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Chapter 4 – Cluny
Erica sat alone in the road with her head bowed, exhausted. She drew in the antidote when she could. She coughed and spit out blood. Its coppery slime on her tongue brought up bile. She swallowed it back hard and held her hand over her mouth. She could not be sick. She could not. Slowly she gained control of her stomach. She lowered her hand and concentrated on smoking the antidote.
If Arlo hadn't helped, would she have shot? An image of blood splattered across this lush green planet made her shudder so she shoved it away. He had helped so it didn't matter.
She pulled two packs of smokes from her pocket and set them in the road in front of her knees. She would go through them right now. She would light one after the other so she could breathe right. She would move only when someone came along and hoped that wouldn't be until morning.
But not everyone had left. A pair of man's boots came into view. They were nice boots. They were brown and stitched with a pattern over the toes. They were clean and shiny. She stared at the toes because they stopped on either side of her smokes. Well, if he had stayed to kill her, she couldn't do much about it so she took another drag from her cigarette. The steam filled her lungs. She held it and waited for him to make up his mind. Did she deserve to live? He said nothing and neither did she.
He dropped her leather backpack beside his left leg. She hadn't expected that. Exhaling, she looked up. It was Arlo. Seeing him almost brought a smile to her face. He dropped her hat on top of the pack.
"I took these from their camp when they chased you."
A cough stopped her smile, it bent her over until she choked out more phlegm and blood. She spit it aside. Minutes passed before she straightened again. Arlo still waited.
"Thanks," she told him.
"I didn't expect you to get far today." He replied with a dead tone. "I had to really consider it. You look so much like her I didn't want to help but I figured she has ruined enough lives." He studied her intently. Long moments passed before he continued, enough that Erica drew in several long, clearing doses of antidote. The wheezing in her chest lessened a little. "Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, I heard them talking about you. They said they didn't sell you anything so I bought you some supplies but it will cost you."
He knew she wasn't Matilda but still had to consider whether or not to help. She couldn't imagine how much everyone hated the girl that Arlo was so put off. After what he had done, turning back the mob, helping her in the bank when the teller wouldn't, knowing she wasn't Matilda, in spite of what she could see of his kind nature, he still had to consider helping.
He reached down and grabbed her arm. He pulled her to her feet firmly but gently, as if he expected to support all of her weight and he did.
"Get off the road. People come through here all night." He led her to the grassy slope then retrieved her things and set them beside her. "I bought you a filter for water. Any Quirni water is potentially dangerous so filter it even if you just wash your face, which, by the way, you need to do. Dry the filter completely between each use."
Erica sank back to her knees. Arlo squatted beside her. He rummaged through her backpack and showed her items as he mentioned them.
"I also bought you a few full bottles of water, a map, a blanket, several cartons of the antidote cigarettes, and some staple foods that travel well. Keep them sealed in the bags or the wild dogs will smell you. Your own blanket and soap were still in your pack. I got you a couple bowls, a small pan, matches, and another blanket. You'll have plenty to keep warm now."
He watched her. She didn't say anything but continued to smoke and struggle with coughs. "You have it real bad."
She nodded like the Quirni would nod rather than waste her breath.
"You should be in a clinic, not out here."
"And be around people like them?" Erica asked with a tip of her head down the road.
He twisted to glance towards town. "I think they are convinced. They are all gone." He turned back to her.
He winced then sighed. "What I would have given to hear Matilda say that." He frowned, as if upset for even thinking such a thing, then stood. "You can write me a withdrawal receipt for the supplies. I think I deserve twice what they are worth. That would be one-hundred-sixty square."
The bankbook was in her bag. She wrote sixteen-thousand square on the slip and handed it up to him. "You saved my life. Would all be yours if was possible to live without it."
He held the slip up to the moonlight then nodded and stuffed it in his pocket. "If you really want to repay me, you can do it another way."
"Will," she agreed seriously without knowing what he would ask. Where she was from that was called giving empty, no thought was given to denying any request. She would fill her empty hands to do whatever he asked. He deserved that, and more.
"When you see your cousin, which I assume you will, you tell her she owes me over 23 million square. She set me up for a fall and she owes me."
No wonder he didn't blink at her 4 million quid when he counted it. It amounted to about 16 million square. He had been far richer. "Will tell her."
He nodded again and watched her as she lit another cigarette off of the last one. She wasn't coughing every time she drew a breath now.
"You took a chance," he told her.
She looked back up at him. "By coming here." She nodded. She knew that now. "Had to. Couldn't get a ticket to Sirrus."
"No, by bringing up the SDD with that group of morons."
The antidote cleared her lungs again and it would be better to move than sit, so she got to her feet. With supplies, she could get away from here. Arlo held her arm as she swayed, dizzy for a moment. After steadying, she lifted her head and almost looked him in the eyes but respected him enough she wouldn't meet his eye. "Why?"
"Why did the SDD let you walk out of the bank today?" Arlo asked to answer. "Janice saw you attack an agent. If she weren't such a pea brained idiot she would have realized they are helping you. He let you go. I'd like to know why. You should be in jail after hitting him."
Erica shook her head. "Don't know. Would like to know why SDD didn't tell me about Matilda. An SDD ship brought me here. Could have told me about her but didn't."
Arlo grunted and grabbed up her bags. He stuffed her pack of smokes in her pocket and put her hat on her head. "You should get going." He helped her get her bag on her shoulders. "Step off the road when you hear someone coming. They could see your face in the lamplight on their carriages. When you need to sleep, climb a tree, get off the ground. Wild dogs will rip you apart if they find you and are hungry enough, which they often are. I put some rope in your pack so you can tie yourself in place. And, you should know this by now but, stay away from people. The entire planet knows your face."
Erica nodded. "Will. Thank you."
"Sure, you are welcome, but I told you how to thank me."
"So," she agreed. "If we meet, she will be told."
"So," he returned in the Tenpole manner of agreement. He watched her eyes for a moment. "You are from Chaucer, aren't you?"
She looked up and in his eyes. If that was what he wanted she would lay down right now.
He shook his head at her reaction. "I'm not asking for anything. I expected nothing more than the check when I followed that group of morons out. I just recognize your mannerisms is all. I lived on Marril and I used to, uh, pass there on occasion. I could afford Chaucer then. I'm a little shocked a Kinsley lived there at all let alone long enough to learn the mannerisms and gain such an accent." He smiled when she didn't respond. "Take care," he said then turned his back and walked away.
She watched until he had put a good long distance between them and then turned and started down the road in the opposite direction.
It wasn't difficult to avoid traffic. She hid behind bushes whenever there was lamplight. Come morning, she left the road altogether and strode into the woods. Quirni's woods were cool with pretty chirping birds and soft breezes. The sun filtered through the leaves. If it rained it was short lived and she stayed dry under the heavy canopy of leaves and the all-weather blanket Arlo had bought her.
The Quirni animals ran from her. They dashed up the trees or slithered away into the underbrush. She ended up laughing at herself for worrying about them. The only dangerous animals were the dogs. They were different. They weren't frightened of her. All of the books warned about them.
According to the guides, they hunted in packs and left indents in the grass where their packs slept. Occasionally, there would be a remnant of an animal they had eaten during the night, blood on the leaves or a skull bitten clean of meat. The dogs were gone by the time she arrived each morning. By the end of the first week she walked confidently.
Her reading on the trip taught her that the dogs were the result of Lord Ahem's attempt to rule all of Quirni, the remains of his crazy dog army. He had brought the animals from Sirrus to fight because he didn't have enough tenants to form an attack force.
The Delegate had actually done its job and killed the dogs and Lord Ahem, but it was inevitable that some of the dogs would survive. They had also thrived. They roamed the woods and were known to attack people when hungry. When Erica heard them barking anywhere nearby she climbed a tree.
According to the books they weighed as much as she did or more, one-hundred pounds. Well, actually, she had no idea how much she weighed on Quirni. It had to be more than one-hundred pounds since that was her weight on Marril. Quirni's gravity was much higher, a third more at least, so she probably weighed a third more. On Sirrus, the dogs would have weighed one-hundred pounds. She felt certain of that. They stood as tall as the wheat that came up to her hip. They were long and would be broad if well fed. Those she saw all appeared hungry.
Arlo had prepared her well to avoid hunger. She found two books that he had forgotten to mention, "The Field Guide to Quirni Edible Plants" and "The Field Guide to Edible Animals." When Erica found these she had blessed him openly and kissed the books then started reading about edible plants.
While strolling through the woods, smoking as necessary, she picked meals. Occasionally she came across a boar-like creature with scaly skin and tusks as thick as her forearm which would take flight whenever it spotted her and even leave behind babies.
She saw various snakes that were supposed to be tasty. They stuck their tongues out as she passed, tasting the air to see what she was. She would have to poke them with a stick to make them move but since they were about eighteen feet long and could kill her with a poisonous bite she didn't care to do that.
The birds were another matter. They were scarlet or yellow and curious, winged nightmares. They liked to land in her camp and try to take things, especially shiny things. Eventually she shot one to warn them off but the birds were dumb as slag because even with the carcass of their dead pal nearby they continued to peck at her belongings. She learned to pack her things out of sight instead of wasting bullets. The birds were part of camping.
The map in the customs office had explained the situation clearly enough, the entire southern half of the continent was settled. She had to go north to get away from people. There would be a desert to cross, but she had plans to steal a couple of horses from the Kinsleys.
It tickled her sense of justice that she might do that. Her own family would supply her ultimate escape. The desert wasn't wide. She hoped the horses could get across it safely. North would be lonely but she could stay safe there until the anger towards her cousin died.
By staying close to the roads, but off them, she passed Tellhurst without incident, and before long Lud and Market were behind her. Two Quirni weeks, sixteen days, passed without incident.
At Market she veered west. There would be a river, the first one she couldn't swim. According to the "Quirni Adventures" pamphlet, this was Coldwater River, known for the enjoyable white water river rafting from Veil Falls to the edge of Coldwater Claim. Erica could not afford to wade across a river with such fast currents, so unless there was a fallen tree or an unmarked bridge, she would have to use the bridge in Cluny.
Her plans to look for a crossing changed when she saw this river. It was in a gorge. Two fifty foot tall walls of wet rock bound a river that was at least as wide as the cliffs were tall. That separated her from her way north. The water looked deep and Coldwater River was aptly named since the air current rising up from the water felt cold. The water had to be colder still.
The source of the noise that she had been hearing for an hour was a ninety-foot waterfall dropping through a mossy canyon.
"Now that's pretty," she said aloud and was a little startled to hear her voice. She closed her mouth and resolved not to talk to herself again. In the past she had talked to her conscience, the voice she heard. Every time she did that she validated it, or at least that was how she saw it. The therapist thought she should tell it what to think and ask it how it felt but that was rude. Instead she kept quiet.
Morning sunlight shone on the green walls and sparkled on the tumbling water. To follow the river she would have to scale a ninety foot cliff. The way looked slippery and the rocks looked uneven and crumbly and there could be snakes in the rocks. She could reach for a handhold and end up grabbing a snake. She shook her head. No thanks. She turned towards the road that lay to her west.
'It's a small cliff. You should do it.'
Erica stopped. She hadn't heard the voice since the Padt City. This was what she got for talking to herself. She didn't reply. She started walking again and it spoke no more that day. The terrain pushed her west.
The next morning she reached the road. She had to go to Cluny and while, there she could get more smokes.
'Steal you mean.'
"Well shit," Erica muttered and drew an irritated breath. She let it out slowly. It had been nice being alone in her head. If she didn't respond, it would go away, right? A vague sense of 'no' pressed into her thoughts.
"Well, could hope for such," Erica sighed. She abandoned her resolve to remain silent. Obviously it was too late. Once she had been rid of this sort of nonsense. She guessed the cure needed continuous therapy. The stress of leaving Marril had been too much. "Friggin' Quirni." Her broken mind would not stop her from surviving on Quirni any more than it stopped her on Marril. She lived with it. Few people ever even noticed. Since she was going to be alone in the god damn woods for the foreseeable future, no one could notice.
She considered her next step. Before she reached Cluny, she had to know how many people lived in the area. If there were a lot, she would have a better chance of finding the antidote and also a better chance of being seen. Road traffic could give her an idea of the population so when she came to the road, she lay on her stomach behind bushes to watch. The grass made her sneeze and smelled like urine. She moved over.
"What a blasted pill." She muttered and glared at the spot. "Only needed one friggin' ticket to Sirrus to be sipping lemonade with family instead of lying in pissed filled woods." She put her chin down on the back of her hands. "Blasted SDD," she added since she blamed everything on them.
Five wagons and four horseback riders went by before sunset. That wasn't many. Farther south wagons passed every half hour or so. She could walk the road and step off when traffic came. It should take two days. She had enough cigarettes for four days. That would give her plenty of time to see where the smokers went to buy more of the antidote.
Late the next afternoon she saw the edge of town and climbed a tree to wait for darkness. From that high quite a bit of the town was visible. She doubted anyone would see her even if they glanced up, but remained cautious nonetheless. The only problem was if the townspeople saw her. They could burn her tree down to get her.
The river she needed to cross flowed from a large lake to the northwest. Craggy cliffs and broken land lay farther west. The woods had been cut back around the town for farmland. Fields of wheat, corn, and pasture stretched over rolling hills to the south, north, and to the lake. The hilly woods continued on the other side of the river.
Fields of grain were planted on the hills right up to the edge of the peaceful looking town. Long rows of rock separated the fields. Small groups of houses perched on hills in the distance, probably the farmer's homes. She assumed the rocks denoted property lines. It was a cheap way to mark boundaries and pretty.
The rocks were grey and home to fluffy pink flowers. Erica couldn't stop looking at the town and surrounding land, the pink and grey trimmed golden fields, the waving wheat, the lined up white houses with all of their ivy and gardens. The health and vibrancy charmed her. Wheat grew so tall, so golden and the flowers were so damned colorful.
It was possible this planet was prettier than Sirrus although she didn't really want to accept that. Sirrus was home, or had been, and it held her heart but Sirrus was under snow half the time and it never grew wheat or flowers like that. Anything there would be shorter, paler, and usually frozen before it was harvested completely. Only the native Sirrian plants had short enough growing seasons to do well.
A shake of her head cleared her thoughts of beautiful Quirni. The planet might be pretty, even paradise, but the people ruined it. Sirrus with its long winters was preferable to this hateful world. The snow could be fun. Thayanite heaters allowed all sorts of greenhouses and in some cities a person could walk from one side of town to the other without ever going outside. The more she thought about her home planet the more homesick she became and that wasn't something she needed to feel any more than she needed to hate this planet.
Better to consider her position in relationship to the river and the bridge. That was what needed to concern her, the river, the next obstacle to her progress after she got more thayanite antidote. She needed to get to the bridge but it was heavily traveled and in plain sight. The only possible time to cross would be at night.
There would be no sneaking up to it. The woods were gone, crowded out by the town although on the far side, the west side of town, there were only two rows of buildings and they looked like stables and mills that used the river for power. Chances were not many people would be in those buildings at night. A few gardens were planted around the buildings and she could use those for cover until she crossed. Further out in the fields she could use the rock walls to hide. It wasn't much but if no one was looking for a person in the fields it should do.
She continued to sit and watch the town so she might learn their habits. It would be easier to avoid people if she understood that.
The town was the perfect place to live, neat and clean but painted all white. The business district spread over two crossed roads at the center. As the sun set the two and three story buildings stood up in stark relief against a pink sky. It was calm and friendly.
People strolled along the boardwalks and dry dirt streets, stopping to chat. Horses waited by water troughs with their heads sagging in sleep. Apparently Bacillus pyrogenzes didn't bother the animals. A sign near the trough suggested it was unsafe with a big X but the horses sucked the water and no one cared.
No one seemed to care about anything. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry. Nobody seemed to be worried or scared or alone like she was.
Erica frowned and stopped that line of thought. Self-pity didn't help any more than feeling homesick. Yes she was lonely but alive. Life should have been better after leaving Marril but instead she got the same hard line. Accept it. She sighed and watched until the streets grew dark and saw that few people smoked. Of course, she hadn't taken something into account.
Erica shook the voice from her head. She agreed with it, but wouldn't admit it. The voice knew Marrilians wouldn't show her where to purchase antidote. They wouldn't walk out of a store holding up their purchases and even if they did they were in bags.
Consequently, she had no idea where a store was that sold the cigarettes. She leaned back on the branch. Stupid was right. She didn't always think of the obvious. Her conscience had known what to expect but had declined to mention it. Well, at least she had found a comfortable set of branches that would serve as a place to sleep.
The red moon woke her and that was when she climbed down. It was time to steal some antidote, wherever the hell they kept it.
The road near her tree led to the bridge and through the center of town. She could follow it to the business district. She crept along until she came to the end of the trees. Houses with flower gardens and trailing vines lined the first several blocks. Their yards were fenced, small, and trimmed. She couldn't see beyond the first few houses because of the ornamental shrubs and vines which was good because that was her cover but on closer inspection she would have to hop fences or follow the road to go from garden to garden.
The path she needed to take wound in and out of yards. People were still awake in their homes. She could hear them talking, laughing, partying. Someone could be visiting and go home for the night and she could be seen if they carried any sort of lamp. It didn't look as good down here as it had from the tree.
If seen, people would pour out of those houses to attack her. She returned to the tree to reconsider. Stealing antidote couldn't be avoided but there had to be a better way to get to the business district. If anyone saw her and caught her, it wouldn't be good. The Padt City haunted her. Those people would have killed her. They would have beaten her to death if not for Arlo. There was no Arlo here.
She slid down the trunk of the tree to be hidden in the shadows next to it and rested her head against the bark. Going into the town was dangerous but she had to do it. She had studied the area from her tree all day. The options were clear, enter from the road by which she sat or go around and enter at the business district. That meant a long walk in the dark through the fields which could bring her close to dogs. They liked to prowl around farms.
The night seemed chilly even though a warm breeze played across her cheeks. She pulled her coat close and realized how dirty she felt. Her skin crawled with itches. A shower would be nice. That made her smile. She wanted a bath. How many times had they scrubbed her so she could accept a client into bed? They had constantly complained about how dirty she stayed. Well, she had reasons for that then. Computer time was more profitable than bedding one of Ilene's clients.
Lords but if it wasn't her father, Ilene, or the SDD, she managed to find some other thing to make her life miserable. Her luck sucked. On any given day, if there was a worse place to be, she would be there.
About the only time she ever got a break was when a handyman at Ilene's warned them to stay inside. Vincent had been a Value's League member in Tenpole once and knew when shit was going to roll. The Value's League didn't let Parcles come into the mining area after dark. During the day they couldn't stop it but at night young Parcles boys thought they could arm themselves and do some hunting. They might get away with it one night but not two and there had been occasions that the Parcles brats were so destructive the Value's League went into Parcles, grabbed the assholes, and dropped them in a pit never to be seen again. If Vincent were here now, he would probably tell her to get inside. Erica sagged against her tree to think of him and how safe she had felt around him. Too bad he was still on Marril. He wouldn't be caught dead on Quirni.
Wishing for him and his amazing fighting techniques wasn't going to get her any antidote. Since the route through the houses was out, that left the fields regardless of dogs. They were barking earlier in the day so she knew they were near but that only meant she had to be careful and avoid animals. They liked to kill sheep, small cows, and chickens. Those would be in pens and barns for the night so she would stay away from those by going out into the fields.
'There were squirrels today. You saw them in the tree,' said a voice that was so loud and startled Erica so much she swung out from behind the tree ready to face an attacker but there was no one there. Her eyes darted around, searching the woods. No one was there. The voice had been so loud it sounded like another person. Her mouth fell open. That had been in her head. Her heart beat like a hammer inside her chest.
Oh hell. Oh blasted hell. She had cracked back apart completely. Her mind was broken again. That voice had been loud. It wasn't a whisper. She closed her eyes to stop tears. Before she was cured the voice had been that loud. She had gone through hell to get rid of it, to stop it. Now it was back. Was the cure gone, completely gone?
If any of it was still intact she would have feelings and memories of her whole past. The voice was a symptom of her problem and her problem was pushing away bad feelings and bad memories to such an extent she separated herself. The cure allowed her remember and be whole. If it was gone…
She leaned against her tree as she tried to remember the worst of her past, to feel the horrors of her passage from Sirrus to Marril and she did remember parts but dispassionately as if it had happened to someone else. Remembering it at all was something but no strong feelings were attached to the memory. The therapy was gone. Tears streamed down her cheeks. It had been so hard, months of therapy, months of remembering things no one should.
She inhaled long, held her breath until she felt calm, then exhaled. So, you're back and not a blasted thing can be done about it. Don't be an asshole this time.
"As if," Erica muttered. She blinked at her response. Panic rose in her chest. "Shit." She talked to it. People didn't respond well when she muttered to the voice.
'You have to do it. The squirrels were a good sign.'
She kept her mouth sealed. There are squirrels because there are farm animals here. The dogs would be after those, not squirrels.
Why did she answer? She shouldn't but, by the lords, she was lonely. That was why. She was so damn lonely. She hadn't survived Marril and become rich to be alone in the blasted, black, dirty ass woods. She had lived in a city on Marril with lights and water and people. She liked people. She liked their noise and their chaos. The woods were too damn quiet, still, and dark but also comparatively safe. Dogs didn't attack her because of her face. They attacked her because she was meat, and so far, they weren't that hungry.
She returned to the dark under the tree. Her heart thumped in her chest as she tried to convince herself she had to circle the town and enter from the other road. If she came across a thing, she would shoot it.
'Dumb, dumb, dumb. The townspeople would hear that.'
"Damn you, shut up," Erica hissed. She took a big breath and then, with no further thought, crossed the road and forced her way through the woods towards the fields.
Khepri rose over the treetops as Erica crouched at the edge of the town once again. The path she had taken through the wheat made a nice clear trail right to her. She cast a worried eye at the dark line in the swaying field and could think of no way to hide the damage. Wonderful. Why did the wheat have to be fully grown? She glowered at the absurdity of how a field of food might give away her presence. How many days in her life had she wanted a little food and now a field full of it could end up alerting the town that wanted to kill her.
That damage to the wheat meant she wouldn't be able to come back tomorrow or wait for a better plan. It committed her to acting tonight, right now. She had to get the smokes and be far away by morning.
Her backpack was cumbersome to carry so she stuffed it under the stairs beside her. It would be safe there until she returned and if she didn't return she wouldn't need it. One steadying breath, and she snuck to the closest building in a crouched run with care to step light and not make a noise.
Amon was high enough it shone into the buildings. She pressed her face into the windows. The moon glow lit the interiors. The first building was a restaurant, the second was a bank. She snuck deeper into the town. The farther she went the harder it would be to escape if she were discovered, but she had to go on. Her antidote was gone, smoked earlier to make certain she didn't cough while stealing more.
She passed from building to building, stopping, looking, and going on until she reached the intersection of roads at the center of the business district. From her tree she had seen this spot clearly but what she hadn't seen was the awning over the stores facing west. It cast a shadow on the front of the buildings so no moonlight shone inside.
Now what? Should she go into the stores? If she did that and someone lived in any of them she increased her chances of being heard. The fewer doors she opened the better. She crouched down next to a bench to hide and think.
There were no lights in any windows nearby. All the businesses were closed and if no one lived above them they were empty. That would explain the lack of lights.
'Or someone is watching you from a dark window,' said her inner voice.
What difference did it make if they did? She needed the antidote and beyond that nothing was in her control. The best means to survive this night was to be quick and quiet. If anyone watched, they hadn't raised an alarm yet.
She turned while still in a crouch, straightened, and pressed her face against the window but it was too damn dark. Not a clue to what the building held. Neither Amon nor Khepri were at the right angle to put any light under the awning yet. They would be eventually but not yet.
Khepri did a great job of lighting up the other side of the street. If she went over there she could see into those buildings without a problem but she could also be easily seen and she could see by the signboards above those stores that they were a cobbler, a tailor, and a bookstore. She doubted they sold antidote.
She huddled back down next to the bench. The shadow cast by the moonbeams were at the edge of the boardwalk. It crept towards her. Should she wait for the light to come to the front of this building? If she didn't, once she went in she wouldn't be able to see. She didn't like the idea of using a match like she had in the Padt City. That had been so stupid. No doubt it was how they located her.
'Enough!' warned her conscience. 'God! Just sitting and doing nothing! Move!'
Her head jerked in surprise. She wasn't used to hearing the voice anymore. There was a time when she could go about her business while it nagged and she would be able to ignore it. She wouldn't react to it at all. She would have to get that back.
She glanced up and down the roads again. No one was around.
If there were signs above the stores on the other side of the street then there were probably signs above the stores on her side as well. She took a deep breath and walked out into the street. She looked up at the front of the buildings. The signs were there. She ducked back into the shadow and smiled with relief. She was in front of a general store.
Her eyes darted about the deserted town to make sure she hadn't been seen. Hitching posts and water troughs were the only things in the street, no people, no watchmen. She moved to the door and lifted the latch which was a piece of wood sticking through a slot.
That amazed her. None of the Quirni doors had locks. There should be some other kind of alarm so she inched it open and ran her fingers around as much as she could reach. Nothing, no strings. There was no detectable alarm and spending any more time looking for it would be foolish. She pushed the door open wide enough to enter. Everything remained quiet. Nothing fell to make a noise. No alarm. The Quirni were trusting people.
Darkness encompassed her when the door closed. She again lit a match to find her way but this time she stayed by the door, cupped her hand around it, and kept it close to her body to minimize the amount of light that might be seen outside. The antidote cigarettes sat at the front of the store, huge stacks of them at the front counter, right beside tobacco cigarettes. That was all the time she could risk with the light. Now that she knew where they were, she would have to get there in darkness. Erica flicked out the match.
Her eyes took time to adjust. Amon had come around far enough that its pale light seeped through the bottom of the wide glass window. It was enough. She held her hands out to avoid crashing into anything and inched towards the cigarettes. When she touched the stack she took as many as her deep pockets would hold. The light of Amon brightened the window as she finished stuffing them in.
She turned to leave and saw the red glow on a newspaper. 'Kinsley Girl Returns' read the headline. Erica's ID photograph covered a quarter of the front page. She choked a little. She grabbed the paper and stuffed it between the cartons.
Then she saw a stand of candy and, since she was now a thief on Quirni too, she grabbed a few candy bars. It was some Quirni brand that the wrapper claimed was chocolate and since that was a rare treat for her she didn't resist it. The flat bars slid in next to the cartons of antidote.
She slunk out of the store and back to her pack where she took time to transfer the cartons to it. So many stuffed her pockets they could fall out if she didn't. Her stomach remained tight and her heart raced while she worked to secure everything. Once she knew her supplies were tied in tight she could run to cross the bridge and get lost in the woods on the other side, far enough gone they could never find her.
The streets remained empty until she finished. She shrugged the backpack over her shoulder and dove back into the wheat. It was the only way to circle the town, either that or stay right next to the buildings including the pens of animals. That was where the dogs would be, not that she had heard them but they could be silent too.
She circled around without being seen or heard and came to the mill by the bridge. There she paused to watch and listen but heard or saw no one.
As Thoth rose she crossed the bridge at a fast walk, as if she were a villager out for a midnight stroll. She crossed the wooden structure without a sound from her shoes and then jogged into the dark under the trees. She slipped from sight. The jogging helped throw off some of her anxiety but when her breath started to hitch she slowed and stretched into a long stride. She walked as fast as she could.
As she walked she ate some of the candy she had stolen and shivered in delight at the taste. It had been a long time since she had tasted chocolate. She smiled and actually felt happy. The breeze smelled fresh. Her lungs felt clear. She could move along at a decent clip.
If she were on Marril she would be buried. Maybe Quirni would be alright for a while. It amazed her that the people left their doors unlocked. Of course they didn't have any metal to make locks but still they could have devised something. She sighed. She could get anything she wanted. She wouldn't starve or go without clothes. In fact she remembered the paper. She would have news too.
She pulled it from her pocket and spread it so moonlight peaking between leaves fell on the front page. Thoth's light was bright enough she could read while walking.
"These people be mental," she declared out loud. Right under the picture it said 'Erica Ennis' but the caption below it read 'Matilda returned?' "'Tis me, you dolts. What be the mystery?" She stopped in a moonbeam to read. The article held an account of what happened at the Padt City and several eyewitness testimonies but that was weeks ago.
The shadows of leaves covered the top corner. She tipped the paper to move it into the moonlight and examine the date. It was two weeks old. So, news traveled slowly here. The article concluded that Matilda had returned and her accent indicated she had been on Marril. "Great," Erica scoffed. Well, at least it would be good for starting a fire.
She folded the paper and put it in her pack. Time to move. She put the half eaten candy bar in her pocket and headed northwest. A narrow path ran northwards into the woods so she took it. The town and the river were behind her. She was content for the first time since arriving on the planet.
Was that a growl? Two reactions hit Erica at the same time, panic and climb. She ran, jumped, and grabbed a tree branch then swung herself up before she looked for what she heard. Her coat snagged as she climbed. She pulled up and kicked at what caught her and heard a yelp then the rush of padded feet, the snarl of animals, and the clash of nails against the tree.
That drove Erica up fifteen feet. Her heart hammered as she hugged the tree trunk and looked down to find eight wild dogs jumping and barking up at her. A second later and they would have had her. She carefully squatted down on the branch to get her breath and see them a little better. They were jumping, angry shapes in the shadows. They were huge, bigger than the brochures had warned and she had nearly been their dinner.
How in the hell had they gotten so close? Did they actually hunt at night after all? She wiped her sweaty palms off on her pants and lit a smoke. The animals settled under her. Some sat. Some lay down. They all kept looking up.
All these days and nights she had travelled without attracting the dogs and now here they were when she needed to move. It was more of her unbelievably piss poor bad luck. She had probably passed one of their resting places without even realizing it, too caught up in her good fortune to pay attention. Or, perhaps, they had smelled her and were hungry. She didn't usually carry food. That which Arlo had given her was long gone. She usually ate plants when she found them but tonight she carried the candy. She pulled it out of her pocket. She took a bite.
The dogs heard the wrapper. They all jumped to their feet and barked, furious. She dropped the remainder of the bar. The dogs dove for it. They bit and fought to eat every bit of candy and wrapper. It disappeared in a second. "Wouldn't you know it," Erica muttered. Without a thought she had taken the candy and now look where it got her. "Stupid," she said before her conscience could.
The dogs circled and sniffed around the base of the tree.
Erica pulled out the second candy bar and dropped it. The animals dove for it again. They snatched it out of the air and fought over it. "'Tis gone you hungry dolts. Leave."
Her voice sent them into frenzy. They jumped to get at her. They were tall, all of her weight and half as much again. Some were tan with black muzzles, others black and white, and one brindle. They had short hair and tall, athletic bodies. Their large heads were squared with long snapping jaws. Fifteen feet was a possible jump for them. Erica retreated a few more branches higher and didn't say anything more.
Amon set and then Khepri dipped to the horizon as well. Thoth followed. Thoth, Erica now knew, would settle over the horizon as the sun rose. The dogs lay under the tree and waited. Erica sat and worried because she wasn't nearly far enough away from Cluny. "Go," she urged the dogs quietly. From where she sat she could still see the tallest buildings in the town. She had to get moving. She had one option but it wasn't good, her gun.
She pulled it out. If she shot, the townspeople would hear but she would still have the rest of the night to get away. If she waited for the dogs to leave, she felt sure the townspeople would find her. They would have to deal with the dogs but they were used to that. They would kill them and then she would have to deal with the townspeople. From where she sat the distant shape of roofs were visible in Thoth's light.
When the town woke people would see her path in the wheat and figure out that she had crossed the bridge. If they realized someone had stolen from the store, they would follow. The barking dogs would give them a good idea where to look. With a grimace she loaded her gun but then rested the weapon on her knee. She gazed down at the vigilant animals.
"Any suggestions would be welcome," she said out loud and wanted the voice to reply. The dogs looked up when she spoke but didn't move. They remained in a pile of bodies under the tree. No suggestions came. Her brow knit in anger then she aimed and fired. She killed the animals with eight shots. Three of them down their throats as they barked up at her.
Afterwards she waited for a while to make sure they were dead. At least a quarter hour passed before she descended the tree where she paused to stand amongst them. If only they had left. She felt sorry for them. They were just wild and hungry.
"Pardons," she said to their carcasses. She liked dogs too much to do this to them. They didn't have dogs on Marril, the thayanite killed them too fast, but she had loved Dopey on Sirrus. The happy, little mongrel had been a joy. She bent and stroked the sleek, tan fur of the closest animal. He was beautiful with a thick muscular chest, strong legs, square head. If they had been loved, they would have been good. Too bad.
She hurried away at a trot. An animal path allowed her to keep jogging until her breath caught. That didn't stop her but only slowed her while she smoked and as soon as she could breathe clearly again she pressed back into a jog. The townspeople would come for her. The gunshots would bring them if the barking dogs hadn't.
By taking the paths through the trees she hoped to obscure the direction she travelled. The first path was well used by something large, probably the wild boar-like animals. She kept on it for an hour before finding a narrower route that forced her to duck under branches and wind around underbrush. That cut her speed but made her harder to track.
The gravity didn't bother her anymore. She had gotten used to that after a week but she had pills left. She dug the plastic bottle from her pocket and popped one in her mouth. The extra energy would put more distance between her and the town. She listened intently for pursuit and did her best to keep her passage quiet so humans or dogs couldn't hear her.
She never saw or heard a thing when the next attack happened. It wasn't dogs but men. An arrow thwacked into her backpack and right through to her shoulder. She gasped in pain and surprise. One moment she wound through a deep woods and the next she was pushed forward, her backpack and right shoulder slammed so hard she lost her balance and stumbled towards a bush.
Something caught her arm, pierced her coat and dug in. It felt like claws. It ripped. It spun her around to face five men all armed with bows. Three had already loosed their arrows. Two more shot as the first arrow spun her around to face them. An arrow grazed her scalp and knocked her back. She fell on the bush and slid into it in shock. The men advanced and nocked more arrows to their bows, aiming them at her, ready.
The world slowed for Erica, as if the men waded through mud. Five of them bore down on her. She dug her heels into the decaying leaves and shoved to gain her feet until the arrow in her shoulder snagged in the bush. She yelped in pain and tried to twist free of it but that made the pain worse. The men stalked up to her with grins.
When she grabbed for the pain in her arm she found the arrow. It wasn't until then that she realized she had been shot. The men approached cautiously, malicious intentions all over their grinning faces. One of them lunged and grabbed her coat sleeve. She yelped again as he dragged her upright by the pierced arm. The bush pulled the arrow in her back free but it remained lodged in her pack, the head of it scraping at the back of her shoulder. The arrow in her arm dragged through the bush and scraped bone.
"It's her! We got her!" The man shoved her towards the others.
No one tried to catch her so she landed on her hands and knees before them, crumpled and trying to still her panic. "I'm-" she started to say but the man who had grabbed her struck her across the side of her head with his bow which threw her to her side. The arrow in her arm twisted under her but the blow had dazed her so much she hardly noticed.
"Shut up!" he screamed which was the only reason she heard him. The ear he had struck felt numb and heard nothing. Her other ear was in mud. The chocolate rose in her throat. She shakily drew up her unhurt arm to cover her head. It was a senseless action. It wouldn't help but that was all she could ever do.
"Let's get her back to town before we kill her," the attacker snarled. "Everyone has a right to see her die." He kicked her in the back of the head.
Bright, warm sun woke her. Her head throbbed. She felt nausea and dizzy even lying still on her back. The sun shone down on her and made her squint. A crowd circled her. Some of their faces were obscured by the bright halo of sunlight behind them. They talked about Joe and how far he had to go to get his horse and saddle. When they saw her eyes open some of them spat while others cursed.
"Not Matilda," she told them but the crowd was too loud to hear her and she began to notice her missing belongings. Her backpack, gun, hat, knife, and coat were gone and she could feel the arrowhead was still in her arm. No one here would help her get that out. It surprised her that she was even alive.
A warm glob of spit landed on her neck and another on her chest. Given that and their expressions she wasn't sure how welcome it was to be alive right now. She understood the sneers and disgust they wore. She had seen it enough on her father's face. If you don't do this, Lynn, I'll beat you harder. I bought that dopey dog for you - now get on your knees and do what I tell you… I'll kill him if you don't…
"I'm not Matil-" she started to say again but stopped because she realized she was tied. Her hands were bound in front of her and her feet were together. She lay in the road and she was tied! Oh lords no! She panicked and struggled against the bonds.
The townspeople laughed to see her bite the leather straps. The more she panicked the more they laughed. She didn't listen to them or give any attention to the rain of spit and cursing. They wanted her to die slow and horrible and being tied would allow that. If she could get untied she could fight and, lords, she could hurt them and she would hurt them if only to make them kill her faster, to stop the torture they had planned. As she was, tied and harmless, they could do whatever they wanted.
A man stepped on her arm and that pushed her hands away from her mouth. The arrowhead pressed through her bicep. "Stop," she tried to yell but it came out as a begging whimper. Her chance to escape was gone. This was the one who led them. He pressed harder. A scream rose in her but she held it. They loved screams so she stifled it. They wouldn't get the satisfaction of her pain, not anymore. She curled into a ball and didn't even try to wrest herself free of his foot.
He removed it.
The relief was unexpected. It gave Erica hope. She drew her legs up to get them under her and stand. She would face them, answer for whatever crimes they thought she had committed but the man kicked her down. The pain in her head, a concussion at least, made movement difficult. The little tumble from her elbow and knees made her gasp. They laughed.
It took a moment for her head to clear and then she tried to get on her knees again. He kicked her over again and they all laughed harder. That was all the strength she had. The man grabbed the ties on her wrists and jerked her arms straight.
That actually relieved some of the pain from the arrowhead. She twisted to see what he did and saw him take a thick rope from someone in the crowd. He tied it to the leather around her wrists. What the hell? He jerked the knots to set them then let out the rope as he walked away towards a horse.
"Oh lords no," she whimpered. He meant to tie to damn rope to the horse. "No! I'm not Matilda!" she screamed.
The man mounted with the rope in hand. The crowd yelled and whooped. He tied the rope to his saddle and then leaned over looking back at her, his lips wet with spittle. "Die slow you lying bitch!" he yelled over the noise of the crowd and then spit towards her.
Erica scrambled to get her feet under her again but the crowd pushed her back down. They did no more than that but as soon as she got an elbow or knee under her and rose a few inches someone darted forward and shoved her then hurried to get away. Their laughter gained lunatic levels then someone started to chant "Joe! Joe! Joe!" They all joined in. Erica could do nothing so she curled in on herself. This would be the last moment she might be whole. She trembled on the dirt road. Joe jerked the rope.
"Once around!" a woman yelled.
Erica lifted her dizzy head in time to see Joe kick.
"Then we'll let the pyrogenzes have her!" he called out and took off at a gallop down the gravel street. Erica jerked forward. She felt muscle rip in her shoulders and the arrow pulling through her arm.
The horse galloped and she tumbled. She tried to protect herself but she couldn't keep her legs up against the rushing road. The gravel ground through her pants and shirt in moments. It pulled off her boots. She screamed when she felt it against her bare legs. The horse turned the corner of the two main streets at a gallop right past the store she had robbed. People waited on the boardwalks down which she had so carefully walked the night before. They jumped out of the way. "Faster Joe!" they yelled.
The crowd ran behind while Erica collided with the wooden beams in front of the stores. Her legs shattered and her ribs broke. If she had hit the boards the other way, her back would have broken but that would have been a kindness, perhaps a quick death. Joe stopped his horse at the end of the street, pivoted, and came back at a gallop again. He released the rope so Erica slid head first into the water trough and it was hard enough she felt nothing for several blissful moments. The dragging hadn't lasted long. 'Once around' so someone had said. 'Once around - then we'll let the pyrogenzes have her,' the Bacillus pyrogenzes that contaminated the water.
With Erica broken, cut, and bleeding the man dismounted. She saw him approach but she no longer felt connected to her body. The man grabbed her by the remains of her shirt collar and jerked her up with a powerful arm where he held her for all to see, her eyes open but blank, looking into his but feeling nothing. There was a means to escape torture and she had learned it very young.
She watched the man pull her up and plunge her into the water trough as the crowd cheered and knew she was under water but she didn't feel it. He jerked her back out but she only watched. No sound came from her, no reaction, because she was no longer in that mangled body. Instead she hung from Joe's meaty hand, water rinsing the dirt and blood off of someone's body but not hers. A split let her go. It allowed her to be someone else, not this broken girl.
Joe dunked her again as the crowd yelled. "Make God damn sure! Make sure, Joe!"
Numbness now but she knew how to escape ever further and not witness anything. She had learned that when she was less than five.
"How does that feel you killing whore?" Joe yelled in her face as water drained from her sagging mouth.
Someone grabbed Joe's arm. "Stop it! Stop!"
Sun shined in Erica's eyes so she saw only a flash of brown. It brought her back ever so slightly, curiosity. Someone tried to help?
Joe yelled a stream of curses.
"You are under arrest!" the other man yelled and the crowd hissed and catcalled evilly. Joe dropped her. She fell into the mud at the base of the trough. It was cold. Joe kicked the side of her head as the other person tackled him.
Her ear bled warm against her neck. Warm compared to the water draining from her hair into her eyes and mouth. Voices faded as Joe's shouting increased but Erica hardly noticed. She accepted her last defense for escape after years of being free of it. She no longer watched from far away. She gave up and left.