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Bonus Chapter I: Oran
Oran – Mithtaen: Eq-Anout
It was the seventh day of the seventh month, when the season changed from summer to autumn and the village of Mithtaen in the southeast of eq-Anout released its children to the basins to prepare for the planting of the sapenta poppy. The air was cool and dry compared with only a week ago. Desert winds whipped desert sand into Mithtaen’s sheltered alleys, where it remained till evening when the workers returned and swept the streets clean.
Any other year, Oran would have been preparing the basins. Any other year, he wouldn’t have been alone and crouched on the roof of one of Mithaen’s mudbrick houses. Any other year, he wouldn’t be listening, ear primed for the sound of his mother’s voice—or heq-Ashqen Ethezda’s—while fear pricked every strand of hair on his arm.
It was the seventh day of the seventh month. It was the day the Sajit took a living son.
Oran’s heart pounded in his chest, louder than the wind, louder than the cawing of the crows circling the rooftops.
If Ethezda caught him, Oran would be dead.
Stones crunched underfoot in the alley below.
It could be Ista or one of the other children. It could be Saftan Benshi. Benshi had never liked to look at Oran too hard, but he’d also never hated him the way a lot of the village did. Could he be safe?
Oran gripped the ledge, but he stopped short of peeking over the side.
He swallowed, blood clogging his throat from where Benshi’s slave had struck him back at his house. Benshi was why Oran had run in the first place.
No one was safe.
He licked his lip, wincing as his tongue brushed the nick of loose skin from where the slave’s ring had torn into him. Tears at his eyes, Oran scraped his tooth over the small puncture, pressing till the skin came free.
He stifled a whimper.
The crunch of footsteps broke the quiet. “It’s a great honour.”
Oran pressed himself right up against the wall, crouched, knees pulled against his ribs. He squeezed his eyes closed and held his breath till his nostrils flared from the effort.
“We’re going to find you. You’re only making things worse for yourself.”
He was making things worse. There was nowhere to run. The closest village was a day’s travel by caravan, and it had been a year since Oran had made the trip with his father. If he tried to retrace the path he’d be just as lost in the desert as he would be if Ethezda took him.
“I have water.” Ethezda’s words were accompanied by the slosh of liquid. “You must be thirsty.”
Oran opened his eyes, letting himself breathe out, staring at the sunbaked wall. Overhead, the sun blazed down angrily. His cheeks were dry as chalk, his mouth wetted only by blood.
If he did run, he would need water.
He pictured himself racing downstairs and out onto the street, grabbing dust from the road and tossing it in Ethezda’s eyes to blind him, grabbing the water—
“Oran!” called his mother’s voice, further off.
His name echoed through the village as one by one the villagers took up the call. Their voices throbbed in his ears, beating in time with his heart.
Ethezda’s steps crunched ahead, retreating. “After what you’ve done, you should be grateful.”
What Oran had done.
Despite Oran’s thirst, a heavy wet lump formed in his throat. He could feel the compressed sand of Mithtaen’s outer road beneath his sandals as Alo chased him all the way to the outskirts of the village. He could hear Alo screeching monster monster monster as he ran. He could see the collapsed house at the edge of the village—his only hope of a hiding place.
But Alo and Oran hadn’t been alone that day.
Images of Ethezda leading Deena into the house flashed like lightning in his eyes. Images of her bones sticking out from her clothes and what remained of her skin after the vultures had got to her. Images of those same bones at the riverbed.
Ethezda had hidden Deena where she’d used to play with Oran on purpose. And then he’d chosen Oran and Alo for the autumn sacrifice because they’d known what Ethezda had done.
But Deena never would have been with Ethezda if Oran hadn’t fought with her the other day. He never should have tried to kiss her. She wouldn’t have slapped him and run away.
Oran clenched his jaw.
“Oran!” yelled Ethezda, voice full of a smile that was a lie.
The smile and its lie were drifting further and further away though. If Oran was going to run, this was his chance.
One, two, three, his father’s voice sounded in his head. A lullaby, meant to send Oran to sleep. Four—
He couldn’t wait for his father’s voice to count all the way to ten.
Oran’s sandals scraped the roof as he darted, still crouched, to the dark square marking the stairs down from the roof. He slipped onto the steps.
Cold hands closed around him, pinning his arms to his sides.
Oran yelped and kicked, his vision patchy with light blindness. His left foot thudded into the adult’s ribs and a fff sound thumped from the man’s mouth. The man stumbled backwards, unbalanced, and Oran’s sandal went flying.
The steps came up to meet Oran with a whoosh and his forehead cracked against the stairs. He wobbled onto his feet to the groans of whoever had grabbed him, then hobbled for the door. He shook his leg out as he stared into the alley, vision swimming with odd shapes.
The world had gone all slippery, the tight, dusty alley sliding up and down and left and right. Something wet trickled from Oran’s forehead down his nose, into his eyes, turning everything orange. The air smelled of copper.
Behind him, the groaning gave way to shuffling.
Oran limped onto the street.
“He’s there! I found him! He’s there!” yelled the man in the house—Benshi.
They all wanted Oran gone. They’d always wanted him gone and now he was eight years old and they thought he’d done something very very bad. Bad enough to send him out to Hazzan years before he otherwise would have been.
What did it matter if they sent him out now or later? He was dead either way. He’d been dead all his life. Ever since the midwife had pulled Oran from his mother and recognized the blemish between his legs. Monsters like Oran were fit only for Hazzan. If they didn’t get sent out, the village would suffer.
Maybe Ethezda was the village’s punishment.
Oran gripped his knee and turned his back on the northernmost side of the street where Ethezda had been headed. The road kept tipping from side to side. He caught himself on a wall to stop himself falling, then wobbled from one side of the street to the next: wall to wall to wall.
“Come here,” huffed Benshi, teeth gritted, words wet like he was bleeding into his mouth.
Oran hurried on, swallowing back this morning’s breakfast.
The end of the street was a shadow, pinpricked with light in every colour.
Every colour and orange orange orange.
“Oran!” Ethezda’s voice crashed loud as a cymbal. His footsteps thundered like drums.
Oran’s eyelid twitched, head throbbing where he’d clunked it. He ambled toward the shadows as they started to clear, revealing paths left and right.
Right toward the desert. Left? It led to the hills and the basins. Oran could hide in the hills, and there’d be water in the streams to keep him going.
He slumped against the wall for support, dragging himself along.
Heq-Ashqen Ethezda grabbed Oran by the head, pulling him backwards. His fingers dug into Oran’s cheeks.
Thick sweaty cotton filled his mouth, Ethezda shoving the wad of fabric further and further inside Oran’s throat till it burned. When Oran screamed again it was like the sound was trapped in his neck, a bee buzzing against the cloth, against Ethezda’s hand at his mouth.
Ethezda pulled Oran tight to his chest. “This doesn’t have to hurt.”
It didn’t. But if he stayed, he’d die. He didn’t want to die.
Oran wiggled his tongue till he pushed out the cloth. He bit deep into Ethezda’s hand. The heq-Ashqen’s grip on him loosened, and he sprinted right.
His vision was changing—the buildings elongating, their shadows turning to great long cloaks that hung from their very tops, and the houses weren’t mudbrick, but stone. Tall men made of stone in long black cloaks that melted onto the ground.
Oran ran past all of them, not daring to look the stone men in their faces, keeping to the centre of the street so the shadows couldn’t touch him. If he touched them, his heart told him, he was dead.
“Oran!” yelled his mother. Her voice was coming from the northeast where Oran was headed.
He froze. He wrapped his arms around his chest, hunching to make himself smaller.
In his peripheral vision, the skirts of one of the black-cloaked figures stretched nearer and nearer. He stared up into the blackness, higher and higher to try and catch the stone figure’s eyes, to judge its mood and whether it was on Oran’s side.
“Oran!” Ethezda snapped into view at the other side of the street, his lank black hair hanging like creeping vine over a cave wall. He clutched his hand like it still hurt. His teeth were clenched, the pretend smile turned to something else now.
Oran darted inside the shadow and the small, two-storey home. The building was pitch black and he thudded into a wood table in the darkness. The smell of rose oil was thick in the air, like someone had been washing in here, or maybe left out some incense.
He followed the edge of the table to where the stairs should be, walking slowly so as not to trip. His legs collided with the lowest step.
Sucking back a breath, Oran leapt onto the stairs.
Behind him, the door clattered.
Oran ran, arms shoved in front of him. He zig-zagged onto the second floor, then up the stairs in the direction of where the steps to the roof should be.
Downstairs, the table bump-arrumped like Ethezda had banged into it the same as Oran. A curse followed, and then the clunk clunk clunkclunkclunk of speeding steps. “It’s not a death sentence. The Qarnaama might choose you—”
Oran shoved his arms out in front of him as he mounted the stairs to the roof, ready to shove open the trapdoor blocking the light. When his hands met the hard, scratchy wood they thrummed with pain, but Oran ignored it and heaved.
The trapdoor thudded open and he burst onto the roof. Yellow sunlight drowned Oran till his vision burned pale white.
Oran needed to go. He shielded his eyes with his arm, scanning the roof. The only thing left up here was a rusty, crumbling bucket.
“Wait . . . .” panted Ethezda.
Oran stared across the space between the houses. The gap between this and the nearest roof was ten cubits wide. He’d never make it.
Ethezda huffed onto the final step, his hands emerging from the darkness, gripping the roof to either side of him like a spider emerging from its hole.
Oran closed his eyes and hopped back several steps.
Ethezda was striding toward him.
Ethezda’s hand grasped for him, nails scraping his arm and almost spinning him around, but Oran was free. He was running. He would make it.
He leaped into the air, heart bobbing in his throat. He could make it—
Almost as fast as he thought it, the ground rushed to meet him. He curled his head against his chest, but it didn’t stop the scream bursting from him as he smacked onto the hard earth.
His mother stood outside the mud-wall of the village, hands clasped in front of her, surrounded to either side by relatives and neighbours. She was crying.
As Oran and Alo were led past her, Oran’s uncle squeezed her shoulder, not recognizing her tears for those of an unladen burden instead of for a lost child.
Oran bit his lip and winced when his teeth nicked the gouge where he’d been struck. Bruised and battered, he still wanted to scream at his mother, to call her what she was as his father would if he were here. But his tongue was stuck fast to the roof of his mouth, Ethezda’s rotten cloth gagging him. Shamefully, tears rolled down his cheeks, soaking the bunched-up cloth.
Ethezda had bound Oran and Alo with the traditional gold cord, though after years of use its proud strands were frayed and stained, and it was rough against Oran’s skin. He wriggled as Ethezda nudged him along, trying to loosen the knots, but it was no good. All he got for it was rubbed-raw skin and the promise of blisters as hot sand burned his bare feet. Ethezda paid no attention to the rockiness of the twisty path down which he led them.
At a distance, Ethezda’s second swung a censure back and forth. The clouds of incense were thick and dark, like a god might form from inside the smoke and gobble them up. All that happened though was that the Ashqen coughed and held the censure further from his face.
Alo stumbled, blubbering into the hot air, his stubby legs unable to keep pace with Ethezda’s long strides. Like Oran, he’d been gagged, lest he confirm what Oran had revealed of Ethezda’s crime. The villagers hadn’t believed Oran, but Alo might have convinced them.
Now the pair of them would stay silent forever.
Gifts for Hazzan. Children for the childless god.
Oran wasn’t a child, not like Alo was. Not anymore. He looked down at his hands, remembering the blood on his fingers from when he’d found Deena, the stink of death in his nostrils. Children didn’t do what Oran had done; his mother had said so. To them, Oran was something else―some demon or beast, an empty thing.
To be filled with the sins of the tribe.
It’d been five years since the last children had been sent out, with only goats in the years between. How much sin had Mithtaen gathered in the meantime? Was it something you could weigh and measure? Oran struggled to picture it—sin like chains dragging down his shoulders, wound tight around his neck.
Ethezda stopped abruptly, and Oran tripped, thudding into Alo’s back. He pushed himself off, frowning at the hard landscape that lay before them: the endless sea of the Sajit.
For the first time since they’d left Mithtaen, Ethezda faced them, his long, thin face partly obscured by his hair.
A cloud drifted across the face of the sun, blocking the vaulted sky from view, and Ethezda knelt before Alo, laying a hand on his shoulder. The gesture did nothing to comfort him, snot and tears bubbling along his cheeks and chin.
Light flashed off metal as Ethezda drew his goat-horn blade from its sheath, blinding Oran for an instant. “On the seventh day of the seventh month, the Sajit takes a living son. Hazzan steps once again into the light from out the noontime shadows, to marry his spirit to his death, to give himself over to her: mother, sister, wife.”
Mother, sister, wife. Mother sister wife. Mothersisterwife.
Oran stared at his bruised feet.
The edge of the knife still glinted in the corner of his vision.
Oran’s legs were stiff as tree trunks, rooted to the earth. He wanted to run, to kick and scream, but he couldn’t make his feet move. It was fear, that was all. Oran was afraid and unsure. Which fate awaited him? Which of the two was more terrible?
Death was always more terrible. It had to be. He had to believe that.
If Ethezda pledged him to the desert, he’d find a way to survive. He wouldn’t die a slow death. He’d live off the land like his father. He’d travel into the deep Sajit and find the Qarnaama.
Oran’s tears had dried, sticky, in the hot sun. The bruises from his fall ached all along his body.
“For the transgressions of the village, for the sins of your brothers. A beast for Hazzan, a beast for Abaal.”
One for Hazzan and one for Abaal. One for the desert and one for the knife.
It hadn’t been Oran. It hadn’t been Oran. It had been Ethezda.
He thought back to that day, when Alo had attacked him and chased him to the collapsed house. He’d watched Ethezda lead Deena inside—Alo had seen it too. Only later, when Oran had found Deena’s body at the riverbed, when he’d tried to tell Benshi what he’d seen, Alo had told them Oran had done it.
He’d told them Oran had killed her.
Everyone, even his mother—especially his mother—had believed Alo.
Oran glanced over his shoulder to where his mother and uncle stood by, but she wouldn’t even look at him. Behind her, Deena’s parents watched with tear-damp faces. Deena’s father had clenched his hands into angry fists, but Deena’s mother, Amilat, looked just the same as she’d done every morning Oran and Deena had whined at her for soup or bread or other treats. Her eyes met Oran’s. They glowed fierce as her husband’s.
Oran snapped away and came nose-to-blade with Ethezda’s knife as the heq-Ashqen raised the weapon.
He could have sworn Ethezda grinned as he cut Alo’s throat.
A spray of blood exploded in an arc from his neck and splattered Ethezda’s robes, showering the hot sand as Alo tottered on wobbly legs. A few drops landed against Oran’s cheek and above his eye. One of them trickled down Oran’s face, toward his lip.
Oran’s teeth shook so hard they chattered.
“Cold, girl?” asked Ethezda, low and close in Oran’s ear. “The desert should warm you up.”
Twenty cubits away, a pair of goats bleated, tied to a scraggly tree. They strained against their bonds as Ethezda’s second laid down his censure and approached them with blade drawn.
It was like they knew what was coming.
Their bleating grew frantic as the Ashqen cupped one of them beneath the head and bent its neck back. They kicked and bucked.
It didn’t do any good, just like it hadn’t done any good for Oran to fight back. When the Ashqen slit the beast’s throat, its life ebbed and spurted like Alo’s, as though Alo had been a goat, an animal.
Had the ritual transformed them? Were Oran and Alo goats now, the same as Hazzan? Cousin Ista said Hazzan was in all horned things. She’d been terrified they were watching her.
Oran’s eyes widened as the dying goat thrashed, twisting its own neck so even more blood seeped down its white and brown belly. For a moment its slitted eyes met Oran’s.
If the horned things had been watching anyone, it hadn’t been Ista.
Maybe Oran had stared too deeply back. Maybe murder crouched in his heart like a hungry demon. It wouldn’t take much for it to raise itself, or so Ethezda had said. Sin’s desire was for him, and it was for him to rule over. Oran had not ruled his sin. Oran would be removed.
Ethezda was staring deeply into his eyes, snaring Oran, holding him. Would the demon take Ethezda instead? Would it be better if it did? Would Oran survive in the desert without a monster to guide him?
The heq-Ashqen dipped his fingers into Alo’s blood. He raised them to Oran’s face, drawing a red mark down Oran’s nose, and two more across his forehead. Sticky.
The air smelled of copper.
“And one marches out to the desert.” Ethezda spoke the words so only Oran heard. He reached for the cord that held him and unbound it slowly, carefully, so that the fraying rope could be returned to the village, treasured till the next time they used it.
Not so for Oran. This was the only value he’d ever held for Mithtaen.
Across the sand, Ethezda’s second released the surviving goat. When the rope fell loose the beast lumbered across the barren ground. Goats were fast, but in its panic it nearly tripped on the rocks.
Ethezda shoved Oran so hard he nearly fell, just like the animal. “Run, girl. There’s archers.”
He turned to look, but Ethezda kicked Oran’s legs. “Run.”
Oran reached for the gag and pulled it out. He turned, ready to scream, ready to tell all of Mithaen what Ethezda was, but—
If he wanted to catch the goat and live, he should run. Blood was like water on the sands; Oran’s father had taught him that.
Another thud against his back. Ethezda bent down and grabbed a stick. If Oran didn’t run, Ethezda would beat him.
Oran, it turned out, was one of those boys: the kind that had to be chased out.
His blistered toes pressed against the rocky sand, the balls of his feet lending strength to his sprint as Ethezda’s stick nicked his shoulder and he careered out into the wilderness.
He could still catch the goat if he tried. He could still see it in the distance. So far away, it seemed as though it were dancing, taunting him, possessed.
The child in Oran wanted to turn back, to catch his mother’s eye, but that part had to die if he were to survive.
Oran ran and ran without looking back. He ran until his feet bled, till his throat was dry as the desert they’d chased him into. He ran for hours until at last he fell upon a patch of bare rock.
The sun had dropped lower in the sky, but not so low his shoulders and forehead didn’t sweat. The goat was some distance away, standing still now, overcome by heat and exhaustion.
They’d die out here together.
Oran opened and closed his hand around the loose desert earth, letting it slip between his fingers, imagining every tiny grain and where it had come from and where it would go. When bodies were left to the desert, the desert welcomed them. How many of these grains had once been people? And now all they were was dust slipping through Oran’s fingers.
The rocks were so warm at Oran’s back.
The burning didn’t even hurt so much after a while. Eventually it turned comforting, like how it had felt when Deena had hugged him. It was as though the outer layers of his skin had melted away and all that remained of his body was melting into the earth.
Maybe Molot and Qalita would take him. If he lay here and slept, his under-soul would drift down to them. No god above would want him, so all of him must go below.
Oran couldn’t go below. If his mother didn’t want him, if Mithtaen had condemned him, what terrors would await him at Molot’s hand? What if Molot thought he’d killed Deena and punished him for it?
What if he had killed Deena?
Slowly, carefully, Oran lifted his heavy body from the welcoming embrace of the sand.
The goat watched him. It was far too far away now to catch. It must have run ahead while Oran had been resting.
As Oran stared, it marched slowly into the desert.
The air was growing cold and dark. He must have been lying there longer than he’d thought. He must have fallen into a death sleep.
Oran stumbled to his feet, every joint flaring with pain. He licked his tongue across his parched lips, wincing with each step as he followed the beast into deepening shadow.
He came upon it in twilight, a night and a day into his march across the desert.
It had maintained its distance for quite some time, but now it was only a few cubits away, perched atop a gently curved rock, its shadow a blotch of darkness cast across the stone’s grey surface.
Crouched on a lower rock, Oran eyed it, terrified that it would sense the intensity of his interest and startle.
The goat stretched its neck and lifted its head. The light of the coming night outlined its face as though Tanata above thought it the most beautiful thing in creation.
It was the most beautiful.
As it slunk from beneath the brightening stars, its holy face was replaced by matted fur, slouched back, and limping gait.
It was hurt.
Oran ought to strike it now. He ought to grab it now.
Oran rose up from his hiding place beneath the stone, reaching out trembling fingers and placing them silently on the surface ahead of him. There was no sign of a rock small enough to lift. He would have to use his hands, his teeth, his fingers.
Wrap them around its neck. Kill it, kill it—kill, kill, kill.
A sharp caw froze him mid-prowl and the goat began to bray.
Overhead, only a deep blue sky gazed down at him. But no—there was a bird, a great black shape barely visible in the dark. It was circling. A second vulture swooped from nowhere to join the dance. Then a third and a fourth, all calling to each other.
Oran huddled in shadow.
He saw vultures all the time around Mithtaen―pests that lingered above the village bone-pit, subsisting on waste. Could these be those same birds? The ones he’d thrown rocks at with Ista?
The goat cried, as though the birds had scared it. It tripped, falling on one of the large stones.
Stones like steps, stones like stairs. Only these stairs led down, not up to a roof. They led back to the sands, a trick like the desert itself. The desert was always playing tricks―in the waves of hot air, in the space between cities. Hunger and thirst peopled the divide with ghosts and the promise of food and water.
If Oran didn’t want to be a ghost too, he had to beat the goat’s brains on the rocks so the birds would know the kill was his, not theirs, his.
Mine, mine, mine.
Oran flicked his tongue along his lips, tensing.
He sprung from the spot behind the rock and the vultures scattered to the winds. The goat heaved its front legs, bucking its head as though to escape.
Oran fell on the beast.
His fingers dug into its fur, his hands throttling its skinny neck.
Oran was hearing things again. He clenched his teeth, feeling the blood rush to his head, his temple tight and pulsing.
Blood. Blood is water on the sands.
He was so thirsty, so hungry.
Oran slammed the boy’s head on the stone, splitting it so the water came out. He grinned when he saw that. He drew the goat’s head up again, strangling and hitting, breaking, cracking, killing. The sound of bone snapping was the sound of a river overflowing, the spasming of the body the thrill of life returning. Even now, with its brains spilled out on the ground, the goat threatened to gore him with its horns.
Can’t get me. Can’t get me. I am Hazzan of the sands. I am the desert wanderer. Demon of the waterless desert. God of the poison sun. I am, I am, I am!
Oran’s hands were slick with blood, blood like that on his forehead. Blood Ethezda had painted there.
The body wasn’t moving anymore.
He’d watched Ethezda kill Alo back at the village. This was a goat, it was an animal, it was the one sent out to Hazzan. Why did it have Alo’s face?
Oran scrambled back, hugging his legs, panting, his heartbeat as loud as a festival drum.
Goat or boy, Oran had to drink. If he didn’t drink he would die and the vultures would have him.
I’m a beast, a hunter, a lion.
He padded forward and bowed his head.
The air smelled of copper.
Oran licked the blood from the rock, but it wasn’t enough. Hands shaking, he shoved his fingers inside the huge crack he’d made in its skull. He pulled.
A portion of bloody bone broke free with a snap and slurp, blood pumping onto the rocks, turning them slippery. Oran gripped the smashed skull in his hands. Its brain was tender, and Oran was hungry. He bit into it, trying to chew at first, then drinking it down when it proved soft. He closed and opened his eyes, seeing a goat again, shaking as he tore the animal apart.
He was dying. Every time he licked his tongue over his lips his skin cracked, his tongue itself little more than a sackcloth rag that bristled over his lips. His mouth hung open, limp expression frozen to shape just like the tall canyon walls to either side of him.
The oncoming night gave no relief, bringing no moisture, only cold. He would die out here, like the goat had a few moons ago.
He called them moons now, not days. Days were for the village, the seasons, his life with Deena and Ista. Days meant change, and the desert suffered no change besides the indistinguishable shifting of the sands. So, moons.
It made him feel like a character in a fable. In fables, many moons would pass in place of days.
The only water he’d come upon had been buried beneath a dried riverbed. He’d had to dig and dig till a small pool bubbled to life, and even then it had been dirty.
The goat’s blood though? It had only seemed to make him thirstier, salty in his mouth.
Out here, his father had said, blood was precious as gold, fragile as glass, a gift as rare as the words themselves had been. Had his father been lying? Whatever the truth, Oran would hear no more words from his father. He’d never again make the race from his home in the centre of Mithtaen to clamber onto the village wall and wave at his approaching caravan.
What would his father think when Oran’s mother told him what she’d done?
What they all believed Oran had done.
Maybe he’d lead his caravan out into the desert to search for Oran’s bones.
Not that he’d ever find them. The waste was endless. It’d been rocky at the start, then flat. Yesterday—or what he thought was yesterday—he’d found himself wandering between the walls of the massive canyon.
Oran clutched the goatskin more tightly about his shoulders, eyelids heavy with lethargy.
At least the vultures were gone. The day he’d killed the goat they’d hovered overhead for hours, settling on rocks whenever he stopped to rest. He’d stolen their meal, and so they’d hoped to make a meal of him.
They shouldn’t have given up so easily. Oran wouldn’t last long.
Oran’s throat was tight and heavy, but he hadn’t cried since that first day. His father wouldn’t have cried; a real man wouldn’t cry. Now, of course, what tears he might have shed were long dried up anyway. He wanted to cry though, when he thought of the buzzards picking his bones clean. Of his body turning to dust all the way out here.
Wherever here was.
Everyone knew the stories. Somewhere in the deep Sajit lived the Sons of Hazzan, the Qarnaama. No one knew exactly where they lived―some said a golden city on a mountaintop, others spoke of a nomadic band of warriors who roamed the sands hunting for food and new recruits. A Qarnaaman had come to Mithtaen once, silent as still air, with long djataa and an even longer knife. Oran and the other children had watched him all day from the safety of the rooftops. They’d spied on him around the corners of buildings and from behind thin-trunked palms.
It had been another world, and Oran another person.
The path narrowed and Oran followed it in a stupor. He was vaguely aware that though it seemed logical, the road before him was arbitrary. The natural sense of direction and progress created by the strange, tall cliffs only gave the appearance of leading somewhere. Even the deception was better than wandering out toward the featureless dunes though, and the rock did provide some shelter from the wind.
Oran leaned against the side of the cliff, using it for support as he forced his callused feet to keep moving. He needed to sleep.
He could try and rest, just for a moment. It might be safe enough here. Maybe it wouldn’t be so cold. Maybe the canyon would protect him.
Oran’s heavy eyelids jolted open at the sound of thunder.
Thunder meant rain.
It could also mean flooding, and mud that might drown or slow him.
But it was impossible to keep himself from grinning. Eyes closed, Oran opened his mouth, hung his head back, and waited.
The rain was so close he could smell it. He could taste it.
He stuck his tongue out, then belatedly remembered the curved piece of skull he’d tucked at his belt. He fumbled for it, ready to collect what water he could.
Not thunder. It was the sound of rocks clacking together. Like someone had stepped on a stone and dislodged it.
Oran focused on the bend in the canyon path ahead of him. Here would be a perfect spot for an ambush. Someone might have been watching him. Tracking him.
“Who’s there?” His voice cracked from days without speaking.
A shadow slunk along the canyon wall. Its powerful shoulders rolled as it stalked the path on all fours, tail swishing.
Oran bent down, fumbling for a stone or a stick. His fingers scratched only hard, sunbaked soil. His goatskin slipped from his shoulders.
He was brave. He was strong. He was fast.
The lion would be braver, stronger, faster. And it wouldn’t be alone.
It came slowly, its footfalls heavy and tired, its head hung. Its mouth sagged open, tongue lolling between its teeth. It moved forward without looking at Oran at all, as though it didn’t see him. The way was narrow though, straightforward; the lion would see him soon enough, and when it did it would kill him.
Oran remained where he was. Running would only draw its attention.
Despite all odds, the lion was alone. At least, there was no sign of any others. Somehow it had wandered out here, lost its way, lost its pride, or perhaps been chased from the others by a rival male. The beast’s rheumy eyes gazed blindly into Oran’s own, its drooping snout trembling as it sniffed the air in front of it. Its dry lips peeled back, showing its teeth.
A blind lion was still a lord of beasts. Yet maybe Oran had something of a beast in him as well. Could the lion sense the demon in Oran? Did it fear him?
“Kill me,” Oran croaked. “Kill me. Kill me, kill me, kill me!”
The lion took a step back as though suddenly unsure.
“No! Do it!” Oran thumped his chest. “Kill me! Come back! Kill me!” He made a rush at it and the lion started to turn around, like it really was frightened. Like there really was something inside Oran that made even the king of the desert tremble.
Oran bent down and grabbed a handful of dirt and small stones. He launched them at the beast to draw it back. “Come back!”
One of Oran’s rocks glanced off the lion’s shoulder.
The beast reared and Oran fell back into the dust. Its claws left furrows in the earth as it prowled toward him.
This was what he’d wanted: flesh rent from bone, eyes pecked from skull by the birds. Oran had called the lion back and it had come.
The lion crept closer, lowering its raggedy neck. Oran’s bladder let go, what water was left to him leaking into the crusty ground.
The lion was so close he could smell its rotten breath, the stink of blood and old meat. Its claws scratched the rocks as it stared into his eyes. It flicked its tongue over its nose.
Fetid saliva splattered Oran’s cheek.
In the dark of the lion’s eyes, Oran could see the vultures he’d thought he’d outpaced swooping down.
One for the desert and one for the knife.
Oran closed his eyes. A cool breeze brushed his cheek. It would be over soon.
To Molot and Qalita. To Hazzan.
The lion roared and Oran’s ears began to ring.
Soon, Deena, soon.
Count to ten. Go to sleep. The words echoed in his father’s voice.
“One,” Oran whispered, and he felt a weight bear down on him, pinning his shoulder painfully against the ground.
He was trapped, helpless. He felt small again, like the boy he was and not the man he’d struggled to be.
There was a thrum, and a thud. The lion yowled.
The pressure on Oran’s shoulder increased, and he screamed, shoulder threatening to crack beneath the lion’s weight.
The beast pulled off.
Oran opened his eyes to the sight of the lion thrashing its head back and forth, an arrow buried in its neck. He wormed out from under it, dragging himself through the dirt, slicing holes in his filthy tunic.
Above Oran and the lion, high up on the ridge of the canyon, archers on horseback nocked more arrows, ready to rain another volley on the panicked animal.
Oran squinted into the dark. There were three riders at least, all dressed in black. One of the horses ran as its rider readied their weapon, and as its hooves pounded the ground it kicked up sand. The dust caught the light of the moon and stars so it looked like sparks followed them as they rode.
Oran knew what happened next. He’d rather have died, yet his body wouldn’t listen to his commands to throw himself in front of the arrows. It wouldn’t move except to squirm away from danger like a coward.
The lion heaved toward him, shaking its scraggly mane. Its teeth dripped blood. Its own blood.
And it thought Oran was the one who’d hurt it.
Oran drew his arm up in front of his face to protect himself.
Black shadows scrabbled down the sides of the canyon, trailing long rope tails behind them. They thudded onto the bottom of the ravine, mere paces from Oran. So close.
They were too slow, and it was too late, and Oran wouldn’t be a slave, wouldn’t be shamed, would die a warrior’s death with the lion’s jaws clamped about his throat.
The beast reached him, and Oran gripped the hardened earth to either side of him. He was ready now; he could see death and he welcomed it. He’d had his time, short as it had been. Molot’s voice was so sweet.
A shadow enveloped Oran, casting its net over him, blotting out the stars and sky above the lion. The shadow plunged a blade deep inside the lion’s throat, splitting it open, spilling blood onto Oran’s prone body. It slumped, heavy, and Oran scrambled out of the way.
“Ah.” Oran patted his throat, his face, wiping the blood from his skin, unable to stop staring at the beast bleeding out on the rocks, at the figure standing above it.
Oran was alive.
Deep red dripped from the killer’s blade as he wrenched it from the lion’s corpse.
The darkness multiplied, splitting into four more figures. They surrounded Oran, the lion, and the growing pool of blood that licked at Oran’s feet. One of the figures stepped toward him, extending a hand as though to lift Oran up.
Oran drew his lips back in a snarl, glaring into the slaver’s pale brown eyes.
“Looks as though there was a second lion,” the stranger said to his friends, his djataa slipping free from beneath his black hood.
“Don’t be afraid. My name’s Hiempsal eq-Afqad.”
Oran clasped the man’s hand, his child’s fingers swallowed in the larger grip. He was still too shocked to speak, but the Qarnaaman seemed to sense that.
He spoke for both of them. “We’re here to bring you home.”
Twenty-Five years later, Mithtaen was not how Oran remembered it.
The city wall that had towered over he and Deena as children was revealed as barely more than ten feet high, the many houses that made up the village in his memories, dreams, and nightmares little more than a patch of huts huddled in a sea of desert.
As he stood outside the village limits, lit by a clear yellow moon, the home he’d loved and loathed all these years crumbled to so much desert dust.
It would hardly be worth stopping, except—
A hunched figure doddered from the shadows surrounding the village gate. Oran regarded her silently, waiting to see if she would spot him.
There was no reason to frighten an old woman, and if he hesitated outside the village he couldn’t blame it on her. Oran’s own fear stopped him doing what he’d come for; it was as simple as that.
After all, it wasn’t only Mithtaen’s walls that towered larger than life in his heart.
Oran clucked loudly at his black mare—Nida—behind him. He made sure to scuffle his feet as he took Nida’s reins, and when that wasn’t enough to alert the old woman at the gate he waved, taking bold strides toward her.
The woman, who’d been leaning against a palm, straightened as much as she was able, creeping subtly closer to the gate.
“Who is that?” she called. “My son’s just gone inside. He’ll come if I call.”
A lie, and not a good one.
“I’m here for a stable and a bed,” Oran called back. He stopped some distance from her, though the moonlight was enough to illuminate her lined face, to spark recognition in him.
Oran wasn’t prepared for how it choked him. His feet moved forward without his consent. He waited for the moment when she would recognize him, but it didn’t come.
“A stable and a bed, is it?” she croaked. Something about his manner must have calmed her because she turned her back on him, crooking her finger in a beckon to follow. “I’ve a blanket and a floor. Three teqla and you can have that along with beer, bread, and onion. There’ll be soup in the morning for three more.”
Amilat’s soup. He could taste it on his tongue. Fava beans, oil, cumin, and lemon, all soaked up with flatbread. His stomach rumbled.
“I’ve no teqla to my name,” he admitted once she’d led him inside the village. He couldn’t help but stare at the short, squat buildings, all alike and all so plain compared with the vistas of the south. Before, they’d seemed like giants.
“Then what do you have to pay with?” asked Amilat. But she turned on him, smile reaching her eyes. “Your handsome face will do I suppose. There’s tea as well.” She stopped in front of her door, about to open it when her eyes widened in terror.
She’d recognized him.
Oran slunk back into shadow, ready to leave this place forever, but then she raised her finger, pointing at him.
“You’re a Qarnaaman.”
Oran glanced at his shoulder. One of his djataa had slipped free of his hood. He tucked it back into place. “I won’t need your home, Amilat. I’m here to speak with heq-Ashqen Ethezda.”
The worried expression didn’t leave her face, but her shoulders relaxed into a slouch. “Not to—” She didn’t have to speak the last two words.
So, Ethezda was alive.
Oran smirked. “He called me here.”
“The other side of town,” Amilat blurted, her hand on her door. Her eyes met his, something like recognition flickering across her face before vanishing. She didn’t remember him.
“Just so,” she said. It was obvious from the jittery look in her eyes and the way she shifted foot-to-foot that she was eager to excuse herself.
“You can leave,” he told her.
“Blessed Hazzan, thank you.” She spit the words breathlessly. The thud of the door closing punctuated her haste, shutting her away before Oran could reply.
For a moment, he smiled, but he couldn’t say whether from happiness or something darker. Maybe it was even a little bit of a lie, his smile.
Of all his thoughts, thatone was enough to make him abandon Amilat’s home and its promise of soup.
He had things to do. People yet to visit.
Mithtaen being the size it was, it didn’t take Oran long to reach Ethezda’s home. The temple was the same as it had been—a flat-roofed mudbrick building like all the others, but with hardened clay votives set into the lintel around the door. The empty eyes of the gods stared out at him. The hollows that once long ago, perhaps, had clenched gemstones, now haunted with an absence even more condemning. But what matter if they judged him? The sin Ethezda had saddled him with twenty-five years ago had flaked from him like a serpent’s shed skin. If anything he’d done had earned the gods’ wrath, it’d been leaving the sheltered world of Beyht Hazzan and his brethren. As far as he was concerned, the work he’d set himself tonight was enough to wash at least some of that stain clean.
Firelight beat at the temple’s curtain-shrouded windows like a captive desperate to break free and the tongues of fire Oran glimpsed past the ragged edges of the wool stretched like a girl’s reaching arms.
The sight should have made him shudder, but his years with Hiempsal had cured him of any softness.
Whatever this place had once meant to him, Oran was far from the boy who’d walked its streets, and if he’d been capable of leaving behind his life with the Qarnaama—with all that that choice had meant—severing his last ties with Mithtaen ought to be simple.
Oran stepped closer to the temple, feet as light as moonlight on the earth. There’d be no footprints come morning, and Amilat’s word the only witness that Oran had ever been here. The Qarnaama broke bread with darkness, and shadows bowed to shadows in the night, cloaking the Qarnaama in their skirts.
Inside the temple that was Ethezda’s home, a baby cried and a woman’s shade hurried past the curtain.
Softness Oran might now lack, but as the woman stepped out of view and Ethezda’s aged voice snagged against the quiet, his heartbeat quickened.
“Take it outside.” There was a creak and a snap as though Ethezda had thwacked a wooden table with a stick. “Have you no care for your husband’s sleep?”
Ethezda had married.
Well, that made no difference. From the cruelty in the heq-Ashqen’s voice, Oran would be doing his wife a favour.
No. It wasn’t Oran who granted her release. It was death.
When the Qarnaama left the great musty halls of the house of Hazzan, they left on cloven hooves. Whether Oran had escaped the Sons on pilgrimage or as an apostate, that truth remained constant.
He crept to the door, his desert robes blowing gently west in the breeze. Up close, the gods’ eyes were chiseled deep as wells. They looked on, unblinking as the mother of Ethezda’s unfortunate child hushed a lullaby. “Why wake you, why wake you? Wait for morn to wake you. How cry you, how cry you? When father’s dreams you break, you. Sleep won’t you, rest won’t you? Lest the Lilin take you.”
As she sang, it was Oran’s aunt’s voice he heard, cooing to his baby cousin. Oran had never needed to be told to know his own mother had sung no such words to him. It would have been a blessing for the Lilin to have come. One way or another, he supposed, they had.
“Shoo with you, woman!” cracked Ethezda.
The woman’s feet pattered to the door with a haste only the beaten know.
Oran stepped to the side just as it opened.
The woman was short and heavily pregnant, the child in her arms clearly unbalancing her as she did her best to delicately wobble onto the stone step outside and then onto the sand. She took up most of the narrow doorway, blocking out the firelight, but Oran spotted bunks lining the upper walls of the temple—beds for children Ethezda had not possessed when Oran had still called himself a child of Mithtaen.
In the darkness, with her son impairing her view, it took an instant for the woman to spy Oran in the shadows. When she did, a truncated “ah!” was all that slipped out. Her eyes widened briefly.
Behind her, the door banged thud thud against the wall in the breeze.
Wood creaked like Ethezda had stood up from his chair. “You’re letting the draft in again. Sometimes I think you want a beating.” Hunger edged his words.
“Oran.” The woman whispered his name.
Who was she to know him—
Ista. He stared, struck silent and still for a moment. He hadn’t recognized her. Her scrawny coltishness had given way to a grown woman’s round figure and her face was lined at the mouth from too many frowns.
Oran stepped away from her, letting his djataa slide from beneath his hood, over his shoulder. He owed her at least the honesty of what he was and what he’d come to make her: a widow.
Ista covered her mouth and fell at his knees in one swift motion. She clutched her child to her chest, eyes shut just as tightly as she held the boy. “Blessed Hazzan, pass this house by.” Her prayer seemed to erase her knowledge of him. Oran had been eclipsed by the Qarnaaman before her.
The Qarnaaman slipped past her, fire burning in his fists in a way it hadn’t been before he’d recognized his cousin.
Ethezda was just making it to the doorway when Oran stepped inside.
The heq-Ashqen had changed.
He’d been a young man when Oran had been given to the wilderness, but even with all Oran had imagined, it was hard to reconcile the reality. His hair that had hung long and black twenty-five years ago now sprouted in disparate clumps from his wrinkled, liver-spotted scalp, a swollen drunkard’s belly making his already bent figure appear unbalanced. His eyes though, were clear, settling on Oran with annoyance followed by swift recognition—not of who Oran was, but what.
Death come calling.
“Hello, Ethezda.” Oran held his chin up, sliding his robes to the side and revealing the curved blade strapped at his waist. This wasn’t a night for subtlety. Oran had no care whether Ethezda saw him or not—he’d rather Ethezda saw him. He wanted the wretch to be afraid.
“Who is it—who was it?” Ethezda scrambled backwards, his backside hitting the table, bump-arrumping against the wood and sending a cup rolling to the edge and onto the floor.
In the bunks that lined the back wall of the temple, children rolled over in their beds, blinking sleepily at Oran and at their father. Faces no doubt trained to sleep through even the loudest of interruptions stared in shock as Oran walked toward their father.
The fire’s heat warmed Oran’s face, glaring in his eyes.
Ethezda reached behind him, patting the table’s surface. His wide eyes narrowed as his fingers closed around a knife.
“Who sent you?” Ethezda grimaced, teeth clenched, barely disguising that he meant the question as a distraction. As though he believed a feeble old man could stab Death itself with a blunt knife and win.
But whether Ethezda meant the question in earnest or not, Oran had an answer. He’d had an answer to that very question for twenty-five years.
Oran sliced his weapon across Ethezda’s belly, shallow enough to hurt and deep enough to cut through to the soft guts beneath.
The children screamed before Ethezda uttered a sound.