Hammaden led a procession of two hundred other exiles. Only a few hours previously, they had all been evicted from wagons under army escort. For now, they still inhaled air in their lungs, but it would count for nothing, if he could not find shelter for them from the sun.
The sweat from his brows stung his eyes as they rolled toward their destination. A ringed wall of rock stood in the distance, breached by an opening wide enough to drive through two wagons abreast of each other.
A woman walked from a gathering ring around a teenaged girl.
“You are the king’s apothecary. Can you do something for my daughter?”
The circle broke away for him, allowing access to a girl moaning with her eyes closed, taking rapid, shallow breaths.
“Keep moving.” He berated.
The procession moved one as he scooped her up in his arms, and reached the ring of rock by morning. On entering, it appeared to be a natural amphitheatre. He guessed the structure to be the remains of an inactive volcano. Some of the younger people panted past the rest of the group, while the greater majority puffed heavily with thickened tongues distended.
He sank to his knees, coughing and retching painfully from his lungs. Fires flickered, made from dead trees. Something felt silky beneath his feet. By the side of the closest fire, he could see grass much like the kind that grew in the dunes on the coast.
A young woman, sprinted toward him, and bent over, badly out of breath.
“Gallina’s mother wishes…”
“Hold there girl, take a few breaths and tell me.”
“She wants you to come and see her.”
Hammaden filled his lungs and sighed deeply, following the girl. Gallina lay on her back between her tearful parents. He placed his hand over her mouth. Her breathing came as slow and shallow sighs.
“She is very weak from the journey.” He said simply. “She needs rest and something to eat. I will see that the men send out hunting parties in the morning.”
“But she barely breathes! Gallina will never see the dawn. Can we not eat the grass?”
He sighed again, and plucked one of the leaves. It snapped between his thumb and forefinger. The sap was clear, but that was no final indication that it was not poisonous. He nibbled off the end. It was a pleasant taste between a mushroom and a green bean.
The girl’s chest barely rose. To say they could eat it might poison her, but without sustenance, she would die during the night. He decided it was best to make her final night more comfortable and gave a nod.
Within the hour, his mouth watered over the scent of roasting grass. People panted and gasped, in their ravenous feeding, but he refused to eat, choosing to keep a lucid mind. Their starved frenzy continued on as he sank into rhythmic breathing.
When he awoke, a few of the exiles had already arisen, swaying slightly on their feet. He went to say “good morning” to the nearest of them and held his breath. His hand closed over a stone and threw it at a man. The stone dropped from his chest without him raising his hands to protect himself or show any signs of pain.
“Begone!” Hammaden screeched.
The man slowly turned and began to walk.
He stopped without turning. Were they dead? He pressed his ear to the chest of an old woman. She did not breathe, but… was that the beat of her heart? He waited a few moments more, before hearing it again. They were alive, breathing, and hearts beating, however slowly.
“And best still.” He whispered, turning to take them all in.
“Come here!” He shouted.
The feet of two hundred exiles shuffled toward him, ushering him into laughter, making his plans clear. He would lead them to every nomadic tribe, every Nusallean and Quelandi village, and feed his captives the desert grass. In time, he would absorb an army large enough to march on Queland, and take the throne for himself.
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