by Dan Hiestand
“Ward was thrown out of here when the walls were half this high.”
Aquamarine (March) 12, 2013
Where other desert towns might have creeping vines or bright flowers to flaunt their water-wealth, Sandia was different. Relic couldn’t help but grin at the sight of ivy that had been carved along the mighty gates, leading as far as the gritty sandstone at their base.
The shadow of the gate loomed a long way over the path, giving them much-needed shade to cover their approach. Relic let himself fall behind, appreciating the stonework and the red-black wood of the gate. Ironwood, he noted. It must have been imported from a long ways off—
“Hard to imagine so much work was done so fast,” he said. “This was just a stockade, once.”
“No offense, Relic,” said Jace, “but ... why would anyone even come here? Voluntarily, I mean.”
“Scholars used to salivate over it. They’d travel for weeks to excavate temples out in the desert.”
“No digging,” Jace said firmly, gaze straight ahead as if his gray eyes could pierce the gloom.
“There could be expeditions going on even now,” Cedwyn said, and Relic shot him a grateful look—pleased someone could vouch for his observations. “Sandia stayed neutral during the old dust-up so the people here could still make money off travelers headed into Magonda.”
“And not get flattened,” Isabelle added primly.
“Yes,” Cedwyn conceded with a grim nod. “And that. Seems to have been pretty successful.”
The clip-clop of the Outriders’ steeds was muted as they made their way down the main road and toward the square. White sand glittered like glass in the purplish-orange dusk, the same color as the squat longhouses standing to either side. There was no sign of war damage. And yet—
An overturned wagon, overstuffed with dry hay, lay half-concealed by the multicolored awning of a shady alleyway. A few threadbare strands of rope, the edges scorched, snaked throughout the pile. Relic stopped to look at it, and Jace came alongside him.
Looks like some good fun for the kids, thought Jace.
Convicts probably burned in there, thought Relic.
Eventually, Jace eased away and Relic was obliged to follow.
There was something else they had all noticed—
Beside each door was a small statue: A griffon roaring or roosting. like the children of the ones at the gates. The space around each of the statues was piled high with stubby cigarillos. Here and there, a packet of browned paper wrapped in crimson twine stood out atop the piles.
A few scorch-marks ran across the cobblestone paths; whether new or ancient, none could say.
“There were lots of rough sorts here, too,” Cedwyn added, letting the implication hang in the air.
“So, that raises some questions,” said Jace, chewing on them slowly.
In the square, where other towns would erect a fountain, there stood instead a pavilion wide enough to protect a hundred people from the searing sun. In the swift-encroaching darkness, the structure was a great mouth none were eager to enter, especially on horseback.
A bronze statue of a spindly gentleman stood at the center: One hand outstretched in welcome, the other planted on his hip just above what Relic noticed was a crossbow very similar to their own. Utterly dismissive of his authority, two plump black birds were perched on him.
One lurked on the shoulder, while the other reigned uneasily over his crooked hat.
Relic felt a shiver go down his spine as they rustled and one locked eyes with him.
Something glinted, catching Jace’s searching gaze, and he murmured thoughtfully.
Glancing up, Relic saw it too: The faint specter of gold, miraculously untouched.
“The buckle there means he must have been the sheriff, once,” Relic explained, but he was only doing it to hear the comforting sound of his own voice. The other Outriders were locked in their own much less comforting thoughts. Finally, Jace gave voice to them all—
“Did everyone go to bed early tonight or what?”
Jace snapped his fingers to signal the others, and they began to circle the pavilion: Cedwyn and Isabelle going clockwise, Jace and Relic counterclockwise. Despite their caution, there was no sign of an ambush. There was, they were all realizing, no sign of anything.
Isabelle brought her mouth to Cedwyn’s ear as they lined up together.
“Why would Thean send us to a place like this? It’s so ...”
Her thought was interrupted as she realized Cedwyn was staring beyond to the next street. The full dark of night was nearly upon them now, yet it seemed no cooler than it was before; as his shoulder twitched once, she figured he was thinking about shedding his cloak.
Whatever Cedwyn had been searching for, he’d seen it—
“I honestly have no idea,” he remarked at last.
—or, perhaps more disturbingly, not seen it.
“You know,” Isabelle said, “I never believe you when you say things like that.”
Cedwyn chuckled, and shucked his cloak after all, taking it into one hand. His fingers twitched as if he might ball it up, but then he threw it over his forearm instead. With a roguish smile that looked more like someone else, he glanced back to Isabelle.
“I know Don’t worry, Iz – we’re surrounded by friends here.”
Before Isabelle could scold him for stating the obvious, he opened his palm to indicate the limestone griffons all around. At least one, standing on its hind claws with wings outstretched for balance, had been decorated with a necklace.
“Desert guardians,” she realized with a smirk. “That one looks kind of like a puppy.”
“They are supposed to be faithful protectors,” said Cedwyn. “Don’t know if they fetch, though.”
“We should send one back to Creed. They’d really liven up his tent.”
Cedwyn couldn't quite tell if she was kidding or not—
He winked anyway as he turned back to Jace and Relic, a few short paces ahead.
“What’s your call, fearless leader?”
Jace gazed down at Highfly’s big, brown eyes without answering. When the horse proffered no suggestion, Jace looked up again. “Exploring an abandoned town at night could be risky, but I don’t see what other choice we have. Better we go to the risk than it comes to us when it wants.”
“Relic knows this place pretty well,” Isabelle blurted.
Jace glanced over to Relic, whose abashed expression gave him away in an instant.
“How well?” he asked, his tone gentle—just a hint of impatience or nerves behind it.
“This was part of my dad’s route.” Seeing all eyes turn to him, he went on: “Every expedition leaving from Sandia had its own official timekeeper. They used to say the desert sand was alive and that it would swallow up whoever didn’t mind the time properly. So, we were here once a month to keep that from happening. All of that was years ago, but ...”
“It was never like this. People were always around at night – doing bonfires and things.”
Jace nodded. He was turning, preparing to leave it at that, when Relic broke in again—
“Up the street, on the right – that’s a pawn shop. The one next to it is a bookstore.”
“A bookstore,” Jace said levelly. “What kind of frontier town has one of those?”
“There were always plans to build a proper library, if I recall,” said Relic – leaving no doubt in his tone that he did. “But it was too hard to bring materials all this way on behalf of a town that could change hands any time. Ward was thrown out of here when the walls were half this high.”
Jace slid lazily out of the saddle, but his feet touched the ground with hardly a whisper.
“And how many times did Sandia change hands in all those decades, Rel?”
Relic raised one finger to his chin in thought.
“Well, zero,” he admitted. “But nobody could have guessed that back then.”
“And Ward,” Jace went on, clearly interested. “How exactly did they ...?”
“Accounts differ,” Relic said. “All agree on sheer bloody-mindedness.”
They each took a moment to appreciate this thought.
“Diamond formation?” Jace said under his breath.
Isabelle answered: “Are you asking or telling?”
Cedwyn and Relic exchanged a glance—
But Jace didn’t see. He was pulling in a deep breath, sweeping a hand across his face.
“Telling,” he said. “We’re in deep enough as it is. Threats could come from anywhere.”
“Good,” Isabelle said, dismounting easily and clicking quietly at Snow to follow her.
Relic and Cedwyn repeated the gestures – only Jace himself had no need to.
Highfly always followed, no matter where they were or what they were doing.
It was a fact that had no doubt saved his life on that night and many others.
“Alright,” he said in a slow drawl. “Let's mosey.”
Jace took the lead, his every step careful and purposeful. With Isabelle holding the all-important rearguard, Relic was on his left hand and Cedwyn on his right. Moving as one, they covered the streets from all directions – their vigilance maximizing their teammates’ safety and speed.
The formation could be loosened or tightened based on the leader’s movements, but their relative positions barely shifted an inch. Observed from above, it would have seemed a deadly dance: The swiftest and surest way to plunge deeper into the unknown.
As he kept his eye on the flank, Relic found himself wishing for lamps – or at least torches.
Oil, metal, even wood was rare and precious on the edge of the Magonda Desert. There was no sign of real effort to illuminate the streets, but strange salt-lamps dangled on ropes strung across the widest boulevards. Glowing faintly from within, they gave off pale, watery light.
The paths burned a faded, ruddy peach or yellowed ivory color where their halos struck.
In that light, Relic’s attention fell on a pair of massive horns.
They were affixed above the door of a low adobe building, and the hazy light funneling down on them made them glint just so. While others would have imagined a great steer, Relic knew better: These remains could only have come from a minotaur, yet none knew when or where.
Another impossible story of Sandia that had simply never left the desert at all.
Relic’s attention focused on that strange structure. He assumed by the faded murals on the walls that it was once a burlesque, yet that would not explain the massive bones – surely those of the same creature – that had been melded into the doorframe in such a way as to support it.
He imagined going inside only to find the interior was all bones and teeth—
A pang of anxiety gripped him, and as he looked down, he happened to note something else.
Relic let out a low whistle, the single note assigned to him to halt their party.
When he felt the others come to a stop, he eased into the shadows. He could feel Isabelle’s gaze boring into him, willing him to return as fast as he could. Relic did not look her way, but acknowledged her with a courteous wave. The others did not even flinch.
It was a ridiculous gesture – he knew that the moment he did it.
Sure enough, the last thing he heard as he left them was a huff from Isabelle.
The remaining Outriders adjusted, now a triangle pointing up the road toward the gate they’d left behind. In the distance, Jace could just make out their horses – trailing in lockstep with their respective riders. With every deeper hue the night took on, Snow seemed brighter.
Soon, though, Jace was looking down the road – at a closed tavern.
“Fancy a drink?” Cedwyn asked.
Jace flinched, not knowing his friend was there until the instant he spoke. He glanced up with a sour expression, then returned his attention to the building. In the fading embers of daylight, barely simmering now, the hitching-rack in front stood empty; the windows were dark.
The night was an elegy for Sandia, more a historical artifact than a present reality.
“Was just noticing they don’t have one of those weird statues,” Jace said.
“Good. That means there’s nobody to stop us from taking a turn at the tap.”
Jace let out a sigh of annoyance.
Relic’s absence was making him nervous—
“What are you doing over here, man?” Jace asked.
“Just thinking,” Cedwyn replied.
“Think over there, would ya?”
“I was just thinking we can’t do any reconnaissance on this town in the dark.”
Jace said nothing.
“Which it’s going to be in about ten—”
“I know,” Jace snapped. “Look ... I just ...” Jace let out a wordless grunt and kicked at something on the ground that wasn’t there. “I just don’t know what to do, alright? And every second this diamond formation is a line with a dot at the end formation just goes to show it.”
As Jace looked up again, the doubt in his eyes was chilling.
Relic returned to his place without a sound. The four began moving again; they were nearing a bright keyhole-shaped arch they’d only just glimpsed from above upon entering town.
And beyond that, who could say?
“You have an idea?” Jace asked Cedwyn.
Even as he spoke, he realized it himself.
“That building over there,” Cedwyn said.
“Big enough for the horses,” said Jace—
“Small enough to defend with four,” Cedwyn corrected. “We can put the horses in the one next to it.” He motioned to it with an upward nod. “In that pawn shop, or whatever Relic said it was.”
Jace ducked his head – a brief, grateful acknowledgement he hoped only Cedwyn would see. For his part, the elder Outrider was already fading into the shadows, falling back to his rightful position in the now-sharp diamond as it continued to press on.
Whatever Relic had seen – or not seen – he made no move to speak of it.
Probably just another bird, Jace thought. He really seems to like those.
“Yeah, I think that’s a sound plan,” Cedwyn said, pitched for the others to hear. “Good call.”
Whether the others would really believe it was his idea, Jace couldn’t guess. No doubt Knight had done the same for each one of them at different times. But that was not his priority now, as it might have been a few months before. What mattered most was that the advice was sound.
The stars would soon be out by the thousands, just as they were in the deepest part of the desert.
They hadn’t seen a darkness like this since—
Jace whipped around as if to turn his back on that thought. He took a few more steps backward and raised another set of hand signals, ordering the formation to collapse and the other Outriders to rally on him. In a matter of seconds, they were clustered beneath the sign of Ali’s Books.
It was all painted white: They could just make out a quill standing out in front of a sunburst.
“You do realize,” said Isabelle, patting Snow’s mane with her wrist as her crossbow bobbed up and down. “If we go in there, Relic may never come out.”
“I think we can risk it,” said Cedwyn. “He’s probably read most of the stuff in there already.” He looked back, and over, to his friend. “Whaddya say, Rel?”
The shop was at street level, with a private dwelling above. Steps led up to the shop door, but that’s not what Relic was scrutinizing. There, gouged inexpertly into the wood, was something that made him smile faintly: The symbol of one of the Republic’s great centers of learning.
Ivy, just like at the gate.
There was more to Sandia, he thought, than met the eye.
“No promises,” he said. “Dabriel. You mind if I take the lead on this one?”
“By all means,” Jace said, stepping back.
Cedwyn frowned a little, but only Isabelle saw.
Then, with no further hesitation, Relic climbed the steps and opened the door.