Chapter 3 – The Hospitality of Strangers
Light greeted Kathri as she rose up out of her sleep, a shaded light. Her eyes flickered opened, seeing above her cloth woven into broad white and purple stripes, a cloth light enough to allow the breeze in and not trap the heat but still able to block the glare of the sun.
She raised her head and looked around the tent she was in, one far too large for a single person. A woven carpet lay on the ground, mostly of red but bearing patterns through it picked out in black and white, green and blue. It remained mostly obscured by the mound of cushions upon it, cushions she had been sleeping upon. The cushions were a riot of colours, not two alike. Neither were their designs or shapes. Some appeared to be of silk while others were woven wool or linen.
On the ground beside her was a bowl of worked silver. Vines ran around it from which clusters of grapes hung. She could make out humming birds and butterflies in flight upon it, while the tiny faces of small creatures like rabbits and mice peeked out from between the leaves.
At her feet she could see her pack, near the exit from the tent. Alongside it stood the figurine of the raven she had recovered from Ajanathad’s tomb, staring at her like it had watched over her during her sleep.
She sat up slowly, blinking the sleep from her eyes. A slight tightening of her stomach reminded her of her hunger, but it was not nearly as strong as it had been, and her thirst was the natural one from waking in the morning after a sleep, not that of an ordeal in the deserts.
She felt well rested too, the fatigue that had weighed upon her for the most almost gone.
The silver basin contained water. Taking care she picked it up and drank from it, careful not to spill a drop. The lingering memory of the drink from her dream came to her, the taste of it still upon her lips.
Once she had drunk her full, she set the basin down and stood up. The rug felt soft beneath her bare feet. Her boots sat together behind her pack. She slipped into them before pushing open the flap of the tent and looking out beyond.
A dozen tents formed a ring around an area of open sand. At the centre of it a circle of stones contained a fire, one that burnt low but with a pungent smell. Beyond the encampment a few trees provided a region of shade, beneath which horses were tethered beside a pool of water. Two of the horses had their heads lowered, drinking from it. They were of a breed both hardy and athletic, lightweight, clean-limbed and strong boned. Most were bay in colour but a pair of black horses stood out.
There were people in and about the camp, all of them as dark skinned as the Hajana. Two older women in skirts and long shawls that were pulled up over their heads tended to the pot over the fire, taking it in turns to tend to it. Snatches of conversation carried to Kathri and though she did not understand it, she had the impression that they were in a debate over it, though one friendly in nature.
Three children ran about, a pair of boys and a girl of like age, their long limbs bare, wearing a simple sleeveless garment of dusty brown that hung to their knees. They laughed as they ran, ducking between tents, followed by a large scurrying lizard, one the shape of a good sized dog. It gave a peculiar barking cough as it ran, tail sweeping the ground after it.
The camp had been positioned on a low rise that looked down over the deserts, the horizon shimmering in the distant. A patchwork of mottled reds, purples, greys and browns made up that rock strewn part of the land. A cluster of a half dozen men stood at the edge of the camp, looking down over the desert. The men wore trousers and long shirts that came down almost to their knees, with orange scarves wrapped around their heads. While the trousers were for the most plain, the shirts and the sleeveless vests they wore over them were brightly coloured, predominate among them being red. The men were armed with spears and scimitars. Two of them led horses by the bridles. A quiver of arrows and a bow were carried on the saddles of the horses. At a gesture with a sheathed scimitar down towards the desert by the tallest man there, the two men swung up into the saddles of the horses and urged their mounts forward.
Kathri knew who she was amongst, and for the most was glad for it. The people who had taken her in were the Digari. When the Hajana Empire had collapsed, its people had not died out. Many had survived and some of those had become the ancestors of the Digari, a mostly nomadic people who plied the dry grasslands and the edges of the deserts were once the Hajana had flourished when the lands had been more hospitable, tending to their herds of goats. While for the most a reclusive people who kept to themselves, they were renown for their courtesy and hospitality to those that did visit them. Of all those who could have found her out in the desert, she was glad it had been the Digari.
The two women tending the pot over the fire turned as she opened the tent. While one of them smiled and gestured for her to come out, the other called out to the group of men. Digaran, while a language descended from ancient Hajanri had changed much from its original form over the centuries and beyond a word or two she could not speak it.
The tall man left the group and walked across to her. He wore white trousers and a long red shirt while the open vest over it was a deep purple through which gold stitching could be made out, forming patterns that appeared like swirls of leaves. Around his waist was a belt of red, over the shirt but beneath the vest. A curved knife was thrust through the belt while he carried a scimitar in a scabbard in his hands. The hilt of the scimitar was plain though a red tassel hung from the end. The scabbard was lacquered black, with golden vines running along its length, deep red flowers appearing among them.
Kathri could see, as he neared, that he was a young man with a strong face, firm of jaw and clear of eyes. He also bore proud features, as proud as any king of Hajana. Despite the pride, no cruelty showed, or haughtiness, only a great deal of curiosity, reflected in his eyes as he looked upon her and a faint raising of a brow.
“You are most welcome, stranger, in the camp of the Armakur Digari,” he said to her. “May you find rest here.” He spoke with only a trace of an accent, as fluent in Vigosan as any native born to the Conclave Kingdoms. The oddity was that Vigosan was closer to old Hajanri that Digaran was. Old Vigosan had been influenced by numerous languages as changes rolled across the lands it originated from, including Hajanri, Briothan and more besides, adapting and borrowing from them as it evolved into the language of the current day.
“May the waters ever flow sweet for you,” Kathri replied, completing the greeting ritual of the Digara.
He motioned for her to join him at the fire. “Come,” he said, “Sit and eat. You must be famished after your ordeal.” He spoke to one of the women in his native tongue. She replied and he laughed, a good natured and easy going laugh, one that the two women joined in with. One of the women, the shorter of the pair, began to spoon out a stew into a wooden bowl. The other woman, taller and thinner, picked up a loaf of flat bread from out of a basket beside the fire, tearing it in half. She handed one half to Kathri while the other women passed across the bow. Kathri inclined her head in thanks to them, along with a faint smile. Nearby to the fire was a decent sized stone. She sat down on it, taking care not to spill the stew as she did.
Dipping the bread into the stew, she began to eat. It was a rich, red one, with a strong peppery spice and filled with generous chunks of goat meat. Until the scent of it had wafted across to her she had not realised just how ravenous she was. Decorum was mostly forgotten as she wolfed the food down, using the hard flat bread as a spoon.
“Would you thank them for me?” Kathria asked in between mouthfuls of food.
The man nodded and spoke to the women who smiled in reply. They said something, a long flowing string of words to which the man chuckled.
“They say you are most welcome.”
“What else did they say?” Kathri asked, suspicious as to the amount they had talked.
“That you need to eat more,” the man smiled, flashing his teeth. “They say you are as thin as a scrawny goat.” He sat down on another stone across from her watched as she ate, he two women speaking quietly amongst themselves, only occasionally glancing in Kathri’s direction.
The Digaran sat silent for some time as she ate, though his study of her never ceased. From the brief glimpses of him that Kathri got between mouthfuls of food, she could see that he was not just studying her but assessing her as well, a judging look in his dark eyes. Most would not have picked up on it but she had learnt to read people well, to pick up on their mannerisms and expressions and deduce what they were thinking. It was almost a necessity in playing the game, and in dealing with merchants when trying to sell looted treasures.
Finally the man spoke. “I am Amaran of the Armakur,” he said conversationally. “I am the bhadtra, the Voice as you would say it I think.”
The bread stopped halfway to her mouth, dripping stew back into her bowl. The bhadtra were powers within the Digaran tribes, second only to the chiefs. As their name suggested, they spoke for the tribe, their words coming as if from the chief, envoys and ambassadors dealing with all who wished to speak to the chiefs. From what she remembered of the Digara, the Armakur were not a single tribe but a confederation of them, perhaps the most powerful of the Digaran.
This Amaran is a very important, and powerful man. We had better be on our best behaviour, Kathri, she told herself.
“I am Kathri.”
Amaran’s brows rose a fraction, though a smile crept into his eyes. “Just Kathri, of nowhere in particular?”
Kathri shrugged as if to say that it did not mean much. “Not as such. I move around a lot.”
Amaran nodded almost solemnly though the smile never left his eyes. “Nomadic then, just as we are. Wherever you are from, Kathri, you are certainly lucky.”
A sour look crossed Kathri’s face. “Luck and I have a fickle relationship at best. There are times he walks beside me and times that he hates me.”
“It is ever so,”Amaran agreed. “Luck is a mercurial master at the best of times and more so for those he favours with his presence.”
Kathri finished off the last of the stew, using the bread to mop up the remnants. When she had finished eating, she sat the bowl down beside the stone on which she sat.
“In this case,” Amaran went on, leaning forward a touch, “You really were lucky in that we found you when we did. Where you were, few travel at the best of times, and these are not. There are others out here, and not just Digaran, who would not have treated you with the kindness that we have.”
“I am thankful for what you have done for me, bhadtra. How was it that you did find me?”
“That is a mystery that perhaps you can help us with.” He scratched at the tip of his nose, a slight frown creasing his brow. “Almost four days ago, as we were on out way from one place to another, we saw a man riding from deeper into the desert, leading another horse behind him. He seemed to have the troubles of the world resting upon him, for he was slumped forward and, from what we could see, had been injured. We were unable to reach him and help him, but we knew from where he had come, a watering hole we call Ajwan Deshara, the Bitter Waters due to its erratic nature. Fearing that he had been attacked, we made for Ajwan Deshara and there we found you, laying unconscious beside the water hole. You were in a bad way, barely stirring as we moved you here.”
Kathri sat up straighter. “The man, how troubled did he look? Was he going to live?”
Amaran tilted his head aside, studying Kathri with a judging look once more. “From what we could see he will live but something had disturbed him greatly and he could not get away fast enough. I fear for the horses he had. You know the man?”
“His name is Astiara.” Kathri replied, “And he was my companion. We became separated when he presumed me dead. I did not know he had been hurt.”
“We had thought that perhaps he had attacked you,” Amaran said. “It is well he had not.” Pushing up, Amaran rose to his feet. “Come with me, Kathri. We must talk.” His voice had changed when he spoke, becoming that of a bhadtra, a voice of command that had to be obeyed. He strode off towards one of the other tents, this one of red and purple. Kathri stood, smiled politely to the women and hurried after him and his long legged stride.
They had treated her politely thus far, and more than polite. Their codes of hospitality would see that it continued to be that way until the time she left yet she had the feeling that they would not be allowing her to leave, not any time soon.
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