Farraj tries to flick the sand off his clothes, one grain at a time, as he rides. He doesn't realize what he's doing, at first; it's just his hands moving restlessly as his mind floats elsewhere, barely tethered. As the miles grow, his hands, tired and wind-bitten, slow.
It's when they stop, and a single grain of sand falls from between his numb fingers as he struggles to dismount, that he notices. He's been holding it so tightly that even through the numbing blanket of exhaustion and despair he manages to dredge up a thread of surprise when he sees his fingers aren't bleeding from the sharp-edged glassy stone.
It would be nice to see blood now. Blood speaks. Blood says, yes, he died. Yes, I killed him.
The wind whistling through the sands says only, you, too, will die, and it screams its message to everyone who will hear.
He has always known the cruelty of the desert, but he has seen it as a cruelty of wind and sun, thirst and heat. Farraj is not an Englishman, to speak of standing on firm ground; he knows the sand is capricious and shifts at its own whim. Still, he has always thought of it as background, deadly only because it spoke of a lack of other things.
Now he knows the truth, and suddenly the sand, which encompasses all his world, is the enemy. He knows he could work feverishly, night and day, and never keep one inch of his robes clear. He knows this, but it is a distant knowledge, cloudy and undefined behind the knife-sharp certainty that is Daud's death.
Farraj knows the sand will swallow him, too, if he drops his guard.
Somewhere, the wind hisses softly, yesssss.
∗ ∗ ∗
When he dreams of a world without sand, all he can fill it with is emptiness. Sometimes it is the emptiness of the sky, black and cold, surveying him through the eyes of a thousand uncaring stars, and other times it is the emptiness of the ocean, wave swallowing wave in a tumbling dance that leaves no place for a man to stand.
In the palace of the Englishmen, he can finally see how such a world might be filled. Here the buildings are not cloth or brick, but stone, swept and polished until his reflection gazes back at him, brushed clean of sand, from the floors. Water fountains, sweet and unfettered, from basins in the courtyards, and everything is clean.
He knows sand is stone worn by the wind, but he will not allow himself to remember.
What he cannot avoid remembering, even as in his mind he fashions the stone buildings into a fortress against death, is Daud. Daud's sparkling eyes shine back at him in the polished stone floors, and he mutters a prayer and wonders if the reflection will harm his soul as much as a graven image. He can see Daud's robes trailing out of the shadows in the corners, waiting to leap out in a game of hide-and-seek. When he turns, Daud turns too, always behind him.
He thinks he can hear Daud's laughter, but it is harder to find mirth in this cold fortress than it is to find shadows. Only before the fountains does his bubbling glee truly ring free, and the Englishmen do not like him there and hurry him away.
∗ ∗ ∗
In the room they have given him, there is no laughter, but when the lights fade away with sunset Farraj sees the toss of Daud's robes again in flicker of shadows cast by the outside lamplight through his window. Closing his eyes only brings him more sharply into focus. He watches through spiderveined eyelids as Daud creeps closer and closer, and braces himself for the touch of this shadow ghost. One hand extends, and then Daud vanishes, not quickly but in the slow, dissolving fashion of smoke.
Farraj coils in on himself, huddling in the corner of the too-soft mattress the Englishmen have given him, and tries very hard not to cry. Water is valuable in the desert, and the salt that the heat sweats from one's skin scarcely more so. Tears are a waste that cannot be indulged.
Lost in thoughts of sliding sand and smoky shadows, he thinks he is succeeding in his struggle until he hears a faint cough in the archway and breaks out of a sob that he does not remember beginning. Lawrence stands there, framed by the gap between their two rooms, his disheveled blonde hair made all the more pale and otherworldly by the halo of lamplight that illuminates it from behind.
For a moment Farraj hates him, this too-pale Englishman who came to them with ideas and ideals that promised them the world and gave Daud only death. Better to stay outcasts together than heroes apart.
Then he sees that Lawrence is crying too, a slight glisten in the corner of one eye. He has never seen him cry before. It occurs to Farraj, suddenly, that perhaps in this palace where water tumbles freely from fountains tears may not be a crime.
Lawrence opens his mouth to speak, but Farraj is afraid of what he might say. He does not want to hear speeches of how they must carry on without his dearest friend, nor apologies that will make him hate Lawrence again for not doing the impossible. They are the only ones that remain; they cannot afford hate.
He stands, lets the oddly-patterned blanket drop to the floor, and walks to Lawrence. Lawrence looks steadily back at him. His face is dry now, and Farraj wonders whether what he saw was only a trick of the moon, but it is too late for that. Farraj steps closer, and Lawrence puts his arms around him.
They stand that way for a long time, feeling each other's hearts beat against their chests. Farraj does not offer what he has only ever given Daud, and Lawrence does not ask. Outside, the wind still hisses, singing fey melodies of death, but Farraj can hear only Lawrence's breathing. This is life -- stolen moments from the desert, pretending behind thin canvas walls that death does not fill the world and that each man is not alone amidst the sand. That the walls here are stone does not make it any less pretend, but for the moment it is enough.
∗ ∗ ∗
When they leave the stone buildings behind, Lawrence straight in his saddle and radiant with new-bought enthusiasm, the sand comes again. They are only a few steps beyond the gate when the first grains fall on Farraj's robes, clinging to the folds. He watches them steadily for a moment, raising his hand to brush them off. Then he lowers his hand, grasps the reins, and kicks his horse into a gallop.
The sand flies away, and though a new cloud forms at the hooves of his mount, he is moving too fast for it to touch him. Behind him, Lawrence gives a startled grunt, and then Farraj hears a second set of pounding hooves.
Somewhere up ahead, Farraj fancies he can see Daud, black robes billowing behind him. He laughs, and urges his horse faster, because there is nothing else to be done. The desert will take everyone and everything. He has always known this. There is only the glory of the moment, and the faint touch of other human lives, gone almost before it begins.
They fly like that, in defiance of the desert and the plodding conservation that it enforces, until their horses have begun to pant and the sun has cleared the edge of the horizon. Ahead or in his mind's eye -- Farraj can no longer quite tell which is which -- he sees Daud turn and wave before galloping on. The dark speck grows smaller and smaller, vanishing finally into the sands, but Farraj is no longer looking at it.
If the wind hisses or the sand falls, these are things he cannot change. He waits for Lawrence, only a few paces behind. The only unease that lingers, as he glances again at Lawrence's proud posture, is that Lawrence has not yet learned this. The Englishman still hopes to set himself against the world and win. Farraj fears the fall that will come, when Lawrence finally understands the land he has so lightly adopted, but he knows no way to soften it. Together, they trot towards home.