Though he still worried for Abby and Carver, Luke had to admit he enjoyed traveling while the caravan was split up. The heat of the desert was still stifling, but with Simmons, Carver, Ella, and Angela all gone much of the tension that had been so prominent since Hobble had vanished. Without their most impassioned members stoking the flames, the factions found it easy enough to be civil toward one another. For the most part, they’d all known each other for years after all. Luke was grateful, as the arguments and infighting had made the journey much more miserable than it had been when boredom was the worst he faced.
It also meant that spent less time with the court that Simmons had formed out of his faction. With him gone, the other boy stayed with Luke for most of the day. It wasn’t hard to tell that something was on his mind, but it took several hours for Tony to work up his courage to talk about it. After going back and forth between the caravan, he finally approached Luke once more.
“Hey. How’s it going?” Tony looked tense, glancing all around to make sure no one was looking at them.
“Fine, I guess. I’m worried about Carver. I hope Abby and the others make it in time.”
Tony shrugged. “Yeah. But if they don’t, maybe it’s karma for him getting us involved in all that stuff in the first place.”
Luke wanted to defend Carver, but he didn’t relish the idea of an argument with Tony while their friendship was still so fragile. He also wanted him to spit out whatever was on his mind.
“Is there something you wanted to talk about?”
Tony glanced around again, a hunted look in his eyes. He answered in a loud voice. “Sure, I can teach you how to shoot. But we probably won’t even fire the gun today, I’ll just show you the stance and grip.”
His acting was atrocious. The tone of voice alone would have made Luke instantly suspicious if he hadn’t known what was going on, and he spoke far too loud for it to sound natural. But while Tony’s words garnered a few odd glances, no one seemed particularly interested in what they were doing. The two of them stopped to let the rest of the caravan pass them by, only walking again once they were well out of earshot of anyone who might try to listen.
“That didn’t even make sense,” Luke said, trying not to laugh. “If anyone looks back, we’re just walking. Neither of us even have a gun.”
“I had to say something!” Tony said defensively. “People would start asking about it if we just walked off.”
“I think you made it more obvious, if anything,” Luke responded. “But I don’t think anyone cares. Is it ok to talk now?”
“I guess,” Tony grumbled. His eyes were still glued to the caravan in front of them, watching for any sign of interest.
Luke waited, but the other boy didn’t appear to be in any rush to say anything beyond that. He sighed internally.
“So you said you had to think about some stuff yesterday?” he prompted.
“Yeah. I don’t know, I’m still thinking it through.”
“Is there something specific—” Luke started, but Tony cut him off.
“I think I might be gay!” he burst out, then immediately looked around as if waiting for someone to jump out at him.
It took a monumental effort not to laugh out loud at the look on his face, but Luke escaped with a sound he hoped could pass as a cough. He wasn’t sure how successful the effort was, as Tony gave him a hurt look in response.
“I’m serious. I’ve thought about it before, but I always thought gay people…disappeared, I guess. Like they only existed in the old world. I thought I just had to be stronger or something. But after you said you were…I don’t know. It makes more sense why I’ve never really liked girls like that.”
The last vestiges of Luke’s humor faded as he marshaled his thoughts. This was an important moment, and his words could do irreparable damage if he wasn’t careful. “It doesn’t have anything to do with how strong you are. You can’t change who you’re attracted to. A lot of people tried in my world, and one way or another it never ends well.”
“But what do I do now?” Tony asked, a plaintive note in his voice. Luke marveled at how he could swing a pickaxe at a monster capable of ripping him in half, but talking about his sexuality ground his confidence into nothing. He looked scared, hanging on Luke’s every word.
“You don’t have to do anything. You’re the same person you’ve always been, now you just know a little more about yourself.” Tony didn’t look reassured, so Luke relented and went on. “If you want my advice, you should take some time to process and then think about telling the people in your life. Trust me, it’s not easy to live while keeping something like this a secret from the people you care about.”
“I don’t know,” Tony said slowly. “What if he doesn’t accept it?”
“Then you keep living your life. It sucks, but it’s better than pretending to be someone you aren’t. Believe me, I know.”
He looked over at Luke. “You know?”
“Yeah.” Luke took a deep breath. “My mom…I told her I was gay when I graduated high school. We lived in a really conservative area—somewhere it’s frowned upon to be anything other than what they say is ‘normal’. More than frowned upon, sometimes. When I told her, she asked how I could do this to her. Like I’d chosen to be gay just to spite her.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of with my dad,” Tony whispered. He looked down at the ground, quiet. When he looked up, his eyes were red. “I don’t know if I could handle it if he said that to me.”
“I can’t tell you how he’ll react,” Luke said. He wanted to put an arm around Tony, but conscious of the caravan ahead of them, he refrained. “But I didn’t finish my story. My mom didn’t handle it well in the moment, but then later, after I moved out, she started trying to talk to me again. She apologized for what she said. Our relationship still isn’t great, but it’s better than it was. If you give your dad a chance, he might surprise you.”
Tony nodded and fought back the tears that threatened to fall. “I have to think about it,” he said quietly. “Thanks. Give me a few minutes and let’s go back.”
Luke nodded and looked out toward the landscape while his friend composed himself.
They caught up to the wagon that had taken Carver ahead the next day, and while Tony gravitated back toward Simmons, Luke learned what had happened from Abby. He was relieved that the old man was being cared for, but Simmons’s reaction perplexed him. His insistence that all he cared about was making sure the roamer was all right went against everything he had been saying since Hobble.
“We’re going to have to hurry on to Ark now and hope they have a lot for trade,” Ella said that night. She and Angela sat around the fire with Abby, joined by Luke and Felicity. The two women were in much higher spirits now that they knew their father was being cared for. Ella had already turned her mind back to the logistics of their journey. “We only have two stops left, Ark and Langrendi, so we have to try to offload as much stuff as we can.”
“That’s it?” Luke asked.
Ella nodded. “We’ll skirt around the desert now that we’ve hit Darkend, head north toward Ark, then out east to Langrendi.”
“Wow, so we’ll be with the elves in a week or so, then.”
“Yep. You’ll have to watch what you say around them. I’ll remind the whole caravan when we get close, but they can get pretty touchy about some stuff.
“Like what?” Felicity asked. Though she had traveled more than him or Abby, they would all be seeing the elves for the first time.
“I’d say the main thing is to not mention Carver or anything about him,” Angela said. “Definitely don’t mention that we’re related to him. I don’t think we’d be in any danger, but we wouldn’t be winning any popularity contests after that.”
“So it’s not just him that doesn’t like them?”
“Oh no,” Angela shook her head emphatically. “He’s basically the boogeyman up there. They’re not fans.”
“What did he do?” Luke asked. “Why do they hate each other so much?”
Angela cocked her head. “Can’t you guess? He killed them. A lot of them.”
There was silence for a moment afterward. “Oh,” Luke said. He did feel dumb for not realizing it sooner.
“I guess we can tell you the whole story,” she said, glancing at Ella. “You guys probably know it already, right?”
Abby nodded, but Felicity frowned. “At least some of it. I don’t think I ever got told the whole thing.”
“Well, it started when all of them got here,—elves, orcs, and dwarves—probably seven or eight years ago now. Within the first few months, they kidnapped some humans and kept them in their settlement. As you can imagine, no one in the area was too happy about that.”
“Why? Why take humans?”
“We don’t know,” Angela said. “They never gave an explanation, and once the fighting was over no one ever asked, as far as I know. But they did take them, a group of ten or so from a settlement called Smithton.” She shook her head. “It was a shitty place to start with, they all suck there. But anyway, that abduction sparked a lot of conflict between the elves and humans. Crater wasn’t involved too much since we’re so far away, but a lot of the smaller ones around here were.”
She hesitated, and Ella picked up the story. “They were slaughtered. It was mostly orcs and dwarves doing the fighting at that point, and all that stuff Dad told you, Luke, about how strong and tough they are is true. They were probably killing three or four humans for every one of their own they lost. Humans had numbers on them, but at the rate they were going, they were still on track to lose. And Dad turned that around.” There was a touch of pride in her voice as she spoke. “He developed new ways to fight them, all that stuff he was telling you. All of a sudden, the settlements around here were winning battles instead of dying off. The elves started taking to the field themselves, and he killed them too. I think that’s what really shook them.
“Not long after that, this orc went around to different settlements, staying way back and shouting in broken English about how they wanted peace. No one wanted to do that while they were winning, of course, but they started running away any time they encountered humans, and over time the conflict more or less petered out. A couple years later someone from a settlement that didn’t fight with them got bold enough to walk up to Langrendi to try to trade and brought us to where we are today.”
She stopped to take a drink out of a waterskin.
“Was Carver really that important in the fighting?” Felicity asked, “or are you trying to hype him up?” Ella glared at her.
“You were there for the cryptsil. Imagine if he was about ten years younger when he took it on. It never would have made it out of the field.” She spoke forcefully, and Felicity held up her hands.
“Whoa, sorry. Didn’t mean to talk shit on him, I was just asking. Were you two still with him during all of that?
“Nah,” Angela said. Ella still looked a bit annoyed. “We’d both decided to stay in Crater about a year before that with Ander and Winnie. But I’ve heard the stories from people at the settlements out here more than enough to piece it together, believe me. Ella’s probably heard it even more, she gets out more than I do.”
Ella shrugged and took another swig from her waterskin as if it were a bottle. There was still a little alcohol around the caravan, but it was strictly rationed and no one was breaking it out without a special occasion.
“So what’s Ark like, then?” Luke asked. “We’re going there first anyway, right?”
“Ark…” Angela said. She glanced at Ella again, who snorted and laughed. “You’re gonna have to see that one for yourself. It’s too good to spoil.”
“They’re…devout, I’ll give them that,” Ella said.
Luke wondered what she could possibly mean, but no matter how he and Felicity pushed, the sisters wouldn’t budge on revealing the details. They insisted that they would have to wait to see for themselves.
The next three days of travel were the best Luke had experienced since leaving Crater. They soon left the barren desert behind for more temperate grassland, a landscape with more greenery than anywhere they’d been so far. Blankets of verdant moss and half-grown trees had sprouted from the wrecks that dotted the roadside, while the greenery a little farther off offered a rich environment well-suited for the hunting that supplemented their food stores and occupied the time of so many in their group.
Luke was still never a part of the excursions himself, of course, but the outlet was enough to defuse much of the tensions that he had worried would resurface upon the return of Simmons and the others. It helped that the mustached man was much less provocative than he had been; he made a few reconciliatory comments toward Ella and Angela and refrained from insulting their father further, a development that confused more than a few within his own faction and made Luke wonder if perhaps he hadn’t misjudged the man.
Tony still spent an odd amount of time with the guard and his group, but he no longer avoided Luke either. They didn’t speak every day, and the other boy didn’t bring up the subject of his orientation again, but it was enough for Luke that there was no longer a weird distance between them. He did at times feel alternately relieved and disappointed that Tony had never shown any specific interest in him; after the kiss early in their journey, he hadn’t displayed any further sign of romantic feelings toward Luke.
Nevertheless, the days passed much more quickly than before, and it wasn’t long before Luke found himself outside Ark’s walls. For the first time since starting their journey, the wagons had been forced to leave paved roads, following a dirt path up to the settlement. Luke felt a touch of nervousness standing before a settlement about which the only thing he knew was that it was highly religious, but he reassured himself by thinking that it couldn’t possibly be worse than Hobble. The traders, it seemed, had a different sort of worry; they looked visibly relieved when a guard met them and allowed them entry into the settlement. No one had been reluctant to voice their worry that their first two stops hadn’t resulted in any kind of trade.
The walls of Ark looked much sturdier than the cobbled-together structure that Luke had glimpsed at Darkend. They were made of actual brick and mortar, materials that couldn’t have been easy to come by. Three sides of the settlement were covered, while a river winding away protected the fourth. The gate looked less professional, a simple iron fence with wheels on the end. Everyone in the caravan along with the three wagons came through, while the guard raced off to inform others of their arrival.
“I didn’t notice anything weird about that guy,” Luke said to Angela in a low tone while they waited. “What were you talking about the other night?”
“Oh just you wait,” she grinned. “Give it a minute.”
A group of seven returned with the guard to greet them, all older men wearing beards with a fair amount of gray. One stepped forward to speak to them. He was a bald black man, even older than the rest, and relied on a gnarled length of wood to support him as he walked.
“Step forward, and let all of you be welcomed as guests within our Ark.” Despite his frail frame, his voice still carried a strong note of authority. He also spoke with a light accent that sounded African to Luke.
The traders arranged themselves into a line across the width of the street on which they stood. Everyone else unaccustomed to the settlement looked confused, but after a few meaningful looks from those more familiar with Ark’s customs, they filled in the line. Luke watched as the old men moved to one end of the line and leaned in to each caravan member for a moment before stepping down to the next person in line. It took a few seconds before he realized what was happening. Each person in line received a kiss on the cheek from each old man, and was required to give a kiss in turn before they moved on to the next person. Several of the security team in particular looked uncomfortable at the proceedings. Luke guessed that those were the ones who had never been to Ark before, since he shared much of their feelings. When it was his turn he looked around, but there was no option except to quickly touch his lips to the beard covering the face of the man in front of him. And then to repeat the action six more times.
No one refused and risked offending their hosts, but several people—including Tony—looked a little disgusted at the ceremony when it was over. Luke saw at least one guard covertly picking at his tongue for stray hairs. But the men who greeted them were beaming, and the same one who’d spoken before spread his arms wide.
“Welcome again, honored guests. I am Kiango, and my companions are the Stewards of Ark. We have much to discuss and many deals to make, but I suspect that none of it will not wait until tomorrow. For now, let us take your horses and wagons to our stable and allow us to feed and water you after your long journey.”
His short speech was greeted with much more enthusiasm, and while the drivers were taken by the guard who had let them in to drop off the wagons, everyone else followed the old men in another direction. It was still early afternoon, and the walk gave Luke his first good look at the inside of the settlement.
Unlike Darkend, Hobble, and Crater, which were located in old world towns and used repurposed buildings, Ark looked like it had been constructed from scratch. Some few buildings were made of the same type of brick as the wall—with no foundation—but most were built with some kind of adobe or clay. Nearly all of them, no matter the building material, were quite small, much more cramped than any old world home would have been.
Having been built from scratch, the urban planning of the settlement was also far more haphazard than anywhere else they’d been so far. There was one main dirt path that the old men were leading them down, but outside of that space it seemed that buildings had been erected without regard for any kind of overall design. Some were facing entirely different directions than others, and each had been placed to garner as much space between their neighbors as possible, regardless of whether that might inconvenience others.
Still, the amount of work it took to build what Luke couldn’t help thinking of as a shantytown must have been enormous. If nothing else, he couldn’t fault the work ethic of Ark’s people. They passed a few people going about what looked like their daily chores—carrying buckets down toward the river, hanging clothes on lines, slathering some kind of clear substance on the walls of their homes—but far more waited for them when they reached a small clearing near the river. Three long rows of tables had been set up, and twenty or so Ark residents were talking and laughing amongst themselves. There were even a few children running around by some sheets that had been spread out on the ground nearby.
“Sit! Rest, recover yourselves,” the spokesman said. “Food is being prepared now, it shall be brought out shortly.”
The caravan members complied, though a few waited for the veteran traders to do so first. There was less hesitation when the food started to arrive soon after, however. Deer, roasted carrots and other vegetables, fish, and even wine made for a meal that rivaled anything Luke had had in Crater. It had to be a strain on Ark’s resources to host so large a group, but no one made any mention of the hardship, only urging their group to eat more of the feast.
The hospitality far surpassed anything Luke expected. A few hours later, he’d almost forgotten Ark’s odd reputation and the strange greeting they’d had upon entering. Though he did little to try to speak to any of the residents, preferring to stay with Felicity instead.
“This stuff’s great,” she said, grabbing at yet another piece of meat. “Tons of iron too. I’m still trying to recover from everything at Hobble.” Her complexion had improved in the weeks since the fight, but there were still noticeable rings under her eyes.
“Yeah, I just wish I knew what their deal is,” Luke said in a low voice. He couldn’t get Ella and Angela’s laughter out of his mind, and he still worried what might happen if someone from Ark found out he was gay.
“Don’t be so ungrateful,” Felicity scoffed. “That kissing thing was kind of weird, but it’s not any worse than that hand grab stuff you did with Naomi.”
“Is anyone ever going to let that go?” Luke complained.
“Nah. But I bet if you talk to some of them, you’d find out that they’re not that bad,” she said. “Here, look.”
She stood up and held up her hand toward an Ark man circling the crowded tables.
“Hey, are you looking for a seat? I’m leaving anyway.”
Luke tried to covertly shake his head, but it was too late. The man had already made a beeline for them.
“Ah, you’re too kind, madam,” he said with a slight bow. His eyes crinkled as he smiled at her. “I pray I offer no offense, but I must ask. Has your time of the month already arrived?”
“WHAT?” Felicity asked, outraged.
“I apologize,” he said hurriedly. “Our faith does not permit us to share a seat with such a person without it first being cleansed.”
“So you think I’m unclean?” she asked standing up and glaring at him
Luke snorted into his cup and schooled his face into an innocent look as Felicity turned back to him. Before the uncomfortable-looking man could say anything, Ella appeared next to them as if from nowhere.
“Why don’t you move on, friend?” she said. She pulled Felicity out of his face. “Seems like there’s a bit of culture clash going on here.”
“Ah, yes of course,” he said with an apologetic frown. “I am sorry once again for any offense I caused. It’s easy to forget how different our ways are from outsiders.” He left quickly, while Felicity stared at his back, a look of disbelief still on her face.
“What the hell was that?” she asked, turning to Ella.
“Yeah, they’re weird,” the trader responded, speaking in a low tone. “But they’re mostly friendly, and we really need to trade with them, so I’d appreciate it if you could just let this go.”
“Fine,” Felicity said, tossing her hair. “I just didn’t expect to get interrogated about my period today.”
Luke gave her a meaningful look, which she didn’t deign to notice.
“Neither did I, my first time,” Ella said, smiling with amusement. “If it’s any consolation, I guarantee you just ruined that guy’s day. Hospitality’s a huge thing with these people, he’s probably going to take it pretty hard that he insulted a guest.”
“Yeah, well, I have to find somewhere to pee. Make sure everyone knows this spot’s tainted when they pass by. Maybe we should shout it out for the whole settlement, don’t want anyone dirtying themselves by sitting in this perfectly clean, blood-free spot.” Felicity kept grumbling as she walked down toward the river. She hadn’t bothered keeping her voice down, and a few more residents were looking over in her direction.
Ella sighed, still standing. “That girl’s going to get in a fight before we leave this place, I can feel it in my bones.”
“Yeah, I could see it happening,” Luke said, keeping his voice low.
“We really don’t have the luxury of pissing off an entire settlement. We need to trade with these people.” She sighed again as she caught sight of a guard getting red in the face as he argued with someone from Ark. “Can you keep an eye on her when she gets back? This is the last time we bring so many new people here at once.”
She hurried off to defuse the brewing situation. Luke returned to the remains of his food until Felicity sat down next to him. She still looked disgruntled at her earlier encounter.
“I take back everything I said before,” she said, folding her arms. “They’re weird here. How long are we staying again?”
“Just one day, I think,” Luke said. “And you want to say that a little louder? I don’t think they could hear you at the far table. Ella already looks like she’s gonna have an ulcer.”
Felicity snorted. “Maybe she should have warned us what we were walking into. It’s not like she didn’t know what to expect.”
“Is it that hard not to be a dick, though?” Luke said. “Yeah, that guy was pretty insulting, but he obviously wasn’t doing it on purpose. Getting in his face about it isn’t gonna make him rethink his whole religion.”
She gave him a strange look. “Yeah, but he should know not to do that. Is stuff like this super common in your world or something?”
Luke shifted uncomfortably. Felicity was still not making any effort to control her volume, and a few people from Ark were looking over interestedly after her last comment. One man in particular was staring at him with a slight frown on his face.
“Not really,” he said quietly, hoping she would follow suit. “I mean, you always hear about crazy religious people, but I never met any in person. But you always have to find some way to get along with people who are different than you. They’re just a bit more different than usual here.”
Fortunately, she finally seemed to realize his discomfort and lowered her tone. “I guess. But you’d think they’d have some idea of how to act around people who aren’t like them.”
Still feeling like people all around were watching him, Luke was reluctant to stay on the same subject. “Maybe. But at least the food’s good, right?” He took a big bite out of whatever meat was on his plate, and did his best to steer the conversation away from the odd nature of their hosts. A pit had formed in his stomach, and no matter how he tried he couldn’t shake a feeling of dread that crept over him. He was relieved when Ella stomped over to their table and told them to follow her, despite the deep scowl on her features.
“Come on. We’re done here,” she said, walking off with a trail of the caravaners following behind her. Luke and Felicity joined them, leaving the Ark residents behind. The farther they got from the tables, the better Luke began to feel.
But he still couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere, someone was watching him.