“Not sure. I lost all my supplies in the fall. I haven’t eaten in days. I was contemplating eating my arm or maybe my foot. It was a tossup,” he returned honestly. He opened his eyes to look at the meat. “So,” he held up the meat, “thanks.”
“Eat your hand. It’s hard to run away without a foot,” she returned as if she had already thought the idea through. “Good thing I found you. You might have starved without me,” she stated.
“About that… why do you want me?” He took a bite of the meat. “And,” he paused, shoving a wayward piece of meat into his mouth, “how did you know my name?” he questioned.
“My father sent me to collect you,” she explained cryptically.
Calem shook the sand out of his already sandy blond hair. “It’s driving me crazy. Where is your accent from?” he asked.
“East, where I was born and where we are going,” she returned.
He shook his head, somehow knowing that’s what she was going to say. He took another bite of the dried meat, unable to place what type of meat it was. He wasn’t about to ask. It was food and that’s all he needed to know.
“How soon do we reach this place in the East?” he asked as he ate. He was curious why Derome would want to talk to him. He was a poor man with nothing more than lint in his thread-bear pants and a slightly wet canteen.
“It’s a three day walk to the next town. There, I will buy horses and we will continue to my father’s palace… um, maybe a week from there,” she answered as she crawled into the tent, smoothing out the sand within to make the area more comfortable.
He followed her inside the tent, kneeling on his knees to crawl within the opening. “You know, I should probably know your name if we’re sleeping together,” he mentioned as he laid down.
She rolled her bright eyes. “Tanaya. Enough questions. It’s time to sleep,” she placed the pistol under her head. “Don’t get any ideas,” she warned, patting the pistol.
Calem settled in, using his bandana as a pillow. She did the same, turning on her side to watch him. He ignored her. For a long time he stared up at where the tent met the stick, hearing the wind blow outside. He couldn’t remember the last time he slept in a tent. There was something about sleeping in the tent that made him feel more vulnerable. Outside, he could see everything around him. Inside, he was blind to what was happening.
In the middle of the night, he woke to the sound of grinding footsteps in the sand just outside the tent. A dark shadow crept alongside of the tent.
“Tanaya?” he whispered, reaching behind him to pat her shoulder. As he did, he fell back against the walking stick, nearly toppling over the tent. Tanaya was gone.
The sharp end of a scythe blade sliced through the tent, missing him by mere inches. Calem scurried to the opening, only to be wrapped up in the tent’s fabric. He slowly turned his head, cold beads of panic and sweat sprinkling his ghostly-white face. The blade of the scythe was aimed directly for his throat. He raised his shaking hands, ready to surrender.
“Amono!” Tanaya yelled from behind Calem.
The cold blade fell away from his throat. Calem was glad he saved his water. After feeling the steel inches from his throat, it was a wonder how he managed to keep any liquids in his bladder.
His eyes inched up the man, starting with his heavy leather boots. He wore a coat similar to Tanaya’s, which billowed only slightly in the gusty wind. The rest of his body was clouded in darkness, dark pants, dark shirt, and dark expression hidden behind a dark mask. The man reached down, lifting Calem from the collapsed tent and set him back on the sandy ground.
Calem turned to Tanaya, who held her hands to her hips. Her reddening expression couldn’t be mistaken for anything but frustration. He turned to the stranger again, then back to Tanaya.
“What… just happened?” he asked, still gasping panicked puffs of shallow breaths.
“He’s… mine! Father sent me to find him, not you! You have no right to be here!” Tanaya demanded, pointing to Calem.
The man’s eyes reddened as he gazed sternly at Calem. He was a head taller than him, maybe more, with shoulders that doubled his in width. Scythe or not, the man could effortlessly rip off Calem’s head. He pointed a stern finger at Tanaya then down at Calem.
She shook her head slowly from side to side. “You’re an idiot,” she snipped.
“Uh… mind introducing me to your, uh… friend?” Calem stuttered uneasily as he eyed the man with uncertainty.
“Friend? Hah! Calem, Amono,” she motioned to the man. “…my brother,” she snarled. “Who owes me a new jacket!” she scolded as she took up the remaining pieces of her jacket’s lining. She hurried over to the man, snatching one of his three water pouches from his weapon’s belt. He didn’t move. She took a drink, then offered some to Calem, who gladly accepted. “He thought you and I were… together,” she mentioned, motioning between them. Her words caused the behemoth of a man to growl.
Calem raised his hands, the water pouch still dangling from his right hand. “No, nothing like that. She captured me. I decided to come along peacefully,” he explained.
Amono turned to Tanaya, his entire body twisting as one solid mass so he could see her. She waved him on as she tied her bandana over her face. “He speaks right.” She turned to the horizon, closing her eyes to hold back her frustration. “Some sleep is better than no sleep,” she huffed as she searched for her pistol. She grabbed in from the pile of cloth and forced it into the belt. “Come on, we’re leaving.”
Calem grabbed his bandana, tying it over his mouth. Tanaya hurried on ahead with her brother, pausing only when she noticed Calem was lagging behind. “Come on! Don’t make me shoot you,” she yelled.
He had to hurry his pace to keep up. He only slowed when he caught up to her. As he approached, he lifted his bound hands out in front of him. “Do you mind?” he asked. She pulled on the binds slightly and they slipped off, causing him to wonder just how easy they were to get out of.
“When you mean brother–“
“We have the same father. Our father has a harem. We have many brothers and sisters. Keep moving. The Sun Devils will fly down soon and I’d rather not be on their menu,” she finished, pointing her walking stick towards the sky.
Calem’s eyes focused skyward. The Sun Devils were once condors that mutated after the blast cleared. Half the world’s animals either went extinct or mutated. Many of the animals who did survive became aggressive, hunting food when they once ate from the ground. With no grass around to eat, it was either evolve into something else or die.
He turned his vision skyward, noticing a flock of Sun Devils swarming above them. They wouldn’t attack during the night, but soon as the sun started to make an appearance, Calem knew the birds would swoop down and rip them to pieces. He hurried his pace, bypassing Tanaya and Amono.
Amono reached out, forcing him back.
“I’m leading!” Tanaya scolded, pointing a stern finger into Calem’s chest. “You don’t know where we’re going, I do.”
He pointed up to the Sun Devils. Both siblings turned their eyes to the birds. “May I make a suggestion? Run!”
As he spoke, the first rays of light spread across the desert, sparkling across the pale yellow sand. As if on queue, the birds swooped down upon them. Calem felt a breeze blow passed his left shoulder, then another by his right ear. Then the trickling of something moist dribbled down his cheek. He reached up, feeling the thick, moist texture of blood.
He was about to say something when he noticed a bird beside him ready to attack Tanaya. There was no way he was going to allow his group to be food for the birds. He swung his pack off his shoulders, slamming it into the aggressive bird. The bird flew back, landing directly into the sand. That gave Calem and idea. He stopped as the other two ran, and prepared his sack for battle.
Another bird swooped down, taking a large clump of his short dusty hair with its massive claws. The bird pulled his head back as if preparing another to fly in and slice his throat. Amono swung his sword, slicing the bird in two halves with one mighty cut. The bird’s blood and innards poured over Calem’s head, drenching him completely.
With the sight of their fallen comrade, the rest of the Sun Devils flew skyward, leaving them in peace. Amono took hold of Calem’s shoulder, questioning if he was alright. Calem nodded slowly, his eyes wide and his lungs still panting for air.
He turned back to the bird, its claws still quivering as it bled out. Carefully he picked up the bird by its claws. “Anyone interested in chicken for breakfast?” he asked.
Tanaya shuffled over to the two men, her right arm bleeding from the attack. “Chicken? This is no chicken,” she pointed out with confusion.
“All birds taste like chicken. All we need is a fire to cook it over. I’m hungry. You hungry?” he asked Amono. The man grunted. “We’re hungry,” he said, then handed the two halves of the disemboweled bird to her. She didn’t accept it.
“If you’re hungry, then you cook it. I’m walking East. Catch up when you’re done,” she demanded to her brother then stormed off into the desert.
Calem glanced over at Amono, grunting uneasily. “Is she always this difficult to deal with?” he asked.
Amono released one loud “HA!”
Instead, Calem tied the bird to the back of his bloody pack to save for later. It didn’t matter anyway. It wasn’t like his pack was going to get any dirtier. Both men continued to follow Tanaya towards the distant mountains.
“Why are you bringing me to your father?” he asked Tanaya. She shrugged. “You take a mission without asking why?”
“You don’t question father, you just do what he wants,” she returned.
Calem glanced over his shoulder to Amono. “Do you know?”
Tanaya shook her head. “No sense asking him. He has no tongue,” Tanaya mentioned.
Calem glanced back at Amono again, unable to hide his horrified expression. “How did that happen?”
“Father removed it. Amono lied. Lie to father and he removes your tongue. Simple rules,” Tanaya explained.
Calem held back to stand next to Amono. “And I thought my grandfather was strict,” he mentioned low.
Again, Amono released a loud, “Ha!”