The Five Sisters were more than five, and they weren’t necessarily sisters, but they were all women, and they were more terrifying than the four male societies combined. These ladies were small, dusky-skinned women, comfortable with a bow, an M-16, or a Farcry rocket launcher. They believed in defending their people, in any way they could.
Heelee was one such lady. Born of the Apsaalooka tribe, Heelee felt it was her destiny to be one of the Chiaxxa Bia, the Five Sisters. The youngest of five, the elder four all brothers, Heelee punched and kicked and bit her way into being a respected fighter. When the council elders deemed her fit for the Trials, she was the youngest Apsaalooka to attempt it in living memory.
Some whispered that Heelee was cursed; she excelled in the baaschiili weapons, the forbidden technology. There were those who felt that anyone that good at the weapons of the technological people should not be living among the simple folk of the NaN, where such items were condemned.
Heelee did not feel cursed. She felt blessed to be called upon to defend her people. If she were truly cursed, then she hoped that dying in defense of her people would end the curse and free her spirit. She took it as a sign when she was accepted by the Chiaaxa Bia that things were as they were meant to be, and she lived her life, accepted by her sisters, hated by her brothers, and feared by her people.
The lands of the NaN were couched between the Republic to the east, the Confed to the south, and the Coastal lands to the west. To the north lay the land of Canada, but the border was a solid wall of concrete and steel, and no one went in or out. It was a poorly kept secret that tech smugglers, looking to avoid the Confed’s tariffs, took the high road and snuck through NaN territory. This was a dangerous proposal. While the smugglers had a lot of land to hide in, the NaN peoples were secretive, distrustful of strangers, and comfortable killing. They didn’t have GPS but they did have trackers who could follow the flight of a feather’s path three days after it flew.
The warriors had one directive: to keep the lands free of unwelcome guests. Bands of Mountain Teeth, Painted Dogs, and Silent Strangers roamed the plains and badlands. The warriors kept to a strict code. They were never to kill another warrior for any reason. The warriors were highly competitive between their sects and often times looked for ways to outperform each other in combat. Every sect had its specialty. However, if a threat loomed, all problems were set aside in favor of destroying their enemies. The rules were clear, and effective.
The Painted Dogs were a group of jesters, who followed Coyote and harried their prey with taunts as well as spears. The Mountain Teeth were strong, a united front of relentless warriors that would stand together as a mountain range might, defending the land. The Silent Strangers preferred to quietly sneak up on their enemies, giving them no warning. The Hellhounds accepted men who were not from the Tribes. They excelled at using technology, and were widely avoided by the other societies.
The Chiaxxa Bia were another matter entirely. They were not one of the original warrior sects. In fact, they replaced the Feather Scouts, who had died to a man in a shootout years past. The first Chiaxxa Bia were in fact five sisters, daughters of the last standing Feather Scout. They took up his mantle, but not his specialty. It is believed that was the cause of the rift between them, but in truth it was because they were women warriors, who raised themselves up without permission of the elders.
The Chiaxxa Bia survived, thrived, and now stood as large as any of the other men’s warrior castes. They were also a thorn in the sides of those castes. The friendly competition between the castes grew more fierce when a Chiaxxa Bia was involved. Pride grew more brittle. Tempers flared. Despite the year being 2294, the people of the NaN did not see women as being equal when it came to being warriors. The Chiaxxa Bia begged to differ.
It was usual, then, for a group of Chiaxxa Bia out on patrol, to be the only caste around. Which was just as Heelee liked it. She learned the ways of the other castes, and decided they were all fools. Riding with her band, Challa, Prexxi, Danya and Fonn, she was the happiest she’d ever been. She wore her talisman against evil, a small stone worn flat on one side and raised on the other. Everyone in the group wore leathers, tanned and sewn by an Elder Chiaxxa Bia, Wind’s Melody. She was a winter apple of a woman, brown and wrinkled with a round figure, but none crossed her. She could hunt, kill, clean, and cook any animal on land, and liked to threaten young Chiaxxa with being thrown in a soup pot.
The day was cold, but clear; the sky, blue and cloudless. The women rode horses. Heelee’s horse, Hop, was a burly young buckskin. She called him Hop because of his tendency to spook at shadows. Two of the women played a game with knives, testing each other’s skills. Another one rode up ahead, keeping an eye out on the horizon.
“You’re quiet today, Heelee.” Fonn appeared at her elbow, riding Nightdrops, her Appaloosa. “Is something bothering you?”
Heelee looked at her bandmate. Fonn was tall, almost as tall as a man, and she wore her hair in a single thick braid down her back. She had a fondness for colored stones, and wore turquoise, amethyst, and rose quartz in profusion down the sleeves of her shirt. She was a great shot, and very fast when she ran.
“It’s been days.” Heelee sighed. “I grow restless.”
Fonn nodded in understanding. She loved battle, too. “It’s good that it’s been days, Heelee. It means that we are keeping our people safe.”
“I agree, but that does nothing for me when the road is long and everyone smells like tanning leather.” Heelee made a face.
Fonn laughed. “There are ways to make the evenings more agreeable.”
“There is. Violence.” Heelee deliberately steered the conversation away from Fonn’s obvious attempt. Heelee liked Fonn, but relationships between two warriors made things complicated. Heelee wanted a less competitive mate.
Her bandmate laughed and let it go, unperturbed by Heelee’s redirection. “You are invited, if you choose. I will leave you, as you wish.”
The day continued on until Heelee felt the back of her eyes prickle, as they did when twilight crept in. Deer emerged from their beds in the high grass, unconcerned by the horses and the humans. The dimming daylight brought them to a halt. Heelee dismounted from Hop and grabbed the carcass of the rabbit she found an hour or so ago. She took Hop’s halter off and let him loose to graze. Then she walked some paces away and made quick work of cleaning her contribution to dinner.
After food, the women sat around a small fire, from a cleared-out, stone-lined pit Fonn built just for the purpose. Danya told a story, entertaining the small band. “The Mountain Teeth stood proudly, side by side, creating a blockade with their bodies. They began their chant of strength, luring their enemy out. Trillia did not make a sound, but laughed on the inside. Her sisters were free to leave the trap, and left no trace of themselves behind.”
The band laughed at the cleverness of Trillia, and how she tricked the proud Mountain Teeth. As they laughed, Heelee thought she heard something more sinister. She shushed her sisters with a hand gesture, and then got up and started towards the noise. By then they could all hear it. Something with an engine growled on its way past.
The women whistled for their horses, and mounted swiftly. Bows, arrows, guns, and knives blossomed in the twilight like spiky desert plants. They rode towards the sound, which sounded nearer.
In the swiftly darkening evening, a rumbling sort of monster trolled its way through the tall prairie grass. It belched noxious fumes and made horrible sounds. The conveyance was square, with some kind of reinforced wheels to traverse the uneven, treacherous ground. There were several names for what the Apsaalooka people called them, each more colorful than the last. The Chiaxxa Bia called them stinkwagons.
This stinkwagon was a black box with little slits for allowing air circulation. A turret appeared populated by a single man. The methodical way that he swung the large gun back and forth suggested he searched for targets. When the Chiaxxa Bia became visible, riding towards the stinkwagon, he raised the cry. Then he took aim.
The Chiaxxa Bia scattered when the bullets rained down upon them. Puffs of dust coiled up to show where the bullets impacted the ground. Heelee could hear shouts from within the stinkwagon. More guns coughed, the deep sounds loud in the night. Stars began peeking out from behind a black curtain of clouds, as though cautiously interested.
Heelee saw Fonn’s Appaloosa running without a rider, and her breath caught. She looked at the stinkwagon, and saw a dark silhouette appear behind the gunner in the turret. The tall, proud bearing suggested it was her friend. Heelee grinned and rushed in. She watched the woman in the turret move, a motion so fast a rattlesnake might be jealous. The gunner’s neck snapped. The turret was unmanned.
Standing up on Hop’s hindquarters was a feat for a trick rider. Heelee found pleasure practicing moves with Hop when the plains revealed no enemies. She craved the smuggler’s big gun and knew Fonn would leave it untouched as a baaschiili weapon. She urged Hop faster, catching up to the noxious stinkwagon. Crouching, she waited for a moment for her eyes to adjust to the black-on-black of her target. She jumped, reaching out for a handhold. Something clacked against the stinkwagon as she landed, and fell. She thought it was her knife but couldn’t stop to check. Reaching out, she managed to attain the side of the stinkwagon, but it was slick. Her fingers slid down the side, until she caught the barest weld-edge. It was enough. She found better footing and pushed herself up, catching a grip.
Making her way to the turret took all her concentration. She heard the sounds of combat all around her. By the sounds of it one of her bandmates had made it inside the wagon. She wondered who. Pressing her eye to the slit, she could see several figures. She heard the baby cry before she saw the black bundle in the girl’s arms. The girl was as skinny as a coydog, pale and big-eyed and too young to have a child, even an infant such as this one. Next to her was a bear of an old man, too big to make out properly in the dark, save for his silvery beard. He held his weapon as though he had a target in his sights, and Heelee looked down to see one of her bandmates unmoving on the floorboards.
“There’s another one, Pa!” The skinny coydog girl pointed with her whole arm, then swiftly grabbed the baby that was no longer secure.
A bullet pinged off the inside of the stinkwagon. “Stay away, strangers, this is my family and I aim to protect ‘em.”
Heelee wanted to keep heading towards the turret. The gun up top was so big, and she could keep it as a symbol of her prowess, using it against other enemies. To see children with children, it wasn’t how smugglers did things. They were men, risking their lives for gold. They knew the risks. These were innocents, and they shouldn’t be involved.
The turret called to her, though, and her hands were tiring, and this was a dangerous place. She kept climbing. She heard the cries of her sisters, the cries of triumph. She reached the turret. She looked down to see Challa and Donya prying the back off the cargo space. She looked around for more smugglers to kill, but the stinkwagon seemed low on smugglers. Something wasn’t right.
“Where’s Prexxi?” Challa shouted up to Heelee.
Heelee knew, but she also knew to say would be the death of the infant and the girl. “I’ll go look,” she offered instead.
The climb down was no better than the climb up, but this time Heelee found a hatch. She entered quietly, but the gasp of the girl brought the man to aim on her with speed.
“They will kill you, you must leave.” Using the tongue of the technological people was difficult, but it was part of her training.
“What about you?” the man asked. He looked down at Prexxi. “Why aren’t you killing us?”
“Her. Her.” She pointed at the girl and her baby. “Innocent.”
“Just like that, huh?” The old man scoffed. “Bullshit.”
Whatever Heelee might have said blew away in the detonation that followed. Metal sang and tore. Heelee grabbed the girl and her baby and jumped as far as she could. The concussive force of the blast knocked them out before they hit the ground.
Pain washed over Heelee. She looked down to see her skin, burned black. The girl nearby seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Heelee tried to move to wake her, to relieve her pain as her neck appeared to be at an awkward angle. It was difficult to tell, her vision was strained and blurry. A tiny bundle of furious anger threw his fists in the air. His skin was unbroken and he landed atop his mother, cushioning his fall. Heelee snorted. A boy child. She’d gone to all this trouble for a boy child.
The next time Heelee woke, the pain was less, but her vision still swam. She hadn’t noticed the first time, but it was as though proper distance evaded her. She struggled to sit up. Her hands were swathed in bandages, up her arms, and down her leg. She gasped, double checking. She had both hips, both thighs, both knees, but beyond that, only one calf, one ankle, one foot. The stinkwagon had killed her. She reached up to feel for her talisman, and hissed. It wasn’t there.
“Your luck has abandoned you.” Wind’s Melody’s voice was recognizable. Heelee turned towards the left, where her vision revealed the winter apple woman. “Or your curse has caught up to you. Or perhaps both.”
“What happens now, Elder?” Heelee tried to keep the tremble of fear from her voice.
The sympathetic look from Wind’s Melody was enough that tears sprang to her eye. “You are dead, Heelee. You rescued a boy child from a smuggler’s stinkwagon instead of avenging the death of your bandmate, Prexxi. Your shame is heaped upon your shame.”
“Then why heal me?” Anger flooded her, anger and helplessness. “Why bring me back into this broken vessel if you will not keep me?”
“Death is a release, child.” Her voice was steel wrapped in velvet.
“What is to become of me, then, Elder?” Heelee forced the flood of her panic down. “I am dead but not dead, rescued from the tribe but unable to live within it?”
“You know your crimes, now. Perhaps you can find your death in the prairie, and let your body feed the coydogs.” Wind’s Melody stood up, and turned her back on Heelee. “Baatach xaxua baaluuk.”
When she was alone, Heelee wept until she was exhausted. She fell asleep, only to be woken by a child leaving her a plate of food. Heelee didn’t want to eat, but she forced herself to. This was no longer a safe place, and she had to leave.
It was an unexpected gift to find a package of travel clothes, a bag of rations, a knife, and water. When she left the tent, she saw that Hop wasn’t saddled for her. He was paddocked with Nightdrop and the others. A long, sturdy stick was leaned against the tent near the door. Even with it, Heelee had a slow walk to leave the camp. All of the adults had their backs turned towards her in silence. The children played between the adult’s legs, or stood mimicking their elders.
The going was slow, but Heelee’s pride demanded that she made it through this. The hardest moment came when she saw Fonn. Their eyes met, just for a moment. The playful light in Fonn’s eyes was gone, replaced by a smoldering hatred. There weren’t enough words in the world to set it right, so Heelee didn’t try.
She didn’t have enough rations or water for a long march, and she would not be able to hunt. Her goal was to walk out into the prairie far enough to not disturb the villagers when she passed to the next world.
Determination and a walking stick helped, but it didn’t take long for her to be exhausted. Pain lanced up her leg, and her hand was sore from gripping the walking stick. She was ready to give up when she smelled something.
Curiosity and a burning sense of shame cajoled her towards the defeated stinkwagon. A pyre burned here, to honor the dead. Apsaalooka burned their enemies, to prevent anyone from winning back their dead. Another site nearby, the ground lay open like a raw wound. Twisted metal peppered the area. Heelee found a bullet on the ground, and another one nearby. Different calibers, different casings, and neither of them fired. How strange.
She found an enormous black pistol, somehow undamaged, lying in the bent and broken grass. A Zerorez. It was too big to be practical for her, but she put it in her pack for possible trade later. Discovering that she wasn’t resigned was a suprise to her.
Heelee made a fire amidst the wreckage. It wasn’t the carefully constructed fire pit of her Chiaxxa Bia ways, but instead the tired flailings of an invalid. She didn’t care who saw the smoke. She didn’t care if it drove prey away. She was going to stay here, where she should have died, until she did.
“That’s a bit sloppy of you, isn’t it?” A deep, growling voice like a bear given words came from behind her. “It leaves you open to attack.”
She turned to see a big man, swathed in black, from his wide-brimmed hat to his shiny boots. He had a silvery beard that she recognized. His gun was leveled on her, a rifle. He looked her up and down, appraising her as though he was looking to buy a horse.
“You lived.” She observed.
“As did you.” He looked at her again. “Well, mostly.”
She shook her head. “I am dead.”
“Obviously. My mistake.” He took a step closer to her. She flinched, but did not move. “You saved Jeremiah.”
“He’s with my people.” Heelee said. “They won’t give him back.”
The man shrugged. “He’ll have a better life there anyway.”
“Are you going to kill me?” She asked hopefully.
“That seems like bad form, considering you saved my grandchild. It looks like you can’t stay here though. Is that because you saved him?” he asked.
“Our ways are not your ways. It is hard to explain.” She watched him take another step nearer. He lowered his rifle.
“Do you really want to die, NaN girl?” he asked gruffly.
“Today I do. Tomorrow…I will.”
“You might be dead to your people, but that doesn’t mean you have to die. Come with me. I’m on my way to Seattle. We can get you a new leg and maybe do something about your eye.” The old man stuck out his hand. “My name is Simon, by the way.”
“You lost your name, too, didn’t you?” Simon shook his head. “I know some about your people. Let’s give you a name. I’ll call you Ganada. My poor wife doesn’t need that name anymore.”
Named after a dead woman. She found it to be appropriate. Ganada accepted her name. “I will travel with you, at least for a ways, Simon. I wish to know more about this leg and eye.”
“Well, it’s a few days’ travel, what with your injuries. There’s a smugglers’ camp not far from here, where we can get supplies and maybe catch the next caravan.” He looked at his hand, and then at her.
She grasped his hand, allowed him to pull her up. “If I do not find Seattle to my liking, I will kill you.”
“You and what army? C’mon, Ganada, maybe you can help save a few more lives before you’re taken out.” Simon held out a rock with a leather thong through it. “Is this yours? It looks like something your people’d wear.”
Ganada gasped and reached out before pulling her hand away. “It is mine.”
Simon smiled. “Well, let’s get this back on you and get on our way.”
“It is a sign. I will go with you, Simon.” She looked out towards the grasslands, slightly dizzy from her damaged vision. “Lead the way.”