How long they’d been crossing the Gur al Krin Rome could no longer say. All he knew for sure was that he was close to dying. The dune he and Quyloc were climbing seemed to have no end and he wasn’t even trying to stand anymore. Crawling was good enough. It was all he had left. Momentum and sheer stubbornness had kept him going this far, but even that was fading. His tongue had swollen to fill his mouth completely. He thought he could feel the tip of it protruding from between his blistered lips. The world tilted and blackness crowded the edges of his vision hungrily. Quyloc was a vague form somewhere ahead of him.
When he finally made it to the top of the dune it took a moment for the fact to register. He raised his head, expecting only to see more sand dunes ahead. Instead he saw something unbelievable. Quyloc croaked something. Rome closed his eyes, rubbed them, then opened them, afraid to believe what his eyes told him. They’d shown him many things in the last few hours, all of them lies.
Far below, at the foot of the dune, the sand trickled away to nothing. A narrow canyon ran off at an angle, crowded with rock spires and jagged boulders. A few stunted trees sprouted from the bottom of the canyon amid tufts of iron-gray grass. And right there, in the canyon, behind a crude earthen dam, was a muddy pool of water hardly big enough for a dozen men to crowd around. Paradise. The water swelled and exploded in his vision and Rome knew, at last, that this was no lie. Eager noises came from him as he started crawling head first down the dune.
Quyloc grabbed his arm and croaked again. Rome tried to push him off but Quyloc was insistent. “Crodin,” it sounded like he said. He held out a shaking finger.
Rome followed the finger with his eyes and nearly wept at what he saw. Huddled in the shade of a cliff wall were a handful of hide tents, painted with garish symbols in orange and red and yellow. A dog padded listlessly through the camp and flopped down in a patch of shade. No Crodin were visible, but that did not mean they were not there. It was midafternoon, the height of the daily furnace. Only idiots and dying men moved at this time.
“I’ll kill them,” Rome said, or tried to. The sounds coming from him didn’t sound much like words. He felt for his battle axe but the only weapon that met his fingers was the strange black axe he’d found in the desert. Every other weapon was gone. He didn’t have so much as a dagger. The thing couldn’t be very useful. It felt like it was made of glass. Likely it would shatter if he so much as dropped it. He wished he hadn’t lost his other axe.
“Nightfall,” Quyloc croaked.
Quyloc was insane. The sun wouldn’t go down for hours. He’d never live that long. He didn’t care what the Crodin did to him. He was going down there now. But when he tried to crawl forward once again he couldn’t move his legs. He turned his head, saw Quyloc lying across his legs.
“Circle around. Find shade.”
Rome fought him anyway. He didn’t want shade; he wanted water. But he couldn’t seem to reach back where he could get a hold of Quyloc and after a moment he had to stop. The sun made all movement so difficult. He sagged down onto the hot sand. “Okay.”
Quyloc rolled off him and then helped him pull himself back up to the crest of the dune and down the other side, out of sight, where they began the laborious process of circling around, finding a place where they could hide from the sun without being seen. A process made so much worse by the knowledge that water, life, salvation, lay so close at hand.