Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Calm Before the Storm

Night in the desert was calm, a placid time when the temperatures dropped and the dangers of the day gave way to the dangers of the night. Hassid had been warned by some Bedouin traders not to take this rocky pass, for it contained “dreaded things”, but Hassid wanted to reach Mecca within the next few days and this route would take him through the mountains instead of around them. What choice did he have?

Pulling on his camel’s reigns, he came to a stopping point beneath a bluff, making the “tsk-tsk” noise he’d learned a while ago that would tell his camel to bed down for the night. As the great beast slid down onto its knees, Hassid went to the back of the saddle to retrieve the firewood he carried with him, as well as some of the dried dung he’d gathered from his camel. Creating a smokeless fire that stank of burning feces, Hassid pulled out his bedroll and unfurled it by the fire. The night air was chilly, and would only grow colder the longer the sun remained hidden.
For the first hour, Hassid merely stared off into the night, listening to the wolves of the region howl, and watching the scorpions skitter away from the open flame. He pulled his knife halfway through the hour and speared more than one scorpion, cooking it over the foul-smelling flames before eating the crunchy morsel. Leaving out crunchy legs and inedible tails, he was able to attract more that he periodically munched on throughout the night, allowing him a full belly by the time his eyes began to droop. Bedding down (after throwing the pile of venomous tails into the fire), Hassid pulled his wool blanket over himself and lost himself to the night.
It was still dark when he woke, though not of his own accord. His senses told him something was close. Sitting up slowly, he cursed beneath his breath at his fire; it was down to mere embers now, leaving a blanket of night swathed over the entire area. Fearing wolves, Hassid threw his blanket off and stood, pulling his sword, kicking at the embers of his fire to send sparks flying.
No baying or growls greeted him, only the dry creaks of a tree bending on a still night. Then he heard it.
Heavy footsteps, footsteps that belonged to something big and strong. Hassid rushed over to his camels side and fumbled for a lantern, lighting the wick within with trembling fingers. Slowly, the light from his lantern spread and cast an eerie glow over the area beneath the bluff; settled over his campfire, pushing the broken glowing logs back together was a creature that could have once been a man.
It had arms, black and long, with shiny, tar-like skin. It hunched over, its knees rising above its abdomen, which curled over to stooped shoulders. Most of the body was wrapped in faded linen and silk, a few tarnished silver bracelets and studs shining through in the on the arms, a series of long necklaces dangling from its crooked neck. It’s face was distorted, skull partially split, held together by funerary bindings. A golden scarab sat atop the creatures splintered brow, just below a pair of gleaming red eyes. It pulled its lips back in a sneer as it looked at Hassid, who could only stare at the strange creature before him.
“You seem confused, yes?” The creature asked in a wet and raspy tone, its words slow and methodical.
Hassid nodded slowly, bringing the lantern around to get a better look. The creature scuttled into the edges of the light, holding up long fingered hands over its face to block the light. “Please, kind stranger, stay where you are. I pose no threat. I was merely interested in the traveler who has come to my domain.”
“Your domain? Who are you to declare ownership of lands within the Ottoman Empire?” Hassid asked boldly, his free hand bringing his sword to bare.
“I am Ahmul, or at least I was. Now I claim these lands as my personal hunting grounds. The Bedouin used to use my hills and springs for their animals and as waystations, all expecting me to allow my precious water to be drank, my land to be stripped, without proper payment.”
“So you collected gold from the nomads?” Hassid asked greedily, thinking of what treasures this creature had that he could steal for himself.
Ahmul shook his head. “No, I have no use for gold, or incense or wine. At first I merely demanded a lamb or goat from each group per visit. And for a time we had an understanding. They would tie a rope around my payments neck and drive a stake around one of the trees near the waters… and I would claim it during the night.”
“So you came looking for payment? Well I have no intention of drinking from your water nor eating from your lands. I brought my own food and water for the trip to Mecca.”
“Mecca? So you are a follower of Allah then, yes?” Ahmul asked, looking slightly bemused with Hassid.
“I am indeed a proud son of Allah, are you saying you are not?” Hassid asked slowly, his sword arm twitching slightly.
“I pray every dusk and every dawn from the safety of my tomb. When I was alive we believed in different gods, the gods of the Pharaohs.” Ahmul explained, taking a few cautious steps around the remnants of the fire, eyes glowing in the darkness like twin coals set deep within his dark skull. “I was a priest then, to a god that has long since been forgotten.”
“So you are unclean? An abomination?” Hassid asked, wary of how casually this creature spoke of its own profane existence as if discussing the harvest.
“Obviously not, as Allah would have struck me down by now,” Ahmul replied, his thin lips quirking up into a smile. “Not that some haven’t tried.”
“What do you mean?” Hassid asked, looking down his nose at the stooped thing. “Stop speaking in riddles!”
Ahmul sprang forward like a spider emerging from its burrow, throwing powder atop the broken logs and embers that composed the campfire. It suddenly roared to life, casting deep shadows over the illuminated form of the monster before Hassid. It was nearly skeletal, with the bindings serving as living tissue for the creature to move and act with. Like some sort of insect, it crawled on all fours, wound tight enough to leap forward with nary a thought. The sharpened teeth that lined the jaw of the grim head of the creature gave Hassid little hope for what Ahmul desired, though Hassid was certain that he could bargain his way to freedom.
He was, after all, a merchant.
“So now you see me as I am… a creature of figment and shadow, cursed to roam these lands until I am too feeble to do so, until the grave calls to me.”
“You… you are indeed a monster, this is true. But what you said earlier, about the Bedouin… they must have betrayed you. They warned me against coming through this pass, saying dark things reside here.”
Ahmul nodded. “This is true. Perhaps a century ago, maybe more, a tribe had grown large enough that they would drain my waters dry should they take their fill. The elders met and asked if they could settle here. If I could leave.”
Ahmul threw his head back, one side creaking open from the splintered wound to reveal a dark slime settling within, and laughed. It was dry and hollow and made the wind blow even colder air than before, but Hassid stood firm.
“I slaughtered them all, sparing only the elderly and women. I dashed infants against rocks after prying them from their mother’s arms. I bathed in the blood of their men for a fortnight while I decided what to do with the survivors. By then a new tribe arrived, a much smaller one, looking for the hospitality they had grown to know. I hoisted upon them the childless women and the ragged elders and spat at them. Told them this was my pass, and that the toll was now a human life for anyone to enter, as well as a human life to leave.”
Hassid stared grimly at the chuckling creature, its burning coals staring back at him from across the fire.
“Two more died that day, and I have had few visitors since. Save for tonight, of course.”
“Of course,” Hassid replied simply. “But if I may ask one question?”
Ahmul looked a tad surprised at how calm Hassid was and, being intrigued, nodded his head.
“I am a merchant by trade and a merchant by blood. I go to Mecca in hopes of finding a place to sell my wares and to start a large family. What would you say if I could arrange for regular meals over the next fifty or so years?”
“I would say I am listening to a liar, a con or a traitor to his own people,” Ahmul replied silkily.
“No lies are told nor tricks conceived. Nor am I a traitor; I would simply send caravans through your pass and hire mercenaries to guard them. So long as you get your two men, the rest would leave unmolested, correct?”
“Correct…” Ahmul conceded.
“So instead of approaching as you did tonight, take them stealthily. And in time when I have daughters of my own that I wish to be married, I can ferret out the weaklings by sending them here to vanquish the beast that roams these hills.”
“You would do such a thing to your own people?” Ahmul asked, sounding slightly sickened at the thought.
“As for my payment for my safe passage, I will promise you this on my honor: when I have become an old man, I will travel out here alone on a donkey laden with silk carpets and pillows. I will call out your name and I will camp here as I have tonight. And when I go to sleep that night, I will know I have paid you in full for my passage.”
Ahmul lunged over the fire, landing on clattering bones as he grabbed Hassid by the arm, knocking the sword away. He lifted the small man up, and moved until their faces were practically touching. They stayed this way for a long time, Ahmul staring into Hassid’s eyes, judging his words and his promises. Finally, he relented and dropped him to the ground.
Ahmul turned and crawled off into the darkness, his voice a mere whisper as he stalked away.
“You do as you have promised merchant… if I do not start seeing your men coming through in three years’ time, I will leave my canyon and come looking for you. No place on earth will be safe, no mosque your sanctuary. Do as you have promised, and I will spare you this night.”
And with that Ahmul disappeared into the darkness as if he never existed at all. Hassid fought sleep for the next two days as he guided his camel through the pass, stopping at an oasis marked with a graveyard. Hassid could feel eyes watching him from the darkness of the cliffs the entire time, and chose to hasten his pace until he was clear of the pass.
Upon coming to the opening of the pass onto dry plains, he found several trunks of gold and silver, along with a note in a language he did not understand. Packing the treasures onto his camel, Hassid made his way to Mecca, a mere three day trek, to start his life anew.

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