art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
by Laura Anne Gilman
"My lady, I dislike this place."
She smiled at me, not amused, and yet amused nonetheless, a tender smile no man had ever seen. "I know."
She would not demand it of us, this obedience. Yet I was so used to following, it would seem odd to stay behind. And she would go; she had come here for nothing else.
"Mount up!" I called, not bothering to look behind me.
The creaking of leather and the moaning of camels responded, as the eleven swung into stirrups and gathered reins, and into the Valley of Death we rode, thirteen strong, and not a prayer between us.
The dog met us at the gate; a stone arch three lengths high and four across, with filigree doors that had withstood the wind and sand for thousands of years. You could not study the gates too closely, else your eye moved aside, seeking something less disturbing to rest upon.
The dog seemed less impressive, for all that it was of the same stone, but when it raised its slender brown muzzle, its deep-set eyes shone red, and it set itself in the sands with the surety of one who will not be moved.
She slid down from her camel, her head high and her hands steady. "You have taken my father. Give him back."
The dog merely looked at us. It did not loll its tongue, or move its tail, or twitch the way hounds do, when they expect either praise or censure. It stared, with those red eyes, and my lady stared back.
"The dead do not return."
Its mouth did not move, but we heard it, deep and hollow as the wind.
"Not even for you, Beloved of the Sand," it went on, before she could speak again. "Once past my gates, all roads end."