The Boy in the Sand
The child raced barefoot across the desert. The cuts on the soles of his feet were staining the sand a madman’s scarlet, but the look in his eyes said that was the least of his problems. Though I didn’t know it then, he was fleeing his father, who loved him more than anything in the world, and was now intent on his murder. The same could’ve been said of my own father, but I’m not ready to tell that story yet.
At first the boy had been nothing but a puff of dust and blond hair in the distance. The sun was beating down mercilessly that day, reminding all living things who was in charge and that deserts were cursed places at the best of times. I had a horse though, which makes all the difference.
‘Reckon that’s trouble ahead?’ I asked Quadlopo, patting his neck. The horse showed no signs of giving the matter any thought, just swished his tail to keep the flies away. In the five days since we’d fled to the borderlands, Quadlopo had yet to offer an opinion on anything, except perhaps that he would’ve preferred that I’d not stolen him in the first place. After all, it wasn’t like anyone wanted him dead.
The grubby whirl of spindly arms and legs ran up the side of a dune, then lost his balance and came tumbling down the other.
He looked like he couldn’t have been more than seven. An unseemly age to be running around the desert alone. His pale blue tunic was torn to rags, and the skin of his arms and face shone an angry red that spoke of too many days out in the sun with nothing and no one to protect him. He was limping too, but kept on going, which meant whatever was chasing him troubled him more than the pain.
When he got within thirty yards of me, he stopped and stared as if trying to work out whether I was a mirage. I’m not sure what conclusion he came to, but I guess he’d been running a long time because his legs gave out on him and he dropped to his hands and knees. That’s when I saw the two new figures come shambling through the haze towards us. A tall man and a squat woman, whose unnatural, shuffling gaits made me question whether those labels might be too generous in describing whatever had followed the boy.
For the first time since we’d happened upon this unpleasantness, Quadlopo became restless. He blew hot air out of his nostrils and pawed the sand with his hoofs, trying to turn his head away from the mangled figures lumbering towards the child who was now lying face down in the sand, by all appearances waiting to die.
Most folk in these parts, should they get lost in the desert and run out of either water or the will to live, choose to meet their end on their back, so the last thing they see will be the blue sky above. The boy, though, seemed determined to look away from his
Now that I’d gotten a good look at them, I didn’t blame him. Insanity, as I’d learned in my paltry seventeen years, could take all forms, come in all shapes and sizes. I’d witnessed folks of sound mind condemned as lunatics for the crime of being ugly and eccentric at the same time. I’d met well-groomed, erudite gentlemen of means who hid diabolical madness beneath smooth talk and friendly smiles. Then again, when I saw myself in the mirror, I looked sane too, so best not to pass judgement on such matters without strong evidence.
When two strangers come lurching towards you across the desert, naked as the day they were born except for their hides being caked in blood and dirt and fouler things I preferred not to imagine, when those same souls stare out at the world through eyes open so wide they look set to fall out of their sockets, jaws hanging open but nothing coming out except for a snake’s hiss, well, times like that call for a different sort of prudence.
I reached over my shoulder and uncapped the long black mapmaker’s case that held the smallsword I’d vowed five days ago never again to draw so long as I lived. One of the reasons I’d chosen to flee to the Seven Sands had been to smash the blade into seven pieces and bury each one so far from the others that not even the finest tracker in the whole world could unite them.
The hot desert wind shifted. The blood-soaked pair sniffed at the air like hunting hounds. Their heads tilted to the side like they’d just smelled a vixen for the first time and didn’t know what to make of her. Some sort of instinct took hold of them, and they stopped heading towards the boy and came for me instead.
At first they plodded, so awkward I kept expecting them to trip over themselves like puppets caught in their strings. But with each step their bare, blistered feet found surer footing. Faster and faster they scurried, and the closer they came, the more their hisses grew into a nightmare’s worth of whispers that swirled around me like a dust storm.
I drew the sword from its case and slid off the horse’s back, knowing that my oath never again to commit an act of violence, sworn while my foster mother’s blood was still slick on my hands, was about to be broken.
The whispers became howls, and the howls turned to shrieks that sent poor, brave Quadlopo galloping away, abandoning me to whatever fate my bad luck and ill deeds had brought upon us.
The two feral, manic creatures that came at me must’ve once been
human beings with hopes and dreams of their own. Now their hands curled into claws, and they showed me teeth that had clacked so hard and so long against each other that they’d broken down to ragged fangs. From somewhere deep inside their throats, deranged screeches hid words I couldn’t understand and didn’t want to hear.
Words that proved madness had its own poetry.
My hand tightened on the grip of my sword and I breathed in as slow as I could, preparing to make my stand and wondering whether the awful sounds they were uttering would become the elegy I carried with me into the ground.
My name is Ferius Parfax. I’m seventeen years old. This was the
day I first heard the Red Scream.
The screamers came at me with a speed and ferocity that told me they weren’t concerned about the sword in my hand any more than they were the lacerations covering their own ravaged bodies.
If I’d taken so much as a moment to ponder what had made them this way, or wasted even a single breath on the panic rising inside me, there’d’ve been nothing left of my corpse for my foster father to find but a few sun-bleached bones sinking under the desert sand.
But I’d been taught the ways of defence by Durral Brown himself. The ‘toughest Argosi dancer the world’s ever seen’, or so he used to tell me. Still did, if only in my head.
‘Arta eres ain’t about fighting, kid. It’s about winning.’
I ran backwards, giving my savage opponents all the ground they wanted, watching to learn how they moved.
‘No one can teach you how to defeat your opponent better than they will if you just give them the chance.’
Despite the man being tall and lean and the woman short and stout, they both had a similar style of attack, reaching to try to grab me with both hands even as their necks stuck out to get their jagged, broken teeth closer to my throat. Neither gave a damn about my sword.
‘You want to kill someone? Do it in their sleep. It’s kinder. Otherwise, figure out what winnin’ looks like before you raise your fists.’
I wasn’t looking to kill these people if I could avoid it. For all I knew, they were perfectly nice folk caught up in something beyond their ken. Maybe it was a disease from which they could be cured.
A poison that would leave their bodies, given a few more hours or minutes. A Jan’Tep mage’s spell messing with their minds. If I could knock them unconscious, I could tie them up and maybe find a way out of this for all of us. But that meant I had to understand what it would take to stop them.
I whipped the tip of my blade out to deliver a shallow cut to the woman’s outstretched palm. She didn’t react at all, just kept up that awful, hissing screech of hers. My free hand reached into the pocket of my travelling coat, thumb and forefinger pinching one of the six steel playing cards I’d stolen from Durral’s weapons cabinet back home. With a snap of my wrist, I sent the razor-sharp card whirling through the air and between the tall man’s teeth. He too just kept on hissing, spitting blood without even trying to dislodge the card.
‘Only a fool tries to wound her opponent believing that what hurts her will hurt them. Pain ain’t the Argosi way.’
I scurried back further, then realised I was being stupid and instead turned tail and ran, fast as I could.
‘If you worry about how you look when you’re dancing, you’ll turn yourself into a graceful corpse.’
I could hear that they had sped up and were now running after me, but I was getting away. Once I’d gained a few yards, I spun around to face them and slid the mapmaker’s case off my shoulder, letting it fall to the ground so it wouldn’t impede my movements.
I’d worried that outdistancing my attackers would send them back to the boy, who was on his knees again, staring at me, probably wondering if I was abandoning him. But the blood-soaked pair kept coming for me. They charged like enraged, mindless beasts, yet they didn’t get in each other’s way at all. So there was still some cunning inside them, along with the unnatural strength and endurance in their limbs.
‘Strength is an illusion. A strong man is strong only in certain angles and positions. If you can’t defeat a man face to face, make him give you his back.’
I shifted a foot to the left so I’d be in the tall man’s path. Just as he grabbed for me, I dropped to my knees and dived between his legs, keeping a close grip on my smallsword. As I came out the other side, I drove the heel of my foot to the back of his knee. He buckled and fell onto his right side. But now the woman was coming for me, and I didn’t have time to get back up.
‘For every way of fightin’, there’s a dance to match it. To master arta eres is to become skilled at finding that dance, no matter how strange it may be.’
I rolled onto my back, feeling the warm, smooth sand beneath me. As the woman rushed me, I put both my feet up at the height of her belly and locked my legs straight out. Sure enough, she kept coming, arms grasping at empty air even as the force of her charge pushed me along like I was a shovel and she was scooping up the desert.
‘Second most important lesson of arta eres, kid: remember to laugh at least once.’
‘Yep. You learn a lot from seein’ how an opponent reacts to laughter. Maybe it’ll make ’em angry and reckless. Maybe they’ll realise how stupid fightin’ is in the first place, and start laughin’ right along with you, maybe choose the Way of Water instead of violence. Now that’s a proper victory.’
‘What if they don’t do either? Should I still laugh?’
‘Of course, kid. If you’re gonna get yourself killed, might as well have a little fun along the way.’
So there I was, sliding on my back with a screaming madwoman trying to reach me with her clawed hands, laughing so loud I was almost drowning out her horrible rapturous shrieks. I kept a grip on my sword, letting the tip trace a sinewy line in the sand. I wondered, if I stayed like this long enough, would the woman end up pushing me all the way south, back to the home I’d fled five days ago?
Now wouldn’t that be a fine tale to tell?
Unfortunately the tall man had gotten back to his feet, and he was running after us. I had three seconds before he’d get to me.
‘What’s the most important lesson, Pappy?’
‘What’s that, kid?’
‘You said laughter was the second most important lesson of arta eres. What’s the first?’
It was a year and a half since he’d started teaching me the Argosi talent for defence, but I could still remember the sadness in his eyes, the way his brows rose up at the centre of his forehead, just a little, as if contemplating telling me the answer made him despair at the world we lived in.
‘There comes a moment when you know how the fight has to end. Maybe it happens right away, maybe it takes you a while to figure it out. But once you know, then you must follow the Way of Thunder and strike without hesitation, without remorse. Do what must be done, Ferius.’
I bent my knees and slapped my left hand against the sandy ground for balance. As the woman bore down on me, I let her momentum carry her over, thrusting my legs out straight again as I rolled over my back. For just an instant she was upside down in the air, and when she landed on her head, the crunch of her neck breaking put an end to her shrieks.
I rolled up onto my feet, took my sword in both hands and dug my back heel into the ground. The man slammed into me so hard I don’t think he even noticed the tip of the blade passing through his open mouth and out the other side of his skull.
That should’ve been the end of him, but it wasn’t. He bowled me over and I discovered the terrible mistake I’d made. I’d assumed that because breaking the woman’s neck had killed her, a blade through the head would surely put an end to him. But the human body’s a funny thing, and there are stories of soldiers who’ve had a dagger shoved right through their eye and into their brain who just kept on fighting.
Somehow the sword had slid out and tumbled to the sand. I reached for it, but it was too far away. The man was on top of me now, his teeth clacking as he went for my throat, and when he couldn’t quite reach it, tried for my nose. I’ve always liked having a nose, so I turned my head and squirmed, but there was no leverage to get him off me. I got my arms free and wrapped my fingers around his neck, holding him back as best I could. He wasn’t even trying to stop me from strangling him – just kept grabbing at me with his hands, scratching tracks into the sides of my arms and face.
All the while he kept screaming. There was a pattern to it, I realised now. Like a song he kept repeating over and over. The reason I’d not been able to make out the words was that his tongue was gone, though whether someone had cut it off or he’d chewed it off himself, I couldn’t say. Probably didn’t matter, because my arms were starting to give out, and for the first time I saw something like joy in his eyes as whatever was left of his mind lusted over what would come next.
‘What happens if you know you’re going to lose, Pappy?’
‘You keep dancin’, of course.’
‘But you said there comes a time when you know how the fight’s gonna end.’
‘No, I said there’s a moment when you know how it has to end, not how it’s gonna end. There’s a difference.’
Durral loved these occasions – the ones where I thought I’d found a flaw in his teachings and he was holding out giving me a sensible answer. Me? I didn’t love them nearly as much.
‘Any chance you’re going to tell me the difference?’ I’d asked.
‘Life’s unpredictable, kid. A roll of the dice or a draw from the deck. Things start goin’ bad, you just keep dancin’ until the world sends you a little luck.’
So I did. I fought all the harder, even though I knew I was losing. I bashed my forehead against his nose, shattering it. The man wasn’t bothered in the slightest. I wriggled and writhed, forcing him to keep readjusting to keep hold of me. When my forearms got too tired to hold him off, I let them bend, and drove my elbow into his face. I screamed as he left two of his teeth in the skin of my elbow. But I kept striking, kept moving any which way I could.
Eventually we wound up almost how we’d started, with my hands around his throat trying to hold him off and him using all his weight and madman’s brawn trying to drive what were left of his teeth into my neck. Then, just as I felt my sweat-soaked fingers losing their grip on him, the sun disappeared. The two of us were shrouded in darkness for a split second before I glimpsed an ironshod back hoof smash into the side of the man’s head so hard most of it came clean off. I was left holding his shattered lower jaw as his body slumped down onto mine, as if he were falling asleep in my arms.
Disgust and horror lent me just enough strength to roll him off me. I flopped back down and looked up into Quadlopo’s big brown horsey eyes.
The first words that came to my mind were, ‘What took you so long?’ But that seemed inappropriate, given the poor beast had never wanted to be out here in the first place.
‘Good horse,’ I said instead, as my eyes closed and consciousness slipped away. ‘Good horse.’