Part Two--The Sacred Tibesti

Part Two--The Sacred Tibesti

A Chapter by Carole Wolf
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Ten year time lapse from Part One.

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Part Two

The Sacred Tibesti

        Twenty-one seasons had passed peacefully between the two powers of Sähm. Vincente Monasco conceded to his loss at the Battle of the Basin and expended most of his efforts on developing soldier readiness programs, as well as perfecting his own long-range weapons capabilities. His sights were set on complete domination of the region, as his spies had at last obtained the closely guarded gunpowder formula from Calabrecian specialists. The mission itself had been more of an aggressive plundering than a covert acquisition, like those he orchestrated in the past. The three alchemists who developed the formula were ambushed in their homes, abducted, and brought before the General’s court. They were then dragged to an underground chamber, strung up by the wrists and hung barefoot over a small flame, which gradually melted away the flesh on the foot soles down to the bone. Before the shadows on the dungeon walls could shift toward that passing’s end, the formula was jotted down by awaiting scribes, along with the location of a recently discovered salt mine at the eastern edge of Sähm. It was a productive passing for Monasco, a forward thrust in what had been a technological inertia.

     The news hurled Mirielle Delamere into a fury, and for having allowed non-citizens to pass into the city unhindered, Governor Delamere personally lambasted all six gatekeepers in the town center.

   “This, you incompetent swine…” she hissed into the face of the first, the hot glowing tip of an iron skewer pointed perilously close to the offender’s left cheek, “…is a branding tool. It’s what is used to make the mark of this city on colony slaves, no? Colony slaves who make entrance through these gates, bringing supplies from one passing to the next?”

     Bound to a six-foot wooden post, the trembling guard winced as the heat of the iron wafted across his face, and he nodded.

     The Governor then spun around to her observing subjects and threw her arms open wide to them; the glistening silk trim of her robe fluttered around her like the golden aura of an awkward, middle-aged goddess. She swiped the wild graying curls from her face and studied the crowd with an artful smile. It was an incorrigible grin that confessed to her bitter ruthlessness in matters such as treason and debauchery.

   “He says he knows this!” she announced and shoved the cooling iron into the fire, smiling at him as well. She pushed the coals around and said to him, “Today, Sergeant Kobori… yes, I know your name…I know the names and faces of every enlisted man in my army. Where you aware of that, Cezar Kobori?”

   The soldier shrugged as he began to weep. “Governor, I beg of you, please…”

   “Sergeant Kobori, do you not think that pleading for your life at this point is decidedly useless?” she questioned and gave him a scolding glance. “My soldiers are quite aptly educated. And so it would appear to me that none of you are oblivious to the inevitable outcome of these proceedings.” She withdrew the iron from the fire, admired it for a moment and said, “This passing the six of you will be given a reduction in rank for your indiscretions as you claimed to protect my city from intruders. That deficiency in judgment cost the lives of three of my advisors and may very well threaten the status and security of this entire city. And so, for your crimes you will first lose your citizenship before all of Calabrecia by wearing the mark of a slave, a mark with which you will die… nameless.”

     Governor Delamere then lay the red hot scepter against the exposed shoulder of the accused, drawing the L’ghälii symbol for ‘restricted’ into his flesh as the townspeople roared with approval.

   She aimed the glowing tip at the right eye of her screaming prisoner and snarled viscously, “You can see this, no? You can’t, however, see the brand of a Calabrecian colonist on a Monascan spy! Particularly if you are not looking for one while they stroll through my gates, steal from me, and murder my people! Well, then! You’re eyes are apparently no good to you, and so you won’t be needing them as of this passing.”

     The gatekeeper cried a final plea and shook his head violently with idle hopes of avoiding the punishment. But the governor clenched a hand around his throat and scornfully drove the searing rod into each socket, mindful as not to kill him by doing so. For once the procedure was performed on the remaining five, she ordered them to be stripped of their clothes, herded onto a military transport wagon, taken out into Sähm’s wasteland, and left to the vultures.

     As the Governor retreated to her estate, she was followed closely by Chancellor Ahmed Ben Hassi, an industrious confrere of twelve seasons whose ambitions strove toward one day succeeding her as Calabrecia’s leader. In the interim, however, he would be content as her obliging shadow, armed only with prudent council and watchful eyes. For behind him marched a band of four patrolmen, Delamere’s personal bodyguards who collectively weighed in at over a ton of cutlery and brawn.

   “Governor,” Ben Hassi spoke up, trotting after her as she swept through the halls of the estate. “Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but seeing as every one of our city guards have been done away with, would you be needing a list of those soldiers with adequate training to replace them?”

      The Governor flung open her chamber door and let it slam against the sandstone. She stopped in her tracks and turned to him with her hands on her hips.

   “…perhaps before sunfall,” he added nervously, for her expression was filled with boiling contempt, even for him at this moment.

   “You will summon Sergeants Kaman, Abasi, Beltran, Zervakos, Essaid, and Corporal Kolenka,” the Governor then rattled off. She turned away from him and sauntered over to the mantle where she kept a decorative carafe of red wine, and she poured herself a generous cup. “Kaman and Zervakos are in 2nd Archery Battalion, and the others are in the 4th Infantry Brigade. You will find Kolenka at the training camp Mehdîm; he is a cook. However, I’m certain that even a tender of lard will be more efficient at protecting this city than his bumbling predecessors.”

   “Yes, Governor,” her assistant complied and abruptly motioned to one of the guards, dispatching him out into the city to begin the search.

   “Vincente Monasco had been too silent for much too long,” the Governor mused as she took a seat at her mahogany escritoire and gazed out the window toward the west. At the horizon, there could be seen the faint billow of bonfire smoke over the city of Monasco itself, and Governor Delamere pondered deeply over her rival’s generalship. “It’s these mountains.”

    “The mountains?” Ben Hassi questioned and glanced through the emerald fronds that framed the west window. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I understand.”

   The Governor took another sip and tipped her cup toward the view, telling him, “The Tibesti. It’s the only natural barricade between them and us, and Monasco’s got troops in every crevice, watching us, scrutinizing the comings and goings of this place from sunrise to sunfall. Those mountains are crawling with Monascans, Ahmed, I’m certain of it. How else do you think they were able to penetrate our walls so unabashedly, if not for having watched the habits of my guards?”

   Her assistant nodded hesitantly. “I suppose you’re right, but certainly you’re not considering sending any of our own to tread upon--”

   “And why not?” she questioned with a challenging glare. “We’ll send reconnaissance teams at the opening and closing of each passing until we find them and flush them out.”

   Ben Hassi shifted his weight uneasily and frowned at the idea, reminding her with caution, “Governor, none of our soldiers have ever set foot in the Tibesti. Spiritual law has forbidden it for over a thousand seasons, Madam. I’m sure you realize that the majority of our troops, if not all of them, see the mountains as sacred terrain. And to ask them to betray that belief may very well jeopardize the morale of the military as a whole, don’t you think?”

   The Governor made an opposing face and pushed herself up from her chair, waving him off. She went over to the mantle, refilled her cup and scoffed, “That’s absurd, nothing but the superstitions of peasants. Do you profess, now, that I have an army of lessees?”

“No. No, Madam. Not at all,” he assured her. “I’m simply recommending that we seek other options for the sake of our troops’ resolve. You said so yourself; General Monasco has been biding his time, most likely in preparation for a strike of some sort. And there’s no doubt in either of our minds that he’ll match our firepower before the coming of next Abeya. If and when that time comes, the last thing we want is for the soldiers to fear that Méraah has turned on them.”

   Governor Delamere’s dark eyes swept across the tile floor with disgust as she considered the validity in his words. For as many seasons as she could remember, the people of Calabrecia, including colonists, held the Goddess Méraah in esteemed reverence. It was believed that She alone gathered the mountains up out of dust to protect the Desert of Sähm from the destructive wrath of the God Yishuîm. Delamere knew all the stories. She had turned a deaf ear to all the folklore behind the Red Star yet allowed the belief system to remain in tact, as it posed little threat to her position. The truths by which she governed her city, however, traced back to an entire library full of pre-world technology, politics, and religion. It had all been passed down by surviving ancestors who traveled south from what was once called Toulon, France. And as she reconciled with her decision on an expedition into the Tibesti, she could rest on the knowledge that neither Yishuîm nor Méraah promised the safekeeping of Calabrecia; only she possessed such omnipotence.

   Captain Nimeiri will head the first mission,” she stated flatly. “He’ll bring with him Sergeants Koffa and Badru, along with Lieutenant Lawal. Lawal is an outstanding archer and is equally proficient with a khanjar blade; he’ll serve well in close combat.”

   “Governor, I sincerely believe we should--”

   “Chancellor Ben Hassi,” the Governor silenced him. “You’ve contributed what you will to this discussion. You know as well as I that the welfare of this city-state depends not on religious beliefs but on the soundness of my leadership. Tell them whatever is necessary. Tell them I myself received a revelation from the hallowed Méraah if you must. Just get that reconnaissance squad together and ready for duty by sunrise. Have I made myself exquisitely clear, Chancellor?”

   “Yes, Madam,” the apprentice uttered respectfully with a nod. “I’ll see to it myself.”

********

      

       

     While the sun harbored behind the Ahagaar, a rare expanse of swollen thunderheads gathered over the Desert of Sähm for the first time in more than eight seasons. The unusual penumbra rolled in as if to suffocate the entire region; Sähm shook as electricity crawled across a blemished sky and rumbling thunder resounded between the mountain rages. The cloud cover soon ruptured and poured enough rain into the wasteland to flood the Ylles River and turn the desert to a boundless, steaming quagmire. Between irregular breaks in the clouds, a slowly emerging sun threw golden shafts into the storm, illuminating the raindrops like diamonds. To the soldiers at Camp Mehdîm, however, the oddity offered only a collective feeling of unease, a sentiment that was confirmed as the Governor’s chancellor called out the names of four among them.

   “What’s this about, Chancellor?” the Calabrecian General Bráhim questioned as Nimeiri and Lawal came forth, shrouded in elephant hide ponchos. “The men needed for guard duty were dispatched before last sunfall. They’ve reported as ordered, correct?”

   Streams of rainwater flooded the chancellor’s eyes as he nodded assuredly. “Yes, sir. They took their posts immediately, and I’m certain they’ll be excellent replacements. However, I’ve come on another matter, which the Governor considers to be equally urgent. Are the soldiers I’ve called forth in good health and employable for duty without delay, General?”

    Bráhim glanced around the encampment curiously. He thought it a strange preface to a request for troops, but he nodded and told him, “Yes, at this point. I can’t say what this rain will do for that, but I’m sure we’ll manage.”

   “Well, hopefully it will pass and leave us to dry out before sunfall; I’m afraid this weather won’t be very conducive to their orders.”

   “I see. And what orders are those?”

   “These men,” Ben Hassi said, gesturing to Koffa and Badru who joined the others, “have been selected for a reconnaissance mission to search for Monascan scouts, which the Governor feels confident might very well be within yards of our borders.”

   The general shrugged, still a bit perplexed by the weight of the orders. “I’m sure the Governor is aware that we’ve got security troops making constant rounds throughout our territory, is she not? There are five-man squads patrolling in quarter-passing shifts at all times. Unless the Monascans can disguise themselves as rocks and palms, Madam Delamere can rest assured that there’ll be no further incidents. She has my word on that.”

   “General Bráhim,” the chancellor implored. “This is not a routine perimeter check. The Governor requests that you send these men into the Tibesti. She is quite certain that the Monascans were able to slip into the city by monitoring the guards from the nearby mountains. And I’m afraid not a moment of repose will be had for any of us until the enemy spies are flushed out and brought to her for consequence.”

   Brilliant electrical veins scrambled across the heavens and speared the earth at the eastern horizon, sending an explosive thunderclap across the basin.

   The General’s selected team threw unsettled glances to each other and to their commander, and then Nimeiri spoke up. “Sir, if any mortal trespasses in the home of Méraah, he’s sure never to return. I owe my loyalties as a soldier to Governor Delamere with no dispute, but Méraah commands a man’s spirit for an eternity.”

    “And even if one were to find his way out of the Tibesti,” Sergeant Koffa added. “He’s cursed with a flesh rot that eats a man alive within only a few passings. I’ve seen it, sir, with my own eyes. It’s a dreadful affliction that passes from one to another and can exterminate an entire colony…an entire army, sir.”

   The General nodded. “Yes, Sergeant, I’m aware of it. Chancellor Ben Hassi, if what the Governor suspects is true, I would stake my rank on Méraah’s certain displeasure with the presence of our enemies on sacred land. I don’t know of anything that even my fiercest men can do to liken the wrath of the High Goddess.”

   The others chimed in with agreement, and Ben Hassi realized it would take a bit more than the Governor’s orders to stir a sense of urgency. He understood it wasn’t cowardice that forestalled them but devotion to their Creator and Protector. And though it set against every one of his leadership principles, the Chancellor did as he was instructed. “Your mission is promised a blessing from the Goddess Méraah,” he told them. “As it was She who revealed Herself to Governor Delamere and declared it necessary. You’ve been granted complete access into the Tibesti without spiritual recourse of any kind.”

      The skies rumbled, and a brisk easterly wind rushed through the encampment, tearing open shelter thatches and toppling work tents as soldiers bustled to make repairs.

      General Bráhim and his subordinates turned away from the storm and resorted to cover inside one of the remaining tents.

   Following after them, Ben Hassi continued his counterfeit plea. “She had a vision, a dream, if you will. And in it, the High Goddess Méraah charged her alone with the ultimate fate of Calabrecia. That fate has now been signed to you. Please, gentlemen. Upon your return with these rebels, you will be awarded the highest honors of any Calabrecian soldier to date. And I’m certain your time in the afterlife will be a glorious reward in itself for your service to Méraah.”

   General Bráhim swiped the rain from his hardened features and ran a hand through his hair. He studied the puddles at his feet for several deliberating moments before at last announcing, “I’ll leave the decision up to the men. I’m humbled by the Governor’s enlightenment, most assuredly, Chancellor. But it isn’t me whose been selected for this journey.” And he skimmed a troubled gaze off his soldiers’ faces.

      Narrow columns of platinum sunshine filtered through tears in the tent’s camel hide canopy, then faded away as the sun crept behind the clouds. Pattering raindrops filled a momentous silence between Sergeants Koffa, Badru and their commanding officers. Each of the men were at once moved and apprehended by such distinction from…could it be? The Goddess Herself? It had been said that Méraah chose, on occasion, preeminent vessels through which She performed miracles, though none of them had ever witnessed such accounts. To be rendered historical heroes by the High Goddess would surely narrate legends of their courage and obedience, long into the latter seasons of even their grandchildren’s lives. And the quality of those lives would be improved immensely without the threat of extinction, lurking in the crags of the Tibesti.

    And so, the first to step forth was Sergeant Badru. He reached over his shoulder, released his batliff from its harness and held it out before him in the center of their circle. Captain Nimeiri then drew his weapon to the challenge, and with hesitant a nod Sergeant Koffa joined them, followed by the support of Lieutenant Lawal.

   “To Calabrecia,” declared Nimeiri.

      And with a clank of the iron, Chancellor Ben Hassi had successfully carried out his complicated orders and could look forward to finding favor in the eyes of his esteemed Governor.

************

 

     Seventeen-year-old Samir Rassul sat huddled in the back room of his family’s dôcha, turning a good luck charm in his hand. It was nothing but a jagged chunk of glistening black rock, which he discovered several passings ago while out exploring with his friend Luis. It was Luis, in fact, who determined the stone to be good fortune, and with each sunfall Samir became more certain it was true. For the earlier storm, which had threatened to level their village with its roaring gusts and torrential downpours had been significantly kinder than the last. Eight seasons past, a whirling tower of wind and water had descended from the sky and trained its fury on four of Calabrecia’s thirteen colonies. And then, as if satisfied with the destruction it laid across the desert, it recoiled up into the thundercloud from which it came, and vanished. Fifty colonists had been killed, including his best friend Menzu. He was thirteen then and could remember seeing Kappolarian soldiers for the first time. They had come to Calabrecia’s aid with livestock and supplies. This passing, however, there would be no need to lament, no need for the assistance of their neighbors, as the storm clouds had broken apart and given way to Lumina’s familiar, amber sun glow. In celebration, 6th colony was preparing for festivities to begin at sunfall. His father Jomo, their live-in guest Luis and Samir had been asked to help cook for the event. Samir dreaded the exhausting chore, as there were more than seventy-five mouths watering for his mother Najia famous bean cakes and his father’s roasted dove. The Rassul’s were often called upon to cook for weddings, birth celebrations, and spiritual festivals. But cooking was a profession toward which Samir had little aspiration, for he was an artist, a painter of pottery.

      His father had always dismissed the idea, waving it off as a waste of time, “a flight of fancy for those who go hungry,” he called it. That was until the Governor herself had admired the young colonist’s work. While passing through on security rounds last season, a Calabrecian sergeant took notice to Samir’s relics, which he had been selling at the colony hub. The soldier confiscated one of them, a wine carafe with the sun setting over the Ahagaar painted on its side. For several passings after, his father forbid him to bring the collection into view, for he feared their family might face charges for breaking some unwritten law. Jomo had seen it happen to others on more than one occasion. However, the same sergeant’s squad later returned with compliments from Governor Delamere. She kept Samir’s piece for herself and had since requested additional works. Though the honor boosted his father’s encouragement somewhat, Samir was not exempt from the everyday responsibilities, which were usually suspended by his own procrastination.

   “If mother finds out you’re back here daydreaming again, she’s going to make you cook the meal all by yourself, you know,” Samir’s nine-year-old sister Issa then startled him out of his thoughts, peeking around the corner with a devilish smirk.

   Samir rolled his eyes with a heavy sigh. “Well, not if you don’t tell her. But I know that’s asking a bit too much of a spoiled little blabbermouth baby.”

   “At least I don’t believe in magic rocks, like that thing you’re always playing with,” the little girl said and gestured to the black crystal. “Ever since you found it, you swear it brings you luck, and that’s just silly. Even I know that.”

   Samir knitted his brow and said, “It has brought me luck. In fact, it’s brought us all luck, so you should be thanking Méraah for sparing the colony this passing instead of being a troublesome twit. Now, why don’t you pretend you’re not in this family and find someplace else to go?”

   “I’m telling mother.”

   “Issa!”

      His sister disappeared, and Samir could hear her broadcast to the entire family that he had not fetched the water for dinner as instructed.

     Samir heaved an exasperated sigh, rose to his feet, and set his good luck charm on the shelf behind him. As he headed out the back door to the well, he was suddenly greeted by Luis who shoved a sloshing pale of fresh cooking water through the doorway.

   He put a finger up to his lips with a wink, telling him, “Go on, quickly. I’ll tell them you were out here the whole time, that you spilled it or something. Who are they gonna believe? Both of us or your bratty sister? Now go, hurry.”

   “You’re a genius,” Samir chuckled and took the bucket. “See you back inside.”

  “Samir!” his father then called, strolling into the back room as Luis slipped through the front door unnoticed and resumed with the meal preparations.

   “Yes, father?” Samir answered casually and set the water pale on the table. He and Luis exchanged smirks, and he glared spitefully at his little sister. “Sorry I took so long. I tripped on a rock and spilled the whole thing.”

    Jomo Rassul frowned with suspicion at his oldest son, at the bucket and then at Luis. “For spilling an entire bucket of water, you certainly managed to stay out of the way of it. You must move with the quickness of a bobcat, eh? Not a drop on your clothes or shoes! Amazing!”

   “Yes, it was,” Luis confirmed, holding in a chuckle. “I’ve never seen anything like it, myself.”

   “Mm-hmm,” Mr. Rassul muttered and eyed them sideways while slicing through the neck of a plucked bird. “I think you two should leave it alone while you’re ahead and pour that water into the pot to boil. Your mother only planned to put beans in there, but I’m considering adding a couple of youngsters to the recipe, this passing.”

   That would teach them a lesson for sure!” Issa exclaimed and stuck her tongue out at them both.

   “Issa, you are not a youngster, too?” Najia then kidded but gave her daughter a stern face. “And Luis, you’re supposed to be setting an example for these two. You’re twenty-one, old enough for a family of your own but still as rambunctious as Issa, at times. I just don’t understand.”

   Again, Samir and Luis shared a shifty glance as Samir defended himself. “I don’t think it’s foolish to make fun of things as dull as cooking and cleaning. Neither of us likes this kind of work, Mama, so we just try to--”

   “This kind of work,” Najia chided, “is what’s going to get you through life when your father and I are either gone or too old to care for ourselves, young man. No one said you had to like it. But when you find yourself trying to eat one of those handsome vases the Governor requests from you, because it’s all you know, then you’ll heed my words.”

   Samir threw another exasperated look to his friend who decided wisely to keep silent as he assisted Jomo with the cleaning of the raw doves on the counter. Samir huffed, telling his mother, “Well, now you sound like Father.”

   “I’m sure she does, boy,” his father replied. “And without regret. She knows all this as well as I. And so I suggest you consider this discussion closed, or there‘ll be a long list of extra chores after the celebration.”

    “Yes, Sir,” Samir grumbled, looking to his friend with frustration. Luis shrugged and smiled sympathetically, for it was an ongoing battle that he wasn’t likely to win.

 

      As the Ahagaar’s shadows bled out across the desert, 6th Colony had gathered at several mahogany tables, which had been brought to the village center and set up around an enormous, roaring bonfire. Handmade flutes fluttered over pulsing tabla drums and a cadence of copper bells. It had been at least a season since a gathering of this size, and there was a collective air of fortune and cheer throughout the colony that even the rain-soaked earth couldn’t spoil. After another trying season of Abeya and the constant threat of war glaring out at them from the west, a celebration appeared to be a sound and rightful remedy.

      The tables were set with a medley of Mr. and Mrs. Rassul’s specialties, and a thankful incantation to Méraah was delivered so the festivities could begin.

   “I don’t understand why they’re so afraid of me wanting to be a craftsman,” Samir said to Luis as the two of them took seats.

   “Because,” Luis said sarcastically. “If all you know how to do is work with your hands, making pottery and painting it so wonderfully, then what will your future family do when they get hungry?”

   “They’ll do what my family does, and they’ll all cook,” Samir responded, then made a disapproving face. “And who is this so-called future family supposed to be with, anyway?”

   “Oh, come on,” Luis waved him off and shoved a forkful of food into a sly grin. “Efra, of course.”

    Samir turned to him with revulsion. “Efra Tulun is difficult to distinguish from the oxen she drives in the field every day. I think I can do better than that, don’t you?”

   Luis shrugged with a smirk. “Well, she likes you, Mr. Efra Tulun. How many of your pieces has she bought from you, now? Eight? Nine? I see her working extra, tilling Mr. Abadi’s field for as many rikks as he’ll pay, just so she can have an excuse to come and see about you. So, you’re going to need to know how to keep her happy.”

   “Fodder,” Samir bellowed. “All of it. Pure dung, straight from a camel’s--”

   “You know what? I’m eating, here.”

   Samir peered at him with a grin. “Good. I hope it ruins your appetite ’cause you’re working very hard at ruining mine. Efra Tulun. We’ll see about that.”

   “I honestly don’t know what the big deal is about what you do for a profession, though, seriously,” Luis said. “I mean, the Governor’s already approved of your skill, so it’s not like you’d be going against any colony laws, being an artist by trade. Who knows? If she keeps up her interest in your work, maybe she’ll make an exception and give you citizenship, perhaps to work for her alone.”

   Samir took a swallow from his cup and eyed Luis skeptically. “And I thought I was a daydreamer. That’s a very pleasant fantasy you have for me, my friend, but I’m afraid that’s all it is.” Samir set his fork down and pulled back the collar of his shirt to expose the branded scar on his left shoulder and said flatly, “That right there is a symbol I’ll wear for life. And it won’t be long before they catch up with you, too, you know. They always figure out who’s who, eventually separate the nomads and gypsies from the ones who were born here.”

   “You think?” Luis replied slyly with a confidence that always perplexed Samir when it came to that subject.

   “I know,” he insisted. “I’ve lived this since the day I was born. You’ve been here...what? Only two seasons? And though I’m happy to have found your friendship, Luis, I can’t help but wonder why you’ve stayed as long as you have, knowing Calabrecia will put its mark on you before too long.”

  Luis shrugged. “I blend well,” he told him and gazed around at the assortment of ethnicities. “It really isn’t all that difficult to do.”

   “Apparently not, at least for you,” Samir agreed. “But still, you should trust what I know and what I’ve seen. If you wish to make this your home, then you’ll have to make peace with having the status of a slave at some point.”

   Luis nodded pensively, stared into his empty plate for a long moment and then said with affected stoicism, “I will hereby make peace with being a slave…if you will make peace with being Mr. Efra Tulun.”

      Samir stared at him blankly, then hit him with a gnarled dove’s bone in amusement.

      The music soon changed rhythms, which invited a chorus of spiritual chants from several of the colonists. The meal was all but concluded, and so Luis and Samir made their way over to the bonfire to watch The Namboya, a dance of worship performed at ceremonies of great thanks to Méraah. And it was then that Samir remembered the ritual at the closing of the performance; children of Méraah were encouraged to sacrifice an article of sentimental value to the Goddess by tossing the item into the bonfire in appreciation for Her blessings. And though a part of him suffered at the thought of losing it, Samir knew exactly what would make the perfect gift.

   “I’ll be right back,” he shouted over the drums, and he started for the dôcha.

   “Where are you going?” Luis questioned quizzically.

   “The stone,” Samir called back to him as he headed away from the fire. “I need my stone for the ritual. I’ll be back. I know where I left it. Just save my spot.”

      Luis waved him on as Samir headed to his family’s quarters and pushed through the door. Inside, the muddled half-light blinded him until his eyes adjusted. He grabbed a flaming twig from the fireplace to light an oil lamp, tossed the stick into the hearth, and went straight to the rear room. But as he felt around the shelf for the good luck crystal, his fingers met with only dust and wood grain. It was gone.

   “Issa,” he hissed aloud. “You little troll.”

      It would have been a bit of a daunting task for her to climb up and snatch it from the shelf, as Samir had to stand on his toes to inspect the area thoroughly. Nonetheless, Issa often went unsupervised long enough to have dragged an empty fruit crate from the kitchen to do the task.

   “All right, you little monster,” Samir muttered. “Where’d you put it? If I were a nine-year-old river gnome, where would I think to hide my brother’s most prized possession?”

      He checked their sleeping mats, unrolled all five of them and shook them out.

      Nothing.

      He went back into the kitchen and rummaged through the cookware, searched inside cups and iron pots, even inspected the stew ladles that hung over the counter. The stone was nowhere to be found.

     Flustered, he dropped into a chair at the table to think.

   “She wouldn’t have it with her,” he mused aloud. Issa was mischievous but not foolish. She knew if she lost that stone, there would be little room for forgiveness. So, there was no need to go out and hunt her down just yet. But he had no qualms about doing so as a last resort.

   “Looking for this?” a voice then gave him a start, and he strained into the shadows to find Luis, holding out his palm, upon which rested the good luck charm.

   A rush of relief swept through Samir Rassul at the sight of his stone, but that was quickly replaced with a sense of bewilderment.

   “Yes,” he said as Luis stepped into the amber lamplight. “Yes, I was looking for that. I couldn’t…did you have it?”

   Luis gave him a thin cryptic smile. “No, I didn’t. But I have it now, it appears…all your good fortune.”

   Samir tried to grin despite a swelling sense of unease, which confused and alarmed him.

      He stood up and reached for the stone, but Luis closed his hand around it and pulled away with such astonishing quickness that Samir wasn’t quite sure if he’d seen it happen.

   He chuckled nervously. “Come on, Luis, what are you doing? Stop playing around. I mean…how’d you…?”

   “You know, I’ve always thought there to be a very critical line between fortune and fate, is there not?” Luis then declared, but Samir did not respond. He only stared at him, confounded.

   “Well?” Luis prodded, swirling the stone around in his hand. “What do you think?”

   “I think you’re acting a bit strange,” Samir heard himself say with a decisive nod. He exhaled warily. There was and unfamiliar hostility that hovered around his friend as he strolled from the shadows into the orange lamp glow and back to the darkness.

      Outside, colonists chanted and drums persisted against an eerie quietude that now enveloped the Rassul dôcha.

   “So, you do think that one’s fate might not necessarily meet with good fortune, then.”

    “I’m not sure that’s what I said,” Samir replied, following Luis with cautious eyes as his instincts and his senses heightened.

   “Oh, but that’s exactly what you said, whether you realized it or not,” Luis told him matter-of-factly. He toyed with the crystal, rolled it dexterously across his fingers, back and forth, like a slight-of-hand trick. “It was your intuition that spoke for you, and I’ve gotten to know you well enough to admit that you’re very perceptive for a slave.”

      As Luis moved into the half-light, Samir noticed he had removed his bandana; he had never seen him without it, in fact. But what sent his heart racing was the distinct emblem, inked onto the left side of Luis’ scalp. Samir froze.

   Ehroh khemîn.” He read it aloud as an unthinkable certitude turned his feet to sandstone blocks, arresting him where he stood. He winced through the gloom as the hairs on his neck raised with a dreadful tingle. “Who are you?”

   The young man’s antagonistic semi-smile brightened as if it pleased him, in a sadistic way, that Samir was catching on, and he said, “See, what did I tell you? A keen sense of awareness. And I’m sure it tells you that your circumstances, right now, are a bit less than ideal.” And he took a step closer.

   Samir at once realized he was penned into the kitchen area with the table at his back and a sworn enemy in the only path to the dôcha door. “I‘m not afraid of you,” he warned. “And if I have to I‘ll call for my father. I‘ll call for the whole colony.”

   “You won’t have time,” the young man assured and moved closer.

      Spirited voices shouted a devotional mantra to the percussion that floated in through the open window and gently ricocheted around the room.

      By the glow of the oil lamp, Samir’s attention then caught a metallic glint at the intruder’s side, and his eyes darted down to the lethal edges of what he recognized as a Yeun Yang razor. A few of the younger boys had found one of them in the dust, just outside the colony several seasons ago. The thing was seized by the elders and destroyed after one of the boys lost two fingers on its five, serrated, hook-like blades.

      He pressed his back into the table’s edge, and his eyes shifted defiantly to meet his newfound adversary. The young man who called himself ‘Luis’ kept a subtle, withholding smirk, and as Samir studied him, he recalled how unsettling that smile had always been. Until now he had dismissed it as just a smug, brazen determination to remain a free spirit, regardless of what his presence in the Calabrecian colony might bring. And though Samir had eventually come to appreciate that trait, there still remained the arrogance of a barbarian, a barbarian that stood before him now, simpering cleverly over two seasons of lies and duplicity.

   “Well, now isn’t this a dilemma?” Samir said as he inched along the table toward the oil lamp. “It makes me want to throw up my dinner, thinking I’d grown to admire you like a brother.”

   “I’m sure it does,” the young man responded dryly and tightened a grip around the Yeun Yang’s leather handle. He watched Samir’s movements, followed them stringently, abiding a flawless moment in which to strike.

   “So, this is what you do with your travels then. Deceive those along the way into giving what little they can, then repay them like this?”

   “Deception is just a matter of perspective, I always thought,” the impostor replied. “You speak of it like a weakness, but then again I should expect as much from a peasant who’ll live the rest of his life in service to a drunkard.”

      Samir let out a humorless chuckle, tried to appear relaxed and unafraid as he leaned against the table. Peripherally, he focused on the position of the lamp at his right and situated himself within reach.

 “Well, at least I can say I’ve lived honorably,” he said and cupped a hand around the base of the lamp, swept it from the tabletop and sent it whizzing in Luis’ direction. But the young slave boy, bold as a mountain lion, had been outmatched from the day the two had met. For his assassin read the muscular flinches in his arm before the lamp ever launched from its place. With an effortless, proficient swat, Luis deflected it into the far wall where it burst into a shower of hot oil and glass, then he swung the Yeun Yang razor up through the torso of his objective, and the boy collapsed into a heap at his feet.

      Corporal Seth Broussard stood silently over his prey. He waited for the spasms to subside so he could consummate the practice by which Monascan recruits had achieved status for the last thousand seasons. For, with this kill, he could advance to the rank of sergeant, the coveted position he had been working toward since the age of ten.

      The young man’s body stilled, and Broussard knelt at his side and turned him onto his back. The sweep of the razor severed open a deep, gaping trench from the lower abdomen to the sternum, which would make the following procedure fairly simple.

      He set the good luck crystal in the dirt with his weapon, and with a smaller paring knife concealed in his boot, he began removing the organs that obstructed access to the chest cavity.

      Working hastily, Seth Broussard dismissed the threat of Issa, Najia, or Jomo stumbling across the scene while investigating their son’s whereabouts. He also found himself struggling to dismiss the notion of having instead performed this operation on a goat or a steer. But such deception toward his military leaders would only bring the curse of dishonor from the gods, particularly Apaimah, the god of war who would see that Seth’s demise was trifling and insignificant, devoid of the Monascan glory for which he strove. Yet, a part of him had grown somewhat fond of Samir, the Calabrecian slave who dreamed of one-day painting murals on the walls of his ruling city. And in that unfolding reverie Corporal Broussard may have played his part a bit too well, he thought, having constantly given the boy hopes that would only manifest in the fantasies of the afterlife.

      He sawed away at the sinews of the diaphragm muscle, honing in on the darkness at his back, listening for the alert of intrusion.

     It had been the colonial boy’s fondness for life, ironically, that compelled Seth Broussard to adopt his own father’s name and assimilate himself into the world of Samir Rassul. And as he worked at feigning a bond between them, the sojourner ‘Luis’ at times did battle with the warrior Broussard over the contrition behind their collective deeds.

      Seth reached up and grabbed a dishtowel from the countertop, threw it over the boy’s face and resumed his task.

      Though he appreciated the difficulty of this ultimate rite of passage, Corporal Broussard did precisely as he was trained and mentally slay the penitent wayfaring ‘Luis’ as swiftly as he dropped his mark to the dirt just moments ago.

      The wall of flesh that separated the stomach from the breastbone was at last disconnected. He lay the paring knife on the boy’s chest and slowly worked a hand up between the rib cages, feeling around for proof of his kill. His fingertips came upon the pithy muscle at his victim’s core, and with careful exactness he dislodged it from its fragile shell and secured it in a leather satchel, strapped to his weapon belt.

      The village music came to a brief close, then resumed with a new rhythm. The change in atmosphere made him uneasy, and so he gathered his tools and quietly calculated the stealthiest exit from the colony.

      Seth Broussard rose to his feet and surveyed the area once more as not to leave any unnecessary clues. The good luck crystal then caught his eye from where he left it in the dust. He stooped down and studied it for a moment, considered taking it with him but decided against that. Instead, he picked the stone out of the dirt and placed it in the empty shell where its owner’s heart once persisted with life.

     A shuffling outside then quickened his senses, and he crept away from the body, through the dôcha and out the back door.

     When he was beyond the boundaries of the colony, the soon-to-be Sergeant Broussard adjusted his bootstraps and took off across the desert on a brisk twenty-mile dash toward Camp Vallone.     

************

 

 

    The rain had ceased, and the desert air lingered over the earth in gray, murky tiers that ascended the walls of the Tibesti like palisades to another world. For Nimeiri, Lawal, Koffa and Badru, it was a forbidden realm that promised them a noble reception, regardless of the foreboding pathway that began at the mountain foot where they packed their horses.

      The ground sank beneath their boots with every step. Even the horses flexed their flanks obstinately, unaccustomed to the encumbering muck.

      Captain Nimeiri traced the path up into the bluff until it disappeared in a serpentine coil around the cliffs. His first mind told him he was foolish for subjecting himself and his men to such a contemptuous journey into the unknown. He didn’t like the way his steed back-peddled so anxiously under his weight. He scowled up into the mist that shrouded the mountain trail and searched himself for his own faith. For most of his life, it had been courage that moved him toward danger, perhaps solely. And as he gazed into the sacred ground before him, he could not have been any less certain whether bravery and creed brought to bear equal burdens.

   “We should be on our way, Lieutenant,” Sergeant Badru then announced and handed his commander a lighted torch for the trip. He climbed atop his horse with an eager grin and said brashly, “There’ll be no place dark enough to escape us with Méraah at our backs.” And with a spur of his heels, he forged his Arabian onward to spirit the other men.

      He was only twenty-five and fearless, as fearless as his inexperience would allow him to be, anyway. Nevertheless, Nimeiri liked him. A subtle smile crossed his lips as he watched him gather the others into a confident unit, readying them for whatever enigmas awaited at the heights of the forbidden Tibesti.

 

************

     

(#7) Corporal Ahmat Kabadi reeled from another crushing blow to the jaw. It felt like he had been belted with rocks, but he steadied himself and strained to focus on the shifting blur of his opponent. He was growing angry and considered reaching for his katar to put an end to it; however, the rules of sparring forbade the use of a sharpened blade, particularly in these hand-to-hand training exercises.

     The soldier before him skipped away into his peripheral view, then vanished just as Kabadi’s feet were swept away, and he dropped heavily onto his back. He swiped the dust from his face and scrambled to a fighting stance, furiously snatching the weapon from his belt as he sliced at the air between himself and the blur. The circle of on-looking trainees erupted with exhilaration and disapproval and cheered for the opposing soldier.

   “An ignorant warrior fights with anger,” the voice of their guide, Master Saidi-Saif, chastised patiently over the crowd. The seventy-four-year-old Monascan guru strolled in a watchful figure-eight, stroking his platinum beard. He would not disqualify Kabadi for his breach of combat etiquette, this passing; it wasn’t going to be necessary. Instead, he continued to monitor the bout while awaiting his most learned student to teach the lesson for him. “A moment of patience,” he declared, “…can stave off great tragedy…”

      Kabadi snarled through gritted teeth and lunged at his rival, then lost his footing. His weapon hand was wrestled behind him, and he was thrust face-first into the gravel, his head wrenched back toward the desert sun; he could feel the tip of his own blade pressing into the flesh at his jugular.

   “A moment of impatience, however, can mark the end of a very short lifetime,” Saidi-Saif professed, and an anxious hush fell over the circle of soldiers. The Master’s star pupil looked to him for confirmation, and Saidi-Saif threw up his hands.

   “Do whatever it is you feel necessary, Corporal Naginata,” he instructed. “What good is a weapon if you cannot decide for yourself how and when to use it?”

      Tai Naginata contemplated that for several moments as one of others shouted over the murmur for her to finish the job. Her competitor struggled, but he was pinned to the dirt with her knee planted in the small of his back. This was hers and Kabadi’s fifth match, and Tai found him to be about as rational an angry viper. In battle, he would prove to be more of a liability than a benefit at this point. He was sloppy and driven by rage when provoked. The Monascan army couldn’t afford his kind. Not now. Not with one of the most significant sieges for territory on the near horizon.

     With a hand cupped firmly around Kabadi’s brow, she yanked the soldier’s head back and lay the edge of the blade against his windpipe. And as the crowd crescendoed to a roar, Tai Naginata made the decision to set him free, but not without leaving a quick, two-inch reminder of his fortune, drizzling down onto his chest. Corporal Naginata turned from him and swaggered away, believing thoroughly that even primates like Kabadi could eventually be molded into adequate warriors.

      Tai heard footsteps in a rush at her back.

      She stopped. Heavy boots on dusted gravel encroached on the left, and she waited, listened, then sidestepped with a quick half-turn and plunged the katar deep into Kabadi’s abdomen. A huge jagged rock tumbled out of his hand as he fell to the dirt for the last time.

      The others exploded into a clamor of accolades and surrounded Naginata with firm congratulatory embraces, but she shrugged them off, for she was irritated with this kill. She gazed down at Kabadi with a frustrated sigh and shook her head. When she broke his nose early in the match, she somewhat expected him to retaliate unfairly, and when he did, she felt she handled it well. She honestly hoped that would have been the end of it.

   “I’m sensing a feeling of regret, Corporal Naginata,” Master Saidi-Saif noted as Kabadi’s corpse was hoisted onto the shoulders of the others and carried away for disposal.

   Tai shook her head. “No. Disappointment, maybe. I mean, he charged me from behind with every intention of cracking my skull. What else did he think I was going to do?”

   “And disappointment,” Saidi-Saif posed, “is not regret in a clever disguise? Somewhere inside Corporal Kabadi was the will to die, to die this way. You’ve merely given his spirit what it wanted. So, no regrets, and no ‘disappointments’, as you call it. Your time will come, and when it does the gods will introduce you as friends once again.”

    She chuckled a bit and said, “Well, I don’t know that Kabadi and I were ever friends, at least not from his point of view. But if you say so, sir.”

   “Indeed I do. Now, go and add your newest trophy to your collection with pride,” Saidi-Saif told her, gesturing to the bloodstained katar she had obtained from her victim. “There will be many more in your future, Corporal Naginata. This I am certain.”

      Her master turned to her with a bow and shuffled away toward the center of camp. Tai watched with a thin smile as his sandaled feet brushed irregular furrows into the dust beneath his tattered robe, each step punctuated by the stabs of his walking stick. To lay eyes on him, one would figure him but a picture of aged frailty. Yet, in the past ten seasons under his tutelage, Tai witnessed exactly why he was considered a Monascan legend. And in her own sparring bouts with Saidi-Saif, Corporal Naginata learned quickly that the key to getting through them unscathed was to stay as far out of reach of that walking stick as possible. Beyond the training circle, Saidi-Saif had offered her not only endowments of wisdom but also a few of his own combat secrets. He trained Tai’s father nearly forty seasons passed, shaping him into a military hero. And upon learning Tai’s relationship to the late Lieutenant, he immediately took a shine to her potential. Now, in her twenty-first year, Tai Naginata had a reputation that inspired her fellow soldiers, and it was believed she would one day fill the hearts of her enemies with certain dread.

   Six moves before you got him into submission?” She then heard a very familiar voice, taunting her from a short distance behind. “Either you’re slipping or I’ve been gone too long, Corporal.”

   A wide grin crept across her lips as she shook her head. She folded her arms across her chest and turned around. “Five moves. It was five moves, thank you very much. I think maybe you’ve spent a little too much time with the illiterate, having forgotten how to count.”

      Seth Broussard chuckled and approached her with open arms.

   “So, when’d you get back? How was it? You know I have a million questions,” Tai told him with a heartfelt embrace.

   “Last passing. But of course I had to go before the Warrior Counsel for my advancement hearing, which is more like an interrogation session, but I think I held my own pretty well,” he said as they walked together through camp.

   Tai then stopped and peered around at the completed warrior emblem on Seth’s scalp. “Oh, man. Look at you, Sergeant Broussard. Well, I guess you out-rank this lowly Corporal now. And, technically, I’m out of line at this moment, aren’t I?” And she skipped around behind him and took her proper position at his left. As she did, two approaching cadets took notice to the red and black braided Sergeant’s band around Seth’s left bicep, and they saluted him with a quick bow, touching a hand to the chest and then to the forehead.

   “You’re lucky you noticed your place before I did, by the way,” he kidded with a smirk. “Or I’d have been forced to have you flogged while doing pull-ups on the nearest tree limb.”

   “Nice,” she smirked. “You’re really not fooling around with this, are you?”

   “Nope,” he said. “And as a matter of fact, the Warrior Counsel is considering making me a training sergeant.”

   “They told you that?” she said with envious disbelief. “You’ve always wanted that. I mean, you’ve practically been Captain Kirac’s shadow for the past twenty seasons. He must’ve given you a recommendation. That’s outstanding.”

   Well, nothing’s been set as of yet, and it probably won’t be decided for a couple more seasons. It gives them time to see how I handle the authority of the rank itself, I suppose.”

   Tai looked around the encampment and said to him, “Well, so far it seems like you’re doing all right to me. For your first day, anyway.” And she grinned. “So, tell me, how’d you manage to keep your sanity after two seasons with Delamere’s dregs? Must’ve been brutal having to mingle with the likes of that for so long.” Naginata then reached over and rubbed his head. “At least all that fuzz you had growing in is gone now, dreg.”

   Seth smiled and shrugged. “Hey, had to look the part, you know.” He hadn’t realized how much he missed her until he felt her touch. Two seasons gone, and her smile had only grown more attractive. They took a seat at the nearest campfire and he told her, “The only thing that was brutal about the mission was being away from…well…everyone here. But it could’ve been worse, I suppose. I was a cook, so it wasn‘t like I did anything too laborious.”

    Tai couldn’t help but laugh at that. “A cook? Well, that proves my point quite well, I’d say. For a dreg to make you a cook shows just how ignorant they truly are.” She laughed aloud. “You’re sure you didn’t wipe out the whole colony unintentionally?”

    “I was hoping it might happen, actually,” he grinned. Then maybe they’d have promoted me to Colonel instead.” He took up a rock from the dust and fidgeted with it, hoping to fill an awkward silence that was mounting between them now, but the words were elusive and left him with only a foolish smile. So, he reacquainted himself with her olive skin, the curve of her lips, the exotic shape of her eager brown eyes. He had watched her emerge from a tiring spirited tomboy into a celebrated warrior with the fiercest of beauty on her side, like an auxiliary weapon, a weapon she was hardly aware that she possessed. And with it she could render him useless if they ever found themselves on opposite sides of a battle.

    Tai was the first to sever their gaze. Her eyes wandered to the dirt between them and lifted out into the distance. She understood him very well. He had become hopelessly absorbed with her in their time together; it evolved as they had, grew like a vine around their friendship, a vine which, every now and again, needed trimming.

    “I wish you wouldn’t do that, Seth,” she said at last, wearily.

    He rolled the stone around in his hand and studied it with a pensive nod. “I thought maybe my absence might…I dunno…”

    “Might what?” she questioned. “Change things? Change me?”

    He shrugged, tossed the rock into the fire.

    “We’ve had this discussion too many times in twenty seasons,” she breathed and shook her head. She propped her elbows on her knees and peered over at him with frustrated sympathy. “I am what I am. A Monascan, first and foremost. A soldier. A woman--”

    “A woman who loves women,” he recited from a hundred conversations like this one. “I know, I know. But…it just always seemed natural that…” And his voice trailed off without hope.

    “Natural?”

    “Yeah,” he insisted. “That we grew up together and then ended up here…together. As a male, I was destined to be here, but not every female gets chosen for this army, Tai. And the night when the cadre came for us could’ve easily been the last time we ever saw each other, but no. The Gods kept us in each other’s sight for some reason, and--”

    “And that reason was so that we could watch over each other,” she told him. “To come between an enemy and his blade, which I would do without hesitation. But you’ve got to realize that’s a love from another place in my heart, Seth. And it’s a huge place that no one else occupies. But there’s a portion of my heart that will always be reserved for someone else, whoever she might be.”

    “Arehlya,” he then grumbled and picked up another stone, chucked it into the fire. “You two spent enough time together to make up for the two seasons I was gone. Is she still that special to you?”

    Tai gave that fond smile and a breath of laughter. And he hated the way she seemed so pleasantly lost in the thought of her; it twisted his gut into an impossible knot.

    “Corporal Arehlya Seguro,” she reflected considerately. “Seguro is a friend but nothing more. She had potential, I suppose, but there was always something self-serving about her. Glory is what she loves most, and so glory is what she can pursue. And she can pursue it without me because I’ll be gone within a passing or so, myself, you know.”

    He shot her a look, surprised and wounded, as if somehow he had forgotten that she was Monasco’s greatest expectation, that the time would ultimately come for her to prove it. The amber firelight trembled across her features, and he tore his eyes away and spoke into the dirt. “So, they’ve set it up, then. An audience with the Counsel.” And he nodded, tried to smile as though he wouldn’t be lonely for her in the least. “Well. That’s great news. Finally, all this will be worth it, right?”

    “Yeah. Twenty seasons of combat scenarios and broken bones and forty-mile treks through the Tibesti with my own weight strapped to my back. Just so I can keep it all up while earning salutes from the trainees. Like you now.” And she grinned at him, rested a hand proudly on his shoulder and gave him a playful shove.

    And so he resigned himself to the supposition that any form of love from her was better than none at all. “Like me is something you’ll never be, Corporal Naginata,” he kidded. There’s only one Sergeant Broussard, so let’s be sure we have that as clear as rainwater before you take off out into Sähm.”

    “Oh, absolutely,” she smirked. “Understood, Sergeant.”

    “Naginata!” A member of the cadre then approached and motioned her over as Seth looked on.

    “Yes, Sergeant,” she rose to him with a salute.

    “Come with me.”

        She threw Seth a glance that he read clearly. It was Sergeant Siva, the same soldier who sent for him last Abeya. Rounding trainees for their rite of passage was Siva’s job, which meant only one thing. But it was too sudden, Seth thought. He had just gotten back, himself, had only a little while with her. Seth rose to his feet and requested a moment that Siva impatiently granted.

    “Listen to me,“ he said quickly, earnestly. “You remember who you are. Two seasons are just two grains of sand in the desert from here to there, you understand? Immerse your self but not your soul; you leave that here, where it belongs. And when it’s done, I’ll find you.” And he smiled proudly.

    She nodded, embraced him for several moments, then turned away toward the awaiting Sergeant.

       As she followed Siva through camp, Tai began to feel a bit suspicious as they bypassed the Counsel tent altogether. Cadets looked on, knowing full well Sergeant Siva’s occupation, and they watched her pass with envy and respect, aware that upon her return the acclaimed Corporal would have a powerful stake in the Monascan army.

    Sergeant Siva led her to the outskirts of camp where two stallions awaited them, tethered to a nearby cypress. He handed her a riding mantle. “Don’t get too accustomed to it, Corporal. You’ll be on foot next passing, most assuredly. This is only to conserve time to get to Monasco.”

    She took the blanket with a bewildered frown. “To Monasco? But…I don’t understand, Sergeant. I thought I was to appear before the Warrior Counsel. Have I done something wrong?”

     He swung a leg over his stallion and spoke with a stone face. “General Monasco’s sent for you himself. I’m not at liberty to discuss his reasons, only to see that you’re in his presence by sunrise.” And he gestured for her to saddle up and move out, kicked his horse and bolted eastward across the desert.

        And so, Tai Naginata secured her weapon belt, climbed onto her steed and spurred out into the wasteland after him.

 

    *************

 

        (#8) Vincente Monasco paced before his chamber window, watching the Ahagaar, waiting for the glistening sunrise. He gazed down into the city square and observed the beginning of a new passing as merchants set up tables while citizens strolled throughout. Sähm had remained quiet for twenty seasons, undisturbed by his and Delamere’s ravaging armies. They always made such a bedlam of this precious soil, dragging the dead and wounded over the berms, staining the sand with so much blood that it now burned a deep, fiery red under a pale blue sky. The time was at hand to put a stop to all the destruction and turmoil. Once defeated, Calabrecia would fall under his control, and he could make quick work of her sister city, Kappolaris, which she had been guarding for thirty seasons like a lover from a seductive thief. And that was precisely what he would be in due time, an irresistible force, the likes of which Sähm has never known. Careful preparations and strategies had been drawn up, and by next Lumina, Calabrecia would be pounded to the dust upon which she sits, then scattered into the wake of ten thousand black stallions, charging forth into Monasco’s magnificent future.

    There was a knock at his door and Captain Olanga peered inside. “They’ve arrived, General,” he said, and Monasco nodded and waved him away. Alas, his hope against hope. He extinguished his cigar and headed out through the palace halls.

            A bit astounded, Tai Naginata abided patiently. She stood at parade-rest in the center of the General’s court, diminutive amidst all the quiet majesty, ceilings as tall as palms, decorated with intricate murals of the Order of Gods. Lighted torches flanked open windows with vast exorbitant views of the red desert, as if Monasco was all there was, all there ever was. The floors gleamed like liquid pearl, spread with huge rugs of burgundy and cream while lime green fronds grew in clay pots so enormous she herself could crawl inside and never be found. And at the top of three marble stairs was the General’s chair, gold-trimmed mahogany with a red cushioned back. Two Monascan estate guards posed stoically on either side of the dais, iron statues that suddenly clanked to attention as General Monasco entered the room. Tai touched a hand to her chest and forehead, then knelt to a knee with her eyes to the marble floor.

    “You may rise, Corporal,” he said to her kindly and took a seat. She had never been this close to him. All she had ever known of him were his public orations, which he delivered from the terrace over the main thoroughfare when she was a child. He was much softer spoken than she had anticipated, and she snapped to attention with a hand resting ceremoniously on the handle of her scimitar.

    “At ease,” he urged, and she shifted to parade-rest, clasped her hands in the small of her back with another sharp snap. He smiled again, telling her, “It’s good to see you understand the protocol for this meeting, Corporal, but really, I haven’t called you here for a test of that.”

    “Yes, sir.” She kept her military bearing, refrained from making eye contact, which could be construed as disrespectful.

        The General said nothing and studied her for several long moments, tapping the arm of his chair as he rubbed his chin in deep contemplation.

    “Your father,” he finally said. “He was someone to whom I entrusted my life on more than one occasion. And at least one of those occasions proved me a very keen judge of character, for he put himself in the path of an enemy pole ax that aimed to take my head as a trophy that passing.” He shifted in his seat and gazed around the marble floor, reflecting on the past. “The Battle of Buhari,” he continued quietly. “It was probably one of the most bloodletting sieges this army has ever undertaken. And it was Lieutenant Naginata who assisted in leading our troops into Mehkos and right through Nye as if we’d trampled over nothing more than slave colonies. And the Monasco of this passing would be little more than that if it weren’t for his impeccable service, for his loyalty to me.”

    “Yes, sir,” Tai uttered, uncertain as to what the General was implying, though she was at once moved and bewildered by the heroic details of her father’s death. She took a deep breath and waited for him to continue. The General rose from his chair, strolled down the steps and circled her slowly, nodding with what appeared to be approval. Then he stopped and stood before her.

     “You’re a very vicious competitor, aren’t you?” he said but didn’t wait for a reply. “Your father was vicious as well, had quite a violent streak of hatred that ran right through him when it came to combat. But he was otherwise a very gentle, even merciful man. I’m sure you’re aware.”

    “Yes, he was, sir.”

    He began to circle her again as he spoke. “And you?” he questioned. It’s a shame what happened to Corporal Kabadi last passing. Don’t you think?”

    Is that was this was about? Kabadi’s death was in self-defense. She violated no part of the Warrior Code, acted with absolute qualified reason. Tai exhaled shakily and erected herself with confidence. “No, sir. I don’t.”

    The General’s face twisted into a cunning grin, and he chuckled lightly. “No, you don’t,” he confirmed. “You haven’t a drop of remorse for that stumbling cretin, do you? But you see, that’s precisely what beats a Monascan heart, Corporal. Reparations are made in the afterlife, if it’s so deemed. But in this life,” he said, peering closely into her face with a finger pointed toward the Order of Gods. “In this life we appropriate justice as it presents itself, without regret, without dishonor…and without hesitation.” He stepped away but kept his gaze. “You had intentions to spare him.”

    “Yes, sir,” she admitted. “I thought he showed promise, that he could’ve been an asset to us with more training.”

    The General nodded. “And see, I like that about you as well, Naginata. Your faith in your fellow soldiers. Your commitment to their potential. They revere you, you know, like a god. They bicker over whether Apaimah touched your mother’s womb before your father’s seed was ever planted. He raised an ambiguous eyebrow and smiled wryly.

   “I’ve simply made the most of my training, sir,” she refuted with a soft, dubious sigh. “The god of war hasn’t taken any more interest in me than any other soldier, except to give me guidance. Nothing more.”

   He paused for a long moment and regarded her with judicious sobriety. “Well, believe what you will, Corporal, but your humility isn’t what interests me here today. It’s your leadership qualities. Which is why I’m giving you command of your own company, once you return from the colonies.”

     Tai met his eyes for an astounded instant, then averted to the marble stairs as he explained. “It’s a Special Forces unit, a project of mine, you might say. For the last twenty seasons I’ve been perfecting operations for an attack on Calabrecia, which I expect we’ll be ready to execute by next Lumina. And whether you’re favored by Apaimah really isn’t my concern. You’re preceded by an icon, a hero, descended directly from his story, and you’re everything he was and more, from what I‘ve seen of your training. Fierce,” he hissed eagerly and circled her again. Flawlessly skilled. And let us be frank, Corporal. I’m not going to be in this world until it ends. I’ve got no children. My wife has passed from illness. And depending on how things play out,” he shrugged, “there will have to be a successor, somewhere on the horizon. Remain as loyal to me as your father was, and stay alive long enough to witness my fate, and who knows what might arise.” He turned from her then and started for the loggia. “Set out for Calabrecia by sunfall,” he instructed over his shoulder. You’ll leave here a Corporal and return a Major. You’re dismissed.” And he disappeared through the emerald fronds, leaving her there in the astute silence of the guards.

    “Yes, sir,” she muttered, latent from the blow. Something soared inside her, rose from the pit of her gut and swelled around her heart; it was beyond pride, surpassed honor--it was fear. It whispered of her inadequacy to fill her father’s shoes, much less the General’s. She stood in the center of Monascan command and waited for the feeling to subside. It was unfamiliar to her. Tai Naginata feared nothing. Except, perhaps, herself. But then she recalled the sandstorm, twenty seasons past, the ferocity in Sergeant Muralii’s eyes, rivaled only by the winds of Sähm that sunfall. She had risen from an awkward girl with a wooden khanjar, playing soldier in the courtyard, to a celebrated Corporal at the threshold of eminence. And with the future of Monasco now lain at her feet, Tai Naginata brought herself to attention, turned and marched out to join Sergeant Siva in the city square.

 

*****************

 

      Captain Nimeiri rubbed the sleep from his eyes, what little there was after a night under the stars in the ominous Tibesti. He and his men traveled all passing, ascended as deeply as the horses could climb until they came upon an oasis plateau, lush with palms, figs and date trees. The most striking feature of their campsite, however, were the sandstone ruins, scattered about the vicinity--crumbling mud brick shells of some prior existence, an unfortunate tribe, perhaps, eradicated by the High Goddess, hundreds of seasons ago.

    Sergeant Koffa then pulled open Nimeiri’s tent flap and poked his head inside. “Sleep well, sir?” he grinned.

    Nimeiri grumbled and rolled his eyes, pulling on his boots. “What do you think, Sergeant? Between the vultures and the screaming lemurs, I’d have done better to have had my mother-in-law come along,” he chuckled.

    And not your wife?” Koffa teased, and the Captain half-shook his head with a smile. “Well, my wife might liken whatever it was that sacked those buildings,” he told him with a smirk. “But the incessant shrieking would be more her mother’s approach.”

     Koffa laughed and helped him out of the tent. “Sergeant Badru’s built us a fire and he’s cooking breakfast.”

    Nimeiri eyed him strangely. “Breakfast?”

       He and Koffa went over to the campfire where Sgt. Badru turned an animal on a makeshift spit while stirring what looked like eggs in a small section of armor.

    “Morning, sir,” Badru greeted. “If you’ll have a seat, this will be ready in just a moment.”

    Nimeiri stood over the fire, surveyed the scene with amusement. “Where’d you find all this, Sergeant?” the Captain questioned with a chuckle, and the soldier pointed behind him into the brush.

    “There was a nest,” he told him. “I found it when I was…well…you know. At any rate, the eggs looked to be edible, and the fox,” he pointed to the roasting game, “Well, he was outsmarted this passing, took him down with an arrow.”

    “Well, it looks like I’ve overslept,” Nimeiri chuckled and took a seat beside the fire.

       Lieutenant Lawal then emerged from his tent with a stretch. He shook out a leg, then the other, adjusted his weapon belt and ambled over to the campfire.

    “What have we got here?” He reached down and snatched a pinch of meat from the charred animal, held it to his nose and made a face. “What in the name of the ancestors is this?” He popped the morsel into his mouth and savored it for several moments, then spewed it to the ground. “Well, that’s awful,” he remarked and frowned at Badru. “You’re going to starve us, cooking up something like that.”

    “I believe fox is an acquired taste, sir,” the Sergeant smirked, and Lawal looked around at Koffa and Nimeiri in disbelief.

    “Fox?” he exclaimed as the others laughed. “Well, that’s like roasting a dog, isn’t it? Or a cat? They’re scavengers, and it’s evident in that horrendous flavor.”

    Badru grinned and turned the spit. “Well, then you’ll have a larger share the eggs, sir.”

    Lawal took a seat next to Koffa. “And I suppose you’re going to tell me they’re vulture eggs, am I right?”

    Badru regarded him with caution. “Well, I’m not really certain, sir, to be honest. But they looked like they came straight from a hen.”

    “A hen? In the Tibesti?” the Lieutenant grumbled. “And how exactly did it get here? Fly?”

        Nimeiri and Koffa broke into laughter as Lawal shook his head. The meal was ready, and so Badru rationed out the eggs onto burlap mats and sliced the roasted fox into small portions.  Their faces soured at the taste of the foreign meat, but Lawal nodded with approval for the eggs.

    “Now these are just fine,” he told Badru. “In fact, these’ll do well at banquet. Who would’ve thought, a delicacy found in the forbidden Mountains?”

    “Agreed,” Nimeiri added. “I should give you a promotion for your discovery, Sergeant.”

    “Well, I don’t know about that, sir. But I’m sure there’s something up here that’ll present enough of a challenge to earn a promotion,” Badru said. “I’ve been ready for it since we left Mehdîm.”

    Koffa told him, “Well, so far there’s nothing but a lot of rocks and dust. This oasis is the only interesting part of the entire mission. Is the Governor certain the enemy’s been prowling about up here, Captain? Because if so, he’s camouflaged himself very well.”

    Nimeiri shrugged and scooped up a bite of eggs with a strip of fox meat. “Well, we’ve got until sunfall to find out. Then we’re heading back. If she’s not convinced, then she can send up another squad. Maybe they’ll have better luck.”

        After they ate, the men packed up camp and mounted their horses for another tour of the area. Koffa sang Calabrecian folk songs under his breath as Badru chatted with Nimeiri about his upcoming leave time. Lawal stayed up front, scanned the bush as point man with a hand on his saber. He then spied something peculiar and slowed his horse, whistled to the others and held up a cautionary hand. Koffa grew silent as Badru and Nimeiri clenched their khanjars.

       A man-made passageway had emerged through the rock formations, a mud brick conduit that wrapped around into the palms. Lawal could not be sure if it was currently in use or if it was just another relic from a lost tribe. He ambled closer and drew his sword, and the others followed at a strategic distance, quiet, but for the plodding of the horses.

       A wild flutter then bolted out of the trees as a snake eagle took sudden flight, nearly startling Lawal off his steed, and he swore at it. He straightened his armor and composed himself as the bird vanished over the brush. The path was lined with hand-laid brick, aged as the ruins at the campsite, and Lawal made a detailed scan of the ground for footprints, horse tracks, evidence of life, be it enemy or otherwise. The mysterious channel coiled in a puzzling bend and emptied out into more jungle, evidently benign.

    “I wonder what it was for,” Koffa pondered as they headed onward. “And for whom.”

    Nimeiri breathed a wary sigh. “Well, whomever they were, they apparently haven’t been welcome here for quite some time.”

    “Could it have been Darawanu?” Badru then posed, and the others eyed him skeptically, except for Koffa.

    “A passing ago,” Koffa said. “I might have recommended you have your head examined, Sergeant. But after what we’ve come across on this mission, I really don’t know, anymore.”

    Lawal waved them off as callow and superstitious. “You’re inexperience is beginning to show,” he said. “Always the under-ranks, heeding to folklore. If I had a rikk for every Corporal, Sergeant, or Cadet who entertained the notion of cave-dwellers, I’d be the Governor.”

    “And so what changed, Lieutenant?” Badru grinned. “Old age, maybe? Or does all that time in the desert camps dry up the imagination?”

    Lawal sneered. “Yeah, you’ll find out, greenhorn. Get a few battles under your belt, throw in all the politics, then try to figure out where, exactly, you fit in to the big picture. It’ll ground you. It’ll take a few seasons, but it’ll ground you.”

    Nimeiri chuckled and added, “Sergeant, you should know better than to debate with a old crow like Lawal. He’s been losing his sense of humor for the last thirty seasons, slowly but surely turning to stone.”

    “Well, somebody’s got to provide some stable thinking between us,” he spat. “And you ought to be glad it’s me.”

    Nimeiri laughed with a wink for the others as they continued through the brush. Their expedition was nearly complete with no sign of Monascan presence, thus far.

    “Hey, look,” Badru then pointed into the thicket at the base of a fig tree. “Another nest, like the one I found at the campsite. We should gather them, take them back to the city. At least we won’t come back empty handed.”

    Well, I don’t know how they’d make the trip,” Koffa said. Where would we put them?”

    Badru dismounted, rummaged through his saddle pack and presented a thick wad of first-aid linen. “If we wrapped them carefully enough, I think they’d make it just fine. We’re moving pretty slowly. What do you think, Captain?”

    Nimeiri shrugged. “It’s your saddlebag, Sergeant. I don’t see anything wrong with it. Just don’t be too surprised if they’re already scrambled by the time we reach Calabrecia.”

    “I think it’s a great idea,” Lawal offered. “For once, you’re using your head for something practical. But you better bundle them like a baby, or you’ll have yourself a real mess when we get back.”

        Sergeant Badru shoved the bandages into his belt and stepped through the foliage toward the nest. Seven curious eggs lay neatly arranged in the sunlight, nestled in a soft patch of buffalo grass. He plucked them off the ground, whipped out his packing linen and swathed each one individually for travel. “There we go,” he muttered and carried them with absolute care through the bushes.

Something latched onto his calf and shook it. Badru buckled to his knees, dropped in anguish as the eggs splattered to the dirt, and he flung himself onto his back and clawed at the thing that had a hold of his leg. He couldn’t get a glimpse of it through the edge of the grass, wasn’t sure if he really wanted to know as it shrieked and spit and tugged his flesh. He could feel every muscle constrict as he swatted what looked like a lizard, or perhaps a scorpion, antennae and pinchers and scales that thrashed about, looking to take a piece of him for keepsake.

    And then at once it ceased. Severed in half by the Lieutenant’s khanjar. Badru scurried from the thicket and collapsed onto his back at his horse‘s feet.

    “Oh, for the sake of Méraah,” he gasped, reaching to the blood that smeared his shredded calf. The wound festered already, sizzled and foamed and burned through to the bone with a venom unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

    “I never saw it coming,” Badru moaned, staring wide-eyed at the sky as his breath thickened in his throat. “Oh, blessed Goddess,” he wheezed.

    “What in all of Sähm was that?” Lawal shouted as the men knelt at the soldier’s side.

    I think it was our delicacy’s mother,” Nimeiri muttered, holding Badru’s head to give him some air.

    “And what a b***h she was,” Lawal remarked, working quickly to pack the wound with cider-treated linen, for Badru had taken on violent shudders. “We need to get him somewhere secure,” he concluded. “Away from that thing’s nest. For all we know there could be a dozen more, crawling around here.”

   Captain Nimeiri said, “We’ll take him to the next clearing and get him into a tent. Koffa,” he instructed. “Take him on your horse, and I’ll lead his with me.”

    “Yes, sir.”

        Nimeiri made a last minute stroll through the weeds, grabbed the head of the slain creature and bundled it in burlap. If nothing else, they could make the people aware of the thing when they got back to the city. Perhaps it could be examined by academics for some future understanding.

        The men gingerly hoisted Immel Badru onto the back of Koffa’s steed and draped him with a riding mantle, then headed through the trail to find a suitable campsite.

       The oasis eventually dwindled and gave way to heavy, distorted crags of boulder and sand. Between the rifts lay an open area, walled off with towering rugged stone, an appropriate enclosure for camp, and the squad rushed to pitch a medical tent for their comrade. Badru had slipped into a state of delusion, and his sweat-soaked uniform now clung to his skin. His armor was removed to keep him cool, but Nimeiri feared for his fever. They hadn’t prepared for this. He needed blackflower and ginger root, which were in good supply back in Calabrecia, but they hadn’t brought anything to suffice.

      Badru quivered and wheezed as the wound seeped with rot. The flesh rot. Was this what so many had encountered in the past? The curse of the High Goddess? Their mission had been blessed, Nimeiri thought. Governor Delamere stated so herself, but to lay eyes on this young Sergeant, it seemed a terrible misjudgement on both their parts as Koffa and Lawal looked on with fear and puzzlement. Captain Nimeiri excused himself and crawled out into the clearing for some air.

       He paced in a pensive circle, hands on his hips. Should they try to make it back to the base camp or wait to see if Badru’s symptoms subsided? To uproot him or leave him be? Either way, they ran the risk of killing him, and he kicked frustration at the dirt, sending rocks in angry directions.

      Movement in the crags then caught his eye, a dark flit that vanished as he snapped his head around to catch it. A shadow slid behind the rocks, shrank into a crevice. Nimeiri brandished his khanjar and turned slowly, crept in a half-crouch, then slipped around against the wall to where he now heard shuffling. He hesitated, waited, timed his movements, then swung around the stone partition with his blade pointed precisely into the chest of the mysterious voyeur. A man. Frail and primitive. The stranger stumbled backwards as Nimeiri lunged closer, but he was unarmed, so the Captain refrained and did not gouge him. He was most certainly not Monascan, his skin like deep brown leather, his hair thin and white as eggshells with eyes bluer than jewels, and he trembled at the tip of Nimeiri’s blade.

    “Who are you?” the Lieutenant demanded. “How did you get here?”

    “Ahn se kha dehsah,” he uttered fervidly, shaking his head. “Ahn se kha dehsah. Ahn mehtis ta ju. Perfehba, ahn mehtis.”

    The Lieutenant frowned, baffled, but he kept the man at knifepoint. “What?”

    “Ahn mehtis ta ju. Jos nu khiltrahn padesoh. Perfehba.” He held up his palms and turned his head away.

    “Well, isn’t this just…” but Nimeiri couldn’t find the words. He looked around and saw no others, so he allowed the man to stand, and he withdrew his weapon. He couldn’t have been any bigger than Nimeiri’s own nine-year-old son, continued to babble in his strange tongue, gesturing to the encampment and out into the mountains. He rambled on as if Nimeiri understood, and so the Captain silenced him. “Hold on. Just…stop,” he winced. The man complied and folded his arms, glanced down into the clearing. And so Nimeiri raised his tone and spoke to him very slowly. “Who…are…you? What…are…you doing…in…these mountains?” The Captain used all the hand signals he could invent to make himself clear. He pointed at the man and shrugged, pointed to himself and shook his head, but the primordial man only responded with gibberish.

    “Well,” Nimeiri said to himself. “This isn’t getting us anywhere, is it, friend?” He sheathed his weapon and took the man by the bicep. “I suppose we’ll just have to make you our guest until we can figure this out. Come with me.” But the man cowered away from the Captain’s grip.

    “Ahn mehtis ta ju,” he spouted with frantic alarm, but Nimeiri was beginning to recognize the phrasing now, pieced it together with the man’s actions.

    He let go of his arm. “Look, I’m not going to hurt you.” And he stepped away, held up empty hands. “Okay? See? I’m not going to hurt you.” He gestured for him to follow, and after a moment of wary thought, the little man submitted and tagged along after him.

       When they approached the campsite, Nimeiri whistled for the others. Lawal poked his head out of the tent, fixed his eyes on the stranger and scrambled out into the clearing with his weapon drawn.

    “What in the name of Méraah is that?” he exclaimed, and the man shrank behind Nimeiri, uttering a terrified phrase.

    Nimeiri turned to settle him and held up his hand to Lawal. “Put your weapon away, Lieutenant. Stand down. He’s not a threat, not that I can see so far, anyway.”

    Lawal sheathed his blade and approached the extraordinary being with caution, stood before him and looked him over. Then he eyed Nimeiri with the utmost peculiarity and said, “Someone’s got some explaining to do. And something tells me it’s going to have to be us.”

    Sergeant Koffa then crawled out into the clearing and stood up slowly, hadn’t the faculty to brandish his weapon for his own dismay. He looked to Nimeiri with wonder but all questions dissolved upon his tongue except for one. “Darawanu?”

    “Iseh,” the man nodded. “Jos Darawanu. Iseh.” And he pointed to Koffa with an enthusiastic nod. “Uso ahmogan, sehbesah.”

    Koffa’s brow furrowed at the strange language, unlike that of the nomads who merely perverted L’ghälii into an unnatural dialect. This was a vernacular all its own, and the little man commanded it with proficiency.

    “Darawanu,” he stated again and patted his chest. “Iseh.” Then he started into a fluttering monologue, using his hands to help the story along. He pointed into the tent and grabbed his own spindly thigh in what looked like a re-enactment of Badru’s ordeal. He shook his head, waved a hand critically, grabbed his leg again and gestured up into the crags.

    “What’s he saying?” Lawal questioned as Nimeiri studied the man with mounting suspicion.

    “I’m not sure,” he mumbled and listened closely, pairing the words with their clues. Then he said to him, “You know…what happened to my soldier?” Nimeiri imitated the gestures, clutched his own calf and pointed to the tent. He put two fingers to his eyes, pointed to the Darawanu and to where Badru lay shuddering. “You saw?”

    The man nodded. “Iseh.” And he carefully moved around the soldiers toward the tent, extending his palms to assure them he was not a danger.

    “Well, the little creature was following us,” Lawal huffed, pursing his lips.

    “Apparently so.” Nimeiri watched him, stayed close as he disappeared into the tent with Badru. The soldiers crouched at the opening and looked in as the cave-dweller assessed the wound, and he shook his head, rambled in his mountain tongue, then broke into a foreboding chant that made them all quite nervous.

    “I don’t think I like this,” Lawal mumbled, but Koffa motioned for him to relax.

    “I think he’s doing some sort of spell,” Koffa whispered. “Or a prayer, perhaps.”

    “Yeah, well, if we don’t hear ‘Méraah’ in it somewhere,” Lawal said warily. “We’re all likely to be stricken down to dust and flames. This is outright blasphemy, and right here, in the sacred region itself. I’ve got a mind to snatch him by his scrawny neck and toss him over the next ravine.”

    “Just hold on,” Nimeiri urged, transfixed on the scene. The Darawanu turned to them and motioned out into the mountains, chattered something urgent, repeated it several times.

    He then noticed the antennae, peeking out from the burlap bundle aside Badru. He reached over and picked it up, unwrapped it and presented it to the men. “Skitt,” he said to them, held it out with a nod and pointed to it. “Skitt.”

    “Skitt?” Nimeiri echoed. That’s what this is?”

    The man nodded. “Iseh.”

    The Lieutenant shrugged. “Well, what do we do? We’re not familiar with this.”

    The man motioned to the mountains. “Bhenta,” he said and climbed out of the tent. He charaded the act of carrying Badru through the hills. “Bhenta, perfehba. Tanga mahdehsa na jin suyadan. Bhenta.”

    “Is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Lawal scoffed. “To take a sick man on a trek to who knows where? In these mountains? Is he crazy?”

    But Koffa said, “Lieutenant, I think it might be all we have left.” The sweltering Sergeant muttered with feverish delirium as his head lolled from side to side.

    Nimeiri weighed the idea with a heavy sigh, peered over his shoulder at the awaiting Darawanu and back to Badru. He rubbed the bristles on his chin and pondered for several moments. “Koffa, ready the horses,” he finally said. Lawal and I will prepare him for the trip and pack the tent. And make sure this cave-dweller doesn’t give us the slip in the meantime.”

    “Yes, sir.” Koffa hurried over to the animals and took the Darawanu with him.

    Lawal regarded his commander incredulously and protested. “Captain, if I may say so, I think you’re making the wrong decision. This man is not fit to travel. And certainly not to some unknown location up in these mountains. If that little fiend knows what to do for him, then why can’t he go get what he needs and bring it to us?”

   Lieutenant Lawal. Under any other circumstances your wisdom would be the first I’d heed. But we don’t have the luxury of that right now. I’ve got a soldier dying, and if the only one who knows what to do for him says he needs to travel, then that’s what’s he’s going to do. Now,” he requested sternly. “Will you help me get him to Koffa’s horse?”

    The Lieutenant heaved a disfavorable sigh. “Yes, sir.”

       Nimeiri and Lawal dragged the Sergeant out into the open as the Darawanu continued to prattle away, urging them on, and the soldier was hoisted over the back of Koffa’s steed. Nimeiri climbed onto his horse with an outstretched hand.

    “It’s faster than walking,” he said to the mountain man, and in a single swift motion, Nimeiri swung him around onto the mantle, and they set out toward the east.

 

       Sergeant Koffa lost his breath as they came upon the Darawanu settlement. What had always been legend unfolded before him and defied his most vivid imaginings. The cliffs were mottled with hundreds of apertures, black holes through which tiny people moved, climbing impossibly constructed staircases from the ground. Fantastic mud dwellings, sculpted straight from the earth, cluttered the foot of the cliffs, smooth, round huts with colorful intricate carvings and grass thatches. He estimated the population to be well over a hundred as he and the others steered the horses between homes, around campfires, through curious onlookers, all of them small in stature like their neighbor, dark-skinned, blue-eyed, wiry.

       Their guide then hopped down from the Lieutenant’s steed, motioned for them to wait, and he jogged around the rear of one of the dwellings and disappeared.

    “Unbelievable,” Lawal muttered, awestruck, his hand resting on his weapon. “You don’t think they’ll attack, do you, Captain?”

    “Well, they’ve had plenty of opportunity already,” he replied and smiled kindly at them. “My guess is that they’re more fascinated than threatened.”

       The boldest of them were the children, and they approached the horses with rising interest, stroked their sleek brown coats with caution. Nimeiri dismounted, which sent them scattering to the arms of the elders, but the Captain smiled, stooped down and waved them back over. One at a time, they ventured closer, and he guided the horse to the ground where they could have a look.

    “You know,” Lawal then scolded. “That’s a war horse, not a festival ride. And we would be soldiers, not zookeepers.”

    Nimeiri kept his eye on the children, telling him quietly, “I’m aware of that, Lieutenant. It’s called establishing trust. Do you want these people to help us or not?”

     Lawal grunted and rolled his eyes, kept his thoughts to himself. Their escort then returned to summon them, and the Captain waved the children away as they were led around the huts and into a deep village cul-de-sac. A man emerged from one of the dwellings, similar in feature to their liaison, but he was considerably older and wore an elaborate beaded yoke. Nimeiri presumed him a man of import, a healer, and he spoke to them in the strange mountain dialect.

    “My soldier is very sick,” Nimeiri said and held his stomach painfully. Then he revealed the boiling wound on Badru’s leg. “Skitt,” Nimeiri confirmed, and the man took a look for himself.

    “He has not much time,” he then said in perfect L’ghalii, and the Captain regarded him with surprise and relief.

    “You speak my language?”

    The man nodded. “Bring him. Not much time.”

    “Well, I’ll be a fly on a buzzard’s beak,” Lawal muttered. “This is getting more bizarre by the moment.” And he helped haul their fallen Sergeant into the tiny mud confine. A collection of leaves and roots were kept in jugs around the walls, and Badru was laid out onto a grass mat, his sweat-soiled clothes stripped.

    “Please, sit,” the healer offered. Their guide watched with confident anticipation as the man selected a generous pinch of dried herbs from one receptacle and a bark segment from another. He shaved bits of the bark into a bowl with a sharp stone and ground it to a powder. Then he lit the leaves to a flame on a plate, blew them out and set the dish on Badru’s chest. The vapors seeped into the soldier’s mouth with each trembling breath as the healer moved around to administer aid to the wound itself. He withdrew three very large fronds from a black marinade and wrapped them around the soldier’s calf, muttering quiet incantations in Darawanu. He left them there to tend to the ground root powder, poured the marinade into the bowl and stirred the concoction into a paste. The leaves were peeled from Badru’s leg, and the paste was generously applied. The soldiers and their shaman then sat in silence, and waited…

 

       Immel Badru opened his eyes to a great city in the infernal throes of devastation. Her pillars collapsed, homes gutted and blood-strewn with the vestiges of her inhabitants. She is reduced to a fuming trough of destruction and chaos and defeat, and through gray veils of raining ash her conquerors ride, a trampling preeminence to what was. Temple bells toll amidst the wailing cries of her surrender, and she is lost, her history buried in flaming debris, her people vanquished and scattered throughout the new world like leaves in a thundering iniquitous storm until the child emerges…she will unify, and she will bring prosperity…

 

        Badru blinked away the disturbing vision, then turned and vomited into the dirt. His head swirled, and his skin pricked with a thousand sensations as he gagged on his own saliva. His commander scrambled to his side.

    The healer calmly warded Nimeiri away. “It is natural. The poison leaves him. He must go through this.”

    “Well, it looks like he’s getting worse to me,” the Captain insisted, but the healer shook his head as Badru gasped for air, swallowed it and threw it back up. The shaman sang over him lowly, patiently, took the ash from the incense and drew symbols on the soldier’s chest. He continued to speak to him until, at last, Badru fell back against the mat, spent and tranquil.

    “He sleeps,” the healer said and gestured out to the village. “We go.”

       He took them to the center of the settlement and invited them to sit around a small campfire, told them his name was Tebogo and that the man who found them was Mwita. He said that Mwita’s original fear of them stemmed from the abuses of the others who had come, who still come. The Darawanu don’t typically venture as far into the mountains as Mwita had gone that passing, for fear of the hunters.

    “Hunters?” Lawal questioned. “You mean to tell me there’s more than just you people living up here?”

    “Iseh,” Tebogo nodded. “But this, this is not their home. They come from the desert as well, come on horses and bring much violence, the violence of the desert.” And he patted his hand around his wiry frame and said, “Pictures. They are painted men, painted with blood and death. My people were once five hundred, and now only one hundred and seventy-five. In twenty seasons, the hunters have taken more than half my people. But Mwita, he says your men are different. He says you could have killed him but did not. And for that we return your kindness, and your friend, he lives. He sleeps now, but soon he will return with you to the desert, to his home.”

    Nimeiri and Lawal conferred quietly, then Nimeiri nodded, telling the healer, “Monascans. That’s who they are. And they’re only aim is the destruction of whatever they encounter. Our cities have been at war since I can remember, and I’m afraid that’s not going to change for quite some time.”

    The shaman nodded regretfully, his crystal blue eyes glistening against his mahogany skin like stars in a black sky. “There is much fighting. We have seen the smoke, the cloud of dust that rises in the west. From here we listen to the roar of the armies, which is why we stay where we are. The Tibesti were a peaceful place for so many seasons, until the hunters brought the death of the desert into the cliffs.”

    “Well, that’s why we’re here,” Koffa then told him. “Our governor, with the blessing of the High Goddess, has sent us to search for the Monascans, these hunters as you say, who’ve been roaming about up here.”

    Nimeiri nodded. “And you’ll see more of us, that’s for sure. We’ll have squads, groups like ours, patrolling from now on. And if we’re lucky, we’ll be the hunters and they’ll become they prey, not you people. It might take a while, but our goal is to eradicate them from these sacred mountains for good.”

    “This is good news,” Tebogo replied. “Your men are welcome here, in my village. But they must be warned of the skitt. It is a deadly creature, and your man would not have survived if Mwita had not followed you. You tell the others who come and keep them safe.”

       And with that, Sergeant Badru stumbled out to the fire, rubbing his face, shaking off that passing’s extraordinary experience. The others stood up to greet him, helped him to a seat on the rocks. The shaman knelt down to inspect the wound, which had already closed and begun to scar over, and Lawal was astounded.

    “Well, if I was never a man who believed in folklore, I’ve become one, this passing,” he admitted, examining his sergeant’s leg. “Almost like it never happened. And with nothing but a few twigs and leaves. You certainly made a believer out of me, cave-dweller.”

    “And that’s quite a compliment, coming from this man,” Nimeiri said to Tebogo with a chuckle. He patted Badru’s shoulder with a thin smile. “How are you feeling, Sergeant? Think you might be ready to ride out?”

       Sergeant Badru nodded. He was troubled by more than just the venomous attack of the skitt, but he would not reveal his thoughts. He instead thanked the Darawanu and kept silent about the frightening vision. He told himself that the city he saw was certainly Monasco, for his heart would not allow any other presumption. It was a dream, that’s all. Fever-induced delirium, his central fears revisited as nothing more than a twisted hallucination.

       When his legs had strengthened, Badru and the others mounted their horses and spent the remainder of the day traveling back to Calabrecia with stories to tell, beliefs to reassess, and Governor Delamere’s suspicions duly confirmed.

 



© 2010 Carole Wolf


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Added on April 16, 2010
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Author

Carole Wolf
Carole Wolf

Columbus, GA



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I am a fiction writer and music producer. more..

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