So, it’s been a while since I’ve added an update. That’s because a personal tragedy brought things to a grinding halt from the end of November all through December. But work has resumed on the Untitled Fantasy Western (seriously, anybody have any title ideas?). I’m still going to finish posting the draft here on the website, so picking up where I left off here’s a four thousand word update. That’s like four updates in one!
“Speaking of timing,” he muttered, and kicked the horse into a run. “It’s about time we got out of here.”
“Is it safe?” she asked, peering around him at the ground ahead. It was hard to see much in the dark, but there didn’t seem to be any sudden upsurges of rock trying to swat them.
“Safer than letting the goyles get us,” he told her.
“Lonesome, I’m not falling into another one of those pits.”
“Don’t worry about that, I think I got those spirits calmed down for now. No telling how long they’ll stay that way, but… look, you just worry about any goyles that get too close.”
Katherine twisted around in the saddle so she could look behind them. It was hard to make out details between the movement of the horse and the dark of night, but she was certain they were being followed. Having lost them once it looked like the goyles were making a concerted effort to keep up so they didn’t get lost again. Her revolved tracked back and forth, looking for a target, and she wished she’d been able to get her rifle before it fell into the chasm that had almost claimed her.
“I’m not going to hit anything like this,” she told Lonesome. “I’m good, but not that good. Won’t be a problem if they get closer, but if more than one gets that close we’ll be in big trouble. If you’ve got a plan of some sort now would be a good time to tell me.”
The horse jerked this way and that, racing around the boulders, hills, and craggy rock formations that characterized the Badlands. Instead of answering her, Lonesome started speaking First Words. That was good enough for her. If he was calling on the spirits it meant he had something in the works. As he spoke she watched the goyles. They were gaining, using the terrain to their advantage. Every time the horse had to slow down to navigate around an obstacle they got a little bit closer.
All those little bits were starting to add up, and Lonesome was still carrying on a hurried conversation with things she couldn’t see. Normally she knew better than to interrupt him in the middle of his Spirit Talking, but something was going to have to change, and soon.
“Lonesome,” she said insistently, “I don’t mean to rush your little gossip circle, but faster would be better. Those goyles are getting so close I can smell ‘em.”
After a few more clipped First Words Lonesome switched back to a language she could understand. “Kat, there’s a canyon coming up. When we reach it, you’re gonna have to trust me.”
“Not that I don’t,” she replied sincerely, “But would you mind telling me why?”
“Cause we’re gonna jump into it.”
“Lonesome, that is certifiably insane.”
“Just tell me when,” she cut off the beginnings of his justification. She didn’t need an explanation, and there probably wasn’t time for one anyway. She was right about that. Before she knew it Lonesome was pulling the horse hard to the left, and the yawning emptiness of a canyon suddenly opened up to their right. The sight of it made her guts clench and brought back the very recent terror of falling into empty air.
Lonesome pulled his feet from the stirrups and swung sideways in the saddle. “Now!” he snapped, and then she was alone as he disappeared into the dark. A second later she followed. It wasn’t as clean a move as she would have hoped. The heel of her right boot caught the edge of the cliff, and instead of sailing down feet first she went sprawling head first into the dark.
She learned the hard way that the side of the canyon sloped out after a bit, bruising her hands and forearms as she started tumbling down it in a wild and uncontrolled fashion. Whatever plan Lonesome had, she didn’t think it was working. Her head bounced off of something hard and unforgiving, and after a brief flash of light behind her eyelids she slipped into unconsciousness.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Hawkins repeated the word like a mantra as they raced away from the stretch of earth that seemed dedicated to killing them. Somehow he’d made it out alive, as had Deputy Walsh and a hired gun whose name he didn’t recall just now. As far as he knew they were the only three men left alive. He’d seen Sheriff Wade plow right into an uplifted slab of rock, and seen too many others fall into sinkholes that opened right underneath them. How they’d made it out alive was beyond him.
They kept riding, blind and desperate in the night, until they came to a small river. “I haven’t seen any goyles follow us,” Walsh spoke as they all looked nervously around.
“Doesn’t matter,” Hawkins shook his head tightly. He was relieved to know they weren’t in any immediate danger, but that didn’t change the facts. “We don’t have a Spirit Talker with us to cover our tracks. Without Lonesome it’s only a matter of time until they catch up. Then that’s it, we’re done.”
“We don’t need a Spirit Talker,” the hired gun spoke up. He pointed at the river with one hand. “We can lose them the old fashioned way. Ride up or down the river for a bit, then find a place to hole up nearby until they’ve stopped looking. Maybe we can sneak out then.”
“Better than any plan I’ve got,” Walsh shrugged. He looked to Hawkins. “Walter?”
“Yeah,” Hawkins agreed. “Let’s find a way in and get going. The longer we sit around the closer they get to finding us.”
They followed the river for the rest of the night. It was shallow enough that the horses didn’t have any trouble, so they made good time. When the first rays of sunlight started peeking into the sky the group left the river, taking care to conceal the horses tracks as best they could. Nearby they found a place where frequent flash floods and river swells had eroded the softer rock behind a boulder into a low, cozy hollow. It was just big enough to fit the horses, though that made for some very unpleasant close quarters. Walsh and the hired gun did the best they could to cover the entrance from casual notice, but there was only so much you could do with dead brush and tree branches.
“So,” Walsh started awkwardly as they all sat facing the entrance to their little hideout. “I don’t think I got your name,” he told the hired gun.
“Carter,” the man supplied. “Carter Wates. I worked at the mines back in Red River. Thought the reward for capturing those bandits sounded too good to be true, but I couldn’t pass up the chance. Guess it was.”
“We’re not dead yet,” Hawkins told him. “You help us get out of here alive and I’ll make sure Haversham & Black give you something for the trouble.”
“No offense, Mr. Hawkins, but that’s looking like a real long shot right now.”
The day passed restlessly and uncomfortably. The horses didn’t like being cooped up in such a small space, and neither did the three men when the horses decided they needed to relieve themselves. Still, they stayed. Each took a turn watching outside, looking for signs that the goyles had found them. “I’ve been thinking,” Walsh said after several hours. “What if somebody else got away? If anybody could survive that it would probably be Lonesome.”
“So what?” Carter asked. “If he’s smart he’ll be doing what we’re doing. Hiding and trying to find a way out with his skin intact.”
“I don’t know, I just thought… maybe we should try and find him?” Walsh shrugged. Hawkins and Carter shared a skeptical look. “Look,” the deputy continued, “I was just thinking we’d have a lot better odds of getting out alive if we had him around.”
“Aaron,” Hawkins tried to sound as understanding as possible, “I want to think somebody else is out there, too. But the fact is we can’t be sure. And if we go looking for them we’re hurting our own chances, not helping. If we’re lucky, and Lonesome is out there somewhere, we’ll just have to hope he finds us.”
As luck would have it, not all canyon walls were sheer drops. This particular wall gradually sloped inward, making for a canyon that was narrower at the bottom than it was at the top, and it was this geological feature that Katherine could thank for being alive. Whether this had been Lonesome’s plan all along or they’d just gotten lucky she didn’t know, mostly because the Spirit Talker wasn’t awake to ask. He’d taken a nastier tumble than she had, and while he hadn’t broken his neck he’d managed to break a few other things instead.
With a heavy sigh she grabbed the rope she’d tied under his arms and started dragging again. The area where they’d come to rest was out in the open, with no cover from any goyles that might be looking down from the top of the canyon. And once the natives figure out the horse didn’t have any riders, they’d come looking. She could almost understand Lonesome’s reasoning when she thought about that. The last place any sane person would have jumped off a galloping horse was into a canyon. But that didn’t mean the goyles wouldn’t look, especially if the spirits pointed them in the right direction.
It was hard to tell how long she’d been dragging Lonesome through the canyon, but it was long enough that she’d run through every curse she knew twice over and had started inventing new ones. Her back ached from pulling him along, and from the brief time she’d tried to carry him over her shoulder. That hadn’t worked out particularly well, and she was getting mighty thirsty to boot. The sun beat down on her mercilessly, always seeming to find a way to shine between the canyon walls and right down onto her head.
A guttural barking noise echoed off of the rocky walls. She stopped dead in her tracks, clearly recognizing it as the sound of a goyle and trying to figure out if it had come from ahead or behind. Beneath the brim of her hat she squinted her eyes, looking first one direction and then the next. Maybe it was the lack of water, or the heat, or the fact that she was dead tired, but there seemed to be goyles in every direction.
“Shit,” she grumbled. “I just left this party. I’m not doing it again.”
Not that she had a choice. There was nowhere to go, and even if she could’ve run she wasn’t going to leave Lonesome. So there was only one thing left to do. She pulled her revolver, checked to make sure it was loaded, and waited. The goyles didn’t leave her standing alone for long. In a matter of minutes they were to either side of her, advancing slowly without bothering to hide or find cover, as if they didn’t think her revolver was a threat. They were probably right. She could take down one, maybe two if she was lucky, but that was it. There wouldn’t be a chance to reload.
She sighted on the closest of them, and was surprised to see it actually stop moving. But others continued to close, so she aimed at the next closest. It also stopped, and looked over at one of its compatriots as if looking for guidance. She followed its gaze and saw a goyle carrying a spear over one shoulder in a very nonchalant sort of way. She switched her aim to it, and the Badlands native grunted something. All other others stopped where they were, but it continued forward, looking down the barrel of her revolver with the unflinching resolve she’d come to expect from its kind.
The urge to pull the trigger made her finger itch, but she held the impulse in check. Something was going on, she just didn’t know what. Did goyles have a thing for single combat? She couldn’t remember. Still, she didn’t want it getting close enough to use that spear. With one quick motion she pointed the revolver at the ground and fired a single shot at the goyle’s feet before returning her aim to its head. The message must have gotten across, because it stopped coming forward. Its eyes met her, dark and unblinking.
Slowly, gracefully, the spear traced an arc from the goyle’s shoulder until the tip was pointed at Lonesome. The goyle uttered something in its own language. Did it want Lonesome? She supposed that wouldn’t surprise her. The goyles had a certain respect for Spirit Talkers, after all. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t kill him anyway.
“I’m not giving him up,” she told the goyle. “You want him, you come through me first.”
It wasn’t much of a deterrent, Katherine admitted to herself. There were more than enough of them to make it happen, but at the moment there didn’t seem to be much else to do except put on some bravado.
The goyle seemed to consider this for a moment. Abruptly it thrust the tip of its spear into the ground and left the weapon stuck there like a post. Then, with the hand that had once held the spear, it pointed at Lonesome and growl-spoke something else. It was an interesting gesture, not least because she’d never seen goyles get this close and do anything but try to kill her. No, that wasn’t true. There had been the one when she was hunting Lee Caswell… the one that had called her Arbiter.
With an exaggerated motion she used her thumb to uncock the revolver’s hammer. Then she lowered the weapon to her side, but stopped short of putting it in it’s holster. With one steadying breath for her nerves and a tightened jaw, she stepped aside. The goyle took a step closer, dark eyes searching her face. What it saw there she didn’t know, but the mountain of leathery muscle grunted in what seemed to be a satisfied sort of way. It stooped to grab Lonesome by the front of his shirt, and with one arm lifted him from the ground. With the Spirit Talker slung over one shoulder like a sack of flour the goyle started ambling back the way it had come. Katherine followed, palm slick with sweat against the grip of her revolver and eyes nervously watching for any signs of attack. But the goyles didn’t stop her. The one carrying Lonesome only looked back at her once, and that was all.
They led her out of the canyon and into the confusing geography of the Badlands. It would have gotten her completely lost if that hadn’t already been the case. Through the trek she stayed close to Lonesome like a tick on a dog. It was one of the longest, hardest walks she’d ever taken, and coming off of a tumble down the cliffside at that. The goyles didn’t stop for anything – not to rest, not to eat, not to drink, not even to take a crap as far as she could tell. Their stoic persistence was more than a little unnerving, especially as she felt herself starting to flag with exhaustion. Through sheer will she forced herself to keep walking, unwilling to show weakness among the goyles and afraid they would simply leave her and carry Lonesome off somewhere she’d never find him again.
As the light of day began to wane they came within sight of their destination, an isolated butte that rose tall and proud over the surrounding landscape. Its face was pockmarked with caves of all shape and size, and by their long shadows she could see goyles climbing from one to the other across the rock face. Katherine wondered if the caves ran all the way through the butte. Could it be a giant hive of goyles, like a nest of insects only far more terrifying?
There was one large cave that opened at ground level, and as they neared it was obvious that their approach had been watched. A small crowd of goyles had gathered to watch, speaking amongst themselves in their own harsh language. But none interfered.
The inside of the cave was far more ordered than Katherine would have guessed. Rough, uneven walls had been smoothed by some unknown method. She could see no tool marks on them, no gouges to suggest they’d been dug out. Yet the tunnels were more like hallways in a castle than the constantly changes spaces of a cave.
The light from the entrance faded rapidly as they moved deeper into the stone hive. When they came to a turn in the passage Katherine was afraid she would lose the ability to see where she was going altogether. But even though she expected the goyles to exist in the dark, like burrowing animals, they quickly proved her wrong. The tunnels were illuminated by a soft golden glow, dim but more than enough to see by, which was produced by veins of some strange mineral in the rock itself.
Curious, she reached out a hand in passing to brush her fingers against one large deposit. It had a different texture than the non glowing rock, smooth but pitted like old glass which had been at the mercy of the elements for ages, and it was no warmer than the rest of the wall. Had they done this themselves? She knew goyles could speak to the spirits, and that spirits were capable of a great many things. Was this one of them?
They took her to a chamber with rounded walls and a slightly higher ceiling. The goyle carrying Lonesome made it clear she was meant to stay there, using the blunt end of its spear to gesture first at her and then at the room. Without further elaboration, it turned and started walking again. It was taking Lonesome away from her. A surge of something akin to panic gripped her stomach.
“No,” she protested, “I’m coming with you.”
But that was obviously something they didn’t want to happen. One of the other goyles put itself in her way, blocking the tunnel and grunting in a pointed fashion. Her first instinct was to raise her revolver and force the goyle to move or get shot. But her hand only had time to twitch before the rest of her brain caught up to the idea and tackled it firmly to the ground. She was deep inside what could be considered an enemy stronghold. There were who knew how many goyles in the butte, and who knew how many between her and the way out. She couldn’t do Lonesome any good if she was dead.
So she clenched her jaw, swallowed the lump in her throat, and nodded. “Fine,” she told the goyle in front of her. “I’ll just… wait here.”
The room was as well lit as the rest of the tunnels. To Katherine’s surprise it also seemed to feature something akin to furnishings. There was a deep pile of blankets piled against the far wall. With nowhere else comfortable looking to sit she sank into them and sighed, one hand running idly through the long fur of the blankets as the other rested lightly on her revolver. The blankets were made of some sort of animal skin, and she took to wondering what kind it was. Rumor from the wars had it that huge herds of shaggy beasts roamed through the Badlands. Something akin to cattle but bigger, bulkier, and meaner.
At some point she made the mistake of laying down. When she woke again it was with a surge of adrenaline. It didn’t take any time at all for her to remember where she was, and the idea that she’d fallen asleep among Gargoyles was something akin to terrifying. She wasn’t dead though, so that was a good sign.
To balance out the good she found her revolver was missing, along with her duster, hat and boots. A quick sweep of the room found the clothing piled nearby, though the revolver was nowhere to be seen. And to make matters worse, she realized there was a goyle in the room with her, sitting against the wall near the entrance and watching. She only noticed it because of how it’s silhouette blocked out the glowing veins of light in the rock.
“Where’s my gun?” she demanded, sitting up straight and reaching for her boots.
<You do not need it here, Arbiter the Wildcat.>
Katherine froze, boots in hand. The goyle had spoken, but it had done so in it’s own growling language. Understanding came to her half a second later, whispered in her ear by a voice she recognized as her own.
Under her breath she grumbled, “I swear, Cooper, I warned you.” More loudly she corrected it, “Arbiter Bishop. Katherine if you have to.”
The goyle tilted its head ever so slightly, but remained otherwise motionless. <Some things do not change well from one tongue to another, even when passed through the Spirits. Arbiter will do?>
“Yeah,” she agreed. In the dim light of the room she took a moment to study the goyle across from her. It was different than any she’d seen before. Most goyles were a mountain of muscle and mean, but this one was slimmer, smaller. For the first time she wondered if there was such a thing as girl goyles. As far as she knew everyone always assumed they were just one gender and reproduced by laying eggs or being spontaneously spawned by the Badlands itself.
<Welcome then, Arbiter. I am Hevak the Speaker.>
“Where’s Lonesome?” Katherine demanded.
<The Lonely One is resting after being healed. I wished to speak to you alone before he wakes.>
Katherine grimaced on Lonesome’s behalf. She remembered what getting healed by spirits had done to Hawkins. Effective, sure, but damn. “Well, I suppose I should thank you for that, but I’ll admit to being damn well confused. Your people were trying to kill us. We wouldn’t have jumped off that cliff in the first place if it hadn’t been for that. So why – and again, I’m not ungrateful – but why pick us up and put us back together after all that?”
<As you and the Lonely One are not the same as those who marched on our lands in times past, neither are we the same as those who chased you that night.>
“I get that,” Katherine allowed. “Though I thought you were all pretty much on the same page when it came to keeping people out of your territory. Doesn’t explain why you’d bring us here and help us out. Unless,” she drew the word out a little as her mind focused around the idea. “It’s all Lonesome, isn’t it? Or Spirit Talkers in general. They’re the only ones your people tolerate. They have some sort of special status. I just don’t know why.”
<The Spirits talk to them, listen to them. Do things for them when they ask. That is enough for us to do the same, and the Lonely One carries many Spirits with him. But that is not all of why we help. Gravik, who brought you here, knows why you have come. To follow the Rogue One. To claim what she and her minions carry ever deeper into our lands.>
“Yeah,” Katherine admitted, “That’s pretty much it, assuming Clementine is the Rogue One you’re talking about. Which is an interesting name to saddle her with, but we won’t get into that just now. And we’re not just after the box. I couldn’t care less what’s in it, honestly. I’m more interested in bringing the lot of them to justice, alive or dead, and keeping Haversham & Black from doing something stupid.”