Story & Illustration by Emily B. Martin ’10, M ’12

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A short story introducing the title character of noted author Emily B. Martin’s new young adult fiction series

The girl called Nit closed her eyes with every intention to die.

The desert, with its angry sun and baking sands, had killed her.

It hadn’t taken long. In the previous few hours, as thirst and heat exhaustion had set in, she’d lost track of how long she’d been walking. Escape from the work quarry where she’d grown up hadn’t been planned. If she’d had any time to consider the likelihood of survival, she never would have risked it. But she’d had no time, only a moment’s opportunity, and she’d taken it. She’d walked into the desert, and the desert had waited patiently, watching her run, then walk, then stagger, then crawl into a tangle of thornbushes, and then it had moved in, quiet as dusk, to finish her off.

Under the dappled shade of the thorn bushes, she felt her final breath slip from her lips. Her chest stilled and her belly caved in on itself. She felt the desert slide in around her, as if her small heartbeat had been the only thing keeping it at bay. Now the dry heat lapped up over her skin and sank into her veins. With a calm, detached interest, she watched her body slowly fall apart, revealing a small, muddy skeleton. The desert wasn’t content to leave even that untouched, and as time passed she watched the almighty sun bleach the bones to a clean yellow-white. She marveled that something so pretty had been locked up inside her, under dirty skin and inconvenient blood.

Everything about the process was gentle and inevitable, which was more of a relief than anything. She watched rains come and go, cycling into patterns of flood and drought. She watched as the thorn bushes she’d hidden under grew and seeded themselves, then grew old and died. She watched the ground crack and turn to sand, watched the mesas in the distance wither and give themselves up. The desert, it seemed, took everything eventually — plant, rock, flesh, bone. The ground crunched beneath her.

The crunching became rhythmic, a drumbeat that buzzed through her fingers. Darkness fell over her eyes — had the end of time finally swallowed the desert itself?

She watched the ground crack and turn to sand, watched the mesas in the distance wither and give themselves up. The desert, it seemed, took everything eventually — plant, rock, flesh, bone.

“Ugh, not another one.”

Branches crackled and snapped, and something prodded her toe.

“Hey. You. Are you dead?”

The girl called Nit wasn’t sure why the desert was asking this question, or who it was aimed at, or why it was relevant.

“By the Light, I don’t have time for this. Rose, crawl under there and see if she’s dead. And if she is, strip her belt — I could use a new one to haul firewood.”

There was more crackling. Leaves drifted down to land on her cheeks and forehead. She wrinkled her brow.

A hand landed on her, pressing against her chest. Fingers probed her face, felt her lips, thumbed her eyelid. Blurry light seared into her head.

“Hey,” a voice murmured. “I’ve got some water. Can you sit up?”

“Is she dead?” the first voice called.

“No. Just dried up.”

The first voice swore colorfully. “Can you get her belt anyway?”

“I think she’ll come around if we can get some water into her.”

“I don’t have time to revive every half-dead runaway who breaks out of the work quarries. Grab her belt and help me get this firewood back to camp.”

The hands on Nit’s chest and face moved to her shoulders, and the soft voice that belonged to them spoke again. “Rito said yesterday he wished we had another hand for cattle-branding days. And if you had someone else besides me to fetch and carry, you wouldn’t have to haul firewood yourself.”

This seemed to have some effect, because the first voice went silent for a few seconds, then swore again. “If you can drag her back to camp and get her to where she can be useful, I’ll think about keeping her. But if she can’t work, she’s out.” There was a rattle of sticks. “I’ve got porridge to stir — don’t dawdle.”

As the footsteps crunched away, the hands returned to their exploration of Nit, first swiping a few of her dreadlocks out of her face and then hauling her head and shoulders off the ground. There was the pop of cork. Up to this point, Nit had listened to everything as if it were a story being told aloud, like her old bunkmates occasionally did at night when they weren’t all beaten to exhaustion from quarrying sand. Like those stories, woven from half-remembered nursery tales and gossip, the discussion taking place between the two voices hadn’t seemed to have anything to do with Nit. But then water trickled between her cracked lips, flowing over her tongue and down her throat. At first, Nit was startled, unsure what to do. Her throat seemed to have forgotten what to do with water. It worked and scraped, and as more water came, her body came alive with a vengeance. Her stomach clenched, her muscles tightened, her head throbbed.

Nit groaned.

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Office Tour with Emily B. Martin

“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…”

“Snuck off?”

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.

Until now.

“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.”

“To what?”

“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?”

“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.”

“I’ll show you, and by this afternoon you’ll wish I never had. Let’s go, before Cook changes his mind about letting you stay.”

Nit took one more look at the catclaw thicket. She hadn’t had the presence of mind to take note of it when she’d crawled into it, but now it felt like a haven. Still, it wasn’t one she wanted to linger in. She hurried to free herself from the thorns, and she followed Rose back out into the sun.

Years later, the girl who’d once been called Nit would think often about that catclaw, long after she’d made the desert her ally. She’d think about how close she’d come to death under those branches and how little she’d understood the desert. Even after she’d learned how to find water in bare rock, how to use the sand and heat and sun to her own advantages, death was always just an arm’s length away. One oversight, one forgetful moment, one instance of failing to fill her canteen or missing the whisper of a snake rattle was all that stood between her and once again becoming that small, clean skeleton being swept by dust.

That moment, she knew, was inevitable, though now her skeleton wouldn’t be anonymous. Her bones would only go undisturbed if she was lucky. More likely, her death would be crowed throughout the hardscrabble towns in the Ferinno and the wealthy palaces beyond. She’d quickly followed Rose’s advice and taken a new name, but she’d also been given another one by sheriffs and posses and bounty posters across the desert. A name, and a price on her head.

Because Rose had been right. She might change her name and her clothes, might trade a quarry shovel for a sword, might cover her old scarred slave brand with tattoos, but there was one thing the desert would never let her change.

She was, and always would be, an outlaw.

Continue the story of the Ferinno Desert’s most notorious outlaw in Sunshield, book one of the Outlaw Road duology written by Emily Benson Martin, author and illustrator, part-time park ranger and mother of two girls. Martin is the author of Creatures of Light, a Young Adult/Epic Fantasy crossover series from Harper Voyager, and in September, she will release her new middle-grade adventure, A Field Guide to Mermaids. When Martin isn’t writing, she’s patrolling national parks like Glacier, Yellowstone or the Great Smoky Mountains.

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