The caravan turned out to be smaller than Bree imagined. They numbered twenty in total, most of them hired guards. They travelled mostly at night, when the temperature was lowest, until mid morning when they set up camp and rested until the sun was setting and the sun-baked earth ceased to burn. Still, Bree found the heat oppressive. Her clothes weren’t suited to the climate and she had trouble adjusting her sleeping patterns. After the first day the sun gave her headaches and she was finding it hard to eat anything. Her skin had turned bright red and sore, and by the second day it was even worse. It hurt to the touch and started peeling off in thin sheets.
Trevvis turned out to be a life saver. He gave her a cream to put on her skin and stave off the worst of the sun’s effects. It helped, but she still felt like a boiled lobster. Trevvis brought her water and food, lingering to make sure she ate it. Later he gave her some kind of medicine to take away her sickness.
“Sarenrae’s light is strong in these lands, ruby.” he told her, referring to the desert goddess of the sun. “She’ll push you until she’s sure you can take it. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll die before you can.”
She assumed he had knowledge in herbs and remedies, but learned later that he had paid the caravan’s healer to make them for her. Although she didn’t like to admit it, she owed Trevvis more than she could repay. The thought scared her. She didn’t want to be indebted to a citizen of Katapesh. Legally, he could claim her as a slave when it was revealed she couldn’t pay him back. She was good with a blade, though. If it came to that he’d find her harder to take than most. She’d have to watch herself. Debts could be dangerous.
Still, Trevvis was her closest comrade. She spent most of her down time eating and drinking with him and was surprised to find he could keep up with her in the latter. Not many could. His laugh was contagious, and he was always in good spirits.
Today was their seventh day of travel and they had finally reached the landmark known as the Sultan’s Claw. It didn’t seem like much to Bree, just a dead-looking, five limbed, leafless tree. Although, that in itself was exciting, she supposed. The heat baked scrublands of Katapesh offered little change in scenery. According to Trevvis there was only few more days left in their journey. Bree hoped he was right. She didn’t know how much more of this she could take.
“Here.” Trevvis said. He handed her a water skin. “Drink, desert flower, before you faint.”
“Why do you call me a different name each time you speak to me?”
“I’m searching for the right name for you, my golden one.” He bent down to help her set up her makeshift tent. It was little more than a piece of canvas and a few poles.
She laughed. “I bet it’s so your girlfriend’s never know when you call them by the other’s name.”
“Are you offering your services then, my paranoid northerner?”
“Nice try. And Bree is fine.”
“Perhaps I’ll go with ‘Picky.’ ” he responded with a laugh. “Or ‘Tease.’ “
Bree frowned. “If you want to keep all your digits, you’d best stick with ‘golden one.’ “
“Get in the shade, my delicate one, before you get heat stroke again.”
“Froth and foam, Trevvis! I’m fine.”
“Quit playing house and help me with this fire!” one of his friends called from behind them. It was Brotis, the pretty one. She had made no secret of her dislike of Bree and, for her part, Bree returned her sentiments tenfold. Brotis was demanding, judgmental and had a habit of belittling other women. She was also having sex with nearly every man in the camp. So many had sown their seed in her that any infants would come out speaking ten languages!
Trevvis sighed dramatically. “A man such as myself is always in demand.”
“Your second girlfriend is calling.” Bree teased.
“Who then, my pet, is my first?”
Bree shook her head and wandered into the shade of the canvas Trevvis had set up for her. In all honesty, she was exhausted from the heat. She took off her chain shirt, leaving her in a sweaty green blouse, and lay down on a blanket atop the warm ground. Her burnt back ached at the contact, but she ignored it, closed her eyes, and went to sleep.
It had been a long day.
Nes sat upon his camel, Reginald, glancing out across the horizon. His cushioned saddle was warm beneath him, but he didn’t mind. He had cast protective wards upon both himself and his beloved mount before the sun had even neared its apex. He would neither feel the heat, nor suffer from it’s ill effects.
Beside him, his brother, Fudin, paced cautiously. His unusual blue eyes darted about, missing nothing.
Nes sighed and spun in his saddle. He raised a delicate, manicured hand to adjust his parasol before turning back to the horizon. After only a moment he sighed once again.
“You’re supposed to watch the horizon, brother,” Fudin said without looking his direction “not your complexion.”
Nes frowned. “You know as well as I that we were meant for greater than this, Fudin. It chafes me, to enact such… menial labour.”
Fudin laughed. “We may be important back home, Nes, but here – and especially out here,” he said with a gesture at their surroundings “we are nobody.”
Nes turned up his nose at the thought and patted his camel on the side of the head. Reginald snorted in delight, causing Nes to smile. He was such a noble beast! “We are the sons of the great Kassim Sahadine,” Nes began, switching from Taldane – the common tongue – to his native language of Darech. “the royal advisor to the Sultan of Dardarech. We have been tutored by the finest scholars in the world. We will never be nothing, Fudin. Unknown, perhaps, but never nothing. Our education alone sets us apart in this barbarous land.”
“You know why we came here, Nes, as well as I.”
Nes nodded and, though Fudin never looked at him, he was sure he saw the gesture.
Fudin continued. “We came to make Father proud. To earn our family name. To create our own legacy. To prove we are worthy even in a land where we are unknown.”
“Yes, yes, Fudin,” Nes cut in. “But why did you want to join this caravan?”
“Best to start from nothing. Besides, you’re spoiled.”
Fudin laughed. “Even your camel is spoiled, my brother. She eats better than half the caravan.”
Nes reached down a hand and patted Reginald again, speaking to him in gentle tones. “Do not listen to him, my sweet. He is jealous of your beauty. Besides,” Nes continued louder, talking to Fudin this time, “that is no difficult task. The food here resembles mud more than anything else.”
“Just do your job, Nes, or we’ll be dismissed. What a grand legacy we would make then.”
Nes frowned. He hated sentry duty. It was mind numbing. Surely his keen intellect could be of better use elsewhere? He sighed and turned his eyes back to the horizon and spotted… nothing. Again.
They were in the Uwaga Highlands, a region in the northwest part of the country of Katapesh. It was fairly hot and arid – not that Nes could tell, cloaked as he was in a myriad of spells. It was a massive tract of land covered completely in parched, hard packed earth, loose rocks, rugged hills, and stands of tall cacti. Aside from the sparse population of lizards and vultures – and what they survived on Nes couldn’t fathom – they hadn’t seen another living soul in days.
Fudin cocked his head to the side. He sniffed deeply. “Smoke.”
Nes scanned the horizon but saw nothing. He took a deep breath but couldn’t smell anything either. It didn’t surprise him. Fudin had always had keener physical senses than him. “Where?” He peeled back his silken sleeves and reached for Spitfire, a ruby-tipped heirloom wand passed down in the Sahadine family for generations. “I don’t see the attackers.”
“Behind us. It’s coming from camp.”
Had they failed in their task? Impossible! He may not have been as tentative as his brother, but he had done his duty!
Fudin turned and took off at a run back to camp. His bare feet, covered in glistening blue scales, picked their way effortlessly across the craggy, uneven earth. Nes clicked his tongue once, causing Reginald to turn, before urging him onward.
Things were about to get interesting.
He urged Reginald on as fast as he could go, but Fudin managed to keep pace with them all the same. They reached the camp just as the call of “Fire!” rang out.
Nes turned Reginald from side to side, but spotted no enemies.
“No hostiles.” Fudin said, switching back to the common tongue.
Nes surveyed the camp again and nodded. He spurred Reginald forward, towards a single wagon engulfed in lush orange and red flames near the Sultan’s Claw. Smoke poured from it’s open door. As they neared, the Claw caught fire, spreading the flames quickly among its dried out limbs.
It was beautiful.
And not a soul was trying to put it out.
Nes shook his head at their stupidity. At their fear.
They were a flock of lost sheep. He would guide them. Under him they would endure.
“Open the water kegs!” Nes shouted at his brother. Fudin nodded and turned, veering off course to the water wagons. Nes guided Reginald as near to the fire as he dared before turning to the frantic people around him. “You!” he shouted, pointing at a nearby group of filthy mercenaries, “Check for inhabitants! Find buckets!” He stepped down off of Reginald and continued shouting orders out to the dazed caravan members. “Alert the Princess! Catch the livestock before they flee!”
He turned his gaze to the flaming wagon just as Fudin neared him with the first bucket of water.
“Halavim hanavim habiqavim,” Nes whispered to himself, lacing the ancient words with arcane power. Come to me. Enter me. Obey me. Absently, Nes noticed Fudin pour the bucket on the flames before running back to the water wagons. Nes moved his hands in a practiced motion, representing runes and complex concepts with his fingers: magic, inquiry, dominance, revelation, identity. “Kaleem iban halkwan!” Reveal your secrets!
With the completion of his spell, Nes’ eyes shone with a brilliant white glow. He stared hard into the flames, but nothing changed. This was no magical fire, it had occurred naturally. He blinked, causing his eyes to revert to normal.
Intentional or not, some fool had actually set fire to their own camp.
Nes sighed as he took a full bucket from one of the nearby mercenaries and tossed it onto the wagon. He would work at the front of the line along with the muscle bound brutes he had ordered to help. He may not be as strong as them, or as his brother, but he did have one advantage over them.
Nes had nothing to fear from the flames.
Unfortunately, his robes could not say the same.
“Fire!” a familiar voice shouted. “Fire!”
Bree awoke with a start and looked around to find the entire camp in an uproar. Camels pranced in agitation in their pens, a clutch of confused goats and livestock wandered about aimlessly, bleating in terror and at least half of the camp rushed around, chasing down animals or hastening towards the center of the camp with pails of water in their hands in an attempt to douse the flames ravaging a wagon.
“Sweet barleybrew!” Bree cursed in surprise.
To her left, the central flap of Almah’s elaborate red tent flew open and Almah, regal as always, stepped out into the midday sun. Her jewels and golden bangles glimmered about her. She was radiant. She paused for a moment, scanning the caravan, but did not panic.
“Douse that flame!” she shouted to the men surrounding the wagon before turning in Bree’s direction. “Find some way to help!” Then she tore off her veil and ran towards the water wagon. “To me, Garavel!” she called over her shoulder, causing her four personal guards and major domo to follow.
Santon, a spoiled merchant’s son from Katapesh set off immediately towards a wagon within a few feet of the flames. “Save the supply cart!” he yelled, dragging a few of Trevvis’ friend’s along with him.
On the other side of the burning wagon, a short, turbaned man knelt beside two figures that lay on the hard ground. Even over the crackling of the flames and the shouts of the guards she could hear their screams.
Bree raced forward, dodging goats and pushing her way past sheep, on her way to aid the injured. “I can help!”
The screams ceased. Was she too late?
Father Zastoran, a white-haired, old, halfling healer, crouched above the two figures who were both well-muscled and armoured. Their skin was flushed red and spotted here and there with oozing blisters. Bree stopped dead at the sight of them. It felt as if her stomach had dropped into her toes. Trevvis was among the wounded.
“No.” Bree whimpered under her breath.
Her denial helped little.
A long, serious looking gash on his Trevvis’ head bled uncontrollably while Father Zastoran knelt above him, working to stem the tide of blood. Trevvis groaned, but did not regain consciousness.
The physician looked up at Bree’s approach and gestured at Trevvis’ wounded friend, Kallien. “Help her,” he said in a clipped Kelish accent, “she is dying and my magic is spent.”
Bree threw herself down beside Kallien and reached out a steady hand to feel for a pulse. It was weak and her breathing was shallow. She didn’t have much time. Bree took a deep, slow breath, and then a second, to calm herself. She placed both of her hands upon Kallien, one on her forehead and one on her stomach, and prayed.
“My Lord Cailean,” she called out in a loud, steady voice. “We’re down to the last dregs. Grant me your power and share with me your luck. It is not this woman’s time to die.”
Bree felt it immediately, that heady feeling when the very power of her god manifestsed inside of her, warming her. The smell of barley overtook her senses, followed by the taste of the finest ale. Distantly she heard a rowdy drinking song, and then another, but by then she was overwhelmed. Sensations that were not her own assaulted her, filled her, until she was disoriented. Overflowing. She released it then – the sensations and the power – all at once, into Kallien. The music faded, leaving behind the crackling of nearby flames and panicked shouts. Smoke and burnt flesh invaded her nostrils. Kallien’s burns pulsed with a golden light and began to fade, frothing like a fresh mug of ale as they did. Some of the burns healed completely, while others remained a stain upon her flesh.
Bree’s brow furrowed with worry as she reached out her hands again. “Once more, my Lord. It is not enough.” But this time nothing happened. Bree was too weak. She reached out a shaking hand to check Kallien’s pulse. It was steady and strong. Kallien would live.
Bree smiled. “Cayden’s will be done.” she mumbled clumsily before she fell to the ground, spent.
Let him live, my Lord. She prayed as her vision faded to black. Let him live.
Through the darkness she heard a familiar voice.
“Come back, my star flower.” it said. “Don’t go.”