Someone is coming. From the tall tree I can see their dust on the horizon. It could be beast but I think not. Someone is coming.
We don’t have room for company in this mean space. Ha! Not true. We have room but no accommodation. Not enough food for two. Not enough water. We must survive until the rains come. Who is it? Why does he come?
We can’t worry about that now; much to do, much to do. Check the traps. Collect the water. Bury the waste. Build the fire. Last night howlers were abroad, I felt them in my dreams. We must protect ourself. A talisman is needed. Or a sacrifice. They didn’t believe in the old ways but we know, we know the dark spirits waiting to claim an unguarded soul.
* * *
Some is coming. It is clear now. Man and beast. A rider on a horse. A knight? The cavalry? Ha! No one comes to rescue me.
Last night I dreamed of Death riding a white charger. He spurred it faster but with every touch it perished, rotting flesh falling away from sun-bleached bones and scorching the earth where it landed. I awoke with Death’s cold hand still gripping my breast and felt the howlers pressing close. I cast stones for the omen but what can we do? We cannot leave here until the rains come. Stay here or die in the desert.
He comes from the south. From Home? Could it be? How many moons have passed? How many seasons? This beard is grey now more than black. If not from Home, from where? What does he want? Where does he go?
Three days by foot. Horse and rider: tomorrow? Must prepare, must be sure the blade is true. Not enough food for two. Not enough water. But company too. Perhaps he will bring food and water.
* * *
He still comes. Man and beast. How long since we had company? How long since we felt soft horse lips, warm breath, taking hay from hands? Such big, solid beasts, so mighty, yet so willing. A man can travel far with a good horse. But who is his rider? Could it be a rider from Home? Will we sit around the fire and drink beer and tell tales? Ha!
It was ghosts of the past who troubled my rest last night. I felt again the sting of my exile. Turned out by my own people. My own family. My mother weeping, my father’s face turned away in shame.
We vowed to return, sinner become saviour. But we have walked this land and walked this land again and found no salvation. Doom is upon us and there is no escape. The old ways could protect us. But I know too little.
* * *
My brother comes! I see him slumped across the withers of his beast, his hands cling to the mane and show he still holds onto life. The beast is weak too. It is luck they have found us, but is it good or bad?
Do we walk out? Do we stay here? My brother! Favoured fruit of my mother’s womb. Playmate, protector, betrayer. My heart and mind are torn. How many nights have I dreamed of reunion? How many nights have I dreamed of revenge?
He is kin. We should walk out, take water.
But wait. What if he is not my brother? What is he is nothing more than a mirage? The dark spirits toy with us mortals: the heat of the desert is licks of hell-fire sent to tease and taunt, seduce us from our senses. We must be cautious.
* * *
Real, then. His voice is a croak. The beast is near ruin. I pull my brother from his ride, feel his wasted body through ragged layers of cloth. I hold water to his lips: they are cracked and thick white scum gathers at the corners of his mouth. I wipe it gently. He is hungry for the water but I drip, drip, drip. Not enough water to waste on greed. I leave him to rest in the shade.
We can’t work, though there is much to do. His silent presence haunts us. We squat beside him, willing answers to our legion of questions. Why have you come? What of Home? Of our mother, our father? His sleep is troubled. Dark spirits chase him, furrowing his brow.
In the cool of the evening, his eyes flick open. I see him search my face.
“Qayan? I found you?”
We nod, not trusting our voice: it has been a long silence. His body is wracked by sobs, his tears carve rivers in the grime on his face.
“They are all dead Qayan, it is all as you foresaw. I rode out with five but all have perished save me. I was looking for death but I found you.”
My brother clings to me. His desperation stinks.
His presence causes me physical pain. Dead. What does it mean? Does it matter? I saw the coming doom. I read the signs, I gave the warning. I was shunned and derided and when I would not be quieted I was cast out. And he, my brother betrayer, he gathered the forces against me, came to my door with the mob behind him and dragged me from my home.
Night falls. The beast skitters: she feels the dark spirits too. My brother call out to me, calls out for food, for drink, but we do not go.
* * *
He called demons to him in the night. I slit his throat by the sun’s first rays, the blood of my blood, sluggish and sticky, stains the parched earth. The old ways demand sacrifice and now they have it.
We are gentle with the beast. We lie along its back and pat its mane, its neck, its ribs. The beast we regret, but we have no accommodation here. No feed. No water. For awhile we will have meat. And when the rains come, if they come, the old ways will protect us as we turn once more towards Home.