The meal continued with only trivial conversations that steered clear of the topics on everyone’s mind. The last scraps of food soon vanished and the Fledglings returned to clear away the plates.
The Matriarch stood, regal and full of grace, despite Trey feeling like he could explode from overeating. “Go now and rest. You will have a busy day tomorrow since we cannot convince you to stay. Everything you need will be provided for you so don’t worry.” She turned to Dawn. “Please escort our guests back to their lodgings.”
Dawn curtsied respectfully then motioned for the boys to follow her again. They passed through the palace in silence, moving considerably slower than before the meal. The second that they reached the surface, the cold hit them like a physical blow. The dark sky and blowing wind felt like ice against the skin. Dawn hadn’t been joking when she had said that the boiling days were countered by freezing nights. Trey was thankful for the many layered robes that he wore over his normal clothes.
Snuggling deeper into their robes, the teens made their way back to the guest lodging at a brisk walk. The village was empty of people now. Once there, they thanked Dawn and bid her a good night. Dawn muttered a reply then sped off back toward the Teiidae Palace.
Once they were inside the boys found that their weapons had been returned during their absence. Small packs filled with basic survival gear and food had also been prepared for them and had been left beside the door. They were worries for tomorrow though.
Deciding to make the most of what comfort was available before they hit the road again, the boys all slumped off to bed. The strange hammock was surprisingly comfortable after the fight to get on it had been won.
An hour passed and a bitter coldness filled the air. Unable to get comfortable in the chill, Trey flipped himself out of the hammock and padded back into the common room. Pux was asleep on one of the shelves at the back of the room. There was a fireplace which Trey filled with tumbleweed from a nearby bucket then set it alight. A warm glow began to emit as the flames gained ground. He gazed out of the window to see similar glows from the other buildings.
So many thoughts and feelings drifted through his head in a confused mess but weariness clouded them. Trey collapsed onto a cushy armchair as his strength left him. The warmth of the fire washed over him like a heated blanket. Before he had even realised it, he was asleep.
Trey was woken by the loud voices and bangs of Billy and Zak moving around the room, arguing as always. Groggily, he rose from the chair and yawned. Judging by the light flooding through the window it must have been around midmorning. Heat was already thick in the air.
Billy and Zak were both already packed up and ready to go. Between the yellow robes, the multiple weapons, and the new supply packs, the teens were looking somewhat encumbered. Seeing Trey on his feet they ceased their bickering and turned to him.
“Dawn is waiting outside. There is a ship waiting to take us to the outskirts of the desert as soon as we’re ready,” said Billy. He finished inspecting his bow then threw it over his shoulder before fastening his short sword to his belt.
“Right,” nodded Trey.
He quickly set about collecting his gear. A few minutes later he too was loaded up. “Come on,” he said, fearing that he had already wasted too much time. He silently cursed his own inability to wake up.
They left the building and found Dawn waiting patiently outside. The morning sun made her skin shine and her amber eyes seemed to sparkle when she looked up as they approached her. The rest of her face remained impassive.
“Are you ready?” she asked. The boys nodded so she turned and walked away, motioning for them to follow.
She led them around the domes to try and avoid the other Heptalli and stop them from noticing her. After a brisk walk they reached the dunes that formed the village’s walls but still the girl didn’t slow.
Before them was a fifteen foot wide sandstone slab set within the dune. A smaller section had been cut into a door that slid inwards as Dawn pushed it. They entered and Trey closed the door behind him as he stepped into a simple corridor with a single door at the end which the girl was already walking through. The boys jogged to catch up with her.
They emerged into a small hanger that contained six of the transport speeders and about twenty of the smaller skirmishers. Even the biggest was many times smaller than the imposing ships that were nestled into the four corners of the village. A guard stood at either side of the door they had come through while some mechanics busied themselves with various things around the room. The thing that Trey was focused on was the ship in the centre. It was painted in the same red as what the royal family wore and was overlaid with a golden lizard at either side.
“Ready the ship,” Dawn ordered the men around her.
“Yes milady,” chorused every mechanic in the room.
The mechanics did checks on the crimson ship and the launching platform that it was connected to, then opened the wall in front of the ship that was actually a movable sandstone slab that blended in with the rest of the dune. All of this took several long minutes that the teens spent watching the magnificent engineering. Pastrino didn’t have anything comparable.
“The ship is ready to launch milady,” informed one of the mechanics.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Dawn climbed up onto the ships deck and waited for Trey, Billy and Zak to join her. It was big enough to comfortably carry around a dozen men. Once they were all up she gave the order to launch and moved to a spindly wooden wheel that was fixed to a stand. Several levers were positioned around it.
A mechanic started a countdown. “Launching in: Three. Two. One. Release!”
One of the men pulled a lever on the launch pad, there was a click then the ship shot forwards. Trey and Billy clung to the railing to fight the intense momentum that pulled at them while Zak waved enthusiastically to the diminishing village. Dawn stood proudly at the helm, completely unfazed by the speed, drinking from her flask with eyes fixed firmly on the horizon ahead.
After adjusting to the speed, Trey and Billy stood up straight and staggered to the helm which Dawn was turning to steer the ship just like a captain would at sea.
“Geez, I’m glad I’m out of there,” Dawn stated as she adjusted some levers and turned the helm.
“Why?” asked Trey. “You keep saying that you want to leave and I understand your reasons but it’s a dangerous world. I don’t want to be away from home like this. Once you come of age you can do whatever you want anyway.”
Dawn shook her head, the movement causing some of her red hair to fall across her face. “From the moment I was born I was ‘destined’ to be the Matriarch, then the Elder of the Heptalli. I want to be an adventurer, travel the world, explore new places, that kind of thing. Nobody cares about that though. I was born into the alpha bloodline, I have to live and die like one. I have to stay in the desert all my life, which is the exact opposite of what I want. I’m trapped in a cage of sand and destiny. My mother and grandmother will never let me see the world, that’s why I’m coming with you,” she added in a happy voice.
“You’re doing what!” exclaimed Billy. “The Elder, your own grandmother, said you had to return once you escorted us to the desert’s edge.”
“This is my chance for freedom and adventure.”
“Your people will think we kidnapped you and will kill us.” She just smiled sweetly and shrugged.
“I say she comes with us,” Zak shouted in an over dramatic way.
“I don’t even know why you’re with us, you just keep following us,” complained Billy.
“Oh yeah?” roared Zak. He spat at Billy’s face but they were going so fast it shot back and hit Zak in his own face, causing him to stagger backwards and fall off the ship.
Billy only just managed to catch him by the ankle. Zak’s head was still in the sand below though, being dragged along. He looked quite comical hanging from the ship, head in the sand, arms flailing, being dragged at high speed while constantly spitting sand from his mouth. Billy thought about pulling him up but decided against it. He was having way too much fun.
Trey was watching the scene in front of him and turned to look at the girl. She was smiling and laughing, looking truly happy for the first time since they met. It was then Trey made his decision.
He walked over to the girl. “I know we’ve done the whole introduction thing but let’s call this a non-business meeting.” He held out his hand. “My name’s Trey and for lack of a better person, I guess I’m in charge. We probably should return you to your village, but I’m not going to. You can come with us as long as you want. Just remember we’re going on more or less a suicide mission.”
He kept telling himself that he was helping her because it was the right thing to do and not because she made his head feel light.
Dawn leapt to her feet and hugged Trey tightly. His face turned a deep red.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” she repeated excitedly. She pulled away and recomposed herself. With a small smile she took his hand and shook it. “I’m Dawn. It’s nice to meet you all.”
Zak was back on deck and he and Billy had just watched the sudden mood change in the girl. Zak laughed at the look on Trey’s face when she hugged him while Billy looked rather jealous.
“I’m Zak and this is my subordinate, Billy,” was Zak’s introduction. Billy smacked him in the head.
She chuckled slightly before scanning the area around them. It all just looked like sand to Trey but Dawn seemed to know where they were. “
We’re not far from Onlasar. This is our fastest speeder so we should be at the desert’s edge before the end of the day,” she informed them. “I don’t know what kind of reception we’ll receive when we get there though.”
“Wait,” said Billy, his eyebrows furrowing. “If you can’t leave the village then how come you can work this ship and know exactly where you are?”
“I’m a Matriarch in training. We lead battles from the front lines. With the Flesh Eroders becoming increasingly more aggressive, the Heptalli need a strong leader. I need to know the desert like the back of my hand and need to learn every skill that I expect my men to know.”
“That sounds pretty adventurous to me,” Billy countered.
“The other tribes are only causing us trouble because my mother refuses to make any decisive actions against them. When I take charge I’ll take over the entire desert. I won’t have the knowledge though unless I learn from real warriors. I need ideas, strategies and inventions from the rest of the world to succeed. If not, the Heptalli might not see another generation.”
“So you want to become a warlord?” smirked Zak. “That’s cool. Pretty hot too.”
Billy moved to hit him again but this time Zak countered and flipped him to the deck. As he gloated Trey smacked him across the back of the head instead.
“So, great mistress of the sands, what do you know about Onlasar?” Trey asked, turning to Dawn.
“Everything that is in a book,” she replied with a frown. “The Heptalli have trade links with the city and on occasion our leaders will meet so I know everything a leader should know about a neighbouring power. I’ll tell you what I can.”