by Robert Currer

Part 2 of 4 – 1400 Words

Heat had returned to the desert beneath the rising sun when they arrived at the ruin.  The tower was built of heavy sandstone blocks that rose to a jagged break now capped by a fluttering patchwork awning.  The other half of the tower had been dashed against the rocky earth.  The camouflaged man’s gait slowed to a bowlegged saunter as he neared the door.  He looked back encouragingly at the Scrap Knight who even through the shadow of the man’s hood could see the tension draining from his tight grey features.

Once in the shade, the man lowered his hood with the exaggerated relief of one slumping into an armchair after an honest day’s labor.  His head was bald, and his flesh wrapped taut around his bones giving him a ghoulish quality.  The Scrap Knight tensed as memories of the hungry dead arose unbidden.  The man must have mistaken the Knight’s tension for something else because he looked abashed and said “Now where are my manners?  Make yourself at home.  Have a seat.”  The words wheezed out of him like a rusted hinge.

All the accumulated accessories of life had been spread out along the circular walls with only a cracked leather couch and a chewed looking side table pulled towards the center.  There sat a campfire with a translucent flame that could only be seen by the way it shimmered like the haze coming off a salt flat on a boiling day.  The flame gave off no heat, but the Scrap Knight still gave it a respectable berth as he obediently went to sit on the couch.  It was too soft for his liking.  He would have preferred the floor, but humans found it odd to eschew a chair in favor of hard stone.  He scooted to the edge where the frame made a stiff ledge and perched there.

“Here,” said the hermit pushing a leather mug of tepid water into the Scrap Knight’s hands.  He lowered himself to the ground next to the clear flame and nursed his own cup.  The Scrap Knight did not drink.  For a long while, they listened to the awning snapping in the wind.  The hermit broke the silence with a wracking fit of dry coughing which only subsided after he quaffed his remaining mouthful of water.  He looked almost embarrassed when finally, he recovered himself and, wiping his parched lips with the gauze wrapped back of his hand, he said, “Drink up.  There’s a well in the cellar so have your fill.”

The Scrap Knight’s eyes were round with a soft apologetic glow.  His smile was small and polite but uncomfortable. 

“Oh.  I guess you don’t take water, do you?  Sorry about that,” he said with a wheezing groan as he pushed himself to standing.  He poured the Scrap Knight’s mug into his own and asked, “Anything else I could get you?”

The jack-o-lantern head shook in the negative.

“You don’t say much, do you?”

Negative again.

The hermit bobbed his head in understanding.  “That’s just fine.  There are some who would call that a virtue.  Silence being golden and all that.”  He settled down on the couch next to the Scrap Knight.  Part way through making himself comfortable, he froze, head cocked as though an idea had only just struck him.  “But you can hear me, right?”  He spoke the question but also signed it with fluent gestures.

The Scrap Knight’s eyes rounded with surprise.  He signed back, “You know sign?”

The hermit chuckled.  “Sure do.  My ma and pa taught me about the time I was learning to speak.  There’s a strong deaf community where I’m from.  So, it comes in handy more often than people would guess.”  His skeletal smile widened to reveal a jumbled line of yellowed teeth.  “Didn’t you learn the same way?”

The Scrap Knight shook his head and signed, “A little girl—a friend I used to know taught me.”  The light in his eyes receded with the memory of Emilia, of her sweetness, of the village’s fear, of her little broken body on the wet cobblestone.  His chest ached.  The grey, emaciated head bobbed in polite commiseration.

Oaken hands found their way to the tattered ragdoll slung from the Scrap Knight’s belt.  He stroked a loving thumb along the patchy yarn hair.  Life had only begun for him and yet ghosts were already gathering.  Is it the curse of the living to be forever haunted by the phantoms of the past?  No answer stepped forward, and he shook his head to suppress the question.

The grey man asked, “So what do I call you?”

“Mostly people call me the Scrap Knight.”

“That’s a handful,” said the hermit his voice like the breeze through dry grass.  “How ‘bout I just call you SK?  What do you think?”

SK nodded and the grey man beamed.  “Well, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, SK.  I’m Harlow.”  He offered a wrapped hand and SK shook it. 

“How did you end up here?” signed SK.

Harlow gave a wan smile.  “It’s only temporary.  My people have watch towers like this all over the badlands.  I was the keeper here until a nasty storm hit and blasted the top two floors to hell.  Lucky for me I was down in the cellar when it happened.  Well long story short, I salvaged the signal flame,” he said pointing to the translucent fire.  “Signaled for rescue and set up camp here to wait.  But then those damn electrical storms started up.  With those undead crawling out all over the place, there’s no way my people can make it this far out.  That was ‘bout two weeks ago and still those storms come every single night.  I would have risked walking my way out by now, but I must have picked up a bug somewhere.”  He gestured to his grey, strained complexion, and suppressed a cough.  “As it is, I can barely make it more than a couple miles without hacking up a lung.”

He slumped back into the couch with a shrug.  “Nothing to do but wait it out.  Either the storms will run their course, or this bug will and either way I’ll be out of here sooner or later.  Until then, the cellar is fully stocked.  I can afford to wait.

“What about you?  If you don’t mind me saying, it ain’t every day I see a scarecrow come wandering through these parts.”

“I don’t suppose you do,” signed the Scrap Knight.  He hesitated.  No one had ever asked him where he was going.  He had on occasion wished that some one would ask, that one lone soul would show the slightest bit of interest in him beyond his shambling exterior.  Yet, now that the question had been asked, he wished it had not.  The thought of sharing his goal, his compulsion to meet the dawn suddenly made it seem paltry.  This calling east was all he had and now he was beginning to feel small and unworthy.  Slowly, with halting hands, he signed, “I’m going east to find the dawn in its home.”  SK felt overwhelming stupid as soon as he finished.

But Harlow did not laugh or grin.  Contemplation settled onto his emaciated face with a thoughtful sort of frown.  “That’s a long journey indeed.  What’ll you do when you get there?”

“Bask in all the colors,” the Scrap Knight signed a little more confidently.  “I love the colors the dawn paints on the world.”

At that Harlow smiled a wide and warming grin.  “I love the colors too,” he wheezed.  After a lull, the grin faded and he added more soberly, “The way those clouds are piling up you’ll want to hunker down until the storm clears.  You can stay here if you like.”

“I don’t want to burden you,” signed SK.

“It’s no burden at all,” said Harlow his voice a zephyr.  “It’s settled then.  You’ll bunk here until the weather clears.  Besides, it’s been a spell since I’ve had any company here.  I’d take it as a kindness to get to pass the time with a friend.”

Friend.  The word echoed in SK’s head even as a warmth spread through his chest.  It had been a long time since he had a friend.

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