The Oasis of Broken Bones
A Deeds of Peregrine and Blade Novelette
The Deeds of Peregrine and Blade
Daughter of the Windswept Hills
The Red Blade
The Sign of the Bronze Hammer
Rats in the City
The Tavern Cursed
The Oasis of Broken Bones
The City in Shadows
Dreams of Days to Come
Copyright © 2017 by A. S. Warwick
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The Oasis of Broken Bones
1 – The Desert Road
A scalding wind swirled down the slopes of ragged, rock strewn hills, emanating from the uplands, to roll out over the desert dunes where it disturbed the grains that had banked up high. It carried with it the fearsome intensity of the sun that gleamed off the desert sands and broiled the air. Rolling dunes swept towards the rocky uplands, a place of barren hills overlooked the brooding deserts. Through the uplands, alongside an ancient, dried up river bed, a well worn trail wound its way.
A string of horses picked their way along the route, two dozen in number, dust stained. Most of the riders upon them were wiry men, dusky of skin and with sharp blue-black beards and dark eyes that peered out from hawkish faces that had been hardened by the elements. They wore flowing robes and head scarves, loose fitting, while scimitars were at their sides. In their hands they carried small hide shields and long spears.
Two there were amongst their company who were not of their kind, standing out in stark contrast. The one who led the riders was a woman, one with flowing auburn hair and a steely amber eyed gaze. Short and of a solid build, she radiated an intensity that was as primal and unwavering as the desert around. Despite the heat of the desert day, she wore a vest of toughened leather, while her hair was held back by a band of white linen around her head. Over her shoulder there showed the worn hilt of a heavy broadsword, while a spear rested across the pommel of her saddle. Eyes narrowed as she studied the route ahead.
Close behind her rode a tall man, slender of form and languid of face. He was pale compared to the others, and likewise were his eyes that looked out half-lidded from beneath a brow of dark hair. Unlike the rest, he was clad in clothes of the finest make and tailoring, with a loose fitting white shirt that bore extensive stitching in gold and crimson and emerald thread, running up the sleeves of the shirt, and around the collar, in the form of climbing rose vines, replete with blossoming blooms. A baldric ran across his chest, of black leather and gold thread, from which hung a gold hilted rapier at his side, while a number of knives were sheathed along the length of the baldric. A quiver holding a bundle of black feathered crossbow quarrels hung from his saddle, alongside an unstrung crossbow. A broad rimmed hat rested jauntily at an angle upon his head, from which a crimson plume swept back, sheltering him from the glare of the sun.
The path that they followed had its distant origins in Qaiqala, richest and proudest of the cities of the Swordlands of Kharadas, pre-eminent in its might and splendour. From Qaiqala it had wound its way east, through the grasslands and deserts of the Hashalites, towards the fabled gold mines of Mutswa, most northerly of the kingdoms of the south wherein dwelt the ebon men, and from there across the vast rolling steppes to far off Xuan, with its silks and spices and mysterious towers. Across it flowed the wealth of nations in merchant caravans, protected by mercenaries and guards, for the lands of the Hashalites were most dangerous, with raids and attacks on caravans numerous, and the horselords of the steppes beyond were just as wild.
2 – The Beast of the Oasis
As the day drew towards its end and the sun lowered towards the horizon, casting long shadows before it, ahead of them appeared an oasis between two sweeping arms of the hills that protruded out into the desert. Around the welcoming waters grew a cluster of palms, the green of their leaves standing out vivid against the raw earth and sand all about. The leader of the Hashalite band, a faded scar across his cheek that touched the corner of his mouth and twisted it up, giving him a sardonic look, led them not towards it, but further up into the hills, the trail leading up that way. An older trail could be made out that led towards the oasis, yet it appeared not to have been used in some time and sands had drifted over much of it, leaving behind only marker stones.
“Why are we headed this way, Halakir?” asked the woman, bringing her horse about to head on up the new trail alongside the scarred Hashalite. “There is an oasis at hand here where we can rest at for the night.”
Halakir shook his head even as he led them on away from it. “That is not a place that we wish to go, Peregrine, and most certainly not one to spend the night at.”
“Why is that?”
“It is called the Oasis of Broken Bones,” Halakir explained, making a warding sigh against evil with his hand, “Though once it was known by a different name; the Oasis of Silver Waters. No longer. A beast took up residence there, in the waters, one that devours any who stray that way. Some are lucky and visit during the day and are not taken, but any who camp there for the night will not survive to see the coming of the sun.” Halakir shook his head. “There is little that I am afraid of, but not even I will risk that place.”
“Where then are we headed?”
“There is a camp not far from here,” Halakir told her, “A place of safety against the depredations of the beast. Those that run the camp charge a fee for its use, one not inconsequential, and yet the alternative is not one to contemplate.”
Peregrine scowled as she listened to what Halakir had to say, all the time studying the oasis as it fell away below them. “Why has no one slain the beast then?”
“Plenty have tried,” Halakir said. “Great heroes have come over many years, and now all their bones are joined with those of the beast’s other victims. Vjanin of Holashad was one of those victims, and the Brothers Rasaam.”
“Dangerous then, this beast,” the slender man observed from just behind the pair.
Halakir turned in his saddle to look back. “You could say that, Blade,” he responded, teeth flashing in his dark face.
“Obviously no Aedring have ever made the attempt or the beast would be dead by now,” Peregrine stated.
Halakir shook his head, watching the trail ahead. “Even Aedring have fallen to it, Peregrine. There is nothing that can be done about it.”
“I refuse to believe that,” Peregrine stated stubbornly with the conviction of those who would never back down, and whose self-belief knew no bounds.
“Belief has little regard in this matter,” Halakir replied fatalistically. “Still, if you are determined to make a run against it, then I can not stop you. It would be best, though, if you knew all that there is to know about it first. I do not think it would make much difference, but any advantage is better than none.”
“He does speak wisely,” Blade pointed out, his words coming forth in languid tones.
“Very well,” Peregrine replied. “Tell us all that you know.”
“Wait until we reach the camp for the night and I will relate to you everything that I have heard said of the Oasis of Broken Bones and the beast within.”
3 – A Place of Respite
The well worn trail made its twisting way up through the rocky slopes, following along washes and beside ridges where sparse shrubs clung to the dry, barren earth, hardy and thorny things that struggled to survive in such harsh environs. As they rode around one jutting ridge, ahead a canyon loomed into sight, one that cut down out of the rocky uplands. Halakir led them into it, a place of shade from the burning sun. The walls of the canyon grew ever higher, and further back into the hills an overhang thrust out. Beneath it the canyon had been walled off, a structure formed of solid mud bricks into which had been set a stout wooden gate.
“This is the place,” Halakir stated.
Peregrine stared hard at it as they approach, noting a pair of guards standing atop the wall which stood thrice the height of a man. Sheltered as it was beneath the overhand, and with a commanding view down the canyon, it was well secured against hostile intent. At the base of the wall, near the gate, a small band of camels waited, laden down with goods, accompanied by a small group of merchants and mercenary guards. One of the merchants stood just before the gates, haggling with another man, stout and clad in richly coloured robes. Just before they arrived, they saw coins change hands between the merchant and the stout man and the gates swung open. The caravan began to make its ponderous way through and into the compound beyond.
Halakir led them up to the walled entrance, stopping outside the gates until the other caravan had made its way inside. The gates shut behind them. The stout, robed man ran a critical eye across them before calling out a greeting in Hashala. Halakir responded in kind, dismounting from his horse and touching a hand to his heart. He approached the robed man and the pair began to engage in earnest, rapid conversation.
Peregrine’s mastery of the tongue was rudimentary at best and coupled with the speed they spoke at she caught only parts of what they were saying, but from what she could understand, they were haggling over prices, and those prices were rather high. The exchange went on for some minutes before at last an agreement was reached. Halakir counted out a number of coins and handed them across to the man. Once he had done checking them, he called up to the guards on the wall above the gate to open it, allowing them in.
“A silver duna per man,” blazed Peregrine as she rode through the gate, “And half a duna per animal? That is outrageous.”
The Hashalite simply shrugged his shoulders in response as if to say it was simply the nature of the world. It was not something that could be changed, only endured. “There is some truth in that, though I was able to reduce the initial asking rate. We are not a trade caravan, and thus we do not have the same wealth to lose should we stay beyond the walls. It saved us a substantial sum.”
Passing through the now opened gates, they came into the compound beyond the walls.
Beneath the solid rock overhand, a number of buildings had been constructed, all of the same mud brick style as the walls. One was a large, open aired building, little more than a frame and a roof above it, allowing the breeze to flow through it. Filled with stalls, it housed a variety of beasts of burden, a stable for the animals of the merchant caravans and other travellers. Servants in loose fitting white robes move among them, bringing them food and water. Nearby to the stables was a larger, more compact building with few windows and secured by a heavy wooden door. Under the shade of an awning the extended out over the door stood a pair of guards in shirts of light mail, flowing robes and spiked helms from which mail hung down over their necks and shoulders.Each held a spear and a light shield, while a scimitar was sheathed at their sides. The caravan that had entered the compound just prior to the arrival of Peregrine, Blade and the Hashalites waited outside the building as servants unloaded the goods they carried, under the beady eyes of the merchants and their mercenaries. A clerk stood with them, making notes on a parchment before each bundle was carried inside by the servants, to be stored until the caravan was ready to depart again.
The largest building of all, two stories in height, had been set back against the wall of the canyon beneath the overhang. It was not as roughly built as the others, for the mud brick walls had been smooth over with white plaster and broad, airy windows were regularly spaced around it, through which could be seen light curtains. Arched columns ran around the lower floor, supporting a balcony above, one covered in brightly dyed awnings. Here those that sheltered overnight had rooms and could take meals, and baths if they so desired, but all at a cost.
A courtyard extended out before the entrance to the building, one with a large pool of water at its heart and surrounded by palms and date trees, taller than the building itself yet still some distance below the heights of the overhang. Smaller shrubs and bushes were planted about it, through which walkways had been laid out, and stone benches set up. A small fountain bubbled in the centre of the pool, the soft splash of its waters welcome after the long journey through the arid lands outside. A few men walked around the pool, or simply sat at benches alongside it.
“Where does the water come from?” Peregrine asked upon spotting it.
“They portage it in, I believe,” Halkir responded, “Hence the great cost they charge.”
Peregrine grunted a curt reply before shaking her head.
They rode over the stables and swung down from their mounts. Collecting up their personal belongings from their saddles, they handed the mounts over to servants to stable and care for.
“Now tell me all that you know of this beast,” Peregrine demanded of Halakir as they walked across from the stables towards the guest quarters.
“There is not much to say,” Halakir admitted, “Little more than I have already told you.”
“Then why say that you would tell me when we arrived here?”
“Because I had no desire to see you dead,” Halakir told her, entering the gardens about the pool, the fine gravel of its walkways crunching beneath his boots. “It is safer here.”
Peregrine’s amber eyes narrowed and her face set hard. “This place extorts from travellers. If there was no beast, they would have no reason to do so.”
Halakir sighed before nodding in agreement. “That is so, but it is the way that things are.” He passed under the arched entranceway into the guest quarters, into a large ground floor chamber, one set up with wooden tables and benches. A pair of entertainers sat in one corner, playing soft music, one with a harp, the other with pipes. Men sat at the tables, some of them eating or drinking, others passing away the time in conversation, or with games of chances, whether cards of bones or dice. The susurration of murmured voices filled the room. Those there were drawn from many lands, merchants and guards and servants alike, though most were of Ishmarite or Hashalite stock, the dusky dark men who inhabited the southern plains and deserts that formed the Swordlands of Kharadas, or the bronze skinned Metsheputi who lived to the south of them, beyond the deserts and hills.
A servant came across, threading his way through those present, clad in the ubiquitous white robes that they all wore. He bade them follow him, taking them through the chamber to where stairs led above, to the second floor. From there he led them on to a number of chambers which were to be theirs for the night, small rooms with simple cots holding thin mattresses, and broad windows that allowed a breeze in. No other furnishings were to be found in the sparse accommodation, it being simply a place to sleep. They deposited their belongings in the chambers and returned to the larger common room below.
They took over one of the tables, seating themselves around it. Servants brought over to them small clay mugs of water, part of service for the fee they had paid on entry.
Peregrine sat herself across from Halakir, Blade to one side of her and a short Hashalite to the other. “Tell me more of this beast,” she demanded of him.
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Across the harsh deserts and endless steppes of the east flows the wealth of nations, yet the route is dangerous. Not alone is it raiders that plague the way, but beasts as well. Though water is scarce, there is one oasis that not even the most desperate will approach, the Oasis of Broken Bones. Peregrine, the fearless Aedring swordmaiden is determined to uncover the truth of the oasis, dragging her reluctant companion, Blade along with her into danger and mystery. The Oasis of Broken Bones is a 11,000 words novelette, the sixth in The Deeds of Peregrine and Blade sword and sorcery short fiction series.