Tiana was almost spotted as she dove behind a cart, hitching herself up onto its back bumper. She tucked her head into her chest and held her breath, waiting for the torch-light overhead to pass by. She could almost feel the heat of it licking against her scalp, threatening to reveal her hiding spot and bring forth all manner of alarms, shouts, and gunfire. Eventually, the light faded, and Tiana grinned. Blind fuckers, ain't ya?
She dropped down from the cart and sunk into the sand, skirting her way past two more horse-mounted guard patrols, diving onto her stomach only once to avoid detection. When she stood again she could see her mark, not ten meters ahead. It was a fantastic carriage; huge and built of fine metals with sturdy bronze wheels. Tiana could only just make out the royal blue and shimmering silver colour of its body in the moon's gleam. On its rear was painted a half moon, half sun crest. The crest of House Pelgrove.
She crouched as she waited for one more mounted guard, and then she sprinted. Her bare feet trod silently as they pumped through the sand. In a slide she was under the carriage, crawling to keep up with its pace until she found a beam to grasp and winch herself up into the underbelly.
All right, that's the hard part done with. She smirked, knowing there was no easy part to her scheme. The rest would be more luck than anything.
She crawled to the front quarter where the carriage connected with the skeleton boot and the driver's seat. Her biceps screamed and burnt as she fumbled her way up, lodging herself in the gap between driver's seat and carriage. Again she was in view of prying eyes, but an instinct told her the guards would be looking outwards, not in.
Carefully, Tiana crept up the boot, eyes focused on the back of the driver's balding head. She pulled a knife from her hip – bestowing a silent blessing on the blade – before pouncing. She wrapped one hand over his mouth, and with the other drew a red line across his throat.
“Drown well, child'a the above,” she whispered into his ear, tasting the salty sweat on his skin.
He thrashed and gave a muffled cry, clutching first at Tiana's arm but then at his throat, and finally, at nothing at all.
The driver's corpse was limp and cooling when Tiana slid it across to the passenger seat. She took his place, feeling the weight of the reins in her hands and checking over the two horses at the front. They seemed in good health, rested, eager. Good. You've got a wee way to go still. But not yet. There remained the matter of the guards. Two rode to the east, another two to the west whilst one rode ahead and another behind.
“Oi, is that really a Pelgrove in there?” the man's voice came from the east. It was distant, but Tiana knew it instantly. Derin. There's my boy. She smiled to herself and whipped the reins in her hands. Poor fucking sods...only here for a bit'a coin, I reckon...It didn't matter though. They had something Tiana wanted.
“'Scuse me.” This new voice came from another man on horseback to the west, and again Tiana knew it. “Yous two lads know where a man can find himself a pub?”
“Ho! Traveller!” The north, now. It'd be time soon. Tiana's crew were falling in around the guards, forming a lethal net. Twenty more seconds and they'll be dea–She froze as she saw what lay ahead. Sands swallow me...A platoon of ten guards were swimming up the sands towards the carriage, through the Walking caravan. Their purple coats and silver chest-plates still bright even in the dim moon's glow.
No sooner had Tiana spotted the extra guards did she see one of her men draw his pistol. Time almost came to a stand-still as Tiana's eyes darted across the scene. Her crew dispatched the immediate guards with ease, but the reinforcements were galloping, their pistols already in hand. Shots sang out, and Tiana watched as one of her men fell to the sands – half his head an exploded ruin. She watched, transfixed as her kin were felled and slaughtered. Watched as they were torn to bloody shingles by the Purple-coat's bullets.
In a rush, Tiana's world came flooding back. She blinked twice before whipping the reins in her hands and spinning the horses to face east. A thump on the rear of the carriage shook her. She spun, her pistol in hand, but was face to face with a friend.
“Easy, love,” Derin said, a cocksure grin plastered to his face.
“Fuck sake, Derin, I almost took your head off.” She ducked as a bullet rippled past, and glanced at the Purple-coats. They weren't shooting at her, not much at least, no doubt fear of hitting the VIP stayed their fingers.
Derin stood on the carriage's roof, launching bullets at the Purple-coats as they gave chase. “Reckon we could go a touch faster, Ana?” he shouted.
“Reckon you could shoot a touch straighter, Der?”
“I got wonky eyes, don't I? It ain't polite to make fun'a folk's disabilities.”
Tiana laughed as she wound the carriage past a rotting church. She almost collided with a butcher's barge, but veered away at the last moment and went through a family's tent instead. Still the Purple-coats came. Their horses meant they were much the quicker, and before long the carriage was surrounded.
One man came up beside Tiana and drew a sword from his hip, thrusting it her way. With a twist, Tiana avoided the attack and managed to lock the guard's arm with her own. She dragged him towards her and shot him point blank in the face. His body whipped back, flying from his mount and rolling violently across the sand. He collided with another Purple-coat's horse and the poor beast tumbled, launching its rider several meters into the air.
“I enjoyed that!” Derin shouted from the carriage. “Bit'a comedy to keep things light hearte–” A gunshot stole Derin's voice, and Tiana heard a thud from behind her.
“Derin?” She dared not take her eyes from the way ahead, weaving around carriages, carts and boats at deadly speeds. “Derin! Sweetie, yous best not be fucking dead!”
“You'd make a fine healer, you.” Though Derin's voice was strained, it was music to Tiana's ears.
“Where'd they getcha?” She bit her lip.
“Leg. Bloody nights that's painful!”
“Bastards! What'd ya ever do to them?” She heard Derin laugh and counted it a good thing. They weren't too far from the edge of the Walking caravan now. Before long they'd be free of civilisation, bursting through into the endless red desert.
“How many Purples still chasing?” She almost didn't want to know.
“Hold on...” Derin said with a croak. “Looks like two. One's lagging a bit, mind. Lemme just...” The roar of Derin's pistol shook the carriage. Tiana's ears were still ringing when Derin said, “Got the wee shitter! Just the slow one now, I reckon we're good.”
With only the one Purple-coat on their tail, Tiana decided to leave the safety of the Walking, and venture outwards, into the wastelands.
An hour stretched to two, and the night's sky was growing brighter. With the horses taking them in a steady south-eastern direction Tiana decided to move up to the top of the carriage and check on Derin.
A small puddle of blood sat in the centre of the roof, but Derin had tied a tourniquet around his thigh to slow the flow.
“I'll be sound, me. Don't worry.” He winked at Tiana and gently rubbed the small of her back. He spat over the carriage, and Tiana watched it go with the wind. She caught sight of a predawn glow on the horizon, spilling its purples and oranges into an inky blue sky.
“Not sure I could love a cripple,” Tiana teased and turned back to Derin with a wry grin.
“Is that it, eh?” Dern pulled Tiana close to him, leaning towards her with open lips.
She leant into the embrace.
The carriage door burst open and a young woman leapt from it, tumbling when she hit the sand. She was cradling a bundle of rags to her chest and wore a fine silken gown of blues and silvers that whipped around her heels with the wind. She rushed for the Purple-coat guard following just on the edge of the Walking caravan.
“Oh, drown me!” Tiana sighed, standing with her hands on her hips.
“Don't fucking swear.” Derin slapped her leg. “Want me to go after her?”
Tiana smirked. “You're alright, I got it.” She leaped from the carriage and landed with an oomph, though the sand softened the most of her fall. In seconds, she was sprinting, matching the woman's pace and doubling it.
“Help!” the woman screamed when she noticed Tiana just inches behind her. She waved frantically, pleading with the lonely Purple-coat in the not too far off distance. “Oh, Gods...Please!”
The Purple-coat had dug his spurs into his horse, galloping with the fury of a hellhound high on the scent of blood.
But Tiana won the race. She had the woman in a lock before the Purple-coat was within shooting range. She pressed her pistol to the woman's head and slowly began inching them back towards the carriage.
The Purple-coat pulled back on his horse's reins viciously, and Tiana heard him cursing.
“That's much too close, that is, Mr. Guard-man.” Tiana could feel the woman's tears dampening her arm.
“You have no concept of the wroth you're courting.” the Purple-coat said, rearing his horse about. “Release the Lady Salandra immediately!”
“Please, Sir, don't let her take me!”
“Stay strong, my Lady. Word will have reached Egress and the Walking's Sheriffs. These Cultist brutes shan't keep you long.”
“Oi!” Tiana pressed her gun harder into Salandra's temple and jerked her head back. She had to show she was in charge, that she had the power. “That's enough'a that chit chatter, eh? I'm gonna be taking the wee Lady back to her boat now, if ya don't mind.”
“I swear to the Rider that if any harm should come–”
“Alright, yep, I gotcha, you're a big scary purple man! She'll be right safe, don't ya worry, mister. Right up until the sacrifice, that is.”
Salandra whimpered and the guard jerked forward but stayed himself, growling. Tiana allowed herself a chuckle, she couldn't help it. Their fear was too delicious. She pulled Salandra Pelgrove backwards and the woman broke into a desperate cry.
“My son!” she said, breathless. “What about my son? Take me, but please–please! Let them have my son!”
What bloody son? Tiana frowned and then noticed the bundle clutched to Salandra's chest. Shit. She bit her lip and glanced between the Purple-coat and the bundle. They only needed Salandra, she was the plan, not the child too. She opened her mouth to speak but Derin cut her off.
“The boy stays,” he shouted from the carriage, moving at a crawl in the not too far distance. His pistol held out and aimed at the Purple-coat.
“Reconsider this, I urge you.” the Purple-coat said.
“He stays!” Derin spoke with a hint of insanity that unnerved even Tiana. “We're always looking for new recruits, having some wee Pelgrove brat mopping up our shit is too bloody sweet an opportunity to pass, I'm afraid.”
“No...Rider, please no!” Salandra was crying again, struggling against Tiana's grip.
“Alright, that's enough'a that. Clam it, girl!” Tiana dragged her away, her eyes set firmly on the Purple-coat as she went.
The sun was high when the Purple-coat was joined by two dusty looking Walkers one wearing a long leather coat, the other a poncho. Sheriffs, no doubt. Tiana kept her eyes on the men, ready for any queer movement. Behind them came a large detachment of Purple-coats and Egress military police, at least thirty at first glance, all of them wielding rifles, pistols, and swords. All manner of toys to kill a man with.
Tiana whistled and nudged the driver's corpse. “Look at that lot, here just for us.”
The driver offered no reply.
“Oh don't be coy, mate. I don't reckon they'll blame ya. Well, a'course it were part your fault. Shouldn't have bloody died so easily, should ya?” She laughed and punched the corpse in the shoulder. He slumped over the side of the carriage, almost falling to the sands, but Tiana grabbed his collar and yanked him back up. “Careful! That's a nasty fall that. A man could hurt himself.”
A window behind Tiana slid open, and Derin stuck his head through it. “Yous talking to that stiff again?”
“He's better company than you.” From inside the carriage came Salandra's soft cries, and the weeps of her infant son. “Better company than them, too.” She whipped the reins and eyed the small army following them. “You seen that lot?” she asked Derin.
“I seen 'em. Whatcha reckon?”
“I reckon we'd be worse than jack fouls if we join Cafila with an army behind us.” Tiana wouldn't bring such destruction on the Holy caravan of Cafila. Whilst most Walkers saw her kind as savage Cultists and little more, the truth was more complex. She loved her family, she loved her God, she loved Cafila. She'd not see it in ruin. What 'bout me sister, too? I'm only here for her sake, they'd colour me stupid if she died from me bringing this lot back.
“A message is what we need,” said Derin. “Get word out to the Deliverer, let 'em know what's up. He'd send an army of his own, I reckon.”
“And who's gonna do that? Either one of us breaks away and the other's fucked.”
“If we don't do something soon we're both fucked. Full moon comes in two nights. If the wee Pelgrove lovely ain't in Cafila by then–”
“I bloody know!” Tiana spat over the side of the Caravan. “It were my idea weren't it?”
“Aye. And a right good idea it were.”
“You watch it, mate.”
“It's for ya sister, I get it! Hope she's bloody worth it.”
“What'd ya wanna do then?”
“Sands swallow it, I'm talking to 'em.” Derin's head slunk back into the carriage. Tiana heard a few crashes and shuffling before the door swung open and the crippled Cultist dropped out, dragging Salandra and her son with him.
He held her by the scruff of her neck and shoved her into the passenger seat next to the dead driver. She screamed and wept, but when Derin showed her the back of his hand she stifled her sniffling, but only until Derin ripped the babe from her chest, and she all but wailed.
“No! Leave him!” She begged, groping after the child.
Derin pulled his pistol. “I'll fucking kill it now if you don't calm down!”
Salandra's lip quivered, it was split where Derin had hit her and fresh blood stained her silken gown. Tiana held the woman's arm, not too tightly. It was half an act of support, half a means of control.
After a beat Derin turned to face their followers and shuffled towards them, his gun pressed into the child's head. Tiana watched him go, still with her grip on Salandra's arm.
“What's he doing?” Salandra almost whispered the question as fresh tears began streaming from her face.
“He's just having a talk with 'em. Seeing if we can't strike up a deal, eh.”
“What sort of deal?”
“I don't bloody know, do I? A deal. Stop asking questions.” For her own comfort, Tiana slipped her pistol into her hands as she watched Derin's progress.
“Do you need that?” Salandra asked.
“What did I say 'bout questions?”
“To stop asking them.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“Bad sense'a judgment, though...”
“I'd like to know. You owe me that much.”
Tiana snorted and scratched her chin with the barrel of her gun. “For first I don't owe ya spit. For second...do ya know who we worship?”
The Cultist laughed. “I'd say the same 'bout you, sweetheart.”
“The Rider is no demon.”
“You mean to sacrifice me to your God, do you not? I know enough about your kind to know that you believe your demon lives below the sand, following us as we march. What manner of God demands a sacrifice? A demon demands a sacrifice. Not a God.”
“He don't demand no sacrifice!” Tiana sniffed. “It's just better if he gets one.” She cast her eyes back to Derin. He stood in front of the army now, the child still in his hands. What're yous saying, Derin?
“Then why me?” Salandra's voice was so low, so meek. “This was your idea, I heard you say it. Why me? What did I do to deserve this?”
Tiana's throat went dry. She wanted to the slap the girl and scream in her face, to tell her to shut up and accept it. But she didn't. A part of her was aching for Salandra. A part of her didn't want to see this sweet young mother dead.
“Ya wore Pelgrove as your surname,” Tiana said and felt shame coursing through her veins.
“That's enough to kill me?”
“Look, love, ya wanna know why it were you? 'Cause yous was stupid enough to take a wee ride into the Walking near the end'a the lunar cycle. Aari, he's a good God, ya hear. He's done right by us. So we keep him happy. He likes girls. He likes the pure, virgin, ones. Or the royal ones.
Fuck me, ain't it hard to find a pure bitch in Cafila...But, me–me sister's pure, ain't she. Waiting for the right bloke, the pissing idiot...”
“So it's me or her?”
Tiana nodded, fighting back a lump in her throat. I love that girl too bloody much to let her die before this Pelgrove bitch. “It ain't nothing personal, Mrs. Pelgrove. It's just...I like me sister more than I do you.”
After a beat, Salandra said, “I have a sister, too. She's a touch better known than I. She rules from Egress. There is little I wouldn't do for her–and her me.”
A gunshot echoed from the distance, stealing Tiana's stomach and flipping it on its crown. She stared out at the army in the distance. The poncho wearing Walker had his gun arm held out, while Purple-coats, Military Police, and even the other Walkers were shouting at the man. Tiana's eyes found Derin. A crumpled heap in the sands. Bloodied and ruined.
Both woman screamed, Tiana for Derin–charming, funny Derin. She fought them, but tears fell from her eyes, wetting her cheeks. Her hands shook as she gripped her pistol. She yearned to lift it and empty her barrel into the poncho-wearing bastard who'd stolen Derin from her. She almost did just that. She almost whipped the reins in her hands and turned them back towards the army, but her sense won over her grief and she threw her gun down, giving out one last primal roar before settling and puffing angry air through her nose.
“My baby...oh Rider, please...” Salandra rocked back and forth next to Tiana, her hands clamped together in prayer.
Tiana watched as the crying infant was plucked from Derin's grasp, the child seemed unscathed, but it must have been a close thing. Tiana breathed deeply, holding down the bile creeping up her throat.
Salandra let out a relieved gasp. “Thank you!” she said to the sky. “Oh thank you, thank you!”
Tiana stood, staring off towards the people who'd murdered her lover. She watched as the Military Police left with Salandra's son, taking a small detachment of Purple-coats with them. The Sheriffs were gone too. Tiana couldn't see the poncho-clad bastard any longer.
Perhaps a dozen or so Purple-coats remained, following at a distance, but following still. The odds were better, still not good, but better. Ya got rid'a some of 'em, Der...Oh, Derin...In a flurry, Tiana pulled her pistol. The Purple-coats did the same, almost in unison.
“Get out,” she uttered darkly, and Salandra stood, dropping into the sand. Tiana followed her down. They took a few steps towards the Purple-coats before Tiana stopped and kicked the back of Salandra's knees. She cocked the hammer on her pistol and buried the barrel into the back of the woman's head.
“A corpse for a corpse!” she shouted, her hand trembling almost as much as her voice. I don't wanna...I don't...they killed Der! Fresh tears were in her eyes as she willed herself to pull the trigger. She had to do it. She had to! She dies and me sister lives.
A lone Purple-coat came forward, leaving his horse behind him, his hands high as he approached.
“You stop right there!” She wiped a line of snot from her nose and shifted her stance, glancing between Salandra and the Purple-coat. “I'll burst her shitting head open right now, so you just stay there! Bastard!” She couldn't stop the tears now – couldn't hold them in. Her heart beat like thunder in her chest, ringing in her ears and throbbing through her limbs.
“His death was an accident–”
“Did he fall on the fucking bullets?!”
“The Deputy will be punished.”
“You killed a dozen of my friends, I hardl–”
“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!”
The Purple-coat lifted his hands again and lowered his head. “That was tasteless, you have my apology.”
“I don't bloody want that, do I? I want Derin back!” She could still see his corpse, laying lifeless, face skywards. She wondered if they'd even bury him. If they'd even bury her.
“There need not be more death. Please...let the Lady Salandra free.”
“Salandra?” She'd almost forgotten about her prisoner. The Lady was just an object now. Just a thing that had caused so much death and hurt. Salandra wasn't weeping, she was silent with her head downcast. She was strong. And what am I, then? Look at all these tears...She mopped her face again, yet still tears ran, leaping from her chin to the sands below. Aari give me courage. Fill me with sand and drag me below. She straightened her back. She'd be strong. Strong for Derin and her sister.
“Ancient dweller, eater'a stars and former'a worlds,” Tiana began, she sniffed and put both her hands on the pistol. “I stand before ya, humbled by your might, small against your body–”
“Don't do this.” The Purple-coat said, shifting his weight, his hand hovering over his pistol.
Tiana ignored him. “I bring for ya, this offerin'a noble blood. She is a Pelgrove, a'house Pelgrove. A line that dates back to the builders'a Egress.”
“I beg of you...” His pistol was in hand now, he slowly lifted it.
“She is young. She is ripe. Do with her eternal soul what you will.” Tiana almost choked as she came to the final words of her prayer. I'll see ya soon, Derin. “Drown well, child'a the abov–” An explosion saw Tiana spilled onto her back, the sky above her only sight.
She gasped, trying to drag air into her lungs but finding it impossible. Her chest was heavy, compressed even, as though she'd been charged by an iron bull. She tried to scream when the pain found her. It was a pain so whole it became her, like her entirety had been smothered by the sun and left to burn.
My sister...Tiana wept, watching as Salandra slipped away. Aari...what about my sister?