by Ryan J. Southworth
part 1 of 2
Strange smells drifted on the nighttime wind, mixing with the scent of dust and desert sand. Ulion breathed in slowly, discerning them and wondering at their distance. Sweet sweat and the flesh of hard-ridden mounts were in the breeze, and moisture from the first storm of the season.
This night would bring more than rain.
Though he could not see it — he could see nothing in this tomb-like darkness — Ulion felt the approach of another behind him, scurrying along clumsily through the sand and sage to slide down on his belly beside him on the ridge. It was Gamon, his brother. The breath, the grunt. A deep cough muffled in the crook of an arm.
“When will they come?” Gamon asked. Noise carried far over the flat, dry plain and he kept his voice low to hide it from those coming in the night.
“Soon, brother. They will come soon. With the rain, I think.”
Gamon chuckled bitterly and glanced, unseeing, to the starless sky above. “During the one time of year when our desert will have more than enough water, we defend our small oasis to the last drop. It’s almost laughable.”
There was a pause, and in the quiet between them they listened to the sounds of the night. Wind. Sage rustling. Soft voices and movement from the other men and boys spread along the ridge. And a rumble. Thunder? Yes, but still a long way off.
“Will we stand the night?” Gamon said suddenly.
Ulion turned to stare into the blackness on his left. He could not see his brother’s face, even this close, but didn’t need to. He heard the tone in Gamon’s voice: like a beggar, proud yet desperate for even a crumb of hope.
“For five hundred years no one has drunk from the oasis but by our good graces,” Ulion said confidently. “Nor will they tonight.”
Silence. It was enough. Ulion’s word was always enough for his brother and his people. Even when it was not enough for himself.
For another hour the men lay still, silent in the face of the building storm. Behind them, down the backside of the ridge, lay their small village of tents and paths and trenches. Ulion had helped with many of the trenches himself, watched when they filled with wet season rainwater, rushing into the oasis and overflowing its banks. Listened as it poured over the cliffs a little way past the village, down to the rocks below.
The water that the storms would bring was a fearful thing. Violent and ruthless. Even during the best of times the women and children would huddle in their homes, listening anxiously as the muddy water rushed down the canals and through their valley, wondering if it would sweep them all away. But every year they were kept safe. The canals protected them.
“Look!” Gamon said, and Ulion heard a murmur run down the line of villagers to his left and right. A light rose up in the distance, bright and powerful and alone. In such darkness it seemed like a sun, and for a moment Ulion thought that it was, rising early in the east to chase their enemies away. But then there was another. And another. A hundred torches now, bursting forth to cast the approaching figures in shifting shadow and illusion.
They rode upon iamos, whose long necks bounced in and out of the light, throwing shadows like a troop of violent dancers across the sand. Broad and slow, these desert beasts were said to rival even the camel for their unpleasant disposition. As did their riders.
Upon them rode the Falmari.
Ulion closed his eyes.
* * *
“No, Bereck, it is out of the question.” And it was. But just to make his point, Ulion continued, stabbing his finger into the hot, dry air with each word. “The Falmari are thieves. Murderers. We will not aid them in their evil.”
“Don’t become angry with me, Ulion,” the old man said. He took a step back, staying within the shade of the palm above him. Even so, his shirt and turban were drenched through with sweat, his hand constantly mopping at his brow and white beard with a soiled handkerchief. The weather was always hottest a week before the rains. “I am just the messenger. They thought you might be more willing to talk with...”
“It doesn’t matter, Bereck!” Ulion shouted. Startled by his own outburst he glanced over to the pool and the few gathered there in the palm tree shade. They looked back with worried faces.
If only they knew.
“And what’s more,” Ulion continued to his guest with a softer tone, “you should be ashamed of yourself for helping them. The Falmari are a race of thieves and killers. Greedy mercenaries who care less for the lives they take than I do in the killing of a camel fly. What’s more, they take their pay from the Queen of Harmath.”
“No, no, Ulion,” Bereck shook his head. “That is a rumor and—”
“And everyone knows it is true. She will not stop her meddling in the affairs of our city,” Ulion pointed over his shoulder and beyond the cliff in the direction of their sovereign’s capital. “She wants it and everyone knows it. So now, what she could not have through marriage or through connivance she will attempt to take by force, caravan by caravan, and I will not have my family’s oasis used as a staging ground for her hired swords. Tell them to get their water somewhere else.”
“Ulion, you must listen to reason,” Bereck said, softer now and trying to throw an arm around the chief’s shoulders. Ulion was taller and broader than the older man and the attempt failed. “Why do you care? You gain nothing from the capital or the traders. Why risk your family’s safety for some greedy merchants and a king who cares only for the taxes you pay? Eh? Let them take the water, pay you for it, and be on their way. It’ll only be once or twice a season, at most.”
“And every time the blood of my ancestors would cry out against me,” Ulion said. “And my own conscience.”
That night Ulion stood facing west at the edge of the cliff. The sun was gone, and with it the heat of another sweltering day. In its place rose the moon, thin and waning for the last night before becoming new again. On nights like this he could see the city, days distant but glistening in the night. Like a coin shimmering at the bottom of the pool.
“You sent Bereck away rather rudely today, my love,” said a voice from behind him. Arms, bare to the shoulder and bronzed by the desert sun, wrapped around his waist and pulled him back a step from the cliff, into his wife’s embrace. “And tonight your mood is grim.”
Ulion reached his arms behind him to hold her close and shook his head. “Bereck is a treacherous schemer. Like so many from the city. He smiles and claims to work for our best interest today but will plot against us tomorrow if it profits him.”
Thalia pulled him closer against the cool desert breeze, letting her long black hair blow and mingle with his.
“You think they will come for the water?” In her voice was a tremble, faint and disguised by her strength but there still and he knew she looked for comfort.
He had little to give tonight. “The Falmari are not like us, Thalia. Their race comes from the mountains and they are not used to the desert heat. They need our water to carry out their attacks on the merchant caravans, and I do not think they will take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“We will fight them?”
Ulion paused. Through his mind flashed the faces of his people: the children, bright eyes and full of life. The young lovers and the wise ancients. They made a perfect, wonderful community. One that his father and his father’s father would be proud of.
Yet they made a terrible army.
“Yes,” he said finally. “We will fight them if they come.”
* * *
The dry brush at his right ear trembled, struck suddenly by the first drop of rain. Ulion reached back slowly and pulled the hood of his cape up to cover his head. More drops fell, scattered and weak, invisible noises in the dead of night.
And then the rains came.
One by one the torches were drowned and the desert plain was once again plunged into darkness. Some said that the Falmari could see in the night. Some said they wielded magic and sorcery; a race of wizards and witches. Ulion didn’t believe it. He had seen them. They may be less than human but they were not the supernatural creatures that the rumors and fear-mongers down in the city made them out to be. They lived and breathed just as he did. They could die... just as he could.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Ryan J. Southworth