In the morning, Artie heard voices outside her tent. They did not sound like Naman and his father. These sounded like rough voices, and one man sounded like he swallowed a frog. Artie got up quietly and strapped on her belt. She made sure her weapons were available, and thought to listen some before she ventured out.
“It does not look like these have anything worth taking,” one man said.
“This thing of leather is very interesting, only I don’t know what it is for,” another said.
“This tent. I have never seen weaving so fine. How is it made?” That was froggy.
“I do not know. It belongs to the lady,” Abinidab said. Artie heard a grunt and a snap. She feared for the old man.
“That horse would be worth something if we could catch it.” Another grunt and hands came in the tent. They grabbed Artie right from where she listened, and pulled her out. There were four men, shaggy and unwashed, and they looked at Artie like they just found some fresh meat.
The head man glanced at Naman. “Is she your girlfriend?” He laughed. “Strip her.”
Artie felt repulsed as one manhandled her, until he spoke. “There doesn’t seem to be a fastener on this dress. Is it a dress?”
“Well, pull it off her,” the head man ordered. The man had to let go of Artie’s arms to do that. Artie went into Dominant mode. She pulled her knife which cut one man’s hand wide open. She simultaneously drew her handgun and put a three-inch hole through the middle of the head man. She knelt and burned the one hovering over her saddle, spun and took half the face off the one that had held her. When she turned again, she saw the one that had been holding Naman running for the river. She pulled the trigger on her gun, but nothing happened.
“What?” She looked at her gun. It said the charge was completely empty. “That can’t be. Not after four shots. This should be good for a hundred shots, at least.”
“Help here,” Naman said, and Artie turned from the runner. She turned off her weapon, holstered it, and went to look. They hit the old man in the back of the head with a rock. He was bleeding.
Artie fetched her satchel. She had antiseptic ointment and a gauze bandage. She checked the man’s pulse and breathing to see if he still functioned, then she put some ointment on the bandage and pressed it against the bloody spot. “Hold this here good and tight until the bleeding stops. She stepped into her tent and pulled out her blanket. She had learned how to take a small piece of her blanket and separate it from the rest. She did that, and caused the piece to lengthen and widen until it looked about right. She turned it white and wrapped it several times around the gauze bandage and the man’s head.
“Give me his hat,” she said. Naman reached for it. She put it carefully on the man’s head to help hold the bandage in place. Abinidab made his first sound, a low moan, but he did not open his eyes. Artie left him in Naman’s arms and called for Freedom. The horse trotted up and she saddled him without any preliminaries. When she reduced her tent to a ball and packed all her things, so she was ready to go, she had Naman bring his father to the horse and get him up on the saddle. She had time to think about it, and had the main part of her blanket ready to go. He looked a bit like a mummy, but being tied to the saddle in eight directions, there was no way he was going to tip and fall out. He would remain upright, even if Freedom had to run.
“If he has a concussion, there is nothing I can do for him, and any speed on the horse might yet kill him, but for now, this is what we have. We can’t leave him here, and we can’t stay here. Get your things.”
Naman collected his things, but he did ask. “Why can’t we stay here until he is better?”
Artie showed the back of the hand of all three dead men. They all bore the same tattoo. Dominant Artie noticed, even if sixteen-year-old Artie would have never noticed. In fact, as Artie thought about it, she realized all the Anazi military information and all of the experience on planet after planet that had been fed into her mental system still sat in her memory, and she could reach it. What is more, now, as a living human without an obedience crystal, she could put that experience to practical use.
“They may be the whole gang, but they may also be the advanced group for a much larger gang,” Artie said. Naman did not argue.
The ford was not far upriver. “Can you swim it?” Artie asked.
“Of course,” Naman answered, and Artie sent him out on the downstream end. If Freedom begins to drift, or your father loses his seat, you need to be able to catch him.”
“I don’t think I could catch freedom,” Naman said with the return of his smile. “He’s too big.”
Artie responded with the same smile. “You know what I mean.”
They crossed, and the ford proved no problem. After that, Naman said they should be home before dark. Artie smiled at her thoughts as they walked, side by side, Artie leading Freedom. Naman appeared to be struggling, so she thought to help him out.
He took a half-step away and looked at her with great doubt written on his face.
“What?” Artie felt hurt that he did not jump at her suggestion.
He stared, before he built up the courage to ask. “Are you a goddess?”
Artie’s eyes got big. “No, no way,” she got loud. “My sister Sekhmet says you should never even kid about such a thing. The gods don’t take kindly to imposters.” She stuck out her free hand. “I am completely human. See? Flesh and blood, though I would rather not show you the blood right now, if you don’t mind.”
Naman looked, and nodded, but he did not come closer. He had another question.
“Are you a witch?”
“No. Not even. I would love to be able to do some magic, but I haven’t got any such abilities. Boston says she will just have to do the magical things for me. Alexis, her magical element is air, but mostly she is a great healer. I wish she was here. She could heal your father.”
“Two of your seven companions,” Naman understood. “Are they witches?”
“No,” Artie laughed. “Though Lincoln calls Alexis a witch sometimes, he is just teasing. They are elves.” Naman did not understand. “They are earth spirits—whatever you call them around here.” She smiled, but then her eyes got big. “It’s not what you think. They are friends. They both used to be human, and Alexis is like a second mother, sort of, which makes Boston like another sister. And no, I am not an earth spirit, or a spirit of any kind.” She put her hand out again. “Flesh and blood human, remember?”
Naman still found it hard to believe. “So how is it you have such magical things, like this big horse to ride, and your tent, and can do the magic you do, like the bread? How can you point… That.” He pointed at her handgun. “And make a streak like lightning come out, and make a hole in a man?”
Artie looked down. She realized she had some explaining to do. “Okay,” she said. “But you have to listen first before you ask questions.” She looked into his face, and he smiled, so she smiled; but he also nodded, so she began by looking at the ground for fear she would lose her boyfriend before she ever had him.
“This weapon.” She patted her sidearm. “It came here from the stars.” She pointed up, though it was mid-morning. “I came here from the stars, originally. I was not always human… There was a war, and I was injured like unto death, and eight people came along and saved me. They healed me and cared for me, and I owe them my life and everything. And I also love them all, very much.” Artie paused. It was not exactly a revelation, but near enough. “I also miss them.”
“Eight?” Naman thought about it. “But you said seven companions.”
Artie nodded. “One died. He was an elder elf, father of Alexis and Boston that I mentioned. At least he may have died. He disappeared in a great flash of light while we were battling the forces of evil. We are on a very dangerous journey.” She looked, and Naman nodded, like he understood something.
“Well,” she said, and paused. She was not sure how to explain the next part, so she just said it. “It was the Kairos, an old, wise and wonderful god whose life is impossible to explain…” she looked again.
Naman understood that much. “Who can fathom the way of the gods?” he said.
Artie nodded again and returned her eyes to the ground. “So, the Kairos took me out of time. And she made me human, completely human, flesh and blood, so I could travel with my companions wherever the journey took us. And I have learned so much. And I have grown up, I think, human. And I want to be human and experience human life in every way I can. And love.” Artie found her cheeks redden, and Naman reached for her hand, which she gladly gave him, though it made her turn redder. Good thing she kept looking at the ground.
“You were explaining about your magical things,” he said.
“Right. Well, the cloth tent, blankets, and even my clothes are fairy weave, which is a material made by the spirits of the earth. I can shape it, grow it, shrink it, even change its color just by telling it what to do. It is self-cleaning, and self-refreshing, which means it repells dirt and grime, and does not retain any odors, like if I go to bed all sweaty and smelling like my horse. But the magic is in the cloth, not in me. long sleeve,” she said, and Naman watched her sleeve lengthen to cover her right arm. She held out her arm and said. “You try it. Tell it to be a different color.”
He said, “Green.”
She said, “You have to touch it.”
He touched it, looked in her eyes, and said, “Green.” He saw the material change to green and quickly let go, like he was afraid it might burn.
Artie said, “Pink, back to what I had,” and the sleeve returned to its former condition. “The bread is the same. They are called elf crackers, and a little warm water makes them into bread. I only have one pack, which isn’t very many. I don’t know how much bread we can get before I run out of crackers, but you can do it next time if you want.” Naman nodded. He would like to try that.
“So, what about the pot, and your knife?” Naman asked. “I have never seen metal like that. And this horse of yours…”
Artie went back to blushing and looking at the ground. “That may be a little bit harder to explain.”