EXCERPT From Chapter 5 - Rana
“We are in the lowlands now,” Rana replied. “The land will be uneven before it begins climbing as we approach Miran. This slope on our left is quite barren. Look how the
road hugs the edge of that low ridge. We will advance in a column of fours.”
Word was sent back. Rana could hear the chinking of metal as his troopers began to loosen their short killing swords in the scabbards. They did not have long to wait. The lancers
swept around the burned wagon where it still smoldered in the rutted track that passed for a road. They had reached the southernmost arm of the great spice and silk trade road and turned west to Miran, taking the
same route as Tando’s caravan. As they advanced, Rana listened and watched keenly for signs of enemy movement in the lowlands ahead, but the ground seemed empty, and unguarded.
How strange, he thought. This was the fabled trade route he had heard tales of so many times in his youth. It was said that great caravans would travel east and west, laden with
cargos of rich spice, the finest silk, and even jade and gold. Where were they now? The road seemed the barest thread, beset by the wind, a vacant and empty place. There were signs that a few wagons had come this
way in recent hours, but already the wind was driving tiny drifts of sand and dust across the road, and blotting out the shallow gouges made by the cart wheels. Where were they? Where were the spice trains, and the
dancers and jugglers that entertained the caravan traffic? Where were the throngs of pilgrims and travelers, and the train dogs ranging on the flanks of long lines of heavily burdened camels? There was nothing! It
was just a simple depression in the ground stretching east and west, lonesome and untraveled.
Somewhere, thought Rana, this road would reach east to the strong T'ang trading center at Dun Huang. To the west were the great cities of Khotan, Yarkand and Kashgar. But here,
the sallow gray earth was parched and lifeless. That any man would wish to walk this road was beyond his understanding. Rana looked at the far horizon and saw nothing but wind blown haze. Off to the north the shroud
of dust was broken in places with the pale gleam of sunlight reflecting on water. That would be the Tarim River, he thought. Far to the north it was fed by fresh running streams flowing down from the Tien Shan
Mountains, but here it seemed pale and lost, as if deadened by the desolation of the land. The water would be laden with salt. Rana knew he was probably only seeing thin, brackish pools in the distance, fringed by
dry, brown reeds and desert scrub on the ground running down to the riverbed. There was no life in the river here, he thought. The Tarim is an old man by the time it reaches this place, pale and drawn. Somewhere
beyond the river was the dry salt marsh of the Lop Nor Desert to the north and east. And west? West was the greatest desert in all the lands he knew, the Taklamakan. He had never seen the place, but often heard men
speaking of it with quavering voices and fear in their eyes.
So, this was his charge now. It was an empty, barren place, but with each forward step, the land became his own. I am master of all this emptiness,
he thought. I am lord of the dust and the sand and, if the wind will leave this road in peace for a time, I will follow it as best I can.