THE TATTERED CLOUDS LOOSED THEIR HOLD ON THE MOON.
Across the endless dunes, she ran. Though she loved the stars, the Alvani kept her eyes low and didn’t notice the meteors that shot like needles through the black. Only once in a while did she lift her gaze to the sky and locate the great star Om, that northern stinger of the great scorpion constellation.
Thoughts came unbidden and left the same way. Nothing but her pace, the in-and-out of her breath. She was used to running in arid lands, but the sand giving under her small feet slowed her. Still, the girl pushed on, forcing herself up one dune and down another, again and again and again.
She was alone, but for her shadow and the moon.
She glanced back, mindful of her tracks. She kept expecting to see them, dogging after her on the horizon. Who would come first, she wondered? The Yagazi? The Heart-Eater, with his black eyes and sharpened smile? Or would it be him, the pale man, riding across the dunes on his white mare, with his black coat and eyes like cold water.
What would she do when they found her? What could she do?
But the hours passed, the dunes unspooled behind her, and no one came.
The pale moon was already high when a new moon rose. Lurdas was a shy body, dark and half-lost in the galactic ribbons of light. Its pocked face emitted a light of its own, of course, but the girl's eyes were not yet the kind that could see it.
Time passed. Overhead the moons rode the axis of night, and a thousand shooting stars blazed to their doom. The girl - small, wiry, with browned skin and a mane of copper locks - knew she should feel encouraged. She should have been caught by now, which meant she'd run well. Instead, she worried. What if they'd missed her trail? What if they'd followed Nali instead? The thought made her stomach seize. Once more, she pictured the obsidian arrowhead, the shaft's black shine as Nali pulled it free. She imagined the huntress limping into the wastes, holding a bloodied hand to her back as the faceless horde bore down.
"Find me," panted the girl. "Find me, I'm the one you want."
She prayed to Hada. The Mother-Turtle was not a god to the Alvani, of course, but she was gentle and wise just the same. Hada looked after the Piken, and Nali was deserving of her protection.
When the sky began to pale, the girl slowed, then stopped on the lip of a blowing dune. She swayed, hands on her hips, nostrils flared. Her body was shaking, and she was slick with sweat despite the cold. She'd meant to strike a more moderate pace, but her adrenaline had made promises her body could not keep. Dizzied, she dropped her pack and half-sat, half-collapsed into the sand.
Minutes passed in unthinking silence.
At last, she reached into her pack, fished out the water-skin, and drank. Cool and sweet, water from the oasis. She corked it long before she wished. She couldn’t know the length of her journey, for she had no destination, and she could not afford to waste water. She stared at the skin with longing. It was large and heavy, trimmed with cabra fur and stitched with running red foxes. It did not belong to her.
"You'll need it more, believe me," Nali had whispered to her.
"But what about you?"
"I'm the huntress; you let me worry about that."
"They'll kill you-"
"They'll have to catch me, first," said the Piken, bouncing on her long legs. "And we both know they can't do that."
"There's no time, Mikayla," said Nali. "You must run, pup. Go on, now, run!"
She'd been too stunned to argue. She'd believed the bony huntress with the jaunty smile, but as the Piken turned and ran full-sprint into the desert, Mikayla had pictured again the pain in those eyes - the exhaustion and, yes, the fear - and realized that she'd been handled like the child she was. Nali had made bait of herself, but it was the Alvani they wanted - the last of the Alvani. If they tracked her and found Nali instead, they'd kill her for sure.
The girl Mikayla pulled off her sandals. Her feet were raw beneath the leather cords, and beginning to blister. After a life with the Piken, blisters were nothing to her. She massaged them, sweat-slicked and shivering, then drew her knees to her chin and watched the day being born.
Iron thawed into nickel, then brightened into silver. Soon colors unfurled in the eastern sky. When the sliver of sun broke on the horizon, Mikayla met its burning gaze head-on. She stared, eyes trembling and red. When she could no longer take the pain, the little Alvani closed her eyes and laid her head on her knees.
Memories festered in the dark. A chaos of images: fire and shadow, the cruel faces of strangers and the gleam of sharp metal. She saw the hand of the pale man, waxen against black silk. She saw Khoen, the haunted look in his eyes. And again and again, she saw the weathered stone fall from the massive hand of the Heart-Eater, watched it tumble through the air and breach skull with a crimson thud.
Her eyes snapped open. She stood and hoisted her pack. With a glance behind her, she stumbled down the smooth dune face and up the next.
The sun rose and condensed into hard white fire. The chill fled; Mikayla's skin prickled and she began once more to sweat. The sand beneath her feet drank the heat and turned gold. An hour later, it began to shimmer.
She'd counted on being caught; she never imagined she'd last the night. She jogged faster, pausing only to cover her head and shoulders with Jola's shawl. She kept her head on a pivot, and searched with growing desperation for wayward boulders, trees, any source of shade. There were none. Gone were the hills of rock and bramble, the beached stone formations like the worn teeth of giants that they'd passed on the way to the oasis. Now, there were only dunes, endless and deadly.
And a darkness in the north.
She stopped; her eyes narrowed. The knife-edge of horizon was blurring, expanding like a darkened sponge into the sky. She frowned. Mikayla was no stranger to the chicanery of heat, but this was no mirage. Were those clouds, perhaps, or mountains? Her hopes rose. Clouds could mean rain, and mountains meant shade and sweet water. As she watched, however, the knife-edge blurred more, as if the sand were fusing to the hot pan of sky. The darkness rolled over itself in slow-motion. Mikayla recognized, at last, the faceless entity crawling toward her.
The realization punched the air from her chest. A sandstorm of that size could snatch life from the unprepared, and Mikayla was anything but prepared. To travel in it was out of the question; even sheltered, the sands would batter and bury her. With mounting panic, she scoured the land for refuge, but that was hopeless. There was not a single landmark for miles around. She turned and looked back the way she'd come.
And saw men on the horizon.
Mikayla ducked down, fast, then crawled behind the lip of dune. Had they seen her? Slowly, she peered over the edge. The dunes trembled in blank perpetuity.
Suddenly, the men crested a distant rise. She counted them. One, two... three specks on gold. They jogged in a thin line, up one dune and then another, consuming her little steps with long strides of their own.
She turned back to the swiftly growing wall of sand.
"Run," she breathed, but there was nowhere to go. The figures moved with frightening speed. As they danced through the shivering ether, they started to resolve themselves. This was not the pale man, she realized, and though one of them was large, he was not the Heart-Eater. Her pursuers were Warhoon, long, dark and sheathed in fur. They wore little. Their manes tossed as they ran; their long spears swung with their easy gait. She exhaled. The Warhoon were desert-dwellers - cousins to the Piken, supposedly - and though she'd never met one until the oasis, she'd been raised to think of them as friends. These were anything but. Still, she told herself, if she let herself be captured now, she might survive. The pale man wanted her alive, after all, and no one knew the desert like Warhoon.
Then she remembered the oasis, and something in her rebelled. She would rather perish here than go back there.
Mikayla turned and ran for the storm.
THE SAND BLURRED BENEATH HER. She ran with her head down, sand flying. Her pack jostled, the heavy thing inside swinging from side to side like a stone.
It had become an all-out race. They'd caught sight of her, and one of them had begun to pull ahead. She glanced back, and recognized the Warhoon Ganeed from the black crest of his hair and the white birthmark, like a target, on his face. Behind him ran a very large Warhoon with a mane of braids, and behind that, a small one with blond fur. They pushed hard, their large feet adapted for life on sand. Their coyote snouts were open and panting, so that even from a distance, she could see the white blades of their teeth.
Run faster, she told herself: you are Piken.
But she wasn’t. Gasping for breath, she redoubled her efforts, but she'd spent all night on the move and her strength was drained. As she crested one particularly large dune, the storm boiling ahead of her, her shaking legs tangled, and she plunged face-first down the other side. She rolled with her limbs flying, her mouth full of sand, and came to a stop at last with her legs higher up the slope than her head. Turtle-like, she flailed, then wheeled to her feet and stumbled on. She forced her way up the slope. By the top, she was crawling.
Mikayla looked back. Ganeed flew across the sand. As the distance between them vanished, she made out his eyes, the tongue hanging from his open mouth. A hungry, gloating look. How she hated him. The large Warhoon had almost caught up with him. He ran full tilt, with the heavy, panting stride of an ox. But the third-
The third was fleeing.
The wind rose. Mikayla's shawl leapt into the air; she snatched it back quickly, then turned for the storm. The sight of it knocked the breath from her, and the Alvani fell to her knees.
The sandstorm hurtled over the dunes with voracious ease and dissolved the sky in roiling grit. Burnt light filled the air, as thick as blood, and then choked out altogether. Twilight rushed in, and color fled the land.
She had seconds. Mikayla tore open her pack and fumbled for the water-skin. Pulling the cork with her teeth, she tore off her whipping shawl and dumped her water over one end.
With a barely audible shout, Ganeed burst over the dune behind her. His eyes were wild, his fanged mouth open in savage victory. He plunged towards Mikayla. A moment later, the large Warhoon burst through and barreled down after him. Mikayla fell back, frantic, and wound the soaked shawl across her nose and mouth.
As the sand came hissing in, she saw the large Warhoon tackle Ganeed from behind.
The sandstorm hit.
A barrage of stinging sand, like a thousand tiny hornets. She gasped, shuddering as sand raked the exposed flesh of her legs and rushed in, flea-like, to infest her clothes. Torrents of blasting grit yanked at her. Mikayla hunched face-down on her pack. She had to keep her shawl soaked for as long as possible; if it dried too soon, her lungs would choke with dust. Already she could feel its dry spice in her nose, its scratching in her throat.
The minutes passed. Sand collected in the folds of her shawl and began to weigh on her. As she felt it pile in a drift against her, she began to understand that she was being buried. Struggling, she burst from the howling sand. The winds battered her. She stumbled, then fell back into a crouch. Her pack was sinking, becoming lost. She looped the strap twice around her stinging fist, braced herself, rose and - screaming through her teeth - pulled. The pack slid free, and Mikayla fell back. The wind rushed in, ripping the shawl from her body, leaving all but her head exposed. She shrieked, twisting to fend off the assault and snag the dancing tail of cloth. She grabbed it, fell to her knees and wormed her way back on to her pack. There she lay, gasping through the drying cloth.
Minutes passed, or hours; she lost track beneath the beating fists of sand. Her scoured body burned. Her gripping fingers ached. The cloth on her face dried and her throat turned to parchment. Sand crawled beneath her eyelids and crunched between her teeth.
You are a snail, she told herself, and hunched deeper into her shell.
Again and again, she squirmed free of the piling sands; again and again she tugged her leaden pack out behind her. The process drained what strength remained, and after a while, she gave in. When the sands began once more to clothe her, Mikayla ceased her struggles and let it be.
The Alvani teetered on the edge of consciousness. Her breathing grew shallow. Color bloomed behind her eyes, a bouquet of pinks, greens and violets. Images swirled, a procession of faces that flowed like wax and changed with the wind. Mikayla called out for help, moving her dry lips against the cloth, but it was Khoen who howled back at her. In the darkness, she saw him, broken like a beast and wailing for his family. She moaned and turned away.
Slowly, the howling winds split into a tremulous chorus. Mikayla drifted in the whispering sound. They were telling her something, the voices, she was sure of it, but she could not parse their meaning.
Then, very slowly, one voice drew separate from the rest. It was a woman's, soft and sad. Like a flower to the sun, she reached for it, and when she felt its caress - like a humming in her soul - something inside her moved. Her heart knotted with a sweet and familiar ache.
Mother, she thought, I'm coming for you.
She drifted with the sound into a timeless place, and when it faded, she faded with it.
A LIGHT IN THE DARK. Mikayla stirred.
Her eyes, swollen and crusted with grit, fluttered open to a dull orange glow. For a long time, the Alvani stared into the featureless warmth and listened to the wind whisper in one ear. Then, as slow as a fern, she uncurled from the sand. Her limbs were heavy and stiff. She swallowed and winced at the agony in her throat. One-by-one, her clenched fingers cracked open. Slowly - ever so slowly - she dragged the shawl from her face.
A flood of light. The sun hung low, a cooling disc in the amber haze. The landscape was changed, the dunes shifted around her. Sand slithered over the dune-skin and did little pirouettes around her half-buried body.
She crawled out and flopped over onto her back. Her body was sand-colored, her hair a nest. She inhaled deeply, a sudden rough punch in the lungs that left her coughing in agony. When the coarse spasm passed, she fell back, limp.
When at last she hauled up her pack, she found it swollen with sand. She felt around inside, croaked an oath and up-ended the contents before her. She sifted with care, setting to the side her meager belongings until she found what she sought. Nali's water-skin, uncorked but heavy. She snatched it and tipped her head.
A plop of sand, damp and crunching. Mikayla fell once more to coughing. With red-eyed dismay, she watched clumps of wet grit tumble onto the smooth dune face.
"Sha-shi," she whispered.
She dropped the skin and stared at nothing. Then, with no idea what else to do, she began to collect her scattered belongings. A half-pound of argon cactus, a satchel of dried beans, flint and tinder. Rabbit jerky, a twist of salt, needle and thread, a tiny iron pot, a vial of brownback-bite antidote. She paused at the bundled green tunic - beautiful and richly-dyed - and made a wry face before sifting once more in the sand.
Her fingers touched something cold.
She pulled back, hesitated, then reached in and pulled the object free. The glass jar was squat - greasy, somehow, and coated with sand. The lid was round, held in place with brittle reed bindings. She brushed it off, and wiped her fingers on her breeches with a grimace. The jar glimmered, green and murky, but she could not make out the contents within.
She wrapped it with a shudder into the green tunic, shoved it into the bottom of her pack, and piled the rest on top.
Mikayla stood, and was about to start walking when she saw something caught in the sand not ten paces away. It was ragged and wispy, like the pelt of a dead animal. She watched the matted coat blow, listless, in the breeze.
It was an arm.
She stumbled back, tripped and sat down onto the dune behind her. The arm was thrust up from the sand, crooked, with its palm to the sky. An imploring gesture, it seemed, an offering. She stared at the black claws, the pink pads of the hand. Sand pooled in the creased palm.
Mikayla stood, and drew her knife.
Holding it ready - blade down, as Khoen had taught her - she drew close and knelt beside the hand. The Warhoon were desert folk; they could survive for hours in the sand, or so she'd heard. Mikayla held her breath, then leaned in and tapped the knife point against a finger. Nothing. She exhaled, shaky. Then, with great caution, she pushed the blade against the finger until the calloused flesh dimpled and birthed a tiny gem of blood. The hand did not so much as flinch.
She dropped the knife and starting digging.
Scooping with both hands, she gradually uncovered an arm, then a shoulder. As the hole deepened, the sand broke and exposed a blackened snout. Mikayla fell back, heart thumping, and snatched up her knife. Nothing else happened; the eyes and upper face remained buried. She stared at the open mouth, the purple tongue and teeth caked with sand.
So, she thought with bitter satisfaction, this was how Ganeed's story had ended.
She put down the knife and worked faster. When she’d dug out his chest, she found what she was looking for: two crossed leather cords. She pulled on the thinnest first, and his necklace popped out. She stared at the black stone icon - an eagle, with wings spread wide - then dropped it and pulled at the thicker cord. That one stretched taut, and when she felt the body shift with her effort, Mikayla looped the cord around her fist and severed it. Then, from one end, she pulled. Knot by knot, the cord broke free, until at last his water-skin burst, spinning, from the sand.
"Hada, please-" she whispered, scrambling for the cork.
The water came, so clean and sweet; she drank in greedy, close-eyed ecstasy. And then, as before, she corked it before she was ready, sat back with her eyes closed and savored the feeling as water coursed through her.
She found little else. Ganeed's knife was missing, but she salvaged a leather pouch of salted meat and a few slices of blackwheat bread. As she was about to stand, however, Mikayla felt something hard in the sand by her knees. She backed up and plunged her fingers in. She found wood, grabbed a hold and pulled. A moment's flex, and then a spear burst free in a shower of sand.
And what a spear it was. An elegant black shaft, etched in swirling glyphs. The blade was red plate-stone, carved in the sinuous shape of a crane, its beak long and tapered. She stood and hefted it with a grunt. The weapon was too large for her, of course, but if she could shorten the haft, then perhaps she'd have a weapon of decent size. Mikayla jabbed at the air and grinned.
Something shifted in the sand.
Mikayla leapt back with a gasp. Paralyzed, she watched as the sand nearby swelled and sloughed off something that pushed its way out. She caught a glimpse of matted fur and dangling braids. It was the large Warhoon, and he was far larger up close.
She raised the spear to her cheek.
Kill him, she thought.
But she couldn't. The Warhoon was unarmed and unready; his eyes were still closed, his muscled arms were shaking. Shocked, she realized that half his face was clotted with blood.
Mikayla adjusted her grip, so that she held the heavy spear behind her like a bat. The Warhoon's nostrils opened, and he inhaled with a sound like a bellows. His clawed hands planted; he shook himself like a dog. He lifted his long skull and blinked his eyes open. They were hazel.
Pivoting from the hips, Mikayla swung the spear around with all her might.
The plate-stone cracked against skull, and the Warhoon collapsed sideways into the sand. Mikayla gasped, the impact still shuddering up her arm. Panting, her little teeth bared to the air, she wound up and waited for him to move again.
He did not.
She rose, turned her face into the purpling north, and began to run again.