E.P. Kale had been walking for days without food or shelter. Her skin, clothes, and hair all bore an even coating of road grime. There were three large gouges that ran from the base of her neck, down her sternum, and onto her right hip. The jagged slash in her dusty floral dress curled away from the wound; the blood was dry, but the cut was puffy and angry-looking. The short heel of her right boot was snapped off entirely, and she walked with a limp, maybe because of this, maybe from an unseen injury. The hem of her skirt and much of the ends of her hair along her left side was charred, and had crumbled away entirely in some parts. She was slouched forward, a battered suitcase in one hand, a white-handled Colt Peacemaker in the other. She staggered forward in irregular, sporadic steps. It was less like she was walking, and more like she was in a perpetual state of nearly-falling, kept aloft and going only by an uncertain momentum. Cap’n Bill kept pace with her, his face droopier than ever.
Epaphroditus Wise III had been sleeping underneath a wide, shady oak two miles outside of the Crystal City for about three hours. He had woken up about twenty minutes before. The sun dappled across his chest and hands, birds twittered in the branches, a nice breeze sent dandelion seeds floating in the warm air. It was the perfect condition to pluck out a few tunes on his well-worn banjo, his only traveling companion. A week and a half ago, he had been dropped by his last tutor, the one his mother said was the best, his last chance. Eppa wanted to please his parents, he really did. And when he first got to Salmons, he really did try to study. He spent hours trying to read, and about a month into his studies, he became overwhelmed and gave up again. A month after that, his tutor gave up on him, and sent Eppa home, with a letter of regret to his parents. Eppa had fully intended on returning home, but he decided to take the scenic route. His parents would not have missed him an extra week or two.
He had just begun to strum a few chords when E.P. rounded the copse of tall honeysuckles that blinded him from the rest of the road. At first, he assumed she was just one of the many down-on-their-luck citizens who flocked to the Crystal City daily, hoping for a fresh start. But then he noticed the blood. And the burns. The limp. The expression of delirium and pain.
He immediately scrambled to stand and knocked his banjo and fedora off of his lap in his fervor to get to where E.P. was shuffling along. “Miss? Miss? Ma’am?”
E.P. did not acknowledge his presence, but just continued in her zombie-like manner down the dirt road. Eppa easily overtook her shuffling gait and positioned himself in front of her, forcing E.P. to come to a wobbling stop. E.P. blinked groggily up at him and swayed violently forward, only barely keeping her balance. Eppa reached out to grab on to her shoulders, to steady her. E.P. twitched her arm backwards and almost toppled over, but Cap’n Bill tipped her back to equilibrium with a strong nudge of his nose to the back of her thigh.
“Touch me,” she croaked, “and I will shoot you dead between the eyes.” It was only then that Eppa noticed the gun in her hand. She managed to c.ock the hammer, and point it roughly in the direction of Eppa’s face. E.P. tried to take another step forward, but stumbled.
Eppa immediately stepped forward to catch her, hooking his arms underneath hers. With a swiftness and grace that he wouldn’t have expected from someone who could hardly walk on their own, E.P. placed the muzzle of her gun directly between his eyebrows.
“Get your dirty paws offa me,” E.P. said, with surprising lucidity.
Now, Epaphroditus Wise III had never been held at gunpoint and, as he had been told once or twice in his life, he maybe wasn’t the most intelligent of men. But the lady was putting almost all of her weight on him and if he let go like she asked, she’d fall right down onto the floor. She wouldn’t shoot him, anyway. She couldn’t. She was just a little girl. She couldn’t be any older than him, at least. But it was hard to tell, what with the dirt, and blood, and look of pain-derived delirium on her face. There was something, though, in her eyes. A flash, now and then, of something wild. Something like the look of a spooked horse. Regardless, against his better judgement, he didn’t budge.
“B-but...you need help,” he said, despite the cold metal of the gun’s muzzle pressed sharply against his forehead.
“I warned you,” E.P. whispered. Though her eyelids were fluttering and her knees were buckled, her mouth was set with determination. With the last of her strength, she pulled the trigger. Eppa squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact. There was a hollow click, but his skull felt very much intact. E.P. fainted away completely, collapsing like a rag doll and slamming her face hard into the packed dirt of the road. Her pistol and battered suitcase fell to the ground. Eppa looked at Cap’n Bill. Cap’n Bill looked at Eppa. No one moved for a long time. The only sound was E.P.’s labored breathing. Finally, Eppa picked up the fallen suitcase, tucked the pistol into his belt, and hefted E.P. over his shoulder. He wasn’t sure of the most proper way to carry a unconscious woman, but the nearest civilization was a good few miles away, and this method seemed just as good as any.
In her few fleeting moments of fogged consciousness, her eyelids had fluttered open just enough to pierce her through with shard-like glimpses of a shockingly white room. Nothing was white back home. Just endless stretches of gray.
E.P. concluded that she had died in the tornado. Now, she wasn't a deeply religious girl, but she reckoned that seeing her family amongst the wreckage of the house, climbing impossible ice mountains in the middle of the desert, and fighting dragons, all of that was a divine test. And this white room was heaven. She just had to wake up enough to enjoy it, but her eyelids were just so heavy and her head ached something fierce and where was Cap’n Bill and did dogs even go to heaven and how did she make it into heaven in the first place and she could not move her legs.
Eppa had similarly concluded that E.P. must have been some sort of fallen angel whose descent to Earth had been rough. Or better, an angel sent down to help the poor spirits below. But she did try to shoot him in the brain... but she was also breathtakingly beautiful, all surrounded by white fabric and soft light. Did angels have bulldogs and hold pocket knives between their breasts? (Not that he checked, of course...just what the nurse had said...) All in all, Eppa came to the same conclusion he came to every day, for every situation: he just didn't know.
It had been three days since Eppa had carried E.P. the several miles to the Crystal City and into the first hotel he could find. He had the frightened woman at the front desk call in a medic, who had swept in, and artfully tended to E.P.’s sundry wounds.
“What on Earth happened to this poor child?” the doctor asked, examining E.P.’ most obvious injuries.
Eppa shrugged helplessly from the corner or the room in which he had been ordered to stand after he had knocked over a case of glass medicine bottles within three minutes of the doctor’s arrival.
“Son...I hate to ask, but... did you do this to her? I know, sometimes, domestic disputes can get...well, out of hand. Especially if alcohol is involved...” The doctor trailed off but kept eye contact with Eppa the whole time.
It took Eppa a rather long time to realize what the doctor was insinuating. “What? Oh, oh, no ma’am. I don’t even...we aren’t... I don’t know this girl at all ma’am. I came across her exactly as-is along the road out of the city...right near that rhubarb farm. The one that has a smiling cat on the sign? Anyways, ma’am, she fainted just as she was passing me, and I saw how rough she looked, and I thought it was my civic duty to help her to safety.”
“Pretty ritzy place, for not knowing her at all,” the doctor said, dubiously.
“It was the first hotel I came to,” Eppa said, “and she was getting heavy.”
Eppa spent the rest of the day hovering listlessly outside of E.P.’s door or out in the courtyard where they had to chain Cap’n Bill up. The dog was not permitted in the hotel, and he was not happy about being separated from his unconscious mistress. He had just returned to his spot in the high-backed chair outside the hotel room door, when the doctor finally emerged with her little leather bag.
“She should be fine. I guess that she would be quite tired, because of her state, so she may remain asleep for quite a while, but she is quite well now. She had a broken rib, a badly sprained ankle, and the cut across her stomach was pretty infected. She had lots of little bruises and scratches, and strangely enough, both burns and frost burns. Those are all still there, but she’s a young thing. Her body should heal up soon enough.” The doctor handed Eppa the considerable bill. “If it’s true that you don’t know what happened, I’m sure you’re in for quite the story. And this girl is very much indebted to you.”
Eppa took the bill, like everything else in his life, in stride. He slipped it into his trouser pocket and sat himself on the chaise situated across from the bed. There he waited for two days. He took his meals in the room, always keeping one eye on the sleeping stranger he was paying astronomical doctor and hotel bills for, in case she should wake up. He had just drifted off to sleep on the chaise when E.P. finally woke up with a start.
Her eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright. She immediately regretted the action as sharp pains shot through her ribs and abdomen. That’s right...she was hurt. More gingerly, she slid out of bed. She looked down to assess her injuries and noticed she was no longer in her travelling clothes, but the long cotton nightdress from her suitcase...and nothing else. Some one had completely undressed her and dressed her again, and who knew what they did in between. For the first time, E.P. realized that she might not be alone in the room. She turned slowly to survey the room and her eyes fell on the man sleeping on the purple couch across from the bed, as if he had fallen asleep watching her. Pervert. She quickly located her knife on the bedside table and crept closer. He was young and tall, two elements that could handicap her in a fight. Buthe was pale, real pale, and kind of skinny. His facial features were sort of birdish or reedy. Somehing about them was slightly feminine despite his ridiculous-looking moustache. He looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place him. It was almost as if she had dreamt about him in the past. E.P. figured she could take him in a fight.
She crouched down next to him, despite her body’s protest, and pulled her little knife out of its sheath and held it a hair’s width from his throat before whistling loudly through her teeth. He lurched forward and almost cut his own throat for her. E.P. pulled her hand away quickly to avoid killing him before she got the answers she wanted.
Eppa was startled at first, but visibly relaxed once he realized the situation. “This again?”
“What do you mean by that?” E.P. asked, her eyes narrowed.
“It’s just that you already tried to shoot me in the head, so, this is sort of, well, you know, the same thing over again,” he explained with an air of nonchalance.
E.P. closed the minuscule gap between the knife’s sharp edge and Eppa’s throat without drawing blood. “If you think I won’t do it, because I’m a lady or something, you are greatly mistaken, sir.”
“No, I believe you, since the only thing that stopped you last time was that you were out of ammo,” he said, wincing when E.P. pressed the knife just hard enough into his throat that a thin line of blood sprung up under the blade.
“What the hell are you going on about?” E.P. demanded.
“Um, you know, that time a few days ago when you were stumbling, half-dead, down the road, and I tried to help you out, but you weren’t too happy about that, (similar to the situation we are currently in), and you put your gun to my head and told me to back off, but I didn’t because I didn’t want you to fall down, so you pulled the trigger and my entire life flashed before my eyes, (it was really boring), but I didn’t die and then you fainted?” Eppa said, all in one breath, trying his damnedest to sink all the way through the couch. “Remember?”
E.P. simply blinked at him. “No,” she said.
“Well, I brought you to this hotel and got a doctor to fix you up. You’ve been out for three days,” he said, slowly creeping his hand upward to slowly curl around E.P.’s wrist. He tried to push her hand gently away, but she did not budge. “How about you put the knife down, and we talk about it?”
She licked her lips in thought and slowly removed the knife from Eppa’s throat, and stood with a groan. She felt like she had been thrown from a horse, but seven times worse. She wiped her knife on the skirt of her dress. “Alright, kid--”
“Where am I?” E.P. asked, easing herself slowly back onto he bed.
Eppa wiped at his still-bleeding throat. “Charlotte Hotel,” he said simply.
“Crystal City,” he repeated. E.P. stared at him. “You know...our capitol?”
E.P. shook her head. “Capitol of what? Oklahoma?”
“Never heard of it. Crystal City, Eleventh Kingdom. You must have hit your head pretty damn hard,” Eppa said with an uncomfortable laugh.
E.P. was not laughing. Her entire body hurt, she wasn’t entirely sure she hadn’t been kidnapped, and this man was trying her patience. She could accept a great many things with little protest, but this was just absurd. “What kingdom?”
Eppa was incredulous. She wasn’t fooling. “...The Eleventh.”
E.P. sat up slowly. She went to rub her temples, but discovered a tender goose-egg on her forehead instead. She winced and let her hand fall to her lap. “Listen. I don’t really care what number kingdom I’m at. My name is E.P. Kale. I am from central Kansas in the United States of America. My head hurts, I’m starving, and I want my dog. These words that you’re saying to me, kid, they mean nothing. I’m willing to accept that there is a frozen mountain in the middle of the plains, that I killed a dragon up there, narrowly avoided being mauled by a sea serpent and a band of gypsies, only to pass out from exhaustion and wind up, mostly undressed, in a hotel room with a man who claims he jumped right through all sorts of hoops to help a perfect stranger. I am, however, not willing to accept that this same man does not have the common courtesy to fetch supper.”
By the time Eppa returned with supper and Cap’n Bill, E.P. had managed to gingerly change into her younger brother’s britches and a corset, though she didn’t dare to lace it tight in case it worsened her injured ribs. She felt a little better in real clothes and felt even better when Cap’n Bill dragged Eppa into the room.
“I hope chicken is okay,” he said.
“Perfect,” E.P. said. She felt suddenly guilty now that she was feeling more relaxed. She had been quite rude to her knight in shining armor, and he had been nothing but helpful. She realized she didn’t even know his name yet. She sat down next to him on the chaise. “I’m sorry about all that. You know. Pulling the gun on you. And the knife. I reckon I’m just a hair defensive at times. May I ask your name?”
“No harm done,” he said, dismissively. “My name is Epaphroditus Wise. The third. I don’t like saying “the third,” but I also don’t like being confused for my father, so...”
E.P. nodded. “Well, Mr. Wise,” she said, reaching into her pants pocket, “I only have paper money and I’m not sure it’s worth anything outside of Kansas, let alone the whole nation.”
“I didn’t expect you to pay me back,” Eppa interrupted. “Please, don’t worry about it. It’s just money.”
“And time. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than look after me,” E.P. said. Eppa did not argue with her, even though she was sorely mistaken in this assessment. “I am obliged to pay you back. It would be unfitting of my dignity to be so indebted to a stranger. Do you have gambling halls here? Bars with card games?”
“Yes, but I’m lousy,” he said.
E.P. smiled and propped her feet up on the table. “But I’m not. I know you’ve already wasted a lot of your time on me, but if you could just tolerate me for a few more days, I think I should be able to pay you back in full. With interest if you’d like,” she said.
“I suppose it wouldn’t kill me to stick around a few days more,” he said. “Just to, you know, make sure you get situated."
"Two days, tops."
SORRRRRRRY this story is late, and rambly, and mostly dull, obvious exposition. I don't expect you to read it all. It was written over the course of some time, on various computers, and is mostly for my own character development purposes. Here is the TL;DR version. "Girl meets boy, tries to kill him twice, owes him an insane sum of money, vows to pay him back, they ride off into the sunset to gamble and cause havock, the end."