The Secret Oasis
Early autumn, 2261 AURC
The northern road got more and more crowded the closer we drew to Great Market. This time of year virtually all the trade on it was heading south, and so were we, but we were in no mood for a trader's plodding pace. The nights had become chilly, and we wanted to be on our way down the Spice Road before another fortnight passed.
A hundred years ago, Great Market didn't exist. On the spot where it now stood there was nothing but a crossroads with a Regellan transfer station. Even this far from New Regellus, all imports received into the Empire were made to pass through the capital before they could be sold anywhere else. So here the caravaneers from the Spice Road, the short-haul traders from the port of Nan, and wain drivers from the northern countries sold their goods at fixed prices to bonded carriers who hauled them a thousand miles to New Regellus. It was profitable, but only just. Travel was much safer in those days, but no one got rich except for the nobility close to the emperor ― and black marketeers.
Now the place was a riot of activity. A scattering of fixed buildings was surrounded by a city of tents of every size and color. Silks from the Silk Islands, spices from the south, metals and minerals and furs from the north, and produce and cattle from the west arrived, changed hands, and left again so quickly and in such amounts that no one could ever hope to keep track of it all.
We spent our first day there wandering around, taking it all in. About an hour after we arrived I pointed out a display at an arms merchant's stall, but I only got a vague "uh-huh" from Kit. I looked down at him. His eyes were glassy.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm... just... This is a lot." He grabbed my arm and clung to it like his life depended on it. "Can we go someplace quiet?"
I tried to ignore the way his fingers stabbed into my flesh. "I don't know. We'll have to look around."
For want of a better idea I led him back toward a section full of food vendors we'd passed earlier. If nothing else, maybe he'd feel better with something in his stomach.
We were getting close when he stopped short. "Tam! Do you smell that?"
I could smell human bodies, cattle dung, camels, an assortment of vegetables that really should have been pickled a couple of weeks ago, and a hint of the food cooking nearby. "What in particular?"
He sniffed the air like a bloodhound picking up a scent, then let go of my arm and darted off through the crowd. I did my best to keep up, working the circulation back into my hand as I went. I found him outside a stall run by traders from the Silk Islands, jabbering away with them. I knew his mother came from there, but I had no idea he spoke the language. He handed them a bit of silver before he turned and scanned the crowd for me.
"Come on, you have to try this!" He disappeared into the back of the stall.
Try what? The sign in front was no help. It was written in Silk Islandish or whatever you call those weird designs. I passed through the entrance on the far side of the counter to find Kit sitting on a cushion on the ground in front of a low table, looking for all the world like he was about to eat for the first time in a month. He patted the cushion next to him, and I joined him.
I was about to ask what was going on when one of the traders came over and placed a small cast-iron pot and a couple of porcelain cups on the table. Kit filled both cups from the pot. The stuff was watery, of a pale reddish-amber color, and smelled almost like grass. He lifted his cup to his nose and breathed in the vapor before taking a sip. An enormous contented smile spread on his face, and he sighed happily.
I took a sip myself. It was astringent, bitter, and a little spicy. I pursed my lips.
"Tea," said Kit. "It can fix anything."
That explained it. "So this is a medicine."
"You can use it that way, but why not enjoy it for itself?"
"You mean you like this stuff?"
"What's not to like?"
"Really? Go figure." He took another, longer sip. "I ran out a few weeks after I left home. I thought I'd be able to find it as I traveled, but no one even knew what I was talking about when I asked for it."
"I wonder why."
My sarcastic tone went right past him. "I know. It's weird. I guess the traders from Hachido aren't sharing it around. I don't think they'd have let me in here just now if I couldn't talk to them in Yorozushimago. Good thing they did. I feel much better now."
"What was the problem?" I said.
He drained his cup and refilled it from the pot. "There are a lot of people."
"It's like any big city market, only more of it."
He shook his head. "I don't think there are this many people in all of Lipak. There's so much happening all at once! And it was so noisy. I felt like I couldn't breathe, or think."
It took Kit about an hour to finish off his tea, but after that he was able to cope with the crowds as we explored the place.
"This is my fault, Tam."
It was our fourth day at Great Market and we'd just been turned down for the sixth time by a caravaneer. One look at me would get us in to see them, but one look at Kit ― along with the news that we were only available as a team ― and we'd be shown the tent flap.
I did my best to reassure him. "Nah. We're just weeding out the idiots. We probably don't want to work for anyone stupid enough to turn us down on your looks anyway."
Kit hung his head. "That's nice of you, but it doesn't help much."
He was right and I knew it. Soon it would no longer be practical to sleep outdoors, and just being at Great Market meant we were running through our money like it was water. If we didn't have enough to spend a winter in a small village inn, we sure couldn't afford lodging at one of this place's few permanent establishments. I was trying not to worry about it too much yet.
We had several leads to check that day. Nothing came of the first one, so we were tramping around in search of the second. With no fixed streets it wasn't always so easy to find who we were looking for.
"I don't know. Maybe we should think about..." He took a deep breath. "...splitting up. For awhile, anyway. So you can find some work."
My stomach clenched up like I'd been punched, and I stopped in my tracks. "What!"
"It's just... I don't want to be a burden."
I grabbed him by the arm and jerked him around to face me. "I'd give up my life for you. Do you think I'd send you off just because it's hard to find a job?"
"No. You wouldn't. But I'm holding you back, and that's wrong. So I'll... I'll get out of your way."
"You're not holding me back." I had to force the words past clenched teeth.
"Yes I am. No one wants to hire a runt like me for this kind of―"
I gave him a shake and got right down in his face. "If anyone else called you that, I'd kill him. Don't say it again."
"But it's true."
"A month ago I saw you destroy a demon lord! Now you're letting this get to you?"
"I'll fight anything Tam, but there's nothing I can do about my size."
"Who says you have to do anything about it?"
He looked at the ground. "Everyone."
"Look, I've always been small, my whole life. I don't mind. Honestly, I don't. It never made any more trouble than a few insults. But now it's a problem."
"It's not a problem."
"Yes it is. And if―"
"So help me Kit, if you don't shut up about this I'll punch you."
I straightened and stalked off in the direction we'd been heading, dragging him along with me. Before too long he was keeping up with me on his own. He gently pulled his arm out of my grip and took my hand in his, then brought it to his lips. We held hands until he leaned his head against me and I let go so I could put my arm around his shoulder.
No one watching us could mistake how we felt about each other. We got a few stares, but no one gave us any trouble. I almost wished someone would. A fight would have felt very good.
By then I'd completely lost track of where the next lead was supposed to be, and without really thinking about it I steered us toward the teahouse.
After a cup I began to understand what Kit saw in the stuff. I don't know if it was the tea itself or the sitting still to drink it, but it was just the thing to to settle me down enough to talk. Even the flavor was starting to grow on me.
"Kit, I can't believe you're thinking this way."
"It's embarrassing to burden you. If it's my fault that we can't find work―"
"It's not your fault."
He shrugged. "It's only what you'd expect."
"So? You know damned well it's bullshit."
He stared into his teacup, saying nothing.
"You do know it, right?"
Kit sighed. "It's hard to explain. I guess part of it that most everyone I ever admired was taller. My oldest brother. My sister. You. A few others. There's a lot in all of you that I can never really measure up to. This isn't what, but it goes along, see?"
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say." I leaned forward. "It does bother you being short, doesn't it?"
"No! I already told you―"
"You think it's all right to be treated like this. In spite of everything, you're going to let these self-satisfied idiots tell you you're not good enough."
He took a long time to answer. "Maybe I'm not."
"Look, I know I can fight. That doesn't make me good, or courageous, or anything like that."
It was all I could do to keep from shouting in the relative quiet of the teahouse. "Stop thinking you deserve this."
"I'm getting in your way. If one of us doesn't deserve it, it's you."
"What I don't deserve is having you run out on me the moment you think things aren't going our way. We are not splitting up. For any reason. We're in this together. Period."
"It's the last thing I want. Ever. But Tam, you're going to be cold this winter, and it's my fault. I'm useless."
It almost broke my heart to hear him so despondent. My own hurt and anger evaporated. I put an arm around him and pulled him close.
"Never that. You've been more to me than anyone else I've ever known. I can be cold, as long as you're with me."
He grabbed me around the waist with both arms and held on for a long time with his face buried in my chest while I stroked his hair. Just when the awkward position was getting to be too uncomfortable, he let go.
"I'm sorry, Tam. I won't leave you, ever. But what'll we do?"
"Keep trying. This is a big place, and caravans leave every day. We'll find something." I took a sip of tea. It had not improved for having gotten cold. "You know, instead it thinking they have a point, it would be better to get pissed off. Be intimidating. You're good at that."
"Isn't it a bad idea to scare someone you're asking for a job?"
"Not if they're looking to hire scary men."
He shrugged. "I guess it can't make things any worse."
Ilbar laughed and shook his head. "If it must be the both of you, no."
It was the same thing we'd already heard twice that day. Kit hadn't done anything about it earlier, but I think by then he'd had enough.
He rested his fists on the makeshift desk and leaned forward so that he loomed over Ilbar. Kit could only loom over someone seated, but then he did it very well.
"Are you absolutely sure of that?" He hadn't turned on the real fear yet, but had a look on his face I'd only ever seen when he wanted to kill someone.
Ilbar wouldn't budge. "I'm sure you're well-trained, boy, but you must understand what we might face. Desert bandits are ruthless, and they attack in force. Without experience in real fighting―"
"I've dealt with bandits before. How much more real does it need to be?"
Ilbar opened his mouth to reply, but the tent flap behind him parted to reveal a very big man in well-worn ring armor. A black beard jutted from his chin, and his dark, deep-set eyes took in the scene at a glance.
"Ilbar! A word with you. There is the matter of rations that must be settled."
Ilbar turned. "One moment, Devraz. I'm nearly done here."
"You said you were talking to some prospects for the guard. You are hiring them, are you not?"
"You cannot be serious!"
Devraz' gaze lingered on me for a moment, but he studied Kit intently. "If you let them go, you're a fool."
Ilbar darkened. "I allow you great liberties, Devraz, but do not overstep your bounds. I know what to look for―"
"We are short of men and you say we must depart tomorrow. You must therefore hire someone today. If you really know what to look for you would not pass them up."
Ilbar rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You will have your way if you insist. Were you not the best captain to be found, I would never tolerate this."
"But I am, and so you do. And you are yet needed presently." He turned and stepped back outside.
"Very well," said Ilbar. "What Devraz wants, he gets. But you," he pointed at Kit, "will come in at half wages only."
Kit looked at me and I nodded. "Agreed," I said. "But we'll renegotiate once you see him in action."
"If I ever see it."
Two weeks later we had left winter behind. As we traveled south the Erganine Hills grew ever higher, steeper, and more rocky, and as they did the land in their shadow dried. By the time the mountains were high enough that their peaks gleamed white in the sun we were moving through a barren desert.
Stories of the Spice Road are always full of exotic romance, but the real thing is nothing like that. The heat of the day became oppressive well before the sun reached noon, yet nights were cold enough that you had to wrap yourself in extra layers of clothing just to be comfortable. The air was so dry it sucked the moisture from your skin and mouth, and the dust rose with every step to pain your eyes and clog your nose. That last was as much a blessing than a curse because it meant I couldn't smell the camels as well as I might have. I'd had no idea before setting out on this journey what miserable, nasty beasts they were. It took a firm hand to keep them obedient, and I was very glad that the caravan guards weren't expected to tend them.
There was no pressing need for action from the guards for much of the journey. Although the region between Great Market and the desert had been nominally under Regellan control they had never really established themselves there, and it was still inhabited by the tribes that had wandered those hills since time out of mind. They might have given us some trouble, but these were Devraz' own people and he knew how to avoid areas were we might be caught by rogue clans or find ourselves embroiled in feuds.
On the one hand I was happy that so little work was required of us, but on the other, I was missing our full pay from future plans. We had no cash to spare. Our Regllan-style tunics were unsuitable for the desert with its blazing hot days and chilly nights, so almost all our remaining cash went toward clothes. Even Kit had to admit the practicality of the flowing, knee-length coat, the khalat, and ― as much as he disliked wearing them ― the loose breeches. He rarely wore the undershirt.
We had no privacy to speak of. Neither Kit nor I had thought through this part of our plans. Devraz never allowed anyone to wander out of sight for longer than it took for elimination. It was a reasonable safety measure, but an incredibly frustrating one.
I woke up every morning wanting so much more from Kit than a glance or a touch, and went to sleep full of unsated longing. Kit responded by refusing to be discreet about our attachment in any way, and before too long I became so desperate for him that I lost all embarrassment over it. Evenings around the campfires would find us relaxing in each other's arms. It was a comfort, if a scant one, but it added to other problems.
Devraz may have known better, but Ilbar continued to treat Kit as if he were extra baggage, part of the price of taking me along. He made no secret of his opinion either, and in a couple of weeks it had spread all over the caravan.
Yaskul was only the loudest of those for whom Kit was an object of loathing, especially after supper when he'd sucked down the better part of a wineskin. It came to a head one evening about six weeks into the journey.
"I don't like you," he said as he stared across the fire at Kit. "Gods-damned little weed."
In the firelight I could see Kit's jaw muscles clench, but he kept himself in check, as he had every night before.
Yaskul shifted his attention to me. "Well? Aren't you gonna stand up for your little butt-boy?"
I snorted. Yaskul when drunk had a sloppy way about him that blunted his otherwise dangerous edge. "He doesn't need help with the likes of you."
"Izzat so? Well he don't look like much to me, and there's been nothing from him yet but talk." He rose and came around to our side of the fire, his stride only a little unsteady, and glared down at Kit. "You been here eatin' our food, drinkin' our water, and what good are you? Nothin'!" He grabbed Kit by the shoulder and shoved, hard.
Kit rolled with it and flipped himself over back over to his feet with a one-armed handspring. He landed with his legs apart and slightly bent, and his fists poised before him.
"I've had all I'm going to take from you," said Kit. His tone was cool and quiet. "You want to fight me? All right. Let's do it."
Yaskul hesitated, taken aback by Kit's confidence.
"Come on," said Kit. He dropped his stance and stood with his hands spread out at his sides. "I'll even give you the first punch." When Yaskul still didn't respond, he added, "Or are you such a coward you can't even manage that?"
The taunt pricked Yaskul beyond endurance. With a roar, he charged in and threw a wild haymaker, leaning into it with his full weight. It connected squarely with Kit's temple.
Kit's head didn't even snap back. He rocked a little and his footing gave so that he slid a foot or so, but he never lost his balance.
"All right. My turn."
Yaskul took a step back, breathing hard. Then he cocked his fist and drove it in straight and low. On another man it might have been for the gut, but with Kit it was aimed right for his chest.
I thought Kit would dodge it with his lightning speed, but instead he met the fist with an open hand and stopped it cold. With a quick twist he spun Yaskul around and locked his arm behind his back. He cried out as Kit used the leverage to force him to his knees.
"No. I said I'd give you the first punch. You don't get a second one." Kit's fingers clenched around Yaskul's hand and held it tight. The muscles in his forearm stood out in the firelight as he began to squeeze. Yaskul cried out again, but as much as he writhed he could do nothing to escape. The sweat broke out on his forehead.
"So how should I do this, Yaskul? Break your fingers all at the same time? Or maybe it would be better to do it one by one. I'm such a little weed I might only be able to manage it slowly."
"Enough!" From behind me Devraz stepped into the circle of firelight. Intent on the scene before me I hadn't heard him coming and started a little at the sound of his voice, but Kit didn't blink.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to damage him permanently."
"You will not damage him at all. Release him."
Kit kept Yaskul in place, but he turned his head to face Devraz. "Why should I?"
"Because I order you to."
I leaped to my feet. "That's not fair!"
"Fair? Kitaro goaded Yaskul into striking a blow which he knew would do him no harm, to make an excuse for dealing a serious injury. And you have the impudence to speak of fairness?"
My fists clenched and I could feel my color rising, but I had no answer that made any sense.
"So you're telling me I have to smile and take his shit no matter what?" Kit straightened up and released Yaskul, who scrambled back to the other side of the fire.
"If you cannot put such matters aside for a time when it is suitable to settle accounts, then the desert is no place for you. Here, everything is scarce. We waste nothing. Not water, not food, and not men. You would have broken his hand at the least, and he would have been a useless drain on our strength until he recovered. Other captains might permit such a thing. I do not."
Kit crossed his arms. "You didn't stop Mahru and Gulam from beating on each other a couple of nights ago."
"I have known them for many years. They fight often, and nothing ever comes of it but a few bruises, and that their friendship is restored afterward. As for you," he turned Yaskul, "I have told you before not to drink so much wine. If I find you drunk again before we reach Kroraina, there will be consequences." He walked off toward the head of the caravan.
Kit plopped down at his place by the fire. I eased myself to the ground next to him. He leaned into me and I put an arm around his shoulders.
"Well," I said. "At least it was instructive."
"Yeah. Sometimes I really hate that."
A few mornings later I was stretching the kinks out as Kit finished his exercises. In spite of the day having broken an hour before, the caravan was in deep shadow from a line of dunes a hundred yards to the east and the night's chill clung to the ground. The rest of the men were shaking off their sleepiness and making the noises that go with it, but I watched Kit as Kit watched the sunrise. Even after weeks on the desert road with all its dust and grime, his hair still gleamed when the light touched it. He wore his breeches but was bare-chested, and the shadows on his slender, powerful form highlighted every muscle.
Those shadows stood out as his whole body stiffened and his cry echoed out over the caravan. "Raiders! To arms!" He turned and raced back past me, and had snatched up his sword even before I reached our packs.
The cry went up from up and down the caravan, and the sound of weapons being drawn echoed off the dunes. I strung my bow and raced to where Devraz was gathering the archers. Squinting up toward the dunes I was nearly blinded by the sun and could make out only shadowy figures charging toward us, and hear the thunder of their horses' hooves. On Devraz' signal we let fly. I had no idea if any of us hit. If only I could see what I was aiming at! I wondered how Kit had even spotted them in the first place. He must have been using his other sight. I wished I could do the same thing. The only time my vision was any different was when―
Just for a moment I hesitated. I had never tried shooting under my white fire, but the strange view of the world I had then was my only hope of seeing my targets. I reached down inside me and pulled it up.
The color washed out of the world, and with it went the intolerable glare of the sun. It now appeared to me as a great white orb, the enemy standing out as stark shadows before it. There was a line on horseback charging toward us down the face of the dune. Behind them ran their ranks on foot.
Without even thinking about I nocked an arrow and shot. When in my normal mind I could aim quickly but it always took me a moment to be sure of my target. Now I was doing it almost without looking. One horseman after another went down with my shaft in his throat or breast. But they were coming on fast and the shots of our other archers were going astray in the glare of the rising sun. I only had time to account for seven or eight before they were upon us. I dropped my bow and drew my sword.
The first horseman to reach me tried to ride me down. I stepped aside to avoid his stroke and seized his mount's bridle. The horse stopped short when I pulled its head around, and the rider tumbled to the ground. I ran my sword through his chest the instant he hit the ground. A scream came from behind me. I spun around. Chaba, another archer, had been slashed across the face. He screamed as he fell. I stabbed upward. The raider fell dead from his saddle. I launched myself at the next horseman I could reach, and knocked him from his mount with a flying tackle. As he lay on the ground I stabbed through his chest and into the sand beneath.
We were so hard pressed I had little attention to spare, and I was only dimly aware of the progress of the rest of the battle. I couldn't help but notice Kit though. I could see him more clearly than anyone else, and in his natural coloring, and he moved like the desert whirlwind itself. Once I saw him vault high enough to strike a horseman's head from his shoulders with his flashing blade. Other times a single blow from his foot or fist was all it took to knock an enemy senseless. Or maybe kill. I had no time to find out which.
The shock of the cavalry charge broke our lines. Up and down the caravan came screams and panicked shouts as different merchants screamed for their own goods to be protected. A few went down before the onslaught if they weren't wise enough to flee when the raiders got through to them. There was no order left to the battle on either side, and I no longer heard any orders from Devraz.
Amidst my own battle I became aware that a portion of the guard had rallied around Kit. As many raiders as he accounted for by himself, even more fell to others on our side as they tried to avoid him, and that part of the battle turned into a whirling melee. Spontaneously, the two wings of our line that had been cut off by the initial charge, closed in around it. The battle turned in our favor.
So quickly then did their numbers dwindle that the raiders were down to a quarter of their original strength before they understood they were outmatched. Those who were left regrouped and tried to flee. But there was no outrunning Kit, and to me they looked like they moved so slowly that it was no work at all for me to catch them. Even so, a handful managed to escape to the top of the dune. I had barely formed the intention before my bow was back in my hand. My arrows flew true to their marks, and then it was over.
I had never fought for so long with the white fire filling me, and when at last it shrank back into my core, the world spun around me and I was gone.
I awoke beneath an awning staked out next to a reclining camel, my throat afire with thirst. My pack was next to me. I fumbled around with it until I found my water bottle, and drained it in a single long draft. After that I felt almost refreshed, and took stock of where I was. Charming as a sweaty camel could be, I decided I'd rather be elsewhere, so I rolled over and got to my feet.
The sun was close to noon and the desert was blistering hot. Other awnings were set up all along the caravan with men resting beneath them. Many were having their wounds tended. I spotted Ilbar next to an awning near the front of the line, wringing his hands and running his mouth. Kit crouched beneath it. He only spared me a glance and a grin before turning back to his unconscious patient. It was Devraz.
"...and of course there is no longer any question of your pay. Magnificent! And a skilled leech as well! Why, had I known, I would have offered you twice the rates for an ordinary man. In fact, let me―"
"Ilbar. If I'm going to save his life I need you to shut up now."
"My deepest apologies! Naturally, you do not wish to be distracted at such a time. If there is any aid I can render―" A glare from Kit and his mouth snapped shut.
After a short time, Kit sat back on his heels and frowned.
"I need to brew some herbs. The sand is hot enough that I won't need a fire, but would you mind running for some water, Tam?"
The caravan had been put back into a good enough order that the waterskins were where I expected them to be, but you didn't have to be an expert in desert travel to be alarmed at what I found. Although I had just drunk my fill, my mouth dried out at the sight of the great skins slashed and nearly empty. I was able to get Kit's small pot filled from what little remained.
"Thanks," he said before dropping in some herbs and setting it in the sand.
"Problem though," I said. "The raiders got to the water."
"Yeah. A few of them broke through while I was occupied. It was almost over by then, so I guess they wanted to do what damage they could."
Ilbar let out a great cry and tore at his beard. "The water! Gone!" He glared down at Kit. "You knew, and saw fit not to tell me! Do you not understand that this dooms us all? It's more than a week to Kroraina, and not a single oasis along the way. We will all die of thirst!"
Kit reached up to Ilbar's belly and gave him a shove that sent him staggering back. "One problem at a time. Devraz will lose his arm unless I stop the rot and get this wound closed right now."
At the mention of his name, Devraz stirred and his eyes cracked open. "Ilbar. Next time... I tell you... a place is unsafe to make camp... you will heed me."
"Next time. He is delirious! As if we will not all die of thirst in a few days!"
"Nonsense. You fool. It is obvious. How can you not see..." Devraz trailed off as he passed out once more.
Ilbar seemed closer to delirium than Devraz. For the next half hour as Kit cleaned out Devraz' wound, stitched it closed, and applied a poultice, he paced, fretted, and sacrificed more of his beard.
I didn't feel any better than he did about the situation. I worked my mouth trying to moisten it while I thought on what Devraz was getting at.
Vultures were thick on the battlefield, devouring the fallen of both sides. I might have been among them even now. A battle is never certain even for one as skilled as Kit, or me with or without my white fire. At any moment I could find myself pressed all around, and the slightest accident would mean my end.
"I wonder what they eat when there's no fighting?" I said.
I didn't really expect an answer, but Kit turned away from Devraz and looked to where a small group of vultures were clustered around a corpse. One of them loped our way. Ilbar shrank back as it drew near. Kit locked eyes with it for a moment before it went back to its meal.
"Not much," he said, as he returned to his work. "There's been good eating for the past year though. It seems there's a feast every time a caravan camps in this spot. The raiders attack at dawn, when they have the advantage of the sun at their backs. He says it's all over now though, and the flock will have to disperse for want of carrion."
Shouts from up the caravan drew my attention. The raiders' surviving horses were thirsty too. Ilbar's servants and some of the other traders were having to use camel prods to keep them away from what was left of the water.
It hit me like a thunderclap. I felt almost as foolish as Ilbar for not having seen it sooner.
"There's an oasis somewhere nearby."
Kit nodded, but Ilbar was incensed. "And are you now so much wiser in the ways of the desert than I, who have been a desert man since boyhood, that you know such a thing? And how? Does the air tell you tales?"
"No. The horses do."
"This one speaks to fowl it seems. So you speak to beasts? Faugh!"
"Then you tell me how they got here, a week's journey from anywhere you can feed or water them."
Ilbar smirked. "Of course one may bring horses across the desert. Any skilled desert man could do it. As goods, of course. They are useless as beasts of burden. They cannot even carry enough fodder and water for themselves."
I nodded. "You probably don't want to take them into battle either."
"No, that would be foolish. I once saw―"
He looked awful funny standing there with mouth hanging open like that.
"I keep telling you you're brilliant, but you won't believe me." Kit finished putting away his gear and rose from Devraz' side.
"So..." I tilted my head toward the battlefield. "Can they tell you where it is?"
"They could, but they won't. This'll be their last good meal for a long time, and they're not willing to interrupt it to talk to me any more."
"I guess we can just follow the raiders' tracks then, if they haven't blown away." I tapped my fingers together, thinking. "I bet it's somewhere in the rocks. If it were out in the open, it'd be a well-known place."
"I wonder how strong they are."
"There can't be many of them right now. You'd send most of your men on a raid like this."
"Right. Brilliant." Kit put his arms around me and gave me a squeeze. "So let's go!" He dashed off and returned with his sword slung across his back and a sparkle in his eyes that I hadn't seen since we'd arrived at Great Market. "Ilbar!" he called out. "Give us until tomorrow morning. The wounded shouldn't be moved for a day or two anyway."
We left Ilbar complaining behind us. At this rate he'd be out of beard long before the afternoon was over.
It was easy enough to pick up their traces from just behind the dune ridge. They led back to a valley where we found the remains of their night's camp. From there we followed them east and a little south, winding around the dunes along a path that would have concealed their passage from nearly anyone watching out for them but which brought us closer and closer to a rocky ridge that projected like a finger from the western mountains. Our own caravan's course had been chosen to bring us through one of the wide gaps in it, but now the trail led us toward its eastern heights.
Once we had rock under our feet the track became hard to follow, consisting of little more than the occasional horse dropping. It kept to the low ground, never very far from the sand until, without warning, we found ourselves before a blank cliff wall. There was no sign of horses' passage in the sand to the left, and to the right was a steep, rocky bank.
"I guess we have to double back," I said. "We must have missed a turn."
"Can't see how. It's not as if― Look out!"
I hurled myself toward the sand, rolling as I landed. When I got to my feet Kit's back was to me and he had an arrow in his hand. It wasn't one of mine. I unslung my bow, nocked an arrow, and drew before I had any idea where to aim. Kit pointed toward a ledge about twenty yards back and maybe thirty feet up. I could only catch a glimpse of cloth in that direction before I let fly. My target ducked out of reach just before my arrow arrived. It bounced harmlessly off the rock.
"Come on!" Kit dashed toward the ledge and scrambled up the rock like a monkey.
I hesitated. I had little experience climbing rock. Kit kept climbing while I tried to figure out a route that wouldn't get me stuck halfway up.
In the meantime, Kit reached a spot just like that. There was nothing but a sheer wall above him. While he stopped to consider his next move, I spotted our sniper atop the ridge. He had stepped out from behind his cover and had Kit sighted. An arrow was to the string, and he was drawing his bow.
At my shouted warning Kit looked up just in time to see the arrow flying in his direction. He swung out in an effort to dodge. His feet lost their precarious grip on the rock face, leaving him dangling by the fingers of one hand. The arrow sailed past him to shiver against the rock to my left. Kit scrambled to regain some traction for his feet, but it was no use.
I already had an arrow to the string, and now I drew and shot. With so little time to aim it went a little wide of the mark. Instead of piercing his eye, my arrow impaled his shoulder. He gave a cry and dropped his bow, then disappeared behind the rock. I heard his footfall as he staggered off.
A loud crack sounded as Kit used a smaller version of his rock-shattering Whirlwind punch with the fingers of his free hand to dig a handhold for himself. Soon he got his feet under him again, and he scaled the cliff in short order. Once at the top, he leaped upon a boulder and scanned our surroundings.
"Don't bother with the cliff! The path is over there!" He pointed in the direction we'd first come.
When I found it I understood how we'd missed it. Coming from the east it was plain to see, but a tall boulder shielded it so that you could walk right by it coming from the west.
It was wide enough for two horses to walk abreast, if too steep to charge down at a gallop. I jogged to the top of the ridge. Kit had come down off the boulder by the time I'd gotten there.
"Thanks, Tam. That was uncomfortable. Instructive, too."
"You almost got yourself killed. Of course it was instructive."
He laughed at that, and we kissed before taking a look around us. I pointed out a trail of blood leading in the direction the sniper had fled. "At least we won't have any trouble finding the trail if it doubles back again."
"As long as he doesn't die before he gets there, anyway. Nice shot."
"I wish I could say I planned it that way."
"You can, next time this happens."
"You mean the next time we get shot at by a lookout for a desert raiders' secret hideout we're trying to find?"
"I bet something like it will come up again."
"I'll owe you a beer if it does."
"You buy most of my beer anyway. Make it tea and it's a bet."
The trail ran along the top of the ridge for about a half mile before dipping down the other side and descending into a circular valley surrounded by crags. We followed the trail of blood, now grown very sparse, around one final bend to see before us a large cavern. Its mouth was sealed off by a man-made stone wall about ten feet high, which left a good-sized gap where the natural arch reached its highest point. The heavy wooden gate in the center of the wall was shut fast.
Without warning Kit dropped to the sand, his legs swinging around to sweep my feet out from under me. Just as I hit the ground an arrow whizzed over us and planted itself in the ground to our right.
Kit rolled and sprang to his feet, his drawn sword flashing in the sun. The polished steel rang as he deflected one arrow, and then another. I tracked their source while I regained my feet: a set of narrow gaps like arrow slits in the rock above and to the left of the great cavern. We were practically in front of it.
"To the wall!" I cried. "They won't be able to hit us if we're right underneath!"
Kit nodded and made his way forward. Arrows flew toward us at a rapid tempo. His blade was a blur as he sent them off in all directions. I kept behind him and low. On reaching the rock we pressed ourselves flat against it. A single arrow whizzed over our heads and stuck itself into the sand just a few feet out.
A curse sounded from overhead. I didn't understand the language, but the tone made the meaning plain enough.
"That was interesting," said Kit.
"No. I expected an attack, and I know how to block arrows. I guess the question is if we can expect any more."
I looked about. Beyond the far side of the cavern the rock wall bent inward again, curving smooth and sheer to enclose the other side of the valley, where it broke up into the crags typical of the rest of the ridge. Right at the start of the curve and high above was another set of narrow slits.
I pointed them out. "They're well-placed. Just those two stations cover this whole valley. We'd be in trouble if they were both manned."
"It might be challenging, yeah," said Kit. "We'd better get inside before they put anyone over there."
We dashed over to the gate.
"So, what are you going to do? Punch through it?"
"Don't have to. It's only about ten, twelve feet high, right?" He looked up, set himself, and leaped.
I'd seen him scampering through the trees, jumping up to catch one of the lower branches before swinging up, but I had no idea he could jump like this. It was like watching him fly. He alighted briefly on top of the gate and dropped down.
From the other side of the door came a scraping and then a thud. I listened hard for sounds of a struggle, but all that happened was that the gate swung open. Kit stood there alone. On the ground behind him laid the heavy bar that had barricaded the gate.
The cavern was high but not very deep, and at least part of it had been artificially enlarged. Along the wall to the right was a row of horse stalls; to the left was a short, squared-off passage closed at its far end by a bronze door.
"Could be a murder hole," I said.
"Maybe. How long does it take to boil oil?"
"Let's go, then!"
With his sword drawn, he ran for the door. I kept close at his heels. Inside the passage he paused and exhaled slowly, his eyes fixed on his blade. The air around it started to shimmer like when he prepared for his stone-shattering Whirlwind punch.
He grabbed the hilts of his sword with both hands and drove it point-first into the door near the hinge side. With a loud bang it pierced the heavy bronze and penetrated about halfway down its length. Quickly he pulled it out and stabbed through the door a half dozen more times, then without pausing whirled and struck with his foot. The door blew inward, hit the ground about ten feet in, skidded across the floor, and slammed into the wall at the far end of the corridor. Rock chips blasted out from the impact. We charged in, ready for anything.
The torch-lit corridor ahead was narrow and not very long, but a a branch we encountered a short distance inside was wide, and relatively clear of sand. We hurried down that way, but stopped short before we got far. The archer who had sniped at us at the cliff lay slumped against the wall.
We continued down the corridor. Chambers branched off on both sides, all packed with goods. There were bolts of silk, sacks of spices, piles of metal ingots and weaponry, and more. There was no telling how many caravans had been taken to account for it all.
"What I want to know," I said as we went, "is how in the dozen hells they built this place and keep it provisioned, and what they do with all the loot. It's at least a week to the next city in either direction. They can't possibly avoid notice no matter which one they go to."
Kit shrugged. "It's only a couple of days east to the coast."
"What good does that do? Between the reefs and the pirates, the Saevian is practically unnavigable. That's why there's a Spice Road in the first place."
"So maybe they're pirates who've found fresh hunting grounds."
We jogged on as the corridor curved further around to the right. Still we encountered no one. A few other passages branched off to the left, but they were narrower than the one we followed and had fewer tracks. Through small openings to the right I could see the great entrance cavern. We were now on the opposite end from the bronze door.
We turned one final bend. Kit gasped. I stood with my jaw hanging open in wonder.
Through a rough stone archway before us was an enormous hollow in the rock. Sunlight filtered down through dozens of small fissures in the roof. Between them hung thousands of stalactites shimmering in the light reflected back up from the pool of water that gently rippled beneath. After weeks in the desert with the only water the hot, tarry stuff we carried with us, it was a sight more welcome than all the treasure in the rest of the cave. In the dim light we could just make out a kind of beach at the far end where we could kneel at the water's edge and drink until we were no longer dry.
Slowly, almost reverently, we passed beneath the arch. Kit stopped short.
"Wait. What in the―?"
Sand erupted from the floor and a heavy rope net closed around us. I lost my footing and toppled over. A cry sounded out and unseen arms hoisted us up about six feet off the ground. Laughter and shouts of triumph echoed in the cavern.
The man who emerged from the shadows at one side of the arch wasn't very tall but was very strongly built. He had a short but full beard, and had either a deep tan or naturally brown skin. There was a set to his eyes that reminded me of Kit, and of the traders from the Silk Islands I'd seen at Great Market, and he walked with a curious rolling gait.
"Not so clever after all. All right lads, strip 'em!"
Half a dozen men swarmed toward us and thrust their hands through the coarse mesh. My bow was pulled off my back, and I felt a tugging at my side as my sword and knife were taken. When they stepped away, I could see they had Kit's sword as well. Their leader drew a span's length of the blade out of the sheath, then slammed it back.
"Fancy sword for a boy like you. From Tetsujima, huh? I've always wanted one of these."
Kit struggled, but was too entangled to do anything.
"The boy is angry! Hah! I'd thank you, but first we owe you for what you did to Nello. And that's going to be fun. When the rest of our crew get back..." He grinned. "Get ready for some hurt."
They sauntered out of the cavern and headed back up the corridor we'd just passed through, leaving us alone.
Kit's voice was level. "If they do anything to that sword, I'm going to kill them."
"Won't you kill them anyway?"
He paused. "Yes. If they don't kill us first. But I can make it hurt either a little or a lot, depending."
I twisted, trying to get my left arm out of its awkward position. It didn't work, and now my legs were uncomfortably twisted. "So what can we do?"
"I'm not sure. I don't think I can break this rope. It's strong stuff, and I've got no leverage."
"Can't you just punch us out?"
"Come on! You can pulverize rocks!"
"Try cutting a rope with a sledgehammer someday and let me know how it goes."
We fell silent for a time, then Kit spoke up again.
"It might be a while before they realize their crew isn't coming back. We should do what we can to be ready for them. If I can get some free space around me I might be able to manage something."
"I'll know when it happens."
We twisted around each other, the net closing in and threatening to entangle us at every movement. I don't know how it was for Kit, but I had to fight for every move I made. The net gave beneath my hands and feet whenever I pushed against it, and my muscles burned with fatigue by the time we struggled into the position Kit wanted. In the end we manage to arrange ourselves so that I was laying in the bottom of the net, holding a space open with my weight, and Kit was perched on my chest.
"Me neither. Let's get this over with." He raised his voice. "Hey! You pox-brained, limp-cocked cowards! Get your sorry butts in here!"
Laughter rang down the corridor. After a short time the leader sauntered in with a couple of his men at his side. He still bore Kit's sword.
"If you're trying to get us to kill you quickly, it won't work," he said with a chuckle. "You two will make great sport when the crew returns―"
"Coward!" spat Kit. "You sat here, cool and safe, while your 'crew' got slaughtered under the hot sun! They're not coming back. Let us out now and we might not kill you too."
The leader hesitated a moment, and then grinned. "Can't say I've heard that one before, but―"
"That sword you're holding accounted for two score of them by itself." Kit's voice dropped to a near whisper. "You know it's true. You saw us fight. A flight of arrows couldn't touch us."
With his words came a "chi attack". A wave of fear poured out of him, touching me even as the main force of it hit its target. The raiders' leader stood still and silent. Sweat broke out on his brow and trickled down his face.
With a yell he drew Kit's sword and brought it down in a vicious, two-handed cut. An instant before it reached the net Kit's hands shot out. The blade stopped short, the flat trapped between his palms. He reared back, pulling the blade in, the edge dragging against one of the ropes. It parted instantly. He forced the blade downward and to the side. It cut every rope it touched. The net fell apart and we tumbled to the ground.
Kit landed and rolled, taking the leader's feet out from under him. As he fell forward Kit sprang up and felled him with an elbow to the back of the head. A quick twist and he lay still, his neck broken.
Even before I hit the floor, the white fire burst out from my core. The one of my foes was armed with a long, curved knife almost as long as my short sword. I dodged his first lunge. On the second one, I seized his wrist and twisted. I felt bone snap, and the knife clattered to the floor. His unarmed companion made a grab for me. I lifted the body of the first and threw him. They both went down in a heap. I took up the knife and made short work of them both before they could move.
Now re-armed, retrieving our gear and eliminating the remaining three raiders was quick and only a little messy.
Afterward we returned to the pool to rest by the gently dripping water. The cool and damp were beginning to work the dust out of my nose, clearing my senses for the first time since we entered the desert. I breathed in deeply, enjoying the clean, moist air.
Kit spent some time there tending to his sword, cleaning and oiling it before replacing it in the sheath. I watched him as he bent over his work, the cloth of his coat clinging to him, revealing the shape of the lithe body it covered, outlining his back, arms, and buttocks. I swallowed.
It had been far too long. I needed him.
When he straightened, I hugged him from behind. My erection pressed against him.
"Kit. The first privacy we've had in weeks. And Ilbar isn't expecting us until morning."
He leaned back into my arms. "I want you more than anything right now. But I'm surprised you want me. I haven't had a bath in weeks. I must smell like stale camel spit."
I pulled his coat away from his neck, put my nose against his skin, and inhaled. The scent of his body, musky and powerful, almost spicy, ran like a shock straight down to my groin and fanned my flames into an inferno. My vision swam.
"No," I said in a hoarse whisper. "You smell like you. Only more."
I pulled him in even closer, bit at his neck, tasted his sweat. Reaching beneath his open coat, I stroked his body, enjoying the feel of hard muscle rippling with his every movement. My fingers ran across a nub of flesh; his nipple had gotten stiff. I pinched it, hard.
He drew in a shuddering breath and staggered a little, but caught himself and took a step forward. He undid his belt, and it fell to the ground. With a shrug the coat slid from his body, and he stood for a moment apart, perfectly still.
"Tam. Please. Don't... don't be gentle."
I seized his waistband in both hands and pulled. His breeches tore apart, and he was before me, naked, exposed. I shoved him against the rough-hewn wall, and took him.
His fingers gouged trenches in the rock when he came.