Challenge: Pumpkin Pie #2 - Witchcraft / supernatural
Word Count: 1,461
Summary: Being a good samaritan in the desert is a double-edged sword.
Notes: I absolutely could not think of a thing to write for this prompt until I was reading my Twitter feed and saw a post by a composer I follow: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". I could've hugged him (if that wouldn't have been, y'know, weird). So it's probably only fitting I wrote most of it listening to his music...
He came across the caravan one windy day, tracking east as they headed north. He always tried to skirt them - safer that way - with his scarf pulled up to obscure his face. It was only ever a slim chance, but still. Safer. And usually no one paid him any attention: strange, unsocial travellers were hardly a rarity. No one wanted to look twice in case they were robbed.
But there were always stragglers, people either ready to move away from the caravan or not entirely welcomed by it. They hung around on the fringes, trailed after them like lost ducklings (he’d not seen any in years, hadn’t realised how much he missed them until then) and were easy pickings for any wandering thieves. Especially when they didn’t take good care of their--
“Mamaaaa!” The plaintive wail sliced through the wind-tossed sand like a shovel. “Mama, where are yoooou?!”
He froze. The wind was picking up as it was; soon it’d be impossible to see through. Not such a problem for him on his own, but lethal to a child separated from its parents. But he didn’t plan on getting involved either, the chances--
“Fuck the chances,” he snapped at the air, which paid him absolutely no attention whatsoever, and, pulling the cloth higher did his best to head towards the cries that were starting to sound more like sobs.
He almost fell over the kid, some bizarre desert-grown sixth sense stopping him just before he reached it. It was sat on the sand, legs crossed and something clutched in its hands, the only clear part on it the tracks left by tears on its cheeks. “Are you lost?” Stupid question, he knew, but he had to announce his presence somehow. People - even children - didn’t really like it so much if you just picked them up and walked off.
The kid started, although how it’d failed to notice him at this distance he’d got no idea, and stared up at him with wide brown eyes before nodding slowly. “I want my mama…” Tears welled up.
He tugged loose his scarf and squatted down in front of it - her? it was hard to tell through the ever-present sand and tangled hair - and held out a hand. “Do you want me to help you find her?”
The child stared at him with something approaching suspicion behind the filth and he could have sworn that it was actively scrutinising him. No doubt warned against strangers - although clearly not warned strongly enough about the dangers of wandering away from the caravan too. Finally, it - she - nodded, as if he’d just passed some intense inspection, and accepted his hand with all the grace of a princess. It was all he could do to suppress a laugh. “They went that way,” she pointed in a direction that for all he knew could be completely random, but at least had the sense to add, dubiously, “least I think they did…”
He rose, noting even as he did that the girl’s grip on his hand got stronger, not weaker; he was the only thing around and it was clear she’d got no intentions of letting him go. Even with his superior height though, all he could make out in the direction she’d pointed was a dust cloud that might’ve been vehicles, but might easily have been a particularly sandy set of hardy shrubs throwing clouds into places they’d no right to be. “How would you even know?” It was directed more at himself than her, but she looked up at him with an expression of loss that threatened to break his heart. Oh god… He wasn’t equipped to deal with this.
“Can… Can I sit on your shoulders?” She asked suddenly and, powerless to resist that expression again, he could only nod and lift her up. He could feel how pitifully thin she was beneath her layers of fabric, how light she was as she squealed in delight and promptly wrapped her arms and legs around his neck, whatever she was carrying still gripped tightly in one hand. “You’re tall!”
This time he grinned, unable to help it, then winced as she shrieked out, “it is them!” That ear would be ringing for days by the feel of it.
“You can see them?” He hoped he didn’t sound as pained as he felt; if he did, she was oblivious, clinging even more tightly to him. Whatever it was she was carrying, it was sharp and cold against the now bare skin of his cheek. Probably a metal toy; she was just a bit young to be a thief in her own right, he thought with another smile, although stranger things had happened.
“Yes!” She squealed, even more loudly than before, if that was possible, and began to fidget on his shoulders until he was forced to take a gentle grip of her shins in case she slid off. “Come on!”
It wasn’t a long distance, he reminded himself as he trudged across the sand with the excitable child precariously balanced, it just felt that way. She found every imaginable way to cling to him, hands in his sandy hair, around his neck, on his shoulders in front of her own legs and once even one on each cheek, which made her giggle at the feeling. “You’re fuzzy!”
He let go of one leg long enough to run a hand over the short whiskers and grinned. “Yeah, fuzzy.” He’d snatched the opportunity a few days ago to shave, a hurried, futile luxury.
“Papa isn’t fuzzy,” she asserted and he bit down the urge to respond, good for papa. “Papa’s always smooth.”
He just smiled and nodded gently so as not to dislodge her, and tried to pick up his pace a little. For a kid that seemed so light to start with, damn was she getting heavy now. And they couldn’t be that far away now, surely--
The scream that felt as though it was going to rupture his eardrum almost made him drop the child entirely in a sudden fit of panic. Visibility had dropped appallingly already; it was a prime area for thieves and he couldn’t reach his knife…
“There you are!” A man’s voice cried out and for a moment he wondered if it was his own. It couldn’t be, he was sure he didn’t sound like that, but he was the only one here. Or at least, he had been until a man came erupting through a thick cloud, his eyes on the girl on his shoulders. “I’ve been looking everywhere! Where did you go?”
The little girl’s squirms intensified. He dropped to his knees in the soft, churned sand to allow her a faster escape which she took with great alacrity and little care, catching him across the cheek with her toy as she scrambled down his arm.
“Neema!” Her father gasped, taking her quickly by the hand. “Look what you’ve done!” He gave the girl a stern glare, who in turn looked up at her saviour with those wide, helpless eyes he’d been so powerless to resist in the first place.
“It’s nothing, honestly,” he smiled weakly, trying to pull his scarf up again to cover the scratch that he could feel was welling up with blood the same way Neema’s eyes were with tears even now. “It’s fine.”
“It’s not,” the man said, reaching out one hand to carefully pull the cloth away from his cheek. “Please, you must allow me to help you. It’s the least I could do.”
“It’s fine, I swear.” He jerked his head away. These people, he remembered how they felt about--
“…What is that?” The man asked slowly, leaning in to stare more intently at his wound; he felt his stomach plummet. “What…”
The skin was starting to sting, a nagging, narrow burning sensation. He could only watch as the man’s expression changed from curiosity to horror. Grabbing his daughter by the hand he backed away from the kneeling man, muttering under his breath. “Away from me, sorcerer.”
He sighed, rose to his feet and bowed slightly toward the man, who regarded him with fearful suspicion. “Please take care of your daughter, sir.” Before Neema’s father could add anything further about witchcraft or, worse, summon the rest of the caravan, he turned on his heel and sprinted blindly into the dust storm.
There was no point in trying to explain about subcutaneous nanites and their ability to repair small wounds. Their vanity factor in the city hold no sway here. He could only flee and hope that the girl’s father would take his rapid exit as a blessing; it was certainly starting to feel like a curse to David.