Flight (draft)

first draft

“We belong in the sky,” Dad explained, gesturing broadly to include the night sky above them. “The only reason you’re feeling even a little scared is because you grew up among these humans.” He waved his arm again, this time indicating the streets below.

Matt looked up at the clouds, spotting a faint star or maybe a plane through the interfering light pollution. He wasn’t sure the humans were entirely crazy, being afraid of heights. It seemed like a safe fear, as plummeting from heights would result in broken bones, even for their people. He knew better than to voice this skepticism in the presence of his father, though.

His mother was more sympathetic to the plight of humans, maybe because she didn’t spend her days working in an office like his dad did. She put a hand on her husband’s arm, a silent signal that maybe he ought to tone down the rhetoric. “Everyone’s first time alone is a little scary,” she said diplomatically. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. You’ve been doing fine in practice.”

Matt nodded his agreement, feeling a little more confident. “Right,” he said bravely. “I’m ready.”

“We’ll head out first,” Mom went on, restating the plan they’d already stated a thousand times before. “If you need us, we won’t be far away.”
Matt nodded again. “I’ll be fine.”

Mom looked like she was going to say more, like maybe a speech about how her baby was all grown up and how proud she was, but Dad interrupted. “All right, let’s go,” he said impatiently.

*

It seemed to Matt that despite what his books on the topic said, there was no set way to fly. Some people gathered power in a manner that seemed to be effortless, and became airborne without any obvious exertion. Others made a big show of it, bending their knees and leaping into the air, a physical movement that one of his texts insisted was completely unnecessary and wrong.

His parents were somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Dad seemed to mentally concentrate before takeoff, so that although he didn’t bother with obvious physical movements, the process also did not appear effortless. His mother took a deep breath that she described as “cleansing” and moved her arms from a prayer position to slightly away from her sides. Somehow, this seemed to take less energy than Dad’s technique.

They were gone in an instant, vanishing into the night sky despite the egregious amount of light pollution in the city. Matt was alone. He took a few moments to think about the milestone he was about to achieve.

At school, he tried not to think about how different he was from his classmates, although none of them were aware. He knew of People who’d grown up among humans and chosen to adopt that lifestyle. Some of them got married and raised hybrid children who didn’t know quite how weird they were. They wanted to belong, and not to the People they were born to. It was appealing in a certain sense.

The problem, the one big problem with being human, or pretending to be human, was that you couldn’t fly. At least, not on your own, without enlisting the aid of some technological machine. It wasn’t nearly as fun.

Matt let out a breath, and then turned his gaze from the sky to his feet. He focused, sensing the wind currents and the power within them that only his People could feel, a power that humans couldn’t even detect. He made his body into a magnet for this power, drawing it in to himself. The wind ruffled his hair, blowing his bangs into his eyes. He took the same deep breath his mother did, mentally preparing himself for flight.

And then, he was in the air.

The wind gusted past him quickly as he accelerated higher. He hadn’t bothered with a jacket, just a long-sleeved, button-down shirt over his t-shirt, and this flapped wildly. His bangs were no longer in his eyes; his hair was pushed back, flat against his skull. If he’d been a human, his eyes would have been watering, but his People had better eyes than that. They were built for the sky, like Dad said.

When he’d reached sufficient enough height that it was unlikely anyone could see him from the ground, Matt slowed his acceleration and studied the city below him. Tiny pinpricks of light twinkled. He could make out a landmark here and there – a vast emptiness that was the parking lot of the local grocery store, closed for the night, another that was the school parking lot. Not much in the dark, but it didn’t matter.

He flew across the city, and then back again, and then crisscrossed it once more, before he started to feel both tired and hungry. Adrenaline was no longer sustaining him, and it was past midnight. Flying took up energy, and he was burning his reserves quickly. The key to a successful solo flight was not just taking off, but knowing when to land.

The top of the building where Matt and his parents lived was indistinguishable from the other identical buildings nearby, and apartment building in a sea of apartment buildings. To make it easier for People, his parents had long ago tied a red cloth onto one of the many antennas. Spotting this cloth from high above, Matt began a slow descent. Landing was as hard, if not harder, than taking off.

As he drew closer, though, he saw a pattern of flashing lights on the ground beside his building. Two police cruisers were parked in front, on the street. Matt shifted course to land on the building beside his own.

The hardest part about landing was releasing the power at the right time. Too soon, and you’d fall to the earth from several stories up. Too late, and you’d miss the target and possibly meet the same fate. Obviously, the best option was to land on the ground, but even if that had been possible to do without being seen, the many buildings lining the narrow streets of the city made even that less than simple.

Matt stuck the landing, though he took an extra dozen or so steps, and ended up walking into the door leading to the lower levels. He checked to make sure he hadn’t hit his nose hard enough to give himself a nosebleed, and then surveyed the situation at his own building.

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Desert Travelers XI

continued from here

start here


For a moment, all movement seemed to stop. Marcus could see nothing but the reddish orange tint of a massive fireball, and then, in the midst of this, another light – this one a bright white glow that surrounded them all. There was silence, and peace, and comfort. He thought he could hear a choir of women singing hymns, in the distance, though his rational mind knew this was impossible.

“Magic!” he heard Mordifred exclaim, and though the old man was scarcely a few feet from him, it seemed as though he was speaking through a long tunnel. Looking around, Marcus found Danu, found his eyes. They were rounded in surprise, and yet some pleasure. This magic, this was undoubtedly cast by a powerful ally of theirs, undoubtedly the princess they’d been searching for.

And then, a stallion, a huge black steed, burst through the white light, sending everything back to normal, returning Marcus’ mind to the chaos and fire that he’d temporarily, somehow, left behind. The stallion screamed and reared, and he had no choice but to back away. The rider, dressed in black armor that glinted in the firelight, held a long sword, and he effortlessly brushed aside the Desert Lord who had been standing beside Danu, arguing with him. He similarly disposed of the two guards who rushed forward in an attempt to halt them. The three men fell to the ground, blood spurting from wounds.

The rider switched the sword to his left hand, holding the reins with the same one, and reached his right hand toward Danu. Before anyone could stop or even comprehend what was happening, he’d grabbed the prince by the collar of his night shirt, and then they vanished.

Two guards who had run toward the stallion now stumbled forward to collapse on the sand, looking confused.

 

 

Three of the Desert Men lay on the ground, bleeding. One, a young guardsman, was obviously dead, one was unconscious, and the third was crying out his anguish. At these screams, several of the Desert healers rushed forward to tend to the wounds. Chaos seemed to reign.

“I don’t understand,” Ted was saying when Marcus found the ringing in his ears had stopped and he began to be aware of the world once more. “Where the hell did he go?”

“Through a portal, for certain,” Mordifred stated, his voice oddly calm, though confused. “Created in advance, most likely for this purpose, or one similar. The camp has been here for a week, nearly, it would have been enough time to create it, although not an easy task to have done so unnoticed.”

“Portal?” Marcus echoed, confused.

“Where is the other side?” Ted demanded. “Where did they take him?”

Mordifred shook his head. “Without passing through it…I have no idea.”

Before anything further could be discussed, a female voice, shouting, broke through the conversation. Emmaline, one of Marcus and Miriam’s maids, was running toward them. Her dark hair was tied in braids that flew behind her as she ran, and her linen nightgown was dusted with sand. “Master wizard, master wizard!” she was shouting, and came to a halt a short distance away. “Please, you must come quick, my lady needs your help!”
“What’s happened?” Marcus interrupted before Mordifred could speak. “Is she hurt?”

“No, sir, it’s not her,” Emmaline answered, shaking her head. “It’s the girl, the one you brought back – Hareshi. She’s…she’s odd, sir, that’s all I can say.”

“Odd how?” Ted wondered.

“You must see, sir, I can’t explain, please hurry,” Emmaline insisted, and so Mordifred, after glancing briefly at the others and shrugging an apology, went to follow. Marcus went as well, for he was anxious to be certain his wife had not been hurt, despite the maid’s reassurances. Ted, for lack of anything better to do at the moment, followed.

Their answer came soon enough, for no sooner had they come in sight of the tent then they saw a faint light. Miriam and the other servants were circled around Hareshi, who was lying on the sand, glowing faintly.

“Could it be?” Ted asked. The others were speechless.

“It seems unlikely, doesn’t it?” Miriam asked, looking up as they approached. “That she’d be here, after all. It does explain what I sensed, though. The trail didn’t lie. This is her magic, anyway.”

“She said she remembered nothing,” Ted recalled, “didn’t she?” He looked toward Mordifred. “Did your spells take her memory, too?”

“Not intentionally,” Mordifred replied, on the defensive. “Maybe something else was done to her. I certainly didn’t intend to….”

The glow that surrounded the young girl faded, and in the dim light of the moon and stars, she looked like simply an ordinary slave girl once more. Tim held up his lantern so they might see better, and all leaned in as she opened her eyes and sat up, blinking at the crowd that surrounded her.

No one spoke for a long moment.

“I-I’m sorry,” the girl who had been Hareshi and might be Hareah, the princess of Tau, sister of the King, and wife to Danu stammered out. She lowered her head to study the sand. “I-I did-didn’t mean to-to…d-did I faint?”

“You did,” Mireko told her. “You fainted, and then you were glowing.”

“I’m s-sorry,” was the reply, without lifting her head. She scrambled to move her feet under her, and to get to her feet once more. Miriam moved backward, giving her space, and the rest of the crowd also backed up. Once she’d completed this action, she remained standing, peering at the ground, awaiting further orders.

“Ought we to go back to sleep now?” Anna said after a moment of further silence. “My lord…my lady? It’s many hours until morning….”

Marcus cleared his throat loudly in the silence, and even Hareshi/Hareah lifted her head to peer at him for a moment. They were all staring at him blankly. Again, Marcus cleared his throat.

“His highness has been taken from us. The bandits who attacked, they pulled him through a portal, to some other location.”

Miriam gasped aloud, covering her mouth with one hand. “No,” she whispered. “No, don’t tell me this means what I think it means.”

Marcus lowered his head to look at the sand for a moment. “It would be best if I went,” he answered. He took a deep breath, then raised his head to look toward Hareshi. “You’re coming with me. Go and find something to wear that’s suitable for travelling. Emmaline, Anna, help her with that.”

Eyes wide, Hareshi blinked at him a few times, but did not protest, only nodded meekly and went to do as he said. The other girls moved to help.

Miriam had no such reluctance. “You can’t be serious,” she stated. “Marcus….”

He stared back at her, attempting to convey his thoughts and feelings in his eyes alone. “You know there is no other choice,” he said, and then turned toward Tim. He removed his sword belt, handing both it and the weapon to the boy. “Make sure this is sharp,” he ordered, “and bring my bow as well.”

Tim nodded his understanding and vanished at once. Marcus turned to enter his tent and dress more fully than his pajamas. Exchanging glances briefly, Ted and Mordifred began to converse privately, avoiding Miriam’s gaze. Frowning toward them, she followed her husband into the tent.

“Surely there must be another way,” she protested. Inside, the tent was dim, for they had lit neither candles nor lanterns before leaving it, and daylight was still several hours away. Marcus had lit a single candle, and was now rummaging in his trunk of clothing for appropriate dress. The task was more difficult than expected, given the lack of light.

Sighing heavily, Miriam shut her eyes and performed some complex maneuver with her fingertips that he had never mastered himself, almost instantly igniting every one of the dozen lanterns and candles in the tent. “Don’t ignore me.”

“I am not ignoring you, my lady,” Marcus replied, lifting his head. “I am rather in a hurry to find my friend…my prince, I might remind you.”

“Oh heavens, it’s gone to your head more than his, hasn’t it?” she exclaimed, and, turning aside, pulled off her nightgown in one swift action, and lifted from the ground the dress she had worn the day before. “You’re not the only one capable of opening closed portals and passing through dimensions, you know. There’s no reason whatsoever why Mordifred or I couldn’t go in your place.”

“There is a perfectly good reason,” Marcus answered calmly, removing his night clothes at last and tugging on a pair of leather riding breeches – made for riding horses and not birds. As he fastened the laces, he continued, “Mordifred is not a fighter. Once he passes through the portal, if Danu is being guarded, he’ll have little course of action. Someone who is capable fighting will need to go.” He paused, gestured toward himself.

Miriam had pulled the dress over her head and was now deftly tightening the bodice’s laces behind her back – a skill she had mastered while traveling alone. “An argument against Mordifred,” she admitted, “but not myself. I know more offensive and defensive spells than you do, you know.”

“I do not dispute that, my lady,” he replied, still calm. Stepping forward, he placed both hands on her waist, gently urging her to turn around. With gentle and skilled hands, he untangled the laces that had become twisted in her haste, and pulled them tight again, securing the dress better than she had. The touch of his hands calmed her, converting her anger back into fear and worry.

“You ought to rest,” he said at last, when he’d completed the task and she turned once more to face him. “Already you’ve traveled a great distance, and taken on so much. Let me have a chance to earn my keep.”

“Earn your keep?” she echoed, and shook her head. “I think you’ve more than done that, keeping him sane. You don’t need to go off and rescue him alone. At least let me come with you.”

He shook his head. “No, you stay here,” he insisted. “You stay here, Miriam. I won’t have it.”

“You won’t…,” she echoed. “Now you listen here. I didn’t promise to obey you. You have no right to tell me to stay behind. Maybe under the Desert laws, but I am a free woman of Tau, and I do not blindly follow your orders.”

Marcus shook his head. “I did promise,” he replied, at last raising his voice slightly. “I promised to keep you safe. I cannot do that if you come along with me.”

Miriam did not reply to this. Instead she bit her lip and turned away from him. She said nothing for several moments and then turned back to face him. “You’re stupid,” she said, and he could see her eyes were damp. “You’d go off and leave me alone, wouldn’t you?”

“I’ll be back,” he answered, and now grabbed both her shoulders with his own two hands, pulling her closer. She resisted momentarily, then gave in, resting her head against his chest. “I promise you, Miriam, I’ll be back.”

Desert Travelers X

continued from here

start here


For the first time in many nights, Marcus was glad to head to sleep. Once they had settled that Mireko and Hareshi would share their tent with Anna and Emmaline, the night’s business was concluded, and he removed the majority of his too-warm clothing and slid between the silken sheets in his tent, the Lady Miriam beside him at last.

She mumbled contentedly as she fell to sleep, and he wrapped an arm around her, burying his face in her neck. The sweet smell of her scented soaps surrounded him, reminded him of the home they had left so many weeks ago.

“It’s so good to be back with you,” Miriam said quietly, snuggling contentedly into his arms. A moment or two later, she was asleep, her steady breathing giving way to quiet snores. Marcus lay awake a while longer, feeling the weight of her in his arms, and the presence of her beside him, and feeling as though all were right with the world, or at least within their tent.

At last, he fell to sleep, his breaths falling rhythmically in line with hers.

 

He awoke, suddenly, when Miriam sat up abruptly. Outside, a loud shriek pierced the night, and he heard continuous thuds – not the quiet patter of birds, but the heavy pounding of hoof beats in the sand.

“Horses,” he realized, confused.

Miriam was ahead of him. “Bandits!” she exclaimed, and rose from bed. She wore a thin silk sleeveless nightgown with a lace hem that brushed her toes. Over this, she threw on a heavier robe, and without bothering with shoes, she went to the tent flaps.

“Wait!” Marcus cried, but she had already opened them, and was peering out. “Miriam, don’t go out there dressed like that!”

“Bandits,” she confirmed, ignoring his protests. “We should hurry.”

Marcus had gotten to his feet, but he wore only thin silk pajamas as well, and no shirt, for even the night air had been too warm. He grabbed the shirt he’d discarded the night before and threw it over his shoulders, buttoning quickly. “I can’t fight in my night clothes,” he protested. “Where…?”
“Here is your sword,” his wife interrupted, thrusting the sheathed blade toward him. “I can cast magic dressed in this as well as anything. We’re wasting time!” Without further ado, she pushed open the flaps and vanished into the night. A moment later, he heard the scream of an injured horse, and knew that she’d already gotten to work.

He decided to forgo the remainder of his clothing, and strapped his sword belt to his waist as he dashed toward the door. The blade was sharp, the perfect weight, but the belt felt odd over the silk pants instead of proper trousers.

Outside, the night was dark, with only the crescent moon and a stars providing most of the light. As Marcus looked around, trying to figure out what was going on, a bright light caught his eye, and a nearby tent caught fire. A moment later, the inhabitants rushed out, crying out in pain – one of them was on fire.

He heard the hoof beats of the horse before he saw it approaching. He put one hand on his sword, then changed his mind and aimed his other toward the animal, spreading his fingers wide so that his palm faced the beast. He let his eyes fall half shut, let his consciousness briefly dip into the darkness and fire of the other realms, and channeled the darkness through his palm. A moment later, the horse collapsed, pushed back as though by some massively strong wind, the rider pinned beneath him. The screams of both horse and human echoed in the night, then fell silent.

“Nicely done,” he heard Miriam tell him. “I believe all of ours are safe.” He glanced briefly toward their three tents, saw all three were standing. “Do you want to stay here and protect them, or see to his highness?”

“You stay,” he decided. “Your magic is better able to protect them.”

She nodded her agreement, then leaned forward to kiss him. “Be careful, my love.”

“Same to you, my lady,” he replied, and then took off at a run, drawing his sword as he went. Several of the bandits, each dressed entirely in black so that they were not visible until they were nearly upon him, ran toward him with swords drawn. He fought them back with his blade as he ran, stopping only a moment or two to cross swords before delivering a killing blow. One of them passed through his defenses long enough to cut a line in his shoulder; Marcus dispatched him shortly afterward.

The prince’s tent was surrounded by chaos. It was not on fire, but several of the smaller servants’ tents nearby were, and one or two of the wagons. A tent housing birds was not on fire, but the sound of the birds squawking their complaints was nearly deafening. And everywhere were the sounds of screaming – screams of fear and pain and terror.

“Marcus!” Ted exclaimed as he drew closer. The blonde man was dripping with sweat, and his sword blade was dripping with blood. Like Marcus, he had not completely dressed, only thrown on a shirt which he had not bothered to button, and a pair of silk pajama bottoms. Behind him, Danu, still wearing night clothes as well, was conversing with one of the Desert Lords rather animatedly.

“Your highness,” Marcus interrupted, and Danu looked toward him with relief, and a question in his eyes. “Miriam is well,” he said to the unspoken inquiry. “She stayed with our tent, and our charges. What’s happening here?”

“It looks like the brigands have mostly been dispatched,” Mordifred reported. He alone was dressed completely in his usual robes, though his hood was lowered. Like the others, he looked tired, as though he’d been engaged in fighting. “We’re not sure who is responsible, nor their motives.”

Before anything further could be stated, there was a whooshing noise, a loud thud, and then the prince’s tent was engulfed in flames.

38. Guitar

an attempt at a short story? what?

summer


“I think he would have wanted you to have it,” the old lady said, gesturing with one arm to the corner of the room, where the case, sat, covered with dust. She shrugged. “Nobody else in the family knows how to play guitar.”

Sam felt supremely awkward. He hadn’t seen his grandfather since he was seven. A few months after that summer visit, the old man had remarried, and his mom had never liked the new woman. Step-Grandmother – was that even a word? Was there a word for this relationship? He had no idea. He’d never had a relationship with her.

“Well, I guess I can take it,” he said with a shrug. He had a vague memory from early childhood of the old man playing the instrument. Maybe that had been what had motivated him to take lessons. Maybe not.

“You want something to drink?” Step-Grandma asked. “I’ve got lots of soda, juice, tea. Lemonade!”

“Lemonade sounds great,” Sam said. He didn’t really care for lemonade, wasn’t even thirsty. The old lady looked delighted, and left the room. Sam shrugged, stepping into the room.

There was an inch or so of dust on the case, and the latches were stiff with disuse. Inside, the guitar was in remarkably good shape. The case had kept the dust off, and the strings didn’t look too worn. He gripped the neck and lifted it gently from the case. A strap of woven leather was still attached.

“Probably sounds like crap,” he said to the empty room, and an experimental strum bore him out, making him wince.

“It’s probably been awhile since it was tuned,” Step-Grandma said from the doorway, an apologetic look on her face and a tall glass of lemonade in her hand.

“Yeah, the strings get loose pretty quickly if you don’t play it,” Sam agreed. He set down the instrument and took the glass of lemonade. “Any idea how old the strings are?”

“Oh, six months maybe,” the old lady answered. “Your grandfather was pretty regular about that. I remember we went to the music store right before Christmas. He wanted to play carols for the kids.”

“Christmas carols?” Sam asked. He took a sip of the lemonade. It was remarkably sweet, and not terribly lemon-y. He found that he did not dislike it, which surprised him.

“Oh yes,” was the answer. “Every Christmas the kids would come over, and we’d have a regular concert. Your cousin Angelica has a great voice – have you heard her sing?”

Sam frowned. “Not since I was twelve,” he admitted. “School concert.”

“It’s too bad you couldn’t make it for the funeral,” Step-Grandma continued, undaunted. “I’m sure everyone would have loved to see you.”

“Yeah,” Sam said with a shrug. “School. Oh, and Mom didn’t tell me.”

The old woman frowned again, this time pursing her lips into a somewhat disapproving frown, but she did not comment on the matter. Instead she sat down on a nearby armchair. She smoothed out nonexistent wrinkles from her pale blue skirt. “What do you think of the guitar?”

“It’s nice,” Sam agreed. “It needs tuning, but it’s in good shape.”

“Will you play it often?” she asked.

“Probably. It’s older, but nicer than the ones I have, so I might try playing it at my next concert.”

“Oh, do you play concerts often?”

“Every other Saturday,” he replied. “School has this, well, it’s sort of an open mic night. For all the music majors.”

“You’re a music major?”

“No,” he said, holding up a hand. “Mom would kill me. Accounting for me. I just play for fun.”

The old lady made the same sort of disapproving frown for a moment, but it passed quickly. “Good. Music should be fun. Your grandfather always thought that.”

Sam studied the guitar for a moment. He shut the case, fastened the latches, then finished his lemonade. He lifted the case, got to his feet. “Well, thanks for letting me pick it up.”

Step-Grandma stood, taking the empty lemonade glass back from him. “I hope it works out well for you,” she said. “Thank you for visiting, Sam.”

He went to the door and paused. “I have summer break in a month. If you don’t mind, I’d like to come by and show you how it sounds.”

She brightened immediately. “Sam, that would be wonderful. I look forward to it.”

Desert Travelers IX

continued from here


“We welcome your return, Lady Miriam,” Danu said, his eyes briefly moving toward Marcus as he spoke. “Some of us more than others, I suspect.”

Some quiet chuckles answered his statement. Marcus calmly said nothing, though he was vaguely aware of the faint smile that had not yet left his face – a change from his usual demeanor. He had taken his usual spot while Miriam knelt for the ceremony, and his eyes remained on her, though Ted took the opportunity to poke him in the ribs.

“Thank you, your highness,” Miriam answered, with no hint of embarrassment on her part. “I am glad to be back amongst friends. If it please you, I have brought along two I would introduce to you.”

Danu waved a hand to indicate she should proceed, his eyes and face showing no hint of the trouble in his mind. Marcus had briefly told his wife of the news Mordifred had brought; she had rightly assumed that Danu was upset by it, though only those who knew him quite well would see it in his eyes.

“This one is called Mireko,” the first of the rescued slaves was saying. She kept her eyes upon the ground, as was common for most of them, but her voice held a bit more confidence than some others. Marcus guessed that she might be a bit older than many of those they had rescued.

“Welcome, Mireko,” Danu said pleasantly. “From where do you come?”

“This one was born near Shintau, your highness,” she answered, and there was a brief murmuring amongst some of the Desert Men.

“A wonderful place,” the prince agreed, with no apparent notice of the quiet murmuring. He nodded toward the second girl, who was studying the ground so intently she did not notice this. Miriam poked her gently.

“H-hareshi, master,” she said, at last lifting her head to look in his direction. “Th-this one is…H-hareshi.” Her eyes grew wide, her gaze suddenly fixed upon him without distraction, as though the very sight of him were a surprise.

“We are pleased to have you here, Hareshi,” Danu said, speaking gently. “From where do you come?”

She said nothing for a moment, and then at last managed to mumble, “This one does not know, m-master. This one was with m-m Prince Raymo, and b-before that the c-caravan, but b-before that, she d-does not remember.” She paused, then lowered her eyes again, so that her dark hair fell limply over her face. “Forgive me.”

This was enough of a difference from regular responses that the tent again filled with quiet murmurs and whispers amongst the Desert Men. Undoubtedly some of them were questioning whether or not Hareshi were truly Tauese, despite her obvious outward appearance. Danu, too, was frowning thoughtfully.

Switching now from the formal speech of the Desert Men, Danu said in Tauese, which few of the Desert Men could understand well, “Do not apologize, Hareshi. We welcome you all the same.”

She lifted her head again, surprised, and then nodded. “Thank you, sir,” she said, speaking in the same tongue.

The whispers in the tent had silenced, surprised, with the Tauese speech; they now began once more. To silence them once more, Danu said, in the formal Desert Tongue once more, “Lady Miriam, I trust you will care for these two?”

“As though they were my children, your highness,” she replied with a smile.

“To celebrate your return,” he continued, “I wonder if my friends might dine with me this evening?”

Miriam looked now toward Marcus, for in the Desert customs such matters were rarely decided by the lady, especially when her husband was present, and especially amongst the nobility. Marcus took a step forward and bowed most formally. “We should be honored, your highness,” he stated, and after a moment, Ted and Mordifred both replied similarly.

“Good,” Danu declared, “and then I believe it might be time for us all to resume our travels. We have spent enough time in this place, I think. Let us all make preparations to depart, day after tomorrow.” He glanced toward the Desert Lord standing nearest him. “Stephen, will that be enough time to prepare the caravan?”

“Certainly, your highness,” the old man replied, bowing low. “I shall begin immediately.”

***

            “Not only do you bring back two of them,” Ted remarked, “but two most unique!” He raised his wine glass in Miriam’s direction. “A toast to you, my lady.”

“A toast indeed,” Danu agreed, having already had one or two glasses himself. “May we soon bring them all home to safety, and freedom.”

“To freedom,” Miriam agreed solemnly, raising her own glass. “Unique, I agree. Have we encountered other Tauese slaves who do not recall their origins?”

“Not so far,” Ted replied, “but it’s probably a common occurrence. If they were taken young enough, or have been through enough trauma….”

“There is magic, isn’t there, that interferes with memory?” Danu asked, directing the question to the group on a whole, but to Mordifred in particular, for the old man had more experience in the study of arcane arts than the rest of them.

“Oh, a lot,” Mordifred replied, swallowing his bite of meat. For the occasion of Miriam’s return, a pig, brought all the way from Tau, had been butchered and roasted; the flavor was splendid and the tent filled with the aroma. “I also believe, though I’ve never closely studied the matter, that it is occasionally common to interfere with memories in the training of a slave.”

“If you remember nothing,” Marcus commented darkly, “you have nothing to fight for, and nothing to prevent complete obedience.”

“Indeed,” Mordifred agreed. “I don’t know how common use of magic is in the process, however, only that it’s possible.”

“Did Raymo have magical abilities at his disposal?” Ted asked Miriam.

“Oh, probably,” she replied, waving a hand. “I don’t know if he himself possessed them, but there was definitely magic in his castle. I can’t say whether he used magic on his slaves, but any prince in the desert probably employs a few mages.”

“If there is magic on this girl you brought – Hareshi – can you remove it, and regain her memories, figure out where she came from?” Danu asked.

Miriam frowned thoughtfully for a few moments. Mordifred swallowed a gulp of wine. “Not easily, not without knowing the original spell. Desert magic is different from Tauese, your highness, and although I’ve travelled extensively, Tauese magic is the one I’m most familiar with.”

“What if you had a Desert mage to help you?”

“That might be helpful,” he admitted, “but where do we find one willing to assist?”

Desert Travelers VIII

continued from here


Anxious for his lady’s return, Marcus did not return to his tent, but found small things to do in the camp. He checked on the animals, he spoke with some of the other travelers, he even conversed with one or two of the Desert Lords. In his mind, deep within himself, he could feel Miriam’s approach, but he could not yet see her.

Shortly after noon, when the camp had gone almost entirely silent in the midday heat, Marcus awoke from his half-asleep state to the sound of voices. He opened his eyes, recognizing one of the voices as familiar.

“Water,” Miriam was saying as he approached his own tent. “They are both exhausted, make sure they have water. And the bird as well.” Tim and Eustace were helping two young women down from the bird while she looked on; Emmaline was hurrying to fetch water.

The slave girls were dressed in thin, threadbare garments – silks so worn from wear and sun that they’d lost most of their colors. They were simple, shapeless garments that fell slightly above the knee, and over their heads, silk scarves to keep the sun off their faces, which, despite this effort were pink from the sun.

Miriam, too, was pink from the sun, and looked a great deal warmer than her charges. She had foregone the usual layers of skirts and undergarments to wear a simple linen dress over thin trousers, but even this had suffered from travel. She was rummaging in her pack, unloading, when she at last sensed his presence.

“Oh, there you are,” she said in greeting, and abandoned whatever she’d been doing to face him. An instant later and they were embracing, their lips meeting, and then he felt her in his arms at last.

“Here I am,” he said when they separated, “and here you are, at last.”

“Yes,” she said, “and I’ve brought back two for his highness, but I hope he doesn’t mind if I freshen up before I bring them to him.” She grinned as she said it, for they both knew that Danu would not mind in the slightest if she arrived in tattered rags or three hours late.

“I think he can forgive you,” Marcus replied. “Shall I…assist you, milady?”

“I would welcome it greatly,” she answered, and glanced over her shoulder, where the servants were waiting further instructions.

Tim, the younger, was tending to the bird; having removed the luggage strapped to it, he was leading it to the tent where the other animals were resting. Anna and Emmaline were already emptying her pack, shaking out the clothing and preparing it to be washed.

“Leave off the luggage, if you can,” Miriam told them, “and see to it those two have a bath first. I’ll need to present them to his highness, but I want to rest and wait for the heat of midday to pass. Perhaps this evening. I hope I can leave them in your hands, Emma?”

“Yes, milady,” Emmaline answered with a brief curtsy. She glanced toward Eustace, who understood without further speaking that he was to fetch water for this purpose.

“I hope you can see that we are undisturbed for a few minutes, at least?” Marcus asked of them, and they all nodded obediently, knowing smiles passing between them that he noticed despite their attempts to hide them.

They passed into the tent that had been his alone for the last few weeks, the cooler shade of the interior almost immediately evaporating some of the sweat from their bodies. Miriam had unbuttoned the top of his shirt before the flaps closed behind them, and in mere seconds later the rest of his shirt was opened, the hot air feeling cool on his bare skin.

“I love the desert,” she mumbled, a statement he barely heard as she nibbled at his neck. “Far fewer clothes to remove.”

Marcus agreed with that. Removing his wife’s simple garments in this tent was a far quicker task than unlacing corsets and struggling through petticoats. Within a few moments more they were both naked, and falling between the pillows.

Desert Travelers VII

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Danu awoke from a half-remembered nightmare, early in the morning, the sun barely risen. Moaning to himself, he rolled on to his back and stared at the ceiling of his tent for several minutes. Outside, he could hear servants stumbling about in the near-darkness, preparing for the day. Pots and pans clanged together as they prepared breakfast on open campfires nearby. Conversations, mostly in the Desert tongue, which he’d not quite mastered, went on quietly.

Never alone, he thought to himself. If he moved, a servant would quickly appear to offer him assistance. He rolled on to his side once more, noting the empty space beside him. And yet, always alone.

He sat up eventually, making as little noise as possible, but it did no good; one of the boys was immediately opening the tent flaps, pausing briefly to bow greetings. Danu paid him little attention as he went about his work, gathering clothes for the day. Thin silks, for anything else was far too heavy for this heat.

He was halfway through dressing, a process which he insisted on doing without assistance, when a noise outside the tent caught his attention. Voices, raised in volume and alarm, interrupted the early morning quiet. Quickly, Danu finished dressing, and, ignoring the servant’s protest, left his tent.

A man, dressed entirely in black robes, with a hood half-covering his face, a long gray-white beard cascading down his chest, and a heavy wooden staff in his hands, was arguing in the Desert tongue with one of the Desert Lords. Danu only made out a few of the words, not enough to understand the argument. He recognized the man, however, and stepped forward to interrupt.

“Mordifred!” he greeted. “What brings you here?”

The argument halted, the Desert Lords turning toward him in surprise, the servants immediately falling silent. Mordifred turned and, recognizing him, threw up both hands. “At last!” he exclaimed. “Oh, at last!” He threw his staff into the ground with some violence, where it remained upright in the sand, and fell to his knees. “Your highness, I have been searching for you many long weeks. At last, I have found you! Please forgive my presumptiveness, but I must ask for a meeting in private, as I bring most urgent news.”

Danu was not expecting the enthusiasm with which the other spoke, but he saw no reason to deny him a meeting. “At once,” he agreed. “If you are certain you don’t want to eat, or rest first?”

“It can wait,” Mordifred replied, waving a dismissive hand. “My information is of greater importance.” He paused. “I wonder if your companions are here as well, your highness?”

He nodded. “Some of them,” he replied, and at that moment spotted Marcus, peering over a few of the servants, at the edge of the crowd that was gathering. He nodded toward him, and Marcus took the meaning, vanishing. “They will join us as well, and perhaps we might have breakfast?”

“A splendid idea, your highness,” Mordifred agreed. Leaning on his staff, he rose to his feet, and followed after Danu.

Once he’d been gestured into the tent, one of the Desert Lords, a middle-aged man named Stephen, muttered quietly to Danu, “Your highness, are you sure this person ought to be trusted?”

“Think nothing of it, sir,” Danu replied. “Mordifred is an old friend, a wizard, and what he brings me is undoubtedly news of my homeland. You will understand if I wish to conduct such a meeting with only those who might be concerned with such?”

He saw as he spoke that Marcus had appeared, bringing a half-asleep looking Ted with him. He nodded toward them, gesturing that they should enter before him.

“Oh, yes, of course, your highness,” Stephen replied, for he could not politely intrude on a meeting to which he was not invited. “I shall of course have my guards on standby, should there be any question of your safety.”

Should there be anything to eavesdrop on, you mean, Danu thought quietly, but only nodded, smiling pleasantly to the man. “I am grateful to you as always,” he said generously, and then nodded toward Sam, who was nearby. “Please, bring us all breakfast. I am hungry, and I’ve no doubt our visitor is as well.”

The young man bowed his understanding and vanished. Danu passed through the tent flaps and made his way to a cushion near the rear of the cloth building. “I hope you’ll forgive the modest accommodations,” he said to Mordifred as they all made themselves comfortable.

The wizard shook his head. “After three weeks of wandering through the deserts, I am grateful for even the shade of this roof,” he replied, gesturing toward the tent over his head. “Thank you kindly for seeing me on such short notice, your highness.”

Danu waved a dismissive hand. “I want to assure all of you that our safety during this meeting will not be an issue,” he told them as the tent flaps opened once more and several servants brought plates of food, kettles of tea, and urns of water. “Our generous guides have provided guards to stand over the tent and assure we are not disturbed.”

He saw a meaningful look pass between Marcus and Ted; they understood. It was somewhat gratifying and somewhat disturbing, he thought, to think of how much they had learned to communicate without speaking. Once the plates had been set down, he dismissed the servants, who left with only moderate confusion.

“Shall I?” Marcus asked, and Danu nodded his agreement. Shutting his eyes, Marcus began to chant in a low whisper, words that had once seemed strange to them all, but had now been memorized. Mordifred frowned in his direction for a few moments, but did not interrupt.

“It’s a spell,” Ted explained once the chanting was complete. “We got it from the North – long story – and it’s been very useful. Prevents eavesdropping.”

“I see,” Mordifred said, nodding.

“The downside is that you have to be in an enclosed space,” Marcus added, “but a tent serves the purpose. There are a few things we don’t need the Desert Lords knowing.”

“And I suspect you bring such knowledge,” Danu finished. He had poured mugs of tea for all of them and now took a sip of his own, which thankfully helped to ease the mild pounding in his head that was likely the result of so much drinking before bed.

“Indeed I do,” Mordifred replied, setting down his mug. “I suppose you must know by now of her highness’ taking, and this is why I find you in the desert rather than at home.”

They all nodded solemnly. “Lady Miriam felt that she might have sensed some magic of hers,” Marcus put in after a moment of silence, “to the west of here, and so she rode off. She returns with two companions, today I believe.”

“Do you think one of them is Hareah?” Ted asked. He speared a sausage with his fork, bit into it, and began to chew.

“I didn’t see them clearly in her message,” Marcus admitted. “I can’t say. Miriam was quite unhappy, though, and I don’t think she’d feel so if she’d met with success.”

Ted frowned, chewing his sausage thoughtfully. He swallowed. “Never can tell with her, sometimes,” he mumbled quietly.

“Do you have some news for us, old friend?” Danu asked, pushing the conversation forward before an argument might commence.

“Indeed I do, your highness. I spoke with her.”

All movement, all noise stopped in that instant. Ted paused his chewing. Marcus, who had lifted his mug once more, halted with it resting on his lips. Danu thought his heart might have stopped, except he knew that to be untrue as he could hear it pounding in his ears.

“I was journeying, as I often do,” Mordifred went on. “My travels took me into the desert, a place I rarely venture, for no clear reason that I could tell, only curiosity driving me onward. I was several days over the border from Tau when I came upon a long caravan. Several dozen wagons, lined up together, and next to them, rather than riding within them, a long line of what must have been hundreds of people.”

“Slaves,” Ted said quietly. “Coming from Tau…?”

“I think so, yes,” Mordifred agreed with a nod. “As I got closer, I saw that they were all connected, with chains. Some were young, some were old, some were women, and some men. All walks of life. Some were badly injured, and some in relatively good health. I kept my distance, until they stopped for the night.”

The rest of the tent was silent.

“I took it upon myself to comfort some of them in the darkness, when I could get closer. What I should have done was to keep my distance and ride off in another direction; this is what I’ve done when encountering slave traders and their caravans before. It’s never worth my trouble to interfere. I certainly couldn’t have saved them all, and if I’d tried I’d probably have gotten myself killed in trying.” He paused to shake his head. “I felt something, though. Something, like a warm and comforting light, like…going home. It’s been a long time since I was home, since I had a home. This old man has not felt that sensation in many, many years. It wasn’t until I was closer that I realized it was magic. And what an odd sensation, might I add, to feel from a slaver’s caravan.”

The others were silent still, but now Ted nodded. “You sensed the princess.”

“Her magic,” Marcus agreed, “it feels like that – a warm light.”

Danu did not speak, did not trust himself to speak. He cleared his throat, but said nothing. After a moment, Mordifred went on.

“I found her near the middle of the group. She was not badly hurt, at least no more than any of the others. I don’t think they were beaten; there were only minor injuries from walking for days through the hot desert, bound in chains. Without being troubled, I gave her some water and food from my own supplies.”

“But you didn’t free her,” Ted filled in, and the wizard shook his head.

“As I said, it wasn’t worth the trouble to interfere; I’d only have gotten us both killed. We talked for a time, and I agreed to find you and tell you what I knew of her location, although we both knew that by the time I found you she’d be far from that place. She was worried that her magic would give away her identity. If slave traders knew who she was….”

“I can only imagine,” Marcus finished. “So you helped her to hide.”

He nodded. “I’ll spare you the details of the magic, as illusions are complex things both to cast and to explain. I regret that there was no time for her to prepare a longer message to send, and that I could not find you earlier. I headed back to Tau, but by then, of course, you were already on your way in the direction of the desert, and our paths did not cross.”

Silence fell over the tent. Ted speared another sausage and chewed thoughtfully. Marcus sipped his tea and cast worrying glances toward Danu, who said nothing. His mind was spinning, he was unable to process his thoughts. After some hesitation, Mordifred began to eat his own breakfast.

“Dan…,” Marcus said, perhaps several minutes later. “Are you all right?”

He’d been staring at nothing, he realized, mind wandering. He could see her now, in his mind’s eye. His princess, bound in chains and marched through the desert. He clenched his fist, angry at himself more than those who had taken her, and shook his head, lifting his gaze to look at the others at last.

“Yes,” he said at last. “Thank you for bringing this to me. It’s comforting to know that we are looking in the right place, and with the right people.”

Mordifred nodded, having at that moment taken a bite of sausage.

Ted swallowed his own bite, paused for a gulp of water. “We were admittedly heading in this direction without much evidence,” he confessed. “Now we do have confirmation she’s among the slaves in the desert…somewhere.”

“Do you have any idea which direction the caravan was heading?” Marcus asked, always practical and calm. Mordifred shook his head, unfortunately.

“There are slave markets in several places in the desert,” he replied. “I expect you’ve studied the way it works by now?”

Marcus nodded. “Caravans from Tau head through the desert and stop, to auction their wares in several places. We’ve a map….”

Danu was closest to where said map was stored; he easily reached behind him to grab it and then unrolled the document between them. Ted moved aside the plate of sausages to provide more room. With his finger, Danu now pointed to the places they had marked on the map.

“Unfortunately, we have been instructed not to ask specifically for her highness,” Ted explained, rather unhappily. He considered another sausage, decided on a biscuit instead. “His majesty was quite adamant we should not let anyone know she had disappeared.”

“It’s a wise idea,” Marcus pointed out. “If any of the slave traders knew they had a princess in their midst, it would make them quite dangerous. And if she’d already been sold to one of the Desert Princes or Lords, it could start a war. Thus, our mission is to collect all slaves taken from Tau.”

“In any case, if she’s under an illusion spell, looking for her specifically wouldn’t do much good,” Ted said.

Danu gestured for Ted to pass him the plate of sausages; he had not yet eaten and was hungry. “It also will make it very difficult to find her,” he mumbled unhappily, taking a bite of the first. “How do you find someone so well hidden?”

“Magic, I suppose,” Marcus replied with a shrug.

Mordifred shook his head. “No, it’s not quite that simple,” he said, setting down the mug of tea he’d been sipping. “As you know, the royal magic is – a bit different from the magic of ordinary mages and wizards. The illusion…well, it’s extra complicated because we were trying to hide her magic as well.”

A silence fell over the group again.

“If we can’t find her with magic, and we can’t find her the ordinary way,” Ted said, “how do we find her? Is it even possible?”

Danu felt suddenly restless, as though he couldn’t possibly sit still for another second. He got to his feet, took several steps, and then turned and headed for the trunk containing the wine instead.

“It’s possible,” Marcus insisted, his normally calm voice growing slightly agitated. Danu didn’t miss the look he shot Ted. “We will find her.”

“Possible,” Mordifred said solemnly, “but not easy.”