Fleet Is the Sand, By Patricia Scott
Editor's Note: I've got some catching up to do on publishing (sometimes my own writing gets in the way of EC). Today, we have a mystical, touching story from Patricia Scott. It's not often we get stories set in the Middle East, so this delightful story is an intriguing change of pace.
As they grow, the boys of Mahdjikistan play a particular game found only in their culture. Once they are old enough to play away from the watchful eyes of their mothers, they go tumbling and brawling, as little boys everywhere are wont to do, to a corner where there is nothing to be found but sand. The older boys teach the younger the words to say and they practice, focusing their will as they chant. Eventually, sometimes only after days of trying, the boys will summon sand wraiths.
The sand wraiths look like nothing more than a tendril of grains writhing with the currents of the air, especially to the untrained eye. The boys of Mahdjikistan know better, though. These creatures, born of magic and the desert, know every thing that comes into contact with the dunes that surround the only city in all of the country. A pact was made, long ago, by the Mahdjikistani men. The sand wraiths would serve as guides and protectors for the men who summoned them and they, in turn, would be kept alive and thriving by the unshakable belief in them that the men carried. That promise, made so many years earlier had led to a towering reputation for the men of Mahdjikistan as infallible escorts for either trade or travel.
Anyone who practices magic would be able to assert that in order to give something form and strength, it must have a name. Once a boy has managed to summon his sand wraith, he promptly gives it a name, fostering the connection between them. With each successive summoning, the sand wraith grows more defined and lingers about its chosen boy longer. For many of the boys, the sand wraith is the closest thing to a pet that any of them will ever have.
And, so it was, that a boy named Hassim, born to a seller of books and a baker of flatbread, summoned the sand wraith that he named Fleet only three days after his sixth birthday. Upon that first time that it rose into the warm golden sunlight of the morning and twined curiously about Hassim's skinny ankles, Hassim named it Fleet, and thereafter, he was never seen without the swift eddy of sand at his heels. His parents gave no more thought to the presence of the sand wraith than any other parent of Mahdjikistan. It was simply part of their way of life.
Hassim was too little to understand what it meant when a tyrant seized power of the nation. When the dictator slaughtered all of the Mahdjikistani poets in the city square in front of his people, the little boy hid his face in his mother's robes and turned away, trembling. He tried to cover his ears against the blood-curdling sound of the emotional heart of their country being destroyed. Fleet never left its position at Hassim's toes.
Time passed and, little by little, the tyrant tore away the fabric of Mahdjikistani existence. The magics the people used every day as a matter of course were banned and those caught using them were put to death.
The men did not forget about their wraiths. Instead, they waited until they were out in the desert to summon them. Without the wraiths, however, the tyrant could seize no more money, for without the hiring of guides, no money would come into Mahdjikistan. He saw little threat in the creatures. They were, after all, common. The dictator himself had one that he had named Skirmish.
As with any tyrant, he made enemies, and he soon found himself in need of an army. Hassim was fifteen years old when his mother and father received the official summons to bring him to the armory near the palace and present him for military duty. His mother wept silently as she folded his clothes into a small cloth bundle and would only say, “It is all right. It must be. When they see him, they will see he is too small and much too young for their army.”
Hassim's father said nothing. When the day arrived when they were expected to report to the army, Hassim kissed his mother's cheek and tried not to be afraid when the hug she gave him crushed the air from his lungs. She was not allowed to accompany them to the headquarters of the army, and so, she stood and watched as her husband and her son walked down the streets, away from the house. His father's hand was heavy on Hassim's shoulder, the weight of it doubled by the weight of a father's love for his only child and trebled by the complete loss of hope.
As Hassim's father had feared, Hassim was ushered into the gates by imposing men in dark uniforms who informed him that upon delivery of his son he must leave. Later that night, in a crowded barracks that stank of sweat and fear, Hassim wept onto the hard tiles of the floor. It was the first time he had ever been away from his parents and the first time that Fleet did not come when summoned. Across the city, in a small house on a narrow street, Hassim's parents wept into each other as they feared for the life of their sweet, gentle boy.
Fleet tried for days to find a way into the army base to see the boy to whom it was tied. There was no entry, though Fleet nearly dashed itself to scattered grains against the heavily warded walls. Great pains had been taken to prevent the wraiths from accessing the men they looked after and many of the creatures languished in the shadows of the walls, waiting to hear the call of the ones who gave them form.
As battles erupted, the men were called forth to fight. Most of them were still little better than boys. At each opportunity, Hassim would immediately summon Fleet. The sand wraith was the only measure of comfort he had left. Attempting to see his parents would require Hassim to run away from the barracks and to do so would mean that his parents would die at the tyrant's hand. So, he made no plans, wanting, instead, to be able to think that his parents were still alive and still in the city.
It happened, from time to time, that on border patrols, soldiers would disappear. They were snatched by rebels, it was assumed. All that would be found was a pair of boots abandoned at the edge of the desert and a gun emptied of its clip and flung out of reach. Hassim was nearly nineteen years old when he was allowed to stand guard at the border. He had come to understand, over those brutal years of warfare, that if he wished to survive to his twentieth birthday, he would have to find a way out of the army.
He planned for months, storing away a few canteens he took as battle trophies and building a supply of food. The night before his escape, Hassim sat in the sand, his back against the brick wall. He summoned Fleet and explained in a hushed, fearful voice that as much as he wanted to, he could not take the sand wraith with him. Mahdjikistani men could never be lost in the desert through either treachery or disorientation because the sand wraiths left traces of magic along the path. That magic carried a signature unique to the wraith and the man bound to it and could be tracked for two weeks. Were Fleet to accompany him, they would be found quickly and Hassim and his parents would be publicly executed.
Two days later, in a small house, on a narrow street, in the only city in Mahdjikistan, a scuffed pair of black army boots were presented to a woman who took them without a word. Once the door was shut and the uniformed man was well away from her home, she cursed the tyrant soundly as had all of the other mothers who had lost children to his senseless greed. The boots themselves were placed carefully beside the door to wait, unclaimed, by a boy who would never come home. When Hassim's father came home and saw them, he dropped to his knees in the middle of the room and poured his shattered heart to the tiles in a burning stream of tears.
Hassim made his way across the desert, relying on nonexistent instincts and blind luck. Each day, when he stopped to rest in the heat, Fleet rose from the sands, unsummoned to keep watch over him. Without the spell to track, they would not be able to find the sand wraith or the boy. Hassim walked, finding his way into the neighboring country and sneaking onto a ship bound across the ocean. Fleet could not follow him onto the water and so it turned back, returning to Mahdjikistan and the small house on the narrow street.
The sand wraith took great comfort in knowing that Hassim was safe across an ocean on another continent, where the tyrant would likely never find him. As it watched Hassim's mother and father struggle to learn how to live without him, it longed to tell them that Hassim was not dead. It was unsure, however, if the knowledge that their son was still alive but unable to contact them at all would only be another cruelty to already broken hearts.
Fleet mourned his absence as much as they did. It longed for the confessions Hassim offered up under the stars when he had been young. They had chased each other in the waning light over dunes and down the streets, Hassim's laughter ringing against the stone walls. When the pain of loss became too great, a tendril of sand could be seen sliding under the door and winnowing across the floor, curling its way into the battered boots which still stood where the footsteps of a grown man should have echoed. The sand wraith would stay there, encased in the leather and cloth which no longer carried the familiar feel of the boy who had owned them, but remained the only physical reminder of the young man who was no longer fifteen. Years passed and the sand wraith waited, hoping for the miracle of Hassim's return.
It happened, one night, that Fleet felt a familiar tug at its senses. As the sand wraith roused, it recognized a familiar call it thought to never hear again. All it once, Fleet gathered itself and rushed out into the desert, speeding with all the power of its name to the border where a man who wore a familiar shape waited under the light of a full moon.
The sand wraith twined itself around thee ankles of the man who had finally returned home, smelling of deep and foreign magics and knowledge gained for the purpose of overturning an injustice. Hassim laughed with delight and explained that he needed Fleet to take him to the cave where the Djinn could be summoned, that he might enlist their aid against the tyrant still in power. Fleet agreed as easily and as readily as he always had to the boy asking him for a game of chase before bedtime.
“Then we will go, my oldest friend, but we will go in the morning, with the light of the sun upon us so that all will know that we do not act in fear and anger, but instead with bravery and utmost faith in our purpose,” he said, the smile on his face coloring his voice.
And so, bathed in the silver glow of the moon, the sand wraith and the boy whom it had waited for over so many years danced across the sands of their homeland.
Patricia Scott writes primarily fantasy works, though she also writes a bi-monthly column called "Geek Girl Navigating the World" at Boomtron.com. She rides a moped, collects dragons and books, and still has a day job.