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
“We need every hour possible to make Dakshan before
“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
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
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
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,
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
“If you’re worried about making Dakshan, why don’t we
cross those flats instead of following the dunes?”
Tleth had no need to look. “Those ‘flats’ are sink
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
The shes stared wide-eyed at the grey shape. “How
“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
Tleth shook his head. “As long as we don’t fall into
the sink. Dune sand is denser than they like to swim
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
“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.
Tleth pointed at the flyers across the dunes. The
zhiriffer’s question died, and he guided his animal
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,
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“It isn’t alone, either,” Hriss added. He pointed
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
“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
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
“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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
Hriss sagged. Zhal grabbed his other arm. Between
them, Tleth and Zhal dragged the wounded man after the
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
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
“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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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
Then the ground rose. They had left the sink! Strides
later they passed the first outcroppings of slick,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.