Wounded in body and spirit after the fall of her kingdom and loss of her lover, the knight Kaila has one last duty to perform before dying: seeing two orphaned children home to their clan in Bringanzo’s Desert.
But all is not lost. When the shaman of Three Mountains Clan takes Kaila on a smoke quest she learns Kreg is still alive, fighting his way across the lands to her. She will raise an army to free him, though hell shall bar the way.
And once they’re united, not even the beast men who overran Trevanta, shall keep them from taking back their land.
KAILA WOKE TO the throbbing in her right thigh. The sky was still dark with neither moon visible. The temperature had fallen during the night. She turned her head to the right, in the direction of flickering red-orange light to see the boy sitting and tending a fire. She did not see the girl.
Kaila struggled to sit. Sweat soaked her skin as she finally managed to push her torso upright. She looked down at her thigh and saw that someone had removed her makeshift bandage. The wound was red and swollen, hot to the touch. She did not, as yet, see the telltale red streaks that indicated the blood corruption, at least not yet. Perhaps her blood had washed out most of the poison.
Kaila looked at the boy, still tending the fire. “Where is… I don’t even know your names.”
Kaila’s voice was harsh and rough, forced out of a dry throat.
The boy pointed out into the darkness.
Kaila frowned. “Can you speak?”
The boy shrugged.
“Can not or will not, I wonder,” Kaila mused to herself. She shivered. Even if she avoided the blood corruption, she would likely take a fever from her wound.
She scooted closer to the fire. The effort of even that small motion caused sweat to break out on her forehead.
Kaila took a quick inventory. Her sword lay close to hand, her sword belt wrapped around the scabbard. Her knife, which normally hung from the same belt, was gone. The girl, Kaila thought. The girl must have it.
The boy reached toward the fire and removed something that Kaila had not noted in the glare. A twisted stick, propped above the flame. A small carcass, now scorched from the flame was impaled on the stick. The boy held it out to her.
Kaila’s gorge rose at the thought of food but she knew that she needed to feed her body if she was to have the strength to fight off the infection of her wound, let alone protect the two children who had come under her care.
As she bit into the carcass, a lizard of some kind, she almost chuckled. At the moment, it seemed she lay more under their care than they under hers.
Kaila stripped the last of the meat from the bones of the lizard and sank back. She shivered. She rolled onto her left side, facing the fire and propping her head up on her forearms.
The boy watched her for a moment, then dragged in a bundle of brush and started breaking off pieces and feeding them to the fire.
The warmth of the fire baked her front while her back chilled in the night air. After a time, keeping that position became too difficult and she dropped onto her back. She closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, some time had passed. It was still night. The smaller moon had risen.
Colder. Unless Kaila’s fever had worsened. She shivered. Her breath came in short pants. She tried to sit but her arms gave out behind her and she collapsed.
Kaila almost drifted off to sleep again when the sound of scuffling footsteps jerked her to alertness. With a supreme effort she stretched her hand and grasped the hilt of her sword, drawing it to her. She turned her head in the direction of the sound.
The girl approached pale in the moonlight. Nude. Her feet scuffing along the rocky ground. In her right hand, she held Kaila’s knife. Her left arm held something slung over her shoulder; from her place on the ground, Kaila could not see what.
The girl dropped cross-legged to the ground setting the knife beside her and swinging her package from behind her shoulder. Kaila could see that she had twisted together the hem of her tunic and tied a knot that converted her tunic into a bag. Something bulged within it.
The girl’s gaze fell on Kaila’s face and her open eyes. The girl dropped the bag and scrambled forward, wrapping her arms around Kaila’s neck.
“I was scared. I thought you…you were gonta…”
From somewhere, Kaila found the strength to return the girl’s embrace. “Did I not swear I would not abandon you? Where did you go, child?”
“I went looking for food. I was so scared that you would be gone when I got back but I had to.”
Kaila opened her mouth to chide the girl that she had not the strength to go anywhere but then she realized the girl’s meaning, the one journey even the weakest can take, the one journey everyone comes to in the end.
“I swore an oath,” Kaila said. “And the gods willing I will keep it.”
“I was afraid if you woke while I was gone, you’d think I abandoned you.”
Kaila remembered the words she had thought she heard as she had slipped into unconsciousness. She smiled. “You, too, swore an oath, did you not? And the boy was here.”
Kaila coughed, the sound dry and raspy. Her sides ached with even that small effort.
The girl’s eyes widened. She dragged her tunic over and dumped the contents into her lap. Digging in the various objects she raised two fruits.
“I didn’t have any way to carry water,” the girl said, “but here.”
She cut the end off one of the fruits and pressed it into Kaila’s hand.
“Don’t eat it. The pulp will make your stomach heave. But you can drink the juice.”
Using both hands Kaila was able to lift the fruit to her mouth. The juice was bitter and astringent but it wet her throat. She gulped greedily.
As Kaila sucked on the second fruit, the girl held up a handful of irregular bulbs, like small onions ripped from the ground.
“Ali,” the girl said. “Nana showed me how to use this.”
“For what, pray tell?”
The girl set them on a flat stone and began to crush them with the flat of Kaila’s knife.
“Nana would put them in deep wounds,” the girl said. “They keep away the blood sickness.”
Kaila wished for Shillond’s herbs and magics. Instead, she had a desert girl. As least, Kaila had assumed she was a desert child.
“You are of the desert clans?” Kaila asked.
The girl nodded. “Zashira, of Stone Water clan.”
“And the boy?”
“I do not know his name. I have been calling him Tanik which he accepts.”
“Well, Zashira of Stone Water clan. I am Kaila, Knight of Aerioch. It would seem you are wise in the ways of the desert. I have my sword should I regain my strength. Let us make a pledge, then, to keep each other safe in this land until you and I can return to our peoples.”
Zashira looked solemnly into Kaila’s eyes and nodded. “I so pledge.”
Zashira looked over at the boy who still tended the fire. “Tanik?”
Zashira laid the knife aside then scooted to Kaila’s thigh. Pain pulsed up Kaila’s leg as Zashira poked at the wound.
“The wound has closed, Lady,” Zashira said. I have to open it. The ali has to go inside.”
Kaila struggled to sit up but only managed to lift herself partway, propped on her elbows.
“Help me sit,” Kaila said.
Zashira shifted to Kaila’s side and Tanik left the fire to kneel at Kaila’s other side. Together the two children managed to lever Kaila to a sitting position.
Kaila held out her hand for her knife. Zashira picked it up and handed it to her.
Kaila held the blade up and inspected it. Shillond had told her of the strange miasma that lives in dirt and rot that brings infection, something his wizardry told him that no human eye could see.
Shaking her head at her distraction, she turned the blade toward her thigh. With a precise stroke, she drove the point into the channel of the spear thrust, matching the depth to within a half finger width.
Gritting her teeth at the sharp explosions of pain she withdrew the blade and yellow fluid mixed with red blood wept from the wound.
While Tanik supported Kaila at her back, Zashira took Kaila’s knife from Kaila’s suddenly nerveless hand. Kaila watched, as if from a great distance, as Zashira scooped up some of the mash onto the blade of the knife. She turned the knife and pressed the plant paste into the wound.
Liquid fire poured through Kaila’s leg, traveled up her torso, and burst from the top of her head. Her mouth opened wide but no sound emerged, the pain so great it paralyzed her throat. She collapsed backwards. Tanik fell aside as Kaila’s full weight fell upon him. Then the ground rose up and smote Kaila in the back and darkness wrapped her once more.