Nathan grabbed Mathis by the pack and pulled him back. “Wait, where are you going? What do you need to do first?” Nathan demanded, leaning back to put his whole weight into his hold on the moose. Mathis kept crawling for several feet without even slowing before he noticed Nathan dragging along behind.
Mathis stopped and turned around to sit in the sand facing Nathan. “You do not really expect me to just sneak past and leave all those people still in the slaver’s hands, do you?” Mathis asked, surprised that he had to explain.
Nathan’s eyes went big, and behind his veil his jaw dropped, but he pulled himself together quickly. “But what can we do? There are so many of them and only two of us. Won’t they just catch and keep you, too?”
Mathis chuckled softly and shook his head. “They certainly would if they could. Having a moose like me in their inventory would be enough to guarantee the fortune of any slaver that could manage the feat with the right clientele, but it will never happen unless I want it to.
“Do not worry. Circle around. Take Flame Heart to the Way. Someone with his coloring takes quite a bit of sneaking against a background of sand. If you go slow and careful, I should get there not long after you and leave the slavers far too busy to even think about following after a few anonymous bits of shadow that happened to drift across the middle distance.”
Without another word, Mathis wiggled in a certain, special way, shedding Nathan’s grip. In half a moment or so, he crawled away, fading into the scenery until Nathan had to track the Moose’s passage by focusing on the marks left behind in the sand. Then he could not follow even that.
With no other real option, Nathan returned to his mount, pausing to rub the bright nose before setting out again. “So your name is Flame Heart, then,” Nathan said, surprisingly lonely without his strange new acquaintance.
Flame Heart bobbed his head up and down in Nathan’s hands, for all the world as if he understood Nathan’s question and was nodding his answer. After that, Nathan mounted quickly and set about circling the hidden oasis, before the scene could get any more surreal. Then again, even if Flame Heart had the ability to speak, the bit in his mouth would make clear diction difficult.
Nathan dismounted before he and Flame Heart went over the top. Nathan walked next to the great horse to minimize their outline in case of scouts. Something was happening in the camp. The muted sound of voices with the occasional bark or shout that reached out across the intervening space had grown louder, pierced by the occasional surprised shriek or burst of uncontrollable laughter. Unfortunately, no matter how high Nathan’s curiosity spiked, by keeping behind his target knot of trees, not only could the people in the encampment not see him, but he could not see them, either.
The distance between the basin’s rim and Nathan’s goal stretched a million times farther as he made his quiet, careful way across. With each step his nerves wound tighter and tighter as he waited for someone to wander far enough away from the camp to see him and drag him into the increasing bedlam. Someone did appear, running toward the basin’s rim not twenty feet from Nathan, just before he reached the safety of the trees, and Nathan’s nerve almost snapped, but his second glance revealed that the runner could not possibly see them. Somehow the slaver had gotten his robe pulled up over his head, tangling up his arms and completely covering his head. Nathan quickly shoved the heel of his hand in his mouth to smother his laughter. The slaver should really have worn something underneath his robe other than his low boots.
Before anyone else could appear, Nathan sprinted the last few feet into the trees, and only then did he manage to draw an easy breath. The trees were only palms–tall, slender trunks with a few, long leaves at the top–with tall grass filling in the space between them, but something about the spot muted all the sound beyond their confines. The air felt cool and almost damp within the shadows of those trees. No hint of the fiery orb that ruled the terrain beyond with a molten iron fist managed to touch that ground.
Nathan’s steps slowed quickly in the darkness, probing the grass carefully with his foot before taking each step. He half expected to find the Way Mathis spoke of by falling through the ground into a dark, forgotten ruin. Instead, the way proved to be a neatly formed stairway carved of dark stone that quickly disappeared from sight in the direction of the pool. While the stairs themselves no signs of age or deterioration, the circular mosaic that surrounded them had lost so many of the tiny colored tiles that it was impossible to decipher what the image might have been.
The boy eagerly stepped out onto the flat, stone ruin, relieved to have firm ground beneath his boots and at least some clear area around him. The horse however, balked, pulling back against Nathan’s gentle tug on the reigns so sharply that they were pulled almost entirely out of his grasp.
“What is it, Flame Heart?” Nathan asked in a low, soothing tone, turning back to stroke the proud head. Something about that circle of stone in the ring of trees had the horse sweating and shaking in a way that not even their wild flight across the desert had managed.
“There, there,” Nathan said, for want of anything else to say. He wanted to reassure and promise to take care of everything, but he did not like to promise things he might not be able to deliver. Nathan knew that some of Flame Heart’s senses should be much more sensitive than a poor human’s, and he had no way of knowing what troubled the beast. It could be nothing more than a smarter than average horse’s perfectly reasonable aversion to trying to walk down those stairs into the darkness, but what else could they do? Leave Flame Heart behind for the slavers to find?
Before Nathan got too worked up trying to decide whether to try forcing the big horse forward or to prepare for an attack of some kind, the sound of approaching bodies sliding through tall grass from the direction of the camp reached them. Nathan spun round to face his fate, ridiculously putting his body between the apparent threat and the sweating, shaking horse.
Nathan was trying to figure out how to draw his sabre without cutting his belt when he saw the first dirty, poorly clad figure slipping quickly through the trees towards him as if all the hounds of hell were on his tail, but their master lurked somewhere ahead, and only the pressure of the people coming up behind kept him from finding somewhere to stop and hide from them both. The man probably had no more years to his credit than Barnaby back in the hotel, but long days under the brutal sun had tanned his skin as dark as old leather, complete with the fine network of wrinkles.
“Hullo there,” Nathan said gently. He slowly moved his hands away from his weapon and tried to look as nonthreatening as possible. A small crowd of other humans in a variety of sizes, ages, genders, skin tones, and costumes, but matching expressions clung to the man’s heels. They spilled out into the cleared space and might have run right across if Nathan’s voice had not cut into the fear and panic, bringing them to a stumbling halt. They huddled together on the opposite side of the stair, casting uneasy glances at the small, veiled figure with his bright horse, the dark void of the stone stairs, and the improbably dark shadows under the trees.
“Is Mathis coming soon behind you?” Nathan asked the poor huddle of humanity doing his best to resist the pervasive unease that already infected Flame Heart. One or two of them glanced Nathan’s way, but none seemed to understand what he asked. Still, Nathan only just maintained his calm, still posture when the stone stairs suddenly exhaled a gust of cold, damp air, because he expected something of the sort after he failed to fall into a hidden hazard as he made his way through the tall grass.
Only Mathis’ appearance kept the huddle from scattering in panic. The moose strode confidently onto the scene with his bandana hanging loose around his neck and his hat tilted back on his head so that anyone with eyes to see beheld his easy grin. “I told you that I would be along soon after you,” Mathis called across to Nathan even as he moved among the others soothing and comforting with his big, strong pooves.