Walkabout Chapter 4

On good days Sally could get Bill to haul several loads of driftwood from the shore before it got too dark to see. On bad days she’d be lucky to get him out of the stall without producing a quirt and enough foul words to scare the tentacles off a Mad Oscar.

Unfortunately this was one of the bad days.

Bill was Sally MacDonald’s black chocobo, named after an equally irascible husband long-since planted in the sandy earth of the North Veldt’s coastal region. The first Bill had given up and died when the Great Sundering occurred, leaving Sally to fend for herself in a wilderness few had ventured into even before the world split apart and reshifted its plates. Bill the chocobo seemed in no danger of lying down and dying unless Sally killed the buggered thing first; he enjoyed giving her conniption fits far too much for that. Right now he was planting his feet and balking in the doorway of the stable with his head feathers spread in a wide array of directions, trying to bluff his way of the day’s work. The tactic might have proven successful with previous owners, but Sally wasn’t his previous owner; she merely tugged harder on the reins and continued to inform Bill of the many, many different ways you could roast a bird of his size and stature.

”Don’t you puff that crest out with me, sir,” she muttered, giving his backside another unsuccessful whack with the crop that got her nothing but a dirty look. “I know you, you’re nothing but talk and guff, and whatever talk and guff you got in you, I’ve got more. Move your backside, buster.”

The chocobo merely gave her another cold glare and dug his claws in deeper, obviously preparing for a battle. Sally was just about ready to head back to the house and get a torch to light underneath his tail feathers when a speck on the far horizon caught her eye and distracted her attention from stubborn Bill and his imminent murder.

Visitors rarely if ever came this far north, and Sally liked it that way just fine. More and more settlers had been arriving in the south with each passing year since Kefka’s defeat and she knew it was only a matter of time before they began appearing in her neck of the woods, but for now the north coast was a solitary and lonely place where buffalax and wild chocobo herds still roamed unfettered and undisturbed. Sally and her husband had left the civilized world years and years ago to live by themselves in the wilderness, and even now, when magic had disappeared from the world and she was approaching middle age, Sally felt they had made the right choice. The strange thrill of never knowing if a monster was about to attack was gone, this was true, but that made the Veldt no less exciting and wondrous to her. It got dull sometimes but it was still beautiful, the strange landscape Sally dwelled in; one simply had to wake up at dawn and step outside to learn that much.

She hoped this black dot crawling along the horizon wasn’t a sign of things to come. If the settlers got too thick she could always pack up her meagre belongings and leave, but when you had a husband planted nearby and had lived in a place as long as Sally had the North Coast, you kinda got attached. A strand of dark brown hair fell down in her eyes, and she pushed it back with an impatient hand, straining to see who could possibly be fluttering around this far north of the settled country. Sometimes Gau wandered up and a conversation with Gau was always a delight, but the speck didn’t move like him nor was it his time of year to be travelling. Fall was quickly descending into marrow-freezing winter, and every clever animal on the plains would be gathering food and nest materials for the long cold season ahead. It was what Sally had been doing before Bill decided to act an arse and balk that morning; he had already puffed up under the girth and thrown a saddle when the speck showed up and shook his mistress’s plans all out of whack.

As it got closer the mysterious shape resolved itself into two dots, blurry and indistinct against the broad line of the horizon. The nearer they got the more details Sally could pick out, and the more details she could pick out the more baffled she became. Settlers had been known to wander too far north and miss their crossing at the Nikeah Channel, but if these were settlers she would eat her floppy-brimmed fedora. One looked almost like a kid, but what in heaven’s name was a kid doing wandering this lonely country, with winter almost here no less? It was a puzzle, and the only thing Sally loved more than her independence was a good puzzle. She stepped out of the stable door and waited impatiently for the shapes to get closer, shading her brow against the morning sun’s rays.

It was a kid. Not just a kid, but a pint-sized girl who couldn’t have been much older than ten or twelve, the cutest little curly-headed thing you’d ever laid eyes on. Her clothes had been nice and of a good make at one time, that was obvious, but they were dirty and ragged now; the girl must’ve been travelling for some months before she bumbled her way up here. A massive black shape paced at her side, too big to be a dog but not quite large enough for one of the Veldt lobos that sometimes wandered nearby. A hybrid, maybe? Sally shook her head in disbelief. This just got better and better, didn’t it?

The girl and her companion soon reached the rail-fence that marked the edge of Sally’s front yard and paused, as halting and suspicious as two wild beasts. Figuring now was as good a time as any to step out and introduce herself, she adjusted her hat and stepped out of the stable, making sure to pull the latch behind as she did so. Bill would take any opportunity to run off and it’d be just her luck to have to waste half a day chasing the damned critter because an interesting hobo had plopped down in front of the cabin.

”Howdy there,” she said, watching with some amusement as both girl and dog very nearly leapt into the air at the sound of her voice. “You’re a fair far way from Nikeah if that’s where you were headed, sugar. About 300 miles too far north, in fact, if I don’t miss my mark. Did you get separated from a caravan or something?”

The wolf-cross raised its hackles and the girl eyed her somewhat suspiciously, but after a moment’s pause she consented to reply.

”Is Doma Channel anywhere nearby? I need to get across soon and I was hoping that was it.” She pointed a boot-clad toe at the stretch of silver water on the horizon, and Sally had a hard time stifling the laughter that threatened to burst forth from her chest at such a silly notion. The poor lamb couldn’t find her way out of a whiskey barrel if she was that mixed up.

”No, dearie, that’s Triangle Sound and you’ve overshot your destination by more like 400 miles in that case. Couldn’t you tell you weren’t going true west when the sun started sinking down by your shoulder instead of in front of your face?” Seeing the despair on the girl’s face she softened her tone a touch and tried to be more understanding. “But it has been overcast for a good chunk of the fall, and I suppose without a compass even I might get mixed up in my directions now and again.”

That was in fact exactly what had happened to Relm; after she left Gau on that bright fall morning nearly a month before, the sky had gotten dark and the clouds had lowered and she and Interceptor had been wandering around aimlessly ever since, their supplies depleting at an alarming rate. Occasionally Interceptor would catch a Leafer or some other small prey and bring it back to her, but game had grown more and more scarce the farther they got and the chillier the weather became. She had been a hair’s breadth away from telling the Clyde in her mind to go fuck a llama and trying to turn back southward to Mobliz when the ocean had come into view and the little settlement along with it. There had been much rejoicing, but only temporarily; now this weathered lady in her patched trousers and funny hat was telling Relm she had gone too far north and had at least another three weeks of walking ahead of her. Fuck fuck fuck.

Numbly she turned to go back the way she had come, but Relm’s legs didn’t seem to want to work the way she wanted them to. She fought it hard, grabbing onto a fence-post as her knees buckled beneath her, but it was no use – she was going down, swooning like a heroine in one of those penny dreadful romance novels Celes used to read when she thought nobody was looking. How embarrassing, Relm thought faintly, just before her grip slipped and the ground began to rush up to meet her face.

Before she had even fallen halfway a strong pair of arms had her around the waist, carrying her inside the cabin. Relm found it funny that Interceptor didn’t even growl at the stranger when he was usually so overprotective but gave it no more question, letting sleep and the broad arms do what they would with her exhausted body.


When Relm finally awoke it was to the sound of a crackling fire and the smell of beef broth in the air. For a few seconds she felt vague and confused - was she still back at home with Strago? Had the previous two months been a long, strange dream? The pillow underneath her head was soft and comforting, and it was so nice to just lie there and pretend that nothing had ever changed, that she was still safe in her bed back in Thamasa …

But the moment passed as quickly as it had come, and soon enough all of Relm’s memories came flooding back in a bittersweet rush. Strago was dead and she was looking for Shadow, her real father. She had set off to track him down and gotten horribly lost somewhere on the Veldt. The odd woman with the funny hat must have picked her up and taken care of her after she fainted. At this thought the girl tried to sit bolt upright in the strange bed, but a bolt of pain shot through her temples and she sank back down into the feather pillows, weak and dizzy from the throbbing. Where the hell was her stuff? Where the hell were her clothes, for that matter? The pajamas she was wearing were about three sizes too big, smelled like mothballs, and were most definitely not hers.

Oh Goddesses, that meant that she’d been undressed by a stranger. Ew. Ew ew ew.

There was a dull thumping from the side of the bed. Relm glanced over and saw Interceptor lying on the floor, his gaze locked on her. The dog’s heavy brush of a tail thudded against the hardwood again several times in greeting; he was obviously happy to see her awake and conscious once more. She narrowed her eyes at him and with some deliberation shook a thin finger in his direction.

”Traitor,” she muttered, glaring daggers at her shaggy compatriot. “So now you’re letting total strangers strip me naked and do things to me? What kind of guard-wolf are you anyhow? I’ll remember this, fleabag.”

But there was no malice in her voice and she dangled a hand over one side of the bed after only a moment’s hesitation. Interceptor gave her an ingratiating doggy grin and crawled forward on his stomach to lick her hand apologetically, letting the girl scratch that tricky spot behind his left ear he could never quite reach even with a back leg. She was awake and speaking again. Interceptor’s world was once more complete.

”Don’t put the blame on your dog there, child. He watched me like a damned sparrowhawk every time I had a hand on you, but I was too quick and wily an old nanny for even him with his big yella eyes. Plus I had beef bones, and that wolf ain’t half a fool when it comes to beef bones.”

The voice came from Relm’s left. She rolled her head slowly to face the sound and found the woman she had spoken to earlier standing quietly by, cookpot in one hand and wooden spoon in the other. Relm had expected to be quite angry when she met her molester once again, but the lady had such a good-natured face it was hard to hold a grudge for long.

”He hasn’t moved from your bedside since you passed out, and that was near about two days ago,” she continued, brandishing the spoon like a conductor’s baton as the words spilled out. “I’ve been spooning soup down your throat for all that time and was starting to get a bit worried, but now that you’re up and awake you can do it yourself, I reckon.” The woman stuck a firm, calloused hand out to shake Relm’s own; it was like exchanging pleasantries with a steel vice. “My name’s Sally MacDonald, and you are lyin’ in my bed. You can also sleep in the extra room when you’re feeling better, as I am quite fond of that bed and have missed it something fierce since you made your arrival. I figured you’d better have the one closest to the fire though; wasn’t sure what was wrong with you but looks like it wasn’t much more than hunger and exhaustion. We should have you fixed up by spring in no time flat.”

Relm had been letting the woman’s words wash over her in a broad tide, trying to absorb everything as best she could, but at the last sentence she lifted an eyebrow and raised herself up on her elbows in the bed. “I’m sorry Miss … MacDonald, was it? I can’t stay until spring, I have to leave, like, soon. I’ve gotta get over Doma Channel before the blizzards start and while I appreciate your kindness …”

Sally laughed. It was a big booming laugh, not derisive or mocking but incredulous all the same. “Child, even if you had wings to fly down there you wouldn’t make it before the blizzards started to hit. I’m afeared you’re stuck here ‘til spring, like it or not. You try to make it back to Doma Channel now and you and your partner there will be frozen stiff as Shiva within a week, I can practically guarantee it.” Noting the girl’s silence she added, “You were almost out of energy when you found me, and that was during good fall weather. I’m not a bad one to be stuck with for a few months, as long as you haul your weight around the place. Who knows, we might even get to liking each other, given enough time. Given enough time I could probably make friends with a golden bear, though, knowing me.”

She turned to head back into the kitchen, but paused and turned around with a small smile on her lips. “Oh, and your clothes and other goods are piled up in the extra room; I gave ‘em a good wash and tried to patch them up best I could. I gave you a good wash, too, but don’t worry, I didn’t peek.” The tall woman gave Relm a wink and returned to her cooking, leaving the visitor to blush and splutter, for once at a loss for words.


Children were funny things, tough as chocobo chicks to rear. Some of them flourished and grew like weeds in the harshest conditions, growing to young adulthood with nary a sniffle or cough. Others could have the best food and the best clothes and the best of everything, and they would just sicken and die one day for no reason whatsoever, leaving their parents and the doctors confused and baffled as to what had gone wrong. Sally knew this from experience; she had five fine sons buried back in Jidoor and not one had lived beyond the age of twelve, all of them stricken down with various maladies that should have been easily curable with the help of good medicine and treatment. Instead they had wasted away, the frail little bodies getting thinner and thinner under the coverlets as Sally desperately tried to spoon soup down their unresponsive throats. It was like they had lost the will to live, and this more than anything else had torn at the good woman’s heart until she never wanted to see another youthful face again.

Sally had feared history was repeating itself when she picked up the slack, unresponsive body of her guest from the dust of the yard and carried her inside, and even after the girl woke up and it became apparent there was nothing more wrong with her than overexhaustion and hunger, Sally had worried somewhat. You had to want to get better for it to happen, and the way the girl had lain there staring at the ceiling after Sally told her she was stuck hadn’t exactly bespoken a thirst for living.

The stony silence and refusal to eat had gone on for nearly three days until both the dog and Sally were almost frantic. Then all of a sudden one morning the girl had risen from bed and surprised her host as she stood in the kitchen cutting up carrots for a stew.

”Relm,” she’d muttered sulkily, studying what must have undoubtedly been the most interesting ladybug in the world as it made a valiant journey across the cobblestone floor. Sally hadn’t even looked up from her slicing, letting the girl come to her in her own time as you would any wild young thing.

”I’m sorry, hon, you’re gonna have to speak up. I can’t make out a word you’re saying.”

”… My name is Relm. The dog’s name is Interceptor. Is there, like, anything you want me to do around here or what?”

At those surly words Sally had smiled, knowing things were going to be just fine. If a teenager had enough belly to be surly they had enough belly to keep on living, that’s what she figured, and as usual her intuition proved correct. Within the day Relm was sitting by the fire peeling potatoes, and when dinnertime rolled around she even consented to eat a bowl of fish stew, making sure to wrinkle her nose in disgust at the concoction first just to make sure her feelings on the matter were well-known.

”You’re as picky and fussy as a broody hen, aren’t you?” Sally commented, watching the girl peer suspiciously at the thick ochre-coloured soup in her saucer. “Your friend over there seems to like it just fine; take a tip from him and eat like you’ve got some stomach in you. I take it as an insult to my cookin’ skills otherwise.”

Interceptor was gravely polite but never overly expressive with Sally; even to a blind person it would’ve been obvious where the dog’s loyalty lay. He worshipped the ground his young mistress walked on and was never far behind wherever she went, sleeping by the side of the extra bed with one prick-ear cocked in case anyone dared intrude on her slumber. How Sally had managed to pick the girl up and carry her indoors that day without being ripped to pieces she would never know, but she generally put it down to Interceptor being a canny and intuitive creature who could tell right from wrong easier than most humans the widow had met in her time. Relm couldn’t have been safer if she’d worn Magitek armor and travelled with a retinue of armed guards by her side.

Almost grudgingly Relm started to open up about herself, eventually telling Sally where she was from and the name of the man she was looking for. She didn’t say why she was trailing the fellow or volunteer any more information about her past that day, but Sally got the feeling it wouldn’t be long before it all came out. Relm didn’t seem like much of an introvert to her – occasionally sulky, sure, and maybe even a little cautious of strangers, but not naturally quiet. The girl wanted to talk, and more and more as the days went by she did, a slowly building stream of chatter that filled the lonely cabin and Sally’s ears like flash flood waters on drought-stricken land. Sally had always been a talker (with an infamously loud voice to boot; Bill had joked you could hear her talking in Jidoor if you put your ear to the ground in Zozo), so finding this kindred spirit had been quite the stroke of luck indeed.

After a short stint with Relm doing housechores for the first week or so, Sally took the girl out one cold fall morning and introduced her to Bill the chocobo, who was having a very good pout in his stall when the three came to visit. Usually Sally would take him out several times a week hooked to a travois to collect fuel – driftwood from the coast, buffalax droppings if kindling was scarce – but she had been preoccupied with her guest and hadn’t bothered to for several days beforehand. Bill never missed an opportunity to lay back his crest-feathers and balk when asked to do a lick of work, but being ignored seemed to insult the big black bird even more. When Sally entered the stable he wouldn’t even look at her, pushing his broad head into Relm’s chest instead.

”That’s good,” Sally said dryly, watching the bird affectionately nuzzle the girl until she could barely keep her feet under the barrage. “He seems to have taken a liking to you, which may or may not be of some help when he realizes you’re not going to fall for that BS any more than I do. Let’s see how those doe-eyes look when they see you get out the travois and saddle, eh? If he lets you put the damned things on without a fuss I’ll give you the big bed and sleep in the barn m’self, see if I don’t.”

When Relm came riding back later that evening with Interceptor trotting along behind, Sally was waiting in the doorway to help her unload the fuel. The first few flakes of snow whirled down from a leaden sky onto the little group; Sally greeted them with a shout while Bill blinked his huge eyes and shook his feathers against the sudden wetness. Interceptor snapped at a few of the white specks experimentally and then ignored the rest, choosing to study Relm’s upturned face instead.

Winter had arrived.

Chapter 5

All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition

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