Walkabout Chapter 16
Relm had grown well-acquainted with blisters almost as soon as she left Thamasa, but being saddle-sore? That was a new and interesting experience. On the bright side, if anyone ever wanted to know what it felt like to have ones ass rubbed down with salt and set on fire, Relm would be able to help them out with no hesitation whatsoever.
It was hot. Scratch that, it was hot and humid. The dry heat of the desert was a pleasant memory here, across the channel somewhere in the no mans land between Figaro and Kohlingen. If she had been forced to guess Relm would have said she was closer to the latter than the former, but all the days began to mingle into one another when you were out in the wilderness like this. The passage of time was marked by the thickness of the calluses growing on the joints of her fingers from gripping the leather reins too tightly, and how far the yellow and green bruises on her butt had managed to spread. Sunburn and wind had tanned her cheeks and arms to a rosy ruddy pink, a colour Relm was fond of in sunsets and steaks but not so much anywhere else, especially on herself.
She pulled her chocobo temporarily named Feather-Duster, since Edgar had never given Relm its real name to a halt on a rocky little spur of land that jutted just above the tops of the evergreens. Forests like this one had begun to blanket the landscape more and more the further north they went; even on the plains there were scrubby groves of thorny oak and mesquite, usually stunted and twisted into grotesque shapes by the wind that never seemed to stop blowing in this wild place. Travelling through these deep woods Relm could almost imagine the northern reaches were still untouched by settlers or men, but then she would hear the ringing of an axe or the warking of draft-chocobos far off, and the illusion would be shattered completely, leaving her grumpy and sullen for the rest of the day.
Even now she could see a thin ribbon of blue smoke winding its way from some cabin hidden out of sight down in the thicket. Far away to the northwest a faint, jagged line was beginning to creep up against the horizon, Relms first sign that they were nearing the Kohlingen Range and the little township it took its name from. She felt a surge of relief and pocketed the silver compass carefully before kicking her bird onwards, back along the trail towards the darkness of the forest floor. It was stifling under all those trees, muggy and breathless and full of midges, but at least it was out of the sun. Poor Feather-Duster needed it; she looked somewhere between a drowned rat and a scalded chicken.
Feather-Duster didnt have the stubborn energy or personality of Bill, nor was she anywhere close to being as much of a comforting presence as Interceptor, whose absence nagged and worried away at Relm every single day and haunted her dreams at night. She was a good, fast, well-bred steed, she generally did as she was commanded, and that was about the limit of her charms. Relm was so lonesome she had ceased to care; Feather-Duster got asked questions and was given more advice than any other chocobo between Figaro and Kohlingen. She also got sworn at a lot, usually for refusing to move as fast as Relm would have liked her to.
The pen had been limping for most of the afternoon and Relm couldnt tell if she had developed an actual sprain or was just playing it up for sympathy, as chocobos tended to do when worked harder than they mightve liked. Just in case it was something to worry about Relm reined her in and dismounted to have a better look, poking and prodding at the joint where the scaly foot connected to the birds leg, until Feather-Duster clucked and lashed out with her other claw in protest. Relm smacked her hard on the beak with the looped end of the reins but stepped away anyway, annoyed and slightly worried by what she had found. Dammit, of all the stinking luck. Why does Stray feel the need to keep throwing this crap in my way? Jerk.
There didnt seem to be any noticeable injury or damage, but the hock did seem a little warm. The last thing Relm wanted was a chocobo with a broken or useless leg in the middle of nowhere; the idea of having to walk the rest of the way to Kohlingen carrying several pounds of saddle and tack, at that was, to put it lightly, unappealing. It looked like they were stuck, at least for the night. All Relm could do was slap a poultice on the strained foot and hope things looked brighter in the morning.
I guess you get a break after all, girl, she muttered, pulling the picket rope and driving peg out of the saddlebags with more than a little reluctance. Dont try to fool me for a second into thinking youre really hurt, though, you big sissy. I perfected sticking my thermometer over the lamp. Im the champeen queen of fake injuries.
Feather-Duster remained unimpressed and instead focused all her attention on the beakbag full of greens Relm was holding, greedy as always - remarkably she seemed to forget all about her injury when food was on the line. With plenty of additional grumbling Relm cinched the bag on securely and picketed her just across the clearing, where the grass was soft and thick. At least shed picked a nice spot to break down in; Relm didnt even want to begin thinking of what sitting out on the shadeless plains would have been like in this weather. It was still hot and muggy as hell in the woods, and the mosquitoes were about to suck her veins dry, but at least there was shade. Out of the many, many things that had gone wrong on this journey, she could at least cling to that.
It was a pretty little place, a clearing not much wider across than a house, dappled with evening sunlight and surrounded in every direction by deep woods. Rotting leaf litter and grass muffled Relms footsteps as she went to and fro, untacking Feather-Duster and making as much camp as was needed for the night. By the time she wrapped the birds foot and managed to get her groomed and bedded down, the sun had completely disappeared behind the dark wall of trees, the entire forest slowly dimming to a blue-grey afterglow like some celestial giant had snuffed out the candle. Unfortunately it was still hot; the sweat was dripping off Relms nose and down the back of her neck like rainwater. No need to bother with a fire, anyway. More small mercies to be thankful for, yippee.
Relm huddled on her pallet and tried to get to sleep, but the heat and the sweat and the midges wouldnt even let her come close. She lay staring up at the sky through the trees just enough of a summer haze to blot out the stars, of course hoping that eventually she would get tired, but nothing seemed to be happening. Instead came a hundred nagging worries, thoughts of her father and Gau and most of all Interceptor, somewhere out there underneath that same night sky, lost and alone and confused
Camping wasnt fun anymore without him. In fact, it could be downright scary without his comforting presence against her back, a bulwark against thieves and predators and imaginary monsters in the dark. She had always known that Interceptor wouldnt let anything get her, but now? Now she was on her own, and not at all sure of her own abilities in a pinch. Relm was brash, and Relm was bold, but when the gloomy hours descended and everything got murky she was just like any other wussy girl lost in the woods, crying for her daddy. It disgusted her that she could be so weak. Relms scared of the daaa-rk, Relms scared of the daaa-rk
She tossed onto her side and buried her head underneath the bundle of clothing she was using for a pillow, trying to blot out the worries and the mocking voices in her head. Sleep began to slowly edge in, the dreams so tantalizingly close she could almost taste them.
Something out in the woods broke a twig, and the noise propelled Relm upright with the lightning speed of the on-edge and newly awakened.
The noises were coming from all around the clearing, slight but just loud enough for Relms ears to hear. She strained to see in the dim light and could only make out slipping shapes, shadows on shadows on shadows. It was impossible to tell if they were real or figments of her imagination, but the sound had certainly been genuine. Nothing else would have roused Feather-Duster into standing up and pulling nervously at her picket-line as she was doing now, clucking to herself like an oversized hen.
From frighteningly close inside the treeline came a howl, mournful and siren-like. Another rang out from the opposite end, and another, until the eerie chorus had encircled the little meadow. At other times, in other places, Relm might have enjoyed hearing this night song of Interceptors brethren immensely. On this dark evening, alone and huddled inside her blankets, Relm wanted nothing more than to burrow into the ground and hide forever. Couldnt they go practise somewhere else?
The serenade soon ended, but her lonesomeness and fear didnt let up for the rest of the night.
The next morning broke slowly and painfully, a creeping, sticky, unsettled grey dawn that dripped its weak light down through the tree branches. Relm woke herself up thrashing about in the blankets as she tried to ford Figaro Channel again in her dreams. It hadnt been nearly as easy a crossing as Edgar had predicted Feather-Duster had panicked when the water reached her neck and begun to flail so badly she nearly threw her rider off into the sea and ever since Relm had suffered from nightmares of fast-flowing rivers and rip tides that wouldnt let go. Some nights it was Figaro. Other times it was Doma Channel again, and she was trapped beneath the ice. No matter the location the dreams always ended the same, with Relm waking in a cold, sickly sweat, gasping for air. This day started no differently.
She got up and made herself some breakfast (if eating a block of pressed wheat manufactured especially for travellers could be called making breakfast; the village of Albrook had gained a reputation for baking the things, that and smelling like burnt wheat all the time), then packed her meagre belongings and checked on Feather-Duster, who had been watching all these preparations with a suspicious and wary eye. When she aimed a powerful kick at Relm with her bandaged foot, the girl decided then and there that they were good to go and cinched the saddle onto the surly bird without any further qualms about the state of her companions health. The little clearing was quickly left far behind, Feather-Duster calmly eating up the miles like she had never fallen lame before in her life.
Eventually the pine forest gave way to plains again, miles upon miles of chaparral and gorse and tawny scrub scattered underneath a dun-coloured sky. The weather left Relm nervous and unsettled; she couldnt tell exactly why she felt compelled to keep looking over her shoulder at the southern horizon, just that something was not quite right. A warm, muggy wind kept blustering in from the same direction in fitful gusts, blowing her hair into her eyes until it was almost impossible to see. She swore at the breeze and tried to push the strands back with one hand while keeping a tight rein on Feather-Duster with the other. Werent winds supposed to cool you down? All this one was doing was annoying the hell out of her while making things feel stickier than they already did. Trying to breathe was like drawing in air through a damp, sodden sponge.
Generally, in Relms admittedly limited experience, as the morning went on it got lighter, not darker. Today it seemed to be doing the opposite - the further they travelled the dimmer the sky became, an ominous band of blue-black cloud swirling up from the southwest to overtake them as they ran. Things grew eerily still as the line drew closer. The fitful wind died down, and every bird and beast and insect seemed to hold its breath, waiting.
Overhead the cloudbank turned from dark blue to a seething, gangrenous purple-green. Shreds and wisps of smaller vapour tore free from the main bulk of the front and scuttled ahead like unmasted ships sails. The entire tortured mass seemed to suddenly speed up; before Relm could press Feather-Duster to a faster gait it was sitting directly on top of them, turning the world a sickly hue the colour of bile. Feather-Duster fought for her head and Relm gave it to her, hoping she could at least outdistance the storm until some shelter appeared.
It was a futile effort. Relms chocobo was a fast bird, but nothing short of Kirin could have outraced the storm they were up against now. The downdraft caught them in a roaring burst of wind that nearly sucked the breath out of Relms lungs, fierce and impossibly cold after the stifling humidity of the previous two days. Almost at the same time the heavens finally let loose and rain began to fall in sheets, big fat drops that struck at her head and back like handfuls of hastily thrown pebbles. It took her a moment to realize that some of them were pebbles ice pebbles, hail, lots of it. Little bits of the stuff were bouncing and skipping merrily on the ground all around them, slowly turning it white.
Across the prairie, just over the horizon, there was a shaggy line of trees dipping down into an overhanging creekbed. If they could just reach it Relm figured they would be okay (and dry), but the hail was slowly getting larger and larger. It had started out pea-sized; now there were chunks the size of hens eggs ripping the branches off trees and shrubs like icy bullets. One roughly as big as a chocobo egg smashed down dangerously close to Relms head, which was all the urging she needed to quirt Feather-Duster into a flat-out run towards the safety of the sheltering clay banks.
The rain was coming down so hard now it was almost horizontal, blowing into Relms nose and eyes. She sputtered and choked and tried to see ahead, but the landscape had turned to a watery grey-white blur beyond the end of Feather-Dusters beak. Lightning split the sky from east to west; the ear-ringing crack of thunder that pealed out with it goaded the terrified chocobo to a speed Relm would have never thought she could reach, especially on a sprained leg. They were running blind and directionless through a world of water and ice and increasingly loud booms, and she wasnt even sure they were going towards the riverbank anymore.
Im lost, she thought to herself. Im lost and Im wet and Im either going to be killed by lightning or giant blocks of ice falling out of the sky.
Relm began to laugh, suddenly and uproariously. She laughed so hard Feather-Duster slowed down and peered back at her curiously through the downpour, and the sight of the pens baffled face with the rainwater dripping off her beak was so tremendously goofy Relm laughed even harder. Could anything go more wrong? It was so utterly fucking ridiculous she just had to let the laughter flow out. Goddesses, what a farce. What a lark. The world was wild and shambolic and full of chaos, and Relm loved it with all her heart and soul.
She was still chuckling when the deluge let up enough to reveal five elegant grey shapes watching her curiously from the top of the creekbank. When she finally noticed them, her laughter cut off with an audible gasp.
Wolves. Lobos, sodden with rain and mud and yet more graciously dignified than any man-delegation Relm had ever known. They sat in a neat line, silhouetted against the sky, and they were watching Relm with all the curiosity of a group of scientists presented with an endearingly insane toddler to baby-sit. The lightning flashes glinted off their eyes; one or two stirred or shook themselves off, but for the most part they were unmoving, silent and perfectly still. If they hadnt blinked occasionally Relm might have thought they were statues or decoys of some kind, but no, they were most definitely real.
And they were watching her.
If there had ever been a good time to panic this was probably it. There was little Relm could do against five fully grown lobos on her own, even if she had been well armed and Interceptor had been at her side as defense. And yet and yet Relm felt no fear or worry, the terrors of the night before melted by the sight of the watchers. Feather-Duster was squawking and jerking her head around frantically at the smell of so many predators, but Relm just couldnt seem to work herself up into a fright. She had fought enough monsters and evil beasts to recognize the feeling of oppressive ill-intent such types emitted, and this little pack of wolves didnt have it in the slightest. The only vibe she got from them was one of intense inquisitiveness, an overwhelming desire to understand her and what she might be thinking tinged with an almost unsettling intelligence. It was eerie, but not threatening.
Without really noticing, she raised her hand and waved to them. Five heads as one cocked and turned to watch her fingers as they curled through the air. The biggest of the lot, a massive grey male that would have dwarfed Interceptor had he been there, rose to his feet and took a few steps towards her. The feeling that he was trying to perceive the meaning of the gesture was so strong it almost took her breath away.
The alpha stared hard at her face and uplifted hand. His tail ever so slightly trembled. Then he turned away and trotted off through the belt of trees, his pack quickly following suit.
One by one they vanished into the darkness of the river-bottom, a ragged, stately procession. Relm found herself wondering how long they would be able to survive in this place, with humanity fast encroaching. How long would it be before some chocobo farmer found one of his chicks missing and slaughtered the lot with snares and poison and fire? She wished with all her might there was some way she could tell them to flee, to run away while there was still time, but this of course was impossible. The chasm between their worlds was too wide, and one day soon they would all fall into it.
She clucked to Feather-Duster and turned her to the north.
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