Grunt, Chapter 83: Two Virgins Become Four

MILO GRAZIE

It took longer than usual to locate a suitable, hidden campsite for what was left of the day, mostly because I wasn’t about to leave the road in front of witnesses. Too many freight wagons, too many travelers on horseback, mule back, a couple on donkey back, or on foot. Great River was a huge barrier for many of these, even many of the freighters, but the level of traffic between Gatorville and the flood seemed to be triple that of the eastern section.

Swako said nothing as he rode with me, side by side when traffic levels permitted, single file when necessary. His eyes were alert, though, his head on a swivel like my own. I was not comfortable traveling during daylight, never mind the leaden gray overcast that had been hovering above us since midmorning. It looked and smelled like a storm was on its way. Probably nothing to worry about, I thought, as the killer weather almost always stayed offshore, riling up hundred-foot waves that would bury any hopeful mariner foolish enough to stray beyond sight of land.

Probably nothing to worry about.

Even so, the dwarf seemed to share my unease. Neither of us cared much for the obvious stares we received from more than half of the people we passed. He’d donned his shirt, but too many wary wayfarers took note of his stubby legs with boots tucked into specially shortened stirrups. I’d gotten rid of my black eye patch–with pinholes in the leather, so I’d not been nearly as blind on that side as the ferry rats assumed. A canvas hat protected and disguised my newly shorn scalp. The sleeveless shirt had been swapped out for a normal, long sleeved version, the sword strapped across my bedroll, and the shotgun stuffed into Swako’s saddle scabbard rather than my own. All of that helped yet could not disguise the size, breeding, and spirit of Big Black. My companion’s mount got almost as many stares, mostly due to the horse’s extremely ugly face.

We had no idea how the chocolate brown animal had lost the tips of his ears. Subzero weather in some northern clime when he was a foal? Trying to fight a stud? Stallions were noted for going after geldings, though Black didn’t seem disturbed by Handsome’s presence.

That’s what Swako called the homely animal. Handsome.

Handsome’s long lower jaw looked just plain downright weird. And aggressive, like a man whose chin juts forward. His tail was unusually short and brushy.

Nonetheless, the jugheaded beast showed no sign of tiring as we went. By early afternoon, sneaking quick looks at him, trying to figure it out, I realized Swako had known what he was doing when he bought this particular gelding. No winner of beauty contests, this critter, but despite being acquired in these southern lowlands, he was mountain tough and, I began to suspect, a lot faster than he looked.

“Did you mouth him?” I asked casually as we pulled to a stop along the road’s edge, letting a train of particularly wide wagons pass.

“Yeah. He’s young. Four, maybe five at most. Long way from smooth mouth.”

So.

Shortly after noon–at a guess, as the sun was hidden–I turned off and pulled to a halt on a sandy strip running alongside the road. Swako watched me watch the sky. We were passing through a miles-long low stretch of boggy bottom land that would likely flood the road if the skies opened up. Overhead, lightning flashed among the clouds, not yet pulling strikes from the ground to fry human or horse but threatening, with thunder-rumbles still fairly distant but drawing closer. Half a mile away, the Ocean of Sturms crashed and rolled as usual. All of that was worrisome enough, and yet….

“Milo!”

My head whipped around. Swako was a petrified statue, sitting motionless atop Handsome, one long arm pointing stiffly toward the sea. I turned back, puzzled…and froze. It was not obvious from this distance, especially with so much low vegetation between here and there. Other than the two of us, none of the road traffic seemed to notice at all. But….

I fished in a saddle bag, brought out my compact telescope, and took a look.

My worst fears were confirmed. The ocean had receded; there was no water to be seen anywhere, save for a distant line on the horizon. It was then, in that moment, that I realized just how fast my mind could process details in a crisis.

“There,” I pointed, ahead and off to the right, well away from the road, a good quarter mile cross-country. “High ground.”

“Tsunami!” We yelled it as one, a dual bellow that startled the nearest wagon team as it passed. “Get to high ground!”

The teamsters and guards just looked at us. Crazy man and mutant dwarf on huge black horse and ugly brown horse make no sense. Must ignore, keep trekking, hours yet till sunset.

Swako gave me an agonized look. I shook my head. “There’s no time!” Big Black leaped forward, away from the roadway, as I dug in my heels. For now, nothing mattered but reaching the tall, rocky outcrop that looked to be at least five or six hundred feet above sea level. The dwarf followed, cursing nonstop, agonizing at the sure loss of so many Souls who would not listen to our brief warning. I wasted no time on regrets. Not now. Those would come later, hot, hard, and heavy.

If we survived. There was no guarantee. How long had the ocean been out like that? How soon would the giant tidal wave return? How big had the earthquake been that caused such a thing? Had to be a monster. The sea had retreated for miles.

Boggy muddy swamp, as deep as Black’s knees, almost enough to stop us, thank Yahweh we hadn’t hit any quicksand. Yet. Slowly, ever so slowly, the land began to rise, bringing more problems with it. Different vegetation, thorny brush of who knew what species, tearing at our hides. Trees with low branches that plotted to tear us from our saddles. A hanging creeper that turned out to be some sort of python, understood barely in time for a blast from Swako’s shotgun to remove the giant reptile’s head after clearing my own by inches if that. Whether the snake had drawn its head back to strike or to retreat, who knew? Or cared?

More elevation. More forest than jungle now, better going, wider spacing between trees as we darted ever upward, the breathing of both horses laborious, their hides lathered.

We pulled up at the base of the rocks that had drawn us. It seemed safe up here, but was it? Leaping from the saddle, I told Black, “Stay!” Climbing, scrambling up the rocks to the very top of a tall spire, panting like it was me who’d made that run, I scoped the ocean bed, scoped the road below.

The tide was returning, had nearly reached the original shoreline. Travelers, at first a few and then a flood in their own right, had finally understood the danger and were fleeing, most of them in our general direction.

Too late. Tucked in behind a rock-upthrust wall that kept him from seeing the worst of it, Swako stayed with the horses. I wished I had. How fast the tsunami was moving, I had no idea…except that it moved with a crushing speed far greater than panicked humans or even panicked horses could ever match. Horses are telepathic creatures; they respond surely to the emotions of their masters.

The freight teams, abandoned by their people but unable to pull loaded freight wagons through the low-lying swampy sections, died first, buried under a wall of water that towered over and then crushed them, a miles-wide destroyer of hopes, dreams, and life.

Pedestrians went next, outdistanced by fleeing riders in front and caught by Neptune from behind.

A few skilled riders made it through the swamp and partway into the more spacious forest, but none–not one–reached our perch. Trees that had stood for hundreds of years were mowed down as easily as fragile homo sapiens.

Throughout, we heard no screams, only the tsunami itself, which roared until finally spending the last of its energy, breaking down to mere lapping waves that reached briefly, we estimated, to three hundred and fifty feet above sea level.

The skies chose that moment to open up, drenching us within seconds. Lightning struck the spire next to my perch and I scrambled down hastily, abandoning the highest of the high ground. Swako and I stared at each other, wordless. If the hollow ache in my gut matched his, we were both suffering, our bodies shaking along with our trembling horses.

In the end, he found his voice first. “I always wanted to see the ocean. This was my first glimpse of it, where the Gatorville road runs closest to the shoreline.” His Adam’s apple worked, swallowing back bile. “The Fall must have been like this.” His face was as gray as the clouds overhead. If I looked as sick as he did….

I nodded, knowing what he meant. Rare survivors watching everyone around them die while they had to keep on keeping on. A miniature version, a wee glimpse of the Fall of humanity. Every man or woman currently fifty years of age or more…they’d all witnessed this, and far worse. My respect for those who’d come through strong enough to rebuild, like Moss Feldman…respect, hell. From this day forward, I knew I would be in awe of him. Of Feldman and those few others like him.

“We’re going to have to camp here, at least until tomorrow morning.”

“Yes.” Neither of us had the slightest interest in leaving these rocks until the storm had passed. Plus, for once, I would welcome daylight. There would be wilted, tangled corpses of men, women, children, and animals strewn about, hung up among tree roots if they hadn’t been carried back out to sea, some partially buried in mud, hands upflung in terror and supplication. Even with my beyond-human night vision, that was not a mess I cared to try navigating in the dark.

“Overhang over there,” Swako pointed. “Maybe get out of the rain.”

It did get us out of the rain. Not the horses; there wasn’t enough headroom for that. But horses had been surviving storms for eons. They were starting to settle down, their trembling lessening as their humans regained emotional control. Unless lightning decided to take one out, they’d be fine.

No more surprises this day, I thought. Please. My petition went unheard.

We unsaddled and shifted our gear, setting up camp under the overhang. “At ease,” I told Black. With that command, he knew I wasn’t asking him to hide. Graze freely if you can, downpour and all. Who was there left to hide from anyway? Neither my friend nor I looked downslope toward the ocean, settling for scrabbling around a bit, seeking semi-dry sticks for firewood somewhat protected under fallen logs or particularly dense overhead foliage. No cold camp tonight. Who was there to spot firelight? For all we knew, the tsunami had clobbered the lowlands all the way back to Great River and beyond. The settlement was a lot farther away from the coastline than our present position, but how much elevation did it have? At the very least, I was betting the river would have risen dramatically, long enough to flood the town at least a little bit.

Ahead…chances were we wouldn’t even be able to locate a road at all. Not for miles. This low area extended as far as we’d been able to see before everything went sideways.

We were grilling steaks from a swamp deer lucky enough to escape the tsunami but unlucky enough to be spotted by a hungry dwarf when Swako suddenly hissed, “Milo.”

I glanced across the flames at him, momentarily distracted from my cooking duties. He was staring past me toward the lower, darker part of the overhang. A part we’d foolishly not explored before setting up camp. Carefully, slowly, I turned my head.

Two pairs of eyes reflected firelight back at me, one set of orbs higher than the other. For a long moment, I couldn’t put it together, couldn’t imagine what sort of beasts these might be. Something told me, however, not to reach for a weapon, not to make any move that might be interpreted as aggression.

Despite my infrared-enhanced vision, the dwarf figured it out first. “There’s plenty,” he said softly, gently, a friendly no-threat tone I’d not heard from him before. “We won’t bite.”

“You do, I’ll cut your teeth out.” Vicious words. Little girl voice. The mysterious beasts moved forward, resolving into a pair of female children, moccasin-footed, wearing dirty but serviceable dresses of some sturdy, earth-tone cloth. The larger girl looked to be, what? Nine years old, possibly ten. No more than that. Her…sister? They looked like sisters. Long dirty-blonde hair, China blue eyes, alert, wary, yet not afraid. Not as such.

The older child, the speaker, carried a wicked looking kitchen knife in her right hand and a long, forked stick in her left. The younger, no more than six or seven years of age, was also armed, two handing a rusty camp axe, handling it as surely as a logger wielded a full sized falling axe. Both of them slender, but no more so than normal for prepubescent girls in this day and age. They did not look starved.

What on Earth?

Then again, we had to look pretty strange to them, too, a bald headed man and a stumpy-legged dwarf, both of us hung about with weapons.

“These are them,” the younger girl piped up. “Gwinnie, these are them.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m always sure!” A bit of asperity there.

“All right, then.” With that, both girls walked forward without concern, the rock overhang well above their heads. Gwinnie looked Swako in the eye, ignoring me. “Gramps was never wrong. Pet got his talent. So I guess you’re stuck with us.”

Say what?

Swako was chuckling, a friendly, rumbling sound. “Have you eaten?”

“This morning.” Gwinnie shrugged, a somehow feminine gesture despite her youth.

“Rattlesnake,” little Pet announced, proud as a peacock. “Gwinnie held its head down with the stick and I whacked it.” With the camp axe, no doubt. These wee ones killed and ate venomous reptiles as a matter of course? Who were these…these….

My square-faced companion seemed to find my discomfiture endlessly amusing.

Rattler feast for breakfast or no, the girls were ready for supper. Gwinnie announced their preference for liver, taking over the skillet when I was done with it and frying up a batch like she owned it, as efficient as any adult. I sat back, bemused, uncomfortably aware that I had, within the space of a single day, gone from sneaky lone ghost courier to a man with a whole mess of responsibilities. At least, if these little manipulators had their way. Unless I simply slipped away in the deepest part of the night, leaving Swako to figure out how he was going to deal with two tiny, feisty, dangerous girl children.

And I couldn’t do that, now could I? I could see my mother’s disapproving frown, hear her voice in my head. Even I never told her, even I never saw her again, the woman who’d brought me into this world would haunt me to my grave. Mumbling silently inside my own head, I listened with half an ear to the girls’ story, told as it was to Swako the dwarf. Gwinnie and Pet knew full well who was the softer touch here; they continued to ignore me.

But I could not ignore them.

Bottom line, they’d been born into a hillbilly clan back in the hills, who knew how many miles from the sea. Daddy was a Bliss, lazy at times but a man of wide and varied skills nonetheless, and loving toward his daughters. Mommy had been twelve years old when Gwinnie was born, five years her husband’s junior, yet she grew to be the family’s power driver, the force that got Daddy out of the house and doing stuff. By the time little Pet was walking, Mommy accomplished this by physically “beating the crap out of the lazy good-for-nothing.”

Billy Bliss was an accomplished hunter and trapper, one of the best in the hills, and nearly a legend for his corn whiskey. He was not, unfortunately, tuned to his wife’s needs or moods. One fine sunny afternoon when he came stumbling back to the shack after sampling his latest batch, Darla Bliss lost it. The rabbit punch that hit her husband below and behind his right ear shouldn’t have killed him, but it did. Mrs. Bliss went crazy, loaded their ancient single shot shotgun, and followed him into the hereafter.

Leaving Gwinnie, the new head of household, to clean up the mess with her sister’s help.

Gramps found them two days later, hiking down the mountain to collect his great grandson for their annual birthday hunting trip. Instead of stalking deer, he ended up burying the last male Bliss on top of the woman who’d killed him. Then he’d explained to the girls that life in the hills was no longer safe for them. They knew a lot about surviving already, but without adult male protection, they were vulnerable to all the horny predators living within a twenty mile radius, and there were plenty of those.

The three of them, two kids and one toothless octogenarian, headed toward the ocean. They lived off the land, easily and well. Only after they’d reached this overhang did they realize their beloved great grandfather was not well at all. Arthritis, several old knife and bullet wounds, failing eyesight, and an arrhythmic heart all combined to tell him his time was near.

“But I got the Sight,” he told Gwinnie and Pet. “Ain’t been a Bliss since me ever showed it, but I sure ’nuff got it. This is the place. I’m gonna lie right down here and die, sweethearts. You might have to wait a few days, but there’ll be two men a-comin’ who will take care of y’all. One rides a big black horse, a critter like none you’ve ever seen. ‘Tother’s a freak, big man up top, short little tree stump legs down below. They’ll take good care of ya.”

With that, the old man had closed his eyes, never to open them again.

“We drug him down there, by that thicket,” Gwinnie pointed into the gathering darkness, “and buried him. Shallow, but we carried rocks. Made a cairn so’s the varmints couldn’t get him. And then we waited.”

They had waited. For us. For five days. For two men who would never have left the road in this area, except for the tsunami that killed maybe a hundred people and as many horses while driving us up here in absolute panic.

My world tilted, thinking about it. It made no sense. The world didn’t work like that.

Swako remained unperturbed, delighting the girls with gifts of dried peaches for dessert. How could he remain so calm? Did he know something I didn’t? I surely didn’t have a clue about how to care for little kids. Although these two seemed mighty self reliant; they weren’t exactly normal children. Then it hit me. Their Gramps had laid a sacred trust on me whether I liked it or not. Without even meeting me or Swako, he’d done that. The girls had acted in complete, unshakeable faith. The dwarf had accepted them instantly. I was the outlier, the only clinker in the bunch. It boggled my mind so much, I almost forgot about the horrors we would have to face on the morrow, threading out way through downed trees and drowned bodies.

Well, foo. It looked like we’d just gone from a party of two virgins to a party of four virgins. At this rate, we’d be able to set up an entire convent by the time we reached the Northwest Territory.