Dust and Naismith rode to Shadows Fade, stopping a few feet from her. A consummate warrior, she sized them up as they rode to the outcrop she stood on. Most of her attention was on Dust’s crotch, where his tattoo still lingered. Her ability to sense it intrigued him; there was a link between his tattoo and the Indians, a connection and a history, but he couldn’t remember anyone pinpointing it so accurately. He made a note to ask her how she knew.
Not that that would be easy… Dust didn’t look forward to talking to Shadows Fade second-hand. He preferred talking for himself and, without being arrogant, knew he’d pick up on changes in tone and wording better than most. Especially now.
This wouldn’t be his first time talking remotely; back in his ranger days, he sometimes brought young rangers into Indian lands who talked their talk. It never went well; there was always some misunderstanding, some accidental insult or vital mistranslation. Dust sometimes thought that those Indians who taught their languages made purposeful mistakes as petty revenge against the white folk. He could hardly blame them.
Even so, he’d wanted to learn the languages himself. He’d picked up the very basics but he hadn’t gone into Indian lands often enough for his superiors to pay for lessons and he never halted long enough to get them himself. It was no more of an option now; Indians avoid the Solution in case they’re made to spill their secrets.
He looked at Naismith and held back a sigh; the opportunity for fuck-ups was even greater now. Under any other circumstance, he’d cut Shadows Fade loose and mosey on. But he needed information, needed to know more about the Badlands, what was ahead of them and, especially, anything that might direct them to Penelope Chalmers. He hoped Naismith’s concern for her friend would override her anger at Dust.
But first thing first. “Ask her if she’s okay to follow us,” Dust said. “Tell her we have no time to waste.”
“Ask?” Naismith sounded surprised.
She relayed the message. Shadows Fade watched her as she spoke, perhaps surprised that Naismith was so fluent, and nodded.
A stalking mass of blue energy then appeared behind Shadows Fade. Shaped like a wolf, it was much bigger and more impressive than it had been at distance, a compressed and potent killer. It moved slowly up to the warrior with menace and purpose. Grizzly eyes regarded Dust and a mouth filled with vicious blue teeth opened and closed between steps. That she could command such a creature brought her further up in Dust’s esteem.
It sat on its haunches. Shadows Fade petted the beast.
“That’s her Spirit Wolf?” Naismith asked, a tremor of terror entering her voice.
“Aye,” Dust confirmed.
They turned the horses, who were nonplussed by the Spirit Wolf, round and trotted them north-east. Shadows Fade and her wolf walked alongside them. Dust soon picked the Paints’ trail back up and pointed them toward the Paints’ territory. The wolf sniffed the air constantly and looked to Shadows Fade, communicating what it scented; they knew where he was leading them but neither slowed nor quailed.
Now she understood what they were hunting, it was time to talk.
“Ask her which tribe she’s from.”
Naismith relayed the question.
“She says she isn’t from a tribe but a band. Not that I – and she means me – could possibly know the difference,” Naismith translated, pruning the scowl that threatened to bloom when she passed on Shadows Fade’s disdain. Then she sniffed. “It seems like semantics to me.”
Dust wished Shadows Fade wouldn’t antagonising her; he didn’t want Naismith leaving them with no way to speak. And she probably realised this, knew the power that she wielded. Which made her even more dangerous.
“It’s not semantics but you’re right; the difference doesn’t matter. Where is her band from?”
Four brief words from Naismith. Three from Shadows Fade. “The south.”
Dust’d hoped he might have ties with Shadows Fade as he’d worked with bands in the east. But it seemed his only leverage was his damn nickname.
“Why was she following us?”
“A good question,” Naismith said, implying it was his first.
Naismith asked. Shadows Fade looked at Dust and began a long explanation, a series of words that seemed to be aimed at him. He recognised only one word from the stream – ‘Badlands’ – but her balled fists and bared teeth betrayed the emotion in her reply. Dust noted that her Spirit Wolf’s agitation increased too.
Shadows Fade paused and gestured to Naismith to relay what she’d said so far.
If the command annoyed Naismith, she didn’t show it. “She says that her band are now terrified by the horrors of what we call the Badlands, that they no longer protect the land of their ancestors. Shadows Fade claims to be the only one who takes up that duty; she and Claw of the Gods – I think that’s her Spirit Wolf’s name but it’s a complex term – hunt here to clear it of evil.”
Dust nodded. He waved Shadows Fade on, his respect for her rising.
Shadows Fade started again, relaxing as she spoke.
“Jesus, Dust, they found us with that little boy! Yesterday, whilst hunting, they picked up our trail. She says they followed it and watched you greet him, kill him. You weren’t scared. Neither was I. According to her, only three types of people aren’t scared by ‘dark spirits’; the foolish, those who fight them and those who join them. She didn’t want to see the cults or harrier bands out here getting any stronger so-”
Dust cut in. “So she followed us to see which one we were.”
He smiled; he couldn’t help but like people who chose to fight the Triangle. Her earlier anger was honest, true, so she was not exaggerating in stating her band’s reticence to fight. Though perhaps she was being unfair; when the Indians had ruled this land, it was their sacred duty to fight the Triangle but now they had been decimated it was understandable that they not risk their lives. Even more so when their former aggressors were willing to do so instead.