By the time the horse stopped walking the horizon was already beginning to brighten. Staun was just deadweight and Filia’s arms ached from holding him up. She exerted one last effort and eased him over and lowered him towards the earth. At the last moment her strength failed and he fell down in a heap. He groaned and opened his eyes again for a moment, then closed them and lay still. Filia just sat on the horse and rested. It wasn’t too long before the cold of the desert night air overcame the warmth of her own exertion, and she began to shiver. The long night was over, and the long day was about to begin.
The memories of the crazy ride through the night flickered through Filia’s mind. She was amazed that the insane plan had actually worked. If not for Staun’s mental powers it would have failed for sure. The horse had not wanted her to ride it, she was sure of that, and there was no way they could have escaped on foot. Somehow Staun had rallied strength enough to calm the horse once she brought it to him. Fortunately she had been able to pack on the stolen food and water ahead of time. Filia really hoped that no one had been hurt in the fires she had set, but that was not an avenue of thought that paid well at the moment.
Filia wrapped her arms around her bare torso, feeling the rough gooseflesh under her fingers. She looked about. From the height of the horse’s back Filia could see quite a way across the desert and into the bordering scrub. The growing light revealed that they were right on the border between the two. Filia knew they would need to choose between the safety and concealment of the scrub or chance a return across the sand to the crashed airship. It was not yet light enough to see many details, but Filia could see that there was a chain of mountains ahead. Perhaps if they reached them and climbed a ways up they might see the crash site.
Filia considered her position. With Staun off the horse she was no longer assured that she could control it. Perhaps it was time to unload the cargo, just in case. She twisted in the saddle and carefully unlatched the straps that bound the bags to the saddle. With the wild ride coming to an end the strength and warmth of her own adrenaline faded, and her body stiffened, making the task difficult. She finally had them unlatched and lowered the precious food and water skins to the ground. That done, she then held the reins carefully, and eased herself down, tumbling down at the end as Staun had. She picked herself up and stood beside the horse, looking up at it apprehensively, wondering what to do next.
“Let it go.”
She turned to look at Staun. He was still, and his eyes were closed. Had he spoken? She was unsure, and watched for a long moment to see if he moved or spoke again. Nothing. In the dim light it was hard to tell if his eyes were really closed or just mostly closed, but if he was asleep she did not want to wake him. She looked back at the horse, and after a moment of thinking she undid the simple bridle, then unbuckled and removed the saddle. Now as naked as the humans, the horse tossed its head and walked off. She watched it go, suddenly regretting the decision to free the horse, but resigned to it now that it was made.
She turned back to Staun. She could hear him breathing, and he seemed to be asleep. She was a bit frightened to see how thin he had become. His ribs showed clearly, and his face was gaunt. His blue skin was covered in hundreds of small cuts, bruises and scrapes, both new and old. In addition, he also sported a number of welts all over his lower extremities, including his genitals, from the many ant bites he had sustained. She felt sorry for the blind man, and her eyes were suddenly watery. They had both been on short rations of late, and while she had eaten and drank while raiding the camp for supplies, she doubted he had. Filia turned her attention to the supplies. She found a waterskin and opened it. She smelled it and tasted it. The flavor was off, but not foul, and she suspected none of the water would actually taste fresh. She took it to him and cradled his head. He moaned and opened his eyes.
“Here, drink,” she said, and held the bottle to his lips. He tried to help, but his arm had no force. She helped him drink some, then eased him back down. She closed the bottle and set it aside. Once again she was wracked with a shiver. She knew he must also be cold. She had taken a thin sheet of fabric from the camp, and she fetched that and covered him with it. She then stood and surveyed their surroundings. As she did so she could feel her own nudity more acutely than she had for hours. The ridiculous native garb had been discarded almost immediately after fleeing the camp — it was clumsy and covered nothing — but the darkness of night had provided all the cover they had needed. Now the sun was rising, and far more than the loss of any modesty she felt a loss of concealment. Standing tall and naked on the edge of the desert she felt truly exposed, but she needed to reconnoiter, and for that height was good. She stepped a bit closer to a tall bush to blend in a bit more, and scanned the distant land.
She thought she knew which way they had come, and looking back that way she could see a faint hint of light in the distance. As hard as she could stare in that direction, she could see no movement. A bit more relaxed, she turned and looked out into the desert. She stared hard, scanning the flat horizon. She thought if she stared into the growing light hard enough she could see a thin smudge of smoke, but it was so faint she had a very hard time keeping it in focus. She looked to her right, opposite the direction they had come, and she could see the mountains more clearly. They seemed to be relatively close, and smaller than she had thought, more like hills. She felt more sure that it would be good to use them for a vantage point. Finally she looked back into the scrub, away from the desert. There seemed to be no end to it. It would provide cover, if nothing else.
Filia was happily surprised to see the horse’s head standing out above the brush not too far away. It had apparently not run off. Perhaps they could coax it back into service. Staun had immediately recognized that she had brough a horse to him when she found him in the camp, and had managed to somehow work with it mentally. Perhaps he could summon it to them once he was awake, and press into into further service. They would need to give it some water, though, and she was unsure how much of that they had. Perhaps the horse itself could lead them to more. Animals often could find water humans could not, she thought. If they could keep the horse it would greatly improve their chances.
Satisfied that they were not in immediate danger, Filia stepped back to Staun’s side. Covered with the sheet, he lay still, but she could see him breathing. There did not seem to be any blood seeping through the fabric covering him, which was a good sign. She wondered how long to let him sleep. She again looked back the way they came. Still no sign of pursuit, but she could not assume that they were not being tracked. They would need to move again, and fairly soon. She considered whether the horse was a requirement for that effort. They had successfully traveled many miles on foot, but that was before they had met any humans. With potential pursuit, they now needed to make better time. That required the horse, and the horse required Staun’s services, and until he had some rest those services might not be available, so rest it was. She looked around. They were poorly concealed where they were, and the fabric was quite a different color than the dirt. Fortunately it was not too gaudily colored. She took some dust and scattered it over the sleeping man, then gathered a few branches and arranged them as cover. She tucked the saddlebags under a nearby bush. Satisfied that she had a reasonably concealed encampment, Filia lay down beside Staun and covered herself with the sheet as well, keeping her face out so she could watch.
Filia awoke with a start. Instantly she was terrified that they had been caught, but they were still alone. Filia lay still. The sun was just a bit higher in the sky, and the air was still cold. She had fallen asleep just for a few minutes. Relieved, Filia levered herself up on one elbow. She need to remain awake. For what, she was not entirely sure. What would she do if someone came? Fight? What would one naked woman accomplish against armed men? Flee? And leave Staun alone? Hide was the only other possibility, and they were already somewhat concealed. Still, she knew she needed to stay awake. She pressed herself against Staun as best she could, and was rewarded with the warmth of his body. She was relieved that he at least felt normal. She wondered how quickly he would be able to recover. What if he could not travel? What then? She decided that was a question she could not answer, and so ought not ask.
The warmth of the day was finally starting to make itself felt when the Filia heard the first gunshot. It was faint — far too distant to be of immediate concern — and after hearing it Filia was unsure if it had indeed been what she thought it was. She lay silent for a long moment, wondering if she had indeed heard it. Then there came another, sharp and short. It was followed by another, louder, as if from a larger caliber weapon. One after another, the sounds of gunfire came across the cool desert air. Oddly, they seemed to be coming from the desert itself rather than from the scrub. Suddenly it occurred to Filia that the sounds might be coming from the crash site. She started to rise, to see, but decided instead to stay under the sheet, to conserve warmth. She lay still and listened. It sounded like a battle. She thought she could hear the sounds of engines as well, or perhaps rockets. Some of the gunfire was rapid, as from automatic weapons. She had not seen any such things in the camp, so that lent credence to the idea that the airship was involved. Terror seized her heart. Were they truly at war? Was that camp she had fled an enemy encampment? Again their vulnerability overwhelmed her, and she covered her head to hide. The sounds did not go away, however, and she was again compelled to look out and watch, in case any of the conflict came close.
The initial outbreak of gunfire was relatively short, and quickly faded out to sporadic shots. Filia had no idea if this was good or bad. The distance was too great for the sound of voices to carry, and so she had to content herself with the news the weapon fire could convey. The single shots came further apart as what seemed like hours went by. It had been possibly thirty minutes with no report when Staun stirred. He slowly sat up and cleared the fabric away from his face. She sat up also. As she did so the wound on her hip protested sharply. She put her hand to it but otherwise ignored the pain. He looked at her for a moment, then looked around them. Filia examined him critically. His expression seemed alert, and his eyes were clear and lively, if somewhat undirected. His posture was firm, and his breathing seemed clear. What she could see of him was still cut and bruised but all the wounds had scabbed over. She felt a bit relieved.
“Where are we?” he whispered.
“We got away from the camp, but I think we may have been followed,” she whispered back. “We are at the edge of the desert, not too far from some hills, and we may still have the horse.” He nodded and looked off in the direction of the horse. It took Filia a heartbeat to realize that he should have no way of knowing which way the horse was, and so she took this as a good sign. “I heard a lot of gunfire coming from the desert. It sounded like a battle.” She hesitated. “It may have been coming from the crash site.”
He nodded, then frowned. “Thank you for rescuing me. They were going to kill me in the morning.”
“You’re welcome. Now you can repay the favor. We need to catch the horse again.”
He nodded. “That will be very doable. She is right over there, waiting for us to feed her and give her water.”
Filia nodded. “I don’t know how much water we have, but we can share it with her.”
Staun looked off toward the scrub. “She smells water not too far away, but will only go there with us.”
Filia felt a huge sense of relief. “Good!”
“Have you eaten yet?” Staun asked.
“No. Are you ready to eat?”
Filia got up and went to the bags. The air was already warm. Soon they would need shelter. She got the food and water and brought it to Staun. Together they ate and drank a small amount while they discussed the best way to proceed. In the end it was decided that Staun would consult the w’hind while Filia napped. Filia was a bit uncomfortable with the idea, as these sessions had not always worked for them in the past, but Staun assured her that she needed sleep as much as he did, and he promised not to go too deep. Before she lay down, however, she made Staun stand up.
“I want to check you for cuts,” she said. She made him stand still and she forced herself to examine his entire body, including his man parts. Her discomfort at the weird intimacy of this was overcome by her own need to know how strong Staun would be. He had a few deeper wounds, but most were strictly superficial, and none were bleeding. The welts were fading, and there was little sign of the acid burns. She examined her own wounds as best she could. The cut on her hip was red and there was some weeping from the less healed spots. That worried her. She wanted to wash it, but decided they needed the water they had for drinking. Finally she lay down.
“Not too deep,” she reiterated, and he nodded. She lay back and closed her eyes.
Staun woke her with a touch. She was surprised to find that she was not longer wrapped in the sheet in the open. While she was sleeping he had taken the sheet and turned it into a simple lean-to tent, allowing the air to flow and to provide shade. He was seated at the front, keeping watch. The bags were packed around her, making walls of a sort. It was almost comfortable. Filia was startled to realize that the sun was already fading. She sat up, alarmed.
“It’s ok,” Staun said, putting a hand on her arm. “There is no one near here.”
She stared at him. “Are you sure?”
He nodded. “There are two trackers still out. One has not yet caught up to us, and one has passed us up.” He pointed to the scrub. “He rode past us on a trail several hundred feet in that direction. He is now quite a way away.” He looked back they way they came. “The other is on foot. Once we are mounted we will leave him far behind.”
“Can you talk to the horse?”
“Yes. I watered her and fed her while you slept.”
“Can you bring it over here so we can saddle it up again?”
Staun nodded, “I had to work with her a bit, but yes, she will carry us, first to get more water, then to the hills.” He looked in that direction. “There is something waiting there for us. It is awake, and knows we are coming.”
Filia’s stomach twisted. “What do you mean?”
“I tried to contact the airship. They are still there, but something very powerful is stirring the w’hind, and I cannot t’see clearly at all. What I can t’see is that there is some sort of knot in the w’hind, and it is coming from there,” he pointed at the hills. “Since we want to go there to get a better view, we might as well go see what is knotting the w’hind up so.”
“Shouldn’t we avoid that spot, actually?” she asked, a bit testily. “I thought we were avoiding the locals.”
Staun shook his head. “There are no locals there. It is abandoned.”
Filia shook her head. “I’m confused. What is knotting up the w’hind if no one is there?”
“I don’t know. We should go check it out.”
Filia opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it. Finally she nodded.
“OK. First we eat, then we get a horse, then we get water, then we go to the hills, then we go home.”
Together they arose, and began the day.