The young boy sat slumped on the bench outside the train station. He sat in between a hatless man dressed in black, and a large scruffy tan and black dog of many breeds. The boy did not look up as a whistle blew.
The man stood up, tall and straight as a flagpole. Over the white collar he wore, he forced a smile to his face, the deep lines at his eyes crinkled with kindness. He bent and took the boy’s small hand in one of his large, knobby knuckled ones and gently pulled the boy up. The dog looked up towards puffs of pale smoke as the train rounded the last bend from the west.
“C’mon now lad. You’ve a fine adventure in store. Look at that magnificent train! Like a great iron dragon she is, puffing smoke from her lungs and howling like a hunting beast!”
At the mention of ‘dragon’ the boy’s interest was piqued. He looked up with large, red rimmed sapphire blue eyes under a mop of dark curls and said, “But I don’t want to go. Please let me stay with you Father. I’ll be good, really.”
The weary priest sighed, his heart aching. Father McBain had been especially fond of young Tan’s family. Tan’s father had built his church, his mother had played the piano as the parishioners sang their praises to God. ‘God. What sort of…’ he shook his head from going down that path again. The remaining townsfolk would need his faith intact, as it would be up to him to pull them together and re-build their beloved town.
Back in the town, they were sifting through ashes, for salvageable goods…and loved one’s remains.
Father McBain said, “You are a good boy. The very best. But the rest of the folks need me, we’ve much work to do before the fall and most of us have homes to re-build. I’m an old man. Your father’s brother will be every bit like your father was, good and kind. Their farm’s big, they sure could use your help, as you’re so good with animals.”
Tan blinked back fresh tears.
The train loomed towards them, big and loud and black. Brakes shrieked as it came to a stop. The dog barked three times. Tan, concerned for his dog’s distress, knelt, and said, “Don’t worry Hooper, it’s not really a dragon. It’s here to save us.”
“That’s right son. You’re going to be okay. Look, here comes the engineer…oh my.”
Tan caught the note of surprise in the stolid priest’s voice and looked up.
A tall woman in grey striped overalls, an engineer’s cap, and heavy black leather boots strode towards them. She removed the cap and fanned her face with it. A mass of pale golden curls spilled around her shoulders. She stopped before the threesome and blew a wisp of hair from eyes that were an enchanting shade of grey, like a summer afternoon sky taken by a sudden storm. A scattering of freckles adorned her exquisite face.
Dimples deepened and her eyes creased to slits as she beamed at the threesome warmly. “Hello there!” She gracefully knelt before the boy. The priest reddened and turned away when he noticed how her manly attire failed to conceal her womanly curves.
She said, “Come on now, why the sad face?”
Tan gawped in amazement and pulled Hooper closer.
Behind her, a dozen passengers were lining up to board. Women frowned as they passed, men coughed and stared.
The woman stood. She was a barely a head shorter than the priest. He said, “Tan, here’s a coupla nickels, wouldya be so kind as to fetch this lady and yerself a coupla coca-colas?”
The woman said, “Here. My partner could use one too.” She fished in her pocket, but the priest stayed her hand.
“Allow me,” He handed the boy another nickel. Tan ran off, Hooper at his heels.
“His name’s Sebastian, we all call him Tan. He’ll be boarding today.”
“Well, hello. I’m Millicent.” She extended her hand, and they shook, her grip strong, her hands calloused and dry. The late afternoon sunlight caught like golden fire on her abundant blond arm hair. She said, “he’s traveling alone then?”
“Yes…with the dog.”
“He’s going to Calverton, to stay with family there…”
“I’m afraid so. Both parents killed, along with his baby sister.”
“We’d heard rumors it was bad. Many homes lost...?”
“Half the homes burnt. As well as the church, the schoolhouse, and the general. Only the farmsteads on the outskirts---” He cut off as he heard footfalls tamping up behind him.
“Ma’am.” Tan handed Millicent two cokes. She bent and said, “Thank you, kind sir. You can call me Milly.” She stood and looked behind her. “Ah.”
The priest looked too. The last of the crowd parted and another striking woman came through and up to them. Milly greeted her, “Sister, come meet a fine young man who’ll be traveling with us.”
The priest was not often speechless, but he was now. He’d assumed Milly’s partner was a man. The brunette was equally bodacious, the thick waves of her hair beckoned like sea anemones in a current as she bent to shake Tan’s hand.
“I’m Tan, pleased to meet you ma’am.”
“You’ll call me Nan.” She too, wore men’s overalls. Hers were faded soft blue. She took a coke from Milly, said, “thank you,” and pushed up the sleeves of her red cardigan sweater. Her arms were soft with nearly black hair. The priest studied her face and realized her brows nearly joined in the center, she had a faint shadow over her lip. Her teeth were very white in contrast to her deep tan skin. Her peculiar eyes were more amber than brown in the fiery setting sunlight. She was exotically stunning.
She said, “Sister, we should be going. Nice to meet you.” She surprised the priest by giving him a little curtsy before heading into the station.
Milly said, “yes, very nice to meet you. Don’t worry. He’ll be safe with us.” She patted Hooper whose tongue lolled from a grinning mouth like a rogue’s in a cartoon. “There’s no protection finer than a dog. That’s a good boy.”
Nan came back to them. She took Tan’s hand and said, “Come lad, I’ll find you a nice pillow and a blanket too.” Tan had only a canvas sack with him, containing bread, cheese, dried meat, and his mother’s silver jewelry.
The station was at the end of the town’s limits and east was nothing but fields and forests that all began to look the same to him as the setting sun turned everything red then purple, with long dark shadows like thin giants lying against the earth. Tan curled up in his seat and covered himself with the blanket Nan had brought him.
He had asked her, “Is Milly really your sister?”
She’d said, “Not of the same parents but we are kindred spirits and share love just as blood sisters do.”
He was thankful the seat in front of him was unoccupied. He was self-conscious about the tears he had difficulty controlling. Although he was headed to his aunt and uncle’s home, he felt very alone… “not all alone.” He hugged Hooper closer just before falling asleep.
The whistle hooting over the ceiling had awakened him. He raised himself to look out the window. It was early morning, the sky clear and colored like a bruise. An icy wind blew into his face, he shivered and shut the window. He watched as the sky turned blue and the woods a kaleidoscope of green and gold. Sunlight shone off the distant snow-topped mountains, the color was the pale gold of Milly’s hair. They were high on a mountain, he looked down upon the blue-grey slate, the yellow meadows, the green-blue stripe of a river that sparkled with golden glitter, and the emerald depths of the woods.
Milly came up the aisle and sat in the seat across from him. “Do you see that tunnel there, high in that mountain?” She had a blanket and pillow with her.
He squinted and located a flash of silver against a mountainside a mile ahead, over it he saw a small black spot. He nodded.
“That is Mount Dread.”
He gasped. “But---”
“Yes. It is real. Through that tunnel is a terrible land---”
“The Vale of Torment! But I thought---”
“It is real…and terrible. We have a stop there. Promise me you will not leave the train. You are safe on the train. Do not even open the window. Promise?”
“And I promise you that the other you’ve heard of in bedtime stories is real as well.”
“You mean…her? Mother Nature?”
Milly chuckled. “Her real name is Danika Windsong. Her kingdom is vast though her castle is on the other side of the vale. You see, she battles Prince Stygian every day, trying to restore the land with her green hand. Where she touches, life blooms anew. If it wasn’t for her, the prince would swallow up all the land and leave it desolate and tainted like his vale. So, she is as trapped there in her land as he is in his. My sister and I live to serve her.” She placed her right fist to her lowered forehead and said, “The Deity guide the green hand.”
Milly stood and put the blanket and pillow on the opposite seat as if she were about to nap there.
Then she left.
Tan stared wide-eyed out the window towards the nearing tunnel. He looked around. Half the seats were empty, a few passengers had disembarked while he had slept. The remaining seven were silent and staring out the windows. The seat across the aisle had been vacated but the one behind it held a mother and a girl a bit younger than he was. Two seats in front of him was a grey-haired couple in fine clothing. Across from them was a middle-aged couple facing a young couple who had to turn in their seat to look at the tunnel.
Hooper growled softly and the little girl turned her head his way. She offered a timid smile and a little wave. Her mother looked down and pulled her close. Just before entering the tunnel, she put a hand over the girl’s eyes.
The tunnel felt a mile long. The echoes of the steel wheels and chuffing engine grew deafening, like the bellowing of foreign language speaking giants.
And then light.
But it was dismal light.
They were on a tall trestle looking down into the vale. Everything was dim and grey. Everything was wrong. The sky was blackened with char-colored clouds. The land once off the bridge was grey bare craggy rock. Out the corner of one’s eye, things shifted, but when one turned to look directly, all was still, except for the clicking of the black skeletal trees in the wind. They seemed to be chattering and clapping at one another…and pointing up towards the train.
They were going faster than ever now, and he was grateful for that.
Then they began to slow. Even though the windows were all closed, he could smell the wrongness of the land. It was heavy and damp like a swamp, but acrid like the smell of burnt hair. It smelled like what remained of his home. He willed himself not to vomit and raised the blanket up over his nose.
The train pulled up to a station that was little more than a run-down shack of weathered grey wood. Its brakes screeched to a halt and all eyes in the train car looked forward.
They heard thumping and wood cracking sharply; it appeared as if the sickly black trees had clustered around the train. Their whacking at the train must be caused by the wind. After only a minute, it began rolling again, the whacking noises trailed away.
The door at the front of the train car slid open and a man stepped inside. He slunk like a cat as he slowly made his way down the aisle towards the middle where Tan sat trying not to stare. The man was filthy, his skin as charcoal colored as the vile clouds, his clothing was dark rags. As he neared Tan, his shifty black eyes took in Tan’s fine quality waistcoat, unaware that what Tan wore was all he had. He stopped by his seat and glanced at the rumpled blanket and pillow on the one opposite. Tan understood then and looked towards the back where the toilet was located.
The man grunted and sat in the seat across the aisle.
Hooper snarled at the man, baring his fangs.
The mother pushed her daughter out of the seat behind him and down the aisle to a seat near the back. The filthy man smiled. His front teeth were missing, what remained were as grey as his face. He stank. Body odor and stale urine and swampy… he smelled of the vale, and he smelled of smoke. A large potato sack clanked as he hefted it onto the seat next to him, he continued to stare at Tan.
Nan came down the aisle. She sat in the seat across from Tan. She said, “Pay him no mind child. He’ll be gone soon enough. No matter what you see…he cannot harm you.”
Tan nodded as she stood.
The man muttered, “Filthy kind. Unnatural…”
Nan gazed at him and grinned. Her eyes flashed brilliant yellow, and her teeth appeared long…only for a second. Then she turned and left.
Tan hugged his bag under the blanket and stared out the window. All the greyness was making his eyes droop.
Sometime later, Tan started awake from a light doze. Hooper was snarling and barking at the man.
The man held his hand to his side with a sheepish look on his ugly face. “Hey! Yer mutt bit me! I oughtta tossit out the window, let the trees take it…” He started towards Hooper and the dog snapped at him, snarling and spraying spittle.
Tan whispered, “good dog,” and held his leash close.
It wasn’t until long after dark that Tan dared to let sleep take him. The wretched man was asleep, the sounds of a thick trunked oak being sawed came from his way and Hooper was alert and watchful.
As he drifted through a comforting tunnel towards dreamland, he found himself staring at the man. He was seeing through Hooper’s eyes! They blinked and he saw his family’s house, then down the road to his neighbor’s place, then on towards the church. The vision spun suddenly, dizzyingly, towards the building next to it. The home where the parsonette cared for the orphans- it was on fire! The church was smoking as well! Hooper ran back to his family’s home, flames leapt up the porch!
A man shape scuttled away, ragged, and filthy. Hooper jumped to the door but could not get in. Fire sizzled his fur, a timber above cracked…all went black.
Tan awoke with a gasp. Hooper was still laying with his head on his paws, staring at the sleeping man across the aisle. The grey on the man’s face was soot. The stink in his rags was his town, his home…his family. He glared with hatred at the sleeping figure the rest of the long dark morning.
The sky at last lightened and to Tan’s relief, was pink and turning blue. The trees were normal and green…the man was standing in the aisle stretching, then grabbing his heavy sack as the train began slowing to a stop.
Tan got up, not sure what he was going to do, but he couldn’t let this murderer get away. He would tell the sisters. He followed and Hooper followed.
They exited the train after the man. No one else got off at this station. They were in the middle of a forest, not a town. Hooper snarled and the man turned around. Hooper lunged at his throat, tackling him to the ground.
Tan screamed, “You killed my family! You burned my town, my friends, my…my…” he broke down and sobbed as Hooper tore at the sleeve that protected his throat. The man pulled a long thin dagger from his sleeve and sunk it between the dog’s ribs. Hooper screamed but would not let go…until his life drained from him.
The man staggered to his feet and came after Tan.
Tan held his ground. His dog was dead. He had nothing left. He clenched his fists.
A flash of white soared over them. From the other side, a streak of shadow. The man froze. Then screamed as the two enormous wolves sank their teeth in, each grabbing an arm, as if fighting to win a wishbone pull. They were the most beautiful creatures Tan had ever seen.
After dismembering the bad man, leaving his body in bloody lumps on the ground, they turned to Tan. The nearly white one had eyes the color of a cloudy sky, the nearly black one had eyes the color of amber lit from inside. They sat grinning as a woman came through the trees towards them.
She was dark-skinned, with almond shaped eyes, her hair was gold, red, and green with living strands. She shimmered before the weeping Tan, who was cradling Hooper in his arms. She wore the soft deerskin outfit of a hunter, with the long soft green cloak of a princess.
She came and stroked the two enormous wolves by their ears. She said to Tan, “I thank you, young friend, for your companion’s fearless loyalty.” Danika Windsong knelt, and her she-wolves lay down at her sides. She took the limp dog in her arms and held him to her breast as Tan wept silently…
Then gaped with wondrous joy as Hooper’s eyes opened and his beloved doggy friend kissed his tears away.
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