Desert Travelers VII

continued from here


 

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.”

 

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