By the time they reached the top of that last monster dune Rome thought for sure he was going to die. Momentum and sheer stubbornness had kept him going this far, but even that was fading. Rome was crawling, a worm inching his way across the sand. His tongue seemed to have swollen to fill his mouth completely. He thought he could feel the tip of it protruding from between his blistered lips. The world tilted and blackness crowded the edges of his vision hungrily. Quyloc was a vague form somewhere ahead of him.
It took a moment for Rome to register the fact that he had reached the top of the dune. He blinked at the distance, not grasping what he saw. The dunes were gone. Quyloc croaked something. Rome closed his eyes, then opened them, not sure what to believe. He’d seen many things in the last few hours, all of them lies.
A hundred spans below, the sand trickled away to nothing on bare rock. A narrow canyon ran off at an angle, crowded with rock spires and jagged boulders. A few short, stunted gray trees sprouted here and there amid tufts of iron-gray grass. And right there, in the canyon, behind a crude earthen dam, was a muddy pool of water hardly big enough for a dozen men to crowd around. Paradise. The water swelled and exploded in his vision and Rome knew, at last, that this was no lie. Eager noises came from him as he started crawling head first down the steep slope.
Quyloc grabbed his arm and croaked again. Rome tried to push him off but Quyloc was insistent. “The camp,” it sounded like he said. He held out a shaking finger.
Rome followed the finger with his eyes and nearly wept at what he saw. Huddled in the shade of a cliff wall were a handful of crude hide tents, painted with garish symbols in orange and red and yellow. A dog padded listlessly through the camp and flopped down in a patch of shade. No Crodin were visible, but that did not mean they were not there. It was midafternoon, the height of the daily furnace. Only idiots and dying men moved at this time. “I’ll kill them all,” Rome said, or tried to. The sounds coming from him didn’t sound much like words. He felt for his war axe but the only weapon that met his fingers was the strange black axe he’d found in that cave where they’d sheltered from the firestorm. Every other weapon was gone. He didn’t have so much as a dagger. The thing couldn’t be very useful. It felt like it was made of glass. Likely it would shatter if he so much as dropped it. He wished he hadn’t lost his other axe.
“Nightfall,” Quyloc croaked.
Quyloc was insane. The sun wouldn’t go down for hours. He’d never live that long. He didn’t care what the Crodin did to him. He was going down there now. But when he tried to crawl forward once again he couldn’t move his legs. He turned his head, saw Quyloc lying across his legs.
“Circle around. Find shade.”
Rome fought him anyway. He didn’t want shade, he wanted water. But he couldn’t seem to reach back where he could get a hold of him and after a moment he had to stop. The sun made all movement so difficult. He sagged down onto the hot sand. “Okay.”
Quyloc rolled off him and then helped pull him back up to the crest of the dune and down the other side, out of sight, where they began the laborious process of circling around, finding a place where they could hide from the sun without being seen. A process made so much worse by the knowledge that water, life, salvation, lay so close at hand.
╬ ╬ ╬
Sunset found them southeast of the Crodin camp, huddled under the overhang of a chipped boulder. Rome had his eyes squeezed tightly shut, trying not to look, not to think. He wasn’t having much luck. He thought he could smell the water. The Crodin were up and moving about their camp now, talking sometimes, taking care of the everyday tasks that occupy so much of the nomadic life. They were camped too close to the water. If he was to start for it, just stand up for two good steps, one of them would see him. They were always vigilant, these people. He knew that from the way their eyes always moved, scanning the rocks and canyons that were their home. He knew that from having fought them dozens of times. They lived among too many enemies, including their own people, to ever be fully secure. Two seconds after they spotted him he’d be sporting a coat of arrows.
How long since he had last had water? How many years had he spent in this blasted desert? Was there no end to the heat, the thirst? The days were a blur of sun and sand and boiling heat, broken only by the nights, blessedly cool at first, biting cold before morning so that at first the sun was a welcome sight, but not for long. If ever he was lucky enough to come upon water again, like a river or a lake, he would never leave it. He shook his head, trying to stop his thoughts from wandering. The sand blew through his mind, clouding and obscuring everything.
He shifted and felt the axe under his hand. It was cool. Even after a long day in the sun it was cool. His fingertips were sore. The first day, when they stopped for a rest, he tested the edge on the weapon, and it bit deep. He yelled and dropped it, and when he looked up he did not expect the look he saw in Quyloc’s eyes. Sudden, pure hatred. But when he blinked the look was gone and he thought he might have imagined it. What sense would that make? What reason could Quyloc have to hate him? It was just the sun, up to more tricks.
At last night fell and they began to creep forward, one agonizing span at a time. Lucky that the wind was blowing towards them. All it had to do was shift, and the Crodin dogs–mangy, yellow-eyed beasts with slat ribs–would be on them in a heartbeat. If that happened, Rome wasn’t sure if he would fight or run–straight towards the water. He’d drink first, before he died.
The pond was close now. The dirt was damp under his fingers. The air felt different. Firelight flickered on the rocks around them, blotched now and then by huge, twisted shadows as men and women passed close to the fire. Their voices were gnats buzzing around his head. He cared for nothing but the water.
Then his hands sank into the thick, slick mud and Rome thought he would cry out. It was all he could do to put only his face into the precious liquid, to sip and not gulp. Slowly. Slowly. Too much and he would be sick, worse off than before. The water smelled of decay and the thing floating by his hand looked like a dead bird, the feathers coming loose as it rotted, but it was the finest wine he’d ever drunk.
They had filled their water skins and were starting to back away when Quyloc stopped and turned his head to the side.
“Do you hear what they’re saying?” he whispered.
“Who cares? Let’s get out of here.” Rome understood a little Crodin, acquired over the years by necessity. The Crodin nomads were a constant thorn in Qarath’s side, always raiding over the porous border, attacking the farms and small towns that looked to Qarath for protection. If the Crodin had ever stopped fighting among themselves and organized they would have been a real problem.
“They’re upset about something. Wait a minute. Let me listen.”
Rome stifled a groan. That was Quyloc. Probably he wanted to write this down in one of his unending journals. He was always seeking out any bit of arcane knowledge he could scrape up, buying old books from peddlers, plying wizened old men with wine to learn what they knew. “This isn’t the time,” he growled. The water was flowing through his veins now, like a flood over parched terrain. He could feel his strength, his very life, returning. He took another drink.
“They’re afraid of something. Something’s happening.”
Then Rome did listen. It took a bit. His Crodin wasn’t as good as Quyloc’s. But they definitely did sound afraid. Something about their god, Gomen nai, walking the sands again, stepping forth from his dark fortress at Har Adrim to devour their souls. At least that’s what it sounded like. “I hope he kills all of them. Now let’s get out of here.”