A PARADISE OF WASTELAND



A PARADISE OF WASTELAND, by Adrian Simmons:

On the fifth day after the sandstorm, Lemyta went to look at the world she had drawn in the dirt.  She leaned over it, not yet so burdened by years that she needed to squat down to see it.  Several animal tracks crossed the design, jackal and gerbil, and one great print of a giraffe.  That the giraffe should be here, this far into the Alír mountains was unusual, and that it would step on her drawing of the world, right where the grid of mankind met the swirls of the spirits… well, it could mean many things.  It could mean nothing.

Two days after that, returning from her small garden with a small basket of lentils, a lively bee-eater bird waited over the lintel of her hut.  So she was not surprised when the foxes began to call:

“Men come up the mountains.  Men with horses.”

Lemyta, unconcerned, tended her garden.  Here, in the mountains, she had a small flat space; the rare rains pooled and collected.  A half-day away to the northwest the sands pounded relentlessly on the Alír, and the mountains took each blow, from the tiniest grain of sand to the greatest dune, unbreaking and unmoving.   Here, though, here was soil, not sand, and a sorceress who kept on the good side of the spirits of the mountains and the beasts could live fairly well.

She had checked on the millet and fed the chickens when the hyenas called to her in their sharp barking language.  The foxes would, of course, have told the hyenas, or perhaps the hyenas already knew.

“There are men here,” the hyenas said, ”upon the holy mountains.  Shall we destroy them?”

She dug up red yams and as she put them in a small clay bowl, the hyenas said that the men had stopped, all but one.  On a horse that one continued.  Could they eat him?  Eat the horse at least?

In her hut, Lemyta found a small bone whistle and blew it loud and shrill, and the speech of the hyenas faded.

By noon the man atop his horse turned the corner by the great stone and approached her hut.

She waited for him, out in the full sun.  He was an Ilasheghen.  A knee-length takatkhat that was once white covered his legs, and he wore thick leather armor around his chest.  His cloak was a light blue, and it marked him as one of the Kal-Ayunli Ilasheghen.  He had a steel shield hanging from his saddle, and a curved sword at his hip.  A bow and quiver with a harvest of arrows hung opposite the shield.

He said nothing and remained still, with his head bowed.

She looked past the robes and armor.  He wore one of the talismans of the Enneyand kingdom — a quarter-moon of bright silver on a hemp thong around his neck.  Her visitor did not call out any of the usual Enneyand greetings.  No calling for blessings upon her, no calling for thanks to the Greatest God for finding her.  Perhaps he was being polite to her.  Perhaps she was beneath such things to him.

At last she spoke:  “What brings a warrior of the Ilasheghen and a prince of the Kal-Ayunli to such a high lonely place?”

“There is war.  Great troubles.  Our brothers,” he looked up and tapped the quarter-moon emblem around his neck, “turn on us.  I seek Lemyta, the witch who lives upon the holiest of mountains.”

Her great green turban hid her face in shadow and she let a small smirk play across her lips.  “The Enneyand were only your brothers when your tribe turned on your own neighbors.”

Two of her hyenas drifted out of the tall grass behind the rider, easy and confident in her presence.  They sat and panted, watching.  The horse fidgeted and the rider, skillful as all Ilasheghen were, controlled it with a murmured word and a tight grip with his knees.

He was young, younger than she, and had skin darker by degrees than her own.  His round face was poor at hiding his feelings and she could see he disliked her words, but he did not argue their truth.

“It will not go well for you,” he said, “should the Enneyand defeat the Ilasheghen tribes.  They have no patience for witches.”

She laughed a practiced laugh.  “The spirits of the mountain are my brothers.”  She nodded toward the hyenas.  “The beasts are my servants, the wind my messenger.  The Enneyand could no sooner harm me than they could uproot the mountain on which we stand.”

“It was not so hard for me to find you.”

“You are wiser than most,” she said.  “You left the others behind at the brow of the hill and continued alone.   You know the right and proper way to approach me.  You carry the talisman of the Enneyand priests in the daylight, but at night do you still hold to older, closer, gods and spirits?”

The prince nodded.  “I have asked many questions and learned many things.  I do not wish to argue with Lemyta the witch of the holiest of the Alír Mountains, nor do I wish to offend you through ignorance.  I want you to help me repel the Enneyand.”

She said nothing, and watched him in the full light of the sun.  “And what do you want me to do?  Curses?  Blinding sandstorms?  The price the spirits ask of me is high, and the price I ask of you will be higher.”

“You will never have to see a single Enneyand,” he said.  “I promise that you can stay in the mountains, you can be sister to spirits, and I will ensure that the witches are honored, that the priests of the Greatest God leave them be.”

“Mighty promises for a small chieftain.”

He drew himself up.  “I have killed seven of their mamelukes, I have raided their caravans.  I don’t want curses, or sandstorms, I want these-”

He drew one of the arrows out of his quiver and tossed it toward her.  It clattered across the ground to rest at her feet.  She extended a sandaled foot and prodded it.  The feathers shimmered in the sun, the feathers of a bird who had not cast its shadow on the land for a long time.

“I am a good archer,” he said, “but with those arrows I do not think it would matter.  They seek their targets as if they hunger for them, cutting through steel and chain and leather as easily as they do flesh.”

She eased down to look closer.  It was as old as the Ilasheghen themselves, and painted along its length was a prayer in a language so old even she did not know the words.  The tip was not bronze or iron but a dull grey metal that gleamed coolly in the sun.

“I want more arrows,” he said. “I want the blades that sing, and the shields that howl.”

Lemyta’s shoulders bowed just a bit.  Those were old lines from children’s rhymes.  There was another rhyme that witches and sorcerers learned, and she whispered it to the arrow and the spirits.

“The poems of the city

a nation swallowed by the djin

songs for children

and some turn into men

and now and then

they seek the treasures

of ancestors

and the djin wait

and the Alír shake”

 

“Will you take me to the swallowed city?” he asked from atop his horse.

“The price is steep.  You would not want to pay it.”

“That’s not what I asked.  I have come, I have begged as a child to his mother, as one must to the witch who lives on the holy mountain.   But like a man, I will pay what you ask.”

 

#

 

They shared a meal that night.  He had brought camel milk and dried lentils.   She had millet bread and chicken eggs.  He spoke little.  If he was afraid, he did not show it.

 

#

She watched the sunrise for portents.  High, insubstantial clouds were lit, burnished bronze in the moments before sunrise, while the land beneath them lay in darkness.  She saw shapes there, a feather of cloud lit so it looked like a spine of bone, another that looked like a black-hood-vulture.  Her drawing of the world had been blown away during the night.

One of the little hill foxes gave a yip and trotted into view and behind it clopped her onager — not a sturdy donkey of the Enneyand merchants, but a true wild onager, rare and wonderful in its own right.

 

#

 

She led the onager back from the overlook and found the young warrior chieftain fussing with his horse.

“Julba,” she said, “there are three things you must carry.  You must do it.  It is part of the arrangement.”

“My arms are yours,” he said.

The jug was not large, but not small.  She poured out the tiny bit of millet it contained, checked it for spiders, then handed it to him.  “Tie it around you.  Like a shoulder quiver.  It is the first thing you must carry.”

Julba said nothing, but nodded once and took a small piece of rope and made a shoulder-sling for the clay jug.  He mounted his horse, arranged his arrows on his saddle-quiver, and then, in Ilasheghen fashion, took three arrows (three of the ancient arrows of the swallowed city), put a bit of rag around the tips, and stuck them into a spare thong of his left sandal.

They traveled in the cool of the morning, to the southwest.  The second item she needed him to carry, perhaps the most important, was even less conspicuous than the jug.  A bit of sandstone perhaps half the size of her head.  Not the hard basalt of the Alír Mountains, but a softer stone.  She had retrieved it, long ago, from the desert a day’s walk past the mountains.

It was the nature of spirits.  The stone had a spirit, the stone was part of a greater thing.  Like water in the river, or sands in the desert, the smaller part was important to the larger part.  She also had small stones tied around her wrists, that had come from the Alír Mountains, broken away in time immemorial.

“I thought you said I had to carry three things,” Julba said as he loaded the sandstone into one of his saddlebags.

“You do.  Just not yet.”

Sometime after noon they came to the great battlefield, where the Sayhel desert pushed relentlessly against the Alír.  Plants became sparse, then nonexistent as they approached.  No lizard stirred, no flies buzzed.  Then they came upon the edge of all things.  The Alír dropped, steep and solid, away from them and into an ocean of sand.  It stretched as far as the eye could see.  Lemyta stopped her onager and looked.  Beside her, Julba drew his horse to a stop.

“Such a thing,” he whispered.

“You could come here every day for a lifetime and it would never look the same twice.”  She pointed down.  “The desert has drawn back,” she said.  “You can see the skirt of the mountains.”

Indeed, the dunes lurched into a rough wasteland of broken stones atop a sloping floor of basalt.   Together they walked along the edge, south, for an hour.  Out of the broken flatland, a great ramp of massive blocks lifted and merged into the mountainside.  Not a natural thing, not a gift of the mountains, but a thing made by men.  Their nearly invisible trail met it, and became a road.

“There are tales,” Julba said, “of the great roads of the swallowed city.”

She nodded.  “There are many tales, most of them are true.”

Halfway down the ramp he asked, “Which are false?”

“That the people of the swallowed city had wings.”

“I had never heard that.”

“The people who believed that are long gone, for the most part.  The tales of the princes of the swallowed city having flying horses are also false.”

At the bottom of the great ramp they walked through the wasteland of stone.  Among the basalt, there were rectangular blocks of faded tan sandstone, like the one Julba’s horse labored with.

“That is what remains of the roads of the swallowed city,” she said.  “The djin that stir the desert have split them apart and scattered them.”

“The legends of the djin…?”

“Those are real, Prince Julba.  As real as the wind and the sand and the lightning. As dangerous as them, as well.  Have you reconsidered what you’ve asked of me?”

“Lemyta, our brothers in faith, the Enneyand, have an appetite for slaves and land that will never be satisfied.  I have seen their brutality.  What the djin want, I will pay.”

She nodded and dismounted her onager.  With Julba’s permission, she retrieved the block of sandstone from him and placed it atop a similar block that protruded from the sands.  It was the way of spirits.  It wanted so much to be back in the land where it was quarried, but that was impossible, and it would be satisfied with being next to one of its quarry-mates.  And that she could do — for a price.  The road was there, beneath the sands, sunken and hidden, but the spirit could find bits of its fellows and that was her price, to find the road to the swallowed city.

The stone’s spirit whispered to her, the vaguest of sounds, and she led Julba to the very edge of the basalt skirt of the mountains and then into the trackless dunes.   The djin already knew they were there, of course.  She could hear them as well, their yowls an echo of an echo.

“You are a good archer?” she asked, long hot hours later.

“All Ilasheghen are good archers,” he said.  “I am a good archer among the Ilasheghen.  Three of the mamelukes lay dead, and that was before I was given the arrows of my ancestors.”

“And are you a good hunter with your bow?  Can you shoot birds from the sky?”

“Games for children, Lemyta.”

She nodded, looped a bit of her green turban around her face to protect against blowing sand and urged the onager on.

They rode, the spirit whispering and leading her over the ancient road.  On the horizon she saw them, looking perhaps like a bit of wind, to one who didn’t know them.

“What have you heard of the swallowed city?” she asked.

“That it is a cursed place.  That the gods ruined it as punishment for the pride of its princes.  That the gods stretched the warriors of the city on the rack and they gave birth to the tall Mushiti, and that they crushed the workers and sent them to live in the jungles.  That the princes and merchants and slaves who escaped fathered the Ilasheghen and the Losetho and many tribes besides.”

“And what guards the city?”

“The desert itself.”

On the horizon the clouds of dust grew, not toward them, but up, billowing high into the air.  Behind her, she could hear Julba rein his horse in. “Is that a storm?”

“It is the djin,” she said.  “The wild djin of the winds of the desert.  The hounds of the devourer of cities.”

The calm façade that he had worn over the past day cracked a little.  Sweat having nothing to do with the day’s growing heat beaded his face.  “Do you have some sorcery to turn them away?”

“You say you will pay the price, and part of the price is that you must part with your arrows.  I will part with something as well.”

She took out one of the small pieces of the Alír that she carried and rode back to Julba.  “The spirit of the stone will join with yours.  The winds of the djin will not harm you.  Listen carefully.  They will grow frustrated, they will draw their weapons, weapons of stone and bone and metal, and then you must shoot them with the arrows.  They will become less air and more flesh, and when they are flesh they are as vulnerable as a mameluke.”

She handed him a bit of the ancient stone on a string.  “Hand this around your neck,” she said.  Then she tapped his quarter-moon talisman.  “And take this off.  The god of the Enneyand’s is foolish, and may interfere with wiser sorcery.”

She’d tried her best to not let her hands shake as she handed the small stone to him.  She had often looked into the desert from the mountains, had heard the djin, had seen them; she had been told by her teacher that this was how you beat them.  She did not know it for sure.  She could be wrong.  She could be about to die.

As calmly as she could she settled her onager down on its belly in the sand, and Julba did the same with his fine horse.  He removed his quiver from the saddle and belted it around his waist.  By the time he was finished, the voices of the wild djin were clear.  Six of them.  The clouds rushed over the sands like a wave, and atop each rode a being hideous and horrid.  Great flaring ears framed their skulls, and huge pupil-less eyes gleamed out of their bestial faces.

The clouds of dust and sand collapsed down upon themselves and in a hard heartbeat dashed into both prince and witch.  Lemyta did not flinch or squint — she had joined the souls of the stone before and even as her turban was dashed from her head and her robe and skirt fluttered, she did not move.  The sand rattled off her skin, off her hair, off her eyes even.  A thousand and a thousand clattering impacts that drowned out even the howling wind and the shrieking of the djin.   The very ground beneath them oozed and moved under the fury of it all.

A djin’s face appeared in the grit an arm’s-length away from her.  The being watched for a moment, then surged forward.   She struggled back, nearly falling into the shifting sands beneath her.  She threw an old bit of blanket in the creature’s face and its obsidian claws snapped it out of the air and in a mad ecstasy it tore the moth-eaten material to shreds.

Its head snapped up and the great eyes fixed on her and it threw away the ruins of the cloth.  In a blur, an arrow slithered into the creature’s chest.  The djin shrieked and clawed at the fletching, its talons cutting great gouges in its own flesh as it struggled to pull out the barb.

Turning from it, Lemyta saw Julba drawing another arrow and shooting it into the maelstrom at a blurred shape.  For a moment she was torn about what to do, and then the world flipped and flipped again.  The claws of a djin tore through the skin of the red gazelle mantle on her back and the cloth on her stomach and dug into her stone-hard skin.  The talons, like the sand before, scrabbled against her for long seconds.  Amid panic and claws and shrieking, she reached to her belt for her sole true weapon against the djin.  But a great hand grabbed her arm and held it fast to her side and she could do nothing.

The djin hefted her up, lifting her over its head and then slithered toward Julba, intent on breaking one stone against another.  The prince drew back his bow and fired another of the priceless arrows at the djin that held her.   The creature flinched and dropped her.  She fell against its boney shoulders, then rolled down its spine to thump hard into the sand.  The djin had no legs; its lower body seemed to be more snake-ish than anything else, sinking into the sand.

Her arm now free, Lemyta drew out her weapon — an oryx horn sharpened to a point by the patient teeth of mice.  She drove the horn into the djin’s tail and it sank in as if its body were made of soft mud.  The creature surged away from her — two of Julba’s arrow’s standing out from its chest.  It fell hard to its side and lay still.

Lemyta lay still as well.  She had few tricks to play on the djin.  She could convince them that she was hiding in the folds of an old blanket, or in the hairs of her gazelle cloak.  Her one other trick was to hide, like a hare, right out in the open.  She broke the thin thong holding the square of hare-hide around her left wrist and held it tight in both hands up against her chest.

The winds still blew around her, and the djin seethed within the whirling sands and Lemyta forced herself to lay still, to summon the courage of the hare that stays motionless while danger walks a stone’s throw away.

Julba pivoted, his bow out and a special arrow nocked.   Another djin slipped out of the swirling sand, a long curved sword in its hand and the prince let fly the arrow at it.  As he reached for another dart, a second djin swept out of the storm behind him and its long fingers dug into his back.  Julba yelped and struggled, but the djin pulled him back and then up.  His arrows, magic and not, clattered out of his hip quiver.  A third djin appeared around them.

Lemyta lay motionless, telling herself that it wasn’t her duty to fight the hounds of the swallowed city for Julba.  Telling herself that it would be better if only one of them walked out of these sands.

The chittering of the djin holding Julba turned to a shriek of pain and it dropped the prince, pulling back a stump where its left hand should have been.  Julba held a long curved knife in his fist, its metal gleaming the same dull sheen as the arrowheads.

The other two djin hesitated for a moment, long enough for Julba to snatch up his bow and grab one of his special arrows from the sand.  He bent it back, spun, and fired an arrow into the eye of the wounded djin; it yowled, then turned and fled.  By the time Julba had put another arrow against his bowstring, the other djin had also retreated into the swirling clouds of sand.

Around Lemyta and Julba the winds faltered.  The sands fell out of the air and in the haze of dust that remained she watched the prince as he glanced around.  He looked to his arrows for a moment, to the retreating djin, then cast about further.

“Lemyta!” he yelled.  He spun, looking to the dunes.  “Lemyta!”

His face was pale, and his tongue eased out of his mouth and across his lips.  She couldn’t tell if he was truly concerned for her, or simply alarmed that without her he could not bring his plans to fruition.

He turned again and shouted her name.  She stood while he was turned away.  With a slight whistle, she gained the attention of the horse and the onager and Julba.

“Lemyta,” he said, his body slumping with relief.  “May the River Mother hold you,” he said, letting slip an old Ilasheghen blessing.   “I feared the djin had buried you.”

“You did not tell me about the dagger,” she said.

He regarded his torn clothes and the gouges in his armor.  “You did not tell me there would be six of them.”   Julba turned and looked at the remaining four djin who were by now little more than specks, fleeing across the horizon.

She could still hear the cries of the djin, but it had taken on a different tone, not one of rage and fury, but an alarm for their master.

 

#

 

The day in the desert was nothing compared to the night.  As soon as the sun fell, the air grew cold, and the sands sucked every bit of warmth out of the night.  There was no wood, no grass, no dried dung to burn.   Lemyta did not fear the night so much. She tied a bit of camel mane around each wrist and each ankle, and one around her forehead and the cold, though still there, was bearable.

Julba wrapped himself in his cloak and his blanket to sleep, in true Ilasheghen fashion, by his horse, letting the beast’s body block the wind.

“There is a king of djin who lives in the ruins of the swallowed city, is there not?” he asked, long after she thought he had fallen asleep.

“There is,” Lemyta said, watching the stars for any clue of what might lie ahead of them.

“Have you spoken to him?” he asked.

“Do not be foolish,” she said.  “Many know of him, many witches and sorcerers, but none have ventured to the city for many generations.”

Julba absorbed this silently, his brown eyes now open and glinting in the firelight.  “And still you know how to defeat him?”

“Defeat?  No.  Negotiate, perhaps.”

He snorted, almost like a horse.  “Many of the Ilasheghen have tried negotiating with the Enneyand.  Such wasted talk.  Such wasted time.”

“The djin king’s demands are simple, meet them and it will give you want you want.”

“And what are its demands?”  Julba tried to sound unconcerned, like the question just came into his mind, like he hadn’t been thinking on it all day, or perhaps all month or even most of his life.

“I have looked at the world drawn out in the sand, and at the stars, and I do not know what it will ask tomorrow,” she said, trying to sound like there was any mystery at all to it.  She had learned of it from her teacher, as most witches and sorcerers did.  Still, anyone who lived in the Alír Mountains and knew of its relentless struggle could not fail to guess it.  But then, few of the Ilasheghen lived upon the  mountains anymore.

They spoke of little else as the night wore on and the temperature dropped even further.  He talked somewhat of the destruction wrought by the Enneyand kingdom as they spread their border and faith by sword-edge and lance-point.  She spoke a little of her girlhood in a tiny village by an intermittent river at the foot of the Alír, of being a servant since her first step to the spirits of the mountains.

Sometime after midnight Prince Julba fell asleep in his robes and Lemyta finally got a chance to talk to his horse.  It, in the slow and dull speech of horses, confirmed that the young Ilasheghen had spoken true; he had fought the mamelukes and the priests of the Enneyand, and many of his own kind who had sided with them.

 

#

 

In the morning, before Julba awoke, Lemyta paced the sand around their small camp.  The spirits of the stones of the road still called to her, a chorus that led them in rough line southwest.  She found a single goat-print in the sand and with a small motion of her foot she covered it before the young prince saw.

 

#

 

A cold morning of traveling and the land began to change again, the dunes held stones and pebbles and then, by noon when the heat burned on them from above and below, the sand gave way to rock.   At times they passed conspicuous piles of stones: foundations of long-abandoned houses, broken columns, and one dry well from which the wind of the desert could be heard chuckling quietly to itself.

The ruins of the swallowed city looked almost like a line of hills when they first glimpsed them.   Soon, the foundations of buildings became more complete; holding up broken walls, which themselves grew higher as they pushed forward to the center of the city.  The winds hummed and thrummed through the empty streets of the swallowed city, until they came to the great crescent-moon shaped building of the palace.

It was not a huge structure, but it was not made of brick or block, it seemed to be a thing grown from stone as easily as lesser men might make something of clay.  Between the horns of it the winds died and a silence, ageless and ancient, reigned where once the kings of an earthly paradise had held court.

Both the wild onager and the spirited Ilasheghen horse refused to walk between the great horns of the building and wordlessly Julba and Lemyta dismounted and walked across the courtyard.

Their steps echoed back to them, the slight noise drowning out the constant whisper and song of spirits in Lemyta’s ears.  She heard the ringing of brass anklets a moment before Prince Julba did, and a heartbeat before the man appeared, leaping out of the silence and stillness before them.

Such a man!  Tall and fierce and proud, landing as easily as a bird might land.  He held a long straight dueling staff in his ringed hand and he swung it over his head with such force that it whistled in the stillness before he brought it solidly down at prince Julba’s head.

The Ilasheghen prince fumbled sideways and the staff struck the stones of the courtyard with a crack like a falling tree.

“Lemyta!”  Julba shouted, partly alarm, partly a question.   “How do we negotiate?”

The man cross-stepped around Julba, raising the staff again and whirling it over his head in an almost lazy motion and brought it crashing indiscriminately into the prince’s side with a great thump.  The young man jolted as if kicked by a horse and fell sprawling.

There was a voice in the wind.  “Leave this place!  Leave and forget!”

“This is not the djin!” she shouted.  “This is a sorcerer of the swallowed city!”

At the sound of his title, the man turned to face her and with the tingling of his ankle bracelets he took two great strides to her and the staff thrummed through the air over his head.

There would be no hiding from his eyes, she knew, and the spirits of stone were only good against the will of the sand.  Snatching a bit of polished tortoise shell from her bracelet, she drew its sharp edge against her palm hard enough to tear and cut.

The first blow she avoided by little more than the length of her smallest finger; the mundamugu wheeled the strike around his head and back at her and this time there was no escape.  Her arm came up and the staff struck her in the forearm.  Her quick spell saved her from a broken arm, but the hardness of the shell collapsed like thin clay and pain shot up her arm, and then something inside her shoulder gave way and the muscles and bones shifted under her skin and her arm hung useless at her side.

“Away!”  The mundamugu shouted, “Away and leave this place!”

Her shoulder pulled itself back together as the staff thumped into her stomach, smashing through the remaining bit of the shell’s protection and driving out all her breath in one great whoosh.

She stumbled from the blow, unable to inhale, unable to run, unable to do anything but listen to the sorcerer pronounce her end:  “Witch, who would come to deal with the djin, die and let the world forget!”

Prince Julba rushed, low and quick like a hyena to the throat, and his gleaming knife slashed into the mundamugu’s back.  There was a thump like the knife had met wood instead of flesh.  The tall sorcerer checked the young prince’s motion with one lean hand, shoving Julba back to the ground.  When he fell, the clay jug he had carried scraped along the ground with a sound like echoing thunder.  The sorcerer halted the blow that was to crush Lemyta’s head and turned on his heel toward Julba.

The staff lifted and Julba rolled over the jug and the blow fell full on his back, cracking against his armor.   The sorcerer drew back again and the prince rolled twice into the mundamugu’s shins.  As the mundamugu took long strides backward, Julba struggled to his knees, the quarter-moon symbol in his hand and one of the childish guttural prayers of the Enneyand spilling from his lips.  The staff struck down at Julba’s shoulders and bent like grass, then again at his head and again fell with no more power than an infant’s.

Julba surged to his feet, the talisman in one hand and his long curved tulwar in the other.  The steel blade slashed out into the mundamugu’s midsection and as quickly as the apparition had appeared he faded back, scattering like leaves and sand in the wind.

Lemyta drew a long painful breath and a few moments later found the courage to roll her left shoulder a bit and although it hurt, it stayed together.

“I thought you could negotiate with the king of the djin,”  Julba said.  “Did I struggle here just to learn that the prayers of the Enneyand are equal to the wisdom of my people?”

“That was not a djin,” she answered.  It still hurt to breath, down low on her side all the way to her spine.  “That was the spirit of a mundamugu, of a very powerful mundumugu.”

“Doing what?”

“Keeping anyone from doing what we are attempting,” she answered.   Then, before he could say anything else, she asked:  “Is the vessel still whole?”

He inspected it, quickly, not sheathing his sword as he did so.  “Chipped a bit, along the bottom, but still usable.  Are you whole?  Your breathing is rough.”

Her shoulder had almost come out of the joint, and she was almost certain that she had broken ribs.  “I am chipped a bit, along the side,” she said, “but I am still whole.”

They walked past the horns of the building and into the deep shadows cast by the westward sun.  The stone of the palace was immaculate, but there was evidence of ruin, of wooden doors and walls collapsed and rotted.  Inside the great curve of the building stood a curious thing: a semi-circle of cracked human skulls around a single upturned goat-skull.

She couldn’t see it, but Lemyta could feel the king of the djin’s presence, and from her companion’s silence, she thought, so could Julba.

There were many secrets, many magics and curses and spells that Lemyta had only heard of and never actually practiced.  This was one such thing; an offhand bit of wisdom passed from witch to witch over generations, on the remote chance they should ever be so foolish or desperate to actually find themselves within the horns of the crescent palace of the devoured city.  She motioned for Julba to be still and took a few small steps that took her to the broken skulls — the pitiful remains of those few people to have wandered here to be killed by the old sorcerer.

She waited before the goat skull, as Julba had waited outside her hut.  The djin, in a voice quiet as a whisper and strong as a gale, said one word:  “Speak.”

“We have come to trade,” Lemyta said.  “We have come to discuss terms of trade.”

“What do you wish?”

She motioned, her shoulder crackling and smarting, for Julba to stand beside her.

He walked into the circle of skulls and with a voice not much more confident than he had addressed her with a day ago, said: “I seek the weapons and tools of my ancestors that are in this city.”

“What do you wish for the trade?” Lemyta asked the empty air, knowing full the answer.

“Land,” the djin whispered.  “The land west of the Alír Mountains, beyond the spirits of the mountains.  Land to claim, as I claimed the lands of your ancestors.”

Julba was silent for a long time.  The land east of the Alír Mountains was his, the Ilasheghen and the other tribes.

“Very well,” he said at last.  “What must I do?”

Just in her ear Lemyta could hear the whisper of the King of the djin, quiet as the hum of a gnat, yet with strength like coming thunder.

Following his instructions, she picked up the goat skull, carried it to the chipped clay pot that Julba still held, and carefully poured the sand within the skull out the nostrils and into the pot.  Wordlessly she tied a bit of leather around the opening of the urn.

 

#

 

They passed through the desert.  Sometime in the night the four wild djin had returned, their shrieks woke them, but the tone was different; a jubilation and exaltation that became, as the night wore on, worse than the their calls of the fury and rage.  In the morning, as the Alír Mountains rose in the distance, the smaller djin stayed just beyond the horizon behind the two travelers.

Lemyta and Julba had spoken little since leaving the city.  Her ribs hurt to breathe, much less to talk.  Their few words were of travel, of mounts, and wind and sand and choosing the next path.   Lemyta listened to the winds, and the sands, and the spirits of the ancient road beneath them.

When the Alír Mountains swelled ahead of them and they could make out the great ramp that led from the desert into the stone Julba finally spoke.

“Will the spirits of the mountains try to stop us?”

“They are as they always are,” she said, “neither angered nor saddened, neither surprised nor upset.”

“We bring their enemies to them,” he said, reigning in his horse.  His quiver burst with arrows taken from the ancient stores of the city; the poor horse labored with a burden of swords and spears tied in bundles on both sides.  There were more, stores of weapons and armor, enough to put a rare smile on the prince’s face.  He would have to return to the city to retrieve the rest, but the King of the Djin had pushed the stones of the ancient road up through the sand — an easy path for him to follow.  He had also worn the clay jug around his body night and day.

“‘Enemy’ is a word that the Alír would not understand,” she said.  “As are feelings like fear or revenge.”

He nodded and eased his horse forward and she followed.

She had carried the asp-knife from the first day of their journey together.  It was a useless thing for spirits and djin, but effective against men.  Julba had worn his armor even in the sweltering heat, but a mere scratch from the asp-knife to his hand, or his forearm, or along the back of his neck would do.  She had no doubt that he would likely kill her if she attempted it.   She had the hyenas and the jackals to call upon, as well, but calling them was not something that could be done discreetly.

They crossed the spine of the mountain as the afternoon aged into evening.  Still they said nothing, her aching shoulder and cracked ribs her only companions.

“They say,” she said finally, “that the swallowed city was a great a prosperous realm once.  But the djin claimed it and turned it to dust.”

“I have heard the tales,” Julba answered, not looking back.  He looked, instead, at the mountains, and deeming they had crossed far enough he dismounted and carried the jug to a nondescript patch of exposed stone.

She took a deep painful breath.  “The descendants of the city were driven to harder lands, the lands west of the Alír, to the plains and the dense forests — would you inflect those peoples to the djin, to the merciless spreading of the desert now that you have seen the ruins?”

“I have seen the ruins of the swallowed city, the tribute and folly of my ancestors,” he said, kneeling and untying the rope that held the leather lid of the jug closed.  He took a great long breath.

“I have also seen the slave markets of the Enneyand,” he added, still not turning to her.  “I have seen the men who ply their trade there, and the men and soldiers whose business and sport it is to supply those slaves.  The mamelukes of the Enneyand are fearsome opponents, and a small prince of Ilasheghen would have to be a fool to ride against them.”

The ropes fell away and the flimsy lid of the jug was off.  “I have seen the slave markets of the Enneyand, and many things I thought were foolish before are not so now.”

He was still for the span of a dozen heartbeats, as was Lemyta.  Then he poured out the handful of sand onto the stone.  Lemyta could feel, from the mountain’s spirit, the slightest change, a dull resignation.

“It is done,” she said.

He walked to his horse, patted its nose then finally looked at her.  “It is done, it is beginning, it is continuing.”

She nodded and with a wave released her onager to roam at its will.  She followed Julba as he led his horse by the reins.  She gave one glance back to the small pile of sand upon the stone.

A single goat-print had already appeared in it.

 

_________________________________________________________

If you’re at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, then you probably already know Adrian Simmons.  You want more?  You got it.   Wondering how Gandalf can turn a blind eye to Sarumon’s shenanigans?  Gotcha covered.  Thirsty for  a bit o’ the Irish?  Let me pour it up, laddie! 


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