“What the fuck are you doing?” the grey-uniformed guard with black hair screamed into the pit.
“Water,” Wheelock croaked, “please, Private West.”
“Back to work. Now,” the guard ordered. The ingrate kicked a rock, hitting Kent in the back of his head. Kent fell. The impact sent multiple shocks throughout his body. The grey clad cretin shouted, “Get up. Get the fuck up, boy. What's the matter with you? Can’t even stand the fuck up?!”
Kent struggled to his feet. He stood as firm as his unreliable frame would allow, looked up at the guard, and muttered, “one of these days.” In answer, West kicked Kent in the chin. The emaciated boy bounced off the side of the hole causing dirt to rain down on him. The shovel landed next to him. He used it as a prop to help himself up. The numbers on the shovel matched the numbers on his shirt, 318. He thought of Pi and how he would love some pie.
The other guard, in camouflage, laughed the whole while, “Tommy, I’ve gotta take a shit. Try not to kill him before they get here. I don’t wanna see the old man pop a vein over a pothole. He’s got a burr up his ass since they passed him over for promotion.”
Tommy glared, daring Wheelock to speak, “go on, Machine. I won’t kill him ‘til the commander gives the go-ahead. Even if the pothole is looking at me like he wants my guns.” Tommy threw his fists up and flexed his muscles, “I know you want some of this, boy.”
Wheelock knew better than to respond, so he bit his lip—literally—and kept shoveling. Machine chuckled as he walked over to their government issued ride, an old Tesla-C2 Dune Rider. He disconnected the trailer, hopped in the C2, and then took off for Camp Polkner, worst of all the prison work camps in Poterit Dan.
The growl of the old C2 faded slowly over the dunes. When the vehicle was out of sight Private Tommy West chucked a rock at Kent. It hit him in the leg. The boy tried to ignore the pain shooting down his calf. When a second rock beamed him in the temple, he fell back holding his bleeding skull.
“Aw, shit, that had to hurt,” the private roared, “best shot yet. What do you think? I bet I can hit that spot again.” West bent over scanning the ground for suitable rocks.
Wheelock sat in his grave, rocking back and forth, trying desperately not to vomit. He had to do something or he’d die. Using the strength bred of a last ditch effort, Kent pulled himself up with the shovel. He inched closer to West while the guard searched for more ammo. Kent used every ounce of energy to swing. He watched in delight as the sharp thin edge connected with West’s neck. Blood spurted from the wound. The private tried to yell, but was only capable of gurgling through his own blood. Wheelock swung a second time, his aim so true he nearly decapitated his tormentor. After a moment’s consideration, Wheelock used the shovel to finish the decapitation. The headless private hung half in the grave Wheelock was forced to dig.
Looking around, he saw no one and decided to switch clothing with the dead private. When he pulled West's pants off, he gagged for the effort. Shaking his head he yelled, "goddamnitalltohell!" Kent turned the pants inside out, it took him handfuls of the dirt he churned earlier to partially clean out the last evacuations of a complete douchebag. He slid West's grey trousers over his pink prison pants even though he knew he'd regret it for the heat, there was no way he was wearing pissy, shitty, sandy trousers against his skin. Kent's old pink shirt wrapped nicely around West's head, he tied the sleeves tight, then made a sling. He’d bury the head somewhere up the road. The moment Machine realized it was his compeer in the grave there’d be hell to pay. Worse if the commander showed up first. If that happened, there’d be a search team, with far better equipment than Machine could muster, sent to recover him.
Leaning into the bloodied shovel, Wheelock hobbled up the winding dirt track looking for a good place to ditch his bloody baggage. He stayed on the shoulder ready to disappear into the dunes or under cover of the sage brushes. Wheelock had to get away from the old dirt track. Next to the track he spotted a sage brush large enough to camp inside. Kent Wheelock walked around the brush, used the shovel to dig a shallow hole, dropped the head inside, and covered it up. He used his foot to kick the dirt around, walked back to the road, and checked for visibility. Satisfied no one would notice the disturbed dirt, he continued to walk up the track.
When he came to the top of the hill he looked back and saw among his foot prints the distinct marks of the shovel tip in the sand, at this rate he’d be impossible to miss. To the south lay West in Kent's grave, the Bracken Desert, Camp Polkner, the Red Quarry, and the rest of Poterit Dan. The impassable portion of the Iphigenia Mountains beckoned to him, though they were much further north than he could travel. He stared at the long line of mountains. On his left, nearest to him, sat the Smoking Forest which rose up to Sander’s Plateau. If he climbed up to Sander's, then kept going he’d eventually reach Peak Darin, the second largest mountain in all of the Iphigenia Mountains. He’d have to take the chance on Smoking Forest for it was closest to him. And, far more likely that he’d be able to get lost in the dense undergrowth. Not to mention, if the commander came for him the search team would be forced to leave their A-Tracks at the edge of the forest. He wondered how many escapees had tried for the Smoking Forest and failed. The boy dropped the shovel in the sand off the dirt track before beginning his march towards the mountains.
He needed water or he wouldn’t make it. Picking up a smooth pebble to suck on, he wondered how he ended up in the cacti-free section of the desert. A half hour later, to his great relief, he found a small family of cacti. He used a flat rock to chop off part of the smallest cactus, stabbed himself with its spines before he managed to pull some of the meat out. He sucked on the cactus meat and his dirt-encrusted bloodied fingers, the refreshing and slightly metallic liquid rolled down throat. He used the same rock to break off an arm of one of the other cacti. With a smile, Wheelock gladly knocked all the needles off, then wrapped West's shirt around this newly made desert cucumber.
As the hours passed he knew nothing save the ache in his head and calves. A current of electricity traveled from his ankles through his knees up to the base of his neck every time his feet landed on the hard packed earth. He learned to keep to the dune grass after his left foot sank in a sand trap. Though trudging was a bitch, trudging with a broken ankle was suicidal. He chewed on a bit of his cactus trophy and stared at the looming Smoking Forest. He shivered in the fading light, doubting he'd reach shelter before dark.
“Connect. Feel. Sense. Breathe. For these activities are important. Without connection, there are no feelings, senses, or breaths,” a whisper carried on the wind.
Kent paused. He gingerly scratched his burnt neck, looking for the owner of the voice. From where he stood, he could see the horizon in every direction, but nothing to indicate people. He sat on the dune top, munching cactus, and watching the sun fall as the sea of clouds tossed about and waved goodnight. Waiting until the last rays were cast aside, Kent slowly hauled himself up. He stared off into the darkness, not fully rested and definitely not ready. After a few concentrated breaths, he continued towards the forest. He was much closer now. No sooner had his eyes grown accustomed to the dark then his nostrils flared. The wind stirred his hair, he inhaled deeply, goosebumps traveled up his arms, “storm.” He walked as straight a path as possible veering around rocks, sage, and the occasional cactus. As he climbed up another rise helooked down the slope and almost fell when he saw a solitary light beckoning. It was just inside the Smoking Forest.
Wariness born of the down-trodden peeked and murmured dire warnings, yet he marched on. Apprehension crept through his skin, in no time, he stood just outside the bright arc cast by the glow of a lone lantern. It hung off a large rusty bent nail next to a battered door. A neon orange cord ran from the back of the lantern into a hole below the nail in the wall. Vines of ivy climbed, unhampered, and enveloped the entire shack. Ivy even wrestled the cord and threatened to blacken the night by suffocating the feeble light. Kent stepped up three overgrown rickety steps, creaked across the holey porch, and raised a hand to knock. Before his fist could weakly land on the door, it opened. In surprise, Kent jumped. The board he landed on gave with a loud crack. He dropped the cactus filled shirt while reaching out for anything. A hand shot out of the shack, yanked the front of West's pants, and pulled Kent into the house.
“Thanks,” he choked, half from the start, half from dehydration.
“Yep, should have guessed. Never know though,” his rescuer muttered from the middle of the room.
Kent inspected his surroundings with a sense of relief. The house was virtually empty and dust free. A small table and wooden corset chair sat in one corner, a bed with tattered lace canopy squeezed against the other wall. A fire burned between the two. The man sat down on a baby shit green cushion in front of the blaze, his shoulder length straight powder blue hair spread out behind him. When he looked up, Kent stifled a shudder. The man’s left eye had been gouged out years ago, the body’s knack for survival once again proved by wicked scars all over the left side of his face. Taking his time, Kent eased onto the floor where the old man pointed.
“Boy, you’re too young for the uniform. Shame really,” the blue haired gent said. “Hmm, yes, you need a…” The man never finished. A small two handled cup appeared before Kent’s eyes. The cup slowly lowered itself to the floor. Kent peered in and saw through the liquid to the bottom of the drink. Sparing a look at the blue-haired man, Kent took the cup and slowly but purposefully drank every drop. The liquid was cool and refreshing with a slight mint aftertaste.
“Give it about five minutes. You’ll feel better.”
“Thank you, sir,” Kent said.
“Trained you right good. That’ll be easier to fix than the rest.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“Let me hear yer name.”
“Kent. Kent Wheelock.”
“Kent, nice to meet you. Name’s Fintan. Fintan the Bard,” the blue haired, one eyed man smiled. It was an awful smile, sad because it once was handsome.
“Thanks for saving me from the porch and the desert, Mr. Fintan. Any idea where I can hole up for the night?”
“Not mister. Never mister, boy,” the old man growled. “You can stay a night here.”
“My bad,” Kent retorted. “It’s not safe for me here.”
“Defensive. Battle's inner rage,” said a voice that sounded like the whispering wind from earlier. The man’s lips had not moved. Kent looked around again. He saw a bird on the bed. The falcon lay on its back with tattered pieces of lace wrapped around its feet. The bird’s beak worked furiously at the spring green lace, the discarded pieces fell like mutant snow.
“Who said that?” Kent asked.
“Fulco,” Fintan chuckled.
“Birds cain’t talk.”
“They make noises and can speak. Some mimic.”
“So, he mimicked speech?” Kent raised an eyebrow.
“No. Just then you understood the language of the birds,” Fintan grinned.
Kent moved not a muscle, rather he glared at the poet. “How is that possible?” he barked. “Folks cain’t just understand birds, ya gotta be high-born for that.”
“Calm. Connect,” the falcon chided.
“I am calm.”
“Anyone who declares calmness is lying,” Fintan stated.
“I am not lying.”
“Anyone who denies lying is lying,” Fulco parroted.
“Oh, come off it,” Kent mumbled.
“Think it over, son,” Fintan advised.
“Think it over,” Fulco repeated.
“Hungry?” Fintan asked.
“Starved is more like it,” the falcon declared.
“Aye,” Kent ceded.
Fintan pointed to the chair, “sit. Dinner will be ready in a jiff.”
Wordlessly Kent crawled to the uncomfortable straight-backed corset chair with a tiny seat, eased his aching body into it, rested his arms on the table, and gazed down at the empty plate. Then, he checked out the room. He smelt no savory smells and saw no kitchen, nor cooking appliances, the curiosity of the matter irked him. The unknown drink gave him courage, “how do you cook? There’s no kitchen!”
Kent looked back down at the plate. He was astonished to find it filled with roast beef, mashed potatoes smothered in brown gravy, and a buttered roll perched on the edge of the potatoes. Without a second thought, Kent ripped the fork off the table and devoured the bard’s food. When the boy appreciatively wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, Fintan spoke again, “now, you’ve eaten and satiated your thirst. You’re sheltered from the coming storm. Will you rest? Or venture out into the elements?”
“Rest?” Wheelock snorted, “I cain’t. They’ll find me.”
Fintan and Fulco laughed in unison, “no one will find you. Trust that. You’ll rest in safety,” Fintan reassured the boy.
“I don’t trust anyone.”
“It is a good policy,” Fulco agreed.
“I’ve got to go,” the satiated boy yawned. As he stood to leave the world spun, he made it to the floor beside the fire before he was asleep. Fintan stretched out his thin frame on the pillow he’d used earlier; the bard did not speak while he stared into the embers. The sounds of slow breathing and crackling fire were joined by a chorus of raindrops drumming the roof and the steady clatter of branches smacking the walls.
“A poem, then?” Fintan’s words came through Kent’s mind as a gentle breeze ruffles leaves when it glides by, “it wasn’t long ago. To you it may seem an eternity, but it was naught 1000 years hence when the last Gryphon King reigned,” Fintan paused, cleared his throat, and then began singing:
“Oh, sweet as life can be, full of milk and honey.
The Gryphon King in all his might, his glory,
swayed beside athame mercy never knew.
Great is the woman behind the things we do.
“‘Show us, Rex Gryphus,’ chanted in the streets.
Unbelieving rebels encouraged secret meets.
Claimed they wanted proof, doubted the truth.
In the interim, they marched and grew uncouth.
“Their chanting soon became angry demands,
worse than the sting of scorching desert sands.
They stormed the palace, grabbed the queen.
Throughout the Poterits all heard Faith scream.
“Rex the Gryphus transforms before their eyes.
Rebel knees bend, heads bow, no one apologizes.
Doubters find no solace, not a bit of relief.
Get what they want, then cry with disbelief.
“Returned to form, a mad king unsheathed his mate,
athame held high, sun glinting on Faith's bloody fate.
Rex Gryphus, last of his line, raised the little knife,
in sad vindication he sliced, ‘I die without my wife!’
“As children watched they felt the world grow cold,
soon young romantics became the cynics of old.
Some say he died that day, others that he hides.
I advise you: learn to tell truth before you decide.”
The boy groped around with his right hand until he found his left hand which held a small key. He took the key out of his useless hand and deposited it in West's pocket. He then hardily attempted making his eyelids behave. His right eye finally accepted the commands of his brain and rose lazily. Kent was laying on his bare back staring through broken slats in a battered shack’s roof. The brilliant white light of the full moon lit ivy as it wove between the boards. Rotted beams hung as if some meteor had once fallen through. In the corner, a four poster bed sat caved in on itself. A pile of dingy material lay in a heap where the mattress should have been before he fell asleep. The falcon stood on a precariously angled headboard. The bird’s eyes reflected deep golden pools of moonlight. Kent felt himself being sucked into those glimmering eyes. He shook the feeling off. He continued to make no progress with his left eye. He reached up to his face and felt around. The left socket was a gooey mess. A shudder ran through Kent as he came to the realization.
“My eye? Where’s my eye?” Kent asked the bird since Fintan was nowhere to be seen.
“You lost it,” Fulco replied.
“How?” Kent shouted.
“It’s simple really. But…you’re upset. We should wait,” Fulco declared.
“I’ll not wait. My eye?”
“Alright. You’re going to take this all wrong,” Fulco said, “because I ate it.”
“What?! Why would you eat my fucking eye?”
“It’s the way of the bards. You speak to me. We are connected.”
“Just because I can talk don’t mean you can eat my eyes,” Kent howled in outrage.
“Eye,” Fulco corrected. “Calm yourself, boy.”
“Calm! Are you fucking mad?” Kent looked around oddly, “no, I’m mad. I’m talking to a bird. Where’s the old man? Fintan!”
“He’s there. Next to you. Ashes to ashes and such.”
Wheelock looked with his good eye at the place he had last seen Fintan. Bleached bones lay stretched out before the fire place. A glint reflected under the ribcage. Kent reached his hand through the bones which instantly disintegrated revealing a small silver box in the ashes. The closer his fingers were to touching the box the better he felt as if something good would finally last. He pulled the box to his heart not bothering with opening it, an intense desire to die protecting the fragile keepsake burned through him.
“You are the one.”
Kent asked, “the one? For what?”
“Quite the pair we shall be. Everything you see, I see. Everything I see, you see. Do you see?” Fulco laughed, an unmistakable sound coming from a falcon.
“I see a crazy talking bird,” Kent muttered.
“Aye, call me crazy, but you’ll thank me later.”
“When Iphigenia freezes over,” spit Kent. He tried to sit up, his head swam, right eye blurred. A wave of nausea grew in his bowels, sending aftershocks to his brain. Sweat formed over every inch of his body, soaking through his dual layer pants. Pin points of pain dissolved into a needle curtain which fell over Kent’s entire being. Sometime later, thoughts began to form. Reason dictated thought meant existence, his body screamed in agony. His brain fought his eyelids to let in the light. Holding on to nothing save existence, Wheelock managed to stay conscious until the spasms stopped.
“Shall I help? Or do you prefer to suffer?” Fulco questioned.
“Help? You ate my eye. Gonna eat the other one or kill me?”
“I cannot kill you. My life is tied to yours. So long as you live, I live. Besides, I’m full,” the bird laughed again.
“I’ll kill you, bird!”
“I don’t suggest it. Death is detrimental to us both.”
“Fuck off,” Kent said with finality. He stared at the moon through his remaining eye, pretending he merely closed the other. The silver orb gleamed from her position overhead; Kent had to strain to see her inner dragon. He heard the rustle of feathers, but did not look towards Fulco. Unexpectedly, through his missing left eye, he saw dark treetops, telephone poles, a couple of rundown houses in the forest, rocks, and the mountains. Grey-black sky stretched beyond everything. Millions of sparkling dots littered the heavens. The horizon was always just out of reach, but so close Kent thought he could touch it. As Fulco soared higher, lower, twisted, turned, and dove, Kent vomited. Finally the bird saw an orange poppy alone in a field. The falcon dive-bombed the flower, ripped it from the ground, and circled back towards the shack.
Wheelock pointlessly screamed, “no.”