The caravan was headed north-east across the desert. It would be a seven-day journey to the desert oasis of Kip-ri and then another six days or more to the mountain-side village of Anju. The caravan carried textiles, salt and jewelry. Each family had one warrior among them to guard and defend the caravan against raiders and creatures that lived in the desert.
Delsin sat on a pile of fine fabrics near the tailgate of the last of his family’s three wagons. This was the customary place for the warrior brother to sit if the family could not spare a horse for him to ride. He had been tucked in the corner as the wagons departed when the girl jumped aboard. She was small and pale and Delsin watched the dark men searching for her. He felt confident she was not there to rob them as she burrowed into the cloth at his feet.
As the caravan moved out across the plain the sun was beginning to dip behind the city, which grew smaller in the distance. There were maybe four more trader families behind his and Delsin knew them all well. They had crossed this desert together two hundred times since he was a boy.
He watched behind the last group of camels, and the two riders on horse back that brought up the rear. There were no dark men following. The city of Tarakan quickly became a thin line on the horizon, the early evening sun a blazing flame behind it.
“Girl.” Delsin said. He nudged the bundle of cloth with the toe of his boot. “Are you awake?” His voice was low and commanding.
The bundle stirred.
“You can come out.” Delsin assured. “No one is pursuing you.”
The bundle of cloth tried to get up but she had managed to tangle herself in the many lengths that she lay under. Delsin chuckled and reached out a hand to help her.
As the girl sat up her chestnut hair was tangled around her face and neck. The hood of her blue jerkin was twisted around her throat. As she untangled herself and got free of the bolts of cloth she looked up at Delsin. He was struck by her eyes and the pale colour of her skin. It was like the ivory that was brought up to Anju by traders from the far south. Her eyes were blue. He’d never seen such blue eyes before. He started to say something but found that he couldn’t speak. Out of reflex and years of habit his left hand flew to the falchion at his side. Ready.
The girl, reacting to his action, pointed a small ornate dagger. “Who are you?” She asked.
Delsin chuckled again. “You’re on my wagon, so I’ll ask the questions.” He said, placing his right hand on top of hers and gently lowering her blade. He watched her wide blue eyes in the dimming light. She was scared half to death. “You are safe here,” He promised. “You can put your weapon away. I’m sorry if I scared you.” He removed his hand from the handle of his scimitar. “My actions were not directed at you. I was neglecting my duty by removing my hand from my weapon.”
The girl slowly lowered the blade. She placed it in her lap, still holding on to the elaborately decorated handle. She watched Delsin carefully.
“What is your name?” His accent was strange to her. He pronounced his words with great care and precision and where the men in Tarakan rolled there “r”s with great emphasis, Delsin’s “r”s were barely noticeable.
“Rayne.” She said. She didn’t take her eyes off him for a second.
“And where are you headed, Miss Rayne?” Delsin asked.
“Away from Tarakan.” She replied.
“Those men who were after you?” Delsin asked, “What did they want?”
Rayne paused turning the answer over in her head before responding. “They wanted to steal from me.”
Delsin held out his right hand. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance Miss Rayne. My name is Delsin. This is my family’s textile convoy.” She shook his hand. His skin was warm and rough. “The desert is no place to wander alone. So you are welcome to travel with us. But you will have to earn your way.”
“Where are we headed?” She asked.
“Kip-ri and then Anju.”
Rayne looked at this hansom stranger. His skin was dark. Darker even than the men who lived within the walls of Tarakan. His hair was black and he wore it long around his shoulders. He was dressed in robes of ornate brocade silk, finer than any Rayne had ever seen in the market of Tarakan or the palatial capital of Urna. His dark and very round eyes were fringed with thick dark lashes that made it appear as though he wore charcoal liner. His face was smooth and hairless – not like the men of the desert tribes who had the beginnings of a beard in half a day. He couldn’t be more than a few years older that Rayne, but he had such presence and confidence. He sat with one foot up on a stack of cloth. His right arm draped casually across his knee, and though he seemed totally at ease and without care, his eyes continually watched through the gap in the curtains that formed the back door of the covered wagon. He scanned the horizon to the north.
“Why do you watch only the one side of the caravan?” Rayne asked.
“The watcher in the next group of wagons watches the other side. The one in front as well.” Delsin replied.
“Is it always the same?” Rayne asked.
“Do raiders often slip in between you?”
“We are experts at our work.” He said, with just a hint of insult.
Rayne adjusted her position to move closer to him. “But if you always travel the same, then there are blind spots. And someone who knows that you watch alternate sides of the caravan could figure out where those blind spots are and take advantage.” With her hands she described the caravan as she spoke, indicating where the watchers sat and where there would be blind spots to either sides along the six or more wagons that were only being watched on one side.
Delsin’s brow furrowed as he saw what she was getting at.
“This is the way we have done it for generations.” He said, “It has never failed us before. But I see where the flaw is.”
“Were the caravans always so large?” Rayne asked.
“No.” Delsin admitted. “Even when I was a child each family had only one wagon and perhaps a camel. It is only in the past few seasons that the movement of goods has become so great that we have needed to spread ourselves out in such a way.”
Rayne moved away from Delsin. She went to sit opposite him, in the corner, hidden from the outside by the folds of cloth that covered the wagon. She gripped the handle of her dagger and stared out into the desert facing south.
Delsin smiled to himself.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense then,” Rayne asked, “To patrol the flanks on horseback?”
Delsin chuckled. “You have a head for strategy.” He said, “Are you sure you are not a spy, come to measure our defenses only to signal your party of raiders and then make off with our cargo in the night.”
“If I was,” Rayne joked, “it would be a good trick, pretending to be escaping capture, when in fact those men are my partners.” She smiled facetiously.
Delsin frowned slightly.
“I’m not here to rob you.” Rayne assured.
“What were you doing?” Delsin asked. “Why were those men after you?”
“They hired me for a job.” Rayne admitted, “Then refused to pay the agreed upon price. They thought they could take advantage of me because they are men and bigger than me.” She looked out the curtain toward the city. “There are advantages to being small,” She said, “And female.”
“Well here.” Delsin said, moving only slightly away from the rear of the wagon and retrieving a long bundle from under the fabric bolts. Keeping his left hand on his sword and using only his free hand, he unrolled the fabric to reveal a short sword. He handed it to Rayne.
“If you are going to help me fend off bandits, you will need more than that ceremonial knife.”
Rayne looked at the weapon in her hand. “It’s a knife?”
Delsin handed her the short sword and took the bodkin. Examining it closely, he balanced it in his right hand, “A throwing knife to be exact.” He said. He held it close to his face to get a closer look at the handle, in the rapidly dying light. “Though it’s far too ornate to actually be thrown.”
He turned the blade over. “Do you know what this says?” He tipped the medallion with the strange letters toward Rayne. She shrugged.
“It’s beautifully made. Its value must be great.” He handed it back to her. She put it away in her rabbit skin pack.
“Do you actually know how to use that?” He asked with a nod to the sword in her hand. Rayne shook her head. “Some help you’ll be.” He half joked, flashing her a smile.
It was dark now. The sun had sunk quickly behind the western horizon. The two new friends were silent in the wagon. Outside they could hear the swish of the sand as it was pushed out from under the vehicle’s wheels, and the sputtering of the horses blowing dust from their nostrils. In the stillness Rayne’s stomach growled. Her hand flew to her abdomen as she realized her last meal had been breakfast.
Delsin chuckled, “Someone will bring food shortly.” He assured.
“How will they react to my being here?” Rayne asked.
“Not well,” Delsin confessed. “They will surely think you are a mole.”
Rayne said nothing.
After a few more moments of silence, she spoke. “What makes you so sure you can trust me?” She asked.
Delsin didn’t answer. He watched out the back of the wagon. Rayne wondered how he could see anything in the darkness. All she could see was dark patches with spots of grey where the moonlight reflected off the tops of the sand dunes.
It seemed as though it had been a long time when a clang, like a cow bell, crept slowly up to the wagon. Rayne had started to fall into a trance, hypnotized by the waves of sand. The “donk-donk” started in the distance and moved slowly toward her, stopping for short periods of time before moving closer. Finally the sound moved up the side of the wagon. She could hear the horse snort and the breathing of the rider. He came around the end of the wagon from the right and addressed Delsin.
“Supper time, my brother.” The young man was maybe fifteen. His skin was smooth and his hair was short. He was dressed in robes similar to Delsin’s. Nestled in the saddle in front of him was a large copper pot and a cloth bag hung from the horn. Delsin produced a small earthenware bowl from somewhere beneath his feet. He leaned out the tailgate so the boy could ladle some of the contents of the pot into the bowl. The boy then reached into the bag and presented Delsin with an orange.
“Bersh,” Delsin said, addressing the boy, “Do you have an extra bowl?”
“How much food do you need, Del?” the boy asked.
“It is not for me.” Delsin replied.
Bersh had come around from Rayne’s side of the cart and in the darkness had not noticed her sitting opposite Delsin. At that moment, as Delsin gestured toward her, the younger boy pulled back with a start, causing the horse to startle slightly. The horse stepped awkwardly and the ladle in Bersh’s hand flew up spilling stew down his front.
Rayne didn’t know what was the proper thing to do. So she sat silently waiting for direction from Delsin.
“Who is she, Del?” Bersh cried. “Why have you allowed a stranger onto our caravan?” The boys English was not as precise and elegant as Delsin’s.
“It’s okay, little brother.” Delsin assured. “She’s simply a traveler. She has agreed to work for us, in exchange for passage across the desert.”
The boy held the ladle out like a defensive weapon. His eyes darted from Rayne to his brother, and the moonlight glinted off of them.
“Rayne, this is my younger brother, Bersh.” Delsin held his hand out in a formal gesture of introduction. “Bersh, this is Rayne.”
The boy kept his distance. The horse continued at a pace that matched the wagon, but Bersh was hesitant.
“This will have to be brought to the attention of the elders.” Bersh insisted.
“Of coarse,” Delsin agreed, nodding once. “But for now, do not give my guest reason to speak poorly of desert hospitality. I know you have extra bowls. Serve Rayne some supper and don’t keep the others waiting.” Del had taken on a commanding voice that told Bersh and Rayne that he was in charge.
The boy took a small bowl from a pack that hung from his saddle. Hastily he poured Rayne some stew and shoved the bowl into her hands along with an orange.
“Thank you.” Rayne said.
Bersh rode away.
“How long until the entire caravan comes to investigate?” Rayne asked. She tucked the orange into her lap and held the bowl in front of her.
“Bersh has to finish his rounds first.” Delsin said, he produced a spoon from where-ever he’d gotten the bowl and began scooping stew into his mouth. “His first priority is to his duties.” He paused as he gulped down spoonfuls of supper. “Something like this has never happened before, so I can’t say how long it will take for my father and grandmother to come to investigate.”
Rayne watched Delsin eat for a moment then looked at her own bowl. Without a spoon of her own she finally gave in and tipped the bowl to her lips. The stew was cold but spicy. There was a spicy red gravy that covered everything and made it difficult to identify individual ingredients, but it was hardy and satisfying, and surprisingly, just one small bowl was filling enough. After she finished the stew she watched Delsin peel his orange and toss the rind out the back of the wagon.
“Won’t the rinds leave a trail.” Rayne asked.
Delsin chuckled and shook his head. “They will be picked up quickly by the desert Flints.”
“Flints?” Rayne asked.
“Small birds, about the size of a chicken.”
“Oh.” Rayne tossed her orange rinds into the sand. Delsin reached over and took the bowl from her hand. He stacked it with his and tucked it back where ever he’d gotten his orginially.
“You don’t want to wash those?” She asked, raising an eyebrow.
“They’ll be washed when we stop.” Delsin said. He smiled at her.
The two of them were silent again as they watched out the back of the wagon. A short while later they heard Bersh galloping back up the line of wagons.
“Are we busted, now?” Rayne asked.
Delsin didn’t answer but in the darkness Rayne was sure he nodded.
They rode on for quite some time before anything happened. There was no chatter. All was quiet. Delsin kept a vigilant watch out the rear of the wagon, and Rayne found that her eyesite was beginning to adjust to the darkness and she could see the shape of the land and way that the caravan was marching in a north easterly direction, curving slightly this way and that.
After a long while the wagon suddenly slowed to a stop.
“Here it comes.” Delsin said. His left hand, as always, was on the handle of his Falchion. The wagon that had been travelling about one and a half wagon lengths behind, did not stop immediately but moved up right against the back of theirs.
“The whole caravan is stopping?” Rayne asked.
“You have to be investigated.” Delsin said. He did not move, but continued to keep his vigil. The driver of the wagon behind theirs looked at Delsin and then at Rayne. If he was surprised to see the girl there he gave no indication. His face was as expressionless as if they had never stopped at all.
“I shouldn’t be here.” Rayne said. “Jumping into the wagon was an impulse. I should go.” She started to get up and made to climb over the tail gate.
“What are you doing?” Delsin took his hand away from his sword and reached out to Rayne. “The desert is no place for anyone to wander alone. You’d be dead within a day.”
“I don’t want to get you into trouble.” She said. Her foot was still propped on the top of the tailgate.
“Trouble I can handle.” He said. “Now sit down.”
Rayne came back inside the canopy and waited to see what would happen. After what seemed like forever they heard footsteps on the sand. Several people were approaching from the head of the caravan.
“Let me do the talking.” Delsin instructed. “Answer only direct questions.” Rayne nodded.
There was a moment of nothing happening until three men came round the side of the wagon. They were all elderly. The one in the middle was very short and his hair was almost entirely white. He held a tall walking stick.
“Delsin,” the small man’s voice was very soft and his accent thick. “There is a stranger in our midst?”
He didn’t look at Rayne. He looked directly at Delsin.
“Yes, Uncle.” Delsin said.
“She endangers our party.” The older man said.
“I don’t believe she does, Uncle.” Delsin said.
“She is a stranger and un-invited.” The old man said.
“Uncle,” Delsin said, “Look at her. She is one female. What danger could she be?”
Rayne set her jaw, ready to protest Del’s implication. But she held her tongue.
The old man glanced at her. His eyes fell on the blade in her hand. “She is armed?”
“I armed her uncle.” Del said. “She has insisted on aiding me in my duty.” He enunciated each syllable of the word so that it came out dyou-tea.
Rayne watched the tension between her new friend and his superior. She felt the same urge she always felt in serious situations. She wanted to run. She stood up.
“I’ll go.” She said. “I don’t wish to cause any trouble.” In one swift move she leapt over the tailgate and was on the sand.
“Rayne, don’t be stupid.” Del insisted. Rayne walked swiftly out into the darkness. “Uncle, stop her! You know she can’t survive in the desert alone. She’ll be dead within hours.” Del was clearly alarmed.
His uncle said nothing.
“She needs passage across the desert, Uncle. I’ll find another transport for her at Kip-ri, if it’s that much of a concern.”
The old man still said nothing. He watched the figure of Rayne moving off into the darkness.
“Uncle we’ve never left anyone behind in the desert.” Delsin urged.
The old man turned to the man to his right. The man was also very old, but tall, and he wore long robes that flowed to the ground. His fingers were covered in many jeweled rings.
“There are no signs, sir.”
Delsin looked hopeful. “No signs.” He repeated, “That means she can’t be a danger.”
“No signs.” His uncle repeated. “Is not the same as favorable signs.”
Del stood up in the wagon. “I would not leave an experienced desert traveler to fend for himself at night, least of all a girl with no experience and no supplies. If you will not allow her to travel with us, I will travel with her.” He hopped down from the wagon and stood defiant in front of his uncle.
“You will not abandon your post.” The old man said. “Bring her back. Whatever she is, her destiny has joined ours.”
The three old men moved off to rejoin the front of the line even before Del had turned to follow Rayne.