Wasteland king, p.3
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       Wasteland King, p.3

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  If only there was a battle to be fought.

  A low, chill laugh echoed in the hall. Jeremiah’s breath turned to puffs of white cloud, the cold rasping against his armor as if it wished to work through and cat-lick living skin.

  “Gallow.” The single word was a frigid caress.

  He set his jaw, wishing he could open his eyes. He was facing the lord of the Unseelie, the Lion of Danu, Summer’s once-Consort. And Gallow’s face was screwed up like a child waiting for a whipping, hot saltwater trickling down his cheeks.

  He had to cough to clear his throat. His mouth tasted like he’d been working asphalt all day and drinking all night—a feat he’d performed once or twice before losing interest.

  It was just too damn expensive to get enough mortal booze to make a Half even faintly tipsy. “As you see me, Unwinter.”

  Silence. Then another low grating sound struck the shivering air.

  Laughter. Unwinter found him amusing.

  “This,” the Unseelie said, “is why I have not killed you yet.”

  “Because of my wit?” The lance hummed, eagerly, but there was nothing for it to latch onto. The medallion at Jeremiah’s chest was cold enough to burn, but it didn’t. Unwinter had worn the thing for many a long year as both mortals and sidhe reckoned.

  Had he ever felt it chill-scald like this?

  “What little you have? No.” Another low grinding, but thinner than the last. “You may be beaten, and you may be killed. But you do not submit.”

  Sheer idiot persistence, nothing more. Maybe he should tell Unwinter as much. “Never got the habit.” The burning was going down, but he didn’t dare open his eyes just yet.

  “Good.” Unwinter sounded thoughtful. “There is a task for thee.”

  I suspected as much, since you didn’t let the poison take me. “Wonderful.” His throat was so dry. What he wouldn’t give for some Coors. Or better, milk. Even skim sounded good. Cream would be better.

  “You may always refuse.” As if Unwinter didn’t know he had Gallow by the balls.

  So Jeremiah said the only thing he could. “Robin.”

  Unwinter did not laugh. “You may even live to see her again.”

  It wasn’t quite a promise, but it was all he was going to get. “Lead the way, then.”

  No, it wasn’t submitting. He still couldn’t see a damn thing, but he heard soft footsteps, each one crackling slightly as resisting air coated itself with ice, and followed in their wake. His shoulder hit the doorjamb, he blinked more hot water out of his eyes, and found he could squint at a long, cobweb-festooned hall. Retreating down its funhouse sway was a black-clad back and a head of thistledown hair, bound by a pale silvery fillet.

  Gallow, half blind and unsteady, staggered after Unwinter.

  ONE BEFORE DAWN

  5

  Smoke clung to Alastair Crenn’s shoulders; the scream of the last Unseelie knight he’d killed still reverberated in his hands and throat and knees. His shoulder ground with pain, he was down to his last arrow, and the only thing that had saved him was mortal dawn’s painting the sagebrushed hills with red.

  A bloody dawn, indeed. Sailors take warning.

  Crenn coughed, spat, and eyed the twisting, writhing almost-corpse splayed on the pavement.

  The drow cursed at him, fragments of the Old Language fluttering blackwing-bird free of its mouth and struggling to flap into free air. They were too weak to do more than brush, though, and Crenn spat in return, a single golden dart spearing three of them at once with a sound like breaking sugarpane.

  He’d shot this one with iron, right above the hip, and doubled back to find it in the middle of the road, scratching with maggot-white, waxen, broken fingertips, probably searching for a door or even a bit of free earth it could use to go to ground and escape. Crenn crouched, his hand sinking into the drow’s hair, and he wrenched the thing’s head back, exposing a wedge of pale throat.

  No violet dapples of lightshield chantment on this one. Sunlight would kill it handily, but it paid to be thorough.

  It hissed at him, baring sharp serrated teeth, and he glanced in either direction. No traffic on this desolate stretch of highway just now. His shoulder gave another twinge, and two drops of bright red blood hit the pavement. The drow writhed even more furiously, scenting nourishment so close.

  Leading them away from both mortals and their other prey had required all the ingenuity and cunning the swamps of Marrowdowne had taught him, and more. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d bled, or the last time he’d actually sweated. Not much could wring the salt out of a Half, but by God, misdirecting an entire Unseelie raid came close.

  She’d escaped, though. The dog had carried her, and Robin Ragged had escaped.

  Crenn dragged the knife across the drow’s throat, his lip curling as an arterial gush of bluish ichor splattered on concrete.

  I will cut your heart out, she’d told him, in that broken whisper it hurt to hear.

  “Too late,” he said to the rapidly decaying mess of drow corpse in the road. He yanked the arrow free, examined its head and fletching. No major warping, he could account for the slight curve if he had call to shoot later. Good enough, and his quiver would replenish itself by nightfall.

  Was this how Gallow had felt, so long ago, after the mortal policemen had descended on shantytown and set fire to whatever they could? Had he felt the sick thump in his stomach as he contemplated what damage might have been done to a woman, especially one he might have felt… something… for?

  For a moment Crenn’s face twinged, as if his scars had returned. It was a new thing, to wonder if perhaps that might be best. If Robin looked at him now, she’d assume that the scars vanishing were Summer’s payment for a betrayal. How could he explain that was only part of the truth? He shook his hair down over his face, a supple movement, as he turned. The moss among the strands had dried to verdigris crumbles, the tinge of Marrowdowne’s curtains of green stillness finding the dry mortal sun uncongenial at best. It was habit, to view the world through a screen, shielding the scars from prying gazes.

  Besides, every assassin sometimes needed a mask.

  His arms ached, and his legs too. His boots were caked with dust and drying ichors, his leathers shedding more of the same. The eastern horizon ripened, tongues of orange and lateral stripes of crimson intensifying, a flameflower about to bloom. No hint of moisture on the wind, and he had traveled far enough inland that he couldn’t smell the sea.

  She escaped. Otherwise he would have heard the silvery huntwhistles thrilling up into ultrasonic, the cry of prey brought down.

  He turned his back on the bubbling mess of Unseelie, and set off along the side of the highway. Funny, after so many years, he’d finally made it to the mortal California. Land of milk and honey, where a man could get a job—that had been the dream, long ago, riding the rails with Jeremiah. They might even have made it if the Hooverville shantytown they’d ended up in hadn’t been raided by the good citizens of a town uneasy at the thought of a collection of migrants on their doorstep.

  The same old song. Move along. Nothing for your kind here. Even in Summer there were places a Half shouldn’t tread.

  And a few the fullborn wouldn’t dare either. Like the fens’ green curtains and hungry depths. He’d looked for a hiding place, and found it, retreating from the goddamn mortal world and all its problems.

  Now he was thinking daring that green hell hadn’t been as much of an act of bravery as he’d wanted it to be.

  Crenn trudged back along the highway, mortal dawn rising over the low blue smears of distant mountains. Dust, sage, rock, and the ribbon of the road. As soon as he was far enough away from the drow’s death, he could slip through the Veil into the lands of the free sidhe and begin to track her. She wouldn’t be happy to see him, but sooner or later he’d prove himself useful. He’d spend the time he had to convincing her.

  Because a girl who would face down Unwinter without a qualm, and spit in Summer’s eye to boo
t, deserved all the protection a man could scrape together, and more. Certainly she deserved a hell of a lot more than an arrogant former Armormaster and a Half who spent his time hiding in treetops.

  A woman like that could make a man immortal, or so close it didn’t matter.

  His breath came a little shorter and his palms dampened at the thought. The mortals at the carnival had dragged her from the sea, and she’d slept in one of their trailers. Standing over her in the dark, her black heels in his almost-trembling hands, Alastair had thought perhaps he could simply leave this entire fucked-up situation where he’d found it, go back to the swamps, and let Summer, Unwinter, and their playthings fight it out without him.

  Then he thought of Robin Ragged spitting at the Seelie queen, and her determination as she flung herself into whatever lay in that white tower by the sea, the tower Crenn had brought her to.

  What was a woman like that doing with Gallow, of all people? What could he have that she wanted? How did he do it? Even when Crenn had been unscarred, the other man drew them, those women. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes not, but always with that… spark. With something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, a female magic entirely different than chantment.

  A burring sound in the distance—an engine. Crenn put his head down, old habits dying hard if at all, and wondered if you could still travel for miles with a stranger in those horseless carriages. The last time he’d been in the mortal realm for this long, twenty-five miles an hour was high speed. Now they were almost as fast as elfhorses, but far less elegant. Exhaust-stink chariots poisoning the mortal air. How long before the sidhe would choke to death when they bothered to come through the Veil at all?

  For a long time, the sound stayed the same, a blurred buzz neither further nor closer. Then, as the sun mounted higher and pavement shimmered in the distance under waves of heat, it drew close all at once, a roar like a wyrm’s breath and hot wind buffeting the roadside.

  A groan, a stuttering, and the great silver beast coasted to a stop not too far ahead, amber and red lights on its right side blinking.

  Crenn lengthened his stride. The gigantic semi waited, rumbling idly, and a few minutes later, dust spumed, tires ground dry gravel, and Alastair Crenn had vanished into the cab.

  THE DRIVER

  6

  Normally Bill Yonkovitch didn’t stop for hitchers. Caution was the best policy, especially when hauling big loads over long distances. You never knew when luck might sour itself up like a bennies high gone bad, itching under your skin and turning the world into a funhouse distortion of paranoia.

  Nope, best to stick to caffeine, safety, and keeping the cab clean. Maybe he didn’t make as much by following the rules, but on the other hand, he’d been driving for years without a wreck, so that was good enough.

  After Maria, he never wanted to be surprised again.

  “Where you headed?” Bill scratched under the band of his baseball cap, squinting at the road.

  The guy was out walking without a bag or anything, a shock of dark hair almost woolly-dreadlocked moving in time to his steps. At first Bill thought it was a hallucination, but he solidified at the side of the road and the brakes grabbed without any real direction on the driver’s part.

  Sometimes it was like that, even if a man didn’t want surprises, the world conspired to force him out of his nice safe shell. Always best to grudgingly go along, because otherwise the road would choose another damn thing to throw at you down the way, one maybe not so pleasant or easily fixed.

  “West,” the man said, clearly enough. Hair hanging in his face, but he didn’t look dirty. Sand crusted his boots, good well-worn Frye’s brown leather. You could tell a lot about a man from his shoes. These had seen hard use, and he’d waded in something before trudging through sand—but he’d knocked them clean before he climbed into Bill’s cab.

  Which made Bill feel pretty charitable. Politeness was always good. “California coast, huh? You local?”

  A flash of white teeth, under that mop of hair. “No. Thank you for stopping.”

  “I don’t normally,” Bill said. Was it nervousness, beating in time to his heart? The doctor said his ticker was fine. Should last another twenty years or so, he’d laughed, and Bill laughed with him.

  You sort of had to, when they informed you how much longer your sentence ran. In front of the windshield, the gray road ran, and there was nothing to do but put the tires on it and speed along.

  “Then I thank you again.” The hitcher had a trace of an accent, maybe, which would explain the hair. You saw all types on the side of the road. A certain number of them were bad sorts, and you mostly couldn’t tell unless you got stung. That was why Bill kept the Louisville Slugger with its lead core in the back, and the ax handle always tucked in its custom sheath on the left side of the driver’s seat.

  Now, despite the politeness, Bill was wondering why he’d stopped to pick the guy up. “The heat can really get to a guy out there. It’ll make you crazy. Desert’s nothing to fool around with.”

  “I’m used to it,” the man said. “I lived in a swamp.”

  “Down south? That’s wet heat. It’ll drive you crazy too, but in a different way.”

  “Have you seen both?” The hitcher sounded genuinely curious.

  It was nice to talk to someone every once in a while. “Oh, yeah. I been all over. Me and Betsy here.” He tapped the dash, a proprietary movement. “Coast-to-coast. Can’t stay in one place too long. Get itchy.”

  “Do you have a home, then?” Thoughtfulness in the soft baritone. Good voice. The man could do radio, if he wanted to.

  Bill grinned. “Used to. Now I’ve got a mailing service and a sleeper cab. Better that way. Just roll all over the country. Rent a room when I feel like it, sometimes.”

  “Like a snail. Your home on your back.”

  “Some days it feels like it. You?”

  “A house. In the swamp.” A shrug. “But home is different.”

  “It always is.” Bill nodded sagely. You often came across philosophers on the road. They were everywhere, from the tired utilitarian waitresses to some of the slow, dreaming Hell’s Angels, the slipstream driving all thoughts but make it big someday I’m gonna out of their heads. Other truck drivers ran the gamut from materialists to downright spiritual—not to be confused with religious. The one poststructuralist trucker Bill knew had decided the Lower 48 weren’t avant-garde enough and went to do short hauls in Alaska, where the crazy ran deep enough to suit him.

  A sign flashed by—BARTON 10 MI. Now that was an asshole armpit of a town, he’d only stopped there once. “How far you going, son?”

  “A long way. But the next town is fine, really.”

  “You may not want to with hair like that.” Not to mention, well. These days you couldn’t even give that sort of warning without maybe hitting a touchy spot. “This part of the country’s… well, you know.”

  “Just like everywhere else.” A bitter little laugh. “You can’t get away from it.”

  Which made his passenger a cynic, maybe. Or just a realist. “What if you could?”

  “Don’t know. Went somewhere a long time ago, because I was told it didn’t matter there. The thing is, something matters everywhere. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

  This was shaping up to be one interesting conversation. Bill settled himself further in his seat, Betsy settling herself too, into a good even speed. It was a nice morning. “So where did you eventually end up? That swamp?” If he had found a corner of the South where things didn’t matter, that was outright miraculous.

  A place like that would be worth knowing about.

  “Too soon to tell.” Did the hitcher sound amused? “There’s a girl, though.”

  “Oh, now.” A deep rich chuckle worked its way up out of Bill’s gut. He was putting on some pounds—long distances did that to you. Not enough getting out and walking. “I used to have one that felt like home.” Maria’s face, with the engaging gap between her front
teeth and her humming in the kitchen. Waking up to that slow wandering melody had filled Bill with something very much like… well, he wasn’t quite religious, so maybe heaven wasn’t the word.

  But it was damn close. Just like the opposite when he woke up one fine sunny morning and realized she wasn’t coming back.

  The stranger gave him a moment or two, then asked the reasonable question. “What happened?”

  “She foreclosed. What about yours?”

  “She wants to kill me.”

  Oh, man. “That’s the best type.”

  “I don’t blame her.”

  “Then, brother, pardon my French, but you may be fucked.”

  “No pardon needed, good sir.” But the young man tensed. “There. You can let me out there.”

  “What?” Bill took his foot off the gas. “You’ll have to walk through Barton, then.”

  “Maybe.”

  A few minutes later, the man brushed his hair back and reached for the door handle. He paused. “You are a good mor—ah, a good man. I wish you luck in finding your own home.”

  “You’re sitting in it, son,” Bill said, and made one last attempt. “Sure you don’t want to ride a bit further?”

  “Not today.” A firm handshake, callused hand warm and hard against his own, and the young man hopped out of the cab. He headed for Happy Harry’s Stop ’n’ Sip, and Bill Yonkovitch never saw him again.

  He also didn’t notice the faint smear of gold on his hand, sinking into his own skin. Later that day, he bought a scratch ticket at a little stop-and-rob on the outskirts of LA. He didn’t realize he’d won for three weeks, but by that time he’d already met an exhausted waitress in Nevada who almost passed out bringing him a chef salad. He took Deirdre to her apartment that night, slept outside in the cab of his truck, and when he woke up the next morning she’d left a note on the windshield with her number.

  They lived a long happy life, childless in an RV, crossing and crisscrossing the States. And Bill, wiser than most, never picked up another hitchhiker.

 
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