Good morning, my pretties. I'm not in a favorable mood this a.m., but still, it's Sunday and I am here! I hope you enjoy today's installment.
Last week, Haley figured out Tuggin's game. What a tool. Or a dick. Call him what you will, but he can't be trusted. She's decided to jet and take her chances with the unfamiliar, hostile terrain.
Tuggin said, “It is time to prepare for the night.”
I slipped off Sorrel and looped the reins over a shriveled juniper tree.
“You would gather…”
“I know, I know,” I interrupted.
Trying my hardest not to look at Tuggin, because he’d for sure know something was up, I took the knife he’d given me and hacked at the tree. While wrinkled bark piled up at my feet, I made a list of everything I’d need to take: food, water, my backpack, grain, and of course, Sorrel.
“Here,” I said, laying some of the bark next to Tuggin’s fire-pit.
Tuggin laid the bark in the hole he’d dug and lined with rocks. When he tapped his knife against his flint rock to spark the kindling, I mentally added flint rock to my list.
After a third glance from Tuggin, I stopped spying and separated the rest of the bark into two piles to use for beds. Not the most comfy, but lumpy bark beds were warmer than lying on the ground. Who would have known the desert could get so cold at night?
While I nibbled my dinner, I kept looking over my shoulder at the desert. Would I find water? People? I swallowed. Wild animals?
“What is wrong?” Tuggin asked.
“Nothing.” I’d been gnawing on my thumbnail instead of my bread. I stuffed the bread in my mouth.
Tuggin reminded me of a hawk, staring me while I plucked a heated rock from the fire pit and sauntered to my bed. I curled around my hot rock, focusing on not looking to see if Tuggin was still watching me…but I was too tweaked for focusing and I looked. He was watching me. I quickly averted my gaze.
I lay there, not looking at Tuggin and listening to the sleipnir snore. I peeked when his bed crinkled. He lay on his back, his hands locked behind his head. I squeezed my blanket in my fists and brought it up to my chin. I had no clue what was out there. I just knew that I’d rather face wild animals than be taken prisoner by the Eny and be tortured or killed, or be used by Tuggin so he could steal my stone.
I pulled in slow, steady breaths, exhaling softly while I pretended to sleep. I even threw in a finger-twitch and a couple soft sighs for good measure, just in case Tuggin was watching. I peeked at him again; did Mentas sleep? He looked like he was sleeping—the hard lines of his face had softened, which I knew he could never fake, being such a hard-ass lying traitor. He was very still, corpse-like, except his eyelids spasmed as though he was having a nightmare.
“Tuggin?” I whispered.
He didn’t move, except for his crazy-ass eyelids. Crawling from my blanket, I tied my blankets to my pack and tiptoed to the supplies. I took most of the fruit and bread, and then swiped cheese, wafers, and honey, leaving Tuggin the disgusting leather strips. I dug deeper into the food pack.
Score! I slipped a flint into my pack. Next, I took the full sack of water and left Tuggin the one that was almost empty. I had no idea when I’d be able to find water again. Tuggin could always go back to Given Hall. I was sure naïve Adrana would welcome him with open arms…not that I cared, of course, where Tuggin went and to whose arms.
I saddled and bridled Sorrel, tied on the pack and the water sack, and untied the hobble from his legs. I glanced behind me, then forward. I could do this. I could do this. I could do this. Before I lost my nerve, I slipped from camp.
I checked over my shoulder every minute or two. When our campfire looked no bigger than a firefly behind me, I mounted Sorrel, and then searched the dry plain, glowing in eerie white-red light. I considered, for one second, going back to Tuggin, but then I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, pressed my lips together, and rode into the desert.
It was so freaking hot, and sand was everywhere. It had only been a few days, but sand was in my backpack, my water, my food, my clothes, my nose. My face was killing me; I didn’t need a mirror to know that it had been fried by the sun.
Stopping for a break, I lurched toward Sorrel with the open water sack. The sand rippled in front of me, like ocean waves. I stumbled and dumped half the water.
“Shit, shit, shit.” I clawed at the sand, but the water disappeared beneath my fingers. I got to my feet and swayed, pressing my palms to my temples as darkness pummeled my eyes.
I leaned against Sorrel’s sweaty neck and patted him. The poor animal was as drenched as I was, his curly hair plastered in tight ringlets against his body.
“What the hell was I thinking?” I asked him.
I should never have left Tuggin. I didn’t know jack shit about surviving the desert. I looked back at the way we’d come. Nothing but dunes, dunes and more dunes. Where had the Dry Hills gone?
“You know, big guy, I thought we’d see some people by now. I don’t think this is working out. We’ve got to go back.”
Sorrel nudged my chest. I managed to give him a drink from the water sack without losing any more. Licking my cracked lips, I put the sack away without taking any myself. I’d better save what I could for Sorrel…if he collapsed, I was done for.
I turned Sorrel and headed back in the direction of the Dry Hills. I hoped.
Later that day, when the sun hung just above the horizon, I reined in Sorrel. My muscles were weak, and my head was spinning, and when he stumbled I pitched face-first into the sand.
With sand sticking to the sweat on my face, I dragged myself to my feet and gave Sorrel water. I waited on my knees until Sorrel finished before taking my turn. I gulped several large swallows and then forced myself to stop. God, it wasn’t enough.
“Think about something else,” I croaked to the air.
Firewood. No juniper trees, but there were knee-high scrubby dead-looking trees. I grabbed my knife and set to work.
Sitting cross-legged in front of my wood pile, I started the long job of trying to make a fire with my flint rock. I’d seen Tuggin do it a gazillion times, but I hadn’t been able to master it, and the last few nights had been cold without a fire. I’d tried snuggling up with Sorrel, but spent most of the night dodging all those legs. Not to mention that the desert quiet seemed to amplify Sorrel’s snoring.
I kept at it; the sun dropped below the horizon, and so did the temperature. Teeth chattering, I almost didn’t notice when a spark hit a dried flake of bark and a tiny red dot appeared. I scrambled to my knees and blew until a little crackle was followed by the tiniest flame. I added pieces of bark until the fire caught.
I gave Sorrel a scoop of grain and a few more drops of water. “Sorry, big guy,” I said when he’d sucked it dry. “That’s it. We’ll find more when we get back to the Dry Hills, okey dokey?”
Sorrel nosed the empty water bucket. “I’m really sorry,” I murmured.
I smoothed my blankets over the sand and searched my pack for food. I’d been giving Sorrel the juicy fruit because I felt bad for him, and I’d pigged out on the cheese just because I liked it; now all I had left were dry wafers. I struggled to swallow one, but it hurt my dry throat. I had to steal a drop from my water stash to wash it down.
The white and red moons shone and a yellow moon slowly rose; I could see the tip of it just over the horizon below the red moon.
“The third moon,” I whispered to Sorrel, who snorted.
The two moons looked powerful, lighting up the night sky and out-shining the stars. I couldn’t remember Earth’s moon ever making me feel so small; even the huge desert seemed to shrink beneath them.
“What do you think’s going to happen when that fourth moon rises?” I asked. Sorrel, still nosing the water sack, ignored me. “Do you think there’ll be a big explosion, or will it just stop raining or something?”
Sorrel stomped a hoof and flicked his tail.
How much longer before the last moon rose? One week? Two? My heart beat accelerated, the pounding rhythm sounding like a clock ticking down the time. How would I ever find those stones, and my brother, and jet this place before the world exploded? I felt as small and powerless as the twig hidden in my backpack.
I froze in the middle of brushing crumbs off my shirt and stared at the sky. Had the moons been to my left when I’d first started out across the desert? Had the sunsets been more to my right?
I stood, twisting to check out my surroundings, but there were no landmarks. “Crap. I have no clue where we are.”
I tossed more bark onto my fire then huddled under my blanket and thought about Tuggin’s story of the Eyid descendants. It was a no-brainer to assume Tomas was the Fire Eyid’s descendant, and now his descendant wanted to pick up where Tomas had left off…but no one knew where the stones were anymore, including him.
Or did he?
It suddenly seemed very dark outside my circle of light. I clutched my blanket to my chin as I strained to see. I hadn’t felt this scared when Tuggin was around. Was he looking for me? Squeezing my eyes shut, I tried to pretend that he was just on the other side of my campfire.