Tales of the Desert

He began. “I am old and tired now, but many years ago, when the sun and the moon were young, and skipped through the daytime sky, hand-in-hand, I was as reckless an adventurer as any you wish to name.

“My family are from the northern oasis, the pendant in the Emerald Chain, we call it, but I roamed the full length of that green oasis string, trading and talking with any and all I encountered.

“I travelled to the southernmost oasis on the eastern side of the chain, and returned, my packs laden with dates and figs the likes of which the Carran traders had never seen. Then, I took the western chain, where fewer people go. The pools are smaller, and further apart, there is less to see and less to sell. But I was a curious youth and on I went, travelling under the kindly light of the moon goddess. I wanted to see the final oasis in the western chain, for no reason other than to say I’d done it.”

Emir stretched out his legs and smiled. “It was worth the trip, the southernmost pool of the western chain is a lake. Deep, wide, and cool even when His Radiance the Sun is at his most fierce, some say it has healing properties. It’s waters allow the families there to produce food enough for half the chain and I was astounded to be offered raw gems of exquisite quality as part of my trade conversations. I was even more astounded when I discovered how they came to possess the gems.”

Jakob reappeared carrying a tray and set it down on a convenient table. “Has he got to the good bit yet?”

Emir flapped a hand in his grandson’s direction without turning his head. “Don’t rush me.”

Jakob chuckled and served sweet, cold tea as Emir continued. “When I exclaimed over the stones they displayed before me, the headwoman of the oasis merely shrugged. ‘We have no use for such things,’ she told me, ‘they cannot be eaten, or used to protect from the heat or the cold. They’re pretty enough and I hear there are people in the city who value such baubles. Would you take some in trade for goods we do require?’

“I agreed, and even tried to settle on a fair price, but she all but gave them away, and I couldn’t fault her reasoning – they didn’t need the stones, but did need other things only the city could provide. They needed me to have a strong desire to make the trip to supply those things, and therefore she was happy to give me a little extra incentive. I think that was how she put it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her daughter was the most exquisite, intelligent, fascinating young woman I’d ever laid eyes on.”

Emir nodded in Jakob’s direction. “That would be his grandmother, best trip I ever made, that one.”

He sipped his tea, then said. “It wasn’t until I’d made the journey three times, and was about to propose marriage to my Yasmin that they showed me why they needed so many and varied items from Carra and beyond.

“It was afternoon before a full moon and the whole oasis was abustle, gathering the things I’d brought, plus produce of their own hands, packing and loading them onto broad-wheeled handcarts, made to run on the fine sand of the southern edge of the desert.

“I wandered about the place, more than a little confused, until Yasmin herded me to the front of a little cart, laden with woollen cloth from the Northlands and some dearly-bought lengths of Sundarian silk, packed into heavy sacks with large loops of rope at the top. We joined the procession, heading south and east, into the desert, towards the Battlements.

“I’ll not lie, I was nervous. I’d seen those gryphons on the hunt, after the little goats that somehow manage to find enough to eat out there, and I knew they were there, perched high on their rocky ramparts, watching us beside their neighbour phoenixes.

“But though their shadowy forms dotted the cliffs ahead of us, and several of both species launched from their perches to circle high above, their wings glinting in the gold of the sunset, they didn’t attack, they simply watched. Which I can tell you was most disconcerting, even worse than disapproving aunts.

His aside made Lyra giggle, and he went on with a pleased smile. “Finally, as His Radiance faded from view and made his way to the halls of the life beyond, we came to a structure. There, in the middle of the sand. Nothing around it, no water, no life, just a paved stone circle the size of a merchant’s receiving room, edged by carved stone columns, twice my height although near enough to my width. The columns held up nothing but air, least that I could see, and I had to wonder at their purpose, and for the circle within. Was this a tribute to Our Lady Moon? Or to another deity unique to this part of the desert?

“Yasmin pulled me from my musings, ‘hurry up,’ she said, ‘we need to get this unloaded before the moon peaks.’ Naturally I wanted to know why, and she rolled her eyes. ‘Because that’s when the exchange takes place.’ Exchange? What exchange? And with who? My mind boiled over with questions, but I wasn’t allowed to ask a single one. My darling Yasmin shushed me and promised to explain later if she had to, but now we must be quick.

Lyra found she was leaning forward, hanging on the old man’s every word; he was one of the most skilled storytellers she’d had the fortune to encounter.

“As Her Gloriousness mounted the sky, bathing us in sweet, cold silver, the centre of the stone circle was laid out with sacks, all of heavy cloth in a weave I didn’t know and gathered around the top with generous loops of thick rope. The last sack was put in place, and the man scrambled back, out of the circle. Eyes turned to the Battlements, stark and clear in the moonlight, and then they came. The phoenixes spread their wings and glided down, one after the other they flew down. One after the other, they grabbed at the loops of rope on the sacks and soared skyward again, our offerings dangling from their talons.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, those great fire birds carrying our goods past the highest peaks of The Battlements. Where were they going?

He paused and took a sip of tea, Lyra thought it was more for effect than true thirst.

He went on. “Finally, the circle was empty, and I took a step towards it. Yasmin held me back. ‘An exchange has two halves, Master Trader.’ I’m sure my eyes were wide enough to take up all my face when I looked at her. She laughed, and nodded towards the jagged rocks the birds had vanished behind. A gryphon was winging its way towards us, gliding down, then dropping like a cat into the circle. It paced the area like a warehouse manager after a shipment is loaded and the final check is made that nothing was missed. It seemed the couriers had done their job, and nothing was left, so it dipped its beak towards our gape-mouthed cluster, dropped a pouch in the very centre of the space, and raced for the sky once again.

“And still my beloved held me back, for the phoenixes weren’t done. A series of them returned, still laden with sacks, or were they newly laden? My mind churned. Each sack was placed with care and precision before its carrier beat down with massive wings and left the stone columns behind. Then finally, as the last bird took roost on the crags above us, our group surged forward. The sacks were grabbed, and loaded, and I was forced to wait until we returned to the oasis before my ravenous curiosity could be satisfied.

“We trundled our carts through the glory of the sunrise and carried the mysterious sacks to the central storehouse. Most then retired to sleep but I remained, determined to know what the phoenixes had brought us. Yasmin dangled even more tempting bait before me…”

Emir shook a finger at Jakob’s snigger. “Get your mind out of the gutter young man.”

He went on. “She held the pouch the gryphon had left behind, ‘I’m taking this to Mother if you want to come too.’ And I did, so I did, and the pouch held the key to my puzzle. Inside was a handful of those rare gems, and a letter. Yes, a letter. But who had written it, and what did it contain? I discovered the latter soon enough; the page was handed to me to read. It was nothing more than a record of payment for goods delivered, and a list of other goods required. My darling was sympathetic to my disappointment and her mother alleviated it a touch by sharing what she knew, and conjectured, of the writer.

“She spoke of old tales of a fertile valley and a city of wizards, guarded by The Battlements and its creatures. Of men and women who could command the elements of the djinn but were as human as you and me, with one telling difference. Each and every one of them had eyes the colour of moonlight. And so it was, they could not walk among us, to gather their needs and trinkets at the markets of the oases or Carra, for ancient decree had marked such to be brought to the palace on sight. And so, I was told, an arrangement was made. It wasn’t secret, yet no one spoke of it, and every full moon the people of the south western oasis sent supplies by phoenix to the people of The Battlements, and they sent back jewels, strange fruits, and fabric woven of metal.

“I saw each of them for myself that day, and on many other days since, as I travelled between Carra and the western chain to deliver the rarer, riskier, stranger items on their lists. But, twenty years ago, or thereabouts, something changed. The phoenixes flew as usual, but the pouch contained only gems, and thanks. There were no further requests. And from that day, the stone circle has stood empty, the gyphons and phoenixes repelling any who step between the columns or attempt the open stretch of sand before the cliffs.”

Emir turned his hands so his palms faced up, and lifted them level with his shoulders. “And now I am empty of story and need to be filled.”

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