Red. Everything was red. He wanted Muller’s head between his hands so he could crush it. He wanted to bury his fist in the bastards face over and over again until there was nothing but a red pulpy mess. Red.
His strides ate dirt, chest tight, short nails digging into the palms of his hands. He wanted to lose control, hated losing control and because of her, he almost had. He could hear her scrambling behind him, struggling to keep up. He didn’t slow down instead he took deep breaths, allowing the fury to settle.
“Dammit, Oz! Slow down!”
“What the hell?” True caught up, grabbed his shoulder and shoved. She was pissed too, he could tell. She moved to stand in front of him, her delicate features hard with annoyance.
He met her eyes and she flinched. Good. He dropped his chin and leaned forward so his face was only inches from hers. “What the hell were you thinking following me into that fucking cesspool? Have you any idea what could have happened to you? Oh, wait, of course you have because I was very clear, very specific when I explained the dangers of those places. So let me ask you – what the hell?” Each word was a bite, and Oz was satisfied to see True deflate a little. She worried her bottom lip with her teeth, a sure sign that she was feeling the doubt in her actions.
“I’m sorry… I know I shouldn’t have but you were gone so long and Ma…Ma’s sick.”
Oz looked over her head into the fast-approaching dusk searching for their caravans. The night was silent. Empty. “Where is she?”
True turned and began to walk. “Where you left us.”
“You didn’t bring the caravan.”
“I didn’t want to attract too much attention.”
Oz snorted. Well, at least she got that part right. His chest contracted with anxiety. Ma was never sick. They’d passed a settlement a week ago that had been flying the black flag – the flag of death and sickness. They had been careful not to get too close on their way around it, but who knew how the sickness took you. Ma could be sick, which meant that True would have been exposed! His anger vanished, replaced by violent concern.
He grabbed his sister’s shoulders squeezing. “What about you? Are you okay?”
True shrugged him off. “Ouch! I’m fine. I just… I didn’t know what to do about Ma. I was scared.”
Oz nodded, peeling his fingers off her. They began to walk. “She’s a tough woman. She’ll be fine. We’ll have to rush to Bishop, there’s a healer there who may be able to help.”
“Bishop? Is that where the next fight is?”
“Yes and it’s a big one.”
“But if she’s sick… I mean, shouldn’t we keep away from the settlements?”
“And let her die? No.”
True sighed, nodding in agreement.
He hid a smile. It was easier if he made the selfish decisions.
They picked up the pace.
They reached the caravans in good time. Oz clambered in to find his mother sitting up on her pallet, braiding her hair. The caravan was lit by one oil lamp. Oscar’s perch was empty. He was probably out exploring the night sky. Oscar was like Ma’s third child, she had found him – a tiny, sickly desert owl abandoned by his mother – and had nursed him back to health. He had been with them ever since.
He felt True behind him, heard her sharp intake of breath.
“Now where did you run off to, True?” Ma glared at her sternly. “I sent Oscar looking for you.” She sniffed. “The rascal probably gave up and went hunting for rodents.”
True pushed past Oz, rushing to Ma’s side, reaching for her forehead. Ma batted her away. “Shoo! What do you think you’re doing, child?”
True pressed her lips together in determination and batted back, finally getting a hand on Ma’s forehead. “Your fever…it’s gone.” She turned to Oz, her eyes wide with surprise. “She had a fever, Oz, I swear.”
“Pah!” Ma waved her hand. “Me? I’ve not been sick a day in my life! Fever. Pah!”
Oz looked from True to Ma. Ma was obviously fine, but True looked decidedly pale. He had no doubt that his sister had believed their mother was sick; she would never had risked entering the Drinking Hole otherwise. She had either been wrong or ma had made a miraculous recovery. Fact was she was alright.
“Ma’s fine. Let’s all eat and get some sleep. We have a long journey ahead of us,” he said. True opened her mouth to argue. He cut her off with a look.
“And where are we going this time?” Ma asked.
“Bishop.” Oz replied.
The caravan rocked as Rayne, their pet and guard dog, jumped aboard. He nudged Oz’s hand with his wet nose and whined.
“All good?” Oz asked.
Rayne chuffed, shaking his huge head.
Oz was convinced that the creature understood their every word. Like Oscar, he was a stray that Ma had raised. The Event centuries ago had caused mutations in many of the indigenous creatures as well as minor ones in humans. As a result, Rayne was huge. Well, that was how Ma told it anyway.
Rayne’s back was level with Oz’s hip and he was a good two metres long. He didn’t spend much time in the caravan’s, preferring to run free and scout ahead. While Oscar was their aerial lookout, Rayne was their ground guard. Over the years the two creatures had built a strong relationship of their own and seemed to work in harmony to protect them all.
Ma beckoned Rayne to her side. He lowered his huge bulk onto the foot of her pallet. “A few days ride, True. You better get carving, girl. We should make a few coppers in the markets there if your wares are worthy.” She nodded in True’s direction. “Go get cleaned up while your brother gets supper. I’ll keep watch for a while, until Oscar returns.”
True turned and stumbled toward the back of the caravan where her pallet and meagre belongings were kept. Oz watched as she pulled the curtain’s closed around her personal space.
“You sure you’re okay, Ma?” Oz asked, scrutinising her through narrowed eyes.
Ma smiled. “Fit as a fiddle.”
Oz smiled at another one of her odd phrases. She was always coming out with strange ones. He’d heard this one before, though, and recalled asking her what a fiddle was. She’d explained it to be a small musical instrument played in the time before. Much like the strings the bards played in the taverns today, but smaller.
“That stew won’t cook itself.” Her smile failed to dispel the shadows in her eyes. Oz turned away, his brow creased, lips pinched. Ma was hiding something, but he knew better than to press her. So, he left her caravan and walked across the plank leading to his own.
He sat on his pallet, allowing himself a moment’s reprieve as he surveyed his mobile home. It was an interesting contraption. True’s idea to bind two caravans together like this. True’s idea to strap a large tub to the top of the caravan to catch water. She’d even tied a mesh over the top to act as a filter. When it rained the tubs filled with water, water they could use for cooking and cleaning. Lakes and rivers were few and far between and they had to make do between settlements. His lips curve into a soft smile. She was filled with creative solutions. The statuettes she made, the baskets she wove all fetched a pretty penny at the markets, a good source of second income.
The creak of the plank pulled him from his thoughts. He greeted True, now washed and changed, with a nod.
“Shouldn’t you be cooking?”
Her eyes roamed the caravan taking in his personal space. They lingered on the small chest at the foot of his pallet; his ‘The World Before’ chest. She told him it was a silly hobby, but he knew she too was as fascinated as he was with the world before. The tales Ma told had them yearning for the time before. No one knew what had happened. An explosion? A sickness? That knowledge had been lost over the centuries. All that remained was the world they were now living in. The things that he sometimes found, that he sometimes paid dearly to possess, were like an intricate puzzle with an infinite number of pieces. Books and cards and strange objects whose purpose was a mystery to him – they all went in the chest.
“You want to help?” Oz asked. She wrinkled her nose. He chuckled. “Yeah, you probably should just watch.”
She stuck out her tongue, brushing passed him, moving with her usual grace toward the back of the caravan, before leaping to the ground and landing on light feet. Oz hurried after her, it always unnerved him to have her out of sight. The sun had completely disappeared. The night was black as pitch. He grabbed his oil lamp. They would light a fire, they would eat and they would sleep, and in the morning they would leave for Bishop where he would enter the fight of his life. If he won they would finally be able to settle down.
The stew Oz made was spicy, fragrant and filling. He was a pretty good cook. True, on the other hand, despite her best efforts, could barely boil rice. It was strange how someone so creative could be so clueless when it came to the stove. Not for the first time, he wondered where he would find a man to take care of her. The thought was accompanied by a stab of pain.
He regarded her through lowered lashes. She was worrying her lip again, a tiny frown etched between her brows. This was about Ma. True wasn’t one to let things go. He waited and sure enough…
“She had a fever. She was asleep but she was burning up and muttering…” She met his eyes, her lips pressed together in determination. “I saw her, I felt her head.” She put her bowl down and stood.
Oz grabbed her wrist. “Leave it.”
True faltered. “But… I need to know why she lied
Oz tugged gently and True allowed him to pull her back to the ground. “She has her reasons. Maybe she doesn’t know she was sick, maybe she woke up and she felt fine. Either way Ma, she won’t take kindly to you questioning her and accusing her of lying.”
True growled softly under her breath. “Hate you.”
They sat in comfortable silence staring at the stars. The sky at night was always a wonder to behold and Oz lost himself in its beauty, making pictures by connecting the twinkling dots. He knew the pictures had names, had found and purchased a book about it. They’d called it astronomy in the old days. Now star-gazers used the skies to tell the future, to predict the weather, to plot their travel. The one star, the one that remained ever so steady and burned the brightest, was the North Star. For a moment he considered fetching the book, but then the pressure of True’s head on his shoulder, her sleepy face and the inch of oil left in the lamp, decided him against the idea. They had a long journey ahead of them and it would be a much more pleasant one in rested company.
A soft snore told him that True was already asleep. He chuckled softly, gathering her gently up in his arms. Rayne padded toward him from around the caravan. “Keep watch, boy.” Rayne chuffed in response before disappearing into the night to do his rounds. A soft hoot filled the air. Oscar. He looked up at the sky.
Another night, he promised the stars.