At the mines, hunched-over figures searched for
precious flecks in the endless sand. Cal hardly
noticed the sun beating through his thin robes. People he’d
lived with, played with, worked with all his life, silently
turned on him. They glared their disapproval. News traveled
fast. Opinions changed faster. He ignored their pointed looks.
His fingers panned the sand without it registering with his
When the pit chief berated him for messing up the line—
he hadn’t—Cal thought solely of going north, of leaving
Siccum and finding his people.
At the close of the shift, Cal approached his chief.
“Today’s my last day.”
The man grunted. “I was surprised when they told me
what you did. Thought I heard the name wrong. I hate being
wrong. Almost as much as I hate to lose a good miner. You
fooled me. Just shows, you don’t truly know any man’s
Cal clenched his jaw, biting back the violence awaking at
the chief’s words—even if they were true. “Please, can you
pay my last wages now? I’m leaving at dawn.”
The chief turned a leathered face to Cal and lifted an
eyebrow. “Tomorrow? Where would you go?”
He snorted. “Oh, really? So you’re not going to throw
yourself into the sea?”
Cal wanted to send him to the waves. “Can I get my
“No. You can’t. It’s not payday. And do I look like I carry
Cal choked back his rising temper. “Where can I go?”
“The account chief comes on payday. How long have you
Cal’s fingers curled into fists. “I can’t wait until next
week. Can you please help me?”
“You think you can cross the desert on your own? Without
a caravan? You’ll die halfway across, especially with that old
man. It would be a waste of good coin anyway.”
Cal’s fist shot forward, connecting with the chief’s jaw
with a satisfying crunch. The man staggered back, clutching
his face. His eyes bulged. Surrounding miners stared in
shock. Cal bolted.
Panting and overheated by the time he got home, he
slammed the gate. A handcart sat in the yard. Grandpapi
rocked in a chair, and Ma bustled about, humming while she
“Last day as a miner,” Grandpapi said.
“They refused to pay me because it isn’t wages day.”
Ma popped her head out of the house. “That isn’t right.”
“That’s what I thought.” Cal paused. “I might have
punched the chief to let him know.”
“That isn’t right, either.”
“They robbed me.”
“Cal.” Ma’s voice sharpened.
“I’m sorry. But he deserved it for cheating me.” Cal had
to smash that smirk o the man’s face.
Grandpapi shook his head.
Ma sighed. “I guess we’d better leave now. I’d convinced
the Elders to let us go without further punishment if we
never return, but we can’t aord to stay here tonight and
give the angry chief time to plan his retribution.” Frustration
flashed over her face.
Regret pressed down on Cal. “I’m sorry.”
She looked away, jerking at the twine she was tying
around a blanket. “I’m almost done packing. We got a decent
price for the house, at least. We’ll need the money when we
get past the sand.”
When their belongings were settled in the cart, Cal lifted
Grandpapi on top, tucking a blanket around his legs. Ma set
the chicken in her father’s hands.
“Oh, bother,” Grandpapi said as it clucked and flapped.
That sound was going to get annoying fast. “Can’t we just
eat it and be done with it?” Cal asked.
“We might have to,” Ma said. “I hope it doesn’t come to
Cal took his place at the front of the handcart, where two
pieces of wood jutted out on either side. A third piece cut
across the front, forming a rectangle frame around him. He
put his hands on the front bar and pushed. Slowly, the cart
moved through the sand. Ma closed the gate, and together
they left the only home Cal had ever known.
A smattering of people watched in hostile puzzlement.
Leaving Siccum was as rare as rain. Siccum was a tribe of
close-knit families who’d lived here for centuries. Ma and
Grandpapi had transplanted from the north fifteen years
ago, and they’d struggled to set deep roots. Their pale skin
and sharp accents set them apart, but now Cal wondered if
there was more to their shunning than that.
They followed the river north, and Siccum disappeared
from all but memory. Dusk fell. They stopped at the water’s
edge, and Grandpapi stretched his legs as they filled their
canteens. Ma passed out bananas and cheese, both rare
luxuries. Cal savored every bite, thinking that life was
getting better and better.
“I know you’ve already spent a long day at the mines,”
Ma said. “But we need to keep moving. The farther from the
village, the better chance of going unnoticed by night
Cal’s excitement cooled. There would be no wall to hide
behind tonight. He touched the hunting knife that hung on
his rope belt.
“If we keep a good pace,” Ma said. “We should get to
Branmar in seven nights.”
Cal loaded Grandpapi back into the cart and started
pulling. Stars sprinkled the sky, and the waxing moon guided
them. Ma set the pace, and Cal trudged behind, determined
to keep up. Left foot. Right. Left. Right. Eyelids drooped.
Desert faded as his focus wavered.
As if through fog, the dreaded click of the crokator found
Cal. Alarms rang through his nerves.
“Cal.” Ma’s whisper startled him with her closeness. “It
might not know we’re here. I’ll push from behind, and let’s
try to outrun it.”
What a waste of energy. Of course it had found them. With
a jolt of adrenaline, he jogged. The clicks got louder. It came
from behind. Where his ma was.
“Get in the cart, Ma.” His voice came in hus.
“Get in the cart!” His shout rolled over the dunes.
“It will slow us down too much.”
The hissing accelerated.
“Get in, or I’ll stop and throw you in.” A fierce need to
protect her drove down his spine. Nothing would happen to
her. The threat sharpened his mind and honed his senses.
The cart lagged as Ma’s weight landed. Wheels groaned,
and so did Grandpapi. Cal’s body ached, and his lungs
burned. He whirled the cart so it faced backward. The beast
had to kill him to get to his family. He ducked out of the
frame, pulling his knife free.
The hissing stopped.
If the moonlight hadn’t cast a gleam on its eyes, he
wouldn’t have seen the slithering creature in the darkness.
The shadow attacked. Large as the handcart, it reared its
long neck and drove poisonous fangs at Cal’s chest. He
swung, knocking the creature o-course. The sharp scales
on its face cut his hand as it struck again. He caught a fang
on the edge of his knife. Venom slicked his blade. With a
grunt, he heaved the beast back.
“Tail,” Ma shouted.
Cal jumped, staggering against the cart as a barbed tail
whipped in front of his nose. Frantic, he grabbed the chicken.
The gaping mouth dove at him. He thrust the bird between
razor teeth as he sliced at the crokator’s short front leg. His
knife barely penetrated the scaled skin.
With the chicken in its mouth, the animal retreated into
darkness. A part of Cal wanted to hunt it down and kill it, but
the other part, the part that settled deeply in his chest, the
part that had instructed him in this fight, told him to run.
Heart pounding, bleeding hand on fire, Cal scrambled into
the front frame of the cart and turned it north. He ran. He
ran and he ran. Fear chased him even when the crokator did