“You don’t get seasick, do you?”
His attention remained on the leather harness rather than on me, yet I heard a rather interesting lilt in his tone, as if he were remembering some past bloke who couldn’t hold his breakfast.
“It’s a similar feeling, a rocking, swaying with the muscles of her neck bunching between your legs. A different sort of barren landscape underneath.”
I swallowed against an instinctual bile rising to the back of my throat and neglected to answer for I’d never stood foot aboard anything large enough to sail the seas. “Have you ever been on an ocean?”
My curiosity was merely an attempt to distract myself from the wyvern clawing at the ground and sniffing at the dusty air, her focus pulled toward the erg filling the world to the east. Ruins of a distant time jutted from beneath the sandy layers nearby. Crenellations lingering long after the city had been claimed by the encroaching dunes.
The man snorted and patted his vest before tugging free a pair of hide-covered binoculars. “No, but wind-surfing the dunes sparks a similar feeling I’ve been told when you’re on the down side, a dropping in your gut, and I’d dune-surfed a few times in my youth.”
“Who told you they were similar?” I asked.
I had my doubts, as I’d dune-surfed as well and didn’t think it could possibly be comparable to being wyvernback. Not at all. On the sand, I had control of that board. Up there? I’d be at the beast’s mercy. And there was a whole lot farther to fall if I lost my balance.
“And old flame,” he muttered in answer as he scanned the horizon, then he passed the binoculars to me. “We go south, over the sinkholes, stop at the Ribcage for her to rest and then head on to Hollow Heights near dusk.”
“Longer still if we don’t get going.” He patted his girl’s neck, gloved fingers scratching at beige-scaled hide. The man himself, face leathery, short beard unkempt, clothes worn, yet clean, seemed content to merely stand there though. He’d been paid half already. I reasoned, if I backed out now, it’d been an easy payday for him even without earning the other half.
And backing out seemed more and more attractive the longer I stood there hesitating. Couldn’t seem to move myself closer to that wyvern, my heart beating a rapid rhythm and my mind tricking me into thinking I was in danger. Sweat broke out on my neck. My legs screamed for me to run.
“Her name is Preen. Likes compliments and jewelry. To a girl’s heart.”
When I didn’t move, his eyebrow quirked and a resigned smile that held a hint of irritated empathy flickered across his face. “She’s a nableclaw. Small, swift and friendly to boot. You’ll be in safe hands.”
My chest squeezed, the air so dry I felt as if could feel my lips cracking. “Give me a moment.”
The words came out sharper than I’d intended, but I didn’t correct myself as I spun abruptly and strode away, needing to be out of reach of the wyvern, my fear an animal in its own right, clawing up my spine, ripping through my skin, pouring from my pores like burning magma.
Along the edge of the rocky mound, I paused and leaned, staring longingly to the northwest where the plateau around Springhaven stretched. The small city—home—couldn’t be seen, not from this height, not from this distance, but I knew it to be there, hidden beneath the plateau.
The man’s boots scuffed the rock behind me. “You’re not a dune crawler or a wyvernback. What’s in the Wastes for you to do this?”
What indeed. More like a who. A man I wasn’t even sure would be happy to see me.
I knew I could convince myself of the uselessness of this trip easily enough. I also knew I’d forever ask myself what if…
What if I hadn’t let this fear stop me from going to him? Hadn’t let it be the end of us. Continue reading