SOME DISTANCE from Umir's house Alric and I fell into the walk-trot-lope combination that transported us as far and as fast as possible without ruining the horses. I discovered the white gelding, for all he was a ridiculous mount for the desert, was indeed a comfortable ride in all his gaits. Too bad he needed black paint and fringe to make it practical. And just now he lacked both after his sojourn at Umir's; fortunately it was nearing sundown as we approached the big oasis a day's ride from Julah.
The oasis was a popular stopover for travelers, and thus five different routes met here. There were palm trees aplenty, plus water plants around the edges of the small artesian spring that had, over time and with human help, been widened into a pool. Desert folk honor such places by treating oases as sanctuary. Animals and humans are watered, then everyone retreats to their own patch of soil and sand to pass the night without fear of attack, Since it was early summer, more people were on the roads. The oasis was crowded.
Alric and I dismounted, led the horses to the pool, let them drink enough to cool their throats, then pulled them away and commenced the struggle of man against thirsty horse. Trouble was, they'd get sick if they drank too much too fast when they were hot. Alric and I walked them a bit as dusk approached, then led them to water again. We filled canvas horse buckets, gulped a few mouthfuls for ourselves, then made our wandering way, trailing tired horses, through the cluster of tiny campsites to find our own, settling finally for a single unclaimed palm tree on the outskirts. There we unsaddled, spent some time rubbing the horses down, then pegged them out—and carried botas back to the pool to tend our own thirst in earnest.
Kneeling at the water's edge, I sluiced my head and face, then squirted the contents of a bota down my bare torso, front and back. Once I'd refilled the waterskin, I released a gusty exhalation of relief.
Alric, squatting nearby, grinned. "He will live?"
"He will live." I used a forearm to wipe water from my brow. "But he's getting too old for this."
The Northerner grunted. "Didn't look like it to me earlier today."
I inspected the thin crusted slice along one of my ribs, dismissed it as unimportant. "Trust me, I am."
Alric stoppered his bota and rose. I splashed another handful of water through damp, spiky hair, then pressed myself up from the ground. At a more decorous pace we strolled through the oasis, exchanging nods of greeting with other travelers. I smelled sausage and spiced mutton and journey-loaf baking on a flat rock. Danjacs and oxen called to various brethren, while horses snorted disdainfully down haughty noses. I thought of the molahs of Skandi and the steep, zig-zagging trail up the caldera face.
"So," Alric said, "Just what was all of that about?"
"All of what?"
"All of everything."
Back at our lone palm, we grained the horses sparingly and began to unpack our gear, unrolling and spreading blankets on the warm sand. "Elaii-ali-ma."
"Oh, I heard about that." It didn't mean the same thing to him since he was a Northerner born and trained, but he understood what it was for me. "I mean, where have you been, what's happened to you, how'd you lose your fingers and get those tattoos, and why did you want Umir's book?"
"Oh, that everything." I sighed, shoved saddle pouches under one end of the blanket, stretched out with my head pillowed on wool and leather as I chewed idly at dried cumfa. I'd already told him briefly about Del's predicament and how I hoped to catch up to her in Julah, supposing Nayyib had taken her there. "We've led rather interesting lives for the past several months."
Alric flopped down on his blanket, thrusting a thick, blond-furred forearm beneath his head. "I always like an entertaining story before I go to sleep."
So I told him. Not everything. Nothing about magic, save to explain that Umir's book supposedly contained all manner of powerful spells. And nothing at all about my limited life expectancy, or my dreams of a dead woman and a sword. But I didn't need to. Even abbreviated, it was story enough for Alric.
When I finished, he lay in silence for a time. Then he grunted. "I see I'm missing a great deal, being a staid married man with four children."
"Four! Last time you had three."
"Lena's expecting again."
"Hoolies, Alric, you and Lena are worse than sandconeys. Do you plan to populate the entire South?"
"I like children."
"Lena likes children."
"Even better, since she has to bear them."
He cast me a speculative glance. "Don't you ever plan to have any?"
I cast him a look in return that informed him he was sandsick.
"You and Lena can make up for my lack."
Alric laughed. "Fair enough. It gives us an excuse for more." He was sandsick. "In the morning," I said abruptly, "you head back home. There are five roads out of here; they can track us this far from Umir's, but then they'll have to split up to sort out where I've gone."
It caught him off-guard. "I'd thought to go on to Julah and help you with Del."
I shook my head. "I appreciate it, Alric, but you've got three children and a fourth on the way. You don't need any part of my trouble. Go home to Lena." I might not want my own kids, but I didn't want to be responsible for depriving others of their father. "I'll be fine."
After a moment he agreed. "You certainly handled Musa easily enough."
"Hardly 'easily.' I'll feel it in the morning. Hoolies, I feel it now!"
I swore with feeling. "That was sheer waste. Talent like his doesn't come along very often."
"From what I hear, not since you did."
I made a noncommital noise. Once I might have complimented him on his insight, but Del had impressed upon me that one needn't brag to establish one's credentials.
Or something like that.
Chewing tough cumfa, Alric observed, "Musa made the choice. He might have let it be."
But Musa was—had been —young, supremely talented, confident, and he could not believe I had beaten him. Not a man who had dishonored himself.
After a moment, Alric asked, "Will you answer a question?"
I couldn't figure out why he felt he had to ask permission. "Sure."
"What will you do if Delilah is dead?"
Oh. Now I knew why.
"I haven't thought about it."
My tone did not dissuade him from further inquiry. "Not ever?"
I hitched myself up on an elbow and scowled at him. "What kind of a conversation is this? How about I ask you if you've ever thought about what you'd do if Lena died?"
"I have. I do. Every time she goes into labor."
I blinked. It's not the sort of thing men speak about very often, if at all. "Well, I suppose that's a risk you have to take if you're going to have kids." Which was a pretty lame comment, but I didn't know what else to say. I flopped back down on my blanket. Since he'd brought it up– "So, what would you do if Lena died?"
"I have three daughters to care for. That is what I'd do."
"As a sword-dancer?"
"Oh, no. I would have to find another life. Something with no travel involved, so I would be there for my girls." He spoke so matter-of-factly about giving up the life he had always wanted. Maybe that's what happened when you got married and had kids. Gave things up. No wonder I didn't want any.
"As you have no children," Alric said, "what will you do if Del is dead?"
I really didn't want to walk this particular conversational road. Especially when I had no idea where or how she was. "Go on," I replied briefly.
"Doing what? You can't accept dances anymore."
"I own one-third of a cantina."
Alric turned to stare at me incredulously. "You'd spend the rest of your days serving liquor and wine-girls?"
"No," I replied crossly. "I mean I'd collect my share of profits. They'd be enough to live on even if I can't dance. But it doesn't really matter, because I have plans."
"Alimat fell years ago. The shodo died. There hasn't been one since then—at least, not of his ability." I raised my hands into the air, inspecting them. "Even if I hadn't declared elaii-ali-ma, I'm a little bit hampered as a sword-dancer. So I thought I'd take a whack at being a shodo."
"You? A teacher?"
I scowled at him, lowering my hands. "Why does everyone always sound so surprised?"
Alric examined my expression. "Because you are not in general known for your patience, Tiger. And those who have a particularly rare gift for something—in your case, sword-dancing—often make the worst teachers. They can't teach what comes to them naturally and unbidden."
"How do you know I can't?"
"Tell me how you defeated Musa."
"I just—beat him."
"Come on, Alric! Do you want me to give you a blow-by-blow description? You were there."
"How do you know precisely where a man will be in the circle, Tiger? How do you know what move he will make before he knows?" He grinned as I stared at him in surprise. "Yes. I have seen it in you. As I saw it on Staal-Ysta, in one of the sword-singers there. I asked him once. He couldn't tell me. He said he simply knew. He saw it in his head."
"Time just—slows." It was the first time I had ever spoken of it to anyone. It sounded ridiculous. And impossible.
Alric sighed. "You can't teach that, Tiger."
It stung. "You don't know. I might be able to."
The big Northerner snorted. Then he rolled over, displaying a broad back. Such faith he had in me.
But maybe he was right. Maybe I couldn't teach anyone anything. I just didn't know what else I might do.
I stared into the deepening sky, watching the stars emerge out of daylight into darkness. Firelight flickered at ground level, illuminating soil and sand, the dark, angular faces of Southron travelers. The aroma of mutton and sausage drifted our way. I heard quiet murmurings in several dialects, laughter, a child crying, and a faint, yearning melody sung softly by a woman.
Bascha, I said, please don't be dead.
* * *
I awoke to the sound of a baby screaming. At first I tried to block it out by pulling a corner of the blanket over my head, but it didn't help. Eventually I gave up, squinted out at the early morning sun, then pushed myself upright. Musa may have landed only one minor blow, but the dance alone had resulted in sore muscles.
I got up slowly, swearing quietly under my breath. By the time I was standing, I realized Alric was already up. In fact, he'd taken the horses off for watering. I was in the midst of stretching and attempting to lengthen my spine when he came back. He looked altogether too alert for this early.
Which reminded me. "How was it you managed to lose your dance?"
He led the horses back to the pickets. "Musa."
"You danced with Musa?"
"I was his fifth opponent, or maybe it was sixth. I lasted fractionally longer than the fourth or fifth." He tied off the horses, apportioned more grain. "It was clear from the first time he danced that he would likely win."
"So, I take it everyone lost money when I defeated him."
He grinned. "I would assume so."
"Too bad." I glanced around for something behind which I might shield my morning donation, finally settled on the palm tree just beyond the horses. "Did you?" I called.
"What, lose money? Hoolies, I didn't bother wagering."
"No. It would have been disloyal."
"Ah hah! Even you would have bet against me."
Alric was rolling up his blanket as I came back around the horses. "I didn't know where you'd been or what you'd been up to since the last time I'd seen you. I did mention to the others I thought they were giving you short shrift, but once Rafiq spouted off about the missing fingers and your bout with the sandtiger, no one wanted to listen."
I started packing up my own belongings. "You could have put coin on me for old times' sake."
"Lena expressly forbade me to wager."
I nodded sagely. "And you, of course, do everything Lena tells you. Or, in this case, don't do everything Lena tells you not to do."
"We would not be having this conversation if Del were here."
"Sure we would. She'd just be giving us the benefit of her own opinion."
"You've been together how long?"
I thought about it. "Almost four years."
"Ah. Then you're still a work in progress. Lena has had more than ten years to remake me."
"Del knows better than to try to remake me."
Whereupon Alric collapsed in paroxysms of laughter, drowning out even the screaming baby.
Eventually I noted, "I meant that as a joke."
The Northerner got up again and finished packing, but it was punctuated by occasional chuckles. After a while I ignored him and hauled pouches and saddle to the gelding, who peered at me out of watery blue eyes.
"What happened to the stud?" Alric asked.
I slipped into my harness and buckled it, reseating the sword I'd bought in Haziz. It would be another day ending in sunburn, since I still lacked a burnous. Fortunately I'm tanned enough that the burn is only mild. "He ran off when the sandtiger attacked. If I'm lucky, he wandered back after Rafiq and his friends hauled me away to Umir's. Otherwise, he might still be out there wandering around." Or more likely dead. But I didn't want to think about that any more than about the possibility of Del being dead. "He's a tough old son. He's likely bedded down in a good Julah livery about now." And Del, I hoped, was bedded down on a healer's cot.
"Are you sure you don't want company?"
"Go home to your wife, Alric. Tell bedtime stories of me to your little girls."
He grinned, reached out an arm. We clasped briefly. "Bring Del to Rusali when you have a chance. Lena and the girls would like to see her."
The gelding was saddled and packed. I mounted, settled my aching body. Whatever Meteiera may have done to me, it hadn't made life painless. "I will."
Alric's expression was serious. "Tiger—I mean it."
I nodded. "I know. I will."
His smile was of brief duration, as if something nagged at him. "May the sun shine on your head."
"And yours," I returned, then headed the gelding south, away from crying babies.