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Hello fans of Guns and Dust! It’s been a while. Life gets in the way of writing sometimes and this little thing called a pandemic has certainly gotten in the way as well. But I’m back with some new chapters that will hopefully fire up your imaginations!
Chapter ten takes place immediately on the heels of chapter nine, so it may be helpful to read (or reread!) chapter nine so that the emotions and events are fresh.
Thank you so much for your continued support!
Guns and Dust
– chapter ten-
Adina rolled the bearcat to a stop on the outskirts of the slave camp. The brake pedal felt strangely heavy and hard under her foot as she stepped down on it to stop the big machine. Miles of dark, empty landscape sliding past the big truck’s windows drifted through her mind. And there were the bearcat’s tracks she’d followed to get back. She squinted, her eyes flicking between gauges in front of her as she tried to make sense of the muddy, undefined smear of events that were her trip back to camp. A glimmer was just starting on the horizon as she turned her attention to the abstract, sharp black silhouettes of tents and structures. More vague images of the trip back flicked by.
And then the terrified faces of the Ghost Eyes she’d killed were there again… everywhere she looked, wide-eyed, bloody and mangled faces stared back.
She shifted the bearcat out of gear. It took what felt like all her strength to set the brakes. Idling there, she stared at the strangely orange light coming through the windshield. It painted bars in the dusty air of the interior.
The door was yanked open. And Asher was suddenly there, pulling himself up the step to her level.
“What were you thinking!” he snarled, his mask spattered with drying blood. Then he stopped. From the other side of the lenses, she watched his lapis blue eyes travel over her blood-stained clothes, sagging shoulders and hollow-eyed expression. They moved to the passenger seat of the bearcat. She followed his gaze. The heavy lug wrench was propped there, the gory head resting on the seat, the long handle against the armored door.
“I…” Adina swallowed. She clutched the steering wheel trying to steady herself. The ghost eyes cries and howls of mad fury or agony mixed with the young woman’s screams. The moment one of them was going to rape her. The moment before Adina had plunged her knife into his neck. The body of the raider who’d been trapped in the burning car was there, arms thrown out of the vehicle’s crushed window. Flames and smoke boiled around the corpse making him seem to move.
She felt like a poor puppeteer trying to make the unfamiliar marionette of her mouth work. “I killed them all.”
Asher watched her for another moment, then pulled off his helmet and mask steadying himself in the open door. “It’s alright.” He reached across her, turned off the engine, then laid a gloved hand on her arm.
Even his touch felt strange, sort of numb. Adina didn’t lean into him. She wanted to, but everything just felt so disconnected.
“You did the right thing.” He held her arm for a moment, then pried her hands from the steering wheel. Her fingers snapped closed with the spasm of gripping the wheel so tightly. He gently put her fists to her chest and enfolded her in his arms. “It’s alright.”
The light on the horizon had changed from a low line in the distance to a broad glow before a voice from outside pulled Asher’s attention away. Adina couldn’t make out who it was or what they’d said. It was just murky background noise. She felt Asher nod. He squeezed her tightly and descended a step, then stood and waited. When she finally turned to him, his eyes searched hers.
“We found Nat. He’s here and he’s okay.”
Thoughts of the boy from the quarry who’d been captured had fled completely from her mind. Everything else had disappeared after the Ghost Eye Bulla had pulled the young woman screaming from the cage. She knew Asher’s words were important, but they were lost in the fog holding everything hostage inside her. She nodded.
Asher watched her for another moment, then climbed down. Adina could see people moving in the camp, hear their voices, but they didn’t seem to connect to anything. When Asher reappeared at the foot of the step, Nat was clinging desperately to him. Asher looked at Nat’s face and then pointed up.
“Look Nat, it’s Adina.”
Nat’s little boy eyes were dark and haunted. His expression was terrible; bereft and vacant. His face was filthy, his dirty cheeks marked with long streaks from tears.
Pain like a hammer hit Adina in the chest when she saw the bright red chafe marks on his wrists. Everything inside her felt like it was suddenly breaking apart. Asher boosted Nat up, then stepped up behind him to steady him. “Do you want to hold onto him?” Asher ran a bloody, gloved hand over Nat’s 1xbet yeni giriş hair. “He’s still pretty scared.”
Adina pulled Nat into her arms. There hadn’t been a thought, it was automatic, instinctive. And as the little boy pressed himself against her, it was too much. Which of them started it she didn’t know, but they were both suddenly bawling. Nat clung to her desperately, shuddering with the force of his sobs. Asher just watched them for several moments, then stepped up and kissed her dirty, smoke drenched hair. He held his lips there. “I love you, Adina.” The words she’d longed to hear him say were caught in the disconnected mist that seemed to shroud everything. She heard them, but they just didn’t seem to touch her. He gave her another kiss, climbed down, and closed the door.
Adina blinked as the bright light of the sunrise seemed to suddenly stream in through the bearcat’s windows. Maybe it was sudden; the sun just rising above the horizon, or maybe she only just noticed it. The sky looked like it was on fire, filled with glorious pinks, purples and oranges as the sun’s warm rays fell across her.
And in the spreading sun, she could see people moving in groups outside, appearing and disappeared like abstract phantoms between sunlit areas and long shadows.
She shaded her eyes. What looked like confusion was really more like organized chaos. The fierce black woman who’d led the slaves in the fight was directing people, many of whom were working with purpose. Squinting against the brightness, Adina saw Asher. He was shepherding a group of slaves to one of the large shade structures.
And in one of the long, angular shadows, bodies were laid out in a row – dead Ghost Eyes. Some were naked, others still clothed, everything useful stripped from them.
Nat had stopped crying. It was only when Adina noticed he’d stopped that she realized she’d stopped too. Seeing the work going on outside; something so familiar, so normal, her pain eased like a muscle cramp letting go. A wave of calm rolled through her as she watched people go about the reassuringly simple tasks.
The intensity of her rage, fear and pain, all seemed to drain away, leaving her just feeling tired. Her hunched shoulders dropped, and she could finally take full breaths again.
She looked into the rising sun, squinting against its brilliance and taking in the colors that seemed suddenly, shockingly bright.
Can’t change what’s happened. Don’t know what will happen.
She looked down at Nat. He was still staring blankly into space.
There’s only now.
Adina squeezed him and pointed to the sunrise. “It’s pretty isn’t it?” It took her pointing a few more times before he turned and looked. He nodded mechanically. As she relaxed, she felt him relax too.
She squeezed him again. “There’s work that needs to get done. Should we go and help?” Nat didn’t say anything. He just clung to her. She shifted toward the door. “Okay, we’re going to go help.” She unlatched the door and looked down at him. “You’re going to have to help me climb down, okay?” She canted her head to see his face. “I’m not as strong as Asher. I can’t climb down and carry you at the same time, okay?” Nat watched her eyes for a long moment, then finally released the death grip he’d had on her.
Adina caught up with Asher as he talked with the tall, fierce black woman. Nat was glued to her hip. Asher’s eyes traveled between them, then rested on hers for a moment before he gestured to the other woman. “Adina, this is Zara.” Then he indicated her. “Zara, this is Adina.” Zara looked her up and down with a hard, assessing gaze.
“You killed those men in the tent and then chased those others out into the desert by yourself last night.” It wasn’t a question, more an establishing of facts. Zara neither seemed impressed, or disappointed. Her expression remained resolute and controlled. She pointed her chin out toward the wastes, her eyes never leaving Adina’s face. “I hope you gave them the death they deserved.”
Zara was taller than Adina, with intensely black skin and lighter brown eyes. Her hair was a mass of tight braids that must have taken hours to do at some point. They had gone toward dreadlocks from lack of maintenance, surrounding her face like a jet-black lion’s mane. Zara’s features were hard; deep creases under her cheekbones made her look even more severe. She might have been pretty if her expression wasn’t cabled and carved the way it was. Zara’s bare arms were muscular, but not big. She looked like a fighter but didn’t have the battle scars Adina would have expected. There were thin horizontal scarification lines just below her eyes as well as light-colored curving tattoos that stood out starkly against the dark skin of her arms and the right side of her neck. Adina had never seen such precise, light-colored tattoos before. Asher’s tattoos were amazingly detailed, but the white tattoos against Zara’s 1xbet giriş dark skin were striking.
Adina instinctively pulled herself up straighter at Zara’s fierce assessing gaze. She could see Asher watching their interaction out of the corner of her eye.
“I did.” Adina stuck out her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Zara.”
Zara cocked her head. It was a hawkish sort of motion. Adina’s impression was that Zara was used to people being cowed by her. Adina was done with being intimidated – by anyone. Least of all someone whose life they had just saved. Zara watched her eyes, then took her hand. Zara’s grip was firm, but there was no competition in the strength there. Zara nodded.
“Ooh ooh!” a voice called in the way of a greeting and when Adina turned, she thought she was seeing some kind of psychedelic apparition. A very tall, thin-framed man was approaching them. He was wearing the most outrageous attire she could have imagined. It would have been striking anywhere, but with dead Ghost Eyes only a few yards away and surrounded by brutalized slaves, he looked like something that had fallen from another planet. She heard an unmistakably disdainful exhalation from Zara.
Asher turned to her again and gestured to the flamboyantly dressed man. “Adina this is Lew-Lew.” He pointed from the astoundingly dressed man to her. “Lew-Lew, this is Adina.”
The man flounced to her with the most unimaginable gait, crossing one foot in front of the other in a strange strut that made Adina’s eyebrows climb up. Lew-Lew was as filthy as all the other slaves, but he walked like he was on a stage that no one else could see. He threw an arm up over his head, his wrist bent most decorously. “Here I am!” He was wearing what Adina could only think of as a tutu in an unnatural shade of pink with close fitting particolored trousers underneath it. He wore a vest in faded, and now torn turmeric yellow fabric with a short coat thrown over it. The coat was a shade of green that reminded Adina of a warning sign for toxic chemicals or radiation. And he was wearing makeup. There were dark circles around his eyes from where it had run and faded, and his cheeks were smeared with fading red. Adina had seen traveling storiers who were far less… expressively dressed. Seeing her obvious gawk, he stopped a few feet away and twirled. It was only then that she saw the gigantic, filthy blue bow that apparently tied the tutu around his waist. His pirouette finished; he threw his head to the side dramatically.
“Well, if you’re going to stare darling, I thought I might as well give you the whole show!” He pointed skyward. “If they can’t see how fabulous I am from orbit, why bother!”
Adina couldn’t speak. She was taken so off guard by the wildly flamboyant man in the grim setting that she could only stare at him. Lew-Lew ignored her obvious derailment, stepped to Nat and bent at the waist. “And how are you now? Feeling better?”
Adina looked from Lew-Lew to Nat and back again.
Asher pointed between them. “Lew-Lew was looking after Nat when we got here.”
Nat still didn’t say anything, but he nodded to Lew-Lew.
“Good!” Lew-Lew smiled and stood up, looking at Adina directly. “Have you recovered yet, hun?” He stuck out his hand, once again with a most decorous bend in his wrist. “Say hi. You’re just standing there.”
Adina couldn’t help the sudden grin the pulled her mouth wide. Lew-Lew was so… unexpected among everything else that it was the only expression her confused body seemed able to come up with. “You’re… amazing,” Adina stammered, taking his hand.
“Thank you, darling!” Lew-Lew cried effusively, putting his other hand on hers in a most elegant gesture.
“What is it, Lew-Lew?” Zara demanded.
Lew-Lew threw his eyes skyward. “She’s so gruff!” He let go of her hand, then turning to Zara and Asher. “We should have all the tentage we want down in the next two hours. We’re separating usable scrap from what’s not worth taking. It should be…” He made an elaborate gesture as if checking a pocket watch. “Three hours before we know what we have. And we have all the sick and injured under cover. Food and water are being distributed.” He waved a hand. “We’re not telling anyone what the food is of course.” He turned and peered at Adina with a conspiratorial gaze. “They are hungry enough that it doesn’t matter anyway. We are well stocked on water, at least ten days’ worth without rationing.”
Adina’s head was spinning at the clash between how Lew-Lew looked and his certain and utterly self-possessed report about the goings on in the camp.
“We have thirteen vehicles,” Lew-Lew continued. “One is being worked on. It may or may not be usable. We need to decide one way or the other in the next hour to give us time to strip what we can from it if we want to be gone by nightfall.”
Lew-Lew flicked his eyes to Adina dramatically. “I know. I am so much more than just a pretty 1xbet güvenilirmi face!”
When Adina finally sat down in the open side door of the bearcat, the sun was halfway to its zenith. She took a long drink from her canteen. Nat wasn’t physically attached to her anymore, but he was never more than a few feet away.
Everything in the camp was being stripped, even the slave cages were being broken down and loaded onto the remaining raider vehicles.
Asher approached the bearcat, Zara at his heel.
“As soon as we’ve got everything useful loaded, we’ll follow you,” Zara announced, shading her eyes and gesturing out into the desert.
Asher took the canteen Adina offered. “We need to get moving as soon as possible. We can’t risk the Ghost Eyes finding us.”
Adina offered Zara a separate water flask. Even though she and Asher had their masks off, they were still cautious about contamination.
Zara nodded a thank you to Adina and drank deeply. She handed the flask back and jerked her head out and away from the camp. “And you think these people at the quarry will take us in?”
Asher shrugged. “I don’t know. But if the Ghost Eyes razed your towns, what else are you going to do?”
Adina hadn’t heard anything about where Zara and the rest had come from. It hadn’t been a priority up to now. “You’re taking them to the quarry?”
Asher gave her a resigned nod. “Yes, the quarry needs bodies. Zara and the rest of the survivors need someplace place to go.” He turned back to Zara. “But I can’t guarantee what they will say.” He nodded to the slave cages that were being taken apart. “But if you bring them that much quality steel, it will certainly be an offer in your favor.”
Zara’s expression darkened. “And the injured?” She glanced back to the rest of the camp. “Some are too weak or wounded to make any kind of journey. But others… I don’t know. They might survive.”
Asher turned fully to her. His demeanor was sympathetic, even if the deep furrow between his eyebrows made him look severe. “That’s your decision, Zara. I can’t make it for you. The people in camp follow what you say. Whether you want it or not, that makes you their leader as far as I can tell. These are your people.”
Zara’s demeanor turned brusque and immediate. Adina had only known her for a few hours in an awful situation, but everything about Zara seemed hard. She wasn’t someone Adina wanted to be on the wrong side of.
Zara blew out a breath. “I’ll take care of it.” She glanced at Asher. “You don’t have anything that we could use to kill them painlessly, do you?”
Zara’s all too direct and unvarnished statement felt like it knocked pins loose somewhere inside Adina. She knew as well as anyone that leaving people to die of dehydration, or worse, to be found by the Ghost Eyes would be cruel. Ending their lives was the least cruel thing they could do. But Zara’s directness was…. Unsettling.
Asher shook his head. “No, I wish we had something to help you. And we also can’t spare bullets to help in that way either. I’m sorry, Zara.” Asher’s words were also direct. And while what they meant was harsh, unlike Zara, there was regret in his voice. Adina could feel his anguish, even if Zara couldn’t.
Zara’s hard features creased even deeper. “It is the wastes. We do what we have to.” She turned back to the activity in the camp.
Nat pressed against Adina again and she put an arm around him. He hadn’t said a word since Asher had put him into her arms in the bearcat.
Zara just watched the camp for a long moment and then walked away without another word. Asher settled down next to Adina on the step of the bearcat’s open side door. He took another long drink from the canteen watching Zara’s receding back. “I don’t envy her.” Then he turned to her. “Are you alright?”
Adina nodded and leaned against him. “I think so. I’m sorry I was so… out of it.”
He put an arm around she and Nat, pulling them against him and gave her a kiss on the hair, then rested his cheek there. “It’s alright. Last night was hard. You went through a lot.”
She snuggled against him, feeling more herself. She relaxed more, reveling in the feeling of his security. “What are we going to do with them all? How many are there?” she finally asked, glancing at the work going on. Tents were being pulled down, shades rolled up, poles, posts and rigging being disassembled.
“Sixty give or take. It depends on how many Zara thinks can make the trip. We’ll take them out in the desert, make it hard for our trail to be followed, maybe a day or two and make camp.” He pushed her up so he could look her in the face. “Then you’re going to take the bearcat back to the quarry with Nat.”
Adina sat up fully. “What? Without you? What are you talking about?”
“I need to stay with them in case something happens.” He glanced out at the camp again, speaking more quietly. “And make sure no one follows you.” He indicated the camp with a sweeping point of his chin. “These people are desperate. We don’t know what they might do. We can’t risk them finding the quarry until you talk to Priav and Rafi. They need to be ready if they are going to allow these people in.”
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