(Go back to Part 19)
The caravan—a mad, shouting mess of men and beasts—assembled in the market square. Nearly two hundred people were making the journey, and twice as many pack animals. McCann hired a pair of donkeys from the company owner, and saw that they were laden with water skins and provisions. Alex and the sergeant each tied one set of reins to their own saddles.
A few soldiers appeared at the edge of the square as they were mounting up. Alex tensed when she saw them, but they only made a cursory survey of the assembled caravan. Alex and McCann blended into the chaos with their nondescript clothing, and their swords were hidden beneath saddlebags. No alarm was sounded.
The sun was up by the time the caravan set out, party by party, through the low gate. The caravan captain and his guides were at the front, while his lieutenant was at the back to round up the stragglers. Each party had an appointed spot in the order to make sure that no one was left behind.
Alex and McCann were midway through the column. The eyes of another soldier in the green of Sinclair’s men passed over them without recognition . . . Alex breathed a sigh of relief when they finally passed out through the gate and started down the rough, twisting path.
They spent the morning descending from the plateau of Fâl Selim. Soon the caravan passed the crossroads and the ancient signpost, headed down and east. The path was rocky, but well worn with the hooves of countless animals.
Enterprising youths followed the group on foot, telling wide-eyed stories of the monsters in the desert and selling homemade charms as a last-minute protection. They made more than a few coins.
At last they passed a tall stone marker. It was undecorated except for a single human face at the top, eyes shut and features contorted into a silent scream. At the foot of the pillar, a trickle of water bubbled from a sluice in the stone to fill a wide basin. Human and animal drank, grateful for the opportunity. It was already warmer at this altitude.
“This is the last spring until the oasis,” said the caravan captain, “so drink up. It may be a month before we see natural water again.”
They took a half hour for lunch. Alex ate a bit of flatbread and cheese before walking out of the circle to take a look at the desert.
There was no immediate difference between the desert and the country they’d been traveling though, although the hills flattened into nothing nearby. Bare, gray rock and brown dirt predominated as far as she could see. The road spread and ended a short distance from the spring. Here and there the withered husk of a tree broke the monotony.
She returned to McCann. “What do you think?” asked the Sergeant.
“Where’s all the sand?”
“Give it a few days and you’ll have all the sand you want. But in the meantime . . .” he gestured back up to the mountains, where Fâl Selim was barely visible. “Take a look behind us and tell me what you see.”
“There’s . . . there’s smoke. Something’s on fire!” A white wisp of smoke was climbing into the sky, more than from a campfire.
“Aye. And what else?”
“I . . .” Alex squinted. High up on the path, near the city gate, she could just make out moving figures. “People in green, coming down the path. Sinclair’s soldiers?” she asked McCann, turning back to look at him.
He nodded, grinning. “Probably. A bit too late.”
“Are you sure?” Alex was worried.
“Aye. They’d be crazy to follow us into the desert.”
The captain mounted his horse and let out a piercing whistle between his teeth. He waved his arm around his head twice; the caravan began to saddle up. The charm sellers began a desperate last-minute push. “Poisonous snakes! Sunstroke! Evil spirits! Bloodclaws! The curse of the Ancients! Protect yourself or perish!”
Half an hour later, they were in the desert.
Life in the caravan quickly settled into a routine. They started early, when it was still cool and dark, and traveled until the hottest part of the day. Then they rested and waited for the heat to break, continuing again until the sun set.
It was hot, hard, monotonous work. Thirst set in quickly and refused to depart, due to water rationing. Alex and McCann had cloth turbans wrapped around their heads in the Eastern style to protect from the sun, but their eyes soon ached from squinting. The animals’ heads drooped, and their hair was matted with sweat and blowing grit.
McCann stopped their sparring lessons. “The desert will be challenge enough.” He had spoken very little since the first day, and Alex knew better than to ask him anything. As those before and behind them spoke only Nimabic, she was left alone with her thoughts and the unending desert.
Alex thought of home and of Dalia lying cold and pale in Joseph’s hut. She thought of Headmaster Barrius and the other Acolytes. Sometimes she held imaginary conversations with them, setting up an impromptu gathering in her head. One time when she was doing this she started getting strange looks from McCann.
“You’re talking to yourself,” he finally told her.
Alex clapped a hand over her mouth, embarrassed. She hadn’t realized it.
The desert kept creeping by. A few twisted shrubs grew here and there, but besides the insects and a single type of small lizard there was no life. “Does anything bigger than that survive out here?” asked Alex one day.
“One thing does,” answered McCann.
(Go on to Part 21)