The red sun beat unrelentingly on the already-hot sand. It would soon be sunset and the shadows were elongating and turning purple. Night would fall soon.
I had been travelling in the Middle East and was now heading for one of the fabled walled cities. I was looking forwards to a comfortable bed and a shower after the heat and dust of our trans-desert journey. In the distance I could see high hills rising above the city. Signs of human habitation became more f frequent and it was obvious that more feet had passed this way recently. I quickened my pace. My guide was bringing my luggage on the camel so I only had my most precious belongings in my shoulder bag, which was becoming increasingly heavy with every step I took.
I walked up to the huge door which was closed. My eyes scanned its intricately decorated surface for some means of opening it but there didn’t seem to be any. I ran my fingers over the ancient carvings hoping to find some way of springing the opening mechanism. I was suddenly aware I was being watched. I stepped back a couple of paces and looked around me. No-one but the sense of being watched persisted. “Have you tried knocking?” asked a voice from above me. I looked up but could only see a bright-eyed hawk perched on the apex of the stonework surrounding the door.
“I said, have you tried knocking, isn’t that what you usually do when confronted by a closed door?”
“Er, no, actually I didn’t knock.”
“Then what are you waiting for?”
By this time the bird had flown down and alighted at my feet.
“You’re a talking bird?”
“well, yes, isn’t it obvious by now?”
I have to admit I’m not used to conversing with birds so this did seem a little strange. I stepped closer to the door and struck it with a resounding blow that hurt my hand like Hell. After a while the door opened slowly inwards. I looked at the bird again but it appeared to have lost interest in me and was carefully scrutinising one of its feet. I could see nothing in the dimness beyond. “The door is open, you can go in now. You are expected” and then “well, hurry up then, it’s getting late” and with that it flew off leaving me somewhat surprised to say the least.
I stepped through into the cool darkness and then took another couple of steps. I expected to come out into some sort of main street that would lead to the Mdina or centre of the city or into a shady courtyard with a fountain tinkling somewhere in the distance. Instead I found myself on what looked like a giant checkerboard with a huge dice on the ground in front of me, with a label on it that said “shake me”. I looked at the dice again and tried to pick it up – no small feat as it was at least one foot square. In the end all I managed to do was drop it back on the ground where it rolled to a stop with 6 dots uppermost. I walked 6 squares forwards and there, on the coloured square that had appeared was the message “advance 3 squares to the fountain. Drink a glass of sherbet and reflect”.
I did as instructed and found a delicate glass of cool, bubbling sherbert awaiting me on the parapet of the tiled fountain. I downed it gratefully and rubbed the cool glass over my heated skin. I was tired and in no mood for playing games. “Reflect” what was that supposed to mean? I looked down into the fountain expecting to see my own travel-weary face. Instead, all I could see appeared to be an ancient map of sorts. As I leaned closer a blue line which I had taken to be a river began to pulsate. Various buildings were depicted on the map but I couldn’t work out what they were and by now, I had no idea where I was.
I had fallen under the enchanteur’s spell once more.
I looked around me, this time paying a bit more attention to my surroundings. To my right was another door with what looked like a tree painted around it. I glanced at the map again and this time saw a similar door with the pulsating blue river flowing through it. I concluded that this was the route I was supposed to take. I reached down and scooped up some of the water in my cupped hands, drank a deep draught and swept my cool, wet hands over my face. How refreshing. I picked up my bag again and headed towards the door.
A movement in its painted branches attracted my attention. There was my friendly hawk again. It cast a cursory glance at me and finished its meal of desert rat before flying over to greet me again.
“I am to be your spirit guide on this new journey of yours. My name is Horus.”
“er, delighted to meet, I’m sure. My name is Traveller”. The bird nodded “I know,” and “come this way, you have travelled a long way today and need rest before you join the others tomorrow.”
“Others? what others?” I’d seen no trace of any other travellers for days now. Along with my guide I seemed to have been the only human on earth. The hawk flew off a few paces ahead of me. “Follow this street to the crossroads, turn right and enter the blue house.” A few moments later I found myself standing in front of a house painted a startling sky blue. The door was open so I walked into a courtyard filled with masses of plants and almost fainted from the heady smell emanating from the orange blossom and night-flowering jasmine shrubs. Cushioned sofas lined the perimeter of the courtyard and I sank down gratefully on to one of them. Lost in thought I hardly noticed the soft pad of feet until they stopped in front of me. I looked up into the face of a young girl with huge doe-like deep brown eyes fringed with huge eyelashes. She wore jewelled slippers and a robe of semi-translucent fabric the colour of a sun-ripened melon, a true desert beauty. She salaamed me and indicated that I should follow her. Bells tinkled at her ankles as I followed her up a flight of stairs on to a carved wooden balcony that ran around the first floor of the internal courtyard. She stopped in front of the door in the corner, produced a huge key from somewhere within the voluminous folds of her garments and turned it in the lock. The door swung open and she led me into a room with lime-washed white walls. A heavy curtain hung in front of the window. A wooden framed bed was set against one wall, piled high with exotically coloured cushions. Through another half open door I could see a tiled bathroom. “Dinner will be served in half an hour” she said, “please make yourself at home.” No sooner had she closed the door after her than I began to explore my new surroundings. Pictures on the wall contained small pieces of mirror in which were reflected the candles I could now see had been lit in various niches set in the walls. A beautiful “chandelier” hung from the ceiling whose coloured glass bowls sent a thousand coloured lights dancing across the uneven white walls. The bathroom proved to be heaven on earth – I could almost have swum in the huge tiled bath that had rose petals floating on the surface of the water. I threw off my clothes and stepped gratefully down into the water, submerging myself completely. I scrubbed furiously at my skin with the loofah before climbing out again feeling wonderfully refreshed. I dried myself and put on the clothes that some unknown person had laid out for me – a soft, white wool kaftan with a blue border and dark red leather sandals with upturned pointed toes. I made my way downstairs and found a table set for two people under a lemon tree. As it was the only table in sight I sat down. All of a sudden the hawk alighted on the back of the other chair. “Bon appétit” it wished me in perfect, accentless French – enjoy your meal. I can’t remember when I had enjoyed a meal so much; the novelty of my experiences and intriguing surroundings doubtless lent piquancy to the culinary delights placed before me: succulent stuffed dates, golden apricots, stuffed vine leaves and a goblet of the coldest well water I’d ever drunk. The hawk waited in silence while I ate my fill. “Rest well, Traveller, you should be ready to leave at dawn with the others tomorrow.” All these references to the others made me both curious and uneasy. Who were the others?