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They appear like phantoms from the shimmering heat waves. Tribesmen on camels, riding through the dust clouds towards me. My muscles tighten. I was warned about mirages, how the sun and the desert can play tricks on your eyes. But somehow I know these men are real, and dangerous. My hand drops instinctively to the handle of my curved sword.
They ride around me in a tight, closing circle. The drum of hoof-beats eventually quietens, the fan of dust settles, and I get a better look at them: swords tied to their belts, black rags pulled over their faces. They have bows trained on me. The points of arrows glimmer in the sun. One of them – I assume he is their leader – dismounts and strides towards me, sword in hand.
‘What are you doing here?’ he demands.
I hesitate. What I carry is not for him. I have strict orders that no one is to see it but the King of Persia himself, but these men hold my life in their hands, and they need an explanation.
His eyes narrow into slits. There is anger in his voice as he repeats, ‘what are you doing here?’
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