Thursday, October 12, 2017
They hurried even though that wasn't wise in the desert. However, both knew they needed to put at least one rise between them and the flatter ground around the river. Dusty regretted leaving the water and the green behind, but she said nothing and only looked back once.
Fox moved steadily forward. He looked better now that they were walking. She suspected that the worry over what would happen if they had stayed by the river had been almost worse than his injury.
As soon as Fox could look back and no longer see the river, he began to slow.
"If this gets to be too much, we'll find a bit of shade somewhere and hold up until the sun starts to go down," Fox said. He sounded assured. "We might even get lucky and run into a patrol. I can't guarantee that one, but I hope for one."
"That would be nice," she said, already feeling the heat and the ache in her legs. "I'm sorry -- I'm just not up to this kind of travel."
"You have done wonderfully," Fox insisted. "This isn't a situation where I would have wanted to be with many of the people I know, even those in the army." He stopped to sip some water and had her and Blue do the same. "We don't have to rush."
"Unless the orcs figure out we went this way or take the path to make certain," she answered with a worried look over her shoulder.
"Even if they do, we couldn't get to the outpost any faster," he said. The calm finality in his voice made Dusty feel more assured. Calm also helped her consider what she could do if the orcs did arrive. She'd have to find some way to hide Blue.
Or would it be wiser to let the orcs have Blue rather than leaving him alone in the desert? They'd feed him, at least. She didn't like to think about the little guy lost in the sands and dying.
Dusty shivered despite the heat.
She and Fox spoke little as they walked on. Dusty found the feel of the stone path beneath her feet reassuring and far better than traveling across the unmarked sands. As long as she could see the track, she had no fear of getting lost. They were going somewhere, and each step without the orcs pounding up behind them was a gift.
"Look! Trees!" Fox said, startling Dusty.
She had been watching her feet and refraining from looking at the bright sand around them. Dusty looked up and saw a spot of darkness a few miles away. She could not make out what it was at first, but as her eyes adjusted, she saw a few palms -- a sure sign of water.
"That will help," Dusty said softly. She hadn't realized how dizzy she felt until then. How could she feel so cold --
And when had she sat down?
"Here now," Fox said. He rested on his heels and held out a water skin. "Drink some. Not a lot at first. Just drink it. We're almost to the water."
"Are we? It seemed so far."
"I can go ahead and get more water if I need to," Fox replied. He looked worried. "Rest."
He had placed himself so that his shadow fell over her. That helped. She sipped the water, made sure Blue had some -- he splashed a bit in her hand and made her smile again. She could not imagine the little guy growing more massive than most buildings she'd seen. He was happy to go back into his bag. Dusty was glad since she feared he might fall off her shoulder and she wouldn't notice.
So many things to fear.
"I'm sorry," she said when she looked back at Fox. "Let's see if we can get to the oasis. I think we'd all feel better resting there."
"Only if you feel well enough to walk," he said. "And you don't have to apologize. This has been unpleasant and difficult for all three of us. But we are getting there, Princess Dusty. We'll see Blue to safety."
She took courage and strength from his steadfast belief in their ability to handle even this unrelenting desert. She stood once more, sipped the water, and they started out again. Compared to how far they'd already traveled, this stretch to those lovely green trees did not seem so distant.
"I'd never been assigned to this outpost," Fox said. "But I thought I remembered some of the soldiers talking about a resting spot a little more than halfway to the outpost," he admitted. "I wanted to tell you, but I feared that I might be wrong and I didn't want to disappoint you."
"I'm glad you were right," Dusty answered. Part of her wanted to race toward that green, but she knew that even walking at this steady pace might wear her down again. She still felt lightheaded, but she tried to keep that from Fox. Nevertheless, the soldier stayed close by her. He even talked more. She suspected he wanted to be certain she wasn't going to faint again.
"I've some salt. We'll take it when we reach the water," Fox said. "That should help, too. Do you think Blue needs some?"
"I'll ask when we get there. I hope there is someplace I can soak my feet for a little while. I've never fully appreciated the wonder of water before, you know."
He laughed, and so did she. The Oasis was close enough that she could clearly see the palm fronds and even some fig trees. She wondered who had brought the trees to plant here years ago. This could not be natural.
And then something even better. When they were no more than a quarter mile from the welcoming shade, a group of a dozen soldiers appeared riding from the other direction.
Neither Dusty nor Fox expected the soldiers to cause more trouble.
Friday, October 06, 2017
Fox took care of the horses. Dusty curled up on the ground, Blue close to her, and closed her eyes. She slept and didn't care what happened.
When she woke, Dusty remembered the trouble and she sat up with a start.
It hurt to move. She moaned and looked around. Fox sat with his back against a tree and his eyes closed, but the moment she started to stand, he looked at her. They'd both needed the rest, and there wouldn't be another chance soon, she feared.
"Are you okay?" Fox asked and looked worried.
"Sore," she admitted. Her voice sounded hoarse, and her throat hurt. Fox looked in worse shape. He'd managed to make a sling for his injured arm and from the wince that came with a little movement, she could tell he'd been badly injured. "Will you be okay?"
"I think the shoulder bone is cracked," he admitted. "Not broken, though. We can't stay much longer, Princess --"
"Dusty," she corrected as she let Blue out of his bag. "Don't wander too far."
"I won't," he promised. "I learned that lesson."
Dusty watched him head to the tree and scamper up into the leaves. He didn't climb far. By then Fox had gotten to his feet. She would have helped. He looked unsteady.
"What can I do?" she asked.
"We have to make a decision," Fox replied and leaned against the tree. "I listened. Some of the orcs headed to the city, Dusty. The others must have gone in the opposite direction. I don't think we should go back to the capital. Not yet."
"Cross the river again?" She looked toward the turbulent water and shivered despite herself.
"No. I don't want to risk that again," Fox replied.
That relieved Dusty until she noticed that Fox stared off into the desert on their side of the river. She shook her head, unable to speak. It would be madness to head into that wasteland now that they were safe by the water!
But they weren't safe.
"There is an army outpost half a day away," Fox said when he finally looked back at her. "If we can get there before the orcs realize which direction we took, you'll have all the guards you need to get safely back to the castle and the queen. I've gotten you this far, but with my arm injured, I won't be much help if we run into trouble. The orcs have headed for the bridges we need to cross. None of our friends may have gotten through to tell the others about the baby dragon. Soldiers will be watching the orcs, but they're not going to be ready to help us. That would put Blue in danger."
"Oh." Dusty didn't want to go into the desert, but what he said made sense. Another half a day sounded like more torture than she could stand. She wanted to go home and never wish for an adventure again!
Fox was right, of course. They had to take the best way to save Blue. Running straight toward where they would find the orcs would not help if they still couldn't stand up to them.
"Do you think the horses can make it that far across the desert?" she asked. Both mounts looked worn.
"I thought we might walk," he said. "That is if you can send the horses home without us."
Dusty frowned and then considered his idea. "So that when the orcs get this far from the other bridge, they'll follow the horses," she said. "We'll need to make certain we leave no obvious prints, though."
"That will be difficult --"
"Maybe not. I think I can get the birds to help." She still wasn't fond of the idea, but it might be their best chance of surviving. "Let's get the horses ready to go."
"I'm sorry, Dusty," he said. "Maybe if I hadn't hurt my arm I'd feel differently --"
"I doubt it," she said and finally forced a smile. Her lips felt dry and cracked. "There's just the two of us to get Blue to safety. You would have realized we can't simply charge through a line of orcs waiting for us. Let's find your soldiers. How long on foot?"
"Half a day for marching men," he said. "I suspect it won't take us much longer than that to get there, especially since the sun will go down and we'll have cooler weather."
Fox went to get supplies from the horses. Dusty helped and wouldn't let him carry more than some extra water. Soon she found herself whispering to the horses and telling them to go the city -- to go home. They seemed reluctant to leave her, but eventually, she sent them hurrying away. Dusty regretted it immediately. Now there would be no choice but to walk.
First, they drenched themselves in river water and made certain their water skins were full. "Where is this trail to the outpost?" Dusty asked as she got Blue to settle on her shoulder.
"About three miles from here. It parallels the river for a while and then heads inland. We'll cut across the desert and intersect with it." He sounded more assured though his face looked pale despite his tanned skin. "It's easy to find since the mages laid it out with stone. The outpost is at the edge of the Griffin Lands. Lucky for us that it hasn't been abandoned yet."
There hadn't been trouble with the griffins for over a century. Dusty hadn't realized there was even still an outpost there. She looked at the desert with a hardly concealed sigh. "I guess we better go."
They walked away from the little camp they'd made. She stopped a few yards out and called to the birds. Soon they swept up and down across the sands and buried their footprints. Dusty bade them farewell and headed into the desert once more.
Thursday, September 28, 2017
They didn't have to urge the horses to move faster. Between the fear of the orcs and the longing for the water they could clearly see, the horses proved more than willing to run.
Dusty feared they wouldn't reach that safety, though. The orcs found more energy and their own horses were flagging. Hers stumbled, regained footing, and stumbled again. They were going down.
Fox leapt from his own horse and grabbed her out of the saddle while she held tight to the bag. Somehow he pulled her free of the floundering horse and all but tossed her up on his own. She barely caught hold and didn't fall off the other side. He slapped the horse hard on the rump, and it took off again.
She didn't want to go on alone!
The river couldn't be more than a quarter of a mile away, and the orcs were no more than half a mile back. Dusty had feared Fox was going to try to hold them off, but instead, he'd gotten her mount back to his feet and leapt into the saddle. The horse moved, though with a slight limp that she feared would get worse very fast.
Just get to the river!
The water had been higher recently, and the edge of the slope came to her suddenly -- and was slick. The horse gave a cry of surprise and fear as the animal started to slide, and in a moment they were in the current, the horses flailing. Blue gave a cry of fear in the bag, but she held him up and tried to direct the horse to the far bank though that seemed too far away. The icy water spraying over her was such a shock that she feared she would be ill and pass out. Everything seemed out of place, and the horse could not be doing much better.
The sounds of the orcs grew too loud, and she looked back in fear, expecting them to be coming for her --
No. They would not climb into the water. In fact, even as Dusty watched, one got caught on the slippery edge just as she and the horse had and slid down into the water with a scream of fear and dismay. Fox had been not too far ahead of the doomed orc, and the horse made a frantic dash farther into the water to escape the clutching hands.
The orc went underwater. It hadn't been that deep, she thought -- but there had probably been a lot of mud, and the orc was very heavy. She felt sorry that it would die there but glad that no others would leap into the water as well.
"To the far side!" Fox yelled.
And for a good reason. The orcs were drawing out their weapons, including slings and they had plenty of rocks on hand.
"To the far shore," she told her mount, gently brushing a hand over his right ear. "Go, my friend. We must get clear. We can rest when we are out of range. Are you all right, Blue?"
"Y-yes," he said. He sounded more frightened than injured, and this was not the time to bring him out. Dusty had a good hold of the bag, and the horse was trying to reach the other bank, though they seemed to be going more downstream than across. The orcs were trying to pace them, but they were staying back from the edge of the water now. More shrubs and even a few short trees were growing in the area, too and they helped to keep the orcs back.
Fox somehow caught up with her. He took hold of the bridle, though he moved with a wince of pain and his face had gone white. He must have been hit by one of the rocks. Many of them were falling around them in the water. One hit her horse, and she almost fell.
And then birds flew up from the bushes, screaming in protest -- and swarming the orcs so suddenly that some of them dropped their weapons to protect their faces and eyes.
"Good birds!" Dusty cried out. "Be careful, little friends!"
"Curve -- ahead," Fox gasped. "Head straight if you can."
The river curved to the right but if she went straight, she'd be on the far bank. Fox unexpectedly let go, but only to move to her right and help keep the horse heading for the dry land. The animal was well tired of the water by now, so it didn't take much of a push to keep going where they wanted.
And by slow steps, with the orcs yelling and screaming, they made their way up out of the water and onto the land beyond -- more desert, but a line of green close by the water. Grass of some sort. She hoped it was good for the horses. She hoped....
One step. Another.
They were out of the water. The horse stopped and stood there shivering while rocks flew into the river, splashing close by, though none seemed able to send the rocks all the way across. Just the same, Fox dismounted, took hold of both horses, and headed toward a small stand of trees no more than a few hundred yards away.
It could have been miles. By the time the leaf-covered limbs covered her in shade, she could barely still sit up.
"Down now," Fox said. He only lifted his left hand to help her. "Come down and rest. There is nowhere for them to cross for fifty miles on either side of us, you know. We're safe for now. We need to rest and then head toward the capital as fast as we dare."
"Yes." She handed the bag over, and he took it carefully in hand. She slid down mostly on her own, but her legs didn't want to hold her. She went to her knees and hoped he was right about the orcs. She couldn't go on.
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Riding for so long in the desert heat left Dusty half-ill by mid-morning. Fox made her stop and poured water over her -- a shock of cold across her face and hair, but she felt better afterward.
"Oh, but we might have needed that water!" she protested once her thoughts cleared.
"We'll be fine. We aren't that far from the river," Fox assured her and sounded so confident that she decided to trust his words. The water was drying on her too fast, though. She knew that she'd be just as miserable as she had been before too long.
When Dusty looked back, she could see a broad line of billowing sand.
"We've gained about ten miles on them," Fox said as he looked, too. "They can make that up pretty fast if we don't work at staying ahead."
"I don't mean to slow us down," she said. "I've just never ridden like this before."
"You haven't slowed us down at all!" Fox protested and sounded sincere. "We can't run the horses much harder, you know. I only noticed you were not doing well after we slowed. But that's alright. You have done far better than I would have expected from someone raised at court."
"I only spend part of the year there, you know. And I never did fit in well."
"Not being like all the others isn't such a bad thing, is it?" Fox asked. He sounded sincerely concerned and interested.
"Before all of this stated, I should have told Grandmother -- The Queen -- what path I wanted to take in my life. All my cousins knew what they wanted, but I couldn't come up with anything," she admitted and felt that wave of dejection retake her.
"Oh, I know what you should be," he said and smiled brightly when she looked his way. "Mistress of the Horse and Keeper of All Things Wild."
He made her laugh -- though maybe there was something to what he said.
At least he gave her something to think about while the cool water evaporated from her face and clothing. She focused on what such a job might be like, and in that way let her mind wander away from the heat and the trouble following behind them. Dusty trusted Fox.
"We've gone over halfway," Fox said sometime later. "I fear we are going to have to ride hard again, Dusty. They're gaining ground."
She looked back with a start and saw that he was right. All thoughts about caring for horses and walking the woods disappeared, though she found that the images had refreshed her. She could see something for the future, and even if it wasn't true, it gave her hope.
When she looked back, she could see that the orcs were moving faster again and were far closer than she liked. She checked on Blue, but he was asleep and didn't seem to be any worse for the heat. He'd ate part of the apple slice, which at least gave him some liquid. He was also not in the direct sunlight, but it still could not be comfortable for him. Blue did not complain, just blinked sleepily at her, stretched a little, and then curled up in a ball.
"We have to ride faster again," she said. They were already starting to gain speed, her horse matching pace with Fox's mount. "Be careful in there."
"I will," Blue muttered, but she suspected he was mostly asleep. She hoped he stayed that way and didn't suffer too much.
She could suddenly hear the grunts of the orcs behind them. So did the horses and they'd rested just enough that they were eager to run again and get ahead of the enemy again, though they could not run far. The land looked flat here, and she hoped to see the river -- but the glare of light on the sand made looking too far ahead painful.
They rode faster and then slower, and then faster again, though not for long. The orcs did fall behind once more, though not by very far.
Dusty considered giving Blue over to Fox and telling him to ride on without her. She trusted that he would do his best to get the baby dragon back to the castle if he was able -- but then she realized that no one there would understand Blue anyway. Oh, they would figure things out, but she could help settle everything faster. Besides, if something did happen to Fox, Blue would have no one to turn to.
She held the bag more protectively, leaning forward a little --
"Is that -- is that green ahead of us?" she whispered, her throat almost too dry to speak.
Fox stood up in his saddle as though he could see better that way. Then he turned a dusty faced smile to her. "It is! And I think the horses smell the water of the river. They're starting to move faster. There should be a dock at the end of the trail. There might be a boat, and maybe even a small fishing village, though it moves."
"Moves?' she asked, squeaking out the one word.
"The river changes with the seasons. The villages along the edge shift to the better places for fishing. Right now, early in the spring, they'll likely be upriver closer to the mountains where they can get the most fish coming down from the mountain thaw."
"I didn't realize," she said, surprised by the lack of knowledge. She tried to learn everything she could about the people around her. "I knew they went fishing upstream, but I didn't realize the whole village --"
A sudden roar of sound from behind startled her, Fox, and the horses. She thought Blue even moved in his bag.
"They know the water's there now as well," Fox said. They could both see the orcs starting to move faster. "Hold on tight again, Dusty. This is it."
Friday, September 15, 2017
Dusty looked back and slowed -- the orcs looked confused. That would not help.
"I need you to be brave again, Blue," she said and reached her hand into the bag.
Blue grabbed hold, scurried up her arm and to her shoulder. She stopped, Fox beside her, though he looked worried.
"You will never have the baby dragon again!" she shouted. "And you had better hope his mother never catches you!"
The orcs shouted in dismay and maybe fear. With no doubt that they had their attention, Dusty turned her anxious horse and started away again. However, before they had gone more than a yard, the horse Dusty was riding became frightened by the growing roar of sound behind them. Blue gave a cry of dismay and darted back into the bag. Dusty feared she would be thrown, and wrapped one arm tight around the bag with Blue while she held tight to the reins with the other.
"Calm, my friend!" she shouted over the roar of angry orcs, the yells of people, the cries of dozens of birds, and the barks of every dog in the town. "Calm! We will get away!"
The horse calmed, took on a long-legged gait, and ran steadily toward the end of town. Fox's horse did the same.
"Well done!" Fox yelled. He'd probably thought she was going to end up on the ground, bones broken.
Dusty gave him only a nod and held tight still. The horse would sense her own fears, and she needed to get control or else this would end badly. It helped that the sounds of the village were already less loud. She dared to look back. Two soldiers rode with them, but behind that group, she could see the turmoil the others had created. The orcs had not yet gotten past them.
She hoped no one was hurt.
They sped past the edge of town where crumbling old buildings were slowly crumbling back into the sand from which they'd been born. Fox still rode close beside her, the horses almost neck and neck as though they raced for fun. Dusty wished to make the ride a game, but she knew that a long, hard journey stood between her and the dubious safety of the river.
Fox pointed out the trail just ahead, and she prepared to turn, daring one look back. Somehow, the townspeople were still holding the orcs at bay, though she didn't think they could do so much longer. As soon as they took the turn, she and Fox both let the horses run full out down the road, around a curve, and down a hillside covered with fig trees and small plots of crops. Before Dusty stretched nothing but desert hills now, golden in the growing light.
How far to the river? She couldn't see it from here, but the land rose and fell in low lying hills. She could see no line of green, which would be a sure sign of water. Would they dare ride through the heat of the day? It wasn't bad now, but soon the sand would reflect as much heat as the sun beat down on it.
Daring one glance back, she knew they had no choice. The orcs had gotten free of the townspeople, but now the few troops they left behind had started to slow them.
"Hold on and ride fast!" Fox shouted.
Fox clearly did not intend to ride off without her, and the idea that he might put himself into danger on her account worried her enough that she stopped looking behind and pressed the horse forward again.
The shouts and yells behind began to fade as they went down one hill and then up again. Fox looked back, so she did as well. The soldiers, though few in number, had held the orcs. One of the massive creatures might even be dead.
"Down fast and then slow on the next incline," Fox said.
Her horse panted badly, but he liked the down hill rush. He didn't mind slowing on the next hill, which had been a little steeper and higher. At the top, Fox stopped finally.
"Rest for a little while," he said. "We need to be careful of the horses, and I think the orcs will have trouble on the hills. We're going to hit the flatlands soon, though. We'll want to keep a good distance as long as we can."
"Yes," she said, barely catching her own breath. "Are you all right, Blue?"
"It was kind of fun to bounce up and down on the fluffy stuff in here. And I landed on a piece of apple."
She laughed and related what he said to Fox. The soldier looked at her with a touch of wonder on her face. They started away again, though not very fast. The orcs hadn't even made it to the first hill yet, but she knew they dared not go too slow.
"What will we do at the river?" she asked.
"I hope to find some sort of craft. The current is with us so we can float down stream to the canal. We're sure to find some help to reach the capital from there. The orcs are found to follow the river bank. We have to hope that it doesn't narrow too much that they might be able to reach us."
"I always wanted an adventure," Dusty admitted. "This is not what I thought it would be like, though."
"Adventures are always better when you can tell about them after they're done," Fox replied.
"I suppose so. They do make good reading. Have you had adventures?"
"Oh, a few," he replied and pressed to go a little faster. Dusty stayed with him, grateful that she did not need to make this journey alone. "We'll have to sit down and talk about adventures sometime."
"I would like that very much," she said.
He looked startled, but she smiled. And then they moved faster once more.