3 – Dirty Hands

The bandits’ camp was an old smuggler’s cache they had discovered. Nothing notable at first glance, it was a single-room shack that had a distinct lean and an oilcloth for a door. The shack’s lone window had broken wooden slats nailed across it from the inside. More importantly to two aching and exhausted bandits, there was a firepit in front, a log to sit on, a clear creek nearby and a hidden cellar that was twice as large as the hut itself. A cellar that was now filled with items ulled from the trainwreck.

Their heavy lifting over, the bandits had washed and changed back into their normal clothing. Without needing to wash grease from her hair, Rythlen had a cooking fire started and a can of beans heating by the time Millie returned from the creek. Laying on the human’s foot was a giant mastiff thumped his tail against the ground a few times at the sight of the elf.

Some sort of mastiff, Fyr was Rythlen’s shadow. He had protested with the biggest, saddest, puppy eyes the two women had seen when they left him tied at the camp. Now that they were back, and dressed in their normal clothing, Fyr had no intention of letting his person out of his sight again.

“Welcome back,” Rythlent said, glancing up from the fire. “Manage to get all the grease out?”

“Most of it,” Millie said, joining her friend on the log-turned-bench. If they had made an odd pair earlier that night, dressed as bandits, they made an odder one now. Rythlen was dressed well: a dark duster kept in good condition despite it’s extensive wear, a white shirt under a leather vest, and tailored slacks. Her stetson was resting by Fyr’s paws, safe from the fire.

The elf’s clothing was far more ecclectic. Millie wore a poncho instead of a jacket, the fabric now sun-faded to a series of greys and blues. Hints of orange and red could still be seen in the folds, but it suited her just fine as it was. Buckskin leggings clashed with the mostly-white cotton shirt and grey wool vest. Her own hat in hand was flat-brimmed and had feathers tucked into the braided band.

Quite a pair.

Settling by the fire, Millie looked over the camp and set to combing her fingers through wet hair. She hadn’t bothered telling Rythlen how she had liberated the camp some time months ago from its previous inhabitants, and her partner in crime hadn’t asked. The bodies weren’t nearby and she’d kept watch for anyone looking for the now-missing men.

There weren’t no honour among thieves no more, Millie thought. No one came to check in on those boys.

Their loss.

“Want a comb?” Rythlen asked, pulling a wooden one from the sack of toiletries she had been packing up. The comb was made of wood, and Millie could see a simple design of carved wheat gleam in the firelight.

“Might help.”

“I’d appreciate it. I’m pretty sure there’s some grease left in there,” Millie said. “Especially the way that dog of yours keeps licking his chops at me.”

Ry grinned and said nothing, leaning down to pat the mastiff’s side. Fyr looked up at his lady, his tail thumping faster against the ground. He stood up with a little whin and tentatively walked over to sniff at the Millie’s hair. He didn’t even have to stretch his neck up, he was as tall standing as she was sitting on the log.

“Thank you,” Millie said to the dog dryly as she received a few slobbery licks to her forehead. She sighed, patting his meaty shoulder as he sniffed and licked at her hair. “This is extremely helpful, Fyr.”

“Maybe next time, don’t use bacon grease?” Rythlen asked, and while Millie couldn’t see her past Fyr’s giant head, the elf heard her friend trying to stifle her laughter.

“Next time, definitely not using bacon grease,” Millie agreed, and turned to look over their handiwork.

Around the camp, horses were grazing in overgrown grasses. Some had bits of mane and hair singed off from the trainwreck, while they had tied crates to the horses to carry them to camp, Millie hadn’t spotted more than superficial injuries. Singed tails would grow back and the few with burns would-

Wait a minute. Millie squinted, counting heads.

“Am I seeing things, or do we have more horses than we started out with?” she asked, feeling Ry pull at Fyr to get him to stop licking Millie’s hair flat to her scalp. Rythlen was a strong woman, but Fyr was a boulder of a dog. A boulder who. Loved. Bacon.

“Yeah, they’ve been trickling in- Fyr, please, Leave Millie’s hair alone,” Rythlen said, grabbing the scruff of Fyr’s neck. His tail wagged furiously and he whined before reluctantly returning to his master. Rather than lay down again, he stuck his head into the bag she had been packing, sniffing at all the new things.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” Ry said, looking back up to Millie. She watched pale eyes fix at to top of her head and Rythlen’s face contorted as the woman tried to keep from laughing. It bubbled out anyways. Ry held out the comb and tried to catch a breath.

“Most of the horses arrived while you were washing your hair in the creek. I’m sorry,” Ry said between laughs. “He got some of it standing straight up.”

“It’s the latest fashion,” Millie said with a haughty sniff, “Dog-lick mohawks.” She ran a hand through her now wet-with-slobber hair. It might silver again, but it did not feel clean. Millie made a face and started to braid her hair back into place.

“Sorry,” Ry said, still chuckling.

“S’alright, it wasn’t clean yet anyways,” Millie said, watching the horses. “So, I’m thinkin’ we should split the herd. A bunch of tasty horses all together like this might draw out our big Blue friend again. And apparently these hacks aren’t interested in wandering the plains freely like they escaped all on their own.”

 “I bet that’s why they keep showing up,” Rythlen said, face grim. “They don’t want to be alone with something that scary out there.” She checked on the beans and poked the coals with a stick, sending up orange sparks into the early morning darkness.

Millie nodded. Following the sparks, she looked up at the sky to see stars twinkling and a smudge of slightly grey that was –much to her relief– just a cloud. Dragons might not be the only things out in the darkness that they had to worry about, but they were one of the few things that scared her. Not that Millie would ever admit as much aloud.

“How ‘bout I take the quarter horses and mustangs out to Anya’s ranch?” Rythlen said. “That leaves-”

“The pintos and ponies,” Millie said, a small smile touching her face. The painted horses were especially prized by the wild clans, elven and otherwise. “Thank you,” Millie said. “But don’t think I don’t know this is because your dog tried to eat my hair.”

“Guilty as charged,” Rythlen said. “Are you gonna report me to the sheriff?”

They both laughed, eventually settling into comfortable silence until the beans were ready. It was only after they’d eaten, when the horizon was blushing pink, that Millie asked the question.

“Did you read that letter?”

Rythlen’s lips pressed together and her pale eyes grew hard as she stared into the fire.

“I did.”

Millie waited a moment for Rythlen to elaborate, but when it became clear Rythlen wasn’t going to, the elf nodded. There was time, and she wasn’t going to press for answers if Ry wasn’t willing to give them. Not yet, at least.

“Alright.”

**

Bellies full, the women had parted the herd and set off on their separate ways. Rythlen had the easier job of it at the start, using Fyr to help herd the larger horses toward the Ranch. It was a shorter ride than to the Clan, but Anya would be a harder sell to accept that they had ‘found’ horses. Ghost clan’s camp was further away in a valley near the badland foothills. A longer ride, but the elves wouldn’t ask questions about where the horses were from nor the providence of goods that were now strapped to Millie’s swayback mare. An old but sturdy girl, Buttercup wouldn’t travel faster than a trudge, but she could continue at that pace until the ends of the earth.

Millie had planned to walk, a gentle pony with long eyelashes and a fluffy mane had nudged at her pocket, looking for treats. Testing the saddle on his back, he seemed agreeable to the idea of carrying her. So in exchange for the ride Millie gave him one of the withered carrots that would be her lunch.

Tying her mare’s to the saddle, Millie added a lead line of the older horses, looping her rope through their harnesses with enough space between for them to feel comfortable. That done, she mounting up with a last rescued treasure on her shoulder, and set out toward her cousins.

“Come on now,” she called over her shoulder to the rest of the horses and ponies. They trudged after her before long, following the line of horses she had tied to her little pony. Swaying in the saddle, Millie pulled the guitar from her shoulder and began to tune it.

Somehow, miraculously, the guitar had emerged from the wreck with only soot and a bit of warping largely protected by it’s leather case. Hardly a quality instrument, the guitar the first she had been able to get her hands on since she had arrived to the plains.

Millie’s ears perked and twitched with each pluck of the strings as she adjusted the tension of it’s strings, coaxing it back into tune. Before long she was satisfied, and strummed a chord. The pony’s ears flicked back, curious what she was up to.

 “A music lover, are we?” Millie asked him. She was rusty, but her hooved companions wouldn’t mind. She picked out some of the simpler tunes she remembered, humming along to pass the time.

Around them, the sun had risen, casting the plains in a beautiful golden glow. Leaving the smoking wreck of the train behind, Millie adjusted her hat to keep the sun off her ears, and felt herself relax. Family was ahead, the weather was good, and she finally had a guitar.

Sometimes, she thought, life was good.

It was mid afternoon when Millie heard a songbird warble in time with her guitar. After a few hours of practice, her fingers had remembered their songs. Millie reached up with achey fingers to hold her hat on and looked up to see who had joined in her song.

Ahead, a cream coloured pipit flitted over the tall grasses. It chirped and trilled, flying over to land on the mane of Millie’s pony, too light to earn a flick of a fluffy ear. Millie rested an arm on her guitar and looked at the small songbird expectantly.

It ruffled its feathers and chirped again, regarding her with a beady little eye.

“Well hell, I dunno who you think yer foolin’,” Millie drawled, a single eyebrow arching at the little bird. “But it sure ain’t me, Arabelle.”

The bird chittered and took off in a huff. It flit all around Millie before darting ahead to land on the trail. In a shimmer of feathers and dust, an elf was standing where the bird had been, their hands on their hips. The androgynous mage frowned at the much smaller elf on the horse as tiny feathers fluttered to the ground

“Arabeth,” they corrected. “Not ‘belle’. Beth.” Their long ears fluttered in annoyance. Like Millie, they had silver hair, though their eyes were bluer. There were other differences too. Tall, broad of shoulder, and well muscled, Arabeth was no half-breed from either side of the ocean. They were born wild, long expressive ears and larger frame a testament to their heritage.

“Well, I dunno bout that,” Millie said with a lazy smile. She took the pony’s reins in one hand, and slipped the guitar around to her back. Her fingers were sore anyways. It didn’t matter how callused they were from the hard work, they had grown unused to strumming a guitar.

“I think you’re quite the belle.” Millie winked, then laughed at her own joke.

Arabeth opened their mouth to say something, ears lifting up in surprise. They thought better of replying and their ears flattened back against their scalp. Tilting their head in the direction of the horses, Arabeth gestured at one of the pintos on the lead line. It had half a mane, the other half singed nearly to the quick. The horse shook its head and leaned down to graze at the grass while they were stopped.

“Please tell me that wasn’t you last night,” Arabeth said. “Provoking the dragon out there.”

“It wasn’t me last night,” Millie said dutifully. Technically, the train had provoked the dragon. She had just provoked the train.

“I was out hunting when I stumbled over these here horses with Ry Duncan. She’s gone off to try to find out what happened and file a notice with the marshall. I figured a few ponies and pintos maybe mighta gotten et by that big blue beast.”

Millie smiled and batted her eyelashes at the other elf.

“You are… so strange,” Arabeth said. They walked over to the grazing pinto and ran their hand over the horse’s shoulder. Millie guessed they were looking for burns.

“Aw, I like you plenty too, Arabelle.”

Watching the mage’s ears flick up and turn pink was as much a reward as the horses had been. Grinning now, Millie nudged her pony forward. From the corner of her eye, she saw Arabeth fiddle with the leadline, then lift themselves up onto the pinto’s back.

“How’re the girls doing?” Arabeth asked, urging the freed pinto to trot up alongside Millie’s pony. Bareback, Arabeth was more comfortable on the pinto as Millie was in a saddle. Millie tried not to be envious, she really did, but sometimes she wished desperately she had been born out here with her father’s clan. Free. Learning how to ride like it was as easy as breathing. The moments were rare these days, but they still snuck in.

“Why don’t you come into town to see?” Millie asked. “We’ve got a new girl running the store. I think you two could teach each other quite a bit.”

She could feel Arabeth’s eyes watching her, sharp and searching. Millie looked over at them, leaning slightly in her saddle.

“She’s a mage,” Millie clarified. “Who knows Old magic stuff.”

Arabeth perked up at that, though tried to disguise it by looking ahead. Beyond the hill ahead, the campfires of the clan could just be made out against brilliant blue sky.

“And she’s be willing to teach a savage elf?” Arabeth asked. “I didn’t realise humans were so free with that kind of knowledge.”

“Belle,” Millie said, looking at them. Arabeth had learned to control her ears somewhat, but it was still an easy way to tell what the mage was feeling. “I never said she was human. Besides, the girls have been asking after you. If I come back alone, I’ll be the worst person in all the plains.”

“They’d forgive you,” Arabeth said, a smile creeping onto their face. “…eventually. Maybe.”

“Would they, though?” Millie asked with a heavy sigh.

Arabeth reached out and patted Millie’s shoulder. The smaller elf hissed as their strong hand jostled the shrapnel still lodged in her flesh.

Ow,” Millie said through clenched teeth. “Before we get too ahead of ourselves, I might need you to help me pull a piece of definitely innocent metal that’s stuck itself into my shoulder.” She looked over at Arabeth who looked terribly smug.

“I knew it,” Arabeth said. “You smell like bacon and dragon fire.” The mage leaned over, sniffing at Millie’s head.

“And… dog?” They asked, lifting their eyebrows.

“Look, I didn’t have anything to do with the dragon,” Millie said, lifting her good hand in exasperation. Yes, she smelled like dog. Thank you. “I was just a little too close by and saw it attack a train.”

Arabeth wasn’t buying it. Millie supposed she didn’t blame them, she had a less than a Sterling reputation when she had first staggered into their camp, four years ago. Three quarters dead, angry, exhausted and ready to kill anyone between her and the nearest bed.

Nope.

Not the best reputation whatsoever.

“Are you going to report-” Millie started to ask, looking over at the elf.

“I want in,” Arabeth said, deadly serious. “I want to learn from that mage and I want to join you the next time you plan a job.”

That… had not been what Millie was expecting. She blinked, caught off guard. Then she blinked again and searched Arabeth’s face intently. Letting in one other bandit was risky enough, but a third? Not just anyone, but a wild-born elf who legally couldn’t own firearms. But. A mage would be helpful. Especially if the dragon became a reoccurring problem.

Millie bit her lip.

“And if I say no, you’ll just tell the marshall when he comes by,” Millie said, mouth suddenly very dry.

Arabeth shrugged, glancing to Millie’s shoulder. The earlier jostle had started the wound oozing again, and Millie could feel her shirt start to stick to her arm.

“Or I could just tell him who brought us all these singed horses.”

Millie huffed, chewing on her lip as she thought. The marshall was no idiot, no matter how much he acted like one.

“You know,” she grumbled at Arabeth. “This is technically called ‘blackmail’.”

“Is it?” the mage asked with a smug smile, kicking the pinto they rode into a trot. “See you in camp, Mildred. I’ll let the elders know you’re coming and that I’ll be leaving with you.”

Millie let her go, her earlier good mood now thouroughly ruined. The day was still beautiful, the guitar still on her back, but now there was a shadow hanging over her head. Hopefully Ry would understand, because right now Arabeth had Millie in a bind.

“Well,” she grumbled. “Hell.”