Ohrl, Josham and Xhosa had remained hidden within the vast encampment below the Ashqa’atian cliffs for the remaining days of the slave market. Though rations were meagre, Josham ensured they did not go hungry. Ohrl had hardly noticed, not having the stomach for food. It was Xhosa who finally took a firm hand, forcing him to eat, desperate for him to preserve his strength before the arduous journey ahead.
The encampment had mobilised under Kha’atib’s watchful eye, as well as the ranks of the Ashqa’atian elite flanked by a row of red and black clad soldiers from Sira’an and Ashqa’at. The soldiers made the desert men nervous, and Ohrl became aware of several curious gazes thrown his way, but in the days that followed they eventually passed over him without blame or persecution. He smiled, satisfied that he’d become unknown.
Ohrl lifted the hood of his cloak, desperate to shelter from the glare of the harsh midday sun. He kept his head lowered, as much to hide himself from the eyes of the men he followed as to protect his vision. He pulled his veil tightly over his face, but nothing could shield him from the emptiness he felt at losing Faerl to the Brotherhood. He surrendered to the rhythm the camel made as it loped across the desert stone, and behind closed eyes he endured the look upon Faerl’s face as his brother implored him not to return.
“We’ve lost sight of Ashqa’at,” came a quiet voice beside him. Ohrl flicked his eyes open. Little could be seen of the rider’s face, but Josham’s reassuring tone stole through. “I feared our presence would be betrayed. We’ve done well to survive the past few days beneath the city, but if you don’t lighten your mood, we’ll not remain long enough with the desert men to find what you seek.”
At first Ohrl didn’t hear the warning, unconcerned for the men around him, then his senses returned, and he lifted his head to face Josham.
“I don’t know what you’re doing to the minds of these men,” Josham continued, his voice barely a whisper over the desert wind, “but you alienate yourself, and us.”
Confused, Ohrl looked at those surrounding them, realising a wide circle had formed around Josham and himself.
“No one has come close to you all morning,” Josham said. “It is as though you are marked, or these men fear you. I don’t understand, for we have given them nothing to reveal who you are.”
Ohrl’s anger simmered. The shouts of the soldiers as they fled the market square still echoed through the desert. He strove for breath, remembering the desperation he felt as he watched the slave master tear Faerl’s robes from his body, but he regained control, feeling the rage of al-Din surging through his blood. He lifted his head in defiance.
“These men would be wise to fear me.”
He looked ahead. The men leading the caravan remained swathed in black, barely visible through the dust kicked up by the riders that followed. Ohrl realised he had much to be grateful for, and his frustration subsided.
“I’m sorry, Josham. It’s just that every step we take away from Ashqa’at fills me with dread. I am leaving everything behind. Faerl has been betrayed, coerced by the priests to side with our enemy, yet I fear it is I that betrayed him by not fighting for his release.”
“That can’t be said for certain,” Josham said. Ohrl could hear the compassion in his voice, and looked upon him with renewed hope. Josham rested a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “You must trust your brother. Xhosa said that what he did, he did for you. You must let go of him, and without grief. Focus on the men you now follow.”
At the mention of Xhosa, Ohrl looked around. He couldn’t see her, for all were veiled with their heads lowered, protecting themselves against the desert sun.
“She’s right in front of us, merged within the ranks of men,” Josham offered, pointing his chin in her direction. “You were becoming isolated, I slowly dropped back to join you. Ohrl, these men can feel your desperation, and they give you solitude. Don’t give them cause to reject you completely.”
Ohrl’s resistance caved in, releasing both the tension in his heart and his hold over the men around him. He was unaware of the effect it had caused, but felt no shame in it.
“Why don’t you reveal yourself?” Josham asked, his curiosity unrestrained. “You have the strength to unite these men. Why not use it? Bring them under your banner as you did the tribes of the Uradji.”
Ohrl frowned. “The Uradji sent us to our deaths, and did not expect us to survive. They vowed to build an army behind their walls, but there they will remain. They will not follow me until I lead the desert against my enemy, but I am not ready. I don’t even know who I fight.”
“Your enemy may be closer than you think.”
Ohrl shook his head. “If he were here among us, there would be no peaceful retreat into the desert for us,” Ohrl countered, but Josham’s remark remained barbed. He stared at his new-found guide.
“What should I know?”
Josham remained silent for a few paces, examining the men who followed. When he finally spoke, he did so quietly, for the riders began to close ranks once more now that Ohrl had released them from his hold.
“You saw the way these men looked at you as we crested the top of the cliff. You reached out to them, as you were doing just now. They have left you alone, accepting that you flee Ashqa’at, which makes you interesting to Wahid. However soon you’ll have no choice but to reveal yourself, for the deeper we go into the desert, the more reliant on them you’ll be for your survival. I doubt they would accept you as their leader should they believe your tale, but they will surely kill you or exile you to die in the desert if you do not convince them of your cause. If that happens, Xhosa and I will die with you.”
“I doubt he even knows we exist,” Ohrl frowned, unable to resist the urge to stare ahead at Wahid. Josham followed his gaze.
“It’s not just Wahid and the loyal men who follow him who you should fear. Our numbers will soon diminish, and continue to do so the further we spread out toward the far reaches of the desert. A great rift divides all who fill this caravan, though no conflict has arisen because of it. There are those loyal to Ashqa’at, whose allegiance Kha’atib sways by the promises he brings from Sira’an, but there are also those who reject all sovereignty from any of the cities. These are the men who follow Wahid, and soon you’ll be forced to choose between the two. Those who remain under Ashqa’at’s shadow will return to their tribes, leaving you exposed, where you’ll not be able to hide within numbers. Soon you must announce your allegiance. If you do not reveal your true purpose in the desert, you will not be welcome within the tribes, and to be exiled out here can only mean death.”
“You told me you had travelled the eastern desert before?”
Josham frowned. “Even I have not been to the outer reaches. I fear that is where your best hopes lie, for the lake you seek has never crossed my path in all my days of traversing these plains. If by some miracle it lies beyond the realm of the third ring, then by force, or by choice, you must reveal yourself to Wahid. That’s the only way they’ll allow you to pass into the open desert.”
Ohrl remained silent, still confused by Faerl’s betrayal. He saw Xhosa finally drop back to join them, now that they were once again swallowed by the mass of riders. He nodded his apologies, but she met him with a harsh and troubled stare.
“Once those of the second ring have gone, your time will be up,” Josham stated. “You must have won Wahid’s favour before then, or we might as well just turn back.”
“How much time do we have?”
“At this pace we are several weeks away from being isolated between the two rings, but I doubt we have that long. You’ll be held accountable well before that. Make up your mind Ohrl, before it’s too late.”
As Josham slipped quietly away within the ranks of riders, Ohrl felt Xhosa come closer. She kept her veil wrapped tightly over her face, masking all but her eyes, and he saw them studying Josham fiercely.
“What trust can you put in him?” Ohrl heard her rasp over the soft shifting of the desert winds. “What makes you so certain he’ll not lead us into more danger?”
He followed her gaze as Josham disappeared among the other riders. “I fear we’ll be met by peril no matter what path we take, Xhosa, but so far Josham has proven his worth. He warned us of Ta’alat’s slave caravan when we first met in the northern desert, and since then he’s shown no signs of malcontent. He may be using me to breach the third ring, but I also believe he’s curious to understand what’s happening within the desert tribes.”
“That doesn’t make him loyal to your cause,” Xhosa said.
“Yet he is loyal to the desert, to this way of life,” Ohrl said. “He understands the nature of how these people live, and that’s a secret I must learn. Look around you, Xhosa. I am as far from Brúnn as I could ever be, with only him to guide me.”
“You also have me.”
Ohrl looked at her and smiled. “Of that I am sure, yet you are foreign to these lands just as I am, especially to these people.”
He gazed across the desert, beyond Wahid to the vast and open plains. “I need Josham. So far his advice has been encouraging, and to be honest, without it I’d be lost. He reminds me of what needs to be done, otherwise I’d be racked with anger at losing Faerl and unable to move on. Wherever his loyalties lie, Josham’s counsel gives me comfort.”
“Then I will keep an eye on him, for your mind is elsewhere,” Xhosa said. “Your grief for your brother leaves you unwary of what surrounds you. I know you, Ohrl. I know your family, but I don’t know Josham. If he is to be our guide, then allow me to make sure of the company he keeps.”
Ohrl could hear her concern and nodded his agreement, glad to have her by his side. She was right. He was struggling to focus on anything but Faerl’s betrayal, and he needed someone he could trust. Xhosa had remained loyal, to him and to his father, even to the extent that she betrayed Jökull’s trust in order to save Faerl. He fell silent, once again feeling the distance separating him from his brother. His anger still burned, frustrated by the priests’ undermining of the connection he and Faerl held, and he wiped an uncomfortable sweat from his chest brought on by more than just the searing desert heat.
“What’s Jökull’s position?” he asked Xhosa, desperate to take his mind away from al-Din’s priests, yet Xhosa could barely contain her own anger at the thought of her former master.
“You saw where I was, Ohrl. Chained, waiting to be sold as a slave. That was my punishment for helping Faerl escape. Jökull cares nothing for me. My sale in the slave market was part of the bargain he struck with Veikko. If things had gone differently, if Veikko’s throat needed to be slit, Jökull would still not have welcomed me home, though he would have been indifferent to Veikko’s death. He has yet to choose a side, Ohrl, though I dare say he wishes none of this had come his way.”
“Do you think Jökull will help Faerl?” Ohrl asked, rather hopeful. “He must travel under Jökull’s guidance in order to return to the Brotherhood Fortress.”
“Jökull has little choice but to allow their return,” came Xhosa’s muffled reply. “Now that Veikko holds both your brother and the Khalada Stone, there is nothing Jökull can threaten him with, but it’s not the Guild of Thieves that Veikko fears.”
Ohrl looked up. “Faerl?”
Xhosa remained silent for a few moments as other riders passed them by. Ohrl could barely quell his curiosity.
“I travelled with them from the mountains,” Xhosa continued after the men had passed, “and though I was chained I heard their conversations. I could hear it in Veikko’s voice. He fears your brother will lay claim to his throne and seek to use the wealth of knowledge the Brotherhood stores against him.”
Ohrl felt a flush of anger. “Faerl is blinded by the priests. He willingly returns to Veikko and to the Brotherhood. He has chosen his side.”
“You think Faerl has sided with Veikko? Ohrl, don’t be so quick to judge your brother. I saw in his eyes the remorse he felt at leaving you. He told me to let you know you should never doubt the bond you have with each other. That he will do whatever it takes to save you.”
Ohrl would have spat, but his mouth was dry. “Our bond? I thought that was worth something before he abandoned me. Ever since we left Sira’an I’ve witnessed his growing connection to the priests. The hatred Husam felt for them is obvious, and I trust that bond more than I do Faerl’s and my own. It’s not a bond I desire, but it’s real, and I fear the priests are a far more dangerous threat than you could ever know. So don’t talk to me of Faerl’s reassurances. The priests have taken hold of him. I’ll trust him no more.”
Ohrl felt sickened by the venom he held toward Faerl, his own brother.
“I’m sorry, Xhosa. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between him and the priests. In what way he can, I know Faerl believes he fights for me, for us, but they will turn him, he has already proved that. The priests will claim him, as al-Din fights to claim me. I cannot change this, not until I have all six stones and I face my enemy once and for all.”
His focus fell upon Wahid, far in the distance. I must have this man’s allegiance, and with it the strength of the desert behind me. Ohrl reflected on Josham’s advice, that he must soon reveal himself to these men. A white lake hidden within the desert. It must be found, and these men will show me the way.