Ah! My nose! It itches!
The sun surrounded her like a layer of hot metal. Asther could even taste the metallic taste of heat on the air—delicious air, which she breathed in deep lungfulls. The sandstone crumbled in orange-pink dust beneath her shoes and hands as she crouched with her other sisters, their eyes out over the great sea of sand before them. Besides her, Nasha shifted in her spot to get a better grip out of her simple, leather slippers.
“Are you sure you saw them coming this way?” she whispered to her. The others all gave Nasha the same reproachful, silencing glare, but she ignored them as she watched her, waiting for an answer.
Of course, Asther rolled her eyes. “Sometimes I feel like you don’t trust me.”
“I was only asking. I’d rather not lose all feeling in my legs for a bunch of air and hot sand.”
“Shh!” hissed Isie.
Nasha returned her glare. “Nor my voice.”
The five of them fell silent again, still bodies of dark bronze skin and red hair. She couldn’t help but feel annoyed with Nasha. Just because she was a year older didn’t give her the right to question everything she did. As sisters, they were to be of one mind when embarking on conquests.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the whisper of voices on the burning, desert breeze. Gruff, male voices, along with the occasional nicker of horses. Horses. Poor creatures had to be dying of thirst. What idiots would bring their horses this far into the desert, when the only nearby well was in their lands? She might have felt bad for the men themselves if it wasn’t by their own stupidity they would meet their misfortune.
Besides her, she noticed her sisters perk up and crouch back. Even Nasha now held completely still and watched down the lip of the rock where the road edging the sandy sea passed by. Soon, they could hear the words, spoken in the gruff language of the people who dwelt in the green lands. Only three of the five of them had bothered to learn the language in hopes of raids into their lands one day. She was satisfied to note Nasha was not one of them, while she was.
“I don’t like this.” said one man.
“Course you don’t. It’s hot, it’s ugly—“
“You know what I mean. I still think we should have never come out here. I can’t believe I let you persuade met to go. Why did I let you?”
The other men chuckled and a third voice spoke up. “What, he’s not here for treasure?”
“Nah.” croaked a forth. “He’s here for the women!”
“You’ve got to be joking!” exclaimed the second.
In answer the men just laughed.
“What are they saying?” whispered Nasha, to which the four others hushed her angrily. She pouted and adjusted her scimitar as the man they were laughing at said, “I’d rather not speak aloud my opinion of you lot. I fear our relationship would be compromised and I’d rather not start a feud.”
“Listen to him! Right ol’ gentlemen he is!”
“What do you expect? A pale assed kid from the university knows all about the manners. What do they call it, white glove?”
“Yeah, white glove.”
“Nice little white gloves you got there!”
“Not like that, you moron. It’s ‘good to see your palms fairly attired.’”
“Woa, that was a good one. Where’d you get that?”
“Well, I can read, you know.”
“Really? Wouldn’t have guessed.”
The supposed ‘pale assed kid’ said nothing to this.
Par, the eldest of the five, lifted up two fingers to her sisters and split them in opposite directions. Badra and Isie followed Asther down one side of the cliff while Nasha, to her relief, went the other way with Par. She held her scimitar at her hip as she crawled after her sisters, preventing it from hitting the pink sandstone in any way.
The sun cast their shadows away from the unaware men, bright and fat in its blue realm.
“Ain’t it a good thing he’s chasing after women, then? Going to find his manhood and all that.”
“You idiot, they aren’t just any women. Not natural women, by any means.”
“Wait, you don’t mean those women, do you?”
There was a round of cursing from two of the men. Asther, Isie, and Badra slipped down the rock, their thin leather slippers absorbing any sound of scuffling, and their nimble limbs anticipating every step and slide. They soundlessly hit the sandy road and crouched together in a small crevice, just around the corner of the approaching men.
“You mad, lad? Don’t you know who the Soan are?”
“Of course I do.” said the university kid lightly.
“Well, you must not, because let me tell you, they ain’t women, no matter how much they look it, and let me tell you, they look it. You’ll never see such a fine specimen of wench in your life.”
“But that’s all they are, mind you. All looks. But deep down, they have the souls of demons.”
“Demons?” said the young man skeptically. “I hardly think a prejudice towards men would classify a woman as a demon.”
“Oh, if that was all, then we would agree with you. But it ain’t just prejudice.”
“No. They downright loathe anything with a pecker to the point they’ll murder you on the spot.”
“After they take all your valuables, of course.”
“And your food.”
“And maybe your hide as well to hang on their walls.”
“So they’re thieves and they don’t much care for men. Wow, how horrific.” said the student, a tinge of laughter on his voice. “And I seriously doubt they prefer that kind of home décor.”
Badra signaled them and they lowered themselves and stalked forward, hidden by a rock. Asther could hear her heart pumping in her ears and a mad smile playing on her face. If her scouting report was correct, there were four men in total with a small wagon in the rear. It was the wagon they were aiming for, not to mention it was their sworn duty to, well, ‘discourage’ the men from any attempts toward treasure they thought they could find in their lands.
“God, he doesn’t understand.”
“No, he ain’t.”
“He’s a goner.”
“What?” asked the student.
Badra dropped her pinky off the handle of her scimitar and as one they drew their swords with a silent whisper of metal. Off in the distance they heard the hoot of a desert owl, high pitched and lark-like.
“What was that?” the student asked instantly.
“Just an owl, you idiot.”
“Yes, but…aren’t owls—“
The three of them leapt out of the rocks, their blades raised, their faces covered in veils and their bright red hair whipping past them as they stopped. The four men pulled on the reigns of their horses, eyes wide with horror, and their horses snorted in surprise. The young man, by far the most slender and lanky of the lot, instantly grew pale.
“—nocturnal?” he finished with a strained voice.
From behind them, Par and Nasha dropped behind them and ontop of the wagon, balancing on the goods with their swords upraised. The poor mule hitched up to the cart gave a heehaw of surprise.
“Hello, boys.” Asther purred. “You’ve wandered awfully far from home, haven’t you?”
All the men went to their swords except the pale (now sunburnt) young man, who stared at the women before him as though he couldn’t quite believe his eyes, his thin rapier at his side untouched.
“Speak of the devil,” growled one of the men.
“Now we would like to get this done as business like as possible,” said Par from behind them, making them all jump and swivel around in their saddles. “Give us all your goods on your person, along with this little cart you have here, go back to where you came from and we won’t, how did you say it? Take your hide home with us to hang on our walls.”
“And just your hide.” sneered Badra, unable to contain herself. Her look of glee could be seen, even with half her face covered by the veil. Asther smiled at this. Badra, Par, and herself were the only ones who got what the men were saying.
The men unconsciously nudged their horses closer together, leaving the lanky, staring young man gaping on his own. His own steed, a pretty brown mare, flicked her tail and nosed in the direction of the Soan warriors curiously. Asther eyed the horse, deciding she rather liked what she saw.
The men started peeling off their swords and bags with shaking hands. The student started and shook himself to stare at his comrades.
“What in the world are you doing? There’s only five of them, and we’re on horses—and they’re just women!”
“Just women.” muttered one of the men in disbelief, but said nothing else as the tip of Isie’s scimitar jabbed in his direction.
Soon the ground was littered with various weaponry, leather pouches, random pieces of coarse jewelry, and the occasional scrap of food. Par allowed the men to keep their water pouches before nudging them in the direction where they came from, but not before Asther had some good talking time with the scrawny white man’s mare. Such a sweet natured creature, with fine, agile legs. She just couldn’t let her go waterless like the other poor creatures.
“Not you,” she said to the student, “off the horse.”
He blanched. “You already have the mule, what do you need with my horse?”
“I like it.” she said simply, than jabbed the sword forward.
“Better do as she says, lad.” muttered one of the men.
“Better do—“ he made a choking noise, “I had to pay half my fortune for this horse!”
“For the love of the gods, is that horse worth your life?”
But the student had drawn his skinny rapier, slipped off his horse, and faced Asther with hard eyes. While she smirked with the rest of her sisters, some of which were chuckling, she couldn’t help but be thrown off guard by the fire in his bright eyes. It was an earnest fire, not the kind she had expected from something like a man.
Before she could reconsider this she moved with a sweeping thrust, intending to disarm the boy before he could blink. To her surprise he parried her blow and stepped towards her. Startled, she swept her sword blindly to the side, nearly taking off his arm in the process. He was quick, and for a breath it nearly seemed as though the kid would stand a chance. But, of course, with clenched teeth, she beat him down, whacking the pathetic, prissy rapier out of his hand and pummeling him across the head. He crumpled into the sand, watery eyed. Just for good measured she kicked him as well and he curled up around his stomach.
“I’m taking the horse.” she told him, angry and humiliated as she felt Nasha’s eyes upon her. How dare any man take her by surprise, let alone a scrawny, pathetic white thing such as this.
In response, he only wheezed. By now the other men were already a good few meters away, looking back curiously and turning away when they met the amber gaze of a Soan. Isie sheathed her sword and trotted forward to help Par with the tired mule and wagon. Badra watched Asther warily as she kicked the fallen man again and took the reins of the beautiful, long-legged mare.
“That was foolish, Asther.” she muttered quietly in their tongue.
“Yeah,” came the unwelcomed, bratty voice of Nasha, “what happened? Did he look too cute? You like the weak, pale types with no balls?”
“Nasha!” snapped Par in warning. Isie watched curiously from atop the mule.
“You didn’t need the mare,” continued Badra in her soft voice, “we have plenty of horses you could have picked from back home. I know it’s your time to choose a companion steed, but…” she looked down at the curled man on the ground.
“I see nothing wrong with her taking the horse.” said Isie with a finger to her lips. “It is a very pretty horse and it’s quite a shame those stupid men brought it out here without water.”
“Yes, but she caused unnecessary conflict.”
“But she won…didn’t she?” Now Isie too stared at the groaning man on the ground.
“Whatever, can we just get out of here?” said Asther, starting to feel antsy.
“We’ve gotten what we came for.” said Par, throwing the last of the loot atop of the cart. “If anything, these are looking like a good supply of food the men brought.”
Isie and Nasha made a face.
“Provisions. Oh goody.” said Nasha.
“You will be grateful for what the Mother sees fit to give us.” said Par with a sharp look. Nasha instinctively quailed.
Isie, on the other hand, looked thoughtful. “You think we could ask the Mother to send some nice fruit on the way sometime, then? I do like fruit. And not the dried up kind either, the real, juicy kind.”
“You can always ask.” said Asther, already leading the horse down the road.
The man gave one last, pathetic groan. “No…wait!”
All five sisters ignored him as they stepped past, sheathing their scimitars. Only the mule stopped to sniff him as it passed. He was left in the sand, forgotten, and with his arms unable to unwrap from his middle.
As they came about the bend to the fork in the road that would lead to the top of the cliff, Par caught up with Asther, who was debating mounting her new pretty steed.
“I want you and Badra on watch duty.”
“What?! Is this punishment?”
Par gave her a look much like she had given Nasha, and the results were much the same. The woman simply had skill in throwing daggers with her eyes.
“We need someone to make sure the men stay away, and if that whelp you patronized decides to follow I think you should finish what you begun.”
At this, Asther could feel her limbs go stiff and her chest fill with cold. Her sword felt unusually heavy at her hip.
“Don’t give me that look, Asther,” she said, ignoring how all the other women were giving her equal, surprised stares. “You need to learn what it means to be rash in the world. And we are Soan. You will do it with honor.”
A dozen words, all scrambled, but all somehow related, bubbled to Asther’s lips. Phrases like ‘but I’ve never’ and ‘what if’s stumbled and failed over one another. The surprise was wearing off for the others now and they merely watched the two expectantly, nowhere near as horrified as Asther at Par’s command. Nasha actually appeared positively gleeful and a lustful smile quirked her purple lips.
Shamefaced, Asther looked down.
“Can I at least bring my horse?” she asked weakly.
“Might as well. You two are going to need a fast way home when you’re done. Shemesh Rikud is tomorrow evening, and it would displease the Mother if any of us were absent to invite our new sisters in.” She gave her a lesser, but still sharp, talented glare. “And mind you don’t be late, whelp or no whelp.”
At the top of the cliff the others parted from Badra and Asther, who stood alone with the horse she now regretted possessing at all. Badra was her usual, ambiguous self as she wandered in the direction of their old watch post. Asther peeked down the side of the cliff, for once hoping against hope itself that the man down below gave up and went on his way.
But of course, men rarely did as they were told.
There comes a spirit that lives within all Soan—a fire, persay, breathed into their souls by the Mother that turned their hair red, their eyes amber, and their skin into a dark, cinnamon bronze. Because of this, a daughter of the Mother could be found anywhere in any race, though as a general rule her spirit fell upon those of the desert, mainly those born of the Soan tribe. Asther only knew of a few of her fellow sisters who came from the outside world, and generally their pasts were not the happiest. Not many outsiders adjusted well to finding their daughters or wives are associated with a band of thieves such as the Soan. Badra was one of these.
Asther knew of how the world viewed their kind. Even as she sulked on the sandstone, watching the last colors of the sunset fade away and the desert sands turn white, she heard the words as though whispered to her across the desert.
Manslayers, thieves, merciless demons, without moral….a barbaric race.
Yes, they had played upon that reputation and built upon it. But it didn’t change the subtle restlessness in Asther’s breast. They were lies, and she could not forget that. If one could ever see the beauty she saw…but of course, none of them gave a damn what anyone else thought. It kept the world out of their business and men out of their lives, and that was what counted.
And yet as she caught sight of the hunched over form struggling his way across the cliff, the restlessness returned to her mind. Echoes of the one man’s reluctance to believe what was fact to the world came to her mind.
Badra was the first to stand. She didn’t bother to silence her scimitar as she slid it out from its sheath. The kid at least had the mind to stop at the sound. A still anxiety hung in the air as they stared at each other. When the brown mare nickered, Asther thought she could catch the glimmer of his eyes as they flashed to it.
Before she could decide what to do, Badra had pounced the man, pinning him to the hard sandstone with the sharp edge of her blade to the bob of his Adam’s apple. Her face held a cool, professional expression.
“We made it clear you were to head back with your companions.” said Badra.
“I mean no trouble.” he said.
“For ignoring us, you have forfeited your life.” Her long, high red tail of hair shimmered as she flicked her gaze back. “Asther? Are you ready?”
He just hesitated, before blurting, without a tremor in his voice, “But I found what I came for!”
Badra raised a fine, copper eyebrow. Asther blinked, sighed, and got to her feet with a specially prepared uncaring glower in the boy’s direction. The aging night made it difficult to see the fine lines of his expression.
“This is about the horse, isn’t? Look, there’s no use losing your life over it.”
“No. Keep the horse.”
Asther stared. Once again the young man had caught her off guard. Even Badra looked surprised, though her sword did not move.
“But in return,” he continued, “I want to know about you. About your people.”
Asther shook herself to growl. “You test our patience with your life at the point of our blades, and yet you have the audacity to attempt to barter—“
“—just a story, maybe a few questions.” he pushed in, raising his hands in the air. “Look, I didn’t come here for treasure like the others. I came here for stories and to know more about your people. Everyone thinks they know exactly what the Soan are, but I’ve never even seen one of your kind until today. Please, if you intend to kill me, at least let me know you first.”
Badra and Asther exchanged incredulous looks. At her side the horse nuzzled Asther’s hand and Badra raised her sword ever so slightly.
“You don’t suppose he’s one of those men who have a fetish with exotic women?” Asther asked quietly in their tongue, keeping one wary eye on the man. “Par’s told me about some of those.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Badra muttered back, “it is not in his right to know of our ways. He is but a man, and unsanctioned and insolent man at that. And Par did say…” she left the sentence hanging, but it did not fail to send the familiar chill up Asther’s spine.
She did not want to resort to that. So it was in part pleading that she turned back to the young man on the ground.
“If you have any sense of self-preservation, you will leave.”
“But that makes no sense,” said the young man calmly, “you have taken my horse, and without the others’ guide I will surely perish in the desert. I would much rather die at your hand.” He hesitated again as the sword was once more lowered. “Yet, please, is there anything I can do to persuade you otherwise? I have talents of my own I am willing to exchange for just a bit of your cooperation, if not for my life.”
Badra sounded confused when she said, “Didn’t you hear me? You have no life to bargain! Asther, get a move on with it.”
“Are you mad?” asked Asther. Her organs in her body seemed to be trying to exchange places. She couldn’t seem to move her hand to her sword.
“Asther!” snapped Badra.
She could see his mouth quirk into a weak smirk. “Some would say I am. No. I’m just a very determined bard.”
“Aren’t you listening to me, Asther?”
“Give me a damn minute!” she finally retorted.
Badra’s face threatened to soften beneath the cold mask. “If you keep dawdling it will just make it harder.”
“Please.” whispered the young man.
The conflicted woman zoned in on him to stomp forward and draw her sword. She jabbed the point at him, as though accusing.
“And you! Quiet!” she said with a snap of teeth. “Move, Badra.”
Her sister quickly lifted herself to stand at the side, withdrawing her sword. The kid moved up onto his elbows just to come face to face with the silver curve of Asther’s scimitar. He looked up to meet her eyes, and for the first time she saw him show the first ounce of appropriate fear to his situation. It made his eyes seem too big for his face, like some kind of rodent. His lower lip quivered as he attempted for words. She couldn’t help but feel herself recoil back and her stomach turn.
“Don’t linger, don’t think.” said Badra, still with her frightingly stony face.
Asther raised the sword. She could see it glimmer with nothing but shadows out of the corner of her eye.
“No,” breathed the man, “No, please, l-l-let me tell you a story.”
She couldn’t help but pause long enough to let out a brittle laugh. “A story? A story? I’ve never heard something so ridiculous!”
“Please, j-just let me tell you a story, a-a-and you can k-kill me as soon as I’m finished. I’ll give you my life. You don’t have to feel guilty or anything.”
Asther wavered and she could feel Badra’s cool concern waiting for the sword to come down. She held her own sword at the ready should the lad try to escape.
Her stomach rolled. Her arms shook. Her eyes burned.
“I’ll let you kill me,” he said softly, “consider it suicide, so you don’t have to feel like a murderer. That is what you are afraid of, isn’t it?”
She started at this. With an angry shout she flung the sword, missing him by inches.
“Afraid?” she cried shrilly, “Afraid? How dare you presume to know me, wretch!”
“But it’s okay to be—“
“That is enough from you.” growled Badra, and she thrust her sword out. Instead of missing, though, it dug deep into his arm. He yelled in more surprise than pain as he crumpled back down to the dirt. The blood that seeped out to drench his white sleeve was brighter than Asther expected. Her stomach rolled worse than ever, her muscles quivered painfully, but she somehow couldn’t look away. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen blood before.
But Badra’s warm, amber eyes had turned so hard, like the thin ice only found beneath the moonlighted winters of the desert.
The man once more turned his terrified face to Asther.
“A story.” he croaked.
For a moment, all the sound of the night froze. Only the feel of dry was left. His face was so pale, she found herself thinking, so unlike what she was use to; faces born brown by the sun, even before they ever touched the light of day. Her own lungs contracted to scream, though she didn’t dare let a breath escape her lips. Why had it come to this? Why had she been so rash about the damn, goddess damned horse? She didn’t want to kill him. She didn’t want to see what happened when she let more of the bright—oh so bright—blood out.
A life for a horse…
And quite suddenly the thought struck her like an arrow: it wasn’t his choice that was going to kill him. It was hers. This was her punishment. All he had done was sought the truth, unlike so many others.
She stabbed the scimitar into the soft sandstone.
“Very well,” she said, her cheeks feeling cramped from tension. “In return for your horse I will allow you to tell this story.” She couldn’t help but make a face as she said this. This all sounded so stupid. She tried very hard not to see the storm billowing across her sister’s eyes. Badra sheathed her sword, however, to Asther’s relief. Soan were always to be united with their sisters. It had been Asther’s choice and commandment, not hers. That didn’t stop her from turning and walking away, though.
The man wilted momentarily before rolling to his side to push himself up with his uninjured arm, not a word of what had happened crossing his mouth. He folded his legs in and cradled his bleeding arm, face down.