is outright fanfic for money. It doesn't fit my own ideas of what is interesting, artistic or sexy -- but we gotta pay for the catfood. And the DSL. And this is for a good, loyal customer who pays very well. We LIKE to make good customers happy, don't we? Nod your little heads.
I rtf'd this out of an Open Office document, so there may be glitches. Scroll down - - there are color illustrations.
1. The Sandstorm
The sun rose like a hungry jackal over the north African desert, chasing the cold mouse of the night across the sands.
Two figures in khakis and desert boots, faces burned so dark their eyes showed white, trudged patiently into the morning. Colonel Pfirsich Rommel, known to his men as the Desert Peach, pressed the cloth bill of his forage cap down over his eyes and peered at the horizon. His orderly, Corporal Udo Schmidt, offered him his own canteen of water.
“See anything, mein Herr?”
The Peach took a sip and returned the canteen, nodding his thanks, still considering their route. He wiped his mouth as the corporal gulped his share.
“Mirage,” he said, pointing. “Come up on this rise.”
“Where?” Udo strained his neck and squinted. “Oh, yeah. There's the water.”
“Are those trees?”
“I think there's camels, too. This is a really good one, mein Herr! It must come all the way from outside the souk in El Gutāyif.”
“I'd hoped we'd traveled further before the sun came up.” The Peach delicately patted his chin with two fingers. “It's going to get hot.”
“And us without your skin cream,” said Schmidt, without irony. The Peach followed the old cavalier tradition; a gentleman kept himself clean and healthy. An officer couldn't give orders with a cold-sore on his lips.
“No matter,” said the Peach, patting his cheek. “I applied palm oil last night. It will do until we return to camp.”
“Is there a reason we're walking, mein Herr?” said Udo.
“The natives do it,” said the Peach.
“The natives have camels and goats. And horses.”
“We're going to have horses.”
Udo almost said, “Why?” but soldiers who've been in the military know better than to ask. Like old-fashioned wives, they knew if they waited long enough they'd get their answer anyway.
“Our unit is at low priority,” said the Peach at last.
Udo's eyebrows crumpled.
“We're not first in line for petrol,” said the Peach.
“We're a supply unit,” said Udo. “We're supposed to issue the petrol.”
“The radio doesn't work; we need to get around just to communicate.”
“You just want a horse,” said Udo. “Respectfully.”
The Peach shrugged and almost smiled. Udo stopped asking. With eyes averted from the rising glare, he shadowed his officer's footprints in the sand.
“Oh, dear,” said the Peach.
Udo looked up to see a smear of yellow drifting toward them in the sky. Without losing step, he followed the Peach's example, both of them tying dark-brown handkerchiefs across their mouths and noses and pulling their forage caps down low over their eyes. They'd been through sandstorms before, and this didn't look like a bad one.
The yellow cloud whirled down upon them. They ducked their heads and trudged into it. It wouldn't last long, and the Peach had his compass. If it got worse they'd just sit down, hunch over and wait it out; the desert literally killed impatience.
Before it got too rough the cloud began to lift. The Peach already had his compass out; he stopped, waiting for the sun to drop its glare back onto the instrument's face. Udo stood behind him, wiping his eyes, waiting for their heading. He blinked and squinted at the ground.
“Weird,” he said.
The Peach was turning the compass back and forth, holding it over his head or against first one horizon, then another, even letting it swing slowly on its lanyard, twisting and winking in the sun, as he tried to make sense of what it was telling him. It only pointed in one direction; when he held it on its side, it pointed down.
“It must be broken,” he sighed. “How inconvenient.”
“Huh,” said Udo, directing his gaze across the ground. “It looks like the sand is sparkling.”
“It must have moisture in it,” murmured the Peach. “There's dew in a desert, early in the morning.”
Udo was pouring a palm-full of sand out of his hand. “It's not dew, mein Herr. I swear to God, it's gold!”
“Not fool's gold, either!”
The corporal squinted at a sandy finger, then held it out for the Peach to examine.
“My goodness,” said the officer. “I think you're right.”
“Mein Herr!” squawked Udo, pointing over the officer's shoulder.
The Peach spun around in time to see a horseman on a silver stallion thundering down on them. The horse was a true Arab, dish-faced, black-muzzled, not straight-skulled like an African Barb. The rider was dressed in an Arab costume, dark red robe over a flowing white dress, not the floating tabard and trousers of an African, or anything outside a Valentino movie. He wore a corded head-dress, silver-mounted like his saddle and sword, instead of the African skull-cap. The Peach realized the man wasn't aiming his antique brass-bound rifle to fire, but was pumping it up and down over his head, while shouting a shrill greeting.
The officer heard footsteps tearing away over the desert behind him, and turned and barked, “Udo!” He had to repeat himself several times before the little man finally skittered to a slow trot, looking back of his shoulder.
The hoof-beats pounded closer and the Peach whirled around to see the Arab draw up his charger in a burst of sand, right in front of him. The rider made the graceful gesture of greeting that The Sheik had demonstrated on a thousand silver screens.
“Salaam,” he said. “You look tired and thirsty.”
“Salaam,” returned the officer, who couldn't click his heels in the sand, but who could bow in response. He thought the proper greeting was “Sabāh el-khair,” or “Good morning,” but It was always best to eat with the hand the neighbors ate with, especially in the desert.
This was nothing like so many of the meetings he and his brother had experienced with African leaders. This man showed no wrinkles or wear from years of hard sun and decision-making. He was strikingly handsome, even beautiful. His cheekbones were as sharp as his teeth, his eyes as fierce as his stallion's, his teeth as white as his robes. It was too theatrical. Considering all this and the golden sand, the Peach thought he must have been hit on the head by something in the sandstorm. He was obviously dreaming. No wonder the greeting was the one from the flickers.
“Mein Herr!” he heard Udo calling faintly, just as if in a vision. He expected to wake up the next moment, but instead he turned to see Udo struggling toward him in the fresh-fallen sand.
“Mein Herr, he's got a sword!” cried the little man, and fell.
The officer waved reassuringly. Struggling back to his feet, Udo watched nervously as the Peach held out a friendly hand to the rider. What was wrong with the man?
It didn't occur to Udo that any of what he was seeing was a dream; two or more viewpoints form a brain anachronism. A witness may be honest, but no one can be truthful, because everyone perceives different petals of the flower. To Udo this was as real as a black iris. To the Peach anything that happened was just a candy-store blossom, with pink-sugar pistils. It could be fun to taste until he woke up.
The Arab – obviously a chief of his people -- gestured across the sands, toward distant black tents. “Come and share the hospitality of my poor camp.”
The Peach was so delighted by the phrase, he bowed deeply and accepted. Udo stood at a distance, watching him treat this exotic stranger like a trusted comrade. He wanted to warn his officer, but the man usually showed so much good sense he hesitated, willing to consider he might be mistaken in his own judgment.
Udo watched his officer stride away beside the prancing horse. He couldn't just let him go alone, and there was no way he was going to stand around in the north African desert all by himself. By the time an officer finished whatever it was officers began, he could be a mummy waiting for a museum.
“What the hell,” he said, and followed, but much slower. He wasn't going to get too close. Those black tents were just too scary. He didn't care how many white camels they had. Camels could be as white as the driven snow, but they still bit and kicked.
The Peach took one of the stirrups in one hand and let the horse pull him into a trot. He didn't start sweating, and the air whistling past felt cool, even with the sun fully up. He was going to enjoy this until he woke up. He didn't stop to consider that Udo might be in trouble after the sandstorm back in reality; if anything was a mark of hallucination, it was this atypical lack of concern for one of his men.
As they approached the tents, forms rose up out of the shimmer of heat. The mirage shivered into a pool, with snow-white camels and sleek black-and-white goats standing at the brink, their reflections like clouds and dominoes in the limpid blue water.
From out of one of the tents flitted a figure, resplendent with green tinsel spangles that shot off thousands of golden sparks, painfully bright. It ran toward them, white silken scarves fluttering from each hand. The Peach let go of the stirrup and stood with his fingertips touching his lips, trying to suppress his amusement.
“Oh, I know this is a dream now, Udo!” he tittered as Udo came up level with him and stopped. “No tribal woman would run out to greet strangers like that in reality.”
He knew he wasn't really talking to Udo, but it was fun to share, even in an hallucination. He was still able to imagine clear images. It meant that at least he hadn't suffered brain damage.
“Dream?” said Udo, barely hearing what the Peach said. He was too intent upon the figure that fluttered toward them on feet like dainty golden petals; it was the first comparison that came to his mind, and he congratulated himself on his own poetry. He wasn't going to decide for delusion if there was any expectation that this desert blossom was actually open for the plucking.
“Salaam,” said the woman, folding her hands together and bowing before the little man, her hands and wrists shimmering with delicate golden chains, set with tiny perfect rubies and sapphires. Her slender feet were like doves; they could have nested together in a man's hand.
“Salaam,” said the Peach, folding his own hands and returning her greeting.
“Salaam,” Udo was barely able to pronounce from a mouth dried by delight.
He was enchanted by her whole person, particularly the glossy black curls escaping the vain imprisonment of a golden net cap adorned with pink-tinted pearls, barely restraining a diaphanous green scarf from lofting for its freedom in the desert wind. Then she raised her eyes.
No wonder the desert tribesmen hid their women away and forbade them to look upon strangers. The eyes that flashed out at him were as black as sandalwood kohl brought along distant trading routes, deep as the valleys between the mountains where the Tuareg women carved their secret alphabets, fiery and poised as the silent mares ridden to the attack in the night. Allah save the stranger confronted by the gaze of those eyes, even under the sun. Wars began over such eyes. Ships fled hissing down the slips.
The little corporal felt her eyes take him as if she'd reached out and grasped his hands, as though her opalescent nails were electric upon the sensitive flesh of his wrists.
The Peach stood back and watched, delighted that his imagination was thinking of his little friend first. He saw the camels striding magnificently around the tents, accompanied by free-ranging silver-white mares, their slender arched necks ornamented by green tasseled braid, glittering with beads of gold and lapis lazuli.
The chief had dismounted from his own silvery stallion and stood awaiting his guests' pleasure. Suddenly he saw the taller man's face fall.
“Udo,” said the Peach.
“OO-do?” said the chief. “Is that OO-do?” he said, and pointed at the smitten corporal.
“He's in trouble.” The officer put his hand to his head. “He has to be.”
“Why is he in trouble?” said the warrior.
“Because I am,” muttered the officer.
The chief smiled and held out a slender hand to the tents. “Come and have coffee.” He gestured again, and nodded. “Don't worry yourself; your little man is perfectly safe. You know that.”
“How do I know?” The Peach was resolute.
“Well, look at him,” said his host. “Doesn't he seem happy?”
The desert blossom was stepping languidly backwards, drawing the little corporal after him like a dazed bee. The Peach smiled in relief.
“You're right; I could never imagine him being so – delighted – if he were actually in any danger.”
The two soldiers allowed their respective guides to lead them into the dark, cool cover of the tents. As they stepped into the shade out of the sun's glare, they were momentarily blinded. The thrill of the unknown added to the thrill of expectation: what would they see when they regained their sight? They smelled something sweet and pungent.
Udo had stepped into the tent a moment before the Peach, and began to perceive something bright in the dark a moment sooner. He found he was looking at a golden cup, offered to him by his desert beauty.
“My cousin,” said the chief.
“Cousin?” thought the Peach.
“Cousin?” said Udo.
Even he knew what that meant, as much as his officer did. She wasn't a daughter, to be cherished for her valuable virginity. She wasn't a wife, to be guarded for her loyalty to his manhood. She might be a fine artist in hand-knotted carpets, but if she were, an economical desert warrior would never offer her to rapacious eyes who might steal her and sell her to the rug merchants of the nearest souk. She was being offered for entertainment, if only for dancing and the serving of sweet thick coffee.
“Her name is Aziza,” said their host. “It has many meanings. One of them is 'Precious.'”
“She sure is!” said Udo, and took the cup.
He toasted her with it and raised it to his lips. He smelled strong coffee and cardamom, the origin of the fragrance he'd smelled when he'd ducked into the tent. The odor brought memories of holiday kitchens with his mother and his aunts. He sipped, and licked his lips. It was so sweet it quenched his thirst.
“Mmm. That is so good. Your cousin sure knows how to make a cup of coffee.”
“She does,” said the warrior. He poured coffee for the Peach, who could see the cup held out for him. It was finely chased with silver.
“Delicious,” said the officer. He almost said, “It tastes so real,” but he didn't want to force this generous figment to try to assure him of its actuality. He sipped appreciatively, as he let his gaze wander around the tent.
He knew what the desert tents looked like. They were plain, dirty by the standards of another society that was blind to its own dirt, made simple by the severe necessities of a desert harsh only to those who thought they could ignore it, and so attempt to overmaster it. The desert always won, but it could be very generous to those who asked for little. The desert tribes' ornamentation was plain or based on the decoration that could be afforded by many hours spent watching the herds: braid, embroidery in bright colors, chin and cheek tattoos, braided, twisted and dyed hair and beards. Coffee was made with utensils of bright brass, shimmering with the polish of constant, often ancestral use. Platters were rubbed smooth from generations of feasts, piled high with rice, with roasted and boiled mutton, chopped into hearty gobbets of flesh and fat and kidneys: rough sustaining meals that spoke simply to the hungry stomach without cloying the appetite.
This tent didn't look like it belonged to such an ascetic people. There was much bright silk in imported, chemical colors, much gilt and gold, spangles and jewels, glittering in the light that filtered through the tent walls. Massive golden couscous platters leaned like rifles against the carved, gold-banded tent poles. Pillows were everywhere, and so were little ornate tables, covered with golden plates bearing a dozen different kinds of delicacies: cakes steeped in rose syrup, kunāfa – fine pastry strands drizzled with butter, syrup and nuts – almond rolls, so delicate they could barely be raised to the lips without crumbling, so sweet that the Peach put back the cake he'd barely tasted before it made his teeth ache.
Above him he could see a dozen ornate lamps, smelling of clearest olive oil, such as would shed a brilliant light come sunset; far more light than was demanded for everyday use by the traditional desert tribesman. To such people, oil was the butter of their herds, olive oil an imported commodity, not to be squandered on artificial light, when cook-fires and the starlight of Allah were bounty of illumination enough. They had other standards of wealth, standards like those carried in war, fluttering tails like true silk, that pranced and charged across their sands.
The ostentatious wealth the Peach saw in this tent of his dreams was just a pretty display, with all the thin theatricality of a film set.
He smiled and sipped the coffee he knew wasn't really there, either; but wasn't it delicious? It said things about his own imagination, or perhaps just about the thing he'd experienced that he loved the most, or longed for. He was a little saddened; was his heart about trinketry and sweetmeats? The imagery he'd picked up amusing himself in film theaters? The expectation of bright lights when the night should have been enough?
Then he remembered: they'd been trying to find a desert town named after sweets, the beloved refreshments of the nomad, whose tea began with leaves of fresh mint and raw chunks of sugar crammed tight into a teapot, whose journey food was a paste of raw flour, butter and sugar. The Bedu traveled on cookie dough.
“You are sad,” said the chief.
The Peach was almost startled, but then remembered this phantom was only his own voice; he was talking to himself, having coffee in a mental mirror.
“No,” he said. “I'm only wondering who I really am.”
“He doesn't,” said the warrior. He nodded across to where Udo was licking golden honey off the beautiful girl's fingertips.
“Udo is a simple creature,” said the officer. “I admire him for it. I almost envy him for it.”
“Is this why you've led him here?”
“We're lost,” said the Peach.
“In the desert? Of course, it's not a home to the Nesrani. You haven't grown up with the landmarks.” The warrior threw forth his sinewy arm, gesturing as though he could present his land through the dark walls of the tent. “To us this is a safe home, a place where we can always find our way.”
“But where have I led him now?”
“You've always cared for him. You know how hard he works for you. Now you want him to enjoy himself a little, in a way that won't harm him.”
The Peach nodded. He would stop worrying about his little man. He was safe, and was trying to help himself and his officer. Suddenly, the officer's face fell.
“What's wrong?” said the chief.
“Even if he's all right, how can he help me? How can he help himself? He's alone out there!”
“Out there?” said the chief, and looked confused. “You should rest and enjoy yourself. You'll need the rest.”
The Peach almost answered him, but decided not to argue with himself. Telling him to rest was just his subconscious communicating with him, offering him the most reasonable choice. Of course he should rest, and not worry himself. The sooner he was able to come to himself, the sooner he could help Udo. For all he knew, Udo was helping him already. Looking across the tent to where the little man was whispering to his desert princess, he thought that was a reasonable interpretation of the imagery. It would have to do until he woke up; he couldn't force it.
“Thy will be done,” he murmured, and lightly raised a hand. He wasn't a particularly religious man – at least in the organized sense – but he'd always liked that phrase. It helped him to remember there was so much he couldn't do anything about, and that aggravating himself about it wasn't going to do him any good. Udo's shrug and “Shit happens” was a comparable, if more earthy expression of the same Weltanschauung.
The chief raised his hand at the same moment, murmuring “Inshallah.” The Peach almost thought the man was being polite, then realized he was simply agreeing with his own decision. He sipped his coffee and relaxed. He decided to just sit back and let Udo have his head. It would be fun to see the results,
2. Into The Tents.
Udo was in no doubt of his own position. He considered himself an extremely lucky man, staggering into a sandstorm and falling into the hands of these very friendly natives. He'd been warned by training officers of the likelihood of surviving capture by the wild tribes of the north African desert. Tunisia -- where the German Afrika Korps was fighting the British 8th Army -- was tucked into a crack between Libya and Algeria, and the tribes in the latter were likely to lump the Germans in with the French they'd been battling since the last century.
Those people didn't believe in borders, especially those scratched on maps by Europeans whose interests didn't have anything to do with their own. No bunch of pale-faced infidel foreigners was going to tell them where they could ride their own camels in their own desert. Udo found himself admiring their independence; that the bronze beauty serving him coffee was one of them had a lot to do with his new-found affinity.
“Would my lord wish his servant to remove his boots?” said Aziza, in a voice like desert honey.
“ 'His servant.' ” Udo liked the sound of that. Not that he disrespected women, or anything crass like that – as a Berliner he prided himself on his modernity -- but a gentle, sweet, respectful woman sure made the atmosphere a lot easier to take. Speaking of atmosphere, this one smelled like all the spices of Arabia, as they said in the movies. It was going to be really easy to do whatever she suggested; he had the feeling she was going to start getting good ideas any minute now. He especially liked the direction she was taking, slipping her fingers up under his cap and tousling his hair.
“Come with me and see the desert moon,” she purred, her exotic accent raising his interest and expectations – along with a few other things.
“Moon?” the Peach almost said, peeping out of the tent.
Well, he'd certainly imagined a fast sunset. Either that, or the sun went down near the equator even faster than he remembered. He had to convince himself it would be all right to let Udo wander off out of his sight; he was still in his brain, after all. This just all looked so real.
“More coffee?” said the chief.
The officer almost put his hand over his cup, pleading the need to sleep, when he realized this must be his brain trying to tell him he needed to wake up.
“Indeed,” he said, holding out his cup. He was going to make a sincere effort to get his physical eyes open. The little figment would have to take care of himself. And his girlfriend.
The moon was huge; its light turned the desert sky a glowing apple green, fading to deepest blue against the distant mountains. The brightest stars framed the sky like a diamond necklace. The glory was overwhelmed for Udo by the feel of the delicate fingers in his own. He was grateful that the strictest customs didn't extend to female cousins.
The two wandered out through the camp. The white camels and horses shone like stars fallen to earth against the black tents. Cooking fires drifted blue between the dark shapes, smelling not of dung or acacia twigs, but of rosemary and myrrh. Meat was sizzling on those fires; the sound was like tiny crickets, the smell sweet and spicy. Udo sniffed, hoping to smell the fat that made a joint of meat worth tearing into. He found only that strangely delicate odor, as though the natives were baking cookies. Were they cooking their travel food?
“Come, brave warrior,” soothed the Aziza's own spicy voice.
Udo liked that. He let her lead him toward a grove of palm trees. Their long fronds whispered in the night breeze, and water sparkled in the midst of their rough trunks. It was a much-used oasis, but it didn't look over-worked or dirty. It had been carefully groomed by generations of women who had stripped away the dead leaves for weaving mats and making tinder. The edge of the water had been paved by thousands of women and children bringing stones they found on their wanderings, to tamp down into the damp sand, until it formed a beautiful, organic patio that prevented hooves and sandals and camel pads from muddying the water. The last drink taken by a visiting nomad band was as sweet and clear as the first.
Udo stood on the edge of the oasis, looking up at the jewel-green sky at a moon splintered by dark palm fronds. Beside him Aziza whispered like the water, speaking just below his level of awareness, piercing to his heart. He didn't know why she effected him as she did. He felt he could follow her anywhere.
She took advantage of his infatuation, leading him along the edge of the oasis, into a part of the grove where the palms grew more thickly, surrounded by the fearsome desert thorn-bushes. He didn't even watch his feet, trusting she'd take him someplace delightful. Before him he saw a glint of color, of delicate pink, shimmering through the palm trunks. As they approached he realized it was a small, elegant tent, just big enough for two. She raised the front flap by one of the rose-colored tassels, and retreated before him, gesturing for him to follow.
The tent was lit by tiny golden lamps, but there was no smell of burning oil, only the scent of roasted cinnamon. On the ground, richly-patterned rugs and pillows formed a sumptuous welcome. Aziza's tiny bejeweled feet sank into the deep soft rugs. Udo hesitated.
“Just a minute, Zückerchen,” he said. “You don't want my dirty boots n there.”
He bent over and began to untie his boots. Aziza was suddenly at his feet, her hands gently pushing away his.
“Allow me to serve you, Efendi,” she purred, and began to easily slip the knots apart.
Udo thought her performance of this mundane action was pure poetry. He admired the way her tiny fingers slid the grimy strings apart, without becoming soiled themselves.
“Uh – you might want to wait a minute, before you take my boots off,” he cautioned her. “It's hard to get a bath in the desert.”
“Is there not water in plenty but at the entry of our tent, Efendi?” She pulled his boots from his feet, and her face never betrayed what she thought of the smell. “If my lord will allow me to remove his raiment, then I can offer him the refreshment of a bath.”
Udo was all for that. He lay back and let her unbutton whatever she could reach. The process was at once lewd and innocent, sublimated by the delicacy of the woman's handling. She saved his shorts and socks for last, quickly stripping them from his body and flinging them out of the tent. He never caught so much as a whiff of their ammoniac aroma.
“That's a real lady for you,” he thought. “She can do even the nastiest things and make it seem high-born. Bet she could change a diaper like she was playing badminton, and come out of either of 'em like she'd been bathing in rose water.”
He put his hands behind his head, feeling strangely comfortable with this woman. It felt good to get his gritty, salty uniform off. It wasn't half as chilly as he expected it to be, considering his experience with desert nights. He could have lain on the soft carpet for the rest of the night. He could even feel his eyelids growing heavy.
“Come, my lord. Your bath awaits.”
Oh, right. His bath. He found himself suddenly so tired, he was glad when she took his hand and drew him to his feet with surprising strength. She must be like those desert women often were; used to doing hard work and walking long miles, even if she did look like she lived backstage in a Mozart seraglio.
They stepped into the moonlight together. Udo experienced the thrill the civilized man enjoys when finding himself naked, walking outside in the night. He shivered when he felt her veil flutter against his bare back. When he turned around, he gasped; she was wearing nothing but her cap and that veil. As he watched, shuddering with excitement, she held the veil up over her head and lightly let it go into the night.
They walked through the grove like Adam and Eve, innocent in the grove. Udo held out his elbow; she took it, caressing his arm and stepping daintily to maintain his pace. He liked a girl who knew how to mince and swing her hips, who had to twinkle along at speed to keep up with a manly stride. She made him feel powerful, the way the first father must have felt in the garden. Udo started to look around for animals to name. That camel over there, sipping from the pool: he could be Hrothgar. The goat could be Liluanne – or Suzi.
“Whadaya think, Aziza? Are we the first people in the garden of Eden?”
She put her finger on his lips. “No, Effendi, do not speak blasphemy.”
“You too, huh? That's right, your religion is first cousin to mine – and the Colonel's too.”
“They are children of the sun, Effendi.”
“Hey, that's pretty open-minded of you! Most of you desert types are pretty much Only-One-God and his Prophet.”
“It is not a woman's place to discuss theology, Effendi. Our place is respect and love.”
“Love, huh? “ Udo patted her arm. “So, do you love – the moon tonight?”
“The moon is magical, Effendi.”
“Yeah, it is that. I could name some other magical things, doll-face,” said Udo. His teeth glinted white in the moonlight; he wondered how he knew that.
They came to the edge of the pool, and Aziza led him gently into the cool still water. He shivered at the pleasant chill, that gradually rose as he waded forward, over his ankles, up his calves and at last reaching his upper thighs.
“That's as deep as it gets, huh?” he said, turning to Aziza. He could feel how the chill was affecting him. He liked that.
“It is an ancient and very slow spring, Effendi. It seeps just fast enough to make this shallow pool. It is very clear and sweet. Taste.”
She dipped her slender hand into the pool and held it to his lips. He touched the minute sparkle of water with his tongue, grazing her palm beneath it as he did, and everything came to a point. She brought her other hand up to the affected area, and the two of them sank to their knees, up to their nipples in the water. Her lips wavered close to his, her smell made him dizzy. He closed his eyes and leaned forward.
As their lips touched, he felt something wrap around his waist, something hard, like a tough band of leather. His eyes flew open, and he realized that was just what it was, a heavy girth of blood-red leather, held in place by golden buckles. He tried to stand up, splashing wildly, only to find narrower bands over his shoulders, holding him down in the water. Suddenly they yanked him down, forcing his head under the surface. He gurgled and choked, flailing wildly.
“Herr O-Oberst!” he gasped, as he made it back to the surface for a moment, before being hauled back under. He finally managed to scramble loose from whatever was holding the straps down, and struggled back to the edge of the pool. He staggered back onto the pavement stones, and fell to his knees, gasping and vomiting water, his limbs shaking. He could feel the leather bands still binding his chest and shoulders, but he was too weak to try to pry them off.
What kind of serpent had he been making up to? The woman was a regular harpy, luring him into a trap – he should have known better! Since when had exotic beauties wanted anything to do with stumpy little guys like him? He must have had his head screwed on upside down, trusting somebody like her to do right by somebody like him! Hell, he was in North Africa – and everybody knew Arabs and Africans were throat-deep in the slave trade. He was going to have to get his short self out of here, but Yella! before somebody sold him on the open flesh market.
He struggled to his feet, trying to pry the annoying straps from his body. He realized, with a twinge of horror, that those straps had better come off before they dried or he was in a mess of trouble. They could cut him in half. Udo knew he had to get back to the colonel; he knew for all the man's suave elegance, he was never without that nasty long-bladed folding knife he carried in an inside jacket pocket. The colonel was always prepared; he'd be able to help.
“Don't go, darling,” said the silky voice of Aziza. “We've only begun to play.”
The little man gasped as a heavy studded collar was buckled around his throat. She had him, and he was in dead trouble.
“Why are you trembling, my love?” she purred, She took hold of the shoulder straps and whirled him back to his knees.
He was terrified; only some kind of oasis demon or genie or djinn, like he'd heard about in the souks, could be that strong while inhabiting such a lovely, delicate body. He needed holy water and a Koran, but quick, if he had any chance of exorcising her hold on him. Only the colonel would be able to get both in the time he'd need it. He'd never wanted an officer so badly in his life.
Suddenly, he felt a violent fire in his heels and knees. It felt as though his joints were being torn out of place. His skin felt as though it were being melted and frozen at the same time; the plain was deep, yet flitted up and down his limbs like flames around a stake. He screamed for help.
She – or the thing that looked like her -- put its hand over his mouth and held him down as he struggled. Udo saw her glance anxiously into the trees.
He snapped at her fingers until she jerked them away.
“Ha!” he gasped., still trying to twist away “My colonel's heard me! He'll come on the run, you see if he don't! You're in deep trouble now, doll-face. He's not the kind that'll succumb to a woman's good looks!”
The woman-thing stood intently listening. At last she smiled, with the sweetest of expressions. She looked down at Udo.
“Your colonel is being entertained by my cousin,” she whispered. “He is rather too busy to concern himself with you.”
Udo felt the hair rise on the back of his neck, and not in fear. “You take that back!” he demanded. “My colonel never desserts nobody! It'll be a cold day in Hell when he leaves one of his men in the lurch just to have some fun!”
“Did I say he was having fun?” said the woman, arching her eyebrows.
Udo stopped struggling, realizing what she meant. He wasn't the only one in trouble, here; his colonel was in the same kind of desperate situation. Udo began to twist under her hands even harder, determined to go rescue the man he knew would never abandon him.
“So faithful,” said the woman. “So admirable! You are true warriors, and worthy of my attention.”
Udo flung his head, throwing the water out of his forelock. “You unholy bitch! Colonel! I'm coming, Col -- !”
The woman crammed something into his mouth. It felt like metal. As more straps were buckled around his head, he realized she was bridling him, like one of those white Arab steeds. He began to kick and flail, trying to get away. The pain in his legs overcame his urge to escape. He couldn't fight both her hands and his own agony simultaneously.
His body tingled from the waist down, as though the water he'd waded in had turned to acid. It felt as though his feet were growing longer; he managed to twist around and look at himself. He couldn't believe what he saw.
The sensations he'd been suffering were exactly paralleled by the facts. His feet were lengthening, and growing narrower, flatter. His toes were atrophying in the moonlight, except for the middle ones. They felt like they were growing bigger and harder, and that's exactly what he saw them doing. He felt downright bitter; those weren't the parts that were supposed to be doing that, and if there was any justice, they wouldn't be. Life was just getting more unfair by the moment, and more painful.
He couldn't believe his eyes; was the skin of his butt and legs growing over with hair? Short hair grew in down to what were looking more like hocks every moment; below that, narrow strong white legs led to hooves that were spreading out, wide and flat. He felt a sudden tickle between his legs, and looked between them. He didn't know what to make of the smooth black sheath and testicles where his own pink, hairy genitals had been.
“Oh, in God's name,” he whimpered, and then yelped in horror and pain. Something above his butt-hole, right on the tail-bone, felt as if it were tearing right out of the skin. He twisted around and watched what he thought was a long slick snake wind right out of his butt. He screamed, and then choked silent, as the snake covered over with long coarse hairs, and he realized that thing was a horse's tail.
“There we are, pretty one,” said the woman, and took her hands off the straps.
He responded by jumping to his feet, but they weren't the same feet he'd had when he came into the grove. He was standing on hooves and the flats of his hands. He had turned halfway into a horse; this couldn't be the end of it. He waited, trembling, for the rest of the transformation to begin, the terrible change of his arms to forelegs, the ghastly lengthening in of his skull into a horse's face.
“What's wrong?” said the woman. “What are you waiting for?”
He stared at her in shock and horror. How did she know he was waiting? He staggered backwards from her, unable to keep his eyes off her. She was part of it. She was holding her hands out to him, her face solicitous, her hands comforting, because she was part of it.
“Uh – uh -- ,” he babbled, trying to think what to say. Nothing else would come out except, “What happens now?”
“Why, it's complete,” said the woman. “You are as you will be, now. Now, let us go back to the tent and dry you off.”
Udo wanted to just sit down on his new haunches, but the woman's strong hands lifted him into a four-point walk, taking hold of the reins hanging from the bit, forcing him to head for the tent. He tried to fight the bit, but it hurt. It hurt more than he had ever thought could. Is this what horses went through, or had the Aziza done something to his mouth? He kept trying to fight, but it was impossibly painful. He hung his head and went where he was led. There was nothing else he could do,.
He was mostly ashamed of himself for abandoning his colonel. The thought that the man might be suffering similar misery because no one was there to help made Udo even more miserable than what was happening to himself. As they retraced their original stroll through the grove, he resolved to find a way to help the his officer, no matter what. If there was one virtue that was strong in Udo Schmidt, it was loyalty.
The little half man - half horse tried to resist being dragged into the tent. It didn't seem so attractive now as it had before. As he stepped – weirdly enough with his hands – onto the soft carpet, he felt a mixture of pleasure and dread. The carpet felt even softer on his hands than it had on his feet. It even felt good under his hooves.
He couldn't fight the woman as she led him to the central tent pole and tied his reins. He thought about pulling down the tent pole on top of both of them, but he knew that woman – or demon or witch – could do all sorts of things with that pink fabric, beyond just wrapping him in it. As punishment she might even use it to turn him into some kind of Egyptian mummy, just in prettier colors.
“What – what are you going to do to me?” he hazarded, squinting and wincing. He was afraid of asking the question, but he had to know.
“If you'll just turn your haunches this way, dear, I'll show you.”
“Turn my butt? To you? After what you've done to me?”
He looked around, and saw the woman was swathed in lengths of gold-spangled purple gauze, neatly arranged to show off her dainty waist and fine hips. He sighed, thinking how he was going to miss that; it was the worst part of this whole thing.
“What more can you do to me?” he moaned.
“Just this,” she said, and held up a bright orange ribbon. “It will compliment your hide wonderfully.”
Udo glanced at his rear end, and froze. From the waist down, he was a strongly-built drafthorse in miniature, like a toy-sized Oldenburg. He was a beautiful chestnut color, shining even more richly in the light of the lanterns.
“Aren't you handsome?” she said. “Just lift your tail.”
“And you'll what?” he snapped. “You get near me and you'll get a real nice kicking for your trouble.”
“Why do you think you need a red ribbon? It's to warn that you're a kicker.”
“I'm not a kicker! At least not anybody but you!”
“Do you want me to make your bottom more – hygienic – or don't you?”
Udo almost retorted, then his brain got around what she meant. Blushing, he raised the tail and looked away. She approached cautiously, but when he showed no sign of fulfilling his threat to her, she sat down beside him and took his tail in her hands. Taking a golden comb from a bright-colored woven purse hanging from the tent pole, she began to comb the hairs of his tail.
“I don't really have to comb it,” she said. “It's brand new.” She separated the hairs at the base into three parts.
The braiding pulled at his tail, from first one side than the other, in a rhythmical, massaging motion. He trembled with the pleasure of it. No wonder girls liked dressing each other's hair. He could put up with this for hours, if the situation were different. But there was no time for that now. He had to find a way to get away from her.
“It's no use,” she said, combing gently. “You're here to stay.”
“Hello there,” came a firm, soft voice. “I believe that's my pet you've got there.”
“ 'Pet?' “ said Udo, looking around, and almost jumped straight up. “Herr Oberst!”
“Who's this?” said the Peach, strolling up to the tent, one hand in his pocket, his cap folded and tucked under his left epaulet, as neat and normal as you please.
Udo thought his attitude was a little weird. The officer could maintain an incredible coolness under the worst situations, but this was ridiculous. Couldn't the man see what had happened to him?
“Well, you wanted a horse, mein Herr!” he almost bawled.
“What are you doing with the red ribbon?” said the Peach, pointing at it. “My Udo isn't a kicker. Never was. He's one of the best tracker horses we have.”
While Udo was silently mouthing “ 'Tracker horse?' “ the woman finished making a bow three-quarters of the way down the tail and fluffed out the end. She smiled up at the tall blond man.
“He's been a bit rambunctious among the herds today, Effendi. The children were teasing him, and so of course he kicked. This is to warn the naughty things away.”
The Peach squatted down on his heels, just beyond the edge of the carpet. He held out his hand toward Udo, who wondered what he wanted.
“Well, hand over the reins to me,” he said. “We need to get along on our way if we're going to make it back to our camp by the time that sun comes up. It comes up hot.”
Udo stared at him. “Mein Herr,” he stuttered. “Can't you see what she's done to me?”
“Oh, Udo, it' s only a red ribbon. She said why she did it; as a favor and a precaution until we get past the range of the camp's children.” The Peach smiled at the woman. “It's a point of pride. If I don't make sure that shameful red is removed by the time we make it back to camp, I'll never hear the end of it.”
Udo just sat straight down on his butt, with an audible whump, his mouth hanging open in shock. Had the man become unhinged while sitting in that fancy tent? What had the Arab guy done to him; given him strange drugs in that black coffee? Udo never knew with that officer, if extreme calm was a sign of actual equanimity, or just the maintenance of a good front while he processed the shock. Udo hoped it was the latter, because otherwise he was looking at a shattered madman who wasn't going to be much help to either of them.
The woman stood up and smiled at the Peach. He leaned over and kissed the air above her extended hand.
“What lovely fabric,” he said.
She looked down at her attire. “Thank you, Effendi,” she murmured. “It is so kind of you to say so. But – you may not wish to praise a woman's apparel too publicly.”
“Of course not,” said the Peach. “Forgive me.”
“Hey!” snapped Udo. “She's not as modest as she puts on!”
“Udo!” the Peach spoke sharply, then turned to the woman. “I'm sorry, but sometimes they think they're human. If you – disrobed – before him, he may take advantage.” He frowned at Udo, and wagged a finger at him. “Remember who you are now, dear, and don't tease the lady.”
“What?” gasped Udo.
He stopped himself from saying anything more. That didn't sound anything like his officer. His officer would never have been so arrogant, not even to a sentient pet. He'd never seen the man so much as bad-mouth a talking parrot. Or a goat, for that matter. He was the soul of goodness and manners. This supercilious snob was nothing like his colonel, not by a long shot.
This guy was more like Leutnant Winzig, the camp's wanna-be propaganda officer, but broader in the shoulders. He wasn't narrower in the hip; nobody could be skinnier in the hip than old Scissorships. Or more narrow in the mind -- but this guy was coming in a close second.
“Come on, old fellow,” said the Peach.
He ruffled Udo's hair in a way the real officer never would have. Udo gritted his teeth to keep from snapping them at him.
The Peach sighed. As nicely as he treated this animal, it just wouldn't behave. He wished he'd been issued a dog instead of one of these things; they were just nasty by nature.
The woman handed the Peach Udo's reins, who watched helplessly as the man who should have been rescuing him simply took them, and then saluted her. This couldn't be his officer. It just couldn't!
The Peach gave the reins a little pull and clucked his tongue. The half-horse snarled and dug in his hind feet and the heels of his hands. The officer looked at the woman, and shook his head.
“I'm sorry. I wish he'd behave himself.” He looked severely down at Udo. “You naughty boy; is that any way to behave to our hosts?”
“What am I, a goddamn schoolboy?” muttered Udo. That made sense. The man had been a school-teacher between the wars. College types; feh!
The Peach took his leave of his hostess, leading his “pet” out of the tent and past the oasis. Udo kept pulling, and was jerked up short by the rein.
“Udo!” snapped the tall man.
Udo froze; he knew that tone. The officer was the soul of gentleness and good manners, but he had a terrible temper, often as closely checked as a tight-reined stallion. When it finally burst forth, people paid attention. It was dangerous not to. He perked up and sat down and looked like he was ready to listen.
The Peach knew Udo's looks, and this one told him the animal was ready to listen. He reached down and patted the little creature on the head, wondering he looked so shocked.
“There, there, I'm not mad at you. We just need to be nicer to the local people. I know you had a lot of fun running around with the village kids today. Did the lady scare you?”
“ 'Running around -- ?' I wasn't running around anywhere – except with her, that foul bitch! And look what she did to me!”
“Udo!” The Peach was deeply shocked. “We do not use that sort of language on our hostess – and you do not speak of humans like that.” He stood back and looked sad. “What's wrong with you today? You're usually the best half-horse we have.”
“Aghh!!” Udo tore at his hair. “What's wrong with me? What's wrong with you? What've they done to you? What --?”
He fell silent. If they could change his body, they could change his officer's perceptions. The Peach wasn't being mean or stupid; he genuinely thought this was all part of their normal condition. If anything, he was responding to bad manners the way he always did, by being frankly shocked.
Udo realized he must have looked like the oddball to the colonel. Anybody else would have swatted him like a bad dog. The Peach was actually trying to talk to him, to reason with him. He must have been a fine teacher.
“I'm sorry, mein Herr,” he said. “I was just having one of those days.”
“Are you sure?” The officer was looking at him very oddly.
“Oh, sure!” Udo jumped to his feet; if he could have wagged his tail, he would have. “You just watch me!”
If he could make this work out better by acting like he was part of it, he was sure willing to do it. He could find out on his own what had happened, or how, but he wasn't going to get a chance if he was tied up for bad behavior.
“Then come along. Long duty day tomorrow; don't have time to hang around pursuing local relations all night, do we?”
The Peach pulled the reins and Udo responded.
The two of them strolled out of the dark glade into the clear dark desert night.
3. Out of the Tents
The pair of them didn't have far to go until they made the edge of the camp. The tents were like black hills in the night. The white goats and camels shone like stars where they lay, serene in the cool of the night. Only the white horses were moving restlessly, like clouds at the ends of their silken reins.
As the German officer and what he thought was his assigned animal came nearer, the horses began to circle more nervously around their stakes. The chief's big silver stallion bugled, and the whole of the camp came alive. Camels pried themselves to their feet, bellowing and bubbling. The goats scattered around like chips in a casino.
The Peach's hands tightened on the reins. Udo was trying to pull away and run.
“Just be quiet, Udo. These are warriors; they don't just shoot without finding out who they're shooting at first.”
Udo wasn't so sure of that. He heard women screaming and men shouting. None of it sounded as though anyone was afraid. They sounded as though they were looking for weapons, knives and fine swords and those long hand-made rifles with the silver bands. They'd be out of those tents in a second, like black wasps from a black hive.
He cowered behind his officer's legs, unable to help shivering. The man's gloved hand took him by the terret pad on his harness and gave it a friendly shake. The feel of the strong hand in a position of control made him feel better; if anybody was able to fix this mess, it would be Colonel Rommel.
“Just stand still,” said the Colonel. “Bullets are very expensive for the desert tribes. They don't fling them around like we do; they can't afford them like we can.”
“Not being able to afford things has never been a reason to not buy them on credit!” muttered Udo.
The Peach looked down at him indulgently. “Too true, too often. “ His legs were still, but one of his feet was tapping. “Just wait and see, my boy.”
“You're not scared, are you, mein Herr?” Udo said nervously.
“That old question,” sighed the Peach. “Why do men always have to ask it? It never helps.”
“You mean the one asking or the one answering?”
“Too clever for your own good,” murmured the Peach, watching the approaching tribes-men and their women in their black robes.
At last they came close enough, their weapons glinting in the light of the burning torches. The Peach knew is was no good to run; it just set off the instinct of the predator, and the certainty of the chase and the kill. He wasn't going to be responsible for losing the life of either of them.
“Effendi!” came a man's voice from past the glow.
The Peach threw up his head, waiting. The voice spoke in Arabic to the tribes-people. It was the voice of the Arab chief. They put down their weapons, as he had obviously asked them to do.
“I am sorry,” said the chief, coming forward. “My people are vigilant.”
“Of course, it is admirable, nothing less than I would expect of a warrior people,” said the Peach, and bowed; Udo bowed, too.
The chief waved a hand. “My people have been attacked too many times at night.”
He spoke in Arabic again. The people murmured, and dispersed.
“Good night,” said the chief. “I wish you a good night's sleep.” He disappeared back into the blackness.
The Peach stood with his head on the side, watching him go. Udo thought that if that head went any further sideways, it might fall off. The tall man suddenly shook it, hard, and looked down at his small companion.
“What the hell?” he said.
“ 'What the hell?' “ repeated Udo, staring at him. The old man never swore.
“What are you doing down there?” said the officer; his widened eyes shining white. “And what have they done to you!?” He dropped on his knees. “Mein Gott!” he exclaimed. “You've been --.”
“For God's sake don't say 'altered!' “ hissed Udo.
“I'm not going to put up with this. Nobody can just come along and change my orderly – one of my men – into – whatever it is you are, now.”
“It's still me; I told you that witch did this to me! I'm glad you can see it now!”
“What? What did she do to you?”
“How the hell do I know what she did to me? I was just fine and all of a sudden I started to – what the hell – melt – twist – whatever it was – I turned into this thing! You tell me what she did; all I know is she tried to drown me and then she tied me up, and then I became this – whatever this thing is! I'm as much shocked as you are!”
“She – they won't get away with this!” proclaimed the Peach. “I'll --.”
He stopped. What was he talking about? These weren't real people; nothing about any of this was real. He and Udo were lying in the desert somewhere, possibly dying of the heat and thirst. This was so much like a dream, he feared it was nothing more than the imagery of a mind fading away under the desert sun.
“Mein Herr?” said Udo. “What's wrong?”
The Peach folded up his legs under him and looked directly into his orderly's face. “I don't think this is real. We're not real. We're not here.”
“Are you saying this is a dream?”
“Don't you remember?”
“Remember what?” Udo was watching the horses settle down among the tents. “Have we got another life than this one?”
“There it is,” said the Peach. “You know!”
“I know what?” Udo looked around in the dark “Where are we? What are we?”
The Peach patted him on the shoulder. “We don't have to worry. We just need to go back to camp, and rest and wait. If you like, we can rest here.”
“Rest here? With that crazy broad over there?”
“Oh, surely I am not as bad as all that?” said Aziza's soft voice, out of the dark.
Udo scrambled around behind the Peach, who didn't jump up. He sat back, his hands on his knees, looking up calmly at the woman wrapped in the purple scarves
“Hello, madam,” said the Peach. “I see you've been playing with my orderly.”
The woman settled down gracefully before him, her scarves fluttering in the night air.
“Madam, aren't you cold?”
She laughed. “Isn't that the gentleman's line?”
“Ah ha!” laughed the Peach and pointed at her. “That isn't a line from your culture – it's a line from France! You're in my mind.”
“You said it, not me.”
“But your reply was the answer of Paris.”
The Peach smiled ruefully; talking to himself, choosing to illustrate his arguments by a silly old joke. He knew it for certain now; he was using the ridiculous as a defense, again. He would have turned the lightest of jests to cool the pains of Hell; for all he knew, he was doing it right now.
“Well, Madam, if it's all the same to you, I would like to spend the rest of our time here in your charming company.”
“Mein Herr!” Udo yelled.
“Relax, my friend. No one can do anything else to you. We have only to rest and wait until our bodies recover – if they do.”
“I don't get it! Why are we being friends with her, or any of the rest of the damn rag-heads?”
“Udo,” the Peach said reproachfully. “We don't use terms like that about other people, not even people we think of as our enemies.”
“So you're admitting they're our enemies!”
“They can't be,” said the Peach, leaning low over him. He spoke softly, “They don't exist.”
“Are you telling me these guys ain't our enemies, or that there are no enemies, really?”
“Those both sound like me,” said the Peach.
“Well, now I'm confused, “ said Udo, and laid down in the sand.
“Can I offer you refreshment?” said the woman.
“That's gotta be you,” said Udo. “Eating again. Mein Herr, didn't your mother ever feed you?”
“I beg your pardon!” The Peach nodded apologetically at the woman. “We could use a comfortable place to rest until we both recover.”
“My little pink tent?”
“Let us have someplace more soothing, if that is possible.”
She rose gracefully to her feet, in a wave of scarves. “Come with me,” she said.
The two men rose up and followed the woman. She led them to a tent like the field repose of a Roman general; white fabric striped with dark Legion red, sparely but comfortably furnished with dark blue carpets bordered with braids of golden leaves, cushions that matched the carpets, polished cedar field tables and low curtained beds. She opened a field cabinet and set out plain silver bowls of fruit and bread, and a silver ewer and its matching cups. Udo was glad to see there were three cups, and even gladder when Aziza poured dark red wine into all three.
She gestured hospitably at the table. “Please. Enjoy.”
The Peach took his cup readily; Udo watched him drink before he reached for his own. He was horrified to discover his hands were so stiff he could barely clasp the two of them around the cup closely enough to raise it to drink.
“What the hell --!”
“Udo, please don't swear in front of the lady.”
“The lady can go to hell!”
“She's put something in the wine!”
The Peach almost asked the lady to leave, then remembered what she was. “Dear, just relax and trust the wine. This is all just a dream, so why not enjoy it?”
“Here's with the dream again! How is this a dream?”
“Don't you remember the sandstorm? Goodness, I don't even know if you're you. If I'm lying unconscious, you're probably as much a figment of my imagination as our charming hostess.”
“What sandstorm? Will somebody please clear this up for me?”
“I'm sure of it it now,” said the Peach. “You must be my imagination, because it takes so little to joggle a memory. You'd have remembered by now.”
Udo's face was a mask of desperation. “Mein Herr, I'm as real as these!” He held out both stiff, claw-like hands. “I don't know how we got like this, but I know I'm real.”
The Peach shook his head. “No, this is a dream.” He frowned. “I demand that you, as my imagination, simply relax and enjoy what this comfortable tent has to offer us. For example, this bowl of dates.”
The officer took one of the sugary fruits between two fingertips, and offered it to his fuming orderly. When the little man refused with a violent head-shake, the Peach shrugged and slid the date between his own lips, lying back against the cushions, chewing happily.
Seeing him enjoying himself, Udo suddenly felt hungry. He leaned forward and picked up one of the dates with his teeth and began to chew. It was a very nice date, very sweet, very soft and full. Suddenly, he gagged and spit it out.
“Udo!” said the Peach. “Is something wrong?”
“Sand!” spat the little man, clawing the particles off his tongue. “The middle of that date was stuffed with sand!”
“Here, have some more wine,” said Aziza, pouring and offering the cup.
Udo grabbed it and gulped it down, the began to choke and spit.
“Blagh! More sand!”
He threw the cup at the woman, then almost jumped up and ran out of the tent. The cup had gone right through her.
“What the hell?” he said again.
She watched him, her eyes half-closed, their lids green and shining with powdered malachite. He stared hard at her, looking for something he suddenly knew must be there. She leaned back, lying beside the Peach, who smiled indulgently at her and scooted over so she would be more comfortable. Udo gasped when he saw the man -- whom he knew to have no interest in women except as fellow creatures – put his arm around he woman and give her a tender hug. Then he knew.
He lay down carefully on the rug and watched, concentrating, trying to see. At last he focused on the woman's face, and he saw what he almost expected; her features began to grow pale, then waver like water. He knew she was an illusion, as much as the tent and the change in his own body. He squinted hard at her, trying to see through her, into what was truly there. He looked hard, he squinted, he --.
He jumped back with a yelp of pain. It was as though a blast of light had hit him in the eyes. He had seen full daylight in the desert. He had seen trackless sands, such as he'd seen before after sandstorms. He'd seen....
He stared at the Peach. “Oh, no,” he said. “Oh, Gott, we've got to get out of here.”
“Udo, what's wrong?”
His officer was looking at him with sleepy blue eyes. Udo dashed to his side and shook his arm. The Peach sat up.
“You're right, mein Herr, you're right! This is a dream!”
“My dear, you're upset.”
“No, Herr Oberst, we're in trouble, the two of us! Or maybe just me – I don't know – but you're lying out there in that god-awful sun, and I didn't see you breathing!”
“I must be breathing, because I'm lying right here and I can see you perfectly well. So if we're dreaming, I'm breathing. You see?”
“Ha!” said Udo, and pointed at him. “It's not you, because my officer would never be so snotty!”
“Oh, much you know.”
Udo stopped and examined the officer. He was wrong. He'd known his officer to be quite full of himself, for all his fine manners and breeding. The colonel was usually patient with him, but equals often received the point of his sardonic humor. Using it on him meant the officer wasn't himself ; he was certainly something out of his own mind. What would make him imagine the officer would treat him like someone as powerful as himself?
The little half-man gasped: of course! He was supposed to help. The colonel was lying hurt in the desert , unconscious, unable to care for either of them. His mind must have been reaching out, trying to treat his orderly – his constant companion – as the kind of equal who could save his life. Udo rolled his his sleeves, so to speak. If his officer needed him to save them, then he was going to save them.
Ja, that's what he was going to do. He was going to save them both, no matter what. He turned to Aziza, and rubbed his stiff hands.
“Right,” he said. “You can help us, then.”
“Help you?” She smiled. “I can help you to another glass of wine.”
“You can help me wake up!”
The Peach raised his eyebrows. Hadn't that been what he'd been saying all along? At last that part of his imagination was beginning to agree with him. He raised his glass of wine and nodded happily. They'd both be conscious soon, or at least he would be, and if he was imagining Udo being stronger, then maybe Udo was waking up. Things were going well.
Udo scuttled over beside the woman. “Look, you know where we really are. You're some part of me.” He looked at the smiling officer. “You're sure no part of him; he'd dream up that Arab warrior, but you're my doing, if you're anyone's.”
“Whatever you say, Effendi,” she purred. “Please, have another glass of wine.”
He took a deep breath, and the wine that she offered. If she was him, and he was imagining her helping him, then the wine was the most probable symbol of that assistance. He gulped it down, and awaited results.
The Peach watched without fear. It would be interesting to see why she was so intent on having Udo drink that cup of wine.
The little man dropped the glass. He grabbed his stomach, trying to press back the pain and nausea. He refused to believe it was poison; it had to be the shock of his body trying to wake up. He'd get past the pain and he'd save them both. He curled up around his agonized belly, and waited for the light to come back.
The Peach sat up, his mouth and eyes widening. He'd expected his little friend to become himself again, in the hot light of the desert, he'd hoped they'd awaken and have a chance of staggering to the next village. He knew he still had his compass, because he'd never felt as though he'd lost his bearings in this world.
Instead, he found himself watching his orderly beginning to grow, up and out, without otherwise changing his form. The Peach scrambled backwards, horrified. Mein Gott, was his head growing to the size of giant Swedish squash? Were his hind hooves – well, all of his hooves – as big as dinner plates? He was the size of an Oldenburg draft horse, not just the color of one! The dainty harness and bridle split and flew off him, even the little man-sized bit spitting out of his mouth and dancing across the floor.
“What've you done to him!” he demanded.
“Why, he's not just a pet,” smiled Aziza. “I'm sure he'll want to do his fair share of work.”
“He's not a slave!”
“No, now he's a very fine animal.”
Udo's giant head smashed up into the top of the tent, sending it into waves like a disturbed sea. His giant hooves danced with surprising lightness, but still smashed whatever they came down on. Golden platters an lamps and candy-colored boxes smashed and scattered golden jewelry across the carpet. It was a sparkle of destruction.
“Look!” said Aziza. “He's like the horses of the Nesrani, the ones the Crusaders rode so many years ago.”
The Peach was taken aback. “How do you know?”
“We remember horses,” said the woman. “We always remember just what they look like, and who rode them.”
As Udo dropped back onto all fours, Aziza threw her scarf around his neck, and it transformed into a smooth red leather strap. It began to grow with the vigor of jungle roots, throwing out more straps and links that bloomed with golden buckles and fine gold chains. Within moments, the giant man-horse was covered with a superb carriage harness, unlike anything the tribal peoples owned. Around his neck was a well-fitted draft collar, complete with gold-tipped cherry-wood hames. His face was bound by the kind of bridle a draft horse would wear, with blinders and double bit.
Flipping the reins of the harness, Udo buttocked out of the tent, snorting and whinnying throatily. The Peach scrambled back out from under the opposite side, afraid his own limbs would crack like glass if the huge hooves came down on them instead of the bric-a-brac. He staggered out into the trees until he ran into one and fell to his knees, his arms around the trunk, his face scraped by the rough bark. He heard the woman calling with her sweet voice, sounding happy, as though she were enjoying herself. The giant stallion was screaming as though he were doing anything but something he liked. The Peach could see him kicking and bucking against the sky. The woman was perched on that monster's back, barely in contact, almost floating above him like her scarves above her own hair. The silhouette was either horrifying or beautiful; the Peach was having a hard time deciding what he thought.
He rubbed his sore face. That must mean something; what was the symbolism – in his own mind – of his orderly suddenly blowing up to the size of a draft horse, and his own face running into a tree?
The sore face was easy; he was lying in a desert with his skin scrubbed raw by a sudden sandstorm. The giant horse orderly was his own desperate belief that Udo could help him; he was hoping his orderly could kick their way to consciousness. He must have started drifting into hallucinations. The he tasted the blood from his split lip, and he knew this was no dream.
He staggered to his feet. Never in his life had the taste of blood been part of his imagination. His mouth filled with the salt flavor of his own fluids, and he knew that somehow this ridiculous fantasy was suddenly become his and his little friend's reality.
“Udo!” he choked, and had to stop, leaning over, spitting blood. He wiped his lips, stood up and gasped, “Udo! She's not just a dream! She's real! She's actually doing this to you!”
He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Was that Udo giggling? He squinted, hard, and put his hand back over his bleeding mouth. Udo was standing arch-backed, the woman leaning down over his neck, arms around his head, nibbling his left ear and whispering in it.
Udo was becoming more delighted by the moment. Of course this was a dream; how could he have doubted it? He couldn't wake up until he was able, and fighting to awaken would just weaken him. He needed to rest, enjoy and heal. The woman was his own body asking for relief and the chance to recover, if he would only let it alone. This sorceress was his absolute mistress and could do anything she wished with him. She wanted to play, and all he wanted to know were the rules.
“Come with me, my pretty pony,” she whispered. “I have friends for you to meet.” She tickled the back of his neck with her tiny nails. “You will like these friends very much.”
“I'll like whoever you want me to like, cutey!”
“Udo,” gasped the Peach, and tried to follow after. “Udo, I was wrong, this isn't a dream! You don't know what you're getting into with that woman! She can do terrible things to you!”
“Oh, yes, I do,” came a happy voice, floating back as the sound of massive hooves lifted into a trot that could only be described as airy, regardless of the size of those cloppers.
“Udo!” yelled the Peach, and forced himself to dash after them. The sound of the hooves echoed so loudly among the trees he couldn't really tell which direction they'd taken. He was only able to follow them by the flitting of her purple scarves against the light of the moon.
4. Out To The Horses
The Peach had long slender legs, and his boots and breeches were tailored for ultimate comfort, but that smack in the face would have slowed down Seabisquit. He didn't slide between the trees and around the water with his accustomed grace and speed. Splashing and regaining dry ground at a painful foot-pace, he was forced to listen for the sounds of his friend's progress through the dark. He was thankful it wasn't easy to miss.
Udo was more delighted with this whole dream by the moment. The silliness and the willingness of the local femininity to lead him into adventure were his kind of nocturnal vision. So far the only thing he was missing was a little femininity applied directly to himself, but dreams were often rife with that kind of disappointment. Maybe as he began to wake up he'd drift into a nice, fulfilling wet-dream.
He and his lovely rider went trotting happily through the night and the moonlight, around the tents and into the fields behind. Suddenly, she drew him up, and he felt brushing across his forearms a sensation like a silken rope. By the time he realized that's what it was, she'd led him into what turned out to be a small paddock. He saw white forms shimmering in and out of the shadows, noble mares, the silent war-horses of a raiding people, not given to the shrieks and squeals of braggart stallions. He realized he was looking one of those mares directly in her great black eyes, his head on a level with hers. It was somehow sweet to be as tall as she, an equal to such natural aristocracy.
Suddenly he heard childish giggling, and all around his huge feet and hands, completely unafraid, ran the youngest sons and daughters of the camp. They were too little to steal horses, instead spending their time guarding them, running unafraid between the slender dancing legs of their tall friends. They patted Udo on his arms, amazed to see such massive humanity, laughing and asking the woman to let them come up to her. She laughed in return and held down her hands to them, and they hopped on board as though they were so many young possums climbing for a ride on their mother.
By the time the Peach caught up to them, Udo was trotting around inside the enclosure, festooned with little dark children, the woman's violet scarves fluttering flag-like behind. The white mares were trotting with him, tossing their beautiful heads, their fine manes and tails fluttering behind like their own scarves.
The Peach stood transfixed. It was beautiful, and yet terrifying. Udo looked like some giant perversion of man and beast, while seeming so happy, even joyful. The children were what made him stop worrying about whether this were dream or reality. He stood rubbing his sore lips, not really feeling them, such was his fascination with the sight before him. It was like watching some weird fantasy play, like the Moorish dances of England, or the antics of the Latzmänner and Hisgier, the springtime fertility dancers of southern Germany. The Peach had seen the giant puppets of the Lenten festivals of Spain, and in this eerie light Udo looked like one of them, even his pale skin and the purple scarves of his lady reminiscent of papier-maché and paper streamers. The officer couldn't help laughing softly to himself.
“They are amusing, are they not?” said the voice of the Arab chieftain.
The Peach turned around slowly. “Hello,” he murmured, and waved gently, waggling his fingertips.
“Aziza enjoys playing with our guests,” said the chieftain. “Don't be concerned; your servant is not harmed.”
“He's not – how did she do that?”
“It's just magic.”
“As in a magic show?” The Peach turned and looked back at his galloping orderly. “That's a very believable performance.”
“She is well-named. Aziza is perfection, in all things.”
“He does look as though he's enjoying himself,” the Peach said uncertainly.
“He is. Aziza knew the moment she saw him, he loved children.”
The Peach remembered Udo sharing food with Arab children, or repairing toys for young Tauregs. Admittedly, he was often tearing after them yelling, trying to retrieve stolen pieces of clothing or bits of metal-work. It had taken him a while to learn that, among nomad peoples, everything was common property. Food belonged to the hungry. Jewelry belonged to whoever liked most to wear it. A horse or a woman could change masters – or loves. It was so easy to find or make or trade for more of whatever was wanted. The Saudis might cut off a hand for stealing, but North Africans could make up with an invitation to a banquet. Food was nothing, and everything, but not worth a human life.
“Let them play,” said the chieftain. “Come back to the tents to rest with me.”
The Peach suddenly knew he could leave Udo safely in the woman's hands. She would entertain him while her cousin extended greater hospitality, to the honor of the camp.
“I'd be glad to join you,” he said.
“You'll be happy you made that choice,” said the Arab. “Come, an exquisite night awaits you. I have orange syrup, and lemon and rose – and grated ice for sherbet.”
The Peach was sore and tired. He knew he couldn't have grown this exhausted lying in tents. It must be part of the damage he had suffered during the sandstorm. He and his orderly were somehow in a new reality, with no idea how they'd made the transition. If it were real or no, he would have to simply sit back and wait for whatever was going to happen. When there was no chance for action, passivity became the only option. No matter what else happened, he could rest and wait.
He could also use a tall cool glass of something. Anyone whose female relatives could warp a man's form would have the ability to mix any drink a man could desire. Not an alcohol drink, of course; the sacredness of their horses and the refusal to drink the juice of the grape or sip from the grain were the two lines in the sand the whole of the Islamic world refused to cross.
“I would be delighted to join you in your hospitality,” said the Peach.
“Then come with me, and allow me to offer you my simple desert home.”
The Peach had already seen the simple home, but he wasn't led to that first tent The chieftain took him through the palm groves, along the sparkling edges of the silver oasis. He watched thousands of tiny lights twinkling among the long leaves, unable to tell what they were until he realized they were the stars, obscured by the long fronds undulating gently in the night breeze, seeming to wink out of existence and return in a way the stars never did.
His gaze dropped as they walked, and he saw more lights twinkling around him; the distant lights of campfires around the tents, and nearby, tiny metallic sparks that turned out to be tiny metal sequins on the veils of the tribal women, as they walked among the trees, carrying water and wood, murmuring like the waters of the oasis, soft as the evening air, strong as the stems of the young palm trees.
“Here we are,” said the chief, and gestured forward into the dark.
The Peach peered along his pointing arm, but didn't see anything. He didn't ask, but waited for his eyes to become accustomed to this portion of darkness before him. A small, elegant tent came into focus, set perfectly among the most graceful palms of the grove. It reflected as a dark shadow in the mirror-still water lying so close before the entrance.
The chief raised the front curtain, revealing a warm glow of lanterns within. They shone off a magnificent collection of weapons, saddles and bridles heavy with silver and gold, and gleaming, enameled plate-ware. The carpet was splendid with gold and deep read, the cushions and bolsters made of cloth-of-gold and purple velvet.
The Peach didn't even hesitate; he put a hand on a palm trunk and began to push at the heel of one boot with the other. The chieftain put a hand on his arm.
“Please, sit here.”
The chieftain pulled an armed mahogany folding chair, set with mother-of-pearl, from inside the entrance and placed it in before the Peach. The officer didn't hesitate. He sat down, and, crossing his ankles, continued to work at one boot heel with the other. He blinked; he realized why the boots were giving him so much trouble. They weren't the practical, comfortable laced boots he'd walked into the desert with; they were the tall black leather boots he'd had made for himself in Spain before the war. He wasn't wearing his practical khaki trousers, but his sleek hand-sewn breeches, the ones he'd ordered in Vienna. How did he come to put them on? He hadn't even brought them with him to the desert. He put his hand to his breast and found he wasn't wearing his uniform jacket; instead he felt finest raw silk, of a very pale yellow French-tailored shirt.
He knew he was in a real place, but it had different rules. He didn't question when the chieftain gestured toward the dark, and a slight ginger-colored boy stepped into the lamplight. The lad was dressed in clean rags, worn remains of rich fabrics, as though anything more genteel or magnificent would look shoddy compared with his own big-eyed beauty. He kneeled before the officer, who scooted back in his chair.
“Ah,” he began. “I thank you for your thoughtfulness, but the young gentleman is far too – young.”
The chieftain laughed. “He is here to help you with your boots.”
“Of course,” said the Peach.
He'd been in the desert and among its people too long to be embarrassed by his mistake. He extended one elegant foot and ankle, and braced himself on the arms of the chair. The boy laid strong hands on his boot heel and his calf. Before the officer knew it, with seemingly no effort at all, the boy had neatly drawn the boot from his leg. Within moments he was free of both boots, flexing his feet in the cool night air. He realized he wasn't wearing his rough walking socks, but the gray silk hose his mother had given him in Schwabia. Everything he'd sampled in Europe was here with him.
“Are you ready to join me inside?” said the chieftain.
The Peach stood up, feeling the warm sand through his thin socks. The night was cold, but the sun was still locked underfoot. He stepped forward onto the carpet, and murmured at the luxury of the soft pile. The tent smelled of spices and exotic wood, of leather, butter, old iron and wool. There was a slight, acrid tang of horse sweat, but the Peach had never disliked how horses smelled. He strolled into the tent, and found a nest of cushions already laid out for him. He folded himself down into them, laid back, and sighed.
The dark boy was at his side, an exquisite silver tray in his hands, upon which balanced a tall glass of ice and rose syrup. A dainty palm-wood cylinder stood up from the ice. The Peach took it with a grateful nod, and sipped from the cylinder. The flavor flooded his mouth, a taste that had perfumed the mouths of the desert peoples since before they knew how to write, and that was a very long time ago, indeed.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said. “This was just what I needed.”
The chieftain sat down in another chair, of silver-banded cherry wood. The boy brought him another glass, shining pale orange instead of pink. The chieftain took it, the boy bowed and disappeared through the entrance, closing the flap behind him.
“I prefer the orange syrup,” said the chieftain, and sipped it. “It's a simple drink, but the perfume is unmatched.”
“The rose is incomparable,” said the Peach, lightly licking his lips.
“Syrup must be used while it is still very fresh,” said the chieftain. “It quickly changes into a drink that goes to the head. In that stage, it may not be drunk by a man of my faith.”
The Peach sipped, and thought. “You don't happen to have some of the – less fresh syrup?”
“I might,” said the chieftain. “I would not like to inflict it upon a guest if the guest were not willing. Would you like some?”
“I might,” said the Peach. “I'm always open to something new.”
At his elbow the boy already stood, the silver tray offering another tall glass, containing a delicate light-rose, almost golden liquid. The Peach took it and tried a sip; it was turning into raw spirit and burnt deliciously. He blew gently, and sipped again.
“Is it not fresh any longer?” said the chieftain.
“Not quite,” said the Peach. “I find it intriguing.”
He sipped again, long and deeply, his eyes closed. The first hint of intoxication began to perk through his bloodstream.
“What is it like?” asked the chieftain.
The Peach opened his eyes. “You've never tried it?”
“Alas, there are certain things forbidden.” The chieftain smiled. “This does not mean you may not enjoy it as a guest.”
“It's rather nice.”
“May I ask you what it is like?”
The Peach looked up at the top of the tent, where red and purple ropes and tassels held the little shelter upright, and trembled slightly from the touch of the evening wind. He could see perfectly clearly, but it was as though nothing he saw or felt mattered. He began to feel as though he were floating.
“It's like sitting on a cloud. Or a flying carpet.”
“Perhaps that's what the carpets of the tales originally meant?”
“Mmmm...this is truly delightful. A more subtle sensation than I am used to. For a culture that does not drink of the grape or the grain, you have invented an admirable interpretation.”
The chieftain stroked his beard. “If one reads the Koran word-for-word, we are allowed the syrup. But one does not wish to be too dogmatic in one's faith, either way.”
The Peach shifted his shoulders on the glittering cushions. He was willing to accept everything at face value, now. Trying to discover whether he was breathing real air or siphoning a figment was going to get him not one step closer to life as he remembered it. He let another sip of the fragrant liquid float across his tongue, and closed his eyes.
This simplest of liquors was working on him more powerfully than any more sophisticated potation. He let the fingers of warmth work outward from his stomach, trickling out delicately like clear streams on a sunlit day, refreshing and clarifying his being. He flexed his fingers and stretched his toes. The liquor was working very quickly; his toes felt completely numb. He ran his hands along his thighs until they came to his knees.
He frowned; it seemed as though his knees were too close. He opened his eyes and squinted at them. Yes, they even looked too close. He drew his knees quickly together, feeling the glow on his face. The prickling of the liquor through his veins sharpened as though piercing his skin. Under his hands and before his eyes he saw his breeches begin to fade or melt away. He felt the sudden chill of an unexpected nudity, and drew his calves up against his buttocks, so unexpectedly uncovered.
He gasped at the change in the surface of his skin His pale flesh seemed to be darkening, a dim pinkish blush spreading along his limbs, visibly appearing as fine hairs, growing in masses across his thighs and calves, until they formed a smooth skin of a delicate red gold, the same color as the diluted rose liquor. Before his eyes, his toes compressed and bloomed like black roses into shining dainty hooves. With a fine-toned cry of sudden anger, he jumped to his feet, or at least to his hands and hooves. He felt something flutter across his haunches, and turned to see a silky black tail hanging to his newly-formed fetlock joints. He whirled with refined control upon the carpets, kicking cushions and bolsters out of his way. His fine golden hair swirled across his forehead; his blue eyes blazed with rage.
“How beautiful!” enthused the chieftain, sitting up and clapping his hands. “You have become the most lovely pony, full of fire and spirit!”
“A pony!” snapped the Peach, and pranced menacingly at his erstwhile host. “We've had enough of this nonsense. I won't permit myself nor my orderly to become your slaves. We're German citizens, and our government won't allow any of its people to be enslaved!”
The Peach was so angry, so frightened and disturbed, he returned to the loyalties any people returns to when pressed by an enemy, chanting the adult equivalent of “Wait 'till my big brother hears about this!” He coughed and stamped his hooves; they rang like adamantine. The chieftain got to his feet and gazed at him in admiration, the ragged boy peeping from behind him. The chieftain turned to the child.
“Would you like to ride this lovely pony, Al Bara?” he asked. The boy nodded eagerly, and the chieftain addressed himself again to his guest and victim. “The boy's name means 'Wholesome in Innocence,' “ he said. “He is pure and sweet in his self and his manner. He loves nothing better than our fine horses, but such is his own delicacy, I've never entrusted him to our fiery mares. Now I see a fine pony who could delight his heart.” To the boy, he said, “Do you like this pony, Al Bara?”
Al Bara nodded eagerly, clutching his rags as though his excess of feeling had found its way into his fingers and needed an release. The chieftain took a finely-wrought gold-mounted bridle from among a number hanging from a tent pole, and handed it to the boy.
“There, my lad. Take this and train your valiant steed.”
The boy grabbed it gleefully, gasping his thanks, and dashed after his new pony, who had already spun briskly and charged out of the tent into the night. The chieftain slowly lowered himself back to the pile of cushions, reaching out for his own harmless orange glass of sherbet. He listened in amusement as the trampling and splashing told of the chase through the grove and the edges of the pool. He liked to know the children of his tribe were enjoying themselves.
The Peach wasn't running away from the boy, although he could hear him running behind. He was galloping back to where he'd left Udo. He listened as he galloped for the sound of other children laughing, and for the hooting enjoyment of his orderly. When Udo wasn't yelling at kids he turned into one himself. The Peach hoped the little man – or the giant he'd become – would still be happy, and hadn't been led into something unexpected and horrible. What appeared to be children might actually be malevolent midgets. He felt the hands of the eager boy behind him, grabbing for end of his flowing tail as he ran, and fought down the wicked urge to let him catch a hard little hoof,
Finally, as they rounded the far side of the pool, he heard the shrieks of those children and the magnified whooping of the cold-blood-sized man-horse. He hated to think of Udo like that, but the two of them were in the same boat, now. He saw the gold ropes of the tiny paddock glinting in the moonlight, and raced directly for it. The lad behind him shrieked in delight and redoubled his efforts to catch the new friend who had been given to him for his very own. The little stallion flew at the paddock rope and rose as though floating in a powerful leap. He landed in a puff of sand, the grain sparkling in the white light. The giggling of the children and the whinnying of their giant playfellow stopped abruptly. The Peach whirled to find Udo staring down at him.
“Mein Herr!” cried the giant stallion, his huge hooves throwing up shovel-fulls of loose sand.
He gallumphed up the the Peach, bucking in delight. The officer was intimidated but stood his ground, his tail held high. He couldn't help himself; he pawed and stamped and blew out his nostrils. He was about to speak when his tiny pursuer flew under the gold rope and in one bound was on his back. The Peach reared up with a furious squeal, and bucked across the paddock, his tiny hooves throwing clouds of glittering sand. Udo sat down on his haunches, laughing, and all the giggling children slid off his back in a giggling heap on the sand.
“Aw, c'mon, mein Herr! Don't go to pieces; it's just a dream! Enjoy yourself!”
“It's not a dream!”
The Peach began to whirl and kick and finally stood still, arms and legs stiffly planted in the sand, his tail slashing hard, the silky hairs slapping his rider, first one side, then the other. The boy laughed and clapped his hands.
The Peach was so angry he didn't take the opportunity of the freed hands to buck his rider off. If he'd been himself, he wouldn't have thought of hurting a child, but he was blowing with fury.
“Oh, Mann,” said Udo. “He's lost his temper. Stay back, kids, he can do anything when he's like this, and it don't matter how young you are.”
The Peach blinked. The realization that his rider was a child, that he might harm these young ones, immediately settled his temper. He gulped and calmed down, his whole body loosening, the hard cords of his tendons loosening their hold on his muscles. He uncurled his clenched hands and stepped a few times with his hind legs, lowering his tail. He shook his head and turned his head, looking up at the young boy on his back. Al Bara grasped his fine silk shirt, leaned forward and kissed him on the neck. He shivered and couldn't help his own little giggle. The boy threw his arms around his head and nuzzled his soft blond hair. The Peach looked up to see Udo winking at him.
“Now you got him, kid,” said the Oldenburg. “He can't help likin' a kid who's likin' him.”
The Peach shook his head ruefully. “Udo, we're prisoners of the chieftain. He's using these children as our guards because he knows we can't fight them.”
“Got us pegged, huh?”
The Peach wanted to sit down and think, but his tiny hooves sent him dancing along the golden rope. He couldn't help the celebrations of his new body, so obviously enjoying itself. It liked what it was like now. Udo watched him trotting and pounded happily on the sand.
“Ja, that's the way! Ain't it fun, Herr Oberst? Ain't the kids a kick?”
At the word, the Peach couldn't help kicking out with both hinds legs, his quarters hopping up, bounding Al Bara into the air, so the boy screamed with delight. The officer gave up, allowing his body to whirl and prance. There was no use talking or trying to escape until he let his body get it out of its system. He simply trotted on and on, the child slapping time on his shoulder, falling into the steady rhythm of a circus rosinback.
While his body drove him in a soothing circle, he tried to keep his mind clear. He didn't want to make plans until he and Udo were resting alone in their paddock. He was under no delusions that he would be able to pull his concentration away from the children and his own rapt trot before the moon began to set.
The children gradually tired of playing with their lively new toys. One by one they left, yawning and staggering with the sudden complete exhaustion of small children. Some of them didn't want to go home, and only submitted to their own weariness when their older brothers and sisters finally came out to the paddock and called them to come home. The last hold-out was little Al Bara, a slave-boy with no family of his own. Even he had to give up this fascinating game and slowly slide down off the Peach's back. His horsie put down his head to him, so the boy could put his arms around his face and kiss him goodnight. The boy ambled drowsily off into the night, yawing so loudly he could be heard until he passed back among the tents.
The camels had stopped moaning and mumbling in their sleep, and even the stallion of the camp had stopped sniffing and snorting for rivals who might be coming for his mares, at least in his own heated mind. The moon wandered down the sky and finally set, leaving the oasis in the dark, the only light the silver shimmer of the stars on the unmoving mirror the pool, faintly reflecting along the ridges of the tents and the distant mountains.
Udo's little riders had already gone to bed. He was curled up in a massive heap in the sand, enjoying the last faint warmth of the long day. He was snoring, his head pillowed on his huge hands. The Peach looked at him enviously. He was exhausted, from the alcohol, the transformation, and the long hours romping with the unsuspecting children. He wanted nothing so much as to curl up beside his orderly, and imbibe the warmth from his huge body.
He smiled at the irony of yearning for the protective bulk of a man who was had always been so diminutive compared to himself. For several minutes, he stood contemplating whether it would be better to rouse Udo and take him on an escape while they had the opportunity, or to cuddle up next to him and get the sleep his body was crying for. If they allowed their captors to trust them, it might give them even more leeway to escape.
As the officer stood and tried to work out their chances, he found his thoughts becoming as rubbery as his legs. His head felt like a bowling-ball; moment by moment it was becoming too heavy to keep upright. He would be in no condition to run or think; he owed it to his orderly as well as to himself to at least be alert and rested enough to give them both a chance. He knew his exhausted body was trying to influence the argument, but at last he had no choice but to concede its point. He slogged over to Udo, and simply allowed his body to have its way. It sank down as gently and willingly as a stone that knows its place in a drystone wall, huddling up against that Clydesdale-sized mass of warmth, and sighed and shivered with relief. Within moments, he was sleeping as deeply as his orderly, snoring gently.
5. Into The Desert
When the Peach awakened the next morning, he felt constrained. He tried to sit upright, then discovered that Udo had thrown his arm around him and was hugging him closely. He rubbed his eyes and stretched, and Udo moaned and slowly drew back his arm. The Peach sat up and looked around him.
The everyday life of the camp was going on around them. The smell of cook-fires and coffee drifted through the palms. No smoke was visible; the people used charcoal and dung, producing a small, hot fire that burned clean and clear, the fires of desert raiders and nomads, ever on the alert for enemies or prey. Camels groaned for their fodder, horses squealed and stamped. Children raced around with slings of thorns and grain; others, whistling and swinging long switches, herded goats to the water, or led horses and camels in their turn. Women strode around the camp in their myriad tasks, feeding men and children, washing and feeding babies and colts, both horse and camel, milking goats and she-camels, baking bread, hurrying to finish the morning work before the next cycle of the day.
The Peach watched Al Bara trotting in with a bundle of goat's-wool felt under one arm, and a goat-skin bucket of water in the other hand. The Peach nudged Udo. The huge creature yawned and finally opened his eyes.
“Wake up, Udo. Time for breakfast.”
“Breakfast? Good, I'm hungry.” He rolled over on his stomach and raised his head. “What they got? More of that good coffee, I hope.”
“I don't think they give coffee to horses.”
“Why not? Hey, can't we turn this dream around to do what we want it to?”
“If only we could,” said the Peach.
“Food, noble ones!” cried Al Bara, and opened the bundle before them, revealing what appeared to be sawdust.
It didn't smell like sawdust; it smelled nice. The Peach realized how hungry he was. Al Bara neatly divided the food between them, a small bowlful for the pony, a much greater pile for the horse, but neither very large. He stepped back and allowed his charges to dig in.
Udo dropped his head and began to champ away. The Peach thought about using his hand, but remembering he'd run through a camp full of animals the night before, he reconsidered, and took his meal directly with his mouth, delicately lipping up the particles, finding them very tasty. He realized why the portions were so small; the food was so rich. It was fine-quality oat and barley grain, cracked and crushed, mixed with the Bedu travel dough. He remembered that nothing was too good for the best of these people's horses, and felt flattered at the attention. Even as a prisoner he was not unaware of how much he appreciated special treatment, at least on the pleasant end of the scale. They were treating him and his orderly as well as they treated their horses, and there could be no more royal reception for a man than that, be he prisoner or free.
When they had both eaten their fill, they licked their lips and looked around. Al Bara recognized thirst and held forth the goat-skin bag. The water sparkled invitingly in its deep dark pocket.
The Peach took a sip of the water. It tasted of the goat-hide, but he knew better than to be too refined about water in a desert. If it wasn't absolutely poisonous, if it didn't lead to life-threatening vomiting, the thirsty overcame the mere flavor and drank despite it.
Udo looked up, chewing, and saw his officer drinking. The Peach took a few more sips and pushed the vessel over to him. He put in the tip of his tongue, made a face, and continued to drink. A seasoned desert campaigner like his officer, he respected water in all its forms.
Al Bara sat back, watching them eat, admiring them. In the light of day, he thought the color of their hides were even more beautiful than they had been in moonlight and lamplight the night before. He admired the beautiful golden hair on the head of the pony, shining like real metal in the morning sun. When the pony looked up, he saw the beautiful blue of the desert sky in his eyes. Al Bara loved horses, and strange as this creature was, he found himself loving him like a noble stallion. He wanted to reach out and stroke that lovely golden hair, but his master had warned him not to disturb the creatures in any way.
The Peach and Udo finished their meal, drinking all the water whether they wanted it or not, and Al Bara wrapped up the square of wool and the hide bucket. He quickly un-knotted the golden rope of the paddock, and used it to form halters around the man-horses' heads. He led them to the palm grove, where they would have shade for the day. There he tied them to two of the noblest of the palms, not too close to the water.
“Now what do we do?” said Udo.
The Peach stood eying the distance between the and the water, switching his long black tail.
“They don't want us hydrating ourselves,” he said.
Udo knew what that meant. Before going out on long patrols in the desert, he and his men spent a half hour drinking as much water as they could manage, slowly sipping and sipping, gradually saturating their body tissues.
“Rag-heads don't want us loading up for an escape, huh?”
“Udo,” said the Peach.
“Right, Herr Oberst,” apologized Udo, and made a key-locking gesture over his lips. “So what do we do now?”
“I don't know,” said the Peach, frowning at the camp. “This situation is completely novel to me.”
“Maybe you could sneak out tonight. Big as I am, it's kind of out of the question for me.”
“It's rather difficult for me, too. Even if I could get back to our unit, I doubt anyone would take me seriously enough to send help for you.”
“But they'd know who you are, right? Your brother would have a shit-fit if he found out what these guys did to us – I mean, you as family, me as one of his command.”
“Yes, Erwin is very possessive that way, I must agree.” The Peach was sucking on his lower lip. “I can't even predict how far his disgust for our treatment would go, if I could get to him to convince him it was me.”
“This bunch would pay,” agreed Udo. “I hope they can get the kids out of the way.”
“Erwin would never attack children!”
“Well, not on purpose! They're always – kinda like – collateral damage.”
“Udo!” The Peach was shocked. “What a revolting concept.”
“Well, it's not like it don't happen every time the grownups go for each other,” said Udo.
The Peach sighed. “Too true. But I don't like to think what he'd do if he saw me like this. He's very protective of family.”
“Maybe it'd better be me who goes.”
The Peach looked up at him, all the way up.
“I get your point,” said Udo. “I sure couldn't sneak out of camp like a white mouse, could I?
“I think not.”
“Then we're both gonna have to take off, somehow, together.”
“We'll have to wait for it to get dark again,” said the Peach. “And we'll have to get to the water.”
“How we gonna get water?”
The Peach didn't answer. He was watching the activity in the camp. The women were still working, but there was less dashing around. They were drifting into the tents, out of the sun that was heading ever higher in the sky. The Peach caught glimpses of women sewing, cleaning date-seeds for camel feed, embroidering and appliquéing saddle-bags with braids of brightly-dyed yarns and narrow gold and silver threads. From inside the tents came bright glimmers as some women did shisha work, slowly covering gowns and veils with tiny pieces of mirrors and glass. Some of them were combing and braiding each other's hair, adding henna and tiny blue beads. The men were lying under the tents, almost invariably on their backs, arms over their eyes, or sitting in circles in the shade, drinking thick sweet coffee, smoking the indispensable hookahs they'd inherited from their grandfathers, The children had wandered off with the livestock to find grazing. The only sound was of distant needles and the multitude of flies.
The Peach sat slowly down, his eyebrows working. Udo frowned back at him.
“What's wrong, mein Herr?”
“Flies,” he said.
“Yeah, there's a lot of them, aren't they?”
“This proves this is real. There wouldn't be flies – not if it was in my imagination.”
“No, we're in a dream, for sure. There's no way we'd have horse butts if it were real.”
“We've been in it too long.”
“Haven't you ever had any of those dreams that seem to go on forever?”
“They never have conversations,” said the Peach.
Udo thought about it. “You're right. Nobody ever talks In whole sentences in a dream, 'leastwise not in my dreams.” He gulped. “What am I kidding myself? This has got to be real!”
“Our host must have given us something in those first cups of coffee, to confuse us like this.”
“Then how did they do this to us, if this is real? This is like in fairy tales. Oh, my God; was that cousin of his a witch?”
“She's not a witch,” the Peach reassured him. “At least not in the fairy-tale way.”
“Well, she's sure not ugly like a fairy-tale witch. Wait, aren't some of those witches beautiful? In disguise anyway. Wait, that makes perfect sense, she captures us with her beauty before she eats us – or turns us into strange animals or something. You're right! She's a witch, just not in the fairy-tale way! Man, when I get my hands on her --.”
“Nobody's making any threats. We have to find a way to become human again before we try to escape.”
“Before we escape? Then they'll know we're trying to do!”
The Peach's mouth set. Udo was right. And if they did get back to their own people, it could lead to anger and confusion that would leave them in these forms for the rest of their lives. Either way led to their remaining in these forms.
“Then we'll have to stay here, as we are.”
“What? No, we gotta get outta here!”
“It will kill the children if we escape.”
“Mein Herr, kids are dying all over this war! This is no time to get picky about which ones!”
The big horse-man had to jump out of the way as the pony took a run at him, teeth snapping. Udo wasn't fooling when he'd said the Peach had a temper. Even though the Peach was the size of a horse now, Udo wasn't going to give those sharp little hooves and teeth a chance at him. Everybody knew ponies were meaner than horses. It was his own fault, even hinting at kids getting hurt; he knew the colonel was tender as a woman about kids.
The Peach finally calmed down, mostly because he'd literally come to the end of his rope and throttled himself several times. He stood snorting and pawing, but he was obviously thinking. Udo felt much better. His colonel would get them out of this mess. Udo was as self-sufficient a soldier as the next guy, but all this weirdness was beyond him. It would take someone with better breeding that he had to make sense of this and know what to do about it. The colonel had a far greater experience of the world at large; he probably knew people who ran into this kind of thing all the time.
Udo had heard about new scientific discoveries and theories back in Germany, about what things were actually made of. He didn't understand them, but they sounded as though they could lead to the kinds of situations he and the colonel were in. About atoms and basic building blocks and such things. If anybody had gotten their building blocks re-arranged it was was two soldiers of Germany who could have stayed home with the theories instead of wandering off into empire-building and the usual kinds of places – with the usual kind of people – where empires got built. He was trusting with the colonel; the colonel would fix it.
The Peach sat thinking, but as the hot hours wore on, he and Udo looked ever more longingly at the clear pool. The goat-skin bucket had provided them with enough water to assuage their thirst that morning, but they weren't desert people, and they needed to drink more often than those whose whole lives and ancestries had been spent waiting patiently on the sun.
The Peach found it harder and harder to think of an escape, his gaze wandering back repeatedly to the sparkling cool water. Udo was frankly leaning against his own rope, tongue hanging out.
“This will never work,” said the Peach. “We've got to stop thinking of escape and simply think how to get water.”
“I thought we were going to try to figure out how to get back to who we were before we tried to escape.”
The Peach shook his head. “I keep going around and around in circles. We have to be able to spend at least an hour drinking – slowly – before we go anywhere. That's the first step. Then the escape. That's the....”
He trailed off. The circles were growing ever tighter in his mind. If he didn't solve this puzzle, that should have been so easy, they'd be trapped here the rest of their lives, whether as hostages, slaves or pets he'd not been able to distinguish. If they were hostages, then the chieftain would have to make contact with the German forces. If they were slaves, they would be carrying burdens. If they were pets, they'd be playing with the children. The Peach put a hand to his forehead. His mind was wandering among pointless trivia.
Could they be all three? Playing with the children in the camps, burdened on the tramp, valuable enough to sell back to their people. A desert tribe would use whatever they had for as many uses as they could manage. The Peach thought ruefully, if he and Udo died on the march they'd probably be cut up for the evening meal.
He was maundering to himself about whether the tribe would consider them human or animal enough to eat when Udo said, “Screw this. I'm thirsty.”
The big man-horse wrapped his rope around one wrist and pulled. The rope was tough, but it couldn't fight the power in the stallion's grip. He muscled backwards until the rope began to fray and cut into the bark of the palm tree. The fibers of strand and plant began to come apart, and at last the rope itself parted.
The stallion fell back on his haunches with a loud grunt. The Peach, who had been watching in amazement, sat down on his own haunches and softly applauded him. Without hesitation, the huge creature grabbed the Peach's rope and hauled back until it parted as well. Then the two of them ambled down to the water.
They didn't look around to see if anyone were watching them. They used the opportunity of their time to simply suck in the water they would need for the next step. Looking around, or even sneaking slowly, would have robbed them of the precious seconds they needed to get that water down their throats.
The Peach got past his first thirst, and became aware of a gurgling, sloshing sound, as though a spring were bubbling at the edge of the stones. He didn't stop steadily sipping in the cool water, but he looked around with his eyes alone, listening, thinking where the sound might be coming from. He looked at Udo, and realized he'd heard the sound before. It was the gurgling of water down a long strong horse throat. The Peach realized he hadn't recognized it right away because Udo's throat wasn't as long as a real horse's. He kept drinking and Udo kept drinking, even after they'd defeated their first thirst. They were hydrating now, filling their tissues.
Udo backed away from the pool. The Peach looked up.
“You need to keep drinking.”
“I gotta pee,” said Udo. “I don't wanna do it in the pool.”
“Can you hold it? Or do you need to flush out the dehydration salts first?”
“For somebody who's so delicate you can be so clinical.” Udo kept backing. “And yeah, I gotta.”
“Oh, now you're talking about it, I'm afraid you've got me feeling the urge, too.”
“Sorry, mein Herr.”
The Peach shook his head. “No, it's just was well we get this out of the way. And don't wrinkle your forehead like that. I'm not so delicate.”
“Nein, mein Herr,” said Udo. He was from Berlin, and as smart-alec as Berliners were, they liked their officers to reflect the old aristocratic class, with its fine manners and elevated sensibilities. To Udo the Peach was the real thing. That the man could be so practical and earthy sometimes unnerved him.
The two of them strolled back into the trees, as though they belonged there. Once hidden, they took their opportunity to lighten their bladders. The Peach remembered something about equine anatomy, and the Udo discovered it. A stallion had to drop his equipment out of his sheath to piss. The Peach found this a little ridiculous, but he was still a reasonable size. When Udo flopped out, the Peach glanced away. Udo saw him do it and took a look back between his own legs.
“Jesus!” he gasped. “It looks like a fire hose!” He was more than a bit horrified. It was one thing to think a guy had a nice big one; it was another thing to suddenly be a freak.
The Peach didn't say anything, and kept his eyes on the other side of the grove. He knew nice balls of any size,when he saw them, but Udo might have fainted if he'd seen him watching. They finished their business and strolled back to the pool, Udo trying to put things away – so to speak – with the least possible ceremony.
They were lucky; they succeeded in quietly soaking themselves like sponges without bloating their stomachs. They even looped their tie-ropes around the tree nearest the pool, so any wandering child would think they were tied up where they were supposed to be. They didn't count on fooling the women, but now it was too late for any of the tribe to stop the process. Their flesh was as sopping as the Nile delta during flood time.
They stayed where they were as the day crept towards its end, still sipping and looking around, but not obviously. The campfires, built with the hardest dry charcoal to keep down the smoke, still began to flirt thin lines of visible smoke up into the glowing light of the setting sun. The smell cooking drifted across the camp, the odors of roasting meat and the Arab flat-bread called khoubiz. The men strolled toward the tents, the children and herds came in to rest. Everyone went in to supper. The evening grew colder as it grew darker.
Soon, when enough time had passed, came the sound of a small flute and a couple of hand-drums, whistling and patting plaintive song-tunes. The few voices accompanying them – a few men, a few women, joining and fading -- were calm and satisfied. There was no celebration in particular tonight, just families relaxing at the end of the day. No one was more alert than they needed to be. It was the perfect time to escape.
By the pool where no one was watching them, the two horse-men quietly took their last sips of water, stood up, and strolled out of the camp and into the desert.
6. Under The Sun
They walked quietly out into the dark. They didn't try to find a direction. They didn't know where they had come from or where they were going. They would walk back into their reality or they wouldn't. They had made the effort they needed to, tearing loose the ropes, drinking the water, waiting until everyone else was involved with eating and getting ready for sleep. Now all they could do was walk forth into the desert and hope the right reality appeared.
The Peach led because he was used to leading, and Udo was happy to let him. The new giant held his officer's neck rope in his mouth, laid softly over the bit in his mouth, his eyes closed, trusting to his commander's leadership. The moon followed them both, as though she too were holding a golden threat in her teeth.
The Peach felt refreshed, as though he could walk all night. He knew there would be no walking in the daytime, not for men full-grown in a rain climate. Only children tough as the stones, women tougher than their tough men, horses raised on pounding miles and hard grass, with hooves so hard it would have taken an electric drill to shoe them, could walk without fear under the burning roof of their place on the planet. To them it was the light of their lives; for two European men it would be a death sentence. So the Peach walked and walked, with Udo behind him, under the light of the traveling moon.
They took no rest; they knew they would need rest enough when the sun came up. They walked as long as the moon walked. As the cold night began to turn pale, the breeze came on, making the night seem even colder. The moon faded in the sky until the sun's eyelid opened on the horizon. The two animals – who knew they were animals, they were so sore of palm and spine – found a drift in a dune they could circle around for the day, staying in the revolving shadow that was their only hope until they could travel again. The Peach slipped to the top of the dune to get his bearings first. Udo, making himself comfortable at the bottom of the dune, watched him.
“You see anything, mein Herr?”
“Give me a moment, Udo,” said the Peach. He was used to looking across desert distances, at least as used to it as a blue-eyed man could be. He couldn't focus long without burning out his retinas.
“Nothing,” answered the Peach.
“Nothing at all or nothing we can use?”
“Hm.” The Peach came back down the dune, gingerly, on sore hands. He curled up next to Udo and turned out his palms. “The hooves are good, but these are terrible.”
“They're stiff enough,” said Udo.
“But not tough enough.”
“I agree with ya there.” Udo settled himself so the Peach could curl up and use him as a pillow. “Still cold, mein Herr?”
“We'll get warm soon enough. Too warm.”
“We have the shade,” said the Peach, settling down.
“We'll have to keep awake long enough to move with the shade.”
“We'll take watches.”
“Me first,” said Udo.
“No, you rest.”
“I'm still pretty fresh,” said Udo. “Besides, we need your brains and brains take sleep.”
“No, I'm not letting you argue. You just get yourself some sleep. Awake people get to be the bosses now.”
The Peach knew how down-to-earth Udo was. The little man – big as he was now – wouldn't have been arguing with any officer, especially this one, if he didn't think it was necessary. The Peach sighed, laid his head on the horse-sized hip and let himself drift away. Udo would have patted him if he didn't think he would have broken something with his huge hand.
The sun was standing in the sky above them when the shadow had finally moved too far for Udo to put it off any longer. He patted his officer gently with the back of his hand.
“Mein Herr,” he almost whispered. “Come on. We have to move.”
The Peach came awake groggily, but moved without protest back into the shade with Udo. He sat up and took the watch as Udo prepared himself for his share of the day's slumber.
“Well, stay awake if you can, mein Herr,” said Udo. “It's pretty damn dull.” His head dropped and within minutes he was snoring.
The hours of the afternoon might have been as dull as Udo's morning must have been, but he didn't notice color the way the Peach did. The single hard color of the sky remained itself, the colors of the desert shifted subtly with the turn of the sun. The edges of the shadow, closely examined, almost flouresced with sugary orange and sapphire blue. Jewels seemed to be crumbled finely across the air. Everything shimmered, there were no lines, only particles of minute multi-colored diamonds.
The distance came slowly apart, the beauty seemed to crawl like a flow of sand-sized garnets and alexandrite and citrine. It flowed to the Peach's own small black hooves and seemed to break them into thousands of tiny black pearls, pressed together in form. His body was breaking up into pearls, white diamonds, amber and angel-skin coral. He held his hand up against the sun and looked right through it, as though into a jungle of tiny blossoms and parrot-feathers.
“Oh, my,” he murmured. “I'm coming right apart.”
It didn't disturb him. What disturbed him was seeing the flow of jewels creep across the Udo and begin to take him apart as well. The harness itself became rivers of minute rubies, the golden buckles and chains became tiny whirlpools of golden seed beads. Finally, everything became jewels, even the Peach's own eyelids. He lost his sight and his self in the same moment.
When Udo woke up and looked up at the Peach, he got a shock. The officer was the wrong size. He had human legs and was wearing the uniform and boots he'd worn when the sandstorm hit. Udo looked down and saw he had his own size, his own legs and his own uniform and boots. They were both covered with sand.
“You all right, mein Herr?” said Udo.
“I'm a little groggy,” said the Peach. “Thirsty.” He scrambled around in the sand and found his canteen. He shook it; hearing plenty of water, he held it out to his orderly.
Udo took it gladly and sucked down a good hard swallow. He returned the canteen with plenty of water in it, and the Peach took his own swallow. The officer dug into his pocket and found his compass. He adjusted it and smiled at Udo.
“I know where we are.”
“Great!” Udo got to his feet. “We can go on?”
“We can,” said the Peach. “Come on.”
They started walking, and within a half hour they could see in the distance the oasis and small town, named for a desert dessert, that they'd been trying to find before.