As our story opens, a shipwrecked Kyle Skander lies barely conscious on a wild stretch of the Northern California shore.
Came A Horseman
“You can control your mind. Not outside events.”
Rays of heat stabbed into his back, prodding Kyle out of his stupor. But his movement toward wakefulness was tardy. Bone-deep weariness had rendered him almost comatose. Only sounds he began to hear summoned him fully back into the world.
Some noises repeated — the thump of waves crashing on a steep beach, followed by a seething hiss as they withdrew over rough gravel.
Last night, as I came out of the ocean… did I crawl up far enough? Or am I still within the reach of high tide?
And he heard a nearby rustling. A creature that munched on something.
An animal? Scavengers? Raiding my gear bag? Can’t say I blame ‘em… I’m starving, too. And hella thirsty.
Kyle tried to swallow but he choked on the dry burn of salt. His lips were cracked and split, his tongue felt swollen to twice its normal size.
Coarse pebbles rasped against his fingers as they twitched.
It’s a wild shore, far as I know, though it was dark when I came in. Could be more than one animal. A pack or a flock. Might start to bite or peck on me next. Be careful!
Kyle let his right eye slit open.
He saw a foot sheathed in a shabby boot, next a ragged pantleg.
He tilted his head slightly, widening the scope of his vision, and observed a thin youth, somewhere in his late teens, with his lank brown hair tied back with a strip of cloth.
Kyle’s hazy brain tried to offer some helpful associations, memories of an illustrated book his grandmother once used to give reading lessons. If I’m like Rip Van Winkle just waking up from a sleep that went on God knows how long… he… well, that there is a young Ichabod Crane.
This kid had certainly busied himself, rooting through Kyle’s stuff. A pair of gnawed apple cores already lay at his feet, next to the spot where Kyle’s sack of elk jerky had been torn open. The kid clawed nuggets of meat out of the sack with his right hand and crammed them into his mouth. Meanwhile, his left arm was plunged into Kyle’s waterproof duffle — the only bag Kyle had managed to salvage from the wreck — pulling out still more items. The lad gave them a glance, then tossed them on the beach.
Shit. If he gets to Roy’s knife, he’ll be armed. The survival rifle is way down at the bottom of my bag and it must be assembled before it’ll work. So, knife’s my big prob here. Must take him down before he grabs it. But have I the strength for a fight? Surprise will need to be everything.
Stealthily, Kyle pulled in a deep breath. A wisp of energy curled through his depleted body. He pushed one hand and his toes into the sand, did a mental countdown, then surged up to his knees. He focused on delivering the last of his momentum by slamming the heel of his right hand into the side of the guy’s jaw.
The youth made a strangled yelp and fell onto his side, a red gob of half-chewed jerky dribbling out of his mouth.
Kyle saw a knobby branch of driftwood poking from a heap of seaweed and reached over to snatch it up. He hefted it as he lurched to his feet and turned back to the youth. The kid shrank away, eyeing him in terror, one elbow raised over his head to ward off any potential whack.
“No! Please!” he yelped. “No harm! I meant none! I was just…”
“Stealing?” Kyle snarled.
“You looked like you were dead!”
“Or so you hoped,” Kyle said. “But if you bothered to check me for a pulse, you’d have found a man who could use some help.”
Kyle poked one end of his branch into the sand, leaned his weight on its knobby tip. His head swam, all his muscles trembled from the sudden effort he’d just made. Yet he knew he still had to look strong and in control. Although both legs felt bruised and stiff, making him want to just lie down again. Probably got hurt when I’d banged and scraped ‘em on the cockpit as I exited.
“Sorry! Thought I should check your stuff, find out who you were first. That’s being smart these days, right?” The youth pled, brows raised, eyes wide and imploring. “I had to.”
“You had to what? Eat my food? Pick the gear to take?”
Kyle used the stick to knock a spray of gravel at him. The youth scrabbled backward and raised his arm again. He had a pinched face that emphasized the ungainly beak of his nose. Big ears cupped the sides of his narrow head like dirty wings.
“I… I’m hungry,” he muttered. “Your stuff tasted great. I couldn’t stop. They don’t let us eat much meat. The Elders, I mean.”
Kyle pointed the stick’s end at him.
“‘Elders.’ Mm. So, who the hell is that?”
The skinny youth shoved himself up into a sitting posture.
“Our bosses. People who run Elysian,” he quavered. “Up there?” He pointed a finger inland. A broad slope spread away and upward from the beach. Its rolling landscape was bisected by the bright, wavering squiggle of a flowing creek. “Where we live.”
Sunlight fanned out just above a forested ridgeline. Kyle squinted into the glare and began to discern swatches of dark, cultivated earth on slopes below the crest of the ridge. Long lines of green brush straggled downhill from this farmed area to braid together at the creek. The watercourse then spread out into a gleaming blue sheet that debouched into a marsh-ringed lagoon, at one end of the beach and just above it.
Kyle shaded his eyes with a palm to study that high hillside somewhat better. He made out threads of blue smoke that spiraled upward from a settlement, located a quarter of the way to the crest.
Wow. I crashed on the shore of a hidden valley that has inhabitants. What’re the odds? Kyle mulled it over. Many different paths got taken after the Fire-Flare. But few paid off. If they built a farm out in an unburnt stretch of wilderness, plus they beat back the marauders to keep it going, they’re better off than most. That appraisal sparked hope. Perhaps they can resupply me, give me all I need to finish my trip and get on home to Luz Maria! Maybe even provide a horse. Because damn, man, that crash convinced me. I’m freakin’ done with trying to paddle my butt all the way back. Anyhow, my boat now is likely only a loose clump of broken fiberglass bobbing around offshore. If it’s not sunk. Or flung up onto the rocks somewhere.
Kyle noticed that the youth had shifted, begun to gather his legs under himself.
“No, dude. Sit! Don’t move till I say. Or I’ll knock that gargoyle skull of yours into the middle of next week, okay?”
The kid grimaced. But he settled back down and wrapped arms around his bony knees.
While he’d lain face-down and groggy, a rising sun had started to bake Kyle in his wetsuit. Increase of its heat rays now didn’t improve that situation. He jabbed the stick back into the sand so that it stood in easy reach. He swept a hand to the small of his back, grabbed the lanyard and tugged down the long zipper, then peeled off the black rubber suit.
The youth gaped at Kyle’s lean, V-shape of whipcord muscle and bone, seamed by a long pink scar than ran across his chest. Otherwise his skin was covered by fine reddish hairs that glimmered all over him like a light coat of fur.
“What’re you lookin’ at?” Kyle challenged.
The youth blushed, averted his face for a moment.
Kyle rooted around in his duffle, located a rugby shirt, his green canvas cargo shorts and a pair of river sandals and put them all on. He tugged out Roy’s bone-handled Bowie knife, uncoiled its belt from the sheath, and strapped it onto his waist. He next pulled the stock of the semi-automatic survival rifle out from the bottom of the bag and popped its butt plate off to reveal the barrel, action and magazine nested within. He pulled these parts out and rapidly assembled them into a functional firearm.
The youth’s eyes widened.
Kyle slid the bolt, racked a round into the chamber, clicked on the safety and grinned. His celebratory display of teeth was all dominance, nothing jolly about it.
A beat-up aluminum water bottle came out of the bag next. Kyle twisted off the cap, upended it and gulped. Fresh energy seemed to pour into him with each swallow. He rolled up the wetsuit, and stuffed it, the empty bottle and the jerky bag into the duffle. He snatched up clothes the kid had tossed out and put them all back. He squeezed air out of the bag, folded over its top, then united the side-snaps to make a handle.
Meanwhile, the youth used fingernails to gather shreds of jerky off his cheeks and scrape them into his mouth. His eyes stayed riveted on Kyle.
“Uh-h, what’s the plan…” he faltered.
“Tell me your name.”
“Ephraim. I am Ephraim Coop-… I mean, James.”
“All righty, Jimbo. We’re taking a hike.”
“Up to your village.”
“I don’t think that’s…”
Kyle made a curt gesture with the rifle barrel. “Up and at ‘em, kid.”
The youth went pale. He arose cautiously.
Kyle put an arm through the handle of the duffle, slung it over his shoulder. He beckoned to Ephraim, then ordered him to walk toward the village. He limped along close behind. It’s not the brightest idea to barge into a place before I’ve scouted it. But damn, I’m beat, so bad. And this kid would likely report me no matter what. So, I either go to the settlers right now or they’ll find me later. Better the first way. Besides, if they’re just a bunch of farmers, how bad could it be?
After they’d gone a hundred yards, the youth halted, turned around. The look on his face was nervous yet resolute.
“This won’t work,” he said.
“Yeah? Why not?”
“March me into Elysian? A prisoner? You look like an enemy from Outside. It’s how you’ll be treated. People will be upset. A lot more people than you can ever shoot.”
“Okay-y-y.” Kyle scratched his chin. “Shooting people wasn’t my goal. But what’s a better way to go, Jimbo?”
“My name is Ephraim.”
“Oho! Not James Ephraim.”
“No. Ephraim James.”
“Got it. Thanks, Jimbo.”
“That’s not my name.”
“Easier to say. You’ll always be Jimbo to me. So, what’s your answer?”
Ephraim scowled. “First, don’t be waving that gun around.”
Kyle snorted. “What? I should pitch it in the creek?”
“No. Put it back in the bag.”
Kyle guffawed. Then he paused, shrugged. He slid the bag off his shoulder, opened it, shook its contents to one side, then inserted the rifle so an inch or two of its stock hung out of the opening. He re-snapped the handles around it. “There,” he said. “I’m happy with concealed carry, if you folks are. Let’s move.”
The walk resumed, with Kyle gimping along as best he could.
“Hey Jimbo, did you ever see anybody who was, like, great at throwing knives?”
Kyle put this question to Ephraim’s back.
“What?” Ephraim threw a puzzled glance over his shoulder. “Why?”
“Because I’m really good.”
“I just helped you. And you threaten me?”
“Just don’t take it into your head to try and run off.”
“To reach your folks before I do. Offer a version of your behavior on the beach. But see, I plan to create my own first impressions. Get it?”
Ephraim didn’t reply. His stride lagged for a moment, then he stepped ahead briskly.
As they went up a main path into the village, black dots of bent figures wandering among the row crops and orchards grew into vertical lines, then recognizable humans. They stood stock still as they assessed the approach of Ephraim and Kyle, gaped, talked among themselves, then moved toward them.
Buildings became visible. Kyle saw tall walls made of slabs split out of redwood trunks, surmounted by slanting sod roofs. From these roofs sprouted a living, verdant thatch — grasses of a dark olive hue. A dozen big lodges had been erected this way, with a score or so of conventional, much smaller log cabins scattered between them. Nestled against the far hillside was the biggest structure, one with high domes of waving sod grass that crowned a row of three circular chambers.
As they headed toward it, they passed an amphitheater, carved into a hillside, where groups of children plopped on benches were being taught by adults who stood at plank tables. In the shade of some trees near the buildings, women were hand-weaving sheets of fabric on tall looms.
Workers from the fields had begun to parallel their course. But they kept off about thirty yards, staring hard at Kyle and Ephraim. Many of them carried tools — spades, rakes and hoes. Ephraim made gestures at the onlookers, pointed back at Kyle, awkwardly indicated his helplessness. The laborers began to mutter. But they were wary enough of a stranger that they attempted no closer approach.
Ephraim led Kyle straight through the village center up to that large domed structure tucked against the hillside. A fan of clay, pounded flat and smooth, led to its front entrance. Nearby, a long steel cylinder dangled from a tripod made of peeled poles. Kyle squinted at it, realized the cylinder was a welder’s gas tank with its bottom cut off. It’d been transfigured it into a kind of gong.
Probably to transmit signals out through the village…
Between this ad hoc sonic device and the main lodge’s entry stood a huge black man wearing a coarsely woven tunic. His body was a thick, wide column, with the round boulder of a head balanced atop it. Tight curls of hair lay flat against his balding skull. His broad nose showed many scars and dents, looking as if it had been broken more than once. He gripped an oaken staff, displaying it with an air of authority. Kyle guessed him to be in his mid-thirties.
Behind him, a bearded white man who looked a bit younger slouched against a wall. He was dressed in worn buckskins, had a shaggy mane of red dreadlocks that drooped past his shoulders, and held a spear with a gleaming steel tip in the crook of his arm.
“Ephraim,” the black man barked, “why do you bring an intruder here? To our sanctuary? You know that’s not how we deal with Outsiders!”
“Yes, of course. I know.” The Adam’s apple bobbed in Ephraim’s thin neck. “But the Sayer also asks us to show mercy. I found this man passed out, down the beach. Seemed like he needed our aid.”
Kyle snickered. Both men gave him a penetrating look. The black man’s stare was particularly stern.
“Ha. What a load of crap,” Kyle said. “Sure, I was down and out cold on your beach. And this charming lad thought I was dead, or at the very least, dead to the world! So, he raided my gear bag. Ripped me off.”
“Nope,” Ephraim denied. “Just inspecting it. Which is how I found out this guy is carrying weapons.”
“Weapons?” The red-haired man shoved himself away from the wall to take up a more poised and athletic stance. He pointed his spear at the sheath knife on Kyle’s hip. “Y’mean, besides that blade?”
“There’s a gun in his duffle. And he put bullets into it.”
“A gun, huh?”
The black man took a step to one side and two more forward. He placed both thick hands, side by side, fingers down, on the center of his staff. Kyle found himself flanked by a pair of men who looked more like warriors than they had five seconds ago — keyed up, ready to take action.
“Yes. But I can explain.”
“Take your bag off,” the black man rumbled. “Do it slow. Put it down on the ground. Then step away.”
“Hey. I’m not trying to threaten anyone.”
The man’s grim gaze altered not a jot. Kyle turned to that redhead with the spear. He smiled. Yet he also held his spear level, with its keen tip pointed right at Kyle’s belly.
“Prob’ly should, bro!” the redhead said. “Samuel’s a regular terror with that staff. Saw him kill a bull with it, one time. So, don’t want to make him mad. Do as he says and he’ll like you better. Me too.”
Kyle glanced at the massive black man, then swept his gaze around at the field hands who’d closed ranks to surround him. Most held farm tools that could do major damage, especially if they all got swung at the same time. He considered his options. Just one made any sense. He plucked the duffle from his shoulder, set it down and took a step backward.
Samuel hooked the bag’s handle with his staff and dragged it closer to him. Both men peered at the black plastic of the gun butt that poked out of the opening.
“Just an old military survival rifle,” Kyle said. “Semi-auto, called an AR-7. Shoots 22 longs.”
“Nice!” the redhead said. “Yeah, we can sure use one a’ them. Hope you’ve got lots of ammo, too.”
Kyle felt a tug on his attention, a tiny, invisible hook that’d snagged on a hidden lobe of his brain. He involuntarily turned his head to see Ephraim slink back into the crowd of villagers. And he noted the smirk on his face, a sly and satisfied gleam in his eye. Kid played me. Pretty damnwell, too, he realized. Must be savvier than he looks.