“Gods, I hate camels,” Derek Arkantos muttered as he wandered through the dusty grounds to approach an oasis and a veritable tent town surrounding it. The noises of people talking and arguing, horses thudding in the ground, and camels groaning over all of it came wafting to their ears over the sandy approach.
Arkantos squinted ahead and saw the primary tent on the perimeter had two elves by it, but neither of them had bows, which relieved him.
Long brown robes swirled around his legs and his packs and bundles were cinched tightly around his shoulders. A long straight blade was strapped to his forearm and a pair of short swords hung high on his hips. A short bow and a quiver of arrows rested on his back and a dusty kufiya which was wrapped over his head hung loose over his shoulders to leave his face free.
“Why should you hate camels? Are they not a creature with admirable qualities?” came the deep basso voice of the towering figure behind him. Arkantos turned to peer up at his companion, who wore his own kufiya tightly wrapped around his face and forehead. Baggage was strapped over his shoulders and no visible weapons were present, but his size was intimidating enough to keep away the threats of possible thieves or cutpurses.
“They got their moments, mate, I’ll grant you, but they spit, and stink and got a temper worse then a dragon with a spike up its ass. I’ll take a horse any day; they don’t stink near as bad, and they ride a site faster besides.”
“Are you in the market for horseflesh then?” the cloaked figure asked.
“Nay, they won’t serve us well if we keep our treks through the badlands. Rocky terrain’s too risky for mounts anyhow, best to go on feet. We’re here to pick up some basic gear for you, and maybe something for myself, if it catches me eye,” Arkantos called over his shoulder. “This here’s a gathering place for a host of merchants and such, mainly dune runners and desert folk. They pick up goods all over the place; tombs, ruins, and… other places… They’re a good place to find gear.”
“There are many elf people here. Will they be accepting of me, do you think?” the voice came from the tall, robed figure.
Arkantos turned his gaze to the sun for a moment, shielding his eyes, considering; then he sniffed the wind a moment. Glancing to the elves who flanked the primary tent, he watched them looking at the two of them with expressionless faces, though their eyes had not stopped following their every move when the pair had gotten in arrow range.
“What are you smelling for, good Arkantos?”
Frowning briefly, the human said nothing for a moment.
“Nothing, Uggs, just testing the wind. It’s dry enough, I figure, so they won’t smell too much of your own stink on you, no offense. Elf folk don’t have much love for orc blood, and ye got it in you, whether ye like it or nay, so they can smell it; maybe.”
The half-orc named Ug considered this for a moment.
“It would be wise not to cause anger with a large force. It must also be that these folk are of like blood; hence their bond in a fell country, so to anger one may be to anger all. If my appearance is enough to anger, then it is wise that I am covered, but is it enough to prevent bloodshed?”
Arkantos watched the elves, seemingly relaxed; their long thin legs bent as they crouched comfortably above the sand, resting on the balls of their feet. They had curved daggers on their belts and thin short-spears plunged in the sand, ready for their hands. But he knew they were deadly accurate with the spears, and they dealt in poisons as well. Still, he had traveled the curve of the vast deserts before, and knew something of the way of dealing with them.
Reaching behind him he felt the squelchy weight of a water bladder and slid it forward, watching the elves observe his slow, deliberate movements. Pulling the plunger from the opening he turned it and let the water gush out a small stream onto the sand for a moment, then halted the flow of the water and replaced the stopper.
The elves rose quickly to their feet and the taller and younger of the two jerked his spear from the sands, seeming to spin it idly, but clearly with a veiled menace. But the older elf put a palm to the younger ones arm, and jerked his own spear from the ground, slinging it over his back into a small sheath and jogged forward quickly.
“What was the purpose of that, brother?” the half-orc asked, confusion writ in his eyes.
Before the human could answer, both elves had reached them. The younger elf had followed his elder quickly, his spear still loose in his hands.
“Sahy ahl-lee, shoudwi, eh?” The older elf asked. Ug noticed that the long braids of the elves’ black kinky hair were interwoven with glass beads which sparkled dully in the sun.
“|I gave water, yes. And I also speak the elven tongue, though not all men do. Where is thy kindness to guests which thou art rumored to posses?|” he rejoined in the same language.
“|We give kindness to guests if they have been accepted as such, not just to duun wanderers such as thee.|” the younger elf sneered at him.
The elder elf stopped the headstrong one from further speech with an impatient wave of his hand.
“|Your words are fair, outrider. There was a time when our tribe would accept any who gave water with no troubles. But as of late war is brewing between cities of men and there are rumors of other… dark things.|”
Flicking a glance between the elves and the tall half-orc Arkantos’s eyes narrowed.
“As I said, not all men speak the elf tongue. I offer you water, and other things to trade. Will you at least show us countenance by speaking the common tongue?”
The younger elf started forward with a sneer, but was halted by his senior.
“I am Petros al-Jhowday; I accept your free gift of water on behalf of my brethren, and offer my countenance on behalf of our tribe to you and those who stand under your keeping,” he said, touching his fingertips quickly to his temples, eyes, then lips.
“And I am Derek Arkantos; who offered water without thought, trusting in your generosity. I thank you for your countenance which I take to shield from the burdens of the desert for myself and those who stand with me. As they have my trust, and I have yours, so you give them your trust as well,” Arkantos responded, his own fingers brushing temples, eyes and lips. However, though his words were courteous they also seemed quick and to the point, as though he was reciting a speech by rote.
To Ug the words were befitting of a courtly manner not common for the heat and dust of the desert, but he approved. For now it seemed that though the eyes of the younger elf still held a veiled malice, that he relaxed his muscles and guard.
“Welcome to bedou-ah; place of refuge,” al-Jhowday said with a wave of his arm, gesturing to the tents beyond. “May the water keep you,” he added.
“And may your souls find shade in the afterlife,” Arkantos said with a nod.
Ug merely bowed his head politely and followed his friend.
As the two wandered past the first tent Ug was struck mainly by the smells. Small cooking fires burned here and there, and he recognized the smell of burning dung. Sacks of salt lay in protected heaps and strips of cured meat hung from knotty hemp cords in front of open tents as merchants, both elves and men, knelt in the sand haggling over prices and other business. A powerful smell of various spices and oil was in the air, but over all the smell of sweat and unwashed bodies were permeating his nostrils at this range.
He longed for the temple when the cool smell of incense and lotus blossoms blooming under moonlight filled streams were carried to his mind to assist him in his meditations. His temple was a place that his entire ki could be centered, a place that peace was within and without – touching everything and nothing in the complete illusion of reality. Nothing was real, everything a dream of peace. Such a place it was, a place that he was able to focus his entire hara, until he could empty his mind and sip the taste of tea from an empty cup.
It was odd and wonderful to Ug that none of the denizens of this place seemed offended by his presence. He could only assume that as the folk at the outskirts of this tent town had given some form of protection that no one inside would see him as a threat. This was a good thing, for he had no desire for bloodshed, though the desert brought its own brand of pain, but that was no matter. For did not the monk Tso-Ling once say “Pain is a gift, for it affords us the opportunity to see who we truly are”. Here he was surrounded by the pains of dirt and heat and stench; he would take this time and discover great things about himself.
Pausing to consider this thought he was startled to hear a loud argument beginning to brew at his elbow. Looking down he saw Arkantos squatting in the dust, an elderly elf was sitting on a threadbare red rug with a conglomeration of trinkets and other seeming junk strewn about. Arkantos was holding a long leather strap with glass lenses worked into it. It was an odd device, and Ug puzzled over its nature. Meanwhile, he saw Arkantos lift a small pouch that hung from his belt and shake it in the elf’s face, the elf wagging his head back and forth. Waving his hand quickly, Arkantos sat up rapidly and proceeded walking.
“What did you argue for? Surely it would not be wise to bring on trouble,” Ug said, a few humans and half-elves playing at dice looking up at them curiously at his words.
Arkantos laughed at them and patted the towering half-orc by his arm, but his fingers were a vice and pulled him aside to whisper in his ear.
“We’re in an elf village, mate. They’ll be fair with us if we make a deal, but they’re shrewd traders; years of living under the light of Pelor all the live-long day. They run for days without water and are lucky to find life. They’re a hard people, and they don’t care much for weakness. So I need to show that I’m able to bargain good as they can, see?”
“So you argue with an old man?”
Wiping a patient hand over his face he raised his eyes to the heavens for strength.
“Uggsie me lad, just leave the dealing with elf-folk to me, eh? I know them, trust me on that.”
Ug nodded, considering that to be fair advice and true. Looking back to the red rug, he noticed that the elf was studiously ignoring them.
“What is the purpose of the glass and straps,” Ug asked as the two of them continued walking through the streets, Arkantos nodding to the dice players who went back to their game.
“Eh, what staps? What do you mean,” he asked over his shoulder.
“The glass pieces with the straps. What is the purpose of that?”
“Ah, gnomes made that, reckon. It’s glass you wear over yer eyes in the desert to keep out the sands and grit, let’s you see better, safer.”
“Interesting…” Ug answered politely, though inside he was confused, for as the two of them continued to walk, he considered also the words of Lu-Fong, who had once said “Remember the nine fences; for when we build walls to keep things out, we at once keep ourselves from seeing clearly.”
Ug now considered his human friend, and thought briefly of the cicada who would hide its music under seven years of earth; only to sing the sweeter for its mate when it would rise from the ground. It must be the same as Derek Arkantos, his brother in Fate, a man who had wisdom, something beautiful, which was hidden like the cicada, and only to be revealed briefly from time to time. For the elf had tried to sell Arkantos something built to keep things out; and clearly Arkantos had seen with enough wisdom to know that he did not need to be blinded by such contraptions.
How marvelous are the ways of life, Ug thought with a benign nod to himself.