Author’s Note: Welcome back! I hope the first Part of Lady of a Thousand Names drew you here and you’re continuing the story. This is the first chapter of Part 2: The Desert King and it’s a Patreon exclusive. Happy reading
Chapter Ten: Stranger on the Hill
Terim Gottherd wiped his hand across his brow and shook his head to clear his mind. The dreams had returned with a vengeance. Dreams of being chased through some sort of library by men with wickedly curved swords. Or other dreams of a woman with wise eyes and vast knowledge who led him through worlds of wonder. There was even a dream where he’d literally stepped off a cliff into a vast ocean.
They all seemed so real that when he woke from them, he couldn’t remember who or where he was, and not even his own father looked familiar. He’d have to relearn his place, his job, and his name until they felt comfortable again.
But they never really did, like he played a part everyone else understood but left him confused. Taking a deep breath, he adjusted his hat and trained his gaze on the goats grazing on the stiff desert grasses that pushed up between the rocks. Their bells jangled in the hot air and he recounted them, making sure none had disappeared during his musings.
Still have twenty-two goats. Good.
He adjusted his hat and leaned against a boulder in the shadow of an Orb Tree. The branches made a complete circle, leaving a round shadow on the ground. The boulder provided an additional circle and the shadow looked like a bunched infinity symbol he’d seen on the old ruins above the village.
He shot a look toward them now and froze.
A figure stood at the edge of the ruins, gazing down on the village. Terim wouldn’t have noticed it except for the flash of black silk waving like a flag in the afternoon breeze. Unease slid through him, along with a sense of déjà vu.
I’ve seen this person before.
Dressed like one of the Ancient Nomads, the stranger wore a black turban on their head and a piece of black silk across their nose and mouth to keep out the sand riding the winds across the shifting western dunes. No other features were visible at his distance, but Terim swore the shape of the silhouette was familiar.
He waited for the figure to move, but the person simply stood leaning against one of the crumbling walls, as patient as the merciless sun upon the sands. Would they come down to the village? Were they there to hunt someone or something?
Terim gathered up his herd of goats and ushered them down to the village despite the heat of the day. He didn’t want to get caught alone. When he reached the village, it was abuzz with the news of the stranger.
“Did you see what’s on the ruins?” The story flitted between the old men. “It’s one of the Ancients come for a reckoning on our indiscretions.”
“It’s true. We should repent.”
“I’m not afraid of some random stranger.” The younger men had a different approach. “I could take him in an instant.”
Terim shook his head as he herded the goats home. Oh yeah, go threaten a stranger whose abilities you don’t know and who might not mean any harm.
A few of the younger men and boys were brave enough to approach the figure who watched them come with silent stoicism, but none got closer than shouting distance. A few threw taunts and jeers, but when they got no reaction, they scampered back to the village with their egos bruised.
Terim hadn’t given his father an explanation for his early return, but when the news of the stranger took everyone’s attention and conversation, his father didn’t notice. He couldn’t shake the thought that the stranger brought a message for him, though the silhouette never moved from the perch on the wall. Terim fed the vegetable leavings from supper to the herd as he scanned the ruins for the stranger.
What are they doing here?
“It’s a bad omen, I tell you. It means the winter rains won’t come.” Terim’s father Dortham shook his head. “Some reckless boys dared each other to visit the ruins tonight to catch the stranger sleeping. Fools. The last thing we need is to irritate the gods’ messenger.”
“You think the person is a messenger of the gods?” Terim broke a piece of bread off the loaf, before dipping it in their vegetable and goat stew.
“I’m sure of it. Did you see the ruins in at sundown? The sun’s dyin’ light painted the man crimson red. And he’s still waitin’. It’s a bad omen, mark my words, boy.”
Terim agreed it was an omen, but he couldn’t agree it was necessarily bad. He did his chores with his mind on the figure and the weird sense of familiarity. To his surprise, Dortham’s cronies gathered in front of their little house to discuss the new arrival.
“It’s a bad omen, I’m telling you.” Dortham waved at the sky.
Murmurs of agreement filtered through the gathered villagers.
“I ain’t worried about omens. I wanna know what the stranger wants and how long he’s gonna stay.” A man with a grizzled gray beard pointed to the east.
“Maybe it’s really a demon come to punish us for someone’s bad behavior. You remember when Roald cheated all those folks. He got the pox real bad soon after.”
Gray Beard snorted. “Eh, he had the pox long before that. It finally just caught up with him, is all. It ain’t a demon.”
“Mark my words, I’ll be the stranger is waitin’ for us all to go to sleep before he comes down to steal away one of our daughters.” An old woman in a red shawl scowled. “You all best lock your doors and guard your children well.”
The group dispersed afterward, and the village settled down into silence. But Terim couldn’t sleep. His mind kept going back to the sense of familiarity, and the dreams he’d been having. Was the stranger linked to the dreams? He lay there in the eerie silence and his mind ran itself into exhaustion until the morning. Both he and his father dragged themselves out of bed sometime after dawn, and Terim brewed the strongest tea they had to keep their eyes open.
“You gonna take the goats to the east again?” Dortham held his tea mug close to his face as if the steam would wake him up more.
Terim shook his head. “No, they’ve eaten all they can there. I’ll keep to the lowlands on the west side.”
His father shot him a sharp look. “Watch for the stranger on the ruins. I still think it’s a bad omen.”
“I will.” Terim set down his tea mug and gathered up his crossbow and waterskin. “See you at midday.”
Dortham grunted and Terim headed out with the herd. He refused to look at the ruins until he was completely free of the village buildings. But to his surprise, the figure was gone from its place on the wall, and disappointment zinged through him. He’d hoped to get close enough to see who or what the figure was.
The morning passed without incident and Terim returned to the village for the midday meal. As he walked through town, the gossip floated toward him on the warming air. The younger boys teased each other about being scared, while the men boasted they hadn’t been truly nervous. Terim rolled his eyes but kept his own counsel as he settled in for cold meat and cheese on bread. His father asked if he’d seen anything out of the ordinary, but the day had been quiet.
Not even the strange figure to liven things up.
But when the sun had reached its zenith and Terim began his chores on their meager garden, the stranger’s silhouette returned to the ruined walls. Worry reappeared on the faces of people passing their home and Terim caught new the stories about the stranger. Not only was he waiting to take one of the young girls, but he also waited for the perfect time to punish any of those who dared to visit the ruins at night. Despite his tendency not to believe idle gossip, Terim acknowledged the stranger’s silence and aloofness got to him, too.
For several days the stranger stood there on the ruins, always appearing around midday and remaining, despite the hot sun, until late in the evening. The village became subdued with fear and unease. Terim had mixed feelings, alternating between cautious unease and burning curiosity. Why would the stranger stand out there all day in the hot sun? Why did they never approach the village to speak with the people? Were they looking for someone or hoping to find a time when they could investigate the village without the residents’ knowledge? So many questions.
On the afternoon of the ninth day, the now-familiar figure failed to appear on the ruins.
Terim had taken to drinking his tea out to the yard to stare up at the ruins, watching the stranger as much as the stranger watched the village. He’d completed his chores so he could take the afternoon to approach the stranger and ask all his questions.
But the figure had disappeared.
Oh, now you leave?
Terim set down his tea, grabbed his wide-brimmed hat, and set out to see what the stranger had left behind.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Dortham sat at the table, whittling a fanciful figure into wood for the marketplace coming next month.
“Up to the ruins. The stranger didn’t show up today.” Terim headed for the door.
“Have you lost your mind?” The older man gaped at him. “Leave it be, boy. He could be lying in wait for the stupidly curious. Mark my words, boy—”
“It’s a bad omen. I know, Father. But I want to see if there’s more to it than just fear. I’ll return for supper.”
“Terim, you mustn’t go.”
But he was already out the door before his father could rise from his seat. He wanted more out of his life than just herding goats and listening to the same old gossip within the village. The stranger had arrived and made him yearn for something out of the ordinary. The dreams had come back stronger and seemed more like memories than flights of fancy, and each step toward the ruins made the yearning harder to resist.
I’m just investigating what the stranger may have left behind, that’s all.
The ruins were the remains of a small palace said to belong to the royal family before the lands became too arid. Only the marble floor and bits of the columns and low outer wall remained against the ravages of time and sand. The edges of the foundation made a large square of about thirty feet by fifty feet, with pieces of the low wall missing from erosion. Drifts of sand piled in the corners of the old stones, obscuring the once brightly colored mosaic tiled floor.
Terim picked his way carefully through the outlines of rooms and halls, looking for any traces of recent visitation. Had the stranger camped within the walls at night? He searched for any signs to give him a clue about who or what the stranger had been. The sand dusted his feet through his sandals and struck his legs when the wind blew, pushing him this way and that as the wind shifted.
There’s nothing here.
Crushing disappointment filled his chest and he stopped moving. His gaze slid over the rocks as he let his shoulders slump. He’d missed his opportunity because of fear and gossip. Where was my courage? Blown away in the winds like the sand across the mosaic floor.
He turned to head back to the village and his small life. It was fine. They had enough to eat and he liked some of the goats. He hadn’t lost anything other than an opportunity and there’d be others. The pep talk sounded hollow in his mind as he kicked over a broken piece of wall, exposing a piece of red cloth that fluttering away in the midday breeze.
He gasped and chased after it, catching it just at the edge of the wall overlooking the village. He studied the cloth, spreading it flat and flipping it over. An inscription had been left in charcoal on one side, the handwriting surprisingly elegant for the medium used. It read:
“He who follows in my footsteps is destined for greater things than a small village at the edge of the desert.”
Was the message meant for him? Or for someone else? Who else would be foolish enough to come up here to look? He grimaced and looked around for footprints or signs of whoever had left the message. He’d checked the floor of the palace for any signs, but none showed.
He frowned and re-read the message. Follow in their footsteps. What footsteps? Terim let the words rattle around his mind as he searched the ground around him. The wind in the ruins never stopped so any footprints left by the stranger would’ve been long gone.
Except they weren’t gone.
A long line of iridescent footprints lead away from where he stood toward the mountains to the northwest, beckoning to him like a gift of water to a thirsty man. Could he take the chance and follow them to greater things than being a goatherder in a tiny village? Or should he just go home and leave such flights of fancy to adventurers the bards sang about?
How do you think those adventurers got their starts?
The tempting voice made the yearning surge in his chest and he swallowed hard. He wanted to follow the footprints’ path, to leave behind his ordinary life and find the extraordinary. He’d never really felt like he belonged here, but there’d never been anything to suggest he was wrong to feel that way.
Terim stood there for a long time staring at the trail as the wind blew the sand back and forth across the sparkling path. Fear and frustration built up inside him. He had nothing with him for a safe journey across the sand dunes. He needed to return to the village to pack a few things for such a trip and bid his father farewell. But what if, like the black silhouette, the trail toward the mountains vanished and he missed his chance to learn more about the world outside village life?
Could he leave everything he’d known to traipse across the desert after an unknown messenger?
Everything I’ve ever known?
He’d never felt like he fit in where he was, like he lived a life that wasn’t really his. His thoughts returned the dreams and memories he’d had since a boy. Fantastic dreams of places he’d never visited as a goatherder’s son. Experiences of cities filled with stone and glass buildings, wagons that traveled across the ground under their own power, moving images on hand-held screens.
There was something he’d forgotten, he was certain of it. He’d read voraciously all the books he could find in the village, and checked out from the library in Cazbar, a city located deeper to the south. His father used to go there in the spring with the excess cheese they couldn’t sell in the village. He’d take Terim along after his mother and sister had died.
Terim frowned. Those memories were right, and yet not. Like they came from a story he’d once read rather than something he’d actually experienced. He stared at the cloth in his hands. Was the message actually for him? Or someone else?
His shoulders slumped. He couldn’t just leave this moment and strike off across the sands. He didn’t have the provisions. Crushing disappointment slammed into him and he moaned. What if this was his only chance and he missed it because he wasn’t ready? Desperation set in and he turned to face the mountains with tears in his eyes.
“Please wait for me. I only need an hour and I can be ready to go.” Why he called out into the wind, he didn’t know, but he hoped it would be enough. “Give me that time to say goodbye. Please wait for me.”
There was no answer from the footprints shimmering in the sunshine like a path of gold, but they didn’t disappear despite the wind. Maybe they weren’t there just for him. Biting his lips, he stooped and replaced the cloth under the rock where he’d found it.
Just in case it’s not meant for me. Then the one who was supposed to find it would be able to take his/her path.
But I really hope it’s for me.
Straightening his shoulders, Terim turned back toward the village, his feet sending sand into the air as he ran down the dunes. His approach brought a small crowd to the eastern edge of the village and more joined as he neared them. Relief stole across the faces before worry settled on their as they took in his hurry.
“Terim? Why are you running? Is something wrong?”
“What did you find? Was the demon there?”
“It’s not a demon, you fool! But there could be a magic spell. Was there a spell?”
“Are you all right? You look flushed. Were there any traces of someone up there?”
Terim shook his head, trying to get past everyone, but they followed him as he hurried to his father’s house.
“No, there’s nothing wrong. I’m just in a hurry to get home.” He tried to give them a smile. “There wasn’t anyone there.” He stopped before he said more, not wanting to lie to them about not finding anything or whether a spell had been laid on the ruins.
Do the cloth and sparkling footprints count?
“If there were no traces, why were you there for so long?” Majir, the blacksmith’s son narrowed his eyes and lifted his chin.
Terim focused on him, studying the younger man. “Are you calling me a liar?”
Majir tossed his black ponytail over his shoulder as he grimaced. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Anger stirred before exasperation set in. Even when they had been children, Majir’s animosity had been a factor in their relationship.
“No, you’ve called me a liar before, it’s true. But I’ve never lied to you. Any of you.”
“Oh yeah? What about Matrica?”
Terim blinked. “What about her?”
Matrica, the baker’s daughter, had flirted with Terim in hopes to convince him to marry her. She was pretty with auburn hair and pale gold eyes, but the pretty face couldn’t mask the emptiness inside. She was often self-centered and looking for prestige in some imagined power struggle within the village. Terim didn’t know why she’d chosen him when Majir and several of the other young men had wanted her attention. But she ignored them. Majir had challenged him on numerous occasions over her, and Terim was perfectly willing to let him have her. Another thing that seemed to frustrate the younger man.
“How long was I gone?” Terim moved toward the front door, but Majir grabbed his shoulder.
“Three hours.” The younger man scowled. “I think you’re lying, and you really did find something up there, but you want to hide it from the rest of us. I think it was something valuable.”
Terim shrugged him off with his own scowl. “Let go of me. The only thing I found up there was sand and stone.” And the cloth, which was valuable, but not in the way Majir thought. “I’m not hiding anything. If you don’t believe me, you can go check for yourself.”
He threw down the gauntlet for anyone who wanted to challenge him. Of course, that meant Majir would find the cloth and follow the footprints without looking back.
If someone follows them, will they disappear for others?
He couldn’t worry about it. He needed to offer the opportunity to someone else to assure himself he wasn’t selfish. And he hoped the footprints would remain long enough for him to follow as well.
“Fine, I’ll do that.” Majir sneered and stalked toward the ruins to the east.
Terim rolled his eyes and pushed into his house before the others could ask more questions. He leaned against the door and dropped his chin, letting his breath out slowly. Majir would find the footprints and either return, saying Terim was touched by demon’s magic or wouldn’t return at all.
So the question is, are you going to give up right here, or take the chance they’ll remain?
Terim raised his gaze and let it settle on the interior of his childhood home. It only had two rooms, a bedroom where his father had slept with his mother before she died, and the main room. Terim’s bed sat tucked away in a corner beyond the big table in the center. Four stools stood around the table and a lantern hung from the ceiling for use at night. A fireplace stood on the right wall and an iron spit held up a small black cauldron.
But this isn’t my childhood home. Not really.
Other memories tried to intrude, but he shook them off as he moved to his bed and pulled a pack out from beneath it. He stuffed his few warm clothes inside, including the ankle boots he wore for around the village. He shoved his feet into his winter boots and added his heavy jacket to the pack.
What else will I need?
He wouldn’t be coming back, so he looked around the small personal space. His two most precious possessions caught his eye. One was an old book about an adventurer with his name, given to him by a holy man in the bazaar in Cazbar.
The adventure book was leather-bound, worn, and stained from the many hands other readers. The holy man told him the story centered around an adventurer named Terim who’d traveled to many worlds and had many adventures before he just disappeared. When Terim asked if it was a true story, the old man had smiled and nodded, giving him his blessing.
The other precious possession was a blank book given to him by his mother before she passed on. It also bound in leather with crisp, sturdy paper pages with the golden hue of disuse. She’d given it to him to write down his thoughts and dreams so he wouldn’t lose any of his thoughts.
“You’re a dreamer, Terim, and it’s a unique, rare quality in people. Never lose that. Dreams make life worth living.” His mother had insisted he not lose his dreams.
The pages had remained empty because he’d saved them for any great events in his life.
This definitely qualifies.
He wrapped the books in his clothes and turned to the kitchen area to add provisions. He shoved half a loaf of bread, a quarter of a wheel of goat cheese, some dried fruit, a knife, and a small pot into the pack before remembering he’d need a blanket.
He’d just picked it up when his father came out of the bedroom and stopped, taking in Terim’s boots and pack.
“Are you going somewhere, Terim?”
He let his breath out slowly and nodded. “I am.”
Dortham frowned. As tall as Terim, hiss body held more muscle and girth from spending much of his waking hours churning the goat’s milk into cheese. Terim had inherited his father’s height and his mother’s slender build.
He braced himself for the upcoming argument. He wasn’t as broad as Dortham, but strength ran in his family line. Speed and agility were his only advantages over his father.
“Where will you go?” Dortham settled his bulk on one of the stools and eyes Terim critically.
Terim shrugged. “I’ll follow the path set before me. Definitely northward to see what’s out there. Maybe as far as Militan or Phrana.”
“You don’t know?” The frown turned into a scowl. “Does this have to do with the stranger in the ruins for the last week?”
Terim sighed and shook his head. “No, but the stranger appearing just solidified what I’ve been thinking for a while.”
“And what’s that?”
“I’m not meant to be a goatherder, Father. I want to travel and learn about the world beyond our village’s borders. I don’t…belong here.”
“Oh for the gods’ sakes!” Dortham slammed his hand on the table. “Not this again.”
“Mother believed me.”
“Your mother’s dead!”
“Thanks for the update. I hadn’t noticed.” Terim rolled his eyes. “I’ve had dreams, Father. Dreams of things you can’t even conceive of, and I need to find out if they’re true, if they’re real. I’m more than just a goatherder.”
“Are you saying you’re better than me, boy?” The growl that presaged an angry outburst filled his father’s voice.
“No, Dortham. I’m not better than you. I’m just more than this little village. This was your dream and your goal. I want something different. I am something different.” He shoved some of his anger away and met his father’s gaze. “There are so many things I wish to learn. And my teacher awaits me. I must go to meet him before it’s too late.”
“The stranger on the ruins.”
“Have you spoken to him? Do you know anything about him? How do you know he’s this teacher you claim?”
Terim opened his mouth to refute Dortham’s questions, but he didn’t have the answers. At least, not satisfactory answers.
“I haven’t spoken to him or know much about him, but I know he came for me. He left a message in the ruins for me, and I need to follow his instructions.” He sighed. “Please, Father, give me your blessing to follow the path.”
Dortham remained stubbornly silent and Terim’s heart sank. So be it. Closing the pack up tight, he straightened and headed for the door.
“If you leave now, don’t ever bother coming back.”
“Is that really how you want to leave this?” Terim looked back over his shoulder and realized just how old his father looked. “I don’t do this to hurt you, Dortham. You’ve known for years I’ve wanted to see more of the world. I love you and I’ve learned a lot from you, but I need to find my true calling.”
When Dortham said nothing, Terim nodded.
“Take care of yourself and be well.”
“Terim…” The older man shuffled through the room to stop behind him. “I won’t hold you back. Despite what you think of me, I do understand the desire to move on. It once held me in its grip. But I won’t be here forever, and I fear I won’t see you again before I die. It’s a very big world, son, and there are many dangers.”
Heh, you haven’t seen the SAS yet.
The weird thought made him gasp a little, but he shook off the odd memory.
“I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but that’s the point. But one thing I do know. We’ll meet again in this lifetime, before you or I die. I know that in my heart.”
Dortham snorted and shook his head. “You have so much of your mother in you.” His father, with tears in his eyes, crushed Terim in a bear hug and whispered, “I can’t hold you back any more than I could your mother when she got sick. Go with my blessings, Terim.”
Terim hugged him back just as fiercely before stepping back. “Thank you.”
Dortham cleared his throat. “Just keep your wits about you.”
Terim nodded and opened the door, stepping through into the early afternoon light. Most of the people had gone back to their own business, but they gathered around him again when they saw his full pack. He did his best to ignore their dogged attention, but one person grabbed his arm and pulled him to a stop.
“Where are you going, Terim?” The plaintive voice belonged to Matrica. She pouted and the need to leave increased.
“On a trip.” He didn’t want to elaborate. Matrica wouldn’t understand anyway.
“How long will you be gone?” She tilted her head and shot him a coy look.
“I don’t know. Don’t wait for me.”
“You’re just…leaving?” Her jaw dropped. “Where will you go?”
He hitched his pack a little higher on his shoulders. “I’m not sure. Northward. Toward Phrana.” The memory of the footprints and the uneasy worry that they had a limited time to remain skittered through his mind.
“If you really loved us, you would stay.” Matrica’s sullen whine made him clench his jaw.
And that’s the point. I don’t love you.
“It’s not meant to be, Matrica.” He gave her a rueful smile. “Find someone who’s content here and be happy.”
He pushed past her and headed back toward the ruins. The people shook their heads and grumbled about him losing his senses, but none chose to stop him. He hiked toward the ruins without another word. Sadness tugged at his heart as he left the confines of the village, but excitement and hope surged ahead of it, giving him a new sense of purpose.
When he reached the ruins, Terim paused and looked back toward the village. A few people stood at the fringes to watch his progress. He snorted.
Bet they didn’t think I’d actually go.
He turned and headed across the floor of the ruins, catching sight of the red cloth still fluttering in the afternoon breeze from where he’d left it. He frowned and pulled it from beneath the stone.
What are you still doing here? Surely Majir had seen it and read the message. Why hadn’t he taken it? Terim rose to his full height and scanned the horizon, looking for the younger man. Nothing met his gaze beyond the sparkling footprints, still visible along the dunes.
Didn’t Majir follow the footprints himself?
Shrugging, Terim stuffed the cloth in his pocket and turned his feet north.
The path led toward the mountains in an unbroken line, despite the winds. He set off, wondering at their pristine marks. Majir must not have seen them.
Not that he needs the freedom offered by the stranger.
Not caring to follow that thought, Terim settled his pack more comfortably and followed the line of footprints heading north.