(See a quick author’s note in the comments of this chapter–sorry I disappeared for a bit!)
The Meduese woman and her second-in-command with the melted face offered Adal and Calay a ride in what they called the “more comfortable” wagon, the bigger of the pair. It was a narrow walnut-wood construction, three stories tall, and had a canvas awning spread across the top. If Adal squinted, he could make out what appeared to be potted palm trees on the roof. While it didn’t quite stack up to the big war-wagons the narlies dragged across the maps during the war, it was easily the size of a riverboat. Standing outside it and peeking through the door gave him the same crawling sensation as he got when staring down the mouth of a cave. This is foreign territory and you won’t have the upper hand here.
“I’ll stick with—” He was about to say you to Riss, but she waved a hand to cut him off.
“They’re splitting us up on purpose,” she murmured. “A group of five is a big risk on a wagon.”
As much as that offended his sense of dignity and manners, she was correct. Five passengers of unknown origin was potential hijacking territory. Their rescuers were simply taking the same precautions Adal himself would take in their shoes. Oddly, that realization made him feel better. The fact that their rescuers saw them as a potential threat meant they weren’t bugs to be squished underfoot.
“We’ll be fine,” said Riss, ticking up a tired smile. “Look after yourself. We’ll see you in Frogmouth.”
She was awful quick to dismiss him, quick to turn her back and trudge toward the smaller wagon in the distance. Torcha followed her, asleep on her feet, boots audibly dragging on the salt.
That left Gaz and Calay, who regarded each other in that strange silence that often passed between them. Adal got it, sort of. A lot could pass between two people with a look, and for every year of history between two people, that silent vocabulary grew.
“He should come with us,” Calay said, glancing over to the curly-haired woman. What was her name again? Melada? Adal’s sun-dizzy mind wasn’t grasping onto details with its usual tenacity.
“No room.” She popped a reed into her mouth, began to chew it. “Sorry.”
Calay gestured toward the bandages around Gaz’s thigh. “His leg’s buggered,” he protested. “I’m his medic.”
“The hammocks here might actually be worse if he’s got a busted leg,” she said. “I’m afraid neither of our haulers are particularly spacious.”
Gaz put a hand to the middle of Calay’s back and assured him all was fine. Nobody voiced it, but they were all far more worried about Calay at the moment. He looked like absolute dogshit, having picked up shakes and night sweats sometime in the last two nights. The dark circles commonly found beneath his eyes now bloomed like fresh bruises. It wasn’t like him to protest this vocally about being separated from Gaz for all of a few hours; Adal wondered if his brain might be fevered.
“Come on,” Adal said. “The sooner we mount up, the sooner we get to Frogmouth.”
“You’ll feel better once you’ve got some water in you,” said Gaz.
They didn’t embrace or speak any well-wishes or even say goodbye. They just nodded at one another and went their separate ways.
Stepping inside the wagon was a borderline euphoric experience. Though it was hot and stuffy inside, being shut away from the sun did wonders. All his cave-mouth trepidation fled him in a moment as soon as he stepped into the shade. The woman—Maf, the crew called her—led them inside and through a series of low-ceilinged hallways, cramped and poorly lit and caked with dirt. Every possible interior surface that could be converted into storage space had been, from cargo nets and crate mounts to long shelves lining every possible wall, their contents lashed into place with twine and cord. Some of the shelves were so shallow and precarious that their contents were lashed into place with fraying twine, which bulged at the seams to contain books and bottles and pots and jars.
She ushered them up a zig-zagging set of stairs and into a smoky, window-lined lounge. Hammocks hung from the woodplank ceiling, which was painted with a bright floral mural of eye-wateringly high contrast reds and greens and purples and golds. It was all a little much for Adal’s senses to keep up with.
A short, bald woman passed him a cool ceramic bottle. Maf produced another, passing it over to Calay.
“Drink up,” she said. “Careful not to take too much at once; it might upset your stomach.”
Adal popped the wax stopper free with his thumb, bottle halfway to his mouth before Calay spoke up.
“This isn’t just water.” Wary as ever. “What’s in here?”
Maf smiled, the apples of her cheeks dimpling.
“Mostly water,” she assured them. “Little bit of basil. Little bit of citrus cordial. Fruit’s good for the body if you’re sunstruck.”
Adal sipped. The drink tasted just as she’d described—sweet and tart with an herbal note on the nose. It was the most refreshing thing he’d ever imbibed in his entire thirty-plus years. He had to restrain himself from glugging the rest down in seconds.
Low cushions and bean bags littered the floor. Their host stepped around them toward a table in the corner, where Adal only just now noticed her crew were all staring at him with blatant curiosity.
“Guys,” said Maf. “This is Adalgis and Calay. Their wagon went off the road and we’re helping them back to Frogmouth. You be good hosts, yeah?”
Adal couldn’t help but wonder what business this woman was actually in. She’d said something to Riss about being an archaeologist, but Adal had never seen an archaeologist or geologist who travelled around with their whole dig crew in tow. They were traveling more like the Beddos, some big nomadic family, but a glance at the diversely shaped and colored crew around the table told Adal they were quite unlikely to be blood relatives.
… She was right. A bit of sun and a bit of water really was bringing his brain back.
“May I sit?” he asked.
Maf swept a hand toward the bay of hammocks. “Any seat that isn’t occupied is yours. Your healer’s got the right idea.”
Adal glanced over and discovered that Calay had already collapsed into a hammock, an arm draped over his sunken eyes. He’d stripped off his coat and his shirt, sagging back in nothing but his undershirt and trousers. Adal spied purple-blue bruising along his chest. When the hells had he acquired that?
“I appreciate your hospitality,” Adal said, trying to put on an appropriate social face regardless of the circumstances. “We’re very grateful.”
Maf—her full name occurred to him, he’d heard Riss call her Mafalda—waved dismissively at him, her smile relaxed. “Think nothing of it,” she said. “It’s part of the code out here. You pass a traveller in need, you help them if you can. People remember if you leave folk to die by the roadside. Long memories in this part of the world.”
“Still,” said Adal. “You’re going out of your way.”
“And I’m sure you’ll pay the favor forward the next time someone needs it.”
That he would.
Mafalda strolled over to join in her crew’s gaming. They had seercards, dice, every common distraction from a bored soldiers’ barracks. Adal considered joining them, but he knew he was cognitively not up to the task. He dragged a bean bag over to Calay’s hammock, propping it up against the wall. Just as he turned his back on those sitting at the gambling table, his ear caught a snatch of conversation: some of Mafalda’s crew weren’t pleased to be heading back to Frogmouth. In fact, one wondered blatantly what was worth turning the fuck around and heading straight back. So they’d come from Frogmouth in the beginning…?
Adal didn’t have time to continue speculating. A series of whistles relayed through the crew, signals to the driver no doubt. Moments later they were moving. He spilled down into his seat, tucking his bag in beside him, and sighed immediately in the relief of being off his feet. Even more relieving, once the wagon began to move, air circulated wonderfully through the many slat-lined windows. Within minutes, the temperature inside the lounge dropped. A cool breeze caressed his cheek.
He was nearly alone on a wagon full of strangers, his only companion visibly ill, but the paranoid parts of him just didn’t have the energy to surface. He enjoyed the relief for what it was: cool and shady.
The journey was, like all wagon travel, plodding and monotonous. Adal napped, woke, had more water, then napped again. He checked in on Calay, who mumbled that he was awake but suffering a headache and please don’t take this the wrong way but unable to cope with human voices for the time being.
Mafalda’s staff rotated, the crew in the lounge departing for their watch. They were replaced by an equal number of dusty, sinewy, tattooed individuals. One of them, a dark-skinned woman called Cori, offered him free rein over her collection of novels heaped upon one of the wagon’s many shelves. Adal selected one at random, tried to read, and found that reading on a wagon made him terribly motion sick. Unfair, but that was wagon travel for you.
They rolled on through the night. Adal slept again, then woke to morning light glaring in through the slats.
This morning, Calay seemed better. His color had improved, skin no longer carrying a grey-yellow tinge.
Adal wasn’t sure how to approach him. While they were comfortable with one another now, they weren’t exactly friends. Adal wanted to know how he was doing. Genuinely cared, even. But he respected that the man seemed to value his space and his silence.
Breakfast arrived in the form of a platter of dark grain crackers with tinned fish and sliced tomatoes and herbs. Not at all what Adal was expecting. Migraine or no migraine, he thought fish might be worth rousing Calay from slumber. Northerners liked their fish terrible and salty, didn’t they?
Calay didn’t grouse at him for the intrusion, taking a couple crackers with a mumbled thanks. Adal sat back down on the floor. They ate side by side in silence, crunching crackers and thinking their separate thoughts. He hoped Riss and the others were well. He hoped they’d reach Frogmouth soon. Now that his wits had returned to him, they had a mission to salvage.
An indeterminate crawl of hours later, Mafalda summoned them both up onto the roof. Calay was moving much better, no longer dragging his feet, though he lurked behind Adal on their journey through the wagon’s bowels and didn’t say much.
Up top, a dry salty breeze whispered through his hair the second they emerged from the hatch.
“Thought you might enjoy the view,” said Mafalda, propping a boot up on a rung of the thin safety rail that caged them in.
Past the railing, the Salt Flats exploded into desert colors, a warm-toned palette reminiscent of spice jars and dried chilis in Medao’s city markets. Smooth, low hills rippled up out of the salt, streaked with orange and red and deep, dusky purple, and beyond them rose wind-smoothed sandstone cliffs of banded orange and red. Calay whistled.
“That’s about the most colorful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“We’re headed straight up the middle of it.” Mafalda pointed out a canyon, a little shadowed squiggle between the sandstone bluffs. Greenery grew out of its mouth in scraggly tufts, hinting at a river or spring nearby.
Though he no longer wandered the desert on foot, dehydrated and disoriented, Adal’s throat still seized when he saw those treetops. That human instinct, the draw to water as a source of life and safety, thrummed through him like blood. Children of the Deel felt it stronger than most, people said. His fingers twitched.
He glanced back behind their wagon, through the dust trail it kicked up, and spied the smaller wagon trundling determinedly behind. Riss and the others were fine.
“We’ll be nestled up in Frogmouth before sundown,” Mafalda said. “You’ll have some time to stretch your legs and find your bearings. Might be tough finding five beds given the scorpion problem, but you all seem like resourceful sorts.”
You haven’t the half of it, Adal thought.
Up and into the canyon they went, following a well-worn path that followed parallel to a trickly river. From his perch up on the roof, relaxed beneath the flapping canvas awning, Adal spied the broad, tan backs of gold panners crouched in the stream.
They passed into shade, an immediate relief, and soon passed into Frogmouth itself.
Adal didn’t realize he was looking at the town until Mafalda pointed it out: a series of holes and burrows dug into the sandstone, small caves with tarps and flags and bric-a-brac hanging along their gaping mouths. Riss hadn’t been kidding when she said Frogmouth was dug into the canyon itself.
Around a bend in a road, he spied more traditional structures: stilt houses hovering above the river, catwalks and rope ladders balancing precariously between them all. A few bigger structures perched atop one sandstone hill, crafted of mismatched wood that the wind had bullied into submission, every plank peeling and warped.
When he breathed in, the air felt humid in his lungs and smelled of water and fresh green growth. It was like smelling springtime itself. Intoxicating.
The wagon passed beneath the mismatched structures, following the road to a large drift of packed-down sand where several other wagons loitered. The biggest was a hulking war argosy, cannon shutters lining its flanks. Though he couldn’t be sure without a peek inside, it looked as though it were still packing a full broadside. Most of those had been decommissioned after the war, their cannons fixed to city walls and fortresses.
The sight of it flooded his stomach with unease. Many a wagon had passed into private hands after the war, but the sort of private hands that could command a wagon like that were above his paygrade. The big war-wagons took easily thirty or forty hands to crew. They cost as much as a small fortress.
Distantly, his body remembered the throb of cannon-fire, the way it bit into his bones and shook like little earthquakes.
He glanced over to Calay, who appeared wholly untroubled by such thoughts, gawking upwards at the hidey-holes with an eager little smile edging at his mouth.
Adal supposed everything was a new and exciting sight to someone who’d rarely ventured outside their hometown.
“I can’t thank you enough for your assistance,” Adal said to Mafalda. “I know I keep saying it, but you saved our proverbial bacon.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to repay me,” she said.
Then she winked at him, dropping back through the hatch, leaving he and Calay free to reconvene with the crew and explore.
Somewhere in all those tunnels, or behind the shutters of that hulking war-wagon, or perhaps sipping whiskey in whatever passed for a tavern here, Nuso Rill was waiting.