The Torcher’s Tale
By Leonard C Suskin
When we reached camp, the usual order of a rest site was missing. There were people hustling back and forth, yelling. Somewhere a camel screamed in agony. I followed the sickening, all-too-human screams to the wounded camel. It lay on its side, a gaping hole in one flank revealing a shattered shoulder-blade. Mhari arrived just as I did.
“Bandits with rifles. They killed three camels and made off with a couple of bags before we chased them off.”
I drew the sharp, curved knife from my belt and gave the beast the desert’s mercy, slicing its throat. The beast’s coarse hair grabbed at the knife and it jerked its head back and forth in agony, but I was a man; what must be done must be done. Blood flowed, soaking my arm and my sleeve.
Now that the camel was out of its misery, I heard the equally chilling sound of Kahn screaming. I found him near the edge of our encampment, on his knees, tearing at his robes and crying out, “Ilana… no.. Ilana…”
I didn’t dare approach, but I saw Mhari nearby. “What happened? Is she badly hurt? Killed?”
Mhari shook her head. “Worse; kidnapped.”
I turned away, feeling nauseous.
We were never able to find Ilana or the raiders who’d taken her. The Roi governors cared only for what happened in the city, and the Aleph-ya were no help at all. After all, it was their people who’d attacked us. I knew; I’d seen their faces.
The next day I asked Kahn what we were to do next.
“You know what is next. Ephaa is the next stop.”
“It’s called Whotand now, but that is not what I mean. Is it not the time to form a war clan? To hunt those who did this and, even if we can not recover Ilana, see that someone pays in blood?”
Kahn shook his head. “We continue. They won’t stop us. We will finish the circuit.”
“But uncle, that’s crazy! We can punish them; we have to.”
He raised one hand and slapped me across the face. The beginnings of a beard dusted my cheek, but still not enough to cushion the blow of his open palm. “No. We will not be turned. They will not turn us away from our journey.” My face burned with shame at being slapped down like some disobedient child.
A week’s ride from Wothan we saw a small group of riders in the distance. One approached halfway from his group to ours with a red flag of peace. Kahn looked at me. “You were the one who wanted to turn our journey into an adventure. You parley with him.”
I rode under the red flag, but first made sure I had a loaded pistol in easy reach.
The ifrit stirred restlessly within my breast as I approached, my skin prickled with the weight of the eyes of my compatriots and his watching. Something in my belly burned hotter when I got closer and recognized the rider; my old enemy Ged. “You. What do you want of us out here?” I held my voice steady.
“To fight.” He answered. “For our home and yours. The Roi have taken the cities and chased us out into the desert. They keep the best of everything for themselves, they steal, they use your women and ours and pleasure-slaves. We are all people of this land, they are strangers. We should make common cause.”
I spat in the sand. “You bullied me. You called me names. The Roi were never anything but good to me but you, . . .”
“Don’t you see? They’re turning us against eachother. You don’t have to listen.” He pleaded like the sniveling weasel he was. It didn’t matter. I could barely hear him over the fire roaring in my ears. The word “pleasure-slaves” echoed in my head. I pictured Ged in a Roi whorehouse laying with Ilana. I pictured him calling me “torcher”. I rode back to my clan without another word.
“Stop, walker… please. Even if you won’t join the fight you could sell us weapons. Or food. Or something. Please.” I looked back over my shoulder, really looking for the first time. I could see the ribs on Ged’s camel, and a hollowness in his eyes. His were people of the sea; I knew he’d not be much of a fight here, on our home sand, with the ifrit behind us.
And I knew that they were underhanded merchants at heart, that given a half chance they’d sell their daughters and ours to the Roi for use as pleasure slaves.
I rode back to the clan, “They threatened us. They want half our goods and their choice of our women. I drew my pistol and made sure my knife was loose in its scabbard as I wheeled my camel around to face our enemy. I sensed rather than saw my cousins lining up behind me as I charged.
It wasn’t much of a fight. There weren’t all that many of them, and they weren’t really expecting a battle. We were still smoldering over the raid and Ilana’s kidnapping. The perceived treachery of their envoy was just the spark that set us into a full conflagration. We captured Ged alive.
It was time to gather the clans for a war-band, but first I brought our prisoner to the deep desert, to sand that had known no moisture.
The ifrit will flense him of all that was wicket, dry the flesh from his bones, and take him as a sacrifice. He will the first of many to burn.
As I turned my back on him the wind picked up, raising clouds of dark, cleansing sand.
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I'm a full-time AV professional, full-time husband, and full-time father. In between these full-times, I like to scribble pretty words.
Labels: Leonard C Suskin