AS SHE FLED, Rashali didn’t dare stop to look for signs of pursuit. The Kai-Kalle had warhorses; once the Kifa and his men escaped from the attacking birds, it wouldn’t take them long to catch up with her. But by the time she had put several miles between herself and the Kifa’s camp, there was still no one following her. Had the birds pecked Helku, Jeru, and their men to death? She could only hope, she thought with vicious pleasure at the idea. Gods preserve her from ambitious, lecherous men.
Her satisfaction at the fate she imagined for Jeru and Helku dimmed as she continued running. The relentless sun beat down without mercy, her mouth and throat were parched, and her stomach was knotted from hunger. Running into the desert with no water or food wasn’t the most intelligent thing she had ever done, she thought, but Zashtag had given her this chance and all she could do was throw herself on the goddess’s mercy and take it. Surely the goddess hadn’t helped her escape only to let her die of heat and thirst in the desert.
After a few more miles, though fear still urged her on, Rashali finally couldn’t take one more step. She dropped to the ground in the meager shade of a thorn tree. Despite the heat, she was no longer sweating—a more alarming sign than hunger, thirst, and fatigue combined. She pulled the shimmering feather from the stitching at the hem of her dress. Zashtag, you did not bring your daughter this far only to let her perish, did you? Zashtag, help me!
In response to her prayer, there was only emptiness; something that had always been there before, unnoticed, when she prayed to the goddess was now noticeable by its complete absence. True fear gripped Rashali’s heart—had the goddess indeed abandoned her? She closed her trembling fingers around the feather. “Help me!” Her voice came out as little more than a dry gasp.
To her left, a flock of small birds suddenly rose into the air with a rush of wings, and circled in place. It was probably nothing, Rashali told herself, trying to suppress the flare of hope she felt at the sight, but she was in no position to ignore any possible sign from the goddess. Stumbling on shaking legs, still telling herself it was nothing, she ran to where the flock was circling.
There, amidst a jumble of rocks on a low hillside, a stream sprang from the earth and flowed less than an arm-length before disappearing underground again. Rashali fell to her knees and drank of the cool, pure water, forcing herself to take only small sips so that she wouldn’t upset her parched, empty stomach.
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