This story was written as part of a prompt to write about our characters as children.
“Rajah” Mother warned a second time, slapping her caravan driver’s crop against her palm. The dark haired child rolled her eyes and, with a mighty grumble, heaved herself out of her bedroll, tangled ebony hair falling around her scrawny form like a knotted shawl.
“Why can’t you do business while I sleep?” she complained, high pitched and sleepy, “I won’t even listen.” but Mother’s mouth was a hard gash in her brown face, eyes dark as thunderheads, so Rajah slipped into her tunic and slid down from the moving wagon box, wincing as bare feet hit the rocky soil. The man walking behind the wagon sneered at her, then hoisted himself up through the canvas doorway, dusted bony rear end wobbling comically as the wagon dipped and swayed until Mother’s ruddy arm reached out to haul him inside.
Bereft of her comfy sleeping perch, Rajah pirouetted haughtily as the caravan rolled past, green eyes taking in the many carts of trade goods they were bringing back from Hell Dorado. Alongside each wagon strode a guard, and here and there the bright skirts of her sisters flashed in the sun as they moved from wagon to wagon, herding her cousins and securing inventory.
“Evicted again?” Luka’s voice teased from a passing wagon. Rajah stuck her tongue out as he jumped down to walk beside her.
“What’s she even doing in there anyways?” Rajah scowled up at him, squinting against the noon sun, “She already counted out her payments this morning, I watched her.”
Luka just laughed, scooping her up in his arms and throwing her on his back. Rajah squealed in delight then clapped a hand over her mouth, remembering what happened the last time she’d been too loud. The grey formed monsters appearing out of the fog, the rustling of their slow shamble, and how close one had come to her before she heard its low moan and felt its grasping fingers on her back. Luka had saved her then, the flash of his rifle piercing the fog and the creature’s skull. That was why he was her favorite brother.
This month anyways. Last month it had been Amir, for the gift of the silver handled knife she carried tucked in her waistband, the one she had sliced at the monsters with as they crawled towards her, clawing at her bare feet.
“Sorry.” she whispered hastily.
“No worries, little one, there are no Shamblers in Vegasia.” Luka reassured her, “Look! We’re almost home.” he pointed up the gulch and Rajah squinted, shading her browned face with an even browner hand. There in the distance she saw a flash, like a mirage.
“The Glass City.” Luka explained, “You were born there, though you won’t remember it. We left when you were five.”
“I remember!” Rajah said indignantly, “There was a man with blue shoes!”
Luka laughed, tickling her knees with his fingers. “That’s just a phrase, silly!”
“Nuh uh! I saw him!” she insisted, certainty flooding across her small face, “He said I was a good dancer! That I should keep on feeling the riddum!”
“Rhythm” Luka corrected, “The rhythm.”
“That’s what I said! Riddum! And he did a thing with his fingers, like this!” she tapped her small fingers on the corners of Luka’s mouth.
In a flash, her brother slid her back to the ground, crouching so that they were eye to eye. “Listen Raj, you have to be careful with what your hands are saying. Out here in the desert, people don’t know the signs, but in there” he pointed at the city rising above the dirt, “they see everything.”
Rajah bit her lip, was Luka angry at her? The hand sign didn’t seem that dangerous, just taps, like the kisses Mother gave her when she tucked her in.
“Who sees everything, Luka?”
He frowned at her then, her always-smiling brother, and traced a symbol in the dirt at her feet. The same symbol that had been painted on their wagons the night Kit had come in a roar of metal and exhaust and her Uncle had died at the crossroads. The night the caravan and everything they owned had been burned and Mother had to lead them across the desert to Hell Dorado covered in soot and ash.
“But they won’t see me, will they Luka?” Rajah had hidden that night, hidden so well that after the screaming stopped and the survivors had counted the bodies, it took her sisters hours to find her hidden under the bits of scrap and burned canvas.
“You are small and fast, but Kit sees everything on the road. If they come for you, there is only one sign you can do. Here, I’ll teach you.” Luka grabbed her wrist, held her hand up in front of her face and, pinching her knuckles, raised each fingertip in turn, chanting,
“Fourth finger for promises” He wrapped her pinky around his own,
“Thumb for the sleepers,” Rajah giggled as he popped her thumb in her mouth like a babe,
“First finger for secrets,” lips curved in a smile as he shushed her with her own index finger.
“and Second for the Reapers.” his green eyes gleamed with hatred.
“If the Reapers find you, Raj, you remember which finger to give ‘em.”