I woke the next morning, half surprised I wasn't tied up. Toshi was already awake and urinating on the fire.
"Can't go and burn down half the forest." He said in a casual tone.
I could tell it was going take me a while to figure this man out. Sitka seemed to like him though, even let Toshi pet him. Maybe it was the man's apparent lack of fear for the animal. The experiences we had with most people, like the merchant, were met with fear so maybe he welcomed the change.
If Sitka trusts him than so will I.
"I think you are lucky for running into me when you did." Toshi said soon after we started traveling.
"You think a lot don't you." I responded noting how often he used the phrase to begin a statement. "But tell me why you think so."
"Oh I won't ruin the surprise, you'll know around noon." He had a twinkle in his eye, for a moment I wondered if he really was leading me into a trap. The thought soon passed; I was just being paranoid, even if I did have a good reason.
True to his word, by noon the ground ahead of us was getting brighter but it wasn't till we got there that I saw why. Targutai had told me that it would be foolish to try and cross the Gobi Desert. He couldn't have been more right.
"Wow." It was all I could say to express my awe at the scene in front of me. Sand stretched as far as I could see. Just like on the Steppes, there were no changes in landscape save for the occasional rise and fall of a dune's crest.
"We need to pass through here." Toshi said slapping me on the back, he made me wonder how many times he had been though here before. "This is the thinnest portion of the Gobi and it should only take a few days to cross over. Come on."
With that, he started to walk forward. I stood planted in the ground for a few more seconds as I tried to take in how much sand lay in front of me. I liked to think I do well enough by myself and by my own means, but I always did know when to submit to another's knowledge. This was one of those times.
"Toshi was right, boy." I looked down at Sitka, equally mesmerized. "We are going to need some help."
Toshi explained to me that although we did need to pass by the bulk of the Gobi, this little strip was more trouble to go around than cross. It was a small toe compared to the rest that jutted outwards. Two or three days were acceptable rather than the weeks it could take to detour it.
The first day was definitely the hardest. Though it was only just outside the forest, the sand multiplied the heat to almost unbearable levels and the shade I had grown accustomed to totally vanished.
"Start drinking more water." Toshi said when he noticed me starting to fall behind. "And make sure your friend gets plenty too."
"I'll be fine." I said stubbornly at first. But then I realized how thirsty Sitka looked and remembered we were both really out of my element here. "Okay, but won't we run out of water?"
"Not if we are careful. There is a cave we should reach by tomorrow; it has a spring inside where we can refresh ourselves."
"What about that lake up ahead?" I said. I pointed straight ahead to a shimmering patch on the horizon, only a kilometer or two away."
Toshi walked back up the dune I was standing on and placed his hand on my shoulder. "That's not a lake. It is a mirage."
"A mirage? Okay, so I have the wrong word for it, its still water right?"
"No?" I repeated
Toshi shook his head. "There is no water there, like I said it is called a mirage. It's just an illusion. Rule number one for the desert: don't follow mirages. Let's go, water's a wasting."
Just as he said, there was no water. By the time we got to where I thought I had seen it, the mirage was still just as far away. Toshi said a bit about the heat playing tricks on my mind and mixing the sky with the clouds. Something I was too exhausted to care for.
I found myself needing to drink water almost every hour and I knew my supply wasn't going to last long at that pace. Even in the steppes, finding a river or stream wasn't too hard. Never in my life did I think I would want to drink so much. I though the day would never end. Thankfully as the sun went down so did the temperature, even if it was a little too far down.
Since there isn't much of anything in the desert, wood for burning is very scarce. Again Toshi showed his resourcefulness by having brought some fire wood. It wasn't much given it had to be rationed like everything else to last three nights. With the little light we had we talked little and slept soon.
The next day started as destitute as the previous had, with the bright sun raising the heat before we even started to move.
"We need to get to the cave soon." Toshi said in a very urgent voice. "If we don't we'll get caught in the storm."
I looked up at the sky, it was as clear and blue as I had ever seen it. Not a trace of a cloud could be seen. I looked down at Sitka and then back at Toshi. "Are you sure? I think the heat has already gotten to you."
"Believe me the air is more moist today."
"Whatever you say, I for one would like to get some rain in such a dry and arid place. It would be very refreshing."
"Refreshing he says," Toshi looked up at the sky as if talking to it. "Sure, if you like the skin ripped off your back. Come I'll tell you as we move."
He started off at a fast pace. I didn't have anything against moving faster except that the sand made it harder. Each step dug deep into the sifting ground making you have to use more energy for less progress.
"It never rains here, never." Toshi began. "They're called sand storms."
"So what it's like snow?"
"Hardly, it doesn't fall from the sky: it hits you." He stopped to take a drink, we were both getting near empty but we would be fine as long as we found this cave. "The wind is strong like on the northern steppes, but the grass and dirt there are too heavy to lift. Sand is light and the winds pick in up in quantities you can't even imagine. You'll see, just hopefully from inside shelter or we are both dead."
A few minutes later the wind did start to pick up, nothing I hadn't endured before. The issue was the sand; each tiny particle acted together and tries to push you off your feet. Toshi gave Sitka and I a scarf to wear against the dust-ridden air. Visibility wasn't too bad nor was the wind, however, if this was just the beginning I could tell how bad it would be later.
"On a happier note," I yelled over the winds, "I think I see your shelter over that way."
Sure enough there was a black spot on the side of a dune not twenty meters away. It should have been easier to spot; maybe the ever changing dunes were covering it more than usual. Either way we found it, and sure enough there was a pool of water inside.
Immediately Sitka set to satisfying his thirst by plunging his head in the water. I was about to scold him when Toshi slipped past me and followed suit. "We do need to drink from that water you know." I said but both heads were beyond earshot.
We had made it to the shelter in good time and had there not been the threat of a storm I would have liked to press on. Hopeful to get out of that hell hole as soon as possible. But a little after noon Toshi called me to the cave entrance.
"I think you might want to come now, the show is about to start."
As soon as I walked out, it was obvious something was different. The air felt heavier, just like with a regular storm, but there still were no clouds. The wind had died down though, just a small wisp at our ankles.
"Which way is it coming from?" I asked.
"It was going to be from the West, but I can't tell with the wind this soft."
"We'll get a better view from high ground. Sitka, stay."
Even the highest dune around failed to show me any sign of a storm cloud. It wasn't ten minutes till Toshi tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see what I could only describe as a cloud moving along the ground. A colossal cloud, connecting the sky and the earth in one big churning blur.
"What in the name of the ancestors is that?" It was a rhetorical question of course but Toshi answered anyways.
"That is a sand storm, and now that we have seen it in its entire splendor I suggest we hide from it."
"Good idea." I said as I slid down the side of the dune. As we ran the short stretch between the hill and shelter I continued watching the oncoming gale. It was moving fast, already close enough to hear the howling winds. In the split second I hesitated to get a last glance and it nearly caught me as I jumped inside before the sands could sweep me away.
"Get to the back!" Toshi half pushed, half urged me. One moment the sun was shining brightly outside, seconds later there was darkness.
"Toshi." I said groping in the darkness for Sitka. "How long will the storm last?"
"I don't know: minutes, hours. But until then I say we get a fire started." We would reach the other side sometime the next day so there wasn't much use in conserving the firewood. He took off his scabbard and laid it to the side. The action didn't spark any curiosity as much as the style of blade, I had noticed it on the first day meet him but failed to ask about it till now.
"Your sword, where did you get it?"
"This?" He said almost absently. "It is a Japanese katana, a weapon used by Samurai. You have probably heard of neither; Samurai are a warrior caste in Japan. The Katana is their signature weapon."
"Can I ask you a question?" Toshi said. "How did you get that scar?"
"It was an accident, nothing more." Funny that it wasn't till the third day that he asked. Usually people wanted to know that before even my name. In some ways it defined me a thousand ways more than my name could, if I actually knew what it was.
"I think there is more to this story than you tell." Toshi said perceptively, "But I will not pressure you to tell me if you do not want to."
"I was playing with swords as a child." I fronted. The irony of it all was that it had indeed taken place, on my part at least, by playing with swords; I armed with a fire poker and the Rider with a horse and sword. "That will be the end of it."
Toshi didn't respond at first. The look on his face said enough. He knew that he had hit home with that question. He wasn't the type of person to push things, however, I could tell he felt sorry for whatever I had gone though. "Well we have nothing better to do till the storm wanes than sleep. We can finish the trek tonight if the storm subsides by then."
The storm lasted through the night, unfortunately. Any chance of us getting across the desert that day passed along with the wind outside. Still, we had food and water so it wasn't tragic.
After the storm did die down the three of us left immediately. The remarkable thing after the sandstorm was how little it had changed the land. Or at least it all still looked the same. By night fall we crossed back into fertile land.
I saw enough of the desert to last me a lifetime and was relieved to find grass under my feet again. A few meters into the trees I just collapsed onto the ground and felt the grass with my fingers. Never again would I take the blades of grass for granted: they didn't shift under your feet or get under your clothes or in your ears or in your eyes. Sand is just awful.
A shadow hovered over me. "I guess this isn't the worst place to rest." Toshi plopped down beside me.
"So where do we go to from here?" I looked over to Toshi.
"There is a mountain pass that leads to Delüün Boldog. It will take at least a month to get there, maybe two but like I said they aren't going anywhere for a while. Our pace will be a bit slower. The rocky terrain will make the going harder but it is better than walking through the sand."
"Why is it that you seem to be taking the most difficult terrain on this trip? I understand the idea of saving time but it seems it would have been less of a bother just to try our luck with the Wolves."
"What makes you think that I was avoiding them? Come on, I would like to make it to the mountains foothills before night fall."
"Wait, what do you mean? Toshi?" I never got my answer; my companion was already running away from me.
"Hurry up or I'll leave you behind." He shouted over his shoulder.
"Are you sure about him, Sitka?" I looked at the wolf who promptly took after Toshi. "Well fine then. Let's go."
To Toshi's dismay we didn't make his destination till midday of the next. Apparently we came out of the desert further south than we needed. It was a slight setback but that's life. Toshi took a whole day just to 'get his bearings', whatever that meant. When he decided he knew where he was I just shrugged and decided to follow. He managed to find a cave in the desert so I guess he knew what he was doing here too.
"So how do you know where to go? If you have some sort of sixth sense please share it with me because I can't tell one rock from another." I asked after two days of climbing up and down between rocky slopes and craggy ravines.
"A few merchants who use a trading route though the mountains. They told me several landmarks that we could use to get back. As you said the other day, they aren't the easiest path but we want to stay off of the main roads for a while. Even before I left bandit activity had picked up along the route. Using it would be like shooting ourselves in the foot. Besides, you have to admit the scenery is worth it."
He was right again. Though the terrain was almost as annoying and devoid of life as the dune sea we walked through a week before. The peaks gave breathtaking view in the fading sunlight. Ever since I left on this quest I knew I would experience things I could only dream of. Here I was, still in my own people's land and I had been in places filled with millions of trees, terrain made of fine sand devoid of all life, and now mountains that stretched upwards piercing the sky.
I wonder what else I'll get to see before this is over, if it ever will end.