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 Fern have been reunited with Xipilli, with Fern’s father, Aiden, and her aunts, Charlie and Frida.
Miranda paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. She rattled the ice cubes in her glass as she swirled her cold, fresh water. Ice cubes. From an electric freezer. Miranda had a lot of comforts back at her cabin, but not ice cubes. “Rachel doesn’t seem like the type of person to let it go when slighted.”
“No.” Frida’s voice was grim. “She’ll be looking for Sally soon, and she won’t be alone. At least Sally’s escort was shot before leaving town.”
“I think it might be longer than you think,” Miranda said. “I got the impression that Sally disappeared a lot. Without anyone telling her Sally’s gone, she might not even notice for a day or two” She swirled the ice in her glass again. Perhaps she could find a way to trade for ice—maybe even a cow of her own, like the ones wandering in the forest.
“True,” Frida replied. “But she’ll be a lot better organized without Sally.”
Miranda nodded absentmindedly, thoughts consumed with all she could do with a cow. Milk, cheese, ice cream. She wondered if she could take care of a cow. Could cows be trained or would she need a fence? Maybe Xipilli could help track a cow, keep it safe. Her very own herding eagle?
The sound of Xipilli’s beak snapping aggressively shut startled Miranda out of her reverie. “I don’t advise touching him,” she said, turning toward the sound. She didn’t need him taking off someone’s finger. Definitely not trainable enough to be a herding eagle.
“Sorry,” It was Charlie’s voice that responded. “I should have kept a better eye on Samuel here. He’s a rascal.” Miranda had been so consumed with her thoughts of a cow that she hadn’t even heard the child come in.
“How’s Roscoe?” Frida asked.
“He’s all stitched up and resting comfortably. Fern’s keeping him company. Speaking of, I should get back in there.” A loud pbbbtttt sounded was followed by a delighted young giggle as Charlie and Samuel returned to the back room.
“I thought the children were being moved?” Miranda asked, remembering her conversations with Fern. It felt like another lifetime ago that the two of them had set out on their journey, though it had only been a few days.
“The Miller boys went missing about a month back,” answered Frida, “just traveling a mile from their place to the farmstead. Then a group of teenagers from Salvation went out foraging and never came back.” Frida took a deep breath before continuing. “We couldn’t prove that Sally and Rachel took them, but I have no doubts, but they have guns and ammo, and we don’t. We heard we might be able to find help in Odessa. Get guns, keep the kids safe—but slave traders aren’t interested in caring for toddlers, so the toddlers stayed.”
“We left during the cover of night. Fifteen kids, four teenagers, and five adults.” Aiden interrupted, voice terse and shaking, “Stopped at Salvation for breakfast and supplies. Slept there until it was dark then started down the road to Odessa. Fern ran after something in the dark. Marcos and Lu followed her.” We got ambushed an hour or so later—locked in an old livestock transport. Santiago got a message out to Lu using the echolocation box, told her to head to Odessa for help. They sprayed us down with some putrid-smelling chemical, next thing I know the trailer’s rolling into Salvation, but it wasn’t Salvation anymore.”
“Lu’s not on her way to Odessa. Lu’s in Salvation.” Miranda said.
“Lu’s where?” he asked sharply.
“Salvation. She still thought it was safe.” She lifted her face towards his voice, hoping that she was making eye contact. “How come you’re here instead of in Salvation?”
“I woke up before everyone else.” Aiden’s voice was quiet but intense. “I had just enough strength roll out the back before the truck stopped. It was a miracle they didn’t see me.”
Miranda swirled the ice cubes again. “Why didn’t you go on to Odessa? There’s no guns here, like you said. What was your plan?”
He took a deep, trembling breath before speaking again. “My little girl was somewhere in the woods, and my wife and son were, still are, on that damned trailer. I wasn’t thinking, really. I just couldn’t leave.”
She nodded thoughtfully. Jorge would have stayed too, he wouldn’t have been able to leave. She set the glass on the table in front of her. “Well then, we’ll just need to get them all back. Xipilli and I are at your service. What’s your plan so far?”
“We hadn’t come up with one. We only have four people, you, me, Aiden, and my older brother Caleb, so we’re aiming for in and out, but beyond that, I have no idea.”
“That’s a small group,” Miranda said. “We’ll have to be precise. Do you know where the trailer is now?”
The three of them talked until sundown, perfecting their plan, such as it was. Frida and Miranda would take the trail to the cliff overlooking Salvation, and park at a spot that was concealed by pine trees on the ridge but had a good view of the only trail that led up into the mountains. Miranda would instruct Xipilli to fly out over Salvation, drop Sally’s boot in the middle of town, then send him hunting so he didn’t give away their position.
Rachel would follow Xipilli, looking for Sally. Once Rachel was high enough in the pass, Aiden and Caleb would detonate the old military explosives they had, blocking off the pass and distracting the thugs that remained at the camp. Then the boys’d just hook up the trailer to Caleb’s truck and point the entire kit and caboodle towards Odessa. Frida, Miranda, and Xipilli would head back to the farmstead, probably with a fat rabbit for dinner.
Once satisfied with their plan, Aiden showed Miranda and Xipilli to the room they would be sharing. The mattress felt new when she sat on it. This room wasn’t used often. She lifted ‘Pilli up to the headboard. He balked, flapping his wings so emphatically that they hit her face, refusing to leave her arm.
“What’s wrong with you?” She reached her hand to the top of the headboard and nearly jammed her fingers against the wall. She hadn’t expected the bed to be so close to the wall; her feathered prince needed enough room to turn around on the headboard without breaking any tail feathers. She pulled the bed away from the wall, the bird still clinging to her leather-clad forearm, until she hit the opposite wall with her rear. The room was small. Miranda checked to make sure there was enough room between the headboard and the wall, then lifted him back up to his perch for the night.
“Step up.” Miranda’s voice was more insistent than before. Xipilli did as he was told this time, quickly settling in for his nightly snooze. “We’ll be home soon,” she whispered, running her fingers through the feathers on his chest. Miranda was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
She woke to something soft tickling her nose—a soft, curved feather. Another down feather, small and light, gently caressed her cheek on the way to her pillow, then a few more landed on her forehead. Her brow furrowed. By Miranda’s calculations, it was three months too early for Xipilli to be molting.
The sound of ripping fabric made her sit bolt upright. “Xipilli! Stop!” The shifting weight of the eagle next to her made the mattress bounce and sway, no doubt putting holes in the comforter. She pulled the half-gutted pillow away from the giant bird, bopping him on the beak with three fingers. He squawked loudly in protest and walked angrily to the end of the bed. “This is why I don’t take you anywhere nice, you great lout.” Well, that and the lack of nice places to go, but she didn’t feel like admitting that out loud right now, not even to herself.
Xipilli’s high-pitched screech echoed off the walls as he flapped his wings in frustration. Miranda held on to the pillow the entire time she was getting ready. It slowed her down, but she knew her bird. As soon as she set it down, he’d snatch it up. Then she’d never get it back and he’d end up with a stomach full of cotton and down.
Miranda donned her new glove with a sense of grisly satisfaction, wondering if any of the blood that stiffened the leather was Sally’s. It was made of thick, well-tanned hide, more durable than the glove she had lost in the forest, and it fit her like the proverbial glove: perfectly.
“Step up, right now.” ‘Pilli stepped up immediately, knowing better than to disobey that tone, but it didn’t stop him flapping emphatically again, stirring up the air around him and blowing Miranda’s hair into her face. “Oh knock it off, you feathery beast!”
Miranda gripped the remains of the pillow as she walked out of the room, Xipilli still complaining loudly about the loss of his prize. As much as she loved her feathered prince, he could be a bit of a diva.
She made her way slowly down the hallway, trying to remember the layout of the house. Straight ahead and how many doors before taking a left?
“Miranda!” Frida’s lively voice called to her from the kitchen—on the right. So much for remembering the layout. Miranda turned to her right and followed the voice. “Have a little trouble with your pillow there?”
“Xipilli’s not used to new places,” Miranda replied, holding out the remains of the pillow to her host. “I’m sorry. I’ll have him hunt us down some breakfast to make up for it.”
“No,” Aiden interjected hastily. “The bird needs to stay out of sight until we’re ready for him. I put a goose for him in the old, empty chicken pen, and he can keep an eye on you while he eats.”
“It’s no problem.” Frida chuckled. “We’ve got plenty of down pillows. All the kids learn to sew a pillow in their second year of school. We get the surplus.”
“My first pillow wasn’t very good,” Fern piped up as she took Miranda’s hand, “it was longer on the bottom than the top and the corners were all wiggly,” the girl kept up a constant stream of chatter as she led Miranda to the chicken pen “and feathers came out of the side. The second one was better, all the feathers stayed inside, but the corners were still wiggly.”
When the door to the chicken pen squealed upon opening, Xipilli screeched right back at it. As soon as they were through the door, the predatory bird jumped off her arm. The goose barely had time to scream before Xipilli had broken his back. He was an efficient hunter.
Miranda went back inside to eat her own breakfast.
Miranda fashioned a makeshift mask out of cotton to keep Xipilli calm in the confines of the covered four-person ATV. He didn’t like enclosed spaces. Three adults and a harpy eagle were a tight fit, but they made it to the crossroads without any major drama. His calm demeanor surprised her a little. She wondered if he remembered riding in the pickup with her and Jorge when he was just a chick.
They didn’t have to wait long for the final member of their party to show up. Miranda felt the rumble of Caleb’s truck in her bones before she heard it. Good thing they weren’t counting on stealth. As it was, Miranda was a bit dubious about all of this, but it was the best they could come up with on short notice.
Getting out of the ATV with her eagle was even more difficult than getting in. A warm, reassuring hand under her elbow helped her regain her balance, then disappeared as soon as she was settled.
“Hello, there. I’m Caleb.” Caleb’s voice was both gruff and deep, very different than his brother’s had been.
“I’m Miranda, and this,” she nodded toward the huge bird perched on her arm,”is Xipilli.”
“¡Dios Mío! That is a big bird.” Miranda smiled to herself. Now she heard the family resemblance. “He’ll definitely get their attention.” Caleb paused for a few moments before speaking again. “You were with Marcos before he died?”
“Fern and I were the last to speak to him.”
“Did my brother die well?”
Miranda cast about for an answer. She never understood how to respond to that type of question. “He saw Xipilli before he died. Xipilli let Marcos touch his back.”
“Yes,” Caleb replied. She could hear the sad smile in his voice. “He loved animals, and they loved him.” Caleb gulped several times. He seemed to be struggling to hold back sobs.
“He seemed like a kind man.” Miranda gestured toward the truck where Aiden and Frida were talking. “Come on Caleb, Aiden and your sister are this way.”
The four of them gathered around the vehicle, each reiterating their part in the plan. Aiden reminded the Frida and Miranda that once the trail was blown there was no way to get down to Salvation from up here except the main road, and that was a half hour trek on foot. “These cliffs are steep and there are loose rocks everywhere. Getting to us if something goes wrong is not an option. Go back to the farmstead and get help.”
“Yes,” Frida replied, “we know.”
Miranda and Frida waited on the ridge until the sound of the truck faded into the distance. Frida let Miranda know when Caleb was parked by his favorite fishing hole, just a few yards from the path leading into the mountains.
Miranda she hoisted Xipilli in the air. “Up!” The giant eagle lifted off, darkening Miranda’s view for just a split second. She held the boot above her head and blew the whistle, just one long whistle. Xipilli snatched the boot from her grasp. She pointed in the direction of town, then addressed Frida. “Tell me when he’s in the right spot.”
“I’m watching,” Frida replied. Miranda held the whistle to her lips, waiting tensely for her cue. “Aaand… Now!”
Miranda blew into the whistle, two short bursts and three long—drop it.
“Yes!” The triumph in Frida’s voice was contagious.
Now to send Xipill hunting, get him out of there and away from the guns. Miranda took a deep breath, then lifted the whistle back up to her lips and blew.
“He’s turning around!” The excitement in Frida’s voice was palpable. “He’s flying towards the highest peaks, like you said he would!” Step one had gone without a hitch.
“Rachel has the boot. She’s starting up the path!” All Miranda could do was wait while Frida kept an eye on Rachel climbing up the steep mountain path.
An excruciating 15 minutes later Caleb’s truck started up, the sound ricocheting through the canyon. Every muscle in Miranda’s body tensed as she waited for the explosion. She not only heard the explosion, she felt its concussion in her bones. She still heard Caleb’s engine rumbling over the hubbub and confusion.
“No, no, no!” Frida’s voice had gone from jubilation to panic in just a few seconds.
“What’s wrong?” Miranda asked.
“The guards didn’t leave the trailer. They’ve got Aiden and Caleb. I can’t just stand here and watch this.” Frida’s shoes dislodged both rocks and gravel as she rushed headlong towards the town, presumably to somehow save Aiden and her brother.
“Frida, stop!” There was no path, she was going to fall and leave Miranda stranded here.
“Get your bird down!” A panicked adolescent male voice burst out of the foliage before Miranda could even give a thought to how she was going to find her way out of the forest. “Get him down, now! They know she’s dead!”
Rachel had known they were coming. It was a trap. But Rachel knew they were coming why go up the mountain path instead of dealing with Caleb and Aiden herself? An icy chill ran down Miranda’s spine.
Rachel meant to kill Xipilli.
Miranda’s hands shook as she fumbled with the whistle, finally getting it to her lips. Three long whistles, one short—somewhere to the north, a gun rang out. Xipilli’s screech of pain cut Miranda like a razor.
“They hit his wing; he’s not flying right.” Now she recognized his voice—the young man from the camp, the one that Rachel had been berating outside of the stable. What was he doing here? She forced out the last three long whistles. Come to me. Please, come to me. Another gunshot rang out, met only by a screech of anger.
“He’s going under the canopy,” the young man blurted out. “We need to get to him before they do.”
“I need to go to the camp,” Frida called, her voice more distant than before. “I can’t lose another brother!”
“No! Wait! You can’t go!” Frida was already too far away for Miranda to catch her. She was going to fall, just like her brother. Miranda couldn’t let that happen. She spun in the direction of the young man’s voice. “You! Make yourself useful. Stop her!”
“I can either stop her from getting caught or lead you to your giant bird before Rachel gets there.” His tone was tinged with anxiety and remorse. “I don’t think I can manage both.”
Voting Closed August 30th
Readers chose to follow the boy to Xipilli rather than have him chase after Frida.