To Wrestle with Demons
Hymn of the coming…
Upon his forehead is written “Perversion of the Way”
His name is the sound blood spilling
The wind obeys his words and the sands heed his call.
Woe to the mountain, woe to the stream, woe to the valley, woe to kings
He awoke to the familiar darkness of his room, his heart raced and the sleeping linens clung to his body. His breathing was shallow, his eyes moist from tears. The nightmare had returned and young Sanhadja once again felt helpless. His right hand unknowingly grasped the talisman about his neck. It was a simple leather pouch that housed a precious stone and the lock of his mother’s hair. That was his first and only gift she had given him. Slowly his training had begun to force calm upon the young prince. The words of his mentor blotted out the memory of the dream. Amongst his people dreams contained the secrets of one’s destiny. Quickly he jumped out of bed allowing his feet to touch the cold that permeated the costly rugs that lined the floor. The remnants of the dream fled as dawn approached. He crossed his room to stare out the window that overlooked the city of his ancestors. Though it was still dark, he could perceive the beginnings of life. Soon the streets would be filled with merchants and vendors baying meharis and the bustle of markets. He would miss his city but he told himself that the gods or fate would bring him back home.
There was a light rapt at the door. “Young master,” the voice called. “It’s time.” A smile crept over his face, a smile despite the sadness that overwhelmed him. “I will not cry again!” swore the princeling. “I have seen 13 moons. I am a man now.”
The Bedja warrior was in his usual position, patiently gazing out at the eastern horizon expectantly awaiting the return of Rhana Shamasha, that fiery queen whose golden chariot smote the slate grey morning gloom, sending jets of reds, violets, and okras across the scarred lands of Hadjanu.
Sanhadja had watched him make his simple vigil for the past seven years dispelling the fear and the darkness in his heart. The young prince took his mentor and bodyguard side as the bright queen ascended the sky. “This will be the last sunrise we share for a long time.”
The Bedja didn’t stir. “The same sun rises in Ophir as it does in Gath.” A pearly smile flashed across his stony features. “I shall miss you too, young master.” A heavily calloused hand rested on the princling’s shoulder sowing security and trust where there had been fear and doubt. Sanhadja had looked into the blood shot eyes and face with all its foreignness that he had grown accustomed to. I don’t have the strength. I am afraid. He screamed inwardly but outwardly he put on his best face. The Bedja chuckled as if he heard his thoughts.
“Tomorrow you go before the tribes and the people to show and prove your worth.”
“Baba, I am afraid.”
“I know. It takes courage to acknowledge your fears. Only the Bedja are born without fear.”
Sanhadja chuckled perceiving his mentor’s joke behind his stony visage, then quickly sobered.
“What is that you fear?”
“I hope not to dishonor you.”
“Nonsense, those that have eyes will see and the blind, let them continue to grope in the darkness. Do you know how I came to be in your father’s service?”
“Yes…well no. I’ve always assumed that it was during the wars.”
“I should say why”
“When I was watching after my flocks, I saw a star fall to the earth. Something within me compelled me to follow it. I left my flocks and set off across Syene. My sword was my only companion. Before the passing of my wife a dream from the Ancestors came to me saying that the son I seek would be found in the east, follow the star. So I followed and I found this pile of stones and a desperate king who needed fighters.”
“I too have dreams. Well, one dream. It’s terrible!”
“That’s destiny calling you, forcing you to awaken.” Sanhadja thought of the cavernous depths. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Misshapen figures brushed passed him causing his flesh to crawl. Even in the heat of the morning sun, he shivered in remembrance.
“You have destiny with the people, a great story that has already been written but is waiting to be shared. It takes great strength to walk the path the gods have chosen. Do you have that strength?”
Sanhadja looked into those two blood stained pits masquerading as eyes.
“Do I have the strength?” he thought to himself.
Sa Arqmani’s image flashed in his mind’s eye that sneer and pompous grin. The way he walked, like all should bow to him.
“I don’t know if I do, but I will find it.”
N’Keyah’s features softened and a smile that few have seen broke across his face distorting the tribal scares that ran down (marked?) his stoic countenance, the tears of Arjun, the fleet footed hunter of the Savannahs. He resembled the great cat with his long slim limbs and statuesque form. Many mistook it as frailty but the few that knew the Bedja would never lock arms with him.
“Enough of this soft talk that weakens ones bowels. Take up the sword and let us talk as men.”
Sanhadja took his wooden sword and parrying stick and assumed a guard position. The Bedja crept towards him poised to attack or defend at a moments notice. His eyes gleamed with an otherworldly light. Sanhadja soon forgot his nightmares and anxieties as N’Keya lunged at him. Clack! N’Keyah sword was turned by a quick motion of Sanhadja’s lamtu. Their matches always began as such. N’Keyah would attack slowly at first, a single target and then recover. Sanhadja knew that this leisure pace was doomed to fail and he would end up in the dust, in the courtyard of Sheidu the brave, the stony effigy of the hero smiling silently at his mishap.
“Not today.” he vowed.
“Today he work for the fall.”
Determination replaced apprehension. Clack! Clack!
N’Keyah probed high and low. Sanhadja lunged and thrusted. N’Keya danced to the side deftly deflecting the thrust using the momentum of the parry. Sanhadja turned and leapt at N’Keyah, slashing first with the lamtu followed by a downward thrust. Only luck and or instinct had saved him. N’Keyah took a step back sizing up the prince.
“He is awake now.” Sanhadja thought with an exhilaration that was to be short lived. He’d have to smash a ton of rocks before the day is over…
The city slept underneath the starlit sky. Leyuri, the crafty, dominated the black curtain of night, full and glorious a deep blue halo surrounded the silvery orb the stars, the children of the moon, winked and twinkled mischievously. Below in the sleeping city Vashti, heir apparent to the throne of Gath soon to be wife of Sa’arqmani crept around corners dodging from shadow to shadow careful not to be seen by the Nhamar regime that patrolled the area. Their leather kilts and distinctive leopard skinned capes marked them as King Eklon’s elect. But she had avoided them easy enough. Experience had taught her how to pass undetected. She felt that familiar thrill of defying traditions and sometimes, good sense. She had seven years to prepare for the inevitable; the day her father had agreed to the marriage had broken her heart. She was preparing herself to lead the nation as its queen. Like Rhana, daughter of the founder of Gath, she was hoping to usher in a golden age. That was the mother speaking, Tjenne, the Amazon war queen of Zazamum. She bestowed little in regards to looks, but that defiant spirit was meant to lead and not to be led was undeniably that of the war queen. Vashti had many youthful memories of going out amongst the people incognito with her mother to teach and share the cult of the war goddess Sanaa, to empower the women of Gath, to return to the days when men and women stood on balanced footing. Although the women of the west enjoyed more freedoms of the eastern counterparts, it seemed like the old ways were dying and new ones taking their place.
Tonight was her last night of freedom. She wanted to embrace the reckless danger. She wanted to feel alive as if she controlled her own destiny, but in the end she knew that no matter how high she might rise, as a royal wife her destiny would always be in the hands of men. That wrinkled her soul and tore at her being. It was that Amazon spirit that caused her to slip away in the darkness to find peace in the most dangerous part of the city, a place of solace amongst the restless souls of the Djan’hari quarters. Her eyes were alert as she scanned every corner and shadow. The Djan’hari were heroes who followed an obscure concept of honor. They were courageous yet given over to petty brawls. They sometimes rode out singly against whole armies…Disguised as a Djan’hari, she crept through the streets, her hand unconsciously strayed to the dagger hidden beneath her robes. She wore a man’s veil, like one that was desert born. She heard muted footsteps, but in the night the sounds seemed loud. Her heart beat faster as she dipped around mud-bricked dwellings. Her pursuant was quickly behind her. She could hear the scraping of his leather boots across the paved streets. Her mind searched for a covert, yet each shadow hid its own potential danger. Panting, the cruel gods, led her to a dead end. The footsteps slowed to a confident swagger. She could see the shadow lengthen with barely noticeable movement, she drew the dagger from its sheath before the stranger could relish in his victory. Pale steel darted towards his heart. The shadow sidestepped the thrust and quickly immobilized the princess. Oddly she did not struggle in his grasp. His beard tickled her ear as he bent to whisper, “What do we have here?” Her hand innocently brushed against his leg. His grasp wavered and she took advantage of the lapse by striking him in his groin with her palm and then quickly used a wrestler’s throw to uproot him. He landed with a thud, and Vashti quickly mounted him pressing the dagger against his throat. She stared into the eyes of her assailant and laughed. He returned her laughter and flipped her over to her back, removing her veil that hid her full lips that curled into a mischievous smile.
“This is no place for a princess!”
Sanhadja labored beneath the harsh Hadjuna sun, his naked back gleamed with sweat and grime his skin of burnished bronze covered youthful muscles hardened over the years with work, work unfitting the son of a king.
The hammer rose and fell with practiced precision, the rose colored stones split in a dozen pieces occasionally he would wipe the sweat from his face smearing red dust across his dark copper features.
It was slaves work, unbefitting his rank and station. A smile crept across his face as he recalled the first time he had protested his ‘training’ The Bedja responded with a quick swipe of his fighting stick followed by a string of curses in his native tongue. When the pain and the embarrassment had subsided Sanhadja remembered N’keyah’s words ‘a prince should taste his own sweat and know that the color of his blood is no different from the lowest slave.’ The lesson was simple but it carried him through the years of back breaking toil.
Sanhadja continued his work oblivious to the world around him, the Nah’ mher regiment occupied the training yard going over close quarter combat . Each man armed with wooden staves and leather shields they fought in threes their movements were dance-like rolling, dodging, slipping their fighting sticks were swung in graceful arcs. Sanhadja was hypnotized by the sound of stick colliding with shield the beating thereof spoke to his heart of hearts. When not training or smashing rocks he would watch them for hours imitating theirs movements when he was alone. Today he imagined he was one of them… in the thick of battle… surrounded not by men of flesh but elementals of stone and rock. His hammer rose and fell with more vigor each shattering his foe. He vowed to smash each and every stone automaton until he reached Sa’Arqmani. Lost in his surrounds the son of Tjenne shattered the stones dust stung his eyes and grime crunched in his mouth, yet he was lost to his day dream, fighting invisible beings. In his mind’s eye he was no longer in the Amahoggar but to in the south in the flinty lands of Sha’shani and the Tarenga. He chased his cousin to these forsaken lands with the intent on righting a wrong.
The hammer rose and fell…
Sweat drenched his body; the sounds of conflict echoing in the courtyard were reflected in his daydream only muted and dreamlike. Sa’Arqmani waited for him, he wore chain mail and a gilded helm wrapped in costly cloth from the Riverlands. He was a peacock of a man dressed in shimmering blues and greens. A malicious smile upon an innocent face. Sanhadja approached him slowly with his hammer poised to strike.
“Little ‘stone breaker’” He taunted
“Sa’Arqmani!” he shouted “Your time has come!”
‘HA HA HA! HOW DELICIOUS!”
“Give back the sword!”
Sa’Arqmani erupted in more laughter. Fury rested upon the son of Tjenne and he leapt at his cousin with murderous intent. The two youths flew at each other raining blows.
The hammer rose and fell…
From across the courtyard Sa’Arqmani and the member’s of his age-set saw the son of Tjenne swinging a hammer around like a mad man jumping and rolling around fighting an invisible enemy.
A sly smile crept over his face; the courtyard was empty save for Sanhadja and his invisisible battle.
“What’s he doing?’” Asked pox faced Akin’djanunwe
“Who knows,” Sa Arqmani shrugged “I will be glad when he is gone!”
“He’ll have plenty of rocks to smash when he is in the desert!”
The boys erupted in laughter. Sa’Arqmani began to cross the courtyard towards the unexpecting prince.
“Let’s have some fun… At his expense.”
Sa’Arqmani crept behind his cousin and leveled a merciless blow to Sanhadja’s back. There was a crack upon contact and the son of Tjenne yelped and fell to his knees. Sa’ Arqmani and his jackals laughter echoed in throughout the courtyard.
“I guess the Bedja didn’t tell you that the shadows might hit back!”
More Laughter ensued. Sanhadja rose to his feet hammer in hand eyes intent upon his cousin. His blood boiled from within. The memories came flooding back tears began to well in his eyes augmented by the sweat and grime.
“Look he is crying,”
“Better save your water!”
“Yeah I hear ya’ have to drink your piss out there!”
“Is that what the Bedja is teaching you…” Sa’arqmani turned to his companions who had surrounded Sanhadja, “Should we ever be attacked by boulders we’ll be sure to summon Sanhadja the ‘Stone Breaker’.”
Sanhadja came within striking distance of his cousin. Hand tightens around the shaft of the hammer. The sting of japes and beatings were fresh, but the greatest pain came from the betrayal… At one time the two were inseparable. The two princes locked eyes, Sa’Arqmani’s companions watched like jackals waiting to pounce. Sanhadja fought to maintain his calm ‘As impassive as a mountain and a face of stone…’ Those were N’Keyah’s words one day when they had gone climbing amongst the peaks of the Amahoggar. ‘The stone endures the gnawing wind… so must you endure with the determination of the mountain and a face of stone…’
Sanhadja forced his shivering body into the semblance of calm but deep down he was as a sleeping volcano waiting to erupt.
“Your time will come cousin,” adding emphasis upon the word “Tomorrow I will show you my worth.”
“You don’t have a chance”
“You are fortunate you did not enter. Instead I will be content to beat your pack of dogs!”
In unison the pack raised their sticks in the air to strike
“Wait!” Sa’Arqamani called “Why wait for tomorrow. Why not you and me right now?”
Sanhadja meet his eyes and saw the trap he had already lost too much face at the hands of his cousin but he knew that Sa’arqmani’s dog would never let them fight on equal footing.
“No cousin only steel will solve the problem between us,” Sanhadja paused “You will answer to me when you have reached manhood… which I doubt will happen anytime soon!” Sanhadja shouldered his way through knocking down Sa’Arqmani as he passed.
“Get Him!” Roared the fallen prince. Instantaneously Sa’Arqamani’s jackals leaped and pounced, Sanhadja slipped and dodged avoiding the grasping hands and answering them with punches, kicks and headbutts, He managed to avoid them at first but soon their numbers prevailed.
“Stand him up!” Sa Arqmani snapped.
Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth and dust caked his body. A devilish grin flashed across Sa’ Arqmani’s face. His face so innocent to see it marred by such malicious intent.
“Look brothers the son of a king! Watch him bow before me.”
Sanhadja struggled against those restraining arms, grunting and jerking to break free. This was not the first time he had suffered at hands of the older boys. The memory gave strength to his limbs and he tore free his arm and struck his cousin across the face. Before he could completely free himself a rain blows pelted him to the ground. The older boys lifted him to his feet. His head sagged and his legs wobbled. He barely felt Sa’ Arqmani’s revenge, instead his mind drifted to another place… a place of peace.
He was in the gardens of Tuhanath Amun watching multicolored sands cascading forming endless shapes that defied the imagination. Sometimes he saw the future in those sand sometimes it was the past or the yet to be. Vashti was with him, his head in her lap as she plaited his hair. It was the day their fates were revealed to them. The day their lives changed. Inside those mystical caverns the scent of incense was omnipresent as was the ceaseless chant of pilgrim and supplicants. The cavern walls were decorated with the slashing stroke of the Djinnic script/tongue a testament to a lost civilization. Long ago the Djinn had destroyed themselves in a pointless war. All that was left was a few ruins scattered throughout the desert.
The young prince rested on his sister’s lap angry and saddened at the prospect of leaving her. Vashti brushed and twisted his hair in silence, her thoughts a million miles off.
“Vashti?” He called breaking the silence between them.
“I hate father.”
“Shshsh, Sanjee. You must not say that.”
“Why does he hate me?” He sat up staring into her eyes. Though he had seen twelve moons and it was unseemly for a man to shed tears his eyes welled up at the question. Vashti quickly embraced him so that he could cry without being shamed.
“He doesn’t hate you.” She lied. On many occasions she had seen the loathing glare, the sadness yet there was some love but at a distance. She had heard the whispers and innuendo. She knew the king blamed him for the death of his beloved wife. There were questions whether or not if Sanhadja had a natural father.
“No matter she thought to herself we share the same mother. Even his name bore the curse of his destiny, Immersed in blood’ an appropriate name for a veteran of thousand campaigns but for an infant unfortunate enough to cause the death of its mother was a heavy burden to bare.
“He doesn’t hate you Sanjee,” She said half way to herself.
“Then why is he sending me away?”
“Because you remind him of what he loved most!” She had wanted to say but instead she chose a half lie.
“You are too young to understand!”
“Am not!” He responded to her challenge breaking out of her embrace.
“Father wishes to strengthen our friendship with the Midyaan. They are a powerful tribe and they protect our western and northern borders from the Teda, Bedja and Mehenai. He wants you to become a great warrior… perhaps you may even marry one of Hamid’khar’s daughters.”
“Ehhh!” He responded in disgust.
Vashti chuckled at his discomfort and resumed braiding his hair.
As he begun to fade into sleep the sibilant hissing of the moving sands sang a whispering song.
He had heard it before in countless dreams. The meaning escaped his understanding but deep down he felt as if he already understood its meaning.
The prince slept.
“Stop! Stop it!”
The voice sounded familiar. There was an urgency that bided warning.
“What are you doing!”
Sanhadja opened his eyes. There was a painful flash of light and then the world came flooding back to him. His body ached, warm blood trickled down his face.
Sa ‘Arqmani he thought to himself.
“Calm down sweet cousin” Sa’ Arqmani smiled, “We were only having some fun. A little battle drill before tomorrow.”
“Don’t play me for a fool!” Vashti growled, “I would expect more from one who would sit upon the throne of Gath as king and my husband!”
“This does not concern you wife,” He snapped “Why don’t you go play around with your peasants… like mother like daughter.” He laughed.
Vashti slapped him across the face and turned to face the other boys who had sought to pounce but thought better of it.
“Move if you dare!” She challenged “Put him down you mange ridden dogs!”
They released him instantly her tone was irresistible… It was not the princess that spoke but the spear maiden the daughter or Tjenne.
Rushing to Sanhadja’s side and helping him up She turned to face her future husband. Staring directly into his eyes
“I swear Sa’ Arqmani if you touch my brother again or publicly humiliate me again I will kill with my own hands.”
Her husband to be smiled.
“So be it wife”
They parted like two wild beast after establishing their territory.
“It is the way of things!” Declared Jukun Arna of Thousand which amongst the Agadah is to say general. “The people call for war!”
“Do they?” Eklon challenged as he erupted in a fit of coughing.
A tawny skinned Mehenai bondsman brought him an earthen mug of warm tea. Twelve of the most powerful men in the kingdom of watched as the embodiment of their nation’s power/strength wheezed and hacked like a man twice his age. The king’s health was slowly deteriorating and there were whispers of ________ (Ritualized Regicide).
Feeling their eyes piercing his flesh, King Eklon sat more upright assuming a shadow of his former self. He looked from face to face and saw no enemies but friends and comrades from the very beginning. The thought that these men sought his life sent a chill down his spine but it was the ritual and the tradition. ‘If a king cannot sit a horse nor raise a spear then he is no king’ went the Book of Kingship.
Eklon peered into the eyes of each man measuring and looking for answers. To his right sat Wa Senna Arna of the Na’Mher Fadawu king Eklon’s elite Panther warriors, next to Semna was Jukun, Arna of thousand General of the Ngari Regiment the ‘young bulls’ , (List and describe the twelve most powerful men in the kingdom)
“Sorry to trouble you, Mi’Lord” Arna Jukun sheepishly added.
“Rest assured, general that even though my sword arm is not what it used to be, my mind is still sharp and my blood is Agadah and as red as yours or anyone elses!”
“It is not a question of blood, Kosi” This time it was prime minister Mbanda who spoke, “But of resolve!”
There were a few murmurs of agreement here and there that were quickly silenced. They all knew that the king had grown frail but he still commanded the respect of _______ and that meant the Nar’Mer Fadawu remained loyal to house of Amazadi.
‘We feel that you have lost the will to fight after the death of Tjenne.”
King Eklon stood up so quickly that there was a shocked gasp as the general’s drew away from his wrath.
“Don’t ever speak of my queen on familiar terms.
“My lord,” Mbanda fell to his knees, “forgive me. I meant no disrespect!”
“I know Mbanda, that is why you still draw breath.”
King Eklon eyed the assembly these were men who had fought with. Men who had raised him up as king in a time of darkness. He didn’t feel his body shaking. His men watched some with sadness and concern but others hid daggers behind their smiles… and their smiles carried poison.
KIng Eklon labored to his stool. He had made a point of meeting with his most trusted advisors in a circle of stools as opposed to the throne room. Perhaps that was one of the many mistakes he had made over the years.
“Rise Mbanda,” The wizier rose “It is unseemly that the prime minister of Gath should be writhing on the ground like a serpent in the sand.”
The assembly erupted in laughter.
“Gentlemen, “ the king sounded weary and frail and exhausted.
“War is not merely the old men talking and young men dying,”
“We do not send our young away to fight for the sake of fighting.”
“My lord we fight for glory and honor.”
“Sigiti, don’t be naïve!” King Eklon rebuked “That’s what the Grandfather’s told us in order to instill the ardour for battle.”
“Our wars must be fought with more intelligence and foresight.”
“Begging your pardon, Kosi” Sigeti said” You sound like one of those riverain scholars.”
Eklon smiled grasciously at the sporatic laughter.
“That may be so friend but I can still out ride you … and thanks be to Apedmaki that my sword isn’t as it was… or poor Jukun would be without his head!”
A hearty guffaw filled the hall and Arna Jukun bowed his his head in feigned insult.
“Gentlemen we are at a crossroad… the future of our nation is at stake… We are surrounded by enemies… cut off from all major trade routes… the treaty of Amazadi is all but ignored… Let us face it our power has waned!”
“The king speaks the truth. There is no way that we could stand against Matregh and the River-lands. We are trapped between the hammer and the anvil.”
Eklon pointed to the large map in front of them.
“Note my friends we are an island unto ourselves. Surrounded by enemies or at least potential enemies…” A madness suddenly crept into the eyes of the king.
“There will be wars to come that will make our greatest moments seem like a boyhood cattle raid.”
A menacing silence hung over the cavernous hall.
“Lord, do you speak of the Cherem and the coming of the one of the Rasheb?”
A hundred curses littered the air at the mention of the name… brave men who had seen the horrors of war made protective hands in order to ward off evil spirits.
“I know not priest Tawaye.” The wizened old man shifted in his stool.
“I only know that our nation is in trouble.”
“And forced peace was your way of preparing us for this eventuality?”
“We should attack Matregh without pause… or the River-lands! I for one would rather die a warrior standing than living like an old woman counting her days!”
“And that is why you will never lead anything more than what you have.”
“We need rest from the sword… and we definitely don’t need to waste our energy killing ourselves with mindless blood feuds… That is why I will declare a ten year cessation of all blood feuds.
“Nasi,” MBanda interjected ‘ You can not!’
“You would lose the favor of our warriors. The men already whisper… This would only make them shout!”
“And tell me, what would they shout! I am their king! Which is more deadly the sword or the hand that will wields the sword?”
The question hung in the air yet none dared take up its cause. King Eklon knew the fact that he could not bare arms was the first thing in their minds, but none had the courage to dare it. He eyed each man looking for a weakness as if he could peer into their souls and divine their intention.
“One of you wants my throne and my life…” He thought to himself “ If it weren’t for Vashti, you could have it. I never wanted this! I would trade a million kingdoms to sit on the side of my beloved Tjenne…”
The king’s eyes fixed upon Tawaye the priest “ …and if it were not for the mind and the wit of the swordmen the sword would be nothing but an object, an heir loom that collects dust but does not live to its full potential. I know that my body has failed my and that there are many who honor tradition and would see me commit ______.”
With that a few members sought to interrupted but the frail hand of the king brought them to silence.
“Any king that cannot sit a horse is unfit to sit the Ivory Throne, but I remind you gentlemen I am the mind that guides the sword! There is still strength in this body and I will not see the line of Amazadi broken!”
“You made me king! I perfectly content to wander the lands living by sword and wits but you choose me. You choose me to kept the line of Amazadi alive.”
Beads of sweat collected on his brow his body felt both cold and hot as if the two extremes battled for which would torture him.
“There will be no more blood feuds!”
“Perhaps Nasi, we could reach a compromise…”
“To take away the right to challenge strikes at the heart of our being. These are the precepts set down even before the time of Amazadi. They supercede even the word of the king.”
“Yes, yes every man a king of his house”
“I do not presume to teach the laws of our Ancestors to the king but our rituals were created in order to keep us strong and sharp.”
“Yes Jukun but sharpen a blade too much and soon you have no blade. “
“My lord we could restrict the right to challenge to nonlethal forms where as more serious offenses could be arbitrated by the Shoftim.”
Eklon chuckled “there is hope for you yet, Jukun”
Respectful laughter filled the air.
Focusing his attention back on the map staring at the blue lines representing the river Tirhas and its tributaries the line dotted with the names of several major independent city states that dotted the river. To the east of the riverlands were the craggy mountains of the Amahoggar jeweled Matregh lay nestle in the titan’s bosom. To the south west lay the Syene land of the swaying grasses home to the Bedja warlords and the Teda city states. Across the river lay the open desert the only buffer between Gath and the Mehenai kingdom.
“We must have a presence on the river,” King Eklon broke the silence “we must have access to those trading routes”
“We must control the river and the surrounding areas and Matregh must be humbled if need be.”
“How to propose we do that?”
“Takrur is an Amazon protectorate I do not suspect that they would be willing to part with their lands.”
“The Amazons only nominally control the city. They come yearly for tribute.”
“Takrur was bequeathed to Vashti by her aunt who sits as Dyana Huntress Queen… The stipulation is that Vashti undergo the rites of Sanaa”
“My lord what of her marriage to Prince Sa’Arqmani?”
“The marriage will come in due time. I have accepted the council’s petition for the two wed but Prince Sa’Arqmani has yet to undergo the rite of ascension… He has yet to demonstrate he is worthy of kingship.”
“The prince will be sent to Serq with the sole purpose of building our cavalry wing. I want a legion of Rukure by the third year.”
“A little hard work would do the Prince well and increasing or air cavalry would put us on equal footing with Matregh.”
“In three years I will place Gath on the road to becoming the dominate force in the west! Should the Mehenai rise up we will be prepared to meet their challenge.
First Sword of Gath
The City of Kuseila was alive with the bustling travelers, merchants, soldiers, priest, and pilgrims came to attend the thirteenth name day of Prince Sanhadja. Apart from the sword tourney and other athletic events King Eklon had declare the day a day of rest from the soil. Young men had been preparing for months to enter the various competitions. There would races, archery bouts, spear throwing, weregel, and the sword tourney. The prospect of winning fame, glory, and the King’s gold had drawn warriors from as far as Mehenai and the Syene. There could could even be seen a few eastern yahoos looking for adventure in the harsh western lands.
Sanhadja awoke early that morning his body still aching from his altercation with Sa’Armani and his jackals. Butterflies swarmed in his stomach and his hand quivered at the thought but soon he felt he would have a chance to settle the score with his cousin. Both were uninitiated so they would fight in youth sword fight which would be held at midday in the evening the fasa and weregel would begin and the following morning Sanhadja would have to leave the place he had called home. The mystery of the desert allured him yet he understood that life and death happened in the blinking of the eye, and he had no intentions of dying in the sands yet that was worlds away. Today he must face his tormentors today he must face his demons.
The drums beat thunderous rthymns accompanied by the chants of young women. Their songs spoke of the heroic deeds of the past on the days were would ride out to his doom at the whim of his woman or the call of honor.
Sanhadja felt loose and ready despite the ache of his body. He spied pock face _______ smiling his hooded eyes which turned his face into a sinister mask. Sanhadja continued to stretch his muscles out as N’keyah had taught. The many lessons came flooding back to his mind. His teacher had been brutal but he had taught his body and mind to be flexible.
“Flexible like the spear of the ______ like the enduring grasses of the Syene”
Sanhadja stood in a circle of twenty youths some were each would competing against the other. In the great amphitheatre the great drums sounded followed by the blaring roar of the conch shell.
Silence reigned and the Caller addressed the throngs of people.
“It was four hundred years ago that Amazadi brought freedom to the people of Gath, he built this coliseum to honor the bravery of his people!”
The crowd roared and shouted “By mine hand and thine!”
Those ancient words sent a tremor down Sanhadja’s spine that caused him to shiver as if his skin was kissed by a cold wind.
“Today we are here to celebrate the line of Amazadi. Today marks the thirteenth name day of prince Sanhadja son of Tjenne. Today he will fight with sword and prove his worth to his people!”
“By my hand and thine!” The crowd responded.
Watching the spectacle from above king Eklon lounged on cushioned pillows and rugs underneath a silk pavilion that thwart the sun’s rays yet capture the wind’s bounty. A detachment of the Nahmer Faduwa took up positions in key areas. With in the pavilion also sat Vashti, Sa’arqmani, Jukun and three veiled figures.
“Arna Hamid’khar,” King Eklon spoke “Thank you for honoring my tent with your presence.”
The Midyaan chieftain eyed the King of Gath with cautious eyes his face partially concealed by the indigo veils the Midyaan chieftains favored.
“It is a pleasure to share shade with you King of the Stone Dwellers.”
There was a subtle tension that passed through Eklon’s body. The people of the desert looked down on city dweller whom they called disparingly refered to as Hamuri.
“No offense, you have a great city but you rely too much upon the safety of rock… The only walls in the Ohal are the spears of her warriors.”
King Eklon sipped more of his honeyed tea hoping that he would not erupt into a fit coughing in front of the Midyaan chieftain. The honeyed wine had brought back some vitality to the king but it caused him to over sleep.
“You speak truth Arna Hamid’khar,” Vashti spoke “But what are stout walls without brave men to guard them. We have spears as well… Kuseila has never been taken by force.”
The Midyaan chieftain dipped his head in respect.
“Forgive me little queen I meant no disrespect our ways are different.”
“None taken Arna but we must learn to respect each other differences if we are going to work together.”
Sa’Arqmani sat silently but he watched the Midyaan intently.
The conch shell in the arena below sounded bringing the audience to silence.
King Eklon ignored to words of the caller
“What news of the west?”
“The desert has not changed in a thousand years. We war with the Lamthi and the Teda. The River chiefs pay us not to attack their caravans.”
“ Hamid’khar I would speak to you concerning an alliance between our two peoples. Something that would be mutually beneficial.”
The chieftain stared back “What would Hamuri have that the we would want?”
“The plunder of a thousand nations! What would you have, gold, weapons, slaves to till the earth while you rode upon the sands. I will make first amongst the nations!”
“Stone King speaks of plundering the nations yet he has never come down from his mountain! Careful that your shadow does not find the sun less it be devoured by its light.”
“There will come a time when the giant of Gath will rouse itself from its slumber. As you know we are surrouinded by enemies even as you are. Let us stand together against the tide. I offer you my son to bind our peoples and I take one hundred of your warriors and train them in the war of kingdoms as they will train us in the war of stealth. Together we can meet our enemies!”
The chieftain appeared unmoved by King Eklon’s speech his eyes drifted to the action below in the arena.
“Is that he him?”
‘Indeed, great Arna”
“There is some promise there,” He looked up at Eklon “The desert is no place for the weak. It will devour the soft.”
“The Arna speaks the truth. That is why the prince must go with you so you may teach him the first law so that he may walk more closely with the Ancestors.”
“There is war in my land; although I do not fear the Stone King and his shadow I will not have the boy’s blood on my hands.”
“There will soon be war in my lands… Is that not the first law of the Agadeh?”
“My hands shall forever know war… There will be no rest from the sword.”
Hamid’khar intoned solemnly.
“I will take the lad with me and teach him the ways of the mother sands and I will offer you hundred young volunteers that will serve as scouts and escorts for your caravans.”
“And what of the North lands?”
“The Midyaan shall be your shield”
“And how should I reward you and your people?”
“You spoke of weapons and livestock.”
“It shall be done…”
For three weeks they rode through the country of the Midyaan patrolling waterholes, hunting Oryx and escorting or extorting caravans throughout the craggy wastelands of Hajunna. This was the life of an Arna or chieftain, constantly in the saddle. Your bladed well oiled your hand on the pommel as you patrolled your grazing lands insuring that none trespass.
Sanhadja rode with the ____________ the 70 companions, loyal subchiefs chosen by sword to ride as Hamid’khars bodyguards. It was a great honor to ride with such men. They controlled their meharis with such ease and grace whilst the prince of Gath slipped and struggled to remain mounted. His constant falling slowed the column and although no man said a word he felt that Hamid’khar prolonged their stay in the wilderness so that he might give him a chance gain some mastery over the beast and not shame himself in the presence of his people.
Sanhadja sat rigidly upon the mehari’s back awkwardly imitating the grace and composure of the men he rode with. The 70 companions sat easily upon their mounts each man desert born raised on the mehari’s back since before they could crawl. Sanhadja felt no shame at not being able to ride the beast only challenged. The first week of the journey back to Midyaan country was slow and grueling punctuated by the laughs and guffaws as Sanhadja fell repeatedly from the horned pommel. At night his body ached from the ride. As he sat by campfire listening to the casual conversations some of the men would give pointers or crack a joke at his expense.
Lord Hamid’khar sat in silence his eyes staring far off as if he was reliving some other day. Sanhadja found himself staring at the Chieftain as shadows danced across his dark features.
“There are many things a man must learn in order to live with Mother desert and her people.”
Hamid’khar refered to Aberewa mother of the waste land condemned to wander the deserts for defying the Sky Father Aramfe.
“I am ready to learn Baba.”
Sanhadja looked puzzled.
“Amongst the Mahal, ‘People of the tent’” He quickly translated to himself “ A man who cannot mount a mehari and maintain his herd is no man at all.”
“That’s silly.” Sanhadja thought. “To judge a man by that measure.”
The prince of Gath felt agreat anger well in his being. He wanted to show them that a ‘Hamuri’ could mount a mehari just as easily as an Mahal.
“Perhaps you think this silly.”
“Well with all due respect maybe a little harsh.”
“The desert is a harsh teacher, If you do not learn its lessons and keep its mysteries death will be your only inheritance.”
“Do you understand young prince?”
Hamid’khar cut a piece of the desert hare that had been roasting on the spit and handed it to Sanhadja.
The next morning Sanhadja awoke before dawn and prepared himself for the day’s ordeal. He offered prayers to Aberewa Lady of the Desert the Hatifa Siren of the Sands Queen of the voice. He felt a calm steal upon him. There was n o treachery out here one could see for miles unlike the intricate schemes at work at Kuseila. Death was ever present yet so was life and the life that persisted in this wretched wasteland clung to it with a tenacity he had seldom seen. He began to understand the strength of the Mahal. And when he mounted his mehari he did so with a calmness. He still fell but he fell less and rose quicker. After two weeks of hard riding he could stay mounted but he still lacked the relaxed finesse of the Midyaan.
To offer encouragement the men would ride up in heavily accented Naphtali
“No too bad for Hamuri!” They would clap his shoulders and ride off laughing. A few of the men even wagered on how often he would fall but after two weeks the son of Tjenne no longer fell.
Hamid’khar and his seventy stood in shocked silence but Sanhadja the dea animals were of no consequence but to the Midyaan the death of so many animals so close to a waterhole could mean only one thing.
The sweet acrid smell of death hung over the oasis.
The mehari grunted nervously aware of the looming death.
“this place is cursed!” A young warro stated as he drew his veil tighter around his mouth.
“Take heart, young _______, these djinn leave tracks and travel northwest!”
“No” Hamid’khar repliead “Not even Yugartha would stoop so low as to poison a well.”
“No this hatred goes deeper”
Hamid’khar nodded slightly his eyes far away blazing like twin suns.
“_______________, It is but a days ride to the _______________ encampment. Take half the men there then send out patrols.”
“At once, Arna!”
The departing riders took one last draught from their waterskins then handed themover to their comrades.
“Lord Hamid;khar” Sanhadja ventured “ Am I to stay by your side?”
The Arna meet his eyes, “what would the prince of Gath prefer?”
“To remain by your side and bring your enemies to justice.”
“have you seen death before?’
“soon you will.” Hamid’khar smiled “ _________________ inform the camp to make ready for our return… for we will return witgh the prince of Gath and the spoils of war.”
The men whooped before riding off. _________ roared in laughter and clapped the Hamuri princeling on the shoulder and rode off kicking up dust as he rode.