NOTICE: IF YOU HAVE NOT READ "FARRO" PLEASE STOP READING NOW, AS THIS WILL MAKE NO SENSE!
NOTICE 2: If you've read Farro but it's been a while and you're not sure if you remember how it ended off, I advise you to go back to Farro, and reread chapters 32-35. Chapter 32 opens with Khensa and Bomani struggling to escape Junktown as it burns down around them.
I'm back with the sequel! I plan on posting it every Friday until completion, but please know this isn't the final draft. I am sure to be finding typos along the way, and if you should as well, please let me know and you'll get to see your name added to the acknowledgments when I publish!
The Great Abyss
I'm not meant to ride horses. I'm meant to climb and jump and sing.
The leather saddle is hard, the breadth of the horse uncomfortable to sit, and my wool trousers chafe. We have ridden all night, down back alleys and through slums. We have slinked like weasels, our horses' muzzles pressed closed, our wagon disguised as a tinker's cart. We crossed the Nelios River just as the sun was rising, going in pairs with our heads bent against the rain.
We rode past the orchard, its soil dark and fragrant, and its branches laden with the last of the season's lemons and peaches and figs. Beyond the trees the valley rises to meet sand and rock, and we climbed it single file. We rode until the great city of Waset was nothing more than a smudge on the blue and pink horizon, and then we continued until it disappeared completely.
Our wagon finds its path through the dunes, tracing the lines the wind has etched into the desert. By the time the sun is hot enough to burn a hole through the clouds, we are farther from the city than I have ever been before.
Ghari drives the wagon, and Mbiki sits beside him. Together they sing a song better suited for taverns. They are understandably boisterous; our eventless escape from Waset has made them recklessly jovial, but Bomani allows it. After all, who would think to follow us out here? We follow no road but the one nature has carved for us.
He rides ahead of us, our leader, his eyes scanning the yellow horizon, his dark shoulders squared off beneath the hazy sunlight.
It's humid; the sand is still damp from last night's rainfall. In a few days this whole area will be transformed into something unrecognizable – a green grass field speckled by wildflowers. Their lives will be short beneath the heat of the sun, but for a few weeks there will be vibrancy here. From the ground will spring a multitude of other things, toads, beetles, and shrews. I have never seen the desert in blossom, and I wonder if I ever shall.
"It feels good." Shana rides at my side, her heart-shaped face turned to the sun. Her soft features, marred only by her splotchy birth mark, are rendered only softer in the glow.
The warmth banishes the chill of the night from my weary bones, but the ride does me more harm than the sun does me good.
"I don't know how you can take it." I slip a hand between my thigh and the leather saddle. My flesh stings.
Shana watches me fidgeting in my seat and sees my white-knuckled hand clinging to the saddle horn. "You're not used to riding, but it'll get better in time. You'll develop calluses."
I would sooner heal my injuries than tolerate them for that long. It's like a mosquito bite I can't scratch, nagging for attention.
My horse, a brown monster Jarai has named Fili, tosses his head. With a wordless gasp I take hold of the creature's mane.
Shana claims I shall get used to it, but I don't see how anyone can get used to such a thing. How does she ride with such ease? She's like a dancer and her horse, her partner. It knows her every command, understands the meaning behind her every movement. She tightens her thighs and it surges forward; she presses with a knee and it prances sideways.
I can only sit on Fili, hoping that he'll be content to simply follow the others.
"What I wouldn't give to ride like you."
Shana laughs. "And what I wouldn't give to climb like you. Lord Lateef told me all about it – how you leapt out his window."
I grimace. "Not one of my better moments."
Bomani snorts. I had thought him too far away to hear us, but it's obvious I had been wrong.
One side of Shana's mouth curls into a smile, discreet and almost secretive. She turns away with a half-suppressed snigger.
"What's so funny?" I demand from them both. I lean forward in the saddle, relieving the sores upon my rear.
Bomani chooses not to hear me, and Shana stifles her grin.
The clouds swallow the sun and once more threaten rain. At first it falls cautiously, a few drops that cool my burned face. Then the clouds build, and the first cursory drops congregate into sheets of water. It drenches us, and all around the dunes soak it up like sponges. Their muddy faces slip away beneath the downpour. The sands shift and slide like cresting waves. They beat at our heels, muck and water and clouds of gnats.
Ghari and Mbiki's song trails off in the slop, and little Jarai, bundled up on the wagon bed, curls beneath the carpets and blankets with a sour frown.
The rain ebbs as the afternoon stretches on, and, when it seems to be thinning at last, Bomani draws us to a stop. I had been trying to doze in the saddle without success; the ache in my rump is impossible to ignore, and my precarious balance, a constant hindrance.
We erect poles and string up carpets and lay down blankets. We sit beneath our canopies, but the rain is a fine mist now, and it finds us under our covers and attacks. Sand sticks to my sores, rubbing against my skin and making it feel that much worse. Soon it will be night again, and the rain will likely fall heavy and hard, forcing us to move on.
Jarai stacks rocks in the corner of our lean-to, inventing a game with his fingers and a twig. A platter of dinner leftovers rests between Shana and me, gristle and crust and a piece of bone as round and polished as a silver dena. We're cold in the dampness, and so we huddle close as night marches closer. We're itchy in our wet wools, but at least we're warmer.
I'm beginning to think I'll never be able to sleep, when Bomani appears from behind the lean-to. He has been tending to the horses; horse hair and mud cake his hands. He bends near double, peering into our tent of carpets and blankets.
"I want to show you something."
At first I think he's talking to his little brother, but he's staring at me. "Show me what?"
"Come on, I'll show you." He steps back out into the rain, his black hair slicked to his forehead as though he had dunked his head in a bucket of water.
"Go, Khensa. I'll clean up." Shana gives me a push.
With a groan, I pull myself tenderly to my feet. I hobble out into the clearing, the mist collecting into raindrops on my eyelashes. Mbiki and Ghari share a lean-to, smoking a pipe and saying nothing. The rain has dampened even Mbiki's irritating cheerfulness. Finally something good to have come from the wetness, I don't have to pretend not to hear him.
I look away; I won't risk him catching me watching.
"Why are you walking like that?" Bomani wipes his hands clean down the front of his tappa, leaving a brown smear upon the cotton.
"I might ask how you're walking at all." I step closer, my legs bent at the knee and my soaked trousers clinging to my blistered thighs.
"You're really not one for horseback riding, are you?"
"Took you this long to figure that out?"
"Come on, we don't have much time. Any darker and you won't be able to see it."
"The Abyss. We're close."
The air rushes from me in a hiss. It seems rather a place you go – you fall – not a place you see. "The Great Abyss?"
So they're close: Mama. Bata. Shalra, Bomani's mother and the victim of the powers that course through my veins. Is that why he wants me to see it? To remind me of the mother I've taken from him?
He's watching me, rain running in rivulets down his sharp face. Everything about him is sharp, his jaw, his brow, his frown, his eyes, and his voice.
"I'll go," I whisper. If Lateef the Coward had been able to descend to the very bottom, then surely I am brave enough to look upon it. In all honesty, I want to see it. It is the face of our troubles, after all, the resting place of us all, and the domain of Death the Eater.
"Then let's go." He gestures to the rise at my left, a shallow hill over which I can see nothing but the dusky skies. "Before you lose your chance."
I must hurry to keep pace with his long-legged strides. My sandals fill with wet sand, scouring the bottoms of my feet and collecting beneath my toenails.
The hill has turned to mud, and it sucks at my feet. I climb it awkwardly, bowlegged and tired. The act of going up the slope tugs at my sores, and I groan as I take a moment to cover them with my hands.
"Don't rub at them. It'll only make it worse." Higher up the rise, Bomani has turned back in time to see me massaging my aching rump.
I make a face, conscious of how ridiculous I must look: dressed like a man, my hair loose and dirty, my legs crooked, my face cherry red from heat and exertion. I drop my hands to my sides and shoot him a blistering glare.
I comb my hair away from my dripping face. "No one will see us, right?"
"Who would see us? No one's there."
"No one will see us," he growls.
I'm too busy huffing and puffing my way up the slope to say anything else. It's not steep, and as we near the top the desert around us begins to unfold – waves of sand stretching against turbulent skies.
We're almost to the summit when Bomani breaks the silence: "They dropped my mother yesterday."
His back is turned; he can't see me flinch. I think of Shalra the Queen, the woman I had killed with sanity and regret. Does Bomani mean it as a barb?
"How do you know?"
"Sadiki told me before we left. Only a small procession. My father's too busy with the rebellion to do much more."
I can't tell if that's bitterness I'm hearing in his voice, or if it's the climb taking its toll. He has spoken so little all day that I can hardly tell. But why else would he show me the Abyss or tell me about his mother, if not to remind me of my guilt?
"Here." He takes my elbow, hauling me up the last five feet. The other side drops into a steep decline, reaching towards the massive rock plateau below. I can barely distinguish it from the surrounding stone.
A half a mile off, but I can still see that it's almost perfectly circular and over a hundred meters wide. It's a patch of darkness in the middle of nowhere – an inkwell ready to be poured. Deep within, Death the Eater waits, His arms outstretched.
A shiver dances up my spine. I duck behind the rise, unable to stomach even this briefest of glances.
Bomani stares at it. "Do you think the Eater really exists?"
"Yes," I say, my stomach rumbling. "The Eater devours the bodies. Lateef confirmed it."
"He only confirmed that there were no bodies, not that the Eater was eating them."
"Why does it matter?"
"It doesn't," he says in a way that suggests that it really does.
My mama would have been dropped into it months ago. Was she caught by the Eater and consumed, or had she hit the bottom and disappeared with the rest of the corpses?
I look back over the ridge, and there it is, the great window into the underworld. It's still in waiting, like a spider upon its web.
Why had he brought me here? Why had I agreed to come?
"I've seen enough, I'm going back." I push myself up, but Bomani's voice calls me back:
His brow creases, I can see the square line of the jaw as he grinds his teeth together. "What I said to you back then. It was wrong."
"What?" I hold my breath. Saidwhat?When? I want desperately to know. He has called me many names. He has accused me of many crimes, but I only desire acquittal for one:
He cradles his mother's corpse. He's crying. He's sticky with her blood. He's screaming, "You've killed her!"
Bomani's eyes narrow, his lips purse, but he'll say no more. Perhaps he is embarrassed, but more likely he is unhappy that I don't understand. I want to be forgiven, but I'm not ready to ask for it. I'm not ready to hear him say those words to me again. "You'vekilledher."
The Abyss presses upon my subconscious, a constant reminder of all those I have inadvertently sent there – all my fault.
"Murderer!" screams Shalra from the lofty railing from which she jumps.
Bomani is looking out at the Abyss again, and I sit upon the sand, unable to move.
"Why did you bring me here?" I feel his stare without seeing it. I don't dare look at him for fear of the expression he wears.
He sounds more incredulous than angry. "I thought you should see it."
"Because you never have."
"I don't like it."
Another growl rumbles deep at the back of his throat. A bite in his voice hints at frustration. "I'm not asking you to like it. I just thought you'd like to see where they took your mother."
Silence; the rain masks the raggedness of my breathing.
Bomani scoffs. "What did you think I was going to do? Push you in?"
I look at him at last. His upper lip is curled into a sneer, and his eyes are narrowed to slits.
"I wouldn't put it past you," I reply, folding my arms over my chest.
"Stop being so dramatic." He springs to his feet. "You're over-thinking this."
I stand, too, and see the Abyss again. It pulls my eyes and needles my thoughts. It feels closer than before, as though the maw of the underworld has slid closer while my back had been turned.
"If your father catches me, they'll throw me in alive, won't they?"
"Kicking and screaming."
I glower up at him, but he's serious. I can almost see the reflection of his thoughts in his eyes. How long would it take to hit bottom? What would await me, Death the Eater, or the men that live inside, covered in dust and cloaked in the yellow light that Lateef had described?
"The weather's turning. It's time to move on." Bomani turns me around by the shoulder, pointing me towards our camp. Through the rain, I can just barely make out our tiny tents, makeshift lean-tos clustered together, a muted array of reds and maroons and orange.
I stand in my stirrups. I teeter, but I would rather be unbalanced than sit any longer upon the sores. The first day was bad, but the second is infinitely worse. No amount of padding, be it blanket or pillow, is enough to cushion me from the leather.
"It'll get worse before it gets better." Bomani reins in his horse beside me. His eyes are the color of stone.
"I know what you're thinking," Shana declares from my right. "You want to heal it with your Farro, but you really shouldn't."
"You'll only make it worse." Bomani glares at me, challenging me. "You have to let the calluses develop. Otherwise you'll never harden yourself to it."
"Tomorrow will be better, you'll see. The second day is always the hardest." Shana leans out of her saddle, and her hand grazes my shoulder.
Bomani shakes his head. "No, it's the third day. That's when the blisters burst."
"Would you shut up? By the Eater!" I hang from the saddle horn, smacking the prince wherever I can reach him. Shana laughs and Bomani smirks. Tears spring to my eyes when the skin on my thighs stretches and burns.
They tease me, but that night Bomani strips an arak bush of its bark, and Shana grinds it into dust on a slab of basalt. It's mixed with the Chuka paste we've brought with us, and, behind the cover of our canopy, Shana administers it to my battered legs and my burning bottom. At first it stings, but then the pain fades like the ebbing of a tide. I sputter in relief, my face sinking into the damp blankets.
"It's not as effective as your Farro, but it'll help."
I exhale. It's amazing.
Shana lays a cool blanket over the sores. "The prince says you'll ride in the wagon tomorrow."
"What about Jarai?"
"He'll ride Fili."
So a four-year-old can ride when I cannot. I would be humiliated if I wasn't so relieved. There are enough blankets and carpets and sacks on the wagon to separate me from the unforgiving wood.
"I guess I'm not good at this traveling business."
"You'll develop the skill. You have had no need for it until now."
I had promised Bomani that I would be helpful if he brought me along. I'm supposed to be caring for Jarai, but all I've done is stolen his spot on the wagon – pathetic.
"I keep thinking how comfortable Lateef must be, snug in his bed."
"But we're actually doing something, Khensa. You're just getting used to the road is all."
I have the feeling that she's chastising me, and perhaps rightfully so. "I don't mean to be difficult. Thanks for the medicine."
"Of course," she says as she pulls back the cover. It's started raining again, lazy drops thudding against the canvas cover of our lean-to. Mbiki's laughing somewhere out of sight. The smell of pipe smoke wafts through the air. Bomani and Jarai squat in the center of the camp, their shirts off and prickly sponges in hand. They scrub themselves of dirt and sweat with the aid of the rain.
Jarai's skin is white and soft and Bomani's tanned and scarred. They are so dissimilar, these siblings – naivety and innocence in the former, coarseness and temper in the latter.
Shana tuts. "They'll catch a cold like that."
The scars on Bomani's chest are as diverse as they are numerous. I wonder at their origin, at the stories each carries. What had given him the large hooking scar? The tusk of a hippo? The horn of a bull?
His eyes meet mine. He pulls on his tappa and walks away.
"Still sore, my dear?" Mbiki twists around, looking over his shoulder and down at me.
"Don't call me that," I mumble.
The sky unfolds above me, its stars like courting fireflies, its clouds turned to silver in the waxing moonlight.
"We should talk soon, Khensa, about your mother." His hand reaches out for me, for the crown of my head. I roll onto my side.
"Leave her be, Mbiki," Ghari says.
Shana laughs, Jarai whoops, and together they ride great galloping circles around the wagon. I envy them their cheer. I envy them their view on the first rainless desert night, the purity of the sand, the silver dunes. I have seen it all before, but through a fog of dread, pain, and terror.
Next to me, a barrel of water sloshes back and forth – half full. The sound of it throws me back into another time: I'monaboatinthebreathlessnight,theoceantidelappinguponthehullofamightyship.Thekrakenstirsfromitsdepths,itseyesasblackasobsidian.
"Ghari, how far are we from the mountains?"
"Four more days of this, I wager." His voice rasps; he has been smoking. "Then another one or two through the foothills."
"Then the mountains?"
"Then Kallum, where we will trade horses for ponies and water for wool."
"And then the mountains?"
"Only if we're unlucky."
I know what he means: only if we don't find the wheat caravan first. Only if we can't beat the northerners to the mountains.
The wagon bumps over a rock and I land upon my sores with a hiss.
Many of you have supported Sulfur's published predecessor, Farro, and I don't think I can thank you enough for the support you have given me! All-in-all, I miss hearing from my FP readers! Please leave me a review, I'd love to hear from all of you.