Desert Requiem: Part One
She met the zombie who had saved her life sooner than she dared hoped. The meeting took place near sundown, atop the city walls.
It began like this: less than twelve hours after Sayidah had survived a bandit attack and was resting in her rooms, her cousin Ashari rushed over to obtain a first-hand account of the incident. Sayidah instructed her maid, Nuruki, to serve them refreshments before proceeding to satisfy the Desert Wocky's curiousity. Sayidah and her father had been part of a contingent escorting priceless artefacts back from Brightvale. They attracted the notice of local bandits, who raided them at night. Of all the treasures they were delivering, the Scarab Amulet was the one they could least afford to lose, so Sayidah and Nuruki had fled with it to the supposed safety of the Valley of Maiden's Tears. They had been followed by four bandits, one of who threatened Sayidah with a scimitar until an unexpected saviour turned up at a critical moment.
"Imagine that!" Ashari exclaimed in wonder. "The Nightsteed, rescuing a Sakhmetian!"
"Why should that come as a surprise?" Sayidah asked, a shade more defensively than she had intended. "After all, aren't Sakhmet and Qasala reconciled?"
"That depends on who you ask," her cousin answered carefully. "But the point is: half of Sakhmet is terrified of him, Sayidah! And the other half pretends that he doesn't exist except as a bedtime story to scare small children with. I hear that he has a gravely sepulchral appearance, as you yourself must have seen, and even when he disguises himself as a normal Uni, there is this unsettling aura about him..." Sayidah wondered whether her burgeoning irritation had manifested itself in her countenance, for her cousin suddenly changed tack. "But he saved your life, so of course that changes everything! He does have a decent bone in him!" She laughed at what she thought was a clever pun. "I might even deign to speak to him if our paths ever cross. Which is unlikely. Owing to the fact that he rarely strays from Prince Jazan's side, who in turn rarely strays from his wife's."
"And how is Princess Nabile's condition?"
"Stable. The physicians say that she can be discharged within a week. Do you know that the undead sorceror who put her in that situation was none other than Jazan's own father? Qasala is a veritable Cobrall's nest, if you ask me. Too many undesirables crawling about. I exclude the Nightsteed from that assessment, of course;"
"You keep calling him the Nightsteed," Sayidah interrupted. "What is his true name?"
Ashari lifted her shoulder in a delicate shrug. "To be honest, I'm not sure if he even has one. Jazan might know, or you could ask the Nightsteed directly."
"I would like to speak with him," Sayidah admitted. "But by your own report, he is likely attendant upon the convalescent Nabile, and I have no wish to disturb her repose."
"There is one time where you might catch him. He has this habit of running off into the desert after dusk and not returning until dawn, with the notable exception of last night. Before he leaves, he goes up to a quiet section of the west wall to watch the sunset. You can ask Imroth to introduce you; he's actually spoken to our resident cursed mummy. Speaking of Imroth, do you know that he has been promoted? But it's only to be expected, what with him being as clever and brave as he is..."
Sayidah smiled, offered her congratulations, and listered patiently as Ashari waxed lyrical about her brother's accomplishments in the Sakhmetian army.
"Is it true that Uncle Farisem lost part of his ear fighting five Mutant Grarrls at once?"
Sayidah smiled up at the Green Lupe walking beside her. "Where had you heard that from?"
Imroth flashed a toothy grin. "It's not been a day since you returned, but you won't believe the rumours that are flying about."
"And what do those same rumours say about me?"
"Only that you single-handedly vanquished a bandit using close-quarter combat skills I hadn't known you possessed."
Sayidah maintained a straight face. "That makes the two of us, cousin." They burst into laughter. After she had regained her composure, Sayidah said, "Alas, no, I had not picked up any combat skills while in Brightvale. The bandit would have vanquished me, had not Fate dictated otherwise."
Imroth's expression sobered quickly. "Our family is indebted to the Nightsteed. Your father would have been inconsolable if anything had happened to you."
Sayidah changed the subject to less depressing matters. "Ashari tells me that you've amassed quite the collection of battle scars. For one, I don't recall that fetching gash across your muzzle when I left for Brightvale two years ago."
Imroth puffed out his chest in inflated pride. "I've got several more scars on my arms, and a burn mark on my chest, too," he boasted. And then his eyes locked onto something ahead that made him slow to a stop.
Sayidah followed his gaze. A Blue Uni stood silently behind the parapet, face turned towards the setting sun. She recognized him at once, even though it had been his other form that had left the stronger impression on her. Ashari had described his aura as "unsettling". To Sayidah, it was not so much unsettling as suggestive of a certain cryptic stillness, an inscrutability of disposition that placed him beyond the understanding of most of his fellows. His bearing was graceful and his mien calm.
Imroth whispered to her, "Don't listen to the sensationalized nonsense people are spreading about him. He's no more a monster than you or I, and he's been nothing but courteous in the few interactions I've had with him." Sayidah felt an immense rush of gratitude towards her cousin for this positive affirmation.
The Nightsteed must have detected their presence long ago. However, he gave no signs of acknowledgement until Imroth saluted him. "Honoured guest of our city, may I present my cousin, who desires converse with you." He turned towards Sayidah and gestured towards a spot in the distance. "I'll wait for you over there." He left them in privacy.
Sayidah initated the requisite formalities. "A thousand blessings upon you, honoured sir," she said, bowing. "I am Sayidah, daughter of Farisem, lady of House Imlirin."
He returned the bow Uni-fashion, bending his right foreleg while extending his left. "Khalid, son of Harid, bloodline-heir of Arumsa the Flamespear, at your service." His voice was a pleasant bass. "I remember your face, and know your purpose. I will say this: you do not owe me thanks for acting as any person of decency would have acted, although it would be within your rights to rain curses upon me had I stood by and left you to certain doom."
She shook her head. "I do not agree. When someone does us a good turn, even an expected one, that does not diminish the value of the act nor render it any less worthy of gratitude. Similarly, I would not be embittered towards those who withhold their aid out of fear for their own life — not all can afford to pay the price of heroism."
"Then you are wiser — and more forgiving — than I. Or perhaps it is only that you can still empathize with the fear of death..." He trailed off.
"I am not wiser than you, Khalid son of Harid," Sayidah said firmly, "nor you any less kind than I. And you are one of those over whom fear of death would have no power to turn from the righteous path."
"You say that with such conviction."
"Do you deny what I say? Our acquaintance might be brief, but I feel as if I know you. Besides, I can always approach Prince Jazan for a second opinion."
He emitted a snort. "You would find him highly biased in my favour."
"For good reason, I'm sure."
"Are you attempting to flatter me?"
"I'll own that flattery is generally looked upon as a tool for propitiating pompous politicans. But since you are neither pompous nor a politician, I need only flatter you if I genuinely like you."
Khalid laughed, rich and deep and surprisingly warm. "I wish I had known that such amiable wit existed within the court of Sakhmet."
"The amiable wit of which you speak did not arrive in Sakhmet until this morning, so your ignorance is excused," Sayidah informed him.
"From whence had you returned?"
"Brightvale." Here her expression grew serious. "And know this, noble Khalid: you had saved more than just my life last night. I carried with me that on which was staked the honour of my person, the dignity of my House, and the very pride of Sakhmet itself."
He hazarded a guess. "The gold pendant which you had refused to surrender at knifepoint."
"It is called the Scarab Amulet, and it belongs to our royal family. I do not know whether you have heard of it; it had been lost for centuries."
"I have heard of it," he confirmed. "Our tutor taught us that before we had been born, an uprising had taken place in Sakhmet, known as the Rebellion of the Silver Ankhs. It was headed by Lord Ramon, who ripped the Scarab Amulet from King Kuhamet's slain body before being driven back by Kuhamet's son, Anaphses II. Lord Ramon escaped, and the fate of both he and the Scarab Amulet remained a mystery forevermore."
"Not forevermore. Two years ago, a school of Peophins discovered the wreck of an old Sakhmetian ship off the coast of Brightvale. Our scholars had theorized that Lord Ramon left the desert by sea, but met with a bad storm that sunk his vessel. Princess Amira sent a delegation headed by my father to investigate the wreck, and they found the Scarab Amulet among the many excavated artefacts. Have you ever heard of The Lay of Sakhmet's Founding?" When he responded in the negative, she said, "I will recite it for you. It recounts the legend of how Sakhmet was founded by Coltzan I and the Scarab Amulet's role in that founding." She cleared her throat and began:
Over the dunes rode Coltzan one day
The sun hung low, the wind blew fair
Around his neck an amulet lay
A Scarab of gold, its eyes afire
Stopped he to take in the darkling land
"Where shall we make our camp tonight?"
The Spirits came forth to guide his hand
Bade his Scarab, Awake! Take flight!
Cried Coltzan, amaz'd, "Doth mine eyes deceive me?
This gold talisman, before lifeless as stone
Now glide through the dusk like the day-wearied Djuti
Slowly, surely, making for home."
He and his men on their steeds gave chase
Over hill and rock and sand
'Til sacred Scarab chose to end the race
By the shores of river Nyf it did land
Quoth Coltzan, "The night ere this a dream had I
Of shining Scarab resting on river's banks
Whereupon a great city rose up from the sands nearby
Surely a sign from the Spirits; I give thanks!
Rejoice, my people! No more shall we wander
Like grains of sand tossed from hither to thither
Instead build we our nation yonder
Named Sakhmet, which means 'Scarab led us here'."
Here Sayidah paused, hesitated, and said, "There were originally four stanzas in the lay, but the last was outlawed by Anaphses II shortly after he ascended the throne. Now that the Scarab Amulet has been retrieved, however, I have no doubt that Amira will revise that law." She continued:
Scarab returned to its master who said,
"This heirloom shall adorn the neck, I decree
As a crown shall grace the head
Of all rulers who come after me
May my heirs be guided as I was guided
And fortune shine eternal upon Sakhmet."
So ends this tale of how our kingdom was founded
Set down here so that none should forget
"Parts of the legend are fabulous, of course," Sayidah concluded. "I personally doubt that the Scarab Amulet had come to life as related. But what is indisputable is that the Scarab Amulet belonged to Coltzan I, and has been worn by each of our monarchs up until the time of King Kuhamet. Princess Amira will be the first Sakhmetian ruler in nearly two hundred and fifty years to bear it once more."
Khalid nodded slowly in comprehension. "I thank you for your recital. In return, I will share with you the tale of Qasala's own birth. There are poetic retellings of the event, but I cannot at present remember them in their entirety. Instead, I will tell it plain:
"In the Elder Days, there lived five friends and sorcerors, whose names were: Master Shariq, Mistress Zulifah, Master Tabak, Mistress Shumimi, and Master Arumsa. In their quest for knowledge, they came to the Central Dunes, on which Qasala was later built, in search of the Temple of a Thousand Tombs, also known to us as the Underground Temple. The Five were not left in peace to their studies, however. Two warring tribes lived in the surrounding region, the Hybas and the Makouda, and each tried to win the Five over to their side.
"'No!' declared Shariq. 'We did not come to be involved in local disputes! Whatever you grudges you have, you must settle among yourselves.'
"So they resolved. But there came the day when the Hybas routed the Makouda, and the survivors fled to the Five's retreat for protection. They were mostly women and children, and their cries filled the air. Shariq sighed and summoned his friends to a council. 'It seems that our hand is forced at last,' he said. 'And one thing is for sure: we will receive no rest so long as these silly tribes bicker amongst themselves.'
"And so the Five called down lightning from the sky to dance upon the ground near the Hybas's feet. They whipped the sand into a storm that stung the Hybas's eyes. They wove fire into a great barrier that encircled the Hybas. The Hybas pled for their lives. Shariq exclaimed, 'O Hybas and Makouda! Look at the destruction and senseless death your petty squabbling have wrought! As we have saved one tribe and spared the other, so shall we claim the right to decide your fates!
"'This is what we have decided: no more shall exist the two tribes known as the Hybas and the Makouda. Instead, you will combine into one single people — henceforth, you shall be known as Qasalans! For Qasala was the name of our teacher, who valued unity and friendship, and whose teachings we hope will be embraced by you all. And should any rebel — remember the lightning, sand, and fire!'
"'We agree to your terms!' cried the Qasalans. 'And we beseech you to be our rulers, for with such power as yours, no aggressor would dare invade us!'
"'No!' Shariq was adamant. 'We will choose from among you a new ruler. You have taken up enough of our time.'
"But the two tribes (now one) begged and entreated. And so the Five had another conference, and this was what they decided: Shariq and his wife Zulifah would be the nominal King and Queen of the Qasalans, but they delegated much of their duties to an appointed deputy. In return, their subjects supplied them with food, clothing, and other neccessities so that they could concentrate on their studies. Their son, Shariq II, ruled both in name and in reality, but his parents are still acknowledged by us as the founding rulers of Qasala."
Sayidah asked, "Is the Master Arumsa who helped found Qasala the same Arumsa the Flamespear you mentioned in your self-introduction?"
"Yes. I am his descendant and bloodline-heir, although that confers neither nobility nor real power. But it is a designation that commands respect in Qasala, as well as entitles participation in certain ceremonies."
"Thank you for sharing your nation's history with me," she said. "I would love to learn more. My father often goes abroad as part of his official duties, and it is possible that he might be sent to Qasala in the future. If so, I hope to accompany him."
Khalid dipped his head. "Both Qasala and I welcome you, should you ever visit." A brilliant play of orange light fell across the city walls, and caught both his mane and her fur. He turned to regard the horizon. "It is almost sundown," he remarked quietly.
"You may take leave if you wish."
"I don't. I wish to see you in your other form again. Would you mind?"
"...I do not mind."
The last rays of day faded. Khalid retreated a few steps before precipitating a running leap over the parapet. By the time Sayidah peered down, he had already landed at the foot of the wall. He lifted his hooves free from the sand and walked slowly away from the city. Sayidah gazed after him. One moment, there was an ordinary Blue Uni making his way towards the desert. And the next...
A creature of nightmare and legend paced the sands, eyes blazing like fiery coals. With a toss of his wild mane, the Nightsteed reared and galloped off into the night.
To be continued…