This is a short story taken from the Sand Dancer short story collection: Coming of Age in Sandair.
It’s a prequel set before the events of Sand Dancer with a younger Mina exploring the desert with her father. If you enjoyed this short story, then join my newsletter to receive other prequel stories from Alistar, Raj, and even Prince Ravel!
The Girl Born From Sand and Stars
The line snapped, pulling back an empty lure with stolen bait. Father smacked the rod against the side of his boat with a thwack. “I hate fish! I hate fishing! I hate—” His silver eyes glared across the river and met hers. They softened, if only a touch, though Mina read the unspoken curse shining there.
She hated it, too. Hated the stench of fish. Hated the taste of moss and brine which lingered in her clothes no matter how often she rolled in the dirt. Hated the heat which leaked down her spine. Hated that the blood of warriors had been reduced to fishing for cud in some pokey town at the poor end of the Duslands to survive.
They’d been at this since dawn. Heat and exhaustion and thirst hollowed her gut. Ripples formed from the boat’s sudden motion and tickled under her bare feet. She sat on the edge of the pier, her legs dangling above the water. The merchants of Khalbad’s markets had already packed away their wares for the midday rest—she could tell by the quiet. Only seagulls squawked further down the pier as they fought over bones. Even if Father did land a catch, no one would buy stinky old fish. At least Mina would get a meal, and the gulls would welcome any remains.
Father sat hunched over in his boat. His back rose in repressed sighs. She wrung the netting clasped in her hands and said nothing. She knew better than to interrupt his thoughts. Besides, she had her own misery to battle. He stared across the Giant’s Tail river east, to where the first rains would come.
Lune’s Shadow would arrive soon, and their opportunity to fish would float away. The heavy rains brought fatter fish downstream, but those waters were mobbed by fishermen with the equipment needed to make their catch, and the Cleansing rendered the shallow river impossible once bodies dove in. Even on a calm dawn, Mina couldn’t stomach the boat. The rise and fall of the Giant’s Tail proved too great a challenge and her job remained as before; to hold the net and prepare for their haul.
They hadn’t once filled it.
The netting hung loose in her grip. Her stomach’s cries went unheard. They had nothing to show for it. No fish to sell. No fish to eat. She would need to beg at the temple again. Father would sooner suffer another day of fasting than ask for handouts. His lean frame resembled his fishing rod, and he hid a trembling hand where he thought she couldn’t see. Without coin, they had no choice; beg or starve.
Father steered his boat back to the pier and moored. She tossed the netting inside, slipped into her sandals, and helped drag him up. His left leg buckled, and he leaned onto his fishing rod. The wood creaked.
She reached out to snatch it. “You’ll break it!”
He straightened and tossed the rod onto the pier. “Doesn’t matter, it’s already broke. Useless. No good for anything.”
She picked up the fishing rod. It stretched longer than her height, but felt light enough to maneuver. She swung it through the air like a sword. Father’s sunken eyes followed the swish. He’d once owned a sword and worked in the town guard to earn coin. But after the war, the one he fought in before she’d been born, his injured leg made even walking difficult. The town guard didn’t want to pay a cripple to lean against the wall and look tough, and the Housemen wouldn’t allow him to keep a weapon.
It wasn’t fair. Father fought in Housemen wars. He fought for their orange banners. And they’d rewarded him with a permanent limp, taken his only means of earning coin, and left him to rot at the bottom of Khalbad’s docks with stinking fish. Not even that.
Father placed a hand on the rod, stopping her movement. Gently, he lifted her arm up, moving her limbs into a fighting stance. “Like so. Move your feet apart. There. Now you look like a Lunei.”
The rod trembled in her grip. Hunger made her feel tired sometimes; a wearisome feeling different from the sleepiness of a full, contented belly. Khalbad’s street rats and beggars understood hunger well. They said hunger ebbed and flowed like the river and could be ignored with distraction. Mina tried that. She pottered around the streets, explored each alleyway, and sat in the temple’s lectures until she could recite their lessons from memory.
Hunger made her angry.
She let the fishing rod clatter to the ground. “So Lunei look half-starved and dirty? Some warriors they were.”
Father’s silver eyes widened. “What did you say?”
“You heard.” Mina dug her heels into the dirt and flexed fists by her hip. Father had cursed her tongue plenty of times, but never struck her, not like the tanner’s boy who oft got his hide tanned. She doubted Father had the guts for it. “Men like Malik the Merciless don’t live no more because the Lunei were too foolish to feed themselves.”
“The Lunei are meant for more than fishing.” Father crossed his arms and matched her scowl.
“Then why aren’t we with them? Why are we here?”
Father glanced over his shoulder, but no one lingered nearby. The townsfolk would be idling in their homes or the tavern. He lowered his voice regardless. “I’ve told you enough times. Our tribe were attacked and forced to flee—”
“If they were good warriors like Malik, they wouldn’t need to flee.”
“A single man can’t fight a horde.”
“Malik the Merciless did.”
“Malik the Merciless held the favor of the gods.”
“So we don’t? Is that it? Lune hates us, so she makes us eat dust?”
For a heartbeat, Father’s silver eyes flashed red, as though sky fire flickered behind his stare. “Don’t say such things. What would your ancestors think if they heard such talk? What would Malik the Merciless think?” He drew a breath. “The gods care not for people who don’t care for themselves, and you of all should know that. No one could best Malik the Merciless! He didn’t fight for glory or gold. He had nothing. No home. No silk robes or fancy banners. Only his Lunestone blade.” Father scooped the fishing rod and held it as though it were the most precious weapon in all the Duslands. “Legends say Lune herself gifted Malik his sword so that he could protect the Duslands from the corruption and greed of Housemen. Do you think he earned Lune’s favor by whining?”
She scraped her sandal into the dirt. “No.”
“Do you think he became the legend of our tribe by cursing her?”
“She is your patron. The mother of all Lunei. And we are her children. It is by her rains that we have this river.” He sliced the fishing rod through the air and pointed it at the Giant’s Tail. “It is by her grace we can fish at all.”
“Then why does she let us starve?”
“Are we not alive with clothes on our backs?”
Mina grumbled a yes, but barely surviving shouldn’t count.
“Lune provides exactly what we need. And what you need right now, Tamina Hawker, is a lesson. One you will not forget.”
She plucked the loose hem of her headscarf. Father only spoke her full name when truly angry. “A new tale?”
“I’m not sure you deserve a new tale.”
Her heart sank. “Then what?”
“I thought to take you on an adventure. I thought you were old enough to see Lune’s blessing for yourself. With this attitude of yours, Tamina, I’m not so certain.”
Mina grabbed his dirty robes. She would turn thirteen by the end of next season. Surely old enough? “Outside of Khalbad?”
He tried to pry her fingers away. “Lune’s blessing is not for those who fail to show their gratitude.”
“I’m grateful!” She tugged at his robe. “I didn’t mean to say I’m not, I know Lune watches over us, I see her most nights.”
Amusement danced in Father’s eyes, betraying his stern expression. “Don’t apologize to me. It’s Lune’s favor you must beg for.” He removed her hand from his robes and tucked the fishing rod in his belt as though it were a sword. “Come, then, and learn.”
Giddiness replaced the empty ache in her belly. Mina skipped beside her father as he made his way along Khalbad’s docks. He could still walk with breaks to rest his leg, but the limp slowed his pace. The heat of Rahn burned fierce this time of day. They shuffled into the nearest shade for reprieve once they reached the alleyways between the tall townhouses. Chatter and noise came from inside homes. The market lay empty—its stalls abandoned—but the merchants would be spending their hard-earned coin on food and ale. Mina wafted the air as they strode past the dock-workers tavern. The open windows stunk of sweat, ale, and smoke.
Pots lining the alleyway rattled as a large man stomped around the corner, no doubt headed for the tavern. Bloodied stains coated the larger man’s apron. The town butcher.
The sight of him made her legs weak. Whispers spoke of the butcher luring young street rats into his hut with the promise of free pies and then chopping off their fingers to fill them. At least, that’s what the one-fingered street rat had told her. Why did Housemen let such a monster walk freely? She slouched behind Father. Or tried to. Father’s injured leg buckled, and he stumbled into the butcher.
The butcher cursed. “Get off me, you filthy rat!”
Father grasped onto the butcher’s apron to steady himself. “Forgive me, my friend, my leg—”
The butcher shoved Father away. “Tribe dog! Keep your pilfering fingers to yourself!” He spat and turned his dark glare on Mina.
Her stomach lurched. He’d laid his bloodied hands on her father. That couldn’t go unpunished. But what could she do against a man of his size? He stood like a giant! No steel shone at his hip, but he looked strong enough to take down a Houseman or two.
Father grabbed her headscarf and yanked her to his side. “A thousand apologies. My daughter and I mean you no trouble.” He dragged her into an alley, bowing his head as he limped. “Keep away from men like him,” he whispered and pushed her ahead.
She shot the butcher a nasty glare over her shoulder. “Malik would gut men like that.”
“The gods reward all men in time,” Father said through clenched teeth. He marched her into a darkened alley away from the dock-workers tavern.
“You said the gods don’t care for men who don’t care for themselves.”
“If the gods meant for you to fight men, Mina, they’d have made you bigger for a start.”
She stopped walking. “Then what do the gods mean for me to do?”
Father limped on and gave no answer.
They avoided the market square and wove in and out of the back alleys. The streets were still quiet and would be until Rahn made his descent for the night. Only a few guards stood on watch within the shade, their shoulders slumped, and their eyelids fluttering. They paid no heed as Father brushed past them. He beckoned her toward an arch cut out of the tall sandstone wall.
And into the Duslands itself.
She’d stepped beyond the town gate a handful of times, enough to learn that playing in the sand did nothing but dry your skin and rub blisters into your soles. There were greater dangers than the heat. The desert held wild animals; snakes, scorpions, foxes, dogs, and her namesake—hawks. Those were just the beasts. Monsters made from men lurked behind the dunes. Raiders were the worst, but raiders didn’t come near Housemen towns. They wouldn’t dare. Housemen paid the guards good coin to protect the people, and they put their own men on the streets to patrol too. Fancy men, the kind who wore clean leather and a golden sash across their shoulder. And if anyone dared kill a Houseman, the Protector of the Path himself would come riding, and no one stood a chance against him. His name carried the status of legendary warrior—as good as Malik the Merciless. But he also served as the King’s warden. His voice in the south.
Soft warm sands covered her sandaled feet. Father drew his fishing rod and leaned on it, using it to balance himself. She jogged to his side, half-climbing through the shifting dunes. Though made from fine grains, its shape seemed to change with each footstep, and soon the effort of striding turned to sweat on her brow.
“Where are we going?” she called.
“West. You’ll see.” He rolled down his sleeves and wrapped a scarf around his head, neck and chin. She tugged her own headscarf tight, copying him.
Rahn’s heat burned stronger out in the open desert, and the thin cloth on her back clung to her skin. Nothing but endless white stretched before them, and behind, Khalbad’s walls and townhouses shimmered in a haze. What were they doing entering open desert during the day? Father had lost his mind. Unless Father had devised this as punishment for her earlier words. Dying of thirst would amuse Lune, but surely shame her Lunei ancestors?
This was a test. A brutal, unforgiving test that dried her lips and made her wish for the river. Hunger returned to her belly and growled with the strength of a mountain lion.
Father pulled a water canteen from his pocket and took a swig. He passed it to her. The leather looked scuffed, but not old. It resembled the canteens the guards carried on their belts. “Where did you get this?”
She took a conservative gulp. She didn’t need to be told the importance of conserving water. Especially not during the day. Sand danced across the gentle winds and a mirage formed ahead. She shielded her eyes and squinted. Trees rose from behind a dune. An oasis.
The oasis grew in scope and size the closer they neared. Palm trees stood in a circle overlooking what appeared to be a large natural pond. It wasn’t the water that caught Mina’s eye, but the shiny emerald grass that outlined it. She approached and kneeled onto a natural lush blanket—cool and well fed from Lune’s waters. Not at all like the dried brown reeds of Khalbad.
Father peered over her shoulder. “Both Lune and Gai have touched this land. But this isn’t why I brought you here. This way.”
Mina stretched to her feet and followed Father around the still sapphire pool to the far end of the oasis. They waded through bushes, pushing aside fronds, until Father stopped her on the oasis edge. He pointed. “Look.”
She traced his finger to the horizon. A steel pole protruded from a sand hill as tall as any townhouse. Lune’s crescent formed the top and shone bright above the sands.
Mina gasped aloud.
“That is Lune’s guardian. There are hundreds of them, all placed between here and the red wastes of the west. Miles and miles of desert, more than you and I will ever see in our lifetimes. We call it Lune’s Path. Travelers and merchants follow the path so they’ll never be lost. Do you know who built them?”
Father pulled a face. “Don’t be foolish. Our ancestors built this. Our people.”
“The Lunei made that?”
“They did.” Father’s silver eyes twinkled. “Hundreds of years ago. They look even more impressive at night. The Lunei built them so they would reflect Lune’s light. They’re a monument to who we are and what we have achieved.”
Mina took a step beyond the oasis’s border. She wanted to reach the pole up close. Touch it. Feel her ancestors. “The Lunei aren’t with us anymore.”
“Course they are. Every star you see in the sky holds a Lunei’s spirit. That’s where we go after we leave the Duslands.”
“The Green Hands say we go to Rahn after we die.”
“Well, yes, but Rahn is the father of heat. The fire in our blood goes to him.”
“Like the Fire Walkers?” She twisted to face him. “Only Fire Walkers have fire in their blood. That’s what the Housemen say.”
“Yes, so the Housemen say.” His lip quirked in annoyance. “We are Lunei. Our eyes make it so. The blood of Malik the Merciless runs through me, and you too, if you were a boy.”
Why would it matter if she were a boy or not? Her arms carried the blood of Malik the Merciless, regardless. She opened her mouth to ask when Father hauled her back into the bush.
Dust clouds rose around Lune’s pole. She heard the thump of hooves before she saw them. Men on horseback. Raiders? Her heart raced. Neither Mina nor her father carried a weapon to defend themselves, and they were too far from the safety of Khalbad’s walls. Father tugged her down and together they sank under the cover of the bushes, watching. She counted two men, one Duslander and another odd-looking man. His skin mirrored the sands coloring.
“What is he?” she whispered.
Father shushed her and drew his fishing rod. It wouldn’t stand a chance against the raiders’ blades.
The raiders rode straight for the oasis. For a heartbeat, it looked as though they might ride on by, but Lune hadn’t blessed them with luck. The two men entered the oasis and dismounted beside the pool. Each replenished their water skins and took a handful to wash. Mina adjusted her crouched position to get a better look between the bushes’ thick fronds. They were dressed like raiders, in tight dark leather with sharp curved steel strapped to their hips, but they also wore colored sashes like the Housemen. Only, they weren’t golden like House Khalbond, but purple. Did other Houses have other colors?
A memory itched the back of her mind. “Is that the Protector of the Path?”
Father clamped a hand over her mouth. “Don’t say that name.”
She sucked in a warm breath. The Housemen splashed in the pond and didn’t notice her or Father hidden only a few feet away. Once their horses were watered, they remounted and disappeared past the trees, kicking up a miniature sandstorm as they departed.
Father didn’t release his hand until the dust, and the thud of hooves, faded. “Do you listen to my tales? Housemen are dangerous—”
“The Protector of the Path isn’t a Houseman! He’s a legend like Mal—”
“Do not speak of him.” Father’s expression returned to its stern one. “He’s a Houseman just like the rest of him. You saw his colors. Don’t be fooled into thinking he’s trustworthy because some drunk spins a pretty tale about his deeds. The Protector of the Path is supposed to help tribesmen, but he didn’t lift a finger to help the Lunei when we needed him most. Our people are dead, Tamina, and he wasn’t even there.”
That wasn’t part of the tales she’d heard of the Protector of the Path. Her gaze wandered to the shiny steel pole standing in the dunes despite the wind and sand billowing around it. The Lunei may be gone, but their monuments still stood. Even if the rest of the Duslands and its Housemen didn’t remember who built them, she would.
Father put a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t mean to shout. But the Duslands, Mina… there are so many dangers, and most come bearing the face of men. You can’t trust Housemen to have your best interests. We can only protect each other.”
She rubbed her nose. “I know that.”
“I worry you’re growing too fast. And I worry you’ll forget where we came from. Not just from the sands, but also the stars. You are Duslander. You are Lunei.”
“I want to find them. Our people. I want to go home.”
“I know. We will. One day.” Father tucked his fishing rod away and lifted a leather purse from his pocket. Coins clinked together. “Let’s get back to town. The kebob stall will be setting up soon.”
Mina gawked at him. Her mouth watered with the prospect of meat, but he hadn’t earned that many coins from catching fish. “Where did you get those?”
Father smiled. “Lune provides.”