Linned Ar-Veddris arrived home with an Azkhantian horde thundering at her heels.
She had spotted their camp just before twilight from the slopes leading to the Plain of Thirst. She’d planned on camping at the little spring only a league into the Plain. Now a circle of orange pinpoints glimmered against the ghostly pale of the alkali crust. She was too far away to catch the sounds, there would be singing around those fires, and dance, and k’th, fermented camel’s milk, flowing freely. She knew these things because her teachers at Borrenth believed no young woman of noble blood, no matter how impoverished, should be ignorant of her enemies.
On the vantage point, Xun waited beside her, silent as a lump of granite. Part bodyguard, part chaperon, the giant Pithic slave had been a wargift from the Ar-King to Linned’s grandfather. No one knew why he shaved his head or refused to ride an animal or how old he really was.
She had no choice but to try to sneak past the nomad camp. The Plain of Thirst was narrow here, with Veddris’s rocky pastures only a day’s ride across. Lengthwise to the west lay fields of green-wheat, sorghum, and azimed. A richer prey, but a longer ride.
Linned divided the last of the water between Xun and her onager with the fervent prayer it would carry them through the night. Without a word, Xun reached into her saddlebags, took out her second-best shirt, and ripped it into five pieces. Four he tied around the onager’s feet and the fifth he twisted into a loop around the animal’s nose to prevent it from whinnying in greeting.
Feeling their way on the sandy gravel, they circled the Azkhantian encampment. Once in a while, Xun, who was in the lead, would stop and listen, turning his head as if sensing the direction of the outlying guards.
Nothing and again nothing. Still they kept on going.
At last, the campfires dwindled to pinpricks once more and Linned drew a deep breath. They halted, unwrapped the onager’s feet and nose, and she mounted. The onager settled into its side-weaving pace. Behind her, Xun ran silently, doggedly.
Minutes stretched into hours. The onager stumbled, shod hooves clicking against stone. Its head drooped with weariness.
The eastern rim turned milky just as they left the Plain of Thirst for the hills. The onager flicked its ears back and set its hindquarters, refusing the climb. With a gurgling cry, its knees buckled. Linned scrambled free just as the onager fell heavily on one side. In the half-light she saw its ribs shudder and then move no more.
Commanding Xun to wait below, Linned climbed to the top of the outcrop. Her soft boots found toeholds in the heat-cracked stone. She slipped, caught herself, and muttered words she wasn’t supposed to know.
The firelights were gone, the horizon a brightening haze. And against that pale-gold sheen rose plumes of dust thrown up by the hooves of galloping Azkhantian ponies.
Below, Xun’s dome-smooth head turned toward the east. As if sensing her, he glanced upward. Their eyes met for an instant. He bent over the fallen onager to free the sword from its saddle ties.
The Azkhantian raiders would have to funnel through the pass, perhaps single file. Xun’s strength would hold them for a little while. She would not waste that gift.
Linned pushed herself into a run, measuring her reserves, the fitness that had been drilled into her on the Borrenth practice fields. Her weakness was thirst, for she had given all the water to Xun and the onager.
She crested the pass, pushing for more speed. She felt as if she were falling, rather than running. The wind of her passing scoured her cheeks raw. Her mouth had gone papery, her lips bled at the corners of the deep cracks. Her stomach clenched, crying out for water.
A cramp in her side forced her to halt. She doubled over, praying to the Bird of Fire for the strength to keep moving. Her eyes sought the pass behind her. The Azkhantians had reached the top of the pass. She would never make it to the manor in time.
Somehow, she forced herself once more into a lumbering run. They would catch her, ride her down, rush unchecked into Veddris. She had failed….
She’d been concentrating so hard on keeping going that the voice startled her. A man in a peasant’s loose-weave smock waved at her from the field of barleycorn. His hand rested on a plough…drawn by a team of onagers.
“I need–might I borrow one of your beasts?”
The farmer hurried to unhitch his onagers. Linned placed one boot on his cupped hands and swung on the back of the younger animal. She kicked it hard, using the ends of the long reins as a whip. The onager whuff!ed in surprise. Its gait was rough, but it was strong and fresh.
Linned reined the onager on to the road, pounding toward Veddris Manor. She had a chance now. Surely her brother was already preparing his men-at-arms—
Veddris Manor loomed closer. There were the gates, cross-barred oak weathered to a silvery patina, the walls of fired-brick. One gate swung open as Linned jumped from the onager’s back. Her father’s elderly steward, face pasty and eyes starting, gestured her inside. The courtyard was almost deserted except for her aunt, shooing the partridges into the root cellar.
What was going on? Why weren’t they ready? Where were the men-at-arms to defend the manor? Where was her brother?
Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight, (and the omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels), and short stories in Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy and Star Wars: Tales from Jabba’s Palace. Now under her birth name, Ross, she has an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. Her collection Azkhantian Tales, includes four short stories set in that world. Book View Cafe also offers her nonfiction Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life and a number of her stand-alone short stories.