She came at dawn. Bin watched her crest the western dunes as night still clung to the earth. Bin had risen early to make water and begin preparing the crops for their time under the huge red sun. He saw her walking out of the gloom, her cloak around her body and hood drawn against the cold night air. Dust covered every inch of her black leather clothes and her light skin, coloring her an even shade of light brown. Only her blue eyes pierced out of the grime on her skin. Though her dry skin, chapped lips, and rasping breath spoke of a woman dying, her eyes blazed with life.
Yet she should be dead. She came from the west, from Gazu Kuul, the only city within two weeks of the well by horseback, and she came without a horse. One week in the desert would kill ninety five men in one hundred. Two weeks would kill the other five. Only the slow Bisan caravans carrying huge vats of water to supply a few travelers, could hope to make the journey.
Yet she had come without a horse. She must have had two to travel here, one dying at the end of each week and stripped for food. Four horses could bring someone to the well and back if they were exceptionally well prepared, knew the cruelty of the sands, and found great luck.
Though Bin did not know how she had gotten here, one thing was certain. Without two horses, she could not go back.
Bin started a morning fire to cut the chill from the early air and began cooking a small iron pot of Sankla beans. When she arrived at his small camp, Bin offered her a skin of water fresh from the well. Like everyone, she drank too quickly and vomited up most of it. The body built up a resistance to water the more it had been deprived. Soon the woman learned to sip and soon death released her grip on the woman as the clean water flowed into her body. She drank another skin of water and ate Bin's beans until mid-morning. Then, under the shade of a half-tent, she slept until dark.
Bin had another pot of beans over the fire when the woman awoke. Bin learned of her horse's fate when she unwrapped a cloth bundle containing strips of dried and salted horse meat. She offered a strip to Bin and he accepted. Once a month, Bin slaughtered one of the white pigs he kept penned up behind his clay hut but the meat only lasted two weeks. Any meat was a treat in the desert.
The woman took a long rope and an empty bladder of animal hide to the mouth of the well. Bin watched her examining the wide mouth before she lowered the skin into the darkness below. It took two attempts before she released enough rope to lower the skin down to the deep rushing waters.
The woman washed the brown dust from her skin and washed her hair until it went from sandy brown to raven black. She was very beautiful. She stretched her arms to the deep purple sky and arched her lithe body. Bin's eyes fell from the woman's alluring curves to the black hilt of her sword, shaped like the body of a scorpion. The woman's sharp blue eyes met Bin's and she smiled.
She spoke little as she ate, instead paying close attention to his stories as he shared his years as the Wellmaster and told of the Wellmasters in his family for nearly sixty generations. He spoke of the wars long ago before the Old Gods died and the slave lords ruled with the whip. He smiled and talked of his wife and sons, though he had only seen them thrice in his life. He told her of the day he learned of his father's death at the blade of a murderous bandit and how he had seen the bandit's rusty blade and white bones when he made the journey to the well to take his father's position as Wellmaster. Bin was only fourteen at the time. She listened and she ate as Bin recounted the tales of his fifty two years as the master of the last well of the central desert.
The woman spoke very little but she did tell him one thing. Her name was Vrenna.
Two days came and went as the thousands had before them. Bin followed his daily routines, tending his small crop, caring for his white pigs, and checking the well's ancient shoring for any sign of decay. The woman, Vrenna, ate and listened to Bin talk about the well. Any fears Bin had that the woman would kill him, steal his food, kill his pigs, or try to dominate him in any way fled his mind. No one wanted to take over the well and no one had any reason to hurt Bin. They came for water and he gave it freely. The water was limitless, flowing in a thick vein deep under the sands as it had for thousands of years.
Bin told Vrenna of the four wells from the time of the Old Empire. He talked of the armies that traveled from well to well as they marched on their neighbors. He told the legends of the Old Gods, now sleeping under the earth. He told of how each of the three other wells fell into the earth, swallowed by the angry desert, leaving this well the last of the four.
As the days passed, Vrenna's strength returned. Bin watched with much awe and a little lust as she exercised, running through a whirling pattern of swordplay with her black scorpion-hilted saber. By the third morning she seemed fully recovered from her trek across the desert.
Bin never asked why she came and he never asked how she would leave. She must have wanted to get here quickly to ride two horses to death and not have two with which to return. Whatever reason she had, she kept it to her self.
The next day at dawn, Bin woke to the distant sound of hoof beats coming from the rising sun of the east. Vrenna sat next to her small tent watching the distant figure approach. A short time later, the man arrived on the back of a dying horse. Insanity filled the broken beast's eyes and blood dripped from its bone-dry nose and the corner of its mouth. The man led two other horses along with his mount, both significantly healthier than the mount itself. The rider must have given all of his water to the two healthy horses and none to the one on which he rode.
Like Vrenna when she first arrived at the well, brown dust covered every inch of the man. Like her, his eyes burned with life, although in his case they were the color of shining amber. His hair was molded into locks with animal fat and hung down his back bound with a leather strap. He wore a sleeveless leather tunic that fit him like a second skin and black leather riding pants laced up the sides and tucked into the top of his tall riding boots. He had a long wide bladed knife strapped to his right thigh and a set of three daggers strapped to the other.
The man dismounted as he approached, moving from the horses back into a full stumbling run towards Bin. Bin stiffened as the man got closer. Bin soon understood the man's desperation and held up his full bladder of water. The dust-covered man snatched it out of his hands.
The man stretched back and tilted the bladder over his head. Water rushed over him, filling his mouth and running dark canals down his dry chest. The man's throat bobbed as he drank nearly half the water out of the bladder. After a long time, the man let go and sucked in a wet gasping breath.
"By all of the Gods above and below, there has never been such a sweet taste! The heaving breasts of the Mother Alvara herself never let a suckle so full of life as this."
The man paused for a moment, put a finger to his lips, and vomited every last drop of the water he had drank. He belched loud and looked at the wet patch under his boots.
"Now that is a damned shame."
Bin had already filled another skin from the well and brought it to the man. The man took the skin and sat down, sipping from the mouth of the skin.
"One would think I would have learned to drink properly after such a ride." He smiled up at Bin. "One would apparently be wrong. I thank you, my friend. I am San'Dakaar of Gazu Bedel."
"I am Bin." Bin turned to Vrenna. "She is Vrenna."
San'Dakaar's smile dipped down and his eyes widened slightly. "Hello, white flower." San'Dakaar smiled again. Vrenna's expression remained one of relaxed ambivalence.
"I thought I would die very soon. I was lucky to find this place."
"Indeed." said Bin, replacing San'Dakaar's skin with a fresh one. He saw tight corded muscles under the dust covering most of the desert rider's body. A long scar ran down from the ruins of San'Dakaar's left ear and down the side of his neck. The points and slopes of thin black tattoos slipped out from the edges of his leather tunic.
"What brings you to the desert, my friend?" said Bin.
San'Dakaar's dying mount brayed at the sky and fell over. San'Dakaar sighed and drew his knife from its sheath on his thigh as he stood and stepped over to the panting animal. With a single cut he spilled the beast's blood onto the ground in a gush of red. Bin heard the man whispering to gods who had long-since stopped listening to those of the desert.
"She was a great beast," said San'Dakaar, cutting strips of the horse's flesh from its flank. "She carried me three days longer than I expected and complained not at all when I fed her sisters instead of herself. I will no doubt answer to her in another life, but now, at least, we have food."
San'Dakaar drew two wide-lipped water bags, empty and deflated, from his saddlebags. He filled them at the well, whistling as the bags went down far deeper into the well than he obviously expected. He strapped the bags to the muzzles of his two remaining mounts. "These two drank better than I did for most of the trip. I'd have died if I drank it myself."
"You know the desert well." said Bin. San'Dakaar turned to Bin and smiled.
"My grandfather told me stories of the four wells of the Old Empire. He said our people fought in the desert battles that painted the sands red from the sea to the mountains. He was a drunk though, so who knows what in the five hells he really knew of it. I could only hope one of the wells still ran with water."
Bin looked to the stone well behind them.
"One still does."
San'Dakaar continued to cut meat from his dead horse. Bin noticed the resemblance between the horse and San'Dakaar himself. Both seemed built from tight tendons and sinew strung over bones like a bow. The only difference besides their species was that the horse was dead and the rider lived.
The three of them ate fresh horse meat from San'Dakaar's mount that night. The rest of the meat hung in strips on a wooden rack the rider assembled from his pack.
As they sat, listening to the fire crackle, San'Dakaar drank another loud gulp of water and smiled.
"Few know the true pleasure of water. They live in their thrones and hovels, not knowing what it is to really live." San'Dakaar breathed deep of the chilled night air. "I never know life until I am two weeks from the nearest city with three mouthfuls of water left and the red sun stealing my soul right out of my skin. Every day I spend in a soft bed, I grow weak and complacent. I watch death slide close like a lover. My body becomes soft and fat and my mind gets weak.
"Out here, I tear my life from death's grip with both hands. I can feel her cold hands on my shoulders and I rip away with every step. Out here I get lean and dry and strong. In the comfort of the cities, we just wait to die. Only out here do we truly live." San'Dakaar turned to Vrenna and Bin thought he caught the faintest smile on her red lips. "My white flower knows of what I speak."
"You said you came from Gazu Bedel?" said Bin. San'Dakaar looked at him for a moment.
"About three months ago, a Bedel merchant and his family stopped here. They had sold most of their goods to buy two Bisan to cross the desert.
"They said they sought refuge with the boy king in the mountains south of Gazu Kuul. They said Dan Trex's army would probably invade Gazu Bedel in a campaign against all of the four cities of the north and west." Bin paused. "Did he indeed invade?"
"No," said San'Dakaar ripping another piece with his teeth.
"Dan Trex's army still gathers around Gazu Kadem?"
"I know little of such things, old man."
"It was ninety thousand last I heard," Bin continued. "The merchant said the warlord gathered a force to storm the northern cities and dethrone every one of the false kings and princes, including the boy king."
"There is no boy king." said San'Dakaar.
The men grew silent as the stars shined in the black sky. The three of them looked to the huge red planet that crested the eastern sky. Below it, Bin could see the outline of the pitch black onyx moon - the demon moon. The fire burned low.
"I could sleep for a month, but a night will do." San'Dakaar stood and turned to Vrenna and smiled, the light of the red planet shining in his eyes. "Will you join me tonight, my white flower?" Vrenna returned his stare with the coldness of the black demon moon in her own eyes. San'Dakaar sighed. "I had hoped that in a desert as barren as this that any two creatures capable would seek any pleasure they could, but as you like."
San'Dakaar built a small tent with a stick and a cloth to shield his face and within minutes his snores chased across the sands surrounding the well.
Vrenna looked at Bin and then into the fire. She stared at its orange depths for some time before going to her own small tent. Bin put out the fire and went to his hut.
Bin awoke and found San'Dakaar washing his brown body with water from the well. Vrenna was stretching her body as she had the day before. Bin became self consious of his own thin and sagging physique but he had at least thirty years on the two of them. San'Dakaar, water dripping down his brown tattooed chest, smiled as he watched Vrenna. He turned to Bin, the smile not leaving his lips.
"The well cannot run out of water?" San'Dakaar asked.
"No," said Bin. "An underground river feeds it continually. In three thousand years it has never run dry."
"This single well has enough water for an army?" asked San'Dakaar staring down into its depths.
"It does. My father used to tell me stories of fifty thousand men crossing the desert using the four wells as rest stops across the way. With only one, I don't know if they could make it any longer," said Bin.
"A small army might," said San'Dakaar. "Perhaps ten thousand riders on desert horses with Bisan carrying the water between the city and the well. Three mounts for each rider."
"Perhaps," said Bin. He let the silence unfold between the three people. Vrenna, a thin sheen of sweat on her ivory skin, joined them. "Tell me of Gazu Bedel. I have never seen it."
San'Dakaar sat and bit off a piece of dried horseflesh. "It is beautiful. The domes of the old temples sit over the city like the skulls of dead titans. They are nearly twenty three hundred years old. Newer buildings of sand, mud, and clay circle the domes like colonies of ants. The people live and die in the streets from plague or disease or murder but the temples remain unmoving.
"The Danken of the city is a bastard boy still suckling at the breasts of his wetnurse. He is too young to know that corruption surrounds him and saturates the city. The merchant and slave lords rule there as they do in most cities."
"It sounds like Dan Trex will have little trouble marching into the city." said Bin.
"Five to ten thousand armed slaves and mercenaries keep the bandits and outriders from shaking the city but Trex could conquer it in a night. The city is unwalled. Gazu Suul and Tog Veel are bigger problems. Each city is fortified and the bandit lords have fifty thousand screaming desert riders ready to fall on the blade against Trex. Trex could take the two cities but it would take six months and another year to fortify them. That's a high cost when all he wants is Gazu Kuul." San'Dakaar paused and drank from his water skin. His body had regained its strength, it appeared. His skin shined in the red sun and his eyes were full of life.
"A year and a half is a long time," continued Bin. "Gazu Kuul would have all that time to prepare. I am sure word would spread the moment Trex attacked Gazu Bedel. They could hire sellswords and call on the mountain tribes. They could dig trenches, build walls, and build machines of war. With host armies split among four northern cities, his attacking host against Gazu Kuul would be small."
"It would." said San'Dakaar. The desert rider grew more agitated every moment the conversation continued. "Yet he must have Gazu Kuul.
"Ten thousand riders, if they could reach the city in six weeks, could surprise Gazu Kuul," said Bin. "The city would not have time to fortify or call for the mercenaries or tribes. If they came from the east, from the deep desert, there would be little defense at all. The city is defended from a northern attack but the east is open."
San'Dakaar's expression did not change but his eyes burned. "Ten thousand men cannot cross the desert without water."
"Unless they know of a place to get it," said Bin. "They would have to send a master scout to find it. A man likely to return. A man who does not fear death in the sands. A man who embraces it."
San'Dakaar stood on his feet and looked across the sands to the west before turning to look at Vrenna.
"If the boy king or his spies suspected that Dan Trex would send a scout, they might send someone to meet him," said San'Dakaar. "They would send someone to stop him and stop the word of the well from reaching back to Gazu Kadem.
"She would have to ride hard, though," San'Dakaar continued, his eyes not leaving Vrenna's own. "She would have to take only two horses to ride faster than the scout and reach the well first. She would have no horses for the return trip but she would not need them. The scout would bring his own." San'Dakaar kept his eyes on Vrenna, his right hand resting on his hip. "All she would have to do is kill him."
Bin grew cold even in the heat of the sun. His banter and riddling with San'Dakaar had entertained him but now it led to this much larger discovery. Bin cared little for the political shifts in the winds of the ancient cities now ruled by spoiled children. Now, realizing that the master scout of Dan Trex, warlord of the east, stood in front of him, Bin became aware of the balance he was witnessing.
Should San'Dakaar return to Gazu Kadem with word of the well, Dan Trex would send ten thousand riders west to Gazu Kuul. They would roar across the desert like a storm of steel and cut into Gazu Kuul's exposed eastern flank like the point of a spear. The fires would rise so high that Bin would see the red clouds from here and the screams of murdered children would echo across the dunes.
Should San'Dakaar not return, Dan Trex would assume the scout had died in the desert. He might begin a lengthy campaign against the three cities forming the northern arc between Gazu Kadem and Gazu Kuul. Or Dan Trex might consider the cost too high and abandon his campaign against Gazu Kuul. Perhaps a million lives would be spared.
It all balanced on these two travelers standing next to an old well in the middle of the desert. Bin, an old man who knew more people in dreams than he did in the reality of life, was the only witness.
The scope of the situation was not the only source of Bin's fear. He saw San'Dakaar with new eyes. The dark man stood unmoving, hands on his hips and his amber eyes on Vrenna. The woman stood as well, her gray cloak wrapped around her and her hood drawn. Only now did Bin realize the danger of these two people - two weapons of opposing kings.
No words passed. Hot wind blew over the camp. One of Bin's pigs snorted. The two desert travelers stood as still as statues. Bin gasped, realizing he held his breath.
He would never know who moved first. San'Dakaar's hand flew to the daggers on his belt and the next instant, all three shards of steel tore through the air.
Vrenna whirled, catching one of the daggers in the folds of her cloak. Her black blade flashed and Bin heard the ring of metal on metal as it cut the second dagger out of the air. The third scratched a thin line of blood across her cheek just under her left eye. Any difference in her movement and the dagger would have punched through her blue eye and into her brain.
San'Dakaar ran forward, drawing his long knife and slashing at Vrenna. Vrenna dropped low, her own blade cutting across as San'Dakaar's wide blade brushed just above her head. Bin saw severed dark hairs floating on the desert wind.
Bright red blood sprayed in a line against the sand. San'Dakaar turned, blood pumping from a gash under his right arm. His blade dropped to the ground. He smiled at Vrenna and fell to the sands.
Two days had passed since Vrenna and Bin had buried San'Dakaar in the sands. They shared no words but Bin saw the compassion in Vrenna's eyes. She had cut down a kindred spirit, another animal like her in this unforgiving desert.
They found a golden idol among his possessions, a horse with ruby eyes. The idol was worth the price of two small kingdoms. San'Dakaar had held the riches of ten thousand men in his hands but he cared for it not at all. Vrenna had buried it with him.
The red sun set in the west as Vrenna began her ride back to Gazu Kuul. Thick skins of water hung around both of her horses, once the horses of the scout of Dan Trex. She nodded her head to Bin as she left. Bin smiled back.
Bin watched her ride into the setting red sun, back to her city and the boy king for whom she had risked her life in the deep desert. After she had passed, Bin watched the winds wash away the signs of her travel. Soon, all that remained was her memory.
Copyright Michael E. Shea, 2006. All rights reserved. For questions or comments, please contact email@example.com.