by Steven Cuffari
The last rays of the Sun trembled through the trees of the Wilhelm Forest in the south of Lakkota Province, where the Old River came from the north and sated the land all the way to the Red Desert.
Two women stood outside a log cabin house in a small clearing. One of them was chopping wood, the other merely watched as the light autumn wind ran its fingers through her black hair.
Inside the house were two men. One cleared plates of bones from the dinner table and wiped its surface clean, while the other mixed alcohol with water and cinnamon.
The woman chopping wood outside took a break to wipe the sweat off her forehead. She wore a simple dress made from the thread of the Brown Cactus. Her hair was short and almost as dark as her clothing. The outfit gave her no trouble swinging her ax to split the wood.
“It’s getting colder, I think,” said the black-haired woman. Her dress was a hand-me-down, light and delicate and colored with a blue dye that was impossible to get anymore.
When the woman in brown put her handkerchief back in her pocket, she smiled. Her eyes were young, almost without lines. Their near-green irises circled closer to their pupils, as she peered at her friend, who shivered. Both of the women were the same size, but the woman in brown was more muscular. She didn’t shiver in the wind.
“That’s why I’m cutting wood,” said the woman in brown as she swung the ax above her head.
“I know,” her friend said. “I just think Dean and Max should be out here doing this, not us.”
The ax blade split the wood right in half, almost mimicking a thunder clap. The woman in brown pushed her leather boot against the tree stump and wriggled the ax out. The woman in blue placed another piece of wood on the stump.
“You mean not me,” said the woman in brown, swinging the ax above her head again. It came down and cracked the wood in half. The red sky faded to black as the sun finally disappeared.
“Are we done?” asked the woman in blue.
The brown-haired woman laid the ax upon the stump and laughed. “Yes, we’re done, Terry.”
Each of them took as much wood as they could. The woman in brown carried the heavier load.
Inside, Dean and Max sat at the table and drank the cocktails Max had made.
Dean raised his cup. He was a muscular man with black hair and dressed in clothes made from the same fabric as the woman in brown. “To another strong reaping,” he said. His brown eyes made sure to catch those of Max.
“The winter seems promising,” said Max, raising his cup in return. Max was muscular as well, but slightly taller and slimmer. He dressed in rough, antique clothing that restricted the way he moved.
“It’s getting colder, isn’t it?” Dean said before taking a sip.
“You sound like my wife,” Max said, who took a sip as well.
“Some people just don’t like the cold,” Dean replied.
The autumn wind blew into the house when the women arrived with the wood. Max saw Terry carrying it, and he nearly choked on his drink. “Terry!” he shouted. “What are you doing?” He put his cup down and rushed over to her, relieving her of her burden. “I thought we talked about this,” he whispered to her. He brought the wood over to its place next to the stove that heated the house.
The woman in brown giggled, trying to restrain her laughter.
“It’s not funny,” said Dean. “Their nearest neighbor is a hundred tares away. What happens if Max becomes ill? Who’ll take care of things then?”
“I know,” said the woman in brown, as she placed some wood in the oven.
Terry warmed her hands at the stove as the flames rose.
“We’re all scattered out here,” Max said. “It’s time for us to go back to the old ways. Before the Red Desert lost it color. I tell you this every time. It’s not safe anymore.”
The woman in brown sat next to Dean and kissed him, taking his cup and sipping from it.
“You would have us move all the way to the White Caps. Give up our land. Our history. I know. You tell me this every time.”
Terry hugged her own arms in front of the fire and smiled at the thickening heat. She then took a seat next to Max.
“Must we have the same conversation every time?” asked Terry.
“Every time,” said the woman in brown.
Max took another sip of his drink and grimaced. “More and more of our neighbors are moving north every month. Soon we’ll be left here alone with the ill and the mad.”
“Ach! Nonsense! You’re falling into the ways of fear. Our fathers would not approve,” said Dean.
“You don’t know that,” said the woman in brown, sipping from Dean’s cup.
Dean took his cup back and sipped from it as well. “You’re right. I don’t. But we can’t abandon our homes because of bad weather or hard times. We make it work until we can no longer. You know, I heard in the west, there are new rivers coming.”
Max grunted. “Rivers? New? Now who’s speaking nonsense?”
They sat in silence for a moment.
Dean sipped from his cup.
The woman in brown pulled her chair closer to her husband and put her hands around one of his.
Terry and Max looked at each other. Max sipped his drink and nodded to Dean and his wife, the woman in brown. Terry nodded and smiled. Just as she took a deep breath to say something, Dean interrupted. Standing up, he said, “Do you hear that?”
The woman in brown stood up too and took him by the elbow. “No,” she said. “What do you hear?”
Max put down his drink and turned around, but stayed seated.
“I hear it,” Terry said.
All four of them waited and listened together.
The shutters at the front of the house were flung open by flaming rocks that crashed around them, spreading flames across the floor.
Terry screamed, and she and Max jumped to their feet. He pushed her behind himself, and they backed away from the fire.
Dean and his wife rushed over to a closet and removed four swords, two of which they gave to Max and Terry. Terry fumbled with the sword, which Max finally took from her.
The woman in brown watched her cower behind Max, and it gave her a bad feeling. But there was no time to mention it.
“Zelich,” Dean said. “Who else would it be?”
Before anyone had a chance to respond, four men with scarves around their faces kicked open the front door.
Dean and his wife positioned themselves to defend an attack, while Max readied his two swords.
The four men were about Dean and Max’s size, except for one who was almost twice as large. This man attacked Dean.
The woman in brown then attacked the man next to him. She took him by surprise with her aggression.
Max kept the two remaining men at bay for a moment, though they pushed forward.
Terry screamed again, pulled a chair from the table and hid behind it.
Dean was fighting well until his large opponent managed to disarm him and force him to the ground. At the same time, the woman in brown killed her opponent, and Max killed one of his. Max’s second opponent took advantage of the slight opening and grabbed Terry, who screamed wildly.
The woman in brown’s instinct was to attempt to free her friend and help Max, but when she noticed that Dean was starting to tire from wrestling the much larger man, she had a choice to make. In a split second, she turned toward Dean and swung her sword above her head. With a twist of her hips, she brought the deadly metal down upon the neck of her husband’s attacker, swiftly separating him from his head. She turned back toward Max and Terry just in time to see Max lunge at his opponent who then slit Terry’s throat and dropped her on the floor.
Max screamed and lunged at the man again, getting stabbed in the chest for his haste. The woman in brown took a well-timed step toward the invader and sliced his head clean off, adding another trophy to her collection.
Dean stayed on the floor to catch his breath, while flames rose around him. But when he looked over and saw Terry on the floor, he ran to her, as did the woman in brown. The woman in brown choked back tears. Dean put out his hand to her, and she took it. They then rushed to Max, who was crying, repeating his wife’s name over and over, “Terry… Terry…”
“Settle yourself, friend,” Dean said. “All will be well soon.”
The woman in brown got up and pulled the scarf off of one of the dead men’s faces. “Zelich’s men, no doubt,” she said. She went to the door and cracked it open. She looked through the moonlit darkness outside and saw the four men’s horses stirring idly between the trees. She was looking for a sign of Zelich, but couldn’t find one. Closing the door, she went back to her husband and their friend.
Dean was trying to stop the blood from pouring out of Max’s chest, with all the cloth he could find, but his heart pumped it out continuously and in spite of itself. “You must relax, Max” Dean said.
The woman in brown knelt beside him, placing her sword between them. She tried to hush him and wiped his brow. He continued to whisper his wife’s name. “Terry… Terry…”
“There’s no time to stop the fire,” the woman in brown said. “Zelich must be nearby. Four horses are outside. They are undoubtedly his.”
Dean looked at his wife and then at his friend. “We must take him with us.”
“I killed her…” whispered Max. “Leave me to die.”
The woman in brown was disturbed by his confession, but her face didn’t show it.
“It’s no one’s fault,” Dean said. “Just calm yourself. Or this bleeding will not stop.”
The flames began to crawl up the walls of the log cabin. “We can take two horses before more men come,” the woman in brown said.
Dean looked into her eyes and nodded.
“I’ll clear the way. You bring Max,” said the woman in brown.
Dean nodded and grunted as he lifted his friend to his shoulders.
The woman in brown cracked the door open and made sure they were alone. She waved for Dean to follow, leading with her sword. She approached the horses, who snorted when she approached. One kicked at the ground with a front hoof. She sheathed her sword and grabbed its reigns. It resisted momentarily, but she forced it to calm. The other horses remained so as well. She grabbed another and led them to the house which was now showing signs of fire on the outside.
Dean saw her coming over and rushed to her side with Max on his shoulders. His blood now poured all over Dean.
The woman in brown helped them onto a horse, and then mounted the other. Something startled her in the darkness.
“What is it?” Dean asked.
“We must go now,” she replied.
They both whispered to their horses and prodded them forward.
After a few moments, they disappeared in the darkness. The flames of their house rose behind them.
The next morning, the sun’s first rays were just slipping over the hills, when Dean and the woman in brown awoke. They spent the night with their horses and Max inside a cave on the hillside in the Old River valley. At the first hint of light, they prepared to leave.
The woman in brown helped Dean to lift Max onto the horse.
“Do you think he will make it?” the woman in brown asked.
“His face still has color, but he continues to bleed. I am not sure,” Dean said.
The woman in brown couldn’t conceal her worry. Dean made sure Max was secure, and then he went to her and rubbed her shoulders.
She looked into his eyes and couldn’t stop herself from crying. “Terry…” she sobbed.
“I know, Charlotte. She was one of our last.”
They hugged each other.
The woman in brown, Charlotte, wiped her tears. “We must go,” she said.
“You’re right, Dean said.
They kissed and took a step toward their horses.
“Wait,” Charlotte said, grabbing his elbow. She pulled him away from the horses, and he turned to face her.
“Do you think he was right? When he said he killed her? Do you think that is true?”
Dean looked over to his friend, then back at Charlotte. “No. It’s not true. But it doesn’t matter how little we live by the old ways–”
“They will fail us…”
“And that’s why we’re bred this way.”
“We might not always be right…”
“But we’ll be prepared.”
They smiled at each other and got on their horses, peeking outside before they got riding.
The valley was green as ever. The early-morning sunlight hid the encroaching desert. Dean and Charlotte left the cave, pointing themselves north, toward the White Caps Mountains, knowing that they should have done so the night before.
If you liked that (or didn’t), then try something else! Read Bad Habits Die Hard!