I come from the Western Plains -- from the arid country, a place all salt pans, red sand and spinifex. Nimby, the town where I grew up, exists only for the salt pans, where slaves and free settlers alike dig and rake the salt from off the surface that it might be sent by camel train to the great cities on the coast. I was born the daughter of a salt merchant and might have followed in his footsteps, were it not for the fact that I showed an aptitude for magic.
So my father apprenticed me to Marmor the healing woman, who lived in the huge coastal city of Gunyah. When she came for me the day after my fifteenth birthday, I was sorry to leave my family, but I was thrilled to be leaving Nimby for somewhere more exciting. But to my dismay we did not head south for the coast, but further west along the edge of the Songib desert and for many days we walked through the spinifex country.
At first I was afraid to ask why, for Marmor was a very important healing women. She was serious and reserved, speaking little and then only with good reason. Her face was lined by wind and wisdom and her hair bleached blonde by the sun. Though she was old, she walked as straight and tall as a queen in her blue healer's robes.
As we walked, she showed me the beginnings of my craft, the finding and use of magic sand and the special healing plants. It was as if our direction was the most natural thing in the world, which it was not. Finally I could not hold back.
''Why are we not heading for the coast,'' I asked, for by then I had come to know her and had seen that her ways were kind and gentle; that she was not one to punish a questioning apprentice.
''Have peace, Tarah,'' she said. ''There is someone I wish to see in the west first. A young friend who I have not heard from lately.''
After some days of travel we came to another town, Mudroo. It was a wretched place, bigger than my home town but much less solid; a town of woven grass humpies where only the taverns were made of brick. It was the last stop for the great camel trains which crossed the deep desert, filled with merchants and pilgrims going to Uluru in the desert's heart. Here we bought a camel and loaded him with provisions and joined the latest pilgrimage train. Much as I wanted to see the coast and the sea, I was still excited at the thought of seeing the great shrine at the desert's heart.
''Do not get your hopes up Tarah,'' said my mistress as we trudged along behind the camels. ''We are not going to Uluru, but to a place called Wangaree. It is over there to the east. We will soon be leaving this camel train to go on by ourselves.''
She pointed to where we were to go. There was a dark smudge on the horizon and something about the way my mistress stopped and stared at it made me look again. Already the smudge had grown larger so that it resembled a large dark cloud.
Marmor let out a shout.
''Whirlwind,'' she cried and she must have used magic for although the camel train was strung out over several sand dunes, everyone heard her and looked to where she was pointing. Then the pilgrims began to shout and scream and there was a great flurry as the camel drivers tried to get the nervous camels into a huddle.
All the time the great dark cloud on the horizon was speeding straight towards us till it loomed directly above, a great angry red column, with huge clouds of dark sand billowing like smoke around its foot. It blotted out the sun and at its head, lightning crackled into the suddenly clouded sky. It twisted and turned like a great writhing sand snake, stretched out between land and sky. It came straight at us at such speed that there was no time to do anything. Marmor and I pulled our camel to the ground and huddled against it, while that terrible thing writhed above us. It was like having a tower fall upon you.
With a great whoosh I found myself swept up into the air, ripped away from Marmor, flung about screaming, my mouth full of sand, choking for breath. I was terrified and for a time couldn't think, but simply thrashed about, whirling dizzily like someone drowning.
Then my hand came out into cold air. Somehow I lunged towards it and suddenly found myself hanging in the still space at the very eye of the storm, while what seemed like a mile beneath me the mad red sides of the wind whirled down into a vortex. All around the sides I could see bits of camels and people and spinifex and small bushes whirling around and around as if they were being sucked down into a huge plug hole.
I hung there for only a moment. Then I dropped, plunging down towards that vortex like food going down a throat. I fell screaming and thrashing about, sick and dizzy, until I hit the other side of the storm and was sucked up again into a chaos of tumbling head over heels in the blinding sand.
Then suddenly I hit something solid with a great thud. I grabbed out and found, miracle of miracles, a handhold. I hung on for dear life, felt the whirlwind ripping at me, dragging away down my body until it let me go -- and was gone disappearing behind me, a bloated tower of sand and debris tearing at the land. I dropped with a thump against a roof and finally dared to open my eyes. The thing I held was some kind of flag pole sticking out from the top of a round sloping roof and I hung from it like a limp flag.
I looked down then and almost died of fright. I was hanging from the top of an enormously high tower, way up above a city. I hate heights and while I hung there too frightened to do anything, my hands began to sweat with fear and grow slippery. Soon enough they began to ache and tremble with tiredness, too.
At last I pulled myself together and began to struggle around trying to get a better grip; trying to climb up the sloping roof to the pole so that I might sit with my arms and legs around it. Then as I swung my leg up, I caught a glimpse of some kind of balcony around the top of the tower only six feet or so below. A safe place to rest.
For a few moments I'm ashamed to say I was too scared to do anything, but my fingers were aching horribly and I knew they would not hold much longer. I let go of the flag pole. Sliding down the roof with horrible speed, I managed to grab the guttering on the edge of it and found myself hanging in mid-air for a sickening moment. I swung inward towards the tower and dropped with a thump on to the balcony.
I lay there on my back for a time staring up at the clear blue sky, worn out by exhaustion, terror and relief. The relief was short-lived however. My throat was scrubbed dry by the sand-soaked wind and thirst made me get to my feet to look around.
I was indeed on a little stone balcony that ran right round the tower, but strangely enough there was no doorway or window into the tower. There was only the bare flat wall and though I searched and searched and knocked at the walls over and over again, I could not find any sign of an opening. When I leaned over the parapet of the balcony, there was once again that dizzying height. I could see no one on the streets of the city below and I noticed that many of the houses lacked roofs.
My tower was at least three times as tall as any of the other buildings and there was no other roof I could jump down to without breaking every bone in my body. Why had someone put a balcony here if they could not get onto it? Perhaps they had used magic. Unfortunately I was only an apprentice in magic and I knew no spell that would get me down from this great height. The balcony itself offered nothing to quench my thirst. Mostly it was just a bare stone platform with a stone wall around the outside, but on the side where the whirlwind had hit, a great pile of sand had been dumped along with all kinds of debris. As well as the usual bits of rock and grass there was a great big bale of beautifully coloured silk cloth all broken open by the impact. I sifted through the sand but came up with nothing else of use. The whirlwind might have left me a water bottle, but it had not.
The only other thing I found was a small wooden box which must have been there before the whirlwind for it was on the other side of the the tower. I tore it open hoping to find something, for by now my thirst was overpowering.
Inside was a most amazing thing, a huge blue crystal almost the size of my head. It was some kind of jewel and probably would have been worth enough to bring my whole family to Gunyah to live in wealth and idleness forever. Pretty pointless to have found such a jewel when I was trapped here on this balcony without food and water. I had to try hard not to depair and give myself up to weeping and wailing.
I licked the cold surface of the jewel to ease my thirst and tried chewing on some to the grasses the wind had left behind to see what moisture I could get from them, but it seemed I had escaped one terrible hazard simply to find myself in a worse one.
I tried tying the silk cloths together by their ends, only to discover that there was nothing on that bleak balcony to tie them to. I tried tying them around the tower itself. The silken rope dangled pathetically in mid air. I doubted if it would ever have been long enough. I left it there dangling like a bright flag in the hope if there was anyone in this godforsaken city, it might catch their notice and they would come to rescue me.
So I lay on the sand and looked at the sky and soon enough the sun began to turn red and sink behind the hills far away in the west. It was then that I saw a sight which seemed to wipe away any hope I had left of rescue. Hearing voices in the street below, I leaned over the balcony wall and called out. Way down below in the street I saw a long line of people and camels. Walking beside them were men in brown robes with whips. A lonely desert wind had risen and brought the crack of those whips and the clinking of chains clearly up to my perch. It was a slave column. I could see that clearly now. Well, better to be a slave than to die of thirst up here. I leaned over the parapet again and screamed and screamed, but my voice was hoarse and weak from sand and thirst.
The wind carried my voice away into the empty desert that stretched out all around the city. No one looked up. But as I looked down on the column of slaves, I saw a figure I knew -- a figure wearing a blue healer's robe with fair sun-bleached hair and a tall straight way of walking even though she was bound down by heavy chains.
It was Marmor, my mistress, who I had secretly been certain would find me with her powerful magic and come and rescue me. I should have been glad merely to see her alive; but at the sight of her in chains, all hope drained out of me. I'm ashamed to say, I sat down and wept, spilling precious water on the hard stone until at last worn out with weeping, I untied and pulled up the silks, crawled under them for warmth and slept the sleep of the exhausted.
The following morning there was a little dew collected in the lid of the wooden box which I had left open for that purpose. I drank it down greedily and was also able to suck some moisture out of the silks which the dew had wet. For the moment my thirst was quenched. I settled down on the shady side of the tower going over in my mind all of the magic that I knew, which was very little, just to see if any of it could help me get off this tower.
Twice during that morning I saw huge red columns of sand and wind come speeding towards the city. They seemed so huge and powerful I thought the city would be destroyed by them. Both times however they stopped before the houses started, hovering for a few moments outside the city, before suddenly collapsing and shrinking down, down until they were nothing more than clouds of dust which finally settled and left the sky the same clear blue as before. It was as if the whirlwinds came here to die. Around midday just as I was pulling a piece of silk over myself for protection from the fierce sun, there was a flurry of wings. A big black raven flew onto the parapet of the balcony and began to strut along it. Back and forth went the glossy black bird, its head turning so that its beady black eyes watched me. At first I was glad to have some other living thing to look at. Then it occurred to me that this nasty carrion bird was probably watching and waiting for me to die. Yuck!
''Get away from me,'' I cried and threw a small stone at it.
''Feathers and wings,'' it squawked, flapping up into the air and flying away.
I jumped up startled. Feathers and wings? Had it really said ''Feathers and wings!'' No. It wasn't possible. It must have been the sun and the thirst making me hear things. I watched it fly away, down, down into the town below, before I crawled back under the silk. The hot desert sun baked the stone of the tower.
A small time later something dropped with a plop onto the stone beside me. It was an orange, of all things. I leapt up and grabbed it and turned and looked up. There was the raven sitting on the roof of the tower with its head on one side looking at me with its big beady eyes. I tore open the orange and bit into it, letting the juice run down my parched throat.
''Mmm,'' I said, without thinking. ''Thank you very much!''
''You're most welcome,'' said the raven.
I almost choked on the orange in surprise. As it was, the juice went down the wrong way and I coughed until tears ran down my face.
Meanwhile the raven hopped down from the roof and sat upon the parapet. I could have sworn it looked amused.
''My name is Mulcurrberry,'' it said. ''What's yours?''
''You can talk,'' I said foolishly.
''Naturally. All my kind can talk. We just don't have much to say to humans who are mostly very foolish. I hope you're not foolish.''
''Of course not,'' I said, slightly offended.
''That's good then. Tell me what are you doing up here. This does not seem a normal place for humans to be.''
I sat down and told it all about the great whirlwind and how I had landed on the tower.
''Ah,'' said the raven wisely. ''You are luckier than you think. Those whirlwinds are the tools of the Spinifex Brotherhood. They are a gang of thieves who have taken over this city. They are powerful wizards as well as thieves who use the whirlwinds to capture travellers in the desert. The winds bring the travellers back here where they are robbed and sold into slavery.''
''You mean they call up the winds themselves and control them?''
''They dance in a spiral, singing magical spells until the power of their magic calls up the wind. You don't mean to tell me you thought the whirlwinds were natural?''
I hadn't actually thought about it but I wasn't going to tell it that. Smart alec raven. I changed the subject.
''I don't think I'm lucky,'' I said. ''How am I going to get down from here?''
''It's quite obvious to me,'' said Mulcurrberry. ''It would be to any raven.''
''Not everyone has wings,'' I pointed out crossly. ''There no need to be such a pain about it.''
''Look at that silk,'' said the annoying bird. ''See how the threads are coming loose at the end. What any sensible person would do is unravel the silk and tie the threads together. Then you would have a thread that went all the way to the ground.''
''That's all very well,'' I said, ''but some of us are too heavy to be able to get down a thread.''
''If you will let me finish,'' said the raven. ''I was going to say that you would then be able to attach a rope, which I know of, to the thread and you could pull it up. It's too heavy for me to carry up here, but a great big girl like you should be strong enough to pull it up.''
I was so pleased with this idea, that I decided not to point out that I could hardly have thought of this plan sooner since I had no one to attach the thread to a rope for me. Instead I set to immediately to unravel the silk.
''Of course,'' said the raven. ''If I am to do this dangerous and difficult thing for you, I hope you will do me a favour in return.''
This was a worry. Legends and stories are full of creatures who try to make bargains with you when you are desperate. They always want some completely horrible thing from you in return, like your soul, or your magical powers, or your left eye.
''What favour?'' I said, trying to be casual.
Mulcurrberry looked at me for a few minutes and then said, ''Well I suppose since you're not very clever, I'll trust you. Do you see that jewel there?'' He nodded at the big blue jewel I had found the night before, which still sat in the open box.
''That jewel contains the soul of my master, the wizard Kalibar. Everyday I have come to the top of this tower to try and get it down, but it is too heavy for me to carry. But you would be able to bring it down with you and help me restore it to my poor master.''
''What's this master of yours like?'' I said, thinking that I had spotted the catch, for its master was quite probably some incredibly evil man, justly punished.
Not according to Mulcurrberry. While I sat and unravelled the thread, the raven told me all about this Kalibar who, according to the raven, was a wizard of surpassing handsomeness and intelligence. He had lived in this ruined city for many years with only a few servants for company until he was tricked and enchanted by the Spinifex Brotherhood who turned him to stone, sold his servants into slavery and sent winds to carry his soul to this high tower.
''He can't be so intelligent if he let these thieves trick him,'' I said, unable to resist putting the self-satisfied raven in his place.
''He was too much a man of honour to be able to see through such men,'' said Mulcurrberry huffily, ''though I was never fooled. And if you speak ill of him again, I might just fly off and leave you to starve!''
I decided to watch my tongue after that. There would be plenty of time to put the raven in his place when I was safely on the ground. Anyway I had come to the conclusion that the raven for all his sneering was a kind-hearted bird. He certainly seemed devoted to his master, who had brought him up from a chick. Throughout the day he brought me all kinds of good things to eat and drink, till I was almost too full.
I was convinced that it was all right when I discovered that the city beneath us was called Wangaree, the very place Marmor and I had been heading for. So this Kalibar must be her friend and it would be safe to help him. This made me think of Marmor again and I asked the raven to go and look for her. He set off quite willingly only to return with the worrying news that, though the slave train had not yet left the city, there was no blue-robed healing woman among the slaves.
At last the threads were unravelled and tightly tied together. I lowered the long string over the parapet and Mulcurrberry fastened it to the rope down below, by poking the string through the rope with his sharp beak and tying it together with much twisting of his claws and flapping of his wings. After a few false tries, where the thread broke or Mulcurrberry's knots came undone, we got the rope up to the balcony. I tied it round the tower and made the long terrifying climb down with the box strapped to my back being careful not to look down lest I panic. The sun had set by the time I reached the bottom.
I was just standing stretching my blistered hands, when a figure came out of the shadows.
''Tarah!'' cried a voice softly. It was Marmor. To my surprise, the usually reserved healing woman caught me in her arms and hugged me hard.
''I'm so glad you are safe,'' she said. ''I've been looking everywhere for you and only discovered this tower when I saw you climbing down it.''
''Hurry hurry,'' said Mulcurrberry. ''No time for re-unions now. We have to save my master.''
Quickly I told Marmor about Kalibar and the soul in the box on my back.
''Thank Goodness you have it,'' she said. ''I went to Kalibar's house to find him but could do nothing for him. You cannot bring back a person who has no soul. You have done well, Tarah. Come now. Let's go. And be careful, there are guards everywhere and they will be looking for me by now.'' The moon was rising, filling the ruined city with jagged shadows. It was cold and a gritty wind moaned through the narrow streets. As we jogged quickly along, I was glad Marmor was with me. It was spooky down here and she seemed to have a second sense about where the guards were.
At last we came to a huge white marble house fronted with great white pillars.
''Kalibar's house,'' said Marmor. ''He always was fond of big impressions.''
In the high front room sat a stone stature of a tall man wearing a wizard's robes looking out of the window. He had a very surprised look on his face, as well he might have for the top of his head was missing and inside, it looked just like a hollow bowl.
His head even echoed like a hollow bowl when I tapped it.
''Don't do that!'' squawked Mulcurrberry.
I stopped guiltily, opened the box and took out the great blue jewel.
''Wait a minute,'' said my mistress and she dusted out the empty bowl skull with a kerchief. Then together, we slid the jewel carefully into the skull cavity.
''Stand back,'' said Marmor and she muttered a few words under her breath. At once the head of the statue began to glow. There was a fizzing sound and burning blue stars began to shoot out of the top of its head and whirl about the room. Something bubbled and seethed slimily within. I didn't like to look too closely at that magical stew.
Suddenly the statue opened its eyes and a bright blue light shot out. The blue light spread down its torso until it reached its waist. The statue wriggled, its eyes became a normal colour and it groaned. ''Master, Master,'' cried the raven delightedly, landing on the wizard's knee.
''Where am I? croaked Kalibar. What a headache!''
He put up his hand to pat his head, but Marmor seized it.
''Wait!'' she cried. ''The spell isn't finished yet.''
But it seemed to have stopped working, for the blue light had not gone any further than his waist and it began to fade and disappear leaving Kalibar the wizard still half made of stone.
The wizard began to panic and who could blame him?
''Do something Marmor,'' he cried. ''The spell is failing ... Quickly, we need some heart's blood to strengthen the magic. Take this raven. Kill it and put its blood on my soul.''
''Aaarck!'' shrieked Mulcurrberry. He flung himself into the air to land safely on one of the rafters.
''Master,'' he cried. ''How can you say such a thing?''
''Believe me, Mulcurrberry, I regret this as much as you, but I will die if I remain half stone. Quickly Marmor. Get it!''
''Now, now,'' said Marmor. ''Let's just be calm here a minute. I'm not familiar with your kind of magic, but it seems to me that all blood comes from the heart, so all blood must be heart's blood. What say I cut my finger and use my blood?''
''You don't understand,'' cried the wizard. He was terrified. ''Heart's blood is the blood of a dying creature. Everyone knows that. If we can't use the raven, what about your apprentice?''
''Hold your tongue Kalibar,'' snapped Marmor crossly. ''I think I'll try things my way, thank you very much, before we set out to slaughter everyone.''
She cut her finger and let her blood drip out onto the top of the wizard's head. Meanwhile Mulcurrberry took to its wings and flew away and I was half inclined to do the same.
The wizard was still protesting, almost tearfully now, but lo and behold in a short while the blue began to glow again and to move slowly down his body. Eventually he was entirely flesh again and his head had healed over completely.
''Oh,'' he said, wriggling his toes with surprise and pleasure. ''You were right after all, Marmor. I do beg your pardon. And yours too, young lady. I was under a bit of stress.''
''It's not our pardon you need to beg,'' said Marmor crisply. ''Really, Kalibar, sometimes I wonder about your kind of magic.''
When Kalibar had recovered, he and Marmor went out together and using magic, put all the members of the Spinifex Brotherhood into a magical sleep, after which the three of us loaded them up with their own slave chains.
Up close they were strange looking men. They wore red-brown robes and had blue spirals tattooed all over their bodies.
All around the city great bowls of earth had been hollowed out where the Spinifex Brotherhood had raised whirlwinds.
We freed all the prisoners. They were almost a hundred strong by then. Most of them set off again for Uluru in a great camel train with many thanks and great rejoicings and only a little bit worse for wear.
We stayed a few days with Kalibar in his house. I was interested to notice how much time he spent looking at the sky as if looking for a bird. Once I even came upon him standing on a wall and making a squawking noise like a raven. I did not bother feeling sorry for him however. He seemed a rather foolish man and I would not stay with such a heartless master either.
Kalibar would not see Mulcurrberry again. As Marmor and I walked southward through the deep desert towards the coast, a black shape flew down from the sky and perched on the back of our camel.
''Greetings to you, raven,'' said Marmor. ''It is good to see you well.''
''I have decided that I should like to see the coast,'' said Mulcurrberry airily.
''I would have thought you'd have given up on humans,'' said Marmor.
''No, but I've given up on wizards,'' said Mulcurrberry. ''You never know when you might wind up in one of their spells.''