Exhausted from the work of turning the soil to ready it for the midsummer planting, Ailin wipes the sweat from her brow with the hem of her simple cotton sundress, oblivious to the immodesty of such a motion – after all, there was no one this far from the towns, no one but herself and Auntie Nem of course. The girl – more a young woman now, as she neared fifteen winters – looked over at the comfortable rocking-chair set under a shady tree nearby, where the old woman napped through the heat, and smiled.
To pass the time as she toiled, she began to recite to herself one of the stories she had heard so many times, one brought to mind by the heat of the sun and the feeling of the earth crumbling in her hands and under her toes. So focused was she on her work that she hardly noticed that she was whispering the words aloud, nor did she see the sliver of eye peeking from behind the eyelids of the old woman who watched and listened with an acuity that belied her advanced age.
“The great hero Arnd, deep in grief over the loss of his beloved, had wandered heedlessly and far for many, many days...
Even with his eyes blinded with tears and grief and his mind drawn deep into the mire of memory, his legs moved as tirelessly as alwaysun. Perhaps it was the strange feeling of the shifting sands beneath his feet that finally halted him, or perhaps it was the baking heat of the sun high overhead. More likely, it was when the last drops of water fell from his waterskin that he realized how far he had wandered, and how truly lost he had become. Bewildered, he looked around himself, but in every direction there lay nothing but the soft, rolling dunes of the Trackless Desert.
He cursed softly under his breath, because he knew the stories of the desert – and stories were all that there were, in those days, because very, very few had ever seen the dunes and returned. The stories said that the desert was not constant in its location or its geography, that one found oneself there when one had not only lost the path but given up hope, and that only the lucky few found their way out again. It was said that there were whole cities lost in the dunes, peopled with the descendents of those who had never left, instead somehow finding the secrets to surviving in that blasted land.
He knew enough wilderness lore to understand how dangerous a situation his carelessness had put him in. To be without water in a place such as this could bring death in hours, days at most, leaving only one more sunbleached mummy buried in the shifting sands for eternity to mark his passing. He had to find shelter and water, and quickly, if he was to survive beyond the next day.
Many in his place, hearts heavy with mourning and eyes clouded with memories, had found it easier to simply give up, curling into themselves on the burning sands and allowing death to claim them. Their bones would surface, from time to time, as the tireless winds moved the dunes, only to be buried again soon after. Arnd, though, was different – his hero's heart saw the danger and the struggle and it brightened. Here was something he could pit himself against, a challenge to which he could rise in answer. Something that would take his mind from the hurt and the loss so fresh and raw inside him.
Having decided to pursue life, he worked quickly to make himself ready for the desert. First he took his travel-cloak and he tore it into large irregular pieces, tying one around his face and head to shield them from the intense rays of the sun, and tying the rest around his feet – bare, as was his habit – to shield them somewhat from the scorching sand.
Then he stilled himself, knowing that though his need for succor was urgent, it was never wise to rush in a situation of survival. Some minutes spent in planning and careful consideration would serve him far better than a few extra steps in the wrong direction. Closing his eyes, he called to mind the wilderness-lore he had bartered from the forest giant Phylunaster, who accepted only lies in return for his truths.
The giant's words rang in his mind. “In the barren lands, the greatest danger is not the lack of water nor food, but rather the tendency of a man to turn gradually from the true path. Therefore, a constant must be found, to use as a guide. The sun is sadly not always such a truth because she can lie, or be inconstant, especially at night or when she is high, high above. Often you can depend upon the winds, which know their way without any landmark to steer themselves.“
Stilling himself, he raised a hand, focusing his consciousness into the tips of his fingers and searching for the way of the wind. After some time, he had a sense of its home. Opening his eyes again, he picked out a dune in the distance, directly into the face of the winds, and then he set out. After a time, he came to the top of his chosen dune, where he repeated the process – raising a hand high, finding the home of the wind, and then setting his next destination.
The heat beat mercilessly down upon him and the sea of sand was endless, stretching in all directions without blemish or mark. A lesser being would have given in to the despair of the changeless nature of the landscape, and one with less confidence would have begun to doubt himself after a full day of walking without apparent progress. Arnd was the greatest hero of his time, and his surety in his learning and his skill was great; too, he knew that should it be his time, then it would not matter how he found death – and so he chose to ensure that he would meet Him with dignity, should He come for him.
Night fell upon him eventually, and he was still striding through the dunes. His face stung from the sun and the windblown sand, his lips were cracked, and his tongue felt like leather in his mouth. His body called out for water and his mind for a sight of something – anything – that was not sand, sun, or sky. As darkness crept up to and over him swiftly with the setting of the sun, he looked up into the face of the full moon shining high in the sky – this was before the First Winter, you understand, and so the moon shone full and alone in the sky each night, and with its radiance beaming down, the night had nearly the same heat as the day.
Arnd knew that he could travel several days without sleep; he had done it before, by necessity. When he had once crossed the Marsh of Ghosts, where to sleep was to succumb to madness but which could not be crossed in fewer than three nights, he had learned the lore of the snow-sages who taught him to half-sleep, letting a portion of his mind rest while he remained alert and aware. Therefore, he resolved to walk on through the burning night.
Finally, after that night and another day and night, as dawn of the third day began to break, he finally saw something upon the horizon. So wearied was he, and so close to death from thirst and exhaustion, he was not at first certain that he was seeing truly, and he expected the black shapes to dissolve as all mirages do once he began to near them.
They did not, and within the hour he was striding across the hard-packed salt-imbued sand that surrounded the City of Sentinels, the tall gibbets with their wooden posts and their iron cages full of wind-polished skeletons greeting all travelers who approached, warning them of the fate that lay in wait for any who would break the harsh laws of the Priesthood of the Lion-Goddess Kharajh. Many would be given pause by this gruesome sight, but to Arnd it was a sign that he was not to die this day, because here was the succor he sought.
At his approach, word of a stranger emerging from the desert had been passed by the urchins picking through the bones for anything of value and through their secret network of eyes and ears all the way to the great Palace of the Last King of the Desert, and waiting for him as he finally reached the gates was a party of dignitaries with baskets full of the soft, salty fruit of the desert oases and skins of the coldest, sweetest water he had ever tasted. He was saved... for the moment.”
As the last words of this first portion of the story passed her lips, Ailin looked up in surprise to see that the sun had set, the stars were gleaming through the dusk, and the moon, just a sliver, was beginning to rise. Turning, she saw that she had finished all of the garden, and that Auntie Nem was no longer in her rocking-chair. She sighed with relief, laid aside her tools, and went gladly into the small cottage, its windows glowing with firelight and the smoke of the dinner-fire just rising from the chimney.