Smoke hung low over the camp. It was not the smoke of anguished burning; no fires obliterated the past nor muddied memories with ash. It was the smoke of celebration.

Music rose in pockets and mingled with the haze above the tents. Here on taut skins a low rhythm beat, and a murmured melody accompaniment. There a trio of horns battled for dominance in syncopated and hypnotic time. To Sharbot it was chaos. To Julie it was home.

“Come,” Julie said, tugging hard on Sharbot’s hand. The two savage girls had been inseparable since entering the camp, more for Sharbot’s safety and sanity than anything else. The prompting from Julie was unnecessary, as Sharbot had no intention of letting go until she was certain they had found refuge.

A thick slab of shirtless muscle shouldered past the pair, and a skull tattoo caught Sharbot’s eye from its place on the canvas of glistening and scarred skin. The smoke was doing funny things to Sharbot’s senses, and she swore she saw the skull grin and wink before the press of the throng swallowed it.

“Are there always this many people?” Sharbot asked, trying not to shout but her voice still sounding overloud in her own ears.

Julie looked back and grinned, too wide and showing too many yellowing teeth. “It’s always like this in mid-summer,” she said. “Folks come from across the plains as far as the Hellon River. Tribes put their disagreements aside and enjoy the change of season.” Julie stopped pulling Sharbot and put her free hand on the other’s shoulder. “Are you feeling okay?”

Julie’s voice sounded like it was coming down the impossible length of the rusted section of the oil pipeline that had snaked south into the Wendt just outside of the village where Sharbot had grown up. As children they had played all around and inside of it, heedless of their parents’ warnings. One of Sharbot’s closest friends, a girl named Kiren, had cut her arm on one of the torn entrances to the pipe and caught a horrible infection from it, one that had killed her in a fortnight. That tragedy did little to prevent them from venturing into that dangerous playground, and they had only stopped once the raiders from the steppes had come and scattered the lot of them to the winds. Sharbot had only been in her fourteenth summer when that had happened.

Her eyes felt too big in their sockets, and Julie’s face seemed to melt and reform. “I—,” she tried to say, but her thick tongue wouldn’t let her. Julie smiled, turned away, and resumed towing Sharbot through the crowd of merrymakers toward their destination: the tent of the High Chief of Summer, Allenbark.

2014.12.13 – 2023.07.15

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