Pinpoints of light freckled a blue-black sky, but Nihan, the North Star, hid its face. Lindel laid his broken body on the sand, heavy-lidded eyes searching the heavens once more.
The North Star will watch over us.
So his eldest daughter had claimed at their parting . . . and in his desperation for hope, he had believed. Each night, he would turn his eyes toward the North Star, and for a few peaceful moments he could forget the long, lonely journey that took him ever further from those he loved most. He could imagine that, half a world away, they were gazing back at him.
It seemed now that the heavenly window had faded into the night.
Fighting back long-suppressed emotion, he glanced at the circular print of blood and mutilated flesh on his arm. The unfamiliar desert beast had spared him little today. The various wounds were already swollen and hot. He could feel the infection flowing though his veins like a living thing, weakening his body as much as his spirit. He tried to clear his mind, to not think at all. Entertaining thoughts of home would kill him sooner than any living foe.
He let his eyelids slip closed, fearing they would never open again, yet too weak to fight the deathlike weariness. The darkness before his eyes dimmed to gray; the swish of night insects taking flight, of wild animals running over sandy planes, transformed to music somewhere just at the edge of his hearing. The music of a child’s laughter.
The gray melted to sunlight. Yellow fields rolled out before him, fields of dry grain, dancing in the breeze. A small cottage rose up, built of sun-dried clay and grass. Two girls and a boy skipped through the waving pasture, smiling and laughing, as if to greet him. In the doorway stood a woman, smiling like a desert flower.
But they faded, all of them . . . like the outlines of a painting splashed with water, or the glimpse of a sunset slipping away.
Color melted to black, a blue light growing within it. The light flickered in a sea of darkness, growing, taking physical shape. It grew until it filled all his vision.
He rubbed his eyes, warding off the brightness, and when he opened them again the dark chill of a desert midnight had returned. A sense that he was not alone overtook him. Grimacing, he pulled himself up to lean against the boulder at his back.
A man sat on a rock beside him, smiling without malice. Long, silver hair reflected moonlight, and the white skin seemed to glow with an inner light. “Do not fear,” the man said, his voice a clear tenor. “Your wounds are grievous, and your spirit is heavy. But you will live to see your hope renewed.”
He touched a pale finger to a wound on Lindel’s leg, tracing the ring of animal tooth marks as a blue fire, like lightning, streamed from his finger. Lindel clenched his teeth against a pain that never came.
The man’s finger moved like water, flowing from one wound to the next. Each mended as his fire purged it of pain and corruption. Lindel watched wordlessly, feeling new strength wash the fever from his body. He wondered if he had strayed into a dream. Perhaps, indeed, he had never awoken.
When the man had finished he smiled again, his night-sky gaze piercing Lindel’s. “Sleep now,” he said, “and no longer fall victim to despair. Your loved ones are not forsaken.”
The man stood, tall as the sentinel cactus that forested this land. “Who are you?” Lindel asked in wonder.
Amusement glinted in the dark eyes. “Do you not know?” Then he disappeared around the side of the boulder.
Lindel stumbled to his feet, praying this was not a dream. He peered around the boulder, where the man stood, arms wide, face to the heavens. A shaft of blue-white light either fell upon him or emanated from him, Lindel could not say. The figure of the man blended with the night, his outline blurring, his body growing transparent. He faded until only the light remained, and it wavered for a moment, then disappeared.
Lindel cast his eyes about him, alone again. The sounds of the night calmed the pounding in his chest, and he sighed, perhaps in disappointment.
A glimmer from above caught his peripheral vision. To the north, a blue-white pinpoint shone brighter than the rest. He gazed long upon it, tears wetting his eyes. Nihan, the North Star, had returned to his vigil.