SAND CAST - A Wizard's Forge excerpt
The breeze blowing off the Kragnashian headland stoked the sun’s blaze and fired the sand. Land and sky were a vise, squeezing sweat from every pore as the hot air dried the throat. Vic counted the barrels being loaded onto a sledge, hoping they’d brought enough water. “Captain,” she called to Carl, her command third. “Ask the ship captain for two more barrels.”
The hint of a sneer twisted his lips before he pressed them together and answered. “I wouldn’t add more weight, Marshall. The horses will already be pulling their limit in this heat.”
She nodded, swallowing a curse. The ship lay at anchor in a turbulent bay, their supplies ferried ashore in a pair of rowboats. The last of the horses kicked and struggled in a winch as sailors lowered it to the water. Its squeals resounded off the yellow sand, and its herdmates shied and whinnied in their traces. A pair of cavalry troopers bobbed in the surge below the animal, dodged its hooves and teeth as it thrashed. Draylune soothed with soft words and stroking while her partner Nedden unfastened the winch harness. When the horse was free and swimming for shore, the troopers lay back and floated in the sea, relieved all the animals had survived the voyage and debarkation.
As Vic paid the ship captain, he peered at the yellow sand and shook his head, but kept his thoughts to himself. Before the company had all the provisions sorted, his ship had become a speck, running before the wind off the headland.
When everything was loaded, the horses trudged up the dunes on splayed hooves, harnesses creaking as the sledges rutted the sand. The humans gouged the dune after them, backs bent under packs. Reaching the top of the first rise, Vic shaded her eyes and gazed at the yellow landscape undulating to the horizon. Already grit rubbed against her heels, sweat rolled down her back. She resisted the urge to cast off her djellaba, knowing it would be her only defense against the sun. Wineyll and Bethniel clambored up the dune and stopped beside her.
“How long before we meet the Kragnashians?” Vic asked.
“I’m sure they sent out a greeting party as soon as Mother’s message arrived in Direiellene. They’ll find us soon,” Beth replied.
“Shouldn’t we wait here for them?” Wineyll asked, staring at the endless dunes.
“We don’t have time for that,” Vic said. Bethniel nodded, then slipped down the slope after the others. “Keep up the dagger practice with Carl, Drak, or Valion,” Vic told the minstrel. “Relmans and—” she waved at the desert—“Kragnashians may not be charmed by your flute.”
Grinning, Wineyll glanced at the case at her hip. “I am pretty good.”
“Nobody’s that good. Not even Ashel.”
The girl’s smile faded and she followed the company down the dune. Vic watched her go, blinking at tears that dried before they reached her cheeks. Ashel—she prayed to Elesendar or fate or pure damn luck he was well. He’s the son of a sovereign, not a powerless slave, she reassured herself, but her spine clenched at the memory of Lornk’s glacial gaze. The land ahead taunted her, promising failure. Clearing her throat, she fell in after the company.
† † †
The first afternoon, the heat killed a horse and nearly killed three troopers. After that, they marched at night, when the air was cooler. Although they followed the course prescribed in Elekia’s agreement with the Kragnashian Center, no guides appeared. Only sand surrounded them, as featureless as the ocean, the sky endless, empty blue by day, heavy with glitter by night. Progress slow, in a month they’d walked the distance they’d expected to cover in two. In two they’d covered only half the route to Relm, when they thought they’d be crossing the Plu—though without the Kragnashians’ help, Elesendar knew how they’d manage that. The Umbrachlorn Plu looked like a river on maps but was a gash in the earth’s crust, bubbling with sulfurous mud and lava, and only the Kragnashians knew how to cross it. Dune after dune sucked strength from calves, grit blistered heels and ravaged throats. Time and distance blended together, marked only by the emptying of another water barrel and the butchering of another horse, killed for its flesh and to spare the water as the sledge grew lighter. As the supplies shrank and the Desert People failed to meet them, discontent grew.
“Cut again?” Valion, one of the junior officers, asked one morning, hefting his canteen after Marenye, the quartermaster, doled out the day’s ration.
“Could be worse.” Marenye angled her head at thin strips of slaughtered horseflesh drying in the sun.
“This little water won’t leave me far from that,” Valion complained.
“But there’ll be blood stew for supper,” Bethniel cut in with a laugh. “And as a bonus, I’m not making it.”
Valion raised his canteen. “Hear that, boys and girls? Her Highness is letting someone else cook tonight! Three cheers for Latha’s Heir!” A ragged hurrah and round of guffaws echoed off the sand. Vic exchanged a smile and wink with Bethniel, but the levity evaporated as quickly as spit on the hot sand.
The sun paced across the sky, dragging a cape of green-gray clouds. People talked of rain over their blood stew and fresh jerky that evening, yet only sand showered them. And on the horizon, one smudge stayed stubbornly brown while the setting sun painted other clouds pink and orange.
Skin prickling, Vic called over the captains and jutted her chin at the smudge. “Another sandstorm.” Each had stalled them for hours, and one had halted progress for two days when they had to dig the sledges out from under a dune.
Drak shrugged. “The wind’s blowing it away from us.”
“Hope it stays that way.” At Vic’s wave, the company plodded up the next slope. No one spoke, in mindspeech or aloud. Throat aching, Vic forgot everything but pulling each foot out of the sand and pushing it forward. No one had ever been this deep into Kragnash. They might find themselves on flat ground at any moment. Vic smiled, imagining her legs free of sucking sand, running for the joy of running across a hardpacked plain.
Without warning, the storm slammed into them, thrashing skin and clogging nostrils. Horses whinnied and charged toward the lights at the head of the column, sledges rattling behind them while their drivers shouted and sawed the reins. Orders flew from the captains: “Get the tents up!” “Cover the provisions!”
“Horses’ tent first,” Vic shouted. Canvas tore out of hands, whipped and cracked above heads as sand pelted them. Troopers fought the animals, hanging onto their lines as they bucked and kicked and tried to bolt away. At last the horses were inside their shelter with troopers to tend them. Stinging sand blizzarding around them, a second tent went up and everyone else dove inside.
Prayers for sturdy seams murmured as the wind shook the canvas like an angry mother punishing her child. The air reeked of fear, cloying against the skin, and the lamps cast fitful shadows of elbows and chins and noses—all sharp angles. Its fury indefatigable, the storm raged for hours. Vic dozed on a camp stool, jerking awake each time the gale spun and hurled sand from a new direction. Others bedded down, but few slept as a wall bulged inward, the willowwood struts bending toward their limit.
With a low rumble, sand began to slide out from under them. Shouts echoed as canvas stretched and seams popped. The ceiling caved inward. “Hold those struts!” Drak yelled as troopers scrambled in the landslide. Lamps fell and went out. A bedroll caught fire. Pouring sand snuffed the flames, pitching them into darkness. People tumbled into one another amid screams, crashes, and clatters. When the motion stopped, the tent was a crawlspace, the air thick with dust. Coughing, Vic ordered a roll call; eight names went unanswered.
“Listen, the wind’s stopped,” Wineyll said hopefully. “Do you think it’s over?”
“I think we’re buried,” growled Carl.
“Find some lanterns and get us some light,” Vic snapped. “Carl, get a team and start digging. Drak, find those missing troopers.”
Lamps flared alight, and Bethniel crawled through the crowd to Vic’s side. “Maybe we should stay here until the storm’s over.”
The princess was shaking, her eyes big as saucers. Vic swallowed a curse at Elekia for sending her daughter on this mission. “As bad as it is outside, it’s also where the air is. We don’t know how long we have in here.”
The princess pointed at a broken strut, jutting out of its sleeve. “They’re hollow.”
Vic blinked, a grin blooming despite their dire straits. The willowwood struts were hollow, each segment a little smaller than the next, down to the width of a man’s thumb, so they could be pushed together or pulled apart to alter their length as needed. They were also strong enough to hold the tent up in the storm, until a mountain fell on them, and even then they had saved the company from being crushed altogether. “Carl,” she said, “disregard my last order. Use the willowwood to get us some air until the storm blows itself out.”
An hour later, troopers lay in the sand, exhausted from the effort of pushing the struts through to the surface and digging for their missing comrades. They found them all, seven still alive, though one of those was coughing blood. Air moaned through the willowwood, and the stream of sand piling beneath each duct told them the storm still raged, but at least they could breathe. Vic slept a few hours, then moved among the troopers, speaking to them as one speaks the night before a hopeless battle, of faith and bravery and luck. Bethniel spoke as well, reminding them that Elesendar still made his rounds above the storm, that He still watched. Some nodded and shared comfort and courage with their comrades, but others turned their heads away when the princess mentioned their god. Vic settled next to Orlon and put a hand on his shoulder, urging resolve. Fists curled into balls, the healer chewed on his lip. “I’m sorry they took him,” he muttered. “I’m sorry.”
The apology bit like an accusation. Orlon had been the only one to escape the ambushers who took Ashel, but none of them would have been there if Vic hadn’t interfered with Ashel’s duty assignment. She’d thought to keep him safe, and may as well have handed him to Lornk herself. And now she’d fail to rescue him too. It was madness to try to cross Kragnash—the desert had proved a barrier stronger than a thousand-foot wall. Despair sinking into her bowels, Vic retreated to a corner of their tomb to listen to the wind, as the others did, in silence.