Saturday, July 14, 2012

End of the River, End of the Road

Since Karkafel, I've been traveling through the cities and towns along the river Lahra. I reached the last one today.

The river begins with the Neverending Waterfall in Thrass Kaffa and flows through the Desert from there. In most places, rivers get wider as they go, joined by other streams and smaller rivers until they reach the sea. The Lahra gets smaller. There are no other streams or rivers in this part of the Golden Desert, and the hot air dries up more of the river the farther it goes. Numerous towns and cities have sprung up along the banks, diverting more and more water to irrigate their crops, which has only accelerated the process. By the time it reaches Denemat, the smallest and last village, the river is hardly more than a silty trickle. The villagers have to constantly clear sand out of its rocky banks to keep the water above the ground.

Obviously, further travel along the river is impossible at this point. There is no more river. What remains of it is spread out into Denemat's network of irrigation ditches, sucked up into the thirsty roots of the village's dates and drought-wheat.

The road - really just a path by now - continues a short distance past the village, parallel to the largest irrigation canal. I followed it this morning just to see where it led. It ended at a little mud-brick hut where an elderly couple was drinking tea in the shade of a small acacia. They shared a cup with me. The tea was a deep jewel-red, quite strong, with some sort of spice or fruit that made it taste like sunshine on hot metal.

The people of Denemat speak Amrat, a language only distantly related to Halsi. I couldn't understand a single word the couple said. It wasn't a problem. Like other older couples I've known, they were content to sit in silence, and so was I.

In return for the tea, I repainted the door of their house. It had a beautiful pattern of fossil ammonites that had faded nearly to oblivion in the Desert sun. It was a good way to spend the morning. Hospitality is hospitality, even when the guest and hosts can't understand a word the other says.

The hut was surrounded by a small ring of vegetable garden, arranged to take advantage of every drop of water from the vague damp patch that was all that was left of the river. There were Desert roses blooming between the cabbages and parsnips, laden with the occasional garnet-red rosehip. Perhaps that's what was in the tea. Beyond the little ring of flowers and vegetables, the Desert stretched to the horizon, shimmering in the heat, a parched ocean of dunes. It was unmarked by so much as a footprint, much less any sort of path.

It was obviously time for a different method of navigation.

Fortunately, I'd only been here for a day before the caravan arrived. It was late afternoon when the dusty train of wagons slid into the village. The wagons use runners, not wheels, for travel on sand; they seem to be mostly cloth, but I was too distracted by the gigantic hairy creatures that were pulling them to pay much attention. More on those later.

The leader of the caravan is a massive reptilian man named Tirakhai. He's a good foot taller (and wider) than I am, not counting the horns, with a booming voice and sharp golden eyes.

He speaks no English, I speak no Amrat, and both of us speak only a minimum of Halsi and Sikelak, but we managed to communicate well enough for me to ask to join the caravan. (I've found that pointing and offering people money often works almost as well as speech, at least if you're trying to buy something.)

Unfortunately, seats on a caravan are rather expensive, and the fact that my money consists of currencies from over a dozen different regions only complicated things. We were busy haggling over the price (I was losing) until Tirakhai happened to catch sight of the sketchbook in one of my bags. He pointed, and I took it out and showed him a few sketches. He seemed delighted at the sight. With a broad smile, he waved away my money, clapped me on the back hard enough to knock the breath out of me, and ushered me toward the caravan.

Needless to say, I was rather confused. Was he offering to buy my sketchbook? I offered it to him, but he didn't seem interested in the book itself, only in the fact that I had it.

After several attempts to explain why he'd changed his mind, answered by nothing but baffled looks from me, Tirakhai gave up and strode off to one of the rear wagons to fetch a tall insect in a striped vest. The insect (I'm not sure of his or her name, or gender, for that matter) knew a bit of both of our languages and was able to provide rough translations.

What had excited Tirakhai was the fact that I was an artist; they're in short supply here at the tail end of the river. (That explains the state of the door this morning.) He was offering to let me pay my way with skill instead of money.

Apparently, every caravan that travels in this region of the Golden Desert needs to have an artist along because of things called the "written ones," or something like that. I confess that I only had a vague idea of what Tirakhai and the insect were saying; my command of Desert languages, even the relatively familiar Halsi, is still not as good as it should be. This is something I intend to change during this trip. Neither Tirakhai nor the insect managed a clear description of what the written ones are. The claw-and-teeth gestures they made were enough to make me slightly nervous, but I haven't heard of any exceptionally dangerous creatures in this area, and no one else in the caravan seemed particularly worried. For free passage across the Desert, I'll take my chances.

You can tell caravans that have been through this area by the large amounts of decoration on their wagons. It's become something of a status symbol, as well as giving the caravans' artists something to do while traveling. While it's necessary to have an artist for each trip, for reasons I'm still not clear about, it seems that their skills are not always in constant demand, and no caravan will bring along a passenger who doesn't either pay or work the whole time. This caravan is new to the region and, compared to the others, woefully unadorned. They intend to keep me busy.

Being mostly cloth on top, the wagons are, quite literally, a whole series of blank canvases. This should be fun.

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