Sandy shrieked with joy, but after spending all day wanting nothing more than to find more people, Mel was suddenly nervous. She grabbed Sandy's arm before the other girl could run off. "Sandy! Wait up! We don't know if they're... friendly." Even in her own world, she'd be wary of a guy she met in the middle of nowhere, and here there was no telling what they might meet. Bandits? Orcs? Dragons? None of those were famous for treating half-naked young women well, even if the orcs might be gingerbread or the dragon fueled by brandy.
"Mel," Sandy said impatiently. "We have superpowers!"
"What if they do too? I'm not saying we shouldn't go, but let's be careful."
The middle of the crater was littered with boulders the size of cars, or sometimes bigger, so although Mel was painfully aware of the crunch of sugar under their feet, it was pretty easy to stay out of sight from the fire until they were just a hundred feet or so away. They carefully set their burdens down behind an SUV-sized cube of rock candy and Mel knelt down and peeked around the corner. Her darker hair and face had to be less visible than Sandy's would, but her heart was still pounding with anxiety.
On one side of the small campfire was a small open-topped wagon, piled high with sacks of something and hung around the sides with ribbons and bunting like a parade float. Across from it was a mound the size of a small car, striped in bright colors that danced in the flickering firelight and grooved in a spiral pattern. As Mel watched, something dark and glistening protruded from the bottom of the mound and extended two long horns that waved around. The shape seemed familiar, but she couldn't place it until the whole thing shifted slightly on a broad, rippling base. It was a giant snail.
Sandy leaned up against her back, warm and only a little sticky, to whisper, "What do you—" but she was interrupted by a mechanical sound from behind them, a gun being cocked.
"You two hold real still, now, and keep those hands in sight," said a scratchy voice.
Just like with the sandworm, Mel froze in startlement and her heart seized up, while Sandy sprang into action. Verbally, in this case.
"Sorry, we didn't mean any harm! We just weren't sure whose camp—"
"Just stand up real slow and walk over by the fire where I can get a look at ya, and then maybe we'll talk." Mel was pretty sure the voice was a woman's, but maybe a smoker, or just someone who had been breathing sugar dust for years. It did not sound like a voice to mess with, though.
Sandy moved away, exposing her back to the now unpleasantly cold night air and stepped away, and Mel took that as her cue to stand up and walk slowly toward the fire, hands raised like someone in a Western. She kept one eye closed so she would have some night vision if needed it, but really hoped it wouldn't come to that.
Side by side, they moved to the ring of sugar crystals containing the fire. "Now turn this way so I can get a good look at ya." Mel started to lower her arms to cover her breasts, but their captor grunted something like "Nuh nuh nuh" and she put her hands back up, face burning from more than the heat of the fire. Actually, the fire was pretty nice on her bare skin, but she was too worried about whatever their captor wanted to see or not see.
The scratchy voice burst into demented, witchy cackles. Mel finished turning and saw a tiny, round figure, not even up to her chest, draped in layers of faded-pale cloth and brandishing one of those old-fashioned guns with the flared barrel. Her face was old and wrinkly, with an impossibly long pointy nose, and split in a huge grin as she laughed. "Now if this ain't the best night's huntin' I've had since we caught that glint of koi-nixies in the war!"
The gun was waving dangerously, but not aimed at them, so Mel finally crossed her arms over her chest and immediately felt at least ten percent better. "Thanks, I think?"
"If you're not going to shoot us, give us some water!"
The cackles died away and the woman looked them over with sharp little eyes. "How long ya been out here? What're ya doin' out here? I thought I was was the only one barmy enough for this road." She let the gun — musket? — dangle on a should strap and headed for the wagon. "Sit down, I ain't gonna shoot ya if ya ain't night-ghasts!"
Mel and Sandy looked at each other, then sat down side by side across the fire from the snail, which waved its slimy eyestalks at them but didn't attack. Were snails herbivores? Mel couldn't remember, but she did remember that hippos were the most dangerous animal in Africa, so that wouldn't help anyway.
"Here ya go." The old woman handed each of them a dented metal cup with an inch of water in the bottom. "Take it slow, or you'll just puke it all up again, and I ain't gonna share my water if ya do that." She didn't sit, but hunkered down across the fire from them, and looked them both up and down so carefully that Mel blushed and had to cross both arms over her chest again, and even Sandy, fully dressed in poet shirt and jeans, squirmed a little. It was hard to tell under the pale grey duster, stained white robe, skeleton-yellow skirt, and whatever layers were under those, but Mel thought there was something strange about the way she was crouched there, more like a bird than a person.
When the girls had finished their mouthfuls of warm, stale, sickly-sweet nectar from heaven and not thrown it back up, the old woman went to the wagon and came back with what looked like an entire goatskin sewn into a waterbag, and a bundle of cloth that she tossed to Mel. "I can't believe I'm helpin' a gal with a balcony like yers cover up, but ya look like ya might 'ppreciate this." It was a horrid shade of orange-red that wouldn't go with any human skin tone, and when she scrambled into it, it was embarrassingly tight and stopped where it tucked in under her breasts, but having a shirt made her feel at least eighty percent better.
The wagon woman poured them a bit more water and settled back down. "My name's Ironleg. Matrissin Ironleg, of the Corn River Ironlegs, if that means anythin' to ya." At their blank looks, she went on, "I thought ya might not be from around these parts. Let's hear yer story."
"I'm Melisande Mason. People call me Sandy. This is Melisande Clarke, Mel. People said my great-grandmother was a witch, but I thought it was just a family story until I found her notebook of spells in a secret compartment in the creepy old bed I inherited from her..."
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