Purple skin flutters in the wind, stuck to the ribs of a mammoth-sized monster long dead. A vegetable garden circles it, attended by an elder woman wearing a swath of hide cut from the dead beast.
Abel turns from the Endless Road and leads Termie towards the lone lady. The two men shuffle bare feet, making their coarse tunics and pants sound like blades being sharpened as they approach.
Abel raises his hand to show off the chevron tattoo across his wrist. “Hail. We need water, food, and shelter. We offer labor to repay. As proof of trust, I have tattoos of service from seven cities.”
Termie grins with a child-like purity. “I lift rocks.” He spreads his muscular arms and flexes his broad back. “Big ones.”
Abel grimaces. He had wanted to leave the simpleton after raiding the man’s cache of supplies. Abel had snagged clothes, a few dried rations, and a stomach full of water. There was no promise of service or other honor binding them together. He was free to abandon this orphaned man, but a loneliness had anchored his feet.
The elder woman shifts on her knees, digging up weeds with a dagger-length piece of bone. “Help yourselves to the fruits of my garden.” She points at the huge carcass beside her. “Got a pump inside. Don’t worry about the aftertaste. The water is filtered.”
Abel massages his temples. Dehydration always gives him headaches.
She says, “I have no treasure or keepsakes. There is plenty of space on the floor to rest.”
A gust stirs up a cloud of dust, making Abel cough and tear up. Five years on this harsh world has weathered his skin, turning it a light brown, but he will never adapt to the grit in the air, the taste of countless wheels, hooves, and boots that have ground down everything from stones to bones.
The lady’s gray eyes widen. With pursed lips, she turns into the wind without blinking.
Abel covers his mouth with a starched sleeve. She must have some charm protecting her from the elements. He nods to her and hurries to the flapping entrance of her skin and bones tent.
As large as a stagecoach with horses, it is bigger than any beast he has seen alive. Only sketches of monsters sieging city walls match its scale.
Inside the carcass, a carpet of yellow moss cushions his toes. He sighs, body slumping. It is cool and damp, much closer to the swampy nature of his homeworld than the dry heat outside.
Termie stumbles in behind, wiping his eyes. “That hag is nice lady.”
Abel winces. “Don’t insult our host. That should be common sense on every world.”
His companion scratches his slanted forehead, releasing a sprinkle of dandruff. “Is ‘nice’ mean bad thing?”
Abel scoffs and points at a well pump in the center of the tent, right under the monster’s tree-trunk of a spine. “Fill me a skin of water, and avoid referring to kind old ladies as cannibalistic witches.”
Termie sucks on his lip as he pumps. He finishes and passes the bag over.
Abel chugs and gasps. A tang of minerals lingers, but it refreshes like spring water.
He says, “Take it and finish. I’m going to crash. Wake me in an hour, and we’ll go harvest a snack if the wind’s died down.”
Termie raises his hand. “What should I call nice cannibal lady?”
Abel lays down, chevron-tattooed wrist covering his eyes. “Do you think that little woman outside is a hag, an actual man-eating mutant?”
“It is from song I learned with children. Would you like me to sing it?”
A gust whistles inside, stretching the tent’s skin and rattling its bone poles. Abel rubs grit out of his eyelashes. He almost rolls on his side away from Termie, but the mystery gnaws.
Abel says, “You can’t tease and think I won’t want to hear it. I’m curious. Go ahead, but don’t expect me to cheer if you are terrible.”
Termie claps, keeping a steady rhythm. “Lady on the Endless Road, living in a giant toad. She gives shelter to the lost, offering soft beds of moss. Beware water of her well. Full of poison, never tell.”
Abel sits up and spits. His heart pounds. He slaps his cheeks and spins around. In the far corner a piece of rough hide covers a small mound, the only other thing inside the tent besides the well pump and moss.
He says, “Termie, go check what that is.”
The bigger man stands, bumping his head on the ribbed roof. “That’s hard as rock.” He walks over and pulls off the hide. “Pointy white sticks.”
“Those are bones!”
Long and short, they all have been sharpened on one end. Several even have wrappings of leather where they could be gripped.
Abel scrambles over to the macabre pile and picks up a pair that best match a sword and dagger’s length and balance. “Horse and… human.” He gulps. “I don’t feel poisoned, but—”
The tent flap rips aside. The old lady enters with a wide grin and her hide cloak open down the front, naked. Her breasts sag, nipples even with her belly button. Her skin is loose and leathery, more gray than pale. Below her bulbous belly, a mass of white pubic hair covers her vagina.
She drags a full sack inside with the ease befitting a younger and larger laborer. “I’ve brought bounty for you boys. Eat, drink, and rest.” She crouches, fingers digging into the mossy floor. “I will wake you for your labors.”
Termie pats his belly. “I am hungry.”
Abel holds up his bone shortsword, stopping the man from reaching toward the sack. “Excuse me, ma’am. We haven’t introduced ourselves. I’m Abel Hart, and my friend here is Termie Stonelifter.”
Termie claps. “It’s what people call me.”
The lady scampers up to Termie and sniffs his groin. “People call me, Sally Nono.” She cups his butt. “I like the strong ones.”
Abel chews his lip. The blades in his callused hands fail to draw her attention, an insulting confidence drawn from the woman’s madness or mystic power.
He says, “My big friend has the strength of two men. I’m sure he could do all the… labor you can handle.”
Sally snaps her teeth together and stands. Her spine crackles as she straightens, rising to almost Termie’s height.
She says, “Dare you test my ravenous appetite?”
Termie turns to Abel with a slack face.
Abel shifts his grip to give him a thumbs up. “Go on, buddy. It’s no different than lifting stones. Bend your knees and thrust with your hips.” He taps his wrist. “Keep her happy, and I’ll ink you a nice tattoo of service.”