Thank you for your patience! Here’s this week’s belated chapter.
(Find previous chapter links here)
Our meager supplies lay scattered on the ground: Three blankets, two half-sipped water skins, and a crumbly way-cake wafer from Liwin’s pocket.
“I can’t do this.” Laen waves at the pile.
Forziel rubs the back of his neck. “I mean, we’re going to have to. We have no other choice.”
Liquid gathers in the edges of Laen’s eyes. “No, I mean I can’t. I expected challenges following the Champions, but I didn’t expect it to be this challenging. Aivenkaites, floods, traps, bats, salamanders–and now we’re out of supplies, thanks to Drigo. It’s too much.”
“Laen…” What do I say? Yes, it’s been difficult, but no one has died. How can she give in so easily?
Saviayr pats her shoulder. “We understand.”
But I don’t understand.
“You’re not constrained to continue in our company,” Savi adds.
“Where will you go?” Hoenna asks. “Onili won’t take you back.”
Laen looks down. “I thought I’d look for Altik, try to join his crew.”
No one seems to know what to say. Nihae–whom I’m not sure understands what is happening–gives Laen a hug. “We wish you well.”
I barely knew Laen. Still, watching her walk away feels like a blow. She seemed most supportive, out of all the bandits. She was Maraian, too. What will I do if the rest of my people react like Laen?
Now we are only six strong: Nihae, Savi, Forziel, Hoenna, Liwin, and me.
“So, what are we going to do about supplies?” Hoenna asks, once Laen leaves the shelter of Tivanik’s ruins. “Are there any villages nearby?”
Forziel tilts his head. “There’s an Umwian slave village just a little ways from here, and another village not much farther. Why? We have nothing to trade for supplies.”
Hoenna raises his eyebrow and points at his chest. “Bandit, remember?” Liwin snickers.
“We can’t,” I say.
“It’s easy,” Liwin says. “We can sneak in and out, quick as a crocodile.”
“Crocodiles don’t sneak,” Nihae says.
“That’s not what I meant,” I say. “I’m sure it would be easy for you, but we have to think of the consequences for the slaves.”
Hoenna waves a hand. “Oh, they’ll be fine. We don’t even need that much.”
Forziel scowls. Ever since we woke up to find Drigo missing, Forziel’s been hostile towards Hoenna. I wish I knew why. “Yeah? And who do you think’ll be blamed for missing rations?” Forziel crosses his arms. “Maybe you’ve forgotten, living without laws, preying on the weak, but I know what it’s like to starve and suffer the lash for it. We will not steal from slaves.”
“Let’s just take a deep breath,” Savi says calmly. He steps in front of Forziel.
“Forziel, if you have a problem with me, just say what it is,” Hoenna says.
Forziel takes a threatening step toward Hoenna, who touches the dagger at his side. Nihae clasps Savi’s arm. “Savi, why are these people angry? Are they going to fight?” she asks.
That deflates Forziel and Hoenna. Forziel turns around and kicks a rock. Hoenna smiles sheepishly at Nihae. “We were just disagreeing about something, Nihae,” Hoenna says. He throws a confused frown at Forziel, then kneels to bundle up our things.
Forziel’s right about not stealing from other slaves. That still leaves us with the problem of how to find food and water to survive. “How far are we from the capital?” I ask.
He rambles about maps and the perils of desert travel, but finally says, “About two more days, if we go hard and don’t get lost in any more ruined cities.”
“By my best guess,” Hoenna says, “Festival starts tomorrow. We’ll be late.”
Forziel glares at him. “Sorry, but I did the best I could.”
I grab Forziel’s shoulder. “Relax. We know that. Now, are there any wells or streams between us and the capital?”
Forziel is quiet a moment, then his shoulders droop. “Not that I know of.”
I let out a deep breath. “Okay. Then we’re going, as fast and as long as we can. Savi will carry one water skin, Forziel the other, and Hoenna the food. Do we need the blankets?”
Savi decides for us. “No, we can sleep without them. The less we bring, the better.”
“Okay. Then, Forziel, lead the way.”
During all this talking, the sun still hasn’t sunk. Forziel leads us down the staircase carved from the canyon, with clear sky overhead. I search the blue expanse relentlessly. Do the aivenkaites know we survived?
O! for a day when I won’t have to dread storms! How desperately we need rain–pure, clean water.
If I thought climbing over loose gravel for hours was difficult, it was nothing compared to the sticky business of slurping along on the muddy canyon floor. Slimy mud squelches across the soles of our sandals. My feet slip with every step. If not for the sharp gravel inside the mud, I would walk barefoot instead.
“Hey.” Forziel’s eyes are fixed on the canyon’s top. “Did you see something?”
We slow. “See what?” Savi asks.
I touch Luemikaroeth’s grip.
“There was a shadow, in the corner of my eye,” Forziel says. He holds his arms wide. “It was huge!”
I bite my lip and search the skies. Empty still, and darkening as night approaches.
We need to get out of this canyon. It blocks too much of the sky, makes us vulnerable to surprise attacks.
“Stay close, everyone,” Savi murmurs, herding us close with his arms. “Rai, you go in front, I go behind?”
I agree by doing what he suggested.
“I thought the aivenkaites thought we were dead or trapped,” Hoenna whispers.
“That’s what I hoped,” I say.
“Can they sense you?” he asks.
“I didn’t think so. Maybe?”
Nihae says, at full volume, “Rai, why are you whispering?”
I almost jump out of my skin. “Shh, Mama Nihae. There might be aivenkaites.”
“Stop shushing me!” Nihae grumbles.
I take her hand. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“There!” Forziel’s hiss jolts us to a stop.
A shadow streaks over the edge of the cliff, loops, and disappears. We stare after it. It’s not like any aivenkaite I’ve ever seen, but maybe it’s a new trick. They’ve been trying new tricks since Nhardah gave us the Swords.
Another shadow appears, a little further west. It also loops, but unlike the other, this shadow pauses. The setting sun shines full on it, showing gigantic wings and a furry tail.
“What on Orrock?”
“Axex,” Forziel breathes.
I assume it’s a curse he learned in another language. The profanity on this journey is starting to annoy me, so I frown at him.
Forziel doesn’t notice. His face is awash in wonder, wide brown eyes, mouth hanging open, cheeks taut in a smile.
“What?” Liwin asks.
Forziel doesn’t take his eyes off of the canyon top. “Axex–head and wings of a haw, feet and tail of a lion. Eggs like agates. Oh, man, I’ve got to see this!” He breaks into a sprint. Before we call after him, he’s already scaling the canyon wall, reckless in his haste.
“Forziel!” I shout at him.
“C’mon,” he calls back. “You’re gonna want to see this!”
I glance at Savi.
“Go on,” he says. “I’ll stay down here with Mama.”
“I can climb as well as anyone,” Nihae grouses. “Certainly as well as that boy. I’m not a baby, you know.”
The kind, long-suffering woman I know is changing before my eyes. My insides contort painfully.
“Of course, Mama. But let’s stay down here anyways, okay?”
Liwin, followed by Hoenna, has started climbing after Forziel. I tighten the belt holding Luemikaroeth and look up. Forziel’s feet disappear over the edge.
We don’t have time or supplies for this. We need to get to the capital. Curse Forziel’s foolhardiness. Curse Nhardah for sticking us with an incompetent guide.
But please, don’t let me fall.
I find a handhold and start to climb.
Before the top, my left shoulder aches. I shouldn’t be using it this way so soon after dislocating it. At least climbing mostly uses my arms and gives my ankle a break.
Oh, Forziel’s stupid impetuosity!
I pull my chest over the top of the canyon with shaking arms and lose my breath. Colorful rock piles rise in crooked towers, topped by reed hats. In each hat nestles what can only be the eggs Forziel described. Each is swirled with stripes of color, smooth, hard, and vibrant. Oh–the rock piles are actually piles of shells!
And everywhere, everywhere, sit and soar the most majestic creatures I’ve ever seen.
One alights right in front of Forziel. I want to call out to him, but the words stick in my throat.
Forziel flinches back, arms spread, and his head whips up. Both he and the axex freeze. The hawk-lion turns one eye, then the other, toward Forziel. Slowly, the boy does the same.
The axes steps forward, catlike. I pull myself the rest of the way up, ready to protect Forziel.
Forziel holds a hand back at us. I wait, legs tense to spring.
The axex lowers its head and gently butts Forziel’s chest.
I watch the boy and creature become instant friends.
Forziel scrambles onto the creature’s back. “See?” he laughs. “We can ride them!”
Liwin jumps forward. Hoenna drags him back. “They’re wild animals, Forziel,” he says. “I’m not letting my son near them.”
“No, see?” Forziel pats the axex’s neck. It spreads and flutters its wings. “The axex were domesticated. They’re the sultan’s traditional animal. Legend says the first axex was created by Yza, Mother Weaver, and Rezik, Father Physician, specifically to protect humans. I thought they were extinct, but here they are!”
“How do you know so much about these legends? Especially Izyphorn ones?” I call.
“I just do.” He nudges the axex, and it leaps into the air. “See? We’ll be fine!” Forziel’s laugh rings out.
I swipe a bead of sweat dripping down my face. I’m thirsty, and we haven’t been awake for long. How do I expect us to reach the capital without dehydrating? Walking requires water, and flying would be faster.
“Okay,” I say as my stomach knots. “If you can get a few more axex to agree, we’ll reach the capital by flying.”