The continuing saga of a blind woman, Miranda, and her harpy eagle companion, Xipilli, as they navigate the aftermath of an apocalypse caused by a vicious plague. They are currently escorting Fern, an eight-year-old girl, to her family. After narrowly escaping a vicious attack by a wolf pack, Fern and Miranda encounter Fern’s sister, Lu, but not the rest of the family.
Miranda waited for Lu to elaborate—but the silence stretched into minutes. It seemed the young woman didn’t intend to explain further. Leaves rustled, followed by the thwack of a stone hitting flesh.
“Ow!” Lu’s voice rose in both pitch and volume. “You little brat!”
“You left them there! Why aren’t you doing something?” Fern shrieked, from another direction.
The whistle of the rock through the air was much closer to Miranda the second time. She could feel the rush of air by her head. The sound of the rock hitting the tree reverberated, sending sleepy birds screeching into the air.
The girl changed positions again before flinging the next stone. “You said you would keep everyone safe, but I don’t see anyone here but you!” A soft clicking sound registered just on the edge of Miranda’s hearing, then stopped. Miranda heard Lu shift, as Fern moved quickly in another direction. Miranda was having a hard time keeping track of the little girl.
“It’s not as if I had a choice!” Lu shouted.
It seemed that Fern could navigate the darkness as well as either of the blind women. They should have been traveling by night after all. Fern landed another projectile, prompting a string of swear words from her older sister.
The child wasn’t holding anything back. “You promised you would keep each other safe!”
The clicking sound started again. It was so faint Miranda doubted even Fern heard it. Fern may have had the advantage of sight, but Lu had hidden advantages as well
“Gotcha!” Lu’s voice was triumphant as the child fought, presumably to get out of her arms. “Ow, stop biting! I’m trying to keep my promise.”
Miranda frowned. This really wasn’t a safe place to have a sibling scuffle.
“By sitting in the forest moping?!” Fern continued to thrash, her words punctuated by little grunts of effort as she struggled to free herself. “You always mope! You are the mopingest sister in the history of mopey sisters!”
Miranda had had enough of this nonsense. She had no idea where she was, her best friend was nowhere to be found, and these two girls were grappling in the middle of the forest. She felt around by her feet, searching for a stout enough branch on the forest floor. Her hand brushed against an ideal branch sprouting from the log she sat on. She pulled hard, breaking it off with a snap that reverberated throughout the forest.
The sisters didn’t even pause in their bickering.
“I wasn’t moping, you ungrateful little brat. I was trying to get to Salvation! I got—oomphh— sidetracked saving your pathetic little life!”
Miranda stood up, branch in hand, and moved towards the sounds of the scuffle until she was standing right next to the girls. Someone’s hair whipped across her face.
“My life is not pathetic!” Fern screamed.
They were so intent on each other that they hadn’t even noticed Miranda. She gripped the branch with both hands and took a deep breath, then swung at what she hoped was the back of Lu’s knees.
The branch connected with Lu’s legs and sent her tumbling backwards. She landed heavily on the ground at Miranda’s feet, presumably with Fern on top of her.
Lu sprang up from the ground surprisingly quickly, turning to face the older woman. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Miranda could feel Lu’s breath on her face, hot and angry.
“Trying not to die,” she responded. “We are not in your village. We are not in your living room. We are in the forest. Just the three of us. At night.” Lu didn’t budge, but her breathing slowed a little. “Look around us. Are we safe right now, Lu?” Lu stepped back, and the clicking started again.
“Ow! Fern,” Lu’s voice was tense, ”I need you to be still right now.”
“I don’t want to be still! I want my mama!”
“Shut up. Right now,” Lu hissed. Her tone was unmistakable.
Miranda heard a sharp click, then a whistle followed by a fleshy thump off to her left. Something or someone struggled to breathe. Something exploded out of the forest to her right.
Fern screamed and Miranda flung herself to the side, twisting as she fell to the forest floor, landing hard on a rock. If she lived until morning, she was going to wake up with a bruise on her hip.
“You bitches!” The man’s rough voice echoed through the forest. “I’ll kill you!”
Miranda felt the ground under her tremble as the weight of her attacker landed directly in front of her.
A meaty hand closed around her ankle. The man’s voice was thick and wet as he struggled to get his words out. “You bit…” A rattling sound escaped, like the last few drops of water dribbling down a drain, and the hand around her ankle loosened its grasp.
Fern sobbed nearby.
Bright points of light swam in the dark expanse of Miranda’s vision. She concentrated on her breathing until the points of light began to fade.
Lu grunted. The weight of the man’s hand left Miranda’s leg, then a solid thud reverberated against the ground. Miranda stood up and moved toward the sound of the crying girl. Xipilli’s fate all alone in this dangerous forest crossed her mind as she took the girl in her arms.
“We need to get going.” Lu’s voice was tense. “Now.”
Miranda pushed thoughts of her beloved companion from her mind. She had no time to deal with things she couldn’t change. She would either find or mourn him after she got somewhere safe enough to do so. This was not that time. She addressed the younger woman. “You know something.”
“He was with the ambushers. They’re out hunting again. We need to go before their friends realize they aren’t coming back. Fern,” Lu knelt next to them, “I barely protected us from two. There will be more coming. We need help. We need to go to Salvation.”
The little girl nestled in Miranda’s arms nodded and sniffled. “You need help. I’m sorry I threw rocks.”
“It’s okay, Fern-frond.” Lu’s tone softened. “I understand.”
Miranda gave Fern one more squeeze before standing up. “We should leave now, we can do this later.”
“What about the bag,” Fern asked. “All the beaver meat ‘Pilli got us? Is it on the way?”
“No.” Lu began gathering her supplies. “The bag’s in the opposite direction. It’s not safe to go back.”
Miranda touched the whistle around her neck one more time as they left the camp.
This was the right decision. This was the only decision.
The trio marched at night—when the darkness gave them an advantage. Lu led the way toward the village. Miranda found herself comforted by the ever-present clicking of Lu’s echolocation device. Fern marched quietly in the middle while Miranda brought up the rear. They slept by day, hidden away in caves scouted out by Fern.
Before they entered the caves each morning, Miranda blew her whistle to call Xipilli to her. She longed to hear the sound of his wings as he dove to greet her or his shrill call echoing over the trees.
She heard nothing.
The sounds of human civilization were audible as soon as they started out. The distinctive clang of metal against metal reverberated through the forest as Salvation’s town blacksmith hammered something or another into submission. An hour into their walk a few dinner bells rang out over the trees and the semi-rhythmic hammering stopped.
They were close, just 15-20 minutes from their destination. Miranda sped up. She didn’t want her voice to carry. “We should scout out the town. Maybe wait until morning to announce ourselves?”
“I’ve been here before,” Lu protested. “I know these people.”
“Mhmm. But how well?” Something about the timing worried Miranda.
“Mom and I have broken bread with them twice now. They are good people.”
“Ugh. Fine.” Miranda hadn’t heard that tone in quite a while—only a teenager could muster that much disdain in her voice. “We’ll do it your way. Does that make you happy?”
“Mhm. Thank you, Lu.”
“Whatever.” Lu stalked off towards the village with Fern and Miranda marching closely behind.
The trio stopped as soon as Fern saw fences through the trees. “I should go look, Lu. I’m small and I can see.”
“You’re too puny, kid. Mom’d never forgive me if something decided to snack on you. I’ll go. You wait here with um… our friend here. I’ll be right back.” Lu crept towards the village, the barely audible clicking sound of her echolocation device following her.
Miranda found a stump to sit down on while she and Fern waited. The cool night breeze wove through her hair as she listened intently to her surroundings. Fern played with something in the grass near her feet as an owl hooted off in the distance.
She didn’t hear the footsteps of the person who had crept up behind her, just the sudden clicking of an echolocation device next to her ear. “Lu?” Miranda was puzzled. “Back already?”
Miranda jumped to her feet as a man’s deep voice replied. “I never left.”
“NO!” Fern yelped, “LET ME GO!”
Miranda reached towards Fern’s frantic shriek, grabbing hold of the little girl’s arm. Someone else tugged from the other direction. “No! You let her go!” Miranda stubbornly clung to the child, her first human companion in years. “You can’t have her!”
She heard a low whistling sound behind her, and a flash of pure white light filled her vision as something hard connected with the back of her skull. She crumpled to the ground. “You can’t … no.” She needed to reach Fern, to find Lu. Blood pounded in her ears as she struggled to stay conscious.
“The kid’ll fetch us a pretty penny.” The strangers’ voices sounded distant and warped—as if it was traveling through water. “This one’s worthless. Kill her.”
“Sally tells me who to kill,” a velveteen voice responded, “not you. She goes with us. Pick her up.”
Miranda woke with her face in the dirt, a small rock digging into her cheekbone; she lay quietly for the first few moments, waiting to get her bearings. It seemed Sally had decided not to kill her just yet.
The sounds of the bustling village were muted and muffled. She was in a building of some sort, probably near the center of town, and she could hear a child crying on the other side of the wall. “Fern? Is that you?” The crying continued unabated. It either wasn’t Fern, or the little girl couldn’t hear her.
“You’re awake.” The velveteen voice was back. “Here. Eat.” A bowl of steaming stew was thrust into her hands. Miranda hesitated. “If I was going to kill you, I would have done it back there. Eat the stew. It’s good.”
Her first bite was hesitant, but the savory stew practically danced across her tongue. She quickly devoured the whole bowl. Miranda felt bolder after filling her stomach. “Where’s Fern?”
The woman with the velveteen voice simply ignored Miranda’s question. “Sally wants to talk to you. I’ll let her know you’re awake.” A door opened and shut, followed by the sound of a bolt sliding into a lock.
Readers vote to attempt to free Fern right away rather than wait and talk to Sally.