The water hole was a tiny pool tucked within the rocks, an unexpected blessing in the middle of tracts of scoured hardpan and powder-dry arroyos. The lichen growing on the stone at the water’s edge was the only green growth they had seen for two days. In the far west, barely visible as early morning sun illuminated their slopes, the Ahrahikte Mountains lay across their rearward trail.
Alemar dipped his fingers into the water and brushed them tentatively against his lips. The feel of liquid was almost alien, a coolness that vanished almost immediately, absorbed into the cracks and dust on his skin. He took a small sip. It was gone within moments, without ever reaching his throat.
“It’s good,” he said hoarsely.
Elenya stooped beside her brother, away from her sentry position. Leaning to the water’s surface, she relieved her swollen lips. Alemar sprinkled drops on his face and stayed back, as there was no room for two. Anywhere else, the water would have been brackish and unworthy of consuming. He didn’t complain. Elenya filled her mouth, held it, and sat back. She pulled the cowl and veil around her face again, blocking out the glare.
They drank by turns, relearning how to swallow. After a small amount, Alemar felt dizzy, and lay back against the rock that shadowed the pool. As his head settled onto the rough surface, he felt vibrations.
He rolled to the side. Two daggers landed heavily on the spot he had just vacated. Elenya flipped over the water hole, already reaching for her rapier. Another knife narrowly missed her.
The attackers were three desert riders, clad in loose white robes and veils much the same as the twins’ own, mounted on oeikani. They bore down at a gallop, drawing long, slightly curved blades.
Alemar flung himself flat. A blade snipped a seam in his cowl, just touching his hair. A second rider was on him before he could draw a weapon. He sprang to the balls of his feet, and as the scimitar came down, he sidestepped it, grabbed the man’s wrist, and pulled down. The oeikani galloped past, while its surprised rider plunged headlong into the rock, uttering a sharp expletive in an unfamiliar tongue. Alemar kept his grip on the arm through the tumble, hearing and feeling it snap. He took the weapon.
He glanced to the side. Elenya was ducking the third rider. The man sliced viciously, contemptuous of her thin blade. The cut would have killed a slower opponent, but it missed her entirely, and Alemar saw the glint of metal from her return blow. The rider continued on for several paces, and abruptly fell from the oeikani. A dark stain spread across his midsection. He didn’t move again.
The first rider, having circled, plunged toward Alemar in a slightly less headlong fashion. He pulled up, parried Alemar’s thrust, and harassed him from his superior position. As Elenya turned toward them, the rider pressed, hoping for a quick victory. Alemar avoided the oeikani’s hooves, slipped his dagger out of his belt with his left hand, and flung it. The rider blocked the dagger with a small shield bound to his empty hand, but wasn’t fast enough to catch the thrust that followed. He fell from his mount, partially disembowelled.
The moaning of the man with the broken arm drew their attention toward the east. There, twenty riders waited at a standstill only fifty paces away, where moments before there had been none. Their robes and the markings on their oeikani were the same as the three attackers. As a group, they raised their scimitars and lifted reins to whip their animals forward. One man in the center held back.
“Na tet,” he shouted. Abruptly, the other men lowered their weapons. He gave a few more terse commands, and the group rode quickly forward to surround the twins.
When the circle was complete, its center well within range of the throwing daggers that all the warriors bore, the leader spoke again. “Ai natt dor kem?”
“We use the High Speech,” Alemar answered.
The man regarded them. He was taller than most of the group, a bronzed, handsome forehead showing above the veil. He bore himself like a man accustomed to authority.
“The tongue of the Calinin is seldom spoken here,” he said. His inflection was wrong, but his construction was excellent. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“I am Tebec.”
“And your brother?”
Before Elenya could answer, Alemar said, “He is Yetem. We come from Cilendrodel on our father’s business.”
“You have come a long way.” The leader pointed to the water hole. “Here, among Zyraii lands, the penalty for stealing water is death.”
“We are not dead.”
To Alemar’s surprise, the leader smiled, the expression visible in the creases around his eyes. “That is true. And you say you came from the west?”
“God has indeed been merciful to bring you through the eret-Zyraii.” He waved at the wasteland. “Even we do not go there.”
The last two days had not seemed merciful to Alemar.
“Foreigners are rare in the steppes. Where are you bound?”
An animated murmur spread immediately through the riders. The leader laughed momentarily without amusement. “You and every whore’s son of ten nations. At least you’re honest about it.”
The leader said, “I am Lonal, and these are my brothers. We are of the T’lil tribe. You have taken our water without permission.” He toyed with his knife hilt, but his expression changed, the aggression replaced by curiosity. “Nevertheless, I offer you an alternative to death.”
He gestured toward the dead and wounded. “I have never seen anyone deal with mounted attackers quite so efficiently.”
Lonal did not seem overtly angry that his men had suffered. He pointed to the two riderless oeikani that had been rounded up during the conversation. The man from whom Alemar had stolen the scimitar was being shoved onto his saddle, arm tucked in front of him. “The laws of the So-de’es allow me to use my discretion in certain cases. You have taken our water” — he shrugged — “but the rains have been good this year. The T’lil need all our fighting men, and you have deprived us. If you will take their places, and become our brothers, holy law may yet be observed, without requiring your deaths.”
Alemar searched the leader’s face three times over, wishing the veil didn’t hide half of it. He had already begun to detach himself, preparing to die, and it was difficult to shake the mood. He hadn’t expected this. There were hidden motives at work, but if it were a trap, Alemar couldn’t fathom it — their lives were already in the hands of the desert men.
“How many of them understand the High Speech?” Alemar asked of Lonal’s companions. “Do they know what you propose?”
“I am Lonal,” the leader said simply. “They will do as I say.”
“What of Setan?”
Lonal scowled. “You were smart enough to wear Zyraii robes as you tried to pass our borders.” He fingered his own garment. “Be smart enough to realize God has been generous to you today. Do not speak of breaking His law. Foreigners are not allowed in Setan.”
“It’s not treasure we’re after.”
“Are you going to accept the offer or not? The sun climbs….” Already since the fight, the temperature had increased.
Abruptly Elenya slipped her rapier into its scabbard and climbed into the saddle of one of the oeikani. Alemar hesitated, but in the end he did the same.
Lonal traded words with his companions after Alemar had mounted. Two of them asked short questions, which the leader answered even more briefly. He told the twins, “Forget whatever life you had in the world that is outside Zyraii. This land will never let you live unless you are committed to it, and to its people. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you profit.” It was hard to tell if this were advice, or a command. He ordered them to the middle of a double column, and the group set out.
About the Author: A Nebula Award finalist, Dave Smeds is the author of novels, short fiction, comic book scripts, and screenplays. His writing spans several sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy including sword-and-sorcery, hard sf, contemporary fantasy, martial arts, and horror. He is best known for his War of the Dragons trilogy.