Desert Dwellers Born By Fire: The First Book In The Paintbrush Saga

Desert Dwellers Born By Fire: The First Book In The Paintbrush Saga

by Sarah Bergstrom


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Khalid, Lahcen and Qeriya are three siblings living in a secretive desert community who find that each possesses a special power they are forbidden to use. As they find the courage to seek answers to questions about their community and themselves, their parents are suddenly struck unconscious by a serious illness, cured only by a flower found far away from home. The siblings find themselves fugitives for a reason they don't understand and as they escape and plan a means of finding an antidote, they are forced into a world previously known only through stories. It is here, when they encounter humanlike creatures calling themselves Reaume, that they find unsettling answers to their questions. Can they summon the wisdom and strength to save their parents while they are being targeted by powerful forces? Desert Dwellers Born By Fire is the first in a series detailing their journey to find a cure and make sense of both their world and their existence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782795872
Publisher: Lodestone Books
Publication date: 11/27/2015
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.65(d)
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

Sarah Bergstrom is a writer and stay-at-home parent. She has a BA in Nursing and has also served as a hospital chaplain and a Pastor of Congregational Care. She lives in Minnesota.

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Desert Dwellers Born by Fire

The First Book in the Paintbrush Saga

By Sarah Bergstrom

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Sarah Bergstrom
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-587-2


Salt House

It was not one of her better moments, but then again, she did have a point.

"Why won't you let me compete in the race? Everybody else who wants to race gets to. Why not me?" Qeriya glared at her mother, dark eyes determined. She was usually an obedient daughter. She did what she was told, for the most part, and didn't argue much, but her parents' insistence that she and her brothers were not to race was ludicrous. They didn't even have a good reason. She knew they cared about her, but their care, these days, was smothering.

"You know why not," her mother, Ruth, answered, strain sharpening her voice as she set a basket of sweet mesquite pods on an elevated table towards the back of their house. Both the table and the house were made from bricks pressed entirely out of salt. The only light was the evening sun, filtering through loose bear-grass curtains on the open windows and door.

Qeriya watched her mother bend her tall, slender frame gracefully over another basket filled with material: cholla spines for sewing and the hand carved knitting needles her dad made from the woody branches of a creosote shrub. She finally retrieved a large rock and flat, stone slab from the bottom. The baskets were some of many that sat upon salt brick shelves lining one complete wall of their house. Qeriya found it difficult to reach the topmost ones. She'd always assumed she would reach her mother's height, but she hadn't grown in two years and was giving up hope of ever passing her present five feet three inches. In her eyes this was most unfair, if her hips were the size of her mother's, her height may as well be too. She frequently wished she took after her mom instead of her dad.

"You're so lucky. If only I was as pretty as you, Ruth," she'd cried last year, during a crisis at school. Her class was one of many, located on raised plateaus jutting out from a canyon wall west of her village. The classes were attended by students of all ages. During class, boys were assigned to sit on one side and girls sat on the other. There was one particular boy she thought was very cute. He was a serious student with an amazing smile that gave her chills to think about. She'd just got up the nerve to sit across the aisle from him, when he immediately rose and moved to the front of the class. She'd assumed it must be because of her. "You can't possibly know what it's like to be me," she told her mother later that day. "I'm shaped like that deformed tomato Khalid found the other day. You know, the one with the large growth?"

"You are not shaped like a deformed tomato, Qeriya." Her mom's lips had trembled trying to suppress a smile, but she'd been unable to hold back a giggle, swiftly clearing her throat to hide her mistake. "Your body's changing. You're becoming a woman. Those hips may carry children someday. And my name is Mom, to you, not Ruth."

"I don't want maternal hips," Qeriya wailed. "I want to be proportional."

"Proportional? What's that? Where do you come up with this stuff, honey?"

"I don't know," Qeriya said and shrugged.

"Your friends are talking, aren't they?"

"Does it really matter? All that matters is, I'm misshapen."

"For what it's worth, you're one of the most beautiful women I know, Qeriya."

"You would say that. You're my mother."

"I said ... for what it's worth. You obviously don't believe me. Nevertheless, I'm being honest. You don't realize your own beauty. Your body's just gone through some changes and you're not used to them yet. Your brown hair is soft and shiny; your eyes are like obsidian stones. Your skin —"

"Is full of acne," Qeriya interrupted.

"— looks like gold when it shines in the light," her mother added.

Qeriya groaned theatrically. "This sounds like a serenade. Next you'll be telling me my nose is like the Wadi, always running." The Wadi was a stream that ran from east to west. It lay to the south of her village and was the town's only source of water, but the water flow was steadily thinning every year.

Ruth had squared her shoulders and stood directly in front of her daughter. "You know, some people get acne a lot worse than you. I certainly did when I was your age. Maybe you don't deserve to be beautiful if you have this attitude. You really should be more grateful and not waste time on trivial things like vanity. All your schoolmates probably feel exactly the same way. And some kids have more difficult issues to deal with. Rather than blinding yourself with self- pity, why don't you reach out and make others feel better about themselves?"

Her mother always made sense, even when Qeriya didn't want to admit it. She was so wise in every way, except now, when it came to letting Qeriya run. She wasn't asking for that much. The race beckoned her. She wanted to run more than she'd ever wanted anything, even breasts.

Ruth returned to the baskets lining the tiny abode, reached in one and took out a serrated knife. "The race is too dangerous, Qeriya. Kids get hurt in those competitions. They don't police them well enough."

"I can take care of myself," Qeriya argued, pacing back and forth and fiddling with her head cover, tightly woven from shredded mesquite bark. Mesquite used to grow in abundance beside the stream and its bark also made up some of her other clothes. Her nicest dress was made from bison hide, but she rarely wore the soft gown now since it was irreplaceable. It wasn't as if bison would ever wander into the desert.

"Haven't I shown you how responsible I am? I get water from the Wadi every morning without complaint, carrying that giant red clay pot on my head a mile each way, and don't tell me that can't be dangerous. There are a lot of people who would rather steal mine than get their own. It's speed that saves me. Even carrying a jug on my head, I'm still faster than any of them."

Ruth extended a hand, but seemed to change her mind and pulled back. "I'm sorry, honey. Yes, you do a great job of taking care of yourself and our family, but we don't have a choice in sending you to get water. We need you to do that, just as we need your brothers to tend the garden and preserve the food. Your dad and I work long hours on the salt flats, just like everyone else."

"Yes, I know — but why? What's the point? What do you all get for your work? Why do we go to school if we're only going to end up working on the salt flats like everyone else?"

"We don't work because we want to. We work to build and repair houses, to pay teachers, to buy food and for access to the Wadi."

"I know a lot of it's used to build homes like ours, but not all of it. Where does the rest go? Don't you wonder sometimes?"

"It takes a lot of salt to compress into bricks."

"I know that, but come on, it's not all going to make village homes. And it's a dangerous job. We hear about people getting swallowed by the sludge underneath and I always worry that some day — I just don't understand why you have to work there for almost nothing."

Ruth shifted uncomfortably as she spoke. "Believe me, Qeriya, I'd change everything if I could. I wish I could get the water for you." Her eyes filled with tears and she quickly looked away. "But I can't, and this is different."

"First of all," Qeriya said, unmoved. "No tears. It's not fair. You know I don't want to hurt you, but this race is important to me. And you're turning my words around. I'm not asking you to excuse me from my chores. I'm asking permission to race. I can't see how that's any more dangerous than getting water. How do you explain the difference?"

Her mother looked at the floor without answering.

Qeriya threw up her hands in exasperation. They always did this. Whenever she made a reasonable request, her parents made it sound as if she was asking for something else. Well, it wouldn't work this time. Her eldest brother had given up arguing for permission long ago, but she was determined.

Her dad ducked into the bear-grass doorway of their one room home and circled left, around turkey feather bedding and cattail pillows piled on top of sleeping mats her mother had made by plaiting the long, skinny leaves of a sotol plant. He approached his wife from behind as she prepared to grind sweet mesquite pods and dried corn.

"Did you make pinole?" he asked and smiled when she nodded, moving closer to wrap his arms around her waist from behind. "Delicious. That's my favorite." He stood a few inches shorter than her mother, but his frame was thick with muscle. When the nights drew in, they often lit candles to do their work by, candles Qeriya made from the pulp of prickly pear fruits, but their door faced west and tonight the evening sunlight poured through the weave of the loosely woven curtain, illuminating the tiny, rectangular abode. The floor space measured about five of her aligned head to foot one way, and three the other, there was just enough room for everyone to stand inside.

"What's wrong?" he asked, sensing the tension in his wife's rigid frame.

"The race —" was all Ruth said, but it was enough.

"Your mother's right, Qeriya, it's too dangerous. And given your well expressed views, young lady, there's no explanation that could possibly satisfy you."

Qeriya was not giving up. "That's just an excuse not to give me a reason. I'm fourteen years old. I'm not a child anymore!"

"Yes, you are a child, as long as you live under this roof!" Her dad's eyes flamed and his dark skin reddened as he loomed over her. It was his authoritarian way of pulling a trump card, but it didn't work. Qeriya knew his bark was much worse than his bite.

"You'll listen to your parents when we give you instructions. You may not like what we say, but there comes a time when enough is enough!"

"What did that mean, enough is enough?" Qeriya wondered. What could it possibly mean other than, 'shut up'? It answered nothing about why her parents refused to give a reason for excluding them from the desert games, when every other parent in the village encouraged their kids to participate. Nor did it tell her why her parents treated her as if she was on the verge of exploding. She was mad now, yes, but most of the time she kept her emotions hidden. It sometimes felt as if her mom was almost afraid of her, of what she might do.

Ruth moved to place a hand on her husband's thickly muscled forearm, her eyes closing to block out the escalating scene. "Jeremiah, it's all right ... I'll handle this."

"She needs to listen!"

"I know ... but this isn't helping. It's just making her angrier. I don't want her to ... to do something rash," she whispered in his ear.

Qeriya could hear her anyway. "There you go again, telling secrets!" she said. "There's no need to whisper. I can hear you." Deep down she knew that they didn't want her to run at all, in the race or otherwise. They were afraid when she ran for some reason, but she couldn't muster the courage to confront that, as if even the thought was taboo. They saw something happen when she ran, and she felt it too, but the message she got was always ... hush, be afraid of it.

She remembered scorpion hunting, years ago, with her dad. Qeriya had been hot, sticky and tired. They were approaching a shady canyon lined with ledges, where they'd rested for a moment, but they still had a way to go. A hot breeze blew from behind her and she relaxed into it, letting it carry her forward, her feet barely touching the ground. Within moments her dad had grabbed her shoulders and lowered her until she set her feet down.

"Never do that again!" he'd whispered fiercely in her ear before letting go.

Qeriya had stared at him, waiting for some explanation, some acknowledgement of what she'd done, but there was nothing.

"I can't believe running in a race is even an issue," she continued. "You asked Doctor Michael what he thought when we were having dinner at his house, and even he agreed with me. Why would you ask him and then not take his advice?"

Doctor Michael was a close friend of her parents and had spent a great deal of time with them over the past two years, Qeriya knew they trusted his opinion. He was usually rather aloof and stiff, so Qeriya didn't pay much attention to him, but when her parents asked him about the competition, surprisingly, he had taken her side.

"Of course she should compete," he had insisted. "They all should. How else will they learn to manage themselves when they're grown, if you don't give them some freedom now?"

Doctor Michael was her best ammunition. He silenced her parents then, and even the mention of him silenced them now. They would at least have to consider her argument. It was too bad they couldn't just trust her to compete in the race.

"You two have got to be the strictest parents on the planet!" She'd made her point and now it had to simmer. She bolted out of the room, ripping the grass curtain in the process, but what did she care about a curtain at a time like this? She looked up at the sky, pink with streaks of apricot, and dug her feet into the soft sand. Surrounding her were remnants of a dying ocotillo plant, portions of which were rerouted and cultivated around her home forming a living fence. The hem of her woven, grass dress stirred patterns in the dust as she sat before the fire pit. Stars emerged, growing brighter by the minute. One moon was making an appearance and the other would become visible soon. Qeriya thought for a moment of the stories her dad used to tell when she was young. His stories were all about life back on Old Earth, back in ancient times. They were strange legends, where people moved fast over land, and even through the air, in large metal vehicles. What she wouldn't do to travel and see the rest of New Earth. But the only metal here was the tools people had and she still wasn't sure where those tools originated, nor would anyone tell her.

She squinted towards neighboring homes and their likewise deteriorating borders, each spanning at least fifty feet. The web of houses lay on a vast, flat plateau, fronting a series of plateaus to the northwest and butted up against the Wadi to the south. On the other side of the plateaus to the north was the Playa, the flat where her parents harvested salt. However, out past all of the surrounding features, in every direction minus one, lay endless crescent sand dunes that stretched beyond anyone's guess. Those who attempted to traverse the dunes in any direction came home with voices rusty from dehydration, or else never returned. One man only, among all of them, claimed to have traveled south to the end of the dunes, and declared that he had come to an ocean. He said the water was cold and salty. He had collected some to take home, but used it instead to douse his clothes in the hot sun. He was very strong and had carried all the drinking water he could when he set off on his journey. Even so, it had been barely enough. He was severely dehydrated when he arrived home. Some said his claim to have seen the ocean was just delusion brought about from the trauma of it all.

East of the village, at the mouth of the Wadi, a date palm oasis flourished. But no one was allowed to approach it by law. Qeriya didn't know why, and whenever she asked, her question was deflected. Beyond the oasis was more sand and then rose an impassable border of jagged mountains. The few who had tried illegally to approach the fountainhead and traverse the mountains could not even manage to find a route, much less make any real attempt.

The village plateau lifted only a little above the soft sand around it and was essentially a flat mass of sandstone covered in a layer of loose golden grains. The closest canyon to the west side of the village served as their school. It shaded them for most of the day and the walls offered a surface on which they could write with rocks. Some canyons ran deep in the ground, while others, like their school, were formed between raised sandstone hills and a higher plateau to the west.

Qeriya watched the landscape become dotted with orange lights as people lit fires to cook their evening meal. Most of them would eat food from Murphy's agave: a hedgehog or prickly pear cactus, and purple mahonia berries, if they were lucky, or maybe some Christmas cholla fruit. But since their garden did so well, Qeriya and her family would have garden vegetables also. Qeriya sometimes made vau, a strained prickly pear juice, to go with dinner, but she was not in a helping mood tonight. The flat rock her mother used to grind foodstuffs lay outside, holding a stack of blue meal cakes made from corn maize. They were ready to be cooked over the fire. Her mother and father darted in and out of the house, carrying food and supplies. Once her brothers returned home they would eat dinner.

Qeriya frowned, where were her brothers? They were usually home by now. Lately, Khalid, her eldest brother, had taken to disappearing in the late afternoon and Qeriya was tempted to follow him. He never stayed to play ball games or to shoot targets with cliff rose arrows like he used to anymore, and Qeriya was determined to find out why. Tomorrow, Qeriya suddenly decided, she would do just that. She wouldn't wade through the crowds to exit school as usual. She'd climb up the rock wall and sprint to the entrance to find Khalid as soon as he emerged from the mouth of the canyon. She'd have to move quickly, but speed was her talent.


Excerpted from Desert Dwellers Born by Fire by Sarah Bergstrom. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Bergstrom. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part I Desert,
Chapter 1 Salt House,
Chapter 2 Fire Reaume,
Chapter 3 Warning,
Chapter 4 Ticket to Freedom,
Chapter 5 The Woman with Steel Grey Eyes,
Chapter 6 Infatuation,
Chapter 7 Infected,
Chapter 8 Doubt,
Chapter 9 Secrets Revealed,
Chapter 10 Blind Escape,
Part II Forest,
Chapter 11 A Brush with Fire,
Chapter 12 Oracle,
Chapter 13 Chameleons,
Chapter 14 Vengeance on a Stick,
Chapter 15 Feast,
Chapter 16 Hallucination,
Chapter 17 The King and his General,
Chapter 18 The Siren,
Chapter 19 Capture,
Chapter 20 Tongue of Fire,
Chapter 21 Fire and Earth,
Chapter 22 Rebuild,

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