from Azkhantian Tales
The rising sun, sullen and gray, cast eerie shadows across the Azkhantian badlands. To the north, jagged hills slashed through the haze. An old woman sat on a solitary crag of black granite, gazing down at the valley where the Gelonian Imperials had set up their encampment. She wore a cloak of black wool over her tight-fitting jacket and horseman’s trousers, so that from a distance, she seemed to be part of the rock itself. Her skin was creased and her almond-shaped eyes faded from looking at the sun. Across her lap lay a short, curved bow, the wood worn into a soft gloss.
She remembered sitting like this with her mother, many years ago, learning to shoot an arrow straight up in the air and catch it in her bare hands as it came down. She remembered teaching her own daughters to do the same. It was not a test of courage, but an act of surrender, of perfect balance and stillness.
At moments, the old woman imagined she caught the noises of the soldiers below. She had heard them in her dreams for so many nights now — the strangely accented speech, the shouted commands, the clanging of bronze swords and buckles. And the smells—the fetor of unwashed men’s bodies crowded together, of leather harness and boiled wheat-meal.
She ran her fingertips over the bow, stroking it as if it were an old friend. It resonated to her touch, as if eager for her to use it again. Beside the bow rested her arrow-case. The leather sides were flat, as if
empty. It was not empty. She drew out a single arrow, an arrow without a flaw, straight and smooth, each vane of its feathering perfect.
She had carried it since the day her youngest daughter had gone to war.
Outside the circle of Azkhantian tents, watchfires of dried camel dung hissed and flickered. The wind, laden with the smells of horse dung, wild herbs, and charred camel meat, burned cold. A dog barked at a passing shadow. Hardy, roach-maned ponies stamped their feet along the tether lines and nickered, as if scenting what lay ahead.
Earlier that day, bonfires of precious ironwood had been lighted, a young camel sacrificed and its entrails examined by the enaree, who pronounced the omens auspicious. Then the animal was roasted whole in a pit dug in the earth and everyone who was to ride against the Gelonian invaders ate the meat to share in the good fortune. The strong young men and women drank k’th, fermented mares’ milk, and danced to the music of drums and reed pipes.
Aimellina Daughter of Oomara, Daughter of Shannivar, watched the dancing, her hands curled into fists. The rhythm of the drums pounded through her body like a fever. Her right breast, bound tightly to her chest to keep it from her bowstring, throbbed. Dancers leaped and spun in front of her, their ebony braids flying, their shadows flickering across her face. They were her friends, her age mates, even the bully she had challenged so many years ago. Now they were all to ride to glory.
All except her.
“The enaree made a prophecy the night you were born,” Aimellina’s mother, Oomara, had said when
she forbade her to ride with the others. “The midwives had feared we both might die because a star fell from the sky. The enaree said you would live, but die young and far from your own tent.”
Aimellina went to find the enaree in his tent. She brought a length of fine camel-wool cloth of her own weaving in token of her respect for his powers. Her heart beat unaccountably fast as she waited for his permission to enter.
Ruddy light filled the tent. A brazier of beautifully wrought bronze held a bed of glowing coals upon which cones of sandalwood incense smoldered. Carpets woven in dark, intricate designs symbolizing the Tree-of-Life covered the floor.
“I knew that someday you would come to me, Aimellina Daughter of Oomara Daughter of Shannivar.” The enaree gestured her to sit. “You are grown into a fine strong archer, just as I foresaw.”
“Ar-Dethen-Gelon marches on Azkhantia with his army, and my mother has forbidden me to ride in our defense!” Aimellina burst out. “All because she fears your prophecy.”
“And you fear that your friends will get all the glory while you sit at home milking your camels and making curd-cheese, with no chance to kill a man and earn a husband.”
Aimellina flushed. “I care nothing for a husband!”
“Then why have you come to me? Not to invite me to dance?” The enaree cackled, his voice as hoarse as the cawing of a carrion crow.
Aimellina’s shoulders tensed, but she kept her hands open on her lap. “Surely in all your knowledge, with all your powers, you can give me something that will set my mother’s heart to ease.”
For a long moment, the enaree sat silent. The orange light shadowed every seam and line of the old man’s face, turning his eyes into those of a strange animal, one of demonic aspect. Aimellina tried to imagine what he was thinking, whether he saw how much Oomara loved her, whether he cared, what secret purpose her own life or death might serve. Finally he said, “And that is all you wish? Your mother’s blessing, not the protection of your own life?”
Aimellina’s heart shivered. Then, like all brash young things, she shook it off with a proud toss of her head. “I want to ride, to fight, to serve my people. To win glory. The rest is in the hand of the gods.”
Later that night, Aimellina came to her mother’s tent. The bonfires had died down. Only a few of the young warriors still danced. The rest had gone off to sleep away the k’th and dream of battles to come.
Oomara noted how her daughter held her head, the lightness of her step and the laughter just below the surface of her voice. She’d heard it before, when the girl had made up her mind to take on the tribal bully, even if he was half again as big as she. Or when her father, Oomara’s third husband, told her that if she could ride the big dun gelding, she could have it.
“I have come once more to ask your blessing,” Aimellina said. “You need have no fear, for the enaree
has given me a charm that will guard my life through any peril.” She held out an arrow, perfect in balance and the smoothness of its shaft. Oomara picked it up in both hands and tried its strength. To her surprise, the shaft did not bend in her grasp.
“It cannot be broken or burnt,” Aimellina said. “It must take a life to — to end mine. So you must keep it for me, for as long as it is safe in your care, so am I. The enaree has sworn it so.”
“Why would the enaree do this for you? What price did you pay?”
Aimellina laughed. “For love of you and pity of me, I suppose. Or perhaps he fears what will become of him if the Gelon triumph. They are not overly fond of his sort, or so it is said.”
Oomara closed her eyes, but she could not shut out the vision of her daughter’s face, so filled with the brassy certainty of youth. She had no choice but to give her consent now. If she refused, the enaree would hear and take it as a personal insult.
Yet Oomara mistrusted the enaree, for she knew his ways were devious and his motives were his own. His loyalty was to his hidden gods and the welfare of the entire tribe, not one headstrong woman archer.
She remembered the last part of his prophecy, the part she had never breathed aloud, that Aimellina would die at the hands of one who loved her.
Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight, (and the omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels), and short stories in Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, and Star Wars: Tales from Jabba’s Palace. Now under her birth name, Ross, she has written an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. Her collection Azkhantian Tales includes four short stories set in that world. Book View Cafe also offers her nonfiction Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life and a number of stand-alone short stories.