Caladen poked the bundle of black fur with the steel toe of his dust covered boot. The mound rolled forward, the heavy fur cloak flapping loose to expose the pale face of what used to be his friend Rolan. His mouth hung slack, the tongue lolling as the the head wobbled back and forth in parody of the life it once held. His pale blue eyes stared vacantly up at Caladen who bowed his head and cursed under his breath.
As a Captain in the great army Caladen had seen his share of dead men. From enemies he hacked to pieces like so much rotten wood, to friends he’d held in his arms, promising they’d be fine even as their torn guts steamed in the cold winter sun. This was something else. A few short weeks ago Rolan had been in the peak of health then as the days went on his back began to stoop, his step to falter and then last night he had fallen and could not rise. It felt as though he’d watched his friend age before his very eyes from the boisterous young warrior, he’d been when the journey began to the frail old thing that lay panting and sobbing in the sand. Caladen had called a halt to the march, hoping the rest would see his old friend return but in his heart of hearts he knew that his friend was dead.
Caladen shook off black fingers of depression he felt tickling the edge of his mind. He was here for a great purpose, when that was complete he would let himself grieve but now he had to stay strong. He took a deep breath and when he lifted his head his eyes were clear and his mind focused. “Take anything of value and bury the body,” he said to to his squire Tad who was hanging back a respectful distance. “You have half an hour and then we start out again.”
Caladen struggled to his feet his muscles protesting as he slowly dragged himself out of the sandy depression that had been his bed for the night. His head swam and spots danced before his eyes. He doubled over screwing his eyes shut as the world tilted violently about him. He stayed that way eyes screwed shut teeth grinding until eventually after what felt like an eternity the world settled back to normality. He straightened again, slower this time and when opened his eyes there was nothing but the clear blue sky and the endless sea of sand.
Caladen looked behind him to his makeshift camp. Men were spread out below him in a small valley in the shifting sand. one or tow had tried to build crude shelters out of swords and cloaks but many had simply collapsed where they stood. Most of the men were snatching a poor breakfast of hard tack and dried beef before the long march started again; other walked between the still forms to wake the men still sleeping or strip the dead of any valuables; with each day of the march the later was happening much more than the former.
Caladen turned away with a sigh, his squire would be by soon with the tally of the dead, then they would continue their march. They no longer buried the bodies, they couldn’t spare the energy. If they made it across the desert by nightfall he’d have lost maybe a quarter of his men; if it took another week he’d likely lose half. It was hard but everything worth having was, they would make it God had promised him.
He fished his water skin from his belt squeezed some of the stale warm water into his mouth; the pain in his throat went from a scream of agony to a low murmur. Distant but always there at the back of his mind. He felt the eyes on his back and turned to where a man was staked out naked on the hot sand. Tears filled his eyes as he looked at Caladen with a look of pain and desperation. Caladen walked over to him and squatted down patting him on the head.
“Do you repent Olson?” he asked with in a kindly voice. “Do you repent for your blasphemy?”
The bound man nodded frantically, he tried to speak but the gag in his mouth muffled his words.
“You understand that God’s word cannot be questioned.”
The man nodded again.
“When God told us we would cross the great desert and find the rich lands beyond he was right was he not?”
“Thank you, I’d hate to leave knowing I’d lost a soul as well as a man.” Caladen stood. The man shouted through his gag and thrashed against the bonds, his muscles straining and tears running down his face. “Hush now, you’ll be with God soon.”
He turned to see his page waiting a respectful distance, at Caladen’s nod he approached and handed him a piece of paper tallying the dead. Caladen pushed it into his pocket unread and signalled for Tad to sound the advance. A horn sounded and the men shouldered their packs and trudged forward, not one sparing a glance for the sobbing man staked out to die.
Caladen’s knees gave out half way up the huge sand bank and he collapsed to the floor choking on the endless red sand. He started to rise then with a heavy sigh he crumpled back to the floor. “Just five minutes,” he said his voice rasping out in a hoarse whisper. They’d run out of water two days ago, or was it three? Caladen couldn’t remember. The days all blurred into one now. Just hours and hours of focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, ignoring the grinding of his joints until the light began to fade and he collapsed into a fitful, dreamless sleep. The pain in his stomach and burning in his throat we like old friends now, they were all that spoke to him in his small world of putting one foot in front of the other. He knew some of his men still lived for when he collapsed at night he heard them fall to the hard sand behind him, but gone were the songs, gone were the jokes all that remained were their ragged breaths and the dull thuds as one by one they fell and didn’t rise.
Had it been five minutes? A part of him was screaming for him to stand but it was a small part, small and quiet; the larger part whispered in his ear voice like honey. “Just five minutes more, then you’ll be ready to move, just five minutes more.”
He lay that way for what could have been a minute or an eternity then he felt a hand on his shoulder and the breath of a voice on his ear.
“What’s the matter Caladen, Don’t you trust me?”
He opened his eyes and saw the gleaming silver mask of Saraas, Saraas the Immortal, Saraas the God-King. Tears flooded Caladen’s eyes and his body was wracked with sobs. “My King, My God I have failed you. I have been weak when you asked me to be strong. I have stopped when you bade me continue. I have lost those you tasked me to protect. I have failed you.” Caladen’s broad shoulders shook as he sobbed bitter tears.
Saraas lifted him to his feet as if he were light as a child and with his arm over his shoulder he started to walk slowly up the sandbank. “You haven’t failed me Caladen,” he said softly.
“But I have failed my King,” wailed Caladen. “You asked me to cross the great desert as you once did, but I was too weak. I have failed.”
“Did I fail then?” asked the God-King. “You travelled as far as I did.” As The Saraas said this he saw a young man, his feet bare, his once fine clothes torn and stained stumble through the desert and collapse to the floor. Caladen and Saraas walked slolwy over to the young man and looked at his face. Caladen gasped. The face was thin and drawn but there was no doubt it was the same face carved into the silver mask of the man beside him.
“I too fell,” said Saraas waving to the young man laying in the dirt. “And when I thought I could go no further a man came and helped me take those final steps.”
As Caladen watched a small boy, no more than ten or eleven came over the top of the dune and seeing young Saraas in the dust ran over to him. He pulled a small skin from his belt, poured some water into Saraas’ mouth and helped him to his feet. Then the pair, with Saraas leaning heavily on the young boy climbed the sand bank and disappeared.
“As Kerodin was there for me I am here for you,” said the God-King by his side. “We shall take these last few steps together.” And so leaning heavily on Saraas, Caladen climbed the last few feet to the top of the sand bank. When he reached the top he saw not more sand rising forever in the distance but a vast range of mountains and at their foot a river.
“We made it,” rasped Caladen. “We really made it.” But when he looked over the God-King was gone and he stood alone looking down on salvation.