The Desert King: Chapter Fourteen

Author’s Note: Okay, so this serial has NOT gone to plan. Have I been writing? Yes. Have I been working on this story? Er, sometimes. And more often now that a few other projects are off my plate. Three new releases coming soon! Plus this new chapter. Happy reading.

Chapter Fourteen: Tests of Strength

“So…he seems nice.”

Kulastri trapped her bark of laughter behind her tight lips. She couldn’t very well tell the prince to shut up, even if he was a ghost.

“Oh, come on. Not even a crack? Damn, I need to work on my delivery.” Zorrick heaved an exaggerated sigh and narrowed his eyes. “You kind of glossed over the reason for my death, though.”

Kulastri shook her head. “I didn’t want to scare Terim so much he won’t come with me. He can walk away right now, and we’d have no choice but to let him. If he knows he’s walking into a lion’s den full of intrigue and death threats, he’ll be out the door and headed back home before we could say squat.”

“You’re not going to tell him?”

She grimaced. “Not for a while. Not until he’s ready to face some of the threats.”

Zorrick sighed. “There are a lot of them.”

She nodded. “I know.” She tilted her head to look up at him. “He didn’t seem to see you, though.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. But I also didn’t let him see me, either.”

She blinked. “What? It’s a choice?”

The prince had the grace to look chagrinned. “Yeah, I figured it out the moment he opened his eyes. There was this sensation of choice and I picked no for now. Like you said, I didn’t want him to be out the door and headed back home before we could say squat.”

Kulastri snorted. “Then I need to prepare for us to move tomorrow. Are there more rabbits in the traps?”

Zorrick sighed. “Yes, Mom.”

“Good. At least you know who deserves your respect.” She headed out to collect the animals and skin them. “Keep an eye on him while I’m gone. I have to get the camp ready to move tomorrow. Hopefully with enough to eat and drink he’ll be able to carry his own gear. I can’t carry it all and you’re no help.”

“Hey, I’m making sure you’re eating well at least.” Zorrick set his hands on his hips. “That should count for something.”

“Oh, it does. More work.”

“Hey, Kulastri?”

Something in Zorrick’s voice made her pause. “Yes?”

“Keep an eye out. Your boy in there isn’t the only one who came this way. Someone’s following him.”

“What?” She reversed direction and returned to the ghost’s side. “Where?”

Zorrick turned his gaze to the lower foothills. “He doesn’t show himself much, but he definitely followed Terim. He wears the same clothes as the people of the village. I don’t know what his intent is or why he’s here, but Terim didn’t come alone.”

Kulastri narrowed her eyes as she scanned the hills below. “Do you think Terim is aware of the pursuer?”

Zorrick shook his head. “I doubt it. That kid was half-dead when we got to him and the guy following him was still too far away to be partner of any kind.”

“Do you see him at the moment?”

Zorrick shook his head. “No. But I suspect he’s waiting for you to either leave the area or settle in for the night.”

“Hmm.” She narrowed her eyes. “I’m going to clean out the traps and collect them. Give me a shout if our follower reveals himself.”

He nodded. “Will do.”

She didn’t waste time. She headed through the trees to the traps she’d laid out and collected both the prey and the snares while keeping an eye on her surroundings. Zorrick made it sound as if the man following Terim hadn’t been close, but she wasn’t taking any chances. Terim was still too weak to fight anyone and Zorrick couldn’t affect the living. It would be all up to her to defend their little party until Terim was trained.

She made it back to the cave in record time and sat out front behind the blind to clean the rabbits she’d caught. She preferred cleaning far from the cave to keep predators away, but she didn’t want to leave Terim exposed.

And we all know humans are the worst predators of all.

She collected the viscera and took everything a few hundred meters from the cave, keeping watch for anything moving. She saw nothing but it wouldn’t take long for some of the larger carnivores to scent her offerings.

When she returned, Zorrick stood leaning against a tree, his gaze focused outward.

“Do you see him?”

“No, but I know where he’s hiding.”

His blunt statement made dread pool in her gut. “He’ll most likely wait until tonight to make a move. I’ll tighten down the blind to hide the fire’s light.” She scanned the lower hills. “Does he seem to be aware of our location?”

“It’s unclear.”

Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

She nodded and got to work preparing the rabbit meat for stew and drying over the fire. It wouldn’t be ideal given the time constraints she had, but it would have to do. Terim woke up briefly and ate some of the stew, but she cautioned him to rest as much as possible in preparation for their journey the next day.

Kulastri and Zorrick kept watch, but nothing approached the cave even as dusk darkened to true night. She banked the fire and settled in to wait, stretched across the mouth of the cave. She didn’t know the intent of the person following Terim, but her gut told her to be wary.

“Get some sleep, Master Warrior.” Zorrick nodded to her. “I’ll keep watch and wake you should you be needed. My gut says he’ll wait until you bed down to make his move if he chooses to do so tonight. Might as well sleep while we wait.”

She didn’t bother to argue. The prince wasn’t wrong. She check on the smoldering fire before leaning back against the cave’s wall and crossing her arms over her chest. She listened to the wind and the night noises, before closing her eyes and letting her body seek its rest.


Terim woke to find dawn just barely lighting the sky outside the cave’s entrance. He frowned. Why was the sky more visible than the day before?

The covering’s gone.

He sat up to find Kulastri packing up her gear and his with sure movements. He watched without a word until he realized she’d transferred some of his gear to her pack, including his books and water skins.

“What are you doing?”

“You’re awake. Very good. I’m making sure your load isn’t too much for you to carry. We must leave soon, and I don’t want to wear you down before you’ve started.” She reached for the blanket and while the cave retained some heat, he missed its warmth. “There’s some bread waiting for you, and you’ll need to put on your boots. We leave as soon as the gear is packed. How are you feeling?”

He frowned, trying to take stock of his body. “Better. Not exhausted.”

“Good. Eat and put on your boots.” She handed him the bread she’d mentioned as she continued to rearrange the gear.

Terim stuffed his feet into socks and his boots as Kulastri stacked up their dishes neatly together into a small bundle. She stowed them in her pack and rolled up the blanket, tying the roll to the base.

Once he’d tied on his boots, she handed him his heavier coat and stepped outside the cave, scanning the hills around it. Terim frowned as he shoved his arms into the sleeves.

What’s she looking for?

Before he could join her, she turned her attention to the open space around the cave. She cleared away any debris that showed their occupation before she returned inside and removed the rocks from the fire pit to the base of the walls. She poured water on the pit and thrust her hand into it to be sure it was cold, before rinsing off the soot.

“Are you ready to leave?” She fixed him with sharp scrutiny as she shouldered her pack.


She nodded once. “Good.” She handed him his much lighter gear and struck out for a trail up the mountain.

“Shouldn’t I take the heavier pack? I’m bigger.” He followed behind her, uneasy with their distribution of weight.

Kulastri snorted. “You’ve just recovered your strength from your journey here. You’re going to need all of it to make it another ten kilometers over rough terrain. If you’re weighed down, you won’t make it to our next destination.”


“Do you understand that women are full people?” She didn’t look back.

“Yes, of course.”

“Do you believe that women are equal to you in skill and expertise?”


“Boy, do we have a lot of work to do to fix that. Try to keep up. It’s a long hike today, given your lack of strength.”

Terim wanted to protest her dismissive response, but he found keeping up with her sapped much of his energy after only a few minutes. He followed her as best he could, taking the trail slowly. Memories of his trudging progress when he left the desert filled his mind and exhaustion sat just beyond the edge of his thoughts.

He plodded a long, his steps slow and heavy. He focused all his attention on his feet, trying to keep pace with Kulastri. The trail wasn’t difficult and given his life as a goatherder, he expected to move easily enough. But in his weakened state, it was torture of short breaths and agonizing steps continually upward.

Disgust and shame welled up, but Kulastri said nothing about it as they traveled. Her only acknowledgement was in the frequency of rest breaks they took along the way. Terim was grateful for her silence, but his chagrin remained.

After two hours, his legs burned and his breath came in gasps, though he tried to keep them quiet. When she called a rest break, he welcomed it like a homecoming of an old friend. She said nothing but the look she gave him spoke volumes to his endurance.

“Drink. It’ll help with the exhaustion and muscle strain.” She handed him a water skin and drank from another.

They sat for a few minutes and Terim thanked his lucky stars she didn’t make him hike immediately after. In fact, Kulastri seemed to be listening to something beyond his understanding as they rested. Every now and again, she’d nod and murmur something as if holding a conversation. He watched as she glanced off down the hillside as if searching for something.

“What are you looking for?”

She nodded once. “Just keeping watch. We aren’t the only ones traveling this way.”

“What?” He craned his neck to look down the hill, but he saw nothing but more trees and rocks. “Do you see someone?”


She said nothing more and packed up their water skins before waiting for him to get to his feet. He didn’t want to keep going, but Kulastri was relentless, and he had no other choice but to follow. They continued their way through the thickening forest as the sun traveled its path across the sky.

Terim had reached the end of his endurance when they stepped out of the trees into a clearing at the base of a huge rock spire rising at a sharp angle. Two thick stalagmites grew from the ground to just barely meet their compatriots descending from the roof of the spire, giving the impression of fangs in the muzzle of a great cat.

This must be Tiggar’s Muzzle.

The place sat in shadow as the sun rested at the edge of the mountains to the west, gilding only the tip of the spire. Terim leaned against one of the rock pillars with relief. He’d made it though it had been an ordeal. He wanted to let his legs collapse under him and sleep where he landed, and he almost did just that before Kulastri caught him by his pack straps.

“Come on, you need to be under cover before you fall into exhaustion.” She tugged him upright and dragged him into the lea of the rising rock. “Here. Get out your bedroll and set it out before you sit down. You’ll want to be comfortable because I doubt you’ll get up again.”

He nodded as he swung his pack off his back. The release from its weight restored some of his energy and he moaned with relief. Kulastri snorted as she set up their camp but said nothing else. He used all his focus to make sure his blanket lay spread enough to stretch out before he sat down.

He moaned again when his ass hit the dirt and he stretched out his legs before leaning against the wall.

“By all the gods, it’s good to sit down.”

Kulastri chuckled. “You’ve had a long day. I suggest you drink the last of the water in this skin and get out anything you want to use tonight because you won’t want to move in a few minutes.”

He frowned. “Drink the last of the water?”

She nodded. “I’ll be going to get more, and you’ll need to stay awake long enough for me to fill the skins in the stream. I won’t be gone long, but you need to keep an eye on our things.”

“Keep an eye on our things, right.” He waved to his sagging body, all his energy gone. “What am I going to do against anyone hoping to rob us? Moan at them?”

She blinked then grinned, and something stirred in his memory. She looked like someone he remembered, the grin so familiar and infectious. But he couldn’t grasp the meaning and it was gone too soon.

“You might be able to scare away any other predators like the tiggars for which the rock is named. I’ll be back soon.”

She disappeared around the spire before he could say another word, and he swallowed hard.

Tiggars? Here?

He’d of such animals living in the mountains, but he’d never seen one in person, and he hoped he wouldn’t have to that night. He didn’t think he had the energy to run from it much less fight it off.

Nervousness kept him awake until Kulastri came back with all the water skins full. His shoulders relaxed and he sighed with the release, unaware he’d been holding them so tight.

“Oh, good. You’re back. Everything okay?”

She tilted her head as she set the water skins down. “Were you worried for me, Gottherd?”

“What? Pfft! No, why would I worry for you? It’s not as if I’m too weak to defend myself.”

She laughed. “No, of course not. Forgive me for assuming.”

Her laughter warmed a spot in his chest and helped him relax more. “Is there anything I can help with to prepare our evening meal?”

She shook her head. “Not tonight. Just drink as much water as you can and keep me company. Tomorrow you should be strong enough to help me cook.”

“I think I’m strong enough to cut up vegetables.” He narrowed his eyes. “Unless you don’t trust me with a knife.”

She considered his words as she lit the fire and coaxed it into a healthy blaze.

“It’s not a matter of trust, Gottherd. You’ve gotten your second wind by sitting down and removing your pack. But exhaustion is a sly pursuer. It will catch up with you before you’re aware of it.” She shook her head. “Just rest and drink. Supper will be ready soon enough.”

He scoffed at her assertion, but by the time she’d prepped and cooked the thick stew, he kept his eyes open through shear willpower alone. He battled his lethargy, but the warmth of the fire and the sense of safety lulled him into slumber.

He woke to a tap on the shoulder and looked up to find her holding a bowl full of stew.

“Did I fall asleep?”

She nodded. “Come. Fill your belly before you take your rest.”

He nodded and forced his eyes to remain open as he ate, but it was an uphill battle. The spoon felt like a thick log, much too heavy for him to lift, and his eyes kept threatening to close. He managed to get most of the stew into his stomach and it beat back the exhaustion a little more. Kulastri joined him and they ate in companionable silence.

He was just about to ask her more questions about Banarah when she set her bowl aside and replaced the black silk mask over her face. It was odd—she hadn’t worn it all day. He opened his mouth to ask about it, but she rose to place her dishes near the fire with her back to him.

What just happened?

She used some of their water to clean her dishes then filled them again before turning to secure their packs. Something in the way she moved with quick and efficient motions made apprehension rise in his gut.

“Is everything all right?” He wasn’t sure why he whispered, but it seemed appropriate.

She shrugged as she set the full bowl on the far side of the fire then returned to his side to lean against the wall of stone behind them. She crossed her arms over her chest while her gaze rested on the darkness of the forest.

“Someone has followed us.”

Terim felt the blood leave his face as fear settled into his gut. He was suddenly no longer hungry or tired.

Kulastri said nothing more as she settled in to wait. They didn’t have to wait long, though it felt like an eternity to Terim, his heart pounding in his chest. He was in no shape to defend himself or her should bandits or thieves choose to attack them.

The light of the fire cast eerie shadows on the roof of Tiggar’s mouth and “throat”. Any one of them, given the proper imagination, could become an enemy. He shot a glance up at Kulastri, but she showed no emotion. He couldn’t tell if she was tense or worried, so he swallowed against his own unease and waited.

“Are you going to skulk in the shadows all night like a rat, or are you brave enough to face the light?”

Kulastri’s voice was loud in the silence of the night and made Terim jump. Who was she talking to? He almost asked but the answer came when Majir crept from the shadows into the light of the fire. He hesitated a moment before diving for the bowl Kulastri had left and wolfing down the stew like he hadn’t eaten in days. From his haggard and disheveled appearance, it was probably true.

Emotions flooded through Terim. Surprise, fear, anger, and guilt tightened his gut and he almost threw up the stew he’d eaten. How long had Majir been following him? Had Kulastri known the whole time? Was her trail left for Majir instead of Terim?

No, that can’t be. She said only the one meant to follow the footprints could see them.

So, Majir must have followed Terim.

Why the hell didn’t he help me when I damn near died?

“What are you doing here?” He couldn’t hide the cold anger in his voice.

“Followed you,” Majir mumbled between hungry slurps. “Wasn’t hard. You left a trail a blind man could follow.”

Terim raised an eyebrow. “Funny, I was sure you went up to the ruins first. Why would you need to follow me? You claimed to be the better man.”

Majir paused in his eating to scowl. “I am the better man. For Matrica and for this. I wanted to know what you were up to since you came back up after me. Looking for the treasure you thought I’d found?” He snorted and ate some more. “Since there was nothing there, I waited. When you headed north with a pack, I figured you’d lead me to the treasure you hid from the rest of the village.”

Terim shot a look at Kulastri. She tilted her head thoughtfully but said nothing.

“So, you just followed me? Without supplies or water?”

Majir shrugged. “I followed you and I can catch game and find water like anyone else. It wasn’t that hard.” His entire appearance belied his statement. “I figured you’d return to the village anyway, but you just kept on walking north. That’s when I realized you were going to meet up with someone who had the treasure hidden from prying eyes. The stranger who appeared on the ruins. And lookee here. You did.”

Yeah, after five days of hiking.

Terim gritted his teeth and pushed his anger down. “I don’t have any treasure. Neither does the stranger, who’s given you food and shelter without being asked. I’m just like you.”

“You’re nothing like me!” Majir slammed the bowl down on the rocky floor and pointed the spoon at Terim. “You never had to work for anything! You always had the eyes of the pretty girls, even when you acted all loony because of your weird dreams. They were dreams, Terim! Not messages from the beyond. You had everything handed to you on a silver platter and I got nothing. Even though I’m a thousand times better than you!”

Terim stared at Majir as he shook with starvation and anger. Did the younger man think Terim had it easy? He’d lost his mother and sister to disease, and his father treated him like a perplexing problem to be solved. Matrica’s flirting had been unwelcome. He hadn’t encouraged it, hoping it would wane as they grew up, but she kept on.

Kulastri said she came seeking me as the next ruler of Banarah.

But did it mean Majir was right in a few things?

Terim glanced at Kulastri again. Yeah, he didn’t think she’d make it easy on him once he’d reached his full strength. The gods only knew how far they had to travel each day and it had damn near killed him to get to Tiggar’s Muzzle that day.

Kulastri said a mind such as mine is meant for greater things than life in a little village.

Perhaps Majir’s was the same.

Except he didn’t see the trail of footprints.

No, he’d followed Terim. It didn’t mean he would be the next King of Banarah, but it could mean he was meant to do more than follow his father’s footsteps as the next blacksmith.

Terim dredged up all the patience he could muster. “Majir, listen to me. I left the village because I needed something more. I needed to learn, to travel, to see. There’s no treasure other than that.”

“You’re lying!”

“Enough.” Kulastri’s voice cracked like a whip and Majir flinched. “You’re tired, Blacksmith’s son. Set your bowl aside and get ready for sleep. You may stay here near the fire if you have no other camp. There will be time to talk tomorrow.”

Majir’s eyes grew wide and Terim followed his gaze. Kulastri stood far enough away from the throat of the tiggar to allow her shadow to tower over her like a vengeful god of darkness. Majir shrank from her powerful figure like a dog escaping its angry master before pushing the bowl away and laying down where he was. He shot Terim a withering glance as if blaming him for Kulastri’s reprimand.

Terim rolled his eyes and set his own bowl aside. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to Majir some more.

Kulastri picked up her blanket and settled it over Majir before collecting the bowls for cleaning. Terim opened his mouth to protest. Majir could have Terim’s blanket, and she should keep her own. But one look from Kulastri and his protest died in his throat.

“Rest, Gottherd. You’ll need it tomorrow.” Her voice was gentle and resigned. “I’ll keep watch tonight.”

“Are you sure you don’t need a blanket? You may have mine.”

She shook her head. “Tonight, you’ll need it more than I. The fire will be enough. Sleep now.”

He hesitated a moment longer. “If you’re sure.”

“I am. Get some rest.”

He nodded and settled, closing his eyes, courting sleep. Despite his earlier exhaustion, his mind wouldn’t stop churning.

Majir didn’t see the footprints, but what if he was supposed to follow them anyway? Is he gonna come with us from now on? Does he know Kulastri is a woman? Will I be strong enough to walk more than a few miles tomorrow?

Terim’s mind ran round in ever widening circles until his bodily exhaustion finally killed his restless thoughts.

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