“Everything is so desiccated,” Carina said.
“How could this be?” Avi said. He felt like he could cry from the sight, but the air was quickly dehydrating him, and he had no tears to give.
“It’s awful.” They walked on, studying the landscape. Carina knelt to the ground and picked up a handful of soil to scrutinize it.
“This is strange,” Carina said.
"In alfisol soil, you'd expect a lower percentage of silicon dioxide. That seems to be consistent with what's in the soil a few inches down. Though, look at this,” She said as she held out a handful of dirt. It didn't seem at all odd to Avi.
“What am I looking at?”
"The top inch of the ground is covered in silicon dioxide,” she said as if it should mean something to him.
“What’s that?” Avi asked.
“The world’s natural desiccant: sand.”
“Why is that weird?” he questioned.
“Because, for this level of desiccant to be present here, it would take decades for the other components to be sifted by the wind,” she said. Avi felt like she was coming to it, but he still didn’t see.
“So, what’s the point?” he asked.
“This sand came from somewhere else. It’s almost like it was intentionally blown here to dry out the forest more quickly.”
“That’s impossible,” Avi said. “Isn’t it?”
“No one could do that except—”
“The Emperor?” Avi finished her words. “But why?”
"Look, Bhoora found something,” Carina said, standing up straight. “Over there.” Avi glanced in the direction that Carina motioned. The tawny bear nearly blended into the scenery, but in the dusty haze, Avi saw his grizzly companion pawing and sniffing at something. Carina and Avi moved toward the commotion.
As they approached, they could see what Bhoora had found. Leaning against the trunk of a shriveled tree was the figure of an exhausted person. Bhoora had pawed at her foot before moving closer to sniff her face. Avi moved briskly toward the woman. Carina followed reluctantly behind. Bhoora’s investigation had not elicited a response.
“Good boy, Bhoora. You found someone.” Avi said to Bhoora as he scratched behind the bear’s ears. Bhoora thumped the ground with his back paws, pleased with the praise he’d received.
“Hello there,” Carina called. “Are you well?” she added, which was a ridiculous question by the look of things.
Avi was not sure if the person was entirely lucid, or even alive. She had not responded to Bhoora's pawing, so it seemed unlikely that the spoken word would pry her from her near comatose state. The dust-covered woman lifted her head so slowly she could have been made of solid stone. She looked in the wrong direction, not sure where the sound had come from. She then rotated toward the strange trio. They must have seemed bizarre to her, two teens and a massive bear because alarm registered on her face for a brief second.
She was the most haggard-looking woman Avi had ever seen. Her face bore the deep-set lines of a desert, and her lips cracked like baked mud. She squinted into the light as if she had been slumbering for eons. Due to the layer of powdered dust cover, it was difficult to see the division between her and the dried ground beneath her.
She did not rise, though her eyes watched hawk-like as Avi and Bhoora, and more distantly, Carina stood studying her. Avi stepped close and knelt in front of her. Her dark-rimmed eyes never left his face.
“Is—Or—I mean, are you in need of some help, Ma’am?” Avi said, hoping the person could decipher his nervous words.
“Water?” she asked.
“We have some in the truck,” Carina said. He glanced at Carina and nodded. Avi turned his attention to Bhoora as Carina headed for the truck. The bear-brained Bhoora wasn't sure if he should follow Carina or stay with Avi. “Stay here, Boy. I may need help carrying her,” he said. Avi turned back to the dust dried woman. “My, um—my sister will get you some—some water.”
“Thank you, boy,” she said as she reached for his hand. He reached out to take hers. It was like holding a dried stick which had long ago left its branch.
“What happened here?” he asked her.
“The Dark Lord’s magic did this!” She said with bitter scorn. Avi had never heard such caustic sounding words. Her cracked face looked petrified as she spoke. “He has withheld the rains. This is all that remains.”
“Evil, King?” Avi asked. He could not make sense of her words. “Who do you mean, by Dark Lord?”
“The Emperor. That evil tyrant has done this to us,” she said as she squeezed his hand intently.
“My dear lady, the—the Emperor, is the—or I mean—he is good and kind. I think that you've begun—or I mean—you may be dehydrated, my sister will bring water—" he paused when the women drew her hand back violently. She looked as if he had slapped her across her dust-covered face. At the quick motion, the fur on the back of Bhoora's neck raised, and the massive grizzly stiffened. Avi patted the bear, letting him know that everything was ok.
“You're a loyalist!” she shouted. Her voice sounded as if a decade of dust had settled in her throat. “Loyalists are not welcome here.” Obviously, the thirst had driven her mad. He had never seen someone in such a state, but it was the only explanation.
“Here they—or I mean—they're coming with the water,” Avi said as he spun. He heard the hover truck approaching. Carina and Rachit stepped out a stone's throw away. Carina came running with a large water bottle dripping with condensation. She handed it to Avi, who then offered it to the woman.
She would not take the bottle but kept her fire-filled eyes trained on Avi. He had never experienced a look so astringent. In return, Avi popped the top off of the water bottle and moved closer.
When he came within striking distance, she slapped the water bottle from his hand. It fell to the ground and gushed on the thirsty dirt. “I will not share a drink with a loyalist!” she shouted. With the outburst, she lashed out at him, trying to scratch and bite. Avi crawled backward in a hurry. When she couldn’t reach him, she went for the bear who was closer.
With a screech, she lunged at poor Bhoora. She pulled pitiful tufts of fur from his side and gave him a right slap on the nose. After getting no reaction from the giant, she clubbed him about the face with her feeble fist. The underwhelming assault nonplussed him. They all watched as the woman could elicit no response from the gargantuan beast despite her greatest attempts at violence. After another few attempts, Bhoora humphed and looked at Avi, confused. He turned unconcerned and plodded toward his bed in the truck.
Once her furry punching bag had sauntered off, the woman turned toward Avi. As she stepped toward him, she faltered. She stumbled, at which point the gentleman's instinct kicked in. Avi reached for her arm to steady her. Now that he had reentered her sphere of attack, she retrained her aggression on him.
“Hey, take it easy, lady!” Rachit hollered as he approached.
“Please—stop,” Avi said. His voice was gentle as she rained down blows upon him. Avi blocked each strike easily as Carina pivoted and inched for the truck. Rachit moved forward to help but paused when he saw there was no real danger.
As Avi stepped back from her wild advance, she tripped and flopped to the sun-scorched earth. The burst of exertion had depleted her small reserve of energy. She lay prone in the dust for a long few moments. Avi knelt, more cautiously this time, and tried to help her back up.
“Are—are you ok?” he said as he reached for her arm. She slapped at him weakly, protesting his help. Her strength gave out.
“Ma’am, you need to have a drink,” Rachit said loud and slow as if she didn’t know the language.
“He’s right. It’s much—or I mean, you’ll feel better once you get some water.” Avi was about to gesture to Carina for some more water, but she scorched him with all she had left, her words.
“I will not accept any help from anyone loyal to that evil despot. He uses magic to dry my beloved homeland,” she made a spitting sound, but no saliva proceeded.
“We've come from the west,” on the other side of that dust cloud, the forest is green, and there are rivers and lakes. Why don't you just move to—" Carina said.
“Migrate!” she grumbled. “That is what the weak have done. Why else would this place be deserted?”
“Why not—or—why didn’t you go with your people?” Avi asked.
“That is what the King is trying to force us to do. He withheld the rains so we would move. He intends to control us. I will never leave. This is my land,” she said. Avi was apprehensive, thinking she would attack him once more if she had the strength.
“Ma’am, this is the Emperor’s land. It all belongs to Him,” Carina said.
“I’d rather return to the dirt than give up one square foot of it,” she said.
“The Emperor—is—or I mean—does not act for ill motives. I’m sure there is some reason he has done—”
"Yes!” she shouted. “He had a reason. Do you see all this?” she gestured to the dried landscape in its gnarled, piteous state. “He did all this because we chose not to send a delegation to his stupid festival. We decided that our resources would be better spent looking after our own interests, rather than going up to Jerusalem at tremendous cost to worship his royal highness.” She glanced up at Avi now. Still lying in the dirt, she watched him for a long moment. “He did this to my people and me because we didn't go up to worship him. What a terrible punishment he has inflicted upon us for withholding something so small as our worship. I will never worship such a King as that.”
"My lady—from your own—um—your lips, you have said that worship is a small price. If that is the truth—then you see the situation wrong. Something so small as an act of worship could reverse all of this pain and suffering. It is not cruelty but mercy that the King wants to give to you and your people. Even now, I'm sure that the King is ready to forgive this infraction if you would simply relent.” Avi glanced at his companions and back at the woman. “Please—my lady. If you could—or I mean, if you'd accept a drink of water from us. Then come with us to the Capital. We will worship the Emperor together, and you will see. He desires to give mercy, not a punishment.”
“I will drink your water on one condition,” she said.
“Denounce your King, and promise to never go to the capital and I will take a drink,” she said, not looking up from the ground where she lay.
“What you suggest is madness,” he said. “I will not, but—” he was at a loss. He could not understand what he was hearing. Rachit tapped Avi on the shoulder and whispered in his ear.
“We should claim we are rebels too,” Rachit said, where the woman could not hear him.
“Are you serious?” Avi responded, not nearly as quietly.
“It’s the only way to get her to come with us.”
“You’re suggesting we lie?” Avi said.
“It's just an idea,” Rachit said. He stepped back, surrendering. The unimaginable suggestion filled Avi with a sickening terror for his uncle, but he pushed it aside for the moment. He turned back to the woman who was lying in the dust.
“Please, my lady. We can help you. Just come with us,” Avi said.
“I would rather die in the dust than give one square inch of ground,” she said.
Avi stood aghast at what he had just witnessed. How could she have become so twisted? What, in the King's beautiful world, could have bent this woman so far from the light that she would rather die?
A silent Rachit placed a mournful hand on Avi's shoulder. He looked at his friend. Avi's face registered shock and amazement. Avi set a filled water bottle within her grasp and stood somberly. Quietly they walked back toward the truck, knowing there was nothing else to do. Avi had no compartment in his mind to store what he had just experienced.
He watched the woman lying in the dirt as Carina pressed the throttle and the truck climbed above the dried treetops. They rode in silence over the deserted landscape as Avi wondered at the bitter amazement of it all.