The Desert King: Chapter Twelve

Author’s Note: Okay, so the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 have been a lot busier than I expected. I’m working on this story and it’s getting fixed (I like it a lot better than even when I tried to rewrite it in 2010), but it’s going slower than I hoped. I hope you stick with me even if it’s taking a while. There’s a good reason for it, though. I’ll have a lot more releases in 2022 than I did in 2020 or 2021. Happy reading.

Chapter Twelve: Heir to the Banarahn Throne

Every step was agony.

Terim’s lungs burned, his joints ached, and his stomach cramped from lack of food. Blisters seared his feet with each step, and his pack, though it had grown lighter over the days, weighed down his back like stone. His face had become chapped from the icy winds coming out of the mountains, and every muscle hurt to move from sleeping on the ground in the cold.

He’d emptied his water skin the day before and he hadn’t found more. But the footprints shimmering in the wind-swept scrub kept marching onward, and he had no better choice than to follow them.

This is a wild goose chase, his father’s voice echoed in his head.

If you really loved us you would’ve stayed, Matrica’s voice added to the chorus.

You’re a liar. There’s nothing there, Majir’s voice taunted him.

You’re all right. I’ve found nothing but shimmering footprints…

The words should’ve instilled him with defeat and fear, but he was just too tired, hungry, sore, and thirsty. He remembered he was doing something, going somewhere, but his mind couldn’t find the motivation or purpose, and he stumbled to a stop.

Where am I going?

No answer came back to him, and even the wind seemed to howl, I don’t know, I don’t know…

He swayed, searching for the footprints ahead of him, but everything grew blurry. He tried to take another step forward, but his feet had grown too heavy to lift and wouldn’t move. Blackness crowded the edges of his vision and he dropped to his knees.

I gotta keep going so I can see her again… What? See whom? A vision of a woman in ornate armor, reaching for him. The same woman he’d seen in his dreams when he was a child. Now she held out her hand to him.

He tried to reach for her, but the blackness rushed in on him and he had one last thought.

Who in the world is she?


“Sweet gods, he’s collapsed!”

Kulastri launched off the rock where she’d been enjoying the late morning sun on her back and bolted down the hillside. She didn’t look back to see if Zorrick followed her.

She’d watched the man she knew as Vishnu in the previous world make his laborious way up the foothills below, wondering what was wrong. He’d moved slowly and carefully as if carrying a great weight, but he didn’t have much more than the pack on his back and his clothing.

His steps had slowed down until he came to a halt at the top of the hill, swaying unsteadily. Then he’d dropped like someone had yanked his soul from his body.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

The forest was sparse, the spaces between the trees a good twenty feet at least, but they grew tall and wide enough to provide some shade from the harsh southern sun. She sped through them, taking only enough care to make sure she didn’t trip herself on roots or rocks. She skidded to a stop beside the downed man and immediately set to unloading him from his gear.

Zorrick appeared beside her and grimaced. “What do you think’s wrong with him?”

“He’s gotta be dehydrated. I wish you were more useful and could fill up his water skins or carry his gear up the hill.” She rolled the man over and nodded sharply at the face she recognized as Vishnu’s. I knew it would be him.

“Yeah, that’s the thing about being a ghost. You’re pretty much stuck drifting in everything.” He spread his hands and grimaced.

“Fine. I’m going to carry him back to camp. Keep an eye on his gear while I’m gone.” She lay down beside the unconscious man and pulled his arm over her chest.

“What are you doing?” Zorrick raise an eyebrow. “He needs help, not you napping.”

“I’m not napping.” She growled before she rolled to her side, hauling the unconscious man over her shoulder so she could use her legs to hoist him up into a fireman’s carry. She staggered to her feet under his weight with a grunt. “I’m carrying him.”

“Whoa.” Both eyebrows went up on the prince’s face. “That was impressive. Where did you learn that and how come you never taught it to me?”

She groaned as she started up the hill. “You never needed to learn it because you’re about the same size as this guy and could pick him up on your own. It’s a trick for smaller rescue people.”

“Yeah, but it would’ve been so much easier.” Zorrick crossed his arms over his chest. “I’ll just wait here and watch over his uninteresting stuff while you carry him to camp.”

“Good.” She rolled her eyes and kept going.

It took her a while to get the dead weight to where they’d set up camp, each step harder than the last. Finally, she knelt and rolled Vishnu-that-was off her shoulder and propped him up against one of the boulders under their tarp. She grimaced at his chapped lips and sunburned skin around his eyes, the only places he’d left uncovered.

Yeah, that’s gonna suck when he comes out of this.

She used her blanket to secure him upright and hoped he wouldn’t slide down into an ungainly lump while she was gone.

“All right. You just rest here for a bit while I go get your things. We’ll start getting water into you then.”

Kulastri wasn’t sure he could hear her, but it was rude to say nothing.

Oh yeah, and I’m totally known for my manners.

She rolled her eyes as she trotted back down to the gear left behind. Zorrick had remained, true to his word, but he stared down the hill the way Vishnu-that-was had come, his eyes narrowed. She waited for him to say something as she loaded up the pack, but he remained silent.

“Everything all right, Zorrick?”

He frowned and nodded slowly. “Perhaps. I thought I saw something way down in the lowlands…” He stared a few moments longer before he shook his head and shrugged. “Could have been a trick of the light and shadows. How is our charge?”

“Not great. We need to get water into him somehow. Let’s go.”

He didn’t immediately follow her, but she shoved her unease aside and headed back up the hill. She didn’t have time to worry about what might be coming when she had to make sure the man who’d arrived survived his first night with her.

Zorrick easily caught up with her—Yeah, because he’s a ghost and doesn’t have to adhere to the same laws of physics—but he held his silence until they made it back to camp. Kulastri set down the pack and hurried to Vishnu-that-was’s side. His breathing was even, but exhaustion pulled his features taut.

She wet a cloth from her gear and washed his face to clear away the grime of travel. She grimaced at the sunburned skin, hot under her hands, and tried to remember if she still had any sun salve left.

“Do you recognize this man?” Zorrick’s voice surprised her after being alone with her thoughts for so long.

“Yeah.” That was the truth, though she’d have to be careful how much she revealed. “I saw him at the village herding the goats while we waited. I can’t say I’m surprised that he’s the one to follow the trail. He seemed the most interested in me without being belligerent.”

She speculated on Vishnu-that-was for a moment, then tilted his head back and poured water down his throat until he coughed and sputtered to life.

“That seems rather rude,” Zorrick remarked, but relief wreathed his features as he watched the younger man struggle to awareness.

Kulastri waited, wondering what he would see. Would he see a stranger dressed in black, sinister and strange? Or would he recognize her from the previous world, an erstwhile mentor and companion?

The young man tried to hold his head up as he stared at her, and his mouth worked as if he wanted to say something. But his strength gave out and he slumped against her blanket. She didn’t let him lay there long. She grasped his chin with gentle fingers and lifted his head, forcing more water into his mouth. He coughed again but managed to swallow more than before. She continued to force-feed him the liquid until the water bag was empty and he had sunk back into the dark void of sleep.

“We’ll let him rest.” Kulastri grasped his pack and set it aside out of the way before she dug around in her gear for the sun salve. “Does he look like the guy in your visions?”

Zorrick nodded and settled on the floor near the fire pit. “Yes, he’s the one. Do you think he’ll make it?”

She nodded as she smeared some of the salve on the man’s cheeks. “He just needs rest and water. I’ll make soup tonight to get more water into him. Please take some time to lure some game into my traps today. We could use the fresh meat.”

Zorrick sighed and rose. “Oh, all right.”

They’d learned on their travels that animals could see or sense Zorrick, and he could drive them either into the traps or coax them there. It had helped when she needed extra protein and fuel while traveling.

Zorrick disappeared into the forest and Kulastri closed her eyes for a moment to release some of her extra tension. The wind teased the edges of her head scarf and made the branches above wave like saints giving blessings. The scent in the air indicated the progression of the year into autumn and she suspected they’d have a storm in the next couple of days. She shot a look at her camp and considered the virtue of finding a cave for shelter.

Might be wise given his dehydration.

The leaves on the trees already showed the bright colors of fall, waving against the blue sky like a banner.

Yeah, a banner of warning.

The weather could turn frigid on a breath in the mountains and their current camp was too exposed to keep them from freezing in a storm.

She rose and surveyed their gear. For the most part, it was contained and easily moved, but she needed a place to go before she packed up. She glanced down at the heir to the Banarahn throne, wondering if she could leave him.

Where’s he gonna go? It’s not like he wasn’t looking for you.

She snorted and bit back a grin. He’d need water, so she grabbed the water skins and trekked across the hillside to the stream still flowing out of the rocks. They’d been lucky to find a relatively flat and protected spot close to water, but she worried about securing real shelter when the weather turned. She filled the water skins quickly in the frigid water and stoppered them before returning to camp.

“I’m going to scout for a new camp.” She spoke aloud to the sleeping man against her blanket and pointed at him. “Don’t go anywhere.”

She snorted at her own joke and headed higher into the hills. What she really needed was a place large enough for two people, a fire pit, and their gear. True, she had her tarp to extend cover, but it wasn’t the same as a real shelter.

You can always build one. There are enough trees and branches.

She nodded to her own inner voice as she scouted for suitable places among the craggy hills. She didn’t want to get too far from the lowlands where game was more plentiful, and she needed them to be close to the water source.

And while I’m wishing, might I have soft bedding, an enclosed latrine, and a pony?

Fortunately, her search yielded at least the shelter in the form of a cave large enough for her needs. She entered cautiously, sniffing for recent scat of the larger carnivores such as Cloud Cats and Stone Bears. Neither species welcomed the human element into their territories, and she didn’t want to kill one when she and the heir were merely visiting.

“Find something?”

Kulastri damn near jumped and hit her head on the ceiling of the cave. She spun around with her daggers in her hands before she recognize the prince’s smirking form leaning against the entrance.

“By all the deities, don’t do that.” She scowled at him as he grinned. “And yes, this place will work well for a new camp.”

He frowned. “Why are you moving camp?”

She eyed the space again, noting a good, protected spot for a fire pit. “Weather’s coming. I can smell it in the air. I’d rather we have a decent shelter before it gets here.”

“Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” He nodded and clapped his hands. “Welp, you better get to work. That stuff’s not going to move itself.”

She rolled her eyes as she headed out of the cave. “Stay here and make sure nothing decides to make a home of it while I’m gone.”

“Yes, mom.” He rolled his eyes, but the humor quirked his mouth as she made her way back to their original camp.

It took her the better part of the day to move everything and everyone to the new location, but it was worth it as clouds built in the west and the wind picked up. She’d managed to get the tarp repositioned and harvested a few herbs for the soup before the weather really set in. Zorrick made snarky comments the whole time, but at least he’d done what she asked and filled her traps with game.

She spent that last hour before the rain gathering up wood and kindling for the fire. If they were going to last out the length of the storm, she wanted to be ready so no one had to go out in the weather.

At last, she retreated into the cave just as the rain shifted to snow.

Zorrick shivered as he surveyed falling flakes. “Glory, it looks cold out there.”

Kulastri snorted. “It is cold.”

She tended the fire until it heated her rocky retreat before she checked on Vishnu-that-was. He breathed deeply and evenly, which told her he’d needed rest as well as water. She’d woken him after she got him to the cave to get more liquid down his gullet, but he’d lapsed back into sleep when she’d finished.

“Do you think he’ll wake up more tonight?”

Kulastri shook her head. “I don’t know. He seems strong, but dehydration is dangerous. We’ll just have to see.”

She eyed the new Banarahn heir with speculation. He was taller than she remembered, and thin, but he hadn’t been overly chubby when she’d known him in previous worlds. She’d have to feed him more to build up his physique and strength. His face lay slack, hiding anything playing through his mind. Did he dream while recovering? His eyes lay still so she couldn’t tell.

Black arched brows overshadowed half circles of his sooty lashes against the slopes of his high cheekbones. A gently sloped nose pointed to a generous mouth edge with thin lips and laugh lines. The smudge of a five-day-old beard crept along the line of his jaw, over his chin, and beneath his nose.

“He’s handsome, isn’t he?” Zorrick stared down at the younger man. “I mean, he couldn’t compare to me, but he’s got that tall, dark, and handsome thing going for him.”

She snorted. “I suppose he’s handsome enough. I’m sure there will be many Banarahn residents who will be taken with his good looks.”

“But not you, Kulastri?”

Was that an edge in Zorrick’s voice? She shot him a look with raised eyebrows, but she couldn’t read his expression.

“No, not particularly. I’m here to train him, not to love him. Or not to love him more than as my king.” She shrugged.

Zorrick narrowed his eyes. “Are you sure? This isn’t you denying your heart out of duty?”

She shook her head as she turned to chopping up vegetables for the soup. “No, I don’t have that need in this life.” Her job was to train him to be a king, and a Traveller, not to admire him. “I’m content as his mentor rather than his lover.”

Zorrick frowned but didn’t say anything else as she continued to cook some mushrooms, potatoes, carrots and spices to make a savory stew, enough to feed two for the next few days. The afternoon and evening progressed slowly as the weather grew worse and the snow thickened. The tarp kept the worst of it out while the smoke drifted into the path of the wind to be snatched away.

He did not wake that night, but she kept a fitful watch over him and the fire anyway as the weather raged outside. She wondered if he would recognize her for the thousandth time. What had happened to him in the years they’d been apart? Tightening her lips, she cautioned herself to be patient as she settled down to wait.

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