It wasn’t the cool evening breeze biting at Raqif’s skin that woke him up, so much as the pounding headache that had appeared while he had been sleeping. Despite being unconscious, the sun’s heat had still played with his mind, and it was now hitting back at him in full force.
He sat up with a groan, leaning against the camel’s warm furry side and gently rubbing his temples with the heels of his hands. The chill brought on by the night seemed to only make it worse, but Raqif knew he had to push on. He took a swig of water from the skin he had been carrying with him since he left Ni-Horia then climbed slowly onto the camel’s back.
“Slowly now,” he said quietly as he tapped Alu’s neck, but the beast rose in the same ungainly way she had earlier in the day.
The blood rushed to Raqif’s head, clouding his vision with black and making him sway uneasily on Alu’s hump. He held tight to the animal’s fur, closing his eyes and waiting for the feeling to pass. This desert was indeed a dangerous place.
Thankfully it wasn’t long before his headache passed, and he could ride through the moonless silence of the desert with a new appreciation for its beauty. The stars no longer reflected the glittering snake of the Ra-Lin, and Raqif suddenly realised how alone he really was. He gave his steed a friendly pat on the head, more than thankful for her companionship.
When the sky began to lighten again at dawn, Raqif glanced behind him in the direction of Ni-Mytaa, but could see nothing of the great city. Between him and the horizon that stretched off in every direction, there was nothing but the red desert sands and the shallow footprints left by his steed. Not even a sand dune broke the flat orange horizon, tinted blue by the dawn.
“I’m counting on you, Alu,” he told the camel, rubbing her head again. His voice sounded strange and flat against the unchanging landscape. He’d almost expected an echo, anything to break the pale dawn silence, but none came.
Later on in the morning Raqif felt a change in the wind. The gentle, warm breeze blowing from the northern desert swung around slightly, bringing a hint of grit with it. But that wasn’t all; there was something else in the light gusts, a warning sensation that couldn’t be described. It made Raqif’s eyes widen in alarm. Even a boy from the Hills, where grasses and even a few bushes anchored the sand down, knew how to read the wind for the approach of a sandstorm.
Raqif squeezed his heels against Alu’s sides and tapped the back of her neck once more, alighting rather more cleanly than he had previously, but his mind was focused more on the impending storm than his dismount.
Sheltering his eyes from the flying sand with spread fingers, Raqif glanced out to where the wind was, clearly seeing the brown smudge against the far horizon. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he lay down on his stomach beside the camel, keeping her between himself and the wind, and lay his hands over his head.
Within seconds, the storm hit, and even sheltered behind the camel, the whirling desert sand stung every square of bare skin. The wind whistled insistently in his ears, heightening in pitch as it whipped the sand around faster. He could feel the sand edging its way into the crevices of his pursed lips and clenched eyes and tightened them further.
For a long hour that seemed to stretch for the remainder of the day, Raqif lay stiffly in the sand, the coarse grains pelting him from every direction and working their way determinedly through his hair and the fibres of his clothes.
As suddenly as it had hit, the sand storm swept away, but Raqif still didn’t move. Often, he had been told, this could just be the eye of the storm, and the strong winds would fling themselves on him once more from the other direction, as though to make certain that any creature which had survived the first dose would succumb to the pelting sands on a second round.
However, as the breeze continued to weaken, until it was nothing more than the niggling gusts that plagued every part of Raykin, he realised with relief that he had only caught the edge of the storm.
Groaning at his stiffened and aching joints, the highlander got to all fours and shook the sand from his hair and spat it from his mouth. When he stood up to brush off the sand that hadn’t already fallen from his clothes and skin like a small landslide, he noticed something even more horrific than the approach of the sandstorm.
He was alone.
He scanned the horizon for Alu, but nothing broke it save the very slight smudge of the lingering sand in the air left from the storm.
Whispered profanities escaped his lips as he stared out at the wavering orange horizon and waited for the full realisation of his position to sink in. He was completely alone, two days’ trek from the nearest habitation, five from his destination, but nothing in either direction to let him know where he was headed.
He took a mouthful of water to rinse out the grit still in his teeth, then took two more that slid down his sand-scorched throat. He wondered vaguely how long he would be able to survive for with what little water and food he carried. He ran dusty hands through equally dusty hair and sighed heavily. Whatever he did, doing it now would be foolish; the sun’s intensity coupled with his fatigue from the storm was a less than healthy combination.
He lay down again in the sand, but his worried mind kept his eyes wide and furtive. It was the intense heat of the sun that eventually knocked him unconscious.
Raqif awoke again later in the day, the same headache niggling at the back of his head. He knew that the second he moved it would attack him with the same ferocity as it had done yesterday.
It was several minutes before he noticed the cool shadow over his face, but when it finally came to his attention, he immediately knew something was not right. His first irrational thought was that Alu had returned, but when his eyes snapped open and fixed on the cool, bright white steel of a sword blade, he knew he was severely mistaken.
Slowly, Raqif’s eyes ran up the length of the blade, covered in the nicks and scratches expected of a well-used sword. A pair of strong, sun-scorched hands gripped the leather and steel hilt and led up to equally strong shoulders, clad in a lightweight, cream coloured cloak with a hood that protected the sword owner’s face from the sun. The man’s face was hidden in shadow from the sun shining white behind him.
“What business does one such as yourself have in these parts?” His voice was loud and fierce in the stark desert.
Raqif tried to swallow to wet his throat, but to no avail. “I have none,” he croaked, “My business is in Ni-Yana.” He broke off into a fit of coughs, abruptly pushing the sword away and laying his forehead on his knees. Still coughing, he put a hand to his waist for his water skin, but instead his fingers touched wet sand. Looking down, he fingered the slit in the soft leather.
“Up.” The sword tip touched the nape of Raqif’s neck. The boy from the Hills had no choice but to obey.
Slowly he rose to his feet, trying in vain to keep his head from swimming. He closed his eyes as he waited for the sensation to passed, breathing in deep breaths of the hot, dusty air that rasped painfully against his throat.
“Now move.” The muffled words barely registered in Raqif’s sun-scorched mind, and he realised that his feet were moving before he had fully deciphered the two words. The sun of the mid-afternoon beat down hard on his black hair, and he found himself wishing desperately for one of the light hooded cloaks that his captor wore.
The deadened tinkle of water from his captor’s water skin reached his ears as his feet dragged helplessly in the burning sand and he ran his tongue over parched lips with barely enough moisture to cover them. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to take the desert man’s water skin from him, surely. The sword, which Raqif guessed had been lowered, didn’t pose too much of a threat.
Just as he was contemplating this idea, he became aware of a burning feeling on the right side of his face. Blinking slowly, he noticed that the horizon had turned around and now lay in a vertical blue and red line in his vision. He frowned and clenched his eyes tight to try and figure out what had happened, but before he could come to a reasonable conclusion, the blackness once again closed over his mind.
Raqif couldn’t say how many days and nights had passed. He couldn’t even have been sure if a night had passed at all. By the time he eventually arrived at the desert oasis his captor called home, anything said to him in a string of more than two words was lost. Even simple commands like ‘sit’ and ‘wait’ took several moments for him to process and carry out. Someone could have told him to drown in the small pool of water and he would have obeyed without question, if only he could have made out the command to begin with.
As he lay helplessly against the rough bark of a palm tree, he gazed around bleary-eyed, not fully taking in the four circular cloth canopies, raised in the middle by what was possibly a long dead palm and anchored to the ground with six ropes. A gap about waist height between the sand and the canopy allowed air to flow through and keep it cool inside.
Presently he became aware of a young woman a few years older than himself kneeling in front of him, half a coconut husk in her right hand. She was clothed in the same hooded cream cloak as all desert people, stained slightly red and flapping in the desert breeze.
“Ayu filliay behr?” The ‘words’ didn’t seem to match with the movement of her lips, now stretched into a questioning smile.
Raqif frowned in concentration until he finally decided that she had asked if he was ‘feeling any better’. “N—” The single word caught desperately in his throat, bringing him to another painful coughing fit.
“Donsork,” the woman told him.
Whatever she had said, Raqif didn’t bother trying to translate it, and instead waited out the fit before propping his elbows up on his knees and laying his forehead on his palms. He would have groaned if he hadn’t known that would only bring on more coughs.
Raqif blinked down at the coconut husk that had appeared between his knees, not quite believing that there was water in it. Slowly, he wrapped his dry, flaky fingers around the hairy, dripping husk, enjoying the coolness of the liquid against his baked skin.
Being careful not to spill a drop of the precious liquid, he lifted the husk to his lips, wincing slightly when they cracked as he opened his mouth.
“Nottoo killy,” the woman told him. Not too quickly.
Raqif gave a slight nod. He had heard of people who had crossed deserts, but had suffered greatly when they gulped down the life-giving water at the end of their journey. Foggy though his mind was, he wasn’t about to suffer the same fate.
He tipped his head back to allow the water entrance to his mouth, closing his eyes and smiling with relief as it rolled smoothly over his tongue and slid like silk down the dried and cracked riverbed of his throat. He took another sip and sighed contentedly with the cool, smooth sensation. It was more beautiful than anything he had ever tasted before, and his muscles visibly relaxed as a third mouthful splashed into his stomach.
Suddenly his hands were empty, and he looked around him in confusion before spotting the coconut husk lying to his left, its valuable contents staining the bright orange sand a darker brown. He stared beseechingly at his water seeping away into the sand, wondering if it would be worth licking the small patch to pick up any moisture.
His thoughts were abandoned as he became aware of what had knocked the coconut from his hands. Silhouetted against the bright morning sky was the man Raqif recognised briefly as his captor, his arms flailing in annoyance and voice loud and angry. The woman’s arms were spread wide in a pleading gesture, her voice high and defensive. Of their words, Raqif could understand nothing.
A wave of nausea washed over him, and he clutched his stomach before rolling back into the sand, blackness again filling his vision.