The heat took away his appetite. He was not fond of raw meat in any case and ate very little. He knew he should eat more. But he could not force himself to do it when it choked him.
He felt as though he could never drink enough. He drank as sparingly as he could, and yet by the third well his water skin was dry again.
A day out from the well, he realized the skin was leaking.
It had happened so slowly at first that he had not noticed it. He had felt nothing, and the seeping water dried before it dampened anything around it. His camel had gone dry as well, suddenly but not unexpectedly; perhaps she minded the heat, too. I could go back, Telemakos thought, back to the third well, where there is water. But then he would be stuck at a well in the middle of the Salt Desert, with very little to eat and no water to travel with. If he went on, at least he was in company.
He decided to go on.
Thirst, killing thirst, crept up on him with the slow, relentless patience of a hunting cat, and took him all unprepared for its merciless grip. Soon Telemakos was pressing himself forward only because there was no alternative but to lie down and perish. One night and one day after his decision to keep going, he was barely able to stay close enough to the train of camels that he could keep them in sight. It was worse than that: he labored under the illusion that they were behind him. If he lost them beneath a rise, or behind an outcrop, he would turn around and actually see another caravan on the road at his back. When night fell, he sat shivering with his head in his hands, at a little distance from the camp, and tried to think.
I will have to surrender myself.
All that day he had veered away from admitting that this was his only and inevitable course of action. Now he shaped the words soundlessly with dry lips, to fix them in his mind: I have to surrender. I have to give myself up to these men, or I will die tomorrow.
Is that right? Think: Did I make the wrong decision yesterday; should I have gone back? That would have only dragged it out. I should have had to surrender myself to someone else, eventually.
He wavered, irresolute, sick with the thought of what surrender meant.
They will want to know where I came from. How I came here. There are no solitary boys wandering about in the desert; they will want to know my purpose. They will start asking questions, they will interrogate me, and if I make no answer they will—
They will break you open like a bird’s egg.
He ground his fists into his eyes and shook his head and shoulders, forbidding himself to think any further ahead than the next taste of water. He no longer had a choice. He could scarcely open his mouth. He could not eat the injera in his pack. When he gazed out into the desert night, he imagined he saw the lights of a city shining in the distance; the gold bar ate at his swollen throat.
He knew, with bleak certainty, that he would die if he tried to push himself another day without water.
He broke his bow in pieces, and scattered them. He buried his knife, and the flint. His equipment was too well made, too well suited to himself; no runaway bond servant would be so aptly outfitted. He kept the water bag, and the pack with the food, so that his survival this far might have some credibility.
Telemakos lifted one hand to his throat and touched the gold collar, where Goewin had kissed it. Then he stole to the campfires and carefully chose the man who should be his savior.
The one he picked was calm and quiet, a camel man who took care with his animals and spoke to them patiently, as though they were children. This was no guarantee he would also speak patiently to a child, but it was better than no patience at all. Telemakos waited until the man opened one of his earthen water jars to take a drink himself, then crept to him quietly and touched him on the arm.
His mouth was so dry, and his tongue so swollen, that he could not speak. The camel man looked at him in astonishment, and Telemakos touched the jar. The camel man gave it to him without a word.
He took it away again a few seconds later, warning, “This is my own water, boy.”
Telemakos stared at him, stricken, one pleading hand still reaching for the jar.
“Oh, go on,” the man said grudgingly. “Don’t drink so fast. Save some for tomorrow.”
One of his companions called to him. “What the devil have you got there?”
“I am damned if I know,” said the camel man. “Come look at it.”
Telemakos put down the water jar and slowly raised his head.
He was caught.
“Thieving young crow, that’s what it is,” said one. “Look at that gold.”
“It’s fixed on him,” said his rescuer. “He did not steal that. I’ll tell you what he is: he’s one of the emperor’s nephews, or a cousin twice removed, or something like that. They always lock away the emperor’s nephews so they can’t try to overthrow him. There’s a hermitage at Ophar, south of here, where he keeps them.”
“I thought Debra Damo was where the princes are sent.”
“This boy couldn’t have come all the way from Debra Damo. It must have been Ophar.”
The men looked Telemakos up and down. One of them reached for his empty water bag, and fingered it. “I think you’re right,” the man said through straight, white teeth. “But he could be a thief, too. He had to steal his tackle somewhere, did he not?”
“Go on and search him, then,” said the camel man.
“Clothes off, boy.”
Telemakos had not spoken a word throughout this exchange, partly because he had no place in it, and partly because his tongue still felt like kindling wood. Now it occurred to him that he should make these people believe he could not understand them.
“Clothes off, boy,” White Teeth repeated.
Telemakos stared at the water jar as though it were the only thing in the world that mattered to him, which minutes ago had been true enough.
“Can he hear?” one of them asked.
I can’t, Telemakos decided suddenly, I can’t hear and I can’t speak. I’m a deaf-mute royal brat, trying to escape the monastery where the emperor has sequestered me so my plotting relatives won’t use me to seize the throne. I don’t know what you’ll make of my eyes when you see them in daylight—
They shouted at him in several languages while he blinked at them stupidly.
“He’s deaf,” said White Teeth with satisfaction. “Deaf and dumb.”
It was a small triumph, a small unplanned advantage, to have succeeded in this deception.
They gave up trying to get him to take his clothes off and stripped him themselves. They were rough, and thorough, prying even into his ears and nostrils. They had no patience in trying to communicate with him.
“He’s clean,” said White Teeth. “But that gold necklace must be worth something. Can we not prise it off him?”
Naked and shaking with cold again, his body scathed by their invasive scouring, Telemakos knelt gazing blankly at their feet and willing himself to be submissive. Don’t battle against them, he told himself; don’t fight. I need their help. I have no one else. Their water will save my life.
“I’ll tell you this,” said the camel man. “He’s worth a small fortune himself. Whoever put that band on him will pay its value, and more, to have him back.”
Well, that’s true, thought Telemakos. He would have touched the band again, for the solace it gave him, but they were talking about it, and he could not let them think their words had drawn his attention.
“What will you do, take him back to Ophar?”
“I haven’t the time. Let’s take him with us, and sell him at the mines; they can ransom him themselves. The warden there is no fool.”
Well, that’s just where I want to go. Please, please, please don’t throw me into the bushes!
“He must not see the way. Cover his eyes.”
Telemakos watched as they tore a strip of cloth from the long edge of his shamma to use as a blindfold, and unthreaded his sandal straps to bind him with.
It’s all right, it’s all right, he repeated in his head, over and over. If they cover my eyes, they won’t be able to see them in the light of day, and that is another victory for me.
They fell on him like hyenas to a lion’s leavings. They held fast his head, his throat, his arms and hands. They bandaged the torn piece of shamma tightly over his face, and fixed it in place across his eyes with a cord; then they wrapped the leather thongs from his sandals about his wrists, and attached them to another cord tied around his waist. Bound so, his hands were fixed loosely at his sides and a little behind his back, in order that he could not raise them to his face to try to free his eyes.
“Poor luckless rascal, look at him trembling,” he heard his camel man say. “He doesn’t know what’s happening to him. Give him back his clothes and let him sleep.”
“You dress him,” said someone else. “You’re the idiot who’s going to share your water with him.”
“I promise you he’ll carry his share of my pack, as well,” said the camel man. “Give me his goatskin. Maybe it can be mended. I’ve plenty of grease.”
In darkness Telemakos was dressed again in his kilt and shamma, and led to a place where he could rest. In darkness he struggled to find a comfortable way to sleep with his hands bound by his sides; he was too cold to lie flat on his back, and ended in an awkward ball with his face against the ground and his hands behind him. Whichever shoulder he lay against went numb after an hour or so. In darkness he was pulled from sleep and given water, and some of the dried dates and salted meat from his own pack. In darkness his shoulders were laden with matting and sacks of flour, and one of his wrists was bound by a lead to a camel, and the caravan made its way slowly south.
Telemakos was barefoot now, as well as bound and blind. At the end of the day’s march his camel man tore apart more of his shamma to use as bandages for his blistered feet. His mouth was so dry he could not moisten his lips; he could taste nothing, he could smell nothing.
But he was alive.
The men of his caravan were hard and heartless, but not corrupt. They knew there was a black market in salt; they were not part of it. They wondered about it. Telemakos knew a great deal more than they did, and knew he was safe with them, even if he was miserable.
He thought they traveled for a week. It was hard for him to tell, because being blinded made him lose all sense of time. They did not travel at night for the same reason they all went on foot, to spare the camels. So if Telemakos was too hot, and walking, it must be day; too cold, and resting, it must be night; but as they drew nearer the salt flats it grew so hot it was hard to track the difference. Telemakos arrived without knowing it at the encampment that served the Afar mines, and was sold without knowing it; only one evening his friend the camel man was gone, and Telemakos was led to a sleeping place among a line of silent, tired bodies who never spoke and never touched him. Their ankles were fettered one to another while they slept, like the camels.
So: I made it. I am here. I am listening.
Hara, the overseer at the mines, did not trust Telemakos at all. The wary, scheming warden was a man constantly waiting for his intrigues to be discovered, and he rightly suspected Telemakos to be something other than what he seemed. It was Hara who insisted on keeping him blindfolded. He did not want Telemakos to see his face. Telemakos imagined him to have a pointed nose like a mongoose, which he poked suspiciously in everyone’s business. He called himself Scorpion. Telemakos hated him.