Desert Wolves

by Gaston Prereth

This is the first post of a two part story. (Yes I know I still haven’t given you the stand-alone stories I promised, but I can’t help it. My fingers just keep typing.) As always comments and Likes very much appreciated.

“Come, come. Sit.” Came a voice out of the darkness before William. He felt a hand grab at his shirt and pull him into the stillness. As he stumbled forward William felt the heat getting dragged from his back and the rasping sand disappear from his cheeks. Everything was still and quiet. The air felt cool and moist. William’s arm grabbed at the unfocused figure next to him for support as he tried to take a few deep lungfuls of air.

“Thank you,” said William, coughing each word out of his cracked throat with a wince of pain. It was the first pain he had felt for hours. The sun had sapped everything from him, everything had felt numb and detached. As the storm had picked up, the sand had bit into his skin like a swarm of mosquitoes and he had sensed the sensation of each and every grain, but there had been no pain. There had been no emotion, no thought, no feeling, just sensation. Now, as the cool air worked its way into his lungs and pores, the world started to rush back in. His whole body trembled and his legs gave way forcing his host to support him in one muscular arm.

“Sit. Drink.” Said the man, gesturing with his free hand to a group of mattresses huddled round an empty fire pit. When William made no effort to move, the man walked him slowly to the closest mattress, depositing him, and then pressing a jug wet with condensation into his hands. The water was cool. William felt every drop running down his throat and sitting in his belly, filling him back up, restoring him from an empty shell to a human being. The world around him began to retreat from sepia shadows into distinct colourful forms.

He was in a small round hut. In the centre was a recently used fire pit encircled by large regular stones that fitted together as smoothly as freshly pointed brickwork. Around the fire were four mattresses dressed in deep red fabric with woven golden patters shimmering across their surface. The patterns themselves didn’t seem to intentionally depict anything, but they reminded William of dappled sunlight through the leaves of an English forest. They emitted a peacefulness, a restfulness that washed over him and soothed his aching muscles. This feeling was further increased by the rolling fabrics that hung from all the walls. They looked like they were made from red and blue silk, cascading down the walls like frozen waterfalls.

At the head of each mattress was a small gold table. They were no more than a foot off the ground and each, save for the one closest to him, was laden with a dripping jug and gold goblet. William placed the jug in his hands onto the empty table. He could feel beads of sweat starting to pool on his temples and trickle down the back of his neck as the cold air and stomach full of water started to work on his body. His throat still felt sore and his lips were chapped and blistered, but in the luxurious surroundings he was starting to feel more like his old self.

His host handed William a goblet of water and then sat down on the mattress across the fire pit. William studied the man with curiosity. He was old, his head topped with dirty grey hair and his tanned features were lined by the passing years. He had a sharp smile and his eyes twinkled like a toddlers, a trait William had grown to recognise as a feature of the local people. He wore a djellaba, a hooded over-garment common in the region, but unlike most of the locals’ clothing William had seen, it had hundreds of threads of different colours woven into it.

The man was staring at him, his smile chiselled into his face. William assumed he must not get many visitors, being stuck in the middle of the desert, although he seemed to have done all right for himself with so much finery in his house. He must have some people drop by, or maybe he was a pirate of the desert? Raiding camel trains and hoarding all the wealth he stole from them.

William raised the goblet to his lips. The water still tasted as good as wine. The man couldn’t be a raider, he thought, not by himself. He must have found diamonds, gold or something like that. William took another long gulp of water, glancing round the hut before he spoke.

“Thank you sir. You saved my life.” The man just smiled at him and nodded but did not look as if he intended to reply, so William continued, “I don’t even know your name. I’m William, William Prentiss-Carter.” Nod, smile. “I don’t know how I can repay you for your kindness, but whatever you wish from me is yours.”

“I require nothing. I give to you freely.” Said the man, causing William to jump on his mattress at the sound of another’s voice. He spoke in a soft tone, accented by the region, but with a foreign twang that William could not place.

“Well I am forever in your debt. I thought this place might be a mirage from atop of the other dune. All I could see was the doorway against the white of the sand. I nearly didn’t see it at all.”

“In these places, it is good not to be seen. There are creatures that roam around the desert, creatures for which man has no name. To be hidden, is to be safe.” The man said all this with the smile still firmly installed on his face. As he spoke William could see the flashes of golden fillings in the man’s mouth. “We shall eat soon, and then you shall rest here for the night. It is not safe outside at night. You shall rest here and then, tomorrow, I shall see you are taken somewhere safe.”

“I could not eat your food sir. It is bad enough I have drunk your water, but to take food from you too… you cannot have much out…”

“What I have, I give to you freely. I have plenty of food for myself and my family. Plenty to share with a lost stranger in need of help.”

“Family? Where are they? They cannot be out in this storm?” As if to answer William’s questions, a deep blue blanket on one of the walls shimmered and revealed an elderly lady carrying a large pot.

“Simo,” said the woman as she lugged the pan into the room, taking no notice of William, “where is my fire? I told you to lay the fire.”

“Not now woman,” hissed the man addressed as Simo, his smile falling from his face for the first time since William had entered the hut, “We have a guest. I had to save him from this storm.”

“I don’t care if you had to fight a genii to save him, I need a fire.” She dropped the pan next to the central pit with a clatter. She was dressed in a flowing dress of bright green and yellow and, unlike her husband, she hid Time’s effects very well. Only her hands belied her true age. They were a working woman’s hands, wrinkled and rough, dotted with the occasional scar. She shot her husband a sharp look and then sat down on one of the mattresses.

“I’m sorry for my husband’s lack of manners. I am Lina. Has he given you water?”

“Yes, thank you.” said William with a slight bow of the head. “Your husband as been most accommodating. He was not lying when he said he had to save me from the storm. I owe him my life.”

“What were you doing out in a storm like this? It is no place for travelling alone, especially not as the night draws in.”

“I was not alone.” William glanced over to Simo, who had got up and was industriously pulling together the necessary equipment for a fire, including a large metal tripod on which to hang the pan. William wasn’t sure if he should be honest or not. These were locals, natives, and if he were to tell them the truth they might throw him back out into the storm to fend for himself against the elements before he had had time to recover. He just needed another hour and then he could be on his way. He decided honesty would serve him best, and he would have to rely on Simo and Lina’s good nature not to cast him out before he was ready.

“I was not alone,” he repeated, “I was with my Unit. I’m a Sergeant in the British army. He tapped his left shoulder where his badge used to sit proudly. It was too faded to read now, but he could feel the woman’s eyes trying to decipher it as he continued, “We were chasing a group of insurgents across the dunes when our vehicle got hit.” He paused, but neither seemed shocked by the revelation. Simo kept building his fire with expert movements of his hands like a chess grand master, and Lina sat in silence waiting for him to continue.

William took another sip of water. He could feel a headache returning, reminding him of how close to death he had been. His eyes were starting to burn, tiredness weakening their already sun tormented state. As he tried to think back to what had happened after the surprise attack, he began to feel dizzy.

“I’m not sure what happened next.” he eventually conceded, “I just remember your husband’s hand dragging me in here and giving me water. I might well have suffered a concussion when our Jackal got hit.”

“It was most likely a genii. They steal your life one piece at a time. Take moments from you until all you have left is death.”

“There are more to fear in this desert than genii, woman,” said Simo, lifting the pan onto the metal tripod and returning to his mattress with the flourish of a magician. “they are mere mites that deserve to be squashed. Fleas of the great wolves that roam this desert.”

“Nevertheless, they can take a moment, ungiven, and if this gentleman says he has lost his memory then I say it was stolen.” Simo nodded with a slight shrug and then poured himself some water.

“Anyway,” he said, “now is not the time for talk of such things. We have a guest for the night, a brave soldier no less, and we should not scare him with our troubles. Tell me Sergeant, how long have you been in our country?”

“Nine months,” said William trying to fight a wave of nausea that was threatening to sweep over him. He poured some more water into his own goblet and took a careful sip. His whole body was starting to ache as the built up acid in his muscles festered. “But, I cannot stay here tonight, Simo, I thank you for your hospitality but I must try to return to our camp. I’ll be needed.”

“You must miss England very much. I hear it is a very beautiful country, not a place that would be easy to leave behind.” Said Simo, ignoring William’s protestations. William felt a wave of unease sweep through him, dispelling the sensation of home-like comfort that the hut was soaked in. He did not feel fully recovered, but if he stayed to eat then who knew how long they might try to keep him here. He had to get back to his camp.

“It is, but I have my duty to perform. Which is why I must leave tonight. Thank you for the water, but I must go.” William put down the goblet and moved to stand up but his legs shook, his quadriceps trembling like an old man’s. Without warning Simo was standing before him. At first William stretched out a hand, expecting to be helped up, but Simo pressed down on William’s shoulder, preventing him from moving.

“It is not safe outside.” Said Simo, pinning him down. William’s muscles were to weak to resist and, as he looked up at Simo he could see no hint of the smile or twinkling eyes. “you need to rest, tomorrow we will make sure you are safe.”

Simo returned to his mattress. He smiled. It was as if he had not moved at all, as if the last few moments had not really happened. William shook his head with slow care. He was still too weak to leave, he could not survive the desert like this.

“Ah, such an honourable thing to do.” Said Simo, picking up the conversation with no acknowledgement of the interlude, “to freely give your life away to the service of your country and your people. To present your life to them and say,” Simo licked his lips, his eyes sparkling more vigorously as the newly laid fire caught hold. “this is my life, take it and do what you will with it. To do that freely. A beautiful thing.”

The deep blue curtain rippled again and into the room stepped a young woman, carrying a bundle close to her chest. William glanced over at her as she entered, but felt compelled to instantly take a longer look. She had long dark hair that emphasised her smooth tanned skin. She wore a similar dress to Lina but it clung to her figure, showing off her hips and slim waistline. William swallowed, causing his throat to burn and he started to cough.

The girl did not look at him as she handed her bundle to Lina. The elderly woman unwrapped the package to reveal various food stuffs in preparation for their meal. Despite William’s hunger, his eyes were not tempted by the succulent red meat or rich variety of fresh vegetables, instead his gaze remained on the young girl. She had deep brown eyes and, unlike the other two, they didn’t sparkle but glowed like the dying embers of a fire.

“Why did you choose to join the army?” continued Simo, taking no notice of the appearance of the girl, “Did you not have a wife and children? I would think if you give your life to a family, it would no longer be yours to give to your country.”

“No,” said William dragging his attention back to the elderly man, “No I have no family, but many of my comrades do. I don’t think there…”

“Then one is either given with reluctance, or it is stolen.” Said Lina from before the fire, “A wife would no more wish to give her husband’s life to the country than she would wish to give it to a mistress.”

Even in his present state, William had to bite his tongue at this, reminding himself that he was a guest in these people’s house and he had to tolerate their believes, however old fashioned they felt to him. Just like he could listen to their superstitious talk of genii and monsters of the desert without comment, he would have to listen to their old fashioned views on military service and marriage with the same amount of respect.

“Amelia, you stupid girl, where is the cumin?” said Lina, as she started to drop a few things into the pot. The food sizzled and spat as it landed. Lina looked up. “Well go on girl, go get it.” Without a word the young woman disappeared back through the blue curtain. William watched her go and then turned back to Simo who winked at him.

“Our girl gets her cooking skills from my side of the family, I’m afraid, much to Lina’s shame. She will make it up to her future husband in other ways though, I have no doubt.” His smile broadened to a grin that made William feel uncomfortable. William glanced around the hut,  unwilling to make eye contact with Simo. He could feel his neck returning to the temperature of the desert.

“How have you come in to so much finery?” he asked as he looked behind himself at an oval mirror, framed in gold, that leant against one wall as if it were a half finished shelf in a spare room. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve never seen a home like this.”

“It is all gifts.” Said Simo, a hint of pride in his voice, “All given freely. The world has been kind to us.”

“Very kind indeed.” Said William. The smell of frying goat and smoked spices started to fill the hut, causing William’s jaw to quiver in anticipation. The atmosphere was thick with scented smoke that seemed to draw in the walls of the hut, cocooning William in a small pocket of his own thoughts.

For the first time since he had joined the army, he felt a sense of regret from having left his homeland and leaving the alternate life he could have lead. Although he did not agree with Simo and Lina’s insistence that working for the army necessarily meant he could not have a family, there was a kernel of truth to it in his own life. He had had the odd relationship over the years, but they had all fizzled out as soon as he had had to return to active service. He had never found a woman for whom he felt deeply enough to ask them to wait for him or one that needed him enough to dissolve his loyalty to the country.

For him the two strands of his life had never been compatible. When he was in the army, doing his duty, he thought of little else. He found the weight of worrying what would happen to his partner, if he did not return, too heavy to carry with him. He did not want to hesitate in the line of fire because he was worried about a girl back home coping without him. He had always assumed if he met the right girl, though, that the issues would melt away. It was not about having one life to give, but having a life to share.

As the smells continued to flood the small room, William’s thoughts started to fragment. He started to struggle to focus on anything other than the deep hunger within him. Lina seemed totally absorbed in her task. She was knelt before the fire, stirring the pot like a witch brewing a potent broth. The firelight licked around the base of the large pan and caused shadows to wash across her face like silhouettes sliding under the waves of the ocean. She looked older in this light, closer to Simo’s age than she had first appeared. Yet she still held a hint of the good looks with which her daughter Amelia was favoured.

While William had been wrapped up in his own thoughts, Simo had settled himself down on his mattress. He lay on his side, looking over at William with the casual contentment of royalty. To William he looked just like the depiction of the ancient Moorish kings, whom in his memory always lounged in fine clothes surrounded by luxurious fabrics and gold. No doubt they too would have said that the people had given their wealth to them of their own free will.

Amelia returned with a small pouch which she dropped at her mother’s knee. Her hands were slender and delicate, with no sign of her mother’s hardship upon them. She glanced over to William who tried to smile at her, but his blistered lips cracked with the movement. Amelia turned and hurried back out of the room but, as she left she glanced back at William with her deep brown eyes.

“Of course, the world has given me something far more beautiful than all of these trinkets and fine clothes.” Simo flicked his hand at their surroundings on its way to retrieve his goblet from the low table by his head. “My daughter is very beautiful, do you not think?” William swallowed.

“She seems very nice.”

“Ah she is more than nice, I was truly blessed with her. Being out here is not good for her though. It is not a place for a young woman.”

“She seems devoted to you and your wife.”

“Of course, but I would freely give her devotion to another, if he were honourable and could provide new life for her. Tell me, William, would you give up your soldier’s life for the right girl?”

“Maybe, for the right girl. But my country needs me. I would need to find a girl who needed me more, before I were to give up my obligations.”

“Your country must be a truly great place to inspire such loyalty. Amelia could do no better than to have a man’s devotion such as yours.” Simo glanced over towards Lina, who appeared to be taking no notice of their conversation as she stirred the now full pot. “Lina and I will be bedding down in the other room tonight, the walls are thick so you should not be disturbed by the snoring of my well-fed belly. You shall have total privacy to rest and recover. Amelia is a delicate sleeper, so she shall not disturb you.”

“She will not be sleeping with you and Lina?”

“There is not enough room for three. She shall be sleeping in here, with you. In total privacy, as I said.”

 

Concluded in Desert Wolves – Part 2

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