The Wanderer stumbled through the desert. The Khujal had not been kind to him. For three days he had been at Her mercy. His lips were chapped and his mouth left parched. His skin had turned a deep red, burned by the sun’s rays. With every step, he felt himself grow weaker. The heat was unbearable and sweat no longer flowed from his body. His tattered shirt no longer clung to his body; it lie miles back, buried beneath oceans of sand. The Wanderer didn’t remember losing it. Rags were bound onto his feet. His pants were simple and made of cotton. They were undyed, a brownish color.
The wind had begun to pick up. He had first noticed it hours ago, merely a faint breeze then. But now it soared into action. The sand sprung up and the particles whipped his body into submission. He collapsed. The hot sand burned his body and he cried out as he struggled to lift himself. He would be buried in sand if he didn’t hurry. He would die. The Wanderer stumbled in the sand and finally lifted himself up. Sand blew into his eyes. He lifted his hands to block them and fell again. He didn’t try to lift himself up again. He let the Khujal take him.
He saw her now. Her black hair was unmoved by the wind. She laughed. She was dancing like she used to, in the gardens. Her hips swayed sensuously and he could almost hear the music. The drums beat quickly and her feet followed the beating. Her hands twirled in the air as she arched her back. The woman looked at the man and stopped dancing. She smiled at him and knelt down beside him, caressing his cheek.
“Dance with me again.” She whispered. Then she laughed and the Wanderer saw no more.
He hadn’t felt the men come. He hadn’t felt them pick up his limp body and throw him into the back of their cart. The tarp over it had kept him safe from the sand as his mysterious aides had pulled the cart into a cave and away from the sandstorm. While the men made fire and prepared food, the Wanderer slept. He dreamed of the woman. He dreamed of her speaking his name into his ear, of her caresses and of her cruelty.
One of the men, now uncloaked, released the tarp and stared at the Wanderer.
“Hey, Nasih-fa! What will we do with him? He is marked. On his chest.” He yelled. “Come, look.”
The man called Nasih stood up. He was tall with long black hair. It was custom in this region, the long hair. The men would wear it long and braid it with dyed threads. The more intricate the braid, the more respect given to the man. Nasih’s braid was thread with mostly yellow, blue and red thread with hints of other colors. The yellow symbolized his loyalty to the sun god, Kal. The blue symbolized cunning. The final threads, the red ones, were wound in the most deeply. They represented the lives he had taken in battle.
Nasih walked over to the cart and stared at the man lying in it. “A fine example of her cruelty, eh?” He asked. He spoke Khul, the desert language.
“He will die soon, if not cared for.” The man looked to Nasih, silently asking him if they were to take care of him. If they were to take care of a man branded with the mark of Equoli.
“What would you have me do, Hal? Would you have me take him back to the camp? He will surely be killed with that mark. And the Master would look unkindly upon us. He would likely kill us for bringing him. “
“Wait until he wakes up. We can question him. Until then, we nurse him while the storm rages. If he does not wake up after it has reached its completion, we shall leave him here. He must have done something fearsome to earn that mark; he will be fine on his own.” Hal responded.
Nasih smiled and shrugged. “He is your responsibility.”
Hal nodded. “Great thanks, Nasih-fa.” He dragged the Wanderer’s limp body from the cart. The gold coins that lay under him moved. A few fell out and landed on the cave floor. Hal set the man’s body on the floor. He leaned over him and spoke, “Jhukal, I hope you know that you are in my debt.”
He sealed the tarp over the cart of gold again, remembering to pick up the fallen coins. He rejoined his fellow bandits and ate his supper. All the while, the Wanderer dreamt.
The Wanderer opened his eyes. They cracked open and he saw a man bending over him. The man’s nose was large and curled. His lips were thin and his dark eyes were large. He was a rather fat man, though his face remained thin. His belly bulged and a belt, fitted with a black scabbard, kept it from spilling out of his robes. He smiled.
“I am Mienhal. Call me Hal. Do you have a name?”
The Wanderer looked away. He opened his mouth to speak and was surprised when the words came out in barely a whisper, “Once I had a name. I lost the right to it though. I am nameless, nothing more than a wanderer.”
Hal nodded his head. “I see, I see. We will call you Jhukal then. By your mastery of Khul, I can tell that you know what it means.”
“Sun-scorned. And so I am.”
“Yes. The Khujal hasn’t been kind to you. Your skin has been badly burned. You’ve been in this cave with us for three days. We plucked you from the Khujal when the storm started. I have been nursing you back to good health. Me and those men over there,” The Wanderer tilted his head a little to see four men sitting by a fire. “Are companions. They are bandits and so am I. If you stay with us, you will become a bandit. If not, you will most likely lose your life.” Hal spoke calmly and in an almost amused tone.
“Do you have water?”
“How devilish of me! I should have offered you it when you first awoke!” He picked up a jug of water and put his left hand under the man’s head. Hal tilted the jug and let the water trickle into the man’s mouth. When he had had his fill, Hal took the jug away and stared at the man.
“My companions and I are very eager to learn how you got that mark. We know that it is the mark prisoner’s carry in Equoli. What did you do to gain such a harsh punishment, Jhukal?”
Jhukal closed his eyes again. “Treason. I betrayed my king.”
“Ah, I see. In the Great Uprising. You are of Fajn descent, yes?” Jhukal nodded. “Then you allowed the Great Traitor to gain power? You were a conspirator and he imprisoned you, yes?”
“I cannot say that I was a knowing conspirator at first but yes, I allowed the Great Traitor’s ascension. It was my cowardice that allowed him to take power. That is all I will say.”
“It is enough. I do not require anymore. The leader of our band, Nasih-fa, may allow you to come back to our camp when the storm has subsided. You will be given better medical treatment there. Then it will be up the Master to decide your fate.” Hal looked over at one of the bandits, who was coming nearer. It was Nasih.
“My friend, you have awakened. We all feared that Hal’s little pet would die. He’s been fretting over you for three days. Have you a name?” the bandit leader asked.
When Jhukal didn’t answer, whether from his dehydration or choice, Hal shook his head. “None that he is willing to reveal, Nasih-fa. I’ve named him Jhukal.”
Nasih laughed. “A fitting name! This man is burned like a roasted goat! Zija, did you hear? Hal has named his little pet Jhukal.” The men at the fire laughed with Nasih. “Now, back to business. Have you questioned him?”
Hal nodded. “He is a Fajn, a conspirator but he says that he did not willingly allow the Great Uprising.”
“So he was a pawn?” Nasih grunted. “Probably the last child of some farm lord who sent him off to court to earn for himself. Obviously, he didn’t fair so well in the court if he earned that mark. Still, I find it hard to believe that a man that looks like him would be some court niya. Look at his hands.” Nasih bent down and picked up one of Jhukal’s hands. It was rugged and callous, the hands of someone who spent their days working. “He’s no princeling.”
Jhukal, who had been silent through the conversation, now burst out into silent laughter. The laughter soon turned to coughs. Hal and Nasih huddled around to help him. Hal allowed him another drink from the jug when he stopped.
“What is so funny Jhukal-ma?” Nasih asked.
“Nothing, nothing. Just some old memories, memories that have turned to dust in the wind.” He smiled and then frowned. “You’ve come to torture me, haven’t you? That’s how you plan on questioning me. I must assure you that I have nothing to tell you. You may break all of my fingers-for that is how I hear you bandits torture your captives-and you will hear nothing. Break them now. You couldn’t put me in a worse predicament.”
Hal and Nasih looked at each other. It was one thing to hear someone bluff before torture but another to hear a man half-dead from the sun say it in a perfectly contented voice. Nasih smiled. He pointed at Hal. “This man, this half-dead man who trekked through the desert with only rags, will make a great bandit.” He looked at Jhukal. “Marked or not, you will make the master proud. I believe that you will not speak even with…eh, coercing. And although it will bring great shame upon me when the others see I have not tortured you, I am sure that the master will understand when he sees you.”
“So you intend on making me a bandit then?” Jhukal was amused.
Nasih laughed. “The greatest bandit there ever was! I have not fully introduced myself, Jhukal. I am Nasih, second in command to the greatest bandit leader that has lead our tribe. We are the Uuta-lakshir, tribe of the wind. I have lead men on many raids. On our current raid, we robbed a caravan. The gold you see in that cart is our loot. We found you on our journey back to camp. When the storm subsides, we will take you and that cart back as our prizes. The gold will be equally divided among the tribe. You,” He pointed at Jhukal. “Will be presented in front of the master. If the master finds you fit, you become a bandit. If not…well, then you die.”
“Then I will make a good impression on the master. Tell me, Nasih-fa, does this master have a name?”
Hal spoke this time. “To those not initiated in the tribe, he is the master. The northerners call him Fuilkal, blazing sun. I believe you Fajn call him the Sun Raider. You will not be able to renege on an oath to him or our tribe.”
Jhukal pondered this. It was known around Faj that the Sun Raider was the greatest bandit around. Mothers terrified their children into doing chores with threats of the Raider, survivors went on to tell their stories and became legends. He was the fiercest, the most feared and revered bandit in the land. To become a bandit under the Sun Raider meant that you were a bandit for life. The only way out was to let the Khujal take you. Jhukal had already done this once; twice would be excessive.
“I believe I’ve had enough of the Khujal. You may take me to your master.”
Nasih laughed. “You were going one way or another. Whether you take the oath is your choice, though I do believe you’ve already made it.”
“Nasih-fa, the storm is ending. We’ll be out in an hour or two.” One of the other bandits yelled from the mouth of the cave.
“Ready the cart then!” Nasih bellowed back. His voice echoed in the cavern. “Hal, fix our Jhukal a place in the cart before those fools rush off into the storm.”
Jhukal closed his eyes, wondering what fate would carry him towards next.
Dictionary of words
Khujal – lit. Cruel Sands, the Khul name for the desert.
-Fa – This is an honorific. It’s like saying sir or calling someone of a higher rank than you.
Jhukal – Sun-scorched
Niya – bastard
-ma – This is also an honorific, although this one is very rude. It’s like calling someone an idiot.
Fuilkal – Blazing Sun