Kreg, Kaila, and Shillond left Trevanta late the next morning. They spent the early hours loading the pack animals and finding a horse for Kreg. The horse, and provisions for the journey which would take a month, expended the last of Kreg's funds. When Kreg had asked about the amount they had been able to buy, Shillond had said that Trevanta so starved for coin that even small amounts could purchase a great deal. Even so, Kreg suspected that they had added to his funds from their own.
When Shillond suggested that Kreg give Kaila charge of his money and allow her to select the horse and conduct the bargaining Kreg happily complied. As she paid the proprietor of the stable Kreg examined her selection.
The horse was the biggest Kreg had ever seen, not that he had seen many up close. None, actually, except the nomads' small ponies. Kaila had said it stood about sixteen hands high at the shoulder and had measured out the width of her own palm to show him what a hand was. The horse's shoulder came to just under Kreg's chin when he stood next to it. A blaze of light gray on the forehead and white socks on the forelegs gleamed against its black coat. The horse's heavy hindquarters and broad chest made it look powerful even to Kreg's untrained eye and he guessed that it weighed nearly a ton.
“What were you thinking, child?” Shillond asked Kaila on seeing the horse she had chosen. “We are crossing the desert and you bring this monster?”
“Spells you know well,” she said, “but of horseflesh you know scarce more than Kreg. Despite its size, this horse is bred to dry climes and its size would suit one of Kreg’s stature far better than would one of the mountain ponies you prefer.”
“And how do you propose to keep that bulk fed on what the animals can carry?”
“Fear not, mage, for this horse is an easy keeper and will thrive on less food and drink than you might imagine. And no fool I, I chose the smallest of the type in the corral. He will serve us well, methinks.”
“All right. If you say so.” Shillond shrugged and mounted his horse.
From where she sat on hers, Kaila extended a hand downward to help Kreg onto his. They rode through bustling crowds, Shillond leading and Kaila in the rear, leading two packhorses and two other animals that Kreg had never seen although he assumed they were the local equivalent of camels. They passed through the gates and down the road toward the desert.
A carpet of stones, from small pebbles to fist sized cobbles, crunched under their horse's hooves as they walked. Occasionally a crystalline rock would catch the sunlight in a bright flare. Scattered tufts of twisted scrub provided the only signs of life.
"Is it desert all the way?" Kreg swept his hand along the horizon when they broke out onto flatter ground. The desert seemed to go on forever.
"Nay," Kaila said. "We travel ten days in desert 'ere we reach the Amber mountains. Eight days of march will see us through the pass, which the town of Elam guards, and into Aerioch. From thence we travel twelve days more to Norveth, the capital."
Kreg nodded. "I see."
The two weeks Kreg had spent with the nomads had made the desert almost familiar when compared to Trevanta. A lizard, interrupted in sunning itself on a rock, ambled out of their way. A mouse, digging at the base of a cactus, was the only other sign of animal life. At their approach the mouse ran for the shelter of a larger rock.
In time, Trevanta slipped below the horizon behind them. Finally, as the sun began to sink toward the horizon, they gathered the sparse scrub along their path for firewood. In the red light of the setting sun, they stopped. Shillond built a small fire while Kaila hobbled the horses and Kreg spread their bedrolls near the fire.
With camp thus set, Kaila took Kreg aside to continue his sword training. Unlike their previous day's workout, they did not spar. Instead, she had him defend against her attacks and attempt to deflect her powerful sword strokes. By the time Kaila called a halt, Kreg's wrists shook from fatigue.
The soft popping of the dying campfire formed a counterpoint to the distant yipping of coyotes as Kreg drifted off to sleep.
Kreg awoke the next morning with every nerve aflame. His wrists and forearms ached, but that was nothing compared to the agony in his backside and along his inner thighs. He groaned.
"What ails you?" Kaila asked. The corners of her mouth kept twitching upwards. Reflections of sunlight played in her eyes.
"Who took the hot iron to my muscles?" He sat up, voicing yet another groan. "I had heard about being saddle sore, but I never imagined...." He reached back to knead the knots out of his hips and down to the insides of his thighs.
Shillond chuckled where he sat tending the fire. "I expected that. Come, I have some steeped herbs here that will ease your pain and relax your muscles. We ride far today."
"Again?" Kreg sighed. "How do you guys stand it?"
Kaila laughed. "The time will come when you feel not a whit of discomfort," she said. "For the nonce, drink." She handed him a steaming cup.
He drank. The beverage had a faint, minty flavor, followed by a bitter aftertaste. True to Shillond's promises, he felt the pain ease and the knots in his back and legs untie themselves.
Three days later the carpet of stones ended, opening into a field of broken, hard-packed earth. The cracked tiles of dry ground surrounded them all that day and three more.
Kaila and Shillond knew the path well for sometime in each day they passed near either a water hole or a dry riverbed where some digging could produce a small temporary well. Kreg watched how the stock of provisions shrank and calculated in his head how that compared with the time it would take to reach the mountains and wondered if those provisions would last the trip. But he said nothing and trusted that Kaila and Shillond knew what they were about.
Kreg was riding a little to the side of Shillond and Kaila's path. His horse stopped, refusing to go further.
"What is it, boy?" Kreg asked. He squeezed with his legs, urging the horse forward. It stepped forward gingerly. The horse tossed its head, whinnied and again refused to advance.
"What’s the matter?" Kreg asked in frustration. The horse had not acted like this before. He drove his heels into its sides.
As the horse took another step forward, Kreg saw Shillond look back, "What's the problem?"
Again Kreg drove his heels into the horse's side. "This horse doesn't want to move."
Shillond's expression turned to one of alarm as the horse took yet another step forward. Its foreleg broke through the ground. The horse screamed and toppled, bursting through a thin layer of dried earth.
Kreg leaped, scrambling to keep from being crushed under the horse's weight as they both rolled down a short, steep slope. Air burst from his lungs as he struck the floor at the bottom of that slope. He lay for a moment to catch his breath before sitting up. He was at the bottom of a steep-walled pit. A thin shell of dried earth had once covered it and now lay in scattered chunks around him.
The horse lay behind Kreg screaming, a sound that sent shivers through him. He turned to look and saw the horse try to climb to its feet. As it put weight on one foreleg it screamed again and fell to its knees. It tried again with the other leg, and with the same result.
"Kreg?" Shillond called down, barely audible over the horse's screaming. "Are you hurt?"
"'Tis passing strange for this to have appeared since last we passed this way." Kaila looked around warily. "I like not the look of it."
"I'm okay," Kreg shouted. "It looks like the horse broke both front legs."
"Slay it," Kaila said. "You do it no kindness to leave it in pain to starve, or to be slain by some beast."
Kreg stared at the horse then looked up at Kaila, unsure what to do.
"You must." Kaila knelt by the lip of the pit. "Your horse is in agony. End its pain."
"Sorry, old fellow," Kreg said under his breath. He drew his sword then thought for a moment. Cutting the horse's throat would probably be the most humane way to kill it but he doubted he could hit it accurately the way the horse was thrashing. He darted in and grabbed at the bridle and missed, his momentum carrying him into the horse's flank. That was enough to knock the horse off its knees and onto its side. As Kreg fell, he found himself sitting on the horse's head. The horse heaved upward, nearly throwing Kreg in its effort to lift its head and rise, its back legs kicked as if it were trying to run. It heaved again and Kreg barely managed to avoid being thrown once more.
Keeping his perch on the horse's head, Kreg reached out to retrieve the sword from where it had fallen. He lifted and chopped downward at the horse's neck. The sword bit deep and Kreg drew the blade back toward himself, slicing even deeper. Blood sprayed from the wound, showering Kreg and he leaped back, choking. The horse shuddered and died.
"Kreg!" Kaila's cry jerked Kreg's attention upward.
"'Ware behind you!" Kaila pointed beyond him.
Kreg spun. He saw a creature that looked like a sand-yellow alligator. That impression Kreg caught in an instant and discarded as the creature's open mouth caught his attention. Filled with rows of gleaming teeth, it gaped wide as if to engulf him whole. Kreg backed an involuntary step, nearly tripping over the carcass of the horse.
"A sand devil," Shillond said.
"Have you no spells, mage?" Kaila drew her sword with a swift, reflexive motion.
"Not that would harm the beast and leave Kreg alive."
The tableau held for just a few seconds. Then the beast charged.
Kreg leaped aside, avoiding by inches the toothy jaws. He swung his sword in a heavy, wood-chopping swing, striking the beast in the side. His stroke drew blood but he did little damage against the creature's thick scales.
"'Ware the tail!" Kaila pointed with her sword.
Kreg heard the warning and leaped back in time to evade the worst of the blow. Despite his leap, the tail struck hard enough to hurl him fifteen feet through the air. As he struck into the sand he heard, more than felt, the crack of bone in his rib cage. Pain speared into his side. He lay gasping for breath while agony burned in his lungs. The creature turned to face him. It waved its head from side to side, eyeing Kreg with first one eye, then the other.
"Enough of this!" Kaila shouted and leaped full on the beast. The fall left her lying on the ground stunned. Her fall distracted the creature long enough for Kreg to rise to his feet. His right knee wobbled under his weight but held--barely.
Kreg lifted his sword overhead. With a yell, he dove at the beast driving the sword point first into its head. The combination of his weight and momentum drove the sword through the beast's snout, pinning it to the sand.
With a bellow, the sand devil shook its head, ripping the sword free of the sand and hurling Kreg away. Kaila's sword rose and fell on the creature's neck as Kreg's world faded to black.