Nathan glanced back into the soothing, comparative gloom of his hotel room, and then turned back to the new desert. He took a deep breath, and instantly started to cough as the hot air instantly sucked the moisture out of the tissues lining his nose and throat. Without comment, Mathis reached across Nathan’s face and pulled a veil of cloth across the boy’s nose and mouth, before the rising wind could force him to breathe any more sand. Only then did Mathis notice the weight of the turban he wore, on his head. His khaki shorts had ballooned into a loose pair of trousers tucked into a pair of tall, soft, leather boots laced tight up over his calves Nathan’s t-shirt lengthened and thickened into a long, pale tunic that hung to his knees in front and back, but with slits in either side up to his hips. He felt Mathis shift on his shoulder and then Nathan could feel the weight of the long coat or robe he wore, flowing down nearly to his ankles, belted closely around his waist by a widely wrapped belt of maroon cloth with a wickedly curved sword tucked through the layers.
Behind the veil, where no one could see, a wide grin blossomed on Nathan’s face. He stepped into the hallway while behind him. The door drifted shut and faded out of sight.
“All right,” Mathis said. With an expert wiggle, and a jump, the moose slipped Nathan’s hold and landed on the sand, suddenly standing half a head taller than the boy.
Mathis had changed clothes to match the new surroundings as well. The mottled blotches of color shifted from green, browns and black to variations on the theme of sand and tan seen in the scarce shadows and brightly lit mounds of the desert around them. His trousers disappeared inside a sturdy pair of pale suede boots. Mathis’ pack had grown long and narrow, with a belt across his middle. The main pouch wobbled slightly when he moved as the water it carried sloshed around inside and had a drinking tube from the bottom looped up so that the mouthpiece hung from the shoulder strap not far from Mathis’ chin. At one hip, Mathis carried a canteen, and at the other a med kit. The cap he wore in the hotel room had shifted color with his uniform. The bill had grown and stretched until it reached out into a wide brim all the way around. Mathis wore thin cloth gloves tucked up into cuffs buttoned close around his wrists and a matching bandana pulled across his nose and mouth. Mathis wore broad, tinted goggles, so that almost none of his fur was left exposed, even in the shadow of his hat.
Mathis pulled a large, antique, wooden compass with more than the ordinary number of dials out of the deep pocket on his left thigh. He made an exhaustive survey of their surroundings, consulting his compass and squinting around at the mountains ahead and the different mounds of sand along the horizon on all sides. Eventually, the Moose put the compass away and pointed towards where the distant mountains disappeared into the sand and said, “The oasis is that way. Did you want to walk, or shall we ride?”
Nathan blinked in surprise, looking Mathis up and down. He was aware of stories of people with more than the usual allotment of courage and or less than healthy allotment of brains who attempted to ride moose (sometimes even successfully), but Mathis did not look at all like the kind of moose anyone would want to sit upon without an invitation, preferably engraved, with an RSVP card returned well in advance.
“I am a good walker, but how far do we have to go, and what would we ride?” Nathan drew his mildly horrified, fascinated gaze away from Mathis and a mental image of trying to climb up his suddenly tall and strongly built companion. No one would make fun of Nathan for taking Mathis around when the Moose looked like that.
Even as Nathan turned to look around for some other option for a mount, he felt a tugging at the shoulder of his robe as the tall, dark roan standing behind him lipped at the cloth.
“I was thinking horses, as the journey will be relatively short as far as desert travel distances go, but we could manage most anything you like. Camels have more stamina when it comes to these climates, but they often have rather nasty dispositions, and the gait takes some getting used to.” Mathis hesitated when Nathan did not respond, “Maybe I should have asked. I assume any child of your family would know how to ride.”
Nathan did not respond; because he was too busy staring at the horse. He had a long, proud, well-shaped head, and a ruddy brown hide that shown in the bright sunshine. The horse already wore a dove grey saddle and bridle, bright with silver ornamentation and hung with blindingly white tassels around the edge of the saddle blanket. Ebony might have looked better for the horse’s equipment, the same deep midnight colors as his mane and tail, but the sun would be hot enough on his dark if handsomely dramatic coloring, there was no need to make it any worse just for a bit more style.
From some pocket hidden in the depths of his costume, Nathan pulled a big, red apple and held it out making certain to keep his hand spread out as flat as possible, and keep his fingers safe. Nathan rubbed the long nose with his other hand. Even standing on his toes, Nathan would have trouble seeing over the tall horse and high saddle, but that did not seem to matter. Nathan’s toe slid into the stirrup and he seemed to glide up into the saddle.
Only when he sat looking down at Mathis from his new perch, did Nathan seem to process that the Moose had been speaking. “Oh yes, I know how to ride, and horses are a fine choice, but what shall you ride?”
“I think I will go for something that will not cry when I try to climb aboard. At this size, my weight can be considerable.” Mathis rummaged around in his other big thigh pocket with his head tilted. What with the goggles and the bandana, Nathan could hardly say he saw anything, but he could have sworn that Mathis closed his eyes and pursed up his mouth so that he could better focus on what his poof told him.
“Aha!” Mathis said, pulling his tightly closed fist out and raising it up in triumph. “Found it.” The Moose tossed something small and glittering into the air. As it rose, and even more as it fell, the small glittering thing became anything but small. Almost as if rushing towards them from some undetected, unfamiliar, fourth direction, the small, glittering thing landed gently on the sand as a broad based, full size, open vehicle with six, oversized desert tires, glittering from thousands of tiny surfaces, just like the sand all around them might if every solitary particle were taken out and polished.
Mathis jumped over the low side of the vehicle, wiggling a bit so that the seat shifted to better accommodate not only his shape and size, but also the pack he wore comfortably. With one poof lightly gripping the steering yoke, Mathis waved Nathan ahead in the direction earlier indicated. “Lead on. It might take your mount a bit to get used to my vehicle. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Right-o,” Nathan said, pulling back on his left reign and letting up the tension on the right and squeezing the horse with his knees. Almost instantly, and without any great effort, Nathan and his mount flew over the sand. The horse seemed to have no bones, and barely touch the ground as the sand swallowed most of the sound of the hoof beats. Nathan assumed that Mathis sent them on ahead, because the noise of his vehicle would spook the horse. However, after several minutes of flying across the sun beaten terrain, Nathan still did not hear any noise of an engine behind him and grew concerned. Peering back over his shoulder, and gathering up his reins in preparation to slow down and go back in case trouble loomed, Nathan was surprised to see the vehicle and Mathis zipping along easily over the sand not three meters behind and too one side of them. The strange ‘sand buggy’ barely seemed to touch the ground, and it made even less noise than the horse, but part of the wind beating against Nathan’s skin came from the vehicle instead of the atmosphere.
Nathan’s mount stumbled, only very slightly and took a dancing step to the side, calling the boy’s attention back from the Moose. Reluctantly, Nathan pulled gently back on the reigns and slowed from the gallop to a canter. As amazing as the greater speed was, Nathan did not know how far they had to go, and it would do no good at all to exhaust and overheat his horse well away from their oasis goal. Horses need more water in a day than humans do, and Nathan had no idea how much Mathis might require.
The merciless sun hung, almost unmoving in the sky as the two travelers rode on for an apparent eternity beneath its brutal glare with only the phantom mirages of water in the distance offering any hope of relief, however false. Then, a sudden dip in the terrain ahead pulled them up short. A wide basin of sand dusted earth held a small pocket of grass and trees sheltering a deep, blue pool. On the near edge of the pool, the tents, animals, and black swathed figures of a major caravan or three mingled and milled about under the trees.
“Get back, and down! Quickly!” Mathis urged, following his own advice.
Nathan, well primed for action by training if not experience, did as he was told, purling his horse back and down below the edge of the basin before asking, “What is it?”
“Did you not notice the black robes, those yonder wear, or do you not know what they mean? Those slavers camped in the oasis would like nothing better than to have a boy your age and coloration to add to their merchandise, not to mention the lure of your horse and the silver on his tack,” Mathis said. He jumped quietly out of his vehicle and stowed it back in his pocket, all the while staring ahead, as if he could see the encampment, the pool, and all that lay in the basin ahead through the hill of sand behind which they sheltered as easy as Nathan might through a sheet of glass.
“I saw, and I knew, but I did not think to put the two things together. I am glad you were here to warn me. Where exactly is our goal?” Nathan asked, creeping up the hill on his belly to peak over the top at the scene below. “Ordinarily, I would suggest waiting until dark to make our approach, but we have no food, little water, and an appointment to keep on the
“The way lies on the opposite edge of the pool, in the dense knot of trees,” Mathis said, from a seat lower down on the hill. Moose antlers are very adaptable and good for many surprising tasks, but peeking over hilltops without letting your outline catch notice is not one of them.
Nathan scanned the scene below until he found the knot Mathis mentioned. “Those trees look close enough together that if we circle around to the other side and approach from behind them, we should be able to reach our goal without being detected,” Nathan said with an air of confident assurance in advance of his age and experience.
“That sounds like a good plan. You should go do that,” Mathis said, checking the contents of his pockets both in his uniform and on his pack with an air of preparation that made Nathan nervous.
“Aren’t you coming with me?” Nathan asked, slipping back down the hill to Mathis’ level.
“I will meet you over there. Do not worry. There is just something I need to take care of first,” Mathis said, and started to crawl down the hill at an angle, moving closer to the caravan rather than circling around to the safe path.