Sand Dancer, Short Fiction

Short Story: Malik the Merciless and the Greedy Housemen

There was once a young boy named Malik who possessed the gifts of strength and wisdom and courage. After passing his helbond, Malik became a man and left the Lunei in search of great bounties for his tribe. His travels took him across the sandsea, from the sparkling diamonds of the crystal sands in the east, to the blood red wastes of the west, and the pure gray desert of the ashes. With his strength, Malik fought off any foe who crossed his path, be it snake, sand wraith, raider, or the Lunei’s true rivals: The Ash Makers. With his wisdom, Malik followed Lune’s stars and camped within Gai’s oasis to eat, drink, and refresh his spirit. And with his courage, Malik continued his journey across Rahn’s great desert, unsure of what he may find.

However, as Malik traversed the unforgiving heat of the Duslands, he had not found the bounties he sought. The brightest stars twinkled north, calling with their secrets. Like most tribesmen, Malik knew little of the world beyond the sandsea, but he’d heard tales of men who chose to live inside stone huts instead of cloth tent. Surely these men would grant their wisdom?

And so Malik left the safety of the sandsea and turned north.

Though the desert stretched onward, Malik did not know these sands. He didn’t know where to find the nearest oasis, or which rocky ravines should be avoided. He didn’t know what dangers lurked behind the next dune, or which bushes held snakes. Nor did he know where the north men lived, or how to find them.

Days turned to weeks. Though Malik walked a thousand and one steps north, Rahn’s heat remained with him for the desert never ends. Soon Malik began to feel tired and thirsty. His mouth tasted dry, his skin felt rough, and he stumbled over a dune as though sand sick. As all Duslanders know, traveling in the desert without water is a fool’s game, and Malik had run out of Lune’s precious nectar.

Malik needed water.

As Malik staggered north, a shape began to form on the horizon. An oasis, perhaps? Malik knew, as all Duslanders do, that one cannot trust their own eyes in the open desert. He approached the oasis wary, afraid that his heart’s desire had conjured a mirage. He imagined sparkling pools of Lune’s waters and lush coconuts the size of a camel’s head. Such thoughts drove him wild, and he hurried on, certain that Lune would provide for him.

But, with each step, the haze of Rahn shimmered, and the oasis took on an unnatural shape. The trees turned into impossibly wide trunks, and the bushes moved as though walking! It’s only when Malik came closer that he realized the wide trunks were giant rocks, and the moving bushes were people—strange-looking people dressed in bright cloth of orange and red and blues and greens, and not the dirty beige of Malik’s own clothes.

Malik had found the north men of the Duslands.

Weary with exhaustion and thirst, Malik approached two north men wearing a bright golden sash across their shoulder. They were what you and I would call a Houseman. “Greetings oh Duslander of the north,” Malik called. “Do you speak the words I speak?”

The north men looked upon Malik with bemusement. “Greetings, oh tribesman of the south. We do speak the words you speak. What brings you to our humble village?”

Thank Rahn and Lune and Gai, thought Malik. “Oh north men, I have traveled far to learn lessons in strength and wisdom and courage and to seek great bounties for my tribe. But I have run out of water, and I am very thirsty. By the grace of the gods, do you have water?”

“But of course we have water, oh tribesman.” The north men then lead Malik to the center of their village. Malik walked past strange rocks where the north men made their homes. They were carved into rooms, allowing people to sit inside and rest in the shade like tents. Men and woman ate charred kebobs and decorated their homes in beautiful pottery. These Duslander weren’t so different from the tribes after all, thought Malik.

The north men brought Malik to a giant pool. Only, this wasn’t an oasis crafted by Gai and Lune. Its waters were the brilliant sapphire of Lune, but the pool had been shaped from stone by the hands of men. The Lunei often used cloth to catch the rains of Lune’s Shadow, but this giant stone prison to Lune’s blessing felt like an insult. Malik’s thirst preventing him from saying so, however, and he reached out to scoop its waters.

The north men held out their arms and stopped him. “You may only taste our water in exchange for gold, oh tribesman.”

Malik didn’t understand. “What is gold?”

“It is the way of things here, oh tribesman. We barter for water and food and cloth with gold.” The north men reached into their pockets and pulled out shiny round gems the size of a stone.

“But I don’t own any gold,” Malik protested. “Why do I need gold to drink from Lune’s water? Her rains cost nothing.”

“Then wait for it to rain, oh tribesman.”

Malik found himself growing impatient with these north men. “How do I find gold?”

“You must earn it. The gods care not for men who cannot provide for themselves. Do you not hunt and gather in the sandsea? It is so here in the north. There are many ways to earn gold. You could hunt. You could gather. You could sell your skills to the highest bidder. But each man must be useful, and each man must pay his way. It is fair and just, do you not agree, oh tribesman?”

Malik thought this made sense. Even in the tribes of the sandsea, the strongest must hunt and gather to provide food and water and shelter. But then Malik remembered the tribe elders who were too old to hunt and gather. And he remembered a time before his helbond when he was too young to hunt and gather. And then he remembered the djharn’s many wives whose bellies were full with child, and they could not hunt or gather either. In these times, the tribe worked together to hunt and gather for those who could not.

And so, Malik asked; “What happens to the thirsty who do not have gold? To the old and the young and the lame and the mothers who cannot hunt and gather?”

The north men shrugged. “They stay thirsty.” They pointed to the shade beside one of the tall rock homes. “Those who have no gold will beg for handouts and hope for mercy.”

“Where is your mercy?”

“We are merciless,” the north men said. And with that, they crossed their arms and refused to let Malik sate his thirst.

Malik looked to the beggars sitting in the shade. They wore rags instead of clothes, and their bare feet were covered in sand and dirt. Their hands rose toward any man that strode past, but all ignored their plight, and the beggars shrank against their wall. Malik didn’t want to lower himself to begging. He possessed the blood of the Lunei after all! Nor did he wish to ignore these poor men. If the gods did not grant mercy to these thirsty souls, and the north men saw fit to deny them Lune’s blessing, then who would help them?

Malik understood a simple truth; it took only one man to help another. Do the gods not help us because they cannot? Or because they have given us the tools of strength and wisdom and courage so that we may use them?

But how? Malik did not have a sword to hunt with. No did he own any items to barter. Instead, Malik had another idea.

He bartered for coin by telling a tale.

He approached the north men and wove great tales of the Lunei of the sandsea. In exchange for coin, he spoke of his helbond and his journey to find strength and wisdom and courage. The north men laughed and clapped at his tales, and they rewarded each one with a shiny golden coin. To this day, Malik’s tales are told across Sandair, and it is customary to gift the teller with a single golden coin.

By the time Rahn began to set, Malik had earned ten golden coins, and his thirst remained. He approached the beggars and gave the men one gold each until Malik had only one coin left for himself.

The first beggar bowed in gratitude and gave his coin to the north men in exchange for water. The north men obliged and gave him a bucket full.

The second beggar bowed in gratitude and gave his coin to the north men in exchange for water. The north men obliged and gave him a cup full.

The third beggar bowed in gratitude and gave his coin to the north men in exchange for water. The north men obliged and gave him a handful.

The fourth beggar received only a sip of water. And when the fifth beggar tried to exchange his coin, the north men drew their whips and chased the beggar away.

Confused by this, Malik approached the north men with his own coin. “I have come to barter for water.”

The north men shook their heads. “The price of water has gone up, oh tribesman. It now costs five gold to drink from Lune’s pool.”

“Five gold! Why must it be five gold? These men are thirsty.”

The north men explained. “When each man takes from the pool, the water dwindles, and so the price must go up.”

This enraged the thirsty beggars. They yelled and charged at the north men, demanding to swap their coin for water. The north men drew their whips and lashed at the beggars, who begged for mercy. The north men showed none as their whips cut into the beggars’ flesh and tore them bloody.

“No water for those who cannot pay!” The north men yelled as they swung their whips.

Malik had enough. Of all the tales he’d heard of the north men, he’d never expected them to act with such merciless brutality. Rahn gave his light and warmth for all men to bathe in. Gai bore her fruit for all men to eat. And Lune rained with her waters for all men to drink.

Malik grabbed the arm of a north man and stole his whip. “You north men are full of greed! You have no mercy for the men who thirst and beg. You have no mercy for those you exploit. You have no mercy for those who cannot defend themselves. And so, I, Malik the Merciless, will have no mercy for you.”

He swung his whip at the north men until they cried.

He swung until their flesh bled.

He swung until his arms ached.

“Mercy, mercy!” the north men cried.

But Malik showed no mercy. He whipped the north men until a river of blood ran through the village and the north men in their golden sash were no more. The beggars cheered and drank from the waters as Lune intended.

Malik finally sated his thirst. He spoke to every north man in the village and declared that no man should ever be charged gold for water. And then, once well rested and fed, Malik left the village and visited another, and another, to pass on his message. Any who opposed him felt the force of his whip.

He showed no mercy for greedy north men.

And thus Malik earned his title as Malik the Merciless.

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