At the base of a dune, two children cowered in the scant shade of a black reaper cactus. The little girl’s tears turned the sand to mud as her brother attempted to remove hundreds of spines from her side and back. The only plant in sight, the cactus had appeared a fountain of hope from the dune’s crest; but she had lost her footing on the way down, and the fountain became a curse.
He tore a large strip from an inner fold of his robe, where less sand clung to the coarse cloth. He pressed it to her swollen, discolored skin, knowing his efforts were futile. The demon plant would not spare her. He hadn’t the skill to close black reaper wounds; and even if he had, he hadn’t the medicine to cure the poisoning.
The girl’s dark eyes slid gradually shut as he held her in his lap. Hopelessness threatened to bury her brother alive beneath the burning sand. His eyes pierced every inch of the deserted landscape, grasping for inspiration.
Horse, he thought suddenly, and felt sure the sun must be frying his reason. Horse. He searched his muddled memory. An old man from his village had once taught him to call the horses. . . .
“Ha’ya’hna’hno’ho,” he rasped, then louder: “Ha’ya’hna’hno’ho!”
Agonizing moments passed, and at first he feared he imagined the sound of hoofs galloping over the dunes. Then he saw it, as if flying from a dream: red coat shining in the sun, black mane and tale flashing like ravens in flight. A trail of dust rose up in its wake, and . . . wings! Wings like an eagle’s grew from the beast’s withers, or were his eyes deceiving him?
The horse stopped beside them, shading them, and knelt and nuzzled the little girl. The lad wanted to weep for joy. He stood, legs trembling as his own weakened state at last began to manifest. He lay his sister atop the horse’s back, then pulled himself up behind her. “Please,” he whispered, stroking the black mane. “We need food and water . . . and a healer.”
The horse nickered softly, tossed its head, then took off at a gallop.
The lad gripped its sides with his knees, clutching the mane with one hand, his other arm wrapped around his sister. The desert flew by in a blur; not even the undulating dunes could slow the beast. And yet, he had never known a horse who galloped so smoothly. He felt the lack of food and water, and fear for his sister, crashing over him, and the horse’s gentle gallop rocking him to sleep. He last remembered the black wings beating in time with the legs, carrying them through the barren land.
He awoke lying atop soft white sheets, staring at a grass roof. He sat up, looking frantically about the small room.
“Have no fear, lad,” a kind voice came from the doorway. “She is sleeping in the other room.”
His eyes followed the voice to a tall man with graying dark hair. “She’s alive?”
“Alive and out of danger now.”
The lad relaxed a little, his exhaustion returning. “The horse . . . ?”
“He lingered long enough to assure you two would be okay. Then he galloped off as though called back to the wilderness.”
“He saved us.”
“Yes, he has saved many. He is called Luwase, and he bears the strength of the wind. He answers to no mortal master; yet a few in this forsaken world have known the blessing of his acquaintance.”
“I didn’t even remember to thank him.” the lad sighed. “Could I see my sister? I’ll have quite a tale to tell her when she awakes.”