Argh argh argh. Finally.

PREVIOUSLY

The Trinity caravan set foot on Leuda, while Fiona and the Dezeltans set off for the Fumside coast in hopes of advancing the Trinity cause.

Chapter 21: The Desert Beckons

"Get off," Sera snapped at the little Selkie girl who danced beside her.

The innocently grasping fingers withdrew immediately from the handle of her loosely hanging weapon in the face of her vehemence, but Sera did not relax in the slightest. The term 'light-fingered' had virtually spawned here on Leuda, and it did not pay at all to slacken vigilance against thieves unless, of course, you were the thief.

The Trinity caravan made their way through Leuda's sparse dwellings on their way to the Lynari path, keeping tight in line. Sera led the way, loping easily and deflecting curious glances with icy indifference. Behind her came Mioko, who hid their money bag in her voluminous sleeves; Ciaran was right at her shoulder, and Kass lagged a few paces behind at the back.

Confidence was currency on Leuda. If you were tough, you would be left alone. If you were perceived to be weak, you would be a victim. It was as simple as that. As newcomers to the island community, the Trinity-landers were attracting a fair amount of attention. Mioko was handling it the worst of all, nervous in the extreme as calculating eyes watched her from behind colourful but tattered canvas flaps. Sera was beginning to think it had been a bad idea to entrust the money to her, since it was no more hidden behind Mioko's sleeve that it would have been at Sera's belt. It was too late to take it back now though, and so Sera strode on towards the cliff pass as if she hadn't a care in the world, tossing her hair whenever anyone looked her way until eventually no one paid her the slightest attention.

Ciaran too had almost faded into the background in the eyes of onlookers, hands never anywhere near his sword to indicate his fear of having to use it - but yet somehow contriving to boldly flaunt its presence. He was not an easy target, and therefore ignored. Kass, even with his outlandish looks, was attracting far less attention than anyone. No Selkie wanted to mess with the Lilty youth with the hooded eyes and strangely hunched posture. The boys exuded their confidence in their own way, Ciaran being charismatic and absorbing the interest as if he was used to it, and Kass reflecting it back as if he did not feel it.

So it was that all the hostile intent of the Leudans was focused upon Mioko – or, more importantly, the slightly jingling gil pouch she carried.

The adults did little about it, merely lounging alone on sun-baked rocks or huddling in sullen, shady groups in the knowledge that mugging a caravan was not worth the physical or moral repercussions. The Selkie children had no such qualms, however, and as the group had passed the jumping net earlier they had tagged along. Initially it had been Kass that had sparked their curiosity, as most had never even seen a Lilty up close before. Now though, the thought of hundreds of gil to be stolen and potential stories of adventure drove them to doggedly pursue the caravanners until patience wore thin.

"I said, hands off."

The girl hopping along near Mioko started at Sera Li's reprimand and spiralled away, only to return in step with her at the front.

"You're from a caravan," the girl stated expectantly.

"I don't want to talk to you," Sera gritted. It was difficult to keep an eye on all of the following children at once anyway without having to hold a conversation, as no doubt this girl knew. Unperturbed, the child pressed her. "Where you from?"

"Trinity," replied Sera.

The child cocked her head. "Never heard of it. Can't be important if I haven't heard of it."

"It is to me," Sera said absently.

"You know Dah Yis?" the girl asked, instantly shifting the conversation onwards to, in her opinion, a more interesting topic. "He's on our caravan."

"Met him a few times," Sera replied, and chanced a look downwards. This one had bright copper-orange curls threaded with yellow beads and a small bouncing step; sensing the observation from on high, the girl looked up. Brown eyes. "You look like him," Sera added, "got the eyes."

"He's my cousin," the girl grudgingly admitted, as if the information was a reward for Sera's deductive skills. "What's your name?"

When Sera did not indulge her with an answer, she offered hopefully, "Mine's Ti Koo. There, now you have to share."

"Sera Li. Now get your grubby little mitts off my racket before I beat you with it."

Ti grinned, evidently used to such threats. "I c'n run fast."

"I can shoot accurate," Sera shot back. "Aura magic. Last kid tried robbing us got turned into a vase."

Ti Koo's grin flickered. "You're lying."

Sera hefted her racket casually, tossing it from hand to hand. "Wanna try it?"

"No," Ti said quickly. She cast a look over her shoulder, and then smiled a bright smile up at Sera. "What's the code of the Selkies?"

"Take everything you can get," Sera said, "and always... always look out for yourself."

"That's right," Ti Koo chuckled, then dropped out of sight. A split second later Mioko screamed in alarm as the tiny child sped by, tearing the gil pouch from her hands and neatly skipping past Ciaran's fumbled grab.

Damn it all! Sera raged as Ti slipped through her friend's grasp and away from the Clavats.

Evidently feeling like escape was inevitable, Ti didn't pay nearly enough attention to Kass. The Lilty bulled into her side with all the force he could muster, sending her to the ground with bruising strength. Before she could even realise what had happened, he'd snatched the money back.

"Hey!" Ti wailed, big fake tears welling up in her eyes and voice loud enough to cause nearby Selkies to look up menacingly. "You hurt me! You knocked me over!"

As Kass ignored her whining and got up, tossing the money bag to Sera, Ti scrambled upright and latched onto his arm with the ferocity that can only be mustered by Selkies parted from treasure. "You stupid little- "

Kass turned to look directly at her; Ti Koo got a perfect view of Kass' eyes, broiling black and indigo in all their hellishly unnatural glory. She bolted away without another word. The Lilty watched her go, only half puzzled as to why his face had had such an impact.

"Kass," Sera murmured as she slowly became aware of the suddenly renewed hostility of the locals. "Nice catch and all but let's get out of here."


On escaping the cluttered town the Trinity caravan began the arduous but fairly shallow climb up the cliff-face path towards the desert path. Looking down, Sera saw just how shabby the cloth awnings littering the port were. They clung to the bottom of the cliff as if without its support they would fall away; it was the only place on this accursed island that offered any shade. Very little grew in Leuda that wasn't bracken or bleached by the heady sunlight. What was the point in ploughing dust? No, Leudans filled their days with idle work – casual robbery and fleecing the occasional unwary caravanners with extortionately priced battle goods.

Ultimately, it was the same thing.

The path the four caravanners followed took jagged turns as it wound ever higher, doubling back constantly as if it was trying to get away from itself. No doubt it mimicked the feelings of every Selkie on the island, including Sera. Why stay here? Because there's nowhere else to go.

Gods, Sera thought. Is it any wonder the Selkie race has ended up the state it's in?

Eventually they reached the top of the cliff pass and came upon the two marker stones. According to the map that De Nam had bequeathed to Sera – she swallowed hard as she unfolded it – these stones indicated the start of a half mile trek to the boundary of the Lynari desert. Apart from this, the map was woefully incomplete, marking only major rock features that would allow the traveller to orientate themselves. Most of the parchment was merely blank.

"That's a lot of sand," Ciaran remarked blandly. "Doesn't it say anywhere where the myrrh tree is?"

Sera shook her head. "If it does, I don't see it."

"What's the little path here?" Mioko pointed to what amounted to little more than a neat, winding squiggle. "It's not connected to anything else."

"Not sure. Probably a cartographer's note that never got finished. Kass, there's a well over there. Go fill up the water flasks."

Kass did so obediently while Sera aligned the group's tiny compass – also De Nam's – to decide their initial directions. When she was done, Sera folded the map and handed it to Mioko so that the Clavat could put it in her pocket. As Mioko did so her hand brushed against the poem hastily scribbled by Zephyr two weeks ago. She frowned, and pulled it out.

"What's that, Mi?" Ciaran inquired.

Her eyes widened with recognition. "Oh! Fiona gave this to me before we left – she says Gurdy reeled it off when she mentioned the Lynari desert to him. Zephyr wrote it down."

For a moment all four of them stood looking in perplexity at the perfect rows of copperplate text.

"What is this?" Kass broke the silence on his return.

"Looks like nonsense to me," Sera muttered. "Told you he was a striped apple short of a fruit basket."

Mioko, however, was looking round with interest.

"What?" Sera asked.

The Clavat shrugged. "I was just checking how many rocks there are here."

"Why?"

"Look here," Mioko tapped the paper. "Three rocks await the winter's kiss."

"There's only two," Kass informed her.

Mioko sighed, but brightened almost immediately. "Oh, but look! In the land that quicksands claim – quicksand! That must be something to do with this place."

"Mioko," Sera interrupted heavily. "Stop it please. They aren't related. Gurdy is a cheat. He probably made the poem up on the spot to impress Fiona."

"He can't have made it up on the spot," protested Mioko. "This might be important! There might be only two rocks here but there could be another somewhere else, and this cactus too – it might have something to do with our job!"

"And Bal Dat might not have drowned in the sea but I'm not swimming round looking for him, am I?" Sera snapped. "We're here to look at the myrrh tree. That's all. Then we're going back to the mainland so that Amidatty can boss us about and send us on some more fool's errands. So no more about riddles made up by a madman. We've got enough impossible things to do as it is!"

Mioko had shrunk back during Sera's onslaught and now she looked a lot smaller, as if the words had diminished more than her confidence. As the Selkie glared at her, she said nothing. Even Ciaran and Kass, who would have otherwise sprung to the meek Clavat's defence, remained quiet and stared fixedly at the nondescript sandy ground. Sera hadn't been the same since they got off the ferry.

"Which way do we go?" Mioko whispered, valiantly trying to pretend nothing had happened. Sera flung out an arm northward, along the path between the burnt out shrubs and dry grasses. Head as high as she could lift it, Mioko started to walk. The others followed in silence.


They reached the Lynari desert boundary at two hours before midday on the first day. Sera and Ciaran were taking their shifts at carrying the makeshift tents the caravanners would use during their search for the tree. The sun beat down heavily on all four, and Kass in particular was glad that he had given in to Sera's demands that he leave most of his armour behind. He was sweating even in just his light steel breastplate (he'd left his grandfather's armour in the caravan at the port under the watchful eye of the captain), and his arm ached from hefting his lance.

Mioko was struggling most noticeably; more than five times she had stumbled and had to snatch at Ciaran's arm for support. Ciaran, after she had tripped into him for the umpteenth time, patiently took her hand and kept hold of it. Her shoes were sturdy, perfect for walking, and Mioko had thought that after trawling Selepation Cave in her second year she had blisterproofed her heels completely. And yet this sand defied the imagination! It shifted at the last second so that she was putting all her weight on a collapsing ankle – it got in her shoes and made her feet raw. Already Mioko could feel the skin on her head tingling and knew she was getting sunburn. She cast a look ahead at Sera and saw the Selkie loping along, not quite with her usual grace but adapted enough to the terrain already that she didn't slip.

"The boundary is here," Sera proclaimed, after Mioko had thought she couldn't stand it any longer. The Selkie turned to look back and instantly kicked herself. She had set a hard pace, forgetting that her friends were much less suited than she to Leuda's harsher climes, and they were clearly suffering. Mioko's cheeks were burning bright pink, Ciaran's hair was tousled and damp with sweat and Kass was breathing more heavily than she'd ever heard before. They looked exhausted, while she was ailed by the slightest of an increase in heart rate and a slowly developing tan.

"Do – do you want to take a break?" she offered tentatively, looking at Mioko. The Clavat, understanding it for the apology that it was, smiled nervously back.

"I think I might need one," Ciaran quickly said, knowing how Mioko hated to be a burden. If Mioko felt she was not the only one in difficulties she would accept, rather than pressing on and tiring herself. Knowing this, Sera exchanged a thankful glance with him; Ciaran accepted her silent apology as well.

They sat for twenty minutes, taking sparing drinks of water and gazing back the way they had come. The air danced on the horizon, making the distance they had walked impossible to judge.

"What now, then?" Ciaran said. "Where do we start looking?"

"Well..." Sera began, but it was clear she had no idea how to end the sentence. For the first time, the Trinity caravanners glanced ahead and into the desert.

"Oh," Mioko said softly.

The shrubs faded out just a few feet away to give way to an expanse of sand so vast that Mioko would later describe Lynari desert as 'the second sea'. It was beautiful, a shimmer of gold that flickered in the heat that rose from it in clouds, curving away as far as they could see in a series of undulating dunes. But, as Mioko looked at it again, she saw that it wasn't pretty after all. It was dead. Just like the rest of Leuda, nothing much grew – and plenty had died. With a shiver, she took another fortifying sip of water and clutched her flask to her chest as if somehow that would ward away the dangers they faced heading into this place.

"Mi?" This was Ciaran. Sera and Kass were already on their feet, brushing sand from themselves. Ciaran hunkered down so that his face was level with hers. "Are you alright?"

"Mmm," she mumbled, "I suppose."

She reached for his hand and they pulled each other upright.

"We'll have to be methodical about this," Sera muttered. "Let's... let's head east and comb the first quarter. See if we can find anything useful – "


End of chapter

Oh my goodness.

Thanks for your patience everyone. Fingers crossed, updates should now be arriving in the first week of every month and we'll try and take it from there :)