This is an excerpt from Desert Song: A Girl in Exile, A Trickster Horse, and the Women Rising Up. You can get a copy here.

When the first touch of lengthening shadow broke the afternoon heat, Ari Ara forced herself through a set of training exercises in the Way Between. She missed Emir and Shulen so strongly that the world blurred, but she blinked her tears back and kept going. She couldn’t risk losing her edge; her encounter with Moragh had demonstrated that. She finished the exercise and paused to catch her breath. She reached for the waterskin and noticed Tala watching her with a blend of awe, mystification, and wistful yearning.

“The exercise makes more sense with two people,” Ari Ara explained, “but you can practice with the wind or the sunlight or anything, really.”

“Could I learn?” Tala asked, eyes alight with curiosity.

“Oh, yes!” Ari Ara cried, thrilled that the youth had asked.

Thus began a routine that shaped their days: rise before dawn, ride to the next water source, rest through the midday heat, practice the Way Between, and travel at dusk for a few hours. They crossed a crumbling salt flat of blinding white dust. They tread through an eerie dead forest of charred and burned branches. They climbed winding switchback paths over an obsidian ridge of shining black stone. The desert unfolded, step by step, strange and magnificent, no two places alike. Ari Ara had always imagined her father’s land as flat and dry, but the reality filled her with wonder. She had thought there would be no water, but, in truth, water shaped the culture of the desert, sparse and sacred. Villages clustered along the handful of rivers – streams, really – that snaked through the land. She enjoyed traveling with Tala, who knew hundreds of tales. The days flew by swiftly. The young songholder was fascinated by the riverlands and plied Ari Ara with questions. The Fanten intrigued Tala, who referred to the elusive forest-dwelling people as distant cousins of the Tala-Rasa . . . at least, that’s what Ari Ara thought the Harrak-Tala words meant. Her vocabulary was growing daily, but Tala’s speech was the most poetic and complex she’d encountered. It was a mark of the Tala-Rasa’s calling, her friend explained.

“We never forget a word, and we keep them alive for others,” Tala explained, building a small, grass-fed fire to cook a powdered stew for dinner.

“Has it always been like this?” Ari Ara asked, flopping onto the grass with relief, splaying her limbs into the soft greenness of the pasturelands. Tomorrow, they would reach Tuloon. “With the warriors meets cancelling the village sings and making all the decisions? And is it like this everywhere in the desert?”

“No, and no,” Tala answered, voice rough with bitterness. “The War of Retribution changed everything. I will sing the ballad for you.”

Tala’s clear voice rang out like a reed pipe, high and bright. The youth’s range was startling, soaring high like silver bells and bird’s whistles, then dropping low as a man’s all the way down to the rumble of shaking mountains. The words Tala evoked shivered with time and history. It was believed that when the Tala-Rasa sang, the ancestors spoke through them.

From the time beyond memory, men and women had always been equals in Harraken culture. This was the world that Ari Ara’s mother, Queen Alinore, had encountered when she first visited. This was the way of life upon which the peacebuilding young queen had forged the basis of trust between the two populaces of long-time enemies. Queen Alinore’s marriage to Tahkan Shirar opened a golden era of exchange and peace. Trade flourished. Youth programs initiated host exchanges and built friendships across borders. Tala’s song illuminated the hope of these times, almost unfathomable to those born during or after the bitter War of Retribution. The clouds of darkness closed in from both sides of the border. Shadows cast by fear, hatred, and violence dashed the hopes of a generation.

The Harraken swore they were not like the riverlands people. Fathers forbade daughters from acting like the “uncouth Alinore, so forward and manipulative”. Husbands told wives to stay home with the children – unlike Alinore’s monstrous cousin Brinelle who left her young son at home to ride into battle against them.

But it was more than hatred of the Marianans that fueled the current tensions. As the war dragged on, the strong men were called to fight. The women were sent to hide and flee with the children. The warriors meets made emergency decisions, quick choices to save lives and protect their people.

“It was necessary for survival, but the balance of our culture was tipped,” Tala added on a worried note. “The warriors did not let go of power after the war ended. Not all the village sings were started again. Because most warriors were men, the women’s voices were slowly silenced.”

The power of Desert Speech brought the scenes to life as Tala sang the story in a long ballad. Swirling in the smoke of their grass-fed fire, Ari Ara saw visions of the vicious cycle of warriors making choices to support young men’s trainings and war preparations. She saw people – mostly women – objecting and being silenced and pushed to the sidelines. She saw the warriors meets growing in strength and authority as the sullen and resentful glares of women spread from face to face. She saw women fleeing to Moragh’s Stronghold and women weeping in the dark, fists to mouths to keep silent sobs from waking those around them. Then, abruptly, as if waking from a nightmare, the vision halted. Tala’s face came back into focus. The fire had burned down to embers.

“Why’d you stop?” Ari Ara asked, a plaintive note creeping into her voice.

“The Tala-Rasa tell the past, not the future. We are not soothsayers. What comes next is up to the people.”

Ari Ara’s eyes narrowed as she caught a faint sense of rote phrases in her friend’s words.

“Is that what you truly believe? Or is that just what you’re supposed to say?” she challenged, crossing her arms over her chest.

Tala threw her a startled and uncomfortable look.

“I have been warned – repeatedly – to listen and recite, not speak and meddle,” Tala answered with a grimace. Ze picked up a stick and stoked the coals back to life, tossing a few twigs in with angry strength. “But, what is a voice if not to sing? Every story is woven out of many strands of possible stories. History is not neutral. Many of the thirteen Tala-Rasa would have sung a different song than I did tonight. If the Tala-Rasa can create new songs out of the present, why not sing warnings of the future, too?”

The youth’s bright eyes gleamed across the fire.

“If warriors-rule or Moragh’s violence are the only answers, what is someone like me to do? Neither seem like good songs!”

Tala shuddered. Neither male nor female, what place would ze have in this new culture? Would Tala be the dominator? Or the dominated?

“Is that why you came looking for me?” Ari Ara asked. “Seeking the girl who is neither this nor that?”

Tala nodded vigorously, a grin spreading wide.

“I came looking for the daughter of our Harrak-Mettahl, the one who restored our water, honor, and people, the follower of the Way Between.”

Tala’s laughter rang out. From the lopsided grin, Ari Ara suspected that her life sounded like a legend to most people. Suddenly, her father’s words came back to her from a letter he had written her last year.

You will find, Ari Ara Shirar en Marin, that your legends grow far taller than you. You will catch up to them in time.

A silence fell. Tala’s sharp gaze stayed fixed on Ari Ara. The fire danced. A night bird hooted in the distance. The breeze carried a slip of cooler air across the pastures.

“If you were allowed to sing a future song,” Ari Ara said quietly, “what story would it tell?”

A shimmering intensity burned in the youth’s eyes as if the music pressed suddenly against the confines of zir chest.

“It would tell,” Tala began, speaking the story instead of singing it, swallowing back emotion, “of two youths who did not fit into the world as it was . . . and so set out to change it, together. It would tell of a girl who knew little of her father’s culture, but recognized wrong when she saw it. It would sing of the Way Between, a legend among us, returning like the water and nourishing our harrak, our honor, until it grew green and strong again.”

Tala’s face flushed, neck burning red like a boy’s, long eyelashes fluttering like a girl’s, teeth biting lips like all nervous young ones who reveal their fierce vulnerabilities like first crushes then wait for disaster or euphoria to strike. Ari Ara said nothing for a long time, thinking about the words. Tala turned redder and redder. At last, the youth drew the cloak hood over zes tight crop of black curls with their iron-ore edges, hiding zirs face.

“Just think it over and tell me in the morning,” came the muffled comment.

“I don’t need until morning,” Ari Ara answered, blinking as she realized her friend was waiting in agony for her reply.

The hooded figure stilled.


So much weighed on that one word.

Ari Ara smiled and curled on her side.

“I like the sound of your song,” she said.

A muted squeal of excitement leapt out of the youth. Ari Ara’s grin gleamed in the darkness. Then the two closed their eyes without speaking further, letting sleep pull their thundering hearts and racing minds into visions and dreams.


This is an excerpt from Desert Song: A Girl in Exile, A Trickster Horse, and the Women Rising Up. You can get a copy here.