combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 06 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2008

The Ride

          Roy owned the only drive-thru funeral business in Maine. Well, drive-thru was a misnomer since nobody drove anymore. Not since the Flash. Now he owned a toss-and-burn funeral biz in Dove Town. Toss the bodies in the pit out back and light 'em. Only way to keep them from attracting the Eefrits, especially if the poor soul died of the 'fluenza.

          Roy Montgomery wasn't a bad sort, but the Town was coming close to pitching him outside the walls if he didn't let up on folks. His youngest boy, Jared, was mighty sick with the 'fluenza, and the Eefrits were setting up to howling outside his homestead at night. And Roy was getting old, and the Eefrits knew it. Eefrits always knew when one of the normal folk was getting on in years, started to prowl around. It was all making Roy right nervous, and he was taking out his nerves on other honest folks who didn't do nothin' to nobody.

          So no one had much to say when his daughter Bianca was the one chosen to get the medicine for Dove Town from the Morn Temple. What could they say? They needed the medicine, and sending Roy was suicide. But pretty little sharp-shooting Bianca Montgomery could ride like the wind on her black stallion so as nothin' could catch her, not even an Eefrit. Roy was the only one worried about her.

          "Ride straight, B, you should make the Tower by dark," Roy said. "Don't you worry 'bout them Eefrits-"

          "Ain't worried, Pa," she said, and swung her leg over Onyx's back. She slid her rifle into the sheath on the saddle, checked her revolvers, tied her golden brown hair back in a horsetail. "Morn Temple ain't far. Oughtta be back by supper time tomorrow. Jared'll be fine."

          "Them Eefrits been mighty restless outside the Town walls, B. You be careful, ya hear?"

          "I hear, Pa. Don't worry, I'm meetin' Zeke at the gates." Bianca noticed her father's bushy white eyebrows pull together, and she sighed inwardly, impatient to get moving. It was almost midmorning, her and Zeke had to outrun the sun to make it to Butterfly Tower before dark.

          "You be careful 'round that boy, too, B. He's a funny kid and I don't trust him."

          Bianca didn't say anything to that- Zeke liked boys, but she didn't care, he was the one who'd taught her to ride- only pressed her heels into Onyx's sides and took off. Roy watched his little girl in her traditional white dress and blue jeans riding off into the Western Ende and heard, like a whisper of premonition, the howling cackles of Eefrits in the shadows of the walls of Dove Town.

          "Ride, B. Don't let 'em catch ya."

          * * * *

          Zeke Raines was starting to get nervous. Him and Bianca, having ridden from Dove Town all the day, were racing the sunset, and Butterfly Tower, the halfway point twixt Dove Town and Morn Temple wasn't in sight. His dark hair blowing in his face, he let his dun mare, Thunderkick, follow on Onyx's heels.

          "B, I don't think we're gonna make it-" He yelped in his strange way, but Bianca understood him and motioned him to keep riding and not talk, for at his words, a rustling like dead leaves and a shrieking like dying cats went up from behind them. Zeke couldn't hear the chilling sounds, but he could feel glowing green eyes on his back as he buried his face against Thunderkick's neck. He almost turned to look back when something brushed against his neck, but he was distracted by the glaring silver blue light shooting up suddenly in his eyes. He saw a towering building of black stone looming up like an onyx spike piercing the sky, and he let out a whoop. The rotating spotlight on the top suddenly shifted and focused on the two young riders, and he felt his horse's shudder at what he was sure were the shrieking, pain filled cries of the Eefrits chasing after them.

          The light followed them as far as it could to the doors of Butterfly Tower. There was just one small stretch of darkness between the search light's edge and the white Sun Roses burning bright in the briar hedge around the Tower. Fly-Brights, their wings glowing like a candle flame, fluttered around the Sun Roses, giving off enough light for Zeke and Bianca to see the path lit with burning torches up to the doors made of Light Rock. They just had to reach them.

          "Rodeo ridin', B!" Zeke cried. She turned and nodded over her shoulder, and they kicked their horses and galloped through the dark. Bianca screamed as the Eefrits clutched at her skirt, but then she was out of the darkness and into the light of the Sun Roses, Zeke right beside her. Heart pounded as she fought to regain her breath, she grinned at Zeke, who smiled and pointed towards the door, where Lord Val stood, watching them with interest.

          * * * *

          "You two are awfully young to be Riders for your Town," Lord Val said. Bianca signed for Zeke as they walked behind the Lord of Butterfly Tower to the Rhapsody Hall. "Only what? Fourteen? Fifteen?"

          "I'm fifteen, sir. Zeke's twenty." At this, Lord Val gave the boy a quick once over, intrigued. The lordling's dark green eyes glowed softly, and Zeke's cheeks caught fire. The deaf boy had to wonder how old Lord Val was. Not much older than Zeke himself. Twenty-two, twenty-three, maybe.

          "You will stay the night. In return for my hospitality, I require a song."

          "Of course, sir," Bianca said, and signed to Zeke that he would have to play. He nodded, feeling butterflies fluttering in his stomach. Play in front of Lord Val, possibly one of the handsomest men Zeke had ever seen? What if he missed a note?

          "Does young master Zeke not speak for a reason?" Lord Val spoke slowly, as if to someone incredibly stupid. Zeke flushed. Bianca hooked her thumbs in her gun belt and replied, "He's deaf, sir. He can read lips if you talk slow, though."

          "Well, then, Master Zeke. I compliment you on your riding."

          Zeke flushed again, this time with pleasure at the admiration in the lord's words.

          "Come into my Rhapsody Hall and eat. You must be hungry." Lord Val pushed the wide doors open, and both Riders felt their jaws drop. Tables upon tables were set up and covered with food, and the fruit, all of it, was fresh! Even the .... "You may try the apples if you like."

          They didn't need to be asked twice.

          * * * *

          "Was it to your liking?"

          "Yes, sir," Bianca mumbled sleepily. The sleeves of her white dress were rolled up to the elbows, and the button of her jeans was unsnapped. Lord Val replied, "Good. Now, a song if you please."

          She choked on her apple juice and Zeke pounded her on the back. When she could breathe without gasping, she told him it was time. Zeke pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and Bianca stood up. She looked at all the other people in the Rhapsody Hall and felt her knees knocking. The skirt of her dress hid it well, however.

          She cleared her throat and said, "I'm gonna sing an old ballad from 'fore the Flash. It's called 'Rebel Yell,' by the master musician known only as the Idol." And she began to sing a beautiful song about a dancer who'd been loved by the Idol, and their meeting in the midnight hour. Her voice was sweet and clear soprano, and the twanging metallic of Zeke's harmonica filled in the space between each silver note until the song ended and her voice died away.

          "Very good," Lord Val injected into the silence, and his piercing green eyes fixed on Zeke. He'd spoken slowly enough that the young man could read his lips. He swallowed hard and dropped his gaze. Bianca saw Lord Val smile, and she had to take a drink to keep from giggling. "You're both probably tired," the young lord went on. "Bianca, my servants will escort you to your room. In the morning, your guns and your rifle will be returned to you, cleaned and with a full compliment of ammunition."

          "Thank you kindly, sir."

          "Word of your skills reaches far, Bianca Montgomery. As for you, Zeke, would you like to see my Music Room?" Zeke was about to shake his head when Bianca kicked his ankle under the table. He glanced at her, she widened her eyes at him, and then Zeke turned back to Lord Val and nodded. "Excellent, then I bid you goodnight, Bianca Montgomery. Zeke, this way if you please."

          * * * *

          In the morning, Bianca was already in the saddle and waiting on the path towards the Temple Road when she saw Zeke coming out of the Butterfly Tower. His face was flushed and his eyes were bright. With him was Lord Val, who gave him a sack full of something and then put a thin, gold chain with a pendant on it around Zeke's neck. Zeke ducked his head, and Bianca turned away just before the lordling's lips touched Zeke's. She didn't like love stuff- it didn't suit her. But if Zeke had found someone, then good for him. She didn't hold with people thinking he was "funny" just because he liked boys.

          When Zeke came over on Thunderkick's back, she smiled at him, and he grinned at her. She signed to him that the tiny bruise on the side of his neck ought to be covered up by a scarf so people wouldn't think the wrong thing. He turned pink and tied his bandana around his neck. The gold pendant he tucked inside his white shirt, close to his heart.

          * * * *

          "Zeke," Bianca said as the day wore on. "Why d'you go on the Ride every season? Pa don't like you comin', but he lets you anyways. How come?"

          The young man got very quiet for a moment, staring at the ruinous landscape around them. There was nothing to see for miles, except the abandoned and derelict buildings that the Eefrits took for their nests in the daylight. Bianca waited, and felt the sun creep along in the summer sky for what seemed hours before Zeke said slowly, haltingly, "I got ... the blood wasting sickness. The first stage."

          Bianca felt the blood drain from her face. The blood wasting sickness. She remembered the midwife from Dove Town had had the blood wasting sickness, in the second stage. She'd called it ... AIDS. You didn't survive the sickness. It could takes years and years, but eventually it killed you. Some of the medicine they got from the Temple was to help treat the blood wasting sickness, to prolong the lives of those who had it.

          "Why didn't you tell me?"

          "It ain't important," he replied. "Like me liking boys ain't important. We're still friends, right?"

          "'Course," she said. He nodded, and they were silent until they reached the Morn Temple.

          * * * *

          "Is this everything you need?" One young man, a few years older than Zeke, hovered anxiously around the two of them. He was dressed in nice pants and a button-down shirt, and he had a small black card pinned to his shirt that had his name and the words "Church of Latter Days." Before the Flash and the 'fluenza, the Morns had known the full name of their Church, but over the years it had been forgotten.

          "Yes, sir. Thank you for the 'fluenza medicines and such," Bianca said.

          "We live to give service. Go well on your journey. Our Father watches over you both."

          "Thank you kindly," she replied, and shook the young man's hand. Bianca and Zeke rode out of the Temple Square and were back on the road. It was a half-day's ride back to the Tower. They'd make it, it was only noon. The ride back to Dove Town was a different question.

          * * * *

          Lord Val was pleased to see them return. He met Bianca with a bow, and gave Zeke a gentle kiss on the forehead that made him blush pink. He fed them both in the Rhapsody Hall, and asked for another song. Zeke played a psalm to the Reaper, the god of death, and Bianca sang the words written by the Brotherhood of the Blue Oysters.

          Bianca fell asleep the moment she fell onto her bed, but Zeke went with Lord Val to his Music Room again, and the young woman didn't hear him come in.

          * * * *

          Why couldn't the peace last? It was always the first and the last stretch that could bring you down. Zeke and Bianca clung to their horses' backs as they galloped for all they were worth. It was nearly dark, and the horses were weary and straining, and the Eefrits were almost right on top of them.

          "Bianca, we ain't gonna make it!" He could not hear a reply, but suddenly he saw torchlight and realized Dove Town was almost within reach. "There it is! The gates! The town gates!"

          To his right, he saw a flash of white heading for the ground. He turned in time to see Onyx trip, stumble, and fall, with Bianca on top of him go crashing to the dust. She lay there, blinking and trying to suck in air to breathe. Onyx quickly got to his feet and grabbed his rider's dress in his teeth, pulled her towards the town, but the shrieking Eefrits were coming.

          Zeke pulled hard on the reins to stop Thunderkick's headlong flight and turn her towards the fallen girl. He dug his heels in and rode hard. Just as an Eefrit was about to pounce on Bianca, he grabbed her arm and hauled her into the saddle. The beast's claws raked his arm open from mid-forearm to wrist. He pulled out his revolver, aimed, and shot it. He missed its head and got it in the shoulder.

          Both horses ran wildly, sweat streaking their sides and the breath steaming from their nostrils. They rolled their eyes in terror but Thunderkick did not lose her rider and cargo. Riderless, Onyx still galloped apace with the dun mare.

          "Open the gates!" Zeke yelled as loud as he could. "Riders return, open the gates!"

          The great, heavy, iron gates were pulled open as the two Riders galloped through. Right before they clanged shut again, an Eefrit wriggled inside and launched itself at Zeke, smashing him to the ground. The townsfolk scrambled for their weapons, but the large, black beast was going for Zeke's throat before they could so much as lay hand to their rifles.

          Zeke smelled the fetid breath and shut his eyes tight against the feel of teeth in his throat when he felt the creature jerk, shudder, and then it collapsed on him and didn't move. He turned his head and saw Bianca, scrubbing her dirt smeared cheek with one hand, her rifle aimed at the creature.

          She looked at him and said, "Are you all right?"

          He gave her a thumbs up. She smiled, nodded as if to say, "Good," and sank to the ground, her rifle in her lap and her head falling back against one of the town walls.

          She could finally let herself relax now. They'd made it back from the Morn Temple with the medicines and supplies.

          The Ride was over.

by L.A. Knight
... who is a freelance writer resident in the southwest, author of several science fiction and speculative fiction short stories; this is her first published work.

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