Through the Sands of Southern Deserts
by Slawomir Rapala
part 1 of 4
Unknown to the world a warrior was born,|
From shadows he rose, from ashes he came.
And having his face to enemies shown,
He solemnly said, “Vengeance I am.”
And under his gaze the wretches all paled,
Trembling before the justice he brought.
But he cut them down as they pleaded and wailed,
And left their bodies in the deserts to rot...
— from “The General’s Hymn”
Darkness hung over the ancient city of Oyan like heavy mist, seeping into every corner and alley as the caravan rolled through the empty streets. Dust settled slowly behind the wheels of the wagons as they passed. Several windows opened and a few heads appeared despite the intense heat that ruled the city even at this time. Eyes gazed indifferently at the procession of carriages and carts.
Most Bandikoyans still slept, however, as lif e did not begin in Oyan until late afternoon, when the heat subsided and the inhabitants were finished with their siestas. Only foreigners wandered the scorched streets of the Capital at other times.
Drowsy guards greeted the caravan at the city gates and after inspecting the crumpled and creased parchment that the caravan leader presented to them, they sluggishly waved the wagons through.
“Where are you headed?” one of them asked.
“Home,” the merchant answered. He was a tall good-looking man with a head full of fiery-red hair. He sat atop a heavy wagon pulled by four robust and thick-boned Bandikoyan horses, and he gazed at the prairie opening up before him with longing. Far ahead on the horizon the sun broke through the heavy darkness and its brilliant crimson light slowly crept onto the steppes.
“Estrata.” The caravan leader’s name was Inzano.
“Long way to go,” the guard said.
“Dangerous, too,” another one added. He leaned the whole weight of his body against a long spear and watched the caravan indifferently. His hand ventured toward his mouth and covered a loud yawn, which the soldier could not restrain.
“We’ll manage,” the red-haired Inzano said, throwing a reluctant glance at the guard.
“We always do,” an aging man who sat beside him grumbled. He wrapped his body in a thick fur cloak despite the growing heat.
“Well, best of luck to you,” the first of the guards returned the parchment to Inzano, “Your papers are all in order, you’re free to go. A word of advice though, if you don’t mind.”
“Yeah?” Inzano already reached for the reins.
“Avoid the No Man’s Desert and take the longer route, near the coast.”
“We’re in a hurry,” Inzano scowled.
“It’s your throat, not mine,” the guard shrugged. “Rumors of bandits and marauders reached us over the past few days. Slave traders, too. You can never be too safe.”
“We’ll take our chances,” Inzano’s elder companion said impatiently.
The guard shrugged once more. “Like I said, it’s your heads. But if you’re going to cross the desert, make sure you have men with you who can wield a sword. They might come in handy.”
“Yeah, we’ll keep that in mind,” Inzano said unobligingly, then he smacked lips and tugged on the reins to urge the horses forward. One by one the wagons slowly rolled onto the prairie amidst the rattling and squeaking wheels, and the merry laughter of merchants happy to be finally going home.
The sun already hung high on the sky and flooded the steppes with its blinding light when the caravan came across a lone man several leagues beyond the city gates. The stranger stood motionless under a solitary fig tree that grew amidst an otherwise empty space. Bleak and deserted landscape surrounded him, remnants of a once thriving area. The narrow path led past the stranger, and the caravan soon reached him, but the man made no gesture that would suggest that he took notice. A short stocky horse grazed nearby and, much like its master, paid no heed whatsoever to the rowdy group.
“Howdy, stranger,” Inzano greeted the man as he halted the horses. The entire group stopped and laughter and the jovial singing slowly faded. The man turned his head slowly and looked at the red-haired traveller. He said nothing, however, clearly lost in thoughts. His eyes were glazed over with an infinitely blue sea of memories. A long double-edged sword hung loose by his belt and he was clad in leather and a light armor. Long riding boots completed his simple outfit.
“It’s customary in this kingdom to reply to a greeting.” The elderly man who sat on top of the wagon beside Inzano frowned at the stranger’s lack of respect.
The stranger seemed to wake from a deep sleep at the sound of the screechy, aging voice. Quickly his hand dropped to the handle of the sword as he turned his slim body to face the merchants. His suddenly sharp and inquisitive eyes quickly measured the men before him and then skimmed over the rest of the caravan.
“Perhaps I’m not of this kingdom,” he said slowly.
Inzano looked at him closely. He was not a young man, but old age did not yet claim him either. Long hair was only beginning to give way to a shade of gray, and he held his back straight. The man’s erect posture and proud appearance suggested to Inzano that he was facing a veteran warrior.
“What brings you out here?” he asked.
“I could ask you the same thing,” the stranger replied, his hand still resting on the handle of his sword.
“We’re merchants travelling to Estrata,” Inzano said, silencing his grumbling companion with a slight wave of hand. “We have nothing to hide.”
The stranger’s gaze studied Inzano’s bright red hair for a moment.
“Going back home?” he asked.
“Yes,” Inzano’s ageing companion answered before the caravan leader could open his mouth. “What of you?” “I’m leaving Bandikoy as well,” the man shrugged.
“What’s your name, stranger, is what I meant.”
He looked up at the merchants and simply said, “I am Aezubah.”
The two Estratians exchanged a quick glance and others murmured quietly.
“The General,” one merchant whispered under his breath but was quickly silenced by Inzano’s threatening gaze.
“We’ve heard of you,” he said.
“Who hasn’t?” a soft smile surfaced on Aezubah’s thinly carved lips.
“You’re leaving the Capital?”
“King’s orders,” there was a shade of quiet bitterness in the aging warrior’s voice.
“Where are you headed?”
“Estrata’s as good a place as any, I suppose,” the man shrugged. “Maybe further on, to Surath. Don’t know yet. Which way do you go?”
“We’re crossing the No Man Desert.”
Aezubah raised his eyes and gave a surprised look. He looked over the caravan once more, resting his gaze longer on some of the merchants..
“You’re a brave fellow,” he said finally, turning back to Inzano. “The desert’s not the best place to travel through these days.”
“So we’ve heard,” Inzano’s companion said with a hint of sarcasm.
“What have you heard?”
“Lots of rabble and them dark types all around,” the old man snapped.
The aging General looked over him, his eyes suddenly glossed over with ice.
“And what’s your name, friend?” he asked in a voice so cold that those nearest him shivered despite the intense heat of the Bandikoyan sun.
“That’s my father, Erwolfe,” Inzano was quick to break in.
Aezubah fixed his gaze on the two merchants and was silent for a while. The inexplicable wave of cold was gone and the merchants were left sweating under the scorching sun once more, gazing at one another in amazement.
“I’ll be traveling the same way, I suppose,” the General remarked finally. “If you don’t mind the company for a bit.”
“We don’t mind,” Inzano silenced his father with a stern stare. “You’re welcome to come. You said it yourself, the desert’s not safe these days, so we welcome a warrior. Most of my men are merchants and have little experience with the sword,” he added in a form of explanation.
“You go on,” Aezubah said. “I’ll just say my goodbyes and follow you soon.”
“Your goodbyes?” Inzano looked at him questioningly.
The aging General shrugged and turned away from the caravan. Looking over his shoulder only now did Inzano notice several simple stones carefully placed under the fig tree. Signs were engraved on them, marking the names of those that died.
Inzano asked nothing more and tugged on the reins instead. The horses pulled hard, hauling the heavy wagons. The others followed and the caravan rolled on, its rusted wheels squeaking at each turn. Soon Aezubah was left alone, standing quiet and motionless in the shade of the lonely tree.
“Forgive me,” he whispered quietly into the air. “I wished only to stay with you, but I am not wanted here.”
His voice was nothing more than a breath and only the ever-present wind heard the simple words as it carried them towards the sky. The horse came at his beckoning and the General climbed it with ease. He took in one more sight of the nearby countryside and then tugged the mount with his knees, urging it to follow the caravan that was already disappearing on the horizon in a cloud of dust.
* * *
They travelled for three days through the dry and sun-bathed lands of Bandikoy. The lush green that covered the area thousands of years ago was long gone, great forests having long disappeared and the marshes having turned to deserts. All of the once abundant wildlife was gone. Sand and broken earth was all that remained of the once beautiful wilderness and the green pastures. Changing climates, shifting wind, ocean currents and, more than anything else, the invasion of the barbaric hordes from the North that crippled Naluu’s Azmattia eons ago, at the end of the First Age of the Lords, they all left the lands of today’s Bandikoy a mere shadow of what they once were.
Nevertheless, having risen from the ashes of the ancient Azmattia, the kingdom was the cultural and spiritual capital of the post-Azmattic World. Nowhere else would one find as many elaborate temples, skilled theologians, thinkers, brilliant philosophers, professional engravers, and talented artists; nowhere else would one find the great libraries, museums, and lyceums; most importantly, nowhere else would one see so much time and effort dedicated to the preservation of the remains of what once was and to the development of what was to be.
The caravan pressed on, heading west as fast as it could without riding the horses and cattle to death. Seventeen wagons rolled through the shadeless lands, every day edging closer to the Estratian border, marked by the infamous No Man’s Desert. Each morning they left early, as soon as the sun was up so that they could cover a good distance before the midday heat struck. The merchants would then halt and hide in the shade of the wagons, water the tired animals and rest themselves. They would travel a few more leagues once the heat receded in the late afternoon, but would soon be forced to stop once again with the growing darkness. Fires were lit, tents were struck, food and drink was brought forth.
The merchants were a merry bunch and despite the harsh and potentially dangerous journey, they were in high spirits. They were returning home after all, having spend six months trading in Oyan and the surrounding cities and towns. Estratian goods were in great demand in the East, especially its famed fabrics which the Bandikoyan aristocracy and the caste of higher priests, the ramhi, used almost exclusively. After trading their entire supply in a few months, the merchants were headed home, their pockets full of gold pieces and their wagons loaded with Eastern goods. Families awaited them with eagerness; wives waited for their husbands with lustful impatience, and children waited for their fathers with a childish curiosity of what they would bring them from their distant travels. Families, friends, great feasts, all this awaited them in Estrata and the merchants were eager to reach home as soon as possible.
In the evenings they sat around fires, eating and drinking, singing, telling jokes and exchanging stories, laughing merrily long into the night, though they knew that soon they would have to rise and continue the strenuous journey. But it was all right because each league travelled and each day passed brought them closer to home and to all for which they longed.
Aezubah followed them like a shadow but kept largely to himself. During the day they could see him hovering just above the horizon behind or before them, his dark figure contrasting sharply with the bright world. Sometimes he would disappear altogether and they would not see him until the evening, riding hard into the camp and dismounting his tired horse with nothing more than a silent acknowledgement of their presence.
He said very little and stayed mostly in the shade of the wagons, watching them feast and laugh. They could not see it, but sometimes he would shake his head in disgust; he was a veteran warrior and was not accustomed to travelling with a group of carefree merchants. His world was that of war and hatred, of brutality and force. His world was dark and grim, silent but for the screams of the dying, silent but for the sounds of metal clashing against metal, for the sound of bodies torn open, women raped and children butchered. The sounds that filled his world were that of heavy machinery rolling through the countryside and the sharp voices of commanding officers, of roaring flames devouring households and the bodies of the fallen.
The images that his blank eyes mirrored as he sat hidden in the shadows were those of bodies strung up and disemboweled, of fields ridden with twisted and pained corpses of slain soldiers; of cities and homesteads burnt to the ground, lone figures crying and rambling as they searched the smoking rubble looking for any signs of life...
Copyright © 2005 by Slawomir Rapala