Since his conversation with the leaders of the desert group, Raqif noticed an incredible transformation in its people. Some went out of their way to give him food and water, or talk to him without expecting any verbal responses. There were still some who showed hostility towards him, but they were now in the minority.
Over the course of the week, Raqif slowly regained his voice and he was able to move with little disapproval from his joints. Since he wasn’t yet strong enough to go hunting with the men, he instead helped with food preparation, feeling that he should repay the group somehow.
On the last night of his stay, he was allowed to sit around the campfire with the thirty or so members of the group, answering the countless questions he was asked about his life upstream. The ordeal made him feel slightly homesick, but the fascinated looks on the children’s faces in particular put a grin on his face.
Eventually, one of the older women in the group sent the protesting children to sleep, sensing from the highlander’s cracking voice and occasional cough that he was growing weary.
“Thank you,” he told the woman when the children had left. He winced slightly and lifted a hand to his throat to massage it.
“You’re quite welcome, Raqif,” she replied, her loose desert accent playing strangely on his name. “You might like to think about sleep yourself if you plan on leaving us tomorrow.”
“I shall be leaving late in the afternoon,” Raqif croaked with a grin, “I feel I’ve had more than enough desert sun to last me several lifetimes.” He gave another half-hearted cough and fell back into the sand with one hand on his forehead. “I think I’ll be going to sleep now.”
“Smart boy.” He could hear the tinkle of laughter in her voice.
The next day passed like every other he had spent with the desert family, though there was an air of expectancy that hung over the camp as evening approached. Once the air had begun to cool down in the afternoon, Raqif took his food cloth and filled it with bread and other provisions.
“Here, you’ll need this.” Elinya had appeared behind him, holding a hooded cloak in her arms, as well as a pair of new water skins to replace Raqif’s old split one. “We shall bring a small tent as well, to shelter under during the heat of the day.”
Raqif slung the cloak over his shoulders and tied it loosely at the neck. “You do not have to do so much for me.”
“It was my father who almost killed you with heat exhaustion and dehydration. Do you remember what you were like when you arrived here?”
Raqif turned away without answering, and busied himself with his provisions.
“You could barely understand two words strung together. I feel as though I have a responsibility.”
“The same would have happened whether your father had found me or not.” There was a hint of scorn in his reply, though it was directed at himself. He sighed heavily and looked up at the older woman. “Thank you for coming with me.”
Elinya smiled in reply.
When they were ready to leave, each member of the desert family was gathered around the fire pit to see them off.
Palms pressed together in thanks, Raqif bowed to the leaders of the camp. “I extend my greatest gratitude for your hospitality,” he said formally.
Elinya’s father dipped his head in reply. “We wish you luck on your journey. Should you ever pass by our camp in the future, you shall be welcomed.”
“Thank you,” Raqif repeated, then bid farewell to the group for what he expected would be the last time. The odds of him finding the tiny oasis again were slim to nil.
When they were out of earshot of the camp, Raqif had to ask the question that had been plaguing him since his third day in their company. “What was it that changed the minds of the group? I may not have been able to say a great deal, but it didn’t take much to realise people were considerably more tolerant of me after your leaders talked with me.”
Elinya repositioned the rolled up cloth on her back that would serve as shelter for the pair. “You are in search of an yrae, correct?”
Raqif nodded his confirmation.
“King Yan is the ancestor of every person who lives in the desert between Ni-Yana and Ni-Mytaa. Most people know this, but very few know about Haela, and even those who have heard of her consider her little more than a rumour.”
Raqif’s ears pricked up. “Was she the girl who found the second yrae, two thousand years past?”
“Yes. You have heard of her?”
“Only the words my mother told me when I was very young. She told me she was a lonely person, and avoided human company because she didn’t like for them to think she was corrupt like King Yan.”
A wry smile spread over Elinya’s lips. “That is not so far from the truth. She avoided the contact of those in the cities, this is true, but her pain was not centred in her loneliness. In truth, the feathers that grew from her arms to form the wings that characterise yrae magic caused her incredible physical pain, ‘like blunt razorblades piercing out through her skin’.”
“How is it you know this?”
The desert woman rubbed her hands over her arms as though warding off a chill. “My family group are her descendents, as well as those of King Yan. Yrae magic is almost a part of us, and when you told my father that you were searching for the third, this greatly changed our family’s impression of you. We know that it wasn’t the magic that corrupted King Yan; Haela is proof of this.”
Raqif fell silent, chewing over the words in his mind. “Does this mean you possess yrae magic?”
Elinya laughed lightly. “No, but King Yan’s family had their own magic they had developed, and we have inherited remnants of that. It’s far from spectacular, but it keeps us alive. No matter where we are in the desert, we can always find our family again with little trouble. We can find oases when the one we are living at has dried up. We have something similar to telepathy, but not quite.”
She frowned, struggling to find the right words. “I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s as though we have a connection with the minds of the other desert people.” She shook her head in frustration. “Never mind. Most river-folk do not believe we have magic at all, and instead think that it is nothing more than instinct. They think us animals anyway, so why should they accept we have the magic of this kingdom’s first king?”
“I understand,” Raqif told her.
Apart from another sandstorm, the journey passed without hassle. Raqif learned more about the desert people and their ambiguous magic, and in turn spoke about his own home. Early in the morning of their forth night of travel, Raqif spotted a fault in the otherwise flat and desolate landscape.
“That is the gorge that the Ra-Lin flows through before it opens out to Ni-Yana,” Elinya explained, “We should reach the city by tomorrow morning if we make good pace.”
Raqif was too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice the slight hint of regret in the desert woman’s voice. After a journey that had taken nearly two moons and had almost killed him, his goal was so close he could almost feel the wind under his wings.
As estimated, dawn the next morning brought the two Raykinians to the edge of the cliff that overlooked Ni-Yana, the kingdom’s capital and the birthplace of its first king, but more importantly for Raqif, the site of two yrae appearances. The wind tugged at Raqif’s cloak, beckoning him into the sky as he stood atop the cliff and gazed down at the sprawling city, cast in the grey dawn shadow of the cliff.
Running past it was the glistening grey Ra-Lin, looping around the city like a snake coiled around its prey. The immense palace that was home to Raykinian royalty dominated the southernmost part of the city, its imposing gaze set on the much smaller houses and businesses of the commonfolk.
“There is an easy route down the cliff if you follow it west.” The dull tone in Elinya’s voice was apparent even to Raqif’s exhilarated mind. “Goodbye, Raqif.”
“What? No! You can’t leave yet!” Raqif cried, grasping at the woman’s arm.
“Why not?” she replied, “You do not need my help any further; Ni-Yana is right at your feet.”
“Can you at least stay until I can find somewhere to sleep?”
Elinya looked uneasily at the city, a touch of weak golden sunlight now touching its outskirts. “No,” she answered bluntly, shaking her head and freeing her hand from Raqif’s grip. “I can’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
The desert woman looked earnestly into his eyes, making sure he understood every word she spoke. “River-folk, particularly those in Ni-Yana, look unfavourably on my people. They think of us as animals, barbarians, filth worse even than King Yan.” Her eyes narrowed as she scowled at the city in question. “Even through almost two hundred generations, they think we have not changed.”
Raqif looked down whimsically at the waking capital, then wrapped his arms around his companion. “Thank you, for everything you have done for me,” he whispered, his words catching on the wind that still called him.
Elinya buried her face into his shoulder. “I know I shall miss you.” Her voice was stained with tears.