Catalina, Temoc and the three other first shift warriors awoke as the late morning’s muggy heat crept into the empty stone barn. Ranchers and horses had long gone to pasture, and the second shift’s guards dozed, saving their strength for the afternoon’s dueling. Temoc found that his pony’s gear was gone. The beast had already been sent home, and Temoc breathed a silent prayer after him for safe arrival. Cold yam patties had been saved for the late risers, and Temoc ate them in slow distaste. They weren’t nearly as good as when they were hot.
Catalina seemed to be in a hurry; she would have to catch up to the ranchers and their herd.
“Sell Lily yet?” Temoc ventured.
Catalina shook her head. “Still waiting, but won’t for much longer. Where you gonna go now?”
“Somewhere with you, I hope.” He turned to look at her. “Like it here?”
Catalina chuckled. “It’s nice on the farm. Peaceful.”
Temoc watched her walk out into the fields as he finished his last cold patty. He had meant how did she like Verde’s territory, not the farm itself. If she wanted to settle as a rancher, would he be able to live that life? He wasn’t sure. Animals tied a person down, and he usually became restless after a year or two in the same place. The swing in her step made her movements pleasant to watch. His eyes followed her as she grew smaller and smaller across the field. How different she was from the soft Maiara. Willful, fiery and hardened to life as he was. If he tried to stay with her, would he be able to keep her content? Suddenly he found that thinking of her as a potential lover was a little frightening; her anger could be intense, and she had put him on the ground more than once in the course of many evenings’ duels.
Catalina could see the horses a long ways off in their field, and one of the younger dogs came out to greet her when she got near enough. She patted his red-roan head, thankful for the ability to walk through the field alone to catch up to the rest, content animals munching grass. Though she was watchful, it was a relaxed kind of watching. She didn’t have to hold on to the lead of a beast, or keep her eyes straining on the nearest bush or treetop. It was a thoughtful kind of guarding, listening for signals from the dogs while she gazed at the pale colt that had been born in the wee hours before dawn. He followed his mother on long, wobbly legs, tried to frolic but wasn’t steady enough yet. Catalina smiled, remembering Temoc’s sarcastic remark about starting a horse ranch, when she had agreed to take the mares to safety. Now, he seemed to be urging her to stay. Herding was a familiar way of life to her, and she hoped he hadn’t meant for her to go back to his family’s house.
The day passed, and they sheltered from an afternoon rain shower in a knot of trees. After the thunder subsided and the rain slacked off, dogs roused to nose around the area. A deer jumped from the underbrush, but when the dogs didn’t pursue, listening to the commands of their masters, the graceful animal stood in the field, staring back at them.
“Feel like eating venison tonight?” asked Anita, sitting near Catalina.
Catalina looked at her. “You don’t have anything to shoot it with,” she observed.
The rancher looked dumbfounded. “Says the woman with a quiver full of arrows.”
“These are dragon arrows. They’re not for food.”
“Why not?” Anita wanted to know.
“Because I shoot monsters made of poison with them,” Catalina said. The deer flicked it’s tail, and the dogs wandered nosily closer. It bounded away, fluffy white tail raised behind it.
Anita was still staring. “You don’t wash them?”
“Of course we wash them. We have to touch them again.” Catalina thought a moment. Once an arrow had hit a devourer, it was never used for food again. The poison washed away in water. But even still, she’d heard of people getting sick from garden produce that’d been pawed by the beasts in pursuit of gardeners. No one wanted to risk it. “Anyway,” she added darkly, “these arrows are too heavy to fly fast and far, after something running away. Devourers always come towards you.”
Anita grunted. “Guess it doesn’t matter anyway. Missed our chance.”
By the time the herd, with it’s dogs and people, returned to the long barn atop the rise, most of the guards’ dueling was done, and most of the meal’s wood had been gathered. Temoc was sore and tired from the vigor with which he’d fought, and he resigned himself to tending dinner’s fire and watching as Catalina convinced the other guards of first shift into dueling with her, and beat them.
Temoc caught her scent when she sat down in the circle near him. It wasn’t the smell of a body that’d been trapped in thick, hot leather all day, the kind of sweat that everyone felt the need to wash away immediately. It was the clean, healthy sweat of a long day in the open sunshine, and he found it hard to ignore the primal draw she exerted on his senses.
The first night’s shift changed into their armor as the second shift bedded down early, a bamboo curtain between the men’s and women’s quarters in the loft of the long barn. As Catalina came up the ladder, Temoc pulled her around a pile of hay into a corner. She gasped, startled, then softened into his strong arms. She wanted to give in to him, return his warmth. She leaned into his kiss, but when he let her go, she held his head away, looking longingly into his brown eyes.
“I’m sorry, but you still can’t have me yet,” she whispered.
Temoc grunted in frustration. “Why not, this time?”
“Wrong time of the month. It’s too soon for a baby.” Catalina leaned close again as he sighed, disappointed. “It’ll be good for us to wait, anyway,” she added. “I don’t want you fucking me and thinking of her.”
“Jealousy spreading, is it?” Temoc asked darkly.
Catalina laughed a little. “Just common sense, I’d think. I want you to be ready for me, when you actually get me.”
She softened in his arms and he nuzzled her neck, breathing in her scent, soon to be spoiled again in armor. “When?”
“When I say so,” Catalina whispered, tenderly teasing. This time, she let herself linger in his grip until he let her go.
In the first night’s shift Temoc was a third watcher, with Catalina and a wide framed warrior, Mateo. He tended their fire, currently only a little pile of coals in a deepening, dark-moon’s night. Clouds were rolling in, and they only had the faint starlight half the time. Dogs wandered between the little camps at opposite corners of the barn, sleeping in turns. Catalina’s night vision was good, but tonight the darkness was thick. So she listened. The night was full of noisy insects and frogs. Eventually, nature called, and she nudged Temoc gently before walking into the darkness down the long wall of the barn to void her bladder. Somewhere around a corner, she heard a dog give a plaintive, fearful whine. The hairs on the back of her neck rose. She stood up, redressing hurriedly as her heart began to pound. Something was out there. She drew her bow, pointing an arrow into the darkness, her breath held. Then she saw it, the cold white glint of an eye, staring down her aim in the darkness. A deer’s shone bluish, the leopard’s a fiery-orange, and dogs’ were often green. There was only one creature who’s eyes’ light was completely colorless, even in warm firelight.
Catalina froze in fear a moment. This devourer’s icy stare had that same glint of malevolent intelligence that they’d seen among the throng at the Headwaters. It snarled, and she let her arrow fly with a short yell. She barely had time to draw a second arrow and shoot another that rushed her.
Temoc leapt to his feet and ran into the darkness, the third guard following with lantern. In the dimly bouncing light, he could see another, huge slinker circling around behind Catalina, closing in for the kill. From behind it was all long, boney spines and scraggly wings, a black mass glimmering sharply in the dark.
“Hey!” Temoc yelled. The great beast turned on him, drool dripping from the rows of bared teeth in it’s long snout as it snarled. He saw the shadow of Catalina diving away safely, and loosed his arrow into the snapping maw. The arrow buried itself in the devourer’s throat, and it gurgled a guttural note of painful surprise. His shot was not as sure as it had been. He too dived away as it pawed at itself and thrashed, letting out weak flames and puffing blackening steam as it died slowly.
When all was quiet, Catalina sat up and looked around. She was at the base of the hillet. She’d rolled from the danger of the dying ones, but also away from her comrades. Their little lantern was still; it had been set on the ground. She could hear footsteps coming her direction, but her ears strained beyond, into the clouded night. As she picked herself up, she heard the soft slither-and-click of long spines as a devourer leapt. She drew her sword and wheeled around moments before the straggler barreled into her. It hit at full force, pinning her to the ground with savage claws. She felt the sharp, stinging burn of it’s armor-penetrating grip. Smelled the foulness of it’s hot breath. It’s long jaws snapped and tore at the thick scaled armor across her belly. Her scream rang out as she jabbed in the dark. When her sword found the monster’s head, it’s grip flexed tighter, then loosened. Then it lost control, falling to flail on the ground beside her just as the others came rushing to the scene.
Catalina rolled and struggled away as Mateo pulled her. She stumbled to her feet, wiping the devourer’s blood from her face and spitting. Others were arriving from around the corner, and one carried a lantern down. Their eyes widened to see her stand. Anyone else pinned by a devourer even half that size would’ve been fatally wounded.
“Are you hurt?” Temoc’s soft question was urgent. She nodded, and there was fumbling among them for the drawing herbs’ paste. Catalina smeared it onto several places with shaking hands as the others stared into the darkness, though they could hardly hear anything above their own panting breaths.
Temoc and Mateo helped Catalina back up the tiny hill. “I don’t think it’s very bad,” she said, though her voice was shaking. They tended her in the light of lantern and fire. Her Blackleather armor was badly scratched and torn, but had held it’s own remarkably well. She had only two shallow claw-punctures on either side and a raking bite. It was agreed she would be alright. Temoc moved her bedroll from the loft into an empty stall, and his beside so that he could watch over her.
Though Catalina slept soundly enough, come morning she awoke miserable; the poison’s haze and dizziness strong. Temoc rubbed sleep from his eyes and dressed the creeping wounds on the sides of her torso, studying with concern. “I’m no healer, but these don’t seem as bad as you look,” he said, putting his cheek to hers to check for fever.
Catalina grunted weakly. “I feel terrible anyway,” she managed. “I didn’t swallow any of it’s blood. Maybe bigger and healthier means stronger poison?”
Felipe shook his head. “Everyone who guards here says they’re bigger, but you’re the first one who’s been hurt that ever said their poison was stronger.”
“Should we send for a healer?” one of the second-shift warrioresses asked. These first-shifters were awake much earlier than usual, and would probably go back to sleep if Catalina’s wounds allowed.
Catalina and Temoc looked at one another, then Catalina spoke. “Depends. You have any red juice?” They found her some, and when she sipped, she could feel the red elder’s strength shore her up.
“Do you think maybe it’s because you haven’t been touched by their poison since you got your blackleather?” Temoc ventured.
Catalina looked to her armor, it’s coat badly in need of repair, though most of the slashes weren’t clear through. “Maybe,” she conceded. Bodies did get used to poison. When she focused on Temoc through her toxic haze, her gaze was fearful. “It was thinking, Temoc. The leader. It had that same look we saw before, at the Headwaters.”
Temoc stared at his feet, her ominous tone sinking his heart. Bloodthirsty firebreathers were bad, but their downfall was they were maddened to stupidity. If they were beginning to be able to think, it could get worse. Much worse. They’d grow up, into a cloud of black wings. That could think. They looked at each other, fear reflecting in their eyes, then fell silent for a long time. Eventually, Catalina began to nod off.
The stablehands were bringing out a few horses now, with some discussion as to which. Not all the horses would get near even a dead devourer. The one who’d just foaled was not ready to do any work, so they took the Overland mare, Greta, instead. Temoc followed them out into the early morning. The world was wet. Mist rose from the distant green jungle like smoke, and hung across the pasturelands of the ranch. Around the corner lay a mass of shining blackness: The bodies of the four devourers they’d slain in the night. Temoc caught his breath as he stared at them. They had to be twice as big as what he was used to seeing come at that time of night. It took horses to drag them away, not just some strong people. Their spines and horns were longer, a wicked curve evident in their horns even though they were young. They weren’t the half-starved beasts that plagued the coast towns; their skins were sleeker, their bones stronger and their muscles well developed. In last night’s dark they had looked just like any other set of snapping jaws, and he had faced them accordingly. That had surely been a blessing, for now that he actually saw how much bigger and healthier they were, a growing fear crept down his spine.
Temoc settled back down beside Catalina to try to get a little more sleep as the day’s activity started. Breakfast was short, then horses left for pasture, guards went out to gather wood and haul water.
Catalina woke slow, staring blankly for a long time. “Did you mean it?” She said finally. “For us to stay on the ranch together?”
“I don’t know if I’d make much of a rancher, but we could find someplace, I’m sure.” Temoc saw her blank look become a warning stare, and added with haste, “I wouldn’t try to live in my mother’s house with you.”
“Whatever we do, we can’t get soft,” Catalina said with conviction, and a touch of fear. Being pinned at the mercy of a devourer had shaken her badly. She still couldn’t believe she hadn’t died last night. “Or they’ll eat us for sure when they do come, Blackleather or no.” She stared at him again, stared past him eerily. “Sure would have been nice to have a dragon nearby to warn us.” Temoc nodded in the long silence. After a great while, Catalina spoke again, still staring far past Temoc. “How does Comet do it? Shoot three arrows so fast. If I could have done that, I would have had them all down before the third got behind me. Then the straggler wouldn’t have pinned me.” She set her jaw. “Guess it’s no use wishing, though, what someone man-and-a-half can do.”
Temoc peered at her, worried. She was still staring past him, beginning to ramble now. He felt her forehead again, still no fever. Imagery from their Overland journey flitted through his mind. Yes, Comet had a heart and a half and it gave him an advantage, but what Catalina wished for was a technique, not a gift of chance.
“Maybe we can learn,” Temoc mused. Her focus shifted onto him, questioning. “I’ve spent nearly the hole journey with Comet at my back, and I’ve seen him do it plenty of times,” Temoc told her.
Catalina wrinkled her brow. “I’ve fought with him lots, but in the dark. And he usually saves the third one for the blade.”
“Bet he doesn’t do that when he’s out alone,” Temoc said darkly. “Still, if I’m going to try to figure it out, I’ll need a lighter bow than my own. . .”
Catalina sighed, and shifted her focus past Temoc again. “Fine, take mine. . . but be gentle with her?” Temoc turned around to find her distant gaze had been on her archer’s gear all along. He made his way to it, strung her bow and drew it in experiment, arrow-less. He shook his head, amazed at Catalina’s strength. “Not much easier than mine,” he noted solemnly.
Temoc was on the far side of the barn, deep in concentration. Trying to hold two extra dragon arrows in the last fingers of his shooting hand as he drew his first one. After he dropped the third a couple times, he decided to start with only one extra arrow, swinging it into position to draw the string back just as the first arrow hit the target. He didn’t see the rider on the road. He was barely aware of the activity in the barn as the pony was unsaddled, and a guard led him away toward the herd on her way to fetch water.
The midday sun was hot and the land still steamy from an overnight rain. Temoc’s arm was sore already. He laid the bow down a moment to stretch and shake his limbs. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone step through the barn’s doorway to lean against it’s frame.
“You left without saying goodbye, old friend,” a familiar voice scolded. Temoc turned to look at Gerson, surprised and uncertain. “I couldn’t let you do that.” The short, stout man’s tone was ominous, but he brandished a flask, and grinned.
Temoc wasn’t interested in drink. Most of him wanted to say- go away, I need to practice. But he knew he shouldn’t. He picked up Catalina’s bow and loosened it’s string with care, then started up the hillet toward Gerson.
Temoc was too quiet, his expression too serious. Gerson braced himself for anything, unsure if he were about to receive an embrace or another solid fist.
Neither happened; instead, Temoc walked past him to hang up the gear, and Gerson tentatively stepped into the barn again. “Your lady friend looks like hell,” he ventured.
“There was an attack last night,” Temoc stated coldly. “We think she’ll be alright.”
“I’m glad you’re still here. And alive,” Gerson added. “I felt a great need to thank you, and damned if you didn’t make me catch you first.”
Temoc turned to look at him, raised an eyebrow. “Thank me?”
Gerson chuckled. “Yeah. It would’ve been awfully hard to give her back.”
Temoc crossed his arms, an eyebrow raised. “You would have given her back?”
“You sound surprised, cousin. But you never let me finish my sentence, back at the house. We’ve never let a woman drive us apart before. Not even her,” Gerson winked, grinning.
Temoc’s cold surprise softened into a smile, remembering. “I suppose not.” Several of their adolescent years were spent in pursuit of Maiara; often in friendly competition, but sometimes there were fistfights. “Almost, though, a few times.”
“Except eventually I realized it was all for naught, on my part,” Gerson said, offering the flask again. This time Temoc’s hesitant hand reached for it. “Of the two of us, you were really the only one she was interested in.”
Temoc snorted. “Of the two of us.” They went a ways farther into the cool of the long stone barn. Temoc stopped a moment to check on Catalina, peacefully asleep and cool. Then they settled down in the neighboring empty stall to share the flask.
“Why did you give her up? For that one?” Gerson nodded in Catalina’s direction.
“I wouldn’t give Maiara up for any other woman, you know that. But maybe it was easier because of Catalina. If I really were dead, I’d hope Maiara was with my most trusted friend.” Temoc sighed. “So, I’ve got to let it be,” his tone ended in sorrow.
“She would have taken you back, we both know it. All that sneaking around you two did.”
Temoc guffawed. “You knew? And let it happen?”
“How could I not? I know all your tricks and hiding places. Hell, they’re mine, too. And, she was your wife first. . .”
Temoc whistled, shaking his head. “The whole of Tropica is changed into some kind of road to Hell. But then again, I guess I’d forgotten that some things will never change.” He took a sip, alcohol’s taste strange on his lips after so long.
Gerson shook his head. “So you’re lucky to be alive, everything you’ve been through.” A hint of wistfulness was in his tone.
Temoc took a breath. “Many times over.”
“Guess I haven’t had half the adventures you have, by now.”
“Only because you never followed me over the Mountain,” Temoc said, taunting.
Gerson got a faraway look. “And to think, after all this time, after all those young fights and years I’d given up, now. . . she’s mine. Strange world, this is,” he mused.
Temoc gave him a dark glance. “You can stop rubbing it in, now,” he warned. Then his mood lightened, and he grinned. “Ah, just because we wanted her, didn’t stop us from looking at the other beauties,”
Gerson leaned back. The bathing place at the riverside shone emerald green and golden sunshine, in memory’s glow. “Took us all day to get there early enough, and hide for long enough, that the girls didn’t suspect we were there. And then we were stuck out for the night.”
“Oh, we got scolded hard. But our parents worried more when we wouldn’t leave the house, after Crocodile Mario,” Temoc pointed out.
“Crocodile Mario. . .” Gerson mused. Everyone called him that, and he didn’t speak. They didn’t know if he could, but they constantly passed the aging, scaly-skinned beggar on the street. One day they took pity on him. Let him hide in their stable, out of the heat. Of course, they were doing all the barn-work then to keep him hidden, even saddling and bringing out the old mare when another wanted to use her, and this naturally drew suspicion. Plus, the missing leftovers. “That must have been the worst trouble we ever got into at home, bringing a leper into the house.”
Temoc laughed. “The worst trouble we’d ever gotten into at home. But there was that time at the logging camp. . .”
Gerson chuckled, finishing for him. “. . . When we didn’t tie the knots right, and the monkeys came in and let the mules loose.”
Temoc shuddered. “I thought they were going to flog us, or throw us to the crocodiles.”
Gerson took a long drought, his voice relaxing expansively as he got lost in the story. “Instead, we had to tear our way through the thick after them, all the sounds in the night, and the jaguar that came to stare at our fire. . .”
“I was starting to think just taking the flogging would have been better,” Temoc remembered. “And then, the second night out, the monkeys stole all our food!”
“Good thing we found the mules that day,” Gerson grinned.
Temoc snorted. “We never would’ve found them or even made it, if Hernando and Neli hadn’t gone with us. Neli, now, she was a real tracker. . . and then after that, I decided I’d better learn how to track.”
“And I learned how to tie a better knot,” Gerson grinned.
Temoc shook his head with a sigh. “Always the practical thinker.” He was feeling giddy by now; it was a good thing Gerson was drinking more of the brew. “Monkeys. . .” Temoc said after a great while, a sadness in his voice. “They’re all gone now, from the mainland. And the deer, the tapirs, the big cats. . . everything’s been eaten from the land except the birds and the snakes, now. . .”
Gerson stared blankly at the half-open stable door. “So many times I’ve wished I’d gone with you, traveled across the land and seas. . . but I feared I wouldn’t make an adventurer, really. . . I know I wouldn’t be a warrior. I’d be dead by now for sure.”
“Not everyone’s a warrior. Not everyone who came Overland was, either. People protect each other. That’s why we’re the only warm animal left out there,” Temoc’s voice was filled with sadness, but then his mood lifted a little. “What other creature can put aside territorial differences and work together, or remembers friends, loves and vows after years of distance?” He put a hand on Gerson’s shoulder, shook it firmly. “We may have dreamed of adventures together our whole life, but I’m glad you stayed home. . . and, we still have the memories, yes?”
Gerson grinned, his voice misty now. “Yeah. . . Remember our grandest plan of all? Riding to the Anaconda as stowaways.”
Temoc snorted. “Woulda been our biggest adventure ever. If Ma hadn’t fed us so many beans the night before.”
Gerson laughed. “Yeah. Crates of rice aren’t supposed to smell like fart.”
Temoc elbowed him gleefully. “We barely made it out of the harbor before they threw us overboard!”
Both were laughing now, and when they caught their breath, Gerson said, “Good thing we could both swim.” He took the final swig, and Temoc turned the flask up, letting a few remaining drops hit the dusty earth for the hovering fruit flies to settle on.
“Ever been to the Anaconda yet?” Gerson asked after a while.
Temoc shook his head. “Answer’s the same as the last time you asked me. Been stuck East awhile. But as rough as they say the journey is, I think it’d been too much adventure for both of us at the time, if we’d succeeded.”
They listened to the sounds outside, the whizz and thuck of arrows into targets, the sound of jumping grasshoppers’ wings across the field. “Sometimes I wonder if she knew,” Gerson said after a long while. “And that’s why she cooked us something so. . . stinky.”
Temoc crossed his arms and shook his head stubbornly. “No way anyone knew but us.” He turned an intimidating, half-mocking glare to Gerson. “Unless you told somebody?”
Gerson shook his head emphatically. “I never told anyone. Well. . . except Haizea.” He gave a guilty look as Temoc’s jaw fell open.
“You told her!? Oh come on! I know you liked her, but dammit man! You knew she had the gossipy mouth!” Temoc swatted Gerson several times, half in jest. Gerson leaned away, arms over his head.
“Are you done?” The scold was a woman’s.
They turned with a start to see a warrioress standing at the stable door.
Gerson gave a sheepish grin. The dark woman towered over them. “We are, actually.” He turned the open flask upside down.
Yesseca looked at him as if he were a bug. “I don’t know who you are, but you’ve ruined a perfectly good guard.” She stepped into the stable, and both scrambled to their feet, their legs numb from long sitting. Others were gathering by now.
“You know what the stablemaster does to people caught drinking on the job?” Anita said ominously.
Catalina lurched around the corner and through the women gathered in the doorway. “Let it be,” she said, fixing her bleary gaze on the two men. “Old friends need to catch up. They aren’t horsemen, so the stablemaster needn’t know.”
The warrioress who’d caught them turned on Catalina, her tone fierce. “You’re already out. First shift’s going to be short one if he’s not suitable by then. We can’t have that.”
Catalina shrugged. “I’ll watch with him.”
“You look like you can barely stand,” Yesseca crossed her arms, “let alone shoot straight and fight. The two of you put together wouldn’t make one warrior.”
“It has been years since I’ve drank,” Temoc confessed, “but I don’t usually have lasting effects. I should be fine by tonight.” He held his hands up. “And I give my word I won’t touch a horse.”
By now, the herd was home, and one of the speckled dogs came running into the barn, weaving his way among the people, sniffing in greeting and curiosity.
Anita looked at Catalina, leaning against a stable door. “You say you grew up on a ranch. Did your father let his hands drink?”
Catalina grunted. “Not while they were working. But right now, Temoc isn’t. And you haven’t seen the troubled way these two were in. If a bottle mends a torn friendship, that is well worth the risk, isn’t it?” She gazed at Temoc and Gerson.
“Depends on what the stablemaster’s going to do to me,” Temoc intoned. Gerson swatted him across the shoulder, and he flinched.
“You get thrown out with no pay, and maybe a whipping,” Anita volunteered.
The sternness in the warrioress began to soften. “This is not a habit of frequency, then?” Catalina and Temoc both shook their heads.
“Out there, anything that slows you down is death. I haven’t touched it in at least two years.” Temoc said.
She sighed, still staring at Temoc and Gerson. “I suppose the stablemaster needn’t know. This time. Better do away with that flask and get yourselves together. Fast. And hope it’s not from the Coyol palm. If you’re slurring tomorrow, no one’s going to take pity on you a second time.” The two bowed in gracious relief as the gathering dispersed. Gerson hid the empty flask deep in his saddlebags, and the two laid low until mealtime, trying to avoid the chance of anyone smelling the drink, if it was still on their breath. Catalina stalked back to her bedroll, and Temoc stayed with her awhile.
“What’s wrong with wine from a Coyol palm?” Catalina wanted to know.
“Reactive with sunlight,” Temoc said. “You can get drunk again the next day.”
Catalina shook her head in silent amazement.
Gerson settled in beside them a moment later, bowing to Catalina with emphatic thanks.
Catalina snorted. “Should be Temoc groveling. He’s the one who’d get thrown out. You’re not working here.” She looked awhile at Gerson. “You’re quite the bad influence, aren’t you?”
Gerson chuckled. “Either I am, or he is.”
“I’d have finished schooling if it weren’t for you,” Temoc nudged.
“Yeah, but you actually learned stuff while you were there. If you hadn’t, we couldn’t have gotten into half the trouble we did,” Gerson grinned.
“Hey, gave me a chance to practice what I’d learned.”
Catalina sighed. “I see. . .”
Yesseca studied Catalina, barely picking at her dinner. “You’re not going to be doing any guarding tonight,” she observed. Catalina returned her gaze, but said nothing. “Since it’s your insistence Temoc watch with you in the first place, I think it’s only fair he should go back to second shift.” She turned her attention to Temoc. “Who do you lose to, from the other shift?” His mouth full, Temoc nodded toward a burly warrior, a new arrival. The dark red man crossed his arms with a smile.
Temoc took over redressing Catalina’s wounds from another warrior, a little flickering lantern beside her for light as the lowering sun left the corner of the barn dim. The rest of second shift was already bedding down, but Temoc insisted on tending her first.
“Do you really want to stay and ranch?” Temoc wanted to know. “We could go anywhere, from here. Do anything.”
“Don’t like farm life?” Catalina grunted.
Temoc shrugged, wrapping her torso. “Farm life ties you down, and I’ll want to wander again. I always do. It was Maiara who bound me to this place, kept me coming home, and now. . .”
“Why stay?” Catalina finished for him.
Temoc sighed. “Because it’s a safer place, I suppose.”
“Except, not really.” Catalina’s tone darkened. “I should be in a red cave, not out in the day’s heat and sleeping with the beasts, where bugs bite and devourers can scent me again.” Catalina winced as Temoc gave her bandages a final tightening. “Stupid mistake. If I hadn’t been wearing Blackleather, I’d be dead. Eaten alive.”
Temoc hung his head. “If I’d been a better shot. . .”
“I still would have had to roll away from them. Wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
“Guess it could’ve happened to anyone,” Temoc concluded.
“Except it wouldn’t have happened in Crocodile, or Song. Or anywhere people expect devourers, all the time. I’ve only been here a little more than a week, and I’ve already gotten soft.”
Temoc paused to look into her eyes, his tone emphatic. “You didn’t see those monsters the next morning. It took horses to drag them off. You killed two of them. You’re not that soft.”
Catalina stared at him through her hazy misery. “If we stayed, I’d get so out of practice, maybe even Blackleather wouldn’t save me. And if we stay, isn’t it kind of a waste?”
Temoc wrinkled his brow. “How do you mean?”
“We’re two of the best warriors in the Overland, and we’re going to hide here? A suit of Blackleather needs worn where the fighting’s being done.”
Temoc sighed. He did say ‘we could go anywhere.’ Back into the fray so soon hadn’t exactly been his thought. But they wouldn’t be wanting for shelter or water. “I suppose there’s always a place to sleep and guaranteed food in the guardhouses. Funny how it’s either struggle to make a living, or struggle to live.”
Catalina smiled. “Right. So, I have to sell Lily, and then we can go.”
“Tomorrow? You shouldn’t go yet.”
“Wounded walked Overland, they had to. Worse than I am now. Be nice to know if I can do it,” Catalina said with determination.
“You won’t travel during your moontime, but you want to leave now, when it could actually do you harm?” Temoc gave her a dubious glance.
“I need to be in a red cave, Temoc,” Catalina insisted.
Temoc set his jaw, silent awhile. There would be no stopping her. “Let’s leave with Gerson. You can ride our pony, if you have to. And he’ll know the tide; when ships are leaving.” Temoc headed up to the loft, doubtful he’d fall asleep early for the shift-switch after staying up late, still dubious about Catalina’s decision. Yes, wounded traveled Overland, he thought, but it didn’t do us any good.
“She wants to do what?” Gerson had caught a glimpse of the oozing, creeping, blackened sores on Catalina’s side. “Why would anyone want to move like that?”
Temoc shrugged. “She has her reasons.”
Gerson shook his head. Temoc had found someone as hard headed as himself. There was no way he’d be able to hang on for that ride. Already, Catalina was in the corner negotiating their mare’s sale with Felipe. “She gets the selling done soon enough, you might be able to catch the afternoon tide and not stay at an inn,” Gerson mused. “But why go on the water with wounds like that?”
“Never seen it before, have you,” Temoc observed. “The poison creeps. . . but her wounds aren’t deep. And on the water, we know we’re safe. Here, they could come tomorrow, or not until the next foaling season. And when they do,” he gave a sweeping gesture. “No water to hide behind. At least there’s red caves, where the devourers come all the time.”
Gerson put his hands firmly on Temoc’s shoulders. “Always the adventurer. I still kind of wish I was going with you, even though I’d probably get eaten. I hope the two of you can keep keeping each other safe.” Temoc pulled him close to embrace him.
“How did it go?” Temoc asked when Catalina approached. “I didn’t want to be too hard with him. Didn’t get as much as for Greta.” She shook her head. “And the pay for guarding is terrible. We’d have barely enough for fare out of here, if I hadn’t been ranching with them too.”
Felipe put a hand on her shoulder as he passed. “Hard enough to keep eight guards in food, let alone pay them for sleeping in our loft.”
Catalina grunted. “They come for a rest, not to make money. Some rest this was,” she gestured to her bandaged sides. “Let’s go.”
It was late morning when they started off, Temoc and Gerson trotting beside their pony with Catalina riding. The two friends talking, laughing as they made their way through the green lands of Verde. Temoc felt good again, felt right. The sun shone hot and strong as they traveled along the roads to the sea, traveled out to sea like the wide, slow emerald waters of the river Verde. This was the last time Temoc and Catalina would be wearing their plain, un-dyed cloth under the open sky, and the little breeze felt good, close to their skin. They passed through a hedge thick with vines in exuberant bloom, bees and birds flitting here and there among the flowers. On the pony’s back, Catalina had to duck around hanging thorn brambles above. Sticks crackled under their feet, and a single buzzing, twittering hummingbird swooped down from somewhere up in the flowers to hover in front of them a moment, it’s jewel-feathered body glistening in the muted sun, tiny eyes watching them intently. Then it buzzed away again before they could stop to return it’s studying gaze. Temoc smiled. A hummingbird was a warrior’s soul, a brave protector. Gerson’s place was home, it always was and always would be. And Temoc and Catalina, they were finding their way back to where they belonged.
(copyright Melanie Degen)