The Berbers tried to get into the camp on both nights, though during the day they pretended like nothing happened. On the second night they practically surrounded the camp looking for a way in. They appeared angry and frustrated. People were generally feeling better after two days of rest, so the travelers decided not to take any chances. They got up at four in the morning and left the camp in the dark, heading up the shoreline until they got far enough beyond the village to cut inland to the road.
“I feel it is not so hot here on the coast,” Alexis said, trying to sound positive as she and Lincoln rode behind the wagon.
“Yes,” Lincoln agreed. “But more humid, and sticky.” He did not feel positive.
Tony drove the wagon and Nanette and Sukki moved in to encourage Ghost the mule when Decker and Elder Stow moved out on the wings. Decker and Elder Stow had to use Decker’s rope and their horses to help Ghost pull the wagon through the sandy soil by the sea and then through the wilderness to the road. Now that they reached the road, Decker and Elder Stow went back out on the wings, but dropped back a bit, concerned about whatever Berbers might decide to follow them.
Katie and Lockhart led the group in the dark, and Boston rode out front, as usual. Boston yawned the whole time. She was a light elf, not given to being up in the dark hours. She perked up right away when the sun rose, which she rated a seven. Sukki called the sunrise a six, whatever that meant.
At eight o’clock, Katie found a defensible place Decker approved of. They had some trees for cover, not to mention firewood, some grass for the animals, and some rocks on a small rise they could hide behind. They had a fine brunch, fish of course, and did not rush in the heat.
“Nanette and I scrubbed the water barrel,” Alexis said. “We filled it with water from the spring, not the cistern, so it should not be full of questionable bacteria.”
Most nodded. That was good, but the conversation remained minimal. The couples sat together, including Nanette and Decker, who seemed to have come to some understanding after El Alamein. Boston, Sukki, and Tony sat mostly quiet, passing occasional comments about the weather, the land, and the people they saw in the village. Elder Stow worked on his scanner, and after eating a bit, he worked on his screen device. He said nothing.
Boston checked her amulet, though whether her comment was to Sukki and Tony or to the group in general was a question. “Yasmina is only about four days away from us, maybe two if she keeps moving in our direction and we move to meet her.”
Again, most nodded, but they got busy packing up to move on.
Finally, Elder Stow said something that got more attention. He looked at his scanner and walked up to Lockhart and Katie. “There are Berbers on the road. From the village. They should be here in a few minutes.”
The travelers hurried. Katie, Lockhart, Decker, Boston, and Elder Stow blocked the road while the others moved ahead with the wagon. When the Berbers arrived, mostly on horseback like the travelers, they stopped a hundred yards off and three came forward to talk. One was the man they met on the road three days earlier.
“You did not find El Alamein to your liking?” he asked.
“We discovered that Al Baretoun is the main port on this coast and thought to check it out,” Lockhart answered. “I thought you were headed to Fustat.”
“You work for al-Mahdi?” Decker asked. They settled who would say what before the meeting.
The man looked back at his men. There may have been fifty. “We serve al-Qa’im.”
“And al-Hakim?” Katie pulled a Lincoln. She just could not keep her mouth closed. One of the three men looked down. One turned his back on the travelers. The head man remained cool, but they could hear the angst in his voice.
“Al-Hakim has been murdered. We are searching for the murderer.”
“I’m sorry,” Katie said and tried to look surprised. The others reacted similarly, though some did a better acting job than others.
Elder Stow asked, “Surely, you don’t think we had anything to do with it.”
The head man paused like a man considering his options, before he shook his head. “We know the murderer. We have been sent out to find them, but we have concluded that we got ahead of them. We are returning along the road to Mahdiyya. They will be found.”
“Good luck,” Lockhart said. “Murder is something our people condemn as well. I hope you bring the murderers to justice.”
Katie spoke again. “As the Byzantines say, go with God.”
The head man shook his head. “I think we will escort you to Al Baretoun, since we are headed in the same direction.” He smiled. “To protect you from the bandits, as you say.”
“Thank you, but that is not necessary,” Lockhart said. “We have a wagon and mule which probably doesn’t move as fast as you might want to go.”
“We have a wagon and two oxen. It does not move fast, and we search on both sides of the road, and that is not fast work.”
“Really, we will be fine,” Lockhart said.
“The road is good and straight,” Decker added.
“We don’t want to be a burden to you,” Katie also added.
“I insist,” the man said. “It is three days to Al Baretoun. You never know what may happen in that time.” He turned and yelled for his company to catch up. The travelers mounted. They had no choice.
The travelers moved through any number of fishing villages along the coast, surrounded by Berbers the whole way. The Berbers did not crowd them, but some could always be seen, and some were always within shouting distance. Surprisingly, the Berbers did not hurry them, but appeared content to move at whatever pace the travelers moved.
On the first night, the Berbers camped apart from the travelers. They set their tents in an open field while the travelers moved in among some palms. The travelers did not dare have Elder Stow set his screens. That would have raised too many questions. Instead, Lockhart insisted on double watch through the night, which is pretty much what they had been doing since the beginning, so no one complained. In fact, this night the watchers kept their eyes and ears especially open. They were not bothered that night.
The second day, late in the afternoon, the head man with a dozen soldiers moved in on the travelers. “You move as slow as you promised,” he said, not necessarily a compliment. The travelers certainly did not push themselves. Rather, they walked often, though the heat on the road was not so bad, and they tried to think of what they could do to get out from under the eye of their escort.
“There is a big village ahead,” the head man said. “They grow fine fruit. We may rest and refresh ourselves there if you don’t take forever to get there.”
Lockhart was driving the wagon, but Tony came to take it while Lockhart mounted to ride. Sukki took Tony’s horse so the horse would not drag on the wagon and be that much more for Ghost to haul. The travelers hurried. They had to.
“It will be a long third day to reach Al Baretoun tomorrow,” the head man groused. Then he led the way to the village while a dozen Berbers rode alongside the travelers to make sure they kept up.
The travelers are escorted by the Berber soldiers and don’t see how they can escape the close watch, but there is something on the horizon which changes everything. Until then, Happy Reading