“Just try to keep swallowing,” said the voice. The owner’s arm was behind Nit’s neck. “It’s not going to feel good at first, but it’ll get better. Another swallow go on.”
Nit spluttered and coughed her way through several more offerings of water, until her chest ached with the effort and her front was soaked with droplets. Her arms were heavy and hollow, like she’d spent too long with a sledgehammer. She lifted a shaky hand to wipe her forehead and cracked her eyes open.
“Hi.” A hazy brown face swam against the oppressive blue of the sky. “I’m Rose, and you’re a runaway, huh?” A finger tapped the inside of Nit’s forearm, where the concentric rings of her slave brand scarred her skin. “Don’t worry — some of the rustlers back in camp escaped from the quarries, too. I spent my own time at Redalo. Nobody will turn you in, but Cook won’t let you stay if you can’t work. Think you can sit up?”
With help, Nit struggled upright and took several more swallows of the lukewarm water in the canteen. Rose helped her, thumping her on the back when she gulped too much.
“What’s your name?” Rose asked.
“Nit,” she croaked.
“Did you come from Tellman’s Ditch?” When Nit nodded, Rose asked, “What did you do — climb the palisades in the work compound?”
“I was in one of the wagons,” Nit said. “They were taking us to Redalo. The wheel got stuck, and they pulled us out to push it free. While they weren’t looking, I just…”
Nit nodded vaguely. The past forty-eight hours were a blur, muddled by searing sun and thirst. She’d walked up the wash where the wagon had gotten stuck, slicing her skin and clothes on sawgrass and cacti, until she’d clambered out of the ditch and struck off into the open desert. She looked around at the thorn thicket she’d crawled into to die. “Where am I now?”
“Oh.” Rose shrugged. “Nowhere, really. Just another patch of the Ferinno.”
“But you live nearby?”
“No, we move around. You’ve landed yourself with the most useless cattle-rustling operation this side of Teso’s Ford.”
“You’re outlaws?” Nit asked, alarmed. The guards who oversaw the work compound at the quarry often terrorized the younger laborers with tales of rampant banditry and armed outlaws to discourage runaways. Many of Nit’s companions who had come from the Ferinno Desert claimed the stories were embellished, but Nit didn’t know firsthand. She’d been property of Tellman’s Ditch, first in the glass factories and then in the sand quarries, since her earliest memories.
“You’re an outlaw, too,” Rose said, tapping Nit’s slave brand again. “You always will be with one of these on your arm, at least in the eyes of the law. Good news is, there’s not much law out here beyond whoever’s crossbow draws the fastest.” Rose got to her feet and beat some of the dust from her pants. She held out her hand. “Think you can walk? There’s food back in camp.”
Nit’s empty stomach clenched, and she took Rose’s hand and stood. Her legs were wobbly.
“Is Nit your real name?” Rose asked. “Because it’s what the rustlers call the buggy things that infest the cattle. Is it just a name the quarry gave you?”
“It’s the name on my sale papers,” Nit said.
“Hm.” Rose grimaced. “Well, you should think about changing it.”
“Whatever strikes your fancy.” She waved at the heat-wavering desert around them. “Something nice.”
Nit looked around at the landscape that had come so close to killing her. It seemed to crouch, still waiting to slink back in and finish the job.
“What’s nice out here?” she asked. “The desert’s a wasteland. A death trap.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“There’s no water.”
“There is if you know how to look,” Rose said. “I’ll show you. Believe me, the Ferinno can be a real lifesaver if you understand how it works.” At Nit’s disbelieving expression, Rose waved at the thorn bushes around them. “Like this catclaw — it’s everywhere. The worst kind of thing to take a tumble in, but it’s one of the few things out here that provides shade at midday, and it protects against thieves and scavengers. It probably saved your life a little while longer. The desert keeps the world out. The law, the slavers, everybody who’d like to round us up and use us for their own gain. The desert protects us.” She beckoned. “Come on. Have you ever chopped an onion?”
“What’s an onion?”