Sing, poor Elvasa, sing like the wind across the dunes, sing to the bones of your father, and carry him with you all your life, until your children bear up your own bones unto the winds…
The song died away, drifting slowly away across the red evening darkness towards the blue edging upon the horizon and becoming lost in eternity. The gathered tribe drifted away, the ritual completed as Elvasa admired the shining ivory blade he now held, turning the thin crescent over to admire each side of the weapon…and to remember…
“Your father is with you now forever,” the old bone-singer’s voice broke into his reverie, and Elvasa looked up from the new blade into his milk-white eyes. The voice trembled with age, but there was still strength and tenor in it, subtle shadings of skill that remained eternally young lurking beyond the aged flesh. He wondered how the old man knew where to look without eyesight.
“It is…a fine blade,” Elvasa’s voice cracked.
“More than a blade, princely seren,” the old man interrupted and reached out with gnarled fingers to lovingly touch the blade, “These are your father’s bones, shaped from the bones of the legs which bear our soul. So the sword bears his soul, his strength, his swiftness, and so it will be as strong as he, as swift as he. Trust it as you would trust your father.”
He allowed that to sink in for a brief moment, “You will need to name the sword.”
Elvasa raised the blade up before his eyes and studied it, “There is no name for this sword but the name of my father — Eremwh.” He whispered the name again.
Elvasa had eyes only for the curved blade sung from his father’s bones, who would serve his tribe even in death, defending his son and people, but the bone-singer stared sightlessly somewhere else, perhaps into his own memories, and said quietly, “Your father and I were great friends for many years. When he was young and his father died, I sang his father’s bones into a blade for him that he carried until today. Tonight, you will bury your father’s body, and your grandfather’s soul.”
Elvasa sighed and glanced down at the blue-robed body lying in the sand nearby, the light wind gently stirring the silken funeral robe wrapped around the entirely too-still body. Not to move, to run, to travel each day across the sands was not the way of the sh’asa, who spent their lives in movement.
“I will leave you now to that most private part of the ritual,” the blind bone-singer raised his shaking hand in the traditional sign of parting, though Elvasa was not certain he was directing it towards he or his father.
“Thank you, Iluvayr,” he said as the old man began walking towards a distant camp-fire, too-surely to be blind.
The tribe was asleep when the attack came, each standing quietly, eyes closed, swaying gently as if dancing like a flower’s petals to an imperceptible breeze. It was the savage Mahn, who lived like insects in vast, dirty stone hives and gloried in the shedding of blood.
Their savagery today was no less than their legend; half the tribe was cut down before the rest could defend themselves. A visskassa was with the Mahn, who had silenced the camp guards by hissing vile words of power, and which he used now to burn the flesh from those who ran.
Screams of pain and cries of fury and horror echoed across the dunes as the Mahn slaughtered, raped, and enslaved, their broad faces holding bloody grins full of sharpened white teeth, gruesome muscles spattered crimson as they swung their crude, vicious weapons. Elvasa spotted one wielding a sleek sh’asa spear…scavengers.
Eremwh came to his hand, a virgin to battle though his father had seen too many. It was on him now, with the burial completed he was no longer seren but prise, to defend his people with his father at his side. “Kill the strong, the weak will fall,” his father’s advice came to him.
A haunting, ululating war-cry burst forth from his throat as he rushed the visskassa, feet barely touching the sand as he sped and leapt across the dune towards the vile word-worker, dancing with the wind and desert, every movement measured and set. Even some of the Mahn stopped to stare in dull, surprised awe at the beauty of his swift charge and the art of his body. Then the sands exploded around him and there was screaming that faded dully into a still void.
Eremwh and Iluvayr had crawled to the top of the dune under the glaring brightness of the noon sun, their bodies swathed in loose, off-white robes to hide them from prying eyes, slit-bone goggles covering their eyes to filter the glare from the sands.
“The Manh take respite from the day’s heat,” Eremwh pulled the cloth wrap from around his nose and mouth to whisper, and the earrings that decorated his left ear glinted momentarily in the shade beneath his hood.
“Cover yourself,” Iluvayr hissed back clearly through the facial wrap, and Eremwh quickly complied. The young prise‘s fondness for metal-craft jewels and other decorations was well-known, and he was superstitious about the luck they brought him in battle and love. There might be something to that, given the number of tribeswomen who bore or were willing to bear him sons.
But he was wise enough to listen to good advice and not dwell upon his own mistakes as affronts to his ego. Iluvayr smiled to himself, unseen by his prise, who was staring down at the temporary encampment of the Mahn.
The giant shelled-lizards the Mahn used to pull their small stone hive had burrowed into the sands to escape the day’s heat. The hive was a fortress, meant to protect against the beasts and elements of the desert, but it was a blind one. Surrounded by white sand dunes on all sides, the blazing sun shining glorious in a clear sky directly above, the reflected light was almost too much for even the desert-bred sh’asa. It would be too much for the Mahn.
“There,” Eremwh pointed and Iluvayr followed the direction of his finger, nodding in agreement. They slid slowly back down from the ridge and crept around to their right, following the wind-shaped curve of the inconstant hills of sand and through a high, shallow depression between dunes, leading down towards the camp.
The soldier there fell quietly. Then they crouched near the body, occasionally casting distasteful looks at the graceless thing, and waited for some sign that eyes inside the fortress-hive had seen what had transpired. Long moments of quiet passed, not even a breeze teased the sands today.
Eremwh nodded to Iluvayr and they crept steadily forward — Iluvayr first, Eremwh shortly after, watching behind them — across sands that burned and blazed with the sun’s light and heat. They passed two of the Mahn sleeping in the slight shade of a blanket strung between two bamboo poles before reaching the shadow of the hive, a brief and welcome respite from the heat.
Eremwh wiped the blackish blood of the sleeping Mahn from the ivory of his bone knife and slipped it back into its sheath. Iluvayr hadn’t even noticed him stop. His prise was waiting for him to lead, for a raid upon the Mahn was a new thing to Eremwh while Iluvayr had been a part of many over the years.
The fortress could be sealed, and the stores within sustain its occupants during siege while they whittled down the numbers of raiders from safety, waiting for the stench of death to attract dangerous predators they would also be safe from, or for the raiders to give up, or for more of the Mahn to come. Eremwh and Iluvayr would ensure this Mahn-hive could not be so easily closed up.
The two sh’asa quickly dispatched the soldiers guarding the entry, the Mahn predictably dazed by the day’s heat, and rose only a slight scuffle that luckily none within heard. Then they rushed up the narrow stair and burst upon the startled soldiers there, dispatching them as well, quickly cutting the ropes that would have sealed the entries. Others woke to swift deaths.
Outside, a dozen more sh’asa descended from their own hiding places amid the dunes, war-cries echoing down and stirring both the camp and hive into frenzied activity like scurrying insects suddenly set upon by a hungry predator. Other tribesmen soon joined the two inside the hive, making short work of the defenses the Mahn tried to raise unavailed.
Eremwh thrust aside a cloth curtain in the higher corridors of the hive, surprising the two occupants of a small room: a male and a female. The male turned, his pale flesh and black robes and a dozen other subtle signs marking him visskassa. He died immediately, heart skewered and cleft in half upon Eremwh’s sung-bone sword. He slid the long blade out, the Mahn toppling dead, and then the blade fell to the side as Eremwh stared at the trembling beauty who had backed into a corner before him.
There was little attractive about the Mahn, but this one was tall and strong with delicate features, draped in gauzy silks and decorated with complex golden earrings, a vast and delicate gem-studded collar of silver links, serpentine arm and leg bands and bangles, glittering rings and a hanging tiara of golden chains.
Eremwh placed his sword gently upon the floor, eyes never leaving her. He took her…and left her weeping, taking with him the most beautiful of her rings and one of her armbands.
A sharp intake of breath, a cold and unpleasant smell of mildewing stone, urine, and straw, the echoes of a small, rough chamber…and perhaps a solid, wooden door, and underlying it all the stench of the Mahn, some lurking in the corridor beyond the door. Whether it was lit or not was beyond his senses — if his captors had thought to place him in darkness to discomfit him, they knew nothing of the ever-present darkness in which he lived.
Those sensations were what he recalled of the place he found himself within after his confusing capture amid the piercing screams and gasps of the dying and the sharp copper stench of spilled blood. They had slaughtered the rest of the tribe and taken only him. The Mahn did not take prisoners. They took meat.
He had time to ponder this before soldiers came and led him, too-gently, to an echoing chamber whose vast contours he could hear in the whispers of their feet on the stone and against a floor strewn thick with padded cushions. The sweet scent of honeyed meat and ripe fruits was thick in the air with a stringent undercurrent of fermentation.
A booming voice full of serpents both announced and greeted, “You are the fabled bone-singer of the sahasa. You will sing for me. Weapons to gird my soldiers — the finest blades from the bones of the fallen.” He spoke the words that belonged to the sh’asa well enough, but with a thick accent and no subtlety or grace.
The rattle of aged bone upon stone as skeletons were spilled upon the floor for him, but he could hear their nature. He responded in a pidgin of the ugly language of the Mahn, full of clicks and hard rolling sounds, for he did not wish to hear his tribe’s words fall dead from the lips of the Mahn again, “I regret that these bones cannot be sung to. The spirit has left them, and only the newly dead hear the voice of the winds calling them back across the sun-lit ethers.”
There was silence full of breathing and wordless whispers of air.
“Do you know who I am,” the voice asked, the Mahn using its own words now. Iluvayr relaxed, but did not answer, believing the question had not been asked to answer.
There was an expectant pause, then he was pushed to the floor, upon soft velvet cushions and the smell of the food became stronger, mixed with the scent of one of the Mahn’s women. Cool ghavsa was pressed to his lips. It had been many years since he had tasted ghavsa…
“For me to threaten your life would do no good. You would gladly die now with the rest of your tribe. What can I offer to you, Ilvar?” The Mahn had tried, but the name would not form for him, but Iluvayr did not correct him as much as it caused him pain.
“Nothing?” The Mahn’s throat hummed in what must have been thought, “Very well. The tribe is life. Your tribe is dead, slain, their blood waters the desert sands. Only you remain…”
Iluvayr’s shoulders stiffened in the darkness and he pushed away the ghavsa being offered to him by the Mahn’s servant, he had had his fill, the sweetness of it turned bitter on his tongue and uneasy in his stomach.
The Mahn barked a word he did not know and light footsteps approached, a familiar scent hidden underneath a rich perfume. The smell of the sh’asa. Iluvayr rose slowly to his feet, facing the stranger, confused but careful.
“The Daughter of the Moons, Ilvar,” there was expectation in the slight pause in the Mahn’s voice, “the child of Erem.” The words struck at Iluvayr’s knees, but he did not fall. Nonetheless, long, slender fingers dipped in perfume slipped around his elbow to hold him steady.
Her blood and bone sang to him at her touch, dilute and impure as it was — as impossible as the mix seemed — she was of his tribe and of the blood of his dead friend, once-prise Eremwh, kin to the slain prise Elvasa.
“I will allow you both to live. Fail me, and I will kill her before you, Daughter of the Moon or not.”
Iluvayr could only imagine the wicked smile upon the hive-king’s face as the half-breed trembled now upon his arm and he took his turn to steady her.
…to be continued…
Copyright (c)2008 Raven Daegmorgan