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Dunes and Destiny
In the Imperial year 1423, in the far lands of Araby, a young man named Jaffar came to power in the northern province of Mahabbah. There followed one of the bloodiest era’s of Araby’s history. He had a dream to unite the Kingdom of Araby, but not all shared that dream. This is the tale of one such man who would not be ruled by tyranny.One
Abdal Rahiim felt the wind caress his skin like the loving touch of his wife, following the contours of his muscled arms as though she stood next to him. Sand grains blew across his white baggy trousers and white tunic as he stared out at the Great Desert of Araby.
Giant sand-dunes lined the horizon, sand swirling like silk across them. The sky above was a pleasant blue, like the colour of swaroi crystals. The sun toiled high in the sky, a constant source of joy and fear. How long would the water rations last? The food? Abdal cast the thought from his mind as quickly as it came. It was no longer in his hands.
He reached for his water-bag that hung at his waist, and removed the stopper with an accompanied pop. He placed the metal rim to his lips and drank lightly to conserve the liquid. It refreshed and cooled him.
“How far have we come?” Abdal wiped his tanned, chiselled chin, and licked his lips.
“Not far enough, Mahmuud,” Abdal said. “We have been out here for fifteen days, that is what I know. If the Nomads do not find us, or we them, I am afraid we will have to turn back to Tambukta before the supplies run out.” Mahmuud was a large, portly man, with a stomach like a child-bearing woman sticking out of his open shirt. He had a funny round face which looked like a coloured plate, with a thick black beard that covered his throat.
“Amal is sick,” Mahmuud said. He gestured towards the line of men marching in tired, ragged fashion across the hot sands. Amal lay on the ground, his back on the sand facing the sky. A tall figure held a blanket over Amal to offer shade, while another crouched at his side and placed a soaked cloth across Amal’s forehead.
Abdal paced down the dune, his feet sank into the sand as he moved. It was a nightmare, a constant strain on every muscle in the leg. His thighs burned like fire. Someone might as well have tied weights to his ankles.
The two attending Amal moved aside as Abdal arrived, though the tall man still held out the blanket. Abdal took to his knees, and placed his hand onto the young man’s chest.
“His heart is weak,” Abdal said. He removed the cloth and rang the water from it until it dripped into Amal’s open mouth. “Conserve the water,” Abdal said with a touch of impatience. “We can not waste it like this, or we‘ll all be dead.” He ringed it again, twisting it tightly until it looked like a snake. Mahmuud covered the sun as he finally reached them.
“We rest here, and see if Amal can regain his strength,” Abdal said.
“Yes, my Prince,” Mahmuud replied. “Shall I light a fire?” Abdal nodded.
“Lets hope someone notices it.”
Amro laughed as his son fell to the ground. Little Sali, only eight years old, thumped the sand with a fist. Amro was a tall, sleek man, handsome and dark. Sali had a few of his father’s qualities. The same dark, piercing eyes, the same hawk-nose. What Sali lacked in size was made up by personality. Sali wasn’t a quitter. He picked up the wooden sword Amro had made him, and began swinging it again.
Amro took a deep gulp of desert air, and tasted the scent of Aida’s cooking. The spice made his mouth water as he stared across the low tents that represented his tribe. The tribe was at rest, lazing away in the sun, or beneath their sand-covered tents that poked out from the dunes like natural edifices.
“You can’t swing a sword like that, Little Sali,” Amro said. He took the mock blade from his son’s hands, and held it out in a ready poise. “It is about discipline, and control, not strength and fury.” Amro made a few thrusts with the blade, then handed it back to his son. “You’d sooner wound or kill a friend than the enemy, swinging it about like that. Your mind is the most important thing you possess, Little Sali. This body,” Amro indicated the flesh on his arm, “is merely a tool the mind uses. Without it, we would be like pebbles, immobile and useless.” Then Amro froze. His muscles tightened. He stood with a bolt, dark eyes on the horizon. Black smoke rose into the sky from the golden sands far to the west. He wasn’t the only one to notice the black twirling column streaking the perfect blue sky. Amro grabbed a hold of his son’s arm.
“Go to your sister,” he said, sternly. Tall armed men rushed to his side.
“Ready the camels, Hasdru,” Amro said. “Someone wants to die this day.”
Abdal stared at the pillar of ash and smoke, and with a satisfied nod, turned to look at his men. They were tired, skeletons of their former selves, huddled beneath low erected tents like prisoners of war. Abdal reckoned Mahmuud had even lost a little weight, or was that just the desert heat getting to him? Abdal imagined he looked the same. Abdal was usually clean-shaven; black stubble lined his cheeks, chin and neck. His clothes had become drenched with sweat, day-in-day-out and probably stank like a camel’s backside.
The camels seemed to be the only living things in decent shape, and stood in a makeshift pen, spitting and farting. The gold and food they each carried on their packs remained attached to them, and rose from their sides and backs like extra humps.
“This is risky business, my Prince,” Mahmuud said, wiping his brow as he trudged across the sand towards the fire.
“Death by toil, or from the nomads,” Abdal returned. “At least we can say we tried. There must be thousands of nomads out here. Enough to secure Tambukta, perhaps enough to drive Sultan Jaffar back to his own homeland.” Mahmuud did not look so sure.
“Thousands you say. Well, they’re certainly keeping their heads down. How can one declare their presence more?” Mahmuud gestured the fire. “Do we have to dig up the whole desert to find these nomads? What says they’ll listen to us anyhow?”
“We have few allies, Mahmuud,” Abdal said.
“Yes, but what use are few allies when you’re dead?” Mahmuud said.
They slowly paced from the fire, trudging laboriously under the ever-present sun. Abdal felt his sword sheath bounce off his leg with a constant, annoying rhythm. He’d adjusted the thing constantly during the expedition, but it always found its way back to the leg-slapping position. Abdal wanted to scream, but couldn’t be bothered. Instead, he crouched and entered one tent, and crawled towards Amal. His men moved aside as Prince Abdal Rahiim brushed past.
Amal, a young retainer and decent swordsman, was feverish. His skin burned like the sands outside. Sweat poured from his body like he’d just emerged from a stream. Amal shivered like a weak old man dipped in cold water. There was a length of cloth shoved in his mouth.
“So he doesn’t bite off his tongue,” Mahmuud said as an explanation. Abdal nodded.
“What do you think?”
“He’ll die,” Mahmuud said, sadly.
“Prince Rahiim!” A shout came from outside the tent. Was it a sentry? Abdal left the tent with haste, followed by the others. The sentry stood on the dune, waving his arms like an arts performer. “Nomads,” the man shouted at the top of his voice. “Nomads!”Two
There were riders beneath a heavy sand-coloured cloud. Dozens of them, more than Abdal could count. They seemed to ride like daemons. His heart began to beat faster in his chest.
“I want us up on this dune,” he said, gravely. “If they do not wish to talk, this will be the place we will fight, not around the tents. You there,” he gestured at six, nervous looking men, “get the camels moving, and fetch Amal. I want them at our centre.” They nodded and moved down the slope.
“Doesn’t look like we need the spades,” Mahmuud muttered.
“No, thank Allah,” Abdal replied. He flashed a smile. “May God be with us all.”
The Tambuktan’s formed a circle. Abdal counted seventeen, not including the six sent for the camels and Amal. If there was bloodshed to come he had no doubt they would fare the worse, but he’d kill as many as he could before giving his life.
Mahmuud withdrew his halberd. Its blade shined in the sun as he drew it from its gold decorated sheath. A red tangle of thick hair was tied around the rim of the wood towards the blade of the halberd. He made a few practise thrusts with it, his deadly accuracy shining through his every strike.
“Last resort,” Abdal said as he moved towards his second. “I don’t want us to look menacing before a friendly bunch of hostiles.” Mahmuud smiled at the ironic statement. They weren’t taking chances, weapons out.
The riders came close enough to make out individual details of the men and their mounts. They looked deadly. Silent figures on loud camels. Wait, two had horse. Whoever they were, it was obvious they hadn’t travelled far. They must be close to a nomad camp, thought Abdal.
He noticed they had weapons out. Long, curved wide blades that looked like they could cut through bone. One, amazingly dressed in black as though he was saying have some of that bastard desert, had a lance with a long blade that curved at a quarter of the way up the metal.
He looked at his men. Some were solid fighters, proven in the usual power struggles that wracked Araby. Men born in a world where their only option was to fight, a life and death position.
Abdal moved forward, down the slope, a few paces before the front line of Tambuktan’s. His heart was racing, but it was more excitement. This could be it. The final stand of Prince Abdal Rahiim, only son of Abdul-Aliyy, Sultan of the Great Kingdom of Tambukta.
“Halt, stout nomads of the Great Desert, I wish only to talk,” shouted Abdal. The riders kept going. A cheer rose from their throats, high pitched and irregular, as though one voice moved the next to answer. Their weapons pointed towards the Tambuktan’s. They weren’t stopping.
Abdal moved backwards a step, and moved his sword forwards, guard position, one hand poised on his waist, half-body at the enemy. The riders slowed slightly as they hit the start of the slope. Sand shot high like puffs of thick gold smoke, showering the riders.
The Tambuktan’s moved forward, sweating under the sun’s cruel touch. Their skin seemed to burn while fatigue was shaken with adrenaline. Some tried to swallow with dry mouths.
The line of riders hit them like a slow moving wave. Their weapons struck the Tambuktan’s with dangerous precision from skilled desert raiders. They’d probably assaulted dune positions a hundred times in their lives.
They whistled past Abdal, the riders voices shrill in the air. Abdul grunted, and slashed upwards. His edge deflected one rider’s sword as the nomad moved past, while another man clattered down to his left. Mahmuud’s halberd was still in the air, blood trailing from his blade and splashing the big man’s forearms. Another rider came near. The figure struck like a scorpion, with his sword arm back before he arrived. Abdal managed to turn the blade away. Their blades sang like vicious lovers locked in a tight embrace. Then the blades parted as though one of them had erred.
Abdal moved forward, making a lunge for the riders exposed flank. His blade cut deep into the man’s left side. Abdal twisted the blade and withdrew it before the motion of the moving figure dragged him back.
Blood sprayed out like angry water, coating the Prince with its warmth. He brought his sword up again as another rider went by, the foe striking out with a lance at Abdal’s shoulder. Abdal moved the lance aside with one deft stroke, then struck the camel in the neck.
The camel pitched forward, its rider striking the sand and the legs of a companion's animal. Abdal moved towards the downed figure, but got knocked off his feet by the flanks of a white horse.
He hit the sand and felt its grainy, bitter taste in his dry mouth. It was like mucus, which now ran thick across his red lips, and trapped the sand like glue. He got up but the downed rider was already on his knees. The man was weapon-less, dropping the lance in favour of landing. He now lunged for the Prince’s throat as Abdal struggled to rise.
The man grabbed the Prince in a tight lock. Abdal dropped backwards into the sand. Close by, the camel thrashed in the sand as it bled. Another rider-less camel trotted about, fearful as its owner lay still on the sand.
Abdal grunted as he struggled for breath. It took him a few moments to realise he still held his sword. He smashed the blade into the riders side, under the armpit. It killed the man instantly. The rider dropped onto Abdal’s chest and bled into the Prince’s white top.
Screams flew from all around him. Men were deep in the struggle for life. Abdal withdrew the blade, and rolled the man off his chest into the sand. The rider’s camel lay as still as Abdal‘s foe, the golden sand marked crimson under the sun and around the body.
Shadows flashed over him as riders moved past. They were breaking away, moving quickly. Another dust cloud hung in the sky above the moving nomads. More were coming from an eastern position. Mahmuud was still standing, coated with blood as he moved towards his Prince.
“We’ve got more of them on us.”
“It seems our friends here don’t have the stomach for a fight,” Abdal said. He lied. The bastards could have killed him. The black clad rider was still standing, and sliced through one of Abdal’s men like he was paper. Only five stood on the hill. Two camel’s were being led away by the nomads; gold and supplies taken for their troubles, bouncing and dropping some of the bags contents onto the sand. Three more supply camels still stood around Amal’s shivering form.
The black rider did a half spin, and chopped another retainer’s head off. Bright blood shot from the open arteries like water from fountains. Mahmuud and Abdal looked at each other, then looked at the rider.
They attacked as a pair, one striking from the front, the other from the side. Mahmuud made a thrust towards the riders throat, which the figure blocked with the blade of his lance. Abdal went for the neck, but found his blade turned aside. A white figure rushed in, Bashshar, his cousin’s cousin.
Bashshar found a lance point through his neck for his troubles. Abdal cursed, and slashed again, striking the lance at the centre of the pole. It snapped in half. The figure twirled his broken end as the blade fell away with the body of the Prince's cousin. Abdal noted the round metal trimming on the remains of the rider’s weapon.
The man rushed forward, took Mahmuud off his feet with a wide sweep of the remaining cane and grabbed one of the rider-less camels. The foe swung onto the saddle, and slapped the camel’s flank. It pushed off, away down the slope.
The other riders halted before the exhausted Tambuktan’s. One tall man held up his hand and stepped forward.
“If you value your lives, drop your weapons and we’ll talk.”
“How can I take your word you will not attack?” said Abdal, standing to his feet. He breathed hard as he struggled for breath. The tall, dark-skinned figure was dressed in the finest looking blue silk. The man looked like some prince of the desert. His turban that wrapped around his neck, and sat on his head, was white. A fine, golden scimitar sheath displayed a valued weapon. The figure unbuckled his sheath, held the sword out then dropped it into the sand.