-Apologies, readers, I wrote this chapter a short while ago and completely forgot to upload it!-
Pray gods, let it be morning. Gods, make the sun rise. I can’t carry on any longer.
The pale grey hours of night which lingered before the approach of dawn. A chill hung in the air, but Merew was coated in sweat. His arms shook with fatigue. Every muscle ached from head to toe. If he could just lie down for a moment… No. If he lay down he knew he would wander into sleep.
Captain Pehty, the satraph, was driving them hard. Feeding them until they were plump and then working them back down to the bone. Merew had never known anything like it and he still did not understand why it was happening.
Why had the meshah, soldiers, taken the poor out of the town and into the wilderness? Why was Captain Pehty instructing them on how to wield the short, bent hesek blade? Why were his fellow meshah teaching them to use the curved bow, forcing them to fire it over and again until their fingers bled?
He’s punishing us. No, the gods are using him to punish us.
But that was not what the satraph had said when he set them to work digging in the sand at nightfall. His words had been clear in the light, crisp air of dusk. Still, their meaning remained a mystery to Merew. Give him hunger again. Hunger he could understand. The minds of warriors were unfathomable.
“Listen close, vermin,” Captain Pehty had begun, waving for them to gather around him. “You came here as starved beggars and we fed you. How many of you have been fed for nothing before? Well, you earned your bread. Those others you killed in the cart were weak. That was your first test. Now I can look at you and know you’re the strongest, most desperate vermin in the desert.” He looked at Merew and winked, wondering once again how the small, scrawny boy in torn rags had survived. “Would you like to continue being fed?”
“Then you will work. You will become strong. You will form bonds of brotherhood with each other. You will become meshah and never be forced to beg again.”
I have never begged. I’m not poor, you short bastard. I’m not vermin.
The others cheered and Merew wondered why. He was not one of the meshah. Why did the satraph think he would become a soldier? Merew was rich. Rich men did not need to fight.
He had grown used to life in the wilderness. It was not as bad as the stories had led him to believe. The sun turned it into an oven by day, heat shimmering between the high dunes. They could not work by daylight. Captain Pehty had them sleep. Worked them to the brink of death by night.
Training them, of course. It made sense now. The drilling with weapons, making them kill each other over a few loaves of bread. What was he preparing them for? Each new answer only brought another question, fresh confusion to Merew’s already addled mind.
He was standing watch on the summit of the dune above their camp, had been for countless hours. Watching for what? His legs ached from walking, running, standing. All night he had been on his feet.
Gods, let the sun come up and put an end to it.
“I thought you might want company,” Captain Pehty said.
Merew had not heard him approach, walking on light feet up the slope of shifting sand. His voice was hushed. Not from fear they would be overheard, but some form of respect Merew could not understand. For the desert, perhaps. The wilderness itself.
Company. The word held no meaning for him. It was something Merew had never had, never desired. His treasures were company. They were something to look at when night fell outside the small cave in the rubble he called home. They were his comfort. To fondle the leather shoelace and small crimson gem was to have a family, something he had never known. Something his memory had stolen from him.
Why would I want your company, pig?
“Sometimes, when I look out at all those dunes by night, I imagine it’s an ocean,” the satraph continued, taking Merew’s silence as consent for him to remain. “Have you ever heard of an ocean? No, I don’t imagine you have.”
The word meant nothing. Was everything the man said meant to be a riddle, a mystery? Merew guessed the endless sands could be a lonely place for someone like Captain Pehty. Perhaps riddles and mysteries were what sustained him. He had no need of such things. He was rich.
“I’ve never seen an ocean, but I’ve heard about it from traders who pass beyond the desert,” the satraph said, resting on his haunches at Merew’s side. His voice was like a calm breeze drifting over the dune’s melting edge. Where was the commanding shout from the previous days? “It’s water, stretching further than you can imagine. Can you imagine it?”
Another test. One last trial to break his spirits before the night ended. Speaking of water when Merew’s throat was parched, when his dry tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. It would never end. He had feared the wilderness for its power to suck the life from men, turning their bones to dust. This was the true challenge. How could he survive the constant meddling in his thoughts? Even his thirst could be used against him.
Curse you, pig. You might break the others, but not me. I’ll not be your slave or your beggar.
“I want you to know why you’re here, rat.”
I’m no rat.
“This is not a punishment, but neither am I helping you. Does that make sense? I don’t have the words. I never do.”
“I hate you,” Merew said. Where had the words come from? They tumbled out before he could think. It was the thirst, the fatigue, the tiredness. He could no longer keep his muddled thoughts from rolling off his cracked tongue. But it was true. There was no denying it. “I hate you, satraph.”
“Did I ask you to love me?” Captain Pehty asked. The question threw him. Another riddle. One more test before day broke. “No, I’m not trying to hurt or help you. I don’t want you to love me and I don’t care if you hate me. Fear me or despise me. It isn’t important. Why are you here?”
“You brought me here, pig,” Merew replied. He saw a razor thin sliver of light on the horizon. The sun was rising, blood red. It was almost over.
“I brought you here because this is where you’re needed, rat. The town doesn’t need you. They don’t want you. Any of you. Beggars, hungry, poor, villains. Vermin.”
I’m no beggar. If you knew about my treasure, you wouldn’t call me that. If you knew how rich I am…
“This is where you are wanted,” the satraph continued, raising his voice slightly so that its sound greeted the rising sun. “This is where you are needed. Here we defend the town. We guard the desert.”
“I’m not a soldier,” Merew said, his tone sharp with impotent fury. “I’m none of the things you say I am.”
“You’re nothing,” he said, his voice flat and empty. In spite of everything he believed, Merew found his mind turning over, revolting against itself.
I’m nothing. I’m a poor beggar. My home is barely fit for rats to make their nest. I call them treasures, but they’re worthless. It’s a lie.
“I don’t mean to hurt or punish you,” the satraph said, rising to his feet as warm sunlight washed over their faces. “You’ve worked hard for me and that’s earned you honesty. Do you remember when I said you were nothing?”
How could he have forgotten? It had not been more than a few moments ago. “I remember.”
“That was then,” he said and pointed towards the crimson orb nudging its way into the sky. “Look there, it’s a new day. Get some rest now, brother rat. Here, take this. You’re one of the meshah now.”
Merew took it without thinking. His mind was hollow. All thoughts had been shoved aside by the satraph‘s words and his joy to see the rising sun. The trials were over. Now he could rest, drink and eat.
It felt hard, but pleasantly smooth. He looked down and turned the curved bow over in his hands. Was he going mad? It felt right somehow, like it fitted his palm better than a loaf of bread or an old, faded shoelace ever had.
It’s only your callouses. The training has made your hand expect to hold a bow. Of course it feels right.
But it was more than that. Merew felt as if he was someone else. It was like a spirit lived inside the polished wood and had entered his body when his hand gripped it. Was that it? He was a soldier now, a meshah. He did not know whether to laugh with joy at what he had become or weep for who he had been.