Previous part found here.
On the Wastelands
Daulis had never thought about how many squinkies he ate each day until he had to ration them. After two days, they were half-gone. Belus, the nearest Belurian village was another two days away, according to his father’s map. He would have to find more food if he was to live. The water situation was even worse. He set his father’s squinkie trap at dusk and stayed awake until he had another days worth of food. He secured them live in his satchel, planning to cook some of them in the morning. Exhausted, he slept.
Spitting sand out, he rose the next day. He reaching for his satchel and discovered that he had not secured it well enough the night before. His squinkies had escaped, returning to the sand while he slept. He could not catch anymore until nightfall, but if he could make good time and push himself hard enough, he thought he might reach Belus before he died of hunger or thirst. Mid-afternoon he collapsed. His last thoughts were of the bright day sky shining before his sand torn eyes.
The Black Shells knew nothing about the Belurian Wastelands and assumed it was impassable. As a native of the area, Gatie knew well how to survive. She knew how far it was to the nearest village and how to find well spots. She knew how to avoid the Naedrani and how to find food. She traveled. She saved the Black Shell’s provisions for a time when they might be needed more. She drank fresh water. She found barloots, cracking their shells and eating the warm moist nutmeats.
She had been traveling for two days when she crested a ridge and saw it. It was black and fluttered in the harsh dusk wind. She had thought it nothing more than a lost cloak blown there by the great winds, but as she drew closer, she saw that the thing which fluttered was attached to someone half buried in the sand. She ran. She ran because one could never tell what will have life in it out on the Wastelandss. She had seen bodies that looked older than the winds, but still held the spark of life in them, and she had seen fresh, healthy looking bodies sucked empty and dry by the Naedrani.
She reached the body and turned it onto its back. She saw no movement. She sprinkled his face with water (he was a young Alurian, perhaps two years her junior). She poured a little moisture down his throat and he gave a weak cough. There was life in him! A Belurian never let another die if there was any chance of saving them, no matter what. That he was Alurian didn’t matter, she would risk her life for him. Maybe, she did this because his weak body would attract Naedrani to the area where she must make camp for the night, or maybe because she was so terribly lonely and had seen so much death so recently. She didn’t stop to let herself consider her reasons why or how much of her life reviving him would take.
She gathered her strength and began to chant, pulling energy from the depths of her spirit and the shimmering sands around her. Placing her hand on the center of his chest, she felt the life leaking out of her and felt him strengthening beneath her touch. She’d given of herself this way before and the sympathetic link caused by the exchange of life force had never bothered her. Of course, she’d never given it to anyone who wasn’t kith or kin before and never so very large an amount.
Soon his arms were clutching her hand to him. He seemed to be trying to speak. She had to break the connection, before one life was traded for the other. She had only meant to share her strength. She pulled his arms from her and pushed herself up and away from him. His reaction was swift and strong; he sat up and pulled her back down to him. She pulled away again, this time careful not to be caught up in his grasp. She knew that until he regained his senses, he would continue to pull blindly at her.
“Where are you going?” His voice was groggy and thin.
“We don’t have enough life between us for me to give you more. Besides there are Naedrani about, we need to move.”
“There are no Naedrani here, the sand is much too shallow, my map says so. Besides, you seem strong, strong enough for both of us.” He told a lie of the needy – speaking pain and weakness.
Her whole body felt bitter from helping such an ungrateful creature. Didn’t he know it would kill her to bring him all the way back from his pain? “I should have expected you to be greedy. Alurians have always taken from us.” She spat the words as if they were as acid as Black Shell kisses.
“Not greedy,” he said as he ran his finger down her spine, “Needy!” He made a half-hearted attempt to grab her again and drag her back down. She chanted a fast sleep spell and he fell unconscious.
“Idiot!” Why had she bothered? An Alurian can’t be expected to understand the gift she’d given him, they all think with their weapons, never their minds or even their hearts. She stood up, hoping to get far enough away from him that he could not follow her before he recovered. It was surprisingly hard to turn away from him. The link between them made her want to stay by his side and make sure he recovered fully. She wanted to slide up next to the curve of his sleeping form and pillow her head on his shoulder, if only just for a little while.
What was she thinking? Not only was he completely unsuitable because he was neither royal nor Belurian, but he was ungrateful, greedy, idiotic and lacking all skills needed to survive on the Wastelands. Why was he out here alone? He would indubitably die if she left him but he would be the death of her if she stayed with him. No. She’d already saved him once, what else could be expected of her? She had to leave him. She would leave him. She started to leave him.
She had moved not more than three steps when she saw it: the ripple. It was hard to make out in the dark but it was moving directly towards them. The exchange of life had attracted it, and others were surely on their way. “Sand is too shallow indeed,” she cursed her weakness for this Alurian. At least the encounter had not killed her, not yet. For her to run would alert the Naedran to her presence, if it didn’t already know. She would have to hope she had enough strength to fly.
She began the ritual once again, concentrating her power between her shoulders, pulling herself up by the nape of the neck. She had to hover low because the wind was strong. She freed the Alurian’s spear from its half-buried position in the sand and moved towards the ripple. It was moving slowly, it hadn’t been able to sense exactly where they were. She was hovering directly above it calculating her attack, when she heard that idiot Alurian stir. The Naedran sensed him too and charged. She dropped and ran after it.
“Wake up fool! Naedran!” He was instantly awake and standing. He turned to her and understood. “Catch!” She hurled the spear at him. He caught it and used the momentum of her throw to thrust down into the sand. The beast writhed, breaking off the tip of the weapon. He jabbed it again and again with the jagged handle end until the wild rippling stopped. He left the shaft of the spear sticking up out of the sand and slumped down in exhaustion. If there was one thing Alurians knew how to do, it was kill.
She realized she had been chanting the healing charm, sending him even more of her life. She stopped. She hadn’t much to spare anymore.
“Should we dig it out and benefit, or is that too backwards for a civilized Belurian?” He insulted her because he didn’t know how to say thank you. It was said among her people that the concept of gratitude is so foreign to Alurians that their language has no words that convey that message. She pulled the spear shaft out and smelled it.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking its size. It is quite large, you needed all the strength I gave you to kill it. To kill robs both the victim and the victor of life.” She left off the end of the sacred saying (“but to heal grants health to both body and spirit”).
“Luckily, eating the victim will give us back all the energy we spent and if this one is as large as you think it is, we will both be well fed.” He stopped speaking because of the horrified look on her face.
All she could think of was how easily he had twisted the proverb into an excuse for the Alurian penchant for death. She started to dig out the creature. She had not eaten Naedran since she had fallen sick as a child. Her people did not eat meat unless they were so weak that fruits and grains would not sustain them. It may be repulsive to her, but barloots were not going to be enough to restore her and she didn’t expect him to offer to repay her sacrifice of pure life. An Alurian would never make such a sacrifice. They dug together silently.
He broke the silence when she stopped to rest. “Don’t stop. We have to gather enough to restore ourselves before more of them come.”
She gave him a weary and condescending look, “The Naedrani can smell their sibling’s death in the sand. We will be safe here for days. You see, they understand their own mortality.”
“Do they really stay away? I didn’t think they were that intelligent.”
“How can you possibly think that creatures which consume and store so much life are less intelligent than you?” She shook her head in disgust. “How can you have possibly expected to survive on the Wastelands when you know so little about it?”
“I had to go. I was sent out by my village to see what the black cloud was. It was my duty, even if it meant I would die.” His eyes had become dark and his brow furrowed with the weight of his responsibility and the lie he had just told. He didn’t really believe he was the One or that succeeding in his quest would make up for his killing Katid, but there was naught else he could do.
They resumed digging and then ate the meat. Gatie found that stuffing herself with dead Naedran was too much for her to take without some distraction. “Since we will be safe, we should stay for a while and gain extra strength before we move on,” she spoke to forget the death in her mouth.
“Are we together now?” he gave her a quizzical look, “have I missed some old Belurian custom and married you by accident?”
“You have no idea how utterly ridiculous that question is, do you?” Now she spoke to cover the truth in his question. He had not married her, but they were joined in a way she could not yet explain to him. She might never be able to explain it to him. “I, Apante Gatie ip Zar ip Notan ip Kapria ip Vvadana will never marry now that no royal Belurian males exist, and never would I consider a union with the likes of an Alurian. I just meant that both of us need to recuperate before either of us leaves in whatever direction we each choose.”
“That is quite a name Apante. I am merely an Alurian trader’s son, Daulis ip Saloot. Ip Notan? I’ve heard of your father, he signed the treaty between Belus and Pedar. What is a Belurian Apante doing out here on the Wastelands? Where are you going?” He had missed the devastation her speech alluded to, the destruction of the villages.
“To the nearest city held by the Black Shells.”
“The Black Shells, you know, those smelly creatures, who are trying to take over the world and doing quite well at it.”
“Listen Belurian, my village is isolated; we have neither seen nor heard of these Black Shells. Are they the ones who made the black cloud?” He tried to keep the fear from creeping into his voice, but he could not.
“Yes, the black cloud is from the fires that burned Belus, my village. I am the last surviving Belurian, from the last Belurian village.”
“Belus is gone? All Beluria is gone? Why?”
“For the mines.”
“What mines? The Beryl mines! Did they burn your whole village so that they could make jewelry?” he asked amazed.
“They are taking over the world for these mines. They have another use for Beryl. They use it to feed huge mechanical birds. They climb into the birds and fly fast and far. They don’t even come from the world but the stars and they have used all the Beryl out there.” She pointed vaguely at the night sky. He didn’t look up. Gatie knew that Alurians never looked to the sky.
“But, why didn’t they just buy the Beryl, it’s cheap enough?”
“Zar, the leader of my village, saw what they were using it for and decided to raise the prices. The Black Shells killed him for that and decided to eliminate all resistance.”
“But how can they have so little respect for life as to kill whole villages of Belurians?” A sadness replaced the fear in his voice.
“What an interesting question coming out of the mouth of a son of Catarian!” she challenged him, changing the topic, not wanting to relive the destruction of her home and family for him. If she let him into her grief, she’d never be able to leave him as she should.
“I was wondering how long it would be until that name came up. That conflict is fifteen generations old and full restitution was made thirteen generations ago. I don’t understand how Belurians can even still remember it.” He was indignant.
“Full restitution! How can a spoken apology, not a written one mind you, but a spoken apology and seven Beryl stones for each dead Belurian make up for the killing of more than half of my people in less than three cycles of the moons? Such is not restitution; such is a conscience-easing sacrifice. And some sacrifice, I can gather seven Beryl stones in less than half a day!”
“Are you finished yet?”
“No! Suppose you returned to your village in a few days and found half of your people, children included, dead, killed by the people across the Wastelands, people who once were your greatest allies, but turned against you out of fear of your power? Would you be happy to accept an apology and little else as a show of remorse?” She did not know why she was pursuing this argument. She had come to see this old cultural wound as long forgotten and those Alurians alive now as blameless for their ancestors’ cruelty. Then again, she had always felt uneasy around them. Maybe it was the drills.
“Perhaps our payment was too small, but Beryl is not so plentiful outside of Beluria. We spent a large amount of our time and energy amassing it for our apology. Besides, the Catarian sect was a small portion of my people. I would not have been one of them, even if I had lived fifteen generations ago.”
“East to say!” she incanted.
He began to rebut, but she had cast his words out with hers. He just flapped his lips, not hearing his own silence. Gatie laid down with her back to him, pulled her cloak close about her to keep out the winds, and slept.