Few people dared to venture out into the demon-haunted mirages of the hot midday sun, but the woman's short linen-clad figure walked steadily on with the assurance of one who knows the desert as well as they know themselves.
Her mind, attuned and alert to the shapes and sounds of the landscape, recognised the innocuous-looking form when it was still some way off and distorted by the shimmering heat. The woman did not stop to have a better look but continued steadily walking, narrowing her eyes in an effort to see better.
She had known immediately that the form was human, but it was that gleaming golden streak, with its curious rippling motion that had drawn her eye. As the distance between the bundle and the walking woman decreased, she saw with a murmur of surprise what it was. Hair, of a kind she had never seen before. The hot wind was playing with the light golden strands, ruffling them gently, and they obligingly followed its touch, billowing around the face of the figure lying motionless in the midst of stones and sand. The woman's steps slowed and she frowned as if trying to recall something, but she did not stop until she was close enough for one long feather-like strand to brush against her ankle. She looked down and saw that it was a woman, so young and vulnerable that she seemed to be more a girl than a woman.
Bending down, she drew back the gleaming golden hair from the girl's face with her journey-hardened hands. Yes. The girl was still alive. She felt the unconscious girl's back for a while, with her own eyes closed, humming to herself. Then she fell silent, her hands still touching the girl's strange garment, as if listening intently.
Taking a leather flagon from the bundle she carried on her back, she sat down next to the girl with the ease of someone who was used to sitting on the ground. Nimbly she poured a few, just a very few, drops of water between the girl's parched lips. The girl mumbled something in an odd language. Good, she was still within reach of help and had not been drawn down towards the ways of the dead.
The woman now opened out the bundle she carried. A few short wooden sticks fell onto the ground. They were not firewood, though. With these and a much worn and mended woven cloth, she built a small tent over the girl. The tent was just big enough to cover one person and from a distance its low construction was indistinguishable from the desert floor. Its only function was to give shelter from the scorching sun.
Then the woman crawled into the tent herself, managing somehow to fit herself next to the girl. She began to pour water into the girl's cracked and blistered mouth, a single drop at a time. For a while nothing happened, then the woman saw her tongue move feebly in response to the liquid. Finally the girl was able to swallow and slowly became aware of her surroundings again. Too tired for any sudden movements she turned her head and looked into the sun-baked face of the older woman. Her eyes turned to the flagon and the woman saw that she understood. She whispered something.
The older woman did not understand the words, but from the tone of the girl's voice it was clear she was trying to thank her. The woman nodded in recognition. She pointed at her chest and said:
Then she pointed at the girl and raised her eyebrows, nodding to encourage her to respond. The girl understood.
"Merit," she whispered.
"Mut-Bity", the woman pointed at her chest. "Merit," she pointed at the girl.
The girl was so exhausted that she could only manage a tiny smile in answer before her eyes closed and she drifted back into unconsciousness. The woman gently straightened her hair, and remained sitting next to her, relieved that she had arrived in time. Only her eyes revealed her inner excitement.
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