I fell in love with a dragon boy when I was seventeen. The dragon train—five creatures long—camped near Grimpiper in the days before it crossed the Great Divide. Beyond the stones lay the Dead Red Heart. Our ’stead nestled in amongst the shadow dunes. Close enough to the Sand Road, not too close to its bandits and its warlords.
We’d been pushing our water wheels across miles of stone when the kite went up. Blue tail flags might mean many things but this time blue meant dragons. We dropped the wheels and ran up Puckers Ridge. Right to the top and there they were, five dragons chewing through wild melon fields below. Thick-set creatures, bellies low to the ground.
We risked a whipping, abandoning our wheels like that, but dragons were too tempting to pass up. Nothing ever happened out Grimpiper way. We could not know then that the train would camp for three full days, and when it left, I would be leaving too.
The youngest of his tribe, he was. His beast trod last in line. His dragon smaller than the others by a head. Broad, flat teeth ripping through dune melon stems.
“Does it bite?” I asked.
Iago (I didn’t know his name back then) shot me a playful grin. Tossed me one of the loose dune melons. I held it coyly, watching him stand so close to that chomping mouth. Close enough to make the other girls shriek. He tossed the melon. The dragon snapped it up. “You try,” he said and so I did, dallying with the beast for hours, until Carlina and her Noahan witches came streaming down the dunesides, waggling their palm frond shades, weighted down with baskets of throwing stones. Chanting lists of animals that had been rescued by the boat and how no dragons were written on that list. Dragons were abominations, made by human hands. The same dab hands that brought the Ruin down. All misborn beasts must be driven across the Great Divide, was what they preached. That, and a host of other, darker things.
I didn’t care about what Noahan witches said. Their praying and their whining never rose the water table or brought the rain or caused the crops to grow.
Iago’s people were tall and dark, dressed in sand cloaks, deep blue like the night. Merchentman—or so I thought—with ancient rifles slung across their shoulders. For show, they were, not fighting guns, but you never could be sure with Heartland folks.
Carlina stared with big wide eyes when she saw that thunderstick, all chipped and grey and mounted on spindle legs. A fearsome thing, even with its fire drained.
“For serpente hunting,” Iago told me.
Iago’s uncle never said a word. He stared me down as the Noahan’s chanting drove the other girls away. I ignored them all, keeping up the melon game, watching lithe, brown-skinned Iago unwrap his turban and shake his long hair free.
Couldn’t keep my eyes off him. We fucked in the shade of a withered copse of palms. Didn’t care who saw us. Didn’t even wait for night to fall.
“I’m not afraid of your uncle,” I told him.
“You should be,” his reply. Later, he told me how the dragons were not really dragons. Lizards, more like. Creatures bred in glass. True dragons were supposed to have had wings, their bones turned hard and trapped in stone for centuries.
I knew then that I would leave Grimpiper and the shadow dunes. The Noahans and the farmers, goat herders and beekeepers, fighting over water rights to the last uncontaminated wells. Mother shrieking after me to look out for my brother. Flint, who had hit the pilgrim trail, one year gone, his name not spoken since.
I remember laughing, warm wind blowing in my face. Getting sweaty with Iago, shirking chores and hanging at the dragon’s feet. Telling no one of my plan to leave, except Iago who had known it from the first.
We were five days out when I learned the truth of it. The dragon train sought not new wells as Iago’s uncle claimed. They followed the pilgrim trail themselves in search of Ankahmada. The same cursed city that enticed my brother to his doom. A city carved from a living sapphire, rumoured to be blooming in the Dead Red Heart. A pilgrim trail grown cold and strewn with bones. My brother’s most likely lain amongst them.
The Dead Red Heart, land of stonewhales, skates and serpentes. The most we had glimpsed so far were ruins and the bones of creatures long dead past. Maps by day and stars by night. Lands so repetitious they could barely be endured. We travelled under the sun’s full glare, protected by flimsy canopies. Each beast flanked by point riders on camelback.
Dogs ran at the dragons’ feet. They never tired or weakened. Dogs kept other predators at bay. Other dogs, mostly, and other things that looked a bit like dogs. Our beasts were fed and watered well, even when the rest of us were parched.
Iago’s uncle never spoke a word to me. Few of the drovers were much for speaking words. They spoke in sign, signalling back and forth across the sand, that thunderstick remaining in plain view, attached to Iago’s uncle’s camel’s saddle.
Wedged behind Iago, travelling last in line. Scanning horizons for serpente sign, chewing on leathery roo jerky and ember bread. Talking about the people we had lost: him two sisters stricken by the sweating fever. Me my one and only brother, leaving home without saying goodbye. The heat of the sun and the chill of the night. Sleeping upright in the saddle, sliding in and out of dreams, awakening under a different hue of sky, sometimes on an entirely different day.
The dragon people thought the sapphire city real. They carried tiny chips and shards of it in battered leather pouches. Held them up against the light, comparing them for purity. Poring over faded maps so creased and crushed they barely held a mark.
My mother collected Dead Red maps. She had close on to forty, every one a clever fake. The cheapest kinds you could score at any Sand Road trading post. Some were inked on ancient crumbling paper, others on treated hide, fabric or faded plastic.
I believed in many things: the Obsidian Sea and the giant ships that slid across it’s surface, borne on massive old-world butyl rollers, thick sails bulging with wild winds. Travellers claimed to have seen such craft push out from Fallow Heel. Souvenirs slung around their necks, wards and sigils carved from the slick black glass. But Ankahmada, a city carved from jewel? Not even a Noahan witch would fall for that one.
Fifteen days beyond Grimpiper’s wells, I awoke to the sound of human voices. Iago, conferring with one of the camel riders—a man with his face obscured beneath a striped khafiya—both of them pointing to a dusty smudge that might have been no more than a pile of rocks. No kites hanging in the listless sky. If it was an outpost or a ’stead, its people did not wish to draw attention.
Iago’s uncle rode his camel ahead, spyglass at the ready. Dragons plodding in a firm and steady line.
“Watch,” said Iago.
“Watch what?” And then I saw it, a sliver-glint of sun. A flashing signal, patterned. No accidental reflection. Someone was trying to speak to us. I braced myself to swerve towards the light but we did not.
Iago’s uncle appeared as disinterested as his camel. Iago, however, kept a keen eye on that flashing. More handsign passed between him and his cousins, swiveled in their saddles as the dragons took us closer. The glint and smudge took shape and form—a row of columns protruding from the sand. The dark, squat shapes of scattered tents and pens.
Three small boys burst from behind a low dune crest, running towards us, waving hands, shouting words of greeting in a mix of tongues.
Iago was not pleased to see them. The boys kept up their loud distractions. Iago’s uncle regarded them with distaste. Iago tightened the grip on his dragon’s reigns. The boys whooped and cheered, racing back the way they’d come, tripping and tumbling over their own feet. Four bells gave the dragons’ signal. They pulled up to a slow stop, one by one.
Iago’s uncle had apparently changed his mind.
I wrapped my arms around Iago’s waist. “What is happening? What is this place?”
“Trading post,” he answered grimly. He handed me the precious spyglass he wore around his neck on a strip of leather.
Grimpiper ‘steads were parched and sparse, but even the meanest and driest of them was a grand bazaar compared to this sorry array. A handful of scrawny goats bleated miserably in ramshackle pens of unevenly-hammered stakes. The way was strewn with camel bones. Three mangy, fly-blown dogs growled at our own dogs and at the dragons. Catching their scent, but without the energy to jump and bark. So utterly malnourished, they might have been the undead demon dogs those Noahans swore ran rampant through the Red.
Our own dogs kept a wary distance. Dogs that had never before shown a lick of fear.
We were as close as we were going to get. Movement stirred at the bases of the columns. Just the wind, or so I thought at first.
I sat up, straight and saddlesore, straining for a clearer view.
Iago’s uncle wasn’t getting off his mount. He stared at the trading post a lengthy while before sending two point riders to investigate. Neither man looked happy with the task.
“What do you reckon he’s after?” I whispered.
Iago and I shared the glass between us, watching our riders approach the men who sat gambling around a coarse and tattered mat. Coins glinted sharply against the weave. Weapons placed within easy reach. Now and then, a glance would be thrown in the direction of the tents.
Tents that were thin and patched and faded. Through an open flap, a group of people peered. Women and children, they ranged in age from elderly down to a babe in arms. Their clothes were old, their faces tanned and lined.
The women whispered amongst themselves until one of the men called out, demanding silence. Abruptly, the women shushed, then the tent flap fell.
At seventeen, I knew little of the world’s true pain, but this was plain as day. A slave market. The captives miserable wisps of skin and bone, huddled around the columns, weighted down with chains. The men on the mat were cowardly dogs, each one hung with the totems, tools and trophies of his trade. Men whose stench I could smell from the dragon’s back. I would have spat except they weren’t worth the water.
The condition of their animals spoke to many truths. Animals are everything, from Grimpiper all the way to Sammarynda, so often meaning the difference between life and death. Only the very stupid treat them like they do not matter.
The men got up from their gambling mat. All teeth and smiles with pudgy, waterfat flesh, greeting the point riders with open arms, clasping their hands as if they were old friends.
No need to hear the words that left their lips. Their smiles weren’t fooling anyone. The ‘merchandise,’ still chained, was paraded before the riders single file.
Merchandise. My brother Flint. Had fate deposited him in this terrible place? I peered and squinted in the sun but could make out nothing. The scrawny captives had been too ill used. Too far away to make out better detail.
I lowered the glass. Iago stared intently at my face. Somehow he knew what I was thinking. He placed his hand upon my cheek. “The pilgrim trail ends sooner for some than others,” he said.
Our people did not linger. The pitiful slaves begged our riders with outstretched arms, pleading for the turbaned desert men to take them. They knew they were done for if the men left them behind. Skinny and sick, no longer worth the waste of food and water.
“What if Flint is one of them?”
Iago grabbed my wrist and held it tight. “You can do nothing. Those men are dead already.”
“Let me go!”
“It is not wise to annoy my uncle.”
“Not wise? Is that all you can say?” Wrenching my wrist free, I jumped down to the sand. Further than it looked, I landed badly. Iago shouted words I didn’t hear.
All I cared about was Flint as I hobbled through the loose-packed sand, particles clinging to my sweaty legs. Feeling the weight of Iago’s uncle’s eyes upon my back.
The two point riders offered me stony stares. The slavers, whose grimy odour filled my nose at twenty paces, observed me with amusement. Perhaps they thought me property for sale.
“Flint!” I scanned the row of suffering wretches, most barely well enough to stand. Walked from man to man to check their thirst-pinched faces. None were his. Relief came first, then disappointment. If he were here then I could save him. We would know what had become of him, what might become of him still.
“My brother Flint walked the pilgrim trail. Have you seen him?” I asked each man in turn. Some said nothing, others answered me with jumbled, rasping gasps of prayer.
It was hopeless. The slaves were close to death. I moved to stand behind the two point riders. One of them said something to the men who had been gambling. Words foreign to my ears but not theirs. Harsh, sharp words that left their mark. As we turned to leave, the leader of the slavers started cursing.
Tempers barely contained in the brittle heat. Anger that posturing and false cheer couldn’t bury. Blades were drawn. The half-starved dogs skulking around the trading post perimeter started barking up a storm. Through all this, Iago’s uncle watched in silence.
The three young boys edged close to the action, raising stones to throw just like the Noahans back in ’Piper. Fearful mothers called their names but dared not leave the safety of the tent.
We stood our ground against the gambling men. They outnumbered us and could have cut us down, but the pressure of five dragons kept them practical. Turned out they’d hoped we might buy the men for sport, or drink with them long enough to wind up drugged and robbed. Such was the way they made their coin, but Iago’s uncle never got down from his mount.
Threats were shouted across the sand and then we parted ways. “What will happen to those slaves?” I asked. Neither rider answered. We all knew what would happen to the wretches—or at least I thought we did.
I turned back just in time to see a slaver draw his sword. Snatches of angry bickering bounced upon the wind. The tongue was foreign but its nuances were not. Somebody would end up punished for this day.
Iago’s uncle stiffened in the saddle. His cloak billowed suddenly as if filled by wind only there was no wind to fill it. None at all. He reached both hands along the camel’s side to heft the thunderstick.
Bells signalled that the dragon train was lumbering into motion. A single drum setting pace for the mighty beasts.
Iago waved his hands in a flurry, anxious for me to climb atop the beast where it was safe.
But before I could move, a sound like a mighty dragon’s roar. What happened next was way too fast to see: one minute there had been a shiny row of columns. The next, all that remained was belching smoke. Exclamations of surprise, but the dragons did not miss a beat.
The thunderstick rested high upon Iago’s uncle’s shoulder. The air around him sparked with flickering embers, raining to the sand like firecracker dust.
Iago shouted out my name. He fought to still his beast but the dragons were expertly trained and the bells were ringing loud and clear and true.
“Hurry—you must hurry!”
I ran to his dragon, last in line. Raised my arms and he hauled me up the saddle’s side. The thunderstick was fired again, aimed this time at the tents. Smoke cleared revealing nothing but flames and splinters.
The tent completely gone.
Slavers stumbled blindly through the sand, tripping over goats, dogs and each other. Too stunned to even curse or raise their fists.
“Your uncle planned to kill them all along,” I whispered. “You knew what was going to happen.”
Iago didn’t answer.
Dragon drovers and camel riders stared blankly at the smoke, mesmerised by its ferocity. Gaping at the pale blue sky as black roils dissolved upon the wind.
“That tent was full of women and children.”
The horror of it slowly sinking in. Suddenly it was all too much. The stench of singed flesh blended with gunpowder. The relentless ache of endless sun. The row of columns once shiny-white reduced to blackened rubble.
Iago’s dragon was on the move, but all ’Piper brats knew how to jump and roll. Someone cried out as I hit the sand. Iago, perhaps. By then it hardly mattered.
The sand was soft. This time I landed well and scrambled up to standing. Hurried to chase down Iago’s uncle, quickly before anyone could raise a hand. Most eyes remained on the burning mess that marked where the trading post had stood.
“You got no right!” I shrieked up at his back.
Uncle’s cloak twitched like a living skin. At last I saw it for what it was. Old tech. Pre-Ruin. Forbidden. Dangerous. Marking Iago’s uncle as a sorcerer. But it was way too late for backing down. What was started had to be completed.
“That tent was full of innocents,” I screamed.
Uncle kept his back to me. I dodged my way around his camel’s side. “You’re a coward, hiding behind that ancient reliquary. Get down off that camel now and face me.” My heart was pounding as the words flew out of me. Words that could do nothing but get me killed.
A curl of amusement touched the tall man’s lips. The intense blue of his eyes pressed down like a weight against my chest.
“They were marked for death already. All of them,” he said, his voice the deepest sound I had ever heard.
He urged his mount forward, our talking at an end. I held my ground as the dragons lumbered onwards, animals and people giving me a wide berth. Two dogs lingered, eyeing me with keen and hungry interest.
I wanted no part of any of it. The dragon train. The pilgrim trail. The sapphire city. Iago and his soft brown skin. They were all bad men and I would stand my ground until the desert claimed me—or the sun, or the sandskates, or my heart.
I didn’t get the chance. One of the point riders pulled his camel up close beside me. The beast bared its crooked teeth, leered at me with annoyance.
“Get on,” said the rider, voice muffled by a striped khafiya, his arm extended down towards my own. Iago’s friend—I had heard them talking together often enough.
I stood proud. “What if I don’t?”
“Then the vultures will eat well tonight.” He glanced at the sky, then down at the dogs. “Your bones will be picked clean before too long.”
“You cannot make me.”
What was I saying? What had I just done?
I held my ground even though my legs were shaking. So did the man in the striped khafiya. Eventually, the last of the dragons passed.
Silence lingered, heavy and complete. Dark shapes flew across the sun. Vultures, real or imaginary.
“Please,” he said. “Die before your time, if you so choose, but do not waste your death on this cursed place. Your brother, if he lives, will not thank you for it.”
There was something familiar about his eyes. Rich and brown like fresh-tilled soil. He waited past the point of mere politeness. The man was right. Pride like mine was worse than useless. Reluctantly, I gripped his arm and allowed him to haul me up into his saddle.
A blast of singed flesh and hair enveloped us as his camel galloped to catch up with the dragons. I stared at the horizon and the future that lay beyond it. Grimpiper was now as lost to me as it was to my crazy brother. I could not go back; I did not know the way. There was only forward to a city that most likely did not exist.
The sun hung heavy overhead. No shadows. No perspective. Nothing but blinding glare and burning thirst. I didn’t glance back at the ruined trading post. I couldn’t.
The rider pulled his camel alongside the smallest dragon. When my eyes met Iago’s, I saw what I had earlier failed to see. Eyes the hue of fresh-tilled soil. Iago and the camel-man were brothers.
A full day passed before Iago allowed me back up to ride behind him. Two before I was granted full forgiveness, my transgression evaporated like condensation on a bulging waterskin.
On the third day we passed a message scrawled upon a sun-bleached slab of stone. No words, just a diamond etched in blue. An arrow pointing to the far horizon.
Ankahmada, Ankahmada, whispered like a ward, snatched from cracked and bleeding lips, vaporised by canny, skittish winds. Beyond the rise, or the next one after that, or the next one.
We were almost out of water when a cry went up to stir my fitful saddle slumber. My eyes wide open expecting the blue of jewels. In their place, something altogether stranger.
Jammed and scattered amongst the dunes the hulls of giant ships protruded: bows and masts, some of iron, others warped and rotted wood, swamped and choked in tides of shifting sand. I counted fifty before my numbers left me. What would Carlina have made of this strange sight—what could anyone ever make of such a thing?
Iago’s brother had taken to riding his camel alongside Iago’s dragon. Now and then he’d smile at me when Iago wasn’t looking. One of the dogs had been bitten by a sandskate. The brother had refused to leave it, carried it tight against his chest wrapped up in the striped khafiya. He reminded me of my own brother in his courage and determination. I did not believe in Ankahmada but I was beginning to believe in Iago’s brother.
The dragons wound their way through the sand-drowned ships in single file and silence. Late afternoon brought with it the welcome half moons of shadowed dune crests, clear of wood and weld. Once more we could see where we were headed, even if we had no knowledge of where the fabled city lay. The wind grew stronger, waterskins flapping empty. We shielded our eyes and stared out across the repetitive curve and undulation of the dunes, straining for a glimpse of kite, or the speck and shadow of a lonely bird, but there was nothing, neither human nor animal, larger than the skeletal bugs that I imagined clinging to the spindly thorn bush stems.