The Araxi Tribe spent a few more suns plodding along. Every now and then Beledine offered a hint to point Skyrel in the right direction. He was reluctant at first to heed her advice, but since each of her promises came true, he eventually stopped questioning her. In fact, on their fourth morning of travel across the plains he invited her to lead the way.
But after a few more suns of walking, both Skyrel and the tribe grew antsy. There was no sign of clean fresh water—the best Beledine had to offer was the occasional mudflat. And while Skyrel and Mota had the power to leech up enough fluid to keep the tribe hydrated, it was not a sustainable lifestyle.
There was very little life, either. Animals were few and far between, and there wasn't even a hint of other tribes in the area. This was a blessing, since the Araxi wouldn't have survived a confrontation in their current sorry state, but it worried Beledine. Surely if there was water or fertile land nearby, other humans would be nearby, too?
<How much longer must we go?> Beledine asked Ghokarian as she trudged along beside Skyrel. <These people are tired. We're running out of energy and food is scarce.>
<Another sun's walk by my reckoning, given your current pace,> her bondmate replied. Though they'd covered a fair bit of ground since leaving the mountains, Ghokarian's mindvoice was as clear and strong as if he were standing beside her. He must be following them, though Beledine hadn't seen so much as a shadow in the clouds to indicate his presence. <Can you hold on that long?>
<We certainly won't drop dead before tomorrow's sunset, if that's your question,> she replied. <But I'm not sure if they'll keep following my directions when we've had nothing to show for it.>
Indeed, when they stopped to rest that night in the rocky foothills of a rambling ridge, Skyrel pulled her away from the bonfire.
“You said you knew these lands,” he grated, gripping her upper arm as he dragged her into the shadows of a small rocky overhang.
“And I do,” she retorted. She yanked herself from his grasp and straightened her back, standing tall and proud before him. Chieftain he might be, but no one touched her like that. “I brought you to shelter and water every sun, didn't I?”
“It's not enough.” Beledine noted in the silvery-blue light of the rising moon that he had dark circles under his eyes. “The tribe needs a natural source of fresh water. Mota and I can't go on like this. It's worse than the mountains.”
“I know it's been difficult, but just beyond this ridge there's a valley full of greenery.”
“How do you know?” he demanded. “Have you been here?”
“Not me personally,” she admitted. “But—”
“Then you can't be certain.”
“Have I ever once steered you wrong?”
“There's a first time for everything,” he muttered as he turned to head back to the fire. “I'd like to believe you, Beledine. But we've gone further and further off-course on your suggestions, and with no water in sight it feels like you're leading us astray. Some people are angry that we've put our fate in the hands of a rheenar. I can't jeopardize our safety. I'm turning the tribe around in the morning and heading south.”
An awful, sinking sensation filled Beledine's gut. It tugged at her urgently, and she reached out to latch onto Skyrel's arm just as he had done to her moments before. “Chieftain, please. We're so close—”
“Unhand me.” He shook her off roughly, causing her to stumble back a pace. “This is my tribe and I must do what's best for it. I thought having you with us was for the best. I was wrong.”
With that, he marched back toward the group of bodies huddled around the crackling flames. Beledine stood alone in the darkness, staring after him, feeling something she hadn't felt in all the cycles she'd lived with Ghokarian.
<Beledine, what happened? Are you alright?> Her dragon's thoughts—never further than her own, just as he'd promised—came echoing toward her like a shout across a wide canyon this time. He was far away tonight. Perhaps he'd gone to find a proper meal for himself elsewhere.
<Skyrel wants to turn back.>
<It will do more harm than good to turn back now,> Ghokarian protested. <Did you tell him you'd reach fresh water by tomorrow?>
<He didn't believe me.> She wrapped her arms around her stomach, which was roiling unpleasantly. Though she was speaking with her bondmate and the tribe was just a stone's throw away, she somehow felt more alone than ever she had before. <It hurts. I don't know why it hurts this much.>
<It's part of being human, I'm afraid,> thought Ghokarian.
Beledine bit her lip and began to creep back toward the fire. She'd have to convince Skyrel to keep going—they couldn't survive backtracking through the flatlands. Blure was too old, and Falme's illness was too volatile. One more sun of travel and they'd have water. Surely the cheiftain would see reason.
Beledine stopped behind a lichen-scabbed boulder just before she returned to the rosy glow of the bonfire. She'd caught the sound of her name—someone was speaking about her.
“. . . never even seen her wield a proper spell. How do we know she's really a mage? She's probably nothing but a fraud.” It was Yalon. He was standing in the shadows beyond Beledine's boulder, speaking in hushed tones with two other men.
“She's got the marks,” came a second voice, barely audible above the chatter of the tribe. That was Kibar. Beledine could just make out his silhouette as he shifted away from the air wielder.
“Bah,” Yalon scoffed. “She might have given those to herself to ward off potential attackers. The witch was living alone for Ra-knows-how-long before she stalked us down. We shouldn't be afraid of her. I say we kick her out of the tribe.”
“I no want to hurt Bel,” came the higher-pitched voice of Mota. Beledine could see him too, standing beside Kibar. “She done nothing wrong. She only try to help.”
“And see where that's gotten us,” spat Yalon. “We'll starve to death, assuming she isn't leading us right into a den of demons to kill us all.”
“If you have problem with her, why you don't talk to Sky?” said Mota. She felt a surge of affection for the water wielder as he crossed his arms and stuck his chin out defiantly at Yalon.
“Because she's dug her claws into him,” said Yalon. “He lets her talk among the men like an equal, he listens to her nonsense—by all the stars, he let her lead the tribe as we walked yestersun. She's bewitched him, I tell you.”
“If you really think we're better off without her, take it up with the chieftain yourself,” Kibar told him. “He'll do what's right.”
“Unbelievable. She's got her spell on both of you troglodytes, too.” Yalon tossed his hands up in frustration and stomped away. Kibar and Mota stayed in place, conferring in low voices. Beledine stole closer, straining to catch their words.
“I hate to admit it, but he's got a point,” Kibar murmured.
Mota shook his head adamantly. “No. Yalon is stupid. Why Bel would want to hurt us?”
The older man heaved a sigh and scrubbed his hands over his face. “I couldn't tell you. But remember she isn't like us—she's a rheenar. Who knows what's going through that mind of hers?”
Part of Beledine wanted to run to her friends and explain everything to them. She would tell them about Ghokarian and prove he was helping them from afar. Then things would be better. Then they would trust her again.
Would they, though? Maybe not. That whisper surfaced from a dark corner of her mind, unleashing a flood of doubt. Maybe they'd only trusted her because they, like Yalon, didn't understand or even believe in the full extent of her power. If she brought up Ghokarian, what then? These humans had been kind to her thus far . . . but she knew all too well how quickly humans could turn dangerous.
For the first time since she'd joined the Araxi people, Beledine felt unwelcome—and unsafe. She had no desire to sit with the men and women savoring their paltry meal of prairie voles and scorpids. A dull, throbbing ache spread from her gut, spilling upwards into her chest and making it difficult to breathe.
She had never once pushed aside Ghokarian's thoughts, but she didn't want to talk to him. She just wanted to be alone, to hide in the darkness until the awful, burning feeling in her heart went away. Perhaps he sensed her desires, for he didn't make any further attempt to communicate telepathically with her.
She found a bare patch of earth amid the rocks and bedded down far from the sight and sounds of her fellow humans. A few browning weeds poked up through the pebbly dirt—these she folded down and used as a very poor headrest. She was glad for the comfort and warmth of her new toga, and she curled up in a ball, hugging her furs tightly against her. She feared the hurt inside her would keep her awake all night, but no sooner had she closed her eyes than she slipped into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning Beledine woke to the sounds of the tribe moving out. She sat bolt upright, rubbing her eyes and staring around, disoriented. She'd slept right through the dawn. The sun was crouched on the eastern horizon, glaring angrily through the haze like a watery red eye. She peeked out from behind her cluster of rocks to see the Araxi Tribe packing up and preparing to head south.
“Wait!” Beledine was on her feet in a flash, and she raced over to confront Skyrel. She hadn't had time to process the events of last night, but she knew one thing: regardless of what the tribe thought of her, she was invested in their safety now. She couldn't just let them walk away.
“We're leaving,” Skyrel announced as she hurried up to him.
“Chieftain, I know you think going back is what's best. But you already know what's behind you: barren plains, dried-up mudflats, prey that barely makes a meal. You'll lose more energy and stamina if you double back the way you came. You may not even make it out of the plains. I think—I know going forward is our best option.”
Some of the nearby tribesmen shifted uncomfortably as they watched Beledine face off against Skyrel, but none of them made any move to support her. A pang shot through her heart, but she continued valiantly.
“Just over this ridge is a valley,” she explained. “A valley with water and—”
“Why are we listening to this heathen?” Yalon had arrived. He'd been out in the plains, perhaps scouting a potential route. He shoved his way through the crowd to confront her. “She gained our trust and now she's betrayed us. She's a liar and a fraud. If she wants to go on, I say let her: send her off on her own and be rid of her.”
“Yalon, I make the decisions,” Skyrel reminded the air wielder in a warning tone.
“Then act like it! You've practically let this girlchild run the tribe—and she's run us into the ground. She's destroying us.”
“That's not true. I want to help,” said Beledine. She sought and found the faces of her friends in the crowd—Mota, Kibar, and Blure were closest, and they looked more willing to listen to her than Skyrel did. “Just follow me to the crest of that ridge and you'll see. If I'm wrong, you can turn back and you've lost nothing more than a morning's worth of travel. But if I'm right, your salvation lies on the other side of these hills.”
Still no one moved. Beledine felt her throat constrict painfully as she stared around at the people she'd begun to think of as family. Was this what it all came down to? Would none of them believe her, after everything she'd done for them?
“You see?” Yalon's voice rang with triumph. “They're done with your nonsense. Go have your barren mountains to yourself. We're heading south to better lands.”
Beledine hung her head. Her eyes were stinging now. She hadn't ever cried in all the time she'd lived with Ghokarian; how was it that these humans—who she'd known for little more than a moon cycle—could so easily break her heart? She'd been a fool. She should have just stayed with her dragon, her wonderful dragon who loved and trusted and understood her.
Beledine's head snapped back up to see Falme shuffling forward. He came to stand in front of her, his square jaw set in determination.
Yalon let out an incredulous snort. “Are you mad? If you go with this witch, we won't wait for you. We'll leave you behind.”
“I go, too.” Mota shouldered his way past Kamber and came to stand by Beledine. She felt her lip begin to tremble.
“Hi Bel,” he whispered. “You sure there water on the other side of this?”
“Good enough for me.” Mota planted his fists on his hips and fixed Skyrel with a beady glare, his blue eyes sparkling with challenge.
“Mota, I don't want to fight,” the chieftain said slowly. “You're the only other water wielder I've got. You've been a loyal tribesman for cycles—would you abandon the Araxi now when we need you most?”
“I not abandoning. Just going with Bel to top of the ridge.” He pointed up at the rocky crest behind them.
“This is ridiculous,” growled Yalon. “If you refuse to listen to your chieftain, then you'll all get left behind!”
Skyrel held up a hand to stay Yalon's angry words. “No one is getting left behind. If two of my trusted men think Beledine's claims are worth considering, then I will go with them.”
“Only to the top of the ridge,” Skyrel added. “And only us four. No point wasting everyone's energy. If she's wrong, then we come back down and continue south. Without her,” he finished pointedly.
“Fair enough.” Beledine turned at once and began hurrying up the slope. Bolstered by Falme and Mota's support, and drawing strength from Ghokarian's certainty that there was a worthwhile valley within spitting distance, she forged a path up the steep mountainside. She heard the men toiling along behind her. Falme's breathing was labored, but she didn't slow down. She had to reach the top.
Hand over foot, scrambling from rock to rock, ever upwards she climbed. Then finally, and quite abruptly, she reached the peak of the ridge. Her mouth fell open as she stared down at the sight before her.
When Mota joined her, he froze and swore in his native language. Skyrel—and Kibar, who'd followed his leader faithfully—were next to arrive.
“Well I'll be,” whispered Kibar. A crystal lake sparkled in the sunlight, stretching away from them toward a ring of misty mountains. Directly below lay a flat open area blanketed with moss. Golden reeds edged the water, swaying serenely in a soft breeze. Even from this height, a swell of animal sounds reached their ears: the hum of insects, the chirrup of frogs, the cries of waterbirds.
Mota let out a whoop. Beledine moved toward them and laid a gentle hand on Falme's arm.
“Thank you,” she whispered. He merely nodded, too winded to do anything else.
“Come up!” Mota turned and shouted down at the rest of the tribe, waving his arms madly. They were too far to hear him, so he began barreling back downhill. “Come up, come up!” His joyous cries echoed throughout the rocks of the ridge. Kibar started laughing, a deep rumbling belly-laugh that hummed in Beledine's ears. She turned to look at the old hunter and found herself face-to-face with Skyrel instead.
“I owe you an apology,” he told her quietly. “A good leader must be sure and steadfast. He must believe in the actions he takes. He must be strong and proud. But a truly good leader must also be able to admit when he was wrong.”
“Last night you said you were wrong to trust me."
“I was right to trust you. I was wrong to say that.” Skyrel's gaze shifted to the lake once more. “You've saved us, Beledine. Again.”
“Then you like it?”
“Like it?” he repeated, raising his brows. “It's almost too good to be true. We could build a bloody settlement here if we wanted.”
Beledine let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
<Well, you've seen your friends safely to the valley.> Ghokarian's thoughts entered her mind. <Will you leave them here?>
He had obviously picked up on Beledine's inner musings from last night and felt her doubts about the Araxi people. She could end her adventure here and be done with the humans. She could return to her mountains and her bondmate and never have to feel hurt or angry again.
She looked at Falme, who was still catching his breath. She glanced down at Mota, who was practically tripping over his own feet in his haste to rejoin the main tribe. Finally, she turned back to Skyrel. The chieftain was still watching her. He held her gaze, and as she studied his weather-worn face, she found no trace of malice.
<The tribe still needs me,> she told Ghokarian. <I will stay.>