As the sun slid across the horizon and over the top of the tent, the Roundeli Mountains shimmered in the distance. The leaves on the trees remained still. Who do these foreigners think they are? Her father’s question rang in the air. Instead of answering him, Sen swallowed, trying to rid her mouth of the dust of the Schiavonan desert. She tried to push away thoughts of the long limbed leader of the scouts she had passed while searching for the logan berry that kept her father’s cough at bay. Filling our heads with the hope of better lands when we know rain is coming. Here a wracking cough punctured his diatribe. She thumped his back. Help, that’s all Sen seemed to do these days, whether her father, or the older members of their tribe. There was no more time for lingering against the trunk of a tree, rolling down hills deep in the forest, seeking out the Sawtee – a bird with a sweet cry, it reminded her of earlier days.
“None of our people has made it across that river since the days of our fathers’ fathers,” she murmured, saving him the exertion. She pressed his right shoulder so he reclined against the tent’s central pole. He sipped from a wooden spoon filled with a homemade remedy of red berries and leaves. As his eyes closed, Sen rubbed the spoon in a small pile of sand. It would have to do. There wasn’t enough water to drink, much less clean their implements, not to mention their bodies.
Her father’s breath rattled in his chest, sounding like a loose pebble at the bottom of a harvesting bag. But it had been months since a harvest of any kind. Instead of replenishing itself for planting, without rain the earth was drying up; even the verdant Culdees, in whose vales she had played as a child, were diminishing. Trees drooped their branches in surrender to the encroaching desert.
Sen needn’t dread the bittersweet feeling of a Sawtee’s cry because the blue and yellow bird was a rare sight. Wondering where all the birds, even wildlife had wandered to, she felt a fool for not feeling the tall one’s gaze. She had no way of knowing how long he had been watching her. As she crouched low, preparing to run on all fours where she would be fastest; he hadn’t spoken a word, remaining very still, and kept watching her. Instead of lunging for her, he extended a hand. She retreated a few steps. His vine like fingers unfurled, revealing a small oval disk, painted into the likeness of a woman’s face. It was unlike anything she had ever seen.
She drew closer, picked up the flat disk, attached to a rope of delicate, linked metal. He didn’t twitch a hair. The face smiling up at Sen was a dim memory from another life full of laughter; when they ate meat regularly, and she didn’t flatten her chest by winding long strips across it under her tunics. That smile could belong to one other person, the only other person in the tribe to have brown eyes. Sen shook her head, fingers involuntarily closing around the disk. When she looked up again the tall one was
Her back to the tent, she sat a few feet away against a tree, dangling the disk in the remaining rays of sunlight. There was no doubt who was winking back at her. Her father had told her mother was dead. How then, or why, did a tall one have an engraving of her likeness?