We walked for days. I had placed the child with all her apparel on a donkey. They were the only livings things left in the village. She looked serene, in her red robes and priestly breast plate, despite the fact that our village had just been obliterated moments before.
I watched the village from a foothill outside as it was ransacked by The Marauders. Large soldiers, broad and armoured, tossed people aside as if they were feathers, charging into every house to see what they could find. I wasn’t sure if they were looking for treasure or water stores, but they destroyed everything, setting fire to almost every dwelling. The fighting and screaming kicked up a fine brown dust in the dry air, and a haze hung in the pale yellow light as far as the foothills in which I was hiding.
A group of villagers began to form a crowd outside the temple. I couldn’t see exactly what they were doing, but whatever it was, they seemed to provide a significant enough resistance, because The Marauders movements slowed. But nevertheless, it wasn’t enough. It looked to me as if eventually all the villagers were killed, and then a couple of The Maruaders went straight into the temple, and left again.
The image of the slain villagers stung deeply. It reminded me of how my family had died many years previously. When all of the Marauding hordes had left, I scrambled down from the foothills, and surveyed the scene. The air was dry, the walls of the circular mud-huts were arid, and dead bodies were scattered everywhere. There was no blood or scars, The Marauders were well known for using electrocution as a means of combat. Some of my closest friends were among the dead, but I had no time for sentimentality, I needed to think quickly about how I could survive.
I entered the temple, gaining respite from the sun and horror outside, relieved to be away from the carnage. The stone cool of the building enveloped me, and I walked slowly towards the holy of holies, in a way I never have imagined I would have the courage to. Before I got to the inner sanctum, I felt a tugging at my clothes, and saw the small girl, dressed in finery, at my feet. She had lived in the holy of holies and was one of those responsible for finding water for our village.
Several years ago, explorers from our federation had set out on foot looking for water, and more often than not, never returned. Killed by vigilantes or presumably having died of thirst. These men had wanted to be heroes, but all they had become were tragedies in a collective folk memory.
Then the child had been born, with the mark of the skill on the back of her left hand. Three raised moles in a perfect line. People had watched desperately, as the small baby twitched in her mother’s arms, hopeful that her movements would somehow communicate where water could be found. A small girl from the village, called Hafisa, screeched the first time she laid eyes on the child. She could hear what the baby was saying, and she had said that there was a stream of water, under the ancient rocks just outside the village boundary. Men set to work to move the ancient stellai and discovered, at the base, a fine layer of moss.
The moss was full of water and when chewed, would quench our thirst. When the baby became a child, she was able to point out where the spirits had told her water was located, and invariably a water source would be found, usually though some desert plant or nearly dried spring. Through the intuition of The Oracle the village survived. When the village got lucky, and the oracle’s powers were at their most strong, she would direct them to a cave or underground stream that contained enough water for drinking, washing and storage. Intermittently, the child would catch a fever and shriek in a febrile stupor for days. These fits always preceded rain, and the village would collect as much rainwater as possible, dancing in the rain for days. But these joyous occasions were rare. The rain was infrequent, and drought was far more common than days of plenty.
Then The Marauders came. For what, I wasn’t certain, but the health and stealth of the fighters betrayed the fact that they had been fed and watered in a way our village dwellers could not even dream of. The Marauders viewed us as primitive and disposable. Perhaps they had come for temple treasure, maybe knowing that our oracle had the power of divining water sources.
And now, at the child’s bidding I walked through the wilderness, in the hope we would find water. We walked through mountain paths, and dried river beds, and every so often the child would point frantically. There had been an intentional effort on the part of the temple officiates not to teach the child language. It was thought that this would sharpen the child’s divinatory powers. So the child was only able to point, screech, and sometimes utter a few words.
Following the instructions of the child, the Oracle, I would discover a small shrub or mollusc that would contain water, and we would share it. The child’s power lay in being able to differentiate between poisonous plants and creatures, and those that were safe to eat. Regardless of generations of study and collective wisdom, there had never previously been anyone in my village who was able to consistently direct people towards safe drinking water. We were entirely reliant on the chance birth of a diviner.
My face was parched and tired, and my feet sore and calloused, but the child seemed determined to keep moving. When I placed her on the donkey, she would bundle her red robes in her lap and scream there, there, pointing straight ahead. I had no choice, but to lead the donkey by its tether. We had been moving for about four days, setting up a humble camp in the shadow of rocks and boulders, surviving on the smallest of shrubs and insects, and a tiny morsel of bread I had found in the village. I feared that we would come across a group of Marauders or Counters, and they would kill me and imprison the child. There was a brooding that grew inside me; aren’t we moving in the direction of Counter civilisation.
Because to move due East was to move towards the more densely populated Counter areas, and there we were sure to be enslaved at best, and killed at worst. We were simple villagers. Our ways were mocked, and we were considered little more than animals in the eyes of Counters.
But still the child directed me towards the cities of the Counters. A fate that I would rather have avoided. We had now come to the edge of the salt flats, a level and pristine white, containing salty pools of water I couldn’t drink. The sounds of nature, that were intermittent amongst the salt terrain, were now interrupted by a distant humming, and now and then a dramatic clanging. The noise of metal on metal, the buzz of electricity. I thought of the slave populations that were known to keep those cities functioning. I prayed to the spirits of the oracle that I would be able to escape such a destiny.
Still the child wanted to move closer to the cities. Still I pleaded, but the child knew that she exerted an almost total control on me, and I would listen obediently to her instructions. How else would I survive? Without her, I would die of dehydration, and my body would become a dry skeleton like so many others we had passed on our travels.
That way, that way the child said as she pointed. Irritation at the child’s assumption of total authority and her inability to speak more than three words at a time, crept over me. I began to suspect that instead of protecting me, she was leading me deep into enemy territory.
On the horizon of the salty plains, there was a thin line of grey, and I knew that this was the line of the city walls. The city walls of the Counter-Revolutionaries, who had been more brutal in the quashing of insurgency than any other known civilisation. Their brutality ensured their survival. The thought of approaching the citadel made me feel ill. I had already escaped death once through sheer luck, I didn’t want to look death in the face ever again.
Forward, forward the child said, and I reluctantly pulled on the tether of the donkey, and led the donkey and child towards enemy territory.
The sounds to which I was not accustomed began to fill the air. The creak of salt plains became the whirring of vehicles and the rhythmic tones of industry.
I was certain we were being followed. Counters were known to release colonies of mechanical insects outside of their city walls. This was their major protection against Marauders and other foe. Their expertise in technology and resulting wealth was jealously guarded, and they thought nothing of killing anyone who was several miles from their city walls.
My fears came to fruition when I saw a tiny beetle follow us, jet black against the whiteness of the flats, and when I bent down to look closer I saw metal pivots in its legs and pincers, and a synthetic glassiness in its wings.
The Oracle had led me to my death. For a moment I was expecting a whole colony of flesh eating spiders to emerge out of the ground and start sinking their poisoned pincers into my body. I started trembling, and feeling faint in the same way that I had when I saw the Marauders sack the village.
Forward, forward the oracle screeched. At this point I wanted to do nothing more than slap the child’s face. Perhaps all the times she had directed me to water had been coincidence and now her childish ramblings had brought me to death.
A dense silvery cloud seemed to float above the city walls in the distance, and the silvery cloud began to move towards us. As it came closer, I realised that it was a fleet of air zeppelins, with the Crescent symbol of the counters emblazoned on them in red.
My body clenched, and awaited sniper fire. I cursed The Oracle under my breath, and hoped that the spirits would show me safe passage to the next world.
They mix air, shouted The Oracle.
The zeppelins were overhead now, and hung in the sky in an expectant swarm. Then one by one they burst into orange flames, and as each zeppelin turned into a floating fireball, a loud bang moved through the air, like a choreographed thunder storm. I kept wondering how I was still alive.
Then there was stillness, and I felt a drop of warm liquid fall on my face. And another, and another, and another.
Mixing air makes water, said The Oracle.