When Brand woke, his eyes slowly moved to survey his surroundings. By his right side, a pole was raised, holding up a tent. He had blankets beneath and one above him. His left arm lay atop, and his hand was being held by someone else. Moving his head slightly, he followed the foreign hand up the arm to find Jana’s sleeping form next to him.
He opened his lips but managed only a croak. Instead, he squeezed her hand several times until she stirred.
“Brand,” she exhaled. “I am so relieved.” She raised herself to look at him, maintaining the grasp on his hand.
“Safe?” he asked hoarsely.
“Yes, we are. The desert dwellers found us. They have done their best to help us, though there was little they could do for you, other than pray you would wake on your own.”
“You should really save your strength,” Jana admonished him. “Here, drink something.” She took one of their water skins and helped him to a sip of water.
“How long?” he repeated.
“We have been here since yesterday. About a full day has passed, I would wager.”
“They know us?”
“I have not told them who we are, and they have asked no questions. Here, have some more.” She helped him drink again.
“Keep us secret,” he mumbled with a few drops spilling down his chin.
“Enough talking. Rest, unless it is to ask me for more water.”
There was commotion outside the tent; an elderly woman stuck her head inside, observing the pair, and left again.
“They know you are awake,” Jana remarked. “But you must rest. I will speak with them when needed.”
“Not tired,” Brand claimed. She gave him a doubtful look.
The tent opening was pulled back to allow a man entry. He was dressed in simple garbs, made from the animals that could be heard outside. A dagger sat in its sheath by his belt; he was otherwise unarmed. His hair and beard were roughly cut, but he had a genuine smile on his face. “Our other visitor is awake, I was told. There was concern whether this would happen or not.”
“Thank you,” Brand whispered.
“Your gracious companion has already shown all courtesy, but you are most welcome,” he replied. “I am Mahir. I am the amir of this tribe.”
“We are very grateful to you for helping us,” Jana added.
“Life is precious in the desert,” Mahir declared. “Life is also a challenge. Because of this, there is no room for falsehood, and I will speak plainly.” Brand and Jana exchanged looks. “Some days ago, we met the warriors serving the Kabir of the great stone camp. They spoke of an escaped prisoner, having stolen the Kabir’s daughter with him.”
Brand tried to speak but ended up only coughing, and Jana hurried to provide him with something to drink.
“They offered gold for any help.” Mahir’s smile became scornful. “The same warriors who steal the wells dug by the fathers of my fathers and turn us away. What use is gold in the desert? It will not quench my children’s thirst.” He regarded his two guests. “Deceit gives birth to deceit. If I speak with them again, I shall give them answer as they asked.”
“What answer?” asked Jana.
Mahir smiled. “Seeing as you have stayed by his side all this time, I must conclude you are no captive. Therefore, I can truthfully say that I have not seen any man with a captive woman.”
“Thank you,” Brand managed to say.
Mahir inclined his head. “We will stay here for the day. You should rest further. Let us leave the discussion of tomorrow’s journey for tomorrow.”
“We bow to your wisdom, amir,” Jana said. Mahir inclined his head once more, adding a smile.
Eventually, Brand drifted back to sleep. Letting him recover, Jana left the tent for the first time since their arrival. A score of other tents was scattered across the area, each housing a family. Herds of camels, goats, and sheep could be seen beyond, grazing, which accounted for the smell of animal that permeated the camp. Most of the nomads were busy drawing water from a hidden well, letting the beasts drink. As the sole horse, the mare stolen from the Kabir’s stables kept company with the sheep.
The children regarded the stranger with obvious curiosity, in between fetching water or milking their animals. Their mothers were busy with any number of chores. Meat was cooked to ensure it would not spoil while hides were tanned and wool turned to clothing. Jana smiled at an elderly woman, who had seen to Brand’s wound and treated him; looking up, the old woman returned the smile before resuming skirting the wool in front of her.
Passing through the small village of tents, Jana reached the amir. He had a goat in his lap and was cleaning pebbles from its hooves with his knife. Sensing her approach, Mahir looked up with a smile. “Your friend is resting?”
“He is. I owe you great thanks for saving his life. We can never repay you in full.”
“Please, you embarrass me.” The amir grinned. “The ram requires no gratitude for protecting his herd.”
“As you wish.” Jana bowed her head. “Your speech has refinement to leave any courtier in Alcázar envious,” she continued.
Mahir made a sweeping motion, gesturing to the wasteland with his knife. “There is little else to do in the desert but speak,” he laughed. “And I am the storyteller of this tribe.”
“I can tell,” she assented. “Do you ever have relations with the other tribes of this land?”
He nodded. “We do. When the sun grows weak, we gather in places to exchange animals, keeping our herds strong. Sometimes we also exchange sons and daughters, keeping our tribes strong.” He winked. “At these meetings, we meet our kin that travels with other kindreds, we sing the old songs, and our storytellers compete for attention.”
“It sounds wonderful.”
“As the poet said, the greatest elegance lies in the simplest dance.”
“He did indeed.” Jana let her gaze move across the harsh landscape that surrounded them.
His work done, Mahir released the goat, which jumped away and hurried to join the herd. “We live according to the desert,” the amir declared, standing up. “Life is harsh, but there is beauty to be found. We would never turn new blood away, should any desire to share our hardships and our joys.” He glanced at Jana out of the corner of his eye.
“You are kind,” Jana told him. “I do not think my companion would be suited for a life such as this.”
“Among the sheep, your horse looks out of place,” Mahir remarked. “Yet she seems content.”
Jana smiled to herself. “I fear my companion is too eager to continue. I doubt he can be persuaded to remain.”
“Stallions are hard to tame.” With a knowing smile, the amir went to his herd of goats.
Brand slept for most of the remaining day and following night. He woke up intermittently, had a few sips of water, and resumed his rest. When he finally woke to remain awake, it was the hour before sunrise. He looked around until he spotted Jana sleeping by his side, same as when he had first come to in the tent. Having confirmed her presence, Brand let his head fall back to the ground, relaxing himself.
“Are you awake?” Jana’s voice came as a whisper, softer than a breeze.
“I am. You are as well, I surmise.”
She opened her eyes to look at him. “You sound better. You sound like yourself.”
“I feel like it.” He turned his head to reciprocate her gaze. “Do you know where my sword is?”
“You are definitely returning to your former self.” She raised a hand to point across him. “They placed all our belongings there.”
Brand turned his head to look behind him, seeing their saddle bags. “Good.”
“I have a feeling you would sooner leave me behind than that sword.”
“No.” He spoke with calm, but his voice held force. “But I feel best knowing where I might reach for a weapon.”
“Of course.” She cleared her throat. “I believe our hosts intend to journey east. At least, that was their intent before they found us.”
“If that is the case, we part ways. If they can fill our reserves of water, we can travel a long while yet before we turn west and back to the coast.”
“Not too long,” Jana admonished him. “Do not ever dare to exert yourself in this manner again. I will leave your corpse to the carrion birds if you starve yourself to death again,” she threatened.
“Consider me instructed. Not too long,” Brand promised.
“May I have entry?” asked Mahir from outside the tent.
“Of course,” Jana replied.
The amir entered. “We are breaking camp today. The grazing is poor in this area, and we must move on. We will not demand that you move on your own, of course.” The last part was directed at Brand. “We can transport you that you may continue to recover. You are both welcome to journey with us for as long as you need.”
Jana looked at Brand briefly. “We intend to travel north,” she told Mahir. “Assuming that my friend is actually able to stand,” she added, glancing at Brand again. “He may be overestimating his own strength.”
“Not at all.” Brand coughed. “I will be fine.”
Mahir raised his hands in a disarming gesture. “There is no need. There are lands and wells to the north for our herds. We will journey in this direction, at least for a few days, until we reach our next grazing lands. That will give you more time to heal, my friend.”
“Thank you.” Brand gave several more coughs, and Jana helped him to drink.
“Yes, thank you,” she repeated.
“It is a small thing for us. I will send my son to help you gather your things and prepare your horse. We will begin the journey soon, before the sun reaches too high.”
With the direction settled, the amir left and spread the word to his people. All the tents were pulled down and placed on camel backs along with most other goods. A kind of stretcher was assembled for Brand and attached to a camel, letting the beast pull its passenger. With a canopy above, it offered him shelter from the sun and allowed him to rest. As for Jana, she chose to ride her horse, staying close to Brand in the formation. Soon after sunrise, the tribe resumed its never-ending journey across the southern wastelands, herding their animals along.
The desert dwellers journeyed for three days, moving north-west. During this time, Brand was on the mend and walked a small distance from time to time, refusing to let his leg grow weak. As the tribe reached their intended pastures, hidden wells were uncovered, and both people and beasts drank as they needed. The nomads made their camp, while Jana and Brand prepared to continue.
At this point, Mahir showed them a final courtesy. Saddling two camels, one for each pair, he and his son accompanied the two travellers on their final journey through the southern wastelands. They journeyed for another day until their surroundings changed. The twisted rocks receded, and the land became flat. It remained dusty with scarce vegetation, but on occasion, they passed a tree.
Finally, on the next morning, Mahir bade them farewell. “Continue in this direction.” He pointed. “You will find the road and, at its end, the stone camp you seek. I have not been there in many years, but I imagine they have not moved it.” He gave a wry smile.
“Thank you, amir,” Jana told him. “You have given strangers more aid than many would offer their own family.”
“In the desert, we are all family.” Mahir grinned.
“These names will mean little to you, but I am Adalbrand of House Arnling. If ever the chance to repay you is presented to me, I shall remember all you have done,” Brand promised.
“I have already been rewarded. At the next gathering, I will have a better story to tell than any other.” Mahir gave another smile and commanded his son to take the other camel. Jana and Brand watched as the amir and his boy rode away, returning to their tribe. As their former companions grew small in size, the man and woman turned north-west in the direction of Maleth.
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- Chronicler of Adal
Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.