As I am wont to do, I occasionally post some of my orphaned false starts, although in re-reading this prior to publication, I’m a little disappointed in myself for not pursuing it further. I may have to remedy that, as it seems like a promising thing. I wonder if I still have my outline I must have made for this novel/story in one of my various collections (it was originally appended with “| One”, which suggests either a serialized story or a novel). MR
EDIT: This appears to be entirely off the cuff; no notes exist in the usual places. I wish I knew where my mind was at the time.
“Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, blood and revenge are hammering in my head”― William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus
It came as a dervish, rising up from the alkali flats bathed in a wash of perpetual twilight, at first a flea on the horizon and growing larger as it drew closer. Black, or perhaps a rich burgundy, cloth flapped in the wind, tassels dancing as gravity pulled downward against the wind, the air playing tricks with sound and carrying over the sands the firm, but steady crunch of hooves grinding lime on hard pan.
It would be foolish to hail the newcomer, to wish the visitor well, for thieves walked these lands. The pilgrim and his kin had been warned about this, as they had been warned about the ruins near the aged well by which they sojourned. They didn’t hide, for there was no place to hide in this barren place save for the well itself, which might be worse than the fluttering wraith on a horse moving their direction. The pilgrim hoped the outrider would see their threadbare robes and worn, twisted-hemp sandals and understand all pilgrims had given most of their possessions away before this journey, though he silently cursed himself for not waiting until the next caravan of faithful made the trek. Safety in numbers and perhaps his son—
He let that thought go. What was done was done and wishing for something else was clinging to another illusion to shed when he reached New Canaan. If, he reminded himself. If he reached the oasis city in this wretched place.
Through the seas of eternity, the black-robed figure yet came, the blowing silt occasionally blurring the edges of the wasteland vision, washing away the form with the help of the heat rising from the parched plain. They would know soon enough if it was friend, foe or otherwise.
As if announcing the impending arrival, the previously silent sentinels watching over the abandoned well-house, a conspiracy of ravens began to make rude jokes and hailed the traveler’s arrival with raucous din that ended as abruptly as it began. The wife covered her ears at the ragged sound, afraid of what it might mean. The filth foretold death, she recalled from the stories her gran told, but hoped those tales were naught but myth meant to frighten children round the midwinter fires. Now, she was not so sure.
The pilgrim and his family were exhausted from hours of tears and entreaties at the mouth of the ruins after long hours and days traversing these bleak lands. No matter the breadth of their promises in prayers, nor the depth of their shouts, they had yet to receive a response from the dark interior. They sat there, mute, as the dervish dancer floated to them, now close enough to touch, and passed without stopping, its horse hanging a head low against the blowing dust, nearly nuzzling the hooves upon which it walked. The stranger seemed oblivious to the family gathered and stared through leaded glasses to something far off in the ocean of sand that mirrored that from which the stranger had emerged.
And the stranger would have passed without incident if the man’s daughter hadn’t forgotten the honor of her clan and let a sob escape from writhing, tight lips while the stranger cut the space between them and the well-house. The stranger drew the horse to a stop, and it snorted in response, anxious to be on, knowing there would be grain and sweet water at the end of the journey. The pilgrim reminded himself to beat his daughter after the stranger had moved on. He had warned her every day that it was best to greet travelers with silence along the New Canaan road, lest she bring attention to them on this journey. Attention that may mean death. Or worse.
“Is there a problem?” asked someone from within the waves of the shifting gauze. A woman, which was of some relief to the pilgrim. Chances were less that rape would be involved with the stranger’s arrival, but one could never be too certain. The voice was firm, solid, but soft on the ear.
The pilgrim was about to assure the stranger there was nothing the family couldn’t solve on their own, though he knew it to be a lie, but his wife spoke before he could.
“Our son,” she said, the frenzy rising with the pitch as she spoke. “Our son, he’s within.” She pointed to the open doorway of the derelict building a stone’s throw away from the well. The pilgrim promised in silence to beat each of the women in his group later and might have cuffed his wife right then and there if he hadn’t been surprised at her audacity.
The stranger looked over at the building. “Weren’t your warned before making this journey? Did no one tell you about the old places and the dangers they contain.”
Before anyone could say anything foolish, the pilgrim jumped in, “We heard tales, but my son is a hard-headed fool. He said he was tired of the sand and just wanted respite. We begged him not to go in, but he ignored us and went through the door, insisting he just wanted to get the thick off out of the wind. Said he’d heard it was all exaggeration to scare pilgrims.”
“The stories are true enough. He ignored the sign?” she asked, pointing.
Someone had painted a warning on the side of the ruin, but the sands had already obliterated a portion of the contents.
BEWARE: Th s struct re is infes d by rus las.
Enter at your wn risk!
The pilgrim replied, offering only a simple truth with a halfhearted shrug, eyes bowed towards his filthy feet in shame. “I’m sorry, mistress. We are simple folk. We can’t read.”
The stranger shook her head. It wasn’t clear to the pilgrim why. Reading was for people who had the time for scholarship, not the dying, working poor. Everyone knew this. It was known.
The stranger seemed poised to leave the pilgrims to their troubles, tensing up as if to spur on the augmented horse, but her shoulders slumped in surrender, a sigh tasting of bitter fruit. Then she dismounted, kicking of clouds of powdered salt with her boots as she landed, forming miniature dust devils in the wind. She lifted the leaden eyepieces away from her eyes and pulled down the cloth covering her face.
The family of three were in awe of her beauty, marred only by the barred scan tattoo on her pale china cheek marking her as a slave, though her lapis eyes, burning with a dark fire within, refused such categorization. Her hair remained wrapped against the elements, but ebon locks escaped the headscarf to lay in contrast to her fair flesh.
Her hands slipped from the folds of her garb clutching a black rod which she held before her. With a flick of her wrist, the rod stretched outward from both ends into a staff just over two meters in length. The shadows of the daytime twilight seemed drawn to the staff’s surface, reaching out to tendril-touch its length. The stranger struck the butt end of the staff against the hard-packed ground and the top blossomed a monofiliment nanocarbon blade which, like the staff itself, seemed to draw light to it rather than emit any spectrum from its thinner-than-razor edges. True black. The pilgrim had never seen anything quite like it, though he readily identified it as having the function of a spear, much like the one he carried during his conscription for the Fellen Wars.
Her eyes looked over the family of pilgrims, each one in turn, drawing their eyes to hers.
“You understand, I can’t promise he’ll be whole if I can find him at all,” she explained. “It might be that he’d be better off having died and it may not be a gift to bring him back to you, but under an arduous curse from which he cannot be freed. He may suffer more for having been brought back to you.”
It was the pilgrim’s turn to forget honor.
“We understand!” he exclaimed, his voice catching on the wind and carried to the soft silhouette of far away mountains breaking the irregularity of the alkai flats on which they stood. “Please do what you can for my fool of a son. But we have nothing to offer you save prayers.”
The stranger waved off the air of transaction, her mouth twisted as if the offer were like biting into a bad nut. “I do not accept money or payment from pilgrims. It is unseemly to do so.” She spat some of the silt that filled her mouth in the moments she spoke. “Besides — as I have said, we may not be doing your son any favors by recovering him from the ruins. It may be that I need to finish what has been started to bring him a final peace. Save your prayers for your son, and not waste them on one such as I.”
The pilgrim wasn’t sure what could be worse than death, but he found he trusted the beautiful stranger. “We understand,” he told her, though it was a lie and he would have to confess and do penance when they arrived at their destination to absolve him of the sin of falsehood.
“Then… By my father’s memory, I swear to you that I will bring back your son or his body, or make a good faith effort to do so if it is no longer possible. So be it.”
The pilgrim and his family each parroted the ancient mantra, sealing the promise. “So be it.”
The ultramarine-eyed stranger closed her eyes and breathed in, whether to garner courage or in regret for making such a promise to ones even lower than a slave, the pilgrim couldn’t decide. Or, perhaps, she did it to center herself. It was not his place to know these things — he didn’t want to know. But he would not refuse such a promise of assistance, one normally reserved for those in a higher strata than he, as it had been sworn.
The stranger turned on her heel and marched towards the gaping black mouth of the ramshackle remains of yesterworld. The ravens greeted this with drunken laughter, as if to tell her she was a fool sent to die for another fool. The stranger ignored them and the carrion soon returned to morose silence, disinterested in a target that couldn’t be provoked.
Six dust-scratched eyes followed her passage as she stepped from gloam to gloom, the pilgrim’s daughter whispering a prayer that only occasionally broken the serpent’s kiss of sand over sand as the wind blew still.