CHAPTER NINE: ACROSS THE DESERT
“Hove dreadful! How perfectly dreadful!” whimpered Lasaraleen. “Oh darling, I am so frightened. I’m shaking all over. Feel me.”
“Come on,” said Aravis, who was trembling herself. “They’ve gone back to the new palace. Once we’re out of this room we’re safe enough. But it’s wasted a terrible time. Get me down to that water-gate as quick as you can.”
“Darling, how can you?” squeaked Lasaraleen. “I can’t do anything – not now. My poor nerves! No: we must just lie still a bit and then go back.”
“Why back?” asked Aravis.
“Oh, you don’t understand. You’re so unsympathetic,” said Lasaraleen, beginning to cry. Aravis decided it was no occasion for mercy.
“Look here!” she said, catching Lasaraleen and giving her a good shake. “If you say another word about going back, and if you don’t start taking me to that water-gate at once – do you know what I’ll do? I’ll rush out into that passage and scream. Then we’ll both be caught.”
“But we shall both be k-k-killed!” said Lasaraleen. “Didn’t you hear what the Tisroc (may he live for ever) said?”
“Yes, and I’d sooner be killed than married to Ahoshta. So come on.”
“Oh you are unkind,” said Lasaraleen. “And I in such a state!”
But in the end she had to give in to Aravis. She led the way down the steps they had already descended, and along another corridor and so finally out into the open air. They were now in the palace garden which sloped down in terraces to the city wall. The moon shone brightly. One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them; so that Aravis (though she remembered them years later) had only a vague impression of grey lawns, quietly bubbling fountains, and the long black shadows of cypress trees.
When they re”ached the very bottom and the wall rose frowning above them, Lasaraleen was shaking so that she could not unbolt the gate. Aravis did it. There, at last, was the river, full of reflected moonlight, and a little landing stage and a few pleasure boats.
“Good-bye,” said Aravis, “and thank you. I’m sorry if I’ve been a pig. But think what I’m flying from!”
“Oh Aravis darling,” said Lasaraleen. “Won’t you change your mind? Now that you’ve seen what a very great man Ahoshta is!”
“Great man!” said Aravis. “A hideous grovelling slave who flatters when he’s kicked but treasures it all up and hopes to get his own back by egging on that horrible Tisroc to plot his son’s death. Faugh! I’d sooner marry my father’s scullion than a creature like that.”
“Oh Aravis, Aravis! How can you say such dreadful things; and about the Tisroc (may he live for ever) too. It must be right if he’s going to do it!”
“Good-bye,” said Aravis, “and I thought your dresses lovely. And I think your house is lovely too. I’m sure you’ll have a lovely life – though it wouldn’t suit me. Close the door softly behind me.”
She tore herself away from her friend’s affectionate embraces, stepped into a punt, cast off, and a moment later was out in midstream with a huge real moon overhead and a huge reflected moon down, deep down, in the river. The air was fresh and cool and as she drew near the farther bank she heard the hooting of an owl. “Ah! That’s better!” thought Aravis. She had always lived in the country and had hated every minute of her time in Tashbaan.
When she stepped ashore she found herself in darkness for the rise of the ground, and the trees, cut off the moonlight. But she managed to find the same road that Shasta had found, and came just as he had done to the end of. the grass and the beginning of the sand, and looked (like him) to her left and saw the big, black Tombs. And now at last, brave girl though she was, her heart quailed. Supposing the others weren’t there! Supposing the ghouls were! But she stuck out her chin (and a little bit of her tongue too) and went straight towards them.
But before she had reached them she saw Bree and Hwin and the groom.
“You can go back to your mistress now,” said Aravis (quite forgetting that he couldn’t, until the city gates opened next morning). “Here is money for your pains.”
“To hear is to obey,” said the groom, and at once set off at a remarkable speed in the direction of the city. There was no need to tell him to make haste: he also had been thinking a good deal about ghouls.
For the next few seconds Aravis was busy kissing the noses and patting the necks of Hwin and Bree just as if they were quite ordinary horses.
“And here comes Shasta! Thanks be to the Lion!” said Bree.
Aravis looked round, and there, right enough, was Shasta who had come out of hiding the moment he saw the groom going away.
“And now,” said Aravis. “There’s not a moment to lose.” And in hasty words she told them about Rabadash’s expedition.
“Treacherous hounds!” said Bree, shaking his mane and stamping with his hoof. “An attack in time of peace, without defiance sent! But we’ll grease his oats for him. We’ll be there before he is.”
“Can we?” said Aravis, swinging herself into Hwin’s saddle. Shasta wished he could mount like that.
“Brooh-hoo!” snorted Bree. “Up you get, Shasta. Can we! And with a good start too!”
“He said he was going to start at once,” said Aravis.
“That’s how humans talk,” said Bree. “But you don’t get a company of two hundred horse and horsemen watered and victualled and armed and saddled and started all in a minute. Now: what’s our direction? Due North?
“No,” said Shasta. “I know about that. I’ve drawn a line. I’ll explain later. Bear a bit to our left, both you horses. Ah here it is!”
“Now,” said Bree. “All that about galloping for a day and a night, like in stories, can’t really be done. It must be walk and trot: but brisk trots and short walks. And whenever we walk you two humans can slip off and walk too. Now. Are you ready, Hwin? Off we go. Narnia and the North!”
At first it was delightful. The night had now been going on for so many hours that the sand had almost finished giving back all the sun-heat it had received during the day, and the air was cool, fresh, and clear. Under the moonlight the sand, in every direction and as far as they could see, gleamed as if it were smooth water or a great silver tray. Except for the noise of Bree’s and Hwin’s hoofs there was not a sound to be heard. Shasta would nearly have fallen asleep if he had not had to dismount and walk every now and then.
This seemed to last for hours. Then there came a time when there was no longer any moon. They seemed to ride in the dead darkness for hours and hours. And after that there came a moment when Shasta noticed that he could see Bree’s neck and head in front of him a little more clearly than before; and slowly, very slowly, he began to notice the vast grey flatness on every side. It looked absolutely dead, like something in a dead world; and Shasta felt quite terribly tired and noticed that he was getting cold and that his lips were dry. And all the time the squeak of the leather, the jingle of the bits, and the noise of the hoofs-not Propputtypropputty as it would be on a hard road, but Thubbudythubbudy on the dry sand.
At last, after hours of riding, far away on his right there came a single long streak of paler grey, low down on the horizon. Then a streak of red. It was the morning at last, but without a single bird to sing about it. He was glad of the walking bits now, for he was colder than ever.
Then suddenly the sun rose and everything changed in a moment. The grey sand turned yellow and twinkled as if it was strewn with diamonds. On their left the shadows of Shasta and Hwin and Bree and Aravis, enormously long, raced beside them. The double peak of Mount Pire, far ahead, flashed in the sunlight and Shasta saw they were a little out of the course. “A bit left, a bit left,” he sang out. Best of all, when you looked back, Tashbaan was already small and remote. The Tombs were quite invisible: swallowed up in that single, jagged-edged hump which was the city of the Tisroc. Everyone felt better.
But not for long. Though Tashbaan looked very far away when they first saw it, it refused to look any further away as they went on. Shasta gave up looking back at it, for it only gave him the feeling that they were not moving at all. Then the light became a nuisance. The glare of the sand made his eyes ache: but he knew he mustn’t shut them. He must screw them up and keep on looking ahead at Mount Pire and shouting out directions. Then came the heat. He noticed it for the first time when he had to dismount and walk: as he slipped down to the sand the heat from it struck up into his face as if from the opening of an oven door. Next time it was worse. But the third time, as his bare feet touched the sand he screamed with pain and got one foot back in the stirrup and the other half over Bree’s back before you could have said knife.
“Sorry, Bree,” he gasped. “I can’t walk. It burns my feet.” “Of course!” panted Bree. “Should have thought of that myself. Stay on. Can’t be helped.”
“It’s all right for you,” said Shasta to Aravis who was walking beside Hwin. “You’ve got shoes on.”
Aravis said nothing and looked prim. Let’s hope she didn’t mean to, but she did.
On again, trot and walk and trot, jingle-jingle-jingle, squeak-squeak-squeak, smell of hot horse, smell of hot self, blinding glare, headache. And nothing at all different for mile after mile. Tashbaan would never look any further away. The mountains would never look any nearer. You felt this had been going on for always – jingle-jingle-jingle, squeaksqueak-squeak, smell of hot horse, smell of hot self.
Of course one tried all sorts of games with oneself to try to make the time pass: and of course they were all no good. And one tried very hard not to think of drinks-iced sherbet in a palace in Tashbaan, clear spring water tinkling with a dark earthy sound, cold, smooth milk just creamy enough and not too creamy – and the harder you tried not to think, the more you thought.
At last there was something different – a mass of rock sticking up out of the sand about fifty yards long and thirty feet high. It did not cast much shadow, for the sun was now very high, but it cast a little. Into that shade they crowded. There they ate some food and drank a little water. It is not easy giving a horse a drink out of a skin bottle, but Bree and Hwin were clever with their lips. No one had anything like enough. No one spoke. The Horses were flecked with foam and their breathing was noisy. The children were pale.
After a very short rest they went on again. Same noises, same smells, same glare, till at last their shadows began to fall on their right, and then got longer and longer till they seemed to stretch out to the Eastern end of the world. Very slowly the sun drew nearer to the Western horizon. And now at last he was down and, thank goodness, the merciless glare was gone, though the heat coming up from the sand was still as bad as ever. Four pairs of eyes were looking out eagerly for any sign of the valley that Sallowpad the Raven had spoken about. But, mile after mile, there was nothing but level sand. And now the day was quite definitely done, and most of the stars were out, and still the Horses thundered on and the children rose and sank in their saddles, miserable with thirst and weariness. Not till the moon had risen did Shasta – in the strange, barking voice of someone whose mouth is perfectly dry-shout out:
“There it is!”
There was no mistaking it now. Ahead, and a little to their right, there was at last a slope: a slope downward and hummocks of rock on each side. The Horses were far too tired to speak but they swung round towards it and in a minute or two they were entering the gully. At first it was worse in there than it had been out in the open desert, for there was a breathless stuffiness between the rocky walls and less moonlight. The slope continued steeply downwards and the rocks on either hand rose to the height of cliffs. Then they began to meet vegetation – prickly cactus-like plants and coarse grass of the kind that would prick your fingers. Soon the horse-hoofs were falling on pebbles and stones instead of sand. Round every bend of the valley – and it had many bends – they looked eagerly for water. The Horses were nearly at the end of their strength now, and Hwin, stumbling and panting; was lagging behind Bree. They were almost in despair before at last they came to a little muddiness and a tiny trickle of water through softer and better grass. And the trickle became a brook, and the brook became a stream with bushes on each side, and the stream became a river and there came (after more disappointments than I could possibly describe) -a moment when Shasta, who had been in a kind of doze, suddenly realized that Bree had stopped and found himself slipping off. Before them a little cataract of water poured into a broad pool: and both the Horses were already in the pool with their heads down, drinking, drinking, drinking. “O-o-oh,” said Shasta and plunged in – it was about up to his knees – and stooped his head right into the cataract. It was perhaps the loveliest moment in his life.
It was about ten minutes later when all four of them (the two children wet nearly all over) came out and began to notice their surroundings. The moon was now high enough to peep down into the valley. There was soft grass on both sides of the river, and beyond the grass, trees and bushes sloped up to the bases of the cliffs. There must have been some wonderful flowering shrubs hidden in that shadowy undergrowth for the whole glade was full of the coolest and most delicious smells. And out of the darkest recess among the trees there came a sound Shasta had never heard beforea nightingale.
Everyone was much too tired to speak or to eat. The Horses, without waiting to be unsaddled, lay down at once. So did Aravis and Shasta.
About ten minutes later the careful Hwin said, “But we mustn’t go to sleep. We’ve got to keep ahead of that Rabadash.”
“No,” said Bree very slowly. “Mustn’t go sleep. Just a little rest.”
Shasta knew (for a moment) that they would all go to sleep if he didn’t get up and do something about it, and felt that he ought to. In fact he decided that he would get up and persuade them to go on. But presently; not yet: not just yet…
Very soon the moon shone and the nightingale sang over two horses and two human children, all fast asleep.
It was Aravis who awoke first. The sun was already high in the heavens and the cool morning hours were already wasted. “It’s my fault,” she said to herself furiously as she jumped up and began rousing the others. “One wouldn’t expect Horses to keep awake after a day’s work like that, even if they can talk. And of course that Boy wouldn’t; he’s had no decent training. But I ought to have known better.”
The others were dazed and stupid with the heaviness of their sleep.
“Neigh-ho – broo-hoo,” said Bree. “Been sleeping in my saddle, eh? I’ll never do that again. Most uncomfortable-“
“Oh come on, come on,” said Aravis. “We’ve lost half the morning already. There isn’t a moment to spare.”
“A fellow’s got to have a mouthful of grass,” said Bree.
I’m afraid we can’t wait,” said Aravis.
“What’s the terrible hurry?” said Bree. “We’ve crossed the desert, haven’t we?”
“But we’re not in Archenland yet,” said Aravis. “And we’ve got to get there before Rabadash.”
“Oh, we must be miles ahead of him,” said Bree. “Haven’t we been coming a shorter way? Didn’t that Raven friend of yours say this was a short cut, Shasta?”
“He didn’t say anything about shorter,” answered Shasta. “He only said better, because you got to a river this way. If the oasis is due North of Tashbaan, then I’m afraid this may be longer.”
“Well I can’t go on without a snack,” said Bree. “Take my bridle off, Shasta.”
“P-please,” said Hwin, very shyly, “I feel just like Bree that I can’t go on. But when Horses have humans (with spurs and things) on their backs, aren’t they often made to go on when they’re feeling like this? and then they find they can. I m-mean – oughtn’t we to be able to do even more, now that we’re free. It’s all for Narnia.”
“I think, Ma’am,” said Bree very crushingly, “that I know a little more about campaigns and forced marches and what a horse can stand than you do.”
To this Hwin made no answer, being, like most highly bred mares, a very nervous and gentle person who was easily put down. In reality she was quite right, and if Bree had had a Tarkaan on his back at that moment to make him go on, he would have found that he was good for several hours’ hard going. But one of the worst results of being a slave and being forced to do things is that when there is no one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself.
So they had to wait while Bree had a snack and a drink, and of course Hwin and the children had a snack and a drink too. It must have been nearly eleven o’clock in the morning before they finally got going again. And even then Bree took things much more gently than yesterday. It was really Hwin, though she was the weaker and more tired of the two, who set the pace.
The valley itself, with its brown, cool river, and grass and moss and wild flowers and rhododendrons, was such a pleasant place that it made you want to ride slowly.