The sun was wavering between noon and the after, shadows emerging from underneath bodies as slowly as the waves of a dry sea. The cloudless sky made everything hazy, so when the three men approached him, he had wondered vaguely if they were phantoms or illusions. They shimmered and danced in the air, or the air around them shimmered and danced. He thought perhaps they were the siren song of this lonely stretch of desert, nebulous mirages.
No such luck.
As they came closer, he could tell for sure that they were real men. Real men, in fact, with their weapons drawn. They surrounded him on three sides, so his only course of action was retreat; they matched every step he took.
One grinned at him. "Hello, gramps. Fancy giving us lost boys a present?"
"I…I haven't got any money. Please."
"Aw, gramps, don't make it hard. I know how heavy so much jingling coin can be. Hand it over, why don't you? Or," Here he held his sword so that it glittered near-blindingly in the late noon sun. "Or the boys and me here might just have to take it."
"Please, don't. I…it's all I have left, I'll—"
"Pity." The two bandits who had yet to speak quickly grabbed the old man's arms. The first, still grinning, raised his sword. The old man found his eyes drawn to the white-hot glitter as sense deserted him. Kaichin, let this be quick, he thought.
"Boss," said one of the two men holding him, tossing his head toward the road beyond them. Four sets of eyes turned to the road and the girl calmly approaching. She carried and long halberd, a ragged red ribbon tied near the blade.
The leader nodded at one of the other two, who let go of the old man to approach the girl. "You chose a bad time to come waltzing down this road, little girl," the leader said.
She stopped and looked at the man in front of her before turning to examine the speaker and the captive old man. Her brow furrowed. "Why are you holding this man captive?" she asked.
The bandits all laughed, but the girl hardly seemed amused. "He is from a cursed place," she said. "Sareka, by his face. Do you scorn the damned?"
The leader stopped laughing and shook his head. "Are you thick in the head, girl? It don't matter where he's from, or you besides. It's for the coin, girl, the coin. Now be a good little whore and die, can't you?"
The bandit in front of the her brought his sword forward, only to have it blocked by the girl's halberd. "I do not have time for this," she stated. "But I'll kill you, if that is what you desire." She took a few steps backward, then swung her halberd so that it passed by inches in front of the bandit's face. The glare of the sun on the blade obscured the blue light that cut the air in front of her.
The bandit started to laugh, only to find himself interrupted as his face was cut apart. The laugh turned horribly silent as he toppled over backward.
"What in—" The bandit leader tore his gaze from his fallen friend to stare at the girl. "What in the name of Kaichin are you?"
"I am whatever will help you sleep better in the darkness." She paused, and as an afterthought added, "And I am myself."
The bandit leader took several steps away from the girl. "You're some sort of monster," he said, half to himself. His face creased in sudden confusion. "Why would we want you to kill us?"
"It must be your desire to die," she said. "If you threaten the Long Hunter."
"The Long…? The Long Hunter is just a myth!" Even the old man, still held captive by the highwayman, wanted to believe that. Anything was better than the return of the Long Hunter.
"If that is what you believe, then perhaps this will not kill you. But my name is a word not easily changed, and so perhaps it will." She swung the halberd in a wide arc; the lead bandit flung himself to the ground, feeling wind pass razor-sharp above his head.
His victory was short-lived. Her boots suddenly dominated his field of vision. He scrambled upright, motioning to his companion. The other immediately let the old man and started dancing backwards, ready to bolt.
Both bandits had turned to run when she spoke again. "Will you die with your backs turned, like cowards? Or facing death?" The leader stopped and turned slowly around; the other kept running. "Will it help you to sleep better in the darkness knowing you died a man?"
His gaze was fastened on the ribbon tied to her halberd. "Yes," he whispered.
"Then I will do that for you," she said, walking forward and impaling him like his body was nothing so substantial as the air around it. He sagged forward; she pulled out her halberd, now with some difficulty; he crumpled.
A moment passed quietly as she wiped the blade clean of blood. Against all reason, the old man realized he was still standing by her. "You…ah, the other one seems to have gotten away," he said finally.
"I will meet him again someday. Perhaps he will die, perhaps not," she replied without looking up.
"Ah. Of course." He cleared his throat and looked at the bodies around him. "Well. You saved my life. Where I come from, that means I am indebted to you; obligated to give you whatever you most desire."
She stared at him
blankly, then frowned. "Perhaps you should just give me something
you value, if this debt is important to you."
It seemed as though she were uncomfortable, though nothing in her face showed it. "I see that this debt is important to you, so I will allow you to pay it. But there is nothing I desire, so you must fill it some other way."
"You don't desire…anything? Anything at all?" He searched her face; it said nothing. "Whatever you desire most, I will find a way to deliver it to you. I have very little with me—really only the coin you helped protect. But…anything, girl!" His mind raced desperately. "If you want food the most, I can give you the coin to buy some when you next reach a town. Or coin for a nice dress, or…or a boy to spend the night with you, or," He reached out to touch the ribbon on her halberd. "Or a new ribbon for—"
"Don't touch that," she said, her voice suddenly low. She took a step back.
"I—I'm sorry—" he began, but she interrupted him.
"Bring me that man's belt," she said, pointing to what had been the bandit leader, "and your debt is paid."
The old man's mouth opened to ask a question, but he shut it quickly and shuffled over to the corpse, fumbling with the belt until he'd got it loose. He handed it to the girl, who put the halberd down and unceremoniously looped the belt around herself. Evens slung around the widest part of her hips, it still hung loose.
"I don't understand—" the old man began finally.
"Don't trouble yourself. Now, if you are headed to the alabaster towers as well, I will accompany you there. I will protect you."
"Oh, you're going to Kairinna too?"
"Is that its name? I had forgotten."
"My name is Hardor Sesilla. What is yours?"
"I am the Long Hunter."
"Ah." She had already begun walking away from him. "So, then, if you're the Long Hunter, ah, why are you headed for Kairinna?"
She turned to look at him. "I killed the Walking Death and took my name from him. Now I am returning to the towers."
"You…" But she was already walking again, so he followed her, the Long Hunter's escort in her return to Kairinna, the city of the alabaster towers.
Sesilla trudged several paces behind the girl. He would not think of her as the Long Hunter. The Walking Death must still be in the prison beneath the forest—she could not have killed him. She was not the Long Hunter, and she had not taken her name from the Walking Death. With the Walking Death confined, there was no need for the Long Hunter's return. He did not know who the girl was, or how she worked the halberd, but she was not the Long Hunter.
She was not going to
Kairinna to purge the alabaster towers.
There was something wrong with her, though. He couldn't get around that. She had killed two men without any sign of disgust, or anger, or anything at all. And her halberd was wrong—the magic came from it, rather than from her. She didn't act right; she didn't act…human.
"Sesilla, sir." He stopped alongside her suddenly. It had gotten cooler as the sun set, and the light was fading. "We should stop for the night. If you'll stay here, I'll go find firewood. A fire will keep animals away."
"Right," Sesilla said slowly. "Good."
She didn't say anything when she returned, a bundle of brittle, aromatic brush clutched tightly against her breast. She put her halberd down for the first time that he'd seen to build the fire. When the dark desert breeze had taken up the fire's little flames, she picked the halberd up once again.
They sat close to the fire, neither speaking for some time. Sesilla kept sneaking looks at the girl, who sat staring unseeing at the flames. Still and silent, she was like some perfectly frightening doll.
He rummaged through his bag, bringing out two small, flat hardcakes. "Would you like one? You must be hungry after, ah, such a day."
She looked at him, eyes falling to the hardcake. "I am not hungry," she answered.
"All right," Sesilla said dubiously. He at his own small hardcake and she sat looking into the fire. The silence, he thought, was unnerving. The crackle of the fire was very loud, and he felt uncomfortably aware of something watching them.
"Well. Where are you from?" he asked, voice tight with desperation.
She looked off in the direction they had come from, and took a deep breath. "I am not sure," she said finally, "if I understand your question, Sesilla, sir."
"Well," Sesilla stammered, unsure what he had gotten into. "Where were you born? Where did you live? I don't recognize your clothing."
"I have not done those things. Or, if I have, I do not remember."
"What, you mean—"
"Been born, and lived. They hold no relevance." She began to twine her halberd's red ribbon around her fingers. "I remember this road, Sesilla, sir, traveling down it further into the desert."
"Towards the dark forest," she said. "I had a job to do. I was to meet the Walking Death further down this long road." Her brow furrowed, and Sesilla could not tell whether it was the flickering fire's reflection, but he saw some sort of sorrow in her eyes. "That is where I was born, for lack of any other place. I…I do not…I am not comfortable with the idea, I think, but I cannot argue with it. I was born on the hot and dusty road to kill the Walking Death, and I live on this road to return to the alabaster towers to finish my job."
"And what will you do in Kairinna? To finish the…job?" Sesilla asked, voice hoarse.
Her eyes slid over to him, and any trace of emotion Sesilla had seen there had melted into the fire. "What will help you sleep better, sir, in the darkness?"
He suddenly felt tired, the ache for sleep hanging heavily over his shoulders. It seemed like every time she spoke, he had to convince himself again that she was not the Long Hunter, and every time it was harder for him.
"Nothing," he said wearily.
"Then I will tell you nothing," she said. "Sleep, sir. There is still a long journey to the alabaster towers, you said. We'll start early."
He settled himself to sleep, turning his back to the fire. Would she sleep clutching the halberd? In fact, would she sleep at all? Sesilla didn't want to know. This entire day was something he was looking forward to putting behind him.
Sesilla had no idea how long he'd been asleep when the night was broken by a single, hungry howl. He quashed the urge to jump up, willing himself to stay still, frozen. Something nearby was very, very hungry.
Before he could think of how to protect himself, he heard the girl get up. A moment later, he heard something snarling and the sound of her boots dancing nimbly over the desert dust. Something whimpered, and then the girl was sitting back down next to the fire.
He turned over to see the blade of the halberd covered in blood, glinting dully in the firelight. "What was that?" he asked quietly.
"Some sort of wolf," she replied. That seemed to satisfy them both, and Sesilla found himself drifting back towards sleep. "Sesilla, sir?"
His eyes flew open. "Yes?"
"What you were saying before, about where I lived." She paused, and Sesilla wasn't sure she had anything else to say. He wished she would, though—sleeping or talking he didn't mind, but just listening to the desert made him shiver. "Once I dreamt about a cave. It felt…right…to be there."
Who knew she could dream? he thought.
"When I've finished my business in Kairinna, perhaps we can look into the matter of your past," he said drowsily. "It's the least I can do, for your protecting me."
"If it will help you sleep better in the darkness," she said distantly.
They both watched the fire crackle and dwindle for some time, until he felt his eyelids grow heavy. He felt safe with the girl there, whether she slept or not. He still had his doubts—especially if she was the Long Hunter—
Those could wait until they reached Kairinna.
And then she said, so quietly he was sure he had dreamed it, "And sometimes, closing my eyes, I can remember the ocean."