Waiting at the oasis, you had given up on ever finding a caravan to join. The ones that stopped at the rock-sheltered hollow always seemed to have several Waterseekers with them already, and a caravan only truly needed one. Unerringly, the caravans’ Waterseekers found this hidden place, the same one you’d found, the oasis that had become a kind of prison for you. If they hadn’t been able to, they would have died in the desert.
You don’t resent the oasis, despite having walked over every square foot of it, the rocky wall around it, the hollow with its tufts of dry grass and stunted trees, the hidden chamber below where the water seeped from between concrete slabs into a still, clear pool. You thought you might go stir-crazy, trapped here, but you really can become accustomed to anything.
You don’t even think about the Far Shore much anymore. It’s one of the first things you learned, traveling with the caravans across the desert: everyone believes in the Far Shore, the ultimate destination of all their journeys, but absolutely no-one talks about the Far Shore. It’s almost religious in nature, nearly a universal law among an otherwise anarchic society of misfits.
That might have been what tore your previous caravan apart. You never were much good at understanding the currents of politics, of human relationships, of loves and hates running through any group of people larger than two. It could have been talk of the Far Shore, or it could have been one of a thousand other things, minor offenses magnified by the furnace of the sun and the desperation of the desert into killing grievances. The last few days of that doomed group had been a constant terror, waking every evening to find another of the crafters or guards had deserted, following dust clouds far out at the horizon that spoke of other caravans, perhaps larger and more stable caravans.
You stayed until that last day, though, clinging to the idea of the caravan as much as anything. You’d led the ragged group to two oases, and you knew a third was just ahead, if they could just push on a bit further, struggle and suffer a little longer. But the final day, a day of blood and screams and life wasted, leaking out into the dust and sand, you awakened as if from a dream of belonging, and grimly set out on your own. You could make it to the next oasis alone. You were certain of it.
And you did, of course, caked with dirt and half-blind from dust storms, so weak that you had to crawl the last hundred meters to reach the shade and shelter of the underground chamber. Caravans needed Waterseekers, but Waterseekers needed caravans just as much, perhaps more. Waterseeking was akin to a trance, cutting off awareness of the outside world, and even were you able to walk and Seek at the same time, you’ve no aptitude for hunting or fighting or crafting or any of the dozen necessities of travel in the waste. The waste kills the unprepared. Their corpses, dry and picked clean by scavengers, are perhaps the only constant feature of a journey between oases.
You’ve heard of Waterseekers who travel alone, grim and determined loners who have shed their weaknesses, burned them away in the desert’s crucible. Or perhaps the waste killed any who were unable to carve away their humanity; in either case, it wasn’t something you were able to do. You’d tried to hunt, you’d woven a crude reed hat, but hunting and crafting were beyond you, something fundamental in those skills forever out of your reach. You’d filled empty time in your last caravan mending the work of others, weaving and whittling and binding with glue, but the magic by which reed and twig and hide became shelter and transport was incomprehensible to you. Traveling alone was a sure death sentence for you.
So instead you wait, trying to find an inner peace, considering what it will mean for you if no caravan ever comes, or ever takes you on as a Seeker. You find yourself surprised at how little that troubles you, now. Perhaps age has brought resignation.
It takes only a spark of hope to reduce your illusion of inner calm to so much ash and charred timber. In the fifth month of your captivity in the oasis, on a clear and windless day, you see the dust plume far to the east that told of a caravan approaching. This is the third such caravan to come to your oasis — you’d come to think of the place as ‘yours’, living there for so long — and each time your hopes had risen only to collapse once again, and each time you swore you would not allow your calm to break. Disappointment was the only hurt left to you, and it could only strike if you allowed yourself hope.
The caravan is small — most of the large caravans were able to carry their own water supplies and skip all but the largest oases — but seems robust, traveling briskly, no-one limping or staggering with exhaustion or being carried by litter. They have the distant eyes of desert travelers, but everyone does, these days; in every other way they seem confident and competent.
You meet them at the crooked defile that serves as the entrance to your oasis, and introduce yourself to the caravan master. He looks you up and down, considering, and formally accepts your welcome. The caravan piles in behind him, eager to draw from the spring below ground, some introducing themselves, some scurrying past, their faces and their body language closed and guarded.
To your disappointment, you see that the caravan master’s second is a Waterseeker. His eyes bound with a strip of thick cloth, goggles lifted up onto his forehead, he looks very like the Waterseeker who taught you to control your talent so many years before. A veteran, leathery and toughened by the sun and the wind. Behind him, several other Waterseekers, young apprentices with their eyes still bright in excitement, gather to stare at you. A new Seeker is fascinating to those who have perhaps met only one or two others in their lives. Every Seeker’s approach is different, and they seem eager to draw you aside and talk about your shared trade.
You aren’t really interested in the swapping of stories of travel and Waterseeking, though. You swore you wouldn’t let your hope rise, but it had done so unbidden, and now you’re fighting down despair. This caravan will not need a Seeker. In fact, they seem amply supplied with Seekers already, between the caravan master’s second and his gaggle of apprentices.
That night you are invited to the traditional celebration that always follows a caravan’s arrival at an oasis. You accept the invitation because not doing so would be rude, and there’s no telling who among this caravan might be at the next oasis you reach, if you ever manage to leave this place. The community of caravaneers is tenuous and notional, but it’s the only community you have. Anyway, staying below by the spring, you’d still have to listen to their joy, and with as little contact with others as you’ve had, that seems like a kind of torture. So you attend their party, trying to remember how to talk to people once more.
After most of the celebrants have wandered away from the fire to couple or sleep or make their own plans to seek other caravans, the caravan master signals that he wishes to speak to you privately. You join him atop a rise which gives a moonlit view of the empty desert to the west.
“My Seeker is old, and he can no longer see the tracks of water as he once could,” he tells you, and the fluttering of hope begins anew in your gut. “He has led us here, but I fear he cannot guide the next journey; the oasis we seek is said to be far, and difficult to locate.”
“What of the apprentices?” you ask, though you know the answer, having met them and spoken with them.
“They are young. They can find the water with guidance; they can see the tracks once they’re shown the tracks. Not one of them is ready to guide a caravan. They are not Waterseekers yet.”
He gives you a speculative look as you scan the horizon, considering. “You seem comfortable in this place. Would you be willing to join us as our Waterseeker?”
Your hesitation is born of fear, a fear of the unknown, of unexpected dangers and unpredictable fortunes. It is momentary, and you quickly agree. You will join them.
The next few days are filled with activity; grasses are harvested for weaving, bushes and trees are pruned for building, waterskins and water-casks are slowly filled from the pool in the concrete room below. You join the caravan’s council, listening to the Caravan Master, the Waterseeker, the Master of Supply, the Craftmaster, and the Huntmaster talk over their plans. The caravan’s Waterseeker alternates between speaking kindly to you, an elder of your profession sharing his insight with you, and ignoring you, a gleam of suspicion in his eyes when he happens to glance your way. You wonder if the caravan master has spoken to his Seeker about your presence. How could he not have?
The journey they propose is complex, involving several wide detours around salt flats and at least one scramble up a dangerous rock formation. The map they unroll is marked with notes from a dozen other caravan masters, rumors and legends scrawled right over ancient surveyor’s marks and topography. Your own oasis is unmarked, though the caravan master takes out a stub of pencil and scratches a symbol to indicate it; you guess it’s for future travelers, though you’ve never met a caravan master who would be willing to share his maps and travels with outsiders.
There are heated conversations held out of earshot, among the caravan leadership. You wonder what they’re saying, but you don’t pry. You imagine the conflict is about you, about the existing Seeker, about the ambiguity of your role. You wonder if they’ll end up disinviting you after all. You keep to yourself, so as not to stir up any further anger or jealousy or whatever it is that’s provoking them to glare with open hostility at each other.
Then, it’s time to set out. This part, you know well. You tie your eyes, and begin the climb to the top of the highest rocky peak of this place. Before you get more than a few meters above the desert floor, the caravan’s Waterseeker calls you back.
“You need not do that. I have already done the initial survey. I have identified the water tracks. We can begin at once.”
He proffers a sheaf of notes, sketches of water impressions, notes on the smells carried by the dry desert wind. You can parse them, but there are so many gaps, so many places where the proposed path is incomplete or vague. You could follow these, but you can already see the emergencies ahead. Here, you’ll lose the trail entirely crossing through a creosote grove. Here, you’ll have to portage all the sleds. Here, you’ll almost certainly lose some members of your party to the scavengers camped nearby.
You meet his gaze, unsure what to say. There’s a challenge in his eyes, a look daring you to offer criticism. How can he not see how incomplete his Seeking is? There are insights here, certainly, perhaps even insights you might have missed, but this journey is risky beyond what’s reasonable or expected.
Awkwardly you nod, unwrap your eyes, make your way back down the rocks. The caravan continues preparations; you, with nothing to do, find yourself idle, sitting in the underground chamber for the coolness and damp of it.
The caravan master seeks you out. “Why are you not Waterseeking?” he asks, with a note of accusation in his voice.
“Your Seeker — ” you begin, not sure how to explain the sense of hostility and territoriality that radiated from the older Seeker, that drove you back down and into hiding.
He interrupts. “I said he was too old to lead us to the next oasis. That’s why I asked you to come along. If I wanted his work, I’d not have asked for yours.”
You blink in astonishment. Did this man expect you to call out one of his seniors — his second, even! — and still be welcome in his caravan afterwards? Hesitantly, you begin to explain etiquette among Waterseekers, but he cuts you off.
“I will speak to him. Go up and do your Seeking.”
From the peak, with your eyes bound, you stretch out your other sense, the inexplicable sense that is the sole province of the Waterseeker. It may be a mystical ability, or it may be an adaptation to the world after the Fall, or it may be just a skill that you’ve learned over time. It feels like a vast network of tree roots, or veins, or a tangle of strings, spreading out from you in every direction. Behind you, to the east, you can feel the path you followed, you can send your mind back up along that path, but it has been traveled already, its track worn smooth by your passage. Ahead, though, to the west: unexplored branches and turnings and twistings.
You let your mind push along the branches. You pick one initially that feels promising. You can’t say what feels promising about it; perhaps if you could verbalize it, others could see it as well, but you’ve never been able to. It just feels right.
The further out you travel with your Seeker’s sense, the less clear the pathways and water tracks become. You have an instinct for danger along the paths, but that’s never completely reliable, and it never stays fixed once the journey begins. Scavengers might move; wind might cover a landmark or expose kniferock fields; a rockfall could block a sheltered canyon. Sensing those ambiguities is where Waterseeking ceases to be a science, and becomes an art.
You flicker along a hundred different possible paths, trying each, weighing. You make decisions and record them in your notes, pressing ever onwards and outwards. Eventually you can no longer sense the paths individually; the water tracks become hazy when you’re considering a month’s travel or more. You’re feeling your way by a gut sense of rightness, when there’s a shock of recognition, a thrill of excitement. Your Seeker’s senses encounter the oasis. You can feel it out there, pulsing, like a beacon. You can reach this oasis. You consider the caravan’s supplies, its size, the determination of those you’ll be traveling with. You can reach it. It is close enough.
You scrawl down the last of your plan, and then, unbinding your eyes, you return to the caravan master, handing over a sheaf of notes and sketches and maps. His eyes widen as he sees your careful writing, your precise lines. You think about the plan the old Seeker had handed you, and feel a twinge of shame. You’ve made him look bad before his caravan master. You’ve made him look inadequate. You flush hot and then cold, shame and panic coursing through you.
“Good. We’ll begin at nightfall.”
You can’t tell. Is that approval in his tone, or irritation, or humor? You find people so difficult to read, so unlike the simplicity of water.
The first few days are a strain. The perception you’ve had of the caravan as organized and professional and competent is largely a facade; it’s just another caravan, just as desperate as any other of its size. You realize that without your Seeking, this caravan might not have made it to the next oasis.
You’re sent to bunk with the Seeker apprentices, but still expected to conduct the Waterseeking at the end of each day of travel. It’s hard to find the inner calm and concentration you need to follow the water tracks, to see where they’ve changed from your initial plan, to spot new dangers. The apprentices are friendly and cheerful but you can feel your relationship with them grow strained — they’ve studied under the old Seeker for so long, and yet you, a stranger, has been given the honor of Waterseeking, and they must simply follow your lead down the water tracks, taking their own notes and offering their own perspectives.
But you’ve experienced worse strife in caravans before, open conflict with the other leaders, even with the caravan master. By comparison, this is mild. You do your best to ignore it, to clear your head every morning as the caravan comes to a halt and you bind your eyes once more.
It isn’t until the third week that the caravan master discovers your secret.
It’s at a halt called by the porters; the sleds move slowly through rocky terrain, and though you could have avoided it, it would have added a week’s travel to your journey. That kind of tradeoff, choosing one path over another based on only your instinct and your Waterseeking talent, is the essence of your role. Still, the porters grumble whenever the going is rough, muttering darkly about the indifference of Seekers to their struggles; it’s always been so since the caravans began.
The caravan master comes upon you as you review the rest of the night’s plan, and send out quick probes for the next few days, checking and rechecking your observations.
“You’re an elf.”
The statement is flat and unemotional, just an observation. It hits with the force of an accusation, though. The words you’d hoped to never hear; this moment is one of your personal nightmares, fraught and terrifying.
You meet his gaze, which is considering, weighing you. “A changeling, yes. I am.”
“You never mentioned this before.”
You give what you hope is a casual shrug. “It doesn’t affect my Waterseeking, so why would I have?”
He pauses, pondering that answer. “You’re right. It affects nothing.” He seems different, somehow; more reserved. “You prefer ‘changeling’?”
You nod. ‘Elf’ is pejorative, though it wasn’t always. ‘Elf’ is the name used by those who burned your kind, who imprisoned and murdered your kind, in the wake of the Fall and the Change.
“I will try to remember. Does anyone else know?” He meant in the caravan.
“No. I’ve told no-one. It hasn’t come up.”
He looks at the sleds, at the apprentice Seekers. “Will you tell them now?”
You close your eyes, rubbing briefly at your temples. Headaches are often part of the Waterseeking process, and you’re prone to them. “I suppose I must, if it will get out anyway.”
He nods, and without speaking again, returns to the sleds, shouting orders for the porters to get off their rumps and ready for travel.
The Change. The Fall. The world had collapsed so suddenly and completely that it was hard to remember that the two things were not synonymous. As the temperature rose and rose, and the people became more desperate, changelings were easy targets for their fear and panic. Elf-hunts were, for a decade, a favorite pastime of the frightened and ignorant. A community cut off by the slow death of infrastructure turned to local explanations for their grief. The well went dry, or the fields became barren, or the plague swept through, or the doctor died: all were easily blamed on changelings. On elves.
The theory was that something in the human genome had reacted to the inevitability of species-death birthed in the wake of uncontrollable climate change. That somehow, the knowledge that all of humanity was doomed had caused some portion of the junk DNA in the human genome to activate. The first changelings were born only a few years after the governments of the world shifted resources away from prevention of climate catastrophe, and towards simple species survival.
You’re fairly certain that theory is bullshit, but you’re no old world scientist. Your memories of the old world are hazy and filled with fear — a life spent hiding who you were, of joining in taunting known elves, of pretending to be human. A life of self-denial as a form of defense.
Changelings can tolerate extremes better. They can see better at night. Changelings need less water to survive, and less food. Changelings have better hearing, their ears articulated and mobile. Changelings have a second eyelid, a nictitating membrane to keep dust out of their eyes. In truth, you don’t need to bind your eyes the way human Waterseekers do; your eyes are not vulnerable to the drying and damage that humans suffer when exposed to the dry desert air without blinking.
Changelings are better suited to live in this post-Fall world.
Humans hate you for it.
Some, of course, fetishize changelings, seeing in you a kind of apocalyptic beauty. And changelings are more beautiful than humans, in almost every case — but it’s not a human kind of beauty. It’s alien. It’s somehow wrong to their eyes and their senses, and after enough time, they can tell that you’re not one of them. You unsettle them. You make them nervous; that atavistic species-death-sense pushes their fight-or-flight instincts to the fore.
You’d hoped to finish this journey without anyone finding out what you are, but that hope was probably foolish. You’re not one of those changelings the humans sneeringly call ‘half-elves’, mostly invisible, blending easily into human society. You have too many little tells, too many habits of identity. You blink your second lids. You twist an ear to listen to the wind.
The confession, or introduction, or explanation goes as well as you could have expected. Nobody calls you an elf to your face. Most of the looks of suspicion and perhaps hostility are brief and well-concealed afterwards. The caravan master welcomes you with a brief speech to the rest of the caravan. A few of the apprentice Seekers draw you aside later to ask about how your heritage affects your Waterseeking, and their clumsy attempts to not offend are almost touching in their earnestness.
The journey continues, much as it did before. There’s a new tension in the caravan, but not an unfamiliar one. Humans are always put on edge by changelings. They can’t help it. It’s what they do with their anxiety that separates the tolerant from the dangerous, and everyone in the caravan seems as tolerant as it’s possible for humans to be.
It’s somewhat of a relief to be freed of the pretense, too; your evening stretches are simpler when you don’t have to pretend to have only a human’s range of motion in your joints, and you are able to stop worrying about your eyes and your ears giving you away. You feel almost comfortable.
When the caravan encounters a group of travelers, sheltered against a rocky bluff and looking wild-eyed and desperate, you’re startled to realize one of them is a changeling as well. Groups of travelers without Waterseekers can sometimes survive in the desert away from sources of water, sometimes for months at a time, but they’re always slowly dying without a Seeker to guide them. It’s a desperate, terrifying way to live.
The caravan master grills them all on their skills and talents, and discovering that the changeling is a skilled hunter — another profession in which changelings excel over humans, thanks to their desert-adapted physiques — he offers her a position. The other travelers, seeing their likely death approaching with the departure of their hunter, glare furiously. Not, of course, at the caravan master for taking their hunter; at the hunter, for leaving them, and absurdly, at you, for being a changeling and a Waterseeker.
One of them mutters “Fucking elves,” but when you look to see who it was, they all carefully avoid meeting your eyes. One of them throws a rock as the caravan departs, but you don’t blame them; they’re going to die without the hunter, and you’d be furious, too.
You and the hunter speak only briefly, in the way that changelings do only with their own kind. It’s a combination of words, scent, body language, and light touches; it’s far deeper than human communication, and much higher bandwidth. You tell her that you’ve found acceptance here, or at least as much acceptance as humans can ever give. She tells you that she would have fled except that she saw you near the front of the caravan. You feel both pleased and guilty; you can’t assure her this caravan is safe, only that it is not openly hostile.
You don’t see her much after that. Hunters and Seekers have very little reason to speak to each other, and you’re both kept extremely busy as the caravan enters the most dangerous part of the journey: a long stretch of open desert, with no shelter from the wind or dust, and with only two weeks left till the journey’s end. Water supplies are lowest then, and rationing begins, and everyone’s tempers are frayed. You’ve been rationing yourself already, just to avoid conflict, but you ration further, right down to the bare minimum for a changeling.
It is thus, parched and exhausted, that the caravan arrives at the oasis.
The scope of the place makes ‘your’ oasis seem a mud-puddle. Here, the spring feeds a pool high in the rocks, and the water tumbles from the pool down in a waterfall, through a cave mouth, and into an underground pool that’s deep enough to swallow a person completely. Inside the cave it’s cool and wet and lush, green grasses and creeping vines choking the entrance and spreading out from it across the oasis floor.
The caravan is joyous, people sweeping you into fierce hugs, kissing you, thanking you. You wish you could take credit for the lushness of this oasis, but you know that it’s as much luck as anything, what oasis you’ll actually locate when you go Waterseeking. There are congratulations for the old Seeker, and all the apprentices that survived the journey, and a festival atmosphere prevails.
This is the time that caravans make the decision to continue onwards, or to break apart and form new caravans. Only a talented caravan master can keep the whole group together, with promises of further successes, known oases ahead, skilled leadership.
You approach him on the third night of celebration. He’s speaking with the old Seeker, so you wait politely for them to finish. He beckons as the old Seeker leaves, looking tired, more than anything.
You raise a questioning eyebrow. The caravan master shakes his head. “He is staying here. This place is enough for many people to live, and he has grown tired of the endless journey.”
“But you? You are continuing?”
He smirks. “I believe in the Far Shore. Do you not?”
It’s a difficult question. There’s no reason to believe that on the other side of the desert, past the rumors of a vast mountain range, is a place where the desert ends and the world is still green. There is no evidence of such a place, there are no tales of it from anyone who’s actually been there or seen it. And yet, the legend of it is the reason for the caravans. It’s the only reason people set out into the desert, instead of waiting to die in the old world, waiting for the water to finally dry out completely.
It’s the reason you set out, so many years ago. It might not exist, but if it does, you need to see it. It’s said, among changelings, that all their kind have gone there, that a great city of changelings lies at the heart of the Far Shore. It’s probably not true, but what else can you use as your guiding light? Simple survival, hiding from the humans and haunting an oasis for years? The pull of the Far Shore seems irresistible.
At the same time, talking about the Far Shore is considered uncouth among the caravans. Too many give up, or die, and no-one wants to believe they might not make it there, that the journey they’re on might be the only destination they’ll ever see. It’s bad luck, and it’s a sure way to offend your fellow caravaneers.
All this runs through your head, but eventually, you nod. “I do believe in it.”
He pats your shoulder, an uncomfortable familiarity from a human. “Good. We’ll begin planning tomorrow evening.”
For all his bravado and forced friendliness, though, you soon discover that the caravan master did not mean that you would be planning anything. Once again, he and his leaders retreat to a private tent, just as at the previous oasis. Once again, there are heated conversations, which you cannot be sure are not about you. You feel more secure, having found this place for them, having proven your worth in a hundred ways since setting out, but at the same time, you know what they see when they look at you: an elf.
One after another, routes are proposed, planned out, and abandoned. You’re never asked to Waterseek any of them; their origins are mysterious, a product of the hushed conversations you are not privy to. Eventually, you’re brought a possible target, an oasis said to lie to the northwest. You wonder about turning north now, having made so much progress west, but you take the plan to the ridge-top and Waterseek it.
You struggle to find the next oasis, but eventually you reach it. The path is more dangerous than the previous one, but at the same time, this current oasis is resource-rich, so water should not be an issue. The casks are all full, and the crafters are making new waterskins as fast as the hunters can bring the hides in. You explore the other pathways to the oasis, and eventually, confident in your plan, you return to the caravan master and his council.
Departing from this oasis is a longer and more emotional process than the previous departure. After all, the old Waterseeker is remaining behind, with a handful of his apprentices and a few of those hunters and crafters who had traveled with him for many years, and wanted to stay by his side. They will do well, but it seems unlikely that you’ll ever see any of them again. Still, your empathy is necessarily limited by the distance between you and the old Seeker, the gap of mistrust and even dislike that has never closed between you, not since you first took over his Seeking so long ago.
After the tearful farewells and departure, there is a change in the atmosphere of the caravan. The sense of discomfort, the smell humans give off when around changelings, intensifies with each day. When you met the caravan at the previous oasis, they were desperate and struggling, willing to take a chance on anyone who might save them. Even an elf. But now, flush with water and resources, feeling confident and secure, they are starting to ask themselves: how much did the elf really do for us? How badly do we really need her?
You can’t even really blame them. Humans are scared, all the time. Afraid of anything different, of anything unlike themselves. Afraid as their world slowly collapses around them. It’s not personal affront; it’s a species thing. They’re lashing out in their death throes.
It’s a week into the new journey, and you’re feeling lost. As often as not, the apprentice Seekers are being asked to prepare the next evening’s journey, to scan the water tracks in your stead. You are idle in the camp most mornings, regardless of how busy it is. As the humans see you idle, that smell increases. Why isn’t the elf working? Why is she idle? What is she doing for us? The elation of the oasis diminishes by each day’s travel. The suspicion grows in its absence.
The caravan master summons you one evening, as the caravan prepares to travel.
“You are not working.”
You give him an astonished look, although deep inside you are not astonished at all. This was inevitable. You saw the shape of it back when he first discovered you were a changeling.
“I am not working because you have given my work to the apprentices.”
He shakes his head. “It is bad for morale for you to do nothing.” The unspoken words, ‘for an elf to do nothing’, hang heavily in the silence. “Can you find some work to do?”
You consider. “The apprentices can use help recopying the maps and notes, I suppose.”
He nods. “Do that, then.”
Another week into the journey. The apprentices are grateful that you are taking the tedious chore of recopying from them; they spend their days discussing what the morning’s Seeking might mean. They no longer ask you to help with interpreting it. They never say the words ‘we don’t need help from an elf’, but those words, too, hang heavily in silence between you. You lose yourself in the monotony, doing chores from your earliest days as an apprentice Seeker for a small caravan. There’s a comfort in simplicity, in letting your hands repeat the motions of copying while your mind wanders.
Then, the confrontation. The sun is in its last descent towards the west, and in the heat of the apprentices’ tent, your mind wanders while you write. Down the water tracks, exploring without any real objective, just an idle exercise of your talent, just a stretching of disused muscles to keep them supple.
The danger along the paths shrieks at you, bringing you fully aware and alert, your copying forgotten. You probe once again, more gently and carefully, seeking to find the shape of the danger. What is it? What has changed since the morning’s Seeking?
It is like a jagged tear in the water tracks, every single one going forward from this place and time. You know what will happen there: the tracks will be lost. In a week, perhaps two, the Seekers will no longer be able to see the way forward. There’s a dryness in the desert there, a smudging of the clear lines of water. You’re not sure if you would have seen this emptiness yourself, had you been assiduously Seeking every morning, but you can see it now. There is only one solution: you must turn back. The whole caravan must turn back, return to the last major branching of ways four days ago, redo the Seeking, find new paths.
You go to the caravan master to explain the danger.
“None of the other Waterseekers have seen this danger,” he says.
“It is there. We will lose water there. We may lose people.”
“What is the danger, specifically? Scavengers? Kniferock?” His eyes are full of concern and… something else? A distant glittering, some suspicion or mistrust? He knows your talent; how can he mistrust you now?
“No, none of those. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. It’s… dangerous. I think it might be something of the old world.” You flap your hands helplessly. You know you’re not explaining this well.
His brow furrows. “The old world… If you can’t tell me what it is, we can hardly be expected to counter it. If we return along the way we’ve come, what’s to say we won’t encounter this mysterious danger again? No, we will continue. Turning back will waste the extra water we’ve gained from the oasis, and it will make the caravan unhappy.”
“They will be more unhappy if they die in the desert,” you snap, and immediately wish you could withdraw the words. It was the wrong thing to say, the wrong way to say it. The unspoken words hang there once more. An elf speaking in this way to a caravan master.
“We will go forward,” he says curtly. You sag, knowing you cannot change his course now.
It is the next evening, and you awaken at the sound of the apprentices returning to the tent after the evening discussion. You no longer attend those; you haven’t been disinvited but there is a flat hostility in the air, in everyone’s eyes and voices, when you’ve tentatively tried to join them. Rising, you begin to prepare the apprentice tent for departure, to pack the papers and inkwells and pencils and charts.
“I’ll get that,” one of the younger apprentices says, brushing you aside. Startled, you let him. You stand there awkwardly, unsure of what to do, and then leave the tent.
The caravan master is having a discussion with his leaders. He sees you emerge and says something sharp to them, then stalks across the dry cracked earth of the campsite to you. His eyes are dead and cold.
“You will not be departing this place with us.”
You stare in shock, chills sinking into your bones. He was pronouncing a death sentence.
“W-why?” you stammer, barely able to think.
“You are… You are harming morale.”
There it is, the unspoken ‘because you’re an elf’. How long has he waited for this pretext?
“What will I do? We’re weeks from any oasis!”
He shakes his head once, sharply, as if trying to shake loose a thought. “I will give you what water we can spare. A few days. You will have to look for another caravan.” He gestures vaguely out into the desert. Unspoken words once more: ‘you are an elf, so you can survive on your own.’
You feel the panic creeping along your limbs. If only that were true. From here, all the paths you can see lead to your death.
It strikes you then: this is the danger you could not identify. You wonder how many of them will die because they’ve left you here. It’s little comfort, really; you don’t want any of them to die, the brothers and sisters you’ve found on this journey. Your whole being was directed towards keeping them alive, and now you will fail them when they will need you the most.
“I’m sorry.” He cannot meet your eyes when he says it, though. “Do not try to follow us.”
As he returns to the caravan, you hear his voice rise over the clamor. “The Waterseeker has chosen to leave us. We thank her for her service, and bid her farewell.”
There’s a shocked silence. The changeling hunter catches your eye, but you drop your gaze, ashamed to let the lie go past. After all, the caravan master doesn’t have to leave you any water at all. He could just leave you as you stand, without supplies or tools or anything. Without hope.
No-one speaks as the caravan departs.
You stand, alone, in the growing darkness. In the distance, you hear the wind rising. There will be a dust storm soon.