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Story 2

Lee Killough

Lee Killough has been storytelling since the age of four or five, when she began making up her own bedtime stories. So when she discovered science fiction and mysteries about age eleven, she began writing her own because she feared being left without SF and mysteries once she had read all of those on her small town library's shelves. It took her late husband Pat Killough, though, years later, to convince her to try selling her work. Her first published stories were science fiction, and her short story, "Symphony For a Lost Traveler", earned a Hugo Award nomination in 1985.

Of her sixteen novels, the five most recent are now also e-books, published by Books We Love, Ltd.

http://bookswelove.net/authors/killough-lee/, www.coffeeshopwriters.com

CARAVAN came out in If magazine (long gone, sigh) in June of 1972, before I even considered writing a book. "It's fun for me to read through an old story and be pleased to find I still like it very much. And how sobering to realize that I cut over a thousand words out of it trying to make 5000. Those thousand-plus words aren't even missed as I read through for grammar, spelling, etc." -- Lee Killough

At two or three cents a word, those 1000 or so words represented 20-30 dollars income back in June of 1972. Her gain then, but not her loss now, since we pay by the story, not by the word. If you want to know what a well-crafted science fiction short story looks like, CARAVAN is an excellent place to start.

In CARAVAN, Lee Killough takes us on a caravan journey on a strange desert world where an experienced caravanmaster must cope with burdensome passengers, as well as bandits and the harsh desert climate to safely reach .refuge.

 

CARAVAN

by Lee Killough

 

Tleth tasted a blow coming. It soured the pre-dawn wind hissing across the dune, flattening his robe against his thin body. Due by tonight at the latest, he judged . . . a full ripsand.

He peered south, yellow scalp furrowing in displeasure. Dakshan still lay over a day away. He should never have agreed to take the merchant Kreesh and his shes there. If headed for Moveen as originally planned, the caravan could shelter in scalerock hills by mid-day. Now they faced a blow in open desert.

Below, his zhiriffers brewed the first meal over fire pots. Hobbled zhiriff spread beyond them, long scaled heads and necks snaking out in search of the wiry dune grass. Kreesh and his shes still slept, three humps of fabric on the sand beside their huda and packs.

Tleth tasted the wind again, then plunged down the dune in a slide of sand and pebbles. “Rig up! Now!”

The zhiriffers looked around, yellow eyes questioning.

“Ripsand coming,” Tleth replied tersely.

Elliptical pupils dilated. Leaving the fire pots, they scrambled to clip reins to the nose rings of their animals. The zhiriff tried to dodge, bellowing in protest. Long tails lashed at their handlers. An occasional broad foot struck out as the zhiriffers released the hobbles.

Tleth toed Krees. “Wake up!”

The merchant blinked groggily. “It isn’t even dawn yet.”

“We need every hour possible to make Dakshan before the blow.”

“Blow?” Kreesh stiffened. “A serious one?”

Tleth swallowed an exasperated hiss. As though any other kind concerned an experienced caravanmaster. “Not one I want to face in open desert. Nor subject them to.” He jerked his head toward the shes peeking from under their hoods. “We leave as soon as we’ve eaten.”

He turned away before he said something revealing his dislike of the merchant. Tleth rejected the view that vestigial scales on the scalps and spines of the equatorial tribes — in contrast to smooth midworld hides — made them more primitive . . . but one had to question the intelligence of a man bringing gravid shes across the desert in blow season, when they might come to nest any moment. Kreesh must be aware how even stirsand affected the lungs in an infant’s first breath, the gods forbid drivesand or worse.

The protests of the zhiriff subsided as the animals resigned themselves to being loaded. A few tails still lashed, but sullenly, no longer aimed at any target. Tleth checked each beast, making sure its load balanced and the rig straps lay flat between the dorsal spines. He paid particular attention that the two halves of the huda were secured snugly and the padding unwrinkled between them and the zhirif’s hide. Only with the caravan ready to travel did he accept the steaming mug Shiah, his head zhiriffer, handed him.

In place of morning’s normal jocularity, everyone gulped their meal and hurriedly packed the fire pots. Kreesh and his shes were lifted into their huda and the zhiriffers scrambled on their animals, in the space left by the removal of one dorsal spine at the zhirif’s withers.

The caravan moved out in a long, shambling line. Tleth set a pace zhiriff tolerated this early and let Shiah maintain it while he ranged his more lightly laden animal back along the line, keeping it in order. And kept checking the sky.

Dawn came soon after breaking camp. The sky had been lightening gradually but with no more prelude, the sun leaped above the horizon . . . small, white, blindingly bright.

The zhiriff felt its heat almost immediately. Tossing their heads, they hummed softly in welcome. As their bodies warmed, they moved faster, and a few, feeling good, nipped at animals ahead.

Tleth moved in to stop an impending fight between a female and a castrate whose playfulness she mistook for rut. He snapped his lash at the female’s head. She bellowed but straightened around in line. There was no need to discipline the castrate, busy licking the gouge the female’s teeth left on his muzzle.

With day and warmth, the desert’s pre-dawn silence vanished. On the dunes around them small creatures appeared to sun themselves or hunt smaller creatures in quick, darting chases. Leather-winged flyers swooped through the sky above the caravan, crying hoarsely. Tleth watched them. Flyers meant friendly air. When the dhanzall and ganraa grounded, it was time to hunt cover.

As the morning passed, the sky bleached to the same grey-white as the sands beneath it, but otherwise remained clear. Even the horizon behind them showed no clouds or sand spouts.

“Are you sure there’s a blow coming?” Kreesh called irritably as Tleth passed him.

Tleth glanced sideways without expression. “Yes.”

In the other half of the huda, the shes rode silently, faces set against the jar of every step. Tleth’s mouth thinned, wishing he had seen them before accepting Kreesh’s money. How could the merchant be so irresponsible?

“If you’re worried about making Dakshan, why don’t we cross those flats instead of following the dunes?” Kreesh said.

Tleth had no need to look. “Those ‘flats’ are sink sand.”

The shes paled. Even Kreesh swallowed.

Tleth regretted frightening the shes. To distract them, he pointed out a long grey mound like a low dune in the middle of the sink. “Have you ever seen a tarray before? They’re the largest sand swimmer in the world.”

The shes stared wide-eyed at the grey shape. “How big?”

“That one is close to a hundred paces, I’d estimate. About average. The jets are closed but just above the sand you can see its body fin spread out to keep it on the surface. They come up several times a day to feed and breathe. This one will probably dive again soon.”

All three passengers eyed the tarray. “It won’t attack?”

Tleth shook his head. “As long as we don’t fall into the sink. Dune sand is denser than they like to swim through.”

The tarray rippled once and sank out of sight in an upward spray of sand. Ripples slid along the sink surface in the direction the tarray traveled, growing smaller until only an expert eye could distinguish them.

“Will it come up again soon?” one she asked.

“Probably not, but a sink this large will have— ”

“Tleth!” came a shout.

He looked around. Shiah waved at him. Flicking his zhirif’s neck with his whip, Tleth pushed the beast into a trot and rode forward to the zhiriffer’s side.

“Trouble.” Shiah pointed his whip at dhanzall circling east of them.

Tleth’s scalp wrinkled. “It could be another caravan.”

“No ganraa,” Shiah said.

The small flyers liked the mites commonly infesting zhirif hides. Wherever zhiriff went, ganraa appeared. The furrows deepened in Tleth’s scalp. “So until proven otherwise, we’ll assume it’s raiders.”

“Must be desperate to be out now.”

“Or clever, if they have shelter nearby.” Tleth clicked his teeth. “By the time Kreesh’s host in Dakshan worries enough to send out a search party, we’ll be nothing but sand-scoured bones. If we haven’t been dumped in the sink.”

“What do you want to do?” Shiah eyed the dhanzall. “We can’t group and fight with that ripsand coming, and if they’re riding zhazenn, we can’t out-run them.”

Tleth twisted to look back over the caravan and at the horizon behind them, then quickly scanned the desert around them. Caught between raiders and a blow, one made defense against the other almost impossible. Almost. He absently rubbed a dorsal spine on his zhirif’s neck, weighing the dangerous gamble that occurred to him. “We can increase the difficulty attacking us, and shorten the distance to Dakshan, if we cross the sink.” He pointed at a grey strip stretching from the dunes across the paler sink sand.

Shiah’s pupils dilated, but he nodded and turned his zhirif toward the avenue.

The nearest zhiriffer behind Shiah sat up in alarm. “What— ”

Tleth pointed at the flyers across the dunes. The zhiriffer’s question died, and he guided his animal after Shiah.

The zhiriffers did not worry Tleth. Even the half not his regular crew had enough experience to follow orders without argument. Kreesh might cause trouble, though.

Tleth rode back to his passengers before they noticed the new direction. “We’re taking a cut route,” he told them in his most casual voice. “It’s across the sink but there’s no danger. It’s on an avenue where the grass holds the surface well enough to support our weight.”

“Then why haven’t we crossed before?” Kreesh demanded.

Time for lie number two. He had no intention of mentioning the raiders, considering the effect stress often had on shes so close to nesting. “Because we hadn’t reached this avenue yet, and because I thought we’d have enough time for the longer route around.”

The merchant looked unconvinced, but Tleth rode away without wasting more time on him.

The sink gave the raiders only two possible directions to attack. Three guards should be able to stand them off initially. Two at the rear, another up front in case the raiders found an intersecting avenue. Zhal and Hriss were excellent with skims, and he had heard that Manth, new this trip, also had skill.

Reining his zhirif back, he paced it briefly beside each of the three in turn while he explained the situation. They fell out of line obediently and took up their positions, Zhal and Hriss at the rear, the new zhiriffer moving up to join Shiah. Unobtrusively, they reached under their robes for the skim pouches suspended from their waists.

Tleth regarded them with satisfaction. Nothing surpassed skims as a weapon when thrown by a strong, accurate arm in open-sand combat. The raiders had skims, too, of course, but in a riding attack, not an ambush from stationary positions on the top of some dune, he expected the choppy gait of their zhazenn to spoil their accuracy.

The avenue of firm sand narrowed as they followed it deeper into the sink. At points barely wider than a single animal. Tleth edged his zhirif into line ahead of Zhal.

A look east found the dhanzall in the same position. It would take the raiders a while to realize the caravan had changed course, but then waste no time altering their plan of attack. He fully expected to see them appear before a handspan of the sun’s passage.

From the dhanzall, his eyes slid to the northern sky. It still looked clear. Or did it? Tleth squinted. Did a faint haze blur the horizon?

Prudence said to assume so. Facing front again, he whistled shrilly. Far ahead, Shiah twisted around. Tleth made a snapping motion with his wrist.

Acknowledging with a wave, the zhiriffer flicked his animal with his lash. The zhirif’s head snaked irritably. Shiah touched it again. With another head toss, it broke into a reluctant trot. One by one the zhiriff behind it also changed gait. Not a pace to sustain when loaded, but Tleth preferred tired zhiriff to the desert’s other hazards today.

He watched the line ahead closely. At a trot, they had less control of the leggy beasts. Not that he could help one in trouble, the avenue here had narrowed so much.

What he feared came all too soon. A riderless zhirif, its stride longer than that of the animal ahead, overtook and rammed into the other. The one in front wheeled, bellowing. Thinner sand at the edge of the avenue crumbled, dropping the zhirif’s hindquarters into the sink sand.

Tleth whistled but the signal proved unnecessary. The zhiriffers in line nearest the stricken beast vaulted off their mounts and raced to its aid. With one man grabbing the edge of the rig on each side, they pulled, shouting and whistling encouragement. The zhirif scrabbled with its forelegs, heaved forward, and dragged its hindquarters back onto firm sand.

After shoving it back in line, the zhiriffers remounted. The line stretched briefly into a faster trot to catch up with the rest, which had not stopped.

Tleth wished he felt relieved. Instead, he began watching the sink as well as the desert behind them. How much sub-surface vibration had the zhirif’s struggle caused? He saw Zhal also peering across the sand, scalp furrowed, and knew the zhiriffer had the same concern.

The zhiriff sensed something. Heads swinging uneasily, they honked at each other. Tleth rubbed his animal’s dorsal spines, soothing it before the honking turned to fearful bellows, and he whistled at Shiah, short blasts up-toned that meant: hold the line; keep them moving.

“Tarray,” Zhal murmured.

Tleth’s gaze followed the zhiriffer’s pointing whip. Far out, the sand rippled. In imagination Tleth felt the big swimmer erupting beneath him. It took self-control to hold his zhirif a tail’s length behind the animal in front.

He watched the sand wave marking the tarray’s passage, however. It headed straight for the spot the zhirif had fallen.

While he watched it slowed. Then stopped completely several hundred paces out and sat motionless.

Tleth held his breath . . . but let it out gently as the ripple of movement resumed, but parallel to the avenue. The tarray appeared only curious, not hungry. Likely to just watch them for a while . . . as long as they did nothing to arouse its appetite.

He checked the sky again. No question now, the northern sky had changed color. He whistled for Shiah to slow to a walk again. Save the zhiriff for now. Later, speed could be critical.

At least the avenue had widened again. Tleth rode forward to join Shiah. “How do you think we’re doing?”

“We’re on a straighter course for Dakshan.” Shiah clicked his teeth. “We might make the walls by mid or late afternoon. Providing the avenue continues.”

Tleth could have done without that last thought. “Pray the gods it does.” He swung his mount around to head back down the line. “I leave the pace to you. Keep moving. Trot when you feel we can afford it.”

The zhiriffer nodded.

As Tleth passed the passengers, Kreesh called, “It’s mid-day. Where are we stopping to eat?”

“We’re not stopping,” Tleth said, and moved on before the merchant could complain.

Zhal and Hriss both rode looking backward. Zhal said, “The tarray’s moved farther out but it’s still following us.”

“It isn’t alone, either,” Hriss added. He pointed behind them.

Tleth looked only because he wanted to count. Some ten or twelve riders had appeared, shapes distorted by the heat waves but identifiably mounted on zhazenn. However, they seemed in no more hurry than normal to reach cover before the blow. Which might be true. Just area tribesmen headed home from a hunt or a puberty rite.

“Don’t show skims until you’re sure of them,” he said.

“What if they ask to pass, then attack when they can back us against the edge of the avenue?” Hriss asked.

“You’ll be able to see the weave pattern of their robes before that.”

“And if they’re wearing Daksha robes?”

“If in doubt, lay down your zhirif and block the avenue. Pretend the beast won’t get up. Then call me. If they’re raiders, being stuck behind you will force them into overt action.”

“Such as sinking skims in our throats,” Hriss said darkly, then grinned, adding, “if mine don’t end in theirs first.”

They watched the riders gain on them. But slower now than someone trying to reach shelter.

Tleth felt for the skims under his own robes, fingering the triangular outline of the blades.

“Estimate they’ll overtake in half a span,” Zhal said.

Tleth agreed, frowning. “I wonder why they’re waiting so long. I think I’ll look ahead.”

He flicked his zhirif into a fast trot. Passing the line, he rode ahead up the avenue. Gods. If only he knew the sink better. The two times he crossed it as head zhiriffer under another caravanmaster had been years ago and farther north. What advantage did the raiders anticipate ahead?

He learned soon enough. Swearing, he wheeled the zhirif and lashed it back toward the caravan.

“There’s a twenty pace break in avenue,” he told Shiah.

Manth hissed in dismay. “We can’t go back.”

“No,” Tleth agreed. “We’ll have to swim across.”

The zhiriffers stared.

“I’ve done it before.” Only once, but no need to tell them that. “Unrig the zhiriff to swim them. Drag the packs. Rig up again on the far side. And hurry! The raiders will overtake us while we’re in the middle of crossing.”

“The tarray?” Shiah asked.

Gods. He had forgotten that beast! He checked the sand. Ripples showed the tarray leaving. But not for long once zhiriff started thrashing their way through the sand.

He thought fast. “Station two men on each side, one pair to unrig and send the zhiriff across, the others to re-rig. Keep moving. Get as many as possible across before the swimmer comes back.”

The pupils of the men dilated until only a thin rim of yellow remained around them. Even experienced zhiriffers rarely attempted anything this dangerous, but Tleth trusted his crew to do as he asked. He gave thanks for the confidence in his judgement that the years of working with them had built. They lashed the zhiriff into a trot and kept them in it to the avenue’s break.

Tleth vaulted off his zhirif as it halted, tearing at the buckles of the rig. With Shiah lifting from the other side, a quick flip and the cross straps cleared the spines. The rig landed heavily on the sand behind. They quickly repeated the operation with Shiah’s and Manth’s animals, then Tleth pulled a picket line from his pack and threaded it through the three rigs, handing one end to Shiah.

“Hang onto the zhirif’s neck, and keep as flat on top of the sand. You won’t sink if you spread your body across a wide area.”

Ancient instincts sent the zhiriff off the avenue more willingly than their handlers, sliding in to minimize vibrations, forelegs outstretched. Tleth remembered from the other swim that the beasts’ broad feet worked as efficiently as paddles as they did walking on sand. Necks and tails stretched out to help keep them on the surface while their legs pulled them through the sink’s loose sand. On the far side, they scrambled out and calmly shook themselves.

Tleth watched as the first pair were re-rigged and Manth started leading them on down the avenue. Then he turned to run on foot back along the line.

“Caravanmaster!”

Gods! He had no time for Kreesh now.

“I demand to know what you’re doing,” the strident voice called. “Are you mad? You can’t ask my shes to swim in their condition!”

Tleth whirled on the merchant. “It’s a pity you didn’t consider their condition before dragging them out here in the first place.” His voice thinned to a hiss. “Of course, you don’t have to swim. You can always stay and wait for the raiders.”

“Raiders!” Kreesh gasped.

The shes wailed and clutched at each other.

“When did you— ” Kreesh began angrily.

But Tleth ran on, robe billowing behind him, pushing, urging, encouraging and reassuring. Wishing he believed his reassurances.

At the back of the line Hriss said matter-of-factly, “They’re coming.”

Coming at a hard gallop. Tleth checked the caravan. Less than half of it across. Resisting an urge to look for the tarray — useless to worry about that — he reached under his robe for his skims. “Send all the animals forward. I’ll stay back here with you and help hold off the raiders. I have ten blades.”

“Ten,” Zhal said.

“Twelve,” Hriss said.

Tleth emptied the pouch into his right hand and, while peeling off one skim with his left, glanced over his shoulder once more to see how the swimming had progressed. The zhiriffers worked frantically, jerking rigs off on one side, barely taking time to brush the scaley hides on the far side before rigging up again. There would be sores aplenty from twisted straps and sand scour tonight, Tleth reflected irritably. Then caught himself with a rueful shake of his head. They must survive until tonight first.

Kreesh and his shes had made it to the far side, he noticed. He faced back toward the raiders.

Then thunder rumbled in the distance. The sand trembled beneath his feet. Tleth caught his breath in dismay. Tarray!

Zhal shifted his narrow shoulders wryly. “We’ll save over half anyway.”

And give up the rest? Not his caravan! Staring at the nearing shapes of the raiders, feeling the approaching tarray, he set his jaw. “We’ll save them all.” Or die trying. “Aim for zhazenn.”

“But once the raiders are afoot their aim will be— ”

“Aim for their mounts!”

The leaders bore down on them, the sun gleaming off the blades in their hands. Tleth’s felt cool and smooth in his hand. Drawing back his arm, he threw with a snap of his wrist, then dropped to hands and knees on the sand.

Something hissed past him, snagging on his robe. Almost simultaneously, the leading zhazen shrieked. Rearing, it staggered backward, blood spurting around two blades protruding from its neck. The rider vaulted off, dodging thrashing legs as the stricken beast crashed sideways. The rider braced to throw a skim, then went down himself, one of Hriss’s skims in his own throat.

Tleth threw again. Another zhazen fell, this time into the path of two more riders. Its convulsions and screaming panicked other zhazenn. They shied, bellowing. One overstepped the edge of the avenue. Animal and rider went on their sides in the sink.

The short neck and tail that gave zhazenn their speed reduced its support in the sink’s fine sand. The stunned rider clung to his mount instead of rolling off, and his weight held the animal on its side. Legs thrashing and body heaving in a frantic effort to right itself, animal and rider disappeared under the sand.

The zhiriffers hit two more zhazenn, only wounding them this time, but pain and fright sent them bolting backward, compounding the confusion in the main body of riders. A second zhazen went into the sink.

Then Hriss gasped and folded, arms clutched across his stomach. Tleth snapped off another blade and reached to catch him. This time the blade only sliced a raider’s scalp before deflecting into the sink.

The sand heaved beneath Tleth.

Thank the gods. At last. “Back!” He bolted, dragging Hriss with him.

The raiders stiffened, throwing arms arrested in mid motion as they lost interest in the caravan. Lost interest in everything but their own survival . . . fleeing on foot or struggling for control of their frantic mounts.

Hriss sagged. Zhal grabbed his other arm. Between them, Tleth and Zhal dragged the wounded man after the caravan.

The last of the zhiriff were ploughing through the sink, rigs dragging, driven by fear and the shouts of their handlers. One zhiriffer on the far side shouted, watching something beyond Tleth.

He dared not look around, just ran faster.

At the edge, he and Zhal leaped out with Hriss. The sand slammed up into them, taking away Tleth’s breath. He reached for the trailing strap of a rig with his free hand . . . locked his fingers tight around it. Sand flowed around him, filling his eyes, his nostrils, his robes, fighting to engulf him.

Hriss dragged at him. Tleth’s fingers slipped on the strap. He dug in his nails, but the strap continued to slip . . . slip. Until it jerked free of his grip. Desperately, he snatched for it again.

Instead of a strap, however, he found a hand. It hauled him forward and up, onto firm footing again.

The ground heaved. Wiping his eyes clear, Tleth looked back.

Down the avenue, the sand erupted. A grey-white fountain sprayed into the sky, carrying zhazenn and riders with it like pebbles. And from the spray, the huge grey form of the tarray surfaced to feed.

Shiah gasped in relief. “I thought it was headed for us.”

“It was . . .” Tleth knelt beside Hriss. “. . . until the wounded zhazenn distracted it.”

Before examining his zhiriffer’s wound, he checked the sky again, and his gut lurched at seeing only empty air. The flyers had vanished . . . and behind them on the horizon, a wide, black belt divided the glares of sky and sand.

“Move!”

They moved . . . rigging the last zhirif, tearing along the avenue after the rest of the caravan without taking time to remount. Except for tossing Hriss up on an animal, they remained afoot, running ahead of the zhiriff and hauling on the reins, pushing for the distant grey line that marked the edge of the sink.

The caravan spread out in a long, irregular line, but the zhiriff no longer needed herding. Smelling the blow, they ran from it as desperately as the zhiriffers did.

A gust of wind sent a sheet of sand spraying across the avenue, stinging Tleth’s ankles. He glanced back at the sky again. Black blotted out a quarter of it, and spinwinds lifted colonnades of sand. He pulled harder on the reins of the zhirif he led.

They might reach the dunes ahead of the blow. Though mere dunes gave no protection from a ripsand. They needed a windbreak, preferably the solid walls of a town, but at least rock.

“Tleth!”

The cry reached him faintly over the rising wind. A zhiriffer waved, motioning ahead. Peering that direction Tleth saw a flickering light at the front of the line. Shiah...signaling back with a sunflash.

S-C-A-L-E-R-O-C-K-A-H-E-A-D, Tleth read.

Scalerock? He squinted against the brightness of the sand, straining to distinguish detail in the rolling land beyond the sink. Yes. The hills looked higher than the dunes they left, and steeper. Blackness that glinted blotched the face of the slopes. Scalerock.

He reached for his own sunflash, hanging on a cord around his neck, and sent back: F-A-S-T-E-R.

Shiah acknowledged. Moments later Tleth saw the foremost zhirif stretch out. Gradually the others followed until the entire line launched into a dead run. The zhiriffers mounted using the animals’ momentum to help them vault into place.

Abusive behavior under any other circumstances. The zhiriff would tire even faster now. Tleth prayed they lasted long enough to reach the scalerock.

He drove his own mount harder yet and brought it abreast of Hriss’s. The wounded zhiriffer lay limp in the straps holding him on, eyes closed and face slack. Whether dead or unconscious, Tleth could not tell. Unconscious, he prayed, and glanced back to check the blow’s progress.

His gut lurched in fear. Half the sky had turned black. The wall of darkness towered above the desert, obliterating everything behind it, close to engulfing the sun. But what he saw where blackness met the sand spun him back around, screaming at his crew and lashing his zhirif across the neck. Instead of spinwind columns, sink sand rose in a wall of its own, a wall that grew a pace in height for every several forward.

“Sandwave!” he howled.

 Wind whipped his shout forward. Heads jerked around for the briefest of moments, then arms used lashes. The entire caravan leaped forward, running flat out in panic for the protection of the scalerock. Even riderless zhiriff raced with all weariness forgotten.

Tleth tucked his head against his zhirif’s neck, nictating membranes drawn against the wind-driven sand. Each gust hazed the ground, blurring color and detail until Tleth no longer recognized the edges of the avenue. Dropping the reins, he trusted his mount’s instinct for footing.

The hills loomed nearer, but so did the double walls of black and sand. The ground shook with their violence. And beneath him, the zhirif trembled in exhaustion.

Then the ground rose. They had left the sink! Strides later they passed the first outcroppings of slick, layered scalerock.

Leaping off their animals, the zhiriffers urged them up the narrow, steep paths of the escarpment. Zhiriffers went on hands and feet, clawing for purchase in the treacherous combination of rock shards and loose sand. Zhiriff lunged in uneven, tired heaves. They fell often and heavily, sliding backward, losing ground. Zhiriffers cursed through rasping gasps for air and mercilessly lashed the animals to their feet again.

Vaguely, a part of Tleth’s mind recognized the shape of the rock face, but he had no time to wonder why. He felt as though he carried his animal up the hill. It stumbled every other stride. Pebbles showered backward from its scrabbling feet into Tleth’s exposed face. He dug in his toes and leaned against the zhirif’s hindquarters, then almost fell when the beast found footing and plunged up the trail away from him. He dragged tiredly after it, hoping it did not stumble again.

The wind had reached a shrill scream and the light turned to twilight by the time he staggered over the crest and stopped to assess possible shelter, gulping air into lungs that felt afire. To his shock instead of laying down their animals the zhiriffers kept going, pushing across the rocky hilltop.

“Stop!”

The sandwave had to reach them any moment now! He felt it at his back. Unless they found cover immediately—

The thought chopped off as his eyes, angrily seeking Shiah, suddenly recognized the landscape. Dakshan lay just over the next hill. Their route across the sink had brought them to the town’s rear gate!

He whistled at his zhirif, urging it after the rest of the caravan. “Move on, old egg. Just a little farther.”

The beast stumbled, moving slower and slower, every line of its dragging legs and drooping neck and tail announcing its wish to lie down and die. Sighing in regret, Tleth used his whip. But even then the zhirif slogged only fast enough to stay ahead of the lash. Then, at the next hill’s crest, its head came up. Honking, it hurled itself forward. Dakshan’s labyrinth of high grey walls and scalerock-slate roofs spread across the plateau. Even in exhaustion, the zhirif recognized that a town meant food and rest.

Suddenly, the wind stopped roaring in Tleth’s ears. Sand settled softly around him. Tleth jerked his hood tight around his face and forced leaden legs to move faster. Dakshan’s entry maze still lay almost five hundred paces away.

Into the silence came a single sound, a low, almost inaudible grinding. Not remaining low, it swiftly crescendoed to a roar so great it passed beyond hearing. Tleth only felt it, a vibration that shook the ground and reverberated in his bones. Seconds later the ground heaved as the sandwave smashed into the escarpment.

Tleth lurched, almost falling. He caught himself on the zhirif’s rig and stumbled on. The walls, safety, lay only a hundred paces away now.

The top of the broken wave reached him as a fine haze of particles sifting down from the sky. A heartbeat later, however, the ripsand struck. Driving death, a flaying wind that tore through Tleth’s robe and into him like a thousand tiny skims.

Running blindly beside the zhirif, he hoped they remained headed for the gate. He dared not open his hood and expose his face. Much longer and the ripsand would kill both beast and him, shredding the flesh from their bones.

He risked one hurried peek. The entry arch lay just paces away.

As though fighting to keep its prey, the blow slashed furiously at them. But Tleth used the added impulsion of the wind to swing through the entry arch and round the first turn of the maze.

The wind screamed in frustration, unable to reach him beyond the protective angles. The walls even muted its howl, and the sand driven by that fury passed over the town rather than dropping into it.

 In the near darkness of the plaza inside, Tleth ran a probing gaze over the heaving zhiriff and the zhiriffers sagging beside them, over the two shes — surprisingly composed, compared to their sick-huddled husband — and Hriss. The zhiriffer hung on his mount with the now unmistakable slackness of death.

Tleth ran the assessment numbly: no cargo lost, nor passengers, nor zhiriff. Only one man. They could lay over here for injured animals to heal before continuing to Moveen. Objectively, minimal loss. But . . . Hriss . . . anything but minimal.

“Unrig,” he ordered, hoarse with weariness and grief for Hriss. “I want every animal checked and treated for strap rubs, sand scouring, and lameness before any of us leaves the stable area.”

His crew struggled obediently to their feet.

Shiah eyed Tleth. “Shall I find you a healer?”

Tleth glanced down. His robe hung in tatters. He felt no pain yet, but his hide must be raw. Like that of his zhirif. He patted its neck. “After I tend to this old fellow.”

Too bad the tarray destroyed so much of that avenue, came a remote thought. Look how it shortened the distance to Dakshan. It might be worth research to map the avenues of this and other sinks.

Later, he decided. Much later. Preferably examining the idea in a pleasant state of intoxication in a tavinn, under a more benevolent sky.

 

The End

 

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