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Dust

Southern Wastelands

A desolate region lay between the South Cities along the coast of the Mydlonde Sea and the Langstan to the north. The people of Alcázar called it a desert in memory of the great dunes south of the Mydlonde Sea, whereas the Mearcians styled it as the southern wastelands. It rained only scarcely, and the ground swallowed all water greedily until nothing remained; no rivers or brooks flowed through the wastelands. It was rocks and cliffs with barely a blade of grass. Only a few hardy tribes of nomads lived in these parts, moving their small herds to the few patches worth grazing and drinking from wells whose location was jealously guarded. Into this wasteland travelled Brand and Jana.

The sun was warm, but not unbearable; summer had long since passed, and harvest season approached winter. Still, they took breaks around noon, especially if they came across rocks suitable to hang their cloaks from, creating a primitive tent with shade. In such cases, they slept for a few hours, fearing no interruption. The stony terrain underneath their feet left no tracks for any pursuers to follow.

Neither spoke during the day; mindful of what lay ahead, they drank little, and their lips were cracked dry. Food was another issue. Foraging was impossible, and they had only what lay in the saddle bags. The horse could graze a little on occasion; beyond that, they had nothing.

On the first evening, they huddled together as before; in this empty land, the nights were especially cold. Pulling her cloak around her, Jana settled in against the horse. “Brand, do you think we should leave the horse?”

“It is useful if we need to make a hasty escape.”

“Our water could last several days longer without it.”

Brand attempted to shake his head; little movement ensued. “Sooner or later, we must return to the coast to refill our water regardless. We may need the horse like last time.”

“As you say. That means we need to try our luck in two, maybe three days.”

“We can go nearly a week, I am sure.”

“Brand,” she exclaimed with an admonishing tone. “I would object, but I am too weary.”

“Same. Let us sleep.”

~~~~

The next day was the same as its predecessor. Nothing about the landscape changed; they would have to walk north for weeks before they would approach greener pastures and eventually the Langstan. The only break in the day’s journey was when they found a rocky outcrop, letting them seek some shade below.

“Jana, your shoes.” She sat with her back against the stone, giving Brand a view of her soles. He crouched down to take a closer look.

“They are fine. It is good leather.”

“It is thin leather, not meant for traversing deserts,” Brand corrected her. “I am amazed they have not fallen apart already. They are nearly in tatters.”

“Are you going to waste time talking? You cannot be as tired as you look.”

He sat down next to her. “You should ride the horse. Before you injure your feet.”

“I suppose we might as well make use of it. You should do the same.”

“My boots will last.”

“Where did you get them? I did not buy you any.”

“I stole them from the palace on my way out.”

“Maybe I can walk with them while you ride.”

He gave a wry smile. “I doubt they would fit. They are already too big for me.”

“Somewhere in Alcázar, a man with enormous feet is walking around without shoes,” Jana mused.

“Hopefully, he got another pair since then.”

~~~~

Each night, they shared a drink of water before seeking rest. They drank it slowly, letting the liquid fill the mouth and soak the tongue, savouring it. As for the horse, it simply gulped it down, making weak complaints for more that were denied. The mare had already lost weight, and the saddle could barely fit around anymore.

“She will not last much longer,” Jana remarked, petting the horse. “Not much more than a day.”

“We will move towards the coast soon,” Brand promised.

They lay down for another night’s sleep, but Jana did not close her eyes. “I wonder at something.”

“What?”

“Do you think they took Salim alive, or did he – is he dead?”

Brand gave his answer slowly. “I think he was too good a warrior to let them take him alive.”

“Of course. They would punish him the way you were treated.”

“I fear so, yes.”

She hesitated, swallowing despite her thirst. “So he is dead because of me.”

“I am sorry. He seemed a good man.”

“He was. Always trustworthy, always protective. Always… caring.”

“I am sorry,” Brand repeated through cracked lips.

“He was not just my guardian, he was – father, brother, all good things to me.”

“Then I am glad he was in your life, and you were not alone.”

“Me too, but…” She sent Brand a look. “He did not deserve to die for it.”

“Often it seems those who deserve it least suffer the most.”

“I do not know how to carry this weight. The burden of his death.” She gazed upwards at the stars.

With an exhausted expression, Brand closed his eyes. “It gets easier. Though it never leaves you. Maybe that is how it should be.”

“How do you know?”

Brand exhaled. “I had a sergeant. He was young. He must have lied about his age to join. He followed me across mountains into wastelands. He died taking a blade meant for me.”

“And you are still burdened by it?”

“By him and many others.” Another deep breath escaped Brand. “Salim is only the latest to die for me.”

“I thought you said it gets easier.”

“It does. A little. At some point, a whole day will pass where you do not think about it. Later on, two days in a row.”

“But it never stops entirely?”

Brand rolled his head from side to side in a weak imitation of shaking it. “Somebody will say a word in the same manner. You see someone with similar looks. You remember fondly something that happened and suddenly realise who was also present.”

“I suppose that is for the best. I do not ever want to forget Salim.”

“Nor me.”

Jana closed her eyes. “Good night.”

~~~~

They woke the next morning and made their quick preparations to start the journey. “You should ride today,” Brand suggested to Jana.

“If the mare has to carry me, she will not last the day,” Jana cautioned him.

Brand surveyed the landscape ahead of them; it was the same as the days before. “I cannot say how far we have travelled. I fear we might still run into soldiers combing the coast for us.”

“In that case, I shall walk another day,” Jana decided. “But tomorrow we must turn west. Else the horse dies.”

“You are right. Tomorrow.” Brand turned, keeping the rising sun to his right, and began walking.

They had barely begun before Jana called for his attention. “Brand, behind us.”

He looked back and saw the same as her. Clouds of dust being kicked into the air, telling of riders moving fast. “They might not have seen us,” Brand said, though he did not sound hopeful. “Let us go.” They set into motion once more.

~~~~

They did not stop for the remainder of the day. Every now and then, they looked behind, and eventually they saw no further signs of others in the wasteland. Even so, they continued past sunset until all twilight was gone. When darkness surrounded them, making each further step a hazard, they finally stopped.

“We need to change your bandage,” Jana remarked as Brand unsaddled the horse. She opened a bag to take out what remained of the linen bolt. Obligingly, Brand sat down and carefully unwound the old bandage. When he was done, he extended his leg. “Sit still,” Jana commanded him.

“I am.”

“Just in case you considered not sitting still.” She had to move her face close to examine his wound, having only starlight for illumination.

“How does it look?”

“Dark.”

“It feels better.”

“Liar.” Jana’s smile was hidden in the darkness, but it resonated in the one word spoken.

“I would never.”

“We need to drink.” She finished with the bandage, returned the linen, and took out the gourd. She handed it to Brand. “You first.” He placed the vessel against his open lips and used his tongue as a stopper, letting only a few drops pass. He tried to hand the gourd over to Jana, who shook her head. “Another sip,” she commanded.

He did as before, letting barely any liquid trickle past. “There. Your turn.”

She stared at him with suspicion. “Last night, you categorically refused.” She accepted the gourd, taking a sip herself.

“It is impolite to argue with a lady, as I have come to remember.”

“Better later than never, I suppose.” She hesitated before she spoke again. “Brand, we must turn west tomorrow. The horse will not last longer, and I admit, I doubt myself. I realise how this sounds, given you are the one wounded, but I have to be honest.”

“I understand.” He nodded a bit.

“I never planned to journey this far,” she continued. “I have never walked this much in my life. I am exhausted, Brand.”

“Of course. We will go west tomorrow morning.”

She took a deep breath, exhaling it slowly. “I would have brought better shoes, had I known.”

“I will give you better warning next time.”

She gave him half a smile. “I swear, Brand, I am trying to be strong. Trying not to complain. Trying to keep going. At day, I am delirious from thirst. At night, I think about Salim.”

“I am sorry. Truly. I know what I have cost you,” Brand confessed.

“No, do not be. It was my choice to accompany you. I do not aim to place further burdens on you.”

“I know.”

“We should sleep.”

“We should.”

~~~~

When morning came, they set a course west as agreed. Their pace was sluggish as on the other days, and only the position of the sun told them they had changed direction; ahead, the land looked as uninviting as ever. Suddenly, Brand stumbled, and he had to grab onto the saddle strap to stay upright.

“Brand!” Jana walked around the horse, looking worried. “Are you hurt?”

“I am fine. My foot hit this. Curious.” He crouched to pick up a small stone. It was elongated in shape, but no longer than his hand. It was clearly carved, resembling a warrior. Whether due to crude craftsmanship or design, neither eye upon the depicted person had an iris.

“Brand.” Jana grabbed his shoulder while pointing, making him stand up. In the distance behind them, dust rose in a whirlwind. This time, it was close enough that they could discern the shape of riders.

“Hurry.” They resumed their positions, Jana leading the horse by the reins while Brand used the saddle for support, and moved forward. Despite the urgency, their pace remained slow; none of them had the stamina to match their fear.

Two things soon became apparent. The other group was pursuing them, and their mounts had the strength to ride fast. Each time either Brand or Jana looked behind, their followers had gained upon them.

“Jana,” Brand called out softly as they walked.

“Yes?”

“Your father will invade the island of Fortönn first. Once he has the castle, he will continue his invasion from there. Probably raid all the islands to keep Thusund from gathering its strength.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I need you to pass this knowledge on.”

“What? To whom? Why are you saying this now?”

“In Maleth, find a boat willing to take you through the Teeth.” Brand was wheezing between words, struggling to keep up the pace. “Find someone beyond the strait. Anyone. Warn them.”

“Brand, I think you should ride the horse,” Jana suggested.

“No, you should.”

“You are clearly worse than me. Brand, please, get on the horse.”

Brand tried to shake his head. “No. I will not get far. You can.”

“I am not going anywhere without you.”

“Please. Maybe – if your father is stopped at Fortönn, he will give up. Many lives can be saved.”

“All that matters right now is your life. I implore you, please, drink some water.” Instead of walking forward, Jana moved to stand in front of Brand.

He swayed in front of her. “Too late for me. I will not make this escape.”

“I am not leaving you.”

Brand turned towards the horse, using both hands to support himself. “You must. Prevent the war.” His fingers fumbled with the saddle bag.

“What are you doing?”

Brand’s hand dove into the pack and grasped the hilt of his sword. With a belaboured movement, he pulled it free. “I will buy you time. Go now. Ride.” He exhaled rather than spoke each word.

“You cannot fight, you can barely stand! Brand, I beg you, let me help you!”

He looked in her direction with eyes unable to focus on hers. “Go.” He turned his back to her, facing the oncoming riders. His feet moved into the proper stance, and he raised his sword. For a moment, he stood ready for battle; in the next, he collapsed onto the ground.

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About the author

Quill

Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.

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