Through the Desert (WIP, on hiatus)

Note: This has been on my mind for a while, ever since watching a documentary about a German scientist crossing the Sahara sometime in the 19th century. For some reason that got my AU-loving mind going. I've always wanted to create a world of my own - I hope that this might be it. I've already written a drabble set in this world, but this is the bigger story.
Beta: Many thanks to alannarama and sophrosyne31, for making it all better and believing in this.

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 1 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7


Prologue

Dominic had never realized how lucky he was to be born in Greenvalley until the raiders came and took him away.

Sheltered by snowy mountains too high to be crossed by any but the most foolhardy or greedy, Dominic's clan lived charmed lives, cut off from the rest of the world. Life was not easy. The winters were cold and long, and gaining a living from the ground was backbreaking work without the help of any technology. Yet, as Dom learned later, to the rest of the planet Greenvalley was a myth, a utopia about a land where water cascaded down the mountainside, feeding the land and letting trees grow as high as three men, with fruit that fell right into your open mouth.

Yes, there was water in abundance - but most of it was snow and ice. Food was scarce and hard to come by. Unfortunately, there were people desperate enough to believe even the most unrealistic fairy tale, and a band of them had scaled the protective barrier and, in a fury of disappointment at the sight of the poor village huddling in the shadow of the mountains, had fallen over Dominic's clan.

It was the day Dom's life should have ended. He saw it in the eyes of the men attacking them, heard it in the cries of his family and friends. But then his older brother pushed him out of the way, yelling at him to hide behind the woodpile and "Stay quiet, for once in your life, Dominic!"

When he crawled out hours later, the raiders had come down from their blood rush and were sitting around a huge fire, eating and drinking what had been a winter's store for the clan. Dominic tried to sneak around what had once been his home and into one of the now empty houses, knowing that he'd be dead if night arrived and found him outside. But he had never had occasion to practise sneaking and was caught by a man staggering back from where he had relieved himself against the smoking remains of the small village temple.

He had been dragged into the circle of light, barely fighting because he simply could not find the strength anymore. The day had left him feeling completely drained, exhausted and weak as a kitten, something that he later figured saved his life, because they would without a doubt have killed him, as they had killed everyone he knew and loved, had he put up a fight. Instead they looked at him as a welcome addition to their meager loot.

What happened after that Dominic tried his hardest to forget. He buried the memories of those days and nights even deeper than those of his family and of the life he had lost, half-aware that he would never survive if he let them overwhelm him. Maybe there would be a time later when he could remember his mother's embraces, his father's voice, his brother's rough tenderness with love and proper grief, but what the raiders did to him was not something Dominic would ever care to remember.

He was lucky, he guessed, that the raider chief wanted to get back to trade the precious water they had found. Once they were on the march again, most men were too tired to do much except fall asleep right where they stopped walking. Dominic himself lived through the days and nights of crossing the mountains around Greenvalley half-awake. He was better suited for the cold, but he was also in a much worse shape, both in body and soul, so the journey left him too tired to think much of anything. He didn't even really notice the air getting warmer or the vegetation changing until he fell down and swallowed a mouthful of sand. When he dragged himself up and looked around, he saw the desert for the first time.

***

Chapter 1

He was standing at the edge of the desert, on a hill at the outer limit of the mountain range that had sheltered his home. It stretched as far as he could see: miles and miles of nothing but sand, pale brown and dry. He could see some stones and an occasional a sickly-looking scrub but nothing else. The emptiness of it made his eyes hurt and he looked back at where they had come from.

He could see the changing landscape from where he was standing, something he had not been aware of as he had stumbled through it, from white to brown with green spots to... dead. There had not been many trees in Greenvalley but Dominic realized that there were basically none bigger than tall scrubs on the other side of the mountains. There was not much vegetation at all, probably because the ground was eroding too fast for anything to put down roots.

It was also quite hot, as his body was slowly starting to tell him, and Dominic started to shed his furs. When he gathered them up, the thin and mousy-looking man who had apparently been assigned guard duty because he was not much good for anything else, and who had been surprisingly patient while Dominic was gaping about him, knocked them out of his hands, grunting something. Dominic had difficulties understanding what he said, because the raiders spoke a dialect unfamiliar to him, but there were enough similarities for him to make out that he wouldn't be needing them anymore.

"Are you going to kill me?" The fear that shot through him at the thought surprised Dominic. He had supposed himself over such emotions, too dead already. But his guard - whose name Dominic had understood to be 'Grock' or something strange like that - just shook his head, almost in disgust and mumbled something about "no cold, just sand, too much fucking sand". He had obviously lost his patience and shoved Dominic hard to get him moving again.

And so they went on, right into the desert.

***

The raiders travelled fast, and although to Dominic everything around him looked the same they seemed to know exactly where they were going. Apparently there was a gathering of everyone who had something to trade somewhere ahead of them, and the raiders were anxious to barter their precious water - and their slave.

Dominic realized that he was merchandise - not half as valuable as the water that was carefully carried and watched over, but still valuable, if for nothing but novelty's sake. He found himself grateful for this, because it meant that they were more careful with him. The fog he had been in had at least partially lifted, and oblivion was harder to come by.

As the group marched through miles and miles of nothing but sand, rock and the occasional scrub, travelling mostly at night and resting beneath makeshift tents during the hottest hours of the day, Dominic slowly began to understand why anyone would undertake such a dangerous journey just for water. His body was protesting against the heat, his skin burned and peeled painfully, and he never felt as if he got enough to drink. And although his captors were better adapted to it, Dominic quickly realized that in an environment such as this water, so essential for every living thing, was hard to come by.

When he lay in a corner as everyone slept at noon, trying to find relief in the shadow the tent gave, Dominic's mind filled with despair. How was he supposed to get out of this? Once they had reached the gathering, he'd be sold to the highest bidder, and no one could say what his lot would be. From some pointed glances he had gathered that there was even the chance that he'd be castrated - robbed of his manhood like an ox, as if he wasn't even human. He didn't think he could survive this. The past weeks had almost broken him, he felt it deep in his bones. If he wanted to stay alive, stay himself, whatever that might still mean, he would have to find a way to get out of here.

Only, how was he supposed to do that, without water or even the most basic knowledge of the desert? He tried to watch his captors and learn as much as possible about where they were - but other than the direction of the gathering, the one place where he definitely didn't want to go, he didn't learn anything.

Then a change came over the raiders. They grew nervous, glancing around them constantly as if they expected something to jump at them out of the emptiness. They hardly stopped anymore, except for a couple of hours to sleep and get through the noon heat, and everyone kept their weapons at the ready wherever they were. The nervousness was contagious, and although Dominic didn't know what was wrong, he slept even more lightly than before, his body tense as if ready for flight.

The decision to make a run for it came almost unexpectedly. Dominic found himself in a tent with the water barrels and Grock, as usual assigned for guard duty, had fallen asleep, as had the chief of the raiders, who never let the barrels out of his sight for long. It was not even a conscious choice - something inside of him woke up and he was moving before he realized it.

Quietly he crept to the water barrels and filled the bottle Grock usually refilled once a day. He wished he had more bottles, or enough strength to carry a whole barrel - but this was his only chance. Afraid as they were of whatever was out there in the desert, the raiders might decide to simply let him go, especially if he didn't steal their water. So, holding his breath, Dominic grabbed what was left of his daily ration of dry bread and left the rest of the water behind.

He started to run as soon as he was away from the huddle of tents, very much aware of the lack of shelter. If one of the raiders went out to relieve himself at this moment, he'd be caught and probably tortured, maybe killed. The thought that things couldn't possibly get any worse kept Dominic going, although he felt the strength of the sun after only a few minutes, beating through the cloth he wore wrapped around his head.

He ran on until he couldn't see the tents anymore, then he collapsed against a stone. He was exhausted, he was thirsty and he had no idea where to go - but he was free.

***

Chapter 2

When he came to, night had fallen, in the abrupt way Dominic had come to see as another feature typical for the desert. The sand and the stone against his back still retained some of the day's heat, and for the first time in weeks he felt almost relaxed. He had gotten away, and no matter what happened now, it could only be an improvement on slavery. Even if he died, at least he would die a free man and rejoin his family in the Land Beyond. But Dominic did not feel like dying just yet.

For some time he just lay there, taking deep breaths, until he felt the warmth around him evaporate and night's chill set in. He sat up and sipped his water, pondering his next step. He had his blanket to protect him from the cold, but he didn't really feel like staying where he was. Only - in which direction should he go? He looked around him and didn't see anything, no sign of human habitation, only the same emptiness he had walked through for the last weeks.

Just as he was about to lose hope and set out in the direction of the gathering, he noticed some strange markings on the rock he'd been leaning against. It looked a bit like the holy symbols Viggo, the priest in his village, had used to tell the future, and although Dominic couldn't make out their meaning his heart jumped - these markings were definitely man-made! That alone would not have been enough to give him hope, but combined with the fear his captors had exhibited, Dominic felt quite certain that there had to be people around. There was no guarantee that they'd treat him better than the raiders, but something in the familiar-looking signs gave him hope. No people that knew how to use the holy symbols and therefore knew of the Mother could be wholly evil.

Sweeping the horizon for signs of life with fresh eyes, Dominic noticed for the first time the beauty of the night sky above him. It was a very different view from the one at his village, which had been constrained by the mountain ranges all around. This sky was vast, stretching above him like a giant tent, covering miles and miles of desert, the stars so bright that the night could never be truly dark. The moon was shining as well, a slim sliver of silver against the dark blue - and right beneath it, on the dark line of the horizon, Dominic made out a twinkling light.

It reminded him of how the fires of his village had looked when he had climbed Borodran, Father Mountain, for his rite of passage and looked down from so high up he had been unable to see the houses. This had to be a sign - after all, the Moon herself, the Mother's eldest daughter, had guided his eyes. Dominic had not been one of the lads that spent their days following Viggo around, but he had naturally attended the seasons' celebrations and holy days with the rest of the village - and now he felt for the first time the certainty of purpose he had sometimes envied others.

Without further hesitation he set out into the night, heading straight towards the small light dancing on the horizon.

***

He walked as long as he could, suppressing panic whenever a sandy hill obstructed his view of the light. He hardly saw the magnificence of the sky anymore, he focused solely on reaching the point where it met the horizon. But after walking for several hours with his feet aching and his body tired from lack of sleep and nourishment, his goal did not appear to have come any closer. Then the sun rose and his beacon disappeared – and Dominic felt his knees buckle as the realization hit that he would have to spend at least another day alone in the desert.

Sliding to the ground he lay motionless for a while, his thoughts as far away from his present situation and the past few weeks as he could manage, until the growing strength of the rising sun reminded him that he could not stay where he was, no matter how much he craved rest. Sighing he sat up and took a small bite from his bread, trying not to see how little he had left, and an even smaller sip of water. He carefully straightened the bandages he'd been using as shoes since his fur-boots had become unbearably hot and readjusted the makeshift wrap around his head. Then he pulled himself back on his feet.

Trying not to lose his sense of direction he walked on to where he thought the light had been. Soon the sun was shining down on him with full strength, and Dominic wrapped his blanket around himself as he stumbled on, protecting his skin as well as he could. He had already came to the painful realization that he burned easily, but this worry lost some of its urgency as his thirst grew and grew, until it became unbearable. The temptation to empty his water bottle was almost too much, but thinking of the twinkling light Dominic managed to only wet his lips.

Looking around him, half-blind from the glare of the sun, despite the wrap around his head, Dominic saw another rock that offered at least a minimum of shade. Fitting himself as close against it as he possibly could he closed his eyes for a bit. He would have to try and get some rest as long as the sun stood high. Hopefully the light would reappear once it was dark and he would reach safety – or at least a place where there were humans and water – before the next morning.

He did not sleep much, hunger and thirst gnawing at him, and when he did sleep it was interrupted by nightmares of his family, his village, his life disappearing in a rage of fire and blood. But when he got up at dusk, stretching his sore limbs, trying to shake off the sand that seemed to be everywhere, he found the light again. It appeared to be at another point of the horizon, but he had probably just lost his way a bit during the day and set out feeling refreshed by new hope.

That day was even worse than the one before, because when he paused at noon, Dominic had eaten the last of his bread and knew that he didn't have enough water to last him through another day. His head was swimming and his whole body ached, burnt and parched by the sun. His rest was again disrupted by dreams that got more and more feverish as his thirst grew, but when the sun went down Dominic pulled himself to his feet and stumbled on.

After the next day he couldn't see his beacon anymore, although he had sacrificed the last few drops of water to clean his eyes of sand. He suspected that he had lost his way, but carried on regardless, ignoring the strange tricks his mind played him as the sun rose once more. He had gotten this far – he could not give in now. Not as long as he had a choice.

Dominic was the last one alive from his clan, maybe even the only survivor of all of Greenvalley. That was his burden, but it was also his gift, and one that he would not surrender voluntarily. So he went on, dragging his body onwards and onwards, until he collapsed and everything went dark.

***

Chapter 3

Dominic's story would have been over at this point had he not lost his way completely and ended up far from where he had first seen the light of the watch fires on the horizon. William's clan moved around a lot, following their cattle and the sparse water sources, and it was either pure chance or a sign from the Mother that had put Dominic directly into its path.

Unconscious, half-dead from too much sun and not enough water and food, Dominic missed being found by the young cow herders, who shouted excitedly and sent one of their group to fetch the healer's assistant. The healer himself was gone from the camp on one of his dream journeys, trying to find new water sources. That was why William was the one to lift Dominic's head, taking in the unfamiliar marks of black around his eyes and the state he was in.

It was obvious that the young man did not belong to any clan in the area – he was not even a real slave, since he was not wearing slave bands. Maybe he was a fugitive from a cruel master, but no slave in their right mind tried to escape, because everything was better than being alone in the desert. William knew that he should kill him, because the clan did not have the resources to fill another thirsty belly. He could feel the boys around him, watching him expectantly, waiting for the knife stroke that was certain to come.

But there was something in the features of the sunburned face, the vulnerable lines of his body that touched William, spoke to him on a level he had only felt when he was in a healing trance communicating with the Mother. He pulled further back into the shadow of his dark blue veil and tried to collect his thoughts. Was it only pity for a young life, still strong after all it had gone through, that stayed his hand, or could he really see the smile of the Mother in the face of slave? He had to be certain, because he would have to explain his actions both to his master, the healer, and to his father, the clan chief, who had been doubting his calling ever since William had rejected his place as his father's heir. Yet there was no uncertainty in his heart, only the knowledge that to kill this slave would be the wrong thing to do.

Raising from where he had knelt next to the stranger in the hot sand he motioned two of the cow herders to lift the unconscious body and follow him back to the camp, ignoring the mutters of surprise. He might not be the future clan chief anymore, but William was still the healer's only apprentice and the leader of his age group and did not have to justify himself to boys too young for the veil.

***

Dominic woke with a dry cough when strong hands lifted his head and pressed a wet cloth to his face, precious water drops running over his cheeks like the gift of life itself. Already afraid of waste Dominic opened his lips, his burned skin cracking and sending shots of pain through his body. But he did not care, all he cared about was to swallow as much water as he could, desperate not to lose a single drop.

In the background he was aware of a voice making soothing noises, but it didn't really register in his water-starved mind until the cloth was taken from his face and his head laid back onto cool linen. He tried to open his eyes but couldn't, pain tearing at his eyelids, and heard himself whimper, a desperate, scared noise.

"Shh… shh…"

The voice was close now, and Dominic could actually feel the presence of someone else at his side. Instinctively he curled up around himself, away from that strange body. The last few weeks had taught him how vulnerable he was, and although the stranger had given him water and cared for him, he did not want to trust too soon. He tried to speak, but could only groan. Again the voice calmed him, foreign sounds that still sounded strangely familiar at times, as if Dominic only had to concentrate in order to understand.

Forcing his heart to stop beating so loudly, he strained his hearing as much as he could. It was a man's voice, he realized, speaking softly, tongue curling around unfamiliar vowels. At first meaning eluded him, but as he grew calmer he started to make out some of the things the man said in his constant monologue, as if he knew that it soothed Dominic.

"You are badly burned and dehydrated, stranger. Do not worry, you will heal completely if you keep out of the sun for a while. You are young and strong, I can see it in you. No harm will come to you here."

The words relaxed Dominic. Whoever this was, he was obviously not out to harm him – at least for the time being Dominic was safe. Coughing he tried to raise his head, and right away the hands and the wet cloth were back, supporting him and giving him relief. Impulsively Dominic reached up and touched his savior's hand in thanks, forcing his face into the semblance of a smile. He thought he could hear an answering smile in the man's voice.

"You are welcome, stranger. I'm glad that you seem to be more aware, you were talking to ghosts for a while and I was afraid they might not let you go again. Whatever has happened to you lately, it has not been good."

Dominic almost wished to not be able to understand the words, because the sympathy and pity in them were too much. He groaned again, turning his face away, a gesture the other man apparently misunderstood as an expression of physical pain. A hand settled on his back, hesitating as if asking permission.

"If I could change your clothes and wash you down, that might help – I think some of those rags are sticking to your skin. But when you were unconscious and I tried to cut them off you, you went rigid and screamed – I don't want to do anything against your will, stranger."

Dominic whimpered again, but consciously relaxed against the hand on his back, not knowing another way to let him know that he appreciated his concern. Whimpering and groaning were not exactly the best means of communication. He turned his face to where he suspected the face of his savior and tried to moisten his throat. The wet cloth was gently pressed against his lips and he swallowed, still greedy. Afterwards he coughed and forced words through his sore throat.

"Dominic. Name… Dominic."

This time there was no mistaking the smile in the other man's voice.

"Shh. Don't overexert yourself – Dominic."

He wrapped his tongue around Dominic's name and it sounded different than at home, but still Dominic's heart constricted in pain remembering the last time someone had called his name. It must have shown on his face, because the hand on his back, small but strong, started to rub him in soothing circles.

"My name is William," was the last thing Dominic heard before darkness overtook him again.

***

Chapter 4

The pain in his body was still the dominating sensation to which Dominic woke up, his whole body protesting the exertion he'd put it through in the last days – or had it been weeks? Yet it seemed to Dominic, as he swam up through layers of pain to full consciousness, that he was healing. Gingerly he touched his arm, felt the rawness of new skin, hairless and thin like paper but untouched by the sun and treated with a sharp-smelling salve of some kind. He obviously had been well taken care of, maybe by the man with the soft voice.

Quickly Dominic let his hands pat down his whole body, needing to make sure that his savior had kept his word. Yes, he was still wearing all his clothes, as far as he could tell, and Dominic exhaled a breath he had not been aware of holding. He allowed himself to relax his guard a bit and carefully reached up to his face, to examine his eyes – only to discover that someone had bound them with a moist cloth. Fumbling around he found the knot that held the bind and undid it.

Opening his eyes hurt, fresh skin protesting against the pulling of his eyelids, but Dominic needed to know – and was rewarded by blinding daylight, forcing him to close his eyes again. Blinking carefully he let his eyes adjust to the task of seeing, satisfied for the time being that he was not permanently blind.

Finally he managed to make out his surroundings – a tent that was obviously inhabited by someone else, with sparse but comfortable furnishings. Apparently whoever lived here was convinced that Dominic was harmless, because he had left precious book scrolls lying around, as well as some weaponry. Well, it was quite clear that Dominic would not be running away – there was nowhere to go, after all – but he'd be damned if he let this opportunity slide.

Glancing around to make sure that no one chose to enter the tent at this moment, Dominic crawled over to the man's bedroll and grabbed a small dagger that would probably not be missed right away. He hid it under his clothes and fell back onto his resting place, completely drained by even this small exercise. Breathing deeply he just lay there for some time, trying to ignore the voice in his head that accused him of stealing from someone who had just saved his life – this was not home, normal rules of behavior did not apply anymore.

If Dominic had learned something in the last few weeks, it was that he had to look out for himself, because he couldn't trust anyone else. And it wasn't as if he was planning on attacking the owner of the tent… William, hadn't that been his name? Dominic found that he was looking forward to seeing his savior's face. All he knew of him were hazy impressions of a soft voice and soothing fingers on his back, both full of kindness. Dominic wondered if, against all odds, he had really reached a safe haven, a refuge from the hostile desert and its inhabitants. Could he have been this lucky?

***

He was so lost in his thoughts that he almost missed the tent flap opening and turned with a start to face - William. Even before the already familiar voice said his name in pleased surprise, he recognized the man entering the tent as his savior.
He was a slight man, even shorter than Dominic himself, but he carried himself with grace and assurance. His skin was light, so light that Dominic wondered how he managed not to get burned, and his eyes were the color of spring leaves, sparks dancing in them as William smiled widely, obviously happy to see that Dominic had woken up. The smile transformed William's face, hinting at a mischievous boy left behind not too long ago, and almost against his will Dominic found that he smiled back.

Breaking the eye contact that was starting to make him uncomfortable he reached up to touch his eyes and said: "I hope it's alright that I took the bind off."

He spoke slowly, taking care to pronounce everything clearly, and could see William straining to understand him. He repeated his words and saw understanding dawn on William's face.

"Yes. The cloth was only there to help the skin around your eyes heal. Can I look at them? Please?" Carefully William stepped closer, making sure that Dominic saw his movements and had time to react. Dominic couldn't help but wonder how he had behaved to make William treat him like a scared animal. There was no way William could know about his past, yet he seemed to do everything to make Dominic comfortable.

Forcing his breath to stay calm, Dominic nodded his acceptance but was unable to meet William's gaze, his eyes fixed on the broad bands around William's wrists as if he was trying to learn the intricate symbols burned into the dark red leather by heart. He couldn't help but tense as William's fingers brushed over his face, but the touch was short, clinical, and reminded him of the way Viggo had touched people that came to see him about their illnesses.

"You are a priest, aren't you?"

William seemed puzzled by his words, and Dominic tried again: "You make people better and talk to the Mother, yes?"

This William understood and he stopped his examination of Dominic's face with an excited exclamation: "You know the Mother? I thought only the tribes worshipped her – and you are definitely not a tribesman!" He began to talk too fast for Dominic, who felt the beginnings of a headache, talking about visions and fate and the smile of the Mother.

Still, Dominic found he liked to listen to William talk, to see the animation in his face, the passion. Finally he interrupted him with a laugh – the first in what felt like ages: "Yes, there's no doubt, you ARE a priest! Only priests and crazy people get so excited about these things…"

William stopped talking abruptly and looked a bit sheepish before joining in Dominic's laughter.

"I apologize – I get carried away sometimes. In my tribe I am called a healer – or I will be, when my master Ian pronounces me ready." He paused before continuing slowly: I have a thirst for knowledge, and you, Dominic, seem to be a source of water… The Mother sent you, I am sure of it."

The intensity with which William looked at him made Dominic uncomfortable. It felt good to talk to someone so easily, but the ease with which it happened put his guard up. What did he know about William? Why should he trust the assurances of a complete stranger, just because he had been kind to him? There was so much he wanted to know, and so far he had not gotten any answers except what the kids' in Greenvalley had always called 'god talk'.
Looking at William he could see that the other man felt the walls Dominic put up between them. The excitement and happiness in his face disappeared, to be replaced by a sad smile. Dominic felt guilty for being the one to put this expression there, but he did not know how else to protect himself.

"Do you maybe have something clean for me to wear?" he asked, trying to change the subject.

Without meeting William's gaze, which felt heavy with acceptance and understanding and made him want to apologize, Dominic pulled angrily at his clothes. He was furious with himself for letting his guard down and allowing himself to give into the instant sympathy he felt for the healer. He would have to be much more careful until he knew what exactly his situation was.

"Yes, there are some of my things over here – they should fit you well enough. And I've got some of the salve that I put on your arms, which you can use."

William's voice hid the disappointment he had to be feeling well, and Dominic refused to look up until he was handed the promised items and William turned to leave the tent, so Dominic could change.

He was almost gone, when Dominic broke the silence that was stretching between them: "I… Thank you. William."

William turned back to look at him and smiled, almost gratefully: "You're welcome."

The warmth on William's face loosened the knot of mixed emotions in Dominic's chest, and he found that he was still smiling as the tent flap had closed behind the healer. Maybe this could work after all.

***

Chapter 5

Dominic didn't see William again on that day, but just when the thought of leaving the tent to go outside for some food started to look very good, the tent flap opened and a young boy entered with a tray full of fruit, bread and meat. Dominic heard his stomach growl, which caused the boy giggle – a familiar, everday sound that brought sudden tears to Dominic's eyes. None of the boys in his clan would ever giggle again. The pain this thought caused him caught him unexpectedly, and he could not stop the sobs that ran through him, shaking his weakened body.

Ashamed of his lack of control he curled up and hoped that he boy would just leave him alone. But when he had finally calmed down and sat up, the boy was kneeling next to the tent flap, staring at him in what seemed like deep fascination with wide blue eyes.

Grabbing a piece of bread from the tray that was standing next to him, Dominic tried to figure out what could be so interesting about him. Sure, he spoke differently and had clan marks around his eyes, which was apparently not done in the desert as far as he could tell, but other than that he could not see any big differences, at least in appearances.

Finally, because the boy did not seem inclined to move or stop staring, Dominic decided to just ask him: "What are you doing here?"

He had to repeat his question several times until understanding dawned on the young face and information started to bubble out of him, much too fast for Dominic to understand anything. It took him some time to get the boy to slow down, because he seemed to try and say everything at once.

"Slow down, boy, I can't understand a word you say!"

Finally, they reached a point where they understood each other – a process that felt much more like work than it had with William, Dominic couldn't help but notice.

The boy's name was Elijah and he had been one of the cow herders that found Dominic in the desert. From him Dominic learned how lucky he had been, how close to being killed in deference to the rules of the tribe. Slowly he realized at least some of the reasons why he was considered a rarity, almost a miracle.

"William will have to explain himself to the chief tomorrow, when the men return," Elijah said, his face serious. "And…" He obviously wanted to say more, but caught himself.

"What could happen to me?" Dominic inquired, but Elijah just shook his head.

"You will have to trust William – he is a good man, he will look after you," were his last words before he left the tent, probably to tell his friends everything about the stranger.

Alone again, Dominic was not quite sure what he felt. Apparently his safe haven was not quite as safe as he had thought; yet he could not find any real fear in him. Running away was not an option, so Elijah was right – there was nothing he could do to change what tomorrow would bring. He would have to wait – and trust the man who had saved his life once before already.

***

William did not return to sleep in his tent, for which Dominic was grateful. Of course he had many questions that he would like to ask the healer, but he also still felt bone-weary and numb. Having some time to himself, in comfort, without any pressures, any dangers – this was something he had never valued enough in his old life. He ate and then slept quietly, too tired even to dream, for which he was glad.

When he woke up, William was there, packing his things together. He looked at Dominic and gave him a smile that was a bit too tight for Dominic's peace of mind. Something was obviously bothering him, and it would have worried Dominic how well he could already read the other man, if he had not had Elijah's information weighing on him.

"What will happen to me when your chief returns?" he asked, reaching for some of the food left from the day before and taking a drink of water. No matter what awaited him, he saw no reason to waste an opportunity to eat and drink.

William stopped packing and sat down opposite Dominic. His face was serious, and Dominic realized with something like relief that these green eyes would tell him nothing but the truth, even if it was unpleasant.

"I don't know how these things are done where you come from," William began, "but in the desert no one can survive without the protection of a tribe or one of the bands of robbers that call themselves traders. You don't belong to either – you're not a tribesman, you're not a trader, you're not even a slave with an owner to protect you. It would be a waste of our precious resources to feed someone with no connections. By the laws of our people, I was supposed to kill you, Dominic – but I couldn't. The Mother herself spoke to me."

This Dominic had already known, but it made him wonder what had moved William to break the rules in order to save someone as useless as him. He looked at the healer with new curiosity. Was there really some connection between them, something… divine?

He could not help but snort a bit at the thought, and William stopped talking, mischief stealing into his voice: "Yes, I know, only priests and crazy people talk like that." They shared a smile at this, already familiar. Then William became serious again, but Dominic could almost feel the smile still warm in the air between them and he felt strangely certain that everything was going to be all right.

"The chief will be back soon, and after that the tribe will leave for the fresh water source the men have been scouting for. I will talk to my father before we break up the camp." Apparently reading Dominic's face easily, he interrupted himself for an explanation: "Yes, the chief is my father – which does not make things easier, unfortunately, because of my decision to become a healer. But, Dominic", and at this he reached out and his small, warm hand covered Dominic's for an instant, retreating again before Dominic could decide whether he liked or disliked the touch, "I promise you that I will protect you. You will come with us tonight – I will find a way. It is the will of…"

"The Mother, yes," Dominic finished for him, smiling softly to show William that he was not mocking him. "I just hope that your father hears her as well as you do…"

William's eyes were as warm as his touch. "Or that I can give him another reason to keep you. In any case, do not worry too much but get some rest – tonight we'll be traveling quickly…"

"I will. This is like paradise to me, I have you know, and I plan to enjoy every minute of it!" Dominic grinned as William rose to leave, feeling satisfied that the healer was in a better mood now than he had been when he came. Yet, despite the brave face he had shown to William, Dominic could not suppress a sliver of fear as the older man disappeared from his sight.

Now he could do nothing but wait – and rest, as he had promised.

***

Chapter 6

Waiting had never agreed with Dominic, but his body still demanded rest, so he found himself nodding off at some point. When William re-entered the tent, he woke with a start, going from mostly-asleep to wide-awake in an instant – something that would have astounded his family, he thought with the pang of grief and sadness that was slowly becoming familiar.

He looked up and studied William, trying to gage how the conversation with the chief had gone. But the healer's face was curiously blank, his eyes dark with something Dominic could not quite fathom, despite the bond that had so quickly started to form between them.

"So it hasn't gone well, I take it? Is he going to have me killed?" he finally inquired, when William made no move to speak.

His voice seemed to wake the other man from his thoughts, because he shook his head slightly and knelt down next to Dominic. "No, that's not it. He did not believe me when I told him about my vision – as a matter of fact, he laughed – but I told you I'd find another way if necessary."

Yet William's face remained drawn, and he refused to lift his eyes from the carpet that covered the floor of the tent, which did not exactly help Dominic figure out what was going on.

"That's good, isn't it?" he finally asked, laying a hand on William's arm, feeling the muscles tighten under the black cloth of his robe.

William finally met his gaze and forced a smile on his face. "That depends." He swallowed and dropped his eyes again, causing anxiety to pool in Dominic's stomach. "I… to save your life I had to claim you, Dominic."

Dominic looked at his savior blankly. "What… what does that mean?" He was aware his grip on William's arm had tightened, but the other man didn't attempt to shake him off.

Instead he looked up again, his eyes once more startling Dominic with how green they were, even when so clearly troubled. "It means that you are mine. I claimed you as my badhran – my personal slave."

Snatching his hand away as if it had been burned, Dominic looked at William, trying to form words, of protest, of denial, yet none would come. Was this what he had run from the slavers for? Had he escaped and survived just to become a slave here? His lips were parched, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth as if he was back in the desert. Unable to even blink, he was staring so intently that he could clearly see the blush rising from the darkness of William's robe, coloring his neck and face.

But despite this William did not look away again, and there was strength and determination in his face and in the lines of his body. It made Dominic shiver for some reason – yet it was not fear that moved him, that much he knew. "Of course I would never expect you to fulfill all the duties of a badhran – you are much too weak at the moment anyway, and once you have regained your strength all you would have to do is keep up pretences when outside the tent, until we reach a place where you can leave us safely."

William was right; Dominic realized that. Yet he was still torn between conflicting emotions that kept him paralyzed, unable to react in any way. All he could do was look at William, pleading for something he could not articulate.

He felt the warmth of a soft touch on the hand that was still clutching William's arm, and strong fingers wrapped themselves around his painful grip, easing it slowly.

"You will have to wear these, Dominic." William's voice was calm, soothing, finding its way through the turmoil in Dominic's mind. He looked down at he objects William was holding in his free hand. They were a pair of leather bands, similar to the ones William himself wore, but black, with a less intricate design.

"Why? What are they?" Dominic had found his voice again, although his whole body was still tense with misgivings he could not quite shake, despite William's reassuring smile.

"They are the marks of my clan. The basic design, you see, is the same as on my cuffs. The color signifies your… your rank, and those markings – those are mine." William flushed again, and Dominic almost felt sorry for the discomfort the older man was obviously experiencing because of him. He relaxed a bit more and let his hand rest in William's warm grip more easily.

This earned him a smile from William that was impossible to resist, and Dominic was almost smiling when William closed the cuffs around his wrists, securing them tightly, but not uncomfortably. Their eyes never left each other, and something passed between them, touching something deep inside of Dominic, who did his best to appear unmoved. He was just giving away ownership of himself to a man he hardly knew, and he could not allow himself to forget this.

"Wearing the cuffs puts you under the protection of the clan – and of me personally. No one will be able to touch you without risking the vengeance of the clan, and you will always have your share of water and food."

Dominic nodded mutely, moving his hands tentatively to get used to the new restrictions. He felt the leather chafe him slightly, but knew that he would hardly feel the cuffs anymore in a matter of days.

Finally he looked up and met William's eyes again, steeling himself for the now expected jolt of – knowing -- as he looked into their green depths.

"I… I guess I have to thank you. I know that without you, your father would have killed me, if the cow herders had not done it when they first found me." The words did not come easy, but he needed to say them, to lighten the load of obligation he felt towards his savior.

"It's all right, Dominic, it really is. You know that I'm not doing this for you, or for me – I'm doing it for the Mother, because I'm the crazy priest, after all…" William grinned tentatively, and Dominic gave him a small smile back, unable to ignore the other man's efforts to make him comfortable. But right away he felt a surge of annoying at how easily he let his guard down when it came to William, and he rose to his feet abruptly, suddenly very aware of how close they had been sitting all the time.

Nervous but trying not to show it, he measured the wooden beams that kept the spacious tent upright with his eyes and bent down to gather the sheets that made up his bed. "Well, I might as well make myself useful and help you pack your bags, even if I won't be of much use when it comes to taking down the tent."

Although he had his back to William, he knew that the healer had risen to his feet and was looking at him. But although he wanted to be annoyed at the scrutiny, with the same awareness that made him feel William's movements, he knew that the look held the same sadness he had sensed in William before. He fought against it, but it was as if his will, which had helped him survive the past weeks, could not stand up to the strange -- connection he felt with the healer.

Telling himself that he simply did not want to hurt the man who had saved him, Dominic turned halfway around and motioned to William's bedroll and the things that were still lying around. "Do you need any help with this?"

He knew he was not supposed to see the tension leave William's face, and he didn't really want to, but still, it seemed to loosen a knot inside of himself as well as they went to work together.

Soon they would be moving on, and Dominic counted on the quietness of the night and the vastness of the stars to help him find his inner strength and calm again. Or at least help him adjust to this new situation – and his new owner.

***

Chapter 7

Dominic had never seen a camel before, and remembering the fear he had clearly shown when told to mount one of those fantastic-looking creatures, he cringed when he thought of the laughs Elijah and the other cow herders would certainly share at his expense. But then he had always been the 'funny one' back at home – how strange the word felt on his tongue already – so why should things be any different here, in his new life?

Yet as they rode through the night, Dominic holding onto his swaying mount for dear life, trying to ignore the curious eyes and voices of William's tribe around him, he could not suppress the voice in his head that told him that everything was different, that nothing would ever be the way it was supposed to be again. He was a slave, owned by a man he hardly knew.

Who could say what his fate would be? So far William appeared to be a decent man, and Dominic could not deny the connection he had felt between them, but this was not enough to calm his fears. William had saved his life – not just once, but twice already – and hadn't asked for anything in return except that Dominic trusted him. Yet this was a gift Dominic wasn't sure he was ready to give. Not now, and maybe not ever, not after everything he had gone through.

His mind going in restless circles, plaguing him with doubts and fears, Dominic rode on, his whole body tired and hurting from the unusual movements of his camel, until they finally stopped in a place that looked just like the last camp to Dominic. In Greenvalley, he had always known where he was and how to get home. The total lack of landmarks unsettled him even further and caused another unexpected bout of homesickness.

It might have been this, or weariness, or the insecurity about how he was supposed to treat his 'owner' -- but when William appeared to lead him to his tent, Dominic found himself taut as a spring, ready to explode from the slightest reason. He knew that kind of mood, but he usually dealt with it by either seeking solitude or finding his brother or one of his friends for a friendly wrestling match. Here, he violently pulled his arm away when William touched it to show him the way, with so much force it threw the healer off-balance, causing him to stumble.

A tall man somewhere before them grunted and said something that was rewarded by a round of laughter, and Dominic saw William's jaw tighten as he righted himself abruptly. This time his touch was not gentle as he grabbed Dominic's arm and pulled him along behind him. It didn't exactly hurt, but Dominic's muscles protested, and so did his mind, telling him that this was the proof that William could not be trusted.

He wanted to stop, wanted to tear himself away, but when he tried William tightened his grip and shot him a look that was clearly a warning, although it was strangely devoid of anger.

"Don't!" he whispered urgently, and Dominic reflexively obeyed, feeling himself being pushed through the tent flap. Once inside, though, he tore free and fled to the far corner of the tent, watching William with weary eyes as the healer started distractedly rolling out his bedroll, now and again shooting Dominic looks that showed his dismay but not coming any closer nor speaking for a while.

Dominic felt confused, not sure what to make of William's behavior. Then he saw the healer unroll a second bedroll, putting it as far away from his own as possible. He looked at Dominic and pointed to the bedroll.

"For me?" Dominic asked, relief washing through him.

William caught his gaze and held it for a while, as if making sure Dominic really heard him. "Of course. I told you you wouldn't have to fulfill the duties of a real badhran, Dominic."

Although he still didn't know what exactly a personal slave was normally expected to do, Dominic felt a bit safer now that William had repeated his assurance and ventured out of his corner and onto the bedroll.

William visibly relaxed and sat down himself, facing Dominic. "I also owe you an apology, about earlier. I really didn't want to be so rough with you, I hope you believe me – but I had no choice. There were people around, some of them only too happy to bring me into discredit with my father, and they could not see me being bested by a slave, especially not considering the circumstances. You have to be aware that honor is very important in the tribes. If my father thinks that I've made a fool out of him, made him lose honor, by making him believe you were my badhran…"

He trailed off, his eyes cloudy with worry, and Dominic didn't need to be a mindreader to understand that he could still be killed if people didn't think that he was really William's property.

"And what would they do with you, if they found out?" he asked suddenly, surprising himself as much as William.

William showed his teeth, but it was more of a grimace than a smile. "Oh, my honor's been doubted many, many times since I decided to become a healer instead of following my father's path. So don't worry about me, Dominic."

With that he lay down, resolutely closing his eyes, and Dominic knew that there wouldn't be any more conversation on this topic, at least for the time being. So he lay back as well, forcing all thought from his mind. His body screamed for rest, and it wasn't long until he was fast asleep.

***

When he woke up the sun was high above the camp. He could feel it burn down on them even through the dark cloth of the tent, but the heat wasn't unbearable. It was quite nice, actually, to just lie there and soak in the warmth, completely relaxed.

Yet, as soon as that thought crossed Dominic's mind, he sat up with a start. He had slept deeply, without paying the slightest attention to his surroundings, and now William had gone. Anyone could have come in, could have done anything, without Dominic even noticing. The realization that he had let his guard down so far made him deeply uncomfortable – he could not allow himself to be so vulnerable. He would just have to be more careful in the future.

Having come to this conclusion, Dominic relaxed again somewhat and realized that he was hungry and thirsty. A water skin was hanging from a tent post, and he greedily drank several mouthful of wonderfully cool water, but there was no food anywhere, as far as he could see. His stomach growled, and he found himself being drawn to the tent flap, although he did not quite dare to leave the tent without William. Instead he peeked through a small gap.

There was no one around outside, which was to be expected, he guessed, since it was noon. He had no idea where William might be or where Elijah spent the day, the only two people Dominic would dare to ask for food. So he just sat there, trying to ignore his growling stomach and willing the time to pass.

He must have nodded off for a while, for he woke with a start when William stumbled over his legs, which were blocking the entrance. Something that could only be a curse escaped the healer and he grabbed Dominic's shoulder for support. But Dominic was not quite awake yet and instinctively pulled away, losing the support of the tent beam he had leaned against. He ended up on his back, causing William to fall as well, half on top of Dominic.

They looked at each other, and Dominic could clearly see his own uncertainty mirrored in William's eyes. It felt strangely reassuring to know that William half-expected him to freak out and was already preparing himself to apologize. It was almost funny – in the past few weeks, Dominic had lost his family, had suffered all kinds of abuse from the raiders, had almost died of thirst – and here was a man, a man who owned him, who was afraid he had harmed Dominic by accidentally falling on him. There was nothing to fear here, and Dominic couldn't suppress a nervous laugh.

"You're not very sure on your feet, are you?" he asked when he could talk again. William had righted himself and was sitting next to him, not touching, just looking at him as if Dominic was made of glass and could break at any moment.

When Dominic spoke, William visibly relaxed and gave him a surprised smile. "One could also say that you, my friend, have a talent to make other people stumble…"

Dominic waved a hand in the air, grinning openly now. "Ah well, you are entitled to your version of reality – as long as we agree that mine is the only true version, of course." Just then his stomach grumbled, and William giggled loudly, looking suddenly a good ten years younger, reminding Dominic that the other man was not that much older than himself.

"Well, that's your fault, too – I haven't had anything to eat since we left camp yesterday."

He meant it to be a tease, but guilt instantly clouded William's face. "Oh. I'm so sorry, I completely forgot… I didn't mean to…" Visibly distraught William searched his bag and offered Dominic some bread and cheese.

Dominic accepted it gratefully, thanking and reassuring William that he hadn't done him any permanent harm. Then he offered William from his meal, noticing that the healer hadn't kept anything for himself. He was rewarded with another smile, almost shy, and they sat together in silence for a while.

It gave Dominic a chance to study William. The healer fascinated him, and not only because it was always good to know as much as possible about the people one depended on. There was much he did not quite understand yet, although it was clear that William's relationship with his father, especially his decisions in spite of the chief's wishes, had figured greatly in the mix of gentle strength and eager desire to please that marked the way he dealt with Dominic. It was… endearing, in a way, and Dominic couldn't help but admit to himself that he already liked and respected the man sitting next to him quite a bit.

To distract himself from this train of thought, he suddenly broke the silence: "Tell me something about what will be expected of me. I don't want to dishonor you by accident."

William looked up and gave him a warm smile. "You won't, don't worry. You're still weakened from your escape, so you're not expected to do anything at the moment. Later, you can help me set up tent, carry things, accompany me during the day. At night you will sleep in my tent, since badhrans aren't expected to share the slave tent, and you will defer to me. At least in public." He grinned and paused to think for a moment. "I think that's it. Oh, except that you're never to take off your bands, and that you can't wear a weapon as long as you're in camp. You will get one when you accompany me into the desert, or when we're around jarjins – people that aren't members of the tribes. No tribesman will ever lay hands on you, because you're my personal slave, and no one but me is allowed to give you orders, although you are expected to show respect to all freemen."

Dominic looked down at the smooth leather circling his wrists, tracing the markings on his left cuff with his right hand. "That's what these mean, isn't it? They make sure everyone knows I'm yours." William nodded, not meeting Dominic's gaze. "What else do they mean? What else do badhrans do that separates them from regular slaves?"

William fingered his own bands nervously, his fair skin coloring as he blushed. But although Dominic could tell he would have liked to avoid the issue, he answered. "They are expected to… to serve their masters exclusively, to satisfy their every need. Including sharing their bed."

Dominic had suspected something like this, but still, the knowledge that he was now a… bed slave didn't sit easy with him. Even if it was just a pretension to protect him, not the reality. Not that he had ever minded a quick tumble with one or the other of his friends back home – and William was not unattractive, with his green eyes, warm smile and nimble hands. But still, this was just one step up from a whore, and Dominic had never fancied being restricted in his freedom in any way.

He had been quiet too long, apparently, because William hastily started to reassure him that naturally nothing like this would be expected of him. Dominic cut him short, his smile just a bit strained: "I know – and I thank you, William. You have saved my life, and I know that if there had been another way, you would have chosen it. I guess I just have to get used to the idea." With a nod he stood and looked around the tent, changing the subject decisively. "So. Are we moving on tonight? Is there anything I can help you with?"

William shot him a grateful look, obviously just as happy as Dominic to pretend this conversation had never happened. Then he showed him how he stored his things and handed him an empty bag.

"That's yours. We'll have some more clothes for you made, and you can store anything you like in it – I will never open it. We'll be spending a lot of time together, and every man needs some things he can call his own."

He smiled widely, his eyes crinkling up, and Dominic couldn't help but smile back, holding the bag tightly. This was who he was now -- his possessions, his status, his life. And maybe it wouldn't be all bad.

***

On hiatus, I'm afraid.

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