Menagerie - Part 1
Written by: Anna Hansen
Story Concept by: Rahsaan Footman
Sata emerged from the enclave of Brooklyn's protective wings and, in one sweeping glance, took in her surroundings. "Brooklyn-san," she whispered, "what is this place? It is beautiful, is it not?"
Behind her, she heard Brooklyn fold his wings. "Sure," he said. "If you like mountains, and snow, and never-ending sky."
They stood on a rock platform, nestled in what seemed to be snow-covered wilderness. It was just after sunset, and tendrils of light played along the white ground. All around them, enormous mountains thrust upwards. Huge peaks were silhouetted against the orange sky.
Sata turned away from the beauty, to stare at her mate. "Brooklyn," she chastised, "I do not understand your bad mood. You have been ill tempered for days now. If there is something wrong, I suggest you tell me about it."
Brooklyn closed his eyes. Irritation creased the lines beneath his eyes and around his beak. During their travels, Sata had learned that her mate could be quick tempered and moody, but she'd never seen him like this.
He walked toward a rock, brushed the snow from the flat surface, and sat on it. "Sata, don't you sometimes wonder at all this travelling? Don't you sometimes feel frustrated that the direction of our lives is left to the whim of a... a..." he gestured in the direction of the pouch attached to his loincloth, where he kept the Phoenix Gate, "a talisman?"
Sata examined her mate for a moment, thinking about what he'd just said. Then, she moved toward him. "Brooklyn-san," she said gently. She stopped beside him, and caressed a lock of his white hair. "Ah, Brooklyn-san. I am not without sympathy for what you are feeling. You miss your clan, just as I miss mine. But-"
"Oh, I'm not just talking about my clan," Brooklyn said, slapping Sata's hand from his hair. "I'm talking about comfort. I'm talking about the fact that we never get a chance to settle down, not even for a moment. I'm talking about the fact that a few minutes ago, we were just about ready to sit down to our first hot meal in weeks, and then the Phoenix Gate became active, and all that roasted chicken, hot peas, and gravy went to waste."
Sata smiled, trying to be understanding. She'd felt hurt when he'd slapped her hand from his hair, but she didn't want to show him how deeply his action had affected her. "It is different for you than it is for me, my love. When I made the choice to be mated with you, I knew the life I was choosing for myself. I understood the sacrifice I was making. Because I made a conscious decision to travel through time, to be with you, I have never felt like a victim - "
"A victim! I'm not a victim."
"A bad choice of words, perhaps," Sata conceded. "But the truth is, you've never felt as though you've had any control over your fate. Not since you started timedancing. That loss of control makes you irritable now. Brooklyn-san, I understand how you feel, but you must -"
Brooklyn curled his talon into a fist, and beat it against the rock. "Don't tell me what I must and mustn't do. And do you have to always have an answer to everything? Can't you, for once, not have something to say?"
Sata stepped backwards, this time unable to hide her hurt. She opened her mouth to reply, when she heard a voice behind her.
"Gargoyles," came the whisper.
The sound caught Sata's attention, and forced her to stop thinking about Brooklyn for a moment.
Sata whirled around, instinctively pulling her blades from her obi. She found herself face to face with an old woman.
The old woman's face was lined; the wrinkles around her mouth and eyes were particularly deep. She had long, white hair which flowed, unbound, down her back. Her clothes looked worn, and ancient. She wore baggy trousers, and a flowing shirt. Both were strewn with patches.
The old woman glanced at Sata's blades, and laughed. "Gargoyle," she said. Her voice was surprisingly strong. "My name is Rani, guardian of the sanctuary, direct descendant of Haroun, the first guardian. Your kind, I know, often pay little heed to names. So, I would be honored if you would simply call me friend." Her wrinkled eyes widened slightly, and Sata saw that the ancient face held a pair of warm, brown eyes.
Sata cautiously lowered her blades.
"Sata," Brooklyn protested, "it could be a trick."
"I think not," Sata spoke as she searched Rani's face. She saw honesty in the depths of her eyes.
"Sata," Rani whispered. "You have a name. And it is Sata." It was as though she were speaking to herself. And then, more loudly, she said, "Both of you are welcome to sit in front of my fire. Please understand, you can trust me."
Sata glanced at Brooklyn.
Sata said, "We accept your hospitality. Please, lead the way."
They walked through the powdery snow, leaving deep footprints with every step they took. The light in the sky slowly diminished.
Before long, they arrived at the house of their hostess.
It was a large house, made of wood, and built with a high, pointed roof, presumably to combat the problems of snow. The doors were, surprisingly, more than large enough to accommodate a gargoyle. Sata stepped into the house immediately after Rani, and was followed by Brooklyn.
It was warm inside. A fire crackled in the fireplace. Mats, woven from bark, covered the floor. A bed sat in the corner of the room, covered in a bright, multi-colored blanket. The remains of a stew sat in a pot over the fire. The smell of meat and herbs filled the air.
"This is my home," Rani said. "Make yourself comfortable."
"Comfortable enough to eat the stew?" Brooklyn asked eagerly.
Sata elbowed him in the ribs. "Rani," she said, "this is such a small room, inside such a big house. Do you live here alone, or do others live with you?"
Rani glanced at her. "Sometimes, others live with me," she said. "The rest of the time, I'm alone."
"What are you now?" Sata asked.
"Now," Rani said, "I'm alone."
"Strange old woman, if you ask me," Brooklyn whispered in Sata's ear.
Sata elbowed him again. "What do you use the rest of the house for?"
Rani smiled, her whole face crumpling together as she did so. "I'll show you."
Rani led Sata and Brooklyn through a set of double doors, into another room.
It seemed as though this room were set up like a museum. There were swords displayed in glass cabinets, pots and pans on stands, photographs on the walls, and instruments laid out on tables, which could be eating utensils, or tools used for weaving and crafts.
Sata didn't take much time to inspect the smaller displays. Her gaze was drawn to the larger one.
It was of a creature. Large. At least eight feet tall. He stood on the ground, his arms by his sides, his eyes closed as though he were asleep. His body was covered with long white hair. The only part of him not covered by hair was his face. This was covered with hard, brown skin. His nose was large, his jaw wide.
He was smiling.
"I have never," Sata said, approaching the figure, "met one such as this."
"It's a replica," Rani said, "made of clay and yak's fur."
Sata touched it. The hair felt coarse. "So," she said, turning to her hostess, "animals such as this one do not live?"
"Oh, they live. This one is a replica of one named Melchior, who lived here over one thousand years ago. He is one of the ones who founded this place - this sanctuary - for misunderstood creatures."
"Yes, misunderstood creatures."
"If you two are going to chat for a while, can I help myself to some stew?" Brooklyn asked. "I'm hungry."
"Brooklyn, wait," Sata said. She addressed Rani again, "What do you mean by misunderstood creatures?"
"Melchior," Rani said, "was a yeti. Yeti have lived in the Himalayas for tens of thousands of years, longer than humans. Once humans discovered them, they hunted them. Melchior was escaping entrapment by humans when he first came here, bringing with him his friends, Darice and Li."
"I'm going into the other room," Brooklyn said. "At least there I can enjoy the smell of food."
After he'd gone, Sata said, "Darice and Li were also yeti?"
"No. Darice was a were-cheetah and Li was a dragon. When the three arrived here, they made this place their home. They also arrived with my ancestor, who was just a boy at the time, and who was made the human protector of the sanctuary. One of my family have filled that role ever since."
Sata tried not to show her surprise. For one family to maintain a sanctuary for a thousand years was truly amazing.
"This house was built more recently, you understand," Rani said, "But this part of the mountain has always been a sanctuary for those creatures who seek to escape the human world. I keep this room as a monument to the founders of this place, to give inspiration to the poor souls who find their way here."
Brooklyn returned, just as Rani was finishing her explanation.
"It is," Sata whispered, "a noble idea."
"Do you give those poor souls any food?" Brooklyn asked.
"Brooklyn-san," Sata admonished. "Where are your manners?"
"I'm sorry, Sata," Brooklyn said, sarcastically, "they must have fallen into the hollow which is in the place where my stomach used to be."
"Of course, we offer our guests food," Rani said quickly, intervening before an argument could ensue. "If you would both come back to my living quarters..."
Sata turned to leave. Behind the door, an object that looked like a large sarcophagus caught her eye. "What is this?" she asked, approaching it. A shiver ran down her spine, spiking along her tail.
The stone block was, indeed, a sarcophagus. On the lid, carved into the thick material, was a figure of a gargoyle.
"That gargoyle died in these mountains," Rani said. "The sarcophagus is Melchior's memorial to her. He made it himself."
"Her," Sata whispered. "She was a female gargoyle." She rolled her hand along the beautifully carved face, along high cheekbones, fanged mouth, and narrow jaw.
Rani said. "Melchior loved her. He never loved anyone else."
"Oh," Sata said. An eerie feeling filled her.
"Sata," Brooklyn called.
Sata looked up.
Brooklyn raised his eyebrow ridges at her. "Food?"
"Yes, Brooklyn-san," Sata said, her thoughts still on the dead gargoyle. "I'm coming." She didn't move away from the sarcophagus, however.
"Oh, jalapena," Brooklyn muttered. "Better get here quickly, Sata. We're about to leave again."
Sata looked up. She glanced at the pouch attached to Brooklyn's loincloth, and saw the orange light emanating from it. Quickly, she jumped into Brooklyn's arms, checking that she had her blades as she did so.
"Yet another hot meal eludes us," Brooklyn muttered, as the orange light swallowed them.
"Farewell, Rani," Sata said.
"Farewell, Sata," Rani mouthed.
* * * * *
The Silk Road, 8th Century
As the light from the Phoenix Gate faded, a strong wind grabbed Brooklyn, swirling around him. It tore at his wings, whipped his hair. Sand stung his eyes. He fell to the ground with a thud, and, out of habit, released Sata.
"What is going on here!" he shouted. He tried to catch a glimpse of his surroundings, but he could see nothing through the haze of whirling sand. He was, it seemed, in the middle of a sandstorm.
"Sata!" he cried, realizing that he'd lost sight of her.
Jade green flashed in his peripheral vision. He turned to it. Amidst the flying particles, he saw her. She'd covered her face with one wing. Her black hair danced above her head. She reached one talon toward him, and Brooklyn reached a talon back.
"Sata!" he cried again. He stretched toward her. He stretched more. And a little bit more. Just as their talons were about to touch, the wind changed direction, knocking Sata over.
Brooklyn lost sight of her again. "Sata!" he cried one last time. And then the familiar feeling of petrification overcame him, surprising him.
Sunrise. Oh, no.
* * * * *
The boy Haroun waited patiently, with the rest of the caravan, for the sandstorm to pass. He was a bit frightened, but they weren't in the sandstorm's path, and he figured he was safe.
From his high vantage point, Haroun watched. The sandstorm swirled like a wild, angry beast, trailing quickly across the bleak sand dunes, leaving behind it a trail of soft, rippled sand which looked like the pelt of a camel. Behind him, the sun crept slowly above the horizon, a huge bauble of light.
"It's safe to move on," Mesrour, the leader of the caravan and Haroun's father, called after a while. "We can still walk some distance before the sun gets too high. Ready the animals."
Haroun shifted himself from his position in the sand, wiping the grit from his trousers. He stared at the long line of bactrian camels. There were one thousand and eleven of them. He had, one night, counted them. Seeing them, he gulped. This was his first trip across the desert with his father. He hadn't yet learned to feel comfortable around the animals.
"Move," Mesrour shouted in Haroun's ear.
Haroun jumped, and ran to the camels. They stank. Most of the humps had started to droop. Haroun checked that each of the camels for which he was responsible still carried its load - jugs of figs and bags of spiced wine tied to the flanks, and rolls of brightly colored silk tied between the two humps. Then, he stepped to the side of the line of animals, and waited as his father and the two men who helped him lead the camel caravan, readied themselves.
People started to shout. The camels awkwardly stood up.
Mesrour shouted again, his voice loud and commanding. He pounded the rump of the lead camel. The line began to move - slowly, and steadily, as one entity. The wind ruffled their fur, and the precious silks on their backs. Sand caught in their eyelashes. They left fleeting hoofprints in the sand, as they walked forward with certainty.
Haroun walked beside them, keeping his eye on the line of camels, making sure that nothing fell off. Occasionally, he stumbled on the slippery sand and fell, but he was always quick to right himself again. Once or twice, he looked at his father, at the front of the caravan. The man was tall and frighteningly strong. The sun had darkened his skin to a deep, leathery beige. Beads of white sand stuck to his immense, black beard. When he reached toward a camel, to pat its rump, the action was precise, and hard. He walked smoothly, like the camels himself. Haroun didn't think he would ever be as confident as his father.
"Hey, boy!" One of the men close to Haroun called. His name was Firouz. "Pick up the cloth that just fell to the ground."
Haroun looked down at the ground, and saw a square piece of blue cloth half covered in sand, being tortured beneath the hooves of the camels. Eager to please the men with whom he worked, he dodged the camels' hooves and picked up the cloth. When he lifted it, he realized it stank of sweat. Dirt smeared across it. It was, he decided, the cloth which Firouz had been using to wipe the perspiration from his brow as they walked, not something which had dropped from a camel.
"Here," Firouz said. "Give it to me."
Haroun ran to Firouz, and handed the cloth to the man. Beneath the white of his coiled turban, Firouz's eyes sparkled with cruel mirth.
Haroun wanted to make some sort of retort, but he didn't dare. Instead, he took his position at the side of the caravan, and continued to walk. He seethed.
"Stop!" Mesrour called suddenly.
The camels slowed to a halt.
Haroun, too, stopped in his tracks. He stared at his father, wondering what was going on.
Firouz and some other men ran to the front of the caravan, to see what was happening.
From his vantage point not far away, Haroun watched what was happening.
Mesrour pointed to something in the sand. "Dig it out," he said. "Let's see what it is."
"What have they found?" Haroun whispered to no one in particular. He dared to creep forward, quietly so as not to attract the attention of the others. It wasn't that they'd mind his curiosity. It was only that, whenever the men seemed to remember him, they always gave him some awful job to do.
Haroun stopped next to the lead camel, leaned against its hard girth, and stared in the direction in which Mesrour was pointing.
He saw it, then. A stone statue, half immersed in sand. It was gray, and blended well with the pale yellow of the sand. It seemed to be a winged woman, holding one of her wings in front of her face, as though to guard it.
"Dig it out," Mesrour ordered.
Firouz and another man, Khacun, ran to the statue. Haroun lingered, until his father said, "Haroun! Where are you?"
The older man stepped backward, nearly tripped over Haroun, and stared down at him.
Mesrour clipped Haroun's ear and said, "Lazy boy. Go and help."
Haroun ran, falling into the sand behind the statue, and digging it out with his hands. Sand buried itself beneath his short fingernails as he worked.
Eventually, most of the statue was exposed to the air.
"Hey, boss, what do you think this is?" Firouz asked.
"I would think that's pretty self evident," Mesrour said. "It's a statue."
"But... A statue of what?" Firouz stood back and whistled.
Now, with a less hampered look at her, Haroun could see that it wasn't a woman at all, but some sort of demon. She was snarling, exposing sharp, scary fangs. Her hands and feet were clawed. She was tall, her arms and thighs strongly muscled.
"I'd hate to see that on a dark night," Firouz said.
"Never mind what it's a statue of," Mesrour said. "Just tie it onto the caravan. I'm sure we can fetch a nice price for it in Samarkand. The Caliph himself might want to buy her."
Firouz and Khacun both looked surprised. The camel caravan dealt in silks, not statues. Nevertheless, they did what they were told. They lifted the statue out of the sand, took it to one of the front camels of the caravan and, discarding two pots of figs, tied the statue onto the animals flank.
The camel stomped once, evidently surprised by the new weight, but other than that, it remained still.
Haroun watched the proceedings. He stared at the statue, amazed and just a little bit frightened.
"Boo!" Firouz shouted, turning away from the statue and stamping his foot in front of Haroun.
Firouz laughed. "Perhaps we should make you guardian of the statue."
"All... right," Haroun said slowly, reluctantly. He didn't want the men of the caravan to think he was a coward.
"No," Khacun replied. "That's too easy a job. Let him go back to watching the cloth."
This time, both men laughed.
Haroun remembered the blue cloth which he'd saved from the camels' hooves. Firouz's cloth. He flushed, embarrassed and annoyed.
"I'll watch the statue," Firouz declared. "After all, it's not as though she's going to scratch my eyes out, now is it?"
"I don't care who watches the statue," Mesrour said. "Just make sure nothing happens to her."
"All right," Firouz promised.
Haroun shut the sound of the men's conversation out of his mind, and stared at the statue. She lay suspended on her side, attached to the camel with ropes. He realized that the more he stared at her, the less frightened he became. "She's beautiful," he whispered, and touched the strange horns on her head, and the pointed ears.
He didn't notice the camel move, so transfixed was he by the statue. But he smelled the rotten breath. He pulled away. But he was too late. The camel nipped his hand.
"Ouch!" Haroun glared at the camel, at the dark brown, heavily lashed eyes. The animal looked sleepy, bored. "Rotten beast," Haroun cried, sucking the wound.
Firouz's laughter rang in his ears.
* * * * *
"Stop that!" Haroun finally exploded.
They'd stopped the caravan mid-morning, and had pitched their tents to seclude themselves from the worst of the sun. But none of them had slept. Not in the heat. They'd started to travel again in the late afternoon, following the road as it ceased to head west, and started to head north.
The barren landscape had gradually changed from sand dunes, to a coarse kind of scrub, still consisting mainly of sand, but also harboring stumpy, rounded bushes, which scratched against Haroun's legs as he walked.
The camels, as always, seemed unperturbed by the change in landscape.
As the day had worn on, Firouz, evidently tired, had become more and more annoying. Now, he was eating some dates, and he was throwing the stones at Haroun.
"Stop it," Haroun cried again, as another white stone hit him in the back of the head.
"Stop it," Firouz mimicked nastily. "If you want me to stop, Haroun, why don't you go tell your father?"
Haroun grimaced. He folded his arms in front of him, and stared at the path before him.
"What's the matter?" Firouz asked.
"You know my father doesn't care about me," Haroun replied, not looking at Firouz. "I'm a nuisance to him. An embarrassment, because I'm not strong like he is. Because I'm..." He'd been about to say, `scared of the camels,' but stopped himself in time. Firouz didn't know that Hiroun possessed such a fear, and if he found out, Haroun could forget about any possibility of continuing the journey in peace.
"Poor Haroun," Firouz crooned.
The stones kept flying. Haroun kept staring straight ahead. They continued like this for a long time.
Finally, the sun started to set. Haroun watched as the big yellow orb dipped below the horizon. He looked forward to the coolness of night.
Suddenly, a roar like that of a leopard wrenched the air. Haroun jumped high, and then dived behind one of the hardy bushes, covering his head with his arms.
The roar pierced the air again.
"What is it?" Haroun cried. He sat up, and behind the cover of the bushes, peered in the direction of the scream.
Beside the camel caravan, her feet placed firmly in the sand, her lips curled back, her fangs exposed, knives in her hands, stood the statue.
And she was alive.
* * * * *
Sata pulled out her blades, ready to fight. As soon as she'd woken from her stone sleep, she'd felt the ropes around her. Roaring, she'd torn through the weak bindings.
She'd frightened the beast to which she'd been attached and it had stumbled, terrified, and had started biting the animal in front of it.
Now, behind her, she could hear the sound of confused animals stomping. But Sata's wasn't concerned with the animals. She was concerned with the humans before her.
"Why have you trapped me?" she demanded.
"What are you?" a man holding some figs demanded. He was lying flat on his back in the sand, an expression of utter fear on his face.
Good, Sata thought. If they were frightened, then she could use their fear to her advantage. She could roar and scream them into supplication.
She glanced about her, to see if Brooklyn were with her. But he wasn't. She roared again. The man in front of her cowered. "What have you done with my mate?" she cried.
She looked around her again. It was then that she noticed what she hadn't before. She'd stumbled across a large group of people, travelling together with strange looking animals.
An enormous group of people.
She could not fight so many humans and win.
She realized, however, that for the moment she had the element of surprise on her side. She needed to find Brooklyn, so she used her current advantage to press her point.
"Where is the other one like me?" she said.
Sata then noted a movement in the bushes. She turned to it, blades poised. "Come out where I can see you," she shouted.
The bush moved again.
The man on the ground in front of her attempted to slide away. Sata placed a foot on his chest.
"Come out," Sata again called to the bush.
She continued to glance about her, to make sure that she wasn't about to be attacked from the side or from behind. Some people approached her, swords drawn, but they seemed more frightened than prepared for battle.
Sata knew that she had to make the most of the human's amazement.
The bush rattled again.
"Come out," Sata called.
Slowly, a young boy emerged.
Sata glanced at him. He was about twelve years old. He had dark hair and enormous brown eyes which were so dark, they were almost black. Rimmed with thick lashes, his eyes were the dominant feature in his face. He looked frightened, vulnerable. Sata would have felt sorry for him, had she not been so concerned about Brooklyn.
"Where is my mate?" Sata demanded again.
The boy trembled before her. "I don't - "
Before she could hear the rest of his sentence, pain sliced her back. She screamed. Hot agony seared her shoulder. Slowly, she crumpled to the ground.
Someone, Sata realized through her pain, had managed to come up behind her, without her detecting their movement.
Her surroundings became confused. Her vision was liquid. Voices seemed to crowd her thoughts.
One voice, though, was very clear. It was a man's. And it said, "Take those knives away from her. And tie her up. Properly, this time."
* * * * *
Brooklyn opened his mouth to roar, and felt sand pour into it. Panic gripped him. He was buried in the sand. He couldn't breathe. He could barely move.
Harnessing all his strength, he pushed at the sand, using his strong talons to dig upward. He dug and dug and dug. But he felt as though he wasn't making any progress. Every time he swept aside one talonful of sand, more spilled from above to replace it.
He didn't know how deeply he was buried, but he had to keep digging. Dig. Dig. Dig. He thought about giving up, but thoughts of Sata in a similar situation, needing his help, spurred him onwards.
He dug some more. He didn't know how much time had passed. It seemed an eternity. And then he felt the warm sand at the surface, felt the freedom of the air above, and with one final surge, he stretched upwards, digging with all his might, heaving his body out of the sand.
He gasped. The air tasted sweet, and felt soothing as it spun into his lungs.
"Sata!" he croaked after a few breaths. He remembered that her name had been the last thing he'd spoken before the sun had turned him to stone the morning before. "Sata!" he blew the remaining sand from his mouth, and tried to guess where he'd last seen her. The wind hadn't blown her far from him. He knew that. He picked a spot about a yard away, and started to dig.
"Sata, I'm coming. Do you hear me, I'm going to dig you out. Don't give up."
Fear like he'd never known before gripped him. "Sata! Sata!" He called her name over and over again. He kept a mental picture of her in his mind. He plowed his talons into the sand with a strength which he hadn't known he'd possessed.
"Sata." He dug a deep hole in the sand. When he'd gone down a body length, he decided that he'd picked the wrong place. He leapt to another point in the sand, and started to dig again. He reminded himself that she couldn't survive long without air, and then he pushed the thought out of his mind, not wanting to think of the possibility that Sata might die. He continued to dig.
This time, the depth of the hole he dug was only half a body length, before he again decided that he'd picked the wrong place, and he started on another hole.
Panic now clouded his mind. He dug a shallow hole before he decided that this, too, was the wrong place. He started in another position. And then another. And another. Finally, he swept his talons across the sand in a huge, furious arc. He cried, "No!" and felt tears pouring down his cheeks.
He fell headfirst into the sand. Furious. Frustrated. Anguished. He pounded the sand with his fists. "No. No. No."
Once the storm of emotions passed through him, he lifted his head. Numbness now spread through him. He knew that Sata could not possibly have survived such a long period of time in the sand. He knew that she would have run out of air.
Eventually, he pushed all emotions from his heart. He now knew only one thing.
Dead or alive, he wanted to find her.
He stood, planning to dig every inch of the sand, if necessary, to find her. It was then that he saw, about a hundred yards away, an indentation in the sand.
"Could the storm have carried her so far away from me?" Brooklyn asked himself.
He didn't know, but he seized upon the miniscule hope, and ran toward the indentation.
It was just an indentation, a slight chink in the smooth surface of the sand. But, Brooklyn reasoned, it could have been a hole. Once. The sand was slippery. It was impossible to make a stable hole here. Brooklyn had learned that himself, while he'd been busy digging his own holes.
There were other disturbances in the sand. Smaller ones. Lots of them. And pots on the ground.
Brooklyn ran to the pots. He opened one, and found it filled with figs. He opened another, and found it also filled with figs.
It was then he saw that a long line of sand was scuffed, as though a great many animals had recently crossed the dessert.
A caravan, Brooklyn thought, remembering some stories he'd read in a book when he'd lived in Manhattan.
Hope billowed inside him. Someone had been here.
"Oh, please. Oh, please," he whispered. "Let this mean that..." He didn't dare voice his hope.
But he did allow himself to theorize. What if a caravan had come along during the day? What if they'd found Sata, still in her stone sleep, had dug her out of the sand, and... He tapped a talon thoughtfully against his jaw. Suddenly, he pointed to a pot. That was what had happened. They'd thrown the pots away, in order to make room for Sata on one of their animals.
He glanced around at the barren landscape. "That's what happened," he whispered. "That must be what happened."
In the back of his mind, he knew he was clutching at straws. The sandstorm couldn't possibly have dragged Sata so far from him. The indentation in the ground could have been made from anything; not necessarily from a buried Sata, but perhaps from a falling pot. The pots of figs could have dropped from the caravan unnoticed. It could just be a coincidence that all these things had happened so close to the place where Brooklyn and Sata had been buried.
And yet, straws or no straws, Brooklyn had to believe that Sata was alive.
"She is alive," he whispered to himself. "She is alive. I have to find her."
He stood to leave. He stared at the animal tracks leading away from the place where he now stood. He was no tracker, and the sand didn't hold imprints well, and so he had no idea in which direction the caravan had been going.
He had a fifty-fifty chance of picking the right direction.
He chose east.
He turned to leave. And then he stopped. He stared over his shoulder, peering a hundred yards in the distance, to the place where he'd been buried. If he left now, he knew he would never find this place again. Another sandstorm would surely come some time soon, and it would change the landscape, burying everything now exposed to the air, making it impossible to find any markers, even if he were to place one in the sand.
If he was wrong, if Sata wasn't alive, then she was buried here. And if that were so, he would never set eyes on her again.
Brooklyn's throat swelled. He walked back to the place where he'd emerged from the sand. He knelt down beside one of the holes which he'd dug while looking for Sata. He bowed his head.
"I love you, Sata," he said.
He lingered for a moment.
And then he stood, wiped the sand from his knees, and without looking back, followed the tracks eastward.
* * * * *
Sata knew she'd lost a lot of blood. She felt weak, dizzy. The rope around her wrists and ankles bound her tightly. She'd tried to break them, but she couldn't.
The camel upon which she lay, face down, stank. The animal was skittish. Several times, it had tried to bite her. A couple of times, it had succeeded. But the pain of that was nothing compared to the pain in her back.
They traveled for a long time in the night. The men who had been frightened of her kept their distance for a while. But after some time, one of them threw something at her. Something small. A stone, perhaps. Sata barely noticed it. She was too weak to respond.
When the men realized that she had no energy to fight them, they became more bold. Sata guessed that they were embarrassed by their initial fear of her and, angered by their humiliation, they wanted to punish her.
They started to taunt her.
"Not so scary now, are you, demon?" one said, coming up next to her.
"Pitiful now," the other one said, coming up on the other side of her.
The first one gathered enough courage to touch her. He pounded her on the back.
Sata winced in pain, but succeeded in ignoring him.
"Guess you won't be fighting us again in a hurry, will you?" the second man said.
"It's just like Mesrour says," the first one continued, "when you're dealing with a wild animal, you have to show them who's boss."
Sata curled back her lips and snarled.
But what she'd meant to sound frightening turned into an impotent squeak.
The men laughed.
Sata closed her eyes against the camel hide, and tried not to fall into despair. Nothing was going right. She was in pain. She didn't know where Brooklyn was. She had no idea how to escape, and she had no idea how to find Brooklyn even if she did manage to get away from these awful people.
She had to think. She had to come up with a plan. She was too weak to be of any use to anyone at the moment. But could she afford to wait another day? To wait until after her stone sleep, when she would be rejuvenated?
She wasn't sure.
Her situation seemed bleak.
* * * * *
They traveled for a while longer. Firouz and Khacun seemed to be enjoying their taunts of the female creature.
Haroun felt sorry for her. She must be lonely and afraid, surrounded by strangers who meant her harm, a bleeding knife wound in her back.
Despite his sympathy for her, though, Haroun was also frightened of her. He remembered her fangs, and her knives, her snarl and her roar. He didn't dare approach her.
But he did want to do something for her. "Stop throwing those stones at her, Firouz," he said. He didn't know where he'd found the courage to say such a thing.
Firouz turned to Haroun. The moonlight reflected in his eyes, and made them look sinister. "What did you say?"
Haroun's throat tightened. The palms of his hands felt sweaty. "I said, stop throwing stones at her. Can't you see she's in enough pain?"
Firouz pulled a plump date out of the palm of his hand, lifted it between his thumb and forefinger, and carefully placed it in his mouth, sucking the flesh in one easy motion. He pulled the stone out of his mouth, and threw it at Haroun. It bounced off Haroun's forehead. "Keep your comments to yourself," he said, and returned to throwing stones at the female creature.
Haroun seethed, but he didn't know what to do. He continued to do his job, watching the camels which were assigned to him, and trying not to slip in the sand.
When eventually they came to a halt, he was relieved to see that Firouz was more interested in finding a hot meal and a place to sleep, than he was in tormenting the creature.
Firouz disappeared into the darkness. With one backward glance at the creature, Haroun followed him.
* * * * *
Without any structure or tree from which to launch himself, Brooklyn hadn't the option to glide. And so he'd walked as quickly as he could across the desert, following the track before him, trying not to get discouraged by the fact that the land around him all looked the same to him.
He'd been travelling nearly the entire night, when he heard the noise.
A deep rumble vibrated through the air. The ground beneath him shook.
Hope pulsed through Brooklyn's veins. Had he found the caravan which had picked up Sata?
He quickened his pace, running in the direction of the noise.
He climbed a sand dune. When he reached the top, he was almost trampled by a horse.
The horse whinnied, and reared.
Brooklyn wrapped his wings around him and rolled out from beneath the horse's path, tumbling to the bottom of the sand dune.
A man called out, "Halt." A moment later, he ran to Brooklyn's side. "Are you all right?" he said. "Are you..." He gasped as he held his torch up to Brooklyn's face.
"Don't be frightened," Brooklyn said gently, rolling onto his back and staring at the man. "Please, don't be frightened." Brooklyn saw that the human was an older man, perhaps in his fifties, with a thick, gray beard. He wore a white turban on his head, and white robes covered his body.
"You're a gargoyle," the man said.
"Yes," Brooklyn said slowly. "You've met my kind before." For the first time since he'd started his journey that evening, Brooklyn felt happy. "You have my mate?"
The man shook his head. "Your mate? No. And I've never seen the likes of a gargoyle before. I've only heard stories about you."
The happiness which had filled Brooklyn suddenly disappeared.
"You're troubled," the man said.
"You could say that."
"Papa?" a voice cried in the darkness.
"I'm all right, Agib," the man shouted back. He turned to Brooklyn. "That is Agib, my son. He worries a great deal. He doesn't like it when anything out of the ordinary happens. My name is Soul. I'm the driver of this caravan."
Soul helped Brooklyn to stand.
"Brooklyn," said Soul, "It is not good for one to travel this road alone at night. Not even if that someone is a gargoyle. There are brigands about, thieves. The caravans which travel along this road have learned to travel in large numbers, to avoid the risk of being attacked. I invite you to travel with us, for your own safety."
Brooklyn rubbed his jaw. "That's kind of you. But I'm searching for my mate. We turned to stone during a sandstorm this morning, and when I woke this evening, she was gone. But I did see evidence of a caravan passing through, and now I follow the tracks of that caravan, to see if I can find her."
"You go the wrong way," Soul said.
Brooklyn's jaw dropped. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that I have not passed another caravan in three days. If your mate was picked up by a caravan passing through today, it went west - toward Samarkand."
"But..." Brooklyn felt dizzy. "I've wasted an entire night."
Soul clapped him on the shoulder. "Join my caravan," he said. "You can help guard us while we travel, and in return for your work, we'll feed you. We'll take you to Samarkand, where you're bound to find your mate."
Brooklyn shook his head. "How can I? They're nearly a day ahead of us. We can't possibly catch up with them, can we?"
"Before Samarkand? No. But once we reach Samarkand, your mate should be fairly easy to find."
"Why do you say that?"
"The Caliph of Samarkand collects..." Soul hesitated.
"Go on," Brooklyn urged.
"He collects animals. For a zoo. It's rumored that he also collects mythical beings, as well. And humans who are... unusual. He'd pay a high price for a gargoyle."
Brooklyn sucked in his breath. "That's appalling."
"Yes," Soul said slowly. "It is."
Brooklyn flicked his tail, whipping the sand, as he thought over Soul's proposal. It was highly likely that Soul was trying to trick him - that the driver of the horse caravan wanted to sell him to the Caliph.
Yet Brooklyn knew he didn't have much choice. If Soul were right, then he was going in the wrong direction. If he were wrong...
"All right," Brooklyn said. "I'll come with you."
* * * * *
Sata sat on the ground, leaning against the stone wall of an old, decaying building. The one called Khacun had pulled her down from the horse, and had left her in the darkness, her arms and legs still tied, while he had gone looking for food.
Since that time, Sata had been busy trying to break her bindings. She could hear the sounds of laughter coming from numerous campfires. She could smell the distinctive odor of charcoal. More faintly, she could also smell camels. No one seemed to be guarding her, and she knew this was her best opportunity for escape.
The wound in her back had ceased to throb, but still hurt.
She'd just managed to snap the bindings around her arms, when the boy came along.
Sata was so frustrated, she almost snarled at him.
But she knew that her advantage now lay in the fact that her captors didn't believe her capable of escape. If she showed some spirit, they'd immediately put a guard on her, and then she would have no chance of finding Brooklyn. So she remained calm, almost docile, as the boy approached.
He knelt in the sand a few yards away from her. He looked wary. In his hand, he held a plate made of metal. The moonlight glinted off the rough edges.
The light from the fire illuminated the back of his head, making it look as though he had a halo. His face was touched by shadow, but Sata could still see it clearly with her gargoyle eyesight.
"Why are you here?" Sata asked the boy.
"I'm Haroun," the boy said. "My father told me... My father told me to come and feed you."
Sata narrowed her eyes. "Why do they care for me? I am a monster to your people. They have treated me badly up until now. Why do they suddenly change their minds?"
The boy swallowed. "My father - he's the caravan driver - he wants to sell you to the Caliph of Samarkand. You'll be..." he faltered. He stared down at the plate in his hand.
It became clear to Sata that he wasn't going to finish his sentence. So, she finished it for him. "I am worth more alive than I am dead," she said. "Is that it?"
Haroun looked up. "Yes. That's it. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
Sata snarled. "I have a wound in my back, I am imprisoned, I have lost my mate, and you are worried about hurting my feelings? Child, your sense of honor is seriously misplaced."
Haroun flushed. Sata noticed that the hand which held the plate trembled.
"I am sorry," he said. "For everything. I'm even sorry that Firouz threw date stones at your back all night. I'm the one he usually picks as a target."
Sata stared at Haroun, her anger slowly dissipating as she remembered the trip during the evening. "So you are the one," she said. "You tried to stop him." Her memory grew sharper. "You noticed my plight and you tried to help me. I remember, now."
Her gentler tone of voice must have given Haroun some courage, because he scampered closer to her.
"Yes," he said. "I... I don't like it when people inflict pain on others."
"A noble dislike," Sata commented.
Haroun again looked away from her. This time, he stared at the ground. "Perhaps," he said. "But one which isn't appreciated by my father, or by the people who travel with the caravans."
"Oh?" Sata asked. "Why is that?"
Haroun took a deep breath. "Life on a caravan is a hard one. The journeys are long, and dangerous. Caravans are often attacked for the goods they carry. Or people die in sandstorms. Or they freeze in the mountains. The lifestyle is treacherous, and the men are hard people. They have to be. They have to harden their spirits, or else the pain of what they see and experience would destroy them."
"But if they lose their compassion," Sata said, "are they not already destroyed?"
Haroun lifted his face. His huge eyes met hers. "I don't know. Maybe. I only wish..." he stopped himself, and started again. "Anyway," he continued, "they don't respect anything but strength and bravery, two things which I don't have. They don't appreciate compassion."
"But you do." Sata wondered what Haroun had been about to say, what he was going to wish for. But she decided that she wouldn't ask. If Haroun wanted to tell her, he would.
"Thank you," she said. "For defending me. I won't forget it."
Haroun bowed his head. "Forgive me for not having the courage to help you more."
Sata smiled slowly. "You have courage, Haroun."
"I don't," Haroun said. "But it's kind of you to say that I do. Now, I've been told that I'm not allowed to untie you. So, I must feed you by hand. May I?"
Sata stared at the boy. He again looked frightened. She nodded. "I promise that I won't bite off any fingers."
The boy turned pale.
Sata smiled. "I like you, Haroun. I won't hurt you. My name, by the way, is Sata."
"Sata," the boy whispered the name, as though he could taste the sound of it on his lips. "That's a nice name."
He moved closer to her, with the plate, and as he approached, the smell of charred bread and gravy drifted toward Sata's nostrils. She waited as Haroun tore off a piece of the unleavened bread, and soaked it in the gravy. When he lifted the bread in his fingers, Sata opened her mouth. Haroun dropped the bread between her teeth. Gravy dripped down her jaw.
The bread was hard, tasteless. The gravy was bitter. But Sata hadn't eaten for days. In her hunger, she nearly swallowed the food whole. Between each bite, Haroun wiped the gravy from her jaw. And with every bite, and every wipe, Haroun became more and more comfortable in Sata's presence.
When the food had all gone, he said to her, "I'll try to help you as much as I can. I'll keep the men from hurting you any more."
* * * * *
Haroun fell asleep beside Sata. He was barely conscious of the fact that she sang to him.
He slept more soundly than he had since he'd joined his father's caravan. He dreamt sweet, pleasant dreams, of flowers and trees and animals, the likes of which didn't flourish in the desert. He dreamt of his mother, who had died three months ago.
When he awoke, he was disoriented. He blinked, and looked about him. At first, he wasn't sure where he was. It was dark, and he couldn't see anything. Then, he recognized the familiar scent of the camels, and he remembered everything. He remembered starting the journey with the caravan, he remembered Firouz throwing date stones at him, he remembered finding a statue buried in the sand...
He remembered Sata.
He turned to the stone wall where he last seen her, leaning against it, singing.
But she was gone.
"Sata," he hissed. "Sata, where are you?" His voice carried a long way in the darkness.
And then Haroun heard a roar, about a hundred yards away from him, and he realized that this was the noise which had woken him.
"Get her," Haroun heard, in the darkness, the sound of his father's voice.
Sata, he thought, as his heart pounded in his chest. What were they doing to Sata?
* * * * *
Soul raised his arm, and called for the horse-driver to stop their animals.
Brooklyn had been walking beside the caravan for an hour. The sand was still thick beneath his feet, and all around him towering sand dunes made him feel small, dwarfed. He was tired, but when he saw Soul's hand go up, he ran to the head of the caravan on sore, tired feet and said to the caravan driver, "Why are we stopping?" If Soul was surprised by Brooklyn's outburst, he didn't show it. "The horses are tired," he said. "The men are hungry. We need to stop for a while, and rest."
"No," Brooklyn said.
Soul smiled sympathetically. "Brooklyn," he said quietly, "I know how eager you are to reach Samarkand - "
"Eager doesn't even half way describe how I feel about reaching Samarkand."
"We're travelling as fast as we can," Soul said. "The horses can only travel so far without food, and rest. Trust me when I say that we're making good time. Trust me also when I tell you that I'll only stop the caravan long enough for everyone to get the rest they need, and then we'll start again."
"Soul - "
"Brooklyn, we're still two days from Samarkand. If I push the horses and the men too hard, they simply won't make it. I ask you one more time to trust me."
Brooklyn stared at the man. His smile was kind and sincere. Brooklyn said, "I don't like lingering any longer than we have to but..." He sighed. "You're making sense."
Soul's smile widened. "Good. Now, why don't you sit in the sand over there? There aren't any branches or twigs around to build a fire, but I can promise you a filling meal of bread and figs and spiced wine, if you're up to it?"
Brooklyn shrugged, not concerned about food. He sat in the sand, in the place that Soul had indicated, and he tilted his head back to stare at the stars, bright and more glittering than they had ever been in Manhattan.
He thought about Sata, and wondered if she, too, were looking at the stars.
He refused to think about the fact that he might have left her buried in the sand.
Thinking about Sata made him impatient to move on again. Although he knew the wisdom of stopping, he resented the horses and the people around him for wanting to stop. He heard laughter coming from a group of men in the distance, and their ability to be amused, their complete lack of concern for his situation, rose his ire so much that when Agib touched his shoulder and offered him a plate of food, Brooklyn could do nothing but stare at the meal, blinking.
"Take it away," Brooklyn said, testily. He swiped the plate from Agib's hands with his talon, and the meal soared threw the air, landing face down in the sand, a few feet away.
Startled, Agib screamed.
Soul ran over. "What is it?" he asked. He was pale. Concern etched his face.
"I don't want food," Brooklyn said, testily.
Soul stared from Brooklyn, to the plate on the ground, to the startled boy. He drew his son to him, whispering words of reassurance to the boy. Then, he stared at Brooklyn. His eyes were hard. "Don't you ever do that again."
Brooklyn swallowed. Hard. The look of chastisement on Soul's face made him feel guilty. The need to defend himself reared. "I'm not hungry," he said.
Soul shook his head. His face had turned from a pale hue to one of deep, angry crimson. "If you're not hungry, you show some manners by saying, 'No, thank you.' You don't frighten my son, and you don't waste our precious food supplies by throwing it away."
Brooklyn felt even more chagrined than before. He could imagine Sata saying the same thing to him, and that made him feel even worse. "I'm sorry," he said. He stood, walked over to the place where the plate had fallen in the sand. He knelt beside the overturned plate, turned it right side up, and picked up the bread and figs, dusting off each piece of food before placing it back on the plate.
Brooklyn turned to face the caravan leader again. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "I've behaved rudely, when you've been nothing but kind to me." Brooklyn looked at the boy. "I'm sorry I frightened you, Agib." Brooklyn looked down at the sand-covered food on his plate. He selected a fig, placed it in his mouth, and bit down hard. Juice ran down his tongue, and squirted around the corners of his beak. Gritty sand caught in his teeth. He smiled at the boy and said, "This is good."
Agib, who had been staring warily at him up until this point, smiled shyly.
Soul said to his son, "Why don't you go and fix your own dinner. I'll join you in a minute."
Agib looked up at his face, briefly, and then he ran into the darkness, toward the horses.
Soul turned his attention to Brooklyn. "So, do you want to talk about it?"
"Talk about what?" Brooklyn asked.
"What's bothering you?"
"I've lost my mate - " Brooklyn started.
"Apart from that. There's something else."
Brooklyn stared at Soul. There was a light of wisdom deep in the man's eyes. Brooklyn had learned on his journeys not to trust people too easily; even now, a warning bell rang in his mind. But he ignored his own suspicions, and found himself succumbing to the note of compassion in the man's voice.
Soul said, "Why don't you sit down again?" He gestured toward the sand, where Brooklyn had been sitting only moments before, "And tell me about it?"
Brooklyn lowered himself to the sand, and waited for Soul to do the same thing. When his companion was comfortable, Brooklyn started, "It is about my mate going missing." Brooklyn rubbed his beak. "More than anything else, I'm worried that I'll never see her again."
"But?" Soul asked.
"But..." Brooklyn hesitated. "Sata, that's my mate, is a strong gargoyle. A tough warrior, but also a great thinker. She isn't impulsive as I am. She always considers her options, and chooses the one most likely to produce a favorable outcome."
"Sounds like good qualities to have in a mate."
"Yes," Brooklyn said. "But I'm afraid, I've never been grateful of her talents."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean..." Again, Brooklyn hesitated. "I mean, the last time we were together, before the sandstorm, I was fighting with her. I was annoyed by the fact that she always took in her stride whatever troubles came our way. I was annoyed that she was always unruffled. The last time we were together, I was angry with her."
"Ah," Soul said, nodding his head. He sounded grave, but when Brooklyn cast a glance in his direction, he saw that the man was smiling.
"This isn't funny," Brooklyn said, irritated.
"No," Soul said, the smile disappearing from his face. "I agree, it's serious. It's serious because it bothers you."
"No," Brooklyn argued. "It's serious because the last time I saw Sata, I wasn't showing her that I loved her."
"And therefore you worry that, in those last moments with her, she didn't think you loved her?"
Brooklyn gulped. "Yes."
"Ah, Brooklyn," Soul said. "All couples argue. Even when you were angry with her, did you still love her?"
"And so it is with all couples. You argue, but you don't stop loving one another. Your Sata sounds like a wise gargoyle. She would have known that. She wouldn't have doubted for a moment that, no matter how irritated or angry you were, you still loved her."
"But..." Brooklyn started.
"It's only fate's bad timing that parted you before you could resolve your argument. But you would have resolved it. You must accept that in your mind, and not let it torment you."
Quietly, Brooklyn said, "I don't know if I can."
Soul smiled gently. "You must work on it."
Brooklyn nodded. As he did so, the Phoenix Gate in his pouch started to stir. Horrified, Brooklyn said, "Oh no. Speaking of bad timing..."
* * * * *
Sata ran along the edge of the camp-site, wishing that the bushes in this area were taller than shoulder-high, so that she could use them as leverage to glide; wishing that her back didn't hurt.
She knew that Mesrour had seen her. She'd heard his order to his men to 'get her.' She also knew that she had some advantage over them, in speed and night vision.
So, she continued to run through the hard, dusty land. Her only thought was of escape. She didn't care, for the moment, where she was going.
The need to escape fuelled her. She thought about Brooklyn. The possibility that she'd never see him again gave her a strength and an energy beyond her capabilities.
After a while, however, she realized that she'd underestimated the men's abilities. She could hear them, not far behind her.
A shout startled her from behind. A knife tore through the air, whizzing past her ear. With all the instincts of a warrior, Sata dived behind a bush. She willed her breathing to become even, soundless. She listened for her pursuers.
Another knife flew through the night. And then another.
They could not see her, Sata realized. They were simply taking their chances.
That realization made Sata feel better. She could wait, watch and observe. She could hope that they would move past her, and then she could run in the opposite direction. She knew she didn't have a hope of fighting them. She had a wound in her back, she was tired and weak, and besides all that, she'd left her blades with the camel caravan.
Her heart sank for a moment at the thought of having to sacrifice her blades. Her blades were part of her, and she was a part of them. They were irreplaceable. And yet logic had told her that she had to choose between her blades and finding Brooklyn.
She'd chosen finding Brooklyn.
She wouldn't regret it, she reminded herself, as she pressed her face against the rough leaves of the bush behind which she hid, and waited patiently for Mesrour's men to pass.
Just when she thought she might be safe, she heard a cry. "Sata!" It was Haroun. "Sata, are you all right?"
Sata's heart pounded. What was the boy doing out here, looking for her?
One of Mesrour's men stopped, right in front of Sata. He didn't look down, thankfully, but turned toward the sound of Haroun's voice. "Haroun?" he called. "Is that you?"
Haroun appeared over some rocks. He carried no weapons with him, and he looked worried. When he saw his father's man, his eyes hardened. "Firouz. What have you done with Sata?"
"What are you doing out here?" Firouz countered. "Well, now that you're here, you can help us... Who is Sata?"
"Sata," Haroun said, standing with his arms akimbo. "The... the... living statue."
Firouz's eyes narrowed. "The creature has a name?"
"And you know it?"
Haroun's face, if possible, became harder. "I've just spent an hour feeding her. Yes, I know her name."
"Do you then..."
Just then, a wave of dizziness swept Sata. She fell forward. She lifted her talon to block her fall, and rattled the branches of the bush in front of her.
Firouz leapt away from the bush. "Who's there?" he demanded.
Sata lifted a hand to her forehead, and waited for the dizziness to subside. When it did, she looked up to see Firouz, still startled, staring into the darkness around him.
He couldn't see her, Sata reassured herself. And he was too frightened to come after her by himself.
However, Firouz had more brains than Sata had given him credit for. His hands shaking, he grabbed Haroun around the waist, lifted the boy off the ground, and placed his blade beneath the boy's throat.
"Show yourself," Firouz demanded. "Show yourself, or I'll kill the boy."
"Let go of me," Haroun cried. "Let go of me. Do you want to incur my father's wrath?"
Firouz laughed. "Your father cares nothing for you. I'd be doing him a favor by killing you."
Anger filled Sata. Blades or no blades, weak or not weak, she leapt from behind the bushes and landed in front of Firouz. "Release the boy," she commanded.
Firouz turned pale at the sight of her, but he stood his ground.
"Come back to the camp," Firouz said, "and I won't hurt him."
"Release him," Sata said, lifting her talons in a defensive pose, "and fight me properly. Don't hide behind the boy like a coward."
Firouz laughed. "I have some sense of self-preservation, you know. If I release him, you'll kill me."
"I have a wound in my back," Sata said. "I can barely walk. I've spent most of my energy running away from the camp. I think the match is even. Release him, and fight as my equal."
Firouz pressed his knife more deeply against Haroun's throat. He didn't succeed in breaking the skin but, nevertheless, Sata inwardly cringed.
Firouz took a step back from Sata and said, "Return to the camp with me, and I won't hurt him."
Sata stared into Firouz's bright, cowardly eyes. She realized that he wasn't going to give in.
She couldn't allow herself to be caught again. She had to find Brooklyn.
And yet she remembered Haroun's quiet voice, his solemn promise. 'I'll keep the men from hurting you any more.' She realized that he'd come out here, unarmed, in the darkness, to make sure she was all right. She couldn't replace his kindness by risking his life.
She whispered, "All right. I'm coming."
* * * * *
Haroun watched as his father and Firouz tied Sata, face down, on one of the camels. He felt a moment's frustration and guilt that he hadn't shown any courage during the episode between Sata and Firouz. When Firouz had held his knife to his throat, Haroun had done nothing but tremble. He'd been, in the end, no help to Sata. He had only caused her to be trapped again.
And now, he could do nothing.
Mesrour tested the ropes which bound Sata's arms and legs. Sata bit her lip in pain, but said nothing.
Mesrour said, "If you try to escape again, I will personally kill the boy."
In a strained voice, filled with pain, Sata said, "But, he's your son."
Mesrour yanked on the rope binding Sata. Sata cringed. "Listen to me, monster. I didn't ask to have a son. Nor did I ask for his mother to die, so that he would be left in my care. As far as I'm concerned, he's just another hand on the caravan. I lose hands all the time. The desert is a nasty foe. You get used to it. My purpose - my one purpose - is to take goods to Samarkand, to sell them, and to make a profit. That means getting you to the Caliph in one piece. I will go to any length to see that I obtain that particular goal, monster. Do you understand?"
Sata, pale, whispered, "Yes," and closed her eyes.
Haroun cringed, trying to pretend that his father's words didn't hurt him, trying to pretend that he didn't feel guilty about Sata's current predicament.
When Mesrour and Firouz left, Haroun took a chance and approached Sata.
He said, "Don't worry. It's me. It's a friend." And then, before she could make any reply, "I'm... I'm sorry, Sata. I let you down."
Sata opened her eyes. "Haroun, you did not let me down. You were trying to protect me. You were very brave."
"How can you say that? I just let Firouz hold me, dangling in the air while he held a knife to my throat. How can you say that I was brave, when I didn't even try to fight him?"
"It would have been a stupid thing to do, to fight him," Sata said. "He would have killed you."
"Sata - "
"Haroun, stop apologizing. I want you to do me a favor."
"In a little while, the sun will rise," Sata said. "When that happens, I will turn back to stone."
Haroun gulped. "Forever?"
"No. Only until the sun sets again. While I am asleep, I am powerless. Can you keep an eye on me, and make sure I do not get chipped? Do not risk your life in this task. But please, watch me. I will feel better, knowing that you are there."
"I will take care of you," Haroun spoke solemnly.
* * * * *
Brooklyn pulled the Phoenix Gate from his pouch and stared at it, horrified. "No," he whispered. "Not now." He tried to drop the talisman, but found that he couldn't.
"What's wrong?" Soul asked.
Brooklyn closed his eyes, waiting for the familiar pull of the Phoenix Gate, waiting for the orange light to engulf him, to take him away from his current place in time, to tear him away from Sata forever.
Brooklyn opened his eyes, and stared down at the Phoenix Gate, to find that it had stopped glowing, and that he was still sitting in front of Soul.
Brooklyn laughed, half in relief, half in fear. "False alarm." He wiped the sweat from his brow.
"What are you talking about?"
Brooklyn stared at his companion. "There is much you don't know about me, my friend."
"Evidently," Soul said.
"There's much that I can't explain, and much more that I could explain, but which you wouldn't believe."
"I'm staring at a gargoyle - a figure of legend. There is much I would believe. Why don't you try to explain your story to me?"
Slowly, Brooklyn shook his head. "I always think that the less said to the people I meet, the better. But suffice to say that... well, that what I hold in my hand... " Brooklyn lifted the Phoenix Gate, to show Soul, "this could part me from Sata forever. I thought it was about to do just that, but," Brooklyn sighed with relief, "it didn't." Brooklyn swallowed. "For now."
"For now," Brooklyn said. Quickly, he stood up.
Soul, too, rose. "Can't you throw it away."
Brooklyn shook his head. "This is my quest, for better or for worse. I'm committed to it. I must go where I'm sent."
"It may choose to send me any time it wishes to. Soul, I don't have time to waste. If I'm to find Sata, I have to go now." Brooklyn walked toward the nearest horse. He'd ridden before, many, many years ago. Would he remember how?
"Where are you going?" Soul asked.
"To Samarkand," Brooklyn said.
"But, Brooklyn, I told you, we're moving as fast as we can. Any faster..."
"I know. I know. Any faster, and your men and your horses might drop from hunger or fatigue. But Soul, I don't know how much time I have. I may only have hours. I have to make an effort to find Sata, before it's too late."
But Brooklyn had already removed the silk from one of the horse's backs, and now he was climbing on. The horse whinnied in protest, and bucked beneath Brooklyn's weight.
"Whoa," Brooklyn said.
"If you must go," Soul said. "Don't take that horse."
"What's wrong with this horse?"
"Nothing. It is sturdy. It is good for the desert. But my horse - it's a ferghana horse. The people who make the silk in the east, they value this horse more than all others. They believe that under the right circumstances, when it is moving very fast, it will take flight. It doesn't quite do that, of course. But it's very fast. Faster than the horse you're on. And it knows the trail to Samarkand. You won't get lost."
"Speed and direction is what I need," Brooklyn agreed, climbing down from the horse which he'd first chosen. "All right, I'll take it."
Brooklyn lay a talon on the ferghana horse's back. Just as he was about to climb up, conscience seized him. He turned and looked at the man who had already done so much to help him. He felt ashamed. He could almost hear Sata lecturing him about considering the rights and needs of others.
"I'm sorry," Brooklyn said. "I have no way of paying you."
"That's all right, my friend. Ride. Go quickly. It's only two hours to sunrise but, if you're lucky, you might be able catch up with the caravan that took your mate. They will have stopped to rest, too. You might have a chance."
"Thank you," Brooklyn said. He clicked his tongue, and the horse started to move beneath him. "Ah!" Brooklyn shouted, as the horse jerked to a gallop. He slipped, nearly fell, and found himself clinging to the reins with all his might.
"Relax," Soul shouted, as Brooklyn and his horse left the campsite. "Pretend that you and the horse are one being. Move with it."
Brooklyn clung to the reins, slowing pulling himself onto the horse. He took Soul's advice and relaxed.
Once he'd balanced himself on the horse, he kicked it up to speed.
Brooklyn and his horse tore across the desert. The sand blew up behind them. The wind knocked Brooklyn in the face. Slowly, the night seemed to swallow them.
Brooklyn rode the horse, hard, and for a long time. Finally, he glanced over his shoulder, and saw the first spray of light touch the eastern sky.
"Oh no," he mumbled. "Not much longer now before stone sleep."
He spurred the horse on.
The landscape about him had changed from desert, to a firmer soil. Small, hardy bushes dotted the area. A tiny, yellow bird sat on a rock, watching him.
Despair filled Brooklyn. He wasn't going to find Sata.
Then, in the distance, he saw something.
He squinted his eyes.
Camels. A long, long line of them. A caravan.
"Sata," he whispered. And then, more loudly. "Sata!" The bird, startled, leapt from his seat on the rock, and flew away.
Brooklyn kicked his horse up to speed.
The horse, which was tired and hungry, and in desperate need of water, did Brooklyn proud. It bounded quickly to a gallop, heading straight for the camel train.
Brooklyn fixed the camels in his sight, hoping beyond hope that he would make it in time.
And then something strange happened. The horse jumped over a rock. It leapt into the air, and then, with a wobble, it took off. It started to soar through the air, in a graceful, confident flight. Brooklyn couldn't contain his surprise. He glanced at the receding ground below him. The horse wasn't flying high, but it was flying.
And then, suddenly, the warmth of sunlight struck his back.
Startled, Brooklyn released the reins of his horse. He felt himself falling, as he turned to stone.
* * * * *
Haroun watched as Sata, strapped to the back of a camel, slowly turned to stone. The change looked eerie, magical. For a moment, he felt proud that something as obviously enchanted as Sata was, would put her faith in him. He was determined not to let her down.
Then, Haroun heard Firouz shout.
The caravan didn't stop, but Mesrour paused in his step, and waited until Sata's camel reached him. He fell into step beside Sata's camel, and stroked the stone statue which she had become.
"What happened?" Mesrour asked Firouz.
"The sunlight hit her in the back," Firouz explain, "and she turned to stone."
Mesrour didn't laugh. He didn't shoot Firouz a disbelieving look. He simply turned his attention back to Sata, and stroked the smooth stone of her face.
Haroun braced himself, just in case Mesrour meant to hurt Sata. But Mesrour did nothing but stroke Sata, and soon Haroun relaxed.
"She has returned to the way we found her," Mesrour said. "I wonder..." There was a wistful note in his voice. "But no... It couldn't have been a dream." He turned, and fixed his stare upon Firouz. "Watch her. She has strange powers, this one. I don't want her to fool us, and escape. The Caliph will pay a lot of money for her."
Firouz nodded, but he'd turned pale. Evidently, the idea of watching an enchanted statue didn't appeal to him.
As Mesrour was walking away, Firouz said, "I have heard stories of ones such as this."
Mesrour stopped mid-stride, and turned to appraise Firouz. "What sort of stories?"
"About demons," Firouz said. "Demons who have much power. It could be that she could grant us a wish, when she's awake."
Mesrour stared at the frozen Sata. "A wish," he said. "Hmm. Keep a close eye on her, Firouz. A very close eye."
* * * * *
When Sata changed from stone to flesh at sunset, she was relieved to find herself in one piece. She'd been frightened that the men of Mesrour's caravan might have chipped her in her sleep.
She was on a camel, roughly in the center of the caravan, and they were travelling along a narrow path, climbing mountains. The mountains were rocky and dry. Plane trees dotted the area.
The wound in her back had healed, and she was relieved to be travelling pain-free again.
Sata turned in her seat, and saw Haroun behind her. She smiled at him. "Thank you," she mouthed. She was truly grateful that she was still alive.
Before she'd even finished mouthing the words, Firouz was beside her.
"Stay where you are," Firouz said, holding a blade to her heart.
"I have no intention of moving," Sata said.
Firouz's eyes narrowed. "Forgive me if I don't trust you."
"For that," Sata spoke slowly. "I can forgive you." Her eyes flashed her anger, and Firouz stepped back, frightened.
Haroun stepped up to Sata. "Let me watch her, Firouz," he offered.
"You," Firouz said. "You'll help her escape."
Haroun shook his head. "Where would we go? Where would I go?"
But Firouz shook his head. "Mesrour would kill me if the demon escaped." He
didn't step back. "We will watch her together.
Haroun said, "As you wish."
They traveled slowly in the darkness, along the narrow trail up the mountain. Firouz stood close to Sata's camel, the blade of his knife exposed and glittering in the moonlight.
Haroun kept close to Sata as well, trying to protect her.
* * * * *
Brooklyn awoke, to find himself sitting astride a different horse from the one he'd been riding at sunrise.
The sand must have been soft enough to break the impact of his fall. He didn't seem to be hurt at all.
He glanced about him quickly, and realized he'd been picked up by Soul's caravan again.
Soul appeared beside him suddenly, and helped Brooklyn down from the horse.
"What happened?" Brooklyn asked the caravan driver, when he once again had his feet planted firmly on the ground.
"We found you on the trail about half an hour ago," Soul said. "You'd fallen from your horse, presumably when you'd turned to stone. Come, let's keep walking. We don't want the caravan to get away from us."
Brooklyn fell into step beside Soul. The air smelled different this evening. There was a sharp, leafy fragrance in the air. Brooklyn noticed that they were no longer in the desert. They were walking through a dry land, filled with small bushes. "What happened to the horse I was riding?" he asked Soul.
"He's gone," Soul said. "But don't worry about him. He knows the trail, and he probably continued on his own toward Samarkand. We'll either find him along the journey, or he'll be waiting for us at the city gates."
"I hope I didn't hurt him."
"I'm sure you didn't. A ferghana horse is strong. That's why the people of the east prize them so highly. Don't worry. I'll find him again."
Brooklyn was relieved. It hadn't been his plan to harm the horse. He'd only driven it hard because he'd been desperate to find Sata. "The strangest thing happened while I was riding that horse," Brooklyn said. "It leapt into the air, and then started to - "
"Fly?" Soul whispered. "I thought it might. You have to push a ferghana horse very hard to make him fly, and even then he will only fly when he wants to. It is a special horse."
"It is," Brooklyn agreed. And then, thinking of Sata, he continued, "I must leave again. I came within view of a camel caravan just as the sun came up. I'm sure they would be the ones who picked up Sata."
"They probably were," Soul said. "If they knew what your Sata was when they found her, then they'd realize that she was worth a lot of money. Worth more, even, than the silk they were carrying. But," Soul shook his head, "there's little chance of you catching up to them. Horse caravans travel more slowly than camel caravans. Horses have speed in the short term, you see, but they don't have the endurance of the camels, and we have to stop more often than they do. Because we no longer had you with us, we were no longer possessed with the same urgency to reach Samarkand. We stopped most of the night. As such, we only picked you up half an hour ago. That means that we're probably about fourteen hours behind the camel caravan now. You won't reach them on horseback before the sun rises."
"But I have to - "
"Brooklyn," Soul said. "Listen to me. You can't reach the camel caravan by yourself. Even if you flew there," Soul stared pointedly at Brooklyn's wings, "you would need to travel for fourteen hours without a break to catch up with the camel caravan. If the sun rises before you reach them, what happened to you today will happen to you again. You'll turn to stone, and they will continue to travel while you are in your stone sleep, and you will lose ground. You'll be torturing yourself for no good reason."
"So you suggest that I - "
"I suggest that you stay with us. We can tie you onto one of the horses when you fall into your stone sleep, and you'll reach Samarkand safely, no more than a day behind the camel caravan you saw."
"A day," Brooklyn dropped his head into his talons. "Anything could happen to Sata in a day."
"You have no choice, Brooklyn," Soul said quietly. "There is no way I can see for you to reach Samarkand earlier than that."
Brooklyn lifted his head from his hands, and shook his head. "I'm frightened that I'll never see her again." He thought about the Phoenix Gate which had glowed the night before. He checked his pouch, but saw that the gate was quiet for now.
"I know you're frightened," Soul said. "But panicking will only make things worse. Trust me."
Brooklyn's heart pounded at the thought of all he could lose. He didn't know what the right decision was - to stay with Soul, or to continue his journey by himself. Soul sounded convincing, but Brooklyn was suspicious. "Why do you want to help me?" he asked.
Soul looked sad. "You have experienced much pain, haven't you my friend? You don't trust easily."
Brooklyn shook his head. "No. I don't trust easily. I've learned that people - and gargoyles - are more often than not, only looking out for themselves. There's only one reason I can think of that you want to take me all the way to Samarkand, only one way that you'll profit from helping me. And that's if you plan to sell me to the Caliph yourself."
If possible, Soul looked sadder. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Brooklyn. All I can do is give you my assurance that I don't wish to sell you to the Caliph. That I only wish to help you find your mate."
Brooklyn scrutinized Soul for a long moment. He had been tricked too many times by acts of false sincerity that he found he couldn't fully believe Soul's claim.
And yet Soul had given him his horse the night before, thereby offering Brooklyn a way to reach Samarkand before the horse caravan, and therefore before Soul. Would that be the act of a man who planned to sell him to the Caliph of Samarkand?
Finally, Brooklyn said, "I don't think I have a choice, Soul."
"You don't," Soul said quietly.
"Then I hope you prove worthy to be trusted."
* * * * *
The camel caravan stopped once during the night, for about three hours, during which time the camels rested and the men slept. Then, about two hours before dawn, they started to travel again.
Sata, aware of the fact that Haroun would be hurt if she attempted escape, didn't make a move to cut her binds.
From listening to the conversations around her, she'd come to understand that they were within a day's journey of a major city, Samarkand. And that Mesrour planned to sell her to the Caliph of that city.
Sata figured that the best thing to do, then, was to wait until they reached Samarkand, wait until Mesrour had made his sale, and then she would try to escape.
To that end, she decided that the best thing to do now would be to feign weakness. The people around her didn't know she was a gargoyle, didn't know anything about gargoyles. No one had taken the chance to come close to her, to inspect the wound she'd incurred the day before, and so no one knew that her stone sleep had rejuvenated her. Which meant that she could pretend that she was still weak. Then, her captors might relax their bonds on her, enough so that she could escape once Mesrour had passed her to the Caliph.
It was her only chance.
Sata knew about patience, so she waited.
Mesrour stopped next to her. "Firouz tells me that you're some kind of demon. That you can grant me a wish if I ask for it. If, demon, you give me what I want, I'll free you."
Never before had Sata wished, so badly, that she were a sorceress. "What do you wish for?" she asked Mesrour.
"Make me the richest man in the world," Mesrour said, "and I'll free you."
Sata closed her eyes, and pressed her face against the camel's pelt. "I cannot grant such a wish."
Mesrour slapped her shoulder angrily. "You can grant such a wish, and you will."
Sata shook her head. The camel stank, but the smell had become familiar to her, and was no longer offensive. "I am sorry."
She turned. She saw Mesrour lift his arm to hit her again.
Behind him, Haroun cried out. He leapt into the air, and grabbed his father's arm. "Don't hit her!"
Mesrour whirled around. "You dare command me?" He lifted his arm, to hit Haroun.
Haroun cringed, and ran away.
It seemed as though Mesrour wasn't bothered, one way or the other, by the boy. He turned his attention back to Sata. "You'll not grant me my wish?"
"No," Sata said, through clenched teeth. She was furious at the way Mesrour had treated his own son.
"So be it. Then, you will be sold to the Caliph of Samarkand. And he is a far less gentle man than I am."
With that, Mesrour left.
A minute later, Haroun returned.
"Can you grant wishes?" the boy asked Sata. "If you can, can you give me courage?"
Sata stared down at Haroun. "You have courage already," she said.
She was pleased to have Haroun keep her company.
When the sun came up for the second time since she'd been taken prisoner by the driver of the camel caravan, Sata wasn't frightened. She knew that she'd still be alive when the sun set again. She felt safe with Haroun watching her.
* * * * *
Haroun walked beside the camels as the caravan continued to follow the tortuous path into the mountains. The narrowness of the road forced him closer to the camels than was comfortable. He could smell them. He could feel their breath on his neck. He imagined that they were considering biting him, and the thought made him wish that he were safe at home, with his mother's sister.
But when he looked at the stone form of Sata, trapped between the two humps of a camel, conviction rushed into his heart. He knew that he would do anything to keep his promise to his new friend.
The city of Samarkand came into view in the early afternoon. It appeared on the horizon slowly, an ochre and yellow colored citadel. They started to encounter people on the road - other travelers, or people exiting the city walls to hunt. And then the smells reached Haroun's nose. Spiced meat, onions, bread. The smells made his stomach churn, and reminded him that he'd been surviving on non-perishable, tasteless rations for nearly ten days.
"What I would give for mutton stew," Haroun whispered to the nearest camel.
The camel responded by spitting.
* * * * *
The caravan stopped outside the city walls. It was late afternoon. One thousand camels lowered themselves to the ground, bending their knees forward as they sat compactly in the dust. The sight of so many animals, although common enough in Samarkand, nevertheless attracted spectators. As Haroun checked that the camels for which he was responsible were securely tied to one another and their goods intact, he became aware of the many curious eyes resting upon him.
He looked around, at all the people. Children, women, old people. Haroun had been only within the company of young men and camels for the last ten days. Now, it felt good to be amongst a normal community again.
"I think I'll go into the city," Haroun told Firouz. "I want to wander through the markets while the sun is still up. I want to enjoy being a part of civilization again."
Firouz was tying his lead camel to a tree. He shrugged one shoulder. Clearly, he didn't care what Haroun wanted to do. But Haroun knew that it was important for him to tell someone where he was going.
"I'll be back in time for dinner," Haroun said.
"Make sure your camels are securely tied," Firouz said.
"I have," Haroun said.
Before he left, Haroun checked to see that Sata was safely sitting on the ground. He checked her for chips or scrapes, and when he was satisfied that she'd endured the journey without incident, he said to her, "You'll be safe now. I won't be gone for long. I'm going into the city. I'm going to learn what I can about the Caliph and his menagerie. When the sun sets, I'll be here waiting for you."
He figured he had an hour before sunset, before the time when his father would try to sell Sata to the Caliph of Samarkand. Haroun didn't know if he could save her, but he would try.
Haroun walked through the high, stone gate of Samarkand, and merged with the crowds of people who were also entering the city. Vendors walked by him, clutching brightly colored silks and richly patterned rugs. Women, dressed in deftly embroidered robes, carried jugs of water into the city. Children rushed about his feet, laughing.
For the first time in a long time, Haroun felt alive.
He wandered through the marketplace inside the city, and bounded from stall to stall. He had nothing to use to barter, and so he couldn't buy any of the wonderful things he saw around him, nor could he taste the delicious looking fruits - bananas, grapes and pears - being sold. But he could enjoy the sights. He could enjoy the smells. He could enjoy the freedom of escaping, if only for a moment, the camel train.
He found that people were reluctant to talk about the Caliph.
But Haroun didn't lose heart. He talked to as many people as he could, beneath the guise of looking for goods to buy.
"Get out of my way," a tall man with a donkey and a cart shoved Haroun to the side.
Haroun tripped, and fell face first into a box filled with figs.
"Watch it," the vendor of the figs said.
Haroun lifted his face from the figs. "Sorry," he said to the vendor, and turned to view his assailant.
The man had moved on, leading his donkey. But Haroun caught sight of the contents of the cart.
It was a huge cage. And inside the cage, lay a beast the likes of which he'd never seen before.
Haroun noticed that a silence had befallen the crowd. He glanced about him, and saw that all eyes were turned toward the animal in the cage.
"What is it?" Haroun asked the vendor of the figs, who was still standing nearby.
The vendor whispered, "I can't believe it. I think... I think that's a dragon."
A woman with a child standing nearby overheard the vendor and said, "I think it is. But I've never seen... I thought the stories of dragons were just that - stories."
Suddenly, the vendor laughed. "Who knows the mysteries of the east? The kinds of food and materials and spices that come from there, it must be an enchanted place indeed. At any rate, we of Samarkand have to go about our daily work. There's no magic here for us."
Haroun thought about Sata, and wondered if the vendor was wrong. "Where would that man be taking the dragon?" Haroun asked.
The vendor said, "To the Caliph, of course. He'll pay a fine price for that creature."
"I... see," Haroun said, weakly. He was thinking about Sata.
"What will he do with the dragon?"
The vendor scowled at Haroun. "Add her to his menagerie, I presume. Tomorrow night, the Caliph plans to show his menagerie to the public. Go the side of the palace lined with bushes. The ground there is flat, and is outside the menagerie's gate. The Caliph normally shows off his creatures there."
This was more information than Haroun had learned in the entire evening. He thanked the vendor, and escaped back outside the city.
It was just before sunset. He wasn't too late. He returned to the caravan, and saw the camels sitting beneath the shade of the plane trees, chewing grass.
When he reached the spot where he had left Sata, he saw that she was gone.
Haroun started to panic.
Glancing about him, he saw Firouz. "Firouz," he said. "Firouz, where is Sata?"
"Sata?" Firouz said. "Are you talking about the demon?"
"Yes. Firouz, where is she?"
Firouz shrugged. "Safely in the Caliph's zoo by now, I would expect."
"Your father strapped her on the back of a camel almost a quarter of an hour ago, and went inside the city gates to sell her. I guess he thought that she would be easy to transport while she was a statue. And he could move her by himself. I think he wanted to go by himself," Firouz looked bitter, "because he doesn't want to share the profits of the sale with the rest of us. You would think that, after what we did for him - "
Before the words had even escaped his lips, Haroun had started to run.
He ran through the gates, spotted a large, ostentatious building, decided that was the palace, and hurried towards it.
He reached the town square just as the sun set. He saw his father leaning against a wall of the palace, looking smug. He was holding the reins of one of his camels. Sata was nowhere in sight.
* * * * *
To be continued…