The warming sand shifted beneath the hooves of the two horses, leaving impressions that half-filled as they passed. The Death Sands, the people called them. Sand that whirls into stinging tornados suddenly, swallowing travelers and landmarks like a brown sea.
Niyeen pressed down in her stirrups, and twisted to glance behind her. Barepset was some distance behind, and she slowed for him.
“My lady,” Barepset said as soon as he was within earshot. “It is futile. Let thy noble father rest in peace.”
“I must find him.”
“The sands do not give up their dead. What can be found, some eight months afterward? We could travel right over the resting-place, and see nothing. Worse, we can be caught out in this wretched place, without shelter, and suffer the same fate as thy father and his men.”
“We would see an approaching sandstorm in sufficient time to make it to the Kered tower.” The Kered tower was a stone watchtower from some ancient city long buried in the sand, and had sheltered many unwary travelers from the frequent sandstorms.
Barepset shook his head. “Thy father thought likewise, but never reached the tower. His desire to reach the Well of Wisdom and drink of those enlightening waters drove him to his death.” His gaze traveled beyond her, at the endless wind-sculpted dunes of sand. “Hist! What is that?”
He pointed, then his arm dropped. “Nay, it was but a trick of these old eyes. I thought I saw a glitter in the sand, like the light of a thousand diamonds.”
“The Death Sands are places of betrayal, captain.” So saying, Niyeen set her face resolutely to the west, and spurred her horse to a quicker pace, leaving Barepset to grumble behind her.
As they continued, Niyeen recalled the memories of the last few days. Her nurse, Sahadi, had implored her with many tears to turn from her purpose.
“Is it not enough that thy noble father was lost to the sands?” she asked. “Did Captain Barepset’s words do nothing to dissuade thee? Only he and a small number reached the tower, for thy father remained at the rear to spur on the slowest, despite the captain’s entreaties. Wouldst thou lose thy life in the same manner—valuing courage above wisdom?”
“I need my father’s signet jewel, Sahadi.”
“What is a jewel to thy life?”
“If I do not bear it, I cannot rule.” Her dark eyes flashed fire at her nurse. “Yes, Sahadi. I know the whispers of the palace. In the absence of a male heir, I must marry a neighboring king, perhaps the king of Pagal, who has been so attentive to me, and so transparent in his desire for my kingdom. But if I wore the jewel, I could command on my own, choose to marry whom I wish, and retain the independence of our nation.”
Sahadi blushed, stammering, “My child, it is the way of kingdoms.”
“I am adamant, Sahadi.”
“If the sand does not swallow thee, the desert dragons will eat thee.”
“The sand owes me answers, and the dragons I do not fear.”
Sahadi fell to her knees at Niyeen’s feet, and touched her forehead to the young woman’s dress in supplication. “Aiee, child! Have thy solitary wanderings in the desert turned thy head? Or is it thy great grief?”
“I was not alone when I wandered,” Niyeen replied. “And my grief has not broken me. Arise, Sahadi. I leave at the morning light.”
Barepset had made great lamentations upon learning of Niyeen’s purpose, but had, at last, reluctantly agreed to her request that he alone accompany her. “My sword is thine, my lady, as it was thy father’s. Only let us not gamble life wantonly. We shall move from shelter to shelter, that we may have refuge should a storm arise.”
On the morning of departure, Sahadi gave Niyeen a silver chain with a pendant in the shape of a dragon with an emerald eye. “They say that dragons desire things that glitter, like themselves. Perhaps, if thou shalt meet one, this jewel will be a ransom for thy life.”
“I have greater fear of the wiles of men,” Niyeen replied, slipping it about her neck. “But I shall wear it, for thy sake.”
Emerging from her memories, Niyeen glanced behind and measured the distance between herself and Barepset. He still lagged, over an arrow’s flight away. Impatient, Niyeen spurred her horse up the slope of a dune that seemed to warp into liquid before her eyes.
Her gaze roved the sands, then narrowed. In the distance, the dark spire of the Kered tower interrupted the endless undulations of amber. On one horizon, the sky seemed smudged with brown. And a little below her, the sands glittered.
“It is here,” she said, and, swinging from the saddle, led her horse down the slope, and began to stir the sand with her feet.
“My lady…” Barepset said, as he crowned the hill.
“Help me dig.”
Reluctantly, the captain dismounted and obeyed. For a time, they worked silently, thrusting the toes of their boots into the sand and leaving shallow impressions. The cooler sand was darker, and the nearby dune offered some small shade, thus affording some relief from the heat of the naked sun.
Then a scrap of scarlet appeared where Niyeen’s toe had dug a moment before. In an instant, she was on her knees, scooping handfuls of sand away. Barepset paled, but, at her command, came to assist her.
The sand preserved what the creatures of open air would consume. A hand soon appeared, stiff in death, followed by a face.
“One of the soldiers,” Niyeen said soberly.
Barepset glanced up at the sky. “My lady, we should make for the tower.”
“Not now, captain.”
Sighing, he turned back to the task at hand, casting a sideways glance at the young princess. They found a bridle next, then a horse, then another soldier.
“Thy father could be within a mile’s radius of here,” Barepset said, losing his temper.
Niyeen lifted her eyes, and scanned the dunes, as though evaluating. “No. He is here.”
“How couldst thou know? Even I, who have been here before, cannot tell one hill from another.”
Niyeen touched a dark place on a soldier’s uniform, and said nothing. Then she continued to dig. As the shadows began to lengthen, and stripe the landscape in black like a tiger, Niyeen overturned the corner of a purple robe. Barepset sucked in his breath, and began to dig.
“No.” Niyeen’s hand restrained him. “This is my task now. Stand away.”
He retreated, and she dug, kneeling, her back to him.
“Didst thou notice?” she asked, after a moment.
“Notice what?” the captain replied.
“The soldier was wounded in the chest. A knife wound. And the horse. It had been hamstrung.”
He was silent.
Niyeen turned, and asked calmly, “Why dost thou hold a drawn dagger in thy hand?”
Her dark eyes held his. For a moment, neither moved nor spoke. Then Niyeen said, “How long hast thou been in the pay of the king of Pagal? Will he approve of the murder of his intended bride?”
“Thou art not so indispensible as thou might believe,” Barepset snapped.
“Nay,” she half-smiled. “The crown of my kingdom would look as good on thee, would it not?”
She paused, then added, “My father did not reach the Well of Wisdom. But I did, before I ever asked thee on this journey. I know now the answers that he sought, the reasons for the unrest in the kingdom. And that answer stands before me.”
“None finds the Well of Wisdom unless he overcomes the dragons who guard it,” Barepset snarled. “Thou art but a child. Speak no lies to thy elders.”
Niyeen merely looked at him, then flicked a finger.
Suddenly, the two horses snorted and danced anxiously in the sand, ears swiveling. Then, without warning, they both leapt forward and streaked over the next dune. Barepset chased them, but returned a few minutes later, empty-handed and grim.
“A sand storm approaches.”
“Take no leave of thy father,” he snarled. “Thou shalt be with him—by sand or by my hand. If thou shouldst step one foot in the tower, it shall be blood to thee.”
Niyeen rose and again, her half-smile teased him. “I shall not follow.”
Barepset turned and sprinted for the tower. Niyeen observed the ominous duskiness in the southern sky, and watched Barepset’s running form shrink with distance.
“He will not reach the tower,” she said, as though to herself. “I lingered too long.”
Behind her, the sands glittered.
When the roar of the storm became still, and the sands ceased to shudder beneath her feet, Niyeen pressed her palm against her covering and it slid away, sand sliding from its sparkling surface. She stepped into the coolness of the new night, and observed the first stars. Then she turned to catch the reflection of celestial light from two silver eyes. Even in the darkness, the brilliance of the creature remained undimmed, a creature like sand and diamond. Its wings—her shelter against the storm—lay folded against its lithe body.
Niyeen touched the pointed nose where the hot breath blew. “I thank thee,” she said softly, “for leading me to my father.”
She uncurled her fist, and a carved ruby flashed from a golden signet ring. “As thou hast been my protector these many months, and especially today, I shall be thy friend, and give thee all the advantages of a queen’s favor.”
She removed Sahadi’s talisman from her neck, and offered it. A clawed paw extended and took the jewel.
Then Niyeen turned her face toward her home.