Late that afternoon—or at least, what Raqif assumed was that afternoon—he felt a gentle hand shaking his shoulder, and he squeezed his eyes tight. For all the sleep he had gotten during the day, he didn’t feel in the least bit refreshed.
Finally he blinked his eyes open to see the woman looking anxiously at him and murmuring words he still couldn’t make out. She smiled when she noticed he was awake, then glanced over her shoulder before helping him to sit back up against the palm.
“Here,” she whispered, handing the coconut husk back to him and glancing over her other shoulder. She murmured something else Raqif couldn’t make out, gesturing out into the desert with a hand. She rearranged herself into a more comfortable position on the sand and started talking again.
Raqif shook his head and held up a hand, hoping that would do enough to let her know he had no idea what she was saying, that she was wasting her voice, then lifted the coconut again to his lips. Again, every muscle relaxed as he sipped on the beautiful drink. When he’d finished, he lay the husk down on the sand, a satisfied smile on his face.
“Di’ tha’ help?” The words were still muffled, but at least he could make them out without too much trouble now.
He nodded; his throat had been dampened, but it was nowhere near strong enough to talk yet. He looked over at the woman, waited for his eyes to focus properly and smiled warmly, then lay one palm over the other below his chest, elbows out, and bowed his head slightly in the universal gesture of thanks.
“You’re welcome,” the woman answered. “I must apologise for my father. He believes every human being he sees has intentions of killing our family.” She sighed heavily. “Unfortunately most of my family believes this. You are lucky he did not kill you when he first found you. The men are all out hunting now though, they won’t be back until well after dusk.”
Raqif laid his head back against the palm and closed his heavy, sunburnt eyelids. He was only half-listening to the woman’s words, not having enough energy to concentrate on their full meaning. All that mattered to him was that he hadn’t yet succumbed to the desert. He was still far from healthy, but at least he wasn’t dead.
The same wave of nausea hit him again, and he crumbled over his stomach, biting down on his bottom lip. A painful rumble echoed from inside him, as if he needed any further confirmation that he hadn’t eaten in days.
The pain dulled slightly, allowing him to reach into the cloth that held his provisions and take out a roll of bread. It was crisp and dry, having spent the best part of a week baking in the sun, but it was food nonetheless, and Raqif bit into it heartily. The rough grains scratching against his throat made it painful to swallow, but at least the hunger pains in his stomach subsided somewhat.
Only when he’d finished the bread did he notice that the woman had been resting her hand on his shoulders.
“I’m Elinya, by the way.”
Raqif nodded and debated whether or not his throat would allow him to tell her his name, but as soon as he opened his mouth, Elinya’s fingers pressed against his lips, deciding for him.
“Don’t talk,” she said again, “You can tell me your name when you can do so without causing yourself pain.”
Another nod was all Raqif could offer in reply. He glanced longingly over at the pool of water to his left.
“Would you like another drink?” Elinya asked.
Raqif shook his head, hating the way she talked to him in a tone she would have used on a small child. He had gathered enough conscious thought to realise how helpless he felt. If only he could talk, but instead he was reduced to making vague swimming motions with his arms.
It’s through fault of my own that I’m here, he thought to himself, I should have followed the river instead. As it turns out, the shorter route will take the longest.
Elinya gave the same warm smile again, filled with what Raqif could now recognise as pity. “Of course you may. I shall leave you here; I must help prepare food for when the men return.”
Raqif waved a dismissive hand and rose agonisingly to his feet, cringing as every joint in his body protested against his decision. He rested his back against the palm and held one hand to his head as the dull throbbing headache that had been plaguing him day and night since the sandstorm slowly ebbed back again.
He focused all his attention on the pool, barely ten steps away, then left the support of his tree and stumbled over, relieved that he was able to make the distance without planting his face back in the sand.
The silken water wrapped around his ankles and ran between his toes, beckoning him deeper, and Raqif wasn’t about to challenge it. Every step brought a cool tingle that tugged at the hairs on his legs and ran up his spine. When it had reached waist depth, he sat down on the sandy bottom of the pool, ducking his head under and flicking the water back from his hair, the remnants of his headache quite forgotten. His joints and throat still voiced their disapproval, but as far as Raqif was concerned, he was more relaxed than he had been his whole life.
Slowly, he rolled over onto his back and kicked off the bottom of the pool, gliding effortlessly to the other side of the small watercourse. Every child in Ni-Horia was taught to swim in the Ra-Lin before they had seen five winters.
About ten years prior to Raqif’s birth, one of the villagers left as usual to trade with the northern kingdom of Kazin, a kingdom well known and envied for its rivers and lakes. It was the first time he had taken his son, a boy of fourteen.
As they’d been crossing one of the many wooden-slatted bridges between Ni-Horia and the village in Kazin they traded with, the boy’s foot had broken through one of the planks and he had fallen into the river. His father had said he was dragged under almost immediately, and he had seen nothing of the boy since. Since then, no resident over five years old was unable to swim. Some parents taught their child to swim even earlier.
As Raqif was making his return trip he became aware of a muffled voice filtering through the water enveloping his ears. He rolled over again and looked back up at Elinya, a questioning look in his eyes.
“You swim well,” the woman repeated.
Raqif shrugged and ran his fingers through his hair to push it back from his eyes. “We all ha—” He broke off again, coughing dryly. Refreshing as the swim had been, it had done little to cure his aching throat. He cupped his hands over his face, giving a groan followed by a half-hearted cough then splashed back into the water.
“I told you, do not speak until you are able to do so without hurting yourself.” Raqif could hear a faint giggle in her voice, and he grinned dryly as he drifted back across the water’s surface.
“You should probably get out now. The men will be returning soon, and I am not sure if you’ve noticed, but they don’t look on you particularly favourably.”
The thought had crossed my mind, Raqif responded silently, but he dragged himself reluctantly out of the water. The constant desert wind pricked at the moisture on his skin, making him shiver slightly as he concentrated on the ten or so steps back to the palm before slouching against it, breathing deeply.
“Would you like something to eat?”
Raqif shook his head and held up a dried fish from his food cloth, then took a bite of the salty, leathery meat.
Elinya smiled back at him. “I shall try to see you again before I go to sleep, but you must forgive me if my family keeps me.”
Raqif shook his head and waved his hand dismissively, taking another bight of his fish. He didn’t expect Elinya to make a return before the men left again to hunt, an event which may not happen for two or three days yet. He finished off the fish then filled the coconut husk with more water and lay down under the palm for what would be his first comfortable sleep in many nights.
Just as he was dropping off, he heard voices in the back of his mind, but only opened his eyes when he realised they were approaching. The beginnings of a yawn tried to escape his mouth, but he clamped it off as soon as it began affecting his throat.
A group of six men were making their way from the communal campfire to where Raqif lay, half-awake, under the palm. Each had heavily muscled arms and a wide blade strapped to his waist that glinted golden in the firelight. None of them lowered himself to Raqif’s level when they arrived, instead choosing to stand in a semi circle around him and making him feel more than a bit intimidated.
“Speak,” one of the men demanded, “What business has brought you here?”
Raqif swallowed, wincing at the stab of razorblades that still grated in his throat. “Can’t talk,” he managed to gasp, but could go no further as the painful dry coughs grabbed him again. He gently massaged his neck in a futile attempt to ease the rawness in his throat. He couldn’t even be sure that his words had been understandable.
The men gathered together and murmured to each other in low tones. It wasn’t long before one of them, different from the first, turned back to Raqif.
“By tomorrow evening you should be able to talk without too much difficulty. We shall speak with you then.”
Raqif nodded to show he had understood, and the men walked back to the dying campfire, still mumbling to each other.
Raqif shrugged to himself then lay back down in the sand to sleep.
As he had expected, Raqif was left to fend for himself the next day. He received varying glances from the members of the desert group, most of them suspicious, though he picked up a few pitying looks from some of the women and children. Still, none dared to come within fifteen paces of the highlander, let alone attempt conversation.
Later on in the evening, the six men returned as promised while Raqif was sipping on another coconut husk full of water.
“Are you able to speak?” The man’s strong voice almost mocking Raqif’s near-lack of one.
Raqif nodded and took another sip of water. “Though not very strongly yet.” His voice was barely a whisper, and he sipped again at the coconut to keep the coughs at bay. He hoped they weren’t going to interrogate him too much.
“I ask again; what business has brought you to us?”
Another sip. “My business is in Ni-Yana, not with you.”
“So why did you not take the river route? Surely you know the dangers of this desert.”
Raqif nodded sheepishly, well aware of his own foolishness. “I left Ni-Mytaa with a camel, whom I was told had made the journey many times previous.” He paused for another drink before continuing. “Had she stayed with me in the sandstorm, this would have been the faster course.”
“And what matter is so urgent that you must risk your own life to arrive there little more than a week sooner?”
The boy looked down at the coconut husk in his hands, almost embarrassed to share his intentions. In Ni-Horia, he had only ever received ridicule for speaking about the majestic bird.
“I search for the yrae,” he answered finally, swallowing hard to try and soothe the rasping in his throat.
The men broke off and talked amongst themselves, and Raqif was surprised to notice that their voices were very serious, not cynical as he had expected.
Elinya’s father turned back to him. “You are aware that the bird has not been seen in several millennia, are you not?”
Raqif nodded and held up two fingers as he drank again from the coconut husk. “Two, and another two prior to that, almost to the day. This is why I must make haste.”
“And you have no intention of robbing any of the desert tribes?”
“Most definitely not. I only wish to find an yrae.”
The men conferred once more, leaving Raqif to finish off his water and rub his burning throat.
“If what you say is true,” the eldest of the six began, “You may rest here until you have regained your health, but as soon as you are able, you must leave. One of our people will take you to Ni-Yana.”
Raqif thanked the men with a hand gesture and watched them leave, though he was puzzled as to why their interrogation hadn’t been particularly aggressive. From what Elinya had said, he was lucky he hadn’t been killed when he had first been found. Now they were offering him hospitality and a guide to Ni-Yana.
He couldn’t help thinking there was an ulterior motive in the group’s actions.