Road of Woe: Four

The older woman was at Sabit’s arm, speaking in an earnest, urgent tone. “How often have you dreamt of an army to command, Sabit? Is not your disgrace at Ghabar a thorn that burrows and festers in the depths of your heart? How sweet would it be to pluck out that thorn and bury it in Irkalla’s eye?”

Sabit could feel the weight of the old woman’s eyes upon her. All around the army’s encampment, the soldiers of Ghabar raised their heads to await Sabit’s answer. Flickering campfires reflected in ten thousand pairs of eyes—each one desperate for the next words to drop from the spear woman’s lips. In the unnatural stillness, Sabit could hear only her own heartbeat.

“I have been a soldier and a captain,” said Sabit. “I have never sought the mantel of the Prioress.”

“The question was of the future,” said the older woman. “Why do you speak of the past?”

Sabit hung her head. “The past is all I have.”

The panicked cry of sentries rang over the encampment. Sabit looked up to see commotion at the far end of the valley, illuminated by a blood-red moon. A line of armored troops descended on the Ghabari soldiers, bronze blades cutting through their foes like wheat.

How had such a host of soldiers gotten so close unobserved?

The invaders’ battle tactics left no time for the question. A volley of flaming arrows arced through the sky, seeming to set the firmament alight with blazing fury. Tents burst into flames. Soldiers fell as they scrambled to grab weapons. They died in the midst of forming ranks.

Aruru collapsed at Sabit’s feet, a bloody arrow piercing her neck. A crimson river of blood flowed down her breastplate, staining the silver horn that marked her as the Captain of Ghabar. Despite the din of battle, Sabit could not pull her eyes from the horn. So many years had past since her fingers had felt the carved insignia upon its side. So many nights had her lips found distraction in a bottle or the mouth of a lover when they truly longed for the touch of its smooth mouthpiece.

Had enough time passed for Sabit to reclaim the position that once was hers?

 

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Wayfarings of Sabit: Road of Woe is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters are posted on Monday and Thursday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Road of Woe: Three

“We had best find shelter before full dark,” Sabit said, extending her hand to the older woman. She had done enough killing in her day, and always for better cause than mere booty.

In the dimming light, Sabit surveyed the horizon for any threat while the woman gathered her fallen, scattered treasure. Even the cloud of dust raised by the woman’s retreating donkey had vanished behind desolate ridges dyed the color of blood by the setting sun.

When the older woman had gathered her satchels and once more hidden the signs of her wealth from the gaze of any passerby, the two set off together on the road. Sabit did not expect to get far before the darkness forced them to stop, but the rocks at the top of the ridge before them seemed to offer a more secure campsite than the open valley where the woman fell.

The pair attained the top of the ridge as dusk gave way to night. Sabit’s eyes strained to make out the shapes of the boulders, looking for the best shelter. The harder she looked, the more their irregular shapes seemed less like massive rocks and more like the fluted columns and elaborate arches of the distant city of Ghabar. It had been years since Sabit had served as captain of Ghabar’s troops, since she had stood in its mighty palace, since she had chosen duty above her own chance at happiness.* For a moment in the darkness, it felt like she was standing there once more.

“Halt!” came a charge from a sentry speaking the Ghabari tongue, “Who goes there?”

“Two simple travelers,” Sabit answered. She could barely make out the spear points of the sentries before her. Their shapes were lost in the shadows of the boulder field. “We seek only a rocky shelter for the night.”

“Sabit?” came the reply. The sentry stepped forward as a campfire crackled in the distance. She removed her helmet to reveal the face of Aruru, who had replaced Sabit as the city’s captain. “It is good to see you again, old friend.”

“Aruru? Why are you so far from Ghabar?” Sabit asked. “And why would you rejoice to see me? We parted on bad terms.”

Aruru looked away. “Those were simpler times. I was mistaken in my loyalty to the Prioress of Ghabar who dismissed you. The last months have seen Irkalla tear down everything that Ghabar once stood for and throw it onto a pyre to honor the memory of her dead son. Dirges played at all hours and a tomb that reaches to the heavens themselves were not enough to quench Irkalla’s grief. Boys whose eyes share the grey-green hue as the prince’s have been condemned to the mausoleum to guard him in the afterlife. Every girl born the same year of the prince has been forced to marry his corpse and sing and dance for its deathly glory.

“Such crimes are too much to bear. I have taken the better part of the army to save Ghabar and end Irkalla’s destructive mourning. I see now that Irkalla was always the root of Ghabar’s sickness, not you, Sabit. When she exiled you from the city, she exiled all goodness and hope. In your redemption lies the redemption of the city. Come with us, Sabit. I will see you installed as the next Prioress, over Irkalla’s bloody corpse. Take my army, I give it to you freely.”

Aruru stepped aside to show the valley full of troops. Dozens of campfires flickered in the night. Thousand, no, tens of thousands men and women awaited her command. Every cluster of tents and horses bore the standard that Sabit once wore as captain. It was a standard she could have again.

All she had to do was take it.

 

*-Sabit’s past in Ghabar is detailed in Wayfarings of Sabit: Blossom of Ruin.

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Wayfarings of Sabit: Road of Woe is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters are posted on Monday and Thursday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Road of Woe: Two

Sabit, coated in dust from top to bottom, approached the fallen rider. Several parcels lay on the ground nearby, wrappings torn open by their fall from the runaway donkey. One bundle of crude burlap contained small packets of embroidered silk of the kind used to sell the rarest spices in the marketplace. The next was a small wooden box, its open lid having allowed a handful of rubies and saffires to scatter across the dirt of the badlands. Within the box, coins of gold glinted in the crimson rays of the setting sun. A small fortune lay at Sabit’s feet, begging to be taken.
The rider let out a groan. Sabit approached the fallen form carefully. The person was of small stature, wearing the same sort of homespun traveler’s robe as many who plied these roads—the white cotton, dyed beige by parasangs of dusty travel. The force of the fall had pulled the robe aside to reveal glimpses of rich, green silk beneath. Buttons of pearl and embroidery of gold and silver threads adorned the rider—but no sign of sword or knife.
“Are you hurt?” Sabit asked in the Wuqai tongue spoken by many in this region.
“Only my pride, young one,” came the voice of a matronly woman. She pulled the homespun scarf from her face to reveal sharp-edged features and eyes that sparkled with life. Sabit’s eyes grew wide in recognition.
“You’re the fortune teller in the bazaar of Bahteel,” Sabit said, surprised to see the older woman so far from her stall.*
The woman’s mouth twisted to a grin. “Not I. Stories tell that my sister does such things in the city, but I have not laid eyes on her since the days of your mother’s mother, young one. Sadly, no one expects me in Bahteel. I told no one of my journey or its destination, save my stupid donkey. I am quite alone in the world.”
Sabit pondered the woman’s words for a moment. Strewn along this desert road was enough wealth to change the bleak path of her future. There were many cities where those gemstones alone could buy Sabit a title and a life of ease. The gold coins could outfit a troop of mercenaries with Sabit at their head—a legacy of victory and glory. The key to every idle daydream that had ever flitted through Sabit’s mind lay in the grubby dirt at her feet.
It was guarded only by an unarmed old woman, bereft of family or friends who might seek to avenge her death. There was no other human soul around for dozens of parasangs. The sun had slipped behind the horizon and the concealing cover of night—who witnesses numberless crimes but never speaks of them—spread quickly across the land.
Sabit’s sharpened spear felt lively and ready for action in her palm as she studied the older woman on the ground at her feet.


*-Sabit’s encounter with the fortune teller is detailed in Wayfarings of Sabit: Bazaar of Death.
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Wayfarings of Sabit: Road of Woe is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters are posted on Monday and Thursday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Road of Woe: One

Sabit walked at a slow but steady pace along the narrow road. Her black hair and dark brown skin contrasted sharply with the dull beige of the road, the rocks, and the sparse groundcover. She traveled light—apart from her thick cotton tunic and sturdy leather sandals, a long spear tipped with iron served as her only baggage. The weight that slowed Sabit’s steps lay not in her hands or on her back.
The sun sank slowly in the west as the spear woman continued her journey. Many parasangs behind her stood the compound of the Sisterhood of the Lioness, the last place that Sabit had—for a fleeting moment—considered home. Her actions there had accomplished much. She had saved lives, rebuilt homes, and helped the troubled. She had also ensured she would never again be welcome there.
Ahead of her lay the proud city of Bahteel, with its teeming crowds, grandiose finery, and wonder-filled bazaar. None of that mattered to Sabit. She traveled to the capital of Wuqai kingdom for a single purpose: to settle a score with a man who had tricked her. But even Kehnan had once held a tender place in her heart, and Sabit had no appetite for the confrontation.
Stopping for a moment, Sabit gazed at the brilliant pinks and golds of the setting sun. It seemed that her life was like that sky—a blaze of blood-colored fury with only darkness in its future. Sabit realized that with all the world before her, she had nowhere to be. Under the four corners of heaven, there was no home aching for her return. Among the numberless souls whose feet kissed the earth, not a one of them longed to hear her voice once more.
Such depths of despair may explain why Sabit did not hear the approaching donkey until it was nearly on top of her. At the last moment, Sabit leaped to one side while the pack animal leaped toward the other. With a loud cry, the donkey’s rider tumbled to the rocky ground, along with several of the bundles strapped to the beast.
Freed of much of its load, the donkey broke into a gallop. its hard hooves conjuring a cloud of dust as it sped off into the distance. The billows of beige consumed Sabit, clinging to her skin, clawing at her eyes, and clogging her throat. Robbed of sight and breath, Sabit stood for a moment on the knife’s edge between this world and the next.
Then, violent coughing seized her body as the painful work of living laid claim to her once more.

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Wayfarings of Sabit: Road of Woe is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters are posted on Monday and Thursday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/