Genevieve rode hard.  Her escorts struggled to keep up, for she had the fastest horse, less gear, and was pushing the animal to its limits.  It was if she ran from the Devil himself, trying to leave her life at the Citadel behind her.  If someone asked, she would not be able to say why she hurried.  Certainly she was eager to go home, certainly she wanted to see her family, but that would not cause the frenzied ride that left her horse sweating and her fellow riders sore.  She knew that her life at the Citadel was safe and prosperous, but it felt like calm waters:  you never knew what was stirring in the depths.  Something ominous lay under the surface.

            The further she rode, the more she felt that.  In the villages near their tower, she had been warmly welcomed to inns or the houses of mayors as one of the church’s leaders and the wife of their leader.  But sometimes there were surly glances in the pubs, whispers behind her back that fell silent when she turned around.  And now, on the Fringe, in the last outposts of their society, there were no warm welcomes.  Innkeepers took her money with a grunt, no one helped unsaddle their horses, no one spoke to them if they went to restaurants.  There was always tension when she and the armed escorts entered a room, as if they were not trusted, as if the people in each town expected trouble.

            It was bandit country, and they had spent seven years protecting these people from raids.  But to Evie it felt like the citizens would have gladly given up that protection, almost as if they feared their guardians even more.  She wondered what caused that, what made the sheep fear their guard dogs more than the wolves.

            They passed beyond the Fringe and entered the Outlands as winter became spring.  Their lands, the former British Columbia, never got that cold outside the mountains, so Genevieve left in mid-winter so that they would reach what had once been the Prairies just as the weather there began to warm.  If they were lucky they might reach Ontario in another month, just in time for home to be hospitable weather-wise.  The region around the old farm was still lush, still alive, and beautiful in spring and summer.

            Not the Outlands, however.  Drought and brushfires had turned the Canadian breadbasket into a desolate place in the past seven years.  There were ramshackle dwellings in pockets throughout the territory, and some suspected the bandits made their home here somewhere.  There were few towns, dilapidated and unwelcoming.  Genevieve had planned for this, bringing many supplies so that the group could stop and camp anywhere, without stopping in the lonely townships.  If the Fringe had been cold in its reception, she guessed that the Outlanders might even be dangerous.  She was glad that her escorts protected her, but sorry that the precaution was even necessary.

            Somewhere in what they used to call Saskatchewan, Genevieve pulled her party to a halt.  There was a wagon on the road, tipped over, its contents scattered.  A few bodies lay in the dust, and Evie felt a lump in her throat when she saw two so small that they had to be children.  At a gesture from her, two guards turned to flanking positions, scanning either side of the road, watching the countryside.  In the distance there were a few dying trees, but this was flat country, with no place for ambush.

            Two men took up rearguard positions behind her, and two in front, hands on their swords.  The flanking guards had their rifles up, just in case.  Her front guards went first, checking the bodies and investigating the wagon while Genevieve dismounted and approached.  She felt a chill that had nothing to do with the lonely wind blowing across the dead prairie.  The guards found nothing until they went past the crashed vehicle, and then one called out.

            “There’s a survivor.”

            Genevieve rushed forward, her cloak flapping, and she came up to the guard, kneeling beside a woman lying in the ditch to the side of the path.  The woman, despite her wounds, was trying to crawl away from him, making whimpering sounds like a trapped animal.

            “Easy, we’re not here to hurt you!”  Genevieve tried to sound reassuring, but her own fear was growing.  Who had done this?

            “Back to f-f-finish the job, I see…” the woman croaked, blood spilling over her lips.  Genevieve approached as slowly and calmly as she could, her hands open to show that she bore no weapons.

            “We just want to help you.”  She said, and then turned to the guard.  “Bring this woman some water, quickly!”  Evie knelt beside the woman, smiling softly.  “We mean no harm.  What happened here?”

            “No harm?  No harm?  When your men killed my husband, my babies…”  The woman’s voice broke into a sob, and she kept crawling backwards, keeping her eyes on Evie and the men.  Genevieve saw blood seeping from her robes, but could not see how bad the wounds were.  Concentrating on ascertaining the woman’s injuries, she barely heard what she said, but then the words registered.

            “We didn’t do this… We just got here, we’ve been riding for days from the West.  What could make you say such a thing?”

            The guard handed Eve a water bag, and she thanked him with a nod.  She held it out to the woman, who stared at it like it was a snake.  Genevieve locked eyes with her, holding the woman’s gaze, trying to emanate a reassuring calm, the way one would with a scared child or a wounded animal.  She held out the water with a smile and a gentle nod.

            “Please, take it.”

            The woman did, finally, drinking a few sips.  She still watched the guards with furtive glances, but she moved a little closer to Genevieve.  After a moment, she found the strength to speak again.

            “Thank you…  but I don’t understand…”

            “What did you mean before?  Men like these attacked you?”  Eve asked.

            “Yes, Lady.  The same uniforms, the same cloaks.  They fell on my family from the West, coming straight down the road.  We couldn’t get away, they rode fast, no need to try to ambush us, there was nowhere for us to go.  No chance to escape.  They took everything of value, killed my family.  I was riding ahead with my husband, while my brother drove the wagon.  I was knocked from my horse with a blow from a sword.  I think they stole the horse… I was unconscious for a long time.” 

Her speech left her breathless, and then she coughed blood again.  It seemed as if her strength was wearing out.  Genevieve felt even colder than before.  The woman was clearly dying, and there was no chance of finding a doctor before that happened, not here.  The woman’s words frightened her; either bandits had disguised themselves as their men, or something more sinister was afoot.  Either way, it explained the lack of welcome in the Fringe townships.

            “I am the wife of the man who leads these men.”  She said to the woman.  “He has pledged to protect people.  If there are others impersonating his guards, he will punish those responsible.”

            “See that he does.”  The woman said forcefully.  “I hope they burn in Hell.”

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