to talk them around, and frankly, Bethany isn't worth any more effort than that. Now, if you don't mind, I've got things to do."
"Ace, please," Jericho cut in, quietly. "Talk to them again -- she can't be that dangerous to them. She wouldn't hurt a fly, there's got to be a way to make them see that. She's my sister."
"I feel sorry, kid, I really do," said Ace, putting a hand on Jericho's shoulder. For the moment he seemed almost sincere. "It hurts to lose a family member. But I'm in a bind. I really need these dryads on my side -- you'll understand eventually. Miguel, are we all loaded up yet?"
"Well, then, why are you standing there like there's nothing to be done? Stop staring and get moving," he ordered, before turning to the Smythe family. "Now as for you all, I suggest you get moving too. This won't be a pleasant thing to watch. The dryads are a little over-enthusiastic about some things, if you get my drift."
Bethany longed to have a snappy reply at that moment, something brave and clever to say that would make her feel better, but her mind was painfully blank, her mouth dry. The dryads drew closer to her, and she heard them laugh.
"How dare you, you son of a bitch," said Ebenezer, his voice a low growl. He rushed forward and grabbed Ace by the collar, lifting the thin outlaw straight off the ground. "If you allow Bethany to get hurt, I swear I'll..." His threat was cut short by Ace's pistol pressed against his abdomen, and the click of the hammer pulled into place.
"You'll what?" asked Ace, calm even as he hung in the air.
"I'll kill you," said Ebenzer, determined. He set Ace down, slowly, but did not relax his grip on his collar. "I swear to God, I don't care if you kill me while I'm doing it."
"Maybe you don't care. You're a man who loves his family, and I respect that," said Ace, smiling. "But you're not thinking. What happens to the rest of them when you're gone? You think my friends are gonna set up a nice little farmhouse for Lydia and Jericho after we kill each other? Not very likely. Aaron, if you don't mind?"
Aaron lifted his rifle to his shoulder and aimed it at Lydia.
"You bastard," said Ebenezer, his voice barely a whisper.
"My mother swears I'm not," said Ace with a smirk. "And why do you keep trying to bring her into it, anyway?"
"How can you make me choose between my wife and my daughter?"
"That's not entirely true. Bethany dies either way. It's just that if you kill me -- not that I really think you'd be able to succeed, but if you tried -- the rest of your family would die as well. Just look at the numbers, Ebenezer. One corpse is better than four."
"Pa, I don't want..." Bethany struggled against the tears that filled her eyes and choked her speech. "I don't want anybody to get hurt."
"No!" Ebenezer shook Ace, harshly. "Call them off of her!"
"Ace, please," said Jericho, his face drained white beneath his tan. "You need my help, you can't just..."
"Aaron." Ace nodded to his red-haired friend.
A single rifle shot rang out, and Lydia screamed and fell to her knees, a red stain spreading on the shoulder of her dress. She clutched the wound and closed her eyes, rocking forward.
Bethany screamed in echo. "Stop it! Stop it!"
"Next shot she dies, Ebenezer. Why don't you just think about this for a second?"
Ebenezer's hands loosened on Ace's collar and he turned to look at his wife, his shoulders sagging as though her pain was his own.
Ace took advantage of the distraction to pull out of his grasp, lifting his pistol to point at Ebenezer's head. "Now then. Why don't you go get your wife and help her to the wagon? I'm sure we can find some bandages for her, if you'll just cooperate."
"Bethany, I..." Her father turned towards her, his palms upward. "I wish there was something I could do. I'm so sorry."
"It's alright, Pa," she said, trying her best to look brave for him. "Go on and help Ma. I love you."
"I love you too, sweetheart," he said, though he had to turn away to hide his tears. He picked up his wife, cradling her in his arms gently, pressing his face into her hair.
"Move along then," Ace said brusquely. "Bethany, I think your brother's grown roots right here, so if you'd just move out to the other side of the mission, it'd be mighty convenient. You don't want him to watch."
"Jericho..." she said.
He didn't reply, but his eyes were filled with pain and guilt.
"It's not your fault, alright? I love you, really, I do. Nobody in the world knows you better than I do, or loves you more."
Ace crossed his arms with obvious impatience. She sighed and turned, walking slowly towards the other exit. Every step was echoed by the rustling of the cholla as they followed her, keeping her surrounded on all sides. She passed through the doorway, stopping a few yards from the mission wall, looking up at the mountain skyline. It all seemed so unreal. Tears filled her eyes, but they were more for her mother's pain than anything else.
Ace closed the gate behind them, blocking off the view of her brother still standing in the courtyard. "Pity that things had to end this way," he said absently. "You're a nice girl, when you're not yelling at people. I suppose you're about to die unkissed?"
Again, she longed for a clever retort but settled for a fierce glare.
He laughed. "Well, I won't try, then, if you're so opposed. Goodbye, Bethany."
She hardly knew what hit her, it happened so fast. With surprising speed, one of the dryads leaped at her, so unexpectedly forceful it knocked her right over. The rest of them soon followed, and a ragged scream tore out of her throat. She hadn't thought it would hurt so badly. Their spines began to sink into the flesh of her arms, her chest, her legs, slowly but inexorably pressing deeper. The needles of pain grew quickly more intense, and her vision blurred with tears.
Yet just as suddenly as the attack began, it ended. A dark shadow hurtled across her vision and before she had time to blink, it knocked into the cholla, pushing them backwards off of her.
She pushed herself up into a seated position, blood seeping from the hundreds of pinpricks in her skin. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw what had saved her. A dragon. Its long, snake-like body coiled loosely on the ground before her. Its wings were spread to their full length, forming a transluscent wall between herself and the menacing cacti. The very end of its tail twitched, and a hissing rattle came forth.
"Sweet Jesus," said Ace.
Four more dragons swooped down from the sky, attacking the dryads. It was a fierce battle, but strangely silent. The only sounds were the scraping of scales against spines, the soft thuds of recoiling bodies. The dryads fell upon the dragons in spiky embrace, and yet their spines did little against the dragon's armored scales. One dragon ventured to bite a cholla, but retreated, hissing in pain as the spines found the soft flesh of the inside of its mouth. Its tail lashed out in retaliation, and one of the cholla's segmented limbs broke off, peices scattering across the dusty ground. It hardly seemed to notice the loss. It threw itself against the dragon again, the spines seeking its eyes and mouth, anywhere where it could pierce. The dragon shook it off in a whip-like motion, and it tumbled backwards. As it somersaulted past its broken, discarded limb, the spines reached out and knitted together, drawing the limb back into its rightful place. The cholla, now whole once more, faced the dragon and chirred threateningly.
Bethany rose to her feet. She was still trembling, her heart pounding as she watched the battle. The dragons clearly did more damage, their beating wings and thrashing bodies tearing and crushing limbs from the cholla. Yet the dryads seemed invincible, reassembling between blows, soldiering onwards despite their crushed and battered bodies. Eventually, she realized, the dragons would be defeated. It was all useless. They would die, and then so would she. Why had they even bothered to try to rescue her in the first place? Every story she'd heard of dragons depicted them as vicious, mindless beasts who existed only to kill and eat.
Of course, they could have just selected her as their next meal.
One of the dragons flew up out of the battle, wheeling around in a broad circle before returning to her, its tail draping over her shoulders. She froze. She looked into its dark eyes and, finding no malice there, relaxed. It bobbed its head and then flew off, leading southwards. It looked back at her, seeming to gesture her onwards. Hesitating, she looked back at Ace. He was focused warily on the battle, distracted for the moment from her.
There was no choice, really. If she stayed, she would die. She turned and followed the dragon.
"Hey!" Ace had noticed her leaving, it seemed. "Get back here!"
"How about I don't," she replied, smiling a little. "If it's all the same to you."
He unholstered his pistol once more, aiming it at her. "Don't think you can just walk away from this. The dragons are probably just interefering so they can eat you later, but I can't take that chance. The dryads want you dead, and I'm not about to lose their good will. They would've rather killed you themselves, but I'm sure they wouldn't mind me stepping in here."
Bethany didn't need another warning. She turned away from Ace and broke into a run, stumbling a little over the rough desert floor. A shot rang out. It came so close she could feel it tear through her wide skirts. She continued running, but braced herself for the next shot. She couldn't count on him to miss twice.
She heard a shout and, against her better judgement, skidded to a stop and looked back. One of the dragons had its tail wrapped around Ace's pistol, its fangs bared menacingly as it hissed at him. The outlaw released the pistol as though it burned him, and stepped back. He reached for the door and opened it, walking slowly back inside the mission, his gaze never leaving the dragon's. He knew too well the deadly qualities of a dragon's bite to risk it.
Yet even unarmed, staring the deadliest creature in the desert in the face, Ace showed neither fear nor panic. He just calmly retreated. "It's no trouble, really," he said with a shrug. "You'll die out there anyway."
She laughed as he pulled the gate shut, suddenly filled with relief and a sense of victory. Her triumph was cut short by the realization that though Ace was no longer supervising, the dryads had in no way given up their intentions of killing her. They had stopped trying to attack the dragons, and were now simply trying to get around them in order to follow her. They blocked and attacked the cholla as best they could, but still they slowly progressed in her direction. She winced and sucked in her breath with displeasure. The first dragon circled around her, trying to draw her attention, and then set off again to the southwest.
She glared at the cholla a moment before turning to follow the dragon. She paced herself to a quick walk, only too aware that she would probably be unable to keep up a run. Walking seemed sufficient to outpace the cholla at the moment, at least.
Though tempered by the knowledge that the cholla were still behind her, Bethany's heart was lifted with hope. She felt really good for the first time in days. She felt like laughing, like singing. Even the burning desert sun could not dampen her good spirits.
It could, however, burn her skin. "Damn," she said. "I forgot my sunbonnet."