This is the (provisional) start of the first chapter…thoughts are welcome!
One step. And another. And another.
There was sand beneath her feet, which made every step harder.
Another step. Another step.
The crunch of rock came like a wave of relief, and she pushed back at it gratefully, feeling her leg muscles tense.
Another step, another step, another step, and then it was solid rock.
Moel didn’t even take a moment to breathe before she pushed herself forward again, step by step, into the harsh and empty desert.
There was screaming. There always was screaming. She didn’t even know what they were fighting about this time, although a few words came through above the noise of the city streets outside, and through the solidly closed door. She picked up her shoes, and began to brush the dust off them for the third time.
The voices rose again, sliding over the sound of a cart outside. The bristles moves smoothly over the leather and fabric. She’d have to repair that soon. There was a crash from something in the other room, and she gently tweaked one of the straps to check that it was holding firm. It was, which was good.
“-should never have let you live here!”
Her pack was next. She’d only repaired it recently, and the fabric was still holding up well. The water pocket inside was new, and she felt a small surge of satisfaction that she’d got a good bargain on it.
“Maybe if you didn’t spend so much time-”
The straps of the pack would be the next thing she would need to repair, although they weren’t close to fraying yet. She tucked the laces back into their clips, and then laid the pack down on the sheet next to the rest of her gear. Her clothes had already been brushed down and mended, and all she would need to do was get provisions.
“Why don’t you just leave? Get out of my life! I don’t need you and I don’t want you!”
“You always say that, and then you come crawling back-”
She realised that her hands were still, and began to shift her things into her pack. If she left now, she’d be able to get down to the dispatch office before the shift changed, and they’d have a run that she could take. They always had something available for desert runners.
Moel didn’t notice the cold, or the colours that began to stain the desert sky. It was only the rising light shining off the sand that broke her concentration, and she slowed from the fast, mechanical strides that had occupied the night. Her legs hurt. She could feel the muscles now, burning with their exertion. Her arms were tense too, and her chest was tight from the deep breaths needed to sustain her relentless pace.
She knew where she was, of course. She knew the route so well that she didn’t have to concentrate on it. Up ahead there was a pillar of rock with a series of small hollows in its base; the perfect refuge for desert travellers. The sun was beginning to burn off the morning chill from the sand dunes as she reached the hollow. The rock was still cold for now, and she carefully scouted the entire pillar before picking the least accessible cave, a little way up a narrow crevice in the side of the rock. Even if another traveller did come past – unlikely – most didn’t know of this hideout. She’d be secure for the day period.
As was her habit, she checked over her supplies and then slowly ate a portion of her rations, watching as the heatwaves began to dance over the dunes. This cave also had the benefits of a view out over the desert to the south, if she wanted it. She briefly checked the road for travellers before the mirages swept it away, and then shifted into the back of the cave to sleep.
Packing had been the easy bit. When she stepped out of the small room with her pack slung across her back, Reneé and Jacth were facing each other across the room with shards of pottery littering the ground between them. She guessed that Jacth had thrown the plate. He tended to throw things when he was upset.
“Mater, are you going already?” Reneé said, her voice still in the angry tones of the argument.
“You need to-”
“I don’t need to do anything.”
“So you’re just going to leave again?” Reneé shot spitefully.
She’d got across the room by this point, and pushed open the door. There were voices behind her again, angry voices, but then the door shut and there was only the city noise in the street outside.
Noise awoke Moel from her slumber in the cool rock hollow. As soon as she opened her eyes, she knew that only a few hours had passed; it was still morning, although the fury of the sun made the distinctions between the times of day irrelevant. Either the sun was there, or it was not.
Voices were disturbing the silence of the desert; human voices, not the shrieks of the vultures or foxes. Someone was coming towards the rock pillar – no, several someones. Moel heard the sand crunch under their feet, interspersed with silences that were the rock patches. She guessed that they were doing the same as her, although their pace was off if they had only just got here.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t have brought a Fliyer to do this.” a voice said grumpily from below. Moel, secure in her invisibility, edged closer to the entrance of her cave. The voice had a Meton accent, which meant the traveller was far from home. And what was a Fliyer?
“Scope the land.” Another voice, this one rough from thirst. Did they not have enough water?
“Pick a cave.” a third voice barked. Moel froze. That was Ecthen, which meant that she was guiding the others. They hadn’t been in Huish, so they must have come from Belmont. What were they doing here?
The two voices below her fell silent and she heard them clunking around in the rock caves below her. From the sounds, there were…five? Six? And Ecthen, of course. A small party to be travelling…
“We’ll start again at dusk.” Ecthen said from below Moel, talking to the people in the cave. “I’ll wake you.”
“I’ll take a watch.” a second voice said quietly a moment later, and Moel froze again. Ray. Two guides for such a small party?
“Why?” Ecthen asked, her voice getting closer. Moel drew back. They’d stepped into the bottom of the gulley below her cave. There was silence for a moment, and then Ray said, “Ziricon.”
“What?” Ecthen demanded in a fierce whisper.
“There’s been a rumour.”
“They made peace. And they wouldn’t attack in Orei.”
“These people are important!” Ray shot back in the same fierce whisper. “They want technology, we’ve got the people who know how to use it-”
“Where did this rumour come from?” Ecthen snapped.
There was a long silence, and then Ecthen said, “All right. Wake me to do half the watch.”
Moel breathed out as she heard their footsteps retreat out of the gulley. Ecthen knew of the upper cave, but if they were on watch then they wouldn’t come up here. She heard footsteps crunch, and then the desert silence returned again. Moel wriggled back into her cave, and went back to sleep.
“I’ve got a run.” the Huish dispatcher said, examining the board as the sunlight began to fade into dusk. The streetlights had been lit, and black smoke was beginning to hover over the desert town.
The dispatcher snorted. “Belmont, where else?”
“There and back?”
“No back yet, but there’ll probably be something when you get there.” The dispatcher pulled the thin package from the box behind the counter. “You want it?”
Moel nodded, and swung her pack off. “I’ll take it.”
Moel woke at dusk, sensing the cooling air as the sun fought to stay aloft. The mirages had gone with the sun, although the road was still hazy. Down below, everything was silent. She debated with herself for a moment, and then silently gathered her pack and swung down the gulley.
Ecthen had taken refuge in the cave nearest to the road, and spotted Moel as soon as the woman emerged from the rock crevice. Moel silently padded across, and nodded as she got close.
“Routine?” Ecthen asked quietly.
“Signal run. Who’re this lot?”
“Meton, for the power line.”
Moel nodded. “Slow.”
“They’re not trained. Road?”
“Clear.” Moel said. “Belmont?”
“Usual. Watch out for the rockslide halfway down the slide.”
“Thanks.” Ecthen nodded, and went back to her watch as Moel settled her pack and walked out into the evening light.