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Phil Emery is a British writer who lives in Newcastle. This story originally appeared in the British magazine Nightfall.

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Exodus Over Mara

by Phil Emery


     We began to move at dawn. It's only firstnoon and already the train is stretched too far. We may lose the stragglers but I can't afford to slow the pace. We must reach the next water-hole before the second sun climbs to its zenith. Our water reserves are virtually gone and we'll not be able to travel far after morning. Even now the wind rises, preparing another storm. The desert constantly reminds us of its name.
     The Demonwind.
     I look back along the line. This two hundred or so men, women, and children are all that remain of Jastor's citizenry. Their steps are sluggish with despair and pity for themselves. I force harshness into my voice as I call for more speed.
     Go on, stare your anger at me, but if you want to drink today move!
     A pity we're not like the Zuls. Those desert reptiles can go twenty days in this heat without a drop. And how those long hind-legs and flat wide hooves stride the sands. If we had more of them we could ride to Dunesedge and the forestlands beyond, but there are only enough to carry water, supplies, and tents. The water barrels are nearly empty and the supplies will not last the journey across Mara. Then we'll have to start slaughtering Zuls -- and that will mean carrying less water between water-holes. At least with the barrels so light I've been able to place the weaker on Zul-back: those too young, old, or sick to maintain this pace.
     Dereth passes me on a Zul. Leaving Jastor has broken the old man. He, for one, will never see Dunesedge. The look he gives me is full of that knowledge. It's a look I've seen too many times on this exodus.
     Why did the Augurs of the Holt Tribes choose me for this? And why did I come? I don't know. In my twelfth year I broke away from the Dwellplace of my tribe and fled to the deeper woods, not understanding why but accepting my need to go, searching for something even then. Only after another twelve years did I return. And why did I return when the Council's summons had no power over me? I have no answers.
     They sat before me in the Meethut, fifteen wizened men and women, one from each tribe of the Holtfolk. The place stank of their age.
     "The Council honours you with a mission, Talen of Ravenholt," said one.
     "I'm no longer of Ravenholt," I replied.
     "Keep silence!" snapped a second. I hardly heard the third as I fought my anger.
     "You were little more than a child when you forsook your tribe, yet even children know of the Sundering." All eyes turned to a hag who was easily the most aged member of the assembly. As if a signal had been given she began to drone.
     "The fore-sires of the Holtfolk dwelt far to the south in twenty-one cities. They were built lovingly in a land called Anborean, which means 'Whisperer' in the old tongue. It was a place of soft breezes and green plains. Anborean never knew cold rains or harsh winds. There is no word in the old tongue which means storm.
     "Then part of our golden, gentle sun wrenched itself away and became a second sun, a white burning exile in the sky. Anborean became arid and little would grow. The plains turned to desert. Vicious windstorms lashed the cities. Six of them were battered to ruin. Then strange grey clouds began to roll across Anborean. They drifted over the enduring cities carrying an incurable plague. When the clouds drifted away and the dying had ended only six cities held life. Then came the Sundering.
     "The grieving survivors gathered at Jastor, oldest and largest of the cities. Here many spoke bitterly and sadly and decided to journey northward in search of kinder lands. These were the fore-sires of we Holtfolk, for they crossed the desert and came to these forests. Those who remained were only enough to people a single city and so Jastor was chosen to live amid the corpses of its twenty cousins.
     "From that time the land was no longer called Anborean, but instead Mara. The Demonwind."
     The woman had finished, but the Council appeared lost in their own thoughts. The quiet stung me into a retort.
     "I know all this!"
     The one who had spoken first spoke again. It was not a reply, just a continuing of the ritual of Council bestowing a mission. It didn't matter what I knew or didn't know. They would observe the ritual, worn into their old brains like a rut in an ancient track.
     "Although many lifespans have passed we are still kin to the tribe of Jastor. Now they must leave their city and cross the desert as did our fore-sires. The Augurs of Jastor have sent word. The plague clouds will soon return."
     He paused and for a moment there was silence again. But this time I didn't speak.
     He went on. "It is our duty to send a guide to lead them over Mara, one who knows the skills of wayfinding and survival in the sands."
     "I don't."
     "The Holtfolk still possess the journals of the first exodus. The knowledge is there and may be learned. Our own Augurs have studied the sky omens and chosen you."
     Why did they pick someone linked to the tribes only by birth? Why did I come? Perhaps to find in the desert what I hadn't found in the forest? But what is there to find in a desert? There's so much I don't understand.
     While these thoughts have passed me so has most of the train. All the faces say the same things.
     How many will die today?
     Shall we all die?
     You came too late.
     You failed us.
     It's true. I was too late. I knew that when I first caught sight of Jastor and saw the grey clouds above her. I knew walking through her empty streets, hearing the crackle of fires burning bodies. So many fires. I knew that night when I spoke to the survivors in the city's Meethut. It was a vast thing of stone and glass. It would've held a populace of thousands. Yet the assembled people were only a few hundred. Even then the look was there.
     You came too late. You failed us.
     One of the Zuls has halted. The one that pulls Hanos' litter. Unable to walk for two days, this morning he became delirious and had to be strapped down. It isn't the plague, the last victim died on the third day out, but the dying continues. There are fevers carried on Mara's winds. As if the heat isn't enough.
     As I come closer I can hear Hanos' cries, weak as they are. His family is gathered around hiding him from view. They see me coming and let me through. Kerelle is there. She kneels beside him and dabs the sweat from his face.
     I force myself not to return her look, fixing my eyes on Hanos. My awareness of her nearness seems to thicken the parched air, making each breath even harder.
     Hanos is dying. I no longer deny it to myself. He shakes continuously. Less violently now, but that's because he's so weak. His father, his mother, his sisters -- they wait for me to speak, to say something to help them lie to themselves. I've no skill with words. I walk away, fighting the urge to run.
     Kerelle voices the question the others want to ask. "He can't survive this pace, Talen. Can't we rest?"
     I don't turn around as I call back:


     The winds have been cruel today. They caused the children to cry -- some of the women also. The men hung their heads and I think some of them cried too. We lost old Lod and Rela, his second wife. Talen searched for hours, out alone in the worst of the storm that sprang up, though he knew better than anyone how pointless it was. For a time I was afraid we might lose him too, and what would happen to the rest of us then? Only he knows how to survive out here, how to find those rare water-holes. Lod was my uncle. I suppose I should mourn him but so many have died on the journey. I can't seem to feel as I should.
     One of the babies died. Von, Cyann's child. Not that either of them lacked food or drink, even though supplies are low. Talen saw to that. But Cyann is so slight, so weak, and Von was so small. I think I hear Cyann. The wind carries her sobs between the tents. The winds are lesser now. They dropped after nightfall.
     Hanos died today. Who would have thought? Young, grinning, long-striding Hanos. Talen was fond of him, though I doubt Hanos knew it. Talen didn't cry -- he never does.
     He comes through the flap of his tent now. He's not surprised to find me here, I've come before on other nights. Sometimes he sends me away like a child although I'm the same age as he. Sometimes we talk of the journey, of my life in Jastor. And sometimes if he lets me I talk about how I feel about him.
     But tonight he just ignores my smile and moves to the glow of the brazier I've just fueled with dry Zul-dung. Talen's mouth is small and almost delicate, yet he pulls down the corners into a pretence of callousness. The eyes that stare at the hands he holds up to the warmth are grey, though at times they seem to become darker. They're like that now -- heavy with anger and sorrow. The anger is solely for himself -- he's lost four lives today. As for the sorrow, perhaps that too is for himself. I don't know. I wonder if he does. I try to remember when I last saw light grey laughter in those eyes. Talen never laughs with his mouth, only his eyes, and even this he tries to hide.
     I move to him slowly, carefully, and lay a hand on his shoulder. The muscle is like rock, hard with tension. His face snaps around. A tired face. I don't know when he last slept. Straightening up he jerks away from me.
     We both stand without moving. The word didn't hurt. The word is meaningless, a trickle of pain spilled from his mouth.
     He goes back to the tent flap, turns and looks at me. His lips part, perhaps wanting to say something well-crafted, something gentle. Yet nothing comes, and the lack of words is full of meaning and hurt. He passes into the darkness outside, letting the night wash over him and insulate his pain from me.
     For maybe the first time I feel real anger toward Talen, but I'm also afraid.
     I'm afraid of the night.
     There is a dream I sometimes have. In it I take Talen in my arms and crush him to me, squeezing darkness from his body as diseased water from sponge. But after the darkness has gone there is nothing left to hold.


     Why didn't she shout now, throw something, anything? Anything to make it easier for me to just turn away and run.
     I want to run, like on so many other nights in the forests. Sometimes I'd go until I dropped, the air whipping against me and my lungs sobbing with the effort. Running without knowing if I was running to or from something. Running until I hurled myself into a nausea both jagged and liquid. A nausea to drown thoughts and feelings, submerging a vague pain beneath a physical one.
     I want to run now. But instead I walk slowly for the water-hole, while the winds drift and murmur like far-away mourning over the desert. The watches don't see me even though two of the three moons are waxing. The brightness makes them complacent and they pick tunes on seven-stringed quords.
     I kneel by the pool. It reflects my form. The form's hands reach up and my own reach down to meet them but meet only water. I lift dripping palms up to my neck. The water trickles onto my shoulders while the music of the quords trickles through the air. The playing is skillful, expressive, gentle. My hands hold no such skill. Yet without me they would all die.
     Their need frightens me. I don't want the care of their lives. Why did I come? I still want to run -- turn into the night and not return. But somehow I know if I run this time I'll run forever.
     Mara's winds begin to freshen in preparation for the dawn as I scour my hands for something not there.


     Two things pass into the tent with Talen. The first is a gust of wind, reviving for a moment the brazier which has cooled like my anger. The second is relief. Every time Talen leaves my sight part of me wonders if I'll ever see him again.
     I can't be sure in the dimness.
     I stare at his face disbelievingly.
     Talen doesn't cry.
     His mouth opens and a word forces itself out.
     Then fear brushes against my relief and I remember nightmares. But I've waited for this. Wanted it. Of all the questions inside him this is the only one I can answer. I take his hands and pull him close, put my arms around him, and squeeze.