Everything here was different. This desert, the pink sky, the red sun, and the red sand, all were foreign to him. He knelt in the sand grabbing up a fistful of it in his exposed hands and let it fall. It was not grainy, more like a fine soft powder, which stained his white Templar tunic as he knelt. His name was Raynald de Châtillon, Regent of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He was a man of the age of 52, with faded blonde hair, an unshaven beard, bad knees, and a multitude of scars and wounds from a lifetime of battle. Most men his age would have prefered the peaceful life, but that was not the fate for Raynald. He was a raider and a warrior. It was why he marched with the Crusades, for he loved the thrill of bloodshed. This day he and an army sent from Holy Jerusalem and led by the Lepor King Baldwin the IV, had been marching to Montgisard to face the armies of Saladin who had been invading into the Crusader States. They brought with them an army of 500 mounted knights and 4,000 infantry, to face Saladin’s numberless hordes. The chances had looked grim for them, but they would face their foe all the same. That had all changed when they had come here. It was as if they had stepped through an invisible doorway going from the holy land to this strange place. The difference was like night and day. The warhorses had become restless and the men were spooked. Even he, a man who had faced death hundreds of times was on edge. What was this place they found themselves in? Was this a test from God, or perhaps something from the devil? He dropped the rest of the strange sand clearing the excess away with a pat. A horseman approached, and when Raynald saw who it was, he remained on his knees with his head bowed. King Baldwin approached on horseback, with two mounted retainers in tow. The king was only sixteen years of age, but his youth could not stop the spread of leprosy, on his body. As a result he appeared somewhat thin and frail, under his armor and blue sure coat. Not an inch of his body was exposed. Armor and cloth covered everything, and a molded metallic mask was worn over his face. Only his blue eyes could be seen through the narrow eye slits. It was the only thing that appeared human on the boy.
“Have you ever seen anything like it Raynald?” The king remarked as he approached, his hand waving upward to signal Raynald to rise.
“No your highness. I must confess this desert vexes me and my senses.”
Baldwin breathed in deeply, the sound amplified by the small slits for his nostrils, letting the foreign air fill his lungs. “It is peculiar. Even the air seems off. The army does seemed to have settled however.”
“A fortunate thing your highness. None have perished or given in to madness, but we are exposed here.”
“Indeed, you sent scouts to survey surrounding area I trust?”
Raynald nodded, “Aye, they were reluctant but I set them to it. We should be expecting them soon, If God is with us.”
“He is always with us Raynald, but as for helping, I fear that we must help ourselves this time.”
Raynald chuckled slightly at the joke. Some more pious than he would have been mortified by the joke, but Raynald knew the young King well. Leprosy had given the boy a morbid, if not heretical sense of humor and morality. None could really blame him, and being a king helped him get away with it somewhat in court. Still sometimes he could reign it in a bit. Raynald ascended his horse with a grunt.
“I pray you are right my king. Uncertainty makes me nervous.”
“Yet we may have a resolution sooner than you think,” Baldwin pointed to the horizon. Raynald looked to see two scouts riding full tilt back to the army.
“That was quick.” Raynald snapped a finger to one of the retainers, who rode up beside him. “Go and greet them. If it is an emergency signal the army to assemble to battle. If it’s not, bring them immediately to us.”
The retainer nodded a salute before riding off to great the scouts.
“You only sent them out late this morning yes?” Baldwin asked looking to the sky for the sun’s position, “It can’t be past midday.”
“They found something for sure,” Raynald said as the scouts approached.
“Alright lads give us your report,” he said with a commanding voice.
“My Lord, Highness,” The scout said with quick nods to both men, “There is an oasis not far from here. There is a vast lake of fresh water, lots of greenery, and animals to hunt. There is no one else there from what we can tell, but it is so vast that we cannot be certain.”
“Sounds unlikely. I know not of any such oasis on the road to Montgisard.” Raynald said chastisingly.
“It’s true my lord,” the second scout confirmed, “We both saw it. The oasis is real.”
“If it is real than it is our best bet,” Baldwin said facing Raynald. “You did say yourself that these lands are unlike any you have seen before. We have found ourselves whisked away to an unfamiliar desert. Best we can do now is find a place to defend and get our bearings wouldn’t you say.”
Raynald was uncertain, but he relented to his king. “Very well. Give word to the army. You lot will be in the vanguard. Lead us to the Oasis.”
The scouts saluted and galloped back to the temporarily encamped army. In short order, horns were sound, troops assembled, and the camp was ready to move. On Baldwin’s orders, the army began its march to the Oasis. Raynald rode with the King’s retinue to his right. They rode at the center of the crusader army which was arrayed with infantry to the front rear and sides. The baggage train was incorporated into the protective formation of infantry, with cavalry riding to either flank. It was a small force, to be sure yet it was formidable, filled with elite soldiers and veterans who could split a Saracen in two. Raynald was confident in their strength, but he always found that it payed to be prepares. He turned to one of his retainers a man named Adrien who rode beside him.
“Adrien, resend the scouts to this oasis. I want them to examine it closer before we arrive.”
“Very well my lord. Shall I also send a skirmishing party to assist them?”
“Yes, though make sure they hang back from the scouts. Inform them they are to move in if trouble arises. No sense in revealing them too early if there are enemies a foot.”
“Of course my Lord. I shall pass on your command,” the retainer rode off to carry out Raynald’s commands. Raynald shifted in his saddle. He did not like this at all. Not one bit. He was a warrior, a paragon of bloodshed. Give him an army and an enemy and he would defeat it. This uncertainty however sat ill with him. He found himself praying more now, something he had not often done. Having control and holding sway over others was a way for him to avoid such formalities. For he was a man who secured his own destiny by his own means, and to have that choice suddenly taken away from him as he was thrown into a new world was disheartening. So he prayed, keeping it to himself and hoping that God would be with them today.
This desert was the place of outcasts. None who were brought here belonged to this inhospitable place. ‘Asil knew this. He knew that he and his people were not created here, but thousands of generations had lived and died here to the point where this place had become home. They were the Cataur. Their species was a bipedal race of humanoid cats. Physically they were strikingly similar in appearance to humans, with the same faces, and appendages. There were key differences however. Large portions of their bodies were covered in coarse hair running down from their heads and most of the body save for their faces and the palms of their hands and feet. Along with the fur, Cataurs possessed a tail often three feet in length, and cat ears sprouting outwards to the side. They were short in stature, but they made up for it by being a very hardy people. They needed to be so in order to travel the long distances of desert. The life blood of all species here were the oases. Scattered about the desert, these havens were the only sources of water, food, and growth in the empty wastes. When settling into an Oasis, the Cataur use resources sparingly. They would use what they could at a minimum level, to allow the Oasis the opportunity to replenish itself. Necessity, and a nomadic tendency forced the Cataurs, to migrate between oases after a time. They were after all only visitors to these havens, and the Cataurs would have to migrate to allow the Oasis to replenish themselves. The trips between each oasis were treacherous. Weather and terrain aside the cursed Ghyr Nazifa, a bipedal and carnivores reptilian race, would hound them at every turn, hoping to fill their bellies with Cataur flesh. ‘Asil swore such a fate would never befall his people.
Standing now at the top of a dune, with the tribal caravan camped near its base, ‘Asil, chieftain of the Ghrwb Alshams tribe, surveyed his surroundings. He wore the traditional garb of his people, a sack cloth skirt and sleeveless shirt, a plain sash wrapped across his chest, and a turban wrapped around his head with the end used to cover his mouth hanging loosely to the side. At his side he wore a Nazifa’s dagger like a sword. He had retrieved it after getting lucky against one of their warriors during a raid on his tribe in his youth. He could still remember the look on the giant Lizard’s face when he plunged the beast’s own knife into his throat. For the giant Nazifa, the blade was essentially only a dagger, but for ‘Asil’s size it made for an adequate sword. He had to use many times since that day, and it had served him faithfully. As he surveyed his surroundings he hoped he would not have to use it today as he searched for any signs of danger.
They were still at least six day’s journey from the next Oasis, one called Almiah Almuqadasa. The Nazifa had been pursuing their caravan for three days now, and ‘Asil had been able to keep the caravan one step ahead of their oppressors. But a day prior, the telltale sign of a dust cloud in the distant behind them, signaling the Nazifa’s pursuit, suddenly vanished. Many in the Caravan assumed the best, and thought they had given up their pursuit. ‘Asil knew better than to assume. The Ghyr Nazifa were a stubborn race, and they would not give up the hunt easily. Yet as he surveyed his surroundings there still was no sign of movement. Still uneasy but recognizing the necessity to move he descended the dune sliding down to the bottom. A cluster of five cataur warriors waited for him there.
“Any sign chieftain?” One of the taller ones asked, a warrior named Ghayz.
“No but we should not let our guards down. Signal the caravan we are moving out.”
‘Asil moved with a purpose to rouse his people, the warriors following in his stride.
“Chieftain, perhaps we should rest?” Ghayz insisted.
“No, we can rest when we get to the oasis.”
“But chieftain, many are tired and weary. There are no Nazifa on the horizon now. We can at least catch our breaths so we can move faster.”
‘Asil abruptly turned about to face Ghayz causing the young cataur to suddenly stop stunned.
“Tell me Ghayz, where are we?”
Ghayz looked at ‘Asil confused, “Chieftain?”
“Answer the question Gahyz.”
‘Asil spread his arms out in a wave as a way to point to their surroundings. “We are in open ground, Ghayz. The oases not only provides food and water. They provide a defensible position. You are right that we do not see the dust cloud that comes from the Nazifa’s march, but when we move, we also create a dust cloud. That cloud can be seen for miles, just as we see their cloud. They already know where we are, and they know we will keep running if we see them charging from far away. But Nazifa are not just bloodthirsty savages, they are clever and cunning as well. They can march slower to hide their dust cloud, and use the dunes to mask their movements. Every moment we waste is a moment for them to get closer. If we wait longer than they will be on us, and then…….” He let the last bit hang in the air. The others filled in the blanks, though they still seemed somewhat unconvinced.
“You may not believe me. You may question that decision. But as long as I am chieftain, my word is law. We rest at the Oasis. Now gather up the caravan and get them to move.”
They did as he ordered but there was no urgency in their step. That wouldn’t do.
“Now!” he growled and the young warriors moved quicker to carry out his orders.
“Father?” an inquisitive voice asked to his left. He looked to see his daughter Bara’a, a girl in her eighteenth year, with blonde fur save for two brown streaks on her head, standing by the caravan’s lead cart. She was in the middle of loading up the wagon when her father’s outburst drew her attention.
“Is everything alright?” she asked approaching him.
“Yes, yes my desert flower,” he said with a warm smile trying poorly to hide his stress.
She was not satisfied with the response seeing through her father’s attempt at hiding his feelings. She got frustrated as she continued to load the wagon. “You’re lying to me.”
“I speak truly.”
“Your tail wags up and down when you lie.” She shot back.
He hadn’t thought he did such things. Or rather never noticed he did that when he lied. He brushed the lie off and continued.
“I’ll be fine, better once we reach safety,” he admitted with a sigh.
“We shouldn’t have to run.”
“We run to survive, Bara’a. It is all we can do.”
She fixed him with a stubborn look, a look he knew all too well, for head had seen it on his wife many times when she had disagreed with him when she yet lived. Bara’a was certainly her mother’s daughter.
“We can run all the time father. You know what we must do.”
“And what would that be?”
“We must stand our ground! We must fight!”
“Hmmm yes a fight then, alright tell me daughter how do you propose to fight the Nazifa?” He asked indulging his daughter.
“By banding together, all of us! Together we can be strong, and we can beat the Nazifa back!”
“All of us then? You mean the old and sick, the young children and mothers, and the warriors who are scared at the sight of a desert mouse? Where not a band of warriors daughter. Many here cannot fight this war you propose.”
“But you are a warrior father! So many have spoken of your prowess! You could teach us!”
“No daughter, I have only gotten lucky. The Nazifa I’ve killed, I got lucky with, because I was faster and hit the right places. I couldn’t train these people here, because there is nothing to teach. Besides that how do you propose arming this Caravan? What weapons we have once belonged to the Nazifa, and they were not made for animals of our stature. We have tools that could be used as weapons true, but they would not be ideal.”
“It still would be better than running all the time.” She didn’t admit fully that he was right. He knew she wouldn’t. She was too stubborn to do that.
“You’ve not seen the horrors of bloodshed my dear. You do not know the stench, and terror that comes with it. I don’t want you to ever experience it. I don’t want any to experience it. So we will run. We will hide. And we will survive as we always have.”
“But Father we can’t…”
“Enough, we will talk no more of this. My decision is final.” Still Bara’a was about to protest, but an approaching warrior, Daeif, came running up to report to ‘Asil.
“Daeif, I assume you are going to tell me that we are ready to move out?”
“Yes chieftain the caravan is ready to move.”
“Very well. Have Mayit, Rijali, and Almashi form the rear guard. I want the others spaced out along the caravan, and five to the van with me.”
Daeif nodded a salute and carried out the orders. ‘Asil gave his daughter an expectant look as he awaited her to fall in line. With a look of disappointment, Bara’a ascended the carriage and took the reins for the draft oxen pulling it, ready to follow her father.
A horn sounded and soon the caravan was on the move again. ‘Asil, along with the warriors Daeif, Ghayz, ‘Ahmaq, Shujae, and Shajaea, lead the caravan back on track. As they started up their trek again, ‘Asil found himself worrying again. Only a few more days, and they would be safe for a time at least. His daughter’s words rang in his head. She wasn’t entirely wrong, for he wished to turn and fight. But his people were not meant for bloodshed, not like the Nazifa at least. Maybe someday things would change, but for now there was no other choice save to go forward.