A short story about an unexpected journey
Carlton had never felt a knife against his neck, but he instantly knew what it was. He also instinctively knew what to do. Nothing.
“Who are you?” The words belonged to a woman. Her voice was as sharp and cold as the blade against his flesh.
A chill cascaded through his body, freezing his vocal cords. He knew he had to reply but couldn’t.
Her free hand reached for the knotted rope above him. She pulled, releasing a long, loud whistle. She jumped back, grabbed Carlton’s arm, and spun him around. His gray and white striped cap flew in the opposite direction, like it had been lifted off his head by a tornado.
“Did I do that?” she asked.
Carlton allowed himself a few seconds to evaluate the intruder, a woman in her twenties, with auburn hair that flowed to her hips, one blue and one green eye, pretty, lithe, with defined muscles, barefoot, and pointing the knife at Carlton’s belly.
“Speak or I will cut out your tongue.”
“You did that. You sounded the whistle.”
“It’s the monster’s roar.”
“A whistle, like this.” Carton reached for the whistle cord, but before he could wrap his fingers around it, she closed the distance between them and pressed the blade to his stomach.
“Don’t!” Her arms tensed and Carlton thought he saw her irises swap colors. “I will do it.”
She pulled on the cord again. The whistle blared blended low and high tones that shook the forest’s trees to the east and echoed off the mountains to the west. She withdrew the knife tip from Carlton’s abdomen, but continued to aim it toward him. Keeping her eyes fixed on Carlton, she sidestepped to the open window.
“I’m going to look out now. Stay where you are. I can shove my blade into you faster than you can reach for me. Understood?”
She twisted her neck to look up. After a few moments, she ducked back inside. “You make the smoke, too?”
“What kind of sorcerer are you?” She lowered her knife but kept a tight grip on the handle.
“May I ask you a question?” Carlton’s hands trembled. He was uncertain if his question would provoke the intruder. It would have been safer just to follow her commands.
“How did you get on board?”
She chuckled. “I jumped, of course.”
“The train travels at seventy-five kilometers per hour. Nobody can — ” He stopped himself and scanned her powerful legs. Nobody can run that fast. That limitation has always kept intruders out. That and fear. But not today.
“Train?” She surveyed the engine room. “Explain.”
“I’m the engineer. I operate the train.”
“This is a monster.”
“No, it’s a vehicle, like a wagon, only more advanced. It’s used to transport people. Or it once was, I think.” Carlton’s shoulders slumped. His aged bones filled with dust. He dropped onto the engineer’s chair and swiveled toward the woman. “I’m the only person on board. I’ve always been the train’s sole occupant.”
“It’s not a monster? You’re not a sorcerer?”
The woman took in a deep breath and held it for a few seconds. “This monster…this train…is what keeps the Salinet and Kenmawl apart. It’s what prevents us from warring. Neither tribe dares cross its silver lines. The monster’s roar terrifies both Salinet and Kenmawl.” She slipped her knife back into its sheath.
“The whistle, not a roar.”
“Yes, the whistle.” She scanned the engine room. An assortment of brass pipes filled the space. Attached to the pipes were red, blue, and silver wheels of varying diameters. White gauges and levers grew from cylindrical containers, and in a large box, a fire glowed. Five bellows connected to pistons took turns blowing air into the fire box. The fire cracked, pipes hissed, and black needles inside the gauges rattled as they changed orientation. “Whenever the train passes, the Earth shakes. We believe the ground will swallow us if we try to go to the other side. If that doesn’t kill us, the smoke’s fire will burn us. Your train keeps us from fighting.”
“Yes. That is my purpose.”
“Why do you do this?”
“Because I do.”
“I drive the train up and down along the hundred-kilometer length of track, never stopping. It’s been my purpose for so long I don’t remember how I began.” Carlton shrugged.
“Thousands died in the last battle at the Vilika River. My great grandfather led the Salinet in that battle, where he perished.”
“I’m sorry about your great grandfather.” He straightened his bolo tie and extended his hand. “My name is Carlton.”
She pressed her fingertips against his. “I am Lakoti, Princess of the Salinet.” The train rocked. Lakoti slapped her palms against the small part of the wall that wasn’t covered with instruments. After a few unbalanced moments, she stood straight again. A puzzled expression crossed her face. “How do you eat? What do you hunt? Where are your cattle and chickens?” For the first time since she boarded the train, Lakoti’s face softened and her muscles relaxed.
“The smoke heats a greenhouse in the next car through these pipes.” Carlton traced the line of copper from above the boiler to the back of the car. “I grow all I need.”
“Greenhouse. That’s something else new to me.” She offered a smile.
“I’ll show you.” Carlton stood, but crashed to the floor. He grabbed his left arm with his right. The pain felt like he had imagined Lakoti’s knife would if it had pierced his chest. “My heart. It’s going to stop in a few minutes.” He breathed fast and tentatively. “No time.”
Lakoti knelt down beside him. She removed a small cloth pouch from her pocket and placed the herbs it contained on Carlton’s tongue.
“That won’t save me. Nothing will. My heart is almost out of beats.” Carlton grunted and propped himself up. “Can you keep the peace, Lakoti? You can drive the train, prevent the Salinet and Kenmawl from killing each other.”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“I know you will,” Carlton said before he died.