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Living Water

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Imagine the usual disclaimers. (So long as we believe that Methos is a real person, how can he be owned by Davis and Panzer?) But I would like to add thanks to Owen Lattimore - author of High Tartary, Mongol Journeys and The Desert Road to Turkestan - and Mildred Cable and Francesca French - authors of The Gobi Desert - travelers in the Gobi, whose books furnished the background for this story.

Dance scene rewritten and choreographed by the artist formerly known as Amura.




Gobi desert, 1872:

When, after many stages of travel across the gravel plains of lower Dzungaria, they arrived at the oasis, the first thing they saw was a vague shimmer of green across the horizon. The caravan drivers sat up straighter, they clucked at their Chinese mules and their long pigtails seem to stiffen with anticipation. Behind the long, slow line of carts, the desert was a glare of reflected light, a blast of furnace heat, and a haze of yellow dust. Running along the northern face of the world went a line of low mountains so red and so hot that everyone called them the Hills of Fire. The carts lumbered onward, and they squeaked and they rumbled and groaned; the mules flattened their ears and brayed; along came a convoy of tiny donkeys, heaped high with boxes of melons and apricots, and a Turki on a fleet horse rode chivvying them with a whip. In mere moments they had passed the file of carts, and were trotting away - vanishing in a whirlwind of dust.

Even the flock of goats which appeared next on the horizon moved faster. Within the hour, they had caught up. They were billy-goats, horned and bearded, with long skirts of wool; their herder rode behind them. He sat slumped in his saddle, but there was a sling in his hand; if a goat strayed, he hit it with a stone as quick as thought. Soon they too had passed, and were out of sight.

The gravel of the desert seemed to be glazed, like bricks that had been baked in a kiln. The carts moved so slowly that the young wife perched on her donkey wanted to scream with frustration. She was sixteen years old, ten months married, and twenty-five hundred miles from home . . . and none of these things, alas, was as romantic as she had thought it would be.

She wanted to be in Europe, to sail to the Americas, to explore the Amazon. She wanted a slingshot of her very own. She wanted a horse that could run.

She wanted a husband closer to her own age. By, say, forty-nine centuries or so.

Some caravans carried strange cargo, and some carried treasure: bales of furs, raw silk, Bokhara carpets and Indian brocade stiff with gold and silver thread. Some carried 'water stone', raw jade, bound for the cities of China. Or sultana grapes like droplets of amber. Or bolts of cotton, cleverly knotted before dying, so that they came out spangled with little sprays of flowers and leaves. All of these things were suitably exotic. Fifteen mule-carts heaped with sheep intestines, their destination the sausage factories of Moscow - these were not.

The mules plodded remorselessly onward. Waves of heat shimmered up from the parched plain. She wanted to scream.

And then they seemed to cross an invisible frontier. Within instants, there were little rivulets gurgling on every side, overspilling their courses and flowing right across the road; the mules and the cartwheels splashed through delicious cool water. Willows and swaying poplars cast a gentle dappled shade over the green grass, which was starred with many-colored flowers. Beyond the lines of shade trees were orchards, promising a wealth of ripe fruit; beneath the eaves of the mountains lay endless vineyards, unbelievably green. The music of rustling feathers, of cheeping and twittering was heard over the harsh squeaking of the cartwheels. Winged bodies rose en masse from every bush and branch, flitting away and circling back. They had entered an oasis full of singing birds.

A mile further, and there were buildings on every side.

Along a single snakelike street, inns and eating-houses and bazaars beckoned; at the doors of the houses hung banners, red and blue. There were Chinese travelers with long grey and black robes, and tall Manchu horsemen in corduroy trousers and shining white shirts, their boot-tops polished bright; there were nomads from the Altai Mountains, colorful as parrots, who strode boldly forth because their pockets were full of gold dust; there were Turki and Kirghiz and Noghai and Kazak. This was the crossing-point of a dozen trade routes, and a hundred caravans passed through it every week.

This was Turpan. Noise and excitement breathed from its very air. She kicked her donkey until it actually cantered, and bounced in the saddle as she rode back along the line of carts. There he was! Her bridegroom, her soulmate. Her lord and master. Reins in hand, at the seat of a cart, no different from any other driver - with a floppy straw hat drooping over his face, so that she saw nothing save the prominent beak of his nose. His clothing was grey with the dust of the road. His head nodded. He was yawning.

Ayesha lashed out with her whip, and struck him in the foot. "Husband!" she shouted, over the din of the street.

He pushed back his hat, and opened one eye.

"I want a horse," said Ayesha. "A good horse, a presentable mare, a mare with good conformation and a shapely head. I want a silk dress. I want a new necklace. I want leather boots like that man is wearing, and I want a coat of quilted yellow brocade. Like that one, over there - see it! Also, I want my supper. Which is a good place to eat?"

And Methos smiled serenely upon her. "This way," he said.

So, an hour later, she was sitting on a saddle in an inn courtyard, eating noodles fried in red pepper and crushed garlic. Between bites, she cut chunks of winter melon, and swallowed them to cool her mouth. Also, there was an excellent pilau. And plenty to look at, for the courtyard was open on one side to the bazaar, and dozens of people were constantly coming and going. Methos her husband was deep in negotiations with a Chinese gentleman. Meanwhile, a stream of local farmers was parading their wares. Their wares walked swaying, high-headed, silent upon padded feet. With wooden pegs thrust through their noses. They were two-humped, heavy with curling wool. They were Bactrian camels, and Methos was going to buy her one.

Ayesha watched them, narrow-eyed. By chance, it was the first time she had been close to one. Presently she scrambled to her husband's side, and tugged on his sleeve. "Methos. Buy me a horse instead."

He murmured something to the Chinese go-between, and turned to her. "There are no good horses in this country - not like the asils of Arabia. Only mongrels, upon which you would spit, Ayesha. Trust me, a camel is better."

"I like horses more. Remember, you promised me a silk dress. Who are those children?"

Those children were a half-dozen little girls sitting in one corner of the yard, watching the world go by. They wore tiny transparent veils. Not one of them could be more than six years old. Methos spoke to the go-between, and translated the answer. ". . . there's a drought in Shansi province. The harvest failed, but the taxes still fell due . . . these are merely daughters, their parents could not afford to keep them. A Muslim merchant bought them as an act of charity. He will take them overland to Khotan, and raise them in his faith."

"And that? Who is that?"

That was a man whose cap was embroidered with silver thread. His long unbuttoned coat hung loosely from his shoulders. A few paces behind him, a small figure glided. In front, all that was visible was a thick black veil; over its head, a heavy coat was draped. The empty sleeves of the coat hung down, flopping back and forth. Anything could be under that coat and veil: a man, a woman, several people perhaps.

Methos glanced over. "Those are Uzbeks. A nomad with his wife, from the Hills of Fire."

Ayesha shuddered, imagining such a coat and veil over her own head. "There," she said, suddenly distracted; she leaned forward and clapped her hands. All talk for a moment broke off, and the inn-yard become quiet. A trio of Chinese maidens had appeared in a doorway . . . girls in scarlet and blue, green and gold; girls with demure, mirthful eyes, their faces whitened and their lips reddened, and their hair dressed as if for the court of an emperor. Ayesha scarcely breathed - too busy memorizing every detail. She was silent, intent, until this vision from innermost China had crossed the courtyard and glided away down the street, and then she drew a deep sigh and spoke with conviction. "I want a dress just like that."

"Tomorrow," Methos promised.

"Today!" said Ayesha in confidence and joy. Then she returned her attention to the matter at hand. "Anyway, these are not camels," she said.

"They're not the dromedaries you're familiar with. These are the camels of the north."

"I tell you, these are not camels," Ayesha insisted. She pointed an accusing finger. "I know camels. Look at their deformed backs! Two humps! They are trying to cheat you with inferior animals--"

"Shhh," said Methos soothingly, and he gathered her small hand into his two large hands, and kissed the tips of her fingers. "You're weary, the road has been long. Soon we shall rest in our comfortable bed." The camel-handlers grinned and crowded closer, talking in the Turki speech which by now she half-understood. Methos had already chosen a beast for himself, not for hire but to buy outright: a cow-camel with thick brown wool, her sides swollen with the calf she would drop at midwinter. "You must say goodbye to the cart-drivers, Ayesha, for tomorrow we part ways. Now we are going to hire a bash, a caravan-master. He will take us on the next few stages, in the direction of Pichan oasis. And from there, we will strike out across little-traveled roads."

"From oasis to oasis?" Ayesha asked.

"From waterhole to waterhole, now," he said. "Where we are bound, there are no more great oases. Even a spring too small to water more than a single caravan is treasured in the Gobi . . . We'll carry our own water, on the backs of our camels."

"And where are we bound?"

"Into the desert of Lob." He spoke gently to the go-between, gestured toward the waiting camels. They rose and went together, to examine a black beast more closely; its handler turned it in a circle, its head swaying high. With keen eyes, Ayesha noted the harness-galls upon its flanks, and the weeping wounds where ticks had fed to bursting. Methos murmured, and the handler lifted one of his beast's feet. The pads thus exposed were worn raw, with rough red blisters. "Enough," said Ayesha's husband mildly, "we want a healthier creature," and the man's face fell.

"Pan Chao has found us a bash," Methos continued, to Ayesha, "who will guide us across the desert. It's been more than two hundred years since I was last along this road . . . some of the water-holes will certainly have changed. An experienced bash may be the difference between life and death."

Ayesha did not reply; she was gazing at the camels upon display. Suddenly she pointed. "There. Buy me that one, Methos."

It was certainly the most handsome camel in the courtyard. More, it was the only camel lacking saddle-sores and the marks of hard work; indeed, it was fat and sleek and bright-eyed. Its owner beamed as he led it forward.

"Bayartai!" he cried. "I see you have discerning eyes. You are a Russian?"

"An Englishman," said Ayesha's husband.

"Ah! Queen Victoria? King Albert?"

"Queen Victoria," Methos agreed. "And Prince Albert."

"And your beautiful wife, she is also an Englishman?"

"No, an Arab from Egypt," Methos said. And the camel's owner showed white round the rims of his eyes; for throughout northern Asia, the word Arab was synonymous with "African savage".

"No man is fortunate in all things," he said wisely. "At least she is not black-faced. But here, here is the camel of a man's dreams. Look upon it, and be consoled!"

Certainly it was a beautiful camel; even the peg through its nose seemed to shine. While it stood chewing its cud, long-lashed eyes shut in boredom, the seller squeezed finger and thumb together in appreciation. He raised his eyes to heaven, he bounced up and down on his heels, he called upon Allah as his witness; he was a comic figure next to his drowsy beast. Loudly, he extolled its virtues. "See these fat humps, the gloss upon the wool. There's not a blemish to be found here, though you search from nose to tail. See . . . see . . . just seven years old! fit to work for another fifty years! able to carry a thousand pounds upon this strong back!" Here he thumped the camel's back, and the camel opened both eyes wide and grunted. "Indeed, he will carry for you ten months without rest, and then provide you with a half-picul of valuable wool--"

Methos bent over and peered. "Is this a bull-camel? With the rut season coming on?"

"Never think it! It is a gelding, the finest of geldings. Upon such a camel, Mary bore the baby Jesus into Egypt!" (Even though the stranger was an infidel from England, he was a Christian and, thus, not an idol-worshiper - and his money was as good as any other man's.) "Upon such, the Prophet must have ridden to Mecca." And he bowed to the ground, as he offered the ultimate inducement: "Upon such a camel, Queen Victoria herself surely rides to her tent every night!"

Ayesha burst out laughing and clapped her hands. "Oh, I want it, I want it, I want it!" And the camel's owner smiled complacently, revising his price upward.

"I'm not so sure." Methos seemed more dubious. "Why is it the only camel here that shows no signs of work?"

"Upon such a camel," the seller cried, "imagine your beautiful Arabian, enthroned in her litter - like a polished moondrop in a coffer of sandalwood!"

"Too expensive," said Methos with a shrug. He began to turn away. Ayesha, however, was envisioning herself enthroned in a litter, high above the crowd. Clad in a silk dress. The idol of all eyes. As with the camel-litters of the Arabian desert, upon which the wives of the Beduin rode in state: lofty confections of wickerwork, hung about with ostrich feathers.

She caught her husband's arm, and shook it urgently.

"You said I could pick my own!"

"I did not."

"You did, you did!" She blinked, bringing a sparkle of tears to her eyes. "You don't trust my judgement."

"Where Bactrian camels are concerned? Of course I don't." Methos crooked his finger. "Let's look at that one."

The owner of the cow-camel he indicated hurried over, dragging his wares behind him; the cow-camel came slowly, stretching out its thick-maned neck and walking reluctantly with shut eyes. It moaned as it did so. The owner of the gelding began indignantly to protest.

"Look at those sagging humps," Ayesha hissed. "Flat as my great-grandmother's breasts. You think I don't know camels? All my life, I have known camels. I was raised on camel-back. I was born upon a camel!"

"You were born in your mother's four-poster bed in Alexandria," said Methos, "and I delivered you!"

"Must you always bring that up?" Her voice rose. "I am no more than that Uzbek wife in her veils - bought and sold like livestock." She poked the cow-camel in the neck. "Skinny as a--"

The cow-camel wrinkled back its upper lip. Then it swung its head about, so that it looked Ayesha in the eye. And sneezed. And sneezed, and sneezed.

Silence fell. Methos and the Chinese gentleman and the camel-sellers stood frozen, gazing at the small figure now covered from head to foot in evil green slime. The stench alone was unbelievable. Ayesha's face was screwed up, her lips tightly shut. Abruptly, she began to cough and spit. Through the splatters which so generously painted her face, her lustrous eyes appeared.

They gazed out of the mask of camel mucus, and yet their expression was undaunted. Indeed, they held a dawning triumph. Ayesha wiped her lips, and said, "I think we are buying the other one instead, yes? And a whole new outfit for me. Now."










"You married me for my money," she accused, later.

This was a refrain which Methos had been hearing for three months now. He shrugged, bending over the mud bed in their inn-room; he was strapping up a baggage-roll. "Ayesha, you don't have any money."

"For my father's wealth, then. I should have suspected from the beginning." She stood at the foot of the bed, resplendent in her new clothes - complete down to maroon leather riding-boots stitched with gaudy pink and yellow. Above these boots (which had been made for her in the course of the afternoon) she wore the fantastic garb of an Altai nomad boy. Her long belted robe was of scarlet brocade, her coat was yellow satin, and its buttons were made of solid gold. The sash laced tightly round her slender waist was heavily embroidered, hung with silver chains and strings of cornelian beads. Even her hat was a vision of blue brocade, lined with silk, draped with baubles and dangles and gauds. Over all this grandeur she had draped an elaborately knotted silken cord terminating in a mutton-fat jade pendant five inches across.

Methos snorted. "Just remember - the bride-price I paid for you was higher than had been heard of in the whole history of Alexandria."

"Yes, and why? I find it very suspicious. No bargaining, no offer of payment in installations; down you slapped the money, and how could my father refuse? It smacks of a rushed sale to me." She spread her arms, dramatically. "You could have bought a sultan's only daughter, a princess hung with rubies like pigeon eggs. I am only a skinny girl." And Ayesha lifted her robe, to pinch her flat stomach. "Barely enough flesh here to dance the belly-roll. Why the hurry?"

"Because I wanted to get my offer in ahead of the rush," said Methos. "There were already two Turkish bankers and five merchants saving up their money. Not to mention Sheik Ahmed. You remember Ahmed? The one with the six prior wives and the eleven children? The one who owned twenty-five towns on the Euphrates?"

"Bah. His sons were older than I am. I had no wish to be Wife Number Seven. Methos, that reminds me. Where is the kingdom of Hunza?"

"Hunza? That's two months behind us - a river valley, on the headwaters of the Yarkand. Why mention it?"

"Joachim comes from the kingdom of Hunza," Ayesha explained. Joachim was the new bash, the camel-puller who had been engaged to guide them to Pichan. "He told me so yesterday evening. He says he is really the son of the King of Hunza. A younger son, but beloved. He says he would be in Hunza yet, but his people have been oppressed by the evil Russian army and its Cossack lackeys, and so he was forced to flee and abandon his inheritance. It's very sad. He likes me. He gave me a woven grass bracelet, and three cigarettes."

Methos straightened up and stared at her. "Oh, really?"

Proudly, she exhibited the bracelet round her wrist. "Did you look at him? He has eyelashes this long, top and bottom. He said I was as sweet as a singing lark."

"Oh. Really."

"And the Uzbek we saw in the innyard is named Ma Cuchi, and his wife is called Janasta. They're traveling to Pichan, too. The innkeeper says so. Ma Cuchi used to work in the copper mines north of here, but there's no more copper anymore and now he will go anywhere there might be work."

"Now, that," said Methos, yanking the knots tight on the baggage roll, "I did know. I'm ready. Are you ready?"

She thrust out her lower lip. "I am no real wife for you."

Methos stopped. "Ayesha. Of course you are."

She stood forlornly beside the empty bed: so young, he thought, that it could break a man's heart. He had seen her born, watched her rush through childhood; she always hurried, always. Her lips were quivering. He folded her in his arms, and she came to life and wound herself around him, stroking him with delicate, hesitant pats - exploring his body with tremulous fingers. "Why am I not your wife yet?" She kissed the underside of his chin, nibbled along his throat, pressed her mouth into the open neck of his shirt. All the while, she babbled on. "It's been so many months. We kiss, we play - why no more? - aren't I what you want? - why am I still as virgin as Mary when she rode to Egypt?"

"Ah, but there's a difference," Methos said, to the top of her head. "Mary was riding a camel to Egypt. You're riding a camel away from it."

"Don't laugh at me anymore!"

"I'm not laughing, I'm waiting." He tilted her chin up, smiled crookedly down into her face. "You're the one who's not ready yet. Little Ayesha. Every time, you come to the very brink and draw back. You get frightened. But soon, it will be time."

"Very soon?" asked Ayesha, wide-eyed.

"Almost too soon," he said. "Come, wife."

It was not yet four o'clock in the morning, but already the inn-yard was full of activity. Torches burned bright, and there lay six camels in two neat rows of three, mumbling to themselves as they waited to be loaded. Two now belonged outright to Methos and Ayesha, and the remainder had been hired as far as Pichan - after which, according to the local custom, they would be left for their owner to collect, and fresh camels would have to be found. The Uzbek nomad in his silver-embroidered cap sat yawning over a bowl of cold noodles; on one side of him stood his bullock, covered with bags and bundles, and on the other side of him stood his wife, covered in coat and veil. A dozen donkeys dozed beside the street-entrance. And here came Joachim the camel-puller, he of the long eyelashes and the equally long mustaches - a dapper figure in his sash of patterned chintz. Over this, unbuttoned, he wore a long bulky chapan: the Gobi native's coat of sheepskin with the fleece turned inside. There was a knife sheathed in his boot-top, and his cap had a shaggy fur brim.

While Methos went to settle with the innkeeper, Ayesha helped Joachim load the camels. It was a job for two to do: one worker loaded from either side, so that the baggage was balanced. Each camel meekly accepted being heaped with heavy bags - several hundred pounds worth per camel - but throughout the process they grumbled and moaned and groaned with woe. Joachim, whistling between his teeth, ignored them . . . until the moment came when each camel in turn fell mysteriously silent. This was the point at which they were fully loaded, and every good camel-puller knew it. The instant the camel he was loading ceased to protest, Joachim stopped and moved on to the next beast in the line.

One camel, two camels. Methos returned, carrying two gourds of water and several earthenware mugs of hot buttered tea. Ayesha tied a water-gourd to her belt, and sat down to cradle her mug in both hands, blowing on the tea to cool it. Another caravan was already heading out - passing beyond the street entrance, camel after camel in a long double file; eighteen camels to a rope, and a camel-puller at the head of each rope of plodding beasts. A bell clanged round the neck of the last camel in each rope. They were loaded with coffins, doubtless those of Chinese corpses being carried home for burial. Four coffins to a camel, and the camels resembled huge crates with moving legs. Their feet padded silently through the dust. But the sound of their teeth grating was loud.

Three camels, four camels. Methos was helping Joachim now. Out of the inn came a bevy of Chinese maidens . . . not quite so vivacious and colorful as they had been the night before. Their faces drooped beneath the paint, their gay silk dresses were muffled under heavy cloaks, and an older woman shooed them along like a hen with eleven chicks. One by one, they climbed aboard their donkeys. Evidently they, too, were going to Pichan.

Five camels. The sixth was the gelding belonging to Ayesha, and it was evidently a canny beast, for it fell silent before it had half as much load strapped on as the others, and then it swivelled its head and cast a melting glance upon Joachim. Joachim looked back, with his lips set in a thin line. He raised one fist, and the camel looked hastily away and growled like a bulldog. The camel-puller heaped a few more sacks on, and the gelding fell silent; again the charade was repeated.

Again, Joachim resumed loading the beast. Sacks of flour, rolls of tenting, gourds of rape-oil, and the expedition's extra water: this last being chunks of mountain ice packed in straw . . . More and more was piled on.

The Uzbek tribesman, finishing his breakfast, checked his bullock's harness and gave an order to his wife. She, in turn, came obediently toward Ayesha. A murmur came from under her garments, and then one of her hands appeared. She was holding out a cotton bag.

There was the murmur again. It was a friendly chirrup, welcoming Ayesha to share.

Ayesha, very surprised, raised her eyes to heaven and called politely upon Allah. She put her hand into the bag, and withdrew several soft brown jujubes.

One of the Chinese maidens sat nearby on her mule. She was the one who had particularly caught Ayesha's eye the evening before, for she was like nothing so much as a butterfly - a brilliant, fragile butterfly, all scarlet and gold. She cast one look at the jujubes out of great velvet-black eyes, and then clapped both hands over her mouth.

"Ayesha!" said Methos, from the gelding's side. "Come here!"

There was a smug grin lurking on his face. The camel was fully loaded; though it was still lying down, the mound of baggage aboard its back seemed to loom taller than Ayesha. Hung from one flank was a narrow wooden box of approximately the dimensions of a laundry hamper - just deep enough for a woman to sit crosslegged in. It had a door with a latticed grill and a heavy inner latch.

"The camel-litter," said Joachim, holding the door invitingly open. "In which you may ride in safety and comfort."

Ayesha's mouth dropped open. A vision of Beduin camel-litters crossed her mind, and then she thought of a ten-hour march. Shut in a box.

"There's a cushion," said Joachim, as if coaxing a very small child. He patted the cushion. A cloud of dust arose.

"I'll walk," said Ayesha. She cast a glance at her husband, who was now smirking from ear to ear. Methos winked at her. He called over to the Uzbek couple, greeting them in the Prophet's name and asking a question. The Uzbek man's mahogany face creased in a smile, and the Uzbek wife came willingly and folded herself into the camel-litter. Something moved, squalling, within the recesses of her coat and veil; dimly to be seen, it was a very young child. The Uzbek woman settled her baby in her lap, and swung the door shut upon herself.

"We go!" cried Joachim, and he shouted, "Ush ush!" and twisted the rope tied to the camel's nose-peg.

All around, the camels came lumbering to their great splayed feet. The gelding growled loudly, heaved itself up onto forelegs like iron springs. Its enormous and ugly head went down between its forefeet, bowing almost to the ground. It gathered its hindlegs under it. Up and up its quarters rose, and the burden strapped across its back lurched like a ship on the waves.

The Uzbek woman screamed and came tumbling out of her box, into her husband's arms.

The gelding raised its nose to the skies, and bellowed. Cud sprayed across the innyard. Then the camel collapsed like a heap of ruins.

"We go!" said Methos.










The first stage was nine hours long. They traveled through the length of the cool winter day, with Joachim trudging in front of the little caravan - walking at a slant, ploughing sand with every step, hauling on the lead camel's rope. While behind him the camels paced, single file. Each camel was tied with a string around the peg through its nose to the camel which walked before it.

The water at the end of this stage was a well sunk in the plain, with tall poplars standing all around it, and a mud-brick inn.

The water at the end of the second stage was a spring welling out of a cliff, which ran for a few paces and then vanished as suddenly as it had appeared - sinking away into the loose sand without a trace.

The water at the end of the third stage was a muddy hole beside a boulder shaped like a ram's head. They arrived in its vicinity long after nightfall, having walked thirteen hours to reach it. The camels lay down in two neat rows, and dozed. Everyone else separated, to search grimly in the dark. They were hungry and thirsty and desperately tired. But there was no rest for them, until at last Ayesha fell into the water-hole.

There was no water at the end of the fourth day's march. It was a dry stage, and though Joachim kept them walking from long before dawn until long after dark, when they rested it was with no more comfort than the water they had brought with them. They had filled their gourds at the last waterhole, but that water was bitter with salt and ammonia. The Chinese girls had not brought along the means to carry extra water for their donkeys, and those poor beasts bawled mournfully, standing huddled together in the dark . . . until Methos donated them a sack of ice.

The end of the fifth stage was paradise.

They reached it beneath a golden sky. A haze of windborne sand burned from horizon to horizon, and the sun sinking in the west was a ball of bloody fire. Scarlet streaks spread wide. And as the sky was golden, so was the world below. The gravel plains of the Gobi, normally black, mellowed to the color of demerara sugar, and the folk of the little caravan trudging across its immensity were like matchstick figures, too tiny for words. Ahead lay a cliff full of notches - through which, as they neared it, gleamed streaks of glittering light - which was pierced by an archway. It was a crenelated wall, fifty feet high, which trailed for more than half a mile before falling to ruins. Behind the empty archway lay the shells of deserted buildings.

Pigeons flew through the windows of the abandoned city. Just through the gate, across a bazaar square adrift with dunes of sand, a round dome rose to a pinnacle. Sand lay against its foundations, and whenever the wind blew, a fine rain of sand fell across the entire city.

The camels meandered to a halt, and stood impassively daydreaming. Ayesha blinked sand from her eyelashes, and looked for her husband. There he stood, under the arch of the ancient gateway, gazing blindly at something only he could see; and she thought she heard him mutter, "I remember, I remember. This was Tso-moh, in the kingdom of Che-mo-t'o-na."

Joachim had gone ahead. Ayesha took Methos by the hand and led him onward into the city which had been Tso-moh, in the kingdom of Che-mo-t'o-na. Beyond the wreckage of its towers, a tiny village was all that remained; there was an inn and three or four houses, and gardens which spread out where streets had been. The only water remaining in the whole city was a spring which bubbled up in a perfectly round pool just five paces across. This water shimmered like the very finest wine; the surface of the pool danced and trembled with great bubbles constantly streaming up to burst when they met the air. Joachim knelt on the edge of the pool, lifting cupped handfuls of this cool water to his lips - not to drink, merely to kiss. He looked around as the others approached. "We must pray," he said. "The greatest treasure of the desert is found in springs like this - this, which we call 'living water'."

They rested for a day beside the living water. Ayesha spent a morning exploring, and then grew bored and began to wander along, kicking at stones. She muttered to herself, and lamented the tragedy which was her life. Her mother had been a French gentlewoman, her father a sheik who had abandoned the desert for the woman he loved . . . and here was their daughter, abandoned, in a desert. With such parents for an example, wasn't she entitled to a little romance? Why was she tied to a man who didn't want her?

There was Joachim, searching the sand dunes. Ayesha felt her face brighten. Joachim wanted her; he blushed when she looked upon him, he trembled when his hand touched hers. Joachim wouldn't pat her on the head, or grin when she was serious. She had power over Joachim.

As she hurried over to him, he held out a crude woven platter. Within lay a heap of sandy relicts . . . glass beads, bits of flint, a porcelain spoon glazed with blue peonies. A wooden key. And dozens of green-tinged copper coins.

He smiled at her. "This desert, children call the Treasure Haunts. Deserted cities are everywhere you go, old houses, abandoned towns - and deep in the Lob, is the ruined City of the Dragon. No caravan has ever found it and returned. Whenever the wind blows sand off the dunes, a lost world is exposed. Every dune-face is heaped with old things." With a dirty fingertip, he stirred his loot; and Ayesha bent closer, entranced. The coins seemed to sparkle and dance before her eyes.

"Money?" she said.

"Worthless old money. Of course, that means nothing to you. You have a rich husband, who spills gold between his fingers." He shrugged. "Fortunate man."

"The beads are beautiful. What will you do with them?" she asked hopefully.

"Sell them in Pichan," he answered, and Ayesha's face fell. He went on, not noticing, "There was a Russian scientist there a few years ago, and perhaps he has come back this year. A madman, named Prjevalsky. People say he would pay for all old things like these." Suddenly he had put the basket aside, and was standing very close to her. His fingers crept round hers, pinning them in his hold. "Why are we talking about this? Night after night I see you sit at the camp-fire, with a sad face, poor little wife. With your rich husband, who does not content you. Your hands are cold. I can warm them. Come walk with me, where the sand-jujubes scent the air."

"I will!" said Ayesha.

They walked out into the desert, far from the sight and sound of mankind. Perhaps ten minutes passed. Then back they came, with Ayesha far in the forefront. Her chin was stuck out and her little nose pointed haughtily skyward. Joachim hobbled further and further behind her - with one hand held over his eye. With his nose streaming blood down his chin. With a peculiar stiff-legged, bent-over, painful gait.

She left him at the city gate, casting back one glance of awful scorn, and all alone she stalked to the inn by the wellspring. There, in the dim and cockroach-infested common room, she found Janasta the Uzbek wife, sitting by the mud-brick stove and nursing her baby; there too was the Chinese butterfly in her scarlet-and-gold dress. This girl did not look like a butterfly anymore - her pretty face was pinched, her eyes swollen and red. And at the sound of Ayesha's footfall, she flinched as if from a threat. "Men!" said Ayesha. "The tools of Satan, every mother's son! They are all pigs, and the sons of dogs, and may pigs and dogs desecrate seven generations of their graves!"

The Chinese butterfly turned a stricken look upon her. Then she ran headlong out of the room.

Ayesha stood open-mouthed. "What did I do?" she asked.

From the mud bench beside the warm stove, there came a rustling as Janasta turned her head. Her black veil lay over her face like a shroud, and poured down to puddle in stiff folds across her lap; the child was a squirming lump beneath it. But the voice which emerged from the veil was clear and musical. "You did nothing, Egyptian. Little Tien Sin is merely unhappy because of life. Also, the innkeeper here says the eastern road is infested with bandits, and so her mistress has decided that tomorrow they will set out along the south way. Tien Sin is convinced she will perish here, amidst savage lands and wild hills."

Tien Sin: Ayesha found the words familiar. Tien Sin meant "A Fragment of My Heart" - indeed, Ayesha had seen those ideograms written many times. In gold, upon red paper, on the wrappings of the little cakes which were sold in every large oasis town. Those were festival delicacies, shipped at tremendous price from inner China.

"That isn't a name," she said, sitting down beside Janasta.

"It is the name given to her," Janasta said, "by that old woman, who bought her in Shansi for the price of a silver tael."

"What?"

"There is a drought in Shansi," said Janasta, "and the farmers are selling their daughters. All those girls were bought there. They will go to Pichan, where that old woman's brother has an inn. The other girls are resigned: it is their destiny, they say. Only little Tien Sin rebels. I have been spat out of the mouth of China, she says; she says, I will die unhappy in this foreign land, and no one will pay for my coffin's passage home. She has shown me the bruises on her arms, where her owner has pinched her black and blue." She shook her head - it was a vague movement through the muffling layers of cloth. "Allah deliver her, I say. And thanks be to Allah that I have a good husband, who prizes and protects me."

She seemed to look cautiously right and left. Then, finding no men in the offing, she shrugged off her coat and lifted her veil. The face thus revealed was rosy-cheeked and young, glowing with happiness and health. She cuddled her son; and her son lifted his own face, all smeared with milk and spit, and crowed aloud until the room rang with the sound of joy.










"Methos!" panted Ayesha, skidding to a stop. "Methos, Methos."

The six camels, kneeling at rest, chewed their cud and slobbered. They had just been fed a ration of crushed peas and rape oil. Also, they had been eating the withered wild onions of the desert, and the stench of their bodies was unusually powerful. Methos sat nearby, smoking ephedra leaves in a bone pipe. Thin wisps of blue smoke wreathed his head, his hair stood on end in filthy ash-colored spikes. He turned and gazed at her.

"It's as I suspected," he remarked. "Your gelding has the splay feet of a camel reared in sandy country. This gravel footing has raised blood blisters on all four of his feet. We have to lance them, and then he'll squirt with every step he takes."

"Methos, where is our money? Will you give it to me?"

"And I suspect he may be a bad camel. That would be why he shows no signs of hard work. The sort of evil camel that goes wild upon the road, breaks his lead-rope and gallops away with half a caravan in his wake."

"I want three dollars Chinese," she explained. "A tael is an ounce of silver, isn't it - a dollar and a third. Three dollars should be enough to buy Tien Sin."

"You want to buy a maidservant?" Methos inquired.

"No, no. Don't ask stupid questions. Just give me the purse."

She sat next to him, pressing herself against him before she began to dig and delve in his pockets. Methos grinned, and put an arm around her. "I saw Joachim just now. He'll hobble for a week."

"Oh, that," said Ayesha dismissively.

"If he'd asked me, I could have told him you weren't in season yet."

The thought crossed her mind that he, too, could be hit where it hurt. But she contented herself with making a cut-throat gesture, hissing, "Remember, I know how you can die. Give me our purse, Methos!"

He produced a calfskin bag. Ayesha pounced upon it. An instant later, a cry of woe rang out - so anguished, that all the camels turned their heads in surprise.

"Methos! Where is our money?"

"Gone," said Methos, taking the pipe out of his mouth. "All gone, down to the last copper cash. Spent upon the expenses of the road. Jade necklaces, emerald eardrops, silver chains and jackets with solid gold buttons. And useless camels with bad feet, bought for twice the usual price."

Stricken, Ayesha sat gazing into his face. They were impoverished! Less than beggars upon the road, half a world away from home. Why was he looking back at her with such serenity?

"Oh Methos," she wailed, "my father said you were rich! He did, he did! What about the monies that you had banked in Paris?"

"That's gone too. To pay the greatest bride-price ever heard of in Alexandria."

"We're ruined." She could hardly believe it. "Ruined - and I don't even have a silk dress to show for it! Methos, what will we do?"

"I don't know," said Methos, interested. "What will we do?"










It is the peculiarity of opium-smoking that while a strong man is not weakened by it so long as he leads a healthy outdoor life, a woman who smokes is left scrawny and aged before she has seen twenty-five years go by. The woman whom the Chinese girls called Eldest Sister, although little more than thirty, was therefore as wrinkled as a grandmother of eighty, and her complexion had an unsavory blue cast. And she mused, as she sat in her tent and warmed herself at a smouldering fire, on the evils of life . . . which could be cured by opium. Only by opium.

Even now, one of her Shansi girls was preparing a pipe for her. The old woman held out her thin hands to the fire, and dreamed of a return to Chih-li province where she was born. To Pao-ting Fu, in Chih-li province. But a merchant must go where the merchandise is cheap, and a merchant in flesh must travel to provinces stricken by misfortune; there, the flower of young womanhood is ready for the picking.

"Hey, little daughter, hurry along," she said sharply, "or your knuckles will sting all day," and the girl with the pipe shrugged boldly, and muttered at her, "Yu-tsuei! evil old Jade Mouth."

Something fell glinting out of midair, and landed in Eldest Sister's skirts.

It was a golden button. Another arrived beside it, and as the old woman scrabbled them into her clawed hands, blinking in disbelief, down fell a shower of treasure: more buttons, and chiming chains of precious metal, a flat chased amulet of most valuable - most valuable! - mutton-fat jade, and bright earrings with blue-diamond chips set around winking emeralds. And baubles. Dangles. Gauds. Beads. Even enamel boot-buckles. And by the time the last button dropped into the procuress' hands, she looked up into the eyes of Ayesha.

Ayesha stood with arms akimbo, her buttonless coat hanging loose. Every bit of jewelry she owned had been stripped off her garments - but brighter and harder than any gold buttons was the glitter in her eyes. At her right hand lurked Ma Cuchi the Uzbek nomad, his cap raffishly aslant; he was picking his teeth with a knife the size of a machete. At her left hand stood Methos. He held his sword in one fist, and in the other hand was Ayesha's own carbine gun which had been a wedding present from her father.

Ayesha purred, and Ma Cuchi translated: "Old mother, here is a tael of gold - several taels worth - and much more, enough to keep you in opium for a year. Indeed, the price of the jade alone would buy a camel-load of pipes." Ayesha snapped her fingers, her words dripping disdain. "Old mother, look at them and drool," translated the Uzbek (who was enjoying himself thoroughly) and then: "Look at the wealth! It is not yours. It could be yours, but it is mine. Now - give it back!"

The hag cried out in instinctive protest, as the girl with the glittering eyes suddenly launched herself forward; then Ayesha was knee to knee with her, laughing cruelly as she snatched up trinket after trinket. She flourished them under Eldest Sister's nose, evading every effort the befuddled opium addict made to hide the buttons away in her skirts. "Aha!" cried Ayesha. "No no, you scrawny vulture, these are not for you!" And she thrust out her hands, dripping with chains which caught and sparkled in the firelight. "You want them?" the Uzbek man translated.

"Yes, yes!" cried Eldest Sister, confused yet avaricious. "Give them back!"

"You have something I want," said Ayesha, and was translated. "An insignificant nothing." Casually, she let a button fall between her fingers. "Less than trash." Another button. Eldest Sister gloated over them, biting down on a button to test its worth and purity. "Not so much as the fuel for your fire." Ayesha turned her hands over, pouring out a stream of jewelry. "Sell me the girl Tien Sin."

Eldest Sister's face closed like a box. "Tien Sin? Who is like my own daughter? For whom, out of the goodness of my heart, I threw away twelve taels to redeem her from starvation--"

Methos suddenly crouched, bringing the sword and the carbine very close. He spoke in idiomatic Mandarin, the dialect of her home province. "I hear the accent of Pao-ting Fu city. They say, Ten Oily Men from Peking are not the equal of one Boastful Mouth from Tientsin, and ten Boastful Mouths are not the equal of one Madame of Pao-ting Fu. Beware, for my wife is the daughter of the Prince of Alexandria, a city greater than Roum. Her father's soldiers are beyond number, and his power incalculable. If you do not immediately give her what she wants, in her wrath she will shoot her terrible carbine, shutting forever that evil old mouth of yours."

"One button," drawled Ayesha, seeing her enemy tremble. "For one button, I will take Tien Sin - and her donkey too!"

"No!" cried Eldest Sister, seeing her investment vanish, "not the donkey too!"

"Yes, even the donkey," said Ayesha inexorably. "And the harness and saddle upon it."

"It is too much, too much! I am ruined!"

Ayesha flicked a glance sideways, and saw her husband's face. He wore a look which she recognized as a desperate attempt not to laugh.

"Oh, all right," she said, with great condescension. She rose, dusting off her hands, and haughtily puffed a breath at her fingertips. "Keep the donkey. The silk dress she wears, though, is mine. Come, husband; come, Ma Cuchi. Before I begin to regret this bargain."








Before dawn the next morning, their party set out again into the wilderness of Lob. First went a camel-puller with a racoon-ringed eye, a swollen red nose, and a sulky air of ill-use. Behind him trudged five cow-camels, named unceremoniously for their order in the file: Yi, Er, San, Si, Wu. One, Two, Three, Four, and Five. Through the lashings of Yi's load was thrust a short spear tasseled with red wool just below the point, marking the procession as a proper camel-caravan. They gurgled and burbled and conversed as they walked. Last in line came the gelding belonging to Ayesha - lightly loaded and kept behind the cows, lest he break his nose-string and gallop away during the march. The bell hung round his neck swung and clanged, he groaned out loud with every step, and every now and then he ground his teeth so violently that they grated like iron on whetstone; it was no wonder that Methos had named him Yi Wa-Wa!

The bullock led by Ma Cuchi walked quietly in the wake of the camels. Janasta muffled in her heavy folds of cloth accompanied her husband. Methos walked sometimes with them, sometimes further up the line. In the litter slung upon one of the cow-camels perched little Tien Sin, clad like a ragamuffin, singing with joy. And there, atop the lead camel with her feet planted on the ceremonial spear, rode Ayesha. In the scarlet-and-gold gown of a Chinese prostitute.

They left a line of bloodstained prints behind them. Before setting out, Methos and Joachim and Ma Cuchi had pinned down each of the gelding's legs in turn and lanced the big blisters in his feet. They had not lanced them from the bottoms of the pads, but jabbed the lancet in from the side; the objective was to bleed them, not to lame poor Yi Wa-Wa.

Released, Yi Wa-Wa had scrambled madly to his feet, and began to stamp. Buckets of blood had sprayed out. The fever had gone down in his hoof pads within the day, Joachim and Methos both agreed on that. But a camel with a sore pad is like no other animal on earth; instead of favoring the tender place, he is so contrary that every few steps, he will stomp wildly just where it hurts. Every time Yi Wa-Wa stomped, a thin stream of blood squirted across the trail.

The caravan did not slow for him. Indeed, after Methos noticed that the gelding was stamping whenever a human being came within splattering range, the caravan cursed him and watched him with a jaundiced eye. And Yi Wa-Wa, curling his long camel underlip, drooled and spat green slime.

The waterhole at the end of the first stage was called Eyelash Oasis. The end of the second stage was named Gates of Sand; the end of the third stage was Salty Well Halt. The next seven stages were dry ones, and they were bitter too. By the end of the sixth stage, the water in their baggage was gone. They had not had enough to water the camels, who could walk forever and a day - so Joachim swore - as long as they were given a good dose of rapeseed oil every morning and night. But by the close of the seventh march, the bullock was lagging far behind the file of camels, and Ma Cuchi crooned over it and watched it anxiously. As for the camels, they were showing signs of distress: walking more and more slowly, dragging their heads so that their nose-strings pulled and the pegs through their noses worried and chafed the flesh.

Ayesha walked in a dream. No one rode now; the camels could not bear the burden. By the afternoon of the seventh day all she could think of was water. Her throat had swollen shut, her tongue was covered with fuzz. She sucked on a pebble, and Methos walked at her side and watched her protectively - mile after endless unreeling mile, across the gravel plain. Beneath the haze of yellow which was the sky, and the dim scarlet globe of the sun. When evening came he said, "Ayesha, ride on my back," and let her climb on, piggyback like a monkey. She was so much smaller that he could carry her without seeming to work at it. Ayesha wound her legs round his waist and her arms round his shoulders, laid her head down, and dozed.

The caravan walked on and on. She roused when they crossed a dune of singing sand, which bellowed beneath their feet like a bull camel in rut. "That's camel sand," she remarked, vaguely.

"That it is," her husband agreed.

"Methos, aren't you tired yet?"

"No. You aren't heavy. Besides, immortals have more endurance than mortal men."

"This desert is almost as terrible as the Empty Quarter."

"More terrible," Methos disagreed, "because there are no bandits in the Empty Quarter. The bandits of the Gobi raid for camels and yaks . . . their trick is to swoop down upon a camp at night and knock over the tent, while all within are sleeping. Before they can put up a fight. Then the bandits use hammers on the tent, until nothing living is left inside."

Ayesha shivered, imagining herself in such straits.

"And also the Lob is haunted, it has been haunted for as long as I remember. Restless spirits wander the sand-hillocks, local people call them Azghun. They lust after the flesh of the living, they will return from the dead if they can. If a camel-puller is separated from his mates, he will hear their voices calling out to him. And the ringing of phantom camel-bells, just over the next sand dune. But if he is tricked and follows them, they only lead him into waterless wastelands, where he perishes."

"Have you heard them?" she asked.

"Yes, once. And another time, I heard the clashing of swords and the trumpets of an army in pitched battle. It's like a memory that lingers from long ago. If you dig beneath the sand dunes, you'll find hundreds of bronze arrowheads lying scattered. But the whole Lob is not as desolate as it seems. See those dead trees against the horizon? There was water there only a few years ago. Those are false phoenix trees."

She thought about this, looking at the trees. "Are there true phoenix trees?"

"In the deep desert there are. But they are difficult to find, indistinguishable from the false ones."

"Then how do you know those are false phoenix trees?"

"Because no phoenix has ever been seen roosting in one."

"Methos, I love you more than anyone else alive," she replied drowsily, "even though you have made me a beggar, and for that I will never, never forgive you."

"I can live with that," Methos said.

She fell asleep, and dreamed of water.

When she woke, it was long after dark. The camels had gone quiet; their silence had wakened her as no outcry could have. They knelt in the moonlight, parked in their two neat rows, and the weary bullock lay beside them. Ayesha found that she was lying on the wrapped felt bundle which was their tent. She sat up, her head spinning. There was the sound of cheerful masculine voices, and there past her shuffled a donkey, pulling on a long rope. A very old woman was leading it. As Ayesha sat numbly watching it, away it walked into the shadows . . . on and on, almost fifty feet. The donkey halted and put its head down; the old woman cackled, praising it in Turki; Ayesha turned to look along the rope.

At the other end of the rope was an arrangement of beams with two clumsy wooden wheels rigged on it. The rope ran under the first wheel, straight up, and over the second wheel. Then straight down. There was a hole in the ground, and a leather bucket hanging from the end of the rope. A dimly-glimpsed figure unhooked the bucket, tilted it to drink, and then came toward Ayesha. It was her husband.

He upended the bucket and drenched her with water. Ayesha flung her arms straight out, dripping, and burst into a peal of delighted laughter.










In daylight, the waterhole called One Donkey Well was composed of meager fields spread around a sagging mud house. Nothing grew in the vicinity except brown desert grass, in stringy clumps seven or eight feet high. The roof of the solitary house was thatched with desert grass, and the sand-dunes that threatened the gardens were held back by nets woven from desert grass; within, the walls were insulated with grass, and the mud beds were covered with grass mats. Five people lived there: old mother and father, and three daughters who had never known any other life. Their winter stores of grain and melons were kept in large baskets of twined grass. The donkey's fodder was stored in a similar bin. Their well-rope was made of grass, as was the donkey's curry-comb, and the broom which swept the floor. The family's chopsticks were carefully cut lengths of grass-stem. Even the ladle with which the mother lifted the noodles from the pot was plaited from desert grass. They had nothing else.

Near the well, next evening, the menfolk gathered round the camels, discussing the state of Yi Wa-Wa's feet. The little tent belonging to Ma Cuchi and Janasta was pitched in the garden, and also the little tent which was Methos' and Ayesha's. Tonight Tien Sin would sleep indoors, in the same bed with the three daughters. But just now, every woman at the waterhole was crowded into the house. Ayesha stood stock-still in the middle of the floor, being ministered to.

The old mother was brushing her hair, brushing it until it crackled and fizzed and huge soft colored sparks flew from it. The three daughters, as alike as three peas, giggled as they stroked the brilliant silk dress, tracing its pattern of clouds and pheasants, peony-blossoms and dancing mice. The material had been sponged and brushed, cleaned to a semblance of its original state. Janasta stood directly in front of Ayesha, holding her chin in an iron grip. Using a grass stem blackened with soot, she was painting the line of Ayesha's eyebrows. Tien Sin knelt on the dirt floor, tracing hennaed patterns upon the palm of Ayesha's left hand.

"You must braid my hair," Ayesha ordered. "Three braids on each side, and one in the back. Don't smudge the henna, I brought that henna all the way from Egypt. Janasta! You almost put out my eye!"

"Hold still," said Janasta calmly. "Don't squirm. Don't fret. Be calm, Ayesha. One would think we were sending you to your death."

"We've told you exactly what will happen," added Tien Sin in her charmingly accented Turki. "Remember my instructions. At first, embrace him strongly, then weakly as if swooning in his grasp. Praise his body in a tremulous voice, looking at him shyly out of the corners of your eyes. When he touches you, laugh with surprise, squeal and push his hand away, but then be overpowered and exclaim at his manly strength. Now, when the jade whisk enters the flower--"

The daughters clapped their hands over their mouths and tittered. Their mother grinned toothlessly.

"Back straight, head high," muttered Ayesha, concentrating fiercely. "First the arm movements, then the hip movements. Right, left - leaning snake, whirling cobra - then the belly flutters and the fingers snap . . ." She frowned, plucking at the silk dress. With it so loose, how would Methos be able to see her perform the belly flutter? Then she brightened. Perhaps by this point, he would have torn the dress right off. If she was lucky. "Janasta, are you sure that is the right food to feed him?"

Janasta had gone to the mud-brick oven, in whose mouth a battered copper pot was simmering. She stirred it with a twist of grass. "It is hair vegetable," she retorted, "and Mandarins put it on their tables. Only the honey-tears of the sand-thorn are more delicious. Ma Cuchi gathered it as we marched. Just let me drain it now and sprinkle on a little vinegar, and you will have a meal fit for the Empress of China. I need a covered bowl to keep it fresh."

The old mother of the house nodded placidly, and one of her daughters went to the grain bin and delved in its depths, finally pulling out a bundle of frayed sacking. She held it up before Ayesha and Janasta, as if exhibiting an heirloom. "Father found this half-buried in a dune," she said, "a long long time ago."

The filthy cloth fell back from what it protected.

It was a bowl of carved jade, in color the brilliant apple-green of a kingfisher's feathers. Around it twined a pattern of grape-vines so deeply undercut that they stood out independently of the bowl, whose handles were formed by two arching lotus flowers. The tips of the grape-leaves were flecked with milky white. There were just three bunches of grapes, and each one was the most delicate pale lavender.

Janasta nodded solemnly, satisfied that this bowl would do. She ladled her cooking into it, and covered it with a clean cloth. Then she put the jade bowl into Ayesha's hands.

"Go now," she said, "and please him mightily."

Painted, polished, plaited, primed - armed with mysterious Asian cooking and gowned in silk, Ayesha went forth to find her husband.

He was with the other men, torturing her camel.

They had made Yi Wa-Wa squat in the loading position, with all four legs doubled under and most of his weight pressing them down. Ma Cuchi had lashed a rope round the gelding's neck and one of his forelegs, making it impossible for him to rise or even struggle. Yi Wa-Wa's eyes rolled in mute alarm. Joachim and Methos had just tied a second rope round one of his tightly tucked-up hindlegs, and now they were hauling with might and main, swearing a blue streak, straightening the leg out and pulling it backward. While the camel's back heaved and his head lifted skyward, tongue flopping from his open mouth. The old man whose ropes they were using hovered nearby, giving useless advice. The men heaved. Yi Wa-Wa bellowed.

"Beloved husband," said Ayesha seductively. "Come. I have made you a special supper--"

"Later, Ayesha," said Methos without bothering to look.

He heaved. The camel roared. Nimbly, the old man skipped around and dropped down with his full weight on the extended hindleg, pinning it in place.

"Good," panted Joachim, "good, good, good."

"Beloved husband, come with me now!"

"Ayesha, shut up," said Methos. Yi Wa-Wa was now foaming at the mouth and making such alarming sounds that all the men looked gravely concerned. Methos reached into his coat and pulled out a flat silver flask. He weighed it, thoughtfully.

"Alcohol?" said Ma Cuchi.

"It is for camel-doctoring only," Methos told him, and he grasped the camel's lower jaw and poured the entire contents of the flask down the beast's throat.

Within moments, it had taken effect. Yi Wa-Wa burped several times in surprise, and his bloodshot eyes glazed over. Then he actually swivelled his head and gazed backward in what looked like befuddled curiosity. In the pad of his exposed foot, a blood-blister had mortified into a tiny but deep ulcer. This hole was now packed with grit and dirt, and Methos set about cleaning it out with the point of a knife.

"I think that's done it--"

"Have we a piece of camel-skin anywhere?"

"Here. And here's the needle."

"Be careful not to sew through live flesh!"

"Beloved husband?" said Ayesha forlornly.

She lowered the bowl. Not one of them paid her a bit of attention. As she watched, they were gathering closer and closer, watching with intense interest as Methos carefully sewed along the callus at the edge of the pad. He was cobbling a temporary shoe of camel-hide over the wounded hoof; if he did his work properly, by the time this patch worked loose and dropped off, Yi Wa-Wa's foot would be healed. And Yi Wa-Wa nodded his head in a drunken daze - not minding at all.

Ayesha turned, drooping, and walked to their tent. There was their bedding, enticingly spread; here she was - and there - there - out there was her husband. Doing camel-puller things. She sat down in the middle of the bed, and mourned.

Penniless, and sure to die a virgin.

But scarcely two tears had fallen on the felt blankets before there was a sound at the tent door. It was her husband. He sidled through, securing the doorflap behind him, and crawled in to join her; the tent was not high, certainly not high enough to stand upright in. Ayesha felt her heart begin to race. Her cheeks burned with excitement. His expression was chastened, but there was a smile lurking somewhere in his eyes. He said, "Everyone told me I had to come immediately."

She hurried to move aside, to invite him to make himself at ease, to plump the blankets up around him. As she did, she began to talk. "Lie down now and rest from your labors. Tonight is our night, Methos. Forget all troubles and the rest of the world. Janasta has prepared us food - special love-food - and I will feed you - lie down, Methos - with my own hands--"

"You look beautiful. Have you painted your face?"

"Lie down, I say!" She pushed him down, then shifted to kneel straddling him - balanced astride the general region of his stomach. And watched his eyes widen in a most satisfactory manner. "I will feed you with my own hands. If I had a coffee service I would make you a special coffee, but as you know, all I have left in the world is my carbine and the chess set you gave me, which I was not going to give away to that evil woman--"

"No, and I'm glad of it." He had relaxed, she was glad to see. And she was even gladder to see that he was not laughing. "Wait - what the hell is that bowl?"

"Oh, just something the people here found. I love my chess set above all things, except perhaps my carbine. And you, beloved husband."

"That's Han dynasty jade." His lips twitched. "Anything you desire, you can find it buried in the desert of Lob."

"Forget the bowl. Look into my eyes, Methos." Gazing seductively, deeply down at him, Ayesha groped in the jade bowl, the better to feed her husband with her own hands. Keep the back straight, she thought. She performed a small serpentine movement of the hips, experimenting. First one hip, then the other. "I will dance for you, you will unbraid the seven braids of my hair--"

His eyes were bulging. Concerned, she broke off. Methos said, through a mouthful of love-food, "Are we unbraiding your hair, or eating it?"

Ayesha looked down, and her mouth dropped open. Was that why they called it 'hair vegetable'?

What was in her hand resembled a snarl of crisp black hair. What was in the jade bowl resembled an entire wig. Even now, Methos was spitting out what she had fed him, and saying, "Well, well. That took me by surprise. But it tastes good, beloved." He had propped himself up on his elbows, and now he was putting bits of - of tangled hair - into his mouth and contentedly swallowing them. "Try some, Ayesha. It's a delicacy."

She tasted a little. It was flavored subtly with vinegar, like a pickle. "Yes, it is very good, but I was just startled--" No, wait. They were losing the mood. Ayesha wiggled, straightening her back and lifting her head, chin up. "Now I will dance," she announced loudly.

"Good." He ate a little more snarled hair. "The farmer says that the road onward is too dangerous to travel. It's full of bandits. Heavily armed bandits. If they knew we were here, he says, they would swoop down and have our camels in an instant."

"First, the arm movements." She extended her arms languidly - holding them just so, straight out from her sides. Her bottom was tucked under her, her breasts thrust forward. Her shoulders performed sinuous circles, and the resulting ripple flowed right down to her fingertips. First the right arm, then the left arm. When one arm lifted, the other arm fell.

"This is a dance the women perform at private coffee parties," she explained. "It is a secret thing, not meant for men." It was meant to make childbirth easier, but she didn't want to tell him that. "But I think I can show it to you."

"It's very . . . graceful."

"Yes, isn't it?" She was swaying her torso gently back and forth - still kneeling upright, astride him with her knees apart and the Chinese silk dress decorously draped, just right. Her head wove from side to side, her shoulders rolled bonelessly. Her arms undulated. And her sharp little knees dug into his ribs. All the while, she watched him like a hawk, searching for signs of earth-shattering passion . . . except when she darted a quick glance up to make sure her hands were going in the right direction.

"Now, the hip movements," she said. Her rib cage performed small circles, the pattern of the dress now dancing in the lamplight as she lifted and dropped her chest. With her weight on her right knee, she swung her right hip forward. Backward. Forward. First the right hip, then the left hip . . .

Aha. He had forgotten about eating.

"The leaning snake." She arched herself backwards, until the crown of her head rested upon his knees. Now. She lifted her right hip, thrusting it up and forward; then twisting as her left hip mirrored the motion. Right, left. Right, left. Right, left. Right, left. She heard him make a sort of strange choking noise, and was mystified. Then she began to wonder just what sort of view of her he was now getting. What was the expression on his face?

Perhaps she ought to go on to the next movement now?

"The whirling cobra!" Up she rose. Her breasts heaved with exertion. And over, and down she went, shoulders snaking forward as she did so - to arrive poised over him, horizontal. Barely inches above him. With her seven braids of hair sweeping across his adam's apple. She gazed deeply, meaningfully into his eyes. Her arms swayed up and down, her fingers snapped--

Then she froze, for he had reached up and taken her by the waist. His big hands encircled her waist completely, he was shifting her back and down until she rested upon his thighs. Hypnotized, she continued to sway. It was impossible to look away from his face, his eyes. His smiling eyes.

His gaze kissed her, dwelling upon her mouth, her face, her body draped in the shimmering silk. She kissed him back with her eyes.

"The belly flutter," she whispered, and she had to admit that her belly was certainly fluttering. She shimmied gently to a halt, and rested in his hold, all thought suspended - poised as if prepared to fly away in happiness. But now his hands were moving. His thumbs rubbed circles in the Chinese silk. Ayesha felt thrills run over her skin, heard herself gasping aloud. And now she was bending closer and closer to him, her knees sliding apart as she did so, and he was running one big warm hand up to cup--

It was too much, suddenly. Too strange, too frightening. She found herself unable to catch her breath - hot and cold, goosebumps all over, deafened by her own thumping heart. Then she was scrambling to regain her balance, pawing at his chest and pushing him away. "What's that noise?" she said wildly.

It was guns firing!

"The bandits!" said Methos. He dumped Ayesha in the hair vegetable, and shot out of the tent, grabbing his sword as he went. Even as he did so, there was a drumroll of hoofbeats; a half-dozen horses charged straight at him. "Hey!" A horse's shoulder knocked him reeling, a flailing hoof sailed by his head. A man's hoarse voice blasphemed. One horse floundered against the tent, and then with a ringing whinny, gathered itself on its haunches and leaped right over it.

A roaring monster, with fiery eyes, with gnashing teeth, with a hideous stench, galloped madly in the wake of the brigands.

Away they careened into the night. A splatter of gunshots sounded in the distance, along with a fading roll of hooves. It was the sound of headlong retreat. Methos put a hand to his head, which was spinning; and here came Ma Cuchi and the others, exclaiming with joy at their deliverance.

"It was Yi Wa-Wa who saved us!"

"It was a miracle! The brigands swooped out of the cover of darkness, riding like madmen, and I thought we were doomed. But then the camel--"

"Drunk as a Cossack, he reared up out of a dead sleep, that gelding camel--"

"And saw them driving off the other beasts, and in his impious drunkenness, up he leaped! Like a whirlwind! Like a demon of the desert! Straight at them he charged, bellowing his challenge, stamping his feet and brandishing his teeth!"

"Like a bull, hot in the rutting season," said Ma Cuchi.

Janasta said, "They didn't know what hit them."

"They fired at him, but he took no notice," said Tien Sin, her eyes shining.

"He drove them all away," Ma Cuchi finished. "He is a hero - the camel, Yi Wa-Wa."

They stood in silent reverence and watched as the hero trudged lopsidedly out of the darkness. Yi Wa-Wa's feet dragged from weariness and recent surgery, and there were bullet-scores marring his glossy thick wool. Strings of drool hung from his yawning jaws. But his head was held high. "Who would have thought it?" said Methos.

Then he turned around and looked at the ruins of his tent. Run over by a horse.

It sagged precariously, one side collapsed upon the ground. His bride - on hands and knees, with bits of hair vegetable smutching her face - peered out of the wreckage. The jade bowl sat like a hat upon her head. Her eyes and mouth made three round O's; then they shut up in three tight slits; then her mouth opened wide.

"I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you!" screamed Ayesha.

The tent fell down upon her.










In the cold light of day, the damage was more extensive than they realized. Ma Cuchi's bullock was found wandering in the wasteland, a mile or so from the house; it had been creased through the dewlap and stampeded off in a panic, but seemed stoical about its adventures. Worse, four cow-camels had been run off by the bandits. These were the camels Methos had rented, and their owner would presumably demand an enormous sum in compensation.

That was nothing.

The old farmer and his ragged wife stood embracing one another, their faces stricken. Their daughters wept and wailed in disbelief. A stray shot from one of the bandits had hit their tiny donkey, which was the most valuable thing they owned - and their donkey, dying, had fallen down the well. Taking with it the beams of the well mechanism, snapping them off and hurling them into the well-shaft. Now the slain donkey lay at the bottom of the well . . . fifty feet down, amidst broken beams and coils of grass rope.

One Donkey Well was no longer.

"They'll die," remarked Ma Cuchi to Methos. "At their age, how will they start again?"

"We must all go," said Methos. But the well was plugged, and they had no water - nothing but what remained in their gourds. "Seven dry stages to take the road back. And the farmer says that the road ahead is dry for another five stages, perhaps further."

"What does Joachim say?"

"Joachim says we are doomed."

Their gazes met.

"We know there's water somewhere," Ma Cuchi said, "for even bandits have to drink."

But Methos shook his head. "The women could all be dead before we ever found it. No, that way lies disaster . . . Ma Cuchi. Do you trust me?"

"Perhaps. What is in your mind?"

"Long, long ago," said Methos, "I knew this desert. As I know my ten fingers, I knew it. When I married Ayesha, I knew I had to return here, and after this stop I planned to leave you and strike out across the deep dunes. Northeast." He turned and pointed. "One long march northeast, there was water once. If the water is still there, it can save us all. But if we go that way and the water is not there - then, Ma Cuchi, we will certainly perish."

Ma Cuchi pondered long and hard. Then he said simply, "I trust you," and held out his hand.

The two men gripped hands. "But," Ma Cuchi added, with a twinkle in his eye, "I'm not the one you have to persuade. She waits for you yonder- your enemy. And unless I know nothing of women, the only way you'll subdue her now will be with a bridle and harness-ropes."










Ayesha was in the house. She paid no attention to the bustle around her - there where she sat on the filthy mud-bed, her arms crossed, her chin high, prepared to stay put until doomsday - while the three daughters, deeply distressed, packed their valuables. They shoveled seed grain into sacks, and slung the sacks over their shoulders. Over these, they draped grass mats, spare clothes, ladles and utensils and odds and ends. An entire loom, taken apart, was strapped across one daughter's back. The kingfisher-jade bowl and other humble treasures were entrusted to the old mother, who wept upon them and hid them in her coat.

They all looked at Ayesha. Ayesha refused to look back. Then, sorrowfully, they filed out through the door.

She sat alone in the empty house, and reflected upon humiliation - its bitter waters, its highways and byways, its depths and its miseries, its woes and its hollow . . . lonely . . . very lonely victories.

Presently her husband - her former husband - appeared in the doorway. "Wife, we're leaving. Are you coming?"

Ayesha lifted her chin haughtily. "I have divorced you, I'm not your wife."

"You can't divorce me, Ayesha. Under the law, the only way you can do that is by returning to your father's house - and you can't get home from here, can you?"

"I would do it if I could, it's not my fault that I can't! Anyway, I consider myself a divorced woman. I never wanted to marry you in the first place, but no one bothered to consult me. I shall abjure all men, and perhaps become a Buddhist nun."

"Ayesha. You're not a Buddhist."

"A mere detail." She crossed her arms. "What woman wants to marry the doctor who delivered her? . . . To me, all you can ever be is Doctor Adam." And with a spark of defiance in her eye, she began to chant. "Doc-tor Adam! Doc-tor Adam!!"

Methos looked at her. Then, without another word, he crossed the room. He picked her up bodily and carried her out of the house.

The camels stood ready. The bullock was loaded. The human members of the caravan, bowed under heavy loads, were waiting. Methos set Ayesha atop the cow-camel, took up the camel-rope, and heaved. The camels whoofed and started to amble. The tiny cavalcade set out. Northeast.

The way led across hills of gravel, dotted here and there with tamarisk shrubs. Further on, they met sand dunes. At first these were gentle crescents, perhaps five feet high, traveling across the desert in the direction of the prevailing wind: slowly writhing along, with sprays of sand constantly breaking across their leading ridges and sliding down in advance of the dune. They were scattered, and the travelers simply picked their way between them. Eventually, the dunes widened into a solid front. The road led into them, up one face and down the next.

The sands were green, blue-green, black, red. They lay in waves across the desert, glittering in the sunlight. Then the low dunes began to build higher. By the end of the morning, after five hours of walking, the dunes were undulating hills, and at each dune the travelers climbed fifty feet upward, through the sliding sand. Then they skidded fifty feet straight down, into the trough between the dunes. Then they climbed another fifty-foot slope of sand.

By mid-afternoon, the dunes loomed two hundred feet high.

The camels ploughed up them, noses to the sand-surface. The dunes were the mountain ranges of the Lob - mountain ranges which moved. Sand blew off their windward faces, so that when the travelers reached each crest, they stepped into a shower of stinging particles. And the wind began to strengthen. Dust-spouts began to rise in the distance. These were slim spirals of sand which ascended, nodded, walked across the horizons like men - like tall thin men, like men folding around them garments of blowing dust. Sometimes they rose whirling into the sky, sometimes they slumped and dissolved into the dunes. They came always in pairs, the desert folk said; those who folded their dust-cloaks from right to left were male, and those who folded their cloaks from left to right were their wives.

There came a time when the caravan topped yet another mountainous dune, and beheld below them an endless ripple of sand-hills. The whole desert floor, as far as the eye could see, was alive with gliding dust-spouts. Hundreds of dust-spouts.

Methos looked over his shoulder, and saw the rise of the dune outlined black, against sunset skies bleeding molten gold; the camels came pacing, romantic silhouettes of the Gobi. There, swaying high atop the lead camel, was Ayesha his bride. As she turned her head to gaze across the world, her profile seemed as pure as the living water which desert-folk prayed to: a wellspring so vital that though a man drank forever at it, the joy it brought would never stale. She looked upon the mysterious sand-spouts, and visibly heaved a sigh. He heard her say, as if to herself, "Soon I'll be a ghost. Everyone will tell my legend, of how my man spurned my beauty, how he preferred the company of camels. I'll die, but he'll live forever." Here she lifted her head bravely. "I was merely Wife Number Sixty-Three. Soon I'll be a ghost like those, trailing forever behind a ghostly husband. I wonder if that one will love me better?"

On and on they marched. The Gobi was plunged into night, cold as the tomb. Brilliant stars rose above them, and Methos marked their direction by the Pleiades; while down from the Oriental sky, the toad in the moon looked on.

At dawn, they topped yet another dune, and there before them lay a lake.

It winked up like a twinkling eye, skirted with fringes of silvery trees, crescent-shaped with happiness; it was tucked into the fold between two ranges of dunes, and by a trick of geography, it was so placed that the no matter what wind blew, the sand always blew away from the water. It was a miracle. A lake in the deep desert.

Ma Cuchi stood stock still and called upon Allah in his joy and surprise. Past him ran his wife and the farmer's three daughters. As they slid down the face of the dune, a loud noise sang out of its depths while simultaneously a powerful vibration hummed in the sand beneath their feet - as if a gigantic tuning fork had been struck. And the wind plucked at the deep plough-furrow of their tracks, smoothing them as it carried minute grains of sand tumbling upward, toward the crest of the dune.

Ruins showed where men had built before, the traces of cultivated fields stretched in the valley between the sand ranges. There was a Buddhist stupa with a pointed pinnacle, and what might have been a monastery, or a palace. Joachim gaped. The old farmer and his wife prayed aloud as they walked toward this promised land. The bullock raised its head, scented the water, and lowed; even the camels picked up their pace. Methos led them down to the lake, lifted his wife from her perch, and told her, "Drink. Fill our gourds. Let Yi Wa-Wa drink. Then say goodbye. We're going on."

"Where are we going?" she whispered.

"You'll see," he said.

He took her onward, steering now by the sun. She rode Yi Wa-Wa, who was after all a better camel than anyone had thought. Methos led them, leaning against the rope as he pulled the camel on; the cylindrical bell clanged round Yi Wa-Wa's neck, and Ayesha held the red-tasseled spear that marked them as a proper caravan. One camel, one man, one woman. Once she asked, "What will become of them?"

"They'll farm by the lake. This is paradise to them. Ma Cuchi will harness his bullock to a plough, and men will come to marry the girls. Perhaps Joachim will marry Tien Sin, and both will be happy. That much water will support many families, and soon they'll rebuild the temple. Someday this will be a stop on the caravan routes, and camel-pullers will speak of it with wonder: a ten-caravan halt, they'll call it. A place so rich, ten caravans can water there at once."

"But we, where are we going?"

"You'll see."

He took her to a rock outcropping lost amidst high dunes. It was a colorful stone cliff winding several hundred yards through the desert, and perhaps it had once been tall; now a dune lay heaped against it, and another dune sloped away from its top. Whenever the wind blew, sand sprayed over the edge and showered down . . . covering dead trees already half-buried, cascading along the steps of a broad stone staircase. This stair ran fifteen feet down, no further - terminating unceremoniously in a heap of sand. The top boughs of the trees stood out of the dune, spreading twigs like beseeching hands. In a few years, nothing would be left above the sand.

But now, there was terracing still visible along the cliff side, and dozens of small openings pierced the rock. They were the arches of windows, and the narrow slots of doorways. "There were five storeys of terraces here once," Methos murmured, lifting Ayesha down from the camel and leading her toward a doorway. "Fifty monks tended the shrine. For three hundred years, they labored to decorate these grottos . . . Come in, wife. Come in."

"I'm not your wife any longer!" Ayesha protested.

"Ayesha. Come."

"Just remember, I'm not your wife. I don't have to go anywhere with you. I'm only doing this," Ayesha informed him, "because I am alone, many miles from home." There was a tear in her eye. "Abandoned. Beggared. Humiliated."

"And smirched by the hair vegetable," said Methos agreeably, "don't forget that."

"And spat upon by camels. So, even though my own cleverness has gained me a beautiful silk dress," Ayesha mused, "it isn't enough."

"Certainly not," he murmured. "I take it you aren't coming?"

"I will take one step inside, just to please you. Then I am getting back on Yi Wa-Wa, and leaving."

She stepped through the doorway, pouting.

Within, the sandstone floor was roughly leveled, and the ceilings were hollowed in simple vault-shapes. And frescoed. The bands of paint began at ankle level, depicting seated Buddhas, innumerable lotus flowers, abstract linear designs and pastoral scenes. Up and up the frescoes rose: there were strange stick figures that looked like diagrams, and Buddha after Buddha, and even the ceiling was completely covered with small vivid Buddha images. To the left, along a passage wall leading deeper into the cliff, she could just glimpse a long file of brilliantly colored figures. They carried platters and flowers, and there were vivid flowers painted behind them on the wall; their long robes glided serenely, and each figure was crowned with a halo of rayed gold. And it was all very pretty, but it meant nothing; she was determined not to be interested; she had said she was going to leave, and leave she would.

Methos had his tinder-box out. There were ancient torches by the doorway, a small heap of them lying in a drift of sand. He lit one, and as Ayesha turned to go, he scooped an arm around her waist and hoisted her small, struggling form onto his shoulder.

"Methos!" she cried.

"Come along, woman," said Methos.

With every step he took, she squirmed and wiggled; and with every step he took, the frescoes became more fantastic. Fragments of banners, preserved by the perfectly dry air of the desert, were still draped from ceremonial standards. Rows of plaster saints appeared. Bronze statues gleamed from the shadows. There were capering blue demons on some walls, swirls of flying skeletons, paintings of the damned in hell as a lesson to the unrepentant. And everywhere, Buddhas. The Buddhas were distinctly Indian in shape and color. But the pictures that surrounded them were gay with scrolling clouds, writhing dragons, and maidens at play in pastel gardens; these things were distinctly Chinese.

Without warning, they emerged into a vaulted chamber. It was deep within the earth, and three storeys of terraces encircled it, winding down in a gentle ramp to the floor below. The floor glittered, for it was a mosaic of crude glass pieces, some of them backed with gold foil. There was a pool in the middle of this mosaic floor, with a shallow coping around it.

Methos strode down the ramp, the torch gripped in his fist and his wife carried over one shoulder. She hammered his back with her fists, and kicked energetically at his stomach. He carried her straight to the pool, and tossed her in.

It was 'living water' like the wellspring of the oasis in the ruined city, and she sank in it like a stone - sank in a stream of bubbles, her hair floating around her, with the pool effervescent as champagne and the torchlight dancing above, dancing upon the surface of the water. The silk dress entangled her. Ayesha thrashed once in terror, and then Methos was with her; he embraced her, laughing through the distorting lens of the water, and then he was swimming downward. Towing her with him. And she saw vaguely through the water that the sides of the pool were painted with unending bands of smiling Buddhas.

He was swimming sideways. He dragged her into the darkness. Ayesha let herself go limp, feeling her lungs begin to ache, and she clung to his hand in perfect trust. There was a splash. Her head broke the surface. She gasped and gasped and drank in great swallows of air, in total darkness, and then she heard Methos treading water nearby. "I love you!" she cried, swam to him and threw her arms around him.

"Ayesha, Ayesha . . ." He lifted her, setting her on the brim of this secret pool. She felt him climbing out beside her. She clung to him, overjoyed, and Methos took hold of her with firm hands, tilted her face up and kissed her. "Let's get you out of those wet things. Yes. There. Scoot back from the edge, love. Don't want you to fall back in. Now just lie down . . ."

"This is so romantic. Methos, what am I lying on? It's like pebbles." It jingled. It slithered. It chimed and rang beneath her. "It's digging into my back."

"Forget that," Methos said, and she did.

"Oh, Methos," said Ayesha, after several moments, "I forgive you for everything."

"Good girl . . ."

"And I will be your wife again."

"I'm glad of it. Considering your current state of undress--"

"But will you make a light, please? Because I want to move whatever is under my back."

He growled into her ear. "Ayesha. Later."

"No, no, it is very lumpy, and you're heavy, and . . . Wait, is that your tinderbox?"

She struck flint to steel, the spark flew into the tinder, the tinder flared up; Ayesha sat bolt upright and gasped, speechless.

They were in Ali Baba's cave. They were in a treasure chamber. Her little flame flared from every side, reflected in gold - in jade - in porcelain - in ivory - in precious stones. There were Russian samovars of massive silver, tumbled in heaps with enameled snuffboxes and long-handled mirrors, and hundreds of pearls which shone like moons had come unstrung and settled in tides through the brilliant mess. There were huge jars standing upright: some were jade, intensely green, and some were creamy white porcelain, painted with delicate colors. Swords and shields and pieces of ornamental armor lay in heaps. Narwhale tusks like unicorn horns stuck out, and off against the wall was a jumble of elephant ivory, perhaps two dozen raw tusks. More ivory, polished and carved, caught the light here and there. A bronze chest, its lid open, was overflowing with quills of gold dust.

And there were the coins, the glittering coins, which lay like an ocean around Ayesha. Pieces of jade projected from this ocean, all but lost in it - cups here, bowls there, and swimming merrily atop one billow of coins was a nephrite duck with a wagging tail. The coins themselves were every size, stamped with strange foreign faces and dozens of scripts, and many were irregular in shape; some seemed new-minted, and some were so old that their inscriptions were worn away and all you could say about them was that they were gold. Solid gold. She was lying upon a bed of gold, and the lumps that had dug into her shoulder-blades were unset rubies, deep crimson with a spark of fire within every stone.

The tinder burned itself down to her damp fingers, and went out. Ayesha slumped down, breathless - and behind her eyes, the dazzling sparkle of gold still burned. "Oh, Methos. All the wealth in the world. More than we could carry away in a dozen journeys. No one else will ever find it, will they?"

"They'll find the caves," said Methos, into her wet hair. "They'll find the wellspring. But it'll take them years to find this room." He slid his hands along her back, clearing away the rubies. "I've been collecting this stuff for ages. It's yours, Ayesha. I give it to you."

"And no one else will ever know."

"Unless someone tells them," he said. Then he lay waiting, stroking Ayesha's back.

". . . I might just mention it to Janasta. After we fill Yi Wa-Wa's bags, of course. Methos, I want those rubies I just saw. Also, there was a mirror just over there - and a necklace with enormous sapphires . . ."

"Shut up, Ayesha," said Methos. His heart was overflowing with love. "You have more important things to do now."

"Methos, I will love you forever. Methos, I . . . Oh, Methos! Methos! . . . Methos!!"










Epilogue:

The lake is called Crescent Lake now, and it is one of the miracles of the Gobi - talked of far and wide. Pilgrims come trekking to see it, and the descendants of the original settlers tell a strange tale . . . a tale of a magician and his Egyptian bride, who rode out of the desert with their camel's baggage full of rubies and gold. They departed for the west, and were never seen again. But before they left, they confided their secret to their friends; and today, at that lake, you can see a thriving village, crowned by the richest mosque in the whole Lob.

At the holy caves, also, there are priests. These are Buddhists, but they get along with the Muslims well enough. Pilgrims come to the caves too, and though the treasure chamber is empty, they always drink deep of the living water.

No matter how often they do, they remember to thank the generosity of God.



















Note: in a western atlas, the desert of Lob is the part of Chinese Turkestan marked Lop Nor. There was an actual Crescent Lake on its eastern edge, near the Cave of Ten Thousand Buddhas; ruins are scattered throughout the desert, artifacts come to light whenever a wind blows the sand. In the seventh century AD, the traveler Hsuan-tsang wrote of a thriving oasis kingdom in the area, but said that the desert was haunted by cries and voices; hundreds of years later, Marco Polo crossed the Gobi and found a prosperous city, well supplied with water. And wrote that the desert was haunted by ghosts, whose cries tricked travelers into leaving the road. In the first half of the twentieth century, the missionary Mildred Beach spent years traveling through the Gobi. She found the Lop Nor area without water, desolate and uninhabited . . . but, she wrote, demons called Azghun haunt the Gobi desert. These spirits try to lure travelers away from their caravans; she herself heard what seemed like voices crying out for help. These voices are heard all over the Gobi, and worst of all in the desert of Lob.

The character of Ayesha is, yes, taken from Rider Haggard's She. I imagined her as the original inspiration for Haggard's immortal temptress. They must have met at some point. Methos would have been with her, and became the inspiration for Alan Quartermain.

Right now I'm imagining Methos and Ayesha guest-appearing in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels, to which ... noooh. I just can't. Something horrible would happen to Ayesha, and then Methos would have to kill Hyde. Wait, would that last part be a bad thing?

Originally posted elsewhere December 28th, 1998