Chapter Five:
Forging a Pass

Finding the others is easier than either of us had predicted.

They make no fire, and they've set up camp away from the logging trail, but it's Jarai that gives them away. He wails like a strangled cat, and in the cloudless dark of night his cries carry far.

We make west and away from the narrow trail we had been following. Jarai's screaming grows louder the closer we come, until finally, breaking through a line of trees, we're standing before him and Shana and the rest.

Shana's on her knees, her arms thrown around Jarai in her attempts at comforting him. When we break into the clearing she starts and chirps, "Khensa!"

"Bo!" Jarai hiccups before, much to Shana's dismay, breaking into fresh sobs.

"Jarai, you have to be quiet!" Bomani says as he swings down from the pony. I have never heard him so curt with his brother. "We wouldn't want anyone hearing you."

He stifles his cries into a whimper, but the tears still fall upon his cheeks as he looks at his brother and me in turn. Shana stares at us with the same wide-eyed astonishment.

It's Ghari, rushing forward from the wagon, who speaks first:

"What's happened?"

I look down at myself to find that I am not much cleaner than Bomani. My tappa is caked in dried blood. I lick my lips and taste its metallic notes on my lips.

"There was an accident." My eyes meet Bomani's, and in that second he tenses and his eyes narrow. I know that silencing look; he doesn't want me to say anything else. Is it simply that he wishes to spare Jarai, or is it that he doesn't want the others to know the villagers had almost killed him? "We're fine."

"Well, your clothes sure aren't!" Mbiki had been resting upon a mossy log, but he gets to his feet. He had been so panicked in Kallum – so useless – it's strange to see him acting so nonchalant now. He has Ghari's pipe stuck between his lips. The sweet smells of duhka waft through the air.

Ghari takes Bomani's hand in his and pumps it up and down, equal parts happy and relieved. "I didn't know what I was going to do if you two didn't return."

"Of course I was coming back!" Bomani scoffs.

But I know the truth; he wouldn't be standing here now if I had not returned for him. He would be dead in Kallum and I would be here with Jarai, not knowing if I would ever see him again. I have never been so glad for my recklessness. I have never been so proud of my Farro.

It makes me smile.

"You're sure you're alright?" Ghari examines the bloody smear Bomani has left upon his hand.

"Nothing that wasn't curable," Bomani answers dismissively.

The steward's gaze flicks towards me, perhaps understanding the prince's insinuation.

Shana looks as though she would ask more but says instead, "There's a stream nearby, you should both wash."

Jarai has already forgotten us. He has eyes only for the two dappled ponies.

It's dark, and I'm tired and hungry, but nothing sounds as tempting as a dip in the water. I look at Bomani, my eyes begging to be let first.

He shrugs, "Go ahead. I'll find a place further downstream."

The creek is twenty or so yards from camp. Fronded plants grow on its banks, and the moon casts reflections in the water like fireflies. It makes a sound like bells as it flows over the polished pebbles. It looks like glass, clear yet flawed and crinkled. I cup the water in my hands. It's cold, and when I drink it I taste the flavors of rain and stone and earth. It's amazing.

Shana accompanies me to the stream. I need her help taking off my crusty clothing and disentangling my braided hair. It lies heavy and stinking down my back, and I can't remember the last time it's been washed. Over a week, surely.

"I have soap on the wagon. I'll be right back."

I watch her disappear between the trees. In the distance, flitting shadows dart about the campsite. Ghari leads the ponies to where he has bedded the others, and Jarai's legs cast flashing shadows as he sprints to keep up. Mbiki strikes flint to start the fire over which we will heat porridge and tea.

Perhaps thirty yards away, beyond a bend in the stream and out of sight, I hear Bomani splashing into the water to wash. How he braves the chill is beyond me.

I ease in inch by inch, and at its deepest it is only four feet deep. I dunk myself the rest of the way and come up gasping. Shana reappears, rose soap and sponge in hand, just in time to see me fleeing the water, shivering all over.


"You have no idea." I rub my arms.

"Better than nothing." Shana disrobes next to me, and, with her cajoling, we enter the stream together.

Shana hisses, but she doesn't fuss about it as I had. She dives beneath the surface and appears seconds later, her skin as pale as moonlight, her hair dripping wet.

"Cold." I mutter as I scrub my hair with the bar of soap. "Cold. Cold. Cold."

"I bathed like this in the steppes," Shana explains as she hands me the sponge. "It's the warm Wassian baths I find disconcerting – too soft and stagnant. This is much more like home."

An unspoken understanding between us has gone unnoticed by me until now. She has never asked about my time at the temple, she has never asked about Shalra or the death of Mama. I have never asked her about her home in the steppes or of the other masters for whom she has worked. I don't know when this understanding started, but I find myself regretting it for the first time.

"I hope to see the steppes one day."

"You will," she replies with a smile. "After we've retrieved the harvest I plan on returning. I want to find my family – my brothers, my mother. If you want, I'd like you to come with me."

I imagine myself sharing in Shana's future: the wild plains surrounding me, the cliffs, the grassy hills upon which the cattle graze, woolen clothes and hair in plaits, sun upon my face, and the wind upon my skin. My throat constricts. It is the exact opposite of Junktown. In the steppes, I would always be beneath a banner of stars. It's how I imagine freedom.

"I would like that very much."

"But then, the prince would be furious." She says this in a curious way before turning, but not before I catch her serious expression. She's not jesting.

"I'm still helping Bomani. But afterwards… I'll be free to do as I wish."

"And if you leave for the steppes? What about him?"

With a start, I realize what she's implying. "No! You've got it wrong!"

Shana doesn't say anything.


"He doesn't know that your Glamor's gone, and yet you haven't corrected him. Why?"

"I don't want to talk about Bomani!" Her question brings forth an uncomfortable memory: he leans against me, an axe in his back, his wet hand pressed to my stomach.

Shana doesn't relinquish the topic. "Lateef told me about the Glamor, he even told Ghari, but he didn't tell Bomani. Why do you think that is?"

"I'm sure he did and Bomani just didn't understand." However, I frown; this is the first I've heard of this.

Shana takes her turn with the sponge, unconvinced.

An emotion squirms within, embarrassment, confusion. My thoughts turn to Bata. Once I had thought myself in love with him. He had made my heart hammer, my breath catch. Was that love or infatuation? Is there even a difference?

"I'm getting out." I slip from the water and find the blanket Shana has left on the bank for me.

I don't return to camp right away. I sit in the grass, waiting for my friend to finish. The truth is that I'm too cowardly to face Bomani. Shana has planted an absurd notion, and somehow – against my will – it has taken root.

Shana must sense my distress for she changes the subject. "So… tell me, what happened in Kallum. Really?"

But I can't tell her the full truth. I can't tell her how it felt to see Bomani bleeding out upon the street; divulging so much would only excite her suspicions. I tell her only facts, devoid of emotions, as though I were reading them from a laundry list:

Axe in the back. Axe in the thigh. Blood on us both. An explosion of stone. An escape through the meadow.

She pulls herself from the stream as my story ends and I find myself thinking unexpectedly of that misshapened boy. Buni, with his belly like a gourd, his feet swollen, his eyes hollow. He'll go hungry tonight and tomorrow and surely the day after. How would his life have changed if the villagers had managed to capture us? How might have Kallum changed?

"Your face gives you away," Shana says, pulling on her tappa and helping me to my feet. "Come make us tea. We could both use its warmth."


"So we're attempting the pass."

I lie beneath the lean-to I share with Shana, my stomach filled with boiled oats and spiced tea. Our flight from Kallum seems almost a distant memory now.

I would sleep if not for the hushed conversation now taking place by the fire. I peer over Shana's shoulder, out between the carpets that shroud her and me from the damp night and the pungent camp smoke.

I identify the speakers by the shadows they cast: Ghari and Bomani. They are the only other people still awake.

"I have to," the prince is saying.

"You realize, of course, that we have neither the clothes nor the blankets for such a trip?"

"I have to try."

"What of the wagon? It can't come with us."

"We'll take it as far as we're able, then we'll gut it for firewood."

"You've thought it out." The steward manages to sound both skeptical and impressed.

"I'm not a complete novice, if that's what you're implying."

"And food? I presume you've seen the condition of our supply."

"I have. I set some snares by the stream tonight. As long as the game is good we can make the rest stretch."

"And the Kallians?"

"Not a problem." A shadow plays upon my face as Bomani waves his hand, disregarding Ghari's worries. "In a few days we'll be out of their territory."

"It's the few days I'm worried about."

"They might be stupid, but no one's dumb enough to follow us up there."

A few heartbeats of silence and then Ghari responds, "You shouldn't speak so foul of them. They can't help their poverty."

"They buried an axe in my back, I'll call them what I please." Bomani's words lack their former bite, however, and I can only imagine the look Ghari must be leveling at him. "You're like Lateef," he says as he pokes the fire. A spray of sparks shoots into the air.

"Nevertheless, desperation makes people do rash things. You can't expect the Kallian's not to try again."

"In any other case I would agree with you, but you didn't see her. She had them flying through the air like ragdolls." A hint of laughter lifts the prince's voice. I can almost hear the corners of his mouth curling up into a grin.

"Priestess of Blasphemy," Ghari says with a low chortle, quoting the wanted posters Bomani's father had strewn throughout Waset. Back then it had frightened us, but now, so far away, it seems almost comical. 'Prince of Anarchy, Priestess of Blasphemy' – rubbish.

Snorting, Bomani seems to agree.

Quiet follows. I wonder if they'll talk more about me. I wonder if they know I'm listening.

Before long, Ghari breaks the silence, "There is no pass here, is there?"

"I know of no pass anywhere. But here the river has carved something of a gorge between the mountains. We'll follow it for as long as we're able."

"And you're sure, absolutely sure, that the northerners have already crossed?"

"I'm sure of it. The Kallians lied to us."

"Ah. Of that much we can both be sure."

Their conversation dies away, the fire burns down to embers, and the exhaustion tugs upon my eyelids.


Snow. Not on the ground, but in the night. A full day's ride north of Kallum and the logging trail disappears. We make camp along the banks of the Skalash, and it's while I'm unfurling the carpets that I see the snowflake. As white as flour, as soft as silk, it traces a zigzag pattern through the air.

It settles upon Jarai's nose, melting into the minutest of drops.

He holds his breath; it's the first time he has seen it, too.

"Did you see?" he whispers as it evaporates upon his skin. "Did you see it?"

"I did," I say with equal breathlessness.

"Like it now." Bomani grunts as he removes the saddles from the horses. "You'll come to hate it soon enough."

We pitch our tents close together that night, so that we might huddle around the crackling fire without exposing ourselves to the snow.

It falls silently, muffling sound and leaving a crisp, clean scent in my nose. It's not like desert nights at all, but heavier and wetter.

That first night it falls in big, wet flakes, melting before it hits the ground, and I enjoy it. I enjoy the way the sky looks filled with the flurry. I enjoy the peace of it. The tea tastes better and the porridge, sweeter.

Bomani leaves to set his snares along the river. He hopes for coney or goose, but the next morning he catches only a partridge – boney and gamey but good enough for me. Shana turns its bones into a broth and we share it before departing.

I find a mint leaf – one of our last – and split it with Jarai.

Of the days we have spent on the road, it is perhaps our most pleasant. The villagers could attack us at any moment. The northerners could be just over the next bend, armed with their lethal weapons. But somehow it doesn't matter; the snow is like the wind upon the sand, erasing all.


Bomani is the last to bed and the first to rise. He leaves to check his snares before any of us have awoken, and Ghari and Mbiki are left to break camp without him. Shana, Jarai, and I strike the fire and fill the kettle with the last of our coffee.

Mbiki dismantles our lean-to, Ghari saddles the horses, and we heat our numb fingers next to the coals.

Then, hearing a hoot, we turn to find Bomani sprinting back up the ridge. In his hand is a great feathered creature, mangy and goose-necked. It's a most hideous bird, but Bomani holds it high as though it were a prize he has won.

"Luck at last!" he says when he reaches the camp. He tosses it to the ground and we see its face in better detail – a featherless head, scaly and blue, a drooping dewlap.

"What is it?"

Bomani's enthusiastic smirk tips into a frown. Once again my ignorance disappoints him. "It's a turkey," he snarls.

"A turkey?" I prod it with my finger. It's huge, the size of a goose. "Do they taste good?"

He squats down next to the bird, turning it over to show me the meaty underside. "You haven't eaten until you've had turkey," he says with a sneer, as though challenging me to disagree.

"As long as I don't have to look at it."

"We'll eat well tonight," he declares.

"Fine, fine. Hand it over and I'll pluck it." I stoop down to take it, but he pulls it from reach.

"No," he says with force, taking the bird by its neck and standing. "This is my catch. I'll dress it."

That didn't stop him from letting me clean and dress the partridge from last night, but I'm not about to argue. He turns to tie the bird to Fili's saddle, and Shana and I share a mocking smile.

The fire is snuffed, the kettle collected. The wagon horses are hitched and the ponies, brought forward. Jarai, under a mountain of blankets, is placed upon one while I mount the second. I might be riding bareback, but riding the pony is somehow preferable. It is smaller, to be sure, so I would have a shorter distance to fall should I slip. Its gait is smoother, steadier, and its temperament milder.

Bomani may have my horse, and I shall be happier for it.

We leave the clearing upon our northward heading towards the mountains that loom now like towers before us. They welcome us with more snow, falling delicately upon our shadows, dusting the pine boughs. The forest is quiet and naked beneath its evergreen canopy, and the bed of needles is generations thick. Even the Skalash, cutting its course through the foothills and up into the mountains, is silenced by snow and wood.

The prince knows the names of all the birds. He sees them, points at them, and names them, all without us ever being able to find them.


"Where?" Jarai and I ask.

We haven't found it by the time Bomani says, "It's gone."

But then these are the mountains. They sigh with an inaudible shudder, and in response the forest and its creatures take a collective breath. They are here somewhere, weasels and quail and doe and bear. Somewhere, deeper and higher in the mountains, there are the hairy rhinos from Bomani's story.

One had nearly killed Bomani; what could it do to one of us?


No one can fault him for not trying. I have never seen anyone try so hard to prepare so simple a meal. He plucks it furiously, squeezing the bird between his knees and ripping the feathers into the air. He lacks the technique and, despite having offered it, refuses our help.

"Come, my Grace," Ghari says in the end, "I would like to eat before morning."

"I've almost got it!" He snaps back, yanking upon the long tail feathers. "They're just—really in there!"

I have to laugh at him. I can't help it. "That's the idea. If you'd just hold it like this" – I take the bird and rotate it upon his lap – "you could get a better hold on the feather. No, don't worry about the down, that'll burn off as it cooks."

His brow crinkles, but, at last, he finishes.

From there, Shana and I commandeer the operation. With my obsidian knife I butcher the turkey into pieces, and Shana takes each thigh, wing, and breast and slathers them in the last of the cumin butter. We skewer them with sticks and wedge them into the ground so they hang over the fire.

Bomani watches us, inspecting our work, making sure we do everything right.

"There," I say upon setting the last of the turkey over the fire to cook.

"It'll take a while, an hour or so?"

"I'd say so." Casting Bomani an exasperated frown, I add, "I hope it's worth the trouble."

"It's worth it," Bomani says, scowling at me. "Last time, my manservant did all this, so it went a little faster."

"I imagine he had boiling water, too. That would have helped." I wipe my hands clean upon the carpet and lean backwards upon my elbows. Above, the snow falls heavy, and the fire sputters and sparks as it melts into water.

"I'll do the next one on my own." Bomani takes a seat next to Jarai.

The forest floor is soft but cold, colder than it had been the night before. The snow sticks to it now, a thin layer of powder, and in the moonlight it shines with an ominous glow.

"Will it get much worse?" I peer up from beneath my carpet canopy.

"The snow? Much worse."

"But we have the trees. They'll save us from the worst of it."

"The trees will give way the higher we get. Soon it'll be nothing but snow and ice."

Jarai shivers, scooting closer to the fire. He has more blankets than any of us, but he's still freezing. "It's cold."

"It'll only get colder," Bomani intones, looking up at the silver mountains. "Tomorrow we'll leave behind the forest and enter the mountains. The day after, we'll have gone further north than I have ever been."

"How long will it take to cross? How far to the summit?"

"I don't know," Bomani admits. "Days. Weeks. It depends on the terrain, the horses, and the food."

"Weeks," I repeat with a croak. The cold has already taken effect; I feel it in my joints.

I know the cold; at the temple Chike had dunked me in ice. He would keep me submerged in it for hours, removing me, jabbing me, feeding me tiny amounts of bread, dunking me again. I remember how it felt: first it had been cold enough to burn, then I felt nothing, and then came the warmth. I have no love for the cold. I have no love for ice.

I shift closer to the coals, where the turkey pops and crackles.

"We'll have blankets, and we'll have fires." Bomani's watching me as he says this, as though he has heard my thoughts. "We'll take it one day at a time."

The topic is dropped, I doubt any of us wants to think of it any more than is necessary. Our eyes turn back on the bird, watching as its skin turns from beige to brown to, finally, a marbled charcoal black. Bomani pulls them from the fire before too long, passing out the pieces like a kebab vendor.

The turkey is a fatty bird. Bomani hands me one of its breasts, and the grease is still foaming up the blackened skin. It squirts and drips and burns as I bite into it. More fragrant than chicken, juicier and larger, too, it is the first food I've had in weeks to make me feel as though I were back at home.

The breast is far too big for one person, but I devour it all anyway.

Bomani, his own chin streaked in grease, watches as I lick my fingers clean, and the look upon his face is one part smug and one part pleased. The stubble along his jaw line looks like flakes of pepper in the firelight.

"Good?" The corner of his lip tugs up into the beginnings of a smirk.

He means to mock me, but, even knowing I will be teased, I answer with an empathic "Eater – yes!"

He slaps his knee, and, though he tries to hide it, the grin that flickers across his straight features is the definition of self-satisfaction.

Before long, the others are echoing my assurances.

Shana, in her sincere, modest way: "Maja an telsrj arkol huja. Good like mother's milk, as we Steppers would say."

"Well worth the wait," Ghari adds with a noisy smack of his lips.

Jarai asks for more, and Mbiki laps cumin butter from his hands with stars in his eyes.

It's entertaining to watch him try to disguise how happy these compliments make him. His expression seems at war with itself – one moment scrunched up in consternation, the next slack with childish delight. It's not until he has torn into the last drumstick that he regains any of his usual composure.

It's my turn to smirk. Is praise your weakness, Bomani? I would ask him, but I eat instead, sharing with little Jarai until our faces are so greasy they shine.

I smack my lips, too, just to see him furrow his brow and fail to hide his embarrassment.


I had not expected such an abrupt transition. One moment we are in the woods beneath a canopy of needles and snow, the next we are looking up upon the bald mountains.

The snow is thicker in the distance where the incline rises towards the summit, and the trees are few and far between. Scraggly, old things stunted by the cold and yet determined to persist.

The Skalash tumbles to the west. Smaller now – hardly fifteen feet across – it cascades down the rocks with a roar and a spray of white.

"We'll leave the wagon here." Bomani doubles back, dismounting in one fluid motion.

Following suit, I slip off my pony. "The mountains don't seem half so scary from here."

"That's because you're only seeing a few of them. There'll be dozens more over the ridge."

The men lay the blankets and the carpets upon the ground for Shana and I to roll and cinch with twine. The food, or what's left of it, is divided between the leather pouches that had once held fish and pork. Now we have little more than a half-emptied sack of oats and millet and a handful of fruit so well dried as to be as tough as leather. The poles are discarded, and the kettle filled with flint and kindling from the forest. The tools – the hammer and the axe – are taken up by Bomani and Mbiki as they smash the wagon to pieces, leaving nothing behind but its huge wheels and its empty harnesses.

Seeing our goods spread out like this, I'm struck by how little we have. In a few days we shall be out of grain, and if Bomani should have no more luck with his snares, we shall all starve.

If we don't freeze first.

I do not like the cold, I do not like hunger, and here I am, voluntarily braving both.

We bundle up the wagon planks, but it won't last us long. One storm would freeze us, one avalanche bury us. As we step out upon the rocks we throw our lives onto the mercy of the mighty Cadasa.

Dear Reader,

For the last year Sulfur (and its predecessor, Farro) have been available to read for free on . However, I have decided to transition to promoting and distributing these works primarily through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I want to share my stories, and the stories many of you have come to enjoy, with a broader audience. In order to do this, I have had to remove the remaining chapters of Farro and Sulfur from this website. If you like what you've read, consider purchasing a copy and supporting me as I continue on this most amazing adventure.

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