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 devastating bacterial plague. Miranda and the child Fern are searching for a way back to safety after an encounter with a dangerous group of thugs.
It felt like an impossible decision. Maybe it was an impossible decision. It was a decision that could wait a few hours. Right now, Miranda was hungry. Fern was sure to be hungry too when she woke. Miranda scrounged up a few duck eggs from the nests along the banks of the river. If ‘Pilli were here, she’d already have a fat rabbit to go along with the eggs.
Miranda missed her constant companion. Both her heart and stomach had been emptier since he’d disappeared. She crept as quietly as she could back into the cave, hoping not to wake the sleeping child. The small campfire she lit was really just twigs and branches piled into a ring of smooth stones from the river, but it would burn long enough to cook a few eggs. It was the best she had. Her mind wandered to the salt in her backpack—and her small cast-iron skillet, the extra whistles, the clothing, blankets, pillows. Resources she had carefully cared for and collected over the years, lost in less than twenty-four hours on the road. How could she have possibly forgotten just how dangerous this lawless world had become?
The young girl began to stretch and stir just as the eggs finished cooking in their shells. When Miranda offered her the piping hot egg, Fern took it gingerly, blowing on it before cracking open the shell to eagerly consume the contents.
For reasons Miranda couldn’t quite explain, the child’s presence warmed her heart and gave her a burst of irrational optimism. They didn’t have supplies, protection, or even a direction, but Miranda knew that as long as she traveled with Fern, she had a mission.
The two of them finished their breakfast. They sat in silence for more than a quarter of an hour. Words were inadequate. It was the little girl who finally broke the silence. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know.” The fire had gone out once their paltry wood supply burned to ash. Miranda stirred the embers with a stick. “We don’t have a lot to work with.”
“What do we have?” All business, no play. Reminded Miranda of her grandmother.
It didn’t take long for Miranda to take stock. “The whistles around our necks, my tarot deck, the clothes we’re wearing, and, well, whatever we can scrounge up in the forest.” They needed more supplies if they were going to survive out here.
“Did you try the whistle?” Fern’s voice was hesitant but hopeful.
Miranda nodded. “He didn’t come, I thought I might have heard him last night. He could’ve gone back to the cabin, and there are supplies there. If you can get us to the road, I can get us back.”
“What about Lu?” Fern’s distress was palpable.
“We barely got out of there, Fern—we were lucky. We can’t rescue anyone from that containment tent all by ourselves; it’s at the center of camp. We’ve got to find help.”
Miranda braced herself for an onslaught. Instead, she just heard quiet weeping. “I’m sorry Fern.” She put her arms around the girl. “I don’t plan on giving up. We just need to retreat for a little while. We’ll get supplies, then get help in Odessa.”
“I don’t want to leave them,” she sniffled, “even for a while.”
“I know.” Miranda waited patiently for the sniffling to stop. The child had been through a lot lately. Fern had every reason to cry right now. Miranda felt like crying too, and she had only known Fern and Lu for a couple of days.
It didn’t take long before the little girl’s mercurial mood shifted. “Well now,” the child announced, wiping the last of the tears from her cheeks and, rising to her feet, “we’ve dawdled long enough. Let’s get this over with.”
“Yes, of course,” a smile tugged at the corner of Miranda’s lips, “we wouldn’t want to dawdle the day away.”
The leaves crunched steadily under Fern’s feet, settling quickly into an even rhythm as the little girl led the way.
Miranda had been preoccupied with thoughts of her beloved cabin since they’d abandoned their little cave on the outskirts of town. Had it been invaded by rodents; was the vegetable garden overgrown; would Xipilli be waiting there for her with a fat rabbit for the stewpot? Would she be able to tear herself away again, knowing what the world had come to?
Wicked people with wicked ideas stealing innocents and keeping them confined with no law to stop them. Twenty years ago this would have made a decent plot in a B movie, not real enough to be truly frightening, just enough for a visceral thrill. The reality of it was less than thrilling.
A distant eagle screech broke her out of her reverie. She couldn’t be sure, but the screech sounded awfully familiar. The trees were too thick to call for him here, but at the next clearing she would whistle for ‘Pilli again.
The sun was an hour or so past its zenith and bore down intensely on Miranda’s head. More than a few hours had passed. More than anticipated.
The blind woman might as well have been in the middle of the Indian ocean for all her senses told her, but it was taking so long to reach the road that she was starting to suspect they might be walking in circles. “Fern?”
“Yes, Miss Miranda?” Fern’s voice sounded more apprehensive than Miranda would have liked.
“Do you know where we are?”
The steady crunching of the leaves abruptly stopped. “Um… yes?” So… no.
Miranda swallowed her rising panic and tried to make her voice sound bright and encouraging. “Are we close to the road yet?”
“Um…” The leaves rustled again as Fern shuffled from one foot to the other.
Miranda concentrated on her breathing. In for three, hold, out for five, repeat. She focused on keeping the fear out of her voice. “Fern, do you know where the road is?”
“Not ‘xactly, because I lost it back there somewhere, but I know where we are.”
The older woman took another slow breath and concentrated on sounding positive. Maybe the child really did know where they were. “Ok, Fern. Where are we, then?”
“We’re close to where Papi grew up.” Fern sounded more certain about that at least. “If we keep going this way to that mountain over there, we’ll get to Aunt Charlie’s place. She always knows what to do.” Aunt Charlie’s. That sounded promising.
If Fern’s aunt—and whoever else—couldn’t help rescue the rest of Fern’s family, maybe they could at least get Miranda back to her cabin. She’d have a better chance reconnecting with Xipilli at home. At the very least, they’d probably take Fern in, so the poor child wouldn’t be stuck leading an old blind woman through the woods anymore. “How far away do you suppose we are from your Aunt Charlie’s place?”
“Real close.” She replied, “I saw her cows over there. We’ll be there soon.”
Cows? Aunt Charlie managed to keep cows fed in this environment? Miranda was impressed already. “Good thinking, Fern-frond. It was smart of you to remember your aunt’s place!”
Fern gripped Miranda’s hand a little tighter and picked up the pace. “We’re almost there! I can hear Roscoe.”
Judging by the sound of his bark, Roscoe was a very large dog. He was also a very angry dog. As they got closer to the homestead, Miranda heard snatches of a heated exchange over the barking of the dog. Threaded through the deep, threatening barks was a frantic, high-pitched whine that told her the dog was not just angry, he was also terrified.
“Wait,” Miranda froze and held tight to Fern’s hand, “something’s wrong. Talk quietly.” They crept a little closer, hiding behind thick bushes. Aunt Charlie seemed to run an extremely efficient operation as she didn’t leave many bushes or trees close to the structures themselves. The voices were still faint, even from the bushes nearest the house. Miranda was having trouble making sense of the snatches of heated conversation that she could hear.
The first woman’s voice was fluid, flashy, and toxic, like mercury. “… room to grow … generous offer …”
The woman who answered had tones of granite—cool, hard, and opaque. “… not for sale … not likely to … Roscoe! Knock it off!” The dog stopped barking, but the whimpering continued.
Miranda tapped Fern’s shoulder and whispered urgently, “What can you see? Is that your Aunt Charlie out there?”
“No,” Fern replied, “Auntie Frida. I don’t see Aunt Charlie. There’s a man with a gun and a lady. The lady has Zipply tied on her arm.”
“Xipilli?” That was unexpected but explained why he hadn’t come when she whistled. He was being held captive. Miranda fingered the whistle around her neck, but didn’t dare call Xipilli just yet. “How does he look?”
“There’s a brown thing over his head. He keeps shaking it.”
The bile rose in Miranda’s throat; a hunting hood. She desperately wanted to remove the awful thing. ‘Pilli hadn’t worn a hood for years, and the training hood at home had been made to accommodate the feathered crest around his face—most hoods would clasp his crest flat against his head. At best, it would be uncomfortably restrictive, at worst, it could result in broken, crushed, or bleeding crest feathers. The woman was lucky Xipilli had been so well trained. Miranda swallowed her anger, she didn’t have the luxury of expressing her opinion right now.
Breathe in—one, two, three… breathe out—one, two, three, four, five… Now, what to do?
Xipilli’s agitated screech pierced the air as the conversation between the women became more heated. The dog resumed his frantic barking. A gunshot rang out and Roscoe stopped barking.
Fern gripped Miranda’s arm then buried her face in the older woman’s shoulder, stifling her sobs. A door from the house slammed open and a man’s voice rang out. “Get out of here, Sally! You psychotic bitch! Get off this land!”
“Papi!” Miranda grabbed Fern around the waist to keep her from running to her father’s rescue. “Let me go! Papi’s in trouble!”
“No, Fern.” She grappled with the struggling child. “Settle down and listen!”
She could hear the helplessness in Fern’s voice. “But Papi…”
“I know, but we need to be smart.” Miranda tried to be gentle. “What’s Papi doing right now? Where are the others?”
Fern, still sniffling, began to relate the scene to Miranda. “Papi is standing over Roscoe. The man’s pointing his gun at Papi—she’s just laughing.” The “she” must be Sally.
Another gunshot rang out.
“He missed.” Fern’s terror was unmistakable. “Papi grabbed the man. They’re fighting on the ground!”
Now was her chance. “Fern, look away now.” Two short bursts on her whistle, then two long, then two short. Miranda’s stomach lurched in response to the wet thump and brittle crunching sounds that followed. It seemed that her great feathered prince had a been storing up a little rage.
Sally was on the ground, screaming through half her face. The sound was malformed, wet, and primal. It stopped as suddenly as it had started, replaced by the clicking of Xipilli’s beak and the faint sound of tearing flesh. The gun clattered to the rocks and the man fled, feet kicking up sprays of gravel as he ran.
Fern grabbed Miranda’s hand and ran toward her Papi, dragging Miranda right along behind her. “Papi, Papi, I’m here. I found you!” Fern let go of Miranda’s hand when they were finally safely among her family. Miranda dropped to her knees, winded from the run.
Fern’s father’s voice was choked with emotion, “Fern-frond, I’m so happy to see you, baby girl!” He was probably sweeping her up in his arms and twirling her around. It was touching.
Miranda had other concerns.
She reached her hands out to where she knew her feathered prince should be and clicked her tongue, fingertips seeking the familiar warmth of her feathered companion. Relief flooded her body when she finally made contact.
“Please,” she pled, tears forming at the corners of her eyes, “someone, hand me a knife.”
A knife appeared in her hand as if by magic.
Once the tether that held Xipilli captive was cut and the hood that blinded him removed, Miranda she carefully examined his crest with her fingers, gently tracing each delicate feather, but didn’t pick him up off the ground yet.
The man addressed Fern directly. “Go inside with Auntie Frida. Take Roscoe to Aunt Charlie. It was just a graze, but he’ll still need stitches, sooner rather than later.” The dog whimpered as Fern’s aunt picked him up.
Xipilli snapped angrily at Miranda’s fingers during her thorough examination, but she deftly avoided his half-hearted attacks. Three feathers had been crushed and one twisted into oblivion, but none seemed to be bleeding. Her fingers danced quickly across his wings, then probed his legs and feet, where his five-inch talons still gripped his fallen enemy’s thick leather glove. He flinched when she touched his left wing, but otherwise, he seemed fully intact.
“Good boy. You’re alright now.” ’Pilli rubbed his head and beak against her hand, seemingly overjoyed at the return of his human companion, despite his earlier belligerence.
Miranda addressed the man, though the bird still captured most of her attention. “You’re Fern’s father?”
“Yes… I am,” he replied. “My name is Aiden, and you are?”
“My name is Miranda. Your daughter found my cabin in the woods about a week ago. We’ve been searching for your family since then.”
“I’m glad you found us.” His voice was warm and gentle now that the conflict had passed
“Fern found you, using your instructions. She’s a very capable young lady. You’ve raised her well.”
“She’s always been resourceful. Gets that from her mother more than me.” Aiden tone grew serious. “Is the bird safe?”
“Safe enough for the time being,” Miranda replied. The sound of tearing flesh resumed.
“Are you going to stop it from eating Sally?”
“He’s a twelve-pound bird with talons the size of grizzly bear claws. I don’t take food away from him.” That probably didn’t put her companion in the best of light. “He doesn’t attack people without a damn good reason, though,” she amended. “He’d prefer a nice juicy jackrabbit.”
“Well, I like a good jackrabbit, too. I suspect we’ll get along just fine, assuming he agrees.” Aiden paused, his next words more hesitant, “Fern was traveling with another man, Marcos. Where is he?”
“I’m sorry,” Miranda said, “he fell. Fern came to my cabin for help. We couldn’t save him.” It was getting easier to recount his death, though that fact didn’t really sit well with her. “He seemed kind.”
She sat quietly through the several minutes of heavy silence that followed. Eventually, Aiden spoke again. “Marcos was a good man.” he said. “Frida’s youngest brother. He will be missed.”
“I was afraid I would never see my wife or my children again. Thank you for bringing Fern home. It brings me great hope.” He touched her elbow, indicating that she should follow him. “Please come inside, I’d like to offer you a meal.”
A meal. The last thing she and Fern had eaten were the duck eggs shortly after dawn—her stomach was starting to growl.
“A meal sounds perfect.” Miranda shooed the giant bird off the protective glove on Sally’s hand, before plucking the glove from the dead woman’s outstretched arm and put it on her own. Her own glove had been taken during their imprisonment at the camp. She doubted there would be many opportunities to acquire a new falconer’s glove in the future. Xipilli easily stepped up on the glove, making little chirping noises in excitement.
Xipilli perched on the back of a sturdy chair while Miranda conversed with Fern’s father and Aunt Frida over a bowl of thick, hardy stew. Aunt Charlie was still stitching up the big dog’s injury while Fern and her cousin played with his pups under the watchful eye of his mate.
Aiden and Frida told Miranda more about their story. Fern’s aunts ensured plentiful food not only for Fern’s little village but also for several other flourishing villages nearby. Aunt Charlie, Aiden’s older sister, had been a veterinarian before the pandemic. The dogs that guarded the farmstead were the descendants of the dogs that had been left at Charlie’s practice. Big farm dogs, mostly. A couple of terrier mixes in the barn. By necessity, Charlie had learned a great deal about treating human injury and illness, becoming the town doctor as well as the primary veterinarian. Aunt Frida managed the crops, all three hundred acres of them, as well as managing the laborers that came in from the villages to work.
They had begun to see something like a normal life again. Homes were built, children born, and a school even established. Then, about a year ago, things had changed. Sally and her partner Rachel—the woman with the velveteen voice—were newly minted slave traders from up north, with a large following of thugs and bandits.
The two women had come to Charlie and Frida with an almost reasonable offer initially, but Fern’s aunts weren’t interested in selling. They’d planned on growing old together at the farmstead, watching sunsets from their porch, sipping white wine, and raising puppies. When Fern’s aunts had refused the first offers, the offers turned to harassment—stealing cows, sabotaging crops, and intercepting messages.
Frida and Charlie wouldn’t budge, though. They refused to upend the future they had been building for themselves, so Sally and Rachel began stealing villagers.
Aiden, Frida, and a few of the people living and working at the farmstead had been planning a raid in to recover their trapped friends and family. It would be best to strike right away before the criminals had time to readjust. It would be a few days before anyone would be able to escort Miranda back to her cabin. Charlie and a few other workers were staying at the farmstead with the children.
“Your bird would be a terrifying offensive weapon and a daunting defensive one in this fight.” Frida stated. “You would be welcome either on the raid with us or here at the farmstead with Charlie to ensure the children’s safety.”
Which choice does Miranda make?