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Kevaar woke from a dream of darkness and laughing voices. Outside the sandstorm had started up again, and he had to take a moment to re-tuck the corners of the blanket he had thrown up to cover the entrance of his hideaway. The cave was cramped, barely big enough for him to stretch out in, and not big enough for himself and a campfire, but at least it kept the sand out.

Uncurling slowly so as not to jar his leg, Kevaar groped around until he found the hole in the ceiling that allowed him to sit upright. He unwrapped the bandages around his leg, and grimacing, poked and prodded at the contour of the broken bone to check how it was setting. It was lucky he had two legs, he thought, so he could compare which was more misshapen. His other leg, bruised but not broken, and swollen with the strain of having to carry all his weight. Kevaar didn't think it was possible to get an infection when he hadn't broken his skin, but that it would have been just his luck. He lay down again, this time on his belly, and fished for a biscuit from his pack.

Something had been rooting through it, he found immediately. Though the perpetrator was no longer around, the water-proofing paper around the food items had been skillfully nibbled back, and something had sampled the rations inside. Kevaar picked away at the bite marks, scattering them on the cave floor. He paused as something like eyes glittered at him from the depths of the cave.

Many animals had eyes that flashed when light shone into them, but very few had the eyes of a degonti, which glowed of their own accord. Kevaar could see the creature's outline--whatever it was, probably a rat--better than it could see his, thanks to his eyes, but it was a tradeoff. His old masters used to fret the glow would give them away on heists. Unfortunately, a degonti was useless if he couldn't see, so they kept him towards the back of the group and prayed no one looked in their direction too long and hard.

The rodent, judging by the trembling in its forepaws, probably could see him. It would be better to kill it, Kevaar thought, to save its meat and deter others of its kind for bothering him, but something in him gave way. It was the first living creature he had come across in the days he had spent out here, and for that he felt a kind of kinship to it. He plucked up some of the crumbs he had scattered earlier, and tossed it the rodent's way.

The nose wriggled, whiskers twitching. Kevaar hooded his eyes. Ever so slowly, the rodent crawled over, then quick as a bird, nipped up the crumbs and hurried away with them. So it was also desperate for food, Kevaar thought, and scattered a few more crumbs. Then he lay down again, thinking no more of it.

The sand hitting the blanket had almost the same soothing quality as listening to rain pelt the roof back home. Kevaar guessed he'd never hear the rain again. His eyes slipped shut slowly, and he sank back into dreams of darkness, that made him shudder, but he did not wake.

*****

Garula mulusdar turned out to be a Sandwalker recipe for mulusdar meat. Though it smelled delicious, the spices were overpowering and curled Azzir's tongue, and he was almost glad Drai insisted on leaving two portions for the spirits in thanks.

Drai was in high spirits, barely seeming to notice how Azzir fumbled through the ritual offerings. He shouldn't expect any self-respecting Ba'malra to be all that enthused with the proceedings anyway, Azzir thought. Ba'malra worshiped the Greatmother and Her Consort, as was right and proper, not their own dead. Yes, the Ba'malra respected their ancestors, but they didn't go leaving perfectly good meat in the fire until it began to burn. He began to think his father had been right about Sandwalker customs.

After the meal, Drai had stood and begun what Azzir could only term as dancing. He twirled and spun around the fire, stamping his feet. He didn't dance to any rhythm that Azzir could tell, and he found the waves of sand the Sandwalker kicked up rather irritating. The sun had gone down long ago, and Azzir retreated back into the tent to catch some winks.

"Wake, Friend Azzir!" Drai's voice pierced a particularly good dream he had been having about a Telerine Summer Feast. The Sandwalker's voice brimmed over with excitement, and his glowing eyes were not hard to spot with their brilliant sheen.

"What is it?" Azzir groaned.

"You have brought much luck," Drai informed him with satisfaction--rather smug satisfaction, Azzir thought. "I know our new heading. Friend Batalo from the city trades with me for yez, so we will go fast fast, across desert."

"Fast fast where?" Azzir sat up, rubbing his back.

"Desert. I know place. I know where to find Wanderer. Come! Must take down yurt. You get out, or be bundled with it."

Cursing the Sandwalker, but only under his breath, Azzir rolled the rest of the way out of his cot and onto the floor. He gathered a lump of his clothing out from under the excited Sandwalker and stepped outside. The sky was a deep purple with the coming dawn, glowing red and orange along the top of the eastern cliffs. The degonti was too sleepy to appreciate it however, putting most of his energy into stretching and debating if sleeping while standing upright was really possible.

The Sandwalker was quick about his business, and soon the tent was no more than a bunch sticks rolled in some hide, and Azzir wondered that it had ever been a tent at all. Drai dropped a few packs of supplies at his feet, and grudgingly, Azzir took him onto his shoulders. With some consternation, he realized Drai only had kept for himself one pack.

"What's that?" he asked rather pointedly.

"This one my compensation," said Drai smugly. The remaining bag looked too bulky to be carrying coins, and Azzir could only guess its contents were Drai’s payment for a yez. The Sandwalker looped the bag over one shoulder, slapped the sticks-and-tarp that was the tent onto the other shoulder, and took off at a fast pace. Azzir had a surprisingly hard time keeping up.

Drai threaded his way through Sathay's outskirts, picking his way across ditches and down alleyways. The Stone degonti were barely awake at this hour, and only a few beggars uncurled to fuzzily watch them pass. Finally the streets opened up again. A few Sandwalker tents, erected in the same style as the one on Drai’s shoulder, stood in stark relief to the flatness of the desert beyond.

The Sandwalkers were considerably more active at this time of day, and Azzir's nose twitched appreciatively at the smell of cooking breakfast. One of the Sandwalkers hailed them from his yurt's entrance and came out to greet them. He was built differently than Drai, Azzir noticed, his cheekbones higher and more pronounced, but he had the same weather-beaten look common to all Sandwalkers.

The two talked in low tones, then after much bowing and nodding, the other Sandwalker took Drai's burden, and disappeared with it around the back of his yurt. He returned shortly, leading along the great bronze hulk of a yez.

The yez startled when it saw Azzir, sitting back on its massive hind legs and shaking its frilled head in surprise. The Sandwalker scolded it, grabbing one of its short forward-facing tusks and pulling the scaled head down to the level he could rub the creature's beak soothingly. The yez seemed to like this, snorting and thumping its stubby tail. When Drai stepped closer, it snorted and brayed at him, but the other Sandwalker just laughed.

Not very well trained, Azzir thought, stiff with shock. But then, he was used to seeing the leaner, more agile yez the Ba'malra rode into battle with, not this great brute. It looked like it would be happy carrying a campful of Sandwalker tents on its back without effort. And perhaps, that was exactly its purpose.

"It will carry us both," Drai said when he noticed Azzir still standing apart. Thanking the other Sandwalker one last time, he began to secure his tent to the yez's saddle, and gestured Azzir to bring the other packs forward. "Get on, Friend Azzir. Balaro's yez are good breed. Lucky we, he stops in Sathay today."

This yez was a good deal taller than the yez Azzir had learned to ride on back home. And the saddle didn't even have any stirrups! Azzir was wondering how awkward he would look scrabbling up its side like it were a rock face, when Drai pulled the yez's head around. The Sandwalker stepped on the yez's tusk, and using it as a boost, pulled himself up behind the creature's frill.

"You come?" He looked down at Azzir impatiently.

Biting his lip, Azzir mimicked the Sandwalker's steps. He was unprepared for the yez to give him a boost of its own accord, nearly throwing him over its back with a toss of its head. Eyes yellow with humiliation, Azzir straightened himself, as the yez let out a deep throated clicking that sounded awfully like a chuckle.

"He likes you," said Drai.

"Lucky me," muttered Azzir. "The damn thing smells."

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March 2016

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