Only the lost found the city at the caravan’s end. The poorest of the salt miners crept through its streets, dragging their pickaxes behind them with work-roughened hands and faces kept oddly young by the restorative properties of their saline surroundings. Camel drivers led their burdened beasts through arid courtyards dotted with date palms, looking at the walls of smooth mudbrick and limestone and seeing instead the blood-drenched walls of some far-off city. Whores crushed malachite, hematite, and ground galena in stone cosmetics palettes and framed sorrowful eyes with the brightest green or the darkest black. Silent water-bearers descended into the coolness of the tenebrous cisterns, listening to the whispering of the underground springs that stretched for miles beneath the parched sand of the desert. There were no children in the city at the caravan’s end, but pages ripped from school books could be found drifting through the streets whenever the wind stirred the air, and dolls of wood or rags or clay could be seen, abandoned, beside water troughs or beneath windows. If one stood at such a window in one of the taller buildings of the city, or if one climbed onto one of the flat roofs of those buildings, caravan trains could be seen wending their separate ways across the sprawl of the Desertum’s seven lands.
The woman Ehsan walked into that city of her own free will. It was the year that the Usurper came to the throne of the Desertum. She was old enough to have borne a child but too young to have outlived a husband, save for one who died at war. She had a straight back and an unflinching gaze, so already she was possessed of two things that most in the city had lost long ago. A gown of sackcloth adorned her tall frame, but it was not the sackcloth of a penitent. It was dyed a true cobalt, and it was long enough to cover her feet, her neck, and her wrists. These were all that was remarkable about the woman Ehsan, and the people of the city soon turned away from the newcomer and turned back to their own affairs.
“Old uncle,” she said to a wizened man who sat in the shade of a flowering oleander tree. “How can it be that this city is so far off the nearest trail? It took me nearly the span of three days to walk here from the place where the Minu rest-stop meets the Alvah route.”
The man took the darkwood pipe from between his stained teeth and stared past her with glazed eyes. She smelled the sickly-sweet scent of the dried ganjar-roots that many smoked in lieu of more expensive tobacco.
“You walked here, girl?” he rasped. “From the place where the Minu rest-stop meets the Alvah route?”
“Yes,” Ehsan said. “I have need of work. Honest work, old uncle. I can spin the hairs of a goat into a shawl of the finest wool. I can carry platters of wine and provender in a tavern, I can butcher well and cook far better. I can scrub floors until they shine, and I can even tend children.”
“Children,” the old man murmured, his brow creasing with heavy wrinkles. “No, no. Girl, how did you find your way to this city? How did you walk?”
It was nearly midday, and the persistent heat of the sun was drawing beads of sweat from every inch of Ehsan’s skin. She pressed a hand to her forehead, frowning as she considered his questions.
“Old uncle, I told you how I came to this city from the place where Minu met Alvah. I rested in the high heat of the day and walked in the coolness of evening. I had flint once, and I gathered dry branches for my hearth in the night. I carried provisions and a waterskin with me once, but I have exhausted them. Where can I find work?”
The old man did not respond to her, instead choosing to gaze down at his pipe and turn it over and over between his fingers, not caring when tiny sparks jumped down from the smoldering ganjar-root stuffed into its bowl. After a while, the woman Ehsan continued onwards, and the city at the caravan’s end spread out before her like the great skeleton of some beast left to rot in the desert. Houses of white limestone fanned out from a row of date palms like rib bones from a spine, and rows of market stalls stood in empty circles like bangles around the thin wrists of a hierodule. For just as the hierodule gives her body in service to a temple, the city gave itself up to the service of the lost, and Ehsan noted the vacant gazes of those she passed in the paved streets. The sense of wrongness was clear to her. It did not worry her that her memory could barely recall the three-day walk to the city, nor did it worry her that all her life before then was not even a blur in her mind. What worried her was the trail.
In the farthest reaches of the Desertum, the trails and routes of the caravans were almost all the people possessed. In the farthest reaches of the Desertum, the people were the forgotten nomads who scratched a living from the dunes, marking the passing of time by the rising of the sun and the passing of the caravans. The cities were in the south, and it was in the south where the sultanzades built their glittering palaces and surrounded themselves with a glut of courtiers and worshippers and admirers and followers.The sultanzades, including the Usurper who had seized the throne, all spent much of their time shuffling fiefdoms from timar to timar, apportioning the lands of the south to the timars who gained their favor. But there were seven lands of the Desertum, and four of these were left to the wild whims of whatever gods stir the sand and call the wind and send the hyenas screaming into the eternal sky. Outside the cities of the south, the caravans followed mapped-out routes across the untamed expanse of arenaceous wasteland, and these routes were like the fine traceries of the veins and arteries pulsing inside a human body. They were like the canals and rivers of those foreign nations where water was plentiful and the earth was mostly green.
Ehsan paused before a shuttered bakery, peering into the dusty gloom at the dormant clay oven in the back of the room. She had once sailed a dhow up a river, and the sun upon the lazuline water was so painful that it hurt her eyes.
A woman spoke to her before she could turn the sudden memory over in her mind. The woman was in her middling years, and white flour coated her brown hands. Ehsan did not see a pipe or smell the sweetness of ganjar-root, yet she saw that the woman – the baker – had the same impassive stare as the old man.
“Auntie,” Ehsan said, inclining her head respectfully. “I’m new to this place and searching for honest work. Do you have some for me?”
The baker shook her head, twisting her apron in her hands as she backed away.
“Do you have food for me, Auntie? I’ll work for what you give me, I swear.”
“I give meals to my water-bearer. You can eat with him.”
Ehsan followed the baker into a small courtyard, where nothing grew save for stunted weeds between the cobblestones. A man sat on the ground with a goatskin of wine, and he gave her an easy smile as she sat across from him.
“It has been so long since a new one has come to this place,” he told her, and the warmth of his gray eyes gave her another jolt of remembrance. She had loved a man with gray eyes once. She was sure of it. But there was the pain of loss in that remembrance, so she left it be. With every passing moment she spent in the city, she became sure that there was a duty there she had yet to carry out.
“When did you come here?” she asked, looking at the wooden water-buckets beside him.
“Oh, ages ago. You were but a child, I’m sure, since you look ever so much younger than I, lovely maiden,” the water-bearer said with a roguish wink and a wave of his hands. Copper bangles jingled on his wrist.
“If the gods have grace, I will become a water-bearer too and age as well as you are, old uncle,” Ehsan replied, and the simple act of flirting made the pain of her half-recalled memory raw once again.
“So you came before your caravan?” the man inquired. There was a flash of hunger in his eyes as he fidgeted with his bangles. “It’s been a long time since anyone has brought a caravan.”
“I came here alone,” she told him. The baker came back then, her face set deep in a frown. She carried a platter of good, simple food – roasted slabs of oryx-meat, diced cactus paddles boiled in salt, and warm flatbread spiced with cardamom.
“Alone?” the water-bearer asked, and when she assented, a gaze passed between him and the baker that Ehsan did not understand. After they ate, he invited her to see the city’s largest cistern, so she followed him down dusty, empty streets until they reached a dark doorway set low on the slope of a hilly road. As he opened it and ducked inside, she stood rooted to the spot for a moment, wishing that she remembered how to pray.
The cistern was one of the magnificent old creations of a long-forgotten desert kingdom. There were many such cisterns beneath the sand, and the maps of the merchant caravans have all those places marked out. As Ehsan followed the water-bearer down the winding stone steps, she looked at the way the dark reservoir unfurled before her. There was a pathway down the center of the cavernous space, and as she walked along it, a draft stirred the surface of the still water and the pale limestone arches overhead unsettled her. If the city were a body, then that place of water contained and rationed in stone pools was its belly, and something lived therein.
“Why do you look uncertain, lovely maiden?” the water-bearer queried, and when he turned to look at her, she didn’t know if his eyes were still gray or if they merely reflected the dimness of the reservoir. As he knelt to fill his buckets, slung across his shoulders on a carrying-pole, she was reminded of some insect with many long limbs. It skated across the surface of ponds and ripped its mates to pieces.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t be here,” she said lightly, and the awareness of a memory came to her again. She had felt the weight of a leather sheath strapped to her thigh, but now she knew it with certainty. She knew that if need be, there would be a knife with an ivory handle and a straight blade of damascene steel. And if need be, she knew that she had the capability to use the weapon. She clenched her hands and felt old calluses on her palms. Yes, she had a duty.
“Don’t be silly,” the water-bearer murmured, setting down his burden and coming towards her. His voice echoed in the stillness, and she smelled the unpleasantness of his sweat and the heady odor of the earth. Suddenly, she was aware of how deep underground they were.
“You must tell me more about your journey here,” he continued, smiling at her with those eyes that made her think of another. His hands were reaching for the buttons of her sackcloth dress before she could stop him, and then her skin was bare to the air, and she was bared to her waist. The crack of her hand against his face was loud in the hollowness of the space.
“How dare you take such liberties with me?” she demanded, and her knowledge of the knife loomed large in her mind.
“So you are a warrior,” the water-bearer said, gazing down at her with a look that bordered on revulsion, and perhaps–just perhaps–fear. Ehsan glanced down to button her gown, not understanding what he meant until she saw the white scars criss-crossing her brown arms like binding ties of fine lace.
“You’ve gone through the rites,” he declared. “A lovely woman like you, and they bled you like that. Where have you fought?”
She had fought on the bank of the river with the shining water, she had fought on the deck of her dhow. She had fought alongside her gray-eyed love, and she had fought in far-distant lands where the cries of men dying in battle were as common as the tolling of temple bells.
“Leave me be,” she told him, and the look of rage that contorted his features made her stomach drop. The rage seemed to make the space of the cistern shift, the limestone arches and the pools of water coalescing into some dread presence that nearly drove the air from her body. She felt it humming through the smallest nerves of her body, and it took everything in her not to run.
“A new caravan is coming tonight, warrior. Maybe you should leave with them,” the water-bearer said.
The new caravan arrived when the night was growing old and tired of its own company. The sky was paling, and the city lingered in that in-between space between slumbering and waking. Ehsan sat in the doorway of a squat clay house, feeling the reassuring presence of the blade strapped to her thigh. As people drifted into the streets, moving in throngs of silent watchfulness, she sat stock-still and, in her mind, counted the scars on her limbs. There were thirty-two rings of scars, eight on each arm and each leg. She could not remember the pain, but surely it had been prodigious.
The caravan came then, weary men and women leading golden camels and black oxen through the streets. They all had a dazed look about them, a sickening look of realization that they had come to a place where their packs of coin and silk and tea and jewels would not save them. Ehsan saw the people of the city gathering, sneaking like wraiths from alleys and houses and courtyards. She could feel the savagery of their collective energy, and she felt the presence she had felt in the cistern whelm the city. She buried her face in her hands and fought the urge to beg for mercy.
There was no mercy. One moment, the lines of burdened camels, sullen oxen, and their drivers paused in the shadows of the weary night, framed by the stark spareness of the city’s buildings. The next moment, there was only the rending of flesh, and then the repairing of it, which somehow managed to be even worse. Ehsan shrank back, gripped by wordless, unspeakable terror. She was witnessing what never should have been. Merchants and drivers seemed to melt into piles of unidentifiable flesh, with kicking legs appearing in a roiling mass of limbs or a dreadful desperate hand reaching up through a distended belly that soon burst into a scarlet glob of meat and tissue. The bodies of the beasts joined the people in agony. Their screams, muted somehow by the strangely heavy air, faded away into a dull thrum, and the inexplicable butchery continued. Great lacerations appeared in the bellies of prone oxen, revealing the heads of their drivers gazing out in a death stupor from their slick crimson innards. The camels fell to the ground as their ripped-open humps oozed endless thick white fat, and headless human torsos tumbled naked onto the befouled streets, their backs flayed and bloodied from some unseen whip. Bundles of fragrant turmeric and saffron and cinnamon and peppercorns began to burst from an unknown pressure, sending clouds of spices billowing up above the scene of carnage, and other wares tumbled into the streets that were already stained with viscous, slippery blood. Porcelain vessels shattered, white shards flying up against the black sky. Variegated ribbons and robes of silk unfurled, blanketing parts of the infernal amalgamation like the wardrobe of some hellish empress.
Strangely, there was no bodily stench. It was a tableau of unbelievable gore, a vile hecatomb in which humans were also offered up to the unseen, and yet there was no other smell in the air but for the usual cool scent of a desert night. Ehsan realized this as she tried to draw breath, but panic made her chest tight, and she could do nothing but watch. The innumerable parts of the murdered caravaners and their beasts were slowly forming into–something. Some dreadful thing that was shaped as cartilaginous masses knitted themselves to twitching human legs that were run through with the horns of oxen. Ehsan retched, silently, and watched in horror as the parts of all the murdered beings came to form a wretched whole. Waves of scarlet blood seeped into the pavement, and the sundry fragments and scraps of what were once living beings formed a caravan once again. And the caravan began its procession once again.
Around this all, the people of the city joined hands and began to dance like children through the streets. The salt-roughened hands of miners met the flour-flecked hands of the bakers, and the woman Ehsan ran before they could touch her. She was in the place at the caravan’s end, in the place inhabited by the lost and the unfound. Her bare feet pounded the pavement with a frenetic urgency. Somewhere between where the Minu rest-stop met the Alvah route, the story of her life had slipped away from her bit by bit. But pieces of it remained, clinging to her the way her jet hair clung to her skin after she stepped out of the cistern. Once, she had taken a vow of the blade. Once, she had loved a man who had been lost. Once, she had promised to seek the unknown evil that had been allowed to flourish beyond the reach of the sultanzade and the timars and their petty rivalries. She had promised. So she ran to the cistern, where she had first gotten an inkling of what was occurring.
In the desert, amongst the constantly intersecting trails, there were rest-stops. And in these rest-stops, caravan-folk stopped for a fortnight, replenishing supplies and fornicating with whatever pretty maidens or handsome youths lived in those isolated places. So it was thus when the caravan-folk left, they left behind their bloodline, or carried a new one forth, and so they went round and round the lands of the Desertum. But there were those who had naught to leave behind, those who wished to leave themselves behind until they were stripped bare of their pain as if by a hungering sand vulture. There were those who lost themselves and looked for aught else to find. And they had not found the city, but the city had found them, and it gorged themselves upon the lost.
Ehsan knelt beside the cistern, gripping the hilt of the knife until her knuckles went white. Above there was the infernal dryness of the desert, and down where she was there was the chill of the endless dark water, the water that was too still, and both the dryness and the wetness gave refuge to the thing that called itself a city.
The woman Ehsan had a straight back and an unflinching gaze.
“I have a duty,” she murmured, wondering if the thing would come from behind the limestone arches or up from the unnaturally still reservoir.
The woman Ehsan had once sailed a dhow up a shining river with the wind rustling through her hair.
“And this I shall see to the end.”
The scars of her warrior’s trial were merely the skin-deep reminders of the tenacity that led her to plunge into the frigid embrace of the water. Her gown of cobalt sackcloth weighed her down, but her grip around her knife’s hilt was firm, and her heart was unyielding. Beneath the surface, the white lines of her scars opened up and bloomed red, succoring the thirsty cistern with her blood.
Later, as she rested in the shade of an oleander tree, she wore soft linen and wrapped her lips around a newly-lit ganjar-root pipe. There were copper bangles on her thin wrists like the shackles around the wrists of a temple hierodule. In the distance, the sand-dunes rose and fell and the merchants atop their dromedaries marched in unceasing processions, bearing innumerable goods from place to place. The desert was etched with trails, but the cities were in the south, and the woman Ehsan no longer knew the south or the touch of a lover or the dhow she had once sailed up a shining river. She felt the heartbeat of the lost, and the hunger of the city, and both were hers, and she was theirs. And she liked it that way.
Only the lost found the city at the caravan’s end.
Gabriella Officer-Narvasa is a writer and college student from Brooklyn, New York. Her fiction has previously appeared in Love Letters Magazine and Old Moon Quarterly, and her nonfiction has appeared in Shameless Magazine and Concord Theatricals’ Breaking Character Magazine. She likes her matcha lattes with oat milk and her fantasy fiction with a healthy heaping of horror.