"And remember, Gulzing, don't walk the younger ones too fast!" called their mother from the mouth of the tent. Killian, Ynant and Gulzing were about to set off on their journey, and Killian had the sandback's halter tightly gripped in his fist so that it wouldn't pull away and rejoin the herd.

"Yes, mother," replied Gulzing with as much meekness as he could muster, which wasn't much. He was the oldest of the three children, and obviously thought of himself as the man, even if he hadn't yet seen more than thirteen summers.

Their mother must have sensed Gulzing's arrogance, for she drew herself up and fixed him with a penetrating look. "So can you just remind me what it is you have to do with that uppity young sandback?" she asked him. At this, the yellow-skinned beast tugged at the rope in Killian's hand, but couldn't escape.

Gulzing rolled his eyes. "We take it to the Derojans of Seltorm Valley, stay there overnight, and come straight back."

"And what is your route, more or less?"

"Along the edge of the scrubland, where the gelt trees grow."

"Very good, young man. It's the fastest route - away from the dunes and steep hills, and above the long farmland route. And pass my greetings to Aunt Tormuze." All three of them nodded enthusiastically, for Aunt Tormuze was renowned for the delicious items she could create from the staple ingredients of nomadic life, such as Hot Steeple Pies, Whirled Fudge and Roasted Scorchfinger.

And with that, they were off, out between the tents dozing in the morning sun, off along the eastward trail that led through the gelt lands, as they were known: that strip of dusty pastureland between the hills and high desert towards the north, and the southern lowlands of the farmers. Killian soon passed off the sandback rope to Gulzing, for the stubborn beast couldn't comprehend that they were leaving behind its parents and the rest of the sandback herd, the few that remained to the Derojans after the disastrous Winter Market.

Ynant strode ahead, probably eager to see Aunt Tormuze, everybody's favourite aunt, thought Killian. "Slow down!" he called. "Save some energy! It's quite a long way!" Also he was carrying the three heavy rolled-up blankets that they would curl up in when they slept, for it was more than one day's walk to Seltorm Valley. He had no desire to rush.

She threw a grin over her shoulder. Her main burden was an extra skin of water, which both Killian and Gulzing had said was unnecessary. "Whoever gets there first eats all the pies!" She was a year and a half older than Killian, but many people still called them 'the twins' because of their similarly slim, lively features and energetic behaviour. Gulzing, meanwhile, towered over Killian, bending like a tree in the wind, plodding onwards as though doomed to die on the scaffold.

"What's up, Gull?" asked Killian.

"Sun's up," was the reply. The older boy tugged on the halter to get the young sandback moving again. The animal's long snout prodded at a clump of welwan bushes, looking for the nuts, and grunted in dismay as Gulzing pulled it away. Its short legs scrabbled to keep up.
Gulzing began muttering, as they went on, almost as if to himself, as if Killian and Ynant weren't with him. "Sun's up and we're marching across the wastelands, off on a child's errand, and all the rest of them are off down to the farm, ploughing and sowing, digging new wells, feasting and laughing. Where's the fairness, eh? Where's the justice in that? And they don't have enough hands to do the job properly. They need me." He looked down at Killian. "And you don't need me, do you, Killian? You don't need my help in getting to Seltorm."

Killian's eyes opened wide. "Yes! Yes, we do! It's a long way!"

Gulzing laughed. It wasn't a happy laugh, but had a dash of scorn in it. "No, no, it's child's play. You've been that way a couple of times, and so has Ynant. Anyway, you'd both enjoy having your own adventure, wouldn't you? The Seltorms need this young buck of a sandback to breed their herd. They lost almost everything at the market. You'll be heroes when you get there."

"We will be, you mean," said Killian firmly. Gulzing loved to tease.

"No," replied Gulzing. "Digging wells is the big thing now. This whole land is running short on water. If the farmers don't find more supplies soon, their crops will fail. And we'll starve too. No winter feed for the flocks and herds. Sending a dumb beast to Seltorm is just a little fussing with the shrinking herds that we have left."

Ynant had overheard. "Not such a little deal to the Seltorms," she said over her shoulder.

A story that Killian heard came back to him. "Digging wells any old place won't fix the water crisis," he pronounced. "There's plenty o' water out in the desert, if you know where to look."

Gulzing laughed a loud, honest laugh, though it was at Killian's expense. "In the desert? Have you been listening to fairy tales again?"

Killian snorted and shook his head fiercely. "Not fairy tales. Grandpa has a book with it in. And pictures. The old ruined city of - of - "

"Septendria?" supplied Ynant.

"Yes, Septendria. They had rivers of water flowing through the city in olden times."

"I heard that one too," Ynant added, dropping back to walk alongside them. Her water skin bounded against her hip.

"You don't even know where that is," said Gulzing.

"I do," replied Killian. "It's north of here. Valin told me. About three days' hike, I think he said."

"Five for a squirt like you," teased Gulzing. "And Valin's gone, anyway, with those raiders."

A frown wandered across Ynant's face. "But I know they'll be back one day," she said. "they're not dead, either of them."

"Of course they're not dead!" cried Killian. The mere mention of their older brother's name was almost enough to bring tears to his eyes.

"No," said Gulzing, solemnly, "he's not dead. That's what I heard." He glanced over his shoulder. The camp was out of sight around a fold in the hillside. Ahead of them lay a round hill, scrubbed clean of trees and bushes, sprinkled with broken yellow rocks.

The sandback's little hooves slipped on the loose stones and kicked up dust. "Killian, do you know the difference between sandback tracks and eswark?" asked Gulzing.

"Yes, of course. Better than most people. Three big, wide toes and a scuff mark at the back, that's eswark. But-"

Ynant interrupted. "Three small, narrow leaves off a stem, that's sandback," she finished.
Gulzing grunted. "I'm impressed," he muttered.

She carried on. "And eripta tracks are further apart than sandbacks, closer than eswark, narrow, with a claw."

Killian giggled with a memory. "Once, when Merratol and I were up in the hills with Valin, we thought we saw eripta tracks. We all got the jitters, like there was one behind every rock. Then it turned out-"

Gulzing, a few steps ahead of them, had reached the crest of the round hill. "Look! You can almost see the valley!" Sure enough, beyond the dry hills of the gelt lands, in the haze of distance and heat, a double rocky peak jutted above the rest. "See? The hills above Seltorm Valley. You'll be there tomorrow."

Killian scowled up at him. Was Gulzing teasing?

"So I'm going down to help with the farming," his older brother continued smoothly, and thrust the sandback rope into Killian's hand.

At this, Ynant stopped and gasped. "You can't do that! Mother said..."

"She'll understand," he said, handing her his pack with the food and water in. She couldn't lift it, and it tumbled to the ground. "I'm good at finding water, and digging. Not at leading sandies across the gelt lands. You two will be fine." With that, he spun on his heel and strode back down the dusty, yellow hill they'd just climbed.

Killian stood dumbstruck for a few moments. How could he do this to them? What was going on? Then he drew breath and began yelling.

Ynant couldn't run after Gulzing, down that slippery slope. Killian was heavily laden and dared not let go of the sandback's tow rope. After they'd worn their voices hoarse with shouting after their brother's receding back, they stared at each other.

His sister spoke first. "So what are we going to do?"

Killian's lower lip was still hanging low in astonishment. Gulzing had shown many a time that he had his own mind, sneaking forbidden snacks from the cooking tent, riding eswarks belonging to other tribes, running off at chore time: all normal behaviour. But to leave his younger brother and sister out in the gelt lands, a long trek ahead of them? No way. Killian would never have expected this of Gulzing.

He looked back at his sister. She didn't look as upset as he felt. He drew a strengthening breath. "We could go home and tell Mom," he suggested, just as a way of testing each possibility as it stood before them.

Ynant reacted as if he'd trod on her foot. "No way! Let's keep going! I think Gulzing's right. We can do it. Just taking a sandback over there?" She waved at the valley hidden in the distance. "No problem."

YOU CHOOSE! What should Killian and Ynant do now? Click on the one you choose.

- Carry on with the sandback to Seltorm Valley and Aunt Tormuze's cooking!

- Go back home and let everyone know what a louse Gulzing really is!