The Reawakening by J. A. Zollicoffer


reawakening

The Reawakening
by J. A. Zollicoffer

Summary: The world has changed, and new ways of living had to be found. This story takes place in a post apocalyptic world where the citizens had to start over and carve out a fresh existence, much like the pioneers had to do. Troi Donner is a sentry for her village, and Keller Morgan is a recent escapee from hers. When their paths cross it is the catalyst that is necessary to reveal long hidden truths.

 

Prologue: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, And I Feel Fine. ~R.E.M.~

April 11, 2079

 

The day the world ended, there was no big bang, the sky did not open and scorch the earth with fires of retribution, and there was no final battle. Apocalyptic bombs of destruction were not launched, the aliens didn’t come and take over, nor did earth-ending meteorites tumble from the heavens.

The day the world ended no one fully understood that it was over. There were no wailful sounds of mourning, or candlelight vigils…no one shed a tear.

In the end, they had all been wrong. The scientist, the religious experts, even the sidewalk prophets. None of them had got it right.

The day the world ended, it came with a whimper, not a roar. In a way that no one could have ever anticipated…

Without any forewarning at all, one day, suddenly, everything became still. It all just stopped, silence resonating across the land.

All motion and sound left the air, and for one brief moment the entire planet existed in a vacuum, leaving every living organism deprived of life sustaining oxygen, throwing the earth off balance. Then just as quickly as it was taken away, it was given back in a dizzying rush, setting the world back on it’s axis.

The catalyst for earth taking her final breath was complex, yet simple in it’s execution. It had all finally become too much…the strain of the constant manipulating and overburdening of electromagnetic airwaves, the abuse of the atmosphere, the contamination of the water and soil, the draining of the viscous fluids that lubricated her joints. It had all taken its toll on her.

But the final blow to her essence came when man, through his arrogant determination, decisively pushed the limits set by god and nature by breaching a boundary that had been forbidden from the beginning of time.

He’d found a way to overcome what the Tower of Babel attempted to prevent, what the separation of Pangaea tried to preclude, and what third century rhetoric, claiming the world to be flat, hoped to dissuade…he had achieved global communication…and that which seemed to bring everyone together would ultimately force everyone apart, leaving the population isolated, therefore vulnerable.

Not only had he betrayed the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him, he had forsaken the companionship, support and protection that can only be derived from intimate, interpersonal relationships. Consequently, within the structure of man’s new reality, the earth was left with no choice, she had to fight for her survival, and the way she chose to fight was in a manner most befitting of a lady.

She didn’t raise a hurricane, or summon a flood. She didn’t beckon the stars to fall from the sky, or break the ground open in a fit of anger. None of that was necessary.

She simply pulled in a deep breath, released it on a long exhale, and closed her eyes, settling in for a much needed, well-deserved rest…a beauty sleep of sorts, leaving her inhabitants to their own devices until she was able to build up enough resistance to start anew.

The fate’s loom had started to weave a pattern of man’s own making, and by the time he realized his mistake it would be too late. He would have no choice but to stay the course until a new design could be knitted, but the pattern could not be rewoven for several life spans.

*******

In the beginning, everything appeared to be the same. The sun still warmed the earth’s surface in the day and the moon continued to illuminate the night, but everything else had changed…every invention, every creation, every unnatural thing that man had conceived of to promote his own greatness at the expense of the planet, stopped working.

When night fell, there was no electric light. When faucets were turned on, or handles pressed down, there was no free flowing of water. When telephones were dialed, there was no connection, and when keys were turned to start vehicles the engines did not turn over.

As one would expect it wasn’t long before panic, pandemonium, and lawlessness flowed across the land. Different factions rose up, each making their bid to be the holder of power. There were times when the tug of war was so fierce that the asphalt and concrete, that were the new battlefields, remained stained for months with the blood of the fighters.

This went on for three decades, but eventually, because of supply and demand…the batteries lost their charge, the bullets ran out and the blades rusted over.

And to make matters worse, because of the sixty-year-old, worldwide mandate that outlawed the use of all reading and writing materials made of paper, in favor of the more practical electronic devices, the knowledge of how to make the guns, bullets, and blades that would have replenish their arsenals was long lost. In hindsight they realized that might not have been the wisest of decisions.

In the absence of modern day weapons, the battles turned into more intimate encounters, forcing the combatants to engage an adversary face to face instead of at a distance. This slowed down the mortality rate, and showed quite a few men and women to be cowards at heart.

As things began to deteriorate, over the years more and more evidence of the previous civilization’s existence began to disappear, and in the absence of the mother’s supportive energy, the crushing weight of man’s inanimate objects became a burden.

Because the ground was unwilling to bear the load on it’s own, giant sink-holes opened, swallowing the skyscrapers, houses, cars, bridges, and paved roads that no longer served a purpose, it also took a large portion of the population into it’s depths, and with the passing of the seasons, and the ebb and flow of the land, all signs of their existence was buried deep in the earth for an eternity…forgotten for all time.

It wasn’t long after that time when Curtis Poole, a self-proclaimed prophet from the Highlands, and his five fellows made their way down from the western mountains to claim and accept the responsibility they all believed they were born for…rebuilding a world that had lost it’s way.

They brought with them the blessing from the Deus, the god they had found in the mountains. With the guidance and lessons that had been given to them by the Deus they would change everything and begin again.

The first order of business was to reset time by cycling the years to coincide with Curtis Poole’s coming down from the mountain. From that day on, years would end in M.D. to commemorate the mountain descent. All time before the descent no longer mattered.

It was truly a new beginning.
Part One: I Was Standing All Alone Against The World Outside, You Were Searching For A Place To Hide. ~The Eagles~

April 11, 950 M.D.
Troi Donner walked with her best friend Pip, along the damp, misty hills and winding roads bordering their village in Great Falls, located in what used to be a very affluent town in Virginia. Dusk was falling and it was their duty to patrol the perimeter outside of the fifteen-foot wall surrounding the rural community.

After centuries of pioneering and carving out a civilization for themselves, the citizens were very familiar with what happens when the sun sets and the moon rose. Through many trials and errors the people had to accept that there were some enemies that the community could not gain any control over.

The worst of these being the predatory packs of wild dogs that roamed around in search of food and the man-beasts known as links, who spent their nights hunting for things of a more carnal nature.

Because the village was unable to eliminate their nighttime enemies it was decided that the homestead would best be protected by the posting of sentries. Over the years the night prowlers had come to respect the human fighters that protected their village and rarely approached their borders, but the sentries still did perimeter checks to see if there were any signs of recent visits.

The dogs that rarely wandered into their part of the world, were what was left of the former domestic pets after a more vicious breed of canine killed off the more docile ones and went rogue. No longer were they man’s best friend. Now they were just another vicious foe to be dealt with.

On the other side were the links…a whole other kind of trouble. They were wandering bands of oversexed cretins that thought women were just there for the taking. It was passed down through lore, that the links were the result of the ancients breaking their covenant with the Deus by manufacturing something called clones. It was his attempt to create his own image…over and over again, and the Deus found them to be an abomination.

No one knew for sure what had become of the female links, or if there ever were any, but the constant reproducing of the same image eventually created a race of something that was nothing more than upright walking, grunting, man-like beast whose only purpose was to fulfill his most basic desires in life…to eat, sleep and procreate.

Hence, the need for women. If a woman was found out and alone at night she was taken back to their haunt where she was passed around until she was impregnated. By the time the child was born the woman knew all too well how the rest of her life was going to be lived, and the truth of that reality left her nothing more than a shell of a person, a walking husk, never seeking, or desiring escape.

The links were really quite remarkable, savant like even. Although they were not very smart, the probability of any two of them having an I.Q. over fifty was nil, they were lethal. The men lacked the ability to speak words, using grunts and arm gestures to communicate, but when executing their attacks it was with mind-boggling precision. Making them appear to be oddly strategic.

These were the nocturnal demons that Troi and Pip were preparing to patrol for.

They checked their weapons, making sure their swords were strapped securely into place and their knives sheathed at their hips. Before heading out on patrol the friends knew that the recent downpour had raised the water level in the river, causing the roar from the falls to become nearly deafening.

That’s why they decided that, instead of all three of them walking together, it would be prudent to send the third sentry on their team, Barrett, out ahead of them to scout through the trees and signal them if they were approaching any danger that could not be heard over the falls.

Barrett was one, of a community of ten howler and capuchin monkeys that lived in the village. They all had the ability to speak, but the howlers were able to squall an alarm when necessary, making them indispensable to the security team, and although they would never admit it to the arrogant little monkey, Troi and Pip felt like the three of them made the best team of protectors.

“Barry, you see anything?” Troi yelled

The black monkey stopped his progress mid-swing and answered his friend with an annoyed clip peppering his British accent. “I’ve told you dozens of times, never call me Barry and if you would give me the chance to get more than ten feet away maybe there would be something to report.”

This only made the friends laugh, Pip ending it when he elbowed Troi in the side. “Why do you do that to him? You know it’s only gonna make him do something really rank to you later.”

Troi shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t help it. That little fuzz face has an attitude that’s twice the size of his body.”

“That’s true, but how many times has he saved our butts when we would have been caught off guard?”

“More than I care to remember.”

“And you know most of that attitude comes from being a monkey that can read and write in a world where the majority of humans can’t.”

“There is that too. But the only people that can’t read or write live in the Province.”

“Yeah, but remember, most of the population lives in the Province.” Pip reminded his friend.

Troi made a not so nice sound with her mouth before giving her opinion on the Province and their laws. “I can’t believe that after all of these years no one has rebelled against those idiots in charge. I mean think about it, Pip. No reading, no writing, no picture making, no storytelling that isn’t Province approved, or you will be cast out. How can they still live like that?”

Pip shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows, but if not for that law, our little village of outcast would never have sprung up all those centuries ago.”

Troi looked at the redhead and smiled at Pip’s ability to see the brighter side of things. Pip, more than anyone had the right to be very bitter about the laws of the Province, but he never gave it much thought, ‘happy and free to be me,’ was how he put it. Seeing the light of genuine satisfaction shinning in his gray eyes Troi smiled too, and decided to return to the problem at hand…Barrett.

She paused for a second in thought. “You know, Miss Millie was baking fresh bread before we left, maybe I’ll get a couple of slices for Barrett, you know, as a sort of peace offering.”

Pip snorted at the suggestion, ignoring the abrupt change in subject. “More like a bribe if you ask me. You’re just afraid that you’re gonna wake up and find a load of barfed up grape leaves in your shoes again.”

“Yeah, that was pretty messy,” she said as she kicked a rock out of her way.

“And stinky,” Pip added.

“I couldn’t get rid of that odor for months.”

“Um, Troi? I don’t think the source of that smell was coming entirely from the shoes.” He wiggled his russet eyebrows in a teasing manner. “If you know what I mean.”

Before Troi could respond, Pip took off running down the road towards the woods, with his dark friend close on his heels. “I’ll get you for that, Peter Ignatius Poole!”

“Aw see, you’re just being cruel now!” The redhead yelled, but never slowed his pace.

*******

Barrett stealthy made his way through the trees, stopping occasionally to sample any interesting leaves he came across. The branch he was sitting on was wide enough to allow him some comfort as he tested the flavor of the foliage.

“I’ll have to think of something veeery special for Troi,” he said out loud. Just thinking of ways to get back at the tall, dark-haired woman made him chuckle. He had to admit to himself that over the years he had enjoyed the banter that he shared with the blue-eyed sentry, and she always took his retaliations in stride, most times laughing along with him.

He was conceiving of a really moist reprisal to Troi’s taunting when he thought he heard something in the distance. Cocking his head to the side, he extended his senses. There it was again. Without a doubt, it was a sound of distress.

He dropped the leaf he was chewing on and leaped, jumped and swung until he reached a clearing about half a mile from where he left Troi and Pip. The scene unfolding below him was a familiar one. Three links had trapped and surround a girl that was unfortunate enough to have found herself alone in the woods at sundown.

Barrett opened his small mouth as wide as he could to yell for his friends, then he realized that he was probably too far away to use words. Although he detested it, under the circumstances he knew he had a better chance of alerting them by howling, so he extended his diaphragm and let loose.

*******

Pip and Troi were stepping off the road, heading towards the woods when they heard what was most definitely Barrett’s warning howl. Without hesitation, they ran in the direction of the alert, never slowing down until they heard their friend above them.

“Hurry, straight ahead. Those beasts have some poor girl trapped. Luckily she’s been able to hold them off, but I don’t think she can last much longer.”

When they broke through the trees, they heard a woman’s voice yelling at the top of her lungs. “Get back you demons!” This made them run even faster.

When they finally reached the clearing, they were faced with a sight that would have been comical if not for the seriousness of the situation.

A small blonde woman was fighting off three, loin-clothed links, using nothing more than a heavy-laden shoulder sack as a weapon, but she was using it to good measure.

The woman’s well toned muscles stood out on her slim arms with each defensive swing, and as she spun in circles, she used her bag like a medieval weapon. Holding the straps like the wooden handle of a flail and the weighted bag like the spike covered ball.

She kept her attackers at bay as best she could, which was pretty impressive, considering the man-things were taller than any normal man and stronger than the fiercest farm animal. Then one of the caveman like creatures took a hit to the head, but was still able to get a firm hold on the heavy cloth, taking it away from her.

That was when Troi reached over her shoulder and pulled her sword from its scabbard before jumping into the fight, with Pip beside her.

The panic that coursed through the small woman after having her only source of defense taken away was short lived when out of no where she found herself flanked on both sides by two strangers.

They were fighting off her attackers in a frenzy of motion that made their swords sing through the air with each swipe and thrust, but it soon became obvious that they weren’t trying to kill the offenders, just scare them off.

Once her brain relayed the message to her body that she was being rescued, she picked up the bag that had been dropped, and started to swing it again, helping to defend against the ogres until they decided that this prey wasn’t worth the effort, and went running off into the woods.

After the last of them had disappeared to join their brothers in whatever hole they lived in, the trio lowered their weapons, only their heavy breaths could be heard in the silent clearing.

Troi dropped her sword back into its holder as Pip slid his into his hip sheath. The blonde hung her shoulder sack back over her shoulder and walked over to the brave duo that had saved her from what was most likely going to be her first night of horror.

She stood in front of the dark-haired woman that was bending over at the waist trying to catch her breath, and held out her hand. “I’m Keller Morgan, and I can’t thank you enough for rescuing me.”

Troi pushed herself up, and using her thighs as leverage, stood to her full six-foot stature. She grasped the shorter woman’s hand in her much larger one, and for the first time got a good look at the damsel in distress.

The long blonde hair was matted to her forehead, and there were dirt smudges scattered across her face, but as exhausted as she looked, her green eyes blazed with a fire that left no doubt, if she and Pip turned out to be something other than the saviors that she thought they were, another fight would ensue.

Troi held up her hands in a defensive manner and laughed. “Crank it back a notch, little bit. I’m in no shape to go another round.”

When Pip saw Keller’s body stiffen at the moniker his friend had used, he slapped the brunette on the shoulder and squeezed it a little. “I don’t think this one likes that nickname, Troi.”

Hoping to defuse the situation Pip extended his hand in introduction. “Pip at your service.” He then turned to Troi. “And this is my friend Troi Donner.”

Troi reached out and shook the woman’s hand again. “Now that we have all been properly introduced, may I ask you why you are out here alone, little bi…?” Troi stopped in the middle of her sentence when she saw green eyes go dark. “I mean, Keller?”

Mentally calming herself, Keller took notice of the dark woman’s height and realized she was as tall as any one of the four men in her family. That abnormality alone would have been a reason to send her out of the Province. Women of above average height were labeled testosteros, too masculine to be of any breeding use and usually too headstrong for proper ladies training, therefore thought to be useless.

Feeling an immediate kinship with this woman Keller gave a quick and succinct answer. “My father took me to the center because he caught me making pictures and I escaped.”

Feeling like the answer had left out a lot of important facts, Troi asked for more clarification. “I’m afraid we’re gonna need a little more information than that,” Troi said.

Keller pulled in a deep breath and exhale slowly. It was a long story to relate, but after putting themselves in danger to save her, these people deserved to hear it, besides if she was going to get them to help her she had to tell them, so she started her story.

“It all began when my father caught me making pictures…”

“What in the name of the Deus are you doing, girl?!” Warren Morgan yelled when he found his only daughter with a piece of coal in her hand.

Keller dropped the sooty brick, frightened of what her father might do. It wasn’t the first time he had caught her indulging in this forbidden temptation, but he decided that it would be the last. Drastic measures had to be taken.

Walking past her, he grabbed an empty shoulder sack. “Daddy wha…why are you putting my clothes in the sack?”

Without looking up from his task, Warren shoved every piece of feminine lookin clothing his hand fell on, into the bag. “Since you can’t seem to follow the rules, I’m sending you to a place where they guarantee your compliance.”

Realizing that she was going to be sent away, Keller started to cry. When Ellen Morgan heard her daughter’s sobs, she rushed into the girl’s room, where she saw her husband packing their daughter’s travel sack. “By the Deus, Warren, what are you doing?”

“Look at the wall, Ellie. Look at what she’s done.”

Ellen’s eyes started to tear up when she saw the drawing. “Why, Keller? Why must you continue to tempt the Deus?”

“I’m sorry, momma. I can’t help it. The pictures just want to come out. Please understand,” The blonde pleaded.

Ellen reached out and gently laid her hand on her husband’s thick forearm. Ranching had built up his body, as well as their three sons. Now their hard work was garnering them praise. Their ranch was one of only three that raised enough beef to feed the entire Province throughout the seasons.

“Can’t we give her another chance, Warren?”

The tall blonde looked down into his wife’s pleading green eyes and almost…almost gave in, but he knew, deep down in his gut…he knew that if he allowed his daughter to continue her drawing unchecked, she would bring the wrath of The Order down on their heads. And if he had learned nothing else from The Edicts, it was Curtis Poole’s first rule: Never is the need of the one, greater than the survival of the whole.

He quickly turned away from his wife’s gaze. “No, Ellen, you know the first rule as well as I do.” He shoved the full sack into his frightened daughter’s arms. “So does Keller. I am not better than the man that led us out of turmoil. If Curtis Poole could send his kin away to keep the Province strong, then so can I.”

He grabbed Keller by the elbow and started pulling her towards the front door. “Wait!” Ellen yelled.

Both blondes turned as one.

“Where are you taking her?”

Warren opened the front door. “I’m taking her to the center. They say the new program they started can heal the affliction that causes the difference, without having to send them out into the wilderness.”

Ellen was relieved to hear that. At least her child wouldn’t be left to fend for herself like so many others before her. As the wagon pulled away from the house, Keller yelled over her shoulder.

“Tell Sherman, Thomas and Walter that I’ll be okay!”

The older woman waved and wiped her eyes. Even as she was being taken away Keller’s thoughts were of her brothers. Ellen couldn’t contain her sobs any longer and let the dam break free. Fear for her only daughter’s safety consumed her emotions and she became weak with it, falling to the floor in a heap.

****

The wagon pulled up in front of a tall, brick building, it was the only structure built by the ancients that was still standing in the Province. The fading blue and white sign out front read _ _THE_DA RES_ A _C_ CENTER.

It had been one-hundred years since the current leader, Myron Scott’s great-grandfather, James took over control of The Order from the Poole line and almost immediately he started to make changes in the day-to-day handling of the Province.

When James died his son, Oliver walked into the position. The changes he made were not as obvious, but just as memorable as his father’s. His most popular proclamation being the well digging incentive. Under his rule, instead of the citizens using communal wells, a personal one for family use was dung on every owner’s property.

When Oliver’s oldest son, Garland took over leadership he made his contribution to change by decreeing that a celebration could be held twice a year during harvest time. The joy that it brought the people endeared the man to his flock. But after only ten years as the leader, Garland fell ill and one year ago, at the age of fifty, died, leaving his oldest son, twenty-five-year-old Myron, as The Order’s new leader.

Wanting to mark his ascent to power in a most memorable way, and also to prove the naysayer’s wrong that were of the mind that he wasn’t ready to lead, Myron conceived of a project that would distinguish his reign from that of his ancestors.

He decided to make a permanent change to a practice that had been in place since the time of Curtis Poole. No longer would the intuitives be sent out across the Badlands. Instead, with the help of experts, he devised a program where through physical and psychological manipulation he could control their creativity and mold their abilities in a way that would best serve the Province.

It didn’t take long for him to open and staff the old Bethesda Research Center, and with the help of people he trusted to get the job done, the last nine months had been productive. After the citizens got word that their loved ones would no longer be sent out into the wilderness, they brought them in themselves, hoping that the center would change them. Now the rooms were almost filled to capacity.

So, when Warren Morgan walked his daughter up to the admissions desk, it was with a sense of hopefulness that he gave the woman all the information that she requested. And when he was asked to make an X beside what he was told was his name, giving permission for Keller’s treatment, he did so with the utmost trust in the leader of the Province’s ability to know what was best.

Before they led his daughter away, he gave her a stiff hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. “You do everything they tell ya, Keller, and before you know it you’ll be back home, as good as new.”

*******

“This is your room, and that’s where you’ll sleep” the not overly friendly attendant said as she pointed to a cot that was pushed into a dark corner of the large room.

Before any questions could be asked, the woman was gone, leaving Keller alone to get familiar with her surroundings. She dropped her sack on the narrow bed and checked out her new home.

There were three other beds in the room, each occupying one of the shadowed corners. Looking at them filled Keller with a profound sadness. How long would she have to live away from her friends and family, and when she returned to them…who would she be?

Before her thoughts could become any darker, the door opened and in walked three women. The youngest looked to be no older than sixteen, the oldest about twenty. All three shuffled in and sat on their assigned beds without saying a word to their new roommate.

Keller stood up and walked to the center of the room. Deciding that humor was always a good way to make new friends, she quipped, “So what are you guys in for?”

This got a slight up turn of the three girl’s lips, but no sound was made as each one rose from her cot to introduce herself to the blonde.

“I tell stories,” the tall redhead, who also appeared to be the oldest whispered.

“I hum melodies,” said the short brunette.

“I make pictures,” said the youngest, and most timid of the three.

This last confession caught Keller’s interest. “So do I!” she said with enthusiasm.

The women shushed her and looked towards the door. “Be quiet,” the older one said. “If you make any noises that sound like you’re having fun they’ll come in, and…” here she faltered.

The youngest girl filled in the rest. “They’ll take away any joy you have left inside.”

Feeling extremely confused, and a little frightened, Keller resisted the urge to ask the girl to elaborate, instinct telling her she really didn’t want to know, so she chose instead to ask their names. “My name is Keller, what’s yours?”

The young artist extended a shaky hand. “I’m, Jesse Lynn.”

The short brunette smiled with warm eyes. “My name is, Paige.”

The oldest and tallest of the three gave a small smile that crinkled the corners of her green eyes as she held out her hand. “I’m, Patsy Thirwell. Glad to meet you.”

Before the introductions could go any further, a call was heard going out, up and down the hallway. All of the newcomers were being told to line up outside of their rooms.

Keller felt her heart start to beat a little faster. She felt like it was too soon to be pulled away from the comfort she was beginning to feel with her new roommates, but she did as instructed and headed towards the door. As she left the room Keller received three sad smiles, but she didn’t see them, as her back was already turned.

The newcomers were lined up and as the director, Steve Hamilton went down the line he asked each person. “What is your affliction?” When he reached Keller her head was bowed, so he placed the tip of his finger under her chin and forced eye contact. “And what is your affliction, my pretty one?” he asked in a purr that sent shivers down Keller’s spine.

“I…I make pictures,” she said as she tried to stop her knees from trembling. There was something about this tall man that frightened her. Aside from his yellowing teeth and cadaverously thin body, he emitted a kind of hiss when he spoke that made her flesh creep.

“Ah, lovely,” he said before finally removing his bony finger from her chin. “After your healing, your pictures will serve the Province well in the new direction we are headed.”

Moving down the line he finished his inspection and stood in front of the nervous group of newcomers. “I want you all to relax. There is nothing to fear.”

Keller didn’t want to, but she couldn’t help herself. As he spoke, all she could concentrate on was the extended ssss sound that was made at the end of each word ending in an S sound. The word relax echoed in her ear long after the sentence was finished.

“We are here to help you become productive members of society, nothing more. And I have no doubt that by the time we are finished, each and every one of you will be just as you were intended to be.”

His short speech could have been interpreted as a man speaking with compassion about the help he thought the treatments would provide, but to Keller there was something decidedly carnivorous about the delivery, and she got a very bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

*******

That night while lying in her bed, Keller overheard a conversation that was going on between two men that were walking the hallways.

“We’ve learned that humiliation helps when adjusting the patients. They either do as they’re told, or disappear inside themselves, either way we succeed in our efforts to control their urges.”

He flipped his thumb in the direction of Keller’s door. “As a matter of fact Mr. Hamilton has decided to break in the new one, says he sees a real defiant spirit lurking in her eyes that only he can cast out.”

The other voice laughed a little. “It doesn’t hurt that she’s very beautiful either…does it?”

A more lecherous chuckle was heard. “Well there’s that too. To be honest I wouldn’t mind being the one to help here let her demons loose, but it is not to be.”

The voices lowered abruptly and the muffled sounds became contrite just before two sets of footsteps could be heard moving down the hall.

When the door to Keller’s room slowly opened, she could just make out a man’s form in the light of the candle he was holding. As the door closed the candle slowly made its way over to her corner of the shadowed room. The man sat down, and she felt the thin mattress sink down from the extra weight. Just as she was about to ask what the intruder wanted a skeletal hand covered her mouth and the face of the director was lit by the tiny flame.

“It’s time for your first lesson, Keller Morgan,” he whispered with his rancid breath.

When he sat the candle on the floor she felt his hands start to make a trail down the center of her chest, it was then that the struggle began.

Keller kicked and scratch and pushed with all her might, but the man’s size was deceiving. He was much stronger than he looked. Calling for help from her roommates was only met with silence.

She had no way of knowing it, but the three women were laying in their beds with their eyes tightly closed, trying to push out the sounds and memories of their own tortuous first night in the center.

When Keller realized that there was no way she could fight this man off she went completely still, appearing to her attacker as if she were accepting her fate. But that wasn’t the case. She was invoking the fifth rule: When faced with a stronger opponent, make his weakness your strength.

When the man had his britches around his bony hips and his manhood was exposed, Keller saw her opportunity, and with lightening speed reached out with all her might and squeezed the fleshy sacks that would bring him to his knees.

His assault on her stopped immediately, but Keller continued to hold on as she slid from the bed, knowing that if she let go, the fight would be on again. She had helped turn enough bulls into steers to know how to handle a pair of scrotums fresh for neutering. She only hoped that wouldn’t become necessary…the job could be quite messy without the proper tools.

She whispered in a harsh voice for help. “Patsy.” When there was no response she called out again, a little louder. “PATSY!”

To avoid having someone hear, Patsy answered. “What?!”

“Come over here and pick up the candle.”

Keller heard the woman making her way over. When she got close enough to see what was happening she pulled in a sharp breath. “By, the Deus. Keller, what have you done?”

“I’ve just stopped myself from being raped by a beast no better than a bull in heat.”

The quiet, but intense conversation caught the other occupant’s attention, and Jesse Lynn and Paige made their way over to Keller’s side of the room. When they saw what was going on they spoke in unison.

“Oh, no.”

“That’s right,” Steve Hamilton gritted out. “Let go of me or I’ll make your punishment last for days instead of hours.”

Keller hadn’t realize it, but the sound of the hard S’s Steve made caused her to reflexively squeeze the man’s scrotum. It wasn’t until he moaned in agony that she realized she had tightened her hold to the point where she could feel his testicles shifting around inside. She almost apologized until she remembered why she held them in the first place.

Looking at the three women that had formed a circle around her Keller made a plea to the roommates she had just met that day.

“I need one of you to do me a huge favor. I’m not staying here. After this there is no way that I can, but I can’t leave unless someone takes a hold and keeps this animal in place long enough for me to escape.”

When no one moved, she begged. “Please.”

Feeling charged by Keller’s bold move, Patsy maneuvered herself beside the brave little blonde and squared her shoulders. She had been at the center for three months, and during that time she had been molested at least three nights a week, under the guise that she still harbored her desire to tell stories.

‘Well, of course I do,’ she thought. ‘Just because I don’t share them doesn’t mean they no longer come to me.’

She hated this place. With every fiber of her being, she hated this place. A fury welled up in her like she had never known, and before she could talk herself out of it, she snatched the director’s tender parts from Keller’s grip and was now in possession of them.

Keller didn’t waste any time. She gathered her sack, waved a thank you to her roommates of less than a day, and quietly slipped into the night.

When Patsy was sure that Keller was gone, she looked down at a squirming Steve Hamilton. “Now, what do I do with you?” she asked, and just for fun gave his testicles a little shake, rattling them around.

“Oh, my Deus. Patsy, what’s gonna happen to us now?” Paige asked.

Patsy hesitated for only a second. Jesse Lynn, rip the bedcovers into strips.”

When the girl didn’t move immediately Patsy put a little more authority in her voice. “DO IT, JESS. We don’t have much time.”

After the director had been trussed up like a festival pig, the women gathered their few personal items and left the center for good.

*******

“That was fifteen days ago, and here I am.”

The trio had found seats on a fallen log after Keller had started her story, so Troi leaning forward and finding a rock to throw wasn’t difficult. She was trying to tamp down the anger she felt on the small blonde’s behalf, and needed somewhere to focus it. The rock would have to do for now.

“How did you make it across the Badlands without being killed, raped, eaten or all three?” Troi asked.

Keller shrugged her shoulders in a manner suggesting her answer should be obvious. “The twelfth rule: When facing an unseen enemy, you must also become unseen.”

Pip and Troi both nodded their heads in understanding. The Edicts was a guide of rules and laws that was as old as their civilization. It dictated how they would live and survive in the new world. The first group of outcasts had been given a copy when they were set out. It was, in Curtis Poole’s mind, an endowment of hope for the hopeless.

Although reading and writing had been outlawed when he came into power, the man gifted every household in the new Province with a copy of The Edicts. It was a handmade, rough-hewn book, covered with a tanned animal hide that held pages of meticulously prepared papyrus with handwritten rules that were to be, first memorized and then stored in a place of prominence.

The first Province settlers were the only generation that had ever read from The Edicts. After their time, it was ordered throughout the land that the contents would only be passed down to the next generations through oral history. Nine hundred and fifty years later, most homes still kept their copies in a place of reverence, never touching it after placement.

“Can you read?” Troi asked Keller.

The small woman blushed. “Yes, I’m the only one in my family that can. Our parents, just as their parents before them, had passed down the rules in The Edicts through lessons of the spoken word.

When I was old enough I became curious, so whenever my parents were not around I would spend hours just studying the pages, until finally I was able to match the words that had been branded into my brain with the ones on the pages in The Edicts.”

She dropped her head when a wave of sadness washed over her. “I knew I could never let father know that I had taught myself to read.” She made a little snorting sound to herself. “I would have been sent to the center much sooner if he had.”

They all were quiet for a moment before Pip broke the silence. “So it was the twelfth rule that helped you get this far?”

Once again the blush appeared on the blonde’s face, and both friends thought it was adorable. “Yeah, I covered myself in the scent of the wild dogs natural predator to keep them away, and used a large covering of moss to blend in with my surroundings to avoid the links. I was doing fine until it started to rain and all of my protection was washed away.” She gave her rescuers a thankful smile. “If you guys hadn’t showed up I’d be a feast right about now.”

Troi looked over the small body and couldn’t stop herself from teasing the green-eyed woman. “You’re too small to be much of meal,” she said.

Pip held up his hand to stop the retort he knew was coming. “Let’s not argue.” He looked around the clearing. “I think we should get a move on. If we stay much longer those monkey men may come back.”

“Hold your tongue, Pip. I take offense to that. There is nothing at all simian about those beasts.”

Keller whipped her head around, then skyward, in search of who was speaking in such an odd voice. Then she made eye contact with a grinning, black monkey that was waving at her. When he gave a little bow she nearly fainted.

“Barrett Montague, at you service, madam.”

“Oh, my Deus,” Keller whispered. “A talking creature.”

Barrett harrumphed. “Who is she referring to as a creature?”

Keller apologized immediately. “I’m sorry. I meant no harm, Mr. Montague.”

That was all Troi and Pip needed to hear. “Mr. Montague?!” they laughed in unison.

“If he’s a mister, I’m a missus,” Pip said, near tears.

“And if his last name is Montague, so is mine,” Troi barely got out.

Keller had no idea what was going on, so she remained quiet. When the friends finished laughing they turned to the fugitive.

“We’re sorry, Keller,” Pip said. “It’s just that Barrett has had a last name all of two seconds and it struck us as funny. Up until he introduced himself to you it was always just…Barrett.”

“Oh,” was all the woman could say.

The laughter stopped when Barrett gave a warning from his perch. “I advise we move on. I think they are coming back.” Feeling like it was time for a little payback Barrett added a dig to his warning “And if I were you, Miss Keller, I would stay as far away from those two miscreants as possible. If you don’t your corruption is inevitable.”

Before Keller could respond Troi heard grunts and movement in the distance and knew that Barrett was right. “Let’s move,” she urged.

After they had gotten a safe distance away Troi spoke her thoughts out loud about finding lodging for Keller. “Pip, do you think Mona Garren will take Keller in?”

“Most likely. She has the extra room, especially since her sons went west.” Pip looked at the green-eyed woman and smiled. “You know, she’s always wanted a daughter, I’m sure she’d be more than happy to take Keller in.”

As they walked along, Pip started feeling a little antsy and exposed, so he started humming a tune. After spending many years together on sentry duty the pair had learned that if they sang out loud, sometimes the beast of the night stayed at bay, so when Troi realized what the tune was, she joined in when he started to sing.

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Keller was a little frightened at first. This type of behavior was forbidden. But after scanning the area for anyone that might overhear the singing, and finding them alone, Keller listened very closely to the words and felt like she was being told one of the forbidden fantasies.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Beyond her understanding as to why, Keller’s eyes started to tear up at the haunting melody and she felt a longing tug at her heart, that all at once threatened to make her laugh uncontrollably and sob without end.

“W…what is that?” she asked.

When Troi saw the distress on the smaller woman’s face they stopped walking.

“I’ve never heard anything quite so beautiful and yet so sad. The words make me feel hopeful, but the impossibility of it being a reality breaks my heart.”

The two friends looked at one another and smiled. They knew exactly what Keller meant, but instead of going into a long philosophical discussion that might end up depressing the blonde, they thought the best course of action was to lighten the mood by singing a happier tune.

“Keller, how about we sing a song that I guarantee will make you feel better?” Pip asked.

She nodded her head and waited.

So Pip started his rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The short redhead danced around the blonde and used his arms to good effect when he sang in a high falsetto.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight
In the jungle the quiet jungle
The lion sleeps tonight

Troi picked up the chorus, singing the nonsensical words.

“A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh”

The words were odd but they made Keller giggle from the silly way they sounded.

Near the village the peaceful village
The lion sleeps tonight
Near the village the quiet village
The lion sleeps tonight

The short runaway nearly tripped over her own feet when she heard, from somewhere over her head the unmistakable voice of Barrett.

“Wee-eee wim-o wama-weh ooh ohh wim-o wama-weh.”

When she looked up she saw the small black monkey dancing on one of the limbs above their heads, adding his contribution to the song, and all she could think was, ‘It’s gonna be real interesting getting to know this group of individuals.’

*******

When they reached the village gates Troi stopped and told Pip to keep watch until she got Keller settled in with Mona.

“You know there has to be at least two of us on patrol at all times, Troi.”

The tall woman continued towards the gate as she spoke over her shoulder. “I’ll leave the turd tosser with you until I get back.”

The sudden feel of some kind of warm goo sliding down the back of her neck made her stop in her tracks. She reached behind her and pulled a glob of brown colored muck from her collar and raised it to her nose. Determining that it was only mud she turned her blue gaze to the defiant monkey that was standing at the ready with another hand full.

It was the first time Keller had seen him on the ground, and thought he was the cutest thing she had ever seen. He wore a pair of tan trousers that stopped just below his knees, a blue burlap shirt, and around his narrow waist was a small hemp belt with a pouch hanging off of it. He couldn’t have been any more than two feet tall, and the fighting stance he had taken only made him more endearing.

“What was that for?” Troi asked, barely keeping her temper in check.

“For calling me a turd tosser you uncouth human. I would never commit such a vile deed, but I thought you needed to get a feel for it if I were to ever stoop so low.”

Pip just shook his head and mumbled under his breath. “He’s too good to throw poop, but barfs in her shoes when the mood hits him…what a gentleman.”

Brown eyes pinned the redhead in place as Barrett threatened Pip with the mud he still held. “Just give me a reason, Pip. I’ve just about reached my limit with the two of you.”

Troi turned from the scene and guided Keller by the elbow as they continued on. “Is he always so grumpy?” Keller asked.

“Nah, he’s okay. He just hates patrolling in the trees when everything is wet, and today we have tormented him more than we normally do.” She shrugged her shoulders. “He was due a blow up.”

*******

When the gates to the village opened and they stepped in. Troi stood back to allow Keller to take in her new surroundings. “Welcome to Arcadia,” she said, as she led the fugitive further into the village proper.

The place was like nothing Keller had ever seen. To be so late in the evening the village was alive with activity, and all along the torch-lit streets people were doing all sorts of things that were both strange and exciting.

When she heard a sound like nothing she had ever heard before, she looked for its source and became instantly mesmerized when she found it.

About twenty feet off to the left, a trio was in what sounded like the infant stages of a song. One man was sitting on a three-legged stool playing a thick piece of wood, that was narrow at the top and wide at the bottom, with a hole cut in the center. It had gut string pulled tight along its length that were being plucked in a pattern that almost made it sing.

Another man was sitting beside him beating out a matching tempo on a piece of brushed animal hide that was pulled taunt over the hollowed out end of a log, emitting a smooth, swaying rhythm that could be felt deep down in the bones.

And the third person in the group was a woman that was leaning over the percussionist’s back humming along as she slowly felt her way through the tune the men were creating, trying to catch hold and answer the instrument’s seductive call.

There was so much energy in this place that it felt foreign to her. And she couldn’t help but compare it to the Province she had come from. Under The Order’s rule things were rigid, and obedience was expected. The only time people expressed joy out in public was during the festival seasons.

Feeling her mood starting to take a downward turn Keller shook herself free of her morose thoughts and chose instead to find the source of the scent her nose had detected. When she located the origin she thought she was seeing a false image.

In the opposite direction of where they were heading was an open pit that had smoke billowing out of it that perfumed the air with the smell of roasting meat, reminding Keller’s stomach that all she had eaten in the last fifteen days was wild berries, creek water and an occasional root vegetable, if she were lucky.

When Troi heard the small woman’s stomach growl she immediately changed their course and pulled the hungry woman to the outdoor table that acted as a service counter.

“Good eve, Davis,” she said to the pit boss. “What cha got cooking tonight?”

The man looked up from his task of basting the huge side of meat he was preparing and smiled at the guard. “Hey, Troi. I thought you had duty tonight.” His eyes wondered over to the sentry’s companion and he quickly tried to wipe some of the grime from his face and arms with the hem of his apron.

“You could have told me the village had a guest.” He extended his hand to what he thought was one of the most natural beauties he had ever seen. “Good eve, ma’am, my name is Davis, and I guess I’m what you would call the grill master for this village.”

When Keller reached out to shake Davis’ hand Troi got a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. There was something about seeing the blonde woman’s hand engulfed by Davis’ large callused offering that didn’t sit right with her.

“Alright, enough with the how-do-you-do’s,” she interrupted. “Me and Pip rescued Miss Keller from a pack of links,. I was on my way to Mona’s to see if she would put her up until she decides what she wants to do, but when I smelled your food I thought I’d feed her first.”

Keller gave the tall brunette a thank you smile that made a blush start to creep up the guard’s long neck. She really appreciated that the blue-eyed woman saved her the embarrassment of having to admit how hungry she was to the nice stranger.

Davis’ smile spread from ear to ear. “Oh, sure, sure, no problem.” He grabbed a knife and hacked off a chunk of the fragrant meat before placing it on a thick slice of bread. “Here you go, and just so you know, that bread was fresh made this evening by Miss Millie, I hope you enjoy it.”

Keller accepted the offering and bit into the warm, caramelized meat. The pleasure she experienced from that first bite almost made her knees buckle, and she had to stop herself from moaning out loud. “This is really good,” she was able to mutter in-between chews. “Thank you so much.”

Troi and Davis were good friends. Had been since they were children, but for some reason, at this very moment she wanted to wipe off the silly grin that had appeared on his ruggedly handsome face with the dull side of her blade. She had to physically shake herself to remove the combative image from her mind. When she had more time, she would have to ask herself what her problem was.

As they turned to leave, she snapped her fingers and turned back around. “That reminds me, Davis, toss me a couple of slices of bread would ya? I’m gonna surprise Barrett.”

After securing the bread in her side pouch, and continuing in the direction of Mona’s home she heard Davis yell out behind her. “Bet you’ve gone and ruffled his fur again haven’t you? It’s a good thing your mother is a cordovan, if you ask me, she’s gonna have to make you a new pair of boots real soon.”

Troi could still hear his deep laughter as she and Keller approached Mona’s front door. “Nobody asked you,” she mumbled under her breath.

She raised her hand to knock, but stopped when she heard smacking sounds, turning her head she guffawed at the sight she was met with. The petite blonde was in the final stages of licking and sucking every last bit of meat essence that she could find, off of her fingers. Not being deterred in the least by Troi’s laughter she finished up with a loud pop as her index finger cleared her lips, signaling that her brief, but delicious meal was now gone.

“Are you done? Is it safe to knock?” Troi asked.

Keller tilted her head slightly to one side and extended her arm with a flourish. “Lead the way kind squire,” she said in jest.

Troi nearly bit her tongue in half trying not to laugh. “I see it’s gonna be a real treat having you around.”

The smile that she received for the comment made her smile back just as big. She knocked once, then twice on the front door. There was an excitement building up in her that she couldn’t describe. She felt like she was on the cusp of embarking on a great adventure, and she was anxious to get started. She didn’t know when it would commence, or where it would lead, but instinctively she knew that the small blonde beside her was going to play a big role in the journey.

*******

Having only a limited amount of time, Troi had to tell Mona, Keller’s story quickly, because she needed to return to her post. So she gave the woman the condensed version.

When she was finished, the seamstress was more than happy to open her home to Keller. Since her boys had left it was just her, and having been a widow for the last ten years, she looked forward to having another body around the house to relieve the loneliness. And if she could interest Keller in helping out with some of the village’s sewing duties, that would be an extra-added bonus.

When Keller and Mona started chatting like old friends Troi knew it was safe to leave them alone, so she said her goodbyes and headed back out to patrol, promising to check on Keller after her morning respite.

As she was walking across Mona’s yard she heard the front door open, when she turned around she had just enough time to catch an arm full of appreciative blonde.

I can’t thank you enough, Troi. I…I just don’t want to think about what would have happened to me if the three of you hadn’t showed up when you did.”

Because her face was buried in the dark woman’s neck her words were muffled, but Troi heard every heartfelt one.

“You don’t have to thank me, Keller.” Feeling a strange stirring in her stomach she decided it was best to put a little distance between them by placing the small woman back on the ground and ruffling her hair. “Besides, you looked like you were giving them second thoughts about their choice when we got there.”

An adorable blush made an appearance before she had a chance to cover it. “Yeah, well, anyway…thanks”

Before she lost her nerve she raised up on her toes and gave the tall woman a quick peck on the cheek then disappeared inside the house without another word.

Caught totally off guard, Troi stood there for a moment before she slowly ran the tips of her fingers over the warm spot on her cheek, then a huge smile bloomed across her face.

“Well I’ll be,” she said before walking off whistling a little tune.

*******

When Troi finally made it back to her post, the sight of Pip and Barrett playing a round of flip the chip was priceless. From the look of the pile of marbles on Barrett’s side, the howler monkey was in the lead. She had told her friend more than once to never play that game with the dexterous little primate. His ability to flick the wooden chip into the narrow opening of the bowl, no matter how far away it was placed, was not only a testament to his eye and hand coordination, but also the controlled flexibility in his hands.

Troi watched a few flips and fingered the small sack on her side that held her own marbles. She had always had a fascination with the colorful little spheres and often wondered how they had been made. No one knew what their original purpose had been, but for years, as the village was being established, it seemed like marbles were being dug out of the earth on a daily basis.

Not being able to find a use for them, the adults eventually gave them to the young ones, and it was through them that numerous uses for the perfectly round pieces of colored glass were found. But their most popular use was as the winnings when playing games of skill. Anyone passing by a game in progress could tell with one glance who the victor of the day was, and usually a good bit of ribbing followed…this time would be no different.

“Pip, it looks like MR. MONTAGUE has all your marbles.” Two sets of eyes, one gray, the other brown glared at her. Ignoring them, she blew on her nails and polished them off on the front of her shirt. “Got two birds with one stone with that little dig, I’m good.”

Seeing that Barrett was about to get wound up again she reach into her pouch and pulled out the fresh bread, tossing it to him, trying to sound nonchalant.

“You did a good job tonight, and…um…I thought you might be hungry.”

Barrett took the offering for what it was, Troi’s way of apologizing for being totally obnoxious.”

Pip looked from Barrett’s pile of marbles to the soft breadcrumbs that were nesting in his chin hairs and pouted. “Hey what about me, Troi? I was there too.” He craned his neck trying to get a look into the tall woman’s waist sack. “You got anymore in there?”

Troi pulled out one of the extra slices she had gotten off of Davis and bit into it, licking her lips like she had just tasted the sweetest stalk of sugarcane. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Pip. Miss Millie made an extra fine batch this time.”

From his position on the blue-eyed woman’s left side, Barrett could see the other slice in the pouch, but remained silent, enjoying watching Troi wind Pip up for a change.

When Barrett laughed at Troi’s antics, Pip narrowed his eyes and threatened. “You won’t think it’s so funny when I snatch yours out of your stubby little fingers.”

Barrett held his treat in one hand while examining the other, wiggling the slender digits one at a time. “That’s not what the ladies tell me. As a matter of fact, just the other night…”

Pip covered his ears and started to chant. “I’m not hearing you. I’m not hearing you.” The last thing he wanted to hear about was Barrett’s love life.

Seeing that Pip was totally frazzled Troi decided it was time to let him off the hook and handed him the slice she had brought for him. “Here, you cry baby.”

Pip grabbed his treat with a smile. “I knew you’d never forget about me, buddy.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”

After a few moments of silence Pip asked if Keller got settled in at Mona’s.

“Yep. They took to each other right from the start.”

Pip didn’t miss the twinkle in his friend’s blue eyes whenever the blonde’s name was mentioned and had an idea as to why, so he decided to test the theory.

“Keller sure is beautiful,” the redhead said nonchalantly, making sure not to look at Troi.

“Um…yes. She is,” the dark sentry said, wondering where Pip was going with this, and hoping that it wasn’t where she thought.

“I was just thinking…maybe I should stop by Mona’s and…well see how she’s getting along.”

Barrett watched the scene playing out in front of him and wondered if Troi would admit that she had feelings for the little artist. He knew about her desire for the woman, even if she didn’t. He also knew that the green-eyed human shared the same feelings. When they were together their mingled scent of attraction was almost overwhelming, attacking his senses even when he was high up in the trees.

He didn’t understand why they didn’t just give in to the lure and consummate the bond. But, humans and their courting rituals had always confused him, so he made himself satisfied with watching Pip play his game.

“She just got here, Pip. You could at least let her catch her breath before you go trying to smother her with your pocket-size company,” Troi said with a little more heat than she had intended.

Pip pushed a little further. “I might be a short you, long legs, but last I checked I’m just the right size for a woman who’s let’s say…weell…about, five-foot four,” he said as he wiggled his brows.

Using every bit of self-discipline she had, Troi shrugged her shoulders, hoping to show indifference about a comment that bothered her deeply. “Do as you please. I just thought the poor girl might need some time to learn her way around the village before some doofus came around wasting her time.”

That’s when Pip knew he had hit a nerve. Troi never called him a doofus unless he was doing something that really annoyed her. “What’s got you so worked up. You interested in her or something?”

An internal battle was going on inside the dark woman. If she admitted that she had an interest in Keller, Pip might rib her every chance he got, but if she didn’t, he might actually go and visit the beautiful blonde. Taking the chance that things would fall into place on their own, and hoping to avoid being teased, she chose her pride.

“No, I’m not interested. Do as you please,” she said gruffly.

Unable to listen to the ridiculous conversation any longer, Barrett stood on the tree stump that doubled as their table, and popped Troi on top of the head with his small palm.

“Stop it, Troi. You stop this very instant with your bogus showing of disinterest. If you don’t admit your feelings for this young woman I will make it my business to announce it in the village square. Your pride is going to come back and bite you in the behind if you don’t start being honest about this.” Then the little monkey hesitated for a moment. “You might as well give in, Troi you reek of the attraction. It’s all over you.”

Pip leaned over and took a deep whiff. All he could smell was Troi’s normal scent, with the addition of some sweat from fighting. Shrugging his shoulders he returned his attention back to the conversation.

“Why would you do that, Barrett? Why would you embarrass me like that?” Troi asked.

“Because, you idiotic human. You are going to wait and work through some preposterous time frame before telling her you are interested, and by then someone else is going to have made their feelings known. You were lucky this time that it was only Pip yanking your trousers a bit. Next time it could be a well and true suitor that asks to spend time with Miss Keller.”

Sincerity bloomed in Barrett’s eyes, showing the tall guard the depth of his feelings on the subject. “You may not be able to smell it as I do, Troi, but I know you can feel it. If you don’t claim this young woman, it will be your missed opportunity, and you will never truly be happy in your life.”

The consequences of Barrett’s warning rang so true to Troi’s soul that a pain coiled itself around her heart that was so intense, she felt pinpricks sting the back of her eyes, before a single teardrop made it’s way down her cheek.

When a second wave hit and Troi doubled over as if in pain, Pip became alarmed. “What’s wrong with her, Barrett?!”

“She’ll be fine, Pip. She’s just accepting. Sometimes it’s a painful process.”

Pip was a little skeptical. ‘How could beginning to understand something make a person hurt?’ he thought to himself. “What makes you so sure that Troi should be with Keller?” he said out loud.

“The little monkey tapped his muzzle. “The nose never lies. In all animals, humans included, when it comes to their choices to couple, there is a distinct scent that indicates lust, or love. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, there is a…how do I put this? There is a very specific aroma, one that can only be answered by its mate. That is what I smell with Troi and Keller.”

Seeing that his friend had finally recovered, Pip asked what her intentions were. “What are you gonna do, Troi?”

Remembering the thank you peck she had received earlier, Troi ran her fingers over that area of her cheek again, starting to understand the truth much faster than Barrett had anticipated, then a large smile bloomed on the tall woman’s face.

“After my morning respite I’m gonna walk over to Mona’s and see if Miss Keller Morgan would be interested in taking a tour of the village with me.”

Barrett jumped down off of the stump, grabbed up his winnings and added them to the marbles that were already in his waist sack. Then he swung up into the trees with a very satisfied smirk on his fuzzy little face. “I always knew you were an exceptional human, Troi Donner.”

“Hey, what about me?!” Pip yelled.

No response was forthcoming.

*******

Long after Troi left, Mona and Keller sat across from each other in Mona’s kitchen, sharing a cup of cider. “Mona, why is your village so alive this late in the evening?”

“That’s an easy one to answer. Our founders discovered long ago that if we were to protect ourselves against the things in the wild we should train ourselves to live in shifts so that the village had a constant flow of activity. This way there would be no time of the day of night when we were vulnerable.”

Keller looked confused. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Well, Keller, out here in the wild we had to learn to live by our wits. As you can imagine our ancestors had it pretty bad, but through the scrolls they left for us we learned from their mistakes and sacrifices.”

Keller’s eyes went wide. “Scr…scrolls? You know how to read?” That’s when Keller was reminded that she was in a place far different from where she had come from. Every citizen being able to read was going to take a while to get used to.

Mona snorted with disgust. She had never lived in the Province. Like resident of the village, she was born and raised in Arcadia never living under The Order’s rule, and although Keller was the first person to make it safely across the Badlands in Mona’s lifetime, like everyone else, she knew of the oppression the citizens were forced to live under.

“Yes, Keller, I read. We all do, and write. The longer you’re here, the more you’ll see. We sing, dance, tell stories, paint, draw pic…”

Seeing the excitement in the bright green eyes when she said draw made Mona smile. “That’s right, you make pictures don’t you?”

Keller nodded enthusiastically. “It’s…it’s like a part of me.”

“Well, you’ll have your chance to draw to your hearts desire. When you see Troi again have her take you to the parchment hut. They’ll give you a few writing sticks and a couple of rolls of vellum to use for your drawing.”

Keller was on sensory overload. The fight. The village. The food. The people, and now this. It was all becoming too much. This kind woman who had so generously taken her into her home was telling her that she had the freedom to draw…whenever she wanted. Never having to hide away for fear of being caught. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

All at once she felt excitement…then fear. The confusing and conflicting emotions revealing themselves in the form of laughter and tears. If this was an illusion and she was really laying dead somewhere out in the Badlands, she never wanted to be found, let her body turn to dust and settle back with the land, that would be fine with her…she just didn’t want this to end.

“Don’t get yourself all worked up, Keller. This is your first night here. If you keep on like this we’ll have to give you over to the healers.”

Trying to force herself to calm down, Keller clasped her hands together on top of table, hoping that gesture alone would keep her grounded.

“This place is like some kind of magic. Not the dark kind that The Order warned us about. This is so…so light and bright…it makes me happier than I’ve ever been.”

“Don’t get too excited. It’s not like we are from the tales of fairies.”

Keller didn’t understand, but that had been a constant state since she had walked through the gates of Arcadia, this place filled her with giddy delight. It was a most fascinating feeling.

“Tales of fairies?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”

“Yes. Fairy tales. Stories that were told by the ancients. They were filled with places where knights rescued princess’ from towers, or frogs turned into men with one kiss from his true love. We have nothing like that here. We are just plain old folk. Nothing magical. Barrett on the other hand comes from a place like those of the fairies. A land where creatures talk and winged beings float about spreading white magic, living in peace with the animals.”

Keller felt like she needed to learn the meaning of words all over again. There wasn’t much that Mona had said that she understood, and it must have showed on her face because Mona patted her hand in comfort.

“Don’t worry, Keller. It will make sense after a while. I’ll have a talk with Troi, I’m sure that over time she’ll take you to all of the places in the village. The parchment hut, the music hut and to Roger Meeks. He keeps all the scrolls and old books that were found hidden away in boxes. Most of them hold no real interest, but there are some that are very entertaining. The fairy tale book being one of them.

Wanting to make Keller more comfortable, Mona decided to change the subject by asking an easy question.

“How old are you, Keller.”

“I was born February second, nine hundred and twenty-eight M.D.”

“Ah, what a magical age. I remember when I was twenty-two, but if no one reads or writes how does anyone know when they were born?”

“Births are always reported to The Order, then a scribe is sent to the household, where they enter the information in the book of births and deaths. They tell the family the month, day and year, and give the mother the new baby’s birth beads. That is a sting of beads that hang across the wall, and every day the parent moves a bead from one side to the other, that way, three hundred days from the child’s birth we know we have cycled our first year.”

“So, counting is allowed, but reading isn’t?”

Keller nodded. “People that can’t read can still communicate through speech, but there is no substitute for counting. You can’t fill an order if you don’t know how many items to send.”

“I guess that makes sense. I never thought about it, but then again, I never had to.”

Wanting to change the subject, the seamstress remembered glancing out of the window, witnessing the peck Keller had given Troi on the cheek, and decided to test the waters.

“Did you know that Troi is only two years older than you are?”

Keller’s eyes lit up so fast, Mona thought they would start to glow at any minute.

“No. Really? I thought she might be a lot older.”

“Nah, she’s just tall. But she gets it honest. Both of her parents are part oak tree,” she said in jest. “Her father and older brother are jacks, and I swear their arms are as big as the trees they cut down.”

Keller was so excited to learn anything that she could about the brave woman that had saved her, she was afraid to interrupt Mona, in case it got the seamstress off track.

“When she was a little girl she was just as bad as she is now. You should have seen it. Troi, Pip, Davis…” here she paused for just a moment before continuing. “my two boys, James and Paul.”

Her eyes took on a far off look, like she could see into the past.

“They used to run around this village like something was chasing them. I mean it was just funny to see. Those children ran everywhere they went. It didn’t matter if the destination was five feet away or five miles.” She slapped her hands together making a loud pop. “Just like that they were off in the wind.”

Mona began to tell Keller about the people that would be her neighbors. “The Yerks family runs the mill, they supply the village with bread goods. When it gets light outside you’ll see that gigantic waterwheel that grinds the grain. What is it that your family does back in the Province?”

The mention of her family brought a lump to her throat. The young woman wondered if she would ever see them again, the thought of that never happening made her eyes sting with tears. Seeing her sudden distress Mona rounded the table and rubbed the young woman’s shoulders.

“What’s wrong, Keller? Is it something I said?”

Keller knew she was causing her benefactor unnecessary worry and tried to pull herself together. “I’m sorry, Mona. I’m fine. It’s just that I have been so busy the last couple of weeks, just trying to stay alive that this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to think about my family. They must know that I’ve left the center, I know they have to be pacing the floor with worry by now.”

Mona wasn’t sure how to ease the younger woman’s mind. Communication with the Province was nonexistent. Since the days of Curtis Poole, once banished, a person was never sought out or heard from again, so the seamstress was at a loss as to what she could say to Keller. Thankfully she was given a reprieve when the runaway gathered up her emotions on her own and answered Mona’s initial question.

“Getting back to what you asked. My family runs one of the largest cattle ranches in the Province,” she said with a smile and a bit of pride in her voice.

*******

After waking up from what was possibly the shortest respite of her life, Troi washed herself before heading over to Mona’s home to see if she could interest Keller in a tour of the village.

Walking along the active streets she noticed how different the mornings were in comparison to the late evening. The same stands were open, but were being operated by the day replacements. Food was being prepared and the same services were being offered all through the village, but it was different.

Maybe it was the small children that walked along on their way to lessons, maybe it was seeing the people busy restocking their wares or the mingled scent of fish oil and beeswax that still lingered in the air long after the lamplighter had made his rounds extinguishing the village lantern poles. She wasn’t sure what it was, but the sedate, sultriness of the night was a definite contrast to the high energy hustle and bustle that was Arcadia by day.

Looking skyward, she smiled. Or maybe it was as simple as having the bright sun warm her skin for the first time in a long time. It wasn’t like she never saw the sun, because she did, it was just a different sun. Her sun was on its way to sleep. This sun had been awake for only a short while and was full of life.

Walking past the breakfast stand, a familiar scent tickled her memory, causing her to spontaneously change direction…she was going to stop for a quick bite.

The proprietor’s back was turned so she didn’t see Troi’s approach. When she heard the new arrival clear her throat she turned around and was surprised. “Well what a shock. Good morn Troi,” Millie Yerks said.

“Good morn, Miss Millie.”

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen you in the daylight that I’d forgotten what a pretty girl you are.”

The shy ducking of Troi’s dark head was so reminiscent of when she was a girl that Millie smiled with the warm memory.

“What can I get for you this fine day, Troi?”

“I’ll have one of your sausage and egg sticks.”

Troi had always loved Millie’s sausage sticks, and had always wondered how the cook had managed to prepare an egg encased in a sausage then mount it on a stick. The syrup that was added across the top was just an extra bonus as far as she was concerned.

Millie wrapped the order in a corn husk and drizzled a little syrup over the top before handing it over. “Here you go, Troi, Enjoy.”

Troi thanked the cook and headed towards Mona’s, then, remembering who she was going to see and how hungry Keller had been the night before, she turned back around, got the cook’s attention and ordered an extra stick.

“Pardon, Miss Millie. Can I get another one of these?” she said, holding up the husk.

Millie moved from the cook top and gave Troi a curious look. “Since when can you eat more than one of my sticks?”

“The other one is for Keller. She came in last…”

Millie held her hand up. “No need to say anymore. I’ve heard about the newcomer. Staying with Mona, isn’t she?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“You don’t think Mona is gonna feed her?” she teased.

“Well…yes…I mean…?”

Taking pity on the blue-eyed sentry, Millie gave her the extra stick and shooed her away. As she jogged off, Troi yelled back over her shoulder. “Thanks, Miss Millie, and that was a fine batch of bread you prepared for last night’s shift.”

This made the baker smile wide. The kids in Troi’s age group seemed to have a fondness for her cooking, even little Barrett was partial. Why, she didn’t know, but it had carved out a soft spot inside of her for them.

Approaching Mona’s front door for the second time in less than a day’s passing felt strange, but necessary. When Troi opened her eyes that morning the first thing she thought about was Barrett’s warning…”If you don’t claim this young woman, it will be your missed opportunity, and you will never truly be happy in your life.”

That was what motivated her and forced her to tamp down her fears and take a chance, a chance that she had never been interested in taking before.

All of her adult life, if she wasn’t on duty or sleeping, she was either alone in her home or with Pip and Barrett, and for twenty-four years that had been enough, but now, with the memory of liquid green eyes and honey-blonde hair swirling around in her mind, the thought of continuing to live that way seemed lacking, and quite empty.

Shaking off the self-examination, she knocked on the door and waited. Hearing what had to be Mona dragging her feet across the floor, she felt a little guilty, but she was on a mission and sacrifices had to be made.

The seamstress opened the door and cocked an eyebrow. “I can’t say I’m surprised to see you. I’m just surprised to see you this early. Come on in, I’ll go wake her up.”

Troi watched as Mona shuffled in her sleepy fashion to what must be Keller’s room. She heard muffled voices, then an excited yelp that she knew was Keller. This made her smile.

Mona came out shaking her head from side to side. “Give her a moment to freshen up and she’ll be out.”

The head shaking continued into her bedroom and just before the door closed Troi heard her say, “Young people and all that energy.”

Troi stood fidgeting with their food while she waited. When the sticks almost rolled out of the husks a few times she sat them down on Mona’s low table for safe keeping.

When Keller finally entered the living area, the blonde woman, without any thought whatsoever, practically skipped over to Troi and greeted the tall woman with a morning hug.

Startled at first, Troi had to will her body to relax. Then after taking in, and releasing a deep breath, it all seemed so natural to her. Holding this woman close and feeling her warmth, maybe Barrett was right. Maybe there is something special between them.

Remembering something else Barrett had said, Troi did a test. Undetected, she flared her nostrils and took a subtle sniff of the golden hair that was under her chin. Her brows furrowed in disappointment. ‘I don’t know what Barrett is smelling, Keller doesn’t smell like anything.’

Then a smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. ‘Well, maybe she smells like something.’ Troi took another whiff or two. ‘She smells like sunshine, and honey, and sweet grass all rolled up into one.’ She closed her eyes, and for a brief moment she let her heart roam. ‘Is this what love smells like?’ she wondered.

After they separated Troi nudged the shorter woman with her elbow hoping to avoid any awkwardness. “Is this how you greet everyone at the start of the day, or is it just me?” she asked in jest.

Keller’s face bloomed a bright red, right up into her scalp, but she wasn’t going to let something as trivial as self-consciousness stop her from answering.

“Just you. If I can’t greet my own personal bodyguard with a hug, then who?”

Once again the shorter woman had caught her off guard, but instead of answering, Troi turned to the low table where she had sat their food and handed one to Keller.

“I brought you something to eat. Hope you’re hungry.”

Green eyes rolled. “Are you kidding me? I have two weeks of not eating to make up for.”

Keller pulled the food out of the husk by the stick, turned it around and tried to figure out what it was. “It smells delicious, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before, Troi. What is it?”

Proud to be introducing something new to Keller, Troi was filled with excitement. “These are sausage sticks. The meat is filled with eggs, and when you take a bite your mouth is filled with fluffy goodness.”

Keller couldn’t stop the sputter, but managed to cover her mouth before spraying Troi. “Did you say fluffy goodness?”

Troi rolled her eyes and ignored the giggle. “Just take a bite.”

Keller did as she was told, and after the first bite, closed her eyes in pleasure. “Mmm…this is sooo good.”

Troi took a bite of her own. “See? Toldja.”

After taking a few more mouthfuls, Keller asked between chews. “Other than keeping me fed, what brings you by this morning?”

“I thought I’d show you around and introduce you to some people. For your own sanity you will need to get to know someone other than me, Pip and Barrett.”

Keller looked up through golden lashes and spoke softly. “I think you three guys are the best. If the three of you, and Mona are the only people that will talk to me that’s just fine.”

The chances of Keller being without friends was unlikely. Troi didn’t think she would have a problem. There was something about her that drew you in, something bright, and clean, and fresh, something innocent. No, she didn’t think Miss Keller Morgan would have any problem at all making friends. Then another one of Barrett’s warnings came to her mind.

“Next time it could be a well and true suitor that asks to spend time with Miss Keller.”

‘That’ll happen over my dead body,’ she thought.

She placed her hand in the small of Keller’s back. “Come on, there are some people I’d like for you to meet. She opened the front door and guided Keller out into the sunshine to experience her first day in Arcadia.

*******

Troi’s second stop of the day would be her parent’s house. She knew they would all be awake and moving around. Both her father and brother were jacks, and her mother a cordovan. Being a skilled shoemaker Troi’s mother had the option to be a day worker or a night worker, because her husband and son spent their days in the woods she chose to work their schedules.

Without knocking she walked into her parent’s kitchen just in time to see them enjoying their morning meal. “Good morn,” Troi announced.

Her parents looked towards the door, and when they saw the small blonde standing beside their daughter, Magnus and Nicola smiled at each other, but her brother Tanner greeted her the way he always did.

“How they hanging, butthead?” he asked without looking up from his plate.

Nicola smacked him the back of the head.

“Ouch. What was that for, mom?”

“Don’t speak that way in front of guest. At least wait until the girl gets to know us first.”

Tanner looked up and saw the visitor for the first time. His handsome face lit up like a hundred torch lights. “What’d you do, Troi, club her over the head and drag her into the village? ‘Cause there’s no way someone that pretty is hanging out with you unless there’s some threat of violence.”

This time he saw it coming and ducked out of his mother’s way before she could whack him again. “Ha! Ya missed!” he jested.

Troi rolled her eyes and looked down into amused green eyes. “Ready to meet the family?”

The blonde head nodded vigorously. “Yes.”

“Mom, dad, Tanner. This is Keller Morgan, she’s…um…she’s new here.”

“That was smooth,” Tanner mumbled.

Knowing that his mother was winding up for a third attempt at the back of his head, the tall man quickly rolled the rest of his breakfast in his bread and took off out the door. “See ya in the trees, Dad! Welcome to Arcadia, Keller!” Before anyone could respond Tanner was already out of sight.

Keller felt like she had stepped into a cyclone, everything was happening so quickly around her. Nicola saw the off balanced look on the poor girl’s face and offered her a seat.

“Please, Keller. Have a seat and join us for the morning meal.”

“That’s okay, mom we already ate.”

Dark brows lifted in silent reprimand. “Are you answering for Keller, or does she have a say?”

Troi bowed her head and mumble, “Sorry.”

“Now, Keller. Would you care for a plate of fried ham, eggs and toast or is the speaker of the day right, and you’ve had enough to eat?”

Keller couldn’t find her voice. Mona hadn’t exaggerate when she described the Donner family. They were the tallest family she had ever seen. As tall as Magnus and Tanner were, Nicola wasn’t dwarfed by them, and after further observation she realized that out of the four of them Troi was the shortest…how strange.

“Um, no thank you, Mrs. Donner. Troi brought me a sausage stick and the thing was huge.”

Gray eyes smiled at her daughter. “You gave her one of Millie’s sticks didn’t you?”

Troi held the innocent face for as long as she could before breaking into laughter. “I guess I’m caught.”

Without asking, the dark-haired woman poured them a cup of hot cider. After placing the cups down in front of the young women she stared at her daughter for a few moments until Troi became self-conscious.

“What, is there something hanging out of my nose or something?”

Keller had forgotten about the other man that was still in the room until she heard Troi’s father laugh. The tall dark-haired man with the bright blue eyes laughed from his belly. Then in a voice that was so deep it made the room rumble, he said, “There’s nothing wrong, Troi. It’s just a rare treat when we can see you in the daylight.”

He leaned over and kissed the top of her head before leaving. “You look good, daughter.”

Troi suddenly looked embarrassed, and as big as she was, in that moment, to Keller, Troi looked like a little girl, and it made her miss her own family even more.

With a wave of his hand, Magnus turned to leave the house. “Well, I’m off. It was good to meet you, Keller.”

Nicola took a few sips of cider as her clear gray eyes studied Keller for a couple of beats. The shoemaker had never lived anywhere other than Arcadia. The only thing she knew of the Province was what was in the scrolls, and it had been generations since anyone had made the journey all the way across the Badlands, but according to the scrolls, when they did they had looked like they’d been rode hard and put away wet, nothing like Keller. The young woman was a tad thin, but that was most likely the result of going without a steady meal for so long, but her overall appearance was…good.

“How is it that a little thing like you made it across the Badlands unharmed, Keller?” Nicola asked.

Keller answered with so much enthusiasm that Nicola had to smile. “All the credit goes to The Edicts. I followed every rule that Curtis Poole mandated, and always, always remembered what we were taught. ‘The Deus holds the whole world close, protecting us like a precious flower,’ putting those things together worked.”

She went on to recite each rule that had applied to her journey, and included a few of the more frightening incidents she had experienced. She shivered when remembering how terrified she was the few times the night predators came too close to one of her hiding places.

When she finished Nicola was very impressed and from the look on her face, so was her daughter. Then gray eyes looked a little closer and what she saw caused a wave of happiness to flutter through her chest.

Troi was smitten. She never took her eyes off of the other woman as she told of her journey. Nicola noticed how her daughter’s chest expanded in pride when Keller had done something particularly clever to avoid capture, and saw her blue eyes turn to chips when Keller retold the reason why she was out on her own in the first place.

She never thought in a hundred years that it would happen, but there it was, plain as the nose on her face, she couldn’t wait to tell Magnus that his chronically unattached daughter was finally interested in someone…Tanner would have to find out on his own.

“Well, Keller. I should warn you. You are the talk of the village. The news of your arrival has been the only topic of conversation for the entire night.”

Mona had told Keller that would probably be the state of things, but she had also told Keller that the people would give her the space she needed to become comfortable in a new place before approaching her.

“So that’s why you guys weren’t surprised to see a new face, someone had already gotten to you.”

Nicola winked at her daughter. “Okay, mom. Who was it? Who told you before dad could leave the house? That’s quick work even for the most rapid gossip?”

“That’s not important.” Changing the subject, she asked about their plans.

“I thought I’d just walk Keller around and let her decide where she wanted to stop.”

Keller cleared her throat and got the two brunettes attention. “Um…Mona told me that there was a parchment hut, and I was hoping that maybe we could…”

Troi smacked herself in the forehead. “Of course. How dense can I be. You’re an artist.”

Keller looked confused. “An artist?”

“Yeah, you know, a person that draws or paints pictures?”

Keller let the word roll around in her head and decided that she liked the sound of it. “Artist,” she said out loud. “I am an artist.”

*******

They walked along, Troi pointing out things of interest and giving brief history lessons. They ignored the looks and occasional pointing, Troi knowing that she was receiving her own share of the interest. That was fine as long as everyone kept their distance.

“Have you ever wanted to leave the village?” Keller asked.

Troi gave the questions a few moments consideration, so that she could answer honestly. “I’ve never wanted to leave permanently, but I have thought about doing a little exploring.”

“You wouldn’t be frightened? I mean the links alone are enough to keep me inside these walls.” The small blonde shivered, remembering the rough hairy hands of the mindless beast that had attacked her.

“They say there are no links in the west.”

“The west. Is that where you would go?”

Blue eyes turned inward as she spoke. “Yes. Before Mona’s sons left all they could talk about was the adventures they’d have. The freedom to live without walls, or fear of attack.” A wishful smile tugged at the young woman’s mouth. “That sounded good to me.”

Keller found herself easily falling into the daydream right along with her companion. “If it’s so wonderful out west why haven’t more of your people headed out?”

“Because, although there are no wild dogs, or hairy beasts to contend with, there are other obstacles.”

“Like what?”

“The west is like nothing we have ever seen. The ones that have tried to go and came back say the terrain is rough and needs to be cleared. There are mountains to climb, deserts to cross, lakes and rivers to get across. They say that those that don’t come back, don’t, because they are lost to us forever. Ever since Mona’s sons headed west and never returned, everyone has been discouraged from leaving.”

“Oh,” Keller said, feeling bad for her new friend.

“What’s wrong?”

“I wondered why Mona always looked so sad when she talked about her sons. I thought it was because they never came back for a visit, but now I understand the real reason why.”

Wanting to make Keller smile again, Troi thought of something. “How would you like to read about some of the journeys that were taken?”

Green eyes lit up. “Where? When?” Keller asked with glee.

Troi didn’t answer right away, instead Keller noticed, not for the first time that day, the tall woman sniffing the air, and just like the other times the sniffing seemed to be in her general direction. She was starting to get a little paranoid about her hygiene. If the behavior continued she’d have to ask what the problem was.

Then Troi finally answered, “At Roger Meeks’ place. He has a wall filled with old books, quite a several scrolls that were written by the travelers after they returned. He also has a collection of records that he plays on a Victrola, maybe while we’re there he’ll let us listen to a few songs.”

The last part of the sentence didn’t register because every time the word parchment or scrolls was said, Keller became more and more anxious to reach their destination. “How soon before we reach the parchment hut, Troi?”

Long fingers pointed straight ahead. “There it is. You ready?”

Her answer was an eyeful of Keller’s back as the short blonde ran towards the hut.

“I guess that means yes,” she said to the wind.

*******

Troi prepared for duty, oblivious to the silly grin pasted on her face. The day had been really…fun. Yeah…fun.

The memory of Keller walking inside the parchment hut for the first time would always be precious to her. Bearing witness to the young artist’s first introduction to writing materials was an unforgettable experience. Once she was given the freedom to explore a part of her that had long been denied, Keller lost all interest in continuing her tour of the village.

They stayed in the hut until Troi couldn’t put off leaving any longer. When George, the village lamplighter, started his rounds she told Keller that she had to get moving if she was going to meet up with Pip and Barrett for duty.

“I’m sorry, Troi. I didn’t know it was so late.”

She grabbed the sentry by the arm and headed out of the hut, in the direction of Mona’s.

“Slow down, Keller, I’m sure I can get there in plenty of time without the need to break something in the process.”

The shorter woman slowed her pace, but not before smacking her friend in the stomach for the smart remark, then as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do, she slipped one hand into the crook of Troi’s elbow as they strolled along.

Occasionally she would gaze down at her new acquisitions and the euphoric feelings would wash over her again. The four scrolls and three writing sticks that she had been given were like a blessing from the Deus and the joy that filled her made her feel like her feet weren’t touching the ground.

“Troi, thank you for the best day of my life. I never imagined that…”

She stopped mid-sentence when she realized that was one of the problems…imagination. In the province that was a dirty word. A word that could bring the wrong attention if said in front of the wrong people.

Her statement ended in a whisper. “life could be this wonderful.”

Troi patted the hand that rested in the crook of her arm. “No need to thank me, Keller. I’m just happy you enjoyed yourself.”

They walked along in silence, each woman recounting the highlights of their day together. When they arrived at Mona’s, neither one of them was ready to leave the other’s company, but duty called.

Keller released her hold on Troi’s arm and they stood facing each other. “When will I see you again?” she asked.

Troi tried to speak around the lump in her throat, leaving Keller was the last thing she wanted to do. “When do you want to see me again?”

Keller’s first impulse was to say first thing in the morning, but the shadows that were starting to form under the tired blue eyes changed her mind.

“How about you rest tomorrow morning, then come by to see me when you’ve had enough sleep.”

Troi was disappointed, and tried not to whine. “But that won’t be until it’s time for duty again.”

Keller hid her smile as best she could. Feeling flattered beyond belief that the tall woman wanted to spend time with her. Wanting to find a compromise she made a suggestion.

“Why don’t you come and get me before your shift starts and we’ll walk to the gate together?”

Troi brightened. “Okay, I like that idea better.”

They stood, just staring at one another, neither knowing what to say, but both knowing their time together had come to an end.

“Are you sure you’re going o be able to patrol tonight?” Keller asked.

“Yeah, no problem.”

“I know how tired you are, Troi, but I can’t thank you enough for today.” She waved the scrolls and writing sticks in the air. “For these. For the food…just…just everything, Troi…thank you.”

Totally without her permission, Troi’s hand reached up and caressed Keller’s cheek. ‘So soft.’ she thought. “Really, Keller. It was my pleasure. Anytime there is something you need. Anytime there is something you want to know. Anytime there is somewhere you need to go…anything at all, let me know. I’ll be there.”

Keller believed every word that Troi said to her, and she trusted the sentry to honor her words. Those clear blue eyes told her she could.

This time when Keller kissed her good-bye, the blonde woman’s lips lightly grazed the corner of Troi’s mouth…and time stood still for the dark woman, it wasn’t until Troi heard the sound of the wooden door shutting that she realized her eyes were closed.

She had walked home in a daze, got dressed in a daze, and was now heading out of the door in that same daze. She didn’t know when it happened, wasn’t sure it mattered really, but Keller Morgan was quickly becoming very important to her.

To Troi Donner, life was good.

*******

Keller stood with her back against the door, waiting until she heard Troi walking away before she could release the breath she was holding.

“What is going on with me?” she whispered under her breath.

“I have never acted so forward with anyone.” Then she smirked a little. “But then again, I’ve never felt like this before.”

She rushed to Mona’s sewing room, knowing that’s where the older woman be. She wanted to show her the gifts she had been given and tell her about her day.

She was smiling from ear to ear, and the smile became wider when a realization hit her. Troi was quickly becoming very important to her, and it made her happy.

To Keller Morgan, life was good.

*******

As Troi approached the main gate she was met with the curious sight of Barrett perched on Pip’s shoulder, picking through his red hair.

Barrett momentarily looked up from his task and noticed her casual gait. He wondered if Nicola had spilled the beans about their early morning gossip session. By the look of her, he didn’t think so, but you could never tell with Troi, she was a tricky one. He would have to wait until she was close enough to torment them before he would have an answer.

“What are you doing, Barrett, checking for bugs?”

Pip shrugged his shoulder a little, signaling Barrett it was time to dismount. “No. For your information he was reading the ridges in my scalp.”

A dark brow rose in question. “Reading your scalp? You can’t be serious.”

Pip looked up at his friend with unblinking eyes. “I asked him if there were any other ways he could tell who we were attracted to and he said a scalp ridge reading was…”

Before he could finish the sentence he realized how ridiculous it sounded and looked between Troi and Barrett.

The brief eye contact that Troi shared with the small monkey was enough to send them over the edge howling with nonstop laughter.

Hoping to recover without any further humiliation, Pip adjusted his weapons and sternly reprimanded his friends. “We’re wasting daylight, let’s get going.”

They gathered themselves together, and without any further arguments, they walked through the slow opening gate

They were hoping for a quiet night. One evening of excitement had been enough. Having Keller in the village brought back memories of the past and Troi felt the need to reminisce. “Pip, do you ever wish your ancestors had accepted the offer to lead the village?”

This was a question that Pip never had to think twice about. His family had passed down through the generations what the consequences could be if one family had too much power.

“Not anymore, Troi. Once, when I was much younger.” He looked to his friend. “You remember, back when I was picked on for never growing?”

Troi nodded her head.

“Back then I thought about it almost everyday. How if we were in charge like the Poole’s in the Province, there was no way those guys could get away with pushing me around.”

Barrett remained quiet. It wasn’t often that Pip spoke about his ancestry and what possibilities it held. The monkey found it quite interesting.

“One day I told my dad how I felt and what I would do if I had the power.” A tight smile pulled at his lips. “You know what he told me?”

Troi shook her head.

“He said, Pete, that right there is the reason our people turned down the offer to lead Arcadia. They saw how Curtis let his power erase his humanity to the point of exiling his own kin. There was no way any of the Pooles of Arcadia were going to take the chance of following that path.”

Troi knew the rest of the story and finished Pip’s thought. “And that’s how the citizen’s committee came to be,” she finished.

Pip smiled at his friend. “Yep. That’s how.”

While his friends talked, Barrett observed Troi without her knowledge. She had always been an outgoing, easy to talk to person, but there was something different about her this evening, he sensed a change in her. The energy around her was more settled. Then with certain clarity he knew what it was.

‘Ah,’ he thought, ‘it has begun.’
Part Two: Acting On Your Best Behavior, Turn Your Back On Mother Nature, Everybody Wants To Rule The World. ~Tears for Fears~
Myron Scott paced back and forth, stopping occasionally to slam his fist on the nearby desk. “What do you mean four of them escaped?! How did the newcomer accomplish this? She just arrived!” he yelled at his trail boss. “How?!”

Brent Murdock was hesitant. The last thing he wanted was to be on the receiving end of Myron Scott’s temper. The man had become unreasonably volatile over the past few months and Brent never knew who he would be faced with from one day to the next.

“Well…um…Steve Hamilton got a little sloppy with one of his conversion techniques and she…well she kinda crabbed him in the fig baskets when his pants were down, and…um…ran off.”

“What of the other three?”

The rugged looking man scratched the stubble on his face before answering. “Steve seems to think it was a planned attack, and that they all left together.”

Myron Scott’s ire rose immediately. He was angry. Angry because his plan to control the intuitives wasn’t working out. Angry that he seemed to be surrounded by incompetence. But most of all he was angry that if he didn’t quickly get this problem under control it would become a very public failure, and that wasn’t acceptable. Ever since his ancestor received power from the Poole line, the Scotts had been successful leaders and he would make sure that didn’t change…at any cost.

His advisors had warned him against the undertaking of the center project, telling him that attempting to control the intuitives was something that no leader before him had ever tried, simply because those people were too unpredictable. Setting them out had always been the best option.

But Myron had not listened. He couldn’t. He was compelled. The maligning dreams saw to that. They started a month before he conceived of the center program. Garland would come to him and suggest that he consult with the advisors more, “That was why they were there,” he would say. When Myron didn’t take that advice, his father changed tactics and began attacking his instincts, insisting that the inexperienced leader had no clue as to what was best for the Province. After that it just became a nightmare that he couldn’t get rid of. Without fail his father would visit him during the night to ridicule, disapprove and lecture him on all of his perceived shortcomings…torturing his very soul. That was the main reason the center had to succeed, so the dreams would stop.

But that didn’t seem to be in the Deus’ grand design, and the nocturnal visits from his dead father were starting to shake his confidence. The previous night had been extremely challenging. Garland Scott had appeared to him, sitting beside his bed, like the hateful specter that he was…

“Give it up, Myron. Admit it. This is too much for you. I died too soon and left the Province in the care of a weak-hearted heir.”

“Shut-up! Just shut-up! You have no idea of my great achievements.”

“You mean the center? I’d hardly call that a great achievement. From what I can tell, once you get them, you can’t hold on to them.”

“What do you know? You’re dead?”

“Ah, but the dead tell no lies. Don’t you know that? There is much that I know, most notably, that your center needs to be closed. It can not succeed, Myron. It will only bring you sorrow.”

Myron was thrown for a moment, the man almost sounded concerned, but that thought was short lived with the next reprimand.

“And what could you have been thinking when you put that pompous nitwit, Steve Hamilton in charge. His presence alone will guarantee failure.”

“Father, will you please stop?” Myron felt himself getting a headache. ‘Can you get a headache in a dream?’ he thought.

But Garland continued as if his son had not spoken. “That family has always been a burden. If it wasn’t for the fact that they were descendants of one of the fellows, your grandfather would have forced them into the fields as laborers.”

“Please stop, father.” The headache was getting worse.

“I can’t begin to imagine how you could allow yourself to believe in that humiliation therapy farce. He’s just a pervert trying to find his satisfaction, and as for…”

Shut-up! Shut-up! Shut-up!”

Without another word, Garland Scott disappeared, and Myron awoke with a start, sweating and panting like he had been running for miles.

“Deus, I hate that man.”

*******

For a while he had tried to convince himself that the purpose of the center was to mark his reign, and in a small way it was, but the main motivation for the center’s existence was to get his dead father’s criticism to stop. Even from the grave, the man was a relentless detractor.

Now, nine months after it began, the program still didn’t have one convert to parade in front of the people. The most insurmountable issue being, the staff’s inability to bring about total recall in an intuitive once they had been broken. The administrators didn’t have the knowledge or instinct to understand that when you killed a person’s spirit, and destroyed their ability to dream, the creative force that fueled those gifts would become dormant and hide away until it was safe to resurface, so success eluded them. And now, to make things worse, four of the misfits had run off. Things certainly couldn’t become any more disorganized.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Myron bowed his head and tried to regain his composure. “What is the troublemaker’s name?”

Relieved to be able to give the leader a positive answer Brent gave the name quickly. “Keller Morgan.”

With his hands clasped together behind his back, Myron Scott rocked back and forth on his heels in thought. “Does she have any connection to the Morgan ranch?”

“Yes, she’s the daughter.”

“Okay, that’s good. Get a few riders together and head out to the ranch. That’s going to be her obvious destination. After you’ve retrieved her bring her to me. If she was able to get away from Steve and help three other girls escape then it’s going to take more than a few months of humiliation therapy to fix her.”

‘Maybe this situation can be salvaged,’ he thought to himself, already forgetting that Brent was in the room. ‘If I can bring this girl back, change her myself, she can make the example that I need.

Seeing that Myron’s mind was occupied by other things, Brent used the opportunity to slip out of the room unnoticed, already making choices about who he would pick to ride with him out to the Morgan ranch.

He had a bad feeling about this. He thought that they should leave this alone and walk away from it, but he wasn’t the leader…so it wasn’t his call.

*******

Brent Murdock and his riders had pushed their horses hard and arrived at the Morgan ranch just in time to catch the four Morgan men before they headed out to the pasture.

Warren was surprised to see The Order’s trail boss riding towards his home and tried to ignore the clenching in his stomach that the sight caused.

“Good morn, trail boss, what does the day bring?”

Brent approached the four men standing on the porch and saw emotions ranging from curiosity to outright anger cross their faces.

“Call me Brent, Mr. Morgan,” he said, hoping he sounded more casual than he felt. Feeling it prudent to get the information he desired without causing the ranchers too much alarm, Brent spoke in an easy, offhanded manner. “I’m here for your daughter. I’m assuming she came home last night.”

Sherman, the oldest of the Morgan sons, stepped forward, and without any thought to the consequences, he let some of his anger show. Still upset with his father for taking his sister away in the first place, Sherman released a little heat. “Why would she come home? Did something happen?”

His fears being confirmed, Brent tried to cover with a quick lie. “There was a mix-up at the center last night and Keller was mistakenly released. We’ve come to take her back so her treatment can continue.”

“What kind of place are you running?!” Sherman yelled. “You are supposed to be the experts. The guys with all the answers. Well answer me this, trail boss. WHERE…IS…MY…SISTER?!!!”

The raised voice brought Ellen out on the porch in a panic. Seeing Sherman’s red face and their unexpected visitors immediately filled her with dread.

“Sherman, what’s all the fuss about? The day has barely started.”

Still seeking to control the situation, Brent addressed the woman of the house, hoping her gentler persona would ease her men’s tempers a bit.

“Good morn, Miz Morgan. I’m Brent Murdock I’m the trai…”

“I know your position in the Province Mr. Murdock. What brings you way out here to the outlands this early in the day?”

“Well, I was just telling your husband and your boys that I came for your daughter, but…”

“She’s not here. She’s at the center.” Even as the words left her mouth she knew they were not true.

Warren saw the fear start to creep into his wife’s expression and went to her. “I need you to calm yourself, Ellie. Now, Mr. Murdock here says Keller was released by mistake. They assumed that she came home, but it appears she had other plans.”

His next words were meant for his wife, but his gaze never left the weathered face of the trail boss, his eyes relaying a message of uncertainty that he didn’t want Ellen to see.

“You know how Keller is. She’s probably hiding out in the woods behind the grazing fields, waiting for these men to leave. Don’t you worry. Me and the boys will have her home by the midday meal.”

Brent saw the doubt and anger in the man’s hazel eyes and knew it was going to be a long day. “Well, Mr. Morgan if that’s the case me and my men will join you in the search. That way we can take the young lady back with us and finish what we started.”

“There is no way you are taking my sister anywhere! When we find her she’s gonna stay right here where she belongs,” Sherman shouted.

Brent could feel the tension coming off of the men behind him. The riders were used to being feared, if not respected, but it seemed like this man was looking for trouble, trouble that a couple of the men were a little too anxious to oblige him with, but this wasn’t the time for a brawl to break out. Hoping to put a damper on the situation Brent tried to put things back into perspective.

“The most important thing right now is to find the young woman. Don’t you think, Mr. Morgan?”

Warren nodded his head and led his sons to their horses. Everything would be discussed after they found Keller. But his conscience whispered the truth to him. ‘When we find her they will take her back, because they know. They know she’s intuitive. They know because I took her to them…what have I done?’

*******

After four long hours of searching and not finding Keller, Brent gathered his men, ready to return to the Province proper.

“What about my daughter?” he asked. “You’re not gonna just…just…”

Brent held up his hand. “No sir, we’re not giving up. When I report my findings to the leader he will most likely send us out past the borders.”

“You think our sister has left the safety of the Province?” Walter asked.

“I doubt it, but it’s best to check out there, just incase she did. That way we can make sure she doesn’t get too far. If we don’t find her out there, then we will search inside the borders.”

“Whatever you’re gonna do I’m coming with you,” Warren insisted. “That’s my daughter out there and I want a hand in finding her.”

Instinctively, Brent knew that with or without his permission the man would not be denied what he felt was his right to participate in any effort to find his daughter. So the trail boss gave an affirmative nod of his head.

“I’ll be back tomorrow, early.”

“I’ll be ready,” Warren said.

“She’ll be two days missing by then. I’m coming too.” Sherman stated.

“No you’re not. You’re gonna stay here and take care of things. You and your brothers can look for Keller while I’m gone. Talk to her friends, see if they know anything.”

Feeling like his father’s request would actually be something productive, Sherman agreed. “Okay. We can do that,” he said stiffly.

As Brent road away he released a long explosive breath, ending with a mumbled, “I wish I had never heard the name Keller Morgan.”

It wouldn’t be the last time he spoke the sentiment.

*******

Just as Brent had predicted, Myron told him to gather his riders and extend their search for the runaway women, out past the borders. What the trail boss wasn’t expecting was Myron’s reaction when he was informed that Warren Morgan had insisted on accompanying them.

“That’s not a bad idea,” the young man said as another idea formed in his mind. “The only thing these farmers know of the world is the comfort and security that living in the Province has provided for them. Maybe it’ll be good for him to see what lies out past the safe zone.”

Brent mentally rolled his eyes, thinking that the arrogant young man had a supreme nerve. He had never been away from the Province himself. Every leader, dating back to Curtis Poole had toured the land outside of the borders. If for no other reason, just to be able to give a first hand report on the status of the rest of their world. But Myron had not expressed a desire to do anything that might possibly cause him injury or discomfort.

“Take him out. Get him involved. And if the opportunity presents itself see if you can…how should I say this? See if you can create a bit of a stir…something that, when he shares it with the others will make the thought of running off less appealing.”

Brent nodded his head in understanding, but said nothing. There was nothing he could say. He was not a naïve man. He understood the necessity to lead the populace in a certain direction for their own good, but the way Myron Scott handled things was without forethought or finesse. The young man seemed to constantly be swinging by the seat of his pants, doing more reacting than acting when it can to his decision making.

Brent Murdock was no town leader. He held no desire for that kind of responsibility, but he had enough common sense to know that Myron’s methods were no way to rule. He didn’t understand what motivated the young man, but he did know that it could only lead to chaos and confusion.

A very good example being the reason they were riding out in the first place. That center should never have been established. There was no need to try and turn the intuitives around. They were an unhealthy element that didn’t need to live among normal people. The past leaders knew it and respected it, never attempting to change the law. But Myron was determined. Not his advisors, his family or friends could sway him on the subject. Now this was where his stubbornness had led them. Four missing women and a seriously injured director.

The healers had no idea if Steve Hamilton would ever have the ability to father children. Being a man, Brent winched at the thought of having his testicles put through the abuse that Steve’s had endured, but on the other hand, the man was despicable. To use a made up method of therapy as a way to fulfill your sexually deviant desires was lower than low.

Humiliation therapy, indeed. Brent couldn’t believe he had gotten away with such a ridiculous notion for as long as he had. The fact that it did go on for as long as it did was just another reason to doubt Myron’s leadership capabilities.

*******

Before the sun had risen fully in the eastern sky Brent and his riders were once again at the Morgan ranch, waiting for Warren to step off of the porch and mount up. Brent forced himself to be a little patient as they watched Warren hold his wife, giving her comfort and reassurances that he would return with their daughter safe and sound.

The trail boss pushed down the guilt that tried to force its way to the surface. He knew what was out beyond the borders of the Province and if those young women headed out that way, chances of finding them alive were extremely poor, but he couldn’t tell this to the Morgan family, first because he didn’t have the heart to do it, and second because that oldest boy’s temper was so hot the riders might not make it off of the ranch alive.

When Warren finally broke from the embrace he quickly made his way to his waiting horse and road off with the men without looking back.

*******

Not long after Warren road off with the trail boss, Ellen sent word for the two women that would have the best information on what was going on, to come over for tea and biscuits. Miss Sandy and Ellen’s good friend Thelma lived in the Province proper. It was Thelma that would come out to the ranch twice a month to fill Ellen in on the goings on, and Miss Sandy was…well she was a bit of a busybody and always in the know.

Ellen had recently harvested and dried a batch of raspberry tea leaves that she knew would go well with the biscuits after the fresh honey she had gathered was drizzled across the top. She wanted to find out if the women had heard anything about what had happened at the center, and serving them sweet bread and flavored tea would be the best way to get them to relax and open up.

After the women arrived and got comfortable Ellen was surprised to discover that a bribe to get them to open up wasn’t necessary. It seemed that Miss Sandy was anxious to inform Ellen about the rumors going around about Keller not being the only girl to go missing from the center.

“How do you know this?” Ellen asked Sandy White.

The older, gray-haired woman, who was proud to be the source of the information took a long sip of her tea. Loving being the center of attention she tried to stretch it out as long as she could.

As much as Ellen wanted to, she didn’t reach across the table and squeeze the information out of the woman. She had been raised to always respect her elders, but this little old lady was testing her patience.

When the cup finally came down from her lips, Sandy told Ellen what Bonnie Lightener had told her. Bonnie had gotten the information from her son, who works at the center.

“Well, dear, it seems that the night your Keller went missing there was no accidental discharged. If that were the situation then the mistake was made three more times.”

Green eyes went as round as saucers. “There were others?”

Sandy took a small nibble of her biscuit and hummed. “Ellen, this is absolutely delicious.” She was about to ask for the recipe, but when she saw the gentle woman’s eyes start to glow with danger she decided it would be more prudent to finished with the story.

“Bonnie says, that Elmer told her that the four girls, your Keller included waited until they were alone with the director during some sort of wellness lesson, when without cause they beat the poor man over the head, tied him up and escaped in the middle of the night.”

Something about the story didn’t sit right with Ellen. Keller was not a violent child. Her heart had always been too tender to cause harm. But, on the other hand, she knew that her ranch raised little girl could give as good as she got if provoked. Her brothers saw to that.

“Miss Sandy?”

The older woman raised her head, causing the pot she was holding to tilt upwards, temporarily stopping the flow of tea that was filling her third cup. “Yes, dear?”

“You said that Elmer told his mother that the girls attacked this man during a wellness lesson?”

“That’s what she said.”

“And then they escaped in the middle of the night.”

“That is correct.”

Ellen was still bothered by something, but couldn’t pinpoint what it was. Then it hit her. She snapped her finger and questioned her friend Thelma.

“Thelma, how much sense does it make to hold any kind of lessons in the middle of the night?”

Thelma wasn’t sure she understood. “What are you talking about, Ellen? What makes you think it was the middle of the night?”

“Just think about it. It had to have been. Otherwise the man would have been missing all day without notice. I would think the absence of someone as important as the director wouldn’t go unnoticed for long…certainly not until the middle of the night.”

Thelma rubber her chin in thought. “Now that you mention it, that doesn’t make much sense.”

Sandy was spooning a dollop of honey into her tea. As she started mixing the contents she pointed out what she thought should be very obvious.

“Surely we have no idea how these oddities of nature need to be dealt with. I’m certain that whatever goes on at the center is best left to the experts.”

Ellen wasn’t sure if it was because the woman was old or just plain cruel, but it really didn’t matter which, because there was no way she was going to be allowed to sit at her table, drink her tea, eat her biscuits and then speak ill of her daughter. ‘Deus forgive me,’ she thought, ‘but this old feed bag is about to be put out.’

“Listen, Miss Sandy I don’t know who…”

Before Ellen could open full throttle with the verbal lashing her boys came in from the pasture, ready for the midday meal and a little rest before heading back out. They came in like bulls, rambunctious and sweaty, quickly gulping down cups of cool water to quench their thirst and grabbing for bowls to fill with stew. Sherman, without knowing it, cut into the middle of the conversation, saving Miss Sandy from humiliation.

“Good noon, ladies. We’ll be out of your way in a short bit.”

Setting her anger aside for the moment, Ellen stopped her sons before they left the kitchen. “Boys I have something to tell you.”

All three of the men stopped wiping their faces and hands, and leaned against the counters, waiting to hear what their mother had to say. Nervous little twitches and ticks started jumping around various places on their bodies, some seen, some not seen. Keller had been on their minds all morning and they were afraid their mother was about to give them some bad news.

“Miss Sandy,” she almost spat the name out. “says that Keller wasn’t the only girl to run away. There were four of them total.”

“Keller wasn’t the only one that disappeared? There were others?” Thomas asked.

“That’s what Bonnie Lightener’s son Elmer told his mother. There is no reason to doubt him since he works there,” Ellen said.

She went on to tell them exactly what Miss Sandy had told her. When she was finished no one said a word. The women were waiting to see how the young men would react, and the men were trying to sort out the information that their mother had just shared with them.

Ellen turned to her oldest child, knowing his silence wasn’t going to last much longer. It just wasn’t in his nature to let things pass on a mild breeze. ‘Big problems need big voices’ was his motto, and Ellen knew that this time wasn’t going to be any different. She mentally started counting and before she could fully form the word five in her mind…he was off and running.

“What kind of place are they running over there?! How in the name of the Deus do you lose four young women in one night?! I’m telling you, mom, if something has happened to Keller I’m going to burn that place down to the ground!”

“Calm down, Sherman, before you get a full steam going and get a headache.” She looked to her guest. “You’ve got to excuse him. He says things in the heat of the moment that he doesn’t really mean.”

Knowing that Miss Sandy was friendly enough with Bonnie Lightener to be told about the problem at the center made it very obvious to her that the woman could just as easily share what Sherman had just said with Elmer, and that wouldn’t be a good thing. But Sherman was fired up and wasn’t about to cool down easily.

“Calm down?! How can I be calm, mom? Keller’s out…Deus knows where, because pop turned her over to a bunch of strangers. All because the new leader, who can barely change his own britches said it was in the best interest of the Province, and you want me to act like my little sister might not be fertilizer for the crops by now?!”

Ellen was about to try and smooth over Sherman’s latest rant until his words hit her full force. It was when Sherman saw his mother clutch at her chest and a wounded sound made its way out of her throat, that he realized how far he had let his anger get out of hand.

“Oh, no. Mom, I’m sorry.” He went to her and pulled his mother close to him. Holding her tight in his strong arms. “I didn’t mean it. You know I get all riled up and speak before I think.”

Feeling his mother’s small body shake with sobs, he wanted to kick himself, and from the looks he was getting from his brothers and the other ladies in the room, he knew that each of them wanted to take a turn.

When his shushing and cajoling did no good, he tried logic. “Mom, think about this. If Keller is out there, there is no one better prepared to survive in the Badlands than she is.” After seeing a glimmer of hope shine in eyes as green as his missing sister’s he pushed forward.

“Think about it. She knows The Edicts better than any of us. I think she can repeat the whole thing without having to stop and think about what comes next.”

“That is the truth, mom,” Walter added.

“Yeah, remember when she was about eight and decided that the third rule needed to be tested, and for seven days straight refused to eat anything that she didn’t find in the woods?” Thomas reminded her.

This made Ellen laugh out loud and she removed herself from her son’s broad chest. “How could I forget. That rascal has been strong willed since she could walk.”

She looked at the faces of her sons. All three of them tall, strapping young men with contrasting shades of the same blonde hair, green eyes combination. Keller was the only one of her children whose eye color matched hers exactly and hair color, strand for strand mimicked her father’s.

Thinking about her four blonde-haired, green-eyed children made her realize their connection. They were not strangers that had met by happenstance, having to learn who one another were over time, no, they were four people that had been made by the same two people, they shared the same blood. Who knew, maybe they were even varying degrees of the same person.

Whatever their connection might be, it was those thoughts that caused Ellen to come to a conclusion, if anyone would know, it would be them, so without hesitation, she asked.

“I’ll believe it if you tell me it’s true…is she alive?”

Sherman, Walter and Thomas didn’t answer immediately, wanting to give the plea the thoughtful respect it deserved. It didn’t take long before they came to the same conclusion at the same time, all three men smiled before Walter spoke for the group.

“Most definitely, mom. If something had happened to the little troublemaker we would know it.”

The brothers nodded as one and eased Ellen’s fears. All four of her children were close, but as far as her brothers were concerned Keller could do no wrong. Thomas was the youngest son at twenty-four, so when Keller came along he was two, Walter was four and Sherman was six, and from the moment of her first cry one boy or the other was always there peeking over the side of her crib to see what they could do to make it better.

That was one of the reasons Warren had to take her away before his sons came in from the pastures. There was no way he would have been able to take Keller off of the ranch if any one of the boys had been around, so if they felt like she was still alive, then Ellen would believe it too…any other possibility was just too unbearable to entertain.

*******

The trail boss took a deep breath. The wild, uncultivated terrain that awaited the group of riders was what nightmares were made of. They would have to contend with dense woods, strange creatures and unexpected ravines where they could fall to their deaths, but that would be the easy part of the journey.

It would be those perverted, unpredictable links and their counterparts, the wild demon dogs that would present the biggest of their challenges. Brent Murdock didn’t know why the Deus had seen fit to curse the land with the two peerless adversaries, but he sent a plea to the Deus that they wouldn’t cross paths with either during their search.

Warren Morgan would be another wildcard for him to puzzle together. The man was obviously fit, but physical strength would not be enough to ride rough. He would need to be alert, smart, and when need be, obedient.

Brent knew that for most men who haven’t been trained to follow orders first and ask questions later, this would be difficult.

But there was nothing that could be done at this point. He had been given an assignment and he was going to carry it out to the best of his abilities.

He raised his hand and signaled the gate keepers to open the heavy barriers. “Mooove Out!” he yelled as he led his men out into the wilderness.

*******

Their second day on the road, Brent knew it was going to be a long, nerve-wracking journey. Just from listening to the conversation that was going on between Jay Conover and Todd Delaney, he knew that there was going to come a time real soon when a physical reprimand was going to become necessary.

Their constant bragging about the less than savory pastimes they indulged in back in the Province was rapidly edging towards creating a problematic situation. The issue being, both men were too coarse to consider the stranger riding with them, and too ignorant to care.

They had been hand picked by Garland Scott to be riders, but the men didn’t possess the honor the position conveyed, and they were two of the most despicable human beings he had ever met. They were bullies, liars and when it suited them, rapist. Most of the people in the Province proper feared them, giving them a wide berth whenever they walked down the streets.

He detested the men, but knew that the former leader thought them to be a necessary evil. Garland had often said that, ‘to maintain a civilized society it sometimes takes the barbarism of uncivilized men.’ Looking at the two thugs that rode with him, Brent thought that if Garland were looking to employ men as close to animals as he could, but were still considered men, he had done an excellent job.

Near the middle of the group of six riders, Warren Morgan was taking in the crude attitudes of the characters he was traveling with and started to wonder what kind of people he had handed his daughter over to. Like most people that lived in the outlands of the Province, he didn’t have much contact with the folks in the proper, so men like these, though he knew of their existence, he’d never had firsthand dealings with them. If this was the type of riff-raft that worked for The Order it was time to considered the possibility that maybe Keller’s disappearance didn’t happen exactly the way he had been told.

Was it possible that there was no accidental discharge? Could his daughter have run off? He looked ahead of him and stared at the backs of Todd and Jay’s heads. Could those two roughnecks have had something to do with it?

An anger like he had never felt before started to boil in the pit of his stomach. If those two animals have laid a hand on his precious daughter there would be no peace for them. He would rip them to pieces and feed what was left to the buzzards.

*******

On the fourth day, Brent made a decision. Because there had been no sign that the women had used the more convenient, partially cleared paths, they doubled back two days and follow the wild path, hoping against hope they had avoided that route.

They made camp in a way that had become habit, each man having a job to do. One man would set the cook fire, another unloaded the cook pots and checked the food supply. Another would take care of the horses, while the other two scouted for waste brush and dug a latrine ditch. Warren was given the duty of setting up the sleep circle.

Zack, who was the trail cook pulled out the last hump of salted meat and informed Tom and Earl that they would have to go hunting soon. The cook had no doubts that when the time came, they would be provided with the meat they needed, the two archers could bring down anything from a rabbit to a deer with one shot, never having to get close enough to expose themselves to other predators.

Warren sat on a downed tree and observed the camaraderie between the three men and wondered why Brent Murdock, who seemed to be a decent sort, had two hooligans like Todd and Jay on his team. When he got the chance he would ask.

While Warren was still deep in thought, Zack made his way over and sat down beside the rancher. “So what do you think so far, Mr. Morgan?”

“Call me Warren, and what do I think about what?”

Zack waved his arms around the campsite. “This. The great outdoors. Living rough. Possible danger at every turn.”

Warren rubbed his chin stubble and smiled. “So far the roughest thing I’ve experienced is these chin hairs that need shaving.”

Zack grunted in understanding. “And to be honest with you I hope that’s as rough as it gets, Warren. Riding the wild path is not for the weak of heart.”

When hazel eyes turned hard Zack quickly made himself clear. “I’m not talking about you, Warren. You have more than proven that you’re up for it. But there have been guys in the past who’ve been put on with Brent and asked for reassignment as soon as the gates closed behind us on our return…this ain’t for everyone.”

The rancher had to agree. Being the first in line to head out into the wild was not a position he wanted for himself or his sons.

“Why do you do it, Zack?”

The cook shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know really. It’s not just one thing that calls to me. I guess, mainly it’s the excitement, the difference.”

Warren had an expectant look on his face, but said nothing, waiting to see if the young man would elaborate.

“Life inside the Province can sometimes be…I don’t know…kinda tired, sleepy…”

Warren smiled. “Boring.”

“Yeah, boring. When Brent tells me it’s time to leave the borders for an assignment, I can’t wait to get started.”

“You never get scared out here, Zack?”

“Are you kidding? All the time, but these are good guys. They can handle just about anything that jumps at us.”

Warren saw an opportunity and took it. “Speaking of the guys, what’s the story with Todd and Jay? They don’t quite fit in with the rest of you.”

Zack looked around to make sure the two men were still out digging the latrine and looking for waste brush. “Those two were picked by Garland Scott himself. None of us care too much for them. They aren’t very civilized and there is no nobility in them…” Seeing that Warren was about to interrupt he held up his hand to stop him. “But…when things go bad those are the two you want on your side.”

The rancher couldn’t have been more shocked. “Really?!”

“Yes, sir. Once I saw the two of them take on a link and win, sending the beast back to its lair with a missing arm.”

The way it was said Warren knew he was supposed to be impressed, but he didn’t know why. “Two against one…why shouldn’t they win?”

Zack smiled, remembering that Warren was a rancher and had never been outside of the gates, so he had no idea what a link looked like.

“Warren, one link is the size of two men. They are more than seven feet tall, as strong as an ox and as hairy as bear. It gave Todd and Jay a good run, until suddenly things changed and it almost seemed like the two of them became links themselves, next thing we knew the thing was running off towards the woods howling and missing an arm.”

Warren snorted. “Almost became a link, why doesn’t that surprise me?”

Zack was about to laugh, but it was cut off by a question. “What doesn’t surprise you, old timer?” Jay asked as he and Todd made their way back into camp.

“That the two of you…”

He caught the slight shake of Zack’s head and changed direction.

“can find waste brush and dig a latrine before Zack can start cooking the food.”

Todd walked past the cook and ruffled his hair in a gesture more menacing than playful. “I wouldn’t call what that piss ant does cooking, but it keeps us full, so I guess that’s better than nothing.”

Because Todd’s back was turned he didn’t see the glare Zack was shooting in his direction, and for some reason Warren thought that was probably for the best.
Part Three: I’m Walking On Sunshine. ~Katrina and the Waves~
It had been seven evenings of long walks, long talks and hand holding. During their time together Troi noticed a gradual change in Keller. When she first arrived in Arcadia, the artist had been nervous and a bit unsure of what was, and wasn’t acceptable behavior, but after a few days of walking around the village and meeting everyone she became more confident in her actions and those frightened, almost timid mannerisms that tended to surface in public, started to disappear.

Troi knew it would take a lot longer than seven days for the woman to fully access the confidence that lingered just under the surface, but she knew that Keller would do it. She was very proud of the young woman, she knew it must have been extremely difficult to live under the over burdening constraints that the Province placed on the citizens and still be able to maintain some sense of self.

Walking along, Keller felt as if she would never get used to her new surroundings, Arcadian was like nothing she had ever seen or imagined. The streets were wide and sectioned off into manageable areas. There was the main road, where all of the food stands, clothing shops, the blacksmith’s workshop, the livery stable and cooking pit were located, but branching off from the main road were lanes, where people had built there homes, forming small neighborhoods.

There was a family section and a singles section, and if it became their choice, a section where the older people resided, where they could live without being bothered by the constant hustle and bustle of the younger people. That was the part of the village where Roger Meeks lived.

The farms, ranches and produce barns were located away from the main village, as was the cotton fields and slaughter houses. The day Troi had taken her up the hill to see the Yerks’ waterwheel had been educational. Miss Yerks’ family had built the monstrosity years before, and it’s uses were invaluable. When Keller saw how it worked it made her wonder why the cook’s assistants in the Province were still grinding their grain by hand.

As Keller continued along, deep in her own thoughts, Troi looked down when she heard a rattling noise coming from her companion. Keller now wore her own waist sack that held a weighty amount of marbles that she had won, that’s where the sound was coming from. Troi smiled to herself, remembering the day she had advanced Keller a few marbles to play the various games around the village, the artist caught on quick to the rules, and before she knew it she had started to build her own stash, eventually returning Troi’s initial funding.

“What’s with that sneaky smile?” Keller questioned when she turn in the tall woman’s direction..

Troi reached down and bounced the bottom of Keller’s waist sack in the palm of her hand. “You’ve built yourself a pretty impressive stash there, Keller.”

Green eyes glowed with mischief. “Thanks to the village expert, I’ve become quite good at the games.”

A wide smile spread across Troi’s face and her chest puffed out. “What can I say? I must admit, I am hard to beat.”

Keller let the tall woman bask in her own pride for a moment longer before bursting her bubble. “I was talking about Barrett.”

Keller continued walking along, leaving Troi standing in the road with her mouth hanging open.

“Come on,” she yelled over her shoulder. Miss Millie’s cooking is calling me.”

Troi caught up to the shorter woman and grabbed the blonde’s hand as they continued walking. “You could have at least pretended like it was me,” Troi pouted.

Keller thought it was the cutest thing and reached up to push the bottom lip back in. “Put that away before you trip over it. If you’re nice I’ll tell you the things you’ve taught me.”

Before Troi could ask for elaboration, they were in front of Miss Millie’s stand.

“Well look at this,” Millie said. “Seven days in a row?” She raised an eyebrow in Keller’s direction. “What does Mona have to say about this?”

Keller was already eyeing a particularly tasty looking slice of smoked pork. “Mona is fine with it. She seems happy as long as I share one meal with her, and since we had a light breakfast this morning, I’m ready to fill up on the midday meal.”

Millie turned her attention to Troi. “And you, I haven’t seen you this much since your night duty started.” The corner of her mouth raised a little as she turned her eyes in Keller’s direction, but continued talking to Troi. “Is there any PARTICULAR reason why?”

Still looking over the choices, Keller didn’t see Millie’s actions or hear the conversation.

When the blush that she was hoping to see began to spread up Troi’s neck Millie turned her focus back to business. “So, Keller, have you made a decision?”

“Yes ma’am, I’d like some of that smoked pork on a crusty roll with apple honey sauce.”

“And you, Troi?”

“I’ll have the same, Miss Millie.”

Millie Yerks prepared the two orders and handed them over. As she watched the young women walk away she thought about the change that had come over Troi in the last seven days. She had always been a happy young woman, but there were times when she seemed alone. Even when she was surrounded by her friends and playing games, there were those moments when Millie thought she saw a sadness in Troi’s eyes that was too far away to touch, but since Keller had arrived in the village the veil had lifted and there were no more shadows lingering in those bright blue eyes. It made the baker happy to see that one of her favorite young people had found their light, she hoped as much for the others.

*******

Few words passed between them as they ate their meal. There was something about the way Miss Millie seasoned her food that made a person want the experience to be an endless one. Keller loved her mother’s cooking, and even had a special taste for a few of her friend’s mother’s recipes, asking for biscuits whenever a fluffy batch had been baked, but this was different. Miss Millie’s food infused a need, a craving like want to your taste buds that had you coming back for more.

“So, what do you have planned for today?” Keller asked after she stopped chewing.

Troi, being just as involved with her meal, answered around a mouth full. “I was thinking, maybe we could go visit Mr. Meeks.”

Green eyes glittered with joy. Visiting the historian had been high on her list. “That would be great!” she exclaimed. “I know you’ve been meaning to take me, but other things kept getting in the way.”

Troi looked down at the blonde woman’s waist sack again and smirked. “Yeah, things like you cleaning out every marble pouch in the village.

With a broad smile Keller reached out and shook the belt holding Troi’s sack. “Not every one, but give me time.” she eyed her companion’s sack again and laughed. “I’ll be coming for yours soon.”

Troi thought to herself, ‘And I’ll gladly hand them over.’

*******

Roger Meeks sat in his cottage piecing together one of the wooden puzzles he had traded for when the caravan came around. He lived alone in a cozy three room home that doubled as the village archives. Bookshelves lined three of the walls in the main room and four heavily cushioned, feather stuffed chairs sat in the middle of the floor with a thick, sturdy low table separating them, two to each side.

A stone framed fireplace was positioned in a corner, off center of the room, to ensure the best heat distribution. The inviting look of the fireplace made one feel like, no matter what the temperature was, it would be appropriate for a fire to be blazing in the hearth. The house held a mild scent of mint, candle wax and wood smoke that completed the atmosphere one would expect to find when visiting the home of a historian.

When he heard a knock at the door, he placed the puzzle piece he was holding back down on the low table and raised from his chair to see who was visiting.

“Well, well, well, Troi Donner. I see you finally got around to bringing your new friend by to visit.” He stepped aside and let the young women enter. “I was starting to think I didn’t rate,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

“No…it wasn’t that, Mr. Meeks, it was just…”

The older man waved his hand in the air. “No explanation necessary. You’re here now, that’s all that matters.”

Keller could only stand in shocked silence. Never in her young life had she ever seen anything like this. In the Province, the only book anyone had ever seen was The Edicts. This was simply amazing.

“Wow,” she said out loud. “This is incredible.” Then, seeming to come back to her senses she apologized. “Oh, I’m sorry, sir. We’ve never met and here I am, first time in your home and I don’t bother to introduce myself.”

“No apologies necessary, young lady, your reaction is quite understandable.”

When Troi saw the opportunity she made proper introductions. “Mr. Meeks, this is Keller Morgan.”

He extended his hand to the blonde. “I’m glad to finally meet you, Keller.”

“I’m happy to meet you too, Mr. Meeks. I’ve heard so much about your histories, but this is nothing like I imagined. How many books are here?”

“Well, first off, they’re not my histories. They belong to every citizen of Arcadia, and as for the number, the last time I counted there were seventy books and over five thousand scrolls,” he said with pride.

Keller looked at the historian with wide eyes. Five thousand was a number she couldn’t begin to comprehend.

“You must remember, Keller, these writings have been collected for the last nine hundred years, that’s why there are so many of them. Would you like a closer look?”

Taken totally off guard, Keller stammered. “Y…yes, please.”

He led her to the first shelf, the one that held the book titles. “Every book you see her was found hided away, buried in underground boxes by the people that used to live on this land. When our ancestors first arrived and started digging to build homes and plant the fields, the boxes were found and saved.”

Keller delicately ran her finger along the tattered spine of the first book. Roger slowly pulled it out and handed it to her. There were titles like, A Tale of Two Cities, Macbeth and The Iliad. More than a thousand years before, these books were considered classics, but to the historian they were page after page of words that had an unnatural flow, about events that, although he could grasp their concept, he had no point of reference with which to fully understand them.

Troi picked up ‘Great Expectations,’ and held it up for Keller to see. “It’s because of this book that we started calling Pip, Pip instead of Pete.”

“What’s it about?”

Roger cleared his throat before answering. “From what I can gather it’s about a boy that leaves his home to go in search of a better one, but I can’t be sure because the pages can’t be handled often or they crumble. It seems our ancestors didn’t have the ability to make sturdy parchment.”

The first page opened and Keller read. “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

Keller shrugged her shoulders and handed the book back as Roger gave her another, titled, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. She opened the cover, and again began to read.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Reaching on the self one last time, Roger gave Keller, ‘King Henry IV’, she turned to the first page and wrinkled her brow in confusion. At first she thought maybe, because she had taught herself to read she may lack the ability to understand theses words, but now she didn’t think so, these books were just strange. She read the first few lines.

“So shaken as we are, so wan with care, find we a time for freighted peace to pant, and breathe short-winded accents of new broils to be commenced in strands afar remote. No more the thirsty entrance of this soil shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood; Nor more shall trenching war channel her fields, nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs of hostile paces.”

When Keller handed the book back, Roger placed it on the shelf. “So, tell me. What do you think?” he inquired.

Not wanting to be rude Keller gave a compliment. “They seem like they would be great stories.”

Roger turned to Troi, who turned to Keller. “I think you are the first person to ever say that,” the sentry said.

Keller looked between the two people. “I…I don’t understand.”

Roger couldn’t hold back his laughter as it came in deep, rich waves. “It’s okay, Keller. There’s no need to be kind, it’s not like I wrote them. You can admit it, they are the strangest collection of words I have ever read.”

The artist let out a relived breath. “Thank the Deus. I thought it was me.”

“To be honest, I have no idea why they meant so much to the ancestors that they hid them away. They aren’t very easy to read, and I find no joy in the effort.”

Troi agreed with Roger. “Yeah, I remember the first time I tried.” She snapped her finger. “Two paragraphs and I was done.”

“I wonder if the ancients even spoke the language the same as we do. What do you know about them, Mr. Meeks?” Keller questioned.

“Hardly anything. All any of knows about times that far in the past is in those books, and as you’ve just seen, that’s very confusing.”

“Okay, then what can you tell me about Arcadia?”

Keller was desperate to hear a story of the past, any past. In the Province the only history that was known was what one could remember of their own lives, or what The Order thought the populace should remember in praise of the leadership.

The old man guided them to the chairs and offered a seat. “Why don’t you ladies have a seat while I make us a pot of tea.”

He disappeared into what Keller assumed was the kitchen and yelled back. “Keller, do you have an issue with mint tea?”

“Um…no sir, Mr. Meeks. That will be fine.”

He returned with three cups and a pot on a tray and placed it on the low table away from his puzzle.

Troi leaned forward and picked up a cup, handing it to Keller and then reached for one for herself. She took a sip of the honey sweetened brew and swallowed. “You didn’t ask me if I minded mint tea,” she complained.

“Since when do you have a problem with my mint tea, Troi?”

“I don’t,” she mumbled. “A girl just likes to be asked sometimes.”

When Keller saw that little pout again, she reached over and pushed it back in. “Put that away.”

“I’m glad to see that your parents raised you right, Keller. This one has been spoiled since the day she took her first step.”

When he didn’t get the laugh he expected, Roger looked closer at his guest and saw the pain that was showing in the depths of her green eyes. “What’s wrong, Keller? Is the tea upsetting your stomach?”

She sniffed and fought not to cry. “It’s nothing, really. I…I just miss my family, and sometimes it gets the best of me.”

“There’s no need to apologize, I understand. I can only imagine what you must be going through.”

He noticed that Troi had put her cup down and was gently caressing the blonde’s shoulder in an effort to comfort her. ‘Interesting.’ he thought. ‘Millie had mentioned Troi’s affection this young woman, but it’s always better to see things with one’s own eyes.’

“Keller, if need be we can save the storytelling for another time, when you are feeling better, also I know Troi needs to go on duty soon.”

“No, Mr. Meeks. I am free this eve, so whatever Keller wants to do is fine.”

“I’d like to stay, leaving won’t be necessary. I have faith in the Deus. I know I’ll see them again.” A wistful smile tugged at her lip. “Now, I think I’m ready for that story.”

Roger settled back in his chair and started his tale.

“Our ancestors named our village ‘Arcadia’ because the word means, ‘imagined place of rural bliss.’
That is what they hoped to achieve. As soon as the Province was settled and secure, The Order started cleaning house.”

He had to stop himself from laughing at the confused look on the young people’s face. He waved his hand in the air in a dismissive manner.

“It’s an old saying from the past. The Order began removing people from the Province that were different.”

Troi and Keller nodded their heads. Those words were understood, all too well.

“We weren’t the first.”

Keller was shocked. All of her life she was under the impression that the Arcadians were the original group to be exiled, of course no one knew the name of the place, they just knew that there was a place, out past the Badlands where the misfits dwelled.

At the look on Keller’s face he stopped, allowing her to take in what had been shared and also giving himself a moment of introspection. He remembered sitting at his grandfather’s knee as the elder told and retold the stories that needed to be passed on to future generations. A poignant smile pulled at his features when he thought about his own grandchildren that now sat at his knee as he did the same. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same,’ he thought.

Roger shook his head to clear it. “All of Arcadia knows the history. The first outcasts were people that didn’t look like Curtis Poole and his fellows. They were the easiest to roundup first.”

Keller’s eyes were wide. What must these people look like? What was so strange about their appearance that The Order set them out first?

“Were…were they monsters?” Keller asked.

The laugh could not be contained. “No, Keller. They were not monsters.”

The way Troi and Roger laughed made the artist feel foolish. Seeing the embarrassment that their laughter caused, Troi wrapped her arm around Keller’s shoulder and brought her close, almost pulling her out of her chair.

“Don’t be ashamed, Keller. We aren’t laughing at you. It was what you said that caught us off balance.”

The warmth of Troi’s hold made Keller feel better, less foolish. “Why?”

Roger answered. “I…we forgot that the Province fills the citizen’s heads with such stories as a way to control them, but that’s something I’ll get back to later.”

Satisfied, Keller waited for the historian to continue.

“The first to be turned out were people, just like us, their only differences being small ones. Things like the color of their skin being darker than the fellows, or the shape of their eyes weren’t round enough, or maybe the way their words sounded wasn’t pleasing to The Order’s ears.”

“What do you mean, the way their words sounded?”

Before Troi answered, her hand moved up and down Keller’s arm, hoping the motion would provide comfort to the shorter woman so she would feel safe to ask as many questions as she wanted.

“You remember how Barrett’s words sound?”

The mention of the cute little monkey’s name made Keller smile. “Oh, yes. It’s almost like the singing you and Pip were doing.”

“Well, there are other people that sound like him and others that have sounds of their own.”

“Were they intuitives?” Keller asked.

“I’m sure some of them were, Keller,” Roger responded. “but that didn’t matter then, they would come for us later. The fact that they looked different was enough.”

“Where did they go? Where are they now?”

“They went west and established their own villages.”

“Are any of them here?”

“No, Keller. There aren’t. They live further away. The first Arcadians thought to settle near the villages that had been developed by the originals, but they were asked to choose another place, far away from the first outcasts. So, our ancestors turned back and carved out a living here.”

The pride he felt made his face glow. “I think they did a pretty good job.”

Keller’s head was spinning with questions. All of them wanting to burst out at once. “Why couldn’t the Arcadians stay? How far away are the originals? Do you ever see them?”

“Whoa, slow down, Keller,” Roger said. “You’re gonna run out of breath if you keep that up. Now, for your first question. The original outcasts didn’t want the first Arcadians to stay with them because they looked like the people that had set them out.”

“Wait,” Keller said. “Isn’t that what was done to them? How could they turn around and do it to someone else? How is that right?”

“You must understand, Keller. Those people had been treated terribly by people that looked and sounded like us, so they didn’t trust our people not to try and do to them what The Order had done.”

The blonde head slowly nodded. Keller seemed to understand that.

“It wasn’t done with anger. The leaders of the different tribes, that’s what they chose to be called, met with our leaders and explained that they were healing and growing in an environment that made them feel safe. They asked that our people respect that.”

“Does anyone see them now?”

“Yes, and before you ask, they live more than a months ride from here, so the visits aren’t very often, mostly during the growing season when we can trade crops that our villages can’t grow, or goods that are unique to the skills they have developed.”

“What kinds of goods?” Keller questioned.

“Things like, colored glass, woodcarving, beadwork covered buckskins,” he paused here for a moment, thinking of the other amazing offerings that were traded, like the wooden puzzle he was working on. “Sometimes two villages get together and create something really distinctive, like the wooden wagons in bottles that I’ve seen. There are tribes that create colorful cloth, others have food, like the noodles that taste great when boiled with the seasonings that the tribe has mixed or the flatbread called tortilla.”

“How many tribes are there?”

“There were five originally, the Blacks, they call their village Busara. The Asians, they live in Zun Jìng. The Spanish made Esperanza their home. The Indigenous people identified their land as, Tiyatani, and the Indians dwell in a place called Saans, but I’m sure over the last nine hundred years they have grown.

Keller was very impressed and was curious to hear more. “I’ve never heard names like those. Do they mean anything?”

“I was told that Busara meant wisdom, Zūn Jìng stood for honor, Esperanza was hope, Tiyatani represents home and Saans means spirit. I guess the names held a special meaning to each tribe, and that’s why they chose them for their villages.”

“Amazing,” Keller said, with eyes glowing. “I would love to see the things that they offer.”

“Well, the trading caravan should be coming in when the weather turns, just be ready, you’ll see plenty of things to trade for.”

At that, Keller scrunched up her nose. “But I have nothing to trade.”

Seeing Keller’s disappointment, Troi wanted to make her feel better, so she tried to think of something the newcomer could give in trade. Then it hit her. “Hey, you could trade your drawings. I’ve seen what you can do and it’s a lot better than any of the other artist’s work around here.”

Roger clapped his hands together. “Then it’s settled. Before the next trade caravan comes, Keller will have a stack of drawings to trade.”

Troi was really getting excited at the prospect. “I know what you can draw!”

Feeling exhilarated, Keller nearly jumped from her seat. “What?!”

“The falls. They don’t have any in the west. I bet that would be real popular.”

The two young people’s joy had Roger feeling a little jolt of anticipation himself. “When will you start, Keller?” he asked.

“As soon as I can get to the parchment hut and refill my supplies.”

Troi stood up and brought Keller with her. “Then we’d better get a move on. You’ve got a lot of work to do.”

They said their good-byes and thank yous before quickly heading out the door. Roger watched them practically run down the street together, their future filled with nothing but promise. He closed the door and went back to his puzzle.

“Oh, to be young again,” he said to the empty room.

*******

Troi and Keller were walking towards the parchment hut at a leisurely stroll. Keller had finally convinced her friend that it was okay to walk, they didn’t need to run down the street like a couple of crazy people. They held hands and talked excitedly about the project Keller was about to begin.

“I can take you to the falls first thing in the morning, but we can’t stay all day because I have duty.”

“That’s fine, Troi, and don’t miss out on your rest to take me out. I’m sure I can get one of the guys to take me to the falls when you’re too tired or working.”

Keller had no idea how her innocent comment was affecting Troi. The woman’s stomach was twisting in knots and her insides were burning. There was no way. No way she was going to give anyone else the chance to get Keller in their sights. It was time to make a move.

Troi tightened her grip on Keller’s and pulled her to a stop. At first she didn’t say anything, she just stared down at the short blonde. Keller looked up in confusion, not understanding what was happening. Then Troi reached down and ran her fingers through the fine hairs at Keller’s temple. Then she let her hand slowly drop down to caress her downy cheek, before gently running the pad of her thumb across soft pink lips. Keller’s eyes closed in reflex and she let herself luxuriate in the sensations Troi was eliciting. When she felt the caresses stop she opened them again.

Then Troi spoke. Her voice was a little husky and there was a slight tremble to her lips. “I know it’s only been a short time, Keller, but Barrett has taught me that I must be honest with myself and speak the truth when ever possible, or risk losing the things that are the most important to me.” She was so nervous, never in her life did she ever imagine she would find someone that meant enough to her that she would take this chance, but here she was, standing right in front of her, all five-feet four of her, and she was waiting.

“Um…well.. since we get along so well and like to spend time together…I was wondering if I…if we could make it official and kinda make this like an…um, exclusive thing?” There, it was out. Now it was in Keller’s corner.

Keller was still basking in the warmth Troi had created, so, at first the question made no sense to her. Make what official and exclusive? What was Troi talking about?

Then she noticed the bowed head, the slight blush creeping up the tall woman’s neck and the shy way she poked the tip of her boot in the dirt as she waited for a response. No way! Could she mean…did she want…Yes! That was it, Troi was asking if they could be a couple.

Instead of answering, the excited blonde jumped into Troi’s arms, forcing the tall woman to hold her several inches above the ground as they stumbled back a few steps. She started peppering kisses all over Troi’s face, ending with a brief one on her lips. When Keller pulled away she gazed into a wide expanse of blue, and there she saw it, her future, all of it, right there, stretched out in front of her like the wide open sky, just waiting for her to reach out and grab it. The truth of it caused her heart to constrict, and the only way to relieve it was to give voice to her desire.

“Yes, Troi. A thousand times yes!”

“Really? You’ll be my girlfriend?”

“Yours and yours alone.”

“I like the sound of that, Keller. I like it very much.”

As they leaned together to share another kiss, horns started to blow, signaling that there was an emergency.

It had been twenty-two days since Keller’s escape from the center.
Part Four: Dust In The Wind, All We Are Is Dust In The Wind. ~Kansas~
After eight days of traveling down the wild path, they find what they had dreaded. A few feet off the trail they saw what was left of Jesse Lynn and Paige’s bodies.

The guilt that tried to surface in Brent’s heart had to be pushed down. Now was not the time to dwell on things that he had no control over, but a small kernel of anger still made it’s way through. If that center wasn’t there these young women would still be alive.

When they dismounted and examined the area, Warren was relived there was nothing there that indicated that Keller was among the remains, but after seeing the carnage it was hard for him not to assume the worst.

Standing in the midst of the blood and gore didn’t seem to have any affect on Jay and Todd in the least, as a matter of fact, Jay walked over to what was left of Jesse Lynn and nudged the body with the toe of his boot.

“The links probably got ’em first and the dogs finished up what was left. Looks to be two, maybe three days rot going on. But I don’t see the redheaded storyteller.”

Todd came over and stood beside his road mate. “Maybe they drug her off to their den. These two must have been a midnight snack, they probably took the redhead for later.” He shook his head from side to side when he saw the top of Paige’s blood encrusted head. “It’s a shame too, that one over there was a mighty sweet piece of…”

Warren Morgan couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Two young women lay, most likely raped by one kind of beast and eaten by another, and the only emotion it stirred in these two brutes was how unfortunate it was that they would no longer have the opportunity to abuse them.

The last twelve or fourteen days that he had spent with these men had showed him a side of humanity that made his stomach turn. Adding to that the fact that these were the men entrusted with the care and welfare of the Province and it’s citizens, and Warren Morgan was left feeling disturbed.

Then a frightening possibility assaulted his mind and he was almost frozen with fear. ‘Had his daughter been subjected to these men’s advances. Sure, early on he had vowed to dismember them if he discovered they had touched Keller, but now, seeing the bodies of these poor girls, and seeing the cavalier way Todd and Jay reacted to their slaughter, he realized that it really was a possibility.

When more vulgarities continued to drift in Warren’s direction he could no longer restrain himself. Zack looked in the older man’s direction and knew what was coming, so he pulled one of his cook pans from his saddlebag and waited, ready to help Warren if he had to.

So caught up in his reminiscing about the degenerate ways he spent his pastime, Todd never saw it coming, all he knew was, one second he was standing, and the next he was sitting in the dust. When Warren slugged him across the jaw he hoped the blow would be painful enough to silence him for the rest of the trip.

When Brent saw Jay reach for his knife, ready to defend his friend, he jumped in-between them and put a restraining hand on the angry man’s shoulder.

“Don’t do it, Jay. If you do I’ll end you right here, right now.”

Feeling like a new challenge had presented itself, the aggressive man turned his full attention to the trail boss.

“You would do this for one of those sheep?”

Brent looked over his shoulder at Warren Morgan and saw more than a man that was pissed about the casual way his men treated the situation. He saw a frightened father, filled with guilt and sorrow for putting his own daughter in harms way, and terrified that they would find her in the same condition. Without saying a word he pushed Jay hard enough for him to land flat on his butt.

“Stay down, Jay and cool off, because if I’m not mistaken that sheep is two seconds away from adding you and Todd to the body count.”

When the boss walked away, Jay got up seething, with no place to vent his anger he kicked dirt in Zack’s direction. “Don’t think I didn’t see you ready to make a move on the farmer’s behalf. I won’t be forgetting that anytime soon, you little piss ant.”

*******

After burying the remains Brent gave the order to mount up, it was time to head home. This was a report he did not look forward to giving. The needless loss of those girl’s lives would haunt him for a long time to come.

The group of men where riding along in silence, each wrapped up in his own thoughts, when Brent held up his hand, signaling a halt to all movement. He cocked his head a bit, trying to listen, then he slowly slid off of his horse and made his way over to a crop of shrubs.

Reaching in, he took hold of something and pulled. He was shocked to find a small dark-haired man with round brown eyes standing in front of him. He couldn’t have been any taller than a twelve-year-old, but the facial hair proved him to be much older.

“Well, what do we have here? Where did you come from,” Brent asked.

“Here, there and everywhere, I walk around without a care.”

This took the men by surprise. Never had they heard anyone speak this way. Brent tried again. “I say again, where do you live?”

“The mountain ridge is where I’ve been, one day I hope to go again.”

It was then that Brent finally looked into the man’s eyes and realized that there was something missing. He wasn’t like the crazies or the crippled that The Order had put to rest. There was a bit of intelligence there, but something didn’t line up with this guy.

Taking in his tattered clothes and shoeless condition, Brent made the decision to take the man back to the Province and let the leader deal with him. He had the strange fellow double up with one of the lighter riders for the trip back.

It didn’t take long before they realized that the little man was like nothing they had ever seen. After spending a day riding with him, most of the men decided they liked having him around, he was kinda fun. His constant rambles of nonsensical things like, “Clippity clop, clippity clop, the horse’s hooves will never stop.” or “Corn on the cob and salty pork, when I eat these I need no fork.”

The men laughed and encouraged the wanderer, liking the cadence of the words. Someone would throw out a word like, ‘hammer’ and wait to see what would happen, the man started immediately. “Bam, bam, I am Sam, a mother’s a sheep, a baby’s a lamb.”

Even Warren laughed at that one. He had to admit, the man was humorous and after the things he had seen, Warren needed a little laughter to lighten his heavy heart.

Because of his latest little rant about sheep and lambs, the men decided to call the man Sam.

*******

Finally, after many long days, they were home. Immediately after entering the Province, the men separated and went their separate ways. The riders heading to their bunkhouse and Warren towards his ranch.

He didn’t know how he was going to tell Ellen that they didn’t find any sign of Keller. He was also debating about whether or not to tell her about those poor girls that were left for the buzzards. Maybe he’d pull Sherman aside and talk to him. The problem would be telling him about the situation without putting imagines of his little sister’s body being spread around the Badlands in his head, that would only make things worse between them.

Thinking about how things were with Sherman made him slump down in his saddle. His oldest son had been cool towards him. Ever since they boys came in from the pastures to find Keller gone, things had been different. Thomas and Walter spoke with him about ranch business, but they no longer shared the same camaraderie they had before, and he missed it.

But, Sherman, Sherman wouldn’t look at him, let alone talk to him. If he entered a room, Sherman got up and left. When they were out in the pastures Sherman made it a point to be on the opposite side, as far away from his father as he could get.

Warren would never admit out loud how much the treatment bothered him, it was a burden he was determined to carry on his own, because somewhere down inside of him, and not very far, he felt like he deserved it. But there were times when he looked at Ellen and he knew that she knew, and that somehow made it more bearable.

*******

After securing the little nomad in the Province holding, Brent went to his home to rest and wash off the trail dirt. Spending more than twenty days out in the wild had left him sore and in need of a warm bath and hot food.

Sam was an oddity, the likes of which he’d never seen. He reminded him of the intuitives that were sent out because of the singing affliction. He grinned at the memory of little Sam’s steady flow of words when one of the men threw out more than one word at a time.

While he waited for his bath water to heat up his mind wandered over what Myron Scott might do with Sam. He was strange, but harmless. That’s what was concerning him. If Sam had been an intuitive, Myron would have put him in that center. If he would have had a skill to offer, one that The Ordered found productive, a place would have been secured for him somewhere within the borders, but neither of those things were true. Sam was just…odd and in the Province an oddity that couldn’t be defined made people nervous, even a little fearful.

Brent filled his tub, then eased himself into the warm water. There was nothing he could do about it now. All decisions ended with Myron Scott. That thought made Brent snort out loud. “So far it has been a long bumpy ride with that one guiding the wagon. I hope he finds an easier path to travel real soon, cause folks can’t take much more of the changes,” he said to the empty room.

*******

The advisors to the Province were holding a meeting in their conference hall. Something needed to be done, and it needed to be done soon. When Curtis Poole and his, Order of five fellows, came down from the mountain this was not what they had envisioned.

When The Order began restructuring society. Their first mandate was to outlaw reading. Only those chosen by the Deus were to be blessed with literacy, and after nearly one thousand years only the offspring of the five fellows had received the Deus’ blessing.

The second order of business was to weed out and exile every citizen that may question, rebel against, change or disrupt in any way the new society that was being created. It would start with removing those that looked different, then it moved to rounding up the rabble-rousers and then it would extend to the creative and the dreamers. Their kind would plant the seed of hope and want to change things. They would make the people question authority and not only ask why, but the more dangerous…why not.

This could not be allowed. A solid structure, no matter how well put together, could never rest securely upon a foundation that was filled with cracks.

So, it was with great concern to the advisors when Myron Scott came up with his idea to keep the people that had long ago been labeled, subversives, within their borders. Why the young man thought himself more capable of knowing what was best for the Province than the men who founded it was beyond their scope of understanding. That was why that topic had become the center of several contentious discussion within the advisor’s conference hall.

Some wanted to see how many transformations this intuitive conversion program would yield, others felt like they didn’t have to watch the wagon crash to know an accident was coming. But, eventually they had to admit that the arguments going back and forth between them made no difference, because as it was with all things concerning any changes in the Province, it was in the hands of the leader…Myron Scott and Myron Scott alone was the only one that could change his course and from the looks of things that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

That is why a few of them felt like they had to break protocol and find a way to get things back on track. Their sense of loyalty to their land and their history led them to believe the fate of the Province depended on it.

*******

When Warren finally stepped into his home after being absent for nearly a month. A deep sadness washed over him. Things were so different now.

There was a time when the house was filled with joy and laughter, now it was just a place where five people shared a common living space. When the reason for the change struck him, it was like a punch in the gut…Keller. It was Keller. She was their light. The one that made them laugh and be silly. If he squinted real hard he could still see a shadow from the past. Sherman down on his hands and knees giving his five-year-old sister a horsy ride. “Go, go, Shermy,” she would say, and giggle with glee when the eleven-year-old preteen would bounce her around like a bucking bronco.

The tear that he felt working it’s way down his cheek came as a shock. Even more shocking was the gut-wrenching sob that followed. He dropped to his knees and released all of his pain and fears and guilt. How had it all gone so wrong? He was a good decent family man. All he had done was follow the laws of their land, and his reward for that was his daughter going missing, possibly gone from them forever. How was that fair? It wasn’t until he felt strong hands helping him off the floor and a water cup pressed to his lips that he realized his family was there.

Ellen was terrified that her husband had brought back the worst news possible…their daughter was dead. “Warren, tell me what’s wrong. Is it Keller? Please, say something.”

When the sobbing didn’t stop, Sherman felt like he needed to take charge. He knelt down in front of his father and placed his hand on the older man’s knee. Thomas and Walter hoped that their brother could get through to their father, because they were at a loss.

Seeing Warren Morgan crying like this was nothing that they had ever seen before and it made them nervous. He was their strength. The one they gauged their manhood against, so if he was falling apart, the news must be horrific.

“Dad, look at me,” Sherman said. When there was no change, he tried again. “Come on, dad you’re scaring us. Is it Keller? Did…” He didn’t want to hear the answer, but he had to ask. “Did you find her?”

Warren got himself together long enough to reach down and touch the side of his son’s face. “I’m so sorry, Shermy.”

The nickname knocked Sherman on his behind. Only Keller had ever called him that. The endearment didn’t go unnoticed by the other occupants in the room, and Ellen clutched her throat to stop the scream that wanted to escape.

“Is…is she dead. Is Keller dead?” Sherman whispered.

“I…I don’t know.” Warren cried. “We…we found two other girls, but Keller wasn’t with them.”

The immediate relief Ellen felt was short lived. “Did they tell you where she was?”

“No, Ellie. They…they were dead,” he said in a tortured voice. “Deus, forgive me. I sent my child to her end.”

The agony that was being displayed was too much to witness, and it couldn’t go on. Sherman raised himself up to his knees and for the first time in weeks, looked his father in the eyes, and the sight hurt his heart. The man was close to breaking, but Sherman was not going to allow that to happen.

“No you didn’t, dad. You didn’t. Just because you didn’t find her doesn’t mean she’s dead.”

“But, Sherman. You didn’t see them. You didn’t see what those animals did to those girls. They were torn to pieces.”

It wasn’t until he felt his wife tense beside him and felt her nails digging into his arm that he remembered this was a conversation he meant to have with his son when they were alone.

“Ellie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for you to hear that.”

“Don’t keep secrets from me, Warren. Not now. Not about this. I know there will be things that’s going to be hard to hear, but I need to hear them.”

“Of course, you’re right. I promise to tell you everything.”

Seeing that their father seemed to have come back to himself, the knots in Thomas and Walters’ stomachs eased and they felt their world right itself.

By silent agreement, the family moved from the main room and gathered around the table to hear about what Warren had discovered while he was away. They knew that however this story ended the most important thing was going to be preserving their family. That’s the way Keller would have wanted it.
Part Five: You Never Came To Save Me, You Let Me Stand Alone, Out In The Wilderness, Alone In The Cold. ~Anita Baker~
The loud horn stopped Troi and Keller from sharing what would have been their second kiss, causing the young couple to turn and rush towards the front gate, having to put celebrating their decision to become a couple on hold until later.

The horn only sounded when there was an emergency outside of the gates, it had been years since the horn had blown. The last time was when an injured link had made it’s way to their boarder. It eventually collapsed along their boundaries and succumbed to it’s injuries long before the Arcadians could decided whether or not to open the gate and investigate.

When Troi and Keller got close enough to see what was going on, they saw Davis carrying someone in his arms. He’d been preparing the pit for the evening roasting when he saw the sentries bringing someone in. It looked like they were having trouble holding the person up so he rushed over to help. Seeing that it was an injured woman he picked her up in his strong arms and headed towards the healer’s hut.

Keller saw a matted mane of auburn hair and felt a twinge of familiarity, the closer she got she recognized the clothes, and picked up the pace. “Deus, no,” she mumbled.

Troi was right beside her, every step. “Do you know her, Keller?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it’s one of the girls from the center.”

“Do you have any idea which one?” Troi asked.

“Yeah, I think it’s Patsy, she was the storyteller.”

As Davis rushed past them Keller got a better look. Now she was sure, it was Patsy. The woman was wearing the same clothes she had on the day Keller met her.

Davis was moving as fast as he could, he could see that the woman needed immediate care. Her red hair was matted and littered with sticks and leaves. There were bruises every where he could see, and there was a nasty gash on her arm. When he looked down he noticed that her green eyes were red-rimmed, but that wasn’t what gave him pause, it was the emptiness in them, it reminded him of the vacant depths of the fire pits before they were warmed by the flame.

His heart went out to the injured woman, and before he could stop himself, without slowing down, he let the tips of the fingers on his left hand attempt to release some of the tangle in the hair along her temple. It may have been a ridiculous gesture, considering the condition of the rest of her, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the moment.

Patsy’s eyes closed from the gentle touch, it had been so long since a kind hand had been laid upon her, when her eyes opened again they were glassy with unshed tears, the emptiness gone, replaced by sorrow. The sight made Davis’ chest ache and in that moment he knew that he would do everything in his power to bring some joy into those pained green eyes.

When they reached the healer’s hut Nelson was ready and waiting. “Lay her down.”

When Patsy felt the soft mattress beneath her, her body cried out in relief and she felt herself start to drift away. She was so tired, and now that she was safe, she gave her mind permission to let go. The need to constantly be on alert no longer necessary. Before the darkness claimed her she reach out and rested her hand on Davis’ arm, whispering her appreciation. “Thank you.”

She didn’t see the man’s reaction or feel him tenderly return her hand to the bed, she was in another place, a place where nightmares were made.

*******

After escaping from the center, Patsy, Jesse Lynn and Paige thought that they could catch up with Keller, and together they could come up with some kind of plan, but they never found the intrepid blonde. Instead, after five days of travel the three of them fell into a horror the likes of which they never could have imagined. The links caught them and took them on a two day run back to their dwelling, where the real horror began. The abuse they had suffered at the center was mild in comparison.

They were taken to a place that at first sight looked like nothing more than a hill of dirt, but once inside a whole other world opened up to them. There was a stairwell that seemed to descend into the earth without end. They could see that the torchlight illuminating the way, could be seen several feet down. The more they saw, the more they realized how familiar it all seemed. This place looked like the inside of the center. But how could that be? They were obviously underground.

Down, down, down they went. Occasionally groups of small children or a lone woman would appear in one of the many doorways. When able to get a glimpse inside one of the rooms, their first impression was confirmed, they were inside a building. They found that revelation amazing, an underground building. But the wonder was short lived.

When they were halfway down they were pulled to a halt and separated into three different rooms. It would be the beginning of their worst nightmare.

The attacks started immediately. The beast’s need to copulate seemed unending. They looked enough like men, but barely. Aside from their unusual height, heavy brow bone, thick hair and oddly long arms, they smelled wild and they grunted and snorted instead of speaking, but most frightening was how they would take without warning.

After that first day, if one of the women went off in the bush to relive themselves, it was nothing to find herself filled by a very aroused cretin.

The only reprieve they would get was when the beast slept. Then the other women, those that still remembered speech would fill the new arrival’s hearts with doom and dread, telling them that there was no use in trying to escape. There was no place to go.

They tried to ease their worry by telling them how it would get better once they were with child, then they would only be bothered during their fertile time. They didn’t know how, but for some reason these dull witted brutes, after a birth, could tell when the women were ripe. This would explain the dozens of mouth breathing, knuckle dragging boys that wandered around freely. That was the main reason for their circumstances. It appeared that the links were only capable of creating male children, hence the need for stolen women.

After three days of captivity Patsy wasn’t willing to live the rest of her life this way, ready to risk death for her freedom, Patsy told Jesse Lynn and Paige that the first chance she got she was leaving. She told them they were welcome to come with her, or stay, it was up to them.

Needing more information, when Patsy had the opportunity, she pulled one of the more recent captives aside to question her. “You seem like there is still a big part of you in there, why haven’t you tried to get away?”

The blonde woman with sad brown eyes, shook her head from side to side and shrugged her shoulders before releasing a defeated breath.

“Many have tried, all have failed. Once they have your scent the urge to hunt you down and bring you back becomes their only focus. If possible, they become even more like animals. At times, even getting down on all fours and sniffing along the ground. And when they do find you and bring you back, it’s bad, really bad…for all of us. It becomes almost like the beginning. They take us constantly and ferociously, like we need to be retrained or something.”

Although Patsy’s conversation with the woman was daunting it didn’t change her mind. She would not…could not live this way.

*******

The next evening when the links went to sleep, they snuck out. Patsy was shocked by how easy it was. When the catacomb of rooms had fill with the loud snoring, indicating sleep, the three women slipped out undetected. Once they had cleared the camp they ran as fast as they could.

Things were fine for about a day, then, Jesse Lynn and Paige decided they wanted to head back to the Province, which Patsy knew was in the opposite direction. She had calculated that to get back home would take at least a week, but she was afraid that would be the path their captors took, so she had chosen to head west instead of home. But now, seeing the uncertainty in her friends eyes she had second thoughts, so she gave in. She figuring that this time they knew what was out there and what to avoid, ‘Better the danger you know,’ she surmised.

So, they turned east. Headed for home.

Two nights later, just as dusk was breaking, when there was still enough light to see by, the attack started. The dogs had them surrounded before they knew it. There were three of them. Enormous animals with broad chest, huge heads and oversized incisors. Their powerful legs were almost as thick as their own and their height…these, demons stood at least four feet tall.

It seemed like, before their minds could even registered what the danger was, they were on them. One of them took Jesse Lynn without a problem, her slight size unsuitable for any real defense. It pounced on her hard and fast, dragging her to the ground with little effort.

But, Paige and Patsy were giving them more of a problem. Patsy had a horrible tear in her arm from where she tried to stop one of the dogs from ripping her throat out, throwing her arm across her neck in defense. The dog took the action as an aggressive move used to keep it from it’s reward, so the attack on her became more vicious and she knew her life was about to end, but when Paige started to use her hands, feet and finally her mouth, biting the raging animal back in self-defense, it was taken as a challenge and it seemed to offended the beasts at their most primal levels, it antagonized them, so much so that Patsy’s attacker left her and went to help his pack mate fight the opponent into submission.

Patsy knew this would be her only chance, so she took off running, headed back in the direction she had come from. Even the screams of her two friends didn’t slow her down. She was running for her life and she had no intentions of stopping. Nothing, not even the Deus coming down from the mountain could slow her steps.

*******

It had been twenty-two days since Patsy had left the center. When they brought her in, she had spent eight of those days on her own and she was in desperate need of care.

*******

Instead of walking Keller back to Mona’s, Troi grabbed a few fresh vegetables and a couple of raw beef steaks from the stands and led her new girlfriend to her home. She had never taken Keller there before, feeling like it was too intimate an act to initiate between new friends, but now she felt kind of silly for waiting…wow, what a difference a word as simple as ‘yes’ can bring about.

“What are you up to, Troi Donner?”

“Nothing, I just thought I would cook the evening meal for my girlfriend.”

Keller blushed and immediately tried to wipe it away. “I really like that?”

“Like what?”

“You calling me your girlfriend.”

“I like it too.”

“Um…Troi?”

“Yeees.”

“Can you cook?”

Troi clutched the food bags to her chest and feigned insult. “Why, Keller. How could you ask such a thing? I’ll have you know that I can boil a vegetable and cook a flame broiled beef steak better than most.”

Keller tilted her head to the side in contemplation. “Is that the only thing you can cook?” She held her hands up to stop Troi’s response. “I’m only asking because you don’t strike me as the um…domestic type.”

Troi knew she was caught. “Okay, I confess. I get most of my meals from the stands or my parents. Sometimes Pip or Davis will come over and that’s when I pull out the beef and vegetables. Those days usually end with Davis hovering over me trying to tell me when I should turn the meat.”

They reached Troi’s front door and the sentry ushered her girlfriend in. “Speaking of Davis, I wonder how he ended up carrying…” She looked at Keller for confirmation. “Patsy?” When the blonde head nodded in the affirmative she continued. “Patsy, to the healers hut. He was supposed to be on pit duty.”

Keller followed Troi into the kitchen. “I wonder how she got here. The last time I saw her she was holding tight to a pair of…well, you know what she was holding.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Troi didn’t like thinking about what Keller had been through, but if things had been different at the center, she probably would be there instead of here, and Troi was very much pleased that Keller was here.

“From what I could see the journey wasn’t an easy one,” Keller said regretfully.

Troi stopped unpacking her bags and turned to Keller. “When I saw her, my legs almost gave out.”

Keller moved closer, and with concern, laid her hand on Troi’s arm. “Why?”

“Because it scared me. When I saw her it made me realize how lucky you were. Keller…I don’t know what I would have done if we had found you like that.”

She moved even closer to the taller woman, stopping when they were inches apart. “You didn’t even know me then. How can you say that.”

“I don’t think that’s true, Keller. I…I think I’ve always known you,” Troi said shyly.

Feeling her heartbeat quicken, Keller moved her hand up until it rested on Troi’s shoulder. “I know what you mean. After you and Pip ran those links off and everything had settled down, I felt…I felt a stir.”

Troi cocked an eyebrow. “You felt a stir? From what I can remember it looked less like a stir and more like a full on blaze. I introduced myself, and you looked like you wanted to start another fight.”

Keller laughed softly. Troi liked the sound of it.

“If I remember correctly, you called me little bit.”

Troi settled her hands on Keller’s hips. She was enjoying the playful atmosphere and how close they stood together. She lightly squeezed the body part under her hands and chuckled.

“You are a little bit of a thing. I call them as I see them, Keller.”

Keller tilted her head back so that she could look Troi in the eye. “I’m big enough to handle you.”

Troi’s head started a descent towards Keller’s moist lips. “You most definitely are.”

When her mouth reached it’s destination a current ran through both women, one that they felt in their hearts and in their groins. Both sensations were new to them, and having no knowledge or experience to pull from they decided to let the kiss progress naturally.

They quickly discovered that pulling apart was a difficult action to execute, neither woman wanting the contact to end for too long, so they went back for seconds, thirds, fourths. Then they separated long enough to embrace. Troi laying her cheek in the softness of Keller’s blonde head.

“I never want this to end she whispered.”

Neither do I, Troi. I’ve never been this happy.”

“I…I…” Troi wanted to say what was in her heart, but was afraid it was too soon. “I think I’d better get these vegetables into a pot of water if we don’t want to wait all night before we can eat.”

They slowly separated, Keller giving the tall woman a pensive look. Somehow she didn’t think cooking vegetables was what was on Troi’s mind. She had an idea about what the dark woman was going to say, but she wouldn’t push it. They were a couple, an official dating couple. There would be plenty of time for deep, heartfelt professions, so, for now, the closeness they were sharing was enough.

*******

Keller sat back and patted her tight belly. “That was pretty good cooking for a part-time chef.”

She took the time to really look around Troi’s home. It was the standard three room type that most of the single villagers lived in. There were items that decorated the space, identifying it as uniquely Troi’s. A collection of swords hung on the wall over the fireplace and on both sides of the hearth there were a variety of clubs, knives and bows.

Seeing those pieces, there would be no mistaking that this was the home of a village defender, but that wasn’t all that she was, as evidenced by the colorful blanket across the back of her sofa, the intricately carved wooden masks on the wall opposite the fireplace and the coral tented glass that covered two of her lamps, giving the room a cozy, sedate feel to it. She knew it wasn’t possible, but Keller could swear that the glass coverings on the lamps were assisting the flames with filling the room with a flowery scent, but that couldn’t be true. ‘Troi must have a bowl of flowers somewhere.’ she thought.

Troi stood to remove the dishes. “Thanks, I was hoping you’d like it.”

So caught up in her observation of the room, Keller had almost forgotten about her comment. “It was very good,” she said offhandedly.

As she walked away Troi found herself followed into the kitchen by her dinner companion, who was set to help with clean up. When a pot of water was set on the stove for heating, Troi stood back from the sink with her hands on her hips.

“And what do you think you’re doing?”

Keller pushed her aside with a bump so that she could pump cool water into the dish pan. “I’m helping out. I don’t think it would suit a fighter to have dishwater hands…do you?”

Troi moved behind the shorter woman and wrapped her arms around her waist, watching as she scraped the food from the dishes into a bucket.

“You really don’t have to do that. I should get you back to Mona’s, I know you’re helping with that batch of pants she’s sewing.”

“Tired of me all ready?”

“Never, but I know it’s been a long day for you and it’ll only get longer once you get home.”

Keller covered the large hands that were around her waist with her own. “I know this is gonna sound ridiculous, but I kinda feel right at home here…with you.”

She felt a kiss on the top of her head. “That doesn’t sound ridiculous at all. I want you to feel comfortable here, who knows, one day you might…” She let the sentence drop off.

Keller patted the hands she was covering. “That’s alright, I know. I feel it too. You don’t have to say anything.”

“Good, I like that we understand each other.”

“Me too. Now pour that hot water in the dish pan. Unlike you, soft hands won’t hinder my sewing ability.”

*******

Nelson had been working on Patsy for hours, listening to her moans and whimpers. At first he thought that she was waking and feeling pain, but soon he discovered she was reliving something…something bad. So each time it appeared that the dream was getting particularly distressful he had his assistant give her a little more of the sedative. Rose would mix the sleeping herb with warm tea and administer it by funneling it down the patient’s throat through a thin hollow reed.

When Nelson finally sat back in his chair he had mended every cut, bruise, gash and bite. Running his hand through his salt and pepper hair he exhaled an exhausted breath. Never had he seen anything like what he had just repaired. This poor girl had been through a terrible trauma. Besides the scrapes and scratches, the bite she had suffered was deep and infected. Whatever had gotten a hold of her had almost taken the right side of her left forearm off. But that wasn’t the worst of it. When an internal examination had been done there was evidence of a recent miscarriage and from the looks of things she had been about six weeks along, but the damage he encountered during the examination suggested that the pregnancy came about under nonconsensual circumstances.

She had been bathed stitched and sedated, now it was all up to her. The evidence of what she had been through told a horrific story, and he knew that a lot of people would suffer a mental break under such a harsh experience, but this young woman had made it across the Badlands with her life. That was already half the battle won.

The healer was still in deep thought when Davis slipped in the recovery area undetected. When Nelson saw him there he was momentarily shocked. How a man that large could be so light on his feet was disconcerting.

“Shouldn’t you be at the pit, Davis?” he asked in a weary voice.

The brown head nodded, but his hazel eyes never left the sleeping patient. “I took a quick break. Wanda is covering for me.” He nodded in Patsy’s direction. “How’s she doing?”

Nelson stood, and after giving quiet instructions to his assistant, he led the grill master out of the area. “She’s doing well considering her injuries.”

“What do you think happened to her?”

“From her injuries I’d say she ran into a pack of wild dogs.” He didn’t think it was his place to inform Davis about the rest.

“Will she be okay? I mean will she be able to use that arm? It looked pretty bad.”

“It has an infection and it was torn up quite bad, but in time, if she works it she should be able to use it again.” Nelson could tell there was more Davis wanted to ask, but he seemed shy.

“Um.. Nelson, do you think it would be okay if I stopped by in the morning, you know…after I’m off pit duty?”

Nelson placed his hand on the taller man’s shoulder and guided him towards the front door. “That shouldn’t be a problem. And who knows maybe she’ll be awake by then.”

When he saw the wide smile grow on Davis’ face the healer knew he had answered an unasked question. “I’ll see you in the morning, Davis.”

“Thanks, Nelson. I’ll see you then.”

As he ran out of the door he turned back. “And you have a good eve.”

“You too,” Nelson responded.

‘Maybe Davis’ kindness and support will be what the young lady needs. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s already made a valuable friend’ he thought.
Part Six: Everything Must Change…Nothing Stays The Same. ~Nina Simone~
Brent was up and out of his home before the sun could fully rise. He hadn’t slept very well and he knew that the edginess that was plaguing him wouldn’t settle down until he visited it’s source…Sam. The odd man had been on his mind the entire night, at times even invading his dreams. There was something about him that made Brent feel like he was missing something. That’s why he’d made the decision to go to the holding early, in hopes of figuring it out.

Before entering the Province’s holding building Brent was certain he’d heard laughter, but when the door swung open, the watchers were sitting opposite of each other, with two plates of food sitting on the desk top, eating their morning meal.

One of them looked up and made a great effort to keep a smile off of his face. “Good morn, trail boss. What brings you out this early?”

Before Brent could utter a word he heard a voice coming from the back. “He’s the boss who rides the trail, a rabbit has a fluffy tail.”

This time the hysterics could not be held in and the two watchers spewed warm cider as they broke into sidesplitting fits of laughter.

“Get a hold of yourselves,” the trail boss ordered.

“I’m sorry, Brent, but that guy isn’t like anyone we’ve ever seen. When he’s not sleeping, he’s saying stuff like that. I gotta tell you, it’s been different having him here.”

Brent knew exactly what they were talking about, but chose not to encourage them by admitting it. “Has he had a meal yet?”

“No, we thought we’d wait for you.”

Brent headed towards the back, he wasn’t in the mood to examine the logic in that. Why they wouldn’t feed the man when they fed themselves was just silly.

Rounding the corner he heard Sam talking to himself. “The sky is high and really blue, Sam does not know what he should do.”

The man was sitting in the middle of a cot with his head tilted to the side, his brown eyes staring out of the window into daybreak. He looked like a lost child, and Brent was baffled. He didn’t have any idea what to do with an actual child let alone an adult one. “What do you do with a man-child?” he asked himself.

The sound of Brent’s voice alerted Sam to his presence, and a sideways grin appeared on his face. It made Brent smile back in reflex.

“Are you hungry, Sam?”

The trail boss was shocked when all he received was a slight nod in response. He turned to leave the room, expecting Sam to follow. When he didn’t, Brent stopped and looked over his shoulder.

“Well, come on then.”

Sam jumped off of the cot and happily followed the tall man out of the building.

*******

The Province proper was a place bustling with activity. Everyone had a duty and they were expected to carry it out to their fullest potential. There were people walking, riding and some even running to their appointed destinations. The energy was high, yet sedate. Although the people were moving about with purpose, the atmosphere was sluggish and stifling.

It all seemed to have an affect on Sam, and as he followed Brent up the steps into one of the Provinces public food buildings, the man was unusually quiet, causing Brent to think that he was frightened. The trail boss found them a table and ordered two plates of eggs, sausage and toast. When it came to a beverage, Brent gave Sam a choice.

“Do you want tea or cider?”

Sam looked around the room and shrank a little from the stares he was receiving. When he didn’t answer, Brent made the choice for him. “We’ll have two yellowtail teas.”

When the food arrived Sam ignored the utensils and used his hands to eat. Brent stared for a moment, but didn’t bother correcting him, ‘the leader will probably set him out again, so teaching him how to eat will be a waste,’ he thought.

They finished their meal in silence, Sam never uttering a word. Brent led him to The Order’s compound. It was where the leader and his advisors had there private meeting rooms. It was also where all of the Province’s important decisions were made.

The place was one long building that stood alone at the end of the main road. Brent walked them through the front door and turned right, heading for the leader’s meeting room. Knocking before entering, he waited for permission before walking in.

“Come,” was heard almost immediately.

Brent entered with Sam close behind him. Myron Scott was sitting behind a desk and the head advisor, Roland, was sitting in a chair in front of him. “Good morn, Leader.” He turned to Roland. “Senior Advisor.”

“Good morn,” they both echoed.

Brent moved to the side and pulled Sam forward. “This is the man we found wandering. We call him Sam, but that’s about all I can tell you, other than he speaks in an odd way.”

“Have a seat,” Myron instructed the trail boss.

Brent was never comfortable when he was in this room, so he found a chair in a corner, away from the leader and his advisor.

Myron stood up and came around his desk to get a closer look at the nomad. The man was short and his clothes tattered. He didn’t wear any shoes, his dark hair was shaggy and he was in need of a bath, but that was it, his overall appearance was only one of…disarray. As far as Myron could tell, there were no injuries of any kind on his body. That was very curious to the leader.

“Sam?” Myron called.

Brown eyes focused on the leader and they held each other’s stare for a moment, making Myron feel dizzy, but before his legs could give out, he broke the connection and asked a question.

“Where are you from, Sam?”

He was quiet for so long that Brent was beginning to think that Sam had finally run out of words, then it started. The strange speech and confusing words that were uniquely Sam.

“The mountain ridge is where I’ve been, one day I hope to go again.”

That was the same answer he had given Brent the day they found him and the trail boss still didn’t understand it.

Myron was shocked. The man’s speech pattern was undecipherable, but he tried again. “How were you able to cross the Badlands unharmed.

“I was protected by the Deus, only the chosen one will free us.”

Something about those words left an odd feeling in Brent’s guts, one that seemed to present itself whenever he was in Sam’s presence. The same one that had interrupted his sleep the night before. Then it hit him. That’s what it was! Sam had seen the place of Curtis Poole’s descent.

He didn’t know how he knew it, because he certainly had no knowledge or references to pull from. It was a feeling more than anything else, but the way Sam said, ‘mountain’ brought up images of the descent. As impossible as that sounded, Brent knew it in his gut to be true and he felt like the leader needed to know. But as he was about to inform Myron of his suspicions, Roland caught the leader’s attention instead.

Roland’s heart started to pound in his chest. Only a few had ever seen the writings that Curtis Poole left behind, now they were in the senior advisor’s possession. After many centuries, they were all but forgotten, but Roland’s ancestor had been Curtis Poole’s first advisor, one of the five fellows, and when the other families had let the memories of that time leave them, Roland’s had not. That was why he had those writings stored in a wooden box in his home where no one would find them. What only he knew was that some of those hidden away writings were written in the same strange way that this man spoke.

That’s how he knew, without a doubt, the nomad had been there. ‘He has seen the mountain,’ he thought. And just as he had come to that realization, he also noticed the awareness in the trail boss’ eyes. Hoping to prevent him from speaking his thoughts, the advisor quickly addressed Myron.

“Excuse me, Leader, but I don’t believe it is proper for the trail boss to be here during this matter.”

Without taking his eyes off of Sam, Myron waved his hand in compliance.

“But, Leader I think that…”

“You heard him,” Roland gritted. “Leave, or be relieved of your position.”

Knowing his place, Brent took his leave without uttering another word. The last thing he needed was to have his position taken away and given to another. It made him queasy to think of Jay or Todd being in charge. He didn’t think the populace would survive it, so he raised himself up and left the Province business to those who mattered most. ‘I’m probably wrong anyway,’ he thought.

Once they were alone Myron started speaking out loud, but it seemed like he was talking to himself instead of the advisor.

“He was out there alone wandering round in the wilderness, until the riders of the Province found him. The riders that I sent out.”

His voice started to rise and his words started coming faster as his excitement grew over a connection that only he understood.

“I’ve been thinking too small. That’s why there hasn’t been any success. Sam is a messenger from the Deus, and he was sent here to show me that I am on the right path. I just need to go further.”

‘I think he is loosing his mind.’ the advisor thought. Feeling dread twist in his stomach, Roland had to ask. “Further, how?”

“By bringing them all back home. Setting them free.”

Trying to keep the panic down, Roland continued the conversation. “I’m sure they have a home, Myron, granted it might be a cave in a wall or some branch covered ditch, but it’s theirs. Please, Myron, I’m begging you, leave them to it.”

The plea fell on deaf ears. Myron was already mentally mapping out what part of the Province would be used to establish the exile’s new dwellings.

Acting as if the advisor had never spoken a negative word, Myron started thinking out loud. “He’s going to need a place to stay. The center can’t accommodate him and the citizens can’t understand him, but I need him around until I can unravel his speech.”

Deciding to give up the fight until he could speak with the other advisors, Roland helped with something he could control.

“The men have informed me that the rancher, Morgan, I believe his name is, gets along well with him. I suggest we send him out there. It’s far enough away from the rest of the population to keep the confusion down, but close enough for you to have him brought in when you need to speak with him.”

“That’s an excellent idea. Have Tom and Earl take him out there. He should remember them from the journey back in.”

*******

The ride out to the Morgan ranch was a pleasant one for Tom and Earl. They enjoyed Sam’s company and was happy that he would be staying with the Morgan’s. The time they’d spent with Warren on the trail had shown him to be a good guy, so they knew Sam would be in a safe place.

The little man had remained quiet until they reached the outlands, then it seemed like his spirits started to lift and the odd speech began. “It’s big and wide where I can see, this is where I like to be.”

Startled by the sudden outburst, Earl, who had Sam riding behind him, jumped a little in his saddle. “Well, look who woke up,” he said to Tom.

Tom looked across to see Sam with a smile on his face, the first one he’d seen since they picked him up from the compound.

“How ya feeling, Sam?” he asked.

“Sam is good, he’s on his way, to the place he’s going to stay.”

“That’s right,” Earl said. “Do you remember Warren?”

“Warren’s sad cause he’s a father, one day he will find his daughter.”

“I guess that answers that,” Tom laughed.

When they reached the Morgan ranch the sun was high in the sky, they saw Ellen in the chicken coop spreading feed. Hearing the horses, she scattered what was left across the ground and wiped her hands on her apron as she moved to greet the visitors.

“Good noon,” they said as they dismounted their horses. Tom moved forward and made the introductions. “My name’s Tom and this is Earl. Sorry to just show up, ma’am, but we were sent by the leader. He instructed us to bring Sam…” He reached behind him and pulled the tattered little man out in front of him so Ellen could see him. “out to your ranch to stay for a while.”

Warren had told his family about Sam, and from his looks, Warren had been pretty accurate with his description. There was just one thing she had to hear for herself. She reached for Sam’s hand and held it in her own.

“Hello, Sam. My name is Ellen.”

Sam’s eyes softened and became glassy. This was a mother, he could smell it on her skin, he could feel it in her touch, he could see it in her eyes, because her children lived there. She was…everything.

“You are gentle like no other, the bringer of life, you are mother.”

Ellen momentarily forgot about the way the man spoke. His words were delivered with such innocents, that she was held in their purity for a few sweet seconds.

Shaking herself free of the feeling, she addressed the other men. Warren and the boys are out in the pas…” Before she could finish the sentence, she saw her men coming in from the pasture for the midday meal.

When they saw the strange men in the yard, they pushed their horses faster to see if there was a problem, when Warren was close enough to recognize the visitors he smiled. “Well, I’ll be,” he said before dismounting. “What brings you three out here?”

“Good noon, Warren. Guess you didn’t expect to see us again.” Earl teased.

“Can’t say that I did.” He turned his attention to Sam. “I’m guessing my little friend here has something to do with this reunion.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. “The leader wants him to stay within the borders, but not in the proper. I guess he thinks Sam can tell him something if he can figure out how to understand him, but until then, he has sent him here for you to watch over.”

Ellen listened to the men’s conversation with one ear, and waited for her son’s reaction with the other. When, not a word came from them, she focused fully on the other men.

Warren turned to his wife. “How do feel about that, Ellie?”

“I think it’s as it should be. Sam is welcome here.”

He looked to his sons. “What about you three?”

The younger two looked to Sherman, and without a word, he walked over to Sam, bent over at the waist so that he could look into his eyes and asked him one question.

“Are you gonna be any trouble?”

Sam tilted his head to the side and studied the tall blonde. When a huge smile bloomed on his face, Sherman straightened up and took a step back.

“I am Sam, I am no trouble.” Then with unusual clarity he rubbed his chin. But I need to cut away my stubble.”

There was silence for two short beats before the yard was filled with laughter. It was the first time the Morgan’s had laughed in weeks.

*******

Roland was feeling desperate. Myron would not listen to reason. No matter how many different ways his advisors tried to convince him that it would be more prudent to straighten out the current situation with the intuitives before embarking on an even bigger one, but Myron turned a deaf ear to any advice that didn’t begin or end with solutions on how to bring the exiles home.

“Myron, we implore you. Please, cease and desist in your thoughts to bring the exiles into the Province. You are already in the middle of a huge undertaking with the center.”

The leader continued to ignore him. He was tired of the constant pushing and prodding he was receiving from his advisors. He didn’t know how much more he could take. Between his father’s criticisms and these men second guessing and questioning, not only his authority, but his capabilities, he was about to explode.

The final push came with Roland’s next comment.

“Curtis Poole was right to send them away. Don’t change that by bringing them back, their absence is truly what is best for the Province.”

The move was so quick that Roland didn’t see it coming. Myron grabbed him around the throat and squeezed until the man’s face turned red.

“Don’t talk to me about the right or wrong of anything Curtis Poole ever did. None of it matters because in the end his line lost the power.”

Roland was surprised that even through his loss of oxygen he still had enough clarity to mentally roll his eyes at the ‘lost the power’ statement.

His line had been the senior advisors to the leading family from the very beginning. His ancestors were among the five fellows that came down from the mountain with Curtis Poole, and he knew the history from the beginning.

The Scotts had been there too, but unlike the other families they had never been content to follow, and generations later, after years of careful planning, they made their move, at least that’s what most of the descendents of the fellows assumed when the entire leading family mysteriously became ill and died within days of one another.

That opinion was solidified when, after the Poole’s were properly buried and mourned the Scotts wasted no time stepping in as the authoritative voice. There really wasn’t much debate about it. The other families had always understood and accepted their role in the world their ancestors hade created and had no desires to be elevated above their abilities.

Roland was brought back to reality when he heard one of the other advisors beg the leader to let him go.

“Please, leader. Release him. He meant no disrespect.”

Myron let Roland go, but not without a warning. “Never again speak to me about Curtis Poole, Roland. Not if you want to continue to breathe. My decision has been made. I will bring them back. We will leave as soon as the plans have been solidified.”

The advisor rubbed his sore neck, nodded his understanding, and without another word he turned and left the room, followed closely by his colleagues.

*******

When they reached their meeting room, before the door was fully closed the conversation began.

“Something has to be done, Roland,” Wilson, the advisor that spoke up for him, said.

Roland continued to rub his throat. “I know, Wilson…I know. The problem is, the only solution to this is to make a decision that has never before been made.”

The others waited in anticipated silence.

“We have to remove Myron from the leadership. It’s obvious it’s too much for him.”

They sat around the table, nervous energy flowing throughout the room. “That’s a dangerous thing to think about, let alone talk about, Roland,” said Wilson.

“Don’t you think I know that, but we are “The Oder,” and our word is law.”

“No, the leader’s word is law. Our duty is to see that his word is obeyed,” reminded Aaron.

“Nevertheless,” Roland said dismissively. “Drastic measures need to be taken.”

“I agree,” Aaron said.

This shocked the others. Aaron, more than the others, had always been a staunch supporter of the leadership. It didn’t matter who led, Aaron was always willing to obey. He believed that those seeking to lead, were those meant to lead. So his agreeing so easily to remove the current leader was surprising and unifying. If Aaron was on board, it must be the right thing to do.

As the talks continued they all agreed to back off of pushing Myron in the right direction, deciding it was best to lay out their contingency plan instead. Roland suggested that, while Myron was off on his quest, Garland Scott’s second son should be groomed to take over leadership. Because the young man was only nineteen Roland knew his position would have to be that of a figurehead until he became knowledgeable enough to lead the Province, until then, The Order would make the decisions.

Roland looked to his peers for approval, when a nod of agreement was given he announced. “Then it is official as soon as the opportunity presents itself we will start Gabriel Scott’s leadership training. Let’s hope he better understands the necessity for the rules and lessons better than his brother did.”
Part Seven: Getting To Know You, Getting To Know All About You. ~Oscar Hammerstein~
Davis was waiting for Dorian to relieve him from pit duty. He was barely able to contain his excitement. His plan was to run home, wash off, change clothes, then go over to the healer’s hut to check on the injured woman. He wondered what her name was, how she had been injured, and how long she had been out there.

Of course he wouldn’t throw all of the questions at her at once. He knew she wasn’t in any condition to answer questions, have long talks, or lengthy visits, he just wanted to see if she was doing well.

When he walked into the building he saw that Nelson was still there and the man looked as if he had slept in the chair he was sitting in. This sent a little flutter of panic through Davis. Was the woman so seriously injured that the healer couldn’t risk leaving her side? Was she still there? Was she even alive?

When Nelson looked up and saw the rapid pulse beating at the base of Davis’ throat, he became concerned, and stood to approach the grill master.

“Davis? Are you okay?”

“Is…is she okay?”

Nelson ignored the question and asked again, with more emphasis. “Are YOU okay?”

Davis’ face scrunched up in confusion. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

Nelson reached down and felt for Davis’ pulse on his wrist. “Because your heart is beating much too fast for a person standing still.”

Davis snatched his hand away and rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I just want to know how the patient is doing.”

“Considering the condition she was in yesterday, she’s doing quite well.”

“Um…can I go cheek on her?”

Knowing how anxious the young man had been the night before and his obvious concern today, Nelson thought it would be cruel to make him wait any longer.

“Go ahead, but if she’s sleeping, or gets tired, you leave her so she can rest. Understood?”

“Yes.” And with that one word answer, he was gone.

He silently walked towards the recovery area, where only one of the four cots was occupied. The woman lying there looked like Rose had very recently assisted her with a bath. She was wearing a clean shift and the debris was no longer tangled in her hair. As he got closer, a head of auburn waves turned in his direction, and he nearly stopped in his tracks. The face that was revealed to him was stunning. The woman’s thick hair was piled around her shoulders, her skin was glowing from the recent scrubbing and her green eyes were clear and alert, but there was a fair amount of suspicion in them.

He slowly approached her, and when he reached the side of the bed, because he was so nervous he sped through the introduction. “Hi, my name is Davis Green. I don’t know if you remember me, but I carried you in, so I thought I’d come by and check on you.”

Patsy had a vague memory of this man carrying her to the healer and his kind touch. “I’m Patsy Thirwell.”

When she said nothing more, her visitor became a little unsure of himself. His hazel eyes opened wide and his dark eyebrows shot into the hair hanging over his forehead. To Patsy he looked like a nervous little boy, an adorable, nervous little boy, but she was still cautious. This man was a stranger and although she felt safe, she wasn’t certain.

Seeing the trepidation in hesitant green eyes, Davis gentled his voice, like he’d seen the wranglers do when they were trying to gain the trust of a frightened horse.

“I promise, I don’t want anything from you.”

Patsy stared at him, trying to gage his honesty, his intentions. “Why are you here?”

Unprepared for the unflinching, straightforward question, Davis was silent for a moment. “I…I want to help.”

The compassion and innocents that she saw in his eyes and heard in his voice, caused the injured woman to turn away. It made her feel exposed, undeserving and unclean. The horrors that she had endured had changed her. She was no longer the carefree storyteller. She felt like that girl was lost forever. Now, instead of her imagination running free in a sunlit field of wildflowers, it was held prisoner behind the gray walls of fear, distrust and humiliation. She didn’t know if she would ever see that girl again.

Those were the feelings that had caused her to turn away, essentially dismissing the man from the room. “Go away Davis Green. You can’t help me.”

Pained by the hopeless tone in her voice, Davis was even more determined to help this beautiful, broken women. He took a step towards the bed, but stopped. ‘I need to give her time,’ he thought. ‘I can’t go charging at her like bull.’

“I’ll be back,” he whispered to the woman’s back.

Patsy never responded, or gave any indication that she had heard the man. ‘Don’t bother,’ she thought. ‘I just want to be left alone.’

Davis left the building and walked over to Miss Millie’s stand. He didn’t know whether or not Nelson had sent word of the woman needing a place to stay, if not, he’d secure a room for her. This, in his mind would be his first step towards giving Patsy Thirwell back to herself.

****

Keller and Troi were sharing the morning meal with Troi’s mother. After that first morning, Keller had become a fixture in the Donner home. On the days when Troi was too tired to stay awake, Keller would walk over and visit with Nicola while she made a new pair of shoes or repaired a boot for one of the villagers.

They had become quick friends, Nicola liking the optimistic exuberance that seemed to surround Keller. She was also pleased with the progress of her daughter’s relationship with the artist, but she had been so sure that Troi would move at a snail’s pace when it came to courting Keller that she nearly sliced into her thumb instead of the potato she was cutting when Keller informed her that they were an official couple.

She turned from the wooden countertop and zeroed in on her daughter. “So, when were you going to tell?”

Troi rolled her blue eyes and blew out an exasperated breath. “It just happened last night, mom. This was as soon as we could get here.”

Nicola looked to Keller for confirmation. “Is this true?”

The blonde nodded her head vigorously. “Yes. Last night she asked me to be her girlfriend, then she cooked for me.”

Nicola clutched her hand to her chest and stumbled backwards. “My Troi cooked a meal? It must be love.”

Instead of the blush, the denial, or even the protest she thought she was going to get, Troi’s only response was a soft, “It is.”

Keller’s smile lit up the room. ‘I knew that,’ she thought. Then she echoed Troi’s short response. “Yeah. It is.”

Nicola’s features softened and all teasing left her voice. “I’m happy for you both. It only took me seeing the two of you together once, and I knew you were meant for each other.”

Troi never took her eyes off of Keller. “Barrett told me the same thing…kinda.”

“I know. He said…” Nicola stopped mid sentence, and hoped that Troi wouldn’t notice when she changed the subject. “What do you two have planned for today?”

Troi wasn’t about to let that slip go unnoticed. She pined her mother in place with her eyes and then narrowed them. “Since when do you talk to Barrett?” And then it hit her. “He’s your gossip connection! Why that…I’m gonna…”

“Now, Troi. There’s no reason for retaliation,” Then she smirked. “Besides, you know he’ll get the best of you…he always does.”

The younger woman pouted. “Does not.”

Keller reached over and pushed her bottom lip back in. “How many times must I tell you to put that away?”

“Aw, that’s so cute,” Nicola said.

“It is not,” Troi protested. And was about to stick her lip out again, but when she saw the tip of Keller’s finger heading for her target, she kept it in.

“See, Keller. She’s a quick study.”

They didn’t know why, but for some reason this made both of the young women blush.

Nicola turned back to cutting her potatoes, hoping the knowing smile had gone unseen. ‘They have no idea,’ she thought. ‘But I’m guessing they will soon enough.’

*******

Walking hand in hand towards the healer’s hut, Keller started swinging their joined hands between them. “After we visit Patsy will you take me to the falls? I want to see what I’ve only heard.”

Troi hesitated for a moment. Usually she wouldn’t have thought twice about taking Keller to the falls, she knew she was more than capable of protecting her, but with Patsy’s arrival so soon after Keller’s, it made her feel a little antsy about what might be lurking about. It wasn’t often that the villagers left the safety of the gates, but with the recent activities, only the sentries and the fishermen came out.

‘Maybe we should wait.’ she thought.

But when she saw the excitement on Keller’s face, she knew she couldn’t say no, so, throwing caution to the wind, she gave in. “Yeah. I don’t see why not.”

Jumping up and down, Keller’s joy could not be contained and before she knew it, she kissing Troi full on the lips in the middle of the main road, and it wasn’t a quick, ‘thank you’ peck on the lips. This was a deep, knee buckling, earth moving kiss that didn’t look like it was about to end anytime soon…until Barrett walked by.

“Why don’t you two get a room?” he said without slowing down, or missing a step.

They pulled apart so quick they were both left a little dizzy and off balance. “Whoa,” Keller said. “That was…”

“Yeah,” Troi agreed. “it was.”

They just stood staring at each other, silently communicating something too deep for words. When both of their faces bloomed bright with wide smiles the moment was over.

“Come on,” Troi said, pulling the shorter woman towards the healer’s hut. Let’s visit your friend and then head out.”

*******

When Patsy heard footsteps again, she never turned over, pretending to be asleep. ‘Maybe he’ll go away if he thinks I’m asleep.’ she thought to herself.

Keller saw the woman curled up on the cot with her back facing them. “I guess she’s still asleep,” she said to Troi and started to walk back out.

‘That didn’t sound like a man. In fact it sounded like…no it couldn’t be.’ Patsy turned over so fast she forgot about her injured arm and cried out when her weight rested on it.

This caught Keller’s attention, and when she turned around Patsy saw the face that went with the voice and her eyes begin to water, causing Keller to rush to her. She sat on the side of the bed and hugged the injured redhead close, allowing the woman to cry. They didn’t really know each other, had only spent less than a day in one another’s company, but they felt a certain kinship because of shared experiences, and that was the emotion flowing between them now.

After Patsy calmed Keller released her and moved to sit in a chair beside the bed. She called Troi over to join her, the tall sentry taking up a position standing behind the sitting blonde. Keller felt safe and protected when warm hands settle on her shoulders, giving her comfort.

How would Patsy feel about Keller being in a relationship with a woman? It wasn’t something that was ever heard of in the Province, so no thought had ever been given to it, but being with Troi just felt right. It also helped that the Arcadians didn’t see their type of relationship as odd, there were several same sex couples all throughout the village. ‘Oh, well, I guess the best way to do this is to just tell her.’ Keller thought.

“Patsy, this is Troi, my girlfriend.”

At first Patsy was a little shocked. ‘Girlfriend? I’ve never heard of such,’ Then she took the time to allow the idea to flow through her heart. There she found the truth…and it was good. Besides, The Edicts never gave any rules against it.

As a response, Patsy managed to give a smirk. “You sure work fast.”

Keller turned her head and looked up into loving blue eyes. “It doesn’t feel like it was fast. It just feels…right.” Troi smiled and nodded her agreement.

Patsy could see that the feelings passing between the two women were genuine, and she wondered at it’s purity. ‘How can something like that exist in a world like this?’ she marveled.

She cleared her throat to remove the lump that had suddenly formed there, and this gave her time to find a subject. “When you first walked in I thought you might be the big dark-haired man returning for another visit.”

Because the information wasn’t delivered with any warmth Keller thought there might be a problem. “Are you talking about Davis?”

“That’s the name he gave.”

Keller’s brow furrowed in thought. “Is there a problem? Was he rude? Because that would be so out of character for him. He’s the sweetest guy. If you would just give him a chance…”

Patsy held up her good arm. “Wait, Keller. He was a perfect gentleman, shy even. Which I found odd for a man so large.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

Suddenly Patsy felt like she could start crying all over again. “I…I don’t know if I can accept any kindness from him…or any man. I…I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach just thinking about him coming back.”

That was when Keller took a mental step back and took note of everything that had happened from the time she’d left the center to today. After a moment, realization hit her square in the face. Patsy’s experiences may not have been the same as hers, but it was best not to assume.

“How did you get away, Patsy?”

The redhead started from the moment Keller had left them. “Right after you left, we tied Hamilton up with the bed covers and ran.”

“We?”

Patsy felt the tears well up again. “Yeah. Paige and Jesse Lynn were with me. They…they didn’t make it…”

The injured woman went on to tell the women about all that she had endured, the center, the links, the dogs. She even shared with the couple the private agony she had experienced late in the night when something terrible expelled itself from her body. She told them how she’d buried the bloody mass, thinking that the scent would bring the links, or even worse, the dogs to her.

Throughout the telling Keller found herself, at different times, switching from being the one who was cried on, to the one doing the crying. And through the entire retelling, Troi’s emotions went from anger, to terror, to fear, then relief.

But she had to admit it was a shellfish relief. When Patsy shared the atrocities she had suffered from the minute her family had left her at the center until she was brought into the village, all Troi could do was thank the Deus, over and over again. Keller had been kept safe…her Keller had been kept safe.

*******

The sentries walked along the perimeter doing their routine start of duty checks. Barrett and Pip noticed that Troi was unusually quiet. It was obvious there was something on her mind, they just didn’t know what, and Pip didn’t feel comfortable asking.

Troi was so deep in thought that she was moving along on instinct only. Her mind was filled with Keller. Had she practically professed her love for the woman, while sitting in her mother’s kitchen? And what about that kiss in the middle of the road? What was that? And the look that followed? Intense. So many questions.

Earlier, after leaving Patsy, they’d had a great time at the falls, Keller finding the spot where she wanted to do her first drawing. They had even shared a few more kisses. Everything was…great, but there was something bothering her, something that she couldn’t put her finger on.

Barrett couldn’t stand it any longer. The uncertainty that was rolling off of Troi was becoming too distracting.

“Alright, Troi, we’ve had just about enough. Tell us what is going on in that head of yours.”

At first she thought to deny there was a problem, but decided against it. It was obvious they could see something was wrong, and maybe Barrett could help, so she answered honestly.

“This thing with Keller, it’s getting real serious, real fast.”

“And that is a problem, how? You looked exceptionally comfortable in her embrace earlier.” Barrett teased.

Refusing to react, Troi pushed on. “I’m not real sure, Barrett.”

The little monkey sat quietly, waiting for his friend to sort out her feelings without further interruption.

“Sometimes I…I don’t know…sometimes I feel like I’m soaring on the wings of a bird and drowning at the bottom of the falls, all at once.” She shook her dark head, trying to make the pieces fit. “It is all very confusing.”

Barrett remained silent, waiting for the right words to come to him. The answer he needed to give was too important to rush. Then it came. The best way to explain to Troi the everlasting change, that was now as much a part of her as the nails that grew from her fingertips, was to use the example of two of his friends from the land of his birth.

“Troi, do you remember me telling you of my home in the Low Lands?”

When he received an affirmative nod he continued. “Well, in that land I have two very good friends. Falieri and Gerund. They are wolves, and like you and Miss Keller they are mated for life. They termed it, Holo.”

He held up a furry hand to stop the question he knew was coming. “I speak of them now because I surmise they will be the best example I can produce to explain what being human life mates must encompass. I have been told meeting the mate of one’s heart can be the most brilliant and the most tragic occurrence one can experience, all in the same precious moment.”

“What does that mean?” Troi asked.

“Well,” Barrett began. “I think your confusion stems from an innate feeling. Something that you know, but cannot define, so I’ll try and explain it the way Falieri did when she told me of a time when she thought Gerund was lost to her.

Their hunting pack had gone out, but when they returned, it was without Gerund. Before a word could be spoken, she knew. She had been pacing most of the day, because she felt it when it happened. A misstep on a ledge and he tumbled out of the packs sight. For two days Falieri never left their den and would not accept food or comfort, she had given up.

Then, on the third night, when the moon was high, suddenly, she got up and ran full speed out of her home and headed for the forest. There she found him, broken and bleeding, but alive. She quickly ran back to the lands and brought the primates back to carry her injured mate. When they returned him to the lands, they cleaned his wounds and set his bones…saving his life.

After that, Gerund was never able to walk without a limp, but Falieri didn’t care. He was there, that’s all that mattered. When asked how he had survived, he looked to his mate and told those gathered that as he felt his heartbeat slow, he also felt hers. That’s what gave him the strength to make it home, he was determined, he would not allow her life to end.”

Barrett exhaled with a knowing sigh. “She told me that the euphoria that is experienced when fated souls find one another, is the same depth of bereavement that one must live through when the connection is broken by the most unrecoverable of circumstances…death.

Not many have the will to survive such a tragedy. I think that is what has you so out of sorts. Somewhere inside of you, you are afraid of the possibility of experiencing that kind of pain, being put to that type of test.”

Seeing the blue eyes turn inward in thought, Barrett waited, and so did Pip. They both watched as Troi tried to make a decision that was no longer hers to make. When it was obvious she wasn’t finding a way out, Barrett stepped in.

“Don’t think on the situation too aggressively, Troi Donner. Whether or not you should take the chance to fully love Miss Keller is no longer up to you.”

She already knew the answer, but had to ask. “So, I have no choice in this at all?”

“I am telling you, the moment the two of you shared the same space and time, the road you would travel became the same. In that instant your hearts were given over to the destiny where all reunited souls exist.”

Troi looked over at the small primate that had been a companion, fellow sentry and friend, now, since Keller had come into their lives Barrett had also become a kind of counselor to her, and as she had done in the recent past, she was going to do again. She was going to follow his advice and accept the fate that her heart was compelled to travel.

*******

This time when Davis walked into the healer’s hut he wasn’t as nervous as he had been the first time, he had Miss Millie with him and hoped her presence would make the injured woman more comfortable with his company.

On their way to the recovery area they found Nelson and was told that Patsy is doing well and is able to leave as soon as a place can be found for her to stay.

Millie smiled at the news. “Then it’s a good thing we’re here,” she said while walking towards Patsy’s cot.

Davis quickly caught up to the woman’s side, wanting to greet Patsy first. When they arrived she was in her usual position, face turned to the wall, her back serving as a barrier against visitors.

“Good morn, Patsy Thirwell.”

She recognized the voice immediately and turned to tell him she wasn’t in the mood for company, but when she faced the uninvited visitor, she saw him standing beside an older blonde woman with soft brown eyes, and before she could think to speak, the woman did it first.

“Good morn, Patsy. My name is Millie Yerks, I’m the village baker.” She looked up at Davis with a wink and a smile. “Among other things. And other things is why I’m here.”

The energetic woman’s introduction alone, had Patsy exhausted. What could she possibly want with her?

When Millie saw that the young woman was going to remain silent, she continued. “Nelson says you are well enough to leave… that’s where I come in. I live in a house in the village. My family lives up on the hill near the mill. When I say family, I mean my siblings and their children. They stay up there to, you know, keep the grain going and the bread baked. I go up there and stay…”

She stopped when Davis gave her a slight nudge in the side.

“Oh, sorry. I drifted off the road a little. Any way, I know that you’ll need a place to stay once Nelson clears you, that’s why I’m here. I have a spare room that you can stay in…if you’d like.”

Patsy’s brain was swirling, so much information had been given at one time that she was dazed. “I…I don’t know,” she said with trepidation.

This wasn’t the expected response. She thought the young would be relieved to have the comfort of a home offered to her. ‘She needs time to find her balanced,’ she thought.

Millie took a step forward and patted the uninjured arm. “Just think about it.” She looked to Davis. “I’ve gotta get back to the stand. You let me know what she decides.”

After they were left alone, the two young people sat in silence until Patsy decided, if she didn’t say something, Davis would be content to continue sitting there without saying a word.

“What is a stand?” she asked in a soft voice.

Davis looked around, shocked that she had spoken, and unsure of what she was talking about. “A stand?”

“Millie said she had to get back to the stand.”

“Oh, that. Miss Millie runs one of the best food stands in Arcadia.”

“Food stands? Why do you have food stands?”

Davis was baffled. “They don’t have stands in the Province, where people go for cooked meals, or raw meats and fresh vegetables?”

Patsy shook her head, ‘no’. “In the Province there are buildings that The Order regulates. Places where you eat, choose your clothing, or meet for Order approved purposes. Anything you need, there is a building for it.”

“Well, you’ll see there’s nothing like that here in Arcadia. The meeting hut is the only public building we have. All the others are run by the individual merchant.

“Oh,” was her only response.

Hoping to keep the conversation going, Davis picked another topic. “What does your family do in the Province?”

“They run one of the guesthouses. When we have visitors from the coastal areas of the Province they need a place to stay while they trade.” Here she became a little introspective.

“What’s wrong?” Davis asked.

“Nothing really. I just realized that spending my childhood listening to the visitors talk about their lives, and sampling the unusual and sometimes colorful smoked and salted fish they brought for barter, is where my love for telling stories began.”

“You tell stories?” Davis asked with enthusiasm.

Patsy’s face became hard. “No. Not anymore.”

Instinct told him that this wasn’t the time to press the issue. Patsy would not be open to the conversation, but he stored the information for later examination.

“You should really take Miss Millie up on her offer. Not only is she one of the nicest ladies in the village, she is by far the best cook.”

There it was again. That shy little boy. Patsy stared at him, her eyes unflinching. She looked until she had explored the very depths of those open hazel eyes, and could find no deceit. Then she thought about how Keller had described this man. He did seem to be a genuinely nice and caring soul, but…

“Um…Davis?”

He thought his heart would burst from his chest. The sound of his name coming from her mouth was like a gift.

“Yes?”

“What do you want from me?”

“I told you, Patsy. Nothing. I don’t want a thing from you. But I do want things for you. I want to see your eyes light up with joy, because I think it will help you see how beautiful the world is. I want to see you smile from pure happiness, because I think it will give voice to the beauty you will see, but most importantly, I want your mind to be at ease, so that your stories can return to your heart, because I think they are what gives you purpose.”

His honesty made little pin pricks sting the backs of her eyes. “Would you do me a favor?”

“Anything.”

“Would you tell Millie that I accept her generous offer.”

The smile that spread across his face was infectious, so much so, that it made the corner of her mouth twitch a little.

“You bet I will,” he said eagerly. “You’re gonna love it here, Patsy. I just know it.”
Part Eight: He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. ~Hollies~
While Ellen sorted through her son’s old clothing, looking for a pair of pants and a shirt that would fit Sam, Sherman was sharpening a razor, preparing to give the man a shave. He was swiping the straight blade back and forth across the sharpening strap, when he noticed that the soap wasn’t with the brush and cup.

“Hey, Walter! Where’s the shaving soap?” he yelled.

“Last time I saw it, it was on the windowsill in the kitchen.”

“Thanks.”

He looked to his small companion and was pleased to see that he was still sitting patiently and quietly while the family bustled around him.

“Sam, can you go in the kitchen and ask dad for the soap?”

Without saying a word he jumped off of the chair and headed for the kitchen, when he entered Warren was standing by the stove waiting for the water to boil, for both the shave and a long needed bath.

The rancher knew what Sam needed, he’d heard Sherman send him in. It would be interesting to hear how he asked for the item.

“Sherman’s busy, he can’t be seen. I need the bar that makes you clean.”

Warren reached over and grabbed the shaving soap. Handing it over, he smiled. “I’ve gotta say. That one was very clever.”

Sam took the item and walked away, smiling like he understood what Warren was saying. Then it dawned on the rancher. “Well I’ll be, I think he does understand.”

Ellen walked in with a set of clothes draped over her arm. “Who understands what?”

“Sam. I think he understands what we are saying.”

She tilted her head and looked at him as if he’d just realized that the sun rises in the morning. “Of course he does.”

Hearing the ‘are you just now getting it.’ tone in her voice, he scratched his head and mumbled. “Sometimes it takes a little longer for some, than others.”

Before she left he gave her a cup with hot water in it. “Would you give this to Sherman?”

As she continued on into the main room Thomas was dragging in the wash tub. “Where should I put this?”

“Ask your father.”

Handing the water to Sherman, she asked Sam to stand up. When he did she held, first the shirt, then the pants up in front of him. After gauging the alterations that would be needed, she told Sam he could sit back down.

Sherman gave Sam a serious look. “Okay, buddy. I’m gonna need you to be real still. If you move I might cut you. Understand?”

Sam nodded his head.

After working up a good lather, Sherman swirled the brush bristles around in the suds, then applied the foam to Sam’s cheeks, chin and upper lip.

He never made a move, not unless Sherman was tilting his head from side to side or lifting his chin to shave his throat.

When he was finished he stood back and took in the short man’s appearance. “You know, I think you could use a haircut. What do ya say, Sam? Think you can sit for a few more minutes?”

Brown eyes looked up at his new hero and nodded, then he straightened his back and made his body as ridged as the chair he was sitting in.

“Well, alright then, let me get the scissors.”

*******

The family was sitting around the table finishing their dinner. Sam was seated beside Sherman and across from Thomas. His dark hair was clean, and a neat part had been combed on the side of his head. With his clean shaven face and slightly oversized clothes, he looked even younger than he had before.

“Sam?” Ellen got his attention. “Do you know how old you are?”

Before answering, Sam dropped his fork on the plate, it had taken Walter several minutes to show him how to use it, then he started counting on his fingers. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty. The year I was born the day was sunny.”

“Are you saying you’re twenty-years-old?” Thomas asked.

“Brother number three can count real well, he knows the age that Sam will tell.”

For some reason this made Thomas puff out his chest, obviously filled with pride that Sherman wasn’t the only one that could communicated with Sam.

Seeing how smug Thomas was acting made Sherman want to have a little fun, so he poked Sam in the side with his elbow, getting his attention, he bent his head in Thomas’ direction.

“Thomas thinks he can understand you, Sam. What do you think?”

“Brother number three does the best he can, but he is nothing like Sherman.”

The laughter that went around the table was hearty. Walter smacked his younger brother on the shoulder and rubbed his hair.

“I guess we know who he favors, huh?”

Thomas ran his hand through his hair, trying to get it resettled after his brother’s mussing. “Yeah, well, give me some time, I’m sure I can win him over.”

Watching the interaction, Warren noticed something, and decided to try an experiment. He leaned over and whispered in his wife’s ear. “Watch this.”

He cleared his throat and got everyone’s attention, then he pointed to Walter. “Sam, who is that?”

The dark-haired man answered immediately. “Father knows I have a clue, that one’s name is brother two.”

Warren shifted his gaze to Thomas. “What’s his name?”

“Sam’s not blind, he can see, that one’s name is brother three.”

Finally he pointed in Sherman’s direction. “Who is that.”

The smile came without hesitation. “I don’t know all, cause I’m still learnin’, that’s my friend, his name is Sherman.”

Again the table roared with laughter. “Well, son. I guess that’s, that. Sherman is his hands down favorite.”

Before the boys could respond, Sam piped up. “Brothers are fun in all they do, Sam is happy, he likes them too.”

Ellen stood to go get another pitcher of tea from the kitchen. “Are you happy now, Thomas? He likes you and Walter.”

The youngest Morgan son just mumbled. “I never had a problem in the first place.”

*******

Sam’s first week on the ranch had been filled with lessons. Walter had showed him how to lasso and wrestle a calf, and Thomas taught him how to corral livestock back into the barn at night. But the majority of his time was spent with Ellen on the family side of the ranch where the chickens, pigs and vegetable gardens needed to be tended.

Most days Ellen would watch as he happily roamed from row to row pulling corn off of the stalks or cucumbers from the vines, filling the basket he held under his arm. Other times he appeared so carefree and unaffected by his surroundings that it made Ellen miss her daughter so much, she had to ask the Deus for the strength to carry on.

Then as if she were receiving an answer, Sam would do something silly, like hook his thumbs under his arm pits flap his elbows like wings and cluck like a chicken. This would make her laugh, lightening her burden, enabling her to go on just a little longer.

*******

During the second week Sherman needed to go into the proper and get a load of feed, deciding it would be a treat for the small man to leave the ranch for a while, Sherman took Sam with him.

As they road along in the wagon, a comfortable silence had been established between them, but when a squirrel ran across the road Sam got excited.

“Fluffy tail, soft and gray, I had to eat them every day.”

This brought a question to Sherman’s mind. It was something that he’d been curious about, but had never asked.

“Sam, how did you make it across the Badlands on your own?”

“I hide and sleep where they can’t see us, food and water came from the Deus.”

“Us? Was there someone with you out there?”

“No, just me, myself and I, there was not another guy.”

Sherman reached over and ruffled Sam’s hair affectionately. “You’re really strange, Sam, but I like you.”

Sam just smiled, never responding.

*******

Sherman noticed that as soon as they reach the proper, Sam becomes unusually quiet. When they stopped in front of the feed dispensary. Sam jumped down from the wagon and silently followed Sherman inside.

While Sherman gave his order to the dispensary manager, Sam walked around fingering the sacks and feed bins, waiting patiently for his friend to finish conducting his business.

He was just about to scoop up a handful of mashed grain when a small boy got his attention by tugging on his shirt sleeve.

“Hi. What’s your name?”

Sam could see that the boy was little more than a toddler, maybe six-years-old. This relaxed him, he felt no threat coming from the child, so he spoke to him.

“I am Sam, and it is clear, buying feed is why we’re here.”

The small boy giggled and stuck out his hand. “My name is Rory. You sure talk funny.”

“Funny talk is what I do. I think that you talk funny too.”

This time the giggle was louder, breaking the subdued atmosphere that weighed heavily in the dispensary, alerting the older man of the small boys sudden enthusiasm.

“Rory! Make yourself useful, get out back and sort the feed sacks.”

“Yes, grandpa,” the little boy answered. A little more somber now.

But before he left, he looked around to make sure his grandfather’s attention was focused on filling the order, then he smiled and waved at Sam before running out.

With the feed sacks piled in the back of the wagon, Sherman was about to snap the reins, signaling the horses to move, when a rider rode up and stopped his horse beside them.

“The leader has requested the strange man’s presence,” he said without introduction, or warmth.

“For what?” Sherman asked.

“That is not your concern, farmer.”

Sherman began to bristle. “I’m not a farmer, I’m a rancher.”

The rider shrugged his shoulders. “All you outlanders are the same to me. Now stop wasting my time. I need to take this little misfit to The Order’s compound.”

Feeling his blood start to boil, Sherman moved to jump off of the wagon, but before he could say or do anything, Sam piped in.

“I’ll go to the leader, he is in need, Sherman will wait here with the feed.”

Looking deeply into Sam’s eyes, Sherman saw no fear, so he reluctantly gave in. “I’ll be here waiting for you to bring him back,” he said to the menace.

The rider roughly settled Sam behind him on the horse. “You just do that, farmer.”

*******

Myron sat behind his desk and just stared at the dark-haired man. He looked well cared for, obviously the Morgan’s were doing a good job watching over him.

He stood and walked around to the front of the desk, then leaned on the edge, facing the nomad. “Do you understand me, Sam?”

Sam nodded.

“Can you answer my questions?” Before Sam could nod, Myron held up his hand to stop him. “In a way that I can understand?”

Sam shrugged his shoulders.

Myron blew out a breath. “I’ll give it a try anyway.”

Sam just watched the young man, patiently waiting to see what he would do next.

Myron started by asking the most pressing question on his mind. “Should I bring the exiles back?”

“You’ll do your job, and do it well, that is what the Deus tells.”

“Is that a yes?”

“We walk a path, we have our deeds, you will go where the Deus leads.”

Myron absentmindedly taped his fingers on the desk he was leaning on. “Wonderful, wonderful, that’s good to hear.”

“Will this be a difficult journey? Will I be able to bring them all back?”

“The way is hard, the need is great, to travel west will be your fate.”

Myron felt like he had only gotten part of his question answered. “Will I bring them back?” he asked again. This time with a little more heat.

“They will come, you will see. All will become as it should be.”

“Very good, Sam. That’s very good to know.” Then as an after thought he asked. “How are they treating you out at the Morgan Ranch?”

“The family’s nice and good and sweet, better people I’ll never meet.”

“Good to hear, good to hear.”

As Sam answered, Myron was already walking back to take his seat behind the desk, as soon as he sat down he pulled a parchment out of a drawer that looked to be a map of the Province. He started looking it over, determining how close or far away from the proper the exile’s shelters would be built. It was a project he would have the woodworkers start on in his absence. It wasn’t until he caught the motion of Sam’s feet swinging back and forth in his periphery that he remembered that the man was still there.

“You can go, Sam. Have Todd take you back to the place where he picked you up.”

Without another word, the little man happily left the leader’s office, already anticipating seeing Sherman again.

*******

When they returned to the ranch they saw Ellen sitting on the porch, shucking peas into a pan. Sherman stopped in front of the house and let Sam jump down before he steered the wagon in the direction of the barn to unload the feed.

Sam climbed the stairs and took a seat beside Ellen. She watched him for a moment, then handed him an empty pan and a basket filled with peas that needed to be shelled.

“You want to help me?”

Sam nodded yes.

She held a pea pod in front of him, ran her thumb along the seam and let the green peas roll out into the pan.

“Can you do that?”

Again, Sam nodded.

They sat in silence for a while, each lowering the level of their basket, pod by pod. Seeing that Sam was a steady worker, Ellen decided a little conversation wouldn’t slow him down.

Did you enjoy your trip into the proper?”

Sam never looked up, he continued to roll the peas out of their pods without looking up. “The proper’s big and very tight, the people there gave Sam a fright.”

“Did someone scare you, Sam?”

“The rider came, told Sherman to stay, he wanted to take Sam away.”

Ellen stopped shucking and turned her full attention to Sam. “A rider came for you?”

Sam nodded.

“What happened?”

The small man shrugged his shoulders. “To the leader I went to see, he said he needed to talk to me.”

She wanted more information, but she wasn’t sure that he could answer her in a way that she could understand, but asked anyway. “What did the leader want?”

“He asked the questions just like you, he wants to know what he should do.”

“I’m not sure what that means, but did you help him?”

Sam nodded.

“Was that all he wanted?”

He nodded again.

She blew out a long breath. For a reason she couldn’t quite identify, the thought of the little man getting hurt or being in danger bothered her deeply. “That’s good, Sam…that’s real good.”

The relief she felt was almost overwhelming and too extreme for the situation. She had no idea what was going on with her, but for some inexplicable reason she wanted to cry…she just wanted to cry.

Then, as if he understood what she didn’t, Sam put his work aside and moved next to Ellen. He knelt down in front of her and covered her hands with his own. Before he spoke he looked at her with compassionate brown eyes.

“Don’t be afraid, she’s okay, Keller will be back home one day.”

That’s when the dam burst and the tears started to flow. How could this odd little man know so much about how she felt? About how they all felt. But he did, it was almost as if he could see into their hearts and wanted to ease their pain.

She indulged herself in a much needed release for a while longer, then when the tears began to dry up she wiped her eyes with hem of her apron.

“I think I’m okay now, Sam. Let’s get back to work.”

“Mother is fine, her heart’s okay? If not I’ll go get father to stay.”

This made her smile, a real, genuine smile. “That won’t be necessary, mother is doing better.”

This made Sam smile too. “Good,” was all he said before resuming his chore.

Ellen’s heart did feel a little lighter. Those few words gave her hope, something that she hadn’t felt for a long, long time. He said Keller would come back home, and she believed him…she believed him.
Part Nine: The Look Of Love, Is In Your Eyes, A Look Your Smile Can’t Disguise.
~Burt Bacharach~
Eight days after Patsy’s arrival an emergency committee meeting was called. Things in Arcadia were changing and changing fast. The citizen’s committee main topic of debate was their duty to identify and protect every Arcadian against all threats, real or imagined. And hypothetically speaking, Patsy Thirwell’s arrival presented the possibility of a very threatening situation.

The young woman had been welcomed with open arms, the trauma that she’d lived through was very evident, and while the villagers embraced and nurtured her, the atmosphere that her arrival created was very different from that of Keller Morgan’s. When Keller was brought in she was received with a mixture of joy, excitement and a lot of enthusiasm. It had been quite a few generations since anyone had made it to their village after being set out of the Provence, so it almost felt like the return of a long lost relative, making her arrival a reason to celebrate.

But Patsy’s appearance in their village had put the citizens in a somber, almost introspective mood. The condition that she had been found in reminded them of how vulnerable they were, how horrible the world outside of their gates could be and how tenuous their security really was.

This reception was what forced the committee had to consider the possible repercussions her arrival could bring. They knew some of the things that were going on in the Province because Keller had stood in front of them and told them every detail of how she had come to be in Arcadia.

She told them how the Poole family had mysteriously died out, and although she had never seen the new leader, she told them about the center and his intuitive program, and after she told them about the people he had put in charge of running it, they were left feeling unsettled. But with all of that, it wasn’t until Patsy Thirwell showed up at their gates that a mild panic began to set in.

They now knew that a total of four women had left the Province, by their own choice, and that’s what had them a little worried. It was one thing to be sent away by the leader’s order, it was an entirely different set of circumstances to run away voluntarily.

One runaway could probably be ignored…maybe, but with Patsy and her two friends following after Keller, that brought the total to four, and to some, that would look like a pattern. And with the Pooles no longer in charge, they didn’t know what this new leader would do.

Fearing there might be some kind of repercussions from Myron Scott, they decided it might be prudent to send Barrett and a few of his fellow guards out on a reconnaissance mission to the Province. They felt is was better to know what was coming at them, rather than to flail around in the dark.

Any man that was arrogant enough to think that, in a few short months, he could single-handedly change a practice that had been in place for centuries, would most likely view the young women’s running off as a challenge to his authority, disciplinary actions would have to be taken.

He would come…he would most definitely come.

*******

Barrett listened very carefully as Alice Mitchell delivered the committee’s request. She explained to him what they needed the monkeys to do and what they needed them to listen for. He sat and mentally calculated how long the trip would take. The crossing alone would take at least a month, fifteen days to get there, fifteen to get back. Once there, he had no idea how long it would be before they heard or saw anything of interest. These were the things he needed to factor in when choosing who his recruits would be.

“So, let me make sure I understand. The citizen’s committee has decided that it would be prudent to send scouts to the Province, to essentially act as spies?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And once we have gathered the necessary information, we return and deliver the results to the committee?”

“Yes, Barrett.” Alice was trying to remain patient, but the little monkey was doing nothing more than repeating their conversation.

“I’ll need a fighter and a tracker,” he said mostly to himself. “I can handle the surveillance part of the mission.”

Seeming to have made his decision, Barrett addressed Alice. “I will assemble my team, then we will head out in two days time. Will that be acceptable?”

Alice just nodded her head. He had accepted the assignment, now they would have to trust Barrett to succeed in what was probably the most important mission they had ever tasked anyone with.

*******

Barrett and the two companions he had chosen, Tim-Tim and Isaac, were sitting outside of Barrett’s hut, discussing their upcoming mission when Naomi came along.

“Is it true, Barrett?” the female howler monkey asked. “Is it true that you and these two…” she waved her hand in Tim-Tim and Isaac’s direction. “are leaving for an important mission?”

Barrett was exasperated. Although the simian’s small hamlet was no more than three hundred yards from the human’s dwellings, it still annoyed him that the gossip could spread just as fast in their part of Arcadia as it did in the human’s area.

“You have heard correctly.”

Without any preamble she made an announcement. “I’m coming with you.”

“I don’t recall inviting you,” Barrett responded. Unmoved by her declaration.

“You don’t need to invite me and you can’t stop me from coming,” not giving him a chance to respond, she pressed on. “Barrett, I can use a weapon as well as Isaac can, and although I’m not as skilled of a tracker as Tim-Tim is, I can howl just as loudly as he can.”

Tim-Tim snorted. “Yeah, we all know that.”

Naomi put her hands on her hips and turned on him. “Is there something you want to say Tim-Tim?”

Two small hands came up in defense. “No…nothing at all, Naomi.”

She turned her gaze to the other two. “What about you?”

“I most definitely have something to say, Naomi. This is not a mission for an amateur. You may be a skilled combatant here in the village, but it is a very different world outside of the gates,” Barrett said.

Deciding it might help her cause, Naomi changed to a more logical strategy. “Look, Barrett, couldn’t you use an extra set of fighting hands? I mean really, what harm can it do to take me along?”

Barrett opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. ‘Why bother? Whatever I say it won’t change her mind,’ he thought.

When the three males remained silent, She crossed her arms over her chest. Naomi knew she had succeeded. “Then it’s settled, I’m coming along.”

The three males bowed their heads and mumbled . “Yeah. Guess so. Can’t stop you.”

As Naomi walked away the males could hear her talking to herself. “I’ll need to see Mona about making me a pair of traveling pants and vest. Maybe see if Nicola can fashion a sturdy belt and waist sack for me. Then I need to talk to…”

Isaac, the capuchin monkey, looked to his companions and rolled his eyes. “Is there any way we can sneak off without her finding out?”

“I doubt it,” Tim-Tim said. “You know she has a nose that can pick up a scent two miles away, and besides, we probably wouldn’t get very far before every set of ears between here and the Badlands would know of her displeasure.”

*******

Keller had been drawing the scene in front of her for a couple of days, and Troi had to admit, it looked very realistic. The water that rushed from the top of the falls was drawn with the white foam cascading down in sheets, giving way to crisp, clear water by the time it reached the bottom, where it formed a tranquil pool. That was why the artist considered it the perfect spot. The incongruity of it was compelling. The soft and hard, the quiet and loud, the ferocity and the gentleness, all existing in one place spoke to her view of life.

The spot they’d found at the bottom of the falls, along the banks of the calm pool, was relatively quiet and gave Keller the perfect view of all that she was trying to capture.

Troi sat leaning her back against a tree, trying as best she could to stay quiet while Keller drew. The young woman’s abilities amazed her. Troi couldn’t believe how easy Keller made it look. One minute there was a blank sheet of parchment in front of her, and then in the next, with a stroke of the woman’s hand, shaded leaves with thin veins and sturdy steams would appear.

Knowing it was going to be difficult to remain still for much longer, Troi decided to do something more productive than sitting and watching Keller be creative. She rose from her position on the ground and headed further down the riverbank where she could practice her sword maneuvers without disturbing Keller.

Although she wasn’t looking, Keller knew the moment that Troi left the area. She glanced in the direction the tall woman was walking and noticed the sword strapped to her back. She could tell from Troi’s swagger what was about to take place, so she stopped what she was doing, wanting to witness what she considered Troi’s artistry.

When she reached a spot far enough away from Keller, Troi reached over her shoulder and pulled her sword from it’s resting place. She held it out in front of her and took a fighting stance. At first she took her time, slowing making figure eights, using the motions to loosen up.

She would switch the weapon from one hand to the other, giving each limb equal attention. Then suddenly, without warning, Troi picked up speed, spinning, thrusting, lunging and blocking imagined attacks. Keller was awestruck. The motions were so fluid and unencumbered, that the weapon appeared to be an extension of Troi’s body, doing her bidding by her will.

Keller quickly lost interest in her drawing and slowly approached the area where Troi was practicing. When she was close enough to almost feel the wind from the slicing blade, she stopped.

Troi continued with the defensive and aggressive moves until her hair was plastered down with sweat and small tendrils of water were making their way down the side of her face. Then she systematically slowed down her movements to the point where she eventually returned to the beginning, doing slow figure eights.

When Troi’s actions stopped, and she slid her sword back into the scabbard, Keller had to restrain herself from applauding the performance she had just witnessed.

Troi turned and saw Keller standing there looking like she was about to burst. “What?”

Keller moved forward until she could wrap her arms around Troi’s waist. “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seem.”

This made the sentry feel a little self-conscious. No one had ever thought her skills to be amazing. Deadly? Yes. Proficient? Absolutely. But, amazing? Never.

“Thanks, Keller,” was all she could say.

The artist tilted her head up. “Does that embarrass you?”

“Um…no, not really. It just makes me feel…I don’t know…uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Because, what you do is amazing, bringing things to life on parchment is something that everyone can’t do.”

Keller tightened her hold around Troi’s waist. “And you think that everyone can wield a sword the way that you can?”

“Well, no, but…”

“No buts. You are as much of an artist as I am.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I would. As a matter-of-fact, I want you to teach me how to use a sword.”

“Are you serious?”

Keller stepped back and held out her hand. “I most certainly am. I’ll prove it. Let me hold your sword.”

Without a second thought, Troi did what she’d never done before. She pulled her weapon from behind her and voluntarily handed it over.

When the bulk of the blade was fully rested in her hand’s, Keller let the weight of it register in her mind and body, and was shocked.

“Wow, this is really heavy. Maybe I need to rethink this. I’m not so sure anymore.”

“Don’t let the weight stop you. That blade has been weighed and balanced for me. I’m sure we can find one that suits you. Merrell has a huge selection of swords to choose from, you can pick one out and he’ll size it to fit you.”

Keller gave Troi her sword back and without another word pulled her towards her drawing supplies. She was intent on making it to the smithy’s shop so she could start her training as soon as possible.

Troi was just as excited, she had a few ideas of her own rolling around in her head. ‘Who knew? Maybe Keller would become skilled enough to be able to join them on patrol,’ she fantasized.

*******

Because Barrett and his scouts were off on their mission, Troi and Pip had been switched to the day shift until his return. This gave Troi the opportunity to spend all of her evenings with Keller, and she’d decided, after much planning, that she was going to make tonight a special one for her girlfriend.

Between helping Mona with the sewing and making time for her drawing and Troi, Keller’s days and nights had been pretty busy. After speaking with Roger Meeks, the man didn’t hesitate when Troi had asked to borrow the Victrola and a few records, for the special evening she had planned. ‘Anything to help young love,’ he’d thought as he handed over the items.

When Keller approached Troi’s home, she was barely able to contain her excitement. Her girlfriend, that thought still made her heart flutter, hadn’t given her any details about their evening. The only thing she had been told was to come to Troi’s home when Davis was firing the pit. When she pressed for more information, she received a wiggle of a brow and a mischievous smile. “It’s a surprise,” was all Troi would say.

As she got closer to the door she cocked her head a bit, in concentrated. “What is that?” she asked herself. The sound she was hearing was melodic and harmonious. There was also a female voice accompanying the sounds, and few scratching noises could be heard in-between. When she knocked on the door it was opened almost immediately.

“Come on in,” Troi said as she simultaneously closed the door and pulled the shorter woman into an embrace. Then, without warning, she started an impromptu slow dance with her date. She nuzzled Keller’s neck and brushed her lips across the soft skin. “I missed you,” she whispered.

Keller held on tight, loving being this close to Troi. “I missed you too,” was her low response.

The feelings she was experiencing were new and exciting. She wasn’t sure she would ever get used to the freedom of expression that Arcadia offered, but being this close to Troi made all of her fears go away.

“What is this?” she asked.

“This, my dear, is music. A song actually. It’s title is ‘You belong to me,’ what do you think?”

Keller continued to sway with her dance partner and genuinely experienced the moment. “I like it a lot. It is so amazing how this music and singing creation can make you feel.”

Troi felt her heart seize up a little. To think that Keller had lived her whole life without the joy of music was unimaginable to her.

“How does it make you feel, Keller?” she whispered.

The blonde woman burrowed a little deeper into Troi’s embrace. “Like anything is possible.”

Troi started to hum and pulled her girlfriend closer before she began singing in her ear.

See the pyramids along the Nile
Watch the sunrise from a tropic isle
Just remember darling all the while
You belong to me

Relaxing in Troi’s arms as the taller woman started humming again, Keller continued to sway to the music feeling like she was in a dream.

“Troi, what are pyramids?”

The tall woman thought about it for a second, but no answer came to her. “I have no idea,” she said nonchalantly.

They continued to slow dance to the music, and after a while the scratching noises on the old record were barely noticeable.

See the marketplace in old Algiers
Send me photographs and souvenirs
Just remember when a dream appears
You belong to me

When the song ended the young couple continued to move together in silence. Keller broke the stillness by exhaling a melancholy breath.

“It seems like the world used to be a place filled with beauty and peace and adventure,” Keller said. “The words. The singer’s voice. The music. It all fills me with such wonder. I wish I knew why it isn’t like that any more.”

When Troi didn’t respond, Keller pulled away a little so she could look into her girlfriend’s eyes. “You’re not curious about why?”

Troi shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t see a reason to think about it too hard. Maybe we’re better off just accepting what it says in The Edicts.”

Then Troi recited a passage from a long ago memory. “Because mankind had displeased the Deus with his arrogance, he was forced to learn humility through recommence.”

“If we had to begin again I wish the Deus would have allowed us remember some of the pleasures.”

Troi started to kiss Keller’s neck. “I think there are still a few pleasures left for us to enjoy.”

Keller moaned and let Troi explore a little longer before stepping out of her embrace. “I thought you had a surprise for me.”

She knew that if she didn’t stop Troi, things would get out of hand. They had shared many kissing and heavy petting sessions, but had always stopped before fully consummating their relationship. Keller knew that they were getting closer to taking that final step, and looked forward to it, but at the moment, she wanted her surprise.

“Well aren’t you the impatient one?” Troi teased.

“Just a little,” Keller answered.

“Okay, okay.” Troi held out her elbow and wrapped Keller’s hand in the bend. “Madam, allow me to escort you to the table.”

Keller giggled and followed along. When Troi pulled out her chair, she sat down and scooted forward to help her hostess push her chair closer to the table.

Troi held up one finger before disappearing into the kitchen. “Wait right there, I’ll be back in a second.”

When she returned, her arms were laden down with dishes. She leaned over and carefully placed each plate down before straightening back up.

“I remembered you telling me how much you loved your mother’s stewed potatoes, garden greens and pan fried steak, so I talked my mom into showing me how to cook it,” her face beamed with pride. “What do you think?”

Keller hesitated, not sure how to express herself. She had been doing so well when it came to missing her family, usually pushing those thoughts aside whenever they tried to enter her mind, but now, right here in front of her was a huge piece of her history. This was the meal her mother prepared once a week on Deus day. The day that every person in the Province took a day off from their duties to thank the Deus for sending Curtis Poole and the five fellows down from the mountain to save mankind.

“It’s…it’s beautiful, Troi,” Keller managed to squeeze out around the lump in her throat.

Troi’s smile started to falter when she saw Keller’s eyes become glassy. When tears started to run down her cheeks, Troi dropped down beside the distraught woman’s chair.

She took Keller’s hand into her own and kissed the knuckles. “What’s wrong, Keller.”

“N…nothing.”

“That’s obviously not true. Please tell me…did I do something wrong?”

Keller inhaled deeply and wiped her eyes with her free hand. “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just…it’s just been so long since I’ve seen them, and…” she started to hiccup. “and I miss them so much.”

Troi wrapped Keller in a warm embrace, offering as much comfort as she could. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I wasn’t thinking…I should…I should have thought…I’m so sorry.”

Keller realized that if she didn’t pull herself together she would ruin Troi’s surprise, not to mention their evening together. She dug down deep and called on her reserves. There would be time to be miserable later.

“Troi?” she waited until misty blue eyes focused on her. “It really is okay,” she ran her fingers across trembling lips. “It really is.”

“Promise?” Troi whispered.

This made Keller smile. “Yeah, I promise.” She blew out a breath. “Now, let’s see if this meal tastes as good as it smells.”

*******

As they ate, they talked about Keller’s family and some of the fun things they’d done together over the years, and after awhile, Keller realized that the more she talked about them, the better she felt. ‘Maybe,’ she thought, ‘maybe the knots in my stomach are there because I won’t allow myself to think about them. I’m gonna stop doing that.’ Then another, lighter thought came to her mind and it caused her to laugh.

“What is so funny?” Troi asked. Pleased that Keller’s mood seemed to have brightened.

“I just remembered something that I’ve wanted to ask you about for a long time.”

“Okay. What?”

“Our first day together, when you were walking me around the village, I would catch you sniffing me, then pretend like you were sniffing the air. What was that about?”

Troi felt a little embarrassed about being caught, but didn’t let it stop her from answering the question. “The day we met, Barrett told me that we were fated spirits, and when fated spirits meet there is a very specific aroma, one that can only be answered by its mate. He said he could smell it when we were together. I tried, but I couldn’t smell anything.”

Keller hadn’t heard anything after fated spirits. “He thinks we are fated?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Do you?”

Troi got up, walked to Keller’s side, leaned down and kissed two very inviting lips. “Absolutely. I believe.”

“Good. Me too.”

Troi went in for another taste of her girlfriend’s sweetness, and when she was met by lips just as eager as her own, their kisses became more passionate and hands began to roam.

“Mmm, you make me feel so good,” Keller said against moist lips.

She pulled back and looked deeply into pleading blue eyes, eyes that were reaching down into her soul seeking solace. Eyes that reflected her own need, and she was compelled to answer it. This time they were not going to stop. They were going to see these feelings through and come out on the other side changed forever.

“I love you, Troi.”

“I love you too, Keller, so very much.”

*******

Touching, tasting, totally submerging themselves in one another’s essence took the new lovers to a place they never wanted to leave, a place where they could live forever. Their explorations were at first, tentative and unsure, but once they gave themselves over to instinct, their passion exploded into sensations that were both foreign and familiar to them, and although neither one had any experience in matters of physical love, they knew that what they were sharing was a blessing that not every pair of lovers were gifted with.

Keller’s eyes were squeezed tight and she was breathing hard. When she opened her eyes, all she could see was the top of Troi’s dark head, bent over, about to switch sides so she could give Keller’s neglected breast the same attention she’d just given it’s now puckered and throbbing mate.

“Oh, yeeess,” she panted. Nothing in her life had ever felt this good, but she needed more, and from the pressure that was building between her legs she knew where the relief would have to come from.

As if sensing Keller’s desire, Troi moved one hand from a firm breast and worked it down to the damp curls between the blonde’s legs and started to stroke her. With that movement, she also readjusted her position so that she could straddle Keller’s thigh.

“Keller, Keller, Keller,” was a constant mantra as she rocked against the muscular leg, while trying to pull an entire breast into her mouth.

An audible pop was heard when she was pulled away from her treat by a fist full of hair and her movements never slowed or stopped when she was face-to-face with Keller, gazing into shiny green eyes. They knew there was more to making love than this, but they needed to take the edge off. There would be time for a full, more thorough exploration once this desperate desire had been satiated.

As their rocking hips pushed them closer to their goal, the tidal wave of emotion that was rushing towards them seemed to spread out and encompass their entire being with a yearning too strong to ignore. They wanted, no…needed to become totally submerged in this one precious moment…so they blessedly gave in.

“It’s…it’s h…happening, Keller.”

“I… I…know. I…f…feel it too.”

No more words were spoken as the two women leaped off of the cliff to eternity together. Both confident that the other would be there to keep them divinely afloat.

*******

When Keller awakened, she viewed the gray light that was filling the room with changed eyes. She wasn’t the same person she’d been the day before. She was something different, something more, something that was now a part of a whole. As she let these feelings course through her being, she allowed her gaze to fall upon the reason why…Troi.

Her naked lover, ‘wow, I thought girlfriend was nice, but lover is spectacular,’ was pulling on the short-legged union suit that most of the Arcadians wore beneath their day clothes. She knew this because just recently she’d helped Mona sew a few of the short sleeved, short pants undergarments together.

She relaxed and watched Troi fiddle with the closures for a few moments before closing her eyes again. Immediately she was hit with a firestorm of passionate and erotic images from the previous night. They assaulted her memory like a tornado, each picture swirling around, coming and going before she could grab a hold of any fully developed detail. All she could stream was flashes of, a hot mouth. An erect nipple. Damp curls. And finally, strong hands and long fingers milking out every ounce of pleasure they could from her convulsing center.

She felt her breathing increase and was just barely able to contain the moan that wanted to escape from her lips. ‘What is happening to me?’ she wondered, then she opened her eyes again and took in the physique of the person that had delivered all of the previous night’s pleasure to her body, and she felt herself begin to swell. ‘Oh, now I remember.

Feeling eyes watching her, Troi looked over her shoulder with a loving smile. “Hey, what are you doing awake?”

Mentally clamping down on her desire, knowing now was not the time, Keller reeled in the arousal that had suddenly flared up in her body. Hoping to release some of the pent-up tension, she raised her arms over her head and stretched, knowing it was giving her sleep relaxed joints a little relief by the tiny popping noises her body was making, but unintentionally, the action caused the covers to drop down and pool around her waist, exposing her bare breast.

“I could ask you the same thing,” she responded, trying to ignore the warmth that spread through her when she realized that blazing blue eyes were staring at her naked chest.

“Um…I was going to surprise you with a morning meal, but…um…I…” Troi’s voice trailed off as she licked her lips, her gaze never straying from Keller’s now flushed chest.

Needing to defuse the moment, the blonde woman threw the covers off of her and quickly dressed in her own undergarment. After fastening it together, she firmly linked her arm with her companion’s and led Troi out of the bedroom. When they reached the kitchen, she released Troi, allowing the taller woman to pull a few dishes from the cupboard, but the dark beauty never took her eyes off of her barely clothed companion.

“I can see what’s on your mind, Troi…” Considering the ache that was making it’s presence known between her legs, she couldn’t believe what she was about to say. “but I think we need to eat, then bathe, then you have a dayshift to start. There will be time for…other things later.”

Troi pouted and started for the pantry, where she picked out a few items for cooking. “You’re no fun. You know that?”

Keller walked up beside her and pushed her lip back in. “Put that away. And if I recall correctly, last night I was plenty of fun,” she said as she took the food fixings from her lover’s hands and walked over to the counter.

The corner of Troi’s mouth twitched with a self-serving smirk. “We didn’t do too bad for a couple of armatures, did we?”

A warm hand cupped a soft cheek as loving green eyes held her in place. “We did great. Everything was perfect,” Keller said.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Concern showed in Troi’s voice.

“No, love. I’m not hurt, just a little sore.”

Troi liked the endearment, and as she slowly turned her head, she kissed the palm of the hand that was caressing her cheek. “I am too, but I think that’s all a part of the first time experience.”

They stood silently staring deeply into one another’s eyes. Holding the moment for what seemed like an eternity, until Keller ended it. “Why don’t you start heating the bathing water while I cook the oat grains.”

Troi said nothing, she just followed her lover’s instructions and went out to the water barrel to fill the bath buckets. It would be the first of many mornings shared in the same manner. Mona didn’t know it yet, but she was about to lose a houseguest.

*******

Patsy was doing well, and staying with Millie was doing wonders for her spirit. To her, it seemed like everything in Arcadia was doing wonderful things for her spirit. The incredible joy she got from wearing one of the dresses that Mona had sent over seemed oddly out of proportion at first, but after talking to Millie about the strange feeling, she realized that she was finally allowing herself to let in a little happiness.

Millie had also encouraged her to spend time with Davis, to allow him to show her around the village and introduce her to her new neighbors. In the beginning it hadn’t been easy to convince the young woman to go out with the grill cook. Her past sufferings were still haunting her, and on most days dictating her moods, making her timid and afraid, but after Millie explained to her that she would have to eventually wander out into her surroundings, and wouldn’t she feel safer with the large man by her side, that logic was enough to make her take the baker’s advice.

The two women had shared many talks as they got to know one another. One of their first conversations gave the older woman a look into Patsy’s spirit and who the young woman was.

“Is everyone here intuitive?” Patsy asked.

“I don’t understand. What do you mean, intuitive?”

“Does everyone have an affliction? You know, like the kind that had us sent to the center?”

The naive sincerity displayed by Patsy filled the older woman with sympathy for the young redhead. ‘So much hurt, so much confusion for one so young.’ Millie thought.

Patsy was the same age as Troi and Davis and Pip, but her eyes were ancient and cloaked. Whatever darkness those eyes had seen, she was unwilling to bring out into the light. Having no children of her own, there was something about Patsy that made Millie feel very maternal. That’s how she knew that she would do whatever she could to help, but she also knew that the deep down healing that was needed could only come from Patsy.

“Patsy, you’ve got to remember how many hundreds of years have passed since the first group was sent out across the Badlands. Many generations have been born since then. What the Province calls an affliction, we think of as normal, or a special talent.”

Afraid she might have offended Millie she apologized. “I’m sorry, Miss Millie. I didn’t mean to offend.”

Millie waved her off. “Don’t be silly. No offense taken. Keller had the same question when she arrived.”

Patsy smiled at the mention of the blonde’s name. “You know, Miss Millie. I only met Keller that one day, but in that short amount of time I knew she was different…special. You know, like us, but not like us.”

“What was special about her?”

She knew what Patsy meant, she could see that Keller was special too, but she wanted Patsy to say it in Patsy’s way. There was something about the young woman’s voice that pulled her in. The way she used her hands to accentuate a point, or the modulation of her voice, depending on what she was describing, it practically drew a mental picture for the listener.

“That first day, when we walked into our room and saw her there it was…it was like a gift. I can’t explain it, but she made the room glow just with her presence, and when she used her smarts to escape, it made me feel like I could too.” She stopped for a moment and looked like she was reliving something. “The only problem was, she had the glow and I didn’t.”

Millie could see the woman was on the edge of tears and patted the top of her hand, giving comfort. “You made it, Patsy. You crossed the Badlands and made it here. I’d say that was pretty special.”

“But at what cost, Miss Millie? Two of my friends are dead, ripped apart by animals, the likes of which I’ve never seen and I’ve been bitten, mauled and brutalized in unimaginable ways, but you want to know what the worst part is?”

Millie nodded her head.

“I made it here with my life, but I don’t feel alive.”

There it was again, Millie saw it, a pain so deep it instantly aged the young woman. She reached over and squeezed Patsy’s hand. “Don’t let them win, Patsy.”

Confused green eyes looked at her. “Who, Miss Millie? Don’t let who win?”

“Those potentates that clam to rule the world. They don’t, Patsy. We’re living proof of that, and as soon as you start to believe that, you’ll forgive yourself and forget everything they ever taught you. The sooner you start on that path, the sooner you will begin to heal.”

Patsy furrowed her brows in contemplation for awhile, then she began to smile, a smile of belief. That’s when Millie saw something amazing. The redhead’s smile was genuine this time, it not only bloomed across her face, it reached her eyes, making them a bright green, like the first grass of spring. That’s when she knew. That’s when Millie knew that Patsy Thirwell was going to be okay. Her eyes carried the glow, the glow she never knew she possessed.

*******

Patsy was sitting on Millie’s front porch, exercising the muscles in her arm by squeezing the ball Davis had made for her out of tightly wound lengths of twine, covered in brushed animal hide. It fit perfectly in the palm of her hand, making the rhythmic grip and release less painful than a larger object would.

She was taking in her surroundings and soaking up the atmosphere, when in the distance she saw a redheaded man coming up to the house. Fear immediately jumped into her chest and she had to force herself to take deep breaths to calm her beating heart. This paralyzing fear was new to her and she was working on continuously reminding herself that it hadn’t always been this way.

There was a time, long before the center, when her life was open to everyone and trust was never in question, but that had all changed the day her parents had taken her to that place, leaving her in the care of barbarians. When she realized that the dark thoughts were causing her control slip away, she had to mentally shake herself to regain her balance. ‘This place wasn’t that place,’ she told herself, ‘and these people aren’t those people.’ With those thoughts settled firmly in her mind, she planted a smile on her face and waited.

Pip stepped up on the porch and introduced himself to his fellow redhead. “Hi ya doin’? I’m Pip.”

The man had an easy way about him that instantly made Patsy relax. “Pip? Pip what?” she asked

Pip didn’t answer right away, instead he was going back and forth in his head, having a mental debate with himself as to whether or not to spill the beans and give his full name to the newcomer, or make something up. After a few seconds, a decision was made.

“Well, actually, there is no ‘what’ after Pip. My name full name is Peter Ignatius Poole.” He said nothing more, waiting for the inevitable. When he saw recognition bloom in her green eyes, he started counting down. ‘three, two, one…’

Eyes went wide and a pale hand went to her mouth before Patsy asked the question that he knew was coming. “Does the blood of the founder flow within you?”

Without hesitation he responded. “I am a blood relation.”

“Being a descendant of the founder, your line must hold a high position here.”

Pip shrugged his shoulders. “Not really. I mean my family contributes as much as any other, but nothing special. My father works in the smoke house and my mother works as one of the winter cooks.”

“Winter cooks?” Patsy questioned.

“Yeah, you know. The people that prepare and store the vegetables for the cold weather.”

“Oh, in the Province the winter storage was done by the people from the southern borders, so we never met them, we just received the supplies.”

No one spoke for a few beats and the silence became heavy, so Patsy asked another question. What is your affliction?…I…I mean special ability.”

Because Keller had already told him about the terms used in the Province, he understood that this was how the people referred to any type of creativity, Pip just smiled and shrugged his shoulders again.

“As far as I can tell, I don’t have one.”

Patsy’s eyes grew wide. “Really?”

“Yeah. Why? Not everyone can create you know,” he said, a little annoyed.

Her shocked reaction made him feel defensive. He didn’t some new person coming to his village making him feel bad because he couldn’t draw a picture or write a story or…

He realized that she was saying something again. “What did you say?”

“I said, I’m sorry if I offended you. I just thought because you were born an Arcadian, that maybe you were intuitive.”

“Oh, well…um…no. I’m nothing special, just a sentry.”

Impressed, Patsy smiled. “Wow, so you can use a weapon, like Troi?”

Happy that he wasn’t being judged like he first thought, Pip’s chest puffed up a little. “Well, nobody can use a weapon like Troi, but I do pretty good.”

Pip looked on as the woman became silent again, looking like she was thinking real hard about something, finally she nodded her head as if she had made a decision and looked Pip square in the eyes, green meeting green.

“Would you consider teaching me how to use a weapon? I…I had a pretty tough time of it out there, and I think I would have faired better if I could have protected myself.” Then she spoke in a quiet voice. “Maybe Paige and Jesse Lynn would still be alive it I had known how to defend us.”

Pip had heard that the newcomer had lost her traveling companions to a wild dog attack and his heart went out to her, seeing the pain and guilt on her face made the choice to train her an easy one.

“Of course I’ll show you. Just let me know when you’re healed up and ready to start.”

The smile she gave him was gentle and shy, making him smile back in reflex, and the twinkle in her eyes made him think about inviting her to sit with him at the music show that was planed, but before he could ask, she waved at someone over his shoulder and practically bounced off of her chair.

When he turned to see who had elicited such a reaction. He saw Davis approaching, waving one of his huge paws and smiling back just as wide. Pip dropped his head. He knew that Davis was helping the woman adjust to her new surroundings, but he had no idea that it was becoming something more.

“Just my luck,” he mumbled. “She’s got eyes for the meathead.”

When Davis got close enough, he clapped Pip across the shoulder, almost pitching the smaller man forward. “Hey, Pip,” he greeted good-naturedly.

Then his attention turned to the pretty redhead sitting on the porch. “Good noon, Patsy.”

“Good noon, Davis,” she shyly responded.

Davis turned his attention back to Pip. “What brings you out here,” he asked with a bit of protectiveness coloring his tone. He knew how nervous Patsy could get around strangers and didn’t want anyone making her feel threatened. That was why he hadn’t introduced her to everyone, limiting their outings to quiet walks and sightseeing. “Shouldn’t you be on duty?”

Pip shrugged his shoulders and tried to act nonchalant. “I’m on meal break. Just thought I’d stop by and introduce myself.”

Patsy knew that Pip was harmless, but she noticed the menacing stance Davis was about to take, and knew she needed to defuse a potential confrontation. “Guess what, Davis?” she piped in.

“What?” the pit boss asked, with a smile. His whole demeanor changing.

“Pip has agreed to teach me how to use a weapon.”

Knowing what Patsy had been through, Davis knew she would feel more in control if she could defend herself, but a bit of jealousy twinged in his gut at the thought of Pip spending a lot of time with Patsy. But he also knew those feelings had to be pushed aside, Patsy’s comfort was the most important thing.

“I think that’s a great idea. Troi is already teaching Keller how to use a sword. Once Pip gets you started maybe you and Keller can practice together.” That suggestion made him feel better.

“That sounds great. Do you think she would?”

“I don’t see why not,” the pit boss responded.

Seeing that his presence was no longer noticed, Pip decided it was time to go. “I’ll see you two later.”

They both waved as he walked away. Then when he was halfway down the path, Pip turned and yelled out. “You two going to music night?”

Davis looked at Patsy with a question in his hazel eyes. When she vigorously nodded yes, Davis yelled back. “Yeah.”

“Okay, I guess I’ll see you there. If you get there early enough, you’ll get to hear Keller join me and Troi in a song.”
Part Ten: I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts. ~Monty Python~
The monkey contingent had been out for eleven days. And during that time they had encountered some odd things, well not odd for Barrett, he had seen the links a few times during his patrols with Troi and Pip, and so had Tim-Tim and Isaac, but for Naomi it was a new experience.

Just the night before, they’d hid in the trees while watching the links franticly dig something up from the dirt. When the item was finally reached, they began to fight and push each other out of the way trying to be first to sniff it. Once each one had their turn, there seemed to be some odd grunting, hissing type of conversation between them, ending with one of them kicking away the object that seemed to offend them. Then they seemed to snort with disgust.

The monkeys found the behavior disturbing.

“What do you think they’re doing?” Isaac whispered.

“I couldn’t begin to image what that display is about. They are such vile creatures,” Barrett responded.

“Yeah, they’re pretty disgusting,” Naomi added. Then she looked a little closer, and raised her nose in the air. “I’m not sure, but I think the discarded object is a newly developed human fetus.”

“Surely you are mistaken,” Barrett said appalled.

“I might be, but I doubt it. Look at them. They’re behaving in the same manner as the wild packs do when a male that isn’t of their line attempts to join their pod.” Naomi reminded them.

When the males took a closer look, they had to admit that the aggressive, disdainful actions did in fact mimic the male driven pods that tried to keep their line pure.

“I don’t really care what they are doing,” Tim-Tim said. “Let’s get moving before they realize we’re here.”

“Why?” Naomi questioned. “There’s no way they could spot us this high up.”

“Look at them, Naomi, they just dug something out of the dirt. Something that their noses led them to. As good as your nose is, could you have done that?” Isaac asked.

Begrudgingly she had to admit that she couldn’t. “No…that is a rare ability.”

“Then let’s not waste any more time. Let’s move before their interest changes.”

Tim-Tim took off swing without looking back. If those idiots wanted to sit around until they were discovered, he didn’t have to do the same. He was quite certain that once those things caught your scent they wouldn’t be satisfied until they found you.

*******

On the their twelfth night out the group had found a nice, lush tree to spend the night in. Barrett, Naomi and Tim-Tim were leaning back on the wide upper bole of the tree, making themselves satisfied with the flavorful leaves that bloomed along the branches, but Isaac was out on the hunt. The capuchin monkey had an appetite for something more meaty.

Naomi slowly chewed her foliage and hummed at the taste. “This is really good. I just don’t understand why Isaac would want something other than this,” she commented.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Barrett added.

Before Tim-Tim could say anything, they heard what was surely Isaac returning with something wiggly and disgusting to eat.

When the white-faced monkey came into view, Naomi turned up her nose at the small lizard that was trying desperately to escape from between Isaac’s teeth. “Couldn’t you have at least killed it first, or better yet eaten it out there somewhere,” she said while waving her hand in a dismissive manner.

Isaac found an empty spot, and made himself comfortable. “Why should I? There is no reason why I should have to sequester myself in order to enjoy my meal.”

Although they didn’t care for Isaac’s dietary cravings, Tim-Tim and Barrett nodded there heads in understanding.

This seemed to insult Naomi even more. “Just like a male,” she snorted. “No matter how disgusting one of your brethren’s behavior may be, you’ll never reprimand him.”

Barrett shrugged his cloth covered shoulders. “If you had stayed in Arcadia, you would not be subjected to something you find so offensive.”

‘Simian farts!’ she thought. ‘I’ve been trying so hard not to give that high-browed Barrett a reason to say those words. But what do I do? The first icky thing I see, I act like a female.’ Hoping to save face, Naomi pretended to give the situation a second thought.

Trying desperately to block out the sounds of small bones being crunched between Isaac’s teeth, Naomi feigned interest. “Well, I guess if I were to really consider it, a little meat in one’s diet isn’t all that bad. I mean there have been many occasions when Troi has shared a bit of one of her meat sticks with me.”

The three males looked at one another for a beat, before busting out in laughter.

“What’s so funny? I did enjoy the food.”

“That’s not what we’re laughing about,” Tim-Tim said.

Naomi was becoming even more annoyed. Now they were sharing secret humor. This adventure was just getting better and better.

“Troi shared her meat stick with you? Is that the story you’re telling,” Isaac questioned.

Dark eyes narrowed. “Yeah, that’s the story.”

“And that is the story you’re sticking with?” Barrett confirmed.

“No reason not to,” she defended. This conversation was really getting off track.

“So if I asked you why Troi was constantly batting you off of her shoulders, and holding her food high over her head trying to keep it out of your reach, your answer would be…?” Tim-Tim teased.

If the dark monkey could have turned red with anger, she would have. “It’s just a game we play in our relationship. She loves my attention.”

Tim-Tim continued. “A game huh? Well, what about the times I’ve seen her hide whenever she would see you, before you saw her. Is she doing that just to stop Keller from being jealous of your…” he held up two tiny fingers, making exclamation points. “relationship?”

“Eat rotten bananas, Tim-Tim. You don’t know what you’re talking about. We have a connection.”

“I don’t think so. You can smell them as well as we can, Naomi. Keller has the only viable connection to Troi, and if I’m not mistaken, by the time we return, Troi will definitively be out of your’s, or anyone else’s reach,” Barrett assured.

“It’ll never happen, Barrett. She’ll see that I’m the only one for her.”

“Um…Naomi? Has the fact that you and Troi are of two different species escaped your attention?” Isaac reminded.

The determined little howler waved off his observation. “We both have opposable thumbs. How big of a difference can there really be?”

Naomi stood to her full two-foot height and turned in a tight circle. “Look at me. I’m a catch. There’s no way she can resist me for too much longer.”

This time the three males remained silent. She did have a point. Naomi was real looker.

*******

They were two days from the Province, when they had a terrifying encounter with the wild dogs. These were creatures that even Barrett hadn’t seen before. And the only reason the confrontation was happening now was because they had gotten caught during one of the rare times that they were traveling on the ground.

Naomi smelled them before Isaac heard them. Giving them just enough time to pull their weapons. “We got trouble,” she yelled.

When the giant creatures came out of the woods, slowly stalking towards them, four sets of little knees began to shake.

“What manner of beast is that?” Naomi quivered.

“No time to talk!” Barrett yelled. “En Garde!” was roared before the four monkeys engaged the enemy.

The attack seemed to momentarily throw the dogs off. It was a rare occasion when they were confronted with aggressive beings. But they were only immobile for a moment…the challenge made them pant.

Sharp, pointy sticks hit their mark each time the small fighters lunged for their target. The dogs were at least two feet taller than they were, but the agile little monkeys were able to dodge, roll and on occasion climb the large bodies, to deliver the blows.

A few yelps, followed by several menacing growls kicked the dogs into a more vicious attack, causing them snap and claw at the simians. Once, Tim-Tim was almost caught between a pair of powerful jaws, when he tripped. The only thing that saved his leg was the tough material of his travel pants. The dog got a hold of them, and ripped off a patch. Then he began vigorously shaking the swatch back-and-forth in his teeth. Thick streams of jubilant foam began running down his muzzle in triumph, before he realized that the monkey wasn’t attached.

Naomi ran towards one of the dogs, making it think she was going to be easy prey, then at the last minute, she leaped forward, rolled across it’s back, and stabbed it in the back of it’s neck, bringing it down to lay bleeding in the dirt, before she landed safely on the other side.

“Yes!” she yelled, before turning to assist Isaac.

The female howler and the capuchin worked back-to-back, fending off the giant canine. When Tim-Tim and Barrett saw how efficient the stance was, they joined them, forming a four-sided wall of defense. This strategy worked well as a way to keep the dogs from blindsiding them, but there didn’t seem to be anything they could do to stop them from advancing. The animals never seemed to tire.

Between stabs and swipes, Barrett made a decision. “This is futile!” he yelled over the barks and growls. “On the count of three, we take to the trees!”

He didn’t receive any objections.

“One, two, three!”

They broke formation, and barreled towards the nearest tree. The dogs were fast on their tails, almost catching Tim-Tim, but it was not to be. The monkeys made it to safety, quickly climbing up the trees, where they were able to finally catch their breath.

“Is everyone in one piece?” Barrett inquired from his perch.

“Yes,” was Naomi and Isaac’s response.

“I say, Tim-Tim, are you injured?” Barrett asked of his companion.

Feeling a little dejected, the howler gave the okay. “Yeah I’m fine. Wish I could say the same for my trousers.” He picked at what was left of his right pant leg and mumbled. “I guess I should be happy that it was only my clothes that he got.”

“Cheer up, mate. We mounted an exceptional defense. We just encountered a pack of wild dogs, and came out on top,” Barrett reminded them. “That is a feat that, to date, the humans have not accomplished.”

This filled them with pride. Wait until they got back and told the sentries about their fight. This would surely be a story for the scrolls.

“Hey, Barrett,”

“Yes, Naomi.”

“When we return, how about putting in a good word for me with the sentry manager?”

Out of habit, he opened his mouth to tell her no, but he realized that was just his tendency. Naomi had proved herself to be a brave and formidable fighter. They could use her skills.

“Upon our arrival, I’ll speak with Jarrod, first thing.”

“Now that’s what I wanted to hear.”

“Not meaning to put a damper on your good news, Naomi, but I don’t think they’re gonna go away,” Isaac said about the dogs that were trying to jump up in the trees to get to them.

“I think you are right,” Barrett agreed. “It seems they are too limited to realize that they will never acquire the ability to climb trees, so we must assume that as long as we are here, so shall they be.”

Tim-Tim rolled his eyes. Why couldn’t Barrett just say things plain and simple?

Using hands and tails, the monkeys swiftly made their way over the tree branches, it was a long time before the sounds of their four legged pursuers faded into the on coming dusk.

*******

They were finally there. It had taken fifteen long days, but they had made it. The four of them were perched high in the trees, looking out over the distance. Their vision was filled with the high walls of the Province, and the sight before them was like nothing they had ever seen. The wooden walls stretched on for miles and miles, in directions pointing north and south.

Barrett was amazed. “This place must be the size of Arcadia, the Badlands and the Low Lands combined. No wonder they sent us on this mission. Their sentry force must be enormous.”

“I have to agree with you on that one,” Tim-Tim said as he settled himself beside Barrett. “What’s the plan? How are we going to get in there?”

There were trees everywhere, some so dense in areas that it was difficult for the sun to push through to the forest floor, but all around the wall the trees had been cut back, most likely used to build the wall itself, leaving a long stretch of open land to contend with.

The monkeys had been sitting in quiet contemplation for a long while, when a curious owl floated over and took up a position just above the scout’s heads.

“And who, may I ask, are the four of you?” he inquired.

Barrett waved his hand in irritation. “We don’t have time for proper introductions. Let it suffice to say that who we are is of no concern of yours.”

“How rude,” was the response.

Naomi exhaled and looked up into golden eyes. “Look, the long and short of it is, we are here on a mission to find out what those people,” she pointed towards the Province. “are up to.”

“Well, that is just silly. Why would a band of simians care about what humans are doing?”

Another annoyed breath left Naomi’s lips. “Because the humans that we live with, think that the humans behind that wall might be up to no good.”

The owl gave a disgusted snort. “How pedestrian, monkeys working for humans. Avian breeds are much too intelligent to be used in such a domestic manner.”

They had been through too much to sit and let this…bird talk down to them. “Look,” she waited for a name.

“Phineas.”

Naomi rolled her eyes. How ridiculous. “Look, Phineas, that’s not how it works. We are not their servants. We are their partners.”

Instead of responding, Phineas made an odd sound in its throat that Naomi, correctly interpreted as a huff, then he did his best human imitation of looking down his beak at the female monkey.

“You probably can’t understand this, but where we live, we keep each other safe from the things that threaten both of our communities.”

Having no real interest in why monkeys and humans had formed an alliance, the owl responded as if he hadn’t heard what Naomi had said.

“I guess you love them so much because you are practically the same. The only difference being the fur that covers your bodies,” Growing bored with the primates, the owl released another huff before flying back to wherever it was he’d came from.

Tim-Tim watched him fly away, amazed that there could be another being as, if not more, arrogant than Barrett.

*******

After a couple of hours of mentally going over their options, Barrett had an idea. “I suggest we wait until the sun goes down. Then we rush the wall and use the knots in the wood as hand grips to climb to the top. Once we can see over the wall, if the way is clear, we sneak in and investigate. If there are guards and we are discovered, we screech, wave our arms and jump to the ground, making a run for the forest.”

They all nodded their agreement.

*******

Finding an unguarded section of wall had been surprisingly easy. The monkeys assumed that the lack of presence was most likely due to the Province’s centuries long reign of unchallenged power. They probably believed that there would never be a serious threat to their safety, so things became lax.

Evening was falling, so the night had not yet become pitch. This made their navigation in the new territory fairly easy, and once they saw torchlight in the distance, any misgivings about having to maneuver around in the dark were set aside.

They had traveled a few miles, when Naomi stopped them. She raised he nose in the air and sniffed, once, twice. “I think we should head in that direction,” she said, pointing to her right.

“May I ask why?”

“Because, Barrett, I’m picking up a scent that could be exactly what we’re looking for. It’s a mixture of a man, the smells of this land and the land we just crossed. We should follow this person.”

“Lead on,” Barrett said, with a hint of the new found respect he had for Naomi tinting his voice.

They silently made their way through the narrow streets and tight buildings of the Province proper. The close proximity of all the buildings was the first thing that had caught the monkey’s attention, and it made them desperate to get their job done, and head back to the wide open spaces of home.

Naomi held up her hand, signaling the males to stop. “We need to go high. He is just on the other side of this building and there are others with him.”

The four of them made their way to the roof of the Province’s sewing building, where they would go unnoticed as they observed their target. They didn’t have to wait long before they heard what they’d come for. Luckily they had stumbled upon a group of Province riders.

“Did you hear? In ten days time the leader is sending us out to bring back those abominations.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“So, what do you think?”

“I think it’s a big mistake. When Curtis Poole set them out he knew what he was doing. Who in their right mind would want to live around them?”

“I agree. They have their own place out there in the wilderness. I say let them continue to suffer. Why should we bring them back here where the living is good?”

“I’m with you, but I’ll tell you what. If the leader wants them back, I’ll bring them back…but who’s to say they will be in one piece?”

The laugh that followed was sinister. “I’m on board with that, and who’s to say they’ll all make it back?”

That was all Barrett needed to hear, his friends and neighbors were definitely in danger. They would find a place outside of the walls to get a couple of days rest, then they would return home.

A few hard decisions were going to have to be made.
Part Eleven: A Child Is Born With A Heart Of Gold, The Way Of The World Makes His Heart Grow Cold. ~Earth, Wind and Fire~
“Wake up…wake up…WAKE UP, YOU COWARDICE IMBECILE!!!”

Myron’s eyes flew open and he sat up in bed, sweating and breathing heavily. He swung his legs over the side and rested his head in his hands.

“Deus bless, not again. Why must you torment me, father?” Myron asked the empty room.

“Because you are an idiot, Myron.”

The young man’s eyes darted around the dark room. “Deus have mercy, now I am cursed to suffer this anguish during my waking hours? Is there no escape?”

“You don’t deserve an escape, Myron.”

“Why father? Why am I undeserving of something as simple as sleeping just one night without your ridicule?”

“Because you are about to ruin everything, Myron. You have been short sighted and selfish in your choices and the Province will pay.”

Myron felt the familiar anger rise in his belly. He had suffered the man’s harsh judgments when he was alive. It wasn’t fair for the mockery to continue after death.

“How am I being short sighted and selfish? I am the first leader to even attempt to help the intuitives. I think the Province will flourish with them under my control.”

Now the voice gentled and took on a more nurturing tone. “I tried to prepare you, but the Deus took me too soon. Maybe that’s why I was so hard on you, because somewhere deep down I knew my time was limited. But none of that matters now, what’s done is done. Leave this alone, Myron, let it be. The women that have run off, the wandering simpleton, they will meet their own destiny, you my son have no place in that. There are more important matters at hand. If you don’t do what is necessary to set things right by closing that center, you will lose yourself.”

The young man felt like his emotions were trying to fight their way through a storm. The concern in his father’s voice was a welcomed change from the jeering bark that had awakened him. It was very tempting to follow the soothing voice down any path it led. It was what he had always wanted, always craved…his father’s understanding.

“Why now, father? Why wait until you are nothing more than an apparition to speak to me with kindness? It was certainly a comfort you refused me in life.”

“I was wrong, Myron. I should have been more patient with you, more understanding, but I couldn’t. If I had been lenient they would have found out, and you would have been exposed.”

“I don’t believe that. I can control it, father…you should have trusted me.”

“How could I trust you? How many times did I have to swat your ankles with a strap to stop the toe tapping? And when you got older how many times did I have to bind your legs together to stop the dancing? Then the humming, Myron. I had to fill your mouth with a cloth before you would stop. When the singing started I had no choice but to dunk your head under water until you learned.”

“But I did learn, father. I no longer make any song or dance sounds at all. That’s how I know others can change. I had a double affliction, and was cured.”

The spirit of Garland Scott sighed. This is why Curtis Poole banished them all, even his own kin. Hearing the wishful tone in his son’s voice, Garland realized that he had made a grave mistake, and his spirit gave in to the knowing.

“I should have followed the tradition,” Garland said. “I should have ignored your mother’s pleas and set you out.”

It was like being doused with a cold bucket of water. The words were said with a sadness that nearly broke the young leader’s heart, but they were harsh, hurtful, and they were words meant for him, and that brought back all of the anger. Hearing those words destroyed any chance there had been for Myron to change his mind and take his father’s advice.

“Ah, finally…the truth. Drown me like the blighted kittens huh, father? Put the disfigured away from sight so that it doesn’t offend, or remind anyone that there is another side to things.”

Myron was off and running, expressing himself to his father in a way that he never had the courage to do when the man was alive.

“Well, I’ll show you, father. There’s another side all right. A side where people like me can exists right beside people like you, with our heads held high.”

“That is a fantasy that can never be, Myron. The people would never accept you, and The Order would never allow you to live long enough to seek that side.”

“They will, once we out number them. When I bring them back I’m sure our numbers will be greater than those of The Order and their offspring, and after we take over it will only be a matter of time before we change the minds of the populace.”

Garland could sense that this thing was spiraling out of control, hoping that the young leader would hear him if he let more of his emotion show through, Garland tried one last time. “Don’t do this, son. This is your last chance.”

Either he chose to ignore what his heart was telling him, or he didn’t trust his emotions, whatever the reasoning was, Myron chose to hear menace instead of a plea.

“Ah, of course, a threat. Save your breath, father. I’m no longer the frightened child that craved your approval. My decision shall stand, We leave at my will.

*******

Jay Conover had a buxom blonde by the arm, and was pulling her towards the shadows of a darkened building. She was one of the night women that freely traded their bodies for a flask of the fermented drink that was made by a secret fellowship of riders. The Order was unaware of the brewing of the drink, or the manner of trade in which it was used, and as long as they limited the knowledge of their activities to a select few they probably would never find out.

The woman he had a grip on now was one of his favorites. Jay had always thought that, when it came to women there were always a small number of them that were bred for mounting. Their luscious curves, heavy breast and round bottoms oozed a sexuality that screamed out to every man that viewed her, ‘take me.’ What stood before him now was one such woman. He didn’t want to get to know her. Her didn’t care about her intellect, her needs, her likes or dislikes. None of that mattered. All he wanted from her was to experience her flesh, use her to satisfy his carnal needs for as long as he required, and then set her back out.

As he was pulling her into an alley he was surprised to hear a conversation taking place. Recognizing a couple of the voices he released his hold on the woman and shoved her back in the direction they had come from, instantly more interested in the men’s clandestine meeting. ‘I’ll find he later,’ he thought. ‘Women like that never let the darkness send them indoors.’

He quietly walked further into the shadows and stopped when he was close enough to see who it was, and hear what they were saying. There were four Province riders gathered in the deserted alley discussing their latest assignment.

“Did you hear? In ten days time the leader is sending us out to bring back those abominations.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“So, what do you think?”

“I think it’s a big mistake. When Curtis Poole set them out he knew what he was doing. Who in their right mind would want to live around them?”

“I agree. They have their own place out there in the wilderness. I say let them continue to suffer. Why should we bring them back here where the living is good?”

“I’m with you, but I’ll tell you what. If the leader wants them back, I’ll bring them back…but who’s to say they will be in one piece?”

The laugh that followed was sinister. “I’m on board with that, and who’s to say they’ll all make it back?”

That’s when Jay made his presence known. “Well, hello fella’s. What’s going on?”

The question was met with nervous silence. Although they were a group of bad boys, the man in front of them was one of the baddest. Only his companion, Todd, was his equal when it came to malevolence.

One of the men finally spoke up, fearing that if they remained quiet too much longer the volatile rider would become irritated, and make sport of one of them.

“Nothing’s going on, Jay. Me and the boys were just hanging out. You know? Looking for something to do.”

“That’s not what it sounded like to me. What it sounded like to me was that you fella’s were making plans to commit acts you have no permission, or authority to commit.”

“N…no…it’s nothing like that. W…we…were…”

Jay began laughing and gave the stuttering man a hard slap on the back. “Relax, Billy. I was just funnin’ ya. Y…you don’t n…need to be nervous,” he said, mocking the man.

The men laughed, not because Jay was funny, but because he wasn’t. There wasn’t too many things more dangerous than an evil man that felt like the people around him didn’t find his wicked humor hilarious.

The stilted conversation continued until Jay caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. When he fully turned his attention in the direction of his periphery, a sickening smile covered his face. Off in the distance he saw Sam walking down the street.

Sam had come into town with Sherman for what had become their routine, a once a week trip into the proper. During those trips Sam had become more comfortable with the people, and his surroundings. In fact, the comfort level had reached such a high point that when they had finished loading the supplies on the back of the wagon, Sam had wanted to stay in the proper for a while, on his own. Knowing that the people were getting used to Sam being around, Sherman didn’t see the harm in letting him stay.

“Can you find your way back to the ranch on your own, Sam?”

“I know the path, it’s where I sleep, I’ll find the place where the moo-moo eat.”

That was a new one, and as usual, Sherman belly laughed. “Okay then, I’ll see you later, buddy.”

Now Sam was walking down the street, alone, and totally unaware of the danger that was stalking him.

Jay furrowed his brow and turned to his companions with a wicked glint in his eyes. “You fella’s wanna have some fun?”

They readily agreed. They were willing to do anything to get Jay’s focus off of them. The men knew all too well about the deep hatred Jay and Todd had for the nomad. It seemed like they hated the fact that the small man even existed. The two men despised him even more when they witnessed the ready smiles that appeared on the women and children’s faces when the whimsical man was around. His presence made them feel like their lives were changing in a way that they had no control over, and it made them seethe with anger.

But Jay mostly hated the strange little man because it seemed like he had somehow set a spell upon the leader, causing Myron Scott to come up with the dangerously insane idea to go out, round up the outcasts and bring them back to the Province, and that didn’t sit well with him.

Jay rubbed his hands together and started cracking his knuckles. “Watch this,” he said to the other riders. “Come here happy man,” he called out.

Having no fear, Sam made his over to the shadows. But when he got close enough he could feel it. These men were not safe.

“What do you say, what do you know, you hide in the dark no friend, but foe.”

That was all it took to push Jay over the edge. The man grabbed Sam before he could get away and pulled him further into the darkness. Sam struggled, but he was too slight of a man to defend himself against a gang of burly men.

The sounds of fist hitting flesh, and muffled grunts and kicks went on for several long minutes before silence filled the narrow alleyway.

Eventually the men walked out onto the streets, one or two of them shaking the ach out of their fists, while others were wiping blood smears off of their hands with sweat rags. When they were far enough away, Sam staggered out of the shadows and headed in the direction of the Morgan ranch, there he knew he would find help.

*******

It was because of sheer determination, and a big dose of divine intervention that Sam was able to make it back to the Morgan ranch. When he reached the house, he crawled up the steps, drug himself across the porch and knocked once on the door. He was so weak that the sound barely registered inside the house. When he understood what that reality meant, he moaned in defeat, surely the Deus wouldn’t be so cruel as to let him get this close, only to have him die after coming within inches of his goal…fortunately for Sam, the Deus was with him.

Sherman happened to be walking by the front door, headed to the kitchen for supper, when an odd noise caught his attention. Stopping he cocked his head, that’s when he heard a muffled mewing sound. Thinking it might be an injured animal he slowly opened the door, and stood paralyzed for a few seconds, shocked when Sam fell across the doorframe into the house. His first reaction was to reach down and grab the injured man, his second was to call for help.

“Mom! Come quick! Sam’s hurt!”

Sherman lifted the smaller man and carried him into the main room, laying him down on the sofa. “Hold on buddy, we’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

Ellen entered from the kitchen with Warren, Thomas and Walter close behind. Her hand clutched at her throat when she saw how bloodied and beaten their enchanting little visitor was.

“By the Deus, what happened to him?”

Sherman gritted his teeth, trying to hold his anger in. “I’d say he got a nice Province welcome from a few of the locals.” Looking at the gash on Sam’s swollen cheek filled Sherman with guilt. “I knew I shouldn’t have let him stay there by himself.”

Ellen rubbed her son’s back, hoping to give him a little comfort. “It’s not your fault, Sherman. You had no reason to think anyone would hurt him, everyone loves Sam.”

Sherman couldn’t let it go that easily. “Not everyone, mom. There are a couple of riders that have a real intense dislike for Sam.”

He looked up and caught his father’s eyes. Warren nodded in recognition of who was probably responsible for Sam’s condition. “I know who you’re talking about, son, and I think you’re right on target.”

Warren turned his attention back to the ailing man, and knelt down next to him. “Help us out, Sam. Tell me what happened.”

Warren knew the request was going to be next to impossible to fulfill. Sam never spoke in plain words, he was only capable of communicating in his rhythmic rhyming way. But Warren had to try. He felt like the boy was bound to them somehow, and maybe, just maybe with the help of the Deus, Sam could talk to them.

“They will go looking for the lost, and bring them back at any cost.”

Thomas stepped forward. “What does that mean?”

“And how is that telling us who hurt him?” Walter questioned.

Sherman tried. “Sam, was the people who will go looking for the lost, the same people that hurt you?”

Sam nodded.

“Very good, Sherman you got the answer, now all we have to do is go out and find them,” Thomas smirked.

“Hush, Tom. This isn’t the time for sprouting tail feathers,” Ellen scolded.

“Sorry, mom,” the young man mumbled.

They stayed silent, each trying to figure out the puzzle. Then Warren snapped his finger. “He has to be talking about the riders, they’re the only ones that have the freedom to go looking for anyone.”

“Was it one of the riders?” Warren asked Sam.

“Not one, not two, but three or four. The angry riders made Sam sore.”

Sherman’s temper was about to explode. “They jumped you, Sam. Did those cowards jump you?!” he practically yelled.

“Sherman stay calm, there’s much to do. Sam will be fine, he has a clue.”

“You wanna tell us something?” Walter asked.

“Listen well and understand. In ten days time they’ll swarm the land.”

Again, the room was filled with silent thoughts. “Maybe that means The Order is going to send out riders to every home in the Province to see if there are any intuitives being hidden.” Thomas suggested.

Warren rubbed his chin in thought. “Could be, Tom, but I think it’s bigger that that. The air has been filled with a foreboding presence since Keller left.” He forced himself to ignore the guilt that wanted to gnaw it’s way out of his stomach. “I think it’s bigger than that. I think Sam is trying to tell us that The Order is sending riders out to find the place where the outcast live…and bring them back.”

They all remained silent, allowing Sam’s words to wander through their minds. “They will go looking for the lost, and bring them back at any cost,” that was the first thing he’d said.

Sam interrupted the families musings. “Father is smart, I always knew, but Sherman will now know what to do,” was said in a weak voice, through busted lips.

Sherman leaned forward to take a closer look at his friend, that’s when he realized that Sam was in worse shape than he had thought. Not only was his face misshapen, but his shoulder protruded out at an odd angle, and his breathing was labored. The constant flow of blood that fell from the corner of his mouth told a story of internal injuries that didn’t bode well for the small man.

“What, Sam? What do I know?” Sherman asked.

Sam’s sincere brown eyes bore into Sherman’s concerned green, holding him, willing the other man to understand.

“If you go, you will reach the peak, there you will find the one you seek.”

Blonde brows furrowed for a while, then smoothed out. Sherman and Sam shared a silent communication for many moments, that only ended when the young rancher smiled. Then in a shaky whisper he spoke what he had come to understand.

“Keller.”

Sam released a lung full of air that left his chest still, and for a brief moment the Morgan’s thought that they had lost him, until the sound of a sudden intake of oxygen filled the silent room making the occupants weak with relief.

Then Sam spoke again. “The Deus knows that you have missed her, you must go and find your sister.”

Sam was silent after that, too exhausted to continue. His eyes closed and his body finally gave in to the deep sleep that it needed to heal.

Ellen felt like she was in a thick fog. It seemed impossible. Could it be true? Was Keller still alive out there? Sam had filled her with hope each time he sensed her despair where her missing daughter was concerned, but it had been three months since she went missing…could she really be out there?

There was something about Sam, something that made you believe in happy endings. It had been that way from the start. When he’d first come to them, it had taken her a few days to get used to the way he spoke, but once she had, she found herself charmed by him.

Her boys, on the other hand, took to Sam right away. Treating him like a little brother most days, and a well loved pet on others. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but Sam had something, and whatever it was it made you feel…hopeful. That’s what it was she decided. Sam was like the physical presence of walking, talking hope, filling the people around him with the desire to go another day because it could be better than the one before.

Suddenly realizing how injured he was set her heart to beating, and pushed her into action. “Walter, heat up some water and add a bit of cattail pollen so that I can make a tea for his inside injuries, and boil a few comfrey roots so that I can make a poultice to put on his bruises. Thomas, tear up some bandages and find some flat wood in case we need to set broken bones.”

Needing no further prompting both men went about their duties.

“Sherman, I need you to bring me the hollow reed, and the jar of passion flower tea. When I start working on him, the pain will most likely wake him up. I’ll need you to keep a flow going to help with the pain and keep him asleep.”

*******

Later that night as they laid quietly in bed, Warren spoke into the darkness. Ellie, if what Sam says is true I will not be left behind. I’m gonna go into the Province proper first thing in the morning and tell the trail boss I’m going with them.”

He waited for the argument…and waited, but Ellen never said a word, this left him unsettled. There had always been a response of some sort, even if it was just a sigh, but to hear nothing was disturbing.

“Did you hear me, Ellie? I’m…”

“I heard you, Warren.”

“There’s nothing you wanna say about it?”

“Nothing to say. I hate the idea of you going out there again, but if Sam is right, our girl is out in that wilderness somewhere, and I think her daddy is the one to go and get her.” She turned on her side and wrapped her arms around her husbands waist. “If anyone can do it, it’s you, Warren.”

Hearing the confidence in his wife’s voice filled Warren with shame. “How can you say that, Ellie? If it wasn’t for me she would be right here on the ranch…”

Ellen pressed her fingers over her husband’s lips, stopping him from speaking. “Don’t do that, Warren. We’ve already been through this. You didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just the world we live in.”

That didn’t sit right with the rancher. Why did the world have to be this way? What harm did it really do to let folks make pictures, or tell stories, or sing songs? Why were those things so offensive to The Order? The questions just swam around in his head with no destination in sight.

It was the sound of Ellen’s voice that pulled him from his thoughts.

“You need to take Sherman with you. From what Sam said, it seems that you’ll need his help.”

Ellen smiled when she felt the laugh coming from deep in Warren’s chest. “I don’t think I could stop him this time. After all, Sam practically told him it was his duty.”

Ellen snuggled closer, taking comfort in the safety she had always felt in her husband’s arms. “Poor Sam. I just don’t understand, Warren. There has got to be a better way. It’s not right that those men can walk around doing as they please without fear of punishment.”

“Come on now, Ellie. We’re not sure who did this.” Even as he said it he knew it was a lie. The time Warren had spent on the trail with the riders showed him all he needed to see. A couple of them were out of control.

Then Ellen voiced a secret that lived way down deep in her heart. A secret that she’d never allowed out into the light until now.

“I wish there was someplace else to go,” she whispered.

Warren was about to argue the folly of such thoughts, but stopped himself. Considering the state of his family, the condition Sam had crawled home in, and his first hand knowledge of the rider’s depravity, he had to give the desire second thoughts.
Part Twelve: Hit The Road, Jack and Don’t You Come Back No More, No More, No More, No More. ~Ray Charles~
As soon as the furry little spies walked through the gates of Arcadia, Barrett headed for the meeting hut to brief the committee on the success of their mission. As he walked, he mentally reminded himself to seek out Jarrod, he would do as he had promised and recommend Naomi for sentry duty, she was too good to keep behind the gates, they needed her on patrol. Then a harsh reality washed over him. They may not have a home to protect too much longer.

Tim-Tim, Isaac and Naomi were making their way to the simian’s hamlet, when Naomi, suddenly stopped and raised her muzzle in the air, sniffing.

“Well, well, well,” she whispered. “Looks like Barrett was right,” she said as she changed direction.

Tim-Tim and Isaac ignored her and continued on to their huts. How Naomi had the energy to do anything other than go home and rest was beyond them.

Naomi saw Troi and Keller walking down the main road holding hands, and quickened her steps so that she could catch up with them. She would never admit it to her male counterparts, but she liked Keller, and if she couldn’t have Troi, she didn’t mind losing to the sweet natured blonde. But that small fact wasn’t going to stop her from having a little fun with couple.

Keller watched with interests as Naomi approached them. She thought that the antics the little monkey pulled were hilarious and from the mischief in her steps, it looked like Troi was about to be victimized yet again.

Without an invitation, the monkey quickly scaled her way up Troi’s legs and perched herself on the tall woman’s shoulders. Then she proceeded to sniff and sift through Troi’s dark locks, pretending to search for bugs. As the blonde woman continued to watch, she found it a little disturbing when she noticed the languid way the little monkey’s fluffy tail caressed Troi’s ear and neck in an unconscious motion.

‘I know I’m not jealous of a monkey,’ she thought. Then when she saw Troi attempting to bat the monkey away, she laughed at herself. ‘How ridiculous can I be?’ Then she found that she had to stop herself from laughing out loud from the display in front of her.

“This is your last warning, Naomi. Get off of me!”

“Stop trying to fight it, Troi. You know you’re madly in love with me.”

“In your dreams, besides, I heard you were spending time with Tim-Tim.”

“That is a lie, but if it were true, you and I both know that he would just be a substitute until you came to your senses.”

When Naomi realized that Keller was just staring at them with an amused look on her face, she decided to pull the blonde into the torture. She raised her head in the air and flared her nostrils. “Something has changed about you, Keller.”

The suggestive tone in the monkey’s voice made Keller blush. “Nothing has changed, Naomi, everything is just as it was when you left.

The howler turned her attention back to Troi. “Are you gonna lie to me too, sweet cheeks?” she asked as she gave the body part a playful pinch.

The dark woman tried swatting the small hands away, but the little monkey avoided being hit. “Nobody is lying to you, Naomi. Now get off of me!”

She buried her nose in Troi’s dark hair one last time, and inhaled deeply. “You can’t deny it, Troi.” She jumped down to the ground, and wiggled her brow ridge. “You reek of her, and I don’t mean in a spiritual way. You reek of something deliciously carnal.” Then she inhaled again, and addressed Keller. “You reek of each other…a lot”

As she ran off, the couple looked at one another and then, without a word passing between them, they started sniffing the air around them, trying, without success to get a hint of whatever it was that the monkeys seemed to detect so easily.

*******

“We don’t have the numbers to stand against the riders of the Province.” Baxley Reynolds stated. “If Barrett’s calculations are correct, the size of the place suggest that their security force has to be limitless.”

“What do you recommend we do?” Alice asked the eldest committee member.

“I’m not sure, but whatever we do, it needs to be done soon. From what Barrett says, their two day rest puts the riders eight days behind them.” Baxley informed the room.

The rustling of parchment and the tapping of writing sticks filled the meeting hut. Every person there knew what their options were, but no one wanted to be the first to voice it.

They could stay and refuse to be taken, with the end result being the majority of the villagers losing their lives in a fight, or they could pack up and run, ensuring the safety of the Arcadian lives.

“Let’s just get it out there,” Alice started. “Our only chance is to run.”

Murmurs of agreement filtered around the room.

“But, where would we go?” Robert questioned.

“In search of the exiles,” Baxley said. As if the suggestion had been waiting for the chance to leap from his mouth, but it hadn’t. It was just their only choice.

“Are you sure?” Robert asked. “Although they trade with us, it has always been one-sided. They’ve never told us where they live, and we’ve never asked. How can we be sure they’ll help us?”

“We can’t be, but, maybe under these circumstances they’ll extend a hand.”

“Or think we are leading The Order to their front door,” Marshall said.

Baxley spoke his thoughts, they didn’t have the luxury of time, where they could start one of their usual, long, drawn-out debates. “It’s a chance we’ll have to take.”

“Now that a decision has been made, we must turn our minds to other things,” Robert added. “It is going to take us at the very least, a good month and a half to organize our people and supplies.”

“No it won’t,” Alice said.

“How can you be sure?” Robert countered.

“Because we don’t have a month and a half. What we can’t pack and organize in the next six days won’t make the journey.”

“There’s no arguing with that logic,” Baxley exhaled. “Send out the messengers. The most important meeting of our time will be held after sundown.”

Chair legs scrapped the floor as the members prepared to leave, and go to make the necessary arraignments for the odyssey that laid ahead.

“How will this end?” Marshall wondered out loud.

“Only the Deus knows,” Robert said as he rushed past the bewildered man.

*******

Keller stood beside Troi in the village square. ‘Surely she was dreaming. They didn’t just announce that the Province riders were coming, and they had to leave.’

“This can’t be happening,” she said out loud.

Troi pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “It’ll be okay, sweetheart.”

“What is wrong with that man?!” Keller was starting to feel a little hysterical. “Why can’t he leave people alone?”

“I don’t know,” was Troi’s only response, as she turned her attention back to the speaker.

“So, as soon as this meeting ends, every citizen should pack any items they want to take with them.” Baxley looked out over the audience until he spotted the tall body he was looking for. “Magnus, I need to meet with you and the other jacks. We’ll need as many wagons and travel boxes as your crew can build in a short time.”

The dark head nodded.

“If no one has anything else to say, this meeting is over.”

The crowd quickly dispersed, each person setting their minds to making their personal plans.

Keller was practically running to keep up with Troi’s long strides as headed towards their home, but that didn’t stop her from voicing her anger.

“This is insanity, Troi.” Then she was struck with a thought. “Maybe that’s it, Myron Scott is insane.”

“Could be, but none of that matters, love. They’re coming. They’re coming to drag us back to a place where none of us has ever been.”

That statement seemed to clear Keller’s head. ‘Oh, my Deus. The riders are coming for the Arcadians.’

They practically ran into their home, each woman grabbing a bag for their personal items, and a large trunk for their cherished mementos and supplies.

“The sooner we can take care of our personal travel needs, the sooner we can help with the things that need to be done to move an entire village,” Troi informed her lover.

All over Arcadia, and also in the simian hamlet, clothes were being packed, trinkets were being boxed, and fear was being kept at bay. As long as the citizens could keep themselves busy, the heart stopping terror that was waiting to claim their minds could be ignored.

Later in the evening, Tanner came by to see if Troi and Keller could help out in the woodshed.

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Troi told her brother.

She grabbed Keller’s hands, and brought them up to where she could examine them. She could see that the sword practice had built up a nice layer of callused skin across the shorter woman’s palms.

“What are you doing, butthead?” Tanner asked impatiently.

“If you must know, I’m checking to see if Keller’s hands are tough enough to do woodwork.”

Tanner held his hands up to his face and made kissy noises. “Aww…how sweet. The big, bad fighter has a soft side.”

Happy to let the teasing relieve some of the stress, Keller was hot on her lover’s heels as the tall woman chased her brother out of the house.

*******

Five days later, when the villagers were ready to head out, quite a few of the older people, and some of the more stubborn Arcadians, refused to leave. They chose, instead, to meet the Province riders head on, and possibly give their friends and neighbors an even larger head start.

“Please come with us, dad,” one of the women could be heard begging her father.

“No, Jennie, I refuse to be put out of my home by the same people that put our ancestors out of theirs.”

“We have no choice, dad.”

“I do. I have a choice. It may not be the safe choice, but it’s a choice all the same.”

“We can not leave you here unprotected.”

“We’re are not helpless children, Jennie. There was a time when I was sentry, ya know.”

“That was twenty years ago.”

“Once a sentry, always a sentry. You never forget.”

Having to resign herself to an outcome she was against, Jennie Mitchell kissed her father on the cheek, and turned to her mother.

“I guess there’s no way I can talk you into coming with us.”

The smaller woman hugged her daughter close, and kissed her jaw. “My place has been, and always will be by your father’s side.”

“Yeah, I know. What’s so annoying is that I want to hit you over the head, and bow down at your feet, at the same time.”

Aged eyes stared at her daughter with confusion.

“What I’m saying, mom, is that you staying here terrifies me, but the depth of your love for dad makes me want to shout praises to the sky.”

This seemed to make the older woman happy, and she patted her daughter’s face, lovingly.

“That’s what it’s all about, sweetheart. Finding a heart bound so closely to your own, that nothing else matters.”

*******

Troi was outside, patiently waiting for her partner to take one last look around the dwelling they’d shared for a short while, when Keller finally came out of their home, she walked into Troi’s open arms, trying to hold back her tears.

“I thought this would be the place where we grew old together.”

Troi pulled her lover closer. “And we still may do that. Don’t despair, love. By the way, what took you so long?”

“I was caught by a thread of inspiration too strong to ignore. An idea for a picture came to my mind, and I had to draw it.”

Noticing that her lover wasn’t carrying a scroll, Troi asked. “Where is it?”

Keller smiled crookedly. “On the wall,” she said pointing behind her. “When they get here I want them to know. I want them to know that I was here, that I exist. That I matter.”

They both looked around one last, then Troi check Keller’s scabbard, making sure it was secured to her back, and then her weapon, ensuring it was firmly in place. She helped the shorter woman mount her horse, then climbed onto her own. She couldn’t believe what was happening, she was leaving the only home she had ever known.

Then her gaze fell on the woman beside her. Her flaxen beauty. It was then with certain clarity that she was blessed with understanding. Keller was her home now. Wherever they went, it didn’t matter, as long as Keller was there, she would always be home.

They rode to the back gate, and lined up with the rest of Arcadia. It was time to go. Several of the villagers were wiping tears from their eyes as they rode away. Looking back at the friends and love ones they were leaving behind was almost unbearable.

Then a joyous roar went up when someone from the village yelled out to the travelers.

“We’ll be here when you get back!”

*******

After their first night out in the wild, they knew the journey would not be an easy one. The terrain was dense, making it nearly impossible to navigate a route for a village sized wagon train. There were no obvious roads to follow, only the narrow footpaths and horse trails that had been made by the few intrepid Arcadians that had left to make their way west. The people knew that something needed to be done, so it was decided that the most practical solution would be to send out road scouts and jacks to lay a path that would be a little easier to follow. It was agreed, that the wagon train would give the workers a three day head start, then set out to follow the road that was being cut out for them.

Isaac suggested that the best way to scout out a direction would be to have the monkeys survey the area from a perch high in the trees, where they could determine which direction held the fewest tress and obstacles to contend with.

When the plan was set and underway the Arcadians wondered, not for the first time, how had the exile’s trading caravan been able to make the journey to Arcadia without a road to follow?

After three days of waiting, one of the monkeys returned to the waiting wagon train, and led the people to the freshly carved roadway.

When dusk fell the travelers stopped to make camp in an area that offered them more room than had been previously available, this would make the tasks that lay ahead a bit easier to accomplish as the people set about to begin their outdoor ritual with. Fire rings were built around the perimeter to ward off the curious night creatures, cook fires were started in preparation of feeding all of the people, and the animals were tended to.

Bags of marbles were pulled out, and an area was set up for the children to play their games, this was a way to keep them occupied and out from under the foot of the busy adults.

The young people were sent out to gather enough wood to last through the night, this would be an easy chore since there was so much cut wood laying around.

The duty of watching over the perimeter fires had been assigned to the sentries, and Troi had the feeling that the guards would need to be extra vigilant. The woods being disturbed had probably run some critters off, but made others more curious, and now that Keller could handle a weapon, she would be able to join her lover on the night watch.

*******

Not surprisingly, Davis had pulled Miss Millie and Mona’s wagons near the fire ring that Troi, Keller, Pip and Barrett were attending.

Quiet conversations were being held in the still of the night. No one wanted to speak too loudly, for fear of disturbing the forest. Keller looked over at Patsy sitting beside Davis and smiled at the closeness they obviously shared. She had noticed that when night fell, she wouldn’t let Davis get too far out of her sight, but the pit boss didn’t seem to mind giving Patsy the safety she needed, in fact he seemed to cherish the responsibility.

It had been a long road he’d traveled with Patsy, but the trip had been well worth the effort. The time they spent together had slowly nurtured a trusting, caring relationship between the young people. It wasn’t official, but anyone that took the time to look could see that they were a couple. Keller was made aware of that fact the evening Davis had showed up at their door in distress. Patsy had eventually told him about her abuse, and it had nearly broken his heart. If she concentrated, Keller could still see how broken Davis had been that night. He’d cried like a baby over the horrors Patsy had suffered, and vowed to never let it happen again.

To look at them now, no one would ever guess that two short months before, Patsy had been broken, bruised and incapable of being outside once the sun set, or that her first few days in Arcadia she had done everything she could to avoid the large man sitting beside her.

Keller shook off the dark thoughts in favor of something more pleasant. “Hey, Patsy. Why don’t you tell us a story?”

Even in the dark, the people around the ring could see the panic in the redhead’s eyes. Keller didn’t say anything more, she left it up to Patsy, but if the woman’s need to tell stories was anything like her need to draw, she would fight the fear, accept the invitation, and jump at the chance to exercise her craft.

“Um…I don’t know what story to tell,” she said in a soft voice.

Davis saw this as a good sign. She had shared a few stories with him when they were alone, and he had enjoyed them, now he hoped that she would share her talent with the others.

“Tell them about the coastal people,” Davis suggested.

“O…okay,” she agreed.

Patsy looked around at the anxious faces, and she was compelled to answer the call.

“Um…out on the eastern shores of the Province, there lives the water people…” she began quietly.

*******

After two weeks of achieving only minimal travel miles, Barrett knew drastic measures needed to be taken if they were going to stay ahead of the riders…they needed to take the road to the Low Lands.

“We are never going to be able move all of these people, wagons and livestock fast enough to stay out of the rider’s reach. The only way to move faster is to cut through the Low Lands.”

“Do you think Succor will allow it?” Tim-Tim asked.

“Succor has always been a wise leader. I think he will look past the intrusion, and see the need,” Barrett answered.

“I hope you’re right, because if you’re not, the Low Lands are going to host a carnivorous feast, the likes of which they’ve seen before,” Tim-Tim warned.

Barrett shivered. If things came to that, he would never forgive himself for serving up his friends to the animal kingdom.

*******

The wagons were in a circle, with Baxley standing tall in the center buggy that was being used as a podium. He waited for the murmurs to settle down before announcing the change of plans.

“Listen up!” he yelled. “Barrett has informed me that there is another, less dense road to travel.”

The people began to complain…loudly.

“Why didn’t he tell us sooner?!”

“We’ve been wandering around out here for two weeks, and there was an easier road!?”

“Settle down,” Baxley commanded. “It’s not what you think. The road is easier to travel, but it leads to, and goes through the Low Lands.”

“Oh, well that’s a whole nother story,” someone yelled.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Baxley said as he ran his hands through his salt and pepper hair. “It’s the road the exiles use when the caravan comes.”

“Then what are we waiting for? Let’s pack up and head out!” Another person suggested.

“We’re waiting because, the exiles were invited, we were not…there could be problems if we just drop in.”

“What kind of problems!?”

“Problems that don’t need to be discussed in front of small children.”

Low voices of understanding could be heard around the wide circle. The people could easily imagine what a land of animals could do with a wagon train of unannounced, uninvited humans.

“This is my Suggestion. I think we should take the chance, and once we get there have Barrett speak for us,” Baxley informed the masses.

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” someone spoke out.

A chorus of, “Yes. Absolutely. Let’s do it,” was heard loud and clear.

“Then it’s settled. We send the monkeys out to bring the jacks back, then once when we’re all together again, we change our course.”

*******

When the jacks returned, a few of the sentries suggested that they cover the path they were about to cut out, so that if the riders were, in fact, following them, there wouldn’t be a trail leading to their new destination.

A team of mules and oxen were gathered, and used to pull the cut tress into position, so that the path would be hidden from view. Vines were rerouted to run in and out of the new landscape, camouflaging any gaps or stomps that might peak through. When the work was done, the jacks stood back and viewed their work with an appetitive eye.

“I’d say that’s almost as good as the natural growth,” Magnus complimented his men.

*******

Once Barrett steered the wagon train in the direction of the wide roads, the journey became much smoother, and the progress they made was making up for the days they had lost struggling to carve out a new path.

The scenery was so different from their previous view. Where the road had been tight, surrounding them with suffocating denseness, this new path was a luxury. The area was wide open, and the ground was even and packed from constant usage. The sky was visible and offered a beautiful blue expanse for the travelers to enjoy. And the sun was able to shine directly on them, no longer having to wait for a majestic tree to resettle a branch or release a group of changing leaves to have the opportunity.

Troi and Keller were riding near the middle of the line, keeping a secure eye on their section of the wagon train. It was strange, but Troi felt more on guard in the open area, than she had in the closed in forest. Somehow, all of the open space made her feel more vulnerable.

“You’re looking a bit jittery there, sweetheart.”

“I’m okay, just getting used to the change in surroundings,” Troi reassured.

“Are you sure? You seem kinda tense,” Keller observed.

Before Troi could respond, an unsolicited opinion was heard from the wagon directly behind them. “Sounds like you’re neglecting your duties, Keller,” Naomi yelled out from the backboard of Mona’s wagon. “It’s not too late, Troi, I’m still available,” she added with a suggestive hip thrust.

Everyone that was in hearing and viewing distance screamed with laughter at the flirtatious little monkey.

The red color that was creeping up Troi’s face made her look like one of the melon fruits, and her embarrassment was about to make her say something very hurtful to the playful monkey, but when she caught a glimpse of Keller practically shaking apart in an effort to keep herself from laughing out loud, she was able to see the humor, and laughed herself.

“You’re about three feet too short for me, Naomi.”

Then, without missing a beat, the response came. “We’re all the same size when we lay down, Troi!”

Keller leaned over so that she could be heard over the gales of laughter. “You’d better stop while you’re only slightly behind, I have the feeling that Naomi is loaded for bear.”

Turning her head, Troi looked into Naomi’s eyes and saw the truth. She was ready, willing and able to continue. She threw her hands up in the air and pouted. “I just can’t win.”

Keller leaned over again, and instead of pushing Troi’s bottom lip back in, she kissed it. “Put that away,” she whispered.

In an instant, Naomi saw another opportunity to torment. “See, I told ya, Keller. Just one kiss and Troi already looks more relaxed.”

Keller felt her face start to heat up.

“See, it’s not so funny when it’s you she’s picking on,” Troi said before riding off to catch up with Pip.

*******

When the Arcadians finally reached the entrance to the Low Lands, it was with great wonder. None of them had ever been this far away from home, and it was a bit unnerving. The way was bright and clear, and to traveler’s eyes, quite beautiful.

Off to one side, laying in the weeds, there was a discarded old wooden sign that was so weather-beaten the only words that could be read were, ‘Lake Of The Ozarks’

Barrett rushed to the front of the long line, and gave the lead riders a few instructions. “Although there are roads all around, stay on the main one. Some of the things in there that look solid, are not, and if you are not careful you will lose a few of your wagons.”

“Okay, that’s easy enough,” Baxley acknowledged as he took in the surrounding water.

“Also, and this is very important. Make certain that the young ones stay on the wagons until I give the safe signal. There are areas along the path where the gators dwell. If they see a wandering child, they will pull it off of the road and drag it into the swamp.”

“Understood, but, Barrett, what is a gator?”

“Well, Baxley, the best way that I can describe one is to say that a gator is a fifteen foot long lizard, with a row of about eighty teeth, in a mouth that can open wide enough to swallow a small child whole.”

“Oh,” was Baxley’s only response before sending a runner down the line to warn the people of the potential danger.

*******

Troi and Keller were riding side-by-side, occasionally looking off of the side of the road. Both women had a perverse desire to see a gator. Any creature that walked low to the ground, but could still eat a child, was a creature that they wanted to see.

“Hey, Troi. What would you do if right now, out of nowhere a gator jumped out of the water and snapped off your horse’s leg.”

The answer was given without much contemplation. “Easy, I’d pull my sword, cut off it’s head, retrieve my horse’s leg, and tie it back on.”

Silence…nothing…not a word, then Keller could hold it in no longer. The laugh was deep and genuine, turning her face a rosy red, and causing her to double over in her saddle.

The humor was short lived, when the wagon train’s progress was brought to a sudden stop. But it wasn’t until they heard aggressive grunts and barks coming from up ahead that Troi and Keller knew there was a problem, they didn’t waste any time, both women pushed their mounts and rushed to the front.
Part Thirteen: On The Road Again. I Can’t Wait To Get On The Road Again. ~Willie Nelson~
The Province advisors stood on the ground looking up at the leader. Roland, being the senior advisor, was giving it one last try. It was his duty to put forth his best effort to stop the leader of the Province from making a huge mistake.

“You can’t bring them here, Myron. Leave them to their own homes.”

“This is their home.”

“Not anymore. Not for nearly one thousand years. Leave them be.”

“No. I will bring them home and we will teach them how to control their impulses. I can do it, I can make them change.” This was becoming tiring, having no desire to engage in further conversation. Myron squeezed his knees, snapped the horse’s reins and rode away, never giving Roland a backwards glance.

As the advisors watched their headstrong, inexperienced leader gallop away from the Province, taking a majority of the riders with him, it occurred to Roland that the young man was breaking two of The Order’s rules, rules that were separate from those the citizens followed.

Firstly, he was leaving the Province without having bred strong heirs to ensure that those in his care would never be left without a well trained leader. And second, he was taking with him nearly every rider they had, leaving everyone vulnerable to attacks or uprisings. What was wrong with this young man? Why didn’t he listen?

Then, Roland was overcome by a revelation…’this is the last time I will ever lay eyes on Myron Scott,’ he thought. Surprisingly, the thought didn’t have much of an effect on him.

With that, he turned and was followed by the others. He knew what they had to do. Gabriel Scott would be the leader now, and for the first time in nearly two years the old man was excited about the future. With young Gabriel Scott at the helm, maybe the Province could return to it’s former glory. The first order of business being, the dismantling of that huge failure…The Center.

*******

Brent was in the lead with Jay and Todd on each side of him. This was the formation they always started their journeys with. In the early days, after a surprise links ambush, Brent had learned that it was best, at least defensively, to have these two men beside him. He looked behind him, and two rows back, he saw their esteemed leader, nestled comfortably between twenty riders, safely out of harm’s way. Brent’s sights then turned to the two new additions to this crusade, Warren and Sherman Morgan.

The trail boss had to admit to having a high degree of respect for Warren. The rancher had approached him a few days before, and essentially told him that he and his son were going to head out with the rest of the riders. Brent hadn’t been given the opportunity to dissuade the man, Warren simply stated the facts as he saw them. His daughter had never been found, or wandered back to the Province, therefore, he believed that she was out there somewhere, and he and his son were going to find her.

On that day, as he looked into the man’s stormy eyes, all Brent could do was ask him if either one of them could handle any type of weapon. When the rancher stated that he was pretty good with a wood axe and his son was an expert shot with a bow and arrow, the trail boss laughed to himself before agreeing to let them join.

Brent had thought that if the two made it back to their ranch alive he would be surprised, but looking at them now, sitting high and proud in their saddles…the older man with is axe tied down tight against the side of his horse, his son beside him with a bow and quiver of arrows strapped to his back, he wasn’t sure. If any of them were going to make it back from this journey, maybe it was those two. The Deus knew that the hot-headed son looked more determined than his father. That may be the edge they will need to keep a firm hold on their lives.

Brent turned and faced forward again. Raising his hand, he signaled the gate keepers to open the heavy barriers. “Mooove Out!” he yelled, as he led his men out onto the wild road…again.

*******

There were easily two hundred riders making their way across the Badlands on horseback, and their progress was slow. When Myron had informed the trail boss that he intended to commit most of the riders to this quest, Brent had respectfully suggested that their numbers would be too great, and maybe the leader should consider cutting that number in half.

But, as it had been with every suggestion that was given to Myron, it fell on deaf ears. Now, this journey was becoming a cumbersome mess, where it should have been a sleek, manageable mission.

Fifteen days in, their progress had become mind numbingly slow. The riders were used to quick, concise assignments. Even if the mission took weeks to accomplish, each day was a productive one, but with the leader in their company, it was becoming almost unbearable.

It quickly became obvious that the young man was not used to hard work…of any kind, having the men wait on him hand and foot, but when Myron insisted that, at each campsite, a separate latrine be dug for him, and his waste brush be stripped into fine strands, the men wanted to rebel.

“This is getting old,” Todd complained to Jay. “I thought by now we would have found them.”

“You gotta be more patient,” Jay cajoled.

“More patient!? We’ve been out here for two weeks, and there’s been no action.”

Feeling a little anxious himself, Jay made a promise to his friend. “Tell you what, if nothing happens in the next two days, we’ll wait until it’s dark, and sneak away to see what we can find.”

This seemed to lift Todd’s spirits. “Okay, but it’s gonna be hard to wait.”

Neither man knew it at the time, but they wouldn’t need to wait two days to go out seeking an outlet for their aggression, they were about to ride right into it.

********

The sun was just making it’s way across the sky, when the attack started. The links came from no where, attacking men and horses alike. Maybe it was because of the early hour, maybe it was because they had gone two weeks without a threat, whatever the reason, they had become lax, and before they knew what was happening they had lost fifty men and a few horses.

Myron sat, stunned. What manner of beast were these? Never in his life could he have imagined that these were the links his riders had reported on. He had been briefed on their primal culture and physical aggression, but what was before him now was nightmarish.

He was pulled from his stupor when murderous hands pulled him from his horse and before he knew what was happening, he found himself flat on his back, in the dirt, looking up into the face of death. The link that was straddling him was enormous, and the weight of the beast was stopping Myron from being able to defend himself.

The foul smell that was radiating from his body was overwhelming, and the froth that was leaking from it’s mouth was making him gag, but it wasn’t until a large hand with sharp, filthy fingernails proceeded to rip into his side, that Myron’s bladder emptied. The pain was more excruciating than anything he had ever felt in his life.

The link, felt the moisture first, then he caught the scent of urine. He stopped his attack, looked down between them, then back up to Myron, just staring at the frightened young man. He comically wrinkled his muzzle in disgust and snorted through the wide nose holes. But it was those few moments of hesitation that gave the men around him the time that was needed to save the leader’s life.

Working together, Sherman released an arrow, and Warren brought down his axe. The arrow imbedding itself in the beast’s chest, the axe removing it’s arm. Warren reached down and pulled the leader up by his arm, and standing him up on his feet.

The rancher saw the ripped, bloodstained material on Myron’s chest, and asked him how badly he was injured. When the only response he received was a blank stare he turned to Sherman for assistance.

“You talk to him, son. Maybe you can get through to him.”

Sherman didn’t think that would be a good idea, there was too much going on around them to take the time to coddle the young leader into coming back to his senses, but he gave it a try.

“Um…hey.” He shook the man by the shoulder. “Hey…you hear me? Look, with all due respect, you gotta get it together, we don’t have time for this.”

The ground moved when a horse fell, dead beside them. That’s when Myron came back to himself. “Deus, bless.”

The strangled words were barely heard.

*******

Myron sat as still as he could while the wound, that was located just under his ribs, was being sewn together. The fighting had stopped once the riders had gotten themselves organized enough to fight the links back into the woods before they could lose anymore of their men and horses.

But, Jay and Todd’s adrenaline was still pumping, and they needed an outlet, so, without thought to protocol or propriety, they approached their leader.

“Leader,” Jay started. “If we head out now we can catch them.”

Myron shook his head, appearing to be clearing it of the confusion the statement had caused. “Why would we do that?”

“Because if we don’t, on our way back, we’ll have to do this again,” Jay answered.

Seeing one those things up close and personal had filled Myron with a fear like he’d never known, and the thought of being ambushed again, made his bowels feel weak. He ran the tips of his fingers across the freshly sutured skin, and made the decision.

“If you can ensure that no further harm will come to me. It shall be done.”

Jay practically rubbed his hands together in glee. “Not a problem.” He turned to Todd. “Get Donny, Mitch and Len. Tell them what we’re about to do, and that it will be their duty to stay by the leader’s side to keep him safe.”

Todd nodded and ran off to round up the men. They were going to take the fight to the beast! The day was really looking up.

*******

“What do you mean we’re going after them?!” Brent bellowed. I never gave that order.

“You don’t need to give the order, if the leader does,” Jay informed.

Brent narrowed his eyes. He knew Jay and Todd were probably behind this. “So, I guess Myron Scott came up with this idea all on his own?”

Jay shrugged his shoulders. “He is the leader,” was all he was willing to say.

“That he is,” Brent acknowledged.

The trail boss turned his back, and left the man standing. The dismissive act didn’t bother Jay in the least. He was going to get what he wanted, and for him, that was all that mattered.

*******

Brent went in search of the leader. He had to try and change the man’s mind. When he found him, the young man was sitting on a field blanket sipping a cup of tea.

“What can I do for you, Brent?”

“Um…Leader. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Myron responded in such a casual manner it left Brent unsettled.

“I’m Positive. Why do you ask?”

“Well…because The Order has always left the links and the dogs to themselves. They believed that they were nature’s deterrent to stop the citizens from leaving the Province.”

Waving a dismissive hand, Myron sent Brent on his way. “Get your men organized, Brent. By the time I’ve seen my plan through the need for barriers, beast and separation will no longer be necessary.”

When Nothing else was said, Brent realized that the leader was inside his own head, something the man seemed to be doing a lot lately, and left to organize the men. As he walked away he realized that something didn’t feel right about this. His gut was telling him so. Something had gone very wrong with the leader.

Ever since Jay had approached him Myron had been thinking. If he could rid the Badlands of the links, then the wild dogs could also be eradicated. If that could be accomplished the Badlands could be opened for travel and he wouldn’t need to bring the outcasts back.

Once they found the outcasts he would station a complement of riders in there shanty and claim the hovels as a part of the Province. Then he could expand his campaign further west, clearing the land as they went along…the possibilities were endless.

If Myron could accomplish this, he would prove himself to be the greatest leader ever born. The failure of the center would be a faint memory in the minds of the people, then would join all the lands of their world, and rule as the supreme leader.

*******

By nightfall, the riders had found the links lair, but following the beast’s trail had been a difficult, almost impossible feat to accomplish. There had been times along the trail when a set of tracks would be laid out and easy to follow, only to abruptly stop, and disappear, as if the links had taken flight, or never really there. That was when one of the trackers looked up, and was able to inform Brent what was happening to their prey.

“Do you see those branches that look like they are running into one another?” Burke asked the trail boss.

Brent tilted his head back, to see where Burke was pointing. He was finally able to make out what appeared to be a continuous line of branches running through the trees. ‘Amazing,’ he thought. ‘They’ve figured out a way to travel through the trees.’

“What do we do?” Brent asked.

“Since we can’t get the horses through there, we follow the perimeter. If I’m right, on the other side we should find footprints again.” the tracker answered.

And that was how they had found them. Now they waited. Jay wanted to rush in and surprise them, but Brent’s cooler head prevailed.

“We’ll wait,” he said through gritted teeth. “We watch, wait and see what’s going on over there, and then we’ll make a plan of attack.”

“Fine,” Jay responded as he stomped away.

‘I don’t care how skilled of a fighter he is. When we get back I’m petitioning The Order to relieve him of duty,’ Brent thought as he settled into his hiding place.

*******

Early the following morning, while the moon was still up, they watched them come out of the overgrown mound. There were only five of them, and Brent assumed they were the hunters, heading out to find food.

They all watched, fascinated by the way the creatures interacted. From the sound of the grunts, and arm gestures that were waving in all different directions the men assumed they were arguing about which direction to start in. The scene that was playing out in front of them was so mesmerizing that it took a few moments before they realized that something was wrong.

The grunting and arm swinging had stopped, and the links were standing very still, and all five of them had their noses in the air…sniffing.

Then, without any warning, an obvious alarm went up. High, piercing screams filled the air, and the sounds of running feet could be heard coming from inside the mound.

“Attack!,” was yelled.

That’s when the riders rushed forward, weapons raised high, with murderous intent in their eyes. They descended on the links, covering them like a swarm of bees, never giving the five hunters a chance to defend themselves. Once they had dispensed with the five, the riders found the entrance and entered the links domain.

The stench that they walked into was like another being, in and of itself. The odor was so strong that they had no doubt, it had to have had it’s own life force, but there was no time to give in to the bile that was begging for release, the retching would have to wait for later.

The torches cast enough light to allow them to see, not only the retreating backs of their adversaries, but the fact that they were obviously inside of a building, on a narrow stairwell, and not for the first time, Brent wondered if these things were as primitive as they appeared, but when from somewhere down below, heavy footsteps were heard scattering, Brent knew he didn’t have the luxury of time necessary to contemplate such thoughts.

The men made their way down the stairwell, and the further down they went, the more things they noticed, like the large number of doors that lined the shadowed hallways, or the animal skulls that were obviously being used as bowls. A few of them had been dropped in haste, as evidenced by the partially eaten food that was still in them. They broke off into groups and went exploring for the retreating cretins.

The attack was timed perfectly. Once enough of the riders had cleared the fourth level landing, they came out of nowhere. The links began slashing and stabbing with precision. The sharp bone and animal antlers that had been fashioned into crude weapons were extremely effective.

Brent watched in horror as the bodies of his men were tossed over the banisters, into a pitch black hole. The passageway the riders were standing on was too tight for them to wield their weapons, so they were forced to improvise.

Torches were pulled from the walls and used to force the links back, but in a frenzied effort to reach the riders, a few of the beast ignored the flame and the pain it caused, and pushed their way through.

Brent was in a near panic, so without any thought he thrust his torch forward, trying to keep the advancing beast away. Luckily for him the loincloths that they wore were cured with fish oil, so when the flame made contact with the fur they caught fire easily.

Seeing that this was the opening they needed, Brent instructed the riders to aim low, and almost immediately, screams were heard echoing throughout the large cavern. The links weren’t smart enough to remove the flame engulfed animal hides, instead their solution to finding relief for their burning genitalia was to jump over the sides to escape the pain, joining the riders who had met the same fate.

As the pile of burning bodies grew, flames from below could be seen making there way upward, soon the fire began consuming everything in it’s wake. There must have something extremely combustible below, because the entire under ground rocked when an explosion was released.

This caused the flames to move faster, intent on consuming everything it’s path, that’s when doors began opening, and panicked women and children appeared from everywhere, but instead of them running towards the exit, the boys lumbered down the stairwell, into the fire, and the women stood motionless, seeming to be in a trance. Brent had no idea that the rancid smelling catacombs housed anyone other than the links. He moved forward, intending to help one of the women, but when she realized what he was going to do, she turned away and flung herself over the side.

Then, like lemmings going over a cliff, the other women followed suit, one by one they went over the side into the spreading flames. Brent stood immobile, unable to believe what he was seeing, then a blonde woman with dull brown eyes looked directly at him. She folded her arms over her chest and smiled. “Thank you,” she said, before leaning back, and tumbling down, down, down.

Brent felt a ‘no’ wanting to escape from his throat, but the smoke was getting too thick, and the floor was beginning to crumble away.

“Everyone out!” he barked, irritating his now sore throat.

Warren and Sherman were heading for the exit, when all around them, women were falling, no, jumping into the dark bottomless pit below. The ranchers turned to run, when the floor under Warren’s feet began to disintegrate. He felt himself flailing his arms around, trying to stop himself from falling, but finding nothing solid to hold on to, that’s when Warren quickly reconciled himself to his fate.

“I love you, Ellie,” was silently mouthed, and his last thoughts would be of his daughter. But this was not to be the day of his death. A strong tug was felt, bringing him back to the light, and the next thing he knew, he was being pulled through the air. ‘This must be what flying feels like,’ he thought.

Soon he found himself held tight to a broad, heaving chest. “Don’t scare me like that again, dad,” Sherman said as he tried to settle his heartbeat.

When Sherman saw the floor give away under his father, he watched in wide-eyed horror as the man that meant the most to him in the world, was about to tumble into darkness, but it wasn’t until he saw the acceptance in his eyes, and the farewell on his lips that he was able to move.

That’s when Sam’s parting words entered Sherman’s mind, and he started for his father. “Stay close to father, never stray, it’s how you’ll make it back to stay.”

He reached out and grabbed one of the flailing arms, and with every ounce of strength in his body, he pulled his father to him.

Once he was settled, and could focus on his son, Warren saw the fearful eyes of a child staring back at him. “Sorry, son. Didn’t mean to scare you,” was all Warren said. But the unspoken words that passed between them voiced the deep fear that Sherman had just experienced.

“I couldn’t make it without you, dad. I just couldn’t. We can’t find Keller and lose you in the process.”

Warren gave his son a comforting pat on the back. “It’s going to be okay, Sherman. We’re all going to be fine.”

Sherman gave a stiff nod, and made sure his father was in front of him, then he followed Warren out into the bright light of the sun. A new day was beginning.

 

To be continued in Part Fourteen

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