A few months ago, I wrote a short piece of fanfiction, which I housed in the Old West of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials universe for my friend Laura, as she went off on an adventure to Australia. It was supposed to be a one-off. You can actually read it here, if you like. That’d be fab. Well, I couldn’t get the character out of my head. Or the universe. I found myself captivated by the idea of a woman tied to the railroad tracks, left by a dastardly moustache-twirling villain, having to accept her fate whilst left helplessly with her Daemon, accepting their demise. So I wrote it. And I linked it back to that first bit. You don’t have to read that first, but I’d like it if you did.
The railroad is a part of American history. Mighty spiderwebs of steel of steel that unite the country. An ambitious feat of engineering prowess. A triumph of human hubris over nature. In England the whole thing was done without nearly as much fanfare. All practicality, no romance. But in a country sodden with rain half the year, what do you expect? Anyway, you can walk the entire length of the country in less time than it takes to cross state lines.
“We also don’t often tend to hogtie women to the tracks” Emily sighed. Americans certainly had a flair for the dramatic, but positively no sense of subtlety. Her Daemon stared at her despondently, his sad little sparrow eyes breaking her heart.
“Maybe if I’d been something more useful…” he began, and Emily’s sorrow congealed into something hard and sharp.
“There’s am awful lot of ifs in the world Archie,” she groaned as the rope bit into her skin, “but not a single one of them offer us any practicalities in the here and now.”
His eyes lit up. “So you have a plan?” He chirruped.
Emily looked at the desert that stretched out to infinity on either side of her, at the arid sands that hadn’t seen rain in years. In the distance the landscape was dotted with cracked red rocky outcroppings that rose ominously into the sky like tombstones. She longed for the persistent drizzle of Oxford, which only months ago had driven her to despair. She also longed for a cup of tea. Neither seemed forthcoming.
“Not precisely, no” she admitted, “but God won’t abandon us. He always has a plan for us, remember?”
Archie hesitated, “and… if his plan is that we die out here?”
Emily stared stoically up at the garishly blue, cloudless sky.
“Then we accept it…” she whispered.
When Emily awoke, the sun was still hammering down its punishment like an earnest blacksmith, each hammer blow a lance of pain into her head. She tried to lick her lips, but her tongue was swollen and dry. She could feel cracked pain around her mouth where the skin had blistered in the scorching heat. Archie was sat on her chest, his eyes drooped and distant. Emily looked lovingly at the subtle brown hues of his wings, the defiant strength of his beak. He wasn’t the most fearsome of Daemons, she had to admit, but he’d pulled her out of more scrapes than she cared to admit. Her chest swelled when she thought of their adventures. She closed her eyes again, and began to imagine the glorious and sublime Republic of Heaven that waited for them both. She pictured the soft bliss that would surround them, the warm light that would bathe them. She pictured the loving embrace of God.
It was at that point that Emily’s face pulled into a frown. The light that was blasting red and harsh through her eyelids had diminished, leaving little dancing spots of colour in its place. Reluctantly, she pulled one eye open, dreading another encounter with that obnoxious American bandit. She’d have sooner died. Much to her surprise, a young girl stood over her. She had a hard face, with squinting eyes filled with mistrust, and sandy blonde hair crammed under a beat-up old cowboy hat which was far too big for her. On her shoulder he Daemon sat in the form of a Gecko, in muted colours that matched her hair. In her hand was a wicked looking revolver covered in cogs and levers. Home made weapon modifications where quite the style in the States, she’d heard.
“Well, hello there young lady…” Emily began, peeling her raw cracked lips back into a smile that she wore more like a grimace.
“I ain’t no lady,” the girl responded.
Emily took her in. She was probably only twelve or so. “Quite. Well, perhaps you could help me. You see, I’m in a bit of a bind-” she chuckled at her own joke nervously, “so perhaps your mummy or daddy could be of some sort of assistance? Could you give them a yell and ask them to come help me?”
The girl eyed her with her sharp, sceptical eyes, “Momma’s dead. Daddy too, for that matter.” She said it so matter-of-factly that Emily was stunned by how little emotion played across her face. But Emily was a trained member of the Church. She’d spent years learning to read people, to discover the things they kept locked away. To offer them salvation.
“Oh…” she put on her best counselling voice, the one she saved for widows and mothers of stillborn children, “Oh, you poor child. Was it a failed crop? Not enough water perhaps? Or maybe a terrible disease. You can tell me. I know it’s hard.” If she could earn this girl’s trust, she didn’t necessarily die tied to a train line in the desert. On her chest, Archie had tilted his head to one side too, mimicking her sympathetic tone.
“Nope,” the girl spat into the baking sand, “Man came and killed ‘em. And my baby brother too. Shot him right there in his crib.”
Emily blinked, momentarily stunned by the blasé way this girl reported such a horrifically barbaric act.
“Oh you delicate orphan!” she cried at the girl, who now rolled her eyes. “You must thank the lord God that you were spared. He must have a plan for you.”
The girl pushed her hat back, revealing more of her grubby face, coated with a waxy mixture of sweat, sand, and something darker.
“You reckon that plan was me following the man what did them in and emptying his brains out onto a canyon wall not two hours ago?” her face broke into a grin. If it wasn’t for the words she was saying, she’d have looked to Emily like any other little girl. Instead, Emily’s insides went cold.
“It’s all God’s plan in the end…” she told the girl,
“It God’s plan got you tied up like a prize pig at the county fair to roast under the sun, miss?”
“If that is his will then so be it, I am his humble-”
The girl interrupted her, which irritated her no end. Typical American, never taught any manners, raised like a wild child here in the arse end of nowhere.
“You someone’s slave?” she asked.
Emily felt her mouth flap up and down, shocked by the incredulity that she might be someone else’s property.
“I most certainly am not! What on Earth would make you think such a preposterous thing?!” she sputtered.
The girl considered her for a moment, then scanned the horizon, “’Cuz you’ve got the colour of the slaves I seen in the city. And you’re trussed up like a bindle. And your accent’s funny.”
“I am an Englishwoman I’ll have you know,” Emily growled. Archie had started flapping his wings ineffectually. On her shoulder, the girl’s Daemon stared unblinking and impassive, still in the form of a gecko. “And the only one who owns me is the Lord. Look, are you going to free me or not?”
“You gonna try any funny business?”
“I can assure you I shall not”
The girl seemed to take that under consideration, before nodding. In a fluid motion, she holstered her revolver and with the other hand pulled a knife the size of her forearm from somewhere beneath her battered looking trench coat. It caught the sun, making it seem like it was glowing white. One edge housed neat and lethal looking serrated teeth. It was with these that she began to saw at the ropes that kept Emily bound. Her Daemon was now sat staring out at the landscape, shifted into the form of a wily desert fox, his large ears scanning for trouble while the girl worked. Once the ropes were severed, the girl helped Emily to her feet, with sweat running down her hand. Emily tried not to notice.
“Thank you, that was very charitable thing you did there. God bless you.” The girl simply stared at Emily with the same squinted cold eyes. Archie was nestling affectionately in her hair, which was haphazard and straw-like, dried out by hours in the sun. “I don’t suppose you have any water to hand, do you?”
The girl reached inside her coat and tossed a metal canteen over to her. Emily caught it greedily with both hands, pouring what little water it contained into her mouth. It was hot, and tasted sharp and acrid, no doubt off the metal of the flask, but the relief burst through Emily like it was the very wine of communion. Without really thinking, she drank it dry.
“Good thing I got more, ain’t it?” the girl mumbled to her Daemon, “Anyways, you’re welcome Englishwoman. I need to be going.”
Emily sputtered, “Wait! Where’s the nearest town to hear?”
The girl sighed, her Daemon whispering close to her ear, “Tabernath is about half a day’s walk South East of here. Happens to be where we’re headed.”
“Would you like some company?”
“Not particularly. But given that you seem prone to finding yourself in near death situations, I suppose you’ll be needing a chaperone. Proper English rose like you and all.”Emily ignored the thinly veiled jab at her pride, and instead stretched out a hand to the girl,
“Lady Emily St Grace Mendel” she offered smartly. The girl looked at her waiting hand for what felt like an eternity in the stifling dry air. Eventually, she slid off a leather glove and spat on her hand. Before Emily had chance to react, the slimy little creature’s claw was grasping her own, hot and wet.
“Laura, ma’am. Let’s get walking.”
“And what are you walking towards, exactly, Miss Laura?”
Laura’s boots kicked up clouds of dry dust as she made her way off at a steady, measured pace.
“It’s just Laura, your Ladyship” she answered over her shoulder, “and I’m off to free the slaves.”
So there you go. I hope you enjoyed it. I of course do not in anyway own the universe of His Dark Materials, this is just a bit of fun. If Philip Pullman reads it, I hope he likes it. If he does, I will die.
Thank-you for reading.