continued from Chapter 2
The family exodus but quickly south down the road. Teres kept glancing off to her right at the west side of the road, and the boys quickly realized what she was looking for, so they started looking for it too. The ferry station on this side of the river did not abut a residential area like that on the east. Here there were a few warehouses, and more empty lot, and these were between the road they walked and the river to the east. On the west side of the road began the western desert. Stands of palm tree, accompanied by clumps of tall, sharp, reedy-looking grass, stood here and there, but it was mostly sand - in which footprints. They were looking for rocky ground. Fortunately at this hour there was almost no one on the road with them, so they could step off the road without being noticed. Bil felt in his nose and mouth the incongruous pairing of the dust from the desert and the humidity from the river.
Finally after about fifteen or twenty more minutes they found a patch of gravel trending to large rocks that was far enough away from any of the warehouses to be out of sight. Teres quickly turned and picked her way through the rocks - gingerly, as if trying to be quiet even though there was no one around. Her boys followed, and discovered they had to be just as delicate about their footfalls. The rocks were large enough to make unstable footing, and it was very dark away from the lights of the warehouses and the occasional roadside lamp.
About fifteen meters from the road there was a large boulder, which provided a sort of psychological marker - once they got past it they felt safer, and they were comfortable about stumbling loudly on top of the scraping rocks. Another thirty meters and the rocks, growing smaller, faded again into sand - a fairly flat surface for another fifty meters, and then the dunes began. Teres stopped and the boys came up even with her. Bil felt tired. The emotional energy of fear and tension was starting to fade. He almost hoped she was going to suggest lying down here for a rest. In fact, he almost expected it. She looked tired too. She wore a look of resigned confidence - the look a leader gets when she has made a decision she doesn't like, a decision she feels is justified, but one she is ready to be argued out of making. "Let's walk on to get behind the first line of dunes before turning north." She turned from one to the other to look quickly into each of their faces. "Okay?" They both nodded. They sure didn't have any better ideas. Bil didn't ask about taking a rest. He knew that was a bad idea.
"All right then. Hold on a moment." She squatted down and unslung her pack enough to reach into it and pull out a bolt of one of the cheaper cotton cloths that they had brought along. After slinging her pack back on, she said, "Walk ahead. Single file. I'm going to try and wipe out our tracks with this."
Cal leaned over and took the cloth. "I'll do it."
"I can do it, Mom," said Bil.
"Let Cal do it first. You can take over half way to the dune."
"Okay, now. Walk in front of me, Bil. We'll go single file. Cal behind." They started walking.
The sand was firm at first, and walking was easy. As they moved closer to the dunes and farther from the rocks the sand became looser, and walking more difficult.
"Okay, Bil," said Cal. You can take over. Cal had already unrolled the cylinder of cloth to a length of about three-fourths of a meter and then pinned it so that it wouldn't unroll any more. He showed Bil that he could walk forward and hold the edge of the unrolled strip so that the still-rolled cylinder acted as its own weight and dragged enough to wipe out their tracks. A meter-wide flat strip in the sand would of itself be conspicuous, but Cal had carefully brushed the beginning of their trail to a natural look. Bil had half-expected to have to walk backwards sweeping the ground from side to side. He was glad he didn't have to, since walking had become harder and harder as they approached the dunes, so that his feet sank up to his ankles, and his thighs were working so hard to pump his legs that he felt like he was climbing.
The first hump of sand they reached that they recognized as a dune was about the height of their waists. Just beyond it was one of a line of dunes that was a third taller than Cal, who was the tallest of the three. They went up and over the smaller and went on to get behind the larger one. They were about a third of the way from its southern end, so they had to turn a little to the left, and aim for the saddle between it and its neighbor. This line of dunes stretched southward to follow the course of the river and veered slightly westward, away from the river, as it went north.
Once they were behind the large dune, Teres, who was walking in front, stopped and turned to her sons. "Let's walk north a couple more dunes, and then we can stop to rest. Cal, can you take over masking our tracks?"
Bil thought to himself that he should protest, but he was too tired. He simply stared forward, breathing heavily through both his mouth and nose, while his older brother took the cloth from him. "All right, just a little farther," said his mother, and she started walking again. He followed.
At the top of the dune they could see unending line after line of dunes running parallel from the south to northwest. They turned and walked north in the valley between the dune they had just crossed, and the next one to the west. The sand in the middle of this was actually rather well packed, and the going was easier than it had been the last few meters coming from the east down off the dune's slope.
It was quiet between the dunes, with a stillness as if they had shut a door. They could no longer hear any kind of gurgling of river water, or rustling of palm trees - only the occasional bird cry from the dunes on their right. Bil looked up at the sky. The lights of the city were still there, but as a glow along the eastern ridge of dunes. The sky to the west was very black, and the stars seemed much more dense there. If he looked west for more than a minute without looking back east, he could even start to make out the White Road marching across the heaven.
They walked the length of the first dune, then the length of a second dune, and at the halfway point of the third dune, Teres stopped, walked a little east and sat on the dune's slope. Bil stumbled over and sat down next to her, slightly lower on the slope. Cal walked over slowly, picked up the bolt of cloth and started rolling it back up.
"You can put that away," said his mother. "I don't think we need to use it anymore."
"It's no trouble to use. I can keep it out."
She gave him a look of concern that was almost pity. "If we have to leave quickly from our rest I don't want to leave anything behind. So let's keep as much as we can packed up."
Cal closed his eyes and nodded, then unslung his pack to put the roll of cloth in it.
Teres had brought out some dried fruit and the flask of water, and handed them to her sons. Bil took a mouthful of the water and started chewing the dried fruit. He leaned back against the soft dune slope and looked at the western sky again. He tried to think of the future, of his friends, of tomorrow... The blackness of the sky receded, and the pricks of white that were lights of the stars, and the soft white of the sand at the horizon, advanced toward him. He closed his eyes to rest them for a second, and fell straight to sleep.
His mother took the piece of dried fruit from his hand.
Bil woke up hungry. His skin was grimy with dried sweat. He was a little chilly, even though someone had put a blanket over him while he slept. He sat up. Blinking was actually painful until he had wiped the mucus from his eyelids. Gods was he hungry. He looked around. Cal was on his left, lying under a dark tan blanket. He was also awake, but lying still, arms all tucked in, blanket up to his chin. He stared full-eyed up into the sky, apparently somewhere else in his mind. On Bil's right, his mother sat with her legs tucked up by her chest, and a dark brown and purple-streaked blanket over them. Down slope from her were piled the three packs. She too was staring blankly, out into space, straight ahead at nothing hanging in the air before her. Her head seemed to be swaying forward slightly, as if she were ducking to pass under something at a height just a millimeter less than her own. Or maybe Bil was hallucinating it. He was tired enough. He felt that perhaps his perceptions hadn't yet totally shaken off the sleep. Her face was lined, and the more harshly in the morning light. Shadows were faintly creeping around her eyes, making them start to look sunken. Her cheek twitched, she swallowed, and she turned to look directly at Bil, automatically, as if she expected a moving piece of clockwork to be in that position or examination at that exact moment. She saw him, and smiled.
"You're awake," she said. "Have something to eat. You didn't finish this last night." She looked down to the piece of cloth laid out and folded in half on the ground next to her. She unfolded it and picked up the piece of dried fruit that Bil had started to eat before falling exhausted to sleep the night before. She leaned over to hand it to him.
Bil leaned over to take it from her hand. He stared at it lying in his palm for a couple of minutes, as if he didn't know what it was, then brought it to his mouth, tore off a piece with his teeth, and began chewing automatically, staring at the sand in front of his feet. The sand was all one color - except when he looked at it closely. Then he saw that there were hundreds, thousands of individual grains, each of a different color, and looking closer he saw that some of these little ones were not all of one hue, either. But in large, in aggregate, they formed a smooth field of color - not monotonous, but with a pleasingly subtle variability, like the weave of a good quality cloth.
"Have some water." He looked up to see his mother leaning over with the water flask. He leaned over again to take it. He poured a gulp or two of water into his mouth with the dried fruit still in there. He let the water sit in his mouth a minute and half wondered if the dried fruit would suddenly spring to life and become real fruit again with its water restored. Of course that didn't happen. After all, the fruit had been basting in his saliva for four or five minutes. If it was gonna happen it would have happened by now.
"Did you guys eat already?" Bil asked, and looked left at Cal. Cal sat up and rubbed his face vigorously up and down with open palms. Cal put his hands down by his hips, arms straight, and nodded. He was still staring emptily forward.
"Yes, we ate a little already," said his mother.
"Did I sleep in? Should we get going?" asked Bil.
"No, you're fine. Eat." She smiled again, and her face seemed to relax slightly. "We have time, I think, this morning." As if in agreement, Cal started moving his mouth, pursing his lips into different shapes, but still staring blankly into the same point in space. It looked like he was solving mathematical problems in his head.
"I guess he didn't find us last night then," said Bil. "Do you think we're in danger now, today? I mean, do you think we're in less danger than last night?"
The relaxed look in his mother's face went away, and she looked concerned again. "I think we are safer. He has a larger search radius today. He has to take into account that we might have gone quite a long way by now. And he doesn't know which direction we went."
Cal looked over at her. "He knows we crossed the river," he said. "There's basically only two directions we could go - north or south. Leaving the road to go west into the desert would be insane." He looked down at the ground. "Even though that's almost what we've done."
His mother looked off at the dunes marching to the western horizon. "He doesn't know that we didn't cross back over the river at some point north or south." She took a slow, smooth breath with her mouth closed. "But we should stay off the road for a while."
She looked back at Bil again. "Anyway, take your time. Have some jerky, and I have a piece of fresh fruit for you."
By the time Bil had finished eating and taken a few more mouthfuls of water, the chill of the night had gone, and the heat of the day was beginning. They packed up their blankets and food and started walking north. Today they didn't bother wiping out their tracks. They figured, or at least hoped, that the tracks would be blown away by the wind by the time they were out of sight. Visibility during the day was far, very far, in the desert.
In fact there was a very good chance of their tracks being blown away. The wind kicked up about half an hour after they started out. They wrapped their heads and faces in cloth, leaving small open stripes at their eyes so they could see. What little they could see. The two walking in the rear could see the person in front of them. But other than that it was all blowing sand and dust. They found themselves trying to find the right tension for the cloth wrapped around their face, trying to keep it loose enough so that the open stripe was a centimeter or two in front of their face, and their eyes weren't directly exposed to the dust. The problem was that if the makeshift mask wasn't wrapped tightly enough then the grit, dust and sand inevitably got inside, grating the cheeks, getting in the mouth and souring the tongue. Fortunately the tunics they wore were long sleeved, and they were wearing boots instead of sandals. They had no gloves, however, and the wind blew their hands and fingers raw. When blood appeared at their knuckles and the edges of their fingernails, they finally stopped and tore some cotton into strips thin enough to wrap around their fingers. They also looked for some material translucent enough to wrap around their eyes and still see through, but they couldn't find anything suitable. They would have to bear it.
They couldn't stop to eat lunch in this kind of wind. They kept walking. They briefly considered stopping and waiting out the storm, but if they did that while off the road they were in danger of being buried with sand. If they went to the road for shelter, seeking a building or something, they would be exposing themselves to being found by Naarka or being seen by someone who would report them to Naarka if asked. They did not want to be seen by any witnesses. So, they kept walking.
The storm lasted about six hours before it blew itself out. Once it decreased to just occasional gusts full of dust, they could loosen the cloths wrapping their faces and breathe with some ease.
Finally Teres stopped, and sat this time on the western slope of the little valley between dunes, facing east. She wanted the wind at their backs. The boys sat down next to her. They were exhausted. They each ate another piece of fresh fruit, a piece of jerky, and a mouthful of water. They didn't necessarily have to conserve water - after all they were only a few meters from civilization. But fetching water from a fountain or public well would, again, expose them to witnesses. And if they had to suddenly flee into the wilderness then they would have that much more water that they hadn't already drunk.
After eating they just sat there for another half an hour, resting. At different times they each dozed off for five or ten minutes. Then, "Okay," said their mother, and they stood up, wearily, and trudged on northwards again.
Bil still felt hungry, but he moved his concentration off of that to the soreness in his thighs, and shoulders, and his neck from supporting the pack with his head in that wind. The walk became monotonous - even more monotonous than in the wind, because there was no real opponent to struggle against - besides fatigue. There was no physical opponent at least. The dark figure of his brother Cal in front of him dissolved, or blurred into indistinctness. It became a dark shape against the tan-white sand, whose edges shifted like a circle of oil sitting on a pond of water. And then it disappeared completely as Bil's mind forgot about it and the nothingness of weariness seeped into more and more layers of his thought. It would reappear if Bil thought about it, and then disappear again when Bil was distracted.
His mother, out in front of the two boys, slowed, then stopped. They had been walking slightly uphill for the past two hours or so, and they now stood just before a crest where the land again sloped downward. The valley between dune ridges opened up ahead as well. The ground got rockier and several boulders stood up ahead. And farther, several hundred meters away in the distance, there was a long low building, with a large white plume coming out of a smokestack jutting out of its center.
continued in Chapter 4