“Keep marching, filth!” the veteran spat, swiping at Ongur’s back with his long whip.
The lash snapped across the heavy burden hanging from Ongur’s shoulders and, for the first time since their journey began, he was glad to be carrying it. Then the whip’s barbed tip raked the exposed flesh behind his thighs, a searing pain which made him howl in agony.
Ongur didn’t hesitate a second time. He stumbled forwards, or rather upwards, towards the distant summit of the sun-drenched dune. Sand swept away underfoot to run in cascading bronze waves towards the dune’s base. It made every step a torment and more than a few times he suspected his steps only brought him further from rest. Days of marching under his heavy load without rest, water or comfort.
Such was a slave’s lot.
Four or five of his fellow Oskroesil had fallen since they began the great ascent. Each one who fell was stripped of his pack, the precious water they bore shared out between the rest. It was the only way to cross the vast sea of parched sand, he guessed, to march on the bones of the unfortunate.
They were friends before the journey began. No, they were family. Ongur had known some of them since childhood, when his mother whispered his hidden name in his ear; not the ugly mark the slavers gave him. Ongur, a curse; it lived and bred inside him, spreading its wickedness to blacken his soul.
He prayed for their deaths, thirsty to see his family fall and be left to wither alone in the endless sands, just to have a sip of the water they carried.
Die, he thought, and felt no shame for his desperate cruelty. Just die and let me live.
One of the caravan masters brought his camel alongside the veteran, easing it into a slow walk a few paces behind Ongur. Are you thirsty? he wondered. Do you hope to see me fall? I won’t give you the satisfaction.
“He’s a stubborn one,” the master said, a man Ongur knew was fascinated with the ex-legionary and his tales of combat. “I bet you can see it in his face, can’t you? He’s a fighter.”
“A stubborn brute and no mistake,” the veteran replied, his voice thick from the heat which sapped the moisture from their throats. “I’ve seen his like in the wars. Men who’d throw themselves into the enemy’s ranks for the chance to earn an extra ounce of imperial gold.”
The master switched his reins against the camel’s back and it grunted in discomfort. “But there aren’t any slaves in the legions?”
“No. Those were foolish men, but brave all the same. These creatures…” His whip cracked in the air behind Ongur’s head. “They don’t know bravery. They’re filth. Animals.”
“Yes, quite…” The master pondered the veteran’s words in silence for a few minutes. Then he raised a finger towards the dune’s summit. “What is that, do you know?”
Ongur didn’t look up to see what had caught their attention. His every effort was focused on forcing his tired legs to take one more step; every ounce of his will bending with the strain of forcing the idea of surrender out of his mind.
“Halt!” the veteran barked.
He did as he was commanded, stopping on the steep slope and swaying as he struggled against the weight of the pack. It threatened to drag him back down the dune every second they didn’t move.
“Forgive me,” the master said, leading his camel a short way ahead and shielding his eyes against the piercing glare of the sun. “I’m mistaken. It’s only wind coming over the top of the dune. Do you see?”
The veteran didn’t reply, no doubt enjoying his rest. Ongur lifted his gaze towards the summit, finding his vision blurred, distorted by fatigue and days spend staring at the desert’s baking surface. Let it be a sandstorm, sent to blow us all to dust, he thought. Let it all end here.
Phantom shapes seemed to materialise for a few seconds then melt away in the swirls of sand blowing over the top of the ridge. As he watched, a cloud of dust rose from the summit and hung over their heads for half a second. The waves of sand flowing down the slope grew stronger and thicker, forcing him to lean forwards as they dragged at his legs.
“Is it a storm?” the master asked, addressing his question to the wind.
The cloud above their heads fell and the dust took shape as it flew towards them. It was solid, gleaming. Ongur heard the master gurgle in astonished pain as an arrow ripped through his neck. Two more punched into his chest and a fourth brought the camel to its knees. All around him, the hail of arrows toppled caravan masters and guards from their mounts and threw slaves to the ground.
Riders in wraith white robes burst out of the dust above, lumbering down at them on the backs of their lean camels, sabres drawn. The veteran took a few calm steps up the dune and waited for them, short sword drawn. Ongur let his pack fall to the ground, sat on top of it and began to drink.
Gods, he prayed. Kill me if you have to, but don’t let me die thirsty.
He watched in absent wonder as the men fought around him. Everywhere there was a rushing torrent of sand, bellows of maddened camels and the shouts of men struggling for their lives. The veteran’s stocky body moved with the practiced grace of a dancer, ducking beneath wild sabre cuts and dealing blows from his short sword with terrible precision.
Ongur tipped a last drop of water down his throat and stood. He walked on as another warrior closed on the veteran. The bright sabre swung through the air, flashing in the sunlight. He saw the gore-stained legionary’s sword punch up into the camel’s belly and rip it open in a wash of steaming blood. Mount and rider toppled in a heap and the veteran stalked towards them.
“Barbarian filth,” he snarled, drawing his sword back for the final thrust.
Ongur wrapped his arms around the veteran, embracing him from behind. His hands gripped the man’s arm and drew the sword closer. He let his weight press on the veteran’s back, hardly feeling the elbow strike his ribs as they fell.
The sharp point stuck up through the veteran’s back, scratching at Ongur’s belly, but he didn’t let go. He arched his back and bore down on the veterans head, driving his face into the hot sand. The man thrashed and fought and twitched. Then he was still. The dune’s slope stopped shifting. The warriors stared down at him with their dark, expressionless eyes.
One of them held out a hand and Ongur took it. He felt the searing pain in his thighs and the stinging cuts on his belly; it was his pain. He was free, half-blind and closer to death than he had ever been, but he was free.