A Fantasy-Western Serial by J.M. Rich
Reed buried Willowbark, the last of his elders, on eve of the Winter Solstice. How fitting, he thought. The lingering darkness only amplified his loneliness. With Willowbark gone, he was now the last of the Xylem. True, he was still in his prime, his vined limbs flexible, sturdy and green with new growth, but who knew if he would last through a mountain winter with no hot springs to shelter him from the cold.
Kneeling before the fresh soil, Reed removed the lid of an earthenware jar and scattered the remaining wildflower seeds with a flick of his wrist. Some of them blew away in a chilling breeze that rattled the leaves on his head and sent him shivering, while the rest settled unevenly along the surface. He let the jar drop to the ground and it cracked slightly. With all the others he had buried, he had taken the time to tend to each burial garden properly, but in the face of his new reality the ancient ritual felt pointless and empty now. He did speak a few words, but they lacked any true feeling behind them other than despair.
Reed remained in the village three days longer before he could stand no more of the silence and the pain welling up in his heart. He fashioned a woven bag from the leaves of the yellowing elder willow at the center of the village. Like everything else in the village, it reeked of death. He gathered what meager supplies he had and slung the bag over his shoulder. He walked down the winding path out of the Green Mountains which lead to the Great Desert beyond.
In truth, he went to the desert to die. When the last of his strength gave out, he fell hard against the sandy, broken ground. However, instead of death, he found life.
He felt his body being lifted, and opened his eyes to see a pair of brown human eyes staring back at him. It was a maiden, freckled-skinned with reddish-hair bursting from under a short-brimmed hat. She had a flannel shirt, unbuttoned at the top where a wet bandana was tied around her neck. She was smiling at him.
She cradled his head, lifting him gently to give him a drink of water from a canteen. The water was cold and pure. He held onto the canteen with both hands and drank greedily, instinctively. He could taste and identify each of the rich minerals: Young Copper. Fire-Zinc. Emeraldium. This was water that had been pumped from deep underground, miles beneath their feet. This nourishing water flowed through his vessels like a life-giving river, feeling returning to his dried limbs, which had been begun to resemble rotted corn husks. Now they uncurled and grew, seeking a place to take root. They found no true soil in the cracked, grainy ground and he cried out in despair. His entire body was still wilting, the water only a temporary relief from pain. He would die soon and he was now awake to feel all of it.
"Why do you taunt me with life? Let me die in peace," he said. She was only prolonging the inevitable. His life was no longer worth saving.
"I won't let you die," she said and then asked, "What do you need?"
He did not reply.
"Don't be so stubborn. I'm trying to help you." She offered her canteen again. He noticed more about it now. A light human fabric covered a thin metal shell and it weighed nothing, almost empty. He had taken so much, and he felt guilty. He could not take any more. He passed it back to her.
"I do not need any more. Save it for yourself."
"What do you need then?"
"Let me die in peace," he repeated, a little more harshly.
"No," she replied, equally as stubborn, "Let me help you!"
Not only cruel, but foolish as well, he thought. He was quiet for a few moments more, but her persistance had worn him down. At last he replied: "You cannot help me. There is no good soil in the desert."
She smiled. "Then you're in luck, since I know where to find some."
A human claiming she can discern the quality of soil in a place like this? Ridiculous. It almost made him laugh.
"I can take you there. Or rather Clark can. See?" Reed rolled his head to the side to look in the direction she was pointing. A fully-saddled stallion was standing nearby, looking restless as his long tail whipped to swat a fly on his backside. He whinnied uneasily when Reed made eye-contact with him.
"I do not like horses."
"That's okay, he doesn't really like anybody. Barely likes me! But he won't bite."
"What if I said no?"
"What if I said tough luck, I'm taking you anyway?"
Her smile was bright and he was finding it difficult to stay as angry as he had been before. He was still a little angry though. He sighed and closed his eyes.
"Look at it this way," she added, "You've got nothing to lose, so you might as well take a gander at my offer."
Her logic did make sense. It would take his mind off the pain at any rate. But he wasn't looking forward to riding on a horse. He had seen humans riding upon them before and it looked dangerous. Then again, maybe it would give him a swifter death. He was so confused, he wasn't sure what to think. Perhaps it was the heat.
"Well? What do you think?"
He pulled himself upright, still watching the horse uneasily. "I think I should see this soil for myself."
"Glad to hear!" She put a hand on his shoulder, "We'll have you fit as a fiddle in no time."
It took some effort, but between the two of them he was finally able to climb up onto the horse. The saddle itself was barely wide enough for the two of them as she dusted off her jeans and swung up, sitting in front of him. She showed him how she hooked her feet in the stirrups and he coiled his feet around them like a snake, holding tightly. She delighted in his ability, saying it was a neat trick.
Reed had never been in such close proximity to a human before. They smelled similar to other creatures but there was something distinctly different that he couldn't put his finger on. Riding atop a horse was also new as well and very strange. He felt completely ridiculous.
"What am I supposed to do?" He asked hesitantly, shifting in the saddle. He wasn't liking this already and they weren't even moving yet. The leather creaked with every movement.
"Just hang onto me and I'll take care of the rest."
He nervously wrapped his arms around her waist. She gave the stallion a sharp whistle and a gentle kick and they took off. Reed bounced violently in the saddle as Clark began to gallop along the dusty ground.
"Hold yourself up like this," she demonstrated. It was more difficult than she made it look. It took him a few hundred strides before he could find the rhythm and even then he felt sore, tired, and sick to his stomach. Why had he agreed to come along?
"You're a Xylem, aren't you?" she asked after some time had passed.
"Of course," he replied.
"How did you get all the way out here?"
She laughed loudly, her voice carrying on the breeze. "Yes, yes, of course you did," she said, "I'm sorry, what I really meant is why?"
Reed now understood why his kind hadn't much interaction with humans. They were rather strange.
He didn't know what to say, so he said nothing. She did not pester him for an answer this time. They became quiet again as her stallion continued to gallop across the desert wastes, past clusters of dried scrub brush and cactus patches called dead man's hands that seemed to creep along the ground.
"I just realized I don't know your name, stranger," she said, again breaking the awkward silence they had built up, "And I didn't tell you mine. It's Anna. Anna Daniels."
"I am Reed."
"We're almost there, Mr. Reed. My town is just over that hill."
The land ahead sloped upwards, dotted with dry looking trees. The were pitiful compared to the ones at his village. These looked more like saplings at best, but it was nice to see something other than the low plants of the desert. Anna slowed Clark to a trot. As they crested the hill, Reed's breath caught deep in his throat.
Never before had he seen a human settlement and he was mesmerized by it. This village had buildings as tall as some of the elder trees from his village, which towered over the people wandering the streets. At the north end of town, protected by low fences he could see five straight rows of trees that looked well-tended for the winter months. Scores of prairie grass covered much of the ground beneath them. It was dried now, but it looked healthy. Could it be? There was still good ground?
"That's my place there by the orchard," she said, pointing to a building near the grove of trees.
Her place interested him the most because it was full of color, green ivy draping up and down the mud-brick walls and small wooden boxes that had flowers in them. Winter flowers, flowers he had never seen before and blooming in such vibrant colors. They were alive and they were well. Had she been telling the truth? Was the soil still good here? If it was, it could change everything.
Maybe he would live after all.
Continue on to Part 2?