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The WayStation

Michelle Bryan








  © 2016 by Michelle Bryan

  All Rights Reserved

  This book is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the author.


  The blistering rays of the late afternoon sun beat down on the man and mule trudging over the parched ground with mercilessness typical of the Sandlands. Heat shimmers blended with swirling dust devils, causing the half man to pull the cloth covering his mouth a little higher over his nose and shade his eyes with his hand. He spotted vultures circling slowly up ahead. Squinting his eyes against the sun, he tried to make sense of what had their attention. They swooped in pairs to the desert floor, tearing away bloody chunks of their unexpected meal. Whatever it was, it was already dead. Nothing he could do for it. Better it than him, he thought.

  A slight neigh from the mule drew his attention away from the feeding scavengers, and he patted the animal’s nose soothingly. "It's okay Winnie, we'll be there soon. None of those winged predators will taste your innards anytime soon, my dear. I promise you that. I'll procure water and food for you shortly, or my name is not Winston Phillip the Third. I’ll keep you safe. Do you remember that time we came across those raiders in the mountains...."

  His rambling on to the animal may have looked silly to any observer. Maybe even crazy; but to the little man it was as inherent as breathing. Weeks of crisscrossing these harsh lands without seeing another human face made for a solitary life for the traveling trader. It wasn’t like he had much of a choice in his pick of conversationalists. And Winnie was a great listener. She never disagreed with anything he said.

  The flat landscape was becoming rockier now; more recognizable and he knew he was getting close. His eyes searched for and found the unusual rock formation. His standard marker over the years. His mood brightened at the sight, and he sighed happily knowing his destination was just over that ridge.

  He studied the pile of rocks as he drew closer. It never failed to amaze him how it always reminded him of an elephant with its mass of a body and the stack of rocks piled haphazardly upwards, like a raised trunk. Not that he had ever seen a real life elephant to compare it to. No, they had become extinct decades ago, like so many other creatures. A casualty of the Shift Wars that had wiped out humans and animals alike and in its wake had left the world this dry, barren wasteland.

  What it must have been like to live in the lush green lands of the folklore. To see those enthralling creatures he only read about now. He’d seen pictures of the beasts in old books of course and heard stories. Elephants had always fascinated him, even as a boy. He’d give his right arm to see one of those majestic giants up close! But alas, he would never know. The closest he would ever get to one would be the ‘rock elephant' in front of him. That thought always left his heart filled with a deep melancholy.

  He picked up his pace, quite eager to reach his destination now. It had been a while since he’d traveled this way through the Sandlands and stayed at the Waystation. Well over a year at least. It would be nice to sleep in a bed again for a night and to see his friend Niles. And it didn't hurt that the best hooch in the Sandlands, plus his favorite girl could be found there as well. Glenalda was certainly the biggest contributor to his anticipation at the moment.

  He passed over the ridge and the two storied, square building came into view, adding to his growing excitement. Time had not been kind to the place however. The building seemed much more dilapidated than he remembered. The roof had started to crumble in on itself, parts of it nothing more than gaping holes. Most of the windows were smashed out and boarded over with tarps and planks. The faded metal letters that spelled out 'Waysation' across the front of the building had mostly fallen off so that now all it said was 'ay… tion'. Those letters were Niles’ pride and joy. Strange for him to have let it get to that stage of disrepair.

  The familiar site of scrawny chickens roaming the yard and Niles’ old rusted vehicle was replaced by tumble weeds and settler junk. He panicked for a bit. Maybe Niles and the crew had finally up and deserted this wreck of an inn in the middle of nowhere. But then he noticed the two horses tied to the post in front of the barn and his fear subsided. No, someone was still here.

  He hesitated as he drew closer. The sight of the massive beasts with their expensive leather saddles told the half-man one thing. They weren’t any Sandland traveler’s broken down animals. Those were Army horses. That meant at least two of the Prezedant's men were inside. Not good.

  Maybe he should bypass this time. He wasn't sure if he was up to dealing with those pompous asses at the moment. He was not in the mood to play jester to their sick sense of humor. For some reason his small stature always brought out the worst in the soldiers. Not like they needed any excuse to show their perverted wickedness. Much like the Prezedant himself, his loyal followers lived by a code of twisted debauchery. But an excited whine from Winnie at the smell of water in the trough made up his mind. She needed to rest. If the gods were on his side, then the soldiers would already be inebriated and bedded for the evening, leaving him to eat and drink in peace.

  An older boy was leaning casually against the side of the building and greeted the half man upon his arrival with a slight nod. He didn’t recognize the boy. Definitely not someone he had seen before.

  The teen appeared to be a little punch drunk, no doubt a result of one too many run-ins with the Army. Most likely he was just another Sandland’s orphan who’d found his way to the Waystation. Niles always did have a soft spot for the parentless.

  He handed the boy the reins, then quickly retrieved the saddlebags from the mule’s back. No way was he leaving those behind. All the bounty earned and traded from his latest travels were inside. The boy appeared daft but he eyed the bags with a hungry cunning. "Water her, feed her, bed her down properly for the night and I will see to a little something for you in the morn....understood?"

  The boy nodded his understanding.

  After being in the searing heat and light for so long, it took a moment for the half-man to adjust to the cold, dark room he now stepped into. He glanced around for a bit. The room seemed familiar- yet different at the same time. It was the same common room he’d been in countless of times over the years, but this time no fire burned in the massive hearth. No one sat at the dirt encrusted tables, joking with the bar maids or trying to grope their backsides as they passed by. There was no Niles standing behind the wooden bar trying-unsuccessfully-to clean the ale mugs with a dirty cloth. This room held no creature comforts at all. It was dark and dank, a sour odor permeating the air. He wrinkled up his nose in distaste as his gut clenched in unease.


  He thought the room to be empty at first, but a slight movement behind the bar caught his eye, and he backed up in terror as the large woman moved out of the shadows. Rana, Nile's wife. The half-man had always been a little afraid of the big boned woman, since she towered over his short stature like he was some insignificant child. But he swallowed his fear and stepped further into the rancid room.

  "Hello Rana, it is a pleasure to see you again." He smiled at her, even though he was still fighting the urge to turn and run. "I hope I find you in good health, my dear lady. And Niles, as well. Is he around?"

  The woman am
bled slowly from behind the bar, her girth wider than he remembered. She eyed the little man up and down, her eyes glinting with indecipherable emotion.

  "It has been a while...Tater," she called him by his name as an afterthought. Like she hadn't remembered at first. Hiding his irritation at his beloved mother's nickname for him crawling out of her fleshy mouth and rotted teeth, he answered back courteously.

  "It has indeed. I like what you've done to the place."

  His attempt at humor doesn't elicit even so much as a smile from the gargantuan. Clearing his throat nervously, he looked around.

  "Yes Niles about? I would love to have a word with the chap."

  "Niles ain't here no more," she answered, as she folded her arms in front of her drooping chest.

  "Not here?" Tater suddenly felt very uncomfortable. "You mean as in he’s moved on?"

  "Aye, you could call it that. He's dead," she said bluntly.

  Tater was more than a little taken aback at the abruptness.

  "Oh...well that is a shame. I'm sorry. He truly was a decent fell..."

  "You want the usual, I'm guessin’?" She cut him off short as she turned to the door behind the bar. "Girl," she bellowed, and Tater jumped at the ear piercing yell.

  A young woman responded to her command. She was dressed in rags that barely covered her gaunt frame. Dirt encrusted her face and her brown hair hung in greasy strings; but none of this diminished her beauty. The huge green eyes in the timid face passed over Tater in disinterest, before stopping in fear on the large woman. "Bring some stew and a couple slices of the bread."

  The girl nodded obediently and was back quicker than it took for Tater to make up his mind if he was staying or not. But the smell wafting from the bowl made his mind up for him. Eagerly he sat at the table in front of the food, his mouth watering from the enticing aroma. About to dip the spoon into the steaming mound of meat, the bowl was abruptly yanked out of his reach and the spoon hit the table with an audible thunk.

  "New rules. Payment up front," the big woman said nastily.

  Tater swallowed his spittle and laid the spoon down slowly. Niles had never requested anything as trivial as coin before a meal. But so be it. The thought of hot food in his belly far outweighed his irritation at the moment. Rooting through one of the saddle bags, he pulled two coins out of a small sac, careful not to let the woman see said sac. She outweighed him by a good 5 stone. He was not quite sure what she may be capable of, but no need to tempt fate.

  Pushing the two coins toward her, he eagerly reached for the bowl with his other hand only to have it pulled out of his reach once again.

  "New prices too," she said, with a cruel twist of her lip.

  Tater's patience wore thin.

  "That is more than enough to cover the price of a meal and nights lodging. More than enough! Niles never...."

  "Niles is dead," she snarled, her eyes narrowing to slits. "My inn, my rules. If you want a meal, a room and a girl, then this is not enough."

  Tater's eye twitched in anger, but never one to enjoy confrontation, he relented.

  "Fine. Whatever you say, Madame. Unfortunately I have no more coin, but maybe you will take this in trade?"

  From the saddlebag he pulled a roughly crafted silver blade, traded to him a few villages back in exchange for a health elixir. Not much to look at, but the metal in it alone would be enough to earn a few coins once he hit Littlepass. The woman eyed it hungrily and he knew it would not go any further.

  She picked it up, looked it over and then silently pushed the bowl of stew toward him. Without giving her a chance to change her mind, he dug in. Dipping the stale, thinly sliced bread into the tasty broth he ate with undisguised enjoyment. Say what you would of the woman; her stew wasn’t half bad.