Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chapter Two

Donovan knew without opening his eyes that he was safe. Everything from the soft pillows and mattress to the fresh-smelling sheet and the steady breeze on his cheek told him that he had found not just refuge but luxury. He hardly dared open his eyes for fear it would turn out to be a dream, but the rumble of his stomach and the soft tearing sound nearby told him that this was no fevered illusion. Slowly he opened his eyes. His gaze fell upon a woman, her smooth blonde hair drawn into a knot at the nape of her neck. She sat in a chair at the side of the bed, her head bent over a basket from which she took clumps of wool and tugged them into little puffs, hence the soft sound he had heard. This task seemed to completely absorb her, but she sensed she was being watched and looked up.

"Hello, stranger." She set her work basket on the floor and put a cool hand on his forehead. "How are you feeling?"

Donovan tried to answer but found his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. The woman took a glass off a nearby table and helped him sit up. He tried not to cry out from the pain in his ribs and shoulder, instead focusing on the glass she held to his lips. He sucked at the liquid greedily, even though it tasted strange, both sweet and salty with an odd grassy flavor he couldn't place.

"Enough." The words were terse, but she pulled the glass away gently and smoothed his hair. "Let's make sure you hold this down before you have any more." She eased him back onto the pillows. "How are you feeling?" she asked again.

"Thirsty. Hungry."

"Does anything hurt?"


"What's your name?"


"I'm Carina. Do you know where you are? Do you remember how you got here?"

"I'm at a house in the desert. A place with a creek. I walked a long way from the main road to get here."

"You were lame from your injuries. You should've stayed on the road."

"No. They would've found me. They would've shot me for stealing their truck and deserting."

"You nearly died anyway." Carina pulled back the sheet and examined his bandages.

"At least in the desert I stood a chance. I got lucky."

"Lucky my sister Amalia didn't shoot you. Lucky you didn't displace one of these broken ribs and puncture an organ. Lucky that the infected gunshot wound in your shoulder didn't gangrene, and lucky you didn't bleed to death from the cut on your leg. It looks more recent than the other wounds. What happened?"

"A stupid accident after the truck ran out of gas."

She fussed with the ends of the bandage binding his rib cage. "How's your stomach feeling? Any pain? Nausea?"

Donovan shook his head. "Does this mean you'll give me something to eat?"

"Yes, but no solid food today. And if you feel at all sick, let me know." She went into another room and came back with extra pillows. With a bit of effort on her part and a lot of gasping and pain on his, she got him into a sitting position, resting against the mound of pillows. She handed him the glass he had been drinking out of before. "Think you can manage it yourself this time?"

Donovan took it gingerly and lifted it to his lips. Carina smiled. "I'll get you some food."

He drained the glass and let it fall into his lap, then he looked around. The room was small, its plastered walls nearly bare of decoration. Through a window framed by blue curtains he could see a shady courtyard, and another window offered a view of scrubland and distant mountains. Bookcases lined an entire wall, and in the far corner a tabby slept curled on an upholstered chair. Beside the bed was a table with an oil lamp, a book and a surprise luxury-- a small electric fan. This and not the open window was the source of the steady breeze he had been enjoying.

A wonderful smell suddenly riveted his attention— a tempting aroma of chicken and garlic. His stomach growled so violently he had to put a hand on his belly to quiet it. He had been groggy before, but now he was fully awake, straining for the sound of Carina's footsteps. He didn't have long to wait. Carina stepped briskly into the room carrying a tray. "I hope you're hungry."

"I'm so hungry I could eat your cat."

"Don't try it. She's probably stronger than you are right now." Carina set the tray on the nightstand. "You're going to have to let me feed you, so please cooperate. I don't think you're ready to handle a spoon." Donovan submitted to the indignity of being fed with as little self-consciousness as a baby bird. He couldn't make out what he was eating, but it seemed to be some kind of gruel flavored with chicken stock and garlic. He was so hungry it could've been mud and he would have been grateful. When he finished, he was given the added treat of a cup of cool herbal tea, slightly sour and sweetened with honey. He could handle the cup on his own and Carina watched as he sucked it down.

"You'll probably start feeling sleepy in a few minutes. I put some things in there that should help you rest."

Donovan handed back the cup and lay back against the pillows with a sigh. "I don't think I need any drugs to help me sleep. You've been very kind. I don't think I can ever do enough to repay you."

Carina placed a hand on his forehead. "Don't think about that right now. I'm going to do some work around the house, but if you need me, just call."

Donovan nodded and started to say something, but the effect of the tea and warm food was overwhelming. He closed his eyes and went to sleep.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Chapter One

It was the bells that first alerted her to the presence of the stranger—goats' bells jangling, the sound carrying clearly through the desert night. Amalia barely heard. She bent her head over her book and continued reading aloud. "When I came home from this journey, I contemplated with great pleasure the fruitfulness of that valley, and the pleasantness of the situation; the security from storms. . ."

There it was again, clearer this time. She looked up, Defoe forgotten. Her eyes, too tired for someone only in her forties, met those of her younger sister Carina, and they shared an unspoken question. Was it a coyote, or something more dangerous?

Before either of them could speak, they heard the bells again, this time accompanied by the frantic braying of a donkey. Amalia jumped to her feet, dumping her knitting to the floor, and turned off the battery-powered lamp. Carina reached in the dark for the oil lantern and lit it with a battered lighter she kept in her pocket. "I’ll be out in a minute," she whispered.

Amalia grabbed her shotgun and stepped outside. She looked around and nervously ran a hand through her short, fading hair. The night was clear and the waning moon gave plenty of light to see by, but after the luxury of an electric light, her eyes needed to adjust to the night. The goats had calmed down, but now she heard a commotion from the chicken coop. Hens were always edgy when they sensed a predator, so maybe it was just a coyote, after all. She slipped the safety off her gun and started walking in the direction of the sound.

She covered the distance with the lithe movements of a much younger woman, one accustomed to walking everywhere, but before she could enter the chicken run, a shadow emerged from the open door of the coop. Amalia sucked in her breath. This was no coyote. She raised the gun. "Drop it and stay where you are."

The figure gasped in surprise and dropped the squawking chicken. He made a slight motion but didn’t run or speak.

"Who are you? Come here where I can see you."

The shadow swayed slightly.

"I said come here," Amalia repeated. "If you think I'm scared to shoot a man, you're wrong."

At a sound behind her, Amalia wheeled about in panic. Did the thief have a partner? No, it was only Carina, long pale hair flying, pistol drawn, running to join her. Amalia turned back to her prisoner, only to find him gone—loping toward the creek with an odd limping gait, gasping for breath with every step. Amalia cursed and took off after him. A man who knew she had chickens, goats, and a donkey was not a man she could let get away.

She didn't have far to run. The man stumbled over a clump of weeds and fell with a wrenching scream that would’ve made a gentler person than Amalia cringe. She trotted over with a snort of satisfaction and leveled the gun at his chest. "Don't even think of trying anything."

The man nodded, gasping as if too close to the brink of death to try any tricks. He attempted to speak, but only a dry rasping noise escaped his lips. He tried to cough, but gave a little cry instead and collapsed in a tearless whimper.

Carina caught up to them, bringing the lantern, and she held it up so they could get a better look. The stranger didn't appear dangerous. He young and lanky, of indeterminate race, not bad looking but pale underneath his toffee-colored skin. He flinched at the light. "Please help me."

Carina, always quick with her sympathy, took a step closer. "He’s bleeding."

Amalia was less impressed by the blood than by his clothes, with their iconic brass buttons and service patches. "Good. Maybe he'll bleed to death and save us the trouble of shooting him. Can't you see he’s wearing a Guard uniform? I bet he's not alone. The bastards are here to rob us."

"No," the man gasped. "I'm alone. I swear."

It was all the same to Amalia. "Then we need to kill you so you don't go back and lead them here." She had relaxed her grip on the shotgun, but now she leveled it at his chest.

"Amalia, no. He's harmless."

"Harmless as a snake."

The man squirmed. "I'm a deserter. They'll kill me if I go back. Why would I betray you?"

"He's right," Carina said. "There's no need to kill him."

"You believe him?" Amalia was incredulous. "Even if he's telling the truth, what are we supposed to do? Maybe he won't go back and tell the Guard, but he'll tell someone, sooner or later. I don't like this either, but it has to be done."

The man struggled to his knees. "Please. If you're going to kill me, at least help me stand so I can die like a man. And could I maybe have a drink of water first? I've been in the desert three days and had no water since yesterday. I don't want to die thirsty."

Carina turned on Amalia. "We can't do this." She set the safety on her pistol and shoved it into the waistband of her pants. "Is this how we were raised to treat people?"

"We were raised in another time, Carina."

"Well, these are pretty bad times if we can’t give a drink of water to a man who is hurt. Things aren't so bad we can't at least clean his wounds."

"I'd be grateful forever if you helped me." The man turned pleading eyes on Amalia. "I can help you with your farm. You won't be sorry."

"We don't need any help around here. We don't need anyone."

"That's just not true." Carina kicked the ground in exasperation. "You know, maybe if someone had treated your husband with kindness when he deserted—"

Amalia sucked in her breath.

"If someone had taken care of him, maybe—"

"Shut up!" Amalia now looked as likely to shoot Carina as the stranger. "How can you compare. . . oh, just shut up."

"Fine. Go on and shoot him, then. What do I care?" She set the lantern on the ground. "You'll need this so you can see to dig the grave. I'm sure you'd have wanted someone to do as much for Alan." She affected a toss of her head and stalked off into the darkness.

Amalia turned back to her captive. She was quivering and breathing as heavily as if she had been running. Her palms were wet—too wet to get a good grip on the trigger. She stared deep into the man's eyes, then turned away in disgust. "Wait here," she said. "I'll go find you something you can use as a crutch."

Next >>