Richard and Ana are on the run.
As a young soldier, Richard led a rebellion that installed the King's sociopathic Magician as the new regent. Now, after years of watching his comrades vanish into the dungeons of Stonebridge Castle, Richard has fled the kingdom with his mute daughter in tow, escaping into the desert wastes where magic still boils in the clouds and demons walk the dunes inside the bodies of men.
The Magician isn't far behind, and he's brought a pet: the Culling, an undead stitched-together tracking dog with a taste for blood. But Richard has his own weapon, stolen from the Magician himself: the calcified heart of a demon, which he hopes to trade back to its original owner in exchange for sanctuary. What he doesn't know is that his daughter, Ana, is far more valuable than the stone. She was the last piece in the Magician's grand weapon, and he'll tear the desert in half to get her back...
Century of Sand is the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy that follows Richard and Ana as they chase down legends and battle to stay one step ahead of the Magician. Murderous warlords, a priest with a dark past, and creatures torn from Richard's nightmares lie between him and salvation.
For this one, it was the setting. I was intrigued enough by the premise of an old warrior on the run with an uncooperative girl-mute in tow, but it was the oppressive landscape that captivated me. The heat and sand and dehydration were almost palpable—enough to make the drama of the army that pursued them almost secondary. (Read the full IOD Report.) – Jefferson Smith
There's something about Australia that seems to bring out the true creativity in its indies...
While not written in the same flowing unchaptered frontiersman style as Cormac McCarthy's masterwork "The Road", this story carries the same feeling of fatherly protectiveness, of helplessness, a xenophobic vigilance against the unknown dangers of a foreign wasteland. Fleeing an enigmatic enemy known only as the Magician, the weathered fugitive hustles his increasingly strange daughter from town to town, clashing with a revolving cast of leering highwaymen and proud bedouin.
Richard and Ana's tale has that special something that makes Australian indie so imaginative and commanding of attention. It also has the lyrical cadence and tight, locked-inside-the-head scope of a book that should have been published before the invention of the Kindle, a legacy fantasy epic that belongs between Lackey and Jordan... If you're a fantasy fan, you would be denying yourself a real treat by skipping this one.
Century of Sand is nothing less than a triumph of well-crafted storytelling. It succeeds on several levels, boasting elegant prose, entertaining adventure, well-drawn characters and a consummately developed fantasy world.
...the real star of the show is the relationship between Richard and Ana. A major theme of the book is Richard's failing as a parent, and Ana's innocence (which works in contrast to the darker aspects of her nature) as a possible redemptive agent. Their relationship is subtle and touching... Ruz does an excellent job communicating some of the horrible paradoxes of love and frustration that come with having a child.
The prose is polished and honed, with barely an extraneous sentence or word to be found in its 400+ pages. If Ruz puts the same amount of shine on the next two books of his proposed trilogy, then readers will be in for a treat, once more of them discover this diamond in the desert wastes.
...There is a story within a story here. A soldier and his mute daughter travel across a desert landscape to find an ancient power to protect them from their pursuer. The soldier has stolen two precious things from the Imperial Magician: a demon’s heart and his own daughter who’d been in the Magician’s very questionable care.
The prose is riveting and the descriptions rarely detract from the action or add more than is necessary. Yet everything is conveyed in a vivid style and you get a real sense of place and mystery as events unfold. The desert lands where they seek sanctuary are bleak and unforgiving.
These scenes where Richard and Ana encounter the scattered tribes run by warlords, mad priests and wary strangers are my favorite parts of the book. The bond shared by the two characters is well-developed and their sense of urgency is palpable on the page. The action is swift and brutal and the atmosphere is perfect.
Century is an excellent example of how self-published works can easily meet or, in fact, exceed traditionally published standards. The book is well worth your time and I’ll definitely be downloading the sequel, The Ragged Lord and eagerly waiting book three.
The old man's robes were heavy with blood and dust. The girl hung limp in his arms, and he whispered to her, "Hush, Ana, hush," even though she made no sound. She was heavier than he remembered, and he had to let go of his sword to drape her arms around his neck. Her eyes were closed but he knew she wasn't sleeping. She'd never been that deep a sleeper, not even as a newborn.
It was night, and the sky was swept over with thick grey clouds. Ice crusted the path from Stonebridge Castle to the great gates. It was the coldest spring the old man could remember. He glanced over his shoulder at the castle. Torchlight flickered behind the windows of the Magician's tower. He couldn't remember whether he'd left a torch burning there.
He shivered, but not because of the chill.
Pebbles crunched beneath his boots as he approached the gates. The guards waiting there saw the old man coming and raised their lances. "Sir Richard-"
He waved them down. "Albern and... Faulk, isn't it? Keeping warm?"
"Sir," Faulk said. "You can't be out so late. Magician's orders."
"I won't be long," Richard said. "Caught this girl climbing the wrong wall. I'm putting her out before the dogs get her."
The first guard, Albern, lowered his lance. "We thought we heard cannonfire. Trouble in the castle?"
"The same as always. The Magician's probably making gold out of air again. Last time he tried that, half the east wing collapsed. You remember?" A bead of sweat ran down Richard's temple. He forced a smile. "If he asks, don't tell him I came this way."
"He said..." Richard swallowed hard. Again, he looked back at the tower, and the lights wavering behind the glass. "The girl was stealing apples. The Magician says he wants poachers strung up, but there's no need for that. I'll set her right."
Albern nodded. "Not a word." He stepped aside, and Richard swept past, clutching the girl tight to his chest. The guards saluted and Richard nodded to them each in turn. He walked fast, head down and shoulders hunched. In his arms, the girl mumbled and kicked out, then fell still.
He was halfway through the gates when Albern called, "Sir Richard!"
He stopped. His heart punched against the walls of his ribs. He took a deep breath, and let it out. "Yes?"
Footsteps echoed in the chill night air. "Are you hurt, sir?"
Richard spun. He looked Albern straight in the eyes. "What?"
"There's blood all over you. If she's hurt you-"
"She wasn't alone," Richard said.
Albern squinted beneath his helmet. "I don't-"
"Her father was with her," he said. "I'll allow a girl to steal a few apples. Not a grown man."
Albern's eyes widened. He ducked his head. "Of course. Stay well, sir."
Richard hurried on. He passed through the gates and out into the tangled alleys of the capital duchy, and soon he was only one shadow among many, pressed against the brickwork, his face hidden and his footsteps muffled. The girl in his arms was silent. He stroked her matted hair back from her face and whispered, "I told you I'd come back for you. A father never forgets. Sleep. Sleep."
Her hands curled into little fists against his chest. Her breath was warm against his cheeks.
They crossed the border five weeks later, passing from the eastern kingdoms into the great western desert.
There was no wall or fence to mark the edge of the kingdoms. The soft soil had turned to rock and the rock turned to sand more than a hundred miles back, and for nearly a week Richard had been sure they'd already crossed from the country of his birth into the wastelands. Then he saw the wooden sign propped outside the town of Posmir that read, Blessed by Father Hirn and his Holy Magician Eflyn in 3061 by order of King Bastax The skin of civilisation is stretched thin and Posmir is the last defence blessed is King Bastax blessed is the Daughter, and he knew they'd reached the threshold.
Posmir had no gates and no guards. The streets were sand and the houses white-washed mud-brick. All the windows were shuttered and the doors barred. In the distance, to the north, the air above the dunes shimmered like oil on water. Somewhere a woman laughed, high and shrill.
Richard kept one hand on his sword as he led Ana through the empty streets. She stared, mute, at the tall white tree overhanging the path, and the noose swinging from the low branches. Richard shuddered and tugged Ana along. "No time for that, now."
The girl didn't reply. Her gaze flitted from the rooftops to the dirt between her feet to the vultures circling on the horizon. Spit collected at the corner of her mouth and she made no move to wipe it away. She stumbled in the dirt, and Richard hauled her to her feet. She was limp in his arms.
The town well was capped and weighed down with stones, and Richard shifted them off carefully before lowering the bucket into the pit. It came up dry. He licked his lips, feeling out the places where the skin had split, and thought of the path ahead.
He knew the names of the places he had to go: Kaswah, Gail, and then north to the ant tower. The names were all that remained of his old mentor's stories. Commander Parkin had left no maps or instructions, and past Posmir all he could do was follow the turns of the earth.
He resealed the well. "No water till sundown," he told Ana. "I know, I'm thirsty too, but-"
In the distance, a horse nickered. Horseshoes clicked on stone.
Richard took a long, slow breath. He felt the waterbags hanging inside his burnouse – one near full, one near empty – and thought about how much his feet hurt, and how much distance they could cross on horseback. He thought of how Ana's eyes were already yellowing from thirst.
He looked over his shoulder. The square was empty but for Ana and himself. He held a finger to his lips, but if Ana understood she made no sign. He took her hand and led her into the alleys, following the noises.
At the end of a street they found a grey horse tied to a sapling. The horse was slat-ribbed and dry-eyed and its mane was a patchwork of hair and sores, but its legs looked strong. The street was bordered on one side by mud-brick houses and on the other by a low stone wall, and when Richard peered over the wall he saw only an empty garden, dry dirt hoed into neat rows. There were voices somewhere beyond the houses, two men speaking in guttural tones. Dim, scraping words.
He crouched behind the stone wall and fumbled with the knots. The horse was tied by the bridle, and the leather was dry and hardened by the sun. His fingers ached as he worked the thong free. Ana sat beside him in the shade, eyes wide and curious.
The voices on the other side of the wall were coming closer. Maybe the owners of the horse, or natives passing through. He pulled at the knots frantically; he didn't need to understand their language to know what they did to horse thieves in this town.
He whispered, "Ana, we might have to run."
She turned to watch the passage of a vulture, wide black wings beating against a cloudless sky. Her burnouse hung in tatters around her ankles and her forehead was cut where she'd fallen against a stone. For the tenth time, she pressed two fingers to the cut. Her fingers came away bloody.
Footsteps echoed on the other side of the wall. Richard pressed against the stone and held his breath. He listened to the low crunch of sand beneath feet, the whisper of tunics in the wind. Two men, coming closer. He closed his eyes and whispered a prayer to the Risen Daughter, and pulled hard.
The knots came free.
He waited, one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other holding tight to the horse's bridle. The footsteps stopped. He slid one inch of steel free and tensed, ready to spring. Sweat ran down his brow and into his eyes.
One of the men coughed, and the voices moved on. Richard counted to one hundred before he stood, knees popping one after the other. The horse pulled away from his touch, and he stroked behind its ears, ran a hand down its forehead, across the wide, blunt sweep of its muzzle. A mare, thin from life in the desert, bald patches across her ribs. No saddle, only a blanket thrown across its back and a bandolier of canvas pouches hanging from its flanks. Even so, she'd serve.
Ana was creeping along the wall, following the receding voices. Richard grabbed her by the arm and hauled her back. "On the horse," he whispered, "get on the damn-"
The girl squealed, wriggling and striking out, and her fist caught Richard across the nose before he managed to pull her close and muffle her cries against his chest. She kicked and scratched at his neck with ragged nails. There was shouting in the distance, and Richard threw Ana over the back of the horse and climbed up after her and kicked it in the ribs.
The horse bucked. Richard wound his hands into its mane and kicked again, and this time it took off at a gallop. Ana wriggled and wailed in his arms. They passed the walls that marked the edge of town, the white tree with the twisted limbs and the noose swinging in the wind, and went out onto the wide sands of the great western desert.
He glanced over his shoulder. Dark men stood at the gates, swords in hand. One was putting an arrow to a longbow. After that, he didn't look back. The sun was high and the way ahead was clear.
Ana quieted after a while. The steady pounding of the horse lulled her, and Richard whispered in her ear. "Ana," he said. "I didn't mean to scare you. Can you hear me? I love you. You know that. Ana, don't do this. Look at me. Look."
She didn't reply. Her little hands clenched into fists, and she twitched, as if chasing a rabbit in a dream.
They rode together, into the glare of the noon sun.
The town vanished behind the dunes. Ana was asleep in Richard's arms. The horse was tiring. It foamed from the mouth and he patted the mare's neck, scratching beneath the wiry hair. "Good horse," he whispered. "Not much further."
He took the full waterbag from beneath his burnouse, twisted the cork free with his teeth and drank deep. The chill in his belly made him shiver. He snapped his fingers before Ana's eyes. "You want a drink? It's cool enough now that you won't sweat it right out." When she didn't respond he pressed the waterbag to her lips and tipped it up. Water ran in streams from the corners of her mouth and down her chin. Richard cursed and corked the waterbag with shaking fingers. "Can't even drink right. What good are you?"
Ana twisted to look over her shoulder, and Richard found himself unable to speak. She looked so much like her mother, in the right light. The tangles of her faded hair. Her eyes, impossibly bright, impossibly blue, as if she held the entire sky inside her head.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean-"
The twang of a bowstring carried high across the dunes, and Richard threw himself sideways, pulling Ana tight against his chest, shielding her body with his. He didn't see the arrow fly past but sand puffed up in a cloud on the slope ahead. Someone far behind called, "Kareo!"
Richard dug his heels into the mare's flanks and the horse sprang forward, galloping up the dune and down the far side. There was shouting behind them, angry cries. He thought of the noose hanging from that twisted white tree, and gripped the horse's mane in both hands. "Come on!" he shouted. "Hup! Hup!"
The mare snorted and spat foam and tried to pull away, and he drew his sword and lashed the horse with the flat of the blade. The dunes distorted the echo of hoofbeats, until it sounded as if the riders were approaching from all sides. When Richard glanced over his shoulder he saw a flutter of cloth over the crest of a dune, a headscarf flapping free in the wind, but nothing more.
He urged the horse on. In the distance was the shadow of a ravine, cold white stone twisting through the dunes like cracks in chapel glass. Another arrow purred overhead, and he heard the slick noise of swords being drawn from scabbards. The sand angled down, and they rode into the ravine.
Cold stone on all sides. Richard whispered to Ana, "Hush, hush." She was silent and still in his arms. From behind came the high click of hooves on rock. He pressed himself flat against the horse's back, Ana squeezed between his chest and the rough tangle of the horse's mane. His heartbeat echoed in his ears.
The ravine split and wound about. They followed the path where the air seemed sweetest, and Richard patted the horse on the nose, whispering in its ear. The rock turned to soft sand beneath the mare's hooves, and the voices faded into the distance. The slope edged up, towards the light.
They left the ravine behind, Richard kicking the horse until his heels hurt. The riders shouted in their grinding tongue, voices magnified by the twists of the ravine, but they were far behind, and soon their anger was swallowed by the wind.
They pressed on.
It was near evening when they found the shelf of stone, a wall of granite hidden from the southern approach by a tall dune. The horse staggered to a stop, and Richard dismounted, hauling Ana down and setting her in the shade. He scratched the mare's neck beneath the thick mop of its mane and tickled behind its ears. "Long ride," he said. "Did as well as any warhorse I ever rode."
Ana fell on her haunches and made a keening sound like a dog driven mad by heat. He took her hand. "Thirsty now? Wait, wait just a moment, here-"
It wasn't until he reached inside his burnouse that he realised the waterbag was gone. The empty one still hung shrivelled from the straps across his chest but the full waterbag had fallen somewhere along the way, perhaps in the ravine, or after the first arrow whistled overhead.
He checked the bags strapped over the horse, but the only things inside were a handful of small gold charms and a roll of parchment tied with string. He spread it flat on the sand; a map, the winding mountains drawn in slashes of brown ink, the towns tiny dots. Ana crawled beside him, licking her lips. He couldn't look her in the eyes. "There's an oasis," he said. "Somewhere west of here. See? You can drink then. It..." He turned away from her pleading eyes. "You'll be fine."
Whip-quick, Ana wriggled a hand inside Richard's burnouse and came out holding a paper packet. The tack, all they had left to eat. He snatched it back. "Don't you understand? It has to last." He buried the tack deep in the folds of his robe, beneath his telescope and bags of powder and the demon stone. Ana tracked every movement. "You want to eat?" he said. "You have to make do. That's the soldier's way. Watch."
A spiny bush grew in the lee, speckled with red, wrinkled berries. Richard had never seen fruit like it before, and plucked a handful, rolling them around in the cup of his palm. Ana crept over, curious, and he pushed her back. "Never eat anything out of the ground," he said, "unless you know it's not going to kill you." He held one berry up to the sun between thumb and forefinger. Thin tendrils crawled through the centre of the soft flesh, like veins.
He crushed the berry, rubbed it on the inside of his wrist, and waited. No itch, no rash. He balanced another berry on the end of his tongue. Sour, but not bitterly so.
He swallowed. With his legs crossed, he scattered the rest of the berries in the lap of his burnouse. Ana reached for them again and he slapped her hand away. "Wait."
She pulled back, eyes half-lidded, like a cat eyeing a snake in a bush. "Damn it," he said, "I'm not doing it to be cruel. If the berries are bad..." He held out his hand. "Come here. Sit. I'm not going to hurt you."
She crept across the sand and crouched by his side, but he could see how she was tensed, ready to jump to her feet and scurry away. He took her hand and massaged her palm with the pad of his thumb. "You remember what we spoke about?"
If she understood then she gave no sign. He let her hand drop and patted the crown of her head. "Ana," he said. "That's your name. Ana. Can you say that?"
Her eyes were unfocused, pupils huge, as if there was simply too much sky to take in. She made a clicking sound in the back of her throat, and nothing more.
Richard lifted her hand and placed it on top of his own head. "Father," he said. "Richard. I know you can speak. Say it. Say my name."
Ana didn't meet Richard's gaze. He sighed. "You were supposed to be the brightest. The very best. That's what he said." He kissed the top of her head. "I won't let him take you. Not again."
He counted on his fingers as she fell asleep. Two days spent creeping out of the capital duchy. Two weeks hard ride after that before they reached the edge of the capital duchy and passed into the fiefdom of Kamiah, where anyone resembling an alchemist or wizard would be quartered and hung from the nearest tree. Five days walking between the border towns of Snowden and Tarakech, where their horse had collapsed of exhaustion in the middle of the street. The Magician's soldiers had almost caught them there, snatched Ana right out of his arms, but he'd been faster. Then six days walk to Posmir, and the border. Or was it seven? It was the twentieth day of Cards, at least. Which meant-
Pain tore a thin line through his abdomen, and he had just enough time to shove Ana aside before he vomited. He coughed and spat and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand; it came away red. He hoped it was just berry juice and not blood. "Risen Daughter," he whispered. It felt as if he'd swallowed glass.
Ana watched as he buried the rest of the berries in the sand. "Sorry," he whispered. His throat rasped with every word. "Can't get it right every time." He held out the paper package of tack. "Eat it," he said, and when she didn't respond he prised her fingers open and pressed the tack into her hands. "Eat it, damn you. I'm not hungry."
She stared blankly. Richard sighed. He took a strip of tack from the package and pulled her jaw open with forefinger and thumb. Only when the tack was on her tongue did Ana begin to chew. "Twentieth of Cards," he said. "Do you know it's your birthday? Close enough, at least. When I was eleven, I was... Well. Not here. A different time, I suppose. Different King." He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "My girl," he whispered. "What did he do to you?"
Ana worked the tack with her back teeth, swallowed, and smiled. He watched her until the sun went down behind the dunes.
In the morning Richard buried the horse's droppings in the sand and held Ana's head still while he brushed the sleep from the corners of her eyes. He sang to her, a song about long marches and all those good men left sleeping in the dirt. When he was done he kissed her on the forehead. Her skin was dry and flaking.
He let her ride the horse. He'd never taught her how but if she was scared she didn't show it; she sat bolt upright, swaying with the mare's exhausted cant, guiding it with her knees. "Big horse for a little girl," Richard called to her. "I'll buy you a pony one day. When we return to the eastern kingdoms. You'd like that."
Her eyes flitted back and forth, scanning the horizon. Richard took the telescope from beneath his burnouse and watched the distant dunes, but nothing moved out there. "Someone coming?"
She might have nodded towards the north. Perhaps she was only jolted forward by the mare's jerking trot. But this time, when Richard squinted through the lens, he saw the black shapes. Riders, four or more, tall in the saddle. They had no banners, but sunlight glinted off their helmets.
He pulled the horse down the slope and dragged Ana off its back, dropping flat in the sand with her in his arms. She squirmed and squealed and bit at his fingers when he covered her mouth. The riders were moving west, although it was hard to tell through the glare and the heat haze rising from the dunes. Maybe the Magician's men, maybe soldiers sent from the town, hunting for horse thieves. He hoped it was the latter. If it were the Magician's troops...
His hand crept instinctively to the vial around his neck. Something bubbled inside, yellow and viscous. He pressed his thumb to the cork, ready to pop it free. One swallow for him, one for Ana. His other hand clenched tight around the demon stone, buried deep in the folds of his burnouse. Was it too late to give it back? Or would they insist on taking the girl, drag her from his arms, leave him without water in the middle of the great western desert to wander and go mad from the heat?
After a long time the riders moved on, the shimmer of their helmets falling behind the dunes. Richard brushed the sand from his burnouse and spat between his feet. "He wants you back. We need to be more careful. Bastard might put down traps. Talk to the vultures, send them hunting for us." He glanced up, scanning the skies, but the air was empty of clouds and birds alike.
"Come on." He hauled Ana up. "I want to find this oasis before sunset."
By noon he could make out a spark of colour in the distance. Through the telescope it became drooping palms, branches hanging like broken fingers. The water beneath was impossibly blue. At the back of his throat was the memory of saliva.
He turned back to survey the sweep of desert they'd crossed that morning. Nothing moved on the horizon. The ridges were still.
He called to Ana but she was absorbed, picking at the horse's mane. She pinched something between forefinger and thumb, and before Richard could stop her, put it in her mouth. Then she screwed up her face and spat.
"I told you," Richard said. "How many times? Don't eat anything I don't give you."
Ana cocked her head, and for a moment he was certain she was listening to him. Then she squeezed the horse with her knees and trotted down the slope.
Their footprints were already filling. He followed her down the dunes, into the sun. The breeze was a rasp across Richard's cheeks and his tongue was dry. The oasis grew from a distant shimmer into something solid. When they were less than a mile away he made Ana wait behind a dune while he inspected the trees through the telescope; fat leaves and bunches of dates, brown and swollen. The water beneath was glass.
Seven trees, seven shadows. He counted twice. No man was thin enough to hide behind those trees. The oasis was safe.
The last hundred yards were the worst. The smell of water was dizzying, and the horse pulled against the reins, desperate to drink. Richard tied the horse to a palm and sprinkled a thimbleful of green powder across of the water. The powder spread and sank. The water didn't turn red. No poison, no rot.
He stripped. The sun tingled on his skin, the hollow of his chest, the puckered scars down his left arm. His shoulders clicked as he threw off his burnouse. Old bones. His joints ground like gravel. On his left hip was the sword, a scimitar he'd taken from a dead man. He dropped it in the sand, along with his pouches of powder, the telescope, his bandolier of throwing knives, his oil-flask and the vial of poison.
The last thing he set down was the demon stone. It was the size of his big toe, translucent, the colour of amber flecked through with rust. He had it wrapped in leather and bound with silver chains. Sometimes it hummed against his chest like a little bird. He didn't know exactly what it was, but more men had died for it than he could count on both hands, and the Magician would add him to that list to get it back.
Naked, burning in the sunlight, he fell into the water. Ana watched silently from the edge of the oasis as he drank, splashed water beneath his arms, scrubbed his teeth with one finger. Then he motioned her in. She came tentatively, wincing at the cold, and he held her against his chest as she kicked and spat water in his face, stretching her bare toes out to reach the silty bottom of the oasis. She quieted in time, and he washed her hands, rubbing the dirt from the creases of her palms with the pad of his thumb. He ducked her beneath the surface and tousled her hair. The dirt floated from her temples in clouds.
He filled his cheeks and blew bubbles at her, hoping she'd laugh, but she only stared over his shoulder at the trees, watching the slow sway of the fronds. He whispered her name. "I love you," he said, "my child, I love you." She never met his gaze.
He dried off in the sun before refilling their single waterbag. The trees were easy to climb, and he came down with a bunch of dates bigger than his head. They ate together in the shadow of the palms.
"No food like this back home," he said. "Trader came to Stonebridge Castle, once. He sold these. Ate myself sick. You be careful." He spat a pit into the centre of his withered hand. "Long time back."
As the sun set, he took the bandolier of throwing knives and draped it over his left shoulder. The blades were as long as his middle finger, the handles wide and flat. He drew one of the knives, held it loose between his thumb and first two fingers, and snapped it out with an overhand throw at the closest palm tree. The blade stuck, but only just, and pain shot through his wrist. He cursed between his teeth.
Ana was nearby, watching intently. "Used to be able to split an apple from thirty yards," he said. "Could stick one of these through a man's eye. I could do it now, if I wanted."
She didn't speak. If not for the wind flapping her burnouse against her legs, she would've been a ghost.
It was the steady beat of hooves on sand that woke him. Richard rubbed his eyes, mapping out the skein of stars, the moon hanging low and bloated in the west. Far above the dunes came the clink of steel. He knew that rhythm. The clatter of buckles and bridles.
He grabbed Ana up from where she lay and carried her over the dunes. "Stay," he hissed, pulling the leather cap from the telescope. The horse had pulled free of its tethers and wandered away during the night; maybe they'd followed its tracks back? The sands to the west were black with shadow, but he could make out grey shapes against the horizon.
Two riders, faces shrouded, eyes hidden behind veils. They wore no helmets and carried no banners, but that didn't mean they weren't the Magician's men. He'd hired Meritran soldiers many times before, gathering them from the temples and the souks. Richard shucked free of his pouches, the throwing knives, the waterbag. Lighter was better. He drew his scimitar as quietly as he could. From where he lay, he could see the whole oasis, the seven palms, moonlight slick on the water.
The first of the riders dismounted by the water and drank from his cupped hands. His companion waited beside him, watching the dunes, one hand on his horse's bridle and the other on his sword. The man by the water said something in his grating tongue, and laughed at his own joke, but the other didn't reply. His fingers twitched, and Richard's did the same.
He inched sideways to where Ana was laying and held her hand. Then he saw her feet, and ice ran down the nape of his neck.
She was only wearing one sandal. He peered over the dune. There, by the waterline, half buried, the heel jutted from the sand.
Without taking his eyes off the two riders, Richard found his pouches and sorted by feel. A pinch of penneir spice along his left index finger, catalyst and exigent in the cup of his left palm. He waited for the men to turn, to ride away. He hoped.
The second rider began a slow circuit around the oasis. He kicked at the sand and spat, and as he approached Ana's dropped sandal Richard found himself unable to breathe. But the man passed by without looking down. He returned to his companion and whispered in his ear. The two men filled their waterbags and returned to their horses.
Richard exhaled. He was about to tip the powders into the sand when he saw what the first rider was unstrapping from his horse. A shortbow, a quiver, and a curved dagger in a leather scabbard.
The two men split, one heading left around the oasis, the other to the right. They prowled like carrion birds, on their toes, taking long, silent strides. Richard wriggled down into the valley between the dunes. He hissed for Ana to follow but she was curled on her side as if sleeping. "Please!" he whispered.
She turned to look at him with wide, dazed eyes as the first man came over the peak.
It was the bowman, already putting an arrow to the string. His teeth were black with soot and his cheeks tattooed with little black circles like the eyes of spiders. He saw Ana first, and he grinned as he brought his bow up and sighted down the length of the arrow.
Richard ran, calling Ana's name even as he clenched his left hand into a fist. The penneir spice met exigent. Heat bloomed in the palm of his hand. The rider turned, eyes wide, and Richard threw the powders into his face.
The man fell back screaming as the powder ignited. Green fire licked across his lips. He fell to his knees, his burnouse a sudden blaze. Flame guttered from the ends of his fingers. He bucked and wailed.
The second man came at a sprint, sword up. He was silent as he crested the dune and silent as he came down the other side, and it was all Richard could do to block in time. The impact ran up his arm and into his chest and for a moment his sword was jolted from his fingers. Old joints creaked and flared. He swung out wild and the raider ducked away, dancing across the sand.
His sword slipped in his hands, and he fumbled for the hilt. Another flicker of steel. He ducked, feet tangling in his burnouse. The first man had stopped kicking and the air was filled with the stink of burning hair.
The raider pressed in. The fire reflected in the curve of his iris. Richard dug his heels into the sand.
He saw, in the shadows, Ana picking up his bandolier of throwing knives and setting it over her left shoulder. He shouted for her to run.
She moved in a blur. There was a whistle of steel and the raider stumbled, twisting, as if trying to scratch an itch between his shoulderblades. When he fell Richard saw the shimmer where the throwing-knife had sunk in.
Ana leapt across the dunes and she and the raider collided, tangling, shrieking. Her head snapped back as the raider brought his knee up into her chin. She grabbed at his sword and wrestled it free. Steel rose and fell. The raider's heels dug trenches in the sand.
It was over by the time he reached them. Ana knelt across the raider's chest, sword in hand. She pressed the blade into his throat, harder than Richard thought possible with those porcelain wrists. Blood splashed up Ana's arm and across her chin. It soaked thickly into the folds of her burnouse. Both her hands were red to the elbow.
He touched Ana's shoulder and she spun, lips drawn back over her teeth. There was blood across her gums.
"Ana," he said. "Are you hurt? Did he cut you?"
Ana stood. A bubble of blood rose on the dead man's lips. She bent to clean her blade on his robe, inspected it, tested the edge with her thumb.
"Did he cut you? Show me!"
Slowly, she raised the edge of her burnouse. There was a single line of blood along her belly, rising up to her chest. Barely more than a scratch. Richard felt dizzy with relief. "Thank you," he said, "thank the Risen Daughter-"
Ana raised her hand to her lips and began to lick the blood from her fingers.
Morning came early. There wasn't time to bury the bodies. The burned man was reduced to teeth and hollow staring sockets, jaw hanging open in agony. Richard shrouded him with what remained of his robes. It was a mercy to cover his accusing stare.
The raiders had whetstones in their pockets, salted strips of goat meat, and sword-oil. The first raider's bow was singed along the edges and the string had broken, but it was otherwise intact. The dagger was folded steel of fine workmanship. He took it all.
Ana watched as he emptied their pockets. He tried not to meet her eyes, wary of what he would see.
The raider's horses had waited by the trees the entire night, trained to a fault. They didn't shy away when Richard brushed their noses and went through their saddlebags. Empty waterskins, more goat jerk. Spare lengths of gut for the bow.
"We can't wait here," he said, tightening the straps on the saddles. "The Magician might be a week behind, might only be a day. Are you ready to ride?"
Ana spat and picked at her teeth. There was blood dried under her nails.
"Listen to me," he said. "You can't trust this land. The desert is godless."
She didn't reply and Richard eventually lifted her into the saddle. There was a township marked on the map, somewhere north. If the horses came from there, they could find their way back. Maybe he'd find someone with answers. Someone who could stop the Magician, or could point them to the creature who'd owned the demon stone once before.
They started north, faces hidden behind the cloth of their robes. The vial around Richard's neck jangled against his collarbone. Far above, a vulture croaked a litany.