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Fiction Excerpt: “On A Pale Horse”

on-a-pale-horse-360By Sylvia Volk

Art by Aaron Starr

From Black Gate 14, copyright © 2010 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved

 

The raiders struck at twilight, perhaps an hour after the camels had been herded in for milking; in another hour, this work would be completed and the sheep would come in. Then the lambs, who stayed with the tents all day, would strain at their tethers and baa with hunger, and their ewes would come trotting eagerly along. Ibrahim’s eldest son Feisal would milk an ewe that had lost her lamb, and carrying the first bowl of the milking to his father’s mare, give her to drink. As he always did, he would stroke her neck and gloat over her, for her first-born filly would be his, to ride to war. And after the lambs had suckled and the sheep had been folded into their tent, with their fierce dogs and the shepherd slaves to guard them, evening prayers would be said and the family would go to bed.

But not tonight.

Salsabil was gathering brush for the fire. She heard a noise, and straightened in surprise; then a horseman came hurtling at her out of the silvery twilight. A stranger upon a little milk-white mare, brandishing a fifteen-foot lance above his head; at the sight of her he whooped out a high yipping war-cry. Next she heard shouting voices, hounds wildly baying, and screams blowing faintly up from the campsite. She stumbled backward. The stranger whooped again, and caught at the tail of her burqa’. Salsabil flung her burden of thorny branches under the hooves of his war-mare, and fled.

She heard her father’s voice roaring out commands and curses.

She heard the slave-women crying up to God.

She heard the enemy screaming their battlecry: “Ana akhu Mariam! Ana akhu Mariam! Hao, hao! We are the sons of Miriam!”

Up the hill she dashed, barefoot, light as an antelope with her springy stride. Behind her, the horseman had turned his mare, and now they came after her. Salsabil was just at the top of the hill when they caught up. She shrieked and struck the mare’s muzzle with her fist, and the rider toed his mount aside, laughing wildly, making the little white horse rear up and brandish her little white hooves in Salsabil’s face. The girl saw dreadful sand-cracks in the mare’s hooves, sores fissuring the fragile thin-skinned legs where the beast had been chained to prevent her from straying; half her silken mane had been shorn away, and there was a weeping wound across her withers… and still she was valiant, beautiful. Salsabil flung herself forward and away, a flailing hoof ripped her dress, and she dodged past, picked up her feet, and flew down the hill like a swallow.

There in the lee of the slope were her family tents, black and beloved. The sheep-tent was on fire. The camels were galloping away, the dogs running after them. The raiders on their small elegant mares tore between the tents, their robes fluttering like feathers. Her father and brothers ran forward swinging their swords. Salsabil skimmed along the stony ground, rushing right toward the thick of battle — unable to stop.

The Bedouin men melted into the half-light like mirages. The horses shone like bright water. And it seemed to her, for an eyeblink, that there were no men on the battlefield. Only horses. The horses were pale dun and pale gray and pale, shining gold; they were stunted and starved and unkempt, neglected by their masters yet prized beyond pearls — for they had a fantastic beauty no man could resist. All the beasts of the desert were hardened by privation, and men were too. But of all living things, none thrived upon privation like horses. And men loved horses, for no other creature was as well suited to battle.

Men went to war, and their horses died for them.

Behind her, Salsabil heard the drumming of hooves. At the awning of the family tent, with her pursuer thundering after her, she whirled. Sand sprayed under her heels. She stood tall, flinging up her arms.

The mare came charging downhill at full speed, head tucked close against her chest and hooves crashing through the loose scree. Straight at her. Salsabil stood like a rock. Her sight grew dim. Her outstretched fingers trembled. But she did not move.

At the last instant, with her nose barely an inch from the girl’s breast, the war-mare stopped. She flung her elegant head high, danced before Salsabil upon hooves smaller than the feet of a girl-child. Her upper eyelids were as wild doves, and the flicking black edges of her ears were as the wings of pigeons. And Salsabil gazed up and up at the rider on the mare’s back.

She looked into his bearded face, and fear struck her in the heart — for it was the face of a skeleton. But she could not allow him to pass. “Go back!” she said.

He laughed incredulously, the long lance balanced across his knee. “I am the brother of Mawia — get out of my way!”

“Go back, go back!” She stood firm. “You may not enter here. Go somewhere else!”

Behind her was the women’s portion of the tent, which no man might enter — even in the heat of war. No man would hurt a woman, even during a raid. Now, her adversary grinned down at Salsabil and reached out the blade of his lance to lift the awning; she glanced back as he looked past her, and both of them saw a huddle of affronted, veiled figures crouching upon the carpets. The women in the tent glared back through their black masks. Their eyes flashed, and they spread their robes wide to bar the intruder’s view. Salsabil knew what they protected; she knew what she must do. She stepped forward, and touched the cheek of the little white mare. “Go away,” she said. “Go.”

The mare wheeled and charged away neighing, and Salsabil backed into the tent.

She could barely breathe. She shook, now that it was all over, with gusts of suppressed laughter. The raiders were withdrawing, for she could hear her brothers run forward shouting her name: “We are the brothers of Salsabil! Hao, hao! We are Salsabil’s brothers!” Ah yes. The evil strangers were gone. Salsabil sank down onto her knees, hugging her ribs in glee, and behind her came a great thrashing of carpets… as the women released their hold and the valuable mare Salsabil, who had all along been lying flat, pinned under a disguise of rugs and spread robes, heaved up to her feet shaking her head in disgust.

Salsabil the mare trotted snorting out under the tent-flap, into the night. Salsabil the girl ran beside her, one hand upon her shoulder.

Ewes dashed past them, being run home by the sheepdogs. At the sheep-tent, the fire was guttering. A camel lollopped along, bewildered, with streaks of dark blood upon its flank. Here was a slave woman Salsabil had known and loved since infancy, clutching a ripped saddlebag to her breast and weeping at her delivery from danger. And here lay one of the attackers, stone dead, with the servants busy stripping the body of its clothes and weapons. Salsabil’s fourteen-year-old brother Nazzad, the skin over his eyebrow split and his round cheek smeared with blood, stood watching the grim scene with the blood-thirstiness of childhood. When the corpse had been plundered, it would be flung to the birds of the air. Such was the reward owed to these brigands, thieves so evil that they would attack a campsite under the eyes of the women and children.

Perhaps a few sheep had been stolen, perhaps a camel had died. The Bedu were a peaceful race, and yet war, like a game that never ended, was everywhere. Salsabil had grown up in a world at war.

Over the rise of the hill, the sweep of the horizon shone cinnamon, flecked with clouds of gold; above the sunset lay skies like pale brilliant seashell; at the zenith blazed early stars. The evening sky shone down upon the disordered campsite. Night was fast closing upon them. Nothing was certain: the whole world had become hazy with colorless shadows and shifting colorless light. The mare stretched out her neck and whinnied long and mellow. Her nose stretched upward, her nostrils flared and snuffed. What did she smell?

Salsabil raised her eyes to the hills. There on the crest of the rise was the one her mare yearned after, like a silvery shadow hatched out of the silvery gloaming. But no, it moved: those swaying wings of feather-grass were its long, pale mane — those sticks that blew in the night, its slender legs fretting — that shadow was its turning head, with ears pricked high. It stepped forward, and she saw it plainly, no mirage or mistake.

When Dunyah her mother found her, the girl was running forward, clutching the bay mare’s mane. Neither of them saw anything visible to Dunyah, who caught at her daughter’s sleeve and held on tight. And Salsabil cried out in shock, looking around wide-eyed.

“Daughter, stop! Where are you going?”

The mare whickered, trying to break free, and Salsabil tightened her hold and brought her around — snorting and fighting every step. “Look!” said Salsabil. “There!”

“You’re sleep-walking,” Dunyah snapped. “Wake up, daughter! Help me put out the fire those sister-marrying bastards have set —”

“But mother, it’s over — we won! — what’s wrong? Oh look — there it is!”

What were those keening voices?

The mare pulled her along. There were people all around them, scattering away — her father, her brothers and sisters. What was that look upon their faces?

She pointed. “Don’t you see the stallion?” And her mother slapped her in the face.

The mare shrieked, plunging forward; the girl was carried along, into the smoldering remnants of the black hair sheep-tent. Hot coals burned Salsabil’s feet, and her step spurned aside pathetic little heaps of smoking wool. The mare danced, eyes rolling. All around them, dead lambs lay roasted like sacrificial offerings. Salsabil tripped over a heap of cloth, and her father caught her elbow. His face was streaked with tears. What was this, at her feet? She looked down, her fingers sprang open, the mare leaped free.

Away ran Ibrahim’s bay mare, straight into the night. Ibrahim’s daughter dropped to her knees and touched the face of her brother Feisal, who would never fight wolves off the fat-tailed sheep again, never carry the lambs in his arms. He had been killed with a lance-stroke through the neck.

· · ·

Ibrahim and his surviving sons buried Feisal next morning. Because they had camped near water, they were able to wash the body; because they had no cloth to spare, they could not shroud it in the clean linen demanded by custom. Still they did as their fathers had done since the Age of Ignorance. Ibrahim led the camel which carried the body, and once they were out of sight of the camp, he and his sons halted to dig the grave. They dug with leather scoops, two arm-lengths deep, and once the hole was dug they hollowed out a niche against one side of the bottom — lest the corpse be crushed under the sliding sand as the grave was filled in. When this was done, they laid Feisal’s body in the niche and banked brushwood up against it. And they filled the grave with stones and sand, with never a headstone to mark it. The body without the soul was meaningless. The Prophet had said so.

The grave was finished, heaped up in a rude hump upon the ground. Ibrahim crouched holding the scoop, resting his tired arms and shoulders, and shut his eyes in grief. Behind him, he heard his remaining sons muttering.

“… this is the fault of the devil-horse which must have come straight from Iblis…”

“… doesn’t exist, I say — no one but our sister has seen —”

“She isn’t mad!” said Nazzad’s voice, stoutly.

“What mare runs off with a stallion that isn’t there?”

They would have to track and catch the mare. Without a horse, Ibrahim would be ashamed to ride out and avenge his son. Soon the sheikh would send messengers around, and call them forth to defend their lands. How could he go raiding, with only a camel to ride?

The dawn was noisy with birdsong. Ibrahim sighed, hearing the sounds of life: ewes bleating at the campsite, the camel talking to herself with a gurgle and a moan. Somewhere far away over the desert, he imagined he heard the whinny of a horse. And still his sons talked on.

“… they say the whole north is up and riding. The Shammar have already been overwhelmed, and all their camels stolen or slaughtered.”

“Did you see the dead bandit? Thin as a dry old bone. We should never have beaten them off so easily. Their horses were dying on their feet.”

Nazzad spoke in awe: “Father killed that bandit with a single blow.”

“Hush,” whispered Ibrahim, and his sons started and looked to him.

He held up a hand. They stood listening. Nazzad opened his mouth, and Ibrahim made a sign to shush him.

Then, floating through vast distances, they heard the faint neigh of a horse.

“That is our mare,” Nazzad whispered urgently. “Father, I know her voice!”

“Yes,” Ibrahim said. “Far away, to the east. Go, my sons. Get your ropes. We will track her on the best racing camels.”

They hastened to obey, all three.


The complete version of “On A Pale Horse” appears in Black Gate 14.

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