Tales of the Desert Riders
Long ago, there was no desert. A plain of grass stretches as far as the eye could see. In the Palace of the Seven Jewels dwelled the Holders and their
Peace ruled Earda. To each Holder came a clan of Riders who swore allegiance. Seven
clans for seven Holders. Harmony reigned.
Came men who claimed to be children descended from past Holders and their
Chosen. Black were their robes and their spirits. With
them rode a false Queen who held the Black Jewel. A battle raged. The true
Queen fled into the hills. With her went her clan and no more were they seen. When
palace lay in ruins, the hills screamed and the grass turned to sand.
Mara lifted the water flasks by the leather straps and carried them to the fire circle. The sun moved toward setting. Soon the women of the clan would gather to prepare the evening meal. She set the flasks in the sand beside the stone circle and wiped sweat from her face with the sleeve of her desert robe. Then she moved to where the dried balala chips for the fire were stacked.
“Woman, attend me.”
Mara stiffened. “Tomon, what do you want?”
“I, Tomon, have a need for you. Go to my tent.”
He moved with the stealth of a guana and caught her arm. With a jerk, he twisted it behind her back. “Do you think any of the men will take you into his tent even as a second or third wife? You’re a cast-off. You have no clan. You are naught.”
“Tomon, let me finish my chores. I’ll be no hora for you. Vodor took me in when I was a small child. Did he tell you to do this to me?”
Tomon laughed. “Vodor is old. His son deserted the clan to follow a dream. When the conclave meets, I, Tomon, will be named as his successor and there will be a new order. We have something to settle first. Your scorn, your failure to obey me is wrong. When I, Tomon, am finished, there is a man who wants you. He won’t be as kind as I, Tomon, will be.”
Though she struggled, he dragged her to his tent and pushed her inside. Mara landed on her knees and sprang to her feet. He grabbed her robe. The fabric tore. She screamed and clawed at his face. She kneed him. He roared with pain and released her.
“Hora,” a woman bellowed.
Mara was dragged from the tent and into the one where the young women slept. “Let me be.”
“Do you think you can trap my son into having you as his spouse?” Risha asked. “Tomon will be an important man soon. He will unite the clans.”
“I didn’t entice him. I don’t want him. He’s a guana spitting poison from a forked tongue.”
Risha shoved Mara to the ground. “No lies. I’ve seen the way you look at him. You’ll be punished for your boldness.”
Mara heard the whistle of a lash. The leather thong bit into her back. She caught her lip with her teeth to keep from screaming. She wouldn’t let Risha know the blows hurt.
Again and again, the lash slashed into her flesh. How long would this torture last? She’d done nothing wrong, but her robe was unbanded. No clan had claimed the small child found naked on the sands fifteen years ago.
“What are you doing?” Kalia, wife of the clan chief asked.
“Giving the hora the beating she deserves. The clan shouldn’t tolerate her kind. She lured Tomon.”
The shrill voice of her tormentor grated on Mara’s ears. “I did nothing wrong. ’Twas him.”
“You lie,” Risha shouted. “I heard your squeals of delight. I saw you in his embrace.”
“Risha, who gave you leave to render judgment?” Kalia asked. “If you have a complaint, I’m the one to learn the facts. The women’s tents are under my leadership.”
“You did naught about her.”
“There was naught to do.”
“She was in my son’s tent and you know those who are unspoused are not permitted in any man’s tent. She must have followed him. If I hadn’t heard her pleading, she would have seduced him. A man always takes what a woman offers. At the conclave, my Tomon will be selected to take Vodor’s place as clan leader.”
Mara sat up. “I don’t want him. He grabbed me, tore my robe, dragged me to his tent. I fought. I marked his face. She came...” Mara’s words dissolved in tears.
“Risha, leave the girl be. This matter is for the chief. Come.” Kalia pulled the other woman toward the opening. “Child, I’ll send someone to tend to your back.”
Mara struggled to her feet. She dashed the tears from her eyes. “I will tell Vodor what happened. ’Twas me Tomon and Risha harmed.”
“You have no right to be heard,” Risha declared. “You’re not of the clan.”
“A thing you tell me daily.”
“I’ll speak for you,” Kalia said.
Mara’s tears began anew. These tears weren’t fueled by pain or anger, but by helplessness. Who would give justice to a clanless girl who didn’t know who she was or when she’d been born? “Give me a water flask and journey food and I’ll go into the desert.”
Kalia turned. “Where would you go?”
“To a town.”
“What would you do there? You have no skills. You will wait. Vodor will hear.”
Once the women left, Mara tore off her tattered robe and reached for a clean one. How soon could she depart? She poured water into a basin, washed her face and cleaned the wounds where the lash had cut her upper arms. She could do naught for the ones on her back.
Vala, daughter of Vodor and Kalia, entered. “Mama sent me to tend to your wounds.” She put an unguent pot and strips of cloth on Mara’s sleeping mat. “That Risha. Thinks she’ll be the next ruler of this tent. And I, Tomon, makes me sick. If Valmir were here, he’d teach the bully how to behave.”
Mara couldn’t help laughing. Maybe Valmir could have handled Tomon, but he’d left the clan to follow the one who held the White Jewel. Where were they now? News of the battle and the destruction of the Black had reached the clan, but none of the Holders had come to the desert to change the sand to grass.
Something Tomon had whispered to the young men he’d gathered into a band popped into her head. She’d heard the whispers. “Vodor lies. The Wizards are the ones who will change the desert. Valmir is a traitor to the clan. There are those who have told me the truth.” Even when the hunters had reported the hills no longer screamed, Tomon had insisted ’Twas the Wizards doing.
“Lay down,” Vala said.
The cool touch of wet cloth leached some of the pain. Something jabbed and Mara jumped. “Vala, you’re hurting me.”
“Bits of cloth are in the cuts. Have to remove them so the wounds don’t fester. Do you want starflower tea?”
Mara grasped the edges of the mat. “I’ll bear the pain.” She hoped the other girl would finish before she screamed or fainted.
“Last one,” Vala said.
Moments later, Mara hissed. “What are you using?”
“Mintos and healal to keep the poisons away. The mintos will keep sand fleas out of the wounds. Sit up so I can bind you. How could Risha do this?”
“For Tomon. If she hadn’t come, my cries would have roused others and he would be unbanded.”
Vala made a face. “He’s a guana creeping over the sands poisoning everything. What did he want?”
Mara felt tears rise. “To make me like one of the women he visits in the towns.”
“But you’re not like them.”
“Who would believe my side? Even your mother wouldn’t let me speak for myself.”
“Papa will listen to her.”
Mara shook her head. “Won’t matter. I’ll be the one punished.”
“Papa’s not cruel.”
“Tomon is of the clan. Though no one knows the name of his father, his robe is banded. He leads the young men. What rights have I? I’m given castoffs to wear and am ever on the fringe of the circle.”
Vala shook her head. “While you have no clan, you have a place with us ’til you choose to leave.”
“I would go now. I asked for journey supplies and your mother denied me.”
Vala handed Mara a cup. “Mama said you must drink this tea. ’Twill help the healing.”
Mara swallowed a mouthful of the liquid, then spilled the rest on the ground. “I won’t be drugged.”
“Wait ’til Mama comes. Stay with us ’til we reach the Palace for the conclave. Perchance one of the other clans will give you refuge.”
Waves of weariness washed over Mara. She stretched on her mat. Once Vala left, she would pack her belongings. The younger girl didn’t understand how hard life was when you had no status or defenders.
Risha’s shrill voice woke Mara. “Why should my son be forbidden to attend the conclave? This was his time to show his worth. He would have been chosen to lead all the clans. The hora is at fault and she must pay.”
Mara felt a pain in her side. She rolled away. Risha aimed another kick, but this time at Mara’s head. “What do you want?”
“Get up, you lazy hora. See to your chores. The fire wasn’t laid for the evening meal. Do you expect me to do the work that is yours?”
“My mother excused her from chores ’til her back heals,” Vala said.
“What? My son has lost face. He’s been shamed and she’s being pampered. She’s naught. A foundling. Your father will see what happens at the conclave. Tomon is the best hunter. The younger man look to him for leadership. It has been foretold that he will lead all the clans.”
“Who spoke those words?” Vala said.
“Who is your sister. Take care, Risha,” Kalia said. “Continue to trouble this child and the bands of your robe will be ripped away.”
“She’s no child.”
“On the morrow, her hair will be cut and her face marked. She’ll be a child for the rest of her life.”
“No,” Mara said. “Let me go into the desert.”
Kalia touched Mara’s head. “’Tis the best answer to the problem. As a child, no man can harm you. No man can make you into a hora. Because you are of no clan, you can never be first spouse. This will make your lot easier.”
Mara’s hands shook. Her body trembled. Rather than face an unjust sentence, she would leave. Just because no clan had claimed her didn’t mean she had no worth.
She looked around. The voice belonged to none of the women in the tent. Who had called?
Once the three women left, Mara rose and slipped on her clean robe. She donned her loose riding trousers. The fabric of the robe rubbed against the dressings on her back. The pain would spur her escape. She went to the tent opening and peered outside.
The clan had gathered for the evening meal. Before anyone missed her, she could be kils away. She filled her water flask, rolled a second robe and trousers and her few belongings in her blanket. She crept to the tent where supplies were stored. Strips of meat and dried
fruit went into the blanket roll. palma
As she slipped from the oasis, she passed the pen erected for the animals. Long-necked balalas mingled with the blue and white silk sheep and the sleek antels. If she took one of the balalas, she could be far away before her absence was discovered. Except, taking one would mark her as a thief and the hunters would pursue her to the death.
A balala with dark streaks in its cream-colored fur nuzzled her fingers. Though this particular animal was her usual mount, ’Twas not hers. With regret, she walked away.
The voice seemed to rise from the north and west. She veered in that direction and the siren call became louder. She didn’t know who wanted her or why. All she could do was follow.
She strode across the sand. Evening ended. The moons rose. Their light seemed to be a beacon leading her forward. In the heat of the day, she burrowed in the sand and used her blanket as protection from the sun’s firey rays. At sunset, she rose and followed the voice.
By the third night, her back burned. She was sure sand had slithered beneath the bandages and abraded the raw flesh. The back of the desert robe felt wet. Sweat or blood?
When the moons rose, she saw the walls of the Palace of the Seven Jewels in the distance. Was that her destination? Would she reach the safety of the sacred place before searchers from the clan caught her? No violence was permitted within the shattered walls.
Would the hunters heed the restrictions? She stumbled and fell to the sand. For a short time, she rested. The older men would honor the place, but not Tomon. What had he meant when he’d said there was another man who wanted her?
She drank the last of the water in the flask. She ate a piece of
As she got to her feet, she wondered how many groups of hunters Vodor had sent to look for her. By leaving, she had proclaimed her guilt, but she refused to be named as an eternal child. Thus, she had left all she knew behind. With her gaze on the distant walls, she put one foot after another.