A cool wind embraced Kha’atib as he gazed back toward Ashqa’at’s imposing outline. Its distant minarets rose from the city’s depths like sharp black needles above the huge walls it guarded. Still pouring from the great western gate, close to thirty thousand soldiers and desert men guided the huge caravan across the ridge of rock that separated them from the desert below. Baying camels were hurried forward, laden down with water skins that were almost bursting at the seams. They had begun their march toward Johsala long before any hint of colour burdened the night sky. An hour had passed, yet still the caravan had not completely left the city. Dawn was coming, the winds were beginning to shift, and Ashqa’at soon disappeared from Kha’atib’s sight behind the veil of dust being kicked up into the air.
“Are Faerl and the others safely secured?” Kha’atib asked Za’im, wary that he had not had time to witness their inclusion within the caravan.
“They remain well guarded,” Za’im replied, gesturing to a ring of red guards about two hundred yards away. “They are with the merchants, though my men are instructed to protect our captives should an attack come. Simak watches over them as well.”
“Tell him to protect Faerl above all else. I care not for the others, and I would sleep easier if that wretched woman would burn in the ashes of war.” Kha’atib’s disgust at Baeta’s appearance made him shiver. He was glad they kept her hidden, along with all the others.
“Veikko and Faerl intrigue me,” he continued. “If what the boy says is true, that the real power of the priests lies within the Brotherhood fortress, I’m loathe to allow either of them to leave the desert. Who knows what chaos they could unleash upon these lands from so far away?”
“We have our orders from Sattah.”
Kha’atib scoffed at Za’im’s remark. “Does Sattah ride to Johsala ahead of thirty thousand men? Does Sattah look to pit himself against the might of al-Din’s return? No, Za’im, it is our task to cleanse this scourge from the desert, and I will do so with all and every tool I have.”
“You intend to take them as hostage? Against Ohrl?”
“I am undecided,” Kha’atib answered earnestly. “If Ohrl does return with an army behind him, he may hold from sacking the city if his brother lies inside. I could even reason that I rescued Faerl from the Brotherhood’s clutches, if that lie could be believed.”
“Don’t be a fool, Kha’atib. You felt the wave of anger from Ohrl as he watched his brother give himself over to Veikko, just as I did. No one has spoken of it, but we both know it was pure rage he felt, not concern or regret. If Ohrl comes with an army, one hostage will not save your skin, no matter who it is.”
Kha’atib cast his thoughts back to the day the brothers became separated.
“Faerl wanted to return, Za’im. That means he has true purpose within the caves. I fear what he could discover within the Brotherhood. If I allow his release, it could prove the worst decision I make, and yet I’m intrigued.”
“Then be patient,” came Za’im’s response. “There are many long nights ahead of us. They are at your mercy, and we’ll have time to discover their intentions. Veikko is ill poised to make demands upon you, as is Baeta for that matter. There is nowhere for them to run, and they are in no position to deny you what you want to know.”
Kha’atib couldn’t help but agree. They travelled on in silence, and as the morning slowly warmed, Kha’atib caught the colour filling the sky. The ridge of rock the caravan marched upon circled west then south, keeping them high above the open desert floor. Kha’atib looked behind him. Ashqa’at still dominated the skyline, though it wasn’t what arrested his attention.
“We cannot let those trailing fall too far behind,” he said quietly to Za’im, who also looked concerned at the ever spreading army of men. “This will be a long and arduous journey, and your job of guarding the water will not be made easier if your men are spread out half way across the desert.”
“It can’t be helped until we clear this ridge,” Za’im replied. “I’m more worried about bandits patrolling the tunnels through these cliffs. Once we’re beyond the canyon we will regroup. Unfortunately we’re also burdened with the slaves bound for the mines and for Johsala. Most are not willing to meet their fate so quickly.”
Kha’atib turned to a large group of bodies slightly separated from the main horde.
“They’re not our concern,” he said, staring at the lines of black-clad soldiers shepherding the slaves into regimented lines. “They remain under the governance of Ashqa’at and their mercenaries. My only promise is to guide the water to Johsala.”
“You swore to protect the people of the desert too, Kha’atib. If we are to gain their trust, we must be seen to include all that travel with us. I’m told it will take three weeks to reach Johsala. There will be feasts to endure within the mines, and all the while our numbers will dwindle. When we reach our destination, we would not want our presence to become worthless.”
“Do not fear that, Za’im,” Kha’atib said, feeling a sense of ill-boding surge through him. He cast his gaze from Ashqa’at, settling instead upon the vast desert beyond the cliffs. “Fear what will come from that wasteland. Fear the army of al-Din.”
As if Husam himself had heard, a warm wind suddenly gathered around them. As one the entire army of men stopped to look toward the horizon. A low, resonant call came from the city, as Ashqa’at’s horns echoed against the cliffs to mark the caravan’s final journey. Kha’atib turned and cast his eye over the fluttering red and black flags, as the fiery desert sun spilled over the lip of the horizon. A haze shimmered across the desert floor, and to a man, all who crossed the treacherous gorge leading from Ashqa’at fell to their knees. Kha’atib called out over the desert, a blessing to watch over this caravan. Amid the sound of baying camels unnerved by their sudden halt, Kha’atib joined the others in silent prayer as he felt the blood of dawn’s light prickle over him like the coming of a fiery plague.
Sitting comfortably within his shaded palanquin, Veikko looked out over the silent horde of men.
“Must they pray at every step?” he begged of Sisu, who sat opposite him. “I cannot bear this journey as it is, and now it seems they wish to crawl to Johsala upon their knees.”
He surveyed the host of merchants and soldiers, their backs bowed beneath the slow rising sun.
“At least we’ve been afforded the same comfort given to the more respected merchants,” Sisu replied, but Veikko felt otherwise.
“The desert men walk admirably by themselves, not carried like an invalid,” he hoarsely whispered. “We have been caged, Sisu. Mark my words, the men surrounding us will be well armed and I have no doubt we will not be released from their sight until we reach Johsala.”
Their palanquin jostled as the bearers lifted them once again upon their broad shoulders. Slowly the caravan of men and beasts began to move, their morning prayer over, and the shifting sands began to swirl in the ever warming desert air.
“Have you caught sight of Faerl and Baeta?” Sisu asked. Veikko’s mood darkened.
“Kha’atib has them well hidden behind a veil of false courtesies. He said he fears the sight of her would make rife the rumours of an ill-fated journey, whispers that a demon travels among us, yet I know he will wait to use her as I did, as an example of his control over the living dead.”
Veikko brushed the light cotton veil aside, and scanned the raised palanquins scattered above the desert men. He caught sight of Jaasko dressed in the same flowing robes as those around him, yet Jaasko’s discomfort at riding a camel was plain to see. Veikko felt a tinge of jealousy, for at least Jaasko rode free. He returned his attention to Sisu, concerned by the anxious look on the Guardian’s face.
“There is one thing I fear, Veikko,” Sisu said. “We’ve been easily separated from any form of leverage we have against Kha’atib, should he decide that Baeta and Faerl are worth more to him locked in a dungeon beneath Johsala’s walls.”
“We have more to fear than that,” Veikko growled. “It worries me that the witch seductively whispers her intent to Faerl, encouraging him to use his strengths against us, to undermine our Brotherhood and take claim over what we have painstakingly built during these long and insufferable centuries within the mountains.”
“We don’t know for certain if they travel together or apart,” Sisu countered. “For all we know, Baeta is as guarded as the slaves, more so if Kha’atib desires her concealment. If it were me, I would separate them the entire journey, then decide what to do with them once we reach Johsala. Leave them no chance to form any sort of action against his plans.”
“Kha’atib is not so blunt,” Veikko said, “nor so afraid. He would not desire to anger her unnecessarily. He has what he wants. Ohrl is alone, unguided except by those under Kha’atib’s command. Yet I feel as we near Johsala, he will begin to question their worth, and what it will mean to release them, or keep them captive against Ohrl.”
“You fear he means to do the same to us?”
Sisu’s question surprised Veikko, although once voiced, Veikko found he could find no answer to quash his concern.
“Faerl presents a very real challenge to the very nature of Kha’atib’s authority among the desert, Sisu. Should Faerl’s claim be true, that he has a direct link to the priests of al-Din, the Scrolls of Hateeb may lose all meaning, and a new chapter shall be written in blood across the surface of the desert. If Kha’atib suspects this, he will either allow that course of action to happen, to knock down the resurgence against the scrolls as heresy and take a stranglehold over those who follow him, or he will suffocate Faerl before he has a chance to breathe life into his claim. If that decision is made, there’ll be little chance of us surviving, unless Kha’atib feels our value is insignificant without Faerl.”
“So it would seem we are to survive Johsala before concerning ourselves with what Baeta whispers in Faerl’s ear. Just remember, Veikko. It is Baeta’s desire to return to the Brotherhood Fortress as well. That woman is cunning, and therefore she is our ally in this act.”
Veikko nodded, though he knew the witch was not an ally he could ever trust.
“Do you really think he can change the nature of harmonics?”
Veikko raised his head to meet Sisu’s inquisitive stare. There was earnestness in Sisu’s voice, something Veikko had not heard from any of the Guardians since he assumed control of the Brotherhood.
“I doubt Faerl has any concept of what he can do,” Veikko said. “If his connection to the priests is real, he may simply be a puppet for them, wielding a power he cannot control. We must be wary of him, Sisu. His ambitions may drive our Brotherhood into a cause we have no desire to be a part of. Nor do we wish our strengths to be consumed, only to aide the ravaging of these desert lands.”
In truth, Veikko wondered the same as Sisu, and every waking moment he devised ways to counter the opportunities Faerl would undoubtedly have to usurp his control. He realised that, by the end of this journey at the very least, he must secure Sisu and Jaasko’s absolute loyalty to the Brotherhood. No, he thought. Not just to the Brotherhood, but to me.
“We cannot assume that the priests’ desires are for the good of the people, Sisu,” he continued. “If we are to make a claim in this uprising, it will be to determine who is on the side of right. That was always the strength of the Brotherhood, knowledge and understanding. To retain the balance of power, should the need ever rise. There is only one place we can begin to understand this, and that is within our library. We must secure our release from Johsala, and inevitably once again pass through Sira’an and return to the mountains with Jökull’s aid. We must convince Sira’an of our allegiance, if only to encourage safe passage home. Once within the Meil’vohllen, we can decide the future that awaits us.”
Sisu nodded, but Veikko wondered if he had said enough to secure the Guardian’s loyalty. He had many questions of his own, but none that he would dare voice in front of his council. A dark and troubling thought remained ever present in the shadows, one that he could only answer by being deeply connected to the harmonic stones themselves. The Contract Stone had bound itself so strongly and quickly to Faerl. Veikko believed his connection to Faerl through the stone was what convinced Faerl to return, but he still couldn’t understand the extent of what the Contract Stone desired from him, or of the parameters that bound Faerl to the Brotherhood’s fate. If Faerl had indeed fulfilled his contract by returning, Veikko feared he would have no control over him. Fearl would be free to manipulate those around him at will, without fear of retribution from the harmonics laid within the Contract Stone. No one had ever broken those shackles, and it was beyond Veikko’s foresight to determine what the implications of that act could mean.