"Hey, he's awake!" She called to someone over her shoulder before disappearing in a swirl of curly brown hair. I had been found then. I tried to sit up to see just who I had been found by, but as I did so the motion lurched to a stop and I had to fight for a shaky balance. I had been lying in a small sled-like thing the girl and her people were apparently dragging along with them across the barren desert. A beast similar to a horse only in the respect that it had four feet and one head was hitched to the sled. A few others were being ridden, though it seemed to me that the large hump on their backs would make riding rather unpleasant for any kind of distance. The people on the animals seemed just as strange, most wore hoods or scarves wrapped about their heads so I could see no face clearly. A few had sword hilts peeking out from the folds of their clothes. Others, covered head to toe in the same strange clothing, stood nearby holding the reins of more of the animals. All in all there may have been as many as twenty people and beast for each. They all stared at me just as I stared at them.
Before any of us could say anything the girl returned and pushed a skin of water into my hand. After the first taste I drank deeply without thinking. A few gulps later I remembered where I was and reluctantly handed it back to her. Even though I had grown up on a farm, I knew to ration water in places where it is scarce. I could not imagine it was easily found in that desolate desert. She just smiled and pushed it back at me.
"We'll camp beside a stream tonight, and you'll need it just to get there."
Nevertheless, I only took one more swallow before insisting she take it back. She scrambled up and perched on one of the poles that made up the frame of the sled. I stared nervously at the others, wondering who they were and where they had come from. The ones with their faces uncovered stared right back. No one said anything. Finally a voice cut the stillness; a hard voice, deep and commanding.
"Hey!" Startled, I looked for where the one sharp word had come from. For one moment my mind imagined it was my father calling me to my chores. But that was folly, my father was probably dead by that man's magic. The voice pulled the attention of all the riders away from me, and I followed their eyes. Soon all of them were climbing onto their beasts, readying to move on I guessed. In the all the motion I caught sight of the leader who had given what now seemed to be a command to move out. Like the girl and I he had dark hair, but wore it long and shaggy down his back. I didn't get to see his face as he turned to lead his people onward, but the set of his wide shoulders as he rode gave me another pang of homesickness. Something in the way he sat reminded me of my father. Strong and unwavering he could look, just as this man did.
By the time the sun was sinking into the western edge of the world we had arrived at the stream the girl spoke of. It was little more than a trickle really in that dusty wasteland, but it seemed very welcome to the travelers. Everyone moved in a flurry to set up camp for the night and I felt very out of place. No one took much notice of me, though, so I didn't feel too much like I was getting in their way. I was still a little shaky from lack of water and food so I sat off to one side of the activity. As soon as she was done unloading her animal and had tied it with the others the girl came to sit beside me. She brought another waterskin and two hunks of brown bread and some dried fruit. I accepted my portion gratefully and we sat there with no conversation to interrupt our meal. By that time everyone's beasts had been unloaded and their riders were eating or filling waterskins. Most simply sat as we were; talking, laughing and enjoying the clear night. I was still trying to figure out just who these people were when a deep voice made me jump from my thoughts.
"So Lanya, what is it you've found?" It was the same man from before, their leader. Now that I could see his face he didn't resemble my father as much. Where my father had looked like a strong and determined farmer, peace loving and close to the earth, this man looked like a fighter. He had the look of someone who would cut down armies single-handedly if he had to to protect his people. It wasn't until a few moments had passed and his gaze didn't move from me that I realized it was me he was talking about.
"I don't who he is." The girl Lanya replied with a grin. "Why don't you ask him?"
"Alright. What's your name and what were you doing out in the desert like that? You have a death wish or are you just not from around here? Everyone knows not to try and travel on foot through here." He didn't give me any room to speak between his questions and I honestly didn't know how to answer. I had no idea where I was or how I had gotten there. And as for my name, some part of me felt like the farmer's kid who had been Rendi Baedes was dead. The name just didn't seem right to me anymore.
"I don't know." They both just stared at me. "I have no idea where I was or am or how I got there."
"No memory huh?" Lanya sounded sympathetic, even though the not knowing meant very little to me. It was a miracle that I was alive at all, I wasn't going to question it too closely.
"All I know is that I grew up on a farm near the eastern coast."
"Never been there. You sure have come a long ways without knowing it." The man sounded skeptical. "You're in the heart of the northern plains, though desert is probably the better word. We're at least three days travel from the nearest city, and halfway across the continent from the coast."
"Oh." I hadn't thought to be so far from home. There was no way I was going to get back there without help. I had never been more than a day's ride from the farm.
"Tell you what, we'll take you with us as far as the next city and help you find someone that can take you home if you want." He was smiling now, and with his shaggy dark hair it gave him a wolfish look.
"Hey!" Lanya suddenly looked to the older man with her grin back in place. "If he can't go home, can he come with us?"
"We'll see when we get there." He looked back at me again, this time looking me over and taking my measure. I wasn't sure I wanted to join these people until I knew who they were, but if my home was really gone, I wouldn't have much of anywhere else to go. "I'm Braeklin Demorres, sort of the head of this little group. She's Lanya Terres, we picked her up kind of the same way we did with you. I'm sure you'll meet everyone else along the way."
"Thanks. I…don't really know my name."
"Don't worry, someone will give you a new one." Lanya sounded as if she might even be the one to do it. I just wondered what I was getting myself into.
It took three days to reach the next city on their route. Most of the time was spent silently traveling on the backs of the strange beasts, but I learned a lot. For one thing I learned that they were called skarrgans. I also learned more about the people I traveled with. Of them Braeklin was the oldest and Lanya the youngest. If I was still nineteen, then she was only a year younger than I. Braeklin and his wife Cainera Danwar were among the first to start traveling together. They with a handful of others had fled the destruction of a large city on the south edge of the desert and decided to band together. One by one the others joined, and each of them had a similar story. Each had their towns or homes destroyed and were without family. So they traveled around together doing just about anything for money. From killing for bounties, to hiring out to merchant trains looking for protection from marauders, to digging a new well for a village whose source of water had gone dry, they did just about everything. The only really strange thing about them was, those that had seen their towns destroyed said it had been done by just one man. In all the cases, the people I traveled with were the only survivors from their hometowns. They were the only witnesses to the man's wanton destruction of the towns. None of them would describe him, though, and they would never talk about him to anyone outside their group. These people were the only ones that knew he alone was responsible.
As strange as I found them I began to see how they thought I could fit in with them. As far as I knew I had no where to go either. I had some small hope of getting back home, but I knew not what I would find there. If that crazy man's images had been right, my father and my home had been incinerated. For all I knew my town had been destroyed by one madman too.
Once in the city the ragtag group spread out to find work. Braeklin told Lanya to stay with me and help me find a way home. By this time she had taken to calling me Manzer after a character from a story her mother used to tell. I'd never heard the tale and didn't much mind being named after the hero. After a while it became my name in truth and I began to think of myself as Rendi Baedes less and less. Especially once we reached the city. Just after Lanya and I peeled off from the rest of the group I saw a troupe of performers dancing a sprightly routine with another of them, just as colorfully dressed as the rest, narrating the scene they were supposedly acting. A box was lying open before them with a handsome pile of coins in the bottom. I stopped, transfixed, having never seen anything like it back where I grew up. Lanya laughed a little at me, but she too stayed to watch.
"…And then with lightning streaming from the sky…" The narrator gestured dramatically and enveloped the crowd with his waving arms. "The bright hero, the blazing falcon, the warrior sired by warriors, Darious the Valiant, swept down from his mountain home and slew the evil armies of Demesq to the last man!"
At that one of the gaudiest clad performers flashed about the others as they all fell in mock death. Standing straight, the one I presumed was supposed to be the great warrior drew off his cap with a flourish and bowed low before the wildly cheering crowd.
While certainly giving my share of applause to the show, I was also mightily confused. I vaguely remembered the name Demesq from the bit of schooling I had been through. From what I remembered it was a large country to the west of our own that we had been on, if not friendly than at least respectful terms with for as long as anyone could remember. What could have happened so quickly to change that? If the troupe was making up all the enmity they were so vividly portraying why was the crowd cheering so wildly? Certainly someone was bound to think it in bad taste unless feelings against Demesq were running high. I could find no answer in my own thoughts.
"I love these traveling shows!" Lanya broke through my thinking with a shout. "I almost wish we could start up a troupe, I'd volunteer for it in a heartbeat! Though I like the older stories better. These ones about the war try to sound all heroic and great, but anyone who's heard the real stories knows better. The war was just mass killing for far too little reason."
Now I was really puzzled. "War?"
"Yeah, don't you know—" She broke off sharply and looked a little embarrassed. "Sorry, I guess if you don't remember anything else, you wouldn't know about the war either."
I shrugged off her apology. I just wanted to know what all I had missed. Just how long had I spent in between lives?
"It was over well before I was born, but my parents and grandparents used to tell me and my brothers about it. They thought if we and enough other children knew what had really happened maybe it wouldn't ever again." She slowly started drifting away from the actors and I followed, eager to hear her story. "I don't wanna go into all the stuff they told us, but the basics were that we attacked Demesq in the year of Consali, God of Tears 2773. I'm not sure why, I don't know if anyone is anymore. But the war was long and bloody and really didn't accomplish anything."
She might have said more, I didn't hear a word past the date she gave. My mind reeled at the thought, rebelled, and clung to a thread of hope for sanity among the madness that seemed to overwhelm me then.
"What…year is it…now?" I managed to breathe out the question as I sagged against the nearest building. The implications of my thoughts were too heavy for me to hold up alone any longer. Lanya looked at me oddly but answered without hesitation.
"It is the year of Vasya, Goddess of Winds 2827."
My knees failed and I sank to the hard ground beside the wall I had leaned against. I had died as Rendi Baedes in the year of Horus, God of Wings 2514. My sanity spiraled down into the depths of my consciousness. I had hung in the in-between life for three hundred years! Nothing I knew from the place I had called home would remain. Everything was long past gone, I had nothing. The world had changed and left me behind. The hope I had cherished to myself while I traveled was dashed and broken like glass. I dimly recall Lanya dropping quickly to my side, asking worriedly what was wrong.
"I have no home…nothing…left, nothing…" It was all my shattered mind could say, all the answer she could get out of me, for a long time.