Fleet Is the Sand, By Patricia Scott

Editor's Note: I've got some catching up to do on publishing (sometimes my own writing gets in the way of EC). Today, we have a mystical, touching story from Patricia Scott. It's not often we get stories set in the Middle East, so this delightful story is an intriguing change of pace.

As they grow, the boys of Mahdjikistan play a particular game found only in their culture. Once they are old enough to play away from the watchful eyes of their mothers, they go tumbling and brawling, as little boys everywhere are wont to do, to a corner where there is nothing to be found but sand. The older boys teach the younger the words to say and they practice, focusing their will as they chant. Eventually, sometimes only after days of trying, the boys will summon sand wraiths.

 
The sand wraiths look like nothing more than a tendril of grains writhing with the currents of the air, especially to the untrained eye. The boys of Mahdjikistan know better, though. These creatures, born of magic and the desert, know every thing that comes into contact with the dunes that surround the only city in all of the country. A pact was made, long ago, by the Mahdjikistani men. The sand wraiths would serve as guides and protectors for the men who summoned them and they, in turn, would be kept alive and thriving by the unshakable belief in them that the men carried. That promise, made so many years earlier had led to a towering reputation for the men of Mahdjikistan as infallible escorts for either trade or travel.

Anyone who practices magic would be able to assert that in order to give something form and strength, it must have a name. Once a boy has managed to summon his sand wraith, he promptly gives it a name, fostering the connection between them. With each successive summoning, the sand wraith grows more defined and lingers about its chosen boy longer. For many of the boys, the sand wraith is the closest thing to a pet that any of them will ever have.

And, so it was, that a boy named Hassim, born to a seller of books and a baker of flatbread, summoned the sand wraith that he named Fleet only three days after his sixth birthday. Upon that first time that it rose into the warm golden sunlight of the morning and twined curiously about Hassim's skinny ankles, Hassim named it Fleet, and thereafter, he was never seen without the swift eddy of sand at his heels. His parents gave no more thought to the presence of the sand wraith than any other parent of Mahdjikistan. It was simply part of their way of life.

Hassim was too little to understand what it meant when a tyrant seized power of the nation. When the dictator slaughtered all of the Mahdjikistani poets in the city square in front of his people, the little boy hid his face in his mother's robes and turned away, trembling. He tried to cover his ears against the blood-curdling sound of the emotional heart of their country being destroyed. Fleet never left its position at Hassim's toes.
Time passed and, little by little, the tyrant tore away the fabric of Mahdjikistani existence. The magics the people used every day as a matter of course were banned and those caught using them were put to death. 

The men did not forget about their wraiths. Instead, they waited until they were out in the desert to summon them. Without the wraiths, however, the tyrant could seize no more money, for without the hiring of guides, no money would come into Mahdjikistan. He saw little threat in the creatures. They were, after all, common. The dictator himself had one that he had named Skirmish.

As with any tyrant, he made enemies, and he soon found himself in need of an army. Hassim was fifteen years old when his mother and father received the official summons to bring him to the armory near the palace and present him for military duty. His mother wept silently as she folded his clothes into a small cloth bundle and would only say, “It is all right. It must be. When they see him, they will see he is too small and much too young for their army.”

Hassim's father said nothing. When the day arrived when they were expected to report to the army, Hassim kissed his mother's cheek and tried not to be afraid when the hug she gave him crushed the air from his lungs. She was not allowed to accompany them to the headquarters of the army, and so, she stood and watched as her husband and her son walked down the streets, away from the house. His father's hand was heavy on Hassim's shoulder, the weight of it doubled by the weight of a father's love for his only child and trebled by the complete loss of hope.

As Hassim's father had feared, Hassim was ushered into the gates by imposing men in dark uniforms who informed him that upon delivery of his son he must leave. Later that night, in a crowded barracks that stank of sweat and fear, Hassim wept onto the hard tiles of the floor. It was the first time he had ever been away from his parents and the first time that Fleet did not come when summoned. Across the city, in a small house on a narrow street, Hassim's parents wept into each other as they feared for the life of their sweet, gentle boy.

Fleet tried for days to find a way into the army base to see the boy to whom it was tied. There was no entry, though Fleet nearly dashed itself to scattered grains against the heavily warded walls. Great pains had been taken to prevent the wraiths from accessing the men they looked after and many of the creatures languished in the shadows of the walls, waiting to hear the call of the ones who gave them form.

As battles erupted, the men were called forth to fight. Most of them were still little better than boys. At each opportunity, Hassim would immediately summon Fleet. The sand wraith was the only measure of comfort he had left. Attempting to see his parents would require Hassim to run away from the barracks and to do so would mean that his parents would die at the tyrant's hand. So, he made no plans, wanting, instead, to be able to think that his parents were still alive and still in the city.

It happened, from time to time, that on border patrols, soldiers would disappear. They were snatched by rebels, it was assumed. All that would be found was a pair of boots abandoned at the edge of the desert and a gun emptied of its clip and flung out of reach. Hassim was nearly nineteen years old when he was allowed to stand guard at the border. He had come to understand, over those brutal years of warfare, that if he wished to survive to his twentieth birthday, he would have to find a way out of the army.

He planned for months, storing away a few canteens he took as battle trophies and building a supply of food. The night before his escape, Hassim sat in the sand, his back against the brick wall. He summoned Fleet and explained in a hushed, fearful voice that as much as he wanted to, he could not take the sand wraith with him. Mahdjikistani men could never be lost in the desert through either treachery or disorientation because the sand wraiths left traces of magic along the path. That magic carried a signature unique to the wraith and the man bound to it and could be tracked for two weeks. Were Fleet to accompany him, they would be found quickly and Hassim and his parents would be publicly executed.

Two days later, in a small house, on a narrow street, in the only city in Mahdjikistan, a scuffed pair of black army boots were presented to a woman who took them without a word. Once the door was shut and the uniformed man was well away from her home, she cursed the tyrant soundly as had all of the other mothers who had lost children to his senseless greed. The boots themselves were placed carefully beside the door to wait, unclaimed, by a boy who would never come home. When Hassim's father came home and saw them, he dropped to his knees in the middle of the room and poured his shattered heart to the tiles in a burning stream of tears.

Hassim made his way across the desert, relying on nonexistent instincts and blind luck. Each day, when he stopped to rest in the heat, Fleet rose from the sands, unsummoned to keep watch over him. Without the spell to track, they would not be able to find the sand wraith or the boy. Hassim walked, finding his way into the neighboring country and sneaking onto a ship bound across the ocean. Fleet could not follow him onto the water and so it turned back, returning to Mahdjikistan and the small house on the narrow street.
The sand wraith took great comfort in knowing that Hassim was safe across an ocean on another continent, where the tyrant would likely never find him. As it watched Hassim's mother and father struggle to learn how to live without him, it longed to tell them that Hassim was not dead. It was unsure, however, if the knowledge that their son was still alive but unable to contact them at all would only be another cruelty to already broken hearts.

Fleet mourned his absence as much as they did. It longed for the confessions Hassim offered up under the stars when he had been young. They had chased each other in the waning light over dunes and down the streets, Hassim's laughter ringing against the stone walls. When the pain of loss became too great, a tendril of sand could be seen sliding under the door and winnowing across the floor, curling its way into the battered boots which still stood where the footsteps of a grown man should have echoed. The sand wraith would stay there, encased in the leather and cloth which no longer carried the familiar feel of the boy who had owned them, but remained the only physical reminder of the young man who was no longer fifteen. Years passed and the sand wraith waited, hoping for the miracle of Hassim's return.

It happened, one night, that Fleet felt a familiar tug at its senses. As the sand wraith roused, it recognized a familiar call it thought to never hear again. All it once, Fleet gathered itself and rushed out into the desert, speeding with all the power of its name to the border where a man who wore a familiar shape waited under the light of a full moon.

The sand wraith twined itself around thee ankles of the man who had finally returned home, smelling of deep and foreign magics and knowledge gained for the purpose of overturning an injustice. Hassim laughed with delight and explained that he needed Fleet to take him to the cave where the Djinn could be summoned, that he might enlist their aid against the tyrant still in power. Fleet agreed as easily and as readily as he always had to the boy asking him for a game of chase before bedtime.

“Then we will go, my oldest friend, but we will go in the morning, with the light of the sun upon us so that all will know that we do not act in fear and anger, but instead with bravery and utmost faith in our purpose,” he said, the smile on his face coloring his voice.

And so, bathed in the silver glow of the moon, the sand wraith and the boy whom it had waited for over so many years danced across the sands of their homeland.


Patricia Scott writes primarily fantasy works, though she also writes a bi-monthly column called "Geek Girl Navigating the World" at Boomtron.com. She rides a moped, collects dragons and books, and still has a day job.

St'armra the Elf Lord, by Hercynius

Editor's note: Hercynius's fable combines magic, life in a simple village, fear of strangers, and warnings about human weakness to create a highly memorable story. EC is very pleased to be publishing this tale that offerings lingering mystery.
 
 nce there was a remote mountain village where all the families prided themselves greatly on how old their blood was. No one could remember when any new soul had come to the village—even for a visit. But then one mild summer day a poor, ragged, plain-faced stranger appeared in this insular village. He was, however, no ordinary stranger, but one of the Skälfar, an elven race, in disguise. His visit caused much gossip in the village as he seemed to do nothing but laze about the commons playing his curious harp, pausing only for meals, which he took at the the village's only inn. Odd too, was his surprising wealth, paying for his food and wine with shiny silver coins. Odder still was how he barely touched the food and drink. . . .

All of this made the villagers evermore suspicious. Soon the gossip grew to such intensity that a committee of the leading citizens was formed, tasked with questioning the stranger as to his purpose and business in their community.

But most disturbing about the stranger was his face, which seemed day by day to grow uglier and uglier. By the time the committee confronted him in the commons, he was a hideous sight to behold, so ugly that it was difficult for anyone to stand directly before him and treat with him. Finally, the Elbrat, a handsome, intelligent young man, stepped forward and exclaimed, “Be off! And not round about it, either!”

The ugly stranger jumped to his feet, bowed low, strummed a baleful chord on his harp, and in the next instant disappeared—surely too fast for a natural departing. The villagers were so relieved, however, that they thought no more on the matter, but returned to their usual bickering and quarreling over all their weighty matters.
  
About a month later another seemingly poor landsman came to the village. It was in fact the same elf lord, but this time he had not disguised himself with elven magic to be ugly, rather, he showed his very own handsome elf face. Again, he seemed to have no intentions, sitting under the giant oak in the commons and playing his harp all the day long. He also “took his meals” at the inn, not really eating, though—only staring at the food for a minute or two, then asking for the bill. This time he paid with gold, each coin worth far more than ten or even twenty such meals, but then not asking for any silver or copper in return. Again, the gossip in the village rose like a wind storm. However, this time the villagers could not see enough of him, for he seemed to grow in beauty with each passing day. Finally, they could stand it no longer, and so the Elbrat went to him with half the village behind him.

“Sir, we wish not to disturb your excellent harping, but you seem as some light being come among us poor mortals. We would respectfully wish to know what services we might offer you.”

At that, the elf lord laughed brightly, slung his harp on his back, and disappeared—again, really too fast for a natural leaving. Saddened by the beautiful stranger's abrupt departure, the villagers returned to their enmity and quarreling, which was solidly grounded in grudges and suspicions going back for generations.

About a month thereafter, another poor landsman came among them. Again, it was the same elf lord. This time, however, he had used his elven magic to appear perfectly nondescript, neither beautiful, nor plain. Again, he repaired to the large oak tree in the commons and played his harp. Again, he took his meals and the inn, but this time paying for each uneaten meal with a precious gem, each and every stone of far more worth than the inn and all its property. And again, there was a huge amount of gossip. Yet this time opinions were evenly divided between those who believed the stranger was good and those who thought he was some force for evil and malevolence. And although they could not fathom the connection, many compared this latest landsman to the two previous, noting especially how the new lad seemed not to change in appearance for better or worse as had the other two so readily.

As the days went by and the innkeeper's pile of gems grew, so did the heat of the debate over whether the man was for good or evil. The Elbrat finally decided to hold a meeting at the inn and take a vote as to what to do about the man. Unfortunately, speakers on both sides fanned the crowd into great passion. And since the newly rich innkeeper no longer bothered charging for his ale and spirits, the meeting became in no time a drunken frenzy. Grudges and suspicions bottled up for generations came forth in waves of harsh, hateful shouting. A vicious brawl broke out, and by the time it was finished only the Elbrat who had seen fit to climb into the rafters remained alive.

Deeply saddened, the young man left the inn and went to the stranger under the huge oak. “Sir, a question,” he said slowly and softly after a long bow.

“Why of course!” answered the stranger merrily.

“Who exactly are you?”

At that the elf lord laughed brightly. “Why, I am called St'armra.”

“Is that all?” said the young Elbrat. “Are you not in fact a light being of some sort?”

“Oh, but you are correct, sir. I am indeed of the Skälfar.” And at that St'armra threw off his landsman's rags to reveal luminous green and purplish-blue silken garments, followed by magicking his nondescript face back into his wondrous fair elven countenance.

“And why have you come, my lord?”

“Indeed, why?” St'armra the elf lord seemed to ponder this question for a moment. Finally, he answered, “Good sir, were you not visited two months before by a rather plain-faced beggar?” 

 “Yes. And I may guess that was you. And I might also guess the brilliant-faced beggar was also you, for you now resemble him greatly.”

“Indeed! In the same!” answered St'armra, his eyes twinkling.

“But why have you played this bit of elven trickery on us, your unwitting lessers?” asked the young Elbrat.

“To be sure, on my first visit I wanted to leave immediately. For you see, I have the peculiar ability to know exactly how others regard me simply by looking into a mirror or a still pool of water towards the end of each day.”

“How so, my lord?”

“Why, because my face reflects exactly what is thought and said of me, of course! If it has grown ugly, then people are saying ugly things about me. If it has grown more beautiful, then they are saying kind and loving things about me.”

“But why then did you stay?”

“Why?”

“Yes, when you saw your face getting uglier why did you not leave immediately?”

“Because I was truly fascinated by my ugliness, not to speak of the dire mood of my heart, as well as the unwholesome melodies coming from my harp! I have never been ugly, felt so dispirited, nor played so gruesomely before, and, yes, I wanted to see just how ugly and gruesome and sad you people would make me out!” At that he laughed high and clear. “And then on the second turn, I wanted to see how beautiful you would make me and my playing out. And finally, I wanted to know what you would do if I were neither nor, fair nor foul. I am very sorry how that turned out, you understand.” At that he made an exaggerated, almost mocking frown like a small child.

The Elbrat wanted to question him further, even upbraid him—but thought better of it. After all, this was an elf, and elven-folk and their ways were surely not easy to understand. Rather, he cast his eyes to the horizon and contemplated for a long while all that he had heard. “My lord,” he said at last, “can you teach me this trick of knowing what others truly think of me?”

“But of course, gladly!”

St'armra then performed the magic, and the young man felt a strange force move through him. “Now, my good sir, you will hearken to all manner of sign, innuendo, indication, and direction no matter how subtle, be they yet completely hidden from you, unheard, unseen by you, from everything and everyone around you out for some great distance. And, thence, you will be reformed in heart, mind, and especially body and face in the same instant of this secret knowing.” At that St'armra feigned exhaustion of breath for all he had just said.

“Reformed? Changed?” said the Elbrat astounded.” But—but my lord, I only want to know. Will I now change as you did if people begin to talk mean and viciously behind my back? Will I become uglier and uglier if they dislike me? Alas! Alas!” The Elbrat looked truly crestfallen.

The elf lord made as if to ponder this question. “Oh, but this is the usual effect,” he replied, feigning gravity. "But perhaps with great discipline you may be able to simply perceive and not act out or physically express what others think of you.” Again, he frowned, seemingly in deep concentration.

Alarmed now, the young man exclaimed, “But Lord St'armra, you yourself changed greatly, depending on what my fellow villagers thought of you. Why—oh my!—why, this is no good!”

“Indeed, I myself have never perfected this magic.” Again, he looked puzzled, but in an exaggerated, child-like manner.

The young man finally did lose his temper. He jumped to his feet and shouted, “You—you simply must take this magic back immediately! Immediately, I say!” 

St'armra the elf lord let go his high, ringing laugh again. “I should not take it back! My good man, you have a very powerful gift in this magic. You have one of the fundamental powers that we elves possess. Does that not comfort you?” 

 The young man pondered these words, but shot a suspicious look at the elf lord. “Explain yourself. How can this truly be of benefit if I may not control it?”

“Control it? Why, this is your freedom from control. Alas, young sir, so much of your suffering and sadness comes from always trying to control things, to order people and objects—verily, life itself—after some form or fashion of your fleeting fancy. You push and pull, then you pull and push—at all the people, all the things in your life in so desperate a manner! And now, this humble elf would ask you, What comes of all this incredible struggling? What comes of all your controlling and ordering? Indeed, I've always wondered after your race on this matter. But take heart, dear man, this bane is over! From now on you will be able to let everything around you order and direct itself, as well as flow magically through you! Is that not grand?” 

 “Oh, oh, grand—grand you say?! Why—why, this is a terrible curse!” exclaimed the young man, flustered. “Now I will be like a puppet, a simpleton. Anyone and everyone will be able to turn me and order me about as if I were the lowest, half-witted slave. And all my affairs will go to rack and ruin as well. Why, this is a disaster!”

Again, St'armra the elf lord made as if to ponder these words—and just to be more convincing, he scowled and furrowed his brow as if in deepest concentration. Finally, he sighed and said in a plaintive voice, “Yes, yes, I can see your point. For you see, I am elf-kind and do not have such concerns. I am either around my own kind—all of whom love me dearly and want only the best for me—or I am forth in the forest, which is essentially the same as my dear elf clan, only expansive to the point of the stars. I have given myself over so totally to all this loving and caring direction, for, in truth, I am not that wise and could never dream of all the boons my loving clan, as well as the forest and the waters and the heavens might well seek to bestow upon me. Alas, in coming here I have exposed myself as a rank beginner in the affairs of all you wise and knowing men. Again, I say alas.” . . . and again he seemed to fall into deep concentration. . . . But then he quickly sat up seemingly full of energy. He blinked repeatedly as if he were a simpleton and exclaimed, “I have it! I have it! You, dear man, can come with me! Your own village is no more, and you are quite right: You could not possibly go to another human settlement in this condition. Indeed! Gather up the orphaned children and you shall all come with me!”

The young man closed his eyes and pondered this offer with all his inherited Elbrat acumen, for indeed, he had inherited as a very young man the Elbrat title from a good and wise father died too young. And then like a lightning strike it came to him! The elf lord was no simpleton as he pretended to be. He had meant all along to come collect him and the children! “My—my lord,” he stammered, “am I to understand that you meant from the very beginning to take me with you?”

St'armra began to consider this question; but suddenly he jumped to his feet and stared in amazement up into the mighty old oak. For at that moment the wind had picked up, shaking all the leaves of the beloved oak. To this the elf lord began to laugh gleefully. He laughed and laughed as if he could not stop! He stood there with his head thrown back and laughed and laughed so merrily, so beautifully that the breezes truly seemed to be racing in answer evermore lustily. And soon all the surrounding plant-folk seemed to shake their leaves, blooms, and stems as if to share his wondrous mirth. Presently, the breezes died down and the elf lord, likewise, became calm again. He then turned to the young man and said, “Yes! Come!”


Note from Hercynius: The Skälfar elves speak a passable English and, of course, their own elven language, Skälfarish. One day Hercynius, a frequent guest, asked if he might learn Skälfarish. They said yes, but only after he had mastered classic Skälfarish. When Hercynius asked how he might learn that language, he was told of yet another elven language he would have to master before classic Skälfar. As it turned out, there was a chain of five intermediate "nature spirit" languages to learn--one after the other-- in order to finally speak and understand Skälfarish properly. At this time Hercynius is working on the first intermediate language--a vowel-less, gurgly-sounding water nymph tongue.

Pretty Pictures

Here are a few old fairy tale illustrations I just found. I just like them, so I thought I'd share.
KW