The steel rail thrummed under the bandit’s boot, barely felt through leather soles worn thin. Faint at first, Millie could feel the vibration grow stronger with every heartbeat. The overnight train to Boldstream was on its way.
Right on time.
Millie took a swig of water from her flask and held it out to her partner, tapping the other woman’s arm with it to get her attention. The night was dark, and while the small elf could see well enough, her partner’s human eyes weren’t as well suited to the darkness. The stars cast little light on the railway, the moon new and hidden. The night was especially dark, perfect for laying a trap.
“Train’ll be here soon. Thirsty?”
“Thank you,” Rythlen said, taking the flask. They made quite a strange pair, standing on the tracks. Rythlen was tall even for a human woman, strong shouldered and able to freeze a man in his tracks with a single glare from her ice-blue eyes. She also had a regal bearing that Millie was currently working on turning into swagger.
It was taking a bit of work, even though Ry was a quick learner.
“Thanks,” the elf corrected. “Fancy people say ‘thank you’, us dirty bandits say ‘thanks’ if we thank anyone at all.”
“Thanks darlin’,” Rythlen corrected, adding a drawl for good measure. She smiled at Millie, and winked.
Where Rythlen was tall, the elf was small. Millie had inherited her Old World mother’s frame, and her father’s Ghost clan colouring. Barely five feet tall with both her hat and boots on, her hair was silver, eyes purple. Her skin freckled and her long ears burnt quicker than tinder when she was out in noonday sun.
Both women were dressed in pilfered clothes, caked with dirt from the freshly laid railway under their boots. Rythlen fit the stolen clothes well had tied her dark hair back into a braid which was tucked under the collar of her shirt. Millie whose clothes were much too large and been rolled up at sleeve cuffs and pant legs, had wrangled her own into braids tight against her scalp. To help hide the distinctive silver, the elf had rubbed soot and grease into her hair earlier, darkening it considerably.
Wide swaths of bare ground bordered the gravel and tracks, with only the most stubborn of weeds starting to grow in the dirt. Rythlen took a drink and moved to wipe her mouth on her sleeve. She stopped, thinking better of smearing the dirt into her face, and held the flask back to Millie.
“Any last advice?” Rythlen asked.
“Yeah,” Millie said, taking the flask and returning it to her vest. “Don’t look at the fire when I light it.” Perched on a rail tie in front of them was a wooden bucket, covered with an oil cloth. It smelled strongly of naphtha.
“You sure about this?” she asked, looking at Ry.
“A little late for doubts, innit?” Rythlen, pulling the black kerchief she wore up and over her nose. Millie did the same, and wrapped a second handkerchief around her ears, pinning them back and out of sight.
“Sure,” the elf said. “But I thought I would ask. This isn’t a small thing.”
“No, it’s not,” Rythlen agreed. Her face was hard and Millie watched her squint, watching the distance light of the train’s headlamp grow larger. The steady chug of the engine was audible now, and the tracks under their feet were making the elf’s toes buzz uncomfortably.
“Here we go,” Millie said.
“I hope this works,” Ry muttered and stepped off the tracks, backing up a few paces. Shrugging off the rifle she had shouldered, Rythlen chambered a round and shielded her eyes, mindful of the elf’s warning to not look at the fire.
“Yeah… I hope so too,” the elf said under her breath. Ahead, the train was still a ways off. Enough time, hopefully, to stop. Covering her nose and mouth with her elbow, Millie kicked over the covered bucket. The naphtha spilled out, splashing over the tracks and onto the wooden ties all the way to the pile of wood and scrub the women had built earlier around oil soaked rags.
Millie pulled a match from her belt and lit it. Carefully to look away, she tossed the match onto the naphtha. Heat flashed against her skin as the fuel caught. First the naphtha, then the pile of fuel roared to life. Orange-yellow flames shot up into the sky, blindingly bright compared to the moonless night moments earlier. The acrid sting of smoke made Millie’s eyes water, and her nose itch. The smell of naphtha would linger on the clothing and skin for some time. But hopefully, the takings would be worth the trouble of scrubbing that smell away.
The train’s engine whistled sharply, brakes screamed as metal wheels ground against metal rails. Millie scampered off the rails, joining Rythlen on the shoulder of the track. Neither said a word as they watched as the train kick up orange sparks as it’s engineer tried to stop before the train reached the fire.
Everything was going well, until Millie heard the first heavy flap of wings. Nearly drowned out by the train’s screeching brakes, the sound was unmistakable. Looking up, the elf saw a dark shape pass overhead, blocking out the stars. It wheeled, circling back.
“GET DOWN,” Millie shouted, and shoved Ry toward the tall grass. To her credit, Rythlen didn’t hesitate. She sprinted forward, diving into the tall grass. Millie followed, throwing her arms over her head for protection. The downdraft from massive wings flattened the grass around them and nearly put their bonfire out as the dragon flew past them.
“Where did she come from?” the elf whispered, looking up just in time to see the night light up. The faint glow within a serpentine throat was the only warning before brilliant orange flame erupted out at the train. Lit by her own fire, the two bandits could see that it was the big Blue female that nested in the canyon nearby. Millie had seen her before, but it was always at a distance, a small silhouette in the sky.
Tonight, she saw just how big the Blue really was, easily dwarfing the cars of the train she had targeted. The dragon roared, and wheeled in the sky to come around for another attack. Her second gout of flame splashed over the coal car and onto the engine itself. The bandits watched as the train’s metal glowed a dull red. Millie’s ears perked as she heard a very faint, very high pitched, hiss.
The two bandits threw their faces back into the dirt, arms shielding their heads as a truly deafening explosion rocked the prairie, sending up startled grouse and turkey from the tall grass, and flattening any stalks the dragon had left standing.
The big Blue screamed again, twisting and hissing in pain as shrapnel bit into tender wings and belly. She flamed again, drenching the engine in fire and setting the grasses alight on the far side of the tracks. Then, powerful wings flapping heavily, she turned and climbed back into the night.
The women lay in the dirt for a while, both listening to the injured dragon’s wings as it flew further away. It was only when the heavy flaps were gone that either dared to speak.
“This wasn’t part of your plan, was it?” Ry asked, looking over Millie. Around them, the grassland was on fire, the engine had exploded and there was an angry, injured, blue dragon limping back to her den in the nearby foothills.
“Uh, no. No I did not plan on a dragon attack,” she answered. Millie’s eyes shone in the glow of grassfire as she looked at the destruction ahead of them. “So much for no casualties.”
The train’s boiler had split, curling long strips of steel back like the end of a trick cigar. The train was nearly completely derailed, what cars the dragon and boiler had left untouched had folded up like an accordion as they struck the destroyed ones ahead of them. Even the rails had buckled up in wild curves that meant extensive repairs would be needed before the railroad was useable again.
No, this had definitely not been planned… but far be it for them to ignore an opportunity when one presented itself.
“Well,” Millie said, getting up and brushing off the dirt on her hands. She huffed, feeling a twinge of pain in her shoulder. A piece of shrapnel, but the heat of the metal had cauterized the cut. Best leave it in for now. “At least you can see now.”
“I could see before,” Ry said, standing. She had a few scrapes herself, but seemed just fine. A little shaken, but fine. Millie would hardly fault that, she was feeling a little shaken herself.
“Well at least you can see better now,” the elf said, adjusting the bandanna over her face. It had been knocked askew when she landed in the grass. “You know I’m no good at optimism, so let’s just say I tried and steal some cargo, okay?”
The human huffed, the smallest of laughs, and the two headed toward the mess of fire and steel. As they got closer, they could hear the screams of survivors and the whinnies of frightened horses. There was no more laughter after that, no jokes either.
Millie was grateful it was her who found the first survivor. Pinned under a bent steel plate, the man’s eyes were wide and glassy. Where his skin wasn’t covered with soot, blood, or both, the elf could see it was near-white from blood loss and shock.
She ended it for him.
“That was kind of you,” Ry said, kicking over a trunk that had been ejected from the same car. It was badly dented, and the outside charred, but it was still locked. With a step back, the human levelled her rifle and shot the lock, shattering it.
“I’m not kind. I hope someone would do the same for me in that situation,” the elf muttered. “You know I can just pick the locks on those, right?” she asked, walking over to look at the chest’s contents.
“This was faster.”
The two women crouched by the chest, and Rythlen reached in to pull out a thick leather folio, embossed with a coat of arms on the front. The leather had cracked a little from heat, but the papers inside seemed to have survived remarkably well. Spotting something else, Millie pulled a knife from her belt and cut along the chest’s leather lining. Slipping a hand inside, she pulled out an envelope that was a little scorched with heat. The name on the front of it made her smile, and she held the envelope up for the human to see.
“Why,” she drawled. “I do believe we’ve intercepted some delicate correspondence to a Mister Harrold Cofield.”
The human’s pale eyes flicked to the envelope, then her eyebrows lifted when she saw the name there.
“Well,” Rythlen breathed. She looked surprised. “You didn’t tell me you could read,” she said with a dry laugh and reached for the envelope. The elf yanked the envelope back and tucked it into her vest, leaving the human grasping at air.
“Ha. Ha. Guess you’ll have to read this to me when we get back,” the elf grumbled. “Ass.”
Rythlen’s pale eyes crinkled in a smile otherwise hidden by the bandana.
“C’mon,” she said, patting the grumpy elf on the shoulder. “Let’s go get the horses before the fire reaches them.”