– Chapter Six –
All around the wagon the brush and trees shook as bandits leapt onto the road. The commotion and sudden movements spooked the horses. They reared up and threatened to bolt in any open direction, even if that meant dragging the wagon along. Merlyn stood up and with all his aging strength he pulled back hard on the reigns. The horses calmed, a little, but the beasts kept stepping in place, both ready to bolt if a fly landed on one of their backsides.
“Stay in the wagon!” Clara told Rose before tossing the other girl her hat, leaping over the wagon’s side, and dropping to the dirt road in a crouch. Immediately she drew the knife secreted at the middle of her back. Rose had to stay in the wagon. As far as Clara could remember, the girl was not a fighter and rather soft besides.
Clara’s blade was only slightly longer than the distance between her wrist and the tip of her middle finger. Nothing fancy, the steel was sharp and would do the job well enough. She held the weapon with a forward grip and wished she’d tied her hair back in a tail. She pushed away loose dark curly strands from her face and tucked them behind her ears.
The sword and pistol wielding twin guard lay not far from Clara, unmoving, an explosion of red across his brow. Clara gritted her teeth and blew out a breath. Nothing to be done for him now.
Crouching in the shadow of the wagon and wearing mostly black and brown clothing were advantages for Clara… for the moment. Shortly the group of bandits would find her. She needed to act quickly. The wagon also blocked part of her vision, not really an issue…
Slow down, Clara, she told herself. Remember what Dad taught you.
Every conduit could sense the Field intuitively, like a buzzing frequency on the edges of their perception. When a conduit’s abilities manifest—early in life, for Clara six years old—that buzzing could drive him or her insane. It’s everywhere. Around people. Within people. Floating in the air. Coursing through the earth. For a young, wild conduit, the openness of the world revealed through the Field is overloading. One of the first things her father taught her was to push that perception—the Field sense—away and focus on the normal five senses, to press the Field to the back of her mind until it was a manageable tickle at the base of her neck.
Clara allowed her eyes to roll back as she focused on the tickle.
The world bloomed…
The wagon was no longer a hindrance, she could see around the bends and obstacles blinding her normal sight. The Field fed her information, a digital map of the area and its inhabitants—the smaller the area the more details. She sensed the decaying road with its hulking road golems. The mid-morning breeze causing the Field to ungulate with its passing. There were six bandits surrounding the wagon. A single, rider-less horse was galloping up the road, away from her position. Merlyn remained atop the wagon calming the horses. Clay was on his feet, boots on the ground, fighting steel-to-steel with a couple of bandits much smaller than he. The remaining twin guard had his hands full with a couple bandits of his. One person lay lifeless in the road not far away, a hole in his chest from a gunshot wound.
One disadvantage to relying on the Field for this data feed was it dulled Clara’s other senses, diverting her attention completely. Also, her brain could only process the data bit by bit, slowly. Allowing the Field to rush through, to break the mental dam, would speed up the feed but Clara might then collapse to the ground as a drooling mess.
She did not sense the bandit coming around the wagon—behind her—until his steel was glittering above his head.
Aside from the Field tutelage, Clara’s father also taught her how to use a blade.
You have to protect yourself, Clara, you’re a conduit and the dangers to us are greater than normal humans, she heard her father’s shade remind her.
She pushed the Field away, shifted her position to face her attacker and deflected the descending knife strike. As quickly as she’d pushed aside the Field, Clara brought her knife across the man’s midsection in a quick slash. She reversed the blade with a flick of her wrist and buried the blade in the man’s gut. He fell forward on top of her. She pushed him away with a straining grunt, half his body now lay underneath the wagon.
Touching the tickle at the base of her neck again, Clara knew two of the bandits were still pressing Clay, he on the defense. She needed to help him.
Two more bandits were sneaking around the back of the wagon, not to engage Clara put to snatch the barrels and boxes while everyone else was distracted. Rose was hiding among the wagon’s cargo!
Clara needed to help both of the Mathers siblings. Problem with a conduit being useful in a fight was he or she needed a machine, a useful machine. That or the conduit needed to be creative and spontaneous.
Clara noticed a road golem pushed off the side of the old road, a few paces from where Clara crouched. An idea struck her like lightning. If she were lucky, Clay wouldn’t be freaked out…
Taping the Field within herself was like taking a long breath while submerged in honey or molasses, but practiced conduits could produce Nites quickly enough regardless. Clara didn’t hide her abilities as much as she should so she was quicker at processing the viscous-like Field than most. In her haste to aid Clayton and Rose she perhaps produced too many Nites for her plan; if not used, holding on to the extra Nites could burn her up later. Nothing to do about that now, though. Clara inched over to the nearby automobile. She inhaled deeply through her nose, infused the gathered Field from herself with a little instructional will, and finally released the breath through her puckered lips.
From her fingertips firefly looking blue sparks fluttered, their travel marked by the same buzzing emitted by the Field, except lower, closer to the wind passing through a reed. The three Nites disappeared into the sleeping automobile—an old truck with the bed long scavenged for some unknown purpose.
Within seconds the golem began honking. No one had heard an automobile’s horn in generations, not often anyway. Most citizens and militia used bells or trumpets to call out commands, to grab attention for whatever reason. This noise from the golem was mechanical, sharp, disturbing. It demanded attention like an angry child throwing a temper tantrum.
If Clara’s luck held the road golem’s sudden noisy Waking would strike all the bandits momentarily dumb. And if luck favored her further, Clay, the remaining guard, and Merlyn would use the distraction to strike offensive blows to their aggressors. In her mind, Clara crossed her fingers and retreated to the wagon to help Rose.
Then she realized she’d left her knife in the dead bandit she’d left halfway covered by the wagon.
Her honking road golem trick would work for a short time, surprises faded after seconds. No time to grab the knife, she decided.
Clara ducked around the side of the honking road golem facing away from the fight. To surprise the bandits attempting a stealthy looting of the cargo in the Mathers wagon, she then swung wide to approach the wagon from further down the worn path. Good thing the golem’s horn was so loud. Birds had long taken flight from their perches in the roadside trees.
Both bandits had their backs to Clara as she snuck up on them from behind. One held a pistol high and was glancing around for the source of the disturbing noise. The second was fumbling with the latch on the tailgate. By the shapes the fumbling bandit’s lips were making she could tell he was cursing, nervous about Clay, Merlyn, or the guard catching him and his buddy sneaking the wagon’s cargo.
Clara decided to take out the bandit with the ready weapon, the most obvious threat. Her hand, the right, the one she released the Nites with, ached as if she was trying to hold up a bucket someone was constantly dumping water in. She shrugged off the feeling. Later.
She abandoned her own stealthy approach and rushed the bandit with the pistol, her body bent low.
The pistol-touting bandit turned when he heard Clara shouting. Too late. She slammed into his lower back. His legs twisted from the sudden shock. The momentum and force Clara brought sent the bandit falling forward. His head struck the edge of the tailgate and red exploded with a blunt thump. Unfortunately, the out of control maneuver forced Clara to sacrifice her own balance. She went tumbling with the bandit who she’d thrown into the tailgate.
Suddenly Clara’s scalp began to burn and she exchanged her war cry for a painful scream. The fumbling bandit had grabbed her by the hair, twisted her dark mane in his fist, and was pulling her up. She was on her knees now, her had jerked back to bare her throat.
A set of yellow teeth leered at her, one of the two front black with decay. The bandit opened his mouth to say something and threads of saliva stretched from the bottom and top of his mouth. Gross! He was skinny, not starving skinning but narrow framed and boney. The sun creaking through the tree canopies above produced a glare around the fumbling bandit’s face but the loops and studs from the piercings in his face shone through. That’s all Clara noticed, the fire stripping her head impeded her thoughts.
She tried slapping away the bandit’s hand, the one gripping and pulling on her hair, but he swatted her away. She next attempted to claw at his arm, to draw pain across the man’s exposed flesh. This time the bandit cuffed her on the ear, striking her cheek. He drew a pistol and shoved the barrel against her temple.
More nonexistent water was dumped into the imaginary bucket Clara felt like her arm was lugging around.
The road golem honking cut off. The Nites Clara had infused it with had dissipated into the Field at large. To replace those, her body would absorb replacement energy from the Field over time and with enough rest. If she lived long enough.
She heard the bandit draw his pistol’s hammer, a round chambered.
Maybe Clay can get to Rose before this smelly tooth cavity finds her. Hopefully I bought everyone some time. Hopefully.
The weight in Clara’s arm was growing too much for her, the ach having spread past her elbow.
“Good night, deary!” the bandit sounded, the bubble his string of saliva had formed in his open mouth popped as he spat the words against her upturned face.
Clara would not have her life fade to black without putting up a fight. Mo Danvers father taught his little conduit better.
For whatever reason, Clara chose her right hand to ball up into a fist, perhaps because the appendage and limb together felt like a hammer ready to smash a melon.
She threw a punch deep in the bandit’s gut and without meaning to, at the same time as her fist connected, released the last of the Nites she’d created to Wake the golem. Static zapped Clara, the type of static shock one receives when touching a doorknob.
The air sizzled and the bandit yelped like a stubborn working animal whipped into motion. Clara felt the man’s body buck before it went slack, the pressure of the pistol at her temple falling away.
Clara wheeled around. Lying several feet away was the bandit, his body smoking. The body reminded Clara of tree after lightning has struck it.
“Clara? Clara, are you alright?”
Rose’s question took a long time to enter Clara’s head and process. Eventually Clara reacted by patting herself down, searching for injuries. Her clothes were not smoking. Her body didn’t feel like overcooked beef. By her knee a clump of dark hair—her hair—had fallen, the chuck the bandit had gripped in his fist. Her cheek was stinging but her fingers came away without blood and the flesh lacked the tenderness that precedes a bruise.
She turned back around to face Rose and managed a weak smile, though her words came out trembling. “I’m fine. Just-just a little shaken.”
“Did you… Did you…” Rose’s voice shook as much as Clara’s, more so even. She couldn’t finish speaking. Instead, Rose pointed to the smoking bandit.
Did you fry that guy? This was the question Rose meant to ask Clara.
Once more, Clara regarded the unmoving bandit and nearly felt sick.
She pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, waited for her stomach to stop doing cartwheels, then she moved her head side to side at Rose in the affirmative.
“Is he dead?” Rose whispered, not making to exit the wagon.
“No offense, Rose,” Clara said, “but I’m not checking. Feel free.”
Quickly, Rose declined with a head shake. She too looked a little green. “No thanks, I’m good from up here.”
“I think the fighting stopped,” Rose commented. She had pressed herself against a barrel further up toward the wagon’s front. She poked her head up over the rim, unsure if she’d be shot while peeking.
To Clara’s ears the air was empty of clashing steel and whizzing bullets. Good signs.
Clara got to her feet and crab walked to the wagon, taking cover… just in case.
Clayton rushed around, sword drawn and ready to hack any opponent who dared challenge him. He took stock of the bludgeoned bandit Clara knocked into the tailgate and the—likely—dead bandit, killed by Nite… lightning? Clara didn’t know what she done to the thief! The rancher’s son stood so close to Clara she noticed a number of the steel rings on his leather jacket were broken or missing, the leather scored from sword or dagger slashes. Otherwise, no blood stained Clayton’s clothing. He was okay. She wanted to throw her arms around the big oaf.
Before she could act on that impulse, Clay turned on Clara and started shouting.
“What the hell were you thinking, Clara?!”
“Me?” She was stunned, nearly knocked back on her rear. What had she done to earn Clay’s anger?
“Clayton!” Rose crawled to the tailgate and glared at her brother. “Don’t bark at Clara! She saved me from the bandits.”
Clay sheathed his longsword and shoved his empty pistol angrily into the holster at his hip. “What she should have done is take you, Rose, underneath the wagon and wait for all this business to work out.”
Rose rolled her eyes and snorted. “And if you had died and were not here to defend my maidenhood? Huh? What then? We girls were supposed to crawl into the woods and become sport for the bandits to hunt? That’s if they didn’t drag out us out first, rape us before we could run.”
“If you would have hidden during the commotion of battle the Junkers would never have noticed you,” Clayton insisted angrily. He was angry beyond rationality at this point. Everyone was safe, except the one twin guard. “They were after our stock. Let them have the goods. You, Rose, are more important than the produce and meat. We can grow and raise more. There’s only one of you, Rose!”
Tenderness was lying just under the surface of those words. Clara’s heart soften, she found no anger of her own to fuel a defensive tirade.
“Accept my apologies, Clay,” she said meekly, but too convinced of her right actions to fully hang her head. “I thought a distraction would give you guys an edge, that it may throw off the bandits.”
Didn’t Clay say ‘Junkers’ instead of ‘bandits?
“You’re irrational use of those stupid junk piles did more harm than good. They’re unpredictable and costs lives. Clara, you weren’t thinking!”
Lives? Unless Clara was mistaken, she had saved Clayton’s sister and possibly given him aid in overtaking his own opposites. He should be thanking her right about now, not decrying her efforts!
The fire had returned to Clara’s heart and she was prepared to spit out the blaze if Clay would not step away and out of her face.
“Pardon me for saving your sister, Clay. I guess I should have done nothing!”
“Stupid coppertop! You don’t know what you did? How much damage—”
“What did you just—” Both girls said at the same time, disbelief raising their voices as high as guillotine ready to chop off the head of the rancher’s son.
Clayton cut the girls off, cutting the air with his flattened hand. “You may have saved my sister but if you would have thought further along you might have changed your actions. As you didn’t, Merlyn got shot. He hesitated when that stupid junk started squawking, the Junker on him didn’t…”
Rose gasped and rushed to climb over the barrels to get to Merlyn’s place at the reigns. She ignored how her climbing skirts snagged and ripped on the barrel rims, as well the immodesty the position presented when the skirts flipped up.
“Clay… I’m… I didn’t… Is Merlyn…”
Fury visibly deflated from the older boy’s chest. He bowed his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. He was exhausted and ready to fall over, not from his fight with the bandits but from the emotional eruption.
When he didn’t answer Clara, she moved to walk around him, to find Rose and ultimately Merlyn. He couldn’t be dead. Not Merlyn. The older man was as tough as tanned leather, long dried stiff in the sun-blistered field but nonetheless strong and field-tested. He’d survived more than this world can throw at worse men. Then again, Clara had thought the same way about her own father…
Clayton grabbed Clara by the shoulders and barred her way. Despite the firm grip, he did not hurt her. “He’ll live. Shot to the shoulder. Bruising from the fall off the wagon. The fall saved him from taking any worse injuries. Dawson has a medical kit and is tending to him.”
“You’ve done enough. Leave. Rivend’s not far. We’re heading back to Linden Grove. There’s a good doctor in town.”
The fight left her. She would listen. This time. She didn’t want to face Rose. Merlyn was like a second father to her, she’d lost one too many father figures for her short lifetime. Clayton released Clara.
Shuffling forward, trying to get blood circulation going in her limbs, Clara went to the bandit underneath the wagon. She took back her knife and stopped for a breath. The man was in his early twenties, not much older than she, like any person she would bump into on the streets of Linden Grove. His clothes were dark grey and green, better to blend into the forest, heavy workman’s leathers. No one knows where the Junkers hide out. Most assume they live in the ruins, up high in the abandoned buildings surrounded by the junk they covet. Again, the Junker—Clay had said they were Junkers—looked utterly normal. The only exceptions were the wires and cables that could have been yanked out from the guts of any golem. He wore the golem guts like necklaces and bracelets. Threaded through the wires were what her father referred to as flash memories, thumb-sized devices once used to hold data. Strangest were the shimmering pieces of metal in the young man’s flesh, ears, nose, even below his lower lip—piercings of a short, probably. She couldn’t be sure; the shadows were thick underneath the wagon’s bottom. If not for Clayton intense stare at her back, Clara might have investigated further. Then again, she had enough nightmares of the boogieman; she didn’t need those more vivid.
Clara wiped her knife’s blade clean on the tail of the shirt the Junker’s corpse wore before she rose. From the back of the wagon she retrieved her pack and hat.
Hat on shoved down on her head, brim tilted down over her eyes, head down, Clara crossed the old broken road to the other side. She didn’t want to see Rose or Merlyn as she passed. She did reach out to the Field and verify Merlyn was alive. He was. That was enough comfort for Clara. A little.
Wanna keep reading?! Turn the page to Chapter Seven.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved