Here’s a bit more of the desert story:
The plant men wore their bright green armor and their black face masks and carried short staffs that spat lightning. They lined up the workers, the elders, the young ones who hadn’t run fast enough. They left the young ones under three years old, because they didn’t need useless mouths to feed. They left Archon, who was Zev’s age, because he was too tall now to work in the plant. One man spoke through the smooth black mask and even though she was far away in the rocks Zeon could hear him.
“Your youth will serve The God. Onward and forward.”
The workers and the elders repeated, “Onward and forward.”
He waited for a moment or two. “Which is the one called Zill?”
Zev made a sound and Zeon quickly put a hand over her mouth. Elder Zill was their mother’s mother. She wore a figure around her neck, a dancing figure in red and black, and she talked about the little gods.
When she’d been a young one, Zeon had played with the red-and-black figure that Zill called the Dancer. Once, in the caravan circle, Zill said, “Life isn’t onward and forward. Life is a dance. A god that has power helps people be strong.” The workers and the elders hissed her to silence, even though they’d been out on the plains, far from the men of the plants.
Now, Zill stepped out from the row of elders, facing the men. Two of them went to her, one taking each arm. They marched her forward. Zeon watched the vagrant breeze tug at Zill’s veil-cloak, rippling it.
The man who had spoken reached up and yanked the necklace from Zill’s neck. He crushed the figure under his boot, grinding it into the earth. They led Zill away, her head high, her gray curls tousled in the wind. As they neared the vehicles, the man who had spoken marched up behind her and struck her in the middle of her back with the lightning staff. Zill thrashed, and fell to the ground, twitching. He picked her up and draped her over the back of two two-wheels. With the young ones on behind, the riders took off.
Three riders remained behind.
Gradually, the caravan packed up and moved on. Zeon knew that the men from the plant were waiting for any young ones who had hidden to come back. She gripped Zev’s shoulder and held her still. They waited. They waited until deep into night, before stood up and started after the caravan.
The dust storm came up quickly. They barely found cover, robes and cloaks pulled over their heads, huddled together, while the dust piled onto them like blanket after blanket. Zeon kept them there during the heat of the day. The vessel her mother had given her held eight swallows of water, and they drank that while they waited out the storm.
She led them out at twilight, but the storm had wiped away all signs of the caravan. The place to go was Three Rocks, a common meeting place, so Zeon started that way. Now she knew they would not make it. They would die here. The God would mock their husks.
One rock in the middle distance caught her attention. It was shaped like one of the chimneys in the plant; shorter, squatter, rounded like a water gourd at its base. Her dry throat stung as she swallowed. She started toward the rock. Perhaps it was the shape that called her, as if the shape of a water gourd meant water. She knew this was foolishness, but with no idea which direction to go, this was no worse than any other. Her eyes were dry and she blinked rapidly. Once she stumbled over one of the gashes in the earth. She caught herself. The second time she didn’t and hurtled to her knees and hands. She lowered her head and breathed in, closing her eyes. Her eyelids felt gritty. She thought of lying down. She thought of Zev. She made herself get up.
A buzzing filled the air, deepening to a growl. She crouched down. That was the sound the two-wheels made. She cowered, unclasped her veil-cloak and draped it over herself, mimicking the color of the rocks. The sound grew deeper, and her heart pounded. They’d have water, she thought, and for a mad moment thought of standing up and casting off the veil-cloak, begging them to take her to the plant. They would help Zev.
The image of the red-and-black figure flickered against her eyelids.
The growl got higher pitched and fainter, fading. Had those been the three who had stayed with the caravan? Was it nearby after all? But their two-wheels could cover more ground, and faster, than a young one walking could. She peered about, saw nothing on the horizon, and stood up.
The rock was more than a strange shape. It had a regularity to it. The chimney shape was perfectly circular. Facing her was a rectangular block that rose in two curves at the top to a point. It wasn’t just a rock. It was a tiny building.
She watched her footing, dodging a chasm, and looked up again at the rock, the building. The rectangular part jutted out of a curving wall. It would provide shelter from the sun, and she could bring Zev here, into shade, while she searched.
Before The God had been the little gods, Zill said once. They would help, sometimes. People built little houses to the gods, not like the plant, but small places. Maybe this was the house of a little god.
The little house was made of squared rocks, red and pale, pale gray. The triangular roof shaded an opening. She hesitated outside, listening for animals. It might be a lair. Although most desert predators would be sleeping now, it wouldn’t do to wake one.
Zeon wished she were sleeping.
She went closer.