So the other night I was having a Twitter chat about how there was very little in the way of His Dark Materials fanfic, given how prominent Philip Pullman’s trilogy has been to an awful lot of readers. One of my best friends Laura suggested I tried writing some for her as a leaving present (she had the gall to fall in love & decided to move to Australia. How rude.), and I had a think about it and came up with the idea of taking the universe and looking not to the iconic snows of Svalbard, but to the dry wastes of Southern American. A Western. I was influenced a little by True Grit as well. So this is what I threw together in a couple of hours. Laura seemed pleased at least!
The man’s run was slowing to a stumble, his heavy boots and blistered feet thudding into the dry desert sands with clouds of pale dust. The bullet wound in his calf was searing like the punishing sun above him, and his daemon – a thin wiry coyote – was lolloping along, her tongue lolling from her mouth dehydrated and close to lifeless. Above them, the sky was a beautiful calm blue, not a single cloud to blemish it. It was like a mockery of the harsh landscape below. A memory of water unreachable up above.
He always knew that the devil would come for him one day. Of course he would. He wasn’t a saint, he knew that – he’d started rustling cattle at ten years old. Killed at fourteen. Done worse at sixteen. He was a bad man in every way the good word of the Church defined it, but it didn’t mean he was any happier than dying alone in the burning wasteful desert at the hands of…
He glared at the cactuses that clung to the rocky outcropping a few metres to his right, the only feature on the bland, bleak face of the land around him. At least Choloro had mountains. He would give anything to die in the mountains. But the rocks offered shade, and he was damned if he was going to die out in the open to let the vultures pick his bones clean. The cactuses looked mean and hardy, the only sign of life for countless miles around, but the man knew they kept a precious cargo of water locked deep inside. He’d lived in the desert long enough to learn that little tip. Maybe if she’d lost him, he might be able to wash out his wound and rehydrate from them. He could even survive this whole thing.
“Thoughts, Laiku?” he asked his Daemon, pointing to the outcropping.
She didn’t respond for a few seconds, the exhaustion etched on her face breaking his heart. He knew every gallon of blood he gave up to the desert drained life from her just as much as it did from him.
Laiku sniffed, “I can’t smell her on the air,” she narrowed her eyes, “but she doesn’t smell much. This whole desert smells like death. I never wanted to come here, you know, Marcus.”
“Ayuh,” he nodded, “I know it girl, and it might be a mite too late for me to be apologising, but know that I’m feeling it anyway.”
They plodded to the temporary promise of shade, finally collapsing the second the rocks were cold enough to touch. Marcus threw his pack to one side. His pursuer had slashed the bottom of it in the night at the camp, so he’d left most of his supplies scattered across the desert, useless. If he went back for them he’d be dead from heatstroke within the hour.
A stone dropped from the rocky ceiling that shaded him, and his hand immediately moved for the pistol on his hip. If he hadn’t been starved and chased through the punishing heat, he might’ve maintained some of his old speed, but as it was she got the drop on him.
“Your hand touches metal I shoot your Daemon square in the head,” the girl dropped from above him, landing in an effortless crouch and wrapping her arm around Laiku’s neck, a dull brass pistol covered in tinkers and mods at point blank range. Marcus felt his stomach knot and churn at the sight of another person touching his Daemon.
“You’ll get no sudden moves from me, miss” he attempted to placate her, but the hardness never left her eyes. Marcus was struck by how young she was. She couldn’t be more that twelve or thirteen years old. Her Daemon hadn’t even settled yet. And yet she’d tracked him across miles of inhospitable desert without him once spotting her silhouetted against the perfect horizon. He took off his wide brimmed hat, clutching it to his chest. Her Daemon, in the form of a mountain lion, growled menacingly, but slowly the girl unhanded Laiku, who bolted back to Marcus as fast as her weary legs would let her.
“You know what I want from you?” She asked, her voice low, even. The cold of it was comforting in the roiling temperature.
“I reckon you’re looking for revenge of one kind or another.”
“You reckon right.”
He fixed her with a weary stare, trying to piece together if there was a way for him to get out of this with his skin intact. He didn’t see that there was. Her Daemon, impossibly nimble, shifted to a polecat and darted forward. Quicker than his eyes could follow him, he’d pulled his gun from the holster on his belt.
“What’d I do to you then?” He asked her. Fire blazed in her eyes.
“You mean to say you don’t know?”
“I done many bad things to many people. My memory lost track a few years back, miss.”
She stood up from her crouch, keeping her strange revolver fixed on him. She was dressed like a bounty hunter, numerous bandoleers filled with ammunition criss-crossing her chest, and a dark brown leather coat scraping on the floor at her feet. Her hair was the same yellow as the sand around her, her eyes a strikingly bright blue.
“Let me see if I can’t help you bring this particular atrocity to mind, Mr. Marcus” she spat, “You shot my papa, the honourable Doc Williams, as he enjoyed his pipe on the porch last Summer. Then you went inside and had your way with his wife. My momma. Oh, and then when you found a baby screaming in the room next door, you shot him in his crib for good measure. Getting clearer for you?”
Marcus nodded, “Yup. Doc Williams. Made a lot of fuss against the keeping of slaves. Two hundred dollars on that bounty. I remember.”
“The bounty didn’t say nothing about helping yourself to his family”
“Spoils of war, little lady”
Her Daemon twisted into the form of a desert fox, yapping at him with unbridled aggression. Her manifested soul letting out the emotions that she kept so fiercely locked behind her angry, youthful face.
“I was there,” she growled, sounding more animal than her Daemon ever could with her voice low, but perfectly audible above the whistling winds, “hidden under the floorboards. I went down to the cellar to play when you stormed your way in and destroyed my family.”
“Ruined a lot of families little lady. Stopped feeling the guilt a while back now.”
She regarded him again, pure contempt etched into her skin. Behind her, the heat was causing a shimmering mirage above the ground. It tricked his eyes into seeing water where there was only a dry, merciless death.
“Look, miss” he began, “If you’re gonna play at being men, just get it over with. Otherwise-”
The shot cracked like lightning from the gods as the bullet slammed into Marcus’ head just above the eye. Blood spattered vibrant against the pale sandstone as his eyes lost the spark that he himself had snuffed out countless times before. Laiku disappeared in an instant, her life inescapably linked to his. The recoil of the gun was minimal, thanks to the gadgets of her own invention, though the strain of holding it aloft throughout their conversation had left her arm tired and strained. She slid it back into its holster.
“You know Arty,” she said to her Daemon, who was sat on her shoulder in the form of a large, thorny lizard to match his desert surroundings, “I actually think I do feel a little better after that.”
“You’re only saying that to be contrary, Laura” he sniffed huffily, “I feel the same emptiness you do, remember? I am part of you, after all.”
“Spoilsport” she teased.
He was right though, of course. She didn’t feel any fulfilment from the murder she’d committed. Not that she felt guilt – Marcus had murdered and raped his way across the South for almost two decades, so to meet his fate at the hands of a twelve year old girl was to her mind, absolutely delicious. But still she felt a gnawing at her heart, one that she couldn’t find an easy solution for.
“So what next? We got the world at our feet” Arty asked her.
She pondered the horizon, seemingly endless from where she stood. As the gathering dry wind whipped her pale hair about her face, it really did seem like the world was at her feet. And it was a world filled with murderers and injustices. Laura made her mind up.
“We’re gonna finish Daddy’s work, Arty,” she told him, “You and me, we’re gonna rescue slaves and burn down the homes of the wicked. We’re retribution a-coming.”
“You know that’ll cause the Church to have some disagreements with us? They quite enjoy their slaves.”
“Oh I expect they’ll be awful unhappy with us,” she smiled, “but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
Arty sighed, shifting into a dragonfly and launching himself into the air, brilliant green glinting in the sunlight.
“Somehow I was afraid you might say that,” he said.
There’s a chance I might build on this… I guess I’ll see what the feedback is like! Let me know!
Thanks for Reading!