An old man's tale
To Complete The Pattern
" It was many, many years ago -before my father's, father's, father's, grandfather's time -when the desert was not so large... nor so near."
The old man sat, speaking softly to the children. Shaded by a scrap of rug, propped up by his staff and hanging from the straggly palm tree near the well, by strings -whose strength was mostly faith, he told his tale.
"Then, the caravans crossed the desert to the far corners of the world. Today they seldom venture more than a few days into the sands on their journeys. The old oases and wells were lost in storms, or destroyed by the wars of the desert folk of old. And, in times past, when the Gods warred with each other tearing the earth asunder.”
“The rich farm lands fringing the desert dried up; the very rivers changed course or disappeared into the sands... Never to return."
"In those days, wells were many. Only one, or at most, three days apart. The desert was the path of trade for hundreds of caravans. Wealth flowed through the desert like sand pours from the hand of a child at play."
"It was the time of the great city of Marak. Marak was the greatest serai and bazaar in all the known world... Anything and everything; if it could be bought, or sold, or stolen; transported by camel, mule or man... came to Marak."
"Marak of the sweet water and stately palms. Marak with palaces and gardens beyond belief, was many weeks journey into the desert. Through Marak came goods from the high northern plains; the furs and gold of the Shinai, tin and copper from the Carpads and, that prince of metals; iron from the hidden forges of the Durvan in the misty mountains of the Morgai."
"Through Marak came the fire-jewels of the Southern Isles beyond the 'Sea Of Tears'. Came also the rich scented woods of the far eastern jungles of Rohanga, where dwell fierce, little men, no bigger than you..." A bony finger pointed at one small boy who sat in the crowd before him, "who can fell the mighty elephant with a spear little larger than a cactus thorn."
"From all directions the caravans came, with exotic spices, wines; that fine dye known as 'Blood of The Sea'. So rare that enough to fill half a walnut shell is worth the ransom of a king. All this... and more. Came through the desert -and, if it came through the desert- it came through Marak."
"And when it came to pass that the Great King Pantil had a daughter of wondrous beauty who, when she came of age to wed, was betrothed to to the son of the Emperor of the Eastern Lands, one Pamir by name. The two rulers decided to feast and fete the pair and all the notables of their lands, and of those lands with which they were allied."
"It was decreed that the wedding and feast would be held at the summer palace of the Emperor of the Eastern Lands in Tarabush, at the edge of the 'Sea Of Tears'.
So that proper preparations could be made, two years was allowed for the gathering of the goods and treasures to be given as gifts to the noble pair and the royalty to be gathered for the festivities."
"To this end, the two rulers ordered the rarest and most costly of gifts from the far reaches of the known world. And, of course, -not to be outdone- the petty rulers and nobles sought also to be high among the givers of rare and royal gifts. Competition was fierce to locate and offer the most unique. Merchants and traders were delirious with delight. Many a palm grew sweaty at the thought of the gold it might soon caress."
"By carrier pigeon, special messenger, and private, even secret missives, requests and orders to the artisans and purveyors of the rare and costly for goods and gifts, went winging out along the trade routes. Slowly the gifts were gathered. Caravans began to wend their way into Marak with treasures from the ends of the earth."
"And so, one day, from Marak into the desert went the 'Great Caravan'; the largest ever assembled- laden with riches beyond a misers wildest dreams of avarice."
"The 'Great Caravan' (for so it was known, and so it is known to this day); two thousand camels laden with treasure, three hundred horses and riders for guards and outriders. Four hundred camels with food, baggage and other cargo, seven-hundred-fifty camel tenders and boys; left Marak, on a mild and windless day, to cross the desert to the city of Tarabush in the east. And... was never seen again," he glowered from under his hood at the assembled children. He paused a moment then continued, his voice soft, rasping like sand sliding down the face of a dune.
"When the caravan failed to arrive at the edge of the desert on schedule, no undue concern was felt at first. A caravan of this size had never before attempted to cross the desert. Any minor mishap might possibly delay it a few hours or even days. When a smaller caravan of ten camels, which had left two days after, arrived safely and on schedule, and reported no sighting of the 'Great Caravan', a massive search was mounted by both rulers as well as by the Grand Marshall of Marak; under whose banners rode no small number."
"Thousands scoured the desert in all directions for months. Not a trace of the lost caravan was ever found. Not a scrap of cloth, a broken harness, the remains of man, camel, horse, or mule. The desert had swallowed up the treasure caravan as if it had never been."
"My father's, father told this tale to him and he to me... I tell it to you. But. There is another tale to tell of the 'Great Caravan'!"
The whiffle of a horse and the clattering squeal of the windlass sounded from the nearby well. The old man took advantage of this interruption to pause for a drink from the battered waterskin at his side, and turned his attention from his audience to the warrior raising the, now full, bucket with the creaking windlass.
Tall and lean, the man watering his horse was wearing a ragged cloak, coated with the dust of miles. Not a large man, nor overly muscular. His hair was bleached blond where it spilled from a turban of rags and brown, where the sun had not had a chance to play. In the depth of his green eyes a light seemed to flicker and dance. Under the grime and dust coating his face, a sensuous mouth seemed to smile; in spite of obvious exhaustion. His sandals were scraps of leather and the cloak showed many a tear from thorn-bush and the stain of constant use as a blanket. The dull glitter of mail could be seen through rents in his jerkin.
A faint hissing in the air caused the old man to look up.. Slanting down from the cloudless sky he saw a large, black, hawk, its wings nearly closed, falling like a stone toward the square. The stranger extended his left wrist, on which he wore a heavy leathern brace. With a flare of wings, the hawk broke its headlong stoop and came to rest; talons gripping the wristband, scoring the deeply scarred leather anew.
Raising the hawk to his face, the stranger looked into the blazing yellow eyes, " Is he near?" He asked the bird and seemed to listen a moment, his head cocked to the left. " Good," he said! "We will drink when he arrives. You have done well." With his right index finger, he gently ruffled the feathers at the back of the bird's head, then lifted it to the leather panel on his left shoulder.
Unhooded, and much larger than any seen by the old man in his many travels, the bird turned toward the movement of the Bedouin's waterskin and stared unblinkingly at him. The old man shivered in the stifling heat of the windless day, drawing his cloak a little closer about himself... The eyes seemed to pierce him like a blade made from the everlasting ice of that cold Hell believed in by the northern barbarians; who dwell in the high glacier-bound mountains beyond the reach of the sun.
A welling murmur came gently toward the square pacing a dark, shadowy shape that drifted silently up the street, pursued by the whispers of the villagers. A large wolf-like animal, grey with the dust of the desert, crossed the square to the man at the well. The dog, for so it was, dropped to the ground at the well-curb to lie panting in the heat, gazing up at his master, head on his forepaws.
"In a minute, Rogue," grinned the warrior. "Shetan has done more work than the rest of us. Let him enjoy his drink."
As he spoke, he took a scarf from round his throat. Rinsing it in the bucket, he bathed the muzzle of the horse. The motion caused his cloak to slip down his back to the ground. Without the cloak, the ravages of the desert were more plainly visible on this impossible apparition. But the thick coating of dust and grime failed to hide the well-cared-for, and well-worn sword that now appeared. Slanting from left hip to right shoulder; the hilt rising behind his shoulder just enough to be grasped for the draw. Nor did it conceal the light mail shirt, or slim ivory-handled dagger belted at the small of his back.
Finished with the muzzle and nostrils of the horse, he poured water into the basin at the curbstone and the horse lowered his head to drink as the bucket was again lowered and raised.
"Now it's our turn," the man said. He dipped a hand into the bucket and raised it cupped and dripping to the bird on his shoulder. The dog lapped greedily from the bucket.
"Slowly, Rogue,. Slowly," the traveler admonished!
Dipping his hand once more, he rinsed the dust from his face. He filled his hand again and raised it to the hawk before lifting the bucket to his own lips. When he had drunk his fill, he upended the bucket cascading the remaining water over his head and shoulders. With the back of his hand he wiped his eyes. As he shook the water from his hair, he laughed at the indignant antics of the hawk that had been drenched when the bucket was upended. A shrug of his shoulder launched the hawk. "Go perch on the rooftop until you dry. We'll not forget you when we leave," he called after the bird, and sat lightly on the lip of the well mopping his brow with the rags of the turban while his gaze wandered about the square.
The old man turned back to the semi-circle of children and picked up his tale. "My people were of the desert, and after the time of the Gods, when the rivers ran dry and Marak was lost in the desert, (for Marak also has been lost to time, as was the 'Great Caravan'). We traded along the fringes of the desert, but kept out of the 'Burning Lands'. The deep desert is a waste of borax and alkali salt flats. The fine sands flow like water to fill the cracks and hollows; like wine spilled on the scarred table of a wayside inn; where the sun sucks the moisture from your spittle before it can hit the ground and wind-driven sand scours flesh from bone. A man, or a camel, can step on seemingly solid ground. Only to drown in a pool of dust."
"Ahhh...! I was young then. Strong. With a fast camel and my head filled with the foolishness of youth. My arrows flew the straightest; my spear the furthest. My sword wove flashing tapestries of death that confounded and blinded mine enemies. I knew the desert as I now know my way to the bottom of a wine-skin."
"The lure of the lost city and the treasures of the 'Great Caravan' is strong in the mind of dreamers and, in the young men of the Bedou. I too was intoxicated by the mystery. To be sure, I dreamed of the many camels I could buy -the women and pleasures- should I find the prize sought for so long by so many. Untold riches lay waiting in the sand for he who would dare the uncaring wind and burning sun. But mostly, I dreamed that my name would live forever in the minds and on the lips of men. In legend and in song... Along with that of the 'Great Caravan' and the heroes of old. Such is the vanity of youth."
"I had heard stories of those who rode -searching- into the desert only to vanish from the ken of man." His voice strengthened and rang out across the listeners, "But I!... I!... In the folly and strength of youth, and ignorance of the value of life, knew that I was better and stronger than they! That I would live forever! Such foolishness,.." he cackled dryly, shaking his head!
"From time to time I would leave the comfort of my father's tents and the travels of our caravan, and chase my dreams across the shifting sand. Many times I returned worn and beaten. Knowing in my heart, that what I sought had been just over the dunes on the horizon that I had been unable to reach. Many times I returned, near death from lack of food and water, with only my weapons. My camel dead in the desert, drained of its blood which I had drunk for sustenance, when my food and water had long since been exhausted."
"My father loved me. Beyond all he possessed and, although he entreated me often to forgo such foolishness, forgave me much. Even the deaths of the camels -which he could little spare- I had left in the desert as payment for my life and folly."
"And... as youth will, it fled. My dreams turned to other things. E'en though the 'Great Caravan' remained on my mind. I married and began to settle down; to raise my own son and be a responsible member of our tribe. I too, rode as guard and guide for caravans, as my father's people had before me, and was almost content. Still... Some nights I was wakened by my wife who stared at me. wide-eyed with concern."
"Are you ill?" she would ask. "You were tossing so in your sleep, and groaning!"
"Sometimes I would know that I had been dreaming of the 'Great Caravan'; of having found it ... and the treasure, just as my strength gave out and I was dying in the empty Bled."
"No," I would say, "just a bad dream." And I would fold her in my arms and lose myself in her embrace to ease the terror in my mind and take the chill from my heart."
"At other times I was bewildered and lost when she woke me, and knew not where I was for a time."
A ringing tone as of hammer on anvil came into his voice. "Such is the power of the mind and the grip of consuming obsession, be it love! Or greed! Or envy! Mark well my tale, children! To have such drive and desire is not a bad thing. But...! Beware the sickness that is the price of wanting something with such passion." He gazed around the circle with blazing eyes. The children drew back, each and every one as that burning glance raked their faces.
Again, with the dry, cracked voice of an old man, he continued with his tale. "One day as I was scouting ahead of the caravan I was guiding, the wind began to rise at my back. More quickly than I had ever seen in my life until then, or since, the sun was blotted out by the blowing sand. The full fury of a desert storm was upon me. I tried to turn back to the caravan but could not fight the driving wind or scouring sand."
"Perforce... hoping for a lull in the raging storm, I let my camel drift as she would. How long or far we went I know not. The shrill scream of the wind and the biting clouds of sand deafened me and dulled my senses. I was as a man drugged. Helpless against such power."
"Finally I could go no farther. I forced my camel down to the sand to shelter behind her bulk. Wrapped in my cloak, with my head in the hollow of her flank, I struggled to remain conscious. Every breath was laden with fine, gritty sand. For hours -days it seemed- I huddled against her side. My face ground into her stinking fur; breathing a thick, nauseous, miasma of camel and sand."
"I fainted!" his voice filled with anguish and surprise. "I -a man born to the desert- I who had seen and lived through many sandstorms. Fainted like a frightened child." The old man paused, his thoughts far from this place. Lost in the the tale he told.
The crowd of listeners, which by now had grown with the addition of some ten or twelve adults, fell silent at the pain in his voice. For a moment, only the soft breathing of the crowd was heard in the square... Then the old man again took up his tale.
"When I awoke... it was night! The storm had faded to gusty breezes, lightly dusted with sand. Overhead the moon could be seen. A distorted, faintly glowing orb. The sky was filled with a fine dust. And the stars... were not! My camel was stirring restlessly. Had I not the lead rope tied to my wrist I had lost her in the night."
"Against her audible objections, I hobbled her and made a meager camp. I lay down to sleep. E'en though I had been unconscious, for I know not how long, I was exhausted."
"When dawn broke the sun could not be seen. The sky glowed with a translucent radiance. Like unto a lamp shining through fine golden mesh. My teeth grated on invisible dust that filled the air around me. I had never seen the like before, nor since, nor spoken to any man -and I have asked many- who had ever heard of, or seen, such a thing so long after the passage of a sandstorm."
"There was no horizon. No way to tell the location of the sun! Just my camel and myself in the midst of a golden sphere the diameter of two camel lengths. At the length of my lead rope - some fifteen or twenty feet- I could not see the camel to which it was tied. The rope arced from my hand to some invisible attachment outside the golden hemisphere that en-globed me."
"The air was still. Even at this early hour the desert was beginning to heat up like the furnace for which it was named. When I had been driven from my path by the storm, we had been skirting that portion of the wasteland called 'The Crucible' on the edge of the 'Burning Lands'; the heat of which melted men as a forge softens metal."
"Knowing in my heart that it was folly; that I should wait until the dust cleared and I could read the sun or the stars for direction. I examined the rippled patterns of sand beneath my feet to determine the direction from which the wind had driven."
"In the arrogance of my youth and belief in my absolute understanding of the desert in which I had been born and raised; I boldly struck off to retrace my path and return to the caravan I had been guiding. Still encompassed in that hemisphere of golden radiance that moved as I moved. Retreating before me. Closing in behind, but always the same diameter as when I woke."
"Now and then I would go to my knees to examine the patterns in the surface of the sands. The day grew hotter as the hours passed. Near what I judged to be noon, the dust began to thin. The sun became more and more distinct as an aerial body instead of an unknown source of golden light."
"Encouraged by this, I became more bold in my travel and soon was riding. My horizons were now farther but still I had no shadow from the strengthening light to use as compass."
The storyteller paused for a moment to lean against the palm tree at his back. His gaze went out over the crowd of children as though looking into the far distance at some entrancing vision. His intensity caused heads to turn to see what had attracted his attention. Nothing was to be seen except the small, dusty square. As the children waited for the tale to resume, they began to murmur to each other.
The rustle and stir of his audience reclaimed the old man's attention. He wet his lips from his waterskin and laid it at his side, smiling wryly as he looked around the small circle that now contained adults of the village as well.
The traveler had moved from the well-stone and was leaning against a palm behind the circle of children, his arms crossed on his chest. As their eyes met, the younger man bowed his head slightly and smiled.
Unsure, the old Bedouin pretended he hadn't noticed and took up his tale once again. "Suddenly the haze vanished. I was riding over a large open plain studded, here and there, with stones. It was nearly flat in all directions and , as far as I could tell, unbroken except for the occasional blocks of stone. This was a section of the desert I had never seen in all my travels or explorations. Nor had my father, or other desert travelers with whom I had spoken ever mentioned such a place. For it is custom among us to pass such information about. Knowledge such as this can mean life, or death, to a desert traveler."
"By the height of the sun in the sky and by the length of my shadow -which had returned- I could see that I was traveling North, deeper into the inhospitable desert. I had little water, or food, for I had intended to be away from my caravan but a short time. As I have said: I was merely scouting ahead. Had the storm not appeared, I would have returned to my fellows shortly."
"I turned my beast to the Southeast and was about to trek back to safety when a flash of light blinded me for a second. I stopped, leaning forward, and looked to where I had thought it came. Nothing. I leaned back in my saddle and again was pierced by the light. Again I leaned forward. Again. Nothing. Nonplussed, I settled back. Again it flashed!"
"This time I remained as I was and lowered my eyes to the ground before me. I slowly let my eyes follow the desert floor away from me. Again the blinding flash. It appeared to be not too distant. I let my gaze slide back until I was able to see. Slowly I rode toward a stone that had been in line with the flash."
"When I reached the stone, I looked ahead until I could locate another to use as a marker. Looking behind as well, I could see that the track of my camel was straight enough. I had not wandered from the line I wanted."
"Again I rode slowly to my next landmark. 'I should be getting close to the place,' I thought, and looked ahead for another marker. 'There!' The skull of a camel! And there a skeleton! Another! And another! Before me, scattered about, were the bones and remains of a caravan." The old man began to pant, his voice hoarse with age and excitement.
"Hundreds! Thousands of skeletons! Camels! Men! Horses! Mules! Containers of cargo! Some still harnessed to the remains. Some scattered like chaff across the desert." His narrative became more rapid. His voice cracking with remembered excitement.
"The 'Great Caravan', -for it could be no other- lay dead and shattered. Stretching before me in a sea of bones as far as I could see. I went insane! I flung myself to the sand and ran. Raving like a mad man. 'Here! No! There!' First to this box then to that. From camel, to man, to mule. How long this went on I know not," he paused to catch his breath -then went on-: "When I regained my senses, twilight was falling. In my delirium I had wandered away from my camel. I quickly looked about and saw her in the distance. Why has she not wandered off? I remember wondering."
"Slowly... So as not to spook her, I made my way through that field of death. When I got nearer I saw that the lead rope had tangled in her legs and she was bound as well as if she had been hobbled. The enormity of my folly hit me hard. I remembered the dream that had haunted me all these years. I knew that I had come close to fulfilling that prophecy! Only the whim of fate, playing with the lead rope, had saved me. Or so it seemed."
"With trembling hands I untangled the rope and brought her to her knees on the sand. I prepared to make camp. When she was securely hobbled, I wandered to the nearest pile of bones and cargo. Opening the packs I discovered rolls of finely wrought, beautiful rugs. As night was fast approaching, I selected a few of the smaller for use as bedding and returned to my camp. Rolled in my cloak, I threw myself to the ground and slept like the dead around me."
"Dawn came. Calm and Clear. I woke slowly, for my mind was still numbed from the battering of the storm and the attack of madness of the evening before. I lay on my back and slowly... oh... so, slowly... opened my eyes. I feared that it had all been another dream. That I was home in my tent."
"Not so! The blue of the sky met my eyes; not the rough wool of my tent. I sat up and looked around me. It was true! I had at last found the 'Great Caravan'. I looked for my camel. She had not wandered far. I brought her to one of the larger stones and tied her securely. Still expecting the remains of the 'Great Caravan' to be a mirage and vanish, I studied the huge sea of debris scattered over the plain before me."
"The direction of travel was evident from the scattered bones. To the eye it seemed the caravan had stopped, still in marching formation with outriders. Except for a gap or two, here and there. And a few small groups of carcasses at odd intervals -perhaps together in a vain attempt at mutual protection- the remains extended to the Northeast in an unbroken line. It appeared that a massive sandstorm had struck without warning with killing force. This was a caravan of unheard of size. Well supplied with food and water, and peopled with the most experienced drovers in the land. Out of these thousands, someone should have survived. The mystery of its disappearance grew even deeper."
"To be sure, a man and his beast could be, and has been, completely buried in the drifting sands. Many have perished in just such a manner. Smothered under a massive wind-driven dune or drift of sand. But this... This passed all belief. A storm such as the one I had survived could well have been the death of the 'Great Caravan', ( Some desert storms rage for days or weeks;) leaving it buried deep under the sand, only to be uncovered by another massive storm. This, in part, could explain why it was never found. Searchers could have ridden over the top of all. Never knowing that a hand span or so under the hooves of their beasts lay the treasure of the ages."
"The wealth of ages lay before me. The former owners, hundreds of years dead and turned to dust, had made me their heir. Heart pounding, I walked to the nearest camel. From the size of the remains, it had been a magnificent beast. Harnessed in what had once been richly colored, fine leather, now cracked and faded by the sun, with silver mountings adorned with jewels. Obviously a beast of which the owner was justly proud. Surely a mount fit for a king or one of the desert lords. This was no mere beast of burden, but the pride of a prince."
"Along side the mummy, for so it was, a lead rope still wound 'round his wrist, was its long dead rider. Now just a pile of disjointed bones and rags. I had seen such a few times before in the desert. Lost. Without water. Driven into uncharted wastes by storm. Or as the aftermath of the incessant internecine warfare of the desert peoples, many a man and camel has been found in such condition years later. The dry heat of the desert leeches the moisture from the remains. Leaving the form if not the substance. Covered by wind drifted sand, safe from kites and scavengers, bodies return years hence from beneath the sand. Mummies; with hair, hide and harness intact."
"With my foot I idly stirred the pile of rag and bone. A small, richly carved and broidered leather bag about the size of my fist caught my eye. I picked it up and emptied its contents into my hand. A river of fire spilled into my palm. Rubies, emeralds, fire opals. Stones the size of pigeon eggs; the least of which would have purchased my father's herds many times over. Awed, I stood gaping I could feel the fire of madness threatening to engulf me once more. I closed my eyes. Fighting to stave off the rising urge to gather it all. All the wealth that lay here, and hide it from view."
"It was though three people lived in my head. I stood to one side as the other two argued. ' Hide it from whom,' asked the one? 'The thieves and robbers,' replied the other, ' they'll take it all! We'll lose it to them!' "
"'What thieves and robbers, you greedy fool? No one has been here for hundreds of years. Besides, we need only what we can carry. One camel load will give us riches we could not spend in three or four lifetimes, if we select carefully,' the first one retorted! 'What good such wealth if we die here or on our return home?' "
"And so the battle went 'til I wearied of the strife."
"'Enough," I shouted!. The sound of my own voice screaming at the empty desert brought me to my senses. I fell, drained, to the sand. The ringing tinkle of the jewels spilling from my hand seemed to be the light laughter of the dead. Amused by my greedy madness."
With shaking hands the old man covered his face. Drawing a breath deep into his lungs, he sighed heavily, and returned to his tale. His voice cracked and worn.
"Ah, children, children. I have fought many battles in my life. I bear scars from sword and dagger that would send you screaming to your mothers, were I to bare them. But this... this struggle was with the most terrible foe I, or any man, ever faces. Himself! Such battles are never forgotten and leave unseen wounds that sometimes never heal."
"My passion spent, I picked the jewels from the sand and returned them to the pouch. Tying it at my belt. I more closely examined the harness and saddle of the dead camel. At the pommel was a sword and scabbard, still wrapped in the shreds of a protective cloth. Such a thing is rare. The moment it might take a rider to remove such a cloth could be the difference between life or death in those times. And, indeed, in these."
"I took the weapon in hand and loosed the bindings that secured it to the saddle. The silken cord, for so it was, turned to dust under my probing fingers. The cloth cracked and crumbled away. In my hand I held a long straight sword. The scabbard was worked of bronze in an intricate, pierced lattice; a design of serpents through whose coils could be seen the the steel of the blade it contained. Their tails linked to form the lower end. The bodies coiled upwards about the blade until the heads became the mouth of the scabbard. The eyes were of green jewels. The snakes molded in such a way as to seem ready to strike at any enemy. The hilt was wrapped in a leather I had never seen before. Wrapped in a spiral with three strands of twisted silver, it was rough and gritty like sand scattered on marble. A traveler I met many years later, told me it was the hide of a sea creature used in such a manner by some people and artisans because it would never turn in the hand if wet with sweat or blood."
"Slightly more than two palms long, the hilt rose to end in a solid gold ball. From this a diamond, cut in the shape of a spear point, protruded some two inches."
"The blade, when I drew it, was as new. No speck marred its flawless surface. It felt as though it grew from my hand. The balance was perfect! Never had I seen such a weapon! Held at an angle to the light, layer after rippling layer of polished metal could be seen. A mock weapon carved of fine grained wood and polished to a high sheen would have had the same appearance. I had heard of such metal work; a technique lost to the ages. The edge, untouched for hundreds of years, was razor sharp. As I found when I foolishly tested it with a fingertip."
"I added this to my belt and searched for more. I wandered through this sea of treasure. Picking up something here, discarding it there, in favor of some other trinket. I realized that what few things I could take -even if I loaded my camel to the point of staggering- would be as nothing compared to what I must leave."
"All morning I roamed the plain, collecting my treasure. I paused to sit out the deadly heat of midday in the shade of one of the rugs I rigged off my kneeling camel; examining some of the smaller pieces of plunder.... Much as I sit here. I knew I must depart soon. I had little water left. To linger much longer might mean my death. Death might find me even did I not tarry. I had no knowledge of how far I had been storm-driven from the caravan routes and water as it was. The direction I must go, I knew. The distance was a mystery to me."
"When the heat permitted I looked to my beast. Her eyes were clear and she seemed fit and able. She was the best of my father's herds. I have since seen few to equal her stamina and responsiveness. She exhibited few of a camel's more unmannerly traits, unless mistreated. Content, I loaded her with my booty. I'll not bore you with a full list, but among her cargo were a few of the rugs -used as cargo bags- jewels beyond counting, rare spices and scents. Mostly small, light things of great value that could be gathered and packed into a single load of wealth beyond the needs of a small kingdom."
"When all was in readiness, I took one last stroll through this sandy graveyard. Sated, I trod on or spurned underfoot the wealth of kings. 'I'll return someday,' I told the scattered dead. 'Keep you this treasure hidden and guard it well for me.' They grinned... and replied not."
"I paused near the corpse of the camel I had first looted. The brow piece of its halter was delicately carven leather, worked with a multitude of small silver studs shaped like a fish I had never seen. Four or five were missing. I searched the sand near the grinning skull and found them all... save one. Such fine work would suit my camel well, I thought, and tucked it into my robes for safekeeping."
"I could tarry no longer. I mounted my camel. Patted the laden saddlebags and bundles at my thigh and back and started out of the desert."
"I headed Southeast. Each night, as I rested, I toyed with my treasure. Unpacking and repacking it over and over.' Perhaps this should go in that bag. No. That one!' So it went for many days. I saw no familiar terrain. When my camel began to complain, I walked. I began to remove and discard some of her cargo. Finally, she sank to her knees with a groan and would not rise no matter how I urged her."
"My waterskin held only a few swallows of water. I could not save her. With tears in my eyes I opened her veins and drained her blood into my waterskin. 'Forgive me,' I begged. ' One of us must return alive. You must be my salvation for I am helpless to aid you.' "
"I watched her die slowly as the waterskin filled to bulging. Before I left, I removed her trappings and set it all in order on the sand at her side. As though she would once again rise to harness. I took selected pieces of the treasure using one of the rugs to make a pack and continued my journey."
"I wandered for days from where I left her. Slowly my waterskin went dry, and I mad from heat and thirst. A trail of scattered treasure littered the desert behind me as I discarded pieces. One by one. One day the sky grew black... I knew no more." His voice faded and stopped.
As the tale had unwound the crowd had grown still and had moved closer, and closer to the old man. During the telling his voice had faded nearly to a whisper and no one wanted to miss a word. In the gathering silence no one spoke, waiting patiently for the old man to begin again. All knew the tale had not ended. None would be first to break the magic spell his voice had invoked in this small desert town on the edge of nowhere.
The old man poured a splash of water into his hand and rubbed his weathered face. A quick sip from the waterskin and his voice rose above the crowd once more.
"I regained my senses in my own tent with my father and family gazing down on my. My mind was still hazy but I remember croaking, from a throat filled with ashes: 'I found it! I found it!' “Then I fainted again."
"I was delirious for weeks and recovered slowly. As my health returned, I was told how I had been found lying near the caravan track. Burned and blackened by the sun. My clothing rags. The leader of a passing caravan had recognized me and had me nursed until I could be returned to my father's tents. I was told that of all the treasure, I had only the sword, the rug -under which I sit today- and a small leathern bag at my belt. The bag was empty. The dry, ancient stitching had given way and the jewels trickled out into the sands along the way."
"I see by your eyes that some of you believe me not. So be it. I care not. My tale is to another purpose. When I was in full health again, I could not forget. The 'Great Caravan' had enslaved me once more. I left my family against the entreaties of my wife and son, the sometime raging anger of my father and all my friends; to spend my life searching, ever searching for what I had lost."
"I am as you see me now. I have wasted my youth, the love of my family. :All the true treasures of life. To end a broken old man. My father died in tribal war. My son and wife went to live with her relatives and are lost to me. I have never seen them since I left the tents of my people. All that I have you see. All that is left of the treasure is the rug over my head; I lost the sword in one of my forays into the desert, and this:" He reached into his robe and pulled out a package the size of two hands placed palm up side by side.
Placing it in front of himself on the ground, he slowly removed the wrappings. He gazed at it for a moment then held up for all to see, the brow piece to a camel halter, worked in finely carved leather, studded with circles of dancing silver seahorses.
The children gasped. The old man had diligently oiled and worked the leather so it glowed with what was once its original beauty. The piece was indeed a treasure. Only one small gap in the circles of dancers marred its rich perfection. A gabble of excitement arose from the crowd. Ignoring the hubbub, the Bedouin replaced it in its wrappings, placed it again in his tattered robes. He leaned back against his tree and said no more. He slept.
The children slowly wandered off, as children do. The few adults who had heard all, or part of the story stood talking about the truth or falsity of the tale for a few moments. Then, they too, went about whatever business they had interrupted or delayed so they could listen. A few coppers were thrown to the feet of the teller of tales as they left.
The traveler, whose water fetching had interfered with the story earlier, beckoned one of the children to him, and knelt to whisper in the boys ear. He reached into his pouch, handed something to the child, turned to mount his horse and rode away.
The child cautiously approached the sleeping Bedouin. A safe distance away he picked up some small pebbles and lobbed them at the sleeping figure until it stirred.
"What do you want?" the old man asked. "No more tales today!"
"I have something for you."
"You!" gruffed the old man. "You have something for me? What could a boy like you have for me... who has had everything... and lost it?"
"Yes!" said the child. "He said it was yours."
"Who? I know no one here."
"Him. The man with the hawk and the dog," The child turned to point behind himself. " He's gone!" the boy said in bewilderment.
"Well. Give it to me then," said the teller of tales, holding out his hand. "I'll not bite you. Come. Come."
The boy moved closer stopping at the edge of the shade cast by the rug. Frightened, he threw the small object to the old man. "Here!" He yelled as he turned and ran away.
The old man chuckled as he reached to where the tiny packet had landed near his feet. Unwrapping it he gaped at the shining object gleaming on his palm. He thrust his hand violently into his robes and removed the wrapped brow piece. Hastily tearing it from its covering he laid it on the ground. From his hand he took a small silver seahorse. With trembling hands he lowered it into the open place in the design. The prongs on its back fit the old holes in the leather perfectly.
The pattern was complete.