Ehomba simply shook his head. “It is true what the migrating traders say. Civilization and civilized behavior are matters of perspective.”
“Aw, our customs are just different, Etjole.” Simna gave the herdsman an amiable slap on the back, marveling as always at the dryness of the southerner’s attire. No matter the time of day or the temperature, he never seemed to sweat. “If it’ll ease your mind, I promise not to swim in your drinking water.”
“I would appreciate that.” Like his companions, Ehomba was enjoying the easy walking. For the first time in many days, the ground underfoot crunched instead of sloshed.
They kept to the dry, dusty washes that ran like rocky rivulets between the dunes. Soon these were towering overhead, their sandy peaks rising to heights of a thousand feet and more. Yet between them, in shadowed and sheltered places, desert plants thrived on subsurface sources of moisture.
Besides the more familiar bushes and small trees with their desert-adapted miniaturized leaves and green bark, they encountered the most extraordinary miscellany of cacti and other dry-country plants. Some had spines that were curved like fishhooks, while others boasted spikes fine as hair, rust-red in color and threatening. Towing their floating water supply behind them, the travelers were careful not to brush up against any of these. In Ehomba’s experience, such plants not only stung, but many also carried poison in their quills. Overhead, small, fringed dragonets soared and circled like tatters of torn tent, their outstretched membranous wings keeping them effortlessly aloft as they watched the progress of the trekkers below. Enamored of carrion, they would track isolated wayfarers of any species for days, hopeful and expectant.
Ehomba’s companions trudged along, sometimes locked in their own private silence, sometimes chattering briskly either to him or to one another. What an odd trio of travelers we make, he meditated on more than one occasion. None of us really wants to be here. I would rather be home with my wife and children, Ahlitah would surely prefer the company of other great cats, and Simna doubtless misses the fleshpots and garish excitements of more populous surroundings.
Yet here we are: I because I made a promise to a man now long dead, whom until he lay dying in my arms I did not even know. Simna because he thinks I am a sorcerer on the trail of treasure. And the litah because I had the audacity to save his life.
I should go home. Abandon this foolishness. Calving season is over and the cows and ewes have dropped their young, but summer does not last forever. There is much to be done before the cold winds come ashore.
Yet Mirhanja would not want for help, he knew. The Naumkib looked after their own. And his friends and fellow villagers understood the nature of his obligation. None of them would complain at having to help the family of an absent husband. Not for the first time, he was glad he was Naumkib. In other tribes, he knew, an extended absence such as his would water the flowers of resentment.
How he missed the sea! Its heavy perfume, the rolling chorus of the waves fondling the shore, the uncompromising purity of its rejuvenating embrace. He even missed its taste, blunt and salty and steadfast in its distillation of every part of the world. Around him desiccation had reduced the good earth to powder, useful for taking the hair off a hide preparatory to tanning but little else. Unlatching the flap that covered the right-hand pocket of his kilt, he kneaded the sackful of beach pebbles between his fingers, listened to them grind against one another, hearing the sounds of the ocean at night resonate between his fingers.
Days that could have been hotter and gratefully were not were broken by chilly nights during which distant creatures howled and screamed at the moon. Twice it rained lightly, not only cooling the travelers but also partially replenishing their drifting bubble of water. All things considered, the journey through the dunes was proving difficult but not harsh. No one had succumbed to the heat, no one had been bitten or stung or acquired an armful of cactus stickers.
The days would have passed more rapidly, however, if they had had some idea how far they still had to go before emerging from such desolate country. Though not overtly hostile, the land through which they were traveling rapidly grew dull and uninteresting. Even the appearance of a spectacular new succulent no longer drew more than a casual comment or mumbled observation.
“I saw something.”
Head down, tongue hanging out, Ahlitah growled testily. “None of us are blind. We all see many somethings. It is hardly reason for excitement.”
“No.” Simna had halted in the middle of the wadi and was shading his eyes as he peered ahead. “This was moving.”
Ehomba was more charitable. Stopping alongside the swordsman, he leaned on his spear and tried to follow his friend’s line of sight. “What did you see, Simna? A rabbit, perhaps? Roast rabbit would be good.”
“Rabbit or rat, I’d thank you for either.” Drawing in its tongue, the litah licked dry lips. “I’m hungry.”
“You are always hungry.” Ehomba spoke without looking over at the great cat. He was striving to see whatever Simna had seen.
“As Gwyull is my witness,” the swordsman insisted tersely, “it was no rabbit. No rat, either.”
“Then what?” the herdsman prompted him.
Lowering his shading palm, Simna looked uncertain. “I don’t know. It was there for an instant, and then it was gone.”
“Like any story.” With a snort, Ahlitah resumed padding forward, his big feet kicking up dust at every step.
Camp that night was uninviting, but in the absence of any kind of shelter it was the best they could do. Ruddy dunes towered all around them as they spread themselves out on the floor of the dry ravine. Ahlitah was less grumpy than usual, thanks to the den of rodents he had sniffed out and promptly consumed. For a veldt master used to bringing down and killing much larger prey, this hunting of rats and mice was demeaning, but an empty stomach in need of meat does not discriminate against the nature of whatever the throat elects to provide.
As they unrolled their blankets on the hard, unforgiving ground, they were more grateful than ever for the floating pond Ehomba had thought to bring along. Half empty now, it was easier to tow. Everyone drank from it, so everyone shared in the pulling.
Overhead, a swelling moon promised good night walking should they chose to exercise that option. It was something to consider if the heat grew intolerable. Lying on his back, listening to the cautious scurrying of nocturnal insects and those rodents who had escaped Ahlitah’s attentions, Ehomba put his hands behind his head and tried to envision what Mirhanja was doing at that same moment. Lying in their bed, most likely, in the posture she usually favored for sleeping: on her left side, with her back toward him, her knees bent up toward her smooth belly, the knuckles of one hand resting just below her slightly parted mouth giving her an incongruously childlike appearance.
Except there was nothing behind her in the bed now except cool night air. The body, the man, who should have been there, was lying on the rocky floor of a dry ravine far to the north, dreaming of her as he hoped she was dreaming of him.
Soon, he promised himself. We will reach a large town with a harbor, and I will travel on a boat across the sea to deal with this Hymneth person on behalf of the man who died in my arms. And then I will come back to you, covered if not in glory, which I do not seek, but in the satisfaction and the inner contentment no crown or generalship can match. Soon.
Pursing his lips, he blew a silent kiss at the moon, turned over, and went to sleep with an ease no king or soldier could equal.
IT WAS COLD WHEN SIMNA IBN SIND AWOKE. BLINKING, HE yawned silently at the polished bowl of night that filled the sky between the dune crests. While it was beginning to set, the nearly full moon still threw enough light for a man to see clearly by, if not enough to enable him to read. Simna had never been much for reading and was glad he was traveling in the company of individuals of similar mind. Certainly Ahlitah, despite his exceptional if acerbic linguistic talents, was no peruser of books and scrolls. He was less certain about Ehomba, but the untutored, unsophisticated herdsman did not strike him as much of a scholar. A master of magics perhaps, but no great reader. Certainly in the time they had spent together thus far he had never expressed any great longing for the printed page.
He grinned at the thought of Etjole standing watch over his cattle and sheep, balancing himself with his spear as he alternated standing first on one leg and then on the other, with weighty tome in hand. The spear fit the image; the book did not. He comforted himself with that thought. Simna had little use for scholars. They tended to look down on an honest, hardworking man, and whisper about him behind his back.