Circumnavigation

by Dale Carothers

Janks Wetel stopped at his son’s bedroom door and sniffed. His hand shook as he raised it to knock on the door, hoping that he was wrong.

“Chester,” he said. “What’s that smell?”

“You’d better come in.”

Janks opened the door and the smell washed over him in a wave.

Chester sat wrapped in a blanket in a chair near the open window. He was soft and good with numbers. He worked in the city center, figuring accounts in giant leather bound ledgers. Nobody saw the resemblance between Janks, the decorated veteran, and Chester, his accountant son. And even though he loved Chester, Janks sometimes wondered if there’d been a mistake in the nursery.

“Show me,” Janks said. He was lanky, with a narrow face and a sharp nose. He desperately clung to what little hair he had left by binding it in a tight ponytail.

“I’m sorry,” Chester said, letting the blanket fall away. “I was afraid to tell you.”

Chester’s torso was covered with dripping sores. Janks covered his mouth and nose with a hand. He wanted Chester to think that it was due to the smell, but he did it to stop himself from crying.

Chester was dying of the Weeping Stink.

“Now I know why you’ve been burning so much incense,” Janks said. “You should’ve told me sooner.”

“What would you have done about it?”

“I don’t know. But we’re petitioning Grevade today to see if he will help us.”

“What kind of trial do you think it’ll be?”

Janks’s answer was cut off by a loud knock on the front door downstairs. Janks closed Chester’s door and answered it.

“What are you doing here?” Janks asked through his teeth.

“I brought the stuff he’ll need.” Attie carried a stack of linens and a waxed coverlet. An iron pot sat at her feet. “Are you going to let me in or not?”

“How’d you know about it before me?”

“I see more of him than you do.” Attie was Chester’s betrothed. There wasn’t a soft edge on the woman. Her face was bony, with pronounced cheekbones and a stripe of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Her russet hair was short and greasy. “Can you take the pot?”

Janks picked it up. “He’s upstairs in his room.”

He let her into the house and followed her up the stairs. She never dressed like a woman and Janks didn’t know what Chester saw in her. She was a hard-fighting woman and a drinker. Chester should’ve gone after a girl like his late mother: sweet, soft, and inviting. Janks feared that once Chester and Attie got married people would think Attie was his daughter and that Chester was only related to him by marriage.

Attie pushed the door to Chester’s room open. He sat hunched in a chair by the window, looking out across the city, at the ocean. She gagged at the smell.

“How are you feeling?” Attie asked.

“Awful,” Chester answered. His eyes drooped. A patch of hair above his ear had fallen out and pus ran down his cheek. “How can you stand the smell?”

“We’re both soldiers,” Attie said. “We can handle it. And I don’t want you to worry. Grevade will help us”

Janks and Attie went to work stripping the bed and then covering it with the waxed coverlet so that the pus wouldn’t soak into the mattress. Together they made the bed with clean linen and then put on cotton masks and gloves.

“Can you stand?” Janks asked.

“What are you asking him to stand for?” Attie asked. “Can’t you see he’s sick?”

“He’s my son! I know how to take care-”

“Enough!” Chester said. “I am ill and I am tired. Too tired to listen to you argue.” He stood feebly and dropped his blanket. He had a pair of under-trousers on but nothing else. Weeping sores covered his body. “I’ll get there on my own.”

Chester only made it a few steps before he slumped toward the floor. Janks and Attie swooped in, each taking an arm like they’d just executed a coordinated attack.

With Chester situated in the bed, Janks went down the hall to fill the pot, and Attie strung a length of cord from wall to wall.

“For hanging wet sheets,” she said when Janks got back.

Janks lit a fire in the fireplace and put the pot on the rack. They tossed Chester’s blanket and their gloves and masks in.

The Summoning Bell rang. It echoed down the streets of Antone, calling everyone to the Asking Well.

“Go,” Chester said, “both of you. I’ve already arranged for Muriel to come and take care of me.” Muriel was the woman that had been trying to get Janks to marry her ever since his wife had died. “Take your weapons and packs with you. If you’re selected for the trial, I want you both to be ready.”

Janks wasn’t the kind of man to take orders from his son, but Chester was sick so Janks let it go. “If they call on me, I’ll go. I’ll get you the cure.”

Attie kissed her fingers and waved them at Chester.

They gathered their weapons and headed for the Asking Well. The population of the city-state of Antone had grown over the last ten years. People came to reap the benefits of the Asking Well, and the city architects built high tenement buildings on the outskirts of the city to house the newcomers. The city of Antone once bustled with commerce, but now it was in the grip of the Weeping Stink.

A massive leather-bound ledger sat atop the altar in the Petitioners’ Temple. Inside that book, reaching far back into history, were the lists of requests that the people of Antone had made to Most Holy Grevade. In recent times, their god had given them the gifts of gunpowder and steam engines, but now the medical knowledge to cure the Weeping Stink was their only concern.

Janks noticed drying sheets hanging from laundry lines at more houses than yesterday. The Weeping Stink was spreading fast.

The crowds thickened as they neared the Asking Well. Janks was surprised that everyone was willing to pack in like this. The plague was passed by physical contact. People cleared the way for Janks, the veteran soldier and hero of the war with Veglund across the sea. Attie followed along in the empty space behind him.

As they passed, a woman turned to her friend. “Is that his daughter?”

“She sure looks like him.”

Janks and Attie made their way to the front. The Asking Well was wider than five city blocks and several stories deep. The easternmost side of the well had been built into a wall tall enough to hold back the crashing waves of the ocean. A giant metal spigot and rusting valve wheel protruded from the wall out over the well. The lichen mottled Petitioner’s Temple stood at the southern end of the wall.

The priests strode single file out of the temple. The first of them carried a long-handled mallet. He stepped up to a black iron ear affixed to the top of a long tubular chime that hung down into the Asking Well.

The priest raised the mallet above his head. “Hear us Most Holy Grevade. Grant us your blessing and bestow upon us your favor.”

The priest struck the iron ear four times. With each blow he chanted. “Wake!”

A rumbling sounded deep within the well.

The priest signaled to his initiates, six of whom went down the metal catwalk that led to the spigot. Each of them took hold of the giant wheel and strained to turn it.

“We bathe and feed you Most Holy Grevade,” the priest said.

At first the water came in a trickle, but as the initiates turned the wheel, the trickle became a gushing flow laden with fish.

After a few minutes the ground shook as a gargantuan cough sounded. Water and fish spewed up out of the well and then fell back down again. Dust stirred and pebbles skittered down into the well. Hot cinnamon wind blasted up out of the hole. And then Grevade stood so high that he blotted out the sun.

Grevade’s black robes blew like giant ebony sails in the ocean wind, covering him from the top of his head to his unseen feet in the depths below. His mallet-shaped head had a mouth atop it: much like that of a hammerhead shark, but turned sideways. He didn’t have a face, but there was a hole in the front of his garment that showed his seventeen eyes; all of them were different sizes and colors. A wide necklace made of hundreds of brass Petitions hung from his neck.

Grevade waved a colossal hand at the people of Antone. His voice was like the sound of rock scraping against steel. “Speak and I will consider your request.”

“Most Holy Grevade,” the priest said, holding up the newest Petition. “Our people suffer from a plague. Men, women, and children have been laid low by the Weeping Stink. We ask you for the medicine to cure it.”

“Can you not make your own medicine?” Grevade asked.

“In the time it takes us to do so many more will die. If we don’t stop the Weeping Stink soon we will dwindle down to nothing.”

Grevade scanned the city. Twenty-three years ago, when he’d given them the gift of steam power, the city was half its current size.

“How tragic that would be,” Grevade said.

“Please, Most Holy Grevade. Grant us your wisdom,” the priest said, kneeling. He gripped the ceremonial mallet in his hands. It held a jewel for each one of Grevade’s eyes.

“Before I give you the wisdom I require a trial.” Grevade took the Petition and hung it from his necklace.

The crowd parted to let a group of warriors, scientists, physicians and engineers through. The last trial challenged a group of engineers to assemble a puzzle of wind and water into a perfect cube. It took them fifteen days, and two had drowned in the process, but they’d been successful.

“I require two soldiers,” Grevade said.

A cheer went up. Many had seen him come. “Janks! Janks!”

He stepped to the fore. The people waited for him to suggest another. Before he could open his mouth to suggest a second, someone shouted behind him.

“I will take the trial!”

Janks recognized her voice. He shut his eyes and gritted his teeth.

Several people in the crowd whispered to their neighbors.

“Who’s she to put our lives in her hands?”

“Don’t worry. I think that’s his daughter.”

Attie pushed to the front. “I’ll go.”

“But you’re just a mercenary,” Janks said. “We need a soldier.”

“Yes, a soldier. Where is Feriol?” A man in the crowd said. “He fought alongside Janks against Veglund.”

Feriol was near enough to hear those words. He shook his head and flapped his hands in front of his considerable gut. “I’ve grown too old, too….comfortable. Let a younger warrior try.”

“We have our volunteers,” Grevade said, “and now the Trial.” He dug into his eye cluster and pulled out his largest eye. He stretched out his arm and stuck his eye in the firmament of the heavens. He placed his hands to either side of the eye and then slowly drew them apart. The eye moon grew. Grevade dragged a fingernail across the surface of the eye, leaving a trail of blue eldritch fire. He then reached down and placed his palm at the edge of the well in front of Janks and Attie. They stepped into his hand, and he raised them up. “You will start at the line and circle the globe until you come to it again. You have from dawn to dusk to complete the trial.”

“Shouldn’t you have asked for runners then?” Attie asked.

Grevade considered smashing her with a finger. “There will be obstacles.”

“How will we know when the day is up?” Janks asked.

Grevade pulled out a second eye and set it below the first. He set the eye sun aflame with a fingertip. “As I said, dawn to dusk.”

Grevade lifted Attie and Janks up through the sky to the eye moon. Mountains and forests grew on its surface, leaving valleys and open plains behind. A river sprang from the base of one of the mountains and ran its course down a valley. Grevade set them on a hill. A cold wind blew through the night air. The line of eldritch fire illuminated the grass at the top of the hill.

A mouth opened at the tip of one of Grevade’s fingers. “I will start the Trial when you reach the bottom of the hill.”

Grevade’s hand receded and Janks screamed at Attie. “My boy’s life is on the line here! What the hell were you thinking?”

“He’s mine too!”

Janks poked her in the shoulder. “There’s many a man who I’d rather have on this moon. All of them soldiers, unlike you. Feriol would have been perfect”

Attie poked him back. “You don’t need soldiers. All standing in line and marching in time. You need someone who can think quickly, who can make a move without an order. And Feriol? He’d never make it, fat as he is.”

“You don’t have the training for this.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“I’ll never forgive you if we fail and Chester dies. He’s all the family I got left.”

“Soon Chester and I will be married. Then you’ll have me and any children we have.”

“You think I’m going to let you marry my son?”

Attie punched Janks in the stomach.

He coughed and fell to the ground. Damn, she was fast. And she hit like a mule.

Attie grabbed at him but he batted her away.

“I’m just trying to help you up,” Attie said. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”

“You ever hit my son like that and I’ll kill you,” Janks said standing.

She looked at the ground. “I got a short temper, but I’ll never hit him. If I do, I’ll let you kill me.”

“Agreed. Take off your pack. Let’s take stock of what we brought.”

They dropped their packs to the ground. He had a long rifle, a backup pistol, and a cutlass. She had a pistol on each hip and a longer target-shooting pistol between two hatchets on her back. Between the two of them they had enough ammunition, food, and water to get them through the trial.

Janks shouldered his pack and tightened the straps. “You shouldn’t have hit me. It might slow us down.”

“Sorry,” Attie said.

They went down the hill.

When Janks reached the bottom the sun peeked up over the horizon behind them. The line of fire almost disappeared in its brightness. Janks led the way to the edge of the grassland. There was a short drop to a smooth violet plain, that lead off into the distance.

“What do you suppose that is?” Janks asked.

“I don’t even want to guess.”

Janks dropped to its surface. The pale flesh twitched under him. He jumped back onto the grass.

“Disgusting,” Attie said, scanning the horizon. “It doesn’t look like there’s an end to it and I don’t think we have the time to go around.”

Attie took Janks’ hand and lowered herself to the skin. It twitched and she almost vomited. She felt like she was standing on a bloated stomach. Janks followed her down. He kept his arms spread for balance. They walked as carefully as they could and after they’d gone a fair distance they got used to it. It was like walking on a firm mattress.

Janks eventually let his arms fall to his sides. “See anything yet?”

“No, how about you?”

“Nope.” Janks wondered if this was the challenge. Did they have the intestinal fortitude to cross the field of skin? Then he felt a series of tremors. “What are you doing?”

Attie stopped walking. The tremors continued. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”

Janks pulled his rifle out. “Which way are those tremors coming from?”

“I can’t tell.”

“I’ll stand right here. Walk around me real slow. We’ll know which way they’re coming from by who feels it first.”

Attie made her circuit, and they figured out that the tremors were coming from in front of them.

“Let’s get it over with,” Janks said walking forward.

Soon the tremors intensified, and they spied a line of riders coming their way.

“They’re kicking up a cloud of something, but there isn’t any dust on the skin,” Attie said.

“Get out your target pistol. We should be able to take a few of them down before they get here.”

Janks and Attie advanced slowly, making sure that they weren’t being flanked by a second force. When the horsemen came into range Janks kneeled and tried to get a bead on the lead rider.

“I can’t keep steady,” Janks said. The tremors got worse as the horsemen drew near.

Attie held her target pistol in both hands, trying to keep her aim. “We can’t shoot like this!”

“Stay there,” Janks said, dropping his rifle and then drawing his cutlass. He ran ten paces and then stuck the tip of his blade deep into the skin. He ran in a circle around Attie. Blood welled from the wound. The tremors reached the cut, splattering blood all along it, but neither Janks nor Attie felt them.

“I’ll take the center rider and work my way left,” Janks said. “You start on the right and work your way to the middle.”

Attie wasn’t used to taking orders, but this wasn’t the time to argue. “Got it.”

“I count twenty.” Janks lined a rider up in his sights and blasted him out of the saddle. The gaps between the riders widened, and then they executed a weaving pattern, making it difficult to keep a bead on any one of them.

“Aim at a certain spot and wait for one of them to ride into it,” Janks said. “Remember to give them a bit of lead time.” Janks fired again and again with patience and precision.

Attie itched for the riders to get closer. Sniping didn’t suit her. She balanced her target pistol on her forearm and took one of the riders out. A sudden movement fouled her next shot. “The tremors are coming back.”

“The wound is healing,” Janks said, reloading his rifle.

The dried blood crackled off of the undulating flesh. The skin and muscle beneath their feet lurched sluggishly.

The riders closed on Janks and Attie. They wore spiked breastplates and wielded lances. Their horses were gaunt, and instead of hooves they had clusters of thorny claws that dug deep into the flesh and left a swath of bloody scabs in their wake. By the time they got near Janks and Attie, only five riders remained.

The riders tightened their formation, their lances a wicked constellation of blades.

Janks shot one through the helmet and then dropped his empty rifle. He drew his cutlass and his pistol. “On my signal break right.” He waited a moment. “Now!”

Attie sprinted to the right, drawing two of the remaining riders off of the group. As their lances bore down on her she drew her hatchets, smiling at her chance to get into the thick of it. Attie rolled under their lance points at the last moment, wetting her shirt in the blood on the ground. She shot into the gap between their horses and slashed the leg of the rider on the left—sending him to the ground. She spun and chucked a hatchet at the other rider. He hadn’t had time to wheel about, so her hatchet caught him between his shoulders, killing him. The fallen rider behind her stood and drew his sword. He limped toward her.

Janks shot the rider to his right through the gap between his breastplate and helmet. He dropped his gun, and with an extra hand on the back of his blade, drove the incoming lance point into the ground. The rider let it go and it swayed like a sapling caught in a storm. Janks sidestepped around his opponent’s horse. The blood thrown up by the rider’s passing splattered Janks’s legs. The rider charged again, now wielding a Morningstar. Janks dodged to the rider’s left and hacked at the mount’s foreleg. It went down, pinning its rider. Janks dispatched him with a thrust to the back. He yanked his sword free and ran to help Attie.

Attie blocked a strike and then broke her foe’s knee with a kick. He took a faltering step forward, so Attie circled him and dug her hatchet into his unarmored back. She heard footsteps behind her so she spun and readied her hatchet.

Janks stopped running and held up his hands. “Thought you could use some help.”

Attie lowered her weapon. “Too late. Wait here for a moment.”

She chased down one of the horses and yanked her hatchet out of the back of its rider, letting the dead warrior fall to the ground. She brought the gaunt horse back to Janks and handed him the reins. She caught another and then mounted it. “This’ll be faster than walking. And if we stop to fight every time he throws something at us we’ll never make it in time.”

“Most Holy Grevade put us on this moon to fight.”

“He never said that we had to kill everything in our path. All we had to do was make it around the moon in a day. It is up to us to figure out how. And we’d better do it before he figures out how skilled we are and gives us a real challenge.”

Janks opened his mouth and raised and admonishing finger, but he couldn’t think of a way to refute her argument. Janks pulled himself up into the saddle and grabbed the reins only to drop them a second later when he realized that they were a part of the mount’s body. Instead of being covered in skin and horse hair, its body had a chitinous shell.

Janks and Attie rode across the plain of flesh, leaving a trail of bloody scabs behind them, until they came to a beach with an ocean to their right. Tentacles stretched out of the murky water so they veered further away from the waves. The beach soon became a desert, where Janks and his mount were almost lost to a rapidly developing sinkhole with a nest of snakes at the bottom. The sun rode high above their heads, the heat beating down on them. They found relief from the heat when they passed into a stinking swamp.

Attie’s mount blundered onto one of the ochre puff balls floating on the water, releasing a cloud of spores. Attie coughed and then teetered and almost fell into the bog. Janks caught her and draped her unconscious form across his pommel. He grabbed her reins and rode out of the swamp. Later, on a grassy hummock, he laid her out and washed her face, taking special care to wipe the stippled rime of dried spores from around her nostrils and lips. Her face relaxed while she slept, losing all of its hard lines and hostility. Janks could finally see the woman under the warrior. Her breathing grew shallow and Janks put his ear to her mouth. With each breath there was a sickening wet wheeze. Janks wondered how far into her body the spores had gone. He placed the spout of his water skin in her nose and the spout of Attie’s in her mouth and squeezed.

Attie’s eyes flew open and she vomited water onto the ground, through both her nose and mouth. She went on choking and coughing until a gobbet of crawling mucous slithered into the grass.

Janks slapped her on the back. “Get it all out.”

Attie woke up and pushed his hand away. “What the hell are you doing? I was sleeping.” Her eyes were glazed with confusion.

Before he could explain something nudged his leg. A cluster of puff balls was growing in the grass where Attie had vomited.

“You should’ve let me choke then you wouldn’t have had to worry about me marrying your son.”

“What a terrible thing to say. How can you think-”

“I was only joking,” Attie said with a feeble smile. “Thanks for saving me.”

Janks looked up to see that the sun had passed them. “We’d better get moving.” He grabbed Attie by the collar, hauled her to her feet and boosted her up into her saddle. He took both his reins and hers and continued on. After a few minutes of riding her head cleared and she was able to take her reins back.

The grass gave way to a graveled slope. Janks’s mount bucked under him and he fought to get it under control. He looked over at Attie. Her mount was stepping gingerly in the gravel. Janks wondered if their clawed feet were only good on soft surfaces. The gravel thinned until they rode onto solid rock at the edge of a cliff. Janks’s mount bucked and backed away. Janks managed to slide off of his mount before it gave one final kick and ran back in the direction they’d come from. Attie slid down to the ground as her mount followed suit.

“Thanks for saving me,” Attie said, touching his arm.

Janks blushed. He hadn’t been touched by a woman in years. “I haven’t seen a woman puke like that since my wedding night.”

“Was it your face, or did she have too much to drink?”

“A bit of both.”

“What was she like?”

Janks stepped to the edge of the cliff. Below was a field of stone monoliths. “She had the softest eyes I’ll ever see, and a voice to match.”

“Just like Chester.”

“Yes,” Janks agreed. Then he pulled out his rifle. He sighted along the barrel. He’d always thought that he could see farther that way. “I see the line of fire.”

“Just past the stones there?”

“Yes. We’d better get moving. Dusk is coming.”

The sun dipped and turned orange. The race was on.

Janks and Attie leapt from ridge to ridge down the slope. It wasn’t a safe way to descend, but time was of the essence. When he made his final jump to the floor of the canyon Janks screamed with pain.

“My ankle,” he said, sitting on the ground

Attie ran to his side and hauled him to his feet. “We don’t have time for this. Can you put any weight on it?”

Janks lowered his foot and leaned. He sucked his breath in through his teeth, but kept his foot down. “Let’s go.”

“Follow me,” Attie said.

Janks didn’t argue. He limped along behind her.

They wove their way through the maze of monoliths. They were gray, streaked with brown, and riddled with finger-sized holes and stood three times as tall as a man.

Attie had her pistols out, going around every curve guns first. Janks watched the tops along the sight of his rifle.

The shadows grew long and the light deepened to red. Several of the holes went clean through the monoliths. Crimson spots of light dappled the ground.

Attie stopped short and Janks ran into her.

“Watch it,” he said.

“Quiet!” Attie craned her head, and whispered, “You hear that?”

“It’s just the wind whistling through the rocks.” Janks leaned against a monolith and rested his injured ankle.

“No, it sounds wet. Stay here a moment.”

Attie went around a rock. A worm the size of one of Grevade’s fingers raised its head, sucked in a breath, and let loose a wriggling stream of black at her. Attie dodged back behind the monolith. Glistening black grubs spattered against the far side of the monolith. The rock vibrated behind them.

Janks watched as the grubs ate into the rock. “Move, they’re digging through.”

As they ran for cover behind another stone, they heard another slow intake of breath. The worm disgorged another spray of grubs behind them.

Attie covered her nose. “That thing smells worse than Chester’s feet. I didn’t think it was possible.”

Janks leaned out to the left and fired a few rounds into the worm. “Circle right! And don’t fire till we flank it.”

Attie ran, but panicked when she realized that she’d left Janks behind. She looked back. When he limped into view he waved at her to keep moving, but she waited for him anyway. Janks and Attie sidled around the monoliths until they saw the segmented side of the worm. Its head was off to their left, scanning back and forth, trying to find them.

Janks leaned in close and whispered. “Let’s unload everything we can into it. Maybe we’ll hit something vital.”

Attie nodded. She pointed her pistols and waited for his signal. Janks nodded and they shot until all of their guns were empty. The worm gave a gurgling roar. Attie pulled out her hatchets and Janks his cutlass. They charged in, tracking through the worm’s blood, until they reached they spot they’d softened with their bullets. Janks brought his cutlass in over his head and sliced through the worm’s skin. Attie hacked away like she was chopping firewood out of a gargantuan fallen tree. Janks lined his cutlass up and deepened his first cut, revealing the pulsating insides of the creature.

“Look out,” Attie screamed. She’d looked up and seen the worm’s head folding backwards over its body. When it sucked in a breath the loose organs revealed by Janks’s cut bobbled.

The worm spewed a torrent of grubs at them. Attie turned and rolled safely into cover, but Janks’s ankle slowed him down. His hand got caught in the edge of the stream. His cutlass disintegrated and the grubs ate their way up past his wrist. He screamed until his throat went raw. Attie dragged him to cover, dropped him to the ground, raised her hatchet above her head, and chopped his arm off at the shoulder.

Attie kicked the worm ridden chunk of his arm away. She ripped Janks’s remaining sleeve off and tied it tight around the stump.

Janks slapped Attie. Her cheek burned.

“I deserved that. Stay here!” Attie said.

Attie ran around the monolith, her arm cocked. When the worm roared she threw a hatchet into its gaping maw. The worm lowered its head and shook it, trying to dislodge the hatchet from its throat. Attie ran to the cut Janks had made, gripped the sides and pulled the cut open. She dug in with her axe and chopped until the worm stopped moving.

Covered in stinking offal, Attie emerged. She scraped the ooze from her eyes. When she was able to see clearly she panicked. The sun had almost disappeared below the horizon.

Janks was struggling to stand. His face was pale and he shook from the effort. Attie ran up to him, took his arm, and levered him up onto her back. Janks moaned.

“You stink,” Janks said. “Don’t forget my rifle.”

“I’m too tired.”

“Get my rifle now girl! Or I’ll make sure you drop me and then you’ll have to tell Chester that you left me behind.”

Attie bent down, with Janks still on her back, and grabbed his rifle. She ran through the monoliths, hoping each time she came around one of them it would be the last.

Janks could hardly breathe with his chest resting against Attie’s shoulders. He felt his ribs flex with her every step. His stump blazed with pain and trickled blood down her arm.

Attie stumbled up out of the valley of the monoliths and saw the hill where Grevade had left them. Janks started to slip off of her back.

“Hold on!” Attie screamed.

“With what? You chopped my arm off.”

“I left you one. Use it.”

Janks gripped Attie around the neck.

She crawled on all fours up the hill. Her lungs burned and her whole body shook. She crawled with all she had, not for the people of Antone, but for Chester. When she got to the top, there was still a sliver of red sun above the horizon. She gave one final surge, crossing the line of fire. Then she fainted, oblivious to Janks’s crushing weight on her back.

#

Attie rose from her pallet and walked across the room to Chester’s bed. His sores were nearly gone and he didn’t stink anymore, other than his feet.

Chester stirred and opened his eyes. His voice came out in a croak. “When will you come and sleep next to me?”

“As soon as the sores are gone. You want something to drink?”

“Wine?”

“If you want wine you’ll have to get it yourself.”

“Water.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Before she got to the door Chester was snoring.

He had smelly feet and he snored. But he was gentle, and treated Attie like a woman, not a mercenary. She stepped into the hallway and closed the door silently behind her.

“Attie?” Janks called from his room. He’d spent lots of time in bed lately. He wondered if there was still a grub inside him, eating away at him until he was hollow.

Attie came in.

“Sit down, please,” Janks said.

Attie sat on the edge of the bed. She knew what was coming. Now that Chester was getting better, nobody needed to take care of him. Janks was going to ask her to leave. She didn’t know if she should fight it or not. Janks hadn’t been the same since she’d taken his arm.

“I’m sorry that I slapped you,” Janks said.

“You owed me one.” Attie mimed a punch at his stomach. “I’m sorry too.”

Janks leaned down to the floor and came up with his rifle. Attie gasped. It was her fault that he couldn’t shoot it anymore.

“I want you to have this,” Janks said, holding out the rifle. “My father passed it to me. Keep the tradition alive by passing it to the first child you bear to Chester.”

Attie wrapped her arms around Janks, rifle and all, and squeezed.

“Welcome to the family,” Janks said.

The End