Chapter 5

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Batu raised the waterskin to his lips and squeezed it with both hands. Two small droplets of water pooled at the opening and dripped into his mouth. He swallowed and moistened his lips with his tongue, then he tilted the skin higher. Nothing else came out.

He sighed then reached behind him and hooked the empty skin back onto his belt, making sure to place it in the middle, directly in line with his spine.

Standing on the hillock he'd spotted earlier, Batu shielded his eyes from the sun and surveyed his surroundings. Behind him to his right, from where he'd come, he could just make out Ekkol's wooden walls, and to his left, there was nothing but a continuous mat of sandthistle and silverspike shimmering in the heat. In front of him, in the distance, faint pillars of smoke plumed into the blue sky. Batu bit his lip. Was it the village cook fires of Ekkol's rivals? Narran, or perhaps Mune?

He rubbed his eyes. The vegetation ahead was the same monotonous sea of purple and gray he'd been picking his way through all morning, but something in the middle of the plain was different. An area of scrub-land stood out like a pale horse in the herd. The plants there were greener than those surrounding them, and they were taller, too. More like trees than shrubs. Batu blinked. They had to be growing around a source of water.

He studied the smoke again, then shook his head. Even if it meant heading towards Ekkol's enemies, he couldn't pass up a chance of refilling his waterskin.

Batu took a deep breath and squinted. It was impossible to tell exactly how far away the trees were, but they appeared to be a long way off. He ran his dry tongue over his teeth. One thing was certain. Staring at the trees wasn't going to bring them closer.

He straightened his tunic and stepped with his left. One. Then he took a step with his right. Two. He moved off the brow of the hill. Three. Four. And began to make his way down the slope. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.

The trees growing around the pool were tall and thick-trunked. Lush green fronds extended upwards above Batu's head, shading him from the sun. He paused. Silvery insects skimmed the water's surface, and tiny brown birds flitted through the palms, squawking and twittering. Batu smiled and clapped his hands against the husky bark of a tree to his left. He'd spend the night here, then, in the morning, after a good night's sleep and all the water he could drink, he'd decide what to do next.

Batu unhooked his waterskin and held it in both hands. Pushing through the undergrowth, he made his way to the edge of the pool. The ground was soft beneath his feet.

He crouched down on the bank, unstoppered the skin and pushed it down into the pool. The water was cool and clear, and the skin started to fill up. Bubbles rose from its lip and burst as they surfaced.

Batu pulled the waterskin out. It was much heavier than he'd remembered, and water dripped down his arms and soaked the sleeves of his tunic. Holding the skin in both his left and right hands, he raised it to his lips, then stopped.

He wasn't alone.

On the opposite side of the pool a girl, older than his sister, Kolo, but younger than him, was lying across a boulder.

Batu lowered the waterskin.

She was unlike anyone he'd seen before. Her hair wasn't dark like the people of Ekkol, it was pale like the moon, and her skin was the color of milk.

Her blue eyes glinted and she turned her head towards him, her lips parted into a smile.

Batu rubbed his face. Surely he was seeing things. His eyes were playing tricks on him. The waterskin slipped from his hands and landed by his feet. He turned his head and stared off into the trees, then glanced back.

The girl was still there, her slender legs stretched out in front of her. She dipped her toes into the water, rippling the pool's surface.

The urge to call out to her surged through his body, but the words caught in his throat.

He swallowed, his eyes traced her graceful movements. A warmth spread across his cheeks. She must've known he was staring, but she didn't let on.

His mind raced. Who was she? And what was she doing here? He had to find out. He'd go over to her as soon as he'd had a drink.

Batu bent down and reached for the waterskin.

Leaves rustled from behind him. Batu stopped still. What was that? He stood up, set his feet and whipped his head around.

A ragged man clumsily pushed his way through the trees. His face was contorted into a grimace, and in his right hand, he brandished a large rock.

Batu's pulse quickened. Was he the target, or was the man heading for the girl? He flicked his eyes to the far side of the pool. The stone she'd been lying on was still there, but the girl was gone.

Batu turned back. The man had picked up his pace. He bared his teeth and a roar escaped his cracked, spittle-flecked lips.

Batu's body thrummed with each heartbeat. He took a deep breath and planted his left foot. One. And then his right. Two.

His muscles tensed, anticipating the impact, but his mind was calm as if the world around him was slowing down. He exhaled and studied the man's lumbering movements.

The enemy moved closer.

Batu clenched his hands into fists. He welcomed the fight, he needed it. Another chance to feel normal, at least for a few moments.

The man was now only a few strides away. Beads of sweat clung to his dirty brow. A scowl still wrinkled his face, but his dark eyes, opened wide, didn't look cross. They flicked over Batu's body as if desperately searching for a clue as to how he was going to react to the charge. Taban's eyes had been like that, too. The man was scared. But he continued to advance.

Batu rose up onto the balls of his feet, and the man swung the rock towards his head.

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