Slowly, under the tree, Ayo began to stir. First he thought he heard voices from far away, then moving shadows, colored lights, then he felt the touch of a human hand. He opened his dazed eyes and slowly into focus came Beida leaning over him and pouring water onto his face and smiling. “You’re O.K., son, just a clean cut and a bad flow. You lost a lot of blood but soon you’ll be fine. I was only knocked out, a small cut, but the two of us, we made it-we made it!”
Beida had already washed and bandaged the wound deep in Ayo’s shoulder. Then someone came running toward them with sword in hand. Ayo tried to leap to his feet but he staggered back. “It’s fine,” shouted Beida. “He’s with us.”
The man raised his arm and then Beida spoke. “His name is Yu. He cannot speak but he is the best camel man in the desert. He can smell danger, is fast and quick. He has been with me for years. He cooks and watches the animals. Never underestimate him. His tongue was cut out for refusing to speak when captured. He understands me and always escapes like a cat. We shall rest until late afternoon, then move.”
Ayo knew that everyone else must be dead so he did not ask. Yu killed one of the camels that was wounded in the attack and transferred part of its load to the other ones. They threw away all the extra things that belonged to the dead and it considerably lessened the loaded camels.
As they sat under the tree, Beida began to teach Ayo Arabic and Greek. Hour after hour they rehearsed sounds and words. Soon, with only Beida riding they started off across the rolling land. It was hot yet it felt cool after the intense afternoon sun had passed over. They walked on until after dark but soon it became too dark to see for sometimes there were deep washes from the flooding rainy season just passing. They stopped in a large gully and brushed the ground clean. It sometimes helped to keep the snakes and ants away-but it was not a guarantee! They staked the camels down by the foot, made ready to eat and sleep. The dried fish was good and they ate a few bananas, then wrapped in blankets and fell asleep with Ayo’s shoulder hurting slowly. Just before dawn the camels began to pull at their chains. Ayo awoke to hear a “swosh.” He looked about and there stood Yu. In front of him was the wiggling parts of a vicious “night adder”, the most feared night snake in the land. As they prepared to leave, no one spoke, but the thoughts of Ayo were on the dead they left behind. “Where are they? We did nothing to provide them entrance into the world of good spirits, yet somehow I don’t feel like praying again, or strange as it may seem, I didn’t even believe it would do much good.”
Days went by as they pushed forward, even weeks. At night they slept in deep ravines or in bush villages where everyone seemed to know Beida and respected him. Beida now spoke to Ayo almost exclusively in a new language. Ayo must answer back with a few words in each in one of the new languages. It was relentless learning and they were traveling at a blistering pace. One of them walked and the other rode each day. Ayo now wore leather sandals and was covered with a long robe with a headrag in order to protect him from the torturous sun.
They kept the treasures they carried carefully covered under blankets and at night they each took turns watching the small caravan. They often had men wanting to join but Beida accepted no one else.
As they went further along, slowly the land grew drier and the bush and green land less and less. The people were very poor and they did a lot of small trading along the way. Often the village people were afraid at first sight as there was much slave trading in the area. Many tribes would take prisoners and the chief would sell the men or women as slaves to the traders. The price was always good so many indulged in this evil vice. Sometimes the Arabic traders themselves would lead raids but mostly they bought the slaves from warring tribes. Beida did not indulge in this trade and considered it evil. There were great stretches of the earth where every living plant had been burned clean by fire. This was one of the great dangers in Sahara land. Lightning would strike or sparks from a village fire would start a sweeping deadly fire.
Once as they were traveling they could see the high boiling smoke sweeping toward them. Then the fire raced along faster than a man can run. They made a wild dash toward a dry lake, a huge expanse of soil that is almost totally barren in the dry season but flooded with water for months during the rainy season forming a huge lake. They walked into the dry crusty lake bed and the giant inferno moved past with elephants, lions, antelope, horses, baboons and cheetahs running and leaping. It was a sight to see, the living world fleeing from death.
Now the villages were often far apart and soom they would reach the desert, the sands of evil death. They would soon, Beida said, have to get supplies for there would be no more villages.
They arrived at a large trading city called Botou. It was jammed with cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses and dogs. The market area was a teaming mass of people-men, women and children. There were camel caravans that had just arrived and others ready to begin. People of every language and color seemed to be there. Women were washing in the river with clothes everywhere, more cloth from the north and much local made clothes. Ao was amazed at the size and intensity of it. There were huge furnaces where men worked in the fires melting ore and molding brass and iron. Others were pounding and making knives and spear points from the steel. Others carved out great works of art, rings, bracelets, earrings, and all kinds of pictures. He had never seen such wealth and knowledge.
There were carts pulled by horses and great fields of food and grain that grew down by the river. Water was abundant and to Ayo it seemed like the heaven he had heard about. He was amazed as they pouted through the jammed streets, lined with open air and covered shops. The houses were large mud and block houses with thatch roofs. Soon they stood in front of a beautiful palace. Guards stood at the entrance way at attention. They wore red turbans and white wraps over shoulder and waist with red belts. They carried sparkling swords and all were tall and strong. Beida spoke to one of the officers.
Soon he returned, saluted Beida by bowing before him and let them inside the wall of the police fort. Yu stayed outside with the caravan and they entered the palace. It was splendid in beauty. Soon they stood in front of the king. On both sides of him stood servants fanning him with great ostrach feathers of matchless beauty. Guards stood about. The great king sat upon his throne, wrapped in silk and wearing a gold and diamond studded crown.
They bowed before him and touched their heads upon the carpet floor. Then they stood. The king nodded and Beida spoke. He honored the king, speaking great words of praise. Then he opened a bag he had been carrying and drew out a sparkling beautiful gold box covered in jewels. He carefully opened it, approached the king and then slowly opened the tops of several small bottles and lifted it so the king could smell. Each time he smiled, then the king reached out his hands to receive the box and perfume. The room was filled with fragrance and aroma as they stood among the great works of carved ivory and brass arts.
That night they stayed in the palace. Beida was an old friend of the king and they talked for hours. King Koro was ruler of a vast kingdom, many chiefs paid homage to him and his domain stretched for days’ walk in every direction from the big capital town. He was powerful and feared because he controlled the desert caravan route in an area of the desert that no one could cross without stopping. They collected taxes from the passing caravans of traders. They ate a feast of fresh beef and lamb as they sat with the guests of honor crowded into a large room. Afterwards they went out into the open place and there they were entertained with music and dancing. As the drums beat a throbbing rhythm, a hundred beautiful black young women danced with their flesh shining from the reflecting firelight, except for their grass skirts that covered them from their waist to their knees. Soon men and children joined in and as the full moon and star-filled sky shined down on them it was a night rhythm, wine and song. The men were given a choice of the dancers for the night. Beida chose a tall beautiful young girl and went laughing off into the night, but Ayo sat alone, drinking and getting drunk. Yet his mind continued to be filled with thoughts too deep to be thrown aside. It was strange but beautiful feeling. Somehow he felt he was on the road to his answers, yet how much longer would it be? He fell into his bed alone and was soon asleep.