Wind whipped over the dunes, blowing sand into every nook and cranny it could find. Kiera gazed over the barren landscape and sighed. She glanced behind at the haul which would keep her alive through the harshest part of the winter, attached to the Muta Beast she rode. It was precious cargo for scavengers like herself.
The Beast between her legs snorted and shook its massive head; he had used up his fat reserves over the winter months and was eager to reach the feeding grounds. Kiera tapped his sides lightly with her heels, and let her body roll along with the forward motion.
They lumbered forward until the sun reached the highest point in the sky. Normally she would stop and set up a shelter to protect her and the beast during the hottest part of the day, but today was not a normal day. She didn’t have to urge him on. He could sense they were close to home.
Kiera consulted her navigator pad—they were approaching the coordinates. Some of the older scavengers claimed to be able to navigate with only the dunes as a guide, but she was not so confident in her abilities. The flashing light on the screen was a beacon she preferred to trust.
As they topped the last dune, a large dome jutted up out of the sand like an ugly scar in the otherwise uniform wasteland. It was the only sign of civilization for a hundred miles. The lives of ten thousand souls, including her own, depended upon the structure.
As she picked her way down, something sticking up out of the sand caught her eye. Three pale fingers protruding from the shallow grave were the only indication of what it was. A shiver ran down her spine. Death came quickly in the dunes and life was cheap.
As unsettling as it was, it would be an unforgivable sin to waste whatever treasures the corpse might hold. She swallowed hard and halted her reluctant beast. He bellowed in protest at stopping in sight of home, but he too well trained not to obey the command.
Kiera slid down and began the exhumation, starting at the fingertips. As a right hand emerged, she was surprised the wrist was bare—her own right wrist was branded by the mark of her town. She’d never seen anyone without a brand.
The face, covered by goggles and a bandana, appeared and Kiera kept excavating the sand around the torso. It wasn’t too deep yet; they must’ve fallen recently. She examined the folds of fabric, grateful that the goggles blocked her from seeing their eyes.
Her deft fingers were rewarded with a nothing. Grumbling, she yanked out the left arm, again pulling up the sleeve to look for a brand.
The forearm was marked, not but a crude brand, but by the most beautiful tattoo Kiera had ever seen. The swirling lines captivated her, and she found her fingers tracing the design. There was something familiar about the pattern, as if she’d seen something similar before.
Realization clicked in her brain. Kiera knew little of the world, but she recognized the pattern. It was a map.
Only governors were allowed to have maps showing the locations of other communities. Kiera had never seen one, other than the crude sketches of the scavengers. Based on the scale, it had to span hundreds of miles.
She pulled out the knife from her belt and took a deep breath, swallowing her revulsion. A map like this was too valuable to leave behind. Skinning a person’s forearm wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever done to survive, but it was up there.
The blade of the knife pressed down on the skin, blood welling up around it. That was odd…blood shouldn’t still be flowing. Then the fingers twitched.
Kiera jerked back, cursing under her breath. Her heart pounding in her chest, she pulled down the bandana, revealing the face of a young man, and held the blade up against their nose. The metal fogged up immediately; he was still breathing.
A groan escaped her lips. It was one thing to cut up an already dead guy, but now…she knew the smart thing would be to slit his throat and keep going. He was mostly dead anyway. Just a quick flick and it would be over.
She looked at the face of the boy, blissfully unaware of the danger. Cursing again, Kiera shoved the knife back into her belt. The heat must be boiling her brain. She linked her arms under his armpits and across his chest and strained to heave him out from the shallow grave.
It was a struggle, but eventually she squeezed his lanky frame onto the sled, rearranging her wares to cover his gangly limbs. By the time the tarp was pulled back tight, it was like he didn’t exist.
The Muta Beast made up for the detour, getting her to the town wall in record time. She punched in the code on her pad and held her breath. The gate began to open with a grinding noise. Kiera didn’t have to command the Muta; he lumbered through the opening and into safety.
Kiera breathed a small sigh of relief. This was the place of her birth, and while it wasn’t much, it was a shelter in the desert. She pushed away thoughts about how it would also be the place of death one day. This life was all there was and it did no one any good daydreaming.
The gate clanked shut behind her, and a guard approached. She removed her goggles, blinking at the sudden shift from bright light to the artificial dimness the dome produced.
A quick transfer of few trinkets to the guard, and an understanding was stuck to skip this inspection. The bargain made, she led her Muta toward the feeding pastures.
It didn’t take long to negotiate the return of the beast with the boy watching over them. He had been taught well; he bartered her down to half her deposit, despite the fact the beast had no injuries or signs of sickness. But it was to be expected. Renting a Muta Beast was an expensive investment, but well worth it if a scavenger could bring back enough prizes.
After the beast had returned to his herd, Kiera flipped the anti-grav switch on her cart. The feature ate a lot of power but lugging a two-hundred-pound sled by hand burned a lot of calories, especially with an extra hundred and eighty pounds thrown in. The power drain was worth it.
Kiera looked up; the forcefield dimmed the natural light, but she could still make out the sun. She had just enough time to get her new responsibility back home and out of sight before darkness descended.
Getting her guest into her dwelling proved to be as difficult she had feared. Eventually she did manage to drag the limp body up the stairs, dropping her burden in a heap in the middle of the floor.
She checked again for breath. Unfortunately, he continued to live. After confirming that regrettable fact, there was only one thing left to do—revive him.
The back of his neck was warm as she lifted it up and tilted his head forward. The first trickle of water forced past his cracked lips didn’t have much reaction, but after a few moments he began to swallow greedily.
His eyes flickered open underneath the goggles, unfocused and confused. Kiera released her grip and scooted backward; if his first reaction was violent, she wanted to be beyond his fists reach.
“Where am I?” he asked hoarsely.
“A town. I smuggled you in my scavenging load.”
He contemplated that information, the gears in his head turning slowly. “Why?”
It was a fair question, but Kiera hesitated to answer. Should she lie and say it was out of kindness, hoping for goodwill, or should she be honest about her understanding of the tattoo?
“I saw your arm.” Kiera had never been very good at lying.
He reached with his right hand for the limb, still too weak to lift his head. His fingers felt along the design, until he flinched when he came to the fresh cut near his elbow.
“What happened here?”
“No idea.” There was such a thing as being too honest. “Do you have any other injuries?”
He sat up gingerly and peeled the goggles off. “I don’t think so.”
The moment hung there, in awkward silence, each of them waiting for the other to make a move. Kiera broke first. The water bottle made a scraping noise as she pushed it closer to him with her foot. He reached out without looking to snatch it.
“Do you want to clean up while I make dinner?” she asked, as if it were perfectly normal for her to have company over for dinner and she wasn’t hiding an extremely illegal trespasser in her home.
“Sure.” He drained the water.
“There are some clothes that should fit you in the bottom drawer of the dresser. I don’t want to be rude, but you can’t put those rags back on. They stink.”
She filled a small bowl with water, watching the water ration dip lower and lower with a sinking heart. She held the bowl out to her guest, along with a bar of soap and a sponge. His hands extended, but he fumbled, the water sloshing dangerously close to the edges of the bowl.
“Careful!” she snapped. “I’m at the end of my water ration until I offload my haul, so this is all you get.”
He opened his mouth and then closed it again. It was then that Kiera realized his eyes were still unfocused, looking off into the middle distance. Understanding dawned.
“Yes.” The response was barely audible.
“Oh,” she said dumbly.
Kiera had never met a blind person. Every member of the community was expected to contribute. For someone crippled in an accident or a child born disabled, it was often a death sentence. The burden on the family was just too much in the long term.
Privacy was limited in her single room dwelling. She gripped his elbow and guided him over to the chair in the corner with the bed. He reached out with searching hands, feeling his way down the chair, and then seating himself. Kiera hastily released her grip and retreated to the cooktop, averting her eyes.
Despite her best efforts, Kiera’s couldn’t help but glance over as he peeled off his sweat encrusted shirt. He was thin, but well built in a way that indicated most of his life he’d had decent nutrition. Old scars covered a significant portion of his body, along with fresh bruises, implying he was no stranger to violence.
As he moved his way lower, she focus her efforts on reheating the dehydrated food packets. They weren’t the tastiest, but they would keep someone alive.
She kept an eye on him through her peripheral, uncertain if she should help him or not, but he managed without her assistance. When he was clothed again, she handed him the food, this time making sure to steer his hand to the dish. Despite its unappetizing smell and taste, he devoured it down like a hungry animal.
He held out the now empty bowl. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” She took the bowl from him and cleared her throat. “My name is Kiera. What about you?”
There was a pause before he shrugged. “Rowan.”
Kiera nodded in acknowledgement, before a blush crept up her cheeks when she remembered he couldn’t see the motion. “Um, I mean, nice to meet you. So, uh, what’s up with the map on your arm?”
Rowan cocked his head. “You can read it?”
“Yes. My scavenging master taught me.”
An emotion she couldn’t quite place flickered across his face. “I’m impressed. That’s a rare skill.”
Kiera gazed at it. “Can I take a closer look?”
“Well, you did save my life.” Rowan extended his arm, exposing the swirling lines of the map. Kiera drank in the details, tempted to trace the lines with her fingertip, but resisted the urge.
“What do the symbols mean?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Right.” Kiera cringed. “Look, I don’t want to be rude, but what were you doing…that is, what was a person such as yourself—”
“What was a blind man doing out by himself in the Barren Lands with an elaborate map tattooed on his body?” His lips twitched. “It’s like the start to a bad joke.”
“No, it is.” Rowan sighed. “Unfortunately, the story is long and not very funny. I was born blind. Once it became apparent, my parents wanted to dispose of me. They couldn’t afford such a burden. But my brother had different ideas. He was old enough to earn a wage and took responsibility for me.”
“Our life was hard, but we managed. But my brother wanted more. He wanted a life for me where I was accepted. So…he planned to steal out governor’s map.”
Kiera raised an eyebrow. “Bold. But what made him think life would be better in one of the other communities?”
“We weren’t planning on going to one of the other communities.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Where else is there to go?”
“Do you want to know the story or not?” he asked, evading the question.
“Hmm.” Kiera let the evasion go—for now.
“My brother recruited some of his friends. They botched the heist on purpose, which spooked the governor into moving the map. When the map was in transit, I lifted it.”
“Don’t you mean, your brother lifted it?”
“No.” Rowan smiled proudly. “I’m quite a good pickpocket. No one sees me as a threat.”
“Huh.” Kiera considered how to fit this new piece of information into her world view. “So, where’s the tattoo fit in?”
“My brother wanted to make sure if something happened to him, the others wouldn’t leave me behind. So, he tattooed the map on my arm and destroyed the paper copy.”
Kiera decided not to point out the clear hole in that plan. She stayed silent, waiting for him to continue.
“We set out three weeks ago. But we were betrayed. One of our group made a deal with a ravaging band. They ambushed us and slaughtered everyone—except me.”
Rowan stopped there, his face a mask of grief. Kiera understood. It was a terrible thing to lose one’s family.
He coughed and wiped away the tears on his face. “They thought it was funny to leave me alive, alone and wandering. I don’t really know how much time passed. I just walked and walked and walked until I couldn’t walk anymore. I guess that’s where you found me.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. But you are leaving out a key detail. Where were you going?”
Rowan sat in silence, clearly mulling over his options. He knew something, something he didn’t want to share. It had to be valuable.
The chair she was sitting in creaked as Kiera leaned forward. “Look, Rowan, you don’t have a ton of options here. It’s trust me or nothing.”
He let out a slow breath and again extended his arm. “Our governor had a rare addition included with his map. Do you see the tree, near the wrist?”
“Yeah. What’s the tree symbolize?”
Rowan hesitated. “Have you ever heard of Arbora?”
Kiera scoffed. “That’s a myth; a story to tell children who’ve never seen a green growing thing in their lives.”
“That’s what most people think. But what if it’s not? Can you imagine, a place with real rain?” His face lit up, like a thousand zealots before him.
“Don’t be absurd. It hasn’t rained in three hundred years.”
The words where harsh, but inside Kiera mulled those extraordinary words over in her mind. She’d grown up listening to stories of Arbora—the last place in the whole desert blown world where it rained. But it was a legend, or so she had always thought.
“Do you really believe it exists?”
He turned his face toward her, and if she didn’t know better, she would have sworn he saw straight through her. “I have nothing else to lose if it doesn’t.”
The gray light of dawn was just shining through the window when Kiera woke. The memory of her dream slipped back into the recesses of her mind, leaving behind only flashes of green and the smell of water spilt on sand.
The words Rowan spoke went round and round in her mind. In a life spent entirely in an empty nothingness, the idea of a green paradise was a soothing balm. The idea that there was somewhere better out there was enough to give the desperate hope, and hope kept the desperate alive. But to leave everything one knew in search of that fantasy…that was terrifying.
Yet fate had dropped this opportunity into her lap, offering the very thing she had wanted for so long—to leave. She may never get another chance.
She slipped out of the dwelling, leaving Rowan sleeping peacefully and went to trade her wares in for rations and water. Much to the confusion of the shepherd boy, Kiera also rented another Muta Beast.
Rowan was awake when she returned. “Where did you go?”
“To get supplies.” She took his elbow and guided him to rise. “I’ve lived my whole life in this speck of a town. If there’s a possibility that Arbora is real, I’ll take it.”
“Are you sure? Once we leave, you will likely never come back.”
Kiera thought of her life—her mother dying, her father’s execution, her apprenticeship as a scavenger, the struggle just to survive every day. “There’s no hope for me here. If there’s a chance there’s still a place in the world where it rains, I’ll take it.”
A faint smile ghosted his features. “Hope will have to be enough."