Jason sat and reclined against one of the rear wheels of the carriage, looking back along the path and watching the wind as it formed pirouetting columns of sand, erasing all footsteps and lines left by the carriage wheels. Any tracks left by predators would also be removed before they could give fair warning. He expected Lilith to appear and force him to keep moving, but she didn’t come. Muffled screams and desperate calls came from far off over the dunes.
Aching thoughts sat with Jason and infected him with lethargy. He would never reach the mountain. And even if he did, could he escape all this and be with Emily again? The message scratched into the carriage door proclaimed he wouldn’t. It was foolish to believe a demon would give him a chance for redemption. The mountain was Lilith’s mirage of hope in her desert of futility.
“Hey there, friend, shame ye got no horses to complete the set.”
Jason turned. “Derwood?” He was sure it was the man he’d met before, even though his clothes were different. He was wearing a baggy white shirt, black trousers, and brown boots, with no thick thread holding it all together and no loose leather around his feet.
“How’d ye know that? Have we met before? Me memory’s a bit fuzzy most of the time now, so don’t take offence if I is a bit sketchy ’bout things.”
“Yes, at the mountain. We met at the mountain. Gert! You were telling me about Gert, your chicken.”
“Your hen, yes. And you were looking for something.”
“Yes, it was you. Your name’s Derwood. It’s good to see you again.”
“I haven’t got to the mountain yet. I is on me way there now. Moths in my head, no doubt about that, but I think I’d remember if I’d been there. Is ye going too?”
“I was… We have met. We were talking and then I disappeared. Don’t you remember?”
“Sorry, chum, no. Yer not gonna get all violent, is ya? I’ll say far thee well if ye wants. Ain’t interested in getting into any more scuffles.”
“Me dumb clubfoot,” Jason said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Aye, me dumb clubfoot. Madness here, the bizarre wandering free. Managed to avoid a fair few, but not all. When they get me good, I wakes up back at me old farm. Well, what’s left of it anyways. Think this is the furthest I’ve been so far. Thee looks pretty harmless, though, so thought I’d tip me hat. Ain’t got no hat, I knows, but ye gets me meaning. Gets awful lonesome here.”
“Yes, it does.”
“Derwood’s me name, friend.”
“I know.” Jason started to climb to his feet. “Jason.”
“Hang on there, I’ll give ye battered soul a hand.” He helped Jason up and gave him the baseball bat that leaned against the wheel. “Looks like ye taken a fair beating or two.”
“Thanks. Yes, not at my best.”
“Yer still here though, so me thinks the other guy is sure to look a lot worse,” Derwood said with a laugh. “I’d offer you me flask, but water seems as evil as everything else around these parts.”
Jason opened the carriage door and picked up two gemstones from the floor. A ruby and a large yellow diamond.
“Here.” He dropped the ruby into Derwood’s hand.
“No need to pay me, Jason. I just helped ye up, tis all. Not worth anything in this place anyhow.”
Jason smiled. “Put it in your mouth. Don’t swallow it though. It’ll help with the thirst.” Jason threw the diamond into his own mouth.
“Oh, aye.” He looked at the gemstone in his hand, a dubious yet curious look upon his face. “Have the cows been smiling at thee much?”
“It works, trust me.”
Derwood popped the ruby in his mouth. “What should I do with it now?”
Jason laughed. “Nothing. Just let it do its thing.” He offered him the hunting knife. “For the bizarre wanderers.”
“Me legs seem to be the best weapon in this place. Run like a scoundrel at dawn. Me fast pins got me out of more than a few scrapes in life, and here, too.” Derwood took the knife. “For the time when me old legs cramp up.”
Jason looked back along the path and then down at the ground.
“What’s up, chum?”
“I made a mistake.”
“Hey, I’ve stacked up a few of those. No point ye be going for a swim in the murky waters, as me dear old wife used to say, ye can drown in regret.”
Jason smiled at Derwood. “A wise woman.”
“Aye, her mind was a bit scattered most of the time, but when her moths flew, she was sharp as the morning sun. Make a rancid rabbit fit for the king’s table, too. Wonder of nature how she could do that. Pretty as a summer rose, so she was.”
“A good woman,” Jason said, thinking first of Lucia and then Zoe.
“Aye. Tricked the Devil, so I did, when she came me way. Must’ve had the sun at me back and me club foot in the mire. I loved her… Still do.”
“How far do you think it is? The mountain, I mean.”
“Oh, it not be far. Used to walk further after me old sheep when they’d go off a-wandering. I think they were off wandering when God handed out the smarts because they got none. Sheep ain’t too bright. Taste good and keeps ye warm, but dumb as the landlord’s son.”
Jason looked to the mountain. It seemed no closer. He must have travelled thirty or more miles since leaving his house, yet the land remained unchanged. The far off remained far off.
“If we can see it, we can get to it,” Derwood assured him.
Jason took a final look back along the path and then they both started walking.
“If we can see it,” Jason reaffirmed, “we can get to it.”