“Go get some camels, she said. It will be fun, she said.”
Lynn grimaced in response to Gwen’s sarcasm. She felt the same way, but corrected Gwen instead of agreeing with her. “Athadius never said it would be fun…”
Gwen and Lynn were standing in front of the herd of camels. From the distance and as the two girls had crept carefully towards the outskirts of town, the camels had looked rather majestic with their long necks, humped backs, and loping walk. And Lynn had imagined it would be quite easy to grab however many they needed and lead them quietly and carefully away.
But now that she was in front of the fenced-in area, the tall animals looked neither majestic nor easy to steal. Well, borrow, anyways. The camels were crowded together, headbutting and braying. And the stench… Gwen pinched her nose dramatically and muttered something about the smell being as bad as the rotten garbage from the palace kitchen.
“Well,” Lynn said uncertainly. “Let’s start checking their teeth.”
Gwen raised her eyebrows at Lynn. “Check their teeth? Are you asking me to put my hand near one of those thing’s mouth?”
Lynn climbed over the fence railing and dropped in on the other side. “Oh, just come on.”
Gwen tossed her head and ducked under the fence. The two girls began carefully stepping between the camels, trying not to be squashed or trampled. Lynn tried to catch a glimpse of teeth without actually putting her hand near the camels’ mouths. Gwen watched and snorted derisively. “Is wittle Wynn scared of the big, bad camel? Don’t be afraid, it’s just a mouth full of teeth that could bite your hand off.”
Lynn glared at Gwen, took a deep breath, and tentatively placed her hand on a camel’s neck. It didn’t flinch, so Lynn let her hand travel up to the head and then slowly down to its mouth. The camel seemed to be used to people’s hands near its mouth, because it let Lynn peer at its teeth and stood quietly. Gwen watched impatiently. “Well?”
“Well, is it a good camel?”
Lynn let go of the camel. “Umm… It has a lot of teeth.”
Gwen narrowed her eyes. “Oh, it has a lot of teeth. Thanks for pointing that out to me, I didn’t notice before. Do you even know how to tell if it’s a good camel?”
Lynn cleared her throat. “Um. Well, I know you’re supposed to check their teeth. The problem is, I don’t know what their teeth are supposed to look like…”
Gwen threw her hands in the air. “I don’t believe you! Why didn’t you ask Athadius?”
“I just forgot! What, do I have to remember everything around here? Why didn’t you ask?”
“But you’re the careful, cautious Lynn! How did you forget this very important fact?”
Lynn didn’t answer, and Gwen stared at her in a moment of silence. A mischievous grin spread over Gwen’s face. “Oh, I see. This is the first time you’ve stolen something, isn’t it? And you’re scared, aren’t you? But you don’t want to show it because you’re supposed to be the calm and practical one.”
Lynn clenched her fist. “You should ask permission before you go poking around in my head, you know. Fine. Yes, this is the first time I’ve stolen something, but actually, it’s not stealing because they’re already Athadius’. And yes, I am scared.” She lifted her chin at Gwen. “There. Are you happy now?”
Gwen laughed, but it wasn’t the mocking laugh Lynn expected. “Oh, good grief, Lynn.” She leaned forward and whispered loudly, “We are running for our lives. People are trying to kill us. We all have special powers.” She leaned back and continued in a normal tone. “Of course you’re scared. So am I!”
Lynn’s shoulders relaxed. “Oh.” She gave Gwen a small smile. “Thanks.”
Gwen gave a mock curtsy. “You’re welcome, my lady. So,” she continued, gesturing to the camels, “how do we pick out the camels? Should we go back to my idea about their bellies sounding like watermelons? Or perhaps we should stare deeply into their eyes, count to ten, and then wink five times quickly.”
Lynn ignored Gwen’s suggestion. “Well, I guess if there’s nothing obviously wrong with its teeth, it’ll do.”
Feeling rather guilty and hoping that they were not doing something terribly wrong, Gwen and Lynn coaxed five camels, all with big, healthy looking teeth, off to the side. Gwen tied them to the watering post while Lynn placed her hands on the desert ground. Although she didn’t actually have to put her hands on the ground, it made it easier to sense moisture and pull it out. She filled the trough to the brim, allowing the camels to drink, and then gathered some more for herself and Gwen. The two girls sat on the ground, trying to find a little shade behind the camels.
“Well. What now?” Gwen asked, fanning herself with her hand.
Lynn looked mortified. “I forgot to ask Athadius where we’re supposed to meet everyone!”
Gwen laughed at the expression on Lynn’s face. “Don’t you remember? She told Jade And Alya to meet us here… Oh, don’t look so surprised that I knew something you didn’t. I do have some brains in my head, you know, it’s not just filled with fluff, as you might think.”
Looking at the small, sharp-tongued girl, Lynn suddenly felt sad. “Gwen, I’m sorry.”
Gwen looked suddenly wary. “Why?”
“For making you leave your home, for making you leave the Princess, for–” Lynn faltered, wondering again what Princess Lairelithoniel had said to Gwen.
Gwen looked away and was silent for one moment too long. Lynn wished she had not opened her mouth, and contemplated whether she should apologize for her apology, but decided that opening her mouth again might make things worse. When Gwen turned back to Lynn again, her face was cheerful, if a trifle forced. “Well, then. So, this was your first time stealing something? This wasn’t much like stealing, especially since we’re still sitting at the scene of the crime… But you weren’t too shabby! You’ve already got the first lesson down, which is never admit you were stealing it. Borrowing it, keeping it safe, bringing it to someone else. Any of those excuses will work.”
Lynn sighed in exasperation. “Gwen, we weren’t stealing them. The camels already belong to Athadius!”
“Bravo!” Gwen clapped her hands. “Very convincing. But try it again, with a bit more emotion. Perhaps make yourself cry, and talk about your poor starving family?”
Lynn rolled her eyes as Gwen continued to give her pointers and tell stories about her ‘borrowing’ expeditions. “Oh, I always returned everything.” Gwen assured Lynn. “But it makes a wonderful trick to play on servants who are a bit too high and mighty for their own good.”
Gwen was in the middle of one story that involved a necklace, a pig, and a piece of coal, when Lynn shushed her. “Do you hear that?”
Gwen opened her mouth to tell Lynn not to interrupt, but then paused as she heard laughter from behind them. Turning around, Gwen and Lynn didn’t see anyone until suddenly Jade and Alya appeared next to them, their arms full of cloth bundles, and shaking in laughter.
“Did you see their faces?” Jade exulted.
“And did you see them jump?” Alya laughed.
“Um, hello!” Gwen said in annoyance. “I was in the middle of a story.”
“Hi, Gwen,” Alya said breathlessly. Jade lifted a hand in greeting, clutching her stomach with the other.
Lynn looked at the two girls sternly. “What did you two do?”
“Oh, nothing,” Jade responded nonchalantly. Alya couldn’t quite manage the straight-faced carelessness, and instead said, “We’ll tell you later, I promise.”
Half an hour later the four girls were dressed in desert attire with daggers and a leather pouch filled with water at their belts. Gwen began naming the camels, Jade and Alya chiming in.
Lynn was watching the three girls and shaking her head when Athadius appeared so suddenly beside her that Lynn wondered if she had invisibility powers too. Athadius glared at the girls. “Are you trying to alert the entire town to our presence?”
Gwen waved a cheery hand. “Hello to you, too, Athadius! Come meet our new travel companions!” She pointed at a camel. “This one is —”
Athadius interrupted her. “Jade, Alya, where’s the wagon?”
Alya looked uncomfortable, and Jade answered evasively, “We couldn’t quite get the wagon.” She and Alya shared a look and Alya collapsed into giggles again.
Lynn watched Athadius with concern. The warrior-girl looked shaken. Before, she had been stiff and reserved, as if she was years older than everyone. Now, she looked young and vulnerable. Lynn remembered her last words, And then to find the truth, and wondered if she had found it.
“They didn’t get the wagon, but they got plenty of supplies,” Lynn told Athadius. “And the camels are watered and ready to go.”
Athadius nodded. “Good. Then let’s go.”
Gwen, who had been first watching Jade and Alya with annoyance, and then joining in their laughter, returned to her naming of the camels as if she had never been interrupted. “—Kernan, I thought their dispositions matched nicely.” She continued speaking as the five girls mounted their animals. “That’s Larry, in honor of Lairelithoniel… Larry because it seems such an insult to name a camel after the princess, but this one is the nicest out of all of them, so it’s meant as a compliment. Oh, and Athadius, I named this one after you! You’re both big and bossy, so it works perfectly!”
The sun beat down upon the five girls. Lynn twisted uncomfortably on her camel and wiped away a trickle of sweat from her forehead. The clothes Jade and Alya had gathered included a headpiece for each girl, but it didn’t seem to help against the heat. Turning around and peering back in the distance, Lynn tried to make out the tiny outline of the desert town. There was a black smudge that might have been the city, but it might also be her imagination.
Athadius rode up in the front, leading the girls across the sandy plain. Every now and then, the tall girl paused and looked at a round object in her hand, and then continued. Sometimes after halting, Athadius would frown, and when they began again, it would be to the left or right. These slight changes in direction exasperated Gwen. “What difference does it make if we go this way or that way? It’s not like there’s something other than desert over there!”
Lynn smiled to herself, certain that Gwen’s annoyance was less about which way they went, and more about having to make her camel turn. Out of all the camels, Gwen’s was the most obstinate. No matter how Gwen kicked, shrieked, or yanked at the reins, the camel would simply go where it wanted to, and nowhere else.
Jade slouched a bit on her camel, letting its swaying rock her back and forth. Alya sat upright, holding the reins tightly as if afraid the camel would bolt away from underneath her. Lynn, like Alya, felt uneasy on the animal, but tried to relax and follow Athadius and Jade’s example.
Lynn watched Athadius up at the front. She was glad the other three girls had listened to her immediately back at the town. Although not too worried about Jade and Alya making a fuss, Lynn had been a little nervous Gwen might put up a fight. But, she recalled, Gwen probably had been able to sense Athadius’ emotions and realize that it was not the time to be stubborn.
The camels plodded along, the sun shone with all its might, and the five girls fell silent.
An ache in her back made Lynn wince. How long had it been since they left the town? Several hours at least… Lynn remembered the soft pillows and blankets back at the castle, and the cool breezes of her home, and a sudden longing filled her to be anywhere else but here. Her camel was following its companions without Lynn’s guidance, and she let her eyes close. Perhaps if she could not see her surroundings, she could imagine them away. The swaying movement and the hot sun made her sleepy, and she was just starting to feel she could actually fall asleep, when Athadius spoke.
Lynn forced her eyes open as Jade and Alya both spoke at the same time. “What?”
“But, but, we’re nowhere!” spluttered Gwen.
Squinting in the bright light, Lynn peered around her. Still sand, as far as the eye could see. Perhaps Athadius was making a joke? But Athadius was dismounting her camel and pulling off the pack. She motioned the girls to get down as well. Jade shrugged and slid off, wincing slightly at the sudden movement after so long in one position. Gwen, Alya, and Lynn followed suit.
Athadius had walked a short distance away, and was looking at the ground, which sloped downwards at her feet.
“What is it?” Lynn asked. The four girls stretched their legs and made their way to Athadius. Lynn was expecting to see a snake, or some desert animal that would be their dinner. Or maybe they were at the top of a hill, and down below was the forest. She was not expecting the huge basin that funneled down into a dark hole.
“We’re not nowhere.” Athadius said. “We’re at the Heart of the Desert.”
Alya gaped at the hole below her. Jade just stared, her arms crossed. And for once, Gwen seemed too shocked to speak. Lynn opened her mouth, but found it was too dry to form any words.
Athadius continued speaking, quickly and stiffly. “The entire palace is looking for us, and soon that entire town will be out looking for us as well. We need a safe place to stay and hide until we can move on. This is the only place.”
“The entire town will be looking for us?” Jade asked, her eyes narrowing in anger. “Why? What aren’t you telling us?”
Gwen regained her voice. “Is that why you felt so…” She broke off and started again. “I can tell what you’re feeling, you know. But I didn’t say anything, I thought you were just worried about the palace guards. Why didn’t you tell us that we were in danger here? Why didn’t you tell us your town was going to try to kill us?”
Athadius took a shaky breath. “I made sure we were going as fast as necessary. They might still be unconscious, but when they wake up they’ll alert the town.”
“Who’s they?” Lynn asked softly.
Athadius didn’t answer Lynn’s question, instead addressing the group. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. But now you know, and this is the only place that we’ll be safe.”
Jade lifted her chin, her eyes fierce. “We’ll be safe? Even as far away as I live, I’ve heard stories about a desert hole that brings death to all who come near. What’s down there?”
Athadius swallowed and looked lost in thought, but didn’t speak.
Gwen glared at her. “Look, Athadius, you can’t expect us to follow you without explanations any longer. We left the castle, we traveled to your town, and then left your town immediately even though we’re all tired and hungry and had been looking forward to a rest. Now tell us what’s going on!”
Athadius closed her eyes and when she opened them, there were tears. “I can’t–” her voice broke, and she started again. “I’m sorry. I will tell you, but I can’t talk about it now. Please, you have to trust me.”
No one said anything, but the silence seemed to say, “Trust you? Why should we?”
Finally, Alya stepped forward. “I trust you,” she said simply.
Her words broke some of the tension between the group. They didn’t say much, but went back to their camels and grabbed their packs. Returning to the sloping sand, Lynn stared down into the hole. Did she trust Athadius? Enough to follow her into a dark hole in the desert?
Athadius looked each girl in the eye, and then slid down the sand, disappearing into the blackness below. Lynn found herself squeezing her hands, waiting nervously for Athadius to call back up.
“Alya, you’re next!”
Lynn’s hands relaxed in relief. Alya smiled anxiously and then she too disappeared into the black. Gwen was next, and after her was Jade. Lynn waited alone for her turn.
The faint call reached Lynn’s ears. She took a deep breath and slid down the sand, into the blackness, into the Heart of the Desert.
By M. Choi
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