Zeke woke with an agonizing shock from the sudden pounding of a fist upon the door. Zeke found himself leaning against said door. He pulled it open. “Mayor?”
“Where is your mistress?” He asked looking around in a panic.
Bru came in from the other room, neat and tidy as ever. “Mayor?”
“We must do something,” he said.
“I agree, it has become too dangerous.” They looked at each other for a long moment, and each nodded.
“You must order the evacuation of the village.”
The mayor nodded again.
“Make sure the people know they are running for their lives. No valuables, only food, water and other necessities.”
“Zeke, finish the packing, then hire two zorses and a lume, no, two lumes to carry us and our belongings.” She spat the instructions as rapidly as any busy CEO on his way to board meeting. She tossed him a purse, “Meet me with everything at the Mayor’s by midmorning.” She grabbed her cloak and staff and disappeared out the door with the Mayor to begin the evacuations.
At mid-morning, he finished tying all the packages to the lumes, the lion-headed dray animals with the dark green tiger stripes. They were calm, gentle, and cooperative. This wasn’t the case with the two zorses, small long-haired ponies with long brown manes and dotted tan and white and brown. He struggled with the saddles longer than the ponies were comfortable, but after an hour or so he was satisfied he’d not fall off, and made his way at last to the mayor’s residence.
It was getting toward evening when he entered the port town through the West Gate. People were everywhere. It was like East Port on market day, only bigger and drabber. He kept his head down and his hood up, fearing every moment that he would be found out. Certainly by now the city folks knew about the events in the Fortress? No one paid him any attention and he relaxed somewhat, but he scanned faces, eyes, clothing, always searching for the red sashes of the Guard of the Fortress. A ship was the only way off the island so he headed down unfamiliar streets to find the docks.
He stopped near the town plaza and looked around. He found himself in front of a store window and stared inside at the amazing variety of items, when he caught the sight of someone he thought he knew. He turned quickly to look but there was no one. He turned back to the window and gasped. His own mother would not recognize him. He barely recognized himself! His hair was a matted mess, full of leaves and bits of straw. When he reached up to pull them from his hair, he noticed his hands. Full of scratches, torn skin and ragged nails. His clothes torn and dirty. His face was sun burnt, gaunt, with a hint of a black beard. “I need a bath,” he thought as he neared the docks. The air smelled like home; salt, seaweed, and fish. He draped his cloak on a bush and took off his shoes. He sat a moment enjoying the sounds of ropes creaking, his feet dangling in the water. Suddenly he stood. “If my own mother wouldn’t recognize me, how will anyone else?” He lamented the loss of a bath, but thought, “No bath, but I can dust my clothes off and wash my hands and face.”
Tristam saw several sailors lounging among the casks and boxes and talking softly among themselves. He could smell pipe tobacco and hear occasional laughter. He approached cautiously, watching for their reaction. When no one took offense, or in fact, took any notice of him, he lay down on his cloak behind some boxes thinking to fall asleep as he listened to them.
“My friend told me it ‘twas a pterosaur that got her,” said one man in a whispery voice.
“I heard it was a gargantua,” said another.
“Aye and we be seein’ mermaids next, right mate?” responded a gravelly voice, followed by a smattering of laughter.
“What about the tyro?” asked the first voice.
“He’s the one killed her,” added a fourth man.
“No tyro could kill Kahi. She was youngest and strongest of all the wizards in the Guild,” affirmed the gravel-voiced sailor with long greasy hair and braids in his beard.
“Then what happened? And where’d her tyro go?”
“Dead,” said a third voice heavily accented.
“How do you know?” said whispery.
“Small island. Big danger for little man alone.”
“He ain’t been seen,” agreed whispery. “Can’t fly off the island. Can they?”
“Can who do what?”
“Wizards, and fly.”
“How the fuck should I know?”
“Thought you knew everything,” shrugged whispers.
The sailor sat up a little straighter, “I can’t be expected to know everything, and no one knows much about wizards but wizards.”
There was a hush and all Tristam could hear for a moment were the waves lapping against the ships, and the squeaking of their ropes.
One of the men suddenly noticed him. “Oy, you boy, what’re you doing lurking about in the dark?”
So startled was he to be addressed, he tripped over his own feet and fell headfirst off the pier. Laughter erupted from the sailors as they fished him from the sea. As he stood there dripping and shivering, the laughter died down he straightened up and looked the leader in the eye. I wasn’t lurking.”
“What’s yer name, boy?” growled the big man with the braids in his beard.
“Tr…um,” he stammered.
“What sort a name is that?” asked the whispering man.
“Better we call him “Fish” since we done had to fish him outa the water.” Suggested a voice in the darkness. The others laughed.
“OK Fish,” said the growling man. “Looks to me you was watching us from the darkness,”
“I was just sitting.”
“All the better to eavesdrop,” said the shortest sailor, and the fourth voice. A young man, very slight, but with terrifying eyes.
“No, I wasn’t, I mean… I didn’t mean to listen, I was just curious.”
Tris turned to the gravelly voiced sailor. A large man, with huge shoulders, long arms, and missing two fingers from his left hand. “I wanted to hear about the wizard.”
“Sit in the alehouse, you’ll hear plenty,” he suggested with a sneer.
“With respect, sir, since I am putting in my lot with you sailors, I’d rather hear what you had to say than some bar wench.”
“Putting in your lot wif us sailors, you says?” Said Whisper man, and now that he was closer, Tris could see why—a jagged scar ran across his neck, partially hidden by a kerchief.
“I hope so. I’m waiting to speak to the captain.”
“Well why didn’t you just say you was a sailor?” asked gravel-voice, smiling.
“Where’s your pack?” asked Whispers.
“Where are you bunked?” asked the man with the dead eyes.
“Um, my pack is here,” he said, picking it up and putting it across his shoulders, “and I’m not bunked. I have no money for a bed, I was hoping to steal into a hayloft somewhere.”
“Nah, that’s no good. You come wit us; we’re going down to the Drunken Goat. It’s a good inn, at the end of Alley Street. Quiet and cheap.”
“I appreciate the offer, Catch,” he said, “but, as I said, I have no money.”
“Ah, I knows the wench what owns the place. She’s a good woman, and kind. I think we can sleep in her attic for free.”
Tristam worried about any hidden motive behind the offer. He knew people in cities would befriend a stranger, offer them kindness, only to steal all he owned while he slept. Of course, he didn’t own much. Had in fact, stolen most of what he had. He looked up. It certainly looked as though it was going to rain. Sighing, he slung his pack onto his back and walked with the sailors to the end of the Alley. The noise of the place announced its presence from two blocks away. At one block you could smell it; a foul miasma of vomit, urine, ale, stale straw, and cooked meat.
It was even worse inside. People filled the room to the corners. Catch greeted many of the men by name, as did some of his companions. Tristam became quite nervous in the crowd, hoping no one would pay any attention to him. Not sure how he would answer any questions should someone decide to speak to him. It struck him that the best course of action would be to remain quiet, but this was not to be, instead, after an ale or two the others pressed upon him to tell them about where he’d been. They didn’t get too many new faces about here. “Where’ve you been ta sea?” asked the proprietress, always eager to hear a story of whaling and mermaids. She was a large woman with dark brown skin and pale eyes.
He knew the history and geography of The Wold, and could speak of a number of places, but he’d never been to any of those places and almost no knowledge of ships at all. Tristam felt trapped. “I’m not much of a teller,” he mumbled, trying to sound humble.
He was saved by Catch, “Agh, I don’t want to hear ‘bout the sea tonight. Tonight I wants to talk ‘bout wizards and murder.” A hush settled. Catch was a favorite storyteller. “I’ve talked to people all over the island, and I’ve put together the story of a night of horrifying monsters and death!” Catch’s audience was rapt waiting for him to describe his imaginings of what happened the night of Kahi’s death. Tristam listened, mesmerized.
It was a dark night, both moons on the wane. All was quiet in the Fortress of Magic and Peace. The wizards and their tyros asleep in their chambers. Suddenly the air was torn asunder with the sounds of horrible screams. ‘Awake, awake!’ called the Guards. ‘We are under attack! To your stations!’ The Guards, servants, staff, the wizards, and their tyros began to run amok. Running to and fro in chaos. No one knew what had happened or was happening. Wizards screamed at their tyros, tyros squabbled. Guards came to battle stations around the Fortress. All doors and windows guarded. The drawbridge was raised and large fires lit. Armories were emptied as all the guards were armed. They stood there in the darkness, waiting. But all had gone quiet. Long slow minutes crawled by as everybody, tense and ready for battle, waited.
Then there was a commotion from the terrace above. The guards were seen to drop their swords and run in fear, for standing on the terrace was a thing of visceral fear. A creature of myth and nightmares. There above them stood a Gargantua, his chin blackened and dripping with blood. Then the guards were rounded up by the Guards and all of them ran off into the hills, searching it was said, for the killer. ‘It was one of our own!’ cried the tyros. ‘It was Tristam! He has escaped.’ ‘After him’ they cried. ‘He’ll not get far,’ vowed others. And off into the darkness they raced like rats from a drowning ship.
They followed his trail out of the Fortress and into the gardens, there, they surmised, he climbed over the 12-foot wall and escaped into town. They found his bloody garments in the gardener’s shack, and admitted they didn’t know how he was now dressed.
One of the sailors giggled at this.
“What’re you sniggling bout?” asked the storyteller.
“He weren’t dressed atall,” said Al of the whispery voice.
“Course he was,” said Catch.
“But you said they found his clothes. Then what’s he wearing now?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
“Cause you’re telling the story. What’s he wearing then if he ain’t naked?”
“For stupid’s sake. He obviously stole some clothes.”
“Clothes!” cried Al.
“Probably the fucking cook’s!” He growled. “Now do you want to hear the rest of the story?”
After a while Tristam lost interest in Catch’s rambling and imagined tale of magic and intrigue. His eyes wandered around the bar, trying to see through the smoky haze and dim light thrown by the hanging lanterns, most of which burned low, to save fuel, he figured. He saw many sailors and other rough types and realized just how out of place he looked, even in his torn and dirty clothes. These men had long beards and mustaches, scarred faces and missing limbs. A fight broke out and Tristam watched as each man sized up the other, drew a knife and started hacking. Quickly a crowd formed a ring around the pair. Bets were placed and the cheering started. He turned away; he did not want to see a murder.
The first thing to disappear was the water gourds. Kahi of course accused Gherkin.
“Zorses,” he answered.
“The zorses stole the water?”
“Gherkin give zorses.”
“No more water for the zorses. It’s for me, and you.”
The carriage was stuck in the sand and Kahi regretted ignoring Gherkin’s warnings about the carriage, and wished she had made a sleigh. Again and again she had to climb out and pull the zorses while Gherkin dug out the wheels. Without an oasis, she couldn’t correct her error. It made her angry.
Then the day came when one of the wheels fell off. The bolts just disappeared.
“Gherkin do you understand what is going on here?”
“Too much magic.”
“What’s too much magic?”
Gherkin struggled to explain that the magic of the oasis was not infinite. When she created her gourds to hold the water, used the magic of the trees to create her elaborate carriage, and then made the snails of the oasis into two zorses, it stole all the magic of the oasis, and so the oasis ceased to exist. Then the antimagic nature of the desert began to reclaim the magic. “Like rain in sand,” he said, waggling his fingers magically, “it disappear.”
“So you’re telling me that I used up all the magic of the oasis to make my journey south, and now the magic is seeping away, being absorbed by the desert?”
“Yes, magic goes into sky. Fall another place, make new oasis.”
They slept that night in the carriage, Kahi buried under her once glorious cape. The next morning one of the zorses was gone. Nothing left except its harness. Kahi managed to ride the remaining zorse a few more days before it too disappeared. Bit by bit they were without food, shelter or water. It had all just disappeared.
Kahi seethed at her predicament. “I am a Wizard of the 7th Level and this is not befitting one of my stature. This is not how this should’ve gone down,” she told herself. “Xanthipi sent a defective gargantuan to the Island. Probably deliberate. But why.” That was what plagued her. Why the elaborate ruse? Did she mean for Kahi never to arrive? It was all very interesting.
They were within sight of the next oasis all day. Gherkin encouraged Kahi as they walked the last 50 yards felt like the longest distance Kahi had ever struggled to walk. Her mouth was thick for want of water, her eyes burned, and each blink was an hour of pain. “How much further?” She asked, again.
“Not far. Much very close, Princess. Little more far. Still walking Princess.”
She stumbled on legs like tree trunks, propelling herself with wind milling arms the last few yards. Gherkin helped her to the water, where he bathed her red, blistered face, and brought water to her lips. She sighed and smiled, and Gherkin fell in love. He began to think of her as his magic princess and knew he would do anything for her.
By the second day at the oasis, Kahi had recovered somewhat. “Ok, Gherkin, you know the ins and outs of this freaking desert tell me; what do we do now?”
“We eats. We rests. In morning we go under desert.”
“The Under Desert?”
He nodded enthusiastically. “Gherkin knowses old road, down down, under. Is oasis.”
“We can get to Khazban from here without going through the desert?”
“Yes, yes, under desert. Under under underful underful desert.”
“Right, so, let’s prepare. I’ll skip the carriage and the zorses and the magic should last longer, right? Or wait, do I even need water, will my magic work in this underground oasis?” Gherkin gave her a blank look. “So, you don’t know. I can’t assume that it will work then. I’ve never been underground before, so…” They made what preparations they could.
“All ready, Gherkin?”
“Did I leave enough magic here this time?”
Gherkin looked around at the dead trees, brown grass and deep mud puddle. “Not gone. Gherkin glad, sad sad glad.”
“Right, let’s go.”
They struggled through the desert. Well, Kahi struggled. Gherkin seemed almost unaffected. She stopped and stared into the distance at a deep blue blur. “Is that it? We go under those mountains?”
Gherkin nodded. “Yessssss, yes yes.”
“How far away are we?”
“Not far, not far. Reach very soon, very soon. Two three days maybe.”
They reached the mountains, and Gherkin started his search for the entrance.
“Well?” said Kahi archly. “Where’s this tunnel of yours?”
“Looking looking to find.”
“You don’t know where the entrance is?”
“No Gherkin. Gherkin not here before.”
Kahi grew quickly furious, “You drag me through the desert to some unnamed mountains to find a tunnel that you’ve never seen?”
“Gherkin know is here.”
“How do you know it’s here then?”
The big eyes blinked slowly. “Gherkin knows.” He shrugged. Not an easy feat for one with wings. “Knows.”
“Then find the entrance you corrupted cursed creature.”
They settled in a small green meadow, with shady trees and birds and beasts, beside a shallow river. The third morning dawned grey and threatening rain. “Rain?” Kahi screamed. “Where was the rain while I was lost in the desert, you damn desert!”
“Patience Princess,” Gherkin pleaded, trying to smooth her hair.
“Get away from me and find that damned passage!”
Gherkin sadly flew off. He had to find the tunnel. He loved his Princess, but feared she would leave him here. He had been lost for so many years he had despaired of ever meeting another sentient creature. He would fly from oasis to oasis searching for companionship. He had tried talking to the mice and rabbits, but they were frightened of him. He spoke to the owls and deer, but they were indifferent to him. He didn’t speak to the fish, because he liked to eat them. He tried at every oasis to make a friend. For years upon years he had searched. He had been desolate as the desert before he found his Princess. She was the first real person he had seen for unknown ages. Finding her had given him a reason to live—to take care of his Princess. She needed him, and he quite needed to be needed. He would do anything for his Princess, though often times she terrified him.