The chill woke him. Night was beginning to settle and the heat which had drenched Merew while he slept grew cold against his skin. He shivered and crawled out of the tent, taking care not to step on the men he shared it with.
Water. Thirst scratched at his throat and he tipped the last drops from his canteen into his mouth. He immediately wanted more. When would they reach the oasis? The satraph had been promising to replenish their supplies for days, but their water diminished with each rasp of their parched tongues.
‘Did you sleep well?’ Captain Pehty asked, seeing him stumble out into the centre of their campsite.
He was sitting cross-legged on the sand, honing the edge of his hesek with a flat stone. As ever, his expression was unfathomable. The satraph looked at him with obvious curiosity, but Merew wondered what his commander truly thought of him. He might consider him a burden. After all, he was a child. What use could he be in a fight? His skill with bow and short sword was unremarkable. An extra mouth to feed. Nothing more.
No, I’m a soldier now. I’ll earn his respect and prove my worth.
‘I slept,’ Merew replied. Better to say nothing more. Give nothing more away. How did he know he could trust the satraph in turn? But perhaps it would do to be polite nonetheless. ‘How did you sleep?’
‘I didn’t,’ he said, nodding for Merew to sit beside him.
That look again. What did it mean? Captain Pehty was studying him with his soft, honey-coloured eyes. It was a deception. The scars on his arms showed he was a killer. His title marked him as a warrior. Merew knew that the satraph‘s heart was made of hard granite, even if his eyes spoke of a gentle soul.
‘Don’t you sleep?’ he asked, feeling his curiosity overcome his caution.
Damn him. He draws me in and I follow like a hapless idiot. Stay guarded, Merew. Keep your thoughts barred or before you know it you’ll be telling him about your home, your treasures.
It had happened once before. A girl he befriended. She was a fellow beggar and they spent their days working the streets of the merchants’ district. Merew was a fool then. He had let his guard down and seen her leaving his home one night. Thank the gods, his treasures had been hidden and she was too dull-witted to uncover them.
I’ll never trust a living soul again. Hide your thoughts. Don’t let him in.
‘My thoughts wander by day,’ Captain Pehty replied. ‘Don’t you find that? At night we’re too afraid to dream, but by day our minds are free to explore the borders of reality. Hello, what’s this?’
His tone remained genial, but Merew sensed danger in the way the satraph‘s eyes snapped from him to the dune behind their camp. Captain Pehty stood and narrowed his brows. The knuckles of his right hand were white with strain where they gripped his bent blade.
Who is that?
Someone was coming down the slope, throwing up sprays of loose sand as they tried to sprint without falling. It was one of the meshah. Merew could tell by the tight robes of dark red cloth and green sash at the runner’s waist.
The soldier dashed between the tents, dodging his companions as they emerged groggily from their slumber. He stopped in front of the satraph and saluted. He was breathless, sweat running from his brow and dripping off the end of his nose.
We’re going to die. Someone is attacking us.
Merew wanted to run. He would slip away and find a route back to town, travelling by day if he had to. But he could not move with Captain Pehty standing beside him. It frustrated him more than anything ever had. The satraph‘s quiet, enigmatic manner attracted him like flames to kindling. The way he spoke and looked at him made Merew believe he could read every thought locked away inside his head. But he showed no reaction to whatever he saw there. Was he inspired, disgusted, amused? That question held Merew by the satraph‘s side, waiting to hear of their doom from the soldier’s lips.
‘Give me your report, Astra,’ Captain Pehty said, his anxious gaze running along the tops of the dunes.
The voice which replied was a woman’s, frantic with excited fear. ‘I saw something, satraph.’
‘Tell me what you saw!’
She fought for breath, opening and closing her mouth in dumb shock. Captain Pehty lunged at her. Shaking her by the shoulders. A winding trail of dark cloth fell from her head, revealing close-cropped black hair.
This is wrong. I need to do something.
‘Curse you, soldier,’ Captain Pehty said, spitting in rage. He shook her again. ‘What did you see? Out lives might depend on it.’
He had seen enough. Silence would achieve nothing and pain was clearly written in the woman’s trembling lip. Merew gripped the satraph‘s arm. Tried to pull him away and felt the arm jolt back. Was he so strong? The elbow cracked into his forehead and he stumbled backwards. Blinding pain and the sound of the satraph shouting.
‘Tell me what you saw. Now!’
‘A monster,’ the soldier gasped, her mouth falling slack with horror at what she had said. ‘It was moving under the sand. Then I saw it fly up over the dunes in the distance. Wings, horned back, a whip for a tail. It was real.’
No. Merew could not believe it. He did not want to believe it. But he had to. Everyone knew the wilderness was home to beasts which tore men from their tents and ate them alive. Monsters which could pull a man in two as easily as ripping a sheet of parchment. He felt cold sweat break out on his back.
Gods, don’t let me die here. Send the monster somewhere else.
Captain Pehty released the woman and lowered his head. His chin remained planted on his chest, as if in deep thought, and then he lifted his face towards the purple sky. A dry, wheezing laugh whinnied over the campsite.
‘A monster!’ he cried, clapping his hands and sitting back down. ‘You saw a monster did you, Astra?’
The soldier stuttered, glancing towards the dune. When she turned back to look at the satraph, her brow was furrowed in uncertainty. What had she seen? Merew wondered if it had been a trick of the desert light, a mirage. She had seemed so certain in her terror when she arrived in front of them. Foolish woman. He had been on the brink of running away and take his chances alone. All for a silly woman’s daydream.
Trust no one, Merew. Did you forget? Their eyes may deceive them, but don’t let their tongues fool you.
‘I saw something. A beast perhaps,’ she stammered.
The satraph‘s tone was sneering, crushing the last of the woman’s resolve. ‘A beast now? First a monster and now a beast. Well, which was it?’
‘Neither, satraph,” she replied, seeming to shrink as she hunched over in apology. “I was mistaken.’
‘No, you said there is a monster out there. Well, is it a monster which burrows beneath the ground or a beast that flies through the air?’
His hands flapped out at his sides in a mocking imitation of flight. The joke was going too far. Merew wondered if he should try to intervene again. No, his head was still pounding from where the satraph had struck him. Better to stay silent. Try to be forgotten.
I’ll have my revenge. You can count on it, pig.
‘Forgive me, satraph. It was nothing. I saw nothing.’
‘Two nights patrol duty,’ Captain Pehty said. He lifted his face as if struck by a sudden thought and turned to Merew. ‘You tried to intervene in my command, brother rat. Join Astra on her extra duties then. Perhaps you’ll get to see this monster of hers.’
Merew gave a meek nod. The woman was already heading towards the edge of their camp and he had to jog to catch up. He smiled, trying to show her they were on the same side. It might be worth his while to make a friend among the meshah. Someone who could teach him how to survive in the wilderness.
Astra answered his smile with a mocking sneer. ‘Do you want to be my hero, rat?’ She chuckled as her nimble fingers tied the back cloth around her face. ‘Don’t speak to me. Follow me and stay silent. One word and I’ll slit you throat.’
I tried to protect you. Is this what you call thanks?
His thoughts were dark as they marched out across the dunes together, but Merew said nothing. Arta’s blade looked sharp and she carried it like an experienced soldier. Something told him it would not be worth his while to argue.