Chapter sixteen: A deadly paradox
The grief and guilt that encased Xarthanias’s mind fell away as he helped repack everything. He wearily accepted that it was time for him to step up and be a leader, since they had to make double-time to make up for the hours of travel they had lost that almost added up to a day. They didn’t have a day to spare; they barely had a few hours. They had to be at the Port in five days, and even then it was only to beat the worst of the storm season. He still had his doubts about the Volcanic Belt, and feared that any lapse could have them trapped there indefinitely, so extra time they could stockpile could end up saving Despartus.
Then there was the matter of the water. After a quick inventory, Xarthanias found that they had enough water and shagar to last no more than two days even if they were careful. Water for the horses, wine for the riders. He considered leaving behind Covah and Fang to save the rest, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. Fredric had loved Fang, and Covah was a good military horse.
Xarthanias took an experimental swallow from the river in his cupped hands. Immediately he gagged it up again, the scathing water burning its way up his throat. Not only was it caustic, it tasted horribly rotten and smelled faintly but sickeningly of spoiled milk. They had counted on the river as their water source until they reached the woods around the area of the Volcanic Belt, and this lifeline had been severed. He didn’t know what was wrong with the river, but there was no time to brood over it; motion was their only lifeline now. He wouldn’t let Belladia check his back anymore. He didn’t want to know.
See that chest…Either we try or we all die, there’s no way around it.
Hopefully they could find the strength to push on even when the water and wine ran out.
Chimley was still at large. None of them wanted any breakfast, so it didn’t take long to break camp. After securing their supplies they took off at a fast trot, following the river and calling Chimley’s name. The scrub trees didn’t look like a pleasant place to spend the night, but they found Chimley lounging in one a few minutes up ahead. He watched their approach and then dropped down, effortlessly matching their pace. He looked better-rested than the other three but said as little.
The endless prairie offered no solace from the beating sun that dried their cracked and patchy skin. It leached the water right out of them as if they had no skin at all. Away from the coolness of the Falls, the air itself emitted insufferable heat. They dismayed to see their sweat dripping off, precious water that they couldn’t save, and the river teased them with its deceiving clarity. To be so close and so thirsty and yet so unable to take one swallow was a new kind of torture. The cloudless blue sky cackled at them malignly.
If we drink what we need, Nolle mused after a few hours when the sun was high in the cerulean sky, we will run out before we even reach the Belt, but if we don’t, we will be going so slow we will run out before we get there anyway and never make it to Port Aghyml in time. There was no way to win. They tried to compromise by sipping their wine only to wet the insides of their mouths. Anguished by the impossibility of their circumstances, Xarthanias finally brought Shimmer to a stop. The horses seemed to be faring better than the humans, even if they were doing most of the work. Chimley, also, didn’t seem much worse for wear, and his skin seemed to not have perspired a single drop. No one wanted to look at him. Despite the heat, Xarthanias flipped the hood on his cape to block the stabbing light of the sun.
There must be a solution! he cried, essence flaring in frustration. Whether we slow down or keep going, save our water or use it, we are going to die. Either way we dehydrate. Do you think we could survive by our teeth if we just drink the water and push on the last couple days without it? he asked desperately.
Belladia shook her head slightly. In this heat? No.
What, then? We can’t not make it. Failure isn’t an option here, yet there’s nothing we can do.
Shoulders sagging, Nolle placed a hand on his brother’s head. There’s something we can do, Xarthanias. We can keep going.
Though it pained them, they nudged the horses back into their trot, and they continued on through the blazing heat. Horrifyingly, it was only the first day alongside the river.
Xarthanias remembered such desperation a few summers before, during a rare and devastating drought. There were usually no discernible changes in season in Despartus, the weather almost always balmy with rains and storms interspersed through sunny days, the conditions usually perfect to keep the lands verdant and lush. The first drought in Xarthanias’s lifetime came when he was twelve. Everything, in Despartus and many of the surrounding kingdoms, dried up, most of the vegetation turning brown and the rivers shrinking to less than a tenth of their original sizes, leaving cracked beds in their wakes. Though the wells didn’t go completely dry, there wasn’t enough water to waste on the gardens, and the colourful flowers and trees wilted into brown dead things. Eventually, the hunger set in, as nothing was growing anymore. Early, crisped crops were harvested when there was not a drop of rain for five weeks, and the stores in the pantries grew meager and then disappeared. Some of the people angrily accused the King of hoarding food that they needed so desperately, but the royals felt the devastation just as surely as the peasants. Uprisings and revolts were rampant. The animals had moved on after four months, and there was nothing to hunt. It was amazing, the power of water. Without it, the whole world stopped; it was life, every aspect of it. It formed clouds that could save or destroy with mercy or fury. When the first drop of rain fell after more than a year, the precious storm moved the entire country to tears. The sky cried with the people as they were refreshed, rejuvenated, and revitalized, and though they had little food they celebrated with song, dance and games as a small festival in the square. Every year from that day forth the third day of the fifth month was the Rain Festival.
Xarthanias didn’t think that five hours without water was enough to kill them, but they all felt as though they were on the brink. Is there any way we could filter the water? he wondered to his companions a half hour after they had resumed their journey. The river glittered with exasperating innocence. They had walked on and on, the Larentac becoming nothing but a slight rise on the horizon behind them. Still all to be seen was scrub grass and scrub trees and the infuriating river.
Of acid? Nolle gritted his teeth. No.
Plod, plod, plod. Why don’t I run ahead and see if there’s any water, so you can see how long you have to spare it?
Xarthanias glared at Chimley of the perfectly fresh skin and hair windblown from running. Running! And not breaking a sweat, not a drop, not a bead. Yes, Chimley, why don’t you do that. Chimley winked and smiled, and was off. He vanished over the horizon, ten minutes later.
That’s odd, considering we are going downhill, commented Belladia, staring after the place where Chimley had disappeared.
Maybe we’ll be going up a hill, Xarthanias replied snappishly, wiping a damp hand over his steamy forehead. Who cares, Belladia, as long as he finds water?
Xarthanias, don’t. Nolle shot his brother a warning glance. No one is in the mood for your attitude.
Whatever. Just keep going.
Wine was hardly the remedy for thirst, but it was the remedy for frustration. Nolle felt lightheaded, as though the heat had turned his mind into steam. A persistent headache was emerging, and under his hood it was like he was slowly being broiled to death. High noon approached quickly, and the rotten smell from the river that Xarthanias had described permeated the air, growing more potent with each minute.
Sulfur, Belladia told them, coughing at the same time that Nolle did. Is that not toxic? Xarthanias gazed at her with cool spite, head tilted to the side.
Right. Putrid air, exactly what we need. An odd look crossed his face and he tried to stifle a cough of his own, but was unsuccessful. He glared at them and turned away, coughing again.
Belladia and Nolle exchanged a shaded glance. Without another word they angled away from the river and Xarthanias, leading Covah and Tiger Fang with them, until they could no longer smell the sulfur. The river was still within sight, and Belladia and Nolle laughed at Xarthanias’s spluttering face. Finally, he followed them, glaring daggers that were nothing in the blazing sun. Belladia rode on Nolle’s left, shielding herself from Xarthanias’s rage.
Careful, Xarthanias, you might combust, Nolle cackled, sharing another chuckle with Belladia. Coolly, Xarthanias stared straight ahead.
The joke evaporated in the sun, and once again they were silent.
Nolle wondered about his home. They were still in Despartus, technically, but this land was alien to him. The Harvest Festival would be coming up soon, and he was disheartened to know that he would miss it for this journey of perdition. If Fredric and Osarius had been there…but Nolle would not let that thought blossom in his mind. There was plenty at hand to ruminate over without mourning, too. Tonight, the loss would hit him again, but for now he had to focus his energy on…what? Going straight ahead with nothing to keep him company but his thoughts? This current leg of the journey was fraught with monotony, and Nolle missed his woods. The infernal humidity and searing headache scattered his thoughts, and he wondered that it would never end.
Focus on staying sane, he decided, though he wasn’t sure how he could do that. The heat penetrated every inch, making its home inside of him and demanding all his attention. His dry mouth, his tingling fingers, the suffocating dampness of his light white shirt screamed at him to drink, drink, drink! He wished for a small breeze, or better yet, a thunder storm like the one three days before. He would sacrifice the chest a thousand times for a drink of water, just a small sip, let the whole kingdom be blasted with Queen Avalinia’s wrath for just a cup—
No, he rebuked savagely, I didn’t come all this way just to give up and hand over my kingdom. I am no better than Xarthanias if I think like that. This, also, upset him, for he didn’t like to think of himself as better than Xarthanias, since thinking he was better was what Xarthanias did; he just knew that Xarthanias could rarely see the bigger issues at hand, and was ordinarily disinclined to worry about more than whether he could afford a day of truancy to go to a party or festival. Xarthanias was irresponsible, and crass, and lazy, and—
Come on, Nolle, surely there’s more to think of than that. The plea fluttered away almost instantly, but he dragged it back and forced himself to find something to occupy his thoughts.
At the moment he wished he were back at Rolo Palace with its icy uniformity and frozen beauty. He had found the perilous excursion invigorating, reveling in the chill in his fingers and tingle in his face. And now, he ached for it with a longing like physical pain.
Xarthanias had been different, then, too. He was usually never temperamental, always coolly disinterested in some way or another. If the three days of travelling so far had changed him in this way, maybe he would change in other ways too. Nolle could only hope.
In the distance, Chimley was running back toward them almost an hour after he had left. Instead of mocking himself with thoughts of the Ice Island Nolle had resorted to reminding himself that every minute of torment was another minute closer to sundown. He tried not to think of the hundreds of minutes he had to get through. They had stopped four times thus far to give the horses a drink, and their morale sunk proportionally to every lost inch of water and wine.
The wide smile on Chimley’s face was like a mirage.
Well, I may be hailed as a hero! he told them as he pivoted to run with them. His hair was pasted to his forehead and water dripped in his eyes.
Did you find water or not? Xarthanias demanded scathingly, ignoring the obvious answer.
Chimley wiggled his eyebrows and shook his hair, splattering them with achingly cool water; they almost attacked Chimley in their momentary, blinding delirium. I did. A day away, at your speed.
A normal person’s speed.
Would you rather I be a normal person or one who brings good news?
Xarthanias bared his teeth and looked away, shutting himself off again. Riding forward, Belladia reached out a shaking hand to touch Chimley’s glistening wet hair. He tensed, moving away, and she stared after with forlorn desire.
Belladia, you can almost drink how you want now, Nolle reminded her, taking a large swallow of his wine. By this time tomorrow, we will have water!
She nodded, taking a sip from her own flask, and made a face. I’m so tired of wine.