Across The Arid Seas: A New Short Fiction
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I always thought venturing further into desert culture and the life of the nomadic tribes would be interesting. Here’s a piece of short fiction that looks into that life from the perspective of an outsider. My editor says this reads like a prologue to a novel she would enjoy sitting down to read for hours rather than just a short story so I’m going to let you call it what you will.
All short stories, deleted scenes, and unofficial extended content is added to The Library portion of this website as I post them. I hope you enjoy everything that is available!
Across The Arid Seas by Terah Edun
She looked up at the sun and she smiled. It was blazing hot and unrelenting. No different than every other day in this desert that she now called home.
It hadn’t been that long ago that home was lush valleys and apple orchards.
Here and there were as different as night and day. The only thing that hadn’t changed was she, and even that claim was only limited to below the surface thoughts and ideals and dreams. Because outwardly she was as different as a caterpillar was from its newest incarnation—the butterfly. There was no other way to explain precisely how invigorated she felt. Reborn even. Gone was the staid woman who had chafed at the rules and restrictions of her society.
Instead here stood the butterfly that had spread its wings and taken flight towards its own destiny. That feeling of freedom was almost unreal. What was very real however was her clearly physical transformation from a girl who wore cloaks and fur-lined gloves half the year to ward off the sting of winter’s bitter grip, to a woman who donned light and airy linens that fluttered with the movements of the wind and made her feel as if she could fly from there to the farthest reaches of the earth. Almost.
Amazing how a change of clothes and a fresh atmosphere could make a person renew their very outlook, she thought with a self-satisfied smile as her fingers played with the pale peach linen fabric at her waist.
Her gaze took in the still-alien land around her. She hadn’t been here long enough to recognize one massive outcropping from another, let alone navigate too far from her home base, which was just as well. Most denizens of Algardis tended to avoid this part of the empire and with good reason. It could be deadly. It was nothing at all like the majority of the inhabited lands of the empire. She knew this first hand from having grown up on the other side of Algardis; the side of the empire that had lush blue forests, verdant valleys of orange and yellow flowers, rolling plains that seemed endless in their expanse, and rivers that swelled like a mighty ocean before softening with wistful laps on the banks of open lakes.
The side that had more people than you could shake a stick at.
The side that had been home. For the longest time. Home of wet and mist. Of fertile lands and dark, loamy forests.
No more. This was home now. It had shocked her to learn as she’d become accustomed to this new desert life…that she’d never felt like she belonged more anywhere else. This new land had earned her blood. Had claimed her sweat. Was given her tears.
Now it gave back to her in its own manner, with the gentle desert wind that riffled through her hair like a lover’s caress and the light of the moon that shone down to show her the correct path. With the soft sand that bunched between her toes as if it were reaching out and welcoming her home. With the beauty of the landscape that turned into a never-ending expanse no matter where she looked. “I love it here,” she said with no little irony as she rolled her shoulder muscles in a languid stretch, “More than I ever thought I would. More than my sisters certainly thought I would.”
It amused her greatly to think of her old family in this new home. They would find it as miserable as she did beautiful. But she couldn’t blame them. It was a home that the entire empire viewed as no more than a death trap of strong winds, relentless sun, and sparse vegetation. It was her chosen sanctuary. She loved it more than she had ever loved her birth home.
Swallowing a swig of water from the canteen she always carried by her side, Marian corked it with a cloth top and set it back securely on the sand underneath her. Then she slowly trailed her hand through the sand at her side, wishing she could feel the living fire of each individual grain like a mage could, like she used to be able to. For now, she accepted that she would have to settle for understanding the land around and beneath her as a normal human would. As a magic-less and power-less human would.
Sometimes she missed the power that she had given up freely when she’d joined her husband’s clan.
Just in the small moments. Never anything more. She knew that if she just kept telling herself that, it would ring true…one day.
She hadn’t been that great a mage in the first place, more a hedgewitch than anything else. And if losing her small talents was what it took to leave the loamy forests for a place of her heart’s desire, then she would gladly give up those miniscule abilities and more.
Although if she had known then what she knew now, that once she had crossed the desert…the home the locals liked to refer to as the arid seas, she would face her greatest challenge yet, she might have insisted on keeping the powers and giving up something else instead.
Like a small bit of her health. Having a minor cough every other week seemed almost paltry a sacrifice to losing her magic. That is if the clan would have accepted such an offer. There was no guarantee that they would or wouldn’t have wanted some of the life-altering natural magic that came with a drain of the health from an individual’s body. They had preferences for what they took from each and every person, mage or mundane, who crossed the sands in the hopes of finding a new life. Their requests changed with the nature of the person and the clan’s needs at the time. The only constant rule was that to live among the clans, you were forced to give up something dear to yourself.
A boon of sorts.
She’d heard of many items and properties given up. From a young woman who lost her sense of sight to the third child who’d been given up for adoption to an unlucky clan of the arid seas that had refused to traffic in any other coin. Because they couldn’t. They’d lost too many of their own to the unforgiving desert and born too few souls to make up for the lack. As such they’d demanded the only price which would solve their dilemma. Children.
Marian shuddered delicately, thinking about it even now. She had been lucky, if you would call it that, to only give up something in her possession that she had used minimally…and some even said ineffectively at that. She had the gift of the magic too small to be of much use to her but great enough for the clans to accept it as a boon for one of their local collectives.
She’d given up that small magic with no little relief, thinking that nothing in the arid seas could be as alive as the dark forests of home she’d experienced. In doing so, she’d assumed that she would really be giving up nothing at all.
How could a mage with such a small magic regret its loss after all when such magic barely worked in the land of her birth, much less this new and barren wasteland. Oh, how wrong she was. She knew that now.
But hindsight was of no use to her in this instance. So instead of reaching out with her magic, she opened her physical senses instead. She was unsheltered in the blazing heat and she let her head lean back with a throaty sigh as she basked in the warmth of the sun like a lizard enjoying its midday nap. She was safe where she was. Secure as long as she stayed within her new clan’s local terrain. Leaning back until her arms spread wide behind her to brace her weight, she felt the edges of her dress slip just a bit from her shoulders. She delighted for a moment in letting her fingers wriggle through the warm shifting sand like worms. The grains felt at once as rough as the grit of the silt on a river’s swift bed and as smooth as fine sugar pouring across her digits at the start of a great day of baking. Her childhood had been filled with such wonders. She had left that all behind to become one with the desert. A woman of the heated sands, instead of a child of the fallow fields of old. This? This was her present.
She turned her head and her bright red hair, like a rooster’s crown, fell into her eyes. That red marked her as different from the rest of her husband’s family. It also marker her as a foreigner.
But that was alright with Marian. Because being a foreigner has its uses, she thought as she stood with dexterity and dusted off the thin dress she wore.
She began to walk down the dunes to her home. She had one task today. It was one that she was quite looking forward to. After all, how many people got to depose their new mother-in-law by force and get away with it? According to clan law she would be one of those erstwhile few. She smiled — today was going to be a good day.
It was tradition for the new wife of the clan chief’s son to assume the role of class mistress in any way she could. She could choose assassination or she could choose subversion. Either way would accomplish what Marian wanted, the death of her mother-in-law’s standing in the eyes of the clan. She would no longer be clan mistress after today, not if Marian had anything to say about it.
Shaman, in this case was the best word for the occupation of clan mistress. It worked well enough for Marian as well but she like the ‘ring’ of clan and mistress together. She would be shaman to the clan and head of the clan council as well with her new role. The clan mistress had many duties including running the physical aspects of the encampment, charting the clan’s new course from their ancestral grazing fields and back to their winter encampment, but also using the magic of the clan’s people—surrendered for the good of all—to protect its own.
Council, Marian thought with a mocking snort as she walked through the sand, her feet sinking with every step. She refused to don the sandals she held in her right hand along with her newly hiked-up skirt. More like a group of old biddies too far gone into self-reflection to realize that their entire way of life is under threat, she thought. Or too stupid to care, she sniffed as she finished her internal musings.
With a sigh, Marian looked ahead at the land that most resembled ‘verdant’ in a dry climate where barely anything to its name could be called green. The oasis was on the encampment’s edge. Upon seeing it she slapped her sandals down in the sand, thrust her feet into the wedges with a wrinkle of her nose, straightened up, and set off to her task.
As she dodged nimbly around the pens holding the desert water beasts, she took a moment to snap her fingers briskly in front of the eyes of one that was looking a little too ornery for her tastes. The beasts were known for their temper and their knack for striking opponents first and ask questions later. Better for it to confront her now than a child that knew too little to stay far enough away and out of its angry reach. This one had looked like it was ready to take a bite out of her shoulder. Best to let it know who was boss right then and there, and that boss was her.
It backed away with flattened ears and she turned away confidently with one last warning look. She knew the tethers that anchored it by magic to the sand rocks near their pen were taut enough to not give the beast the slack it needed to charge at her retreating back.
She didn’t have very long to enjoy the superior feeling of her encounter. She spotted the traders slinking on the edge of the encampment a moment later. With a grimace, Marian looked around for her family. She almost burned with fury as her eyes slid over the interlopers with a practiced nonchalance.
Those traders were laughing now with their feet up and their smug attitudes but they wouldn’t be laughing for long. Not after she took control of the clan and therefore of negotiations as well. Let them have their merriment for now. She knew that they did, much to her regret, have the upper hand…and weren’t losing anything in the process either. One more reason she had to wipe those grins off their faces.
After all, by kicking the Sherinsin off their land, they gained something much more valuable to them. Not gold – there was nothing worth mining here for miles. Not land – the dessert was as barren as a dry teat if you wanted fertile prospects. Not people – no one else lived here except for her husband’s people.
No what they gained was respect. The respect of her people back home. The respect of other traders looking for an easy score and the business partners to do it with. The respect of the imperial family. The rulers of this very empire that openly sneered at her husband’s people and considered the Sherinsin a pesky nuisance in their side.
A beautiful nuisance but a nuisance nonetheless, Marian thought with a bit of a dry smile as she spotted her husband walking toward her with a ground-eating stride. She took a moment to appreciate his fine form. He wore a leather vest that left a deep ‘v’ of skin from his throat down to his chest visible along with the clearly-tanned skin of his heavily muscled forearms. Set off by a thick head of black curls that fell to his shoulders, he was a sight to behold.
She wished she could do more than revel in his nearness, but the presence of the traders felt like an unrelenting spike in her side. One that grew and twisted with a malignant hook the longer they stood on clan lands.
The thing that irked Marian to no-end, besides the fact that they wanted to remove the Sherinsin clan from their ancestral home, was the fact that it took the traders so little effort to accomplish such a thing. They’d already done it with two other clans…and this one was just another notch on their belt. Offer the stupid desert dwellers enough wine and gold and pretty trade goods and they would go off to another encampment as happy as children with new treats at the campfire.
The very thought of the disrespectful treatment and the quite frankly un-tradesmen like bartering scheme made Marian’s very blood boil. Land for trinkets, she thought in disgust as she shook her head in irritation and tried to school her face into a passive countenance. She didn’t think it worked too well but the traders looked none the wiser to her scheming thoughts so perhaps it worked well enough.
Her mother-in-law didn’t understand her fury. To be fair neither did the majority of her inherited clan. They didn’t see the harm in entertaining the trader’s whims. After all, every desert dweller knew that the foreigners never stayed for very long.
They would sell them land on the hopes that they would reclaim it four or five years hence once the stupid foreigners realized that they couldn’t do anything with the land. It was the kind of gamble that the clan peoples lived for. And one they would have problem won, if the land had been occupied by any other approaching group. After all, it was too barren and too harsh a landscape to use for production, its very dryness precluded the establishment of successful and settled communities, and to top it off there was very little natural magic present in its bones.
Which was precisely the reason that the desert dwellers had traded for her little bit of green magic as a bride gift in the first place. It was a win-win situation in the dwellers’ eyes. They got paid for land they were planning to vacate anyway in their annual pilgrimage farther northwest for cattle grazing on the plains.
But Marian knew that when they came back there would be no home for them to settle back on. Those traders and the buyers they represented would give back the land they bought as soon as a sand snake turned as sweet as pie. Never in other words. The Algardis family had first claimed their fertile lands to the east less than a century ago and they were hungry to extend their imperial reach as far as their very-real claws could grasp. Through the desert and beyond, Marian thought as she gulped.
In her former life she wouldn’t have even thought of protesting such an eventually. It was only right after all that the empire stretch from the edge of the far ocean and onwards as long as the land it could reach continued on. But over the past few months her outlook had changed. She had once been a satisfied Algardis citizen, who looked to her emperor and his family as protectors of their land. To some extent she still was.
But this was different, she thought as she looked around at her husband’s small band of carefree people. She knew that they wouldn’t take well to living under the protection of the emperor, under his rules. Under his will. They were a proud people. A wild people, which was why she was doing her very best to stop this union before it ever began, for their sakes…and for hers. Marian didn’t have to feel magic in her bones like an oracle’s touch or see the future. She knew it because she knew the traders. Just as the Sherinsin were her husband’s family, the traders represented part of her own. A part that she wasn’t proud of.
She didn’t have time to think about it more because at that moment Raydal reached her and swept her up in his tightly-muscled arms with the exuberance only a newly-and-happily wedded husband could show. She smiled as her forearms gripped his shoulders and she let herself fall into his chest with a laugh and a kiss on his lips that was entirely real. For a moment her dark mood lightened. She let herself revel for a moment not in the worries of the day but in the touch of his lips, the flick of his skilled tongue, the firmness of his grip, and the pressure of his body against hers.
For a few seconds, no more, the world was just them as the heat of the sun beat down on them and the dry winds curled around their two bodies like a lover’s caress. As wisps of her hair were pushed upward by a determined breeze, she glanced up to see their heads and the majority of their faces were hidden by her bright-red tresses. At least for now. With a wistful sigh that they had to end their small tryst, she caressed his cheek as she leaned back and smiled up with no little pride into her husband’s face.
She had to admit. She’d chosen well.
From the look in his eyes and the grip that had slid from her arms and down to her waist as he hiked her back up, seemingly unwilling to surrender to the present and reality just yet, he appreciated her just as much if not more so. She swiftly wrapped her legs around his body and slyly crossed her feet behind him to the general laugher of the clansmen who surrounded them. They weren’t gawking, not really.
She knew that because it wasn’t the Sherinsin way. They prized physical and emotional affection between bonded couples. A quick kiss and some playful touches were nothing they weren’t used to, middle of the day or not. The traders across the way on the other hand; she could feel their affronted disgust with almost three dozen feet between them.
For the moment she was content to hang off her love like the famed colored rainbow monkeys from the isles off the Sahalian Sea. And he was content to let her. The love between them was well-known. The entire clan called their match fortunate. But then again, among the Sherinsin fortunate was common-place. They didn’t marry for looks or gold or wealth. They married for a match between the souls. Always. And she had found that match in a foreigner that her people despised as ignorant savages.
It mattered not, Marian thought with a peaceful sigh as she left go and slid down his front with a knowing look in her eye. He responded with fierce grin and tug of her hair to bring his lips back to hers. But this time more than just love passed between them.
“Husband,” she whispered to him in a barely audible murmur.
“Wife,” he whispered back in the same tone. Cautious.
She moved her head to the side so that she was leaning forward a bit and her head was turned so that she could watch the traders standing off to the side and muttering with a careful eye. Her lips were just off the corner of his mouth, so to anyone looking at them from the sides or behind it would seem that they were still sharing an affection lip lock.
To those that had the vantage of standing in front of them, the position was no less amorous if a little more genteel. After all, what better way for a husband and wife to show not affection, but contentment with each other than to stand within the other’s arms with no concern for the passage of time or the heat of the day.
Marian’s actions however had nothing to do with proving her own marital bliss, but rather served the purpose of preparing for her coming battle, physically and mentally.
As they stood there she heard one clansman say “Like newlyweds they are?”
“Disgusting ain’t it?” questioned another in a clearly joking tone.
“Now?” Marian whispered.
“Now!” her husband said as he tossed her away from his body like a whirlwind toy. Into the air she flew as she twisted around to land in the midst of some very surprised traders.
Marian smiled and wasted not a moment. She leapt onto the wagon of the nearest man and slammed a hand down with a resounding thump. The traders cried out in alarm. She didn’t waste any time in raising up an arm bringing down her hand in a vicious and calculating blow upon the head of the mage, leader of the traders’ caravan. She didn’t have the magical means to subdue him or the craft to kill him under the shelter of the night. So she did the next best thing… she attacked in broad daylight while most were lulled into a sense of complacency and others had been fooled by her love-struck show with her new husband.
With a satisfying ‘thunk’ the mage fell back and hit his head on the hard wheel of the wagon underneath her. He slumped down in a pile and with his abrupt unconsciousness other things fell with him, namely a certain magical barrier neither she nor her husband had had any hope of getting around otherwise. It prevented non-humans from venturing too far from the clan terrain while negotiations were going on.
It had finally come down.
Calling what little luck she had, she let out a piercing whistle and from the sky flew a bronze hawk to land on her upraised arm. Looking into the hawk’s eye Marian wished that she had the gift of telepathy, the ability to speak mind-to-mind with animal, kith, and human. Unfortunately she didn’t, so this would just have to do.
The hawk alone was the message she would send.
She jerked her arm up with a sharp two-tone whistle and threw the hawk into the air on a northern trajectory.
With a whoop and cry she stood all the way up on a perch and looked to her hawk flying, jesses snapping wildly in the wind as it carried her own hopes with it, towards freedom.
That hope died in her eyes as she heard the thang of a bow sending an arrow into the wind. It cut through the air like the weapon of war it was and before she had the time or inclination to cry out, her proud bronze hawk was falling from the wide skies to the unforgiving desert below.
Marian’s jaw dropped in horror as she turned her body from the spot where her loyal companion had died an ignoble death to where she guessed the arrow had first started its flight. Her mouth dry and her face twisted in hate, Marian wasn’t surprised when the owner of the bow lowered her arms and saluted her with one sleek remaining arrow that until now had been knocked and ready to fly once more.
Dark blue eyes seething with hate met the cocky smirk of a woman with skin of a weathered acorn, wild and dark hair not unlike her son’s wrapped up in a loose knot, and the wisdom of her foremothers in her smile. Her mother-in-law.
Fists tight Marian jumped down from her perch with teeth clenched as she stalked across the sands. Any traders who had though to object to her previous actions took one look at the fury and pain etched on her face and stepped back, wary and more than willing to let her meet her adversary without interference. They were just glad that they weren’t her chosen destination.
To her surprise, that she filed away to pick apart later, the people she’d been trying to protect had lost their smiling faces and carefree visages. Instead she glanced from eye-to-eye and saw a hardness that she hadn’t seen before. And something else that she couldn’t precisely fathom. Approval? Marian wondered as she stepped before her adversary.
Marian’s husband didn’t bother stepping in her way. Instead he took up a solemn place beside her although he made sure that he was turned so that he faced the eastern horizon. He stood between them like a lone pillar, neither near his wise but wrathful mother nor over at the side his proud but young wife. He was a neutral zone. In this matter at least. Marian respected his unique position as did his mother.
That was the only matter they seemed to agree on however. “Why?” Marian lashed out through gritted teeth.
Her mother-in-law smiled and looked up into the sun with a peaceful gaze. “You have much to learn.”
Marian scoffed and tossed her head. “I was saving us all.”
“No,” her husband said with a gentle look, “Listen to her.”
Marian cut him with a sharp look. “You too, dear husband? I thought that you and I were on the same side.”
Her mother-in-law cut in as she said, “You are. You were. But your people aren’t as stupid as you seem to think.”
Marian shook her head fiercely. “I think you’re wrong.”
“About which part?” her mother-in-law said blithely as she waved her hand. “Your intentions were pure. Your heart is strong. You have proved yourself worthy of the name Sherinsin by fighting to protect this clan in the face of adversity.”
Marian squared her shoulders. This sounded suspiciously like praise. Her mother-in-law paused to take her in. Then with a small wave of her hand Marian felt rather than saw clan members gather to form a living barrier between the three conversing family members and the curious traders murmuring off the encampment’s edge. Marian didn’t fail to note that they moved with soundless efficiency. Perhaps it was she that was wrong.
Still her mother-in-law said nothing more until her husband clicked his teeth and chided his mother, “Mother.” The warning was enough.
The older woman shrugged her shoulders. “This was a test. A test in which you passed.”
“What kind of test?”
“The kind that you either pass or fail,” her mother-in-law said flatly. Marian opened her mouth to further question her.
Her husband once more intervened, his face still neutral, “You two are worse than dickering stallions. Mother, she has proved her loyalty, has she not?”
“She has proved it to the clans,” his mother admitted reluctantly.
“Wife, do you not seek the protection of the Sherinsin against all foes major or minor?” he contested.
Marian frowned but said, “You know that I do.”
He nodded and took both their hands to push them together into one grip. “Then we are one in that accord. She is no longer a foreigner. She is family.”
The emphasis on his last statement was clearly meant for his mother. Marian looked into the eyes of her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law returned her gaze. Both of their grips were fierce as they tested the mettle of the other. Neither could find slack in either grip. Finally her mother-in-law released Marian’s hand.
“You have much to learn, daughter, I shall teach you.”
Marian blinked at the endearment. Her husband’s mother had never acknowledged her new family ties. Not in all the time she had known her. It was enough to halt the automatic objection in Marian’s mouth unspoken. What could I learn from her? Marian wondered.
But she was no fool. Her husband’s mother was formidable. What’s more—Marian might have been new to the clans but even she recognized the age-old introduction of one clan mistress…to another. Stammering over her pause after a nudge from her husband, Marian said, “And I will learn.”
“You have much to see, daughter, I shall show you.”
“And I will seek,” Marian responded a bit hesitantly.
“You have much wisdom to discover, daughter, I shall prepare you.”
“And I will absorb.”
Her mother-in-law’s eyes gleamed as the noon-day sun reached its zenith high overhead. “You are welcome to our fold,” her mother-in-law said formally, “Daughter of my heart, mistress of the clans-to-be.”
Marian squared her shoulders. This wasn’t exactly how she had imagined her efforts to strike down her mother-in-law’s plans at their core. But it would have to do, for the sake of the clans. For the sake of peace. “I thank you,” Marian said gently, “I join with whole heart and fierce mind.”
Her mother-in-law let go of her hand and turned away. Over her shoulder the woman who had beaten her without raising a hand in protest said, “You’ll have to be…to survive in my lands.”
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