Gemla waded through the thick sagebrush, carefully stepped over the tough, hardy plants. Once she finally made it to the stone path, she took no more notice of where she stepped and made her may down the dusty path toward the white walls ahead.
She nodded at the four soldiers that stood guard outside the gates. The white, marble walls – over one hundred feet high and ten feet thick, had been built by the dwarves centuries ago. They surrounded they great city of Dothien, protecting the people within against raids and the hot desert air.
Once she stepped inside, the landscaped changed. Lush trees bearing ripe, colorful fruit grew around the buildings. Flowers bloomed. It was still sweltering, but the fresh scent of the fruit lifted Gemla’s spirits and she began to trot home.
She nodded at each of the passing city dwellers, nodding a silent greeting as they walked by. There were few out on the streets, but those that were nodded a silent greeting as they walked by. As they passed, Gemla caught a fleeting glimpse of their lives. Men looking forward to getting home to their families, women worrying over children that had run off with their friends, adolescents absentmindedly dreaming about their lovers. No one spoke – some seemed to be in a deep conversation, but their mouths did not move. They made gestures, facial expressions, sometimes noises, but never words. Words were rare in Dothien. One only spoke them when he had to.
Instead, Gemla heard the sound of rustling leaves above, fruit being sliced, brooms hitting the ground, rugs being shaken, flowers closing as night approached. Every sound, every vibration in the air seemed sharp and clear to her sensitive ears. Somewhere, a beetle flitted and landed on a leaf. Somewhere else, a man kissed his wife. She looked up at a white, square shaped house, where the wooden shutter had not been closed all the way. She smiled as the wave of emotion from the two washed over her. But, as quick as it appeared, the emotion was gone as she rounded a corner and stopped on the doorstep of another small white house.
She opened the door and stepped inside. All emotion that had radiated from those outside, faint or strong as they were, vanished as she shut the door and removed her brown belt. Four scaly desert lizards were tied to her belt, as well as a pouch and waterskin. She untied the lizards and laid them side-by-side on the brown table, their necks twisted in odd angles. She then dumped the contents of the pouch out onto the table.
A jar of a thick, golden liquid. Two white flowers, the petals having been slightly crushed. A few small stones. Some leaves. A slice of half-eaten fruit. A handful of coins.
She then unstrapped the pack on her back and dumped the sticks and dead sagebrush in a pile beside the empty fireplace. She placed the jar and leaves on a shelf in the wall. There was barely anything left on that shelf. She decided she would have to go shopping later than evening.
That’s when she realized. The house. The house was empty. Though Grandmother was usually sleeping during this time of day, Gemla always caught fleeting glimpses of her dreams and thoughts and heard the steady beating of her heart, weary though it was. She wondered where her grandmother had went. It was hot, and as far as she knew no one was ill.
She shrugged and placed the two flowers in the center of the table. Tahlan flowers were Grandmother’s favorite flower – though she had a tendency to eat them.
Gemla skinned the lizards and started a fire. Taking out a thin clay slab, she cut the meat off the bones and sliced it into little strips, Placing the strips on the clay slab. Then, she crushed the leaves and sprinkled them, along with some salt, onto the meat. Then she placed the slab on the hearth, as close to the fire as she dared.
With the meat drying, she wondered what she should do next. The place had been cleaned already. She opened the wood shutter and peeked outside. No one was out on the streets.
Maybe she decided to stay where she is until it cooled down. That had to be it. And since grandmother couldn’t read or write, she wouldn’t have had any way to tell Gemla she had gone out visiting.
Gemla settled herself into the creaky old chair Grandmother used and closed her eyes. Soon she began to dose…
A noise startled her and she awoke with a start. She was halfway across the room before she noticed her decrepit, old grandmother poking at the fire with a metal rod. She looked at Gemla and waved her away, and Gemla reluctantly obeyed, allowing the old woman to stoke the flames.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Gemla said with her thoughts.
“Leaving where?” her grandmother replied in the likewise manner.
“To Gaeron. Ralday is taking me to Gaeron to show me how to conduct business with non-Trestians,” They had gone through this exact conversation every day for the past two weeks. Didn’t her grandmother remember?
“I don’t know,” Gemla answered, “but he said it would be good for me,”
“You should listen to Ralday. He is very wise,” Gemla sighed. Her grandmother was hiding something. “Who did you invite this time?”
“Han!” Gemla couldn’t believe it. Of all the bachelors in Trestia, her grandmother had chosen Han. “I hate him,”
“He is rich,”
“He’s a self-centered wretch,”
“He will care for you,”
“I don’t want to marry him!”
“He is coming tonight,”
“Well disinvite him!”
“He will be a good husband,”
“Grandmother!” She huffed. Her grandmother had this bad habit of inviting men over for dinner – men she thought would make good husbands. But Gemla had always managed to offend and insult them to the point she never saw them again. But this was Han. However harsh or mean Gemla was, he never seemed swayed by her comments. He continued to pursue her, continued to try and charm her and impress her. But everyone knew he was the most selfish, disgusting man in Dothien. People he didn’t like almost always managed to mysteriously disappear forever. She hated him. So much so, she was determined to find a way to kill him.
“I refuse to even see him,” Gemla said. Her grandmother didn’t answer. Instead she shielded her thoughts and Gemla could not read her any longer. She let out an exasperated sighed and fell into the rickety old chair. Because her grandmother had worked with the Trestian army many years ago, she had received training on how to shield her thoughts and emotions from others. Such training was only available to the wealthiest of Trestians and those working for the army. Sometimes, Gemla wished she could block others from reading her mind. Once she even tried. But people only gave her strange looks and asked if she was ill. That is when she decided she would join the army.
But her grandmother disapproved of that endeavor and was determined to marry Gemla off before she became of age. Gemla always told herself she would never marry anyone except for love, but she knew her grandmother had won with Han. Han was clever. Han was persuasive. He was rich and handsome, too. And since Gemla was not yet of age, her grandmother had all the say in who she would marry.
Someone rapped on the white door. A tall man stepped inside without permission, carrying a green flask and a small red box. Han.
“Gemla, what a pleasant surprise,” he said, smiling slyly. Gemla narrowed her eyes. Han turned around toward the old woman, who had settled herself into a chair at the table and was stitching a tear in one of Gemla’s tunics. He smiled, inclined his head in honor of the elderly, and handed her grandmother the box. She smiled and planted a kiss on his cheek. Gemla rolled her eyes. Ugh.
“Now for the beautiful woman, a toast to honor our engagement,” he said, producing three glass goblets from a pouch on his belt. He poured the red liquid from the flask into the glasses and handed two of them to her and her grandmother. Gemla glared at her grandmother, who nodded and winked. She didn’t. She couldn’t have…
Gemla did not lift her glass when Han and her grandmother did, and she reluctantly sipped it. The juice – for it was juice, not wine – tasted sour and she grimaced as it touched her tongue. She set down her glass and stood, walked over to the fire, and removed the meat from the hearth. It was completely dry now, so she set it on the shelf by the wall to dry.
“your grandmother told me of your journey tomorrow and I came to announce that our wedding will be the day after your return. Does that sound acceptable to you?”
“Good,” Han smiled. “That is all I came to say.” he turned to leave. “Don’t worry Gemla, you grandmother will be well taken care of.” Then he left.
Gemla rose early the next morning. Carefully moving around the small bedroom she shared with her grandmother, she gathered her bedroll, a small bag of coins, a cloak, and some dry biscuits. She dressed, assuming an outfit consisting of a loose white tunic, leather belt and leggings, and tall brown boots. She then combed her waist-length mass of blonde hair, carefully avoiding her large, pointed ears, and then braided it. She tied on a brown headband, then quietly stepped out of the room.
Out in the kitchen, she collected the dried meat she had made the day before and stored them in her pack. Then she grabbed her longbow, waterskin, and collection of throwing knives before heading out into the near-empty streets.
She made her way to the gronchan stables on the other side of the city. Leumah Lake, the huge body of water that sat in the center of the city, took the better part of an hour to travel around, and the sun was over the horizon by the time she met Ralday.
He was standing outside the stables, holding the nose rings of two gronchans. The huge, green lizards shuffled and growled at their captor, but the man with the pure white hair did not seem frightened by them.
“Gemla,” He called with his mind. Gemla waved and hurried over.
“I have some news,” Gemla said.
“I heard. Your Grandmother is marrying you off,”
Ralday spit on the ground and mumbled something in another language.
“I assume she withheld that particular piece of information from you,” Gemla thought bitterly.
“Yes, she did,” This they had exchanged before Gemla had reached him. She and Ralday could exchange words at the speed of thought, unlike most Trestians. For this she was thankful. It meant that others could not eavesdrop on their conversations as easily as they might hope.
She mounted on of the huge lizards and soothed its mind with hers. It slowly submitted to her, and Ralday mounted the other lizard and did the same. Soon they were on their way.
“Did you bring your plant journal?” He asked.
“Darn! I forgot it,”
“We aren’t leaving without it. Go back and get it,” Gemla sighed and kicked the sides of her gronchan. It sped into a trot.
Once they reached the house, Gemla ran inside and searched the kitchen for the leather backed journal her grandmother had made so many years ago. It contained sketches of plants – edible ones, poisonous ones, plants that could be used for medicine – as well as different animals and where and how to hunt them. But she couldn’t find it.
She went into the bedroom, saw and grabbed the book, but was suddenly taken aback. She stared, trying to catch her breath. There, sprawled onto the ground in a pool of blood, lay her grandmother, her hollow eyes staring into nothing.
No. She bent down and rolled the woman over. She was still warm – this had happened within the last few minutes. The hilt of a dagger stuck out from her chest; Gemla pulled it out. Fresh blood streamed from the wound, and Gemla seethed in a mix of anger, fury, and sadness. She may have gotten her betrothed to Han, but Gemla dearly loved her grandmother. To see her dead, lying here on the floor, was too much for Gemla to bear.
She heard multiple men burst into the bedroom. She turned and flew to her feet, still clutching the blood-stained dagger.
The men’s faces were covered with gold cloths-all she could see were their eyes, cold and hateful. One of the men bent down and felt the woman.
“She was just killed,” he said. A sense of dread filled Gemla and the men reached for her.
“No! I didn’t do it!” She said.
“You cold-blooded murderer,” one of them said. “Killed your own poor grandmother,” He reached for her arm, and Gemla slashed at his wrist with the dagger.
“I didn’t kill her!” She screamed in desperation as the man recoiled in pain. They dove at her, but she jumped, grasping one of the metal beams supporting the ceiling. She climbed upward toward the ceiling and shoved on a wooden panel. It loosened; Gemla shoved it open and climbed out onto the roof. She ran along the top of the adjoining buildings and jumped, landing in the saddle of her gronchan. Ralday jumped at her sudden appearance.
“Run!” She shouted aloud. She and Ralday spurred their lizards and they burst into an all-out gallop. Although not as fast as horses, the gronchans were still able to outrun the soldiers and escape the city. They continued to run past the sagebrush that surrounded the city for miles, past the Galla river that continuously fed Leumah Lake, and even past the Tahlan cactus farms until they had made it out into the open desert. It was only then that they dared slow to a steady walk.
“Now, please explain,” Ralday said aloud.
With tears in her eyes, Gemla explained.
“Do not cry. It wastes water, and we are a long way from any streams,” Ralday said.
“Don’t you understand?” Gemla shouted with her mind, “They think I killed her. There is a bounty on my head for a murder I didn’t commit! We are homeless, nomadic outlaws because of him. Han ruined my life. He killed the only family I had and tried to force me into marrying him. I hate him! I hate him with every fiber of my being!” She continued to rant, allowing all her frustration and fury to vent out into the open air, where no one could hear except Ralday and the gronchans.
“Are you finished?” Ralday asked calmly.
“Ugh!” Gemla yelled and kicked her lizard into a run. Ralday called out to her, both with his mind and voice, but she ignored him. He didn’t care. Didn’t care about her, her life, or their present predicament. All he cared about was finding some sort of lesson from this. It always happened. She couldn’t talk to him about her problems because he would always turn it into some sort of character building lesson. She despised that about him. The worst part was, now she was stuck out here with him for an unknown amount of time with no food or water for miles.
“Anger is never the right path to travel. It will always result in your own destruction,” She ignored his prodding. She instead concentrated on the many different ways she could take revenge on Han. She thought of dozens; each one more vicious and vile than the last. She knew it was evil of her to think such things, but she didn’t care. The only thing she cared about was killing Han.
The longer she seethed, the more she lost track of time. In fact, she wasn’t even concentrating on the direction she was going. All she cared about was her revenge.
By the time the sun had set and the two moons had risen, Ralday had caught up with her and her anger had cooled somewhat. The ride, combined with her rage, had left her exhausted, starving, and extremely thirsty. By the time they made camp under a lone, parched tree, she was barely able to eat a biscuit and swallow a gulp of water before settling into deep, troubled sleep.
The next morning, Gemla awoke just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. Ralday was already awake and his bedroll put away. He tossed her a biscuit and piece of meat, which she nibbled gratefully. She felt better this morning – her anger had subsided and her mind was clearer. After eating her meager breakfast and relieving themselves, Gemla and Ralday climbed onto their mounts and rode.
Judging from the position of the sun, Gemla had a vague idea of the direction they were going. She trusted Ralday – for he had travels across these endless desert plains dozens of times and knew the terrain better than his own hand. From studying maps in Ralday’s home, Gemla knew they were on the very edge of the Calabrar desert, the largest and drying desert in the known world. After a while, Gemla lost track of their location and simply followed Ralday’s lead. However, she did wonder why he would take them this far west.
“Where are we going?” She asked him after stopping to rest.
“I have a friend who might be willing to help us,” Ralday replied with his mind as he stroked the tired gronchans. Although their kind was used to roaming the desert plains for weeks on end with no food or water, they had pushed the animals to their limits and they were exhausted.
“Might? We are traveling on the brink of the Calabrar plains with only four days-worth of food and even less water because you think he might help us? For all we know he might turn us in!” Gemla replied.
“No, he won’t turn us in.” Ralday answered with a sense of assurance. The emotions radiating from him helped to calm her nerves, but she still couldn’t help being a little uncertain.
She shook her waterskin. “When will we reach this friend of yours? The water is almost gone, and the gronchans are all tired out.” She didn’t mention that her legs were sore from rubbing up against the lizards’ rough scales, but she knew Ralday knew what she was thinking.
“If we continue at the pace we have been traveling, we should be there after nightfall but before midnight,” Ralday said aloud. Gemla jumped at the sudden change in his way of communication. Why was he speaking when it was easier – and faster – to use his mind? Suddenly his emotions and thoughts became a blur and faded away completely.
What is he hiding from me? Gemla wondered as she grabbed her pack and mounted her gronchan.
The journey grew quiet as they galloped across the parched plains. Gemla grew bored – Ralday was still shielding himself from her, so they did not communicate except for a brief moment, when Ralday asked her if she needed to rest. Gemla shook her head – she would have appreciated stopping to get a drink, but she wanted to get to Ralday’s friend as quickly as possible.
A few hours after midday they turned south, and just as the sun began to disappear, so did the sand. Brown grass grew in little tufts, scattered across the plains like hair on the head of a balding man. Occasionally they passed a small house surrounded by hundreds of cactuses. In other parts of the world, people cultivated crops such as corn and grain, but in Trestia, people had cactus farms. Tahlan cactuses were the most abundant type. When the spines were removed, the meat of the cactus could be eaten, thick nectar gathered and used for both sweetening food and medical purposes, and the flowers used for perfumes and oils.
When the moons rose, they used the red star that was directly south for guidance. That, along with the bright light of the full silver moon and Ralday’s exhaustive knowledge of the land, allowed them to find their way almost as if it were still daytime.
Ralday slowed his gronchan, and Gemla followed his example. Ralday looked up and studied the stars, then pulled his gronchan to the left. Gemla copied his movements, and once again they were on their way.
Finally, they stopped in front of a small cabin. It was small; smaller even then Gemla’s old home. They dismounted the gigantic reptiles, who collapsed onto the ground in utter exhaustion. They stood in front of the old door, and Ralday knocked. Hushed voices inside. Ralday tapped ever so lightly on the door.
Rap. Rap-rap-rap. Tick, tick.
The door creaked open.