A/N: Well, I can't say I didn't warn you about the shoddy updating. I managed to go th whole summer without finishing this chapter, and now that school's starting, I can pretty much guarantee that I'll have a flood of ideas and no time to write. I hope you actually remember what this story is about by the time I finish it.
Thanks for being my sole reviewer on the last chapter Tic-Tac. It's nice to know someone was actually paying attention.
Disclaimer: Yeah, well, everybody is still mine, so you'll just have to read the next chapter (whenever the hell it appears) to see some familiar faces.
Sun-Baked and Bloody
As I sat there, clutching my clothes and feeling the last of the water evaporate from my hair, I started to wonder about how things had come to be this way. None of it made any sense, really, if I actually thought about it. Somehow, after being knocked out by a girl who was probably on steroids and definitely didn't belong on a high-school soccer team, I'd ended up in a remote part of the Sahara, but I'd still managed to run into a very nice desert-guy who seemed to want to help me. Now, said desert guy had pulled out a sword (wherever the hell that had come from) and run off to get back the water that he'd left for the not-so-nice desert guys who would, if given the chance, bring me to a very nasty end. So I wondered. I wondered why it had been the nice guy and not the nasty ones who'd found me. I wondered why he'd been so willing to help me, even though I had no real excuse for being stranded, half-naked, in the middle of the desert. Most of all, though, I wondered how in God's name I would ever get back home.
I bit my lip while I thought, studying my hands. I had a callus or two from when I'd tried weight lifting during an off-season, and some chipped pearl nail polish. The faint outline of vines twined around my fingers and down my hands, branching out from the Ohm symbol in the palms of both—the last vestiges of an Indian wedding a few weeks earlier. Even so, the most noticeable thing was the long, thin scar that roped from my right ring finger to the inside of my elbow. It was the remnant of a freak bicycle accident—namely, I'm a freak who can't ride a bike. It's amazing what the world looks like when you're flipping over your front handlebars on a steep gravel hill. That might have been one of the reasons I was reluctant to surrender my control to a horse—when I can't even trust myself not to kill myself, I don't think it's wise to put that trust into a strange animal that I've never met. It's just good sense.
Standing, I shook my head and stared over at the oasis. The tops of the palm trees stood out a bit from the dunes, but that was all I could see. The hurried ride away had shaken my sense of distance (not that I'd had much of one to start with) and I wasn't quite sure how far I was from the watering hole. Even more so, I had no idea how much time had passed since Hatim had left me there. A small seed of doubt began to grow in my mind. What if he didn't come back? What if these raiders weren't afraid of him because he was a… what was it? I put a hand up to my forehead, trying to see Hatim, but there was no sign of him other than the long trail of hoof prints leading off into the distance. Dropping my clothes, I started gnawing at my nails again, even though there was barely anything left to chew.
I was still standing like that when I heard it—a crack so loud it made me jump out of my skin. Shaking, I scrambled further up the dune to try and get a better look at the oasis. A few enraged shouts reached my ears, followed by another horrible crack, but they were soon silenced. For a few minutes, I didn't hear anything else. I scanned the horizon nervously, hopping from foot to foot. Finally, I saw something—a black figure emerging from the edge of the oasis.
Right then, I had no idea whether it was Hatim or not. But it certainly looked like him—sitting tall on a black horse and riding steadily to where he'd left me. I grabbed up my clothes and slunk back a bit behind the dune. The rider's image wavered in the heat as he approached… then I realized that it wasn't the image that was wavering. I shot up as quickly as I could, just in time to see Hatim fall completely off his horse.
"Hatim!" I shouted, tripping through the sand to get to him. When I got to his side, his horse watched me placidly from the corner of its brown eye, but he smiled up at me.
"I have the water," he told me triumphantly, holding up the skin.
I just stared at him incredulously, "What happened?"
"They were not smart enough to let me go my way," he said simply, then started to sit up. I reached for his shoulders when he hissed in pain, but he shoved my hands away, "I am fine," he said stubbornly.
"Yeah, and monkeys'll fly outta my butt." I ignored his confused stare, grabbing the water from him before it fell, "Where did they hurt you?"
He shook his head, "It is nothing."
"You fell off your horse," I said flatly.
"I lost my balance."
"Shut up and sit up," he couldn't do it on his own, I pulled him upright, much to his displeasure. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, started coughing violently. I grabbed his shoulders, "Where?"
Silently, he lifted his right arm.
The black cloth was soaked through, from just under his shoulder to his waist. Trying not to choke, I picked at it until I found the bullet hole. It was pretty small, for the amount of blood that was coming from it, but it was a deep, horrible red.
"You… you said we were how far from your brother's camp?"
Hatim was starting look pale, but he managed to answer me clearly enough, "Six hours away, riding hard."
My stomach churned uncomfortably at that. Hatim had been shot—he needed a doctor ASAP—and I certainly didn't fit the bill. "Is there anything closer?"
He shook his head tiredly. I sat back and looked up at the horse, which was still watching me silently.
"Okay," I breathed, trying to calm my nerves. Once again, my mind felt strangely clear, but my fingers were twitching madly. I wished I had a soccer ball and a really pissed off goalie.
Hatim mumbled something.
"I need a tourniquet." He wasn't wasting any breath on extra words. For a moment, I was at a loss for what to do, then I realized that I could use my shirt. Unraveling it from its bundle, I tied it as securely as I could around his shoulder. He nodded tiredly, "There is rope in the right saddlebag." I nodded slowly, not seeing what he was getting at. "Take it out," he instructed quietly. It took me a minute, but I found the thick, twine-like stuff that he was talking about.
"Help me onto the horse."
Still feeling nauseous, I grabbed his un-shot arm, pulled him up, and allowed him to use my shoulder to get onto the horse. He slumped forward a bit, looking paler than ever, and spoke into the horse's mane.
I leaned forward for him to repeat it. "Bind my wrists around her neck," he said.
I gaped at him, "Wha…" I began, but stopped myself when I saw the hard look in his eyes, "All right. Just… give me a sec, okay?"
Hatim just held his arms out. Reluctantly, I looped the rope around his wrists, tying them as loosely as possible.
"Cally." His voice was hoarse and he didn't say anything else. I grimaced, undoing my poor knot and retying it, tighter this time. Then, after a second thought, I took the long ends and threaded them into the harness.
Hatim watched me as I did it. When I finished, I looked up at him, "Just in case," I said softly.
"It is good."
I swallowed thickly, "All right," I pulled the reins forward, "Which way?"
He pointed back over to the oasis and I stared at him in horror. He must have noticed, because he smiled tiredly at me, "You have nothing to fear. They cannot hurt you," he paused, "Not now."
I wasn't sure if I really wanted to know how that had happened, but I figured that I was going to find out anyway. "A… are they dead?"
In spite of his obvious pain, Hatim's dark eyes glittered ironically, "You do not need to look at them as we pass."
I didn't look. I've seen enough movies where the characters get paralyzed with fear whenever they look. Unfortunately, a falcon chose that moment to soar through the palms and land on Hatim's shoulder. I would have paid attention to it, except its path had taken it directly over the bodies of the raiders strewn across the sand. I felt bile rising in the back of my throat. Several were missing their heads.
"Cally." I couldn't look at him. His voice was a little slurred and he didn't sound like he was really sure of what he was saying. "Cally," he said again, and this time, the falcon added a sharp call that yanked me around. I was shaking, in spite of the baking heat and the sweat rolling down my back. "Aras will lead you," he lifted his shoulder, making the falcon flutter its wings a bit, "Follow him. Do not look back." His eyes were a little unfocused, like he was staring right through me.
I didn't answer, unsure whether I could actually speak and still keep the tremor out of my voice. But I did as he said and watched which way the falcon—Aras—went. I slung the water over my shoulder and took the horse's reigns. It was going to be a long day.
Hatim, although he tried not to, fell completely unconscious within the hour. I tried to wake him up to drink something as often as possible, but soon I couldn't even wake him up anymore. At least I had the falcon to follow.
Every once in a while, it would disappear from my sight and I would jog up a dune, towing the reluctant horse, only to find Aras waiting for me patiently. I stopped doing this after the third time, realizing that if I continued drinking the water at that pace, there would be none left whenever Hatim actually did wake up.
For some reason, it seemed harder this time—you know, wandering blindly through the desert. Even though I now had water and directions (granted, the latter came from a bird, but you take what you can get), I felt more lost than ever. Maybe it was because the salwar khameez was hotter then my soccer jersey. Maybe it was because I was relying on a pair of animals to lead me to my last hope of getting home. Maybe it was because I was leading the murderer who'd saved my life to that same place. Or maybe I was just being an ungrateful prat.
Even though I did my best, the water was nearly halfway gone before it was mid afternoon. The salwar khameez was stiff with dry sweat and my legs felt like they were about to collapse from under me. Shaking with exhaustion, I dropped to the ground. The horse knelt next to me and stared at me again, and Aras fluttered back into view from behind the sand dune over which he'd just disappeared. When he landed on Hatim's shoulder, he jerked awake so quickly I jumped.
"Why aren't you on the horse?" he asked, voice harsh as grating sand.
I stared at him like he'd grown a second head, "I can barely stay on with you holding me. I'd fall off, what with you being all unconscious and everything."
He blinked at me for a second, then turned to the falcon as if seeing him for the first time, "Aras?" he whispered.
I nodded, answering for the bird, "Yeah. You told me to follow it, remember?"
Hatim groaned and I sat up, scared that he was in more pain, but he looked more frustrated than hurt when I saw his face. "I am an idiot," he grimaced, "And my brother will have my head for it."
"What?" I asked, feeling the weight of the last two days come down on me.
Hatim ignored me as he fumbled in one of the saddlebags and smiled as he pulled out a long, pointy stick and a black inkwell. Aras hopped over and stuck out his leg obligingly. As I watched, Hatim wrote a quick phrase on a thin scroll of paper and rolled it carefully into a small carrying case attached to the bird's leg that I hadn't noticed before. Then he lifted his arm, forcing the falcon to take flight. It dwindled to a black dot in the sky and then disappeared entirely.
Hatim dismounted slowly and knelt by me. I blinked up at him, trying to fight the deep, bone-tired that had seeped through me very suddenly. "What?" I asked again.
"You can rest now," when he sat down, I could see that he was moving around the injury, and I wondered how he'd managed to pull himself out of that sleep. For a while there, it had seemed like he was dead.
"Okay," I nodded and then slumped against the dune.
Hatim, now full of energy, hopped up and started pacing the area around the horse and I. "You should rest now. You've been walking in the heat of the day… help will be here soon."
I wasn't in much of a position to argue, but the heat was making me irritable, "You're the one with the bullet in your shoulder," I reminded him.
He stood still, scanning the horizon, "I have known worse injuries."
I snorted a bit, "Yeah, and I've been running in heat as bad as this." Okay, so it wasn't completely true. But I was afraid that if I closed my eyes, he would disappear and I would realize that I'd spent a day and a half talking to myself.
Hatim turned his eyes to me, "Really, Cally—"
"Cal," I corrected.
"Cal," he conceded and continued, "You need the rest as much as I. Everything will be fine… you'll see."
Another wave of exhaustion washed over me, and I decided I could trust him at least one more time. If he suddenly decided to kill me in my sleep, well, I guess I'd learn my lesson.
When he shook me awake later, I decided trust wasn't the issue with this guy. It was communication.
Maybe it hadn't occurred to him to mention the fact that the men coming to collect us were like advanced versions of Scary Dude… and that they'd be royally pissed with him.