It was lucky that we found the caravan when we did. By that point, after a month or two of traveling through the wild, trackless wastes of the Golden Desert, I had almost forgotten what Tirakhai had hired me to do when we'd started.
I had been unable to get much information about the "Painted Ones," those mysterious beings that apparently required caravans to travel with artists as a precaution of some sort. The people I asked were as ignorant as myself, responding with shrugs and vague rumors they'd heard; or they were strangely reluctant to discuss the topic, giving small shudders and quickly changing the subject. Eventually, I stopped asking. I assumed I would find out if, or when, we actually encountered the Painted Ones. I was slightly less sure by then that I actually wanted to do so.
Less than a week after we rejoined the caravan, the Painted Ones showed up in person and answered all my questions - and as I'd suspected, I almost immediately wished they hadn't.
We never saw or heard them coming. Even Garnet, whose ears and nose were several degrees sharper than average, had no warning. We came around a high dune and they were simply there.
Judging by their appearance, I would guess that the Painted Ones' ancestors included Deinonychus, or one of the other great hunting lizards. They were tall and muscular, with scaly brown hides and sharp, bony faces. They had wide, flat feet - perfect for running on sand - tipped with dagger-like claws as large as my hand. My head barely came up to their breastbones. Even Garnet, I think, would have had difficulty facing one of these. Against a whole pack, the caravan would not have stood a chance.
We had plenty of time to look. The entire caravan froze at the sight of them. The gafl immediately burped out their alarm stink, a reeking cloud that caused several passengers and even one of the gafl handlers to pass out. No one else moved. The Painted Ones didn't seem to mind the smell at all; they just stood there and waited.
There was an aura of casual and utterly terrifying confidence about them. Somehow, standing there with all their sharp edges glinting in the sun, they managed to convey that they would not hesitate to kill and eat every last one of us. It probably wouldn't even take them very long. They looked at the people in the caravan the way you look at fruit in a market stall, considering which ones are the plumpest and ripest and how many pieces you would slice them into before eating them. We would have had about as much chance of fighting back as a fruit would. The only reason the Painted Ones weren't getting started, right now, was that we - I - had something they wanted more than meat.
Then again, maybe they just weren't hungry at the moment. I prefer not to think too hard about that possibility.
Tirakhai had made his way over to me at some point, moving surprisingly quietly for such a large man. I had been somewhat distracted, and I jumped when he whispered to me.
"Well, artist. They have come to meet you." He gave me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "Good luck."
I would rather have pulled the tails of a thousand flying hyenas than walk out to meet that pack of fangs and claws. Tirakhai had to give me a rather firm shove before I could make my feet start moving. Still, they hadn't eaten us yet - and nothing focuses the mind quite like the awareness that a creature who would like to eat you might be willing to bargain for something else instead.
I have met plenty of saurian people in my life; most of them are not all that different from any other person, aside from a somewhat higher quota of claws and scales and a habit to tread very carefully on thin floors. The Painted Ones were not like any of them. I am glad to say, in fact, that I have never met anyone like the Painted Ones - with the possible exception of the Cathomar I once riddled for my life. Still, there was only one of him. There were at least a dozen of these tall saurians. (Somehow, I never took the time to count.) Their teeth and claws were wickedly sharp, except where they'd been broken off in jagged stumps. They seemed to have plenty to spare. The bases were crusted here and there with dark substances I didn't attempt to identify. Slit-pupiled eyes, in all shades of gold and copper and blood-red, inspected me with a hungry intelligence that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. I have heard people speak of "undressing someone with their eyes," but I believe most people would stop at the skin.
Their breath had the faint, metallic tang of old blood.
In my mind, I gave my nose the rest of the day off, to calm its nerves, and gave my full desperate attention to my eyes. The Painted Ones apparently wanted an artist. I swallowed and tried to think like one.
Many of the Painted Ones were marked with what turned out, on closer inspection, to be elaborate tattoos. The pigment had been expertly worked in between the scales to form complex patterns - bold stripes and rings and spots that turned into lacy designs when seen up close. Others of the pack were unmarked. I wondered what the difference was, until I caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a shred of cloth at the base of one hunter's horns. I was still less than comfortable around these tall and exceedingly pointy people, so I was slow and careful in working my way closer. Close up, the shred turned out to be a piece of old, half-detached skin - still marked with the traces of a tattoo.
That was the difference, then. The Painted Ones, like many scaly people, shed their skins periodically - and far more thoroughly than most; tattoos, permanent on most skin, were hardly more lasting than paint for them. They had come to us because they wanted them replaced.
Several of them had pouches hung on strings around their necks, hanging next to brightly colored stones and the occasional clinking bone. (None of them bothered to carry knives.) From these pouches, several of the unmarked took yellowed and much-folded scraps of paper and presented them to me. They were sketches. Done in a wide variety of different pigments and styles, each showed one of the Painted Ones decorated with a unique pattern. The owners of the sketches gestured to the faded designs, then to themselves. These ones, apparently, had their own personal designs and wanted them re-inked.
Others, rather than giving me a sketch, pointed to my sketchbook and made empty-handed gestures. I assumed that these had not yet found a pattern that they liked and wanted me to design one for them to try.
I'd never done tattoos before, but I knew at least the basic theory. Karlishek silently loaned me a few sewing needles - not ideal, but the best tools anyone had on hand - and I got started.
It was almost more than I could manage to drive the needle into the skin of the first hunter's arm. The impatient tapping of its left-hand dagger-claw on the sand was what finally got me moving. The needle didn't even make it flinch.
Once I'd started, the work itself was enough to keep me going; painting and drawing is usually like that, though this was probably the most unusual canvas I'd ever done it on. The Painted Ones' skin was tough and pebbled with scales, hot from the sun, crisscrossed with a hundred small scars. The powerful muscles and tendons beneath it barely twitched with the jabs of my needle. The smells of hot leather and old blood filled my nose. The skin was various shades of brown, from the pale tan of parchment to a deep, rich chestnut color. It looked as if it had originally been meant for camouflage in the Desert. Their culture had clearly left that idea behind, though, favoring bold designs that could probably be recognized from miles away.
That didn't seem to be the only purpose of the patterns, though. Several of the adolescent hunters, for example, seemed to have deliberately chosen their designs to be as painful as possible - lots of dark, intricate work in the relatively soft skin around their nostrils, under their arms, in the bends of their knees and elbows. I could see them grinning at each other as I inked the patterns in. I can handle this much pain
, they seemed to be saying to each other. Can you
The older ones, having apparently moved on to other methods of competition, seemed to choose their designs more aesthetically. Some seemed to be simply abstract; others emphasized physical features, such as unusually muscular arms or protruding brow-ridges. One particularly precise drawing featured a long, jagged line twisting down the left thigh. When I began to paint it, I found myself tracing the path of an old scar, faded nearly out of existence. Apparently, even scars are impermanent for the Painted Ones. They commemorate the best ones in ink instead.
Knowing that gave me a somewhat different view of some of the other patterns.
Karlishek eventually worked up the courage to stand and watch while I worked. He'd been talking to some of the older caravan passengers - apparently, they were less reluctant to discuss the Painted Ones when the real things were standing in front of them - and had found out a little of the history behind this odd arrangement.
Apparently, the Painted Ones used to attack caravans in this region. Unpainted then, they weren't interested in trade; they only wanted the plump, tasty merchant passengers and draft animals. As a result, many caravans started traveling with armed guards. Those that couldn't afford an escort simply set out and hoped. An occasional survivor would return from one of these, parched and delirious from the heat, raving about traveling companions devoured and precious cargo dumped out like inedible garbage onto the sand.
This inspired groups of adventurers to set out from nearby cities (relatively speaking; this is not a densely inhabited region of the Golden Desert). Drawn by the irresistible combination of riches and danger, they would arm themselves with steel and arrogance and venture into the dunes in search of these lost treasures. Many of them were also eaten. Others, failing to find the treasures they sought, turned to banditry instead - which only made matters worse.
Trade in the region was just short of drying up altogether when one group of the Painted (then the Unpainted) Ones happened to attack a caravan with a tattoo artist aboard. Like many artists, she was rather stubborn, and she continued to work on the tattoo she was in the middle of even as chaos erupted all around her wagon. (Her client, squeamish about pain, had fortified himself with large quantities of Desert ale and didn't notice a thing.) When one of the attackers slashed open the side of the wagon where she was working, she broke his leg with a nearby sledgehammer and went back to work - in plain sight of the astonished predators outside.
This was the turning point in the Painted Ones' career. They crowded around, fascinated by these marvelous paintings beneath the skin. (Until this point, their encounters with the art of the Golden Desert's other cultures had mostly consisted of taking the jewelry off of their supper.) The fighting stopped. Someone, somehow, managed to figure out enough of their language - or perhaps they had learned enough of their prey's language - to negotiate an agreement: the Painted Ones would leave the caravan alone if the artist tattooed each of them. They had found, like many before them, that they preferred art to food.
Word spread quickly. For the next few years, caravans would hire the most spectacularly tattooed people they could find to walk out in front, as advertisements of a sort, hoping that the predators would stop and see what they had to offer before simply taking what they wanted. In nearly every case, it worked. Soon, the display became unnecessary; word had traveled between the packs, and even those who had never been painted knew what to ask for when they found a caravan. No one wanted to be the last Unpainted Ones left in the Golden Desert.
No one is sure how there can be so many of the Painted Ones. There are not enough animals in the Golden Desert to sustain a population of carnivores this large. The most popular theory is that they have some hidden desert paradise - an oasis, a plateau, a secret river valley - that they return to between their voyages across the sand. If it's true, no one has ever found this hidden paradise and returned to tell about it. The Painted Ones themselves certainly aren't telling anyone.
Their language, on the rare occasion that they spoke, sounded to me like a distant relative of Halsi - one that had been put through a meat grinder. They hissed the vowels and chewed the consonants with great relish.
"Mashrakh," they kept saying to me. "Mashrakh farrakesh. Hechram rrkh." I eventually came to suspect that this meant something like "stab harder, weakling. You're barely scratching me." It was easier to work out the signals they used: a wave for "bigger," a slashing motion for "darker," a twiddling of the claws for "more complex." I tried to oblige them as quickly as possible.
Complexity seemed to be reserved for the oldest among the pack. I was surprised when I first noticed that there were children among them, though I shouldn't have been. The smallest ones had only a stripe or two each and tried to chew on my bag of tools when their parents weren't looking. I didn't try to stop them; it could just as easily have been my leg.
Most of the patterns were in black, with touches of red on some of the larger and more dangerous-looking adults. Luckily, I had a good supply of black and red pigments; these colors are easy enough to come by in nearly any area. When I pulled out the small bottle of blue paint, though - the last remains of the cockleworm dye I picked up on the Gray Coast - one of the Painted Ones laid its elegant handful of daggers on my arm and shook its head. (Her
head, as I found out later.) The common colors were all very well for the rest of the band; blue was reserved for the leader. She wanted only a few touches of the color at the tips of her horns and tail, possibly to match the tattered blue feathers tied to her horns.
It had been morning when we'd encountered the Painted Ones. The sun was setting by the time I finished. No one complained about the loss of time; in fact, very few people even came out of their wagons all afternoon. A few of the brave but unassuming passengers - usually Karlishek and Garnet - kept me supplied with water and reassuringly non-predatory company, but that was all.
The Painted Ones took several minutes to admire themselves when I finally finished the last one, turning in circles on the sand and making pleased little churring noises. (I hoped they were pleased, anyway.) One of them even gave me a friendly nudge with its muzzle before leaving, making me feel as if a rack of kitchen knives had suddenly decided to get affectionate. By then, though, I was a little more able to take the gesture as a compliment; I was, if not actually comfortable around the hunters, at least not actively terrified. It is always a pleasure to have one's work appreciated, and even more so when the mark of that appreciation is that one is still alive.
The Painted Ones left nothing behind when they glided off over the dunes, running with such a silent, effortless grace that they barely seemed to touch the sand. It was startling to see after being so close to them for so long. I had felt the tough muscle and bone beneath their thick skin; the adults must have weighed at least twice what I did, yet they appeared to weigh nothing at all. They paused at the top of a high dune, a line of boldly patterned shapes against the burning sky, and then were gone with a whisper of sand.
I spent the following day or two inside the wagons. After that day of relentless heat and terror, I needed the rest. The aquatic passenger (more about him later) actually let me share his water-filled vehicle until the shakes went away.
Painting the Painted Ones might be the most difficult project I have ever undertaken. It is certainly the most difficult one I have done without being paid. It was thoroughly unique, though - and in exchange for doing it, I was allowed to remain alive. I consider that an excellent trade.
Labels: art, big things, danger, encounters, Golden Desert, history, languages, stories, transient beauty, travel