Authors: Kristian Alva
Tags: #fantasy, #epic fantasy
Tallin and Duskeye flew onward in silence. Parthos became smaller and smaller and eventually disappeared behind them.
Tallin felt strangely uncomfortable
—he had flown outside the desert countless times in the last few years, but never for more than a few weeks at a time. This was the first time he’d left Parthos without immediate plans to return.
Duskeye sensed his unease. "
Come now, let us enjoy this journey. We
’ve stayed in the desert so long; this is our chance to explore the beauty of this land."
“You’re right. If we travel at an even pace, we can enjoy the desert in bloom. Our private time is precious, I’ll try to enjoy it.” Perhaps they could even spend a day at the Southern Refuge, an oasis that had been created by Fëanor the elf years ago.
Time slipped by, and the clouds vanished away, replaced by the colors of dusk. As evening drew near, they flew on, enjoying the gorgeous landscape.
Eventually the sky darkened and the moon rose in the sky, its silver light illuminating the vast southern plain before them, a seemingly unending stretch of sand and rock. Brightly colored sandstone rose up into majestic plateaus, peppered with caverns that had once been the mating caves for hundreds of dragon females.
Now the caves lay empty, some of them filled with the oxidizing bones of dragons, slaughtered by dragon hunters years ago.
They flew through the night, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures. Just before dawn, they stopped to rest at a high plateau. Several abandoned caves faced the desert, and Tallin dismounted to explore each cave individually. Duskeye remained outside, waiting for Tallin to give him the signal—he was looking for a cave that didn’t have any dragon bones.
Tallin stepped inside the first cave and stopped short. The bleached bones of a long-dead she-dragon lay inside, partially buried in the sand. The jaws were wide open in a silent scream. Near the skeleton, Tallin saw the remains of a ravaged nest: five tiny skeletons, their wing-bones still unfurled. These hatchlings were mere days old when they were slaughtered.
“Not that one,” said Tallin quietly, stepping outside. Duskeye looked down at his feet and didn’t respond. They both knew the reason.
Tallin walked into the second cave and breathed a sigh of relief. No bones, and the interior of the cave was spacious enough for them to sleep comfortably side-by-side. “This cave is clear,” he called out, and Duskeye followed him inside.
The two relaxed in the sandy nook and settled down to sleep. Duskeye nodded off quickly, but Tallin remained awake. The image of the bones inside the first cave hung heavy on his mind. Tallin had discovered identical scenes many times, but it always left him feeling dejected and sad. When he finally fell asleep, his dreams were unpleasant.
They awoke together in the early afternoon and took off again. The heat was suffocating, but they soon acclimated to the temperature. The southern desert was hotter than the north so there were fewer obvious signs of life, but within the caves and burrows there teemed a myriad of life: dune rabbits, lizards, snakes, and other creatures thrived here without any human interference.
Shrub vegetation grew across the land, stubbornly laying deep roots despite the inhospitable heat. Large areas of bare soil competed with low vegetation cover. Here and there, a solitary palm offered meager shade. Tallin and Duskeye flew past an immense shield of black crystalline rock, hardened over the centuries, its surface radiating waves of heat, the evidence of some ancient catastrophe.
A few days later, through a swirling cloud of dust, the Southern Oasis came into view. "Duskeye, will you look at that!” Tallin exclaimed. “The oasis has tripled in size. There’s even a small village.” The palm trees were quite dense now; the area was bursting with lush vegetation and flowering date palms. The oasis was occupied by nomads and their camel herds.
Below them, brightly colored tents dotted the desert floor. From the sky, the tents looked like jewels upon the yellow sand. People milled around, building their campfires or working in small groups. In the center of the village, groups of women sat outside their tents, gossiping while they worked. One group prepared fresh dates for drying. Others shelled gyndi nuts, separating the greasy nut from the fibrous husk, setting it aside to use later. The nut fibers were stripped out for use in various handicrafts, including baskets, rope, hammocks, and clothing.
Dark-skinned children laughed in the shade, playing near the sparkling pool water in the center. Date palms grew everywhere, their branches laden with ripened fruit. A ring of drought-resistant grass radiated outward from the oasis for several leagues, and camels grazed lazily.
One of the tribesmen spotted Duskeye in the sky and shouted,
“dragon-rider.” Others began yelling and waving. Tallin recognized his friend, Sa’dun, signaling from the crowd below.
“Let’s stop,” said Tallin. “I see my old friend, and I could use a bath and a hot meal.”
Duskeye circled down and landed near a pool of clear water. Several muscled warriors guarded the oasis, their wrists, ankles, and necks tattooed with swooping runes. The nomads applied the runes during their manhood ceremony, and the markings doubled as protective wards. The guards stepped back, allowing Duskeye to drink from the spring, but they did not leave their posts. Tallin leaned down and drank a handful of water—it was cool and tasted mildly sweet.
Tallin dismounted, feeling his feet sink into the warm sand. Young people immediately surrounded the two as they walked into the center of the village. A ring of gyndi nut trees circled the oasis. Tallin reached up, grabbing a ripe nut from a tree. The seedpod was enormous, and when he split the husk apart, the fruit inside was the largest that he’d ever seen. The magic of this place affected everything, even the size of the plants.
“Rider-friend!” Sa’dun shouted, walking over to Tallin, both hands held up in greeting. He flashed a dazzling white smile, his dark cheeks plump and rosy. Sa’dun had never been thin, but Tallin noticed that his friend had gained weight and was now quite heavy.
“Greetings, Sa’dun,” said Tallin. They clasped hands briefly. “You’ve been eating well, I see.”
Sa’dun laughed, patting his round belly. “You are right! I am so joyful and fat. And my wives and children are all healthy, praise Golka!”
Although it was not customary for ordinary tribesmen to introduce their wives, Sa’dun was now a tribal chief, so he gestured toward two women behind him. “These are my wives.”
A male nomad was allowed up to three wives, as long as he could prove to the elders that he could support them. That number was increased to four if at least one of the women was a widow.
“This is Mirram, my senior-wife. She is the mother of my five sons.” Mirram bowed slightly, standing behind Sa’dun with five young boys. She opened her arms proudly, touching each boy’s head. The children chattered with excitement, all trying to get a closer look at Duskeye. Mirram’s face was concealed by her
, a long outer garment, but Tallin could see creases around her eyes. She was smiling.
Tallin smiled and crossed his hands in front of him in a gesture of greeting. He could tell this woman was Sa
’dun’s first wife by the number of rings on her fingers.
The other woman, crouched behind Mirram, had a baby in her arms. She kept her eyes focused on the ground. Sa’dun took her arm gently and led her forward. “This is Amfila, my second wife. She is timid, but she is a fine helpmate and a good mother. Please forgive her nervousness; she has never seen a dragon rider before.” Sa’dun whispered something in her ear, and the woman looked up, meeting Tallin’s eyes for a few seconds before looking away.
She stepped forward quietly and lifted a corner of the blanket, presenting her chubby infant for a blessing. Sa’dun’s eyes softened, as he looked at the child with pride. “This is Mem'engwa. She is my first daughter. I have five handsome sons, and for that, I am grateful. But I prayed to the gods for a daughter, and finally they have seen fit to grant me one. Look how beautiful and round she is! She is a treasure.” Sa’dun reached out and caressed the baby’s head with his callused hand. “To a father growing old, nothing is dearer than a daughter.”
“You have been blessed with an abundance of sturdy children, my friend.” Tallin tickled the baby’s plump foot, and she giggled. He whispered a short protection prayer and covered the baby back up. The woman made a deep curtsy and stepped back behind Mirram.
It was obvious that Sa’dun doted on his growing family. “Children are the anchors of a father’s life. Walk with me—I want to show you what we have created here.” He escorted Tallin around the oasis, pointing out different plants and fruits that grew in abundance.
“Years ago, there was much famine, and many infants were lost. But after this oasis was created, everything changed! Magic lingers everywhere in this place, and the trees bear fruit year-round. The water from the spring is always cool and clean. Our children are healthy, and our camel herds have doubled in size. We have enough food to feed all our people and improve our herds.”
“And the other tribes, do you have news of them?”
Sa’dun went on, chattering excitedly. “The Tribe of Akhtar moved to the south last year, and we helped them with their relocation efforts. Akhtar is my kinsman; he is married to my half-sister, Imirra. The men of that tribe searched for a suitable location while their women and children stayed here. Akhtar succeeded in finding an underground spring a few leagues away. The water was deep below the soil, but our shaman, Haluk, was able to fetch it forth from the earth using magical spells.”
“As Fëanor, the elf did here,” said Tallin.
“Yes, although our shaman cannot match the elf’s abilities. It took Haluk many days to create the well. Fëanor created
oasis in a matter of
” Sa’dun’s expression grew wistful. “Oh, if only you could have seen it, my friend! The elf was
His skin was so white and smooth, like a sea pearl. And when he reached out with his finger, it glowed. Everything he touched flowered and grew right before my eyes!
” Sa’dun’s eyes gleamed.
Tallin knew the story. The desert tribes considered Fëanor a hero, believing that the elf had created the oasis out of compassion, but the opposite was true. Fëanor had only created the oasis after Elias forced him to help a group of starving nomads.
Like most elves, Fëanor was indifferent to mortals and cared little if they lived or died. Fëanor and Tallin knew each other, but they were not friends.
Fëanor was arrogant and selfish—he barely tolerated humans and dwarves, but reserved his strongest hostility for half-lings, whose mere existence he considered an affront to the natural order. Still, Tallin didn’t want to offend Sa’dun, so he replied cautiously, “All elves are powerful spellcasters who can manipulate plants and animals. It’s good that the elf helped you create this place. Is the second oasis ready yet?”
“Almost, but not quite—Akhtar’s men planted many date palms, and Haluk fortified them with growing spells. The trees are already in flower, and once they bear fruit, the men will take their wives and children to their new home. Our shaman Haluk returned from there only yesterday. He is resting now.”
“So you’ve made this place your permanent home,” he said with genuine admiration.
“Yes. The elders chose my family to safeguard the oasis. It is a great honor for my family! My brother moved here with his two wives, and my youngest sister and her husband, too. We have many children between us, as you can see.” Sa’dun pointed at dozens of youngsters frolicking nearby. “The elders made their choice official during the tribal fair last spring.”
Tallin nodded. He knew about the tribal fair—he had attended one several years ago, on the desert’s eastern border. It was a grand affair, with nightly dances, wedding celebrations, and lots of native food. All the tribes sent their own representatives to exchange goods, arrange marriages, and settle any treaty differences.
Sa’dun continued. “So many blessings have rained down on our brethren! We have so much now that it costs us nothing to share. We exchange our food and water for handicrafts and leathers. Look here,” he said, pointing to a group of ornate baskets. “See this pattern? These were made by the western tribes; they are gifted basket-makers. The weave is so tight that the basket can hold water without spilling a single drop. We have many goods from the other tribes here. This place has become a sanctuary as well as a trading post.”
“That’s great news,” Tallin said. He meant it. The southern desert was hotter than the north and had been once been an inhospitable place, but these hardworking people had transformed this region into their new home. Although the oasis had been created by an elf, any success that they had now they made for themselves.
Tallin looked over Sa’dun’s shoulder and saw a brightly-colored tent, decorated with elaborate runes.
That must be Haluk’s tent, he thought. Tallin knew that nomadic spellcasters usually lived solitary lives, like hermits. It was rare to find one staying with a tribe. “Sa’dun, is that your shaman’s tent? I would like to speak with him.”
“Haluk meditates during the day and prefers to be left alone, but I’m sure he would make an exception for you, dragon rider.”