Gray-haired, burnt-skinned Santos had forgotten the number of times he had appealed to the Glow for an end to his journey through the hell lands. He couldn’t fool himself with the placebo anymore, and so as he put out the campfire and slipped on his rucksack, the dull pain in his right knee became his rough companion with each step, thanks to the oblique scar left by the direwolf last Fall.
The old woman he encountered in one of the shelters reclaimed from a flatlands hell crater had tried to minister to him, but the scar tissue had already formed, and her potions were far too weak to repair damaged cartilage. Being maimed didn’t bother him as much as the fact that having to leave her alone again, she died two days hence, probably by the same pack that had struck at him, as evidenced by the sign of the carrion birds circling above her hut.
But heartstrings weren’t something he could afford. She had refused to go with him when he asked. The reluctant ranger told her the plague to the East was spreading by rats and sand hares, had consumed his community, and that the only safety was his destination, the half-mythical city beyond the western foothills. But she said she’d made her peace with the high desert and the hell lands. Her husband and five sons had died during the first disaster, and being of prairie stock, she chose to stay, to tend their graves, living off of a meager garden, wearing sackcloth and ashes.
She never said her name or how long she’d been alone, but he kept seeing her face, cut and grooved with wrinkles like a river delta as step by step, limping, praying to the Glow with each gasp of pain, he kept walking.
At night, he studied the stars, watched the passing of the days and the seasons. By his figuring, it was close to the Head of the Year. Before he died, young Shadow said it was the year 2218. Shadow was better than Santos at reading the stars and a genius with the old books, with their words and numbers. Even figured out Santos had his forty-fifth birthday some last Spring. In the end, Santos couldn’t save him, couldn’t save any of them, even though his blood carried the immune. The plague got them. He stayed to bury the dead, there weren’t more than twenty or thirty, then set out to the west, away from the ghost town that had been his home since the disaster.
The morning was hot as he reached the boundary to the foothills, the hell lands finally behind him. Above the first ridge, he saw actual trees instead of the stunted brush and withered grasses of the high desert. An hour later as he climbed, biting inside his cheek because of his knee, the air started to smell sweeter, and it was finally cooler by the time the sun was over his head.
The old man stopped and adjusted his pack’s straps. He heard his stomach rumble, felt the emptiness, but was determined to save the last strips of meat he’d peeled off of the sage rat he’d killed three days past for his supper. If what was ahead was as lush as this quickly thickening forest, there should be water, berries, and maybe good game ahead.
He took a step forward and stopped. Long years of being the hunted told him when he wasn’t alone. Shadow’s long knife, which he’d taken off the boy after the plague got him, was his only protection, and it rested in its scabbard on his right hip.
“Show yourself.” Santos stood stoically. If this was to be his end, even after the long walk across the hell lands, so be it. Like his Ma’am said before she passed, “no one lives forever.”
“Where you from, stranger?”
It was a man’s voice, young man by the sound of him, coming up from behind. Santos cursed himself for being careless. Must have been a blind hidden in the heavy brush to his right back there.
“East. Allentown.” He kept his hands at his sides. He could hear more than one person moving behind him now, so reaching for the knife would be foolish.
“Didn’t know there was any folks left out that way.”
“There aren’t anymore. I’m the last.”
“Everybody but me.”
“I’m an immune.”
He couldn’t hear what they were saying behind him, but the murmuring sounded excited.
“No Docs in Allentown?”
“All but one died in the hell fire, and she that survived was one of the first plague victims.” Santos knew how to look calm, even when his heart was pounding in his chest. His bum knee was hurting him some from the long walk and then having to stand still, and sweat was dripping into his eyes, even though the breeze from up ahead was cool. He figured he had nothing to lose, so he asked, “You got a Doc?”
The voice behind didn’t answer right away. Just more murmuring, quieter this time. Finally, “Yeah, two…but no immunes.”
“Plague’s spreading. That’s why I headed out this way. Heard of a human place beyond the western foothills, but no one knew a name.”
“Any others still alive between here and Allentown?”
“Nope. Only saw an old widow woman sheltering in a hell crater. Told her she could come with me, but she wouldn’t leave her dead kin. Direwolf pack got her after I left.
“Our walls keep them out, plus we got us archers.”
“And you got Docs but no immunes. I say we can help each other.”
“You may be right. What’s your name?”
“Santos. Cristobal Santos.”
“Turn around, Santos.”
He pivoted on his good leg and saw he was right. The man couldn’t have been more than twenty. Three others with him, all female, maybe between fifteen and twenty-five or so, and the women each had a loaded crossbow aimed at his chest.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Terry, Frank Terry. Thems behind me are Robinson, Beck, and Quinn.”
Santos nodded. “What do we do now?”
“Sit down, friend.” Santos was grateful to get off his feet. Looking up, he saw Terry whisper into Robinson’s ear. She was the youngest, dressed in pale, tan skins, long pants and tunic, short hair the color of the sun waving randomly in the breeze. Then she took off at a run.
“She’ll bring a Doc and a kit. Test your blood.”
“Fine by me. Take no chances, I say.”
“You took plenty crossing the hell land. How long, Santos?”
“Figure a year.”
“This be a new year, two nights past.”
“So I figured. What did they used to say? Happy New Year.”
“Same here. Now we three are going to have a sit, too. Just keep your hands in front of you where we can see them. Doc’ll be along by the by and then we’ll see what we can see and do what we must.”
“All’s fair, Terry. Crux of it all is when your Doc says my claim’s valid, then you’ll take me to your place. That fair too?”
“Like you said, Santos. If you’re an immune, then you help us and we help you, welcome you to our place. It’s called High Bluff.”
“Good. Because I’ve got a feeling this year coming will beat the last one all to hell, thanks be the Glow.”
“Thanks be the Glow,” the others echoed.
I wrote this for Wordle #216 hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use at least ten of the twelve words in the “wordle” in a poem, short story, or other creative work. I used eleven and put them in bold in my story so the reader could pick them out. The words are:
Deprecate – disapprove
Minister (also has a verb form)
Yes, I was going for something post-apocalyptic, a combination massive meteor strike and lethal plague. However, there’s always a sanctuary in these stories somewhere, and I figured I’d ring in the new year, which many receive with a sense of despair given political and social circumstance, with a bit of hope.