B A T U
The saddle bounced hypnotically throughout the grueling ride. Batu patted his ostrich horse’s neck gently, looking up towards the horizon. Dusty cliffs and crags as far as the eye could see, with endless dunes even beyond. It was only mid-morning, but the sun had been beating down as if it were the dead of noon. Truth be told, Batu had set out at first light, hoping to take advantage of the twilight before the heat could become an issue, but like many things in his life, he’d judged poorly.
His eyelids drooped. A mere three or so hours in the saddle, and he was as exhausted as if he’d been riding for a full day. His face baked, his already dark complexion getting a thick layer of sunburn atop it. He forced his eyes down to his belt, feeling around with his hand, before producing a water skin. Twisting the yak bone stopper, he knocked back a mouthful of the already warming liquid.
Uyanga, his trusty ostrich horse, brayed raspily, a discontented yowl followed by chitters. Batu lowered the water skin, squeezing the beast’s mouth full as he had his own. The animal chirped, satisfied. From behind him, a noise somewhere between an angry gull and a dying elephant assaulted Batu’s ears. Throwing back his gaze, his eyes settled on Wangu, the camelephant that Batu was still unsure was worth the crowns he’d cost.
“Silence yourself, beast! You’ve enough water in that hump for all of us to drink all the way to Si Wong!” Batu called back jokingly, trying to keep a lighthearted spirit during the trying journey.
He had to admit, it was a far cry from the steppes and mountains he’d called home. Even the remote villages from there to Harushima were more hospitable, and there was always wild game to hunt on the trek northwards. Come to think of it, he’d seen nothing even dare try and live in this wasteland in his miles of riding, save him and his herd. It was sobering to be this far from real civilization, even for a nomad.
Snapping him out of his deep thought was the distinct sound of wind in his ears. Batu hadn’t encountered any sort of wind since he’d set out this morning. The wind tie he’d secured to Uyanga’s saddle had been stationary save for the bounce of the ride, but now it blew full mast. Batu thought back to the advice he’d been given at the last bazaar by those odd insect-helmeted traders. Wind was not an idle thing in the desert, and great dust storms could come at a mere moment’s notice. The native tribes called these winds Shamals, and the only way to survive one was to shelter in place.
Batu grimaced, railing another swig of water before putting his weight back in the stirrups. Cocking himself to one side, he dismounted with a groan, rubbing at his aching back.
“Uyu, down.” As he ordered, the bird-horse-thing folded her legs, sitting on them that they were not at all exposed. Batu wrapped a hand around canvas and animal skin, a tarp lodged in the leather ties of the saddle. Pulling it free, he brought with it two iron-tipped wooden stakes. He acted fast to pull the tarp over his trusty steed, securing it down on both sides with grunts of effort.
Directing his gaze to the horizon once again, the danger now presented itself. Mere miles out, a wall of dark, oppressive brown sand towered higher than the Walls of Ba Sing Se. His expression softened, a realization of his predicament. Throwing his gaze back to Wangu the Camelephant, he thought: If he can’t survive this without a tarp, he’s not worth a damn anyways. With that last thought, Batu retreated under the tarp with Uyanga.
The man and his beast cowered under the tarp for what felt like in eternity. In all reality it had been less than an hour, but already what had to be feet worth of sand was building up on the tarp, which fought each gust of wind with all its might, held down more by the weight of the sand than any stakes which had been driven.
Batu had prayed to every deity and spirit he knew at least once thus far, and held with a white knuckle grip onto the tarp for dear life. Uyanga hadn’t stopped chittering discontent since the storm started, not that it was audible over the hissing wind and whipping tarp.
Batu had a pit in his stomach. Sure the storm was the greatest of his concerns currently, but he couldn’t help but feel as if he was being watched. Observed, maybe even stalked. Surely nothing could reliably function out in that dust, could it? Batu’s thoughts were interrupted harshly as a particularly strong gust of wind blew, and a coarse ripping sound tore the tarp in two, taking it away in two neat pieces.
They were now exposed to the elements, as particulate lashed Batu’s face and flayed his hands. Uyanga sprung to her feet, only to be blown back prostrate again. Batu thought he heard voices, but swore it was only Wangu’s cries distantly behind him. Until the sounds became clearer, and clearer.
”We have to take these ones now! The storm won’t last much longer!” He heard one voice call.
”This damned camelephant won’t take a lead!” Another called back.
Batu became keenly aware of his situation at once. Bandits. Sandbenders, if the storm was anything to go by. Batu called out.
“YOU DAMNED THIEVES! I’LL HAVE YOUR HEADS!”
He’d barely managed to utter the sentence before he was knocked back, landing square on his buttocks in the shifting sand, as if a fist made of coarse, rough earth had hit him in the gut. Batu launched himself towards Uyanga, managing to slip a foot in one stirrup before a similar gust knocked him down again. Uyanga did not stand idly, springing up with a shrill cry. Only she succeeded where Batu failed, and off into the sand she went, or so Batu thought, before he found himself dragged by his leg, still caught in the stirrup.
His mouth filled with sand and he nearly passed out at once from the shock. He was keenly aware of figures in pursuit, silhouettes of sails and wooden decks in the rapidly dispersing storm.
He delivered a swift kick to Uyanga’s backside with his free foot, forcing her to ride faster.