IT CAME OUT of a blue sky, sweeping down from the north.
The camels sensed it first. They began to fidget and growl long before the first clouds appeared on the northern horizon. Then Josseran saw a dirty yellow haze creep quickly up the sky. Dust devils leaped and danced all over the plain, vanguards of the terrible onslaught to come.
It was still afternoon when darkness fell on the desert. The sun disappeared behind the thunderheads, and lightning flickered in sheets along the borders of the desert.
A cold wind whipped sand into their faces, as if flung at them from a giant fist.
The camels shrieked and pulled on the ropes. One-Eye shouted for everyone to dismount.
“The karaburan,” Khutelun shouted. The black hurricane.
A dun-colored veil of dust rolled towards them across the desert, herded by the storm. It came on them quickly, like a wave rising from a calm sea. There was nowhere to shelter, nowhere to run.
There was a clap of thunder and the younger camels screamed and stamped their hooves. The older beasts knew what was happening and had already dropped to their knees and begun to bury their mouths and noses in the soft sand. One-Eye ran up and down the string, jerking on the nose cords of the younger animals to drag them to their knees, forcing their muzzles close to the ground.
“Help me!” he shouted to Josseran. “Otherwise they will suffocate!”
When the work was done, Josseran took the only shelter there was, crouched in the lee of his camel’s flank. The first sheets of rain swept towards them. A few minutes before they had been blistering in the sun. Now they shivered under a barrage of driving sleet.
He looked up, saw Khutelun, her face transformed by the storm-light. There was no mistaking the look on her face: the ice princess of the Tatars was afraid. Her companions, too, were gibbering like fools, shrieking and ducking with each peal of thunder.
“It is a sign from Tengri,” Khutelun shouted. “The Spirit of the Blue Sky is angry with us!”
It is only a storm, Josseran thought. Some rain and some thunder. How bad can it be?
Only a storm.
A storm, yes, but unlike any storm he had ever known. The wind howled like a banshee. Away to their left a massive dune had started to avalanche, the sands drumming down from the crest like the breaking of a golden wave.
And then the driving sleet turned to hail.
Khutelun huddled against the flanks of her camel. She was no more than a dozen paces away from him but was now almost invisible through the sheets of icy rain and wind-blown sand. Josseran stumbled over and threw himself down beside her.
“Pull your hood over your mouth and nose!” she shouted at him. “Or you will die!”
He did as she told him to do. She was right. There was sand in his eyes, his mouth, even his nose. Already it was almost impossible to breathe.
There was a terrible groaning, as if the ground itself was creaking open. Josseran pulled the hood of his robe further over his face, choking on grit.
He put an arm around her shoulders, felt her inch closer to him.
If it should end now, he thought, in this storm, if our bodies are buried here in the sand and never found, perhaps it would be a fitting end for us. We will become dust devils, and dance forever on the Taklimakan. It is the only way we could ever be together.
They lay there for what seemed like an eternity, clinging to each other, surrounded by roaring, choking darkness. The ice-wind whipped and tore at their clothes, sand and stones thrown into the air around them clashed in a maelstrom of noise, as if the Devil himself were cursing and shrieking at finding them in an embrace.
Josseran shuddered with cold, but with the warmth of her body pressed against his, he was not in the least afraid.
It went on for hours and departed as abruptly as it had come. The noise stopped. The sun broke through a leaden sky, like a second dawn; Josseran felt its heat again on his back. He stirred, cautiously, slowly raising his head from the sand. Khutelun’s camel, which had been their shelter through the storm, staggered to her feet, coughing and braying.
The orange dust-tail of the storm hastened down the sky.
Their robes were soaked with ice and rain, and they steamed in the heat of the sun. Khutelun tore the scarf from her face and lay gasping and coughing on her back. Finally, the spasm passed and she sat up.
They looked at each other. Neither of them spoke.
The dunes around them were covered with tiny, misshapen hummocks. One by one these hummocks rose and were transformed into the shapes of men and camels who had been half buried by the storm. The Tatars stumbled around like drunks tumbling from an inn, laughing and patting each other on the shoulders, congratulating each other on their survival.
Then Josseran heard William’s groans. A hillock of sand, no more than ten paces away from him, crumbled and moved, and William sat up, sand clinging to his cheeks and lips and eyelids, like some long-buried turtle.
He was trying to breathe.
Josseran cradled William’s head in his hands and held his leather water bottle to his lips. The friar coughed violently, vomiting most of the water back into the sand, and then lay on his side, gasping like a stranded fish. Josseran pulled him clear of his sandy tomb. Wind-blown gravel had shredded his cloak.
“It is over,” Josseran told him. “The tempest has passed.”
He felt Khutelun watching him. He saw the look in her eyes.
He was wrong. It was not over. It had only just begun.
SILK ROAD is part of my EPIC ADVENTURE series
and is available on Amazon