We had been walking for seven sunrises when the walled city at last came into view, stretched out expansively below us on the edge of the dusty plain. It was an impressive sight, the setting sun casting long shadows in the sand. We laid down our burdens, tethered our beasts, and set up camp for the night. Lembo and I took some gourds down to the waterfall to collect fresh water. We knelt beside the stream and splashed our faces with the cool water. We took off our threadbare leather sandals and sat for a while in the gathering twilight, bathing our feet in the shallows and soaking the dirt out of our cracked blistered skin. Our shoulders ached from the heavy load we had carried many a league from the wintering grounds. It had been a long, exhausting, dangerous journey, and its end had come none too soon.
Back at the camp, meat was already roasting on a spit and the group’s spirits were higher than they had been for some time. Hannibal sat alone by the hearth, apart from the other travellers, his tanned serious face illuminated by the firelight. He stroked his beard, seemingly lost in thought, as he stared into the flames. ‘There’ll be rich pickings tomorrow,’ he murmured quietly.
A cry went up from the look-out behind us. Lembo and I and some of the women rushed to the top of the slight rise just in time to see a sea of tiny lights sailing silently into the sky above the walled city like a swarm of fireflies. It was a breathtaking sight. ‘Paper lanterns,’ cried Uma, ‘the Moon Festival has begun!’
We rose at dawn, packed up the camp and headed for the walled city. As we approached the huge east gate, flanked on either side by tall turrets manned by archers, every one of us was fearful, terrified of being apprehended by the guards. All except for Hannibal, who appeared as cool and immovable as stone. In our scruffy robes, dirty and frayed from the journey, we looked more like mendicants than merchants. But at the gate Hannibal pressed something into the hand of one of the guards and we were waved through into the jostling crowds of the city.