Sand-Skin Man

Issue #7

The fever took me before I reached Reynold’s encampment, before I knew what shape my vengeance would take. I don’t remember falling. I woke in a scanty patch of shade beneath a thorn tree and stared up at the endless, burning sky.

I was hot and cold in turns. Insects I didn’t know the names for whined in the long grasses; a black and white bird flew overhead, ungainly, trailing long pink legs. I remember seeing a patch of sun-scorched grass become a lion watching me with amber eyes.

My father taught me that every man has something he wants badly enough to kill or die for. Know what that is, and you can control the man.

For my father, it was his masterwork sword—or so he said. He was a swordsmith, mostly self-taught. By the time I was ten and my father fifty or so—he’d married late—his reputation had spread throughout Allora and even beyond. Knights and barons sought his work; once a prince of the Banathan court commissioned a dagger. My father showed everyone the sword he’d made for himself, but he wouldn’t sell it, no matter how much he was offered.

He told me once that when I was a man, the sword would belong to me. What he meant by that, of course, was that the one thing in life he would kill or die for wasn’t the sword. It was me, his only son.

When I woke again it was dark and I was lying beside a campfire that crackled as it burned dry antelope dung. I stared at the firelight and shadow leaping against a big stone jutting out of the earth, and wondered if I was home again. The stone was the same shape as the property marker that separated my family’s back garden from the neighbors’; but this rock was streaked brown and orange and looked rough, as though rain had never smoothed its sides. And the air—it wasn’t the air of home. It tasted dry, and carried the scents of unfamiliar plants blooming in the night.

“You awake now?” A man came into view and sat down where I could see him. He was long-limbed and nearly naked; the firelight gleamed on his onyx skin. He wore a loincloth made of a lion’s hide. “Drink this.”

He helped me sit up and held a gourd to my lips. I expected water, but the drink instead was so bitter it made me gag. “No,” I said. Although I spoke Alloran without thinking, it was clear what I meant.

“It helps the fever. Without it, a strong man will die in three days.”

I no longer felt strong, although the day before I’d have said I was the halest man in Daomi. I forced down as much of the bitter drink as I could, but I couldn’t finish it.

“I am Mbuna. I found you,” the man said, lowering my head back onto what I realized must be my wadded-up shirt.

A fit of shivering overtook me, followed by unbearable heat. “The lion,” I said. “There was a lion.”

“Yes.” Mbuna soaked a piece of cloth in the gourd and spread it on my forehead.

Whatever had been in the drink, it did help. Within an hour my fever broke. I curled on my side, drenched with sweat, and stared into the fire. “Mbuna?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you. You saved my life.”

“Not yet,” he said. “Tomorrow night, maybe. The next night, yes, I saved your life.”

I tried to sort this through, not helped by my insecure grasp of the local dialect. “I’m Waters, Simon Waters.”

“Water? Waters. A good name.”

That surprised me, because it meant he knew at least a little Alloran. But a man who lives where different cultures meet picks up pieces of many languages.

My father taught me to how to handle a sword, although he didn’t live long enough to teach me how to make one myself. I was a tall boy, and he was a short man, so as I grew into my strength we weren’t too badly matched. We wore the grass by the well down to dirt, practicing, sparring, or simply sitting there to talk. It was clear to me even then that what I cherished most in the world was my father. I’ve spent the years wishing I’d told him. I think he knew.

I drifted in and out of sleep over the next day and night. Every time I woke, Mbuna made me drink more bitter draft, and sometimes he brought me pieces of a melon-like fruit I’d never encountered before. It was pulpy, slightly sweet but with a rancid smell that would have put me off if he hadn’t popped a piece in my mouth without warning me first. After that first bite, I couldn’t get enough. Mbuna liked it as well. He left and brought back several more of the melons, hacking them open inexpertly with my own knife.

I had never known a native Daomian—of any tribe—to wield a knife awkwardly. But I didn’t understand until the next morning, when I woke again to find a lion asleep by the fire.

I froze, scarcely daring to breathe. It was a young lion with a scant mane, and I considered my chances of sneaking away before it woke. Then I realized what the lion was.

I relaxed, feeling shaky with relief. “Thank all the gods,” I said aloud. “He’s a werelion.”

The lion raised its head and looked at me, and then it changed into Mbuna. There was no visible transformation—just a lion in the grass one moment, and the next a long-legged man with the grass around him still bent down from where his lion body had rested. “You look better,” he said. “I have almost saved your life.” He smiled.

I smiled back. “You scared me.”

“Not my fault.” He chuckled and tossed more antelope dung on the fire, which had burned down to red and black embers. “Where you come from, do you have—” He hesitated, as though searching for a word— “people-animals?”

“Weres, yes; but not lions.”

“No lion?” Mbuna clucked his tongue. “Sad. What sorts do you have?”

I’d met a few weres in my travels, although they mostly kept to themselves. “Wolves and bears, foxes, wisents, deer, horses,” I said.

“Wolves?” I’d used the local word for wild dog, and he looked doubtful.

“Different from the wolves here. They’re big—almost as big as a lion. Thick gray fur. They live in the mountains, mostly, where it’s snowy.”

“Snow, yes. I have seen snow animals.”

“What weres do you have here?” I asked.

“Lion. Antelope. Spotted cats. Zebra, quagga, wildebeest.”

“What’s a wildebeest?”

“Like a big cow, but with a horse’s tail.”

While we talked, I started thinking about Reynold. He was so close, and if I waited much longer his company would decamp—but I was in no state to pursue him, not until I regained the strength the fever had stolen from me.

I wondered what Mbuna wanted most in life. If I knew, I could persuade him to help me.

I was fifteen when Reynold came to buy a sword from my father. Reynold was only a few years older than I was, but he had just come into money and a title. He had been throwing coins—and his weight—around Allora, so it was no surprise when he showed up at my father’s forge.

I was hoeing the garden when I heard them shouting. I dropped the hoe and ran to the forge’s back entrance, where I saw Reynold and my father with swords drawn. Reynold wanted my father’s masterwork, and when gold wouldn’t get it for him, he resorted to blood.

I’d never seen a real swordfight. I discovered later that my father hadn’t known much more than the basics of swordplay. Reynold was an expert.

Mbuna made me drink more of the bitter draft, and cut up another melon for us to share. Weres didn’t use many tools; I suspected that he would have bitten the melon open with his lion jaws if he had been alone.

I tried to get Mbuna to talk about himself, but he avoided my questions by shrugging slightly and then telling me I should be resting. He was right, of course. I ignored his advice and sat up for a while, aching with the after-effects of the fever, until the sun got too high and the heat made me feel weak. Mbuna had chosen our campsite well; the big stone cast a shadow when it was most welcome. I fell asleep.

I slept well and it was late afternoon when I woke again, feeling refreshed and almost healthy. Mbuna was gone.

I sat up and scratched at my stubbly jaw. The rock’s shadow had moved and now lay long across the grass. I leaned my back against the rock and waited for Mbuna to return.

After a few hours I wondered if he didn’t intend to come back. He had left the drinking gourd for me, full of clean water, and an unopened melon. I stood up and looked around, shading my eyes.

The grassy plain stretched out to the horizon in all directions. It wasn’t entirely flat, and in the distance I saw hills with blue mountains far behind them. Trees grew here and there, but mostly just grass bowing green and silver in the hot breeze. I saw a herd of antelope almost on the edge of sight, and a few miles away I saw vultures circling.

As I watched, the vultures seemed to come closer. Then I saw Mbuna in his lion body, dragging a dead antelope. Every few minutes he dropped the antelope to swat at vultures who landed and hopped too close.

His progress was slow as a result, and the sun lay red on the horizon by the time he arrived. I built up the fire in the meantime, and the vultures began to drift off.

Mbuna dropped the antelope by the fire and changed to his human body. “Hungry?”

“Yes. Thanks,” I said, eyeing the antelope. It was a calf, and Mbuna had half-eaten it already, but there was plenty of meat left. “Can you find us two sticks? We can roast pieces of meat on them.”

The meat was tough, but I sliced it thin and we ate it half-burnt, half-raw. I hadn’t had fresh meat in weeks. Mbuna and I stuffed ourselves, and it was dark by the time we were both sated. We split the melon for dessert.

We lay down on either side of the fire once we had finished eating, and I tried again to find out about Mbuna’s past, his family, his desires. He lay on his back and stared up at the star-deep sky, and answered me in sleepy grunts.

Finally I said, “What do you care about most in the world, Mbuna?” I was certain he wouldn’t answer.

He propped himself on one elbow and looked at me over the fire. He was silent for a long time, his face impassive, but firelight flickered in his eyes. “I want Daomi,” he said at last. “I want all the sand-skin soldiers to leave Daomi forever.”

“The what soldiers?”

“Sand-skin. Like—” He reached around the fire to tap my shoulder. “Skin the color of sand. Like you. All the soldiers.”

I tried hard to keep the grin from my face and voice. “My friend,” I said solemnly, “I think I can help you with that.”

Reynold left my father gasping on the forge’s flagstones. He took the masterwork sword and strode out without looking back.

I held my father while he died. It was all I could do, but I whispered fiercely, “Father, I’ll get your sword back one day. One day when he least expects it.” I’m not sure Father could hear me by then, but I never forgot my promise. It was the one thing in the world that I would die to accomplish.

By morning Mbuna decided I would live. He went out in the fresh light of dawn to refill the drinking gourd, and brought back another melon too. We had it for breakfast with more of the antelope.

I was full of excited ideas for attacking Reynold’s encampment with an army of werelions. With my military training and surprise on our side, I knew we could destroy them all within an hour. I couldn’t wait to see the look on Reynold’s face when I told him who I was, and why I was about to kill him.

Before I could start planning aloud, though, Mbuna said, “Have you seen all of Daomi?”

“Not all of it,” I said.

“I have traveled it from coast to coast.” He waved his arm to take in the vast grassland around us and the endless arch of sky, and he began to tell me about the country.

He described the high desert, which tracked right down to the eastern sea so that lions padded in the surf and preyed on seals. He told me about jungles so thick that sunlight scarcely ever reached the ground; mountains shrouded in eternal fog; the river that thundered through canyons and spilled down cliffs, meandered over plains, and sank into a morass of swamp until it poured into the sea at last—so much river water that the ocean was drinkable for miles in all directions.

He finished by saying, “The sand-skin soldiers, they don’t want Daomi. They want her wealth. They will destroy Daomi to fill their pockets with diamonds and gold.” He looked at me steadily. “I don’t want to kill them; I just want them to leave.”

I stared into the nearly-dead fire. “I only want one soldier dead. Reynold, Lord Stoller. He killed my father.”

Mbuna raised his eyebrows. And I told him everything: the masterwork sword, the fight, my father’s death. I told him how I’d washed my father’s blood from the forge floor so my mother wouldn’t have to, and how I’d cried as I worked because there was no one to see me. I told him I’d enlisted in the king’s army to learn to fight, and how I’d spent the last three years shadowing Reynold, waiting for the chance to strike.

And somehow I discovered I was talking of home too, the lush green meadows where buttercups made constellations among the grass, patchwork fields separated by hedgerows, farmyards and thatched-roof cottages and the lighted windows of taverns.

I stopped talking at last and rested my forehead on my arms.

Mbuna said quietly, “After you kill Reynold, what will you do?”

I shrugged. I didn’t care. All I wanted was my father back, but that couldn’t be done. I’d settle for killing Reynold.

“Rest,” Mbuna said.

I stretched out, but I didn’t sleep. The sun was well up now, the rock’s shadow creeping along the grass in its daily circuit. Mbuna changed to his lion body and began eating what was left of the antelope; I listened to the grate of his fangs against bone and realized I knew no more about him now than I had the day before, except that he loved his country.

I thought about the sights he’d described, the deserts and jungles and mountains. Whatever he wanted from life, at least he knew where he belonged. I had only Reynold as an anchor to my past, when I should have stayed home and made myself into the man my father had wanted me to become.

Mbuna stretched out in the sun to sleep, his pale-furred belly bulging with meat. I napped a little, and when I roused myself a few hours later, Mbuna had gone.

I drank some water and looked at the antelope carcass, but it was swarming with flies. I dragged it away from camp, and was pleased that the activity didn’t make me feel weak or feverish again.

I waited through the heat of the day for Mbuna, but it seemed he was truly gone this time. I gathered my things together into my pack and put my shirt on. I had seen the direction Mbuna had gone on his trips to the waterhole, and after a little while I took the drinking gourd and set off to find it.

It was small, a half-acre pond surrounded by trees. I washed my face and refilled the gourd, my boots sinking into mud marked with thousands of animal tracks. On my way back through the trees, I noticed the melon vines and picked two melons to take with me.

I decided to wait one more night before going after Reynold. I returned to camp, and Mbuna was waiting for me.

He nodded as I approached, and smiled at the melons. I gave him the gourd to drink from, but when I took out my knife to cut one of the melons in two, he stopped me.

“We need those. No water before we reach the camp.”

“You’re going to help? We can take on the whole camp together, the two of us, if we plan it right.”

“We’ll kill your father’s killer. That’s all. Rest first.”

I tried to rest, but I was too excited. Finally I said, “Let’s go now. I feel fine.”

Mbuna frowned, but he got up.

We didn’t talk much on the way. Mbuna set a pace that seemed far too slow; when I tried to hurry us, I ended up leaving him behind. I wasn’t sure where we were, so my directions to the encampment were useless. I had to stop and wait for him to catch up.

“It’s going to be dark by the time we get there,” I said. “We’ll have to wait for morning.”

Mbuna looked surprised. “Why?”

“Because he’ll be asleep.” When Mbuna’s expression didn’t alter, I said, “I won’t kill a sleeping man. I’m no coward.”

“I know you aren’t.” He didn’t speed up.

“Mbuna, please—I’ve waited so long. Go a little faster.”

“A year, another year. One day.” Mbuna snorted. But he lengthened his stride.

He made us stop after an hour to sit in the shade of a thorn tree. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was glad for the rest.

We followed our lengthening shadows for another hour before a waterhole came into view. It was much larger than the one near Mbuna’s camp. Then I saw the rows of military tents, and my heart began to race.

We crept within a quarter mile of the camp, and Mbuna made me rest again. “Damn you, we’re nearly there,” I snapped at him.

“The camp won’t run away.” He handed me a melon.

I hacked it in two with ill grace, but Mbuna was right. We crouched in the tall grass and watched the camp.

The sky still gave light, although the sun had nearly set. Frogs and cicadas shrilled from the waterhole. I watched soldiers finishing the evening chores, and by the time I’d finished my share of the melon, the camp was quiet.

“Now we have to wait all night,” I said, disgusted. I threw the melon rind down.

“Come with me.”

Mbuna crawled through the grass like a shadow. I followed more clumsily. When we reached the edge of the encampment, Mbuna whispered, “You said he leads these men. Before he sleeps, he will make sure all is well.”

We waited again, and it wasn’t long before I saw a lone figure walking among the tents.

I caught my breath in a hiss. I hadn’t seen Reynold since I was a boy, but I recognized him. Mbuna leaned over and whispered, “He walks like a rooster. Wait for me.”

He changed to his lion body and began to stalk forward, step by step. “Mbuna, no,” I said. “It’s my fight.”

He stopped and looked back at me for a moment, and his eyes caught the last of the sunlight. They gleamed green-gold. Then he settled down on his belly, and the tip of his tail twitched as he stared at Reynold.

I stood up. My whole life had come down to this moment. I strode forward onto the trampled grass.

Reynold saw me almost immediately. “You—state your business here,” he said, his hand going to his sword hilt.

My father’s sword hilt. I recognized it even in the dusk light. “I’m here for my father’s sword,” I said softly. “You’ve had it long enough, murderer.”

I’d planned the words for years, and they felt sweet to say. I drew my sword.

Reynold drew his. Shadows filled the lines of his face and made him look far older than his years.

I leaped at him before he’d brought his guard up, a trick I’d learned at the cost of a few scars. But my sword felt heavy, and my body didn’t have enough strength to answer my demands properly.

Reynold hadn’t spent the last several days recovering from fever. He had probably eaten more than antelope and melons too. He drove me back toward the long grass, his teeth bared, every swing of his sword fast and sure. It was all I could do to parry his blows without falling down.

All my plans, all my life’s work, and I hadn’t had the patience to wait until my strength returned. I’d have done better to kill Reynold in his sleep after all.

My foot caught in the grass. I saw Reynold’s sword flash in the darkness, a killing thrust. It never landed.

For a moment Mbuna was nothing but a shape between me and Reynold. I heard massive blows as lion paws batted Reynold back and forth like a doll. Then he was sprawled on his back, staring at the first stars with eyes that would never see anything again.

I fell to my knees, too weak to stand. Mbuna had killed Reynold bloodlessly; no claw or tooth marks showed how he had died. From the funny way Reynold’s head lay, I guessed his neck had snapped.

But I saw the dark gleam of blood on the grass, and realized Reynold’s sword hand was empty.

Mbuna gave a little grunt and his tail lashed once. Reynold’s last swing had plunged the sword into the lion’s side, nearly to the hilt, but when Mbuna changed to his human body the sword fell to the ground.

“Are you going to be all right?” I asked him. His human body appeared uninjured, but I saw the gleam of sweat on his forehead.

He shrugged. “Take your father’s sword.”

I picked up the sword and held it for the first time since I was a boy. Its blade was smeared with Mbuna’s blood. My father had made the sword, but Reynold had turned it into a weapon. “I don’t want it anymore.”

“No. Keep it. Your father made it, and it is beautiful.”

“But you might die because of it.”

“I might die from a fever. I might die from a snakebite. I might die an old man.”

I looked at him doubtfully—despite his words, he sounded strained. I looked at Reynold too, but felt no relief or joy. Mbuna put his hand on my shoulder and guided me away from the encampment.

We walked slowly. “You should go home to your green fields,” he said. “Take a wife and give her children. You have been a son, and now you can be a father.”

“I’m just a soldier. I know no trade.”

“A soldier knows how men think.” Mbuna gave me a sideways look out of the corner of his eye. “Go to your king’s men, tell them about Daomi. Tell them to stop sending soldiers here to die.”

I touched the hilt of my father’s sword; it hung at my side now, where it belonged. Something inside me seemed to break free and fly away, a piece of my father’s soul that I had held captive for so many years. “I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll do what I can for Daomi.”

“Thank you, Waters.”

We walked almost two miles, with Mbuna leaning heavily on my shoulder by the end. “Here,” he said finally, once we’d reached a low rise. “Look how far I can see. Look how much of Daomi I can see.”

The moon had risen and gleamed on a sea of grass, which whispered around us in the night breeze. “It’s beautiful, Mbuna,” I said.

“Yes.” He sat down with difficulty. “Daomi will take me back,” he said, and patted the ground as though it was the flank of a massive beast. “Go now. I want to be alone.”

“Thank you, Mbuna,” I whispered, but before I’d finished speaking he had changed back to his lion body. He slumped down and the last breath left him in a sigh.

He had both killed and died for what he wanted most in life. And he had left me with a purpose greater than revenge.

I took my father’s sword. I went home.


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K.C. Shaw's fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including Fictitious Force, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Renard's Menagerie. Her website is http://www.randomsoftware.com/kshaw/fiction.html.

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“Wolf's Clothing” by Renee Stern
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Comments & Scrivenings
3 Comments on “Sand-Skin Man”

3 Responses to “Sand-Skin Man”

  1. adunsby says:

    01-02-2009, 04:06 PM
    adunsby

    A good story. What I liked was the weaving of past and present, the sense of place-kind of a mysterious Africa, and the character Mbuna. It was good how both lead and supporting characters had goals. What I had some difficulty with was the ending. I did not feel aense of danger going into the sword fight and it was over before any could develop. It also struck as odd that he would attack when he acknowledges earlier in the story that he shouldn’t until his strength has returned.

    Adam

  2. Scott H. Andrews says:

    01-02-2009, 04:47 PM

    Glad you liked it, and thanks very much for posting your impressions. The sense of place was one of the things that drew me in as well, perhaps for me because it wasn’t just a physical place but also Mbuna felt like part of the “place.”

  3. Guest says:

    02-06-2009, 08:45 PM
    Guest

    Lovely writing

    I enjoyed this story very much. I found the descriptions almost lulling, with wonderful word painting. The setting, as has been mentioned, was strong and satisfying. I also liked the sense of pacing within the writer’s sentences as well; the story felt unhurried, much like I’d imagine that lion padding through the grassy plains…

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