Post by Zaim al-Daleel on Aug 5, 2008 21:02:52 GMT -7
Husar happened upon his favorite niece lying on the ground, her head propped in her hands. She was studying the movements of two swarms of ants, one red, one black, and did not notice her uncle's arrival until his shadow fell across her face.
"Good day, Uncle," said Jamilia, glancing up, then returning her gaze to the insects. "The ants are at war. They have been fighting for over an hour. It is most fascinating. Come down and see."
With effort, the aged Husar knelt beside his niece. "Have you determined the cause of this great battle?"
She pointed to a scrap of bread crust the size of her thumb. "Both the red ants and the black ants desire the bread. Look how many have fallen." She pointed to dozens of scattered corpses. "They are very determined."
"I am not surprised," said the elder. "After all, moldy bread is at stake."
The elder's sarcasm did not escape Jamilia, but she ignored the remark. "Well, I think war is interesting. It takes great courage to fight for a cause. The ants are risking their lives for something important to them. The victors will win the crust. The losers will get only crumbs."
"Crumbs or crust," said Husar. "To the dead ants, it will make no difference."
Post by Zaim al-Daleel on Aug 5, 2008 21:04:25 GMT -7
20th of Safa
Late in the afternoon, two days after the encounter with the old nomad, the caravan passed through to the north side of the Range of the Marching Camels. A sea of sand rolled before you as far as the eye could see. No roads broke through the sands. No landmarks stood out as guides. For the next three days, only fate and the stars would guide you.
An hour later, the caravaneer Ya'qub called for a halt. While the laborers laid out piles of grass for the camels, Ya'qub began his nightly inventory. The day previous he'd overseen the replenishing of individual thilaithi (water bags) from the group's minun.
Ya'qub now examined the minun, lifting and judging the weight with a merchant's skill and then checking for wear that can be caused by chafing. He'd brought enough water for two days delay in their journey, but it wouldn't do to lose that safety margin.
For the second consecutive night, the laborers didn't participate in the evening's campfire conversations. Ya'qub also noticed that Sahra seemed to have lost that spark of interest she'd displayed earlier in the journey.
The waxing crescent moon set a few hours after sunset. Above, a dome of constellations, turning slowly across the sky on its eternal path.
22nd of Safa
Rising on the horizon, at first nothing more than dark spots in the shimmering heat which radiated off the desert floor, appeared the highest peaks of the Mountains of Forgotten Dreams. There, on the southern side, awaits Jamal Oasis.
Post by Zaim al-Daleel on Aug 5, 2008 21:08:36 GMT -7
23rd of Safa
Having pushed the camels a little harder for the previous three days, the distant palms of Jamal Oasis came into view late in the afternoon. Amid the palms gleamed the white minaret of Jamal temple.
An hour later, as the sun touched the horizon, the caravan arrived at the best-known and arguably most hospitable oasis in the High Desert.
The cool air, rich with the smell of plant life was delightful as you guided the camels into the mud-brick caravanserai. It was large enough to house a small army, and had a pool so clear you could count the pebbles on the bottom.
Ya'qub and Barakeh negotiated the fees with the caravanserai managers and returned to the group. Many things had to be accomplished before there would be any time to relax.
The trade goods were unloaded and placed into secure storage sheds along the caravanserai walls. The camels were then watered and brushed down by the laborers.
Finally, in a large dinning room in the caravanserai, you were invited to feast on baitan-jan, a leafy eggplant that grows profusely on the eastern perimeter. Cool, fresh water was served- free of the strong taste that comes from being stored in animal skin bags.
Later that evening, the laborers led the camels out to graze in the primrose-covered hills to the north.
"You will forgive me," Amir al-Ahmar says bowing his head to his host. "But it is the custom of my people that my face never be revealed to one who is not of my tribe. Thus I must decline this generous feast and take my dinner alone in my tent tonight." The desert rider remains at the table for the duration of the meal politely replying to any questions asked of him. He proves to be a somewhat reclusive but unobtrusive guest.
Much later that evening as the remainder of the party returns to their tents, Ya'qub hears his name whispered in the darkness.
"A word." the voice speaks. It is Amir. "I have not been able to rid myself of the suspicion you have planted in my heart towards Khafaz ibn Dahz. It occurs to me that we have two means to test the reputation of this man. One is simply here, in Jamal Oasis. Clearly he is well known, and for every man who speaks well of him is another who will whisper doubts. All we need are the ears to listen. Let those of us who have a quick and cunning tongue see what tales we can gather. You must see to that.
Also has not Fahad entrusted us with a great treasure? Ali'a the Hungry can be used by us as we see fit. Do not be surprised that I know of the carpet you carry. Fahad has spoken of it to me once before. Surely we could ask him to reveal any plots or treachery Khafaz intends. I know the answer may take some interpreting, but it is worth trying at least. Besides, I would very much like to speak to Ali about another matter which concerns me."
After getting over his initial surprise at Amir's embassy, Ya'qub listens intently, nodding his balding pate solemnly. "Agreed. It should be no difficult matter to determine how trustworthy the man is."
Ya'qub's homely face wrinkles up in a pained expression. "By Fate!" he whispers hoarsely. "I had forgotten about the carpet. You are most wise to consider this valuable asset in our care. He should be consulted at the first opportunity!"
Ali will continue to assist Ya'qub in managing the caravan. While at the oasis he will speak to those who are willing to see if he can get a hint of any of the dangers they may face on their continued journey, or at least an indication of what sort of terrain they can expect.
And though he is not the expert that others in the caravan are, he will double-check the quality and quantity of the provisions they obtain for their return into the desert.
Giving her his most friendly gapped-toothed smile, Ya'qub approaches Sahra. "Child," he says, "You have been a most excellent helper on our journey. Would you like to accompany me to the market in order to assess the value of the bolts of silk I carry? I'm thinking I may be able to exchange them for something a little more profitable where we are going."
Ali, having secured a room on the second story of the caravanserai, wandered downstairs and out to the small tent village that thrived around the artesian well that gave life to Jamal Oasis.
As Ali wandered past a tent, a small child spotted Yakhil flittering about and laughed and pointed with glee. The delight of the child was contagious, but not for Yakhil. He scowled at the child, his skin darkening until he nearly disappeared against the night sky. An ancient man sitting in the tent's open entryway, hushed the child, but it was the scolding of a doting grandfather. Ali was invited to sit and share a coffee. They sat and spoke of the desert. Yakhil flew up and sat on the roof out of site of the boisterous child. The grandfather's name was Gabbar al Gabal, and he had more stories than time to tell them. One in particular chilled Ali so much that he shuddered as if a cold breeze had blown in from the desert.
Wandering the High Desert, beyond the Mountains of Forgotten Dreams, seven corpses stumble through the desert on an eternal quest for water. Should they but approach an unsuspecting caravan... Here he paused and stared unblinking at Ali. "All the water vanishes without a trace."
"I am neither a child, nor a helper," Sahra said, arms akimbo. "I am a woman of twenty-three years and a full laborer doing a laborers work. And unless that's an order to accompany you, in my capacity as a laborer, I choose to stay here rather than be seen with a caravaneer who'd pass an old man in the desert without so much as offering a drink of water."
"I stand corrected as to your age, you are obviously much more mature than I had first thought. As to your charge I fear I have no answer, except that the sun has addled this simple pate of mine from so many years traversing the wastes. I beg your forgiveness, and shall not trouble you to accompany me to the market, unless you wish so. I simply wanted to reward you for your good work with the caravan, as well as your deep compassion on the old man we saw. I should have responded as you; your kindness shamed me, and I thought to recognize such care for others.
No, I will not order you to accompany me. It is an invitation and no more. A simple invitation to lady who has proved herself far nobler than a cold, ignorant caravaneer."
Sahra stared intently at Ya'qub, perhaps trying to judge his sincerity. After a moment, she nodded, pushing a bit of stray hair into her keffiyeh. "I hope that someday soon you have the opportunity to demonstrate your charity before fate turns her hand against us and we're the ones digging for tubers."
Ya'qub nods solemnly. "May that day be long in coming and short in its duration."
As he turns to go, he glances back at Sahra. "My offer still stands. Would you care to accompany me, or would you prefer seeing about your duties?"
"I'll accompany you," Sahra said. Her demeanor was no longer icy, but it was a far cry from warm.
Ya'qub and Sahra joined the merchants gathered in the courtyard of the caravanserai. It was here merchants traded; standing and sitting around the well in small, animated groups. You could almost smell the transactions and feel the deals being sealed with an embrace.
Ya'qub received two offers for his silks; one a reasonable amount of dinars, another an intricate set of jewelry handcrafted from brass and small gem stones. The jewelry is high quality and is a better trade, in the right markets, than taking gold for the silks. The merchant claims the jewelry are the products of the House of Sihr- a tribe of janni rumored to live deep within the Genies Anvil.
"You're not likely to find anyone here who knows the true value of jewels such as those." a voice tells Ya'qub shortly after he has spoken with the merchant. He turns to see a slim young woman regarding him with a pair of striking, slanted violet eyes. She wears a simple aba and is dressed for travel. "It would be a shame for someone of your discerning eye to be cheated the proper value of such an item. There is a jeweler of the first water I know of in Vahtov who's skills are unsurpassed. You wouldn't happen to be traveling that way by any chance?" She gives Ya’qub a coy smile which seems almost an invitation...
Ya'qub will make the exchange of the silk for the jewels. He will also reward Sahra for her selflesness.
"I know that you gave no thought to yourself when you offered a cool drink to the old man earlier. And as I said, your spirit of selfless generosity at the time shamed me. Now it has inspired me! I wish to give you a reward. Take this gold bracelet as a token of my thanks for the lesson you taught this ignorant fool."
He also learned the following: The House of Dhi'b (Sons of the Wolf) have been raiding caravans throughout the southern reaches of the High Desert. Raiding in clans of 200 mounted warriors, they rival the House of Asad for control of the lands around Jamal Oasis.
"The spirit Natifa knows their movements..." a gray bearded nomad began.
"I'd rather take my chances with the living, than question the dead!" interrupted another seasoned traveler.
Ya'qub listens carefully, noting that the caravan route might be a prime target for these raiders. "I beg you will pardon your worthless servant," he begins to those speaking. "But it has been some time since I last traveled this route. Who is this "Natifa," and why does the spirit of the same draw such fear?"
"Why wouldn't a spirit draw such fear!" the old merchant huffed. "Life is short enough, full of natural dangers, why meddle with the supernatural ~may fate guide me away from them~ that's what I say."
"As for who Natifa is..." His eye's gleamed with the thrill of telling the tale, despite his previous outburst. "At the western end of the Mountains of Forgotten Dreams, lies the Burning Pool of Natifa. There, in a burning fountain lives the spirit."
With a lecherous grin, he added: "They say that she'll assist a traveler that can please her and that she is quite unforgiving of those who fail."
In the morning as the caravan prepares to leave Jamal Oasis, Amir al-Ahmar approaches Ya'qub seemingly to help him secure the packs on his camels. Then he leans closer to Ya'qub and says in a low voice:
"The only crime I have heard Khafaz accused of here is conducting business with other patrons besides Fahad and selling goods of inferior quality. If that is the worst he is capable of, I have no more concern about him. I hardly know a trader who does not employ some deception to better his means."
Post by Zaim al-Daleel on Aug 5, 2008 21:10:47 GMT -7
24th of Safa
Fahd al-Taleb was nowhere to be seen when the party awoke the next morning. While the gathered were discussing his absence and the possibility of foul play, the laborers herded the camels into the caravanserai.
Old Rajab, overhearing the conversation, hurried over. "Saheeda, courageous young masters, I thought you were aware, or I would have hastened to inform you. Fahd came to the hillside in the hour before dawn, gathered his two camels and rode off. Oh, how my liver pains me for failing you so!"
Khafaz ibn Dahz called out as he tightened the cinches on his saddle. "Young Barakeh too, will be leaving us. Seems his father requires him back in Tajar. Quite urgently it would appear."
Even as Khafaz spoke, Barakeh could be seen riding out of the caravanserai, leading a camel behind him.
Ya’qub scatched his balding pate in growing consternation. After a moment of this he announced that while they'd lost two members of the party, they'd found another. Ahura, a female merchant who desired to accompany them as far as Vahtov should they be traveling in that direction.
25th of Safa
The midday sun was burning high in the sky when a contingent of camel riders appeared on a ridge of hills. The riders wore black abas with violet trim and carried gleaming swords. A quick count proved the riders easily outnumbered you three to one.
Three of the riders broke from the group, riding toward the party at a leisurely pace.
"Ramad's men," Khafaz said, "We should wait for their approach."
The leader of the riders, a young man with a humorless expression, asked your names and business, but before anyone could answer, he recognized Khafaz and smiled. "The traders. You are expected."
The leader identified himself as Zabahk.
"How goes the war?" asked Khafaz.
Zabahk shrugged and but didn't reply. He beckoned for the party to follow.
After crossing over the ridge of hills, they passed a field of weeds and scrub bushes, three soldiers tending a small herd of goats, and a rock formation in the shape of an arch.
Post by Zaim al-Daleel on Aug 5, 2008 21:12:41 GMT -7
The Camp of House Fajirik
Ramad's military camp consisted of neat rows of black camel-hair tents on a sandy plain. Smoke from cooking fires drifted into the sky, and a soft breeze carried the delectable odors of roast mutton and vegetables.
Some of the soldiers lay flat on their backs outside their tents, sound asleep. Others polished their saddles or groomed their camels. Two soldiers, their faces covered with scarves, stood a few feet apart and shrieked at each other.
"They are practicing a battle cry called the nakhwa," says Khafaz. "Some soldiers fight with concealed faces. They use the nakhwa as identification, so friends are not accidentally attacked."
No one showed much interest in the caravan as it passed. Zabahk lead the party to a clearing in the center of the camp. Two men approached. One young, with a withered left leg, and leaning on a gnarled wooden staff as a walking stick. The other older, but muscular and fit, and carrying a bronze shield. Standing nearby was an old, thin man with long, dangling earrings.
The muscular man turned to the party. "I am Captain Ramad bin Yusif al-Kahn." He motioned to the thin man with long earrings. "Hirakur, a skilled sorcerer and my second-in-command."
Then Ramad nodded toward the young man. "Jaman, spiritual counselor of the House Fajirik." Jaman bowed.
Ramad examined the camels. "Fine specimens," he said. He turned to Khafaz. "Two months ago, you sold me nine horses. Two were lame. It was fortunate my men caught up with you to correct this oversight."
"Er, yes it was," said Khafaz, squirming.
Ramad slapped Khafaz on the shoulder, laughing. "The matter is forgotten. Now, how much for the camels?"
"Per animal, 200 gold pieces," said Khafaz, recovering quickly from his discomfort, his voice firm.
"Wrong," said Ramad. "100 each. Zabahk, fetch the money. I have yet to decide, Khafaz, if you are a shrewd merchant or a common thief." He laughed again.
Ramad invited the party to come to his tent for "talk and refreshments. Hirakur and Jaman will join us."
Aside from the four soldiers standing guard, Ramad's tent was no different than the others in the camp. He dismissed the guards and sat on the ground in front of the tent. A soldier brought a wooden tray containing a metal coffee pot, a bowl of dried lamb, and a brass box.
"A finajin," whispered Khafaz, indicating the brass box, "A gesture of good will. Ramad honors us."
Ramad opened the finajin and removed coffee cups made of yellow glass.
Serving coffee to his guests, the captain asked about news from Tajar and encouraged the party to tell of their experiences in the High Desert. Jaman sat quietly drinking his coffee; he appeared troubled and distracted. Hirakur glared at the party and said nothing.
When no one spoke up for the group, Captain Ramad took a sip of his coffee and knocked an eyebrow questioningly.
Ali graciously took the coffee and happily engaged in polite conversation.
"Tajar is much as it always has been," he replied. "Money is made and lost. The rich merchants get ever richer, and the poor merchants strive to become rich merchants. I fear we can tell you little of the gossip of the town since we were there for but a small handful of days."
"But the High Desert is another story," he continued. "There we have seen much, though nothing so exciting as the ankheg that attacked us in the dark of knight as we began our journey."
"It was a moonless night and the Sultan's Crown had just begun to rise over the hills to the east when our sleep was broken by the terrified bleating of a camel ..." He continued to tell in dramatic form the tale of their fight with the ankheg, embellishing it where necessary to make for a better story, and conjuring illusions to show the more exciting portions.
Ali held the Captain in rapt attention with his story and illusions. At its conclusion, Captain Ramad explained that crushed pulp from the orbi vine is effective deterrent against all but the hungriest Desert Ankhegs.
Once Again Amir declines the offer to drink and dine with his guests though the delectable smell of coffee and lamb is hard to resist.
As he sits smelling the strong, rich coffee of Ramad's table, Amir remembers Fahad's words about this man:
"Khafaz sells supplies on my behalf to the commander of this camp. You will deliver the six war camels to Captain Ramad bin Yusif al-Kahn. He can be trusted. He has many contacts throughout the High Desert. He may be able to provide you with valuable information."
"Whom do you fight?" Amir asks Ramad directly, one warrior to another.
Amir eyes Jaman and Hirakur with the same suspicion with which they seem to be viewing him, and wonders if he should find time later in the evening to speak with Ramad alone.
"House Ashurim, commanded by the proud Captain Takaz al-Harounah," Ramad replied.
Ramad explains that a treaty exists between House Fajirik and House Ashurim. The terms of the treaty, called an allag, prohibit either side from trespassing on a flat field of sand called a qara'a. Each house remains confined to a tribal zone called a dirah on either side of the qara'a.
"In the absence of a formal declaration of war, we are forbidden to enter the qara'a, " Captain Ramad said. "Therefore, we wait. On the opposite side of the qara'a, the opposing army of House Ashurim, also waits. The waiting has gone on for nearly 200 years."
He raised his coffee cup and smiled, "May it last 2000 more."
The captain, assuming his guests would share his interest, told the tale of these two tribes.
Centuries ago, the elders of House Fajirik and House Ashurim laid claim to their own dirahs, regions of rolling hills and rich soil where vegetables and grain grew in abundance. Because the qara'a was five times the size of the combined dirahs, both Houses shared it. Harmony prevailed, and the Houses prospered.
This arrangement endured until a yearlong drought sapped the moisture from the dirahs. The vegetables and grain withered in the sun. The soil turned to dust. The Houses lost interest in sharing the qara'a, as its scraggly plants now seemed critical to survival.
A bloody war ensued. For four years, two of Zakhara's strongest and best-trained armies fought over scrub brush and weeds.
How many lives were lost? One for each worthless twig, maybe more. And to show her disapproval, Fate ensured that the powerful magic invoked by the Houses destroyed the qara'a, reducing it to dead sand.
Weary of war, the leaders at last negotiated an allag, a temporary truce. Under the terms of the allag, the qara'a would become a neutral area, forbidden to members of either House. To guarantee compliance, each side would maintain a permanent camp and patrol the border of the qara'a. Our camp was established to the south, House Ashurim to the north. Because of the legacy of distrust, the leaders decreed that the allag would last for a single century, at which time the terms would be renegotiated. The allag expired ten years ago.
"It was I who renegotiated for House Fajirik. With the approval of Captain Takaz, the allag was renewed for another century under the same terms."
"Ninety years from now, the House leaders may again renew the allag, or opt for niga, a declaration of hostilities. Or they may choose hidna, a cessation of war, in which case all our people can take down their tents and leave this wretched place for good."
Lum's ears perked when he heard the name of House Ashurim. He had been very quiet since the Ankheg debacle and kept mostly to himself, even postponing training sessions with his novice, Amin, but now his interested was peaked. "Excuse me," he said to his hosts almost too loudly, not recognizing the intensity of his own voice unused these many days, "pardon, do you know of a Siraj al-Leil of the House Ashurim?"
"It is not a name I recognize," Captain Ramad said. "Not one of the tribe's leaders, to be sure. Perhaps a common soldier..."
Post by Zaim al-Daleel on Aug 5, 2008 21:16:27 GMT -7
"Your pardon, Captain," Hirakur said. "but might I ask our guests where they were born?"
The captain nods his consent.
"You would not know the place of my birth." Amir al-Ahmar says cautiously, deciding already that he does not like this insolent sorcerer. "It is far from here in the deep desert, and it is many years since I considered it my home."
The old, thin sorcerer, his eyes and manner birdlike with jerky speed, considered Amir momentarily. After an unblinking pause:
"Let me rephrase. Where were you born, specifically? In a private home, a camel barn, a medical facility?"
Captain Ramad chuckled with the air of one indulging a senile uncle. "You're under no obligation to answer..." he said, which earned him a frustrated glance from Hirakur.
Hirakur's questioning gaze then fell on Khafaz. Khafaz stopped preening his curled moustache and waved the question off. "What does it matter..."
"Indulge me. It is the simple curiousity of one who seeks signs and portents in the stars," Hirakur said, his glare hardening.
Khafaz resisted a moment more. Then he snorted dismissively. "In my grandmother's house in Tajar."
Apparently this answer was sufficient to remove Khafaz from further attention. The old sorcerer studied the rest of the newcomers.
"Was anyone born in a cemetery?" he asked, casually.
Hirakur's attention fell on Turin. "How about you?"
Turin shifted uncomfortably. "I was born on a cadaver barge," he muttered. "My mother was a healer. She comforted the dying. It was during the trade wars in Suq Bay."
Hirakur rubbed his chin. "Not a cemetery, but perhaps it will do." He handed Turin a small square of silk. "Wipe your hands with this, then your brow, then your neck."
Captain Ramad took a sip from his coffee and waited for the old sorcerer to finish whatever bit of divination he was working on. Ramad's demeanor was that of someone unfamiliar with magic and uninterested in learning more. "Who knows the ways of sorcerers?"
Turin did as asked and returned the cloth to the old man.
"Its for a defensive weapon I'm developing," Hirakur smiled. "Just in case those bastard, lower than dog dirt, son's of camel piss, may their seeds whither in their sacks, Ashurims, try anything..."
Captain Ramad stifled a laugh. The young spiritual leader Jaman was clearly disturbed by the old sorcerer's actions or demeanor, perhaps both. Begging to be excused, Jaman stuggled up on his one good leg and leaning heavily on his gnarled staff, left the tent.
He returned a short while later, carrying a leather folder bearing the image of a stylized gust of wind, the symbol of the god Haku.
The conversation had lagged so Jaman's return broke an awkward silence.
"A favorite prayer," said Jaman, passing it toward Ya’qub. "Please accept it as a gift from House Fajirik."
"One moment," said Hirakur. He snatched the folder from Jaman, opened it and then read it. After a moment he passed it on to Ya’qub.
Even Captain Ramad was shocked by this rudeness. "Why did you do that?" he snapped.
"We know nothing about these strangers," the old man replied. "Jaman is young. He may have given them privileged information. Accidentally, of course."
Captain Ramad shook his head. "These strangers are my guests. I insist on you treating them as such."
Hirakur bowed his head in humble acquiescence.
Ya’qub looked in the folder. He removed the folder's only content and passed it around for all to see. It was a piece of parchment on which was written the following:
Glory to Haku for His Blessings
Glory to Haku for His Favors
Let us Share in His Great Purpose
May He Accept us as Partners
May He Look upon us with Affection
May the World grow Greater under His Guidance.
"The afternoon grows short, and perhaps you would like to show us your trade goods," Ramad said. He stood. "And afterwords, I insist that you stay the night with us as my honored guests."
As everyone was getting to their feet, young Jaman asked Ya’qub for the folder back.
"My apologies, but I neglected to sanctify the folder with the blessing of Haku. It will take but a moment." He took the folder, turned to away from the group and muttered a few words of prayer. Finished, he returned the folder to Ya’qub.
"It would be wise," Amir says as he loosens the belts on Sulayman's harness. "For one of us to spend some time this evening alone with Ramad. Fahad seems to trust him and mentioned that the captain had contacts all throughout this region of the desert. Perhaps it would be best if we spoke to him plainly of our search for Sita, but only if we are assured of privacy. I do not trust that sorcerer."
Turning to Ya'qub he adds: "It also seems Ramad is fully aware of Khafaz's... reputation, so perhaps we need not worry any further about him."
"So.... who wishes to go to the captain's tent?"
I would suggest either Lum or Amir, as both are military men themselves. I don't believe that our good captain will be as free with a common merchant caravaneer...
That sounds fine to me, but there is another matter I must concern myself first and foremost, a matter dealing with my order, the Wanderers.
I feel that some discretion must be used and ask no one here reveals the information I am about to discuss... so here it is. I received a missive from my order, I thought it was just a matter of revenge, but maybe something more is going on. This "peace" with the Ashurim disturbs me, and so too this man born on the cadaver barge. Here is what the missive says:
"Wind of Fate slew Wanderer. Revenge demanded, discretion optional. Walking corpse soldiering for House Ashurim under the name of Siraj al-Leil"
"Did you not consider that Turin may have been this 'walking corpse' described in your message when the sorcerer questioned him?" Amir offers rather undiplomatically. "By speaking of this Siraj al-Leil right before him, you may have alerted Turin of your suspicions. For as little as I like him, Hirakur does seem to share your order's hatred of the Ashurim. That may be enough to ensure his loyalty. I think it would be better if you spoke with the sorcerer and left the Captain to me."
"I found Turin slightly suspicious, but the actions of the sorcerer even more so." Lum replied, nonplussed by Amir's petulant outburst. "Turin was not of the walking dead, that much is certain, but the sorcerer definitely knows something, so I will speak to him about this further." Looking at the others, "Anything else we need to discuss?"
"The night grows long," Amir says. "Decide if there is any other business we need to attend to before morning. I am off to see the captain." And with that, he disappears into the night in search of Captain Ramad's tent.
As Amir began walking towards the Captain's tent, Khafaz approached.
"Jaman, the spiritual adviser," Khafaz said suspiciously, "am I the only one who thought that was a little odd? 'Forgot to sanctify...' I'm not the most religious of men, so I don't know why he'd want to sanctify a folder, but I'd like a second look at it."
Ya’qub proffered the folder to Fahad's chief administrator. A brief look inside turned his suspicious face to smug satisfaction. "As I thought." He pulled out the piece of paper for all to see.
"Meet me at the stone arch near the House Fajirik Dirah in one hour. Secrecy is imperative. Hundreds of lives depend on your compliance. -Jaman"
The blessing had been switched.
"It could be a trap," Lum said with a smile, "but it could be interesting. I'm for going to this secret meeting."
"In the deep desert a feud is a simple matter." Amir comments to no one in particular. "A man would sooner kill another man rather than waste time plotting treachery against him. It is difficult to know who to trust here." Then with a sidelong glance to Khafaz he adds, "You have traveled often to this camp, have you not, Khafaz? What do you know of this sorcerer Hirakur and the captain's counselor, Jaman?"
"They say he is a skilled sorcerer, though I have no personal knowledge of this. What I do know, and is no small secret, is that he hates House Ashurim."
Khafaz shrugged. "As for Jaman... last time I visited this camp there was another spiritual adviser. An old man named Kibrahim. "
His brow furrowed. "I wonder what became of him?"
Struck by Khafaz's concern, Amir draws his cloak slightly back from his shoulders to make sure his hand can quickly come to an arrow or the hilt of his scimitar. He walks alertly narrowing his eyes at shadows along either side of their path.
"Hmm... so you think Jaman could be this Siraj fellow?" Lum's novice begs a word and whispers something into his ear which impresses the Mamluk warrior. "Well done Amin, double rations for you today." Turning back to the rest, "There is a group known as the Winds of Fate, they are assassin's by trade, perhaps one has infiltrated our hosts ranks and did away with this Kibrahim fellow. I say we make haste for the stone arch, well in advance of our meeting time to scope the area out."
Post by Zaim al-Daleel on Aug 5, 2008 21:18:32 GMT -7
Death in the Camp
The sun nearly touched the western horizon as you arrived at the stone arch outside the camp. It was the one you'd passed on your way in.
Jaman had emerged from hiding in the weeds. He thanked you profusely for coming, then cast his gaze about as if looking to see if you where followed. Obviously very nervous, his voice trembled and his hands shook.
"Hirakur is obsessed with destroying the House Ashurim because of a grudge he has carried his entire life. Ashurim soldiers killed his ancestors," Jaman hurriedly explained. "Hirakur has spent months gathering components to conjure an entity capable of destroying the House Ashurim. The cloth that your friend rubbed on his skin was the final component. That means Hirakur will strike soon."
Leaning heavily on his crutch, Jaman shifted his weight so he could gesture with his hands. "If he succeeds, the fighting between the Houses will begin again! Ashurim tribesmen are scattered across the High Desert. If their army is destroyed, they will hold Fajirik responsible. There will be no allag this time. Only death."
Jaman glanced at the faces of his listeners then pressed on before anyone could interject. "Hirakur's intentions were disclosed to me by my master Kibrahin... he was my mentor and friend," lamented Jaman. "Kibrahin the sha'ir served the army of House Fajirik for a half century."
"Kibrahin informed Captain Ramad of his suspicions but had no proof. And without proof, Ramad would not act."
Choking back tears of anger or grief, the young spiritual adviser hung his head, wiping his eyes with his forearm. "Kibrahin was discovered dead in his tent two weeks ago, the victim of a snakebite. I believe Hirakur placed the serpent in Kibrahin's tent because he knew too much."
Jaman's voice took on an edge of impotent anger. "But I could not prove it, and my mentor's death was declared an accident. A few days before he died, Kibrahin told me that he had made arrangements to counter Hirakur's plan. He said it was important I knew of these arrangements, in case something happened to him."
"Kibrahin had trapped a djinni named Z'ah in a genie prison, a necklace made up of golden spheres. For his final wish, he requested that the djinni help stop Hirakur," Jamal explained. "When any one of the spheres is touched and the djinni's name "Z'ah" is spoken, the djinni will use its powers to counter whatever entity Hirakur has conjured."
"The djinni," Jaman continued, "has already received its instructions. Anyone can now call it forth to execute its final orders." Lowering his voice to almost a whisper, Jamal moved closer, conspiratorially. "Kibrahin hid the golden necklace in the qara'a."
Jaman produced another prayer folder and handed it to the group. "I made this map of the qara'a for you, showing the location of the necklace. The necklace is in a shallow pit covered with stones."
"Help me stop Hirakur! I cannot do this alone," Jaman pleaded. "I have the will, but not the ability." He pointed to his crippled leg.
"Will you meet me at my tent just after sunset? From there, we will go to the qara'a and recover the necklace. We must travel lightly. Bring your weapons, but leave your camels and the rest of your belongings at camp. If anyone should ask, I will tell them we are going into the desert to discuss religious matters."
"If I am wrong, and Hirakur has not chosen this night to conjure his creature, we will return to the camp. But if I am correct, we will be ready. What say you?"
"What manner of creature is this thing that Hirakur means to summon?" asks Amir. "And once we release this djinni, are we to stand back and watch them battle, or are we expected to fight? I for one would like to know the nature of my foe."
"I was only told Hirakur is trying to summon a creature with which to defeat the House Ashurim," Jaman said, frowning. "Perhaps Kibrahin did not know either." With a shrug: "He is bound to grant the wish. How he grants it... Now that is always the question when dealing with djinn!"
"I don't trust you Jaman, I'll state that here and now. What proof can you give me that you are not this Siraj I am seeking?" Lum's hand grasped the hilt of his sword but he did not draw his blade. In his left hand, behind his back, his jambiya was already in the position to strike.
"Hey..." Jaman stuttered. "I don't know a Siraj." He hopped a bit back from Lum. "Captain Ramad knows who I am! What is this? Are you all working with Hirakur? Have I walked into a serpent's den!?" He looked on the edge of panic.
"Stay your hand." Amir says to Zhalum. "Zhalum received a warning of an assassin in House Ahurim who may have slain one of his order." he explains to Jaman. "Understandably he is cautious about who to trust. I for one am inclined to believe you and help thwart the plans of this mad sorcerer."
To say Jaman relaxed would be a huge overstatement; however, he no longer looked to be a camel's hair away from fleeing in terror.
Lum eased his grip on his scimitar, "Many pardons Jaman, I needed to study your reaction and see if you were telling the truth. I now believe what you have told us and will help you recover this golden necklace."
Jaman thanked the party for their promised assistance and asked to be given a head start on the quarter mile walk back to the camp. Leaning on his crutch, he started back as the dark blue sky deepened toward black.
The horizon beyond the hills and grassland to west of the stone arch blazed a brilliant orange. While waiting, they noticed the laborers leading the camels toward the grasslands. Ya’qub's camel, Nasim, was giving old Rajab some grief, perhaps a female camel nearby was in heat.
The party assisted in herding the animals the last few hundred yards to the grassland. After ensuring that the animals where grazing under the watchful eyes of Rajab and Maarouf, the party started back toward the camp in full dark. Sahra accompanied them, she'd be staying in the camp with the packs and remaining trade goods.
By the stars and moon which graced the canopy above and the light from the many campfires, they walked back to the military camp. A mounted patrol passed them, perhaps 50 soldiers. Lum scoffed at the lack of military discipline. They'd obviously grown lax after so many years of peace. Their boisterous laughter could be heard even after they'd rode out of sight.
The party continued walking back to the camp, parallel to a line of hills to the north. Beyond those high hills lay the forbidden territory of the qara'a.
The camp was a pretty impressive affair. About 400 soldiers called the camp home. Natural springs supplied water, and patches of rich soil enabled the soldiers to grow carrots, cucumbers, and other vegetables.
The camp also included a small cemetery marked with stone markers. Beside the camp, livestock pens- full of camels, sheep, and goats.
As soon as they approached the camp, they knew something was wrong. A large crowd was gathered around a tent. Pushing their way through the crowd, they found a morose Captain Ramad standing over two corpses. One a scorpion the size of a wolf, its body cracked and broken, its antennae snapped. The other, Jaman, a puncture in his chest.
"Someone heard a scuffle," said Ramad sadly. "We got here as quickly as we could but we were too late to save Jaman."
"Hmpf" Lum said as he surveyed the scene. "A scorpion that size does not just wander into a tent. Something smells here and it's not the dead bodies. Captain Ramad, may I politely suggest you seek advice from Hirakur, such are his powers he may know more about this than the rest of us layman." With that said, Lum slightly bowed and motioned to his companions to leave.
When alone and there is enough privacy to speak without being overheard, Lum will say, "While Ramad occupies Hirakur's time, we should make for the Djinni with all haste. There is nothing here for us except further delays."
Waiting to see if Ramad will take the bait and leave to seek out Hirakur, Amir makes a show of leaping into action:
"Friends," he announces to the party. "Let us make sure there are no more of these fiends about." He pauses for a moment, studying the corpse of the scorpion for an instant. "See that no one disturbs the scorpion's carcass." he asks Ramad. "I may be able to learn more of where this creature came from when I return."
Captain Ramad looked around in frustration. "Send for Hirakur!" he ordered. A nearby soldier spun and pushed his way through the crowd.
As groups of soldiers spread out, weapons drawn, Captain Ramad knelt to examine Jaman's corpse.
He hurriedly exits Jaman's tent, draws his bow, and begins striding away from the camp. He will wait until the party is out of sight of Jaman's tent before he reviews the spiritual advisor's map.
"Haste," he says to his companions. "We must move quickly and quietly. Clearly the sorcerer knew Jaman was up to something. The scorpion was killed before it entered Jaman's tent, I am sure. Possibly even this morning. We have little time before he tries to stop us."
As the party left the scene, they heard the soldier breathlessly report back: "Hirakur's not in his tent, sir!" Amir froze in mid-stride and called back to Captain Ramad: "This is Hirakur's handiwork. He means to break the peace between the houses! We are off to stop him. By no means let him hinder us! Guard yourself!"