The caravan was nearly in good order. Zaditha climbed the tall dune to where her father stood, using sideways steps like he had taught her to prevent sliding in the sand.
Kneeling next to her father and scanning the horizon was Souduu, fully clothed and geared up for riding,. The first hints of the morning’s glow were highlighting the land, but the dome of the sky overhead was still a star-bedecked indigo.
Zaditha took her father’s hand into hers. It was rough and firm, like the stone of the statues that lined the temple causeway. He squeezed reflexively and smiled at her.
“Today, we face the Shatt Alnusur,” Souduu said, pointing west. Between the horizon, still as dark as the depths of the sea, and where they stood, the dunes slowly gave way to a vast and empty wasteland.
Then Souduu stood. “The Red Oasis sits in a break in the table lands just beyond. There is water there.” A small bank of cloud hovered on the horizon there, as though confirming that promise of relief.
“Our skins are running dry,” her father said. “The heat on the pan will test both animal and man.”
His driver gestured south.
“We could avoid the waste by keeping to the dunes, but the chance of ambush there is greater.”
Zaditha’s father paused, thinking.
“The salt pan is faster riding, but there will be no shelter from the heat until we cross. Arazaq willing, we will reach the hamada before the sun is highest, and the oasis before nightfall.”
Souduu nodded. “Arazaq willing.”
Going was swift at the start. The camels, fresh with sleep and invigorated by the cool of the morning, sped through the diminishing dunes, forcing the old man to goad his mule to keep pace. Despite his best efforts, they slowly fell behind, and the caravan was forced to pause twice to allow them to catch up.
The sun’s glow turned the heavens rosy, then golden, before the turquoise blue of day took hold. Zaditha watched high, distant shapes whirl above them, gathering in numbers as the morning expired. She knew from her father that vultures could smell death from twenty miles away, and that they were revered as guides to the afterlife by the faithful of Mazdaya. Neither of these facts gave her much comfort.
The air quickly warmed as the sun rose, and its blinding glare upon the earth began to oppress both man and beast. The caravan’s pace slowed at the approach of midday. Zaditha clung to her father’s back and felt drops of sweat worm their way from her forehead to the tip of her nose. It was hard to think in such heat; air seared the lungs, water vanished from the lips, and the limbs slackened with dullness. Once, she nearly slipped from the camel when her grip failed, and only her father’s quick reflexes saved her from a nasty fall.
Near noon, Souduu called a halt. He circled the caravan slowly, his animal groaning its displeasure with the goad. At the rear of the line, he called back to the leader.
“Ya iahwy! The old man!”
Everyone turned to see. A dark dot on the horizon slowly grew in size. Had they not stopped, Zaditha surmised, they might have lost him completely.
When the mule and its rider came fully into view, Zaditha’s father ordered a brief rest. Drivers drank from their skins, leaving only small reserves. The old man dismounted, sinking low, nearly kneeling in the salty gravel. Zaditha clambered down from her father’s animal and offered him the dregs from her own water skin. He accepted graciously and swallowed every drop.
When his voice returned, he said, “bless you, shy one. I must beg your father’s forgiveness … these paths were forged by younger and hardier men than I.”
She looked at his mule. The poor animal’s head sagged so much its ears nearly touched the ground. “Will he make it?”
The old man rubbed the beast’s neck. “The salt reflects the sun’s fire too well. It may be more than dear Hadar can bear.”
Touching the creature’s nose, she found it scratchy and dry. The mule groaned pitifully. She ran back to her father.
“We need water for the mule, Baba!”
Atop the camel, her father’s silhouette loomed high in the burning sky, face draped in the dark folds of his indigo cheich. “I was foolish to believe this small animal could keep a camel’s pace on such tiny legs.”
Zaditha’s heart suddenly seized with the thought that the mule would perish and the old man would be left behind.
Her father then gave her two pieces of ripe fruit. “Feed these to the animal, if it will take them. We will move the old man to one of the train camels. Souduu!”
His second trotted up beside. “Yes, syed?”
“Let us turn south and find the edge of the dunes. They will shade us as the sun dips.”
“We will lose time. It will be dark before we reach the shelter of the hamada.”
“This sick mule has already cost us an hour or more. But if we can regain some strength on the cooler tracks of dry sand, we might quicken our pace. As much as I wish to abandon the animal, its absence will only put strain on the rest.”
Souduu nodded and rapped his camel’s flank.
“Focus your sight on the dunes!” Zaditha’s father called as he rode away. “There are places there for more than scorpions to hide.”