Even his shadow had deserted him.
Anor’s unforgiving gaze beat down on his face and the back of his neck and through his clothing. Stooping, nearly stumbling, he caught up a stone and slipped it between his lips, but his mouth had assumed the character of the desert by now. No water would come from the stone.
Dust and sand chafed under every bit of clothing, his undertunic sealed against his skin with sweat that had long since dried. Brittle air hissed in and out of his lungs.
Ahead, the unbroken sky. Behind, the unrelieved horizon
Sometimes, a tumbled mass of rocks strayed within his vision,. A hundred fathoms high, its cool shadow stretched across the sands of the middle distance. At whiles, it seemed so clear and so close, even his sun-blind eyes could follow the course of a stream running down through a ravine on the west side. But they kept moving, cliff and stream, flirting with the edges of the horizon.
Sand and rock pressed against his knees with a suddenness that startled him. Was it a storm? He had heard tales of desert storms that had swallowed armies whole. But no, that terrible weight still bore down on the top of his head nary a cloud in sight. He had merely fallen. That did not seem so terrible a thing. A relief, really, not to move. His head swam from thought to thought, never settling, until finally Anor took pity and pressed him into darkness.
And there was not a part of him that did not feel relief.
Elrohir rose out of unconsciousness into a slow grey twilight.
From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, he felt wonderfully free and weightless. Something coarse and scratchy itched between his shoulder blades, against his back and buttocks. He smelled wool and the eternal mustiness of sand and sun-warmed rock. Except he wasn’t hot anymore.
He was alive. The thought ticked through his head, shallow and unresisting, following another rhythm that was coming from outside of him.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
Strange… who would hang chimes on the wind?
Were those chimes?
Elrohir’s eyelids creaked open, anticipating brightness. He was naked and uncovered and blissfully cool. An olive-colored canvas stretched overhead. The sweet tinkling was coming from a series of glass bottles dangling from a stick in the sand. Drops of color — rose and garnet and emerald — scattered back and forth across the sands as the breeze rocked the vials lazily against each other.
A pair of very dark eyes in a very dark face peered down into his own. Sun and sand-tossed wind had scored deep grooves on either side of the man’s mouth and etched coarse lines along his brow. The man wrung out a damp cloth, drops pattering into an earthen bowl. The cloth dabbed Elrohir along his throat, under his arms, at his groin.
There was a scarlet serpent etched into his cheek. It writhed and flickered its sinuous body as the man worked.
Elrohir stared at it, not, at first, comprehending its meaning though a vague uneasiness tickled in the back of his mind. He’d seen those markings before. Scratched into burnt out walls. Carved on the backs of still and flyblown bodies. Even if he’d wanted to move, he had no strength to do so.
The old man’s gnarled palm passed over his face, smeared his cheeks and cracked lips with oil. He murmured words Elrohir didn’t understand, but somewhere behind his eyes, a boat slipped its mooring line and drifted away on a dark, still sea.
He did not know how long he slept, but he woke alone to gauzy purple shadows stretching across the canvas walls.
Stretching his arm out across the rug he lay on, he brushed his pack, slid three fingers beneath the flap until they touched a weave he recognized even with the tips of his fingers. It felt intact, whole, safe.
Pacified, he eased himself up, groaning at the stiffness in his limbs. His skin upon inspection was raw and red in patches, particularly his face and arms, and itched like mad. Even lying still, he felt the heat of the desert baking out of him.
A wide-mouthed jug sat in the sand beside him, a tin pannikin hanging off the lip.
In ordinary circumstances, he would have thought twice. He would have considered, however briefly, that such an offering provided by unknown benefactors in enemy country was, perhaps, suspect.
He snatched the pannikin up and plunged it into the jug, bringing up more water than he’d seen in a sennight. It tasted like diamonds and overspilled his chin, dappling his chest. The second cup he poured over his head, blowing and snorting and laughing though the effort hurt his chest and wheezed from disuse.
The boy at the mouth of the tent was watching him with some trepidation.
Elrohir hastily wiped water out of his eyes and off his cheeks. “Hello.”
The boy said nothing. He was shy of his full growth yet — all elbows and knees and ribs. Expressive owl eyes gazed out of a thin face, smooth as glass and brown as ripe walnuts. A singlet of blue linen and a gold circlet around one bare ankle were his only coverings. In his arms, he carried a bundle that he placed just inside the tent. He tapped it and pointed at Elrohir’s nakedness.
The boy lowered his eyes while Elrohir pulled on a pair of baggy trousers and a loose shirt of white cotton long as a woman’s shift. The clothes were rough and strange against his skin but light too, and cool. He left the long, sleeveless surcoat where it lay.
“What of my things?” he asked, plucking at his new shirt for emphasis. A knot tightened in the pit of his stomach and pinched his voice into a sharp bark. “Where are my things? What have you done with them?”
The boy startled and scuttled backwards.
Elrohir spotted his knapsack in a corner of the tent and snatched it up, yanking the buckles open so hard one of the stitches tore. His fingers fumbled inside, clawing past the debris of his journey until they closed around a handful of cloth. Shaking the cloak out, he spread it across the pack and passed his palm over every inch, inspecting it for tears or marks or mishandling.
Nothing. It lay there quiet, the color of twilight and ancient trees and less ancient memory, completely undisturbed.
He sighed, shoulders relaxing. “Thank you. I’m sorry if I startled you.”
His fingers still stroked the weave of the cloak. Even when it had been too hot to wear, he had often taken it out at whiles. Just to make sure it was still there. Some things could not be replaced when they were gone.
The boy was still watching him, uncomprehendingly, perched on the balls of his feet as if poised for flight.
Folding the cloak carefully and setting it aside, Elrohir reached into his pack again and withdrew a leaf-wrapped packet. The edges of the leaves were curling and brown, but the lembas within had not gone wholly stale.
He broke off a golden corner, nibbled it, then held out the rest in offering. “You want to try? It’s good. You’ll not have tasted the like before.”
For a long minute, the boy merely looked from the waybread to Elrohir’s face. Then, cat-footed, he crept in, plucked the lembas from Elrohir’s fingers and retreated to the entrance where he promptly stuffed it into his mouth.
Elrohir smiled. “It’s good, yes?”
A fleeting smile. Then the boy was gone, leaving Elrohir to himself.
Faint and far off, somewhere beyond the tent walls, a high, soaring note cut through the air. It was a flute. Rising and falling and echoing. Dunes and wind and forgotten stars…old seas… a white bed dappled with water light…
Elrohir shook himself, and the fog lifted. There was no minstrel. No music. The desert wind had made strange noises too often along this road. It was never anything but his own mind.
But he remained half-bent over his pack for a long while, straining, despite himself, for a last tremolo, his heart suspended in its beat, one hand absently stroking the weave of the grey cloak.