At sunfall, the sellward, the spellcaster, and the wyrmrider paused at the foot of a dune and peered at the sun wester across the Sahael, the sea of sand. They had walked thirty days and were yet to come upon an oasis, caravan, or waykeep. At this rate, even a quick death seemed impossible.
Adzala, the wyrmrider, wished they’d at least meet a band of waylurkers. Short of livening their arduous journey, death by waylurker hands was a better fate than this despair, or what their pursuers, the Guild’s Ivoryguard, planned for them. They were fortunate to hold the vantage of being small-numbered, and though this boded great swiftness, it had wearied them beyond reprieve. Her most of all.
Jasiri, the sellward from Saai, had been kind enough to heft her over his ox-muscled shoulders, but he labored more and more with each drag across the fine, gold-hued sand. Adzala felt terrible for her imposition, but without it, she would’ve been left behind like her sandwyrm—a poisoned spear half-broken in its underbelly—in the fortress-ruins of Ta’ak al-koum. That was eight days ago. Her sandwyrm yet lived, but wouldn’t for long. She could feel its alhaya, its life-force, wane away; sandwyrms weren’t meant to be this far riven from their rider. It would soon die, and she would follow, a fate no less favorable to being captured by the Ivoryguard.
Though she’d only met Jasiri twelve nights ago—a costly encounter; she had lost everything in saving their caravan from waylurkers—she was drawn to his brash but melancholic nature. He was a big man, larger than any southerner she had ever seen, but graceful and kind. Kinder than the spellcaster, at least. He didn’t carry himself like the weight of the realm sat on his shoulders, though Adzala didn’t doubt he could take it.
“We camp here tonight.” Mikaya, the spellcaster from the Iron Bay of ’Meraki, stomped the sand, testing for steadfastness. The winds were known to shift whole dunes overnight. The last thing they needed was to find themselves buried while they slept again. Adzala didn’t have the energy to dig them out like last time. Nor could they afford to lose any more of their stuff, not that they had anymore tents, rations of salted camel or dried dates to lose.
Adzala slipped off Jasiri’s back and sat crouch-legged opposite the spellcaster who was pulling and twisting fingers into odd shapes, while whispering an inaudible incantation. Soon a light, dim, like an army of glowworms, but even and steady, kindled in the circle drawn in their midst. This was only the third night Adzala had abandoned her wariness to settle beside the spellcaster. Wyrmriding, too, was spellcasting, but not as unnatural as these agents of the Guild. If she’d had any say she would have left Mikaya to the waylurkers, but Jasiri would not be parted from the spellcaster. Adzala wondered, what spell Mikaya had cast over Jasiri? This despaired, yet relieved her; in the days before the Purge, spellcasters communed directly with djinn and the Twelve alike, what was one man’s heart in comparison?
Mikaya sat still, eyes closed, as they waited for Jasiri’s return from his nightly hunt for their supper, a waiting which lasted longer each night. The game was getting thinner the further east they traveled; it felt like there was more hunger here than sand. For the last three nights they’d supped on lean deathstalker meat, from which Jasiri drew poison to lace his arrowheads. He was always preparing for some unforeseen battle. He was more sandborn than her in that regard. Adzala didn’t envy him this.
Tonight they ate adder meat, a little more supple, but not by much. Afterwards, they told tales around the bonfire like a band of wayfarers. Jasiri always told tales of courage and honor, passed down through generations of Saai warriorfolk. Tonight he spoke of his sellward adventures, though he seemed shamed and dishonored by their telling. As Adzala would later learn, all sellwards are disdainful of their mercenary trade. Often armed with little honor, they fought for whoever wagered the highest. Though Adzala couldn’t speak to Jasiri’s honor, she knew there was no gold waiting at the end of this journey, so his reasons must be at least honorable, yet obviously misguided.
For only death awaited them.
Mikaya spoke little of anything. Spellcasting, wizarding, scrying, all djokk—magic, had been outlawed since the Purge, since the races of men, djinn, and the Twelve truced to no more wield such powers. A trifling peace prevailed only because the Guild and the Shadow Council kept all known djokk-wielders in dungeons under the Guild fortress. The sandbornfolk were more liberal in this regard, but were quick to ransom a suspected djokk-wielder to the Ivoryguard. Mikaya couldn’t take the chance.
Adzala came from a small village north of the White Nyl. She could barely speak a word of the common lleb. What she could do well was play her shawm, a flute her folk played to merry times. These weren’t merry times, but every distraction helped. With her soothing voice and skillful playing, the night wiled away easily.
Jasiri always kept watch, but tonight Adzala offered to take his place. Jasiri smiled. “You can sit a while longer …”
Mikaya joined them. They sat huddled together watching the stars.
A hushed silence prevailed.
Adzala, speaking Lilim, the sandborn tongue, asked if there was any reasonable chance they’d make their goal, Qorokem, the Endless Labyrinth?
“We have come this far,” Jasiri said. “All we can do is knuckle onward.”
She grabbed a palm-full of sand, let it flow back down. “There be more and more of this and less of anything else. How long must we endure?”
“We can’t relent now.” Mikaya’s tone didn’t betray any assurance or enthusiasm.
“Adzala has less invested in our cause.” Jasiri nodded to Mikaya. “She is allowed the illusion of choice—”
“I’m not asking for pity or favor; I can handle—”
“Hardly, it would seem,” the spellcaster snarled.
Adzala roused, with a fire that belied her slight frame.
“Enough!” the sellward’s voice stayed Adzala’s show of rage. She turned to him and seethed only as a girl of her green years could.
“We won’t make our journey’s end squabbling like this,” Jasiri continued. “Ay, the odds seem dire, more than we were led to believe, but we cannot baulk now. Lest we dishonor all we have sacrificed to get here.”
Adzala stood and shuffled away. Mikaya lingered a while, but got up and walked away from camp. The spellcaster always slept a little way off.
Each, it would seem, kept watch against their own fears and anger. The night was passed in silence and strife.
Early the next morning, Mikaya woke them before dawn, as Mikaya often did. Gracing them with a dour countenance and swift, surly movements that bullied more than readied them for the walk ahead. Jasiri and Adzala usually shrugged at this, but something was odd about Mikaya’s appearance that morning. If not for the eyes, and the long flowing garb, Jasiri wouldn’t recognize the spellcaster. Adzala cared even less, she wasn’t speaking to Mikaya, not after that slight last night. Though Mikaya’s appearance would settle later on, Jasiri kept an eye on the spellcaster. He knew spellcasting bartered spells for blood (or alhaya as the sandbornfolk say) and with Mikaya’s nightly spells, much in the way of energy and form were taken from the spellcaster. But this was more than that. He didn’t know what though.
Having little left from last night’s supper to stretch into breakfast, they dusted themselves, pissed in their respective water skins and prepared for the day’s walk. They made haste, covering considerable distance before the sun hung in the sky like a burnished medallion.
Adzala usually walked a few leagues before allowing Jasiri heft her on his back. Out of defiance for last night’s harshness, she decided to walk the whole way. Proud, but foolish. She labored to keep up, the broad-soled sandboots too heavy for her unaccustomed feet. Wyrmriders, small of frame, were usually astride their wyrms. It made their feet awkward at everything else. If these weren’t such dire times, her wyrm would still be with her, Jasiri and Mikaya aboard its lower back. Wyrms—sturdy, rough-scaled beasts—were, before the Purge, used by the sandbornfolk for charging fortresses and digging labyrinths. Now, they only dug wells, defended small villages like Adzala’s, and perished from spearheads like mere oxen.
After a long while of slow, silent walking, Jasiri, ever hawk-eyed, pointed to black clouds hanging above pockets in the skies. “Rain?” he asked.
“No,” Adzala panted beside Jasiri. “They be siahr chalr, false clouds. It might rain up there, but the winds steal it away. Not a drop will kiss the sand. Let’s move before the sun returns and shakes them away.”
It wasn’t long before the sound of thunder rocked the valley. Soon a mob of gusty, howling winds whipped at their tattered, sand-silk gowns. The winds wouldn’t be bested. The three joined hands and walked as one with Jasiri leading the way, like an ox-plough. They wrapped their hoods around their faces—in the fashion of the Mutajihn merchantfolk—and crossed the valley blinded against the flying sand.
For the second time, Jasiri felt very strongly the landscape was aware of their cause and was acting on the enemy’s dark will. A folly-some reckoning obviously. The Sahael had a mind of its own, a cruel and terrifying mind.
They walked as fast as they could, and soon made hardier, rocky ground beyond the fine sand. Later, as the sun steadied to wester over a flat plateau of craggy outcropping, the sellward spied a caravan across the valley.
“Halt,” he called to Mikaya, and pointed towards the caravan.
Mikaya strained, but eventually located the caravan.
“What do you see?” Jasiri asked.
The spellcaster peered into the long distance. “Be it a caravan?”
Jasiri nodded, relieved, reassured he wasn’t seeing things, for no two wayfarers see the same mirage, or at least that’s what he’d been led to believe. He turned and looked back at the trailing wyrmrider and harried her.
When Adzala finally met them on the low incline, they designed to approach the caravan. From this far, at least two leagues away, it looked a large enough contingent, perhaps Mutajihn merchants en route to the Azza Akkab salt mines. If chance favored them, they could ride with the caravan until the edge of the mines, then continue farther northeast to the labyrinth. They would pretend to be fellow travelers, now stripped of their belongings by a band of waylurkers. This was technically true, save for them not being travelers but fugitives of the Guild. A crime punishable by death for whoever sheltered them.
“We are all that survives of a caravan heading to the salt mines,” proposed Jasiri, laying out the plan. “I, your sellward; she, your daughter.”
“We look nothing like caravan travelers.” Mikaya regarded Adzala’s soiled garb, her raggy appearance. “She won’t pass for a tradesman’s daughter, not garbed like that. I can’t charm her a disguise.”
Jasiri reached into his sling pack and produced a raiment of fine sandsilk, embroidered with simple glyphs and purplish hues of the Asperan folk, whose charge he was under, before taking up the commission to deliver two travelers from a Ajjai, a small fort north of the Guild capital, to the salt mines. A job any of the numerous Mutajihn charters could have handled. Looking back only brought regret, but he sometimes wished he hadn’t taken this charge. Say what you will of a sellward’s honor, a commission (or debt of safekeeping, as was the case with Adzala for saving them) was binding, especially this one which sealed his fate, long before the Guild would eventually part his head from his body.
Jasiri held the raiment against Adzala’s slight body and took the measure of her.
The spellcaster’s long gown would manage the disguise.
They set off in the direction of the caravan and made it before nightfall. The caravan was setting camp when the three approached with their hands raised in surrender.
“Well met, fellow travelers!” Jasiri spoke fluent Lilim. “We mean no ill. We are in need of shelter and food, and willing to part with coin for it.”
The camp’s band of sellwards, still horsed on Berbr desert steeds, surrounded and drew swords on them, stripped Jasiri of his arrows and sword, and arrested the three on site.
“We have erred upon a nest of adders,” Mikaya whispered to Jasiri.
“It would seem so,” Jasiri replied.
“We sup on their disfavor.”
The sellwards would have dispatched them hastily if not for the intervention of the camp’s leader, an aged Mutajihn named Amran-Bilal. He wore around his neck a fine-hewn, gold chain, which identified him as Rayiys, as chief of party. His robes were of good, simply hemmed sand-silk. The Mutajihn, despite their vast coin were modest, austere.
Their story was familiar, but too elaborate to be jest or falsehood. Despite that, the deep creases on Amran-Bilal’s brow never slackened as he asked Mikaya to retell their tale a third time.
The sellwards, generously built and trek-roughened—gowns rumpled, narrow-eyed gazes—stowed Jasiri’s bow and arrows, and his assegai, the short-sword of the southernfolk. Once Mikaya was through regaling the Rayiys, Jasiri turned to the sellwards, assured he wasn’t here to take their commission, his only charge was Mikaya and Adzala.
Amran-Bilal welcomed the trio, but kept a wary eye on Adzala, he couldn’t tell which was odder; her keeping company with southerners or the southerners keeping company with her. “They are our guests,” he warned his sellwards. “I will stomach no harm to them.”
“Rayiys, if I may,” a lean, stoop-shouldered sellward bowed, “we know nothing of them—”
“We know enough.”
“They may be a tracking party for the waylurkers. Or worse, agents of the Guild.”
“We are no such thing,” Jasiri said.
“Mind not, dear Kashad,” Amran-Bilal addressed Jasiri. “I pay their lot to protect my caravan, and one cannot fault them their zealous suspicions.”
“No pardons necessary. One recognizes the contradiction of power; those with the least of it are most eager to wield it,” Jasiri said.
Kashad returned, “You’d be wise not to disparage our band. Audacity often reaps a high—”
“Rue your tongues, both of you,” the Rayiyssnapped. After a moment, he smiled falsely, turned to Kashad, and slapped his shoulder playfully. “Venture some gallantry. It shall do you well.”
Kashad snarled, “Gallantries are hefty wagers. Yours tend to be tainted by your faith in the good in men, even strangers.”
Amran-Bilal smiled. “If this were a simpler time, I would’ve taken their heads long before their tongues marked them noble or otherwise, but old eyes know not to see only darkness. I will suffer no more concerns, ay?”
Kashad nodded, reluctantly.
“Well, up with your sort. Up, up!” Amran-Bilal instructed Jasiri, Mikaya, and Adzala to rise from their crouched positions. Clasping Mikaya’s and Jasiri’s arms at the elbow, as was the southern custom, he added, “Well met, fellow travelers, and welcome to our camp. Wary not, no harm shall visit you.” To Adzala, he offered his hand and she kissed her forehead to it as was the way of the Noube. His smile returned earnestly. Mutajihn are of the sort, not easy-trusting, but considerate of the wealth of fellowship.
Jasiri was glad the Guild’s severe methods failed to harden them like every other race of man. They were still keen to share merriment and break bread with strangers. Their bonds were so well-nurtured, their children inherited them like blood-pacts. A Mutajihn’s favor lasted forever, as did their ill-regard.
Amran-Bilal led them to the large bonfire mobbed by goat-skin tents dyed gaudy, pallid colors. The bonfire and cookpots were surrounded by a mixed contingent of camel-herders, taxmen, white-gold merchants, and an Amghar of some repute, plus cooks, grooms for the camels, and serving eklanto attend the party. The Amghar, a plump lady-chieftain of remarkable features, dressed in fine raiment embroidered by gold inseams, a dark blueish veil, and jewelry fit for a Guild ransom, took interest in Adzala. Her hawkish wyrmrider features; small nose, wide ears, and too-thin mouth, marked her. Besides wyrmiders never ventured this Far East. Was this attention fortuitous? Only time would tell.
Adzala later joined the Amghar’s cushioned divan.
Jasiri and Mikaya kept their place with the rest of the contingent.
The Amghar fed Adzala skinned dates, steaming cups of qahwaground and distilled in boiling water, and goat’s cheese. Jasiri and Mikaya forgot about the girl as the camp gathered for supper; camel stew thickened with cream and peppers, slowly cooked in polished tajines.
After their supper, Adzala took out her shawm and sang for those gathered. The sellwards mock-wrestled. In their scorn, they invited Jasiri to join them. Jasiri could’ve turned down the challenge, but that would rue unfavorably for his companions. He was a seasoned and bold Saai wrestler, winning all but one of his bouts, losing only to a nifty sellward boy of nigh seventeen years.
The merriment was washed down with palmwine, sour and strong. The revelry lasted a long while.
Jasiri and Mikaya never learned the sudden interest in Adzala. Perhaps the Amghar had taken the wyrmrider to vouchsafe Jasiri and Mikaya’s best behavior. Perhaps. They stirred no trouble and retired with little regard for whatever intrigues the wyrmrider or the Amghar conspired.
For one night, at least, they forgot their woe and grief.
At dawn, the camp broke fast with wheatbread and cheese. They buried the embers from last night’s bonfire before continuing eastwards.
Even here, Mikaya still slept away from the camp. Still looked odd in the morning light.
The camp was traveling to the salt mines of Azza Akkab, which proved prickly for the three. The Wezir of Azza Akkab was sympathetic to the Guild. His own band of guardsmen patrolled the dunes, nigh the mines. There was no way to get to the labyrinth of Qorokem after passing through the salt mines. The journey from the fortress of Azza Akkab would kill even the sturdiest tracker.
The three would have to escape the caravan before it reached the mines, which, from what Jasiri could devise, was only four, five days’ march. They’d travel a longer way northeastwards, with any luck, cross into the lands of the shadowbinders, and double back southwards to the Qorokem.
Only problem with that plan was getting Adzala away from the Amghar, who though burdensome, could speak the tongue of the shadowbinderfolk, without which Jasiri and Mikaya would surely be slain. Shadowbinders and the wyrmriders, the last scions of the Noube, were the only sandbornfolk who still wielded any djokk. Though calling shadowbinders sandborn or born was a slight against nature. Their dark djokkwas so ill-reputed, it kept the sun away from their lands. Nothing grew, nothing died (save for the occasional miner fleeing the salt mines.) If it could be avoided, Jasiri … Mikaya even, would never set foot on these lands, but such was the cost they’d have to pay.
“We leave tonight,” Jasiri assured Mikaya, as they trailed behind with the sellward band guarding the rear.
“We have at least a day before we have to absolutely leave the caravan.”
“No, we do not. We have dallied overmuch already. I’ll grab the girl. Arrange provisions sufficient for the journey.”
That had been the plan all along, but compared with the comfort the caravan offered and the harshness of their remaining march, Jasiri understood Mikaya’s reluctance. They had a calling though, and that came before self-regard.
Later, as the camp prepared for sleep, Jasiri sneaked like a shadow among the tents, a hard feat, considering his formidable stature. He was agile though, and deceptively feline.
The Amghar’s tent was a small harem; lush, richly-hued Berbr carpets covered the floors, incense burnt from candles lain all-round the tent. Adzala slept at the foot of the Amghar’s large featherbed. Jasiri considered her a moment, envying her peaceful sleep. He couldn’t recall ever experiencing such peace. From the time Saai children can speak or walk, they’re trained to be either sellwards, or priestesses of the Saai temple. How many times had he seen his charges sleep this peacefully and envy them? Beyond the count of gloom.
He leaned into the tent entrance and called out for Adzala. Good thing she was a light sleeper.
Adzala, though shocked to see the sellward, crawled out to meet him.
“We leave this camp tomorrow night. You need to salvage anything we can use; a tougher trek awaits us.”
Adzala shook her head. “We cannot leave yet.”
“Jaha promised to aid us towards the labyrinth.”
“Who is Jaha?”
The sellward’s expression darkened. “What did you tell her?”
“Everything! Who we are, why the Guild’s hounds be after us.”
“Tell me exactly what you said.” He grabbed her arm.
“Leave off! You should be thanking me. I found us a way—”
“We know nothing of these people, they might be agents of the—”
“Agents of the Guild?” She flung her hand away from his grasp. “You obviously have no more sense than a camel. No sandbornfolk would ally with the Guild.”
“You …” He clenched his fists. “We leave now, so gather your thin—”
“At this hour; leave to go where?” Kashad, who’d sneaked up on the conspirators, drew his allakh against Jasiri’s neck.
Before Jasiri could turn around, Kashad struck him with the hilt of his long sword and leveled the blade-end against his throat. “Not a move or I shall bleed you. You too.” He regarded the wyrmrider.
Jasiri twirled on the sand and entangled Kashad’s feet, sending him tripping backwards with a startled half-yell. In an instant, Jasiri was on top of Kashad and slapped the allakh away. He struck Kashad once, hard across the jaw, and sent him unconscious.
Jasiri glanced around the tents but saw no other lurking figures. Kashad had always struck him as a sneaky bastard and had probably been keeping a close eye on the three. Good thing his suspicion hadn’t infected others.
He turned to the Adzala. “Gather yourself. Let’s move.”
Adzala stared blankly at Kashad.
“Adzala, let’s move.”
She stirred and looked him in the eye. “I cannot.”
Jasiri sighed. He didn’t have time for this. “Fine, we shall leave you.”
“No, you won’t … Take him away lest the Amghar asks many questions. I need a few more days with her, then we’ll leave.”
She waited a moment before slipping back into her tent.
Jasiri dragged the sellward away from her tent and sat him facing westward, as though on watch.
When he made it back to their tent, he found Mikaya asleep in the furthest corner of the large tent. A small mercy. Jasiri felt relieved at not having to describe how he had been bested by the wyrmrider.
At dawn the camp roused to the wild ululations of waylurkers storming over a northwards-facing dune. Jasiri fought side by side with Kashad, who had awoken in time to rally his sellwards to the task. Though many sellwards and the caravan contingent were slain, the waylurkers were driven away eventually. Among the dead were Jaha, the Amghar, the Rayiys, and few merchantfolk.
As the camp recovered from the assault, tending wounds and the like, Kashad, along with a dozen sellwards, circled Jasiri and Mikaya and arrested them. With the old fool and the Amghar out of the way, the two had no allies. Seeing Mikaya conjure quicksand to swallow five screaming waylurkers hadn’t helped allay Kashad’s suspicions. He argued for a quick death. His band, though, reasoned it better to ransom the betrayers to the Wezir of Azza Akkab, who would dispense the Guild’s justice.
Kashad couldn’t risk Mikaya being left at large to cast spells. He had arrows fixed in between Mikaya’s fingers and pressed down until they snapped and broke every bone.
Jasiri’s hands and feet were fettered, and a large rough-hewn yoke clasped around his and Mikaya’s necks. “Ah, finally! Raiment fit for your ox-like frame,” Kashad mocked Jasiri.
Adzala was yet to be discovered by the three sellward dispatched to return her forthwith. She had escaped as soon as she witnessed Amghar’s slaying.
The prisoners were taken to a tent. Left alone with Jasiri and the whimpering Mikaya, Kashad gloated, saying, “You two-faced vipers had the rest of the caravan fooled, and now see what you have brought them—death. No worries, you can still redeem yourself—who sent you, and how many more are coming?”
“We aren’t waylurkers,” Jasiri said. “Chance put us in your path, nothing more. The waylurkers attacking us is all your doing. You never cleared the tracks left behind by the carriages. It’s no surprise they tracked you so easily.”
Kashad struck Jasiri. Jasiri slumped for a moment, but righted himself. Stared feral-like at Kashad.
“You have to believe us,” Mikaya said. “We are fugitives of the Guild, nothing more.”
“Running from the Guild, eh?” Kashad drew nearer the spellcaster. “Fugitives fetch handsomely … Now, tell me why, and I just might grant you a quick death; a mercy you surely don’t deserve.”
Mikaya glanced at Jasiri, then looked away from the looming Kashad.
Kashad figured Jasiri for a hardened man, one of the best sellwards he’d ever seen battle. Though Jasiri would eventually tell Kashad everything he needed to know, it would take a long time, more than they could spare. The spellcaster on the other hand …
“Tell me why?” Kashad asked.
Mikaya spit on Kashad’s sandboots.
Kashad smiled. “Gallantry is a fool’s bane.” He pressed down on Mikaya’s broken fingers. Mikaya screamed loud enough to deafen the whole camp.
“We fought for you, and this is how you honor us?” Jasiri struggled against his fetters.
Kashad pressed down. Mikaya’s screaming continued in earnest.
“You coward,” Jasiri seethed. “You’ll pay for this.”
“You’re next. I shall take a fingernail for every sellward slain here today.” Kashad drew his sherur—short dagger—from his swordbelt. He circled the kneeling pair and kicked them face-down into the sand. Kashad pinned Jasiri to the ground and steadied the yoke from which his hands dangled. He took a fingernail from both thumbs before another sellward interrupted him. Kashad snarled, but drew his dagger back into his swordbelt, and stepped over the floored Jasiri. He exited the tent huffing.
“Deeply obliged fellow warder.” Jasiri tilted his head to spy their savior. It was the nifty wrestler from the other night. Jasiri smiled cordially.
“Don’t mistake my concern. Once we deliver you to Azza Akkab, I shall wash my hand of you.” He turned and left.
Adzala was captured two hours later and returned with her hands and feet cast in fetters. A small mercy they didn’t break any of her fingers, nor see her defiled.
Like Mikaya, Adzala was an easy target. She agreed to speak. She didn’t say how she saved Jasiri and his party of Mikaya and an elderly, lordly Guildman from a small band of waylurkers. How despite the spirited fight, the Guildman was slain and her wyrm all but dead. She didn’t tell them about knowing the Guildman and Mikaya were fugitives, nor of the hidden chest that got buried in the dune that unfortunate night. She said, “I’m not their daughter, but a wyrmrider, now outlawed since my wyrm got stuck in quicksilver. I found them wandering the sighing dunes south of Oued Assak, and for a few gold trinkets, I agreed to lead them to the salt mines.” She dug in her sandboots and revealed a few trinkets, obviously stolen from the Amghar’s secret possessions. This wasn’t payment enough for her troubles, not that any gold would suffice, but it would buy some leverage when she returned back to her village. If she returned. She wasn’t lying about being outlawed, just about why.
Kashad snatched the trinkets. “We didn’t find any gold on these two, where did you get this?”
“We lost our bounty a few nights ago when a dune buried us,” Jasiri said.
“I knew better and hid mine in my boots,” Adzala added.
Kashad returned the gold. “Are you a fugitive of the Guild also?”
“Aren’t we all?” Adzala made a sweeping glance at everyone in the tent.
“What would the Guild want with someone like you?” Kashad asked.
“The Guild wants everything, and takes everything. Do you not know this?”
Kashad slapped her across the face for talking back. “Put her with the rest.”
* * *
With the funeral pyres yet smoldering, the party left the valley and traveled towards the salt mines. They were a much smaller party, and by sunfall had covered at least more than two days’ travel by their old standards.
They camped, fed the survivors, who made no move to challenge Kashad’s command. It was not wholly unknown for a sellward band to assume command of a caravan, but that often led to death, should the Mutajihn merchant-lords learn of this. By their own actions, Kashad and his band had conspired to see themselves hung. It’s why they insisted on keeping the three as a ransom to buy back their lives. If the merchant-lords didn’t ward their gold, Kashad would’ve taken that as compensation, but caravan gold be ill-fortuned. Only fools venture such baneful gallantry, even waylurkers take all else but the gold. Even after the Purge, the merchant-lords still offered sacrifices to the dust-shaytans by burying a camel with a small trinket of the caravan’s gold and a handful of the sand or dirt from the final destination. The shaytans would guard the gold (burying whoever tried to steal it), the sellwards everything else.
The yokes around Jasiri and Mikaya’s necks were released, and the two collapsed from exhaustion. The three were then sent to the same tent where three sellwards stood guard.
As they caught their breath and lamented their aching, Jasiri offered to look at Mikaya’s broken fingers. Absent any unguent, Mikaya would lose all use of them. The unspoken silence boded their mutual understanding of this. Jasiri ripped a piece of cloth from his gown and changed Mikaya’s dirty swaddling. Adzala lay on her side, cursing silently.
Jasiri reckoned they’d make the salt mines by next sunfall. Already the wind tasted bitter on the tongue and the smell was awful as salt mines wont to smell. It was impossible to escape the band of sellwards at this point, but he wouldn’t give up, for going to the salt mines all but assured their deaths … He turned to Adzala, nudged her. “You said the Amghar promised to aid us. How?”
“She is dead now. She can’t help.”
“Did she have a way to sneak us out of the Wezir’s fortress? Did she know people within that bastard’s ranks sympathetic to our cause?”
“Fools you are, thinking you could ever outpace the Guild, much less—”
“We gave our word—”
“Ay, to an old, dying bastard who knew no better than to think he could change the way of the realm. The Guild’s appetites won’t be stayed, even if we make it to the labyrinth.”
Jasiri snarled, “Well, resign yourself to this cowardly fate, if you so wish. Easier to escape if I’m not worried about you lot.”
True to his word, Jasiri didn’t bother with Mikaya or Adzala. He walked in silence (well, they all did), but he endeavored to distance himself from his companions. Though Mikaya groaned beside him and Adzala faltered often, Jasiri never glanced their way. Not even when the sellwards shed Adzala’s yoke and made him carry her. He kept his council, designing escape. His gaze trained on the dune crests and the horsed sellwards who rode in scattered ranks.
Kashad kept a hawk’s eye on Jasiri, the other looking out for any pledged-warriors. They were nigh the fortress, and the Wezir held the largest number of warriors—freebooters who swore no allegiances, but fought on the condition that whatever spoils of war they amassed was theirs to keep. The warriors comprised mixed factions of Lilim, the Wolfmen from the shadowmountains of Pa’ak and Allazar, and the Protectorate folk. Meeting them was a worse fate than meeting a band of waylurkers. At least the waylurkers killed you forthwith; these warriors tortured for sport.
Not two hours into their afternoon trek, they were come upon by a large party of pledged-warriors, comprising largely of Protectorate folk.
At the sight of the large, barded desert steeds, banners flattering in the dull wind, Jasiri’s heart grew heavy with anguish. Their fates were doomed. No warrior-patrol traveled this heavily-barded. Jasiri felt a clench in his gut—a sellward’s life was worth a dog’s fart, only redeemed by a quick death in service of a worthy master. Bastard fate was their only master so far, one incensed by a slew of gallant, but ill-chanced meetings. Jasiri stopped and sighed heavily. Kashad riding close, kicked Adzala, sending the light wyrmrider stumbling off Jasiri’s back. Jasiri turned, seething.
Scowling, Kashad said, “Turn and assume the role of slave. I won’t lose the bounties on your head because some warrior-thief thinks you worth more than camel’s piss.”
Jasiri took a moment, saw the merit in the disguise, and turned accordingly. Perhaps there was yet chance for escape, or at least a quick death. Adzala declined perching on Jasiri’s shoulder. She walked beside him.
The pledged-warriors circled Kashad’s caravan a few times. After a menacing peacock display of their numbers, they halted to parley. Or more aptly, negotiate the terms of the caravan’s surrender.
Kashad narrated what ill-fate had befallen their caravan. Pointing to Jasiri, he said, “These be their tracking party.”
“They don’t look like waylurkers,” one of the warriors said.
“Ay, a great deceit. Even our Rayiysfell for their disguise.” Kashad pulled the Rayiys’s golden chain from a saddlebag and hurled it at the warrior-commander, a lean man of middling years who was just as stringy-looking as his steed.
The warrior-commander felt the chain’s texture, his eyes fixed on the saddles weighted with gold. “I see you carry warded gold, or were your waylurkers lazy?”
“No, fortune shadowed us. It’s why we still journeyed here.” He turned and pointed to the carriages halted a few paces away. “Those be our charge, merchantfolk here to trade with the most-esteemed Wezir. If you’d be so kind as to allow us, we’d be on our way presently. The Wezir is prickly about being kept waiting, as you well know.”
“Oh, worry not. We’ll let you on your merry way … as soon as you hand over the gold and these trackers—for safe keeping, of course. These be perilous lands, as you may very well be aware of.”
Kashad glanced around. They were outnumbered three to one.
“If it puts your heart at ease, keep the gold, surrender the trackers. We’ll see them justly punished.”
The warriors who were circling the caravan suddenly assumed battle-stances.
Jasiri, Adzala, and Mikaya watched mutely.
Kashad tensed. It was obvious he’d dug himself into a hole of no returning. He could at least salvage his life and the life of his men. He hurled the keys to Jasiri and Mikaya’s fetters to the warrior-commander. The commander grabbed the keys, nudged his men take possession of the slaves.
Jasiri would’ve fought against his new captors, but he knew it was futile.
He’d have to hoard his strength, revisit Adzala’s subtle hinting that the Amghar had men within the fort’s walls. That is, if they made it to the fort. The warriors might very well turn and head for the league-high shieldwall, towards the Guild, or see their heads parted right on these godless craggy lands.
Kashad and his men stood in stout formation waiting for what invariably came next.
“Be it too late to sue for peace?” Kashad asked.
The warrior-commander chuckled. “Judging by the wounds on these ‘trackers,’ I’d wager they’ve bargained for their lives, told you they’re fugitives of the Guild. There is no way I can let you rumor what they told you.” He wheeled his steed around.
The warriors closed in on the sellwards. The sellwards didn’t, at first, see the crossbows, arrows notched, concealed under the warriors’ long cloaks. As soon as the warriors swung aside their cloaks and aimed their crossbows, even the slowest sellward was already darting and diving aside. Ay, two or three crossbows found their mark, but though crossbows offer many advantages, they have one fatal flaw; the winding crank be hard to set while horsed, no less when a screaming, blood-thirsted sellward is charging full tilt at you.
Jasiri saw this as an opportunity, not to flee; he’d never make it ten paces, not fettered and yoked to the hapless Mikaya. No, he sought to balance the odds somewhat. He figured Kashad and his men, though vile and treacherous, were better executors of their fate than these pledged-warriors.
This was no chance misfortune. The pledged-warriors knew exactly who Jasiri and Mikaya were. Though the Guildman they’d travelled with had died, the Guild (which had put a bounty on their heads) couldn’t risk losing Mikaya, one of their more formidable spellcasters. Hence this warrior-patrol, hence a hundred more should these be evaded. The Guildman had died too soon, before he’d revealed much. Even now, Jasiri didn’t fancy knowing more about the Guild’s provocation. What little he knew already complicated everything.
Jasiri kicked Mikaya’s shin, rousing the spellcaster’s attention to his devious glare. Mikaya got Jasiri’s meaning at once. They straightened from their stooped positions and charged a horsed warrior, knocking the barded horse on its side, shattering the warrior’s leg underneath the horse’s bulk. They unhorsed two more warriors before an arrow ripped through Jasiri’s side. Piercing his ribs, sticking out his back. Blood-lusted, Jasiri bellowed and dragged Mikaya towards the cowardly warrior. His horse neighed, reared its front legs, and threw the man down. Jasiri circled the horse, found the warrior scrabbling to get to his feet. The sellward kicked him in the sides, flipping him over before driving a hard blow into his chest.
Another arrow was loosed at Jasiri. This one he evaded. Mikaya wasn’t so fortunate. The arrow found its mark in the spellcaster’s hip. Mikaya dropped to one knee and brought down the sellward.
Jasiri bent over awkwardly and, without meaning to, snapped the arrow protruding from his back. “Argh,” the sellward yelled, and took both knees beside Mikaya. He glanced at Mikaya and saw the arrowhead poking out from the spellcaster’s hip. Mikaya struggled, breathing shallowly, fitfully. Jasiri willed himself to rise again, he urged Mikaya do the same, despite the hurt.
The warrior who’d loosed the arrow now approached in earnest. He trained his crossbow at Jasiri’s face. The warrior, using the crossbow, instructed them to kneel back down. Jasiri shook his head, doing so would snap the arrow in Mikaya’s hip. Lame the spellcaster for good.
“Kneel,” the warrior barked. “The coin for your head be considerable. Don’t think I won’t just collect it from your corpse.”
Jasiri cast him a defiant eye.
“Okay.” The warrior jumped off his horse and drew closer, his aim true. He loosed the arrow for Jasiri’s neck, but in that last moment, the arrow flailed upward. Mikaya had twisted those broken fingers and spelled the crossbow upwards. The arrow grazed Jasiri’s temple, but found its mark in a horsed warrior, stalking the rear. The warrior glanced fretfully at his crossbow, then at the spellcaster. He frowned. Before he could draw his assegai, Jasiri shuffled quickly and kicked him in the chest. The sound of ribs cracking and the screaming that followed masked Mikaya’s own agony. The warrior didn’t stir.
Mikaya’s legs gave out. Jasiri’s couldn’t hold both of them up. He collapsed beside Mikaya. Something was wrong with Mikaya. The figure kneeling beside Jasiri wasn’t the spellcaster, not exactly. Mikaya seemed to have taken on another form. Her belly was swollen.
The Twelve be damned, Jasiri swore.
Spellcasters were one thing, shapeshifters another thing altogether. He scurried, kicking his legs under him, trying to get away from this … this … thing, but they were bound together. He jerked his hands against the yoke, but found no relief.
“Jasiri,” Mikaya’s voice came out strained, “stop. Fussing. Be still.”
Jasiri stilled a moment. The battle raged on around them. It was hard to see anything from the dust all about them. Only a few of the warriors still sat horsed. What little remained of Kashad’s men could be heard screaming in the Lilim battle-cry, soon battle-curse, as they fell. Adzala? Jasiri whipped his head around.
“ADZALA?” he called out. “ADZALA?”
“Jasiri?” Adzala’s voice was just as strained as Mikaya’s a moment ago.
“Adzala.” Jasiri did his best not to sound panicked. “I need your aid. Heed my voice and locate me.”
“Where are you?”
“Find my voice.”
Adzala shambled around, trying to locate the sellward’s voice. It wasn’t clear enough in the midst of all the cacophony. Eventually, she found the sellward and the spellcaster kneeling in the sand. But—
“What’s wrong with Mikaya?” Adzala asked. “Is that blood in the sand?” She pointed to the wet spot beneath Mikaya’s feet.
“That’s not blood,” Jasiri said. “It’s—”
“Is Mikaya dead?”
Jasiri turned to Adzala. “I need you to pick that sword and break this yoke …
Adzala stirred and returned with the sword. Under Jasiri’s instruction she proceeded to hack the yoke until it gave way.
Jasiri flexed his wrists, then flipped Mikaya to the side, the arrowed hip laying upwards. The Twelve be scorned, he couldn’t fathom this. Mikaya was heavy with child. What Adzala thought of as blood was her water breaking. Mikaya breathed shallowly, her face flushed. How could this—
“Don’t feel tricked. I’m no shapeshifter. I’ve concealed my condition from you with great effort, but alas, I’m weakened. I can no longer cast a veil on your perception,” Mikaya swallowed dryly.
“Ay, all the times I scurried away from our party. All the times I seemed a little odd in the morning. All that was a spell … I couldn’t show you my true self. It’s not that I didn’t trust you, but I needed to be certain we were out of the Guild’s shadow. Utter folly, eh?”
“What are you saying? What’s all this?”
“My child is a halfling. It’s why the Guild is—”
“And I were Guildfolk. I escaped their underground dungeons carrying this.” She rubbed her belly. “The Guild has its own djokk-wielders, as has long been rumored. Every halfling is butchered, so the foretelling of the Khalfani won’t be realized. I … my child may or may not be the halfling which grows into the Khalfani, the Nameless One, but I won’t see them harmed, or worse, used to purvey the Guild’s evil will … I …” she swallowed again.
Jasiri snapped his fingers and pointed to the waterskin drooping over the side of a saddlebag. Adzala brought it forthwith.
Jasiri stared at her belly once more. “Apologies for my coarse tongue. I never should’ve—”
“Don’t start now. I won’t stomach your wavering. I’m glad you did as you saw fit. You’ve strengthened me. Strengthened us. I should’ve trusted you, the old Ssar too, but the Guild has a hundred and one eyes, and twice as many ears—”
“We need to move,” Adzala snapped. The battle seemed to be waning.
“Ready a horse.” One desert steed could carry them, laboredly, but sufficiently. Jasiri turned to Mikaya. This was still unbelievable, but all his questions could be answered later. “Can you move?”
Mikaya shook her head.
Jasiri touched the arrow across Mikaya’s hip, turned to her backside and tore away the cloth around the arrowhead. “I’ll need to push this through. You can’t move with this stuck inside you.” He grabbed the warrior’s assegai and asked Mikaya to bite the hilt. “Ready?” Jasiri grasped the arrow’s shaft and readied to push through.
Wincing, Mikaya grabbed his shoulders and shook her head.
Jasiri smiled. “If it’s any consolation, this won’t hurt as bad as your childbearing.” He steadied his hand and pushed the rest of the arrow through.
Mikaya bit into the hilt so hard, if it was wooden like the southern assegai, she would’ve split it. Northern swords, allakhs, were of bone-wrought hilts, hard as the men who wielded them.
Adzala brought a horse just in time. Though they didn’t have any time to spare, they would have to wait for Mikaya’s wound to be dressed, which Jasiri made quick work of. He hefted the spellcaster to sit behind Adzala on the horse. He placed a heavy hand on Adzala’s thigh.
“Ride hard. But not too hard. She needs to … ride northwards—north be south of where the sun westers. Ride until you make to the shadowbinder lands, the lands where the sun doesn’t rise. Ride and don’t look back. I’ll catch up in due time.”
Adzala made to protest, but Mikaya slung a wearied arm over her shoulder and shook her head. Adzala paid Jasiri a long endearing glance before kicking the horse and moving away from the Azza Akkab fortress.
It was largely unspoken, but this was farewell.
Jasiri spent a moment longer than was necessary seeing them off. Once they were past yelling distance, he turned, picked up the allakh Mikaya had bit on. He studied her teeth marks, read them as glyphs, which spurred him to the task at hand.
He could’ve rode with them, but it would be only a matter of time before the pledged-warriors tracked them and brought the Guild’s justice on them. He had to make sure they never got the chance. This was his charge. Protect the two. However baneful his foolish gallantry. He fastened his grip on the allakh and shuffled wearily towards the battle.