The Oasis of Broken Bones
Part One – The Desert Road
A scalding wind swirled down the slopes of ragged, rock strewn hills, emanating from the uplands, to roll out over the desert dunes where it disturbed the grains that had banked up high. It carried with it the fearsome intensity of the sun that gleamed off the desert sands and broiled the air. Rolling dunes swept towards the rocky uplands, a place of barren hills overlooked the brooding deserts. Through the uplands, alongside an ancient, dried up river bed, a well worn trail wound its way.
A string of horses picked their way along the route, two dozen in number, dust stained. Most of the riders upon them were wiry men, dusky of skin and with sharp blue-black beards and dark eyes that peered out from hawkish faces that had been hardened by the elements. They wore flowing robes and head scarves, loose fitting, while scimitars were at their sides. In their hands they carried small hide shields and long spears.
Two there were amongst their company who were not of their kind, standing out in stark contrast. The one who led the riders was a woman, one with flowing auburn hair and a steely amber eyed gaze. Short and of a solid build, she radiated an intensity that was as primal and unwavering as the desert around. Despite the heat of the desert day, she wore a vest of toughened leather, while her hair was held back by a band of white linen around her head. Over her shoulder there showed the worn hilt of a heavy broadsword, while a spear rested across the pommel of her saddle. Eyes narrowed as she studied the route ahead.
Close behind her rode a tall man, slender of form and languid of face. He was pale compared to the others, and likewise were his eyes that looked out half-lidded from beneath a brow of dark hair. Unlike the rest, he was clad in clothes of the finest make and tailoring, with a loose fitting white shirt that bore extensive stitching in gold and crimson and emerald thread, running up the sleeves of the shirt, and around the collar, in the form of climbing rose vines, replete with blossoming blooms. A baldric ran across his chest, of black leather and gold thread, from which hung a gold hilted rapier at his side, while a number of knives were sheathed along the length of the baldric. A quiver holding a bundle of black feathered crossbow quarrels hung from his saddle, alongside an unstrung crossbow. A broad rimmed hat rested jauntily at an angle upon his head, from which a crimson plume swept back, sheltering him from the glare of the sun.
The path that they followed had its distant origins in Qaiqala, richest and proudest of the cities of the Swordlands of Kharadas, pre-eminent in its might and splendour. From Qaiqala it had wound its way east, through the grasslands and deserts of the Hashalites, towards the fabled gold mines of Mutswa, most northerly of the kingdoms of the south wherein dwelt the ebon men, and from there across the vast rolling steppes to far off Xuan, with its silks and spices and mysterious towers. Across it flowed the wealth of nations in merchant caravans, protected by mercenaries and guards, for the lands of the Hashalites were most dangerous, with raids and attacks on caravans numerous, and the horselords of the steppes beyond were just as wild.