Keisha scanned the horizon. Nothing but sand and relentless sun as far as the eye could see. Heat waves rolled across the dunes, leaving shimmering trails of cooler air in their wake. A warm gust blew tendrils of black hair across her face and Keisha wiped the strands irritably from her bronze skin. She idly drew a finger across her chapped bottom lip. Perhaps they could spare a swallow of water before the diviner arrived.
Turning her back to the dunes, she stepped from the rocky outcropping on which she had stood watch and walked the few short strides towards the little pond she had liberated a week ago.
She unhooked the empty flask hanging from the sash tied around her waist and unscrewed the lid. Bending down on one knee, she leaned and scooped water into the little vessel, careful not to spill any drops onto the desert sand. The water was lukewarm, sun-baked, but it tasted like heaven as the liquid slid down her throat. She licked the last droplets from the lid before replacing it. No point in wasting something so precious.
Keisha resumed her post on the rock. Squinting into the sun, she noticed black dots circling in the sky not too far away. Vultures. They must have found the body. Good.
Her eyes were drawn to a trail of dust muddling the blue expanse in the distance. Finally.
They were moving her way rapidly, much faster than she expected and much faster than a camel was capable of. As the figures drew closer, Keisha loosened the scimitar in the scabbard hanging from her hip. There were too many men in this caravan. She had expected two, at most. She counted five. And they were on horseback.
Steel rasped as Keisha pulled the scimitar loose.
Dust enveloped her as the horses closed in, their riders halting them in a crescent moon around her. Keisha held her breath until the dirt had settled down again. The horses smelled of sweat and fear, the men upon them stank of violence and greed.
“Move aside, woman,” one of the men commanded. His voice was harsh and guttural, like the blade of a knife scraping on a whetstone.
“No,” Keisha said.
“Move aside or we will ride you down,” the man warned. His tone brooked no further argument.
Keisha squared her shoulders and lifted the scimitar threateningly. “If you want it, come and claim it.”
She clenched the fist of her free hand. The ground started shaking, sending tremors through the sand. The riders’ horses bucked, their eyes rolling wildly, foam flecking their upturned lips. The ground rumbled and a crack in the dry earth erupted under the horses’ hooves.
One of the riders, struggling to control his mount, turned towards Keisha, his eyes as large as the full moon. “Demon!” he screamed, pointing at her. He kicked his horse in its side and the animal sped off, away from Keisha. Horses rearing, his companions turned tail and raced after him.
All but the leader fled. In the confusion, the man’s horse had thrown him off. He picked himself up, his face a mask of rage. Shouting a wordless battle cry, the brute flung himself at Keisha.
She ducked, rolling to the ground and was back on her feet just in time to parry a swipe from his curved sword. Sparks flew as their weapons met. His sheer strength pushed her to one knee. The man loomed in, his face close enough that she could smell his rancid breath.
“The water is mine, witch,” he growled.
Without warning, Keisha pulled back, falling to the ground. The man lost his balance and tumbled after her. She rolled aside just in time, pulling a knife from her boot. The metallic tang of blood filled the air as red liquid squirted from the slit in the thug’s throat.
Keisha climbed to her feet and prodded the dying man with her foot. He lay slumped, unmoving. As his eyes glazed over, she turned her back on him and walked towards the pond, wiping her grime-covered knife on her sand-encrusted pants.
She dropped to her knees in front of the water, taking a deep breath. Her hands were shaking.
“You are safe, my friend,” she whispered.
The water rippled in the still air. “Thank you,” it murmured in response.