The caravan travels two more days along the cliffs before they begin moving inland. The Great Sea fades back into the horizon. The salty air turns dry. The grass browns with great patches of barren earth appearing more frequently. The trees lose their leaves, becoming barren skeletons on the land, some no more than dried out husks. One large tree lies on its side, its roots sticking up into the sky like twisted arms.
The ground grows harder. Cracks explode through the earth and scream for moisture. Animals running from the caravan travel alone, unlike the great herds of beasts from the plains. Their thick skins reflect the dry earth. They have little to no hair, scales or horns to cover them. They run from shady patch to shady patch, many scurrying into holes. Any prey that comes into their line of sight is immediately eaten without hesitation. None refuse even their own species. A small, reptilian creature darts away from the stomping feet of the epirs with a meal twice its body size in its mouth.
When the grass eventually disappears completely, the heat from the sun beats down on the caravan. Slaves beg for water or rest. Their feet are as cracked as the earth they trod and begin to bleed as they traverse the dry, rocky landscape.
Meah feels their pain and tries again to convince Jaxon’s men to allow some of the weaker slaves to ride with her. Ignored, she is forced to watch helplessly as those walking suffer.
The sun sets on their first day in the dry land and the caravan comes to a stop. Not waiting to hear if they will be stopped for long, the slaves collapse to the ground and weep. Their weeping is devoid of tears, as they don’t have any liquid to spare.
Water is passed through the caravan. To the slaves’ surprise and relief they are given more than enough large buckets of water for everyone to get a good-sized helping. Food is still handed out in small meager portions. But those who were walking are delighted just to have water.
Jaxon leads his epir to the center of the caravan. “Drink as much as you can. Rest as long as you are able. We will rest for one day and then move out,” he announces.
Despite their exhaustion, the slaves still manage to celebrate, if weakly.
Jaxon moves to Meah’s carriage, but shows no signs of stopping. Meah watches, expecting him to look at her. He turns his epir away from the carriage and rides off with a small group into the dry land. She watches him until the small group disappears. Bruer shouts orders at the men in armor, who set up a small, temporary camp.
The man in charge of Meah passes her helping of food and water through the bars. The sudden noise next to her makes her jump. He has waited for the rest of the slaves to be given their rations before even trying to give Meah hers. She thanks him and he stands back a short distance from the bars, watching her.
She eats and drinks without argument. Sleep comes easily and, thankfully, it is dreamless.
Although the next day is dedicated to rest, the sun beats down on the cracked earth and the slaves without mercy. With so few trees, and those that do grow barren of leaves, shade cannot be found. Those at the front of the line manage to find some comfort in the shadow of the carriages. But the rest face the full wrath of the sun. A hot wind blows across the land and dust fills the air. Eyes burn and the camp is filled with harsh coughing.
Water is handed out sparingly. Meah notices that Jaxon and the group he left with don’t return, but Bruer seems unaffected. The sun sets, but the heat is slow to fade. Food is handed out with the next round of water and sleep comes easily for most.
As she watches the other slaves fall asleep, Meah sees their bloody, battered feet and wishes she could help them. Some have grown so thin their skin resembles parchment stretched over bone. Meah looks at her own thinning frame and wonders how they will be treated when they finally reach the Arena. Will they be fed well or kept near starvation? Will they be allowed to rest before their first appearance?
“You should rest.” Jaxon walks up to the carriage, his epir following close behind. He ties his beast to the carriage and leans, holding one bar in his hand.
“Where did you go?” Meah asks.
Jaxon smirks. “Did you worry about me?”
Meah feels her cheeks flush a little and turns her head away slightly.
“We had a couple of troublemakers who were stealing food when no one was looking. I had to deal with them,” Jaxon explains.
“You mean you killed them.”
“I had two of the men’s comrades do it. They joined my caravan together. They took responsibility for one another.”
“What if they’d refused to kill their companions?”
“Then I would have killed them all.”
Meah stares into his eyes. “Why do you do this?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Why do I collect people and sell them to the Arena?”
“To survive. Bruer told me about your little talk a few days ago. His words are true. You were living a carefree, privileged life in your valley. All of these people were the same. You were all protected from the life outside.”
“Not very well protected since you found us so easily.”
Jaxon laughs and turns, leaning his back against the carriage. The sudden movement scares his epir and it stomps its hoofed feet angrily. “True, but the Blood King’s influence had not reached you. Doing what needs to be done to survive to see the light of the next day rules all our lives.”
“How much longer will I be forced to watch the others suffer? How much longer until you sell us?”
“We are entering Karrion Desert. We will need to cross half of it to reach the Arena. It is a five-day journey without stops.” Jaxon turns his head to her, his smile gone. “But to not stop would be suicidal. There is an oasis town located about two days into the desert. We will stop to restock our supplies for the final trek.”
Meah looks at those sleeping on the hard ground. “Why don’t you help them? They can’t bring you much money if they’re half dead.”
“We collect large numbers because those who survive will provide enough money for all of my men to live for a few months more.”
“And once we reach the Arena you will sell us and return to the world looking for more slaves.”
Jaxon sighs. “You speak so ill of me, but you fail to grasp the truth of the world.”
“At least let me help them a little before we enter the desert,” Meah begs.
He takes a step back and faces the carriage. “You don’t have enough power to heal them all. You’re as weak as they are.”
“Please. I have already done worse than I thought myself capable. Please, let me make it easier for them if only a little.” Jaxon thinks quietly to himself, looking to the ground. “It could give you a chance to make more money,” Meah adds.
Jaxon walks to the door of the carriage and opens it. He motions her to climb out. She quickly crawls to the door and climbs out. She falls to her knees, her legs weak from not standing for weeks.
A small blade is placed at her throat. She looks up at Jaxon. He holds his dagger tightly in one hand. With his free hand he helps Meah to her feet. “We will walk together. We will move from one slave to the other together. If you try to move ahead or behind me I will kill you.”
He takes her to the first sleeping slave. She slowly leans down over him and looks at his feet. The cuts are still bleeding even while he sleeps. She places her hands on the side of his leg and closes her eyes.
It takes the entire night for Meah to heal the slaves. Some are awoken by her touch, but make no movement or sound when they see Jaxon with his dagger drawn. Meah heals the bruises and cuts quickly. To limit further damage she thickens the skin on their feet to provide a little more padding. It takes her a couple of tries at first, an experiment in the beginning, but soon she does it as quickly as healing. She finds some worse than others, a few with broken toes or sprained ankles, and as the night drags on she feels her energy and strength dwindle.
By the time the sun begins to shine its light over the earth, Meah has finished. Jaxon leads her back to the carriage, his dagger safely sheathed. She stumbles, every step harder to make. They are still several feet away from the carriage when Meah’s legs give out beneath her. Jaxon effortlessly lifts her in his arms and carries her to eh carriage. The door is still open and he gently lays her inside.
He locks the door and unties his epir. He stares at Meah through the bars. “We’re going to be heading out soon. Get some sleep while we begin our crossing of the desert. This will be the hardest part of the journey, even for those not forced to travel on foot.” He climbs onto his epir and shouts orders.
Men in armor walk down the line of slaves and wake those still sleeping. The small camp is dismantled and soon the caravan is ready to move.
Meah watches Jaxon slowly ride to the front of the caravan and speak with Bruer. Her eyes droop and she fights to stay awake. She remembers thoughts she had many days ago about Jaxon never sleeping. Even on the rest day he went out to handle business about the caravan. Now he rides at the front of the caravan showing no sign of needing rest. She recalls seeing Bruer sleep. Even the man who gave her food and water slept during the night.
Maybe he’s a magic user who never needs to sleep, Meah thinks to herself, too tired to say the words aloud. She laughs at the thought.
Jaxon looks back at her as though her thoughts reached him and she catches the smile on his lips as her eyes close.