The plains seem never-ending. Three more days pass before any changes come to the terrain. Small towns begin to appear in the distance, but the caravan passes them without stopping.
Jaxon leads the caravan onto a small road that appears through the waves of the grass. The rough, stone road causes several slaves to fall to the ground. Men move their epirs close to those who’ve fallen and yell for them to get back on their feet. The slaves struggle to reclaim their footing, but one remains on the ground, the pull of the chains dragging him slowly. One of the men climbs down from his epir and forces the man to his feet. He whispers a threat into the man’s ear and the man begins crying. The slave in front of him takes the man by the arm and pulls him away from the man in armor. The man in armor climbs back onto his mount and moves back to his position.
Meah watches as the other slave comforts the slave who fell. She wonders if the two know each other or if this is the first time they’ve interacted. A small smile forms on her lips as she sees the slave comforting the man sneak hidden food to him. Even as slaves, the need to help one another during difficult times remains.
A bustling town appears along the road and Jaxon stops the caravan outside its borders. He orders five of his men to purchase or trade for supplies, then orders others to hand out food and water to the slaves.
The slaves collapse to the ground when they hear they will be fed. Some fall asleep, trying desperately to gather as much strength as possible. Food is passed around as well as multiple buckets of water to be shared by every group of ten slaves. New life fills the slaves. This meager offering is the most they’ve been given in weeks.
The man assigned to Meah’s care brings her share of food and water. He places the larger plates and bowls through the bars, but she doesn’t move to fetch them. Instead she pushes them back towards the man.
“You should eat and drink. Our next stop isn’t for four days,” he says.
Meah lies on the wooden floor.
“You must eat or at least drink something.”
Meah remains silent.
Jaxon walks up next to the man. “What’s the matter?”
“She won’t eat or drink, sir.”
“You should at least drink some water. You won’t get another sip until we reach our next stop no matter how long it takes us,” Jaxon says, staring at Meah’s back.
“I refuse. The ones walking need it more than I do. Give it to them,” Meah says, angrily.
Jaxon looks at the man and nods his head. The man grabs the water and food and takes it to those who still haven’t been helped. Jaxon leans against the bars, placing his arms on the floor of the carriage. “Starving yourself won’t change anything. We’ll force the food down your throat if we have to.”
“Or else you won’t receive the highest price for me, right?”
“That’s right. You’ll learn pretty quickly that men will do anything to ensure they receive the payment they are due.”
Meah rolls onto her back and stares at Jaxon. “I’ll eat after the others have finished.”
Jaxon smiles. “I’ll make sure of that.” He walks away and surveys the other slaves.
The last of the slaves are given food and water. They eat and drink greedily, but not enough to keep all from receiving their fair share. The men in armor walk through the caravan and collect empty buckets. The man assigned to Meah returns to her carriage and places a smaller plate of food and bowl of water in front of her. He stands with his arms crossed and watches her.
Meah looks from the food to him. “You don’t have to watch me. I said I would eat.”
“Jaxon ordered me to make sure you eat every piece and drink every drop. If not, I am to force you.” He plays with the bangle of keys on his belt.
Meah hesitates before grabbing the plate, wondering if the man would actually follow through. She eats the meager meal and drinks the water in two gulps. She makes sure to clean the bowl and plate with her tongue and throw them to the man. He takes them and leaves.
When the group sent into town returns with bags of supplies, the slaves are roused from their rest. The caravan skirts the edges of the town and continues across the plains. As the hours pass, the hills of the plains flatten in front of the caravan. The sky seems to touch the earth and a strange dark line appears on the horizon. As the line grows closer, great birds appear flying overhead. They gather in large flocks and move in swirling patterns.
The smell of water fills the air, but it’s a different smell from the river. Even after climbing to her knees, Meah can’t place the new scent. She crawls to the side of the carriage and tries to look far ahead. A roaring sound echoes from in front of the caravan, reminding Meah of thunder, but there are no storm clouds in sight.
The caravan turns to run parallel to what Meah realizes isn’t a line in the horizon, but a place where the plains abruptly fall away to become tall cliffs bordering a sea stretching endlessly into the distance. The thunderous roars are the sound of giant waves crashing into the rocks and boulders at the bottom of the cliffs.
The large birds dive down the cliffs towards the water. Several pull up at the last moment to fly out into the sea above the waves. Others dive into the water and emerge with fish in their beaks.
The cliffs slope steeply, and thousands of nests can be seen built into their walls. The birds fly to the nests and deposit their food in the mouths of their young. Great sprays of white water threaten to wash over the cliffs to the caravan, but only light mists make it to the carriages.
Meah tastes the water in the air and realizes the strange scent of the sea is because of salt. Water on her skin and hair from the mists dry, leaving behind small salt crystals. She stares in awe at the sun’s reflection on the distant waves.
The cliffs level out and Meah can see the rocks being battered by the merciless waves. On the second day they travel along these cliffs, large, leathery beasts appear resting on long, flattened rocks. They roll onto their backs or stomachs to warm themselves with the sun. The waves crash over them, but they are so large the waves can’t move them and great mists of water shoot from the snouts of the animals.
Two of the beasts begin fighting and their guttural bellows roar over the waves. They slam their tusked head into each other, creating deep gashes in their rubbery flesh. Blood flows freely, but keith beast backs down until one manages to tear a large piece of flesh from the other’s snout. The injured animal lowers its head to the ground and backs away quickly. The victorious animal gives a long, loud bellow and the other beasts lift their heads for just a moment. As they return to their rest, Meah sees each animal is covered in scars.
She looks away from the blood soaked, flattened rock the beasts fought upon. It takes several large waves to clean off the worst of the blood, but the red stain will remain for a while.
“If you only look one way, you’ll miss everything else,” Bruer says.
Meah jumps at his voice. This is the first time he has spoken to her during the entire journey. She noticed he’d been staying close to her carriage the past few days. She wonders if Jaxon ordered him to or if he’s curious about her.
His dark brown eyes move over her quickly. “When I first saw the Great Sea I was as enamored of its size and ferocious nature as you. It took me several travels across these plains before I ever noticed the mountains to the south.” He points to the other side of the carriage.
Meah turns and her eyes take in an amazing view. Far in the distance, filling the southern skies are mountains. They are completely white, covered in snow. She can’t see where the bottom rises from the hills of the plains, but she can tell they are a great distance away. They stand as a great statement to the power of the earth and she can only guess when they began their climb to the heavens. She was so transfixed by the size of the Great Sea she hadn’t thought to look away or imagined anything else could compare. She wonders how tall the mountains could possibly be or how they could ever have grown to such a height.
“Your valley had impressive mountains guarding it, reaching the heights of most mountains in this land, but those mountains are the highest in this world. The snow remains on them all year round and none have ever made it to the top. At least, none have survived to make it back. Many bodies found their final resting place at the god’s feet.”
Meah has to tear her eyes away, fearing she’ll miss something. “Why do you travel so far across this land? There must be closer cities and towns where you can collect slaves?”
Bruer laughs. “You come from peaceful lands kept separate from the rest of the world. The other lands closer to where we are from are too dangerous to venture through with our small group. We would lose more of our collection not because of the journey, but because of those who live in those lands.”
“So you take slaves from the lands who are peaceful because it is easier?”
Bruer grabs Meah’s arm and pulls her, hard, against the bars. She cries out in surprise and pain. “You misunderstand, girl. The peace in your land has blinded you and these other slaves. You’ve all been living privileged lives, especially those of you who are magic users. Other lands have cities full of magic users. They don’t use their powers to help each other. They are warriors. In still other lands things hide in the darkness waiting for someone to wander into the shadows. There are lands no man will travel through because of stories of death and the unknown.” He tightens his grip on Meah’s arm and she winces. “Things in this world that you could never imagine would fill your sleep with such nightmares you would fear to close your eyes.”
“Stop it,” Meah pleads.
Bruer releases her and she falls back into the carriage. “Don’t be fooled by this perceived peace you grew up knowing. This land and its people will kill you if you wander too far into it.”
Two slaves start fighting behind the carriage and Bruer slows his epir. He orders men near-by to stop the fight. They immediately hit the two slaves with thick clubs. The slaves collapse to the ground holding their hands up to protect their faces. But the men continue to tell at the slaves and beat them with the clubs until they stand and catch up with the others.
Meah moves to the head of the carriage and leans against the bars. She looks over at the mountains. The awe she felt when she first saw them fades away. She now sees them as menacing giants, warning all who see them to stay away.
Or daring any brave enough to try to conquer them.