Days became weeks, and as the boy started to find his own place in their odd and mismatched little family, Stranger found himself trying to come up with excuses to delay his inevitable departure. The roof needed fixing; he had to find a roofer to repair it. The fence was old and about to fall down; Stranger couldn’t possibly leave until he had rebuilt it. He didn’t trust some of the tradesmen who provided The Rotten Core with supplies; he had to have a talk with them to make sure they weren’t cheating Warlike by overinflating their prices.
Warlike, with uncharacteristic restraint, only raised an eyebrow at him when he explained his reasons for extending his stay, but didn’t point out that these problems were a constant in the life of a business owner on the edge of the Lawless Lands, and that she had managed them quite well without him during his many previous absences. She didn’t have to, because if he were being honest with himself, Stranger knew quite well that his reluctance to leave Colony Five sprang from the new responsibility he had unthinkingly taken on, when he had made the impulsive decision to rescue, and adopt, the boy.
Home, for Stranger, was never anything but a temporary retreat, like a watering hole in the desert, or a good dream after a hard day’s travel. A welcome respite, but one that was, by its very nature, a passing thing, and not to be held onto. And that was the way it had to remain. When Stranger had left Hahn, he had abandoned his former name, his identity and the life that had been laid out for him, and because of the way he had done it, he had consigned himself to a rootless, wandering existence.
Nothing that had happened since could rewrite the past, and if a spur of the moment decision to rescue a child in need had given Stranger responsibilities to a life outside of his own, he knew that those responsibilities could best be discharged by leaving the boy in Warlike and Hopeful’s care. The best thing he could do for the boy was to leave, and to allow him to become part of a home that, to Stranger, could never be more than a dream.
But like a sleeper reluctant to wake, though the chores of the day lay ahead, Stranger pulled the covers over his head and tried, for as long as he could, to put off the encroaching reality every dreamer must finally face: That reality is always present and, however much we might wish it to be otherwise, it will always win out in the end.
The awakening finally came on a day when Stranger was outside, working on repairing the fence, and it came in the shape of a visitor. It was a hot, dry day, and Stranger had a piece of cloth wrapped around his head and face, to keep the sun off his head and protect his lungs from the dust that rose, like a dry, suffocating mist, in the air. Because of the way the cloth blocked his peripheral vision, he didn’t realize that someone had come up behind him, until a familiar, female voice spoke up from a disconcertingly close distance:
“It’s a hot day. I thought you might like some water.”
Stranger, who had been swinging a hammer at the fence just as the voice caught him, froze in his motion just in time to stop himself from turning to swing the heavy instrument right at the speaker’s face. Instead, he very carefully lowered the hand holding the hammer and, pulling the cloth from his head, turned around. Serdia stood very still, her eyes wide and her free hand held disarmingly out in front of her, and Stranger mentally commended the woman for her keen situational awareness. She had been a mere moment away from catching a lethal hammer blow to the head, and clearly, she knew it.
“Ah. I apologize”, he said, trying on a welcoming smile. “You walk quietly. I didn’t hear you coming.”
Serdia raised her eyebrows and took a step closer, offering the pitcher of water she was carrying. Stranger slung the cloth he was holding over his shoulder to free up one of his hands, took the pitcher with a grateful nod, and drank deeply, while Serdia watched him with a thoughtful expression on her face.
“Silent steps are a trait of the hunter”, she said. “They serve me well in my profession, but I should remember that to be the hunter is not always wise – it makes people react like prey.”
Stranger let out a short bark of laughter at her astute observation, and raised the hammer, nodding to its hard, metal head.
“And when hunted, not all animals’ first instincts tell them to run away. But I’m sure you didn’t drop by to offer me water and observations – however fitting – on the habits of prey animals. Is there something I can do for you?”
“Perhaps.” Serdia came closer still, propping her hip against the fence and lowering her voice, so that Stranger had to strain to hear her. “Or perhaps there is something I can do for you. I’m not quite sure yet.”
The statement was mysterious, and to give himself time to think, Stranger tossed the hammer on the ground at his feet, pulled the cloth off his shoulder and poured water over it. He wiped the cool cloth over his sweaty brow, folded it into a square and placed it on top of his head, where the water wet his hair, dissolving the slick layer of salty sweat that had begun to irritate the sensitive skin of his scalp. After the silence had begun to stretch out too long, he finally spoke:
“I never thanked you for speaking up for me against Cunning”, he said. “It was unexpected, but welcome. Despite what the rumors say, I don’t hold with unnecessary violence.”
“Nor I”, Serdia agreed. “But ‘unnecessary’ is such an arbitrary term. Anyway. I didn’t come to play games. I came to deliver a warning, and maybe, to make you an offer. You’ve made an enemy in Cunning, and as you saw the other day, there are those who would take your side, if you decided to stand against him.”
Stranger paused for a moment, taking a closer look at her eyes, which were watching him closely. They were the eyes of a hunter, all right, watching, assessing, trying to discern the mind and thoughts of her prey. Would he run? Or would he do something potentially more interesting? But if her intentions were friendly, as everything about her behavior would indicate, what was her reason for watching his reactions so closely? Well, he decided finally, I won’t figure it out by standing around and thinking about it.
“Stand against him?” He asked. “The way I see it, the matter has been resolved. The boy warned me that his former master might want to make trouble for us, but so far, things have been quiet. And I think you helped me carry the point across to that piece of walking excrement, that where the boy is concerned, his interests are at an end. Or do you think he would risk making enemies of half the town, all for the sake of one slave?”
“Not for the sake of a slave”, Serdia said, waving a hand dismissively through the air. “But you humiliated him, and he has far too much invested in his pride to take that lightly. This isn’t about the boy, not anymore. You could give Cunning his slave back, wrapped in a pretty bow, and it still wouldn’t stop him from trying to destroy you. He has been talking to his customers, those who have ties in the Cities, trying to find out something about you that is more than campfire stories and whispers. So far, you have been safe in the Lawless Lands, because our customs are not the Cities’ customs, and our stories aren’t their stories. But if word got back, let’s say to the streets of Hahn, that there was a warrior-bred human building a name for himself in the Mixer cities, can you tell me that someone, somewhere wouldn’t be paying attention? And that, eventually, they might not come looking for you, even out here in the desert?”
And so, the time to be off had come. Stranger had known that it would, but that didn’t make the realization any more welcome. He let his head droop forward on his shoulders, closed his eyes, and gathered the resolve that had always gotten him through whatever privations he faced. When he felt it fill him to the brim, pushing away all his doubts and desires, he raised his head and met Serdia’s hard, direct gaze.
“No”, he said. “I would be lying if I said that they wouldn’t. His goal, then, is to run me out of town – and send the law down on my head, if I prove reluctant.”
“That would be my conclusion”, she agreed. “So, will you run? Or will you stay, and fight? I’m certain that if we wanted to, we could gather enough support to make Cunning see the worth of shutting his mouth. And who knows? If there are enough of us on your side, we might turn the tables on him and see that he is the one who is forced to flee. And with him, the last slaver in town whose business is still up and running.”
Stranger suddenly understood what Serdia had meant when she had said that perhaps, there was something he could do for her, and he could certainly see the morality of taking up the cause she was proposing for them. But he had stood in the way of established order before, and if it had taught him anything, it was that doing so led to no permanent good for anyone, but caused plenty of chaos and bloodshed.
“I’m no revolutionary”, he said, his voice quiet, but firm. Serdia didn’t even blink, but inclined her head, as if this was the answer she had been expecting. She pushed away from the fence with a jaunty lash of her tail, and nodded to him.
“Then, consider yourself warned. Because the way things stand, your presence here is bound to cause a revolution, whether that is your intention, or not.”
She walked off, and Stranger went back to work, mending the fence. As soon as it was finished, he would begin his preparations to be off.
Click here to go to Chapter 9!