from Alder and Ash
Everyone looked at them when they walked into the bar—for about ten seconds. Alder and Ash had been led to believe that it was normal to wear nothing above the waist in summer. But those who looked saw two Amazon teenagers, bigger than almost any man in the room, with big shoulder muscles and big swords and big bows over their shoulders. Then everyone quietly adapted their world-views to include Alder and Ash.
They went straight to the bar, downed a liter of water each followed by a liter of the local ale, which was smooth and coppery and very easy to drink. Then they had another.
“Check that guy,” said Alder.
“Ssh.” Ash looked: it was easy to pick out “that guy” in the crowd. Everyone had a cowboy hat, and everyone wore boots, though there was some variety after that. But this fellow had a tight-fitting leather helmet on and light high-traction shoes. He was eating, and he had a pint of water in front of him. He did not seem aware of their attention. Another man in a helmet came back from peeing or something; they communicated with a gesture and left.
“Well, none of our business,” said Alder, downing the second half of her second liter. “Another, then some pool?”
“Sure,” said Ash, downing hers.
They played pool for half an hour, knocking the balls around on the warped table for fun, and then two fairly hunky men challenged them to a match. Ash and Alder smiled at each other and said, sure, you can play us. “For a gold dollar,” said Alder.
They came from behind to beat their male friends, and then the bet was doubled and this time the Amazons cleaned the table, and presently they were sitting on thirty gold coins won from several pairs of local men.
“We’ve done pretty good,” said Ash. “Let’s go camp somewhere and make sure no one follows us.”
“Or,” said Alder, “we could join that poker game. Those guys said they’ll keep filling our mugs as long as our money’s on the table.”
“Oh, Alder. What if we lose it all? Hello? We’re good at pool. We suck at poker.”
“Oh, Ash, what’s it matter? We don’t really need the money.”
Ash smiled. They looked across the room, at a round table with four men seated around it at irregular intervals. They smiled at the four rough characters and took seats side by side, their pile of gold in front of them. “We’re in,” said Alder.
“Separately, or together?” asked the dealer.
For a while their youthful exuberance and distracting breasts kept the men off their game, and two of the four went out. But the Amazons started losing in big chunks, and suddenly they were called with two jacks and two fives against a full house and four of a kind and they had no money at all.
“Our horses,” said Alder.
“Ash, I know what I’m doing,” said Alder, downing the second half of her sixth liter of coppery ale. She showed two queens and three sixes. “It’s a full house,” she whispered. “It’s really hard to beat.” She eyed her one remaining opponent. He eyed her right back: a sleazy looking fellow with knives, and probably cards, hidden all over himself. She grinned. “Besides, I don’t really like my current horse.”
“Yeah,” said Ash, “okay, but we better not lose this one.”
Five minutes later, they were walking down the road from the big bar, laughing. “Twelve liters,” Alder exulted. “Eight for free. A horse for eight liters. I’ll take that.”
“And the excitement was free,” said Ash. “Well, I guess I’ll cross professional gambler off my list. But you know what?” She stopped and took a deep smiling breath of the summer air. “My horse kind of sucked too.” They looked around. “So,” Ash asked, “now what?”
“Now we get new ones.”
“Yeah, how, steal them?”
“No, stupid, we use the twenty bucks I kept in the bottom of my pack.”
“Oh my goddess! Alder! You’re actually starting to show forethought! I’m so proud!”
“Shut up! Shall we camp somewhere? Six liters of ale will take it out of you.”
“Yeah, I have to let some of it out myself,” said Ash. “How about right here, and then camp a hundred meters on?”
They camped in the brush by a creek. They didn’t bother with a tent. The next morning, in the grey before dawn, Alder woke with branches sticking her from all directions and ants all over her left leg. She jumped up, brushed them off and jumped into the stream. “Yipes!” was her first word of the day.
Alder stood in the stream, looking sideways at Ash, who stood on a rock on the other side. “What is it?” she asked at last.
“I don’t know,” said Ash. “Something.”
“My goddess. Something. Something what?”
“Something watching, okay? I can’t put it into words. Okay?”
“Do you, um, do you feel a threat?” asked Alder.
Ash considered the breeze. “No,” she said. “Not too much.”
“Not too much??”
“Not too much! Okay?” Ash stepped into the stream, bent down and flung a wave of water at Alder. Then they were Amazon teenagers again, splashing each other and then rushing out to dry in the rising sun. They ate oatmeal and took off on foot, down a steadily slanted road across the plains. Around them the land gently rolled, and above them a vast blue sky extended from one prairie horizon to the other. They saw no one.
“Did you have that dream again?” Alder asked all of a sudden, about noon.
“Yes,” said Ash.
“I think it was all the beer.”
They hiked on for ten minutes across the prairie, and then Alder asked, “So what happens in the dream?”
“Well, mountains blow up. And lots of people die. And I don’t want to talk about it.”
In the early evening they bagged a prairie fowl and cooked it and ate it all as the darkness fell. An hour after sunset, they were lying back against their packs picking their teeth with their daggers and passing the flask and the pipe, and they were thinking that the hiking life was just fine. Then their hair stood on end.
“Come on,” said Ash, jumping up, suddenly sober. “Bring your bow.”
“What do you mean, ‘come on’?” asked Alder, but she followed. Ash was already out on the road, jogging along silently eastward in a low posture. Suddenly she veered to the right off the road, and Alder almost missed the turn. By the time Alder caught up, Ash had flung herself down behind a log at the top of a knoll. Below them, in the clearing in front of a little brick house, a helmeted man like those from the bar stood facing a man in the clothes of a mountaineer.
They spoke a few words back and forth in a language strange to Alder and Ash, not the Amazons’ Hyrna, nor the Ingan of the coast, nor the Ispa of the south lands. The mountaineer pulled something out of his pocket and caused a beam of light like a needle to shoot toward the man with the helmet. But Helmet showed no ill effects. He pulled out his own something and started firing needles of light at the mountain man. Helmet’s power was clearly more, and then Mountain Man’s thing ran out of juice and he stood helpless before his enemy’s final shot.
Then Helmet turned to face the source of the arrows that landed near him, and when he did so, two more arrows pierced his unguarded face. His head blew up.
“Well, that’s unusual,” said Alder. “I don’t know as I’ve seen that before.”
“Hey, you okay?” Ash was asking the man.
He replied with a few words in his own slightly familiar language, and then he seemed to compose himself, standing in front of his house on the prairie. “I’m fine,” he said in slightly accented Hyrna. “I thank you for your help.” He smiled at them, but they kept staring. “Uh, my name is John. I, uh, hunt and garden up here. It’s, ah, very pretty.”
“Yeah,” said Alder. “Yeah. You’re a fricking farmer. All you farmers have, like, beam weapons.”
He smirked and replied, “And all you underage Amazons are completely innocent of anything more techno than your bow and arrow.”
“All she’s saying,” Ash put in, “is we want to know what this was really about. I mean, we saw that guy last night in a bar, and we thought someone was like following us, and here he is again, and there’s those lightning bolts flying around, and we saved your life, and I think we deserve, like, an explanation?”
He looked them up and down. “No,” he said, “no explanation is forthcoming.” He turned away and headed back to the house.
They followed him. “Hey,” said Alder, “we helped. Give us that. You could have been killed.”
“I give you that,” said John, opening his door, going in and shutting it behind him.
“Come on,” said Ash, heading to the right around the house. Alder followed her, and when they got to the back, there was John staring at a smoldering crater about three meters wide and a meter deep, complete with blast marks. Technological remains lay about the crater. On the other side of it was another guy in a helmet. He switched his gaze from John to the Amazons, looking at them warily through his eye-holes. The two Amazons raised their bows and shot him, once in each eye-hole, and his head blew up just like the other one. They looked at each other.
“It was your way out, wasn’t it?” said Ash. “That guy destroyed it first, didn’t he? It was some techno transport, wasn’t it? He blew it up so you couldn’t run away. Hey—it was—it was a fighter, wasn’t it? Who are you?”
“I’m John,” said John.
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