Travel can be dangerous, but that danger does funny things to people. Sometimes the journey brings out a romantic spark that’s been there all along. Sometimes meeting a stranger leads to unexpected passion. The four stories in Like a Long Road Home explore the dangerously enticing side of perilous travel and the adventures of faraway places.
A young couple tries to rekindle the passion in their marriage while chasing Hemingway’s ghost across Cuba. A young wizard becomes lost in an enchanted forest and meets a most challenging and feral figure. A survivor of an apocalyptic attack makes his way across a shattered landscape. Three Greek sailors band together after being shipwrecked only to find their troubles dwarfed by those of the woman they encounter.
- Table of Contents:
- Touching Hemingway by L.A. Mistral
- Ota Discovers Fire by Vinnie Tesla
- Neither Bird Nor Tree by Sunny Moraine
- On the Rocks by Elizabeth Coldwell
Read an excerpt:
From “Ota Discovers Fire” by Vinnie Tesla
As Ota picked his way through the underbrush, he ran his thumbs over the new calluses on his palms and smiled with warm satisfaction. He ran a hand over the week’s stubble on his chin and thought of how frightened, how naive he had been setting out from the great coastal city. Now he was sleeping rough, finding his own way through the nearly trackless wastes of the inland forests.
Ota was musing on the gentleness and serenity of the forest when his stomach lurched as he realized that the thing about a yard uphill from his right side was not a rotten tree stump, but a fresh deer carcass, gutted and bloody.
It was just starting to draw insects and didn’t yet stink noticeably. The head was largely intact, though the throat had been torn out, and a large predator had apparently eaten its fill from it. Ota looked around. As a child, Ota had had a book of engravings—seemingly landscape pictures—of richly detailed rocky cliffs and elaborately limned oak trees. Stare a little longer, though, and the engravings would reveal hidden pictures—faces, hands, leaping animals lurking in the patterns of light and dark. Likewise, the entire forest transformed in aspect as he stared at the carcass, each tree trunk potentially concealing a threat, each bush harboring the possibility of a seething horror.
He knew this stretch of forest still harbored wolves, bears, and occasional smilodons. There were rumors of creatures more dangerous still. Whatever had made this kill might well still be lurking nearby. He looked about to his left, then his right. There was a prickling at the back of his neck and he whirled to stare back the way he had come. A faint sound above him made him turn, and he staggered back in surprise until he fell and landed on his tailbone on the hard trail. Some sort of shaggy ape was crouched on a tree limb, staring back at his startled gaze.
It was only when it opened its mouth and succumbed to the peals of laughter that it had evidently been suppressing that his vision once again reorganized itself and he realized that what he was looking at was human after all, a woman with hair in matted black locks, a gray pelt tied in a rough kilt around her waist, chin and bare chest smeared with a dark, flaking paint that, a moment later, Ota realized was probably dried blood, presumably from the deer on the ground.
He suppressed the urge to run from this bizarre apparition. “You… speak Samath?” he ventured.
She dropped from her branch, landing soundlessly a little too close for his comfort. He backed up a step. Standing erect, she would have only been a couple inches shorter than he, but she crouched as if ready to spring in any direction.
“Enough,” she said, “and I think you do not have Darsh.” Her voice was accented almost beyond intelligibility.
The accent, and the name of her own dialect, stirred a memory—he’d heard it caricatured in numerous comic plays: the bestial autochthons of the eastern forests. He’d never tried to imagine a female.
“You’re a thonnie!” he exclaimed, relieved to understand the situation a little better.
Her expression soured. “I am Nika Umu—the Moon People,” she announced.
“Yeah, autochthons! Wow, I didn’t think you guys ever made it this far west!”
Her expression clouded with suspicion. “You are not native to this forest, either, I am thinking.”
“No,” he said uncomfortably. “I came here from Ensa.”
Her brow furrowed. “I have heard of this city….”
Ota hadn’t been expecting such a tepid response. “Well, we are head of the Southern Confederation. I mean, that’s a pretty big deal.”
She ignored this. “Ensa is magic city, I hear. People there are wizards.” She looked at him with sharpened curiosity.
For his part, Ota was baffled. “Magic…?”
“They make the fire speak, take on forms….”
“Oh, salamandry! No, no. I’m no salamander. I can barely even light a cheroot that way. Most of the time, frankly, I use matches.”
“But you have the craft a little?” she persisted. “Show me!”
“Okay….” He pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket—it had an old shopping list on it—and held it out cupped in his hand. He tried to slow and steady his breathing, to feel the heat that his teachers had told him was always pulsing inside him. The autochthon watched steadily, and he found himself becoming acutely self-conscious. He squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated again.
After a time, he felt ready. He tossed the wad of paper up into the air, and reached out with a rush of heat. He opened his eyes just in time to see the paper flare up as it fell to the ground. It wanted to go out, but with the fire started, it was easy to coax it to sustain itself, flaring for several seconds before it subsided into fragile ash, latticed with creeping red sparks.
Red faced and sweating with effort, he released the last, unconsciously held breath (his instructors had always scolded him for that—it was poor technique), and looked back at his spectator. He was torn between embarrassment and pleasure at her awed expression.
“How you do that?”
“I’m sure you don’t want the detailed answer, which I can’t remember half of anyway. For little stuff like the paper trick, I can just draw on my own spirit-fire. If I needed to do something harder, I know a few breathing exercises that can build the fire up a little. Real fireworkers use much more dangerous methods to produce very large amounts of spirit-fire.”
Her eyes were wide. “You know how to do this?”
He shook his head. “I have the basic ideas… this isn’t stuff you try without expert supervision.”
There was a moment’s uncomfortable silence.
“I’m Palatine Ota” Ota said.
“Just call me Ota,” Ota said. “Palatine is—” he tried to envision how to concisely explain the nuances of rank and prestige expressed in that matronymic. “It’s a family name.”
She nodded. “Why is a man of Ensa wandering the inland mountains?”
“I’m on my way to Ivy City. There’s family business I need to do there.
“You go west by walking east? That is a fine trick.”
He flushed. “I—I don’t know these mountains very well.”
“I was with a caravan,” he continued. “I paid a group of merchants coming up with goods for the hill towns to let me come with them. I didn’t choose my companions very well, it seems, since they decided they wanted more.”
“They took your money?” the autochthon seemed oddly shocked.
“Well, what they could find. I—”
“No, no. They took your money for the guiding? You paid them?”
He chuckled ruefully. “Not enough, apparently. Or maybe too much. It made me look like an easy mark.”
“Oathbreakers,” she said, in a tone that suggested that she knew no stronger curse. “So now you hunt them for revenge.”
“Ummm, no. Now I’m trying to get to Ivy City on foot, like I said.”
“Ah! You wait for them to relax before you strike. Very cunning—I like!”
Debate was looking like a lost cause. “Thank you.”
“I am Ulvzarger,” she announced, pointing proudly to herself.
The word was vaguely familiar. “That’s your name?” he asked.
“No. That is what I am.”
Now he remembered. Other, darker plays had reveled in the exotic term. He’d always assumed it was mythical.
“You’re a wolfma—uh, person?” he said incredulously.
“By night, when I choose, I become a great she-wolf. It is my power,” she announced with obvious pride.
“Like… literally? It’s not just a symbol or something?”
“A magician is surprised at this?” she said, cocking a dark eyebrow.
“I’ve met a few magicians—salamanders and artefactors, transformationalists, farspeakers, dreamsmiths…. I’ve never known of one that could transform himself, though.”
Her expression became very serious. “I do not know all these words; but every magician transforms himself.”
At this, Ota rolled his eyes. “Oh, sorry,” he said, “all I know about magic I learned from scholars and work-masters. I didn’t have the benefit of your thonnie koans to tell me how it works.”
She glowered. “Do not mock the ulvzarg. Our anger is terrible.”
“Are you threatening me?” Ota said incredulously. “I’m so much bigger than you I could—”
Something hit his coccyx, hard. To his surprise, he found that he was sitting on the ground.
A wave of pain washed through his stomach and he realized that the wolf girl had punched him in the gut.
“You hit me!” he exclaimed.
“You ever see a wire cut through a round of cheese, city boy?” she asked, standing over him.
“In the stomach!” he persisted.
“You must have been so surprised, the cheese was so much bigger than the wire.”
“That wasn’t a real fight,” he said, outrage driving him on to speak through the waves of pain that still narrowed his vision. “You just suddenly hit me.”
“Oh, and how do I really fight, cheesewheel,” the girl spat back. “Do you need a parchment declaration, maybe a trumpet blast? A real fight starts with a knife in that soft belly, instead of a fist. You are older than I, I think. But you have much to learn about the world.”
She stepped back. “You go now.”
Where previously he had been intrigued by this half-naked autochthon, now he was so indignant he could hardly speak. He pulled his pack back on with shaking hands.
“Well, uh….” The correct parting words for this situation were far from obvious. “Well, enjoy your deer,” he said, but it came out far less biting than he intended.
He set out along the trail. He walked fast, devising devastating rejoinders he should have used. Then he remembered that she had said that he was heading west. He tried to make out where the sun was, but the bandits had taken his pocketwatch, so he wasn’t certain whether the sun was now rising or setting, and the trail had so many switchbacks that figuring out its overall direction was impossible anyway. “I’m a good fighter,” he mumbled to himself as he walked. “I got a commendation in Pugilism at the Academy. I could totally have taken her….”
She was probably wrong about the directions anyway. Either out of malice or simple ignorance. He continued walking, more slowly, for a long while, each step feeling more maddeningly uncertain than the one before.
Then he turned around.
When he had walked, it seemed, at least as far back as he had out, the spot where he had found the dead deer was nowhere to be seen. Oh well, he thought, I guess I overshot it somehow.
He kept walking, wondering if he should turn back again, the gnawing uncertainty growing with every step. Then, at last, he reached a spot where the dented, blood-stained shrubs showed where the deer had rested a little while before. Neither it nor the autochthon was anywhere to be seen. Including, this time, in the branches of the trees.
“Hey!” he called into the woods. “Please! I need a guide! I need to get to Ivy City, but I don’t know these woods! I’m running out of food! I don’t know what else to do….” Nothing answered his voice but a bird call.
He drew breath and tried again, “I’ll make it worth your while! I’ll pay! In gold!”
“How much?” she said, quietly, behind him, very close. He whirled, infuriated that she was still taunting him like this, but more certain than ever that he had no choice but to draw on her skills if he could.
“How long would it take you to get me to Ivy City?”
“You walk fast, you see their walls in three nights. You walk slow, you take longer.”
“‘Three gold pieces to take me there.”
“Three good gold pieces, I am your guide.” With her left hand, she reached under her fur kilt and gripped her crotch vulgarly. Her right, she held out expectantly.
Hesitantly, Ota took it, and she looked significantly at his other hand.
Feeling ridiculous, he cupped his own groin.
“Bound by gold,” she recited.
“Bound by gold,” he quoted back.
“It is done,” she said, and immediately darted off down the trail.
She set a challenging pace, pushing through the undergrowth so effortlessly that she rarely even bothered to lift a hand to push aside a branch, and often waiting with evident impatience while he picked his way around thickets she had seemed barely to notice.
“Isn’t there a path we can take?” he begged.
Without looking around, she said: “Path is slow and dangerous. We do not need path.”
After about an hour of this, with his back and feet throbbing, it occurred to him that, as his guide, it was entirely appropriate for her to carry his pack.
He jogged along until he was caught up with her and, breathing heavily, explained his logic.
“No,” she said.
“I… I’m willing to pay a little more,” he ventured.
“To keep you safe, I must be ready to fight,” she said. “The snail is not brave fighter. The turtle is not feared by his enemies. I am not to carry big bag like pack animal.”
“I didn’t hire you to be a bodyguard,” Ota protested. “You’re a guide.”
“And how I take corpse to Ivy City when you are killed for gold or for meat? I drag you? You carry your bag; I will guard.”
She pushed ahead, with the phrase “for meat” echoing in his ears.
Shortly before sundown, she paused on a rocky hillock. “We stop here. You have food?”
“A little,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ll want to eat it….”
He brought out a bag of milled grains mixed with honey, butter, and dried fruit—traditional Ensan travel fare. She tasted it. To his surprise, she pronounced it good, then proceeded to devour three days ration of it, leaving a rather scant final portion for his supper.
As she picked the last fragments of oats out of his bag, he gathered wood and built a campfire. Too weary for salamandry, he brought out a small box of matches and struck one on a stone to start the fire. She seemed to find this process nearly as engrossing as his earlier performance. Once the fire was blazing merrily, he leaned back, grateful to be off his feet.
“Tell me of these traders who robbed you,” she said pensively.
“Well, it was a little caravan going up to Ivy City. My family’s in coastal trading—we don’t really do inland business.
“I was impatient to get going. I’d spent most of my life inside of Ensa’s walls, and this was going to be my first important business assignment. For a lot of communication, we just hire farspeakers, but this was an actual credit transfer, so the documents are almost as good as gold. I was going to get to be the courier. So I went down to the marketplace and found some guys who looked like they’d be tough enough to beat off bandits and smilodons, asked if they’d let me go with them. It was four guys… I think they said they were from Tarr… and two llama carts.
“It was kind of awkward at first—me and those guys didn’t exactly have much to talk about. They did a lot of muttering amongst themselves. Then about a week in, they got a lot nicer—let me ride on the llama cart most of the time while they walked alongside, pitched my tent for me each night, things like that. Then, one morning, when I was getting ready to set out for the day, they suddenly punched me in the stomach a few times, stole my boots, and rode off laughing with all my stuff.
“It took me a couple days to find a village, barefoot and empty-handed. I’d hidden a little gold inside my clothes, so I was able to get supplies to move on.”
“And now?” the autochthon asked.
“Now I walk to Ivy City, tell Fascian Lors what happened, and hope like hell that the traders are too ignorant or cautious to cash my family’s chits. If they don’t, I’m probably just demoted. If they do, I’m unemployed, and possibly disinherited as well.”
“Four men, two carts,” said the autochthon thoughtfully. “Weapons?”
“They’ve got machetes, and a couple crossbows,” Ota said. “Why?
“I guard you,” she said. “It is my business.”
“What, you think they’re going to come back and attack me again? It doesn’t seem very likely.”
“Probably not,” the girl conceded, in a way that Ota somehow failed to find reassuring. He groped for a change of subject.
“I just realized,” he said, “I don’t know your name.”
“I have no name,” said the girl.
“That’s ridiculous,” Ota said. “How can you not have a name?”
“I was Zurok-sa. That means third from top of Zurok pack. Now that is not me.”
“Sa means ‘third most dominant pack member’?”
“Yes. Samath is a clumsy language.”
“But that’s a title, it’s a role. It’s not a name.”
“Personal names are for children and the dead.”
“But isn’t there a name for a person without a pack?”
She frowned. “Nezkhad,” she spat. “Do not call me that.”
His eyes widened. “I don’t think I could pronounce it, anyway.”
There was a pause before he spoke again. “So did they kick you out of your… pack, then?”
Again she was on him so fast he didn’t fully register it until they were rolling on the ground. He flailed ineffectually at her, uncertain even what she was trying to do.
With brutal efficiency, she rolled him onto his back, shoved his head back and clamped her jaws around his larynx. When he tried to twist away, she bit down harder.
He had to fight down a wave of blind panic as it occurred to him that this half-human creature might actually kill and eat him. He gasped for breath, her slight weight rising and falling with his chest, her sharp smell strong in his nostrils, her breath hot and damp against his neck. Her skinny legs held him as fiercely as her teeth.
She drew back long enough to hiss, “Apologize, cheesewheel,” before her mouth was at his throat again.
“Um, I’m sorry,” he began, furiously trying to recall what precisely had given such offense. “I’m sorry that I—” he hesitated, afraid that paraphrasing his earlier words might provoke her further. “—that I asked that question about your pack.”
She immediately sat up, now resting on his hips. With odd, crisp formality, she said: “I forgive you. You are an ignorant sun-person.”
Then she smiled that odd, closed-mouth smirk of hers. “Oh! You are liking this.”
She ground her hips against his, and, mortified, he realized that she was referring to his erection, which he had not consciously noticed until that moment.
She squirmed her hips against him, producing startling waves of pleasure, and—unbelievably—giggled. “Perhaps I should make you apologize more often. Perhaps you are so rude because you need to be mastered, hmm?”
Before he could formulate a reply, she was off him, reclined against a tree on the other side of the fire, grimy knees high and wide. The remains of the fire cast wavering red light on her thighs. She was watching him intently. Without artifice or subtlety, she tugged her fur kilt up to her waist, displaying her dark pudenda for a moment in the dim, guttering light. Then her long hand was over it, squeezing and cupping, her hips squirming in counterpoint.
She smiled, and this time her teeth showed. He suspected that it meant a very different thing when she allowed herself to do that. “You no hear the stories about moon-women?” she asked.
He barked with laughter. “You don’t have teeth down there—that’s a stupid story for adolescents to whisper in the playground.”
“There’s teeth,” she said, “and then there’s teeth.”
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