Between the sleep deprivation torture and the gentle roll of Tarrazu’s gait I fell fast asleep. I didn’t wake until I fell off with a resounding thud on the very unrelenting desert sand. By the time I came to my senses and pulled myself up to a sitting position Tarrazu was at least fifteen feet away and headed for home. My first instinct was to call out, but my throat was so dry I hardly managed a squeak. I tried to bring up some moisture into my mouth and staggered clumsily to my feet.
“Tarrazu, Stop!” I ordered in a hoarse croak.
Damn my mind was in a fog and she was getting further and further away.
I stumbled toward her retreating bulk.
“Tarrazu, Stop! Please!”
What was the command Keela told me?
The beast immediately stopped and flopped down flat on the sand. By the time I reached her she had her heads on her front paws with a huge purple tongue hanging out of each. She appeared as exhausted as I felt. I retrieved one of the water skins from her back and poured some into my hand for her to lap up. She did not disappoint. She went after the water like a Tuldavian Surface Skater. My hand couldn’t hold enough water so I tried alternately squirting the water into her mouths. That was a much more efficient delivery system. She eventually appeared to be relieved. I drank my own fair share and then sat down with my back up against her side.
How long was I asleep? By the alignment of the moons and sun I would say that mid-day was not very far off. We should have reached Kadear by now, but when I lined up the position with the placement of that dimple on Gresee as Keela instructed, I didn’t see any sign of Kadear in the distance.
I rose to my feet. I couldn’t see anything in any direction except sand and a lot of scrub brush.
I was wandering aimlessly when my foot hit a mound of sand and I went down on one knee. When I got back to my feet I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were two mounds with a rut in the middle. They formed a circle perhaps thirty feet across. When my eye followed it the only break in the two mounds was the one Tarrazu made when she headed away from me and the depression in them where I fell.
Tarrazu had been walking in circles for god only knew how long. I couldn’t image why she would do this until I remembered more of Keela’s instructions, ‘push on either one of her shoulders to get her to turn.’ One of my hands or arm must have been loosely waving and tapping her shoulder as I slept. Gads! What a mess. No wonder the beast was tired.
I went back to her and took the blanket from her back. I unrolled it and spread out the bounty Keela’s servant packed for our trip. There was the standard fare for these parts, cheese, bread and fruit, but there was also the addition of some sort of meat jerky. I took this to be meant for Tarrazu since I wasn’t served it thus far in my visit. In any case, Tarrazu liked it. It seemed to revive her further.
We finished our meal. I bundled our supplies back up in the blanket and climbed up on Tarrazu. From the higher vantage point on her back I could see a pile of boulders off in the distance in the general direction we should be going to reach Kadear. I guided her toward them with a few pats on her left shoulder and a thump on her rump.
Within half an hour we arrived at the outcrop of stone. I felt it would make a good place to shelter for the coming eclipse. The boulders were in a gentle ‘L’ shape. I would put my back to them, Tarrazu on my right and the fire in front of us. I noticed with satisfaction the rock would even protect us from a sandstorm if it came from the same direction it did when it overtook Fatu, Salib and me. I ordered Tarrazu to sit, which she did obediently and I started to gather fuel for the fire.
When I unpacked our blanket pack earlier I noticed Keela or her man thoughtfully provided me with a fire starter and a small bundle of tinder. I don’t know if they anticipated us getting lost, but I figured no one on Alta III went anywhere without the ability to keep Parnac at bay. I raced to get the fire lit as the sun started to slip slowly behind Gresee.
Tarrazu lied down comfortably at my side. I leaned back against the rocks behind me and tossed another branch on the fire for good measure.
The eclipse of the smaller moon came and went. As I experienced before, the gentle breeze on the desert stilled. The fire crackled in the silence of the brief span of light before the sun started its descent behind the two larger moons.
The moment we would have been shrouded in total darkness, if not for our fire, Tarrazu growled deep in her throat and came up to a sitting position at my side.
“It’s okay,” I tried to assure her in a shaky whisper. Once again it was what I couldn’t see that frightened me.
She stared out toward the darkness and rumbled again deep in her chest. What could she see, or sense, that I could not?
Tarrazu growled again with more malice in the sound. She ended it by coming to her feet with a low pitched aggressive scream that made the hair on the back of my neck come to attention.
I patted her side with the intention of calming her. “Sit, Tarrazu,” I coaxed.
Instead of sitting she took one step away from me toward the darkness.
“Sit!” I commanded more sternly.
She growled ferociously, screamed in anger and jumped out of the circle of light and into the darkness. What I could hear I can only describe as the sounds of a bitterly fought battle. I caught only glimpses of it when Tarrazu would roll or tumble back away from whatever it was she was fighting. I saw her deadly tail arch up in the fire light and heard it smack into something with a heavy thud. I caught glimpses of some sort of black attacker, but could not determine shape or size. I thought I saw a huge arm around one of her necks at one point when she rolled back into the light. She threw it off and went back at whatever it was with snapping teeth and claws extended.
I threw more fuel on the fire in hopes of driving whatever it was away, but not succeeding in doing that, I plastered myself up against the safety of the rock face and prayed that Tarrazu would win against whatever monster the eclipse brought down upon us.
Nine minutes and thirty-two seconds is a long time to listen to a violent battle. The darkness stretched on and on punctuated only by quick glimpses of parts of Tarrazu and the sounds of the fight just outside the halo of light from the fire.
Eventually though, the sun started to peeked from behind the second, large moon. I wasn’t sure exactly what I saw right then. It took me several minutes to figure out what appeared to have happened and align it with what I saw. Tarrazu was standing a few yards away. Her massive jaws of both heads locked on an enormous snake – easily 25 to 30 feet long and big enough around to have swallowed me whole. Lucky for me, Tarrazu killed it. There were numerous smaller dead snakes up to six feet long piled around her feet. What did not register when I glimpsed her at first light was some of the smaller snakes leaving the attack on her to burrow their way into the sand.
I called her to me and was relieved she came. I ran my hand over her looking for any injury. She thanked me with a wet kiss of her rough tongue when I got in range of one of her massive heads. She had several punctures around her neck and on her paws. I washed them with water. I fervently hoped the snakes were not poisonous. Since, by some miracle of alien composition, she was not bleeding I was anxious to get away from this place. I smothered the fire, tired up our bundle and lead her away toward Kadear.
As we walked I tried to put what just occurred into some sort of sense. Did I inadvertently place our camp on a nest of vipers, or was there more to it than that? Could this be what everyone was afraid of during the eclipse? The snakes obviously burrowed beneath the sand in order to ride out the heat of the day. Did they arise during the darkness of the eclipse to feed? It would make sense why Keela was not afraid of the eclipse in Mazala. Their city was walled. Perhaps in their ancient past their ancestors built the wall and rid themselves of the snakes within it. The reason Kadear still feared the eclipse of Parnac was not the reality of the snakes, but the followers of Kadear that were Altans taking advantage of the dark time to carry out their criminal acts.
Was Kadear’s population ignorant of the real threat? Had superstition taken the place of fact over the ages?