Followers of Galashad Chapter 7

Desert

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Chapter Seven


Aerikai’s spirits dragged as they walked to the southern mouth of the canyon. With each passing length she could see the level of the river continue to drop. They had loaded as much food as they could find into the boats and sent them down with nine adults and all of the younger children. Celedand stubbornly refused to leave Aerikai’s side.

It was early afternoon by the time they reached the canyon mouth. The sun shone hot on their heads. Aerikai passed her water skin around to the people nearest her and wiped the perspiration from her brow.

The level of the river had dropped so severely that there was a dry path on both sides. Sheer, rocky cliffs rose on the east and west like a fortress wall. With the river at its normal level passage in was impossible and passage out would have been too dangerous to attempt.

The refugees passed beneath the cliffs into a narrow canyon. Aerikai called a halt. The weary travelers gratefully sank to the ground to rest. They ate a tiny meal and drank heavily from the ever diminishing river. After a quarter hour they got to their feet and continued on.

They traveled through the hot, narrow canyon for the rest of the afternoon and as the sun dipped to the horizon they reached a wide, grassy plain. The river swept out of the canyon and then arced to the east. Aerikai followed its path with her eyes to where it emptied into the sea.

Her heart sank. The river would not have been of any use to them regardless of what the Diviner had done. She turned with trepidation to the west and instantly recognized the plain where she had met her husband in her dream. Just as in the dream the plain ended after two or three leagues and was swallowed up by a vast desert.

“Giadre`.” She whispered.

“Is that where we are going, Mother?” Celedand asked.

She could hear the uncertainty in his voice and she dared not answer with her own. She nodded. Around her she could hear the gasps and moans of despair as the weary travelers began to understand what lay ahead.

Ahead she could see Ashier and the boats that had been sent ahead. They had stopped where the river turned and made camp in the tall grass. Aerikai trudged forward. She searched the shore for a place to cross. Her group were all on the east side of the river and Ashier was camped on the west. They found a shallow ford that was lined with rocks and shale from the cliffs.

By the time they reached camp the sun had just set. Ashier directed the weary group to fill all of the water skins they had and anything else that would hold water. When they finished they collapsed, exhausted and heart worn. Aerikai passed a little cheese that had been rescued from the flood and a few other perishable foods that had been soaked. The refugees ate with little appetite and then slept.

The next morning Aerikai and Ashier walked out toward the desert. In the distance they could see sheer cliffs penetrating the horizon.

“I think we should make for those cliffs.” Ashier suggested.

“You don’t think we should go east?” Aerikai asked hopefully.

“The river mouth is inhospitable. It is sandy and there is little grass and no game. We wouldn’t last long. Our best option is to head for those cliffs and continue south.”

“We won’t last long. We have very little food and water for a journey through the desert.” Aerikai retorted. “How would we survive?”

Ashier looked up at the sky. A new crescent moon has just set shortly before they began walking. He turned his gaze to the desert and took a deep breath.

“We will have to travel at night to escape the heat. The moon will be bright enough to see by. We collected more fish and drowned game along the river when we arrived. With what we have we could last for several weeks on strict rations.” He said confidently.

“But what about water? We can’t carry enough to last for several weeks and the river is dying very quickly.” Aerikai argued.

“I have been trying to think of options. We are already drying more skins. They should be ready to fill in a day. Everyone will have one or two skins to carry. We also found two of the large ones washed on the bank.” Ashier replied. “We can take apart two of the boats and make a type of wagon or desert sled which can hold the large water skins and most of the food.”

Aerikai eyed the desert uncertainly. “It just seems so impossible.”

Ashier put his arm around her shoulders. “I know Priestess, but we must try. You were directed this way so we must follow and trust the Gods of the Mountains that we will reach our destination.”

Aerikai nodded. “Yes.” She took a deep breath. “What do we need to do?”

“I will have the men begin tearing apart the two boats. We have a carpenter or two who can help figure out how to make it move on the sand. I will also send out a hunting party. We need to see if there is any game out here.”

“I will finish drying the skins and see if we can gather any of the grasses or roots for food.” A chilly morning breeze swept down from the mountains behind them. Aerikai shivered. “We will also make sure we have enough warm clothing to travel at night.”

Ashier nodded. “The desert will be cold at night at least for another moon or two, but it will be very hot during the day.”

They separated and turned to the new tasks. Women crowded around Aerikai wanting to know what they were going to do. She explained what she and Ashier had decided and then separated them into groups to complete the tasks at hand.

Three days later each traveler had two water skins and the company had a desert sled that moved easily over the sand. Aerikai looked at the river. It was now a shallow stream. It wouldn’t take long for the desert heat to dry it up completely. She glanced back at the canyon. It would be a barren wasteland save the bits that would survive from any rain the land got.

Ashier decided they would leave that evening as soon as the moon appeared. He encouraged everyone to sleep as much as they could that day so they would be ready to go when the time came.

Aerikai lay on her thin blanket and watched the grasses waving in the breeze. She thought about her home and everything she had left behind. Then with a shudder she realized how different everything would be with the Diviner in control. She closed her eyes trying to shut out the images that played to the front of her mind.

She knew the dark choices Sraphine would make and she also knew how much the people of the temple would suffer from those choices. Many of the elders of the city had joined Aerikai, so those positions would quickly be filled by those willing to cater to the wishes of Sraphine and the Diviner. She tried to ‘see’ what the future contained for Naree and her other close friends, but she only gained blurry images and a headache. Giving up she rolled on her side and tried to sleep.

As soon as the moon breached the horizon Ashier called the company to their feet. The night air was chilly, but not uncomfortable as they began. They crossed the plains heading south toward the cliffs in the distance. They traveled in the semi darkness until the moon set and the grey light of dawn lit the eastern horizon.

Ashier called a brief halt and sent the children into the grass to look for any wild fowl or eggs. They had covered over half the distance from the river to the desert. Celedand shouted with triumph when he found a nest of eggs.

Aerikai and the other children gathered the eggs from that and three other nests that had been discovered and prepared them for a quick breakfast. Ashier was determined to continue on until it was too hot to travel. After eating they moved on. It was mid-day when they reached the edge of the desert.

Sweat trickled down Aerikai’s back and neck.

“Ashier, we have to stop. It is too hot.” She said with a sigh. “We are not prepared for the heat and I’m afraid some will faint.”

Ashier nodded and called a halt. They used their blankets to make rough sun shelters and slept for the rest of the afternoon. When the sun set the heat subsided. Ashier roused the camp and helped pass out dried meat for their rations and a drink of water.

A cool breeze again swept down from the north and Ashier took that for a sign to continue on. It took them a fortnight of traveling at night and during the cooler morning hours to reach the massive cliffs. The travelers stared up in awe at the sheer rock towering thousands of feet above them. The range of cliffs went east into the sea on one side and curved and went south on the other.

Ashier gazed at the terrain and nodded with a half a smile. “This will work well.”

“What?” Aerikai asked confused.

“If we stick to the cliffs we will be out of the sun until it is directly overhead. We will be able to travel at night and during most of the morning and then we can use the rock to erect sun shelters for the afternoon.”

“Oh.” Aerikai surveyed the scene as he described it. “Yes that will be helpful.”

“How are we doing on water?” Ashier asked quietly.

“All of the smaller skins are empty and we have used half of one of the large ones. We can refill the smaller ones, but that will take the rest of the large one. It will last us another fortnight unless the heat increases, then it will be shorter.”

She glanced to the south. The cliffs on the left and the desert on the right seemed to go forever. She sighed.

“I don’t know if it will be enough.” She replied sadly.

“Let us pray there will be rains.” Ashier said reverently.

“The rains don’t come for another two moons.” Aerikai argued.

“At the City, but we are much further south. The rains will either come sooner or later here.”

“I hope, for our sakes, it is sooner.” Aerikai mumbled.

Ashier nodded. “You should get some rest. You look exhausted.”

“No more than you.” She replied snidely.

A smile split across his face. Aerikai couldn’t help but reflect it. With a shrug she dropped her pack to the ground and pulled out her blanket to erect a sun shelter. Celedand helped her stake it down and then plopped down in the sand.

“How much further must we go, Mother?” He asked with a yawn.

“I don’t know, dear. We have many leagues to go. Are you well?” She looked at his tanned face and tired eyes.

“I’m well.” He wiggled his feet. “My shoes are getting tight and my trousers are getting shorter.” He said holding up his leg.

“You are going to be just like your father.” Aerikai said sadly.

“Why does that make you sad?” He asked touching her cheek with his small hand.

“Because I wish your father was here to see you. He would be so proud of you. You don’t complain and you walk long distances like a man. I am proud of you too.” Aerikai said wiping tears away before they fell.

“I miss Father, but he walks with me at night through the pretty trees.” His brow creased. “He gets the same look on his face when we talk about you.” He looked up at the tears that flowed freely down her cheeks.

Aerikai pulled her son close and hugged him tightly.

Wiping her eyes she released him. “We should rest. Evening comes quickly and we have a long ways yet to go.”

Celedand sighed and lay down in the sand. Aerikai watched his breathing slow down and steady till he was fast asleep. The sun beat down on their shelter and she dug down in the sand to find cooler earth to lie in. When she fell asleep she dreamed of foreign mountains and deep dark caves.

She awoke with a gasp as she heard a digging noise near her feet. She looked up at the proud face of her son and Ashier’s white face of concern.

“I got it.” Celedand said excitedly. He held up the headless body of a long, deadly snake.

Aerikai scrambled backward away from the reptile with a cry.

“How did you know it was there, Celedand?” Ashier asked.

Celedand shrugged. “I just did. You told me where to throw my knife so it wouldn’t bit Mother. So I did and I got it.”

Ashier quickly took the snake from Celedand’s outstretched hand and found the severed head. He looked at Aerikai with a bewildered glance. Aerikai watched him leave and then looked over at her proud son.

She shook her head wishing she could understand what was happening to him. She reached out and took his hand and pulled him over next to her.

“You did well, Celedand.” She said shakily.

“Ashier helped me. I just did what he told me.” Celedand said with a casual shrug. “Are you ready to get up now? Ashier said we should leave soon. Can we eat my snake, Mother?”

Aerikai stared at her son and nodded bemused. They left the shelter and Celedand began pulling the stakes and rolling up the blanket. He attached it proudly to his own pack and then went to find his friends to tell them about the snake.

Aerikai made her way to where Ashier stood. He had given the snake to someone to add to the evening meal.

“You told him to throw his knife at the snake?” She demanded.

Ashier turned to face her. “I didn’t say anything, Priestess. I heard the rattle of the snake and came to assist you, but Celedand had already killed it. I am just as surprised as you are.”

Aerikai stared at him in disbelief.

“But he heard…”

“I don’t know what he heard, but it wasn’t I.” Ashier turned away to speak to Seyln.

In wonder, Aerikai left to finish packing their things. The company continued on just after sunset. It took them a full turn of the moon to reach the end of the desert. Twice they were met with sudden rain storms that filled the boat with water and drenched the travelers. Several times they were halted by sandstorms that buried the camp under mounds of sand. Every night they walked with a cold biting north wind at their backs and they baked in the hot sun during the day

Several people got sick as they traveled. Three people were bit by snakes similar to the one Celedand had killed and two of the three died two days later. Aerikai wondered hopelessly if they would ever leave the desert alive, but Ashier and Celedand maintained a positive outlook. Ashier began to follow the subtle hints from Celedand’s dreams.

Aerikai looked up at the western horizon. The thin crescent moon dropped beneath the horizon. Ashier signaled the group to halt. She surveyed the landscape. The desert sands had gradually faded into rough, rocky ground. The cliffs on the east continued south colliding with an ominous mountain range of high peaks. They had reached the foothills of the mountains.

Ashier beckoned Aerikai, Seyln, and Zurinsk to join him. Aerikai followed the others.

“The sled is no longer moving smoothly across this terrain.” Ashier stated. “It has been difficult, but manageable for the last week, but the men are too tired to continue pulling it along.”

“We don’t have the material to make wheels for it.” Zurinsk acknowledged.

“We can’t just leave it. What about the water?” Aerikai asked nervously.

“I think it is time to move up into the mountains.” Ashier said quietly.

Aerikai stared at him for a moment and then turned her gaze to the mountains.

“There will be water up there as well as game. Perhaps even our mystery valley that Celedand has seen in his dreams.”

Aerikai understood what he spoke of, but something in her mind cautioned her.

“I don’t know, Ashier.” She began.

“I think it would do us good to get out of this cursed desert.” Seyln added.

“Fresh game would be a good change.” Zurinsk agreed.

Ashier held up his hand to quiet them. “Why do you hesitate, Priestess?” He emphasized her title bringing the other two men up short.

She looked at their imploring faces and drew into herself reaching her mind out to the land around her. The images that came were still blurry, but one came very clearly. She could see herself standing on a hillside facing the western horizon. Grand mountains surrounded her, but to her left she could see the sparkle of the sea through an open pass in the mountains. To her right she could see a deeply forested valley that gave way to another grassy plain. At the far northern edge of the plain she could see the desert sands.

With a sharp intake of breath she opened her eyes. Seyln and Ashier each held her arms and she trembled.

“What did you see?” Ashier asked gently lowering her to the ground.

Aerikai took several deep breaths. “A valley, no, our valley, but it is not here. It is south toward the sea and I could see the desert to the north. This desert.”

“Then we are to continue on this path.” Ashier replied disappointed.

Aerikai shook her head. “I don’t know, but I feel uneasy about these mountains. We can go up into them, but we must be very careful. They are dangerous. Yes, that is what I am feeling. They are dangerous.”

“These are not the twelve mountains.” Zurinsk added.

“No. If we must go up into the foothills to find water then we must. We cannot continue to haul the sled on this terrain.” Aerikai confirmed.

Ashier took in her expression and the turned to face the mountains. “Perhaps if we go to the foothills we will find everything we need.” He conceded.

The others nodded.

“It will be cooler higher up, so it might do us good to change our schedule to travel during the day. There is a small canyon up ahead where we can penetrate into the hills.” Ashier said confidently.

Aerikai agreed hesitantly. She felt uncertain about the decision, but she also remembered what LeDande had told her in her dream. She needed to trust Ashier. He cared about these people just as much as she did.

The company was used to traveling during the morning and when they stopped to eat he told them they would be continuing on to the small canyon. Everyone excitedly agreed to go up into the foothills. They all wanted to escape the heat of the desert.

They reached the canyon by sunset and quickly set up camp. A cool breeze blew down from the mountains and the people relaxed. Their water skins were almost completely empty, but several of the younger people discovered a small stream. Temperaments improved and a wave of excitement swept through the weary travelers.

The next morning the company began ascending into the foothills. They followed the stream and the little canyon to the southwest. By the time they stopped at the end of the day they were much higher than Aerikai wanted to be. That night she fell into a restless sleep and once again found herself approaching the tall figure of her husband.

He stood next to a brilliantly clear lake that had ice and snow crusting on the edges. A cold wind blew across a tiny valley making her shiver. She wanted LeDande to put his arm around her to keep her warm, but he couldn’t.

“Aerikai.” He said quietly.

“LeDande.” She responded warmly. “This is not the valley I have seen.” She said staring across the half frozen lake.

“No, it isn’t, but you must come here, love.” He said firmly.

“I don’t like this place, it…it frightens me.” She stammered.

“It is an ancient place with a powerful history that has been long forgotten.”

He pointed across the lake to a mountain that stood alone. A sheer wall of rock made up the base of the mountain and near the southern side she could see the remnants of an ancient building against the rock. Stones overgrown with grass and brush covered most of the fallen stones. She never would have noticed it unless he had pointed it to her.

“There are many things hidden in these mountains. Secrets, powers, and things that have been here since this world began.” LeDande said slowly, respectfully.

“Who built that?” Aerikai asked staring at the ancient ruins.

“The distant ancestors of the people in the far north and the people of the jungles in the far south.”

“The Diviner?” Aerikai asked nervously.

“She must never find this place.” He stated simply.

“But what am I to do?” Aerikai cried.

She desperately wished she could grasp his hand and feel his arms around her. She needed that comfort so much and yet she knew it was lost to her.

“There is a passage through those ruins. They will not stand much longer and the way will be closed. The passage will take you safely through the mountains to the valley of your dream.” He replied kindly.

“How will we see in the darkness?” Aerikai asked anxiously.

“Trust Celedand, he will know.” LeDande said firmly.

“Celedand?” She turned to ask, but he was gone.

She looked out across the lake and back to the ruins memorizing the path and then closed her eyes again. When she opened them she was once again lying next to her son in the early morning light. Celedand’s lips moved slightly and then he opened his eyes.

As soon as their eyes met he smiled.

“Father.” Was all he said.

Aerikai nodded and Celedand threw his arms around her.

“It will be all right, Mother.” He said confidently.

“Yes, I know.” She wished her voice didn’t betray her fear.

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