The sun had barely been up for more than an hour, but the heat had already caused a long trickle of sweat to run down her spine. Around her, the humans trudged on. Many of them were so tired they could feel their bones creak with every step. After all the weeks of travel, most had learned to walk in the shade provided by the caravans, although that did not stop their constant complaints. A curse at the sand gods was muttered every few moments, followed by a hurried apology, just in case the gods should decide to take the insult to heart. Even those humans rich enough to ride in the caravans complained about the heat. She had already heard several flasks of water being opened and drunk, and as usual it was not the walking travellers that were the first to dip into their daily water ration.
Once again, everyone had started at a pace they would not be able to sustain for the rest of the day. One by one, caravan after caravan had passed her until at last she lagged behind everyone else. She took every step exactly the same as the one before. After an hour, the rest of the group had begun to falter. The heat was even more unbearable than the day before. Before long she had caught up, but when she reached the middle of the caravan line she slowed her pace to make sure that she remained in the middle of the line. Her hand remained constantly on the handle of the large hammer axe that she had strapped to the side of her back bag. The knot which held it there was tied in such a way that she could pull it free in one tug. For the most part, she kept her eyes on the ground, sometimes even closed. Every minute or so she would open them and look out over the desert dunes, wary and alert.
She looked strange among the tall dark humans. She was barely tall enough to reach the shoulder height of the average human, but the way she moved, looked and dressed was more alien still. In this searing heat, none of the humans would have even considered wearing a wolf skin draped over their shoulders with the wolf’s head propped over their own like a hood, yet she did not seem to mind it.
From around her waist, a long dark sash wound its way up across her torso and looped three times around her neck, before it finished, draped around her head, with only her eyes exposed through a narrow slit. The skin around her eyes was blackened with soot to protect them from the sun’s glare. Her light eyes stood out more than usual against the dark coal paint and her stone grey left eye contrasted weirdly with her bright vivid green right eye.
She looked around to make sure that nobody was watching before she reached for the knot on the side of her head and unwrapped the veil. She winced as her finger accidentally caught on the edge of one of the many scars on her face. The skin there was still irritated, more so with the heat. Though she had taken off her veil many times during their journey, the driver of the caravan beside her still stared down at her exposed ears. Her right ear was severed, just where it would naturally have lifted to a sharp point. From her belt, she unhooked a goat skin water bag, took a small sip and savoured the sensation of the water cooling her throat before she took another. She knew that she was being watched but paid no heed to the driver.
“Outsider! How long till the oasis?” a voice shouted behind her.
She took another restrained sip from her water bag before she replied, “Soon.”
“How soon. The next few hours? This eve?”
“It could be. I’ll know when we arrive.”
“Can’t you tell from the dunes or something?”
“The dunes change every day,” she scoffed. “We will arrive soon. Sooner the less you talk.”
A small hand took hold of hers. The young boy of barely ten years old, although when he stood next to her he looked much older.
“I couldn’t you see this morning. Where did you go?”
“I was here Nedwin,” Erin smiled down at him. “Where did you think I’d gone?”
“I don’t know,” the boy shrugged. “Where did you go last night?”
“You weren’t at the fire.”
“I was on lookout, Nedwin.”
“You’re always on lookout.”
“I have to be.”
“Did you see anything?!” Nedwin hopped up and down as he walked alongside her.
“No, just the stars and sand.”
“Niian said there are monsters out in the dunes, and that’s what you were looking for.”
“Your brother likes to tease you Nedwin. I’m more worried about raiders than monsters.” Erin laughed and reached to pull his hood back over his head. The sun glistened on his dark, brown skin. “You should keep your hood on, you don’t want to get sun sickness.”
Nedwin tried to protest as she tugged his hood, when a woman’s voice shouted at him from the caravan behind that he should do as he was told.
“See, I told you,” Erin smirked at him.
“It’s not fair!” Nedwin frowned. “Will I have to wear my hood in the oasis?”
“Why? Niian says that there are so many trees there that you don’t have to wear your hood during the day.”
“Niian has never been there. He wouldn’t know.”
“But he said—”
“He was lying. There aren’t that many trees in the oasis. None of them have many trees.”
“I don’t know, too much sand probably.”
Suddenly Erin felt a breath of musty horse feed scented air against the side of her face. She swore loudly in words much deeper than the soft, song-like language of the Gold Coast, and leapt away from the horse, hands raised to her head as though she expected to be struck. The blue glow of magic glimmered around each of her fingers.
“Keep that nag away from me!”
Around him Nedwin felt the crackle of magic in the air. Small flickers of blue lit up and then faded like fire dust. For a moment, Nedwin thought he saw Erin’s wolf skin bristle and move its tail, but when he looked again he could only conclude that the wind had played a trick on him.
“Damned nag!” Erin cursed again.
“Nedwin! Go back to your mother!” the driver shouted over as Nedwin skipped to catch up with her. Nedwin only laughed at the driver’s order and took Erin’s hand again. The glow that had surrounded them a few seconds before was gone.
“Why are you afraid of the horses Erin?”
When Erin did not reply Nedwin repeated his question.
“I just don’t like them.”
“Why do you ask so many questions?”
Nedwin shrugged his shoulders. His good-natured, toothy grin easily pushed the frown off her face. “I just do.”
They both looked back at the caravan to see Nedwin’s mother’s face poking out. A light blue silk sash wound into her braided hair that draped down along the back of her neck.
“Get out of the sun! You’ll get sun sickness!”
“You should go to your mother.” Erin gently nudged him in the direction of the caravan, but he pushed back.
“But I want to stay here!”
“Get in the caravan. You’re too small to walk for the rest of the day.”
“You could carry me?” Nedwin suggested innocently, the start of a grin at the corner of his mouth. Erin shook her head. He knew exactly what he had to say and she could not help but smile.
“Alright. Climb up.” Erin crouched down on the hot sand and waited for Nedwin to scramble onto her shoulders. She winced as he slipped and scraped his foot down her back. Eventually, he sat comfortably on her shoulders, with Erin’s hands firmly on his ankles in case he lost balance and toppled over. She stood up and began to walk ahead, Nedwin’s weight barely noticeable to her.
“Wow! You’re strong!” Nedwin laughed and reached down to poke at her arms.
“Nedwin, stop that or I’ll put you back down!”
“My brother said you’re something called a dwarf? Are you? Is that why you’re so strong?”
“Your brother should really learn to shut his mouth.”
“Are you though?”
“No, I’m not.”
“But why are you so short then?”
“I’m only half a dwarf.”
“Really?” Nedwin leant forward to peer down at her face. “What’s the other half?”
“No,” Astrid laughed. He sat back and looked down at the distinct mark of a serrated knife blade along the edge her torn ear.
“Have you been to the Azure Oasis before?”
“Of course I have. Otherwise your mother wouldn’t have hired me.”
“How many times have you been there?”
“Oh, maybe five or six times, I’ve forgotten exactly how many.”
“How could you forget!?” Nedwin asked. His excitement had returned now that Erin’s mood seemed to have lifted.
“I’ve been to many places. After a while you stop counting.”
“How many places have you been to?”
“I’m not sure Nedwin.”
“Haaaave you been to Bienra?”
“Haaaave you been to…the Salt Monasteries?”
“Haaaave you been to…the Sunken City?”
“The South Ports?”
“Yes, I was there before I went to the Gold Coast.”
“What are they like?”
Erin smiled and appeared almost joyful as she replied. “Warm. The sea there is so clear you can see through it all the way down to the sea bed.”
“You can see through the water?”
“I’m sure that the people from the South Ports think your water is strange.”
“What’s your favourite?”
“My favourite what?”
“In all of Ammastein? Bienra,” Erin replied without a second’s hesitation. “That is my favourite.”
“And your least favourite place?” Nedwin swung his feet side to side as he asked. He leaned his head as far forward over hers as he could so that he could read her expression.
Erin was silent for a moment. “The Northlands.”
“Isn’t that where you’re from?”
“Why do you hate it then?”
“Enough, Nedwin! Enough questions about the Northlands. Ask me someth—”
Erin suddenly stopped talking and put Nedwin on on the ground. She scanned the dunes and clasped both hands protectively around his shoulders.
“Erin? What’s wrong?”
Nedwin followed her gaze, but he could see nothing but sand for miles and miles, except for a fast-approaching blanket of dark clouds.
Erin did not reply, her eyes on the clouds. Sheets of rain were pouring from their bases like thousands of small, swaying pillars. It wouldn’t take long to reach them.
“The oasis! I can see it!” a voice cried out behind them. Several more voices echoed the first shout.
“Erin. We’re close!” Nedwin smiled.
“We’re going to have to stay out here a little longer I’m afraid, Nedwin. The rain is coming.”
Erin took his hand firmly and dragged Nedwin behind her as she walked into the line of caravans. She marched purposefully towards the only caravan which looked as though it had not previously travelled to the Azure oasis hundreds of times. Erin pushed aside the curtains that covered the opening and looked at the tall human woman who lay draped across several colourful cushions. The woman continued to fan herself with the sandgrass fan she held in her hand.
“Nebet, we need to stay here ‘til the rain clouds pass.”
The woman did not even look up. Her eyes were closed, and she had the particular kind of exhausted expression that Erin had noticed only the wealthy wore when they had no reason to be tired.
“It’s rain, Outsider, we don’t need to stop. The sooner we get to the oasis the sooner I can get out of this wretched heat!”
“I’m as eager to get out of the heat as you are, but with the rain there will be wyvern.”
“So, a little rain and we’ll have to deal with a few serpents. I’m sure you can kill a few little lizards.”
This time when Erin replied she did not bother to keep her tone civil. “The serpents can be the size of the caravan, Nebet.”
The human woman’s eyes snapped open and she sat up with a jolt. “What?”
“It might take an hour or two for the rain to pass, but the wyvern only attack with rain. It helps them move faster. There might not be any wyvern left along this way, but a few seasons past the route was infested with them. I don’t want to take the chance.”
For a few seconds, the woman looked like she was about to take Erin’s advice, but when she looked outside behind Erin and saw that the rest of the caravan had not slowed down she shook her head and slouched back onto the cushions.
“We’ll be safer with the rest of the caravan. They’ve traveled this route before. They know what they’re doing.”
“Nebet, this is the first time Moeris has traveled from the Gold Coast. His father was an experienced guide, Moeris is not. I don’t want—”
“It is not about what you want, Outsider! Do what you’re told or you can forget about being paid once we get to the oasis.”
Erin growled but stepped back. Her grip on Nedwin’s hand tightened so much that it hurt.
“Erin? What are you going to do?”
Erin knelt down in front of him and pulled his hood even tighter around his head.
“Stay close to me. Don’t let go of my hand.”
* * *
The rain arrived more like a waterfall than the kind of rain Nedwin was used to. Within seconds he was soaked. The rain was so heavy that the ground did not have time to drink it up. Soon everyone was ankle deep in the rising flood and unable to hear anything but the incessant thunder of water falling.
“Erin!” When she didn’t hear him Nedwin pulled at her sleeve. “Are we close to the oasis?”
Erin nodded and looked back out to the plains. Her eyes were narrowed and the coal paint around her eyes was streaked with the rain. In the distance, everyone could see the brilliant white walls and gleaming blue walls of the Azure Oasis, where the rain clouds had not yet reached.
“We’re close!” Nedwin skipped up and down in the water. “We’re—”
“Get in the caravans! Everyone! Now!” Erin suddenly bellowed at the top of her voice and all but threw Nedwin into his mother’s caravan before she tied the drapes shut as tightly as she could. “Get inside and don’t move or make a sound!”
“Erin, what are you—”
“DO IT!” Erin screamed at Moeris. “Wyvern!”
Moeris turned ashen and repeated her orders to the rest of the drivers.
“Doesn’t matter what you hear! Don’t speak, don’t even move until I tell you to!” Erin walked through the caravans as she barked her orders and tied down the openings of every single one that she passed.
Once she was satisfied that every single caravan was tied down, she walked up to every single horse and untied them, careful not to get too close.
“What are you doing?” one of the drivers hissed from inside his caravan.
“You might stay quiet, but they won’t. If they see a wyvern they will run, and they’ll take you with them.”
“But they’re mine! I need them!”
“The oasis isn’t that far. If the horses pull you away from the caravan the wyvern will go for you first. Do you want to die?”
The driver reluctantly shook his head and closed the blind.
Erin tossed the last of the ropes to the ground and looked around for a moment, before she tied her veil securely around her neck. She closed her eyes and flexed her hands. Every bone in her body was braced for the creatures she sensed under the sand. The minutes crawled by. Everyone nervous or irritated by the sudden change of plans. It didn’t take long before Erin heard one human after another begin to shuffle uncomfortably inside the carriages.
“Stay still! Please!” Erin begged silently.
As time passed the shuffles turned into whispers, until finally, Moeris could no longer bear the idea that he might be mocked for his decision to listen to an outsider. He threw open the blinds behind his caravan and jumped down onto the ground with a loud splash of water.
“Erin! This is ridiculous. My father told me that there were—”
Like a wave rushing towards its crest, the ground behind Moeris surged towards his turned back, higher and higher, until it broke open with a deep, breathy rumble. A swell of water and wet sand tossed against the sides of the caravans as the wyvern darted past. The force of it was enough to rattle them, and the screams from inside were not enough to distract it from its prey.
For Erin time seemed to slow down so much that she could pick out every chip and scar in the wyvern’s scales as it approached. Its large jaws opened wide exposing rows of long teeth. Some of them were broken in half and blunt, the others razor sharp. Its eyes were not quite visible from where Erin stood. The wide open red gullet was the only part of it with any colour other than speckled shades of brown.
Moeris did not have time to turn around. The only warning of the monster behind him was the look of horror on Erin’s face. He felt the heat of its breath on the back of his neck just as its long snout reared up on either side of his face. Moeris’ body was lifted from the ground by his neck. Erin leapt out of the way just as the monster hurtled past her. A trail of red stained the water that streamed from the wyvern’s maw.
Just as quickly as it had appeared, it burrowed itself back below the sand. Erin looked up from where she had landed on the ground as the enormous beast slid back down into the earth. Moeris’ neck was unable to withstand the impact as the jaws of the wyvern hit the sand. There was a horrible strained snap and the rest of his body lay on the sand beside the freshly dug hole.
Just as she had predicted, the horses panicked. They all, save for a few of the older ones, bolted out into the rain, dragging their reins in the water behind them.
“Stay inside the caravans!” Erin screamed. “Stay inside the caravans!” The rain was falling even harder than before and her cries were futile against it. “Don’t move! Don’t make a sound!”
The next wyvern did not wait so long to attack. Erin did not even turn to face it as she twisted out of the way. The beast was so close that it brushed against her leg. As it passed she slammed the dagger in her hand down into the top of its skull with enough force to penetrate the thick stony skin and bone into the soft brain tissue.
The wyvern hit the ground with a heavy thud. Its back arched and coiled. The long tail writhed in the sand behind it. Erin stepped back to be safe from its death throes. Sure that there would be more than one of the creatures nearby, she pulled a second dagger from the collection hidden down the side of her boot. Wyvern did not tend to hunt alone, and a creature this size could only mean that there were smaller, hungrier young nearby, or worse, a much larger parent.
“Come on. I’m here. Don’t look at the caravans. I’m here!” Erin shouted and reached for a second dagger. Now she held a dagger in each hand. “You’re hungry! I’m here!”
A few dunes away everyone heard the high-pitched shrieks of the horses before they abruptly stopped. Erin could not help but smile coldly. The horses would not be missed by her. When no wyvern appeared Erin stood up, her arms outstretched, and walked through the caravans.
“Stay inside! Don’t make a sound! Don’t move! If you hear something near—”
The second wyvern was much smaller. Barely longer than Erin’s body, it was still strong enough to erupt out of the sand with enough force to knock Erin against the side of a caravan. Her dagger was already in her hand and it took the wyvern several seconds to realise that it had impaled itself. Its bony neck had been skewered on the thin blade. Behind it another one sprang towards her, only to meet the same fate as its slightly larger sibling.
Under her feet Erin felt the sand shuffle as she tossed the carcasses aside to make way for her next victim.
“If you hear me shouting, or screaming, don’t come out of the caravans!” she continued to shout. Her voice was a little clearer to the camp now. “Only come out if the rain stops or I tell you to! The wyve—”
The next wyvern was less quick to leap to its death. In the wyvern nest under the sand dunes, it thrashed its body against the brittle walls till they crumbled down around it. The ground below Erin’s feet shuddered and collapsed into the open void. Erin was dragged down into a slurry of sand and water. Both the daggers were swept from her hands as she slid down the slope, feet first. Just before she reached the bottom, the wyvern’s head rose to meet her. It opened its jaws wide, ready to crush her the moment she tumbled into its mouth.
Erin’s feet slammed against its lower jaw, while with her right hand she caught one of her daggers as it slipped past her, and with her left hand she grasped and held onto one of the three nostrils it had on each side of its head. She felt the wyvern’s hot wet breath on her fingers.
The wyvern snapped its jaws again and again and again, furious that she had not simply rolled into its open mouth. Erin held on for her life as it thrashed its head from side to side, but she held on tighter than a sand barnacle. As it threw its head back one more time Erin used the momentum to propel herself over its head. With her hand still in its snout, she landed seated on the nape of its neck, wrapped her legs around its neck as firmly as she could, and plunged her dagger through its small yellow eye.
Behind her the wyvern’s tail thrashed against the walls of the pit. Still, Erin held on. A cold blue flame spread across her hands and the wyvern shrieked and shuddered as a deadening numb feeling spread from where her fingers touched its skin. The blue glow from Erin’s hands illuminated the whole of her face. The shudders underneath her became weaker, then stopped. Half the wyvern’s head crumbled into ash, and she fell, landing clear of the pile of moist flesh and cinders that remained of its body. There was no smell of burning, only a tingle in the air like the static before a storm.
There, it’s dead. Stop, please. A soft voice in her head begged.
She stood up slowly and began to climb up the steep sides of the pit. The sand was still wet, and it was hard to get a foothold without sliding back down to the bottom, but she eventually managed to reach the edge, hauled herself over, and lay on the sand for a few moments. Her wolfskin was still slung over her shoulders. The rain was barely more than a drizzle and the clouds were lighter shades of black and grey.
Erin closed both her eyes and forced her breathing to slow. As her mind began to clear, she picked out the rapid heartbeats of the humans and horses among the caravans and to her dismay, the muffled triple heartbeat of one last wyvern somewhere in the camp.
With a groan Erin sat up and pushed herself onto her feet. Her legs and arms were bruised and aching.
“Nedwin! Stay in the caravan!”
At any minute now, the last wyvern would be forced to burrow back beneath the sand before it became too hard to drag its enormous body back down under the sand, but desperation made it bold. The journey back across the desert to the old feeding ground at the trade route had been harsh, and the wyvern had been forced to hunt for scant prey on the parched surface of the desert. The sharp sand had cracked and dried its skin, and the meagre hunting had left it close to starvation. It had no choice. It needed to eat or die.
The wyvern sprang forward, jaws wide-open, and crashed into the caravan behind Erin. Its head smashed through the light wooden frame and snapped at the humans screaming inside as it struggled free. It tore itself from the side of the caravan and circled the sand several times, angry, unable to smell Erin. Instead there was a strange new, quite unfamiliar smell of thick, wet, lupine fur.
A howling wolf with blue flame scintillating in its eyes and flaring along the edges of its claws, threw itself against the wyvern with the force of an animal ten times its size. The wyvern thrashed against the caravans and rolled over several times. Each time the wolf let go, retreated and then attacked again. Its smaller body was nimble and had unnatural speed.
Despite Erin’s warning, Nedwin’s curiosity could not resist the howls. His mother was preoccupied with her older son. She lay on the floor of the caravan and held Niian tightly with one arm, while the other pressed a cushion tightly over her ear to block out the sounds of the wyvern. When Nedwin pushed the drape aside, he saw the wolf crouched in front of the caravan, its back to him. Its strange body was long and gangly, like a wild dog which had been stretched out and starved. There was a large bump over its back and shoulders, that reminded Nedwin of the crippled hunchbacks he often saw on his home streets of Aula. Its head, paws, thighs and feet were larger than most humans. Long sharp claws extended from each of its paws, although Nedwin was not sure they really were paws; they looked more like mutated hands and feet.
The wyvern reared back, one eye torn open, and roared into the face of the wolf. Nedwin could see every single tooth in its mouth. The wolf roared back, not with a howl or a bark, as Nedwin expected, but a thundering roar. The wyvern coiled back into a knot, like a threatened snake. Its good eye turned to face the wolf. The wolf roared again and stood up on its hind legs. It extended its front paws on either side like a human, every claw flexed, hackles raised and with no trace of fear. Erin was nowhere to be seen.
The wolf turned to him, and for the first time Nedwin was able to see its eyes. One eye was grey and the other bright green.
The wyvern dived for the only creature that would not be able to fight back. It propelled itself forward with the full force of its long muscular tail. Nedwin froze with fear as he stared into the wyvern’s gaping maw and was unable to move as the wyvern whipped its tail around and plunged its tail stinger into Nedwin’s chest. Too late, the wolf leaped and sank its fangs into the tender skin of the wyvern’s neck as it flew past. The tangled creatures crashed into the side of the caravan with enough force to knock it over and smash it. As the wyvern thrashed about in a futile attempt to dislodge its attacker, the wolf locked its jaws and raked its claws down the side of the wyvern’s neck, over and over. Wolf claws sliced through the tough outer skin, shredded the soft throat tissue, and did not stop even when they scraped against vertebrae. Cold reptile blood soaked the wolf’s paws and snout.
The wolf stood up, not on all four legs in the manner of a dog or a wolf; but on its back legs, with its back arched and head raised. A twitch, which could almost be described as a smile, appeared at the side of its mouth, as the wolf looked down at the partly decapitated reptile. A few shreds of muscle and flesh were the only thing that kept the head attached.
Nedwin lay among the shattered remains of the caravan. There was a deep puncture in his chest and blood pooled around it into his clothes. He looked down, shocked and confused, unable to lift his hands. His brother crouched down beside him. Niian whimpered as he tried desperately to plug the flow with his hands, but the blood ran through his fingers. Nedwin’s face had turned ashen. His eyes were unfocused and dull.
The wolf crumbled onto the floor like parchment in the rain and lay splayed out on the ground, no more than an empty fur skin as Erin crawled out from underneath it.
“Is he going to be alright?!” Niian shrieked beside her. His grip on her arm was so tight she could feel her hand going numb.
“I-I don’t know.” Erin mumbled. Her face was white as chalk.
The deep puncture in his chest was directly over his heart and Erin could detect no heartbeat from the little bloodied body in front of her. She looked around and saw his mother nearby, partly covered by the torn caravan awning. A blow to the side of her head had knocked her unconscious. She was alive; Erin could still hear her heartbeat.
“Nedwin?” She lifted the little body up into her arms and rocked him back and forth gently. She pressed one hand over the wound. Seconds later, blue flame licked over her hand.
“Nedwin? Nedwin, look at me. Please? Just look at me?”
When he didn’t reply, the flame from her hand pulsed brighter and brighter. Niian watched as the skin on her hands began to dry, wrinkle and turn grey. For a few seconds, he thought that he saw Nedwin’s wound begin to close and the blood flow back into the wound. His heart skipped a beat and he looked up at Erin’s face hopefully. In that one look, the expression on Erin’s face crushed his hopes. All the colour had drained from her face, even from the deep scar which ran down her lips. The blue glow around her eyes flickered, like a flame struggling against a strong wind. She shook him again, at first gently, and then more and more violently. His body hung heavily and was completely limp.
“Nedwin! Nedwin! Wake up! Wake up, and I’ll tell you about the northlands, please! Please, wake up!”
Erin’s breath caught in her throat as Nedwin’s mother began to groan and move. Her eyes flickered and opened and it took her a few moments before she was able to grasp what she saw. She sat up, dazed, before a look crossed her eyes that Erin had seen too many times.
She crawled over, barely able to stay upright, and clawed Nedwin’s body out of Erin’s arms. Shrieking like an animal in agony, she rocked back and forth with his head pressed against her chest. She stroked his head frantically, as though if she held him as she had done while he was alive, his heart might beat again.
“You, you killed him! You killed my baby!” She shrieked at Erin.
Erin didn’t move. There was a blank expression on her face. She could have been a statue in that moment. Her blood covered hands were open rigid by her sides.
Next to her Niian shook her shoulder in an attempt to wake her from her daze.
“Erin! Help him, you can help him, can’t you?”
Erin turned to look at him. Her pupils were so large that the colour of her eyes was barely more than a thin ring around them.
“Astrid, my name is Astrid,” she whispered. “I’m sorry Niian, I can’t help him. He’s gone.”