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Lady Red vs The Great Beyond

By B Douglas Rutherford All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Adventure

Chapter 1


Prologue

 A reading from Stalwart’s History of Man, 385 A.B.

“And so, after the Perfect Age came the Information Age when mankind pursued the demon Technology to its apex. The Immortalis Machina, Mankinds most foul creation; copper-headed machines crafted in His own image and constructed by the millions. The Immortales did every manner of job for the Old Ones; they mined and constructed and doctored and battled for them. Every nation on Earth possessed great armies of Immortales, allowing the Old Ones to pursue recreation at will. Mankind became slothful, and He became stagnant.

Then came The Bright; a time when the machine slaves rose up and obliterated the world of Man. In the Great Cataclysm, Man’s beloved Technology was erased from the Earth. Great cities burned, grand towers crumbled, and the Old Ones perished. The Bright bound in fire a New World where Man’s effort and struggle and servitude gave Him freedom. The Lord’s guarantee this freedom to all who choose to work.

We must always be watchful that Technology does not overcome us once again and make us stagnant. We must constantly watch for the Immortalis Machina, those harbingers of The Bright, still lurking in the shadows of this New World and threatening Effort, Struggle, Toil, and Freedom. Praise be to the Lords of Angland.”


Chapter I

My name is Samantha Henrietta Stanton III, folks call me Lady Red. Not on account of the way I look as my hair is brown and curly, my eyes are pale blue, and my lips are no unnatural red colour. Mama said she gave me that name owing to the way my face went red all over when I didn't get my way, but Mama said lots of things. She gave me a crimson sash when I was ten and I wore it all the time. Sometimes I wear it over my shoulder and tied around my waist and sometimes I wear it around my neck as a scarf, weather depending. I am known by the sash as much as anything else. When I ride into a new town with my jacket buttoned I draw no more attention than any other stranger. Well, that's a lie. I garner much attention from men, though they are rarely the breed that cause me to catch my breath. Occasionally, they make me catch my lunch in my throat. When I push open the doors of the local swill-house and throw open my coat, well, then they scatter. Hoo-wee! It's quite a thrill to see every back turn and every boot trip like a tidal wave crashing out of my way. Mama should have named me Neptune.

I do not care for boasting about the rest of me, but I will say that I am of diminutive stature; being a twig's breadth over five feet tall. I favour tall, leather boots and button shirts, and I love a good scarf; I purchase a new one in every town if my scarce finances allow it. I’m never seen without my black, wide-brim hat, and my long ranching coat that my papa, Samuel, left when he went Beyond. I once slugged a man for touching it, even though he was just acting the fool.

I suppose I should start my tale with a telling about my gun. It’s what got me into the type of trouble that had me fleeing Hudson's Landing, and what started me on my whole long adventure to save my papa and eventually, the entire world.

The original gun is long gone with its hundreds of rebuilds, refits, add-ons, and subtracts. It came from way before The Bright, whenever the hell that was. Papa said it was nearly a thousand years old and it was probably of a type of gun called a semi-automatic, though he never bothered to explain what that meant. The only original part is the black trigger guard and lower receiver, made from plastick, and thereby indestructible. The grip is new; carved from a gorgeous ribbed ram's horn that’s the colour of a sandy beach. Its revolving chamberhouse, which sits to the right of the barrel, shoots plain old powder and ball munitions; it’s not one of the fancy how-do-you-do cartridge shooters like the Big Lords carry, but oh how I  love my gun! My blessed piece of iron salvation! Though I know I will surely burn in Hell for saying so, I love my iron gun more than anything in this world. Not more than Papa, but as much as Mama, may she forgive me.

I named him the first moment I held him in my hand and heard him speak. I was eleven or maybe twelve, out in the back fields with Papa, my Big Sam; he took me there so I wouldn`t accidentally shoot anybody. Papa handed me that gun and I marvelled at its heaviness. I struggled to aim it, but the target weren't five feet away, so missing was harder than hitting. I fired a round and winged the clay target, completely pleased, when Papa turned to me and said, "That, Little Sam, is how you take ‘em to school." The thought of school gave me pause and I decided then and there to name the gun after my first love, my school teacher, Professor Macgowan. Being a young girl, all he taught me was that every man I should meet after him would never measure up; he was tall, dark haired, and had a smile that sung to my heart. Though I will not write any more of him as it aches to think of those times, I will say that my gun, the Professor, hung where his love should have; in a wide belt across my chest that slung high over my left shoulder and buckled over my right hip. I could break the snap on that holster and have the Professor barking before you could blink an eye, Gods truth.

I inherited the Professor in a terrible way when I was sixteen. Mama and I woke up one mid-winter morning to find Papa gone. No letter, no note, no packed clothes, no trace of my beloved Big Sam. Sadly, this was not unheard of in Angland. Every couple of years someone would simply vanish in the night without a touch of anything to say where they went. It was always older folk, and it was always in the night. I do not wish to relive what it was like for me and Mama those first couple of months. There were search parties, sleepless nights, and eventually the Inquisition came, because Papa was Governor of The Landing. They had him declared post linimium, meaning he was gone for good. I believed none of it and spat fire at anyone who tried to comfort me, except for my best friend Ginny, who never left my side.

With Papa gone for the Beyond, I was giving Mama some kind of hell around the house; refusing to do anything she told me to do and basically advancing her age by several months with every encounter we had. I told her it was my duty as their only child and heir to the Stanton name to fetch my father back from the Beyond. By and by, when the poor woman could stand no more, she banished herself to her room for a week and left me to roam the house angry and helpless. Mama mourned, but I refused. You don't mourn what's not dead.

After the Inquisition declared Papa’s death, they named Ernest Athelstone as Deputy Governor of Hudson's Landing. I got a visit from Ernest, who was a kind man with a short, blonde beard and a soft voice, and with him was a black-clad Inquisitor who did not name himself, but hid his face in the shadows beneath a large hood. I showed them to my papa's sitting room and I deliberately sat in Papa's chair, overly conscious of the fact that my feet did not quite reach the floor. I was careful to look only at Ernest or else risk showing my anger to that black-clad bastard who barely looked for my papa before erasing his name from the book.

Ernest mostly looked at the floor, like he was scared of something. "They say that I shall govern until you reach the age of twenty, Sam; then you'll take over."

"My papa is governor!" I said through gritted teeth and feeling a tug of anger coming from my chest.

"I wish he were still here, Sam. I truly do." He seemed honest, but I was too upset to separate my feelings for Ernest from my anger towards the Inquisitor. He scratched his head nervously and continued. "I don't want the gun. I want you to keep it. They said you could wear it, if you like, until you take over."

"I will carry it until my papa returns." I glared at the black shadow over the Inquisitor’s face.

To my surprise the Inquisitor spoke, not the hollow voice I expected, but one fringed with concern. "He's not coming back. You need to accept this or you'll not be fit to govern."

"You barely looked!" I cried at him. "When we lost a man to the sea last year my papa searched for weeks until we found him. His family had a funeral, with a body! What did I get? A hole in the ground? If you will not look then I shall find him myself!" I struggled to contain my tears, but I was losing.

"What would your father want you to do, Ms. Stanton? Would he want you to govern these people, like he did, or would he want you to take off on some mad quest?" He asked, his hood lifting slightly to reveal a short graying beard.

I didn't know the answer, but there was Ernest, holding the big gun belt out, and the Inquisitor dropped his head again and folded his arms in front of his chest.  

Becoming governess had not crossed my mind. That was Papa's job and he would be back to do it, but now Ernest handed me the big belt and holster and there lay the Professor, resting peacefully inside. Ernest got up to leave, with a wet cheek, and said, "When he comes back, he'll want his daughter wearing that." He smiled and his eyes twinkled with tears. He went to leave and said with a shaky voice, "Will that be all, Lady Stanton?" I only nodded while I ground my teeth together to keep the lumps down. Then they left me and I sat for a long time in that old chair, with its worn upholstery and high chipped legs, and I looked down at the Professor and beyond at my dirty boots dangling just above the floor.

I had fired the Professor a hundred times with Papa and I loved that gun. I had looked forward to the day when I would wear it on my hip and be the head-hog in town; when townsfolk would come to me with their problems and call me Lady Stanton. Now it was a foreign object, a lump of heavy iron in my hands that would bark death at my command. I took him out of his holster and held him before me, studying its scroll worked chamberhouse and barrel, the striped horn grip, and inhaling the scent of metal and powder. Sharp and old. I felt those twin evils of helplessness and anger creep up again, surely intending to break me open into tears and rage. Instead, I slammed the Professor home and snapped him closed before jumping out of that old upholstered chair and swinging that belt around my waist. It was so big it could have gone around me twice, and I had to hold it up to keep it from falling to the floor. I caught a look of myself in the sitting room mirror: pale face, bloodshot eyes, hair uncombed, and holding up a gun belt with both hands with no hope of it fitting right. I started to laugh and that did it. I’m convinced that laughter is a catalyst for other emotions; laugh always, and everything comes out a little at a time, laugh but a little, and everything floods out like a breaking river. In any event, there I stood with a belt that did not fit and a gun I did not want, and no one to put it right but me; no one to save me, no one to rescue me, no one to make it right. And now that Papa was officially dead he had no one to save him, no one to rescue him, and no one could make it right. I stood there, quiet, looking from the belt to the mirror to the belt to the floor and I reckon that I wasn`t thinking straight, but I tried to make all the pieces fit in my head so I could make a big decision. The biggest decision of my life. I threw the belt up over my left shoulder and let it hang down my right. I cinched it in a notch and moved it until it settled neatly in the center of my chest. I was going after Papa myself.

Of course, I had no idea how or when I would leave. I only knew the sooner the better. But like any plan that requires bravery, it always loses lustre as the days go by. I needed a kick to get me started. The kick that came, however, was more than I bargained for.

I never dreamt I would kill anyone with that gun, and I thought that if I ever had to, it would surely be in defence of The Landing against a bastard bandit or a seaborne raider. The men would arm themselves with pitchforks and rusty old blades and form a cowering defensive line against the raiders; and I would stride out in front of them, unafraid, with my hair blowing in the wind. The filthiest and mangiest of those bastards would step out and scoff at fighting a woman. He would yell at me to go home to my mama’s skirt tails before I got hurt and just then I’d draw the Professor like a lightning bolt and blast the cur clean out of his boots! Well, that’s how it went in my head. The way killing a man really goes is much, much different. It is a blur inside a fog on top of a lump in your gut that won’t go away.

The first time I killed, as I recall it, when I do recall it, I couldn’t stop myself from acting. I tried to stay my hand, by the Gods and Mama I swear it, but my brain was like an abacus. It clicked and clacked at some brilliant speed and concluded on its own that the young man before me must die. Before my stunned face and open-jawed horror, I watched as the boy pitched forward into the mud and horse shit; his mouth open in a little surprised "Oh". I did not feel the smooth leather under my hand, nor the cool grip and sharp trigger. I did not hear the bark or feel the kick, nor the thud of jamming my friend back home. I turned away from him to see a small crowd behind me. One of them, a visitor, tall, with an enormous moustache, said that all he had seen was the smoke in front of me and that my hand must be possessed by a demon to move so fast. I was led away by Ginny and the small crowd split before me; grown men petrified and tripping over themselves to stay clear of me.

I had meant to fight the boy, William Johnston Brown, or Billy, as everyone called him, as he had called Ginny a whore for not going on a date with him. We were to meet behind his pa's stable and settle the matter with fists and elbows, in the manner of gentlemen. Billy told me that due to my size and gender he would allow me to bring a stick to defend myself. I told him to go plow his horse and that I would beat him square with just my fists, regardless of what we had in our pants. Billy didn't fight fair. I had him down and squealing like a baby pig when he reached into his pant pocket and pulled out a knife.

Up ‘till then the townsfolk had regarded me carrying the Professor as adorable; they felt like they had done a good deed by letting Colonel Stanton's Little Sam carry his gun. Then I put a lead ball through the heart of Brown's only son; a sliver of one moment in my life where I went from a future estate owner and governess to a pariah and an outcast.

Ginny took me straight to her house as the rain began to fall, and I stumbled up the stairs, feeling like a stranger in a place where I'd spent the other half of my childhood days. She sat me down on her bed and got me a fresh shirt from her trunk and tugged mine off. I mostly sat there, staring at nothing and fluttering like a spring leaf. Ginny got my clean shirt on and tugged it around my gun belt. She sat down next to me and then kissed me softly on the mouth. I was so dumbstruck at the whole day that I could scarcely stop her or reply in kind, even if I had known what to make of a another girl being so forward. My hands were shaking and I was sucking wind like I was kicked by a horse, and I threw up on Ginny's floor. I tried to apologize, but instead she set about making a tremendous fuss over me, just like Mama used to; she snatched a pail and cleaned up while I sat there, trying to catch my breath. My face was wet with sweat and Ginny sat down next to me and dabbed at my face with a pocket handkerchief.

With a great heaving sigh, I shuddered and stopped my display of weakness. She looked at me with wide eyes and a twisted head, much like a dog does when it thinks you said it’s time for food. I was compelled to ask her if she was petrified of me as well, like the grown men in the streets, but I could not formulate words for want of wind. Finally, just as I was preparing to slap that look off of her pale face, she held up the handkerchief to blot at my eyes again and I felt sick. Stained from my muddy face, the handkerchief was the colour of coal, the colour of my tears. I got up, not wanting to vomit on Ginny's bed, but not knowing where to go, and the world spun around me. I fell into the doorway and ran down the stairs into the driving rain with Ginny behind me, calling my name.

I often think on that young man and I see pictures of him when I’m sleeping. He is prostrate, in a deep grave, with his dead hands raised towards me, his face wearing that same look of ghastly surprise that was last upon him. In my dream, or properly nightmare, his arms begin to grow and stretch, popping and snapping as they reach for me, wanting to pull me down into that grave. I struggle and fight to get away as his bony fingers grasp my shirt and begin to tug before I awake with a gasp. Sometimes I find myself laying just as I fell asleep, only unable to move my arms and legs before I realize with a horror that I cannot breathe. My mind will race and my chest will pump, but no breath comes, as if I am the one buried under six feet of earth. Other times I awake as Billy grabs me and find that my own hand is pulling on my nightshirt. I often wonder why in the hell my body would betray my brain whilst I sleep, terrorizing itself by manifesting my hideous nightmares.

After Ginny gave me my second excuse to cry, I ran home and hid in Papa's basement laboratorium. His maze of desks, cranes, metal arms, and sheets that hung over everything was about as hidden from the world as I wanted. I laid under the old oak table Papa had used while he worked on his gun; he had built a tiny shelf for me when I was little. The sharp odour of metal shavings mixed with oil and wood reminded me of him.

I'd help him; running around getting tools, but more often just goofing off and getting in the way. To get me to sit still he would tell me stories—legends he’d call them—while I’d lay on that tiny shelf. He told me thousands of them. Most had a princess and the princess was always named Sam. I was too old for stories now, and a little too big for the shelf, but in my sorrow and despair I wished, more than anything, for one last story. My favourite one was about an ancient king who ruled justly over his vast kingdom until he was kidnapped by an evil wizard.

As I lay there in the darkness, I closed my eyes and imagined he was there, tinkering away and telling me the story of the King and Olympus.

"One day the king was out riding his horse named..."

"Titan!" Papa always let me name the horses.

"Titan." He continued. "The king was tracking an enormous falcon as it streaked across the sky. The falcon had been stealing sheep and the people begged him to hunt it down. He tracked the mighty bird so far into the forest that he lost his way. He rode Titan to a hill and looked out over the land, but he could no longer see his castle. Suddenly, the falcon swooped down and attacked, trying to grab the king with its claws to carry him away! The king slashed at the bird with his sword, sending feathers flying into the air. But just as he fended off the bird's huge talons, the king heard a great bellowing roar. He spun his steed around and realized that the falcon was just a distraction, for before him was the most dreadful creature in the land, the Father of the Woods, a worbear! Its back towered above the trees, its white fur glistened in the sun, and its jaws opened wide enough to swallow the king and his steed in one terrible bite! When he roared, lightning and thunder shot from his jaws, burning the trees and dazing the king's horse. In desperation, the king picked up his horn and blew a three note call for help, but he was too far from home."

"No, the princess hears the horn!" I cried.

"Maybe she doesn't hear it because she's sleeping under a tree." He replied with a chuckle.

"No Papa, tell it right! She hears the horn and rides out of the castle and fights the worbear. Then they chase it all the way to his cave and kill it together and find his treasure. Then the king makes Princess Sam the Imperator of the Royal Army and together they find Olympus!"

"You're right, of course, Sam." He said with mock disgust. "Now, where was I?"

"The princess hears the horn!" I squinted at him from under the desk.

"Of course, and she jumps on her trusty stallion..."

"Ajax!" He was my first horse, before I got Master for my tenth birthday.

"And she rides toward the sound of the horn. But the king is too deep in the woods. He's so far away that Princess Sam can't find him. She searches and searches, but he's nowhere to be found."

"But then she does find him!" I was getting mad at Papa for changing the story. After all, this was my favourite.

"Who's telling this legend?" warned Papa. That was his way of telling me to shut it. I just sighed and stamped my boot down on the shelf.

"Don't break my desk now. So, Sam is searching the woods for her beloved Father, King Saturn. She comes to a raging river with no bridge to cross. She meets a tall lumberman with an axe so big it can fell a tree in a single swipe. The lumberman says, ‘To find your father you must cross this river.’ Then the lumberman fells the mightiest tree in the forest and lays it across the river for Princess Sam to cross. She follows the river until she meets a boy who is hunting rabbits with a bow and arrow. The hunter says, ‘To find your papa, just follow my arrow.’ Then he shoots an arrow so high it touches the sun and catches fire before falling back to Earth on the side of a cliff. Princess Sam scales the cliff where she finds a cave. Inside the cave she sees a door with no handle. An inscription on the door reads: to open this door, pay with your heart. The princess searches her pockets, but she can't find her heart." I laughed at this part. I knew a heart didn't go in your pocket.

"How did she open the door?" I asked Papa.

"How do you think?"

"She gets Ajax to kick it open!" I was always fond of the horse having a big role in the legends.

"She's scaled a cliff; she had to leave Ajax at the bottom. What goes in your heart?"

"I don't know." I replied, thinking.

"Okay, then who goes in your heart?"

"You do!" I called out. "And Mama and Ajax and Gutter."

"So the princess takes her finger and traces the names of the people she loves onto the face of the door. Slowly, the door creaks open and inside is the lost treasure of Olympus. There, atop a pile of gold and jewels, is the king, resting his head on his fist. The king takes one look at his darling princess and says, ‘What took you so long?’”

"And they lived happily ever after!" I finished. I always got to finish.

I don't know why that version of the story was the one I imagined; I hadn't thought about it in years. I suppose it was because I hadn't heard the horn in real life. Now Papa was gone, just like his tale, and I had slept through it all. He was somewhere winding his horn and I couldn't help him.

As I laid there, unmoving in the dark, I felt a cold wind and looked over to see his heavy leather boots propped on the stool legs next to me. I jumped and thought he had come home to rescue me, but it was only an image conjured by my sorrow-filled mind. I blinked twice and instead saw the soft leather boots and thin legs of Ginny.

"Sam?"

"Ginny, go away please."

"Sam, I'm sorry I kissed you."

"Ginny, you shut up about that," I snapped at her. She became so quiet I thought she had stopped breathing. I tugged at the hem of her dress, meaning for her to sit, which she did. Her eyes were red and her face was wet and it made me sad.

I wiped my own face clear of snot and tears before sitting up. I pulled her hand so she would sit next to me under the old oak desk, which she also did. Ginny was such a fine friend and at that moment I wished so badly that I could love her as she certainly loved me. I wished so hard it hurt inside and made me forget the day's killing.

"Sam, you love me. You told me so this last summer when we was in the meadow."

"Ginny, I meant it. But not in the way of being a couple and kissing and such."

"Love is kissing and stuff, isn't it?"

"I love my dog Gutter and I don't kiss him on the mouth."

"You're making fun of me, Sam."

"I don't mean to; you’re my best friend. You got me through school, taught me to read… or tried real hard, anyway. I taught you to ride a horse and skin a rabbit."

"I was awful at skinning rabbits."

"And besides,” I continued, “we are young. Isn't love like that supposed to be for older folks?"

I knew this was a lie because of my old professor, but it felt good telling it, as if I could somehow fool Ginny into reversing her passions.

"I want to be with you," she said and she leaned in with her lips parted, eyes shut. I was not ready the first time, but this time I reacted and badly. I slapped her hard and within a moment I was sorrier than ever.

Poor Ginny's gorgeous eyes popped open and she raised her delicate hand to her cheek in pure shock. I could have shoved a pear into her mouth; it was held so wide agape. My heart sank for a third time that day and this time so low that I didn't think it would ever be in the middle of my chest again. Very well, I thought. It can beat in my boots, but I will never hurt this poor girl again.

Mama used to say that the lies we tell ourselves are the biggest lies of all. Gods' honest truth.

Ginny left for home after I apologized for the hundredth time and I hugged her over and over again. I said that we would be best friends forever and maybe I would grow to love her in the same manner that she loved me. She smiled weakly and watched me over her shoulder, in case I might disappear as she walked up the path towards town. I watched her, proud of having recovered her spirit to some degree. She waved and I waved. I would not see her again for a very long time.

I think on Ginny most when I’m riding across the countryside in a rainstorm or laughing at some filthy joke, something that we did so often together. I loved her certainly, but I had no idea until the day I shot Billy Brown that she was in love with me.

That night I packed some clothes, some food, and some camping necessities. I took my papa's little keg of black powder and several lead balls for the Professor. I did not tell Mama since she would only be upset with me. As I was raiding the larder, and making out quite well if I do say, I was set upon by the cook; a tall, slender man with an accent I had never placed. He was called Beef.

"Taking off, Samantha," said Beef. It was not a question.

"Yes, Beef." Beef and I had always been friends. He was kind and soft, and he had a deep voice like a cave echo. His real name was Valiot or Valois, but he was from another place and, as if to add to it, his graces put him in another time as well. A true gentleman.

"I heard what happened in town."

"News travels fast."

"You'll break your mother's heart," he said and clicked his tongue in a sad way. He took a step towards me and I thought he meant to stop me. Instead, he placed one hand on my shoulder and looked at me with sad brown eyes. Those eyes seemed troubled, cloudy, and it hurt me to look in them.

He squeezed my shoulder and gave me a friendly shake for which I was not prepared. If Beef had less control I might have shook right apart.

"I knew this day would come," he finally said. "I knew that you would follow your father into the Beyond. Your father was a genius, Sammy, the smartest man I have ever known. He knew that you would follow him too."

I smiled despite myself at the mention of Papa. A big tear crept up like a watery villain and sat in the corner of my eye, waiting for me to blink. I held off for a moment or two, not wanting Beef to see me upset. When I did blink the tall man caught it on my cheek with a flick of his thumb.

Slowly, he pulled a chain off from around his neck; a pretty silver chain with a coin attached in the middle.

"For you," he said, "from your father." He looped the chain over my head and rested it delicately around my neck, setting the coin in the center of my chest with his gentle hands.

I touched the coin, a plain silver piece called a quint, and I was very glad.

"That coin has been in your family for a long time," he said. "It was minted for the first Governor of Hudson's Landing and it has been passed down mère à l'enfant for seven generations." He pulled the little coin up so I could see it and he showed me the two faces. "On one side, Founder Stalwart with his motto OPUS VITAE. On the other, a ship on stormy seas." He let it drop from his fingers but kept a faraway eye on the coin. "Your papa asked me to keep it safe; to keep you safe. But I see that I can only do one of those things." The way he said Papa, with an emphasis on the last 'pa', had always irked me before, but now I could only smile at the tall man and wonder what would become of him and this place in my absence.

"Thank you, Beef." I stretched up and gave him a hug and a kiss. He had to lean down, almost to his knees, and when he hugged me back I almost drowned in his frock.

"And this," he gestured to the wall next to the larder, "is from me." Beef reached up to the top row of huge knives and pulled one down. When he brought it closer I could see it was not a knife, but a short sword with a silver hilt and a leather scabbard. Engraved on the hilt was a rabbit with one ear pricked up. I liked the image of the rabbit and the sword immensely and I ran my finger over the little rabbit before half drawing it, just like I had seen Papa do when inspecting one. The maker's mark was there, but I could not read it. Still, I was so impressed to have my own sword, and one that was the perfect size for me! "His name is Prick." Beef said and I smiled. "It's what my people call double sens," and he laughed quietly.

"Thank you, Beef!" I squeaked and gave him another hug, this time with so much enthusiasm that I smacked a big iron pot off the counter that went crashing to the floor. Beef and I froze then, and I heard footsteps creaking on the floor upstairs. He gave me a shush look and then whispered, "If you're going, then you best make it fast."

Now heavy with provisions I crept upstairs to see what else I could pilfer from my room before heading out. I had stripped my bed of my linens and I took my pillow. A luxury, now that I look back. I think I lost both items in the first river I forded. I took a writing book, the blank kind with nice pages and a leather cover. I intended to map my progress in finding Papa, using this as a kind of journal. Given that my writing was about as strong as a straw bridge, it took me some time to actually start the task. Often, when I would make camp, I would take out that book and open it as if to begin writing, but something or other would stop me. A lack of the proper words, let's call it.

I grabbed my big saddlebags and slung them over my shoulder. I grabbed my coin purse, my monoscope, and my kitchen sack, which contained mostly cheese and bread; my favourites. I strapped Prick across my back like I'd seen caravan guards do, with his handle over my right shoulder, and turned to leave, but wonder of wonders, who should be there in my doorway? A mouse had a better chance of stealing cheese from a cat's birthday than I did of getting away without running into Mama.

It may have been my clumsiness, or maybe it was Beef who woke her up and told her I was leaving. But nevertheless, there she was, wearing three robes and still shivering with some deeper cold. She clutched herself in my doorway and had enormous sad eyes, with streams of tears running down each cheek, and her long gray hair tied up behind her head.

Now Mama and I had never really got along. I mostly wore her out and she mostly got on my nerves, but I loved her then and I always have. I was trying to think if it was best to lie and say that I’d be back or tell the truth and try to get out when the shock of my leaving was thick upon her.

“You’re not going to say anything?” She finally whispered, hoarse and wavering.

“What shall I say?” I snapped back, angrier than I meant.

“You weren’t even going to say good-bye?”

“I thought it would be easier this way.”

“It’s not!” she barked. Mama could start a fight in an empty house.

I didn’t know what to do then, but a large part of me wanted to give up my chosen path, put my things away, hang up Prick, tuck away the Professor, re-make my bed, and go to sleep.

There was a very long pause between us. A pregnant pause, I’ve heard it called. When the pause gives birth to something horrifying and gross at the end, I can only assume. Only this pause gave birth to a smile on Mama’s face. She smiled and I smiled in spite of my serious self.

She breathed very deeply and then sighed while she spoke, “I’ve never been able to control you, Samantha. I’m not going to try now.” She stepped out of the shadows of the doorway and into my room and I realized she wasn’t clutching her robes to her chest, she was hugging Papa’s old duster coat. It was long and sandy brown with little breast pockets and big pockets that sat over the thighs. There was a split up the back of the coat that opened when riding and Papa had worn it everywhere for all the years I could remember. It had been hanging in a closet since he left, untouched.

Mama came near and I could smell the sweet sage she used to treat her arthritic joints. She sniffed away some snot and wiped her face with a handkerchief, gently, like a lady; not with the back of her sleeve like I would have. She slowly handed me the jacket without looking me in the eyes. I took it and put my things down on the floor. I threw the jacket over my shoulders, expecting it to be far too large, but I was amazed to find that it fit perfectly. Mama must have taken it in for me. The sleeves were shorter and the shoulders tighter. It fell to my calf, just like it did on Papa. I was never so pleased with Mama in all my life. I did not realize it at that moment, but it would have taken Mama some time to tailor that coat for me. She must have been working on it for at least a couple of days.

I hugged her tight and we shared some private words that I don’t intend to write down. I made my way down the hallway to the front door, shoved my black hat down onto my head, and took one last long look back. Beef was there, next to Mama, standing at rigid attention, a tight lipped smile was his only expression. Mama was next to him, looking sad and sick, but with a smile on her face I did not expect. My saddlebags felt lighter as I turned and walked down the hall toward the door. Something stirred within my guts as I opened the door and left my home.

I stepped out into the cold night air and felt very dramatic, like I was stepping out onto a stage at my first play. Unfortunately, nature had a more dramatic display and the skies instantly erupted, thick with slashing rain. I made sure my little powder keg and my journal were secured in my saddlebags before dashing to the barn to gather my journey’s companion.

Master was waiting for me, saddled and ready. I was past looking astonished that evening after the acts of Beef and Mama with their spontaneous generosity. Instead, I looked around for Fig, the stable boy. Boy was a bad term, but I've never heard of a stable man. Fig was a slender man with a long face that endeared him to the horses he kept. The man was a master of horse speak; he would whinny and neigh in horse language and chuff and grunt just as they. They all loved him for it.

Fig was nowhere to be seen, however, I knew he had to be in on it. I wondered just how many people in the house knew about my departure before I had even made up my mind.

I readied Master and checked all his fittings, though I knew they would be perfect. I spoke calmly to him and he grunted back and nuzzled my face so my hat came off and hung by its string down my back. I led Master out of the barn doors into the pitch black and driving rain. I threw myself upon his back with something approaching grace and we started out. Master made no complaint about the weather; he whinnied a little good-bye when we finally trotted out on to the main road and turned away from town. I stopped and looked back to see a light on in my room. Mama, I thought. Probably sitting on my bed and going through my things. Mama was a good woman and I was sorry that I hurt her. She missed Papa probably more than I did. He was such an affectionate man and he always had a hug and kiss for me or Mama. But that had never been the way between Mama and me. I would embrace her awkwardly at times, but it always felt like my heart wasn't in it. I probably would have hugged her again if I'd known just how long it would be until I was back at that place, embraced by the love and safety that only home and family can truly offer.

I squeezed Master up to a canter to try and shake that feeling of homesickness, seeing as how I had not even left home. His hooves splashed in the mud as we rode tight to the trees that lined our road. We hit the Lords Highway and I thought I would have to tug on Master to keep him from going left toward Ginny's, but somehow he knew we were going the other way and he turned northwest, away from town. He even quickened his pace a little and I sank into a peace, listening to the drumming of the rain and the rhythmic splashing of his hooves in the mud.

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