Chapter 42 - Coffins
Talmud hadn’t returned by dawn, they spent the night making their plans, and went to sleep knowing that their lives were in the hands of this strange Arab. Their slumber was light but undisturbed. Their hostess provided them with fine wine and a selection of exotic cheeses. She offered fresh fruit and an array of flavorful dishes that were unfamiliar but enchanting. They thanked her with sincerity, and she seemed pleased. They felt the slight burn of their thirst, but at least their belly’s were full.
Talmud returned past nightfall, and he looked both tired and irritated. His wife soothed and fluttered until he finally landed a gentle kiss on her forehead that made her visibly relaxed. She knew her husband, and how to manipulate him into a softer mood.
“I’m sorry to inconvenience you Sahib, but we will have to leave at dawn. The blacksmith tried to cut corners and forced me to threaten his person and shorten his tongue, but I promise you by the light of the desert we will leave tomorrow,” they found his earnest intensity disconcerting.
Talmud woke them before dawn, and his wife treated them as honored guests departing the house of a dear friend. They rarely received such courtesy from humans. It made them worry instead of easing their minds. They found it hard to allow themselves an open-minded view of the situation when all of them found trust difficult.
The three wooden boxes stood ready in the front of the house. Lined with goose feathers and silks, they sealed tightly. Air holes drilled into the sides were inconspicuous and covered with a dark, dense fabric on the inside. Marcus inspected the boxes created according to his specifications. Metal hinges graced the sides, and they were iron bound with several discreet locking mechanisms to keep the lids sealed. The boxes resembled nice but large traveling chests, rather than coffins.
“Well done, Talmud,” Marcus praised when he sensed the silent approach of the large man behind him. Talmud smiled when his attempt to sneak up on Marcus failed, his amusement at his discovery reassured Marcus. Talmud was an odd man.
Marcus asked Alena to choose a box, and without a word, she cast a single glance at Marcus which revealed her unease; she lifted herself over the side in her dark shirt and pants. Talmud averted his eyes from the attire his religion would mark as indecent for a woman and gave them their privacy. Marcus chose their clothes because they didn’t know what to expect, and he closed the lid with great care. His worry showed in his eyes, but they made their choice, and this was the only way they could travel in the desert and survive.
Rowan lowered herself into the second box, and her fear of small dark places made her breathing labored. He glanced at her with concern, but the intense look in his eyes made her breathing even more unsteady.
“Did I mention I don’t like enclosed spaces?” Rowan asked to distract herself from his face so close to hers. Marcus smiled with more confidence than he felt, and his smile made her knees weak, something she thought an old wives’ tale.
“You’re safe,” Marcus assured with a gentle touch to her forehead that settled her fear. She’d never been this close to him before, not face to face and she a strange feeling made it seem as if something shifting in her chest. He closed the box just as Talmud returned.
“No one must see us or know of our presence. You must never open these boxes during the day,” Marcus instructed while allowing his countenance to betray some of what he was and it promised vengeance if Talmud betrayed their trust. Talmud took no offense because he understood Marcus’s sense of family, and his face revealed only unease at this glimpse of what lay beneath, but no fear of Marcus. He nodded his understanding and carefully locked the box.
It took a great effort to lift the boxes and to carry them outside where the ushers used ropes to hoist each box onto specially built platforms on the backs of three camels. Each box with its occupant weighed at least three hundred and twenty pounds or more, but the animals took the weight with ease, and all three vampires found the lurching rise of the animals, nauseating.
The caravan traveled until the sun became too hot and they halted. Talmud ordered the boxes lowered from the camels with great care and placed in the shade until they were ready to resume their journey. The ushers asked no questions of their master and voiced no complaints.
The heat became unbearable for the three vampires trapped in their coffins and left with no choice; they had to wait for their release. The caravan traveled on and kept moving until the moon shone down in bright splendor and long after that.
Talmud ordered the boxes brought down and commanded the men to place them inside the biggest tent. He also ordered the men to curtain off that area and not enter that area until after dawn. Talmud waited until his people outside settled to sleep, all but the guards, before he opened the boxes one by one.
He greeted each of them with the appropriate formality and found them somewhat dazed, disorientated, unaware that they were ravenous with thirst and stiff from lying still for so long.
Talmud brought them each a small basin filled with water, a task reserved for a woman, but he did not complain. He led Marcus into the main tent to allow the women some privacy and spoke with Marcus at length. When Marcus returned, his face showed tension, and he wore a dark scowl.
“What?” Alena asked. The low conversation and their preoccupation with washing the sweat from their bodies had distracted them. Vampires were unused to perspiring, and no human would have survived a day in their stead. Marcus shook his head.
“Byron sent Talmud a message to pick up two containers at the butcher and leave them undisturbed,” Marcus reported, and they watched him with oddly similar concentration.
“Talmud guessed?” Rowan asked. “So there’s food that doesn’t need killing?” Rowan clarified, and he nodded.
“He had them line the containers with animal skin and fat before sealing them tight. He instructed them to place the barrels in a wagon covered with several layers of carpet with the bottom carpets saturated with water. Marcus marveled, shaking his head.
“I hope it worked, and they must have thought him mad,” Alena mused, and Marcus grinned when he handed her a folded piece of paper.
“Three gold pieces and a copper. Travel well, Master,” Byron had a neat hand with none of the labored precision of a man born to the lower middle classes.
“He also organized for some goats to travel with the caravan. For now, they supply milk,” Marcus revealed.
“Food,” Rowan reminded and out of the blue Alena hugged her close.
“Patience, it won’t run away,” she joked, and Rowan laughed.
“No, but I’ll eat it even if it turned to tar,” Rowan quipped.
“I think Byron just made sure his friend suffered no unexpected accidents,” Rowan sobered their amusement, but the small wooden barrels were a welcome sight.
“Do you think our host knows what we really are?” Alena asked pensively.
“Yes,” Marcus didn’t like being off balance, and it showed in his manner.
“He’d be obtuse not to,” Rowan said. Talmud was as sharp of wit as they come. Marcus unsealed the casks, and the contents were actually cool, but already congealing. The barrels were small and would last only another day. They gorged themselves not to waste any of it.
“This is a fools’ errand,” Marcus admitted much later, and they could not argue.
“I’d rather be the fool that tried than the one that waited,” Rowan remarked.
“The fool that tried may die first,” Alena warned with grave concern.
“Then so be it,” Rowan countered, and something in Marcus’s attitude toward Rowan change, but only he knew.
They spent the rest of the night settled in their thoughts. They were at the mercy of men. No, they were at the mercy of a Talmud and who knew what lay beyond tonight.