The soldier led them back towards the camp and a trough cut into the dune by the traffic of the Kin and Igibarra. Bes, Mel’k, and Haseen followed.
“You’ll have to dismount here. The rains have made the dunes too unstable for the animals. The camels won’t even attempt it – they know better.”
Trying to walk up the wet dunes was an impossibility. The top layer of sand had turned to a thick muck, gritty and sticky, that gave way to loose sand underneath. Sargon’s foot would go down, squish through the mud, hit the sand, and descend until the much was nearly to his knees. The mud would flow into the hole made by his foot and provide suction, making it nigh impossible to pull his foot back out for the next step. The soldier leading them dropped to his hands and knees and crawled, slowly, up the shifting and sloshing mess. Sargon understood why he came to them covered in mud. It was the only way to navigate over the dune.
The old soldier looked over his shoulder to see how his fellows were coming along. Haseen and Mel’k were already on their knees, carefully maneuvering up the hill. Their calm demeanor and relative speed suggested they were experienced at this – which made sense, when Sargon considered it, as they spent most of their lives in the desert.
Bes was standing at the base of the dune and staring at it, leaning on his staff. Nusiki stood beside him, eying the hill speculatively.
Sargon’s attention returned to the task when his hand sank to the shoulder, forcing the side of his head into the filth. He went to pull it out but found he had no leverage at the odd angle.
“Need help?” The boy asked, his voice impossibly close.
Sargon twisted his neck as far as possible to look up and see the boy standing beside him.
“How did you do that?”
Nusiki shrugged, “It’s easy if ya know how to move on the soft stuff under the city.”
Sargon saw the “soft stuff” under the city – years of human waste congealed into a tar-like morass. It was a gelatinous soup of feces, urine, old food, and other stuff. He couldn’t imagine what would possess someone to try to walk on it.
“You are a disgusting thief. Yes, I need help.”
“Okay. Listen close. Leave the arm where it is and roll that way, on ya back.”
“Trust me. I’ve done it before.”
Sargon grunted and rolled.
“Flatten yer legs out! Yer feet’ll sink if ya don’t!”
Sargon flattened his legs out. Now, instead of being stuck face-down in the mud, on his hands and knees, with one arm buried in sucking sand, he was on his back, flat, spread-eagle. The muck was stuck to his cheek and the back of his head. His akar was completely covered.
“Ya look like an afritan. Ya know, one of those devils made of dirt by the eria udug.”
Sargon brought his free hand up to wipe the mud from his face. He succeeded only in smearing more. He started to chuckle.
Nusiki grinned, letting a snort escape.
“This is stupid, thief!”
Nusiki’s snort turned into a poorly veiled laugh.
Sargon’s chuckle grew into laughter.
“What is wrong with you two?” Mel’k growled.
From the base of the dune another laugh joined theirs.
“Bes!” Mel’k admonished, “We have a mission to do. Don’t encourage this idiocy.”
Sargon agreed with Mel’k but couldn’t help it. The laughter had taken on a life of its own.
“Here I am…” He gasped, “Here I am…Gal-Gal-” He broke into another round of uncontrolled laughter.
“Gal-Gal- what?” Nusiki taunted between guffaws.
“Galkin! Yes! Ha! Galkin of the-” his mirth broke up the words again, “Oh Gods! Spare me! Of the Royal gourd! Guard! Royal Guard! Covered in mud, stuck in a dune, with a thief laughing at me!”
“Royal gourd! Oh, sweet mother!”
Yet more laughter joined theirs.
“Haseen!” Mel’k snapped.
“Oh Gods…help me. Thief, what do I do?”
“I don’t know!” Nusiki was doubled over with tears in his eyes.
“You said you could help!”
“I cant – I don’t remember what I was trying to do!”
“Shamash’s beard! Galkin Sargon, try rolling further away. Use the weight of your body to pull the arm out – but keep it evenly distributed so you don’t sink more.”
“Yes, yeah – what Mel’k said!” Nusiki gasped out.
“Okay…okay…let me catch my breath. Nobody laugh.”
Haseen chimed in, “Whatever the Royal Gourd says.”
A chorus of laughter echoed from the base of the dune.
“For all that is sane, Bes, get off the ground!”
“Just – just think about it, think about it, Mel’k. Here we are – we – we’re trying to find a body. A very sol-sol-solemn event, and now we have our own p-p-personal afritan, Galkin Sargon of the Royal Gourd, co-cov-covered in mud while a teen thief gives him a-advice!”
“I see it, and I want it fixed!”
Sargon gained a modicum of control over his laughter and did as Mel’k instructed. He kept his body level, rolling away from his stuck arm, and using the leverage of the roll to pull it out with a wet slurping sound.
“There’s no way I can get back upright here.”
“Slide down the hill,” Bes advised, “and we’ll find a way around.”
Mel’k’s head spun and looked at Bes, “There’s a way around?”
“There has to be – dunes don’t go on forever.”
“Sargon – I swear to all the Gods if your Kin led us up here when there is a simple way around…I will use his skin as a new horse blanket.”