Hi friends, I am here with my adventure story. I hope you like it.
Here in the desert, the sun knew no mercy.
Divya tried not to slouch on her horse, but the leaden heat crushed her, squeezing the sweat from her sun-abused skin, parching her throat and chapping her lips.
But Divya did not complain. Born in the saddle and reared on the wind-battered steppes, she had learned never to complain, but only to grit her teeth and keep living in spite of everything.
“The stars led us right,” said Ashish, beside her.
Divya looked. Tall, blond and even paler-skinned than she was, dressed in thin, flowing white cloth for which he had reluctantly traded in his ancestral fur coats, Ashish seemed to have no trouble sitting up straight. She could see his eyes narrowed against the wrathful sun, the sweat rolling down his brow and the red patches on his scorched skin, but somehow none of it damaged his smile.
“If this is what the stars wanted,” said Divya, “maybe you should stop listening to them.”
Ashish chuckled. “The stars don’t want anything. They only point the way. They pointed to riches in this direction, and look what we found. In this heat, what could be richer than a river?”
Beside them, a river ran its insistent course through the ageless sands, with palms, ferns and sprawling weeds all grappling for space on either side of the precious water. Divya had gratefully availed herself of its cool bounty, and more importantly, so had her horse, Parul. As long as they kept to this stream, they could travel as far as their food would last them.
“The air here,” Ashish went on, “it’s moist. That’s good. Moist air is lively air.”
Divya found it hard to agree, weighed down as she was by the oppressively hot mist, but she said nothing to dampen his spirits. Ever since she had rescued him from the crucible of warfare his homeland had become, he had shown her nothing but hope, and she liked him that way.
Fifteen years ago, she had been much the same. Fifteen years ago, she would have seen the heat and the sun and this whole bleak desert as simply another challenge for her and Parul to conquer. But fifteen years ago, she had been a mere girl—a brash, empty-headed, honor-bound, lusty fool of a girl. And that girl had died the day her aunt had murdered her mother while the khan did nothing.
It was for the better, Divya reminded herself. That girl had been far too soft for this cruel world.
Divya heard something ahead. Realizing that her gaze had fallen to Parul’s neck, she straightened her back and saw that the river widened into a great, rocky lake, where reeds rose from the shallows and vines spilled off the shore, overshadowed by palm trees that listed precariously over the glistening water.
People surrounded the lake. Bedraggled, listless and stoop-shouldered like Divya was trying not to be, they knelt before the water beside their animals, or else they sat limply in the scant shade. A few enterprising souls put up ramshackle tents, but their skills fooled no one; these people were not nomads.
Even as she reined in Parul before them, only a few men approached her while the hundreds behind them stared in apprehension.
“You are travelers,” said Divya, in her best rendition of the desert tongue. “But none of you bear weapons. You’re taking a terrible risk.”
“We know, we know,” said the tallest man. “But we are almost there. Look!” He pointed a weak arm at the distance, where Divya saw a blotch that she had assumed was a mirage. “The Red City! We’re less than half a day’s march away! We can work for food there, and shelter.” He looked wearily back at the crowd behind him, meeting the eyes of a woman whose arms sheltered two dangerously skinny children. “It’s a shame we have to rest, but our diviner insists on it.” He looked back up at Divya. “You need rest too. Come, tie up your horses. There is room aplenty.”
Divya raised her eyebrows.
“Thank you,” said Ashish, his accent mangling the desert tongue. “It’ll be nice to relax.”
With a twitch of her feet, Divya steered Parul to a tree where the scrawny man waited. Ashish, who had not been raised a horseman, awkwardly herded his own mount up to the tree, grateful as the man tied it up.
“If you seek a new home,” said Divya, tying Parul in turn, “then who cast you out of your old one?”
“The gods,” said the scrawny man sadly, as Ashish wandered off. “The rains did not come, and we were prepared. The well ran dry, and still we found a way. But then the sandstorm came, and there was nothing we could do. If we had stayed in the village, we could have died with our ancestors and lain in proper graves beside them. Instead, we risked everything for a chance to live. A tough choice.”
“But it was the right one,” said Divya. “Would you want your children to give up and die just for that?”
“True enough,” said the scrawny man. “How could we ask that of them?”
He looked back at the woman with the two children and was shocked to see Ashish kneeling in front of them, striking a heroic pose while making a funny voice, the children both shaking with laughter. Their mother smiled cautiously, keeping a wary eye on the knife in his fur-lined sheath.
“What is your husband doing?” asked the man, with a laugh.
“He’s not my husband. And…” Divya shook her head, letting out a chuckle of her own. “I’ll talk to him.”
Stepping up behind him, Divya called Ashish away with a pat on his shoulder and a knowing smirk.
“This is how the fearsome barbarian of the north talks to foreigners?” said Divya.
“I miss children,” said Ashish. “Those two remind me of my little brother back in the mountains.” He said it without choking. After a year and a half, the pain of abandoning his family had finally scabbed over. “Besides, the man who talked to you didn’t seem too dangerous.”
“Did you hear what he said?”
Ashish tilted his head quizzically.
“That blot on the horizon is a city. A city where we can have our fresh start.”
“We can try, anyway.”
Divya smiled ruefully, remembering their last attempt at civilized living. “I don’t want to wait. With the horses watered, we can get there before sundown, easily.”
“Shouldn’t we travel with these people? We can make certain the bandits don’t give them trouble.”
Divya looked out at the dirty, feeble masses sprawled across the shoreline mud. “They made it this far. Come, let’s get back in the saddle.”
* * *
The city was most definitely not a mirage.
Past the farmlands that huddled around the riverside floodplane, where slaves ambled between furrows under the menacing eyes of mounted overseers, the ancient height of the city loomed.
Towering square-edged buildings cast imposing shadows on the busy sand streets, where Divya and Ashish were the only ones on horseback. Grand arches joined the buildings, splitting off onto ramps and staircases that covered each one’s face. On the ground, columns carved with twisted patterns rose from the boot-beaten ground, holding up facades carved with half-animal gods Divya wanted nothing to do with.
Deeper into the city, just before the ground sloped down into a brick-lined canal the river had been channeled into, a line of soldiers stood behind a barricade of sand and debris. Most of them faced the inside of the city, but a few watched as Ashish and Divya approached. Black beards like brick walls hid the men’s emotion.
Beyond the barricade, stair-step pyramids straddled the canal, with thin wisps of flame rising from their top levels and from the braziers at their corners. All else was invisible beneath a dirty, undulating crowd that swarmed like bees around the bases of the pyramids, shouting some slogan that their discordant voices made incomprehensible. On the far side of the district, in front of a tall mound the soldiers guarded even more closely than the others, the peasants concentrated into a tightened bunch almost as disciplined and well-armed as a true warband.
“You’d be wise to stop there,” said a brick-bearded soldier, his upright armor apron draped down his upright chest. “There’s a rebellion in our midst. The work of the jealous lesser cities, no doubt.”
Glancing across the vast expanse of the pyramids, Divya saw formidable barricades all around the inner wall of the city. On the far side, a magnificently robed and gilded figure sat on a high chair.
“It looks like the king is here himself,” said Divya, in the northern tongue. “Shall we take a closer look?”
“I’ll follow you,” said Ashish.
Turning Parul away, Divya picked a roundabout course through the thin, straight-sided streets wending between the ancient edifices that shaded them. Divya would have thought they looked palatial if not for the grim, bloody hue of their red stone walls.
Finally, they arrived at the edge of what was clearly a royal entourage. A great mound of wood like a siege tower rose four woman-heights from the brick-paved street, with a seated king buried underneath a crescent-shaped golden headdress and thick, rumpled cloak that must have been swelteringly hot, even with the shade of the gold-tasseled canopy above.
The soldiers around its base looked like the ones at the other barricades, but with polished armor, gilded pommels and larger, more neatly trimmed beards. More importantly, the soldiers numbered almost as many as the scabrous rebels who bawled at them from across the barricade. Better-armed as they were, and no doubt wiser in the ways of killing, the soldiers could not possibly lose if it came to a fight. The rebels looked ready to try anyway and die with their smashed jaws biting the bricks.
Briefly, Divya was cruel enough to wonder if she would enjoy the morbid sight.
At the front of those doomed hellions stood a man, skinny but sinewy, unarmored and carrying a battered sword limp in his left hand while the other arm swiped and gestured wildly at the king, opening his mouth wider than Divya had ever seen a man open it.
“Nothings!” he bawled. “You offer us pittance and nothings! Another lord to play with our lives is not reparation! If one of your slaves smashes your finest pot, do you forgive him because he hitched up his kilt and pissed on it?”
That drew a brusque laugh from his followers, which Divya judged was partly fake.
“For as long as those slaves do their unnatural work…” the man went on, “free farmers starve! Free artisans are pushed aside, until we are no better off than those filthy…” he spaced his next few words with ragged breaths. “…disgusting, lowly, gods-forsaken slaves!”
There was a spell of silence. Perhaps the king meant it as a show of power, but to Divya it made him seem like a dullard.
Finally, the king stood and declared, “A son does not demand the world from his mother, and the children of the Red City may not speak and expect it to bend and break at their whim. You are peasants. You have been given a favor by those preferred by the gods. If you reject it, we will gladly deliver you their wrath instead.”
Divya and Ashish exchanged looks of surprise. By the sound of her voice, a queen sat on that high chair, not a king.
“Now would be a good time to leave,” said Divya, glancing back at the rebels.
“I agree.” As they rode away, Ashish seemed nearly as eager as his horse to be away from the commotion.
The search for the inn where their horses could rest did little to distract Divya from the sounds of incipient bloodshed. And the finding was no small task. In freer lands, it was easy to spot an inn by the way it towered over the rest of the village. Here, everything towered, and the tightly packed masonry made little room for stables.
Finally, nestled in what looked like the ruins of a much taller building, they found a house with a half-empty stable that promised hospitality. Inside the house, a withered young girl in a slave collar brushed intently at the dirt floor with a straw broom, then drew hurriedly aside as she saw the outsiders. Past her, a muscular old man leaned on a desk, spreading blue-tinted ink on a dusty sheaf of papyrus with a reed pen.
He looked up. “Need a place to sleep?” he grunted.
Divya stepped forward. “That, and something more.” She leaned over his desk. “We have two fine horses and need of employment. We seek anyone in this city hiring for couriers.” Before he could answer, she added, “I have gold shavings to pay for a name.”
“Important work like that? For freed slaves?” the man shrugged his hefty shoulders. “Not likely.”
“We are not slaves,” snapped Divya, “and we never have been. We are travelers from the north. My horse was purebred by the mighty amazon tribes, and so was I.”
“That’s even worse.” The man pointed back down the road. “Can’t you hear the noise those rabble are making? I hear they stormed a temple. Sent all the priests running like scared foxes. The gods won’t be happy. Nor will the king.”
“King?” said Ashish. “You mean the queen?”
The old man glanced at him, arching an eyebrow. “His mother’s handling this herself, is she? That’s a wise thing. After what the boy king did during the flood, he’s not halfway sharp enough to face the rebels. Cornered like they are, they’d eat him alive.” He leaned against the wall and sighed. “I remember a time when slaves were rare. You were made a slave because you’d done an injustice, not because you were weak and alone and someone wanted work out of you.” He pointed to the forlorn girl who had resumed sweeping the room. “I made sure mine had been made a slave justly. She was stealing from a butcher, and that’s how she ended up in a collar.”
Ashish turned to look at her, and the slave quickly turned her eyes from him to the floor.
“What does that have to do with the rabble?” asked Divya. “They made it clear they were not slaves.”
“That’s because they’re not. They’re farmers, come from all over the heartland, south of here. The priests have taken over land of their own and put slaves to work on it. No farmer in the world can work like a slave can, or eat as little. And there’s not much he can do when some gold-plated lord is selling his grain for half as much.”
“If slaves used to be rare,” asked Ashish, “then who are the new ones? Who did you put in chains?”
Ashish’s pointed tone was not lost on the old man. “If it were my choice, no one. But now, anyone can be collared. Anyone the emperor doesn’t claim as his already. You two should watch your backs. No one would look for you if you disappeared. No one rich, anyway.”
Divya hardened her expression. “We can handle ourselves.”
“Suppose a whole crowd of outsiders came at once,” said Ashish. “Would they be safe?”
“If they don’t know the city? Not a chance.”
Ashish fell silent, and Divya could almost hear the thoughts rattling through his head. Facing the old man, she added, “Will you still have us as guests?”
“Of course. Five shavings for one night, and I sell water too. Ask her.” He gestured to the slave.
Five gold shavings was too many. “We’ll look elsewhere, thank you.”
As soon as they were outside and on horseback, Ashish took the lead and steered his mount into a narrow side-street. Dismounting, he faced Divya. “Those people we met at the lake. They’ll be made slaves.”
“All of them?” Divya huffed. “Not likely. There are hundreds of them. If they can’t protect each other, they deserve it.”
“Divya, you didn’t mean that. What did they ever do to you?”
“Nothing. Why do they suddenly matter to you?”
“Because they might die! Or worse!” Ashish put his hands out, palms up. “Stars, Divya, get off your horse, will you?”
Sullenly, Divya dismounted, giving up her height advantage.
“If we don’t do something,” Ashish tried again, “then someone’s bound to chain them up eventually. They’ll be sold apart, kin away from kin. Doesn’t that matter to you?”
“This is their problem. These people invented slavery, not mine.”
“But Divya…” Ashish stepped closer, his voice going low and serious. “When I was stuck in the mountains, you took pity on me. Why not them?”
“I don’t pity anyone,” said Divya coldly. “I owed you a debt.”
“Nobody made you pay it. You could have galloped off the instant you were in the open. But you came back for me.”
“It’s true. I could have just left you in the snow. And in a few days, I would have forgotten you ever existed.”
“But you didn’t.”
Divya sighed, reluctantly thinking back to those sad, lonely days, so soon after her clan had cast her aside like a broken wheel. “You were alone,” she said slowly. “You had no one in all the world. When I saw you, I saw myself. I had a moment of weakness.”
“Weakness?” Ashish showed a rare twinge of anger. “Then you regret saving me?”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“If I was worth helping, then so are they.”
Divya shook her head, trying to clear her mind. Leaning out into the broad street, she considered the angry mob that swarmed around the pyramids. “That’s a great many for a mob,” she mused. “If we help them, they can win.” It was a glimmer of her old self, that stupid girl who thought she could do anything. “And then there will be no one to make slaves of the migrants.”
“You heard what the man said about the queen. Without her, those warriors will be taking orders from a boy.”
Taking her bow down from Parul’s back, Divya peered back at the queen, still seated haughtily on her house-sized throne. She strummed her bowstring with nervous thought. “One arrow is all it would take…”
“A few more arrows could make rebels out of a great many slaves.”
“The slaves in the fields. There can’t be any love between them and these priests. If we cut them loose, it’ll be a favor to the rebel.”
With a practiced little jump, Divya mounted Parul. “Someday, we have to stop this, Ashish. We’ve stumbled across half the world, getting into scrapes like this one. We can’t keep it up forever.”
“I know.” Ashish mounted his horse, and sadness glinted in his blue eyes. “I know.”
Divya galloped off, down the straight brick road to the barricade where the queen still sat facing away from her— this queen Divya had never met, but whom she had already resolved to kill. But as her mother had always said, there could be no hesitation with the arrow at full draw.
Guiding Parul with her thighs, Divya slowed her to a stop a dozen woman-heights behind the empress, then pivoted her to the side. In a motion she had practiced since girlhood, she drew her arrow back to the corner of her mouth, with the next arrow clamped by the nock between her two forefingers. By the time the queen’s retinue noticed her, Divya had already let the first arrow fly.
The shot felt right. The press of the bow in her palm felt right. The hushed thrum of the bowstring sounded right. The sensation of her fingers falling open felt right. She did not have to look to know that that arrow had found its mark.
Turning around, she set Parul to a gallop. Hearing the pounding of hooves behind her, Divya twisted her waist and aimed her second arrow at one of the two richly adorned royal horsemen pursuing her, firing back even as she retreated. It was a tactic that had served Divya’s foremothers for thousands of years, and it did not fail now. One of the horsemen flinched, the arrow stuck in his armor, while the other ducked into a side street, out of Divya’s view. Wherever he thought he would head her off, he was wrong. Full of fire as always, Parul sped out of the city, toward the marshy fields that clung to the great river.
On the way, Ashish rejoined her, handling his horse uncharacteristically well. “Fine shot!” he yelled over the noise of rushing air. “You’ve started a war. How does it feel?”
“Doesn’t make me feel anything.”
Ashish smiled. “I can tell you’re lying.”
A part of her was glad he could.
Up ahead, tiered wood and mud houses big enough to shelter dozens lorded over the orderly fields, interspersed with clusters of sheds and shanties to house the farming equipment— human and otherwise.