RASHALI TRUDGED BAREFOOT across the dusty road to the river, her back bent beneath the wooden yoke. Though it was still early in the day, the sun beat down on her shoulders. Yet another rainy season had passed with barely a smattering of raindrops, and today there wasn’t even the faintest wisp of a cloud in the sky. The bed of the River Uz was nearly empty, and this year’s barley crop would be the worst in living memory.
After years of drought and famine, the shrines to the gods near the riverbank were nearly bare of offerings. Soon there would be nothing left to give, nothing to persuade the god of water and the goddess of air to finally mate and make the rains come again.
More likely, plague and famine would take them all before then. Rashali’s husband and small daughter had died five months before, and Rashali had nearly died too, and still the sickness lingered, killing off the people of Moon Bend and the other nearby villages one and two at a time. Some days it seemed that the funeral pyres burned without ceasing.
Why under Heaven had she been spared? Rashali wondered as she did so often. The ones who had died were the fortunate ones. In the House of Araskagan, the dead no longer suffered from sickness, hunger, thirst, and sorrow.
At the river, under the watchful eye of the Sazar guards assigned to the watering place, Rashali unhooked her buckets from the yoke. She waded into the muddy water, joining the handful of villagers who were already there. Most of the riverbed was exposed to the air, rotted fish corpses and water-plants embedded in the drying mud.
Closer to the shallow stream of water, the dead fish were still rotting. The stink was overwhelming. The disease-spirits the dead fish released into the river were so powerful that the water had to be boiled to drive them out. It was a shame to lose precious water to steam, but that had proved to be the only way to bring the plague under control.
Squatting in the river, Rashali filled her hardened clay scoop with muddy water, then poured the water into the sieve made of woven grass which she held over the bucket. Patiently, she watched the water trickle, then drip, into the bucket. She dumped out the spent mud, poured another scoop of water into the sieve, and let it drip into the other bucket. She did this over and over, more times than she could count, careful to alternate buckets so that they would balance on the yoke.
It took her until the sun had gone a quarter of the way across the sky to fill each bucket nearly half full. Enough water to last her, her widowed sister Kinna, and Kinna’s three surviving children for the next two days, if they used it carefully. The guards wouldn’t let you fetch water more often than that, and if they thought you were taking more than your share they made you pour out half of what you had onto the dusty ground.
Rashali picked up her buckets, wincing at the pressure of the handles on her still-tender palms. In her frenzied grief, she had tried to beat out the flames of Tigun and Lalana’s funeral pyre with her bare hands; the burns had taken all these months to heal. Cursing the Sazars silently and fervently, she waded out of the river, the muddy hem of her dress clinging to her shins. On the riverbank, she hooked her buckets back on the yoke, put the yoke on her shoulders, and stood up slowly, her back protesting.
It had been the Urdai who built the system of canals and dikes and pumps that had turned this desert into a rich green oasis. The Urdai had been a wealthy and noble people, the greatest civilization in the world, until three generations ago, when the bloodthirsty, barbaric Sazars had come screaming down from the northern mountains. The Sazars had taken for themselves the narrowest, richest place between the two rivers, where the great city Zir and the fertile northern farmlands lay, and kept the dams there closed, allowing barely enough water to flow south for the Urdai living in the dry, rocky Gourd to scratch out a living.
Rashali paused to let one of the Sazar guards, stern and invulnerable in his hardened leather breastplate and helmet, look into her buckets. She stood stiffly, hating him. If it weren’t for the Sazars, the water would be flowing in the river instead of trapped behind the dams. If the Sazars hadn’t defeated the Urdai, the gods would not have turned their backs on the Land of the Two Rivers. If it weren’t for the Sazars, Tigun and Lalana would still be alive.
“Go on, then,” the guard grunted in poorly-pronounced Urdai.
Rashali bit back the anguish that still, after all these months, threatened to overcome her at the thought of her husband and daughter, and started back across the dusty trade road towards the village. Tigun and Lalana were gone; Araskagan had sung them into the House of the Dead. Her grief would not bring them back. Even if she knew the Name of the Mother of the Gods, she couldn’t bring them back. All she could do was go on living, and somehow, someday, see them avenged.
All at once, a rush of pounding hooves sounded from her right and a voice shouted, “You, Urdaina! Watch out!”
A wall of black struck hard against her right side. She tumbled to the ground, the yoke sliding from her shoulders, the buckets spilling their water onto the thirsty ground.
Rashali got to her feet, stumbling on a twisted ankle. Three Sazar warhorses stood in front of her, a huge black beast flanked by two slightly smaller dark brown horses. From atop the mounts, three Sazar warriors clad in silver-trimmed black stared down at her.
Hate and rage clouded her senses. These sallow-skinned, narrow-eyed barbarians had degraded and destroyed her people. They were responsible for the deaths of her husband and daughter and countless others. And they had spilled her water. Rashali drew up precious moisture into her mouth and spat at the man in the middle, the man whose black horse had knocked her down.
The three horses danced and snorted like demons. Two of the men raised their long, curved, gleaming-sharp swords above her head. The third man, on the right, jumped down from his horse and grabbed Rashali in a choke hold. The point of a knife pricked the skin beneath her chin.
Tears of terror filled Rashali’s eyes and her heart raced painfully, but she refused to look away from the warrior in the middle, whose richer silver trimmings marked him as superior to the other two. She would not bow down, she would not give way, she would not grovel before a Sazar, even if it cost her her life.
The moment hung suspended as the warrior gave her a long, hard, searching look, as though he were trying to peer into her mind and learn how she dared to defy him.
Then he sheathed his sword.
Rashali stared at him in disbelief, as did the other two men. Surely he couldn’t have decided to show mercy. The Sazars had no mercy in them.
He spoke a few sharp words in the Sazar language, his tone that of a man accustomed to unquestioning obedience. The other man on horseback returned his sword to its sheath, but the man holding Rashali tightened his grip around her neck. He pressed the knife harder against her throat, and said a few words that sounded like a protest.
The leader repeated his orders in an even harsher voice. After hesitating for several heartbeats, the third man let go of Rashali, sheathed his knife, and climbed back up on his horse. The commander gave Rashali another long, searching look, then flicked his horse’s reins to go on his way, leaving Rashali standing in the dirt where her spilled water was rapidly drying.
“Lord Sazar!” Rashali’s heart pounded at her daring, but her desperation overcame her fear. The leader looked at her again. “My water spilled when your horse ran into me, and the guards at the river won’t let me have any more.”
“It was you who ran into my horse, Urdaina,” he said in accented Urdai.
“The water isn’t just for me. It’s also for my widowed sister and her children. She’s too weak to come to the river herself.” She waited for his response, hardly daring to breathe.
He looked at the damp patch where her buckets had fallen on the ground, then reached into one of his saddlebags and flipped something small and round into the dust at her feet. “Give that to the guard, and he’ll let you have more water.”
So she was forced to abase herself before him, after all. Her face burning, Rashali stooped over and picked up the object he had tossed to her. It was a copper medallion half the size of her palm, stamped with two mountains, a wolf overlaid with silver, and some Urdai writing. She could read the writing but couldn’t understand the words; they must be in the Sazar language.
Was this the man’s personal seal, or simply a coin to bribe the guard with? Rashali had seen few coins in her life, and none this big. Clutching the medallion and keeping a wary eye on the warrior, she limped over to her yoke and eased it onto her shoulders, then started back to the river.
“Wait,” the Sazar lord called to her. Rashali looked back, certain that he had changed his mind. “What is your name?” he asked.
Surely she had already used up all her luck today; she couldn’t afford to test the gods’ patience, or the warrior’s, by refusing to answer him. “Rashali, Lord Sazar.”
He seemed to consider her name for a moment, then nodded once. “Go on.” He and his companions rode off, heading south along the road.
Gripping the medallion in her shaking hand, trembling from the aftermath of fear and humiliation, Rashali watched them ride away. If it took all of her life and everything she had, she vowed as she had so many times before, she would see the Sazars crushed down into the dust.
~ Heaven ~
“WE HAVE A duty, brother-husband.” Hanisar, the goddess of air, glared at the god of water across their cloudsilk-draped chamber in the Palace of Heaven. “The mortal world depends on us for rain!”
“I’m sick of duty, sister-wife,” aqua-faced Anki replied. “I’ve got more interesting things to do. Things that aren’t entirely pointless.”
“Perhaps this time it will be different.” Hanisar softened her voice as she switched from nagging wife to pleading lover. “Perhaps this time we will have the son Mother promised we would have.”
“Thanks to that prophecy, Mother got herself banished to the Nether, and Father cursed us to be childless. And so we will be.”
“Father thinks he can control what happens, but Mother always saw true. If she said we will have a child, then someday, somehow, we will. But we can’t if you won’t cooperate.” The nagging note crept back into Hanisar’s voice. It rankled at her that Usu and Ninharsa, god of fire and goddess of earth, had been blessed with many sons, thousands upon thousands of fire and earth spirits that lived in the mortal world below. Hanisar and Anki had no one, only the promise from their mother – which had resulted in her being cast out of Heaven by Father Ar – that one day they would have a grandson, born of their son and Usu and Ninharsa’s daughter, who would rise above Ar himself.
“Can’t we talk about this later?” Anki asked petulantly. “I’m busy now. My new civilization is reaching a critical stage.” He returned his attention to the viewing-crystal in his hand.
“The people are becoming desperate down there. They need rain!” Hanisar grabbed the fist-sized crystal sphere from him, and turned it to show the Land of the Two Rivers. “See how bad it is?”
They watched a thin woman, her dark skin smeared with dust and mud, labor to collect water from the dying river, watched her trudge on weak and weary legs back towards her village, saw her near-disastrous run-in with the enemy prince…
The sullen boredom on Anki’s face gave way to a thoughtful look. Hanisar waited, holding her breath. Usually, when Anki thought, little good came of it. Like that ridiculous new civilization of his. The last thing she needed was for him to think of something else to distract him from his duties and her desires.
“Let’s make a wager,” Anki said. “If the woman we saw marries that prince, I will be at your command, whenever you want. If she doesn’t, you’ll leave me alone.”
Hanisar’s mouth dropped open. It was impossible. Ridiculous. There was nothing under Heaven that could bring those two, peasant and prince, sworn enemies, together…
Which was exactly what Anki wanted her to think. She closed her mouth as she reconsidered the wager. She had spent enough time with Innina, the goddess of love, to know that where the hearts of mortals were concerned, nothing was impossible. “Agreed,” she said.
Anki smirked; of course he would think he had already won. Hanisar returned the smirk with a smug inward smile of her own. Far from being settled, the contest was only beginning.
* * *
Copyright 2013 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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