Thread

                                            By 

                                         Arthur 

 
CHAPTER 7


As the first heat of a new morning filled our room, I felt a soft touch on my shoulder, opening sleepy eyes, I made out what I thought was the face of Shemba as he leaned over me, it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the morning light before I realised it was Simba and that our day of escape had arrived.

I looked around the room and saw that the rest of the boys had arisen already and were eating from some fruit bowls, Shemba hid his eyes as he tried to intimate that he would like to be like his brother, his hand gently rubbing his scrotum with a look of hope in his young eyes, I could only smile and nod my head as I cleared the last of the sleep from my head.

Once I was fully awake, I asked for two boys to help me with Simba and his problem, I then indicated to the boy to remove his sparse clothing and lay on the floor. As with his brother, I performed the same ritual and, after only a short time, Simba voiced the first words he had said in years, although his young voice was a little scratchy and his small hand never left the newly rounded lumps in his groin, his eyes were bright and shiny as he showed his full set of whiter than white teeth.

As the resulting tiredness hit me, Simba’s voice strengthened and he began to relay the message from Shemba, I lay back on the pillows and allowed the surrounding strength of the stone and the air to replenish my own magical power as Simba related what we would have to do.

Shemba had decided the best time for us to move would be at the height of the sun, it was at this time that the Vizier would be sleeping during the hottest part of the day as would many of the soldiers and most of the towns citizens, we would have to remove our footwear as we could not afford to make a single sound when the time came, the guards outside our door would still be alert, we could only take what we could carry but that was no problem as that was all we had.

For the next hour, Gregor gave soft spoken commands to the boys, each and every one of them quietly packed his equipment and prepared themselves for the escape, Gregor, with the help of Peitro, had emptied one of the free standing fire braziers that were lit during the night to keep the desert chill out of the room, once it was empty, Gregor placed the one end against the wooden door and braced the other end tightly against a nearby pillar, this effectively locked the door from the inside and it would take a long time to break through, they would have to virtually cut the door away.

For the rest of the morning we lay about resting, Simba had still not told me how he was going to get us out of the room, it was high up from the ground so it would dangerous to just jump from one of the many windows, we would also be quickly seen by the outside guards, there was only the single door and that was now barred, Simba would say nothing but only smile his radiant smile when asked how it was to be done and place a finger over his lips in the gesture for silence.

Soon, the oppressive heat of the midday sun was pounding down on the city, the air was hot and dry and we could hear the lessening of the noises of the city below us as the full might of the southern sun sent everyone inside to keep cool and while away the midday hours in the shade of their homes, it was the time for rest, all except the slaves rested, slaves were viewed as half animal and so they were worked non stop, even through the torrid heat of the desert sun.

Our time had come, Simba rose silently to his feet and tightened the thin white cloth he wore around his waist, it was not much for a boy too wear being only a single short length of light fabric, around his waist was a thin belt of the same cloth, the smaller piece barely covered his newly returned eggs and then went down under his scrotum and was tightly twisted to go between his rounded buttocks and tie off on the belt at the rear, I could only stare at the firmness of those two round orbs as he turned his back on me and went towards the far wall, I shuddered in desire as he moved.

A touch on my arm brought me back to what we were about to do, Gregor was standing beside me with Peitro beside him, both were on full alert as they watched the Mandingo boy reach for the top of a very large side board, it was more than the height of a grown man and as wide as you could stretch your arms, the front was carved in intricate designs and I estimated it would take at least six or eight boys to move it from its place, I was quickly proved wrong.

Simba stood quietly beside the tall piece of furniture with his ear pressed tightly against it as the rest of us waited in silence, after a short time there came a soft tapping signal of three, two and three again, it sounded as though it came from the very walls themselves, a wide smile broke out on Simba’s lips as he reached up high and took hold of one of the carvings at the very top of the sideboard, with a light tug he pulled downward, there was a distinctive ‘click’ and he effortlessly swung the large piece of furniture away from the wall to reveal the dark figure of Shemba standing in the dark portal with a lit torch in his hand.

Shemba placed the torch in a nearby sconce and hugged his brother as though they had not seen each other in an age, Shemba then, and without shame, rested his hand on the bulge in Simba’s skimpy cloth, the resulting smile lit up the room as he turned and silently thanked me for the return of his brothers boyhood, from that moment on it was a hive of silent activity.

Shemba signalled for the boys too follow him as he took up the torch once more and led the way into the hidden passage, Simba was the last one through the doorway and turned once the piece of furniture had been pulled back into place, he then put a small piece of metal in a hole at the lock and tapped it until it was tightly in place, no one would be able to follow us this way unless they came up this hidden passage from the outside.

Silently we followed the torch of Shemba, the passage stayed flat and straight for a short distance until we came to a long set of rough stone steps that disappeared into the darkness before us, with little pause, Shemba led us downward, all the time making sure there were no sounds from us or our equipment.

I had no idea how far down we went but it did feel as though we were well under the ground as the air around us was cooler and slightly damp, at the bottom of the steps we again set off on a level path, we had been moving for some time and we had no idea where we were or what was to happen once we came out of the tunnel.

Finally we came to a large wooden door, Shemba placed his finger to his lips for silence and then slowly pushed the door open only a fraction, with one eye peering through, he gave a sigh and pushed the door fully open, the sudden rush of brighter light made my eyes water but they quickly adjusted as we were now in a rough barn like room and, we were not alone, Gregor hissed and the boys took up their guard positions as the tall dark figures in the room looked down at us.

Every figure was tall and dark, their faces were covered with a dark blue cloth and only their dark eyes showed from the narrow slit between the face cloth and the strange wound cloth on their heads, their bodies were also covered with the blue cloth and, on their feet were long soft leather boots, not the usual sandals that others wore in this desert land.

I could just barely make out a strange tattoo on their foreheads and their dark piercing eyes seemed to look through each and every one of us, it was Shemba that saved my boys from attacking the strangers, as fearsome as they were, the men had an almost jocular stance as they looked us over, Shemba began to explain for us.

“Put your weapons away, these are friends, they are the Bedou, they have no love for the Vizier or his Pharaoh, they are desert people and know everything there is to know about crossing the great Negev, they will take us away from this place, come, follow me, their animals are waiting and they want to leave before there is any alarm, once in the desert we will never be found by any army.”

Shemba then turned and, in a language I could make no sense of, bowed low to one of the Bedou and we all turned and followed the tall man in his blue clothes to the waiting caravan outside, the sight that met my eyes left me speechless, firstly, not only were there many, many horses with mounted and armed men on them, but there were also hundreds of long legged, boxlike animals with the strangest growth on their backs that looked like a large lump had grown there.

On each of these animals, which I was to learn later were called Dromedaries or camels, were mounted rough looking canopies, come held shadowy figures and others held goods, other Bedou were also mounted on these strange camels and held arms at the ready, no sooner were we urged into some of the empty canopies than a loud order was given, with much urging from the men and spitting and growling from the camels, the long line began its march out into the desert.

Each canopy held two boys, who the vague shadows were in the other canopies I was not to discover until late in the night when we stopped for the evening meal, we did not camp but pushed on through the dark, the Bedou guiding us by the stars and the brightness of the full moon, it was not until the middle of the next morning, when the heat of the sun became hotter towards the middle of the day that we stopped to rest.

It was at this first stop that I saw how well the Bedou knew their life, within no time at all, they had their large dark tents raised and the smell of cooking food filled the air, all of the young boys of the caravan were suddenly very active as they set about unloading the camels and setting out rough food for them as well as pouring water from goat skins into portable drinking baskets made from the same leather.

The large heard of goats were placed under the guard of the youngest boys as the men set about relaxing after their meal, soon there were only those young men who had been set as guards, left awake, the rest of the caravan were now resting peacefully as we were, Shemba had explained to me about the acceptance of hospitality as it pertained to the Bedou, it was under this Bedou law that we now travelled.

The Bedou were a desert people and had strict rules of conduct, boys could be boys as long as they attended to their work, women were hidden from the sight of another man once they married and only seen when they were fully clothed from head to foot, usually in a long black cloak, all you could see were the two dark eyes peering out of their hoods, the unmarried girls were kept well apart from any men and protected by some very fiery, older married women, the men were always on the look out for any trouble, either within or from outside, these were not only nomads but warriors and were not to be trifled with, their rules and laws were set in stone and none broke them as a very painful death would follow swiftly.

Shemba had asked for the law of hospitality until we crossed the Negev and were safe from the long arm of the Pharaoh, for a promised gift of gold at the end of the journey and, under the laws of hospitality, the Bedou had accepted us, it turned out to be beneficial for both of us, at this stage I had kept my cloak up over my head and my face behind my spell of darkness, I had heard from the Viziers house about Shaitan and how the people had a great fear of him, with my pointed ears, I did not want to be mistaken for one of their greatest fears.

The journey continued for weeks, mostly in the same vein as we had started, the day would begin in the late hours of the afternoon and continue through the night until mid morning, the caravan would then stop for the hottest part of the day and we would all rest until it was time to start again, every four to five days we would stop at a special place, to the inexperienced eye there was nothing but sand and stones too see but, with a little work by the young men of the caravan, stones and sand would be swept aside and the covered top of a fresh water well would be revealed, the animals would be watered and fed once again before continuing on our way.

As the journey continued, the boys began to join in with the work, their strange language became familiar and we began to understand them, while they were not an overly talkative people, when we stopped for the day, they would laugh and joke about the days travel and anything funny that had happened, such as a young warrior falling asleep and falling off his horse or camel, while this could be dangerous in the middle of the night, it was considered to be a laughable joke on the young man.

The Bedou also had long stories of ancient times that filled the children with awe and sometimes fear, the Bedou were great story tellers, the tales coming alive in their descriptive language, these were usually told by the older men of the large tribe and they could put fear, joy or mystery into their voices as they related the tale, it was during one of these tales that things changed for us.

It had started as a tale about what they called the Djini, they were a being that held magic and they could do good or evil, depending on how you treated them and how you asked or answered their tricky questions, if you could answer their puzzles, the Bedou also loved puzzle questions, then the Djini would bestow great prizes on you, if you could not answer, they would cause you great hardship, playing the game of puzzles with the Djini was not to be taken lightly, according to the old man who was telling the story.

The children and young men that sat around the old man waited with baited breath as he continued his tale as did we all, he was the best of the story tellers but rarely spoke of them, he left most of the stories to the younger men, but his were always the best, as he told this story he kept looking over at me as though he could see past my glamour, it gave me an eerie feeling, his eyes were old but sharp, his years were indeterminate but his life’s blood pumped strongly within his chest.

The story continued, sometimes making the youngest shiver in fear and other times making the circle of listeners laugh loudly as they ate the dates and meat that had been set before us by the shrouded women, the large communal tent was filled with most of the men and youngsters, only those out on guard were not there as he told of the trickster Djini, finally he came to the ending of his tale but, before he finished, he looked strongly at me and then spoke in a loud and clear voice to me alone.

“Tell me, strange one, would you like to try a puzzle from the Djini, I am sure that one who remains in the dark, even in the brightest of sunlight, would have little trouble with a simple question?”

I knew he was testing me but I could see no real harm in being polite, they had, after all, taken us in and treated us like honoured guests, I could see no harm in playing along, especially as it was a favourite game of the Bedou.

“I would see no harm in a small game, but tell me, teller of stories, what would the Djini require if I lost and, what would I gain if I won?”

The old man laughed loudly.

“Aha, see my family, even know he knows how to play the game, it is true, you should find out first what the Djini is offering, many forget to ask and pay a heavy price, now let me see, for a win, the Djini will give you your hearts desire, but, for a loss, you will have to reveal yourself from the glamour you hide behind.”

Was he truly able to see past my glamour, had he been able too he would have seen my shock at his revelation but I had little choice, we were all guests of his tribe and I did not want to get on the wrong side of his people, we were far into the deepest part of the Negev and totally at their mercy, and my hearts desire, what of that, I had only one wish, and that was to follow The Thread to my mate, finally I nodded in acceptance to the old mans challenge.

“Ah, you are a brave one, but then again, your people are not ones to shrink from a task, are they?”

It was then I knew he knew who I was; there was little I could do now but go on with his challenge.

Of the many men and boys around us, none knew what the old man spoke of, only my own boys now understood what was going on, they all stayed alert and ready to defend me to the last, even though it would be our end as we were well out numbered.

“Ask your puzzle, and I will do my best, our bargain with the Djini stands as spoken.”

“Ah, you are indeed and honourable and brave boy, very good, here is the puzzle. What animal walks on four legs in the dawn, two legs at midday and three legs at dusk, answer correctly and your hearts desire will be yours?”

“And if my answer is wrong then you will have your revelation.” I smiled as I answered him; the old man laughed and clapped his lined and worn old hands as he nodded his head vigorously in agreement.

For some time I worked on the puzzle as those around me sat and waited patiently, no one tried to help or interrupt my thinking, after some time I still had no answer, the old man had come up with a puzzle that seemed to have no answer, I had to accept defeat and pay my price to the Djini, with my acceptance of defeat, I spoke to the old story teller.

“You are a master of stories and puzzles, I must admit I can see no clear answer and will honour the contract with the Djini, but, before I do I would ask you for the name of the animal that has so many legs so that we can all see that it is not just a puzzle without an answer?”

“Of course, young one, the Djini would never ask a question that has no answer, even though he is a trickster, the answer is, Man.”

“Man?”

“Yes, think about it, at the dawn of a mans life he crawls on his hands and knees, in the middle years when he is older, he walks upright upon his two legs, when he is old and infirm, he uses a cane to steady his faltering steps, therefore his third leg.”

I could do only the same as every other person in the tent, young and old alike, we all broke into loud laughter at the old story tellers revelation of the great puzzle.

“Now young one, you must pay the Djini.”

I nodded my head, it was a fair deal and I had lost honestly, I rose and stepped into the centre of the tent where the meal had been cleared silently some little time before, with a pass of my hand, I stopped the glamour, then to show that there were no hard feelings or any more secrets from these wild desert people who had shared everything with us, I threw back the hood of my cloak and pulled my long hair from hiding, brushing it back from my shoulders so they could see who I truly was.

I heard the gasps and mutterings of the massed men and boys but, it was the now strong voice of the old story teller that brought instant quiet to the tent and my revelation that an Elf stood before them, although their interpretation had made me instantly into a Djini because of my pointed ears, there were soft whispers from most of the children as they looked at me, most were wondering if I could make magic just like the Djini, I did not think that just then was a good time to tell them yes.

One of the men stood and came closer, Peitro was immediately by my side with a threatening look in his young eyes as the man approached me, his usually covered face was now free of the veil they used, he was a man in his middle years and was the leader of the caravan, he raised his empty hands so that Peitro could see he meant no harm at this stage as he peered deeply into my eyes and then, looked me over from head to foot, the old man spoke once again.

“No need to fear him, my eldest son, he is not a Djini, although he has magic far beyond that which is spoken of Djini, my family, my sons and grandsons, before you is the figure of the Elvin people of the far north, this boy is a Mage of the highest order, tell me Mage Elf, why would you be journeying so far south of your home?”

“Grandfather, I seek and follow the Thread, my mate awaits me somewhere to the south, if you know of us then you also know of the pull of the Thread to our kind.”

“I do indeed, you have nothing to fear from us, you and your companions are as welcome here as family, you have fulfilled a long held desire of this old man, I have heard many fables of your folk and, ever since my youngest thoughts I have had the desire to see if your people were real, you have fulfilled an old mans dream, for that I an eternally grateful, your presence in the land of the Bedou will always be welcomed.”

I was suddenly inundated with questions from the young ones, the elders sat back and smiled as I tried to answer all the questions fired at me one after the other, finally, one of the very young looked up at me with earnest eyes, I looked down at him as he struggled to find the words he wanted, his dark kohl painted eyes trying to be brave in front of his large family, I could only smile in encouragement at him.

“Yes little one, what would you ask?”

After some hesitation and uhming and ahing, he said.

“Can you show me some magic, please?”

“What would you like; little one?”

The small boy looked around hesitantly, his nervousness showing as he tapped his small bare feet on the floor mats of thick wool.
“Can...can I have some pomegranate?”

I looked over to the old man, I had no idea what the boy was asking for, the old man then went on to explain what the fruit was, how it looked and it tasted, it was a rare and valuable fruit that the boys would very rarely get but they loved its sweet flavour, it was only given as a special treat on certain name days, to the small boys, in fact all boys, it was a gift far above gold itself.

I made sure that the old man described the fruit to its fullest, it would not do to give the boys a mouth full of salt by mistake, after I was sure of what he asked, I dug my right hand deep into the still warm sand, with my left I began the ritual of calling up the food, I did not tell the old man I had been inside his head to get the full description of the Pomegranate, although he had a look in his eyes as though he knew something had gone on without his knowledge.

It took only a few minutes before a large pile of fresh pomegranate were piled in the middle of the mats, with a whoop of delight, all the young boys and teens reached for the fruit, the older men sitting back with huge smiles on their faces watching the antics of their young ones, the leader, Ben Ahmed Safir, turned to me.

“What would you ask in payment for such a gift, Alexi of the Eleven people?”

“Your people have already paid for the gift with their honourable hospitality, Ben Ahmed Safir, there is no other cost.”

Ben Ahmed Safir bowed to me and made a gesture with his hand, first to his chest, then his lips and finally his forehead and ending with a sweeping gesture to the side.

“My family is forever in your debt, to see our young ones so happy is a joy for all of us, my thanks Elvin one, may your journey be safe and fruitful.”

I bowed to the man and then sat back where I had been, at this, Ben Ahmed Safir called for the youngsters to go to their beds, it was not many hours before we would be travelling again, it had been an eventful day and even the far off hum of boys voices could not stop my eyes from closing, I was soon fast asleep as the gentlest of breezes stirred the light sides of the tent.

That evening, as we prepared for our nights travel, I spied the old story teller walking from one of the tents; I went over to him and gave him the customary bow of greeting.

“Ah, young Elvin Mage, what have you to ask this fine evening?”

“I was wondering if you yourself were a Mage, there is no way a mortal man could see past my glamour?”

The old man laughed and rested his aged hand on my shoulder.

“No, young Alexi, I did not see past your glamour and that is what gave you away, too my knowledge there is only one people that have the power of the creator to use a glamour, in my society I am a true Vizier, a carrier of limited magic but only for what pertains to my life in the desert, the fact I could not see past your glamour told me that you had to be of the Elvin people of the north, only they could do what you do.”

“A Vizier, so a Vizier is magical as well, but what about the Pharaohs Vizier why did he not see my glamour?”

“Ha, that man is no Vizier, he is a charlatan, his mother was a she camel and his father was a Jackal, he uses his title to frighten his underlings, out here in the great Negev he would not survive a single day, that is why he will not chase us out here and, it is why you are safe from his machinations, let him try to explain your disappearance to his great Pharaoh now, perhaps he has already lost his head, that would be a fitting justice for the man.”

I could only laugh along at his description of the said Vizier of the Pharaoh, he was long gone and now we had only the southern lands to head for, my mate waited and I was feeling the strength of the Threads pull grow each day, some days I would awake and there would be the sticky emissions from my boyhood that came during my sleeping hours, I was sure the other boys knew about my accidents but they said nothing, the harder the Thread pulled, the more often I had emissions, while it was embarrassing, it was also heady.

On the second morning as we got ready to set camp for the day, I could see in the far distance, by the use of the Elvin sight, a darker line that stretched from horizon to horizon, it was towards this dark line that we made our way and; five days later, we stood under the towering red sand stone cliffs of an escarpment, in front of us was a wide defile but too either side the escarpment stretched unbroken as far as the eye could see and my eyes could see a long way.

We set camp at the mouth of the defile, its interior looked cooler and the little shade in there was inviting but Ben Ahmed Safir said it was bad luck to camp inside the gates of the Great Rift, we therefore stayed outside and would venture inside on the evenings travel, once inside and far from the gate we would be safe to camp as long as we could not see the gateway itself, from then on we would travel only during the daylight hours, it was too dangerous to travel at night in the Great Rift, it was said to be the home of more than one Djini and not all of them were friendly.

After we had camped outside the gates, the move in the evening went quickly, before sunrise, Ben Ahmed Safir called a halt and the tents were erected, he said we would stay in this camp for three days as there was a spring nearby and grass for the animals close by, it would give us all a chance to rest from the rigors of continuous night travel.

The chance to rest and recover was welcomed by us all, the boys took the chance to practice once again and hone their skills further, it was during the evening meal on the second day that the old man once again told his stories, he then led the younger ones in a puzzle game of which he was very good, there were few of the young ones that could answer his questions, as the group was breaking up for the night, he approached me and sat next to where I was idling.

“So, young Elf, are you ready for the trip through the Great Rift?”

“Yes, I think I am now, after this rest I feel much more alert.”

“Good, good, you will need to be, this place is not only known for its Djini, there are also our cousins, the Toureg, they are also desert people and many are related to us in one way or another but, they are bandits, very dangerous and very skilled, you may have to look to your magic if they attack, but, just in case you are unable to use magic, I thought you may like to take this with you.”

So saying, he offered me a large curved knife set in a very ornate scabbard, the handle was large and fitted with bright gem stones, I looked at it and began to refuse the offer, its size was one thing but I could also see it was very valuable.

“I can’t accept such a gift; it is far to valuable for the likes of me.”

“Nonsense young man, it belonged to my first born son, he would want it to go to a special person, we lost him to the bandits in this very Rift, I would deem it a special favour if you would accept.”

I was about to object again when he raised his hand.

“I know what you are going too say, my son Ben Ahmed Safir has already given his blessing for you to carry this knife, he would not wear it in honour of his older brother but he would like you too have it, it is best if it is carried by one who is worthy.”

I knew then I could not refuse as it might cause disrespect to his sons memory, I gratefully took the large knife and as he placed it in my hands, a strange feeling came over me, it was as though the knife had heated slightly, to my way of thinking, this knife had a hidden power, perhaps the soul of the son was instilled within it, I tucked in under my cloak, its weight suddenly gave me a very safe feeling.

As the old man left the communal tent, he patted me on the shoulder and smiled, I had a funny feeling there was more to this old man than what we had seen so far.

As the sun rose the next morning, the camp became a hive of activity, the tents were quickly broken down and the camels loaded, within one hour of sunrise we were under way into the depths of the Great Rift, the sides were high and steep and, as we progressed deeper, it became narrower until there was space only for three riders abreast, it would stay this way for some two days, I was told.

The most dangerous time would be as we came near the exit of the Rift where it widened out onto the great salt flats, it was usually here that the Toureg would lie in wait for caravans and lone travellers, the closer we moved towards the exit of the Rift, the more nervous the caravan became.

On the last night in the Rift, I asked Ben Ahmed Safir if he would accept my archers as extra soldiers for his caravan, they would go ahead and set a guard near the exit and wait until we caught up, at first he was unsure until we put on a display for him of the advantages of our longer bows and the accuracy of the boy archers.

The common bow of the caravan guards were made short for them to use from horse or camel back, our longer bows were not only longer ranged but far more accurate, it took little to convince him of the soundness of the tactic, so, in the last darkness, just before the first light of dawn broke the sky, twelve of the archers went silently forward, Gregor had told them to be as quick as they could and find places to hide up as high as they could climb safely, they were then to watch and wait until the caravan had passed and rejoin if all was safe.

The twelve boys took off at a steady silent trot, their footsteps muffled in the soft sand of the bottom of the Rift, their bows were held at the ready as they fanned out to either side of the Rift and disappeared into the darkness, when the boys had disappeared, Ben Ahmed Safir gave me one of his bows and gestures as he went to see to his own men, as he left I heard a whisper in my ear, it was Peitro.

“I have a feeling all is not right up front, I’m going to go after the others and keep watch, Gregor knows already, if anything is wrong I will run back and warn you all.”

With that, little Peitro disappeared into the dark towards where the archers had gone, for a small boy he was very brave as he was now all alone in the dark of the desert until he caught up with the archers, he had also awakened something deep in my breast, I too now felt something was not right, there was a tension in the air that had not been there the day before.

As the first rays lit the sky, the caravan fully awoke and everyone began to stir and break camp as the women prepared the morning meal of dates and dried meat with goats cheese, a quick and simple meal, less than one hour after sun rise we were moving towards the exit of the Rift, with all the animals and the large caravan, it would take a number of hours before we came into sight of the exit as we moved a lot slower than the boys had.

In the van of the caravan rode some twenty bowmen on camel back, behind them were more bowmen on horse back, the rest of the guards trailed further back and intermingled with the caravan animals with a larger force of mixed swordsmen and archers at the rear to protect the tail, Gregor and the rest of our boys were about half way along the caravan, two of the swords men were by my side and refused to leave me alone for a minute.

Finally we came to the last bend, as we moved towards the distant exit, a large body of horse mounted men, dressed in black, began to fill the Rift from one side to the other, their horses were covered in a colourful blanket that had a number of coloured tassels around the edges, the bridles were also adorned with the same brightly coloured tassels, the men on horse back looked much like the men of the caravan in that they were covered from head to foot with only their eyes showing through the narrow slit of their headwear.

A loud shout from Ben Ahmed Safir brought an immediate response from his guards; the camels of the women were surrounded in a ring of protection, the bowmen on the camels pulled their bows ready and the horsemen moved up closer, I could not count the enemy as they were now moving at a faster rate towards us.

I was beginning to worry about the boy archers as I had not seen any sign of them, even little Peitro had not appeared, my fear for them was starting to grow as the enemy got nearer and nearer, the thunder of their hooves began to fill the Rift as they increased their speed.

It happened so quickly that even we were taken by surprise, from high up on the edges of the Rift walls came a shower of long arrows just as the enemy was coming into the range of our own bowmen, twelve saddles were emptied before even the Toureg knew what had happened, by the time they worked out that they were under attack from on high, the second volley fell on them, twelve more saddles emptied and still the archers were unseen.

I tried to scan the sides of the Rift walls for sight of the boys but could see nothing but the third volley of arrows in the air but I could work out that they had placed six boys on each side so that the enemy was hit from two sides at the same time and so confusing the attackers as to which direction the attack came from.

The charge slowed as more saddles were emptied by the unseen archers, it was now the turn of Ben Ahmed Safir’s guards to take the attack to the enemy, the air was soon filled with showers of the shorter arrows as the camel and horse guards sent their own volleys into the massed ranks of the enemy, the charge broke, and soon the attack petered out as we watched the survivors try to make their escape with the horse guards in close pursuit.

As the chasers disappeared through the exit and onto the open ground beyond, the twelve boys appeared from their hiding places high up on the sides of the Rift, each boy, once he was at the bottom, went around to collect their used arrows from the bodies of the dead, Peitro quickly made his way to where Gregor sat on his horse, Ben Ahmed Safir and his guards checked to see if any still survived, only one did.

The lone survivor of the ambush was dragged to where Ben Ahmed Safir sat on his black horse at the head of his guards, out of interest, I moved closer to watch and listen to the exchange, the man was quite young, not much more than a teen, his left arm was still bleeding from the shaft that stuck from his shoulder.

Ben Ahmed Safir showed little mercy for the young Toureg, drawing his own curved sword, he slashed downward and removed the boys head from his shoulders, his limp body was left to the Jackals as the others would be, with little regard for the fallen, Ben Ahmed Safir called for the caravan to continue on its way, the terror of the salt flats would wait for no man, alive or dead.

Ben Ahmed Safir called a halt early in the afternoon, the animals would need an extra watering and feeding before we tackled the forbidding salt flats, once we entered them we would not be able to stop and we had to be most of the way across before the sun rose the next morning, as it was we would be on the flats for at least two hours after sun rise so we would have to make as much haste during the night as we could, any man lost on the flats could not be waited on.

During the final watering and feeding, every canopy and every cargo rig was checked and tested, the women were told to stay together and the smaller children were put with the women to be guarded and stopped from wandering off during the night, the caravan would not be stretched out like it normally was during the trip, this time it would be kept close together and each person was to watch for the man next too him.

As the last hour of daylight approached, Ben Ahmed Safir gave the order to move onto the salt flats, we still had about an hour of light left but the heat was already leaving the air and the cold of the desert night was moving in as the first camels stepped onto the coarse salt flats, our journey of danger had begun, there was to be no second chance on these flats.

TBC.

Artcart65@vodafone.co.nz

 

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