The Oasis of Broken Bones
Part Three – A Place of Respite
The well worn trail made its twisting way up through the rocky slopes, following along washes and beside ridges where sparse shrubs clung to the dry, barren earth, hardy and thorny things that struggled to survive in such harsh environs. As they rode around one jutting ridge, ahead a canyon loomed into sight, one that cut down out of the rocky uplands. Halakir led them into it, a place of shade from the burning sun. The walls of the canyon grew ever higher, and further back into the hills an overhang thrust out. Beneath it the canyon had been walled off, a structure formed of solid mud bricks into which had been set a stout wooden gate.
“This is the place,” Halakir stated.
Peregrine stared hard at it as they approach, noting a pair of guards standing atop the wall which stood thrice the height of a man. Sheltered as it was beneath the overhand, and with a commanding view down the canyon, it was well secured against hostile intent. At the base of the wall, near the gate, a small band of camels waited, laden down with goods, accompanied by a small group of merchants and mercenary guards. One of the merchants stood just before the gates, haggling with another man, stout and clad in richly coloured robes. Just before they arrived, they saw coins change hands between the merchant and the stout man and the gates swung open. The caravan began to make its ponderous way through and into the compound beyond.
Halakir led them up to the walled entrance, stopping outside the gates until the other caravan had made its way inside. The gates shut behind them. The stout, robed man ran a critical eye across them before calling out a greeting in Hashala. Halakir responded in kind, dismounting from his horse and touching a hand to his heart. He approached the robed man and the pair began to engage in earnest, rapid conversation.
Peregrine’s mastery of the tongue was rudimentary at best and coupled with the speed they spoke at she caught only parts of what they were saying, but from what she could understand, they were haggling over prices, and those prices were rather high. The exchange went on for some minutes before at last an agreement was reached. Halakir counted out a number of coins and handed them across to the man. Once he had done checking them, he called up to the guards on the wall above the gate to open it, allowing them in.
“A silver duna per man,” blazed Peregrine as she rode through the gate, “And half a duna per animal? That is outrageous.”
The Hashalite simply shrugged his shoulders in response as if to say it was simply the nature of the world. It was not something that could be changed, only endured. “There is some truth in that, though I was able to reduce the initial asking rate. We are not a trade caravan, and thus we do not have the same wealth to lose should we stay beyond the walls. It saved us a substantial sum.”
Passing through the now opened gates, they came into the compound beyond the walls.
Beneath the solid rock overhand, a number of buildings had been constructed, all of the same mud brick style as the walls. One was a large, open aired building, little more than a frame and a roof above it, allowing the breeze to flow through it. Filled with stalls, it housed a variety of beasts of burden, a stable for the animals of the merchant caravans and other travellers. Servants in loose fitting white robes move among them, bringing them food and water. Nearby to the stables was a larger, more compact building with few windows and secured by a heavy wooden door. Under the shade of an awning the extended out over the door stood a pair of guards in shirts of light mail, flowing robes and spiked helms from which mail hung down over their necks and shoulders. Each held a spear and a light shield, while a scimitar was sheathed at their sides. The caravan that had entered the compound just prior to the arrival of Peregrine, Blade and the Hashalites waited outside the building as servants unloaded the goods they carried, under the beady eyes of the merchants and their mercenaries. A clerk stood with them, making notes on a parchment before each bundle was carried inside by the servants, to be stored until the caravan was ready to depart again.
The largest building of all, two stories in height, had been set back against the wall of the canyon beneath the overhang. It was not as roughly built as the others, for the mud brick walls had been smooth over with white plaster and broad, airy windows were regularly spaced around it, through which could be seen light curtains. Arched columns ran around the lower floor, supporting a balcony above, one covered in brightly dyed awnings. Here those that sheltered overnight had rooms and could take meals, and baths if they so desired, but all at a cost.
A courtyard extended out before the entrance to the building, one with a large pool of water at its heart and surrounded by palms and date trees, taller than the building itself yet still some distance below the heights of the overhang. Smaller shrubs and bushes were planted about it, through which walkways had been laid out, and stone benches set up. A small fountain bubbled in the centre of the pool, the soft splash of its waters welcome after the long journey through the arid lands outside. A few men walked around the pool, or simply sat at benches alongside it.
“Where does the water come from?” Peregrine asked upon spotting it.
“They portage it in, I believe,” Halkir responded, “Hence the great cost they charge.”
Peregrine grunted a curt reply before shaking her head.
They rode over the stables and swung down from their mounts. Collecting up their personal belongings from their saddles, they handed the mounts over to servants to stable and care for.
“Now tell me all that you know of this beast,” Peregrine demanded of Halakir as they walked across from the stables towards the guest quarters.
“There is not much to say,” Halakir admitted, “Little more than I have already told you.”
“Then why say that you would tell me when we arrived here?”
“Because I had no desire to see you dead,” Halakir told her, entering the gardens about the pool, the fine gravel of its walkways crunching beneath his boots. “It is safer here.”
Peregrine’s amber eyes narrowed and her face set hard. “This place extorts from travellers. If there was no beast, they would have no reason to do so.”
Halakir sighed before nodding in agreement. “That is so, but it is the way that things are.” He passed under the arched entranceway into the guest quarters, into a large ground floor chamber, one set up with wooden tables and benches. A pair of entertainers sat in one corner, playing soft music, one with a harp, the other with pipes. Men sat at the tables, some of them eating or drinking, others passing away the time in conversation, or with games of chances, whether cards of bones or dice. The susurration of murmured voices filled the room. Those there were drawn from many lands, merchants and guards and servants alike, though most were of Ishmarite or Hashalite stock, the dusky dark men who inhabited the southern plains and deserts that formed the Swordlands of Kharadas, or the bronze skinned Metsheputi who lived to the south of them, beyond the deserts and hills.
A servant came across, threading his way through those present, clad in the ubiquitous white robes that they all wore. He bade them follow him, taking them through the chamber to where stairs led above, to the second floor. From there he led them on to a number of chambers which were to be theirs for the night, small rooms with simple cots holding thin mattresses, and broad windows that allowed a breeze in. No other furnishings were to be found in the sparse accommodation, it being simply a place to sleep. They deposited their belongings in the chambers and returned to the larger common room below.
They took over one of the tables, seating themselves around it. Servants brought over to them small clay mugs of water, part of service for the fee they had paid on entry.
Peregrine sat herself across from Halakir, Blade to one side of her and a short Hashalite to the other. “Tell me more of this beast,” she demanded of him.
Halakir raised a brow before shrugging. “Very well,” he replied, stroking at his thin, pointed beard. “It began before I was even born, around fifty years ago by all accounts. Travellers who stayed at the oasis began disappearing during the night, especially nights were the moon was absent or clouded over. As ever, bandits were at first blamed, for attacks by them were always a concern. Yet as the attacks continued, and the first of the broken bones began to appear around the oasis, it became apparent that all was not right with the place. Then travellers, those that survived, began to report that they had seen something within the waters of the oasis, a monstrous creature swimming just beneath the surface, with eyes like the slumbering flames and a breath that would cause a man to swoon. Men shot at it with bows or cast at it with spears, yet all their efforts were for naught as they simply bounced off of it as if they had struck a beast of stone and not flesh. The deaths and disappearances continued despite their efforts and yet the merchant caravans had little choice but to continue to use the oasis, for there were no other options to be had in their journeys. No other sources of water exist for a day’s travel in any direction. A decade passed with that state of affairs continuing before this place was built, allowing for a measure of safety to exist. Some chose to use it while others pressed their luck at the oasis. With fewer caravans and travellers using it though, the attacks became more frequent until in the end all but the most fool hardy abandoned attempts to camp there. Since that time, merchants have sought to have the beast destroyed, hiring heroes and mercenaries to attempt to slay it. None have and most now are but bones upon the shores of the oasis.”
Peregrine took up the mug of water placed before her, staring hard at it, her eyes like smouldering shards of amber. “No one has had a proper look at it to describe what exact it may be?”
Halakir shrugged. “Many have, but rarely have any of those descriptions matched one to the next. It has always attacked at night, snatching people from the shores as it lunges from the waters, and none have survived one of those attacks, pulled down into the deep. Only their bones are ever seen again, washed ashore, stripped clean of flesh, to join those already there. Some say it is a wild animal, or perhaps more than one, others that it has slinked up from the slumbering flame, an infernal creature that haunts the place and devours the souls of those it stalks.”
Peregrine nodded as she listened, her whole carriage intent. “A long lived beast then, and formidable too.” She tossed back the water in her mug, set it down and then rose to her feet. “Come, Blade, I would check on our horses. I do not trust these people, not with all that I have seen here this day.”
Almost reluctantly Blade left the table and followed after Peregrine as she strode out of the building, radiating determination enough to give others pause and look as she went on by. Her very manner bespoke of intent, one that would not be swayed or set aside.
“I know that look well,” Blade said to her as they emerged out into the courtyard, where the shadows were growing as the sun sunk towards the horizon. “What is on your mind?”
“This place feels wrong,” Peregrine scowled. “I feel it in my bones. There is some deeper iniquity at work here, and I mean to find out what. This beast is but a symptom of it, but it lies at the heart of all.”
A long, languid sigh arose from Blade. “You mean to confront this beast, do you not?
A savage smile crossed Peregrine’s face, and a fey mood burned in her eyes. “I do.” She looked up at the sky, the setting sun staining it with deep colours across the horizon, of bruised purples and fiery bronze. The deepening dark saw the first few scattered stars glittering into appearance. “Let us collect our belongings and be gone from this place.”
“Now?” Blade inquired. An eyebrow quirked upwards as for a moment his somnolent expression sharpened into alertness.
“Yes, now. Why waste time. As it is I wish not to spend another moment in this place if I have to either.”
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