“Uhammad! Uhammad, Wake up!”
It was Jalaad, screaming into his ear. The call of the fyndrenna was so strong that a vision of Queen Rossanal’s beautiful face was all he could think of, but then a long, mournful wail filled the cool desert air, and the closeness of it allowed him to fend off the call of the spice. Uhammad managed to sit upright and scan the horizon. His balance swam and he fell back to the sand.
“Get up you fat fool, or we’re all dead!”
Jalaad dragged Uhammad to his feet and led him to the nearby cutter. As soon as they reached the top of the gangway, Riisi pulled anchor and they slid northward under a sky brilliant with dusk.
Uhammad shook his head to clear it of the haze. “Have you seen it? The ehrekh?”
“No, but it’s close enough to kiss my hairy backside, I can tell you that. We’re sailing back to Sanandira, Uhammad. I won’t risk my life any further over memories.”
“It won’t do any good. We’ll be hunted wherever we go.”
“We will not....” Jalaad’s words trailed off as he glanced at the horizon. “You found something....”
Uhammad tipped his head toward Riisi, who gripped the wheel and stared intently at the horizon. “The boy,” Uhammad said softly. “He is the reason we’re being followed. The beast wishes him dead.”
“Riisi? Speak sense.”
“Riisi’s mother, the woman that Kaliil took aboard in Ilinnon....”
“She was the Queen. Queen Rossanal.”
Jalaad opened his mouth to argue, but Uhammad talked over him. “Her eyes, Jalaad. Do you remember her eyes?”
Jalaad looked back at Riisi and swallowed. His expression softened from doubt and anger to one of outright worry. “The Crown Prince?”
“Just so, old friend.” Uhammad leaned against the larboard gunwale, his stomach curdling as Riisi guided them down a steep dune. “The ehrekh were sent by Sulamin to prevent the Queen’s return, though I don’t think he knew about her son.”
Jalaad slipped to the deck. “We have another two hours of sailing at most. Then hours of darkness before the silver moon rises.”
“Yes, but I know where Muulthasa was headed,” Uhammad replied. “Irhüd’s Finger, the old fort there.”
The ehrekh’s call echoed over the cooling desert, as if it were laughing at their foolish attempt to save themselves.
“And what good will a ruined fort do us?”
“They saved him, Jalaad. They saved Riisi. If a boy can escape its reach, then so can we.”
Uhammad jumped up from the gunwale, for the ship was heading straight for a rocky outcropping. He shoved Riisi aside and pulled hard to larboard, and the outcropping scraped by.
Riisi’s eyes were wide with fright.
Jalaad rounded on the boy, his fists gripped tightly, making the gaunt muscles along his forearms stand out. “How many times have I told you to keep your eyes on the sand?”
“Jalaad, take the wheel,” Uhammad said.
Jalaad ignored him. Riisi, swallowing back tears, slid stern along the gunwale.
“So help me, Jalaad, if you don’t take this wheel, I’m going to snap you like a carrot!”
Jalaad turned, his face angry, but he obeyed and allowed Uhammad to guide Riisi to the rear of the cutter. They sat on the bench there as the ehrekh’s harroon sounded once more.
“Something came to you just then, didn’t it?”
Riisi stared sternward and shook his head.
Uhammad turned Riisi’s face until the boy’s eyes met his. “It did, and you’d better tell me what it was.”
I remember the ehrekh, Riisi signed. I see him now. He.... Riisi began to cry—a rough, haggard sound, the only thing his ruined throat allowed him.
“Tell me, son. It’ll help.”
I remember my mother.... I remember what the ehrekh did to her. I was alone on a dune, with my mother and... the guardsman from the ships—the tall one with hard eyes. The ehrekh tore them... tore them....
Riisi’s breath came in sucking gasps. His tears flowed freely.
“Finish the tale, boy. Get it out, now, here.” Uhammad hated himself for forcing him to relive such memories, but there was little choice.
Riisi hit his thigh with a tightly balled fist. I can’t remember.
He beat his thighs, over and over and over. I can’t remember!
Uhammad grabbed his fists. “All right, son. All right. We have time yet. We’ll find a way out of this.”
It was then that Uhammad noticed Jalaad. He was looking sternward as the ship sailed forward. Uhammad turned.
And nearly wept.
Along the horizon, the glowing sails of a three-masted ship could be seen. Sulamin’s warship, only hours away now. If the ehrekh didn’t get them....
He stifled the thoughts and took the wheel. He refused to give up now. Not while blood still coursed through their veins. He guided the cutter to the rocky ridge called Irhüd’s Finger, upon which stood a crumbling ruin of a fort. They pulled around the promontory, only to find an abandoned husk of a ship sitting half-buried in the dunes.
“The Night Wind,” Uhammad said as Jalaad took in sail.
Jalaad glanced between the fort and the ship. “Where do we hole up?”
Uhammad swallowed. He needed to find the last piece of the story. He had to find out how Riisi had survived, for only in that did they stand a chance against the desert spirit driving down on them. He pulled the rudder over and headed for the derelict.
“If there’s anything to be found, it will be there.”
Jalaad nodded, his expression unsure.
They anchored, crossed the sand, and climbed beneath the deck of the rotting caravel. They reached the hold, where casks of spice lay strewn about. Peppercorn and mace littered the floor, and the door to the hold had been ripped apart as if the ship were made of so much kindling.
While Jalaad struck a lamp, Uhammad cleared himself a space and laid down several blankets. “What will you do?” Uhammad asked.
Jalaad shrugged. “We’ll sharpen a few sticks. Poke him where it hurts....”
“Be serious for once.”
Jalaad forced a smile onto his haggard face. “You’d best begin, you big lummox. The faster you find answers, the faster we’re safe and sound in Sanandira.” Uhammad could tell he didn’t expect any of them to live through the night.
Uhammad said nothing. He refused to believe there was no hope.
After Jalaad and Riisi had left, Uhammad sat and tapped the fyndrenna into his eyes, praying to the spirits beyond that Muulthasa’s memories would provide some vital clue.
I sprint up the rocky ridge from the Night Wind, dragging the Prince with one hand. My legs burn. I cannot catch my breath, but fear drives me on. One moment’s hesitation and the beast will be upon us.
The ehrekh attacked just before we reached the fort—perhaps anticipating that we sought shelter there. The ship now lies ruined against the sand, her left skis torn free, a gaping hole in her hull where the ehrekh tore through.
A thud falls upon the earth behind me. Breath exits lungs with a sickening wheeze. The ehrekh roars. A scream is cut short.
When I glance back, the look in the ehrekh’s jaundiced eyes as he stands over a bloody mass of limbs is one of satisfaction, of calm knowledge there is nothing we can do to prevent our deaths. It kills three more men, the rahib among them, before we reach the fort, and then it retreats, emitting a rumbling chuckle.
The fort is a broken and useless thing for any large force, but it is enough for our haggard band. We huddle in a room with no ceiling and three standing walls. I stare in shock at what the ehrekh has left us. The Queen, her son, and seven men, including me.
We have flint and steel, which we use to build a fast-burning fire from the brittle scrub brush that litters the fort’s interior. Five men stand guard with the only weapons we have left. Somewhere in the darkness, the ehrekh harroons something close to a laugh.
I stare at Rossanal. “We will most likely die this night, my Queen.”
Her green eyes flash, for this is the first time I’ve revealed her identity. The men at the far side of the fire exchange confused glances. Prince Riisi, chin jutted, frowns at me as if his lordly habits are already coming to him at the age of five.
“You’re just like us now. Dead as soon as the ehrekh tires of this game.”
“We have weapons,” she says, motioning to the crossbow and swords the men bear.
“Better we use them to grant ourselves quick deaths.”
The Queen raises her head. “How low you’ve come.”
“If I’ve come low, it is a thing of your own making.”
“The man that spirited me away from Harrahd would have fought until his last breath.”
I open my mouth to speak, but find I cannot. I am scared to fight. I don’t want to die ripped limb from limb by that infernal beast. I was foolhardy those years ago, true, but that has been tempered while hiding from Sulamin’s men and in my service to Kaliil. Still, I am shocked to realize how cautious I’ve become, how weak my former self would have thought me.
Prince Riisi stares at me defiantly as I study his face. There is so much blind bravery there, and I cannot help but think of my child. I imagine a girl most often. I see her with Alenha’s pointed chin and sharp nose, with my high cheekbones, staring at me like Riisi does now.
“Well,” I tell the Queen, “there is little choice in the matter. This game ends as soon as the ehrekh decides it so. Perhaps if we still had Kaliil’s fyndrenna we could have at least died pleasantly.”
The Queen stands suddenly. “There was fyndrenna on that ship?”
“No. The last of it was aboard The Crying Gull. What purpose would it serve?”
The Queen’s face loses its luster, and she collapses to her knees near Riisi and hugs him close. “Do you know how it received its other names, King’s spice and Hennisbane?”
I shake my head.
“Fyndrenna is the reason Harrahd has had the services of the ehrekh for so long. During Lord Henna’s uprising hundreds of years ago, the King of Harrahd fed ten drams to each of his most trusted men, forty of them, men desperately needed in the struggle.”
“Ten drams would kill a man in minutes.”
“Just so. He did it before three ehrekh as a sacrifice, an offering to enslave them. Those three ehrekh destroyed Henna’s five-hundred in hours.”
“The spice has no such effect.”
“It does. It’s the very reason fyndrenna has been controlled so closely by the Kings of Harrahd. Right or wrong, they have always feared they will lose control of the ehrekh, that someone will learn how to do it for themselves. If they ever do lose them, control of the desert will soon follow.”
“This makes no sense. If what you say is true, the beasts are already bonded to Sulamin.”
“Yes, but the bond must be renewed each generation, and the blood of kings runs much stronger in Riisi’s veins than it does in Sulamin’s. If we give an appropriate sacrifice, the beast would bond with him.”
This news does not seem credible, but the Queen would be privy to such knowledge. If only Kaliil had kept some fyndrenna aboard Night Wind....
My fingers tingle.
I am unable to move for the thought that has come to my mind.
“What?” the Queen asks, perhaps sensing the tension within me.
“There may be fyndrenna on the Wind.”
“You said it had been left on the other ship.”
“Kaliil told me there were only two cases left, both aboard The Crying Gull before it was wrecked. But lies come to Kaliil as easily as bleats from a goat. He was no fool—he would have spread the fyndrenna throughout the ships. He needed only one to reach Sanandira for him to buy the life he’d always dreamed of. There is more fyndrenna aboard the Night Wind. There must be.”
“You do not sound certain.”
“I am not.” I cast one hand to the shattered fort around us. “But one small hope is better than none.”
“Then I must ask”—she sits straighter and hugs Riisi closer—”will you help my son?”
I knew she would ask, but I am unsure of the answer. I gaze up at my birthing star, the Bull, hoping for some small amount of inspiration. But in my heart I know I’m only avoiding the one question that must be answered: will I or will I not lay down my life, that the Queen’s son may survive?
I thought any small amount of loyalty had already been burned from me—after all, this woman begged me to save her and then abandoned me and my men to the desert, leaving our wives without husbands, our children without fathers—but I’m surprised to find that some small amount of devotion remains. I spent nearly two decades in service to the royal family, and no matter how poor the Queen’s decisions might have been, she made them to protect her son.
I stare at the Prince, who gazes into the fire, hugging his knees to his chest, and think of my daughter. What if her life depended on the men of Harrahd laying down their lives? I’d like to think my countrymen would do so, and I’d like to think I’m man enough to do the same.
“How many men must take the fyndrenna?” I ask the Queen.
The Queen’s eyes brighten. “Fewer and fewer have been sacrificed over the years to renew the ehrekh’s bonds.”
“How many, my Queen?”
“Two, perhaps three.”
My mind races, wondering which of my men will take up the call. I glance to Wahid and Ejhan and the others. That they are nervous is plain to see, but they nod, an indication that they will try if I ask them.
I nod back, my mind already racing with all we must do. I realize in the same breath, however, how truly tired all of us are. “All of us will go. If we can make it to the ship, we’ll search it, take the fyndrenna, and try what you say. But we’re exhausted. We rest until moonrise.”
The Queen opens her mouth to speak, but I raise my hand. “We will never reach the ship in darkness. Tulathan will rise before long, and the rest will do us all good.”
I use the time to kneel and pray to the Bull for my wife, Alenha, for I don’t believe I’ll have the chance again. I cannot rest in any case, for the ehrekh keeps bellowing into the night, each time from a different location.
When the golden moon rises, we build several fires about the ruins of the fort, hoping to confuse the ehrekh if only for a short time. The gods only know if it worked, but we are not assaulted until we are within a hundred paces of the ship. The ehrekh, howling its blood-hungry fury, storms in behind us, taking three men in the span of a dozen strides.
We rush through the huge gash in the forehull. The ehrekh follows, and though it is too large to navigate the hole it snatches Darahim’s leg and yanks him outside. The screams last only a moment, and then the ehrekh begins tearing at the planking. We scurry to the stern storeroom, hoping to the gods above that Kaliil kept the fyndrenna as close to his cabin as he could.
We strike a lantern and search frantically. By the sound of the echoing booms, the ehrekh has reached the interior and is ripping his way into the middle storeroom. I order Prince Riisi to the back of the hold and tell him to hide as well as he can.
I find an axe in a pile of old canvas and swing against the pepper casks, since that was where the first box was hidden. The ehrekh roars, sending the entire ship to vibrating. Dust sifts down in waves as I swing at one of the last casks. A leather-wrapped package spills to the floor along with the peppercorns.
The hold door crumbles. The beast’s head pokes through and scans the room, its bristly crown glinting wickedly from the golden lantern light. Then it rips the door jamb away and crawls inside. It uses huge, clawed hands to swipe at Wahid and Ejhan. My men, gods bless them, stand before it without fear, dodging its every move. When the ehrekh overreaches, Wahid darts in and catches it in the thigh with a quick thrust.
“Back!” I yell as I run forward with my axe.
The ehrekh charges and slams his crown into Wahid’s chest. Wahid slides across the hold and smashes into the hull, his lifeblood spurting from a dozen wounds.
Ejhan releases a battle cry and hacks. His sword bites hungrily into the ehrekh’s calf. I pull him backward just as the ehrekh launches a broken barrel at him. It clips Ejhan’s shoulder and sends us tumbling to the floor.
We regain our feet, and only then do I realize a piece of the barrel has bitten into my stomach, though I feel no more than a sharp pinch. Ejhan’s shoulder is ruined. His face has gone deathly white, but somehow he ignores the pain and gives me a serious nod.
The ehrekh pauses and sniffs the air. Then, in a blink, it turns toward the rank of casks behind it and begins raking them from his path.
“No!” the Queen screams, for the Prince hides among them.
We charge. I drive my axe into the black skin of the ehrekh’s good leg as it crushes a barrel and grips Riisi by the neck. The claw of its thumb is so deep in his throat that I fear it is already too late. A rivulet of blood trails down Riisi’s neck and chest, and a sickening gurgle escapes him.
Desperate, I rear back and drive the axe into the ehrekh’s arm, nearly severing it. The Prince pulls the claws from his neck as the ehrekh stumbles backward over the barrels. Ejhan leaps forward and buries his sword in the thing’s chest. The ehrekh roars, shaking more dust down upon us, and swipes viciously at Ejhan’s head. Ejhan twists away, his head a misshapen mess of black hair and bone and red flesh.
“To the fore!” I scream at the Queen and Riisi.
They follow, and as I help them through the broken doorway, I spare one last glance. The ehrekh’s breathing is labored. It mewls as it grabs the sword and yanks it free. Ochre blood spurts forth, but it holds the wound tight to staunch the flow.
We run from the gash in the hull and set out north across the desert. We reach a rise and collapse as the golden moon achieves its zenith—a boon, according to the Queen. She wraps Riisi’s neck with her veil as best she can—by the gods, he seems to be faring better already.
“Unwrap the box,” the Queen tells me.
I stare at her, confused. “There’s only me, my Queen.”
“It will work,” the Queen says and smiles. “I will join you. We will give ourselves, that Riisi might live.”
Despite the Queen’s protests, Riisi stands and shakes his head furiously. He cannot speak, but he yanks on his mother’s sleeve and points northward.
“We cannot, dear one. This is our only chance.”
“The beast will not harm you,” I tell him. “You understand? Take one of the skiffs from the ship and load it with food and water. Find the caravan trail to the east and sail north. If you are careful, you should be able to find shelter or a caravan in two or three days.”
The sounds of the ehrekh approach.
“Make your way to Harrahd,” the Queen says.
“No! He’ll never make it so far on his own. Go to Sanandira, boy. Find a man named Uhammad. You’ll recognize him. He was the stout helmsman on the ship you took from Ilinnon. Tell him your story, and he’ll make sure you get to Harrahd.”
Riisi stares at his mother, tears streaming down his face.
“He understands,” the Queen says, and then she kisses Riisi tenderly on the forehead. “My brave boy understands.”
The Queen and I both kneel, facing the limping ehrekh that has just begun to climb the dune. The Queen opens the ornate case and pours a small pile of golden spice onto her palm. “This much,” the Queen says, holding out the fyndrenna in her palm.
I take it and inhale the powder deeply.
The spice sears my lungs. The night explodes with bright yellow pinpricks. An earthy smell consumes my senses, makes my eyes see golden light, makes my ears hear the pour of molten gold, makes my tongue taste sugar and cinnamon and saffron and rosemary.
I could die like this, so sweet are the sensations that fill my every pore.
I turn my head away from the ehrekh and stare instead at Riisi. He cries. I had hoped he would run, that he would be spared this sight, but he stands defiantly and faces the approaching beast with a burning hatred.
I hope my child will be as strong as this young Prince. I hope Alenha has the strength to make it so.
Good night, sweet love. May the sun set on your life, and on our child’s, more kindly than it has mine.
Uhammad woke to the baritone call of the ehrekh. He could feel the sound in his chest. He thought he heard Jalaad calling his name, twice or thrice or more—it was too difficult to tell.
Or had it been a dream?
Uhammad slipped back into darkness.
But woke again to an all encompassing roar. The ship’s hull vibrated and groaned. He coughed as sand and dust sifted down through the planking.
Uhammad was alone in the hold. Jalaad screamed above, a sound filled with pain and fright.
Uhammad fought his way to his feet and clambered up the nearby ladder. When he reached the deck, he saw the black, muscled form of the ehrekh looming over the ship’s exposed sterncastle. Jalaad stood behind the mizzenmast, his left arm bleeding heavily from four deep claw marks, his right clinging to his curved scimitar.
The ehrekh had only one hand. Its left arm ended in a gnarled stump just below the elbow. With its good arm it reached around the mast for Jalaad. He scored a shallow gash along the beast’s forearm and retreated behind the helm, but with only the sterncastle railing behind him now, to do so again would be suicide.
Riisi cowered in a ball near the door to the captain’s cabin.
“Riisi, get up! Get up! It’s not here to kill us!”
Uhammad’s words were drowned by the ehrekh’s roar as it smashed the helm with a bone-shattering blow. Jalaad flew backward from the force of it and slammed into the railing.
Uhammad ran forward. “Riisi, stand up! Let it see you!”
Riisi raised his head and stared at Uhammad, his face a fractured mosaic of terror and confusion.
“Damn you, boy, stand up! Show it no fear!”
Riisi cowered as the ehrekh roared and charged. Jalaad screamed and tried to drive his sword into the beast’s ebony chest, but it was too fast, Jalaad too weak. It slapped the sword aside and Jalaad fell to the deck.
Uhammad scanned frantically for something to throw, but it was too late. The ehrekh brought its crippled arm down hard, and though Jalaad tried to twist away, its stump caught him deep in the stomach. Blood sprayed from Jalaad’s mouth like a fountain, as the sound of his life was released in a sickening wheeze to the dry desert air.
Riisi, eyes wide, scrabbled away from the sterncastle. Uhammad reached him just as the ehrekh dropped to the main deck and stalked forward.
“Damn you, Riisi! Summon your courage!”
The ehrekh stalked forward, its footsteps echoing through the half-buried ship.
Riisi tightened his hands into fists and came up to his knees.
The ehrekh stopped only a few paces away, chest heaving, staring at Riisi, then Uhammad, then Riisi again. It spoke in some infernal tongue and pointed a clawed finger at Uhammad.
Riisi stood, eyes shut tight. His breath came in ragged, stuttering gasps.
With a hot exhale of fetid breath, the ehrekh stepped forward and grabbed Uhammad’s shoulder. Uhammad used every bit of willpower within himself to remain still. To do otherwise would mean death.
Then Riisi faced the beast and touched its arm.
The ehrekh released a pent-up breath like a winded bull and turned intelligent eyes to young Riisi. Long moments passed as the two stared at one another, but never did Uhammad think the beast was preparing to do harm to Riisi. Slowly, ever so slowly, the creature’s posture softened and it released its hold on Uhammad’s shoulder.
And then it stepped back and kneeled.
With Uhammad at the rudder and Riisi standing nearby, their cutter neared the final rise before Sanandira. The ship had been horribly silent since they’d buried Jalaad at the top of Irhüd’s Finger. Uhammad had become so used to his friend’s ramblings that his life seemed empty without them. But at least Jalaad had gone to a better place. He may have lived a life that had little worth singing about, but in his death he had launched a story that would touch a thousand others.
Finally Sanandira’s convoluted skyline came into view. Uhammad practically breathed in the crescent of docks in the harbor, the round dhobas and tall temples, and in the center of it all, the bazaar, where everything had started.
“Once we reach the city, my Prince, there will be no turning back.”
Riisi turned to Uhammad and smiled. I couldn’t if I wanted to.
He was probably right. They’d sent the ehrekh after Sulamin’s warship. Uhammad had questioned the wisdom of such a move, but Riisi felt it was too dangerous for news of their escape to reach Harrahd so soon. Better for the King to wonder what had happened to his men and send more resources to scour the desert while Riisi cemented his position in Sanandira.
Uhammad had thought it too tall a task for the ehrekh, but Riisi proved wise beyond his years. He had communicated with the ehrekh without speaking and told it to disable the ship, to let the men sit and use their food and water, to strike only if they tried to make their way in skiffs or on foot.
Their plan would become no easier once they landed in Sanandira. They needed to contact sympathizers to Riisi’s dead father and mother. And here the King’s dealings with Sanandira would bite him like a wounded viper. His stance toward the desert city had been overbearing for too long. With the ehrekh and the fyndrenna, men would flock to their cause.
The uprising would not occur tomorrow, nor the next day. But some day not far from now, it would.
And the King would fall.
Return to Issue #71