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

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.”


Desert Travelers VI

continued from here


In the end, Miriam took two women with her when she left Prince Raymo’s castle. The prince was unfortunately, regretfully, unable to provide her with any additional mounts, he apologized, but he was generously able to share some supplies. Since neither of the slaves looked particularly strong or healthy, she had them ride whilst she led the bird through the dunes. It was slow going, as expected.

Hareshi was a thin girl with dark hair that hung long over her eyes which were a similar dark shade. She seemed to Miriam to be meek and terrified of her own shadow, and wondered what she had done to warrant mistreatment, as none of Raymo’s other slaves appeared to be in the slightest bit malnourished or injured. The second, Mireko, showed no immediate signs of injury.

They departed the castle in mid-morning, once Miriam was certain they were adequately prepared for the journey. Her passengers initially were wary of riding while she walked, but obedience won out in the end, and they climbed hesitantly aboard the bird.

Miriam spoke little to her companions as they walked, focusing her mind on any potential dangers that might be about. Sandstorms had troubled her little while she traveled alone, thankfully, but she knew the warning signs from her time with the caravan.

They stopped at mid-day, at no particular place. Miriam suddenly felt as though her feet would not take another step, and the bird was seemed quite agreeable about resting. She helped her companions down, then unfolded a blanket suitable for seating and spread it on the ground. “Sit,” she commanded, and they both did.

The meal was simple travel food, some dried meat, a bit of bread and cheese, and some water. Both Hareshi and Mireko stared at it, wide-eyed, until Miriam confirmed that they were, indeed, permitted to eat it. Even then, they hesitated briefly, biting into the bread slowly, afraid she might change her mind.

Once all the Tauese slaves returned to the Kingdom of Tau, they’d be set free, to do whatever they might please. Ideally, to return to their homes. To say such a thing to Raymo, the other princes, or even to the Holy Sultan, would end their willing cooperation. Not even the slaves were told that they’d soon no longer be slaves.

“Did you say you were born near the ocean, Mireko?” she asked, attempting to begin casual conversation. Neither slave would speak unless first spoken to, although Miriam vaguely suspected they might whisper to one another while they rode. Hareshi had little memory of her past, but Mireko seemed to recall it quite easily. Another mystery.

“Yes, my lady,” Mireko replied. “In a village near Shintau. My mother was his lordship’s maid, and my father one of his farmers.” She paused suddenly, as though afraid she had spoken too much.

“I know Shintau,” Miriam said, conversationally. She knew it well. Her sister had married a nobleman from the coast, and would likely be Lady of Shintau one day. She had spent a beautiful summer there, before she herself had been wed.

“I…I don’t remember a lot of it,” Mireko admitted, quietly.

“What do you remember?”

“The smell of the salty ocean,” she answered after a moment of thought. “The cry of the gulls, and the soft, hot sand. Not like this sand. Different.”

“Have you ever seen the ocean, Hareshi?” Miriam asked, and though she spoke gently, the young woman seemed surprised by the question.

“I…I don’t know…,” she said quietly, and then frowned in thought. “Well…maybe.” She paused, and then added on, “my lady,” at the end.

The sun was high in the sky, the temperature soaring. Miriam finished off her stick of dried meat and drank a gulp of cold water. “We will rest now,” she told the girls, “and continue once the sun has set. I must send a message.”




They waited a day, and then another, and on the third day, Theodore rode into camp. Ted had a young boy, not yet in his teens, in the saddle behind him, holding on for dear life. Danu was tending to princely duties, but Marcus watched him ride up and waved a hand in greeting. Ted halted in the center of camp and dismounted.

As he had no wife, Ted had not bothered with bringing servants or attendants on the journey, and he was thus easily able to dart off on smaller journeys. His mother was distantly related to the Desert people, somewhere that Marcus was never clear on, and so he was fairer of hair and skin than most of the Tauese people, making him a magnet for many young ladies, although he had no current favorites. He grinned at Marcus as he approached, and turned to coax his companion down from the bird.

The boy was thin and dark haired, with wide eyes that peered out at them all with a sense of wonder and astonishment. He wore a thin silver collar around his throat, identifying him immediately as a stolen slave.

“Oh, it’s great to be among friendly faces again,” Ted said as he greeted Marcus, shaking his hand vigorously and briefly embracing him. “Please tell me you’re not planning to pull up camp in the next hour; I could use a rest.”

Marcus shook his head, finally pulling his arm away. “No, we’re here a few days more, I think. Waiting my lady’s return.” He glanced meaningfully toward the boy.

“She’s not back yet?” Ted asked, missing the unspoken question. “Is everything all right?”

“She sent me a message that she will arrive soon,” Marcus answered, “and she has a companion or two. As do you, I see.”

“Oh, right,” Ted said, and put an arm on the boy’s shoulder. “Do you think his highness is free? I’d like to get the ceremonial part taken care of quickly.” He said ‘his highness’ with a grin so contagiously mischievous that Marcus found himself grinning back.

“Let’s find out.”

Danu was not free, he was rarely free these days, but he was happy to interrupt his meeting with the Desert Lords who accompanied them all. Marcus had never managed to remember any of their names, and considered himself lucky to avoid them as much as possible. Danu would have been pleased to dispense with all the formality, but if he was going to call himself a prince, the Desert Men expected formality and ceremony, even in a camp, and so they all persisted with ceremony.

Even though the heat was high enough to boil one’s blood in one’s own body, Marcus was thankfully already dressed in a relatively formal outfit, with a jacket of all things over top his long sleeved shirt, which had the advantage of hiding all his sweat stains at least. He took his place near the ornate chair they’d dragged across the desert to serve as Danu’s throne, and watched as Ted and the small boy he’d brought with him made their way into the tent.

“Your highness,” Ted said with a gracious bow, sinking to one knee as though he was within an ornate palace rather than a canvas tent in the desert. He drew his sword and held it out. “I am at your service.”

Danu had an expression partway between amused and bored. “Welcome back, Theodore of Yantau. We are…pleased to see you returned without injury.” He paused. “You are without injury, yes?”

“Indeed, your highness!” Ted replied, dramatically, as though gravely insulted. “Nary a scratch upon myself – or my charge, either. If I may?”

“You may,” Danu allowed, for he had also not failed to notice the boy, who was meekly kneeling beside Ted. “Who do you bring us?”

“Your highness, I bring this boy from the palace of Prince Aram. He was a bit reluctant to give him up, but, as he is clearly Tauese, the Holy Sultan’s paperwork convinced him.” He patted the boy on the back; the boy nearly fell over from the force of it. “Tell his highness your name.”

“Ben, master,” the boy mumbled quietly.

“From where do you come, Ben?” Danu questioned, his voice lowered to conversational levels.

“This one was born in Jantau, near the forests, master,” the boy replied.

The tent was filled with quiet whispers amongst the Tauese. Ted smirked. Marcus heard his heart beating in his ears. Danu himself seemed stunned, almost pale. He recovered quickly, before the Desert Men could notice.

“A splendid place,” he said instead, and set his eyes on Ted. “Has he been harmed?”

“No more than any other, your highness,” Ted replied, his voice now appropriately serious rather than dramatically flamboyant. “We had a somewhat treacherous journey, but we both survived with nary a scratch, as I said.” He paused briefly, and then continued. “I should gladly continue to oversee his well-being, if you would allow it.”

“So be it,” he agreed.

With the ceremony completed, they left Danu to his meeting with the Desert Men and returned to the camp’s open space. “Let me help you get set up,” Marcus offered. “I’ve got a handful of servants with nothing to do since Miriam’s been away. You both probably want a bath, and help putting up a tent.”

“How long as she been gone?” Ted asked, concerned filling his face.

“A few weeks. She returns soon; until she does, we are staying here. I’ll tell you more later, when we have some privacy,” Marcus answered in a low voice. “In the meantime, I’ve got four servants and you’ve got none, so you might as well have some help.”
They’d been walking, and now approached his tent, where he found, as expected, that neither of his male servants were presently occupied. With little difficulty, he persuaded them to help in setting up Ted’s tent, and preparing a bath for each of them. With slightly more difficulty, they urged Ben toward the bucket of water, promising not to harm him.

Desert Travelers V

continued from here

The sandstorm ended late in the afternoon. As he left Danu’s tent to return to his own, Marcus saw the desert sunset begin to paint the sky a multitude of colors. Around him, the others were digging out of their tents, checking on their animals and making ready for the night. Having been delayed for two days, some might wish to begin travelling at once, but the damage would have to be assessed before Danu would make a decision.

At his own tent, Marcus found all the servants well. The women were already beginning to prepare the evening meal, while the men checked on the supplies and animals.

“Will you dine here tonight, milord?” the maid called Emmaline asked after he had confirmed their health. They were stirring some concoction he could not easily identify over the fire outside the tent. It smelled delicious.

Danu had seemed pleased to dismiss him and not ordered his return, so Marcus felt safe in replying in the affirmative. “I think I’ll wash up and change clothes,” he added. “Could you ask Tim to bring me some water?”

“Yes milord, I’ll tell him now,” she said, passing the spoon to the second maid, named Anna.

His clothes being the same ones he’d slept in the night before, Marcus was glad to be rid of them, and disrobed immediately upon entering his tent. He shook them heartily to dislodge most of the sand, and then, when Tim entered the tent with a bucket of water, passed them on. “I don’t know yet if we’re going to be staying a day, but these could use a washing,” he said. “Put them wherever it is they need to go.”

“Yes milord,” Tim answered, exchanging the bucket for the laundry. “Do you want more water?”

“No, this will be good enough for now,” he answered. “There isn’t time for a full bath, just a washing up and a rest before dinner. Come and fetch me when they say it’s ready.”

Orders received, Tim bowed and left the tent. Marcus turned his attention to the bucket he carried. The water was warm, not from being heated but from sitting in the hot desert suns, even encased in barrels. He found some soap and contented himself with washing his face and hands, and then combed out his hair. It was long, grown past his ears, but he had neither the skill nor patience to give himself a haircut, and so left it alone for now. He changed into a relatively clean pair of breeches and tunic and decided to rest until dinner.

His own tent was much more sparsely furnished than Danu’s, with only a mattress on the floor for sleeping and a few pillows instead of a luxurious pile of cushions. He had his trunk, but it was filled with clothing and a few other items rather than expensive, well packaged wines. The mattress was easily large enough for two people, for his lady most often shared his tent when they were together; alone he could easily lie flat on his back and spread his limbs wide, which he did now.

“Ah, Miriam,” he mumbled aloud, for his mind had travelled to her. “I hope you know how to stay safe in sandstorms.” He shut his eyes, let his mind wander, listened to the silence now that the wind had faded, and began to drift into sleep.

He saw a castle, a massively large building in the midst of the desert. He saw a lady, dressed simply in a gown made of linen, perfect for traveling, a silken scarf wrapped over her head to protect her from the sun. She walked through sands – calm sands – leading a tall bird behind her. On the back of the bird rode two young females – he couldn’t tell if they were children or adults – dressed in plain linen shifts, with linen wrapped over their faces. His mind’s eye went to the woman’s face and saw that it was, indeed, Miriam. Her eyes bore into his mental vision, her expression determined and somewhat angry. He could guess why. If she had rescued slaves, she was most likely angry about their mistreatment. Her determination was an attempt to determine his location.

He opened his mind to her, let her sense him. And she opened her mind to him, and, although he had no map of the Desert and little knowledge of the territory, he knew now where she was, and how long it would take her to travel to him.

And he knew something else.

He awoke when Tim returned, gently shaking him to wake him. He sat upright at once, sweating in the heat.

“Are you well, milord?” Tim asked, worry in his voice.

“Yes,” Marcus said at once, although he did not feel well. “Is supper ready?”

“Aye,” Tim replied, “that’s why I’ve come to wake you.”

“Tell them to hold it,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “I need to see his highness first. We need to stay here a few more days.”

Desert Travelers IV

continued from here


As had been promised, Miriam found herself in the castle’s great hall once more at mid-morning. The tables had been taken away, making the huge space feel even more spacious than it had at supper the night before. Raymo sat in an ornate chair, dressed in luxuriously fine silk clothes – loose fitting trousers and billowing shirt, a cape draped over one shoulder. He was surrounded by a small group of servants and clerics.

“We have spent some time going over our records in an attempt to identify our slaves’ origins, but to little avail, I’m afraid. Most were purchased via markets, and the traders who sold them to us were not adept at keeping records themselves.” He shrugged briefly before continuing.

“The Holy Sultan’s Parchment commands us to allow you to question each individually, in your own tongue. Have at it, my lady.” He gestured to the two dozen slaves assembled before them, standing in lines.

Miriam cast her eyes over the crowd, mind drifting as Prince Raymo droned on about who had been most beloved and he would be sorry to lose. Each of the slaves had hair a shade darker than the fairness of the natives. Surely at least some of them were of her own people.

The Prince had seemed to stop talking, and so Miriam began her speech in her own language, hoping at least some of them might understand her words.

“Good morning,” she greeted. “I am Miriam, daughter of the sky, child of Lord of Mintau, emissary of the King of Tau. His majesty has commanded that his people be returned to him, his people who were taken against their will, against his will, to be slaves in these Desert Lands. The Holy Sultan, as he is called, has agreed to these terms. All those who can be proven to be Tauese shall be returned to the homelands. I, as his emissary, shall carry out this order.”

Introductions over, she moved on to the slave standing nearest her. “Where were you born?” she asked in her own tongue, and, when he showed no sign of comprehension, repeated it in the Desert language.

“In the castle, milady,” he replied with some confusion, her speech undoubtedly incomprehensible to him and so he had no idea why he was being questioned. Disappointed, Miriam dismissed him. In a similar manner, she dispensed with half the line, none of them understanding her language or providing a satisfactory answer. She pushed aside her feelings of panic and concern, choosing instead to retain the appearance of calm, even if she did not feel it.

At last, she came to a woman, thin and dressed in threadbare clothing. Unlike most of the others, she showed more immediate signs of mistreatment – a recently formed bruise on her cheek, a few scratches on her bare arms.

“I don’t remember,” she answered, quietly, but in the tongue Miriam had been hoping for. As though terrified, the young woman seemed to shrink behind her dark hair, which fell limply into her face. “I’m sorry.”

“How long have you been here?” Miriam asked, somehow managing to sound both calm and reassuring despite her pounding heartbeat.

The woman was surprised to be asked a second question, for none of the others had been. She raised her eyes from the floor for the first time, and blinked a few times. “Um…a few months, I suppose. Maybe six?”

Raymo had leaned forward on his throne, and the clerics, servants, and guards in the room, who had been muttering quietly amongst themselves, were suddenly dead silent and attentive. The room was quiet.

“What is your name?” Miriam asked.

The slave returned her eyes to the floor. “Hareshi,” she said quietly. “They call this one Hareshi.”

Simultaneously, Miriam felt her heart sink, her blood boil, and a queer sense of success. Hareshi was the Desert word for ‘eight.’ It was not a name, but a number.

Desert Travelers III

continued from here

A restless night passed in the tent, Marcus sleeping little despite Danu’s comfortable cushions. He fell asleep shortly before morning, and woke to the sound of the howling winds beyond the tent.

Danu had slept peacefully, thanks to the excess of wine before bed. He had been drinking more often since the trip began, Marcus knew. He also knew that, without the wine, he would sleep far less, so he said nothing in protest. To be apart from Miriam these past few weeks, knowing she was likely safe, was difficult enough. He preferred not to think of his friend’s troubles, which were far worse.

“It seems the storm still rages,” Danu said in lieu of morning greetings. He had fixed a pot of tea over the small brazier, and now held out a steaming mug. “Seems it may be a serious one.”

Marcus took the mug, inhaled the sweet vapors. “Indeed so, your highness,” he replied with exaggerated formality. He looked down at the mug. “You should have woken me.”

Danu frowned, swallowing the last of his own tea in a single gulp. “Do you think these winds blow strongly enough?” he asked.

Marcus shrugged, sipped the hot tea, ran a hand through his hair. “Did you send the guards away?”

“To their own tents,” was the answer. “They did not protest. If they’d remained, they would be neck deep in the sand, would they not.”

Marcus sighed deeply and set his mug on the floor beside his seat. “I shall check,” he offered, and reached inside his tunic to touch the crystal he wore on a leather cord around his neck.

His awareness expanded to include more than his own body. He felt the prince’s presence, a short distance away from his own. He felt the faint hints of protective magic on various objects within the tent, and on the tent itself. Although not possessing any magical ability himself, Danu had been gifted with a great deal of protective magic before embarking on this journey.

Beyond the tent, there was a space free of both magic and life before other tents appeared. The storm, though vicious, was indeed not magically created, only a terrifyingly destructive force of nature. With patience and detail, Marcus examined the camp. Life forms were huddled within tents, wisely taking shelter. He sensed no one near enough to eavesdrop.

He returned his awareness to his own body, and then sat with his eyes shut for a moment more, using only his ordinary, earthly senses. He felt the soft cushions beneath him, smelled the steam floating up from the tea, felt his heart beating in his chest. At last, he opened his eyes to the sight of Danu, studying him with mild concern, which he was attempting to hide.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said, worry in his voice that he tried to disguise with rebuke.

“Forgive my not asking permission, your highness,” Marcus replied. He lifted his tea, and sipped it calmly. The hot beverage entered his body and warmed him. “We are quite alone.”

It seemed as though a weight lifted from his shoulders, so dramatically did Danu sigh with relief. “I therefore hereby order you to refrain from any further ‘your highness’!” he said then.

Marcus allowed himself a small smirk. “I’d have thought you would be used to it by now.”

“Never!” was the vehement reply. He poured himself another mug of tea. “I sometimes think I should rather be a street urchin than a prince. It was only ever Hareah who convinced me otherwise, who made nobility bearable.” He paused to drink.

Marcus said nothing, only sipped his own tea.

“Anyway,” Danu went on, “I meant to discuss your lady, not mine.”

“I admit to some concern,” Marcus answered, at last lowering his mug, “but Miriam can take care of herself quite well.”

“Oh, I know,” Danu assured him. He sighed. “Some days it feels as though the world and all those in it are drifting farther and farther away from me.” He paused to sip his tea, then settled into the cushions. “Three weeks into this wretched wasteland of a country, and I still don’t know why anyone would choose to be here. Slavers, thieves – why do they return with what they steal from us, instead of staying away?”

“I imagine they are rewarded for it,” Marcus answered. “They may have families here, or lovers.”

The answer seemed to satisfy Danu, at least for the moment. They listened to the winds blow, saying nothing for some time. “I wonder how long this storm will last.”

Desert Travelers II

continued from here.

The castle was so large that it was visible from a day’s journey away, acting as a beacon for the weary traveler.

“Indeed,” Miriam commented to the bird she rode, quite aware that it was not likely to answer her. “Indeed I may be crazy. The trail grows fainter by the day. But this may still lead me to the princess.”

She climbed aboard the bird and began her journey, moving closer and closer to the castle. Briefly, critically, she glanced down at herself. In no shape to see a princess, nor even to be in polite company. How her mother would scold! Knee-high leather boots, in the style of a man. A single skirt, with neither petticoats nor corsetry. A nearly threadbare, now sand-covered tunic. Her hair a mess, sitting astride this bird-mount, also covered in sand. Not ladylike at all. Her mother would never have understood, but the princess might. If she was here.

The servant-slaves (they wore metal collars, so she knew they were not in bondage willingly), gaped at her with wide-eyes, though they dared not speak. Or perhaps they were not able. The Sultan’s paper was enough to persuade them, for even if they could not read, they might recognize the seal upon it.

Miriam’s understanding of the local dialect was improving, but still imperfect. She’d declined the offer of a translator for this solo excursion, just as she’d declined any companions of any sort. The men who greeted her with low bows managed to convince her that they would inform the castle’s ruler – she was fairly certain that ‘Prince’ was his title – of her presence. They directed her toward some female slave-servants dressed in barely more than their collars.

The girls – they were scarcely old enough to be called women – led her to a spacious chamber made of stone, with a bath cut out of the floor, lined with colored tiles. Already it had been filled with hot water. Their eyes widened as she undressed, eyeing the mage’s tattoo between her breasts. Miriam was not sure if they knew what it meant or they were merely fascinated by its presence.

They had brought her baggage, and so after she had bathed and one of the girls brushed out her long hair, Miriam was happy to change clothing and leave her dusty travelling clothes to be washed. She had packed a single corset, but no petticoats (it was too bloody hot for them anyway, she thought), and with the help of the girls, wore this under her dress. She often attempted to convey both highborn lady and powerful mage in the same dress, and for this one, a dark blue gown of silk, arcane symbols were embroidered on the bodice and hems. For her own countrymen, this would have been enough, but here, she was not sure if she would present as anything other than exotic foreigner. That might be good enough, however.

Soon after, the female slaves left, and were almost immediately replaced with a well-dressed male servant. He addressed her as “Madam,” a generic respectable title as he naturally did not know her pedigree, titles, or marital status, and spoke in her own tongue, so heavily accented she could barely understand him and might have preferred he spoke his own. He informed her that the Prince would welcome her presence at…some sort of meal, perhaps? She was not clear.

For politeness’ sake, Miriam nodded as though she understood the offer, and then followed the man through cool and dark cold corridors for some time before emerging into a large open hall. Tables were set up in a horseshoe shape around the edge of the room, and at the center sat an ornately dressed man in an ornate chair she presumed to be the Prince in question.

As she followed her guide down the hall, Miriam let her magical senses wander and explore the space. Undoubtedly, the Prince employed mages of some sort, and she faintly sensed their presence as well as ancient spells of protection on the building itself. She frowned thoughtfully, wondering if the mages’ auras were so faint because they were not very strong, or because they were hiding themselves and their power.

The Prince was fair-haired, like most of his people, his hair so fair as to be nearly white, and his eyes a deep green. Most of the people at his table had similar coloring, although some of the servants were darker. Miriam knew that her own dark blue eyes and darker hair would mark her as exotic enough, even if her dress had been plain.

At last she reached his table, and, remembering etiquette lessons of many months prior when she had entered the desert nation, did not curtsy or kneel as her own customs and princes might demand, but bowed low, extending her right arm as she did so. She remained in this bent position for the requisite amount of time and then rose slowly to find the Prince’s green eyes peering at her with some curiosity.

The Prince spoke in his own tongue, but slowly, so that she might easily understand him. “Welcome to my hall, Lady Traveller.”

With the same formal words, she answered. “I am called Miriam, your highness. Thank you for seeing me.”

“I am called Raymo,” the Prince replied, for now that she had given her name, he must give his own. “Twelfth son of the twelfth son of the Fourteenth Holy Sultan.” There was only mild pride as he recited this title. He held up the parchment she had brought. “Said Sultan’s words are not easily ignored.”

The servant who had led her to the hall stepped forward to retrieve the paper and return it to Miriam, who slipped it into a pocket of her skirt. “I hope you might be of assistance, your highness. My King,” and for ‘king’ she needed to use her own tongue, as there was no equivalent here, “is anxious that his people might be returned to their homeland.”

“A long journey, is it not?”

“Indeed, your highness. I travel alone presently, but I will rejoin my own prince and his caravan. They will, I assure you, provide adequate security on the journey.”

Prince Raymo appeared thoughtful for a moment, and then gestured with one hand toward the tables. “I will assemble them all for your inspection on the morrow. For now, please do join our meal.”

She bowed her thanks, and followed her guide to a seat at the far end of the prince’s table. She found herself seated beside an elderly white-haired gentleman who introduced himself as Torim, and called himself an adviser to Prince Raymo.

“I once traveled across the desert in my youth to visit the Borderlands,” he remarked as the soup, a clear broth with vegetables and mutton, was served. “I learned a bit of your language then, but I’m afraid it has since mostly been forgotten.”

“I suppose you have little chance to practice it here,” she replied politely, and sipped at the soup. It had a good flavor; clearly Prince Raymo did not lack spices.

“None at all,” Torim replied with a chuckle as he sipped his own soup. “All I remember is ‘how do you do.’”

His accent was not horrible, Miriam reflected, although the phrase itself was old fashioned. She smiled at him, and contented herself with bland but genial conversation for the rest of the evening.