The last droplets of water trembled on the lip of the flask, beads of dirty glass refusing to let go. She shook them, and one met her parched tongue. The other fell between her boots, striking the blistered sand with a hiss. She clenched a fist, buckling the tin flask.
The day was an oven, determined to roast her.
With an exasperated growl, she stared down at the dead things. One was considerably larger than the other: a horse with one leg bent at an unnatural angle. Splinters of bone poked through its piebald hair. Its chestnut eyes were bulged and clouded in the desert heat.
The other corpse was smaller, man-sized, and wrapped in leather sacking. It had been trussed in thick rope, the tail of which was tied in several knots about her waist.
Both had begun to stink.
The woman scanned the horizon once again, blurred as it was by heat. It was no different than the last time she looked. The golden dunes rolled out an endless and featureless carpet beneath a sky of overpowering blue: an upside-down ocean, beckoning to be dived into yet unreachable, and in that way cruel and taunting.
The sun was high overhead, beating down on her cotton shirt and the white leather hood which prevented the rays from baking her brain. Ash-rubbed leather trews, black gloves and boots saw to the rest of her.
When she could wait beside the corpses no more, she forced herself upright. Somehow it felt hotter further away from the sand. Not a breath of wind stirred. The rope came taut as she thrust herself onwards on foot. There were many miles yet to conquer. Far too many.
The words came malformed, untested. He had broken his silence at last. She didn’t deign to look at him, but she could tell by the cold waft of air that he was close. She wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, but she longed for him to come closer, to escape the scorch for just a moment.
‘I said it’s your—’
‘I heard what you said, you old goat. Go back to your brooding.’
Walking in the desert was not a joyful roaming, as one might enjoy on the high-roads of great Araxes. In the Long Sands, it became more a test of endurance. Every step was a parry in a duel between the ferocious desert and her determination. She had plenty of that. She leashed her mind to her task. As she trudged, the woman held onto a lump hiding beneath her coarse shirt: a coin dangling on a metal chain.
Hollow threats were spouted behind her. ‘They’ll find your body right next to mine. Bloated in the sun. All trace of that legendary beauty burned away.’
Trudge. Trudge. Trudge.
He chuckled; a wet, gnarled sound. His voice was still forming. She jerked the body, rope sharp against her cracked hands.
‘They’ll drag your corpse away like a piece of week-old beetle meat. Just as you have the temerity to treat mine.’
The woman whirled. ‘SILENCE!’ On instinct, she reached to grab his throat. Her fingers found only cold mist between their grip.
He stepped back, his blue throat untouched save for the jagged and broken scar where her knife had ended his life. It glowed a brighter blue than the rest of his swirling vapours, almost white at its edges.
‘Forgetting something?’ He smiled; a hateful little smile that in life had found its way to his face far too frequently. She’d hoped it had died with his body, but alas, no luck.
‘Are you?’ She patted the copper dagger hanging at her hip.
He shook a finger, baring teeth. ‘You might have slain me once, but you wouldn’t dare kill me twice.’
She tugged at the dagger’s hilt. The copper blade flashed in the sunlight. ‘Why don’t you keep talking, and we’ll see exactly what I dare, hmm?’
There came no smart reply, no spiteful, hate-filled remarks. The ghost slunk back to trailing his body, scowling as it slid without ceremony across the wind-rippled dunes.
The woman yanked her hood up to shade her face. ‘See? You were always more enjoyable when you kept your mouth shut.’
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