Across Gondwana’s Heart

by Rick Hollon

 When the chosen one rode into town, resplendent in crimson atop her Camarasaurus, the townsfolk cheered in the streets. Joll sat in the saloon, drinking away the memory of love.

The slop in Joll’s glass was nasty stuff, gingko-nut wine gone thick in the heat. They filled their glass and emptied it mechanically, eyes locked on a knot in the wood of the table in front of them. Joll’s coins were still good, for a little while yet, so the barkeep (thank the Five for small miracles) left them the bottle and went to holler with the rest, waving a red rag like a standard on her way out the door. The other patrons followed her, one or two sparing a knowing glance or a shake of the head in Joll’s direction.

Joll’s examination of the table was broken with a cautious shake on their shoulder. Soused or not, twenty years of fighting instincts still served them — Joll locked onto the hand and whipped the bottle up with the other, ready to strike.

A moment, then recognition. “Mirrim.”

The gray-haired woman smiled, and Joll released her wrist. Mirrim made no effort to hide her appraisal, and Joll made every effort not to care that she had found them washed up and dried out in a nowhere frontier town, still in the rumpled remnants of their old Errant uniform.

“Sorry,” Joll croaked, and scratched under their chin. Their mouth felt dry, and they grimaced at the empty glass on the table.

“I apologize, I failed to announce myself.” Mirrim rubbed her wrist. Joll saw she had left her own uniform behind long ago — she now wore the pale pink robes of the red dunes, with a crimson sash from shoulder to hip. Daggers were sheathed around her belt. She stood up straighter against her staff. “I heard about — well.”

Dendelon. Mirrim had the sense not to say his name, but it hung there in the stale saloon air regardless. Acid rose in Joll’s throat. They scowled at Mirrim and turned to drink from the bottle.

“May I sit?” When Joll didn’t acknowledge her, Mirrim tucked her robes and lowered herself onto the bench across from theirs. She sighed, and lightly touched their hand. “I’m sorry, my dear old friend. I couldn’t believe it when I — well.” She straightened, took the glass they had abandoned, and held it out. Joll scowled, then poured her a little gingko wine. “If you want to talk about him, I’m here.”

“You didn’t come to Five-damned Tvenkol to have me cry on your shoulder.” Joll’s tongue felt gummy. That was the most they had said in weeks. “What do you want?”

A dinosaur lowed outside the saloon. Having to be alert and converse with Mirrim cleared Joll’s head enough for them to get the sense of a vast herd in the town square just outside, the shouts of travel-weary folk in a dozen languages, an impromptu welcome-song from the local men, laughter. “What’s this you’re mixed up in, Mirrim?”

“A revolution,” Mirrim said, her eyes agleam with the fervor of belief. Then she smiled at Joll’s wariness and drank her wine in one swallow. “Well. You may not be interested in that, anymore. To you, I offer some coin and something to do. You know you can’t wallow in misery until it just — gets better. You aren’t made that way.” She slammed her glass on the table and gestured to the bottle. “There’s a fight coming. The biggest of our lives. I need someone I can trust, and you need some new scenery.”

Outside, a sauropod bleated from its nasal chambers, and the townsfolk cheered. Joll scratched their nail against the table. Their tongue felt thick and gritty. “I can help with the animals,” they said.

“Excellent!” Mirrim reached out to grasp their hand.

Joll stopped her with the flat of their palm. “I won’t be fighting, though. Not for this, not for anything.”

At dawn, Joll carried a knapsack that seemed only half as heavy as the pounding in their head. The townsfolk were already up, assisting the travelers with every manner of dinosaur. Wagons were being hitched behind camptosaurs. A few cranky dryosaurs were being urged into place ahead of luggage carts. Barrels of fresh water were being rolled into place, ready for loading. A couple ankylosaurs dozed on their feet near their handlers — trained war-riders who had somehow been won over to the cause, strapping on their own spiked shields and armor, now aflutter with red and pink tokens. Several of the town’s best fighters were in quiet talks with them, some with spears and bags already gathered at their feet.

Beyond the few monkeypuzzle trees along the river at the edge of town, Joll caught a glimpse of the chosen one’s Camarasaurus, a beautiful big female with a graceful neck and streamers of red flying from her shoulders, waiting placidly for the palanquin to be pulled and roped into place atop her back.

“That’s Billi.” A man, smiling handsomely through his patchy beard, pointed his waggoneer’s staff toward the sauropod. He had the green eyes and stringy hair of someone from the Antarctic but wore his desert robes with the ease of long experience. His eyes wrinkled in the corners. “Ever seen such a beaut? She has her own keepers. What a job, though, eh? Not that I can complain. My Roosan is the sweetest and trustiest campta ever hatched.” He gestured again, and Joll followed him to a sturdy camptosaur, already hitched skillfully to a wagon. She nuzzled her beak into the man’s hand, and he gave her snout a brisk rub. “Oh, and I’m Huym.”

Joll grunted, looking around for Mirrim or any other familiar face. Clearly, the chosen one’s following had been growing for some time, a rowdy mix of warriors and waggoneers and ranch-hands that suggested a journey across half of Gondwana to get here, and half of Gondwana yet to go. There were farmers armed with pitchforks alongside seasoned pike-fighters, all of them with bits of red dyed into their clothes or wrapped around their sleeves.

Joll rubbed their mouth with the back of their hand, looking for a chance to slink back to the saloon and lay low until these folks were long gone.

Mirrim swept out of the crowd, nodded to Huym. “This is my old friend, Joll.” Huym bowed in their direction. “They’ve agreed to help with the herds. Joll, toss your bag into Huym’s wagon, if you please. I want to introduce you to — well.” She looked toward Billi the Camarasaurus, now munching from the treetops.

They walked the rest of the town’s short street in silence. Warriors bowed respectfully to Mirrim, and the waggoneers doffed their hats or swept back their hoods to offer her a word of greeting. Where the road cut toward the river-ford, the chosen one’s inner circle had set up their own separate camp, guarded by burly veterans in red robes. They saluted Mirrim and waved the two of them through.

“I don’t mix with politics anymore,” Joll murmured.

“Ah,” Mirrim said, but beckoned them onward.

The chosen one’s tent was a simple thing, stretched hide adorned with a few feathers. A bearded older man sat sharpening a spear atop a log, the ashes of last night’s fire in front of his boots. His clothes were those of a middling farmer, but he wore a red star on his chest. He stopped his work and sat upright as Mirrim bowed to him. “This is Joll,” she said. “The one I spoke of.”

“She’s sleeping,” the man muttered, casting a suspicious eye over the clothes Mirrim had scrounged up for them last night. Clearly, he knew which uniform Joll had been wearing before.

Mirrim reluctantly turned to go, touching Joll’s arm, when the tent flap folded aside, and a young girl peeked out at them. Joll, unfamiliar with children, guessed she might have been ten or twelve. A red birthmark the shape of a thumb graced her forehead.

Mirrim bowed deeply toward her, but Joll just stared. After a moment, the girl padded out to them, gazed appraisingly into their eyes, and asked, “What’s your favorite dinosaur?”

The first day out of town, they marched through riverside fields and gallery forests, the air shaded and crisscrossed with dragonflies and tiny pterosaurs. When they left the river for the open desert, the chosen one’s caravan switched to night marches and sheltered where they could during the day.

Away from the river, the desert rolled in a mix of dunes and canyons far to the west, red sand wavering under pink and brown cliffs. Joll’s eyes watered in the heat as they made midday rounds of the animals, spotting the occasional pterosaur on an updraft before the sunlight made them wince and they couldn’t look up any longer.

Huym and Joll worked as a team with a handful of camptosaurs. Joll ran the rough brush down the dinosaurs’ leathery sides, then inspected their eyes, mouths, hooves, and cloacas for signs of cracking or inflammation. The row of bristles along their spines stood erect but flexible, showing good health. A stray sunbeam caught the bristles of one campta, and they shimmered with their secret iridescence.

Huym hummed tunelessly as he worked, pausing only to offer comments to each of his camptas while he picked and trimmed the keratin of their toe-claws. “Well done, Molzey, you’re already looking better! Atta boy.” He patted the campta’s shoulder and turned to Joll.

“You must’ve seen a lot of time in the stables — before. You’re a natural hand.”

Joll shrugged, coaxing open the jaws of their campta to investigate an impacted tooth. The animal shied its head away in clear discomfort, stomping its front paws without much heart.

“Mirrim’s brought in a couple others that were — easy there, girlie, I got ya — from the other side. Deserters, eh?”

“I don’t like to talk about those days.” The campta’s gum was swollen, the tooth blackened. The smell nearly made Joll cough. They shushed the animal, and after a moment it went still enough for them to have a closer look. The tooth was not falling out as worn-out teeth should and would need to be pulled.

Huym stroked the head of his campta, scuffing his boot in the dirt. “Understandable. I don’t — I don’t know what you all have been through, up here. Only what I’ve heard here and there.” He came over, and fell into synch with Joll, bracing the animal’s head against his hip while they set to work with the pliers. The campta thrashed and gurgled and stamped, but Joll finished and Huym let go at the same moment, the two of them jumping clear of any retributive claws.

Huym bent over to catch his breath from the effort. Joll sighed and turned around to find their canteen.

As they drank, Huym straightened up and dusted his hands on his robe. “I’ll just come out and say it, eh? Why are so many of you deserters joining up to fight your king?”

Joll paused, frowning at their canteen. Huym watched them, and Joll could tell he’d been working himself up to that question for some time. “I’m just here to look after these dinos,” they growled. Huym’s obvious disappointment made them relent. “Some sense of atonement. Trying to make things right.” They shrugged and drained off the canteen.

Huym hesitated, then came up and touched Joll’s shoulder. “I don’t think you believe that.”

 “Then what’d you ask me for?” They spat the lingering smell of the campta’s pus into the sand. “I’m just another deserter. Another Errant shitting up the world.”

“Are you?”

Joll slinked out from the shade of the tarpaulin, closing their eyes, and raising their face to the sun. “What’d you sign up for, then?”

Huym scuffed out beside them, shading his eyes to gaze out at the cliffs wavering along the horizon. “To see the world!” he said and laughed.

Despite themselves, Joll cracked half a smile.

Huym placed his hand on Joll’s shoulder, lingering just a moment this time. Huym’s smile faded. “What they all said made sense, when they came to my town. Make things right. Overthrow that nasty bastard. Bring peace to Gondwana, eh? But — it doesn’t always make sense to me, anymore. The animals, they make sense. They’re our herd, and we’re theirs. Just like the heir — we’re her herd, and she’s ours, too. She’ll lead us right.

“But… the others, the soldiers, the leaders, can get me all gummed up here” — he tapped his forehead — “and I just don’t know, sometimes.”

Huym, trusting his animal, napped against Roosan’s belly in the tarpaulin’s shade. Joll wished they had a drink. They thought about trudging back across the dunes to Tvenkol. Or maybe striking away southward, toward the Antarctic, away from this heat and this political foolery.

 Joll tried not to think about Dendelon. They stalked faster around the camp, flexing their fists, grinding their teeth.

They looked toward Billi the Camarasaurus, long neck stretched down to slurp water from a trough in the back of one of the wagons. Joll had no idea how these fools expected to keep that sauropod going across the open desert. Sauropods were built for desert life, but a dune crossing was another matter entirely. She was too big to shade, and while her barrel body regulated heat with marvelous efficiency, another two or three days like this and she would drink their water stores dry. Joll didn’t want to see such a beautiful animal suffer, certainly not for the sake of who might sit on this throne or that on the other end of Gondwana.

Mirrim was at their side before they heard her movement, matching their pace. “I’m happy to see you doing something again, after all these years.”

Joll rubbed their nose. They said nothing.

“You never used to be this cynical when I knew you. You saw the same things I did with the Errants. You saw — well. We both did things we need to atone for. We both left. Dendelon too. There’s a reason we three washed up in the Eastlands.”

“No good reasons to head back West.”

“Ah. But there are — there’s one.”

“Some farm kid? The ‘lost heir’? Granddaughter of the same asshole we deserted.”

“You haven’t seen her, truly. You haven’t seen what she can do.” Joll bit their tongue at the reverence in her voice. “Give it time. You’ll understand why we’re fighting at her side soon.” She slapped their shoulder and smiled. “Come. Let’s do some drills together, like old times.”

“I won’t be fighting. Not what I signed up for.”

“Well.” Mirrim caressed the hilts of her daggers, one by one. “Where we’re going, you might be grateful to get a little practice in, regardless.”

The next town the chosen one entered flew the king’s flag and did not welcome them. Joll refused to leave the supply wagons, working with Huym to keep the animals calm as fire-arrows and the lows of wounded dinosaurs filled the evening air. Huym breathed hard and seemed to be comforting himself with the presence of the dinosaurs as much as the other way around.

The fingernail moon set above the burning town, lost in the smoke.

Afterward, while the caravan set up camp in the town’s square, pulling up bucket after bucket from the well to put out fires and replenish their supplies, Joll stalked away, boots crunching on gravel, sweeping past the shriveled nubs of cycads that would open only during scarce desert rains. They walked and muttered and kicked at stones, ignoring the skitters and shrieks of night pterosaurs sweeping just above them, and the flies they fed on. An arroyo opened ahead of them and they stumbled on, picking their way down into a dry canyon where they sat on a shelf of basalt and cried for a while.

When they stilled, they still heard quiet weeping. Not far away, just around a bend in the canyon.

Joll moved as quietly as they could in the dark. If it was an escaped villager, they’d make an offering — a canteen, a knife, and companionship on a long walk south. Instead, they crept around the bend and saw the chosen one, face buried in her hands, sitting amid the ferns and moss that grew around a seep on the canyon’s floor.

They froze. The girl looked up.

“Please,” she whispered, and even though Joll didn’t know what she meant, they padded over and sat near her, on the moss.

The two of them sat quietly in the dark, accompanied only by the whirrs of night-beetles and the occasional brave croak of a frog.

“You’re sad all the time,” the chosen one said into the night.

Joll poked at the moss beneath them, and the girl waited patiently. They couldn’t explain why they answered, “Grownup things. Love. The past. Seems a bit silly after tonight.”

“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way,” she said, and her head sank to her knees and her shoulders shook for a while. Not knowing what else to do, Joll gently proffered their canteen. The girl sat up straighter and took it from them, drank, hiccupped. She wiped her nose with the sleeve of her robe.

“Where would you be, if you could go anywhere?” she asked.

“With a — certain man I used to know.” Joll swallowed against a rising lump in their throat. “Maybe down in Zealandia. Live in a little shack in the rainforest, above a beach. Go swimming first thing every morning.”

“I’ve never seen a rainforest, or a beach.” The chosen one picked at the ferns around her, tracing her fingers along their blades. “Are there different dinosaurs there?”

 Joll nodded but didn’t trust their voice to speak.

“I’d want to walk the whole world with Billi,” the kid said. “She’s been with me since before I can remember. My dad and I — we found her in the fields, he told me, separated from her herd. Just a calf then, really. I always wanted to help her find her family. If they even remember her.” She sniffled. “Everyone says my grandfather is a bad man.”

“A real shithead,” Joll said. The girl laughed suddenly, her voice echoing up and down the canyon. The lone frog, startled, belly-flopped into the seep. “I was — I was in the Errants. Mirrim and Dendelon and I. We did bad things for the king.”

“Like burn villages,” she whispered. Joll had no response to that.

They sat in silence. Once they heard a voice far away, calling for the chosen one, but the night swallowed up the shouts and filled in every crevice and canyon with quiet once more.

 “I don’t want to be my grandfather,” the girl murmured.

“It isn’t you I’d be worried about.”

“They all say I have a — a destiny.” She sighed, a sigh which the canyon picked up and turned into a chilly wind, a downdraft sweeping through the ferns and rustling their hair. She looked up at them, and to Joll’s eyes she suddenly seemed so small, so young, just a lost kid far from any home she had ever known. “Someone needs to overthrow the king.”

Someone does,” Joll agreed.

“Why did it have to be me?”

Joll had no answer. The frog, emboldened, croaked once more.

Many days later, Joll woke spooning Huym, who snored gently and drooled into his beard. Joll sat up, doing their best not to disturb him, and smiled down at the young man.

Joll dressed and slipped out of the wagon. They nodded greetings to the other waggoneers, ruffled the fuzz of a campta or a dryo here and there, exchanged some pleasant words with Mirrim, who was up and running a sparring session for the newer recruits despite the heat of the day. “Come show your skills later,” she suggested, and Joll made a show of considering it before they nodded.

The red-garbed guards made way for Joll at the chosen one’s camp. The old man — Webann, the girl’s mother’s father — scowled at Joll but let them pass.

Joll found the girl with Billi and a couple of Billi’s caretakers, all of them concerned and examining Billi’s claws and footpads. The sharp stones they had been crossing in this stretch of desert had cut her badly.

“She needs another path,” Joll offered, and the caretakers took a step back, visibly miffed at their intrusion but offering no protests in front of the chosen one.

Webann grunted to his feet and huffed up behind Joll. “We’re nearly to the mountains, soldier. Just a few more nights’ travel and she’ll be fine. Soft, green walking all the way to the palace.”

Joll shrugged, as if to say it was Webann’s business to know what was best. But the chosen one stepped out from under her Camarasaurus, her face scrunched up and tearstained. “She’s in so much pain, Pa. I don’t want her feeling this!”

And so it was that Joll and Huym found themselves staying behind as the others picked up camp that evening. Roosan — hitched up to their water-heavy wagon — was confused, honking again and again, impatient to follow those who had become her herd. Huym kept a firm hold on her lead and spoke gentle words to her.

Joll had been entrusted with Billi’s lead. Webann had warned them that the big sauropod would only follow the girl, that she would be impossible to control and would drag Joll along the ground as soon as listen to them. Instead, when Billi stood placidly and didn’t even pull on her line, Webann rubbed his jaw, squinted at Joll, and nodded his goodbyes. They watched the caravan pick its way across the stony flats; calcite dust stirred into the evening air behind them. Somewhere a pterosaur fluted its call.

Huym murmured to his campta once more, then turned to Joll. Now that the plan was in motion, the man was clearly on the verge of panic — breathing hard, rubbing sweat from his eyes, keeping it together solely for the sake of Roosan. “We’re in it now, eh?”

The chosen one stirred from her hiding place and hopped out of the wagon. Billi craned her long neck down and nuzzled her big snout against the girl, who clung tight in silent communion for long minutes.

At last she turned, nodded to Huym’s awkward bow, and grinned at Joll. “South,” she said.

“South,” they agreed. The road would be hard, especially for Billi. But it could be done.

They began walking, Roosan pulling the wagon, Billi following with careful strides. Huym and Joll and the chosen one picked their way through the stones in the darkening night.

“My name is Kara,” the girl said, and they all walked on.

Rick Hollon (they/them or fey/fem) is a nonbinary queer writer and dinosaur enthusiast from the American Midwest. Feir work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prismatica, Kaleidotrope, (mac)ro(mic), Pastel Pastoral, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter @SailorTheia or visit their website:


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