A STORY FROM THE KINGDOMS OF SAND
BY S.A. COSBY
When the moon rose and pale light shone through his bedchamber window Siar Qdango Alias Ha’Sattan reflected that it was a night much like this one that put him on the path to The Sun Throne of Majas. It was a night like this that put his feet upon a road that led from the shores of Maliaban all the way to Gobian,the capitol city of Majas.
Yes such as night like this brought him to this place of ruin. This temple of chicanery and betrayal .
“Qdango! Come quick!”
Qdango pushed himself out of his woven hammock and landed on his feet. Hearing his father’s voice filled with distress quickened his movements and drove the god of sleep from hims limbs. He slipped his feet into his leather sandals and grabbed his ironwood staff . He wrapped his loose tan robes around his broad chest before he left the tent and ran toward his father’s wail.
The night air was frigid on his skin. A sharp contrast to the heat of the day. Qdango ran past his father’s tent and over a slight hill dotted with scrub grass. He cleared the hill and streaked toward the temporary corral he and his father and his brother had built a few days earlier. They kept six large bovines in the corral until they could complete their trip to Garn and sell them at the market. Qdango,his father Aaongo and his brother Balaon had marched the bovines from their village in Southern Majas three days ago. There were only 25 bovines in their entire herd but they were running low on food for the beasts. Driving them to the coast was too dangerous. Torgehn raiders prowled the dense grasslands near the Dalu Bay. They had little to offer in trade with the merchants in Gabu for their supplies of dried dankfruit. The beast would eat scrubgrass but it made their milk bitter and the cheese made from that milk was horrid.
“It smells like a laywoman’s cubby after she’s worked all night in a harlot’s tent.” Balaon was fond of saying
Qdango almost tripped over his father as he ran. The thick twisted ropes they had tied to the four post they carried with them to make the corral lay on the sand. They were cut and frayed. Aaongo lay admidst them. Blood was flowing from a wound in the center of his forehead . His cheeks were turning purple from bruising. His ironwood staff lay beside him. The white hair on his chin were tinged with scarlet.
“Father what happened?”Qdango said as he dropped to his knees by his fathers side.
“Kalifmen. They came on horses. I was up checking the bovines and watching for smilidons or jackdogs. They said they were claiming them for the Kalif. I told them they belonged to my House. They disagreed. “ Aaongo said. He tried to sit up,winced and fell back onto the sand.
“Shh. Be still father. I will get Balaon. We will go after them.”Qdango said. He was holding his fathers hand with his left and squeezing his ironwood staff with his right. He right hand began to sting.
“No. No. Did you not hear me ? They were Kalifmen. They wore two scimitars and iron plates on their chest. They were four but they said they were part of a regiment in Garn. No I will not lose my sons over beasts. We will go back to Alaak and gather six more bovines to take to Garn.”
“Why don’t we go to Gabu?”Qdango asked. His father looked to his right and dropped his head.
“Because I owe the trader in Gabu for the six bags of dankfruit he gave me on my word. If we take the bovines there we won’t receive anything in return. They will just satisfy my debt.”he said in a low voice. Qdango squeezed his staff tighter.
“Come. Let us go back to your tent. You need your rest.”he said.
Once they had helped their father to his bed Qdango and Balaon went to Qdango’s tent to speak in private.
“When did he get dankfruit on his word? More important why would he do that? When we are barely able to get enough milk out of these foul beast to fill a dinner cup?” Balaon said. His voice cracked as he tried his best to whisper. He was not a man accustomed to speaking softly.
“That matter not now. What does matter is how we are going to get our bovines back.”Qdango said. He had no trouble whispering. He had learned to chasten his voice during the five years he had spent as a captive of a Barrocian vassal. Even as he slid the blade of a rapier in the man’s throat he never raised his voice. Barroacian aristocracy often kidnapped children from Majas and had them trained to fight in duels to the death for their entertainment and to settle petty disputes throughout the Empire. The slaves were beaten and whipped and broken until they were nothing more than puppets draped in meat. Qdango had not been broken but he had been beaten and he had been whipped. It was his hatred that kept him whole. It was a flame that burned inside him for the entire length of his confinement. It was a flame that was now lit anew.
“We are not. We cannot. The Kalifmen have them . That is the end of the whole matter. “ Balaon said. His voice rose at the end of his statement.
We can. And we will. Tomorrow we will ride our droms into Garn before first light. We will find where they have corralled the bovines. I will draw the attention of the soldiers while you herd them home. “ Qdango said. He spun his dagger with the obsidian blade over and through his fingers.
“And just how do you propose to do that?” Balaon asked.
“Just make sure you get Father and the bovines back home. We can butcher them and sell the meat to butcher in Gabu. Speak with my friend Tao’ul . He can say the meat is his.” Qdango said.
“So we just spit on the debt that Father made with his word.” Balaon asked.
“Take the money from the meat and pay the debt. Give Tao’ul a portion of the coin for his time. “
“And where will you be while all this is taking place?” Balaon asked. Qdango tossed the dagger up and over his head with his left hand and caught it blind with his right.
“Hopefully not with our forefathers.” he said.
Garn had grown from the small village Qdango had known when he had been kidnapped into servitude so many seasons ago. Garn had become a bustling village and one of the last places to gather supplies before one entered the desert known as The Great Nothing. Stone and adobe building lined the cobblestone streets. As Qdango and Balaon crested the last dune before entering the village they could see several spires that reached into the air like penitents seeking supplication. As they rode their droms into the village Balaon whistled.
“There are so many sounds here. My ears are unaccustomed to so much noise. “ he said.
“This is nothing. In Gobian the sounds are so great we could not even have this conversation. “ Qdango said. When Qdango had escaped his captors and stowed away on a merchant’s ship they had landed in the great city. It was easy for a runaway captive to get lost in Gobian. Qdango often reflected that it was easy to lose everything in Gobian.
“Then I shall never travel to Gobian. Give me the wind and the whistles of thistle trees over this din. “ Balaon said. Sitting on the droms gave them an advantageous view of the town. Qdango scanned the streets for a corral or a lodge where a regiment of Kalifmen would lay there heads. He saw a banner hanging from a two-story adobe building that announced it was place where one could sell bovines,droms,horses and unihorns to be butchered for their meat. Qdango clucked his tongue and guided his drom down the alley next to the building. He smelled the stables before he saw them. Directly behind the building was a small stable to his right and a hitching post. Qdango stopped his drom and dismounted. He grabbed his staff from the saddle. Balaon dismounted as well and joined his brother in front of the stable. Together they gazed at the beasts in the stable as they stomped and bleated.
“There they are. All six.” Qdango said.
“You think we could just take them? I don’t see any guards.” Balaon said. Qdango looked to his left. The alley lead to another street. The small stable had a gate that opened to that street. It was possible if they moved quickly. The bovines were branded with his father’s name but that obviously didn’t matter to the Kalifmen.
“No you cannot just take them. They belong to the Kalif. Sultan Zalidin. “a deep voice said. The brothers turned. Four Kalifmen were standing in the alley. They wore the colors of the Kalif. Red breech pants and iron plates on their chest and iron gauntlets on their wrists wrapped in black silk. Three of them wore plain iron helmets with a spike in the center and a loose tail made of leather that covered their necks. The fourth wore a iron helmet with red and black feathers in place of a spike. A War Chief. He was the one who had spoke to them. All of them wore two scabbards on each hip. Qdango turned and stood in front of his brother.
“I am Qdango Alias Ha’Sattan. Son of Aaongo. I’ve come for our cattle.”he said.
The soldiers eyed him with a rapidly increasing sense of bemusement crawling across their faces. A languid breeze stirred the hot air and the scent of the stable became even stronger. The War Chief crossed his muscular arms.
“Your cattle? You are mistaken saib. These cattle belong to the Kalif. As does the sandals on your feet and the robes on your backs. As does your women and what they carry between their legs. All this is within Majas belongs to the Kalif and he will do with it as he sees fit. Even your life belongs to Sultan Zalidin. “ the soldier said. Qdango heard the threat in his words. He heard it and ignored it .
“These cattle feed my family. My father and my mother and my brother and our wives. They give milk which we use to make cheese which we sell at the markets. Those cattle are our lives and I have come to retrieve them. “ he said. He was squeezing his staff so tight his hand ached. The War chief smiled. His dark brown face was split by a white slash of teeth. He drew his scimitar. As did the other three soldiers.
“I do not wish to fight. I just want our cattle.”Qdango said. The War Chief laughed.
“This will not be a fight saib. This will be an execution.”he said.
“I fear you are right. “ Qdango murmured. He turned his head.
“When it starts run to the gate and open it. Hephestus will follow you. Take the bovines home.” Qdango said. Balaon nodded his head. But he had no intention of leaving Qdango.
“Anion awaits your soul saib!” the War Chief screamed. He ran at Qdango with his scimitars above his head. Qdango closed his eyes for a moment. He inhaled deeply. When he opened them the War Chief was less than three steps from him. He grasped his staff with both hands and brought it up in a wicked arc. The butt of the staff caught the War Chief under the chin. Qdango heard the loud snap as the War Chief’s jaw was shattered. The man slumped to his left and hit the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. His three comrades leaped over his body and advanced on Qdango. Qdango crouched and struck the solders on the right and the left in their unguarded shins with his staff. Each man went down to one knee. Qdango dropped to his backside and slid between the legs of the soldier-who had advanced in the middle. He popped up to one knee and gripped his staff with both hands. He shoved the staff backwards. The butt struck the soldier in the middle behind the left knee. It didn’t break but Qdango knew he had knocked it out of alignment by the way the man screamed.
Qdango whirled on to his left and again grasping his staff with both hinds struck the soldier who had attacked from the right in the face as hard as he could. The soldier who had advanced from the left was back to his feet. He thrust one of his scimitars at Qdango’s chest. Qdango turned his body to the right and the blade slid past him and slashed nothing but air. The soldier had over committed to the strike. Thus his head and neck were exposed. Qdango gripped his staff in the middle and struck him in the throat with a harsh short strike. The soldier fell to the ground . He did not move. The soldier who had advanced in the middle was laying on the ground gripping his left knee.
“Mercy! I beg mercy saib! “ he howled. Balaon stood with his mouth agape. He had never seen his brother fight. In the years since he had returned to the family he had sought peace in any encounter that threatened violence. Balaon had almost begun to think him a coward. Qdango struck the man in the mouth with the butt of his staff. He went silent. He turned to his brother.
“Be quick now. We must be gone before their fellows miss them. “ Qdango said. He was breathing hard and his braids had come undone.
“By Balingoue I have never seen such skill!” Balaon said.
“Balaon quick now.” Qdango said.
“Yes ,ye but by the gods-”Balaon had started to say but an arrow cut off his statement in mid-sentence. Qdango stared at the bolt sticking out of his brother’s neck. Blood poured out the wound and splashed across his chest. Balaon crumpled to the ground. Qdango felt a hot pain in his left arm. He turned and saw another soldier with a crossbow at the end of the alley. He looked at his arm. Blood was trickling out of a gash on his bicep. A bolt was buried in one of the post near the stable. Qdango grabbed his dagger out of robes and hurled it at the soldier with the crossbow. It found a home in his left eye. The man stumbled backwards into the street. A carriage full of fabrics and trinkets led by a team of stallions trampled the soldier with little trouble. Qdango wanted to kneel beside his brother. He wanted to kiss him and bid him fare the well but he knew there was no time. He ran to the stable and broke the lock on the gate. The bovines ambled out onto the street. Qdango saw a young man on a fine black horse guide his steed around the slowly escaping bovines. Qdango struck the man with his staff and mounted his horse before the young man had hit the road. He kicked at the horse’s haunches and raced down the street and out of the village.
It was the only thing in Qdango’s mind. Not his brother. Not his father and the lost cattle. His only thoughts were of his thirst. Of his fat dry tongue and his dry crackling eyes. He had escaped Garn and ridden the huge black steed off the trail that lead back to his village and the villages beyond. He had raced through the grasslands and over the scrubplains and now half a day later he found himself in the Great Nothing. An ocean of sand that seemed as endless as time itself. Dune upon shifting dune that sapped his strength and that of the horse. As the animal began to falter Qdango dismounted and let the beast run off back the way they had come. He could have slit the beast throat if still had his dagger and drank some of it’s blood and cut some meat from it’s haunches. But his dagger was in the alley with his brother. So he let the horse go . He had no desire to watch it die. He had seen enough death today.
He walked . He walked because not walking was giving up and he was not familiar with quitting. It was not in his nature. He knew he was going to die. No dagger,no water. Death was the only outcome here in this hell of sand and sun. Yet he walked. As the sun set in the distance he seemed to hear the voices of his forefathers beckoning him to the Veldt beyond the Veil.
He took another step and froze. A black triangle covered in scales had risen through the sand. The triangle shuddered and now it was a powerful tail covered in scales that ended in a triangle. Sand lizard. A big one by the look of the tail. They slept in the sand waiting for something or someone to walk across their resting place. When they felt the vibrations they would come forth and grab their prey with their huge jaws and drag them under the sands to slowly digest them for months. A death of days not moments. Qdango had his staff but it would be of little use against a sand lizard.
“I believe we are done for saib” a voice said. Qdango snapped his head to the right. An old man was standing perfectly still. Nothing moved but his mouth and his voice came out in a harsh whisper. Qdango was puzzled but he pushed his bewilderment aside for the moment. He knew thee had been no one to his left of right just a breath ago yet here was an old man dressed in rags and sporting a short walking stick of his own.
“Shh.” Qdango said. If the old man was real and not a spirit in his mind that had take form he suddenly had a means to escape. He he toss his staff at the man and knock him to the ground. The sand lizard would feel the movement and attack him instead of Qdango. It was black thought but a thought none the less. Qdango closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He was horribly weak and death was close but he could not meet his forefathers with such an act on his soul.
“I will strike the ground with my staff. When the lizard rears it head you run” Qdango saw a clutch of rocks about fifty steps to the west.
“Run for those rocks.” he said. The old man looked doubtful.
“ And what of you saib?” he asked. Qdango laughed. It was bitter sound.
“I suppose I am going to try and shove this staff down his gullet and out his asshole.” he said. The old man smiled.
“Are you ready?” Qdango asked. The old man nodded. Qdango raised the staff above his head.. The moon came from behind a cloud and illuminated the desert with a pale blue light.
“NOW” he screamed as he struck the ground.
The sand lizard was terribly huge and terribly fast. It shot out of the ground with it’s jaws spread wide. Qdango saw all three rows of it’s teeth glisten in the moonlight. Razor sharp blades barreling toward his face. He grasped his staff with both hand and held it out in front of him parallel to his body. The sand lizard was a black legless wave of muscles and scales sailing through the night toward him .
Then something strange happened.
The old man held out his hand and the sand lizard stopped. It was motionless in mid-air. Qdango could smell it’s fetid breath and see drops of saliva caught in the air as they dripped from it’s teeth.Qdango touched one of the droplets. It popped weakly like a bubble in a Barrocian bath.
“Come Qdango son of Aaongo. We have much to discuss” the old man said. Qdango was dumbstruck.
“I am dreaming. I have fallen and I am sleeping among the sands and this is a dream.” he muttered.
“You are not sleeping Qdango Alias Ha’Sattan. You are a man of flesh and blood who has suffered much. You have always felt a burning inside that has sustained you and frightened you all your life. What if I told you that burning is not hate or fear or evil but the touch of a god? That even before you were born you were cradled in the hands of Balingoue and given a sliver of his fire. A fire that you will use to light the way of men and unite the tribes of Majas? What if I told you that you were destined to be the Lion of Majas?” the old man said.
“I would say you have drunk too much tarozian tea.” Qdango said. The sand lizard was still motionless as it floated above the ground.
“Come Qdango. Come with me and find your true purpose.” the old man said.
“And who are you?” Qdango asked
“I am Balim .I am the last of the Elementist from the Cadre of Abul-Cazon “
“A wizard” Qdango said.
“No. A servant of the Balingoue. My purpose was to wait for you. Your purpose is to unite the tribes and depose the Kalif.” Balim said. At the mention of the Kalif Qdango forgot about the sand lizard and faced the old man. He leaned on his staff.
“Will my purpose bring me the Kalif’s head? he asked.
“All will be revealed .” Balim said. He raised his left arm. A dagger appeared in his right hand. With a determined grimace the man cut a long slit in the palm of his right hand. He squeezed the hand into a fist. Blood began to run down the man’s arm. The moon was at it’s apex and Qdango saw the blood begin to glow until it looked like sparks of flame. These flames begin to run along the old man’s outstretched hand.The flames bloomed into a bright orange light that forced Qdango to shield his eyes.
When he opened them they were standing on the stone steps of a great temple. A pool sat at the base of the steps and a statue sat beyond the pool. It was carved out of obsidian and stood twice as tall as Qdango. It depicted a man with lightning bolts coming from his hands. He was standing next to a great black lion. Above him the stars were in s new alignment. By the direction of the constellations he knew he was two days journey from where he hadet the old man.
“Welcome to the Temple of Balingoue Siar Qdango.” Balim said.
“I ..I am no Siar. I am shepherd and a sorry one at that.” Qdango stammered
“You are more than what you do Qdango. Much more.” Balim said solemnly.
“What is happening here? We have traveled two days journey in the blink of an eye. You show me wizardry the likes of which I have never seen. Will you now ask me for my soul in trade for your favors?” Qdango said. He was squeezing his staff again but this time it was not out of anger.
“History, prophecy, destiny That is what is happening here.” Balim said. His voice was as soft as the petals of a desert rose