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Dustborn
Author: Erin Bowman

 


I


The Wastes

 

 

Chapter One


There’s a storm coming.

I can see it out across the plains, a cloud of haze along the horizon that’s bearing down on Dead River like a blanket of shadow. It’s a good four clicks off, maybe more, but dust storms move fast. Already the threadbare flags on the huts flap wildly.

I hurry on to the lake. “Big storm to the west,” I call out to Old Fang. The wrinkled trapper is kneeling on the dock beside the dam, checking my traps for frogs or fish, not that we get many of either anymore. Dead River’s been slowly dying for years, the lake drying up and the banks growing wider. I’ve had to extend the dock several times just so the traps can still sit in water.

Old Fang searches out the storm. The churning clouds crackle and glint with lightning. “That’s the second one in ten days. We can’t get a break.”

It’s not untrue. “Any catch?”

He shakes his head. We should have moved in the winter, but now the endless stink of summer is ahead of us. There’s no chance of a pilgrimage for at least four moons, not unless we want to die in the heat, and even the damn frogs have had the sense to move on. Of course, frogs can’t read the stars, and I know we need to have faith. The night skies warn of dangers ahead, of dry land and dust-caked tongues, but if we just sit tight, they also promise a bounty. Flowing rivers. Green land. There’s to be a rebirth. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and even before I could see it, there was Indie pointing it out to me in her sisterly way, and before she could read the stars, there was Ma, pointing it out to both of us. Still, it’s hard to keep believing the sky when every sign here, on the land, shows nothing but death and decay.

Old Fang squints at the empty buckets I’m carrying, secured to the piece of driftwood I’ve got propped on my shoulders. “You grab the haul,” he grunts. “I’ll rally the pack.”

From back near camp, Ma’s voice is audible on the wind. She’s already shouting orders to our people. I also catch the twinkle of my bone chimes, and once those start singing, it means a hell of a storm. Ma’ll need all the help she can get.

I give Old Fang a quick nod, and he hobbles off. I pull my scarf over my mouth and nose, looping the loose end over my head to protect some of my hair. Then I scamper down the bank and sprint across the cracked, parched lakebed, the buckets clipping my hips as I run. Used to be I could grab a haul right from the bank. The river might have always been “dead,” flowing only in the spring or after a rare rain, but the lake was a beauty when we first arrived. Now I have to go out a ways to reach water. Not even the dam helps much anymore.

The hard earth becomes damp dirt underfoot, then sticky mud, then shallows. I trudge out to my shins and throw down the buckets, listening to the glorious sound of water gurgling into their depths before I heave them back out. The flags along the dam are whipping like mad now, and the hazy cloud to the west is looking more like a wall of dust.

“Rot,” I mutter. I can’t run with the buckets full, but I’ve perfected a straight-legged scuttle over the years, and I start back as fast as I can.

Once I’m up the bank, I can see the huts clearly. Our pack is scrambling—pulling scrub-woven blankets over the struggling crop, yanking clean clothes from the lines, ushering our four goats and lone mule into the stable, and tying down sheets of scrap metal to shield the animals from the worst of the dust. Flint was supposed to bring fresh meat soon—jackrabbit, he’d promised—but the trader’s not going to make it in this storm.

The wind picks up, pushing at my back. Instinctively I angle my head down, wishing for my goggles. They go everywhere with me and are a prime good pair. Real Old World tech, nothing like the cheap, slapdash ones the traders carry that are made of glass and fraying binds. Mine fit true, practically adhering to my face and blocking out all debris, and though the eyepiece can fog like glass, it won’t crack or break like the ones the traders peddle. I’m not sure what sort of magic they’re carved from. The leather head strap’s failing for the first time in all the years I’ve owned my pair, and I started patching it this morning. Should have waited until sundown and repaired them from my bed mat. It’s not worth going anywhere without them during the day. You never know when a storm might hit, and here I am without them, having dropped them on the table, half mended, as I raced for the buckets when the wind kicked up.

Squinting through the dust, I can tell most of our pack has retreated to the safety of their huts. Old Fang is barking orders at his granddaughter, Pewter. “Just leave it,” he shouts from the mouth of his home. At barely thirteen, Pewter’s no match for the heavy sheet of scrap metal she’s trying to use to smother the central bonfire. “The dust’ll see to it.”

True, but there’s always a chance the wind will knock embers into a hut first, and then the scrub and straw-packed roof would be ablaze in minutes.

Pewter’s eyes cut across the camp to me, my buckets. Water would kill the flames instantly, but it’s too precious to waste. I give her a curt nod, telling her I agree with Old Fang. She leaves the scrap metal flopped over the bonfire and runs for her grandfather. I watch her long braid duck past him, and then he’s inside too, lowering the blanket across the hut’s doorway and cinching it tight.

“Delta!” Ma is waiting in the mouth of the place we call home, waving her arms feverishly.

Water sloshes down my side as the strengthening wind batters my frame and rubble pelts my back. I’m nearly to the hut when a crack of lightning strikes the scrap metal Pewter had been struggling with. Sparks fly. I flinch with shock, lose my footing. My knees hit earth, and I reach out instinctively to stop my fall. That’s all it takes. With the weight of the buckets off kilter, one of them plummets and hits the ground. I lose the other trying to save the first.

The greedy soil soaks up the water.

“No.” My hands fly over the damp dirt, patting, slapping, as if I can will the water back into the bucket.

“Delta!” my mother yells again.

I scramble to my feet, grab the empty buckets, and stagger the last few strides to our hut. Ma grabs my arm and hauls me inside.

“Right foolish of you,” she scolds. “What good would water do when we can’t even boil it under the hold?”

“The lake’s cleanish. Some water sounded better than none.”

“We’ve got plenty of purified water stored.”

“Last I checked, we had four jars.”

“It’s enough.”

“Not if the storm lasts more than a day, and with Indie being pregnant, I fig—”

“Delta!” There’s a crease in her brow, an edge of fire in her tone. I suck my bottom lip to keep myself from saying any more, and I taste dirt. “Just get under with your sister.”

I leave her to securing the door and head into the cellar, which isn’t much more than a crawlspace. We’ll spend the next few hours—maybe even days—hunched to half-height beneath the hut, old sheets pinned overhead to keep rubble and dust from falling on us. Only thing this cellar is good for is storage and sleeping. It’s cool, this far into the earth. I especially don’t mind it on summer evenings. But being stuck down here when you’re not sure when you can go back up is a kind of torture.

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