Life in the scrublands can be hard, and so many of the things that live there are hard. Spiny, too. Filia realized this quickly. She and Staun had to find a good balance between moving through the open areas between the scrubby trees, and moving through the more densely forested areas. The former left them exposed, both to the harsh sunlight and to any spying eyes. The latter was much more difficult to move through, with a multitude of thorns and prickles to block and stop them. Add to that the burden of keeping Staun upright and mobile and Filia was having a rough day.
Staun was also having a rough day. The cut above his scalp was scabbed over, but it wasn’t long before he was bleeding from a number of other scratches from the long thorns. Filia tried to lead him around the worst of them, but avoiding them entirely was almost impossible. He generally seemed to be weaker, as well. Filia was unsure exactly what had happened the night before, but whatever it was, Staun appeared drained. Several times he stumbled and fell, and soon he was limping as well as bleeding. Staun didn’t talk much, and appeared to withdraw inside himself as the sun rose in the sky. Filia didn’t try to pull him out of it, either, as she still felt embarrassed for what parts of the evening she could remember.
They started out walking through the open grass between clumps of thorny trees. Soon, however, the temperature increased, and Filia’s skin became uncomfortably hot. The jungle trees had filtered the light of the day, and neither of them had felt threatened by it. Now they were in the open, and sunburn was a real danger. She led Staun back to the trees.
The land itself still sloped downward, and they stayed close to the bottom of a shallow valley. Up the center of the valley there seemed to be some sort of water source, as the trees were thicker there. Filia soon spotted an animal trail of sorts, and followed it into the shadier woods. The thorns were a problem immediately, and the going was slow.
After a long period of careful traveling, Filia managed to bring Staun to a tiny stream. They paused to refill their water jug. Filia remembered that edible roots often liked to grow near water, so she poked around in the dirt next to the stream. Nothing looked promising. The stream itself was barely more than a trickle of water in the few places that it was actually exposed. Fortunately the trees here were taller, providing more cover, and the animal trail was relatively open and wide. With no food to eat for breakfast, Filia was feeling a bit more wobbly than she liked, and so the prospect of an easier walk was good.
As they sat in the dirt resting, Filia found herself staring at Staun. Did they really have sex? Filia hadn’t been a virgin for a while, but she also hadn’t had sex very often, and not since Jaspin. Still, she knew what it felt like afterward, and she had definitely felt that way when she woke up. She was already forgetting a lot of the things she had hallucinated under the mushroom’s influence, but she remembered thinking that Dartain was there.
The memory came back, vividly, of the feel of his hand on her breast, and then she realized that it must have been Staun’s hand. Or her own, even; she had been pretty far gone at that moment. She did remember the feel of male members in her hand, and she knew that hadn’t been either hers or Dartain’s. She felt a wave of pity for Staun. She had poisoned him, and then had sex with him! That made her feel dirtier than the feeling in her groin.
Staun arose first, silently, and she followed suit. They headed down the trail again. The stream grew wider and the trees taller. They saw birds and heard the occasional small animal in the undergrowth. Filia kept her eyes open for anything that looked like food, but she saw none. They walked in silence for what seemed like hours, until they came to a spot where the stream disappeared down a crack in the earth. They stood there and stared at the dark hole for several moments, then Filia chose one of the many divergent paths and pressed on.
The path plunged through a thorny thicket, slowng their pace to a crawl. Staun gasped in pain more than once, as did Filia, when thorns found tender places in their flesh to abuse. Eventually the thicket diminished and they were again in the open. Filia gripped her spear and kept a sharp watch for any movement, feeling very naked and exposed. She saw nothing, but soon sighted another stand of trees a short distance away, which was where the stream most likely reappeared. They continued on the path.
As the two of them walked, Staun seemed to grow more coherent. Once in the shade of the trees again, Staun pointed out where the stream returned. When they stopped for water Staun was able to point out places to look for food, but Filia was unable to pick out anything edible despite his direction. The ache in her womb gradually faded, and neither broached the topic of what happened the night before.
Filia was occasionally able to glance out from under the canopy and see into the distance. Not far away now she could see the broad expanse of the desert looming. The day was hot and the air was dry, even under the trees. She knew that soon there would be no more cover. What she didn’t know was how two naked city dwellers were going to cross the desert with nothing more than a wooden spear, a knapsack, a water bottle, a utility belt, and the shoes on their feet.
The valley abruptly narrowed and grew steeper. The going grew harder, as they had to climb down unknown and overgrown paths. Once they stopped to eat some plants that Staun directed Filia to, but for most of the afternoon they slogged on and downwards. Staun’s well-being seemed to wear out as well. He slowed, and spoke less often. Still, he was able to keep moving. The day was actually well-spent when the terrain leveled out. Filia was happy, and sad, to see this; happy because the going was easier, sad because it almost certainly meant the end of the trees was soon at hand.
Soon after the land leveled out, the forest opened up. The trees here were taller and older, and the terrain easier to traverse. The animals were a bit larger here, too. Filia grew more tense, recalling their encounters with the bird-animals, the great snake, and the spiders. She permitted Staun’s growing weariness to slow their pace, allowing her more time to look both for potential dangers and shelter. To her great relief, they came upon a berry thicket that actually bore fruit. She gathered some of the berries, alternately eating and storing the morsels. A plan formed in her head.
She turned to Staun, who sat on the ground in a funk, his hands smeared with the juice of the berries she had given him. At least he isn’t rocking back and forth, she thought.
“Staun,” she asked, “can you t’see any dragon wasp nests around? Old ones. I mean.”
He slowly lifted his head. “Why do you ask?” The petulance in his tone angered her, but she held her temper.
“I was thinking, ” she responded, “that if we could find a few dragon wasp egg shells that are more or less whole, or even half, we could use them as containers and carry some more water. Maybe then we could have an easier go of it crossing the desert.”
“Ah,” he said. He began to mutter to himself in a familiar cadence. Filia let him chant, and continued foraging, always keeping a vigilant eye out. Perhaps ten minutes passed before he spoke again.
“Filia, I think that there may be some over there, and perhaps some water.”
Filia looked to where he pointed, then carefully stowed the gathered berries. Together they set off. The spot he indicated was just on the other side of the berry thicket. A small tributary of the larger stream disappeared into a tiny sinkhole, and there were a few fragments of shells in the stream bed. Filia was disappointed, however, as they were small and of no use. She said as much to Staun.
“Maybe up there,” he said, indicating the far rim of the sinkhole. Filia obediently pushed up through the brush, searching for shells. At the top of the depression the forest opened up again. There was even a bit of a clearing. Filia noted that, thinking ahead to a campfire and sleep. It only took a moment of looking to spot a too-smooth stone protruding from a sandy bit of bare soil at the base of a wide tree. She dug at it, and to her delight was rewarded with almost half of an egg. It looked rock-like, and she marveled at how sturdy they must be to have lasted the many years intact.
“I found one!” she chirped to Staun, who struggled his way up the slope. “It will hold water!”
“Wonderful,” he replied, sounding nauseated.
She cast about for more. In the nearby brush she found another, also buried. She scraped away at the dirt with a stray shell fragment. Staun made it to the top of the depression and joined her. He hefted the first eggshell and rolled it over in his hands. “What’s your plan?” he asked.
“We can use these to hold berries,” she said, “and water. We can dry the berries, and find some way to cap off these shells. Then maybe we’ll have enough water and food to cross the desert at night. Maybe we can find some sort of branches or leaves to take with us for cover, or maybe kill a few animals for their skins.”
“That might work,” he replied, sounding uncertain.
“Here,” she said, handing him the shell fragment and leading his hands over to the buried egg. “You dig this one up and I’ll look for more.”
Together they worked, Filia finding and Staun digging. For the most part they worked in silence. Soon they had a pile of the eggshells. Filia began to gather them up. Staun took a few, and she piled them into his hands. The hollow shells made a dull creaking noise as they rubbed against each other. He leaned against the tree as she carefully stacked them in his arms. She had almost gotten all of them gathered together when she heard the sound of something large moving through the distant brush.
Filia froze. She looked up at Staun, and could see the fear in his face. Her hands found the spear, and to calm him she gently laid a hand on his thigh, hoping that he understood the need for quiet. A glance at his face showed he did.
With great care, Filia lifted her body up from her crouch and peered around the tree trunk. At first she saw and heard nothing but forest. Then she heard movement again, and spotted a group of shapes. At first she thought it was more of the bird-things, but quickly realized her error. What she thought were wings were actually shields, and what she though were necks were actually spears. What approached was a group of humans, armed and armored.
He first impulse was to duck and hide. Her second impulse, coming fast behind the first, was to spring up and hail them as saviors. Her third and lasting impulse was to remain motionless, and observe. She glanced back at Staun, who was still standing against the tree, his blue arms cradling the eggs. He sagged just the tiniest bit under the load, and one of the eggs murmured. Filia’s heart jumped in her throat. She cast a look at the approaching party, but they seemed to not notice. They continued to march toward them, single file. She willed Staun strength, and lifted a hand to steady his elbow before looking back to watch the group.
It was difficult to tell at first what sort of people they were. They were dressed in leather, with strips of cloths draped over them not unlike what she had seen Staun wearing. Their hair was long and unkept, and their skin dark. Filia could make out facial hair, so she assumed they were men. They were headed for the clearing just on the other side of the tree, and Filia lowered herself down below the level of the bushes as they gathered in a group there.
She watched and listened as they talked quietly among themselves. She could hear their words clearly, but she understood none of them. Cramps formed in her legs, but she dared not shift her position. Almost as if on cue, she felt a sharp pricking on her calf which she tried to ignore until it just hurt too much, and she brushed it away as quietly as she could. She glanced up at Staun, who now had to bear the load of the eggs alone. He expression was one of studied forbearance. The eggs remained silent. She went back to studying the strangers.
Now that they were closer, Filia could clearly see their swords. What she had originally thought were spears were actually blood-stained carbines. Most of the men wore a chest-plate of leather under the strips of cloth, along with a wide belt. At least two of the men had some sort of bloody token danging from those belts. Filia wanted to look away from those grisly trophies but could not, her mind somehow needing to know what they were. In a flash it came to her; these hunters carried as proof of combat the genitals of their fallen foes. One man, bald and bare-chested, appeared to be the leader. He quietly addressed the other four, who listened intently.
Filia felt another sting, this one harder and on her other leg. As she brushed it away she looked down. It was a large ant. Another one crawled upon the back of her thigh, and she swiped it away as well. She watched to see if her movement had been noticed, but the men were still intent on their discussion. The leader was pointing off in the direction they had come, and then in the direction they were headed. Then he pointed skyward. The men nodded. Filia felt a sharp jab on the inside of her thigh that nearly made her jump. She quickly dispatched that bug.
A creak from one of the eggshells drew her attention to Staun. His face was now a rictus of pain. He twitched, and the eggshells hummed. She immediately saw why. His entire lower body was crawling with the bugs. As quietly as she could she moved closer to him and brushed the stinging insects off of him. Some of the fierce creatures already had their mandibles hooked into his blue skin. As she swiped her hand across his thighs and legs she could feel him tremble as the remaining bugs bit him. The eggs groaned dangerously in his arms, but she dared not disturb them for fear of making still more noise. She tried to support his elbow as she cleaned him off, hoping to aid him without revealing their position. As her efforts neared his feet she realized the source of the pain.
They were standing on an ant hill.
Filia took a quick glance around the tree. One of the men was sitting on the ground, examining one of the captured carbines. A terrible thought seized her: what if they decided to camp there? What would she do? Another creak from the eggshells in Staun’s arms brought her attention back to him. Most of the ants were gone now, but there were still some scattered all across his exposed flesh. She ran her hand over his belly, across his thighs, down his legs, and then back up to his buttocks. It was almost with irritation that she noted that there were two ants actually crawling on his scrotum. She picked them off, crushing the creatures in pure spite.
A change in the tone of the strangers’ speech drew her attention back to them. The conversation came to an end. The four followers resumed walking, with the leader glancing back for just a moment before bringing up the rear. She warily watched them depart, continuing to wipe the stinging ants off herself and Staun. Once the party had gone a decent distance, she quickly lifted the top eggs from Staun’s hands, ignoring the groan they all gave, and pulled him away and down into the brush.
“Are you OK?” she whispered.
“Yes,” he said. “Thank you very much for your help. I think you probably saved my life.”
“Our lives,” she agreed. “One more thing to watch out for.”
“I think … I think I may have understood just a bit of what they were saying.”
“You speak that language?”
“No, but the w’hind sometimes … you know. There’s a big attack happening, I think, and they are gathering at the airship.”
“We need to warn them somehow.”
“Oh, I suspect they may already know.”
“I think they had some of our guns, captured. And, other things … parts … parts of men. To show …” Filia stumbled on the words. “Killed in battle.”
“I see.” Staun’s expression was stricken.
“Unless they killed them all, then I expect the people from the ship already know what’s going on.”
“They must have ambushed a search party. How many …”
“I saw five natives. “
“No, I mean our … how many … things …”
“Oh. I saw at least two, but every one of them had a carbine, and one man had two.”
“Yes. I should follow them, to see where they’re going.”
“They are going to meet up with more of their people, I think.”
“We should try to find out more. Maybe you should stay here, while I follow them.”
Staun looked frightened, but nodded. “Be careful.”
Filia nodded. “Absolutely. You stay hidden. And try to call for help. But not too hard, OK?”
Filia nodded. She took one last look around and headed after the natives. She moved down into the clearing, and was surprised to discover that the area was actually a wide spot in a large, well-worn path. Feeling every inch of her own nudity, she clung tight to her spear and moved up the path in the direction the men had gone.
She trotted in a crouch, straining her vision to see if she could spot the men ahead. She hadn’t been on the trail for even a minute when a shout sounded from behind her, followed by Staun crying out in pain.
Filia spun around and ran back. Immediately she could hear the sound of at least two other men. They shouted as loud as they could, clearly calling for the others. She slowed, came to a halt. The voices were growing closer, fast. With a grimace, she dived into the undergrowth.
Her mind flitted back and forth between rushing to Staun’s rescue and staying hidden. As she debated within herself, three men came into view, all but carrying Staun. They hustled past. Filia emerged from the brush and followed at a safe distance, tears of anguish and terror streaming down her face.