Into the Desert

[Author’s Note: I recommend listening to this song while reading. It will make sense after the story.]

Embalmed in silent confidence, Issan ignored the camelmen. The tails of his cloak whipped behind him as he stood at the crest of a dune, breathing in the salty, dry air. The sun settled down on the horizon like a tired king collapsing on a throne and the hazy sky turned from red to purple as the sun sank lower.

Hanif and Karim were tending to the camels and setting up the tent. They talked about Issan while they made camp.

“He says he will go out when the moon is full.”

“Then he will freeze to death,” A bundle of reeds rattled in Hanif’s arms as he staked out the tattered tent flaps. Hanif used his feet to dig out small holes, and plant the stakes into more compact sand.

“He wants us to go with him, Hanif.”

Hanif snorted, “Then he is an idiot. Quickly, Karim, unroll the tent. I want to gather the camels before it gets too dark.”

Karim flung the tent out in one great motion, and let it fall gently onto the sand, “He offered us more money.”

“You can’t spend gold when you’re dead.”

“Hanif, I think we should go with him.”

Hanif rammed a reed into the ground, then looked up at his black-haired brother.

“What?”

“I am going to go with him. He knows things, Hanif. I want to know things too.”

“You can’t go, Karim,” Hanif’s voice grew sharper, but he made sure Issan could not hear him, “He will die, and if you go you will die too.”

Karim shrugged, “The gods take all of us. If not today, then tomorrow.”

Hanif narrowed his eyes at his brother, started to say something, then stopped himself. The two camelmen put up the tent in silence, until Hanif asked, “Are you sure he has money?”

***

They had been walking for thousands of hours, and nobody had said anything. Hanif and Karim kept the five camels huddled together, and the two camelmen took turns guiding the camels and staying close to them for warmth. The brothers wore thick, camel fur coats and high-boots, but still they shivered in the freezing, desert moonlight.

Issan wore only his cloak, a piece of white-dyed cloth with a split down the middle, and a long, red hood that covered his bald head. He appeared unmoved by the frigid temperature.

“How is he not cold?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does he even know what he is looking for?”

“He said he was looking for a temple. Hasinapsut’s burial temple, I think.”

“The pharaoh? His tomb was ransacked a hundred years ago, there’s nothing left. This is an empty journey. Remember the stories father told us?”

Hanif stopped short when he saw Issan crouch down and thrust his fist into the sand. For a few minutes, Issan remained like that with his head bent, eyes blank, as if he was listening to something very far away.

“What is he doing, Karim?”

Karim shrugged.

Issan spoke with a voice like gravel scraping over sandstone. He sounded much older than he looked, “I am listening. My Queen beckons, and I follow her voice.”

Hanif stamped kicked at the sand with his boot, “Queen? What queen? What is he talking about? Karim! What is this? There is nobody around here for thousands of rods!”

“Hanif-”

“No, he is not well, Karim. He thinks people are talking to him, he does not know where he is.”

“Hanif-”

“Does he even have money? Hey, you!” Hanif stomped over to where Issan was still crouching, with the sand up to his elbow, “Do you have money? I want to see it, now! Hey, can you hear me? I want-”

Hanif put a hand on Issan’s shoulder and shook him. A wretched, violent moan escaped Issan’s mouth and the white-cloaked man fell to the ground writhing.

“Hanif! What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything. I just touched him, look, I just touched him like- Hey, he stopped. Hey, Karim, look he stopped.”

“Is he dead?” The two brothers stood over him, looking down on Issan’s wrinkled face.

With a gasp, Issan’s eyes fluttered open, “For the faithful, Hasinapsut opens her gates. My Queen beckons.”

The cloaked man pushed himself out of the sand, and stepped back in the direction they came from. As Issan walked by the camels, head bent low, the two brothers looked at each other.

“He really has no idea where he is, does he?”

Karim shrugged.

“Did he call Pharoah Hasinapsut a ‘her’?”

Karim nodded.

***

Something happened in the night that neither brother could explain. The moon was at its zenith, and while Karim was gathering the camels up again, cupping his hands and warming them in his breath, Hanif stood apart. His feet were covered in the soft, downy dust of the desert, and his lips were cracked. They were hours away from any oasis, but Hanif smelled lilies.

“Issan, where are we?”

The cloaked man stopped and put his hand on Hanif’s shoulder, “We are close. Tell me, friend, does she not smell magnificent?” Issan closed his eyes, and smiled at the moon, inhaling the growing scent of flowers.

“Who is she?”

“Pharoah Hasinapsut, the true Queen of Aegypt.”

“Look, I’ve been meaning to tell you, Pharoah Hasinapsut was a man. He fathered many children, and had many wives. My ancestor was his slave-boy, before the Luxan revolt.”

“So,” Issan’s hand fell from Hanif’s shoulder, “You do not believe?”

“Believe what?”

Issan scrutinized Hanif for a moment, as if he did not believe the camel herder. Then, he drew in the sand.

“This is Ra, who moves in the sky everyday. We watch him, and we wait for the river to flood, and we grow our crops under his gaze. He is the Godking of our world. As all kings have their queens, so too does Ra.

This is the moon. But there are many gods who move the moon, many gods who live in service of the moon.”

“So, your Queen is the moon?”

“No!” He shouted. The camels groaned, and he lowered his voice, “No, my friend. The moon is a mask. No one, not even the gods, are permitted to see my Queen. The other gods carry her mask to protect us from her beautiful visage, lest we tear ourselves apart in her sight. Do you see how the moon changes every day, how it slims and grows?”

“Hmm.” Hanif stroked the side of his beard and leaned away from the cloaked man.

“This is because she turns her eyes from one world to the next. She watches all of the worlds, she sees everything. She is not Ra’s Queen, Ra is her king. Do you understand?”

“Ah. Well,” Hanif stuttered as he tried to pull away from Issan’s grip. I knew it, Hanif thought, I knew he was insane.

Give me your hand.” Hanif meant to turn his back, he meant to deny the man, but his hand was already out of his sleeve, chilled in the night air. A strange smile passed over Issan’s face, a smile that did not bring Hanif joy. Together they crouched down in the darkness.

“Touch her,” Issan pulled Hanif’s hand down until the camel herd fell hard on his knees. “Feel her anguish.” Their hands dove into the sand, deep below the dry, smooth surface of the dunes, until Hanif shrieked.

 

Attracted by the noise, Karim walked around the camels to see where his brother was. In the purpling moonlight, he saw the outline of his brother and Issan, when he heard another shriek.

“Hanif-” Karim trotted over to the two figures, kicking up swirls of sand as he went.

“Karim!”

“What are you doing to him-” Karim halted and his lips fell open when Hanif wrenched his

fist out of the sand. The black-haired man was clutching a fistful of mud.

“Tell me more about your Queen, Issan. I want to know more of her.”

***

This is my response to How to Write a Setting, Part 1. I started this one after closing my eyes and listening to Karl Sanders’ album Saurian Exorcisms on repeat for a while. Drawing inspiration from music is a huge part of my writing process and I highly recommend you try this too. Listen to some of your favorite music (I find that instrumental music or music with vocals I can tune out usually works best), close your eyes, and be patient.

Where does the music take you? What evolves in your mind? As you seek inspiration, don’t be afraid to take hold of the first strain of thought and follow it through, but try to force something unexpected into your imaginings.

I am excited to continue this piece in the future, but before I do I wanted to know what you think: Was the setting clear to you? Was there an image in your head of the colors and shapes? What sort of mood did it put you in? Tell me what you thought!

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