“Hey… Wake up!” Ruben yelled.
Aurora struggled to open her eyes to the rising morning sun. “What?” she groggily replied with one eye closed.
“The instrument cluster isn’t responding.”
Aurora rose up slowly from the helicopter seat she’d been sleeping in. Not that it wasn’t welcome, it wasn’t that comfortable anyway. “So I take it we’re on foot from here then?”
“Yeah. And I don’t exactly fancy being near a downed helicopter in the open for very long. It’s not exactly inconspicuous. So gather up what you can, and we can head west on foot.”
Aurora tried to shake off her sleepiness as she looked around for any provisions to take along. Reaching her hand under the rear passenger seats, her hand grazed over a cold, metal object. With a bit of force, she yanked it out and held it up to the light. It was a rather ornate dagger resting in a silvery metal sheath. Pulling the dagger out of its holster, she noticed it had both a serrated edge and a straight edge.
“This could come in handy,” Aurora said, showing it to Ruben.
“Here, let me see that.”
“No,” Aurora quipped, shoving the dagger in her pocket, “finders keepers.”
Ruben found a backpack in one of the storage compartments and began filling it with what he could. A couple water bottles, some ration bars, and a few small tools, all of course emblazoned with Nyhrin Empire logos.
Once both of them had scoured through the helicopter for everything that wasn’t bolted down, Ruben slung the backpack over his shoulders and turned to Aurora, “Ready?”
With that, they headed off opposite the Sun.
“So, how much further till we get across the border?” Aurora asked.
“We already are,” Ruben answered, “Where I set the helicopter down is about two kilometers outside the border. So, at least we made it out of the Empire
“What’s your plan now?”
Ruben stopped cold and stared straight at Aurora. “Are you kidding me? My plan? My plan?! You’re the one that brought us out here! You told me to land in that field, and you got me to fly the helicopter! What’s my plan? How about what’s your plan?!”
“Well, since you asked… I say we keep heading west for now until we have reason to stop. The further away we get from the Empire, the better. That does mean traveling through the Kingdom of Deseret, which, admittedly, I don’t know much about, but I’d rather face that unknown than the shithole we just left.”
Ruben caught back up with Aurora and they continued walking.
“Besides,” Aurora added, “maybe you’ll find a solution to that whole Quarantine Zone thing you were telling me about.”
“So… just walk aimlessly until we find something? Great plan.”
“A lack of a plan is sometimes the best plan,” Aurora replied as if she were quoting some obscure philosopher.
Ruben sighed and gave up seeking reassurance from his fickle companion. He looked forward instead, putting one foot in front of the other, walking towards the dry, grassy horizon.
Aurora squinted her eyes and leaned forward. “Do you think those are mountains over there?” she asked, pointing towards some grey smudges in the distance.
“Possibly. Or they could be a mirage. Or they could be a fleet of Deseret tanks on a border patrol mission.”
“Deseret has tanks?”
Slightly irritated by the arid climate, Ruben responded, “How should I know? Isn’t that your expertise, Ms. Vipera Aspis?”
“Don’t get so snappy. Vipera Aspis specializes in internal affairs. I’m not too familiar with our foreign excursions.”
“Putting aside your unhelpful whining, if those are indeed mountains, then there might be some headwaters there. We’re going to need fresh water if we don’t want to die in this heat.”
“You seem quite knowledgeable for someone who claims to not dabble in foreign policy.”
“Okay, okay. I don’t have a better idea, so I guess that’s where we’re going.”
Several relatively quiet kilometers passed as Aurora and Ruben made their way toward the mountains, the overhead Sun offering little respite from the enduring heat. Both of them went through the two water bottles they’d brought along, but it didn’t seem to hold back the onslaught of sweat pouring from each of them. Stopping about a kilometer away from the base of the mountains, Aurora reached into the backpack on Ruben’s back and pulled out a ration bar, handing it to him.
“Here, you’re slowing down. Eat this.”
“Okay,” he said, too exhausted to offer any objection. It tasted just as bad as the one he’d had in the helicopter the day before. “Seriously, is it too difficult to make decent tasting nonperishable food?”
Aurora smiled at him, “Yeah, it is.”
Ruben finished his ration bar and the two continued toward the base of the mountains. As they got closer, Aurora seemed to quicken her pace.
“You hear that?” she asked.
Ruben leaned forward and turned to Aurora, “Yeah…”
The two immediately started toward the sound of the noise, as if racing each other, until they came to a sloped rise with a small valley below. Nestled in the valley was what they’d been after, a river.
Aurora looked at Ruben with a very satisfied grin, “See, I told you.”
“Not bad, not bad at all.”
They both slid down the small grassy slope toward the river and brought the cool, idyllic elixir to their lips. They were saved. After consuming their fill, they collapsed on the smooth, wet rocks nearby. The misted air aiding in their recovery as they lay there, completely still.
Heaving a sigh, Aurora rose back up. She took the opportunity to refill their water bottles, then turned back to Ruben. “We should follow the river. It’s flowing west.”
“Do we have to?”
“Well, we can’t just stay here forever.”
“But it’s so nice here.”
“C’mon Ruben, let’s go.”
Aurora pulled Ruben up and they departed, following the river’s winding path through the highlands.
The moisture emanating from the waterway made the journey much more bearable, and they hiked along at a hearty pace. It wasn’t long before the Sun barged into their field of view, painting their westwardly direction in pastel pink. Shadows were becoming much darker, but there was a point downriver that stayed as bright as it had been a few hours ago. Aurora nudged Ruben.
“That over there. It’s still so bright even though the Sun’s almost set.”
“It’s probably a settlement. Don’t dawdle around. We can make it there before nightfall if we book it.”
Ruben picked up the pace, navigating the rocks like a mountaineer.
“Guess he’s the kind of horse that needs a carrot,” Aurora muttered to herself.
“I said no dawdling!”
With the last remaining daylight, they reached the foot of what appeared to be a village. A number of circular stone buildings with straw roofs hugged the river. Between them was a network of dirt paths, dotted with tall torches planted in the ground. A few Deseretans, clothed in somewhat basic accoutrements, befitting the dwellings around them, shuffled along the pitted dirt paths. Some looked as if they were working, others just seemed to be out strolling, but no one acted as if they were in any particular hurry.
As the villagers saw Aurora and Ruben enter along the main thoroughfare, all eyes turned to them. A young girl being herded somewhere by her mother began jumping up and down with excitement, pointing her finger at the two foreigners. Animated whispering broke out among the bystanders, and after a particularly lively conversation, a young man sprinted off into the settlement.
Pulling Ruben aside, Aurora whispered, “Is this a good or a bad reaction?”
Ruben shrugged in response.
Aurora narrowed her eyes at his annoyingly carefree attitude, but before she could berate him with an insult, they were approached by a tall man with many creases lining his face. Despite his imposing frame, he had soft, welcoming eyes and a very confident smile. As he held out his hands, he spoke with a warm demeanor.
“Greetings, strangers! It is rare that our humble village of Linx is treated to any visitors, considering how out of the way we are. If you have some time to spare, we would be honored to provide lodging and any other amenities you require.” Glancing left and right, he let out a chuckle. “As you can see, our villagers are already ecstatic about your arrival!”
Ruben looked at Aurora, bewildered at the hospitality they were receiving, then quickly back to the man. “How about food?”
“Ruben!” Aurora scolded, hitting his arm.
“What?! I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten a proper meal in days.”
The man laughed, “Of course, of course! It may not be the most luxurious, but what’s ours is yours. Please, follow me back to my home. You two can stay with my family tonight.”
“That’s very generous,” Aurora answered, “mister… uh, what was your name?”
“Oh, forgive me. In all the excitement I must have forgotten. I’m Vassal Michael, the leader of this village.”
“Vassal… Michael?” Ruben replied.
“Yes,” Michael answered, “now, come with me. You can clean yourselves up and have a nice meal at our house.”
Ruben and Aurora nodded and followed Michael through the streets of the village. Other villagers welcomed them as they passed by. After turning a street corner, the trio arrived at a two-story house that was very much bigger than those around it. It was ornately decorated on the outside with many potted plants lining its front door. The stone facade reflected the little remaining daylight that was left, and light shone from almost every window. Opening the crudely crafted wooden door, Michael led them in. The rock interior was bathed in the dancing light of the torches, giving the place an odd charm.
“Helen!” Michael beckoned. A fair-skinned woman with long caramel hair promptly arrived from an adjacent room. “Draw a bath for our guests, would you?”
“Oh my!” Helen exclaimed. “God has graced us with two lovely strangers. It’s a blessing to meet you! I’ll get the water ready right away!” And before Aurora or Ruben could reply, Helen rushed off.
“She seems like a wonderful wife,” Aurora remarked.
“That she is.” After a pause, Michael called again, “Elaine!” A high-browed, raven-haired lady strode in from a different room. “Tonight’s dinner is going to be for eight, alright dear?”
Her face lit up, “Yes, of course!” She curtsied to her guests, then scurried off.
Ruben turned to Michael, “…Sister?”
“Oh, no,” answered Michael with a laugh, “Elaine is my second wife.”
“Of course. Gloria!” Michael shouted yet again.
A demure voice called from upstairs, “Yes?”
“Could you lay out some clothes for our two guests in the spare room?”
Ruben looked again at Michael. Afraid to ask, he simply held up three fingers. Michael nodded with a smile. Ruben turned to Aurora with a crooked smile, and Aurora could do nothing but roll her eyes. “Come on,” she said, grabbing Ruben by the sleeve of his shirt, “let’s go bathe.”
Walking down the first floor hallway, Ruben and Aurora found Helen in the washroom, nearly finished drawing water into a particularly large linen-laiden wooden tub. The steam billowing off the top of the water looked quite inviting. With one last bucketfull, Helen was finished.
“All done, dears. Take your time,” Helen said as she left back down the hallway.
Ruben made a move for the washroom, but Aurora pulled him back. “What are you doing?” she asked, pushing him from the doorway.
“Bathing,” he responded coyly.
Aurora pushed him back even further, “Ladies first.” She shut the door behind her, making sure to lock it.
“Lady…? That’s a laugh,” Ruben muttered under his breath.
It took an hour for Aurora and Ruben to make themselves clean and presentable, and by that time, Elaine had finished making dinner.
Seated at the head of the lavishly thick, wooden dining table was Vassal Michael, and on either sides of the table were his three wives and two children. All five of them clasped their hands together, pausing and looking expectantly at their guests beside them. Aurora nudged Ruben and clasped her hands together in the same fashion. Ruben followed suit.
Michael spoke, “We thank the Lord for the bountiful harvest that has gifted us with this splendid meal. May we be so lucky to be graced with such blessings for years to come. Amen.”
“Amen,” his family replied.
“Amen,” Aurora repeated, nudging Ruben again.
“A-amen,” finished Ruben.
“Enjoy this meal to the fullest, my friends!” Michael urged.
With that, everyone began divvying up their food from the serving dishes in the center of the table. It was a full spread, to say the least. Meat, potatoes, corn and a host of other fresh vegetables, and several generous servings of bread. Ruben was practically drooling at the sight of it all.
Once all of Michael’s family had filled their plates, Ruben and Aurora did the same. As Aurora reached for a slice of bread, Morrigan, Michael’s daughter, spoke up. “You’re not from the Kingdom, are you?”
Almost instantly, Daniel, Michael’s youngest, flicked Morrigan on the back of her head. “Don’t ask our guests things like that so directly!”
“Ow!” Morrigan scowled at her brother.
“No, it’s fine,” Aurora answered, taking a sip of water, “I don’t mind. To answer your question, no, we’re not from the Kingdom of Deseret. We’re just… passing through, I guess you could say.”
“So, where are you from?” asked Morrigan.
“The Nyhrin Empire, to the east of here.”
At that, everyone stopped eating and stared at Aurora.
“The east?” asked Helen, “Well, bless you, sweety.”
“Why?” asked Aurora, slightly confused.
Michael spoke up, “Well, you’re certainly not the first person from the Empire that’s stumbled into our village. Though, I must say, you two were in remarkably better shape than most that have.”
“Really?!” quipped Ruben, with a mouthful of potatoes.
“Indeed,” answered Michael, “so many were bruised, and bloody, and battered to within what seemed like a hair’s breadth of death by the time they straddled into the village here.”
“What happened to these people?” Aurora questioned.
“Well, as with you, we do what we can for them at the time. We feed them, wash them, clothe them, treat their injuries if they need it, and if they ever feel up to it, we let them leave. Sadly, there are some refugees that are just too close to death to be saved. When that happens, we give them a respectful sendoff and burial in the village’s cemetery.”
“That’s… sad to hear,” Aurora responded somberly. “Your community is quite a kind one.”
“Oh, no need to make a big fuss about it. Any Good Samaritan would do the same.” Elaine smiled, shaking off the compliment. “The eyes of God are always watching. Who wouldn’t want to save their spot in His Kingdom.”
“Elaine!” Michael scolded lightly. “You must perform good deeds for their merit in and unto themselves. You offend our Prophetess when you treat them like currency.”
“O-of course, darling! I didn’t mean it like that.”
Michael chuckled. “Yes honey, I know you meant well.”
Morrigan tugged at the hem of Michael’s tunic. “Daddy, Daddy! Tell the travellers about Her holy teachings or they might offend her too!” she half-whispered.
Aurora looked at Michael with curiosity, eager to hear more.
“Well, as you can tell, our lands are barren and inhospitable. It is only through God’s benevolent will, long ago, that we were able to found our motherland. It was the Erie family that He blessed with sight beyond the mortal plane. It was only they who could see what He envisioned, and they who could speak what He prophesied. With their guidance, we were able to transform this unforgiving wasteland into a home. Her Holiness, Jasmine, is our current Prophetess who carries on the will of those before her in service to Him.”
“Ah, I see,” Aurora responded, leaning back in her chair, as everyone finished with their meals.
Michael chuckled. “Sorry about that, I’ve been called a zealot more than once in my lifetime. Anyway, why don’t you two head to your rooms. I’m sure you’re tired from all that’s happened today.”
“Ah, good idea. It’s just this way,” Gloria informed them as she got up and led them out of the dining room, down the hallway, and into a modest bedroom with two cots situated in the center of the floor. “Sleep well. You’re under God’s protection here,” Gloria reassured them as she left the room, closing the door behind her.
“I thought those nutjobs would never shut up,” Ruben sighed.
“You idiot! Do you not realize the situation we’re in? Would you rather sleep outside? Because I’m sure as hell not going to be joining you.”
“…I guess. But all that God mumbo jumbo was starting to creep me out. It’s as if they thought God himself was going to fall from the sky and shake me like an impetuous child if I misbehaved.”
Aurora let out a heavy sigh. “Whatever, just keep those thoughts inside and enjoy this hospitality while we can. Who knows, it might not come again.”
“Yeah… Those potatoes were good though, I’ll give them that.”
Aurora rolled her eyes as she reached over the table between the cots and snuffed out the oil lamp that was lighting the room. She turned over, facing away from Ruben.
“By the way, what’s our plan tomorrow?” Ruben asked, hiding a yawn.
“Keep going west, unless you have a better plan.”
“Goodnight, then,” Aurora said, letting out a contented sigh.
“Goodnight.” Ruben echoed.
Before closing her eyes, Aurora placed a hand in her pocket on the dagger that she found, making sure it was still there. Then she placed a finger to her throat, holding it there for ten seconds, ensuring that the communication microchip would be silenced for the next twelve hours. Satisfied that everything was as it should be, she closed her eyes and drifted off.
A hot stinging on Aurora’s throat jolted her awake. The silhouette of an armor-clad cavalier loomed over her, spear digging into her neck. Shifting her eyes to the left, she could see another silhouette hunched over Ruben’s cot. A deep voice rose up behind the soldiers from a bald, robed man, who stood in the open doorway.
“Heretics will repent.”
The spearman brought his metal boot up to the side of Aurora’s head with a violent thrust. And before a word could escape her lips, she’d lost consciousness.