Fabrics rustled nearby as two people, talking excitedly approached. One voice belonged to a girl, the other to a man. For a moment, light tickled his face before it disappeared again. The conversation stopped.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. A pair of big brown eyes, set in the dark-skinned face of a young woman hovered over him. A lock of raven-black hair had fallen out form underneath a white shawl that was draped loosely around her head. She wore white, loose-fitting clothes with long, wide sleeves and golden embroidery.
When she looked into his eyes, her face lit up and she started talking rapidly to him. She turned around and gave a yell to someone out of sight. Without waiting for a response, she turned her attention back to him.
Her words came slowly and carefully this time, but the language was still foreign to him. He offered her an embarrassed smile.
She frowned for a moment, but the bright smile quickly returned. Placing an index finger on her chest, she said: “Zahlayra.”
“Zahlayra,” he repeated.
“My name is Zahlayra,” she spoke slowly, pronouncing each syllable individually.
“My name is Zahlayra.”
She laughed and shook her head and pointed her finger at him. “You. Your name.”
“Your name is Zahlayra,” he corrected himself.
“Yes, my name is Zahlayra. Your name is?”
“My name,” his mouth snapped shut. His name. He couldn’t remember it. “I don’t remember,” he said in his own language, realizing that he didn’t even know what language that was or where it was spoken.
When she carefully tried to replicate the words, he shook his head. It visibly disappointed her and he quickly sought to explain. “My name,” he said and shook his head.
“Your name… no? Your name is no?” she asked, no less confused than before.
He shook his head again and applied the newfound word: “No name.”
Her smile turned momentarily into a frown again, until she said decidedly: “Your name is Noname.”
“Noname,” he sighed. It would have to do for now.
Her expression turned worrisome and she placed a hand on his forehead. Her touch was warm but dry; the sweat was definitely his. She immediately spun around and left, only to return a minute later with a water skin. Realizing how thirsty he was when she offered it to him, he quickly emptied it. She immediately went to refill it and he drank half of that before he was sated.
When he finished drinking, she wetted a cloth and wiped the sweat off his brow. Lacking the words to express his gratitude, he could only offer her a smile and hope that it conveyed the message. She smiled in return and sat down beside him, teaching him the names of various nearby objects.
It was the first time he actually looked around himself. He was in a large, white tent that was filled with crates and barrels of various sizes. One corner was filled with tools: hammers, axes, rope. Nearby lay stacks of leather, hides and rolls of white fabric. Another corner contained fabrics of all colours he could imagine. Near the entrance, weapons were stored. They had strangely curved bows and curved swords as well, spears and small, round shields.
He learned the words for all of these from Zahlayra. She brought every item to him whenever he wanted to have a closer look, but strictly forbade him from leaving his bed. She showed him the difference between the fabrics in the store: linen, wool, silk and satin, she called them. Looking around, she found the item that interested him the most: the lamp. Crafted entirely from brass, it was a container for a strange black liquid called oil, with a long, narrow neck away from the handle. At the end of it, Zahlayra produced a small flame that was sustained by the oil. She doused the flame and gave the lamp to him.
There were words engraved in the brass. The long, swirling lines looked wonderful, but he couldn’t read them. Immediately, Zahlayra started to teach him the alphabet. When the words on the lamp were exhausted, she brought in rolls of parchment, most of which featured less embellished writing. He mastered the foreign letters quickly, as if he had never known others. The parchment mostly listed quantities of goods and supplies and Zahlayra proceeded to teach him the numbers. He eagerly learned everything that she taught him, filling the void that his vanished memories had left.
He also learned that Zahlayra was part of a group of people called a ‘caravan’, bringing goods from one place to another. Aside from the fabrics she had shown him earlier, they carried herbs and spices. She opened one of the crates for him, which was filled with dry and brittle things called ‘tea leaves’, which filled the tent with a sweet scent. Sealing the crate, Zahlayra offered to make him some tea, though he did not understand what it was. He was more interested in the place where the caravan was going: a city called Nur. The concept of a ‘city’ stirred something in his mind. He was certain he’d seen something like it before. He tried to tell her as best as his growing vocabulary allowed.
“You need to sleep. We will talk more later, and drink tea,” she decided and gently pushed him down on his bed. “Close your eyes.”
He did so and heard her leave. It wasn’t long before he fell asleep.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself lying in a field of green. It was grass, he remembered. The field of grass stretched out almost endlessly in all directions, but was bounded by snowy mountains in all directions. A black figure, with an unmoving face in stark black and white leaned over him. “Is that all?” the figure asked.
“No,” he answered. Something was missing. A lot was missing. He closed his eyes again. If only he could remember.
He awoke again in the tent that had become familiar. It was decidedly darker now, but he recognised the stockpiles of goods. He tried to lift himself out of the bed, but found himself without the strength to do anything more than sit upright.
He sat there for a while, wondering about the growing darkness in the tent, before Zahlayra returned. She carried an oil lamp and a plate with a mix of colours on top of it. It had a pleasing scent, which made his stomach rumble. “Food,” she said in response to his curious gaze. “You should eat it.”
He didn’t need to be told and quickly emptied the plate. Zahlayra brought him a second one and he emptied that too. She then presented him a cup of hot water that smelled much like the leaves she had shown him before.
“Tea is like grass,” he said and took a sip. “But tea is better.”
She looked at him in surprise. “Grass? How did you learn that word?”
“I don’t know,” he said. It had just come up in him.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“How did you get here?”
“I don’t know. How did I get here?”
“We found you in the desert, alone. You were not awake. We thought you were dead,” she placed a hand on his head. “What happened to you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You do not remember?”
He shook his head. “I remember nothing.”
“Nothing?” What is your first memory?”
He stared into her eyes. All excitement had faded from them and they looked much darker than when he had first seen her. “You,” he answered.
“That’s…,” she looked away from him. “You should sleep more. I will come when the light returns.”
“It will return?” he asked, wondering how she could be so sure.
“It always returns,” she said with a smile.
He let himself fall down in the bed as she left and closed his eyes. His sleep was untroubled by dreams and he felt stronger when he awoke. Zahlayra’s face hovered over him again, lit up by the oil lamp and a glimmer in her eyes. “How are you?” she asked.
“Good. Because you,” he said. She immediately averted her eyes again.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said and smiled again. “Come with me.”
He looked up. Everything was still dark. “The light did not return.”
“It will. I will show you. Can you walk?”
He got up and placed his feet on the ground. Stretching his legs, he raised himself from the bed and took a step, only to stumble and fall. The ground was made up of thousands of small grains, which slipped through his fingers. He picked up a handful of the things and let them slide off again.
“It’s sand. There is a lot of it here,” Zahlayra informed him and offered him a hand to pull him up.
He held on tightly as they slowly made their way to the exit of the tent. “I have seen it before.”
They left the tent to a sight that took all of his breath. The darkness around them was filled with hundreds of tiny lights. On one side, the black turned to dark blue and the lights faded away there.
“Stars,” Zahlayra said. “Have you seen them before?”
“Yes, but different.”
She nodded. “You were far away, then.” She directed his attention to the blue, which slowly started to mix with orange. “The light is coming. Sit and watch.”
He followed her instructions, tightly holding her hand for balance. Together, they watched the sky change. The stars faded one by one as the dark blue pushed the blackness away and the strands of orange spread until a massive, red ball rose from behind the horizon. “The sun,” Zahlayra announced.
“I remember it,” he said. They remained there, watching the sun rise, turn to orange and then yellow, until all the stars had faded and the light became too bright for their eyes. She helped him get up and he looked around. There were many tents like the one he slept in nearby, placed as much as possible under the shade of palm trees. The trees surrounded a lake on one side of the encampment. On the other side was nothing but sand and rocks. “The desert,” Zahlayra called it, while the greenery and water was ‘the oasis’. She taught him the names of everything he saw before guiding him back inside.
She left him there, returning shortly with water, food and clothes. After he finished his breakfast, she told him to put the clothes on and quickly walked out of the tent again. The clothes were very much like the ones she wore herself; white and light, fitting loosely yet covering the entire body, with a shawl to cover the head. When he was done, he went out, where she was waiting for him.
She laughed and adjusted his shawl. “Now you don’t look like a girl.”
All around, men and women were breaking down the tents and packing them onto carts. The stores and goods also went on carts, all of which were attached to the backs of animals he was certain he never saw before. “Camels,” Zahlayra told him. “Very strong in the desert.”
In an hour, the entire encampment was gone. Men carrying weapons went around to direct the carts into a column. Zahlayra also brought him a camel. “My camel, now yours. I can walk.”
She helped him in the saddle and took the reins, guiding him along with the rest of the caravan. Perched atop the camel, he looked around, tracing the long line from the caravan’s head to tail. The oasis behind them gradually disappeared from sight and all that lay behind them were the tracks they left in the sand. The dunes surrounded them on all side, an endless sea of golden waves.
“This is the desert. We will be seven days among the dunes before we reach Nur,” she told him.
“It is different.”
“Different from what?”
“You see well,” she chuckled.
“I lost my memories, not my mind,” he smirked.
“Oh? So you’re ready for more lessons, then?” she teased.
“I am!” he replied eagerly.
She spent half the morning teaching him more of her language and proceeded to tell him more of the caravan and the desert. They had come far from the east and had already spent a week in the desert. On the fourth day, far from any oasis, they had found him lying in the sand. There was no sign of any other caravan that he might have belonged to. For three days, they had carried him on one of the carts, until they set up camp at the oasis. Zahlayra had been force-feeding him water every day.
“I don’t know where to begin repaying you for your compassion and hospitality,” he said, practicing some newly learned words.
She looked away from him and spoke softly: “It is my task to care for those who are not well.”
“Then I am glad to be found by such a skilled healer.”
“Uncle taught me well, but… you are my first. I will take you to him when we reach Nur. He can help you better than I can.”
“You are too modest.”
She offered him a shy smile. “You are very kind.”
A rider came down from the head of the caravan. He was dressed for war, wearing lamellar armour underneath a white surcoat and a helm wrapped in white cloth. At each of his sides, he carried a curved sword.
He called Zahlayra: “Sister, why are you not with us? And who is this man that has you walking?”
“He is my patient to care for and he cannot walk for long yet, brother-dear,” she replied.
Zahlayra’s brother glared at him. “You should have left him at the oasis.”
“No. Father said to nurse him and that is what I will do.”
“That is why. The weak do not survive the desert.”
“And who will care for him in at the oasis? None of the other caravans were there, brother.”
The dark eyes remained fixed on him. “Father has requested your presence. He did not ask for your patient,” he said and returned to the head of the caravan.
He watched Zahlayra’s brother ride off and asked: “Do you need to go with him?”
“Brother worries too much,” she said. She leapt on the camel in one fluid motion, sitting behind him. Taking the reins, she spurred the camel forward. “I will present you to Father now. Remember what I taught you?”
“I do,” he confirmed, growing nervous over the upcoming encounter.
“Do not worry. Father will be impressed. And Brother’s face will be a sight,” she laughed.
He looked at the caravan as they sped past loaded wagons and camel-riding warriors. “Don’t the wheels get stuck in the sand?” he asked.
“This road has been used for ages. The sand here is compacted by years of heavy use. Elsewhere in the desert, there are more rocks to offer stability. However, there are places we cannot go with heavily loaded wagons,” she replied.
They slowed down at the head of the caravan. A man and woman led the caravan. They were dressed in the same white as the others, but their clothes were ornately embroidered and the woman wore a golden tiara that was connected to a veil, leaving only her deep brown eyes visible. As for the man, the only thing that set him apart beyond his attire was the thick black beard that covered his chin and an air of confidence and command. At their sides rode Zahlayra’s brother and a younger girl he presumed to be her sister.
“Father, you requested my presence?” Zahlayra called as she leapt from the camel.
The bearded man turned towards her. “We have scarcely seen you these past days, daughter. Has your patient demanded so much of your time that you can no longer spend it with your family?”
“I have been fully committed to the task, Father. I apologize if I took more time than you anticipated.”
Zahlayra’s father looked at him. “I see you have taken him with you. Has he really recovered so quickly?”
“He has shown remarkable strength, though I do not let him walk yet. And even though he is an outsider, he would speak if he may,” Zahlayra bowed.
“What language does he speak?”
She nodded at him to speak the words they had practiced: “Master Hadiz Beg of Daryamlah, Lady Jalahi Begum, Sir Bahadim Begzada and Miss Elhamah Begzadi, I am eternally grateful for the kindness you have shown me and would eagerly repay your hospitality.”
All four of them were silent. Zahlayra softly chuckled upon a glance at her brother
, but he dared not look away from her father.
Hadiz finally smiled and said: “I see you are no stranger to our language, Sir. Of which Caravan are you?”
“I owe all my knowledge to your daughter’s teachings, Master Beg,” he said and bowed as deeply as the saddle allowed. A little too deeply, as he felt himself slipping and fell. Zahlayra quickly caught him and guided his feet to the ground. She then pulled him along to walk at a brisk pace, supporting him with a firm grip. “Please don’t get underfoot,” she whispered.
“I told you, you should have left him at the oasis,” her brother sneered.
Hadiz raised a hand to silence him. “How long has he been awake?”
“Only since yesterday afternoon, Father. He was not ready for a meeting before today.”
“Yet he has already recovered his feet and learned our tongue,” Hadiz mused and turned to him again: “Sir, would you tell us of yourself and your homeland over our evening meal?”
“I would accept your invitation, Master Beg, if I had any memories to share,” he bowed, carefully this time.
“I fear that the sun has ravaged his mind. He cannot even remember his own name,” Zahlayra quickly explained.
Her father nodded. “It is a miracle he is alive at all. Yet he is your charge, daughter. What do you intend to do?”
“It is beyond my abilities to cure his mind. I will take him to Uncle in Nur, as there is no more accomplished healer than him.”
“I see that you thought this through and are determined to see our guest fully recovered. I am impressed, daughter, with you and your patient. Thus, I will trust to you also the responsibility to find him a name, suitable to serve until he reclaims that chosen by his father, or the rest of his life.”
“Yes, father,” she said with a slight stutter.
“Did I do well?” he asked softly as she helped him back into the saddle.
“You were great,” she whispered with a broad smile. “Now let’s get you something to eat before you pass out again.”
She took him to a wagon, where an older woman held the reins. “Anousha, do you have anything for us?” she called and then proceeded to talk in words she hadn’t taught him. The two women looked at him and laughed. Anousha then handed Zahlayra a palm-leaf wrapping, which she passed on to him.
He opened it to find the same colourful composition he had eaten before; sweet bread with smoked fish, lime and mint. He now knew these by name. Anousha had also stuffed some dark, sweet fruits in the package, which Zahlayra called dates. It all tasted just as good as before and he eagerly filled his stomach.
“I told you he likes your cooking,” Zahlayra winked at Anousha.
He didn’t fully understand her reply, but she said something about being too old that made Zahlayra look away again.
After he had eaten, they rode on in silence. Zahlayra refused to teach him anymore during the afternoon, claiming that it was not the right time. He quickly learned what she meant, as the sun blasted the barren landscape and the heat drained him of energy. As time went by, he became dizzy, his sight blurred and he struggled to stay in the saddle.
“Hold on, just a little longer until sunset,” Zahlayra told him.
He looked up to find the sun considerably lower. “I see. It’s going in circles,” he paused thoughtfully. “Or are we?”
“Just you,” she chuckled. “Come and sit down for a moment.”
Zahlayra helped him out of the saddle and let him sit in the shadow of the camel. She gave him more water to drink and he noticed just how thirsty he was. The caravan slowly passed by them as they sat there. “Don’t worry, they’ll stop for the night soon and we’ll catch up.”
After a few minutes, Bahadim rode to them. “Sister, what is wrong?” he called.
“Our guest needed some rest before moving onwards. There is no need to worry,” she replied.
Bahadim looked down at him with pity. “He looks terrible.”
She looked at him with a worrisome frown, but told her brother: “He will make it.”
“Today, perhaps. But there are six days yet to go.”
“He will make it,” She repeated decidedly.
Her brother dismounted and joined them in the camel’s shadow. “Do you have enough water? Should I bring you some?”
“He just drank. We will catch up shortly.”
“I’m fine,” she said with a smile.
He sighed and jumped on his camel again. “I’m getting you a drink,” he said and rode off.
Zahalayra watched him go with a frown. “Are you well?” she asked.
“I am,” he said and returned to the saddle. Zahalayra jumped behind him and took the reins. She spurred the camel into a light gallop, chasing her brother.
“Why do you fight with your brother?” he asked her.
“We don’t fight. I love my brother, but he should worry less.”
The setting sun blinded him, but the gallop provided a surprisingly fresh breeze to his face. They quickly caught up to the caravan, which has stopped for the night. Men and women raised tents while others provided a cooking fire.
Zahlayra quickly brought him to the shade of a tent, where she laid him down and quickly placed a pillow under his head. “Rest now. I will bring you dinner later.”
He closed his weary eyes and listened to her footsteps fade away in the sand.
It was at least a few hours later when he was awoken by the sound of laughter and rhythmically clapping hands. The sun had disappeared and made way for a thin moonsickle, along with a multitude of stars.
Following the noise to its origin, he found the entire caravan sitting in a large circle, clapping, singing and making music. In the centre of the circle, a dazzling display of lights took place. A pair of flames spun around each other. Leaving bright yellow trails in the darkness, they wove ever-changing circles of light. He stared in captivated fascination at the dancing lights as they shifted seamlessly from one pattern into another to the point that the individual patterns were lost in the fluid motions.
He slowly approached the circle and the silhouette of a figure dancing amidst the flames appeared. He wondered why the figure performed this reckless dance of constantly dodging the flames until he noticed that the flames were following the figure’s movements; this person was not dodging the flames, but controlling them.
“Sorcery,” he gasped, forgetting that Zahlayra had not taught him that word yet.
A man looked up for him in the circle and invited him in. “She’s so good that you’d almost think so,” he said with a big smile.
“She?” taking a good look, he noticed that the figure was wearing a long skirt but had rolled up her sleeves and had knotted bottom of her tunic up above her waist, revealing the curves of her hips as she swished them out of the fire’s path. Her hair was tied up in a long braid, which softly danced along with her movements.
He stared at her with his mouth agape.
“You look like you’ve never seen a girl in your life,” the man laughed at his expression.
“Not like this,” he replied without taking his eyes off the dancer. “How does she control the flames?”
“Just enjoy the show,” the man replied.
It was over far sooner that he’d have liked. When the dancer stopped, he saw the flames hanging by a pair of chains to her hands. She doused them in the sand and bowed to her audience. A quick glance caught his gaze and she immediately came towards him with a smile that lit up in the moonlight.
“Zahlayra?” he barely recognised her without her shawl.
“You’re awake? I’m sorry, I should have let you sleep.”
“You shouldn’t,” he protested. “I missed the start of your dance.”
“You liked it?”
“You were beautiful,” he said enthusiastically.
“Were?” she asked with a frown. “I taught you better than that.”
He felt the palms of his hands become sweaty and quickly corrected himself: “Your dance was beautiful.” When her frown didn’t disappear, he added: “You are beautiful.”
Her frown vanished and with a smile, she bowed to him. “Thank you, kind Sir.” She looked up at him again and asked: “Have you had dinner? You must be hungry.”
Before he could respond, she had pulled him up to his feet and along to one of the tents. “You were sleeping, so I saved some for you.”
The meal had gone cold, but that didn’t matter to him. He eagerly ate it all and washed it away with a cup of water.
“And now back to bed with you. Tomorrow’s travel will be harder than today’s.”
He followed her instructions without protest and quickly fell asleep again.