“I still do not understand,” Taril said, holding onto the horse as if it would buck at any moment, “Where does it come from?”
Lod thought for a moment. He had considered this question before, when he had been a child, but he had put it out of his mind for many years.
“I suppose I don’t know,” he admitted, “Who can claim to know anything about the power of a goddess?”
“You don’t know where it comes from…and you still drink it?” Taril was incredulous.
“You do too,” Lod retorted, “We pay Zar’us with water from the oasis all the time.”
“That’s different,” Taril said proudly, sitting up straight in the saddle before deciding the danger of being thrown was too great and renewing the iron grip on saddle and reigns, “Zar’us are strong.”
“Strong?” Lod smiled as he watched Taril holding fearfully to the saddle.
“Stop smiling. I simply do not wish to be thrown from this animal.”
“I can see the Zar’us strength,” Lod chuckled.
“Strength is not the absence of fear; that is stupidity,” Taril snapped stubbornly from rote.
Lod laughed, and Taril glared.
“But truly,” Lod said, “How is it different?”
“Zar’us can drink anything. Humans are fragile.”
“Fragile?” Lod was confused.
“Yes. My father says that a single small cut can kill you, and you cannot drink the water of the sea,” Lod’s ears perked up at this word ‘sea’, “even the sunlight kills you.”
“Of course it does. The sun is toxic.”
“Zar’us do not fear the sun.”
“Well if you don’t fear the sun, why do you care about the water.”
“It just confuses me,” Taril said with a shrug.
Their first night of riding together, Taril spent most of their time simply trying not to fall. Taril was still worried the second night, but they were at least confident enough to talk and ride at the same time. It reminded Lod of himself, when he was first learning to ride as a child. He’d said as much to his father’s man Rados, who had laughed at him (as usual) and told him that Taril practically was a child.
“Taril is younger than you, Lod,” Rados had said, “Far younger I expect.”
“But Taril is so tall. How can they be so much taller than me if they’re so much younger?” Lod asked.
“Zar’us are not like humans. They grow larger, and very quickly,” Rados leaned in and whispered, “Would it surprise you to know that their clan leader, Luca, is likely younger than you too?”
Lod made a face. Now he knew Rados was making fun of him.
“It’s true. I would wager Luca isn’t much older than ten. Taril may only be a few years old themself.”
Lod had some trouble picturing that, given that Taril dwarfed him and he was a fully grown man by any account besides his father’s.
That day, while Lod’s father and the other caravaners were sleeping beneath the tents, Lod stayed awake talking to Taril about the places they’d been.
“I’ve been as far as the Great Rocky Mountains,” Lod said proudly.
“That’s amazing,” Taril said with earnest enthusiasm.
“How far have you been?” He’d asked
“Only as far as Red Seven territory,” the Zar’us said unbinding long curling black hair. Lod swallowed. He had amended his thinking on Taril after their first day together. At first, he had been fairly certain Taril was a girl, and Luca, whom Taril called ‘father,’ a man, but Taril had since referred to another Zar’us named Netsa as a father as well, so Lod was back to square one. Still, he couldn’t deny that there was a part of him attracted to Taril. The lines of Taril’s face were not wholly feminine to his eyes, but he could not deny the beauty there. In fact, he thought perhaps there was a quality of beauty in the blending of the features.
“Where is Red Seven territory?” he’d managed to say, trying to avoid thinking about it.
“Not as far as the Rockies. The Red Sevens are North of here, up the coast of the sea,” Taril pulled a comb from their bag and began working the day’s tangles out. It was a utilitarian action, like most things the Zar’us did. Tangled hair seemed to be a sign that you weren’t paying attention to your own well being, and if you weren’t taking care of yourself, how could you take care of your companions. It was about discipline.
Efficient and clean, that summed up the Zar’us.
Even so, Lod found his eyes following the comb, running through Taril’s jet black hair.
“You’ve mentioned the sea. What is that?” Lod asked.
“…You’ve never seen the sea?” Taril stopped combing and raised an eyebrow.
“No. Should I have?” Lod shrugged.
“It is much much closer than the Great Rocky Mountains,” Taril explained, “I am surprised you’ve never been there.”
“We don’t travel north. Father says there is no point.”
Taril shrugged, “Perhaps. There are no oases between here and the sea. Though I am told there are some on the Northern side. I do not think there are Zar’us clans there though. We are not allowed North of the sea.”
“Allowed?” Lod was surprised the Zar’us were not allowed to do anything. They could stand the sunlight as long as they wished, they could drink from the poisoned sea if Taril and Rados were to be believed. “Why not?”
“It is forbidden,” Taril said solemnly.
“Forbidden? By who? The goddesses?” Lod was very interested now.
“No,” Taril shook their head, “It is just forbidden. It is in the….what is the word in your language? Like…something written down that you must do, or aren’t allowed to do.”
“…Law?” Lod suggested.
“Like a law yes. I think that’s a good word for it, thank you.” Taril smiled at him. Lod felt a warmth fill him, and he shook his head.
“I should sleep. Wake me when the sun sets,” Lod said rolling away from Taril.
“I will,” Taril said, and continued combing their hair. Zar’us did not need as much sleep as humans. Lod closed his eyes and tried to ignore the golden skinned creature sitting beside him in his tent. He was more confused than ever.
Still, he enjoyed riding and talking with Taril.
The very next day, when Taril caught Lod staring at the Zar’us weapon hanging from its strap on their shoulder, Lod asked if he could hold it. Just to look.
“No,” Taril had said firmly, “That is also forbidden. There is training that must come before one can even hold the weapon. I could show you how it is used when we make camp, though.”
When the rest of the caravaners were erecting tents to wait out the sun, and the Zar’us were pacing the perimeter, looking for any signs of an oncoming grue, Taril informed Luca that they were going away from the camp to show Lod the weapon. Luca did not object.
Lod found some stones among the sand and piled them up as a target for Taril.
“Stay clear,” Taril instructed. Unslinging the weapon, Taril slid a small curved metal box into the bottom of the weapon. Sliding one piece of metal over another in the strange contraption. The weapon was raised, the back pressed against a bare, golden shoulder. Suddenly, the world was full of awful sound. A rapid cacophony that made Lod throw his hands over his ears. The far end of Taril’s weapon flashed with fire, and twenty paces away the rocks were scattered as if they’d been kicked. When it was over, Taril lowered the weapon, fiddled with the sliding metal again, removed the curved box from the bottom and a small metal spike from the top. Scattered about the sand at Taril’s feet were five hollow metal tubes.
Lod was aghast, “That was incredible.”
“Not really,” Taril shrugged, “My father, Luca, has a laser attachment on theirs. Far deadlier than bullets. More accurate too.”
“Could I see that too?” Lod was excited. He’d never seen anything like this before. It was more magical than…well magic come to think of it. Rados couldn’t do anything like this with his crystals.
“I don’t-” but Taril was cut off. There was a sound, just like the one Taril’s weapon had made, and Taril grabbed Lod, throwing him to the ground. Lod’s world spun, and when he had his bearings he realized that Taril was over him. The Zar’us was on one knee with an upraised leg straddling Lod at his waist. The Zar’us weapon was up again, Taril sliding the curved box back under it and sliding the metal bolts as cat-like eyes scanned the dunes in the direction of the rapid thunder and whizzing sounds.
Lod tried to rise, but with one hand still holding the weapon perfectly still, Taril pushed him down.
“Wait,” Taril hissed through bared fangs.
More sounds crept over the dunes. More Zar’us weapons; Zar’us shouting; caravaners screaming.
-to be continued-