Alta - Mercedes Lackey
OVERHEAD, the stars that filled the night sky, the ornaments upon the robe of the Goddess of the Night, seemed close enough to touch. The kamiseen wind whined in the tops of the trees of the oasis beside him; even at night, it never completely ceased. It smelled of baked stone, with a hint of desiccated plants.
He had come to learn that the desert was not all one sort of landscape; he had escaped over stony hills into the pure sand of the desert dune country; now he was in yet another sort of desert, a place of marginal life. The sand beneath Vetch was not as comfortable to sit in as one might suppose; since this wasn’t dune country, the ground was hard beneath a surface mix of dust, sand, and pebbles. He was glad of his bedroll now since it provided a layer of softness between himself and the ground. Strange. When he had been Khefti-the-Fat’s serf, he wouldn’t have noticed how hard it was; in so short a time he had gotten used to certain comforts.
Yes, it was the time of the kamiseen, and the ever-present wind whined over the desert, carrying with it a film of dust and sucking away moisture. But this was an oasis, with carefully tended date palms, and Vetch’s camp was downwind of the palm grove. The Bedu camped within the oasis, permitting Vetch the downwind side for his own camp, so the kamiseen would not trouble him much tonight.
Vetch’s scarlet dragon Avatre slumbered at his back, her body warm inside the pit he had dug in the sand and lined with stones heated in his fire. Fuel was as precious out here as water, but tonight no one begrudged the effort of collecting it for him. Firstly, this clan of Veiled Ones boasted many camels and could afford the dried dung for the fire. And secondly, Avatre had earned the right to her fuel and more.
She had eaten well today, taking down four of the desert gazelles. The first time had been this afternoon, twice in rapid succession, enough to feed her well at midday. The second time had been with the help of Vetch’s sling, and enabled the two of them to provide an evening meal not only for Avatre herself but for Vetch and the clan of Veiled Ones who were hosting him on this last evening in the desert. There was a faint scent of roasting meat on the kamiseen tonight, the last remains of the evening feast.
He was within striking distance of the goal he had sought for so long. Soon he would cross the border that divided Tian lands from Altan. Soon he would be among his own people, and although he probably looked outwardly calm, inside he was afire with excitement—and at the same time, afraid. This moment was one he had dreamed about for so long, but dreams were one thing—reality another.
Once, he had dreamed of having a dragon, too. Now he had one, and Avatre was so much more than he had been able to imagine. She gave him freedom—and tied him to her with bonds of responsibility and love. He had never envisaged how much she would mean to him. It was a glorious burden he would never have given up for the world, but it meant that he was no longer beholden only to himself. In fact, when given a choice between his own welfare and hers—and there had been many such choices on this journey—he would always choose hers. He could not help himself. She was his beloved, after all.
Now, faced with the prospect of crossing into the land he had once thought of as his goal, he knew that no matter what his dreams had been, they could not possibly replicate what he would encounter.
Those dreams might be better than what he actually found, or they might be worse. But they would probably be different, and that alone was a reason for fear.
But this was as far as the talismans that the Veiled Ones had provided as a series of guides would take him. Tomorrow, one of them would personally take him to within sight of the Altan border, the lands where the desert ended and the swampy delta began, and leave him there.
Tonight, unlike previous evenings, he was not alone at his fire. He shared it with one of the Mouths of the Bedu nomads, an enigmatic and apparently sexless creature covered from head to toe in one of