While you are on the road headed away from Sparta, you cross paths with a traveler, an old woman who looks like she should be wrapped in an afghan next to a fireplace being tended by great-grandchildren rather than shuffling along a dusty wasteland road. She leads an old, weathered mule by a slack tether. The mule has a hand-made harness allowing it to pull some kind of rickshaw. While the mule looks pleasantly fat and well-groomed, her cart is quite beaten up. A few remaining flecks of original paint on it tells the literate among you it was once a “Washington D.C. Pedicab.” More recent (but still probably decades old) hand-painted letters read “Dr. Ana Cass’s Miracle Herbs and Fortune Telling,” along with pictograms underneath that appear to be a twig with leaves and berries, a radiant mushroom and a caduceus with an all-seeing eye atop the staff. The woman is dressed in thick, natty wraps and robes. From what skin you can see, you estimate her age to be somewhere between one and two thousand years old. She has a long, thin stalk of some kind of fibrous plant tucked in the side of her wide mouth. She occasionally spits a stream of brown gunk after every couple dozen chaws. Sometimes, the spittle doesn’t break free cleanly, forcing her to pull out the chaw-stick and wipe her chin on her sleeve, causing one to be a bit more brown and dirty than the other. For all her visual repellence, there is something about her that makes it hard to pull your eyes away, as though she’s going to turn to dust at any moment, and if you blink you might miss it. When she speaks, it is equally difficult not to listen; her eyes may have seen everything the world has had to offer, and if you listen carefully, she might let slip some secret that could be the answer you have always been looking for. She has pulled her mule and cart to the side of the road and waves for you to approach, asking simply if you’d like to trade and break bread on this dusty trail. People stopping to trade wares is nothing out of the ordinary, but she has offered food, as well, and despite her appearance of uncleanliness, something in her cart smells delicious, like cookies; just like every grandmother should have lying around. She walks to the back of her cart where she has a kettle hanging over a fire tray. She grabs several battered tin cups and ladles out servings of a steaming brown liquid, which smells just like hot chocolate with a touch of cinnamon. For some reason, tasting it reminds you of home—or what home should be like.
“You look like a strange lot, you all do,” she says after getting everyone set up with a cup, and Freya has started a campfire off the side of the road in an old car bonnet for everybody to settle down around. “You two, in your funny uniforms—if there was only one of ya, I’d think you came from the Beforetimes, your clothes look so clean! But there’s two of ya, so I can tell it’s a uniform, part of something greater, I bet. Something tells me there’s more of ya around. Maybe even in places you don’t know about, I reckon. Now, my eyes may not be what they use’ta, but I can see that giant spider hidin’ over yonner. Prob’ly thinks it’s hidin. It’s got a restless eye, that one, always watchin’. I woulda thought it was one of them what comes from the Silver City, like it’s lookin’ for the best place to build the next Ghost Town, but I’d wager that one doesn’t build things, does it? The opposite, maybe? You don’t have to tell me. I get the feeling that there’s some secrets trailing behind it, like a bit of web the spider forgot to pinch off after catching the wind and travelling far from home.” She pauses in her talking to sniff at the air. All you can smell is hot chocolate, but she seems to catch something else. “Naw, that critter smells like war, and looks like another world. Keep an eye on it, so it can keep an eye on you, hmm? You kids sure don’t look like no Shepherds I ever saw, nosiree!
She pulls a bit of dried meat from a pouch on her hip and wags it at Fang, who impulsively darts over to sniff at the food once it’s in play. “And aren’t you a forlorn lookin’ thing? Could I steal you away with a simple scrap of meat?” As Fang is about to take the morsel, he stops, seemingly at something the old woman said. He looks back to Freya, to the woman and the offered food, and turns away with his tail low to curl up against Freya’s hip, facing away from the fire and recriminating eyes. “Oh, ho! I think someone has already stolen your heart, pup. And you don’t want to dishonor her! Good boy, good boy. Just for that, you deserve a reward.” She hands the meat to Freya, who smiles awkwardly and accepts it. “Let your mistress give it to you. Maybe that will make it proper.” Freya splits the scrap in two, and gives half to Sirius and holds the other piece low at her side to allow Fang to snatch it with few eyes watching.
“Oh, and you there, young fella in the armor, don’t think I didn’t notice you. Something tells me you like t’be noticed. Landsakes, it looks like the valley chewed you up and spat you back out for being too gristly! Ha ha! Don’t take offense, lad. None intended. I bet that toughness has saved you plenty of times. And saved plenty of others, too,” she asserts, pointing her chaw-stick at Sir Segway. “Bet you wouldn’t trade that for nothin’. Not even all the fresh water in the valley. No, you look like the kinda feller that has travelled far and wide. Earnt a crease in your face for every road you’ve walked, and have a story for each and er’y one of ‘em. You look like you maybe got a few stories to tell. Yeah, I bet you love talkin’ folks’ ears off. How would you feel about hearing a story, for a change? Maybe one of you has heard it before, but I bet a couple of you hain’t, an’ it’s worth telling. Maybe the lot of you are just the folk that need to hear it, days being what they are, now. What’cha say, hm?” With no plans to continue further on the road this evening, no one objects and the old woman continues to talk while you enjoy the hot drink and look forward to the sweet bread she is warming on a dented pizza pan over the fire.
“Now, er’y child in the valley is told stories at bedtime to keep them brave in the face of the dark. Terr’ble things hide out there sometimes, just beyond the light of the fire. Sometimes these are just men, poor, hangry and des’prate; their hearts full of bad intent ‘cuz they don’t care how they keep their bellies full. Then, there are the Otshee Manitou, with their poisoned spirits and twisted bodies. Not all of them are bad, though; sometimes, they wear their glow so you can see ‘em coming, like you, child,” she says, patting Freya on the knee with a bony hand. “Those aren’t the ones you need to fear. The ones to look out for are the ones whose hearts are so dark it swallows up that light. You might not see ‘em coming ‘til it’s too late. Sometimes they look just like men; they speak in tap’stries of words, woven careful to hide what’s really inside their speak. Man or Manitou, the Morpheum twists things ever which way. Doesn’t always twist the body. Sometimes just the soul. Now, not all twists are bad. Sure, some are. Plenny of ‘em, really. But ya gotta be careful, just like ever momma and poppa tells their babies, ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover,’ they used to say. But now, so few can read—that’s why we tell stories like this--they tell ‘em instead, ‘don’t judge a man for his speak.’ Take that advice too close ta heart, though, and it can make it hard to trust strangers sometimes, make it awful easy to be afraid of near everthing. But fear’ll kill you in the mind, keep ya from bein’ able to do anything, let alone the right thing, so they tell stories to keep the young folk strong, to keep ‘em from bein’ afraid.
“They tell ‘em about Hubert Hoss and his Band of the Scanned what marched up across the whole Apparition Ridge and beyond, into the heart of the Glow itself, to push the demons and ghosts back outta the valley. They tell about the summer long ago when the Cars With No Drivers rolled in from the north, and were driven off by Ark’haynjel Shyel and her Blue-Bombs. ‘Fore the summer was over, one of them cars done swall’d her whole, and when the battle was over, they said her body was never found. The point is, she inspired the people of the Valley. They lived ta tell the tale because she helped us all out, gave folk some inspiration. Much like Hoss, she gave people a reason to believe there was hope and that the darkness wouldn’t gobble us up like a car with no driver. The people of the valley ‘ventually won the day, and tell that Shyel had dis’peared back to the ether from which she musta’ come. Makes a neater story that way.
“As if the fire from the sky weren’t enough of a kick in the teeth, there always seems to be something else out there creepin’ along, intent to do us all in. The Shadow-Over has faced what looks like that final sunset God knows how many times, just like the smoke from the Cinder blocks out the sun e’ry now and again. Someone has always stepped up, carried the rest of us with ‘em, and then we keep on goin’. Humanity’s kinda stubborn that way, I guess.
“Sometimes, those heroes they tell stories about, they save the whole valley, and we all are mighty thankful! But e’ry time they save the good folk, they can’t help but save the bad folk, too. And maybe that’s okay. Keeps the rest of us from bein’ lazy, I ‘spose. Gives us a good reason t’be mindful if there’s some bad folk out there. Now, not e’ry hero of the valley saves us all. Sometimes, they just save one person. That’s what this here story is about.
“My stars, this yarn’s still pretty fresh! Not even old as the Summer of Black Rain. Still, I hain’t had cause to tell it for a spell, so give an old woman a chance to figure out where to begin. Let’s see….”
…It all started at the Bastions, Alpha and Omega. Those two camps that guard the Morpheum, of course, and keep the worst of the Otshee Manitou bottled up inside. Laying ‘twixt those two cities is the worst the Morpheum has to offer: Its pits of poison, hollers of dank air that can kill you just for looking at it, and the reliquaries where that haven’s betrayal musta been born. And, of course, the monsters. They change every season, get worse and trixier. One would think they’d die off by this time, but no. Some of the Manitou creep to the edges of the Morpheum and howl out, callin’ in other animals. Sometimes it’s matin’ calls. Other times they whimper like wounded prey. This is how the Manitou replenish their numbers. The soldiers at the Bastions may’a strung nets at the mouth of the valley that pushes the tikky-tikky back, but no nets they can make’ll keep all the wild things out along those miles an’ miles a ridgeline.
That don’t keep those soldiers from tryin’, though. E’ry day, all year long, brave souls venture out of the Bastions and beat the ridges. They keep to the high ground when they can ‘cuz it’s safer—as safe as you can be in a place like that, I s’pose. Sometimes they run little raids at the tails of the Morpheum, if they think the Manitou are gatherin’ for a big push, just to upset their powwow. But usually, they stay out of the heart of the Morpheum. Few return from there. Now, with the monsters changin’ all the time and gettin’ smarter an’ tougher an’, well, weirder, plenty a folk b’lieve that one day they’re gonna bake up the perfect monster that’s gonna be the end of us all. Folk call it “Wendigo,” named after some great creepy-crawly from the old days before the Beforetimes. Course, Wendigo ain’t come yet, ‘cuz we’re all still here. Don’t know myself if it’s true or not. My fortunes don’t read like that. Alls I can say is some folk think it’s true, an’ that gives ‘em good enough reason not to let the Manitou in the Morpheum go unchecked.
That bein’ said, back in the day, when the Manitou were many steps behind what they are now, young Bucks would occaisionally dare each other to make the run direct from one ridge to the other. Use’ta be great fun, stuff that’d make good for buildin’ a feller’s reputation as a dead-hard sonuvagun. After a while, it wern’t so fun anymore. Jus’ terrifyin’, then later on jus’ deadly. Seems the more that folk danced in the thickest fogs in the Morpheum, the poison there learned faster and faster, and the critters changed—“evolved,” they say—more and more. Come time, the gen’rals at the Bastions outlawed the stunt. Prob’ly not a bad idea, anyhow. After a while, most anyone who tried to run “The Miracle Mile,” as they started calling it, jus’ never came back. Wind Talkers at each Bastion would taunt the others from their squawk boxes, darin’ each other to make the run, teasin’ that Jenkins or somebody had made it just last week, but they all knew it was horsepucky.
The last time someone ran the Miracle Mile, it wasn’t on a dare. It wasn’t for something as selfish as garnerin’ a war story to tell when they got old and gray. It wasn’t even for greed, to steal something from deep in the fog that hain’t seen the light of day since the Beforetimes. It was for love. Now I see you rolling your lookers, but I swear it’s true. See, those men and women of the Bastions join for any number a reasons, but deep down, the best of ‘em do it ta protect people. Sometimes it’s ta protect the people they grew up with, but along with them, they’re really fightin’ to save everbody, almost all of ‘em folk they’ve never even met. That takes a certain kind a commitment, y’know? An’ those soldiers were sure committed to each other. They come together from all over the Valley, but ‘fore long, they’re thick as blood, and a threat to one is a threat to all. “Never leave a man behind,” they say. ‘Cuz like as not, they might hafta wrassle with him next week, after the Morpheum’s done twisted him into a Manitou.
So there comes this day when a couple of patrols are out and about on the ridges, one from Omega and one from Alpha. They’re tappin’ into the nets there and talkin’, like they do every day. The Wind Talker from Alpha’s patrol was a girl named Magda. She came from a settlement to the north, near the Cinder. Traveled all the way to Alpha during the Tithe and joined up. Her counterpart from Omega was an old-timer named Daniel. I know, not ‘zactly a heroic name, but heroes ain’t defined by their names. He was pressured to serve by the elders of his settlement way to the south. They didn’t wanna lose favor with the River Barons if they didn’t pony up a volunteer the season the pilgrimage came to their village. Danny didn’t even wanna be there at Bastion Omega, but when he saw how the people of the valley came together and worked for a common purpose, it sorta changed his views. He sure didn’t like bein’ forced to fight, but it didn’t take long for him to see that he couldn’t say it wern’t his fight, too. Once his time was up, he didn’t want to go back to his home. He felt that they’d betrayed him. The other recruits that he had served with at Omega, though? Plenny a them had saved his life, an’ he’d returned the favor jus’ as offen. Once they’d risked their lives together, Danny’s loyalty was to them alone.
On a reg’lar day, these two patrols would range out and keep an eye on their own piece of the ridge. They would talk an’ compare notes, tell each other what the Manitou were trying to pull, how they were tryin’ to defeat the nets, ‘cuz like as not, the critters in the fog were of a similar mind no matter which side of the Morpheum they were on. What they tried ta pull in one spot they would likely try ta pull in another. So, the patrols talked a lot. As an old hand, a Sergeant by now, Danny knew how to use the gear, and got tired of passing messages back and forth to his team’s Wind Talker, so he usually took the squawk box, himself. No one made any bones about him stealin’ all the airtime with Magda--who had a real pretty voice, clear as a bell—‘cuz she was still pretty green. Needed a lot of guidance. Her own sergeant shoulda been the one to help her, but he was a bit too wrapped up in the notion of getting some glory of his own. Sergeant Danny picked up the uncertainty outta her words in the air, knew all too well what her problem was. He’d seen it too many times already, so ever day, ever patrol, he talked to her, tried to impart some of the wisdom he’d learned the hard way over the years to help keep that young lady alive.
If only Sergeant Danny coulda passed some of that wisdom along to her boss! He got a call from her that mornin’ that her team spotted some ‘spicious Manitou activity down the ridge on their side, an’ wanted ta know if his group has any matchin’ reports. From Omega’s patch of the ridge, all they could see was the fog down below. He heard from Magda that her sergeant was taking the squad down for a closer look. Danny felt deep in his old bones that it sounded like a bad call. His gut knotted up ‘cuz he couldn’t tell Magda to go against orders, couldn’t tell the other sergeant what to do with his own squad. But he did tell her what she could do. After that, all Danny could do was hope that he was worried for nothin’.
Even from over a mile away, the sound of the gunshots skipped ‘cross the fog like stones ‘cross a pond. Danny could tell more’n a man should be able about what was goin’ on by the sounds of the gunfire. Rapid. Uncontrolled. Panicked. Dyin’ off. His urge to rush to the sound of the guns was strong, but went agin ever order he’d been given and ever bit of wisdom he tried to teach the recruits. By all rights, he oughta stand by and listen to ‘em all die, or worse. He ‘magined Magda gettin’ dragged into the basement of some ancient building by a bunch of Manitou. Would they just kill her? Eat her? If they were men once, would they try an’ rape her? Or would they use the poison to twist her into somethin’ he would have ta kill on sight? He’d never even seen the girl’s face. Didn’t know what she looked like. Any one a the monsters down the road might be her. He couldn’t have that. Sergeant Danny turned to his corp’ral, handed over the squawk box and told him, “Squad’s yours now, son. Don’t none a you boys dare follow in my footsteps!” He had ta tell ‘em that, ‘cuz they were a good bunch a kids, an’ wouldn’t wanna see their boss take off inta the fog all by his lonesome. “Take the boys back to the Bastion. I’ll meet you there.” With that, they watched Sergeant Danny lope down the ridge into the fog, their last glimpse was seeing him fix a bayonet to his rifle.
Danny knew he was prob’ly throwin’ his life away in this foolish pursuit. Magda was prob’ly already dead by now. If he was lucky, he might make it far enough to find her corpse, but the reality a how deadly this part of the Morpheum had become didn’t put odds in his favor. His cause was hopeless, but if Magda were to have any hope a’tall, he was it. And that meant he had to keep movin’.
Stubbornness can be a strange thing sometimes. Maybe a person tries something just ‘cuz somebody tells ‘em not to, or succeeds ‘cuz somebody says they cain’t. Sometimes, they set their heels in and refuse to give up. And ever once in a while, they stab everthing that gets in their way in its Goddamn face ‘til they get to the girl they’ve fallen in love with over nothin’ more than whispers on the air.
There she was, holed up in a nook just like he’d taught her, and she was usin’ ever other little bit of advice he’d slipped her over the last year jus’ to survive this long. The rest of her squad had not been so lucky, but they hadn’t been following Danny’s advice. They’d been following glory. They was more concerned about having a good story to tell when they got back, but forgot about the detail where they have to survive the story to tell it.
Danny couldn’t believe he’d made it this far, but the trip didn’t get any easier from there. Magda was hurt, and couldn’t make it back up the ridge. Danny grit his teeth for what had to come next, but then again, what honor worth having comes cheap? He pulled her out of the nest she’d dug into, and led the way south toward Bastion Omega. Her base was closer, but Danny didn’t know the way, not like he knew this end of the valley through years of glimpses from the ridgeline when the fog got thin. So, when it came time to choose between the shorter path or the one he knew, it really wern’t a choice a’tall.
Maybe Danny’s sheer refusal to die confused the Manitou. Maybe they couldn’t b’lieve his defiance and granted him some respect, like one face of madness tippin’ its hat to another madman. Whatever it was, the claws in the fog weren’t up to the task of pullin’ the two of them back in. Maybe the Manitou had already gotten what they needed from ‘em; maybe those twistin’ demons just needed some… inspiration.
When Danny’s patrol finally made it back to Bastion Omega, they charged in to hook up with their boss, but couldn’t find him. He had been right; the brass had run him out right quick for his stunt. You might expect they’d be pissed at their Sarge bein’ done dirty like that, punished for riskin’ his neck agin’ all odds and savin’ the girl to boot. But they wern’t. They was proud of him, and happy he could finally find a reason to leave that wretched trench behind for good. Lastly, they were proud as a team ‘cuz one of their own had blasted the record of the Miracle Mile for good. From then on, the bar was raised further than any man could ever hope to jump. That night, the legend of the Miracle Marathon was born: Seven miles of fog ‘stead of just one. No one’s dared try it since. But maybe no one else has had as good a reason.
Bein’ discharged in such a hurry, one might think that Danny and Magda’s story ended right there, at least the bits worthy of an old lady tellin’ a bunch of wide-eyed pups like you. I’m sure you’re prob’ly wondering what in the black blazes could poss’bly top the story of how Danny met Magda? How could this tale ever get better?
I hate to be a downer, but I regret to tell you that it doesn’t. That don’t mean there ain’t still a part worth tellin’. Not all lessons are happy, tied up neat with a bow. Some are mean and senseless, and teach us somethin’ we didn’t ‘spect to learn.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Danny and Magda were done servin’, one way or t’other, and all they had was what they carried and each other. Neither one of ‘em was what the other expected, but they had lost everthing together. They stuck it out for a bit, jus’ to see how things would go. Magda needed some help to heal from her injuries, and Danny had to come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t a sergeant anymore who could tell her what to do an’ how to survive. He hadn’t lived outside of the Bastion for ages, been a soldier fer years now. He knew just as much how to lead a normal life as she did, and she wasn’t as many years removed from being normal as he was. They came to rely on each other, an’ finally found a place to settle down. Danny became a hunter, a trade that suited him. Magda tended some animals, jus’ like she use’ta on the farm when she was a girl. They never told anybody how they’d come together. Each of ‘em figured that no one would believe ‘em. Sometimes, looking at each other in the light of the fire from their hearth, they couldn’t believe it, either. ‘Spite their diff’rences, they hit it off pretty well, and when things got rocky, when Danny got the terrors from mem’ries of what happened back in the Morpheum, sometimes Magda could make things all better jus’ with a few whispers in his ear, like she use ta whisper to him from across the fog.
Time ‘ventually came that nature took its course in things such as a man and woman stayin’ together for too long, and Magda came down with a case of baby. Some time after she gave birth, they learned that the Morpheum wasn’t done with them. From the time that Magda had spent in the hot zone, waitin’ to die before she wound up being rescued, she had taken in enough infection to leave a trixie mark. Their child had to grow up a bit ‘fore Danny and Magda even knew that their daughter was diff’rent. Having to fight the Manitou for so long, many who leave the Morpheum can never look at the infected the same way again, lumpin’ them all in with the monsters they use’ta fight. This thought never even crossed their minds, as they both had fought ‘longside many brave mutants. Most of the time, the infection only touches the outside of a person, and never changes the light inside. ‘Sides, they had naturally come to love their daughter, who they’d named Syr, a name common to her mother’s people. Not lovin’ her because she was a little different on the outside seemed crazier to them than runnin’ the Miracle Mile again.
Growin’ up, Syr learned from both her mother and her father, even though they taught very different lessons ‘bout how to deal with animals. While she learned to hunt, Syr’s real passion was carin’ for the animals like her mother did, though she made a special bond with her father’s hunting dog. He was a grizzled wolf-beast that had started followin’ him some years back. He was black as midnight with eyes like ice and a streak of gray ‘twixt ‘em. Danny had named him Fenrir ‘cuz he was truly terrifying, and he reminded Danny of some of the stories Magda told. ‘Ventually, Fenrir became too old to take on the hunt, and was retired to being Syr’s companion full-time, as long as she could help forage food for him. It was a trade that seemed to suit the old wolf just fine. Sometimes, Syr wondered if Fenrir played at bein’ too old ta hunt jus’ to spend more time with her; she never saw any sign of lameness when they were out in the woods, out of sight of home. She knew Fenrir was smarter than anyone ‘spected, and she sometimes wondered if he was touched in the same way she was. Syr didn’t know why she was different. At her young age, her parents had never told her how they had come together, and they would never get a chance to.
One day, Syr was out deep in the woods with Fenrir, playing and gathering no-glo shrooms and letting Fenrir forage for his supper. It was growing late, but the shrooms were easier to find in the dark. Fenrir’s ears perked up, an’ his hackles raised. Syr knew sure as spit that this was a warnin’, a sign of trouble. The two of them raced back home, but they were far away, and by the time they got back, it was too late. Danny had taught Syr to be strong, to stand up for herself, and never back down. Quite poss’bly the only thing that saved her that day was bein’ too far from home to try and save her family.
She ran to her cabin to find her father slain. Bandits had come an’ attacked, killing everyone. Syr tried to stir some life in her father’s body, but he wouldn’t wake. The terr’ble realization came to her that she would never hear another bit of his folksy wisdom, ever word of it meant to keep her safe. She didn’t know if she had learnt enough from him yet. She felt instantly lost, and she didn’t know how she was going to carry on. Sometimes when you’re overwhelmed like that, the only thing that makes sense is to cry your eyes out, ‘specially when you’re just a little girl, and that’s what she did. Turnt her head to the night sky and howled full of loss and pain, her wet cheeks the color of the moon above. At her side, Fenrir cried ‘long with her, a piercing howl that she had never heard before, but she was in no state to pay it any mind. She cried ‘til her ribs ached and her voice was hoarse, and when she turned to throw her arms around Fenrir and bury her face in his wiry mane, she fell forward onto her father’s shoulder ‘cuz Fenrir was gone. For who knows how long, she had been crying all by herself, and jus’ then, she cried some more, an’ even harder ‘cuz she felt even more alone than before.
For three days and nights, Syr cried. She was too small and weak to dig a proper grave, but she could carry stones from the nearby crick, so she did. Each rock was stained with her tears as she built a cairn for her father and mother, and when she was done, she didn’t know what to do anymore. She looked up from her work, and finally her cheeks felt dry again. She sure musta squeezed out every tear she had. When her vision wasn’t swimmy any longer, she saw Fenrir standin’ a short ways off, watchin’ her, like he had something to say. Even though she loved that dog, always had, she was suddenly angry at him for leavin’ her when she needed him most. She said to him, “If you got somethin’ fer me, I don’t know if I wants ta hear it!” The old dog didn’t shy away from her harsh words. Danny had been his master before she was even born, and he seemed to know how much the girl must hurt inside. Fenrir just wagged his snout over his shoulder and turned, as though beckonin’ her ta follow. As her hound walked away and she saw that all her stubbornness would get her now was continued solitude, she discovered she did want to hear it. At the very least, she didn’t want to be alone again. She picked up her kit an’ followed.
Syr didn’t know where Fenrir was leadin’ her, but they traveled further away from the village than she had ever been before. When the sun edged toward the hills behind them, her home was nowhere in sight. She had gathered a kit of useful things from the ruins of the village before Fenrir had returned. There hadn’t been much to find; the bandits had taken most everthing worth anything, but that was okay because she was small and couldn’t carry much, anyhow. From this kit, she pulled out stuff to make a fire, which hurt something fierce. Not because she skinned her finger on the flint and steel, but a deep-down kind of hurt ‘cuz fire-starting was something her father had taught her, and it reminded her of him. When the fire was going, she curled up next to it, with Fenrir curled up behind her, protecting her back from the dark. Before she drifted off to sleep, she saw the glow of eyes in the fringes of the dark at the edges of the fire, reflectin’ its dancin’ light, but she didn’t startle at them. They didn’t cause Fenrir any problem, so she figgered they were meant to be here.
When she woke, the fire was out, and a pack of wolves carpeted the small clearing around her. Fenrir waited long enough for Syr to drink a bit of water, then he stalked off again, leading Syr and the wolfpack further east. As they marched, Fenrir’s head was low with his ears pinned back. He was not showing the signs of caution and ‘lertness that Syr knew him for. He wasn’t hunting. He knew where his prey was. He didn’t speak, either. Not one yip, yowl or growl. Off in the distance, though, Syr heard plenny a dogs, and as she followed Fenrir, the animals joined them, seeming ta melt out of the brush and appear out from the ruins as they neared the edge of the Ash Barrens. ‘Fore long, Syr was in the midst of a pack that contained more dogs than she ever knew even existed in the whole world. Near dusk, Fenrir stopped on a hill until Syr came to his side.
“We’re here, ain’t we, boy?” she asked, her young mind already havin’ formed an idea of where her companion was takin’ her. The only question that she hadn’t found an answer to was this:
What would she do when she got there?
Lookin’ down the hill at the bandit camp solved that problem without a second thought. She wasn’t just a scared little girl anymore. She was an angry little girl whose family had been killed by a pack of animals, an’ that pack had nothing on hers. She pulled a knife from her belt and stalked ahead, like Fenrir had been showing her since dawn. He walked at her side and the rest of the pack followed.
The animals gave the bandits no warning. They just attacked, with snarls and snaps the only sound to tell the bandits that a fight was on, ‘til the air was pierced with their horr’fied screams. It wern’t a fight like one might think, it was more like an execution. Syr didn’t know how she knew which bandit had killed her father, but she did. It was like she could smell it. Maybe Fenrir had smelled it while he was gone, and he was telling her somehow. She didn’t know. She did know that he was a big, strong man and she was a little girl, and she had no idea how she was going to deal with him, but that wasn’t ‘bout to stop her. Some of the wolves circled ‘round the bandit, to keep him from running, while the rest of ‘em dispatched the remnants of the raider band.
Trusty friend that he was, Fenrir leapt ahead of Syr to help her. He plowed into the bandit. She ‘spected him to maul the bastard to death, to rip his throat out with his fangs, but he didn’t. He pinned the man down, allowin’ Syr to join in the fight an’ get her licks in, now that things were a touch more even. She saw a blade flash in the bandit’s hand, but she dove inside his reach. His stab at her back didn’t land, and she stuck her own knife into his neck. She had never killed an animal with pleasure before, but this was different; she knew that he was less than an animal, and deserved no pity. She was glad to see the life fade from his eyes as she bled him. She didn’t know if her mother and father would be proud of her, but they weren’t here to cast judgment thanks to the man slowly dyin’ beneath her. At least they wouldn’t go unavenged.
With his help no longer needed here, Fenrir let go his hold on the bandit, took a few steps and laid down. Syr wiped the blood from her pale, little hands. She watched the bandit ‘til his chest rose with breath for the last time, then she finally looked all ‘round her. She ‘spected to see the pack of dogs, but they were gone, vanished with as much fanfare as they had arrived. Once agin, she was alone with Fenrir, just as this awful journey had begun. She went to Fenrir an’ knelt down to thank him, but when she stroked his side, her hand came back slick and bloody again. It wasn’t the bandit’s blood; this was still warm. It was Fenrir’s.
In an awful flash, it came to her. When the bandit had stabbed at her, the blade didn’t land ‘cuz of her dodgin’ outta the way; as she moved in, Fenrir musta blocked the knife with his own body, sacrificing himself to save her, and give her a chance to do what he coulda done from the git-go. Tears welled up again as that familiar loneliness circled around her like a buzzard. “Why would you do this?” She cried at him, overwhelmed by gratitude and regret. “You’re all the family I’ve got now, Fenrir!”
The old wolf lay bleeding, dying. He mustered up enough strength to lift his head onto her lap and weakly licked at the blood on her trembling hand. He looked up into her eyes, and she heard words in his look. She didn’t know where they came from or if she ‘magined them, but they seemed just like what she’d ‘spect to hear from him. “I couldn’t bear to see another friend die. But I would never leave you truly alone.” Fenrir shivered once, and then he was gone. Syr swept her hand over his eyes to close them, so he could sleep forever like one should.
There seemed like nothing else in the world for her to do. She couldn’t think b’yond her next breath. The only goal she had left, she’d got done, and she had lost everything getting’ it. She didn’t want to get up, she just wanted to sit there on the ground with her friend growin’ cold next to her until she turned to stone and disappeared. Then, she heard a little noise next to her, and she looked up into a pair of beautiful eyes like ice framed in a bed of coal. A familiar streak of silver ran ‘twixt ‘em.
The young dog whimpered and inched forward, licking at Fenrir’s face, then Syr’s hand, and then he whimpered at her, as though to ask, “What do we do now?”
Syr had never seen this pup before, but felt a bond form in an instant. She reached out and ruffled his ear gently. He pressed his head against her hand, and she felt a reason to move again grow inside her. Slowly, she uncurled her legs and stood up. “First, we take care of your Papa, just like I did mine,” she said. “My Papa called him ‘Fenrir,’ and he was my best friend. I helped take care of him, and he helped take care of me. Now, I guess you and I are gonna take care of each other. How’s that sound?” The pup’s tail wagged and his ears perked up a bit. That sounded jus’ fine to him.
And so, they did take care a each other. They traveled all over the valley together, teachin’ each other and learning what they could. Sometimes Syr would find a home for a little while in one place or ‘nother, keep some family company for a spell and help them out ‘fore she took off like a wanderin’ spirit with her faithful pup at her side. Over time, Syr blossomed into a woman, but never settled down to take a husband or have a child. Ha! As if any man could tame her! Who knows, though? When she gets old ‘nough, maybe she’ll see some ‘vantage to settlin’ down, stickin’ in one place an’ pretendin’ to be helpless and let some han’some young thing pretend to take care of her, but that is another story for another time, and who knows if she’ll ever hear that story told; wherever she is, she may have never even heard this story told.
And that’s the thing. Syr was just a little girl thrust into a sitiation no one would wish on anyone, much less a child. But who is she? Is she you? Is she me? Is she the next young woman you might meet in the next town down the road? Or will she disappear forever like the Lady of the Pit, Ark’haynjel Shyel? There’s the chance for a little bit of the hero to be hidin’ in each of us, waitin’ for the right moment to come out an’ save the day. It’s stories like these, sad as they can be at times, that fill the memories and hearts of ever young’un in the valley. It’s what keeps us strong, what keeps us t’gether. What keeps us from lookin’ at this world of poison and decay and wonderin’ if there’s really any point in getting up from under the weight of death. We should look out for one ‘nother, whether it’s helping a bunch of lost misfits resettle from the ruins to a new home, or taking a bunch of strangers under your wing. This world needs every bit of goodness we can give it, ‘cuz it’s got damned little good of it’s own ta spare these days. Meanwhile, people like me will be here to tell those stories ‘bout the best of us. ‘Bout our deeds both good and bad, tellin’ others what some stranger managed to accomplish on the toughest day of their life.
Who knows? Someday I might pull a group of strangers aside, sling some warm, spicy chokate at ‘em and tell ‘em a story ‘bout you. Maybe, like those Manitou in the valley watchin’ Danny charge forward in the face of death to save a girl he barely knew, maybe y’all just need some inspiration. ‘Nother cup for the road, kids?”