In a year that began with an eclipse of both moons, a village girl ran away with a Risker and lit the spark of rebellion in the land of Tlefas, west of the mountains.
In that same year, east of the mountains, the Endless War dragged on. And an ancient evil stirred to life.
Damira wasn’t sure about many things, but this she knew. If they didn’t come home with a gazelle, her family would starve. Maybe not today, but soon.
She shivered in the cold wind, grateful for her fleece-lined boots and quilted robe. The weak winter sun was nearly overhead. Mostly obscured by wispy clouds, it provided little warmth. Damira pointed to the east, toward a stand of trees that flanked a narrow river. “It went that way.” Her heart pounded as she thought of tracking the gazelle and bringing it down. Finally, fresh meat after weeks without.
Her brother Syzyan leaned from his horse and studied the tracks in the dusting of snow between the scrub bushes. “But it’s a small one. We’re better off heading a bit farther north. That’s where the herd will be.”
“We don’t know that.” She glared at him. “Better to go after this one. At least we know it’s here.”
Her brother’s gray eyes were hard like stones in his tanned face. “But it’s alone. That means it’s not able to keep up. It won’t be worth our trouble.”
“Better to take the one we know than guessing about the herd. This late in the winter, we need to take what we can find.” Damira turned to the third member of their party. “Right, Shagonar?”
He answered with an easy grin, dimples appearing in his coppery-tan skin. “Yes. Well. Maybe.” He shifted in his saddle. “Syz could be right. One scrawny gazelle won’t go far among thirty people.” He tipped his head to the side. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of eating things that crawl on the ground.”
“But we could be all day chasing gazelles that aren’t there.” Damira let out a huff. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t see. Her grandmother had become frail and weak from giving her portion of dried rock lizard and fried ants to her younger brother and sister. And it had not been enough to keep them from growing gaunt.
A passing cloud cast a shadow over Syzyan’s face. “Besides, you know the sand wolves wait by the water. Let them have this gazelle. I’m not about to fight them for it.” He jerked his chin toward the north. “If there’s one gazelle, there’re bound to be others.” He clicked his tongue and touched his heels to his horse’s side, urging the steed into motion.
“No.” She moved her mare closer to Shagonar’s. She laid a hand on his muscled forearm and tipped her face to look into his eyes. “Shag, please. We can’t let our families die. We just can’t risk it.”
Shagonar glanced from her pleading eyes to Syzyan’s frown. “Dami, I think maybe Syz is right… ”
She pulled her hand back with a jerk as if touching him burned her and shook her head. “So you want to tell your grandmother she’ll have to go hungry another night?”
“Fine.” Shagonar rolled his broad shoulders and he spurred his horse forward. “Syz!” His shout cut the cold air. “Let’s go this way.”
Syzyan said something Damira couldn’t hear, but she was sure it was a curse. She didn’t care. He’d calm down once he saw she was right. She nudged her horse’s sides with her heels and set off behind Shagonar, who was leaning over the side of his horse pointing a little to the east. “This way.”
The three rode in silence. Syzyan moved to lead the group. Damira couldn’t help noticing the stiffness of his back and neck. Let him be angry with her.
The steppe sloped down to a stream edged by clumps of barren trees. The tracks of a single gazelle led straight into the water and up the opposite bank.
“We can’t go on much further.” Syzyan studied the thickening trees. “This looks like a good place to meet sand wolves.” He tipped his head to Damira, indicating she should follow him.
Damira complied. Best to let him think he’s getting his way. Bossy big brother. Even though Shagonar was a year older than Syz, he never tried to lord it over her.
They crossed the stream then rode through the trees, following tracks that never strayed far from the water. Damira ignored the dark looks Syzyan threw her way. The gazelle tracks were leading them closer to a rugged part of the steppe where they rarely hunted.
“We should turn back,” Syzyan said. “We’re not going to find this one, and the herd isn’t anywhere near here.”
“Just a little longer, please,” Damira said. “I’m sure we’re close. Don’t you hear it?”
All three turned their heads toward crackling noises in the underbrush. Then the high-pitched sound of a gazelle. She gave Syzyan a triumphant smile. “See, it’s here.”
At that moment, a gazelle burst from between the trees and ran toward them. Damira raised her bow and took aim.
“No, Dami! Run!” Syzyan’s shout made her stop.
On the heels of the gazelle sped a sand wolf, a black predator that ran faster than a horse. It swerved and leaped at Shagonar, driving its teeth into his leg.
Damira’s heart plunged into her stomach at the sound of his scream. Without thinking, she squeezed her knees, prodding her horse forward. She readied her bow. Holding her breath, she took aim and released her arrow.
It struck the sand wolf in the shoulder. The animal released Shagonar’s leg and snarled. That gave her time to nock a second arrow and release it. This one hit the cat in the throat. Her arrow was joined by one of Syzyan’s, which pierced its chest. The cat fell to the ground, lifeless.
Jumping from her mare, Damira ran to Shagonar, who was leaning over his horse’s withers clutching its mane. Blood ran down his leg and dripped on his leather boot. “Shag, let me see.”
Shagonar grunted. Damira tore a piece from the hem of her gray tunic and tied it around his leg, between his knee and the wound. “We need to wash it,” she said, before she grabbed the reins of his horse and led back to the stream they’d forded. Syzyan followed, leading Damira’s horse and keeping his bow ready.
Once at the stream, she cut the leg of Shagonar’s trousers so she could see the damage to his calf. She winced at the sight. His leg was torn in five or six places, deep spiraling wounds of shredded flesh that extended nearly to the bone. Her stomach lurched and she tasted sour bile[B1] .
With an effort, she swallowed it. “Oh, Shag, I’m so sorry.” This was her fault. She pulled the red sash from her waist, folded it in two, and laid it over the wound. Then she scooped icy water from the stream and poured it over, letting the fabric serve as a rough filter.
“Snake’s teeth, that’s cold,” Shagonar said with a shiver. “I don’t suppose you have any warm water around.”
She glanced into his tawny eyes and he gave her a wink. The muscles in her face relaxed. If he could still make feeble jokes, he wasn’t about to die on her. “Nope. Left my cooking things at home.” After washing the wound thoroughly, she cut a piece from her skirt and used it to bandage his leg. She tied Shagonar’s sash tightly around the bandage.
Shagonar pointed at the dead sand wolf. “Well, looks like someone has a new fur rug.”
“Not any of us,” Syzyan said. “We’ll have to trade it for food.”
“Or we can eat it.” Shagonar ran a finger over the bandage on his leg and winced. “Better than nothing.”
“Dami, come with me.” Syzyan didn’t wait for her reply, but led his horse to the sand wolf’s carcass. He handed her the reins, then stooped and wrapped his arms around the dead animal. “Good thing this one’s not full grown.” He grunted as he hoisted the cat onto the rump of his horse and tied it securely. Then he mounted. “Now, can we try to find the herd?” He didn’t look at Damira, but she knew from his tone he was repressing his anger.
With a sigh, she returned to Shagonar. She gently touched the bandage on his leg. “Can you ride?”
He nodded and waved a hand for her to follow Syzyan.
She studied his face. He was pale and his jaw was clenched shut. A few drops of sweat glistened on his forehead. Damira slumped her shoulders. This is my fault. The three of them had hunted together for years, since they were children. And nothing like this had ever happened before. “I’m sorry, Shagonar.”
“I’ll be fine.” He gave her a weak smile. “I’ve been bit by worse before. Now let’s go, before Syz’s head explodes. Or another sand wolf wants my other leg.”
[B1]Great descriptions. Nice and visceral.