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The rider leaned forward, legs tense against his horse's sides as her hooves tore through the desert. He had been riding for days, though he could no longer remember why. Sand caked his short beard, making him ache for a shave. He shook his head and more sand sifted down from his hair. Sand coated his eyelids, his lips, even the inside of his mouth. He rode bareback, holding onto the horse’s mane. His horse's white coat was darkened with sand, and more flew up around them with every step. He clenched his jaw, feeling sand crunch between his teeth, and turned his head to spit. No spit would come; his mouth was completely dry. He leaned forward, urging his horse to go faster.

The horse stumbled beneath him and he murmured to her, but she had already regained her footing. He wished he could let her stop and rest, but they were almost out of time… he just couldn’t remember for what. They could not afford to slow down, that much he knew, but the reason danced just out of grasp. What had brought them to this wasteland? He could not remember, but he knew they must keep going. No matter what happened, they must not stop. The horse seemed to read this thought, surging forward to make up for the few seconds she lost when she faltered.

In the back of his mind, a memory whispered – The Fallows – a stretch of barren desert that took three days to cross at its narrowest point, even by the fastest horse and rider. And that was if the rider’s luck held, if he missed the sand pits that caved in without warning, and the vipers, and the mirages that lured men to slow deaths in the burning sun. This information came to him from a distance, like remnants of an oft-told bedtime story. Even remembering that much felt like drawing up a heavy pail from a deep well; the memories resisted lifting. The details of the past few days refused to rise at all, slipping away even as he tried to grasp them, but he couldn't shake the feeling that as they raced across The Fallows, death was only a step behind.

The sun sank down, first slowly then quickening. The air took on a chill. Still they rode. They were out of water, out of food, parched and sunburned and on the brink of collapse. His horse’s breaths grew ragged, and the heat from her body rose up to him through her skin, surrounding him in a hot, dry cloud. They had both ceased sweating long ago. Deep in his mind he knew that was a bad sign – there was no fluid left in them. He lifted a calloused hand from the horse’s mane and reached to pat her neck. He and the horse had a deep history. He could not remember it, but the memories were not as important as the knowing of it. He could read her like an old friend, and he could tell she was weakening, the last of her energy draining into the sand beneath them. Her gallop became strained, hooves laboring in the sand. He tensed his knees and leaned forward, placing a hand on her hot skin, feeling his heat mix with hers. Only a little further, Mare, he thought, noticing that he had somehow remembered her name, though nothing else. Her faltering gait grew a little steadier under his touch. He shifted, steadying himself with his knees to stroke her neck again. His hand was inches from her sand-crusted coat when something caught his eye in the distance. There was a line of black ahead, as if someone had drawn across the desert with black chalk. He raised his free hand to shade his eyes from the last rays of the setting sun. It wasn’t a black line; it was a row of trees – the edge of a forest, growing closer by the moment. Wherever it was they were going, they were almost there.

The world tilted then righted itself again, and he was staring at a girl. The desert was gone, his horse was gone; there was nothing but grass and trees and sky and the girl… and him. The world had gone still. He ran one hand across his face, feeling the chafe of days-old stubble. He spoke and his voice scraped like flint; the words dissolved into the air before he could place them. The girl was not looking at him but past him, at something beyond. Wisps of blonde hair rested on either side of her eyes, framing them. Recognition hit him, along with a wave of longing. I know her, he thought. Excitement sang in his veins. He could not remember who she was, but he knew she mattered. He reached for her. Her eyes snapped toward him and widened in surprise. Her lips parted, as though about to speak–

She vanished. The world went black. He was falling into nothingness.

He had a flash of awareness – he was dreaming. Again. It was not the first time he’d had these dreams. These same scenes, the horse and rider, the girl – they haunted him, pulling him in and then tossing him back out before he ever discovered their meaning.

He was slipping toward wakefulness when he realized he didn't remember anything of his waking life, either. Panic rushed in at him and he flailed in the darkness, afraid he was falling into yet another dream, uncertain what was real. Something in him stirred, a memory, then slid away. In its wake was a surge of familiarity: he had done this before. His fall accelerated and in the darkness a presence neared, a surface rising up to meet him as he hurtled downward. He steeled himself, preparing for impact.

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Batbeth Burnett
Batbeth Burnett
12 sty 2023

This prologue will always be top tier.

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