The city was the desert. Yllen understood that now. She sat in ruins of a bazaar, its walls collapsed by time. The midday sun burned in the sky and forced all travel to a standstill. Except for the hiss of sand, there was no sound. This fact refused to make sense. People were noisy. Especially her people. She should have heard Krud’s bellows or Gundrea’s girlish scream. She should have heard boots striking the earth. Hell, she would have given anything for the bandits to attack again. Anything for a reminder of human contact.
She swallowed, tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth and let her eyes close stretching the edges of awareness. There beneath the sand’s hiss, she heard a chirrup. Her eyes opened slightly and she crawled toward the sound. She caught a glimpse of a dark body almost three inches long, its legs rubbed together, producing another chirrup. Yllen exhaled slowly. She pounced on the cicada. The insect slipped from her sweaty palms, flitting toward the shade. Yllen chased after it, catching it on the second stride. This time she ripped the wings off, hanging onto it as her stomach girded itself. It didn’t taste that bad.
Three days lost
Some of the arches of the building ahead were still standing. Judging by the rubble there had been an outer wall. This had been a sanctuary from the rough and tumble of city life. What it was now, was a heap of rubble Yllen had never seen before. Head buzzing she strode under the arches into its courtyard. An old fountain sat in the midst of long dead garden. Of course it was dried up. Yllen stood before it, curling and uncurling her fists.
“Are you afraid, child?”
Yllen turned. There was an old monk standing in the garden. He had kindly eyes and dirt upon his robe.
“Not of you.” she said.
“Indeed, what have you to fear from an old man?”
The way he said it gave her pause. “Sir, if I could impose, I find myself rather thirsty.”
He shook his head sadly “Oh there is no water here. Not since the city fell.”
Yllen shook her head vigorously “But what do you-”
There was no monk, just a pile of dirt. She sat on the fountain’s edge staring blankly at it.
Yllen shuffled through the gateway, beyond lay a small pavilion, sparkling in the desert sun. Colourful buildings opened onto it, issuing forth the smell of coffee and spices. Some still bore old balconies, the wooden frames still barely supporting piles of sand and stained tiles. The tiles flashed in the sun, green, blue and turquoise. The pavilion itself was occupied by men and women of orders familiar and strange. They stood in circles or on soapboxes. She passed a group of men in deep discussion over a globe.
“What is the nature of power?” asked a haughty young man of Yllen.
“Seawater.” she gasped.
The young agent turned to three figures behind him “What is the nature of power?”
The first stepped forward, a warrior clad in paper armour and armed with a stick.
“To have and never need.”
The young man addressed the second “What is the nature of power?”
The blindfolded scholar stepped forward
“A single word, upon the tipping point of a crowd.”
The young agent addressed the last of the trio “What is the nature of-”
“Shut up!” screamed Yllen, her voice cracking “Unless one of you is a water fairy sod off!”
Amidst a general murmuring of her rudeness, the hallucinations vanished.
Yllen dragged herself over to the shade. It was amazing, only three days without water and she’d been reduced to a gibbering wreck. A fit of giggles wracked her chest, making her ribs jangle against one another painfully. She tried to clear her mind, relaxing her shoulders and shutting her eyes. It was no use. Every little thing played upon her nerves, the susurrus of a breeze, the twitching in her hands, the sound of boots on stone.
Yllen jerked upright, finding her guard. Someone must have heard her. There was only one set of footsteps, fading in and out of focus. She had nothing to lose “Hello?”
The sound changed direction and Gundrea emerged onto the pavilion, dragging his broom
“There you are,” he said happily “Come on then.”
“How do I know you’re not an illusion?” said Yllen testily.
Gundrea looked her over, scratching his bald head “I dunno. Think therefore I am?”
Yllen wavered slightly “Tell me something I don’t know.”
She glowered at him. Gundrea stroke his chin for a bit “How about the secret of everlasting life.”
“Go on,” she said
Gundrea crept a little closer “It’s don’t die.”
Yllen’s laughter dislodged a sigh of sand from one of the colourful buildings. Her throat choked up halfway through and she ended it coughing. Gundrea leaned on his broom patiently.
“Here, let’s get you a drink.”
“Lead on.” said Yllen waving him away when he offered his hand.
Three and a half days lost
“-And before that they kept telling me to seek wisdom in thy cell.” They walked alongside each other in the streets, master and apprentice. Gundrea nodded in time to her story
“Sounds like a pretty mystic vision. You’ve been scourging yourself pretty rightly.”
“Maybe I’m dying back there and this is all a dream.” said Yllen staring blearily up at the balconies ahead. Their tiles flashed turquoise.
“None of that talk now. I need ye up and focused.” Gundrea tapped his broom against the wall.
“Where are we going?” asked Yllen.
“Pay attention. What did I tell you about finding water?”
“Downhill?” Yllen felt her mind wandering.
“Damp?” There was a throbbing behind her right eye, like someone knocking at the door of her mind.
“What are you looking for?”
“Do we have to do this right now?” Yllen folded her arms “I don’t mean to interrupt the lesson but I’m damn thirsty!”
Gundrea looked pained “This is important.”
Yllen stamped her foot, the pavilion made a solid thump. That was when she realised she was back here. They’d spent all this time walking in a circle.
“What are you playing at?” she snarled.
But Gundrea was gone. The rage was counteracted by a firm thought that said ‘hallucination’. She glared at her surroundings in the fading sunlight. How long before she chased ghosts off a cliff? Was she crazy right now? But the words gnawed at her. What was it Gundrea had said about finding water? She stumbled toward the nearest building, maybe the darkness would help her think. What was it he’d said?
“I’m not listening to you stupid ghosts!” she choked on the words.
Yllen scrambled in the doorway, sandals scraping on the sandy floor. The sound was painful, so she stopped moving. What did you do to find water? Her eyes unfocused, fixing the damp wall with a vacant gaze. It seemed important somehow. She crawled toward it as a symphony played in her head. Focus said the internal monologue. Damp. The cracked skin of her palm brushed the wall, coming away moist. She stared at it in satisfaction, and then she licked it. She could have laughed at how stupid it was. There was water here, right here and she’d die without finding it. The laughter was still there as she traced the dampness down the wall to a crack in the tiled floor. She scratched at the tile, seeking purchase.
“Why don’t we find a stick?” suggested someone in her ear.
She focused. Her bleeding nails dug into the old stone and her shoulders popped as she prised the tile away. Left in its wake was a mucky pool, where water had seeped in through the foundation. To Yllen it was an oasis.