The following characters belong to me alone. Any resemblance to anyone living or dead was unintended. Any resemblance to any place in existence was completely unintentional as well. The names were picked randomly and only used because I liked the sound of them.
I thought I would warn you ahead of time that the contents of this story may eventually become inappropriate for anyone under the age of eighteen. I'm just that kind of person. I like violence, and I like sex, but better yet, I like sex between women. If you don't listen to my warning and read this anyway, I don't want to hear about it if you don't like what you find.
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Summary: In a post-apocalyptic world, it's living that's hard. Questions go unanswered, needs go unmet, suffering goes unnoticed, and heroes are in short supply. But there's always someone searching for answers and willing to go the distance—even if it is for a price.
Home, Sweet Home
Arcadia's marketplace was crowded, as per usual for a Saturday morning. The place was a feast for the senses. There was a cacophony of sounds to assail the ears, from the merchants hawking their wares to the struggling musicians and artists advertising their talents. Children ran about, laughing and playing, and the odd animal could be heard calling out.
Most visitors couldn't help but stare in wide-eyed fascination at the rainbow of color, from homespun cloth in the stalls to silk draping wooden mannequins in the shops. Exotic items filled the shelves of the stalls, some of which could never be duplicated. Delicious smells wafted from some of the stalls and shops, filling the air to mix with the heady aroma of the ocean on their western border. Most steered from the stalls at the ends of the rows, unable to stand the stench of the animals contained within.
There was something to be found for everyone. It was few and far between that anyone left unsatisfied. In quiet whispers some spoke of a few merchants who could find anything and everything anyone could possibly want and need. It was never discussed where it could be overheard, though. Those of the upper class considered those merchants to be rogues and lowerclassmen feared the mercenaries that often worked for them.
Patrons flowed in and out of the shops that outlined the square. More stalked the rows of stalls that filled the center of the marketplace. A tall figure clad in dark green cargo pants and a black tightly-knit hooded shirt could be seen slipping through the crowds as if they didn't exist. The figure paused outside a brightly decorated stall, watching intently.
“Come check out our wares! I guarantee we've wonders the likes of which you've never before seen!”
The young merchant's words had only just left her lips when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She looked over the head of a young boy and her gaze was caught and held by eyes the same golden brown as her own peering out from the shadows of a hooded shirt. An irrepressible smile creased her lips, deepening her dimples and brightening her expression.
Sandoval Raines tilted her head in acknowledgement and stepped around the counter of the stall. She clapped a hand on a strong shoulder as she passed and then disappeared behind the curtains that sectioned off the public section of their stall from the workshop. She ducked her head and lifted the olive-green canvas bag from her shoulder to deposit it on the table. Then she brought her hands up to grasp the hood, hesitating for a moment before she pulled the cloth back.
Ellijay Raines gestured for her relief to take her place and then stepped through the curtains to the workshop beyond. Her heart clenched as the tall form tensed briefly. Though she understood her sister's reluctance to be seen without the hood, she hated it more than anything. It was too much of a reminder that her existence hadn't been without its' own price.
Several charged seconds passed. Finally, Sandoval took a deep breath and forced herself to turn around. So much of her time was spent out of contact with her family that she wasn't used to not receiving a reaction to her appearance. Most people gave her looks of disgust or pity when they saw the scars that marred her features, but her sister and their friends seemed to look past it.
She'd never cared about her appearance so the thick scars that bisected the left side of her face and ran from ear to ear didn't bother her. It was more the inevitable questions that would be asked by strangers that irritated her. She simply preferred the past to stay dead and buried along with the man who'd given her the marks. She met her sister's gaze steadily.
“Who's manning the front?”
The guttural tone caused Ellijay to flinch. The more exhausted she got, the harsher her voice became. Unfortunately, it seemed that Sandoval never slept well unless she was home and her stays were often far apart and never for long. Ellijay gave her an annoyed look.
“Who always takes care of things when I'm not around?”
Sandoval smiled sheepishly. She knew better than to question Ellijay when it came to taking care of their business. The sixteen year old merchant prided herself in her ability to provide for them. The only other person she trusted the stall to was her mentor, Victor.
Victor was a semi-retired merchant Sandoval had met when they'd first come to Arcadia. He was also the only person other than them who knew the entire story behind their sudden appearance in the middle of a rain-storm fourteen years earlier. It had been one of his requirements when he'd agreed to allow them to stay in his home. Sandoval doubted that the old man could ever have guessed that his acceptance of them would result in his gaining a family.
“Sorry. Stupid question,” Sandoval spoke quickly before Ellijay could go off on her.
“Very,” She replied dryly.
Sandoval shrugged and turned her attention back to the canvas bag on her worktable. She unbuckled the two straps holding it shut and flipped the flap over. Then she rummaged through her belongings until her fingers brushed the rough material she was looking for. She pulled the bundle out and set it down on the table for Ellijay's perusal.
“I had to go all over the place and ended up finding it in some bum-fuck hack shop halfway to Jessia.”
Ellijay winced in commiseration. Jessia was a small village two months south of their home. And that was if you were on horseback. A horse was one of the few things they couldn't afford to keep up, so Sandoval was forced to take trips on foot.
“Well that explains why you've been gone for four and a half months. But it doesn't explain the other two weeks.”
Sandoval grimaced and explained, “One of those half-assed street-players tried to take my bag and stabbed me in the side when I didn't prove as easy a mark as he thought me to be. I had to go a little slower than I liked to avoid any fights on the road home.”
Most of the smaller villages on the continent were prone to roving bands of thieves who portrayed themselves as artists practicing their talents on the streets. While one provided a distraction, the others would go through the crowd picking pockets and taking what they found. Most of the villages like Arcadia and the farming village Jasper to their south had some form of protection to keep the vagrants away. It was when she took trips to the smaller places that Sandoval truly appreciated the mercenaries that frequently visited Arcadia.
Before she could object, Ellijay had approached and lifted the hem of her shirt to expose the white bandage wrapped around her middle. She silently reached for the edge of the bandage. Sandoval stilled Ellijay's hands and squeezed gently to gain her attention.
“Hey, I'm fine.”
“I'd rather judge for myself,” Ellijay muttered, glaring up at her. “Your opinion of what's fine tends to differ drastically from mine.”
“I'd rather not be half-naked if one of the customers comes back here to talk to you,” She countered, returning the glare as she straightened her shirt.
Ellijay crossed her arms over her chest huffily and muttered, “As if that's ever bothered you before.”
“Shouldn't you be inspecting this stupid hunk of junk I had to go to Hell and back to get?” She asked, desperately looking to change the subject.
She loved her sister, but the Gods knew the girl would drive her insane with her mothering. She frowned as her mind veered off subject briefly. She's old enough for suitors to come calling any day now. Sandoval studied Ellijay as she opened the canvas cloth bundle.
Each time she came home it seemed that something had changed once more in Ellijay's appearance. More and more of the child she'd raised seemed to disappear. Her sister's face had lost some of the childish softness that had characterized it before. Now it was closer to the angles and plains Sandoval saw in her own features when she looked in a mirror.
The olive-toned golden tanned skin had darkened with the onset of summer. Her dark brown hair held streaks of mahogany that glinted in the light from the lanterns. Sandoval smirked as she realized Ellijay had started wearing it back in a braid just as she did. She blinked and looked down at her hands as they clenched the strap of her bag.
What would she do when she had to decide to allow Ellijay to be courted? She sighed and looked up at her. It was something they would have to discuss. That wasn't a decision she would even consider making without Ellijay's input.
“Is this for real?”
Sandoval snorted and glanced down at the hunk of red and gray metal that Ellijay held. She shrugged in response.
“The shopkeeper was convinced that it is. He said it was discovered in the debris of an avalanche that nearly wiped out his village. He called it the nuke that started Armageddon.”
They shared a look of amusement. They'd heard the stories their entire lives. Ones of a time when things were powered by energy and fuel, some even spoke of machines that flew. The tales of the wars that had resulted in the death of the Earth were the most outrageous of them all.
To Sandoval it sounded like something someone had dreamed up. She couldn't imagine the world described in some of those tales. She didn't know which seemed more fantastical, the horror stories of Armageddon or the descriptions of nature before the wars. It was hard to think of anything like a tree growing in a world where there was nothing but sand for miles.
“Hopefully this will shut Barry up for a while.”
Ellijay snorted. Barry Winters was one of their more frequent patrons. He collected anything he could find that might have existed in the old world. He was more than a little eccentric and he was a source of amusement that paid well.
“Not likely,” She replied. “He'll probably be back come next week, looking for more.”
“Has he come in today?”
“You know better than that. According to him, no one sane gets up this early.”
Ellijay raised an eyebrow at the muttered protest and asked, “And your point is?”
The small bell descending from a rope in the rafters rang, bringing the conversation to a halt. Ellijay's eyes unconsciously traced the rope to where it disappeared through the curtains. Then she brought her gaze back to Sandoval's.
“I'll see you at home later.”
“Are you sure you don't need me to stick around?”
Ellijay considered it for a moment. Saturday was their busiest day next to Sunday, but it was obvious from the dark circles beneath Sandoval's eyes that she needed some sleep. She hefted the hunk of metal in her hands and jerked her head towards the curtains.
“We'll be fine. You can make it up to us tomorrow.”
“How kind of you,” Sandoval muttered sarcastically.
She ignored the laughter her comment generated and closed up her canvas bag before shouldering it. Then she stomped past her sister, causing her to laugh all the harder.
“Welcome home, sister-mine.”Sandoval lifted her hand and gave a crude gesture that said it all. A sardonic smile spread over her features as she let her hand drop and then she pushed through the curtains. She waved at Victor and exited their stall into the throng. Home, sweet home it is.
TBC in Chapter 1 ...
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