Epilogue

"Is that... is that water?" Nitin asks hoarsely, his tongue darting hesitantly across lips as dry and cracked as the ground beneath them.

"Could be..." Imial coughs, his feet dragging along the packed earth. "Could be... mirage..."

"Thought... Al-Sina... were supposed to know..." There is a ghost of a smile on the Mihilman's face.

"Thought... Mihilae... were..." Imial counters, working his lips in and out in a desperate attempt to leech a little moisture out of the air.

"Bloody... stargazers." Nitin smiles properly this time, albeit briefly. "'S... 's water... think 's water..."

It is.

Only a shallow pool, barely ankle-deep, caught in the shade of a large rock, but it is water. Forgetting all else, they scramble to it, falling flat on their faces at the side of the puddle and gulping down the dusty water.

"Very graceful," Nitin remarks, when he is finished, raising an eyebrow and sitting up as Imial splashes water into his mouth with both hands, gulping it down as though he could never have enough. And he feels as though he never could; they have travelled for nearly three days since their water ran out, and his throat feels as dry as sand.

"Hypocrite," he retorts at last, sitting back on his heels and gasping for breath. The pool has almost halved in depth, and with a sigh of regret, he licks the drops of moisture reverentially away from his swollen lips and unties his empty flask from his belt.

Nitin says nothing, only laughs hoarsely and lowers his own flask into the shallow water.

They sit in the shade of the rock for hours, feeling the strength seep back into their limbs as they eat and drink for the first time in what feels like forever. They have fled far from the battlefield in the Northern lands, and far from the green, verdant fields. Now they lie in the dying light in the place the Northerners call South Gondor, and the Haradrim call simply Shal-Shayol – the home of death.

It is all too easy to see how it earned that name.

If the deserts of Harad are harsh, Shal-Shayol is ten times worse. Nothing lives here. Nothing moves. Even the ground stays resolutely solid compared to the shifting sands of Harad, but the dust storms are as bad or worse than anything either of the Haradrim has faced before. The skies are clear, cloudless and dull, burning overhead without shelter, but that is not what worries them; travelling alone is unfamiliar, but both Nitin and Imial are desert-dwellers by birth and breeding, and they know what to expect. The worst is that there are no secrets here. No rolling dunes that might hide a city, an oasis, a caravan; here, there is only flat, cracked earth, dry and merciless as fire.

"Do you suppose any of them survived?" Imial asks quietly, as the sun begins to set and they haul themselves upright into the dry, merciless cold of the night.

Nitin lowers his eyes. "It would be a miracle if they had," he says frankly, as they turn their backs on the faintest glimmerings of water that remain. "But we can always hope for miracles."

And there will always be miracles.

Tomorrow, there will be shade.

Days later, there will be water again.

Not long after that, there will be a hermit. A caravan. A town.

In time, there will be the border. Two weary pilgrims, returning to a shattered country. There will be a city. There will be a parting of ways.

For Nitin, there will be a new life. A travelling life. There will be hopes, and loves, and a life beyond this.

For Imial, there will be a new world. There will be another city, and a girl, and a wedding. Far from this battered place, there will be happiness. In time, a son, Zafar. A daughter, Amnur. There will be glories, and honours, and a future beyond this.

Some day, there will be a future for all Harad.

But for now, they can only keep walking, under the bright desert starlight, and keep on hoping for miracles.