Back | Next



With long strides the swordsman walked across the desert.  Gravel crunched beneath his sturdy leather boots.  His eyes were dark, his nose a blade.  He wore robes, very dusty, and a flowing headdress, all suitable for the high stony land on which he walked.  On his back he carried a pack with dried food, a skin shelter, and a rolled-up carpet to lie on.  Though the sun in the sky was small and pale, its heat still quavered on the horizon. 

The land rolled in gentle hills, endless as the ocean.  The soil was grey and covered with stones the same shade of grey.  The air smelled of dust.  There was little vegetation.  The sky was cloudless and twilit, and the sun never moved.

The swordsman's blade was carried in a plain wooden scabbard covered with cracked leather.  The broadsword was heavy, single-edged, broader in the foible than the forte.  Its name was Tecmessa.

The man walked beside a wagon road, two dusty ruts that carried in a straight line from one horizon to the next.  The iron-shod wheels of numerous wagons had thrown all the stones out of the ruts, or ground them to powder, but the swordsman found the ruts too dusty, and chose instead to walk on the stones near the road.  The thick soles of his boots made this less trying than it might otherwise have been.

While the man made only an occasional detour from the road, the slim form of his companion roamed left and right of the track, as if on a series of small errands.  She returned from such a side trip, and spoke.

"A spider, common and brown.  And ants, common and black.  The former is happy to feed on the latter."

"Anything uncommon?"

"Alas, no."

The man coughed briefly, the sound smothered by the strip of turban he had drawn over his mouth and nose to keep out the dust.

"Our trek threatens to become tedious," he remarked.


There was a moment of silence.

"Sarcasm," said the man, "is a poor companion on a long journey."

"So," said his companion, "are spiders and ants." 

They came to the mild crest of a rolling hill and looked into the valley beneath.  Shrubs cast a dark shadow on part of the valley floor, and the two left the trail to investigate.  As they approached there was a startling clap of wings, and a flock of birds thundered into the sky.

"Quail," said the swordsman.

She turned her green eyes to him.  "That implies there is enough here for quail to eat."

The swordsman raised a gloved hand to a drooping branch with long, dark green leaves.  "Why don't you investigate?"

His companion darted beneath the shrubs while the swordsman looked at the branch with interest.  He turned his eyes toward the ground and saw broken branches, debris, and a scattering of long brown seed pods.  He squatted on his heels and picked up one of the pods.  It crumbled in his hand and he extracted a pair of seeds, which he put in a pouch on his belt. 

His companion returned.

"Ants and spiders," she said.

"Anything else?"

"An elderly tortoise, and a snake anticipating the birth of many baby quail."

"What kind of snake?"

"Bullsnake.  Long as your arm."

The swordsmen opened his hand and let fall the remains of the seed pod. 

"This appears to be some kind of dwarf mimosa," he said. "Mimosa can tolerate drought, but they're hardly desert plants.  Yet here they are."

She narrowed her eyes.  "Thriving."

The man looked at her.  "What did I say about sarcasm?"

The pair returned to the road.  No earth-shaking discoveries were made.  Grey lizards the color of the desert scurried out of their way.  Wind swirled dust over and around them.  They paused for refreshment at a well, where they sat in the shade of an abandoned caravanserai and ate a meal of dried meat, dried apricots, and stale hardtack.

An hour later, traversing the bottom of another valley, they were ambushed by a troop of cavalry.

Riders came rolling over the hill just ahead, spreading out in a crescent as grey dust rose in a pall.  They didn't charge, but advanced at a controlled trot.  The swordsman paused and considered.

"How many?" he asked.

"Seventeen.  Eleven with lances, two with swords, four with bows.  And their beasts of course, some of which seem ill-natured and prone to violence."

The man frowned beneath the cloth that covered his mouth.  He took a step back with his left foot and loosened Tecmessa in its sheath. 

The riders came forward and drew rein about ten paces away.  The leader was a massive figure, broad as a wall, with pallid skin touched with the grey dust of the desert.  His eyes were an eerie gold.  A few links of mail, large and crudely forged, hung from beneath his robes.  He carried a long lance, and rode astride a bipedal lizard with long, sturdy legs, an occipital crest, and sharp teeth.

"A troll," murmured the swordsman's companion. "What joy."

There were other trolls among the riders.  Others were humans of varied hues and genders.  One woman had four arms, and carried two bows, both with arrows nocked.

"Hail, traveler," the troll said, in a voice like boulders gargling.

"Hail," said the swordsman.

The gold eyes regarded him.  "Have you lost your mount?"

"I come on foot."

"You have chosen a long road to walk.  Where are you bound?"


"And your business there . . .?"

"I have no business there, or indeed anywhere.  I travel for my soul's sake, not for profit."

The troll narrowed his gold eyes.  His mount hissed and bared slab-shaped teeth.

"You will find the journey dangerous," the troll said.

"I am not indifferent to danger," said the swordsman, "but I will walk the path in any case."

"Your name?"

The swordsman took a long breath, then spoke.  "I believe it is customary, before asking the name of a stranger, to introduce oneself, and in such a case as this to state clearly the right by which one asks."

A puzzled look creased the troll's face. 

"I perceive you are unused to the impersonal pronoun," the swordsman said. "Allow me to rephrase in the second person plural.  Who the hell are you people, and why are you barring my way?"

For a moment the troll could not decide between anger and laughter.  He chose the latter.  A grin split his huge grey face."

"Stranger, you have courage!"

The swordsman shrugged.  "I claim no more than the normal share," he  replied.

Laughter gurgled from the troll.  "I am Captain Grax," he said.  "These—" Gesturing.  "—are my Free Companions.  We're employed as caravan guards on the route from Lake Toi to Gundapur."

The swordsman drew his feet together and offered a modest bow. 

"My name is Aristide," he said.  "My companion is Bitsy."  He looked at the Free Companions.  "You seem to have misplaced your caravan," he said.

"It's ahead, at the Ulwethi Caravanserai.  We're patrolling, looking for bandits who are infesting the district."  The gold eyes narrowed.  "You could be a bandit scout."

"If so," said Aristide, "I'm a poor one.  I'm without a mount, and I walked directly into your ambush."

"True."  Captain Grax considered, his cone-shaped ears flickering.  "You have seen no one on the road?"

"Nothing but ants, spiders, and the occasional tortoise."

"We'll continue on for a while, then, in case you're lying.  If you are, we'll come back and kill you after we've disposed of your allies."

"Good hunting to you," said Aristide, and bowed again. 

Grax and his Companions parted and rode around Aristide, on his trail.  Aristide adjusted his turban and continued on his way, conversing the while with his companion.

In less than four turns of the glass he came upon the caravanserai, a blocky stone fort crouched over an oasis.  Animals and people swarmed about the place, more than could be contained within its walls.  A pen for extra animals had been built out of dry stone, while many brightly colored tents were pitched near the oasis.  On the near side of the glittering pool, Aristide could see what appeared to be a market.

Far from moving on, the travelers seemed to have settled into this remote outpost for a long stay.

Bitsy gave the swordsman a green-eyed look over her shoulder, then slipped away to conduct an investigation.

The swordsman walked past the stone corral and a row of tents to the elaborate arched door of the caravanserai.  He pulled away the strip of turban that lay across his nose and mouth, revealing unshaven cheeks and lips shadowed by a heavy mustache.  He asked the guard where he could find the seneschal. 

"His office is by the pool of life."

Aristide entered the great stone building and found the shrine with its menhir and silvery pool, and next to it the booth of the timekeeper, who—as the swordsman approached—turned the glass and struck eight o'clock on his gong. 

The seneschal's office was behind the timekeeper's booth.  The seneschal was a lean man with a sly look in his eye, and a paper-thin mustache that followed the line of his upper lip.  He smelled of strong tobacco.

"You will be provided with food for one hundred and forty-four turns of the glass," he said, "and fodder if you need it.  Afterward you'll have to purchase rations at the market."

Aristide wondered if the seneschal was slipping food and fodder to the market, and making a profit with the items the sultan intended he give away.

"What's causing the delay?" Aristide asked. "Is there war in Gundapur?"

"The area has been plagued by an unusually rapacious troop of bandits.  The caravans have stopped here until their combined companies of guards feel equal to the challenge, or until the sultan sends a force to relieve us."

Aristide looked out the arched window of the office, at the swarm of people and animals in the fort's courtyard.

"There is a small army here," he said.

The seneschal touched the corner of his little mustache with a long finger.  "The last group to leave consisted of three caravans with nearly sixty guards.  They were routed.  A few of the guards returned, but none of those they professed to guard."

"How many bandits were there?"

The seneschal's lip curled.  "Swarms of them, according to the survivors.  But of course that's what the ones who ran would say, is it not?"

Aristide looked at him.  "They weren't orcs by any chance, were they?'

"Not according to the survivors, no."

"At least we've escaped cliché," said Aristide.  "You have informed Gundapur of the situation?"

"I've sent messages.  It's impossible to know if the messengers were intercepted on the way to the capital."  He shrugged.  "In time the government will wonder at the lack of caravans and send a force to relieve us."

"If you wish to send another message," Aristide said, "I will carry it."

The seneschal raised an eyebrow.  "You will brave the bandits?"

"Bandits exist to be braved, though I will avoid them if I can.  In any case, I shall accept your hospitality for a few dozen turnings of the glass, and then continue on my way."

The seneschal gave a little smile.  "Is it pride or foolhardiness that causes you to make such a decision?  The two often go together."

"I claim no more than the normal share of either," said Aristide.

On taking his leave of the seneschal, Aristide inquired where he could find the caravan masters.  The first he spoke to was Masoud the Infirm, a lean, leathery man with long grey-white hair and a hacking cough.  Masoud had been at the caravanserai for the longest amount of time, nearly three months, and had a small apartment in the building itself.  Tapestries hung on the walls, and the floor was thick with carpets.  He courteously offered, and Aristide accepted, a cup of tea.

"Hasn't enough time been wasted?" Aristide said. "There must be a force of sufficient size to deal with any bandits here, surely."

"Any ordinary bandits," said Masoud. "But these are a particularly vicious band.  They capture whole caravans, over a dozen so far, and nothing is heard from the captives ever again.  None are ransomed, none escape, and none appear in the slave markets.  It is said that the bandits serve a god who demands human sacrifice."

Masoud's voice cracked on the last few words, and he coughed heavily for a few moments while Aristide politely waited for the fit to subside.

"If the bandits serve an evil god," Aristide said in time, "then fighting them will surely grant a warrior spiritual merit."

"Let the sultan's army earn such merit," Masoud said.  "They could use it."  Again he coughed, then wiped spittle from his lips with a napkin.

"One could earn merit also," Aristide said, "by bringing you to a physician."

Masoud offered a thin smile.  "This cough has followed me, man and boy, for over forty years.  The nostrums of physicians are useless, a waste of time and good silver."

"It is a waste of time and good silver to remain in this place."

Masoud coughed for a while before he answered.  It was possible to believe that Masoud rather enjoyed his illness.

"I concede your point," Masoud said finally, "but there are nine caravans here, plus their troops of guards.  Get the caravan masters and their guard captains to agree to any course of action, and I will applaud you."

"To whom should I next urge a common plan?" Aristide asked.

"Nadeer of the Glittering Eye," said Masoud.  "He occupies an apartment across the courtyard, and a more disagreeable ogre I have never met."

Aristide thoughtfully swirled the tea in his cup.  "Literally an ogre?" he asked.

"He would not be called Nadeer of the Glittering Eye if he weren't," said Masoud.

Aristide thanked Masoud for his hospitality and ventured across the courtyard to the apartment occupied by Nadeer.  Nadeer was easy enough to find: his snores were heroic, and echoed mightily along the cloister that surrounded the courtyard; and the ogre's great bare feet thrust out of the apartment door, which was not long enough to hold him.  Nadeer was taller than any troll, far too large for any riding beast to carry.  His skin was a brilliant green.  The thick dark calluses on the broad, paddle-like feet made it clear that Nadeer crossed the high desert on foot, walking alongside the camels that carried his goods.

Aristide sat on one hip before the doorway, one leg curled under him, and began to sing.

  "Nadeer, whose strides engross the leagues,
  And before whose voice the lions tremble
  Let Nadeer stand in the sun!
  He whose glittering eye seeks the foe,
  He whose legs dwarf the pillars of the sky,
  Let Nadeer's voice smite the air!
  On whose verdant skin the wind blows,
  He with knuckles the size of cabbages,
  Let Nadeer fare forth!"

The snoring came to a gurgling conclusion about the fourth or fifth line, then, a few lines later, came a deep, slurred voice, accompanied by the sound of little bells.

"I don't like that line about cabbages."

"Sorry," said Aristide.  "I'll work on it."

"Cabbages lack heroic stature, if you ask me." 

The large green feet began to work their way into the courtyard, followed by the great slablike body.  The doorway wasn't wide enough for Nadeer's shoulders, and he had to twist to get out.  He sat up, his head brushing the ceiling of the cloister built around the courtyard.

Unfolded, the ogre would have been more than twice Aristide's height.  His green skin was heavily tattooed.  In a crooked slash of a mouth he had two upturned tusks, each elaborately carved, and above the mouth were waxed handlebar mustaches with little silver bells on the tips.  His most singular feature was the great faceted eye in the middle of his forehead, shining like a diamond.  The eye turned toward the swordsman.

"By rights I should smash your head in," Nadeer said.  When he spoke, the little bells chimed and his voice slurred around the tusks. 

Aristide flowed to his feet in one swift, easy motion.  Surprise  swept across the ogre's face at the speed of the swordsman's movement.

"I wish only the pleasure of your company," Aristide said, "on the journey to Gundapur."

The single eye narrowed.  "You wish to hire me to protect you?"

"I have no money to speak of," said Aristide. "But a long journey is best taken in company, and when I leave for Gundapur, in another twelve or fifteen turns of the glass, I hope you will join me."

"I won't need to smash you," Nadeer said. "The bandits will take care of that on their own."

"There is sufficient force here to deter any bandits."

The ogre snarled.  "Not this pack of fools!  Under a single leader, perhaps, but as things stand—"  He began to maneuver himself back into his apartment.  "I will return to my slumbers."

"Under a single leader, exactly," Aristide said. "And why shouldn't that leader be Nadeer the Strong?  Nadeer the Master?  Nadeer the Formidable?"

Nadeer made a snarling noise.  "I offered to fight the other leaders for the leadership of the caravans, but the degenerate fools said no!  I wash my hands of them!"

With the laughing of bells, the ogre inserted himself into his apartment and lay supine.

"May I talk to the others on your behalf?" Aristide asked.

"Say anything you like.  I'm going to sleep.  Goodbye."  The last word bore the unmistakable sound of finality.

Aristide left the ogre's company and found the leader of another caravan, a blue-skinned woman named Eudoxia.  She had rings in her ears and another ring in her septum, a ring so broad that it hung over her lips and touched her chin.

"My name is Aristide," he said, "by profession a traveler.  In another dozen or so turns of the glass I will begin the journey to Gundapur, in the company of Nadeer and his caravan.  I wonder if you would be willing to accompany us?"

Eudoxia favored Aristide with a suspicious scowl.  "Why would I want to accompany that green-skinned imbecile to Gundapur or anywhere else?"

"Because there is safety in numbers, and because you are losing money every moment you delay here."

She cocked her head and regarded him.  "Is anyone else leaving?"

"You're the first I've approached."

Eudoxia chewed on her nose-ring a moment.  "I'll talk to Nadeer," she said.

"He's settled in for a nap.  If you wake him he might crush your head."

She sneered.  "I suppose he'll insist on being in charge?"

"That seems to be the case."

Eudoxia cursed and spat, then stomped on the spittle. 

"Very well," she said finally, "but only if the others agree."

"Perhaps you would like to join me when I speak to them?"

The timekeeper's gong struck nine, ten, eleven, and twelve while Aristide had similar conversations with the other caravan masters.  The swordsman returned eventually to Masoud, who coughed in derision for a long while before, after a good deal of complaint, agreeing to join the others under Nadeer's leadership.

Thus it was that Aristide was able to wake Nadeer with the news that he had become the leader of nine caravans and their assorted guards.

"Perhaps you should confer with your lieutenants," Aristide said. "As I know nothing of the business of caravans, I will excuse myself.  I have talked a great deal and need refreshment."  He bowed and turned to leave, then hesitated.

"Allow me to give you a word or two of counsel," he said. "They are yours—be  magnanimous.  Let them talk to their heart's content.  If they speak sense, you can agree and appear wise.  If their counsel is foolish, you may order things as you please."

"It will take patience to put up with their nattering," Nadeer said, "but I shall do as you advise."

Aristide ate one of the free meals offered by the servants of the sultan: olives, cheese, bread, and stewed lamb with dried apricots.  The only condiment was a spoonful of salt, carefully measured.  He left the caravanserai on his way to the oasis, and saw Captain Grax returning to the encampment with his patrol.  He turned toward the troll and hailed him on his approach.

"How was your hunting?" he asked.

Grax gave him a sour look.

"Ants and spiders, as you said."

"You'll have better sport in the days to come.  The caravans have agreed to march for Gundapur."

The troll offered a grunt of surprise.  "I thought we'd be here till the Last Death."

"Sharpen your weapons," said Aristide. "Eat your fill.  And make an offering at the pool of life."

Grax gave him a shrewd look.  "You think there will be fighting?"

Aristide shrugged.  "That's up to the bandits."  He thought for a moment.  "It might be a good idea if you were to send a patrol out of sight, in the direction of Gundapur.  If the bandits have a spy here, perhaps you'll be able to intercept him."

Grax ground his yellow teeth.  "An interesting idea, stranger."

Grax sent out three of his Free Companions on the patrol and led the rest to the corral.  Aristide resumed his walk to the waters of the oasis.  Along the way, Bitsy joined him.

"What news?" he asked.

"The camp is filled with boredom," said Bitsy, "mixed with thrilling rumors of massacre and human sacrifice."

"Anything else?"

"The seneschal is making a fortune selling state supplies to the caravans."

"I thought as much."

The two walked in silence for a moment.  The dim, motionless sun faded behind a cloud.  When Aristide looked at the men and women camped along the path, their eyes glowed like those of a cat.

They approached the oasis.  It was a goodly sized pond, larger than an athletic field, and surrounded by willows.  The air smelled like air, rather than dust.  Yellow butterflies flitted in the air; dragonflies hovered purposefully over water.  There was an area where beasts could be watered, and opposite this a small lagoon where people could draw water for themselves without having to drink any muck stirred up by the animals. 

"I think that fellow ahead is a missionary," Bitsy said.  "There's something unworldly about him."

Ahead of them a man squatted on the firm banks of the lagoon, refilling several water bottles.  He was a thin man in a faded striped cotton robe, with a hood drawn up over his head. 

Aristide waited for the man to fill his bottles and rise. 

"Hail, scholar," Aristide said.

"Hail."  As the man bowed, he made a swift sign with his fingers.  Aristide bowed and responded more deliberately with another sign.  Relief crossed the man's homely, bearded face.

"My name is Souza," the man said.

"Aristide."  Bowing again.  "How fares your collecting?"

"I've been out for three months—" Souza was distracted by the sight of a black-and-white cat hunting along the bank.  "Is the cat yours?" he asked.

"Yes.  Her name is Bitsy.  Have you had good hunting?"

"I've only begun," Souza said, "but I've acquired three children.  In the next seven months, I hope to have a dozen more."

"Very good."

"There are so many of the best that I miss," Souza said.  "I go to the towns and villages, I do my tests, I identify the bright ones and try to convince the parents to let them go.  Sometimes I buy them.  But I can't visit all the villages, and not all the parents let their kids be tested, or let them go if they pass.  They know that most of the children who go to the College never return."  He shook his head.  "I might be missing thousands.  Who can tell?"

"It would be good if more had a choice.  But—" Aristide shrugged.  "Their parents chose it for them."

Anger flickered across Souza's face.  "Their parents had such a choice.  Their children did not."


"Now," Souza said wearily, "I have to worry if the children are going to be captured and sacrificed to evil gods."

"I wouldn't take that seriously," Aristide said.

The scholar peered at him.  "You have information?"

"No.  Merely confidence.  I think the force present here can handle any mob of evil cultists, especially if we act under a single leader—and apparently Nadeer is that leader."

"The ogre?"  Souza wrinkled his face.  "Talk about choice . . ."

"Each to his own," said Aristide.  "But in any case you should prepare the children to move on in the next few dozen turns of the glass."

"I'm secretly relieved, to tell the truth," Souza said. "Young children separated from their families for the first time, and stuck for months at a desert oasis with nothing to do."  He grimaced. "You can imagine the scenes we've had."

"I'm sure."

Souza narrowed his eyes.  "You're not a missionary yourself, I take it?"

"No.  I'm a scholar of the implied spaces."

Souza was puzzled.  "I—" he began, then fell silent as a group of Free Companions approached.

"We'll speak later, on the journey," Aristide said.

"Yes."  Souza bowed.  "It's good to have someone to talk to."

Souza returned to the camp.  Aristide squatted and refilled his water bottle while he listened to the convoy guards.  Their speech was loud but without interest.  After the guards left, Aristide drank, then filled his water bottle again as he watched a tall blue heron glide among the reeds on the far side of the water. 

He heard a step and the soft rustle of robes, and turned to see a young woman crouching by the lagoon, lowering a large leather sack into the water by its strap.  Water gurgled into its open mouth.

The hair peeking from beneath the young woman's headdress was light brown.  Her eyes were blue.  A slight sunburn touched her nose and cheeks.

"I am reminded of the verse," said Aristide.

  "Butterflies make music over water
  The green boughs dance in company.
  The brown-haired woman bends over the water
  Graceful as a willow branch."

A blush touched her cheeks, darkened the sunburn.  Water gurgled into the sack.

"I haven't seen you before," she said.  Her voice was barely heard over the rustle of leaves and the sigh of wind.

"I am Aristide, a traveler.  I arrived a few turns of the glass ago."  Softly, he sang.

  "This sack of water, a heavy burden.
  The maiden staggers beneath the weight.
  What thoughtless man has given her this charge?"

The woman looked quickly down at the water and her water bag. 

"The water is my own.  I travel alone."

"You must allow me to carry the weight for you."

She twirled a lock of hair around her finger.  Bitsy appeared from the trees and rubbed against the woman's leg.  The woman scratched it behind an ear.

"Is the cat yours?'

"Her name is Bitsy."

"Bitsy," she repeated, idly scratching.  The cat looked up at her and purred.

"You neglected to tell me your name," Aristide reminded.

A soft smile fluttered at the corners of her lips. 

"My name is Ashtra," she said.

"And you travel alone?"

She glanced down at the water.  "My husband is in Gundapur.  He's sent for me."

Aristide looked at her closely.  "At the mention of your husband I detect a strain of melancholy."

"I haven't seen him for seven years.  He's been on a long trading journey with an uncle." She gazed sadly across the placid water as she scratched the purring cat. "He's very rich now, or so his letter said."

"And he sent for you without providing an escort?  That bespeaks a level of carelessness."

"He sent two swordsmen," Ashtra said.  "But they heard of a war in Coël, and went to join the army instead of taking me to Gundapur."

"I think somewhat better of your husband, then, but not as much as if he'd come himself.  Or at least sent money."

"Perhaps he did, but if so the swordsmen took it."  Her blue eyes turned to him.  "I don't even remember what he looks like.  I was twelve when my family had me marry.  He was only a few years older. "

Despite the efforts of the sultan and other rulers to set up timekeepers with sandglasses regulated by the Ministry of Standards, days and years were necessarily approximate in a land where the sun did not move.

Aristide took her hand and kissed it.  "You will delight him," he said, "have no doubt."

She blushed, bowed her head.  "Only if I survive the bandits."

He kissed her hand again.  "Do not fear the bandits, Ashtra of the Sapphire Eyes.  The caravan guards make a formidable force, and—come to that—I am rather formidable myself." 

She looked away.  He could see the pulse throb in her throat.  "But the stories—what the bandits are supposed to do to captives—The stories are chilling."

"Stories.  Nothing more."  He stroked her hand.  "You will pass through the gates of Gundapur, and live in halls of cool marble, where servants will rush to bring you sherbets and white raisins, and music and laughter will ring from the arches.  But for now—" He reached for the strap of her water bag, and raised it dripping from the spring.  "Allow me to bear this for you.  For I believe there is a bank of green grasses yonder, shaded by the graceful willow, where we may recline and watch the dance of the butterfly and the stately glide of the heron, and enjoy the sweetness of wildflowers.  There the wind will sing its languorous melody, and we may partake of such other pleasures as the time may offer."

He helped her rise, and kissed her gravely on the lips.  Her eyes widened.  Aristide drew her by the hand into the shade of the trees, and there they bode together on the carpet of grass, for the space of a few hours on that long, endless afternoon of the world. 

Back | Next