Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Desert Road

Now that the word-plague is cured and the town is no longer under linguistic quarantine, I packed up my things and left Arkit this morning. I made sure to leave before dawn. Travel in the Golden Desert is much more pleasant if you can reach someplace shady by noon.

Arkit is on one of the few permanent roads in the Desert. Elsewhere, there would be little point in roads; an unpaved one would just be sand on sand, and anything more solid would be buried by the sand instead. It would be like building a road on the ocean.*

However, being near the river, there are enough grasses and weeds here (Desert weeds are tough and brown and dead-looking) that the absence of them qualifies as a path. Or, if you're feeling generous, a road.

I'm traveling the Golden Desert on foot, as usual. I've acquired a wide-brimmed hat and some of the loose, blindingly white clothing worn by Desert nomads. These protect me from most of the sun. That only leaves the heat radiating up from the sand, the hot, gritty breeze that smells of dryness and baked stone, and the times - even worse - when the breeze doesn't blow. The air congeals then into something thick and unbreathable, like syrup poured over a pancake sizzling on the endless frying pan that is the Golden Desert.

It has taken me some time to become accustomed to the heat.

Fortunately, my body and the Shapeshifter's Curse I inherited have been as resourceful as ever. My toes have become quite long and thin, spreading my weight across the sand while exposing a minimum of skin to it. My skin, in turn, has developed a coat of scales even whiter than my clothing, with a collection of heat-shedding frills where my hair would be in colder weather. Several people have noted my resemblance to various Desert lizards. This seems like a good sign. The lizards, after all, have had quite a lot of time to adapt to this place; if I can become half as comfortable as them in little more than a year, I count myself quite lucky.

I have become surprisingly comfortable here, in fact. The heat has ceased to bother me much. I enjoy the silence of the long spaces between towns. The settlements of the Golden Desert tend to be bustling, exuberant places, communities of people who will gather around any source of water to build their houses and plant their crops and celebrate the miracle of life existing in the middle of such desolation. I love staying in Desert towns. After a week, though - sometimes two or three - I start to long for the desolation again, for a place where there are no voices to drown out my thoughts. I like people, but in moderation.

I have had many companions on my travels, but silence and solitude are by far the oldest and fondest of them.

They have been good company today. I spent the morning and parts of the afternoon traveling solo, wading through the rippling heat haze over the hard-packed road. My feet fell easily into the familiar rhythm of walking. I passed few travelers. One or two people passed me, traveling in the opposite direction on foot or on faded wooden wagons full of sand-tubers. One woman rode by on a flightless bird, somewhere between ostrich and roadrunner; there were message tubes strapped to both its legs, like a carrier pigeon. Each one must have held a scroll longer than my arm. The woman gave me a crisp salute with one white-gloved hand and shouted a greeting as she passed by. I didn't recognize the language.

Other than that, I spent the day alone. The silence stretched on long enough that started to notice the details of the Desert around me. Even here, there's always something moving. Occasional clouds wandered up over the horizon and burned up in the mid-afternoon sun. The darker shapes of vultures and winged hyenas passed overhead, dismissing me as too mobile for food. The hyenas called to each other with crow-like bursts of cackling that echoed for miles across the sand. Small, unseen creatures rustled in the weeds. Fine sprays of sand sifted from the tops of the nearby dunes. The wind blew dry notes across the brim of my hat.

I walked.

I have no particular destination in mind, and therefore little reason to care when I arrive. It wouldn't much matter if I did. The Golden Desert is a place of vast and changeable distances, impossible to predict; as the saying goes, you'll get there when you get there. People rarely hurry here.

Besides, it's just too hot.

*This has, of course, been attempted in many parts of the world, with varying degrees of success. Notable examples include the Serpent's Backbone, a floating bridge made of giant vertebrae that links a few dozen of the islands of Kennyrubin; Trifrost, an ice causeway kept frozen by imported glacier snails in the tropical waters of Barbaleel; and Skimmer's Path, a road built by the Great Acrobat, who somehow convinced a fifty-mile stretch of ocean to increase its surface tension to the consistency of ankylosaur leather. To this day, no one is sure how he did it.

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