Tuesday, July 17, 2012


The gafl have apparently eaten their fill, ballooning to three times their previous size, so the caravan packed up and left Denemat this morning. I was surprised to discover how many of the people I've seen around the village are actually passengers on the caravan. Denemat's population, apparently, is even smaller than I thought.

I went back to say goodbye to Fenbit and Hasisha before we left. They were sitting in the shade of their acacia again, though the tree had moved to the other side of their house. Perhaps it wanted a change of scenery. They gave me a package to deliver to their grandson, who apparently lives in a remote town called Snarkish. If the caravan happens to come across the town on its journey, I'll deliver the package myself; if not, I'll give it to someone else before I leave the Desert. It will find its destination eventually.

The package seems to weigh almost half what I do, which is why they're not sending it by postbird. The postbirds refuse to deliver anything that weighs more than they do. Heavy mail has to take its chances with foot travel. Inhabitants of the Golden Desert are used to waiting months or years for their packages to arrive.

The train of wagons had already lined up at the outskirts of the village when I arrived. Everyone was loading things aboard. The merchants in the caravan are transporting a wide variety of cargos. One entire wagon is full of parsnips and munchmelons; another holds cages of pahareets, jazz birds, and salamanders. Several harried-looking potter's apprentices were shifting towering stacks of ceramic tiles, glazed with brightly colored butterflies and sheep and squid and peacocks, and wrapping them in thick woolen blankets before loading them into crates. Further on, a team of the caravan's largest and strongest lifters were carrying heavy chests reinforced with iron bands and massive padlocks. I don't know what was inside them. Most of the lifters were samovals, who tend to be larger and stronger than average; there was also an upright elephant with painted tusks, a few of the masked people I've glimpsed occasionally in the Desert, and a pair of twins who looked almost human, aside from the armadillo scales across their backs. They lifted chests that were larger than I am, and must have weighed three times as much, without any visible effort.

A team of men and women in white robes were taking great care in loading crates onto one of the wagons. A few of the crates were still open, and I could see glimpses of complex machinery inside, all gleaming brass and polished lenses. One of the team - an avian woman with jet-black feathers, who was panting in the heat despite the hood shading her face - gave me an enthusiastic explanation when she stopped to rest.

"Is for, eh, measure the sand, yes?" She fanned herself with one feathery arm. "Is for… Look in sand, see what is before. Sand now is small pieces, but before, maybe is castle, or mountain, or glass, yes?" She pointed to a crate where an elaborate series of lenses sat, half wrapped in cloth, gleaming in the sunlight. "Look with this, see castle, mountain, glass. What sand is before."

I'm still not entirely sure what she meant. Some unusual variety of archaeology, perhaps? The equipment was nearly all packed, so a demonstration was out of the question. My Amrat, unfortunately, is nowhere near as good as her English, and I'm no geologist. Most of what she said went completely over my head. She didn't seem disappointed with my incomprehension; she just shrugged and smiled, a slight rumpling of the feathers at the corners of her beak. "Eh. When you maybe learn more Amrat, I tell you again. Yes?"

One of the wagons has been cleared out and altered to hold a single passenger. Normally, a caravan would not allow this; space is too limited to waste an entire wagon on one person. (I will be sharing a wagon with five other travelers and their luggage, as well as a shipment of assorted fossil shells, and sleeping on top of my luggage.) However, from what I've heard, this passenger is not only wealthy enough to pay for a whole wagon; he is also aquatic. The alterations to the wagon were mostly to make it watertight. The wagon bed has been sealed - I assume with tar, or snail glue, or something of that sort - and filled with river water. The canvas roof has been replaced with a silk canopy nailed down tightly on all sides. This, apparently, will hold moisture inside the wagon and keep the water from evaporating too quickly.

I don't know the passenger's name, but I've heard that he's from a wealthy family of river merchants from the Scalps. How he got all the way out here, I have no idea. I hope he doesn't mind being stuck inside a wagon for the next month or so.

The caravan set off shortly after noon. This was later than it was scheduled to leave - I could hear Tirakhai's voice from one end of the wagon train to the other, booming at steadily higher volumes the later it got - but it's nearly impossible to organize this many people, much less to do it on time. I'm impressed we only left a few hours late.

The gafl handlers had been maneuvering their charges into position all morning, checking harnesses and providing a few last snacks before departure. They steered the gafl with a sort of percussive code, thumping out quick rhythms on the shaggy hides that told the creatures to stop, go forward, turn left, and so on.

I managed to find a good place to sit when we left; it was a seat near the front of one of the central wagons, where I had a good view of the whole caravan. It was quite a sight. All the gafl started nearly at the same time, lurching forward with surprising speed as they stretched and compressed their massive bodies. Hundreds of soft feet hit the sand at once. The sound was like a pillow fight of operatic proportions.

The rest of the day's journey was largely uneventful. The wagons slid over the dunes fairly smoothly, though they seemed to find more bumps and pebbles than I would have thought possible in what looked like perfectly smooth sand. The springs on their shafts at least kept them from sharing the gafl's lurching gait.

There was always someone singing. Over the course of the day, I must have heard dozens of melodies from one wagon or another. Karlishek identified a few of them for me when he happened to be nearby; one was a love song, another a prayer, a third a comical ballad about a man who built a house out of sand.

The sun set an hour or two ago. The wagons are currently arranged in a circle around a large campfire. There is little wood in the Golden Desert, so we're burning gafl dung. The handlers collected enough over the course of the day to make a sizable fire. Thankfully, it has almost no smell at all. The gafl themselves smell strongly of rosemary right now, as their handlers have been rubbing the herb into their fur to keep away parasites. The gafl seem to like the smell; they stuff their faces into each other's fur and sniff happily every time we stop. Most of them are sleeping at the moment. Their silhouettes are like grassy hills in the dark, rising and falling slowly with their breathing.

All the passengers who are still awake sit around the fire. Supper was a bewildering array of shared food, contributed by everyone, followed by an hour or so of songs and storytelling. I missed most of the stories, but I was able to at least hum along with the songs.

By now, everyone is quiet. Most of the passengers have wandered off to their wagons to sleep. The few who remain sit around the crackling fire, writing letters or journals, or playing games with boards and decks of cards that I've never seen before. It's peaceful.

The moon and grandmoon are high in the sky above us, wearing the campfire smoke like veils. There must be a million stars around them. Bats and night birds fly overhead, black on black, little fluttering silhouettes that croon and squeak softly to each other. I have a bed of sorts set up in the wagon, but I might just sleep outdoors tonight.

After all, it's not as if it's likely to rain.

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